Is eaves-dropping a sin? I am not sure, so let’s call the following an unintentionally overheard conversation. The exchange took place last year after a Bible study on Titus 2.
Young woman: That was a great study. Wouldn’t it be good if older women would do that instead of fluffing around in the Church kitchen and arguing about the colour of the table-cloths.
Eaves-dropper to older woman: Did you hear that? That’s encouraging.
Older woman: Yes. There are a few things I’d like to tell them – especially about their kids.
So what do we learn from this?
‘Older women likewise are to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.’ Titus 2:2-5
This passage from Titus and the conversation above both point to some important issues. The young woman’s remark indicates that she really sought an older mentor. But mentoring is not a licence to boss people around or air one’s views. (Raising children in today’s permissive climate is very difficult and parent’s struggle).
If we look at the passage, it is clear that the first requirement is for older women to demonstrate a Christian character that recommends them as mentors – someone who is serious about her commitment to Jesus. Slander suggests gossip that brings down the reputation of others, so mentors also must be discreet. If they are told personal things, it should go no further. Perhaps not many MU members are slaves to much wine but this is just a short hand for any addiction that we hide behind, rather than face the realities of life.
Above all they are to teach what is good. Obviously this means that any advice will be tempered by Scripture rather than the pop psychology of the magazines or their girlfriends. On the other hand, it does not mean throwing texts at people. Rather it requires listening, reflecting and praying. Notice also that they are to train in things that are essentially domestic i.e. where the mentors have the most experience. Loving one’s husband and children apparently doesn’t always come naturally. It is not merely affection or indulgence but seeking what is good and helpful.
Many young women now marry after having responsible positions in the workforce and are totally unprepared for a life of nappies and housework. One high-flyer recently reported in “The Australian” that managing a major project, running an office or presenting a paper at a conference were a piece of cake compared to staying at home and looking after small children. Certainly she got much more affirmation in the former case, since the world undervalues the unpaid work of mothers. Mentors can help by encouraging and supporting such women to see value in what they are doing. Older women can model respect for their husbands by being careful not to express complaint or discontent. However, that is not to say that they shouldn’t provide insight from their experience into the mysteries of the male psyche!
I take it that working at home is not so much about whether a woman should go out to work rather it is prioritising care of the family over other considerations - making sure that meals are prepared and the home is orderly and hospitable. Older mentors can be helpful in identifying why women are struggling to manage. However, younger women do not see the point of housework that their mothers took for granted. Dusting and ironing come to mind. These admonitions in Titus are a check against laziness, gossip and discontent. Women may take great pride in being stay-at-home-mums but feed on one another’s dissatisfaction with their lives and complaints about their husbands. Everybody needs encouragement to love and serve, even those dear to them.
For older women it is much easier to stay in the kitchen, out of the line of fire than to engage in the rewarding but often difficult task of encouraging, strengthening and supporting marriage and family life. And why should older women do this? ‘That the word of God may not be reviled’. Christian families are a great witness to the truth of the Gospel.
The Western world was appalled at the news, out of Paris, of the deadly attack on the offices of “Charlie Hebdo”, the French satirical magazine. The responses, in the aftermath, have been significant. We have seen the cry go out that the Western World refuses to submit to any limitation of freedom of expression. We have seen the slogan “Je suis Charlie”, (a mark of identification with the staff of the magazine), taken up, not only by the Parisian demonstrators, but by celebrities, such as George Clooney.
Much of this statement-making is an opportunity for posturing and not a little hypocrisy. The Fairfax Press said it would not publish the cartoon depicting the prophet, Mohammed, weeping, lest it offend members of that religion. On a previous occasion, however, the newspaper had no problem showing an artefact, depicting a crucifix in a bucket of urine. The entertainment and newspaper industry have a vested industry in pushing the boundaries of free-speech. We have seen the increasing use of swearing, gratuitous violence, explicit sex and blasphemy in movies, in the name of realism and freedom. In essence these actions have aimed first to shock and then inure people to them. The purpose is to usher in a libertarian society, by undermining Judaeo-Christian values. Yet the death of innocent Jews going about their day to day living, shopping in a supermarket, not to mention a traffic policewoman who was a soft target, has been scarcely noticed. The anger and publicity has not really centred on the cartoonists who lost their lives but on what is essentially the right to offend in the name of self-expression.
