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Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Haunted by humans

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant...I am haunted by humans.(Death, The Book Thief, Markus Zusak)  

These are the concluding lines of Zusak's beautifully profound novel. It is a novel that made me weep and laugh (as recently did A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which is another novel of beautiful profundity) and yet I had all but forgotten about it until someone recently asked me to explain why I was still a Christian. It is an interesting question; namely, because most people ask why did you become a Christian rather than why you have remained one. And yet, it is altogether a more important question: it is not a question asked about a moment's decision, but a question asked about a decision made and remade day by day. For me, that decision has been made and remade for a decade.

In part, my answer is linked to my blogpost 'What's your prison?' (10 April, 2012). I am a Christian because I don't know how to not be; I am a Christian because I am a Prisoner of Hope (Zechariah 12:9); I am a Christian for the same reason as Simon Peter (John 6:68-9), because Jesus has the words of eternal life and I haven't found them anywhere else. However, when I was asked that question a couple of weeks ago, the first thing that came into my head was that I am a Christian because the world is broken and, more importantly, I am broken, and I think there must be something wrong with it/me. In the Book Thief, Death says that he is "always finding humans at their best and worst. [He] see[s] their ugly and their beauty, and [he] wonder[s] how the same thing can be both." This is, I think, what I was getting at: I look at the mess of the world, at its brokenness and war and famine and poverty and greed and consumerism and anorexia and love of money and hatred and racism and and and and yet I see its beauty and its goodness and the incredible capacity of human beings to endure, of what I think Virginia Woolf (or at least Mrs Jenkins, who taught me Virginia Woolf) called the peculiar resilience of the human spirit. Humans beings are both: we are terrible and glorious; we are beautiful and ugly. This is what convicts me of the existence of God.
That statement demands a little unpacking, if only because global suffering is often used as an argument against God's existence, rather than evidence for it. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis summarises the suffering argument as follows: "If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God either lacks goodness, or power, or both." I do not disagree that the creatures are unhappy. It is hard to look at the world and see happiness. Yes, it does exist. Yes, we do experience joy, but we are keenly aware of its fleeting nature, of the persistence of suffering in our own lives - the death of a loved one, a lost job, illness - and in the lives of the rest of humanity. Not only so, but also in the life of our planet. Nature, too, seems to be broken in some way: climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis, drought, another failed harvest. These are the things that Jesus, before he died, said that we should expect: "You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains." (Matthew 24:6-8) He said we should expect them; He did not say that they would not hurt and grieve us.

The world, to me, is out of kilter. There is something wrong with it. Somewhere deep down in my gut is an ache which says It wasn't meant to be like this. I have just - fruitlessly - searched the internet to find how Don Miller puts this in Blue Like Jazz. The unfindable Miller phrase stuck (or possibly paraphrased) in my head is We were meant to be good. This is, I think, what Death hints at in The Bookthief: it is the terrible paradox of humanity's never quite sustainable goodness that haunts him. It is the fact that human beings are capable of extreme and beautiful acts of love, and ugly acts of hate. At the same time.

It feels terribly taboo to say that human beings are inherently bad, that we are born evil, that human nature has something wrong with it. In arguments with friends about God this fast becomes the bone of contention, Hamlet's infamous rub: it is not ok to suggest that we are born sinful. It's downright offensive. Perhaps though, the offensiveness of it depends on your definition of sinful. I'm not going to quote some mystery Hebrew/Greek to suggest that we've translated the word wrong (I have no ideas about anything Greek or Hebrew to be honest!), but I guess my understanding of human nature, as described in the bible, is that it is not what it was intended to be. The evilness of human nature is not a badness, as such, but a brokenness. When man rejected God as his King - whether or not you believe in a literal Adam and Eve and an apple - something broke inside humanity. All man that followed has remained broken because he, she, they are no longer in relationship with their Creator. Lewis' creatures are unhappy not because God has failed in His goodness or His power, but because the creatures have failed to allow God to make them happy. They have chosen to seek life elsewhere, and it cannot be found. Not in all its fullness (John 10:10) anyway, or in its eternity (John 17:3).

This all sounds very highfalutin and philosophical and it doesn't bear much resemblance to the - much shorter - answer that I gave my friend to the question of why I'm still a Christian. When I examine my own heart and thoughts and motives and actions, I am disappointed and ashamed. This is not self-deprecation. Nor do I want anyone to think that I am beating myself up because of unrealistically high expectations about my own capabilities and behaviour (although that is, certainly, on occasion, the truth!). I am horrified by the things I think sometimes, by the things I do and fail to do, by walking into a room and checking whether people are thinner or fatter than me before deciding who to talk to. Even writing that last sentence makes me feel a little sick, but I do it. I endlessly compare myself to others and avoid opportunities to love and know other people because my identity might be threatened. I secretly rejoice when other people do badly. I am jealous of other people's successes. I am a sick individual. Again that sounds strong and I am not seeking for people to tell me that I'm not, that it's ok, that all people behave like that. Because that is precisely my point. We all do it. We all behave like that, but why? Why do we need to be told we're ok? Why do we fail to live up to our own standards? Why do we curse ourselves for stupid decisions and mistakes because we know we could have done something better? "I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." (Romans 7:18-19)

Because we are broken. Because we've forgotten how to listen to the One who can tell us we're ok inspite of all that's wrong with us. The One who says You are my beloved and on you my favour rests, with you I am well pleased. The One who speaks the same words over us as he speaks over his one and only Son. (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22)

