Monday, 17 November 2008

Feminism and Motherhood

One of the things I realised as I was reading Mary Kassian's The Feminist Mistake is the tortured relationship the feminist movement has with motherhood. On the one hand, the potential for bearing children is viewed as the basis for women's superiority: their ability to nurture arising from their ability to bear children, would for example, lead to a peaceful world in a matriarchy (as opposed to our war-filled world, dominated as it is by men who cannot bear children and so do not have this nurturing ability). On the other hand, the actual decision to bear children is viewed in a very different light. In the ideal feminist world, women would only bear children if and when they wanted to and would have the right to change their decision at any point in time. In the eyes of some feminists, bearing children is always the wrong decision and leads to enslavement.

This is further evidence that feminism is not 'pro-woman' but 'pro-feminist', excluding all but those committed to its ideals into its sisterhood.

Why is this important?

First, it is worth noticing that feminism has had a profound affect on families over the last few decades. No-fault divorce, abortion, and other initiatives have not had a good effect on families. It is good that the Victorian era legislation has been overturned, enshrining as it did, the man's right to do whatever he liked in marriage and still have legal access to children in a post-divorce settlement, despite evidence of domestice abuse. But far from the nurturing, peace-filled world envisaged by some feminists, the result of feminist initiatives have been seen in painful, dysfunctional family situation. Men have contributed to this of course. But so have women. Given the same kind of freedom as men in the Victorian era, women have used it with the same kind of selfish abandon as men did and do. It manifests differently, but the ability to have children does not appear to seriously reign in the instincts of women to get what they can for themselves. Feminism has proven the Bible right in its assertion that both men and women are sinners. Women are not somehow better because they can give birth (or for any other reason).

The other thing which I found interesting was how close our society is to the feminist ideal for giving birth. If we hear of someone who is going to give birth either against their will or is going ahead with an unplanned pregnancy despite financial or other difficulties, we consider it a tragedy. While there is much to mourn in these situations, and much support to offer the mother in question, we need to question whether we consider this a tragedy because the woman's choice was not the driving force behind the birth of the child. I think many of us have moved to that mindset without realising it. This isn't too surprising when we realise that the feminist ideal of childbearing and raising is closer to being realised that many other aspects of their agenda. Abortion on demand, at any point in the pregnancy for any reason without financial cost or social reprisal is slowly arriving and will be difficult to dislodge. Women who disagree with this, refuse to avail themselves of the system and discourage others from this choice are outrageous.

But even for those of us who reject abortion, it is worth asking ourselves whether we reject 'choice' as the first and highest priority when it comes to childbearing and raising. Do we automatically count up the number of children someone has and wonder why they 'chose' to have that many children? Do we assume that someone or other has chosen their career over children? Do we disdain women who need to work and can't look after their children at home because of their financial situation? Do we tend to look down on those we hear of or those we know who fall pregnant out of marriage or who can't look after their children?

Choice in childbearing isn't our goal, because our God is sovereign. He chooses for us, even as our actions have certain consequences. The goal is to do everything with a willing heart in gratitude to him, and to encourage each other to live for him. (Colossians 3). Choice can give us power and freedom and it is a good gift from God when we can choose. But choice can also deceive us into thinking we can be and do anything and that that might be a good thing. If we pursue our own selves, we move in a direction away from the Lord Jesus, who calls us to give up our lives, our choices, our selves and find life in dying to ourselves in his service and the service of others. Which includes childbearing or raising - whatever the situation (wish I could, didn't have to, could work, stay home, have more, have less...)

It would be unfortunate to have the mindset which supports abortion while rejecting it utterly! But it is possible, because as Kassian observes feminism has become so influential in our society, there is a sense in which we are all feminists to one degree or another. A warning like that is really useful as we try and think and live and speak counter-culturally. If it applies to us at all, it is likely that it applies to us as we think about motherhood and raising children, so it is worth asking ourselves whether we think:
  • women are less selfish and less destructive than men (because women bear children);

  • women choose their childbirth and childrearing situations and should always have that freedom.

