Garry will be starting a new series looking at topical issues (‘Talking Point’) next Sunday evening. There are all kinds of issues facing us today which may seem bewildering and confusing. Where do Christians stand on abortion and euthanasia – and why? What does the Bible have to say about gay marriage? What can God know about modern science?
The Bible is relevant to us today and can help us to think through difficult issues. Come along to find out more!
The Bible is full of names, many of them unpronounceable to English tongues, and often skipped over as we read the Bible because of their unfamiliarity and our impatience with lists. They remind us, nonetheless, that giving something or someone a name is a vital process for communication and identification, and these lists also serve the purpose of showing us that each individual matters to God. We are not just numbers or statistics to Him; we are known by name.
In the same way, we attempt to give names to objects and feelings so that we can identify them and know how to treat such things, starting with Adam naming the living creatures in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:18-19). Giving a name to something is incredibly significant, for it helps us to move from vagueness to true understanding and leads us to a deeper appreciation of the individual.
Over time, however, words change their meaning and some get lost altogether, which (to someone like me) is a shame. One such word is acedia or accidie.
This word means spiritual listlessness, often listed in the seven deadly sins as ‘sloth’, but we tend to associate that word simply with laziness these days, and acedia or accidie is not really laziness per se. Etymologically, acedia joins the negative prefix a– to the Greek noun kēdos, which means “care, concern, or grief”. It sounds like apathy, and certainly it is a debilitating emotion, leaving us with things to do but no energy, desire or will to do them. Anyone who has suffered a debilitating illness knows how hard it can be to get ‘back to normal’ afterwards, and acedia is that kind of feeling, but is also linked to a sense of despair, helplessness and hopelessness. When we experience this emotion, we feel paralysed, unable to do anything really, trapped. It’s often known as the ‘noonday devil’, because there are things to do but no desire or energy to do them.
Many people are, I believe, feeling this way at the present time because of the limitations on human contact and activity being imposed on us. The barrage of bad news in the media can seem overwhelming at times, but usually we cope through a combination of work, rest and play (and possibly Mars Bars!) When these are interfered with, particularly our physical contact with friends and family, anxiety rises and this can lead to a sense of listlessness and hopelessness which form acedia. People need people: that is simply the way God has made us, and so to remove this normality from our lives for prolonged periods is very harmful.
Does it matter to have an accurate name for how we feel? I think it does. Jonathan L. Zecher says, ‘When an experience can be named, it can be communicated and even shared.’ I believe it’s important to name things because naming is a form of identification, and once we can identify something, we can do something about it. Instead of being overwhelmed by inertia (I felt during the first lockdown that I was in a state of suspended animation, waiting daily for ‘something’ to happen without ever feeling in control of anything), we can address the issue and recognise that this is an emotion, not our whole identity. Jonathan L. Zecher goes on to say, ‘Naming and expressing experiences allows us to claim some agency in dealing with them.’ As we journey through the next four weeks of lockdown in England, we need to learn to name and express our experiences and understand that we are not alone in how we feel, even if we are physically alone. There is freedom in naming and sharing these things.
Many people at this time are looking for an exit strategy out of lockdown, but perhaps more important for Christians is to learn God’s entrance strategy into joy, a joy which is not dependent on happy circumstances or sunny personalities.
The joy God gives us is not dependent on circumstances. Jesus could talk about giving His disciples His joy hours before He died possibly the most painful death imaginable. (John 15:11, John 16:24) He could talk about their joy being complete even though He knew many of them would die a martyr’s death for His sake. Many years before, Nehemiah had spoken words which have proved true down the ages: ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ (Neh 8:10) Paul knew all about this. He knew that the Philippians didn’t have to be frightened in any way by anyone who opposed them. (Phil 1:28) He knew that faith involved not only glory but suffering (Phil 1:29), but he knew, as James did, that all suffering, trials and tests have a redemptive purpose. James said, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ (James 1:2-4) None of us naturally view trials in this way. Any adverse circumstance is more likely to provoke fear, anxiety, resentment and anger in us than it is to produce joy, and yet the constant witness of the Bible is that we can know joy despite our circumstances. We can know contentment whether we have much or whether we have little. (Phil 4:12) We can live in a totally counter-cultural way that becomes the greatest witness imaginable because we know that Jesus loves us and is working for our good in every situation and every circumstance.
Joy is found in knowing who God is and realising He is Lord of all, He’s always good and He is working for our good in every situation. When we get to that point, we are free, no matter what physical chains may be on us. When we get to that point, we can ‘stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.’ (Phil 1:27) We can dance in the darkness and sing in the shadows, as Rend Collective sing. (‘Joy Of The Lord’)
My granddaughter has recently discovered the joys of a warm summer and public fountains… At the same time, however, she was initially nervous of these fountains because they were pre-programmed to disperse water at different speeds and heights and she was wary. She needed encouragement to jump in and get wet! (Once in, she loved it!)
In many ways, I think we are the same when it comes to letting others know the good news about God. We are wary. What if people think we’re weird? What if people don’t listen to us? What if they have questions we can’t answer? What if they don’t want to know?
There’s always a risk when we take that step of faith into the unknown and introduce faith into a conversation that perhaps wasn’t expecting that response. But, as we will be considering the next time we look at ‘the wells of salvation’, there’s a difference between paddling and swimming. We need, perhaps, to learn to get wet for God! Taking every opportunity to speak of the God who has saved us is a liberating and exhilarating experience… but you have to get wet!