"All Creation Groans..." Candice Snyder
I ache to be perfect. I ache to be better than I am, to truly throw off the sinful nature that entangles and pulls down and holds back and trips me up (Hebrews 12:1) and be like Him. (12 Corinthians 3:18) I am longing for the day when he comes so that I'm not broken anymore and the world isn't broken either. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies." (Romans 8:22-23). I am waiting for adoption for the not yet that follows this now. And yet I am thankful for this now, for in this now there is the hope of the not yet; in this now there is the certainty of what is to come:

"For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." (2 Corinthians 5:1-5)

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Ballsy prayers

A slightly controversial title perhaps, but an interesting thought: How ballsy are our prayers? How much faith do we have? Do we actually believe Jesus when he says that He will give us whatever we ask if we do so in His name? "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." John 14:12-13. My gut reaction to those words is Crazy. Surely it is crazy to believe that our faith has the potential to be mountain moving, demon expelling, sick healing, dead raising, glory giving power. But, simultaneous to the screaming of the word crazy in my head is also an undeniable jolt of excitement. There is a small part of me (the small but, I think, faithful part) which whispers Yes please. I want in with that. I don't want to waste my life on little prayers when Jesus wants me to drag his kingdom down from heaven.

I am not suggesting that we are only to pray for big things; I have the ever-encouraging echo of the 24/7 vision in my head to remind me that God is in our faithlessness and our little praying as well: "My feeble whispered, faithless prayer invokes a thunderous, resounding, bone-shaking great "AMEN!" from countless angles, from heroes of the faith, for Christ himself." BUT, I am challenged. What might happen if we dared to pray for the bigger things, if we dared to put ourselves in situations where - if God didn't show up - we were absolutely screwed, if we dared to believe in the impossible and take the words of the bible seriously: "Look at the nations and watch - and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told." (Habakkuk 1:5). My friend Peter spoke those words over Cambridge a long time ago; in fact, they are scribbled across the bottom of a painting of the view from Castle Mound in our flat; they were also tattooed across several photos I took in my final year at university from the roof of St. Catharine's College. I'm still not convinced I have taken them seriously. I would like to start trying to do that: taking God seriously.

In Revelation, these words are spoken of the resurrected, reigning King Jesus: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power for ever and ever!" (5:13). Similarly, in Philippians, Paul speaks of the utter awe and majesty that belongs to the Messiah: 
"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place 
and gave him the name that is above every name, 
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
    to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:9-11)
There is awesome power in the name of Jesus. I wonder if we believe that? If we call upon His name because we know that there is no greater name, there is no other name under which we can be saved (Acts 4:12), there is no other name that can bring real lasting transformation to situations, no other name that brings hope and unfailing love and full redemption (oh, what a beautiful phrase - Psalm 130:7). 

I have been trying to put my weak believing (Mark 9:24) into practice by remembering in whose name I am praying. Jesus is the one who made the universe; it was made for him and through him and he holds it all together. There is nothing that he does not know, and nothing that he cannot do. And whatever we ask in his name, for the glory of the father, will be given to us. I want those words to soak into my spirit and take root in my heart, to be given a deep, faith-filled, unshakable knowledge that we serve the God of the impossible. He will do things we would not believe even if he told us about them in advance. And if we had the faith to pray for them. 

Last week, at home group, Dave and Bev's son, Isaac, was crying. This is not unusual; this is what small 10 week old babies do, but it was frustrating as we were trying to worship. And so I picked him up and prayed for him, that he would be still, and - eventually - he was. He calmed down and fell asleep and we were able to continue worshiping without his musical accompaniment. But then, unsurprisingly I suppose, when we started praying later on in the evening, he started crying again. This time - feeling slightly emboldened by our study of Matthew 8, particularly the disciples lack of faith despite the miracles they have just witnessed - I simply said, "In the name of Jesus be still." And Isaac was. Instantly. I have to admit, I was pretty taken aback. I mean, I know Jesus can do that: he has the authority as the living Word to command through a single word ("Be clean!" 8:3, "Go! Let it be done..." 8:13, "he drove out spirits with a word" 8:17, "he got up and rebuked the wind and the waves" 8:26, "he said "Go!" and they came out" 8:32, and of course the awesome commanding authority of his words to call us from death and back to life again: "When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face." John 11:43-44) but do I really have that authority too? Yes, yes I do. We do. If we believe in Jesus then we have his authority as adopted sons and daughters of the King. The same power that conquered the grave lives in me.

A few days after the silenced baby incident, I found myself in another situation where I needed God to step in. I wouldn't say it was quite on the stormy level of the disciples, but there was much more a sense of God if you don't show up I'm going to drown this time rather than simply God if you don't show up I'm going to get rather irritated. I mentor some teenage girls at a local secondary school. One of them is this beautiful girl who's been seriously messed up by life. My heart breaks for her; I long for her to understand that she has this incredible worth and value as someone made in God's image, someone who he is calling back to himself into a family of beloveds. When I saw her she was angry. Really angry. So angry that I was quite frightened (she's 5'11; I'm 5'4) and quite convinced that I was going to get punched in the face. I didn't really have much of an option but to pray and so I did, rather frantically, in the name of Jesus, asking that God would step in and do something, anything really that might keep my nose intact and bring peace to the situation. And He did. Instantly. Again. (And yet I'm still surprised). Immediately, the girl calmed down and looked at me. Whereas seconds before she had been pummeling her fists and looking for a target, now she was looking at me and declaring that if anyone else had been in the room she would have hit them, but she wasn't going to hit me. She couldn't explain why not, only that she didn't want to and that she was calmer with me. I don't say this to boost my own ego; I say it to demonstrate that the same power that conquered the grave really does live in us. Christ in us is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27), and this hurting teenage girl caught a glimpse of him - somehow - in me. 

