Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Weight of Glory

Sometimes you get a recommendation for some reading so fervent that you just know that the work will impact you. While discussing C.S. Lewis' works with friends last week, I was exhorted to read his sermon "The Weight of Glory" and was so caught by it that I have been turning it over most of this week in my mind, and have already passed the recommendation on to others.

It is a sermon full of hope for a future where what is now imperfect will be made glorious, where we will stand (or maybe dance!) before our loving Father, totally stripped of all that now bears us down and free to rejoice before our Creator, pleasing the one we were created to please. I can't really imagine now what that will be like, but the moments when I glimpse even the tiniest speck of what awaits us, are enough to fan the flame of eternal hope, that one day I will know it truly. Lewis suggests that a glimpse or scent of heaven may be all that this world can ever offer us, after all, we have only earthly imagery with which to consider heaven, and so even the scriptural picture is  symbolical - it cannot convey the full weight of the reality, but only suggest it in small and insufficient ways. In some ways I find this shocking - surely Scripture should make clear to us what is promised? But Lewis says that this insufficiency, this lack of immediate attractiveness is

"... just what I ought to expect. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I must expect it to be less immediately attractive than 'my own stuff'."

My first thought on reading this section was that there are some aspects of the Christian faith that it is very hard to see as attractive at all, or if we do see them as attractive it's because we haven't fully understood them. I was reflecting on this in relation to the story of the disciples James and John, and the request they make of Jesus: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." James and John want something that is in the world's eyes very attractive, to sit on either side of the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth, to be the closest ones to the seat of power and glory. What they are actually offered, the way that Jesus calls them to follow, is to drink the cup that he will drink - the cup of suffering - the cup that Jesus asks the Father to take from him in the garden. The road that Jesus walks, and the one that he invites James and John to follow him on, is the road to the cross. There is nothing immediately attractive about this offer. Jesus doesn't even soften the blow by saying "once you have drunk from this cup you will sit with me in glory". No, the joy that awaits is hidden here, it is what Lewis describes as "the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both." 

The cup that is offered to James and John, foreshadows another cup, the one that we drink round the table, that brings Life to the Church. I wonder also whether there is also an echo of the cup that we will share with Christ in glory, feasting round the table of heaven - for Christ does promise that he will drink the fruit of the vine again with us in his Father's kingdom, when we shall see him face to face - what joy awaits us there! So although we know that the cup offered to James and John, and indeed to each one of us as we seek to follow Christ, is one of pain and suffering, still are we able to declare with David "My cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." The cup that we share together contains the taste of heaven.

The image of the cup is at first sight not attractive, for it is the cup of Jesus' blood, shed on the cross. It points to the agonising death of a good man. But it contains joy unimaginable, for Jesus poured out his Life that we may have life in its fulness. Jesus' death opened the gates of heaven, so that what we see now only dimly and taste only briefly, will one day become our reality, and we will see him face to face, and rejoice that we are his and he is delighted in us.

The Weight of Glory, full text:

Monday, 10 February 2014

"Blessed are the poor (in spirit) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"

In Matthew's gospel at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), and in Luke's as part of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) we find a set of short sayings, each of which begins with the phrase "Blessed are...". These sayings, particularly those in Matthew's Gospel are commonly referred to as "The Beattitudes".

I remember looking at the Beattitudes on a camp when I was 14 or so, I believe I still have the hoodie somewhere... If you asked me I would say that I know them; they are familiar to me, after all I have heard them many times. I would probably also say that they have at least a little influence over my life, after all they're part of Jesus' teachings. However, a couple of hours of pondering and a little bit of reading this afternoon has made me wonder if I've ever really given them more than a passing glance, more particularly I'm not sure how I've never noticed how hard I find it to apply them to my day to day life. I will offer my reflections below...

