The Location of Uncertainty and the Finding of Peace

If there is any wisdom at all in growing older (my 44th birthday next week is a timely reminder) it involves a recognition that life is uncertain.

There is outward uncertainty: I cannot control much of what happens to me. There is much about my health, wealth, and wellbeing that is outside of my plans. At some point, we all come to grips with the simple reality that life is not as we imagined it would be. We may paint a picture for the next 10, 20, or however many years we have left, but what will emerge will not be what we think. This uncertainty can create anxiety, but we must face it; it is simply the way things are.

There is inward uncertainty: I, myself, am not the person I thought I would be. Usually, I am not even the person I want to be right now. I am weaker, wearier, more broken than I imagined I would be. There is more, much more, beyond my understanding and capacity. Yes, my life’s experience grows, and there is increasing familiar ground, and I have come to “know myself” more than I did years ago. But I also have come to know that am uncertain, and anything that I have, or have achieved, is grace more than it is deserved reward; I am owed nothing, given much. I cannot guarantee my own growth or stability; I have come to the end of myself too much. This uncertainty can create anxiety, but we must face ourselves; it is simply the way we are.

President Kennedy famously had on his desk a plaque a prayer taken from the words of a poem. It is a timely reminder, life is uncertain:

O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.

Uncertainty is often where we come undone. When faced with life’s uncertainty we shore up our defenses: we seek to protect ourselves and our loved ones.  We scramble to control our environment. We take what is precious to us and we place it in the safest pair of hands we know: and in these lonely uncertain days, the safest hands we see are our own. The safest hands we know is the pair attached to our uncertain selves. Our external uncertainty feeds into our internal uncertainty and so it circles and accelerates until we unravel.

We seek to control our uncertainty, and so we come to the end of ourselves.

The same thing happens when it comes to religion. There’s a form of populist “faith” that seeks to reduce life’s uncertainty by trying to make life more controllable. It is found in different theological colours:

legalistic form of religion seeks to simplify the game of life, and make it winnable. Life’s experience is reduced to a set of known rules: criteria for safety, commandments for victory. “Do and don’t do this, and you’ll go to heaven; mess it up and you won’t.” It’s all on you, but life has been made graspable, achievable, controllable. Your hands are safe.

In the image of the little boat on the big sea, it has attempted to make the boat bigger than it is.

A relativistic form of religion seeks to simplify the game of life, by making the game go away. Uncertainty is deflected: you are the only reality, it’s everything else that’s moving. You can’t lose, because you have already won! If life feels uncertain, then reimagine it on your terms. Explore everything else as mystery, and you will find that you yourself are the certainty. Your hands are safe.

In the image of the little boat on the big sea, it has attempted to reduce the sea to a puddle.

What I see countering this is not religion, but faith. I don’t mean “faith” in the abstract (like the way people say “he believes in the Christian faith”), but faith in the concrete sense of trusting. To have faith in God, is to trust him. To have faith is to trust another pair of hands. To have faith in God is to trust God’s character, God’s size, God’s intention, God’s purpose, God’s word, God’s present spirit.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39

What does faith do? What does trust do? It allows the uncertainty to remain in ourselves, and then entrusts ourselves to the safe hands of God. Life is uncertain, but he is not. I am uncertain, but he is not. I will wobble and fail to understand, but he will not. Life will let me down, but he will not. Nothing will set separate us from the love of God.

Time and time again, in my life, in the lives of others, and especially in the corporate life of the church, this is the battle we face: the battle between control and faith. Will we try and seize control, and deflect the uncertainty away; will we reduce God to something he hasn’t said, or pretend he hasn’t said anything at all? Or will we exercise faith, and entrust our uncertain selves to our trustworthy Father; will we exercise the humility of relying on him?

In one direction lies the way of striving, where all depends on me. In the other direction lies freedom, freedom to live and move and have our being. In that direction we rest in someone bigger than ourselves. Uncertainty remains, but it is surpassed. In that direction lies peace.

Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.

Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And saltry trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?

Thy world, O God, so fierce,
And I so frail.
Yet, though its arrows threaten oft to pierce
My fragile mail,
Cities of refuge rise where dangers cease,
Sweet silences abound, and all is peace.

– Winfred Ernest Garrison

Image Credit: Michiel Jelijs licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Q&A: Can we ignore the pagan background of Lent and its other difficulties?

Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

I have always been muddled by Christian encouragement to observe the man-made tradition of Lent. I have been asked plenty of times over the years what I am giving up for Lent and I have been asked to teach about Lent in Sunday School and declined. I have attended wonderful teaching sessions that have been given the title “Lent Bible School” and I have been to Lent prayer meetings. This year I had a mailing from a brilliant Christian publisher promoting a book called “Lent devotions for the whole family”.

I have never been directly taught that I must observe Lent by Christian leaders, but perhaps even more confusingly, I have been encouraged to think about my personal response as if observing Lent is assumed. It obviously retains its place on the church calendar despite the Reformation and my experience is that it is referred to in passing when we are entering Lent, as if we all know what we should be doing with it.

So, my question is can we ignore the background of:

  1. The paganism at the root of Lent from Christianising pagan traditions;
  2. The penance involved in confessing sin to a priest to receive absolution on Shrove Tuesday and be shriven by a sinful man rather than God; and the penance also behind self-denial for 40 days.
  3. The debauchery associated with partying before Lent seen in Mardi Gras, and, although not celebrated like Mardi Gras in our culture, a feasting before self-denial;

Why are we so casual about all of this? Can we reject what is bad and leave something good? Is it a matter of personal conviction?

Or do we have a duty to actively teach that Christians should avoid anything to do with Lent, to reject the traditions of men?

I’d be really interested to hear what you think. Thank you.

P.S. So you have an idea of where I’m coming from, here is a summary of my concerns (feel free to cut this if you publish my question!) [I’ve included some of these by referring to them in my answer -Will]

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

 

My last opportunity to be a part of a pancake race, in 2018, was (ironically perhaps) affected by inclement weather…

Thanks Sarah,

As always, really appreciate your questions. Let me respond to your questions from the last to first.

First up, can I agree with you that Lent can seem a little weird. In human terms, it’s about a big party on a Tuesday, some inconsequential “self denial” for a few weeks, before suddenly being allowed to eat chocolate again! What on earth has this got to do with how I follow Jesus? It’s similar to the experience I had as an Australian on my first Christmas in the UK: what on earth does a bunch of sweets stuck into an orange with toothpicks have to do with the birth of this world’s Lord and Saviour!? We’re a weird bunch, us Christian folk, sometimes.

But to turn to your comments. You conclude by asking the foundational question of whether we should actively avoid Lent because we ought to “reject the traditions of men.”

My general response to this general question connects with general idea of whether we take a “proscriptive” or “prescriptive” view of Scripture. (It’s actually a false dichotomy, but I’ll get to that in a minute). A prescriptive view is, basically, “unless the Bible commands it or explicitly allows it, it is wrong.” A proscriptive view is, basically, “unless the Bible prohibits it or explicitly commands avoiding it, it is fine.”

The excesses of the prescriptive view (e.g. not being allowed to sing any other songs except biblical psalms, because anything else is not prescribed) are obvious. When Spurgeon writes (in the supporting material you gave), “When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by divine statute, we will also attend to them, but not until then,” he’s pushing a prescriptive barrow, at least to some degree. In the end, I find this hermeneutic unhelpfully inapplicable to the real world, and I don’t see the New Testament writers, or Jesus himself, treating Scripture (our Old Testament) in this way. Just because Lent isn’t commanded (or even mentioned) in Scripture (and therefore, necessarily, derives from traditional and cultural practice alone), doesn’t mean it’s bad! This is my first point.

