Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.

Having read something along the lines of rejoicing hearts in a recent quiet time I scribbled it down on my list of concepts to pursue at some point. I say recent – but these terms are relative! Where did I read it and what was it that earned it a place on my scribbled list?

In terms of where in the bible I read it I have three options:

Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
1 Chronicles 16:10

In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Psalm 33:21
Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Psalm 105:3
In terms of why I scribbled it? Well two main lines of thought seem to have lodged in my mind:

1. Am I known as someone whose heart rejoices in the Lord?
More often than not recently my children take one look at me and ask me what is wrong! A friend asked me how I was and as I paused to consider continued: “That bad eh?”

2. How can I nurture a rejoicing heart and be more influenced by it?
A quick reflection and web search suggested to me that in popular thought the heart tends to be either lauded as the only true guide to follow if you want to be happy; or villainised as the enemy of logical, objective thought. But doesn’t a biblical view of the heart remove this false dichotomy and challenge both these concepts? And if so what will it look like to live a life governed by a rescued heart rejoicing always in the Lord?    

But for now let’s just sink into the following exhortations, infusing our hearts with scripture:

Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
1 Chronicles 16:10

In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Psalm 33:21
Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Psalm 105:3
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A Better Story – an overview and a conclusion.

To start – a whistle-stop tour of my last few posts.

Prompted by an item in the news, I started off by asking: Am I free to disagree?

I (and I imagine I am not alone) find myself living in a world that seems to have taken various God-given; fundamental to human society; beautiful and good elements of human life and redesigned them in a way that is deeply troubling to me. For a start, I am troubled by the very fact that ‘society’ has given itself the authority to do this – a fact which is symptomatic of a much bigger attitude problem! But there are also the consequences of the redesign itself to be faced up to – some of which may be discovered and understood only by future generations.

One impact that is apparent in the here and now, however, is the impact on our freedom to live in a way that is faithful to God’s word. Hence my post – Are we free to disagree?

While recognising our need for humility, love and a readiness to confess our many failings in this area, I encouraged us to be bold in continuing to vocalise our beliefs in this area with gentleness, grace and wisdom. To defend the right that society claims to offer all without discrimination to disagree and to celebrate the existence of an alternative viewpoint.

We then came to look at the huge role our emotions play in how we react when faced with a question regarding the morality or acceptability of a situation. What might come across – even to ourselves – as a rational, intellectual position is often a lot more intuitive then we would imagine. Taking a look behind the scenes at these intuitive, gut based responses we saw that they were largely determined by our position on a spectrum of differing key concerns and questions about the situation at hand.

We met a hypothetical grandmother who seemed to have done a u-turn in terms of what she believed to be right and wrong – until her original feelings about homosexuality were exposed to be just that – feelings. When feelings much more important to her were aroused it was entirely natural that she should eventually respond to the idea of a homosexual relationship quite differently.

So what difference does it make? Well – it has been a revealing journey!

In my travels I have been confronted with my own emotional blind spots and have become much more aware of the dynamics that are actually going on around me – both personally, within individuals in my life and within society as a whole.

As to where we go from here…

Step 1: finish reading ‘A Better Story’. I’m nearly there and I am both sobered and motivated by its conclusions. One of the book’s objectives was to answer the questions:

1. Did the sexual revolution deliver on its promises? (Abundant, wonderful sex, great relationships, personal fulfilment and happiness to name but a few!)

AND

2. What impact has it had on our lives more generally?

In very basic terms the answers are in the first instance: No; and in the second: very damaging particularly to the most vulnerable – our children.

As I say – sobering; but also highly motivating.

What an incentive to press on advocating and modelling life to the full as designed and given to us by our loving maker. It turns out that we are not old-fashioned fuddy-duddies trying to spoil everyone’s fun and make people feel terrible! Of course you probably already suspected that – but when you are portrayed a certain way again and again the doubts can so easily creep in.

