Unfiltered Goodness

Brick wall at Syon Park, England.
Brick wall at Syon Park, England.

“Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.” (Matthew 19:13-15)

Today I met a little girl of about 4 years, who showed me what it was to be full of love and delight, to rejoice, and express herself without fear or restraint.

We were at a food fair at Syon Park, and the communal tables allowed people to easily mix. Her mum left her there opposite me while she fetched something, and soon enough I was the happy audience of her stream of consciousness, which stopped every now and then to check whether I knew the little friends she was talking about, or had tried the ice cream yet.

I think she is probably one of the most delightful people I’ve ever met, and I don’t even know her name. She was fully immersed in relishing and thinking about absolutely every good thing that was in her day, and her friends. When she asked my name, she told me about her friend also called Victoria, how she had left her nursery to start school, which reminded her of another friend; which made her clap her hands with joy and look like she couldn’t imagine a better thing than this wonderful friend: ‘Oh, she is so beautiful!’

As for me, how grateful I was for her today. God knew I needed a lift, and he put her in front of me and reminded me what unalloyed joy looks like; how to relate to others without overcaution. It’s contagious.

On Sunday I found myself doing the same with someone, where I would have usually been more circumspect, and I noticed how my readiness to declare myself glad of someone’s company enabled our friendship to move on that little bit further.

Jesus wants us sharing and enjoying each other. He’s put us on this earth to be a blessing to one another. It’s hard to share love if you’re in damage limitation mode.

To my talkative little friend in Syon park with the black jacket and the pink wellies, never let anyone tell you to talk less, you are a joy.

As a sidenote, enfolded in this story of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel is a unique little insight into how Jesus was treated by the general public. Somewhere between a saint and a celebrity, people wanted him to bless their little ones. They wanted their most treasured expression of hope for the future to be blessed by him. We also lay our hands on people when we pray for them. I’m ever grateful that God showed us what it would look like if God himself walked the earth.

Sometimes we see such an excellent facet of beauty in another human being that it brings us nearer to understanding what God is like, and shows us how flimsy are the walls that keep us from each other. Even Syon Park’s walls are not as beautiful as the transformative qualities of those who can walk right through them.

God’s Shocking Preference for Mercy

I heard Larry Randolph recently describe someone being helped through a low patch by memorizing scripture. Ever up for a challenge, I started with Ephesians, having heard it set alight by fantastic teaching from Alfred Pinnington in my church about the links between the Roman adoption process and the images in Ephesians 1, (ref. William Barclay). I love growing in God’s understanding of my identity, because I always seem to access hope and joy that way.

Some Bible passages are so full of big concepts and tightly written that it’s easy to gloss over the words, as if they are an indigestible wad of food that’s too rich for me.

Memorizing seems to overcome this, and it becomes an act of interacting with someone who has had an extraordinary experience of God, which then enriches my own.

So the letter to the church of Ephesus opens with the announcement of the author, as letters did back then:

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints in Ephesus…”

As I walked along through sunny streets chewing on these words, I started thinking about how Paul is writing this in prison, and how he chooses to focus on God’s will in making him an apostle.

Memorizing forced me to slow down and repeat my reading until I a saw the choices the writer had made, and started fully engaging with his meaning. Since I’ve found it hard to memorize more than the first few verses, I’ve wanted to start at the beginning again and I’ve discovered new angles every few times. It’s really cool. What rich writing!

So it occurred to me that Paul’s choice of words implies that he’s still very conscious that God was prepared and willing to choose him as his representative, even though he once persecuted Christians. When God met him on that road to Damascus and challenged him, that in breathing murderous threats against Christians, he was actually persecuting the one who was showing up on that road as God himself.

Why do I keep coming back to Paul’s story? Why start with Ephesians, when the gospels hold more direct stories about Jesus? For one thing, I’m encouraged that Paul was discovering Jesus and interacting with him as we do: through prayer, meditation on the word and was intentional about using the testimonies of the disciples who had been privileged to walk with Jesus during his bodily lifetime on the earth.

