One Thing I Do Know

He has had a miserable life.

To be born blind in first-century Jerusalem is a prison sentence. Dependent on his parents to guide him to the side of the road, he spend his days there begging. He is cut off from visual stimulation, but well able to hear the gossips’ confident affirmations that his sin has caused his condition. Or maybe it was his parents’ sin. He is deemed unclean.

And then the chance encounter, one ordinary weekend. The man who touches his face, actually touches him, where others have only shrunk away. The mist clears. He sees a tree, a wall, his house. He sees his mother and father for the first time. And everyone is incredulous, everyone is twittering, even the religious leaders are suddenly condescending to speak to him, asking him what happened? How were his eyes opened? Who is this Jesus who seems to have restored his sight?

And he is lost for an explanation. Has to admit he doesn’t know. But he is able to say: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

***

The healing of the blind man in John 9 is a very creative miracle. Touching someone deemed unclean shows Jesus’ compassion, his identification with our problems. And to release someone from congenital blindness shows compassion in abundance, more grace than we can imagine. So compassionate is our God, that he makes the impossible possible.

The formerly blind man’s ‘now I see’ in verse 15 ushers in a new perspective. The neighbours may gossip, the Pharisees may fuss and control. But his  perspective is changed forever. Now I see.

Jesus is still doing today what he did over two thousand years ago. Spend time in a Christian community, and you’ll see it everywhere. The drug user who has kicked his addiction. The lady who has just got up out of her wheelchair. The cancer that the doctor said was definitely going to take him away in three months – but didn’t. Even my son’s headache, just gone after a whispered prayer. Me, delivered from post-natal depression many years ago, not understanding what had happened, just that suddenly the impossible was possible. One thing we do know. We were blind – but now we see.

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Religion vs. relationship

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Religion Relationship
Knowing about God Knowing God
“I’m doing this out of duty” “I’m doing this out of love”
Justification by works Justification by faith (Galatians 2:16)
Powered by human frailty Powered by God’s strength
Stagnation Continual growth
All about pleasing people All about the God who’s already well pleased with you
Guilt Grace
Concerns your outward appearance (Matthew 23:25-28) Concerns your heart
Destructive Creative
Yoke of slavery Freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1)
Status Servanthood
Rules and rituals Faith
Comparison Humility (Luke 18:9-14)
Being a doormat for others Serving others out of your secure identity as a child of the King
Withering up Bearing good fruit (John 15:1-17)
Stumbling about in the darkness Following Jesus, the light of the world (John 8:12)
Laws and legalism Justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23)
Steal, kill and destroy Life to the full (John 10:10)

We’re going on a God hunt


Hello, long-neglected blog!

Well, the summer holidays happened… and even after F went back to school in September, life happened! In a good way – but nevertheless it’s good to be back in the study writing this.

We had a good summer, if marked as usual by a bit of a low in my emotional health towards the end of the holidays, and readiness to re-start September routines. It turned out to be OK and manageable though, and I was encouraged to find I can keep using simple tools to cope in the midst of change, both in terms of F getting older now and in terms of much more serious things going on elsewhere in the world which I know break God’s heart even more than mine. Thank God that he has a plan for redemption.

A big highlight of the summer for me and F, which took place in the earlier and more enthusiastic part of the holidays, was once again our local church’s holiday club. This year our theme was “Giants of Faith” (oh and I recall there was a side-theme too, something to do with some grannies and their gang, but don’t tell David Walliams!). We looked at the lives of men and women from the Old Testament whose unrelenting trust in God spurred them on to do amazing things. The stories of Daniel, Esther, Rahab, Ruth and David are familiar to me now, but as we looked at these stories together with the children I was struck once again by these people’s perseverance, their active choosing to “earnestly seek” their God (Hebrews 11:6). And time and again I was struck by the fact that as well as persevering and actively choosing, they were all so expectant that they would find him! And yes, they all experienced the first part of that verse to be true: “…he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Earnestly seek him

Over the weeks following this holiday club, when we were away on holiday, a precious friend lent me the book “God Hunting” by Jo Swinney to read. It was a very thought-provoking companion to me. Jo’s thesis relates closely to Hebrews 11 – she rationalises that yes, it can be hard to get to know someone who’s “temporarily invisible”, but the Biblical truth is that if you seek him, he will be found by you. The book journals a challenge she set herself: to trial one spiritual discipline per month (prayer, fasting, Bible study, worship, solitude and simplicity). Now for me, my prayer and fasting lives have been utterly jump-started since reading the book, and I’d recommend it very much. But what struck me most, as it did at the holiday club, was that when a person actively goes on a God-hunt, it seems it’s very hard, if not impossible, not to find him!