We might ask, though, whether there is a proscription in Scripture that applies. You refer to “traditions of men” and this phrase connects us to Colossians 2:8 – “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (NIV). Paul’s concern here is the misuse of human traditions, as a means of mediating God’s favour (“Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” – Colossians 2:16, NIV). If we elevated seasons and traditions to this level of importance, we are, in effect, denying (rather than trusting), Jesus: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:17, NIV).  In this regard, any insistence on observing Lent is, in my mind, wrong, it is proscribed. This is my second point. If someone doesn’t observe Lent (which, to be honest, has included myself on many a year), that does not mean they are doing anything wrong or “lesser.” Your provided quote from Spurgeon has it right, perhaps: “We ask concerning every rite and rubric, ‘Is this a law of the God of Jacob?’ and if it not be clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.”  We have liberty, freedom as to whether or not we observe Lent.

However, as something of a post-post-modernist (read that carefully!), I’m wary of the propositionalism behind the proscriptive-prescriptive dichotomy. Applying Scripture is not so much about distilling it down to clinical propositions, it is about being caught up into the narrative of God’s action in the world. Unlike a postmodernist, I don’t hold that this narrative is ultimately determined by my own experience of it, which locates truth in myself. Rather, God, the foundational “Other”, has acted in this world, has spoken his Word of Truth, ultimately in Jesus, as recorded in Scripture, and the history of our planet is moved along according to his story. This connection with divine narrative has both proscription (so that I don’t set my course against the movement of Jesus) and prescription (it compels me to seek the face of Jesus and follow him actively). It doesn’t work if I don’t trust him. It’s into this mix that I look at Lent and wonder if it is cutting across God’s story, or getting me closer to the current, so to speak. Most human traditions do both in some way, and we must exercise discernment.

Which brings me to your next questions (as I work through them backwards).  You ask “Why are we so casual about all of this? Can we reject what is bad and leave something good? Is it a matter of personal conviction?” To which I say yes, it is a matter of personal conviction. And yes, there is some good that we can accept amidst the bad that we must reject (I’ll unpack that below). This is my third point.

As to why we are so casual about it… well, in my experience I find that the Christian propensity to be casual about much of what we do is, sadly, not to be underestimated. I long for us all to long for more depth, more truth, more awareness of God (crf. Ephesians 1:17). Regrettably, most church dynamics reward exploration of the stable shallows of human experience rather than the rocky, lively, depths.

Let’s conclude, then, where you begin, by looking at Lent itself.

Firstly, I’m not surprised that there is an intermix of Christian with pagan themes in the tradition.  Following the kenotic dynamic of Jesus himself (Philippians 2:1-11) – i.e. the mode in which God comes to us – at our best we have always gone to others. At our best, we bear witness to Jesus in, with, and through the language and culture of those to whom we go. Of course, this doesn’t mean an unquestioning embrace of all that is around us, but it does mean speaking into it, reinterpreting it, turning its witness towards Jesus. Paul’s use of the “Unknown God” in the pagan tradition of the Athenians is the sort of thing I’m talking about (Acts 17:16-34). The fact that Lent, connects with Easter, connects with Passover, connects with lunar calendars, connects with Spring and fertility (Lent literally means the season in which the days LENGThen) doesn’t surprise me, or overly concern me. As with each season, moment, or event in the world around us, our job (and our joy) is to discern how it can best bear witness to the new life of Jesus.

Secondly, I’m not surprised that there are connections within the tradition related to Roman Catholicism, in both its pre- and post-reformation forms. Lent is part of the liturgical calendar that is embraced by a number of traditions. And yes, there are connections with some Catholic practices which I, personally, don’t find helpful. I agree that “use up all the food before Lent, have a party, and then make sure you go get your forgiveness from the priest” is both real in folklore, and unedifying for the gospel. But the question is whether these unedifying things are integral to the tradition, or simply misuses of it, and I lean towards the latter. Every generation must discern when its traditions still hold positive meaning, and when they must be allowed to fade away. In the history of Protestantism, many traditions have been done away with, but Lent has (by and large) persisted, and that gives at least some indication that it can have some positivity for the gospel when not misused.

For myself, I find Lent helpful. The aspect of the tradition I draw upon is twofold:

1) The tradition in the early Church was to have baptisms on Easter Day. The candidates were led through a season of catechism (teaching about faith in Jesus) and this culminated in a season of fasting before the day of celebration. I therefore use this season to be deliberate about catechesis, both for myself (I hope to reinvigorate a discipline of personal bible study) and for my church (where I might often offer a course or sermon series that is designed to dig a little deeper).

2) The tradition is that Lent is a season of fasting, and in this way it is penitential. This doesn’t mean penance in the sense of alleviating guilty, but it does mean renewing and reflecting upon my posture before God. Have I become self-confident, worrisome, fearful; have I excused my own sin, rather than dealing with it? This is not dour or morose, although it can be solemn and sometimes painful; it is a desire to be deepened, stretched, extended. It’s a desire for growth. It’s a season for finally dealing with stuff that should have been dealt with before. Psalm 139:23-24 says the following, and it is the essence of what I use Lent for. I put aside the distractions and anesthetic practices (this year, it is giving up the netflix binge!) which I hide behind, and ask Jesus to continue to deal with me and sanctify me:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Of course, this could be done at any point in the year, but here is a season which not only acts as a reminder and stimulus, but helps me share that journey with my brothers and sisters as we coordinate the rhythms of our year.  There is no compulsion (there is freedom), and it is in accord with the “Lenten tradition” in it is best sense, serving gospel purposes. I “do” Lent.

What disheartens me the most is not that Lent exists as a season, nor some of the bad things that have attached to it; rather it is when we use it to dive into the shallows of popular Christianity and play the game of mere lip-service: The giving up of chocolate, “because it’s Lent”, rather than for any deeper engagement with our walk with the Lord; the use of Ash Wednesday as an excuse for a party the night before. Shallow Christians do that, and shallow churches promote it that way. It’s at that point the tradition becomes an idol – the use of God to worship an empty practice, rather than the use of the practice to worship God.  Maybe, at that point, the prophetic act is to give up the tradition totally; I think you are alluding to this, and it is entirely valid. As for myself, at this point, I’d rather capture it for Jesus, and have it speak again of the deep work of Word and Spirit that is so needed in the hearts of his people.

Thanks for the question.
W.

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Mercy in the Watches of the Night

Why haven’t I come across this song before? It’s from 2006.

But what simple, eloquent, words of falling at the feet of the Father.

His characteristics personified. Majesty and grace, holiness and mercy. Tears.

Am I unfit for You
Remember me, the one who turned from You
I come in rags tattered by the Fall
And all the earth, a witness to my crime

Mercy, weep over me
Let Your tears wash me clean
Majesty, be merciful with me
For my eyes have seen Holy

Hear my prayer at night
Let the morning find me alive
For I am tired and weakened by the Fall
Let all the earth bear witness to my cry

Let the Amen sound from Heaven as You lift my soul
Let the Amen sound from Heaven as You lift my soul
Let the Angels sound from Heaven, Holy is the Lord]

 

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Review: Dirty Glory

I remember a Bible college lecturer asking the class once, “What aspect of the gospel first impacted you?” For some it was about truth. For some it was about forgiveness and renewal. For others it was about belonging and reconciliation. The aim of the question was to get us to think about how the gospel is a passionate thing. How are we movedenlivenedstimulated by the good news that Jesus, who calls us to himself, is King of this world?

There’s a similar question about our sense of vocation, the part we play in God’s mission. How does the command to “Go and make disciples of all nations” move us?  For some it is a passion to teach and preach. For others, it’s about embracing the broken with care and comfort. Some simply want to introduce people to Jesus. [Aside: there’s a strangely fivefold shape to these missional passions].

It’s a question worth pondering, because vocational fires dwindle. We come to plod from day to day, being as faithful as we can. Even church life can become a lurch from Sunday to Sunday; it can revolve around the management of buildings, and the placating of opinions. Individually, and together, we Christians are adept at curling up into ourselves and maintaining a static equilibrium of spiritual excuses.

Sometimes we even forget what those old fires felt like. But then annoying books like Pete Greig’s Dirty Glory come along and douse us in rocket-powering oxidiser.

I wasn’t really expecting to begin to burn again when I read Greig’s book. It was “just” another book; the standalone autobiographical sequel of “just” another hipster church leader and his well-marketed 24-7 prayer movement, (I mean, Bear Grylls wrote the foreword and everything!). I hadn’t really looked into 24-7 much (it’s mostly a UK-US thing and not as big in Australia). I’d heard enough to be both interested and slightly sceptical. And the thing is, I’ve read the book, and we’ve even visited Greig’s Emmaus Road church in Guildford, and I still don’t know much about the practicalities of the movement and the exact details of what they do. But there’s something at the heart of this book, something in the intermingled testimonies and teachings, that has caused my heart to be strangely warmed.

Here are the principles that I can glean from what Greig has written:

Dissatisfaction. I get this. Without a sense of discontent, mission is reduced to “more of what we already have.”  Church health is reduced the static health of numbers and money, and not the dynamic growth of vision and depth.

I began to realise that it would now be possible to live the rest of my life as a minor entity on a Christian production line, busy and occasionally even applauded, peddling religious experiences without ever really nurturing the kind of inner garden that I admired in others, and which could make it all mean something in the end… It dawned on me, but only very slowly, that my inner turmoil could not be dismissed as a quarter-life crisis, it wasn’t boredom, nor could it be attributed to a besetting sin from the predictable checklist. Worryingly, nothing was wrong. Everything was right and yet I felt hollow. ‘Within me’, confessed St Augustine, ‘was a famine of that inward food: Thyself, my God.’ This hunger in my soul, I began to realise was not bad. In fact it was good: a gift of dissatisfaction directly from the Holy Spirit. (Pages 29-30)

For Greig, the touchstone of holy dissatisfaction is prayer. To express this he turns to the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, a house of prayer that had become filled with corrupt traders. He wants us to hear the rebuke of Jesus: “…[T]here could be large, impressive, popular churches… attracting large crowds… impressive buildings, strong brands, great wealth and a remarkable history…” but they might “evoke a similar rebuke” if “they have lost the fundamental heart of prayer”, (page 44). From this, he develops his “blueprint” of Presence, Prayer, Mission, Justice, and Joy (page 45) which becomes the essence and structure of the book.

Presence speaks of the fundamental imperative in prayer to “seek his face always” (page 51). I have been exploring these thoughts in different ways recently, and I was able to rest in Greig’s words here. What is fanned into flame is a posture of intimacy (page 71) and of surrender:

Urgent voices are calling us to abandon the familiar comforts of Christendom, to strike out into the unknown and rediscover the Nazarene. Let him hack our systems and take us back to the place of willing surrender in which we will simply do anything, go anywhere, say anything he tells us, whenever, wherever, whatever it takes… We need a theophany, a rediscovery of the terror of his proximity. (Page 57)

Learning to dwell (and even to sleep) in the love of the Father is offensive to the strategic part of our brains: a violation of the ego; a sort of dying. It can seem irresponsible… It can appear profiligate… It can seem naive and scandalous… It can appear selfish… It can seem rude… It can seem unstrategic… [but] ‘To be a witness’, says the writer Madeleine L’Engle, ‘is to be a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.’ (Page 77)

Prayer speaks of power. Greig recounts some amazing stories of answered prayer, of course, but this isn’t about hype. This is about simple prayers – bold, simple prayers – simply answered.  It is also about “predictable valleys of the mundane” in between, in which “we mature; our faith fills up into faithfulness, we learn to push into community and into God’s presence, which is, after all, the greatest miracle of all” (page 108).

Luke 18:8 asks, “Will the Son of Man find faith, when he comes?” and Greig ponders “a big, fat, screaming ‘if’ hanging over the people of God in every generation: will we, will we not, pray when trouble comes?” (page 118). It is a real question. I used to think about ministry and church and simply assume that, of course, we would pray. After two decades in church ministry, I am no longer that naive.

Whenever prayer is reduced to a clumsy technique for getting God to mutter a reluctant ‘Amen’ to our selfish desires, it is merely wishful thinking in a religious disguise. But when prayer is an ‘Amen’ to God’s desires, it is profoundly Christian and powerful beyond measure. (page 126)

What is fanned into flame here is a connection of our worship with the renewal of the land. Greig draws on the promises to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 to do this, and takes us to “God’s great project to see creation remade” (page 120). He speaks of prayer as a travailing and wrestling (page 129), as childbirth (page 130), and even of violence (page 131); to not have that in church makes as much sense as a soldier not having a gun, “a boxer his fists, or a theologian great tracts of his Bible” (page 132).

I would pushback a little at Greig at this point, though, because he sometimes slips into a false progression: “Once the church is back to normal, pulsing with life, God’s great project is to see creation remade” (page 120). These are not distinct steps, as if once God has finished building the church, he’ll move on to the world! A church does not pulse to life unless it is already yearning for God’s great project. Christ grows his church as he calls us out into his world-changing purposes, not before he does. I think Greig gets this though.

Mission reflects how God intends us to be a house of prayer for the nations. Greig takes us to stories of God’s people being present – in America, Ibiza, and (later in the book) “Boy’s Town” on the Mexican border. These are missionary stories of the old kind, like the ones that stirred Gill and I in our YWAM days. They are of ordinary folk stepping out in faith, daring to go where others would not, for the sake of bringing light to a life, to a place, to a generation.

There’s some decent missiology in Greig’s approach:

“In approaching any new culture our first task is always to remove our shoes, recognising that we are standing on holy ground. We are not bringing the Lord somewhere new, because he is already here. Our primary task, therefore, is to identify God’s fingerprints and to trace his footprints in the new environment.” (Page 208).

And he helpfully addresses our propensity to perform mission as some form of service provision by professionals:

“Our own journeys of salvation and spiritual formation will… become intertwined with those to whom Christ is sending us… We go to the lost and make space for them to preach to us, to teach us, to minister to our unbelief. This requires stillness, and humility, a deeply anchored assurance in the gospel, and the ability to ask gently disruptive questions.” (Page 213)

Justice is the touchpoint at which mission impacts the real world. “Prayer without action is just religion in hiding”, (page 238). Justice is where mission gets real. Greig quotes Bob Pierce as he tells us that “one of the most dangerous prayers you can ever pray: ‘Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God'” (page 247).

There’s a lengthy exposition of Kelly Teitsort’s ministry in Boy’s Town Mexico which fans these flames well. And Greig backs it up biblically: He runs a thread through the pre-exilic prophets (page 255), Christ’s cleansing of the temple, and his claim to fulfill Luke 4:18-19 (page 250) and then connects it to our own worship and mission. We are not just about reaching souls, we are about “recognising that “something [is] wrong systemically and it [is] only going to be changed by a profound cultural shift” (page 283).

“Compassion for the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner is not an optional extra for those with a strong social conscience. It bleeds from the heart of true Christian worship. When we care for the poor, we minister to Jesus himself.” (Page 254)

When God freed the Israelites from captivity in Egypt he did it literally – not just metaphorically. Similarly, when Jesus forgave the sins of the paralysed man… he proceeded to heal him physically too… Down the ages, it has always been the tendency of the rich to reduce salvation to a purely spiritual experience. But if you’re hungry you need real bread before you will consider the heavenly variety. If you’re in chains you take the Bible verses about freedom very literally indeed. (Pages 278-279, emphasis mine)

Joy is the outcome of faith as it works itself out through dissatisfaction. We are content with nothing else but the presence of God, manifest in power, mission, justice, etc. Jesus is our answer, and his presence is our joy, in with and through all circumstance. Greig spends much of this section talking about the fifteenth anniversary celebrations of his movement. He truly celebrates, but there is a warning away from triumphalism. He points us to the “Jesuit ‘Litany of humility’… From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, O Jesus…”  (Page 315).

So why does all this make me burn up (in a good way)? I’m not entirely sure.

There are certainly some points of personal connection. I know what it is like to share the journey with a chronically-ill wife (“I’m sick of being sick”, page 116).  I know what it’s like to travel internationally as a family, involving our children in the discernment and the cost (page 300). My tears flowed as Greig spoke of his wife’s graduation after “illness had robbed her of so many precious moments” (page 299).  They flowed even more when I encountered the thought of “the Lord inviting us to pioneer together once again” (page 299).

I found myself repenting at points, or at least, crying out with a desire to repent. In our current season I know I have had to turn from the idolatry of comfort. I have had to repent of the faithlessness by which I have placed my sense of identity and worth, and the source of my family’s protection and care, not in God’s hands, but in broken ecclesial systems.

There was also times of frustration in my reading of this book. Having had my passions awakened, the engines are revved up and that is accompanied by a familiar sense of wheels spinning. No grip, nowhere to go. It’s time to turn this towards intimacy, towards trusting God not just for the fire, but the fireplace in which to burn, and the specific promises for a specific people to cling to.

For me then, the greatest help was Greig’s image of “Blue Camp 20.” This is drawn from his time in America where he learned the history of his local town: It was once a camp, a place where pioneers, originally intending to go on further, often decided to settle down instead. It speaks of premature comfort with a road not yet travelled.

I was moved by Greig’s confession of the temptation to “settle down here and stop pioneering… would it really be wrong to serve the Lord with a bit more cash, a bit more kudos, and a lot less rain?” (Page 141). Indeed, having experienced church planting, and time-limited placements, I am sometimes jealous of the seemingly comfortable run that some of my clerical colleagues get to enjoy! But then there’s that annoying, calling, stimulating and painful fire: “I signed up to change the world. I never wanted to be like it.” (Page 153).

It’s easy to pioneer when you’re too young to know what it will cost you, when you feel immortal and invincible and the whole of life is an adventure waiting to begin. But pioneering a second time is hard. Abraham was one of the few who never settled down – even in his old age he lived ‘like a stranger in a foreign country… For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and build is God’ (Heb. 11:9-10). (Page 143)

We tend to assume that Blue Camp 20 is the frontier from which we can pioneer into new territory geographically, or into new effectiveness professionally, but ultimately it is the place of testing from which we can pioneer into deeper intimacy with Jesus than ever before. We wrestle with God at Blue Camp 20… to come close to him in greater intimacy. We lay down comfort at Blue Camp 20… We pioneer from Blue Camp 20 not to achieve something for God, but to receive something from him – a deeper fellowship with him in his death and resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11). (Pages 147-148)

Perhaps all that is happened in me is that Greig’s prayer for his book has been answered. It has deepened my thirst, because it has “rubbed salt on my lips” and woken me up, (page 12). It has had me shaking off the protections and pretenses of being a performing parson. It has had me reflecting on the past and the present. It has got me dreaming for the future. It has got me longing for his kingdom to come, real, substantial, local, global.

I no longer have the vigour and brashness of my youth and younger pioneering days. I know what real mission costs. I have regrets, and I have hopes. And all I can do is pray, to the glorious God who meets us in the dirt. Somehow, that’s where life happens, and I long for more of it.

I give you back today the prayers I have prayed that are not answered – yet. The seeds I’ve sown that haven’t borne a harvest – yet. The dreams I’ve buried that haven’t risen – yet. Restore the years, the prayers, the trust that the locusts have eaten. Remember me, Lord, redeem my life, and answer my oldest, truest, prayers. Amen.
(Page 307)

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Q&A: How would you unpack the Bible step by step to show God’s big picture, that grace is a free, unmerited gift?

Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

My Mormon friends believe that they are saved by grace after all that they can do.

One of their former presidents said: “One of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man is that man is saved alone by the grace of God; that belief in Jesus Christ alone is all that is needed for salvation”.

How would you unpack the Bible step by step to show them God’s big picture – that grace is a free, unmerited gift? (And importantly doesn’t lead to licentiousness, which is what they have been taught.)

I’ve talked about the purpose of the OT law, that all our works are like filthy rags, that Jesus takes my sin and gives me his righteousness. But I think I need a logical structure that walks them through it rather than my scatter gun approach. Your thoughts would be much appreciated!

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Hi Sarah,

Intriguing question!  A good place to begin our thoughts is in Ephesians 2, especially verses 1-10.

1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.

3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

There are two reasons to ground ourselves here:

1) There’s some explicit language about salvation by grace alone. Firstly, the language is about the necessity of grace: Verse 5, “…it is by grace you have been saved…”, verses 8-9, “…For it is by grace you have been saved… not by works, so that no one may boast.” Secondly, the language is about the absolute extent of grace, i.e. that grace does more than provide the means for our rescue, the grace of God is what actually does the rescuing.  This is found in the depths of our predicament: Verse 1, “…you were dead in your transgressions”, Verse 3, “…by nature deserving of wrath”. It is also found in the agency of God: Verses 4-5, “God made us alive with Christ”, Verse 6, “God raised us up…”, Verse 10, “We are God’s handiwork…”

2) The context of this passage connects us with a bigger picture; Paul sees the work of Jesus on the cross resulting in the creation of a “new humanity” in which the great “mystery” of the Gospel is the inclusion of all people in the covenant promises made to Israel: that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise….” (Ephesians 3:6).

It’s this second point that perhaps guides us to a framework for the story of grace: It is best to tell the story of God’s covenant; his promises to his people, and especially to Abraham. Perhaps it might go something like this, as my own feeble attempt:

1) The human predicament is one of rebellion against the ways of God, and God’s response is always both righteous deserved judgement and undeserved gracious provision. Consider Genesis 1-11; the fall itself, the murder of Abel, the hardness in the time of Noah, the attempted usurpation of God by human empire at Babel.  In each part the judgement is obvious, but also consider how God clothes Adam & Eve, protects Cain, puts a rainbow in the sky etc.

2) By grace, therefore, the ultimate provision of God is his intervention in human history.  In our historical record, this intervention is grounded in the life of a man called Abram (later Abraham). This intervention is fundamentally gracious and it is received by faith. There is nothing particularly special about Abraham. He was weak and old. Any righteousness he has derives not from his works or moral fortitude, but as a gift bestowed (“credited”) by God and received as Abraham trusted him. Consider Genesis 12 and how God’s gracious involvement with Abraham naturally follows from the rebellion at Babel. Consider also Romans 4:1-3

3) By grace, God binds himself to Abraham in a covenant, i.e. a promise. Chief among these promises is that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This is the intervention, the promise of salvation; a new heaven and a new earth. Consider Hebrews 11:8-10 and consider Abraham’s vision with that of the new heavens and the new earth in Revelation 21

4) By grace, God guides Abraham’s children towards this blessing. He protects his chosen people, he saves them from Egypt, and instructs them on how they can be true to the promise: “This is how you embrace this grace! This is how you bless the families of the earth.” In this way, the Law itself is grace, and there are times when we get a glimpse of that blessing. But mostly, what we see is the rejection of the promise, a refusal to trust God; the law continues to point to the promise and so reveals how far away God’s people are from it. Consider: the entire OT.

