Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Messy Perseverance

Sometimes I think the image of the Christian life being like running is very helpful. I've blogged here and here about various parallels I've found between physical exercise and spiritual perseverance, for example. 

But sometimes I think the image of running as the means of perseverance can seem a little too glorious.

The idea sends me to a big stadium; flashing lights, ecstatic cheering, slow-motion drama, pulsing muscles, chariots of fire and then (so long as someone keeps those pesky Segways out of the way) time for the glory lap. 

My mind often goes there after the writer's "faith parade" in Hebrews 11. I imagine persevering is like being surrounded by that crowd of witnesses cheering me on, as I heroically cast aside my hindrances and dash for the sprint finish. 

But my day to day perseverance does not look like that. 

My day to day perseverance looks more like my actual physical running: so slow I am barely moving forward, pathetic to the point of despair and an on point tomato impression from about 3 minutes in.

That's why, in the end- I'm grateful for the climax of Hebrews 11: 

"Fix your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith... consider him." 

I've found that the key for my being able to keep on in the faith is looking to Jesus.

Yes, as an example (as the verse expounds), but also as 
the One who has the power, might and grace to keep me running. He is my faith's pioneer, he is its perfecter. 

John Piper once said, "faith looks away from itself, to the worth and ability and grace and strength of another." 

For me, this is one of the most helpful sentences I have ever read. Because the instinct when I wobble in my faith, and when I think, "I just can't keep going" is to look inwards and think- oh but I am so weak and sinful and so repetitively foolish and so much worse than all the other runners... I haven't got a hope of carrying on. Innumerable times I've found myself neck-deep in a pile of messy, frustrated exhaustion and thought- "this can't even count as movement" or "I can't keep going." 

But the writer to the Hebrews says- keep your eyes on Jesus. Your victory and your perseverance doesn't depend on your strength, or your ability- but his. 

He will keep you. You don't have to have the bulging muscles or the physical stamina or the godliness or the panache to get yourself across the line. You just need to look at Jesus and say- He can. He will. 

And He can. And He will. 

When I struggle to trust this, it's usually because I don't see Him. Either I look inwards and think, "this is too much for anyone to handle" (He can't!) or I look inwards and think, "even if someone could handle it, they wouldn't want to." (He won't!)

But the more I see Him, the more confident I am that He will.  When I look to Him- when I see the expansive, intrusive, generous nature of his kindness, when I see the scope of his power, the perfection of his position, the unwavering nature of his faithfulness, I know- He can. And gloriously, He will. 

So, let's fix our eyes on Jesus. When we're tempted to give up, turn away, give up the faith- let's consider Him. 

Consider Jesus who Hebrews says is: 
- God's Son 
- the heir of all things 
- the means by which the universe was made 
- the radiance of God's glory 
- the sustainer of all things
- sat down at God's right hand 
- provider of our purification 
- unashamed to call us his siblings 
- one who has suffered temptation 
- a helper of the tempted 
- a great High priest and representative 
- sympathetic to weakness 
- the source of eternal salvation
- able to save completely 
- alive and interceding for us 
- our Shepherd 

Consider Jesus who has both the almighty power and the gracious inclination to do all that is required to keep us His: He will present us blameless before the Father. Not because of who we are, but because of who he is.

So what does it mean to keep running? 

Keep looking to Him. 

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. 
Jude 24 &25 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Death and Laughter

This time last year I saw a dead body for the first time. 

It was in the middle of the summer holidays, so I was at my parents' house, filling up my summer with reading, napping and eating- in equal measure.

It was about midday when I opened the front door to a small, frail, elderly man I didn't recognise; he was clearly very anxious. My dad's a GP, and so fairly often people pop round to ask advice on various aches and pains- so it wasn't unusual. Dad was at work, I explained, but could I help? By now my mum had come to the door too. 

She recognised him as a neighbour, Donald. He was confused and agitated, but said to us that he thought his wife Peggy might have died. He'd been out shopping, and having finished the morning routine returned home to find her lying on the bedroom floor. 

Mum and I followed him around the corner to his house, and quickly went upstairs to find her.

There was no doubt whatsoever that she was dead. In fact, never having seen a dead body before, I felt profoundly struck by just how dead she looked. The room seemed so very empty- more empty for the body being in it, and her form was remarkable in its total absence of vibrancy, movement, hope. My grannie was in the last few weeks of her life at the time, but though she was weak and frail, she was comparatively so alive: spark darted in her eyes, warmth glowed, however faintly, beneath her aged skin. Dead and alive are so very different from each other. 

