OT Lectionary April 6th Lent 5 Ezekiel 37:1-14

As I write I’m busily mugging up on church growth theory for a job interview, and I can remember a time in the past when God spoke to me powerfully through this well-known passage about the Valley of Dry Bones. In particular my attention was drawn to the process by which a pile of dead skeletons became a mighty army. The parallels to the church today are only too obvious, but the passage may speak to us more personally too. Where there is dryness and deadness it is God’s will to bring life and flourishing, whether in the church today with all its dryness or in the lives of Lent-weary Christians.

Stage 1: First of all Ezekiel is invited to take stock. That walking to and fro in the graveyard allowed him to see clearly the true state of affairs. I can remember one staff meeting in one of the churches I served when I made us all go for a walk around the church buildings, really concentrating on what we could see, and trying to see it through the eyes of someone who was visiting for the first time. It was a most depressing morning as we noticed broken windows, peeling paint, piles of junk everywhere, broken bits of equipment which no-one had felt it was their job to throw away – you get the idea. But that miserable perambulation began a process of change and refurbishment of our buildings. So that’s the first question, which God doesn’t actually ask here, although he does in other places: ‘What do you see?’

Stage 2: Then comes the supplementary: ‘Can these bones live?’ After inviting him to face the reality, God brings hope, followed by action: ‘Prophesy to these bones!’ I think there’s a difference between praying about a situation and prophesying over it, but the prophesying can only come at the Lord’s command. It is not something we take upon ourselves to do. But Ezekiel has heard God, and so in obedience he proclaims the purposes of the Lord over the bones, and they begin to stir.

 

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Stage 3: So far so good. The dead bones are now bodies. But they’re only zombies. They haven’t got the breath (or ‘spirit’) of life in them. So a third stage is needed, as Ezekiel, again, note, at God’s command, prophesies to the breath/spirit/wind – it’s all the same word – and life enters the bodies.

This story always reminds me of that famous verse from Psalm 127: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ We can build structures, but unless God breathes his Spirit into them, we’re wasting our time. We can do all the right stuff to get our churches to grow, but if the Lord doesn’t sovereignly start revealing his truth to people, what’s the point? We can fast and pray and all the rest through Lent, but if Jesus doesn’t meet us it’s all empty. So much of what we do in the Christian life and in the Church seems only to be half the job, with little in terms of life-bringing or life-changing results. We can’t make God act; we can’t prophesy with our own breath, but we can cry out to God with all that is within us for him to act. In my experience he usually acts on the raw material which we have prepared: he breathes his life into the skeletons we have put together, so this is not an excuse for passivity. But this story does remind us, I believe, of our desperate need for God’s Spirit who alone can bring new life.

What’s Church For? Luke 10 Church

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at some different models and understandings of church, both biblical and not-quite-so. I haven’t anywhere near finished with church yet, and I’m aiming to get a bit more gritty as we continue this series, but first I thought I might try out on my dear readers a model which is certainly drawn from Scripture, and which I believe ought to capture the essence of what church is for.

I can’t claim this will be a scholarly exegesis of Luke 10, nor am I even sure that what I am about to describe suggests as clear a paradigm as I might wish it would, so I simply want to say that this model is to me a highly suggestive one, which we might do well to think about.

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The story goes that in the previous chapter Jesus has sent out his 12 disciples to drive out demons, heal the sick and preach the kingdom (in that order). Then at the start of Luke 10 he sends out a larger group, of 70 or 72 depending on which manuscripts you read. Again they were to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom, although this time Jesus recognised in his instructions that there might be the possibility of them facing a bit of opposition (was this something he learnt from feedback when the 12 returned? Discuss).

Anyway, and here comes the church model, the 72 return in v 17, obviously delighted at how their deliverance ministry had gone. Jesus seems thrilled too, and in v 21, enabled by the Holy Spirit, he is filled with joy, not, interestingly, because some demons had been kicked out, but because this newly-formed team of beginners had learnt so much from the experience. But in between these two verses Jesus is found giving further teaching to the disciples, both to reassure them about their authority in him, but also to direct their enthusiasm more correctly. The section ends with him again telling his disciples how privileged they are to have been a part of this ministry.