Bringing every though captive to Christ is hard work, particularly when we are trying to out-think our own culture.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Jesus is Faithful

I have been greatly encouraged by the first chapter of Revelation.

I think the opening sets the scene for the entire book and shows that the book is meant to encourage us (rather than baffle us!). In the first chapter we are flooded with reminders of who Jesus is and how much he has done for us. John lists them off at breakneck speed:

Jesus is:

  • unquestionably faithful,
  • the resurrected one who guarantees our resurrection,
  • the ruler of all rulers,
  • the one who loves us,
  • the Saviour who gave himself for us so that we could be free from sin, and
  • the one who made us genuine servants of God.

These few verses contain so many descriptions of who Jesus is and what he has done and will do that it is no wonder that John then turns to immediately praise our Lord and Saviour.

Then, without pausing for breath, John reminds us that this same Jesus will appear as the supreme ruler and every single person will see him.

By listing what Jesus has already done for us as well as reminding us that he is faithful in the here and now, John shows us that we can trust Jesus with the future also. Jesus has said he would return and he will keep his word. His return is absolutely certain.

Many things will discourage us while we wait for Jesus to return. Sometimes we may feel that he will never return: it has been so long! Yet John helps us to realize that just as we trust Jesus to save us from our sins, we can trust him to be true to his word and return and rule in righteousness. The King of kings, our loving Saviour, will return. We can depend on Jesus to keep his promises.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Sex and Ministry

I had a conversation recently with someone who had received advice about sex at a ministry-wives type event several years ago. As her husband was in ministry, she was advised to make it a priority to have sex with him frequently in order to increase the effectiveness of his ministry. This disturbed me.

I think this is ill-advised for three reasons.

First, it cuts against the self-giving we find in 1 Corinthians 7. One gives oneself to one's husband (or oneself to one's wife), for the other person. Not for their ministry or any other reason. Adding a reason, like bolstering one's husband's ministry makes it less a self-giving and more a transaction. The ministry of the husband (or the wife for that matter), will be best built up because of the strength of the marriage relationship. Engaging in sex and thereby releasing happy chemicals, or adding to a person's sense of significance is all well and good, but for some people this will happen more when they undertake intense physical activity or play a super-charged computer game or some such. I am not certain that the people who pedal this advice would be happy to advise people who aren't invigorated by sex to give it up and go do whatever it is that does make their brains work well. If they did, it would be very disturbing indeed and I would not expect that any Christian would advise other Christians against having sex within a marriage relationship under normal circumstances. It simply cuts against Scripture. Sex isn't for ministry. Sex is for marriage. (And that means marriage isn't for ministry either. Should be obvious, but sometimes it doesn't hurt to make sure.)

Second, the passage in 1 Corinthians specifically allows for the prayer to be the one exception which interrupts a married couple's sex life. But I am reasonably certain that the people who give the advice about sex for ministry would not say that a couple's sex life should be interrupted; indeed, what would logically follow from their argument is that if things are getting rocky in ministry, then more sex is in order. But surely, at least from time to time, prayer might be considered to be beneficial to one's ministry. If the argument is to run consistently, then the advice must also include times where prayer supersedes sex in the relationship. Otherwise it is hard to see how this advice has any relationship with Scripture. But that would seem to cut right against the overweighting of sex that is implied in this advice.

Third, it isn't hard to think of individuals who have not had sex either ever in their entire lives or have ceased to have sex, and who have had what would normally be considered successful ministries. Paul the Apostle springs to mind. He doesn't even see fit to include deprivation of this kind in his list of sufferings in 2 Corinthians (though he does include the anxiety he bears for the churches he knew). Indeed, he argues that singleness (an aspect of which is an absence of sex) benefits ministry in 1 Corinthians 7. We can observe that through church history those without opportunity for sex can have successful ministries, under God. So, Calvin's ministry didn't seriously decline after his wife died. The long list of missionaries in the 19th century who never married, yet faithfully proclaimed the gospel, and saw the impact on many lives. And so on. Sex just isn't necessary for a good ministry.

