Draw a circle on a piece of paper.  Go on, gentle reader, just indulge me for a minute or two. Any piece of paper will do, any poorly drawn circle.

This circle represents the unity of God.  As you learned in geometry class, even though there are only 360 degrees in a circle, there are an infinite number of points on it.

Now put three dots, three points, anywhere on your circle.

These are the points of reference that Christian theology refers to as “Trinity”. These points can be anywhere on the circle but if you draw a line between each point and the other two you will notice that, no matter where you positioned them to begin with, they are always in a triangular relationship with each other.

Alternatively, should you begin with three random dots on your paper, and the lines between them, you will also discover that this triangle, however you have draw it, will always be on the same circle; they will always share the same unity.

A triangle is the only multi-sided shape for which this is always true. It is easy to draw a four-sided shape whose points cannot be connected by a circle; you can also draw a five-sided shape for which this is not true; a six, a seven, and so on. But you can never draw a triangle whose points do not share a circle between them.

A “Trinity” of points always shares the same unity.

The scriptures tell us some things about each of the points of the Trinity, also in relation to the others. But they don’t tell us everything. God is an unbounded mystery. The locations where the divine is revealed are infinite. The words we use to describe these points are only as confined as our vocabulary, reflecting our era and culture, showing up the limits of our language and experience.


The Boundaries of Inclusion

Seventy-five million passengers pass through London Heathrow every year!  Seventy-five thousand workers find their employment there!  Oh the humanity!

On my very first day of airport chaplaincy, nearly 20 years ago at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, doing a placement as the student of a theological college, I was left alone to be the host of the Meditation Centre.  Not ten minutes after my supervisor left me, a man in long white flowing robes and an impressive turban came striding confidently into the prayer space.  He looked around, did not find what he was looking for, so came to the adjoining office where I was sitting and asked in broken English for a plastic cup.  We had one, he took it, returned to a corner of the room, peed into the cup, said an incantation of some sort in a language indecipherable to my ears, promptly drank his urine and brought the cup back to me with a polite ‘thank you’.  Then he swept out of the room with as much pomp as he had entered, leaving me dumfounded and bewildered.  And with a plastic cup in my hand which I did not wish to hold for very long!

Talk about ‘all sorts’.  (I’ve learned since coming to the UK that this ‘all sorts’ term can be a useful and polite English way of referring to people who we in the Americas would simply call ‘weirdos’…)

The European refugee crisis, Brexit border controls, President Trump forcing the conundrum of ‘Dreamers’ upon the US Congress: the incessant movement of peoples across the globe can be disorientating, threatening, and turn us into willing conservatives.  Not the big “C” Conservatives, as in Tories – although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – but no, little “c” conservatives, the kind who are averse to change, who would simply be much happier if things stayed the same for awhile.  Why can’t ‘these people’ stay in their own countries?

The record of history is against us.  Human migration has never stood still.  The span of our own lives is so short, our individual experience so limited, that we take no account of the long history of our own people and land.  The Normans, Saxons, Danes, Romans, Celts; peoples on the move, peoples whose DNA is now our own.

(St. Paul, being a theologian, blames God for the problem: “From one man God made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Acts 17.26)

But we never tire of trying do we?  To stem the flow?  Border controls, immigration policies, Mr. Trump’s fabled Wall (“The Best Wall e-ver. Really.  Such a Good Wall. China; Hadrian; Pink Floyd.  I’m telling you, nothing like it.  Such a Great Wall.”).  History won’t stop, people will always move, but still we try.

Who is allowed in, and who must be kept out?  This was a burning question for the nascent Church as well.  The natural inclination was to fall back on the existing social categories that segregated men and women, Jew and non-Jew, clean and unclean, slave and free, and so on.

However, Jesus had done a new thing.  He set a pattern during his ministry, and backed it up with his teaching, that the Church was to be a different kind of society, one where the boundaries of inclusion were always being pushed outward.

Think of it.  Jesus chose to sit down to dinner with prostitutes, corrupt government officials, ‘wine-bibbers’ and other assorted sinners.  The scandal!  He was vilified by the religious leaders of his day.  (I think it is Anne Lamott who said something to the effect of: ‘Jesus was always threatening people; threatening to include them!’)

