[Written for the most part in the autumn of 2016 and finished just now]
Today, a young boy asked me if I liked seagulls.
What an odd, yet timely question.
I paused, and smiled, knowing that the answer had already begun to be put to paper as you see it below, and that he certainly was not interested in a dissertation on the subject.
So to give my answer here, I had never really given seagulls more than a few moments of thought until the summer I lived in Scotland. Prior to this I had always viewed them as a tad mischievous at worse; a pleasant sight to behold on the beach at best, albeit one that required the hiding of any food I might desire to consume. Yet this summer in Aberdeen I had an experience with the city seagulls that has caused me to look upon the creatures with more than a bit of scorn.
They were generally obnoxious. Not only did their shrill cries barrage my ears during the day, but they would masquerade as sirens or infants at night, their voices joining with those who walked past my window in the wee hours of the morning. Eerie enough, but if that had been the extent of my interactions with them, I might not feel such disdain toward their kind.
One evening I was plodding along toward my flat after work at the bookshop, when I came upon a gang of them outside my church, pecking at bits of rubbish that had scattered from several punctured garbage bags.
Yet they were not simply having dinner. Rather they would stop eating to fly at each other, beaks agape, bellowing horrible noises, while the victims recoiled momentarily before launching their own attacks. There was enough garbage available for all of them to stand and eat like civilized birds, and maybe swap a story or two before continuing on their way. Instead they took every opportunity to take a go at one another, even though in reality the offending birds weren’t actually even interested in what the other was eating!
The first thing that came to mind when I saw this flurry of seagull selfishness was this:
“But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15, ESV).
I’m not certain a verse had ever been so vividly illustrated before my eyes.
I wanted to scream at them to stop, but knew I’d then become the thing people stopped to look at. I was left more rattled by this scene that seemed reasonable, for I suppose some might have even found their antics amusing. I walked away deeply disturbed, but clearly aware that this bunch of ruffian birds should have no such bearing on the state of my emotions.
Yet I couldn’t shake it. There was something so wrong about seeing a creature so recklessly attempt to attack its own kind, not for protection, or even a real gain but rather out of fear and greed.
It was ugly.
I’ve pondered this since, and it has served to remind me just how ugly sin can be. It has given me an idea of what ungodly spats in the church can look like to those “passing by.” It has reminded me that sin destroys rather than builds up.
Of course I’m not certain that I needed seagulls to remind me of that, for 2016 reminded me of this all over the place. From all over the world came news of shootings, persecutions, and sickening injustices that make my heart utter “maranatha!” In my own world there were reminders as I saw pain in the eyes of people I love because someone dear to them chose to follow their own destructive desires instead of what was right, and caused sorrow to multiply needlessly. Over and over again I saw that sin led to destruction, and would find myself angrily declaring “I hate sin!”
But do I really?
This past year has also given me reminders that sin starts small. Those seeds can seem harmless, but when planted will eventually reap their ill effects. I found that I believed myself further along in the sanctification process than I actually was. I thought I didn’t misuse anger, get frustrated or speak poorly of others. The truth was I simply hadn’t been in a situation recently that warranted such feelings, while also giving me an “excuse” for them. As it turns out, I can justify more than I should when I feel (or know!) that someone else is acting unjustly. I hate to even type this out, but not only did I justify my response, I actually enjoyed it at times.
But then I began looking at Jesus in the gospels, and this toleration of my wrong responses suddenly seemed so dreadfully out of place.
I love looking at Jesus because He is always doing the unexpected. Saying things that make Him lose popularity. Welcoming children when people think He should be concerned with more lofty matters. Welcoming every sort of outcast that comes His way and publicly demonstrating their value. He brings a dead man back to life and the response from religious crowd is to want to put him, and Lazarus to death (you’d think they would have at least reconsidered the latter after what happened and all). Yet He keeps shaking things up until that day when He allows them to kill Him, as they jeer at Him that He saved others, but cannot save Himself.
That’s the thing; He could have saved Himself, but in that moment He was submitting to the Father and was working even then to save others through His atoning death.
When you look at the way Jesus lived and died, your hidden sins suddenly become more apparent, and He bids you come near, repent and receive His love anew.
When I look at the world, I grieve. I want to fix it.
We should be motivated to pray and give and love and work to make this world that much more like the kingdom of God. We should hate the sin that destroys the world.
But we should also learn to hate the sin in our own hearts, no matter how insignificant it may seem, for the sins that are tearing apart lives all began somewhere. People were hurt by other people, and then turn to hurt more people. It multiplies.
The Lord calls us to be holy. We rarely appreciate the beauty of that calling, instead viewing holiness as a legalistic adherence to a set of rules.
Dear friends, that is that is a trap. That is a lie that keeps us from pursuing that which would so greater mold us more into the image of our beautiful Christ, working toward the restoration of the Imago Dei in man as it was meant to be from the beginning.
Yes, the idea of holiness can, and has been abused, but this does not mean it should be disregarded, for 1 Peter 1:15-16 says we are called to it.
It is a beautiful calling, one that beckons us to come away from that which we see the world using to destroy itself, toward the radical actions of a Christ who was set apart. A Christ Who cared more about the will of the Father and loving those He had been given than what people thought, or what was most comfortable for Him. To be holy is to be set apart, to love the things God loves, and flee those things He hates. For those things that God hates are those things that grow from tiny twinges of rebellion and end up causing pain and robbing Him of the glory He deserves.
When I respond out of anger to someone who is wronging me, I am not making His kingdom come. When I nurse bitterness over being mistreated, I am not cultivating either love or holiness, for it has no place in these.
It just so happens that the boy who asked me today if I liked seagulls did not like them either, for apparently they had ganged up against his father to steal his ice cream. He had therefore formulated a plan to kill one, though I feel it was all the bluster of a young boy, rather than a trap he actually intended to employ. Still, I told him that unless he really needed something to eat, he shouldn’t just kill a seagull, or he himself would become mean . . . just like the seagulls.
The section in Galatians surrounding the verse that those seagulls made me think of speaks of how we are to use our freedom in Christ not to serve our flesh, but one another; to love our neighbor as ourselves!
I’ve learned that this is not easy, and the level of “injustice” I have experienced is, in reality, nothing compared to what those around the world experience daily. So how do we respond to the things that are wrong in this world, and the people in it who have no qualms about taking advantage of us, in a way that does not add to it?
I think that sometimes, it’s just humanly impossible. But that does not mean we are off the hook. Instead we should be relieved that we are told, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
So when things become difficult, and I feel as if I want to behave as rashly as one seagull flying in the face of another, I need to stop and seek the supernatural help of the Spirit, and look to my Jesus whose surprising life of obedience to the Father becomes my motivation.
Sin is ugly, but He is oh so beautiful.
My life is going to reflect something, and I want it to be Him.