In overwhelming waters

Isaiah 43:1-2 But now this is what the Lord says – he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”

Here lies who I am –

the measure of my worth.

I am precious, honoured,

beloved in the eyes of God.

God created me for God’s glory.

God formed me and made me.

God redeemed me.

God called me by name.

I belong to God.

Though the darkness presses heavily upon me

and the chaos threatens to overwhelm me;

though my feet are so often knocked out from under me

and I feel like I am losing my way;

though, at times, I can barely keep my head above water;

though I am battered and broken,

bruised, burned, and sometimes burned out …

nothing can separate me from the love of God.

I belong to God.

Oh loving God, in my belonging may I find strength.

In my belonging, may I live out your love.

In my belonging, may I know no fear.

In my belonging, may my life overflow with generosity, compassion, and joy.

In my belonging, may I step through the fires and through the waves

for I am never alone.

I belong to you.

Amen.

From the wilderness to wide places

The focus this Sunday within the Season of Creation series is on the wilderness: those barren, uninhabited, often dry, and inhospitable areas; areas which scientists tell us are actually expanding due to human activity and the burden that the every-increasing human population is putting upon the Earth’s resources.

The Earth is becoming a dry place in which to live – both physically, and also spiritually.  Just as the soil is losing its moisture and, subsequently, its diverse and protective vegetation, so too are many of us losing the nurturing and refreshing sense of God’s presence due to our increasingly hectic schedules.

Isn’t it ironic that the very desire for a better life, for the fulfillment of God’s promises of fullness and abundance, drives us at a frenetic pace into a place of scarcity and exhaustion – a place where we wonder at times how we are even going to survive the next few days, let alone the next couple of years?

It is here, in the wilderness, that the lament of the prophet Joel makes sense to us:

The fields are ruined, the ground is dried up; the grain is destroyed, the new wine is dried up, the oil fails.  Despair, you farmers, wail you vine growers; grieve for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field is destroyed.  The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree – all the trees of the field are dried up.  Surely the joy of mankind is withered away (Joel 1:10-12).

Yet, it is when we feel this way; when we have reached the point of realising that our own energy and effort is insufficient for securing our happiness, that our reserves have dried up and our joy in living has slipped away, that we can truly be open to the whispered invitation of God:

I’ll lead you to a spacious place; I’ll rescue you because I delight in you. (Psalm 18:9, paraphrased).

The wilderness is not something that exists out there, outside of us.  It is what we create within us when we let the pressure to perform and the desire to succeed erode away at precious time, important priorities, and the truth that God is always present with us.

The invitation this week is to allow God to call you from the wilderness into a wide place where you are open and attentive to God’s grace and tender care.  As you walk with God in the wideness may your joy be awakened, your strength restored, and your spirit refreshed.

A prayer for people going through divorce

Praise be to You, O unchanging God,
who journeys with us through life’s joyous and sorrowful seasons,
for though You never ordain suffering,
You help us to make sense of love’s purpose when hardship befalls us.

Be still in the silence and aware of God’s love with and within you[1]

Ever-loving God we thank You for love shared and lives joined together.
We hold before You memories of good times and bad times
as we acknowledge the thoughts and feelings within us today:
sorrow and grief at the dream we have lost of what love and marriage and family was supposed to be,
frustration, anger and confusion at how we have gotten to this point,
guilt and shame at things that we have said and done that have contributed to the breakdown of our relationship,
fear and anxiety over what the future holds for us.

Instill in us this day, a sense of Your resurrection power
and a reassurance of Your constant presence.
Walk closely with us as mourning turns to gladness
and the trial and turmoil of this change
is transformed into the hopefulness of possibility.
Heal our woundedness,
forgive our faults,
and restore to us the certainty that we are loved by You.

Be especially present with friends and family who do not understand the full extent of our journey and help us to be patient with their questions, their criticisms and their advice.

Guide us in caring for our children and creating new households full of Your love so that we might deal with them daily with wisdom, gentleness and affection.

Sustainer of all, hold our past with compassion, our present with Your tender mercy, and our dreams with the fullness of new life in You.

Amen

 

 

[1] A line adopted from Tess Ward’s “The Celtic Wheel of the Year,” 2007, Hants: O Books.

In times of persecution

Psalm 108:12 Give us aid against the enemy, for human help is worthless.

O Lord,

help me to remain steadfast in the presence of my enemies.

