Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Silence That Speaks Volumes

This season is so noisy.

There are crackers and pantomimes and those ties covered in elves or snowmen that will sing at you off-key and adverts that everyone has loud opinions on featuring that folk version of what used to be a normal sounding song and there are increasingly hideous Christmas jumpers and there's that house on the corner that looks like it has melting neon reindeers all over it and there is tinsel, a visual version of all of the above noise.

All this is going on over the top of a whole host of other loudnesses.

There's hatred, ignorance, heartbreak, persecution, desperate sickness, violence, war- and then countless, countless words being spoken about it. And what we need is Jesus. We need the Word made flesh; Light shining in the darkness; the Truth revealed.

And meanwhile, we sing:

How silently, how silently- the wondrous gift is given. 

Part of me wishes that Jesus had come to earth more loudly. Part of me wishes that it didn't seem, from a worldly perspective, so insignificant.

But actually, as I sing these words I feel such deep joy; the silence of his coming is joyful news!

Because his silence is his laying aside of his glory, it's good news of great joy being secured.

Jesus was born to us. Jesus was a child, given to us. He became vulnerable, tiny, dependent- so that he might truly be with us, truly be for us, truly be on our side,

His coming seemed quiet because he came in to our darkness. Churches in Burundi, for example, depict the massacre of the Jewish children and the fleeing of Jesus' family in their nativities, because that's how the people can best identify with Jesus. That's the kind of darkness Jesus came to be a light in; the grimmest, most brutal, devastating darkness there is.

As the carol goes, the King of glory, the God of gods and Light of lights, "abhors not the Virgin's womb!" So that he might be with us in our darkness, not only did he not reject the womb, but he also did not reject poverty, or danger, or becoming a refugee. He did not abhor weakness, he did not abhor rejection, he did not abhor violence, humiliation, shame, even death: he did not abhor the womb, and he did not abhor the cross. Christ the Lord was born to us, lived for us, and died for us. He was given in our place.

So he came quietly, and seemingly insignificantly, with glory and comfort and noise laid aside- but because he did, the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. He has taken on our humanity completely, so that he might represent us perfectly, and give us Light eternally.

One day he will come, and it will not be so quiet. But until then, the kingdom continues to grow quietly- with light shining in dark hearts, one by one by one.

No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. 

 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6 

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” Mark 4: 30-32

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

What Won't Atone. And What Will.

When I sin- deliberately, rudely, brazenly- and know that I've sinned, I often decide that I'm going to go on a mission to make up for it.

The first means of atonement I tend to try is time. Once I become aware of my guilt, I just decide I'll sit it out. I decide that as time passes, I will become less guilty. Of course, as time passes- I may feel less guilty. But I won't be less guilty. Guilt is a legal status, not a feeling. And time can't make the act of lawlessness go away. 

If time won't do, I have to find another means. So I think about things that I can do that will be especially selfless, especially pure, especially wonderful to fill in the gaping hole I've ripped open by my rebellion. It doesn't take much effort before it's clear that my acts of selflessness can't plug the gap. Firstly, they're not really all that good themselves, so they just exacerbate the problem. And secondly, they can't take away the original act of sin. It's still there. 

Once I've surrendered to the reality that my goodness won't make up for it- on account of the fact that it's not really that good, I then opt for beating myself up. If I tell myself that I'm useless, and insist on pursuing misery (for what I deem to be an adequate amount of time), then I reason I will make up for my sin. But lurking at the back of my mind is the knowledge that the offence against God is eternal: my few days penance are a pitiful drop in an oceans' worth of debt. 

By now, I'm almost out of excuses. But I then try one last gasp of legalism, and offer up my circumstances as justification. Oh, but it was such a hard week. Oh, but I'm so tired. Oh, but I'm sad. Oh, but I'm in pain. But when you've turned away from the God of all comfort to find counterfeit comfort in sin, this excuse doesn't wash as a justification- and it doesn't atone for sin. 

All of my time, all of my goodnesses, my excuses, my self-inflicted punishments- even my most finely crafted apologies cannot atone for sin. 

I am guilty. I am stained. I am wretched. 

And Christ died for my sin. 

Christ. Died. For. My. Sin. Five words to blow the mind! 

Starting with his humble birth, through his obedient and completely pure life, and by his death, he knew my need and met it. He knew my weakness, and became my strength. He knew my guilt, and gave me his innocence. God's chosen King humbled himself, even up the point of his death in my place- and dealt with my sin. 

He came to me in my utter helplessness- and where I couldn't remove a single stain, he removed it all. Where I was too weakened by my own sinfulness, where I was steeped in my own brokenness, my own wretchedness- he reached down, he became my strength, he lifted me up. He washed away my sin, by his own blood. He became my refuge; he shielded me from the wrath that should have fallen on me. As the weight of my debt crushed him, he loved me, and as he was condemned, he said to me: "I forgive all your sins." 

"The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger, 
In all our trials, born to be our friend: 
He knows our need! Our weakness is no stranger! 
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!" 

I cannot atone for my sin. But Christ can. 

What a wonderful Saviour is Jesus. 

Monday, 30 November 2015

So Long November

Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ. And do you know what prepares us for advent? 


November, a pretty impressive metaphor for, "darkness and the shadow of death." 

