Faith in Three Pictures

godshapedholegregolsenpainting-1hand-of-god

I was asked to talk to a group of young children and tell them about my faith and spiritual life.

I said yes, but then as I started to think about how I might do it, it became really challenging.

I’ve been a student of theology for nearly 2 decades. Almost everything I have learned is complex and in order to say anything I have to spend a lot of time listing exceptions, limiting applications etc.

So how on earth was I to share my faith with little children?!

I eventually decided that the best thing I could do was use pictures that show some of the things I hold most deeply as spiritual convictions.

godshapedholeMy first picture was this one. It shows a despondent man with a heart-shaped hole in his chest.

For me this illustrates that quote from St Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”. This is often stated as there being a God-shaped hole in us that nothing but a relationship with Jesus can fulfil.

In sharing this with the children I used the example of the children’s toy with different shaped holes and different shaped blocks.  You cannot fill a hole with any shape other than the one that corresponds. In a similar way I believe that all other attempts to find fulfilment, purpose in life, significance, or to make sense of the way the universe is, with be ultimately unsatisfactory outside of a relationship with Jesus.

gregolsenpainting-1

The second picture I showed the children was this one by Greg OLSEN.

The image shows a young man, a backpacker, sitting down on a bench chatting with Jesus.

The young man looks a little tired, despondent; Jesus looks friendly, interested, animated, and concerned.

For me this picture sums up how fantastic it is to be able to talk to Jesus at any moment in my life’s journey. When I’m tired, sad, angry, losing me way, scared, confused etc. I can just stop. Take a few minutes out and talk with Jesus. It is so great to know that he comes to me, listens and that he will help me find my way forward. Whatever I need – encouragement, challenge, direction, perspective etc. Jesus can give that to me.

Of course prayer is also really great for the positive moments in my journey too. Jesus loves to share my joys and successes and to share my simple enjoyment of the everyday pleasures of life. Expressing gratitude to Jesus for these things is really important and also health-giving if scientific studies are to be believed.

hand-of-god

The final picture was this one by YONGSUNG KIM.

It shows a moment from the story when Jesus walked on the water to his disciples who were in a small boat in a storm.

One of the disciples, St Peter, had had the courage to ask Jesus if he could walk on the water and come to meet him.

Jesus invited Peter to come to him and he was initially able to walk on the water too.

But then Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he started to look at the waves and the storm instead. At that moment St Peter started to sink.

This picture captures the moment when Jesus reaches down to a sinking Peter and draws he back up and brings him safely to the boat. There is no anger, disappointment, disapproval in the face of Jesus, simply a welcoming smile.

I find this picture a powerful reminder that when I foul up, lose faith, make mistakes, get it badly wrong etc. Jesus is not angry, he is not disappointed. He simply comes to me, stretches out his hand, helps me up and says, ‘Let’s try again’.

 

These were my three pictures. The children seemed to understand them and to understand something of what I was trying to share.

Which, I suppose reminds me that ultimately the Christian faith is both a mystery too deep for human minds to fully comprehend and a simple love relationships with Jesus that is accessible even to the youngest child.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jesus and doubt

doubt-faith

I was brought up in a Christian spirituality that had little room for doubt. Faith was black and white. Salvation a matter of 4 spiritual laws and so simple that a child could understand it. Doctrine was equally clear and only had to memorised, believed and proclaimed.

Any souls who struggled to believe, who had doubts about aspects of their faith, were looked at askance and kept at the edges of the faith community.

It is interesting to see the very different way that Jesus reacted to doubt.

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.[1]

Now bear in mind that this is after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has risen from the dead, made several miraculous appearances, often to hundreds of people at a time, He has explained the reality of His identity, and shown how His life, death and resurrection fulfil all of the Old testament messianic prophecies.

Yet, some of those who have known Him and followed Him for the past three years are still riddled with doubt.

In many ways it is no surprise. Jesus had a special nickname for His disciples, possibly a word He made up Himself, ‘littlefaiths[2]’. This was a chiding term, something of a gentle ‘leg-pull’ reminding them of their need to go deeper in faith.