The world needs a better story and we know the very best story ever – the only one with a real-life happily ever after. Let’s press on with sharing it.

Step 2,

and most important of all….

I want us to finish up where I ended my first post.

We must keep the main thing the main thing.

Our job is not to force either our nation, or the individuals in our lives into submission to God’s rules about sex.

Our job is to offer Jesus to all who we meet. To live lives that render people unable to do anything but ask: “What is the reason for the hope you have?” and to be ready to take them to Jesus when they do.

 

U-turns and flower pots

At this point I would like to bring in two new and purely hypothetical characters from Glynn Harrison’s ‘A Better Story’ to help us see some of the processes we have been identifying at work.

Picture with me a hypothetical grandmother and her beloved grandson.

As you might expect, the grandmother has grown up ‘believing’ that homosexuality is wrong. If she is honest the idea is repulsive to her. She hasn’t weighed up lots of evidence, done lots of research and formed a well thought out, logical case against the practice of homosexuality. Nor has she made a deliberate decision to submit to the teachings of any faith group on the matter out of trust in God’s wisdom and goodness (or that of any other deity or guru). She just ‘knows’ it is wrong. For most of her life this has ‘worked’ for her. Her friends agree with her, it is sad that the world seems to be changing, but she doesn’t have to change with it. Her basic gut reaction – established within the culture in which she first interacted with the topic in her youth – remains unchanged.

Now picture the scene in which her beloved grandson finally plucks up the courage to tell his grandmother that he is in a gay relationship. In all likelihood, given some time, the gut reaction that told her that homosexuality is wrong will simply start to tell her a different story. And why wouldn’t it? Why should her gut have a deeper allegiance to what she now sees as an out of date, restrictive convention dictated by the old ‘THE WAY WE DO THINGS AROUND HERE’ than to her own flesh and blood and the happiness she sees him experiencing? Particularly when she is surrounded and supported by an ever more vocal, brand new ‘THE WAY WE DO THINGS AROUND HERE’.

From the vantage point of my right leaning elephant I could never understand how people could do such a blatant u-turn without so much as a blush. But – armed with a greater awareness of our powerful, visceral, gut-reactions and Haidt’s spectrum – I now have to ask myself – has our hypothetical grandmother actually done a u-turn?

Well, certainly not an intellectual one. as she didn’t never occupy an intellectual position in the first place. Her gut is still her guide on the issue – it is simply guiding her in the opposite direction. She grew up at the right hand end of the spectrum where tradition and the good of the community weighed heavily, now the weight has shifted to the left – both in society around her, and more importantly in her love for her grandson.

1

My normal gut reaction to this type of hypothetical scenario is to find myself preparing for an intellectual, black and white battle.

Picture if you will a medieval jousting tournament!        Medieval-Jousting-Tournaments

 

However, having the above dynamic opened up to me has challenged that. It has shown me that strong and long-held gut-reactions do not necessarily spring from deeply held convictions. Or to put it another way – they don’t necessarily represent the conclusions (or absence thereof) of the rider on top of the elephant.

In the garden I think it is generally true that the strength of the plant above the ground is determined on the depth / extensiveness of the root system below. In contrast in the world of our gut reactions – what can look very similar above the surface, the leaves and fruit of the plant if you will, can spring from a vast variety of differing root systems – both shallow and deep.

Not that some people are shallow and fickle and while others are deep and constant. It is what we find ourselves being deep and shallow about that varies. In other words, the central issues of our life – where we put down our deepest roots – vary.

Imagine a window sill with a line of flower pots on it. There are a variety of flowers growing in the different pots. One flower may be the ‘how I feel about gay sex’ flower. Originally it was planted in a rather ugly pot clearly labelled: It’s wrong and unnatural. The seed was planted in that pot, sprouted, grew and flowered there for many years. Recently however the plant has been re-potted. It now flowers in a pretty pot labelled: Everyone deserves to be happy. What hasn’t changed is the window sill the flower pots sit on. It is a stone window sill and beautifully carved into it are the words: Loving my family. The flower pots may change quite dramatically, but the ledge they sit on is there for good and it is at that ledge that I need to meet her.

