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Thursday, 27 October 2016

Becoming Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Growth without fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, 17 October 2016

1 John 3:10

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

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

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

But I am not the judge.

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

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

(Jean Vanier, Community and Growth)

Sunday, 16 October 2016

1 John 3:7-8

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, 15 October 2016

1 John 3:4-6, 9

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

1 John 3:3

All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

What do you hope for?
A slightly fluffy vox pox question
from a guy with glasses and a shaky mic
who shuffles his feet on the sidewalk 
squeaking nervously at passers by.

World peace. To win the lottery. A million quid. My body weight in chocolate. That it won't raint today.

And then
scratching deeper
hitting a nerve
an accidental moment of honesty
that bubbles up and out like a cork

For my back to get better. My wife not to be sick. My son to come home. To stop drinking. To know that it isn't always going to be like this, that something will change.

She arrives -
a whirlwind in pink 
with muddied knee and chocolate smudged face
running round in circles with invisible superhero cape flying free
pigtails played havoc upon by the wind
a gap where two teeth used to be

I want to live forever.

The classic child's answer
adults roll their eyes
chuckle throatily -

Don't we all.

Don't. We. All.

Yearn for hope for long for something more
a something that is different to every other something so far
a something that is solid and certain and sure
a something we can hold tightly in both hands
that is stronger than hurt and pain
that is greater than addition and loss
than what he did to me when I was younger
than when she left me on my own
than how they treated me and made me feel
than emotion and insecurity, disappointment and redundancy
hospital waiting rooms and grave sides.

What do you hope for?

For transformation, freedom, rescue
the realisation of true identity
of knowing the reality
of so much lavish love
that I am invincible
I am fearless
I am free from whatever you might care to think of me
because me eyes are on Him.

I hope in Him
My hope is in the hopeful One
He is Hope
Contains it, delivers it, dollops it
into my frightened heart so that I run free
in cohoots with Little Miss Pigtails.

I want to live forever.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

1 John 3:1-2

See what great love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called the children of God. And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now that we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But, we know that when Christ appears we shall be like Him for we hall see Him as He is. 

More identity crisis. Don't you know who you are? Remember. See. Look. Behold. Experience the beautiful, extravagant reality of being a child of God. I am reminded of the story of the Prince and the Pauper. Did the Prince forget who he was? Knocked about, bruised, battered by the world. Repeatedly told that he was delusional, that he couldn't possibly be royalty. Did he start to believe that for himself? Doubting his birth and his rightful place? 

John asks for a different kind of paupering. Princes and princesses undercover but with the purpose of being discovered. Our purpose is to betray our identity. We are meant to be found out. Our character should expose us. Unmistakably royal. Kind. Generous. Compassionate. Sacrificial. When people saw Jesus they doubted his parentage (Matthew 13:55). This man couldn't possibly be the son of a carpenter. There had to be more to it. And so with us - there has to be more to us. Our behaviour should be inexplicable. It should beg the question: Who on earth are you? 

And in the answering we must point back to Him. We must take after John the Baptist in being those who direct people away from ourselves (John 3:26-30). John says that people will not recognise us as God's children because they do not know God. It is impossible to see the resemblance between a Father and his children if the Father is not known. And so our task is to reveal the identity of the Father through being his children. There is a sad nod of recognition when a teenager's awful behaviour is understood in the light of an abusive childhood; when patterns and actions are traced back to a child's experience of their parents. Not so with us.When people ask for an explanation for our inexplicable behaviour we are to smile and say, Let me tell you about my Dad.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

1 John 2:29

If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.

This is an identity issue. In John’s gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night wanting to whether this strange man from Nazareth is really who he says he is, but Jesus flips the pharisee’s question on its head and it is Nicodemus’ identity that is called into question instead: does Nicodemus really belong to God’s kingdom? Has he been born again? In essence, Jesus is asking who his Father is. (John 3:1-21)

In his letter, John repeatedly uses his rabbi’s phrase: born again. The greek word is ‘gennao’, to be fathered by. Have you been fathered by God? Have you been begotten not just by the will of a man and a woman but by the Spirit (John 1:12-13, 3:5-8)? Because – if you have – it has consequences for your behaviour: those who have fathered by The Father do what is right. John is concerned with authenticity. How can you be sure that you are following Jesus? What are the hallmarks of a genuine relationship with the Son? What does fellowship with the Father look like?

I don’t think he intends to scaremonger, but he wants his readers to be sure. He wants them to know know know that they are born again, and he wants them to be cautious of those who claim to follow Jesus and yet live lives that do not testify to their identity of sons and daughters of God. There is beautiful, wonderful affirmation here, but there is also a challenge: to what extent are we like our heavenly Father? Where do I need to live differently that I might look like my Father’s daughter? Jesus only did what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19). He was completely in sync with his Dad – so much so that he could say If you have seen me then you have seen the Father. (John 14:9) Can I say this? Can I say that if you have spent time with me then you will have glimpsed something of the character and heart of God?

