Monthly Archives: August 2014

Yes, I know I promised ‘Days of Thankfulness’… but…

Ugh. Late at night is the wrong time for a mid-twenties Christian single woman to read an article about abstinence before marriage (before we get into this, let me make it clear that the lovely singer in the video is not me, although she does appear to be a Christian in her mid-twenties).  What was I thinking by reading an article like that, anyway? In what way does ‘waiting until marriage’ even pertain to my present situation? A still, small voice had told me ‘no’ even as my finger was above the mouse button, but I clicked it anyway. I should’ve listened. It was my fault that I let it make me feel miserable about my situation. But sometimes I want to shake my first at God and ask him why he won’t just hurry up and sort out the issues he needs to sort out in me before he sends me out to live the life he made me for. If that means singleness,  fine, I suppose I can learn to love that and exploit the freedoms of having so few commitments the best I can, but at the moment I feel like a ship stuck at port. Nonetheless, God’s Word is consolation that even if spreading my wings means remaining single and celibate until I die or he comes again, at least I can try and stand in these shoes:

‘”Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD.’
(Isaiah 54:1 NIV)

And so I keep on singing… and singing… and singing…

Thank you God for the warning that I neglected, foolishly, to heed. And for giving me a voice, and letting me express my joy by singing. And for the fact that your Word upholds the barren one, and the one who was never in labour, and even seems to champion the celibate estate above marriage, for those who have been called to it (1 Corinthians 7). Thank you, at last, for my singleness and my celibacy for as long as marriage is not the best thing for me; for that aspect of life that doesn’t have to take up headspace and lifespace as I try to grow in you, even though I seem to be struggling to do that at the moment.

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

~ Robert Lowry (1826-1899)

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My ‘Days of Thankfulness’ Fail

So ‘Days of Thankfulness’ backfired a little… why? It’s easy to say, ‘I don’t know’, on the surface of it. But when I really think hard as to what was stopping me from posting just three things that made me thankful and writing about why, I’m pushed to admit that it was because I let nothing, on that day, make me thankful.

I’m thankful when I’m joyful. Joy is one of those amazing, heart-enlarging emotions – I hesitate to even call it an emotion – that is so powerful and deep that it can subsist even with sadness and anger at evil. Happiness is a shallow, momentary thing. It’s possible to be happy and not thankful: a baby on a swing is happy and usually only cares that the exhilaration continues; the moment you remove it from the swing it starts howling again. Joy is a God-experience. A deep-seated contentment grounded on an assurance of unshakable love, which extols the one who inspires it. Joy, for me, is the essence of thankfulness, and it expresses itself in worship.

It’s funny that the smallest things can make me joyful: the tracks of snail slime jewelling a spider’s web in the park, a lone mallard waddling up and down the beach, glancing at me out the corner of his eye. The stuff that makes those fireworks of awe go off inside my head is the sort of stuff that happens every day, and yet over the past couple of days I’ve just not been feeling the joy. Another thing has been true of the last couple of days: I have been far from the Lord. I know that this is no coincidence. In fact, I would say that this has been the cause of my joylessness.

Frankly, I have been running away from God because I wanted to waste my time on worthless things, and I stuffed my mind with a smorgasbord of ephemera to quench my abiding sense of his thereness (I knew he’d catch up with me eventually: when God has your number, you can never really get anywhere before he tracks you down – it’s especially telling that with reference to Francis Thompson’s poem, John Stott called Christ ‘the Hound of Heaven’ for his propensity to do that, and considering C.S. Lewis’ testimony, he’d probably have said the same too). Why should a person feel the worshipful, thankful sort of joy of spiritual delights when they’re on the run from God? The causation of distance from God and joylessness makes perfect logical sense. This thankfulness-inducing joy in me is the sort of joy that produces worship, so when you run away from the object of your worship, it’s not surprising that you don’t feel that joy. Far from the Lord, I can see my Nan and enjoy seeing her and feel happy, but not feel the deep, swelling joy that takes me aback and inclines me to praise the God of heaven in delight. Far from the Lord, I can enjoy a complementary frozen yoghurt after filling up the stamps on my loyalty card, but what I feel is that smug sort of satisfaction of having got something for nothing and the pleasurable rush of endorphins as the chocolate swirls around my mouth, rather than a joy that renders praise for an act of grace. Simply, when I’m far from the Lord, I can still feel happy, but it’s a shallower sort of happiness: a happiness cut off from joy and meaning. I go about like a happy automaton from one thing to the next, eating but not truly tasting, looking but not truly seeing. Nothing is connected to anything, and life and its pleasures seem fragmented and devoid of existential permanence. It’s as if the flavour and brightness of the world has been dulled, and my actions become driven by a mercenary thirst that sees little further than the advancement of myself and my own.

