Encouraging Us On – Joshua 1:6

“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” – Joshua 1:6

View across the lush, cultivated fields of Kinkiizi diocese from diocesan prayer mountain, November, Uganda. (c) Victoria Byrne
View from Prayer Mountain across the lush, cultivated fields of Kinkiizi diocese, Uganda, November 2014.

It’s beautiful to look ahead and see the hope, but sometimes the destination looks so far off. It’s helpful occasionally to look back and check your progress – to see how much further ahead than you were, instead of comparing your journey to someone else’s. Annual events can provide a good moment to look back and realise what a lot of ground has been covered.

Today I attended a church network conference, and I last night I remembered how a year ago, at the same event, I threw my hat in the ring with those identifying themselves as feeling God’s encouragement to write. I remember going forward feeling pretentious; aware that I wasn’t doing any writing, as if it were a distant ambition. Fast-forward a year (and seriously, how fast does thing go?!)  I realise that what seemed quite improbable in June 2014 is now part of my real life. How encouraging that we can and do actually change!

My husband and I noticed today that one of us has often encouraged the other into something that inspires him/her, and when the other achieves it, the encourager feels more courageous to go for it themselves. We seem to leading each other into a promised land. When you encourage a friend towards a goal you know they have, you have no idea what good fruit may come of it. You may be inspired yourself.

When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, he needed a huge amount of encouragement from God. Just look up the word ‘courage’ in an index of the Bible (a concordance) and you will see that early chapters of the book of Joshua are all about courage, because he lacked it. It’s what God was always talking to him about because he needed so much of it. Sometimes the area we’ve been most challenged in is what will be our great strength. God tells him time and time again to be courageous, not to fear, that God will go with him; and yet Joshua is famously the one who actually led the people over the border into the promised land, and was ready to lead them through the challenges that awaited them there.

I love to  read back over my  journal of what I feel like God might be saying to me and the landmarks of what he’s doing in me and my fellow travellers. I get to try out whether things I think Jesus is saying, actually prove to be so. Whole weeks of my life can pass with out record, but it’s so motivating to read it over and see patterns that were not visible at the time. These days it feels like I can see my own promised land a little more clearly than I could a year ago. We must be getting closer.

The Lord will Build it – Psalm 127:1-2

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Have you ever seen logs being floated down a river? In places like western Canada, enormous tree trunks felled from the forests are floated down river, because water will carry the weight of wood – which floats – far more easily than a road vehicle.

Life is so interesting. Timing and people and gifts and opportunities are a jigsaw of such infinite complexity that it’s a wonder our minds aren’t blown on a daily basis. Lately things have been coming together in my life and in some significant others’ in a way that makes me think, God knows what he’s doing. In hindsight there is such pattern visible. And so often we have to admit that we are the recipients of grace – there is no way we could have known that this would work together so well.

Water is frequently an analogy for the Holy Spirit. He is the one who builds the architecture of our lives. He knows what we are going through now, but he also knows what we will be needing in the future. He is putting us through training and strengthening now, that will stand us in good stead when we are faced with a challenge we have not yet dreamt of. Personally I’m happy not to know the challenges of tomorrow.

But when we think of tomorrow, we need to see it with the eyes of faith, and not listen to the voice of fear, which seeks to convince us that we will go into those challenges without God’s armour, tools and weapons. When we spend time worrying, we are imagining a future in which God does not continue to provide for us.

The truth that God impressed on me today is that he has already felled the timber that I will need to build my house of tomorrow, the one I can barely even imagine yet, because it’s his design, not mine, and way more complicated and beautiful than I would dare plan. He has selected the right trees, felled the timber and sent it on its way downstream. When that timber reaches me, whatever it represents, will be of just the right kind and I will wonder at the way he has prepared it so well. It will be clear that this house was of his design, because it will be clear that he had it all planned out before I knew anything of it.

How do I know that? Because that’s what he’s like, and I’ve seen him do it time and again. I have a sense that he has cut some choice logs and set them on their way. So I can be at rest about the future.

The Voice of Authority – Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.” Deut 30:11-14

I’ve been thinking lately about the age my parents were when they hit major life landmarks, compared to my age now. It’s quite hard to comprehend that they were only this old when I was in the sixth form (which was surely not so long ago…) I saw them as such an authority figure, but now I know that whatever age you are, you don’t suddenly feel like you know what you’re doing. I hope I never feel like I’ve answered all the questions.

