As I lead a very quiet and almost dull life, in a small village, I suppose this blog should be about my once-in-a-lifetime boat trip to Norway, so here goes:
Here’s an image of the holiday, taken as we entered the fjords, on our third day at sea.
There were nearly 1,000 passengers on the ship, and 600 crew members; 1600 beating hearts on a large tin can crossing the North Sea, but we very rarely had the sense of all those hundreds of souls around us. Many of the passengers were in their 80’s, a few in their 90’s ( with walking frames, wheeled frames, wheelchairs, electric wheelchairs and walking sticks).
There was the middle-aged family, two sisters and their husbands, who seemed to be everywhere that we were, but who we never saw smiling even once. There was the couple (80 plus) who sat next to us one evening and reduced each other to helpless, jelly-wobbling giggles, as she tried to help him to put his jacket on. Her restricted movement and his arthritic shoulders had his arm firmly wedged half- in and half-out of the sleeve. After struggling for some moments they were laughing too much to carry on and went their cheerful way out of the dining room, jacket-less and holding hands. What’s a bit of age-related frailty when you love each other? There was a noisy merry widow gang, and a gentleman who had recently lost his wife and came on the cruise because it was ‘something to do’. There were loud and capable men, confident of their status and entitlements, who wore bow ties and tuxes to a formal dinner every night, and there were their partners in long dresses, clutching evening bags (I didn’t know they still existed). There were others, like me, who didn’t attend even one formal dinner but happily tucked in to the school-dinner type buffets, watching our more flamboyant companions as they paraded self-consciously towards the Captain’s table. There were earnest ecologists (somehow managing to resign themselves to the pollution we must have been causing just by being there) and there was the woman in a wheelchair with her two Social Service carers, having a whale of a time, all three of them. There were crew members from Croatia, Estonia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Russia, and even more exotically, Bali. Ship’s engineers in overalls shared meals with cosmetically enhanced spa staff, kitchen whites were so white they dazzled, and our Italian Captain melted our hearts with his cheerful greeting at noon every day “Good day, my dear friends!”
In short, it was a microcosm of the world, . This wasn’t a big posh expensive holiday and there were people there who had been sent on their first cruise by their children clubbing together to raise the funds, people who had saved for years, while others came on two or three cruises a year, it was both classless and class-ridden. People were kind to each other, and considerate, the whole thing was well organised, and the pace of life was slow.
In the middle of all that, I was in a lovely bubble of peace and contentment. I read John’s gospel three times and learnt so much, so very very much. You know the big thing I learned? ‘Course you don’t. Sorry. (One of the books I took on holiday was written in a very conversational style and I became uncomfortably aware that this is how I write, too. It was OK for the first two chapters, but after a while I wanted to grab the writer by the lapels and snarl into his face ‘Lay off with starting a sentence with ‘You see….’ or ‘Well…’ So, I am going to try to be less colloquial. Let’s see how that works out.)
I’ve called this blog ‘Weasel Words’ and the term usually refers to deliberately ambiguous or anonymous remarks, like the phrases that drip from the lips of career politicians, but that’s not what I mean. I mean words that are ungenerous, words like ‘tolerate’. If we say that we tolerate all races and classes and both genders, we are saying that we allow them to be in our vicinity. Hardly open-hearted or warm. An unweasley way of communicating a more generous emotion would be to say that ‘we welcome, and celebrate, all races, classes and both genders’. Another weasel word, in some contexts , is ‘enough’. A saying is that ‘God gives us enough’ but how much more vivid and truthful to say that ‘God gives us plenty’.
I think that this week I discovered a new weasel word, in some contexts, for example in the context of behaviour and choice. As I read the gospel of John, and dipped into others, I was struck, over and over again, by Jesus Christ’s simplicity and directness, His clear honesty. There is nowhere, that I can find, where Jesus allows or recommends ‘compromise’. There is a right way and a wrong way, a narrow gate and a wide gate, in Matthew Jesus says “He that is not with me is against me” “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me”
Jesus never says ‘Do your best, if you fall short, well, it’s good enough.’ He never says ‘The right way is tough, so let’s find a compromise.” “Stick with me while you can, but when the going gets a bit dodgy, take a break.” Jesus is clear. “Neither will I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” There is no compromise. The right is right and the wrong is horribly and ineluctably wrong. We have a choice, but only one choice is the right one. There is no middle way. Sin no more. That’s not to say that we make ourselves unacceptable if we sin, by God’s grace we can find forgiveness, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start all over again.