Do we get this? Do we understand that we have been called to invite God to intervene into this broken and messy world and see Him show up. The You're crazy voice is someone subdued now and I hear, clearer than before, still doubting, still unsure, and yet definitely clearer: Yes pleaseI want in with that. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

What's your prison?

I once bought a wooden bracelet in the tiny market town of Chitakale from a Malawian called Nicholas. On the inside I carved the words ‘PLOD ON.’ I lost it whilst polishing the floor of a posh boarding school at a Christian holiday camp in a desperate attempt to remove the last traces of masking tape that remained from the fake police outline of a dead body!

I haven’t thought of that bracelet for about four years but was reminded of it last week when a dear friend challenged me to keep plodding. (Psalm 141:5) Are you going to be a flash in the pan Christian or are you going to persevere? An apt question. And a painful one. It’s much more tempting to soar and plummet on an emotional rollercoaster than to plod on. I have been doing a lot of plummeting recently. It’s been a tough few weeks for reasons that I don’t fully understand and I can only articulate it by saying that I haven’t felt very happy; I haven’t felt very joyful. I have done a lot of self-pitying. And ranting. And failing to see God’s face or understand his plan for us living here in Barnwell.

BUT (there always is one), I can’t give up. I was sharing my general feeling of despondency with another friend (the more I write this Blog – however infrequently – the more I realise that I am blessed by many incredibly good and challenging friends!) and she asked what the alternative was. The truth is I don’t have one. I don’t have anything else to invest my life in. I have been a Christian for nearly a decade. I don’t know another way. I don’t have different answers or an alternative meaning to life. I’m stuck.

In Zechariah 9, God calls his people “prisoners of hope” (v.13) and commands them to return to their fortress. I am a prisoner of hope. I think the main problem is that I haven’t been acting very much like it. Nor have I answered God’s call to return to himself, to the ultimate fortress. I have been far too stubborn for that. I’ve made a new kind of prison. A prison of introversion. A prison of me: “Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name.” (Psalm 142:5). That verse really reminds me these song lyrics from Pink: “I’m a hazard to myself. Don’t let me get me. I’m my own worst enemy.” The problem is that I’m not very good at asking God to help me get out of the mess I’ve made. I get scared of Him. Not holy, reverential fear, but unbiblical God’s mad at me fear. And once that sets in, I’m in a pickle. It’s a pickle that can only be got out of by asking God but that’s the very thing I find hardest to do and so, like Pilgrim and Hopeful, I forget that I have the means to get out of my self-created prison and instead block myself into the darkest corner. And I do it time and time again. I seem to prefer staying in my own prison rather than submitting to be a prisoner of God instead.

Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty.I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That's good news; good Brother pluck it out of thy bosom and try.Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the Dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. Then he went to the outward door that leads into the Castle-yard, and with his Key opened that door also. After he went to the iron Gate, for that must be opened too, but that Lock went damnable hard, yet the Key did open it. Then they thrust open the Gate to make their escape with speed; but that Gate as it opened made such a creaking, that it waked Giant Despair, who hastily rising to pursue his Prisoners, felt his limbs to fail, for his Fits took him again, so that he could by no means go after them. Then they went on, and came to the King's High-way again, and so were safe, because they were out of his jurisdiction.” (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress)

Pilgrim’s mechanism for escape is simple. He remembers that he has God’s promises stored up inside himself. He remembers that, thanks to the promises of God, he is a prisoner of hope and not of despair. He can be one who doles out hope and freedom and promise to others because he has claimed them for himself, bought for him with the blood of Christ. I just wish I could get that!

Sometimes I do get it. Sometimes I manage to talk to myself enough to remember that I am not a slave to sin and to despair but to righteousness. I am no longer controlled by the sinful nature (at least not totally anyway) but by the Spirit. My master, my jailer, is the Lord, not my own thought process. I need Him to remind me of this. My state of helplessness is such that I have no way for pulling myself out of the pit; I have no way of remembering that I have a Key called Promise unless God tells me so. I need to pray to him to change my will that I might long to be his captive instead of thinking that my own “mind-forged manacles” (William Blake, London) are somehow a better bondage. Oh, how blind we can be! And yet and yet (as ever) to get to a place of asking God, of praying, it is I who has to act. I who has to open my mouth and pray, open the bible and read (Kingdom Skank anyone?).

