A Mandate for Misery?

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Luke 6:20-23

This passage can almost read like a ‘Mandate for Misery’. Like Jesus is saying that there is something intrinsically good about being poor, hungry, and hated. I don’t think that is what is happening here. So let me offer a few thoughts.

It is important to note that Jesus is addressing his disciples. Ordinary men who have made a decision to follow Jesus. They have left their jobs and communities to be with Jesus on mission.

For most of them, their decision to follow Jesus is about to make their lives a lot worse. Instead of a steady job and a reliable income they will be in a precarious financial situation, either bi-vocational like St Paul, trying to earn money whilst also ministering, or dependent upon the charity of a Christian community that was often a community of the poor.

Instead of being respected and valued in their Jewish communities they will become outcasts, barred from the synagogue, shut off from their families, friends, and communities.

Many of them will end up being put to death for their Christian faith.

If you were to evaluate things only from the material aspect of life, following Jesus is a bad deal, it makes everything worse.

So, Jesus is here encouraging his disciples by showing them the longer view; the kingdom view.

Jesus is about to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, a whole new order; a Kingdom, which will only be fully expressed when Christ returns in glory. But when that kingdom comes, there are going to be a lot of reversals.

Those who have been in any way disadvantaged, who have suffered, who have lost out, because of their choosing to follow Jesus, will find that this sacrifice will be abundantly rewarded by God. In the end, it will prove to have been a good choice, a good investment.

In contrast, those who are too attached to this life and who will not invest themselves and their resources in the coming Kingdom, will find that ultimately, this is a bad decision. They may enjoy an easy life now – no sacrifices or difficulties. But when the Kingdom comes, they will find their situation dramatically reversed.

My Dad had an LP recording of a sketch by the British comedian Tony Hancock called ‘The Blood Donor’ – it’s hilarious, you can watch it here (https://youtu.be/niHr5jXEpNE).

In the waiting room about to give his first blood donation a man tries to impress those around him with his charitable giving. He has a little black book in which he records all his donations to good causes. He is trying to work out how much giving a pint of blood might be worth.

He explains his logic – when he dies and finds himself at heaven’s gates and St Peter asks him what he has done with his life, he will whip out his little book and say, ‘Here, add that lot up mate!’

Of course, it’s theological nonsense, you can’t buy salvation for the simple fact that we cannot give God anything He hasn’t first given us.

Also telling people about your charitable giving reveals mixed motives at best.

But there is a sense in which there is something true here.

The man is at least living in the light of the coming kingdom. He is using his resources in a way the coming King will approve of and may well reward.

Perhaps it is time for each of us to do a review.

How are we using our God-given time, talents, and resources? Are we investing them sufficiently in things that have Kingdom value? Or are we just using them for our own ease and short-term pleasures?

The Tree Grows as the Twig was Bent

I came across a great saying the other day,

‘The tree grows as the twig was bent.’

It was used in the context of raising children and highlighted the important of the early years in the formation of character.

I read somewhere that psychological research shows that by the age of 4 a child’s major character traits are already formed. So, whether a child is sociable, plays nicely with others, is kind considerate and caring; or whether they are a screaming ego-maniac, is already pretty well established by the age of 4.

Now, this is not unchangeable, but a baseline and a trajectory have been set and it will take long and consistent effort to alter that.

Certainly, there are also genetic predispositions that are at play, but ,in general, if we are well-adjusted, sociable children by the age of 4, this is something we receive as a gift from our parents – or not.

This made me think about whether this applies to spiritual formation too?

I think it does. I think we see enough material in the Bible telling us of things we need to practice in order to become the people God wants us to be – and the best version of ourselves will always be a Jesus-shaped version.

We have traditionally called these the spiritual disciplines. They come under two headings, disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement.

Disciplines of Abstinence are ways we abstain to some degree and for some time from the satisfaction of normal and legitimate desires – Solitude, Silence, Fasting, Frugality, Chastity, Secrecy, Sacrifice.

Disciplines of Engagement are designed to re-connect us with God – Study, Worship, Celebration, Service, Prayer, Fellowship, Confession, Submission.

As we undertake these disciplines, over extended lengths of time, with the Holy Spirit’s action at work at the deepest level of our being, transformation takes place that brings us to a new place in terms of our character and our spirituality.

So, whilst our general nature is a gift we receive from our parents, it is only a starting point for our own work of self-transformation.

Certainly, we do not undertake this work alone. The Holy Spirit is at work in us to do precisely this, and also, we should be part of a Christian community that supports us and encourages us, and challenges us, in this process.

