Shadow Sides 4: Thomas who doubted

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

My wife and I were at the cinema – not unusual in itself. If we only had to think about ourselves, we’d be seeing a movie at least once a week. We were seeing a comedy – a very successful one, in a packed cinema. I was hopeful – there’s something very therapeutic about being in a roomful of people all laughing at the same thing. One problem: everyone was laughing, apart from me. At least that’s how it felt. Bev was laughing. The people on the other side of me, behind me, in front of me were laughing. I wasn’t. I think I laughed once in the whole film. Everyone else, it seemed to me, was laughing all the way through. I didn’t leave the cinema with aching sides and a perma-grin. I left disappointed, mildly depressed and doubting my sanity.

There’s something of that about Thomas, one of Jesus’ closest followers, in John chapter 20. Jesus, precious Jesus, who everyone thought had died, was alive. He’d appeared in the middle of a locked room speaking of peace and breathing the Holy Spirit on people. The disciples were overjoyed, awestruck, dumbfounded – apart from Thomas. He wasn’t there. We don’t know what he was doing. Maybe something normal like shopping; maybe he was so overcome by recent events that he needed space to himself. Whatever it was, when he returned to find his friends in wide-eyed wonder, he wasn’t in the same place – metaphorically as well as literally. So he wants some proof.

Poor Thomas. He’s often known as Doubting Thomas. But hold on. Who gave him that title? Christians. Not Christ. Christians. Thomas is a saint! He died 2,000 years ago and there are still churches named after him (including the one I grew up in).

Doubt. A sin, a sickness. Right? Well …

Take James 1:6.

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

Seems pretty unequivocal, doesn’t it? Except when you stop to consider that the word translated ‘doubt’ here isn’t about being unsure of a doctrine but about being indecisive, having a foot in two camps, being of two minds, being lukewarm. Not so unequivocal. Maybe doubt isn’t the sin or sickness it’s sometimes cracked up to be.

What does Jesus do with Thomas who doubted?

He seeks him out. He goes looking for him. He comes back, especially for Thomas. He doesn’t rebuke him, doesn’t tell him his doubt means he can’t be a leader or disciple or friend. He just comes looking for him, and invites him to do what Thomas said he wanted and needed to do – touch the wounds, go skin to skin with the resurrected one.

Which he doesn’t do. It’s one of the details the writer would have left in. It’s important. Instead there’s 5 simple, awestruck words:

“My Lord and my God!”

Thomas thinks his doubts need proof to assuage them. What he actually needs is something rather different. It’s not that proof is bad. Jesus offers him proof, invites him to it. But what Jesus gives him is something deeper – relationship.

Proof is OK. It matters. Proof can encourage and build up faith. But let’s face it; it’s rarely definitive. There are brilliant people who are atheists and equally brilliant people who are faithful Jesus-followers – and of many other religions too. No, proof may be helpful but it’s now what Thomas needs or with which Jesus is most concerned. We’re tempted to think that if only God would do this  we’d believe. Well, Jesus had already addressed that in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; not even a messenger from beyond the grave will make the difference.

God is relationship, Trinity, perfect self-giving love. We’re made in that image. We’re made for relationship. So what’s most likely to convince us that this faith thing is real? Relationship with God and God’s people. Frustrating as the latter can be and mysterious as the former is, we need both. We’re made for it, and we’re restless until we find it. Doubt hits Thomas when he’s away from the group; staying in the group doesn’t make him immune to doubt but it does give him a context for it and allow him to be held – until Jesus seeks him out and draws close to him.

So let’s be kind, to ourselves and to all who doubt. Let’s not push them away, push God away because we finite beings are struggling to believe in a supernatural God. That’s to be expected. Let’s seek those who doubt out; let’s love them, not argue with them. Let’s listen to our own doubts and those of others; maybe we’ll learn something. And maybe, just maybe, in 2,000 years’ time we’ll find that there are churches named after us. Thomas was a saint, called and precious and sought out by God. We’ve reduced him to one who doubts.