5) By grace, God provides a true Son of Abraham; he is not only of Abraham’s flesh, but also a Son of the Promise as well; i.e. he has faith after that of Abraham. He takes responsibility for his people; by meeting the just requirement of their transgression he deals with their separation from the promise. And he receives the fullness of the promise – the renewal of life, resurrection itself.  Consider: John 3:16 and Romans 4.

6) By grace, the promise to Abraham is now fulfilled. The blessing of salvation now applies to all the “families of the earth.” It applies as we all (both Jew and Gentile), dead in our sins, are “raised up with Christ.” We are all made heirs of Abraham, children of his promise. Consider: Ephesians 2-3 (which is where we started).

It’s a narrative of salvation in which the defining agency is God, the defining action is his promise, and the basis on which the promise applies to me is not me and my faithfulness, but Christ and his faithfulness.  When we add anything else to this dynamic, we actually disavow it; Embraced by Jesus, I am child of Abraham and so called to live by faith as he did. Any attempt to prove myself worthy is a disagreement that the heart of salvation is promise; and if I do not share in the promise, I am not a child of the promise; I do not share in Abraham, or in the fulfilment of all that God bound himself to do; I do not share in Christ, and I am not saved. In short: grace is essential, and absolute. It is necessary for salvation, and cannot be added to.

Does this lead to licentiousness? As Paul would say, “Absolutely not!”. To deliberately sin is also to depart from the way of promise; how can licentiousness bless all the families of the earth? Grace abounds, I am still raised with Christ; but that grace calls me to holiness.

I hope that helps. Having just gone back and read what I have written, it seems terribly insufficient. In the end, what you are doing is proclaiming the gospel. Can I encourage you as you take your question to the Scriptures? Have you noticed how many of my references have been to the book of Romans, especially chapters 4-6? It’s a good place to begin, and perhaps to take your Mormon friends.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Virginia

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Review: Into the Silent Land – The Practice of Contemplation

I have recently been engaging with the more contemplative side of Christian spirituality. It hasn’t been a mere academic exercise. My current circumstance demands I reflect on all matter of things regarding life, and church, and the ways of the world and it has led me to something of an eddy, of going around in circles a bit.

It’s an intellectual eddy; I know what I think about things, and while I will always have an enquiring mind, it’s been a long time since I have come across new thoughts about the things that matter.

It’s a leadership eddy; I am aware of all manner of strategies for mission, and while it will always be a defining passion, it’s been a long time since I have come across anything that is essentially able to reach beyond insubstantial churchy forms.

The grace in this is that God has led me deeper, to an unsettling proposition: that the answers to life’s deepest questions are not fundamentally about intellect. The foundations of vocation are not, in the end, matters of skill, ability, or even opportunity. Rather, we are called to spiritual depths, to simple mystical things such as the love of God, and the fact that, lo, the Spirit of Jesus is actually with us to the end of the age.

In these eddies, I have remembered an experience I had about eight years ago. At that time I experienced what some might term a “breakdown.” It was also a “breakthrough.” I found myself in a place where intellect and leadership had been taken away from me by my overworked and broken brain. All that was left was worship, rest, silence. Jesus’ Spirit was present, and all that was required of me was to simply, trustingly, “be” in his presence. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.

My brain healed, and life moved on. Now in recent years, with my brain and body well and able, I am facing again the end of intellect and “leadership skills.” In that place, I have been helped by Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.

It’s not a perfect book by any means. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it might be a hindrance to those who are not confident in their biblical theology. There are, for instance, clear influences of late 20th-Century pseudo-Eastern spiritualism when he oversteps from seeking closeness and oneness with God, to an almost panentheistic sense of “union” in which we avoid the “illusion of separation” (page 15).  Nevertheless, I found it a helpful book. If we are to discipline ourselves, including our interior life of thoughts and feelings and anxieties, we need some equipping. We can learn to quieten our soul.

I can certainly identify with the experience of the “wild hawk of the mind” (chapter two) as the “mind’s obsessive running in tight circles generates and sustains the anguish that forms the mental cage in which we live much of our lives – or what we take to be our lives…” (page 20). I see the turmoil of anxiety and fantasy that can dominate my thoughts. But it takes more than recognition to resolve it; like attempting to calm waters by splashing down on the waves that rear up, our attempts at “self-control” can simply add to the churn. We need quietness, silence; we need to find ourselves abiding in Christ, not striving for peace but living in the peace that he has already given us.

Laird draws, of course, on contemplative practice, and particularly on the notion of “breath prayer.” This is nothing magical, it is simply a discipline of praying and breathing that assists internal quietness. We use our body to respond to spiritual things all the time – standing to sing, closing our eyes for prayer, sitting attentively to learn, etc. – and this is of the same kind. It is the use of posture, a simple “prayer word” or phrase, and a focus on breathing. It has a quietening effect:

At times the mind flits like a finch from branch to branch and at other times it is like the three-headed dog, Cerberus, unable to decide from which bowl which of its heads should feed at any given moment. Then again, and more often that we may like to admit, the mind is uninspired and limp as a mildewed dish cloth. The mind has countless faces. For centuries the advice of the contemplative tradition has been: well, then, give the mind something to do. If it can’t be still, give it a short phrase or a word to repeat silently. And so when we sit, we give our attention wholly to the gentle repetition of the prayer word. We will find that our attention is forever being stolen. As soon as we become aware that our attention has been stolen by some thought, we gently bring ourselves back to the prayer word. (Pages 34-35)

For me, this is not an eradication of self or something equally as eery, it is simply the quietening of all that is in me that tunes God out. Faced with various anxieties or concerns, I could push into them with my intellect or strength of will, and I all I would find would be more anxieties or concerns. Any wisdom, any insight, any creativity – that simple sense of “hearing from God” is elusive when I am noisy. In order to hear the groanings of the Spirit, to watch the glow of illuminated Scripture, I need the quiet.

If I confront my anxieties, I add to the noise. But instead, using a simple act of worship with my body, I “look over the shoulder” of the anxiousness, trusting that the Spirit of Christ is present in the moment of all that’s left. It’s a surrender, an offering, a laying down, by relaxing the clawing clinging fingers of my mind. Into his hands I commit my anxious spirit… by meeting it with silence.

As I have practiced and adapted what Laird speaks of, I have found it beneficial. Whether it be times set aside, or five minutes caught during the day; I have resolved two things: 1) Not to reach for my phone and dull myself by flicking through distractions, and 2) Not to run with the bulls of my anxieties and fears. Instead, I have sat myself down, grasped hold of a phrase (usually a line from a worship song or psalm), and have leant back into that gentle worshipful repetition. I don’t look for “results” (that would defeat the purpose), but there has been fruit nonetheless: a sense of peace, a word of encouragement for someone, a gentle prod to pray in a specific way, the strength to forgive.

Laird’s ongoing explanation of this practice has described something of my experience. He speaks of “three doorways of the present moment” (page 52) and I get what he’s talking about.

The “first doorway” is the sense in which we seek quietness as a refuge. We sense the noisiness. The “videos” of anxiety and fantasy are coming thick and fast, and we seek silence as a solace. We calm ourselves. We respond to the content of our thoughts. Has someone made me angry? Instead of responding to that anger, I quieten myself. In that place of quiet, God can change the narrative, or give me quiet resilience.