That’s all we get, but bear with me, because it seems to me that this might have been more than a one-off occasion, and if so might provide a radical vision for the nature of church, or at least church services. Just imagine a Sunday morning meeting which looked like this:

Everybody gathers full of the Holy Spirit and joy because of what they have seen God doing through them during the previous week to heal, set free, and give new life. The church leader shares in their enthusiasm, but also gives them a bit more teaching. Then they’re all sent out again to see what God is going to do in the week ahead. The next Sunday they come and celebrate together again, receive more teaching, and so it goes on, as more and more people experience the new life of the kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that most weeks when we gather we haven’t actually seen God do anything, nor, quite honestly, do we have any expectation that he’s going to do very much in the week ahead. So all we have left is ‘church’: the celebration is non-existent, so we just sing hymns and say liturgy; the teaching is pointless so we just listen to platitudes or academic theology, and then we go home to our lunch.

I’m not sure where we break into this cycle, but wouldn’t it be interesting to try?

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Mothering Sunday Ex 2:1-10

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, but if you’d rather use the Lent 4 readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4F

At first sight this story seems more like child abuse than a model of good motherhood: Jochebed bungs her baby in a basket, floats him in a river, and then gives him up for adoption to a foreigner. This sounds like something the Daily Mail would do an exposé on! But of course we know more than this, and her risky actions were designed to save her baby, not to endanger him. In fact he was already in quite enough danger: a people in slavery were quite deliberately being culled by a paranoid Pharaoh as means of controlling the population explosion. I won’t dwell on the seven million children slaughtered in the name of ideology and freedom since the 1967 Abortion Act, but even when children do survive birth there are many parts of the world where they are unlikely to last very much longer.

So what does this story tell us about motherhood? There is something deeply wired in to human parents which seeks to protect their vulnerable children, at least into the vast majority of parents. It still shocks us to hear about mothers who sell their toddlers to sex traders in order to fund their drug habits, and long may it continue to do so. But Jochebed is a good mother, and takes considerable risks first of all to hide her baby, not an easy job as most babies I know like to have their say! Then in committing him to the waters she is talking another risk: who will find him first, a human or a crocodile? And if a human, one who is moved to compassion by his innocent vulnerability, or a nasty one? It could all have gone horribly wrong, but she had no choice.

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But underneath this story is a deeper one about a mother trusting God. To the Egyptians the Nile was a sacred river, almost a god itself. It was this god who once a year flooded and gave them the rich water for their crops. So it could be that Jochebed had lost her faith in Yahweh, and had lost the plot and gone native. Maybe she was trusting the Egyptian gods to preserve her son’s life. I don’t think so. I reckon she knew that her God, the true God, was able to save her son, and by placing him in the Nile she was almost making a statement that, in the words of the song, ‘our God is greater’. And of course not only did God use this greatest of leaders to free his people from the slavery which had been their lot for so long, but he even arranged it so that Jochebed got paid for it.

Jesus himself was later to be protected from the death-threats of a paranoid monarch. Today we might give thanks for that protective care wired into us by a loving God, pray for those who are under threat, and for those sad mothers whose circumstances have taken from them the ability to care and protect as our Father does us.

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Lent 4 1 Samuel 16:1-13

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, so if you’d rather use those readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4J 

This passage is all about appearances being deceptive, and about the way that as humans we struggle to see things in the same way that God sees them. Rick Warren, in his Purpose-driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) tries to analyse the nature of discipleship, and the ways in which we grow into it. His second step, after Biblical knowledge, is Perspective, which may be defined exactly as this ability to understand how God sees things, and to subdue our personal likes and dislikes to his. For example, in an age where sin has gone out of fashion (while sinning, apparently, remains as popular as ever) Christians need to understand just how repugnant it is to God, and just how harmful it is to individuals and to society as a whole. When we see sin as he does, that makes it a whole lot easier to want to avoid it.

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Getting God’s perspective on things, therefore, will often bring us naturally into conflict with the values of the world around us. It isn’t that Christians are meant to be unpopular: it’s just that we’re meant to be unpopular for the right reasons and over the right issues. So how do we gain this sense of perspective? How do we learn to see what God sees, which is so often buried under the surface?

Samuel basically learns here through trial and error, and ears open to God’s promptings. On one level he doesn’t come out of this chapter looking very good at all. First of all he’s hanging on to the past: God has to rebuke him because of his over-fond memories of King Saul (whom, of course, he had previously anointed). The hard truth is that God has rejected him: God forbid that we hold onto something God has finished with – there’s a lesson for the church right there, which I have discussed elsewhere in my Ending Well (www.grovebooks.co.uk R39). His next mistake is to assume that he knows the answer himself – he has already made his mind up without a single word from the Lord as soon as he sees how butch Eliab is. So again God has to remind him that he sees things differently, and that he sees the hidden things of the heart, the irony being that while Samuel himself looks every bit the prophet, enough in fact to scare the good townsfolk of Bethlehem, his heart is so mistaken, which God can see.

