Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Exquisite Romance of Grace

"No, no, no. It's not the cheating. It's the hunger. The hunger for an alternative and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness". Sarah Pierce - The film Little Children.

"I love it when passion rips open that dull, nine to five facade and bares the writhing orgy of need underneath". Tim Kredier - The essay, The Creature Walks Among Us.

"I've never gone so wrong as for telling lies to you
What you've seen is what I've been
And there is nothing I can hide from you
You see me better than I can
".  Lyrics from 'Till I Gain Control Again'.

There's a wonderful moment in the song of songs that says so much about passion and genuine love, but before we get to that, I wanted to refer to another touchstone, for me, on this vital subject. It's found in Jim Mc Neely's superb book, The Romance of Grace, which is simply one of the best works in print on the value of desire and the astonishing love of God.

The book is littered with gems, but it's chapter 4 - Grace is the Air Love Breathes - that I want to draw from today.

It starts with focusing on a very universal truth - we are not in control of our own desires. We often "feel" we want things in a particular direction, but because that impulse is usually without any real centre, we "might as well try and grasp the wind or embrace the ocean"... and yet, our passion really counts. When love becomes something wonderful, it really does colour everything in a brightness that furnishes all of life. It allows us to overlook faults, work through troubles, care unselfishly and even unceasingly for someone that was once a total stranger. Love alone actually enables us to totally give ourselves, not out of duty, but out of a yearning to please and delight that one who fills our world.

There are, of course, countless songs, stories, poems and other expressions that bear witness to the power of such affection, which is no doubt why, at the very heart of our bibles, we find a truly vivid, no holds barred, love story.

One of the questions asked at the end of this insightful chapter is "is Hollywood right in conveying that we fall helplessly in love with someone and have no real control over our affections?

The Song of Songs answers with a resounding YES!
Take a look at this typical passage from the work:

"My beloved says to me, 'Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away" (2:10). The object of desire, hearing this call, then yearns eagerly to be with the one who loves her (see the opening of chapter 3).

Its exactly the same in regards to the love of God.

The Apostle John notes that we know we're redeemed and shall be reassured in our hearts, even when feel condemned, because this redeeming love of God is far, far greater than our hearts, and the one who loves us this way knows everything (1 John 3:19-20).

In other words, as John also says, we can now love because we were first so totally loved (1 John 4:19).

Our surety isn't in the whims of our own turbulent desires, or our "doing well" one day and badly the next - it's in the love that nailed Jesus to a cursed cross so that He could take all our iniquities and end all our diseases.

That's the love we respond to - total and unconditional (1 Timothy 2:1-6).

It has to be this, or nothing, because the alternatives (depending on something other than eternal, steadfast, love) are dire. 

There's a 100% sure-fire way to sell Christianity short.

Turn it into religion.

Turn it into something filled with 'shoulds', 'musts', 'wills' and 'cans' instead of a hunger to be loved, to be carried up by the sweetest bliss of being one totally desired by another (however vile we may be), and you'll end up stoically trudging the road to reverence to something that, if you try hard enough and long enough, you deem (believe) you can plicate, but let's be clear - it's not those who "will" and thereby "run" (Romans 9:15) that make it... It's those who believe that God came to rescue the wicked (us) and trust in that unmerited love that do.

Occasionally, we will no doubt know moments, perhaps even longer spells, where our desires harmonize with the beauty of the holiness God brings to us in His beloved, but if we're honest, we're often usually pretty distant from that. The way to see further than ourselves is to focus on the love that God pours out, without measure, upon us, in Jesus.

As Charles Spurgeon once noted, "If God would have held anything back, it would have been this, His beloved. When He gave us His Son, He gave us all".

Spend some time today thinking about that.
It might do your affections some good.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Light at the end of tunnel (The scope of faith).

"He raises the needy out of Affliction" Psalm 107:41.
"So Abraham called the the name of the place, 'the Lord will provide'" Genesis 22:14.

Sometimes, I find, reading books about theology can be as much about recognizing what has been missed as what had been said, which can be good, because it allows you to don your thinking cap and go deeper!
That was certainly the case this morning, when reading a book on the manner of paradox we can often find in life and faith.

The author decided to use the story of Abraham's offering of Isaac as an opening instance of the kind of troubles we can often face, for example, when something tragic and apparently unjust happens in our lives. The story of a man being required to sacrifice his only child to show obedience to God seems bluntly wicked and capricious today (as various secular writers have contended), so what are we to make of this, and, perhaps more to the point, does this story really comfort or aid people who are about to know the manner of sorrow the author raises in the opening of the book - to be those bereaved and suffer loss?

The tome I was reading notes how the story in Genesis started - with a couple who had no future (no children) - and how miraculously, after many years, that changes - with the birth of Isaac, and how God stays Abraham's hand in the sacrifice story due to the Lord providing another sacrifice in the form of a ram caught in a thicket. It touches on how this incident is one in several moments when God is working in the life of these people to deepen His intent in them of truly knowing Him, and makes reference to Abraham's key confession in the midst of this particular event (Genesis 22:8) which tells us something vital about his faith, but I couldn't help wondering by this point where the initial question raised in this book - of aiding people in the midst of their (probable) great loss - had gone. How did this relate to the actual tragic death of  someone, probably amidst great suffering, especially where no apparent faith was present?

