Light of the World

One of the more widely used metaphors or euphemisms for God in the written recordings of Jesus’ teachings and of his followers is that of light. Jesus calls himself the “light of the world”. Which is why it’s so meaningful when he says to his followers:

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

 

So Jesus is starting here with a mind-blowing idea. I’m jumping ahead a bit in his story, for anyone reading this blog as a sequence, but the thing about Jesus is that he claims to be God. Which has often led to the mental attitude amongst his followers of “I couldn’t possibly be like Jesus because he was divine”.

But Jesus, who self describes as the “light of the world” says that we, too, are the same.

We can be like him!

The Good News

That’s what I love about this little bit of teaching, and the one immediately preceding it about salt. Yes, it’s a call to be/do something. But it starts with an affirmation that you are simply wonderful and then you can be like Jesus. Jesus isn’t interested in guilt tripping you into behaving like a lot of religious folk might do with their talk of heaven and hell and the like. No, Jesus wants to build you up first.

Living It

So, you are the light of the world (too!) but what does that actually mean? Jesus elaborates – you can’t hide a town on a hill with all its lights. You don’t light a lamp then hide it. That would be silly. That would defy the point of the light in the first place. So it is with us – we are called to be a light – to guide and provide a path to follow (the path we ourselves are following).

We are asked to “let your light shine before others”. God has done and continues to do great things through human beings. Let’s not keep those things hidden away.

Many of us, myself included, have a hard time wanting to talk to people about Jesus as the phrase goes. Probably something to do with having really mixed feelings about the group of people, and the ideas, that we then represent1.

But in being light, we shine a way without having to do that. Nobody wants to hear about how great the latest product is before they buy it. They want to see it being used by their friends. So the same is true with all of the many messages that come from Jesus about the Way. Whether it is discovering the richness of seeking justice, whether it’s the richness that comes from peacemaking, or something else – an attractive life attracts people to your way of life.

 

 

Salt of the Earth

Have you ever heard someone described as being “salt of the earth”? In modern society, it usually means someone who is really genuine, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, trustworthy.

The phrase actually stems from something that our teacher Jesus once said:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Why would you compare a person with something like salt? Well, salt was often used in Jesus’ time as a method of payment as it was extremely useful in the days before fridge freezers. So what Jesus is saying, really, is that you’re what gives value to the earth!

The Good News

You’re valued. Intrinsically. God thinks you’re worth something because you exist.

What news could be better to hear than that?

Dwell on that for a while.

Living It

Of course, the teaching doesn’t end there. Jesus warns that salt that “loses its saltiness” isn’t of any use apart maybe from being used as grit and trampled on. But salt’s a stable compound that’s always… well… salt.

We’re missing a little bit of detail here that the audience of the time would have known very well. Salt often came from salt marshes and was full of impurities – and once the actual salt was sifted out, there was often something left behind to chuck away.

The worst kind of salt would be the kind where there wasn’t much to chuck away, right? What Jesus is saying is that we need to be the best kind of ‘salt’ we can.

What that actually means is that we need to be of good value. If we use our lives well, then our lives are worth something. If we use our lives to preserve (which after all, is what salt does) the way of God for future generations, then we’re on to something. We’ll find that the “richness” of the way of God is something we experience more and more.

 

Dealing with Mockery

We recently looked at the call to “hunger and thirst for justice”. What happens when we do? Sometimes, we see change – and sometimes we don’t. And sometimes, we’re called all kinds of things for our beliefs. “Lefties”, “hippies”, “do gooders”, “liberals”, “liberal cucks” (thanks, Steve Bannon, for that particularly delightful term). Even if some of us may not identify with any of those labels – they are often applied.

Jesus has something to say about this:

“Rich are those who are constantly mistreated because of their pursuit of justice, for theirs is the way of God. Rich are you when others are abusive toward you and mistreat you and say evil lies to you because of me. Be ecstatic and be glad! For your spiritual reward is great. The prophets who came before you had the same treatment. 1

That’s a lot to take in, so let’s take it piece by piece:

