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Look at the birds

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?

Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you.

Jesus in the “sermon on the mount”, Matthew 6

In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, there’s a beautiful passage about anxiety and worry, where he encourages us: do not worry about tomorrow, each day has enough worry of its own. Even though in Australia we’re probably safer and more likely to have food and shelter than most other times or places in history… anxiety is high. Many suffer from it. It is crippling.

Jesus calls us to “look at the birds” and “look at the lilies of the field”. In the past I’ve often read this as a rhetorical device: help our brains see the logic, nature doesn’t worry and God takes care of it, God will take care of us, so lighten up.

But I’ve been learning a lot about worry. In my own counselling, and in sessions with psychologists where I learn how to support my kids. So much of anxiety is bodily, yes it is running through your mind, but it’s not just in the mind. And when your body is in a fight or flight or freeze state, the idea of “helping our brains see the logic” really falls flat.

The advice I’m reading my kids is about breath work and visualisation. (from Diane Alber’s “A little spot of emotion” series):


I’ve been holding a lot of my own worry and anxiety over the future lately, and have been drawn back into reading and reflecting on these few thoughts Jesus shared. To comfort me, to guide me.

And instead of seeing “look at the birds… look at the lilies” as a piece of rhetoric, something to think about… I’m seeing it as guidance, something to do.

Go outside, and find the birds. Find the native flowers that just grow all on their own. And look at them. Long enough for my breath to slow down. Look at them long enough to meditate on them. That they are there, and cared for. Long enough that my heart rate slows down. Long enough to remember that maybe I too am cared for.


“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
“And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
“So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Jesus in the “sermon on the mount”, Matthew 6
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The wise men and Christmas gifts

I’ve got an uneasy relationship with Christmas and gifts. I’m not great at gift giving in general. And I don’t feel much on the receiving end – it’s clearly not my love language! The forced-ness of gift giving at Christmas, combined with the overwhelming commercial advertising and expectation, combined with remembering something else that’s supposed to be remembered in that season, combined with thinking about our level of consumption and it’s impact on the environment… I’d personally prefer to opt out of the whole thing but that feels too grinch-like so we continue quietly.

So this reading from “The Gospel in Solentiname” hit home. Ernesto Cardenal the priest apparently “does not believe in sermons” and so facilitated small group discussions to help his people understand the stories. The perspectives they share are from such a different world to my own – they were among the poor in Nicaragua at the height of the cold war.

And the comment from Olivia astounded me with its clarity:

When they saw the star again
They were filled with joy.
They went into the house;
they saw the child with Mary his mother,
and they knelt down and worshipped him.
Then they opened their boxes
And gave him presents of gold, incense and myrrh.

Tomás: “They come and open their presents – some perfumes and a few things of gold. It doesn’t seem as if he got big presents. Because those foreigners that could have brought him a big sack of gold, a whole bunch of coins, or maybe bills, they didn’t bring these things. What they brought to him were little things… That’s the way we ought to go, poor, humble, the way we are. At least that’s what I think”.

Olivia: “It’s on account of these gifts from the wise men that the rich have the custom of giving presents at Christmas. But they give them to each other”.

The Gospel in Solentiname. I read it in “Watch for the light, readings for Advent and Christmas”.

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The community Ruth found

At our church this month we’ve been going through the book of Ruth. The series has been good, with the first three messages bringing the story to life, with all of its hard to understand customs, offensive levels of patriarchy, and yet endearing characters. (The recordings are on YouTube: message 1 and message 2 by Steve, and message 3 by my sister Clare.) I’ve also been reading it – it’s only four short chapters and takes me about 20 minutes – it’s worth reading yourself!

One thing that’s standing out to me is the lack of “supernatural” in the story. There’s a famine but no miracles of food falling from the sky or loaves of bread being multiplied, or prophets making it rain or anything like that. There’s death but no coming back to life. There’s infertility but no miracle babies.

What there is, is a story of two women (Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi) choosing to return to Naomi’s home country, her people, her God and way of life.

They were destitute in Moab and running away from famine – for Naomi it is running to her home country, and for Ruth, it is following Naomi to a place she’d never been, where she’d settle in as a foreigner and immigrant.

When they get to Bethlehem, the story narrows in to focus on what they find in that community when they get back. And what they find is a community that’s going about the rhythms of agricultural life – it was harvest when they arrived – but with a few twists that showed they were God’s chosen people who were trying to live according to the laws Moses had given them.