Today is the first day in a long time when I have made the commitment to do that. And God has honoured it. Aided by a Piper sermon, and accompanied by Taryn’s singing, I have been meditating on Psalm 43:

“Vindicate me, my God, 
   and plead my cause 
   against an unfaithful nation. 
Rescue me from those who are 
   deceitful and wicked. 
You are God my stronghold. 
   Why have you rejected me? 
Why must I go about mourning, 
   oppressed by the enemy? 
Send me your light and your faithful care, 
   let them lead me; 
let them bring me to your holy mountain, 
   to the place where you dwell. 
Then I will go to the altar of God, 
   to God, my joy and my delight. 
I will praise you with the lyre, 
   O God, my God.
(Verses 1-4)

To get to the place of the altar, the place of the cross, of realizing that my despair and my self-pity are sin, I need God to act. I need his light to shine that I might see the truth and know (know know) that I am loved and I am his and Jesus is the ‘yes’ to every single promise. I must pray with the great prayers and poets of the past (this has accidentally become a very literary post) that my heart would be undivided in its seeking of him (Psalm 86:11 “Give to me an undivided heart that I may fear your name.”), that I would be bound to him and safe within his fortress, a prisoner of hope, a captive of the King.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
(Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”)

“Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art;
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.
(George Croly, “Spirit of God, Descend upon my Heart”)

And, finally, my favourite of favourite poems, and something I aspire to pray more often:

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. (John Donne, Sonnet 74)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Taming the Tongue

Last week was a fairly challenging week: one of those weeks where God gives you several nudges (each one slightly harder and more painful than the last) about a particular aspect of your life that isn't very sorted out. For me, that's my mouth. I have been reading Proverbs (that probably counts for prods one through to fifty as every other verse is a reprimand to those who misuse their tongue) and was already finding it quite uncomfortable going, and then, at our church weekend away at home, our minister challenged us to do some true fasting (Isaiah 58:10 "do away with the yoke of oppression,with the pointing finger and malicious talk") for the remaining 30 days of lent and fast from negativity in our attitudes towards and conversations about our church family. Finally, just to drive the already rather sore point home ("For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." Hebrews 4:12. Ouch) I have been reading through James with one of the brilliant young people who live near me and we had reached the mighty chapter 3: The Taming of the Tongue. I often complain that God doesn't seem to be saying anything, but His message to me over the past few days has been quite explicit. (That doesn't mean that I've got it yet!) 

In Proverbs, the wise are juxtaposed against the foolish. One of the key distinctions between the two is the way in which they use their mouth: is it for building up or for breaking down? Is it for stirring up discord or promoting peace? The tongue is both a weapon and a healer. It is not only destructive to the one who uses it incorrectly, but to those around him; it is the means of "preserving life" (13:3) or causing "ruin" but not simply ruin of oneself but of an entire community: "The mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts." (18:7-8) Thus, the snare traps the foolish speaker but also those who are abused by what he says. In direct contrast to this, is the one who understands the power of what is said and uses words wisely: "The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent, and their lips promote instruction. Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." (16:23-4).

Proverbs has some truly awesome things to say about a mouth that is used wisely, things that make me long to be one who waits and speaks with wisdom rather than rushing in "airing my own opinions" (18:2): "The soothing tongue is a tree of life" (15:4); "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life" (10:11); "The lips of the righteous nourish many" (10.21). Just as the tongue has the power to tear down and to wound, so does it have the power to build up and to heal. More than that, the mouth becomes a fount of salvation, the means by which people are turned from their foolish ways and directed towards Jesus. 

James perhaps goes even further in his comments about words. In chapter 3 of his letter, he claims that anyone having the ability to perfectly guard their tongue would be able to guard all of their other behaviour: "Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check." (3:2) I find this an almost unbelievable statement: the one who never says a word wrong will never do anything wrong; the one who has control of their mouth will be able to control everything else for the tongue, like the rudder on a ship or the bit of a horse (3:3-4), controls something much bigger than itself - controls and "corrupts" (3:6). The only one not to be corrupted by it was Christ and it was for his words that he was famous: "The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law." (Mark 1:22) ""No one ever spoke the way this man does," (John 7:46). He was himself the perfect Word (John 1:1) of God.

When reading James last week, I was struck by the severity of his rebuke against those who fail to speak as they ought: "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water." (3:9-12) There is a profound hypocrisy in praising God with the same mouth with which we mar his precious and valued creation. Ouch. God prompted me, under the verse which James references in Genesis ("Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness."" Gen 1:26) to write a list of names of people in my life that I struggle to tame my tongue with - either in talking to them or about them. It was a long list. A callous word is all too easily said, gossip indulged in, anger allowed to blurt itself out. But how is to be avoided?

I don't think there is an easy solution. As with most things in the Christian life it seems that "little by little" (Exodus 23:30) we are saved. God is a God of full redemption (Psalm 130) but it is a slow process. One of my all time favourite holy people quotes comes from the awesome Communist turned Catholic, Dorothy Day (check her out if you have not already!) I paraphrase because I have forgotten but she says (roughly): "to love God and our fellow man - this is our lifetime's job...we are never going to be finished." I love the honesty of that - we will be made perfect but, for our time on earth, it will be a struggle. " I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19) Amen to that Paul. And yet, and yet...that does not mean that we resign ourselves to do nothing whilst we wait for our perfection. What is the solution to negativity, to pointing fingers and malicious tongues? Honour.

The opposite of negativity, of bitching and complaining, is not positivity (Does anybody else remember this terrible advert?) but honour. As well as being challenged to fast from negativity, our church has been challenged to take up a culture of honour. This makes sense to me in a way that fake, plastic smile positivity doesn't. Honour is not caking over negativity with some kind of non commital compliments; honour is, as Mark Stibbe so wonderfully phrased it, searching the treasure in the trash. His reasoning is based on Jeremiah 15:19: "if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman." God is looking for those who will ask for his eyes to see humanity as he sees them. God is searching for those who will persevere to speak worth into lives that may seem broken and unworthy. This is truely beautiful. It is also doable in a way that positivity isn't. It is doable because it forces us to ask God what he sees in someone - what is there of his wonderful likeness in a hard to like individual?

