Sunday, August 10, 2008

It does not, therefore depend on man's effort or desire, but on God's mercy

There is nothing like death to trigger deep discussions about life. That's what happened last Tuesday after the funeral of my mother-in-law. A group of young, and not so young, people, at different stages of their faith in God, together with a young pastor and myself, engaged in a very lively and useful debate about Religion in general, Christianity in particular and life. Life after death. Life without the need for Religion. Religion without the need for Christ. Christianity without the need for rules and regulations - worshiping God alone at home, virtual church, how critical is Holy Communion/Lord's Supper/Eucharist. And what exactly is this Christian "ritual".

Then today, I went to visit a friend, a classmate in med school, who is terminally ill. I left deeply
disturbed and wrote to the rest of my colleagues encouraging to pray for him. One Christian colleague, who lives in Trinidad, and who is a convert from another faith, and very passionate about Christ, wrote back re-affirming the need for us to pray for the salvation of the souls all our colleagues.Of course, as the media remind us daily, even in the middle of the greatest distraction on earth, the Olympics, all of this reflection is taking place as murder and mayhem continue to stalk Jamaica "land we love". Just tonight, there was a report on the local television, of a teacher, visiting, a formerly peaceful and quiet rural district, and who was ambushed and killed. The pathos in the voice and angst etched in the face of the brother who was interviewed, was so obvious, as was the total amazement why someone should have carried out this dastardly act.
And God who is always calling His people unto Himself, and revealing Himself through His Son and His Word spoke in the following ways.
On Wednesday morning after the discussions, a friend sent me an e-mail concerning a speech delivered -for the first time ever - by the Chief ( Jewish ) Rabbi in the UK, to a meeting of Anglican Bishops from all over the world, and who meet at Lambeth in London every decade. The Topic - Covenants. The essence of the speech, which was well received, was about the role and importance of Religion in today's world, and an exposition on two different kinds of covenants. Having been reminded recently that Christianity is not about common sense, but about supernatural revelation, I accepted this e-mail and its contents, not as coincidence, but as a validation of the critical discussion concerning the role of Religion about which we had engaged on the night before. Therefore I have selected excerpts which are relevant to this message and which are as follows:

"..........What's worship about. What does it create and distribute? And that's a good question, because for the past 50 years, our lives have been dominated by the other two institutions: politics and economics, the state and the market, the logic of power and the logic of wealth. The state is us in our collective capacity. The market is in us as individuals. And the debate has been: which is more effective? The left tends to favour the state. The right tends to favour the market. And there are endless shades shadings in between.
But what this leaves out of the equation is a third phenomenon of the utmost importance, and I want to explain why. The state is about power. The market is about wealth. And there are two ways of getting people to act in the way which we want. Either we force them to - the way of power. Or we pay them - the way of wealth.
But there is a third way...imagine you have total power, and then you decide to share it with nine others. How much do you have left? 1/10th of what you had when you began. Suppose you have a thousand pounds and you decide to share it with nine others. How much do you have left? 1/19th of what you had when you began. But now suppose you that decide to share , not power or wealth, but love or friendship, or influence, or even knowledge with nine others. How much do I have left? Do I have less? No I have more, perhaps 10 times as much. Why? Because love, friendship and influence are things that only exist by virtue of sharing. I call these convenantal goods - the goods that, the more I share, the more I have.........Wealth and power, economics and politics, the market and the state, are arenas of competition, whereas convenantal goods are arenas of co-operation. Where do we find convenantal goods like love, friendship and trust?

