Making Your Place Thinner

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In this COVID-19 lockdown we find ourselves distanced from our normal places of divine encounter – churches, sacred places, holy wells, places of natural beauty.

This situation made me wonder whether theology of ‘Thin Places’ is worth exploring.

Writing about his own experience of a ‘thin place’ a journalist explains,

“There is a name for spaces such as this: “thin places”, a Celtic Christian term for “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, ‘Man Seeks God’. They’ve been called “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, where another dimension seems nearer than usual.”[1]

I’m sure each one of us has encountered a ‘thin space’ many times. Maybe it’s a place of extraordinary beauty, or a moment in time – a sunrise or sunset, or maybe it’s a place where someone deeply spiritual has lived and prayed, or maybe it’s a moment of deep significance in your life.

At each of these ‘thin places’ we sense the presence of God, we know in a way beyond explaining that there is more to life than life. We know, deeply, unshakeably, that the simple reductionism of science that would make existence merely an interplay of atoms and molecules is just plain wrong. In the moment of encounter we are convinced that life is more than merely what we can measure.

the simple reductionism of science, that would make existence merely an interplay of atoms and molecules, is just plain wrong

I have experienced many ‘thin places’ in my life.

Some of these it was the place itself that is ‘thin’ because of what had happened there, or because of its intrinsic qualities.

I remember kneeling in prayer inside the ruins of the church built on the islet where St Cuthbert first retreated to be alone with God when the pressure of leading Lindisfarne Abbey got too much. That was a deeply spiritual moment in my life.

Other places are deeply ordinary but become ‘thin’ in a moment of divine encounter.

I remember sitting in my living room holding my new-born son and I suddenly felt a love sweep over me for this child that rocked me to my core.

As I struggled to make sense of this I heard the voice of God say,

‘If you, as a human father, can love your son this much, how much more do you think that I, your heavenly Father, love you?’

That was another life changing moment where my relationship with God was transformed, my understanding of religion turned upside down, and the direction of my life irrevocably altered.

The very ordinary place in which I found myself had become ‘thin’.

Separated as we are in our isolation I wonder if there are things that we can do, that might make our places thinner?

Are there practices that we could adopt that might transform the places in which we are confined into ‘thin places’?

I believe there are some things that might help;

The setting aside of a space to pray and the regular practice of using it.

Set up a prayer space in a quiet corner. In all Orthodox homes there is an icon shelf in the corner of the room opposite the door, so as you enter a room the first thing you see is a reminder of God’s presence here.

When Jesus was asked to teach his disciples how to pray he gave them these instructions,

‘But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.’ Matthew 6:6-7, NIV

So set up a quiet space to pray, establish a regular practice of prayer – it doesn’t have to be long, just make it regular to start with. Don’t worry about words if they don’t come – use prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, or just BE with God in silence.

Maybe that will help your place to become thinner.

Sacred Art

You could also decorate your home with things that draw your thoughts upwards and outwards. There is some good advice on what helps us become more spiritual from St Paul;

‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.’ Philippians 4:8, NIV.

Artwork that includes biblical texts, or spiritual themes, icons, pictures of extraordinary beauty – anything that lifts your spirits and your thoughts away from earthly preoccupations and draws them to respond to God in thankfulness and hope.

Icon of the Face of Christ

I have a small icon of Christ that I picked up in a charity shop in Rome, a charity that worked with people living on the streets.

The icon only cost a few euros and it is not a high quality item.

And yet there is something about it. Perhaps it’s about where I bought it and why, but something has made it significant in my life.

It is my regular practice to spend time in prayer before it – it is placed on my desk and I regularly take a moment just to be with Jesus – face to face. It helps.

Listen Well

 

Listen to podcasts, music etc. that you find has a similar tendency to draw your thoughts upwards to God and outwards to others. Handel’s Messiah I find particularly powerful. An acquaintance told me recently of how Mendelssohn’s Elijah had been spiritually profound in his life. Find something of spiritual quality that draws you to God, that opens your heart and mind to a divine encounter.

Isolation mustn’t become the new normal

Of course all the above is in the nature of making the best of a bad job.

The Christian faith is unalterably communal; we cannot be children of God and not be brothers and sisters to those in a similar relationship with our Father.

