The Incredible Sunshine of God (1 John 1:5)

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light;  in him there is no darkness at all.” 1 John 1:5

Gunnera, azaleas
A Place of Ever-Changing Beauty, Isabella Plantation, Richmond Park, London

I’ve been a Christian for a long time. I could write essays about Christianity. I even have an ‘O’ level to prove it. When I’ve interacted with God, perhaps in finding a Bible verse through which God speaks, or I have been worshipping him, I can see afresh something lovely about God and his perspective.

Yet lately I am feeling surprised by how lovely God is. It’s like someone opened a window and the fresh air is stirring my awareness of a fragrance that was already in the room. I think I was so busy trying to understand, or strive to be good, that I wasn’t in in the mood to enjoy God much at all. I was trying to broadcast something, but I needed to just look up, or open a spiritual window, and turn my gaze on him, not me.

Even when he wants us to deal with the heavy stuff, he brings his companionship and joy into it. I don’t think I expected joy.  I know CS Lewis has something to say about that – he wrote a whole book called ‘Surprised by Joy’; but the truth is we each have to find it for ourselves.

I can’t give you a formula for getting to where I’m at, if you want to be there; and if you do, I hope you’ll overtake me very soon, because to be honest I’ve been in the slow but steady lane. All I can give you is the same directions he gave me: look up; follow him; keep seeking him; believe in the Father, believe also in Jesus; he will continue to reveal himself to you if you’re open to that.

He’s keeping his word. And the more I go on, the more I realise that experiences I thought would be heavy and religious, possibly proving me inadequate, has no part in what he actually is all about. What he seems to be about is full of life.

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This News is Good – Isaiah 40:9-11

Shout it from the rooftops
Shout it from the rooftops

“You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.”  Isaiah 40:9-11

Something seems to have shifted in our church. Maybe it was the day of committed prayer a lot of us spent on Tuesday. If that’s so, God has answered and done more in one day than months of our striving ever did.  We particularly prayed for the church to be open to whatever the Spirit of God wanted to do. Maybe it was just ‘time’. Whatever the reason, God seems to be carrying us into a happier season.

We’re living in extraordinary times, when we are seeing God move among us, not just in healing power (Peter came to church again today without his crutches, like a new man;) but also in bringing unity to the church, there’s a lightness in people even though we’re nearing the end of term.

There are big shadows as well as bright lights: no-one can deny the troubles in the world are stacking up.

But there was a strong gentleness in our prayer meeting tonight, together with a willingness to stand up and speak or pray in front of others. It felt like we were in safe hands, as indeed we are.

Tonight we did the ‘work’ of prayer: entering into the painful places where things weren’t right; acknowledging the levels of domestic violence in this country; praying for the work of Restored and their launch among faith leaders in the House of Lords tomorrow; hoping that it will be a turning point when someone had the faith to say, ‘God wants this to happen, and I’m going to make a difference.’ But it was also lovely to share the testimonies of how we have seen God’s breakthroughs in gifts of unexpected healing and peace.

The invisible realities determine far more about our world than we often admit; it is not the other way around. Prayer enables us to stand with God and say, ‘yes, we want your beautiful realities to appear on the earth.’ We can never celebrate those enough.

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4 NIV

There’s nothing like God communicating with us. It beats everything. When I come home from church and I know I’ve heard from him, it gives me a recharge to my batteries like nothing else. I guess it’s a bit like being away from home and getting a letter from your loved one. It is better than hearing a great talk – though it’s one of my favourite ways to hear from him as I listen – and that sense of connection with him is better than any wonderful song, though that says a lot, because I love to connect with God as I listen to our wonderful musicians play and sing worship. When we stop talking, or singing, and we just listen, it’s wonderful what God can do.

I say just listen, but actually I’m finding lately that what activates hearing from God is starting a conversation with him. Trying to blank my mind is no good – it blanks it – while God’s trying to fill it!

It turns out that God is maybe not that interested in making big pronouncements from on high. Because I seem to hear from him more easily when I engage with him  and I do that best by dialogue. Talking at him doesn’t work – it needs to be real dialogue – saying (thinking) something and actually listening for an answer, thinking about it, then responding back to God.

