James’s Blog: Blessed are the Cynics, for they shall see God.

James’s Blog:  Blessed are the Cynics, for they shall see God.

As a fully-paid up member of Generation X, my teenage years were full of angst and world-weariness. Even at my tender age, I was already wise to all the tricks of The Man and as discerning as any middle-class white kid from south Northamptonshire can be. When I became a Christian this cynicism transitioned quite nicely into my new faith, as it seemed to me that there were no shortage of fruitcakes and nutters in church leadership. Some of them shouldn’t even have been let near heavy machinery, let alone given serious pastoral responsibility. Oh yes, I knew what was what. No-one would get one over me. My cynicism was so finely tuned that it was practically prophetic. I would watch my brothers and sisters work themselves up into a frenzy over the latest spiritual manifestation or teaching and I would remain calm, level-headed and quite unmoved. Unfortunately cynicism can be quite indiscriminate at times, and I would still be unmoved even when it was God trying to do the moving. Thankfully I manage my cynicism much more responsibly these days.  Some days it even borders on discernment.

At the end of the first chapter of John’s gospel we find Philip excitedly relating to his brother that he’s just met the Messiah, and Nathanael’s response is so world-weary and sarcastic that I’m forced to conclude that he was actually British.

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”

It’s a classic response. Humourous and dismissive without actually addressing the issue. I recognise a fellow cynic when I see one.

The thing is, very rarely are people born cynical. Most of us spring forth into this world, wide-eyed and excited, hoping against hope for good things to come our way. But they don’t, and cynicism is just one of many defence mechanisms that we evolve in order to protect ourselves. The secret is this, that many cynics are just disappointed idealists. We once believed, but were let down, and to avoid hurt we have chosen to never believe again. Thus another cynic is born.

In the years leading up to Jesus’ birth there were Messiahs cropping up on a semi-regular basis. It was typical of the Israelites, chaffing under the unjust Roman yoke. Their freedom in the land was so bound up in their identity as God’s chosen people that it should be no surprise that there were plenty of people willing to jump on whatever revolutionary bandwagon came along. Nathanael would, no doubt, have known about the one called Athronges. He claimed to be the Messiah and, get this, he was a shepherd. Many Jews would have just loved that Davidic parallel. The Romans took a dim view of such behaviour and, without fail, every Messianic pretender (Athronges included) would have ended up dead or imprisoned, along with his followers.

“Not another Messiah! Philip, why do you have to be so gullible? You’re always falling for things like this…”

But if a cynic is just a disappointed idealist then maybe it’s not Philip who’s the gullible one? Maybe Nathanael’s harsh reply is just his wounded heart talking? Maybe he once believed? Maybe it was once him, rushing into the desert after Simon, or Athronges, or some other deluded trickster, hoping that it would lead to the freedom that a true Israelite desired. Well, never again! Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. But Philip is no fool himself. He knows that there’s no point arguing or trying to persuade his brother. He gives the only reply that will work on a cynic:

“Come and see for yourself.”

And Jesus sees him approaching. He appraises the young man. He smiles.

“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

What a strange thing to say of a cynic. What is false if not Nathanael’s bitter, dismissive reply to his brother? But maybe it’s true. Maybe behind the sarcasm Jesus sees the heart of a optimist; one who dreams of what might be. A true believer.

“How do you know me?” Nathanael says, suspicion making him revert to type.

“I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.”

I don’t see it myself, but there’s obviously something in this phrase. Some secret that only God and Nathanael share. Whatever it is, it pushes all of Nathanael’s buttons. He drops everything and gives such an overblown response that it would be funny if it weren’t so perfect.

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

From nought to sixty in under a second. It’s almost as if he’s been waiting for this moment his whole life. The cynicism, it seems, was just a mask to keep false prophets from the door while he was waiting for the real thing to come along. And here he is, coming from a place from where nothing good comes, and Nathanael is his, mind and soul. A cynic may no longer believe, but he still wants to.

“Jesus, I’m your man. For the rest of my life, I’m your man.”

Here’s the thing. While a cynic will keep everything and everyone at arms length, if you can somehow break through his defences and give him a taste of the real thing he will flip-flop quicker than a politician. “Come and see for yourself.”

Watch out for those cynics. They are not far from the Kingdom of God. A little taste of the real thing, and before you know it you’ve got a true believer whose passion will burn everyone and everything that they come into contact with.

I Can’t Sing, So I Have to Tell Stories.

Of course, many of Maelwys’ people had become followers of the Christ – especially since Dafyd’s coming.  But there were some with us who observed the old ways, so to make up for the missed revel, I played the harp and sang.

And it came to me while I was singing – watching the ring of faces around the night’s fire, their eyes glinting like dark sparks, gazing raptly as the song kindled and took light in their souls – it came to me that the way to men’s souls was through their hearts, not simply through their minds.  As much as a man might be convinced in his mind, as long as his heart remained unchanged all persuasion would fail.  The surest way to the heart is through song and story: a single tale of high and noble deeds spoke to men more forcefully than all of blessed Dafyd’s homilies.

I do not know why this should be, but I believe it to be true.  I have seen the humble folk crowd into the chapel in the wood to receive the mass.  In all sincerity they kneel before the holy altar, mute, reverent, as they should be, but also uncomprehending.

Yet I have seen the eyes of their souls awaken when Dafyd reads out, “Listen, in a far country there lived a king who had two sons…”

Perhaps it is how we are made; perhaps words of truth reach us best through the heart, and stories and songs are the language of the heart.’

Merlin, Stephen Lawhead

Third Time’s the Charm…

Third Time’s the Charm…

This will be the third blog that I have started.  I began the first one soon after we moved to Australia and that was reflected in its content.  It was very much ‘An Englishman Abroad’, with me attempting humourous observations on life Down Under like a third-rate Bill Bryson.  I began the second blog years later as I attempted to discipline myself into writing on a regular basis.  For a year and a half I posted a short story every two weeks, like a second-rate Stephen King.  Much of that material found its way into ‘The Listening Book’, the imminent publication of which has been the catalyst for me fixing the punctures on my internet bike and setting out on this, my third blogging journey.

So let’s see where we end up this time, as I share reflections on life, faith and stories, hopefully – this time – as a first-rate me.

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