In particular, the harvesters were comfortable making space for Ruth to harvest in their fields (“gleaning”), not attempting to maximise their commercial returns but leaving some leftovers for the poor. This was based off this verse in the law:

When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 19:9-10

And Boaz, the wealthy land-owner and love interest in Ruth’s story, goes a step further. Not just following the law as stated – which as Steve pointed out in one of the linked messages – is open to a stingy interpretation. But Boaz leant into the spirit of it, to care for the poor and the stranger:

Let her gather grain right among the sheaves without stopping her. And pull out some heads of barley from the bundles and drop them on purpose for her. Let her pick them up, and don’t give her a hard time!

Boaz in Ruth 2

He was also well aware of his both his rights and his responsibilities for caring for his female relatives in a patriarchal society, and again seemed intent to not just do what was required, but to meet the spirit of the law and do what is right.

And that is one of the miracles in this story, I think. Nothing supernatural, but a community of people actually living with the intent to love each other, and love the strangers living amongst them, as God had asked them to do. And taking a big hearted generous approach to that.

And it makes me wonder, what miracles might be possible if our communities choose to live this way: genuinely trying to embrace God’s heart of love and wholeheartedly embracing that as our guide for how to live. What would we do differently? And what would it mean to the people who wander into our midst, perhaps as destitute as the heroines in this story?

If Ruth and Naomi returned as a poor widow and her foreign daughter-in-law, and found a self-seeking community that didn’t leave any leftovers in their field, and didn’t feel any responsibility of care for their extended family… then this story would have been very different. It would have been depressing, unsurprising, probably not worth writing down.

But instead they found a community committed to living the way God had taught them, and that community made generous space for Ruth and Naomi. And nothing supernatural happened – and nothing supernatural was needed! – because there was a miracle of love, abundance, redemption and hope… entirely because the people choose to live God’s love and make it their way of life.

I want to see that story play out in my church, over and over.

(One of the other miracles in the story of Ruth is the beautiful connection between Ruth and Naomi, and their boldness in taking initiative as powerless women in a patriarchal society… but that’s another post. And covered in the messages I linked above!)

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Our great desire

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Our great desire is that you will keep on loving others as long as life lasts, in order to make certain that what you hope for will come true. Then you will not become spiritually dull and indifferent.

Hebrews 6:11

I love this verse.

There’s a whole section in the chapter before where the writer is admonishing the readers for being spiritually dull and struggling to understand the concepts they’re being taught:

There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding.

Hebrews 5:11 – 6:1

Often I would hear or read that admonishment and feel this challenge – am I spiritually dull too? Am I incapable of listening and understanding? What can I do to make sure I’m growing in maturity?

And here the answer is simple: keep on loving others, as long as life lasts.

Not study or exploring mysteries or following rituals or solitude or pilgrimage.

Loving other people is the great pilgrimage, the path to deep and lasting maturity.

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An anchor for the soul

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls.

Hebrews 6

These words and metaphors have been ones I’ve found myself clinging to and meditating on through what has been a pretty rough ride in my life this year.

Fleeing to God for refuge. A hope that gives us confidence. An anchor to hold us steady.

These images have helped give my soul a sense of stability when life has felt incredibly unstable.

But I’d usually imagine the anchor holding us in place in the storm. Then I listened to Krista Tippett (host of On Being) interview Kate Bowler (host of Everything Happens). Kate was diagnosed with terminal cancer as a young mother at 35. Somehow, she’s still here, and so her take on “Hope” carries extra weight.

Tippett: What at this point is your working definition of hope?

Bowler: I think before I would’ve said it was something like certainty. I might have looked from a doctrinal perspective and been like, “Well, Krista, thank you for asking, I actually have six things about God I’d love to tell you.” Because depending on your story of faith, it’s a long timescale — that it’s the consummation of the earth and the great triumph of good over evil, et cetera, et cetera. But I think hope now feels like God and love is like an anchor that’s dropped way in the future. And I’m just, along with everyone else, being slowly pulled toward it. And that feeling won’t always feel like the details of my life have somehow clicked into place and that I get to feel the fullness of my life. But that, ultimately, that this is a good story. It’s just not only mine.

From an interview with Krista Tippett and Kate Bowler on the On Being podcast

Not an anchor holding us in place, but “an anchor that’s dropped way in the future. And I’m just, along with everyone else, being slowly pulled toward it.”