Not long after Jesus died, his follower Peter – a good, observant Jew – suddenly realized (with a bit of nudging from above) that he had the liberty to enter the home of a Gentile and declare to a Roman soldier, one of the occupiers of his homeland, that the same spiritual blessings that Peter himself enjoyed where also available to this man.

And Paul!  Paul was initially an even greater zealot for religious purity who, after his transformation on the Damascus road, became the Church’s champion of inclusion.  Paul it was who told the non-Jewish men not to bother being circumcised; who appointed women to public ministry in the Church, who elevated slaves to equal standing before God, who consorted with foreigners of all ethnicities and languages. He died in Rome, a place he had hoped to use as his base for further spreading the Good News among the peoples of the Western Mediterranean.  In his combined cover letter and CV to the people he hoped would be his financial backers – what we call the Letter to the Romans – he makes an extraordinary statement showing how far he has come from his days of ritualistic purity: ‘I am convinced, and I say this as in the presence of Christ himself, that nothing is intrinsically unholy’  (Romans 14.14).

The Church’s early debates come to a head in the Book of Acts, chapter 11, where we find both an account of Peter’s defence of his innovative inclusion of the Roman centurion, and a report of the first significant inroads of the Gospel among groups of non-Jews, in Antioch.  It is instructive to note (v.26) that it was at Antioch that this group of disciples were first called Christians.

“Christians”, followers of Christ; not “Jesus-ites” or the like.  This new group, this new society, are people who find their identity not bound to the work of God in a particular place and culture (Jesus himself said he was a prophet to the people of Israel), but rather their identity is anchored to the concept of ‘the Christ’, to the cosmic hope representing the incarnational interface between the divine and the human, wherever and whenever that takes place.  Jesus is no longer with us in body; God in Christ is.  You don’t have to live like a first century itinerant Jewish prophet to participate in the message he brought.

This can’t end well, can it?  This ever expanding umbrella?  These tent pegs that one by one are pulled out of the ground and banged in again a bit further out?  It’s getting a bit rough and breezy around the edges, don’t you think?

The scriptures of the New Testament themselves tell us of the early push-back, of the ones who feared the Church had gone too far, had opened its doors a bit too wide.

But if Jesus’ own allegories are of any use to us here, it actually does end well.  Let’s switch to the metaphor of the wedding feast: It doesn’t end how the invited guests were expecting it to, no; but a wedding feast of all the ‘worst’ people, collected from the highways and the byways, having a jolly good time bathing in the fountains of grace, well, that is a happy ending.

Part of the challenge of the so-called white man’s privilege, in so far as it exists in our parishes today, is that we have managed to construct a world were we no longer have to be uncomfortable if we don’t want to be.  We’re always in control of the situation and of the conversation. That’s not an option for people of colour; or for the poorly educated and underemployed; or for our LGBTQ members; or for people who have the wrong accent.  They can never truly relax among us, never truly feel at home, because at some point we well-educated, well-resourced, properly-connected straight folk who call all the shots and never spit on the pavement are eventually going to say or do something that makes it clear that, well, when it comes right down to it, you’re not really one of us.  We just tolerate you.  (When we feel like it.)

In the beginning God created Adam and Eve, right?  Well, yes, but no.  In the second of our Creation myths, the Genesis chapter 2 version, God first only created Adam.  There was a time when it was only Adam; no Eve.  And Adam without Eve is socially uncategorical: Adam is just human, nothing more; without another human with which to compare there is no duality, no gender, no race, no status.  There is just the human and the Creator. This is who we are, before any labels are applied to us, before any boundaries are erected.

Who is the uninvited guest for whom we must now find a chair at our table?  Does their category bother you?  Their social label?  Because, believe me gentle reader, their type doesn’t bother God any more or less than your type does!

It will likely never end, this holy discomfort, this Christian dis-ease, as over and over again we discover the wideness of God’s grace.  Thanks be to God!



There was another procession into Jerusalem that Spring, one that escaped the pen, but certainly not the notice, of the Gospel writers and their early readers.

As the city geared up for the festival season, its population swelling five-fold until every spare room, every nook and cranny, was filled with valuable rent-paying, weary and contented pilgrims, there was at least one person arriving among the throng who didn’t have to worry his head about where he would be laying it that evening: Pontius Pilate.

