Friday, May 18, 2007

"Turn the other cheek"

The other day, listening to the local radio station, I heard the two hosts chatting about religion: "Of course every religion teaches 'turn the other check.'"
What a complement to Jesus Christ, that his distinctive and famous instructions on how to respond to violence (see Matthew 5:39) would be assumed to apply for ALL religions. Could this be some kind of reverse religious imperialism: if you want to know what Buddha or Muhammad taught, just read the gospels? Has Jesus' influence been so profound upon our worldview that people can just quote his words and say: well of course Islam (or Hinduism, or paganism, or whatever) teaches that.

Of course what they were saying was nonsense. Not all faiths are the same, any more than all political ideologies are the same. They don't all offer the same response to violence. It would be incredible if they did.

Where does such woolly thinking come from? Does it come from the view that religion has become irrelevant? Is it based on the belief that faith is somehow a projection of a universal common moral consciousness of the human soul? Is this just plain old head-in-the-sand stubbornness, refusing to acknowledge that not all faiths are the same? Perhaps it just a matter of our comfort levels: if all religions are the same, then we don't need to bother about them anyway.

Is this a case of us having become so lazy that we can no longer understand the times in which we live?

Drought-Proofing the Soul

When I was a kid I lived for a time in Western Queensland. The country was then in teh grip of a terrible drought, when all the sheep had to eat was the leaves of the mulga trees. After a long period of dry, dry weather, a great downpour might come and 'break the drought', and long-empty river beds would swell into flood plains. But what puzzled me about all this was how one big rainfall could stops years of dry weather. Drought is by definition a long dry period. Why would 'drought-breaking rain' be anything more than just a tantalising momentary interlude in an every longer drought. This seemed to me like the gambling mentality of the 'lucky streak': just because you have one lucky win, it doesn't make you any more likely to win on the next toss of the dice.

When I was younger I didn't understand two things about rain and Australia. One is that our rainfall is determined by long-term variations in water temperatures in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These oscillate in such a way that they can produce long periods of drought or plenty across our land. So 'drought-breaking rains' could indeed be just that: the herald of a whole new weather regime - for some years. The other thing about the land of Australia is that over millennia the environment has become used to this. Plants are accustomed to sudden temporary changes in climate. When rains come, within a short time seeds long dormant in the ground spring to life, the desert becomes a garden of flowers. Even the rivers are suddenly replenished with fish.

In Australia, having it too easy can be life-threatening. One of the trees in our garden was living for years off the soak of a broken sprinkler outlet. It was a deceptive season of plenty. When the sprinklers were finally fixed, it was when we were entering the height of a severe drought. That poor tree, which for years had exceeded all the ones around it in height and foliage, became very stressed. It was not drought proof. The fatness it had enjoyed for so long was a delusion.

The Bible speaks of seasons of God's grace for nations, communities and individuals. The prophets use the language of weather, speaking of early rains and latter rains, and times of God's spirit being poured out like rain upon the earth. There are references to famines and feasts of the soul, to droughts and floods.

How will we respond when our soul seems about to dry up? Is our soul drought-proof? Surely times of famine and plenty WILL come. The challenge is, in times of plenty, to be ready and prepared to put down deep roots, and not just be content with the abundance of surface water. Thsi requires determination and alertness. When things seem too easy, that is the time for the believer to dig deeper. We will need those roots when the hard, dry times come. And come they will.

Faith is a resource which is meant to be shaped to meet adversity. It is not merely an explanation for blessing, but a deep well to take us through times when so much around us seems to be cursed.

Jesus often spoke about such things: of building our spiritual house upon a rock, not upon sand, to prepare for the flood which destroys weak foundations; of getting ready for a day of testing, unseen, but looming ahead nonetheless; of being prepared for spiritual challenges even in the midst of material abundance.

God covenants to sustain his people through times of drought, but the flip-side of this is that during times of plenty, they need to be using all the resources God has provided to drought-proof their souls. How deep are your wells?