Search This Blog

Friday, 30 December 2011

What is the message?

Today is a good day: early morning swim; beautiful, fragmented, challenging, thought provoking text from Phil the Pilgrim; the bite of cold air for the first time in weeks of mild weather; the secret joy of having a hot chocolate at 9:30am and refusing to feel guilty even though such behaviour would be frowned upon by parentals for whom chocolate is definitely a post 11 o' clock privilege; the sweet smell of freshly baked mince pies, sticky sugar icing and rainbow hundreds and thousands scattered across my kitchen. Today's wonderful mess of baking is not quite as dramatic as the chocolate explosion caused by my neighbour's two lovely girls on Wednesday when they came round for Baking Club (not so much of a club really as there are only 3 members - Hamish isn't allowed to join - and admittance can only be gained by one of the girl's utterly whimsical decisions about who does and who does not have the calibre required for brownie manufacturing) but still a pleasant site of disarray.

I have been frustrated this week by reading Bill Johnson's Dreaming with God. Not because the book itself is frustrating; it isn't, and I very much recommend it. But because I am frustrated with myself for my lack of passion. The way that Johnson speaks about God is of a close friend and a co-worker. I have spent much of this week feeling jealous and decidedly un-zealous about Jesus, longing for a greater sense of desiring and loving him but feeling all the worse for the failure of those feelings to be aroused. How can I not be in awe of the cross? How is it possible that it raises no wonder and thankfulness and gratefulness in my heart? What is wrong with me? Yes, I sound like a petulant teenager in that last question and I have been behaving like one for the better part of this week: moaning that I lack passion, I don't know what I'm doing, I don't have a dream to live out with God, I feel dry and dare I say it...bored. I want to say bored with God, but in a moment of greater honest, I feel bored with myself. And my moaning.

This feeling of frustration (probably tinted with a dose of self-condemnation for good measure) has made me recall two things: 1) When I first started University and encountered the Christian Union, I was told - rather too emphatically for my fragile, emotionally-undulating 19 year old self to hear - that a relationship with God is not about feelings. 2) In Eat This Book by Peterson, author of The Message, he speaks of the man-invented replacement Trinity: my holy wants, my holy needs and my holy feelings. Both recollections were unwanted. I know too well that I am self-indulgent with my feelings and that I allow my emotional grasp of the world, and my self, in any given moment to determine what is true. I do - as Peterson warns against - "install[ing] the self as the authoritative text for living" rather than allowing God's truths as revealed in his word to show me what is reality and what I have made up. This is, I now realise, although I refused to at the time, what a wiser Christian than me was trying to say when he criticized my overly emotional interpretation of God: God is not dependent on my feelings; God is God. Truth is not there to only be assented to only when it is convenient and feels warm and fuzzy (that midway point in the euphoria of worship for example) but when it doesn't feel like God is doing anything in particular, when it doesn't feel like He's close or cares or is in control.

It is true that God is close, He does care and He is in control even if I cannot admit it.

However, although I have become much more cautious of following my untrustworthy heart and head and defining God by the whims of my feelings, I remain skeptical: a relationship with God must be about feelings to a certain extent, surely? The God of the bible does not yearn for a robotic intellectual compact with mankind; he craves covenant, friends, lovers, worshippers, sheep, sons, daughters, heirs. He is wooing us back into a relationship with him, a marriage, not a platonic contractual agreement.  Don Miller writes about it far more brilliantly than I can in his book Searching for God Knows What. I would quote from it but I have lent out my copy. In it Miller wonderfully restores the sense of the Bible, at its heart, being a love story. A relationship with mystery and complications and wonder. Not 6 little boxes with pictures that you can put ticks alongside if you agree with them.

