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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.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012


Why are you trying to swim across when I am ready
to part the waters for you?
After three years teaching in Croydon, I thought God had finished teaching me about his strength and my weakness. I remember clearly two words that I received at the time, both questions from God directed towards his wayward and stubborn daughter. The first: Why do you keep running into a brick wall? And the second: Why are you trying to swim across when I am ready to part the waters for you? The second was accompanied by a picture of a fast flowing and dangerous river and a little girl sitting on the bank crying because she kept trying to brave the current and swim across and then had to turn back again. Time and time again working with young people in Croydon I ran head first into brick walls and flung myself into treacherous currents; I was desperate to make a difference and to love those I was trying to teach but I kept trying to do it on my own: I kept trying to live by sheer force of will rather than inviting God to teach me how to do it. Eventually, I learned to tattoo Zechariah 4:6 on my hand in biro in the morning as a poignant reminder that this was not about me; it was all about Him. "Not my might nor by power, but by my Spirit." Similarly, psalm 127 became somewhat of a mantra: " Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late." 

And so I thought I had learnt my lesson about my inability and God's endlessly willing capability. Apparently not. I think it is a lesson that we keep learning and that we need to teach ourselves every day because the temptation to make it about us is irresistible. The temptation to put our structure, our agenda, our motives down on top of God's is always there, always needs to be resisted. The relentless structure of teaching reinforces independence: it is easy to stop putting God first, and reminding ourselves that He is the very reason we are doing anything, when there are a myriad of other things to do and when, ultimately, your time is dictated by the remits of your job - the things you have to do each day. I always knew, in some sense, what I was supposed to be doing because there were deadlines and marking and teachery things to be done. 

It is not like that now. Now I don't have job or a structure and suddenly I have no idea what it is I'm supposed to be doing. There is the general, vague vision: I am living here to try and be Jesus and bless and serve this community. But the specifics of that vision are decidedly hazy. And the temptation to plaster over the haze with things that I think I should be doing is overwhelming. Rather than asking God what he would have me do and wait patiently for the answer.

On Saturday, I returned back to our flat after four days housesitting and broke into tears. This is not an unusual experience for me (I am somewhat emotionally inconstant for any number of reasons - some definable, some not). I had just been watching some clips about the work of Eden ( and was feeling jealous and frustrated and useless; longing to make a difference, to look like Jesus, to connect with young people and love them and support them and reinforce their dreams and aspirations but having not the foggyist clue about how to do any of it. I always find it quite difficult not to be jealous of all the other amazing and beautiful things happening around the country (which is, I know, stupid and selfish and sinful and definitely an easy place for the devil to grab a comfortable foothold) and reading about Eden made me simultaneously want to run to Manchester, forget about Barnwell entirely, and join in, and ignore all of it and go and sit in some hole somewhere. Neither of which seemed particularly Godly options. And so, instead, begrudgingly, in the small angry voice inside my head, I prayed: Alright, God, I get it: I am helpless. Helpless. I confess it. I don't know what I am doing and I am helpless unless you do something. 

9781842914045.jpgI am grateful for the honestly of Roy Godwin in his book "The Grace Outpouring" for sharing a similar prayer which he prayed and for writing down God's response: "It's because you come here in weakness and cannot minister of move out of your usual experience that I want you here. You have nothing to give, so you have to be abandoned to me. And the fact that your eyes are opened so that you're able to discern what's going on spiritually means that you can see what the evil one is doing and you can deal with it. But you don't know how to, so again, you have no experience with this particular area and you have to come back to me. It's your helplessness I want." 

There was something of an echo of that last sentence hammering in my head as I sniveled on the sofa and grumpily confessed to God that I had no clue what I was doing. Was it possible that a sniveling, desperate prayer might be just what He wanted? That a confession of weakness and inability was needed for Him to start working, lifting up my attempt at humility instead of having to batter against my pride. The answer seemed to be a yes because no sooner had I gone to the toilet, than there was a knock at the door and three of the teenagers we have been connecting with turned up on our doorstep. There aren't many places where you are as helpless as sitting on the loo and I took it as a sure sign that God had heard my prayer and this was his answer: I know you're helpless. You can't change this estate. You can't make young people come to you to hear about me. But I can. Look. 

Three days after my helplessness confession and we have been amazed by what God has done: several teenagers have come to hang out with us and drink hot chocolate, we've seen more teenagers than ever before wanting to engage with our weekly football on a Sunday and, last night, at Girls' Group, God doubled our numbers (two to four, but I'm still counting it as doubled!) and then, miraculously, provided enough food for everyone to eat even thought I knew I hadn't made enough spag bol to go around. 