In the face of politics and devious schemes,

let my praises resound.

When confronted with apathy and laziness,

let me awaken the dawn with shouts of gladness

and testimonies to Your goodness.

When plotting and game-playing and back-biting

wear down the song of my heart

until I feel alone and abandoned,

weak and oppressed,

raise me up in the knowledge that You are my God,

the Mighty One,

and Your purposes and promises cannot be overcome.

Lord, make me steadfast,

make me strong,

in the presence of my enemies.

 

Protect your reserves

If you have ever had the misfortune to run out of petrol, you know all too well the anxiety and frustration of the foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 – as well as the embarrassment of having to admit your mistake and ask for assistance.

Although this passage is often used for a sermon on getting ourselves ready, or being prepared, for the coming of God’s kingdom, the more subversive message it contains is this: God wants you to protect your reserves.

The reality is that we should never find ourselves running on empty; or worse, running out entirely.  Our petrol tanks are designed to hold a small reserve which, when activated, triggers a warning light which says that we need, as a matter of urgency, to get to a fuel station to replenish our tank.

And yet still it happens that we sometimes find ourselves running out: whether we have underestimated the distance we have to travel or the traffic we have to travel in, or overestimated the capacity of our reserve, or simply haven’t prioritized filling up, or maybe, even, are hoping that prayer will get us through to pay day so that we can afford to fill our tank, many of us can find ourselves in this awkward, embarrassing, stressful situation.

We certainly hope that if it ever happens to us, the person we reach out to for help will be kind and sympathetic and immediately available.  So the response of the wise women to the foolish ones in verse 9 offends our nature and our understanding of what it is to be a good and kind Christian person:

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”

No.

It’s a word that we seldom use, and when we do, often feel guilty for having in our vocabulary.  We’re happy to teach our children to say “No” to junk food, “NO” to drugs, and “NO NO NO!” to sex before marriage but when we are asked to something for someone else so often we automatically respond with “Yes.”

Which is why we so often feel at the end of the day that we have nothing of ourselves left to give.

Yet, like the wise virgins, God longs for us to protect our reserve tank and I would propose three principles for doing just that:

1. Say “no” to the unimportant things, the distractions in life, the little crises that take away from your long term hopes and dreams.  The Afrikaans assignment that your boss wants you to look over for his child which really doesn’t fall under your job description, or would lead to you working late to get your actual, pressing work done.  The person who constantly calls you in tears asking for time togetether but bails at the last minute because something better has come their way.  Even the colleague whose car broke down and who just assumes you’re available to help because they’re “on your way” – adding 40 minutes to your commute in the traffic and creating chaos in your household routine.  Know what’s important, what you MUST fit into your life and schedule – things like family and relaxation and taking care of your health – and evaluate what else you can do once those needs have been accounted for and satisfied.

2. When you say “yes” to something important, be 100% present.  In addition to struggling to say “no,” so often we try to manage our many “yeses” by doing a number of things simultaneously.  We call it “multitasking” and smugly inform people around us that managing to do many things at the same time makes us efficient utilisers of our time and resources. In reality, we are simply dividing our attention and not doing what we have committed to as well as we could because 2 tasks can get at most 50% of our time and effort; 3, 33%; 4, 25%.  You get the point.  Rather, if you’ve committed to a family dinner leave the cellphone at home (or use that much-neglected “off” button).  If you’re at work late, don’t feel guilty about what’s going on at home (assuming you’ve consulted with your partner, of course) but invest your time and attention into getting the task at hand done well.  If you’re at church stop thinking about what you need to do for lunch and be present in body, mind, and soul.

3. Prioritise God.  We know that when our warning light is on because our petrol gauge is near to empty, we need to be disciplined enough to refuel or we will find ourselves in trouble.  Our lives are like that too.  Sunday worship is not enough to tap into the abundant, overflowing, never-ending energy and power and love of God.  We need to set aside time and space in which to refuel – whether that means soaking ourselves in Scripture, enjoying vigorous religious debate over coffee with friends, or sitting in on a worship practice so that our hearts can be uplifted by song.  We need to prioritise God – not when we’ve run out and we’re requesting assistance – but every day; in multiple moments we need to open ourselves up to the fact that God is with us and longs to fill us and to bless us.

The wise women in the story were wise not because they had stocked up on oil for their lamps, but because they protected their reserve.  They prioritised that which was important – being present to fulfill their purpose of meeting the bridegroom. And, in order to protect that priority, they said a very necessary “no” the the foolish women who had run out and who ultimately missed out on the dancing and the laughing and the celebration and the belonging of the wedding feast.