Acknowledging the love story truth that Miller speaks of has re-ignited my passion. I think this is because I find it very difficult to get excited about biblical truths taken out of the context of reality. My lack of passion has been caused by trying to force myself to get excited about the cross - never, at any point have I doubted the truth of it, only my response to it - without interacting with the world and seeing the huge, gaping cross shaped holes that lurk in the lives of people who do not know Jesus. There is not really much point in sitting in my living room getting rather annoyed because I can't summon up instantaneous joy when perhaps what is needed is to go outside of my front door and encounter God's reality somewhere else. This is not to say that I don't believe in meditation or bible reading (I can hear how my own snobbish, critical thoughts would pull this last paragraph to pieces if someone else had written). It is not to say that we should expect radiant, awe-inspiring communion with our Creator each time we open his Word and then beat ourselves up when it doesn't happen. (And yet even as I write that last sentence part of me wants to shout WHY NOT?! Why not expect it? Why not long for it?) But it is to say that in my experience of the last week sitting in a room and rebuking myself for my failure to be zealous wasn't really getting me anywhere - it certainly wasn't getting me any closer to a place where I might be zealous for God.

What did get me somewhere was spending time with a friend last night. This friend is a recovering alcoholic. She has a heart for the downtrodden like no one else I have ever met. She thanks Jesus more instantaneously, and more meaningfully, than any one else I know.  She befriends addicts and the homeless and lets them stay with her. Her flat is peaceful and welcoming and she is able to listen to my anxieties and sympathise with them even when her own life is such a mess, and I have absolutely no right to complain to her about anything. She is estranged from her daughter and grandson through drinking. She has depression. She had a difficult upbringing in a strict Catholic family, and is cut off from several members of her family. She has a somewhat confused faith but a strong one. She is quite remarkable. As we sat and talked last night for the first time this week the cross made me excited. In the broken reality of this woman's life, the cross - in its mystery and glory and beauty - made sense as it has not done whilst I sat in my living room. To be able to say again and again and again in response to shame and regret that it is finished. It is done. It is over. God has forgiven. That is a privilege and it is the truth. Truth made perfect sense within that conversation not because of my emotions but because the truth needs a context in which to be realised.

220px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_The_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son.jpgI awoke this morning with the question of what my friend needs to know. What is the truth? What is the message? What is the gospel in its barest, simpliest, purest form? I did not give my friend a list of statements to which she must agree in order to be a follower of Jesus; she did not need that because somehow she already knows everything she needs to follow Him. And what is that? I am not sure, but the three words that came to mind this morning were these: mess, love, purpose. My friend knows she is a mess and, more importantly, that she is a mess because her relationship with God has been broken for a long long time and she has ignored Him. She needs to know that God loves her. Oh, how much more sense does the return of the prodigal son make in the life of someone returning to a loving father! And, she needs to know that God has a purpose for her life. She is not simply saved from hell for heaven. She is saved right now for now, for bringing heaven to this earth before God finally completes the renewal. Johnson speaks of the need for Christians to be those who invade earth: invading earth with heaven. It is the most beautiful thing in the world that God saves us and invites us to join with him in having a deeper meaning in existing now than we ever thought possible.

I have fallen in love with the way Gungor express this in there song Beautiful Things.

In Colossians 3:16 (I love it when God plans that what you will read in the bible will somehow link up everything else that you're thinking!) it says this: "Let the message (word) of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs of the spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts." What is the message?! In the Bible Speaks Today commentary of Colossians, Lucas focuses on the message being the word of God in the bible. This is obviously true. But part of me found his explanation kind of flat. I realise that in commentaries it isn't possible to pull apart every verse in the desired detail and mean no disrespect to Lucas's theology or exegesis, it's just that I can't help but think is that it? No. It can't be. The word is not just scriptural truth; the word is Christ himself. There is something deadening about thinking of the word dwelling in us as just having a few handy bible verses memorised to call to mind, but something beautiful about thinking that what we're calling to mind is Christ himself. In the community of Colossae, I like to think that the Christians are constantly reminding their friends that Jesus is amongst them; they are living life together and sharing it and allowing the story of Jesus to be part of it. Not sitting cut off in isolation reading their bibles.

