Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Parable of "XII Angry Men"
Many years ago, I was visiting South Africa for the first time, and for the first time met an uncle. As a young lad (about 13 or 14 at the time), Uncle Ian made an impression on me. He was a born again Christian, as I was, and this was notable because I didn't know many born-again adult male Christians in my family. Uncle Ian said to me words to this effect: “God speaks to us in many different ways.” Not an earth-shattering announcement, I know, but actually it is greater than we realise.
Growing up into Christ, I became part of a conservative Christian tradition called Protestantism. The watchword in Protestantism is “Sola Scriptura” - Only the Scriptures. Now let me state before I go any further that I do believe that the Bible is the Inspired Word of God and nothing else trumps it or supersedes it in this regard. However, having acknowledged this fact, the Bible is not the ONLY WAY God communicates with us. If God is God – in other words, if He truly exists, then He is free and able to communicate with us through many different means. Not only that, but God has to speak to us through different means, because of our uniqueness – God uses different 'media' to get through to us.

I think God has shown me something through the play I went to watch. It is called “XII angry men” and it was written by Sergal Sherman. For those not familiar with this play, as I was not, I shall include here the synopsis provided in the programme.

The defence and the prosecution have rested and the jury is filing into the the jury room to decide if a young Spanish-American is guilty or innocent of murdering his father. What begins as an open and shut case of murder soon becomes a mini-drama of each of the jurors' prejudices and preconceptions about the trial, the accused and each other.

“12 angry men focuses” on the jury's deliberations in a capital murder case. A 12-person jury is sent to begin deliberations in the first-degree murder trial of an 18-year-old Latino accused in the stabbing death of his father, where a guilty verdict means an automatic death sentence. The case appears to be open and shut: the defendant has a weak alibi; a knife he claimed to have lost is found at the murder scene; and several witnesses either heard screaming, saw the killing or the boy fleeing the scene. Eleven of the jurors immediately vote guilty; only Juror No. 8 casts a not guilty vote. At first Juror No. 8 bases her vote (the play I saw featured both men and women, and Juror was a lady) more so for the sake of discussion, after all the jurors must believe beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. As the deliberations unfold, the story quickly becomes a study of the jurors' complex personalities (which range from wise, bright and empathetic to arrogant, prejudiced and merciless), preconceptions, backgrounds and interactions. That provides the backdrop to Juror 8's attempts in convincing the other jurors that a not guilty verdict might be appropriate.

So, as the synopsis says, it seemed like an open and shut case until they began to look at the evidence that was presented, I mean, really look at it. Eleven of the twelve had made made up their minds before their bums left their seats in the courtroom that the accused was 'guilty as charged'. To eleven of the jurors, this business of going into the jury room was a mere formality. It was plain as the noses on their faces that the boy was guilty, but Juror No. 8. wasn't about to just let it go like that. One of the jurors said to Juror No. 8, “What we need to do is convince you that we are right and you're wrong.” Gradually, as the deliberations went on, Jurors who were once convinced that the boy was definitely guilty begin to see that it is not so open and shut as they had originally thought, and start to change their vote. Then it is ten guilty – 2 not guilt, 8 – 4, 6 – 6.

Some of the jurors want to give up at this point and simply declare a hung jury – let there be another trial – make it someone else's problem. Some jurors think they've been in that room too long already. Of course, to begin with, all the abuse is hurled at Juror No. 8. There's the name calling, the accusations of a political agenda, then there is the accusation that she was behaving like a kid. It's hard thing to stand your ground, when everyone else seems to be singing from the same (but different to yours) hymn sheet. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor!!!!). Then the vote goes to 10 not guilty – 2 obstinate guilty votes. During the deliberations – it becomes clear that for some of the Jurors, the accused was not the only person in the dock. For one juror, the whole Latino community seemed to be on trial, for another, it was a son who defied his father and while he did not physically kill the father, his behaviour was such that it emotionally did.

Well, that was the story, it is fiction, a good yarn, but is it a parable? Am I not going a bit OTT here? Let me try and do a Juror No. 8 on you. When many of us come to the Bible, we have made up our minds about what it says before we even open the book or find the verses. We, especially coming from a Christian background, have heard it all before. It is, in that sense, 'an open and shut case' – open the Bible read the words, and shut the Bible. There are some who can quote lengthy portions verbatim and remember amazing details, that pass under the radar as far as rest of us are concerned. However, what came to me, as a result of seeing this play, was the understanding that when people read and understand things from the Bible, or whatever sacred text one may use, you usually read into it that which you expect to get out. It is a bit like when you proofread something that you've written, you tend to overlook some errors because you are reading what you think you wrote.