November, which features: the end of significant amounts of daylight, new depths of cold, named gales, wind that sets off car alarms, wind that makes every journey by foot twice as wiggly and thus twice as long, wind so intense it breaks your car door and ends up trapping you in your own car, forcing you to clamber over the gear stick in an uber-undignified manner (#truestory), the end of upright bins, the fine rain that soaks you through, the catsanddogs rain that only arrives when you're on a bike, hail, the interminable search for gloves, frozen fingers, frozen windscreens,  lateness induced by frozen windscreens, blindness caused by unnecessary use of fog lights, blindness caused by fogged up glasses, Black Friday, Black Friday Week, premature playings of that Slade song, Adele's song wherever there are sound waves and wherever there aren't premature playings of that Slade song, coughing, sneezing, other people coughing and sneezing near you or on you, X Factor, X Factor Xtra, Xtra XFacta Xtream, chapped noses, chapped lips, numb toes, embarrassingly straggly facial hair and inside out umbrellas. 

Yep- November's over. It's spelt out the allegory loud and clear, and it's made us ready.

We're ready for the Light shining in the darkness; we're ready for the Sunrise from on high.

Advent (noun): The arrival of a notable thing, or person. 

O come, thou Daybreak, come and cheer,  
Our spirits by thine advent here;  
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,  
And death's dark shadows put to flight.  

Rejoice, rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. 

(Here is a more serious treatment of the same subject...)  

Sunday, 22 November 2015

A Birthday Letter

To 29 Year Old Philippa on the eve of your 30th birthday,

You are about to turn 30.

I know. You are utterly miserable about it. But that's why I, Philippa of the present, Philippa of almost one full year in the future, Philippa who braved 30, thought I should write.

You are caught between abject misery and hyperventilating panic. You thought that 29 would go on forever and ever, but here you are on the 30th of November, and- I hate to break it to you as I know it's sort of your only hope right now, but Jesus isn't coming back before tomorrow morning. December the 1st 2014 does arrive. You reach the big 3-0.

Please find the enclosed tissues.

Somehow you convinced yourself that you would have achieved a lot more by this stage in your life. You thought you'd be married by now, and a mum, and a nation-changer, just the right balance of Jennifer Lawrence, Charles Spurgeon and Becky Manley Pippert, and basically a whole load less messy. Or at least you thought you'd have mastered the hair.

Even now, aged 29 and 99.9% , you're wondering whether there really is zero possibility of your either a) changing the world or b) finding a husband and marrying him before tomorrow morning. I hate to break it to you- but there isn't. You do neither of these things pre-31 either, but we'll get 32 year old Philippa to counsel you through that one.

Right now, you're mourning; you feel like your life is over; you feel like you've failed at ever being enough.

So I thought, with my having been 30 for almost a year now, I could write to you to reassure you that it's really not all that bad. Here are some words of hopefully comfort and advice.

Firstly, I just want to say that I do understand the crushing weight of disappointment you're feeling right now. I know that you've been hearing a lot from 16 year old Philippa who keeps saying, "I TOLD YOU SO, I TOLD YOU SO." Yes, 16 year old Philippa did worry that you might reach 17, 18, 19, 27... 30 boyfriendless and husbandless and mediocre. She was always harping on about the worst case scenarios, and carried on this rampage of doom for years and years and years.

But you need to take it from your wiser, older self: you are not single, or insignificant because 16 year old Philippa was right about everything. Bear in mind, for example,  that she is the one that told you wearing white nylon trousers was acceptable. On this, and many other points, she was wrong. Very wrong.

Remember that just like her, even almost 30 year old you is not right about everything. Your negativity may influence the future, but it isn't running the show. Jesus is running the show; Jesus commands your destiny. As the years go by, as they are in the habit of doing,  don't forget this. All sorts of people will offer you explanations for your successes (or lack of) and singleness- but the big one is that God is Sovereign. And in His sovereignty, He loves you.

Secondly, chill out about needing to be AMAZING.

Don't forget too that you're currently sitting crying your eyes out in the middle of an incredibly prestigious university town. You are surrounded by people who are outstanding. They were the ones who didn't answer all their university interview questions with, "I don't know." They were the ones who saw the value in piano practice, rather than sitting down at the keyboard, playing the demo button a few times, and then going off to watch Neighbours. They were the ones who spent their study periods studying, rather than playing poker, Splidge and "Guess Whose Hand This Is?" with that smelly glove you found in the common room. At this point, you need to stop comparing yourselves to these people. Make that a 20s thing. In your thirties, get over "amazing."

The idea that you need to be amazing is a lie. The truth is, you need an amazing Saviour. More on this later.

For now, you need to remember: you're part of a culture where everyone expects that they will be talented and well paid and awesome. And part of the crushing weight you're feeling right now comes from that horrible Ideal Self that's lurked in your mind for years and condemns you for not being a supermodel missionary marathon running musical francoise genius. Ignore "Ideal Self". Firstly, if you met her, you'd definitely hate her. Secondly, she doesn't exist. Ideal Self is an illusion of a society that tells you to be yourself, and then beats you up for all you're not.

As much as possible, forget yourself. Think about other people, think about Jesus.

(And as a practical tip- thinking about other people is so much easier when you are with other people. So, if in doubt- hang out.)

(As a second practical tip for not thinking too much about yourself- don't write too many letters to yourself.)

Right now, you feel like there's no hope for your mediocrity. But, it won't be long until you get your head together and figure out a bit more about how to be okay with being okay.