That’s hope.

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The difference between right and wrong

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Hebrews 5 (emphasis mine, of course. Does biblical greek even have italics?)

There’s a black-and-whiteness that many or most people bring to morality. Some things are clearly good, some things are clearly bad. Often something that’s clearly good for one person is clearly bad for another. Sometimes there’s an internal compass, “it just felt right, and I trust that“. Often there’s some external source of truth that defines what’s good or what’s not for a person. I’ve seen cheesy christian souvenirs that say “the bible said it, I believe it, that settles it”.

Like it’s that easy. 🤷‍♂️

I appreciate the writer of Hebrews reminding us that knowing the difference between right and wrong is a skill, and a sign of maturity. It’s not all easy and straight forward, it requires training.

It’s interesting thinking about the ethical dilemmas the early church stressed about – divorce and remarriage, eating food sacrificed to idols, sharing meals with different ethnic / religious groups.

In the book of Mark there’s a story where Jesus is teaching on divorce and remarriage:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.

Mark 10

Then in a similar story in Matthew’s book, either Jesus said something different or Matthew included or added an extra detail:

And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful

Matthew 19

We started with a clear-cut, black and white moral statement. And now there’s an exception. Then Paul, addressing a specific circumstance in a specific church, adds another, for when the other person doesn’t follow the same Christian way of life, and doesn’t see marriage the same way and they walk away:

(But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace.)

1 Corinthians 7

I feel like more nuance might have come out if you asked either Jesus or Paul about situations like domestic abuse…

They’re trying to make a point: marriage is important! It’s sacred! We should value it way more than the surrounding culture! But there also needs to be maturity to be able to recognise the difference between right and wrong, simple rules interpreted simply don’t always cut it.

Endless equivocating and avoiding moral absolutes, and taking an “anything goes” approach also feels like a trap. The wisdom here is not “recognise there is no difference between right and wrong”. That’s not what was said.

Instead, it’s recognising there is a difference, and that with training and skill and maturity, that for a given situation you can know the difference, find what is right, and you can choose to do what is right, to live righteously.

That’s hard work. But it’s a sign of maturity. Let’s train in it.

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“Stay soft”: Sabbath rest

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”

Hebrews 3

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4

When I was a teenager I got a birthday card. There were messages in the card from a few different staff and leaders at my church, but one of the messages was only two words, and they’re the only two words I still remember from it.

Stay soft. -Ads

Adam – a friend and a church leader I looked up to – would often talk about the importance of keeping your heart soft, responsive to God, not being hard-hearted. When he picked those two words to write to me, I took them to heart, and it’s been a formative posture for me, a big part of shaping who I am now.

And that’s the message coming out from this passage in Hebrews too: stay soft.

The couple of verses I’ve quoted are part of the passage I remembered that originally drew me back into reading the bible earlier this year. Our family life has been a real struggle, and we have been exhausted and depleted, and the promise of a sabbath rest, some kind of deep, fulfilling rest, and a call to enter that rest, sprung out of my memory and, like a siren song – so appealing and so urgent – its words drew me back into this passage, and back into the bible.

Do not harden your hearts.

Stay soft.

Not like in the rebellion, the time of testing in the wilderness.

The psalm being quoted actually includes the names “Meribah” and “Massah”, which suggests its probably referring to the two stories where the Israelites have run out of water in the dessert and are wishing they were back in the Egypt, the land of their slavery, because at least there was water there. In both stories Moses strikes a rock with his staff, and miraculously, water comes out – enough for the whole community.1 While much of the commentary on this story is about if Moses did something wrong, Numbers 20:13 puts the focus on the people not trusting God:

This place was known as the waters of Meribah (which means “arguing”) because there the people of Israel argued with the LORD.

Numbers 20:13 (emphasis mine)

And that’s what both the psalm and the book of Hebrews seem to focus on too: the community of Israel didn’t trust God to look after them and give them water.

Despite all the miracles they’d seen so far – “for forty years they saw what I did” – they didn’t trust they’d be provided for. They’d rather go back to slavery because they knew there was an agreement there – they’d do work and they’d get water and food.

All the miracles and provision that came during their time in the desert had not helped them internalise that God would provide for them, and so they kept trying to make other plans. “They have not known my ways, their hearts are always going astray”.