For another, I think I still have a long way to go in really appreciating God’s grace, and leaving behind a desire to earn it. God is so incredibly kind and merciful. Every time I feel like I should be so much further along in my walk with him by now (or some such harsh judgment) he sends me someone to encourage me and remind me that God’s love doesn’t see me in those impatient terms. In such a week, I will find myself having several conversations with friends, or reading passages, or having experiences, that show me that God is a lot less ‘Religious’ and mean than my self-criticism suggests he is. How come I still fear he’s like that after apparently knowing him so long? Perhaps I need to do as Paul does, connect the dots and give thanks for how far he’s brought me, instead of worrying how far I have to go to some imaginary ‘pass’ mark. He’s brought me a long way out of shyness, of looking for approval from others, and so much else. For the record, I didn’t used to kill Christians. But every time I give myself a hard time for not being a better x y z, I am killing a little part of me, a Christian whom God is trying to encourage and teach and help grow, not shrink. Sorry God. There are more interesting things to think about!

Paul’s letters always go to thankful praise. What can you thank him for today? Let me also count the ways.

Divine Fuel – Ephesians 1:18-23

What is fuelling us?

“18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Paul’s letter to the Epheisans 1:18-23, NIV)

Determination works for a while. Gritting one’s teeth and pushing through; making a go of it; as English users we clearly get creative when it comes to describing the act of making an effort despite challenge.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is that there is a difference between doing something with determination and doing something fuelled by excitement and God’s divine energy.  Determination isn’t necessarily wrong, but God’s power is a bullet train.

In New Testament Greek this is dynamis – the same root gives us dynamic and dynamism. There’s altogether a lot more energy in my actions when they are powered by God.

I think back to when I first contemplated joining my first mission trip, which was to Uganda in November 2014, to assist with a SOMA teaching mission requested by a bishop in a beautiful part of SW Uganda. One day I was thinking about the announcement that there would be a mission trip, the next minute in my curiosity I was avidly reading everything I could about the place. From that moment on I was hooked, and agreements that might have been difficult fell into place very quickly. God had set up dominoes and was just waiting for me to push the first one and show an interest. His will was not hard to discern. I just had to jump on board. It had a powerful engine all its own.

The challenge in all this, I’m finding, is to discern what is of man and what is of God. Am I excited about a particular ministry because it’s God’s direction for my life, or because the grass seems greener on the other side? Are excited conversations with people about travel, or worship, or a hundred other things, an indication of a new direction in life, or am I idolising people with skills I covet and losing sight of God who is the source of the energy?

In church last night there was a powerful sense of the presence of God. As we sang together and fixed our thoughts on who God is, the focus became God, and the sense of his mighty strength and great love was real. In those moments, no fears can grip our hearts. We can sing words that speak of great trust, our hearts full of hope.

I want to live like that when the music stops too. After the head-spinning wonder of feeling so in tune with him yesterday, I want to keep singing even when the dreams have to be put into practice, and the challenge of living a day well come into sharp focus.

God knows this. It’s no surprise to him. I am encouraging myself today that he knows what I need, so I will remember that his reality comes first.

 

 

 

About Life

Rowboats at RichmondDeath or life?
Let’s assume Life.

So am I fully living life, or creeping along fearing the valley of the shadow of death?

We live our lives journeying through these different landscapes. Sometimes we hear the cry of the bird of prey and we become too aware of the shadow overhead.

An awareness of the proximity of death in life might give us the vigour to savour every moment, or we might start living half-lives; retreating, not daring; waiting for the danger to pass, the falcon’s shadow to leave our landscape, until we believe we can poke our heads out again without fear of being snatched. Most of the time we lives somewhere in the middle.
Jesus said, ‘in this world you will have trouble.’ He made no bones about it: no-one gets a pass. Some seem to get more trouble than others, but no-one gets away without a challenge or a choice. This is brave me talking. The other me just spent 10 minutes playing solitaire instead of braving the blank page. What was I afraid of?

Lately a couple of things have reminded me of that Victorian penchant for the memento mori, or a reminder of death. I’m definitely not festooning my home with gothic interior design, but I did find myself today perusing the Wikipedia list of people who had died so far this year, prompted by the notable pile-up of British celebrity obituaries in recent days.