A little bit of context... The Beattitudes are spoken to the disciples, seemingly at a distance from 'the crowd', and they have just answered Jesus' call to follow Him. These men have just left everything they have ever known; their families, their homes, their daily routine. They had probably also left any influence they might have had at a political level - would you listen to someone who had just turned their life upside down because someone asked you to, who had given up the business of making money and putting food on the table? They have begun a life that could well be characterised by poverty, grief, hunger, thirst and persecution. This is the new way into which Jesus speaks, these are the people to whom he announces the greatest of blessings.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" The disciples have no spiritual power, no knowledge of what lies before them, no voice that would be heard by the authorities of the time, and no way of influencing their path other than by following in Jesus' footsteps. They are also materially poor. It is easy to forget that in Luke this Beattitude does not contain 'in spirit' reminding us that the disciples poverty is wholistic. There are no rich disciples.

Now, I am not poor. I would even go so far as to say that I am rich. I can afford holidays; more clothes than I need; meals out; flights round the world to see family; a phone contract; I could afford a car if I wanted to; trips to the cinema; many, many books, the list goes on. Yet, I know for certain that none of this brings me any closer to the kingdom of heaven. My wealth, in a sense, 'fills' my life. But it is not a satisfactory Fullness.

When Jesus calls the disciples he empties their life of their wealth, and the only thing they can fill it with is Him. There are times when I envy the monastic calling, I think I'd be pretty poorly suited to it, but there are times I wish that there was nothing in my life to distract me, to leave me with no choice but to fill my time with God. Not that the disciples did only fill themselves, their heads and hearts, with Jesus. They were concerned about more worldly matters too; how to feed a hungry crowd; how to survive in a storm tossed sea; how to save their saviour from the men who came to arrest him (there's a whole other blog in that thought...); how to save themselves when they believed he had been taken from them. The disciples were people like us too, people concerned with the day to day, forgetting who they were called by, needing reminding where true wealth lay.

The kingdom of heaven is characterised by a pouring out, an overflowing cup. Jesus gives food to the hungry - food that satisfies; he offers water that will quench the thirst for eternity; he brings his majesty to calm the storm; he brings his mercy to those who oppose him; he brings himself to those who have lost him. We can only truly receive God, if our hands are not full of other things, if we, like the first disciples, have first left behind the things we think we need.

Only the poor can truly receive the Kingdom, can truly appreciate it's power to satisfy. God demands everything I have and everything I am. I will not only use it to serve him, I must give it up for him. God pours his blessings upon us so that we too might become overflowing cups. The first disciples receive the kingdom of heaven, but it doesn't stop with them, they bring it to others. As they are filled, God fills them to overflowing, the Kingdom doesn't just satisfy the disciples it pours out to all others whose hands are empty, empty and ready to receive.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Patience is a virtue: Living with what I do not know

There are many things which sparked these thoughts, but the most all encompassing is probably my realisation of how impatient I am! I don't think this is always obvious in my character, people don't often tell me to have patience, but then they also don't see the state of my heart, don't hear my 'inner chatter' or my prayers, don't know the ins and outs of my walk with God. To be honest these are things even I only see in small glimpses, were I presented with them face on in all their human frailty and sinfulness, I would not survive it. God have mercy. The glimpses alone are enough to challenge me, and to leave me open before God. I am impatient. I want things I should not; I want things that are good and desirable, but I want them on my terms and in my timescale i.e. now if not sooner. I will tell God I want to Know my weaknesses so I can give them to him (code: know how to start sorting them out myself - that's the best way right?). I will tell God I want to Know if this person is the person he has planned for me, and I need to know now because then I can know what to pray about our relationship (code for: I won't need to face quite how idolatrous I am capable of being...). I will tell God I want to hear him speak, but it needs to be now while I squeeze my quiet time into five minutes before rushing out to work/curling up in bed. There is much going on here, but I have really started to realise how I want to live according to my plan and not God's, how unwilling I am to wait for the Good he brings, and how little I like not knowing when that Good will come.