But NOW, after the resurrection, after the miracles, after the appearances and disappearances in locked rooms, after the explanation of how Jesus fulfils the Jewish peoples’ most cherished prophecies about the coming Messiah. Will Jesus still bear with their doubt NOW?

Will He not just separate the believing from the unbelieving, the sheep from the goats?

Will He not just draw a line in the sand and say, “Look if you haven’t got it by now, you never will, so I’m sorry but it’s over for you, please just walk away?”

Let’s read what Jesus did next;

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[3]

Jesus commissions them and sends them out into mission as a community. There is no division, no separation, no condemnation. The community is accepted together as a group, those with strong faith and those who still have doubts, all together.

It reminded me of something Father Vincent Donovan wrote. He was a missionary who took the gospel to the Masai tribes in Africa. After having spent a year making regular visits to several villages and explaining the Christian faith to them, he then gave each village a week to consider what their response to the message of Christ would be.

On his return to one particular village, the community had decided to follow Christ, so Father Donovan began to start to make preparations for baptisms. As he did so he began to indicate those in the village who he felt had not attended enough of the teaching sessions, or who had not sufficiently understood the Christian message, or who had not shown enough seriousness about faith.

The old man, Ndangoya, stopped me politely but firmly, ‘Padri, why are you trying to break us up and separate us? During the whole year that you have been teaching us, we have talked about these things when you were not here, at night around the fire. Yes, there have been lazy ones in this community. But they have been helped by those with much energy. There are stupid ones in the community, but they have been helped by those who are intelligent. Yes, there are ones with little faith in this village, but they have been helped by those with much faith. Would you turn out and drive off the ones with little faith and the stupid ones? From the first day I have spoken for these people. And I speak for them now. Now, on this day one year later, I can declare for them and for all this community, that we have reached the step in our lives where we can say, ‘We believe’”[4]

We believe.

Communal faith.

In those moments when our own individual faith stumbles, it is good and important, that we can still draw together with our brothers and sisters in Christian community and say, ‘we believe’.

We believe as a community. Those with a weak faith will be helped by those with a strong faith. Those who have a weak grasp of the faith will be supported by those who have a strong grasp of the faith. Together, we believe.

Jesus affirms this communal approach to faith. Together, as a community, the disciples are strong enough to carry the weight of the doubt of some of their group.

We believe.

Anointed One,

It’s as if I can hear You,

Standing before Your disciples,

Calling them “Little-Faiths.”

There is no condemnation,

No judgment,

No reprimand in your tone…

Merely the calm assurance

Of One who sees All,

And knows better,

And unfailingly trusts the Father.

Speak thus to me.

Fill me with Your Faith

So that I may look,

Unflinchingly, ahead…[5]

[1] Matthew 28:17 NIV

[2] ὀλιγόπιστος (oligopistos) little-faith Matthew 6:40, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8

[3] Matthew 28:17-20 NIV

[4] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, London: SCM Press, 1982 (1978), p92

[5] from Blanca Velez, ‘Oligopistoi’, accessed online at http://thewritingsofblancav.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/oligopistoi.html on 14/08/15

Benefiting from faith I don’t have

jesusparalytic

I’ve been reading the Bible for about 40 years now.

I’ve been studying it professionally for about 20 of those.

Yet I’m still discovering new aspects and different dimensions to this incredible book on an almost daily basis.

One new insight that occurred to me recently was in the account of the paralysed man brought to Jesus by four friends.

In particular it was Jesus’ response to the four men that struck me.

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:1-5 NIV)

This is a real “Blokes’” story.

There is a certain gung-ho, never-say-die, can-do attitude expressed by these men. They were going to bring their friend to Jesus, no matter what.

When polite coughing and “excuse me’s” failed to get them access to the room in which Jesus was teaching, they tried elbowing their way in. When that failed they just came up with a plan B – tear a hole in the roof – real bloke-y genius!

The idea of politely waiting outside, just standing in line until Jesus had finished, never even occurred to them! They were men of action, impatient and somewhat reckless and no one dared stop them – they were on a mission!

Yet, the thing that most struck me in this story, something I had never noticed before was in the following verse.

When Jesus saw THEIR faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, YOUR sins are forgiven.”

