The taking of life

THE TAKING OF LIFE

I’ve been thinking about who chooses to take a life. Over recent months we have been watching the excruciatingly awkward conflict developing between the erstwhile dearly loved angels of Great Ormond Street Hospital and the gaunt and strained parents of a baby at death’s door.

That imbroglio stands in juxtaposition to the similarly harrowing periodic stand-offs between the establishment and severely ill people wishing to take their own lives or gain the assistance of another to do so.

The force of professional opinion, and indeed the law, leads to death in one case and refuses it in the other. Who then has the right to decide about the taking of life? The parents, the medics, the judges, the sick person themselves?

I was forced to face up to this existential quandary last week as I sat with a grieving family trying to prepare for the funeral of their 29 year-old son who had taken his own life the previous week. During the service the brutal and abrupt nature of their loss (our loss) meant that the echoes of his voice still reverberated around the crematorium chapel. A large and beautiful portrait framed with flowers rested on the bright blue coffin and presented us with visual reminders too. Absent but present.

For the Christian, belief in the sanctity of life means that when we face up to the “taking-of-life” issues (abortion, euthanasia, suicide, the withdrawal of medical support) we find ourselves walking on eggshells. And that is no bad thing. These are precious and weighty matters which call for a deferential posture not a dogmatic declaration.

Let us leave the bad news to the journalists who have to do this for a living. Christians are tasked with bringing good news! How do we do this in the face of the taking of life?

“The idea that a person chooses to die creates in us a profound sense of unease. Suicide challenges some of our most deeply held beliefs. It defies the cherished notion that all human life is sacred; it challenges the value of life itself, and places a question mark over the taboos against the taking of life. The suicide of another person forces us to question the value and meaning not only life in general but our own individual lives.” (Alison Wertheimer, A Special Scar. Routledge p3)

Wise words, except that there is not just a taboo against the taking of life but a proscription. “You shall not murder” it says on the tablets of stone. Every human life is precious and valued and it is not given to us to take it away. St Paul uses their own poetry to tell the Greek philosophers that “In God we live and move and have our being”. (Acts 17:28) Christian’s believe that every one of us is made in God’s image (in other words with the potential for love, beauty, oneness with him and likeness too – a profound concept) and that our being, start to finish, is in his hands. Good news indeed.

As I looked out at the mourners, emotions surfaced of guilt (could I have done more?) and anxiety (where is he now?) and questioning (why?). The world is a broken place and we are all broken people, hobbling along with crippled souls. Our brokenness bursts out sometimes this way and sometimes that. And we have so many questions, but, as Rick Warren (who lost his adult son to suicide) reminds us, there aren’t any answers that will help.

Yet mercifully there is good news. And it is that God so loved the world that he made a way for what is broken to be mended, for our souls to be redeemed. His passion and love for the dying baby, the lost son, the severely ill and the grieving left behind is of a breadth and depth that swallows up any failure or fault in us. What is broken here will be fully restored there.

And so we dwell on ourselves only long enough to seek forgiveness for guilt and hope for our anxiety and then, gratefully, with a deep sigh of relief, we turn to the lover of our souls and contemplate his great mercy, his welcome, his promise of grace and his future full of hope.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:29-30)

 

David Flowers

25 July 2017

Ten Decrees Worth Defying

We worship kings and queens today. Everyone does, somewhere in their lives. Whether the king within or the megastar without. Whether the powers of this world or a seductive secular world view.

St Paul challenged the status quo, the nicely, finely balanced Pax Romana, by preaching about another King. So much so that in Acts 17:1-9 we read that his companions were dragged before the courts with the accusation that, “they are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king, one called Jesus.”

Emperor Caesar Augustus had established a relative peace after the chaotic blood letting and civil wars that marked the end of the Roman Republic.The Empire is being established where allegiance to the emperor was a matter of life and death. Rulers were given a god-like status with perpetual power. But Pax Romana had a price: total allegiance, paying taxes and obedience to decrees.

