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Monday, 17 July 2017

Wild God

I recently discovered Annie Dillard. She is an astonishing writer: beautiful, raw, powerful; sentences and images that lurk in your head for days. As far as I'm aware, she doesn't believe in Jesus, but she does write some pretty astute commentary on the Christian faith. In one of her non-fiction pieces she concludes that the church doesn't seem to have the "foggiest idea" about the One that they claim to worship. I think this is -sadly - probably true. And I say that as much to critique myself as anyone else. She writes: "It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some day and take offense or the waking God may draw us out to whence we can never return." (The Abundance, p.257)

I don't think Dillard means that we need protection from an angry, lightning-bolt wielding God who might zap us unsuspectingly at any given moment; I think she has simply observed the gap between the the way that God is revealed in the bible - and for her in the wildness of nature - and the way that we tend to bind Him into little churchy boxes that we'd rather not scrutinise too closely, thank you very much. We have sanitised God. We have tamed his wildness to make him more comfortable.* 

But, in doing so, I fear we have made him rather boring.

A few years ago, one of the young people I was mentoring had a lot of questions about faith. As I tried to give her some answers I realised she thought Jesus was boring. And I realised that part of that was probably my fault. We, the church, are notoriously good at misrepresenting Jesus, at taking away his wild beauty, his abounding love and faithfulness, his humour, his bluntness, his fierce concern for social justice. And stripped of all that, we end up with, at best, a rather limp Messiah. At worst, a Messiah who is judgmental, hypocritical and unloving.

This morning, I listened to a sermon where the preacher spoke about the call on the lives of those following Jesus to carry his name, to represent his identity to the world around them. The sermon was based on the part of the Old Testament where God reveals his goodness to Moses by declaring his name, by telling him who he is and what he's like: 

"Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7) 

The responsibility of those following God then becomes to correctly represent his character to the communities of which they are part; to show the world what God is like. Thus, the sermon suggested, the importance of the fourth commandment: "Do not misuse the name of the LORD your God," or "Do not take the LORD's name in vain." Not simply avoid cussing or using God's name as a swear word, but don't take God's name upon yourself, don't be known as his follower, if you're going to do a rubbish job of representing who He is. This was Israel's major failing in the Old Testament, and the reason God gives for their exile from the land: instead of showing the surrounding nations how good the name of God was, the people profaned the name of God; they misrepresented him. (Ezekiel 36:20-21) Perhaps this is what Dillard means when she suggests that God will take "offense." God is offended that the behaviour of those who believe in him causes others to believe things about him that aren't true. 

Correctly representing God remains the call of Jesus' followers today, and I worry that we're not doing a very good job. I certainly don't always do a very good job. If to follow God, and represent him, is to display the hallmarks of his name and identity, then I need to ask myself if I am like him, if others around me would see in me what He is like: one who is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, boundlessly forgiving yet passionately concerned for justice. One who takes risks, who is brave, and honest, who thirsts for adventure, who longs to change the world and is dissatisfied by the status quo. Sometimes. Yes. Perhaps. I certainly pray that this is what people see in me. But sometimes, definitely not. I am not slow to anger. My love is limited - often after just an hour spent with a toddler in the morning. I hold grudges rather than freely forgiving. I resist taking a risk for the sake of someone else if it's too costly for me.

But Jesus trusts in his followers to represent him. He left us the task of showing the world what He is like. And he left his own Spirit within us to transform us into a clearer image of himself (2 Corinthians 3:18) 

And He is wild. Not boring.

* I find it almost impossible to think of the wildness of God without picturing C.S. Lewis' Aslan and remembering that he not a tame lion: "Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe)

Monday, 6 February 2017


The bible is full of the command to celebrate, to praise, to recount and remember all that God has done. I am not very good at this. And more often than not God’s instructions to give joyful thanks feel pretty burdensome, and obligatory. Thanksgiving becomes at best a habit, and at worse a chore. But, God does not desire thanksgiving from His people to booster his ego; thanksgiving is not just another rule to be followed: the art of thanksgiving is His remedy to us. Gratitude is his gift to remedy our natural instinct to complain, to begrudge circumstances, to stare longingly at the grass that we think is greener.

