Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday : Repent And Believe

So Lent begins.

Listen!  Can you hear the whisper?  The whisper inviting you to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to die to false self in order to rise to true self; to be transformed.

To be found in Christ; filled with the Holy Spirit; fathered by God.

This is what you were made for.  And yet it requires a turning away from all other grounds for identity.  Away from self-sufficiency (i.e. I can meet my needs).  Away from ‘celebrity’ status (i.e. you can meet my needs).  Away from ‘political’ power (i.e. I can meet your needs).  To God, your father, who loves you and is pleased with you.

How do we do that?  First, we allow God to reveal to us where our identity is really grounded.  For example, in ‘celebrity’ status.  I don’t mean celebrity like you see in the media; I mean, that thing for which you are known, that thing you do that causes people to praise you.  The person who is known for their delicious cakes; or their successful dinner parties; or their musical talents; or their confidence in public speaking.  There is nothing wrong with doing something well, something well that others respond to with praise.  But something subtle can happen over time: we find ourselves doing this thing because we will be praised, in order to trigger praise, in order to experience the buzz, the high, praise gives us...before the inevitable low that follows, and the need to repeat or even excel our past moments.  A subtle thing, by degrees, perhaps un-noticed – as parents don’t notice the day-by-day growth of their children in the way that friends who see them less frequently do – and so it may be that you will need the help of others to identify where our identity is grounded.  If we are to repent, we must observe, reflect, discuss.

This thing, that God reveals to us as we withdraw a while from the society that fuels our mis-placed identity, is the thing we are invited to ‘give up for Lent.’  Stop doing it; and instead, rediscover that God is your father who loves you and is pleased with you.  Repent, and believe.  And having rediscovered this amazing truth, we can take up that thing again, re-aligned.  We can make our delicious cakes – or host parties or make music or address crowds – not for the praise we might get from others, but as an expression of whom God has made us to be, the unique ways in which he has gifted you...recognising that we might lose sight again, might fall off the path again.  And so, again, don’t do it on your own.  Invite a friend, or friends, you trust to help you plan how you will keep sight, stay on the path – for example, by consciously and publically giving thanks to God for his good gifts when you are praised, neither dishonouring him through wallowing in false modesty nor dishonouring him through revelling in false glory – and hold you accountable by calling you out when your identity begins to send out roots into poor ground.  If we are to believe, we must plan, and give those who help us plan permission to hold us to account in relation to our plan, before we act.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Approaching Lent : On The Eve Of Battle

Once, God brought his people out of slavery with the intention of giving them territory in which they would exercise right living; territory possessed by others who did not acknowledge God; contested territory God and his people would together have to make their own.  And so, on the eve of invasion, in the wilderness overlooking the Jordan river, God reminded his people of the covenant they had entered-into – a joining of identities, a belonging to one another, a being for the other.  We can read that account to this day, in the book of Deuteronomy.

Once, God called out his Son, Jesus, with the intention of giving him territory in which he would exercise right living; the kingdom of heaven, expanding, claiming back what had been abdicated in Eden; contested by the one who had taken for himself Adam’s discarded crown.  And so, on the eve of invasion, in the wilderness overlooking the Jordan river, Jesus reflected on the reminders of Deuteronomy, in preparation to face his enemy.  We can read the account to this day, in Matthew and Mark and Luke’s Gospels.

Today, God wants to give us territory in which we can exercise right living by loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself.  This territory is both communal and physical – such as a formal or informal parish in which a local church is set – and also personal and metaphorical – such as a sphere of influence, in the home or workplace.  The territory is contested; God wants us to take it, together with him.  The Season of Lent is our choosing to enter-into this pattern, to be led by God to the wilderness at the very edge of the territory he wants to give us – for no ground is taken except that we first spend time in the wilderness – in order to be reminded once again of our covenant relationship.

Jesus is led into the wilderness with these words ringing in his ears: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased!”  In these words, covenant is affirmed.  In these words, we (who share in Jesus’ identity, Romans 8:14-17, because our covenant with God is focused on and mediated by and expressed through the person of Jesus) discover our true identity.  God is our Father, and therefore we experience his family.  God is our Father, and therefore we experience his love.  God is our Father, and therefore we experience his approval.

Immediately, Jesus’ identity is challenged: “If you are the Son of God...”  And it is no different for us, who share in what is done to him (his ‘sufferings,’ Romans 8:17; literally, those things, whether good or bad, done to him by others; as in the famous verse ‘suffer the little children to come to me,’ which means, bring them because they cannot bring themselves, and not, force them to come whether they want to or not and hurting them if necessary), whether by God or John or the Holy Spirit or the devil.  The temptations of the wilderness are temptations to locate our identity elsewhere than already conferred to us by a loving Father, and they are very much alive and well today.  The temptations are to find identity in self-sufficiency (in what I can provide for myself and those who depend on me), in celebrity status (in how many know my name and massage my insecure ego) and in political power (in how I can use a fundamentally corrupt system as a means to my own ends, whether those ends are noble or ignoble).