When I was a teacher in Croydon, I spent three years asking God to teach me to love the unlovable. I need his help to do the same again. Instead of seeing a scrappy, messy tomboy who loves to cause fights to see the courage of a potential soldier of God; instead of seeing the loud mouthed brashness of a boistrous fourteen year old to see the skills of a leader and the beauty of someone who is fiercely loyal to their friends; instead of complaining about what I haven't liked about a church service, honouring the individuals who have spoken and seeking out the Christlikeness in them. It is difficult. There are still 20 days left of lent and I have failed many times already. But, if we are to be God's spokesmen, if we are to represent him and speak for him, if we are to reach out to the lost and proclaim their value in the eyes of a loving God then a culture of honour must extend way beyond a 30 day fast. It must become a daily commitment, not simply a Lenten one.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Kingdom of Heaven

I'm not quite sure that I believe in heaven. That is a totally ludicrous statement for a Christian to make and I know it. But it is true quite a lot of the time. The reality of heaven seems weird and detached and I find it hard for the motivation of a future reward, the future grace that Peter talks about ("Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming." 1 Pet 1:13), to be the reason for living today. I find it difficult to explain why that is. I think because I squirm at the idea of following Jesus being about rewards. Another weird statement. I don't like to think that I am only living the way I live today for the not yet rather than for the now. I find it hard to get excited about an eternity with God. I find it hard to summon up joy at the prospect of 24/7 worship. I wonder if I am alone in that?

And yet, I know that my doubts about heaven, my nervousness (almost) about what it will be like and whether it's there at all come from my misunderstanding, and not God's bad planning. In my head - though not yet my heart - I know that heaven will be a wonderful and beautiful thing; that we will truely be able to appreciate the glory and awesomeness of God without being held back by our sin and our unbelief. That the deepest longing of the human soul is simply to hang out with God and be in his presence. I know this because I've tasted it. I know this because I hunger for a greater wanting of God. (A confusing sentence: put more simply, I want to want) I want him, but only in part. But that part is enough to know that I want him more. You cannot be hungry for something you have never tasted. I have tasted a morsel and I know the full reality would blow my mind. I just can't quite seem to translate that into my view of heaven. I can't get my head (and my heart) around the longing and aching and waiting for heaven that the bible speaks of. 

I raised this with a friend yesterday and - as well as being quite relieved that she felt similarly! - was reminded of a question I have had scribbled in my bible for the past few weeks. On a scrap of paper, in green biro, I have simply written The Kingdom of Heaven? I have been meaning to think and blog about the answer to that question for weeks. Not that it's even a question really. It's an idea. An idea that's too vast to really digest or think about. I have thought about it though and it was only yesterday that my thoughts clarified themselves. My friend suggested that - although it might be difficult to get excited about being with God because, in the brokenness of our sin, we struggle so much to really taste and see what that is like - it is easy to get excited about the coming of a kingdom. It is easy to get excited about a broken world made right again, about no more mourning or death or tears, about a place where joy and gladness will overtake us and sorrow and sighing will flee away (Isaiah 35). And a kingdom can't really be a kingdom, the kingdom cannot come, unless there is a king to rule it and people to live in it under the rule of that good and perfect king and (incredibly) we get to be those people, the people living out what it is to be in the kingdom. But (and this replaces my unease about heaven with a profound surge of joy for the present) we get to live out that reality now. And (there's more) it is our living out of that reality that brings heaven (the place where that reality is in its realest, fullest form) to earth. We are the children of glory, born into a new inheritance through the death and resurrection of Christ, who all of creation is groaning for; we get to participate in the act of making new, of redeeming. We are co-labourers in recreation. 

As Jo and I talked and prayed together, I got a picture of a little kid whose toy is snatched and broken by someone else. He takes it to his father but, rather than repair it and simply hand it back, the dad invites the son to work alongside him to put the toy back together again. I think the Kingdom of Heaven looks a little like this: we have been bashed about and bruised by our own sin, the sins of others, and the pain of living in a sinful world and God wants to come alongside us not only that we might be fixed but that we might be those who fix others. Perhaps that is what is meant when Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed: a tiny seed of faith is dropped into our souls that we might believe and as we grow in our maturity alongside a community of others doing the same we - together as believers, as the church, as his body - become this huge safe space, this refuge, in which all the birds can find safety.

In the bible the Kingdom of Heaven in compared to a myriad of seemingly contradictory things: It is a man sowing seed; a mustard seed; hidden treasure in a field; a pearl of great price worth selling everything else for; a king who wishes to settle account with his servants, who demonstrates supreme mercy and punishes the failure to show mercy in return; a man hiring labourers for his vineyard who flips worldy justice on its head by paying each one the same regardless of the hour they started work; a king who throws a wedding banquet for his son; ten virgins with lamps…

Scripture is at once incredibly specific and frustratingly vague about this kingdom. When Jesus first starts his ministry he announces that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). This same kingdom is proclaimed by the apostles in Acts time and time again as they call for people to repent and believe in the resurrection of Christ. The kingdom of heaven cannot be entered unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and yet you must be willing to receive it as a gift, like a child. It is to be sought above all else and before all else. It is nearly impossible for the rich to enter it, and yet prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors are getting in before the religious. Some are near the kingdom; some are preventing others from entering. Some shut the door of the kingdom in the face of others whilst they themselves miss the opportunity to enter in. The kingdom is only for the totally pure and righteous; it is for the meek and the poor; it is worth losing eye and limb to get inside it. The kingdom is what Joseph of Arimathea is looking for before he asks for Jesus’ body to be taken down from the cross. The kingdom cannot be entered by flesh and blood, not by what is perishable but only by what is imperishable. To enter the kingdom you cannot look back nor can you stop to bury the dead. Your way is blocked unless you are born again of water and of spirit.  It isn’t a matter of eating and drinking; it is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the spirit. It isn’t about talking; it’s about power. It is entered by those who are called by God to enter in to it. It is a kingdom that endures forever. It cannot be shaken.

