Thursday, 28 May 2020

Why I'm Still a Christian (Part 2)

Part 1 dealt with the question, "is it true?"; Part 2 deals with the question, "is it too hard?" 

Links for more: 

Dear Depression (on why I am glad God hasn't answered my prayers to take away depression) 

Endurance Exercise (for anyone who has found church a struggle) 

3 Almost Helpful Attitudes to Singleness (more on untangling cultural expectations on this issue) 

Friday, 8 May 2020

The Problem of Good

This evening I went on a bike ride at golden hour.
Dappled sunshine splashed through spring-green leaves,
The smell of smoked spices caught the breeze
And then the intense fragrance from tiny petals of lilac.
I weaved through streets,
houses with brightly coloured front doors and clambering roses and primroses;
Bloom and blossom and
A mosaic of rainbows in chalk.

I cycled through allotments of growing vegetables,
tulips in sunglares,
Even the shadows seemed to glow.
It was warm,
The air balmy,
And there was chatter between old neighbours made new friends.
There were kids laughing-
Squinting up at mum in the sunshine,
And she smiled back, delighted. Six weeks in, delighted.

I suppose these days have given me cause
To pause again, and think about
The problem of evil.
How could any ultimate Goodness let things be?
Could a good God allow evil?
And I have thought about that.
I've taken time to ask.
But as I pedalled on
I was confronted:
In canopied avenues and
the scent of the promise of summer-
I was confronted:
Could an indifferent universe allow such good?

This week I turned off my phone.
I wanted to shut out the evil
The pain
The frustration
The disappointment.
And I suppose that kept some of it away.
Of course I knew the waves of bad news would keep breaking,
and probably my heart too.
But I could shut out some of the storm.

But what I couldn't shut out was the goodness.
It still seaped through:
In my version of lockdown:
Lockdown intensified.
I turned off my phone and my heart.

But the sun still shone.
The postman came
Carrying words that were penned without full knowledge of their power;
Someone delivered a notebook for the sake of "the joy",
Someone else gave me a song and the memory of friendship.
Reconcilliation and restoration came to me,
though I had locked down.
I wanted to shut out goodness,
but goodness was too strong:
Hamilton still made me smile,
City Alight still make me weep-
And every meal was a gift,
Every click click click of a ping pong rally.
There was still laughter, and
Novels still staggered me, quieted, ignited,
Coffee still tasted like liquid hope.
Rivers still reflected to the depths trees that reached for the heavens.

Today my road was full, if dispersed-
Though it's felt empty for years.
In one week World Central Kitchen served 3 million meals,
And I keep seeing nurses singing and dancing though
They have the most reason to shut out the joy.
And week after week we applaud:
We applaud, surely, for something real.

The problem of good
Will not stop confronting me,
Even when I want it to.

Justice. Beauty. Truth.
They always intrude,
They will not allow me to diminish them.
Justice. Beauty. Truth.
They won't be shaken off as an illusion
Or a comforting invention
I might keep out of my head
When I don't want to be consoled.
Oh the dark can pour in too,
And through the years it has.
It's given me cause to consider
the problem of evil
(it's made denying its reality a far bigger problem.)
An evil spade is a spade.

But in a world of music and sentences that soar,
In a world of birdsong
And bluebells,
Where community and care and
Diversity and love
and free generosity
Are celebrated-
As reality, not fantasy,
Where even those who isolate to the extreme
will still not stop receiving
Gifts (and of course you know I mean gifts as in
How do you explain the problem of good?

Justice. Beauty. Truth.
They will always intrude
And they will not allow themselves
To be dismissed as a fiction
Or wishful thinking:
A psychological crutch or
A quirk of an empty, meaningless universe:
They're the problem of good:
Justice. Beauty. Truth:
Brick after brick in a fortress from despair.
The problem of goodness,
that has facets more than diamonds:
oh how many more glorious facets than its counterpart!
A thousand crystal clear arrows
That point up to a Giver.

Even now as I write the sun has come down
And sadness
And dismay
And sorrow roll in.
Yes, the sun sets and sorrow floods in
But good floods in too.
And makes Himself my problem.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Series: Seeking the Lord in Lockdown

I wrote these posts over the last four weeks, as a way to seek the LORD, specifically in the psalms, specifically during these strange lock-down days.