Pilate, half-way through what ultimately would be his ten-year term as Prefect, brutal enforcer of imperial Roman power, ‘our man in Judaea’ for Tiberius Caesar, had come to Jerusalem as well.  But this was no pleasure trip.  His task was as simple to describe as it was oh-so-difficult to achieve: to keep a lid on the always unpredictable public, the teeming city, as it turned its attention and desire to the apex of Jewish identity: the Passover, that centuries old celebration and remembrance of the first time the people of Israel had wrested their freedom from a brutal dictator.  Political opportunists, seizing the moment to awaken the longing for national self-determination, had made the most of the festival before, turning an already agitated crowd into a rebellious mob which Rome, in its turn, had parried more than once with overwhelming force and much bloodshed.

And so, Pilate, in the days before Passover, knowing his own head was on the block if things got out of hand, left his comfortable estate on the coast in Caesarea, and accompanied by as much of the Roman garrison as he could safely take with him, marched his way to Jerusalem, probably muttering to himself all along the way about what a massive bother this was, and praying earnestly to his gods that he might handle effectively whatever came his way.

Borg and Crossan, in their book “The Last Week”, describe for us Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem: “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city.  A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.  The swirling of dust.  The eyes of silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”*

Don’t think for a minute that Jesus didn’t know what he was doing when, a short time later, he entered Jerusalem from the other side, from the East and the rising sun, mounted not on a war horse equal to Pilate’s impressive steed, but on the back of a humble donkey, the people’s faithful companion in their toil of agrarian survival.

This was planned.  It was thought through.  And it was a lampoon of the empty claims of authority by the world’s leading power.

Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the World, God from God, Divine, God Incarnate, Liberator and Redeemer.”  Whose titles were these?  Any first-century Roman knew.  (And it wasn’t the person you, poor mis-informed Christian, call to mind.)  The rightful owner of these titles in the Roman world was Caesar.  Tiberius’ predecessor Augustus (“the illustrious one”) had first claimed these accolades for himself, and his successors were only too happy to appropriate them.  The crowd had only to take a silver denarius out of their purses and look at it: glinting in the spring sunshine was Caesar’s bust with the words “Son of God” stamped alongside.

Jesus’ thoughtful and provocative protest made mockery of such overwrought bombast, such presumptive arrogance.  And before the week was out Rome, Pilate, would crush him for it, returning like for like with his own lampoon of Jewish aspirations for justice: “King of the Jews” was scribbled over Jesus’ violently broken body.  See what comes to those who challenge us?

On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the power of an alternative narrative.  We celebrate the audacity of humility and self sacrifice, of giving oneself up for a vision of humanity that raises the meaning of our existence above the crass machinations of ‘might makes right’ or he-who-has-the-most-marbles-wins.  Life, as it was intended at our creation and lived to its fullest, is one guided and marked by love of God and neighbour, one identified by our American friends in a rare flash of eloquence as being in society “under God, with liberty and justice for all”.

Rome, whether in history, in the scriptures, or in our hearts, stands for the antithesis to the way of God.  It is the pretender to the throne, the claimant to the authority in our lives that rightly belongs to God alone.  We would do well, like Jesus, to call it out, to mock the spurious claims, to turn from the false god and follow instead the pattern of the one who ‘humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name’ (Philippians 2.8,9).



* The Last Week; What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem; Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006.

Of Brexit, Trump and Kings of Old

Were they kings, the men who followed the star from the East to honour the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?  Or were they merely a rabble of starry-eyed astrologers?  The Gospel of Matthew marks them down as ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’; obscure, yes, but with status or exotic qualities enough to win them temporary fame in all Jerusalem and an audience with the king.

This Gospel story comes to us from the synagogue period of Christian history when followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus were, in the provinces of Palestine at least, primarily Jews.  These Jewish Christians, still members of their local non-Christian congregations, began to see the scriptures with new eyes, discerning in them a presumed meta-narrative, one that transcended the multiple authors, genres, and eras of the various manuscripts, a plot line which tied the canon of scripture together as one.  Hidden in the texts they found hints and fleeting glimpses of a figure whom they recognized as having been personified in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the story of the Magi they heard echoes of the prophecies of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…the wealth of the nations shall come to you…They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60.1-6).  Solomon too had predicted, “The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts; all kings shall fall down before him , all nations shall do him service.  For he shall deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper.  He shall have pity on the weak and the poor” (Psalm 72.10-13).