So what do Christians make of this? The response of both humanists and Muslim extremists reveals how radically counter-cultural Christianity is. The former hit back with another cartoon, aimed at causing offence. The latter have promised more and greater retaliation for the insult. Jesus words, however, are full of grace: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” It is clearly wrong to provoke people to sin. It is also wrong to engage in wholesale slaughter to avenge a grievance.
One letter to the editor went to the heart of the matter. The author asked for the right to tell the truth, without fear of penalty from the government for transgressing political correctness. He continued to ask that beliefs might be expressed and debated, without resorting to abuse or violence. Freedom of speech is a great privilege in the West. Christians do not want the liberty to talk about Jesus, curtailed. But it would be a change, if the same respect was extended to the sensitivities of Christians, as to members of other religions. However, it is also important for Christians to demonstrate that other great, counter-cultural, Christian virtue, in showing love and not fear, to the many ‘strangers within our gates.’ Many young jihadists feel alienated within Western society. Many seek redemption for a misspent life. One columnist put it succinctly: extremism “turns losers into heroes”. The Christian Gospel with its message of grace and forgiveness turns” losers”, like you and me, into children of God. Isn’t that a message worth promoting with respect and humility?
One of the great privileges that I have is leading Bible Studies. It is encouraging to see how we all struggle with similar issues on how to live out our trust in Jesus as our Saviour. It is also salutary to see what we get up to in deceiving ourselves. This often takes the form of latching on to difficult verses of Scripture or teaching, such as election or the Trinity. There are two outcomes from this practice. We either say, “I am not interested in doctrine. I’ll just focus on the way I live.” The second is to so focus on problems of understanding that we don’t step out in faith.
Now, in MU we place a great deal of emphasis on family life. But why do we want to be good mothers and grandmothers? Is it so that our children will love us and take care of us as we grow older? Do we like having a good reputation for the quality of our family life? People who have a good family life, we know from research, generally lead happier and more productive lives. However, in God’s eyes being a good mother counts for absolutely nothing, unless we are seeking to glorify the Lord Jesus. So understanding the Bible’s teaching on the atonement is crucial. We seek to live in a way that is pleasing to God, including the way we live out our family life, in gratitude for what Jesus has done in dying on the Cross in our place to deliver us from the just penalty of our rebellion against God.
But what about the second issue where we get stuck on a passage of Scripture and the teaching that comes from it. We don’t like it; we don’t understand it or we feel confused. Perhaps we mentally shake our fist at God thinking, “This is too hard (unfair, unpleasant or whatever). I can’t be obedient to or accept a God who says THAT.”
Currently our congregation is studying the letter to the Romans. There are many difficult parts to it. Paul doesn’t always argue in the straight line that we would like. Yet there are some verses where the meaning is so clear that there is no excuse for not understanding, especially when you read them in the context of the whole chapter in which they occur. Let’s take for example: ‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one’ (Romans 3:10); ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6: 23), ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans 10: 9).
On the other hand we have many questions, some of which will not be answered this side of heaven. But others we can place in the “too hard basket”. That doesn’t mean that we won’t revisit them as our understanding grows. We will just get on with living our lives in the light of what we do know.
As usual the Bible has some excellent teaching for us. Deuteronomy 29:29 says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” There are many things that are puzzling and we may wonder, “Why did God arrange things this way? I would have done it so much differently (better?).” We may not know the answer this side of heaven. But we do have a reliable account of what God has revealed in His Word. The word “law” in this verse means teaching rather than a set of regulations. We know that God promised to bless the world through Abraham and his descendants. We know that David was promised a son whose kingdom would last forever and that Isaiah speaks of a Suffering Servant who would take our sins on Himself. All these promises were fulfilled in Jesus. We know that we become children of God when we believe that Christ took our punishment on himself and we declare him to be the ruler of our lives. Moreover, the promise is to us and to our children and if you missed out teaching your children these truths, you have opportunities to share that amazing truth with your grandchildren.
Recently I watched two programmes on television within a short space of time in which a character, who had a criminal past, was depicted as having become a Christian. However in both the story lines that followed, the detective in charge of the investigation declared ‘once a “crim”, always a “crim,”” revealing scepticism at any hope of change. Now that is a fairly typical way in which Christian profession is treated on television.
Parents face a similar problem in always perceiving their children as they were as infants and teenagers. People do change and develop. I remember a missionary family whose children were a byword for bad behaviour and rudeness and yet they have grown up to be delightful godly adults. Many fathers are surprised to see their daughters taking an interest in football/cricket/ formula eight racing or sons confessing to seeing a ‘chick flick’ when their children fall in love. Growing and changing are part of life and parents and grandparents have to be accepting of that.