At the beginning of the play, eleven jurors were convinced and no doubt sincerely believed that it was proven, that the accused was guilty. As the story unfurled, they become less and less convinced. We may be sincerely reading the Bible but what we need to understand, is that we will read it with our own theological background guiding our reading. This is why an Anglican and a Baptist can read the same texts regarding baptism in the Bible and yet arrive at very different opinions. This is why a Presbyterian and a Pentecostal will read the same texts about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and come to diametrically opposed conclusions in regard to the matter of speaking in tongues. In both cases, the people who take up the particular stance are amazed that the other group can come up with such a 'wrong' answer. We may even go so far as to say that they are heretics, not-Christian, there to sow discord. We may, if we have that kind of authority – put the person under 'Church discipline' – or even excommunicate them.

I think it is important to ask the question, as if I were a Juror Number 8: When you read the Bible, do you take it all literally, or figuratively? Is the creation account, for instance, in Genesis 1-2, a literal account of how it happened or an analogy to explain a spiritual reality? I know most of you have answered this question in your head. What I don't know is how you answered it. I will leave my answer out for the time being. The point is, that on both sides of the discussion, you will be completely confident that you are right about this – even if you cannot explain why – you just know. For some of you – 'reason' is worldly and should be cast out if it is in 'contradiction' to what the Bible says. To others – this is such a fanciful story – the world coming into existence complete with all vegetation, and animal species and humanity in the space of six days that the WHOLE BOOK is a waste of time.

Forgive me for pointing out the obvious here but the Bible consists of 66 books – of varying length and from various earthly authors. And there are very many verses to read. Also, what we have in our hands today as “The Holy Bible” is not the original text – written by the hand of the author – there is not a single example of any of those original texts in any collection or museum anywhere. What we have are versions of the Bible. Versions in our own languages – thanks to wonderful people like Martin Luther and William Tyndale, but even within the English language Translation there are very many versions of the Bible. While rendering in most cases is pretty similar with inconsequential differences – sometimes the difference is very significant. Surely they were using the same texts to translate from the original language? Well, apparently not always.

Originally, before there were printing presses, manuscripts were copied by hand by dedicated people who wanted to reproduce the document, the Word of God, so more and more Christians who were spread all over the then known world, and so the original was 'copied' a few times – but because different people did the copying, small differences would appear in the copies that were not in the original, and were not in the any of the others, well copies were made of the original, and then copies of the copies and so on. Even the compilation of the Bible has disputed as to what books and documents are part of it, and what are not. Catholics recognise what is called the 'Apocrypha' while protestants don't – rather like in a case where one juror will accept a witnesses testimony as accurate while another will doubt it.

Some of the original manuscripts omit whole sections that other manuscripts include. For example Mark 16:9-20, and John 7:73 – 8:11. If you look those texts up, you will find that it says that 'some early manuscripts' do not contain these verses. As you can imagine a great deal of discussion and debate – heated debate – has arisen as to whether or not these texts are originally from the author, or some forgery – later inserted. Again, depending on your theological background, you will either decide that of course it should be there – why would exist if it didn't, or, obvious it should not be there – can't you see that it obviously doesn't 'fit with the rest of the Bible? Again, I'm just doing a Juror No. 8 and drawing your attention to some things that might have escaped your notice.

So, I'm sure by now some of you are wondering, - am I doubting the veracity of the Word of God? No. A categorical nobut I am doubting my own ability to really understand it – and things that were plainly obvious before – are not as obvious any more. I am realising that previously I looked at certain parts of the Bible – in regard to certain matters and I allowed myself to think that that was ALL the Bible had to stay in that regard, but now, I am starting to realise that the WHOLE Bible might be saying something different to what I originally thought.

Does this mean that the Bible contradicts itself? No – but sometimes we read into what is said, a lot that is not being said, and then, we may find ourselves in a quandary.

Jesus shook people's cages on regular occasions:

  1. He did not hesitate to rebuke the religious elite and their pomposity and hypocrisy.
  2. He would fellowship with “drunkards and sinners”
  3. He would heal a man on the Sabbath.
  4. He spoke to the Samaritan women, and did not show the same disdain for Samaritans as did the Jewish men of his time.
  5. He healed lepers by laying hands on them. Lepers were regarded as unclean and had to live 'outside the camp'.
  6. He washed the disciples' feet. Peter said: no, you won't wash my feet. Jesus said, if I don't wash your feet, then you have no part of me.” Peter's ingrained ideas about Master-Servant Rabbi-Disciple relationships gets thoroughly challenged.

Peter firmly believed that it was anathema for him to step into the home of a Gentile, but God sent him a vision, and very 'controversial' vision at that, where God commanded him to eat all sorts of non-Kosher food. Oh no! Peter Protested: Lord forbid that I should do such a thing. God answered him, “Don't call anything impure that God has made clean” And so Peter responded by following God's commands and actually going to the house of Cornelius, the Roman Soldier and he and his household were saved.

