sufficient

I’ve written in the past about my experience of enduring years of chronic migraines and cluster headaches and how thankfully, following surgery, they are now no longer part of my experience. I am conscious that for many people chronic pain is still part of their experience – physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual pain is incredibly debilitating.

In the darkest days before the operation there were times when I felt like I was clinging on by my fingertips – clinging to my desire to carry on and clinging to my faith as a follower of Jesus. In those moments there was a verse in the Bible that was immensely helpful:

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (from 2 Corinthians 12:9)

open handsAnd I can honestly say that was my experience. God’s grace – his generously-given, unearned, sustaining presence – kept me going. I was able to live, serve and bless others from a place of weakness because God filled in the blanks for me. When I lacked words he provided them. When I couldn’t think he provided the thoughts. When I couldn’t see beyond the pain he lifted my eyes up towards hope. When I was battling through in my own strength he provided people to carry me and to tell me to stop and rest.

The context for those words in 2 Corinthians is filled with mystery:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What, or who, was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Chronic migraine and cluster headaches certainly feel like a thorn and are tormentors. We don’t know, and Paul doesn’t tell us because it’s not important.

I can certainly empathise with prayers pleading for God to take away the pain. And not just three times! So, why didn’t God answer his heartfelt pleading to take away this thorn? Why did God allow me to suffer for so many years before finally the surgery resolved the problem? Or, to widen out the question: why doesn’t God always seem to answer our prayers in the way that we want?

The answer Paul received was not a theodicy (answers to the question of how a loving God can allow evil, pain and suffering to persist). It was a promise. The promise was of a loving, gracious sustenance that was sufficient for the problem. Not a flourishing, dancing-in-the-aisles, swinging-from-the-chandeliers victorious healing. Just enough to enable Paul to cope. Sufficient.

Sometimes we receive more than we need. But we will receive sufficient.

And God will make up for what we lack. It may not be inner strength and fortitude. It may not be miraculous supernatural ability to rise above what is going on. It could be that it is other people coming alongside us. It could be that it is the ability to let go of some of the stress and allow others to help. It could be that it is the opportunity to receive love, support, encouragement and strength from others who can give you what you lack. It could be that it is the courage to stop and realise that we are not indispensable and that we don’t have to go it alone. And in that liminal space the paradox of weakness being strength, of grace sufficient for pain, of power perfected in impotence becomes reality.

The difficulty for us is that in order for this to happen we have to trust God and stop trying to do it all in our own strength. We have to trust that he will keep his promise. When you’re in the depths of despair it’s perhaps not so difficult to do that because you’ve already exhausted all of your own resources. My testimony is that this is true. Today I read Simon Thomas’s blog of his own heart-rending experience. He is finding the same to be true.

But if you aren’t in a wretched place the same promise is true – God’s grace is sufficient for you. You may need to let go of more of your security blankets and self-reliance to experience it, but I believe that he will prove himself trustworthy.

I pray that you and he will continue to know that God’s grace is sufficient for you. And that his power is made perfect in your weakness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

twenty-first century jubilee

Warning: this bloggage contains idealism, optimism and challenge.

prioritiesI grew up in an era when the threat of nuclear attack was real. The peace of the world existed in a tension that was known as MAD – mutually assured destruction. In other words, we would not blow up another country because we knew that they would blow us up in return – the missiles passing each other in their deadly trajectories. It was also an era when acts of terrorism were commonplace – mostly in Northern Ireland but sometimes on the UK mainland too.

We now live in an era when there is a new threat of nuclear attack as smaller countries acquire the technology to split the atom destructively. We also live in an era where acts of terrorism are commonplace – fuelled by a hideous distortion of Islamic ideology.

It seems to me that MAD and terrorism are two aspects of the same worldview: the threat and reality of death and destruction are the ultimate ways of exercising power, influence and control over someone else. They are ways of establishing or enforcing control in a situation. Those who have the power maintain it with the threat or reality of death and destruction and those who feel powerless seek to regain power and control through the threat or reality of bringing death and destruction to those who have the power.

