Renew Your Mind

Renew Your Mind
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Romans 12:2

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

These would be good clothes to choose for today

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.

Colossians 3:12

Ancient writers such as Aristotle thought carefully about the virtues they would hope to see in a man of good character (and it was only the men they were interested in, of course!). Aristotle proposed four cardinal virtues, which he said were the most important aspects of character to practise in order to become a complete, flourishing human being. His cardinal virtues were:

  • courage
  • justice
  • prudence
  • temperance
These virtues sound a bit like the clothes a soldier or statesman would choose, as he faced the tasks that lay ahead of him that day. That's not surprising, as that was the context in which Aristotle lived and wrote. But his list is very different from Paul's. Paul's world was not very different- he was writing to a Hellenized, urban audience which may well have included both soldiers and statesmen. Why did he suggest such different virtues?

Paul, of course, is a follower of Jesus and he had learned that this often meant turning conventional ways of looking at life upside down. Before he gives his list, he reminds us who we are- we not only have new clothes but we have a whole new identity. God has chosen us to be His. That means we are holy- not because holiness is something we do, but because holy things or people are those set apart by God to be used for His purposes. And we are beloved- we don't have to be the heroes of our story any more, God has already rescued us. So although courage, justice, prudence and temperance are not bad things, Paul suggests they are no longer the most important things that should characterise us. He says choose compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.

Spend some time today thinking about these 5 virtues. Why were they so important to Paul? Which do you find the most challenging? How would your family, workplace or community be changed if you were to act with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience every day?

Monday, March 27, 2017

New Clothes!

Today the sun is shining, and in the Northern Hemisphere it's a sign that Spring is here, and Summer cannot be far behind. At last we can put away our thick Winter coats, fold up jumpers and warm woolly clothes, and with a smile search for the brighter colours and softer fabrics of Spring.

The stores would like us to think that we have to shop for a whole new wardrobe- but sometimes it's enough to find clothes that we already have, that we used to wear, but haven't worn for a while.

I wonder if the virtues we have been considering can be a bit like this? We know that we should be behaving with kindness, honesty, patience etc.....but have we forgotten about these things, pushed them to the back of our wardrobe and replaced them with the behaviours of darker and colder times?

Paul uses this image in Colossians 3, where he writes

Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. 
Colossians 3: 9,10 The Message

When we become Christians, we turn away from our old life and sometimes it can be as dramatic as stripping off old filthy clothes and putting them on the fire. But I suspect that for many of us, as we seek to cultivate the character of Christ, it's more of a daily decision about which clothes to choose today. There, hanging in our wardrobe, are the garments custom-made by our Creator- made to perfectly fit us and equip us for the opportunities the day will bring, and surely not just useful clothes but beautiful things too, soft luxurious fabrics and shining colours that complement us and make us look our best. But sometimes we don't notice them, or assume that they are just too impractical, and reach instead for the comfortable pair of sweatpants we left lying on the floor yesterday-our well-worn default wardrobe of cynicism, grumbling, impatience, self-pity or bitterness. 

Paul writes

It wasn’t long ago that you were doing all that stuff and not knowing any better. But you know better now, so make sure it’s all gone for good: bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk.
Colossians 3: 7,8

This week we will be considering Paul's description here in Colossians of the virtues that we should be clothing ourselves with instead. Are you ready for a new wardrobe?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Mary- learning character from her heavenly Father

Mary's song in Luke chapter 1 v. 46-55 is well known.

My soul magnifies the LORD
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour

The entire song looks away from Mary herself, towards God. She praises Him for who He is, highlighting His character.

He has looked with favour on the lowliness of His servant...
holy is His name
His mercy.....His strength....
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

He helps....He remembers His promises

Taking truth and turning it into a song can be very powerful. As Mary sang, was she reminding herself about the God who she worshipped, the God who had just visited her in the form of an angel to give her a most remarkable job to do? Was her song a way of repeating to herself, and all who heard her, just what this God was like? Mary sang of how the ways of God are so often opposite to the ways of the world- and she must have been thinking that she herself was such an unlikely choice to be the mother of God's Son. She sang of how those who think they have power, and are proud of it,  can be scattered in an instant by her God. We know how soon Herod, one of the most powerful men in Mary's world, would be so threatened by news of Jesus' birth that he would order terrible violence against innocent babies to attempt to keep hold of his power. She sang of the rich being sent away empty and the hungry being filled- echoes of what her son himself would say thirty years later as He stood on a hill in Galilee preaching his Sermon on the Mount.

We have seen that character is formed by the things we believe to be important- and Mary's own character was being formed and strengthened by the God whom she worshipped.

I have quoted James K. A. Smith before, but he bears repeating. He writes about the importance of worship as formational to character:

Christian worship, we should recognize, is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life. That is why worship is the heart of discipleship. (p. 25)

If the biblical narrative of God's redemption were just information we needed to know, the Lord could have simply given us a book and a whole lot of homework. But since the ascension of Christ, the people of God have been called to gather together as a body around the Word and the Lord's Table, to pray and to sing, to confess and give thanks, to lift up our hearts so that they can be taken up and re-formed by the formative grace of God that is carried in the rites of Christian worship. (p. 106)

Smith, "You are What You Love"

Mary shows us that if we are seeking to cultivate character, it is a good idea to make time to sing- and not to sing about ourselves, but to lift our eyes up to the One who created us in His image and praise Him for who He is. This weekend, as we join together with other believers in worship, let's recognise that what we are part of is a recalibration, a detox from the values of the world that we have been immersed in all week, and a willingness to sing our way into the image of God.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday's diversion- Character and personality traits

Brian Little is a Cambridge research professor, who is interested in the psychology of personality. He explains some of his ideas in a fascinating TED talk- find it here Who are you, really?

