Oregon Epiphany

Richard Foster, in one of his books, tells this story…

“In the spring of 1978 Carolyn and I drove to the Oregon coast. On the first morning there I got up before the sun, though not before the suns light and I quietly slipped out for an early walk on the beach. Other than the ever present sea gulls, I was quite alone. The tide was out, and the night mist was just beginning to flee from the mornings encroachment. Nearby was a huge monolith well known in the area as Haystack Rock. Nesting atop the rock were squadrons of tufted puffins. With the tide going out, I was able to walk almost completely round the magnificent rock fortress, which rises straight out of the sand. I marvelled at its stubbornness in standing against the unrelenting attack of ocean waves. The sun had broken over the distant mountains. The sheer splendour made me catch my breath. I exclaimed out loud, ‘This is beautiful!’ There was, however, a response, a clear unadorned, frank response. What followed was like an ordinary dialogue between friends and his hard to explain.

“I had come to a cliff overlooking the beach. On top was a forest of hemlock, Sitka spruce and Western cedar. I was admiring one giant cedar especially. Then as I took several steps to the right, I saw what had been hidden from my view by the healthy tree – another extremely large but obviously rotting Western cedar. Some sprouts of green went out on two sides, but it was obviously only a matter of time before the tree died.

“But then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘This is my Church!’ Then for some reason unknown to me, I turned 180 degrees and looked back at Haystack Rock in the distance. The tide had come in by then and the rock was completely surrounded by water, the waves savagely breaking against it. The divine word continued, ‘But this is what my Church is going to be!’ Great hope rose up within me as I stared at this massive icon of strength and endurance.

“Then I was given instructions that I assume was one of the primary reasons for the encounter. It was guidance to pray for the rising of a new generation of leaders – prophets of the apostolic mould – leaders who could once again gather the people of God into communities of radical faithfulness. What do these prophets look like? They come from every class and category of people. Some are educated; others are illiterate or semi-literate. Some come from organised churches and denominations; others come from outside these structures. Some are women; some are men; some are children. To the person they love Jesus with their whole heart. They all evidence the call of God upon their lives and the hand of God upon their ministries. It is of no consequence to them who is up front, who gets the attention, or who is remembered in the annals of history. Few of them, in fact, are known to the custodians of the modern media for they lack those elements necessary to be newsworthy. It is not that they lack impact; it is that the kind of impact is seen as irrelevant. To normal human reckoning they are the little people, but in the kingdom of God they are truly the great ones. They are the spiritual heirs of Deborah and Elijah, of Amos and Jeremiah, of Paul and the daughters of Philip.”

(Foster, R., Prayer, 1992, p259ff. With minor editing and abridgement.)

To Diognetus

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by locality, speech or customs. They do not dwell in cities of their own, have a different language, or practise a strange kind of life. But while they dwell in cities, as the lot of each is cast, they following the local customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, the nature of their citizenship contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but as sojourners; bearing their share in all things, yet they endure hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is to them a fatherland and every fatherland foreign. They marry and have children; but do not cast them away. They share their meals, but not their wives. Finding themselves in the flesh, they do not follow its desires. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. Obeying the established laws and surpass them in their own lives. They love all men, yet persecuted by them. They are ignored and condemned. They are put to death, yet they have life. They are poor, yet they make many rich. They are in want, yet they abound. They are dishonoured, yet they are glorified in their dishonour. They are reviled, and they bless; insulted, yet show respect. Doing good they are punished; being punished they rejoice. Even thought war is waged against them, those that hate them cannot tell the reason for their hostility.

What the soul is to the body, so are Christians to the world. The soul is spread throughout the many members of the body; Christians throughout the varied cities of the world. The soul has its abode in the body, and yet it is not of the body. Likewise, Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world. The soul, though itself immortal, dwells in a mortal tabernacle; Christians sojourn amidst perishable things, while they look for the imperishability of heaven.