The only things we take from this life to the next are the things we have done for God – our acts of love and obedience – and the character that we have worked to form in ourselves.

Or, more precisely, that the Holy Spirit has formed in us with our active cooperation.

And the tree grows as the twig was bent.

Jesus’ Secret for Success

It’s quite amazing when you think about it. Jesus left behind a small band of mostly uneducated fishermen and yet within 300 years the Christian faith had spread worldwide and become so significant that the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted it as the official religion of the whole empire.

Just think about that for a minute.

When I lived in France, in the Auxois valley our earliest saint, Saint Reine, was martyred in 251 A.D. I mean think about how amazing that is!

In an era with no electronic communication, no printing, no cars, and yet in around 200 years the Christian movement moves from being a small religious sect in Palestine, to changing hearts and lives in deepest Burgundy, France.

The big question is, how?

When we read the gospels we see that Jesus trained his disciples to carry on the work he had started. So they just continued to use Jesus’ method, and that method was incredibly successful.

So what was the method, what was Jesus’ secret for success?

Well we find it in a short passage from John’s gospel, where Jesus is explaining himself to his enemies, the religious leaders.

In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.

John 5:17-20

There are a couple of foundational principles here.

Firstly, Jesus states that it is God the Father who is the prime actor in mission – ‘My Father is always at his work’.

Secondly, Jesus states that he does nothing on his own initiative – ‘the Son does nothing by himself’ – everything Jesus does is in response to the activity of God the Father around him.

Thirdly, Jesus states his method. He waits for the Father to show the Son where He is at work – the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does’. And when Jesus recognises the Father’s activity he gets involved – ‘whatever the Father does the Son also does.’

That’s it, it’s that simple.

But how does it work out in practice?

If we look at the life of Jesus we can pull out a few examples of this process being put into action.

1 Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes people just come up to Jesus and ask him deep spiritual questions. In Mark 10:17-27 we have the story of a wealthy young man who comes up to Jesus and blurts out the question, ‘What must I do to have eternal life?’

Now that is not the sort of question that young, rich men generally ask. So it is a pretty big clue that God the Father is at work in this young man. So Jesus starts a conversation with him.

2 Some times spotting the activity of the Father is more tricky. In one story Jesus is walking along the road and crowds are pressing in on him and then he spots a wealthy man – recognisable by his rich clothing – halfway up a tree, because he was so desperate to see Jesus (Luke 19:1-10).

Now in the culture of the ancient Middle East men showed their status by their decorum. Important men didn’t walk quickly, they had a dignified and magisterial comportment.

So seeing a wealthy, powerful man, up in a tree was a sign that something odd was occurring. So Jesus goes over, invites himself to the man’s house and they have a spiritual conversation.

3 In another incident Jesus finds himself alone and thirsty sitting at a well (John 4:7-44). But in those times everyone brought their own rope and bucket so he cannot get any water for himself.

A woman arrives alone. Which is odd as it is the hottest part of the day and normally women came to draw water in the early morning. Jesus starts a conversation by asking for a drink. In the ensuing exchange it transpires that either this woman has either lived a very immoral life, or she has been drastically unlucky – she has had 5 husbands. Which means that either they all died one after the other, or they each divorced her (only men instigated divorce in the ancient world).

So this woman has either been deeply unluck, or she is a deeply flawed person, possibly immoral. So she comes to the well because she is probably ostracised by the other women as someone to avoid because they are cursed, or shunned because they are immoral.

So Jesus has spotted something odd in her behaviour and he has begun an exploratory conversation. The conversation leads to her coming to faith and she becomes the first evangelist – she goes back to her village and leads them all out to meet Jesus and many in the village come to faith.

Those three examples gives us an insight into the methodology of Jesus, Jesus’ secret for success. Pay attention, when you see evidence that God might be at work – people with questions, signs of spiritual interest, when you see behaviour that looks somehow unusual – start a conversation, ask a few questions, explore whether the Father is at work.

We see that Jesus prepared himself for ministry and sustained his ministry by a deep life of prayer. If we want to be as successful as Jesus and his disciples, then spending time with God in prayer, in meditation on scripture, in worship – these are the ways in which we sharpen our spiritual senses, how we can become more sensitive to be able to spot the activity of the Father around us.

But we have it from Jesus himself that ‘My Father is always at work’.

The question is, will we adopt Jesus secret for success and become the people who are capable of recognising that activity, and joining the Father in what He is doing?

The Second Terror of the Ninevites.