Thirdly, you have a lot of fun in the coming year: you get in to exercise in a way that the Philippas of your twenties would balk at, you go to see Taylor Swift live in concert and get to go to a party dressed as her cat. The autumn of 2015 is staggeringly beautiful, and you'll find yourself clambering through hedgerows to get some kind of permanent snapshot of the beauty. You'll discover Mr Josh Garrels and hear music and lyrics that are the perfect mixture of realism and hope; they seep right in to your heart and soothe it, like the musical equivalent of sun beating warmth through frosted up windows. "Farther Along" and "Morning Light" get you out of bed on multiple occasions.

You're going to end up living in a normal house that so far exceeds your expectations, you won't believe it. Your friends are going to have a little baby and it'll become one of your favourite humans. You'll read, and love the process and the concept of it like never before. Whatever you read, there will be some sort of pleasure in it. The fact you encounter Stoner this year is reason alone to keep your head up; it helps you understand how beautiful unobserved, insignificant lives can be.You'll write regularly, and it's going to warm you up, energise you and help you love and understand the gospel more. I know you feel so disappointed with your years so far; I remember. But don't despair. As you write you'll begin to see so much of what God's spoken to you and wrought for you in the darkness. And you'll see Taylor Swift live in concert.

There are some parts of your 30th year that are really horrible.  There will be times of hardness and tangible, at times overwhelming sadness- friends and nations will suffer and stumble, evil will surge, heartbreak will devastate. But the gospel will often be a comfort. Even when it isn't- remember that trouble will only last a lifetime, and even when you can't believe it, He will do good anyway.

Suffering is part of life, and not part of being 30. Your 30th year is not the dead end you're anticipating right now.

The best bits will be the bits where you forget about the past, and forget about the future up until the defining event of your future- and remembering Jesus, just enjoy the good parts of now. There will be times when the now doesn't really seem to have good parts. But hang in there, because they will turn up eventually: often out of the blue, often far sooner than you're expecting and always because of God's kindness, rather than your merit. Let this be a further source of joy to you!

Remember Jesus. Rejoice. Remember Jesus. And when you've remembered him, rejoice again, and remember again.

He will be with you in the coming year, as he has been in years before. He will be your comfort, your refuge- and time and time again, He will be what you need; He is an amazing Saviour; He's your forgiveness; He will be your hope. In all things, all things- he has been, is, and will be working for your good.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
You have already come: 

His grace has brought you safe thus far,
His grace will lead you home. 

I promise you. 30 is okay. It's one more year with Jesus, and that's really something to look forward to.


Tuesday, 17 November 2015

To The Darkness

Recently I've been struggling to write.

There may be many reasons for this, but the main one, I think, is that at certain times, words can seem more trite than at others. In times of shocking, incalculable horror words of wisdom can feel completely repellent and inadequate for acknowledging the weight and devastation of our experiences.

Life in our world is too deep, and big, and complex; too horrendous and yet too thirsty for hope;  too nuanced, too human for triteness. So although these thoughts are hugely influenced by current events, I hope they don't sound too easy, or neat, or trite.

There is no such answer for our world.

Yet, there is a person.

Like every person- Jesus is not neat, or easy, or trite.

He is unfathomable! He has a character, personal reactions, he has mystery, he has glory- and though he can be utterly perplexing, he is equally compelling.   He is not trite, for He has suffered violence, and death and humanity. When he returns, we will see Him looking slain. He is not easy because has said, "Surely, I am coming soon." Yet our hearts yearn with the cry of, "how long, O LORD?" We feel the struggle of the wait and it seems so clear that His return will be the only satisfying answer.  Yet Jesus- whose kindness is so abundant to have many more repent- will not be "neat."

And yet, because of this, because he's not an "answer" or a maxim, or a meme, because he is complex, in a deep, mysterious, hopeful way- He is sufficient for the depth of the darkness. Because He is rich and sometimes inscrutable in his wisdom, He is the light that overcomes.

So below is something I wrote a few nights back. It feels inadequate in many ways- but it is the Person of Jesus, rather than any words, who is the cause for real hope.

To the darkness;
To nights of bloodshed and of wailing,
To the shrill cries of victory from the mouths of merciless slaughterers;

He is coming soon.

To the murkiest of perversions that have long lurked in the shadow,
To presumptions that threats might hold the power to conceal,
To all that has soiled innocence, trampled life, extinguished hope;

He is coming soon. 

To brutality; 
To violence; 
To arrogant, aggressive minds;
To tyranny in cities, and in homes and minds and bedrooms; 

To meaningless religiousity and empty masks of morality,
To staggering pomposity that would patronise the truth;
To stubbornness and cynicism and damaging indifference;
To prejudice, to selfishness, to unashamed egotism;
To judgments laid heavy without meekness, without truth;
To devastating foolishness wrapped in words of empty wisdom;

To clanging gongs and echoes; to every kind of lovelessness;
To tombs; 
to graves; 
to every evil power;

He is coming for His victory, 
and He is coming soon. 

"Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all tribes on earth will mourn on account of Him."
Revelation 1: 7

"In your majesty ride out victoriously for the cause of truth, and meekness and righteousness..."
Psalm 45: 4

"Surely, I am coming soon."
Revelation 22:20

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Four Words to Blow the Mind

I say, 

I will give you all my praise.
On Sundays. At least, during the singing.
Definitely during the final verse of that absolute belter.
And during the good bits of the sermon. 

I will give you half an hour each morning, 
Apart from on busy weekends, 
Or days when the night before was full (of something that probably wasn't exactly giving you all my praise.) 
On days when I am tired, too: then it might be less.
But I will usually give you that full half hour-

apart from when stress 
and to do lists interrupt. 

I will give you my money 
I will consider it all yours 
until I see something that I am 
really sure I need. 

I will give you the last say, 
apart from when I give you no say at all. 

I will give you my future. 
For about two minutes. as long as it looks bright.
Then I will grumble about my present and I will give you bitterness.

I will give you doubt, 
and darkness. 
and despair, 
even in the face of remarkable reasons for hope, and gratitude.
I will give you complaints.
And sometimes I won't even give you that.

I will give you love
or at least, I will give you excuses for my lack of love.

I will give you
deceitful motives 
and selfishness 
destructive words 
and hurtful decision making
and self-pity
and despair. 

I will give you countless reasons to condemn me. 

And even when I will give you apologies, 
and everything I can to make up for my cold, hard heart, 
Even when I am handing over my purest sorrows, 
and my most sincere repentance, 
I know-  
I will give you filthy rags." 

Then You, 
looking right at me, in my shame, 
and shortcomings 
and grim and blatant nakedness, 

"I will give you

I will give you a clean slate.
I will give you great and precious promises.
I will give you my Son. 

And I will give you rest.

I will give you a righteousness that is not your own, but mine.
I will give you a new life,
a new heart, 

a new spirit,
a new future.
I will give you a Redeemer,
And I will give you rest. 

I will give you hope, 
and a refuge; 
a strong tower.
I will give you an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.
I will give you power enough for perseverance.
And then I will give you a reward for having persevered.

I will give you the right to become my child. 
I will give you every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms.
I will give you everything you need to approach my throne with boldness.
I will give you comfort,
and grace,
and peace, 

and joy-
I will give you Jesus-
And I will give you rest. " 

"Come unto me," he says, and I will give you." You say, "Lord, I cannot give you anything." He does not want anything. Come to Jesus, and he says, "I will give you." Not what you give to God, but what he gives to you, will be your salvation. "I will give you"- that is the gospel in four words. 

C.H. Spurgeon

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Tracing The Rainbow

Here's a prayer I wrote when I was going through a bad patch. Maybe it'll be helpful to someone. 

Lord God,
Many things will happen in the next week; in the next week sadness will come, condemnation will rage and the future will gape empty before me.
I will feel angry with myself, and abandoned by You.
But please help me to believe that You are faithful.
Give me mercies for each new day- grace to trust you, to choose joy in that day, to bless others, one day at a time, one moment at a time. One decision at a time, help my love to overflow.
Strengthen my heart to trust in the triumph of your goodness in all things- one glimpse at a time.
Please Father, send your Spirit to be with me in the darkness.
Even when it seems impossible that you could- be bearing fruit in my life, through my life. Even when it seems impossible that you could- be preparing me for the future, redeeming the futility, bringing victory out of failure.
Somehow Jesus, here in the depths, let me know you better than I have before.
Let my brokenness be good for something beyond what I can see.
For your glory, 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

On Beauty (Part Two)

I imagine that it is possible that somewhere, perhaps in the America's Next Top Model house, there might be someone who is perfectly content with their appearance. I doubt it, but I will allow for the possibility. But I think the Bible has things to say about beauty to that person. And I imagine that reading this post there are a whole range of people, from those who are aware of their attractiveness, to those who feel they are categorically and unequivocally ugly.

I decided then, as I was starting to collate what I thought the Bible might have to say on this, what it might have to say whatever our level of physical attractiveness. However attractive we are, we will probably be less attractive at some point in the future. However attractive we are, we are probably aware that that can fluctuate based on a whole range of factors.

So, below are some thoughts on what the Bible seems to me to say about our physical body- whoever we are, whatever state our body is in.

Whatever our level of attractiveness, our physical body is passing away. 
The most explicit thing the Bible says about beauty, is that it is fleeting. (Proverbs 31). 

And it is- not only in the eye of the holder (how quickly minds are changed!), but we are also physically perishing. We are "wasting away". The fight to hold on to physical beauty is, ultimately, futile. We can't put our hope in our body, for anything- it's unreliable. What's recommended instead is fearing the Lord- who is steadfast, eternal, and unchanging.

Whatever our level of attractiveness, our physical body does not justify us. 
The Bible acknowledges that some people are more physically attractive than others. For example, there were "no women so beautiful as Job's daughters" who he is given at the end of the book. Rachel is more beautiful than Leah. Abram recognises that Sarai will get particular attention in Egypt because she is "a woman beautiful in appearance."

Of course- to most women, these statements feel horribly exclusive. We may not make it into the "beautiful" bracket. And if we do, we may not make it in to the "model beautiful" bracket. And if we do, we may not make it in to the "supermodel beautiful" bracket. And if we do, even then, we probably don't make it in to the "beautiful enough" bracket.

But, however attractive we are, as discussed in the last post- our attractiveness cannot be our justification. If we want to be made right with God, we cannot just project an image of beauty- there is no spiritual foundation, spiritual concealer, spiritual plastic surgery.