This post has pretty much exceeded my thought capacity. I am not even convinced the last bit made sense. I want to say that I am excited. I am excited about the cross now because I have seen where it fits into the life of some one else. I hope the Colossians spent their time hanging out together and speaking Jesus into life as it happened, filling up hurt and holes and brokenness with glorious relational, cross centered truth, not just intellectual statements which they have decided to agree on. I wonder if we could learn to do the same.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Wooed in the wilderness

I seem to spend much of my life trying to will myself to be better: to faff less, to be more productive, to not think those things about that person, to be nicer, more joyful, more optimistic, a better wife, less selfish. The list could go on. But in reality, I nearly always fall short of my own expectations; or I feel a slightly smug satisfaction in having stuck with my will power only to fall short again before I have quite had time to enjoy being smug. In this light, Paul's command to the Colossians seems pretty unfair: "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature." (3:5) The language is deliberately violent: we are called to wage war on everything about ourselves which doesn't fit in with us being new creations living in Christ. Again, in verse 8 we are told that "we must rid ourselves" of all our unpleasantness. Paul seems totally serious in this exhorting; deadly serious given that he has already warned us that God's wrath is coming because of our sinful state (v.6). 

And yet, my gut reaction is that I have tried and failed to do this. I long to look like Jesus and be distinct and shiny but I don't most of the time. Me trying to put to death all my sins very often looks like a list of rules just waiting to be broken: get up earlier so you can pray and read the bible; ask your husband how he is first when he comes home instead of launching into a rant; say something nice to your neighbour each time you see them; don't straighten your hair so much; don't join in with bitching even if it's about someone you really struggle to like; be bolder in talking to people about Jesus. And the problem with rules is that we break them. We break them and then we feel guilty and frustrated and annoyed at our lack of will power and resolve to do better: I shall set my alarm for 6am instead of 6:30am and then I really will get up on time. Fail. I guess we shouldn't be surprised; this is what Paul says the purpose of rules (the laws that God has given us) is: to make us aware of just how rubbish we really are and how unable we are to do the things we say we will do - "I would not have known what sin was if it wasn't for the law." (Romans 7:7)

It's all pretty depressing. And it - this rule making and breaking - does what I think most people expect Christianity to do in the first place: create a list of rules and regulations to make you feel really awful and condemned and force you to abide by what society says is right. The church exists to keep us in check and make sure we feel terrible if we do things wrong. It is a bleak picture. But it is bleak because it is only a partial view of the gospel; it is a gospel without Jesus. If I, as someone who follows Jesus, live my life as a miserable I'll never be good enough, I always get it wrong, I can't live up to God's standards, I'm not really allowed to do anything I want to do type person then no wonder by friends view the church as an institution of regulations resulting in boredom, legalism and, sadly, repressed desires breaking out into awful scandals. 

But, if I grasp what Paul grasps then I realise that I have not been given a new life in Christ in which I am to feel condemned but one in which I am free; I am liberated to be a new person freed up from the things that are breaking the world: free from greed, free from a cheap view of sex and my own value, free from love of money, from anger, from bitchiness. I am liberated because I am not called to wage war upon my old self, my sinful self, on my own but with the power of God working within me: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God that works within you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (Philippians 2:12-13) and "To this I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me." (Colossians 1:29). I love this. The verse division in Philippians leaves us momentarily hanging with the daunting task of working out our own salvation, of putting to death, of ridding ourselves, but we are rescued by verse 13: it is God who is at work with us. Similarly, in Colossians Paul speaks of his own sheer hard work but does so in the knowledge that his energy, his resources, his strength comes from Christ living in him. Christ in us is the hope of glory. We are not called simply to put to death our old problematic selves; we are called to do so through the awesome work of the spirit: "if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live." (Romans 8:13) This is not simply forcing our own bodies and minds to follow a set of rules and stop doing things, this is knowing that we have the power to be different because God has not left us on our own: we are fully equipped for the task of being like him because he himself remains with us to see that the task is done: "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me...the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things." (John 14:18-26).