Something that has always amazed me since my own meeting with God is the unfettered access we have to him that Jesus has made possible for us. We can actually “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Maybe this is mind-boggling to me because I went to Catholic churches when I was growing up. These churches emphasised God’s transcendence, quite rightly, but sadly they neglected to focus on his immanence, his personal proximity to each of us. The Bible (which wasn’t a book I ever saw in any of these Catholic churches) actually speaks of a God whose heart’s desire is relationship with those he created. See Psalm 139, for example.
And the Bible also speaks of what happens when we seek that relationship: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). In Matthew 13 we read Jesus’ parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” God keeps his promises – if you seek him, he will be found by you.

Finding
When I became a Christian four or five years ago, I had been thinking for a while that it might help me to find God – but I have to say, I had no idea how! Preachers at churches I’d been part of talked of “coming to Jesus” and while that sounded appealing I had no idea what it looked like in practice. The stress on God’s transcendence, the image of an old man enthroned on high and untouchable, was too entrenched. Then one evening at a carol service another preacher mentioned “coming to Jesus”. A preacher who led a large, lively, exciting church where people receive excellent Bible teaching and are encouraged to apply it to everyday life, not just Sundays. Of course, I didn’t know that then. When I went to a service at this church after the carol service, I just liked the contemporary band music (they called it ‘worship’), and the fact that one-year-old F could run around during the service and play with new toys. Then I joined a group attached to this church, one of many groups meeting at people’s homes during the week. I was surprised to find that people prayed for each other at it. They prayed for practical things like health, and their children’s first days at nursery. (I asked them to pray for my own ailment, and saw healing. It was inexplicable, and like the hapless blind man in John 9 whose sight was instantly restored by Jesus’ compassionate touch, all I can say to anyone who asks me what happened is that I was ill, and then I was well. I have no other answer). They prayed before they ate, before they did anything, large or small. They also read Bibles, had their own copies. I bought one. The leader of the house group bought me a book called a devotional as a present, that helped me read this Bible on my own at home. Apparently that was something else people did to seek God. I felt anyway that I had glimpsed him by now. For one thing I had been ill and now I was fine. For another I had got into the habit of going to the church every Sunday. In the past I’d found it hard taking F to church on my own, but here people just wanted to help me. I won’t lie and pretend we didn’t still have days when just getting out of the front door seemed a hurdle (we still do sometimes!); but the difference was that having encountered Jesus once, I keenly wanted to see him again. F went to a fun children’s group during the service and I could listen to talks based on there Bible, talks which turned out to be focused on practical application, rather than abstract theological concepts. I had had no idea the God of the Bible had been so close to me all the time and was interested in the nitty-gritty of my life. My friends with young children talked about “not using my brain any more” but mine was cartwheeling, and still is. F and I were starting to have our own pattern of Bible times at home too, using fun materials recommended by the leader of the house group, who herself had young children. All the members of that particular house group had young children -the group had a creche thanks to the generosity of people in the church volunteering to run it – and the arrival of people’s second or third babies led to other things I’d never seen before. Babies and families were prayed for, meals were cooked, houses were cleaned, older children were cared for. Friends and communities outside the church were being served too, with toddler groups, acts of kindness, and a plethora of community activities. I started to take on a few responsibilities. One day a few months after that carol service, the preacher said something about “knowing” God as opposed to “knowing about” God. He asked a roomful of people to identify the moment in their lives when they realised they had moved from the former point to the latter. I felt as if I’d just woken up, having fallen asleep on a train. Woken up to find myself in a totally new country. I knew him now.
… I think you can probably guess, from things I’ve blogged about in the past, how this all worked out for me eventually and the journey that I’ve been on! Five years ago, I embarked on a hunt for God and I found him. It started with a fantastic faith community, amongst new friends who are now deep-seated friends. (And it definitely helped me to settle down to ONE church and get there regularly – although I’m now involved in ministry at other churches, it was good for me to find a main spiritual home to belong in). As Jo Swinney found too, albeit at a much later stage in her walk with God, spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading and worshipping opened the door for the work of the Holy Spirit in and through me. For Jo as a more mature Christian they just opened the door wider (there’s always more to discover!) and for me five years ago they made Jesus’ sacrifice real for me for the first time. I’m privileged to now be involved in some of the church ministries which so helped me at first – life “to the full” (John 10:10) for sure – and this has happened because I met the person I set out to meet, and now I’ll never be the same. Turns out the chaotic pushchair dashes to church, the days when I was Just Too Busy to read my Bible, the things I forgot to pray about, were nothing to worry about. God could and did fill in the gaps. “He rewards those who earnestly seek him”  (Hebrews 11:6). Expect it!

Happy hunting…

Standing in the gap

Comfort blanket

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Freddie’s “shoo shoo” is his oldest companion. The nickname we give his comfort blanket has stuck, ever since he had trouble pronouncing the word “muslin” as a baby. He has even assigned shoo-shoo a gender (female, since you ask). Shoo-shoo (and – psst! – her washing-day duplicate) enjoy a level of favour in the eye of Freddie that his mere parents can only dream of. Woe betide us if we forget to bring her on an overnight trip!  Where Freddie is, shoo-shoo won’t be far away.

Aren’t we all a little bit like that? We feel safer with the physical, with what we can see and touch. Like Thomas, the disciple who famously refused to believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he had seen the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and stuck his fingers right into those wounds (John 20:25), we trust in what we see and touch. The Bible advocates living “by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), but our hearts yearn and strain to live by sight.

Steal, kill and destroy

I recently attended a Christian conference at a major entertainment venue. With 7,000 Christians worshipping together, it was great! I returned home feeling unburdened, strengthened, and surrounded by God’s grace and goodness (don’t hate though – read the next part!). I also returned home to four different communications from four different friends who had been affected by very adverse circumstances and were in need of prayer. Now, I want to suggest that it perhaps isn’t surprising that this sad news followed the conference. Why do I think that?

Friends, there is an enemy out there. Jesus warns in John 10:10 that this enemy “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (that’s right, just before he says the words which underpin this blog: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”). I want to suggest that the enemy was terrified by this Christian conference I attended! I’m certain nothing scares him more than thousands of sisters in Christ (the fact they were all women is perhaps significant too) seeking to know Jesus and then being sent out to make him known. So, working through circumstances, I suspect the devil set up these situations in the lives of my friends – situations which in the natural did not look good. Similarly, on Good Friday when Jesus was crucified, everything looked in the natural to be hopeless. Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah but he underwent the execution of a criminal, mocked by others as nothing more than pathetic. It seemed everything was lost.

Then came Easter Sunday.

Standing in the gap

Jesus’ resurrection teaches that when things look bad, there is, quite simply, more going on than what we see. Whether it’s a massive issue affecting millions of people across the world, or the sorrow of a loved one’s suffering – there is always hope that good will overcome evil. And perhaps when victory is in the air, as it was at this conference, there’s a push from the dark side to discourage us. If we’re vulnerable enough, such discouragement may cause us to give up. But what on earth are we afraid of?! We serve a God who is bigger, stronger. That same power and authority that caused Jesus to rise from the dead is available to us now, to restore our adverse situations. In fact, I can “see” God working right now to bring about restoration for each of my friends, and I will continue to pray he will turn things around for them as he did on Good Friday. I’m certain it’s not God’s will for any of these individuals to fight their battles forever – on the contrary, 1 Peter 1 states that God gives “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead […] an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade […] though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (emphasis mine). During this little while, while we wait for Jesus to return, or to call our suffering friends home – whichever comes first – you and I have an opportunity  to stand in the gap between brokenness and wholeness, between the now and the not-yet, and pray God’s will over these situations. The Bible commands us to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) which is why it’s so important that we live in community – as part of a loving church – so we can love each other in this way.

Which brings us back to Freddie and his shoo-shoo. We can only stand in the gap when we live by faith and not by sight. We may want to cling to what we see, even when what we see is broken and scarred and blemished (the shoo-shoo is pretty grubby, I can tell you! Attempts to wash it are met with what might tactfully be termed “negative feedback”). So, thank God that there is more to life than what we see! And actually, there is an object I can see in my study right now that I can place my confidence in – a Bible. Written by humans, divinely inspired by God (Timothy 3:16), studied for generations, it is a totally “trustworthy message” (Titus 1:9) about God’s good plans for us. It’s evidence I can rely on of a future hope.

Perhaps you’re reading this right now facing what looks like a hopeless situation in the life of someone you care about. Perhaps the situation on your heart is beyond your immediate community – a disaster in another part of the world. You want to intercede for those concerned, you desire for them to overcome, but you feel weary or helpless. I pray with you that those concerned would know how loved they are and discover the wonderful plans God has for their future (Jeremiah 29:11). May they be surrounded by a community who will carry their burdens and pray wholeness over them. May they know that thanks to Jesus’ death and resurrection the enemy is defeated – terminally. May they know that Jesus is constant and unchanging (Hebrews 13:8) throughout times of spiritual battle. And may you as the intercessor know that God delights in the fact that your heart for others reflects his! Remember, you have only to ask and this Jesus can lift your burden of weariness and give you peace.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Jesus, in Matthew 16:18)

 

The hidden cost of Happy

My six-year-old has, for some time now, been an enthusiast of the “Mister Men” series of picture books. The highs and lows in the lives of the characters portrayed have been a very entertaining feature of our lives, and for that I’m grateful. I must admit, though, that I haven’t warmed to the character of Mr. Happy. Now, I’m all for people making it their aim to bring cheer to other people, as Mr. Happy does – I don’t doubt that Mr. Miserable was all the jollier for their meeting(!). What jars with me is the sub-text that Happy is all you need, ever after. And the notion that it’s possible to feel Happy all the time.

I wonder if this is something we wrestle with if we live today in a comfortable and prosperous culture where Happy is prized. Where Happy is even set as a sort of life goal. Is Happy perching on the named cup you were given at a coffee shop? Is he in the pointlessly polite smile of the colleague who says “I hate to bother you…” even though s/he doesn’t really give a hoot? Is Happy beaming oh-so-flawlessly down from the TV advertisement for a holiday resort where everybody looks ridiculously… well, Happy, and nobody falls out with their family? What an unrealistic scenario. And because it’s an unrealistic scenario, some of us feel failures when we don’t achieve it. Pre-Happy, you knew it wasn’t the end of the world when a family holiday involved a few squabbles. You recognised that your family was imperfect like everyone else’s and moved on – without condemnation. Nowadays, Happy whispers “You’re completely rubbish; you’ve broken your family.” In this way, Happy robs life of its fullness. Happy has become a tyrant. In Luke 11, Jesus remarks that first-century Galilean ‘experts in the law’ were loading people down with burdens they could hardly carry because of their endless legalism. I believe that Happy is a cause of the same burdening in 21st-century Western societies.

It’s started to enter our conversations. People say they just want their children to be Happy – and I know exactly what they mean. I have a small godchild who is very giggly and smiley. I’m grateful for that. I delight in every chuckle, and I pray he would retain that great sense of humour as he grows! But more than that, I’ll be praying that the Lord would fill him to overflowing with joy. Joy is defined by the Chambers dictionary as “intense gladness; rapture, delight; rejoicing.” Joy is not the same as Happy, because Happy disappears when our circumstances or our mood take a turn for the worse. Joy is rather an ever-present contentment, an abiding confidence that all is well in our inmost being, irrespective of circumstances or mood. The day will come for my godchild, as it does for all of us, when circumstances or mood will empty the day of Happy. But joy is continually available; it can be known through thick and thin.