"No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account." Hebrews 4: 13

All have fallen short of the acceptable standard- all must depend on Jesus for their justification. All ugly hearts must take refuge under the shadow of his beautiful- by God's standards- wings.

Whatever our level of attractiveness, our physical body does not condemn us. 
Have you ever stood in front of the mirror and felt condemned? Or looked at a photo and felt a sense of shame, or despair? I know I have! We are bombarded with messages- explicit and not- that if you don't fit a certain definition of beauty then you are condemned to a loveless, unhappy life. Generally speaking, films show us attractive people falling in love. Even the "ugly" girls find their redemption when some heroic man sweeps in, happens to see past the overalls and glasses, and vindicates the girls beauty. So it is unsurprising that when we feel physically unattractive, we feel condemned.

However, the gospel makes clear that "there is now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Maybe we feel condemned by God for knitting us together in our mother's womb so we look one way and not another. I remember reacting to David's "I am fearfully and wonderfully made," of Psalm 139 thinking- "that's easy for you to say, Dave- you've got beautiful eyes and a handsome face! (1 Samuel 16:12) ". Or maybe we feel condemned by ourselves- we feel that our appearance condemns our own weakness, incompetence, greed...

But the promise of Romans 8:1 is that believers are under NO condemnation.

Jesus was condemned in our place. Jesus took shame in our place. So whatever else it may be, our physical appearance is not a condemnation. Even if aspects of our physical appearance are self inflicted- God does not condemn. In all things, including our appearance- God is working for our good.

"Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? God is the one who justifies!"

If the God of creation doesn't condemn us, then we are not condemned- and I think this means that when the mirror condemns us, or society, or ourselves- we need to refer ourselves back to this absolutely central promise.

Whatever our level of attractiveness, our physical body is for honour, not punishment. 
"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price." 1 Corinthians 6

Firstly, Jesus died to redeem our bodies. This means, that his body was put on the line, punished, brutalised, destroyed, given over to shame and condemned in your place. We do not need to add any punishment to our bodies. Our bodies do not condemn us. Our bodies belong to Jesus.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit is within our physical bodies. The argument in 1 Corinthians 6 is about the physicality of our beings and saying that we need to treat our bodies with an awareness that it's the Spirit's temple. This means we honour our bodies, recognising that the Lord of glory dwells there.

Whatever our level of attractiveness, it can never exclude us from the good news of great joy...

Thousands of years ago, the angel came to some stinky shepherds on a hillside. Society had excluded them. They were poor, they were at the bottom of the culture's ranking order, and they certainly weren't attractive. But the angel said to them: "I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people." The world will tell us our physical appearance will entitle us to, or exclude us from happiness. But the gospel includes us. We are included. The joy of the Saviour- the joy of Christ the Lord, is for all the people. All. The. People.

Jesus came to bring freedom- and sometimes our physical appearance can make us feel trapped. There can be a perceived message that if we were more beautiful we would be more happy, more secure. But Christ himself is our security- and he sets us free. So, in a world encouraging us to get entangled in all manners of slavish behaviours that will make us a little more "beautiful"- we need to be deliberate in not submitting to a yoke of slavery. Beauty is a cruel master that always requires more! Jesus is a kinder, more reliable, faithful master.

We are no longer slaves, we have been set free. This means, apart from anything else- we can stop looking in the mirror! We were made to look to others- and to Jesus, and there is great healing in self-forgetfulness.

Whatever our level of attractiveness, our physical bodies will be made new. 
Though outwardly, from the day of our birth, we are wasting away, inwardly, through the gospel, we are being renewed. This means that we don't need to obsess over beauty because the Bible makes it clear we'll never keep hold of it anyway- and we can relax, because we do have a physical future that will be awesome: "What is sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." 1 Corinthians 15: 44

However we feel about our bodies right now, we're going to be given resurrection bodies that are characterised by imperishability, glory and power. Jesus is in the process of making this happen: He will make everything beautiful in its time.

Words that wound, words that heal, words that last
As a postscript, I know for me, many of my feelings of condemnation come from careless words spoken to me- some of them many, many years ago- that have lodged themselves in my mind and have had an enormous influence on how I've thought about myself. And I think it's okay to recognise the power of these words. But, the Bible says so many more glorious things about me. And the words of unkind teenage boys, the media, our own harsh minds, for example, will pass away, but-  "The word of the LORD remains forever." 1 Peter 1:25

May God give us grace to believe what's true!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

On Beauty (Part One)

If you type "beauty" in to Google, Google will give you 1,540,000,000 results (compare this to "grace", for example, which has nine hundred and twenty million fewer results). Apparently, people want to know about it. In fact, messages about beauty are being communicated all the time.

As I live in a society that is going to talk to me about it all the time, I decided to get my head around what The Bible says about beauty. I came up with a few things, but I'm going to break them up in to more than one post, because no one needs to hear me waffling on about it for 18 pages (FRONT AND BACK!)

So, the Bible does acknowledge physical beauty- several characters are described as being physically attractive or "lovely to look at." But time and time again it's made clear: God is far more concerned with the appearance of our heart than with our outward, physical appearance. So, surely- my engagement with issues of beauty should reflect these priorites?