The faith that brings help and healing to this poor, suffering, paralysed man is not his own but his friends’.

It is their faith, on his behalf, that releases Jesus’ healing power into the man’s situation.

The implications of this, for the Christian life and for Christian mission are massive.

By our prayers we can stand before God on behalf of those who cannot, will not or do not know how to pray for themselves. In some mysterious way, we can by our faith, make up for the lack of faith in our friends.

We see several miracles in the life of Jesus that seem to fall into this category. When Jesus responds to someone’s faith by healing a third party – the Centurion and his servant (Matthew 8:5-13), Jairus and his daughter (Mark 5:21-43), even the resurrections of Lazarus and the Widow of Nain’s son must also fall into this category for a dead person obviously cannot have faith for himself!

It struck me that this reality about faith also has significant implications for the communal dimension of Christian discipleship.

For all of us will go through times, periods, situations when our own faith fails. At these times we can be carried along and supported by the faith of our Christian brothers and sisters.

When we are struggling – when we are being tempted to the limit of our strength, in danger of falling – the faith of our families and friends can uphold us, sustain us and keep us on track.

We see this ministry of vicarious faith exemplified in the life of Job;

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom. (Job 1:4-5 NIV)

It seemed that Job worried that in the full swing of ‘rich kids, having fun’, things might get out of hand. His children’s standards of behaviour and conversation might slip and some mistakes might be made. So Job ‘stands in the gap’ for his kids, he asks God to forgive them any sins and restore them to Himself.

As I thought about this subject I was powerfully struck by the strong implications it has to nullify any spiritual pride in my life.

For none of us, looking back over our lives, can know for certain that our safe passage through times of struggle and temptation was the result of our own faith in God, or merely God’s gracious response to the faith of those around us, friends who prayed for us, confessed for us, stood in the gap before God for us.

We may well discover in the life to come, that many of those times when we proudly thought we had won a great victory, we were merely, like the paralysed man in the story, being carried along by our friends.

The Greedy God

Greedy

I read today a phrase that made me stop short.

“He (God) calls us to Himself – to the complete surrender of all that we are and all that we have and all that we desire to Him.”

All that we ARE and HAVE and DESIRE.

God demands it all.

Wow!

This is a very different presentation of the gospel than that which passes for contemporary Christian gospel proclamation. Such presentations tend to be of the type;

“Jesus came to make you a bigger and better you!”
“Jesus came to help you fulfil your dreams and your destiny!”
Put another way, “The gospel is all about you!”

The traditional, authentic, timeless Christian message is not this at all.

It is not centred on us; it is centred on God.

Placing God at the centre, giving Him the right to control who we are, dispose of what we have and orient what we desire, is only to recognise the reality of things.

We do not belong to ourselves, nothing we are or have is our own, and everything tat we have and are comes to us from God – every breath, every beat of our heart.

Giving it all back to God only expresses the reality of the state of affairs.

Everything is already His.

We belong to God.

Embracing this truth is the first step in Christian discipleship.

The Christian faith is the message that God wants his property back. Not because of any voracious cupidity, but because He loves us. He knows that only He can care for us, love us, nurture and nourish us, guide and direct us so that our lives take their place in His designs and come to count for not only for time but also eternity.

Therefore, any area of our lives where God is not in control is maladjusted, deviant, wrong-headed, dysfunctional, and will be ultimately unfruitful.

God wants our best. Only He knows what that is. Only He knows how best to achieve it.

God also knows, better than we can even imagine, that we are created, not for time, but for eternity.

This brief human existence is merely the rehearsal for a glorious reality; a reality that will far surpass our current capacity to comprehend.

Christian discipleship is therefore about allowing God to make choices for us, to give us direction and to set the priorities that will lead to our transformation.

We know that we will not understand much of this beforehand. We cannot, we are creatures not the Creator. We are fixed in time, uncomprehending of eternity. Thus humility and acceptance are vital attitudes.

We also know that discipleship is bound to be uncomfortable, because transformation does not happen in the comfort zone. It only happens in extremis, when we are pushed to our limits, forced to go farther than we have ever been before.

