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.

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

 

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 this 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.

Faithful Forever – Psalm 146:6-8

“He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.” Psalm 146:6-8

I’ve been watching the moving story of Jane Seymour’s family history on the BBC’s new series of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

**Plot Spoiler alert!**

She follows two great aunts on the Polish, Jewish side of her family tree. One great aunt, Jadwiga, stays in Warsaw and loses her husband, her son, her daughter, her society and her city, as the Nazis systematically destroy the Jews and the Slavs in an effort to create purity.

The other great aunt, Jadwiga’s sister, flees with her family to Paris, then to Marseilles and finally to Switzerland, staying behind at times sacrificially to work towards the welfare of fellow refugees. Finally in Switzerland this life’s work is seen as a contribution towards the rebuilding of nations, and it is what enables the family to live in freedom and stability.

It’s impossible to watch the show without another wave of disgust at the ghastliness of the Nazis treatment of human beings.

It was also impossible not to think of the heartbreaking flows of people out of the Middle East in this month, reaching Europe’s borders and receiving a very mixed reception in 2015. It was shocking to hear reports on Radio 4 this week of Bulgarian police abusing refugees by beating them, stealing their phones (and thus their only means of contact, and legal evidence of their status as people who have entered Europe at all). And that is just one news report in a seemingly endless escalation of grotesque treatments that people have visited on each other in the past few months in our world.

Remember when Assad’s treatment of his own Syrian people was shocking, when it was the worst thing on the news? Those headlines seem to have been trumped now so many times, that we can lose sensitivity to the increasing need.

What can we possibly make of this?

I do know that this is not an ‘act of God’ (a hideous phrase even when applied to earthquakes). It is people who have done this, who have chosen to treat others with rejection and hatred. And what am I doing?

From the sweet boy serving in our local coffee shop greeting customers with cheery words, to the PPI insurance salesman who left another message on my answerphone today, every single encounter we have with another human being leaves a legacy, however small. At best, and at worst, the legacy of individual choices can change nations. Free will is not to be taken lightly.

God does not hide away the principles by which he wants us to live in peace and security. In the days of the Israelites he set out rules and it was clear to all that they could not keep them in their own strength. Jesus showed us that a person can live in a divine way, but that God knows we are not pure and righteous by our own actions. Whereas the Nazis made other people die in order to let their nation be supposedly ‘pure’; Jesus showed true power and life by loving us so much to treat us lovingly even while we, mankind, killed him.

In these last few days, at David’s Tent festival, I have enjoyed glimpses of the great love that God has for us; as we have sung his praises, we have been able to realise that the best things we can say about him don’t even reflect his wonder. How extraordinary that he would care enough to  lead us patiently in growing in stature as moral, loving, powerful human beings. How patient he is with us.

While singing to God about how good he is, and dwelling on his character, might seem like an incidental thing to do, it has had a profound effect on me. To soak in that atmosphere for a few days has shifted something. I am willing to accept that he is the one who is perfect, not me. The amazing Sean Feucht talked about the wonderful truth that however much we praise God, when we meet him face to face we will discover that really is that lovely, and more; we will look back and think, not that we wasted that time worshipping, but that yes, we really got it, and he was worthy of it all.

How to reconcile these two worlds? How can we spend four days in an English field, singing songs of praise to God, while people at the borders of Europe are desperately trying to escape the horrors of war?

John MacArthur has written that “worship is all that we are, reacting rightly to all that He is” (The Ultimate Priority, Moody Press). It’s no wonder that as we worship we see him more clearly, but we also see ourselves with new clarity. As we focus for example on how he rescues us daily, we may lose some of our innate arrogance at how we have so cleverly set up our comfortable lives. As we expose ourselves to the reality of how deeply flawed humans are, we can marvel that God not only loves us at all, but patiently trains us in the art of loving each other.

Truth and Trust – John 14:2

“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.” John 14:2

I know I’ve quoted this passage before, but for other reasons. Tonight I just want to sit with that beautiful truth that Jesus is trustworthy. What he says is reliable. It might be difficult to understand, mysterious, and a great many other things, but it always turns out to be reliable.  Somehow, to me, that ‘if it were not so, I would have told you,’ has always moved me, and drawn me into wanting to lean into him and to what he has to say. Not only is he telling us the truth, he’s telling us the whole truth.

How do I know for sure? Well, what I do know is that from experience, what I’ve learnt from him tends to prove to be more true the longer I live. Things I thought I knew when I was 20 turn out to be often the wrong end of the stick, but things Jesus has taught me I often need to learn again, perhaps at a deeper level, and they turn out to be more true.