And yet, amongst all this, it is hard to see what the Kingdom actually is. Perhaps because it isn't a thing as of such; it is the living out of life under the King. All of the comparisons Jesus makes are a way of trying to explain what this King is like (he loves mercy and punishes the unmerciful (Matt 18:21-25); he welcomes the downcast and extends an open invitation to all who will accept it (Matt 22:1-14); he refuses to differentiate between the different subjects of his kingdom regardless of when they first met him as king and started to obey him (Matt 20:1-16)) and what it is to live underneath his Kingship. That is the very reason that Israel were chosen in the first place: not because they were greater than other nations or had anything particularly good going for them (Deut 7:7), but so that God might use them as a demonstration to the other nations of what it looked like to be his subjects:

"See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?" Deuteronomy 4:5-8

Israel were chosen to be a blessing to the nations: 

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you.
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
And all peoples of the earth
will be blessed through you.” (Gen 12:2-4)

The first subjects of the kingdom that we gentiles have only recently been permitted entrance into were given the incredible promise that it is through them that the entire world would be blessed. I don't pretend to understand how God is working out that plan (Romans 11 boggles my mind) but He makes it pretty clear that we are only receiving a blessing because Israel failed to be obedient; we are being blessed through Israel now as the dogs snaffling the scraps under a banquet that both was and wasn't intended for us (Matt 15:17): "Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!" (Romans 11:11-12) It is not the end of the story however: greater blessing is yet to come through the restoration of Israel to the Kingdom. All Israel will be saved (!) (Rom 11:26) Like Paul I am in awe and bafflement at this statement: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Rom 11:33) I do not pretend to be able to understand it.

This seems to have come very far from my original train of thought. I guess I wanted to return to the notion of blessing: that God's plan was always to use his people to bless others. Through Jesus Christ that blessing potential is now infinitely greater: we have become ministers of reconciliation called to bless and transform the world around us. This feels like deja vu as I know I have written similar things before but this, for me, is the most unbelievable and beautiful and exciting thing about the kingdom: it is all about the now, the imminence of heaven breaking into earth, being dragged in by those who will dare to live in the way of the king, those who dare to live lives that beg the question: Who the heck are you worshipping and how can I meet him? What is it that you have and why do I feel like I want it to? Who dare to lives lives of such extravagant hope that people cannot help but ask them about where it comes from ("Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" 1 Peter 3:15)

I write with conviction and yet I know that I fail to live up to my own exhortation to hope. I fail to be hopeful. And this, perhaps, is why we need to look forward to heaven. I would like to be full of such a confident hope in God's promises for my eternity that it influences every second of how I live now, that I would become a continual outpouring of "the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for [me] in heaven" (Col 1:5) on earth. What is the Kingdom of Heaven like? The Kingdom of Heaven is like someone who knows that they will one day be absolutely and totally satisfied by being in the goodness and glory of God and so throws away everything now - themselves, their time, their status, their ambition, their pride, their desire to be perceived as worthy in the world's eyes - that they might gain everything then. And they do it that the world might see, and be amazed by the actions of this subject of the kingdom, and so, one day, long also to meet with their King.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
   “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matt 13:44-45)

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Come on, my soul

It has been a difficult couple of weeks, and, increasingly, I am tempted to stay in bed rather than face the day. I do not mean that in a particularly melodramatic way; life just seems very hard at the moment and days are grinding on rather than being joyfilled. This is incredibly frustrating for someone who is used to having energy and passion - to feel suddenly unsure and faltering rather than bouncing through the day at such a speed that the next one seems to start without me really noticing. And yet, and yet, I am convicted of my own indulgent self-pity. A good friend of mine said that, after she moved to Zambia, this was something she struggled with a lot: the temptation to wallow because somehow, bizarrely, it is actually quite enjoyable to feel sorry for yourself. It is actually quite nice to be sad and tell God he's a meanie and that lament that everything is rubbish and hard and difficult and and and. That is not to say that things sometimes aren't rubbish and hard and difficult. They are. I realise, however, that, like my friend, more often than not, my response to adversity is self-pity. I love to wallow. And I think this love of wallowing is rather sinful. I don't like to admit that, of course, because it means that I've got to do something to sort it out instead of bemoaning that God is not doing His bit and sorting it out for me. Again, I am not saying that I can magic myself happy, or that I can suddenly decide to be joyful and voila joyful I shall be. It doesn't work like that. Humans being are pretty emotionally complex and although feelings can't always be trusted they do have an uncanny ability to completely incapacitate us - perhaps for the very reason that they can't be trusted. I am a victim of my own feelings and the way they lure me into self pity, but what is to be done about it?