When I’m of one mind with the Lord, or when I try to be, it’s as if I’m looking at the world through awe-tinted glasses. Everything looks beautiful. Or sad. Or lovely. Or horrifying. The world is an artwork, and I behold it in awe. One thing the cosmos seldom looks when I have my mind in the Scriptures is boring: its good things are always greater, and more meaningful, than the advantages they confer upon me, and its bad things are not just vaguely unpleasant insomuch as they touch my emotions, but they are evil, and evil enough that I can call them ‘evil’, and can seek out God’s purposes for having them happen. As the truth of the Word of God illuminates the world, little things of nature and human flourishing and the Spirit can often become imbued with meaning and truth even as I look upon them, and that makes them exquisite to me. 

To cut a long story short, I’m sorry. I spent so much time looking at worthless things that my heart was lured away from my chief joy. I’m happy to be closer to the Lord again. I resisted coming back to him because I wanted to wile my time away on unprofitable nonsense, just as a naughty child evades her parents because she doesn’t want to hear the words ‘bed time’. I can feel the life seeping back into my veins like water in a wilting plant, and my joy is returning. The world is starting to look brighter; its tastes, richer. Soon enough you will see more ‘days of thankfulness’ to complement the previous ones, so stay tuned!

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7 Days of Thankfulness – Extended. Day Two.

1) I love the fact that I can come to God’s Word and soak. Wherever I am, I can read it, and I can soak; the impurities come to the surface of my mind and I can bid that Christ expel them, and make my mind new. God is immensely gracious through allowing us His Word in book form. How many hours have I sat and been consoled and refreshed by it in my life, simply by humbling myself before it and reading it? Even when I don’t task myself to do an in-depth, rigorous study of what I’m reading (I don’t usually, by the way), God still allows me to find peace and reassurance in his words, just by seeking them and humbling myself before them and reading them. It is enough simply to hear the Master’s voice. When it speaks of Christ’s saving works, there is light and joy. Even when it speaks of wrath, it is comforting: comforting in the way that thunderstorm is when you watch the lightning come down in deadly forks from the safety of shelter, and realise what a serious business it is to be the God of this world, and how much superior to man God is in his power and might. Thank you God for your Word – for all that it declares.

2) Thank you God, also, for family. Family members are capable of bringing each other immense joy and immense damage. But looking at my family this evening, on the occasion of my mum’s birthday dinner, God put a spark of contentment in my heart. How like each other we are. Though I am very much myself, I still see parts of my personality in mum, dad and brother. They’re sometimes good parts and sometimes bad parts, but seeing them gives me a sense of where I come from in worldly terms, and that is a reassuring thing. It was a warm moment this evening when I realised this, and it made me marvel. Thank you, God, for that warmth and that marvelling, and for teaching me to appreciate what stuff I’m made of, and for enabling me to feel affection in that moment for them.