However, while at one level we change and mature, the Bible points to some things that can’t change. Look at the words of Jeremiah 13:23: ‘Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.’ Perhaps you are saying, “Who me? I am not evil.” These words were spoken to Judah but the Scriptures are very clear that we all fall into this category. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We all place something or someone at the centre of our lives where God should be. We cannot save ourselves. We all need the free forgiveness that Jesus offers. When we have accepted that, a wonderful thing happens in that slowly and surely we can change in the words of John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace:”
I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.
God, in the first place does not want respectable people. Respectable people are often self-righteous and look down on others. He wants forgiven people who are willing to change – those who are led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14). That verse does not mean those tiresome people with a hotline to heaven, but rather those who seek to live in accordance with what the Lord has set down in the Scriptures, in grateful response for what Jesus has done for them. And as we live that way, amazingly the Spirit changes us to be what God intended us to be.
This is definitely the time of year when Australia sinks into a soporific haze. That is, unless we live in an area that has been subject to terrible bushfires. Ideally, it is a time to catch up on all the things we have meant to do: to write to friends with whom we have lost contact; to invite people home from church, or even finally to clean out a laundry cupboard or some other task that has been on our ‘to do’ list. I must admit that I find it hard to get motivated. I have a writing assignment that must be finished by the first week in February but, as a sport tragic, I find the lure of the cricket and the tennis hard to resist.
Of course, there are other factors. It is so hot. We have just come home from a family picnic by the river. After clearing up, I fell into bed for an afternoon nap. Can this be the same girl who spent whole days at the beach without a second thought.
One of the peculiar things in Australia is that most church meetings close down in January. Some people even decide to have a break from church. Someone said in a sermon that the time you don’t feel like going to Church, is the very time you need it most.
I have yet to encounter an MU group that continues to meet in January. But this down time in our programme can be useful as a time for reflection. I wonder if we avail ourselves of it, or does it go the way of the intended letter or email? Do we stumble into the new year doing the same old things, because we are too tired or perhaps too old to try something new. And yet it doesn’t take too much effort to do a little planning. At the end of February some of our MU members get together with the President to discuss the programme for the year. If you plan your programme in advance, it removes a great deal of stress, and you can organise ahead to do interesting things and get the best speakers. We always start with Mary Sumner’s vision, ‘Winning the families of the nations for Christ.’ Then our mission statement: ‘Sharing Christ’s love by encouraging, strengthening and supporting marriage and family life.’ This keeps us on track. We also try to get members to participate in some way in at least half of our gatherings. Generally, we look at the various aspects of MU: Overseas and Northern Outreach; Prayer; Social Responsibility etc. and write them down. Then we brainstorm and no idea is too crazy to go down on the list.
Our MU has improved out of sight since we started doing this. One idea that has really worked well is to ask women students from a Bible College to talk about aspects of their ministry. Their background varies: they may be heading for missionary service; they may be single; they may be doing student work, or they may be juggling family life with study and ministry. Sometimes they have the opportunity to teach what the Bible has to say about aspects of Mary Sumner’s vision. Our members find it tremendously encouraging to hear from young women sharing their faith and aspirations.
Finally, over here in the West we have had our inaugural CMS Summer School. We had fine Bible Studies from Peter Jensen and on the final day at our Communion Service our preacher reminded us that God has placed us in a certain environment, in contact with certain people whom the Lord will bring to a knowledge of himself, or who will be strengthened in their Christian walk by our concern. Can I suggest that you pray that God will lead you to such people, especially women who would benefit from the fellowship and teaching of MU
In 1969 I visited a lady who was 80 years old. (It seemed an enormously old age to me.) She had just witnessed that wonderful telecast of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. She burst into tears at that moment and said, ‘It’s too much change!’ I’ve gone from a horse and cart to a bicycle to a motor car, steam train, electric train, aeroplane and now this. It’s too much.’ Had she lived over the past three decades she would have been even more dismayed at the acceleration of change.
Change in itself is not bad. It is what we make of it. Mobile phones can be a great blessing or a curse. Watching people sitting together in a café endlessly texting is dispiriting. Could they possibly be texting one another? However, a mobile is wonderful during a breakdown on the freeway or getting instant directions or information. However, thinking that the next piece of technology will make us happy is in Solomon’s words, ‘chasing after the wind.’
