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.

Compassion

29 As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!’

31 The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!’

32 Jesus stopped and called them. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.

33 ‘Lord,’ they answered, ‘we want our sight.’

34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him. (Matthew 20: 29-34)

As I was waking up this morning I realised that I was assessing the day ahead in a fairly negative light. In particular, to the extent I considered what God thought about me this day, I envisaged him having made an assessment and analysis of the situation.

This passage shows us an emotional side to God, that is perhaps missing in my assumptions about how God reacts to me and my life. He’s not trying to catch me out. He is an emotional God. He still has compassion on those suffering, and quite possibly when he sees me unsure of what the day ahead holds, and forgetting how much he loves me and is setting me up for success, quite possibly he has compassion, rather than frustrated annoyance.

“If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” Jesus said (John 17) So they share the same attitudes. We can trust that God the Father does not have higher standards than Jesus; he too has compassion on the blind, the confused.

Tomorrow I want to wake up and remember what Jesus is actually like. He is not analysing my thoughts as I lie there, and judging me inadequate. He is not dispassionate; he is compassionate. He is still “the same God, whose nature is always to have mercy.”

Do I think one thing when I’m writing these posts and another when I’m not? In John 5 Jesus is quoted: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” 

Jesus, I’m glad you’re here by your spirit. Help me see you as you are, now and tomorrow.

Onwards and Upwards

 “…0ne thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s letter to the Philippians, 3:12-14

These words are helpful when we feel stuck in regret, or limited by our past choices. One of the wonderful things about God is that he sees us as we will become, and tenderly grows us towards that; we need never fear that we limited by our past or stuck in the present. God knows what we can become if we keep pursuing him and growing more like him. He reminds us in scripture and in person that with him our future will be greater than our past (Haggai 2:9). In a similar vein God reminds us that he has good plans for us that he intends to bring about (Jeremiah 29:11); that we need not despair because we are being daily renewed (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) and that we just need to make sure we dwell in him: he will enable us to be incredibly fruitful (John 15:5-8).

Paul’s words are written within a context. He has just reminded the readers that he used to have impressive credentials as a religious man, and then he met Jesus and realised what true worth was; he now considered all his past gains worthless compared to the value of knowing Christ and becoming like him. This is the chief ‘goal’ to which he refers. He has acknowledged his failures to the Philippians but is not going to let them determine his future.

The amazing thing is that when we engage with God he calls out the best in us and leads us into new freedoms. Even when he identifies something in us he wants to change, he does it with such love and gentleness. If you’ve ever known any people like that, you have been blessed. Paul does not compare himself with anyone else, only Christ himself. And he knows that he could be discouraged in the height of such a standard, but he knows this is a work of God in him: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.”

In other words, he can’t say he does everything right by his own effort, but he presses on, aiming to live out God’s call to righteousness, and rejoicing that he is a better man than he used to be.

Any wrong we have done, we bring it to God and he disposes of it completely. ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions [sins] from us’; in other words, he flings them to the far side of the sea, figuratively speaking. Practically speaking, they are even further away than that; they are gone, and we are free to be the person he is making us into today.

You are My Treasure

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 
When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” Matthew 13:44-46

Jesus tells this parable to explain that the nature of the God’s kingdom – letting God be sovereign in your life – is that when people discover it, they find it worth giving everything for it.

Jesus is not saying we should sell all our earthly possessions to ‘get’ the kingdom of heaven. He’s making a point about the worth of this thing that people are seeking. Jesus is acknowledging that when people glimpse what the kingdom of heaven is about, they consider it the most precious thing imaginable (this in the days before cultured pearls!)

A postcript that God seems to lay on my heart now and then is that he considers us to be treasure of great value to him. In fact he was willing to surrender his own life to buy back, or ‘redeem’, us from slavery to sin, to buy us back our freedom –  to have the possibility of choosing him of our own free will.