Paul was livid with the Christians – he really had it in for them. He was ready to kill the lot of them, but Jesus met him on the road to Damascus – his ingrained ideas set aside in one fell swoop.

Martin Luther – he was a monk – a learned man – on his way up through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and then he gets it - “ The just shall live by faith” - He suddenly understands that indulgences and and a whole lot of Catholic traditions of that time were of no effect – that it was one's faith in Jesus Christ that saved you, nothing else – no bells or whistles – no incense or masses – only faith in Christ would save you. And he took his stand – at the Diet at Worms where he famously said “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And boy did they call him names.

Slavery was defended as being completely acceptable by ministers preaching from their pulpits, but gradually, more and more people began to understand that actually, Slavery is wrong. It took a few people to start to look at things differently move beyond the proof texts that they usually quoted by heart, and see that perhaps God was not saying what they had thought He was saying all along. If you haven't seen it, get out the DVD “Amazing Grace”.

Under the Third Reich – in Germany, most of the preachers supported the political moves of Adolph Hitler, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer took a stand and saw the wrong of what Hitler was doing. He said that the church must not simply "bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself." (The idea of opposing a government was considered revolutionary at the time, and still is in many cases. When governments perceive that the Church, or individual people in line with their religious beliefs oppose what the government is doing, they can be very hostile and very nasty.) Read Dietrich's story on the Internet. It's very interesting. You can read of his shift from “phraseology to reality”. And other such things. For his pains, he was executed by the Germans just weeks before their defeat in the Second World War.

Apartheid was, according to the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, firmly based on biblical teaching. Every Afrikaner knew that they were superior to the black man. It was obvious to them that God wanted people not to integrate, but to develop separately, and so it would seem that the whole Constitution was built around this one premise in this “Christian Nation”. But there were Jurors No. 8 by the dozen, whose voices gradually got heard, saying, “Is that really so – is that what God is saying?”

So, here is the conclusion of the matter, just like in XII Angry Men – it took one person to say something different – to stand against the tide of traditional thinking – resist the pressure, and to ask the questions that no-one else was asking. When we come to the Word of God, we can often read into it what we want to read, and overlook the less palatable truths, regarding them as “irrelevant.” We may treat it as an “open and shut case” - not bothering to explore its meaning because the 'truth is plain to see' or we can linger a bit and ask the difficult questions, and see what comes out of it. You may take longer and ask all the questions and still come up with the same answers, but at least you have opened your mind to the possibility that there are other answers. In fact, if you have come back to the same answers, after asking those awkward questions, you should find that you are firmer in your faith than you were before.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Humility 3
In the previous blog, we looked at the 'parable' of the sheep and the goats. Jesus said, among other things, "I was in prison and you visited me". We tend to forget this aspect of the story. You see it is easier to identify with those who were sick, or who were poor, or were homeless but when it comes to people in prison we tend to become uncomfortable. I think that for many Christian men and woman, the thought of people in prison being regarded in any positive light is practically an anathema.
  • Didn't they deserve to be in prison, hadn't they committed some crime that meant that they should be there and not in society at large?
  • Aren't they despicable creatures who deserve our contempt?

I would simply ask would Jesus have that attitude.

Firstly, NOT everyone who is in prison is truly guilty of what they have been accused of. Even in our modern, scientifically advanced world, miscarriages of justice happen all the time. Occasionally, but very seldom, do the rich members of society, actually fall prey to the system, and serve time behind bars. They use their ill-gotten gain – to employ the services of slick lawyers – who manage to get their clients off scot free. On the other side of the coin, a poor person, who may be genuinely innocent, can find themselves in a mess, and the defence lawyer assigned to them, to plead their case may or may not believe them, but who will make a half-hearted attempt but not be too bothered if they lose the case and the person is sent down. (I realise that I am generalising and that there are probably many very dedicated defence counsels who work tirelessly to see justice done for their client even if that client cannot afford to pay the legal fees. ) However the big picture is that people are not all equal before the law – except in the constitutions – and that justice is dispensed differently depending on one's status in life.

Secondly, many are kept in prison, who have not had their day in court, or their opportunity to 'face justice'. According to the Human Rights Charter, ap erson is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately for many who are imprisoned, the presumption of innocence is easily forgotten by those who read the newspapers.

SO, who are we to judge those people in prison? Jesus is calling us to show compassion. Can we look the other way, when reports come out of over-crowded prison cells, people living in inhumane conditions.