Part of me wants to scream, “Have we learned nothing in 50 years?”

And I fear that the silent response will speak louder than words.

Why is it that some nations, people groups and ideologies are seeking to regain or establish power and control? Put simply (and I know it’s more complex than this) it must be that they feel powerless or lack control. So if we are to resolve these issues how are we going to do it?

  1. You could rain death and destruction down on those who are threatening it – remove them from the planet and you remove the threat. Except that the threat will always re-emerge because there will always be others who feel so powerless and lacking in control and influence over their own lives that they see no alternative. That is the current policy operated by the powerful.
  2. You could seek to force those who are threatening death and destruction to desist by making their existence intolerable through the imposition of sanctions of different sorts. But the danger is that if they are not starved into submission they may be starved into even more desperate acts in order to try to survive.
  3. You could seek to negotiate peace with those who are seeking or threatening to disrupt it. This only works if all sides want peace and are willing to negotiate. It necessitates a recognition that peace through compromise is more desirable than the current situation. Peace that lasts cannot be coerced or imposed because otherwise resentment will fester and emerge later on in violent antipathy.

It seems to me that the approaches that have been taken in the 50 years I have lived on this spinning globe have not secured lasting peace. United Nations resolutions have not changed anything. Economics has not changed anything. Ideology has not changed anything – capitalism may have gained the ascendancy but it actually only benefits the wealthy and powerful so is likely in the long term to exacerbate the problem. Religion has not changed anything – different sides have claimed moral and religious justifications for their actions but nobody has been proved right. Technology has not changed the status quo.

So what would work? I think we need a global response to a global problem. That problem is inequality: inequality of wealth, power, influence, lifestyle, resource consumption, technology and so much more. And what we need is a global outpouring of grace. By this I mean that those with power become willing to ‘lose face’ and seek to improve the circumstances for those who are power-less. It will cost a lot in many different ways, and the cost will primarily be paid by those who have the power, wealth and so on. They are the ones who will be giving things up for the benefit of those who have less as it means a substantial redistribution of wealth, power and influence.

It also carries with it a lot of risks: the risk that those who are seeking to wreak death and destruction on others will simply take what is offered and continue their deadly path; the risk that those who have used aggression or its threat to make their point will claim victory and it could encourage others to try the same thing; the risk that the citizens of the powerful nations will see it as weakness and not re-elect those that we in power who acted that way… many more besides.

It’s actually something that God intends. In the Bible we read of the concept of Jubilee. It was to be a year (once every 50 years) in which debts are written off, land is restored to its original owners, those who have been exploited are released, and everyone acts in the best interests of everyone rather than motivated by greedy self-interest. The problem is that those who had the power and wealth found it too difficult to let go of it so it was never (to our knowledge) put into practice.

Is this achievable? Not by our own efforts because greedy self-interest will always overpower grace and love. Look at what happened to Jesus!

But it is achievable if we get radical. ‘Radical’ as a word has its origins in the concept of ‘going back to the root’. What we need is not a new politics, economics or ideology. What we need is a radical renewal of our relationship with God. Jesus described what he had come to do in the form of announcing a year of Jubilee in our relationship with God: a change of heart and renewed relationship with our Creator is the only way we can begin to see his world transformed and the only way we can see the sort of change that is needed that will affect the hearts and minds in such a way that we will be willing to risk all for the benefit of all. It’s only possible when we allow him to get to work on us by his Spirit to change our hearts and minds and we live in a grace-rich environment.

Am I an idealist? Maybe. Am I unrealistic? Maybe. But it can start with me and you. How about it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

piles, files and dustbins

In my former incarnation as a lawyer the partner who oversaw my work had piles. No, not like that, he had piles of files. He had one pile of files on the left hand side of his desk that he had to deal with and a pile on the right hand side of the desk of files he had dealt with. In his mind it was a clear and simple system. But to anyone coming into the office it looked chaotic because even though files moved (via the space in front of him) from one pile to the other to the untrained eye it looked as if the piles never moved. And there were many occasions when his long-suffering secretary would have to rummage through the piles when the need of a file became more urgent.

paperworkI developed my own system based on that approach, but I resolved to keep the piles small and deal with them as soon as possible. I think that approach has stayed with me. Today I try to have regular ‘dustbin days’.