The Christmas story starts with the historical note that, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” (Luke 2:1). So hundreds of thousands of people upped and trekked to their hometown in fear of the Roman authorities. In a far-flung outpost of the Empire a village carpenter took his pregnant fiance to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, where Jesus was born – thus fulfilling the ancient prophecies in Micah 5:2  “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

So, when the Jews decided that they didn’t like Paul’s message they stirred up the fear of the people by saying that, “they are all defying Caesar’s decrees”.

Think about someone in Syria, living in the government controlled area, claiming that there is another king or president in Syria. Or Cuba, under Castro. That would be a very dangerous proposition. Their decrees would be difficult to defy.

But Paul and the early Christians, whilst seeking to be good citizens, pledged ultimate allegiance to another King and worshipped another God. They stood out from the culture around them because they were citizens of Jesus’ kingdom and they worshipped Him alone – at great personal risk and sacrifice and sometimes paying with their lives.

So here’s the question: for those of us who declare Jesus as Lord, in what ways could we be accused of defying decrees? How do we stand out from our culture because we pledge allegiance to another king and because we worship a different God from those around us?

If I were dragged before the popular court, with what offence would I be charged as I worship Jesus (not just singing songs but living my life)?

Worshipping someone means placing my trust in them, doing what they say, allowing them to form my world-view and to give me my purpose for life, to influence my ethics. It means living by their laws, paying their bills, being seen in their entourage and under their authority.

It is very obvious and harsh choice for the Christian living in an ISIS-controlled land. In Britain we don’t have an obvious person or dogma sitting on a throne in antagonism to our faith and beliefs. In a way it would be easier to work this out if we did.

But within us there is a little king or queen who perpetually tries to gain ascendancy to the throne of our lives. A little emperor issuing decrees that happiness and comfort are the most important things in life. A ruling pride in how the world revolves around us. A fear that drives us to accumulate security and build walls. A deep lust for more, more, more.

A little voice that says, “no, Lord” when we hear God speak to us, challenging His Lordship, issuing contrary decrees.

Here are ten contemporary kings and their decrees – dare we defy them?

  1. The media king who decrees that: You will foster cynicism – never trusting anyone or anything at the outset
  2. The money king who decrees that: You shall seek financial security as a primary goal in life
  3. The xenophobic king who decrees that: We must protect our standard of living (the god of the gdp)
  4. The sex king who decrees that: Consent is the only rule that applies to sex
  5. The sex king also decrees that: Pornography is okay, in fact it can be good for you
  6. The social media king decrees that: You shall share your life on social media (and expect other people to get to know, and relate to, your presentable avatar)
  7. The social media king also decrees that: You will understand the world through social media (which is a terrifying thought when you consider the existence of fake news and the way that the social media algorithms are designed to feed you a mirror image of your likes and beliefs thus gradually narrowing your window into the world)
  8. The king of political correctness decrees that: You shall always agree with the gospel of tolerance (what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”)
  9. The entertainment king decrees that: You will give time and attention to celebrities and listen to their views (Hillary Clinton must have expected to garner more votes holding hands with Beyonce and Jay Z)
  10. The consumer king decrees that: You must copy the rich and famous and you will look better, feel better and be happy

These are all decrees that emanate from the kings and queens of this world. So which decrees are we defying in the light of scripture and the word of God? Because although we are called to be good citizens, our ultimate allegiance is to another King. His name is Jesus.

We choose another King, we choose to live in His kingdom and abide by His decrees.

Christmas messes with my money mind

Christmas Perm GuyI stagger away from the shopping frenzy that is Leeds city centre in the run-up to Christmas. I’m burdened with own-label shopping bags which brightly disclose my buying habits.  I stumble awkwardly over the outstretched hand of a beggar and realise that I have been sidestepping other anonymous outstretched hands all along the precinct.

Excuses about being in a hurry and having my hands full provide a flimsy license to avoid giving anything, even a smile. I justify myself with righteous cynicism about the authenticity of these huddled ones. But I can sense a growing tension in my mind and guilt in my heart. Christmas messes with my money-mind.

Here’s what happens as Christmas approaches.

Firstly: part of me loves to be generous and join in all the giving (and receiving!) but another part of me resents the way the tinsel tsunami intimidates me into spending more than I want – and on stupid stuff. I mean, how much ends up unused and abandoned on bathroom shelves, at the back of wardrobes, or slipped secretly into the bin? I want to be generous but I don’t want to be played – my mind is caught in the tension.