The thing is, however good the thing I desire is, if I only desire it on my terms then I am listening to the lie of the serpent in the garden, that it would be better if I had it now, that I need it now to be complete. What happens in the Garden of Eden is the first act of idolatry, and Knowledge is the idol. Eve desires now what God does not intend her to have yet, and the result is death - that's the cost of impatience! When crossing a road, if you don't wait for the green man you're risking being knocked down by a car, no matter how well you think you've looked for traffic (I realise this is an imperfect example - I myself have crossed many roads without waiting for the little green man, and have lived to tell the tale - by the grace of God...). Eve thinks she's weighed up the risks fine on her own, but there's no green man.  Knowledge in and of itself is not evil, there is no reason to believe that Adam and Eve would not have obtained knowledge had they obeyed God's command and continued to live his way. But in taking the shortcut to knowledge, choosing to have it instantly rather than through a day-by-day, year-by-year walk with God, they tried to cross the road without waiting for the lights.

When I want God's good gifts on my terms and not his, I am trying to take that same short-cut. I want the treasure at the end of the journey without having to go on the journey itself. I want the joy of knowing God, without spending time getting to know him. I want a person who will know me, live with me and love me without going through the time, misunderstandings and hard work of learning to live with and love someone. I know (or at least believe!) that getting to know someone is a lifetime's work, and getting to know God is the work of eternity.

Why must I wait for that relationship I so want? I do not Know. But that doesn't mean my waiting will be idle. God is at work in every moment of my life, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day on the journey that will come at last to the marriage of the Bridegroom and the Bride.

Why must I wait to hear the voice of God? I do not Know. But that doesn't mean I wait in vain, for in my waiting I glimpse more of who God really is, I rest in him and feed on his Word, so when he speaks I recognise his voice.

In grasping at Knowledge, we find it is more than we can bear and death is our reward. In waiting faithfully, and walking day by day in the garden with God, we have access to the tree of Life, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. And in the waiting and the walking, maybe we will find that the Knowledge might be ours also. Knowledge (even gained the right way) is of less significance than that which is Known. My joy is not that I KNOW God, but that I know GOD.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Delighted by God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

So often, I find myself falling into a pattern of life which can be aptly termed 'fine', getting along 'okay', when there is nothing special to report, and in those periods I'd describe my relationship with God as just 'fine' too. But it's been dawning on me recently just what a huge cop-out that really is! What I characterise as 'okay' or 'fine', should probably be more accurately described as dry or even stale. When I tell myself my relationship with God is "just fine", I usually only think this because I have lost sight of what a relationship with God really means. And one thing that is guaranteed to bring it all back to me (at least as much as my young mind can take...!), is to take a good long look at the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And to learn to delight in Him once more. I love that even something I have known for pretty much all of my life, has (and I hope will always have) the power to delight me as though I had never heard it before.

Spending a lot of time this year studying a theology course set out by UCCF has brought me into regular contact with the speaker and author Mike Reeves. I think the first time I heard him speak, his delight in God sounded to me a bit OTT. Not that I'd ever have said you could be too delighted in God, I'm just a champion of good old British reserve, and so there's something in me that takes a step back from enthusiasm, no matter what the object of that enthusiasm is; or so I'd tell myself... Reeves is brilliant at teaching the Trinity, or maybe it's that the Trinity is so wonderful that Reeves' teaching shines so much! Because actually, really getting that God isn't a lonely one person God, but is Father, Son and Spirit, eternally loving each other, makes all the difference in the world to pretty much all areas of life, and brings a joy that beats British reserve every time!