Another good friend and I spend a vast amount of time discussing our own ridiculousness - namely in relation to our other halves and the quickness with which we become frustrated at them - and to what extent we are to blame, or perhaps culcable, for our thoughts and feelings. She suggested that there are three stages in the awareness of and action against sin (self-pity just being one example of the kind of sin we're talking about; others could include deliberately acting in a way that you know is going to start an argument/ cause pain to someone (again, probably someone close to you like a husband or a friend) overreacting unnecessarily, sulking etc). The first is unconscious and incompetent: you don't know that what you're doing is sinful and therefore you can't do anything about it. The second is conscious and incompetent: you have realised that deliberately getting attention by stropping isn't really the best way to deal with a situation but you still haven't learn to deal with it. This is the stage that I feel that I'm at with most things, including self pity: I realise that it is selfish and silly to wallow deeper and deeper into my own introversion and yet I can't quite stop doing it even though I know that I really should. This is particularly pertinent at that mid point in an argument where I really know that I need to stop and yet, rather than stopping, I keep going, enjoying, relishing even, the opportunity to gain something - although, in hindsight I am never entirely sure what I was trying to gain in the first place! The third stage is conscious and competent: you know when you're doing something sinful (or about to) and you stop doing it. I am definitely not at this stage yet for ninety percent of the things in my life, but I would like to be better. I would like to recognise when I am tempted to stay in bed and enjoy my own bad temper and, instead, do something different. To really want to start an argument just for the sake of being right or having something to fight about and not do it. To I feel on the cusp of shouting because I'm in a foul and irritable mood and restrain myself.But - and here's the key - I would like to do that without feeling like I'm having a constant coversation with my own thoughts and at absolute breaking point because all I want is to give in and have a self-indulgent stress.

I am not sure that I have an solution. But, perhaps, it is more about replacement rather than restraint. The pattern of the psalms is not only a plea for God to protect us from our sinful nature and subdue it (e.g. Psalm 19: "But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression" ) but also an active striving to praise and rejoice even when that seems a totally ludicrous thing to be doing. It is difficult to type this without making it seem glib - like some kind of miracle plaster cast to be smothered over our sadness and struggle and painted garish luminous colours - but I do think that we are called to strive with our own souls - as the psalmists do - and (as it were) get them out of bed: Ephesians 5:14 " Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Practically, I am not totally sure what this means. It means we need to know scripture and use it as a weapon. It means we need to learn to talk to ourselves (Mike Reeves does an excellent exegesis of Psalm 42 on this theme, which can be found here. John Piper's is also helpful:) and that we need to stop reading  "Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song" (Psalm 95:1-2) as a joyful, happy clappy invitation to those who quite fancy hanging out in church together and singing some nice acoustic guitar songs (I mean no offence; I love nice acoustic guitar songs). It is much more than mere invitation; it is command. "Come on, soul! Get on with it. Yes, you don't feel like it; yes, you're tired and weary and you don't want to talk to God right now but get on and do it." 

Lloyd-Jones puts it much better:  
"Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says,: “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”  

I haven't mastered the art of talking to myself, but I think I am becoming better at detecting when my self, and my sinful nature, is saying things that aren't true or helpful. (Conscious but not yet competent). Prayer helps, even if, for me anyway, that prayer is simply: Come on, Soul. Praise the LORD! And when you can't pray, then being with people who can helps, even if you resent their silly, holy prayers even as they pray them. Last week I managed to use the first tactic on Tuesday: I got up, went for a run and sang this song on repeat: "Come on (my soul)" Rend Collective Experiment. I didn't manage to do that on Thursday so I went to church instead for the early morning prayer meeting and subsequently became a snivelling heap in front of the whole staff team. Nice. But helpful. I didn't want to pray and I was tired of shouting at my own soul; actually, I wasn't even whispering, let alone shouting. I couldn't be bothered to say anything to myself, so God used brothers and sisters to do it for me. 

" Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:13-16)

I am not sure that self-pity technically counts as a sickness but being prayed for certainly felt like a kind of medicine. I am still low emotionally and feeling drained but (perhaps) I have (a little) new resolution: Come on, soul! Stop wallowing; start praising.

"Why, my soul, are you downcast?
   Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
   for I will yet praise him,
   my Savior and my God."
(Psam 42:5)

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A living hope

Last Thursday I met with a friend to talk about evangelism. Connie is a wonderful human being. She is full of life and enthusiasm and passion; she is the only person I know who is able to be excited about absolutely everything all the time in a totally genuine way. And she loves to tell people about Jesus. Hearing Connie talk about giving away the word of life is a beautiful and humbling experience. Whereas I often fear saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and messing up opportunities, Connie has no qualms about looking foolish for the gospel. The cross itself is utter foolishness and we are called to join in with it's folly. ("For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." 1 Corinthians 1:25) For Connie, evangelism is exciting. It is sharing the single most important truth and praying that God will use our broken words and stumbling sentences to create something out of nothing. ("My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power." 1 Corinthians 2:4). As I heard her speak, I wondered about why this is not always the case for me. Why the gospel seems dry and embarrassing and unsuited to the situation when I sometimes try and figure out how to stuff it into a conversation. I think perhaps the reason is that the gospel that I know is too small. Connie asked me if I actually knew the gospel. My immediate reaction was to be offended: yes, I know the gospel. Of course I do. And yet, and yet, there is a sense in which the gospel is so much bigger and more mysterious and wonderful than what I know and the way in which I try to encapsulate it in a series of truth statements. 

