Sunday 23rd September 2012
‘A good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit – the neglect of Christian Character??’
“Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”
One of the, to my mind disturbing changes in the way the history of the last century is viewed, especially in Europe, is the way in which we all stopped talking about ‘the Germans’ with respect to culpability for the Second World War. Instead we just referred to the Nazis. I found that change disturbing, not because it was about blame, but because it moved the spotlight away from a deeply uncomfortable question. The National Socialist Party was numerically not that large, but it mobilised many many German people in its cause. Feeding on deep resentment and a sense of injustice, a sense that Never again should the proud German people suffer a humiliation like the Versailles settlement and all that flowed from it, a large part of the population was caught up in the moment, and lived to regret it.
Although there were many who saw through the Nazi rhetoric to an even darker and more sinister heart, many more were caught up in it, and afterwards found themselves implicated at some level or other. It was as if they were in some sense helpless in the face of what was happening, somehow swept along like chaff driven by the wind. The unremitting fascination in England with the history of the Second War saw endless TV documentaries, and all too many interviews with ordinary Germans who clearly couldn’t come to terms with their own involvement, their inability to Stand against it. By only talking about the Nazis, we were deflected from the troubling fact of the capacity for great evil that lies within each one of us, something which can spring up in a moment as people are as it were swept along
For this goes on all around us. Not thankfully, at least for here and now, in the rise of terrible totaliarian regimes, but in the moments of all our lives. People get caught up in something and before you know it others are hurt, relationships wrecked, words said which cannot be taken back. Or smaller steps taken unthinkingly which lead towards these things, guided as James puts it by ‘cravings within’, towards an external and permanent stain on the record. ‘We do those thing we ought not to do and we have not done those things which we ought to have done’, as the words of the Prayer Book general confession have it. And the things we do lead towards more things we ought not to do, at times, seemingly inexorably.
Last Sunday morning, whilst you were engaged in the worship of God, I had a too personal insight into that at Synod. It was a moment of realisation about this reality and about myself. In the midst of the business of the morning I too found myself caught up. I did something that on reflection I should not have done, and I did not do something I should have done. It happened in a few brief moments, and I was not ready for that moment. ‘Be on guard’ says Jesus ‘ . . . so that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.’ I got something very wrong and it has been a chastening experience. I was caught unexpectedly, and acted unwisely
Of course it would be all too easy to say in my case as in many millions of others, ‘There there, we’re all human you know, these things don’t matter all that much’, but as Christians we really do not have that luxury – for we believe in the one who ‘alone from first to last our flesh unsullied wore’, we believe in The Human – Jesus of Nazareth. Whenever anyone says to us – ‘well, we are all human’ as a way of salving our consciences, we should respond, ‘no we are not – but in the Risen Christ we are learning to be so’
As to these things not mattering, well again we know better. This is why we call such erring and straying, ‘Sin’ – we realise the damage these things do, fracturing the realm of Existence. It is why in the church we are to exercise the disciplines of mutual accountability, of confession, repentance and more. Those good practices which like the Person blessed in our Psalm, move us away from being like the chaff which the wind drives away, blown hither and thither as we are ‘caught up in the moment’, and instead directs our being towards the stability of trees, planted by streams of water, which in the moment are not blown away but rather bear fruit. I realised in that moment last week, I was like the chaff – my lack of rootedness was revealed. It was a moment of Judgement – the tree fell.
Life comes at us, ‘stuff happens’ as we have it – nowadays as fast as it ever has. We live in an age of rapidly accelerated change in which life offers us almost on a moment by moment basis choices to make, decisions to take. Many of them seemingly inconsequential – to ‘Like’ something on Facebook, to reply to an email, to answer the phone, to buy a new pair of shoes, to stop . . . that it seems is the one thing we are NOT encouraged to do – to Stop -to reflect – to ask ‘is this really the way?’ ‘What sort of a Life am I building by my myriad of momentary choices? Or. . . are my choices the result of a carefully built life?’
Moving here to New Zealand has of course resulted in an even greater variety of new experiences – more new things which all have the capacity either to enrich or diminish life, requiring discernment, or Wisdom. In particular I am getting used to a new language, not only New Zealand English which is subtly different to the language I grew up with, but also of course in the Maori tongue. So I am learning new words, and my new word this week was ‘Mana’. A friend used it and though I had heard it and had a vague idea of what it meant, I went and did some further research. For those, probably few of us who don’t know, Mana when translated out of the Maori into New Zealand English might mean something along the lines of deeply rooted good character – that rare quality of a certain Weightiness and Authority in and of themselves. I’ll come back in a moment to the Maori sense, but first that idea of ‘Character’.
