The Throbbing Whisper of the Lord

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I have just found my recently misplaced 1889 copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, the 14th century Catholic mystic, and one of the world’s most read books.  It can be bought from any decent bookshop, but also downloaded as a PDF here, something I’m sure Thomas would have approved!

In the translator’s preface, Kempis is quoted, though I’m unsure where it is quoted from, but it is certainly worth making available here.  Please read it slowly, thoughtfully, prayerfully…..

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Stop Faking Grace

T. S . Eliot once wrote, ‘humankind/Cannot bear very much reality.’  Not that people hate or despise reality, or that people constantly pursue reality, but that, in the end, too much reality, about ourselves, the world, God, is all just a bit too much.

It is especially the Ultimate that is a problem for people:  God.  Prayer.  Mercy.  Judgement.  Christ.

Hence much of church life, in typical human fashion, tends towards a moralism cloaked in religious language, with a ready arsenal of verses and well worn phrases designed to justify ourselves at the expense of others.

The Ultimate Reality though, God, is what almost every person who has ever lived is hiding from.  We are in a precarious state of existence living daily between the ever present deservedness of judgment and the ever present gift of grace.  Or to put it another way, we live suspended on the possibility of utter annihilation and the infinitude of divine care.

That’s why Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Psalm 130: ‘Whoever, therefore, does not consider the judgment of God, does not fear; and whoever does not fear, does not cry out, and whoever does not cry out, finds no grace.’

Part of our ability to avoid the Ultimate is by pretending we no longer need to cry out, so we pretend therefore, we fear when we don’t which means we also fake how we have even considered the judgement of God.  We simply can’t bear too much reality, so we fake it, and this of course means, we fake grace.  A gross mistake.  Why don’t we just paint a great big clown smile on God’s face?

Scripture must be our guide here.  Not pithy devotional aids, but Scripture, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Letters and everything in between.  It is the Bible that offers us a way out of our religious banality; it offers us a much more dramatic and interesting narrative, whereby prayer, worship and the presence of God leads us ever onwards into an awareness of our sins and the gift of repentance.

Brian Brock writes, ‘Without God’s constant forgiveness, we do not see our own sin; and without the exposure of our sins and our repenting of them, we remain in the deadening byways down which other gods have enticed us.’

So without grace we become Christianised Pharisees: blind to the mercies of God, paraders of our own righteousness and thus trapped in a pathetic world of our own making, pathetic yes; mediocre certainly.  Grey, flat, one dimensional, airless, lifeless, godless.

Yet as Jesus repeatedly taught, it is the repentant sinner that goes away justified:  ‘God have mercy on me a sinner!’   The true mark of Christian spiritual vitality is not the absence of struggle, a settled smugness about our superiority, but the exact opposite:  the present reality and immediacy of prayer where we confess that if it were not for the mercies of God we would be dust and ashes.

A poem by William Countryman says just as much with much fewer words:

“Your choice of friends is broad

And (may we say?) unpredictable.

What did you see in Jacob?

Esau was bluff, hearty,

a man’s man – overconfident,

to be sure – even a minute

or two of seniority can grant

a certain status.  Jacob’s

only accomplishments were to cheat

his brother (with Esau’s rash

cooperation yes) and deceive

his father.  Piety suggests

you should have judged the scamp

and left him to stew in his guilt

till he repented.  Instead,

you showed him by night the ladder

to your throne.”

 

I love God’s grace!

Really Real

gbbf-glass“Today, I came home to a real fire burning in the grate and enjoyed a splendid real apple pie topped with real cream whilst watching a reality TV show about the virtues of real ale, followed by a rather intense conversation with a friend.  He shared whether his sense of being followed the other night was real or just a figment of his imagination.

He thanked me for my time, saying it had been real.  He hoped that he could continue to turn to me as a real friend in time of need, someone who lives in the real world yet believes that what is really real lies beyond our understanding.  ‘You’re the real deal’ he said.”

searchforspiritualitylrgUrsula King writes, “A profound crisis of meaning has arisen whose roots can be traced to a loss of vision, commitment and faith, what is in fact a deep spiritual crisis.  A profound crisis of meaning has arisen.”

Our postmodern context is complex.  Church ministers today are expected to know the unknowable, solve the unsolvable and make reality go away.  As T.S. Elliot writes, “Human beings cannot take too much reality.”

Maybe this is why we are a hyper-anxious culture in the west.

Maybe it’s why drug use and alcohol abuse is rampant.

Maybe it’s why trash TV is very popular.

Maybe it’s why porn ensnares and ruins many millions of men and women.

Maybe it’s why Facebook is more popular than real  friendships.