They shall never enter my rest.

Brutal.2

But in Hebrews, the author tries to remind us that they think we’ve still got a better offer open: “Dear friends, even though we are talking this way, we really don’t believe it applies to you.” (Hebrews 6:10).

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God… Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest…

The point being made in Hebrews is about an eternal Sabbath, a permanent rest, full of joy and liveliness and deep delight, that lasts forever – not just the weekly rhythm and the seventh day. But as I’ve been dwelling on this passage in Hebrews, and this rallying cry to “stay soft”, I realised that a weekly Sabbath practice can be a part of keeping a soft heart.

Here’s how I see it:

  • God was doing work among their people, and they saw it.
  • But they did not know God’s ways – they never took it in, never seeing it or beginning to understand who God is and how God works, never internalising it, never learning to live in a way that trusted God’s working.
  • So they argued with God, and made other plans.
  • And so they never entered the promised land, or the promised rest.

So, we don’t want to harden our hearts. We want to stay soft. What can we actually do?

When I was in my early twenties I ran a fortnightly small group meeting for young adults in my church, and there was about 30 of us, and to facilitate some kind of conversation that attuned us to what God was doing, I would ask everyone to break up into groups of two or three, and ask a question to each other: where did you notice God this week?

There’s a similar question I ask myself in an end-of-day “Examen” reflective exercise I do, at least when I’m not so tired I fall asleep instantly:

Where have I felt true joy today?
What has troubled me today?
What has challenged me today?
Where and when did I pause today?
Have I noticed God’s presence in any of this?

The Examen: A Daily Prayer

This kind of reflection requires you to pause.

To rest from your works.

To stop.

To cease.

And when you do, your heart rate shifts. Your thoughts shift. You stop problem solving and stop rushing and stop striving and … notice things. Notice the things that brought you joy. The smile from a kid, or the sunshine through the window. You notice the things that were really hard. The words spoken that pierce your heart and cause your stomach to churn. You notice where God’s presence was in it all.

You see, when you’re so focused on what you have to do, it’s easy to miss what others are also doing, easy to miss what’s going on around you, or what’s already happened. This is why gratitude is such an important practice. But more than just the gratitude, there’s the stopping. The ceasing.

When we cease our work, we have the opportunity to see what God is doing, and to know God’s ways, and to stay soft.

In Marva Dawn’s classic book on Sabbath3, she talks about what the Sabbath is for:

  • Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. 
  • Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of his grace. 
  • Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. 
  • Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope — the Joy of our present experience of God’s love and its foretaste of the Joy to come. 
Marva J Dawn, an excerpt from “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly”

Ceasing from “the many ways we fail to trust God and try to create our own future”.

We’re so damn busy trying to create our own future, that we don’t even notice the future God is creating right around us. We have not known his ways.

Ceasing on the Sabbath is an antidote to that, a weekly chance to stay soft, to notice God, and to know God’s ways, and to live in trust. And from there we can move to experience the resting and embracing and feasting too.

And as we practice Sabbath each week, it is indeed practice for that greater rest that is talked about in Hebrews 4.

So I’d encourage you, make every effort to enter that rest. Practice for it by practicing the Sabbath.

One day a week, cease your work.

Notice instead where God is working.

Learn to trust God’s ways.

Stay soft.

Footnotes
  1. The “water from the rock” stories are super interesting. In the Numbers 20 version, Moses is supposed to speak to the rock but instead hits it twice, the miracle happens and water comes out, but for some reason, God is pissed. God says Moses will die in the desert and not see the promised land. But no one is quite sure why God is so angry. This article has a whole gamut of theories from Rabbis who are trying to make sense of it. One particular theory from the 15th century made me laugh:

    “Moses and Aaron’s sin was not particularly terrible; they merely made a mistake. However, G‑d did not want them entering the Land for other reasons. Moses, because he sent the spies, and Aaron because of his involvement, albeit unwilling, with the sin of the Golden Calf. G‑d wanted to protect Moses and Aarons’ honour, so He pretended that the rock was the reason for their punishment, to cover up the true reason.”