Jesus is has been traditionally pictured in art as the ‘pearl of great price’, as the King James Version puts it.  A beautiful song by Jonny Miller band makes both points, that Jesus is of infinite worth to those who recognise his real identity, and amazingly God who created us and rescued us considers us to be just as valuable to him.

Putting His Finger on It

“1‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-5

Sometimes blog posts almost write themselves. I was in a meeting in our youth space today, and a young member of the team spilt a few drops of Coke on the billiard table. Two of us standing near him sympathised and joked with him: ‘don’t worry, we won’t tell’. Then the venue leader came in and warned him not to spill any, realised he already had and told him off for not clearing up the mess. My own tail between my leg, I sloped off to consider the stark contrast between our two responses. Mine had been to comfort and conceal. That had made the young man feel better, perhaps, but it allowed a stain to be unattended to, and would have caused a permanent sticky patch. The leader’s criticism felt a bit rough at the time, but on reflection it was justified, prompted the problem to be sorted out and made a learning opportunity.

Twenty minutes later the same leader shouted over to us that he had just spilt an entire cupful of Coke on the billiard board. He acknowledged the irony, “judge not, lest you be judged, and the measure you use be used against you.”

The fact is, there’s being judged, and there’s knowing you’ve done wrong. There is a difference between judging someone and being convinced in your own heart that you’ve done wrong. Sometimes it’s right to call someone else out, sometimes that’s ultimately more loving than stroking them and telling them it doesn’t matter.

And believe it or not, when I was wondering what to write today, I had the worst speck in my eye. Inevitably my thoughts turned to Jesus’s wry joke about judging others for the speck of dust in their eye, when there’s a ruddy great plank in your own. My own speck didn’t come out until I looked up the above verses. Until I saw the words together, I hadn’t realised that God was sending me a strong message, as all the verses we’d been throwing around today came from the same passage from John. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

Sin, judgement and forgiveness is all rather academic until God shows you, just between him and you, how much he loves you, and how he feels about something going on in your life, values or attitude. He doesn’t get all angry and wag his finger at us. He sends the Holy Spirit to convict our hearts – we become aware that a path we thought good is actually leading us towards a steep drop. Sometimes he sends other people to put their finger on it, but either way it’s a moment when we acknowledge, ‘yes, that is what it boils down to, and I don’t want to act like that’. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:12)

If someone doesn’t believe in God why should they take into account how God would judge their actions? It’s nice and tidy to think everyone should have the same values, but they don’t. What’s more, as Christians, even in an area where we do know what’s right according to God, it can still be a struggle to do the right thing. None of us is perfect, and we still make mistakes in controlling a temper or  an appetite; or in being faithful in the face of threat, or in forgiving someone, as we have been forgiven.

The fact is, it’s the Holy Spirit who convicts (convinces) us of sin. That allows us to walk through the open door and confess it, be free of it, and move on into a better life. When Jesus prepared his disciples for his imminent departure from this world, Jesus explained that the Holy Spirit would convict them of sin – they would no longer have Jesus by their side to show them a better way. His words are translated with great clarity here by JB Phillips:

8-11 but now the time has come for me [Jesus] to go away to the one who sent me [God the Father]. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ That is because you are so distressed at what I have told you. Yet I am telling you the simple truth when I assure you that it is a good thing for you that I should go away. For if I did not go away, the divine helper would not come to you. But if I go, then I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convince the world of the meaning of sin, of true goodness and of judgement. He will expose their sin because they do not believe in me; he will reveal true goodness for I am going away to the Father and you will see me no longer; and he will show them the meaning of judgement, for the spirit which rules this world will have been judged.” John 16:8-11

Sometimes it might feel like we can surely just live as well as we can, and God will forgive anyway…what’s the problem?
The thing is, there are real consequences of sin. God isn’t out to control us. Rather, he knows the damage sin does, and he loves us, so he hates seeing us sin. When we sin, maybe our world gets a little smaller because we feel shame and we avoid a friend; maybe we tie our hands without knowing it, by setting a pattern of escaping reality instead of finding a solution. Maybe a relationship withers just a little because we can’t say sorry. Perhaps we get a little harder-hearted, and we miss out on joy as well as pain. We don’t notice these things at first. But God sees everything, including where this path will lead us if we carry on.