Image – Sphinx protecting the palace of Nineveh (700-695 B.C.) photo by Werner USTORF.

The Ninevites are remarkable in the Bible for having responded so fully to the prophecy of Jonah, which told them their cruelty and sinfulness was about to be punished by God.

This prophecy terrified them and they repented as an entire community – from the King in his palace to the cattle in the fields.

However, today I was reading a text from 1,600 years ago and I came across another terror that fell on the Ninevites, that I find quite disturbing.

The text was written by Ephrem the Syrian (born 306 A.D.) who was a brilliant theologian. We know from St Jerome (died 420 A.D.) that Ephrem was renowned as a scholar that his writings were widely used in churches.

One of his most famous writings is ‘The Repentance of Nineveh’ where he writes a theological poem on the response of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching.

Interestingly, Ephrem continues on after the book of Jonah ends and has Jonah, laden down with gifts and with an appreciative accompanying crowd of Ninevites returning to the land of Israel. These new converts are desperate to see what a godly society looks like.

However, as they approach, Jonah is full of foreboding. He knows that the land of Israel is full of idolatry, unfaithfulness and sin. He is fearful about what that view of the supposed ‘people of God’ will do the Ninevites, in their new-found faith.

He makes an excuse about why the Ninevites cannot enter the Promised Land and he leaves them. But, so they might at least look over the land, the Ninevites climb a hill. As they look down the Ninevites see Israel filled with sin in the Promised Land. Before them appears a horrific scene. Instead of harmony and devotion, they saw:

For there were altars upon the hills,

And images upon the high places.

Among the groves there was idolatry,

Among the oaks there was uncleanness.

Carved images were near their doors,

And as they entered they worshipped them.

Their idols’ were without number,

And their vices could not be reckoned.

By their fountains there were purifications,

And washings by their streams

Upon the housetops there were their statues

And their whoredoms in the gardens;

Soothsayers walked the streets,

And enchanters filled the ways.

English translation: H. Burgess, The Repentance of Nineveh, a metrical homily on the mission of Jonah, by Ephraem Syrus, London 1853; 10, 8-21.)

In this part of the text, Ephrem lists almost all of the Old Testament reports that talk about the sin of Israel. The country is filled with all sorts of sin, similar to ones described by the prophets. There, among other things, one can see how knowledgeable of the Scripture Ephrem was. The Ninevites, shocked and filled with terror by the sight, ask each other:

Is this the land of promise,

Or are we contemplating Sodom?

Is this the race of Abraham,

Or are we looking upon devils?

Are these we see men,

Or unsubstantial shadows.

The altars which we pulled down

Have obtained wings and fled hither!

(ibid. 10, 80-85.90-91)

The terrified Ninevites return to their country.

I wonder what new converts think as they look at the church that I am a part of?

Do they see real holiness of life; the spiritual disciplines being widely practised with great seriousness?

Do they see a community that really exemplifies God’s desire for his people and for his world?

Or does what they see terrify them?

(Adapted from RODOLJUB KUBAT, ‘Memra of Ephrem the Syrian of Jonah and the Repentance of the Ninevites’, pp193-210, 2015)

Trinity Changes Everything

Today is Trinity Sunday. Perhaps one of the most dreaded Sundays of the calendar for preachers. They spend the week in a state of high anxiety knowing that, on Sunday morning, they will have to preach on a subject that they know they don’t quite understand and which is fiendishly complicated to explain.

For congregations it can be quite fun. You get to watch a preacher squirming, sweating, and tying themselves up in knots trying to explain the inexplicable. Ans, as anyone who speaks about the Trinity for more than five minutes usually ends up saying something vaguely heretical, congregations with a theological education can happily amuse themselves playing ‘heresy bingo’. Identifying which heresies the preacher has fallen foul of this year.

Congregations without a theological background mostly let it all just fly over their heads and are none the wiser for the experience.

But if the doctrine of Trinity is so central to our faith, surely this can’t be right? Surely, if the Trinity is so important, then preaching about it should leave us strengthened in our faith, encouraged, inspired? Not baffled, bamboozled, and befuddled?

It was this motivation that led the Professor of Theology and Ministry at Durham, Mike HIGTON, to try to respond. To show that preaching about the Trinity didn’t require you to use complicated words and complex language, he decided to preach his entire sermon on the Trinity using words of only one syllable.

He also wanted to bring out the practical and real-life difference this doctrine makes in the life of the ordinary Christian. What does it mean, what difference does it make that our God is three in one? How are our lives changed because of this?