Here they are, all in one place- ready for you to read, ready for you to re-read, and ready for you to share!

Each day there's a psalm or two (or three!) to read, some reflections on a specific claim about who the LORD is, and a song to stir up praise to Him. My prayer is each post brings joy and hope in Jesus, whose call to all people, for all times, is that they seek His face.

The Lord is King Forever and Ever
(Psalm 10, Psalm 45) 

The Lord is Righteous
(Psalm 11) 

The Lord is my Portion
(Psalm 16, Psalm 73)

The Lord is my Salvation
(Psalm 18, Psalm 127) 

The Lord is my Shield
(Psalm 28, Psalm 3) 

The Lord is my Strength
(Psalm 28, Psalm 33) 

The Lord is Good
(Psalm 34, Psalm 36) 

The Lord is my Rock
(Psalm 61, Psalm 18)

The Lord is Merciful
(Psalm 103, Mark 15)

The Lord is Exalted
(Psalm 113) 

The Lord is on my Side
(Psalm 118, Psalm 124)

The Lord is my Song
(Psalm 148, Psalm 19)

The Lord is your Keeper
(Psalm 3, Psalm 121, Psalm 139)

The Lord is Near
(Psalm 145, Psalm 27)

The Lord is Worthy
(Psalms 145-150) 

Friday, 17 April 2020

Day 20: The Lord is Worthy

Read: Psalm 145-150

"Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable!" (Psalm 145 v 3)

"For it is good to sing praises to our God; for he is beautiful, and a song of praise is fitting!" (Psalm 147 v 1)

The psalms come to a glorious crescendo at their end, with one big, clear application: praise the LORD! This post is the last in the series- but that's been the ultimate purpose of these posts too. Yes, we want to seek the LORD. But when we find him, if we've found him, we will praise him! In the last 6 psalms of the collection, the writer says, "Praise the LORD!" at least twenty five times, and that's not including the commands to sing, to make music, to make melody, to be glad, to be joyful. The psalmist concludes: the LORD is worth your praise.

A question of worth

Often during painful times in my life, I have found myself thinking about the concept of "worth." When life has felt futile and full of anguish, I have often asked, "it is worth it?" When I lived in France I often wondered- is this worth it- all this pain, humiliation, isolation.. it it worth it? I have felt similarly about suffering with depression: how could anything come from this misery that would make it worthwhile? The agony is too deep; the benefit too little. I suppose I mean, will I see sufficient fruit from it? What could possibly be sufficient fruit to make up for this hurt? Will I ever be able to make sense of it? I've pleaded with God, my heart stumped on that question: is it worth it!?

Perhaps that's a question it's also tempting to ask now, as we try to get our heads round why on earth things have unfolded as they have this year. "Is it worth it?" Whatever redemptive purpose God may have: is it worth it? Is it worth all the suffering? And if I keep going, keep fighting, keep struggling to find joy- will it be worth it? Will it make a difference? And the difference it does make, will it have been worth the pain?

It is true that one day we may well see the ways that God brought beauty out of ashes, and life out of death. But the glory of Biblical faith is that we don't have to look forward to find out if our suffering will be worthwhile. Instead, we can look to the LORD, and we can ask a subtly different but significantly more powerful question: is he worth it?

A better question of worth

Is he worth it? Is he worth my fighting for joy?Is he worth my suffering, my weakness, my days of frustration? Is he worth my fumbling attempts to hold out the word of life?  And in these circumstances- of heartache and loss and waste and death- is he worth my faith, my trust? In all this, is he worth my praise?

The psalmist seems pretty certain of his answer. In the final six psalms, he seems breathless as he churns out reason after reason as to why the LORD is worthy of his praise. And now, we've seen the Word made flesh- we've seen these reasons beautifully embodied in the person of Jesus.

The words below are a mixture of Psalm 146 and 147 and the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.