The meta-narrative, the over arching story that bound together their heritage and their new-found faith in Christ continued its development in the later writings of the new testament, most especially in the visions of Paul and John and, as they understood it, went something like this: From one man, Adam, God created a family of diverse peoples among whom a Chosen People – a nation primus inter pares – whose history and society was meant to reveal the character and purposes of God; now – in a new age – through one man, Jesus Christ, God was gathering the complex identities of humanity together into a new society, a community of peoples whose diversity was fitted together like a multi-faceted jewel, the individual shape and angle of each facet adding to the brilliance of the whole.  On offer was an attractive alternative, an opposing vision to the Pax Romana, the world as they knew it, united by the blunt instruments of military conquest and unrelenting suppression.

And so, the Twelve Days of Christmas find their conclusion at the Feast of the Epiphany when the Church remembers the journey of the Three Kings and celebrates the manifestation, in baby Jesus, of the Christ, the long-awaited saviour for a world rent by division and lost in despair.  In the Christ child we look for the fulfillment of the ancient oracles.  We may quibble about whether the accounts of Jesus’ birth and early life are historically accurate or rather, on the other hand, the Gospels contain not only the parables of Jesus but also parables about him, but either way his central role in the story remains.

St Paul writes to the churches: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the non-Jewish peoples (Gentiles) have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise…so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known…” (Ephesians 3.9-10). And in the very last pages of our scriptures we find St. John’s vision of the heavenly city, of which he says, “The nations (lit. ‘ethnicities’) will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it…The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” (Revelation 21.24,26).

So here we are, two thousand years removed from the proclamation of the new age of Christ.  Our forebears, those who have gone before us in the faith, have not always succeeded in making this glorious vision a reality.  The Way of Jesus became Christianity and soon enough Christendom; what began as a counter-cultural movement of inclusion quickly morphed into the mainstream and gathered to itself both the selectivity and accoutrements of political power.  Converts, if one can call them that, came at times by the threat of the sword, entire peoples subjugated or colonized under the banner of Christian dominion, forced to give up the gifts their people had to bring to our new community, cultures lost forever on account of the false supposition that “to make disciples” meant to form them in our own image, not necessarily that of Christ.

Maria Pascua, an aboriginal of the Makah people who inhabit the furthest reaches of the northwestern United States writes: “I am a Christian; I am not sorry the missionaries came.  But I wish they had known how to let their news change peoples’ lives from the inside, without imposing their culture over our ways.  We have lost so much.”  (Ozette: A Makah Village in 1491; National Geographic Magazine, October 1991).

Not in all places, but in many, we find that the vision was lost of a Church composed of the beautiful diversity of humanity.

Which brings us to Anno Domini 2016; to Brexit, Trump and the year gone by.

Much has been made of the “protest vote” aspect of these surprising poll results.  Whether we can rightly attribute them to protest or not, the result is that many of the liberalizing policies of the last few decennia have suddenly and broadly been called to a halt.  Roger Cohen, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times concludes: “It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance [as delivered by Brexit and the US elections] cannot be met by more of the same.”

Thankfully the path of Christ allows for great liberty in the way we order our lives, both individually and in society; a genuine Christian faith can be lived at most points across the political spectrum.  What it does not allow is for us to abandon humility, compassion and sacrificial love for our neighbours, no matter what the colour of their skin or the language they speak at home. To be proud of our own people, to seek to protect our livelihoods and cultural heritage, insofar as these things bring honour to God, is good and right; the uniqueness of our people too is a blessing from God’s hand.  But to raise our own interests so high as to exclude those of others, to make love of nation the sole guiding light for our actions, ignoring the yet purer light of the Gospel – which is to love God first and to love our neighbours as ourselves – this is not the Way of Christ.

We, and all peoples, are equally invited to bring our gifts – the glory and honour of all nations – and bow our knee in worship before the Christ.


