One of the things you should never do in popular moral discourse, is make generalisations. You should never make great, sweeping generalisations. Because, as every level head person knows, great sweeping generalisations are always wrong! Can you hear the obvious flaw in the logic! The claim that you should never make sweeping generalisations, is of course, a sweeping generalisation.
Because there are times when speaking in generalisations is entirely the right thing to do. And the most appropriate subject for making generalisations, is when we come to talk about generations. Generations of people are always diverse, there will always be inviduals who are genuinely liberated and transcend their cultural programming etc etc. But still, it is also possible to notice trends, causes, effects, character traits, behavioural patterns, attitudes and so on – that do affect whole generations.
The generation that is still largely in power today, is the so-called ‘Baby Boomer’ generation – those who were born in the post war era and for the fifteen years or so following. Then you have the children born in the 60s… and then at the end of the 60s, you have so called Generation X. Following that – there are various names for today’s young people of 25 and under. And for each of these generations, in a world that is moving and changing fast – there are hugely different character traits. And if we are to understand who we are, and our place in the world, it only makes sense to look at the cultural forces that shape us – to understand something of our own generation of the other generations around us.
In this reading from Paul, the apostle says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world – but be transformed...” Aha – we think! We are non-conformists! And the Baby Boomer generation regard themselves, by and large, as a non-conformist generation. Imagine that – a whole generation of people conforming to non-conformism!
This was the generation that were going to change the world, teenagers in the 60s, at the cutting edge of societal and political change. The radicals who, before long, found themselves with mortgages, suits and careers. But … still believed themselves to the radical transformers of the world.
When you read some studies of the Baby boomer generation, there is also a darker side. This is also the generation that presided over the end of pensions and early retirements, have benefited from burning most of the planet’s oil until now, there is hardly any left. Frequent jet setting holidays that other generations cannot afford. The generation whose expectation of luxury, and whose ethical inaction has led to economic and ecological collapse. The most selfish generation that the planet has ever seen. A sweeping generalisation, of course, but this is how some studies describe the ethical character traits of the baby boomer generation.
And most interestingly, what we see in the world today – is the gradual shift of power from the Baby Boomers to Generation X. In British politics, this is the first time we have had a Generation X government. And one generalisation about Baby boomers, is that they cannot – they cannot let go of power. They cannot hand power on to others. And some commentaries make a lot of this, and sound a little bitter in their analysis. But I think there are good reasons for the baby boomers not wanting to hand power over to others:
Stefan, my eight year old boy, is fascinated by cosmology. And a couple of weeks ago, he said to me, “Can you imagine – just floating, through outer space … with no chair?” I mean, having no gravity is bad enough, but in addition, not being able to sit down… that’s a disaster! I thought it described quite nicely, the general feeling of unease that surfaces as the generation we call Baby Boomers, finds itself in a world ever-more dominated by so-called generation X.
The Baby Boomers, still live in a world that rests upon foundations, where there the great, unquestionable pillars of truth and justice, of right and wrong, of values and principles and eternal verities. Where logic and science and reason are unquestionable.
Generation X, on the other hand, regard all claims to foundations, the values and principles and logic and reason and right and wrong, as simply the language of a power game. Whose logic rules, which form of reason, what kind of justice, whose view of right or wrong? There is no objective view of truth – and if we do manage to scale the heights of Mount Olympus to gaze down in objectivity across the world, we discover that Olympus is the home of many gods.
So … be it in politics, in society, or in church – there is massive, massive anxiety as power shifts from those who believe in solid, firm ground beneath our feat – firm foundations on which to build a secure world – and a world domination by generation Xers, who do not believe in firm foundations, or eternal truths, or principles or values or monolithic forms of justice.
To Baby Boomers, Generation X looks like an irrational, disorganised, chaotic mess. There is no firm place to stand, no moral codes to live by, nothing to provide us with the things that we need in order to feel secure. So – it seems, if we hand power over to these dreamers – all we will have is chaos – these people are incompetent to run the nation, incapable of running a church, unable to manage the safe and secure world that I treasure. So, the refusal to hand power over to others, is nothing but well intentioned. These people cannot be trusted to run things as well as we do… because they just, don’t get it.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” says Paul, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And that renewal of our mind – that is, of the way that we understand the world to work, requires nothing short of a miracle. But this passage in Paul unpacks how that miracles is manifest in down to earth ways within the political life of the church.
And so it begins: do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought – but with sobre judgement! We are the ones who understand – those people don’t. We are the ones with a grip on reality, those people do not have it. And of course, we all know – this is a verse that applies to others and not to me.