He made the heaven and the earth; 
he was with God in the beginning.
He's executed justice for the oppressed, 
and he's been executed on behalf of the oppressors: 
he's given food to the hungry
and he's given himself as bread- 

broken so I might be satisfied.
He sets prisoners free! 
"Go and sin no more!"
He opens blind eyes!
"Be opened!"
He lifts up the weary- 

"neither do I condemn you!" 
he watches over the stranger: 
"I've not seen faith like this in all Israel!" 
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
"Daughter, go in peace!" 

he's in the business of undoing evil: 
"Come out of him!" 
He makes the weak strong, 
"Little girl, I say to you, wake up!" 
he blesses children,
"for the kingdom of heaven belongs to these!" 

he makes peace!
"It is finished!" 

I suppose someone could write something far larger to incorporate more of the psalms and the gospels! (I love Wesley's line, "O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer's praise!". Sometimes I feel the same about blog posts... but the series has to end somewhere!)

The point is, the psalms ask us to look back and look up to find an answer to the question: "is he worthy of my praise?" Not "will he prove himself worthy?" Because we know he already has.  The psalms are bursting with truths about the glories of the Lord: they bear witness to all that is fulfilled in his living and in his dying. And the purpose of these truths is that we might praise him, with our words and with our lives.

Looking to him for an answer

When we are in the mire of asking, "how can this be worth it? This pain, this suffering, this perseverance?", we can find hope in looking to Him for the answer. Is the one who lived and loved, and died and loved, and lived again and loved worth it? Regardless of the outcome, regardless of how long it takes, regardless of my circumstances- he has already proved himself worthy. His worthiness was revealed once and for all, as he stretched out his hands on the cross, as he became the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world.

Is he worth it?

And the emphatic answer is repeated, at least twenty five times, in case we miss it:

"Praise the LORD!"

Song: Is He Worthy? by Andrew Peterson

[This is the end of the series. If you have enjoyed these reflections I would love it if you would prayerfully consider passing them on to someone else who might be encouraged by them. Thank you! x)

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Day 19: The Lord is Near

Psalm 145; Psalm 27

Today's blog is the penultimate one in this series, and I like that, because it takes us back to where we started.

"The LORD is near to all who call on him," says the psalmist, "to all who call on him in truth." (Psalm 145 v 18)

Seek my face, says the LORD!

Active nearness

As we've seen throughout the series, and as is evident in this psalm, the nearness of God is not merely a geographical reality, a comment about his omnipresence. The nearness of God is an invitation to intimacy. The LORD who is near is the LORD who upholds the falling and raises up those who are bowed down (v14), who satisfies our longings and fulfils our desires (v 15, 19), who preserves and provides (v 16, 20.) The LORD's nearness is his active faithfulness'; he calls us to seek him and call out to him because we will find him, and he will respond.

A friend recently blogged movingly about isolation, and in particular, about missing her nephew. It reminded me of this gut-wrenching scene in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey's character ends up being on some planet for 5 minutes longer than he meant to, and which leads to him missing the entire childhood of his daughter, because twenty years have passed on earth. It's a beautiful scene where he watches her grow up in a few minutes on screen, because it articulates how we all feel about the passing of time- it's goes too quickly; youth is too soon lost! But it also encapsulates some of what this separation feels like now: there's a loss in watching those we love grown up on screens: how deeply we long for nearness!

In these days where we may be acutely feeling the distance- be it in miles or minutes- from those we love, the LORD is still near. He's made us for other people, and so the grief some of us will be feeling will be acute. Yet, in these days of distance, he invites us to call on him, to experience his nearness, his attentiveness and his loving care.

A specific call

I have found these verses in Acts 17 incredibly helpful in these days. Paul is preaching to unbelievers and he says,

"From one man God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth, and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live." (v 26).

This is staggeringly clear: the LORD has ordained when we live and where we live. These precise circumstances we find ourselves in are not beyond his control. But is his Sovereignty arbitrary? Has he just flung us out across the globe at random? No! Paul carries on...

"God did this so that people would seek him, in the hope that they might reach out for him and find him," (v 27)

There are so many things that are hard to understand as to why God has ordained that our times and places should be what they are during lock down. But here Paul makes it clear: at least one of the reasons for this set up, and for all the details of our life circumstances, is so that we might seek him. Seek his face! And find him! Paul adds, "he is not far from each one of us."

I hope this is encouraging in your experience of lock down, especially if you are feeling the acute pain of separation.

