The democratization of morality

In the absence of God, who decides whether a thing is right or wrong?  Take sex outside of marriage, for example. Christians would agree that it is wrong and potentially destructive, undermining marriage and opening the door to unwanted preganancies etc. But times have changed and now society has decided that it is no longer taboo but actually perfectly acceptable. It has voted with its feet – or some other part of its anatomy – and collectively decided that we no longer need to view it as wrong. Morality therefore has become democratized. Because the majority are in favour, any conflicting  – i.e. Christian –  view is demonized as moralizing. A decision has been made, the votes cast, and sex before marriage is officially ‘in’. (Note: for many it has always been ‘in’ but never in such a publicly approving way).

But there are huge problems with this approach because something (or someone) is fuelling this this way of thinking. Someone is persuading the majority that this is okay and the way forward. They, the public, are not uninformed, so who is informing them? Who or what is driving this forward?

Also there is a danger that if enough people think it is good then bad is turned on its head and evil is the new ‘good’ so to speak. Which reminds me of a passage from Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” Isaiah 5:20. Isn’t that what has happened in Germany in the last world war. Somehow a whole nation was persuaded into thinking that getting rid of the Jews was a ‘good thing’ and that their presence was somehow evil. So thousands of blind eyes were turned as Hitler set about their extermination.

So the way things are going I am getting increasingly worried. Today it is sex before marriage, yesterday it was abortion on demand, what will tomorrow bring?

Sleepless in Swansea

This is the second night in a row that I can’t sleep. I don’t know if it is something I ate or drank or whether this is something that every 52 year old might as well get used to because this is what will occur on a more regular basis from now on in? One blessing is that this is one of the few ‘free’ moments I seem to have to write my blog, so “every cloud…”

What does fascinate me however about these nocturnal forays downstairs is how sharp my mind is and will be tomorrow too. Okay half way through the day I will need some kind of slap across the face or something to stimulate my digestive system, but generally I know I will be on top form mentally. Another side effect (benefit?) is that I get more  emotionally tuned in to things. I mean that things move me more. I relate on a deeper level to the tragedy on the TV news or I find myself able to so empathize with a bereaved person so that I am on the verge of mingling my tears with theirs.

I know it does smack of some kind of loss of control and anyone reading this can be forgiven for thinking that maybe I am on the verge of some sort of breakdown. But a sleepless night does have its benefits, although I would not choose to remain awake like this and certainly not on a regular basis.

Which brings me to the subject of the spiritual disciplines. In the gospels Jesus several times calls on his disciples to “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38). Jesus himself would spend time with God at all kinds of unearthly hours. In 2 Corinthians 6:5 Paul refers to something called “watching” which I take to be a kind of abstinence, not of eating or drinking, but of sleeping, in order to spend time in prayer. So maybe this is God nudging me awake to spend some time with Him that I could not afford in the day. Maybe it’s a call to “Come away…and rest a while” with Him (Mark 6:31) in His presence? If that’s the case then I am glad to be here, awake, banging the keys with God looking over my shoulder. Just me and Him and the dark hovering behind the bright computer screen on my desk.

Love and laying down the law

One of the tensions I struggle with as a Christian and a parent is the relationship between rules and love. No one likes rules and there is something in us that wants to hit out and react when someone tells us we can’t do something. It’s like the sign that says “Don’t touch, wet paint!” There is something in us that just wants to reach out and do the exact opposite to what the sign says. So when it comes to bringing up children, for example, and we lay down certain rules that we believe will help keep them on the straight and narrow or that will be ‘good’  for them, we are not entirely surprised when they break them or baulk at being confined by a list of don’ts.

And yet how else can we teach them what is right or wrong, or what is harmful and helpful, or what we want them to do in order to avoid the pain that comes from playing with fire or sharp objects? Rules become a means of expressing love, just as God’s ‘rules’ or ‘words’ were meant as an expression of His love.

Okay I know that in some way the Ten are no longer written on stone but on the hearts of the beloved. And we all know (or perhaps we don’t) the Blessed Augustine’s dictum: “Love and do what you will” meaning that if we do love God what we do will not break His laws or His heart. But how else do you help your children if not by laying down guidelines for living that will help them avoid the same mistakes that you made and paid (and are still paying) for? Surely to love is to set boundaries? Not to love is to let them do whatever they want in the hope that they will find out the hard way before it’s too late.

It’s a dilemma I suspect that will never be worked out as long as there are people and as long as there is sin present in this beautiful and blighted world we live in. Every parent is doomed to tread the same path and face the same challenges and fail or succeed in equal measure and discover in the process that there is no magic formula or method that will guarantee success. Maybe that’s why Jesus talks so much about forgiveness and love, because he knows that we will need the both if we are to get through.

So for now there are rules and the certainty that they will be broken from now until the end of time. I am sure God knew that and gave us Ten anyway.

