loved for who you are

I read an article recently (ish, a couple of weeks ago) which wound up with the claim that Christianity was a religion where you can be loved and wanted simply for who you are, not for what you achieve.

This was one of Giles Fraser’s columns in the Guardian, and it made some very worthwhile points. It was helpful in particular where he targeted the misguidedness of a perennially shallow view of religion, which sees failure in anything that doesn’t meet materialistic and grandiose metrics of worldly success (‘… a successful priest ought to be hated rather than feted’). This is as much a necessary rebuke to Christians besotted with big visions and seduced by what Luther diagnosed as a ‘theology of glory’ instead of the ‘theology of the cross’ as a it is a courageous defence against misdirected criticisms from outwith Christianity.

But although it’s right to lift the burden of the pressure to do something or achieve something to earn favour and acceptance, I couldn’t help feeling that the point is being missed somewhat by shifting the burden onto ‘who you are’ or ‘who I am’ as the alternative basis of acceptance.

Of course, there is a lot to be said for the ‘who you are’ principle as a principle for how we should treat each other. None of us has the right to despise anyone for being unsuccessful, or a failure. No matter how weak, needy, disadvantaged, uncool, underwhelming, and unimpressive a person may be, they have intrinsic worth and dignity as a human being – certainly made in God’s image and sometimes also new-made in Christ’s – which means they should be accepted and valued just for being. It’s not what my neighbour does or what they have or what they’ve done or what they’ve failed to do that conditions the love I owe to them, but simply the fact that they are my neighbour, my fellow human being. This principle cuts across age, gender, race, class, disability, nationality, violations of the first commandment, violations of the seventh commandment, and any other way or combination of ways we have of classifying ourselves as human beings.

But that’s a principle for us as we relate to each other, all on a par as we are as the fallen sons and daughters of Adam, needing to subdue the worst excesses of our fallenness to make life on the earth we share bearable. It isn’t something that binds God. 

How could God, in fact, love us for who we are? What are we, after all? if not guilty, unkind, self-indulgent, gossiping, grudge bearing, grasping sinners. And that’s just for starters – before you even mention godless, unrepentant, disbelieving, and disobedient. So if that’s what we are, unreconstructed walking exhibits of instinctive selfishness and innate hypocrisy, we’re thoroughly unlovely, including in the eyes of the God of love.

The secret of Christianity, its unique and counterintuitive core, is Christ for us. It’s not that God loves us for who we are, but that he loves us for who Christ is. Christ deserves all the love God has to give. It’s totally obvious and right and proper that God would love Christ, at the same time and for the same reason as he is angry with sinners and opposed to their sins. This is why it matters to be a Christian – a follower of Christ – to be identified with Christ, one with Christ, devoted to Christ – to renounce our selves in repentance and to commit ourselves to him in faith.

As far as God is concerned, we stand or fall entirely on our relationship to Christ. Haven’t we ever prayed, ‘For Jesus’ sake, amen’? This is why we have to. It has to be for Christ’s sake. If we won’t have anything to do with Christ, God will certainly never love us savingly for who we are. But if he finds us in Christ, he loves us and accepts us and values us as completely as he does Christ, who is altogether lovely.

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books for kids

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I’ve reached that stage in life where several of my friends seem to have kids turning 8, 9, 10, and looking for books to read.

Since I have no clue what’s cool and cutting edge for these ages, this is a great excuse to indulge in a bit of nostalgia and dredge up fond memories of what I was probably reading in the second half of primary school.

From as early as I remember I read everything I could get my hands on, and since we had a really excellent local library, that was a fairly wide range. The library as I remember it was a series of interconnected portakabins, with a generous kids’ section, and untold treasure troves behind the scenes of books they didn’t have space for on the shelves, but could always produce for you on request.

Obviously the best kind of books were part of a series, and the longer the series the better. A list follows. But I seem to remember a few good one-offs too, so I’ll add them at the end as well.

* Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton goes without saying – obviously after finding the Secret Seven too childish, it was time to move on to the Famous Five, and also the Five Find-Outers and Dog. It wasn’t till later that I discovered the Adventurous Four, who enjoyed some very exciting exploits, and the Secret series (Secret of Spiggy Holes etc). There were also some school stories – Malorie Towers – and a peculiar fairy tale based on the dubious premise of a Magic Far Away Tree.

* The Hardy Boys
American, but an almost infinite series. A pair of brothers whose dad was an FBI investigator and who went round solving mysteries – the good guys always good, and the bad guys suitably villainous. Nancy Drew was meant to be the girl equivalent (dad a lawyer), but was never so satisfying, maybe because of the annoying entourage of boyfriends and a timid fellow investigator – but again the series just ran and ran.

* The Three Investigators
By Alfred Hitchcock, but don’t think horror movies – three boys with lots of ingenuity foiling villainous villains in many different ways.