Ultimately we need the Holy Spirit to reveal these things to us. While we may have mentors in our lives who point out where we’ve gone wrong, our most effective guide speaks from within.

A valid thing to ask God is this: ‘please show me if I’ve opened myself up to danger or limitation by doing wrong without knowing it. Reveal to me how you see me. Clear my vision.’

I’m glad that speck’s gone, it was really starting to hurt.

Thank God for Church

“the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” Acts 18:10

I recall my teenage years, singing in a church choir. I was always late for church if I had to iron my surplice, the white sheet-like garment worn over our blue robes. Thankfully that eliminated a weekly fashion choice.

At that time, it was singing that kept me going to church. The commitment to the choir kept me attending; persevering long enough to find the seam of gold hidden in them hills.

In a way, it’s still the worship that I love the most. But now my experience of church is so much richer because it encompasses something I’m sure God loves church for – not the robes but the people and the gathering together of those who love Him.

I love being a Christian in a church that encourages relationships to flourish. It’s not like we turn up, remain piously silent and go home again, however much my shy teenage self loved that, it was like the drug of choice for a perfectionist. Now I appreciate the opportunity to fellowship together. As with any shared activity – going for a walk, playing sport, going out for a drink there’s a certain level of bonding just in sharing an activity. But there is definitely something special that happens when experience the presence of God together.

We affirm each other just in sharing what we share of Jesus, even without saying anything. But when those relationships really flourish, there’s nothing like it. Just in one weekend, I’ve been able to get together with my girl friends over a Saturday breakfast and talk about things that inspire and challenge us in our faith; receive loving words from friends who knew I’d been unwell, chat to a lady who needed encouragement, and catch up with a fellow adventurer and seeker of all things Holy-Spirit-prayer ministry. I was also massively encouraged when I went up to help with the prayer ministry after the service today, and was instead prayed for by a friend who had been thinking of me for the past couple of days. As she prayed for me her words affirmed me, set my mind on very hopeful thoughts, so I went home really encouraged.

So I am with Paul when he says to the Hebrew believers, “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other” (Hebrews 10:25, NIV translation)

These days we have access to amazing churches online, and I have been turbo charged at times by hearing talks from Bethel Church, Redding, California, and from Holy Trinity, Brompton, Chiswick Christian Centre and others. But there’s nothing like being there in person, worshipping together, receiving love, and being able to walk up to a real person and offer what God knows only you can offer.

Joy

“For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord; I sing for joy at what your hands have done.” (Psalm 92:4, NIV)

We grow to be like those we love. We will resemble what we worship.

I can so easily dwell in the slough of despond, as Pilgrim’s Progress would describe it…or around its boggy edges. But the psalm writer here we always have the opportunity to turn our attention to what God has done, what he has given us…there is no end to his goodness.

Acknowledging what he has done; how he has rescued us; all that he gives us…cannot but lead us to joy. For me it makes me sing; maybe for you it makes you smile or want to create.

The note that heads this psalm is that is written ‘For the Sabbath Day’. Believers gather together and acknowledge together what God has done and what he’s like. So even if we don’t naturally look up and praise God for who he is, we can learn how good it is to do so by the encouragement of doing it with the company of others who are seeking God and discovering him.

No-one knew God as well as Jesus knew his heavenly Father. He must have been the most joyful person on earth. He was free of sin. So he did not hold grudges. He forgave. His connection with God was total. He made sure he had his Sabbath rest and his fellowship. He knew who he was and spent his time doing what his heavenly father’s will. There’s nothing to stop us living that way too. God sent his holy spirit to dwell in us and enable us to live in the fullness of all his hopes and dreams for us.

“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”  (Zephaniah 3:17)