Secondly: the very fact that I can afford to go shopping makes me acutely aware of all those for whom every day is a struggle, never mind Christmas Day. The collision of my wealth and others’ poverty triggers guilt in my heart.

My normal carefully thought-through budget for giving and for spending gets thrown out of balance either by spontaneous and foolish present buying or by spontaneous and guilt-fuelled philanthropy. I am all for spontaneity in the way we use money – it is an important component in minimising its power over us – but not when it is as a result of a messed up money-mind.

Fortunately, scripture comes to our aid with St Paul’s injunction to the Corinthian church, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (1 Corinthians 9:7-8).

Joy and abundance are meant to be the travelling partners of generosity (and in fact of spending and saving as well). Reluctance and compulsion are signs that all is not well in our money-mind. When we give to the church and to the poor and when we give and receive gifts at Christmas we can do so in an environment of joy and abundance rather than tension and guilt – if we will first come to the Great Giver and invite His Holy Spirit to tutor our money-mind and guide our hearts. And then perhaps the Christmas spending and giving can be cheerful.

David Flowers

31 October 2016

The God who invites the immigrant

There’s something sinister about the closed group. You know, the turned backs in the playground, the boss’s in-crowd, the members-only notice. A few decades ago we grew out of posting “Irish and Blacks Not Welcome” signs outside our B&Bs. Since then we thought perhaps that we had overcome our fear and moved on to a higher plane of co-existence with our fellow man.

But once again we hear of the building of walls to keep others out and of British politicians who want to hang a “Not Welcome” sign over the white cliffs of Dover. At the centre of the closed group there is always a bully. A powerful person wanting control over his or her domain. A weak person actually; one not confident in their own value or identity. One who seeks to protect the known and the comfortable although beauty, satisfaction and joy lie in the invitation to the unknown and the new.

And that’s what’s so astounding about the God of the bible. The all-powerful One who reveals Himself through the words of this book as an inviter, a welcomer. One who takes incredible risks with Himself and His creation just to be able to say “Come.” One whose open-doors policy chose to unlock the way to freedom with open arms on a cruel cross.

The Great Inviter caused it to be written 2500 years ago, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Isaiah 55:1). Psalm 23 says that He prepares a table.  John’s gospel opens with a welcome, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12). The Book ends with, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20). The bible seems to be one long invitation to come to the party, come to me, come home.

That level of invitation reflects a super-confidence in One’s self. It reveals a Being who values the other as worthy of attention. An invitation offered by One who has endless resources. It is the warm-hearted invitation to me, to you and to them: the excluded and the different-from-us. It is fearless. Fearless. Fearless. And fear is at the heart of the closed group.

When our posture turns us away from others we deny our God-given shape and we belittle ourselves. We become less than we were made to be and less than those we reject. We succumb to the bully and to a reduced vision of what we could become.

In Britain we are free, we are wealthy, we stand on a Judeo-Christian heritage that is the envy of the lawless world. Let us be God-like in our invitation as we smile at the newcomer, make tea for our neighbour and give sanctuary to all who come to our shores.

Can you be rich and a Christian at the same time?

So this rich and popular guy comes up to Jesus and asks the standard question, “How can I be blessed?” Some thought him blessed already, because he was rich, and popular. He may have been popular because he was rich. Jesus gives the standard reply, “worship God and be good.” They both know there’s a follow-up coming. “I do all that” says the rich and popular guy, and he probably did do it all. Lots of rich people worship God and tell the truth, look after their parents, are faithful to their spouses, recycle diligently and wouldn’t dream of hurting anyone. But Jesus looks through the rich and popular façade and sees the fear and the insecurity that lie behind. “Give it all away” he says.

Another rich (and no doubt popular) guy was having an employment appraisal with his boss (in a story Jesus told). He’d made his boss a lot of money, doubled his investment in fact. “Well done” says the boss, “here’s some more. I know you’ve got lots but I know I can trust you with more.”