God evidently has no problem with our doubts. We’re made in His image. So let’s commit to not letting doubt drive us or others away.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Shadow Sides 3: Hagar, used and abused

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

We know that Abraham is a miracle father. He and Sarah are promised children in a seemingly impossible situation, and become parents at an absurdly old age. No wonder the son to whom they eventually give birth is named Isaac; it’s laughable if it’s literal. So laughable that little Hagar, a servant, is called into action. Sarah can’t see how the promise of a child is going to come true, so she suggests to her husband that he sleeps with Hagar to get her pregnant and become a second wife.

That may shock us, but it may perhaps be even more shocking to discover that the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn polygamy. Servants exist to be at the service of others, and Hagar’s life doesn’t appear to get any better; she’s used for her body parts and biological capability. Her body can do what Sarah’s can’t, and so becomes the classic female victim of a patriarchal society, passed from servitude to servitude because of her body.

She becomes pregnant, and then finds herself victimised by the woman whose idea this all was in the first place (Genesis 16:6). Even more unpleasant, God won’t let her run away somewhere safer (16:9). She can’t catch a break.

Or so it seems. This is where things starts to turn, and Hagar starts to get a glimpse of a the bigger picture. She is indeed to have a son. The description given of him in Genesis 16:11-12 doesn’t seem complementary, but the translation may be filtered through some misunderstandings. It speaks of him being the child who will stand out from the crowd, stand up and think and act independently.

In a moment of fleeing, Hagar’s been spotted by God, so she names the place for that truth (16:14). When you’ve been used because of biology, mistreated at the hands of the originator of the plan, being seen is significant. The see-er has seen past the obvious to who you are as a person, and the bigger picture of which you are a part. You are no longer just a womb; you carry within you the father of nations. God’s purpose through Abraham was always to do something for every nation; with Hagar and thus Ishmael in the picture, blessing will flow to what we now call the Arab nations. The conspiring, conniving abuse of the aged Jewish couple becomes the birth of whole nations.

What’s more, she’s the first to know. This won’t become apparent to Abraham (and Sarah) until much later. Isaac is born, as promised, and there’s no longer any need for Hagar and Ishmael – or so it seems to Sarah (Genesis 21). She insists that her husband sends Hagar and her son away; she can’t stand a reminder of abuse and unfaithfulness in her house. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt encroaches on Abraham’s conscience, and it’s as he realises the extent of what he’s done that God steps in and sets his mind at rest. He may have used and abused a woman, but God will knit that into the birth of nations (21:12). In the economy of God, nothing is wasted.

Hagar is off into the wilderness again, this time sent away rather than running. She is hopeless to the point of death. At which point, the God who sees proves He is also the God who hears (21:17). Not for the last time in the Bible, water flows in the wilderness and hope is restored.

If you’ve been bullied, used, abused (and if you haven’t, then you’ll know someone who has been), then you’ll know how reductive is. You become an outlet for a person’s needs and whims. The book and film Room takes this to unforgettable lengths. A woman is kidnapped, given a life limited to one room – and used for sex whenever the captor wants it. This leads to a child, a son. When escape is eventually effected, the beauty of the boy doesn’t exactly eradicate the pain that’s an inescapable part of the family history, but it does harmonise it into something all together more remarkable. Which is the way of God; He doesn’t wipe evil out. He does something far more difficult, and much more creative – he takes evil, and weaves into the warp and weft of grace. He brings nations from a single cell.

Ever been astonished that someone who’s suffered can offer forgiveness? Ever been floored by the generosity of someone with very little – giving away something that is, in the scheme of things quite small but in reality is everything to the giver? This is grace, the work of God, writ small. God does it on the macro – at the extreme, taking the torture and murder of an Innocent and bringing redemption through it.

Have you been the bully, the abuser, the user? You need to repent. When guilt threatens to overwhelm, listen for the distant harmonies of grace that can be weaved. It doesn’t excuse you, but it does mean that your evil wasn’t the end of the story.

Bullied? Victimised? Used? Abused? It’s not the end. Let the master composer play a tune beyond compare.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Shadow Sides 2: Paul and the problem that won’t go away

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine. 