I don't object to sex. I object to advice about sex that sends women whirling away in despair, trying to figure out how to jump through yet another hoop in order to live the godly Christian life they genuinely want to live. And advice that seems to send them away from their husbands in an area such as sex seems even less palatable.

The Reformers blazed loud and angrily against rules about sex within marriage. Their statement that 'nothing is immoral within marriage' was designed to fend off the interference of the priests who, in the Roman Catholic system, had a huge list of rules about what was right and wrong about marital sex. This would come out in the confessional, where the husband or wife would have to answer quite specific questions about when they had engaged in sex, how they had had sex, for what purpose, and what they had been thinking about at the time. Ultimately there was a third person in every marriage, which helped no-one and was, as the Reformers rightly pointed out, contrary to Scripture.

No, this advice is not going that far down this line, but it is precariously close to drawing up prescriptives which determine when and how sex is part of a marriage and that begins to sound as though it is in the same kind of category in which sat the situation to which the Reformers objected. Sex is something for husbands and wives to talk about together. The wife shouldn't have to feel obligated to fill a particular quota imposed upon her by an external source.

Sex within marriage is not for ministry. Sex within marriage is for the husband and wife of that marriage. Just as I do not listen to my husband for the benefit of his ministry but for his benefit, and as I do not teach our child how to pray for the benefit of my husband's ministry but for the child's benefit - though both activities may well benefit my husband's ministry - so I do not have sex for my husband's ministry, but for and with my husband. I expect it will benefit his ministry because it is a good gift from God and if all is well it should help rather than hinder. But that's true of a very, very large number of things.

Marriage is made for men and women, not for ministry. Ministry is what men and women do, and they do it out of the relational capital in their lives, to which their marriage relationships contribute. It is disappointing to find such a theory, which reflects the concerns of our 21st century sex-addicted society rather than the richer, more substantial relationship concerns of Scripture. Thankfully, Scripture does not have such a mercenary, mechanical and withered view of sex and nor for that matter, of women.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Preaching: Why it Rocks

There are a lot of reasons why preaching is good for us. I have been thinking about this a little bit lately, particularly with regard to discipline of listening to a sermon. I know there are heaps of good defences of preaching, but I'm just focusing on two aspects here.

The first is that preaching makes us listen. It is faster and more efficient for some of us to read. Some people actually enjoy the activity of reading. But preaching is all aural, and as any educationalist will tell you: most people are not aural learners. Which begs the question: isn't preaching obsolete now that we've discovered educational theory and realise that the whole enterprise is inefficient?

No. I don't think so.

The very fact of its inefficiency makes preaching worthwhile. You have to work at listening to a sermon. There are very few preachers who are easy to listen to and accessible, and interesting all at once. Of course, some are. But the chances of only ever hearing sermons from such individuals is fairly low. And then of course, what works for you doesn't work for me. A preacher can only really grab a certain number of people in his congregation: the rest have to work a bit.

That said, I'm not a fan of boring sermons. I hate sermons that use the text flippantly, sentimentally or just badly. I cannot stand long sermons with eternal anecdotes and so many pointless illustrations that one begins to like the idea of stained glass windows because at least they are self contained. If you preach, you should I believe put the time and energy into being faithful and interesting, using words aurally (not writing but speaking language), and put some energy into finding words that work for people who need pictures. (Words like 'fingerprints', 'sauntering', and so forth usually conjure up pictures and make it easier for people to listen). It's hard work, but anything that helps people listen is worth the investment. Because we need to listen to sermons.

We need to listen because the sermon is God's word to us, and we need to consciously stand under it. It's really easy to become a sermon critiquer if you hear heaps of sermons, but that is to miss the point of the entire exercise. If we find ourselves in the presence of a sermon, our job is to listen to that sermon. Not, as I often find myself doing, rewriting the sermon in my head, working out what my main point would be. Or working out the six reasons why that illustration the preacher used just didn't work.

Sometimes I find listening to a sermon tough going. The preacher is having a bad day, doesn't project well, is just too smarmy, hasn't done the work on the text, is very young and angry, hasn't thought through the implications of the application... any number of issues. It is useful, I think to realise that whenever we hear a sermon, we'll always find any number of good reasons not to listen. So, that means we need to make a conscious effort to listen and overcome the temptation to stand above the sermon and effectively to have a hard heart towards God's word.