At the start of 1 Peter, Peter's praise is that the Father, through the Son, has "given us new birth into a living hope." (1:3) James speaks of it in similar language when he explains the life giving effect of the word: "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth...the word planted in you, which can save you." (1:18-21) Through the word of God (both The Word (John 1:1) and God's written word in scripture) we are saved and given hope. These are both pretty massive notions: salvation and hope. And I think often, perhaps, the struggle to evangelise becomes about the former (saved from hell and God's wrath) rather than the latter: a hope that is alive and breathing and beautifully imminent. We are not saved simply for heaven later as an "end result" (1 Peter 1:9) but given a newness and a freedom in the present, which is to be lived out now. In fact, when Peter uses the term "end result" in verse 9 he is talking about the present, about pulling the future (our ultimate salvation when Christ returns) into the now that we might experience ahead of time something of salvation now. We are redeemed (the past tense achieved by Christ's saving work on the cross), we are not yet redeemed (we will not be fully perfect until he comes again), and yet we are being redeemed now. Not only that, but more than that: we are being redeemers called to be involved in God's redemptive work: "We, as the people of God, are caught up in God's redemptive purpose for creation, for society, for humanity and for individuals", Godwin, "The Grace Outpouring."

In Romans, Paul speaks of how all of creation is waiting and groaning and longing for the children of God (that's us!) to be revealed; we are to be responsible for the liberation of our broken world as it is "brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God" (8:21). This is not often (or at least not often by me) told as part of the good news: do you want to be part of a redeeming family who will release this planet from bondage and see the values and beauty of God's kingdom come now not simply in heaven? Do you want to be involved in the most wonderful and meaningful and purposeful partnership that will see the reality of heaven come close to earth and change people's lives and heal their wounds? That is good news. I would be excited about giving that away, giving away an invitation to have hope and to become it to other people.

I once heard someone preach on Isaiah 55 and expand the idea of God's invitation to humanity:

"Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen that you may live." (verses 1-3)

In part, this is an invitation to be saved and to live rather than pay the wages of sin, which is death. (Roman 6:23). But, it is more. The gospel, the good news, is not simply a rescue mission, a message of God's wrath and our need to escape it, but also an invitation to become part of something entirely different from the way we live at the moment. It is an invitation to be satisfied by a fuller life (John 10:10). Again, this is good news. I can muster up - well, don't even need to muster up really - much more excitment about telling this to someone. About inviting a teenager who is failing at school, and at risk of exclusion, and hating home into an entirely different way of living. Instead of saying that he is a sinner and a mess and needs to repent to sort his life out. This is, of course, true, but is it gospel? Is it good news? It doesn't sound very much like it to someone who is used to rebuke and condemnation and rejection from school and family and society already. Godwin puts this beautifully in "The Grace Outpouring":

"How can we tell the story of salvation to those we meet? What is the good news of salvation for a single mum trying to bring up a couple of unruly kids? She can't manage them; she can barely afford to clothe them properly, let alone feed them well. he feels alone in her situation, even as her children become abusive towards her. Perhaps she turns to drink to relieve the pressure. And then the financial woes only get worse.
     To walk up to this woman and ay to her, 'I've got good news for you: you're lost in sin you're going to die and go to hell, but there's a saviour for you,' might be accurate, but in that moment these words are no gospel, good news at all.
     The good news for her, the gospel, is that the God of hope loves her. The God of hope offers to come now and he can support her, and his people can support her too. She may be facing a tunnel of darkness and hopelessness, but the God of hope can come into her life now and fill her with His hope, and can also transform her children. He's a God who gives, he's a God who longs to be her supplier. We can call on him together and he'll bring to release the resources to enable her family to have sufficient for the future. This is the gospel; this is the good news for her." 

last week, I received a beautiful opportunity to speak good news into someone's life - a young girl from one of our youth groups. She has struggled with bullying and school and friendship circles for the past few months and had broken down to tears at a Friday club I help at. I took her to one side and listened to what was going on, and then asked her if she believed in God and if she thought He was interested in her. She wasn't sure but I told her about the God I know: a God who loves her and longs to spend time with her and wants to help her sort out all the rubbish and confusion and be the person she was made to be. I didn't talk to her about sin. I wanted her to see grace and mercy first. She needs to know about it but, in a way, she already does: she knows that she has done bad things, and said horrible things and getting caught up in a tangle of gossiping and bullying is the result of that. The good news for her is that God gets it and he still loves her. He will bring his conviction of her own sin at the right time; he will provide an opportunity for someone else to help her understand it. That is my ongoing prayer for her - that she would be convicted of her sin and come to come Jesus as Saviour - but my immediate prayer for her on Friday was simply that she would know that God wanted to listen to her and show her a new way of doing things, a new way that school could be.

I don't quite know what the good news looks like for the different people in my life right now but I am struck by Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:1-11) For the woman, the good news, the beautiful and liberating gospel, was that she was not condemned by Christ. He was not going to join in with the voices and accusation and hatred and punishment of the others; he was going to offer mercy instead. And it was the encounter with mercy that gave the opportunity for Jesus to say: leave your life of sin, stop doing what you've been doing and do something different. The woman already had a conviction that her life was broken. She didn't need more condemnation to tell her so. She needed to know that there was an alternative to her current lifestyle; she needed to be invited to join the kingdom.