John, to me, writes a muscular gospel. I don’t know what the theologians would call it, but he’s not – to me – so much a teller of history or a story teller as a teacher. He gets across the cool simplicity of Jesus’ teaching. John is a driven and passionate man, and I think he’s taught me something, a tiny sliver, about the character of God as he’s written about Christ. But more than that, John’s gospel has taught me something about God’s personality. He is a FIERCE and gentle God. Right from the get-go God hasn’t just been pointing us to Jesus, He has been focussed, fiercely determined to proclaim His deity, to claim His people. Like someone hammering on a door when a house is on fire, shouting ‘save yourselves! Escape! Escape!’ That’s how God has been calling to the world ‘Jesus! Look! See Him! Save yourselves!’ Right from the first chapter of Genesis, everything has been pointing to Jesus.
In the Gospel of John, we see the character of God revealed in the character of our servant God, Jesus. No compromise. Muscular teaching. Strong, simple, take-it-or-leave-it. In Chapter 6, when Jesus is speaking about His own sacrifice, and ‘the one who feeds on me will live because of me” we’re told that the disciples began to grumble and Jesus asked them “Does this offend you?” But instead of mollifying them, coming up with a compromise that they could accept, Jesus repeated and confirmed his teaching. “From this time, many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him.” Jesus didn’t call them back. There was no compromise on the table. We feed on Christ and we live, if we don’t feed on Christ, we die. No half way house. Far from running after the crowd who left Him, Jesus turned to His closest followers, the 12, and said ‘You don’t want to leave too?” I’m sure that if every single person on this planet had turned away from Him, would still have not offered a compromise.
And then I read John 9, the story of the man born blind, healed by Jesus. The Pharisees, wanting to discredit this new teacher who was threatening their rule in the temple, brought the man in for questioning and then his parents, and then again the man… and when he refused to deny that Jesus had healed him they threw him out of the temple. I was completely thrown by one simple verse, verse 35: Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when He had found him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” I wondered about that, about Jesus’ reason for looking for this man when the story had already played out, but then I went back over the chapter and saw that when the once-blind man’s parents had been brought before the temple big-wigs, they had been afraid to confirm or deny anything at all, because they knew that if they said the wrong thing they would be thrown out of the temple. And so I thought about what this would mean, this Jewish ‘ex-communication”. If someone was thrown out of the temple it would mean that they were considered unclean, they could no longer bring their sacrifices, no longer be a part of the worship and the community. I think that Jesus knew how abandoned and lost this once-blind man would feel, and that’s why He searched Him out. While God’s character is uncompromising, His personality is compassionate, empathetic. His heart is full of love and He brings His righteousness and His love together in the redemption story.
I wondered what it would feel like if I was thrown out of my little church; stinking horrible, that’s what. And I think that Jesus knew this man would be distressed, maybe questioning his faith in God, maybe terrified of never being acceptable to God, but Jesus didn’t leave him out there in the cold. Our cool and muscular, no-compromise God found him, and said “Do you believe in the Son of God?” The once-blind man answered “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” And Jesus gave him all the assurance any man could ever desire, that God is present and real and relevant “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you.” Jesus sought Him out and gave Him the opportunity to believe.
So, my God is a no-compromise God, but a God who knows what it is to be alone and rejected, and my God searches out those who need Him, and reveals Himself to them, and gives them the grace they need to be, in turn, His uncompromising followers. Not for us the weasel word of compromise. One way only, the narrow gate.
Don’t you just love Jesus ? The God who loves us as we long to be loved.
I learnt a lot more. I can’t put it into words yet. And the words I’ve already found are not adequate. But they’re all I have.
Here’s another pic of Norway: