2016 is exhausting a lot of people. The trickle of deaths of well-loved celebrities has seemed unchecked; by April social media was already awash with people asking to ‘turn 2016 off and turn it back on again’, or wanting to hibernate until 2017. Dark events stalked the mainstream news as well. In the last 30 days the news has seemed to have become unendingly bleak – or at least potentially world-altering: the Turkey coup, the Brexit vote, shootings of young black people by American police, Bastille Day attacks, Nice, Baghdad, shootings of American police, Oliver Pistorius’ sentencing, the American elections, a week of violence in Germany. Add to the mix ongoing issues in other countries: the famines, droughts, diseases, corruption, poverty. Many feel the world is increasingly dark. It may be so; or maybe we just know more about what’s going on. Either way it, is overwhelming many.
So the plea is for good people to act; for Christians to speak and work and do. We must. History – not to mention God Himself – has a habit of judging the church’s silence and inaction harshly. It’s vital we speak for the oppressed or threatened, act for justice, confront prejudice. All these things and more.
But tired people don’t get much done. If we look closely at what Jesus says we don’t find someone who drives people, who needs to whip up motivation. We find someone who calls, who invites, who beckons. And who travels with people. He invites people to do things, yes; but also to rest, to try on an easy-fitting yoke.The life He invites to is a life of the pendulum swing of rest and work, abiding and bearing fruit. Neither one makes sense without the other. Rest without work is laziness; work without rest is unsustainable. Either rest or work without the other is disobedience to Jesus who calls us and sustains us.
Late last week I experienced a wave of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the reports of the shopping mall shooting in Munich. I woke up on Saturday edgy, tense, nervous, sick in the stomach. I had work I had to get done for Sunday and I was on childcare for most of the day. Neither happened very well. I switched off for a while and was fine; took the child out with me and we were together. We got home, the child was over-active, I was still in the grip of PTSD. I was good with the child, but no so much in communication with my wife. The result was a row with my wife that was unresolved at bedtime. I barely slept on Saturday night. I managed the Sunday morning of work just about intact; a good day with family but still sick in my stomach and nervous. My wife and I only managed to speak late on Sunday. We were back in sync. Still, on Monday I woke exhausted and still tense. A day of reflection, prayer, some task-based work and a little family time got me through to bedtime in one piece. It’s only on Tuesday that I’ve felt rested and restored, capable of being who I need to be and doing what I need to do.
We can’t wholly retreat from the world. There is much for Jesus’ people to do. But we do it out of a place of radical rest and restorative recreation. Our invitation is not to find what drives us but to listen for the still, small voice of God’s call in the midst of the storms around us. Then to follow, and to see Him at work and join with Him as He does the heavy lifting. We are not made to be driven people, working out of motivation and compulsion; we are healed people responding to an invitation, identifying our unique call, walking in humility and obedience with the one who strengthens us and through whom we can do all things.
We need to work, to do, to weep over the state of things . But to do that, do nothing first. Be with family, play games, watch a bit of t.v., take in a movie, read, enjoy some good food. Take the dog out. Pray and enjoy silence and good music. Get lost in playing or watching sport. Laugh until you can’t laugh any more. Turn the news off for a bit; refrain from commenting on everything. Ignore some stuff. You can’t feel about everything, be informed about all events, do something about everything. You’re one person. You’re part of Jesus’ body for many reasons – a very important one being that you’re not responsible for everything. He is, and He distributes callings amongst His church as He sees fit.
We are called to act, respond and do. But only if we first rest, trusting and enjoying grace; and then having worked for a time go back to that rest, trust and enjoyment. Rest as re-creation that we might work for the new creation is subversive; it says there’s Someone and Something else; it says there’s a call on me but it’s up to Him not us.
If you belong to Jesus you are not driven and worked. You are called, kept, loved, invited, adored.
There’s much to do. So first, do nothing.
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:
These posts are based on a series of sermons
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:
These posts are based on a series of sermons.
When the woman who was to become my wife and I were dating, we would often look at other couples around us in coffee shops and restaurants. We’d pick out the ones we’d want to be like when we grew up, and the ones we didn’t want to emulate. The ones we wanted to emulate – no matter their age – were the ones in lively conversation, laughing and sharing. The ones we didn’t want to be like were sitting in silence, apparently focussing on food rather than each other.