We therefore understand and accept that discipleship will be costly. God will demand that we make sacrifices, perhaps even some sacrifices He doesn’t ask others to make, because God’s program for each of us is personalised, specific. He knows what we need in order to give up in order to become what He wants us to be.

What we do know, is that every sacrifice, every instance when we put God first, will never go unrewarded, will never be insignificant, will never be worthless.

A failure to embrace this God-first discipleship, any refusal, a saying “No” to God, is the expression of a disbelief that God either knows what’s best for us (a disbelief in His omniscience), or a doubt that He wants what’s best for us (a disbelief in His goodness).

Both of these are blasphemy.

A denial of the God of the Bible.

A refusal to accept that God has definitively and forever proved the reality of His love for us on the cross.

In the excess of the 80s, some people embraced the philosophy that greed is good.

They believed that trickle-down economics would mean that the few getting super-rich would eventually lead all everyone getting just a little richer.

Sadly the ensuing years have fatally disproved that philosophy.

But in the context of God, His “greed”, His refusal to accept any loss of what belongs to Him, is not only good, but our only hope.

Separated from Him we are lost and hopeless, condemned to empty, meaningless lives.

Praise God that He is “greedy”, that He was willing to go to ultimate lengths of unimaginable suffering in order to regain what is His own.

We fall on our faces to worship the “greedy”, Christmas, Easter God.

Who’s Fighting ?

playground-fight

I remember at school that playground fights were great events.

Two boys would fall out, start pushing and shoving each other and immediately a crowd would gather around them, egging them on.  As teachers were always very quick to intervene, a fight had only a very limited lifespan, a minute or two, max.

Within a few seconds there would be a mass of bodies shouting and cheering and two, often rather bemused protagonists, in the middle of the mêlée, wrestling.

If you were slow off the mark, by the time you arrived at the fight, nothing could be seen for the mass of spectators, so the cry would go up for those on the outer edges, “Who’s fighting?”

It struck me in my morning bible reading today that this is an important question for Christians too.

In the story recounted in Exodus 17, the people of Israel have been attacked by the Amalekites. They go out to fight them – fighting for their national survival. As Joshua leads the Israelite army as they fight, Moses and his assistants go up on to an overlooking hill and Moses holds up his hands.

“So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” (Exodus 17:10-13 NIVUK)

The act of holding up your hands is an external sign of prayer. An indication of a conviction that God is the one on whom the Israelites are relying upon to win this battle.

As Moses’ arms tire, and his hands fall, the Amalekites start to gain the upper hand. As Moses hands are raised, the Israelites prevail.

Both God’s activity and that of Joshua and his army were important. But only God’s was crucial.

God could no doubt have defeated the Amalekites without Joshua; but Joshua was incapable of defeating them without God.

In our lives and our churches how well do we express this truth?

How much of our activity is accompanied by ‘the raising of our hands’? The public expression of our conviction that without God we can achieve nothing?

It is helpful to keep asking ourselves the question, ‘who’s fighting?’ So that we can focus our eyes on the One who leads, guides, strengthens and Who gives the victory.

The Strange Appeal of Cucumbers and Garlic

cucumbers_garlic

Henry Blackaby, a man I have never met, has had a profound effect upon my Christian spirituality. Today as I listened to his talk from unit 8 of his course, “Experiencing God – Knowing and doing the will of God” (download available here HERE), Henry once again said something that made me stop short.

Referring to the Old Testament incident recounted in Numbers 11, where the people of Israel, newly delivered from 400 years of Egyptian slavery by God through Moses and on their way to the Promised Land, complain against God … about the food.

“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” Numbers 11:5 NIVUK

This is almost unbelievable. These people have been crying out to God for centuries for Him to deliver them from Egyptian oppression.

“The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” Exodus 3:7 NIVUK

Yet now, in very short order, they start to hanker back to their time in slavery, and all over the food?!

What are they complaining about? In fact, they are complaining about the daily miracle of God’s provision! They are complaining about the ‘Manna’;  this strange food that God made appear every day, which they could freely gather and which provided for their nutritional needs.

But they were fed up of it; so fed up that they even began to hanker back to life as an oppressed slave.

Seems surprising doesn’t it? We might feel like scorning them for their lack of back-bone, we might feel superior. But actually this is a phenomenon common to most Christians.