3) Thank you, God, for wine. It can be abused to horrendous ends. It can cause people to do and say all kinds of terrible things. But it gladdens the heart of men. The wine enabled me to unwind enough to entertain my family tonight with Italian language – a party trick, I know. But it was a nice touch. We’ve probably all seen the comical result of alcohol making people less inhibited and more loquacious. But when you have a tendency to over-think things in life that God can take care of, and to agonise disproportionately over the minute details of your personal interactions, it can be a healthy exercise to let go of certain concerns. The wine helped me to forget myself, and to realise that when I manage to forget myself, I can use my gifts with more confidence than when I let myself be hemmed in by weighty concerns about my right and ability to use them, or about what people’s reactions might be, or about what undesired consequences I might land myself with to the peril of all my intentions. Wine can of course cause people to be immensely irresponsible: there are limits. But the two glasses I drank brought me from one extreme to something a little more freeing. My Italian was less halting, and more fluent, when I wasn’t worried about myself and my life. I learned what I was capable of when I stopped worrying. And looking back, I think my family actually enjoyed the diversion after all. Thank you, God, for that. And please help me to forget myself when the time is right and to the extent that is right, without the need for alcohol in future.

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7 Days of Thankfulness – Extended.

So… I’ve been nominated for the ‘7 days of thankfulness’. Today I’m thankful to God, and to everyone he has put in my path to bring about the following:

1) Today I was thankful for godly company at the Christian radio station where I volunteer. Watching the love pass between three followers of Christ who are many years my senior in the faith, seeing them help and support each other in their work, and experiencing that love being passed on to me in encouragements, opportunities to exercise gifts, and assurances of prayer, was really lovely. I was inspired to watch them, and learned much about my shortcomings, and my aspirations for growing in holiness in the Lord as I mature.

2) Fretting over my parsley and basil seedlings today as I repotted them I was thankful, as a mid-twenties, single, childless woman, that I could appreciate what it is to be a cultivator of life. Time and time again, God speaks through the prophets about his children through the metaphor of a gardener delighting or lamenting over his prized plants. As I dropped everything to dive after my poor sun-scorched babies with a watering jug, there was a moment where I realised what a charade of the bigger picture I was playing out, and it was a moment of joy.

3) I was listening to a song by a French evangelical music artist today, and for reasons I’ll underline below, I was very thankful to know that this kind of song existed. French evangelical Christianity – of the native kind, not the imported kind – bears some marked differences from the Anglo-American sort. Their perceptions of what will be well-received evangelistically and what won’t, are different, and I think that this is because the fabric of French thought is different. France is the land of the Revolution, the land of the guillotine, the land of protests, the land of the enlightenment, the land of existentialism, the land of human rights. France served as a battlefield for two World Wars that rocked the world in two consecutive generations, and if they hadn’t seen enough violence, anger and death in preceding ages, they saw them then. Following the wars, many lost faith in God, humanity and the meaning of life itself, and a lot of the proponents of the Postmodern philosophy that grew out of this sentiment owe their geographical and intellectual roots to France. France has the highest rate of depression in the world. The French are not shy about death as the British are: you only need to read a translation of the lyrics of the Marseillaise, or still, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from Les Misérables. Nor are the French squeamish about judgement – including, evidently, judgement that is retributive.

But there is a silver lining to this cloud, and I saw (or rather, heard) it as I was listening to my French evangelical song today. It was a song about hell. Yes, a funny thing to encounter, an evangelical song about hell, and an even funnier thing to be thankful for, but I was genuinely relieved to hear it. Of all the aspects of our beliefs that we English-speaking, British Christians like to preach and represent in our songs, hell is one we tend to push under the carpet because it is unpalatable in our culture, a culture of a nation that sapped its monarchs’ power and placed it into the people’s hands far less violently, a nation that was last successfully invaded many, many centuries ago, and subsists on a strained peace between political factions that are boiling with anger inside but dare not grumble too loudly in public lest they lose their social and/or political credibility. The British erasure of hell, with its custom of genteel silence over discontent and everything else that isn’t deemed worthy of expression in polite society – pains me. I’m tired of the justice aspect of the gospel being suppressed. I just want to hear the truth. Hell is a place where God’s righteous anger is expressed against people who perpetuate evil. As his anger is righteous, it is good, and wholly appropriate to be expressed. When we suppress hell, we shut away not only our feelings about evil and suffering – but also, I feel, we try to repress God’s anger too. What’s more, without allowing myself to feel anger and be satisfied that God will bring evildoers to justice, I find it hard to then take pity on them for the price that they would have to pay for their crimes, or to weigh my own sins up and realise the debt that I myself have been spared, and pray instead that they turn to follow Jesus and ask him to pay their debts as he paid mine. When we acknowledge God’s expressions of righteous anger and judgement, the teaching that we will be measured with the measures we use takes on new significance, and we realise the imperative of forgiving as we have been forgiven. In this way, in hiding hell, we hide a part of the gospel that is crucial as the counterpart to Christ’s atoning death: we hide the awful but merited wrath of God from which Christ’s atonement saves us. Nobody enjoys the thought of people perishing, but as long as evil is given its just desert, either on the Cross or in the other place, there is justice, and when that justice is upheld, we know that all is right with the world, and that good triumphs over evil. The song was a song that validates God’s righteous anger and champions God’s just treatment of sin, allowing it a space to be expressed, and a platform for God to be declared right in this part of his plan, that one day, those evildoers who do not turn back from their evil ways will receive the fruit of their deeds. To hear this is a consolation to those who have been wronged.