  • … theirs is the way of GodYet again2, Jesus ties the pursuit of justice to the “Way” of God – the peace of “how things should be”. In other words, “keep up the good work!” But how does being mistreated make us rich? I’ve always struggled with this – but I think it’s getting at two things: firstly, that it’s character forming; and secondly, that it’s often a sign of doing the right thing and of jealousy, insecurity or ignorance on the part of the oppressor.
  • “be ecstatic and be glad” I’ve tried to find a way to approximate the jargon of “Rejoice” because it sounds overly religious to me. Rejoicing doesn’t involve anything churchy, it just means to be full of joy.
  • Your spiritual reward is great”. I’ve added in the word spiritual there. Jesus would never have used it because Everything is Spiritual3, but, the original text says something like “your reward in heaven”. Which is confusing because heaven is not a place4 – but what Jesus is getting at is that your “reward” isn’t financial – but something beyond that, something deeper.
  • As a final note, “Prophets” in case you’ve not come across that term before, a prophet was someone who was believed to have word from God for the people. They were often highly critical of society for its shortcomings.

The Good News

Sometimes it’s hard taking the criticism, but what we can be sure of is that it’s worth it – both for those whom we seek justice, but also that we will experience a sense of reward. I’m none the wiser as to what that reward is, but I’m sure up for it!

Living It

It can be easy to give up, especially when people are rude, unkind, or even bullies because of what you believe or what you do. Try and think of this teaching when you feel that way.

The word “mistreated” above is actually “persecuted”. But I hate that word because it’s usually used by religious folk who want to wear a cross on their uniform or refuse to sell a cake to two men who love one another. It’s better used to describe followers of Jesus in countries where they are surveilled, tortured and or killed because of what they believe and who they aim to be like. Think of them the next time you experience “persecution”, and pray for them!

 

Rich in Peace

“Rich are those who work for peace1, for they belong in God’s family2

What does it mean to work for peace? Peace doesn’t just mean no war. In some ways, Jesus’ statement about those who work for peace is kind of saying that an apple is an apple. His fellow Jews understood that there was a “peace” (their word is “Shalom” – which you’ll still hear today, along with the Arabic equivalent ‘Salaam’) which was really “how things are meant to be”. Shalom is that sense that everything is right in the world.

So, in one sense, you could read the above and think it means – “Rich are those who work to see a world where everything is as it should be, for they will belong to God’s family”. And what would it mean to “belong to God’s family”? In those days family was very important. It was part of your status. Whose family – and ultimately whose inheritance you had – that was, well, everything.

Yet again, the juxtaposition of “rich” adds real weight to what’s being said. “Rich” are those who have an inheritance from God. Far richer than any riches that could be inherited from their human family.

In a narrower sense, Jesus was someone who always promoted non-violence – ultimately mocking the oppressive act of state execution by being raised from the dead after his crucifixion3. It’s pretty conceivable that nonviolence falls under the definition of “how things should be”. And nonviolence doesn’t just mean not bombing the middle east (or North Korea). It also means communicating in a nonviolent way to those around us.

The Good News

The good news is that we get to be inheritors of God’s fortune! That might mean all kinds of things to people, but fundamentally it speaks of shalom – the sense that everything is as it should be. That’s what we are told we have to look forward to. And how do we get there? We can help make it happen!

People often have this view of God that says that everything that happens is through him and not through us. That God ultimately will judge and then there will be a heaven and a hell and the heaven will be perfect and everything will be right.

Jesus is saying we can have that now if we work for it to happen.

Living It

  • What do you think it means to promote peace? Perhaps you could start in your own life by reconciling areas of conflict with others – especially if that conflict is longstanding. If you feel able, perhaps you could work for peace in your place of work or your neighbourhood – reconciling people or groups of people who are in conflict
  • We’re lucky in the UK not to have the death penalty. But many countries still do, and there are campaigns in those places to fight against it. Perhaps you could in some way lend your support.

Pure In Heart

I’m going to start today’s post with the original that you might have come across before – mainly because it highlights an interesting cultural difference or two between the world of our teacher, Jesus, and that of ours today:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”

First up, this one isn’t even found in one of the two accounts of these teachings. Which is interesting, because without it there would be 7, which is a number that people of Jesus’ time regarded as special. So why the addition, if it might not have been there originally? The saying is near identical to one of the lines of a Psalm1.

Why do I mention this? Because we live in a world where, fake news aside, facts are king. The reason fake news is so shocking is because it jars against the way we’ve been taught to see the world. In Jesus’ time, and for much of the farther history of the people of Israel, there was a different way of thinking about facts. They needed to convey a true meaning or story but didn’t have to be totally true in and of themselves. Thus, it’s unlikely that Jesus actually did a talk identical to the one we’ve been going through, but that’s not really the point – he probably said everything that’s recorded – just perhaps not in one big “manifesto” talk.