This is good for us. It makes us stop. It makes us humble. It makes us care about God's word. It makes us remember that we need to know more of God, and more about God, and that he can speak through the worst of preachers. It makes us hear things we might not choose to hear, and ask ourselves questions we might not choose to ask ourselves. It is something outside of us coming to us, and however weak it may seem, through God's grace it does us good. God feeds us through his word.

Our mighty God takes the often feeble work of a preacher with his Word and infuses it with his Spirit and feeds his church. Grace at work.

The second reason is a little odd. We need to learn how to live and how to die and so we need sermons.

Sermons are educational: we learn things about God, his Word and his salvation and work in our lives through sermons. And we need this: we need to know things about God as part of knowing God. But sermons are also occasions of remembering. We hear things we already knew and knew well and we consciously remember them.

Some of these are things we need to hear to live. The fruit of the Spirit, for example, is a set of virtues that many of us may have learned before we were ten years old. But they apply to us differently today compared with when we were 10, or 20 or whatever age. We constantly need to go back to Scripture and think about how it applies to us. Listening to sermons is one of the ways we do this and it is particularly useful because we tend to think we know something and don't need to revisit it only to find that we actually do. Even if the preacher doesn't apply the passage well or properly, we've still had to think about this thing we thought we knew and may quickly pass over if we were reading.

But sometimes we hear things in sermons which will help us die. The Puritans would always say that we need to learn to die, because it is hard, hard work. And I think they were onto something. When we have 15 minutes left to live, the devil working overtime to get his last temptations in and pain and fear jockeying for our attention: what will we think? What will we believe? What will we pray?

And this is a category which catches up the hard times of life into itself. The gloom cast by the valley of the shadow of death resembles that cast by most suffering, and threatens to steal our joy and our souls. Whatever the suffering, whether it is visible or not, what will we do then? What will we think? What will we believe? What will we pray?

It is often too late to figure it out then. There may be time to do the thinking, but grief and sorrow addle the brain and warp our ability to think clearly. We have to work hard at this before the bell tolls for us, so that we aren't having to think things through from scratch, and therefore, often improperly.

Listening to good sermons helps us keep our faith strong. Sermons which remind us that we have a God who is completely trustworthy, for example, build up our confidence in him. Sermons on the death and resurrection of the Christ Jesus for us call us to remember and take strength and joy from knowing our sins are forgiven. And so on. We might walk away wondering why we needed to hear that, because we already knew it, but it builds us up and strengthens our faith.

We don't know how we will die, but we know that it is rarely easy. Listening to good sermons is one way to prepare for that day.

I've said 'good' sermons. I don't mean fancy. I mean sermons that are based off the Bible. I mean sermons that teach us to read the Bible for ourselves and keep leading us back to its truths. Other talks are fine as far as they go. But we need biblical preaching though if we are going to have this feeding that God does for us, and if we are going to have something substantial enough to fall back on the day we die.

So, bring on preaching.

The interesting, the ipoded, the feeble, the really boring, the scintillating, the over illustrated: it comes in many guises. Bible-based teaching calls for our attention, asking us to stop and listen. And when we do we get stronger and by the grace of God grow to be more like our Saviour.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Of the Writing of Parenting Books, There is No End.

There really isn't. They just keep multiplying. Not unlike rabbits.

Jean has a great post here, where she discusses parenting books and how to read them.

I read parenting books every other week. The nice thing about them is that they are quick (most aren't all that profound), they have mostly one idea and they keep me thinking about what I am doing as a parent.

The downside of course, as Jean points out, they come with a huge amount of guilt attached. My favourite is the book which implies on the first page that if you don't follow their exact method your children will be drug dealers. Thanks. Very much.

But aside from that, they often have good ideas and useful insights.

Ultimately though, like marriage books, they tell you more about the person who is writing the book than they do about the subject itself.

I was slumming it this week with The Yummy Mummy's Family Handbook. Such a great title! I came across it at the library. It has been absolutely fascinating because it is written by someone from my generation, who is not even remotely Christian and who essentially spends the book unpacking her values and worldviews.