From then on he seems sadder and wiser, and ready to hear when God rejects Eliab’s brothers one by one. So do we hear in his question to Jesse about any more sons the conviction that there must be, because God hasn’t chosen any so far, or rather a lack of faith in God, or in his ability to hear him (‘Of course you haven’t got any more sons, have you?’) I’ll let you decide that one, but at the end of the passage he seems at least to have learnt one thing: in obedience to God’s word he anoints this young bit of a kid, and then presumably sees evidence of the rightness of this action as the Spirit anoints David too.

I don’t think the major question is whether or not we have gained God’s perspective: we’re all on the way, hopefully. But it is about being obedient even when we’re not sure, giving God, as it were, the benefit of the doubt.

What’s Church For? Church as Army

What’s Church For? Church as Army

I’ll make no bones about it: I have always thought of church as an army. I can’t help it, it’s just my age and my sex. I’m a bloke, and I just like the idea. In the old days, when we used to frequent such places, we would occasionally visit Blockbuster to choose a video for an evening off. As you can imagine my wife, being a girl (another quaint idea nowadays), headed straight for the romcom aisle to find a nice film about relationships and love. Meanwhile I went off to find something where Arnie or someone saved the world and blew up a load of stuff, or Beatrix Kiddo dismembered a few people with her Hattori Hanzo sword. So it’s not surprising that I tend to see church in similar ways, although with a bit less dismembering. We have a battle to fight, an Enemy to defeat, people to rescue, ground to take, poor people to feed and broken people to heal. Add to that the fact that one of the most formative periods in my Christian upbringing was the late 70s and early 80s, when we used to sing all those songs about treading down our enemies and entering the land in heavenly armour, calling on the principalities and powers to bow down and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Those were the days, before the political correctness police got their hands on Christian worship. So you can see where I get it from.

But is this a biblical picture of church? Did Jesus or Paul conceive of it in this way? As with some other models we’ve looked at, I can’t point you to a verse which is the equivalent of Paul saying ‘You are the Body of Christ’. But it does seem to me that the idea of battle, struggle and victory pervades the Scriptures. In the OT, which I’ll admit does contain some difficult passages about slaughtering people, God’s people were often to be found at war against someone or other, and often defending themselves. I love the throw-away comment in 1 Samuel 11 where David the king is staying in Jerusalem spying from his palace roof ‘at the time when kings go off to war’. There is an implied rebuke: if David had been out on the battlefield as he should have been, he would never have got into the mess he did with Bath-sheba and Uriah the Hittite. If as a church we really were fighting for the land we just wouldn’t have the time nor the inclination to argue about women bishops and all that other stuff which so preoccupies us. In the NT we’re told very clearly a) that we’re in a battle, and b) that it’s against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. So although the Bible doesn’t specifically call the church an army, it clearly thinks that there’s fighting to be done.

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A church which sees itself as an army will place a high value on things like prayer, training, learning study and discipline, because it will want to be as fit and as well-equipped as it can for the mission God has for it. It will also be purposeful, and is more likely to attract men. It will know how to mourn its defeats, and it will pick itself up, dust itself down and start all over again, because war is like that. And if it seems a bit of a harsh model after the nice family and haven ones we’ve been thinking about recently, remember that armies too have relationships, but they’re called ‘camaraderie’. There is no friendship like that with people we’ve fought alongside in battle, whose wounds we have bound up, and maybe even whose lives we have saved. I love the idea of church as a field hospital rather than a convalescent home, or even an old people’s home. This is the model for me!

Soon I’m going to move on from biblical images and look more closely at the church as it really is today. This will give me the opportunity for a bit more of a rant about some of the problems I think are facing us, and what we might do about them. But before that, next time – a ‘Luke 10’ model for church, and after that Church as Big Business.