Mentions of the film ‘Back to the Future’ recently got me looking up the script online, and I spent a couple of enjoyable hours reading it: I could see how the writers had some interesting themes going on there that were perhaps not so evident when you’re absorbed in just watching the movie. They make it clear, for example, that in 1955 the town is thriving and full of people on a Saturday morning because an out-of-town mall has not yet sucked the life out of it.

Yet I well remember the excitement when a huge supermarket arrived in my town in my early teens. We could shop the large aisles with their smooth floors and hitch a lift as we wheeled the shopping around. We enjoyed the choice and the evidence of abundance and the new inventions of the 1980s food industry (and what could possibly be bad about that?) It was around that year my mother went back to work and we saw her in a whole new light; a microwave arrived in our kitchen, and modernity seemed to hit us in several ways in a short period of time. It was exciting to go and see such abundance, to have access to products that had been marketed at us, and it was probably a lot quicker for my parents than shopping in the town centre. Now, we’re often striving in the opposite direction, if we can, and I’m glad that my local area has a great butcher, fishmonger and greengrocer, and isn’t entirely given over to estate agents and smelly candle purveyors.

God taught the Jewish people to place a high value on passing on the stories of what God had done for them, to the next generation, and teaching them God’s ways, so that they know how their loving heavenly Father can keep them thriving.

Chatting with friends of varying ages we can see the pattern of choosing and rejecting the ways of our parents, as in distinct areas of life one generation copies aspects of the parents’ behaviour without question, and in other ways rejects them to an extreme – so that an error isn’t necessarily corrected by sometimes highlighted by its mirror image in the next generation. I’ve met people who express everything because they experienced their parents’ self-control as repression, and I’m sure all of us could think of ten other examples of extremes being corrected for as the children react and overreact to what’s gone before.

The context of the verses above is that God has set out how he wants his people to live, his laws in other words, and set out the corresponding blessings and curses that his people can expect if they follow, or not, his rules for a healthy life.

What is extraordinary about the good news of the kingdom of God being available to us, is that we have available to us the very presence of God himself, his energy at work in us, in the person of God the Holy Spirit. And so we get to live as people accepted by God, and close to him. This is only so because Jesus did what he did and God poured out his Holy Spirit after that.

As believers in Jesus, we get to acknowledge that those words are true in even more dimensions for us than they were for the Jewish people – the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it”. 

We don’t obey God because we fear punishment – usually. We obey him because what we want increasingly matches what he wants, as we mature as Christians. His spirit is at work in us helping us feel joy when we feel his pleasure; understanding our missteps when we make them. We don’t have to live in reaction to the errors of the past. We have a heavenly Father, who teaches us his ways. And he says he doesn’t think they are too difficult for us.

Promise

“Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.” And suppose the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Luke 11:5-10

One of Jesus’s disciples had asked him to teach them to pray. This is how he answers. I’m guessing Jesus knows that sometimes it feels shamelessly audacious to think that we could speak directly to God and ask him for anything.  Some people never brave being shamelessly audacious, and they convince themselves that they are to meekly be happy with their lot whatever that is, not to pray for limitations to be overcome, and their lives get smaller and smaller.

Thankfully, of course, God is divinely wise in how he responds. According to Jesus God wants us to request; wants us to voice our wants and needs, but in his wisdom does not always just do exactly what we ask for. Often he will answer indirectly, and we may need discerning hindsight to see that the thing we wanted that was underlying our request, is what he actually answered. Good human parents are like this too: saying ‘yes’ to the good requests, ‘no’ to the ones asking for challenges and growth opportunities to be entirely avoided.

Thank goodness, for example, it didn’t work out with those crushes of my teenage years and twenties, because the man I did marry is the right one for me!

We can assume that if we pay attention to God’s answers, and we learn his ways, and learn to follow Jesus, that our requests will start to look like the sort of requests to which God loves to say yes. Our wiser prayers might be ‘help me overcome this challenge’, instead of ‘please make that person not be in my group any more’.

I love this famous promise, that everyone who seeks finds. I used to be merely a Sunday Christian in at least one important way. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to pray about things that troubled me in my earlier years. I was a churchgoer, but now that I think about it, I can’t remember praying anything outside of set prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, until maybe university years, after I was challenged about whether I actually believed whether Jesus was God’s son, God’s presence on earth. I probably did pray such prayers – but they certainly didn’t feature largely in my life. I wonder whether I would have faced challenges with greater boldness if I had talked them over with God.

Jesus is very clear in this passage, God wants to hear from us. He seems to really enjoy communicating with his sons and daughters. It’s almost as if he is lovingly attached to us, not a distant impersonal being! Someone fix that flux capacitor, there’s someone I want to tell.

Reflections

“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.

‘What is it you want?’ he asked.

She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’

‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’” Matthew 20:20-22

We’re all so good at judging others superficially, and forgetting that their internal world is every bit as complex as ours.

Here Jesus is dealing with complex issues around honour, status, favour, and who knows what else. There’s lots we could get out of the passage. Today I just have a simple reflection. We have a tendency to underestimate how hard others may be working or suffering for their ‘luck’ or status.

This episode also reminds us that we have the benefit of a body of scriptural witness to inform our reactions to all that Jesus did. It’s helpful to notice that there were a range of misunderstandings of what Jesus did and what he was about. Easy for us to think that this woman sounds like a pushy mother, with a lot of pride in how she thinks her sons should be treated. But we don’t know what sacrifices they were making in following Jesus. Maybe she had good reason to plead with him for some promise of reward. How can we judge?

As the saying goes, Bible reading isn’t so much about reading God’s word, as letting his word read us.

Contented

‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’ Philippians 4:12-13

I sing with such confidence and joy about Jesus our guardian, and lose the nerve so quickly.

This morning was wonderful. I got such a buzz sitting at the back of church serving the coffee and croissants, looking out at the faces of all these people and just feeling God’s love for them. The sun was shining. I could not have been more content.

Tonight at church we sang, “when I hear you say ‘trust and obey’, I will walk by faith and not by sight, God of my life” and I sang it joyfully, absolutely on board with God’s plan for my week. But midnight rolls around and it’s not always so easy is it?

Maybe it’s just time to get some sleep. Definitely. But I need to learn that even if I am not up to a challenge right now, I need to hand it over to him, and I will be up to it when I get there, because God is faithful. In that security, I can be content, even though there are a thousand loose ends in my life right now.

As part of his talk tonight, our curate Alex played the video of a young couple who lived through a terrifying turn of events, when they changed from being chiefly young and in love, to young, in love, and dealing with a traumatic brain injury. You had to see it to believe it, but they are proof that contentment is available whatever the weather, and God is faithful. I never want to have to go through such a test myself. I gladly went home and ate dinner with my husband. Alex’s point (and St Paul’s) was that contentment is available whatever the circumstances: it’s the difference between being a thermometer (reacting to the ambient temperature) and a thermostat (acknowledging the temperature of our surroundings and controlling our response, which in turn changes the world around us).

The fact is that we can be just as unhappy when things are wonderful, even when its true that the ‘boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places’ for us. We still have hard days. So it’s our response that has to be the biggest factor.

Please God help me not just react this week. Thank you that you are always there for me.

Please.

Established in Love

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:16-19

How can  we know the unknowable? Certainly, if anyone deserve to be at the centre of this seeming paradox, it’s God. The face it, we can keep getting closer, but however much understanding and experience we gain of God’s love, there’s always more to understand. This passage describes a process, of first being rooted and established in love, like a little seedling, and then to be given the power to grasp the dimensions of God’s love. Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains it clearly: the grammar of the Greek verb tenses gives the true meaning, which ‘seems to be that they may know from time to time, as each opportunity offers, what must in its entirety pass all human knowledge’. Lately I think I’ve been making progress in Knowing in my gut this love that surpasses head knowledge. What helps is when those around us show us love, but ultimately we have to be able to receive it.In the same way as we can’t receive God’s peace if we are determined not to trust him, we can only receive God’s love if we are prepared to let him be real to us, and not to argue with him that we are surely undeserving. Of course we are…yet his compassions are new every morning.

The Display of His Splendour

“The spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
for his has anointed me […]
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour. Isaiah 61, vv 1 (part), 2 and 3

 What stunning imagery. What transformation into hope and fresh purpose!

Isaiah is the key prophet of the old testament. He often draws imagery from nature, which easily crosses cultures and speaks to us directly today.

