“The church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way that is full of promise.”
“On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.” Michel de Montaigne
Don’t judge me, but the other night when there was nothing else on TV, I fired up 4oD and watched the first episode of Scandimania, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest venture.
I’ve been keen to visit Scandinavia for a while now and honestly, I thought an hour in front of a harmless cookery programme with nice scenery would be pretty easygoing.
Then something surreal, and then profound, happened. Hugh – that’s right: eccentric, wonderfully British Hugh – met with Björn Ulvaeus, one of the members of Swede synth sensations ABBA. Out of that coming together of two people you’d never put in the same room, I found myself thinking about humility.
Lagom is a Swedish word that, as Björn explained, doesn’t really have an English equivalent. It’s one of those times when the English language doesn’t quite have the depth that so many other languages have. The closest it seems we can get in English when it comes to lagom is ‘just enough’.
More than just a word, for Swedes it signifies a way of life – a recognition that excess is often dangerous, that there is usually just the right amount of something to be had, that any more or any less is a waste.
Lagom got me thinking. Because for a long time, humility has been something I’ve struggled with. It seems that being humble is deeply ironic because the minute we think we’ve done well at being humble, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot. (That’s an over-exaggeration, of course). I want to be humble for many reasons, not least because it’s Biblical (see Luke 14:11 and more), but also because living humbly is a beautiful, counter-cultural thing. But to this point, I haven’t quite found a way to work out what humility looks like.
It’s not putting myself down, lamenting my shortcomings, highlighting my deficiencies. Equally, it’s not bragging about how good I am, how much I’ve prayed lately, how many people read my articles.
It’s just enough. It’s recognition that we have God-given talents and should use them and take pride in them, because we are using them for God. But at the same time it’s realising that what we have comes from God, and that our place before him is a humble one, where we lay down our lives for others and for God.
Lagom. Just enough.
“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” Markus Zusak
Words are powerful. So often it’s what people say to us that lingers in our minds, nagging away at us and chipping away our confidence. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a cutting comment or an unintentionally upsetting remark – and the chances are, we’ve made a few of those comments ourselves. Words have power.
The Hebrew language has a depth which our tongue can only dream of. There are seven words to describe love, with the three most commonly used drawing distinctions between friendship (raya), intimacy (dod) and commitment (ahava). This allows for intentional use of words to define a situation.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the words we use to define and describe our faith; the language we use when discussing our relationships with Jesus.
In the course of my day I can say I love Jesus, the sun, the West Wing, kiwi fruits and the book I’m reading. I can also hate tube delays, chocolate ice cream and the way a national news story is portrayed by the media.
Two words – love and hate – that we apply to countless situations, to the point where there is a danger they lose their meaning. Do I love God the same way I love kiwi fruits? No. Do I hate injustice the same way I hate chocolate ice cream? No.
Yet the limitations of language mean the lines are blurred.
The question is, does it really matter? Because truth be told, it seems unlikely a whole generation will be able to change the language they use to describe their feelings. Individually, I may be able to adjust what I say, but it will not make much impact on others.
Or will it?
You only have to spend a short amount of time in a group of people to notice certain phrases repeated again and again. Within a small, intentional group, language crosses the boundaries of our own tongues. What we say gets picked up. Repeated. Embedded. Accepted.
So maybe we do need to adjust our language. We cannot create a new set of words overnight, but we can adjust our intention and think about what we say, and how we say it. We can reserve reverence for the things that matter, and disdain for the things that deserve it.
It may not change the world, but it may just begin to change, in a small way, how we talk about God.
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Rudyard Kipling
This week I’m thrilled to have a guest post from Shawn Smucker. Shawn is a writer whom I deeply admire, someone who has an innate ability to describe encounters in a poignant, beautiful and impacting way. His latest book How to use a Runaway Truck Ramp is a brilliant example of this, and one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Shawn is keen on recognising the importance of silence, so I asked him to share his thoughts. Here he is.
My friend’s mother (we’ll call her Beth) was on a train into London when a man standing in the aisle collapsed to the floor, motionless. If you’ve ever been on a train in England, you’ll probably remember one thing: no one says a word. The seats can be full, the aisles can be packed with people crammed up against each other, but no one talks.
So when the man collapsed at the other end of her train car, Beth peered down the aisle to see what was going to happen. And what happened was rather shocking.
