(With apologies to the Beatles . . Or John Lennon . . Or whoever)
This post may puzzle you, or simply confirm your assessment of my brain function. It certainly changes course with a lurch part way through. Despite that there is a unifying theme. I hope it’s clear by the time you get to the end.
It all started last Wednesday evening. A group of us guys gets together on a weekly basis to share fellowship. The one essential for the get together is red wine. Nibbles usually accompany the wine, as does sharing and friendship of the blokey kind. We talk about work, sport, politics, family troubles, wives and girl friends. Occasionally we remember we are a Christian group and we discuss stuff about faith.
Last Wednesday these questions were posed: “What is the purpose of your life?” “What gives it meaning?” Well, the usual inarticulate silence finally broke with suggestions, helped no doubt by the wine. I can’t remember them all. Family, faith, and work each made an appearance. One however sat itself inside my head and took up residence. Someone said that love and relationships gave life its meaning. Maybe not news to you, and maybe not to me either, but a powerful nudge nonetheless. I remember feeling that this was talking directly to me, and mumbling that I didn’t think I was all that good at either love or relationships. I’ve thought about those two things, love and relationships, a lot since. It’s a bit like those marketing memes or those stupid songs that keep replaying in your mind for hours, sometimes days.
Now that I’ve considered it, it occurs to me that that is exactly what matters most to me these days: Love and relationships. I am pleased to write that nothing else comes anywhere close to these two. Sue, the children and grandchildren have become my life almost without my realising it. My friends also score on this scale. They are important to me. I have time for people now more than ever because, . . . I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe because life has led me to here. After a while, even the thickest person works out what is important and what is of no importance. I stumble to do the love and relationships thing right, but there is no doubt in my mind how important it is to me.
That was not always true. At another stage of life I remember being seduced by the importance of a successful career, and even before that, a stylish image (even though it eluded me then as now). Even earlier, the desire to be popular and have lots of girlfriends was front of mind (alas, another disappointment). In short, I can look back on a trail of dead ends where I discovered, usually the hard way, from where the light really shone.
This afternoon, gazing at the bookcase in my study, each item in it and on it has significance. Each one is a trigger for memories; some warm and life giving, some less so. When I look at my bookcase I stop and think about life and its meaning, about from where I have come and to where I’m headed. Love and relationships. That about sums it up for me. It’s a life giving feeling and I know with a quiet assurance that all is good.
This is where the post lurches seemingly into another theme. I hope you will see it is really not different at all:
(Very) abbreviated Book Review
“Where God meets Man” Gerhard Forde (1972) Kindle E Book
“Up the down staircase”
This book was recommended to me by a friend who knows about these things. It is a powerful distillation of the Christian faith from a Lutheran perspective. The language is a little dated (e.g. ‘Man’ instead of humans or people, but the ideas transcend that. I have only scratched the surface of the content but wanted to share one of the author’s key ideas because it resonated so strongly within me in the light of the revelation about love and relationship last week.
Forde begins with a metaphor that explains so much about the long history of troubled relationships between God and human beings. It goes like this: We live our lives at the bottom of a staircase that we keep trying to climb to get closer to God, who we believe might be at the top of the stairs. The trouble is that it is a ‘down’ staircase. It can’t be climbed. Forde says we get it quite wrong when we think about Heaven. God comes down to us, and because we are too busy working how to game the staircase rules we fail to notice! Against all experience we persevere in trying to climb up the ‘down’ staircase. That staircase was never designed for us to climb. It was designed for God to descend.
Paradoxically, or maybe more accurately, perversely, human beings are obsessed with what they need to do to get the reward of heaven (i.e. to get to the top of the staircase). Because we think it’s all about climbing up to God we do our very best, only to be disappointed again and again with a God who doesn’t seem to play by our rules. We do all sorts of good deeds to impress God. We position ourselves to earn God’s favour, only to find ourselves mugged by the reality that nothing we do seems to impress Him. He is beyond manipulation it seems. He doesn’t play our games. Forde talks about people operating under the misapprehension “that “God is someone who can be bargained with, or obligated to pay off” our good deeds”. It’s a bit like we do stuff we think God will like (insert anything here . . . Being kind, good, charitable and/or pious) and then holding those things up to Him saying: Look what I’ve done! Now you HAVE to do . . . (Whatever).
The great tragedy of life and death and everything is, because we have the innate tendency to want to make it all about ourselves, we humans miss the crucial bit. We overlook what the Gospel is telling us, and so condemn ourselves to futile efforts to earn our way to God. “Gospel” means “Good News”, but through our best efforts to take control of the process, it seems that we humans have done a pretty good job of converting it into bad news for ourselves.
The Gospel can not be understood without knowing what Law means in theology. Very roughly the Law is what God requires of people for them to be acceptable to Him. The Law is a standard; a code of behaviour; a signpost pointing the way to fulfillment. Think of it as what is written in the Ten Commandments. Although theologians would say it’s more complex than that it’s not far off the mark. The commandments are a guaranteed one hundred percent rolled gold ticket to the promised land for anyone who sticks to them absolutely. Got it? Easy, right? . . . Wrong.
Those ten commandments look quite reasonable. Nothing more than common sense really. You know, the golden rule and all that. They’re what many people who don’t know a lot think Christian faith is all about: the golden rule and all that. ‘Do unto others’ etc. How many times have I heard that phrase from people who have summed up and dismissed Christianity before promptly changing the subject? Well folks, if that sums up the Christian faith, I would agree it doesn’t deserve to be taken too seriously. A faith based on the ten commandments is a fairy tale, good for scaring the feeble minded and keeping impressionable youngsters in line, but that’s about all it’s good for.
If we take a good honest look at ourself, can any of us honestly say we have kept those commandments at all times and in all situations in our life? Really? Some of them maybe, some of the time, but all of them, all of the time? Jesus seemed to delight in deflating the pompous pretensions of people who thought they were holier than everybody else. He was withering in his assessment of those who thought they had it all nailed:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment …’ (from Matthew Chapter 5). It seems what Jesus was really saying was: “Don’t think living by the letter of the law is good enough. Those of you who congratulate yourselves on not having committed murder and think that makes you better than those who have, are fools. Even if you keep every letter of the law (and you can’t) but offend the spirit of the law, you are condemned.
Now that’s not good news. It’s about the point where people turn off. They don’t respond positively to the message of the Law. What they hear is that they are not good enough, and they put their hands over their ears and walk away to somewhere or someone who tells them a more encouraging message. They don’t realise they have listened to only part of the message. They hear only the Law that accuses them. They are deaf to the Gospel that liberates them and makes them whole.
Forde expresses this truth with beautiful poetry: “The point is that the law is not merely a set of commandments, not a list of requirements that could be disposed of by doing a few things and checking them off. The law is that immediate and actual voice arising from the sum total of human experience . . . a voice that will not stop until our humanity is fulfilled . . . Law is not a ladder to heaven. It is the mark of man’s existence in this age, from the rustling of the leaves to the agony of the cross. It is the voice which, for the sinner, never ends . . . What the Gospel does is put an end to the voice of the Law . . . An entirely new kind of life breaks in upon us . . . The voice stops only when we become what we were intended to be. The command to love, for instance, stops when we actually do love . . . The Gospel is the story of him who shattered the grammar of earth, who broke open the closed circle of the voice of the law and gave us the gift of hope”.
Now I don’t know if that meant much to you. It’s only after a lifetime of misunderstanding, misdirection, blind alleys and often misspent effort that it means anything at all to me. But there you have it.
Love and relationships! What more do we need?