A time to live and a time to die

I write this blog having visited my father who is in hospital recovering from an infection. He is in the later stages of dimentia and so only vaguely knows who I am. There was a time about a week ago when we thought he was nearing the end. He had developed a chest infection, was confined to bed and had stopped eating or drinking. He was admitted to hospital in a very poor state and had to be put on  a drip. He continued to show no interest in food or drink  and slept most of the time. Knowing a little bit about dimentia (I am part time chaplian in a local Mental Health Hospital) I wondered if he had reached that stage in his illness when the eating/drinking reflexes had ceased to work and his mind was finally shutting down. But today he woke when we called and the nurse told us he was responding to the antibiotics and had eaten dinner. He jabbered away during the whole visit and smiled and winked and laughed – at what we don’t know. It was quite a transformation and suddenly there is life again and we are all amazed, puzzled and pleased.

Dad has had several ‘near misses’ over the past year with a couple of admissions to hospital after mini-strokes or a chest infection. Each time he has bounced back although a little weaker each time. He is 92 going on 93 and although there is little real quality to life, he is not ready to go yet. Why is this? When he is unable to recall his wife of 63 years, talk and think coherently, read a book or a newspaper or follow sports or watch a film, why does God keep him here when others die tragically young full of life and vigour with so much to look froward to and do?

I think that like much of life there is a deep mystery here which we cannot fathom and being a CHristian is, to a certain extent, about accepting this and trusting God. What is faith but trusting someone who possesses knowledge and power that you do not have but whose character is one of love and wisdom?

There are possible answers in my own situation which are not the full picture but seem to be lessons I am being taught. For example dad has never been demonstrative and so we have never been close in that sense. However as he jabbers away in bed I find myself stroking his hand or touching his face or tidying his hair. I kiss him before we leave and I smile a lot when he looks at me. There is intimacy now where there was distance. Is that why he is still here so that God has given me a chance to get closer to my father – a kind of healing? I don’t know.

Also in my busy life where I get caught up just doing ‘things’ almost on automatic pilot it does me good to make the trip down the hospital and feel upset and anxious about someone close. It’s a way, I suppose, of being made human again. I can’t protect myself all the time or become so ‘professional’ and self-controlled that I bury feelings and retain a sort of aloofness from the pains and sufferings of others. Of course breaking down at every funeral etc will render me completely incapable of seeing things through – someone has to be in charge – but at the same time it can lead to a kind of robotic subhuman behaviour which is surely not good for the soul.

So visiting dad is a kind of healing. It keeps me reaching out instead of closing off. So there is a “time to live and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2) but only when whatever needs to be done is done, or a lesson that needs to be learnt is learnt? And of course when God in His infinite wisdom decides, with dad, that it’s time to go.

Learning from your mistakes

“We all learn from our mistakes” they say, but what ‘they’ don’t tell you is how long that process can take. I say this because I am still learning how to grow a parish and like all growing there are pains involved. For example how do you know what to do to be doing what God wants? For a time – well for the last twenty years – I thought it was all about stepping out in faith, you know like Abram who left his country, his people and his father’s household in order to strike out for the Promised Land. (Genesis 12:1-5) So my ministry has been about stepping out in faith left right and centre. Sometimes this has worked but more often than not it hasn’t.  But because I have known no other way I have just kep doing it in the vain hope that something will ‘give’ along the line. Well it hasn’t and so I have had to stop and trudge wearily back to the proverbial drawing board and finally ask why. It’s taken me several months  but I think I know the answer.

Going back to the Genesis text I realise I have mis-read it. Abram did not take the initiative. He did not one day decide he was going to step out in faith all on his own in the vague hope that his faith would somehow nudge God into a response. No. God came to him and called him. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Note the emphasis. God spoke and God promised to show Abram the way. The step of faith by the father of faith was in response to God’s initiative.

We find the same pattern throughout the scriptures. Moses stepping aside to investigate a bush that was burning but not consumed only to be confronted by God who calls him to go and set His people free. (Exodus 3)  Joshua given instructions by God to go and take the land (Joshua 1). Mary greeted by an angel who tells her she is carrying the Messiah, God’s Son in her womb and responding in faith “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:26-38). Jesus telling the disciples to feed the hungry thousands “You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16) And the disciples being told to wait in Jerusalem for the power from on high before going out to the nations to bear witness to him. (Acts 1:4,5)

Time and time again we see God’s people not acting on their own initiative but waiting on God before venturing out on a new challenge. That’s not to say that they did nothing in the meantime. They prayed and they served and they worked. But significant growth and a new movement of God only came when God acted and God’s people responded in faith.

So the lesson I am slowly learning is this. Wait on God and while you wait, work. Only be ready to respond in faith when the time comes. And the best way to be ready is to pray.

2.47 AM

Can’t sleep. This is becoming a regular occurence, but not an annoying one. I have come to the conclusion that as much as I like – and need – sleep, there is something I like about being downstairs, in the silence, sipping a cup of herbal tea (with honey) and either just being still in a dimly lit room drinking in the noislessness or adding another post to my blog. I suppose it’s the nearest thing I have to a desert, here in bustling Swansea. Encountering the starkness of the night is the city’s equivalent to those barren wastes where Jesus and the saints retreated in order to advance in their walk with God. I need that too. It’s my escape from the insanity of restless busyness which every day threatens to drown me with its endless demands. So I like the night – it’s somewhere to run to and hide. Somewhere to re-charge my batteries and re-connect with God, myself and that silent centre within.