In fact, Jesus made genuine Christian community the irrefutable proof of us being his disciples,

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35, NIV

So whilst our private spiritual practices are important and necessary, than cannot be a substitute for corporate spiritual life – worship, prayer, fellowship, bearing with one another, loving and caring for one another.

But maybe in these unusual times, we can find ways of making the places in which we find ourselves holed up ‘thinner’. Maybe this time of isolation is a call to go deeper with God, to open up more of our life to his influence, to be less distracted by the passing from the eternal.

I pray that your and my place might become thinner.

 

[1] This column will change your life: where heaven and Earth collide – Oliver Burkeman, Sat 22 Mar 2014,www.theguardian.com

Quick, Slow, Slow – The Discipleship Rhythm

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I remember vaguely being told that the waltz rhythm could be described as ‘Quick, Quick, Slow’. How this was meant to help me dance I don’t know; it didn’t. But I digress.

Today I came across a verse that described the rhythm of discipleship as ‘Quick, Slow, Slow’.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:

everyone should be quick to listen,

slow to speak

and slow to become angry[1]

Why does James, perhaps the practical of the New Testament writers, describe the rhythm of discipleship in this way?

Being quick to listen and slow to speak is about relating to others. It is about valuing the other person and believing that they have something interesting and valuable to share.

The great danger in the life of a disciple of Jesus is that as we learn more through our study and experience, we know quite rightly that we have more and more ‘good stuff’ in our heads that we can share with others which might actually be a blessing and a help to them.

Indeed, it would not be kind nor Christian to refuse to share the good things we have received from God.

But our sharing is only valuable and useful to the degree that it speaks into the situation and needs of our friends and that is something that can only be determined through listening.

So there is a paradox here; the more you have to share, the more listening and not speaking becomes important.

We need to explore by active listening where our friend is, what they are going through, where God may be working in their lives, and it is only when we have developed an understanding of them and their situation, that we can start to think about what might be helpful and appropriate for us to share with them.

So if we can understand why we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak, what about being slow to become angry?

We know that anger is a valid emotion sometimes, we are right to get angry at some things. Jesus Himself got angry on occasion. Perhaps the most famous example of that was when he visited the temple at Jerusalem and found that the Court of the Gentiles – the only space in the temple to which women and non-Jews had access – far from being a quiet and holy place for prayer, had become a noisy marketplace where unscrupulous traders short-changed pilgrims. Jesus was so angry about this that he overturned the stalls and chased the traders out with a whip.

So if anger can be valid and appropriate why does James say we should be slow to become angry?

Perhaps it is because anger can have very many causes, and for many of us most of the time our feelings of anger will have little to do with righteousness.

James indicates his rationale about anger in the next verse when he goes on to say;

because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires[2].

James reminds us that anger often leads to conduct that we later regret. We shout, we swear, we insult, we demean, we wound with our words, or even our fists. None of which is helpful in building up a Christian community.

Perhaps it is here the greatest danger in anger – it often destroys relationships. Once we get angry with someone – for whatever reason – it can create a barrier in our relationship with them and it can be a long and very slow path back to mutual forgiveness and restoration.

For this reason anger is a dangerous emotion within a Christian community and we should reflect very carefully on the reason for our anger, and whether it is justified and righteous, or merely the expression of our human frailty and imperfection. Slowness in getting angry will save us a lot of heartache and prevent a lot of harm.

So I think we should all learn to dance the discipleship dance – Quick, Slow, Slow.

God help us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] James 1 :19, NIVUK

[2] James 1 :20 NIVUK

When God Praises Me

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In the Christian life we often think of praise as a one-way affair. We praise God based upon His evident worthiness and glory.

We often fail to note that God is also ready to praise us, although our praiseworthiness is very less certain.

St Paul refers to this when he says;

“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 NIV

 

This passage highlights two things; firstly, that there is the amazing prospect that the God of the Universe might praise me for the things I do, and how I do them; secondly, that our ability to estimate our own, or others’, praiseworthiness, is severely limited.

 

One of my lecturers at Bible College told us that he always tried to operate on the principle of ‘one fact more’.

By this he meant that in his dealings with people he always tried to anticipate that there might be yet some fact of which he was currently unaware, that might radically alter his opinion of the person.