Some would say, Prison is supposed to be hard – its supposed to send a message that “If you do the crime – you must do the time.” and all other such harsh statements. We forget that amongst those who are thrown into prison are those who are prisoners of conscience – that is, they are there because of their faith.

In many communist countries, people are jailed because of their faith. That may not be the case, at the moment in the UK, or the USA, but the time is coming when to mention the name of Jesus will be a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment or death. Already we see signs of this in that people can lose their jobs because they offer to pray for a patient whom they are treating, or they wearing a cross on a chain around their neck. I was listening to the radio one night and the presenter was going off the deep-end because somebody dared to preach the Gospel on the tube, in his hearing. He was so offended.

It is easy to stand in judgement over people without slightest understanding of what brought them to that place. I am not advocating that we stop putting people in prison, and that because justice is unequal it should not be exercised. On the contrary, a vast number of cases that are brought to court are dealt with justly and the perpetrators of crime dealt with appropriately. But just because someone is in prison, does not mean that we ought to despise them or view ourselves as superior. Jesus, the one who committed no crime, was unjustly accused, and found guilty in an illegal court. When he was taken to the 'legitimate' court of Pontius Pilate – Pilate admitted that he found no fault in Jesus, and yet he buckled under public pressure and granted the wish of the 'people' to have Him crucified. There was no justice in the case of Jesus trial and sentencing – but there was justice because Jesus took our place on that cross that day.

On that same night that Jesus washed the disciples feet he said to them: “A new commandment I give – that you LOVE one another as I have loved you. People will know that you are my disciples because of your love for one another.”

I look on Facebook and I see lots of big “I am a CHRISTIAN kind of banners and groups, etc. People have bumper stickers for their cars, and the one of course is the famous fish. But Jesus said, “They shall know you are my disciples by your love." I am not saying that we have to go to the other extreme and be all secretive about it. I am not even condemning the group, the banners, or the stickers, I'm just saying that if it is all about an external show – then perhaps we have missed the point of this command. How does that kind of love show itself in our communities? Jesus said to the sheep you saw me as a stranger, and you welcomed me in.

I was talking to a man the other day, and he told me of a church that dealt very uncharitably with a friend of his – he said she had special needs and that someone in the Church told her not to come back because she 'stank to high heaven.' The attitude of that person stank to high heavens, and no doubt caused a stench in the nose of our Lord. The poor person came out of the church devastated.

I don't become a police officer by merely putting on the uniform – I have to actually do the work of a police officer. Not all police wear uniforms – and definitely police do not wear the uniform all the time. However, even when a police officer is off duty – they never cease to be police – and in an emergency – they are ready to pick up their role at a moment's notice. They may be out and, happen to notice or become aware a crime being committed. They may not show their true colours but will act to bring the situation under control.

In a similar way, a Christian does not cease being a Christian when they are at work, or just at home relaxing. They may not be 'in Church' or some religious rally. They may not be doing religious stuff, but Jesus didn't say “they shall know you are my disciples by your religious activity. “ No a Christian is a Christian all the time and even when he/she 'is not on duty' he keeps an eye open for opportunities to SERVE his fellow human and show love to them, for it is by that that the world may know we are Jesus disciples.
Sadly, how often do you hear a person say words to the effect of “I won't become a Christian, Christians are hypocrites.” Instead of being drawn in by our love for one another, people are repelled by the hypocrisy that they see in the Church.

Pride is at root of hypocrisy.

Humility on the other hand is the essence of reality.

I am sure that ther si a lot more that can be said on this subject, but for now - I leave it there. I hope however, that you don't. I hope that you take this word, and apply it to your life in whatever way is necessary.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Humility 2

Continuation from the last blog...

In contrast Jesus said, “I have not come to be served, but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Jesus said many things about humble service and he did not only speak – he showed – he gave us an example. One particular example was when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Just as in today's society, you would not see a CEO, or Company President sweeping the floor or serving in the canteen (unless it was for some photo-op – then only for a few moments), it was unheard of in Jesus time for anyone above the rank of slave to wash another's feet. It was so revolutionary, that Peter was startled. I don't know for sure, but I think Jesus first went to Peter and the conversation that ensued was one that could have been initiated by any of the disciples.

Peter: Lord, you washing MY feet?
Jesus: You don't understand
what I am doing right now, but soon you will understand.
Peter: No, no, you don't wash my feet Lord!
Jesus: Peter, unless I wash your feet, you have no part with me
Peter: Well, then wash me – not only my feet Lord, my hands, and my face too!
Jesus: I'm sure you had a bath before you came. There is no need for all that, only that I wash your feet, then your whole body will be clean. You are clean – well there's one who isn't.
(He said this because He knew that Judas Iscariot was about to betray Him.)
He finished washing all the disciples feet and then sat down again in his place.
Jesus: Do you understand what I have just done?
You call me Teacher and Lord, and that's correct I am. If I, your Lord and have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you do as I have done. I tell you the truth no servant is greater than his master. Nor is a messenger
greater than the one sending him. Now that you know these things, you will be
blessed if you do them.