OT Lectionary Mar 23rd Lent 3 Exodus 17:1-7

There is one important motif which comes throughout the story of the trek from Egypt to the Promised Land: that of the Israelites’ ‘grumbling’. Today’s passage is the third example: they have already moaned at Moses in chapter 15 because of the nasty-tasting water, and in 16 because they were missing the exotic meats of Egypt. In Numbers 11, my favourite example, laughable because of its sheer stupidity, they are missing the Egyptian melons, leeks, garlic and cucumbers. Come on! Who has ever wailed over a lack of cucumber? If only I could go back to making bricks in the mud and getting whipped for my troubles, as long as I just had some melons! But for now the problem is less silly and in fact potentially quite serious. There’s no water at all, not even the bitter sort, and once again the people turn on their leader.

The resulting story is one of the people’s ungratefulness, Moses’ prayerfulness and God’s faithfulness, and as such forms a good template for anyone in leadership in the church, whether of a small group, a congregation or a diocese. It is not a coincidence that leaders in the Bible are often likened to shepherds: it can often feel as though the people have the intelligence of a piece of mutton combined with the viciousness of an angry ram (and, incidentally, the memory of a goldfish). Later on in Numbers 11 we’re going to hear even more deeply Moses’ anguish at having to lead this particular flock, but there is one thing which each of these stories has in common. Moses, almost as though he had already heard Joseph Scriven’s hymn, takes it to the Lord in prayer. In fact whenever there’s a crisis of any kind, Moses’ immediate and instinctive response is to go back to the God who had landed him with this thankless task in the first place. There’s a challenge for us: I tend to get angry, discouraged, depressed and despairing in approximately that order. Moses prays, and in every case God does something as a result of that prayer, and the crisis is averted.

 

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I never cease to be challenged by Moses’ leadership. He was commissioned by God to get the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, by hook or by crook, whether they wanted to go there or not. I love his determination, but like most church leaders I have also felt often his sense of hopelessness, of his calling having become a burden to him. Many leaders have had ‘Gethsemane’ moments when we have had to re-surrender ourselves to the will of the God who called us in the first place, and some have even had ‘Jonah’ moments when we felt as though death was a preferable alternative to Christian ministry. I note too that Moses takes not just the situation but also his anger and despair about the situation to God. He doesn’t feel the need to be polite, but he is painfully real.

The big question for me has to do with whether or not God would have sorted things out anyway without Moses’ intercession. I don’t know, but I do wonder how many miracles I’ve missed out on because I have not shared Moses’ instinctive prayer life. When I have only become angry and frustrated but have not thought to cry out to God about it; when I have decided I can sort this out by myself, it might just be that I have denied God the opportunity to work a saving miracle.

What’s Church For? Church as Haven

Last week we looked at that most popular of models of church, ‘happy family’, and I suggested that this model was both unhelpful and probably unbiblical, at least as a way to think about the local congregation. This week’s model is different but related: church as ‘Haven’.

If you want a perfect illustration of the thinking behind this model, there is nowhere where it is stated more clearly that in a couple of lines from Henry Francis Lyte’s famous hymn Abide with me:

Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

This hymn, popular at funerals and, inexplicably, cup finals, is about the approach to the end of life. Lyte wrote it whilst busy dying of TB, and actually survived only a further three weeks after its completion. I’m not there yet myself, but I guess it reflects an old man’s bewilderment at a changing world, and his readiness to go to a better place (although Lyte was only 56 when he died). As such it popularises a spirituality common among older people, particularly in an age of rapid culture change and technological innovation. Everywhere I look I find a world changed beyond recognition, almost as though I were living in a foreign land, where I don’t speak the language or understand the culture. So thank goodness that in the shifting sands of life there is one place where I can look for unchanging succour. Church, so the reasoning goes, is meant to be the place where I can go to get my dose of the familiar, a place where I feel safe, where I understand the rules, a place where ‘naught changes’. My church is my safe haven against the changes and chances of life in a world where I no longer feel at home. ‘Change’, note, is synonymous with ‘decay’, rather than ‘growth’, ‘development’ or improvement.

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Whilst this sense of what the sociologists call ‘cultural dislocation’ is understandable, and while it is particularly understandable among a generation brought up in a stable world where change has suddenly began to spin out of control, it betrays an interesting and ultimately unhelpful view of church, and of God. Note first of all that Lyte sees God as the unchangeable point of reference; God, not his church. We have mistranslated his words to mean that church should never change, a sentiment which manifests itself most clearly in the matters of liturgy, music and buildings. God is indeed unchanging, but it has been said that ‘change is the angel of the unchanging God’. As we have already said in this blog God is actually a God of pilgrimage, a God who constantly leads his people purposefully forward. Sadly churches which see themselves as safe havens against change are often churches on their own deathbeds.