He has also written a book about his research, "Me Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-being" where he uses the phrase "acting out of character". He explains that the phrase can mean two different things- we usually use it to describe someone who is acting differently from what we might expect. In this sense, we use character to mean their personality- if a grumpy person acts in kind and thoughtful way, we might describe this as uncharacteristic behaviour. Or if someone who normally is patient snaps and loses their temper, we assume that something unusual has happened because this is not their real character, and maybe the circumstances or provocation was extreme to cause them to behave 'out of character'.

But Little suggests that another way of using the phrase is when we make a decision to act in a certain way, based on our character and our most deeply held values. It may be a difficult thing for us to do, as it goes against what we would "naturally" do, but our values are so strong, and so important to us, that this is enough motivation to compel us to act 'out of character'. A mother may not consider herself to be a particularly strong or brave person until the moment when her child is in danger, when her love for her child enables her to act with uncharacteristic courage. A colleague at work may normally be quiet and amenable until one day a racist joke over coffee triggers an angry or impassioned outburst- their desire for justice is stronger than their introvert character.

Little writes, "I think there is a moral dimension to free trait behaviour. Acting out of character is value driven. We rise to occasions when we might have defaulted to our biogenic selves. We do it out of love and we do it out of professionalism, and through it we deliver on our personal and professional commitments."

Paul may use different language, but is this not also his message? He says that although our "biogenic selves" may cause us to act selfishly, untruthfully or violently, we are not condemned to live with this character. There is a way to act out of character, in both of the senses that Little uses.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Romans 8: 5,6,10,11

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Westminster attack- two characters under the spotlight

Yesterday PC Keith Palmer lost his life when a terrorist attacked him with a knife after driving a van right into people on Westminster Bridge and attempting to attack the Houses of Parliament in the centre of London.

Many people were killed and injured, and the attack has shaken British people. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, said this, "The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our capital city where all nations, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech."

At the centre of the tragedy are two men whose actions highlight extremes of character. At one extreme is the police officer who lost his life. In the moment of crisis, he displayed courage- courage so strong that it cost him his life. Was this a value worth dying for? Yes, surely it was- many people have taken to social media to praise and thank him for his remarkable character. We recognise in his actions a person who, when it counted, showed us the best a person can be. He not only knew what was right, he acted on it. I doubt he had much time to think about it- he was able to act in this way was because of the sort of person he was, a person who had already decided that he was prepared to spend his life protecting others.

At the other extreme is the terrorist. There is little news about him at present, meaning all we can do is wonder. What leads another person to act in this way? Presumably he had given his actions time, thought and planning. He had had plenty of opportunities to reflect on his plan, and to change his mind. We find little if anything to admire in his behaviour. He showed none of the aspects of character which we aspire to. What was he driven by? Did he operate under a different view of what it means to be fully human? Did he surround himself with others who congratulated him on his plan and named it as bravery?

How can two such different beliefs about bravery both exist? One so destructive, while the other protects life? We could say both men acted selflessly, thinking not about the cost to themselves but about the effect of their actions on others. Both were driven by their characters, by what they valued most.

A tragedy such as this causes us to pause and think deeply about human life, and what it looks like at its best and its worst.
We need someone bigger than ourselves to direct us away from the worst and towards the light of the best we can be.

Anyone who claims to live in God’s light and hates a brother or sister is still in the dark. It’s the person who loves brother and sister who dwells in God’s light and doesn’t block the light from others. But whoever hates is still in the dark, stumbles around in the dark, doesn’t know which end is up, blinded by the darkness.
1 John 2:9-11

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Yesterday we thought about the songs we sing in worship. Lots of them are about love- our love for God, and His love for us. But how many of them are about our love....for our enemies?

You have heard it said "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Matthew 5: 43,44

Matthew records these words in chapter 5, right near the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. The Sermon on the Mount is like a manifesto, making it clear what sort of people Jesus is calling us to be. In John's gospel, we hear this call to love again as Jesus speaks to his disciples in the last week of his life.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 13: 34, 35

Is love a virtue? Is it part of our character, that we should cultivate? Or is it an emotion, growing unbidden like a weed, surprising us sometimes with the objects of its affection? The language that Jesus uses suggests that love is a decision, and that we can tame it and train it. It may not be natural to love our enemies, but as Matthew 5 goes on to point out, anyone can love his or her friends. The love that Jesus talks about is new because it is not natural, it is more than an emotion, it is to become part of the character of those who follow the One who loved us so much that he gave himself for us.

This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. 
1 John 3: 16-18 The Message

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Character or Comfort?

I wonder what it would look like if we compared the songs that we sang last week in church with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount? How often did we sing of God's mercy, grace, forgiveness...and of our need for Him, our desire to feel His love, our assurance that we were special to Him? Our songs might convince a visitor that our faith is all about our emotions- our needs, our desires, and our happiness.
Jesus does not seem too bothered with feelings in this, his most famous sermon.

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times 'You shall not murder"....
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister then you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council; and if you say 'You fool', then you will be liable to the hell of fire.....
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Matthew 5: 21- 28

This is hard teaching. The Ten Commandments were daunting enough- those uncompromising rules, laid down in such negative language, caused us to struggle with their restrictiveness and absolute nature. But now, just as we were hoping that Jesus would come to soften the Law, he speaks instead of something far more difficult- not morality, but character. He speaks here of what sort of people he is calling us to be. At the end of chapter 5 he says

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5: 48

Perhaps this is why we need seasons in the year such as Lent. In between the magic and mystery of Christmas, the triumph and hope of Easter and the excitement and promise of Pentecost, we need a pause to listen to this, our calling- not to feel good but to be good.