This, undoubtedly, was death. 

As mum and I phoned relatives, made Donald tea and booked an ambulance (not in that order!), I looked at some photos in the living room. But I couldn't pick out Peggy. Even in a still picture, too much of her aliveness had been captured for me to see any parallel between her and the void shell on the bedroom floor. I've since wondered whether Donald's earlier confusion, "I think my wife has died", was less about whether the person in his house was dead, and more about whether that body really could be his wife!

Seeing death up close made the bizarre reaction of the little girls' family in Mark 4:40 make a lot more sense. Jesus says to them as they grieve, "do not weep, she is only sleeping"- and they laugh at him. It seems odd for them to laugh at such a time, but I get that now: to the family it's an outrageous misreading of the blatantly obvious. It's offensive, it's absurb: death in a dead person is one of the most firm certainties you will ever encounter. Of course they laugh: their laughter is the fruit of cynicism, of despair. It's like the laugh of Sarah when she's told she'll have a child when she's been barren all her life (Genesis 18). Cynicism and disappointment harden to dry, disdaining laughter: no, durr, that is categorically and obviously and bitterly impossible. 

Death is here. 

And it is the unequivocal end of the road. It's an authoritative full-stop at the end of all our most cynical sentences. It's the central argument for every reason we've ever had to give up, to despair. It's the ultimate disappointment and it's there: an inevitable, immovable expanse of cold stone. 

And so this is the outrage of that morning all those years ago. 

In the shadow of death, a group of women weep on their way to a tomb- faced with their own immovable expanse of cold, unrelenting stone. It's a reminder of their hopelessness, their helplessness, the resounding "no" to all of their hearts' hopes: death is here. 

And yet. And yet! 

They arrive and discover the stone effortlessly rolled away- and human history and experience- and hope- is never the same. 

There's this verse in 2 Timothy (1:10) that blows me away every time I read it. Paul writes,

"Christ abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." 

It's outrageous! It demands a response!

I expect many people would read it and laugh with the cynicism of Sarah. A laugh that says- "abolished death!?" Have you seen death? Have you looked it in its brutal, uncompromising face? Have you seen how fundamentally it shapes (and mocks) human experience? How its influence permeates all of our greatest desires and accomplishments? Really, Paul, this is the claim you're going for? Christ abolished death? Are you sure you don't want to tone that down at all? 

And yet.

It's the claim Paul is willing to die for.

When Sarah has had Isaac, she laughs again. A different laugh: God's promise and power has proved true, and she says, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me." (Genesis 21:8)

Christ abolished death is a reason for our cold, cynical, hopeless hearts to fill up with joy, until they bubble over in delighted, liberated laughter. Christ has abolished death! Death! That immovable expanse of cold stone? Christ burst through it. That trump card of despair? Christ Jesus obliterated it! The bottom line justification for despair and misery and hopelessness? It's had its foundation blown through: He's alive! 

And because of His triumph, if we have Him, if we are in Him, we too have life (1 John 5:12). He has risen from the grave; all of God's promises find their resounding YES in Him (2 Corinthians 1:20)! We take refuge with the One who explodes the hopelessness, finality and coldness of death in to infinite pieces, the One who is risen with healing in his wings, the One who is warmth and joy and creativity and newness and redemption and hope. And hope and hope and hope. 

I don't know whether Peggy had the Son, and therefore life. As I walked away from the house, I hoped so. Death humbles us in the shade of its power and its reality. What humbles me more than death, though, is Jesus, the Living One. 

In Mark 4 he was able to wake the girl from death as though she had just been having an afternoon nap. He lifted her to life from the darkest of nights: no wonder those who saw him do it were seized with fear. Today, Jesus still plunges his hand in to the darkness to bring life and immortality to those who are dead; to lift them up in to His own life and light and delight and warmth and power and kindness and joy and  hope. Staggeringly, He will not let his grip go, until he's brought his children all the way through life, through death and in to his glorious presence. 

This, I feel, at least merits a smile. 

"Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions... And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus..." Ephesians 2:6-7

"If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. But, Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." 
1 Corinthians 15: 14, 20

"Christ abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." 
2 Timothy 1:10

Friday, 7 August 2015

Heart on Sleeve. And Then Some.

When I went to watch Inside Out, I wept for pretty much the duration of the film.