The act of of washing a person's feet, was a sign of respect to a guest visiting one's home. It was usually carried out by one of the slaves, if the family hosting was in a position to own a slave. I suppose, though I cannot support this, that in those families that were not in position to have either slave or servant, the daughter or son, would fulfil this role. Jesus however was not asking us to find someone to wash another's feet, but, regardless of our 'status' in the community, to wash the feet of others. Jesus instruction to wash one another's feet should not be taken literally, but what he was saying was that everyone of us must be ready to serve others, regardless of our relative stations in life, and we should be willing to do ANYTHING, that needs doing, regardless of how lowly that task may seem.

Jesus also put this message across in the following way, at the same meal where he washed His disciples feet. He said, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His thrown in the heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the Sheep on His right and the goats on His left. The the King will say to those on His right, “Come you are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; I needed clothes and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, give you something to drink? When did we see you, a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison and go to visit you? And the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” And likewise, the 'goats' were those who could not be bothered to help those whom they probably thought were beneath them.
Does this mean that all that theology of accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour goes out the window and that at the end of the day, what really matters is how we reach the needs (felt-needs) of poverty stricken world. I think not. We still believe that Salvation is attained by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but what I think this tells us, is that our faith, if it is in anyway genuine will exhibit itself, not through religious and pious exclamations, but in how we serve our fellow human being. I think I fall so short, I wonder how many times have I seen the Lord, lying in the doorway of some building, because the streets are cold. How many times have I rolled my car window up when the Lord has come to ask for a few coins. How many times have I closed my eyes when I've seen my Lord, dying of AIDS? I could not tell you? I do not know. I know though that in Christ there is no condemnation, and I am in His love. But I'm reminded by this passage that the Lord is in everyone, in the sense that in as much as we serve them, we serve Him. The people we interact with on a day to day basis, be they clients, or colleagues, employers, or employees, these are the people we need to see as Jesus, and serve them as if we were serving Him. How would our attitude change if we grasped the reality of this. As our attitude changes so will our actions. I'm not suggesting for a minute that you should help every beggar you see, but it would be good if you simply stop despising them.

There is still more that I discovered as I sat down to write this blog and so, stay tuned for the next instalment of this blog that deals in particular with being judgmental - which just another way of showing our pride - we regard ourselves as superior 'better Christians' because we are not like that 'dirty sinner'...

Friday, May 15, 2009


In writing on the subject of humility, I need to at the very outset acknowledge my indebtedness to many who are far wiser, and more eloquent than I am, and also those who through their example in life have shown what true humility is.

I have found that I have learnt so much about this quality in life. Following on from ambition, I am looking at another quality that is examined by Jewish during this time of counting the Omer. Again, I am looking at it as a Christian, however what I say, I hope will resonate with you, regardless of whether you are a Christian or not.

Isn't it interesting that humility follows hot on the heals of Ambition – for while ambition is reaching up and touching the heavens, humility is the awareness that no matter how hard we try, we can't reach the heavens without help. In my previous blog on ambition – I said that one of our ambitions is to spend eternity with God. I also said that because of the chasm of sin that separates us, we could not achieve ambition, except that we know that God himself provided a way through Jesus Christ, and that it is because of His death and resurrection, that anyone can enter into a relationship with God and have any hope of spending eternity with him. Sadly, there are many people who are still convinced that there must be some other way, that they refuse to cross over by the one and only way and are trying by their own efforts to reach God through. It is as futile as a little child reaching up to 'touch the clouds'.

There are many misconceptions about what humility is. Humility is not denying one's own abilities, but regarding them as tools and getting on with the tasks that we are set, and not boasting either to ourselves or to our neighbour about that which we have or can do.

Humility is the understanding that we each are part of a community and that we need to put the needs of those around us above our own needs, or at least on the same level. It is also the understanding that, despite my learning, I may not have the right answer for any given situation and that others in the community may provide that answer, and instead of sulking because I am not the 'man of the hour', rejoice along with the community that the answer has been found.

While ambition drives us to want to be that man or woman, humility makes us acknowledge that there are others too who can fulfil that role. As Prime Minister Gordon Brown has learnt, he may have wanted to 'save the world' from the impending economic disaster, in fact, his solution was no solution. In leadership, whether it is on an international and political level or on a local level, the quality of humility is a most important ingredient to success. No-one can have all the right answers and know everything. The most competent of leaders will surround themselves with qualified advisors to help them when it comes to setting out policy. So we have established that firstly leaders need to humility to realise that their rank in society is not due only to their own efforts but with the others who help them along the way, and as such they should acknowledge this, but also, leaders need humility to understand that they are there to serve and not only to be waited on hand and foot.

