ahem, ahem **clears throat for important announcement**

pexels-photo-695948.jpegDear bloggists. Just a quick note to say that I have a date for my operation. I will be going in to hospital on 12th February for a 12,000 mile service (and some heart surgery). I may well post some bloggages before I go in, but I won’t be posting bloggages for a little while after then so please enjoy the silence!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

faq

Picking up a thought from yesterday’s bloggage got me wondering whether we ask the wrong questions and then are surprised and disappointed at the answers we get. Yesterday one of the questions that I suggested is thrown up by the apostle Paul pleading in vain for God to take away the “thorn in his flesh” was ‘why didn’t God take it away?’ It’s a frequently asked question about suffering and unanswered prayer.

pexels-photo-221164.jpegBut it’s a question that can lead to all sorts of unsatisfying answers (I don’t subscribe to any of the following answers, by the way). Some might suggest that God wanted to teach Paul something through his suffering. What sort of capricious God would want someone to remain in pain simply to learn a lesson? Others might suggest that Paul didn’t have enough faith when he prayed. But Jesus debunked that myth when he said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. (For me the mustard seed measure of faith equates to ‘as much as it takes for us to pray). Others may say that Paul did not pray enough times – he only pleaded three times. But is God really the sort of being who needs lots of prayers before he responds – like a slot machine that asks for more coins before it dispenses a bar of chocolate?

Is it the wrong question because it leads to unhelpful answers?

What if the right question looks at things from a different perspective: ‘why does God intervene in answer to prayers?’ You see when we look at Jesus in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles) we see that (especially in John’s gospel) these are ‘signs’. They point us towards something significant:  they reveal who Jesus is; they help us understand something about human nature; they help us realise that God’s kingdom is much bigger than we could ever imagine; and they help us face our own internal prejudices.

So could it be that when God intervenes in answer to our prayers we should be asking ourselves why he did rather than focusing on the times when it appears that he doesn’t*? What does he want us to recognise, realise or learn because of his intervention? What difference would it make to our faith if instead of asking “why not?” when God appears not to have responded* we ask “why?” when he does?

*I would also want to challenge the notion that God hasn’t responded when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we want. Given that we are talking about a relationship with a God who says he is love, isn’t it fair to expect that he will answer – but perhaps we are looking for the wrong answer. Jesus gave us a hint about this when he was teaching about prayer (including giving his famous pattern for praying we know as The Lord’s Prayer):

11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

So when we pray we know that God wants to respond in the best way for us. When we pray we pray “your will be done” and seek to align ourselves with that rather than “my will be done” and try to convince God to agree with us. When we pray we should be asking for him to give us the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual resources and gifts we need to become the person God created us to be, and to be able to listen to God’s answers. When we pray we should be seeking answers to the right questions.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

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

getting rid of the goat

pexels-photo-58914.jpeg

A fragment of papyrus has recently been found in the Sinai Desert. It appears to be part of a Hebrew Priest’s diary…

Day 3874 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Moses has told us that God has given us a new way of dealing with our sin: a Scapegoat. After he’d made himself pure Aaron placed his hands on a goat’s head and confessed all our sin, transferring it to the goat. The goat was then sent off into the wilderness as an atonement sacrifice and we were back in favour with God. Good news.

Day 3875 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Rather alarmingly the goat came back to the camp during the night. Clearly it was hungry and thirsty and as we’d looked after it all its life it decided that being with us was better than the wilderness. Aaron was not sure what to do as God didn’t give him any instructions for what to do if the scapegoat came back. He commissioned me to drive the goat away again so I shooed it far away.

Day 3876 Still not made it to the Promised Land. That pesky goat came back during the night again. I was rather relieved that Aaron didn’t notice so this time I took it a long way away from the camp and tied it to a bush. Glad to have got away with that one.

Day 3877 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Guess what. The goat came back again last night, dragging a half-eaten bush behind it. It must be part homing-pigeon as it keeps coming back home. This time I took it off to the middle of the wilderness and tied it to a rock. I made the mistake of looking it in the eyes as I left – I feel really sorry for it.

Day 3878 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Unbelievably the goat came back again last night. It chewed its way through the rope. I think we have bonded so I have decided to keep it. I will hide it in my tent and try to disguise it so that Aaron doesn’t find out. If anyone asks me about the bleating sounds and I will tell them that I have allergy issues that are making me sneeze.

[The next part of the parchment is missing and looks like it has been chewed by a goat]

Day 3891 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Scapey (the goat) has been chewing everything in my tent. It’s becoming really difficult to keep him hidden and he won’t stop bleating, even when I’m not in the tent. I find it difficult to do my priestly duties while hiding my guilty secret. Every time I see Aaron I can feel my face reddening and I am sure he suspects something. Got to stop writing now as someone is coming.

[The fragment of parchment ends here].