As I look to love and relate to this hypothetical granny the key question is not – “How can that 180 degree turn around sit comfortably with her?” but rather: “What is so precious to this loving granny that she has ‘re-potted’ her feelings about this?” “What is the non-negotiable window sill on which her feelings about things sits?” And most importantly: “How can I bring Jesus to her there?”

Stop and think about the window sills you see in the soul-houses of those you know and love. What words are carved into them? Loving family? Fitting in? Success? Popularity? Saving our planet? What about your own window sill?

By God’s mercy and grace, carved on mine are the words: HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME, YOUR KINGDOM COME, YOUR WILL BE DONE. However, persistent bits of graffiti keep appearing. Being right, being noticed, and being accepted are all regular interlopers for me. What about you?

blog-graffi-2.jpg

 

Which way does your elephant lean?

In my last post, with a bit of help from the Dulux dog, we considered the massive role our gut reactions and emotional connections play in our decision-making.

And what a useful tool they are! Imagine trying to make every decision you face in a day from an objective, factual and scientifically backed up standpoint. It would cripple us! We need our gut reactions to help us successfully navigate our way through our days well and safely. Not to mention with our own individuality in tact!

Useful? Undoubtedly! But also hugely, yet stealthily, powerful. Our emotions can give the impression of creeping cat-like through our lives and societies barely disturbing our carefully thought through, objective thinking; whereas in actual fact they stomp through our decisions and reactions like mighty elephants – as Glynn Harrison elucidates for us.

By the way if you are at all impressed by my use of elucidates please note that I stole it from the Disney film ‘Aristocats’! Let me know if you can tell me which bit.

Harrison points us to the work of social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman who have gathered vast quantities of data illustrating how much of what passes as thoughtful evaluation actually operates at [this] subconscious gut level.

Haidt conjures the picture of a small man riding an elephant.

If the rider is our logical, rational, objective self, the elephant is our intuitive, instinctive self, our gut reactions, our visceral feelings about an issue.

Haidt gets us to understand our quick off the mark gut reaction as the elephant leaning. Inevitably, as a consequence, our logical self (the rider) ‘leans’ before he/she has actually reacted much at all. So he argues, “if you want to change someone’s mind you need to appeal to his or her emotional elephant as well as to the intellectual rider on top”.

Which means you need to know which way his or her elephant tends to lean!

Haidt has produced a convincing body of research to show that our intuitive reactions to moral questions tend to operate broadly along six basic psychological systems, or foundations. In laying out these six systems he helps us to identify the different points of view from which people evaluate a moral question. The main question that each of the six systems ask will differ – because different issues and concerns will take priority.

To give a very basic example let’s consider how different people might react when presented with a menu at a restaurant. When I look at a menu my first port of call is to identify which options are sugar-free, whereas the NTV is more likely to think: “what would I not have at home?” Someone on a very tight budget might look at price first, whereas anyone with an allergy will prioritise that. Some will always choose their main course first and let that determine the rest of the meal, others might be all about saving room for pudding.

So what are the central questions for Haidts six systems?

better story
Photo taken from page 29, A Better Story by Glynn Harrison, IVP 2016

When presented with a moral situation those one the left of the spectrum will primarily be concerned with the individuals involved. Are they safe? Are they being treated equally and fairly? In contrast, the factor linking the three systems on the right is a focus on general moral concerns and big principles binding people together. Are we meddling with a sacred principle here that could put the community at risk? What is the received wisdom on this within my community? Could I do this and remain loyal or would pursuing this weaken community cohesion?