The “second doorway” is the sense in which we find ourselves using silence not only as a refuge, but almost as a deliberate form of engagement. Here we respond not just to the content of the thoughts, but the anxious thoughts themselves; we don’t just look over the should of the person who has made us angry, we look over the shoulder of the anger itself.

The deeper we delve into the prayer word, the less we use it as a shield from afflictive thoughts. Rather we meet the thoughts with stillness instead of commentary. We let the thoughts simply be, but without chasing them and whipping up commentaries on them. (Page 63)

From my own experience, I find myself noticing “I am anxious”, rather than “I am anxious about X.” In the first doorway, I seek silence, rather than chasing down the solutions to X.  In the second doorway, there’s a gentle recognition that anxiety is not my bedrock, Jesus is. Rather than focusing on the anxiety, I quieten myself, and so allow his presence, on his terms. The anxiety may be or not be, I will look over its shoulder, to the quietness of trusting Jesus.

The “third doorway” is where I think Laird slips too far (“my ‘I am’ is one with Christ’s ‘I am'”, page 67). But there is some substance in his gist. It was something like this in the midst of my breakdown-breakthough: I could not do anything else, other than be.  Being was simply enough. Outside of my triggering stressors, I could watch and observe almost everything, including myself. I didn’t have a need to perform, to strive, to prove. I have heard people talking of “falling into the arms of Jesus”, of finding themselves able to “breathe underwater.” The words are hard to find – for me, it was like the gravitational pull of God was inside of myself, pulling me inwards towards a truer sense of self, that was God-centred, not me-centred.  It was the utter contrast of the anxieties that would rip me apart. It wasn’t mystical or amazing. It simply was.

My aspiration, moving forward, is to grow in this sense of abiding in Christ. I don’t want to be defined by my circumstances. I don’t want to be defined by my emotional chemical response. I want to be defined by the present character of God. It can’t be manipulated into being by my intellect. It can’t be manufactured by my strength of will. It is a place of embodied trust.

The bottom line is this: minimize the time given over to chasing thoughts, dramatizing them in grand videos, and believing these videos to be your identity. Otherwise life will pass you by. (Page 71)

This contemplative area is new to me. But it matches my experience. Above all, it has been a way for me to apply hope; a vehicle for faith in my inner world.

We move from being victim of what is happening to being a witness to what is happening. Things  keep happening, but we experience them differently. This move from victim to witness is an early psychological fruit of the contemplative journey. (Page 81)

I sometimes wonder what Jesus used to do in his times of solitude. I don’t think it was complicated. I think it matched the “emptying out” of Philippians 2:1-11.  In fact, I have been reflecting on Hebrews 5:7 where the writer talks of how Jesus often offered up anguished prayers that turned to “reverent submission.” He didn’t lose himself, but was able to place himself in his father’s hands; it marked his ministry, most clearly on the cross. Truly, he must have ministered from an experience of shalom – the “stillness [not] of a rabbit hiding from a predator, but the stillness of a mountain presiding over a valley” (page 101).

Laird ends his book well, by finding application in the experience of our woundedness (“The Liturgy of Our Wounds: Temptation, Humility, and Failure.”)  Our rights-based culture cannot cope with woundedness, except by increasing the clamour, within and without. Yet the joy and blessing of failure and hurt is the thirstiness which draws us to look beyond the noisy experience. It’s not an avoidance of woundedness, it is of finding God even there.  “I am going to seduce her and lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:14).

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Naturally Supernatural: Contemplative and Charismatic

I have just returned from the Naturally Supernatural Winter conference, held and hosted by Soul Survivor Church Watford. The form and substance of it would be familiar to anyone who has attended any of the Soul Survivor youth festivals in the last couple of decades: Charismatic worship and ministry that is both invigoratingly contemporary and solidly cemented in old school Wimberesque wisdom.

My intention here is to give a short reflection on my own personal experience of this week, and highlight one particular realisation: Not only was this a charismatic conference, with all its joys and highlights, it was also, unexpectedly, a contemplative retreat. Let me explain:

The charismatic aspect is obvious, not just in the substance of it, but in the form:  Three sessions a day, each headed up by 45 minutes to an hour of musical worship, before a teaching time, and “ministry time.” NSN does it well. The songs (while occasionally a little, um, committed to the “high rotation” list) were declarative; they were worshipful in the truest sense of recognising God and our right place before him. The teaching was biblical, the personalities large but self-effacing, the prophetic words were gentle and constructive, and the times of expecting the Spirit to be ministering were emphatically disconnected from hype and manipulation. The focus was not on some glitzy self-prospering, but true mission; it was an exhortation to change the world, beginning by lining ourselves up with the love of God in Jesus. I’ve touched on this before.

The contemplative aspect of it, however, may not be a first thought. But look at it like this: My personal experience this week was a spiritual journey. It had this sort of shape:

  1. An encounter with hope. The early times of worship (and excellent teaching from Ali Martin) connected me with the hope of the gospel. My encounter began with comfort, feelings of being able to soar, and of being called to deep life-changing gospel truths.
  2. An encounter with brokenness. The Word of God reveals. We find ourselves exposed with our hurts, sins, brokenness. I felt blocked, incapable of fully grasping or expressing the love of God. It was a time of thirsting, of being uncomfortable. As the deer pants for the water, I experienced a longing for the rich absolution of a renewed “right spirit” within me.
  3. An encounter with godly frustration. As speaker after speaker (but I’m thinking especially of Tre Sheppard) reminded us again and again of the mission of God, those old vocational fires began to burn. They had been smouldering and now they were blown into a consuming flame.  “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). Even if it means I burn up, “for the sake of the world, burn like a fire in me.”
  4. An encounter with painful release. There are times when Mike Pilavachi is Grecian comic, and then there are times when he speaks words of heavy, pregnant, prophetic, truth. As he spoke about the call of the church away from dysfunction to mission, the truth lapped upon me like antiseptic on a wound. The Spirit of God took me by the hand to encounter some of those hurts and burdens that accrue in ordained ministry, even and especially in this otherwise green and pleasant land. I groaned from the depths of myself, as the Holy One reached in to heal. “Even what the enemy means for evil, he turns it for our good.”
  5. An encounter with gentle mercy and ministry. I could describe it like this – “I was able to pray for and minister to others” – but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. It was more a case of being allowed to stand close to people and watch the Spirit of Christ do his thing.  I got to watch and pray, to observe and listen, to simply be alongside those who were being brought to something new.  What a privilege. When I got to say something, all I was doing was describing what I could see: “prophetic” words as a simple testimony of the immediate.  And others did the same for me; loving words were both given and received.
  6. An encounter with peace. At the end of the week I received a benediction, spoken over me not by the grand Greek guru at the front, but by a young woman who had the boldness to approach a big ugly Australian with a word of encouragement. It released, commissioned, and completed something. What a gift.
  7. An encounter with fellowship. Connections of kindredness that welled up and simply happened. Brothers and sisters to know by name. Recognition of one another. Collegiality. “Your bride will come together, and we’ll sing.”

The thing is, I’ve been on these sorts of spiritual journeys before. On quiet days, or in weeks of gentle guidance and “alone time” at a retreat centre, I’ve also had these encounters with hope, brokenness, pain, mercy, ministry, peace, and fellowship. I have wept similar tears on top of a Tasmanian mountain reading 1 Corinthians during a day “away from it all.” I have been led through pain into peace in quiet services of compline after a day walking in the Gloucestershire countryside. I have found fellowship and fraternity in weeks spent with brothers in a mutual mentoring “pastor’s retreat group.”