Gaudete in Domino semper

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

From time to time, if we are able to see through the aura of accumulated holiness hanging thick around the heroes of the Bible, the saints and the prophets, we find in them a remarkable ignorance.  They so often have no clue about how the circumstances of their lives actually fit into the movement of God in their time.  John the Baptist, for example, seems so average here.  It’s as if he is conscious of being carried along by a stream, but is not entirely sure of where the stream is going.

David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity writes:

The Principle of Delayed Understanding…states that you cannot understand what is going on while it is going on….consciousness always lags behind reality. Here is proof: How many of you are still trying to figure out things that happened in your childhood, twenty, forty years ago? The best you can hope for is to minimize the length of time it takes to catch on….When you think you understand what is going on while it is going on, you are most likely delusional. This is simply a statement of reality and frees us from the need to pretend, to beat ourselves up for not knowing the right words or actions. Don’t worry about not knowing the answer immediately. Don’t confuse yourself with Google.

Half the battle of being a person of faith is learning to live with ambiguity, of accepting uncertainty; the other half is learning how to live with it, of not allowing our ignorance to paralyze us with anxiety or diminish our hope.

Consider the rabbinical story, found in various tellings, commonly known as Elijah and the Cow:

Rabbi Jachanan went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and when evening came they arrived at the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. This poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, greeting the strangers and welcoming them in for the night.  They offered them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in their humble circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were given plenty of the cow’s milk, and butter, yoghurt and cheeses.  Satisfied, they were put to sleep in the only bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire.

But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.  The Rabbi looked at Elijah, but he was silent.

Again, they walked all the next day, and came in the evening to the house of an extremely wealthy man. This man, however, was cold hearted and inhospitable, and all that he would do for Elijah and the Rabbi was to lodge them in his cowshed and feed them stale bread and water. In the morning, Elijah thanked him for his hospitality, and – noting that one of the walls in the shed was falling down – sent for a man to repair it, paying the bill himself.  Finally, Elijah and the Rabbi were on their way again.

Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silent any longer, exasperated with Elijah, begged the holy man to explain himself and the way he had treated the two hosts. 

‘In regard to the poor man and his wife who received us so hospitably,’ replied Elijah, ‘it was decreed that the wife was to die that night.  However, knowing how much the man loves his wife, I pleaded with the angel of death – who never leaves empty handed – that he should take the cow instead.’

‘And with regard to the inhospitable rich man, I repaired his wall because I noticed a jar of gold coins concealed in it, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure, something for which he is not worthy.  So, say not to the Lord: What doest Thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’

Perhaps you remember how someone else once famously put it: “There are things we know we know; things we know we don’t know; and things we don’t know we don’t know.”  Personally I prefer the sentiment as expressed by the American rock band 4 Non Blondes, in their 1993 hit ‘What’s Up?‘:

And so I cry sometimes
When I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out
What’s in my head
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs:
What’s going on?!

It’s Gaudete Sunday this week, the Sunday that takes its name from the first word of the introit to the Mass: Rejoice!   On this 3rd Sunday of Advent we are invited to lighten up, to Rejoice in the Lord always, to raise our heads and look for the dawning of a new age marked by the promise of healing and restoration.

This is that half of faith that says: even if I don’t understand, I will trust.  The half that led the disciples up the mountainside where “they worshipped him, even though they doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

Faith is never going to make perfect sense; that’s why it’s called faith.  Thank goodness.  Because in order for faith to make perfect sense it would have to be constrained by a world where everything can be measured and explained and knowable, a world without mystery or profound beauty or unbounded hope.

It is not, and neither are we.

Really? Thy kingdom come?

Do you believe in an afterlife?  Heaven?  Paradise?  Something like that?  A place where you will live with your loved ones in happiness?

Tell me about  that afterlife you imagine.  Does it include violence?  War?  Weapons?  Abuse of women and children?  A society where some have far too much and others not enough?  Destruction and degradation of the natural world?

Probably not.  In fact, the opposite.  I’m guessing you imagine a place of peace and contentment, a place where the wrongs so familiar in this present existence are finally righted.

And when you pray, Christian, do you earnestly say, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven‘?