Think of the man who wrote a good part of the New Testament (Paul) and the first words that come to mind probably aren’t “man whose prayer didn’t get answered”. There are good many other phrases that might come to your mind: genius, great writer, leader, certain, inspired, ethical, apostle, convert, road to Damascus, church-planter, missionary. Or maybe there are other, less-complementary words that come to your mind (of which the equally Biblical ‘hard to understand’ may be the mildest). Love him or hate him, he’s one of the single most influential people in the history of the Christian faith. It’s apparent that God used him to communicate some eternal truths and to help us understand what the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as told in the 4 gospels means for us.

So what sort of person was he? What, when pressed, defined him in his own eyes and, most importantly, in God’s eyes? We get a fascinating insight into that in the letter we now call 2 Corinthians. It’s markedly different to the CV’s of the influencers in the early 21st-century:

I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.

If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus

(2 Corinthians 11:23-33, The Message)

We want our leaders to be in control; Paul admits to anxiety.

We expect leaders to have good relationships; Paul’s had arguments with friends.

We expect moral cleanliness from those in charge; Paul openly admits to plenty of time in prison and to being on the receiving end of brutal punishments.

We want to follow people characterised by strong competence; Paul invites us to follow him because he’s weak and he’s suffered.

He boasts about the things that have humiliated him and led to suffering because it’s in them that he finds himself to be similar to Jesus. Jesus, so anxious that He sweat drops of blood; feared God had abandoned Him; was betrayed and let down by close friends; was punished by the powers-that-be.

That’s not all. For Paul, there was more.

I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

(2 Corinthians 12:7-9, The Message)

Paul, so close to God that Jesus speaks directly to him; Paul, so inspired by God that 2,000 years we still read what he wrote to keep us going; Paul, writer of some of the most influential words in human history; this Paul has a problem he can’t shake, that God won’t take away no matter how much he pleads. It’s probably a physical problem – one serious enough to make him ‘beg’ for relief.

I know how that feels. I’ve been in pain every day for more than 16 years. On bad days, I’m told by people who know about these things, my levels of pain are worse than those of childbirth. I’ve begged for it be removed, and so have others on my behalf, many more than 3 times. Newsflash: I’m not as close to God as St. Paul.

It limits me. I’m also clinically depressed and anxious; I recently ended a church business meeting by breaking down in tears. I’m limited by mind and my body.

That, says Paul, is the point.

God’s fond of those who struggle, close to those in pain. Because when you’re weak, His strength is seen through you; His power is made apparent because mine is stripped away.

Got it all together? Sorted? Ducks in a row? That could be your biggest problem.

Painfully aware of limitations and dis-ability? Wrestling with weakness? Desperate for relief? God’s especially close to you.

 Also in this series:

Moses – frustrated and angry at God’s people

These posts are based on a series of sermons.

Shadow sides 1: Frustrated and angry Moses

The first in a series of posts adapted from sermons about some great characters from the pages of the Bible, with weaknesses and frailties that we might find all too familiar. 

Anger and frustration are frightening. They suggest being out of control – either ourselves, or at the hands of others. They speak of abuse and violence, fear and quaking in the corner. Good Christians shouldn’t get angry or frustrated. They should let go and let God.

Or should they? What if anger and frustration, rightly handled, take us closer to Jesus, mean we’re more like Him, not less?

Take Moses, for example.

We know about Moses. Performing signs and wonders in the courts of a despotic ruler; courageously leading a fear-stricken people; not afraid to lead a wander through the wilderness; parting seas and bringing water from a rock; receiving stone tablets of law in the handwriting of God. We know about Moses. Murderer with a speech impediment; often angry and frustrated, dying on the doorstep of his destination. Despite his successes, hardly a model leader. Or is he?

Let’s focus in on Moses, for the time being doing what he should be doing. At the end of Exodus 24, we read about him heading up a mountain with Joshua. For 6 days he watches; on the 7th day God speaks; for 40 days he’s on top of the mountain, enveloped by cloud which signifies the very presence of God, receiving the law which will shape the worshipping life of God’s people. It’s written on stone tablets, apparently by the hand of God Himself (Exodus 31:18).