We can also be manipulated into change that is wrong. We have all grieved for those people who were abused as children by those to whom they had been entrusted for care and protection. Yet, within a few days we watch a report on the news that claimed that, in a recent survey of people under the age of thirty, it was considered ok to watch child pornography on line. So one wonders if this is the next domino to fall. Will we be seeing the rights of children to sexual freedom also being promoted?
We are often manipulated by something that sounds reasonable – sometimes it is use of the worst case scenario. Legalised abortion was promoted originally to be exercised in the case of incestuous rape or saving the life of the mother. But once the law was relaxed it became virtually another means of contraception. Similarly, those who advocate euthanasia illustrate the cause with cases of extreme suffering. And to deny such people the ‘right to die’ is depicted as callous and cruel. Recently, a man was interviewed on television. He was housebound and a paraplegic. He said he wanted to die. However a friend, who is a politician, (Yes, it is possible to have a politician as a friend) followed up the man the next day. What transpired was that he did not want to die but he was desperately lonely, because he has no one to visit him. Reports are filtering back, though not through the news broadcasts that in Holland and Belgium, where euthanasia has been legalised, the system is being abused to the extent that elderly people are frightened to go into hospital. One wonders, if some economic rationalist will suggest a cut-off point where the elderly will no longer be eligible for treatment.
Governments have a huge responsibility in legislating for the good of the community. The New Testament tells us we are to pray for governments. (In the case of the New Testament, the government was the Emperor Nero). Sometimes I despair of corporate prayers in church. They are so inward- looking and trivial, while around us destructive laws that undermine marriage and family life are being proposed. We have a responsibility to think through ethical question in the light of Scripture. To seek advice from those we trust. To ‘be transformed by the renewing of our minds’ (Romans 12:2) through the reading of Scripture and shaping our thinking by what is true and pleasing to God, rather than being swayed by emotional or sentimental arguments about what is right.
A Matter of Trust
Over the past three years the Australian public has witnessed an unprecedented display of broken promises and erosion of trust, even for politics. Pledges of loyalty have been broken, alliances switched and, it seems, with very few exceptions, nobody’s word is their bond. “Well”, you might say, “Australians are fairly cynical about politicians, so who is really surprised”. On the other hand, I heard an interview with Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor. He claimed that most politicians, initially at least, go into politics because they want to make a difference. That statement, of course is open to question. For whom do they want to make a difference? In local Councils, the difference a candidate may want to make may be to line their own pockets by initiating favourable outcomes for his business or that of his friends. Even when high ideals are present expediency quickly erodes the keeping of promises.
In a Saturday magazine recently, a poignant article appeared about a marriage. During the course of cleaning up her dead husband’s papers, a woman discovered evidence that he had been repeatedly unfaithful to her over the years. She had suspected nothing and to all appearances enjoyed a very happy marriage. Interestingly, the focus was on her ability to cope and the reason why he left evidence that she would find. A spate of sad letters appeared in the following weeks. Again the letters focused on how to deal with this betrayal and advised women to destroy their husband’s papers without looking at them. But marriage is primarily about making promises and keeping them, even when a more attractive alternative arises.
Many people have been betrayed by their church. It would be wrong to suggest that all workers in Christian institutions were wicked. At some periods in our national life, Christian organisations were the only places where orphans or neglected children could be cared for. But those who perpetrate evil in the name of doing good come under God’s special judgment.
The connection between these examples that I have quoted is the increasing disregard our society has for keeping promises. When promises cannot be relied on, suspicion, distrust and cynicism arise. The whole fabric of society is threatened. We have to protect ourselves with increasingly complex legal safeguards. One of the arguments for living together rather than getting married was that people didn’t need ‘a piece of paper’ to show their commitment. Well, it seems that some piece of legal paper was necessary, since the government has been obliged to pass laws protecting the rights of de facto spouses and the children of such unions.
Children’s trust is fractured by divorce. But trust needs to be fostered in families in other ways. Keeping promises to our children creates a climate of trust. The family outing, the attendance at a school function, the game of footie in the park or making cakes are all simple ways of keeping our word. This is much better than buying a lavish present in compensation on that great Day of Atonement that we call Christmas. Keeping promises also has a flip side. Have you ever winced on hearing for the tenth time, “If you do that again I'll…. I’m warning you.” Children need to know there are consequences for actions and that warnings are fulfilled even when parents are afraid of making a scene.
For Christians the importance of keeping promises is obvious. We serve a promise-keeping God.
