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Monday, 7 April 2014

Having to take a break

Various pressures mean that I have to take a break from blogging at the moment. Hope that you'll stay connected as I hope to be back before too long.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Vulnerability and Intimacy

The healing journey is inter-connected with the devotional journey. The transparency and vulnerability that are part of the healing process are also necessary for intimacy. It is impossible to have intimacy without vulnerability. And God takes the first steps to teach us this. Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, writes:
'Most people in my experience are still into fearing God and controlling God instead of loving God. They never really knew it was possible, given the power equation. When one party has all the power - which is most people's definition of God - all you can do is fear and try to control. 
The only way that can be changed is for God, from God's side, to change the power equation and invite us into a world of mutuality and vulnerability. Our living image of that power change is called Jesus! In him, God took the imitative to overcome our fear, our need to manipulate God and make honest Divine relationship possible.'
The incarnation is, among other things, about the vulnerability of God for the sake of intimacy with us. It is God's humility enabling such intimacy. For God to become a babe in arms, a child who had to grow and learn and submit to the aid of others, and live life in this messy, mundane and painful world is in itself amazing. That he also received our hatred and scorn, and was taken in our rough hands and nailed to a cross is the utmost in divine vulnerability. It is not only the basis of securing salvation. It is an invitation into vulnerability. And so into intimacy with God.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Guilt, Shame and Responsibility

When I first started hearing about and realising the need for the healing journey, I had to get over some quite strong reservations. For a start, I worried that it meant selling out to modern psychology rather than holding on to a biblical worldview. Isn't a lot of this stuff about 'inner healing' just a load of secular psychobabble? And doesn't it just keep us focused on, and even obsessed with, ourselves rather than on God and others? I was also influenced by my own tradition of conservative Christianity which often considered it to involve going 'soft on sin'. Painfully aware of my own faults and failures, I was concerned that it might lead me into a victim mindset rather than to appropriate guilt, repentance and taking personal responsibility to change my behavior. Instead I would focus on my own pain and brokenness and use them as an excuse for my behaviour.

Slowly I realised that although guilt may be the appropriate response at times, it easily and often gets wrapped up with shame and self-loathing. These emotions do nothing to change our behaviour and actually only erode the soul. In fact, shame is the cause of a lot of addictive and dysfunctional behaviour. Far from making us more other-centred, self-hatred actually keeps us focused on the self and seriously distorts our love for God and others. And I have to admit that, frankly, lots of heavy duty guilt and earnest attempts at repentance in the past had not secured much change in me - or many others I knew! I am now finding that a deeper appreciation of the truths of grace that I have preached for years, but which are now slowly seeping more deeply into my inner being than ever before, can offer real hope. A grace that doesn't shame us into change (or more likely into more hiding) but that enables us to take responsibility for our behaviour in the context of total acceptance and unconditional love. It is only such love that can enable us to have the vulnerability to be honest and the courage to take responsibility.

I recently read this article by Derek Flood which has really helped me to think through these things and summarizes the issues beautifully. It also shows that it's possible to value the insights that psychology can bring to understanding the dynamics of the spiritual life.

Monday, 24 February 2014

A Fresh Voice: Two Key Questions for Healing

I am resorting to stealing other people's material for my blog now! But given I have been thinking still about transparency-intimacy and the healing journey, I loved this when I read it today, from Frederick Buechner:
After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God came strolling through the cool of the day and asked them two questions: "Where are you?" and "What is this that you have done?" Psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and the like have been asking the same ones ever since."Where are you?" lays bare the present. Adam and Eve are in hiding, that's where they are. What is it they want to hide? From whom do they want to hide it? What does it cost them to hide it? Why are they so unhappy with things as they are that they are trying to conceal it from the world by hiding, and from themselves by covering their nakedness with aprons?What is this that you have done?" lays bare the past. What did they do to get this way? What did they hope would happen by doing it? What did they fear would happen? What did the serpent do? What was it that made them so ashamed?God is described as cursing them then, but in view of his actions at the end of the story and right on through the end of the New Testament, it seems less a matter of vindictively inflicting them with the consequences than of honestly confronting them with the consequences. Because of who they are and what they have done, this is the result. There is no undoing it. There is no going back to the garden.But then comes the end of the story, where God with his own hands makes them garments of skins and clothes them. It is the most moving part of the story. They can't go back, but they can go forward clothed in a new way — clothed, that is, not in the sense of having their old defenses again, behind which to hide who they are and what they have done, but in the sense of having a new understanding of who they are and a new strength to draw on for what lies before them to do now.Many therapists wouldn't touch biblical teachings with a ten-foot pole, but in their own way, and at their best, they are often following them.- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words
It is only in recent months that I have begun to learn from writer and pastor-theologian Fredrick Buechner, mainly by way of the website devoted to his work, and a few extracts. I still have only sipped from his work, and must soon take a good gulp. But it's good to taste fresh waters, to hear fresh voices.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Can we know...any human heart?

I suggested in my last post that we cannot know our own hearts. That is why we have to ask God to search it for us. One thing we can know for sure about ourselves is that our hearts are deceitful (Jer.17:9) - this is not so much about wickedness or total depravity, but simply the universal tendency to fool ourselves, to believe our own publicity, to hide behind our self-made masks. (And we can't duck out of this so easily by supposing the new heart we receive as part of the new covenant deal removes this tendency automatically or immediately - even a cursory reading of the New Testament should remove that illusion). I share this not to encourage despair in ourselves but dependence on God and mercy towards each other. It need not discourage transparency because part of transparency is acknowledging this tendency in a frank, open-hearted and good-humoured way. True intimate friendship with God (because he is the kind of friend who can inflict the loving wounds that reveal our folly) is the best protection against this self-delusion.

But this reflection over recent months has caused me to think more about the greater foolishness when we suppose we can know and judge what is going on in another human heart. Some of us have often done this in the past and called it 'discernment'. And when we told the said person what we thought was going on in their heart we called it 'speaking into their lives.' I am not talking about mutual instruction and encouragement in God's good ways, or even godly confrontation when a friend's actions, words, or blatantly obvious bad attitudes are causing them to fall far short of their true identity in Christ. I am talking abut those times when we presume to know and judge what is going on in another human heart - despite its complexity, messiness, ambiguity and depth. When we do this it is like presuming to do keyhole surgery with a machete or broad sword. I have had this done to me and I know I have also done it to others in the past.

And every time we say 'well they are only saying that because....' or 'that's just typical of them' we are indulging in it. You may sometimes be right about a person's weakness of shortfall, but that is not the point. There may well be a problem that requires surgery but that does not qualify you to conduct the operation. And it does not take great wisdom to see weakness; it is the ability to see beyond the weakness to the amazing potential within that is true wisdom. There may be a precious few friends who invite us to help them try to understand what is going on in their internal worlds and, if they do, we should tremble as we tread on to this holy ground. I cringe when I think of the times that I have stomped over the hearts of others and still smart from the times others did it to me. 

What if we could create communities when all we did was love each other unconditionally and just looked for the best in each other, largely ignoring the faults and weaknesses, and certainly not supposing we can know what was going on in people's hearts? What if our default response was just to encourage the good that we see, with the confidence that such kindness, encouragement and grace was the best way to disinfect our environments so that people felt able to open their hearts and allow the divine surgeon to do the operating.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Searching the Heart - Wounds and Idols

I suggested in my last post that transparency involves laying our hearts open before God. In fact, DIY open heart surgery is probably not a good idea. We have to put ourselves in the hands of the divine heart surgeon. In response to my last post, John referred to Ps.139:1, 23-24. I have thought about those verses quite a lot over the last few months. I have realised afresh that we cannot really know our own hearts, even when we think we do. That is why we need God to search them (we can't know other people's hearts either and that's really important but the subject for another post).

The great thing is that he has searched us (v.1) and is not shocked, offended or intimidated by what he finds. In fact, as the rest of the Psalm shows, knowing everything about us he still pursues us in love, even when we try to flee from him into our own darkness (vv.11-12). And when we finally realise that we do not really know ourselves and ask him to search us, we do so perhaps still in fear that he might find something unexpected that causes him to recoil in disapproval and offence; and so the translators write 'see if there is any evil/wicked/offensive way in me'. In fact the Hebrew word so translated is a word, Strong tells us, that can be translated - 'idol' or 'pain'. We are conscious of our sin and failure, but I find that when God does the searching, the deep heart surgery, this is what he uncovers:

  • wounds - the pain from stuff that has hurt us, some self-inflicted and some not, but which causes us to be sensitive, reactive, to hide or to flee; he wants to heal those wounds.
  • idols - the things that we lock on to and use to try to get our sense of significance or security from instead of God; they are the counterfeit gods that in fear or foolish self-centredness we try to replace God with in our hearts; he loves us too much to allow such worthless idols to remain.
Whether it is the cauterising of wounds or the burning up of idols, we sometimes experience the fires of his holy love in the intimacy and transparency of this divine heart surgery. But make no mistake it is his love we are experiencing - the holy and painful love of the one who searches us and knows us, and still loves us with an undying love.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Transparency - a Key to Intimacy

I guess my last few posts have still been under the general 'category heading' of the healing journey that I have been loosely blogging under since before Christmas. I also said I wanted to post a little on the devotional journey (see here for my my thoughts on the different journeys we are really all on). When it comes to the devotional journey, I am really speaking about growing in increasing intimacy with God. And this connects so readily to the issue of transparency that I have said something about in the last couple of posts.

I have always valued the idea (and some experience - not enough!) of walking with God. Just that phrase makes me catch my breath. The picture of God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day in Eden stirs my inner embers. And of Enoch who walked with God and then was not! Feel the shivers in the spine! To walk through life with God as our most intimate friend has always been at the heart of what it's all about as far as I can see (though I have been distracted and drifted from the simplicity of this far too many times!). I love that phrase in Job:
'...God's intimate friendship blessed my house'   (Job 29:4)
But I think I have too often seen intimacy only in terms of the shivers down the spine experience, the precious moments of expressing our love to God in worship, the times when I have felt the thrill of his presence. These are good and vital of course. But I have been learning over the last year or so that actually intimacy between friends (including God) is at least partly developed through the three key ingredients of time, trust and transparency. It must mean being real with God about how we feel and where things are at for us. Pretense makes intimacy impossible. God just cries 'where are you?' when we hide behind our 'shoulds' and 'oughts' and 'supposed tos', our 'worship times'and 'spiritual disciplines', our happy, holy faces. He so wants us to be real before him. He wants us to lay our hearts and life open before him in all their beautiful mess and holy muddle. How else do you explain so many of the Psalms? True transformation surely only comes to the transparent. Or am I missing something?

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Whispers of Grace

Still thinking about transparency. True, authentic transparency can only be sustained in an environment of grace. If we begin to crack open our hearts and find only judgement, disapproval, pity or tired and glib religious 'answers' we soon draw back again. Unless we, in our churches, cultivate an environment of true gospel-like, Jesus-like grace, transparency cannot survive for long.