I remember doing my RE homework at school and we were covering something from the old testament about sacrifice. I recall thinking about the animals that were used for temple sacrifice, and how followers were called to lay down their lives in an ongoing, daily way, and I remember my thoughts running ahead into the idea that it’s like in that ongoing submitting to God we’re a living sacrifice. Then of course I realised that the phrase ‘living sacrifice’ was one God had already come up with, but it was fun coming to it fresh, and feeling the pleasure of understanding it thoroughly.

However pleased with myself I was at the time, I had no idea how hard it might be in future to actually live that way; knowing from experience is very different sort of knowing.  For example, all the sacrifices I ever made to Status, thinking a particularly well designed rucksack would change my life, for instance(!), or keeping people happy at the expense of my own health or God’s will, all those sacrifices left me with awkward reminders of how gullible I could be. Now I really understand and trust Jesus’s words about possessions and real life.

When I see people trying to stretch the reality of the world to fit around a belief they can’t bear to un-hold, I find it nearly unbearable. I really have to restrain myself from being quite aggressive with them. Maybe it’s because I’ve had run-ins with that monster in the past (not the green-eyed one; I wonder what colour this one would be?) When a truth is uncomfortable it’s even more important to acknowledge it. It’s so hard to do in the moment, isn’t it? But watching someone else warp reality around their blockage is just horrible.

John writes about not stumbling around in the darkness but walking in the light. Amen to that. “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 1:7). Jesus was the master of walking in the light, and as a result he could offer complete fellowship to others. Even at the ‘last supper’ he was transparent with his friends. Some were not so with him – namely Judas – but Judas was completely transparent to Jesus.

I want to be able to deal with conflict and problematic conversations in this way; that I do not allow fear to tempt me to distort reality around a blockage in my mind or relationships. This is another moment when I’m so aware I’m not up to it on my own but need God’s help.

Father, please help me see clearly, and live clearly, and be one whom others can trust.

All In; More Out – John 15:13-16

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” – Jesus, quoted in gospel of John 15:13-16

A little punnet of blackberries
A little punnet of blackberries

These words of Jesus blew me away today. They floated down on a piece of paper out of a Bible in our prayer chapel; a few lines printed on a slip of paper that someone had tucked inside one of the Bibles.

They were so relevant to what was running through my mind. Purpose and calling; sacrifice and pleasure. It’s all there.

There’s no denying what a hard invitation this is: lay down your life. But then the rest of the context hits you: Jesus, God, considers himself your friend, and you are his.

And I love this: “EVERYTHING I learned from the Father I have made known to you.” Reading that again tonight, it’s as if i never noticed that was in the Bible before. What an extraordinary thing for us to know, that of all the mysteries of Jesus’s interactions with his Father, all that he gleaned he taught his followers (and commanded them to make disciples and teach them).

Whatever vocation we might feel in life, whatever calling, we cannot outgive God.

If it seems like God demands a lot, it’s only because he knows what he can do with laid-down lives like that – he can bring incredible fruit, that isn’t going to rot on the tree but will be eternal. What a legacy!

Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat it. When he asks for people to join his team, he doesn’t minimise the investment. It’s the investment the pig makes to the ham sandwich, not the investment of the cow to the cheese sandwich. (Credit: Pope Francis!)

This is the offer: if we want to be in, let’s go all in; and in return Jesus is promising this: a life lived with God, full of revelation, lived in emotionally close partnership with him, and a guaranteed return on the investment.
It strikes me that is a picture of two parties fully invested in a cause; but God will always be the bigger shareholder; because how could he not be? He is the author and perfector of our faith; our creator and redeemer; the one who knows the end from the beginning. If we fear giving our all, we can remember that God is not just matching our donation, but exceeding it in every way.

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I’m back – ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ Matt 10:8

‘Freely you have received, freely give.’ (Matthew 10:8)

Sorry if you’ve been missing my posts. I was enjoying two weeks of rest at two Christian summer festivals with a chance to retreat, worship, enjoy and serve. Turned out it was in that order. One week with a lot of resting and some serving: the next week with a little resting and a lot of serving. But the gaps where I was able to receive were like surgical strikes from God – just what I needed and no opportunity wasted.

I got a chance to really experience serving out of rest. The challenge is to do the same back home with my normal responsibilities. The knowledge of it in my head – the theory –  seems very secure, but putting it into action is what matters.

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.