‘Know therefore that that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps his covenant and his loving kindness… (Deuteronomy 9: 7)
God kept his promise to Abraham, that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed.’ (Genesis 12: 1). He rescued Israel from Egypt and promised blessing when they lived in accordance with his teaching. (Exodus 19: 5). He also warned them that they would experience exile, should they turn their backs on him, and so it happened. He promised a King and a Servant who would bear our sins. (Isaiah 53:6). We have seen all God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus.
We will be let down many times in this life, sometimes even by those dearest to us but one thing remains rock-solid reliable, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1 Thess.5: 24)
Mary, a Model Mother?
I have just returned from co-leading a study tour to Malta and Italy. We were retracing the footsteps of St Paul. Although there was much veneration of St Paul in these places, it was far outstripped by the veneration of Jesus’ mother, Mary and I wondered what the early disciples would have made of all that and, indeed, Mary, herself.
Most art work depicting Mary (some very good and some very kitschy) represents her as the quintessential mother, either nursing the infant Jesus or grieving poignantly over his dead body as in the Pieta of Michelangelo. So what kind of a mother was Mary? What do we learn from her?
There are strong indications that Mary was an informant for Luke as he wrote his Gospel. We are told twice that she treasured the events of the first Christmas in her heart and also Jesus’ visit to the Temple at the age of 12, when he rebuked his parents (Luke 2: 19, 51). We have that very moving account of the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to her and her humble acceptance of what would be for her both a glorious destiny and a life of pain (Luke 2: 34-35), beset by whispering and scandal. We know this from the aspersions cast at Jesus as to who his father was (John 8:41). Mary emerges from her encounter with the angel far more creditably than her priestly cousin, Zacharias, who argues with God’ messenger doubting God’s power.
In choosing Mary, God showed his approval of a certain kind of family life. Mary and Joseph were part of the pious remnant in Israel that was waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. Nobodies, as far as the world’s opinion was concerned, they nevertheless had an amazing understanding of God’ reliability in keeping his promises. They discerned his capacity to turn the world’s order and expectations upside down. This is made wonderfully clear in the Magnificat sung by Christians down through the ages as a testimony to God’s loving kindness. The song also testifies to the fact that Jesus would be brought up in a home where his parents were immersed in the Scriptures.
So far so good! Mary comes up trumps. But it appears as if Jesus has some inkling of the excessive veneration that would come Mary’s way. On one occasion, a loud-mouthed woman yells out, ‘Blessed are the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed.’ To which Jesus replied, ‘On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.’(Luke 11: 27-28). On four other occasions, we have accounts of Jesus being told that his mother and brothers were waiting outside, presumably to take him home. We can imagine the scene: Mary sending a message to Jesus. ‘Jesus, come home! Stop drawing attention to yourself, you’ll just get us all into trouble.’ Mary, like many Christian mothers wanted her child to be respectable rather than utterly devoted to the Father. She knew he was the Messiah, but she didn’t accept that this entailed suffering and abuse. She wanted to protect him. Sadly many Christian mothers, who were devoted to the Lord in their own youth, seek to dissuade their children from entering the ministry, taking low paid jobs caring for others or contemplating missionary service. They focus on the material success for their children.
Jesus follows up his family’s restraints with the wonderful words,
And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:32-35 ESV)
But Mary, like all good mothers, learnt from her mistakes. She faithfully and bravely followed Jesus to the foot of the Cross and Jesus showed his love in committing her to John’s care (John 19: 27). She was privileged to witness Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and to give a firsthand account of his life when she came to a clear understanding of what it meant. And she will be with us in the new heaven and the new earth, not as its Queen but as our sister in Christ, not seeking any other status than that of her original commitment, which is not a bad one for all mothers to embrace:
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”(Luke 1:38 ESV)
Tell Me a Story
Recently an Australian publication light-heartedly looked at the still treasured words of advice given by mothers to their daughters. These ranged from “never trust a man with a moustache”; “make sure you wear nice underwear in case you are run over by a bus, to “blue and green should never be seen”. Though we sometimes shudder to hear it, we catch ourselves echoing our parents in dealing with our own children. Such is the power of the family. But over recent decades confidence in the value of the family’s role in education has declined. Parents feel intimidated by their children’s IT skills.