The second part of this that is culturally interesting is the word “heart”. We know that the heart pumps blood around the body and doesn’t do a lot else. To the people of Jesus’ time, the heart was essentially the brain (the brain pumped blood around the body, ironically!) and the gut was where emotions were experienced2. Which means that this passage is better translated as:

“Rich are the pure in mind, for they shall experience God”

Notice how I do not translate it as “thought” but “mind”. That’s because we have a huge tilt towards analysis and logic today, that isn’t present here. I’ve changed “see” to “experience” as it’s likely this is what was being got at in the original. Nobody could see God, so it can’t be a literal term!

The Good News

What then does it mean to be pure in mind? We often think of purity as innocence – but that’s mainly due to years of religious rubbish. Purity here means simplicity – being focussed on one thing3. What Jesus is saying here is that if you’re generally focussed on something (ie God), you’ll discover and experience it.

So the good news is that if your whole mind4 – with its emotions, ideas, thoughts, and analyses, is bent in the direction of wanting to know and experience God, then you will do so.

Living It

We’re often distracted by the many pulls of the world around us. We want more money, more stuff, more fame, more lust, more of all kinds of things. But how often do we want to know more of God – to have more experience of God? I so often realise that my intention to do so is overwhelmed by my desire to do something else. So, some questions and ideas:

  • What does your mind/heart/soul yearn for? Is it to know or “see” God?
  • Could you make more space in your thought life, and in what you do, to respond to that yearning?
  • The next time you realise you’ve been distracting yourself – stop, and spend some time seeking God instead – in whatever way most helps you.
  • Think about incorporating space into your daily routine to attend to your mind and its desires. For me, this takes the form of twice daily meditation – it could be something else for you.

 

 

 

 

Mercy

A casual flick through daytime TV, or even most newspapers, or overhearing many a conversation in a coffee shop or down a pub – we’ll often find ourselves confronted with the idea that people should get what they deserve. After all, we do all to some extent hunger for justice.

But there’s a difference between wanting things in the world to be right, and holding things against people. There’s a line, somewhere, between when it’s right to hold someone to account for something, and when it’s right to let it go. Sometimes it’s important to do both. Jesus said:

“Rich are those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”1

The one thing I’ve learned about justice and mercy is that justice is something we’re happy to give but don’t want to receive, and that mercy is something we’re happy to receive but often don’t want to give.

Jesus also says that we should treat others “as we want to be treated”. That, after all, is justice. Everyone being treated equally, including ourselves. How then, do we manage to balance out justice and mercy? And why should we?

The Good News

When we show others mercy we “let them off”, but we also let ourselves off. We are free to let go of the hurt and resentment caused by the souring of the relationship – whatever that relationship may have been – to a family member, friend, or even if to a people group that we’re stereotyping via a stranger. Showing mercy helps us not to form bonds of prejudice. It helps us to avoid a build up of resentment to those close to us.

There’s also something to be said for the old adage, “What goes around comes around”. People do tend to treat people in the way that they are treated. Behaviour is infectious. If you want to be shown mercy, it’s a good idea to start showing it!

Living It

Do you harbour resentment towards anyone for anything? If the answer to that question is “yes” then you’re in the same boat as me, and probably all of humanity! Try letting go of some of that resentment. Choose to show them mercy. If you don’t feel that you can, or want to, try this: think of the last time you deserved judgement, but someone showed you mercy. Think about how that made you feel, and apply it to your situation now instead.

May you be rich in showing mercy, and rich in receiving it!

How to Find Meaning

Has there been a time recently when someone has said or done something to you and you’ve thought “that’s not fair”? Or have you recently watched the news and thought about how unfortunate someone is – and then realising that it’s because of some kind of systematic failure?

Conversely, do you find that sometimes you treat others unfairly? Have you ever blamed someone else for their circumstances without a second thought?

Both of these are reactions to injustice. Jesus says this about it:

“Rich1 are those who hunger and thirst for justice2, for they will be filled!”

There are two reactions I think most people would have to this. You might be the kind of person who hears this and thinks: “no matter what I do, there’s never any real change”. Or, you might be the kind of person who hears this and thinks “I don’t have the [insert reason here!] to help with that issue right now”.

Both of these are understandable reactions – especially when we’re instantly aware of everything going on in the world around us, all the time, thanks to 24/7 news and social media. I think that one often leads to the other – I can’t do anything, so I won’t do anything. It’s too complicated.