That we have a God who is Father, who longs for us to call him Father, to accept his freely given love, to join with the Son as part of his family, brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus - what delight! (I've reflected on this amazing Fatherly love in another post If we forget that God is our Father, and that he reaches out to us through his Son and Spirit to make us his children, then we lose so much, and our faith becomes only a way of saying that we think God is the best bet for a good/eternal life, ultimately a quest after our own gain with our only attitude towards God being gratitude, not love. But God is Father, Son and Spirit, and the way he has made for us to relate to him is by that same framework. We are made his sons, through the death and resurrection of the only-begotten Son, and are given his love through the power of the Spirit poured out in our lives from Christ our head.  So we love him, as children love their Father, because that is what we now are. And our relationship is far, far deeper and richer than simple gratitude.

One small taste of this... On a team day the other week, as part of a day discussing the clarity of Scripture we were thinking through the fact that God is a practised speaker: the Son is the Father's eternal Word and speaking is part of the eternal fellowship of the Trinity.  As we were discussing this it occurred to me that if God is an eternal speaker, then he is also an eternal listener. The Father, Son and Spirit have always been 'listening' to each other, doesn't that make prayer all the more appealing?! Do we ever worry that God isn't listening? Well yes, because so often we paint God in our own image, and we're not that great at listening. But God isn't made in our image (Thank you Father!) we are made in His, we can listen (even if we're not always that great at it), because he is the Listener. God is the best listener ever, and we can be certain of that, because he's always been listening, in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity. So we pray because that is what we have been called to, a relationship, where God speaks and listens perfectly, and we are learning how to.

I think this is why I really love the Trinity, because the way God relates to us now is not new, it's not something he has specially devised; no, it's a overflow of the way the Father, Son and Spirit have always related. What He already does perfectly as Father, Son and Spirit, he is teaching us to do by living and working in us. It's the very nature of God to communicate and relate and LOVE. Every 'action' of God, is somehow a part of God himself. God loves us by giving us himself when he sends the Son and Spirit to bring us into relationship with the Father. He speaks to us by his Word, the eternal Son of God. He transforms us by the Spirit. God comes to us as Son and Spirit so that we could be in that relationship with Him, the most intimate relationship, the most joyful relationship.

If the Trinity is an ocean then I am barely paddling along the shore, yet the more I do so, the deeper I am drawn, and God longs to teach me to swim.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

the beauty of quiet

I have just walked home through the snow, and it struck me as I was walking just how beautiful the world is when it's blanketed in white. Maybe I'm struck by it, because the way I walk home is not pretty - a couple of fairly nondescript streets of terraces, a dirt track between high hedges, a (usually muddy) path through some bushes and then along the main road, which is only a stones throw from the continual rumble of the A1. On a normal day I'm far more likely to notice the rubbish, or the fact that a lot of the bushes are either dead or dying; but not today. Today everything was beautiful. 

The moment I really noticed it was turning off the main road onto the "path through the bushes". It was dark so the two lamps on the path were on, casting a golden glow down the dark path, and as I walked along I was surrounded by snowy trees, the glow of the lamps and the gentle crunch of my boots on the snow. The sounds of a snowy night just add to the beauty, because when it's snowy it's not just the ground which is blanketed, but noises are too. The whole world seems to be sleeping, and we have the joy of wandering quietly through it, not disturbing, just watching and wondering. A little bit like Lucy when she first steps into Narnia.

And it wasn't just the world which was quiet, but I was quiet too. The wonder I felt was like a whisper, the joy a gentle ripple, a space of quiet in the midst of the storm. The world can't always be covered in snow, noises hushed, harsh realities hidden from sight, but God gives us these times; times to remember that in the midst of the noise of the world, he can always be heard when we enter the quiet of his presence, listening for the still, small voice. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

the overwhelming love of the Father

One of the most striking pictures that Jesus gives us of what God is like as Father, is in the parable of the prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Though many talks on this passage will focus on the antics of the younger Son, it is actually the Father himself who is the real star of the show - and he has two sons. I would imagine that all of us can relate in some way to both of the sons; there are times when we make a mess of our lives and feel utterly unworthy of God's love, and there are also times when actually we think we're very deserving indeed, thank you very much. And perhaps its the latter instances that we are less willing to admit to. Whichever of the sons we can identify with most easily, the Father is always the same and so always relates to us in the same way.