While he’s doing what a leader of God’s people should be doing – spending time with God, listening to Him, paying attention to Him, God’s people are getting impatient.

Where is he?

This is taking far too long (32:1); let’s do something instead of just wait.

Aaron, left in charge by Moses, is pressured into collecting golden jewellery; it’s melted down and shaped into the image of a calf. This is what the people choose to worship; this, they say, took them out of Egypt. It’s ludicrous, but no less offensive for that.

God can see what’s going on, so He tells Moses. God’s less than happy, on the brink of wiping them out when Moses intervenes and tells Him it would be better for His reputation not to do so, to remain true to His word to make a great nation out of them. Moses’ self-control is all well and good, until he comes down the mountain himself. He sees and hears the chaos around him; in his anger he smashes the stone tablets of the law in pieces; burns the golden calf and grinds it dust, scattering the dust on water which the people are then forced to drink. Stand in leader Aaron shifts the blame to the people in a ducking of responsibility reminiscent of Adam and Eve; Moses allows those still for God to show themselves, and the rest are slaughtered. Even so, there’s still a plague to come as a reminder of such a naked act of disobedience and idolatry.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us, first, with the reality of frustration and anger. Leadership of God’s people is no easy task. Any attempt to do something under God’s authority – especially an act of leadership – will likely be laced with anger and frustration. You  might even say it’s part of the calling; you can see where you, your church, your people, your project is and where they should be – and the distance is great, the blindness of the people on the ground so rebellious, so wilful, that you might just snap. God feels it, Moses feels it, so you and I will feel it.

Even so, in your anger and frustration do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Do not go on a crusade that God has not given you; in your anger, do not run ahead of God and try to fix His problems for Him. He is more than capable – and just as angry, but not prone to sin.

Jesus does the ultimate Moses: He sees the sin, bears the consequences in terms of the isolation of people and the wrath of God – death, and provides a way beyond it in the shape of resurrection. Now He lives at the right of God, interceding, praying for His people.

So you feel angry and frustrated at the state of God’s people? Well you might; maybe you’re becoming more like Jesus. So leave the crusading and the fixing to Him, the perfect intercessor.

So often we think anger and frustration are marks of weakness. Too often they lead us into sin. Rightly managed they catapult us headlong to the arms of a God who knows only too well how we feel, yet still acts in love towards the objects of His anger and frustration – you, me.

We must be careful; anger and frustration can be corrosive and destructive. But in themselves they are not wrong. One way or another, they will carry us away. It’s up to us whether we let that be away or towards the one whose image we are made.

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons On The Way 9: The Beginning and Ending of Spiritual Warfare

I just spent a few minutes praying. That’s what I’m paid to do, right? Isn’t at least part of the point of a church pastor that he prays? I mean, if the pastor doesn’t, then what hope for the rest of us?

If only it were so simple. One of the most important lessons you learn when you’re in ‘the ministry’, leading a church, is that work is never done. There’s always another person you could be calling or visiting to see how they’re doing; there’s always emails you could be answering or composing; there’s always administration that could be being done. Church work is done at the interaction between the eternal and the temporal, so it’s never, ever finished. (Which is why I like cooking. Because it always reaches an end point.)

Add to that the fact that people always have an opinion on what you should be doing. More of the admin that you’re trying to hand-off to others (note: the fact that you’ve handed off admin to others doesn’t mean you have less admin to do as pastor, it just means you have different admin to do as pastor); serving; visiting; preparing a talk; cleaning; listening to someone; talking to someone; solving a problem; educating yourself about something. So virulent is this that one clergy person I worked with once told me that taking time out to pray and retreat regularly was a lazy excuse for non-productivity.

There are so many voices insisting on air time, so many of them claiming, usually not unreasonably, that what they have to say is good and important. That clergy person to whom I just referred was  – and despite the fact that it’s years since I’ve spoken with him, still is  – a loud and haunting voice in my ear. I get so much – I’m paid more than some in the congregation, I get a house with the job; I get a sabbatical; and other things I could (should?) mention. I should show I’m worth it. I should be a servant. I should produce. I should have something to justify it all. One of the areas I’m really wrestling with this in regard to is my upcoming sabbatical. It’s my first one, and it’s a hard battle to push back at the tide of inward noise that shouts I must having something to show for it at its end. No matter that by this stage of ordained life I should be onto at least my second, or possibly third. I should show I’m worth it and that it’s worthwhile.