It looks like one rich guy gets told to give it away and the other gets given more. Whatever we learn from these biblical stories it has to include the truism is that “the amount is not important”. We can point to any number of characters in the bible whose faith we can respect, from whom we can learn but who are rich (Job, Abraham, King David, Matthew, Joanna, Lydia) – and others who are poor (Job, Elijah, Amos, Paul, John).

I know rich people who are content.

I know poor people who are content.

I know rich people who are miserable.

I know poor people who are miserable.

I know that God loves them all and welcomes worship and love from each one. I know that His Son Jesus became poor so that they may all become rich. I am pretty sure that the amount of money that they have is irrelevant. The amount is not important.

Maybe the question means something different. Maybe we should ask, “Should being a Christian lead you inevitably down a road to poverty”.

It’s hard to find an example of someone whose faith has, in and of itself, led someone into poverty. Some of those who followed Jesus laid down their jobs and businesses in order to get into the impecunious trade of being fishers of men. But others stayed wealthy (particularly the women in Jesus’ entourage who may well have funded the team). There are plenty of invocations to give up everything, to sacrifice, to take up the cross; but equally there are many promises of blessing and fruitfulness.

I am often struck by Paul’s instruction to Timothy, “command those who are rich in this world to be generous…” (1 Timothy 6:17) He doesn’t say, “command those who are rich to get poor”. The inference from Paul’s words is that the “rich in this world” will continue to be rich and should continue to be generous.

Maybe our question should be re-phrased. Maybe we should ask, “Does being a Christian change your attitude to money or wealth”.

I think this was what Jesus was getting at when he looked in the rich and popular guy’s eyes. I don’t think Jesus was bothered about the amount of money; he was concerned about a heart in fearful lockdown. To press the point home Jesus told another parable about a rich farmer who hoarded grain in a fruitless attempt to suppress his fear and control his future. That very night he transitioned to a different life where the abandoned barns were of no help whatsover.

Money brings many challenges to our faith. For the poor the faith challenge is sometimes envy of the rich. For the rich the faith challenge is sometimes a lack of trust. It’s not that rich Christians should inevitably pursue poverty but that becoming a Christian pulls radically on those cords that tie money to our souls. Faith teaches us to worship the Great Provider first and foremost and gradually we learn contentment and trust and that the amount is not important.

This blog was first published by Stewardship on http://www.stewardship.org.uk/blog/blog

When will it end?

Gathered round the table for dinner in our safe and comfortable kitchen we reeled at the newsreels from Brussels and my wife asked, “When will it end?” New York, London, Beirut, Paris, Brussels … when will it end?

Silence followed. Does anyone want to hear the inexorable answer?

Then the eldest among us, a survivor of the second world war, an observer of Korea, Vietnam, Ireland and Lockerbie, said, “Never”. All hope gone of ever seeing an end.

Whilst most of us try and float in peaceful and (relatively) prosperous bubbles, ones which allow us the fantasy of an ever-improving world, the journalists prick those bubbles with constant reminders of man’s inhumanity to man. The depressing truth, despite our denials, is that man has no feasible plan for or power to deliver an alternative, desirable, future.

Elusive politicians make their promises, angry generals promise to bomb, greedy marketeers bombard us with illusions. But none can quench the deep, deep thirst of our generation for a better future. None can and none ever will. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that. And we know that left to our own devices, the answer is always going to be, “It will never end.”

But who can speak the truth and who can offer genuine hope?

The Easter weekend is a time of lost hope, unremitting pain, and the death of people and dreams. We are left with an appalling legacy of a brutalised body buried in a dark tomb. “Is this the end?” the followers asked themselves. An end to their dreams which meant no end to their fears of life under occupation.

But out of the darkness, angelic messengers in gleaming white come and point into the future, “Why look for the living among the dead? He has gone ahead” they said.

There is one who can speak with authority and power, the one who has been where it is darkest and who has emerged in blinding light to promise a new heaven and a new earth, where, “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.” (Revelation 21:4).

When will it end? When He ends it. When the good judge rights every wrong and restores every broken thing. When the Lord of life calls time. So there is hope and we can lift our despondent faces from our dinner plates and rejoice that neither Brussels nor Syria nor Good Friday are the end but that there will be an end and that the sun will rise on Sunday before we know it.