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.

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