    Once you start going down this rabbit hole you notice the death of Miriam at the start of the story, and that leads you to Miriam’s Well and then you start learning about how Miriam was probably a much more important leader than is recognised, and the texts we have tried to diminish her role. Patriarchy 🙄

    Also the Numbers 20 story sounds like it happened at Kadesh, right on the border of the promised land, the same place where the Israelites were when 40 years earlier they had spies come back and tell them about the promised land, and they didn’t trust God would make it theirs. In both this story and the water-from-the-rock story, God was trying to give them something good but they didn’t trust it, and wanted to go back to Egypt where they worked for the things they need.
  2. I’ve written before about how my beliefs around hell and eternal punishment are not what most Christians might expect, and I’ve probably had a few years of having a fairly “universalist” worldview, seeing God in all different places, and so trying not to think about the reality that some people live lives in a way that is not just “a different experience of God” but is actually separate from God and that there’s a pain and despair in that. I still don’t think the dividing line of those who experience God and live in line with God is the same as what religion you put on your census form. But this experience of reading Hebrews in depth for the past few months has actually forced me to open up to that: God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. (Hebrews 4:1)
  3. One day I was looking at my parents bookshelf and I picked up “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” by Marva J Dawn. I’m glad I did. Sabbath wasn’t a concept that was well taught in my childhood churches, and so this book was my starting point. Even read the dedication:

This book is dedicated to all the people who need the Sabbath

the busiest, who need to work from a cohesive, unfragmented self;

social activists, who need a cycle of worship and action;

those who chase after fulfillment and need to understand their deepest yearnings and to hear the silence;

those who have lost their ability to play because of the materialism and technologization of our society, who need beauty and gaiety and delight;

those who have lost their passion and need to get in touch with feelings;

those who are alone and need emotional nourishment;

those who live in community and need solitude;

those who cannot find their life’s priorities and need a new perspective;

those who think the future is dictated by the present, who need hope and visions of the future to change the present order;

those who long for deeper family life and want to nurture certain values;

the poor and the oppressed, who need to mourn and dance in the prison camp;

the rich and the oppressors, who need to learn nonviolence, stewardship, and God’s purposes in the world;

those who suffer, who need to learn how suffering can be redemptive;

professional theologians, who need to bring the heart back into theology;

those who don’t know how religion fits into the modern world, who need a relationship with God;

those who are disgusted with dry, empty, formalistic worship and want to love and adore God;

those who want to be God’s instruments, enabled and empowered by the Spirit to be world changers and Sabbath healers.

From “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly – Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Fasting” by Marva J. Dawn.
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It was only right

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation.

Hebrews 2:10

Everything we see and hear and touch, all of the universe, all of creation, was made. This is one of the starting beliefs of Christianity: that there is a creator. A person behind it all, a person who had a reason to create. It’s not just matter. It’s not just energy. It’s not just existence.

The universe is personal.

“Through whom” is about the craftsmanship. That God is involved in the making of every water-drop, every flower, every person, every galaxy. To quote a church song from my teenage years: “is everything I know marked with my maker’s fingerprints?

“For whom” is about the intent and the reason. God wanted this universe, and God wanted us in it. That’s our chosen starting point for the big life question: “why are we here?” We’re here because God wanted us, so God created us.

And the intent here is to bring many children – that’s us – into glory. It’s hard to even imagine what this is supposed to mean. The word “glory” here is the same Greek word “doxa” that is used again and again when Jesus talks about “returning in glory“, when Paul is “blinded by the intense light“, when Jesus talks about not needing the approval of the religious leaders, or when he gives examples about the seat of honour at special occasions. Whatever it means, God intends to make us stand out, make something bright and radiant, something honoured, something glorious, out of our lives.

It’s an incredible starting point, that imbues all of life with meaning and purpose and worth and hope.

But we all know life doesn’t actually look like that.

It’s far more messed up.

You know that. I know that.

These grand theological statements just don’t match the experience of our lives. Yes of course there’s joy and radiance… at times. But there’s just as much drudgery, or cruelty, or outright suffering. We feel heartbreak over separation, heartbreak over death, and we live in fear of both of these. We feel shame. We feel loneliness. We know life has suffering, and we know the suffering.

And with that, the writer of this letter to the Hebrews brings us back to Jesus. They promise Jesus is the leader who brings us into salvation, leading from this life to the promised life – from the suffering to the glory.

And while you know and I know that life doesn’t look like the promise being laid out, the writer knows it too, acknowledging that “we have not yet seen” the promise.

They know there is suffering, and they drive home this point: Jesus knew suffering too.