I imagine this maxim was drawn from the results of his pastoral experience; from times when sudden disclosures had radically reversed his opinions of a person. These moments had obviously been so powerful that he had made hopeful caution this ‘modus operandi’.

There is a proverb which states that can’t really judge a man until you have walked around in his skin.

Both of these seem to be highlighting the same truth. That our capacity to make valid value judgments is severely limited.

St Paul cares little for human judgements of himself and his ministry (whether positive or negative) for he knows outsiders cannot judge him accurately.

But neither does he place any great value on his own self-judgement and this is right for a couple of different reasons;

  • We can only ever partially grasp the mind of God – “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Co 14:12 AKJV).
  • We can also be biased for reasons of psychology or personality to think better or worse of ourselves than we really should.
  • Our capacity to make right judgements is a function of our theological understanding, or capacity of thought, which varies from individual to individual – “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:5 NIV)
  • Our own judgement of ourselves is of no consequence, it is God’s accurate judgement that will be the defining statement about our life and work. – “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” (2 Co 5:10 AKJV)

 

What do we take from all this? I guess the following;

Don’t judge others, unless your circumstances or role force you to do so; and if you are forced to make a judgement about others, hold it firmly in mind that your judgement may well be completely wrong, for reasons of your being incompletely informed, or unknowingly biased, or inaccurate in your theological basis; and, in any way, your judgement ultimately counts for nothing.

 

He Ate Salt With Them

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Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are summarised at the beginning of the first chapter of the book of Acts. There are some very interesting aspects to this summary and there are some which are hidden in most English translations of the Greek text.

“After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 1:3-5 NIV)

The first thing to note that there were three proofs that Jesus gave to His disciples, to confirm His resurrection ;

  • He appeared to them
  • He taught them
  • He ate with them

The first two are logical and expected, however the third is somewhat surprising.

Why was it necessary for Jesus to eat with His disciples in order to prove His resurrection?

We know from other passages that eating food was a means of proving physical reality, that what they were seeing was not an incorporeal spirit but a real physical person. By eating with the disciples Jesus reassured them that He was not a ghost but a real living person.

However the specific vocabulary used by Luke gives us a deeper insight into what Jesus was doing.

The word translated “eating with them” is the Greek word συναλιζομενος (synalizomenos) which means literally “eating salt with them”.

Why does Luke choose this word to describe Jesus’ eating with the disciples?

There are some clues in texts in the Old Testament which speak about the creation of covenants – binding agreements – between God and Man.

“Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring.’” (Numbers 18:19 NIV)

 

Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants for ever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chronicles 13:5 NIV)

 

Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings. (Leviticus 2:13 NIV)

 

We see that covenants are often symbolised by salt and the reasons for this are obvious.

In the ancient world salt was the most common agent of purification, to prevent spoiling and decay. It was also used as a preservative.

Therefore linking salt to the creation of covenants symbolised both their incorruptibility and permanence.

Speaking of the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Koniuchowsky  has written,

“All salt covenants then are eternal, and eternally binding on the sons and daughters of Yisrael … Salt was also used to seal a bond of friendship forever. Brethren at an Israelite table would seal their friendship by the sharing of salt. Salt was a means in Yisrael by which friends solidified and preserved their commitment to each other by a covenant of shared salt at a table of shared community.”[1]

Thus the act of eating salt together was a symbol of the re-affirmation of friendship and mutual commitment – it was a bonding ceremony.

By eating salt with His disciples Jesus thereby affirmed the everlasting nature of the new covenant He had established between Man and God.

By eating salt with them, Jesus makes clear this new covenant is eternal, it cannot be altered or cancelled.

By eating salt with them Jesus confirms His friendship with them and commitment to them – He will never leave them.

‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ (Hebrews 3:5b NIV)

However there is another aspect to salt – the purification of sacrifices.

In the Christian religion we don’t just bring sacrifices to God – we ARE 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)

To be acceptable these sacrifices need to be purified – from wrong motivations, imperfect execution.

Jesus made this clear when He told His disciples,

“Everyone will be salted with fire. ‘Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.’” (Mark 9:49-50 NIV)

Right actions need to flow from right motivations and expressed in right relations. Something the apostles took to heart.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6 NIV)

By eating salt with His disciples Jesus reminds them of their constant need to purify their offerings (themselves and their lives) in order that they might be acceptable to God.