In recent days (and probably weeks) I have felt myself become a bit of a moaner. There is certainly quite a lot to moan about in the world of global politics, and whilst God calls us to lament what is unjust and painful in our broken world and stand alongside those who are wounded by decisions made by the powers that be, moaning is not the same thing. There is a beautiful kind of discontent with the world as is that inspires us to change it; there is an ugly discontent that traps us in own our selfishness. The discontent that resents others’ success and achievements, that criticises but refuses to acknowledge any good, that delights in complaining for the sake of it. It is this discontent that God would save us from.

In the story of Israel, God knows what His people are like. He knows that they will be quick to forget what is good, and what they have got, and even quicker to start complaining. In the account of the Exodus he introduces the Israelites to the ritual of Passover, and calls it a “lasting ordinance.” (Exodus 12:14)  This special meal is not to be just a one off affair but a yearly practice, a way of remembering their incredible rescue from Egypt and God’s goodness towards them. Each year, they are to tell the story. They are to practice remembering; it is remembrance that leads them to thanksgiving: to realising once more the goodness of the God who has redeemed them from slavery.

After their miraculous escape from tyranny and oppression, the Israelites last only three days before the grumbling starts. (Exodus 15:22-27) In the same chapter that recounts the joyful celebrations of God’s rescued people, we get the first incidence of complaint. Israel have a serious short term memory problem. They have just witnessed first-hand the saving power of the God who loves them, but they are already starting to forget what this God is like. They are already starting to forget that he is a provider and a rescuer. They are already starting to doubt his character.

This is the story of the Old Testament. It is the story of the people who God loves and their failure to remember what He is like. Time and time again, God intervenes into the lives of His people. He rescues them and delivers them, he cares for them and provides for them, but time and time again, they forget. In Jeremiah God concludes simply that His people have “forgotten him.” (Jeremiah 2:32) They have made their contentment dependant on circumstances, not on their relationship with the One who loves them.

We live in a culture that specialises in discontentment. Advertising is a successful business because it taps deep down into the desire that we have for more than what we have: a different job, hairstyle, holiday destination, Facebook profile picture, circle of friends, set of achievements, piece of technology. We are masters of dissatisfaction. And thanksgiving is our God-given antidote. When John the Baptist breaks onto the pages of history announcing the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, he reminds people what life lived with God looks like. He is, in a way, jogging their memories, dusting off the long-lost dreams of a society that is satisfied with life as is because that life is lived with God. “Be content,” he says. Be content with your pay, and your possessions, with what you have. (Luke 3:10-14)

In today’s world, this is radical, counter-cultural advice. And it is the advice that my soul needs this morning. It is the advice that would rescue me from moaning. Today, we are called to recount and remember the goodness of God, to tell one another stories of what God has done, to be actively thankful for all that we have. As my daughter grows up into a world that loves to complain, I long to teach her to be a child who is content. A child who knows how to be thankful, how to rejoice, how to share stories full of gladness and goodness and wonder. And if she is to learn that, then I had better start doing it as well. So, come on Soul, forget not his benefits.  (Psalm 103:2)

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Becoming Bread

I love this expression. It is a turn of phrase used by Jean Vanier to help explain our role in nourishing of others: “We become bread for each other because God became bread for us.”

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the dangers of too much time and space is pre-occupation. I do not think I am alone in being susceptible to this. It is the disease of the wealthy, western world where we can - all too often - use our time and space to indulge ourselves, and our anxieties. In his novel, The Year of the Runaways, one of Sahota's protagonists, Avtar, reflects on the tendancy of the rich to over-think. He is an illegal immigrant from India living day to day in fear of police raids, hunger and the loan sharks who threaten his family back home, and he is exasperated with a wealthy British Indian professor who offers to help him, but seems to spend most of his time bemoaning his existence: "[Avtar] gave in to his anger. What decadence this belonging rubbish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things."

He is right. We worry about everything. And nothing. Tiny, little issues gnaw away at us. We over-reflect. Over-analyse. Replay conversations. Reconstruct past events and wonder - painfully - what we should have, could have done or said differently. I realise that I am particularly prone to such behaviour. I am a chronic over-thinker. But I am not the only one (I hope)

What I love about Vanier's writing is that he does not deny the need for us to deal with our own issues: we need to face our anxieties and our fears. We need to examine our hearts and minds. We need to think. And the need to 'belong' is certainly not rubbish. It is at the core of our being in a way that cannot be ignored. But we can obsess, and wallow, over such things to the detriment of our ourselves and others. We can spent too long lamenting what we do not have instead of appreciating what we do. And sometimes it is only by being with one another that we can start to make sense of ourselves. We make more sense in community. More than that: we make more sense when we are giving of ourselves to others. This, I think, is the essence of what Jesus means when he says, it is better to give than to receive. He is not just talking about material possessions - although he does have a point there - he is talking about what we do with our time and energy, our encouragements and thought processes. It is in the giving away of ourselves that we flourish; it is in the giving away of ourselves that we draw closer to God as we see the face of Christ one another. (Matthew 25:45)