A full review would be fun, but I really don't have time. So two comments will do instead.

The first is that she has no absolutes in her world. Nothing is just 'wrong' (except smacking your kids), but she still has really strong values and beliefs. An affair, for example, is not on as far as she is concerned. Why? Because commitment builds stronger relationships and is far more rewarding long term. So having an affair might seem like a good idea, but it really is just a mirage. There is nothing wrong with having one, in her mind, but it would just be stupid to throw away all that you have worked for in this relationship and have to face divorce. (Interestingly she assumes that very few people can cope with adultery in marriage, though she doesn't explain why). Unlike our parents' generation, she states baldly that divorce is just bad for children (ours is after all the generation that got to test that one out for ourselves), and you need to minimise it as much as possible, if after all you decide to go ahead with you affair, or your partner has one. It's a 1950's view of marriage with no basis but with a strong sense of conviction.

This book has helped me realise that my generation is far more 'moral' in one sense than the previous generation, but just as selfish and self-interested. Affairs might be frowned on and spoken against (as opposed to the self-expression, love-must-have-its-way kind of 'open-mindedness' of the previous generation). But only because of the damage it does to what might otherwise be a rewarding relationship. There is nothing inherently wrong with having sex outside marriage. You don't even do it for the sake of other people, but for your own sake. Your happiness is best served by faithfulness in marriage.

Selfishness springs eternal in the human heart. And sometimes it can even prompt people to make good decisions.

The second thought I had was that this book reflects the kind of nervousness I have noticed in many of my generation. When it comes to the big things of life, like getting married, raising children and so forth, we seem to become quite anxious. How do we do it properly? The number and level of dysfunctional families in the previous generation has scared many off the whole family thing permanently. This creates a level of anxiety about doing the thing properly and not ending up with a wreckage at the end. The way some of my generation do this is to find the Right Method and stick to it, believing that this will guarantee a good outcome. I think this might be why whole groups of people in my generation have split over whether or not controlled crying is the best way to get babies to sleep. (Please feel free to comment passionately about this subject on this blog; I will feel free to not publish your comments because I am only using the issue of controlled crying as an example. When I post about controlled crying, then I will publish your comments if you care to make them. Just so we understand each other).

This tendency to needing the answers is illustrated in The Yummy Mummy's Guide in that for a relatively short book most things are covered and dealt with in a paragraph or a few pages. The writer has an audience who wants to know the answer. And she provides answers. What to say if your child complains of boredom; what kinds of toys to buy; how to manage 'play-dates'; how many times per week post-children married people have sex (I am not kidding); how long to let children surf the internet at which age, how long a child should be allowed to have the door to his or her room closed per day, at what age children are allowed to swear and which words at which age (again, not kidding) and so on and on.

I think it is true of my generation that we do want answers to the minutiae of life. Of course, what we'll do is take a few from her book, another lot of answers from another book and so on until we have a unique pastiche that we are fairly committed to. And that way, life is kind of under control. We base our fragile confidence in doing an OK job of raising our children in a bundle of answers other people have given us. I think this is true of non-Christians, but I also think it equally true of most Christian families I know in my age-group.

I like the determination that many in my generation has to get it right. We take it seriously and we don't want to mess up the lives of our children and realise that we can't just take this for granted: we have to think about this and act deliberately. We realise that we will make mistakes and want to avoid that as much as possible. Our actions and speech affect our children. It is good to take responsibility for that.

But as always, we have to take our attitudes and thinking from God: because he is our Creator and is where wisdom lies for all our lives, and because he is our Judge and will ultimately assess our lives to his standard. God's central command pivots on love: to him and to others. So when we think about being faithful in marriage, we don't think about our own fulfillment and reward, but about the person we are married to, and we follow God's instructions about marriage, thereby loving God and our neighbour in the one action. And simultaneously, we say 'no' to selfishness. The only way we can do this is by God's Spirit working in our lives, transforming us into people who delight to do his will and enjoy serving others. It's not something we slip into. It takes the salvation of God, through the death of his Son on a cross to enable ourselves to be put to one side.