Back when I was at school, I did the first term of art ‘A’ level, and my one painting was an entirely unsubtle comparison between the raised branches of a fruit tree, and someone standing before it with raised arms. In hindsight it probably looked like tree-worship, but I was definitely aiming at something joyful and celebratory, trying to capture the wonderful display of something splendid in the reaching branches of a fruitful tree, and its similarity to the optimistic celebration of a girl with her arms raised high into the air. I’m curious now what led me to paint that, deep down, because it wasn’t a natural stance, a fact which was very evident when my friend Rosie sportingly modelled for it.

Now, looking back, the pose is very familiar: it’s how what people naturally do in moments of celebration and joy. It’s what people in many churches (and football stadia) do when we are free to express perhaps euphoria at the majesty of God, at his sovereignty, his goodness; to try to express something superlative. My painting  looks to me now much more like a regular experience in worship: maybe it was prophetic art.

These words are some of the most beautiful in the Bible.  I once asked a Christian friend at university what they really wanted in life. ‘Consolation’ came the answer. I believe now that God wants much more for us than just consolation: Jesus said he came to bring life, and life to the full.  I think he is more ambitious for us than we are: not content with us knowing that God is technically worthy of praise, he loves it when we know it fully, practically, bodily.

God really does replace despair with joy that turns to praise. I’ve known people whose entire demeanour altered when they were rescued from despair. One friend who changed his career, almost overnight stopped carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

When one is in ‘sackcloth and ashes’, mourning and in despair, it’s hard to imagine such radical transformation to be possible. It’s true that it’s rarely instantaneous. But God does transform us. When I look back on my life I can truly say I wouldn’t turn the clock back for anything. God’s presence is so often experienced as peace or joy. We have so much to praise Jesus for in the present, and the remarkable truth is that we have reasonable expectation of so much more.

Walking Around in the Light

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But 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.” 1 John 1:5-7

image 

I’m really fond of this remarkable first letter by the disciple/apostle John, and knowing who wrote it gives us such a vivid connection to him. John the (probably quite young) disciple who was such a key figure during Jesus’ ministry on earth, now years later is writing to the believers.

To my mind, you can hear the excitement still burning in John, that he personally knew the one incarnation of God the Father in the person of Jesus who met him one day while he was fishing. His awe and wonder is still there: and in all those years since he looked into that face and decided to follow Jesus, the abiding impression of what God is like, for John, is that God is light.

This often comes back to mind when I’m praying for situations. Nothing can be understood until it’s perceived, until light is shed on it in some way. We cannot know God but because he chooses to make himself knowable. God has promised to continue to reveal himself to me – and to all of us if we want that.

When I’m praying for our community, or for a situation, increasingly I find myself praying for the truth to be revealed; for our eyes to be open to what’s really going on; for discernment; for hidden wrong to be made plain. And each time we hear the painful news of a famous person having abused trust, I feel like praying, thank you God that wrong doing has been exposed. Don’t stop until it’s all out in the open.

Because while we are walking around in the dark, and wrongdoing is being tolerated, there are whole areas we are either steering round, because we know it’s too dark to understand, or we bump into it painfully know and again, but we can’t see clearly enough to know what happened.

In our community, let there be revelation.
In our understanding, let there be enlightenment.
In our relationships, let there be illumination.
In all the dark corners of our minds where we have allowed fears, and worse, to lurk, let there be light.

– because we want to get closer to the incredible life-force and wonder that is God, and in him there is no darkness at all.

God is Faithful, and He will Do it.

 “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23

Today at church, worshipping God, I felt very happily included in all God’s good plans.

Yes, there are a number of significant areas of my life that hold big unresolved questions, but it’s foolish to expect to achieve everything I could hope for to be imminently resolved: what would I do then? Put my feet up and be satisfied until the end of my life?

Instead, in an unusual moment of great peacefulness this morning, I was able to luxuriate in the knowledge that even if something I’ve been particularly hoping for does NOT come to pass any time soon, how much more exciting and gratifying that Jesus is with me now; and he is faithful and he is full of love, joy and peace.

Whether it was before, or after, the talk, I forget; but the talk covered the book of Ruth. The sense I had throughout the service was all of a piece with the beautiful, faithful loving-kindness of Ruth’s ‘kinsman-redeemer’ Boaz (in a riveting parallel with Jesus).

No, my latest prayer might not be able to be answered in the way I might hope for, but something greater is already available: Jesus’s presence right here today with us.

And for once, that is entirely enough.