An unnamed co-worker of Mother Teresa in a book of her meditations puts this rather more bluntly: "Lord, I have found you in the terrible magnitude of the suffering of others. I have seen you in the sublime acceptance and unaccountable joy of those whose lives are racked with pain and I have heard your voice in the words of those whose personal agony mysteriously increases their selfless concern for other people. But in my own niggling aches and petty sorrows I have failed to find you. I have lost the drama of your great redemptive passion, in my own mundane weariness and the joyful life of Easter is submerged in the drabness of self-preoccupation."

Ouch. This is a little damning. But it is also a little too close to home. Niggling aches. Petty sorrows. Selfishness. Pre-occupation. I am not disputing that there are times when it is necessary for us to pay close attention to how we feel and think. I am also not disputing that anxiety and depression are very real things that need to be understood more than they are, and responded to with more compassion than they are. But - and this is perhaps a but for me more than anyone else - we can miss out of some of the glorious goodness of God and his purposes for us, if we do not turn away from ourselves and towards one another. We see God, and ourselves, more clearly when we are in the business of nourishing others. As we nourish, we too are nourished, and we enable others to become nourishment.

We do not do this, and cannot do this, without God. At least not in a sustainable way. When Jesus feeds the five thousand - when he provides nourishment for those in need of it - he does four things. He takes the bread, he blesses the bread, he breaks the bread and he gives the bread away. (Matthew 14:19) So too with us. God takes us. In all our brokenness and beauty, our mistakes and excuses, our shortcomings and successes. We give ourselves to Him and he blesses us. He fills us with Himself (Colossians 2:9-10). We are equipped and enabled by His Spirit. And then we are broken. Not as we once were by our own doing, but broken by him, broken out of our selfishness and pride, our selfcentredness and isolation, broken that we might be given away. Our lives become sacrament. We become bread.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Growth without fear

It is dangerous for me to spend too much time on my own. One of the side-effects of time to think has been an unhealthy preoccupation with all the things I don’t like about myself, all the areas in which I long to change and be different. I don’t think it is wrong to desire transformation. Following Jesus kind of requires it. And God does want us to be different: to move towards the best version of ourselves, the self that we were created to be, a self that is un-marred by sin and shame. And He will do what is necessary to get us there. He is in the business of making new: of renewing and reviving, reshaping and perfecting. Thus the old adage is true: God loves us just as we are but he also loves us so much that he doesn’t want us to stay that way.

I feel like the past few weeks have been a rediscovery for me of the first half of this statement. I have a tendency to be too hard on myself. A desire for self-improvement, for purpose, to achieve something meaningful with the life that I have been given. I am frustrated when I do, say, think things that are unnecessary, that feel like they should be incompatible with following Jesus, and the transforming work of His Spirit at work within me to re-make me into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 3:10) This frustration often leads to a place of something quite close to self-loathing. Quickly followed by the resolution to try harder. Get up earlier. Pray longer. Be better.

God wants me to grow. This is true. He longs for me to be freed up from the residual sins that cling (Hebrews 12:1) and the remnants of the old self that refuse to shift; and it is true that I have a role to play in actively resisting temptation (1 Peter 5:9), in putting off the old self (Colossians 3:5, 8, 9) and choosing to replace old habits and practices with a new way of life that is in keeping with following Christ (Colossians 3:12-14) but – and it is this but that has been troubling me – it is also true that God loves me now in my all my unfinished, unperfected-ness. He loves me now, this moment. Understanding that fact is prerequisite to my growth. I cannot grow if I do not know that I am loved.