It is easy to get excited about the prospect of God at work within me transforming and changing me - without my help he is renewing me in the image of his himself (Col 3:10) - but I am still called back to Paul's commands. This is all about God. But it is still about us. We are not called to simply sit back and watch as God does some redemptive stuff; how could Paul order the church at Colossae to physically put their sin to death themselves if this were so? Paul reminds the church that God is at work in them but he also reminds them that they too must work. There is a difference in working knowing that we are aided and equipped instead of slaving on our own. The question is what are we aided in doing? How exactly do we murder sin in our lives life? What are our weapons for putting to death the ways of the world and embracing the ways of Christ?

In his book, When I Don't Desire God, John Piper uses the writings of the puritan, John Owen, to answer these questions. Owen is too good to paraphrase so I hope I am excused from lifting the quote:

"As to the object of your affections, in a special manner, let it be the cross of Christ, which has exceeding efficacy toward the disappointment of the whole work of indwelling sin: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). The cross of Christ he gloried and rejoiced in; this his heart was set upon; and these were the effects of it—it crucified the world unto him, made it a dead and undesirable thing. The baits and pleasures of sin are taken all of them out of the world...If the heart be filled with the cross of Christ, it casts death and undesirableness upon them all; it leaves no seeming beauty, no appearing pleasure or comeliness, in them. Again, says he, “It crucifies me to the world; makes my heart, my affections, my desires, dead unto any of these things.” It roots up corrupt lusts and affections, leaves no principle to go forth and make provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof. Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ...Fill your affections with the cross of Christ, that there may be no room for sin."
(John Owen, The Mortification of Sin in Believers)

Our main aid in putting to death earthly desire is Jesus – Jesus dying for us. This is Jesus in his glory, King of heaven dying for me (See His Love, Tim Hughes). We are called to do what Paul told us to do at the start of chapter 3: don’t think about earthly stuff; think about heaven. Don’t think about your own desires; think about what Jesus gave up for you. I am not good at this. So often I get trapped and tangled up in my own thoughts and feelings (my sinful mind set and heart set) and do not even give a thought to Jesus. I once heard a preacher say that just a tiny glance at the cross, the smallest reminder of Jesus giving up everything for us is enough to pull us back from sin. I don’t know if this is always true. The sinful nature is strong; the battle rages and we are engaged in the most serious spiritual warfare. But I long to get better at it. I long to get better at looking at Jesus, at reading about what he did and said, about knowing what he has done for me so that I cannot help but be won over by his beauty.

In Hosea, God describes how he will woo Israel back to himself; in the metaphor, Israel is God’s unfaithful wife who he has rejected because of her sin but now goes to seek in the wilderness and draw her back home.  The image that comes into my head is, for some reason, of the new Jane Eyre film (see picture) where Jane runs away from Thornfield onto the moor. The scenery is desolate and vast and she is completely on her own; I imagine the Israeli wilderness is a similar experience and it is in this massive emptiness that God seeks his faithless wife:

“I am now going to allure her; I will lead her in the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.” (Hosea 2:14) God has already done this for us: while we were still sinners roaming around lost in the wilderness, he came to find us. Yet,  I wonder if God would be willing to do the same with us on a daily basis if we would only let him; if we spent time getting to know him, sitting with him, reading his word, would he not come and meet us and bring us back from our folly and unfaithfulness? Would he not teach us how to leave behind sin and the old ways (Col 3:7) and instead walk with him in new and better way? God is at work within us drawing us continually back to himself each time we walk away; we need to be better at knowing that this is what he is doing, to allow ourselves to be delighted by his superior beauty, by a love that is far greater than any earthly thing.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:26) I cannot say that this is true; that I desire Jesus above all earthly things. I don't most of the time. But Paul says the secret to desiring Jesus more is to know him better. We are being renewed in knowledge in the image of our Creator. (Col 3:10) He prays that the Colossians will continually grow in the knowledge of God (1:10) because a greater knowledge of him means a greater likeness to him. It means more fruitfulness, a life more worthy and more pleasing. If we want to put to death our earthliness, we need to spend more time getting to know and being in awe of the one who gave up his heavenliness to come and rescue us. 