I still haven't learnt my lesson. I am going to need to keep reminding myself that it is my helplessness and my utter dependance that God is after; not my scheming and determination to get things done in my own way as soon as possible. The idea of being abandoned to God is, however, becoming a lot more tempting. If being abandoned to God means that I get to be involved in what He is wanting to do instead of trying to squish Him into what I have decided to do, then that's definitely preferable. It's liberating. It's beautiful. And, looking back over the past weekend, it is infinitely more fruitful than anything that I could concoct on my own. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Why is reading important?

If you type this question into google, this is the website that first comes up:

I'm not sure it's a very good website and most of the reasons cited are somewhat bland and predictable. It is interesting, however, that, according to someone the website quotes, the top reason given for wanting to be able to read is so that people are able to read the bible. Quite an encouraging statistic. But, do we need to be able to read to access the bible? I have been pondering this for some time. I used to help my housemate run a bible study in our house for older teenagers. It was fairly academic, exegetical stuff focused on Ephesians (if you want dense theology there's probably no better place to start and, in hindsight, if you're trying to work with teenagers there is possible no worse one - predestination does rear it's frightful head in the verse few verses after all...) but the girls responding to it really well because they were fairly academic themselves: sixth formers aiming for As and Bs who already knew lots about church and were quite good at finding the right "answers" and dutifully pointing out the verses my housemate and I hinted at. That is not to say that the study wasn't valuable; it was. I loved it and I think the others did too. The bible was exciting and fresh because it was being looked at anew and, gradually, as the weeks went by we really did get to know more about God and explore his character and his purposes for us. 

However, one week, two slightly younger, less confident girls came and I suddenly realised how hard the bible is as a book. It's massive for a start. Longer than the longest Harry Potter by a considerable stretch. Possibly longer even than Richardson's Clarissa, which only the bravest of Literature students have ever dared to take out of the English faculty let along begin to read. (All credit to my beautiful friend Jess at this point who is, I think, the only person I know to accomplish the mammoth task of finishing said book). And it's full of ridiculously difficult obscure words. I am still somewhat scarred by blurring the distinction between a paralytic and paraletic when reading out loud in church at the tender age of 15, and I dread to think of the effects that attempting the foreboding ranks of Jesus's genealogy might have on a small child.

So the bible is a difficult book. Do we need to be able to read to access it? There is part of me - the English Teacher - which cries out yes yes yes. Because reading is beautiful, and the bible is poetic and it's a story and you have to read to be immersed in a story...But do you? Hamish and I discussed this last night - the necessity of reading - and, after covering the bases of being able to read the instructions on a bottle of medicine and applying for a job, we reached an uncomfortable hiatus, which I was reluctant to fill with such an answer as reading is important because you need to get your English GCSE. (Shamefully, it is an answer that I have resorted to many times before with difficult year 11 boys sitting with their heads flopped on a desk). But do you? Do you need an English GCSE? Do you need a job? Do you need to able able to read to partake in society? These sound like utterly ludicrous questions even as I type them because I can hear myself going yes, of course you do. Idiot. But there is part of me that is uncomfortable with it. Literacy is fundamental to being able to function in modern society. (Or at least the society that we have created in 21st Century Britain) That seems to be true. I am heart broken by the comments on our 'Wall of Joy' (please come and sign it sometime; it hangs on the back of our living door and is covered in the scribbles of adults and children as well as an advertisement warning that 'Nicola stinks') which are spelt in ways that do not resemble any word in the English language, or that have backwards 'N's (it seems to be a trend on our estate) all over them. But is that simply the heartbreak of an English teacher with a penchant for grammar? (Interestingly, I just had to look up the word 'penchant' to check it was the one I wanted and was, in my utterly geeky way, overjoyed by the knowledge that it was!) Or a more meaningful kind of heartbreak that desperately believes in education and aspiration and allowing young people to have the highest chances of accessing and enjoying the world around them, knowing - or at least thinking fairly strongly - that reading is integral to that access and enjoyment?

I am so grateful to my first year of university because it was the year in which I fell in love with the bible, but it was not the year in which I fell in love with reading. That love affair was nearly two decades old already, spanning back to the age of torches hidden under duvets in the disillusioned 8 year old belief that my mother wouldn't suspect that I was still engrossed in The Babysitters Club at 2am. Part of why I fell in love with the bible was because - simply - it was a book. I like books. But what if you don't. What is the solution? How are we to wrestle with God's word and get to know him and meditate on the beauty of his law (psalm 119:15-16) if we cannot read what it says? 