We are not Jesus. We are not perfect. We are still weighed down by sinful desires and yet John says that sin stops being attractive for the Jesus follower. (1 John 3:3, 3:6, 3:9) We stop doing wrong thing and start doing right things because, through the Spirit, we are being formed into the image of Christ; we are being moulded to look like the Son. (Galatians 4:19, 2 Corinthians 3:18) Through the Spirit sin loses its appeal; it stops tasting good. We don’t lose the capacity to sin; we lose the desire to do so. For John, this is one of the hallmarks of authentic Christianity.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

1 John 2:28

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.

There is a beautiful tenderness to John's ferocity. In chapter 2 alone, he uses the refrain 'dear children' five times - not a patronising or belittling address, but a reminder of who his readers are to him: they are his little ones, the precious offspring born of his ministry, his dearly beloved. And yet, there is a fury to this gentleness, a vehement kind of determination, a passionate plea - these are the words of a Father shouting out across the fields to his prodigal as he walks away. Please. Don't. Do. This. These are words full of jealous, firey love that calls out to the wandering adolescent about to make a terrible mistake. Words that seek to save and protect, to spare from harm. To prevent the vulnerable from being led astray (2:26, 3:7)

John urges his readers to stick with it. Continue, remain, remember, keep going. A father standing by the side of the track on Sports Day coaxing his child to look ahead rather than look at his competitors, to get up when they stumble, to remember that there is an end, a finish line, a promise (2:25), a prize.

And so, two questions: who is cheering me on today? And who am I cheering for? As I am urged to continue, am I also urging others? Do I have the same fierce tenderness of John that delivers timely encouragement when it's most needed? Even though I was once a prodigal, have I also become a Father? That is the reminder that Henri Nouwen gives in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, that regardless of which kind of son we are, the greater call on our lives is to become a father. Once we know the wonder and the grace and the joy and the goodness of being welcomed home, we must do as John did: we must become fathers ourselves that we might call home lost sons.

"The time has come to claim your true vocation — to be a father who can welcome his children home." (Henri Nouwen)

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

1 John 2:26-27

I am writing these things about those who would lead you astray. As for you, see that the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit - just as it has taught you: remain in him.

How easily I am led astray. The word here describes a 'wandering planet', a planet that has somehow flung itself out of orbit and is spinning and spiralling into the unknown. I seem to do this most days. I am the hammer all too keen to be released from the grip of the hammer thrower, determined to make my own course instead of trusting in the hands of the one who holds me, the one whose expertise will let me go only so that I will be guided to the place he would have me. I am the hammer that ends up outside the boundary markers with nothing left to do but wait to be found and collected. The lost sheep of the field events. 

Do not let yourself be led astray. Do not let yourself be distracted, lured, enticed, confused. For you have the remedy. You have the Holy Spirit. Deep magic indeed. We - little old, imperfect, sinful, messed up w - carry the Holy Spirit. Since the day that we decided to follow Jesus, He has dwelt within us, He has remained in us in exactly the same way that he did in Jesus. Unlike the Old Testament heroes of old who merely carried the presence of the Holy Spirit for a season, John the Baptist's Messiah was to be identified by the remaining presence of the Spirit of God; we are to be identified in much the same way. 

We are those in whom the Spirit remains. We have everything we need to follow Jesus and live as he did. God has provided us with a permanent teacher, a scripture-revealer, wisdom-giver, gift-bestower, truth-teller. But this is a two-person tango. We remain in him even as he remains in us. We give Him our full attention. We talk to Him. We let him lead us, guide us, teach us, correct us, convict us. This is not a one-way conversation; we are invited into dialogue. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

1 John 2.24-25

As for you, see that what you heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us - eternal life.

What have John's readers forgotten? What is it that has escaped by the back door, that has fallen away, that has been eroded by the lies of those who have come amongst them? John says that it is the first things. The simple things. The elementary truths (Hebrews 6.1). Our baby milk. (Hebrews 5.12)

We all too easily forget the basics, trying to munch our way through solids when actually our body is aching for the simplicity of milk. Desperate for fresh revelation, for new ways of knowing, for hearing what God has to say for today we sometimes neglect the beautiful things that he first said to us. We forget that day when he called us by name and said You are mine. (Isaiah 43.2) We fail to celebrate the wonders and the goodness of the good news.

And so, start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Return to your first love. Remind yourself of the things you knew at first that have been neglected. You are loved. You are broken. You have been rescued. You are made for more than this. There is so much more than what the world has to offer (1 John 2.15-17). There is an eternity that awaits. Let's rejoice in that today.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

1 John 2.22-23

Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist - denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

John does not mince his words. And I squirm uncomfortably as Peter surely did. Not me. Not I. I never will. (Matthew 26.31-35) You can count on me, Jesus. You can trust me, honest. I'm not like the others. I'm unmoveable, unshakeable, unswayable.

Only I find that I'm not.