Similarly, in the last little while I’ve been exploring different ways in which I am able to pray. After all, prayer is the only thing left in the belly of the whale. Sometimes the point of the season is to lean back into fishy stomach walls, and learn to trust that the Lord will bring about a vomiting at the right time and place. There we pray. This prayer is prayers of suffering, prayers of forsakenness, and simple prayers of quietness. We seek the face God and we learn to offer an inner sacrifice, not only of our praise, but of our buzzing anxieties and frantic minds. And we breathe.

In the midst of this week’s charismatic experience, I have been finding myself praying this way. I have drawn on contemplative depths to fathom the charismatic ones. In the midst of worship, I am offering contemplative prayer. While observing the Holy Spirit at work in the tears around me, I am quietening my soul. I am content to allow, and observe, and not to push and to strive. There is grace in that.

There’s no doubt about it, Naturally Supernatural is not the same experience as a silent retreat. But in this week I’ve seen something of the depths of spirituality that are common to both the charismatic and the contemplative. I knew it intellectually, and I’ve seen it in Gill (who is years ahead of me on this), but this week I’ve realised it profoundly. The charismatic and the contemplative are not so far apart: they draw us to the heart of God. Both whisper to us the Word of God. Both fuel us with the Spirit of God. Both embrace us with the blessing of being in Jesus Christ.

For the sake of the world, burn like a fire in me.

Photo credit: peasap licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Q&A: Does a desire for forgiveness mean faith?

Anonymous asks:

If someone claims to be without faith, yet morally knows they have done something “wrong” due to our God given in built moral compass (even if said person chooses to not believe that God gave them the compass) and is looking for forgiveness, does that mean they have faith…? I guess they will only feel forgiven if they realise who they must submit to, which leads them to faith…? It is almost like our inbuilt ability to continually fall short of the inbuilt compass leads us to God. Smart design. Seek and you shall find.

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

This question has come in response to our latest sermon series in the evening at St. Nic’s. Thank you for it. You’ve put forward something very interesting. Let’s unpack it a little, explore this hypothetical person’s situation, and look to see where faith can be found…

You talk about someone who “morally knows that they have done something wrong.” This is an experience that is common to all people (excluding a sociopath or two) and is simply the operation of our conscience. Theologically, we can find the roots of conscience in our identity as image-bearers of God, and in the loss of innocence grasped by the eating of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  But our conscience doesn’t depend on faith, it is simply a part of who we are as human beings. Similarly, a pricked conscience doesn’t necessarily lead to faith, or anything else in particular. We all know what it means to deaden our conscience, and harden our hearts.

However, there is also an experience that we might describe as “being convicted of sin.” This something different to feeling guilty about something, it is about an awareness of a fractured relationship with our maker. It can feel like dread, but always has a sense of hunger to make it right, even if we are at a loss for words and aren’t sure of what we can do about it. It’s what is happening when the psalmist writes, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” This is what is happening when Peter witnesses Jesus at work and cries out “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

The big question is whether this sense of conviction is an aspect of faith. I think I’d like to turn it the other way around and consider how faith is present in the conviction of sin. After all, you cannot understand yourself to be disconnected from God’s holiness if you don’t have some sense of belief that God exists, and that he is holy. The longing for forgiveness is a longing for restoration of relationship, and for me, that is faith:

 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

True conviction of sin, a ministry of God’s Spirit awakening our own, draws us to God in search of his grace, even if it is on our knees.  And, as you say, “seek and you shall find.”

The conundrum with your hypothetical person is that we see something of an existential wrestle:  Clearly he is looking for forgiveness from someone, yet has “chosen to believe that God has not given them their moral compass.” It’s a tension that can’t last! Either what we are seeing is simply the operation of conscience, or it is true conviction and will find its end. In the meantime it is existential disequilibrium, and while it may take some time for it to resolve, that is what will happen. As you say, it’s a smart design.

What is clear is that it presents an urgency to be ready with the gospel, in word and deed. If someone is seeking the path of reconciliation, we show them Jesus, and bear witness to how he has overcome the power of sin with newness of life. Conviction finds its end in Jesus as forgiveness and assurance, and that is very much the stuff of a life of faith.

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Q&A: What is the significance of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel?

Anonymous asks:

My question is the significance of Jerusalem being made capital again. My reaction is yay, hallelujah!!

In Nehemiah 2 an Arab was amongst those ridiculing Nehemiah m helpers n in b 20 saying they have no right to any property in Jerusalem n no share in traditions.
My feelings run along side as God gave His people the Jews, Jerusalem.

It’s all in end time prophecy but I’m seriously out of date wth the latest happenings.

Your enlightenment would b so appreciated. Tks so much.

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks for the question. The topic is loaded with some political energy, so I’m hoping to tread carefully.

I need to begin with the significant caveat that I have no expertise in international politics, and certainly not in Middle Eastern affairs!  My limited understanding of the current situation leads me to the following initial thoughts.

1) There has not actually been any significant change in the actual status of Jerusalem. As far as I am aware, the nation state of Israel has pretty much always claimed Jerusalem to be its capital, even if the administrative centre is in Tel Aviv. The complexity is that the displaced Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital. What has changed is that President Trump has announced that the US will recognise that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and implement this through the relocation of the US embassy. While this is controversial, it is not a surprise, and it is an action that has been mooted by other US presidents in recent years.

2) Personally, I don’t think my reaction can be “yay, hallelujah!”  Irrespective of its justifications or otherwise, this is a provocative action on President Trump’s part. It seems pretty clear that the socio-political situation in and around Jerusalem is highly anxious. The cliche of “powderkeg waiting for a spark” seems to fit. Bloodshed is possible. Diplomacy and care is needed. While I’m not in full disagreement about the US recognition of Jerusalem, (the “recognition of reality” line has some merit), I’m not sure President Trump has pursued the way of peace in this situation. Certainly, many other leaders, including the UN, have decried the escalation.

3) Before I get to the theological aspects (see below), it is clear that Jerusalem is a conundrum of competing claims, all of which have at least some degree of validity. I understand that the Palestinians, through no fault of their own, have been displaced from a city and a land in which they have lived for generations. I understand that the Jewish community has also experienced displacement (and worse!) in the last century, and that they have genuine ethnic links to Jerusalem and the land also. I also suspect that there is some significant “proxy activity” going on as the tensions in Jerusalem connect with the power plays of broader political forces. Injustice is the order of the day, and it’s a difficult thing to wade through.

Theologically, I can only begin to approach this issue by noting the differences between the people and nation of Israel that we see in the Bible, and the contemporary nation and state of Israel in modern politics. The biblical notion of Israel is that of a covenant people (a people of promise), descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (who was later, personally, called Israel). They are a people defined by these roots of divine promise, and the subsequent foundation of divine rescue as they are brought out from Egypt under Moses, and called by the Law towards the goals of the original covenant. This identity reached something of a zenith under King David, who established Jerusalem as a political capital in about 1000 BC. His son, King Solomon, responding to the Mosaic law, established Jerusalem as a holy city, building the temple that encapsulated all that the Mosaic tabernacle had beforehand.  It became the tangible and symbolic manifestation of God’s promise and presence.

The modern state of Israel, while having clear ethnic and historical roots in this theological understanding, can be considered in contrast: It is a “Jewish and democratic state”, and, as I understand it, the “Jewish” part is understood ethnically not religiously. As a political entity there is very little that sets it apart as being particularly shaped by an Abrahamic, Mosaic, or Davidic identity.  Its establishment as a nation state lies in post-war turmoil and involves the actions of Zionist activists, and the political machinations of Western powers, leading to a formal recognition in 1948.  Even among orthodox Jews, there has been controversy about the form and formation of modern Israel. I understand that Haredi Jews, for instance, consider the re-establishment of Israel without the Messiah to be an act of presumption and rebellion against God.