We are all on this journey of discovering that takes faith. It’s not (normally) an audible voice of God. From a technical point of view, I’m aware that hearing is an auditory event and a neurological event, and from what I can tell, when most people ‘hear’ from God they are sensing it as a neurological ‘hearing’, they are not sensing it as sound from somewhere. I have never yet literally heard God’s voice – as in, looking around wondering who said that (but people in the Bible did, and I’ve met real,live people who have experienced just that). But I have heard everything but. As in, it wasn’t through my ears, but my brain processed it as a heard thing. It was as surprising and as clear as day, and he said ‘Look up!’  On that occasion it was unmissable, but I still needed to believe that it just happened, not dismiss it. I confess I sort of acknowledged it, then turned back to what I had been doing, thinking, ‘funny…that’s nice’. It didn’t occur to me God wanted dialogue.

That was years ago, and I spent a lot of time not taking any notice of that good advice (or rather, command). But it’s been my favourite subject matter since then, to find out how we can engage with God.

It’s so important not to be prescriptive with others, or ourselves, about how hearing from God ‘should’ be done. We are multi-faceted human beings, created for a relationship with a God who exceeds our understanding.

But today as the worship band played I had a number of scenarios play out in my imagination. and I asked God about them, and felt that I heard back. I’ll call that a conversation.

Jesus said, ‘My sheep know my voice’.

We hear a friend talking about something, and a phrase stands out. Almost like watching a movie and realising a character has spoken the key theme – it registers in your brain with extra importance. That’s what it’s often like.

It may be in reading the Bible – a word or a phrase lodges in your brain as if it were highlighted.

Through the world around us. God made people and he made the natural world. He often speaks to us in visual parables as well, if we’re listening. We see a bridge over a street and something registers in us that later we find we recall, perhaps as we consider our role between two organisations. God uses circumstances and ‘coincidences’ in a similar way to grab our attention.

I’m struck that believing in God is much more concrete an experience and more fun that I ever imagined when I was a teenager.

Today I felt like God was equipping me for something, and soon he gave me the opportunity to join up with other people praying for someone’s torn calf muscle to be healed. By then I felt full of confidence in God. As we commanded the pain to leave and the calf to be healed, to the man’s delight and surprise, the pain went down from a 10 to a 5, and where he had not been able to even put his foot to the floor, he was able to put partial weight on it by the time we stopped praying, so we prayed that Jesus would continue to mend it as he rested overnight. It’s totally outrageous from a human point of view, of course, because people alone cannot heal by words. But we’re not alone. What a great God.

Come Away with Me – Song of Songs 4:6

Looking across from the plains of the national park to Rwenzori mountains, SW Uganda
Looking from the plains across to the Rwenzori mountains, SW Uganda

Why is this blog called ‘Come Away’?

Because the most useful times I’ve had in my spiritual life in recent years have been those moments when I have stopped listening to everything that the outside world had to say, and started a conversation with God, and stopped to listen.

The best of these so far was a silent retreat held at the East Molesey House of Prayer (a weekend-long retreat publicized as The Little Silence, with reference to the televised Big Silence week-long retreat.) During this weekend I read Song of Songs 4:6
Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of incense.’

It was a good multi-sensory image to hold as I meditated on God’s call to adventure.

Jesus says to his disciples after a busy time of ministry to the crowds, Come away with me. Let us go alone to a quiet place and rest for a while.’ Many people were coming and going. They could not even eat’. Mark 6:31

It’s not long now till retreat season for me. Two weeks of Christian festivals, then a three-week break, and another four days under canvas with nothing to do but sleep, wake, head to the big tent and worship God under a blue sky.

And if it rains, worship God as water falls around us.

Connection – gospel of Luke and book of Acts

“Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?” Peter, in the book of Acts 3:12

Whenever someone else expresses their love of something for which I have a particular passion, like hand-drawn lettering, or a particular colour combination, I get this childish incredulity that someone else experiences the world in the same way I do. (This often happens when I’m reading Jane Brocket’s yarnstorm blog). I love making connections and discovering that someone else shares this bit of cultural DNA. I discovered that making connections is an actual strength when my workplace used the awesome Strengthsfinder profiling tool a few years ago. It explains why I’m an inveterate recommender. Hyperlinks are how my brain works. This gets in the way when someone wants a logical answer but is great for creative leaps.