So let’s just have a look at this in relation to a current issue. The riots in London – which in the big scheme of things are relatively minute, when compared to the crimes and misery that have been perpetrated by men in suits, whose hoodies take the form of complex legal, financial and political cloaking devices. For instance, banking measures, the Private Finance Initiative, and so on – have had massive social impacts that are currently having tragic consequences upon the world at large. But let’s look at the rioters.
What the rioters and looters have done in various parts of the city in the last couple weeks, is atrocious. What we have seen is a crude form of mob rule – which thinks it’s okay for them to ignore the rule of law.
And it is a good thing that these people have been brought to justice… We have a rule of law in this country, and these rioters are in no way exempted from it. However, the sentences awarded have been 25 percent harsher, on average, than they would usually be. A hundred thousand people have signed a petition to have benefits to the rioters, cut. Senior politicians are justifying the fact that the punishments to rioters should be more severe, because this is what the public wants! Apparently, 80 percent of the public, want harsh sentences dished out on these people.
But – in England, we have a justice system. We have a law, with punishments that fit crimes. So being awarded 5 months in prison for a woman who bought a pair of shoes from someone who was actually at the riot – seems ridiculous. And of course, there are plenty of other examples of sentences that will have to be overturned. But the most bizarre thing in this lust for tougher sentences than the law currently allows, is this: they are guilty of the exact same crime as the rioters: mob rule, which thinks it’s okay for them to ignore the rule of law!
“Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought,” says Paul, “but think of yourselves with sobre judgment.” But we still haven’t got to Paul’s miracle answer. After all, most educated people like to think that they are self-critical and self-aware – that they do think of themselves with sobre judgment. So Paul gives a test:
He goes through different dimensions of the ministries of church life, talking about the use of people’s gifts. If someone’s gift is prophecy, let them prophesy, if someone’s gift is ministry, let them minister, if someone’s gift is teaching, let them teach – and so on. Of course, we want an all-member ministry, of course we want people’s gifts to be used and so on…
But … if someone is going to come and take over from me, using one of these gifts – they must do it in precisely the way I do it, otherwise I will feel insecure. If they do youthwork, they must follow these rules, if they help in the kitchen, they must follow these rules, if they are pastoral carers, they must follow these rules. And Paul says to such people: Do not think of yourselves too highly, but with sobre judgment. Because the only reason that people do these things, is through God’s grace at work in them. And by not trusting them to come in and do preaching differently, by not trusting them to lead worship differently, by not trusting them to anything differently, you are promoting too high a view of yourself, without realising how deeply you have been shaped by the cultural forces of your won generation –
The way in which we find ourselves transformed, is to let others use their gifts – to let them teach, to let them preach, to let them do youthwork, to visit, to cook, to organise events. To let them do it in accordance with Their gift, the grace that is given them. Because that way, you experience grace differently – you experience yourself differently. That is the miracle that Paul exhorts – to let the grace that flows through others, flow freely through the life of the church.
As a minister, of course, I hardly have an objective view when it comes to a passage dealing with ministry. But then, neither does anyone else. Because we believe in an all-member ministry, the temptation is to take an area of ministry in which I regard myself as an expert, because of my profession or experience or education – and think to myself, that this is something I Know best about. Without realising, that when we do that – it is the powers of the age that are forcing us to conform, rather than the grace of God which shakes the ground beneath our feet and transforms us.
Of course, this does not apply to baby boomers only, and next week we will look in more detail at my own generation. But the message to all of us from Paul, is universal. Do not conform to the pattern of this world. Or as JB Philips once translated this passage, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mould.”
I think a fascinating exercise for our fellowship, would be to work together through a book about Baby Boomers, or a book about Generation X – because, to do so would tell us a lot about ourselves, and be able to identify very clearly a huge amount of the dynamics of church life when they are dominated by the cultural forces of the age.
“Be transformed,” says Paul, “by the renewing of your mind.” The challenge to each of us, is whether we have the capacity to do that! More often than not, we like to think we have been taught, when somebody comes along and uses clever words to show how our worldview is the correct one. Christians, in particular, are notoriously good at such self-congratulation.
But what does it really mean to allow the grace of God to flow through us. The gift of God (gift being the same word as grace) to be at work amongst us. Being gifted is not being talented. And hurrying around doing work in the church, well meaning though it may be, is no guarantee that God’s grace is flowing through us as we do it, no guarantee that our gifts are being used. The gift of God, the grace of God, is a disturbing, ground-shaking, life-changing reality, that most of use would avoid like the plague.
Paul dares us to stop, to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, and to absorb the terror and the freedom of the grace in which he calls us to live.