Joy, not Happy

How can we know joy? Well, when Jesus was born on earth two thousand years ago, his birth was announced by an angel to some shepherds, and one of the first things to come out of the angel’s mouth was “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Over thirty years later, Jesus died and rose to life again, and the initial reaction of the first two people who heard the news was joy (Matthew 28:8). According to Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Seeing as God has now poured out his Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17) then it follows that each fruit of the Spirit, joy included, is freely available to everyone who seeks. As we keep getting to know Jesus and his Word better, he will increase our joy.

Happy is undoubtedly a positive emotion, and I will still feel Happy when my loved ones are flourishing, when I’m spending time with my friends, when the sun is shining in our lovely local park, or when my mood is just “that way out”, as they say here in Yorkshire! It’s good to feel Happy. But when circumstances don’t deliver, I’m so privileged to be able to say that because I know Jesus, I can’t ever not know joy. Let’s desire it!

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

I know the one who…

I don’t know the answers to all my questions.

But I know the one who knows.

 

I can’t complete this task.

But I know the one who can.

 

I don’t feel particularly happy today.

But my joy is always complete (Deuteronomy 16:15). 

 

I don’t know how to parent.

But I know the one who does. 

 

I get side-tracked so easily.

But I know the one who embodies truth (John 14:6).

 

I’m not strong enough to do it.

But I know the one who strengthens with all power according to his glorious might (Colossians 1:11).

 

I can’t face this situation.

But I know the one who is surely with me always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Joy or bitterness?

Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Ruth 1:20)

In the Old Testament book of Ruth, a lady called Naomi (meaning pleasant) returns to her hometown of Bethlehem from a place called Moab, where she and her family have been living for a while. They had initially travelled there as refugees from famine – but the heartache didn’t end there. While in Moab, Naomi’s husband and sons have died. On arriving in Bethlehem (where food is now available again) Naomi tells her old friends there to call her Mara (meaning bitter). She goes on to say, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:21).

Grief and loss afflict us. The world we live in, for all its beauty, is fallen. Just as a path forks into two, we will probably all at some point have to decide whether we’re going to feel bitter or joyful. If you feel more bitterness than joy due to your circumstances, I get it.

But here’s the thing. Read to the end of the book. God restores Naomi. He does this through her daughter-in-law, Ruth. He provides Ruth with a lovely new husband, Boaz, who happens to be a “guardian-redeemer” of Naomi’s family (Old Testament-ese for someone obliged to redeem a relative who’s in dire straits). Naomi gets to enjoy grandmotherly babysitting duties for Ruth and Boaz’s baby, Obed – “Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him” (Ruth 4:16). Oh, and baby Obed ends up being the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king, David, whose bloodline paves the way for Jesus. (Just saying).

I’m not suggesting Boaz and Obed are substitutes for losing the husband and two children Naomi lost. But it seems like an outworking of the promises of restoration which God makes through Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah: “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).

God doesn’t make mistakes. I’m convinced he didn’t intend Naomi to experience the unimaginable pain of losing her husband and sons. I’m convinced, too, that he didn’t want me to feel so sad about not having more than one child. The problem, though, is bitterness. Bitterness can spring up reallllly easily and suddenly – just while I thought I was quite cosily feeling nice and sorry for myself – and its consequences can be so destructive (see Hebrews 12:15).

Bitterness causes us to take good things for granted. It blurs our vision so that our eyes can only see what we lack. Any blessings we’ve received seem to just be part of the furniture.

I’ve decided I don’t particularly want to spend the rest of my life entangled in this way. So today I have asked God to keep me from bitterness. Prayerful lists of “blessings for today and “things to be thankful for” can be briliant. God has been very, very good to us and a thankful heart is important. But it’s not just about circumstances. Even on the days when we can’t write “The sun is shining” or “I’m healthy” or “I have three brilliant children”, we can always write “Jesus is alive”.

Jesus is alive.

When the joy/bitterness path forks into two, this is what helps us choose joy.