I am all too easily persuaded that Jesus isn't really the one I thought he was. That he isn't really the long waited for one. That he can't possibly be the Messiah. That this humble, foot-washing, cross-carrying, spat-sneered-scorned and bloodied criminal cannot possibly be the king of all creation, redeemer of the world. Can he? That the dead cannot rise, the sick cannot be healed, the broken cannot be fixed, the lost cannot be found.

And yet that is who he is. He is Jesus. He is the Christ. To say anything less about him is to be a liar. To be worse than a liar. (Matthew 16.23) I say less about him all the time. Sometimes I don't say anything at all. I mumble along with Peter, I don't know what you're taking about, I do not know that man. (Matthew 26.70, 72, 74)

Oh! Come on, crumbled courage! Come on, weak resolve. Do not shrink back. Say all that can be said about this altogether lovely One, about this friend and shield and shelter and strong tower. About this lion of Judah, this slaughtered lamb. For then you will HAVE the Father. You will have the Father. You will have laid hold of God. You will hold in your hands and your heart and your head, in your very soul, the One who made you. And how I long for that! How my soul aches to find itself held and holding the One I was made for.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

1 John 2:20-21

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth but because you do know it, and no lie comes from the truth.

'Know' is one of John's favourite words. It is more than simply knowing something on a surface level; it is a kind of seeing that leads to spiritual understanding. Similar perhaps to the way that we use the word 'see' - not just to physically see something but to really, truly see it, to see it and understand the significance of what it is. I see. The difference between seeing Jesus and seeing him, between coldly observing a historical figure and recognising King Jesus in all his goodness and beauty and glory. 

John tells his reader that they know the truth. He isn't writing to them because they don't know it, but because they have forgotten, because they need a reminder, because they are scared and doubting and people in their midst have shaken their faith. This truth is a person. Jesus claimed it as a title for himself, as a way of explaining who he is and what he's like. He is the truth. (John 14:6) John's readers have met the truth, but their view of him has become clouded. They have started to forget what he is really like. They have forgotten that he cannot lie. (Titus 1:2, Numbers 23:19, Hebrews 6:18) That he alone is completely pure and sinless and trustworthy. John's words urge them to remember: remember who you know and what he has given you. Remember what it means that you have been given the Holy Spirit. Remember who gave you such an anointing. 

I need such a reminder today. I need to remember the anointing that I received (2 Corinthians 2:21-22. In a world where we are so easily side-swiped, I need to remember who I know and who I belong to. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

1 John 2.19

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

These must have been painful words for John to write. The reality of being let down by people that you put your trust in. The hurtful comments, snide remarks, circulating gossip. John's context is not our context and yet... And yet I see echoes of communities I have belonged to here. The sad straying of people always hurts. Fractures, fissures, Facebook wall posts.

But there is fight in John's words too not simply sad acceptance. This is a man for whom love of each other is the highest and oldest command. It is the thread that binds believers together. We must love one another. In all our difficulty and brokenness and imperfect and the mess that comes with messy people loving messy people.

But there is a limit. There is a time that comes to let people go. There is a necessity in allowing people to leave when the grievances they cause are too great. For the sake of his community, John allows people to leave it. To protect his flock, he lets some of the sheep run away.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

1 John 2.18

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming even now many Antichrists have already come.

John speaks of a single mysterious figure. One who will come and wreak havoc in the church and out. One who will be against Jesus and against his people.

But all too easy to get hung up on the when and the where and the who of this one and miss the very nowness of John's concern: the things that will mark out this strange figure are already here. In John's context, they are manifest in the false teaching of the church, in the subtle undermining of truth, in the whispers of those stirring up fear in the fellowship and then leaving. But what about us? Where are we harboring the Spirit of the Antichrist?

A difficult sentence to swallow but I know that I am guilty. Anti - Christ. Against Christ. In opposition to him. Any thought and fear that would make him less, that would seek to diminish and shrink, squash and squeeze the Lord of the Cosmos into a tiny little plastic figurine found in a trinket shop. He is not small. He is Big King Jesus. He is the strongest of all strong men. (Matt 12.29)

I need to remember that.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

1 John 2.15-17

Do not love the world, or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life - comes not from the Father, but from the world. The world and its desires will pass away but the one who does the will of God will live forever.

The world superimposes its desires on us. We are bombarded from every angle. Told what we need to be and who we need to be to be loveable, valuable, meaningful.

To love the world is to succumb to its value system. To buy into the lie that pursuing its agenda will bring happiness. What parts of that lie do I believe? Where am I wooed and won over by the voices of culture? What things of the world do I crave? Success. Approval. Skinniness. An impressive CV. Status. Or simply the need for other people's opinions towards me to be favorable. The need to be told repeatedly that I am doing OK. The need to have some magical box ticked that tells me I pass some mysterious test that I don't understand and don't want to sit.

But there is an alternative: Tell the world where to go with its persuasions and manipulations. Screw it. Scrap it. Stick it to the man and the system. And live forever instead.