The Good News

Well, the bad news is that it isn’t easy to care. It hurts. But as I mentioned in my previous post about lament, sometimes experiencing grief is a good thing. Sometimes the benefit of that grief isn’t to help you to come to terms with something (though that can help), it’s actually to empower you to find the desire within yourself to help do something about it.

Sometimes justice simply looks like making sure that the lady struggling to carry their shopping because they’re trying to balance it with three kids, no husband, and leg injury gets a helping hand. Sometimes it’s working for a worldwide NGO fighting the spread of diseases. Sometimes it’s something in between. Mother Teresa said that we can’t do great things, only “small things with great love”.

The good news is that seeking after such things – putting our energy into them – is rewarding. Things eventually do change. Society does move forward. It doesn’t always feel that way, but if you look back over history, you’ll see that it is true. There’s satisfaction to be found in that. But only if you’ve been hungering and thirsting for it. You’ll also find that amongst the stress and difficulty of fighting against injustice – and let’s be honest – there’s plenty of that – you’ll find yourself recognising just how worthwhile the cause is, and above all, you’ll find some meaning.

A favourite poet of mine3 says that you’ll “find meaning where you give meaning”. Often, striving for “meaning” is at the root of a lot of anxiety and insecurity in the middle class, western world.

Putting ourselves at the centre of fighting for a better world – however large or small a part we play – is a great way to find meaning. Maybe we’re essentially here to help each other to enjoy our lives?

 

Living It

  • The next time you feel overwhelmed by an injustice, think about the bigger picture. Perhaps if you can find the strength to contribute, it’ll get that one step closer to its resolution.
  • Look out for the little injustices. Some are more obvious than others – we’re all predisposed to noticing different things. When you spot something, why not play your part?

Power and Authority

In the age of Trump, we’re taught that being strong, selfish, and unrelenting is the way to win. We’re taught by the way of the world that it is good and right to aspire to military might and security. We’re happy to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of others because we want – we need – to have power over them to have the lifestyle that we want. I distinctly remember someone once telling me that “It’s a dog eat dog world out there”. And it is, isn’t it?

Power epitomises this. Power is the control or influence over others by force or fear. You have power over someone or something when they respect you out of something other than choice.

Authority, on the other hand, is when you have influence because of respect, love, or some other positive reason.

Jesus spoke about this when he said:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”

There’s a few things going on here, so we’ll take it word by word again. We talked about “blessed” previously1, so I’ll skip over that.

  1. meek – this isn’t a word we use much nowadays. An easier way of understanding it might be “quiet and gentle”, or it might be more like “powerless”. In Jesus’ time, as in ours, society placed huge emphasis on status, power and wealth. Those without status and wealth are more often than not those who are also powerless.
  2. inherit the earth – this is really another way of saying “be part of the way of God”2, but with an emphasis more on the future than the present.

So a better way of putting it might be:

“Rich are those who are powerless, for they are part of the way”

 

Those who exercise a strongman power will come and go. The likes of Donald Trump don’t stick around forever. They all fall eventually. The same is true of you and I, if we use power or control to get our way in life.

But those who are gentle, kind, almost submissive – they’re the ones who really build towards a better future. Jesus was an example of this – he never once used power to overthrow the Roman rulers of his day. There are examples in our modern world too – people such as Gandhi or Mother Teresa, or lesser known heroes that we all have3.

 

The Good News

The good news is that coercive power doesn’t win in the end. Jesus is saying that one day, there will be a world where those who have earned authority are the inheritors. And that’s a better world to be a part of than this one.

Living It

  • Think about who you most respect, and why. What would it be like to try to be more like them?
  • Have you ever coerced or forced your way into a position of control or power? Take some time to think about how you can change direction now you’re there, and earn the authority and respect that should have gotten you there in the first place.
  • When you feel like someone is holding power over you, remember that it’s OK to answer more to those whom you trust and respect, than to those whom you fear.

The Art of Lament

When was the last time you chose to lament?

It isn’t really something that we do in our culture1, is it?

As a society we’ve become very good at distracting ourselves. We all have our poison. Mine’s Netflix binges. Yours might be alcohol, or exercise, or sport, or academia, or pretty much anything other than having to actually stop and deal with something.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Jesus talked about lament. He said:

“Rich2 are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Hang on a minute – there’s a richness to be found in mourning? When was the last time anyone was grieving and thought to themselves, ‘wait, this is really enriching my life’? The crucial part of the idea Jesus is trying to get across is the last bit.