I understand the aim of the book is to speak about how God often is most clearly seen and understood in the most difficult of moments - that was certainly true for Abraham - but this is surely contingent on the fact that here was a man who had seen God in all manner of prior events and conversations, so that when the sacrificial incident occurs, Abraham understands that this is an event in which he will truly learn something about the true nature of God's provision for him and his household, hence his confidence is in God's "speaking" to Him through what unfolds.

Abraham and Sarah had shared, like many now do, a deep desire for children, and God promised as He called them to a new location that He would fulfill this longing, but the events which unfold show how God would only do so after it had became totally impossible for this to be achieved by any natural means. What's imperative to understand, then, is our best hopes and goals can only truly be achieved (truly fulfilled) beyond ourselves in the life which comes from another, for it is only that life which can define and establish something credible and worthwhile.

What, then, of those who are encountering trial and trauma without such confidence?

In Psalm 107, the writer begins by speaking of us being redeemed by God's steadfast love via rescue from the 'day of trouble' and being gathered from foreign lands (apt, of course, in the life-story of Abraham). There are those who wandered wastelands (verse 4), those who inhabited darkness (verse 10), those who foolishly wallowed in sin (verse 17), and those in distress in the depths (verse 23). None of these realms, in and of themselves, bring us anything but anguish and pain. The Psalm states that the intention of such times is clear - to bring an end to our own resources (see verses 33 and 34) and ourselves, that these very trails will cause us to faint and cry out (verse 6, verse 13, verse 19, and verse 28). God, in His great mercy, will use such harsh times and dark events to break into our lives if we do so, bringing an underlying mercy whatever the circumstances themselves may produce. Those who endure through the various trails in this psalm do so not because of some inner resolve or stoic character - they cry to God for aid (verses 8, 13, 19 and 28).

The imperative, as Abraham and his son discovered on Mount Moriah, is that we are brought deeper into a fellowship with the one, like the sacrifice on the mountain provided by God, who gives all for us to crush the tyranny of severance and empty existence in our lives. That may indeed mean a traversing of the harsh, unrelenting places so that we can truly learn to trust upon His unfailing care, but far better that than we become those who seek their own solutions to the harsher periods of life.

Abraham travelled long and far with God, and as a result, gained the most precious insight that we can know (John 8:56). May it be the case that all our days, whether times of delight or trouble, will equally open that splendor to us.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

A d v e r s i t y

"Everyone of us was made to suffer, everyone of us was made to weep"
Walking on Broken Glass - Annie Lennox.

'We all have our crosses to bear, don't we', was the comment this morning.
It was apt, because I've been thinking this past week about similar considerations.

Pain and suffering. We're all made to suffer, says the song.
Were we?
And if so, why?

There's been many times recently when I've discovered that why we so often 'bleed' is because of the deep scars we carry... from "home" (broken families) or our youth (abuse is clearly far more prevalent than many ever imagined) or those many cruel circumstances that acted to thwart or twist us in some way.

Is it all really necessary?
I wonder what kind of man a genius like Alan Turing would have become if he hadn't been so wickedly nailed under the floorboards at boarding school, or, come to think of it, if his family hadn't seen it necessary to send him to such a place (I speak from experience... Perhaps I'll write more on all of that sometime).

In Aaron Sorkin's movie about Steve Jobs, there's a line towards the end where the brilliant yet flawed thinker confesses to his estranged daughter, "I was made poorly".
There are huge consequences of what we really are. To reference another film, the candid portrayal of the true story of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, really shows how this works, particularly through the relationship between father and son.

In sin, acknowledged David, the great poet, I was conceived and brought into life.

Is that the reason?

It's a premise that most of us want to push away, at least until we have to own up to some deeper truth about ourselves and about the pain of dislocation we all bear.

I've spent some time here over the years here talking about the remedy, but there's another aspect to suffering for us when we understand that we're rescued by grace. Hardship can then take on another dimension.

In the opening of his prison-written letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul can express thanks for his dire circumstances, not because they were not arduous, but because they were part of a package that was producing a deeper understanding and experience of God's great and transforming love in the core of our pain-stricken world. A man who had once been consumed by zealous hatred of others was now content to sit in a cell for those he had once wanted to kill because he had been released from the cancer of sin by the joy of God's healing of reconciliation and peace through His Son. The palpable result of genuine rescue is that it allows us in our present circumstances to see, even amidst the deep and very real pains, that healing is present, and that wonder means that the day approaches when all tears, all sorrow, will end.

The harsh and bitter hurts of suffering may not yet be gone, but they can at least now be woven into a manner of being that is approving of and seeking to give what is truly excellent - the righteous fruit of healing righteousness that has been bestowed to us, leading to a completion that means our trails will be folded in to that increasing peace and rich life that is finally fully unfolded when creation is eternally made whole.

Perhaps today, our "crosses" can remind us of that cross, that cost to heal us, so we can cleave to something true in all our pain.