With all this, the song also carries a sobering and possibly life-saving warning: we must be mindful of where we will eventually stand when the books are cracked open, and we must act accordingly. It forces us to turn our eyes on ourselves. Listening to this truth expressed plainly and Biblically through a song was a breath of fresh air to me. I feel it would be very unwise to sing a song like this for a congregation from an Anglo-Saxon culture: there would be outcry. But hearing it, I was thankful to God that for all the brokenness from which the French nation suffers, the doctrinal blind spots of its church are different from ours, and that their cultural lens allows them to see what we often cannot. Through this song sinners can hear about what they need to be saved from, and respond to it, and I was given the space and catharsis that I needed to help me express my feelings about evil and injustice authentically and anticipate the wages of that evil, so that I could be moved to pray that God have mercy on the other evildoers as he had mercy on me. It provided relief from the straitjacket of wishful thinking – which is to me as insipid, weak and tepid as some English teas with milk and sugar can be – that tends to view with suspicion any emotion that doesn’t fall within a bland spectrum of ‘pleasant’. It is a window onto God’s rightly and justly appointed reality for those who do not belong to the covenant of forgiveness for sins in Christ’s blood. As truth, though it was hard and unpalatable, it was not dissimulated. Moreover, in its non-dissimulated form, it was a spur to action. I was very thankful that at last, the truth about God’s justice had prevailed in at least one worship culture.

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For a Sacramental Non-Conformism

I love Communion. I think we undervalue it – possibly because we often seem to place more emphasis on what it isn’t than on what it is. We try to delineate our definitions more smoothly than (I think) Scripture does itself, lest we trample on a piece of Sacramentology for which our forbears of the English Reformation gave their lives, by appearing too ‘Catholic’. Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m saying this as a conservative evangelical Protestant. A New Calvinist, no less. But I’m not scared of how I might ‘look’ if I speak of my convictions. We Protestants and Catholics share the heritage of the Early Church, if we would claim to be one catholic (universal) body of Christ, and the zeal of the Early Church for the Lord’s Supper is not to be sniffed at. I understand where the theological boundary lines lie. I can’t claim that I have the whole truth as I proceed, but I’m not going to hold back purely for the sake of tribalism.

My thought at Communion this evening was this: what a great sense of assurance that we have, when we are mandated to appropriate the body broken for us and the blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of the sins of many, by taking them into ourselves as bread and wine. There’s little room to doubt whether Christ’s death on the cross can really bring salvation when we stand before the Communion table – Jesus made the promise at the Last Supper and embodied it in a sign, and taught us not only to love that sign as we love the sign of the rainbow, but to take it into ourselves bodily and digest it. There really are few bolder ways to appropriate something as your own, than to incorporate it into a consumable of some sort and to eat it. If ever you needed assurance that Christ’s blood was meant for you, struggling believer, then the Communion table should remove all doubt. There, you don’t just see your covenant membership articulated: you pass it through your lips and taste it and swallow it.