The love that the Father has for both his children is clear. When the younger son returns the Father sees him "while he was still a long way off"; he's been watching out for him, longing for him to return. It reminds me of when I was younger and expecting a friend to come round to play. I'd be running to the window at the sound of every car, even if we weren't expecting them for another half an hour. And if I felt like that at the prospect of a friend coming for a couple of hours, when I already saw them everyday in school, how much more would God long for his returning, precious, child; watching ceaselessly for the time when he could welcome him home. Then as soon as the son appears on the horizon the Father is running towards him, a very undignified display of perfect Love. Of course as a child there are always times when your parent's display of love for you is just, well, embarrassing. Perhaps this is a little how the younger son feels here, heightened by the fact that he thinks he is so unworthy of his Father's love, and so he makes a feeble protest against this display of affection "Don't be ridiculous Dad, I don't deserve your love". Of course he doesn't! But he is in desperate need of it. And the Father gives his love freely, fulfilling the need and then some. Welcoming his son back with a great feast, a lavish display of the Father's love for his child.

And that's the whole point isn't it? God doesn't love us because we deserve it. He loves us because we're his children and we need his Love. Psalm 103:13-14 puts it like this "As a father shows overwhelming love* to his children, so the LORD shows overwhelming love* to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust." The Father loves us so much, because he knows our state, our brokenness, our helplessness.

It's this last point that the eldest son just doesn't understand. I think our initial reaction on reading about the eldest son is to sympathise with him. He's been there all the time, serving obediently, yet the rebellious younger son gets a feast when he returns in disgrace?? How unfair is that! But the thing the eldest son is bothered about is the special celebration, as though the party is a payment for his endeavours "I have done all this for you and yet you never let me have a party!" The Father's response highlights what the elder son hasn't realised, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours". I would imagine the elder son would be highly embarrassed at any undignified display of affection from his Father, because that isn't what he really wants. He has always been safe in the Father's love and in his care, and he is the rightful heir of all that the Father has, yet he is feeling hard done by. We are left wondering whether the Father's entreaty is effective, we do not know if the eldest son ever enters the party, or if he remains outside, too wrapped up in what he thinks he's missing out on. Either way, the Father's love for both his sons is clear, and is most fully expressed in his presence with them and his generosity towards them. He wants them to know his Love; the younger son through a restoration to favour far beyond anything he could have hoped for; and the elder son through realising how he already has everything that the Father could possibly give him and he too is invited to join the feast.

We have a wonderful God, and I hope I never stop rejoicing that, through Christ, we have the right to call him Father. Adopted as his children, God's grace is freely offered to us. I hope we are never too embarrassed to accept, that the one thing we really need is the eager, undignified Love of our heavenly Father.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

reasonable faith?

I'm currently in the process of writing a short talk on the title "The Bible: boring, irrelevant, untrue?" and while I don't in anyway think the answer to this is yes, I am writing a talk to challenge the ideas of those who might indeed think this. There could be several reasons for this, perhaps because their only experience of the Bible is through Church when they were very young and it all went a bit over their head, apart from the nice stories, but they aren't really true are they? Or because the only bits they know (the nice stories... I'm thinking Noah's ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, Mary riding on a donkey...) just don't seem to have any relevance to their life now. As I start to tackle these ideas I find it difficult to avoid the fact that although I might be able to satisfy someone's intellectual curiosity with regards the historicity of the Bible (or the NT at least... the modes of thinking in the OT are in some instances too far removed from our own "scientific" mindset as to make the question of historicity to some extent irrelevant) it is not really their intellectual curiosity that I'm concerned with. I'm concerned with presenting Christ to them and 10 mins barely seems long enough to get from how we can trust the Bible (a complicated question to address even when you're preaching to the converted) to the person of Christ without the audience having some prior concept of the relationship between Christ and Scripture (or between a man who lived 2000yrs ago and a book written by 40 different people over a millenium, which may included the story of Jesus, but includes an awful lot of other things as well) .