I recently came across this beautiful poem about grace on the blog of a new friend, Geoff Chapman. It is by Mark Greene (of LICC). I think you will like it. I love it:

Whispers of Grace
With a tremor of its wafer wing,
They say, a butterfly in Bejiing
Can, in time, spin a tornado
across the Kansas plain.
Or hurl a tidal wave booming
into Carolina’s tranquil bays.
So, what then of a kiss for the dying,
An embrace for the untouched.
Or a tenderness to the crushed?
What of a whisper of grace,
A word of love unfurled,
Or a door to truth flung wide?
Will not these unwind the twisted heart
And still the waves of endless whys?
Is this not the fountain spray
That soars through time
And splashes eternity
in our eyes?    
– Mark Greene

Friday, 31 January 2014

The Journey Inward

If I see or sense anything about what God is doing in our time, I see and hear a growing desire for authenticity - and the necessary transparency that involves. We don't want to bear the crushing weight of pretense anymore, or of hiding, or of keeping up appearances. Many of us find we want to - have to - be much more open and honest about our brokenness and weakness. While not without its dangers, and while it has to be negotiated carefully, sensitively and wisely, it is refreshing and liberating to witness such transparency, especially when it comes from leaders and those in 'ministry' who perhaps some thought were meant to have it all together (they often thought so as well and that was part of the struggle!). That's why I am so impressed and blessed by people who are bravely beginning to talk openly about their struggles with 'mental illness' and depression, for example, - people like  my friends Mark Lawrence and Andrea Selley. I honour them for their courage and honesty.

For those of us who, for whatever reason, have felt that this was not possible, or not permissible, in the past, it's a challenge. It's disconcerting at the same time as it is liberating. It lifts off a burden, yet leaves us still uncertain in our steps. But the intimacy of relationships we desire is impossible without it. And authenticity of faith demands it.

I have found that it starts not first with transparency toward others but toward oneself and to God. It means facing up to the truth about yourself. And I don't mean beating yourself up about what you think are your faults. It's much deeper than that. And healthy! A former United Nations secretary general once suggested that although humankind had achieved amazing feats of exploring outer space, we were not very good at understanding our own inner space. He wrote, 'The longest journey of any person is the journey inward.' (Dag Hammarskjold). The old and familiar adage - 'know yourself' - is still so true. Like Adam and Eve, we too easily want to cover our nakedness when God comes looking for relationship with us. That is why the uncovering must come from a place of discovering  we are dearly loved children of God.
The knowledge that I stand before God as his beloved...has freed me to explore some of the most disturbing and dark aspects of who I am. (Peter Scazzero).
And the wonderful thing is that we then find that even the darkness is as light to him (Ps.139:11-12). In what we thought were the darkest corners of our soul, the light of his love is there.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A little poetry then...

I had hoped to post again tonight but ran out of time as other writing tasks took over. But as the responses to my last post (on Facebook) led to a reflection that what I was saying was partly a recognition of the value of the poetic imagination for capturing true insights, I thought I'd post a bit of poetry instead (not mine; I wouldn't inflict that on you). Like the line quoted in the last post the following is taken from Tennyson's In Memoriam. It is a long and hard-going poem to be honest, but there are some great passages. This is one that helped me to understand that doubt is not the terrible thing that I once thought it to be.

“Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gather'd strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone,” 

Monday, 27 January 2014

Awakened to Astonishment

I have not blogged for days. And partly because I have not felt like it. Not felt the urge. Not felt I had anything to say. This is partly down to pressures - external and internal. But also reluctance. I have been asking myself why. And I was reading something by Catholic priest and writer, Richard Rohr, about reading the Bible. And he quotes something by a guy called Eugene Ionesco which hit me between the eyes. It said:
'Over-explanation separates us from astonishment.'
 That's it, I thought. I am trying to blog about a journey and what I think God is doing, and about what I am learning. And the instincts of the teacher in me make me want to explain. But what do I know really? Because actually 'the wind blows where it wants. And we don't know where it's going.'  If we're not too asleep, we may get to feel the freshness of the breeze, or hear the sound of rustling in the leaves of the trees; and maybe, if we're really alert, we get to ride this wind and be taken to new places on our journey. But trying to explain exactly what is happening and how we got there is like trying to trace the contours of the wind.