This does not separate me from most other people who have seen it. It is a real tear-jerker, and in fact, it annoyed me because Pixar blatantly worked in all things to provoke a dewy-eyed response, plucking on all the right heart-strings: little people, the value of sadness in making happy happen, nostalgia, gooey music... but that's not why I cried.

I cried because there on the big screen was someone else having emotions. And I could see them happening!

I've always found it difficult that my emotions are so "out there."

In the film, inside Riley's head the emotions storm- there is raging, rejoicing and "ewwing" that all go on, before we see Riley's output- often a relatively sensible, measured response to the internal battle. But for me, it often feels the other way round. All that mess, chaos and -granted, sometimes- comedy- is happening on the outside. The control centre where all the emotions are meant to hang out is probably quite calm and empty inside Philippa. Tumbleweeds blow through it. It's on the outside where the havoc is at.

For I am heart on my sleeve and then some.

My heart is not just on my sleeve- a cute little Ode to Valentine- my heart is messy, intense, explosive, extreme and it is all of those things on my sleeve. It makes me feel embarrassed and anti-social in the way you might feel if you rocked up to the pub or to dinner parties with an internal organ on your lapel- throbbing and spluttering and there for all to see.

Of course, hearts are probably meant to be a bit of a mess- you know, all pulsey and bloody, and yeah- intense. But they're nicely tucked away: behind your rib-cage, behind your skin, behind your clothes. It's safe there. But I have never managed to get mine to stay put. It's always lurching itself out all over the place- making its delights, passions, distresses, angers, sadnesses, joys, disgusts known. Even when I manage to keep my mouth shut, my feelings are still writ in large all over my frustratingly expressive face.

People will say, "it's great you're so honest." But it's the equivalent of me saying to them, "it's great you're so breathing." I'm not trying to be honest. I'm just being. And feeling. Everywhere.

When I was at my most depressed last year I went to church and wept. I started in the first hymn and finished about half an hour after everything had been wrapped up. As soon as I engaged with some gospel truth I would start crying, because I wanted, desperately, to hold on to it, but I couldn't see how it would fit with everything else I was experiencing at the time. This happened for months.

In the middle of this time, I wrote a poem called "The Drowning Storm", in which I starred... as the drowning storm. I basically felt ashamed of my emotions. They rendered me helpless and exposed; I was a storm of intensity, but I was drowning; I felt like people didn't want to wade out to meet me in it because that kind of emotion seemed taboo. I wished I could just pack it all away- have it neatly tucked in behind the chest-bone. If I could just get my emotions to do their thing on the inside, and then control the output... but I didn't ever manage it, and I haven't managed it yet. I missed that Emotion Control Class that people around me seem to have attended when they were six or seven.

So what's the answer? What's the "certain brightness"? Honestly, I don't really know.

Maybe, it's in rejoicing that I am forgiven for my emotions where they are messy. And in fact, beyond messy: sinful, destructive, self-centered.

Maybe, it's in knowing that a fruit of the Spirit is self-control. There are ways to have emotions and to not sin. To love others by showing restraint. And I do pray I learn that more and more: that the Spirit helps me to feel, but not to sin. 

Maybe, it's in knowing that Jesus felt things deeply too- and that what he felt spilled over in to visible life. He felt sad, and he wept (John 11:35). He felt angry, and he turned over tables (John 2:15). His deep distress at stubborn hearts and his compassion towards those who suffered was plain enough for Mark to remember and record (Chapter 3). Again, there are ways to express emotion and not to sin. Knowing that Jesus felt "on show" was comfort enough to get me to sleep the other night.

Maybe, it's in deciding what will ultimately take control. In Inside Out, all there is in the control centre are feelings- and they run the show. And in my case, because my feelings seem so big, intense and, for want of a better word, verbal- it's easy to let them run the show too. But though they can delight in, and testify to glorious gospel truth, it is not the emotions that are the truth. When I feel anger, or frustration with myself, or an overwhelming breaker of despair sweeping my way- that's when I need to know: feelings are not ultimately in control. That's what Inside Out got wrong. There is more going on than feelings. There is a better, deeper, more reliable control: there is Truth.

When I felt ashamed and alone in church, I was not. I had friends who loved me and were eager to wade out- they just didn't always know how. My feelings weren't in sync with the truth. I said I cried because I was trying to make the gospel truth "fit" my emotions. And of course, it should be the other way around. Truth is just that- true. You can't trump it. You can't change it. It's fundamental and unbreakable.

And so part of life will then be keeping my emotion in check with what the "Voice that spans the years" is telling me. Sometimes His voice will trump the emotions, and sometimes, His voice will be a call to emotion! Often, in fact. But my hope is that more and more- my emotions will follow His call, rather than their own.