Anyone coming to such a talk is either a Christian, eager to learn for themselves or to discover how to combat the questions of their non-Christian friends, or someone interested in history for its own sake. It will be a very, very small minority who is there because they know what the Bible teaches and yet cannot quite make that final step to belief because they are uncertain of the trustworthiness/value of the text itself. And it will not be through the power of carefully reasoned argument that they are enabled to make that step. Those people who become Christians through apologetic talks are always those in whose hearts God is already at work.

The heart is the centre of our being in more ways than simply as the organ that keeps our blood flowing. The Bible frequently speaks of the heart as the root of human sinfulness. The people of Israel spend their time turning away from Yahweh, because their hearts are hard. That is why in Ezekiel 11:19 Yahweh saves them by giving them a new heart, and only by having a new heart will Israel follow the commands of Yahweh. Only by having a new heart will Israel see that it is reasonable and right to follow His commands. So the change of heart has to come first. I think this is why I have long had doubts about the reason Christians in certain circles are so keen on Apologetics, as it sometimes seems to rest on the belief that if we can persuade people of the reasonableness of Christianity, we can remove a barrier to faith. However, what this doesn't perceive is that Reason itself comes from faith, from the desires and focus of our hearts. Reason does not allow or create faith, it justifies it.

Let me offer an example (borrowed from this talk which was part of the inspiration for this post...: There are two Christian students, both lead busy lives and have a busy day ahead of them. When their alarm goes off the first student, lets call him John, decides that he really needs another hour sleep, and that if he has that then he will be better able to serve Christ for the rest of the day, even though that hour will mean he misses his quite time. The second student, Sally, feels just as tired as John, but gets up to spend some time alone with God before she gets on with her day, she knows that it is better to start her day in this way than to get an extra hours sleep even though she needs it. Both these students have reasons as to why they act the way they do, and they might both sound reasonable! But John's justification for staying in bed springs from a heart that loves sleep more than spending time with God, while Sally's justification springs from a heart that loves God more than sleep.

My point is not that we should sleep less and pray more (though there are times when I for one need to do that) but that both Sally and John's reasons for acting as they did were reasonable, but the desires of their hearts were very different. Each of them used their Reason to justify, and their Will to act upon the desires of their hearts. The same is true of the difference between Christians and non-Christians, it is not that one is irrational and the other reasonable (though you would be forgiven for thinking that if you have heard any of the debates between prominent atheists and apologetic Christians...), but that for Christians the desires of our hearts is Christ Jesus, and our Reason can demonstrate the reasonableness of our faith to us, while for the atheist, their hearts do not desire Christ but hate Him, and their Reason can demonstrate the reasonableness of their stance to them. For the Christian, faith is rational and unbelief irrational, while for the non-Christian the opposite is true, because Reason is in slavery to the desires of our hearts. I cannot persuade someone purely by rational argument, to become a Christian. God has to change their hearts. What converts people is not a rational understanding of who Jesus is, for even the devil knows that, but a relationship with Him, brought about through the Spirit's work in our hearts.

What then is the place of apologetics? Clearly I am not seeking to convert people by my reasons for why we can trust the Bible as history, largely because to those who cannot hear the voice of God in Scripture my reasons may well be insufficient. My aim instead must be to introduce them to Christ, who can change their hearts. Even though Reason is enslaved to the desires of our hearts, the world cannot see that, and so presenting reasoned argument does perhaps have a place in the attempt to demonstrate that Reason itself cannot be a sure basis for belief, but rather belief in Christ is the proper foundation for Reason. C S Lewis puts it beautifully when he says "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else". Faith is not based on Reason but on a relationship. Only a living relationship with Christ can allow us to see everything as it is, and from that viewpoint Christian faith is reasonable, because Christ is the desire of our hearts.