Of course we need to care pastorally for those nearing the end of their lives, and perhaps feeling disorientated and frightened. But to see a church as a safe haven from the storms of life is diametrically opposite to the pioneering and adventuring spirit to which I believe we are called. If we’re quoting hymns, I much prefer this one:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.   (Robert Bridges)

We need a God who guides us through change, not who saves us from it.

OT Lectionary Mar 16th Lent 2 Genesis 12:1-4a

Elsewhere in a different blog I’m writing about the church – what’s it’s for and how we can get it right or wrong (#whatschurchfor). This passage is absolutely key in understanding the state of the church today, and in order to grasp why I’ll need to take you back a few years to an evening spent in London with Chris my wife. We’d got tickets for some show or other, and we were going to eat first and then go on to the theatre. I have no remembrance at all about the show, or even what it was, but I’ll never forget the meal. We went to a well-know chain which wasn’t called ‘Simon’s’ but something in close partnership with him. We ordered our meal, which I have to say was very nice, and decided that if we were quick we just had time for afters. Trying to summon a waiter or waitress we found that all the staff seemed inexplicably to have disappeared. After about 20 minutes of hanging around we decided that we’d missed afters and we had to get going, so our quest became instead for someone who would give us our bill. We could easily have just walked out, and I have to admit we were tempted, but in the end I got up from our table and went hunting. Seated in a booth round the back somewhere about ten staff, all in their uniforms, were tucking into a meal. ‘Sorry to interrupt’ I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster, ‘but we need to pay and go.’ Grudgingly one of them got up and got our bill, which we paid in haste and just made it to the theatre in time. At least it saved us the cost of a tip.

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The Jews in the time of Jesus were very keen on being the ‘chosen people’, but what they hadn’t grasped was that they were chosen to be God’s waiters and waitresses to bring his blessings to the rest of the world. Abraham’s call in this passage was twofold: to be blessed, but also to be a blessing to all peoples on earth. And therein lies the problem: the Jewish nation wanted the first bit but forgot the second, a tradition in which much of the Christian church has been proud to follow. Whenever we claim exclusivity; whenever we operate as a holy huddle; whenever we subtly set up church structures which are hostile to newcomers or outsiders or people who are not like us, we are just like those staff who are happy to sit and feast themselves while others go unnoticed and hungry. This call, to remember that original commission to Abraham, both to be blessed and to bless, echoes through the rest of the Bible: most notably in Isaiah 49:6

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

When Simeon greeted the new-born Messiah he too knew that this was God’s call:

“My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)

Since this narrow exclusivism and self-centred consumerism has been, and continues to be, such a perpetual problem for God’s people, we do well to look at our own church life very carefully, lest we find ourselves feasting at God’s table while others go hungry, wanting blessings but less keen on being blessings. It has long been my practice to remind people of this danger liturgically: whenever I give the liturgical blessing at the end of services I always use this adaptation of the usual words:

The blessing of God Almighty,

The Father, the Son,

and the Holy Spirit

be among you, remain with you always,

and make you a blessing to others.

What’s Church For? Church as Family

How many times have you heard (or indeed used) the term ‘The Church Family’?

I reckon that most churches have self-designated themselves as families at one time or another, and I can see why. It sounds like a great model of church – a happy family where we all love one another and are always nice to each other. A place where all can find a welcome, and where anyone can belong and be loved. Yet I want to suggest that this is one of the least helpful models of church. Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to find in the pages of scripture.

It is clear that God is pro-family: it isn’t good for people to be alone, and he sets the solitary in families (Ps 68:6). The term is used several times in the epistles (Gal 6:10, 1 Th 4:10, 1 Pet 2:17, 5:9 for example) but usually in the form of ‘God’s family’ or ‘the family of believers’. Never once is it used of a local church, but rather of all those, whether in a large region such as Macedonia, or in an even larger unspecified and therefore probably universal area. Christians who are adopted by God become members of his family, but that family is never seen as just a local congregation. The church universal may be a family, but the church local never is. It is fascinating that in 1 Tim 3 we’re told that a church leader should manage his own (human) family properly. If he can’t do that, how can he be expected to manage ‘God’s church’? Not ‘the church family’, as you might expect. The author deliberately shies away from using that phrase, which would have been a much more satisfying piece of writing.