Another advantage is that it gives me a buzz when I find people in the Bible being recognisably like humans I know, in all our strengths and weaknesses. The one I find most normal is Peter (the disciple) who blurts out all sort of rubbish in moments of stress, and is also the one to throw himself wholeheartedly into things (following Jesus; stepping up to address a crowd; walking on water).

I didn’t appreciate the disciples’ normality when I was younger. I read the Bible through a false sense of superiority, forgetting that they were seeing these events for the first time, and I was seeing them through an established perspective. These disciples seemed frequently to misunderstand Jesus completely. How could they miss the point after three years with their rabbi?

But the passing years have taught me a little humility, and as I look back I see that, considering how long I’ve been a Christian, there are some beginner classes I still haven’t finished. Perhaps that’s normal too.

For example, last week I felt challenged about how little I was committed to being forgiving, which is right there in the centre of the Lord’s Prayer: we ask our heavenly father to ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. How easily I allow this central discipline to slip down my priority list. Mostly because it’s hard. So I want to do better at not letting the debts build up.

Why do we imagine it was somehow easier for the saints of history to be holy, as if they were not real? I think we forget that God promised to live in us as believers, and that we would only be super fruitful if we remained in him. In other words, it’s all about him, not us.

Jane Brocket’s blogpost on real women in stained glass got me thinking: ‘I’m still looking,’ she wrote, ‘for women in windows who aren’t saints, sinners, queens, angels or straight out of the Bible. Real women (like these) whose lives deserve to be memorialised in colourful stained and painted glass.’  I know what she means on one level, of course: it’s wonderful to see the recognisably familiar depicted in church art. Seeing little human details in the stained glass is fun and provoking. It got me thinking that the Bible’s saints, so often the subject of church windows, were in fact very real, flawed people, who are nonetheless remembered for their strengths, not their failings.

The artists of the renaissance knew this; they depicted Biblical people in modern dress because they wanted us to remember that the men and women in the Bible were mortal beings as well, with all the same choices to allow life or death, good or evil to direct their hearts. Stanley Spencer, a British artist working between the wars, did the same.

We’ve all seen the colourful Victorian portrayals in glass windows of one of the virtues, pictured as a serene woman in archaic dress who is apparently not living in the cut and thrust of real life. One is tempted to think such qualities are only possible for those people of the past, whom we imagine lived in a more serene time.

But actually the Bible – and stained glass windows – have plenty of real people doing real things and living full of the power and holiness of God, in the real world. We have a tendency to see a person achieving great things for God and to think there’s something special about them. We see the results, not the cause. That’s the whole point of Jesus living on earth as a human, to be a man full of God, to teach us how man could be holy, and when our eyes are on the God who is the creative force behind these lives, then we have everything in the right place.

Be holy, even as I am holy“, ‘I’ being God: Peter the disciple (again) quotes this scripture in one of his letters, recorded in the Bible at 1 Peter 1:13-16. We do not become holy by striving towards extraordinary exploits for their own sake; we do it counter-intuitively, by knowing how small we are compared to God, and inviting him to live in us and empower us, and letting him take the driving seat. It is a much safer and more thrilling adventure than letting another human take over. It takes humility, cooperation and the ability to give God the glory. That’s what we see happening in the Bible. And that’s the most awesome connection ever.

Don’t Try So Hard – Matthew 11:28-30

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30

The version I chose is from The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible written in contemporary language. If you would prefer a more literal translation, click the scripture reference above, and you will see both versions.

It’s extraordinary what a great distance can separate our assumptions of what God wants, and what he said he wants. How many of us assume that if we keep more rules we will get more brownie points with God? We are trained from birth in that worldview, so no surprise really.

What surprises me most of all about this passage is that it is rarely the way I treat myself; I often ignore this advice for myself and others. Every time I come back to it I am jolted once again into the reality that God is much more joyful, light of spirit, and an attractive person to be around, than I usually expect. I’ve been seeing him more like that lately. He doesn’t have random bad moods like we do! Does it surprise us that Jesus said the words above? There are many passages in the Bible that echo the same thoughts.