They are born, not in the state, and not in the market, but in marriages, families, congregations, fellowships - even in society, if we are clear in our minds that societies are different from the state. One way of seeing what is at stake is to understand the differences between two things that look and sound alike but actually are not namely contratcs and covenants. In a contract two or more individuals, each pursuing their own interest, come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit...A convenant is something different.....two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone......So economics and politics, the market and the state, are about the logic of competition. Covenant is about the logic of co-operation.....why is it that societies cannot exist without co-operation? Why is it that state and market alone cannot sustain a society?........
To cut a long story short what they ( scientists ) have discovered is that though natural selection works through the genes of individuals, individuals...survive only because they are members of a group. And groups survive only on the basis of reciprocity and trust, on what I have called covenant, or the logic of co-operation........It is one of the great discoveries of our time. Individuals need groups. Groups need co-operation. And co-peration needs covenant, bonds of reciprocity and trust.
Traditionally, that was the work of religion.....And now it has been scientifically demonstrated. if there is only competition and not co-peration, if there is only state and the market and no covenantal relationships, society will not survive. What then happens to a society when religion wanes and there is nothing covenantal to take its place?
Relationships break down. Marriages grow weak. Families become fragile. Communities atrophy. And the result is that people feel vulnerable and alone. if they turn those feelings outward, the result is often anger turning to violence. if they turn them inwards, the result is depression, stress related syndromes, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse. Either way there is spiritual poverty in the midst of material affluence..
It doesn't happen all at once, but slowly, gradually and inexorably. Societies without covenants and the institutions needed to inspire and sustain them, disintegrate. Initially, the result is a loss of graciousness in our shared and collective lives. Ultimately, it is a loss of freedom itself.
That's where we are ........."

This very wise and humble Rabbi went on to make some very important theological points about the nature of covenants. Suffice it to say that this is one of the most profound expositions I have ever read which articulates so very clearly , the reasons why my country is suffering so much." "It doesn't happen all at once......relationships break down, marriages grow weak, families become fragile..communities atrophy". Not because of material poverty, which is the 'diet' on which we have been fed by sundry talk show hosts, and puffed up sociologists, for far too long. But because of spiritual poverty, because religion has waned in Jamaica, and nothing covenantal has taken its place. And no doubt this is a phenomenon taking place all over the world.

Two more issues were addressed by the Lord as the days slipped by this week . Both from His Word. Both deeply related to the issues above.

" Hear, O my people, and I will warn you---if you would but listen to me, O Israel! You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not bow down to an alien god. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices. If my people would but listen to me, if Israel would but follow my ways, how quickly would I subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!.

Psalm 81: 8-14 NIV

The question therefore arises, how much does the Jamaican history mirror that of Israel? Did the Lord rescue our forefathers in a similar way that Israel was rescued from Pharaoh? And therefore, does the same message apply to us, that we have turned to the gods of wealth and power, of market and politics, of Olint and Cash Plus - alternate financial schemes - of music and movies? Has the Lord "given us over" to our own devices? Do we believe that it is a small thing for God to deliver us from the gunmen, wicked police, businessmen and corrupt politicians, if only we would " listen" to the Lord who has a history of providing for his people in Jamaica, and is not a stranger.

Secondly and even more profoundly is the message - from a God who is speaking to us through all our experiences - that, despite the profound nature of the Rabbi's speech, despite the revelations about the reasons for the suffering in my country, he is, and all others who do not know Christ, are in need of Salvation. And that it is not just a matter of the waning of religion why Jamaica and and indeed the entire world is suffering, it is the loss or absence of, a relationship with the risen Christ why we suffer so much. This is the message for those young people with whom I was engaged this week. This is my prayer for my colleague who is terminally ill, and indeed for all those whom I have come to know, by the grace of God. And this is my prayer for the Jews, the Muslims the Buddhists, for those in the UK, Canada, the USA - the whole world. For Bishops, for priests, for the entire congregation, for my family and for myself, that we may be convicted of Sin, repent of our sins and seek God's mercy, which can be found only in and through Jesus Christ his Son. And so the Lord led me to this passage and another one like it, even before I realised that it was the Epistle appointed for today.

" I speak the truth in Christ -- I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit --- I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ.......... It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children.....In other words it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring...What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all. For he says to Moses,

I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,

and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.

It does not therefore depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy.........

For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all

Romans 9:1-16 & 11:32 NIV

" Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God, for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Christ is the end of the law, so that there may be righteousness for all who believe....

Romans 10: 1-4

Finally, the Lord who leaves nothing to chance, spoke to my soul at the end of church this morning in the closing hymn

O Jesus I have promised

To serve thee to the end;

Be thou for ever near me,

My Master and my friend

I shall not fear the battle

If thou art by my side,

Nor wander from the pathway

If thou wilt be my guide.......