Nearly seventeen years of marriage later, my perspective has changed. On those all too rare nights out together ,Bev and I do have plenty we want or need to talk about. But we’ve also grown to appreciate the importance of just being together. There’s a comfort, a profound kind of silence that can settle over us when we’re together – reading, watching a film or show, enjoying a meal, sleep. I’m naturally a quiet person, and I really value the freedom not to have to fill the silence – that Bev is happy just to be with me. She knows me well enough to know that my silence doesn’t mean a lack of love or ease; quite the reverse. It indicates that I feel comfortable in her presence in a way I don’t feel with others. I can just be with her. I have other friends for whom this is also true, if not at the same depth – we can watch a game together, or look at each other and laugh without speaking, knowing what the other is thinking. Silence can be profound, pregnant with meaning and expectation. Can you imagine feeling safer than (literally) sleeping with someone every night of your life?
This speaks to me of God. It’s not unusual for people to ask why God isn’t speaking to them – especially in difficult, challenging seasons of life. I feel like I’m in one of those periods right now – many things having to be done or decided, and precious little from God that appears to help. He’s silent. Why? Why won’t He speak?
Maybe He doesn’t need to. In a sense, of course, He’s always speaking. Through the Bible, through people, through circumstances, through creation. But there are times when I could have done with a very clear ‘THIS’ from Him. That does – and can – happen, but rarely these days, it seems.
Take Esther, though. It’s the book of the Bible where God is famously unmentioned by name. It’s a time of crisis, personal and national. Ethnic cleansing of God’s people is threatened and women are used for sex by men (never tell me the Bible’s ancient and irrelevant). Where is God? We might well ask. He doesn’t speak, He doesn’t seem to act. Or does He? He’s strongly implied in the famous ‘for such a time as this’ that is uttered by one to another at a key moment; read the story and it’s hard to shake the sense that He’s the shadow cast inescapably by events, never out of sight but easy to lose track of if you’re not looking for Him. Reach the end of the book and it’s clear He’s been doing something, never far from the centre of events and actions.
Take Elijah, depressed and panicking. Hearing in the quiet rather than the earthquake.
Take Jesus, sweating drops of blood in the garden, no reply – save for an angel.
Maybe I’ve underestimated God’s silence. Maybe He’s the lover content to be with me after a while; content to listen and make me feel really listened to in the way others can’t; at peace with sharing the day with me, living life alongside me, nudging, indicating. Maybe His silence is the silence of deep comfort and a maturity I thought I lacked, an honouring of me as a person, an image-bearer of Him.
Where is He when I am in agony and desperate? With me.
Where is He when I can’t see the way ahead? With me.
Where is He when I can’t hear Him? With me.
Where is He when I stray? With me.
Why won’t He speak? Maybe because all I need is a look.
So I lay me down to sleep.
Recently I posted one of those semi-serious Facebook things about how the Easter season starts on Easter Day; that the day before Easter Day isn’t Easter Saturday, it’s Holy Saturday. Easter Saturday is the Saturday that follows subsequently to Easter Day. A good friend, part of my church but with his roots in a very different Christian tradition, said he’d value more on why these things matter to me and how they help me follow Jesus. It’s actually something I’d been meaning to try and articulate more fully for myself for some time, and my friend’s comment prodded me to do something about it. Like much of what I write on here, it’s really for my own benefit – if it helps you also, that’s great.
I have lived most of my Christian life in the Anglican (referred to in some contexts as Episcopalian) church context. In 2001 I was ordained as a minister in that tradition. I’m not one of those who thinks it’s the only true church; I am often frustrated and even angered by aspects of how this mode of church works. But it does work for me as an imperfect structure within which I can minister and function as a disciple. For the record, I’m also greatly resourced by many other Christian traditions – but the Anglican one is where my feet stand, with the waters of other traditions intermingling around me, refreshing and renewing me at different times. So here’s a few of the things I value around this expression of Christianity – I do so acknowledging that strengths are often also weaknesses, and this is true here as much as anywhere else. They’re listed in no special order.
1) The Anglican church is often referred to as a ‘broad church’. I take that to mean that what you experience in public worship at one Anglican church may look or feel very different to what you experience at the Anglican church a mile away – or a few thousand miles away. But they’re united by a few core points of theology (theoretically – and that’s where this can go awry) and practice. Weirdly, one of the places this has been bought home to me is on social media. Through social media I have made contact with numerous Anglicans who express their faith very differently to me – there’s much we disagree on. But we found ourselves drawn together, and connecting together and supporting each other. Similarly, the priest of the next door parish to mine was (he’s just moved on) very different to me, and our parishes’ worship are almost unrecognisably different. But Jesus untied us through something far deeper and firmer, and we’re good friends. I’m going to miss him.