The idea of a dustbin day was that were would be scheduled days when I cleared out my inbox; desktop and rubbish bin. And in those days these things were real, tangible things not virtual places on a computer! The purpose of having these regularly is to make sure that you don’t overlook things that find themselves at the bottom of a pile, to make sure you don’t keep putting off that awkward visit or phone call, and to make sure that you keep yourself (relatively) organised. It also enables you to get rid of the clutter and unnecessary things that take up space in your office and in your mind: there is something cathartic about throwing away something you no longer need.

I still try to have dustbin days. I like the opportunity to go through things that have been gathering literal or metaphorical dust and dealing with them. I like the feeling of having a single figure number of emails inbox (and even, occasionally, having an empty inbox!). I like being able to see the top of my desk. I like having a tidy space to work in. And I like the corresponding tidying that takes place in my mind as I deal with things.

And I need to have even more regular spiritual dustbin days. On the advice of my Spiritual Director (he’s perhaps a bit like Yoda in his wisdom and perception but not as small or green; he speaks conventionally and is not so good with a light-sabre) I have been trying to finish each day with a spiritual exercise. It goes something like this:

I ask myself two questions.

How have people and experiences today have energised, blessed and encouraged me and where have I sensed God at work in them?

How have I been drained and diminished by people and experiences today and where do I need God to see God at work at work in them?

I then pause and pray for God’s Spirit to give me the grace and wisdom to respond appropriately to both answers, and I then leave those things with God.

It has been helpful to me in reflecting on my day. It has been helpful as a sort of spiritual dustbin day to deal with emotions and thoughts that are hanging around from the day. And it is helpful to leave them with God so I don’t have to have my mind trying to think about them and process them when I want it to let me go to sleep.

If good administration is important, how much more important is good soul-administration?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

to vote or de-vote?

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This week I voted. It did not take long. It was not difficult. It was an election for my local Police and Crime Commissioner. The ‘campaign’ has been very low key around here – no leaflets, no phone calls, no posters. I had to look up the candidates for myself in order to make a decision about where to put my ‘x’. If I hadn’t had a polling card I would not have known there was an election at all.

It was tempting to think that my vote won’t make a difference: why should I put myself out by walking around the corner to the local school that was hosting the polling station – it’s only one vote, after all. That thought did cross my mind this morning, but then I dismissed it. Not just because if we all thought like that then nobody would get elected, or even the thought that there are countries where the people are denied that privilege, and when they are given it they vote enthusiastically. There was a bit more thought than that. I have written to my MP several times recently: about the clearing of part of the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, about the way that our Government could do more to help those fleeing persecution, and most recently about the ‘Dubs amendment’ to the Immigration Bill. But if I don’t participate in the democratic process as fully as possible (with whatever flaws I might think it has) then it’s much more difficult for me to voice my opinion with as much integrity as I would like. If my voice is to mean anything then I feel that I should vote.

Of course democracy is not really mentioned in the Bible. Nobody voted for Moses or Joshua, or the Judges, or the absolute monarchs of the Old Testament. In the New Testament nobody voted for Caesar, or any of the Herods, or even Pilate, Felix, Festus or King Agrippa. And the appointment of the early church leaders seemed to have more to do with whether they had known Jesus and the length of a straw (or whatever ‘casting lots’ meant) than democracy.

I believe that democracy has no place in the church (even though it’s the best (or least worst) political process). Don’t get too hot under the collar just yet, please read on because, as we all confess as good Baptists, I believe that if we vote in a Deacons’ or Church Meeting we are not voting democratically (although it looks similar) we are seeking to express what we are collectively discerning to be God’s will. Deacons’ and Church Meetings, at their best, are places where we can disagree agreeably, discuss graciously and then seek to discern wisely what God is saying to us.