And don’t forget that leaning elephant! These questions are being asked and answered on a largely intuitive basis. When we look at how we respond to the moral questions being asked in our nation at this time – we will start to identify whether our personal elephant has a tendency to lean towards the left or the right.

As I acknowledged in my last post I am a black and white thinker. This does not mean that I respond to everything objectively, without emotion – I am at the mercies of my gut reactions as much as the next person! It simply indicates the direction in which my emotions lean. I ride an elephant that leans to the right as exemplified by my strong emotional reaction to the new status quo settling in and getting its feet under the table seemingly without a carefully thought through logical debate.   

As a right leaner my concerns are as follows: Should we not give more consideration to tradition and past wisdom? Have we really thought about the effect on society in the future? Have we ever stopped to ask where the sexual revolution has got us?

In contrast, however, the general lean of our society is increasingly to the left of the spectrum. When faced with an individual who is suffering ‘society’ wants to make it better for them right there and then, on the ground, at their point of felt need. 

From my right-leaning perspective I evaluate what is happening in our society as an arrogant and presumptuous redefinition of what is right and wrong. I feel anger and incredulity at what is going on. What right do people have to ‘suddenly’ declare that 2 + 2 no longer equals 4?

What I have failed to see is that the whole nature of the question being answered has changed. As society collectivly leans towards the left it isn’t searching for a fixed answer to a fixed question. Rather, it starts with the individual ‘numbers’ involved and adds things up from there to discover what is best for the individual.

And so it is not simply the presence of disagreement that puts barriers in the way of loving fruitful conversation – but rather a totally different understanding of what we are disagreeing about. I can go on objecting until I am blue in the face – but I might as well be doing it in another language! To truly and lovingly engage with others in matters of human sexuality and gender, I need to stop simply telling people my answer to my questions, and start talking about the questions that concern those on the opposite end of the spectrum.

More on this to come no doubt – but to finish I just want to share a Note to Self that has arisen from all this:

 

Dear Self,
You have much to learn from those whose elephants lean left. You tend towards a lack of compassion towards the individual and a pride in correct thinking. How unlike my Saviour and Lord you are. Jesus always treated those he met as individuals and he always acted with compassion. Glorifying his Father, teaching truth and acting for the good of all never compromised his compassion or desire for the individual’s best. What perfect wisdom! 

Lord, help me to grow in my compassion, to value loving and serving people over promoting certain ideas for the sake of things being ‘right’. Thank you that there is no conflict between what is true and right and what is best. Lord please use me to lead people to your compassion and truth, to the one in whose name I pray now, Amen.  

Not so radical after all…Black and White Cats and Old English Sheep Dogs

The Minister’s Cat has now been with us for one year!

One of the things that constantly amazes me about him is the way in which he can appear out of nowhere as if by magic. One moment – not a whisker to be seen, then you look away for a split second and when you return your gaze there he is sprawled across the floor as if he had been there all along.

It’s the opposite with children isn’t it? They are sitting/lying there playing quite happily one moment and the next time you look they are nowhere in sight!

I think cultural ideas can be a bit like that – cats that is, not children.

I don’t want to negate or downplay the heartbreak and hard work of those who campaign for change, the years in which there is so little to show for their efforts. In the thick of it, ideas take forever to change and are fought for with blood, sweat and tears. To change the way a culture thinks, to re-set the accepted wisdom, the default position, ‘the way we do things around here’ is a painstakingly slow and a very costly process.

However, if we zoom out just a bit and look at things over the course of a century say – there are definitely moments when you return your briefly averted gaze to a particular spot only to find a radically different culture sitting there comfortably and proudly as if it had always occupied that exact spot and has no intention of moving until it jolly well feels like it.

What causes seemingly deep-seated beliefs of right and wrong to do a 180 degree flip over the course of a generation or two?

The quick answer? Because the way we decide what we like and what we don’t like has far more to do with our emotions, our immediate gut reactions that we tend to admit.

This was illustrated brilliantly for me by a Radio 4 discussion on paint brands.