Protect your reserve tank.  Prioritise God. Be 100% present in the things that you have committed to.  And learn to say “no” to that in your life which is unnecessary.

 

 

Now the earth was formless and empty …

Genesis 1:1-2 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

In all beginnings, there is God.

In our conception and formation, God was there.

God watched over our first steps and smiled at our first words.

God rejoiced at our first love and wept at our first hurt.

Before every first, God was there, and, in each new beginning God is present and lending us the creative energy of God’s Spirit.

God makes something out of nothing – something beautiful and good.

God breathes into our stale lives, and we are made anew, in God’s image; full of hope and vision and energy and purpose.

May each day bring you …

… new beginnings,

… new opportunities,

… new ideas.

And may the power of our Creator God find full expression in your life.

 

 

Jonah: a story about calling

This whole situation stinks -worse than three day old air in the belly of a fish.

I don’t want to be here. I never did. But God has pushed me to this place.

I tried to be reasonable. He told me to get up and go, so I did. My own way though, to my own destination.

But God was not happy. He threw me into the deep end. Literally. The people I was travelling with picked me and threw me overboard into the stormy sea.

I felt myself sinking. I cried for help but there was no one for God had abandoned me. The water pressed in around me. I could not breathe. It was cold and dark and I did not know which way was up or down. My lungs began to burn, my body to cry out with the need to breathe. This was it – the end. No sound. No hope. No future.

And then God saved me. In the most inconvenient way. From the space of the wide open ocean and the safety of my ship God put me into the darkness and stink of a great fish’s belly; into the darkness and the stink of my disobedience and the results of my sin. The only light for me in that dark place was the truth that God had spared me and a passion for sharing that truth began to burn in my heart.

So now I am here. I am here because God’s love pursues me – across oceans, to the very depths of the sea; even in the darkness of death God’s love pursues. Through sharing my story others can know that God’s love pursues them too – especially when they feel like life is squeezing them into a sardine tin.

An Eternal Perspective

Ascension Day marks an important change in perspective: Jesus who lived and walked among us, preaching, teaching, healing the sick, restoring dignity to the vulnerable, challenging the oppressor, and even raising the dead to new life, is taken up to heaven in glory.

This we know.  This we believe.  This we affirm when we say the familiar words: “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”

Jesus’ ascension marks the end of counting off each earthly hour and ushers in eternity.

The Greeks for whom John’s Gospel was written, like many other cultures, had a cyclical view of time.  They believed that life was an ever recurring sequence of events from which they longed to escape.  In this modern age we would probably call it the rat race.

For the Greeks then, the idea of redemption, of being saved, meant breaking out o that cycle so that they could enter into timelessness or nothingness.  John’s Gospel introduces them instead to the idea of eternal life which has to do rather with the agelessness of God over all the ages of time, bringing continuity and stability and joy to human lives so bounded and defined by their age and by the ages in which they live.

It’s a major shift, a dramatic change in perspective.

The Ascension of Christ invites us to wrestle with the question: is our picture of heaven a distant dream of the most marvelous holiday hotel which we can check into once we’ve checked out of life or is it a perspective of our lives held and sustained in the hands of the God who was and is and is to come?

The distinction is important because it determines whether we are living for the future rather than the present; for ourselves rather than for God.

John 17:3 gives us the most wonderful glimpse into what eternity is all about: “And this is eternal life: that people may know you, the only true God, and that they know Jesus Christ, the One you sent.”

If we go back to the times in which John’s Gospel was written we see a distinct struggle emerge: for the Greeks, there was the idea of the Supreme Good – an eternal truth from which all truths took their value that they dedicated their lives to discovering through study and debate; for the Jews there was only God’s truth and God’s way and an abundance of laws to ensure that they lived by that truth, that way.

One group focused on belief, the other on action but Jesus – according to John’s Gospel – came into the world so we might know that eternity is not achieved by finding the right belief or by living according to the right set of laws, but by entering into the right relationship, with God and with the One God sent.

The word “know” is key to that relationship.  It comes from the Greek “gignoskein” meaning:

  • to perceive directly,
  • to have understanding of,
  • to recognize the nature of,
  • to have experience of,
  • to be acquainted or familiar with.