He preached this sermon on Trinity Sunday (27th May 2018) and it is a brilliant sermon and you can find the whole text online (http://www.stbrandon.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018-05-Trinity-Sermon.pdf).

I’d like to share with you the final paragraph of Professor Mike HIGAM’s sermon, where he pulls together all that the Trinity means and how it affects our life of faith;

‘So there is God, the one TO whom we pray, the one TO whom we look, the one TO whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made.
And then there is God BY OUR SIDE, God WITH whom we pray; God in the life of this man who SHARES OUR LIFE, this man who LIVES THE LIFE OF GOD BY OUR SIDE, and who pours out his life in love for us.
And then there is God IN OUR HEARTS, God IN our guts, God one more time, the stream IN which we dip our toes, the stream IN which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too and bear us in love back to our source.
The life of the ONE God meets us in all these THREE ways, and all that we meet in these THREE ways, has its roots deep, deep down in God’s life – all the way down in God’s life – in ways that our minds are not fit to grasp, in ways that break our words to bits.
ONE life, ONE love, ONE will, works through these THREE to meet us when we pray, to catch hold of us, to bear us up – and to take us home.
And that’s why our words for God need to stretch; one-bit words, it turns out, will not do on their own.
We call the SOURCE, the one TO whom we pray, God the Father.
And we call the ONE BY OUR SIDE, the one WITH whom we pray, God once more, Jesus.
And we call the ONE IN OUR HEARTS, the one IN whom we pray, God one more time, the Spirit.
And that is why we call this God – the God we meet when we pray, the God we know when we pray – that is why we call this God ‘three in one’; that is why we call our God, Trinity.’
I find that a very helpful way of thinking about the Trinity. In particular those last few lines, which perhaps bear repeating;
‘We call the SOURCE, the one TO whom we pray, God the Father.
And we call the ONE BY OUR SIDE, the one WITH whom we pray, God once more, Jesus.
And we call the ONE IN OUR HEARTS, the one IN whom we pray, God one more time, the Spirit.’

I think this is very helpful because it shows us how crucial the Trinity is to the Christian faith, it explains how we encounter God at the deepest level.

Often it is helpful to explore a concept by examining its reverse. It is interesting to do that with the Trinity.

Imagine that our God was only God the FATHER, GOD THE SOURCE. We would not have God the SON – the one who has shared our humanity, who has lived among us, who has demonstrated in his life, and described in his words what God is like. With only God the SOURCE, our God would be far off, abstract, unknowable, inaccessible.

But if we only had Jesus, God the SON, GOD BY OUR SIDE, where would be the sense of transcendence, majesty, all-powerfulness? Our God would seem quite small, quite provincial, less mysterious.

And if we only had God the SPIRIT, the ONE IN OUR HEARTS, that intangible sense of the divine presence within, how would we know what God was really like, how could we imagine ourselves relating to a God like that?

So we can see that the doctrine of the Trinity fundamentally shapes the Christian faith. It opens up a vision of God which is deep and rich and mysterious, but at the same time one which is demonstrated with utmost clarity in a completely human story. Not only that, but this God is not only something that we can know as an intellectual concept, but also something, someone we can also experience at the very core of our being.

That is why the doctrine of the Trinity shapes everything about the Christian faith. That is why we restate our belief in it each year, why we try to explore it afresh.

Professor HIGAM closed his sermon with a prayer;

‘O Lord our God,
help us to know you when we pray.
Help us to know you as the one TO whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one WITH whom we pray;
help us to know you as the one IN whom we pray.
Help us to know you, and to love you,
and to live our lives for you,
one God in three,
Holy Trinity. Amen.’

There is a Trinitarian blessing that I really like and which I pray for all those who will read this blog;

May God the Father DIRECT us,
may God the Son EQUIP us,
and may God the Holy Spirit EMPOWER us
and breathe life, truth, and grace into our every word. Amen

A Better Blood, A Better Word

Cain and Abel – Pen and ink sketch by Herbert MANDEL

Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:24

Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. They both offered sacrifices to God, but only Abel’s sacrifice was accepted. Cain was angry and jealous.

God speaks to Cain, asking why he is so upset?

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Genesis 4:6-7

Cain’s sacrifice was refused because there was something defective about it – probably his attitude of heart.

God warns Cain that his situation is perilous. He is at a moment of decision that will shape his whole life. Death and destruction lie in wait for him, ready to jump on him, he must be strong and make the right choice.

But Cain is weak and falls into the trap. He invites his unsuspecting brother out into the fields and kills him.