Trip Lee, New Dreams

Even the sun goes down, heroes die eventually
Great careers end in the industry
Empires implode; you may go down in history
But everything will go down eventually
Look, you can stack bread, but you can't stop death
And there will be no comforter for you in that bed

We all get laid out, the games get played out
In a maze headed to the grave, and there's no way out
You can't outlast life, it fades out fast
Death is coming for us all, everything's gonna pass
So look at it from that angle down
My dreams gotta be bigger and greater than that

Monday, 9 May 2016

1 John 2.12-14

I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

I have been puzzling over these verses for a few days. The dilemma of thinking too hard and trying to be theologically clever when perhaps the meaning is obvious.

John writes to his people to tell them what they need to know. This is a Shepherd who knows his flock. He knows what they will struggle to remember, when they need extra assurance, where they are liable to stop trusting and start doubting.

This is not complicated new revelation; this is much needed reminder: remember who you are and who you know. You are the forgiven, the strong, the tabernacles of the Holy Spirit, the overcomers. And you know him. Him. The creator king of the universe. The one who is from the beginning. The only heavenly Father from whom every father on earth gets his name. You know him. Intimately. As a friend. As a parent. As the one who enables you to overcome any and every difficulty.

And so, this morning, I am taking John's simple words seriously : remember who you know. It matters.

Monday, 2 May 2016

1 John 2.9-11

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

These are difficult verses. Sometimes it is so much easier to love those outside the kingdom than those within it. I make less allowances for Christians. I am more judgemental of Christians, more easily offended by Christians. I am not sure why this is.

But it is true.

And John says that harboring these kind of grievances, clutching at grudges, hoarding small offenses will only keep us in the dark. We will stumble: tripping over ourselves, tangled up in negative thought processes.

The word for stumble here is "skándalon", the trigger of a trap. Our hatred and bitterness, our cynicism and judgemental attitudes will cause us to fall. We are ensnared by our own wrong thinking, blinded by our biases, caught up by complaining.

And what is worse, to do so is to betray our identity. It is to belittle the cross and blur that which should make us distinct. It is by the way that we love that we are recognized as belonging to Jesus. (John 13.35) Failure to love our brothers and sisters properly doesn't just damage our own reputation; it damages his.

Monday, 25 April 2016

1 John 2:7-8

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

An old command. In a sense there is no older command: love. (Deuteronomy 6:5; Joshua 22:5) I am reminded of the lyrics of a Misty Edwards song:
Did you learn to love? That's what You will ask of me
Did you learn to love? Not about my ministry
Did you learn to love? Not about my money
Did you learn to love? Did you learn to love?

We will be measured by our ability to love. We will face our maker and he will ask us whether or not we did what he asked us to do. And yet, today, weary and feeling frustrated with almost everyone and everything I find that I am struggling to summon love. I am easily frustrated. Quick to anger. Just plain grumpy. But John is insistent: this is foundational stuff. This is nothing new. You have always known this is part of the cross you are to carry. To follow Jesus is to love one another. (Mark 12:30, Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27, John 13:35) There is nothing optional about it. 

And so when - like today - love is kaput, compassion is fatigued, and hiding in my house feels like the best option, I must turn again to the fount of love. I must look again to the one who pours his love out into my heart (Romans 5:5) and ask for help. Father, teach me how to love.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

1 John 2.5-6

1 John 2.5-6
But if anyone obeys his word ,love of God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

I am tired today. And feeling pretty grumpy. In my current state, this verse feels like a heavy yoke. Live as Jesus did. I want to ask the question of in what way? In what way are we called to live like him? But i suspect the answer is in every way. Love like him. Talk like him. Be honest like him. Pray like him. Stop for the least and the lost like him. Be obedient like him. Speak with the Father like him. Be filled with the Spirit like him.

All of this seems an impossibility. But it cannot be. Because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He does not ask us to do what cannot be done. He does not ask us to go where he has not gone before. And by doing such things, by our faltering baby steps of obedience, love of God is made evident in our lives. We display him. We are signs of the goodness of the kingdom and the beauty of the love of Christ. Even in our weakness, God still shows the world his extravagant love through those that choose to follow his son.

And so today, I follow. I am choosing to follow him. I am trying to walk as he did. I am hesitant, unsure. Straining my ears to hear his voice, straining my eyes through the thick fog of my own emotions to see his face and fix my eyes on him.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

1 John 2:3-4

We know that we have come to know Him if we keep his commands. Whoever says "I know him" but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in them.

Taken out of context, this could easily be misconstrued: we only get to be close to God if we do what he says; acceptance is conditional on obedience; I will only love you if...