This is not a head knowledge, a book knowledge, some intellectual and abstract knowledge; it is intimacy and familiarity and relationship.

It’s the nuances of language that grow between loves who, with a look or the use of a particular pet name, can convey an entire history of shared memories and an immediacy of desire.

It’s the protection offered by a brother who doesn’t even necessarily like you at times but who will not let any harm come to you because you are family and belong to him.

It’s the comforting hand of a friend in your lap when you’re lonely or hurting or heartbroken or anxious about what is to come.

It’s the unrestricted, oftentimes overwhelming affection of a child, who suddenly wraps his or her arms around you and holds on tight, regardless of the ringing phone or the pot that is about to boil over.

This is eternal life: knowing God and being known like this.

There is another aspect to this knowing, however.  “Gignoskein” also means “to recognize as being the same as something previously known.”

So eternal life is also the moment of recognition that even when we did not believe, even when we were not open to the presence of God, God was present and active in our lives.  And, in that moment of recognition, when we finally receive and respond to God’s invitation to salvation and to eternal life, it is not a moment of awkwardness as if meeting a stranger for th first time but a joyous celebration of coming home to a love that existed long before we knew it.

Ascension Day invites us, in this moment, to consider our perspective on eternity:

  • Is it a distant holiday destination to which we’ll one day escape from the struggles and challenges of life?
  • Is it something to which we are entitled because we have rightly believed that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?
  • Is it something that we earn by following the right set of rules to keep us moving in the right direction?
  • Or is it, as John reminds us, a present, joyous, transforming experience of the outstretched arms of the God who has always known us and who invites us into the mystery of knowing God?

 

 

 

 

Choose Life

One of the driving forces of human nature is competition. I simply have to watch my children squabbling over their test scores without any regard for their differences in grade or ability to see what an early age we start ingraining the need to outdo one another into our thoughts and motivations. Our language has even developed in such a way as to enable our comparisons: it’s not simply good enough to be wealthy but one can be wealthier than another and, if truly blessed, the wealthiest of us all.

Smart, smarter, smartest;
successful, more successful, most successful,
pretty, prettier, prettiest … these are the patterns that govern not only our speech, but our lives.

No wonder life is, for many of us, an unfulfilling, exhausting experience. No wonder the abundance and prosperity God promises us seems to be like a distant dream instead of a present experience. No wonder heaven becomes the goal that we set our eyes on longingly in an effort to escape the daily grind.

Our Scriptures (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37) this week invite us to examine the standards by which we are evaluating ourselves and others. What are the things that bring you joy and a deep sense of satisfaction? What are the gifts on offer to you in the relationships that you have? What are the gifts that you have to offer? What are the sins – the ingrained habits, the negative thoughts, the possessive desires – that hold you back and drain you? What are the judgements and grudges and expectations that limit your potential to give and receive love? How do you define happiness, success, prosperity, promise and have these definitions hurt or helped you?

God longs for us to know the fullness of life. We know that. Do we, however, long for the kind of life God promises – a life of community and harmony, of servanthood and sound morals? Or are we looking for the life in which we are the winner of every competition?

The Promises of Parenthood

In Ephesians 3:14-21 we see that the family – as an ideal – is an expression of God’s great love for us, and a means by which we grow in the knowledge and understanding and experience of how wide and long and deep and high that love is.

As God is community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – so God gives us community that we may never have to walk alone through the trials and turmoil of life; that there may be a place, a space, where we are truly and intimately known; that there may be for each of us an opportunity to experience an unconditional love which gives us a tiny glimpse at the face of a God who lived and died and rose for love that we might live life to its fullest.

The reality is that in many homes these days, horrific things happen. They are places of hurt and heartache rather than the safe haven that God intended because we have forgotten to root our family lives in the example and foundation of God’s love for us and to treat each member of our families as a sacred, precious gift to us.

And so moments where Christian parents profess their desire to raise their children in homes established by God’s love are particularly solemn occasions as profound promises are made:

Will you take Jessie to your home
and cherish her in the morning,
guide her in the noontime,
comfort her in the evening?
Will you show her the earth and all her blessings,
The kindliness of her Maker,
The grace of the Spirit upon each thing,
And the benefits of Christ’s healing Gospel?
So when she comes to leave your house to travel her own path
She may trust in the generous clasp of God’s own hands
And walk with God until her days’ end
And know her final dwelling place as her home from home?
With the help of God, we will.

(Promises written by Tess Ward)