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So why isn’t a local church meant to be a family? First of all because, unlike the picture of pilgrimage we used last week a family is essentially a purposeless thing. Families ‘are’: they don’t of necessity ‘do’ or ‘go’. They’re held together by relationships, not by purpose, and therefore are bodies much more attractive to women than to task-orientated men (I generalise, but I can defend this generalisation). Secondly, there is no growth imperative in the term ‘family’. In fact most families reach the time where they take deliberate steps to ensure that they don’t grow any bigger! Sadly many churches do too. Thirdly, families in real life tend to be selective in whom they let in. ‘PLUs’ are welcome (People Like Us), but there can be all sorts of devices and signals which say to others ‘Keep out!’ And if they are allowed in, it can be because they are poor and needy, and looking for welcome and shelter, rather than because they are fired up and ready to go on a mission. There’s the appeal to the feminine side again. Church as ‘family’ can quickly become church as ‘hospital’, where only needy people are made really welcome, and even then only some needy people. And finally families can be deeply dysfunctional, but are very adept at hiding it because keeping up the front of loving relationships is all-important, much more important in fact than honesty and genuine dealing with conflict. Church families, like human ones, can be deeply destructive and hurtful. Trust me, I know: I’m an out-of-work vicar!

I reckon we’d all do much better to remove this non-biblical term from our vocabulary. I’m going to suggest a better one to replace it, but first I’ll talk about one more model which I reckon is unbiblical and unhelpful. Next week: Church as ‘Haven’.

OT Lectionary Lent 1 Mar 9th Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Just what is sin?

Today’s OT story is a game of two halves, almost child-like in its simplicity, and oh so true to human nature. ‘You can do anything you like’, says God, ‘except this.’ So what’s the one thing they do? There are goodness knows how many trees, shrubs and bushes to choose from, and just the one which is banned. So of course it’s precisely that one which they want, that forbidden fruit which they want to taste. Those of us who are parents have seen this scenario played out many times, giving the lie to those educationalists who, like Rousseau, believe that human nature is fundamentally good. We may even have used it to our advantage through the gift of reverse psychology: ‘Whatever you do don’t you dare eat those sprouts!’

We often label Genesis 3 as the story of ‘The Fall’. We use terms like ‘falling from grace’ to describe the action of going wrong and losing something of our previous exalted and virtuous state. But I can remember a talk long ago (although sadly I can’t remember who gave it) in which it was suggested that a much better term than ‘fall’ was that of ‘rupture’. Medically the term refers to something which has burst its boundaries and spread out into somewhere it should not be, where its containing tissues have split open and allowed it to lose shape. The danger is that it might not go back in again, with all sorts of painful and even fatal results. I was convinced that this was a really helpful way of conceiving of sin, not as falling off something, but of bursting out of something.

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The creation story of Genesis 2 tells us of four things which God knows that the human race needs. In fact we were wired up to need them right from the very start, and in his love he provided them for us. Work, companionship and responsibility were all given by God, along with the fourth, slightly less enjoyable but equally essential gift: boundaries. Like speed limits boundaries are there for our own good, to restrain our stupidity, to protect us and others, to give us something solid against which to kick, and ultimately to remind us of our created and mortal status. Paradoxically it is the bursting of this boundary which brings mortality to the human race.

There are several pictures of sin in the pages of scripture: missing a target, falling short of a standard, disobedience, rebellion, offending God and harming others, but I reckon that bursting out of our God-given restraints is a good cover-all one. I wonder if it can help us to rethink what is going on when we sin. As we spend time in penitence during Lent, maybe privately and maybe in our public worship, might it be a good idea to ask ourselves when we have overstepped the mark, gone further than we ought, broken through boundaries which were there for our own protection? The slightly less biblical picture of Pandora’s box nevertheless tells us an important truth: the best way to give up something is never to start in the first place. Fortunately the Master Physician of our souls is able to perform corrective surgery, but it may well leave a residual weakness which we will have to watch carefully for the rest of our lives.

There is another application, though, for those of us who are parents, especially of young children. Our job, I have argued elsewhere[1], is to be like God to our children, and we have a God who does set boundaries, which to cross brings consequences. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that disciplining children has gone a bit out of fashion in our politically correct and ‘rights’-obsessed culture. Christian parents do well to ponder the benefits of boundaries and their enforcement, just as our heavenly Father obviously sees their benefits.


Leach, C and J And For Your Children (Crowborough: Monarch, 1994)