Similarly, when we feel our shortcomings and weaknesses, we don't resolve them by arming ourselves with all the answers, and place our confidence in those answers, or in ourselves for having come up with the answers. We place our confidence in God: asking him for his mercy and wisdom in our lives, and for his blessing and kindness to our children. And, most difficult for my generation I am beginning to think, trusting God to act in their lives as he will, recognising God will act according to his Word as he thinks best. We want guarantees, I think, and will do anything to get them. But we don't get them. God doesn't guarantee us a spouse that won't stray, or children who won't rebel. We have to trust God in the face of the uncertainty that comes with life in this world and we find it very difficult, as all generations have found it. The only way we can trust God is to be certain of his kindness towards us, which we see in the salvation he provides for us in Jesus. There we have unarguable love, demonstrated, making it possible to trust God beyond today with ourselves and our children.

God's kindness to us in revealing himself to us in Scripture and coming to us in his Son overflows into all of our lives, and because of that, into our children's lives. This is a great place of confidence and grace, and is the wellspring for a life of service to our families. Reading Yummy Mummy drove this home to me, from another angle.

(Photos brought to you courtesy of Scotland; a very photogenic place!)

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Remembering the Brave

So you want to know who the Covenanters were and why you should care?

The Covenanters were a group of mostly ordinary people who lived in Scotland in the mid to late 1600's. The simple version goes like this: The English King was a tyrant and insisted on a kind of obedience that would make Saddam Hussein look cuddly. He made it illegal not to go to church (which a lot of people weren't doing because the King had changed the way church was run so that they were really uncomfortable participating in it). He not only made it illegal, but made it treason, which meant people could be arrested, tortured and exiled, transported or executed, or a special package deal, which included several of those options. So enthusiastically was this policy pursued that special tortures were invented for the Covenanters.

Opposition to the King's decrees was expressed through the signing of a Covenant or 'National Covenant' in 1638 in which those who signed promised to keep the Scottish church faithful to the Gospel, and not let the King interfere. It all becomes very complex politically as the next 50 years unfold, but that is roughly what is at the heart of it all. It is mostly influential or official people who sign the Covenant, but is adopted by many Scots, who are keen to see Scotland as a land where people can love and follow Jesus without needing go through priests and so forth.

The villain of the piece was a guy called Sergeant Claverhouse who is always depicted as having neither fellow feeling nor conscience. He comes to notice particularly in the martyrdom of John Brown of Priesthill, one of the more famous Covenanters, who was shot without a trial by Claverhouse in front of his wife and two children. His wife is similarly remembered for her great bravery in the face of this.

Many ordinary people were killed: men and women, elderly through to children. One of the more famous tales includes the execution of two women: one young (about 16) and one elderly (about 70?), who were taken by the soldiers and tied to post in the sea. They died as the tide came in. The older was tied further out in the hope that the younger might lose courage and recant. She did not. They both died.

A memorial to these two women in a graveyard just beneath Stirling castle. It is rather idealised, with an odd emphasis on the younger woman's virginity, which I frankly I find somewhat alarming. It really isn't relevant.

It was no less devastating when the clergy died. They had left the church, their livelihood and were often hunted by the soldiers. They held services on the moors for their people, and lived in hiding, going from place to place. One memorable tale involves the execution of a faithful preacher, whose head was put on a pike and displayed outside the city gates. His little boy was hidden in the attic at the time, but somehow got out of the house (as is the way of little boys), and sadly, saw his father's head. He came back to his aunt's house in tears and wouldn't say anything except "I saw my father's head" again and again. (I believe he grew up and become a clergyman himself, but died young from fever, I think).

This time was known as the "Killing Years" in Scotland.

There was much bloodshed. There was little mercy. Ordinary life for these folk was put on hold. Some never knew 'ordinary life' at all.

Why didn't they just go to church??

They didn't go to church because they knew that their only Lord was Jesus. No-one else could save them, and no-one else should have first claim on their lives.