My sense is that we live in a culture which understands that character is in a sense something almost accidental, that you ‘just happen to be’ a person of character. That how we act in the moment is just who we are, or that who we are is a given, we have lots of traits and a very few have these traits which identify them as people of Mana. We think little if at all about if it is possible to develop our character – less about HOW we might build our character. In this regard, as in so many others we are crippled by a lack of sense of times past, when Development of Character was actually of great significance in society. People thought much about how character was developed – and indeed education was primarily seen in these terms. Not in terms of teaching a set of facts, but in terms of teaching a disposition towards the world, a way of being human. Our forebears would I think have had little time for those words ‘ah well, we’re only human’.
A sign that things have changed is perhaps the way we receive the phrase, ‘a character building experience’ – such a thing is increasingly understood as a negative. A child is sent away to boarding school – ‘it will be character building for him’ – the putting side by side of the Negative aspects of life away from home and the building of character, throws a negative light on the latter. Be Yourself!! is today’s mantra. But who says, ‘Become yourself’, as if Life was not in truth a covetous amassing of experiences, but rather the lifelong project of developing character, that when the testing comes, when the winds blow and the seas rise, the resulting house might not collapse as if built on sand.
Now of course such a view of character building is very much along the lines of the self sufficient rugged individualist way of doing things. We may leave this place and think ‘Mana’ – right – I am going to pull up my bootstraps and build myself a life.
Perhaps we might think of that reading from Proverbs, about the ‘capable wife’ There indeed is what we might call Mana. As we read of this woman, she is awe inspiring in the integrity of her life, she has Mana, yet right at the end, there is a little note that the Western Individualist way is Not how she has built her life. What the word Mana carries with it in Maori culture, is that Character is somehow rooted in something spiritual beyond our own grit and determination – it is at once a work and a gift, and here it draws much closer to the truth revealed in Christ. As the writer says of the capable wife, ‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised’. Proverbs is if you like a manual for a young man in living life and here in finding a good wife. What is her defining character out of which all else flows? That she fears the LORD. Her exceptional character is rooted in a living apprehension of God
For indeed it is hard to read the scriptures for very long to realise that this work of building a Life, Who we are, is one that we are given. Yet that in this work we are totally dependent upon Christ. ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me’, is the way that Jesus puts it. The Yoke is the symbol of obedience – the yoke of obedience – yoked to Jesus.
The saying goes, ‘it is all to easy to be wise after the event’ – wide and easy is the way that leads to destruction, but as Jesus tells us we are living in the times of the End, momentous times, times when our lives are put to the test – things happen one after the other after the other, our work is tested as if by fire on an almost moment by moment basis. It is easy to be wise after the event, but then it is too late. The deed is done, and the door is closed – we find ourselves on the outside, whilst the discerning and wise who were ready, go into the banquet. The question is ‘How are we to be wise before the event?’ How are we to be ready? How do we develop Christian character which is sufficient. How are we to become Wise before the event? Only in being Yoked to Christ – the Living Word, who is for us Wisdom from God, and thus growing into the fulness of who we are in Him.
Think again of the Psalm, Blessed is the one . . . whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. Meditating on the law of the LORD, paying attention to the one to whom we are yoked through baptism. How do we become the people we are meant to be? By entering into training with Christ in conscious obedience day by day by day. And at first this is difficult – this yoke seems to chafe – obedience to Christ is Not second nature, and we all too readily give up – we do not reflect on our mistakes and what Christ the gentle one is teaching us. We go back to trying to do it for ourselves or not bothering and resorting to the complacent – ‘ah well, we are only human’. As the writer to the Hebrews says ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’
‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’ says James, ‘But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.’ Character is in the end is the outflow of our hearts – envy and selfish ambition in the heart produces disorder and wickedness.
The character of the disciples, their hearts, were shockingly revealed in their actions. ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ asks Jesus. Well at least they had learned enough to be shamed into silence . . . Jesus called these twelve men and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus does not primarily call us into a whole new set of things to do – that is secondary. Rather he First calls us into a whole new way of being.
Before setting out the actions of the sermon on the Mount he describes in the Beatitudes the type of people who can live in obedience to his teaching – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the pure in heart We can only begin to live the Life Christ has called us to as we begin the work of developing the life that is capable of living that Life. . . Christian character building comes before the Test, Wisdom is garnered before the event as grain is gathered before Winter – when the test comes it is Always too late to do the work of character . . . but fear not we have the very best teacher – one who loves us utterly and has given himself up for us – as he has given and continues to give himself to us, let us likewise offer our lives to him, that he might take them, discipline them, mould them more and more into his likeness, to the glory of God the Father of us all. Amen
What sort of a Life am I building by my myriad of momentary choices?
Or, are my choices the result of a carefully built life?
Lord have Mercy