A TIME TO HEAL
Stress is a very modern phenomenon. I am not sure when it stole itself into the language we use, but it peppers many conversations about modern life. It suggests the application of unwelcome pressure; the absence of space; the sense of having to prove yourself. And it is especially heard in the world of work, where efficiency and impact are audited and new reams of data hold people up to unsparing scrutiny.
We turn to the Bible for comfort and sustenance in the face of these threats. And we especially imagine Jesus wandering round the Holy Land, wafting peace and tranquillity wherever he stepped. Except he didn’t.
In Luke 12, Jesus says:
I have a baptism with which to be baptised (in other words, I have a job to do) and what stress I am under until it is completed!
Jesus got into our skin successfully, but we struggle to reverse this. We can’t imagine what it felt like to be the man he was and to walk the road he did. But here he gives us a special insight into how he is feeling. The enormity of his role was overpowering, even for him. There was a dawning recognition that his destiny would lead him to the cross. The one place where the sin and evil that corrupts this world could be dealt with.
Few people have to live with the certainty of a violent death. No-one else has lived with the awareness that all that is wrong with this world would be heaped on them at the end. That their final hours of pain and solitude would define the world to come. Jesus was human. To know this moment was coming but not to be able to speed the moment up must have been incalculably stressful for him. We all have days we see coming a long way off which we would rather avoid, but cannot. They are like a super slow motion car crash. This was what Jesus inhabited in those three years of ministry. These years look so short, but they must have felt like a lifetime.
This unique stress accounts for his observation:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
To handle the Bible well, we need to know it in the round. Jesus did not just talk about division. He spoke also of peace: peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you, he says to his disciples towards the end. When we are incapable of putting stuff in the Bible in a wider context, we become easy prey to those who have their own agendas; who want to make the Bible say what it is not saying because it suits them.
When Jesus spoke of division, he did so from the middle of a ministry that was causing real polarisation, the kind of which we speak today. There was nothing vanilla about his claims. When someone says I am the way, the truth and the life, you either have to take it seriously and follow them, or trash the claim and attack them. First century Palestinians who encountered Jesus were split down the middle on this. Division was inevitable. And in the turbulent, violent world they inhabited, these divisions were, at times, shattering. Those who confessed Jesus is Lord would soon be at risk of execution for saying so.
But what of this division today? Jesus’ claims remain absolute. And they have huge implications, depending on where you live. In places where the State demands loyalty or the dominant religion expects conformity, trust in Jesus is subversive and risky. North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia, among other places, are testament to this.
And in some families here in the UK, the personal faith of one member can be divisive in ways those who do not live in such households often struggle to imagine. This is especially true when young people turn to a faith that their parents have rejected.
But there is a wider challenge now that we would not have spoken of even a few years ago. Our own society is becoming divided along new lines. Traditional political alliances are reforming and we are likely to see new divisions open up, like concrete in an earthquake. New means of communication enable people not only to put their opinions across unmediated by others. They allow people to threaten or abuse others online in ways that foster mistrust and fear. In short order, this has made the UK a more bitter and resentful place. This is true of many other countries too, but this is the country we live in and therefore have most influence over.
Jesus came to bring division and he came to bring peace. As it says in Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a season, and right now it feels like a time to heal and a time to build up. Jesus called us to love one another. Because we have a sentimental view of love, we tend to think of it in warm and fuzzy ways. But love is a very practical virtue. It calls us to listen to what other people say. We are not good at this in our culture. Mostly, people are only interested in getting their point of view over and winning the argument. Listening is a Christian duty. We may not always like what we hear, but in listening, we dignify the other person. And the chances are, we will learn something too.
The trend now is to surround ourselves with people who share the same opinions. It is comfortable and unthreatening and easy to criticise, but we all know how nice it is to have our views reinforced by others. It shores up our sense of self-worth. People constantly challenging the way we think wear us down and irritate us. Groupthink, as it is known, is seductive, but it is also unhealthy. We need to be challenged and, in turn, be free to challenge others, if we are to mature in our thinking. If we only do this by shouting at others and threatening them, we will lose the cherished value of a public world where people are listened out.
Christian people also have questions to answer. There is a risk we surround ourselves with people who think the same way we do about Jesus and, unintentionally perhaps, shut out those who think very different things about him. One way we can see this happening is the struggle many of us have to articulate what we believe when we are challenged. Faith is not an easy option and we do not have answers to every question we are asked about what we believe. But we need to have the skills to say something of value. As St Peter said: always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you’.
There is something special about the word conversation, and it lies in its roots. For there we find another word: conversion. To talk and debate with others is to open ourselves up to their opinions. To be ready to be converted to another view. This can feel threatening, but if we are not willing to join the debate round Jesus, then we can hardly expect others to be converted to him.
We cannot argue anyone into the Kingdom of God, but they can be loved into it. By respectfully listening to other points of view, we both show this love – and make our culture a healthier place to live.
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