On the same day I received in the post the alumnae magazine from my secondary school. Former students volunteer autobiographical narratives, with entries grouped by age. The magazine starts with women of great age and experience and relatively small daily round, who are counting their blessings that health procedures went well, that despite trouble of one sort or another they have loving relationships or an aspect of life they treasure.

As one turns the pages the stories are about those whose lives are starting to narrow, but mostly happy (or they don’t write in); surprise at the number of decades since graduating yet the feel no different; grandchildren and greats; charity work and retirement. Reading on, in remarkably short order the groups tick by and people record surprise at turning 50, on new careers, on fulfilling lifetime ambitions before it’s too late; and finally to my peers, our lives defined greatly by whether we have had children or not, a huge variety of choices of how we spend our time, but it’s mostly work or family, and a slow admission that we still haven’t worked it all out. But there are pages beyond mine: somehow there is a lengthening number of entries from younger women whose first career has been and gone, who are embarking on everything for the first time, or taking a break, marrying their long-time partner; and then there are the new graduates, fresh out of something; taking the world by storm, living life in the assumption that they couldn’t ever be one of those grey-haired ones whose page they flicked through at the beginning.

When we summarise these things briefly for semi-strangers we only see the highs and lows; daily life is a lot slower, and we can easily get bogged down. When we are going through that valley of the shadow of death, we need friends to make sure we keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When Jesus said, ‘in this world, you will have trouble,’ he added something else. ‘But take heart, because I have conquered the world.’ In this context, the ‘world’ is the world ‘system’ (if you like); everything that carries on oblivious to God’s loving, life-giving nature; life in all its challenges.

Living eternal life, or what we might call living in the light, or being ‘people of The Way’ (as Luke puts it), means we are following Jesus and are not actually subject to death at all. That’s a thought to dwell on.
But it’s easy to start living a life with one eye on the shadow overhead, the vulture just out of sight, the hawk after its prey.

As we being January again, lets allow ourselves to feel Jesus’ encouragement, as if he links arms with us and gives us a winning smile.

In the light of that, when am I going to be as kind to myself as I am to others?
When am I going to be as brave as others assume I already am?
Jesus has set me free to live life to the full.
God’s on my side. He’s bigger than any box I’ve imagined for him. If God is for me, what opposition is worth spoiling my confidence as I live life?

Describing himself as like a shepherd guarding his sheep, Jesus said, “the thief [the Devil] comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. (John 10:10). ‘They’ mean us, his sheep. As it says in Deuteronomy 30:19: ‘choose life’.

Sing O Earth! Psalm 98

Psalm 98 (…”Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
    burst into jubilant song with music;
 make music to the Lord with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before the Lord, the King…”)

One of the delights of writing a blog is that people stumble across it from all over the world (hey Brazilian readers!)  I don’t know anything about you but there you are. A third of us are Christian, and we encircle this beautiful planet of ours, singing his praises. There’s never a moment of the day when God’s not hearing one of us cry, one of us shout for joy, one of us give birth, one of us giggle.

I guess I was thinking about this recently in reading this article from the Guardian last Saturday in which Canadian astronaut Cmdr Chris Hadfield describes what it’s like to recognise places on earth as they passed the window.

We’re not quite sure what happened at our service on Sunday night…I guess it was God…but it was the most beautiful, wonderful time with each other, enjoying the God we worship together. Those times are so precious. In our Anglican church it was the first Sunday in Advent, which is an aromatic mixture of anticipating Christmas, and quiet, holy reflection on how much we need someone to rescue us.

Our world needs a rescuer. I love the end-of-the-year reviews on our media, but I’m sure this year will have a particularly sober flavour as we think of ISIS, Boko Haram and the like. One thing though, I know the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. He is the shepherd, the one who knows the end from the beginning.

And I just realised that doesn’t mean telling them apart (that wouldn’t make sense!) It means that he knows how it will all end.

God doesn’t just have a bird’s-eye view, he sees all the way from heaven. His perspective takes in all time and all space. While he weeps with those who weep, he knows he will be fully united with those who want to be with him. His joy has no bounds when he sees the kind people taking care of the injured, when he hears thousands of broken hearts crying out to him as they watch the news.

