Monday, 15 August 2011

There's No Place Like Home?

In a few hours, I'll be winging my way across the Atlantic to eastern Canada. This is the place I used to call 'home'. Some people still ask when I'm going 'home'. I haven't visited there for nearly 5 years, and have lived in the UK for almost 15. I have lived in Wales for 4 years, Watford for 9 and now in Northwood for 1. Sometimes I'm not at all sure where 'home' is.

I’m sure I’m not unlike many if not most people in western culture today.  We need a sense of home for emotional well-being, yet we are the homeless generation.  Through family breakup, mobility, fragmented neighbourhoods and lost community we find ourselves in Rich Mullins’ description, where ‘home is just another place where you’re a stranger, and far away is just somewhere you’ve never been.’  And so we seek our security, our sense of home in strange and diverse places.  We can so easily end up disoriented, frightened and alone. 

A few years back, I encountered the the German concept 'heimat'. My German friends will have to correct me if I've got this wrong, but, I think it’s an idea of home that is not just a place you live, or the neighbourhood you’re from.  Rather, it conjures up all kinds of nostalgia about belonging, and rootedness.  Regardless of where life takes you, you can go back home to your ‘heimat’ and to the people there, you never moved away, rather you were just travelling for awhile.  It is a romantic concept.   

But in reality we can never go back.  In the words of Heraclitis, you can’t step into the same river twice.  More than that, TS Eliot observed that you cannot step into the same river twice, not only because the water has flowed past but because we have changed in the meanwhile.  Those of us who try to go home to visit family will recognise this.  Each time you need an entire renegotiation in order to make room for each other.  As frustrated as you get with all of THEM, something within you prompts you to think that the problem isn’t all them – you have changed while you’ve been away, and that makes going home more difficult than you’d imagined.  So this idea of home, of heimat, is really only a romantic ideal.  It’s hard to see how it could be a reality.

During my own journey I'll be reflecting on 3 encounters people had with Jesus in Luke 9. I think all of them teach us something about home. Here's the first one:

In the first encounter on the journey, someone approaches Jesus and makes the proclamation, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’  We can imagine the earnestness, the enthusiasm.  But Jesus will not allow him to have any illusions about what following him means.  He might have said,'great, welcome aboard.' 
But Jesus surprises, and instead presents himself as the iconic homeless man: foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head .  He is a homeless man, but one with purpose, and direction.  Not homeless in the sense of aimless, but rather one with such purpose that he does not have the luxury of enjoying the natural pull to security and stability.  He wants to make it clear that travelling along with him requires costly commitment – surrendering natural rights in order to engage a supernatural mission.

In other words, to follow Jesus means packing light.  Keeping on the move.  Perhaps giving up claim to home, surrendering security and comfort for a life on the move.  Following Jesus means a new kind of commitment, where desire for permanence is traded for the excitement of journeying in the company of Christ.  But count the cost – a rock for a pillow and dew for a blanket.  We don’t read of the response.  The indication is that the question is left open for us.  What will we do when confronted with Christ like this?  Are we really willing to sacrifice Aga and duvet for life on the road?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Corruption of a Character

Action by action, we build our character.Whether in public, or in private, what we do is both a revelation and a construction of who we are.In a media-rich world, there seems to be a feeling that we can hide behind the illusion of anonymity, and be different people in different places and times. Our actions are without consequence. Here I’m a ruthless business tycoon; there I am a gentle lover. Here I hack into your private information, but there I would never ask you to tell me something that is none of my business. I can do some calculating things, but I am a good person at the end of the day.

The notion of a world free of responsibility, free of consequences doesn’t square with the best of human reasoning, let alone with a Christian understanding of ethics. In one Aesop fable, the birds are warned by the swallow to eat the hemp seeds before the seeds grow up into plants that are woven into nets that will be used to catch them: Destroy the seeds of destruction or they will destroy you. Oscar Wilde, at the end of his life, noted his experience of this reality: “I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetops.” I hope none of those caught up in current events are genuinely surprised when their actions come back to haunt them.

Even business leaders over recent years have been calling for more ethical teaching in MBA programmes because graduates were failing not to exhibit appropriate business skills, but failed to grasp the importance of honesty and integrity. Yet it takes more than knowledge of ethics to make an ethical person. It takes the tough discipline of subjecting every action to a standard that is higher than yourself. It takes more than a decision, though certainly not less; it takes the very formation of a person. In the words of Winston Churchill, 'Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.'

And so we really do reap what we sow. Maybe that is why the apostle Paul encouraged the Galatians not to grow weary in doing what is right. Perhaps he knew how frustrated people might become when they constantly finish last because the more ruthless players fix the rules to their own advantage. Perhaps he knew the temptation to give in, just once or twice, just a little.

But instead, he challenges us to forget about self-interest, and persist in helping everyone as we have opportunity. Because in time, perhaps after a long, long time, and well out of sight, we will reap a good, enduring harvest. This is the potential of a good character, well formed. The longterm reward comes from doing the right thing in secret as well as in the open, rather than using your power and influence for personal or professional gain: Now that’s a number worth hacking into. Sadly, the temptations of power are usually too great. Number by number, call by call, character is corrupted. And everyone loses.