I wrote this parable following my morning bible study on the subject of ‘scapegoat’ from Leviticus. I wondered why the goats didn’t come back to the place where they were fed and given water, and what would happen if they did… the rest is in my imagination! It’s a parable we have shared with our churches to help them think missionally, but it also made me reflect personally…

  • The idea of a scapegoat is one with which many people (especially Christians are familiar). The Bible says that the scapegoat atonement has now been fulfilled in Jesus. Why do you think God wanted the scapegoat to take the sin away into the wilderness?
  • What could the priest have done differently? Why do you think he decided to try to deal with the goat on his own?When we confess to God what we need to be forgiven do we do so with the hope that we will be set free from them or are we just glad that we can be continually forgiven as we continue to do the same things?
  • How often do we seek forgiveness for our sins and then find that they have made their way back into our life? Is there an alternative to trying to deal with them on our own? Do we sometimes try to keep them secret instead of dealing with them?How does our attitude to forgiveness, failure and finding freedom affect our participation in God’s mission?
  • New Christians often make the most enthusiastic evangelists. Is it time for us to seek to rediscover the joy of our salvation?

Be blessed, be a blessing

liminality

I was talking with someone about the transition between 2017 and 2018 recently and they remarked on how often they have heard the phrase ‘liminal space’ in recent months. Liminal space is the time between what has been and what will be. It’s a threshold. It can be a moment (such as the split second before Big Ben bongs in a new year – the time between one year and the next) and it can be an a lengthy period of time of waiting. In some ways life is a constant liminal space – we are not time-travellers so live in an eternal present where we can’t go back to what was and the future is always just out of reach ahead of us.

It doesn’t even have to be temporal, it can be an emotional space or a spiritual space. Theologically Christians think of living in the Kingdom of God tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. Liminal space can be unsettling because there is uncertainty. It involves waiting (patiently?) and is a time of potentiality. There may be hope, there may be fear. It is also a place of possibilities, a place where we may be transformed and where creativity may flourish because nothing is fixed.

I think that I focused on the phrase ‘liminal space’ because it resonates at the moment with my own personal experience. I am on a waiting list for some surgery that I have been told will be ‘soon’ but at the time of writing that is as definite as they are able to be. I was told that it could have been before Christmas (which meant having to cancel some engagements to allow churches to find someone else – ‘maybe’ is not a helpful answer to a church when they ask you if you are able to come and preach or take a service!) and am still having to work on a week-by-week basis as the phone call could come at any time. I found this very frustrating because of the disruption to those I am trying to serve and the restrictions it places on what I believe I am called to do.

Liminal space may seem like wasted space – it’s space where hopes and dreams remain just that and ambitions are unrealised. But I decided that I was going to look for the possibilities: the transformative and creative experiences that this liminality may offer me. One thing it has given me is more space in my diary so I have been able to do more reading than I often get space for (and reduced the size of my pile of ‘to read’ books). I have been able to exercise a bit more creativity and use my imagination in putting together some reflections on the Kingdom of God. I have been able to take the initiative in meeting up with some people (and as so often seems to happen finding that God’s timing was in this). And the contents of my email inboxes have been kept to single figures!

But what happens when we feel the weight of being in a liminal space? Psalm 40 feels like it was written when David was in a liminal space:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.

Blessed is the one
who trusts in the Lord,
who does not look to the proud,
to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
they would be too many to declare.

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire –
but my ears you have opened; –
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come –
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.’

I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, Lord,
as you know.
10 I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly.

11 Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
12 For troubles without number surround me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails within me.
13 Be pleased to save me, Lord;
come quickly, Lord, to help me.

14 May all who want to take my life
be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
be turned back in disgrace.
15 May those who say to me, ‘Aha! Aha!’
be appalled at their own shame.
16 But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
‘The Lord is great!’

17 But as for me, I am poor and needy;
may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
you are my God, do not delay.

(NIVUK)

The psalm starts positively – David had waited patiently in his slimy pit and the Lord had rescued him and put him on solid ground. Great! Things can only get better now – and the psalm certainly feels like it’s moving in that direction. Yet it finishes with a call for the Lord to remember David in his needy state and not to delay in rescuing him. Has he fallen back into the slimy pit? Or is this a psalm written while David is in a difficult liminal space so that his first statement was a remembering of past times when God rescued him and his last statement is a cry of hope for the future, built on the confidence of knowing that God had rescued him in the past?

One response to the weight of liminality is to remind ourselves of moments when we have experienced God’s presence and salvation in the past and re-build our confidence in the present on the foundations of God’s faithfulness to help us face the future. In the past David had sung a new song because of his experience of God’s rescue and that meant he was able to speak confidently about his God in the present even if he was in further difficult circumstances. The liminal experience became a creative experience. How might you express creatively your experience of God’s faithfulness (you may not be a singer but God has given you creative gifts perhaps as a poet, a flower-arranger, an artist, a dancer, a builder, a carer, a theologian or even a preacher!)? Or maybe you can take David’s words and make them your own.

And let’s also remember that when Jesus said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” it was a statement of fact. For his followers we know that his Spirit is in us. He is with us. Fact. He doesn’t ride to the rescue at the last minute like the hero in a movie when all seems lost, he is with us in the slimy pit (or however our liminal space manifests itself). He is with us. It’s a fact that doesn’t even depend on whether we feel his presence. We are not alone even if our emotions are masked by depressive illnesses and God feels a million miles away – he is with us. If you go and stand in a deep dark cave with someone you trust and turn off the lights you may not be able to see them or sense their presence, but the fact is that they are still there. So is God. That knowledge may not change the circumstances but it may enable us to look at them differently.

May you know blessing, joy and peace of God’s presence and the encouraging comfort of remembering his faithfulness this year whether you are standing on firm ground or find yourself in a slimy pit.