We mustn’t be disheartened or afraid. We have a God who does know, and he loves us. He knows the end from the beginning. He will have his way. Evil will not prosper in the end. In his mercy he allows us all to flourish and have second, third and 1,000th chances. He is worthy of all the praise we can give. He is worthy of the praise all of us can ever give.

I’ll be waking up in 6 hours or so to praise his name. Wherever you are, we share the same planet and I thank God for you.

360° around Jesus

Mark 2:1-12

‘…3 Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven..”.’

This passage is from a visually striking passage that is sometimes quoted to show how God is moved by our faith to act. Today I’m struck that this little episode show us so much about who Jesus was to them and to us. He was a life-changing person to be around, and our reactions to what he does are the same today as they were then.

We can learn lots from this passage, but I’m interested in what we can glean from how the crowd reacted to him.

For many people – many in those large crowds – Jesus was the source of amazement and delight. They wanted to travel to inconvenient places just to be near him. They brought their little ones to be blessed by him. They brought their sick. They brought their questions: some of the Jewish leaders came, waiting until the Sabbath was over so they didn’t break the law of Moses; but they were drawn because Jesus had something that they had not seen before.

I love the relative sparsity of the writing of the New Testament. It invites us in to pore over those words that describe a moment in a day. Through them we can glimpse this extraordinary Jesus at the centre of the amazed crowds.

This passage about the paralysed man with his friends is particularly eloquent, or inviting. Allow your imagination to place you in the scene. Where are you? On the roof top concerned about the logistics of the situation but glad of the cooler breeze up here on the roof? Perhaps you’re digging away the roof surface…with what? Your hands? Did you bring tools?

Perhaps you are in the room, standing right next to Jesus, with little lumps of ceiling starting to fall on your head as you try to concentrate on what Jesus has been saying. What happens next?

Maybe you’re the one on the stretcher. How long have you been paralysed? Where did you first hear that Jesus has been meeting the needs of the sick in extraordinary ways? When did you hear that he has not been judging them but healing them? Which of your four friends has been most excited about coming?

Believe it or not, Jesus still heals today –  his spirit is at work as believers obey his command to heal the sick and do all that he taught his disciples to do. Where are you at in today’s picture? Is this all quite challenging, as it was for some people then? Do want to ask him about something else that’s been bothering you? Would you like to seek him out somewhere a bit quieter once he leaves the house? Go after him.

Jesus was amazing to the crowds then, and he still is. His actions can still affront the intellectualism in us that wants to explain something away. Human nature doesn’t change very much: as we read the faces of those crowds described in the gospel accounts of Jesus, we find ourselves face to face with people like us.

Experience ~ “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is! Blessed is the man that trusteth in him.” Psalm 34:8

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Whenever I come across these words from psalm 34, they are not silently spoken. They are sung, in a high, rich voice in my head. It is impossible not to hear the music. The melody provided the emotional connection when I was a teenager in the church choir. Now that I have lived a little and seen some ups and downs of life, and seen how God dealt with me through them, it is the power of the words and their truth that arrests me.

Those words would have perhaps seemed pious to my teenage self, but they are not the words of a teenager. They are the words of someone who has experienced God’s graciousness, the long view of his steadfast kindness over time.

Nowadays I am more familiar with the Bible in modern language, and the NIV puts it like this:

“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

As I look back over what has endured and what is reliable and the source of life in my life, it is the connection to the living God, to Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit, renewed and tested and renewed again, that has proved to determine how good life has been.

Today ‘taking refuge’ took the form of time with a friend who reminded me who am I, who helped me stop obsessing over my weaknesses, reminded me of my strengths and why God created me that way, with purpose in mind.

Yesterday, ‘taking refuge’ meant worshipping God with my colleagues, and allowing God’s thoughts to bubble up in us as we meditated together on the truths we had been singing about.

These days the music is more likely to have been written by United Pursuit than Ralph Vaughan Williams, but it still means stepping into a very special place where I get to be emotional about who God is, and about the journey we’ve been on together. As the music forces us to reflect on what has been, I know that God has been faithful.