2) Many Christian traditions give a rhythm to the church year, and this is a big feature of Anglicanism. That’s illustrated in what I mentioned above about the difference between Holy Saturday and Easter Saturday. Sometimes the application of this can all seem a little Pharisaical, but increasingly I’m finding it deeply beneficial. Let’s take the Holy/Easter Saturday thing. The week that leads up to Easter Day uses readings from the Bible and liturgy (prepared prayers) to tell the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Now most of us know how the story ends – with victory and resurrection. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a lot of talk in the world of movie criticism about how much you give away about the plot of a film – spoilers. People don’t want the story spoiled before they see the film; otherwise the story loses power and purpose. To a large extent the point of a story isn’t the destination, it’s how we get there. We know the ultimate spoiler – Jesus rises from the dead, and it’s wonderful! But -and this is important – we only really grasp how wonderful it is if we’ve lived the whole story. The pain, the fear, the despair. The death. Make that journey, and you’re really going to want to party come Easter Day. In addition, we all know that life isn’t all about victory – it will be, in the new creation. And Easter Day gives us a glimpse of that. But in the meantime people still get sick, are still disabled, are still depressed, bereaved, alone, dead, crying, fearful, angry, numb … All those things and more are still part of our story, and the build up to Easter Day helps us to incorporate all those things in our worship and give them their place. It helps me to spend time with Jesus in Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood, pleading with God for another way and being let down by His friends. It helps me because that happens to me to; and if I spend time looking at Jesus experiencing it too then I feel less alone in my experiences, less guilty, better equipped for the trials I face.
3) When it works well – and I know that it by no means always works well – the way the broader Anglican church functions does a good job of holding people and churches accountable. Churches and their leaders get things wrong, step out of line, need comfort, support or challenge. People like Bishops are there – in part – to do that, or to make sure that it happens. When they get it right, it’s wonderful. A small illustration from my own experience. I was here in South Africa when my mother died a few years ago (in the UK). When that happened I was on the receiving end of many helpful comments and prayers. One of those that meant the most to me was my Bishop calling me personally, asking me how I was doing, assuring me of his prayers and support in whatever I needed, acknowledging that this was a hard time to be doing this sort of job – especially so far from my birth family. Years later, I still remember that. Don’t underestimate the power of these things – especially for clergy, who need to be pastored as much they need to pastor others.
4) There are many, many expressions of Christianity and I’m grateful for the variety. God is a big God, so it’s OK that there’s a multiplicity of ways to respond to Him. But for some people who aren’t Christians, there are some expressions that can feel odd (I’m not saying they are odd – it’s just how they can come across to some others), or even a bit cult-like. Anglicanism’s rich history and accountability structure means that this is a rare perception – and that when things do go wrong, there’s a chance of them getting noticed and addressed. It often surprises people to discover ‘free’ Anglican churches – that are charismatic in theology and practice. The fact that these churches are present within Anglican structures can reassure some that this is, in fact, an orthodox expression of Christianity and not simply a breakaway cult.
5) Quite against some perceptions, the deep roots and wide resources of the Anglican tradition can (when used well) be the bedrock and resource for immense creativity. The rich theology of Anglicanism and the accountability structures can give a space for a lot of new things to happen. I’m thinking of, for example, the Fresh Expressions movement – which seeks to find ways of expressing church for those who don’t come to church and won’t engage with church as it currently is. This movement is by no means limited just to the Anglican Church; but the Anglican Church has been and continues to be a major player in the movement’s development. Hence we find Anglican churches that are based around a multiplicity of networks – meeting in pubs, skate parks, shops, nurseries and the like – which look very different to ‘normal’ church, but have the bedrock theology and accountability of Anglicanism.
6) Sometimes I don’t feel like praying or worshipping. That’s when the liturgy – prepared prayers for use in public worship – kicks in. Saying these prayers with others can carry me – their faith can carry me when I have none. Knowing these have been prayed by others in other places for many years reminds me that my problems may be significant but they’re not the whole picture – and life, faith, the church, God will all go on even if I’m struggling. I remember one day going for a walk on a windswept beach, so depressed and stressed I could barely think … and I found tumbling out of me the words of liturgical prayers I’d been praying my whole life, that I didn’t know I’d memorised. They just embedded themselves in me, and came to the surface when I needed them most, unbidden.
I could go on, and may do so on another occasion, but that’s enough for now. To repeat – I know many people find some or all of the above in traditions other than Anglicanism. And all these strengths can also be weaknesses. But this is me.