The LORD says, "I am near to all who call on me." And the LORD says, "I've ordained your times and places so that you will seek me out, and find me.Find me to be near, to be kind, to be tender-hearted, to be on your side."

There will be some aspects of the brutality of lock-down that I will never be able to fathom. But I do trust that God means what he says- the times and places are ordained so that we might call out to him. The people we are living with, the friends we are in touch with on social media, the time and resources we have- all of these things have been given to us, apart from anything else, so that we might seek God.

In Revelation 3 v 20, Jesus says, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3v20)

It's such a clear invitation and promise. The LORD desires to bless you with his nearness: with intimacy, with strength, with satisfaction and with joy. Call on him! You will find he is right at your door, ready to come in and eat!

Song: Closer than a Brother by Josh Garrells 

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Day 18: The Lord is your Keeper

Psalm 3, Psalm 121, Psalm 139

"The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand." (121 v 5)

Initially, I found writing today's post difficult, mainly because I kept getting distracted by the image of the LORD as a goalie (I once had a friend who always thought of Match of the Day when singing 'Everlasting God'- something to do with Jesus being described as 'defender of the week': the winning centre-back, yet again!).

I think actually the central idea in this psalm links the LORD as our keeper with the LORD as our shade.

Lord of refreshment

"The LORD is your shade on your right hand" is a promise that the LORD will be a source of renewal to us. It's such a beautiful image when we think of how brutal life can be- like the desert sun beating down on weary travellers- and yet, the LORD is our shade: our rest, our refreshment, the one who leads us beside still waters, the one who restores our soul. This challenges some ideas I have about God as being harsh or demanding. If the LORD is my shade I cannot believe he intends to take from me or shrivel me up. No, he intends to nourish and revive:he is a source of life, not death- and this promise reminds me of that.

But the LORD is also our keeper. The psalmist looks at the hills amid trouble and thinks, "what on earth are we going to do!?" And then he remembers: "my help comes from the LORD." And again, "the LORD is your keeper" is a reminder of his power to renew. Why? Because the immediate application is: you can go to sleep.

Twice the psalmist reminds us, the LORD doesn't sleep- instead: he keeps you.

He keeps, I sleeps 

I was reading an article about how prevalent sleep issues have been during the pandemic. If you have struggled with vivid dreams or excessive napping or early waking or nightmares or insomnia or some variation of sleeplessness: you are not alone. Perhaps that brings some reassurance.

But this psalm brings reassurance as a deeper level: the LORD is watching over you, protecting you and looking after you every hour of every day. You see some of the intimacy of this in Psalm 139. In those hours where we are most powerless, He is still powerful. He is still writing your story. (139 v 16)

God has designed that we sleep for a third of our lives. He has designed it so that at the end of each day, we have to lie down. It's an opportunity for us to hand everything over to a kind Father who will keep working even when we are dead to the world and drooling on our pillows. Sleep is a chance to consciously resubmit our anxieties and our projects to God in their entirety, entrusting that He who keeps us isn't going to doze off! On the contrary: he is always at work to do us good! There's a prayer that children are sometimes taught to say before they go to sleep that goes like this:

"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
Guide me Jesus, through the night,
and wake me in the morning light."

What I love most about it is that it reflects what the psalmist understood about sleep; that every day we wake up because Jesus has brought us through the night. In Psalm 3 v 5 he writes, "I lay down and slept; I woke again- for the LORD sustained me."

Practising for Death

I love to imagine Jesus reading these psalms. He too had to entrust himself to the Father as he faced death- that he would be brought through the other side. And every night before then, he had to lie down and sleep. What joy must have come with the dawn! Each new morning was a beautiful reassurance to Him: I slept, I woke- for the LORD sustained me: of course, my Father will get me through death. And sure enough: "Christ has been raised from the dead: the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Corinthians 15 v 20).

One day we will "sleep"in death and will depend entirely on Jesus to "guide us through the night" and to wake us up in the "morning light" of glory. I feel humbled when I think of how many times I have slept, and woken again- because the LORD sustained me. How many times Jesus has guided me through the night and then woken me in the morning!? How many times has he given me confidence and hope that he will carry me through the ultimate night of death? It makes me want to be so much more deliberate about committing myself to him as I go to sleep, practising for when I die, and all the more deliberate about praising him each morning for his faithfulness in getting me through the night.