Maybe it’s why some churches are so entrenched in nostalgia and sentimentality.

Maybe it’s why ‘compassion fatigue’ is a rising problem.

Maybe it’s why we have become so self-reliant, so independant, so individual.

Maybe it’s why marriages break down.

Maybe it’s why too many children are left alone and ignored.

Maybe it’s why Government statistics can be “manipulated” to say what anyone wants them to say.

Maybe.

Angry at God

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Have you ever wanted to shake your fist in the face of God?

Have you ever read the story of the ancient Israelites and wondered why on earth they were such a dopey bunch of failures?

Have you ever read the Psalms and wondered why so many of them seem so angry, so confused, so desperate?

Have you ever read the Bible and just known that you could be reading a story of your own self, your own life?

Why can’t we just have a list of propositions?  Because God is not an abstraction.

Why can’t we just have a list of rules?  Because God is not a task-master.

Why can’t we just be told in plain Hebrew and Greek?  Because God is a Lover and all good lovers love poetry.

No doubt the relationship you have with God is difficult.  You are the angry fist-shaker.  You are the ancient Israelite.  You are the confused Psalmist.  You want abstraction because relationship is too costly.  You want rules because you are a task-master.  You don’t want the love language of poetry and Psalm because you are not a lover!

The Bible forces, allows, challenges us to face our inner conflicts.  Go on, shake your puny fist in the face of God, tell Him you’re angry at this or that, but then move on to praise, as the Psalmists often do.  Be angry; be grateful.  Complain at the bitterness of your life, how unfair it is; and then give praise for all the blessings you receive. In the fullness of your humanity, just as the ancient Israelites found out over the centuries, you discover the Face of God.

If their struggle is our struggle, the relationship is going to be difficult.  Newsflash:  We are sinners; God is not.  There is a conflict of light and darkness, love and hate, humility and pride.  Don’t misunderstand, this is no ying and yang thing.  But we post-moderns are like the ancients.  Our flesh battles with God and desires God.  We desire His love in all the wrong places.  Distorted love, broken hearts, indulgence, pride.

So the relationship is difficult, and that should console us.  We identify with those who experience struggle and sacrifice, who know the light and the dark, who hunger and thirst, who grumble and complain, who rejoice and praise.  This is not contradictory living and believing, this is real faith worked out in the real world.  A faith worked out and lived out before the inscrutable and exquisite God of love.

Augustine was right, when he said in his Confessions, “Can any praise be worthy of the Lord’s majesty?  How magnificent his strength!  How inscrutable his wisdom!  Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you.  He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud.  But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you.  The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you…”

Go on creature…

Go on sinner…

Go on you bag of contradictions…

Go on you creature of the dust…

Go on – one marked with death…

…be real.

Shake your fist, but bend your knee also.  Shout “Why?” and “How Long O Lord?” but don’t forget to make confession and give thanks.  It’s not contradictory, it’s complexity in reality.  Worship Him, Jesus, our Lord and our God!

You want success? PREACH CHRIST!

ForsythP. T. Forsyth is rousing my theological interest on a number of fronts at the moment.  I am desperate to read his Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, but only have a flaky copy on my computer, and that won’t do.  Nevertheless, do not feel sorry for me.  I found this paradigm changing comment Forsyth made in his book The Work of Christ, which is a more realistic antidote to the terrible Christian fetish in the western world with numbers, growth and success.  Ian Stackhouse, a Baptist minister in Guildford, UK,  specifically writes about this problem, in his excellent book The Gospel-Driven Church and to a certain extent his recent (and most excellent) Primitive Piety; and part of his response and solution is found in the sheer brilliance of the writings of P. T. Forsyth.

Anyway, below is a snippet that re-paradigms us as Christians who claim not only to ‘be transformed in the renewing of our minds’ but also to have ‘the mind of Christ’, and to consider a little less triumphantly, and a little more soberly, the actual reality of what it means for Christ to rule the human heart…..

“Christ, with the demand for saving obedience, arouses antagonism in the human heart. And so will the Church that is faithful to Him. You hear people saying, If only the Church had been true to Christ’s message it would have done wonders for the world. If only Christ were preached and practised in all His simplicity to the world, how fast Christianity would spread. Would it? Do you really find that the deeper you get into Christ and the meaning of His demands Christianity spreads faster in your heart? Is it not very much the other way?

When it comes to close quarters you have actually to be got down and broken, that the old man may be pulverised and the new man created from the dust. Therefore when we hear people abusing the Church and its history the first thing we have to say is, Yes, there is a great deal too much truth in what you say, but there is also a greater truth which you are not allowing for, and it is this. One reason why the Church has been so slow in its progress in mankind and its effect on human history is because it has been so faithful to Christ, so faithful to His Cross.

You have to subdue the most intractable, difficult, and slow thing in the world — man’s self-will. You cannot expect rapid successes if you truly preach the Cross whereon Christ died, and which He surmounted not simply by leaving it behind but by rising again, and converting the very Cross into a power and glory.  Christ arouses antagonism in the human heart and heroism does not. Everybody welcomes a hero. The minority welcome Christ.”

P. T. Forsyth
The Work of Christ (1910)
Wipf & Stock, 1996, pp. 20-21

Death: You Will Die

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Death is really important to think about, affecting approximately 100% of humanity.  In the Western world especially, it remains a stunning source of perplexity why so many people in their old age, 70’s+ often seem less to contemplate the inevitability of death.  Just recently whilst visiting an elderly sick man in the church, it seemed a thought unthought that he should be preparing himself to die, something I stuttered to his wife even as they used language of ‘healing’ and ‘planning for a great future of good health’.  It struck me as very unreasonable to think of both life and death in this way!

The wonderful Jurgen Moltmann tackles this head-on.  He says that many people live as though death didn’t exist, adding that this is not the way to live a life ‘to the full’.  He continues, “To push away every thought of death, and to live as if we had an infinite amount of time ahead of us, makes us superficial and indifferent…To live as if there were no death is to live an illusion” (The Coming of God, p.50.)

The fact is, we need a ready if not brutal honesty about death, which in itself can be liberating and even life enhancing.  Surviving a serious illness or accident or whatever can actually serve to give our lives more depth.   Surely it is those who repress the thought of death who turn life into an idol – maybe these people are the ones who have deep repression anxieties about death!

Our Western culture doesn’t really help.  Observe a cultural trend.  People used to die at home and be laid out at home for all to see, to mourn, to say “Goodbye.”  Children were present, death was seen in all its glory.  Church graveyards were the centre of village or town life, people went to mourn in the centre of their everyday lives with everyone else.  But now, hospitals have taken the place of the home and the graveyard at the centre is now the crematorium on the margins of our towns.  As a result, death is privatised, even children are sometimes (often?) kept away (as I was at my own grandfather’s funeral in 1985, which left deep scars and a trashed bedroom)!

It is quite likely that that one event, coupled with Christian conversion to Christ as a young man, has made me determined to face death and “be real” about it, and being a Christian means many things, but here, it means facing death with courage knowing what God says about it and what Jesus has done to it.  No wonder the Apostle Paul can burst into song in one of his letters in the New Testament, “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

This is not to say death is easy.  It isn’t!  Mourning is costly and painful.  Moltmann is right to say that the greater the love, the deeper the grief, “the person who cannot mourn has never loved.”  Christian mourning is not the denial that something has happened, a loss unimaginable; rather, it is the acceptance of that painful loss, and further, a trust into the merciful hands of a loving God, the One who’s promises supply the faith to believe what He has promised – in Christ, a new Resurrection future with Him.  This is not soppy wishful thinking or earth-denying escapism.  In fact it is as real as reality gets, it forces us to face death as creatures made in the image of God, creatures who will one day die, and be accountable to Him.  For many, the ignoring of death and the triumph of the idolatry of life is more absurd than anything even in Alice in Wonderland!

There is a wonderful native American proverb that I’ve used in funeral sermons, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.”

That is why on my gravestone I want the words, “To live is Christ; to die is gain!”  Because in death I will die, but in Christ, I will live!

Change the Script

 DSC_0556Most of us love stories.  I was read to as a child.  When my dad was on shore leave from the Navy we had a gluttony of stories (mostly the classic fairy stories, but it was because dad was reading that it became an event)!

Stories are scripts!  They can be about anything, teaching us profound truth or just sheer drama for sheer drama’s sake.  And when heard enough times, they can become a script that shapes how we view the world (To this day I don’t eat green beans because of Jack and the Beanstalk.)

Theatres have scripts.  The script shapes the play, in contour, flow, character development and dialogue, each actor playing their part!  It is the controlling element in the play.  It was Shakespeare who said,  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”  So a stage has a script and we are all beholden to that script!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And everyone on the planet has a script.  We have our own personal script, and we all partake in group-scripts, like the golf club, social club or the church.  Each group, each church also has a script.  The reason why I’ve chosen the text (or script if you prefer) in Rom 12:1-2 is because the Bible, the Gospel, insists that our scripts need to change.  The classic Gospel call to “repent and believe”, is an invitation to change the script, the script of the Old Adam to the script of the New Adam, which is Christ Jesus. Continue reading