Garry continued his ‘Talking Point’ series tonight, looking at transgender issues. Gender is generally understood as ‘the state of being male or female’, and transgender is defined as ‘denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.’ This is very much an issue in the news at the moment, with examples given including a 10 year old girl who declared that because she did not like ‘girls’ toys’, she was not a girl and deserved surgery to make her a boy (a view which the Times columnist, Janice Turner, said indicated the BBC was allowing a ‘pernicious ideology’ to enter the mainstream media unquestioned.) It is easy to believe that this issue affects very many people, although the statistics indicate that only 0.6% of the UK population would consider themselves transgender. Nonetheless, as Christians we must consider our response to such issues.
Transgender is not the same as intersex, which refers to people who are born without genitalia or with damaged genitalia or those affected by Klinefelter syndrome (XXY chromosome in men). Intersex people have a physical problem, but trans-sexual people feel as though they have been born into the ‘wrong body.’ According to GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), ‘transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex the doctor marked on their birth certificate.‘ Their problem is largely a question of what they believe; under the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, an adult who has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and lived for 2 years as a person of the opposite sex can apply for a gender recognition certificate.
Transgender issues are high profile (which toilets and changing rooms should a transgender person use, for example), but we have to acknowledge there is a significant minority of people who have had operations to ‘change gender’ and later express regret about this (see here for further details.) A Home Office report from April 2000 said, ‘Many people revert to their biological sex after living for some time in the opposite sex.’ Clearly, the issue is not as clear-cut as some in the media would like us to believe.
It appears that underlying the transsexual movement is a radical form of self-determination, where the assumption is that a person’s subjective feeling overrides objective, biological reality. God made us male and female (Gen 1:27); this is the reality of our world. As the Church of England’s 2003 discussion document comments, ‘we are not simply people who inhabit bodies, rather our bodies are part of who we are.’ Christianity deals with truth (Jn 1:17, Jn 8:31-32, Jn 14:6). Paul declares that the truth is crucial (‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’ 1 Cor 15:4) We must hold on to the truths of the Christian faith whilst showing love and kindness to all, for truth is liberational. It’s not surgery which transforms people’s bodies that is needed, but the truth of the Gospel which transforms people’s hearts and minds which is required. Christ alone can transform people and give them liberty, since those whom the Son sets free are really free. (Jn 8:36)
Graham Kendrick captures the value of an individual in this song:
‘Is a rich man worth more than a poor man?
A stranger worth less than a friend?
Is a baby worth more than an old man?
Your beginning worth more than your end?
Is a president worth more than his assassin?
Does your value decrease with your crime?
Like when Christ took the place of Barabbas
Would you say he was wasting his time?
Well, how much do you think you are worth, boy?
Will anyone stand up and say?
Would you say that a man is worth nothing
Until someone is willing to pay?
I suppose that you think that you matter
Well, how much do you matter to whom?
It’s much easier at night when with friends and bright lights
Than much later alone in your room
Do you think they’ll miss one in a billion
When you finish this old human race?
Does it really make much of a difference
When your friends have forgotten your face?
If you heard that your life had been valued
That a price had been paid on the nail
Would you ask what was traded,
How much and who paid it
Who was He and what was His name?
If you heard that His name was called Jesus
Would you say that the price was too dear?
Held to the cross not by nails but by love
It was you broke His heart, not the spear!
Would you say you are worth what it cost Him?
You say ‘no’, but the price stays the same.
If it don’t make you cry, laugh it off, pass Him by,
But just remember the day when you throw it away
That He paid what He thought you were worth.’ (‘How Much Do You Think You Are Worth?’, Graham Kendrick)
Garry’s ‘Talking Point’ sermon tonight looked at the subject of celebrity culture. Celebrities seem to enjoy incredible importance and influence in the Western world, be they film stars, sportspeople, talent show winners or Internet celebrities.
Their fame,wealth and success are things ordinary people aspire to; indeed, many young people today cite ‘being famous’ as their life goal, even if they have no idea what they want to do to achieve fame! Often, this failure to achieve celebrity status breeds resentment and a sense of failure, but social media can create the illusion of fame even for the most ordinary of people. Some will go to extraordinarily dubious lengths to achieve fame (e.g. the Ukrainian mobster, Leonid “Tarzan” Fainberg, whose ‘claim to fame’ was as a sex trafficker who said, “You can buy a woman for $10,000 and make your money back in a week if she is pretty and young. Then everything else is profit.”)
What is also significant today is the increasingly varied roles that celebrities play in contemporary culture and the cultural authority that they are granted in those roles: we see celebrities serving as heroes, cultural commentators, charity spokespeople, role models and political candidates, to name just a few. It is truly frightening when politics, education, and our most intimate relationships become entertainment left to the dictates of a few celebrities.
Celebrity culture is founded on the Western lie that people have no intrinsic value set by God. If God is thrown out of the equation, then the value or worth of individuals becomes a commodity to be traded and fame and wealth become the values we live by. Katie Price once said, “No one can live without money. Money and religion are the big things, and that’s it, and I stay away from religion. We love to earn money, who doesn’t? It gets you things and it’s security.” Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity’s book ‘Life’s A Pitch’ argued that the most important thing anyone could sell is themselves, which celebrities do with startling success.
Celebrity culture cannot give people the security and worth they all desire, however: only God can do this. Gen 1:26 reminds us people are made in God’s image and mean so much to Him that He sent His only Son to die for them (John 3:16, Gal 2:19-20). Christ gave Himself as a ransom for people (1 Tim 2:5-6). Our worth is priceless; we are worth far more than the market price for a bag of heroin. Dr. Eric R. Pianka may claim people ‘are no better than bacteria’ and can therefore be destroyed on a whim (see here), but the truth is that God places great value on people and we have a hope that cannot be measured by culture. No matter what others say we are worth, God’s value of us gives us dignity, hope and security. We don’t need celebrity endorsements; we have God’s approval, love and grace.