Although Australians are extremely cynical about governments and politicians, we look to legislation to protect us from ourselves. Thus we were amongst the first countries to have compulsory wearing of seat belts in motor cars. Whenever a problem arises the community expects the government and its “expert advisors” to solve it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in our education system. Over the years the traditional domains of the family have been surrendered to the schools. Schools have been called upon to educate against the evils of graffiti, binge drinking and unsafe-sex. The teaching of “values” rather than traditional religious education is now being mooted as the answer to everything from the mugging of pensioners to the ram raiding of liquor stores. In all this the family’s role of primary educator has been undermined and undervalued. But God has ordered things differently. The Israelites were to pass on God’s instruction to their children, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 ESV).
However change is in the wind. Recent research suggests that a stable family life is the strongest indicator for successful school performance. Further, the educational input of the home is perceived as far more crucial than the effect of the school and provides a significant domestic economy unrecognized by governments.
Of late the literacy of boys and the related Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome have been a cause of concern in Australian schools. Fathers, for so long the silent partner in the education of children, are being urged to read to their sons to model literacy. Dr. Ken Rowe suggests that the family rather than the school or clinical psychologist is the solution to the problem. In his findings children whose parents read to them and who learn poems and songs off by heart are less likely to have ADHD. This view runs counter to current educational practice that discounts the memorization of text in favour of understanding concepts and problem solving.
Yet children are natural ritualists, as any parent who has tried to skip a sentence of a bedtime story will testify. They have a tremendous capacity for memorization. My grandchildren can reel off the characteristics and interaction of the Pokémon characters in mind-numbing detail. If this amazing capacity to remember is not utilized, the vacuum will be filled by content of dubious value. I can remember the entire cast of westerns I saw on a Saturday afternoon at the movies, but I have trouble remembering where I put my keys. Anglicans used to have a prayer book tradition which encouraged the learning of Scripture, psalms, creeds and prayers. Scripture and prayers that have been learnt by heart are a great default position when the mind is numbed by pain and despair. These have provided families with truths to live by and eternal hope. So let’s not be scared of challenging our children to learn Scripture. Our family found reward (bribery) was also quite effective! Colin Buchanan’s songs have been wonderfully countercultural in their direct Scriptural content that children find easy to take on board. We invest financially in our children’s future, so why not provide spiritual capital that they can draw on all their lives?
Christmas, for small children and many adults, means present time. I love giving presents and generally I like receiving them. Recently I was chatting with some friends about presents and the odd ones we sometimes receive. I recalled that, when I was growing up, my father used to take special care buying little luxuries for my mother at Christmas. Sometimes he was very successful but once, I was shocked to hear her say afterwards, on receiving a crystal necklace (which to my eight year old eyes was a glorious thing) that she would really rather have had a new iron. My mother was not a romantic!
Even at that age I realised that here were two important dynamics at work. The first was the need to recognise the attitude that lies behind the giving of a gift and secondly that we do not necessarily want the gift that is offered. My father wanted to give my mother something beautiful and generous. My mother did not like crystals and, because money was tight, she sought a useful present rather than an ornamental one. I have often recalled that incident when I have been given gifts that were not really to my taste. Once I was given a knitted soap holder that doubled as a face washer. Unfortunately, in a burst of creativity, the lady who made it, added metallic lace around the edge. It took exfoliating to a new dimension and it would sit reproachfully rusting away in the soap holder, waiting for me to use it.
Husbands often fare badly in gift giving. They choose the wrong colour, the wrong size or they haven’t guessed correctly what was in our minds but which we didn’t actually articulate. I must confess that I have been guilty of disappointment with gifts. It suggests that the intention of the gift, however loving, is often not quite enough.
Of course there are gifts given that are grudging or perfunctory. One of my students referred to a certain brand of chocolates as ‘the gift that keeps on giving”. What he meant was that it could be passed on to someone else, should an unexpected gift be in the offing.
It is helpful to recognise that gifts by their very nature come by grace. When we recognise the intention of the giver, we honour that by being thankful. When we give gifts, we must recognise that it has passed from our hands and it is up to the receiver to use it as they will. Grandparents are often annoyed, if toys are not cared for or clothes are passed on to some other child. To want to control others by giving gifts is manipulative and the high road to spoiled relationships.
At Christmas time we give gifts in memory of the generous gifts of the Magi. They were odd gifts , when you think about it, because they celebrated not only the baby’s kingship, but also intimated his death. In fact the baby, himself was the great, perfect and sufficient gift for all humanity. He satisfied absolutely our need and desired only that we should accept the gift he offered of eternal life through his death on the cross. And, of course, there are those who reject that gift and want something less.
So at Christmas time be generous in giving, gracious in receiving but always keeping in mind,
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2: 8-9)