Hypocrite.  Like me, you hopefully pray that the ideals of heaven will invade the present one.  And yet you readily resign yourself to the brokenness of this world, you won’t lift a finger to undo it; worse, you are part of the problem, you contribute to it.  You celebrate warfare and violence.  You accept the preeminence of money above righteousness in the businesses you support, the choices of the governments you elect, in the lifestyle you live.

“Oh, well, I’ll just get through life as comfortably as I can and slip peacefully into eternal bliss…”  To hell with thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Really?  So you believe those things that cannot survive into eternity should enjoy our present support, our quiet complicity?

This is not the way of Jesus about which I read in the Gospels.  Maybe we should look for a new religion.

Or maybe we already have one.


Relationships often go wrong because of our earnest and misguided efforts to manipulate others toward what is for us acceptable behaviour.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been given a book by someone who didn’t really like me, accompanied with this bit of encouragement: “I really think you need to hear this message…”.  And who hasn’t heard, at a church prayer meeting, something like this: “I think we should pray for all the people who have been waiting on a visit from the minister…”.

We have all experienced manipulation in one way or another, and I can safely say we have all dished it out too. Sooner or later, because none of us is perfect, our faults and shortcomings will emerge and become obvious to those around us, and sooner or later one of those people will find the situation unbearable and take some course of action – well intended, no doubt – to try and improve us….or remove us.

Manipulation occurs when we presume for ourselves a position of authority to judge the motivation and actions of another, and we try – indirectly –  to influence those actions to seek an outcome which gratifies us. It is not enough that the offender is at ease with him or herself, that they have a clear conscience; they have made us feel uncomfortable, and some method must be found to change their behaviour.

Manipulation is indirect, and so does not deal with real issues. What was it Jesus said?  “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one,”(Matt 5:37) and he adds, “Ask, and it will be given you.” The problem with manipulation is that it tries to maximise change while minimising genuine involvement in the life of another. Someone’s behaviour is questionable so we attempt to bring an atmospheric change around them, hoping the new conditions will spawn awareness or shame, and eventually the desired change. How much easier to hand over a book, withhold a benefit, or promise to “pray for them”, than to go to the individual directly and say: “It might just be me, but I’m having a hard time understanding where you’re coming from, and I wonder if you can help me understand…”

Dallas Willard shares some insight into manipulation in his book, The Divine Conspiracy.  He talks about the “dynamic of request”: “The most important element in the transformation is this: As long as I am condemning my friends and relatives, or pushing my “pearls” (of wisdom and knowledge) on them I am their problem. They have to respond to me, and that usually leads to their “judging” me right back, or “biting” me, as Jesus said. But once I back away, maintaining a sensitive and non-manipulative presence, I am no longer their problem. As I listen they do not have to protect themselves from me, and they begin to open up…Because I am no longer trying to drive them, genuine communication, real sharing of hearts, becomes an attractive possibility. The healing dynamic of the request comes naturally into play. When we stand thus in the kingdom, our approach to influencing others, for their good as well as ours, will be simply to ask: to ask them to change, and to help them in any way they ask us…Asking is indeed the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in co-operation with God and yet in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual” (The Divine Conspiracy, pg. 231ff).

Willard adds, “Kingdom rightness respects the soul need of human beings to make their judgments and decisions solely from what they have concluded is best…We do not thrive, nor does our character develop well, when this need is not respected, and this thwarts the purpose of God in our creation.

Unfortunately, in many families (and in many church families), manipulation quickly becomes the entrenched mode by which we seek to influence the other and see their behaviour changed. Many parents do not know how to relate to their children except by manipulation. “C.S. Lewis notes that he has ‘been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parent.’ Parents are seen to treat their children with ‘an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance.’ They are dogmatic on matters the children understand and the elders don’t, they impose ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously, and make insulting references to their friends. This provides an easy explanation to the questions, ‘Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?’ ‘Who,’ Lewis inquires, ‘does not prefer civility to barbarism?’.” (Divine Conspiracy, p. 219)

If someone’s behaviour has offended you in some way, go to them directly, without prejudging them. Maybe they are completely unaware that they have upset you.  Ask.  Don’t simmer in your anger and hurt, trying to manipulate them into better behaviour. Do as the Gospels tell us over and over again: make use of the dynamic of the direct request. And if the answer is “no”, trust them and move on.