It's a difficult movement in some ways because it is Scottish, and so necessarily tied up with Scottish nationalism (as with all things Scottish). As you read accounts (many have been 'polished up' since the 1600's), it is sometimes hard to distinguish what it is that people are dying for. But it clear that for many of them, it wasn't about Scotland the Brave so much as their commitment to the Lord Jesus.

For those folk, they didn't go to church because they believed that Jesus was their Lord. He had died to make them right with God and so they both loved and followed him, trying to imitate his love and loyalty to them. Jesus was their Lord, so Jesus had the final say in all of their life: the way they lived in everyday life, the way they spoke when they went to church, and the way they thought and the way they prayed for the King of England. They did pray for him, often as they were dying, but refused to acknowledge that he was in charge of the church. Jesus was true Lord.

Jesus had to come first for these Scottish Christians because he is true Lord and king of Kings. Not just that they thought he was, but that he is. So, you can't play around with that. If you have to suffer because of it, you have to suffer. You can't change true things just because other people tell you to. And while this is true of many people all over the world: political activists and so forth, what sets Christians apart is the assurance we have that Jesus is with us where and when we suffer, that it doesn't go unnoticed and that he warned us this would happen if we followed him.

So when we hear the tales of the brave Covenanters, standing firm in the face of fire, ocean, hunger, cold, torture and other such situations, we need to remember that they weren't bravely standing up for their beliefs all alone. They were standing with their Saviour, being loyal to him and he was with them, comforting them and infusing bravery into worn out hearts for one last stand.

Their martyrs deaths may seem remote and distant to us, here in the relative comfort of the 21st century. But their readiness to put all their hopes and dreams for this life aside and endure pain, hardship and ridicule should remind us that the Lord they died for is the same Lord whom we know, if we are Christians, and who will comfort us and make us brave in the face of persecution.

These battered, faithful Christians found him a faithful Saviour in the cold, bleak days of the seventeenth century. In our day, here and now, let us look to him and find him faithful for all our trials and in all our suffering.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Motherhood (II) Scandalous Things

So we have been telling Jonathan about Jesus. A story at night before we pray with him and put him to bed. (Notice I said 'put him to bed' and didn't make any outrageous claims about sleep. Honesty is important).

And we've done Jesus' birth and lots of the teaching and healing stories, some other miracles. Each time we talk about Jesus we try and tell Jonathan why Jesus is special and different, and particularly that Jesus is the only way to God.

And then we got to the crucifixion. I was suddenly very glad that we've started this early. It is hard to know exactly what Jonathan genuinely understands, though Mark and I have agreed that we want him to always hear us talking about Jesus, so we're not going to hang about until we're sure he'll understand.

I was glad we started early in this situation because the scandal of it really hit me. Here we are talking about Jesus to Jonathan every night and showing how fantastic he is, how he rescues people who don't deserve it. And suddenly we're explaining that Jesus died.

Not just that he died, but that he was executed by humanity. Our whole response to being rescued was to insist that we didn't need it and were offended by the very suggestion. And this person who did nothing but good was suddenly killed.

It was hard work. Not hard to recite the well-known facts, but hard to face again the utter sinfulness of humanity. We're wicked. Scandalously wicked.

And over and against that you have Jesus. Dying for his enemies. Determined in the face of rejection to do a work of mercy so extraordinary that it cannot be described. Scandalous love.

It was difficult partly because we know that Jonathan hasn't heard this before. And it's so hard to explain to a new human being that this is the species he's joined: we are all wicked like this. And difficult because it highlights what we know to be true about Jonathan: he's going to do wicked things. He'll live his entire life needing this death that Jesus died for him, while he was his enemy.


We do the resurrection next. I'm looking forward to that.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Motherhood (I) Suffer the Little Children

This is a 'series' suggested by Karen. Now I have a little more time to write I thought I'd throw together a collection of thoughts I've had over the last few weeks. In no particular order. One thought per post. You never know. I might even have more in my series than my esteemed husband!

One important thing which I realised soon after Jonathan was born was the complexity of his relationship with God. Like all of us, Jonathan is called on by God to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus, but unlike us grown ups, the dynamic is different for him as an 8 week old baby.