I know this in relation to others. I know, for example, that my daughter, Sarah, needs certain things if she is to grow. Just as a seed needs the right environment if it is to grow, so Sarah needs her environment to be a certain way if she is to flourish into the beautiful human being she was made to be. She needs to know that she is loved. She needs to know that she is secure. She needs to be free to make mistakes, to be allowed to fail and encouraged to get up again. As I prayed yesterday, God showed me a picture of a child struggling to do a new skill. Time and time again the child tried and failed to do what it wanted to do but the child was able to repeatedly make the same mistake because it was safe within a culture of love. When Sarah is at her happiest (a rare moment when she has had just the right amount of sleep, food, stimulation) she is secure enough to risk failure. When she isn’t, she has a strop. She, like me, has a little mini meltdown when she is frustrated by her inability to do something. But when I watch her make a mistake, my reaction is never to condemn. I do not join her in the 9 month old equivalent of self-flagellation (rolling on the floor, tiny fists clenched up in frustration, hot angry tears); I help her up, wrap my arms around her and tell her, gently, to try again. 

God is more like this than I think. The analogy isn’t a perfect one: longing to stop sinning isn’t the same as longing to crawl; frustration with myself for thinking something utterly horrid about Hamish when he really annoys me isn’t the same as Sarah’s frustration when her limbs won’t do what she wants them to. But there is some gleam of truth here about the way in which God would have us grow, the way in which he responds to us when we mess up in our feeble attempts to change. He wants us to grow in a context of love and acceptance, safe in the knowledge that we are known and loved and forgiven, rather than striving to be any of those things.

In speaking about the culture of growth necessary if a community is to flourish, Jean Vanier speaks first about the way in which we treat ourselves, the necessity of being kind to ourselves, of being realistic about our weaknesses but not so hung up on them that we become stagnant:

“It is a long haul to transform our emotional make-up…we have to be patient with our feelings and fears; we have to be merciful to ourselves…we must start simply by recognising our own blocks, jealousies, ways of comparing ourselves to others, prejudices and hatreds. We have to recognise that we are poor creatures, that we are what we are…we shouldn’t get worried about our bad feelings. Still less should we feel guilty. We should ask God for forgiveness, like little children and keep on walking. We shouldn’t get discouraged if the road is long. One of the roles of community life is precisely to keep us walking in hope, to help us accept ourselves as we are and others as they are…the hope of community is founded on the acceptance and love of ourselves and others as we really are, and on the patience and trust which are essential to growth.”
(Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, pp.38-40)

God is more patient with me than I am. He is more merciful towards me than I am towards myself. Understanding this is the starting point for growth. God’s longing for me to flourish is deeper and stronger than my own longing. He is determined. But He will do it in his way, in his timing, and under his conditions; and his condition is that, first and foremost, I know that I am loved. Then, and only then, is true growth possible.

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Monday, 17 October 2016

1 John 3:10

This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: anyone who does not do what is right is not God's child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

We make our parentage known by our behaviour. In Greek, righteousness and justice are synonymous, and God defines them both. God is the one who determines what is right and what is just. This is a little tricky to live with. Adam and Eve certainly didn't like it; they wanted to be like God is his ability to determine what is good and what is evil, but God only ever intended them to be like him in his ability to love.

I evaluate everything. I am on an endless quest to determine what is and isn't meaningful, what is and isn't good. I can't help myself. Green is better than blue. Cherries and berries squash is better than summer fruits. Lazy Sunday is the superior coffee. This profession is more meaningful than that one. His attitude towards money is more or less greedy than mine. Her thighs are skinnier than mine so maybe I won't talk to her. Talking to him makes me feel insecure because I haven't achieved as much with my thirty years so I will avoid him. And unending contruction of hierarchies; an unceasing game of judgement.

But I am not the judge.

What is right is determined by God, not me. And what God determines to be right is love. Doing what is right is equated with loving one another. What God most approves of, and thus what most identifies us as belonging to him, is our capacity to love. Not just any love either: agape love. Unconditional. Unjudging. Unevaluating. The ability to love one another not based on whether or not someone can give something back. Love without expectation or exchange. Love that encompasses even our enemies. Love that looks like calvary. Love that makes no sense whatsoever without first encountering that kind of love for ourselves.

"Jesus calls his followers to love, to love one another as he loves them; not just to love others as one loves oneself. He proposes something new: to love others with the very love of God; to see them with the eyes of the Lord. And we can only see and love them like that if we ourselves have experienced Jesus loving us with a liberating love." 

(Jean Vanier, Community and Growth)

Sunday, 16 October 2016

1 John 3:7-8

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 

Jesus came to undo what Satan has done. Satan came to bind, to lie, to accuse, to imprison, to hurt, to maim, to kill. (John 10:10) Jesus came to destroy him - to "luo", to unbind, to loosen, to break up so that something no longer holds together. Jesus came not only to unbind what Satan has bound (Luke 13:16, John 8:32), but to unbind Satan himself: to undo him utterly, to expose him, to pull the carpet out from under his feet, to unstitch his seams.