Where we find our identity has a direct bearing on our impact on the world.  If our identity is located in self-sufficiency, we will ignore others.  If our identity is located in celebrity status, we will be manipulated by others.  And if our identity is located in political power (by which I do not necessarily mean party politics, but exercising power over people), we will manipulate others (perhaps arguing that we do so for their own good).  With the best will in the world, these are the inevitable out-workings or outward expressions of these three inner motivations.

If our identity is grounded in God as our Father, we experience his family, not isolation: and this inner reality resources us to open our lives to others, hard though that often is in a world of hurt and hurting people.  Rather than seeking independence, we start to discover God’s better way of inter-dependence.

If our identity is grounded in God as our Father, we experience his love that is unconditional, not fickle: and this inner reality resources us to open our lives to others, hard though that often is in a world of hurt and hurting people.  Rather than seeking status, we discover that God is faithful, whether we are recognised by anyone else or not.

If our identity is grounded in God as our Father, we experience his approval, which is freely given as gift and not earned: and this inner reality resources us to open our lives to others, hard though that often is in a world of hurt and hurting people.  Rather than seeking power, we discover that God’s power flows through the powerless, as it did through Jesus who submitted himself to being baptised by John and led away from all that was familiar by the persistent Spirit-filled dove.

The greater the extent of the internal territory that we, together with God as our covenant partner, win back from the Accuser (for the terms of a covenant state that my enemies are my covenant partner’s enemies, and my partner’s enemies are now mine), the greater the extent of the external territory that we can win back.  The more our communal and personal lives are rightly grounded, the greater the impact we can expect in our neighbourhoods, in our homes and workplaces, as we grow in confidence that God can work through us, and he grows in confidence that he can trust us with greater responsibility.

And so as we find ourselves once again at the start of Lent, here are some questions for us to wrestle with over the next forty days:

For what territory has God put a longing in your heart, to see his kingdom extended or consolidated, where you are yet to see any victories?

What might the wilderness – the marginal place on the edge of that territory – look like?  Where are the unseen places in your community; in what areas of your home life do you experience incompetence; who has the least influence in your workplace; and how might you meet God in these places?

What kind of God draws us out from our own places of self-sufficiency, celebrity status, or political power, to rediscover his care for us, his hopes and dreams for our lives, and to rehearse again his incredible commitment to our future together?

What is the source of our identity?  Do you experience God as Father, and look to him for your identity?  Do you look elsewhere?  Are you uncertain that God is a sufficient source of a healthy identity?  Have you experienced God as Father in the past?  Do you need to return to him – or make a change in direction so as to keep close to him?  Allow him to strip away your false selves and provide food and water for your true self...

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Today, as so often, I am rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. We experience love and breath-taking joy because the universe is not meaningless. We experience loss and breath-taking sorrow because the universe is not meaningless. If the universe was truly indifferent, we would be truly indifferent too. But we are not, and so there is hope, in the face of unimaginable gift and of unimaginable tragedy, beyond our understanding.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Repent And Believe

Jesus holds out for us a defining way to live: repent and believe (Mark 1:15).

To repent means to embrace a change of mind, of perspective, of direction, of purpose, in order to keep in step with God, in order to walk with him as with a friend.  It includes turning around, turning back, when we have gone away from God, but it is much bigger than that.

To believe means to step out, actively, with a deliberate intentionality that gives outward expression to our new inner purpose.

This is how Jesus lived.

Jesus pioneers the life of repentance and belief for us:

at his baptism, where he turns from the purpose of an itinerant construction worker (carpenter = more house-builder than furniture-maker) (absolutely the right purpose up until this point; but no longer so, moving into the future) to the purpose of an itinerant preacher, healer and demon-confronter;

when he calls certain others to turn from the varied purposes of harvesting fish, or collecting tax, or participating in the royal court, or murdering Roman soldiers, or life lived under demonic affliction, or (after his death, resurrection, and ascension) persecuting his own followers, to share in and extend his mission;

whenever he moves from one village, where God has sent him, to another village, to which God is sending him now;

when he turns from Galilee towards Jerusalem...