People frequently make worth-based judgments from what they see. But God says: "The Lord does not see as man sees; man looks on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." (1 Samuel 16) When Samuel's trying to choose a new king- He's told the heart matters more. And David does look attractive- he's got beautiful eyes and a handsome face, but the Lord is interested in something deeper. This is echoed in Proverbs 31, where physical beauty is oddly absent from this list of attributes for a wife "more precious than jewels." She is hailed for everything from trustworthiness to fruitfulness, from strength to hard work, from generosity to wisdom- but physical beauty doesn't get a mention.

This point is further emphasised in 1 Peter 3 when women are instructed not to get their 'beauty' from outward shizz, but instead to adorn the hidden person of their hearts- with a beautiful spirit. I love that in this passage that an example of inner beauty is fearlessness that comes from trusting in Christ instead of anything else. It acknowledges that the world has a thousand things it thinks we should be afraid of- including a lack of or loss of beauty, but says- don't give way to fear, hope in Jesus instead!

All this to say, the Lord does not think about beauty in the same terms as the world does.

Actually, he thinks about it in more terrifying terms... he's looking at my heart. And there is far greater ugliness there. My sin has shriveled me up in to a selfish rebel- and while just the right foundation might, for a morning, cover skin-deep blemishes- nothing can hide the true state of my inner being.

In this, my only hope is Christ- who has desired to make my heart beautiful- and became truly repulsive, so that God could delight and rejoice and be glorified by the beauty of a wretched sinner, redeemed.

Interestingly, one of the Bible passages that most eloquently expresses the beauty of Christ explicitly says that he had none of it: there was nothing in his appearance that we should desire him;  he was one from who men turn their faces (Isaiah 53) Paradoxically, the uglier he got- the more of his beauty he displayed. "Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by his stripes we are healed."

The Lord does not think about beauty in the same terms as the world does.

What makes Christ beautiful is his radical self sacrifice. By making himself ugly in our place, Christ is able to present us to himself "in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing." (Ephesians 5)  Given that our hearts were diseased with sin, this is an astounding redemption. It is in his trustworthiness, goodness, fruit, work, strength, generosity and wisdom that we see that he is "more precious than jewels".

I think I would like to think about beauty in the same terms as the Lord. More to come on this...

Thursday, 15 October 2015

What Clouds Cannot Alter

The other day I was told a mind-blowing fact by an expert eleven year old boy.

He dropped this knowledge bomb with the enthusiasm and authority that only eleven-year-olds can, and when I later used Google to verify his knowledge, my mind was blown once more. So, brace yourselves...

Did you know, the mass of the sun constitutes 99.8% of the Solar System's total mass?

That is massive.

So often our engagement with the sun does not recognise how enormously significant it is. I don't do maths, but 99.8%!? That's high.

Maybe it's because we live in Britain- and so the sun is a muted force that lets us see things, a few rays valiantly cutting through the layers of sturdy clouds. We know it's pretty essential for things like life, and making trips to the Med worthwhile, but often we think of the sun as being "lovely"- a welcome guest when we see it, but generally irrelevant to our day to day experience. We don't think of it as constituting 99.8% of the Solar System's mass.

And sometimes, that's how we relate to Jesus too. There, obviously, but lurking somewhere out of sight. Making things a bit better, a bit warmer, a bit clearer- but essentially veiled from sight and behind a whole load of clouds. Clouds of the years of history, clouds of business, of stress, of suffering, or Netflix.

Maybe, occasionally, the sun renders us speechless.

This summer I saw the most stunning sunset I've seen in years. The sky was dull, overcast, hazy- until the sun dipped below the horizon. Suddenly, the heavens exploded with waves of colour; swathes of pinks and purples running in to one another, clouds lit like embers, the dwarfed sea mirroring the vibrancy above it. In time the shades intensified- expanding- surrounding us with a glow of glory.

It was absolutely staggering.

And sometimes, that's how we relate to Jesus. He grips our hearts and we are captivated by the unexpected intensity of his worth, his majesty. We see the wonder of a rugged cross, the majesty in his humility, we exalt in the intricate cohesion of prophecy, of history- all held together, gloriously, in Him. Sometimes we see Jesus like we saw that sunset: chasing away darkness, we feel his comforting warmth, we see him more vibrantly than anything else.

But we don't always see him like that. Often, it tends to be a moment, a swell: the awestruck wonder fades- and we maybe go and get something to eat. It isn't often we think of him as constituting 99.8% of the Solar System, as it were.

But this post is not a rebuke on "why don't we just give him some credit?" (though we should!), but rather a rejoice (if that's okay to noun-ify!) that in many ways, Jesus is like the sun (or rather the sun is like Jesus.)

I find it so reassuring, in times of darkness to know that- whatever the problem- the problem is not with Jesus. In the same way that darkness does not make the sun less than 99.8% of the mass within the Solar System, our darkness does not make Jesus anything less. It is not that he is not enough. We don't need to convince him to be anything we need, or persuade him to be more glorious in any way. He is all over it!

Just like the sun, whatever's going on, He's still there: burning brightly, giving life, healing the wounded, breathing life in to shriveled up shrubs. He is there: reliable, and steadfast, and glorious.

He is brilliant.
He is significant.
He is there. Like the sun is there: massive in significance, always at work, utterly vibrant.

So though we don't see him now, though the darkness lurks oppressively, impressively, destructively- He is still there.