For this was no earthly discovery that was committed to them, nor do they preserve some human mystery entrusted to them. Truly, the all-creating invisible God planted among men him who is the Truth and the Word, which surpasses the understanding of man, fixing him firmly in their hearts – not, as one might imagine, by sending a servant, or angel, but by sending the very maker of the Universe, through whom the heavens were made – the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and the things that are in the sea, the fire, air, abyss, the things in the heights, the things in the depths and all things in between. Do you think he was sent, as one might suppose, to establish a reign to inspire fear and terror? No, not at all, but in gentleness and meekness he sent him, as a king sending his son. He sent him, as a man to men; a Saviour, using persuasion, not force; summoning, not persecuting; loving, not judging. But one day he will send him in judgment, and who then shall endure his presence?

They are thrown to wild beasts so that they may deny the Lord, and yet are not overcome. The more of them that are punished, the more others abound. These do not resemble the works of a man. They are the power of God, the very proof of his presence.

[Extract from Epistle to Diognetus, circa AD 130. Based on translation by Lightfoot and Harmer, 1891, with my abbreviations and amendments for clarity.]

Good News

Nietzsche said God is dead, which is bad news, because madness follows when we find ourselves an insignificant part of a meaningless universe, mere grains of sand. We cling to the reality of a material world that even science considers illusory and uncertain. It is not what we think. All is vanity, utterly insane – if it were true.

But, what if the world is different from what we imagine and not meaningless at all? What if the claims of a man born 2,000 years ago are the truth? Claims that led his followers to willingly die for what they believed. The truth that God is alive and loves us. Even when we had our backs turned to him, he did not turn his back to us, but reached into our world by becoming a man and living amongst us – not as a king, but a servant, a servant who humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. Such was God’s love.

Now, Jesus did not come as a messenger only, but to show us. To demonstrate a God coming not in power, but in weakness. A weakness that could not be overcome, even by death. Yet, he did it for us, not as part of a job lot, thrown in with the rest of humanity in some package deal. No, we are each uniquely important and individually loved. His death was personal. He suffered and died for us personally, though we had rejected him.

Too good to be true? His followers did not think so. They had seen Jesus raised from the dead and it shook them. Death was no longer the same and they could face it. For it was not a message that changed them, not an idea, but a man whose life could not be extinguished and who showed them God.

There is more good news. A lot happened at the cross, a deep mystery that only the foolhardy claim to understand. It was a turning point in history, a doorway that opens the way back to God and beyond that door lies a kingdom. A kingdom that creation itself is longing for – but that is another story. Yet, there truth Jesus showed enabled his disciples to face persecution, even to being burnt alive, even to being fed to lions, in peace. God was worth following. The victory was already his.

We were like prodigals with our backs turned on God, yet he awaited our return with open arms. A return through following Jesus and the life that he showed, turning away from our past and back to God. We may not have pasts to be proud of, I certainly am not about mine, but our greatest crime, our greatest folly, was when we turned our backs on God, yet he forgave us. Our lives become caught up in Jesus and he delivers us from our folly, reconciled back to God, through the mystery of the cross. I find it unbelievable that he considered me worth dying for, his life too precious to waste on me. Yet it is true and I can attest to it. At the time I heard, I was undone and all that was left for me was to repent.

This was not the God anyone was expecting. A God of love. A God of life. A life that cannot be stopped and that we begin to experience now. Citizens of another kingdom, being established on earth as in heaven. No wonder the disciples were no longer afraid.

The Wooing of the Church

Things get lost. Sometimes important things. They thought the ring had been lost, until Bilbo found it. The church too has got lost.

I was once struggling over a passage in 1 John 4, which warns against the danger of leaving the truth. The message seemed pretty clear, yet I felt I was missing something of its heart, something important, even though I did not know what I was looking for. So keen was I to understand this that I had got up in the night to pray into this, but still nothing. It was on my way back to bed that I felt God say to me, “I’m wooing my church back” and it upended my understanding of the passage. John was warning the early church, but now I wondered if those warnings had been sufficiently heeded, and I was reminded of an earlier dream. I dreamt of the bride of Christ, only it was not the picture of a glorious bride, but one from a horror movie, covered in rotting flesh, though still alive. It has to have been one of my oddest dreams, yet it felt strangely significant – even if I could not make it out. Maybe the church is not in such a great shape.

