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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.