* Willard Price’s Adventure series
Two boys travelling around the world, collecting exotic animals for their dad’s zoo. Exciting and remarkably informative.

* Little House on the Prairie
Wagons, log cabins, winters with deep snow, survival in the wild West… the advantage of this series is that it’s
semi-autobiographical and grows up as Laura grows up.

* The Chalet School
Weird definitions of “slang” and very exalted notions of schoolgirl honour, but they had lots of good clean fun – and three official languages.

* Monica Edwards
Actually a couple of series, but the characters eventually overlap. Decent kids, realistic scenarios, and satisfying endings.

* The Black Stallion
A long series about a beautiful Arab thoroughbred and the boy who trains him.

* anything by Mollie Hunter
Not strictly a series, but she wrote several historical novels for different time periods (A Pistol in Greenyards on the Clearances, the Lothian Run on the lawless 1700s).

* Anne of Green Gables
Quirky/sensible in an early 20th century type way.

* Jill’s Gymkhana
I never got the pony obsession, but of the possible horsey stories, the Jill books were fairly down to earth.

* Sherlock Holmes
Essential preparation for Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in later life. Also good for encouraging lateral thinking.

* Doctor Doolittle
A sort of vet who could talk to animals, implausible but so cool.

* Rosemary Sutcliff
Historical novels, kind of like Nigel Tranter for kids. The Eagle of the Ninth was a series in its own right, but she  wrote lots of other books too.

* Malcolm Saville
A group of friends composed of a wide age range of children from a couple of families, who meet up on school holidays and always end up embroiled in things like helping vulnerable older people stave off crooks and fraudsters – other than the unconvincing dialogue, the characters and plots are very realistic (if set in the gentler world of ?1970s England).

* The Babysitter’s Club
Kidding. I absolutely couldn’t stand these.

Other things I never really got into –
* Swallows and Amazons – I did read them all, but often found them really confusing. Looking at them again quite recently, I discovered that the children’s dialogue does an awful lot of work – when they’re not speaking in code (‘dromedaries’ for ‘bikes’? hello?) many of the scene changes and plot shifts are conveyed primarily through the dialogue – clearly too subtle a technique for me at that age.
* Jennings, Just William, Billy Bunter – wasn’t the kind of humour that appealed, but some kids lap it up.
* Judy Blume, who lots of my contemporaries seemed to like, but I couldn’t make much sense of. Probably completely obsolete for this generation anyway.

One-offs

* The Hill of the Red Fox
By Allan Campbell Maclean – set in Skye, with bits of Gaelic, around the time of WWII – a thrilling plot with some excellent moments of real tension. Actually he did also write Master of Morgana and maybe some others, but Hill of the Red Fox was the best.

* Goodnight Mister Tom, by Michelle Magorian
A malnourished city child evacuated in the Second World War and sent to board with an old man who didn’t really want him, but a friendship springs up and it’s all very touching.

* To Kill a Mockingbird
Did I really read this in primary school? If not, then early secondary, as I’d definitely read it off my own bat before we did it as a set text, in a way which even at the time I knew would have ruined it for me if I hadn’t already discovered it for myself. I still think it’s excellent.

* Watership Down
Actually quite scary in parts. A milder, tamer series on a similar theme which appeared too late for me to really take much interest in was The Animals of Farthing Wood.

* My Side of the Mountain
A boy who ran away and set up his own new life in the wild, making himself a den to live in, foraging for food, and even taming wild animals if memory serves.

* The Desperate Journey
Two children who get evicted in the Clearances and end up heading for a new life in Canada after a gruelling spell in the cotton mills in Glasgow. By Kathleen Fidler, who also wrote lots of other standalone books, I think mostly under the Kelpies brand, which from memory published many intelligent and safe titles by various authors for this age range.

* My Friend Flicka
Story of a boy who tames a wild horse, against his scary dad’s expectations. Actually there might have been a sequel to this, but this is the only one I really remember.

Plus many hundreds more that slip my mind now. Sadly if childhood was spent with nose constantly in book, adulthood so far has been a failed aspiration to continue the same. Roll on retirement.