Moreover, when we consume that sign, we’re acknowledging that Jesus’ body broken for us, and his forgiveness-conferring blood, are our spiritual staple food and drink. We keep on consuming Christ’s body and blood, at his Table and in Spirit and in the Word, and we do it to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. Until he comes again, Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out, will never cease to be our sustenance in this life no matter how advanced we are in our spiritual walk, as we were commanded to drink of the cup until Christ comes again. He pointed to his flesh and called it bread, and he pointed to the bread and called it his flesh; he called his blood “true drink”, and he called the cup of wine, the cup of the New Covenant in his blood. He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”. Would we tire of this bread, as the Israelites tired of the Manna that rained down on them, and demand ‘meat’ instead? What, pray, could we conceive this ‘meat’ might be but something bound to bring us to ruin? It would seem paramount to tempting God’s wrath if we implied at any moment that his grace, secured for us by what Christ has done (that is, with his body and blood on the tree), were not sufficient for us, as they were sufficient to the Apostle Paul though he had a thorn in his flesh.

Matt Redman puts it beautifully:

“Now that I’m living as a risen child of God, my every road leads to the Cross.”

I used to sympathise with people who complained about ‘leaving Christ on the cross’, because crucifixes seemed oppressive Catholic things to me, and we preached the Resurrection life. But now I think differently. The empty tomb may well be an apt depiction of the triumphant Christian life, as some like to say who claim that they have ‘moved on’ from a Cross-centred identity, but the tomb is not where Christ is, and it is Christ whom we worship and model. All the same, Christ is risen, they would say: we do not keep him on the Cross, for he is not there. Maybe so. Yes, I will concede that geographically speaking Christ is not on the Cross. But if he’s not on the Cross and not in the tomb, then where in fact is Christ? Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven. What is he doing there? Making intercession for sins. By what? By his blood. How? By his death – which happened on the Cross, when he became a curse for us. Ah, they might say, that’s his blood – but that was poured out 2000 years ago! The body that died on the on the Cross isn’t the same one as the one he has now, is it? He left the old broken one behind and got a new one – right?  Indeed he did, it seems. And his Resurrection body, albeit apparently new, was no less than perfect for the fact that it had the same holes in the hands and side as the old one did. You cannot separate Christ from his wounds: even the Resurrected flesh bore the marks of Christ’s affliction for us on the Cross, and surely if it was perfect with the marks, then the marks participated in its perfection, and it would thus have been imperfect without them. This is to say that though Christ was Resurrected, he clearly did not ‘move on’ from the Atonement that he made. He might have ‘sat down’ at the right hand of the Father, but that didn’t mean that he stopped making intercession by his blood. Even at the end of the age, when time ceases, the angels will sing of Jesus, “Worthy is the Lamb” – the name ‘Lamb’ enshrining him for all eternity in his identity as sacrifice.

We can have Christ without depicting him on the Cross, but we can never have Christ without the wounds by which we are healed. What good is an empty tomb – or even an empty cross – if it wasn’t for the sin-bearing body and the wrath-appeasing blood, broken and poured out on the Cross where he died? It was what Christ achieved that we bring to remembrance when we go on taking our Communion elements until Christ returns as commanded; it is this blood which forgives us our sins, and bids us die, and provides the ballast that raises us and keeps us raised. Even as a risen child of God – a child of God living the Resurrection life – I cannot wander from the Cross where that body was broken and that blood was spilled, because the wounds from that breakage and spillage did not disappear from Christ’s body even when he took on a new one in his own Resurrection life and sat at the right hand of the Father in glory. Besides this, if I neglected to sate my heart daily on the Bread of Heaven and quench my thirst on the True Drink, then I fear I’d starve and thirst to death.