The United Kingdom Parliament has a received a wake-up call in this regard as the reports of how a number of members of parliament from all sides of the house have abused the “expense allowances” scheme to such a great extent and the populace are justifiably annoyed, that in a time of economic straits, these people are living it up, it would seem, at tax payers expense. They seemed to think they could get away with it as it was supposed to be secret and kept out of the public eye. Their hypocrisy has been exposed.

I have written much more on this topic, but decided that it will have to wait and be posted as a separate blog. in a few days time. I have written about how Jesus both exemplified humility as He washed the feet of His disciples and how he has taught us that we need to show our allegiance to him not with grand proclamations , but in our actions and in the way we interact with others.

Humble Yourself in the Sight of the Lord – HPYG

Monday, May 04, 2009

What is Ambition?

Stepping away from the more contentious subjects of Disability Rights and Bullying, I would like to look at something that this week, observant Jews would have given consideration to as they count the omer to Shavuot:Ambition
So, what is ambition?
Is it right for a person to have ambition?
And if it is, what sort of ambition can/should we have?
Simply put, Ambition is the 'Strong desire to achieve something' It is used in phrases like “What is your ambition in life?” and “the person has no ambition.” A few years ago, everyone was talking about their 'personal vision statement' or 'corporate vision statement' (for companies), and you would walk into a business and they would have framed on the wall a 'VISION STATEMENT' and people were urged to have their VISION STATEMENT written up and displayed prominently, if not for general viewing, at least for your own viewing, to keep, as it were, that vision at the forefront of your mind, and to allow that Vision Statement to shape your daily activity, as to whether or not you do something. It didn't matter if you moved in Christian or secular circles – this 'Vision Statement' philosophy was everywhere you looked. What it boils down to, is, “What are you ambitions?”
Often, this is associated with what career we hope to take up in life, and having undergone the training and taken up a career, our ambition becomes more fine tuned, to address what status we have in regard to that career. You may want to join the army, and then when you have joined up, and undergone your training and induction, you may aspire to become an officer, and of course, not every private becomes an officer, but a few rise up through the ranks and gain the status of officer. Having achieved that goal in life, you may find that you actually want to become a high-ranking officer, maybe even to take up the rank of 'commander in chief' or whatever it is called – I am aware that the 'Commander-in-chief' in the USA Army is the President, but he has generals who report directly to him.
For others, ambition lies beyond the career itself, and is more focussed on the 'fruits of our labour' i.e. the money, status in society, and lifestyle that results from our earnings. How the money comes in is not the focus in this case, but the amount that one can earn. For some people there are 'no holds barred' – that is they are willing to engage in any activity which will maximise that bottom line, even to the extent of breaking the law. Of course that is extreme and most people, will while seeking to maximise their income, remain within the constraints of of the law. These sort of people are entrepreneurs, can turn their hand to any kind of business and make a success of it – they have a knack to see gaps in the market, and to exploit them so as make more money. These sort of people will often have more than one iron in the fire.
On the other side of the coin, there are people who seem to lack any ambition, when it comes to work, and seem to live by the philosophy 'why work when I can get it without working.'
Famously, the cartoon character Andy Capp, who does his best to avoid working at all. Such people are quite happy to live off 'unemployment benefits.' Unless, due to physical reasons a person cannot work, every adult should be seeking to 'earn their crust' and not be a burden to society. If for some reason you are disabled, I would hope that you too have enough ambition to do whatever you can to be part of the working community. I have seen people with disabilities working in places like supermarkets, and though their job may not be very high powered, they do their best and take home a pay packet once a week, or month. I was encouraged to see a young lady with Down Syndrome, working at a fast food restaurant near to where I live. She is a cleaner, but such a pleasant young lady who while she goes about her cleaning job, will smile and chat with the customers. I thought to myself at the time that there are a lot of people who could learn from this young lady. Ambition for one's career is one aspect of ambition – but I think there is more to this than just what career we take up in life.
Going back to our definition of having a strong desire for success: we can have such success in many realms and as such we can ambition for all sorts of different things.