Finally, and definitely- I'm grateful that Jesus is big enough and kind enough and powerful enough  to hide me in Himself and hold me in His hands and take me on as I am in all of my intense messiness. I'm grateful He doesn't wait for me to get my emotions to "fit" the gospel, before He looks me in the eye and says, "you are mine!", before He becomes my refuge, before He starts working for my good. 

What He declares to be true is always true, and this includes His promise of faithfulness to me, even as the storm rages.

There's this amazing account in Mark 4, where Jesus falls asleep in a storm. Waves are crashing, the wind is whirling; the disciples are totally overwhelmed. And yet, when Jesus wakes up, he's surprised that they are afraid. He is with them! Why fear? The whole time the storm has been raging, He's had the absolute power to still it- utterly- with a word. And so in my often very visible emotional storms, I run to Him for refuge. He might not command calm immediately- but He's got the power to, and whatever is bruised by the tempest, his power is not; his faithfulness is not; his promises are not.

And for this I am, heart on sleeve, very, very glad. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

A Pain in the Abdomen

Sometimes when I run, I get a stitch.

Now apparently, the good news about stitches, is that you get them less as you get older. So although they are a right royal pain in the a....bdomen, they remain a glorious reminder that I am still, relatively, young.

But they are a pain. And when I get one, my instinctive reaction is to stop running, there and then, and then to never start again.

I don't like pain.

But apparently, stitches aren't like "regular" pain. Regular pain is often there to tell you that something is wrong. As babies pain teaches us, fairly swiftly, that hands don't go in fires. Or ovens. Or sockets. Or the mouths of angry dogs. And pain can serve a similar purpose when you run. If, for example, you are running and get the sensation of a chainsaw wielding demon having a knife party in say, your heart, it's probably a good idea to stop. Or if when you're running your leg starts to send messages to your brain to indicate that it is broken, the main outcome your leg is angling for is that you stop running on it. Stat.

But stitches aren't like that. As far as science currently tells us (and by science, I mean the few articles I googled before I decided I'd read enough to make my point), on the whole, continuing to run when you have a stitch isn't going to cause you more damage. Hurray! Because this means you can continue your jog.

(Just in case you are someone who came across this article looking for actual information on stitches- I'll just say as an aside that apparently it also helps if you a) leave time between eating and exercise b) breathe properly and c) touch your toes briefly and then carry on. But if you want a professional's advice, go search up someone who knows actual information about running.) 

When you run the Christian life, you get stitches.

And by stitches, I guess I just mean pain. Sharp, stabbing, intrusive, frustrating, persistent pain. It could be the pain of rejection from people that don't understand your perceived weirdnesses, it could be the loneliness of choosing to honour God above having a certain relationship, it could be actual, physical pain-  from the other end of the spectrum to the stitch, it could be unrelenting discouragements in discipleship and witness, it could be spiritual apathy from friends and family or worse- hatred, beatings, imprisonment.

And the instinctive reaction when you endure sharp, stabbing, intrusive, frustrating, persistent pain is to stop. If the Christian life causes pain, then our gut tells us: stop running. That's essentially what Seed Number 2 does in the parable of the sower. He's jogging along with joy, gets an almighty stitch in the form of "trouble or persecution because of the word" and immediately packs it in.

But pain in the Christian life is more like a stitch than a broken leg, because carrying on through pain isn't going to do you any more harm. In fact, gloriously- it's going to do you good.

Paul writes, "our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them." (2 Corinthians 4:17)

He's saying: don't give up because of the pain. Don't believe the pain is doing you harm. Believe what He has promised: that it's actually doing you more good than you can imagine, bringing about weightier glory than you can imagine. When your gut says "stop", it's not seeing the big picture. There are all kinds of treasures being forged in the dark ("He knows the way that I take, and when I have been tested, I shall come forth as gold." Job 23:10), so just keep running.

So now, when I run and get a stitch, I try to keep running. Often, it feels like it's doing me damage (like I am running with a dagger doing an impression of a pneumatic drill on my insides) but it's not. Science (or those articles I googled) says. And continuing to run is doing me good. So I tell myself: just keep running.

And that's one of the big New Testament messages about pain too. It's real, it's messy, it might last a lifetime, and it's a pain in the abdomen. But it is doing you good: so just keep running.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us... Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." 
Hebrews 12:1&3

There's more to say on what it means to keep running, but that's for another post.
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