where to start

The best line in one of my recent posts, I knew I’d lifted from someone else, but when I went back to refresh my memory of the original context, it seemed like a big chunk was worth quoting in its own right. This is WTG Shedd, first published in the 1870s. (I borrowed what Shedd applied to the will and affections to apply to the mind – I think the point still holds.)

~~~

There is no part of man’s complex being which is less under his own control than his own will and his own affections. This he discovers, as soon as he attempts to convert them – as soon as he tries to produce a radical change in them.

Let a man whose will, from centre to circumference, is set on self and the world, attempt to reverse it, and set it with the same strength and energy on God and heaven, and he will know that his will is too strong for him, and that he cannot overcome himself. Let a man whose affections cleave … to earthly good, and find their sole enjoyment in earthly pleasures, attempt to change them into their own contraries, so that they shall cleave to God, and take a real delight in heavenly things – let a carnal man try to revolutionise himself into a spiritual man – and he will discover that the affections and feelings of his heart are beyond his control.

And the reason of this is plain. The affections and will of a man show what he loves and what he is inclined to. A sinful man cannot, therefore, overcome his sinful love and inclination, because he cannot make a beginning. The instant he attempts to love God, he finds his love of himself in the way. This new love for a new object, which he proposes to originate within himself, is prevented by an old love, which already has possession. This new inclination to heaven and divine things is precluded by an old inclination, very strong and very set, to earth and earthly things.

There is therefore no starting point in this affair of self-conversion. He proposes, and he tries, to think a holy thought, but there is a sinful thought already in the mind. He attempts to start out a Christian grace – say the grace of humility – but the feeling of pride already stands in the way, and, what is more, remains in the way. He tries to generate the supreme love of God, of which he has heard so much, but the supreme love of himself is ahead of him, and occupies the whole ground.

In short, he is baffled at every point in this attempt to radically change his own heart and will, because at every point this heart and will are already committed and determined. Go down as low as he pleases, he finds sin – love of sin, and inclination to sin. He never reaches a point where these cease, and therefore never reaches a point where he can begin a new love and a new inclination. … Go down as low as you please into your heart and will, you will find your self below you: you will find sin not only lying at the door but lying in the way. If you move in the line of your feelings and affections, you will find earthly feelings and affections ever below you. If you move in the line of your choice and inclination, you will find a sinful choice and inclination ever below you. In chasing your sin through the avenues of your fallen and corrupt soul, you are chasing your horizon – in trying to get clear of it by your own isolated and independent strength, you are attempting (to use the illustration of Goethe, who however employed it for a false purpose) to jump off your own shadow.

~

This, then, is the reason why the heart and will of a sinful man are so entirely beyond his own control. They are preoccupied and predetermined, and therefore he cannot make a beginning in the direction of holiness. If he attempts to put forth a holy determination, he finds a sinful one already made and making – and this determination is his determination, unforced, responsible, and guilty. If he tries to start out a holy emotion, he finds a sinful emotion already beating and rankling – and this emotion is his emotion, unforced, responsible, and guilty. There is no physical necessity resting on him. Nothing but this love of sin and inclination to self stands in the way of a supreme love of God and holiness – but it stands in the way. Nothing but the sinful affections of the heart prevents a man from exercising a holy affection – but it prevents him effectually. An evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit…

~

There is a need therefore of a divine operation to renew, to radically change, the heart and will. If they cannot renew themselves, they must be renewed; and there is no power that can reach them but that mysterious energy of the Holy Spirit which likes the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. The condition of the human heart is utterly hopeless, were it not for the promised influences of the Holy Ghost to regenerate it.

~

… We close with the single remark that it should be man’s first and great aim to obtain the new heart. … It matters not how active your conscience may be, how clear and accurate your intellectual convictions of truth may be, how elevated may be your moral sentiments and  your admiration of virtue, if you are destitute of an evangelical experience. Of what value will all these be in the day of judgment, if you have never sorrowed for sin, never appropriated the atonement for sin, and never been inwardly sanctified? Our Lord says to every man, ‘Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or else make the tree corrupt and its fruit corrupt.’ The tree itself must be made good. The heart and will themselves must be renewed. These are the root and stock into which everything else is grafted, and so long as they remain in their apostate natural condition, the man is sinful and lost, do what else he may.

It is indeed true that such a change as this is beyond your power to accomplish. With man it is impossible, but with God it is a possibility and a reality. It has actually been wrought in thousands of wills, as stubborn as yours – in millions of hearts, as worldly and selfish as yours. We commend you, therefore, to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We remind you that he is able to renovate and sweetly incline the obstinate will, to soften and spiritualise the flinty heart. He says, ‘I will put a new spirit within you, and I will take the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you an heart of flesh, that ye may walk in my statutes, and keep my ordinances, and do them, and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.’

Do not listen to these declarations and promises of God supinely, but arise and earnestly plead them. Take words on  your lips, and go before God. Say to him, ‘I am the clay, be thou the potter. Behold thou desirest truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden parts thou shalt make me to know wisdom. I will run in the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart. Create within me a clean heart, O God, and renew within me a right spirit.’ Seek for the new heart. Ask for the new heart. Knock for the new heart. ‘For, if ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.’ …

~~~

WTG Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man. BOT. (‘The approbation of goodness is not the love of it,’ p302ff) (Italics original, paragraphing not.)

(When I first read this, especially the first two chunks, it seemed to capture with unerring and uncanny accuracy exactly what I was starting to feel. The culpability of inability as well as the reality of it. That was several years ago now.)