He didn’t just know about suffering. It’s not even that he knows about our suffering and sees us. It’s that he suffered.

Like we do. More, even.

So, when I originally thought I’d write a post on these verses, I imagined narrowing in on the idea that it’s through suffering you become a perfect leader. And there’s truth in that… but the more I meditate on this part of the letter to the Hebrews, the more I realise that’s not the truth the writer is trying to get across.

You see, I think Christianity is more about following than about leading. So the thing I’m finding myself focusing on is not me and my leadership… it’s Jesus and his leadership. Because I’m planning to follow him.

And while his path started in a place of honour and privilege – the son of God! – he then became human, deliberately made his home and found his community among those who lived in suffering. Not as a visitor, not as a rescuer, but as one of us. He embraced that, even to death, and through that was lifted back up to the kind of glorious life we talked about. And that is pretty much the story told in our earliest hymn and creed.

If that’s his path, and we’re following him through it, then it’s something worth meditating on.

What we do see is Jesus… because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.

Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God.

Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

Hebrews 2 (excerpts)
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Dead Stars by Ada Limón

I was listening to an interview with Krista Tippett and Ada Limón, and it was a beautiful, fun, hilarious interview. When she read the poem “Dead Stars” near the end of the interview I was brought to tears.

Here’s the interview.

And here’s the poem:

Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.

We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out
the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.

It’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue
recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations.

And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising —

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,

rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?

The lines that cut through me: “Look, we are not unspectacular things We’ve come this far, survived this much. What would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?”

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We may drift away

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it… what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak?

Hebrews 2:1

Last week I wrote about how it had been years since I’d read the bible in any meaningful way. And here in the book of Hebrews it said something that aligned with that experience – if you don’t pay careful attention, you tend to drift.

It’s kind of a relief to read this, honestly. Most of the Christian New Testament parts of the bible were written by people with powerful first hand experiences of Jesus: Peter and John and Matthew were all walking with Jesus everyday for three years before his death. Even Paul who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament talked about his life altering experience as a physical encounter with a resurrected Jesus. I imagine that kind of exposure to a person is indelible, it leaves a permanent mark, its hard to drift away from.

But that’s not what most of us get. We might experience the invisible God, and have spiritual encounters of various kinds, but we don’t see or hear or touch or smell Jesus like they did. Not in a physical, tangible way. If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, we don’t get to see him. We just hear about his life from others. And the experiences we do have first-hand tend to be more intangible.

So it’s refreshing to here someone who wrote an important part of the bible, this letter to the Hebrews, say they’re in the same boat as us. They didn’t give us their name, so we don’t know who exactly it is. (Scholars like to guess. An audio-bible I used to listen to had the voice for Hebrews played by a cast of men and women to demonstrate the ambiguity. I liked the idea that it might have been a woman, because we know several women had important leadership roles in the early church but we’ve mostly been kept from hearing their voices.)

Whoever it was, they say they’re in the same boat as us. They didn’t know Jesus directly, they heard about him from someone else. They’re a second-generation follower. And they say it’s easy to drift and forget.

For me personally, some stuff didn’t drift: a sense of worth, value and dignity, of being made in the image of God. That was deeply internalised. My values as well have been deeply shaped by my faith earlier in life, and those mostly held steady even without continued focus. So what has drifted?

I think its the focus on the “great salvation” they talk about. There’s a big picture, a meta-narrative, an arc of history that ties together the story of Jesus and the stories of us.

When a person keeps this big picture in their field of view, it can yield a big change in the way they lead their lives. Being part of something bigger is incredibly motivating for most of us – and can call us into living courageously, selflessly, resiliently.

And I think that’s the bit that has drifted: without a focus on the big story, the routines and the challenges of my life have become all encompassing. I’m not suggesting I should have been going and serving the poor or preaching in churches instead… keeping my focus on my young family and loving them, providing for them, that should have been the focus anyway. But I wonder if I’d kept a connection to the larger story, if it would help strengthen the moments of joy, help bring meaning to the moments of suffering, and help me see beyond my own troubles to offer compassion to others around me who have their own challenges going on too.

I want to live my life with that big picture in view.

“We must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away”.

Now, there’s a thousand different ways to understand what “great salvation” means, and I think each person’s experience of it, and the way they describe it, would be different. There’s a deep shared truth in there somewhere, and then the just-as-real truth of each person’s experience of it. And of course for me its complicated, because I don’t feel comfortable with some of the simpler narratives of sin and salvation and heaven and hell.