Saturday Football

It’s 10.15 AM and I have just finished breakfast. There is movement along the landing, between one of the bedrooms and the bathroom as Hannah gets ready for her job in Shoezone, a rather downmarket shoe shop in Swansea. Hannah is better (or worse) than any alarm clock on Saturday morning because she never walks without stomping, never opens a door without crashing it shut and never steps into the shower without somehow making it sound as if a large burly man was trying to squeeze through a rather narrow but cluttered space. 

Alternatively Ruth, our youngest, comes a close second, with her radio/cd player blasting out Michael Jackson’s ‘Killer’ or her loud conversations with one of her friends (who must be deaf) about arrangements for their Saturday trip to Town.

It’s Saturday, and Saturday in the Williams household means only one thing – football (or to any Americans who may be reading this – soccer). It’s a day when we either go and watch our favourite team the ‘Swans’ – the nickname of Swansea City Football Club – at the Liberty Stadium, or if they are playing away, listen in on the radio. Either side of that main event we watch just about any other football match we can find on Sky, because football – any football – is something we have come to love.

It has not always been this way. For years Saturdays have come and gone. They have been days of easing down before the rigours of the Sunday rush when the most we would do was visit one of our parents, done a little shopping or just generally taken it easy. But one day everything changed. Hazel ‘saw the light’.

I, personally, have always followed the Swans over the years, and even if I was too busy or far away to actually go and see them regularly, I would always check the results every Saturday and keep an eye on their progress (or regress).  This however got much more serious for both Hazel and myself when over two years ago we decided we go and see the Swans play in their brand new 20,000 seater stadium at the Liberty. Hazel had never been to a live match before and was curious to see what it would be like and besides it was Ben’s birthday and a chance to go with him to see his favourite team. We could not have picked a better day. It was a bright September Saturday afternoon, the sun was ablaze in a cloudless blue sky and the Swans were playing their second or third match of the season. The place was packed and the atmosphere sparked with expectation. We were not disappointed. Swans put seven past a rather lacklustre Bristol City prompting the club to sack their manager a few days later, and Hazel was well and truly hooked.

One of my favourite stories in the New Testament is the conversion of St.Paul on the road to Damascus. What a story. One minute he was after the blood of Christians, approving of the murder of St. Stephen and arresting just about any of ‘The Way’ he could lay his hands on and the next he was telling anyone who would listen how Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God. It was a complete turn around, a one-point turn, and for many years became for me a kind of model of Christian conversion that I longed to see in my own ministry (although I failed to realise at the time that it is actually the exception rather than the rule).

What happened to Paul in Christian terms happened to my wife in football terms. That day in the Liberty was her ‘Damascus Road’. Not only did we go on and see every other Swansea City home game for that season but the following year we bought a season ticket each and we have done so ever since. Our new foudn enthusiasm did not end there. We have bought dvd’s of their more outsanding games, treated ourselves to supporter’s scarves and other accoutrements and regularly check the clubs’ various websites to see what the latest news was. Once I even spent several hours queuing up for the players to sign the club calendar so I could surprise Hazel for Christmas. And the ‘magnificent obsession’ does not end there. All this has had the knock on effect of us watching just about any football match that comes on the television even minor league matches. It has also resulted in Hazel developing an understanding of the minutiae of the game even to the point of understanding the notoriously difficult ‘off-side’ rule. I was in awe of the change that had occurred.

What caused this turn around? What was responsible for such a transformation? Was it the atmosphere of the occasion, the weather or the score? I am sure it helped in some way as it all conspired to make something truly memorable and enjoyable. Like any true’ conversion’ the test would come when the skies are grey and rain-soaked, the atmosphere is poor and we lose at home. Hazel passed them all and she kept going. Her ‘conversion’ was the genuine article.

Was it some need or lack in her life which going to watch football filled?  Was there a space or ‘football shaped’ hole in her life that needed filling? Maybe, as there were few things we would do together other than Church, shopping or occasional (and I mean occasional) trips or meals out. 

Was it some kind of revelation or insight into something previously hidden that afternoon as we watched twenty four men chase a white ball around on a green blanket of grass watched by 18,000 chanting onlookers? Maybe. What else could have accounted for such a turn around in a life which, until then, faced in a competely opposite direction?

Whatever the cause, in the end, like St. Paul, it’s one of those wonderfully profound mysteries where everything seems to come together, coalesce and conspire to take an individual from one ‘place’ to another, where joy pours in to where joy was not before and life takes on another meaning or direction. It was certainly that for us. Now we do something that brings us closer together, and whether it was God or an inspired Swansea perfomance or both, I don’t really care. The fact is that life on Saturdays will never be the same but something we  now both look forward to doing and enjoying together.