In a mystical way, the Lord’s Supper makes Christ’s wounds feel nearer to my heart and my soul in a real way. I think we do the Eucharist a disservice by saying it is “just” a symbol, and has no further significance. For between the body and blood of Christ, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist, there is a textual unity; a poetics of bread and wine, body and blood that is repeated throughout Scripture. Now, when a poetics or a textual unity like this is found in merely human literature, we say that the bread and wine are just ‘metaphorical’, or a ‘figure of speech’ – and if the Bible is merely human literature, we can claim that they are ‘just’ a symbol. But can a unity like that be ‘just metaphorical’ or ‘just a symbol’ and have no function in the realm of the ‘real’, when ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ and ‘body’ and ‘blood’ constitute words uttered by the Mouth that makes concepts into things of real significance just by giving them utterance? The utterance doesn’t need to make them into material things: it is only a naturalistic worldview onto reality that says that a thing cannot be ‘real’ if it is not ‘material’. If the property of the Mouth of God is that its Words create things and bring things about by speaking them, then to my mind, the unique ‘creation-engendering’ power of this Word would necessitate that the symbol and the thing symbolised must be equally ‘real’: for both were spoken into being by this same creator Mouth. ‘Real’ doesn’t need to mean ‘concrete’ or ‘material’. We are Christians, not naturalists. Jesus is a concrete, material man, but his work is spiritual. God the Father is not material, he is Spirit, and we worship him in Spirit and in truth. But for the fact that he is Spirit, he is no less real than the woman sitting at home typing these words to you now.

If Christ said “this is my body”, then textually, spiritually, it is, as it has been declared so, by the voice that brings about what it utters. He gave the declaration utterance, so in every sense that matters spiritually in accordance with his purpose and aims, the broken bread was his body. Again, it is not that I would want to go into an essentialist description of precisely what it is chemically: I don’t think this is required. Again, I say that ‘real’ doesn’t need to mean ‘concrete’ or ‘material’ if it can yet mean ‘spiritual’, whatever we understand ‘spiritual’ to mean. As a ramification of this thought, I don’t think we even need to decide whether to define the bread and wine as either a symbol of the real thing, or the real thing thing itself, to determine whether it is ‘real’ or not. Whether the bread and wine are chemically and physically the body and blood of Christ, or whether they merely represent it, is immaterial (no pun intended): it is declared to be what it is declared to be, and the word that declares it is more powerful to create, and engender, and set in motion than any living creature that walks on the earth besides the Son of Man himself, and is capable of doing so in many more ways and modalities than the industry of any human being alone. Whatever the act of ‘being’ of these Communion elements looks like, if the Word binds that act of ‘being’ into existence, then so it must be, even if its ‘being’ is of a different order than the sort of ‘being’ that most things perform. Between the conventional mode of ‘being’, and the conventional mode of ‘non-being’, I believe that there is fillable space. If quantum physics has shown that even material objects can be and not be something at the same time, and that they can be in two places at the same time, then it’s not too far a stretch to propose that spiritual things can be when they don’t appear to be in a material sense. It is a question of there being different modes of ‘being’; different levels of reality. At what did Balaam’s donkey baulk before it showed itself?

As well as being and non-being, we may also perceive there is an alternative to the binary distinction between ‘symbol’ and ‘thing symbolized’. It might be helpful to think about it in the way we think about states of righteousness. There is an alternative to the binary distinction between righteous and unrighteous. For besides these two things, righteous and unrighteous, there is ‘counted righteous’. That is, legally, textually, and on a level higher than the surface appearance of things, we are ‘counted’ righteous through faith, even though we ourselves are not personally righteous. Now, legally, textually, and on a level higher than the surface appearance of things, can the bread and wine not also be ‘counted’ as the body and blood of Christ, even though they remain bread and wine? Can they not be statutory tokens of the things they represent, acting as and on behalf of them in substitute for them, and having the efficacy of the same in what they are appointed to do?

I’m not claiming to have the truth here. I’m not outlining a new theology, and God forbid that anyone should pick this up and base their practical belief system on it without any further study or consideration. I don’t want to make trouble for anyone; it’s just an idea that has been rolling around inside my messy, over-populated head. In truth, it’s one that I’d like to discuss. Until then, I would feel privileged just to be heard.

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