One of the Devil’s greatest strategies against us is to constantly remind us of the cost of our obedience to God. What have we missed out on by responding to God?

Oh! the cucumbers and garlic we could have enjoyed!

When actually the really important question, the really, really important question, is what would disobedience to God cost us?

The people of Israel stood at the cusp of a glorious new future. They were to be settled into a homeland for the very first time in their history. They were going to be able to live with God and worship Him in freedom and liberty. They were going to be made a light for the nations, an arena for the demonstration of the glory and power of God. That was what God was about to do in them and through their history.

But all they could think of was cucumbers.

In my life I can look back at times when God called me to make what seemed like significant sacrifices – to give up a safe career in the civil service, to sell our home, to leave our home country and to go and live in a foreign culture, to leave family and friends behind.

However, looking back over the past 20 years, I can honestly say I do not regret any single instance of sacrifice. In fact, such has been the blessing I have experienced and the enriching I have received through what God has done in response to my obedience, actually they do not even feel like sacrifices.

If I was given the chance to live my life again, I would not make any other choice than to obey God.

God does not ask us to make sacrifices in order to diminish our lives, but to enrich them – perhaps in ways that are different to what we would choose, or imagine. But He loves us and wants the best for us and He knows better than us what Best looks like.

God has always eternity in mind, not time. His best always has eternal dimensions.

Can we accept God’s choice of what is best? Or will we stay fixated on cucumbers?

Can we not give up piffling trifles in exchange for eternal blessedness?

As for me, you can keep the garlic.

Come and Die

come-and-die

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said; “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (The Cost of Discipleship)

Having read much of the current debate on human sexuality, gay ‘marriage’ etc. it strikes me that much of the debate around this issue misses the point.

The Christian faith is not about self-affirmation, but about self-denial.

The fundamental truth Christian disciples recognize is that God has the right to ask me to give up anything He wants.

I have nothing I did not receive from Him.

Every beat of my heart, every breath, every potential that exists in me, is a gift, is His.

Therefore all that I am already belongs to Him.

Christian is the active expression of this knowledge – I am His and He is free to dispose of me how He wills.

This is what St Paul meant when he talked of Christians being “living sacrifices”.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1 NIV

In terms of sexuality, the Church used to affirm those whom God called to give up sexual fulfillment – priests and religious and even some lay people have felt this particular call. We used to celebrate it. To value it. To hold it up as a positive thing. To name it a pleasing sacrifice. To honour those who felt called of God to make it.

Now, it appears, that is no longer possible.

Without sexual fulfillment we are sub-humans, non-humans. Those who respond to God’s costly call in this area of life are ridiculed, scorned, pitied.

Jesus Himself knew the cost of sacrifice, not only in celibacy, but in martyrdom. He calls no-one to any sacrifice He hasn’t Himself made, and then some.

Jesus also knows that human sexuality is a continuum,

For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:12 NIV

Letting God be God is the greatest challenge of Christian discipleship.

In the area of sexuality God does not affirm ALL sexual practice. Only that of heterosexual couples within married relationships.

There are also those who God calls to sacrifice this part of their humanity for the sake of the Kingdom. But such sacrifices are always positive. God is never any man’s debtor.

The primary goal of human life is to develop a relationship with God.

Therefore any sacrifice God calls upon us to make will inevitably lead to this. There will be the reward of deeper intimacy with Him in this life and who knows what in the next.

People often state that their sexual feelings were given them by God. However Christian faith is not a matter of feelings, but revelation. What does God say about how we should live? The answer is clear – regardless of any feelings I might have.

I can personally testify that I rarely feel like doing the will of God in any area of my life. If I let my feelings be the arbiter I would have abandoned the Christian faith decades ago.

God calls us all – whatever our feelings – to radical holiness. And He has every right to do so. He decides what is good for man, not man.

I don’t underestimate the pain and cost of anyone’s sacrifice – especially not my own. However it cost God His own son. Anything He calls us to give pales by comparison. And everything He calls us to give up will ultimately prove to have been worth the cost. Otherwise God would not be loving, nor would He have our best interests at heart – which is impossible.