Some of that is true. Much of it isn’t. But allowing those voices to be mastered, controlled and where necessary muted, is one of the most important tasks of Christian leadership. As a great writer once said, ‘my people’s [I don’t like that phrase, but you get the point] greatest need is my personal holiness’.

The demons of productivity and worthiness and proving myself are insistent ones. They will only come out through their opposite – prayer and fasting, about which you say little and to which you draw no attention. The problem is that they keep coming back to see if the house is empty.

Is there a more demonic voice than that – one that would draw me away from conversation with God to activity with a sheen of goodness?

Spiritual warfare starts, and (if it ever does) ends in my soul.

Also in this series:

1: I don’t have to do it all

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

7: It’s probably me

8: The Hero Trap – what if I’m Goliath?

Scars and Hopes 6: Foundations

Scars and Hopes 6: Foundations

When something new(ish) comes along, it’s easy to see that as a criticism of the old and the pre-existing. This is especially true in the realm of church life, where people get attached to what they know and feel threatened by change and shocked by the new. Mission-shaped church is especially vulnerable to this: in an enthusiasm to rethink church and discipleship in such a way as to ensure it is directed towards those who don’t know Jesus, it’s easy to criticise or be seen to criticise that which is already happening.

Sometimes that’s because the people bringing the change are bored or frustrated. That’s not the point, though. Mission-shaped church is not church for the bored or angry or frustrated. It’s church for people who won’t be part of church otherwise. It’s church for people who don’t do church. That doesn’t mean that the existing church is suddenly irrelevant. Church as it exists continues to work for many people and as such it has an important, life-giving role. The mission-shaped realisation is one that wants to add and multiply, not replace.

Isaiah prophesied about rebuilding on ancient foundations; to do so needs those foundations. Build without ancient foundations and you’ve got a problem.

Photo from bevmeldrum.com

Doing church in the pub was an addition to church as it was happening already, not a replacement of what the people already knew.

Jesus and the early church preached and healed in synagogues and on the streets; in the ancient places and the virgin territory.

It’s what a wise former Archbishop called mixed economy; not either/or but both/and.

Don’t dismiss what you have; it’s what you’ll build on. Don’t dismiss the ancient; it’s what gives meaning to the new. Don’t choose between old and new. Let each inform and refresh and incarnate the other.

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Soup

Time

Listen

Goal

Plan

 

Scars and Hopes 5: Plan

We all need to plan, never more so than when you’re trying to be obedient to the missionary imperative of the God who tells us to make disciples. That doesn’t happen by accident; it needs you and me to make some plans. Those plans, though, need to be held lightly. It seems that God, for reasons best known to Himself, allows us to make one set of plans under His guidance … and then dump them.

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography bevmeldrum.com

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography bevmeldrum.com

A few years ago we realised that the area around our church needed community more than anything else. It’s a busy, vibrant, bustling area with little meaningful personal connection. So we decided we’d eat together every Thursday evening, tell others about and make it available to anyone. We envisaged it as a focus for the church’s life, a building of relationships, as well as a way of getting to know students, workers, commuters and the like. As the weeks passed, it changed into something else; an evening which was primarily enjoyed by the community of people without homes. We hadn’t envisaged that; if we had, the church probably wouldn’t have got it off the ground. To discover the right plan, we had to let go of our plans.

We discovered that we were in good company. Paul had all sorts of plans about where he was going to go on his missionary journey, only to find those plans frustrated and an inescapable tug to Macedonia. It’s all terribly inconsiderate and humbling. God seems to care less for our convenience and vindication as leaders than He does for establishing that He is in control of the missionary and endeavour, and He’s simply invited us along for the ride. It’s not that our plans don’t count; it’s more that they seem to count for rather less, or rather different things to that which we imagine.

So make those plans, but hold them lightly. They’re less, and more, important than we think.

Introduction

Soup

Time

Listen