Dr Robert Heath, Associate Professor of Advertising at the University of Bath School of Management, speaking on You and Yours, 27th Sept 2017 if you’re interested!

Apparently certain paint brands do significantly better than their (much cheaper) own brand equivalents not because they are technically superior, but because they have understood the role of emotion in our decision making. Basically, put an Old English Sheepdog on the tin and in the adverts and you get an emotional response that wins you loyal customers.

Dr Heath calls it subconscious seduction, stating: “Much of our decision making is based on our emotions and there is no question that devices like dogs are able to exert a very strong influence on our emotions at a subconscious level”. 

This is an important dynamic to understand when looking at how a culture changes – for example the massive shift in popular thought brought about by the sexual revolution.

Recognising this has has been a huge help to me as a black and white thinker.

If a long lost section of the bible had been discovered, if there had been some transparent, careful, well balanced analysis before we abandoned what has been accepted as God’s clear commands for centuries I would find it easier to engage. As it is I tend to bang my black and white drum about the clarity of scripture on the matter and tear my hair out at the lack of a chance to have a reasonable conversation about it.

As someone who is convinced that 2 + 2 still equals 4,  how should I engage in a universe in which it is 62 and proud of it?

My tendency is to simply mark society’s new maths with a big red x. Thankfully God has been using writers like Ed Shaw and Glynn Harrison to help me look behind the painfully wrong answer and to engage with the workings out.

Which is where the elephants come in – or rather where they will come in in due course.

 

A Better Story by Glynn Harrison

As you might have gathered I am slowly reading through:

A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Relationships.

In the same way in which he examines the history of the self-esteem movement in The Big Ego Trip; in A Better Story Glynn Harrison skillfully takes us through the promises, processes and stories of the sexual revolution.

This is not just a knee-jerk reaction against the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves living. It is not a blushing attempt to squeeze everything back into the Victorian wardrobe it burst out of.

blogBursting closet

No. Instead, Harrison takes us though the story of sexuality and gender that the world has so wholeheartedly adopted and gives us the courage to ask – is ringing true or not? Has it delivered what it promised? Which of course then begs the question – if not, why aren’t we telling the world a better story?

Perhaps you feel happy that you are standing rock solid on the biblical truths you’ve always believed in?

This book will help you to take a careful look at the basis for that confidence. It takes the lid off our knee-jerk gut reactions (however correct they may be) and shows us just how beautiful those truths are. It will also help you understand what is going on around us and how to engage with others lovingly and to the glory of the Lord Jesus.

OR…

Perhaps you are unconvinced, or even frustrated and sickened, by the narrow stance some Christians are taking in this area?

This book is humbly and intelligently written and offers a great chance to have a rummage (or a ratch as we say up here!) through the issues past and present away from the constant noise of our own and other’s gut reactions.

Either way I couldn’t recommend it more highly!

But meanwhile, back at the beginning of the book…

I’m really excited by the super accessible way in which Glynn Harrison lays out for us the mechanics of idea forming and culture changing – inviting us as it were to take a look under the hood of society with someone who knows what he is looking at.

If you’re interested join me for my next post: Not so radical after all…Elephants and Old English Sheep Dogs

Prayer and Poetry

Gleaned from reading Morning and Evening – Devotions by Charles Spurgeon

Gracious Spirit dwell with me;
I myself would gracious be,
And with words that help and heal
would thy life in mine reveal,
and with actions bold and meek
would for Christ my Saviour speak.

 

Though thou slay me I will trust,
praise thou even from the dust,
prove, and tell it as I prove,
thine unutterable love.

Thou may chasten and correct,
but thou never can neglect;
since the ransom price is paid,
on thy love my hope is stayed.

Proclaim aloud the Saviour’s fame,
who bears the Breaker’s wond’rous name;
sweet name; and it becomes him well,
who breaks down earth, sin, death and hell.