And yet God loves us. God loves us because it it who he is. He loves us because he loves us because he loves us. He cannot not love us. We do not obey him in order to earn affection from him. But that does not let us off the hook. John is quoting Jesus here (Matthew 7:21-23). There is a distinction between knowing and knowing. Between those who claim to follow Jesus and call him Lord and those who really do follow him, who really do know him. Jesus is saddened by Philip because he does not know him, does not trust him even after he has spent so much time together; even after Jesus has proved his trustworthiness and his worth. (John 14:9) If we really know Jesus intimately - the word used here is the word that Mary uses to describe not knowing a man (Luke 1:34) - if we are convinced by the goodness of his character and the truth of his claims, if we have fallen in love with this man who is God then we will do what he says.

And we will do it because what he says is not burdensome. (1 John 5:3) His commands are not the heavy yokes of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:4) which cannot be carried; they are not legalistic nitpickings or the whims of a tyrant; they are the loving instructions of the one who longs all things for our good, and who would have us live in complete fullness. (John 10:10) We will keep his commands because we love him and because we are confident in his love for us. (John 14:15; 21; 23) We will keep his commands because to do so is to stick with him, to remain in him, to stay close by (John 15:9).

What then is it that we are commanded to do? I once tried to write down all the commands of Jesus in the gospels. We are told to teach others to obey everything that Jesus commanded us to do (Matthew 28:18-20), and so what have we been commanded? And the thing is that it's simple, ridiculously simple, and painfully hard: his command is this: love. (John 15:12) Love God. Love others. (Luke 10:27) Love sacrificially. (John 15:13) Love patiently, kindly, humbly, selflessly. Love without counting the cost. Love protectively, trustingly, hopefully, naively. (1 Corinthians 13) Love those who hurt you before and will hurt you again. Love unfailingly. Love your enemies, love your brothers and sisters who wind you up within the church and without, love those you don't get on with and don't agree with. Love and keep loving when you think you can't love any more. Love to the point of death. Love like He did. (John 15:12) 

And here's the rub: it is impossible to love like he did without knowing him. Without knowing the awesome, extravagant, ridiculous love of the cross for ourselves we cannot emulate it. (1 John 4:7-8) We will soon run dry and burn out. We can only love to the measure that we know that we are loved. And so Paul prays, and so I pray for myself today: that I would be rooted and established in love. That I would grasp how high and deep and wide and long is the love of Jesus. That I would know the love that surpasses knowledge and be filled up to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)

The rest is overflow.  

Saturday, 16 April 2016

1 John 2:1-2

My dear children, I write this so that you do not sin. But, if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father - Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours bit for the sins of the whole world.
Kids. Do not sin. Please. Don't do it. There is determination here in what John is saying, the desperate voice of a loving father who sees his dearest children on the verge of doing something they will regret. John's whole purpose in writing is to persuade people to stop sinning, to not get tangled up again the world, to not wind up in darkened alleys instead of basking in the glorious light.

These is a touch of Paul here. Just because we will be forgiven, just because grace is ridiculous and outlandish and extravagant, don't risk it. (Romans 6.1-2) Don't test God. Don't get complacent. Don't take such an incredible salvation for granted.

And don't sin. Don't buy into the world's take on short term gratification: feel good now and worry about the consequences later. Do we cheapen the cross by hammering on about forgiveness unsteady of preaching about the danger of sin? Sin kills (Romans 6.23). Sin is toxic, addictive, poisonous. Sin alienates us from God and from each other. Sin is a very serious business indeed.

Why then is it still so attractive? We have died to sin and yet we still long after it. (Romans 6:2, 1 John 3:9) Why do I waste my time dabbling in what kills instead of celebrating the truth of the God who died for me to bring me fullness of life? (John 10.10) If eternal pleasures are with God, if fullness of joy is only found at his right hand, (Psalm 16.11) then why am I messing around with what I thought used to satisfy me but never really did?

It is, as C. S. Lewis puts it...
"It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Oh God, open up my eyes that I might see your beauty today. That I might know the worth of your son's sacrifice. That I would have eyes only for him. Let me not get side tracked...

Friday, 15 April 2016

1 John 1:8-10

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

I find confession really difficult: that moment in church when you are supposed to think of something that you have done, said, thought that made God feel sad. It's not that I haven't done, said, thought anything bad. It's just not really bad. Not as bad as some people. Not as bad as the bad people because I am - I think - a good person. I haven't killed anyone. I might have willed someone to shut up and F off but I didn't actually tell them to do it. Not aloud anyway. 

John tells me that I am deceived. Deluded. I am wandering off the path of truth. I am covering up my own eyes - that child in a game of hide and seek who thinks that, just because his or her eyes are covered up then they can't be seen.

Sin is not a do or a don't. It isn't a good enough or a bad enough. Sin is an attitude, a condition. It isn't about whether I did or didn't. It's about the way I think, or fail to think, about God. Sin is what my stubborn heart looks like when I fail to acknowledge that God is good, when I fail to thank him, (Romans 1:21) when I fail to acknowledge the insurmountable worth of His Son. Sin is the slightest darkness that cannot come into the presence of the one who is Light and only light. (1 John 1:5)

God says that we have all sinned and fallen short. (Romans 3:23) We have all forgotten Him. We are all broken by our broken relationship with our heavenly Father. (Jeremiah 2:13) The only way to be cured is to admit that we are sick. (Mark 2:17) Self-deception will get us nowhere. 