He will do good anyway

Just as a final note, I hope that some of these thoughts are encouraging to those who battle with sleeplessness. I have had insomnia twice and it was absolutely devastating. I don't know how anyone bears it. But I think I wanted to finish by saying that the truths at the core of this psalm- that the LORD is our keeper, that he watches over us, sustains us, works when we are weary, helps us when we are utterly helpless- are true regardless of how well we sleep, how refreshed we feel, or how easily our tired minds are able to grasp them.

Song: Jesus: Strong and Kind by CityAlight and Colin Buchannan 

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Day 17: The Lord is My Song

Read: Psalm 19, Psalm 148

"The LORD is my song!" Psalm 118 v 14

Singing Alone 

I haven't sung very much during lock-down. Usually, I sing, loudly, at least once a week at church. I am not a particularly gifted singer, but I absolutely love it. I love the way music encourages you to emotionally commit to the truths you're singing; I love how natural it feels to celebrate in song; I love how humbling it is to hear a whole congregation delight in the same words together.

These days, I tend to watch church from my exercise bike (I say "my"- it's my brothers), which means the few times I've attempted singing it's been so spluttering and unmusical it barely counts as singing. But singing is something I really miss.

I was so struck this morning when I was reminded of this verse in Acts 16 v 25, where Paul and Silas are in jail: "at about midnight [they] were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening." There, in their confinement, faced with the prospect of both suffering and death, they begin to sing to God. Their joy in him bubbles up to song.

There are apparently at least 50 commandments in the Bible to sing: a command that we delight in God with our vocal chords! Music has some wonderful physical effects: it enables us to keep going (that's why most of us run with headphones on), it boosts our mood, and it builds memories (which explains why I know all the words to 'Gangsta's Paradise' yet after two years living in France I could barely conjugate any French verbs!). God wants us to sing, because it enables our whole being to participate in experiencing the joy that is ours in Him!

What's remarkable about Paul and Silas is that as they sing, the other prisoners listened in. Their singing communicated something deep and beautiful about the God they worshipped- not just their words, but that their conviction in those words overflowed to song. The disciples "song" was their ultimate source of joy- their song wasn't their freedom, or their reputation, or even the prospect of a long and prosperous life- if they were, the singing would have stopped by now. Instead, their song is the LORD!

Singing Together

I love what Tim Keller writes about Psalm 148 in his devotions ("My Rock and My Refuge): "all nature sings God's glory, we alone are out of tune."

Out of my bedroom window I can see a cherry tree that is on the verge of an explosion in to bloom: there are already countless shades of pink and green, humming in harmony and in dissonance against a pure blue sky. It's been building to a crescendo- any moment now every last petal will burst in to blossom, each part of a chorus sung in praise of God's handiwork! I hope you have an equivalent singing his praise outside your window!

I love to think of Paul and Silas, exhausted, and faced with uncertainty, and probably in a dungeon without a window overlooking cherry blossom- but nonetheless singing with an ear to the melody of the universe: the LORD is our song! The LORD is our song! The LORD is our cause for delight and hope and joy!

And there is one more reason why the LORD is our song: when we sing we are not just harmonising with nature- though we are! Day after day the sun rises, and sets, and pours out praise to God- "see his divine power! See his eternal nature!" But when we join their song, we are not the only ones singing. The LORD is singing too!

He sang first! 

In Zephaniah he promises: "The LORD will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you with his love; he will exult over you with loud singing!" (3 v 17)

The staggering truth of the gospel story is that the LORD sang first. He is the source of the music and the object of its praise. Not only is the LORD my song, but I am his!

How did the disciples sing in circumstances that are not wholly dissimilar to ours?

Because they knew a LORD who sang over them- a LORD who rejoiced with gladness, who exulted over them with loud singing!

The grace of the LORD Jesus is that my salvation was the joy set before him: and now I am his song. The grace of the LORD Jesus is that while I may have stopped singing during lock-down, he has not stopped singing over me!

Such love, such kindness, such grace can't help but move my heart- my mind and my voice- to song!

Song: The Father's Song,by Matt Redman 
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