Sunday, February 05, 2012


In the fishing town of Capernaum lived a man called Jonah.  Jonah was a fisherman – with a wonderful ironic name for a fisherman.  He was in business with Zebedee, and they were, apparently, doing very well.  Jonah’s sons Simon (sometimes known as Simon Peter) and Andrew, and Zebedee’s sons James and John, were all involved in the family business; which also provided employment for a number of hired fishermen.  Our story today is centred on the home of Simon and Andrew: that is, Jonah’s house.  Most likely, the family lived in one space.  Simon is already married, and the custom of their culture was (and still is today) that when the son of a house became betrothed, a room was built on the flat roof – effectively a second floor was added to the house – and once it was ready and the wedding took place, his bride came to live with him there: that is, they started their married life in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense building on his parent’s family life.  (When Jesus uses this imagery hours before his crucifixion – John 14:1-4 – he is saying that the Church is his bride, not that he goes to prepare rooms for each one of us.)

We can be fairly certain of the exact location of this house, because after the resurrection, it became the gathered place of one of the very first churches, and was so for generation after generation.  And so what we see in this story is the very beginnings of the Church (which, after all, Jesus would later say he would build ‘on’ Peter).  Beginnings matter – not because the mature expression should look like the juvenile expression, but because the juvenile form expresses the genetic composition that will be present in the mature form, if it is truly what it is thought to be.  And so we ought to pay close attention to the church we see here.

In this home we find Simon’s mother-in-law.  That she is part of his home suggests that she may be a widow, vulnerable in her society unless provided for, as God required of his people.  She has a fever: and the others tell Jesus about her.  He goes to her, takes her hand, and helps her up – and as he does so, the fever departs.

It is a reality of our experience of life that there are times when we cannot do anything: perhaps because we are ill, or aging, or existing under chronic sleep deprivation due to a baby who does not sleep, or all-but-overwhelmed by any number of circumstances.  And part of what it means to be church is that at such times others tell Jesus about us; that through their ministering to us Jesus comes to us, takes our hand, and helps us up.  For some of us, loss of independence is very hard to accept; we do not want to be a burden to others; we have our faith in Jesus, and that is enough.  But Jesus comes to us with brothers and sisters, or not at all.  We get to have Jesus and our brothers and sisters, or not at all.

As soon as she is healed, Simon’s mother-in-law responds in an amazing way, which is almost entirely lost in translation.  She ministers to Jesus and his companions.  The word has appeared already in Mark’s Gospel, of the angels who ministered to Jesus at the end of his forty-day fast in the wilderness.  This happens very rarely in the Gospels – the woman who prepares Jesus’ body for burial before his death, pouring perfume on his feet, does so; and so, I suppose it could be argued, do those who offer a drink to Jesus as he experiences thirst during his crucifixion – but Simon’s mother-in-law is the first person who realises that part of what it means to be church is to minister first-and-foremost to Jesus.  That if we do things for people but miss that in that way we are serving Jesus, we’ve missed it.  This is our first ministry: to make who we are – our gifts, our passions, our experience, what we can offer – available to Jesus, who has made himself available to us.  Just as it is true that from time to time all of us will experience the inability to do, so it is also true that all of us have much to offer.  This, to, is part of what it means to be church.

As a result of what happened, lots of other people turned up and were healed.  We are told that they came after sunset.  This is important: in the Jewish understanding, the day begins at sunset (this is why in Genesis 1 it says, “And it was evening, and it was morning: the first - etc. – day”).  Here we see the beginning of a new day: God is doing a new thing, working with and through a renewed community.

But Simon does what the church has had a tendency to do ever since: he concludes that the thing that Jesus has done is the thing that he wants to be done.  That is, having seen that people gathered to the church and were healed, Simon assumes that this is the agenda for the church: but it isn’t.  Jesus says, no: we need to go out, be sent out, to the surrounding villages.  The church is sent.  The gathered church is family, come together to bring Jesus to one another for healing and strengthening, and to minister to Jesus and his companions, and so to be sent out again.  This, too, is part of what it means to be church.

Over the past six months, literally hundreds of people have come into our church building, on a variety of regular- and one-off occasions.  And very, very, few have had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus as a result, in any way that they or others can measure (e.g. comparatively) or testify to.  In fact, where people’s lives have been transformed – and quite dramatically – it has been where they have happened upon a family-time gathering and encountered Jesus; not on those occasions where the family has been overwhelmed by visitors, which tends only to result in resentment.  Perhaps we need to rediscover what it means to be church?

Here, at the very beginning, we discover that the church is meant to be a three-dimensional community, described by the presence of height, depth, and breadth:

UP-ward space: attending to loving God by ministering to Jesus, making ourselves (our homes; our gifts; our lives) available to him; and

IN-ward space: attending to loving ourselves by bringing the healing presence of Jesus to one another; and

OUT-ward space: attending to loving our neighbours by going out, together, carrying good news with us.

In what circumstance do you need others to bring Jesus to you?  How might you offer yourself to minister to his needs?  And to whom, and with whom, is he leading you out from the church into the world?