They will be comforted.

Often we distract ourselves from our grief – wether it’s over a break-up, a loss of someone close to us, failure to achieve something, or something else – we find ways not to deal with that grief. I’ve found that the result of doing this for years and years is that the grief is still there, buried deep down, just waiting to cause an argument with my fiancée or my mum or one of my friends. My grief usually ends up hurting those close to me.

Why do we do this? Perhaps we’re afraid that we’ll never find comfort.

The Good News

Jesus is saying that we don’t have to live like this. He says that we will be comforted.

If we take the time to engage with our grief, then we often find that rather than it making things worse, we start to feel better. That’s why we have funerals. It’s why we revisit the graves of loved ones. It’s why we sometimes feel compelled to go “back there” to that place when we rationally think we shouldn’t. It’s why we write break-up songs.

Taking time to mourn, to lament, whatever it is for, gives us space to work through our grief. It allows us to move towards acceptance, and to move on with our lives. There’s a richness in not being held back by our grief.

Living It

  • The next time you catch yourself binge-watching, binge-drinking or whatever it is you do to escape from your grief, go and talk to someone instead. Maybe a close friend, maybe a counsellor.
  • If you don’t feel you can talk about it, write a journal. Look over your thoughts from before each time the grief comes up, and notice yourself moving forward.
  • Do you know someone who is struggling? offer to give them space with mourn – to lament with them about their grief.

Rich in Love

When I was younger I used to dream of being a successful software engineer. I used to idolise Bill Gates. I would dream of the day I’d have a huge mansion and all the money in the world. I’m actually relatively successful in financial terms, but I’ve learned along the way that money hasn’t bought me happiness.
Central to the teachings of Jesus is a talk he gave to a crowd that gathered on a hillside.1 The talk is essentially Jesus’ manifesto.
In those days, teachers weren’t just people who helped you get on the conveyor belt of life – through school and university – they were the most highly regarded members of society. They devoted themselves to learning about and memorising the stories of their people and of Yahweh2, their god. As a teacher, you had a “way” that others followed. This particular talk is recorded as a kind of greatest hits of the ‘way’ of Jesus.
The talk starts with a sort of table of contents – known commonly as the “beatitudes”3. The first of them says this:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”
I include that because you might have heard it before. However, it’s not a very helpful translation. You might think that doesn’t make much sense. Let’s start by going over some of words that are, essentially, religious jargon in our day and age, as they’re useful things to understand if you ever try to read through these stories yourself.
  1. blessed – in Jesus’ time, it was common to describe a wealthy person as “blessed”. Today, the word has primarily religious implications that weren’t there 2000 years ago. So, without wanting to remove the poetry of what’s being said, it’s best to say “wealthy” instead.
  2. poor in spirit – the words “in spirit” are actually only included in one of the two accounts of these teachings4. The phrase does not mean lacking in spirit – whatever you might understand that to mean – but instead implies a poverty that is both physical and spiritual. This could be because the two have often, throughout history, been intertwined – and could well have been added later.
  3. kingdom of Heaven – the people of Jesus’ time wouldn’t have ever used the name of God (Yahweh) out of respect for it. Thus, this is a euphemism for “Kingdom of God”, which is in itself an expression that essentially means “the domain in which things are the way that Yahweh wants them to be”. Similar to the idea of Jesus “way” (his teachings).
So a better translation of what’s been written might be:
“Wealthy are those who are poor, for they belong to the way of God”.
Jesus says elsewhere,
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort”. 
Far from endorsing the narrative of his time, Jesus suggests that having riches isn’t the same as being seen favourably by God, nor is it the sign of a good life.

The Good News

Jesus often talked about bringing good news to people5. Often, he said he had come to bring “good news to the poor”. What’s the good news here? It is that you don’t have to be rich to feel a richness, a wealth, a blessedness, to life. Instead, seek to be part of the way of God, and you’ll find that life takes you on a poorer, but richer, path. In a song written by King David6, he says:

“God is gracious and compassionate. Slow to anger, and rich in love.”

Living It

  • The next time you find yourself longing for a higher paycheque that you don’t really need, take some time to meditate on the richness that is found elsewhere.
  • Instead of doing more work, consider using your time to help others, trying to learn what it means to be rich in love.
  • If you’re struggling financially, remember that though the world might judge you a failure for this, God does not.