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Who is your life

I have been reading and pondering Colossians. At the start of chapter 3, Paul writes this:

"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." (Col 3:1-4)

A common theme in the Colossian letter seems to be the reminder that the church have been given a new life. By believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are given an entirely new existence, entrance into the really real reality. To Paul, Christ is reality, and therefore whatever we have without him is nothing in comparison. I am struck by what C.S. Lewis says, I think in The Great Divorce, about God being, in fact, more solid than humans. We think of spirits and the spiritual realm as being some how ethereal and airy fairy, but Lewis claims that it is the other way round: we are the ghosts, the shadows, the wisps of smoke, and God, and his heavenly host, are solid and real. We are a shadow of the world to come, a landscape painting in comparison to the final place. In The Last Battle, the final great book in the Narnia series, the children enter heaven to find that it is Narnia, but a new Narnia, not bigger exactly but fuller, more complete; the first Narnia was a dim copy in comparison to the blazing glory of technicolour reality:

     "If you ask me," said Edmund, "it's like somewhere in the Narnian world. Look at those mountains ahead - and the big ice-mountains beyond them. Surely they're rather like the mountains we used to see from Narnia, the ones Westward beyond the waterfall?"
     "Yes, so they are," said Peter. "Only these are bigger."
     ... "Those hills," said Lucy, "the nice woody ones and the blue ones behind - aren't they very like the southern border of Narnia?"
     "Like!" cried Edmund after a moment's silence. "Why, they're exactly like. Look, there's Mount Pire with his forked head, and there's the pass onto Archenland and everything!"
     "An yet they're not like," said Lucy. "They're different. They have more colours on them and they look farther away than I remembered and they're more...more...oh, I don't know..."
    "More like the real thing," said the Lord Digory softly.

For Paul, this seems to be something of the reality of becoming a Christian: we have entered into a new stage of living, which is truly living ("I have come that they should have life and life to the full." John 10:10). We are not yet in heaven and yet we have been born again. Somehow, miraculously, we have died with Christ upon the cross and risen with him into a new fuller existence because in Christ, who we are now also in(!), is all fullness. He is the word of God in all its fullness (1:25), the one in whom are hidden all of treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3), the one in whom the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form (2:9), everything else was but a shadow of the things that were to come but the reality is found in Him! (2:17) Once we accept Christ, our lives are uprooted and replanted in him and we too, although I know in my own life I scarcely feel it or dare to believe it, have been brought to absolute fullness. (2:9)

Paul's ambition in writing to the church at Colossae is to tell them what they have already received in Christ - life! - and to encourage them to keep living in the reality of this new life which has been won for them. He continually reminds them that they are no longer the people they once were; they have become something entirely different and must now live up to the new identity bought for them by the blood of Christ. Become what you are. Paul's message is a plea to accept what Christ has already achieved for them, what Jesus has done, and an admonishment to actively strive, and keep striving, for the new identity which is theirs.

In the first two chapters of the letter, Paul reminds the church of what has been done for them: "he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (1:13), "he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight," (1:22), "your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off [for you] when you were circumcised by Christ" (2:11), "when you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive in Christ" (2:13), but now the Colossians, and us, are called to start living up to who we are. We are a new creation; we had better start acting like one. Paul has reminded the church of what Christ has done and it is out of fully understanding his unbelievable grace in securing our new life that we are called to change our hearts and our minds. Hence the "since" at the start of chapter 3: in light of what I have just spent two chapters reminding you - Christ gave you life! - you now are called to live it like those who live in him and for him.