The bible is story. And story is an oral tradition not, at least not originally, a written one. I have done no research whatsoever on this and am conscious of my pig ignorance of oral tradition and lack of knowledge about how we moved from speaking to writing but Jesus was a storyteller, not a writer. Yes, he was a student, a Rabbi, one who knew the Torah and understood the scriptures in a way unparalleled, but the way in which he chose to communicate with those around him was through parable. Not always. He did open up the Scriptures and explain God's word to the crowds in the synagogues but, presumably, many (most?) of those that he was speaking to were uneducated and illiterate (Acts 4:13 Peter and John, after all, are "unschooled, ordinary men.") Are we called simply to speak the stories of the bible, then, to those who struggle to understand them because of their poor literacy? Or do we have an obligation to improve literacy in order that they might access the wonder of God's word individually? In order that young people might have lives lived to the full (John 10:10) in this society of our making which assumes a high level of literacy and shoves back to the bottom those who do not have it? How do you teach someone who hates reading to love the bible?

I ask these questions because last night we held a Girls' Group in our flat. One of our regular attendees is from a traveller family and she seems almost, strangely, proud of her poor reading. It is not simply a can't read but a won't read and don't want to learn how to. I long sit down with her and show her the magic of story, to read Jesus' words together and see them come to life and bulge with meaning and significance. I have no idea how to do that. I have no idea how to conquer the barriers of family and upbringing and an attitude so heavily ingrained it seems impossible to change. 

This, however, bizarrely has made me quite excited. Excited because for the first time I start to see how my training as an English teacher might be useful on a council estate but more excited because I have no other option but to ask God for his wisdom. This is one of the central themes in an aforementioned book, "Dreaming with God." Johnson explains that, through Jesus, we have access to the wisdom of the Father: we are no longer servants but friends and everything that the Father has told the Son is available to be made known to us. "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15) This is pretty mind blowing and I am not sure how much I dare to believe it: that the whole realm of heaven's mystery is open to us because Jesus has reconciled us to the Father. Is it possible, as Johnson suggests that it is, that "God has a solution for this problem [whatever that problem is]. And [we] have legal access to His realm of ministry. Therefore [we can] seek Him for the answer!" God is able to make a way where there is no human way! God can provide a place on this estate for reading and for a love of God's word. God can teach young people to fall in love with his stories, and with Him, instead of PS3s and iphones. That is an incredible and compelling thought. 

Part of Johnson's argument in his book is that we, as Jesus' followers, are not very good at asking for his wisdom; we do not have because we have not asked yet: "Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete." (John 16:24) I long to be better at asking, at seeking God's kingdom shaped solution to the deeply entrenched social issues of this area trusting that those who seek will find and will be given what they need. (Matthew 6:33 "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.")

This, in a longwinded way, has taken us far from reading but close to Colossians (which I am still plodding slowly through). On Sunday at church the sermon preached was about asking for God's spirit of wisdom and revelation in order to know Him and His purposes: "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better." (Ephesians 1:17) I could not help but smile at the way God had so effortless drawn together my ponderings about revelation and asking and provided me with a link to what I had been reading that morning: "For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light." (Colossians 1:9-12) I love this. And I have been trying to pray like it over the past two days: praying for a new knowledge of God's will - his will for my time, my marriage, this estate - that can only come through the wisdom and understanding of the Spirit. And, this is the exciting bit, praying in order that the work that I do on a day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute level might be meaningful and significant and fruitful and pleasing to him.

I have absolutely no idea how to change the attitudes of young people here. I have absolutely no idea how to make people fall in love with the bible or how to solve problems of low literacy or how to teach parents to read to their children so that they might fall in love with story. But, gloriously, wonderfully, God has the perfect solution to all of those problems, the answers to all of those questions and longings. And we get to ask him what the solution might be. He has hidden the solutions from us that we might be hungry for them and hungry for Him in asking; it is only the hungry who will be fed with the word and those who truly want to see who will have their eyes unblinded. Jesus tells us that he deliberately hides truth within parable so that only those who want to know and are willing to seek will find it: When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said,“The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand." (Luke 8:8-10) It sounds pretty harsh but perhaps it is necessary for God to put us in a place of needing and wanting and longing to ask in order that we might more desperately seek. 

Reading is important. It is beautiful and necessary. It opens up the realm of God's word and his knowledge and his character. It allows us to access society and function and progress and develop. 

But it is only God's precious revelation - a revelation that Jesus opens up to us and that the Spirit brings us -  that can show the way for that truth to be made known here.