God then comes to Cain and asks him where Abel is?

Cain speaks the famous line, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

We read God’s response;

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

Genesis 4:10

So Abel’s spilled life-blood ‘speaks a word’, and it is a word of condemnation, a word of guilt for sin, a word that speaks of human tragedy, of the breaking of relationship with God, a word of cursing for the whole of one’s life.

In the verse from Hebrews 12 at the top of this post the ‘word’ spoken by the blood of Abel is contrasted with the blood of Christ which speaks a very different ‘word’.

Christ’s blood shed on the cross for us speaks a word of forgiveness for sin, of cleansing, of the re-establishment of the relationship with God, of blessing, of everlasting life, a word of grace not wrath.

Christ blood speaks a better word, a much better word.

Like Cain, we are presented with a choice. Will we accept all that is offered to us through Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross for us. Or will we ignore it, refuse it, reject it?

Listen to the better word spoken by the better blood.

The Holy Sunflower

I took the above photo in the village of Avoch on the Black Isle, north of Inverness in Scotland. On a somewhat overcast day there was a planting of sunflowers by the roadside that dazzled with their radiance.

Recently my wife was looking for some wall art for our home and decided this would look good as a poster. So I got a 40” by 30” print of it and it really does brighten up the room.

A priest friend of mine saw the image and shared with me that recently sunflowers have been something he has meditated on and found to be rich in spiritual symbolism.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, sunflowers are all about the sun. The orient themselves towards the sun, as it moves across the sky they raise their heads and follow. A phenomenon known as heliotropism

The symbolism to the life of the spirit is clear. We are made for God, by God, we exist in God. We are all about God as the sunflower is all about the sun.

As the sunflower raises its head towards the sun we are meant to orient ourselves towards God.

As the sunflower follows the arc of the sun across the sky we are meant to follow God’s leading and guiding, noticing when he has moved on and joining him in what he is doing. A continuous act of worship.

Also, when at night the sun disappears, the sunflower turns towards the east in anticipation of the sun’s rising.

The connection with Christian worship is clear. Churches are generally oriented East-West, so that when we worship we are facing East. The reason for this is that in the prophecies that speak of Christ’s return at the end of time he is said to come from the East. So symbolically we face East, as a reminder that this is our life’s destiny to be welcomed by Jesus into eternity, and as a helpful spur to make sure we are living in a way that Jesus would approve of.

Also, Christian burials are often oriented the same way. We die and lie facing East, again a symbol of the coming resurrection.

But the facing East is not just an individual act, it has benefits for others. Studies have shown sunflowers that sunflowers that face East attract five times as many pollinators as those who don’t. The reason is simple. Bees and other beneficial bugs love warmth and blossoms that face east warm up faster than those facing west.

Again, the spiritual symbolism is clear. As we orient our lives to God, as we live, speak, and act in ways that reflect God’s love we become more and more of a blessing to those around us. Our warmed hearts overflow into the lives of others.

So the sunflower is a great symbol for the spiritual life and offers us some key questions;

  • Are we oriented to God? Is every part of our life in line with God’s will?
  • Is each moment of our lives offered to God as an act of worship – do we work as worship, play as worship, love as worship, rest as worship?
  • Are we paying attention to when God moves so that we can follow him moment by moment? Are we noticing when God is at work around us and joining in with that activity?
  • Is our future hope centred on Jesus, are we living our lives in the light of our certain death, are we making choices that make sense in the light of eternity?

Learn from the holy sunflower.

The Four Directions of Danger

Psalm 107 is strongly associated with seafarers due to the references to the sea and sailing (vv23-32).

Some went out on the sea in ships;

they were merchants on the mighty waters.

They saw the works of the Lord,

his wonderful deeds in the deep.

Psalm 107:23

The Psalm talks of how, in that dangerous and unpredictable marine environment, God’s protection is experienced and known. So it is no surprise that those with strong connections to the sea find this psalm helpful and reassuring.

The marine setting is further expressed by the fact that this psalm is subtly based around the four points of the compass, it is a cardinal psalm. This is introduced with a reference to those God has,

gathered out of the lands from the east and from the west,

from the north and from the south

Psalm 107:3

(although ‘south’ should almost certainly have been translated ‘sea’, the Hebrew word for south and sea differ by only one letter but the sea was never to the South for the people of Israel, so this is probably a copyist’s error).

