Monday, June 26, 2006

Emptied | Filled

When God gives me something, I like to give it away. And so I’d like to share some of what we considered over the weekend (that which goes beyond the family matters of the Order) as a gift, which you can choose whether or not you want to receive (because it makes for a longer post than some will want to read).

“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain…” Philippians 1:21

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” Philippians 2:5-7

“…whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things…I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…” Philippians 3:7-10

“…I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12-14

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Philippians 4:4-8

“…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13

The apostle Paul understood, interpreted, his life as being one that was bounded and defined by Jesus. Jesus emptied himself – like a jar of liquid being poured out – not of his essential nature (an empty jar remains a jar) but of his capacity to do things: power came to him not because he was the Son of God, but because he was the humble servant – and, therefore, a model for us to follow. Following Jesus’ example, Paul had put behind him everything that the world would recognise as giving status, as being important; everything the world would give to him by way of a qualification, by way of identity. What makes me feel special? What am I become identified with, so that if it were taken away I would lose something of myself? If our hearts are full of other things, there is less room for the Spirit of God to work in us and through us. Paul emptied himself; and, by choosing to focus on God and all he had done, gave God greater space.

In order to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus had taken hold of him, Paul engaged with the process of self-emptying, so as to receive the substance of a new identity. And – again following Christ’s example – it was through the suffering that he experienced in life that the things of his ‘old’ identity were highlighted, and lost. Loss is gain. Not that loss is necessarily good in itself; but that, in God’s grace, loss provides an opportunity for the heart to be hollowed-out and filled with the Kingdom of God. The space left by loss, by bereavement, in our lives can become filled with anger and/or guilt, bottled-up by denial; but it need not be that way. How do we recover from loss? By not holding on to it, but giving it up to God.

If we think we have anything to offer to others of ourselves, we have got the wrong attitude. Jesus took on the nature of a servant – someone who owns nothing out of which to give to others. All a servant can do is receive from their master, and give what their master has given. No-one is emptier than Jesus – and so no-one is fuller than Jesus…

Everything Paul has been writing about is summarised in the word ‘contentment.’ Paul had come to be satisfied with being empty, and therefore his experience was such that he could write, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” The unlimited power of God that is available to Jesus was available to Paul – and is available to us today. The only issue is: how much resistance is there in the conductor? In Jesus’ case (alone) there is zero resistance; Paul’s experience was one of less and less resistance, and therefore increasing power flowing through. As we engage in God’s mission, we do not need more power, but less resistance. And the process is suffering, because power and suffering go together. Am I willing to ask God to remove my capacity to resist him?

Here’s where it gets personal, because the teaching input over the weekend seemed to describe our experience over the past year. It has been a year marked over and over by loss, and the bereavement that follows – and I share all this because I know so many other people who have experienced so much loss too. God has called us to give up – to count as loss – my job and our shared role on the leadership team of a church looked to as a model by churches all over the world, with the accompanying opportunities to input into the lives of others who come to Sheffield for that purpose, or to travel to speak at conferences in other nations; to give up our home, and home-ownership; to leave England, and travel to Australia; but then to discover that we weren’t going to be there for any length of time (just one example: I was at a forge conference, a group of people that I could easily imagine working with, relationships God had brought together; and while we were praying together I very strongly felt God say, “Walk away; this is not it”); being on the other side of the world when my sister was seriously ill; having to return home without clarity; the cost of living in a liminal space; unemployment, and now working 12 hours a week, in a support role that is largely menial and requires none of the (many) qualifications I have been accredited over the years (all of which I consider loss)…And, frankly, the process of being poured-out is horrible: because what is poured-out is wasted, soaked-up by the earth, it cannot be retrieved again; it is dying to self; it is death. But Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25). And we are more content than we were (this morning I heard that I hadn’t got a second part-time job I’d been interviewed for last week; and, honestly, we’ve forgotten it already).

And my faith is this: that I can know Christ and the power of his resurrection, in this life; that he can achieve his purposes for me and through me; and that my resistance to that end is less than it was, and greater than it will be…


  1. Great summary of the teaching + more Andrew. I was thinking about you guys over the weekend for the same reasons you mention here.

    I think you summarise the strange dynamic that loss presents really well. A lot of this year for us has been horrible too, lots of big and small losses. Yet in each one I think I've learnt a little bit more about myself and found a bit more space for God to fill.

    Keep us tender Lord
    Teach us to rejoice in loss.

  2. Hi Ben.

    As I think about friends within the Order (not to mention friends outside of the Order), I am aware of so many losses over the past twelve months: two deaths, long-term illness the doctors can't seem to diagnose/treat, breast cancer, your+Helen's miscarriage...

    And Jo and I see a lie of the enemy at work (both within and without the Order), that whispers to us that when we are going through bereavement we need to put our heads down and deal with it on our own, because everyone else seems to be dealing with bereavements of their own, and we don't want to burden them with ours, or to get together and indulge in a spiral of wallowing. Like all such lies, it comes to us sounding spiritual (especially the bit about not feeding each other's negativity). But it is a lie, because we are called to carry one another's burdens, and it is easier to be held to account and encouraged to forget what lies behind and press on towards the goal, rejoicing, when we do so together (i.e. just because people can feed each other's negativity does not mean they have to, or that they can't, in fact, feed each other's rejoicing).

    To keep friends at arms length when we are greiving is to deny community. Let's continue to not do that!

    We love you guys...