Thursday, 14 April 2016

1 John 1:6-7

If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, His son, purifies us from all sin.

How often am I found stumbling around in the darkness? Is it somewhere that I end up in ignorance or on purpose? David prays for protection from his hidden errors and his wilful sins. (psalm 19) Sometimes we get lost down the twisted, darkened roads of sin because we stop paying attention; sometimes we know full well the light dappled narrow path and we avoid it. We do not want to walk in the light because light is scary. Light exposes. Light reveals what we do not want it to. John 3.19-21. The people preferred darkness. And so do I.

To be a child of the day (1 Thessalonians 5.5, Ephesians 5.8) is to have everything on show. Warts and all. It is to confess that we do not have it all together. To confess our failure and our need of him. Much easier to avoid that less trodden path. Much easier to follow our stubborn footsteps. To block out the still small voice. To fall into self-pity and stay there. To give anger a foothold. To indulge jealously. To relish a moment's harsh judgement of another. To do so is to isolate ourselves from God and from each other. To prefer blindness for fear of what we might see in ourselves if the shades were removed.

You, Nic, are a child of light. Once you were in darkness but now you are light in the Lord. Once you belonged to that Kingdom of another but now you live in the glorious light of the kingdom of the One who rescued you. (Colossians 1.13-14)

Act like it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

1 John 1:5

This is the message at have heard from him and proclaim to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

This is it. Of all the things that Jesus said, all he did and taught and showed; every parable, symbol, story, miracle points to this one glorious truth: God is light.

Why light? Why use that metaphor? (if metaphor it is because God does indeed dwell in unapproachable light - 1 Tim 6.16) Why not God is truth, God is holy, God is good? For he is. Does light somehow encapsulate all of the above? The pure, white heat of holy fire that burns up every shred of darkness in our hearts, the thing by which we see all else, the One who lights our path (Isaiah 42.16) so that we need not stumble, the opposite of all that is evil, all the injustice that is cleverly concealed...

Or is Jesus' message more simple than that. God is light. He is not who you have been told he is. He is not angry or tyrannical or fickle. There is no shadow of turning in him. (James 1:17) He is the beauty of that first pale dawning light glimmering on the horizon after a long winter's night; he is the golden splendour of late afternoon sun painting everything with its glory; he is the candle flame that penetrates the power cut. He is the light of the world. Those who follow him need never fear the dark again. (John 8:12)

Monday, 11 April 2016

1 John 1:3-4

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you can have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and his son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make your (or 'our' depending on translation) joy complete.

What does it mean to have fellowship with God? To be incorporated into the Trinity? To be called friend (John 15:15) by the Creator King of the universe? What does it mean that we can draw close to the unapproachable One? (1 Timothy 6:16)

More than that: we are in union with Him: Whoever is united with the Lord is one with Him in Spirit. (1 Corinthians 1:16) The word is kollao, to glue, cleave, keep company, to be intimately connected. We are glued to the King. We are intimately bound to Him. And yet this is no mere tacking on. We are not simply pritt-sticked to God or tied loosely to Jesus like some spare part. We are somehow in Him and He is in us. Jesus asked the Father and the Spirit has come to live within us (John 14:16-18). The Eternal God has taken up residence in us. We have become his permanent dwelling place, His home. (John 14:20, 23) Christ in us is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). We are hidden inside Him. (Colossians 3:3) 

This is madness. We exchange all that we are for all that He is. This is a covenant in which we are the infinitely weaker party; we have nothing to offer and yet we are given everything in return; we are invited in. We are asked to dine with our Maker (Revelation 3:20); we are asked to have fellowship with Him.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

1 John 1:1-2

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes  which we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim to you concerning the word of life. The life appeared. We have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

The impossibility of proclaiming what you have not experienced. John knows Jesus. He knows all the glory and goodness and beauty of God as revealed in Jesus first hand. He had seen, heard, looked on, touched.

What then of us? When was the last time we truly knew, truly encountered, truly allowed ourselves to be awed and shaken by all that He is? (I am reminded of the lyrics from a song by Cate Lear, "I have felt the deep compassion of my Jesus shaking through my every bone...)

Before we can proclaim Him we must see Him. The Greek here is theĆ”omai: to gaze at a spectacle; to observe intently, especially to interpret something and grasp its significance so that it impacts us. 

And so, do we get it? Have we really beheld Jesus? Have we seen him and understood what he is worth? Have we stared at the awesome spectacle of the cross and been changed by the encounter? Because then, and only then, will we proclaim...

Friday, 8 April 2016

The Word (in bite-sized chunks)

I think for most us of who want to study scripture and get to grips with what God says in his word, the sheer volume and density of the Bible is terrifying. Where to start? How much to read? How to keep persevering? I am the queen of making a bible-reading plan and then failing to get past day three because the aims that I have set for myself are too ambitious; day three arrives, I fail and then I feel disappointed, guilty and demoralised. Hopefully others can empathise with this same dismally repeated course of action: we have every intention of reading the bible; we just don't.