The rest of this psalm is covertly structured around the dangers that come at God’s people associated with the four cardinal points of the compass –

  • The dangers of the desert wastes to the East (vv4-9),
  • The dangers of the darkness of the setting sun in the West (vv10-16),
  • The dangers of the pagan nations to the North (vv17-22),
  • and the dangers of the sea (South) (vv23-32).

But whilst this psalm reprises the actual history of the people of Israel, it is also the story of every follower of God – the same dangers, associated with the four compass points, are encountered by us all.

The dangers to the East – of life in the desert – were very familiar to the people of Israel from the time of the Exodus when they wandered in the desert for 40 years. Figuratively it speaks of times of being in need, of having limited resources, of facing challenging circumstances, of times when we are spiritually or physically exposed and fragile.

The dangers to the West speak of the direction of the setting sun. In Hebrew culture this always conveyed the idea of night, of times of gloom and darkness, of moments when hope is in short supply.

The dangers to the North speak of the pagan nations who so often threatened Israel. Sometimes that threat was military, but most often is what the danger of their idolatrous religion infecting the nation. That is why the image of sickness is used. It was from the nations to the North that Israel was always tempted into worshipping other gods, such as Baal. This placing of something other than God at the centre of their lives – which is what idolatry is – is described as having physical consequences, making them ill and sick and near to death. When you place something other than God at the centre of your life it poisons everything.

The danger of the sea (South) – in Jewish culture the sea was always feared as a primeval place where God was felt to be less in control, and it was more the domain of demons and chaos. As such the Jewish people had an aversion to the sea. Such was their dislike that when King Solomon established a navy, he had to do a deal with the King of the Phoenicians to get sailors to man his ships. So, the danger of the sea speaks of evil forces assailing the follower of God.

Each cardinal point represents a danger for the people of God and the psalm treats each in turn where a repeating pattern is seen.

  • God’s people get into trouble. Sometimes because of their failure – ‘they went astray, they rebelled, they were foolish’ – and sometimes because they were simply doing something with an inherent risk factor – ‘they went out on the sea in ships’.
  • They then experience suffering of some kind and find themselves in mortal peril.
  • They cry out to God.
  • God delivers them.
  • Each time they learn something new about the depth of God’s love for them and the power he has to save them.
  • The people of God are called to respond in praise and worship.

So the overall message of this psalm is – whatever danger you face, and however you got there, if you turn to God in repentance and faith and you will experience his salvation, you will learn something more about God’s love for you and his power to help, and your response should be a life of praise and worship.

So I wonder where each of us find ourselves today?

Do you know yourself to be in relationship with God, a relationship made possible by the blood of Jesus? Do you know that whatever direction danger comes at you, and for whatever reason, God will be there for you, he will help you, save you, because he loves you?

Or maybe one of the ‘four directions of danger’ is particularly significant for you today.

  • The danger to the East – the desert – being in need, aware of limited resources, of challenging circumstances.
  • The danger to the West  – a time of darkness, of gloom and of misery when hope is in short supply.
  • The danger to the North – Has God has slipped from his rightful place at the centre of our lives and we are feeling the consequences of that in a general malaise.
  • The danger of the sea (South) – The inherent riskiness of life has manifested ourselves and we feel out of control in a hostile world.

Wherever we find ourselves today we are invited to turn to God, to set right anything that needs sorting and to ask for God’s help and rescue.

And when God moves we are then invited to respond to him in praise and worship.

Faith Confirmed?

There is a well-known psychological reality called confirmation bias. It is basically the tendency to give more weight to data that supports your assumptions, than to data which challenges them.

In the humdrum of everyday life it is something to be aware of but its effects are limited.

Perhaps our political beliefs are less robust than we would like to imagine them, our prejudices less well-founded, our hopes built on a shakier foundation than we might assume.

But confirmation bias is only that – a slight bias in one direction – it does not make us incapable of formulating robust understandings of the world and of challenging these understandings as we try to improve them. If it did human beings would never have made any scientific progress. Ultimately the reality of confirmation bias just means we have to be humbler about what we think we know and the limits of that knowledge.

So, while confirmation bias is a reality in our every day life, we can live with it. However, when it comes to the realm of religious belief – where an accurate perception of truth can literally mean the difference between life and death, between salvation or perdition, between a life wholly fulfilled or wholly lost – the ability to perceive truth is a big deal.

The problem of confirmation bias is the area of religious belief is nicely summed up in the following quote;

Believers of any faith may see everyday occurrences as proof of their religious convictions. Positive events are seen as miracles, while tragedies are seen as “tests of faith.” Conversely, people who do not belong to any religion may see the same events as reinforcement of their lack of faith. No matter how random or innocuous the evidence is, people who have a confirmation bias can use it to validate what they believe.

from https://examples.yourdictionary.com/confirmation-bias-examples-in-real-life.html

So how can I as a follower of Jesus be sure that my faith is not just wishful thinking?