The presence of Jesus in salvation history also impacts our understanding. The person of Jesus interacts with the base shapes of theological identity – Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic – in a way that cannot be ignored. In particular, we understand that Jesus fulfils these covenant. Jesus fulfils the Abrahamic covenant – the family who was “blessed to be a blessing” has brought forth its ultimate blessing. Jesus fulfils the Mosaic covenant – he obeys the law and receives the covenant blessings, sharing them with his people as he covers them sacrificially. Jesus fulfils the Davidic covenant – he is the “big-M” Messiah, the anointed King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus is the Temple, where the presence of God is manifest. Jesus is the Promised Land, in which we have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” In his risen life, Jesus extends this promise to all those (Jews and Gentiles alike) who would follow him, put their faith and trust in him, and so receive his Spirt and be counted amongst his people.

What this means, is that when I read stories in the Old Testament, such as the one you mention where Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem and faces his opponents, I understand the story in the light of Jesus.  Nehemiah, in verse 20 of chapter two, says to Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” For me, I see a man, grasping the promises of God and moving forward in faith and favour in order to see the covenant promises manifest once more.  I see the powers of this world, that would frustrate God’s purposes, put rightly in their place.  This is, with bricks and mortar, the same prayer as “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Nehemiah wants to re-establish Jerusalem, and I draw from that a desire for Christ’s rule to be made more manifest.

This is something that the New Testament imagines as the “New Jerusalem.” And President Trump’s declaration does not particularly enter into it!

Nevertheless, I am not intending to completely spiritualise the reality of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Physical locations are important. Ethnic identity is important also.  And these are particularly so when they are filled with such historical and theological meaning. For myself, I turn to Romans 11, where Paul speaks not only of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the promises of God, but mourns the apparent intransigence of his own people, the Jews.  Yet he is full of hope, that even in their stumbling they are fulfilling their calling:

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in,  and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:

‘The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.’

(Romans 11:25-27)

The calling on Israel and Jerusalem is to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). That calling is caught up into the Messiah, Jesus, who has embraced it, fulfilled it, and continued it by “grafting” the Gentiles of faith into the covenant people of God. But that doesn’t mean the calling has waned. It remains Jerusalem’s calling – to shine a light, to bless the world, to truly be the city of peace.  For that to happen, for the “end” to be reached, Jerusalem doesn’t so much need the proclamation of a President, but the ministry of her Messiah.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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Q&A: Do we neglect the doctrine of hell?

Sarah asks:

Hi Will,

Do we neglect the doctrine of hell? I recently read Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God” and my reaction was:

To marvel at the magnitude of my rescue;
To be reminded of the urgency of sharing the gospel and my part in that.
(I also thought you’d have to be brave to talk like that in our generation!)

I understand that Jesus spoke more of hell than heaven. Salvation is a rescue – should we talk more about the reality of hell both to draw people to the Rescuer, and to increase our worship of God and our evangelism, whilst avoiding both the Middle Ages fascination with grisly imagery and the laughed off sandwich board person proclaiming that the end is nigh. If I am honest, (and holding this alongside election) I want to belong to God to escape the horror of hell.

A related question is do we neglect the doctrine of heaven…

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Hi Sarah, thanks for the question.

I must admit, I’ve never read this sermon from Edwards, (which was penned in 1741, and now available online for those who are interested).  He is preaching on Deuteronomy 32:25 :- To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time… (to use Edwards’ probable translation).  I haven’t been able to look at it in depth, but there are a couple of things to note that can help us here:

Firstly, Edwards gets the audience right, at least initially. The text is not so much about God raging against the world, it is about God’s broken heart about his own people!  Edwards describes them as “wicked unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people, and who lived under the means of grace; but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works towards them, remained… void of counsel, having no understanding in them.”

In this he is, indeed, reflecting the focus of judgement language in the New Testament. e.g. Jesus uses language such as “hypocrites” and John talks about “a brood of vipers”, referring to his own people. Similarly, it is the temple which will have no stone left on top of another. It is a message, first and foremost, to the people of God, including the church.

This understanding locates judgement in the midst of grace. Jesus is no Pharisee, loading down but not lifting a finger to help. No, he is the good shepherd, reflecting the heart of his Father.  He has come to his intransigent people, to take responsibility for them if they would have him.

You ask “should we talk more about the reality of hell?”  If we do, we need to take heed; we can’t preach judgement without going through our own refining fires.  And sometimes I see a whole bunch of tinder-dry unChristlikeness amongst those who take Christ’s name. I fear it needs to be a great conflagration, and I am well and truly including myself in this brood.

Secondly, Edwards asserts that the wrath of God is real and present, withheld only by his grace, and he is right about this.  This is hard for people to hear, (we are understandably uncomfortable with divine anger!), and it should always be communicated clearly.  But it must be, and can be, communicated:

After all, the wrath of God is simply an aspect of his justice. It isn’t fickle, or out-of-control. It is the appropriate response to wrongdoing. We are bland and apathetic, God is not. We harden our hearts and walk past injustice, God does not. There are times we should be more angry at the unchecked sin in the world, and certainly at the unchecked sin in our own lives. The fact that there are homeless people on the streets of my otherwise middle-class town, is an injustice, it should move us. The tears of a teenager misused by her porn-addicted boyfriend, should induce something in us; a cry for justice at the least, the power to act if we can. Those who don’t want God to be wrathful shouldn’t also ask us to care about #metoo. God is not #meh about this world.

Similarly, the wrath of God is never disconnected from his righteousness and his grace.  We sometimes have this image of God as someone caught in an internal battle “Do I love them, or do I hate them?” No, God is love in all things. “Making things right” through bringing justice in judgement is an act of love. Withholding judgement as an act of grace is love. When we face analogous issues – say, perhaps, in our parenting – we often experience conflict because we lack the wisdom, or the security, or, indeed, the affection to do it well. God does not lack those things.

So should we talk about these things? Yes. In fact, our current series at the St. Nic’s evening service is looking at the foundations of faith, drawing on the list in Hebrews 6:1-2 as an inspiration. “Eternal judgement” is one of the topics we will be looking at.  The application will likely include those things that you mention: gratitude about the grace of God, and urgency about declaring the gospel. It will also include the imperatives that relate to pursuing God’s the Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

But your question is not just about judgement, it is about the concept of hell. And this is where you’ll probably find that I differ from Edwards. I push back at the caricature of “total eternal torment”, for I find little, if any, of it in the Bible.  If anything, the exact nature of the final state after judgement, is a second-order issue for me; I won’t go to the stake for it.

My eschatology (my understanding of “the end”) looks to the renewal of this earth as the gospel hope.  I’ve talked about this in my review of N. T. Wright’s excellent Surprised By Hope. Wright draws on C. S. Lewis with regards to the outcome of judgement, and speaks of a final state of “beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.”

Wright’s view has merit. My own take is closer to annihilationism, that the outcome of eternal judgement is either eternal life (for those in Christ), or simply ceasing to exist (you can’t get more eternal than that). I’ve written about this before, and I won’t reiterate it here.

So yes, we should talk about these things more. But here’s my final thought: You say “I want to belong to God to escape the horror of hell” and I get that. But I don’t think I would quickly, if ever, say it that way. I would say this: I want to belong to God, because he is the most holy, delightful, awe-inspiring, identity-giving, glorious One. He is my eternal Father, and I love him.

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