A couple of years ago, I worked through all of Ephesians in tiny chunks, focusing on just one or two verses at a time. I realised - quickly - that there was a huge amount to digest in just one verse of the bible, let alone a whole chapter. I found the process incredibly life-giving. A verse is always doable. (No matter how much we might try to kid ourselves that we don't have time) On good days I would reflect more deeply and spend time delving deep into the intricacies of each word; on bad days I would simply read one verse and that was it. But I was reading the bible, and slowly but surely I made myself through Ephesians.

And so my friend Elaine and I have decided to give it another go. I am reading 1 John; she is reading Galatians. The aim: just one or two verses a day and a quick reflection whatsapped to each other. Again, on a good day, a well-thought through reflection happens. On a bad day, I just read the verse. On a really bad day, I don't read anything at all. But really bad days are few and far between. Especially when you have a friend holding you to account for reading just a little bit of the Word of God each day, a tiny bite-sized morsel to sustain and refresh in the midst of life. 

And so, I invite you to share the journey. Each day (ish) I will publish a little thought on the verses of John that I've been reading. If you'd like a texted / whatsapped version then let me know...

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Guess how much I love you

One of the first books that Sarah was given was a little storybook called Guess How Much I Love You. The book tells the story of Big and Little Nutbrown Hare. Little Nutbrown Hare wants to communicate to his father how much he loves him: he loves him as high as he can reach, hop, jump; he loves him right the way along the lane and over the hill; he loves him all the way to the moon. Each time Little Nutbrown Hare tries to tell his dad how much he loves him, his father responds with an even bigger statement of love: if Little Nutbrown Hare loves his father as high as he can jump, then the father loves the son as high as he can jump; if Little Nutbrown Hare loves his father to the moon, then the father loves him to the moon...and back.

It is a tale of competitive out-loving. A children’s story that touches on the profound impossibility of truly articulating how much we love one another. Love is the stuff of similes and metaphors. We cannot grasp adequately at the right words to describe it. We dance around the deep truths of what it is to really love another because that love is beyond us; it is bigger than us; it cannot be tamed by language. Language is tricky. It slips and slides away from us. We struggle to trust it, struggle to believe in its sincerity. Sometimes even the most heartfelt words tumble and fall to the floor (to coin a phrase from Emma Healey’s remarkable novel, Elizabeth is Missing) because we cannot grasp hold of them. Perhaps this is why Paul uses so many words to try and describe what love is like in 1 Corinthians 13. He uses so many words in the hope that just one might stick, that in our wrestling to understand something of the height, width, depth and length of the unfathomable love of God (Ephesians 3:18) we might manage to cling on to the smallest part of it, because even the smallest part of it would encompass all of us; it would overwhelm and surround us, enfolding us in the boundlessness of the love of our Creator.

When Sarah was born, the intensity of what I felt towards her took me back. It was something entirely new: a fierce, jealous, protective love that gushed out in hot tears. As I held her tiny body, and whispered hello to this new little life over and over again, I was racked with love for her. As the days and weeks pass, I cannot help but look at her and love her. I cannot help simply looking and beholding her smile, listening to her clucks and gurgles, watching her little tightly clenched fingers wrap themselves around mine.

One morning as I read her the story of Little and Nutbrown Hare, I felt that God posed the same challenge to me that the little hare poses to his father: guess how much I love you. Dare I believe that the King of the Universe feel towards me what I feel towards my daughter? That fierce, hot love that bubbles up and over into tears of joy? That ache in my chest that is almost painful? That innate protective instinct that would do anything to keep her harm? Dare I believe that the love of God for me is such that he would give his only son to have me back? He would give the most precious thing in his possession that I might be restored to relationship with him and allowed to call him Father, Abba, daddy?

I could never give Sarah up. The thought of giving her up for for someone else is entirely unthinkable. I cannot allow such a thought to form in my head because it is so ludicrous. And yet God’s love for us is such that this is exactly what he did. For the Father so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. (John 3:16) Let those overly familiar words sink in. Wash away the jadedness of a verse that we quote too often and too unthinkingly. That is how much our heavenly Father loves us - that he would allow us to murder his Son for our salvation. And that is how much the Son loves us: that he would agree to such a plan, that he would willingly walk the way of the cross, that he would be held to the cross not by nails but by love. No one took Jesus’ life from him. He laid it down. (John 10:18) He was not forced to the cross by an angry and abusive Father. He chose it. We are not left to guess what God’s love for us looks like. It looks like Good Friday. (1 John 4:9-10) It looks like a Son who knows that the only way for his lost brothers and sisters to come home is for him to be abandoned by his Dad. A Son who embraces our estrangement from the Father, who is forsaken that we might not be.