I think there are a few things that help us;

The Foundation of Faith –

The Christian faith is ultimately a response to a person – Jesus Christ – and we have quite a lot of data about his life, actions, and teaching. We have 4 eye-witness accounts of his life, all written within living memory and accepted as truthful and accurate accounts by the first communities of Christians.

We can read, study and compare those accounts and arrive at our own conclusion of who we think Jesus was.

Famously, the ardent atheist C.S. Lewis did this and came up with three possibilities for the identity of Jesus. That he was bad (a fake pretending to be something and someone he knew he wasn’t), mad (a mad trapped in a wild fantasy), or that he was God. Lewis could not identify any other option that was consistent with the data. Ultimately, he accepted Jesus as divine, abandoned his atheism and spent the rest of his life living out and sharing his faith in Christ.

The Pragmatic Reality –

The Christian faith has been in existence for 2,000 years, there is a lot of data out there for us to assess on whether embracing the faith whole-heartedly really makes a qualitative difference in a person’s life.

We have whole libraries of hagiography (the writings about the holy ones, the saints). These stories describe the lives and actions of those people who embraced the Christian faith to its fullest extent – obviously if we want to assess the impact of Christian faith it is amongst the most committed followers that we will see the best evidence.

As we examine their lives and teaching do we see evidence of truth and beauty that would give support to the belief that following Jesus makes a difference?

The Positive Place of Doubt –

Interestingly, the Christian faith itself holds that doubt is intrinsic to the experience of living with God. The Bible itself contains many stories of how difficult living with God is. The name of the people of God in the Old Testament was ‘Israel’ which literally means ‘struggles with God’.

The books of Job and Jonah are stories about the pain of living with a God whose actions you don’t understand and cannot make sense of.

The culmination of the Job story is when Job has a revelation of God in all his majesty. Job’s questions are not answered, God’s actions are not explained, there is no Poirot-esque resolution with all the loose ends tied up and explained. just an encounter with a God whose reality manifestly surpasses human comprehension.
Job’s response is to literally put his hand over his mouth, to physically stop himself from speaking any more (Job 40:4).

The Eastern branch of the Christian church developed a concept called apophatic theology (apo – to deny, phanai-to speak, so a meaning something like ‘what cannot be said’).

This concept holds that every way we might try to describe God is ultimately wrong. If we say ‘God is love’ that might be partially true, but our human concept of love is too weak and too limited to accurately encapsulate the reality of God. So, to stretch the concept to its limit it means that ultimately everything we say about God is wrong.

Does this matter? Well to a degree. If we use the analogy of electricity it can be helpful. As an trainee electronic engineer I learned certain formulas about the relationships within an electrical circuit and between power, current and voltage. These formulas meant I could safely work with electricity, predict its behaviour and harness its effectiveness.
If you has asked me to describe electricity at the sub-atomic level, I could not have done that – I’m not entirely sure anyone can completely.
But the level of accuracy we have in describing electricity is sufficient for everyday use.

As Christian do I claim to understand God fully – no – and I need to be humble about the provisional nature of my theology. But is my knowledge sufficient for me to live with God and follow him – yes – perhaps not without a level of discomfort and doubt, but it is possible.

Because of our limited ability to understand God doubt, and it’s corollary, faith are an essential component to living with God.

The book of psalms contains many songs that expressing the most crushing confusion and doubt about God – certainly to a degree that the stiff-upper-lipped English baulk at.

We have books such as Job and Jonah that have doubt as their central theme, we have many incidents in the Old and New Testaments about how hard it is to live with a God who doesn’t behave in a way you expect and which you cannot understand.

Someone has said that

‘doubts are like ants in the pants of faith, they keep it alive and moving’

and there is probably truth in that.

Faith is always a question as well as a conviction.

The Cross – Finally, and perhaps ultimately it is the cross that I think is the most helpful thing as we live with doubt. On the cross Jesus proved in the agony of his voluntary death the reality of God’s love for us and that act puts any and every doubt we might ever have into perspective.

We cannot not trust a God who has proven his love in such a way.

So we must learn to live with our doubts, to be humble about our theology, to see ourselves always seekers after truth, rather than custodians of it.

The life of faith is less like following a programmatic recipe for success, and more like an adventure into the unknown.

Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

A Happy Death

(This post first appeared in LadderLife No. 5 February 2021 – Ladderlife is the magazine of the Heavy Metal Fresh Expression of Church ‘We Are Jacob’s Ladder’, Hugglescote)

In our daily lives we are bombarded with statistics – particularly in these crazy times of pandemic – hospitalisations, case numbers, R rates, excess deaths etc. However there is one statistic that has been called the Ultimate Statistic. It is simply this,

100% of people die.

One of the strangenesses of our contemporary culture is how we try so hard to ignore this statistic.

Earlier cultures – where the prevalence of disease, famine, and violence made death a much more frequent experience. When people had a life expectancy in the mid 30’s, when infant mortality levels were really high, throughout a person’s short life they were going to be confronted with death on a regular basis.

Now, at least in the developed world, the advances in our living conditions, our access to medicine, and the established rule of law drastically reducing violence, we live much longer – now approaching 90 years on average – which means that death comes to us as more of a surprise.

Everyone feels immortal until the moment they die.

A recent post found me musing on the sign of the skull and crossbones, this month I’m thinking about the subject of a happy death, you might be forgiven for thinking I’m in a bit of a gloomy place!

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is important to think about death. Indeed, it has been said that;

You are not really ready to live, until you are ready to die.

Which maybe sounds crazy but expresses a great truth.

Surely all of us want to live well, to live a good life? I mean, we only get one go at this life thing, it would be a shame to waste it by not making the most of it. But how can we know if we are living well? How do we evaluate our life? Paradoxically, it is thinking about how our life will end that we gain insight into how we can live it well.

Helpfully, there is some good guidance from the saints of previous ages. Cardinal John Henry NEWMAN wrote a prayer about dying which included the following;

that … I may die as I desire to live, in Thy Church, in Thy faith, and in Thy love. Amen.

Another old prayer says;

Give us the grace to prepare for our last hour by a devout and holy life

Do you see the theme emerging? The point is being made that a good death is one that concludes a good life. In other words,

Those who live well, die well.

Those, whose life has been always directed towards God and towards good, will find that death comes gently, as a friend, as a completion.

Some Christian traditions has described death as being ‘promoted to glory’. The idea being that for the Christian death is an advancement, a promotion, not a disaster and not a ruination.

Those who have sought to know and love God more and more in their lives will find that death comes as the ultimate fulfilment of that desire – they get to enter into a quality of relationship with God that have always desired, striven for, but which they were unable to fully achieve in life.

In the Church of England Compline is an evening service that seeks to prepare us for the coming night. However, as with most liturgy, it is richer and deeper than that. As it looks to the coming night’s sleep, and seeks God’s blessing and protection in that period of bodily refreshment, there are also resonances of the final ‘sleep of death’. This is expressed in the opening prayer;

The Lord almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.

But what is a ’perfect end’?

Picturing a good death we might imagine ourselves surrounded by a loving family ‘old and full of years’. But what about those who die fighting against forces of oppressions, facing down drug barons, who are murdered by despotic rulers because they cried out for freedom? Aren’t those also ‘perfect ends?’

There is a lot of imagery in the Bible of the Christian life as a battle, a struggle, a conflict.

Those who ‘Fight the good fight of the faith.’ (1 Timothy 6:12, NIV), who battle to their dying breath are the ones who are promised eternal life as their reward;

Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Revelation 2 :10, NIV)

Which is expressed nicely in another prayer about death;

Lord Jesus, pour into us the spirit of Thy love, that in the hour of our death we may be worthy to vanquish the enemy and attain unto the heavenly crown: Who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.

So a happy death is also an accomplishment, a victory, an achievement.
Perhaps the most helpful reminder about dying is that as followers of Jesus we do not die alone.

St Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, seems to have been much older than his wife Mary and he disappears from the scene fairly quickly, certainly before Jesus begins his ministry.
So Joseph must have died while Jesus was a young man. So we can imagine the picture of Joseph on his deathbed with Mary and Jesus at his side.

Which has been seen as symbolic of the death of all those who follow Jesus. Mary, often called the Mother of the Church and Jesus our Saviour, Lord and friend will be at our side at the moment of our dying and bring us safely into the presence of God.

This association with St Joseph has led to him being the patron saint of a happy death.
A prayer that is probably 1,900 years old ends like this;

St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us. Amen.

So, a happy death? Yes, it is possible.

It is possible; if you live your life in the light of your death; if you set your aim towards good and towards God; if you fight and persevere in the good fight of the faith.

I wish you all ‘A Happy Death’.