All of the above meaning of “eating salt together” is neatly summarized in the following quote,

“So different meanings come together here: covenant renewal, the gift of life, and purification of one’s own being for self-offering to God”[2]

And we mustn’t forget that Jesus continues to join His disciples for table fellowship.

In the Eucharist we make an offering (of ourselves), we receive Christ’s body and blood (the bread and the wine).

By so doing we are purified and also strengthened with divine power in order to express the everlasting and incorruptible “covenant of salt” in our lives.

 

[1] Rabbi Moshe Yoseph Koniuchowsky visited online at http://www.hebroots.org/hebrootsarchive/0209/0209b.html on 03/06/14

[2] Ratzinger J. “Jesus of Nazareth – Vol 2”, p272

Surgery in Scripture

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There are two parallel stories of surgery in the Bible.

In the first surgical procedure, God causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep; He then opens up Adam’s side and, from one of Adam’s ribs, forms Eve.

Eve is a divine gift that completes Adam. Eve enables Adam to achieve his full human potential. In partnership with her, Adam is now capable of fulfilling the rôle God called him to – to care for and develop the Earth.

The second biblical example of surgery is when Jesus hangs dead on the cross. Jesus was understood as fulfilling the original calling of the first Adam. Whereas Adam failed in his calling, he was weak, he sinned, he also brought sin into the lives of all Mankind, and was therefore the cause of a separation between God and Man, Jesus  – the last Adam – comes to reverse all this.

The last Adam comes to succeed, not fail. The last Adam will stay faithful to the end. The last Adam will reverse the consequences of the first Adam’s failure. By His sacrificial death the last Adam will obtain for humankind the forgiveness of sin and therefore make possible a reconciliation between Man and God.

“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (Romans 5:17 NIV)

 

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NIV)

 

“So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” (1 Corinthians 15:45-48 NIV)

So while Jesus – the last Adam – is “asleep” on the cross, His side is also pierced. Not by God but by a Roman spear. This time what is taken from Him is not a rib, but instead water and blood are seen to flow out of the wound.

The early Christians saw here a striking reference to the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist.

All of which is highly significant. For it is through baptism we are brought into the Church; and it is through the blood of the Eucharist we partake of the life of Christ – a blood that cleanses us from sin, and gives new life.

So the water and the blood which flow from the side of Christ symbolize the Church – the Bride of Christ.

“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:23, 26-27 NIV)

 

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2 NIV)

 

“I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” (2 Corinthians 11:2 NIV)

Like Eve, taken from the side of the first Adam, the Church the Bride of Christ, flows out of the side of the Last Adam. Like Eve, the Bride is to be a partner for the Last Adam. Someone who will work with Him in the mission of establishing the Kingdom of God in the world.

Two Adams. Two surgeries. Two new, cherished partners who result. All doing well.

The Surgeon seems to be on top of His game.

 

Goose or Dove ?

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In the Celtic Christian tradition the Holy Spirit was represented, not as the dove of biblical imagery, but rather as the wild goose (An Geadh-Glas).

Their rationale in choosing this image for the Holy Spirit was multiple.

They knew that wild geese aren’t controllable. They do not live tamed or bent to the will of man. They are migratory birds who come and go, with no warning, answerable only to their own internal motivations.

They are also noisy, raucous, birds! No gentle dove-like cooing, but rather a loud honk! Living in the French countryside, as I do, I experience this first-hand. Whenever I go around to my neighbour’s his geese quickly commence a loud honking, a sound which is challenging, not consoling; strong, not weak; confrontational and slightly disturbing. It is for this reason that  geese often functioned as guard-dogs. They are quite scary.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit does come like a gentle dove. He comes bringing healing, consolation, peace.

But sometimes He comes more like a wild, noisy goose. And that it an entirely different matter!

In His goosely-guise the Holy Spirit comes to disturb, shake up, challenge, awaken.

Celtic spirituality valued this goosely ministry even more than the dove-like ministry. Perhaps that is why they were so successful in mission and discipleship?

Are you for the goose or the dove?

Blood Which Speaks a Different Language

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Paradise to fratricide. In just four short chapters the book of Genesis presents to us the heart-wrenching story of human decline.

From an idyllic environment, life in paradise in communion with God, to the murder of one brother by another.