Now I do like theological writing (see Pentecostal Pilgrim) which tries to explain and wrestle with various ideas about God's revelation, but this is often about getting clearer about what God has said (in Christ, Scripture and Nature) and the processes by which we can know with some confidence. But when it comes to trying to realise what God is saying (and doing) it's different. And requires a different approach. I realised that the writing that has spoken to me most recently and that helps me on my spiritual journey is not that which tries to explain stuff. It's that which captures and shares occasional thoughts and insights. Especially those that come from personal and present experience. And they just make a tiny but precious contribution to the mosaic of truth and revelation. They help us to understand something of this heaven that is breaking in upon earth, but don't try to explain the big picture or how it all fits together. Often we just can't see that. I am realising that this better world and better way I look for (God's beautiful, different kingdom) may well come in these little snatches of insight, broken patches of revelation as we strain to see through a glass darkly. And that's OK. This kingdom comes not in words only but in miracles - and 'miracles' are not just the healing, or the angelic visitation, but the many, various, easily missed ways that God moves in our ordinary lives.

This is more the way Jesus taught: small parables, sayings, illustrations and stories together with demonstrations of power and compassion that provoked people to think, question, hope, follow. They were thought-seeds planted like bombs that would finally detonate to blow us out of our assumptions, our familiar ways of seeing, our 'little systems' as one poet called them - 'the petty cobwebs we have spun.' His words and deeds astonish us out of familiarity and awaken us to truth; over-explanation just sends us back into the sleep of the complacent.

When I do write something here, then, from now on, it will probably be just a broken patch of reflection, not an attempt at explanation. I hope not so much to provide answers but to provoke more questions. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

Triumphalism and the Healing Journey

In the charismatic and house church movements that I grew up in (as a Christian) Paul's first letter to the Corinthians was required reading. It covered the gifts of the Spirit, the age to come, the functioning of the church, body-ministry, apostolic authority etc. (Funnily enough, I don’t remember hearing  much from the thirteenth chapter). Paul's second letter to the Corinthians was often left in the shadows. But over the years this letter has grown to be a favourite of  mine. And more recently it's message has resonated more than ever.

Here of course we have the reference to the new creation (5:17). And to the new covenant and its promise of glorious transformation by the Spirit (chp 3). And there we find a verse that was much quoted among us:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. (2 Cor. 2:14)

The idea of the victorious church, the triumphant gospel, and the glorious advance of the kingdom has been the bread and butter of the restorationist movement. And I believe it. And it's a welcome corrective to a negative and defeatist spirituality. But if we misunderstand it or see only its surface meaning, it can do more harm than good. For in this letter we also see Paul at his most transparent, where he admits to getting to the point where he despaired almost of life itself (1:8-9). And where he speaks honestly about the glory of this message, power and new life being placed in fragile clay pots (4:7). We are moved by the strange beauty of the passage about power made perfect in weakness (chp.12). And impressed by how the claims and assertions of the super-apostles are met with the meekness and gentleness of Christ, which have the greater power (10:1f). 

This juxtaposition of power and weakness, of triumph and trial, of death and life so evident in this letter is so important for understanding the gospel, this life and salvation, this kingdom we have received. Otherwise our faith and hope in power, triumph and resurrection become empty triumphalism. One problem with triumphalism is that it hinders the healing journey in that it breeds unreality and denial, a lack of honesty and transparency with ourselves and each other  - and reality and authenticity are essential for the healing journey. But what is worse, it denies the essential truth of this gospel of the kingdom. Jesus won through a cross. The glory came through suffering. This is what makes the fragrance so sweet. And this is why the recurring theme of this blog is that at the heart of this different kingdom is a cross. It helps with the healing too. I'd encourage you to re-read 2 Corinthians. 