People may have more personally orientated ambitions – to lose a certain amount of weight (or to gain weight – if they are too thin), to give up smoking, to be a better communicator, listener, writer; to learn a language, to improve their marks at school, and the list may continue.
All of these things are good things to aim for in life – whether you call them ambitions, aspirations, goals, or visions, they come down to the same thing – they all destinations that help us plot our path in life. It is not enough to have an ambition, we must DO SOMETHING in order to realise it. If I want to achieve something in life, I need to not only look in that direction, I need to start moving towards it. The longest journey, still starts with one step. Having set our goals in life, whether for the day, the week, the month, the year or our lives, we need to then start working towards achieving that goal. All the the things I have mentioned can fall under the category: self-improvement, but they do not seem to have any spiritual component. I'd like to suggest that we can have ambition in terms of our spirituality also. Indeed, I would even go as far as saying that it should be the spiritual ambitions that we set before looking to the more temporal issues of career and self improvement.
I try to make these commentaries appeal to both believer and non-believer, and realise that many of my readers will have different religious and philosophical views to those that I express here. Obviously what are about to state here are my views and I do understand that within your own religious context there may be different aspiriations. Even if you don't agree with me I urge you to read on.
In my view, true success is only found if one is in a right relationship with God.

Jesus Christ told his followers: “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these
other things will come naturally as a result.” (Matthew 6:33, my paraphrase).
Jesus set the priority. SEEK FIRST.
Jesus said: “What does it profit a man, if gain the whole world and yet forfeit his own soul?”
(Matthew 16:26)
Our ambitions are often shaped by our perspective. If we we have a worldly perspective, whereby we measure success in terms of what one possesses, and what status one has in the eyes of others, then our ambition will be worldly too. What would really matter to us is the size of our bank balance, and how important we are in society. However, if we gain an eternal perspective – if we realise that life is more than what we see before us – that beyond this natural world – bound in time and space, as it is, lies a world that is SUPERNATURAL, that cannot be defined either in terms of space, for what dimensions can we use to measure God, or time, because our Creator is timeless with NO beginning, and NO end – i.e. ETERNAL. If we realise that that which we see before our eyes today will be gone and have no value in the world to come, then it brings these huge ambitions into perspective. Many people, and maybe some of you reading this today, will regard yourselves as atheists and believe that there is no here-after – there is no 'eternity' – that the only thing that matters is what happens between our birth and our death. That it is all about how we fill those days, months or years. Such people can become consumed by ambition to be more famous, more wealthy, than anybody else. However, when that day comes, when we 'breathe our last, all the effort, all the striving, all the money and possessions will be of no value. As they say, “You can't take it with you."

Paul the Apostle put it like this: “We brought nothing into this world, and clearly we can take nothing out of it.” (1 Tim 6:7) More poetically, Job said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there, for the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21) In Ecclesiates, the Preacher said, “As he had come naked from his mother's womb, so will he return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labour that he can carry in his hand.”(Ecclesiates 5:15,16)

So I have to ask you, what is the point? If nothing lies beyond this existence, what is the point in living? As Christians, we do acknowledge a Creator, and we do have a purpose in life. It is more than just about what we can acquire, and what reputation we can build for ourselves. We have an eternal creator, and our greatest ambition, is to be with Him for all eternity. Just as I pointed out above, it is all very well to have an ambition in life, but the ambition remains unattained as long as we do nothing to achieve it. So, naturally, the question will be asked and has been asked countless times, “What can I do to gain eternal life?” On one level, there is nothing WE can do – it is beyond our capacity to attain eternal life. The Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) and it also says that “That the wages of sin is death” - clearly we were doomed before we started – rather heavy isn't it, except that we are dealing with a merciful God who is not only righteous and just, but is merciful and kind, and where we could not reach Him, because of the chasm of sin that divides us, He built a bridge, over which we may cross. That bridge is Jesus Christ, in whom we put our trust. I live in London, and over the River Thames that snakes through the city are many bridges, that people cross over, in their thousands, and they do so confidently, knowing that the bridge can hold them. If we have that ambition, to spend Eternity with Christ, we need to pass over that bridge – i.e. we need to put our trust in Jesus Christ, and accept the free gift of God. I started to quote a verse above – "the wages of sin is death," but I didn't quote the whole verse – so here it is: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God, is eternal life.” (Rom 6:23) If your ambition is to spend eternity with God, you need to do something today, something as simple, and yet profound as crossing over – acknowledging that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to eternal life and confessing your sins. But having crossed over, we keep moving forward, we have entered into a daily relationship with Jesus Christ, and that does not mean we sit back and wait for that day, we are called to be with Him. We are workers, in vineyard, having crossed over the bridge, taken up residency on the other side, we are employed, and like any employer, the Lord, wants to see us working hard at the task that he has set us.

An ambition, once realised, is no longer an ambition. So, having crossed over, and thereby have gained assurance of eternity with God, but does that spell the end of our ambition. I would say a very loud and very clear NO! We should further aim to deepen our walk with God and become more like Him, our master. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The picture there is of a labourer carrying heavy burden – laying down, and taking a rest. What is interesting, is that while Jesus does take those heaven burdens off us, and gives us time to recuperate and regain our strength, he doesn't leave us burden-less. He says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus gives us a new burden, it is light in comparison to the one we bore before and what is more, he shares the load.