The first son of man, Cain, kills his brother Abel.

Abel, whose name means ‘Morning Mist’ disappears in like manner. Burned away by his brother’s anger at God’s acceptance of Abel’s worship and rejection of his own.

However, although Abel is dead, his blood still speaks.

God says to Cain,

Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ (Genesis 4:10b-12 NIV)

Abel’s blood cries out to God for vengeance and for the punishment of Cain’s sin.

Reflective Christians will see here a stark contrast with another ‘Son of Man’ who, instead of taking the life of another in a fit of religious anger, will offer his own life, in love, to save others.

Like Abel’s, Christ’s spilt blood also cries out to God.

However, it speaks a very different language.

The blood of Christ cries out to God to forgive, to pardon, to cleanse, to accept, to restore, to heal.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 1:5b-6 NIV)

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith. (Romans 3:25 NIV)

Jesus’ blood speaks an altogether different language to that of Abel, a much better word.

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 NIV)

 

“Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel : it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all” (Joseph Ratzinger “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week”, p187)

 

Jesus the Worm

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The Early Church Fathers had some really imaginative ways of re-reading Old Testament stories. They saw in them some wonderful pictures that from a New Testament perspective take on a completely deeper meaning. Perhaps one of the most unusual is in the story of Jonah, where Jesus is seen as a worm.

“Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.” (Jonah 4:5-7 NIV)

In reflecting upon this event the Early Church Fathers interpreted the story in the following manner.

The shelter that Jonah builds represents the Jewish religion of the Old Testament. Something which was of the nature of a temporary and provisional dwelling and which would ultimately be replaced by the eternal Church of Christ.

The plant that God caused to grow up over this shelter was understood as representing the promises of the Old Testament; promises that gave the Jews hope and allowed them to stand firm under the ‘burning heat’ of persecutions and calamities. The ‘shelter’ these promises provided was what St Paul would term, ‘shadows of the things to come’ (Colossians 2:16-17) .

Under this same image therefore and somewhat shockingly, Jesus is seen in the symbol of the worm.  Jesus, in preaching the Kingdom of God and in calling all nations – Jew and Gentile – to it, ‘bites’ the hopes and dreams of earthly glory which had comforted the Jews. He ‘dried them up’ and brought to an end this temporary consolation; for this lesser glory was to be replaced by the greater glory of the One New Man – Jew and Gentile united in the glorious, everlasting Kingdom of God.

 

Can it be possible, that we should see Jesus in the rather unflattering image of a worm?

Actually, Jesus Himself seems to point to the acceptability of this.

Dying on the cross, Jesus quotes psalm 22. He quotes the beginning of the psalm,

‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’

And Jesus also quotes the end of the psalm,

‘he has done it’

Which can be equally translated, ‘it is finished’.

In so citing the beginning and the end of this psalm at this crucial moment, Jesus seems thereby to infer that this psalm has a particular reference to Himself.

And what do we find in the middle of this psalm?

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. (Psalm 22:6 NIV)

There is also a spiritual application that we can make from this.

Dom Jean de Monléon reminds us that Jesus, ‘the divine worm’ comes to bite and to dry up all that is in us that is earthly, fleshly, all that attaches us to the world below, all that would hold us back from the greater, eternal glory of participation in God’s everlasting Kingdom[1].

 

[1] de Monléon Dom J. « Commentaire sur le Prophète Jonas », Clermont Ferrand : Editions de la Source, 1970, p114

This Snake Will Heal You

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Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible (and there are a few !) is the event recounted in Numbers 21.

The people of Israel, newly freed from slavery in Egypt, are on a desert pilgrimage towards the Promised Land.

However, their new-found joy in freedom quickly wanes in the harsh reality of desert travel.

They start to complain against God, accuse Him of bringing them into the desert to die.

In response God sends amongst them venomous snakes and people start to die.

Realizing their sin and stupidity and sin, the people cry out to Moses to pray to God for them.

Which Moses does, and God responds in a surprising way.

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” (Numbers 21:4-9 NIV)

Think for a minute about this.

God has given the Israelites strict commandments about not worshipping idols (a big temptation in this culture), so much so that all images are strictly banned in worship.

Yet here God is, telling Moses to make an image and promising that anyone who looks towards it will not die of a snake-bite.