This calls for a radical change of focus. As I read these verses this morning I prayed about what it meant for me to physically, mentally, forcibly set my heart - my emotions, longings, dreams, desires - and my mind - my intelligence, thoughts, consciousness - on Jesus and his heavenly kingdom instead of this earthly one. What would a kingdom minded heart/mindset look like? I do not know. But it would, I think, spring from understanding verse 4: "when Christ, who is your life." Who. Is. Your. Life. That is an astounding sentence, or clause, or declaration, or whatever it is. Our very existence is Jesus. It doesn't merely belong to him or vaguely revolve around him; he is synonymous with what is means for me to be alive. "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11: 25) My existence, my identity, my decisions, my direction becomes Jesus. Living is not simply for him; it is him. This kind of blows my mind.

In a mind-blown state I went for a run this morning and tried to wrestle with the magnitude of Jesus being entirely responsible for my existence, and, it went further: Jesus is not just responsible for my existence; he is responsible for life. He is the eternal word through whom everything was made; he made all things and he sustains all things: "The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things on heaven and on earth, visible and invisible; whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all thing hold together." (Col 1:15-17) The image that floated strangely into my head was of Jesus holding the world in his hand and then suddenly squeezing his fist shut so that they world world collapsed in one split second. I imagined the path that I was running on, the trees, the flaking white wooden fence, the sky suddenly just not existing, being utterly consumed into a black nothingness. Not that I think the end of the world will be like this - I believe it will be much more like the end of The Last Battle - but it occurred to me that, believer or not, every second of existence is owed to the mercy of Jesus. If he wanted the world to suddenly stop, it would stop. "Because of his great love we are not consumed." (Lamentations 3:22)

I seem to have come along way from Colossians, and I still don't think I have come any further in the direction of understanding what a heart or mind set on Christ would look like. But it would be joyful, it would be grateful, it would be rejoicing like a party person who knows that Jesus has given them life. I live on an estate where community is fractured; the mindset, and the heartset, is entirely earthly. It is self-centered and destructive but today I dreamed of what it would be like with renewed minds, with hearts of flesh not stone. I long to believe that that is possible: that the place where I live might be radically and beautifully redeemed, that priorities would shift and that lives would be lived in the fullness of a new reality paid for by Jesus' death. But it must start with me. I must live in this reality first. I must set my heart and my mind on what is above; I must live a life that is in Christ and about him and for him and is him; I must become what I have already been made to be, "putting on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator." (Col 3:10)

But I don't like blogs

If I ever write a book, I am going to call it Unnecessary Beauty. This is because of a conversation I once had with my very good friend Harry looking out over the Thames from South Bank and marvelling at the way the light danced on the darkening waves. We had been debating why I believed in God and I had answered that one reason was that the world was full of things that were unnecessarily beautiful; things there for no good reason at all other than to be somehow lovely or admirable. This - amongst other things - leads me to believe that there is a God and that he has made the world for our enjoyment. The Thames did not need to look strangely beautiful in that moment, but it did; there is no reason for light reflecting on water to bring us pleasure, but it does.

In a book that I can no longer find by Brennan Manning called The Ragamuffin Gospel he says that we have lost our sense of wonder. I think this is true. Unnecessary beauty should cause us to wonder at it. And enjoy it. It is a lovely thing to be in awe of something. 

However, the reason for my blogging is because, in all likelihood, I am never going to write a book. I have pretty much maxed out all my ideas in two paragraphs so it's highly unlikely I would be able to write a sustained narrative for several chapters. But I do like writing. I also feel slightly like my head is going to explode if I don't empty some of it's over analytical, somewhat frenetic, contents out in some fashion or another. I have always said that I don't like blogging and this is because I am terrified of being pretentious, of thinking that the bizarre ponderings of my head are worthy of global publication over and above someone else's. That is not what I think. I do think a lot, however, and perhaps there is no real harm in writing those things down. I do so more for myself than anyone else - selfish rather than pretentious perhaps, which I'm not convinced is any better - but I also, if I'm honest, like the pressure of an audience. The notion that my ideas need to be ordered in some way so that they make sense to someone else rather than simply making sense to me. I could probably have done this by using a diary (which I already have) but that doesn't quite cut the mustard (bizarre expression) for some reason and so, against my better judgement, here is a vague stab at a blog instead.