I do not claim to understand any of this. I am scratching the surface of something that is too deep and too wide. My words are tumbling to the floor even as I type them. They are too fickle and too insubstantial to hold Him. And yet they are all that I have to communicate something that is too precious to be contained within the bounds of language. And so that is my prayer on this dark Saturday before the glory of Sunday’s sunrise: that we might know the love that passes knowledge, that we might be filled to the measure of all the fullness of our God (Ephesians 3:19), that we might dare to trust in the love of a Father who gave up everything to win us back.

Monday, 7 March 2016

God can get tiny if we’re not careful

I have been wanted to write this blog for a long time. The title is another quote from Boyle's memoir. When recounting tales of life in amongst Los Angeles' Projects he reminds us that God can, all too quickly, become tiny; made in our own small image instead of being allowed to be Himself. 

I think I have been guilty of this in recent weeks. I have made God tiny.

In part, this is due to the massive upheaval of all things since Sarah's arrival. She is beautiful, joyful and I am totally besotted, but she is also exhausting.The first two weeks of her life lulled me into a false sense of security as she mainly slept through them, but now that she is the world's most wide awake newborn, I am struggling to make sense of what motherhood is supposed to look like. Especially motherhood with Jesus. All of the normal ways in which I connect with God - writing, reading scripture, silence, guitar playing, blogging - have been stripped away (mostly by the fact that breastfeeding teaches you the art of onehandedness and most of the above cannot really be done well with only one hand) and I find that my relationship with God feels dry and empty. I ache to spend time with Him in the ways that I am accustomed, trying desperately to squeeze in some space in the fleeting moments of each day (like this one) in which I might determine what I do with my time, but, those elusive moments are usually interrupted, or else never quite recognised as possibilities because I decide that I need to do the washing up instead.   

And then I start to feel resentful. Cross at Sarah because she won't nap and I am tired of ceaseless rocking. Cross with myself for not being able to multi-task. Cross with God because He feels distant. Cross at the fact that I have no idea how to share the love of Jesus with others when my energy is completely spent. I have perfected the art of making God tiny: squeezing him into the cracks and crevices of my day and then wondering why it is that He doesn't seem to fit.

A few days ago, I listened to a sermon by Danielle Strickland in which she talks about much the same thing as Boyle: the miniaturising of God. In putting so much emphasis on our own personal relationship with Jesus, she says that we run the risk of forgetting just how big and wonderful and wild his redemptive purposes are for all of creation. We make much of accepting Jesus into our hearts instead of recognising that, by saying Yes to Him, we are drawn into his heart. We are united with Him (Colossians 3:1) and invited to work alongside Him in changing the world. This is not to make little of the wonder and glory of a personal relationship with the King of the World - that in itself is pretty spectacular - but simply to say that although salvation might start with us it is not intended to remain so: we are saved that we might share the joy of salvation; we are welcomed in that others might also come in to join the party. (1 John 1:4) 

In the past few weeks, I have despaired that my own personal relationship with God seems somewhat of a shambles. Seems being the operative word because, of course, it isn't. God is no smaller, or further away. He has not changed. He is faithful and constant and always working. (John 5:17) He is at work restoring all things. In recent weeks I have lost sight of this big-ness. In the darkness and loneliness of the early hours feeding Sarah, I have lost sight of the hugeness of God's plan. So intent have I become on bemoaning the shift in my relationship with Him, and the failure for Him to fit into my agenda, that I have stopped asking Him what His agenda is. 

I have made him tiny.

This came to a head last week. A friend cancelled on me so I suddenly found myself with a spare hour in which to do my mad cramming-squeezing God routine. I could go on a prayer walk. I could go out for a coffee with my bible. I could hang out with Sarah and listen to some worship music. The possibilities were endless! I determined that it was prime blog-writing time and started to ponder how I was going to communicate this truth of making God tiny. And then, ironically, and somewhat annoyingly, God interrupted my pondering: You're making me tiny right now. You're trying to fit me in to your ever-changing, tightly structured agenda instead of being part of my plan. Instead of asking me what you should do with this time, and how you might join in with my world-changing, you're trying to make me conform to what you want to do. 

Oh dear. 

And so, slightly belligerently, I stopped my plan-making and prayed: well, what do you want me to? 

Of course, it isn't always possible to scrap our plans and commitments. We have jobs, meetings, responsibilities that need our attention and our time management. But I think God's gentle nudge to me, as Strickland's sermon had been, was to say Don't make me tiny. Don't be so intent on creating the times and spaces where you want me to do something that you forget that I am always the one doing, all the time. I am working when you are exhausted and barely able to keep your eyes open as you calm you child; I am working when you don't have time to see a particular person; I am working in the hearts and lives of all around you, and in the whole of the created order. And what's more, if you would only stop and pay attention, you could join in!

And so, this week, I am trying to be alert to the purposes of God. I am trying to do what Jesus did in only doing what the Father is doing - which presumably meant he had to keep asking the Father what he was doing (John 5:19).

I am trying not to make God tiny.