How odd! If anything is likely to lead these people to idolatry one would have thought that a miraculous snake idol would be it!

However, if we look a little deeper we realize just what is going on here.

Most people are well aware of the first appearance of the snake in the Bible – he is used as a personification of Satan, who comes to tempt Eve in the garden.

An symbolic identification that is continued as God pronounces a curse upon the serpent and makes a prophecy that the serpent will live in enmity to mankind – striking at his heel. However this is followed up by a further prophecy that one day someone will crush the serpent’s head – that is to say destroy him utterly.

This messianic prophecy refers to Jesus who will destroy Satan through the cross.

Given this backdrop the message of this story starts to become clear. In forcing the Israelites to look to the serpent – that image of harm;

God is forcing them to recognize that the snake is the source of their trouble.

They have looked to the snake rather than to God and this has only led them into disaster and death.

The people of Israel admit that their behaviour deserves the snakes, that this punishment is just. The visible presence of the snake statue keeps this failure in view.

In God’s grace this image if harm can become a source of healing.

All of which is wonderfully resonant for Christians.

Jesus states that as the snake was lifted up in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, and for the same reason – to bring the possibility of healing and life.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (John 3:14-15 NIV)

The cross – that image of harm – is used by God to bring life!

In looking to the cross we are required like the Israelites to admit that this is what we deserve – our sins have earned us death. Yet God in His grace makes us the offer of life.

Look to the cross – the poison of sin will be drawn from your system – and you can begin to live.

Look and live!

 

Want to be happy ? (Wrong question)

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Yesterday I was reading Professor James Lovelock’s final book about Gaia. He posits that when global warming finally kicks in properly, the areas of the earth where we currently grow food will mostly become desert. Only those areas currently too cold for food production will be useful.

Which means that he reckons the new, hotter earth will only be capable of supporting about 100 million people (and that is assuming a small ‘footprint’ vegan diet).

Given that the earth’s population is currently 7 billion, this will be quite catastrophic – for humans at least.

Perhaps it is this gloomy outlook for human history that makes me somewhat pessimistic. However as I reflect, during my life most of the things that really matter have gotten worse.

When I was a child a degree guaranteed you a good job in the same company for life. However by the time I got myself one it was hardly enough to get you a job in the mail room of a large corporation.

When I was young the expected life trajectory was to fall in love with someone (of the opposite sex!), get married in early adulthood with the commitment that this was an engagement that would last until death, have kids and live together in a stable home. Now that is very much a minority viewpoint.

When I was young, people mostly believed in God. Christianity was seen as a social good and valuable, even by those who were not practising. They esteemed it as it promoted all the things that lead to human flourishing – honesty, decency, ethical behaviour, morality, compassion for the poor and weak members of society. Now, most of the time Christianity is mentioned it is as a great social evil.

Perhaps linked to the religious underpinning was a sense of duty. That it was right and proper – noble – for men and women to have as their primary goal something bigger than themselves; For God and country.

In contrast the primary goal which seems the most popular is short-term, personal happiness.

Which is ironic, as all the scientific evidence shows that we are far less happy now than in generations past.

Think about it. We live longer, we have more possessions, we have not lived through a global World War and yet we are LESS happy than our parents and grandparents!

Happiness seems to be one of those things, that if you aim at the thing itself you never attain it. A bit like trying making yourself go to sleep.

We only get happiness as a serendipitous side-effect that sometimes comes from doing the right thing.

 

Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t put human happiness as the primary goal of life; glorifying God is the top priority.

If we live lives that glorify God, that express His character and values, we are promised not happiness, but joy.

 

Joy is different to happiness. Happiness is based upon circumstances, whereas joy is a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.

Joy is rooted in a reconciled relationship with the God who loves us, a union and communion that produce joy.

Such a joy is untouched by the vagaries of circumstance.

Which is why Saint James can say,

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2 NIV)

Saint Paul can write of certain struggling Christians in Macedonia,

“In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” (2 Corinthians 8:2 NIV)

In the midst of sever trial and experiencing extreme poverty – yet they were full of joy!

This is only possible because joy is not based on the outward circumstances, but the inward. It is one of the things that God’s Spirit, dwelling in our hearts, produces.

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

As such it can even be commanded,

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV)

Be joyful!