Before he was born I had thought a lot about the relationship that children have with God and how it is different to and yet similar to that between adults and God. We always need God to know and love us, and to come towards us in his Son: but while adults can consciously repent, articulate their loyalty to Jesus and understand something of the complexity of his death and resurrection for us, children cannot.

Yet, Jesus calls the children to come to him as they are, not when they have grown up. It occured to me that God doesn't twitch back the veil that seems to cover the details of how he relates to young children, but that there are several key categories that are established by Scripture. First, God knows all those he has made. Second, knowledge of God is relational and so open to all human persons in Christ. Third, nothing except sin was a barrier to Jesus' relating to people when he was on earth; age, gender, social class, etc. Fourth, God calls on us to change and rattles our understanding of ourselves, but he does so in terms we can understand and in language which makes sense. Of course, we cannot accept his good news unless he opens our eyes to it, but that is a spiritual rather than intellectual revelation. This is evidenced in the number of people who can articulate the Gospel but utterly reject it. God can communicate to us at our level, because of his knowledge of us.

So, I had concluded that children can know God in Christ, though how this is achieved I could not explain. And I had concluded that Jesus can relate to young children and they respond to this in ways appropriate to their age. They may never even remember it, but that does not make it unreal or unimportant. And because a relationship with the Lord Jesus is a genuine relationship, the knowledge the child gains is not incidental but can be built upon as the relationship grows. In that way it is like Jonathan's knowledge of Mark or me at this age: he can't say who we are and might not even 'know' who we are but he does know us and this will be fleshed out as he grows older and continues to relate to us.* It isn't too surprising to come across people who state that they cannot remember a time when they didn't know and love Jesus.

It is at odds with the curious 'age-of-understanding' which is often wheeled out in the debate on children and salvation. While there is content to the Gospel and an intellectual component which cannot be dismissed, the idea that a person must therefore be of a particular age in order to be saved doesn't seem to be particularly based in Scripture. So, I think it is hard to maintain from Scripture that there is an 'age-of-understanding', where children are OK with God to a particular age and then suddenly they are not. As far as I have been able to discover, this idea of 'age-of-understanding' was generated in the early 1800's. That in itself doesn't mean that it is wrong, but it fits suspiciously well with the culture of the age and has no real basis in Scripture as far as I can see. Therefore, I am not convinced that 'age of understanding' is a good category.

At the end of my reflections I had pretty much come to the conclusion that children could be Christian from a very young age, and that their understanding of this was developed as they grew. I was confident that there would be no way of knowing this for any child with any precision, but that it was best to treat them as Christians and show them how to live lives pleasing to Jesus, all the while calling them to faith. Because no Christian needs to stop hearing the call to faith, and this is part of what it would mean for them to grow in their knowledge and love of Jesus.

I was glad that I had the opportunity to do this thinking.

I could pray with absolute confidence that Jesus would comfort Jonathan as he was wheeled away to have a lumbar puncture at 5 days old. I knew that God was capable of communicating his comfort to someone as young as Jonathan. It was good to have this confidence and not to have to try and think through the whole issue when my emotions were ragged.

And later that night when I told Jonathan his first Bible story (because we were finally in our own room at the hospital and we could have conversations at 4am rather than hushed urgent whispers), I knew that even if he understood none of the words, it was still important for him to hear about Jesus. Not that he'll respond to any one Bible story by itself necessarily, but that it is important for him to hear constantly about the Lord Jesus, who he is and what he has done, in order for him to understand his God and respond in faith, whatever the status of his relationship with God might be.

So, when I think about Jonathan and his relationship with God, I pray that he will respond in faith and that God will open his eyes. But I do so confident that God might not wait till Jonathan is old enough to speak to do so, and that God will save beyond the bounds of what we think is possible or are even able to understand.

(I told Jonathan the story of Jesus saving Zacchaeus, for those who are interested. It seemed appropriate as his name before he was born was 'Tiny'.)

*Our relationship with Jonathan isn't the same as his relationship with God however; the problem of Jonathan's sin is going to affect us in a completely different way compared with the way his sin has affected his relationship with God.