No one went to his aid. No one motioned towards the man and asked their neighbor if they thought he was okay. In fact, one man sitting directly beside the man now lying in the aisle didn’t even stop reading his newspaper. It was as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. It was as if people always collapse on trains and everyone knew that if you just leave the person be, eventually they would stand back up, brush themselves off and get on with their day.
Beth stood and wove her way around the people standing in the aisle. The train kept clacking on down the track, shaking slightly from side to side. She arrived at where the man had fallen over and bent down beside him. He revived. When they arrived in London, Beth handed the man’s care over to a medic.
“Everyone just stood there,” she said, shaking her head. “No one was going to do anything for that poor man.”
When I lived in England, I also took the train into London almost everyday. It was a beautiful ride through green countryside. I always loved how the rolling hills gradually gave way to small towns, then highways, until finally the tide of the city surrounded us and the train eased into the station.
As much as I enjoyed those train rides, there was one particular section of the London Underground that I wasn’t too keen on. The reason is that on the District Line somewhere around Earl’s Court, a strange man often showed up on the train. He looked homeless: tattered shirt, torn trousers and sneakers that were falling apart, but that wasn’t what bothered me. His beard was straggly and his skin smudged black from the tube smoke, but that wasn’t it either. He carried a megaphone and multiple handmade signs under his arm.
He stood quietly as the train stopped, but as soon as it pulled away he got out his megaphone and began shouting in people’s faces. He set up his signs where everyone could see them and went from person to person, challenging their religious identity. Most people reacted in one of two ways.
Those who rode that particular section of train often sat there and tried to ignore him. They were familiar with the way he operated and didn’t want to draw undue attention to themselves or engage him in any way. But those who were new to this man were shocked. How could someone so blatantly violate everyone’s sense of personal space? How could someone say such mean things to strangers?
One day this man aimed his megaphone at a young Asian lady. The poor girl looked so frightened and alarmed, and her response led me to believe she didn’t speak English, or at least not well. One question etched itself on to her face: Why was this strange man shouting at me?
But the rest of us just looked away. We didn’t want to draw the man’s attention. All of us, that is, except one middle-aged woman.
I can still picture her. She stood up, marched over to that man, and got right in his face. She raised her index finger and pointed it at him.
“How dare you talk to this young woman that way? How dare you frighten this poor child? Now you take your little megaphone and you go somewhere else!”
He raised his megaphone as if to shout at her, but she pushed it back down to his side.
“I’ll have none of that!” she shouted. “Now be on your way.”
And would you believe it? The man walked to the other end of the car, sat down, and didn’t say another word.
Shouting can be immensely effective. After all, Beth’s movement to the side of the fallen man was, in a sense, a shout, and after she moved down the aisle beside the man, other people came to their aid. They just needed that first movement.
That first shout.
And look at the middle-aged woman on the train with the megaphone man: a few well-timed shouts was all it took to shut him down, to take the wind out of his sails, to make him second-guess the way he treated people.
But shouts don’t always work. After all, those of us who were familiar with that shouting man and his megaphone had tuned him out long ago.
If all you’re doing is shouting, guess what? No one is listening anymore. If the noise you create is always criticism and put-down and in-your-face shouting, your audience is shrinking, no matter what the numbers are saying. And if you want to maintain and increase your platform, you’ll have to figure out way to shout louder and louder.
Eventually, your followers will be following you because you shout, and not at all because of what you’re saying.
We all want to disrupt what we see as evil in the world. We want to fight injustice, free captives and lead people to truth. But we’ve swallowed the culture’s lie that the only way to do this is to shout, louder and louder and louder. In reality, the most effective way to bring about change is to incorporate silence into our platform.
What is silence?
Silence is being quiet, sure, but silence is also mercy. Kindness. Encouragement.
Take a break from all the shouting. Your whispers will carry further.
“The Christian in the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.” Francis A. Schaeffer
I recently came across Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, and from the moment I read it I wished I’d discovered it sooner. It’s a beautiful description and proclamation of the role art has to play in the life of Christians.
As more and more followers of Jesus use art to express their faith, John Paul II’s words provide inspiration, encouragement and support. Here’s a small section – you can read the full letter here.
“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery…
“In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, ‘awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God’ (Rom 8:19), is redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.”
Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about grace. Yet it hasn’t happened, because I haven’t been able to find the words I need to express what I want to say.
Then I found this video, by the wonderful folks at Trinity Grace Church. It’s 3 minutes and 15 seconds long, and it encapsulates all I wanted to say and more.
I urge you to watch it.
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Mother Teresa
I recently heard a story of a lesbian and a Bishop who were part of a television debate. There was a huge amount of vitriolic argument, with the criticism aimed mostly at the Bishop. The majority of those present, both on the panel and in the audience, suggested his views on sexuality, equality and ethics were outdated and bigoted.
Despite the abuse thrown his way – particularly on the issue of sexuality – the Bishop responded to each question with love, humilty and grace.
At the end of the debate the lesbian participant approached the Bishop, moved at how he had responded so gracefully. She said this:
“I would rather be disagreed with and loved than tolerated.”
The Bishop – despite having strong views on her sexuality – had treated her with love, grace and respect. He hadn’t judged her, hadn’t criticised her, hadn’t made her feel guilty. He had shown her love.
“Even when it isn’t popular, or it means we might be labeled or even attacked, we are called to speak the truth in love. We can no longer be voiceless.”
Jesus loves them. He forgives them. He rebukes those who considered themselves righteous, the Pharisees.
But to those who were expecting to be condemned, Jesus only shows love.
I wonder what our worlds would look like if that was how we treated people. I wonder what my world would look like if that was how I treated people.
If I was quick to love, slow to judge, even slower to condemn.
After all, that’s what Jesus did.
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” Langston Hughes
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between understanding God and knowing God.
I think it’s important we try, within reason, to understand God. While we can never fully get our minds around his power, love, grace or holiness, it is undoubtedly helpful in our relationships with him to grapple with these facets of who he is.
After all, many people over the years have helped other Christians by developing their understanding of God.
But more so, I think sometimes we (and by we you can definitely read I) worry too much about understanding God and don’t spend enough time simply knowing him. I may not fully grasp God’s love for me, but I can fully experience it. I may not completely comprehend how great the gift of grace is, but I can embrace it and live my life in it.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we should never try to understand God. There’s a definite time and place for such thinking.
But I believe understanding God alone will not transform us, will not turn our lives upside down for his Kingdom and fill us with the peace that God offers.
Only knowing God can do that.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart…live in the question.” Rainer Maria Rilke
While praying recently, I saw a picture. I don’t often get pictures and so when I do, I tend to take notice.
The picture was of a person pouring water into a cup. The closer to the top of the cup the water got, the more cautiously the man poured the water. As the water lapped the edge of the cup, the man stopped pouring. As he stepped back, it became clear he was afraid of the cup overflowing.
Despite there being plenty of water left in the container from which he was pouring, and despite the fact his aim seemed to be to empty that container, he stopped short of overflowing.
So often, I hold back from giving all of myself over to God.
There’s a variety of reasons for this, but one is that I’m afraid of the mess. Because giving ourselves over to Jesus will result in mess.
But the beautiful thing about this mess is that it’s just that – beautiful.
In our world, mess gets a bad rap. Being messy is considered a character flaw. Which I think is a shame, because often out of mess come the most beautiful creations. Out of the rubble that surrounds us can rise the most incredible monuments to hope and love.
It’s also a shame because life with Jesus is beautifully messy. It’s messy because his kingdom is so backward – the first are last, the poor are rich, the weak are strong. It’s messy because he takes us to places the world scoffs at. It’s messy because it takes who we are, completely shakes us up and re-aligns our lives with God’s kingdom.
Sometimes I’m not ready for the mess. I’m not ready for what handing myself over to Jesus will mean. I’m not ready to have my life turned upside down, to be realigned to God’s perspective. But the promises that come with that mess? They are amazing. Life-changing. Culture-shifting.
The challenge I face is to open up to the mess. To embrace the mess. To recognise that in the mess is hope, love and grace.
All resting in that beautiful mess.
“You are a beautiful mess, you are the melody.” William Paul Young
“We are all wonderful, beautiful wrecks. That’s what connects us – that we’re all broken, all beautifully imperfect.” Emilio Estevez
“‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'” Revelation 21:4-5
“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, everyone of them sufficient.” Marilynne Robinson