A yoke was used to harness two cows together to pull a plough. He shows us how – if we are willing to learn from Him. Even the most ambitious person must allow himself or herself some 'down time' – time to relax and not be striving every minute of the day, every day of the week. Yes, we come to the Father, and we have our 'down time' and He lets us have it, because he knows we need it – but He does not expect us to be having a permanent down time – there comes a time when we must pick up our tools and return to the work. “Take my yoke upon you" Is working for the Lord easy work? I think not! The Greek word that is translated “easy” in this verse is CHRESTOS and occurs three other places in the New Testament – in none of those places is it translated EASY.

Luke 5:39 – No one who has been drinking old wine wants new wine. He says, 'The old wine is better!'"
Luke 6:35 - Rather, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind even to ungrateful and evil people
1 Peter 2:3 - Certainly you have tasted that the Lord is good.

The definition of this word according to Studylight is -, fit for use, useful. (virtuous, good)
2.manageable (mild, pleasant – as opposed to hard, harsh, sharp or bitter)

The yoke that we bear is one that has been custom designed for our own necks – i.e. the task that Jesus sets for us to do is one that is within our grasp – He will never ask us to do something which we cannot do. Now, the truth, as many a labourer in God's vineyard will tell you, that sometimes, the burden we carry is tough, and its a difficult path we walk along, but as with every yoke, it is not made for one animal, but two, and so, even as we take Jesus yoke on ourselves, we are not bearing that burden or going through that tough time alone, but He is there yoked right next to us, and all we need to do is follow his lead.

Not only is the yoke easy – because it suits us, but His burden – is light. The Greek work elaphron is used in one other place in the Bible – 2 Cor 4:17 – For our LIGHT afflictions. Did I read that right – yes – light afflictions. Afflictions are the tough things that happen to us as we journey in this thing called life. Hardly things we would regard as 'light and trivial' – but when we bear the burdens that he gives us, they are light in that we bear them with a purpose in mind – and we see the end of it. We know it will come to an end – and that makes our bearing up much easier. When Jesus says “His burden is light," He is not belittling the turmoil and difficulties that we as believers must endure for the sake of the Gospel. People have endured many terrible things for the Christ's sake. There is a Christian missionary couple serving a year's imprisonment in an African country, because they dared to denounce the president for corruption – their charge – Sedition. Christians in China, North Korea, and other godless nations who are imprisoned or even killed because they dare to exalt the name of Jesus – hardly light afflictions – but you see the one who wrote about those light afflictions was the Apostle Paul, who was not living in some ivory tower – but had endured much for the sake of the Gospel. He writes:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:7-12)

Paul considers these afflictions light – and Jesus told us that his burden is light – the same word is used. Yes, times, may become tough. If we have to live thrugh the tribulation – it will become very much worse. As you read this, you may affected in some way, but world events these days. You may have lost your job or your home because of the Credit Crunch, you may have contracted pig flu, or AIDS, or you may be suffering from the effects of pollution of our industrial age. Whatever it is, it is not an easy time for you. You may be wondering what is the relevance of having career ambitions when the likelihood is that you won't be able to find work, and if you do, it probably won't be the type of work you were hoping to do. It's hard to keep motivated when you are in the wrong job. When you feel that your efforts are not noticed, or that you are not appreciated. It's easy to become angry when a customer unreasonably shouts at you or makes some accusation, and the boss refuses to hear your side of the story. It is when we are in situations like that, that life does not make sense. It is in times like that, that we have to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him as he says “Come to me all you, who are weighed down, come to me and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on yourselves and carry the burden I give you, because my yoke will fit you well, and you will find the burden I give you much easier to bear. I will be helping you with that load. Before reading on, listen to this song, and listen carefully to the words.

So, as a believer, we don't only have the ambition of spending eternity with Christ, but we have the ambition of getting to know Christ better and serving Him more faithfully.

Typing this made me think of a song from the musical Godspell – Day by day.

Day by day, day by day
Oh dear Lord three things I pray.
To see thee more clearly
To love thee more dearly
To follow thee more nearly
Day by day.

If we truly aspire to see the Lord more clearly, to love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly, yes we pray, because without His empowering we are defeated before we even start, but we also need the daily discipline of reading the Word, spending time in prayer, for ourselves (to be better people), for others, and for the world, and making sacrifices – giving up something we would like to do, for the sake of something that needs to be done.

* A bit late on the posting when I was writing this it was still May the 3rd. It is still the 25th day to the Omer because the Jewish day starts at Sunset.