First and foremost what Satan has done is lie. He is a liar, incapable of truth, the very reverse of the God who cannot lie. Satan cannot not lie. (John 8:42) And the thing he loves most to lie about is God. He loves to lie about the Creator to his creatures, and then to the creatures about themselves and each other. The story of the Garden starts with a twisting of the truth, a seed of doubt sown into Adam and Eve's beautiful understanding of the One who has made them and loved them: did God really say? (Genesis 3:1) We all fall prey to such a lie. Tozer defines idolotry as the entertainment of thoughts that are unworthy of God (The Knowledge of the Holy, p.4); Satan sows idol thoughts. Subtle whisperings that gather momentum until we are utterly blinded (2 Corinthians 4:4). God is not really love. He is not really holy. He is not really good. In fact, he is not really there at all. We cannot see what is true. We cannot see the truth of God's character amidst a mindful of distortions.

And so, Jesus. Jesus came to dispel lies, to correct our understanding. He came that we might know what God is really like (John 1:18): "Christ walked with men on earth that He might show them what God is like and make known the true nature of God to a race that had wrong ideas about Him." (ibid p.108) The work of the devil is to paint a false picture of our good God; the work of Christ is to scratch it out, to scrape off the layers of paint and oil, dust and decay, and reveal the true masterpiece. (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15)

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Saturday, 15 October 2016

1 John 3:4-6, 9

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared that he might take away our sins. And in him there is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him... No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning because they have been born of God. 

I have been struggling with this section of John's letter. For John, sin and following Jesus are entirely incompatible. Paul says the same thing in Romans (6:1-4). In light of my own inability to be sin-less, reading such emphatic statements leads to one of two things: striving or despondancy. Either I determine that right now, starting this very instant, I am going to stop thinking anything remotely negative about anybody, and any other sinful thing that I might be liable to do; or, I realise the impossibity of achieving such a ludicrous goal and I give up and make a cup of tea instead. I don't think John was going for either of these outcomes.

An unexpected combination of Mother Teresa - acclaimed Catholic Saint - and Greg Boyd - slightly controversial American theologian - has helped to bring some clarity. Both - in very different ways - talk about living in the reality that God has aready won for us in Christ. Mother Teresa writes, "God is within me with a more intimate presence than that whereby I am in myself...for our lives to be fruitful they must be full of Christ." Boyd, going further, suggests that the point is that - for the one following Jesus - our life is already full of Christ. We are not on some mission to become sinless and spirit-filled; we are, in fact, both these things already. 

That feels heretical even as I write it. I am still a sinner, but I do want to be sinless. I have God's Holy Spirit, but it doesn't always feel like it. And yet and yet...John and Paul, seem to state that, for the Christian, this reality has already dawned. We cannot continue to sin because we died to sin. (Romans 6:2) God has already planted his Holy Spirit within our hearts. Part of what I think John is trying to do is urge his readers to recognise the reality that Christ won for them on the cross - to recognise it and start living in the joy and wonder of it rather than endlessly talking thinking praying preaching about how to enter in to such a reality in the first place. There is a danger of preoccupation. There is a danger of continually striving to be in a place where we can love and give and do when the reality is that we are already in such a place and are missing out on the opportunities of loving, giving, doing.

If we understand the truth of being one with Christ, of being united with him and living in him, then we will not sin. Except that we will. But - in some sense - it is the old, dead part of us that is doing it. (Romans 7:17) Not the new, transformed me but the me that died with Jesus on the cross. This doesn't mean that sin isn's a struggle. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't work with the partnership of the Holy Spirit to stop doing the things that God doesn't want us to do (Romans 8:13), but it means that the starting place is different. When I sin, I am not being true to myself. I am not living in the reality that Jesus won for me. I have slipped back into something that I used to do but that isn't really part of who I am anymore. (Ephesians 4:20-24) This, I think, is why Paul continually uses the language of old self / new life. We are called to act like ourselves. When we sin, we are not behaving in a way that is true to who we are. It is a contradiction. So much of a contradition, in fact, that John can call it an impossibility. We cannot go on sinning: to do so would be to betray the reality that we have become part of, to deny the truth of the cross and all that Jesus won for us.