But there is something speaking there, something true, and if I want my life to follow that path in my life, and not drift away, and I should listen carefully, actively, asking questions and seeking to understand.

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In many times and in many ways, God speaks

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.

Hebrews 1:1

I was catching up with friends from my church recently and one of them talked about how they’d been struggling to read the bible in any valuable way lately, and I struggled to relate – not because I have a vibrant relationship with reading the scriptures myself, but because it’s been so long since I have that, unlike my friend, I didn’t feel its absence in my life.

Years of daily reading as a teenager and young adult, and years of deep study in preparing to lead a small group or write a blog post or preach a sermon, have meant that the christian scriptures have been deeply embedded in how I think. But as the habit of daily reading dwindled, and the need to prepare for small groups or sermons dissipated, I haven’t found myself opening the book often, and when I did, I was often coming to it with a transactional mindset: looking to find something specific, as if the bible’s main purpose was to be a “proof text” to help me feel better about a position I hold or a life decision I’m making.

My friend mentioned they had been finding something else valuable – a book of readings and prayers for everyday life called “Every Moment Holy“. The bible isn’t the only way to hear God speaking. I know that to be true for me: in the years where bible reading hasn’t been a habit, I’ve still felt God speaking through time in nature, through times of reflection and introspection, through podcasts, through music and art, through friends and family and small children.

In all those I felt a sense that “God spoke”. Not an out-loud voice that moves through the air waves and into my ears. Not even an inner voice with a running dialogue in my head. But a sense that God, the hidden animating force of the universe, the person woven into every moment and every molecule, was somehow imparting and transmitting to me a sense of love, of peace, of strength to live a certain way, of clarity. God does speak in many times and in many ways, and we should attune our ears to hear it in all these ways, not just when we have a bible open.

But, having said all that…

I’ve recently been drawn back into the bible.

It started because our family life has been exhausting, and I’ve been feeling depleted. And a phrase I knew from the bible was ringing around in my head: “enter my rest”. I remembered there’s this whole bit in the book of Hebrews where it talks about entering God’s rest, a “Sabbath” rest, and some people enter it, and some don’t, and we should try to be those who do. I couldn’t shake it from my head, so I wanted to read it. (I had to ask Anna where our bible even was.)

And so I picked up the bible, and have been reading Hebrews, and have been drawn into it. All the ways I described “God speaking” and sending me love and peace and strength and clarity – I found again as every day or two I picked up the bible and kept reading.

And it didn’t feel transactional, like I was coming to check some facts or prove a point. It was different, like I was coming to it open to what it might say to me, what it might do to me.

My Dad also has a blog, and earlier this year he posted something which resonates with what I’m experiencing:

In the age of the printed book and of the internet, modern writings whether blogs or learned tomes are ephemeral, read, perhaps noted, and then discarded. They have no particular authority and different readers ascribe different value to them.

Religious reading, on the other hand, is different for the texts are treated with reverence as an ‘infinite resource,’ as a treasure house of wisdom, etc. As such, the words are read and re-read over and over and in time, tend to be committed to memory. “And as a reader memorizes a text, he becomes textualized; that is, he embodies the work that he has committed to memory”:

“‘A memorized work (like a lover, a friend, a spouse, a child) has entered into the fabric of its possessor’s intellectual and emotional life in a way that makes deep claims upon that life, claims that can only be ignored with effort and deliberation.’ … A memorized text has a peculiarly character-forming effect on the memorizer. The text becomes part of his character; he lives in it and lives it out.” (Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 53, citing Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading, 46-47).

On Reading and Memorising Scripture by Michael O’Neil (my Dad!)

And that’s been my experience. Reading and letting it change me, and form me. Chewing on the sentences and the phrases in my mind like you chew on gum, slowly letting its flavour out. Treating it as an infinite resource, and approaching it with reverence, and openness to its character-forming effects.

Some of it engaged me on my usual intellectual-theological level. Some of it felt like a lifeline of support and promises to hold me fast with the life challenges I’ve had going on. Some of it inspired me to carry a different attitude in my approach to life. Some of it was personal, and some of it I want to share. I’ve written down about 14 or so things that stood out that I think would be interesting reflections to share on this blog. So: I’m going to do that, starting with this: God speaks at many times, and in many ways.