I blame a lot of this on the Greeks. In the first century things seemed to be going well for a mainly Jewish church. Yet, as it moved into the wider world it found itself confronted by the ideas of the Greeks. Ideas that needed responding to, but in the process became mired by them – and has been ever since. The trouble with ideas is that we don’t agree on them, which gives rise to conflict and then division. Whether it be over biblical criticism, science or the work of the Holy Spirit. No wonder we are in such a mess and riddled with division. A curse on all our houses. God is interested in none of our battles or our divisions, he wants one thing: that we love each other and are one.

On that night, as I went back to bed and I heard God utter the phrase “I am wooing my church back”, I broke down and wept. I wept over the state we had got ourselves into. Tears of repentance, yes, but not tears of despair, for I knew God was wooing us back. For me, that was closely linked with Toronto. Now, I don’t fully understand all that God has been doing through Toronto, but that God was at work I had no doubt. Somehow, the falling down, laughter, gold dust, glory clouds are all part of Gods move towards turning us back. God is wooing us. And I do not believe our past will be wasted. God will even use our divisions, as he causes the many streams to flow back together they will form a mighty river, pure and clean, sparkling like crystal. Yet somehow each stream will retain something of its hue, like many woven strands weaving in and out of the river, sparkling with iridescent light like many coloured gems. The river will bristle with life, with nothing wasted.

So, this is not a message of despair, yet it should stir us out of our complacency. If things do not look so bad to us, then maybe it is just that we have become used to the current state of affairs and see it as normal. It is not. I believe the truth is that the church has for many years been in a sorry state, but God is wooing his church back, and impossible as the challenge might be, what God sets his mind to do, he will surely accomplish.

A Thing Called Love

Questions. God asks me questions. Questions like, What does it mean to ‘understand the times’? What is the ‘Kingdom of God’? Where is the power of the gospel? What is sin anyway? One question after another. Questions that get under my skin until they get hold of me and become part of me. It was the challenge of the last that gave rise to a new one.

Sin, I believe, is quite simple. It is the falling short of God’s standard for love. There is a lot that could be unpacked in that, and a lot of that unpacking lies in this thing called love. It makes me wonder how much I really understand love, which is odd given that it is such a central concept to my faith. At the back of my mind I have this vague notion that love is a sense of warm affection that I can’t do much about, being more of a fruit of the Spirit. Except this view does not stand up to much scrutiny and, to be honest, looks more like a cop out.

Heidi Baker says that love must look like something, and it is in the parable of the Good Samaritan that I have found a clue. We all know the story. Jesus said that the love of God and of our neighbour are the two most important commandments, but the questioner wanted to know more. What I had missed was that Jesus was not just describing our neighbour. I doubt very much if the Samaritan had much affection for the Jew by the side of the road. They were historic enemies, yet the Samaritan chose to show kindness, loving his enemy in fact. What Jesus not only defined our neighbour, he also showed us what love looks like.

So, love is kind. We’ve all heard that before. Yet, 1 Corinthians 13 always seemed to be something for weddings, an ideal that a young couple might achieve with each other, or maybe even how we might be when the Spirit has finished working on us. But in the gospels, this does not seem to be what Jesus is saying. He too seems to be saying that love looks like something, and not just in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and not just at weddings, but as a consistent message. Love looks like something, and it looks like something I can make choices over, and something that Paul captured rather well:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

These are choices that require my involvement. I need to ask myself: “What does love look like in this situation”? In fairness, a lot of the time it may not change anything. Sometimes, the difference is made just by asking the question, making me more inclined to patience and kindness. But it often makes a difference, even if only small. To be honest, I still don’t know what I would do if I saw a wounded Jew by the side of the road, let alone a homeless drunk. I am grateful that God knows my limits, but I look forward to growing into his, even if, right now, I find the thought of what it could mean rather scary.