And the darkness will not be impressive forever. Maybe, just now, darkness is all we see. As the psalmist puts it, "darkness is my only friend." (Psalm 88) Maybe we're cold, or bored, or mystified- shrouded in fog, desperate for just a glint of something.

But nonetheless, though we may not see Him now, the problem is not with Jesus.

Nonetheless, He is the light of the world.
Nonetheless, dawn is coming.
And nonetheless, when that dawn comes, there will be no more night. (Revelation 22). 

Monday, 12 October 2015

Questions From the Furnace

The psalmists ask a lot of questions.

For example; 

Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
How long must I take counsel in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
Why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
You are the God in whom I take refuge, why have you rejected me?
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
Have you not rejected us, O God?
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
When will you comfort me?
How long must your servant endure?

I love these words because they are so real. They are full of the intensity of emotion and of brokeness- they are honesty and hurt entangled together with threads of faith. They are words that see the world as it is, and plead with God for mercy, for Himself- in the light of raw experience.

Do these words reveal doubt? Maybe, in some ways. But I think they reveal more faith. They show us the kind of God the psalmist believes in.

Because God is his ever present help, he can ask why God seems far off. If he believed in an aloof deity he'd never wrestle with the question. Having known the kindness and gentle provision of the Lord, he deeply feels the pang of his apparent distance in time of trouble; the Lord promises to bring hope, and life, and healing- this is the foundation for the psalmist asking why he feels so comfortless. Because the Lord is a God of redemption- of promise, of covenant, of unshakeable and awesome faithfulness, the psalmist is perplexed that his deliverance has not yet come.

He asks, "why have you forsaken me?" in the light of God's promise that he won't.
He asks, "why do you hide your face?" because he believes in a God who makes himself known- in clarity and glory and intimacy, in the glories of the skies and in the precepts of his word.
He asks why God forgets his suffering because He believes that the LORD cares; that God is mindful of his people, mind blowing as that may be!
He asks why his soul is cast away, because He believed- and believes God's promise never to reject Him.

It seems to me that big, difficult questions aren't always the fruit of doubt. Often they're what's produced on the battleground for faith.

In times of suffering, some of the pain and struggle would ease if we just stopped believing that God was good. If we just let go of his promise of tender care, of light, of life- then the experience of darkness would be difficult, but we'd have one less struggle. But, I think, probably, it's better to battle with God- to ask the big questions- than to let go of difficult promises when our life experience casts them in to shadow. In times where the questions feel big, there's a deep, steady- perhaps muted- joy in knowing the kind of Lord whose unending love and dependable care makes us ask questions of our broken, loveless experience.

The psalmist asks,

What is man, that you are mindful of him? The son of man, that you care for him?

Because he asks this question- he can ask the others too. In the darkness, when we bring our questions to God- we cling to this promise dearly. Because he cares for me, because he loves me, because he is mindful of all my ways- I'll tell him the truth; I'll not let go of his promises; I'll ask him my questions.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

A Thousand Lives

Every now and then, an article pops up on my Newsfeed that has a title that goes something a long the lines of "15 Things Only Sisters Can Understand", or "24 Things Only Dog Lovers Can Understand", or "83 Things Only Software Developers Can Understand." These articles annoy me no end. Not because I can't see the humour in listing things that are unique to a certain niche experience, or because I'm against the "Aren't Sisters/ Dogs/ Software Developments great!?" sentiment that I assume lies behind them. 

They annoy me because their title assumes that we live in a world without empathy;  that it is impossible to understand something that is outside your direct remit of experience. This is, of course, nonsense. If we're going to live in a world where we can only understand people who are just like us, then we may as well give up now.

Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand and share the feelings of others from within their frame of reference. 

It's the basis of friendship, of compassion, of a diverse and kind society.

It's also one of the things that is most awesome about reading.

Unsurprisingly, this sentence is one of those most well-known in literature: "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view- until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." Not only does Atticus make a profound point about human relationships, but he nails what it is- or much of what it should be- to read fiction. 

When you read you are in the process of climbing inside of someone else's skin, and seeing life from their point of view. It scares me that reading is less popular than it was- not as much because I care about literacy as because I care about empathy.

There's such beauty in the capacity to pick up a book, and immerse yourself in another person's world, another person's frame of reference.

George R.R. Martin (author of a series called "Game of Thrones" - you heard about it here first #not...) put it, "the reader lives a thousand lives; the man who never reads lives only one." And it's true. For example, I don't know what it is to be someone's second wife, but as I read Rebecca, I glimpse what it might mean to wrestle with the weight of jealousy, fear and desperation that might threaten and swell in the weeks following marriage. I will never know what it is to be an African tribesman, facing the deterioration of everything precious and sacred about my culture and my person, but as I read Things Fall Apart, I begin to feel the anguish of a life, a worldview, a heritage torn apart. I am not a middle aged man, and I hope I never have an affair- but as I read Stoner, I could feel its compelling attraction for a man whose quiet, dutiful life was frustrated by lovelessness, by rivalry, by isolation. 

I want to read because I want to know what it is to live a life that is not my own. My life experience is narrow, and reading lets me see and feel life from the perspective of those with a different set of assumptions, weaknesses, privileges...

Reading allows us to live a thousand lives, to see, as C.S. Lewis puts it, "with a myriad of eyes", to "become a thousand men"- and yet remain ourselves. But while I remain myself, I don't remain unchanged. Literature lets me be shaped by experiences and feelings and motivations and bitternesses that are not currently- and may never be my own. But I'm better equipped to love for having felt them as I read.  