Thursday, 9 January 2014

No Fragment Lost

And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, "Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost." (Joh 6:12)
I was reading something today by C. Baxter-Kruger when he drew attention to this verse in a way I had not seen before. He was using it to illustrate how God is concerned with every created thing such that even everything in the fallen creation is not wasted but is gathered up by God and, in his hands, redeemed, included, made useful, transfigured, made to count. Nothing is lost. Nothing is wasted. Every broken piece, every fragment gets to take part in the miracle.

It helped me read this account again with new eyes. Jesus is not worried about mess; he's not just a fussy, tidy-minded kind of person that wants it all put away neatly. Jesus is not OCD. He's not Mary Poppins - 'everything in its place.' Nor is he trying to show off just how big the miracle is: 'watch this, 12 baskets, da dah!!'  I think God breathed this beautiful phrase into the pages of Scripture as a vital message hidden in the open: every broken person, every fragmented soul, every person who feels like the leftovers, can get to be included in his Body. Gets to be part of the miracle. And every fragment of our brokenness, of our wounds, our mess, our failures, will not be wasted. God seals the cracks with his gold. Nothing is lost. He gathers it all up in his hands to include, to restore and then to feed others with the grace overflowing from restored lives. This simple, seemingly throwaway instruction to his disciples (we get to be part of the restoration process of others as well as our own) expresses the largeness of the heart of God to bless, to include, to heal, to redeem, to make useful again. It speaks of his desire and ability to make everything able to express the glory and the beauty of his grace. Jesus, thank you.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Glory in Broken Pots

As I have begun reflecting on the healing journey, I realise that I have started with what was basically a theological and biblical reflection (on 'new creation' in 2 Cor.5:17). That's the default direction of my mind I guess but I also see the value and importance of thinking devotionally and practically (how does this affect my heart and life, and my walk with God?). And one thing that is helping me in this respect is the recognition that God places the treasure of his new  life and glory in cracked and broken clay pots (see Jer.18:1-4, and 2 Cor.4:6-7). That has been a recurring theme for me over the last 12 months or so, and I am still slowly but gratefully trying to learn the truth of it. One thing that has really helped recently was an excellent article sent by Goos Vedder of Diakonia, in his most recent newsletter. I asked Goos for permission to reproduce it here and he kindly agreed, but I have now realised I can link to it directly - here it is and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I have included this picture from it here as I love it and want it on my blog! The idea that God seals our wounds and broken bits with his gold is a stunningly beautiful truth. Thank you for the article, Goos!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

A Little More on New Creation for the New Year.

Happy New Year! It seems appropriate to say a little more on the truth of new creation as the new year begins. 

I have suggested that the truth of new creation is more about living from a whole new order (that of the kingdom, which is the life, power, perspective, and values of heaven/the age to come) as opposed to the old order of this present and passing age. I do think that this includes new life in the sense of a change in our identity and even our essential nature as Christians (2 Pet.1:3-4). It is a fulfilling of the promise of the new covenant for a new heart and new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-7). But the problem is that we think of this like some kind of organ transplant. And then we have difficulty when we then still act like we did in the old life - did something go wrong with the surgery? It is best rather to think of it as becoming connected to a new source of life - resurrection life, eternal life, the life of the age to come or new creation life - that begins to gradually form new patterns within us.

It is still possible to be drawn back to the pattern of the old order, the world; or to live by the flesh (the old power, pattern and priorities of the self-life lived in independence of God). The old way of life left behind its habit patterns, its distorted thinking and damaged emotions. And so we have to go on a journey of learning to live from a new source and by a new pattern of life. Far from assuming that our old habits are automatically dead and gone, we will often need to acknowledge our broken and damaged  pieces and allow the grace of God in this new spiritual life to heal and change us. It's like a river carving out a new course; it takes time and patience, and sometimes painful honesty. But this is far better than denial or trying to pretend-believe (fake it 'til we make it). And every stage of the journey is glory! (2 Cor.3:18).

Part of the new perspective of this new and different kingdom life is this: God uses broken people, he places the glory of this new life in cracked and broken vessels. More on this in the next post.