In the book of Acts there are two contrasting approaches to discerning God’s will. The first is from the mouth of Gamaliel in the Sanhedrin when they were working out what to do with Peter and the Apostles who had been arrested (Acts 5):

34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’

I have often heard Gamaliel’s wisdom commended as a good example of how to deal with a tricky situation. But to me it seems like a cop-out. He did not commit himself to discerning God’s will, he hedged his bets: he uses ‘if’ twice in the last two verses. (As an aside I note that the Sanhedrin had the apostles flogged before they released them, just to make a point and the Apostles rejoiced because they had been considered worthy of suffering for the Gospel).

Then there’s Acts 15 – the Council of Jerusalem – where the Christians tried to work out how Jewish God wanted you to be to follow Jesus. People of opposing views shared their opinions and then they discerned together (we don’t know how) and decided:

22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

I love the phrase “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” as that, to me, seems to capture the essence of how a Deacons’ or Church Meeting should come to a conclusion. Whether or not votes are cast in order to help us discern, at the end we should all affirm “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” and then work to put that into action – even if it’s not our own personal preference – because we believe we have collectively listened to God through each other and heard what he wants. And that’s where Gamaliel’s words, with a slight alteration, make more sense: “But because it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the little things

It’s all the little details that take time isn’t it? Moving house was not, on the grand scale of things, too traumatic an event. Strong men moved our belongings into a big lorry, drove the lorry to a new house, and then unloaded our belongings into the new house from the big lorry.

The removal firm we used, although not a picture of them moving our stuff!

Of course we still had to unload all of the boxes and find homes for everything (and remember where we put things). Opening the boxes was a little bit like playing hide and seek with our possessions as we didn’t know exactly which box contained what items. But even that was big picture activity.

Since then we keep uncovering little bits and pieces that we need to do/change/restart/start related to our new location. Who knew that there were so many different and disparate organisations that needed to be informed of a change of address? And who knew how many of them will charge us for the privilege of changing our details (harrumph, harrumph, harrumph)? Who knew how many old documents needed shredding and new ones need filing in their place? And on top of that we have had to find new window cleaners, remember a different day for refuse and recycling collections, find out where the local shops are (and work out what you can and can’t buy in them), and find a local church in which to settle.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’m not saying we have a tough life. Not at all. We feel so blessed. All I am observing is that there are so many little things that need sorting out even after we’ve sorted out the big things. And I think it’s the same with my faith. To me the big picture is fairly clear: God loves me and wants to have a relationship with me, I have stuffed up and wrecked our relationship, God has sorted it out through Jesus. Now I know that theology is an awful lot more nuanced than that but if the best I can manage on Monday morning.

But the little things keep needing to be sorted out. I constantly need to keep a short account with God – asking for forgiveness and a fresh start on a daily basis. I need to remember to spend quality time with him on a daily basis. Reading and understanding my Bible isn’t always easy. Praying doesn’t always come naturally. Forgiving other people as I have been forgiven isn’t easy sometimes. Accepting God’s will isn’t always comfortable. Listening to God is not always easy when there are lots of other “noises” (literal and metaphorical) that drown him out. Trying to see things how Jesus sees them and respond how he would respond is tricky. And it’s not even 10 o’clock yet!

It would be easy to get despondent about all this but two things give me hope. One of them is God’s indomitable unlimited lavishly poured out grace. God is so gracious and patient with me. Even if I let him down for the hundredth time in a day his grace is more than sufficient for me to come back, ask for forgiveness and a fresh start and receive them from him. The other is that he has given us his Spirit to help us. On our own it would be impossible for us to live in a way that honours God we serve and seeks to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. It would be easier for me to lift myself off the ground and stay floating in midair (without the aid of any magical props!). But God’s spirit is constantly nudging, encouraging, inspiring, speaking, enhancing, cultivating fruit, giving gifts, surprising, blessing, and being just like Jesus in us and with us and through us.

Without both of these my Christian faith is simply a set of rules and guidelines and principles for living (and failing). But with them it is a vibrant, living relationship with God Almighty: by no means a relationship of equals but, as I have said, God’s grace is sufficient for me – and you. Even for the little things as well as the big ones.

Perhaps especially so.

Be blessed, be a blessing