Reading teaches me to empathise. 

And what's awesome about empathising is that it's very like Jesus. 

But Jesus empathises with humanity in a uniquely gritty, uniquely real, and uniquely glorious way. The carol encapsulates the wonder so beautifully: lo, he abhors not the Virgin's womb! The Lord of glory doesn't despise our lowly frame of reference.Though he is in very nature God, he doesn't run from, reject or revolt against becoming one of us. 

From the womb to the grave we have a Saviour who empathises; who sees things from our point of view. He identifies with our weaknesses, our heartaches, our motivations. This is glorious. Jesus has taken on our skin, walked round in its weakness, and died to pay for its inadequacies. He identifies. He sympathises. He understands. He has felt as we have felt. And because from that place of weakness, he does not sin- he secures our salvation.

Christ took on a frame of reference that was not his own. And I want to be like him. And reading fiction is just one small thing that, I think, helps me do this.

Reading. Jesus. Get involved.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Worst Case Scenario

Dread and I have been hanging out a lot more than I'd like recently. He's an aggressive sort; intrusive and verbose and takes far too much pleasure in rearing his dismal head. I'll be getting on with life- doing my work, chatting with friends, reading the Bible, going for a run, watching a film, searching for my iPhone... and then suddenly, Dread shows up.

Dread lays himself heavy on my heart and starts to choke out hope.

Dread tells me that the worst case scenario is going to happen. Dread says, "all those fears you've battled, all those disasters you've assured yourself probably won't come to pass, all those eventualities you've squirmed against and put off and (slightly desperately) insisted would ever happen- they're going to happen."

Dread tells me I've been right at my most despairing, that my negative predictions for the future were entirely justified (if a little rosy) and that the best thing for me to do is to stop doing whatever I have been doing immediately, climb in to some metaphorical (or literal) hole in the ground, and surrender to the flood of panic, despair and gloom.

Today I've been thinking about a Bible verse that looks Dread right in the face. It says, "ok- let's go there. Worst case scenario. Let's look at a future where the earth has given way, the mountains are completely submerged in the sea, where the mountains tremble at the threat of all those things we've always feared. Let's look at things when they are that bad. And then, let's not fear."


Because God is our refuge and our strength, our well-proved help in trouble.

It doesn't say: we won't fear, because the mountains won't fall! God won't let them! God won't let me face a future with X or without Y- surely it won't ever get that bad! It's all going to be fine, so we're not afraid!

Instead, it says: even if the mountains do fall from their place of might, even if they are swallowed whole by a ravenous, merciless ocean... even so, we will not fear- because God will still be there. Our well-proved help in trouble- the One who was faced our darkest hour in our place, will be with us still- there amongst the rubble of the mountains; his covenant of love utterly steadfast. Even in the direst of circumstances, even if what you dread most comes to pass, we won't fear, because there God will be our strength, our refuge, our help.

Recently I've found looking to the future fills me with fear. Sometimes it can feel pretty bleak.

But when Dread next shows up, I might point him in the direction of these verses.

Worst case scenario?  Even so, I will not fear.

"God is our refuge and our strength, 
our well proved help in trouble. 
Therefore, we will not fear though 
the earth gives way, 
though the mountains be moved in to 
the heart of the sea, 
though its waters roar and foam, 
though the mountains tremble at 
its swelling." 
Psalm 46:1-2 

For the mountains may depart, 
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed.
Isaiah 54:10

Sunday, 20 September 2015

A Bold (and Broken) Approach

I like what people say to Jesus in the gospels.

Perplexed questions like, "Don't you care?" (Luke 10:40) and, "why have you treated us so?" (Luke 2:48) Statements pregnant with meaning, heavy with years of rejection and sin and damage and battle and scars like, "I have no husband," (John 4:17) and "my daughter is severely oppressed." (Matthew 15:22)  Desperate cries of, "have mercy!" (Matthew 15:22) and disappointed sobs of "if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (John 11:32) Those in straightforwardly awkward situations who said, "they have no wine," (John 2:3) to those whose words betrayed hurt and doubt: "Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead for four days," (John 11:39). 

I like that the things they say to Him are recorded.

They're not neat, measured theological statements. They've not been systematically processed, neatly packaged and respectfully presented. They're full of truth- but not neat truth, removed from the realities of life under the scathing sun. When they speak to Jesus, their words are heavy with what human experience is really like. They express the complexities of existence in a broken - and often brutal- world, of circumstances that are breakers crashing relentlessly over those who speak. These words are not fancy- and often they are filled with fear, confusion, doubt and anguish. They're raw. They're honest. And they're spoken directly to Jesus.

I like that that's how these individuals go to Jesus.

And I like that Jesus can take it. He listens and (in his time- Matthew 15!) he responds and he doesn't condemn and he doesn't turn them away. He is compassionate and patient and perceptive ... and he doesn't turn them away.

For me, this has been a week without neat theological answers. A week more characterised by fear and desperation than by peace and fullness. It's been a week where, if I am to go to Jesus- I must go messy, frustrated, broken and honest in a way I trust he can cope with.

Sometimes we approach the throne bold. This week I've approached more like the woman in Mark 5:

"She came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth."(Mark 5:33)

And this week, the Bible says, Jesus has heard my cries.
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