All of Grace

Forty odd years ago, when I first became a Christian, God did not look at me and think ‘what a great catch’, he saw a train wreck. My life has changed immeasurably since, yet, as God’s call on my life has come into sharper focus, the extent to which I fall short has become exposed. Having made so little progress after more than forty years, I wonder why he bothered with me in the first place. It has become easy for me to get depressed and want to give up.

Brennan Manning found part of the answer. He was struggling with alcoholism and was aware that he was not living up to the expectations on him as a priest. One morning, as he woke up, finding himself in a gutter, stinking of his own vomit, he had hit an all time low. It was at this point that he realised that God loved him as he was, not as he should be. It was a life changing moment. Yet, in spite of this, he confesses that to the day he died he remained a broken human being struggling with alcoholism. But he knew that God loved him anyway. Not because he was a great guy, but all because of grace. God loved him as he was, not as he should be.

Similarly, in the story of the prodigal, in spite of his son wasting what he had worked hard to create, the boy’s father still loved him. While his son was a long way off, as soon as he saw him, he ran to meet him. There was no reluctance. He ran and kissed and hugged his foul smelling son. He was thrilled to have him back. Imagine, for example, a father hearing his son had been killed in war, and then a year later the son returns home. He hadn’t been killed after all and now he is back. The son was dead, but now is alive. This is how thrilled the father was at his son’s return. God loves us, even when we get smelly. It makes no difference to him. He is always thrilled to get us back.

I may not be in a gutter, like Brennan Manning, nor just returned from wild living, like the prodigal, yet I look at my forty years of Christian life and wonder what I have made of it, what my efforts have amounted to. Perhaps I am already thinking too much of myself. It is, after all, not about me. I may have a part to play, but from God’s perspective my efforts do not amount to much – neither my best or my worst. All is as nothing before him. Yet he loves me as I am, not what I think I should be.

While it would be nice to live up to the standard to which I believe I have been called, I have to acknowledge that I remain a broken image and fall short. In spite of that, God loves me as much as he ever did. In fact, it was while I was yet a sinner that he was willing to die for me. A fact that I still find incredible. So, it is perhaps strange that I should ever wonder why he might love me less now that I am trying, however inadequately, to follow him. I have to acknowledge that I have a long way to go, but I know I am loved, just as I am. It is all of grace.

What matters?

When I was 17 I encountered a God who was willing to die for me. From that point on my life was turned upside down. This came about through reading a book, a book which also told me that I needed to hold a literal view of the accounts of Adam and Eve, and seven day creation. Apparently, if I questioned the Bible on any point, then pretty soon I would question what God had done. At that time, Jesus was so real to me that taking this view of the Bible was not a problem. I just assumed I would need to reappraise my science. I should have known it was never going to be that simple.

I soon discovered that the Bible was not a textbook. Beginning at the beginning, I was dismayed to find myself stumbling over the first few chapters. I just could not tie up Genesis 1 with Genesis 2, so I had no idea how to relate it to the external evidence. So off I went to the local Christian bookshop, but the books I bought just added to my confusion. I soon discovered that they were not good science. Maybe I chose the wrong books, but they were the best I could find, so I parked the science that I loved. It was proving too problematic. However, easier said than done. In my stumbling attempts to tell others about my new life with God, it was surprising how quickly the biblical accounts of creation came up, and how quickly they derailed my efforts. Furthermore, new scientific discoveries often made it into the news, which often proved difficult to match to the interpretations I had been told to accept. The literalist view, far from strengthening my faith, was constantly causing me to question it. At times, it felt as though I was only hanging on by my finger nails.

After being a Christian for many years, it came as a surprise to discover that not every Christian held these views. In fact, even some of the leaders I respected did not. Yet, by then, it had become so ingrained that I was not ready to let go. It took several more years before I was able to embrace a view that was more in accord with the scientific evidence.

I have since learned that, while the initial advice was well intentioned, it is actually an error. A result of reading the text with our modern assumptions about what the text should be saying, rather than trying to read the text on its own terms. I felt like the boy named Sue in the Johnny Cash song. It was a view that had caused me to ‘get tough or die’ – but I would not wish it on anyone else. What I have come to realise is that I do not believe in Jesus because of the Bible, but I have confidence in the Bible because of Jesus.

One of the important lessons I learned during all my struggles with literalism were that some things matter and some things don’t – and it is important to be able to tell the difference. It is also something that the apostle Paul fought hard over. What matters was Christ – not our practices, not our doctrines, nor who else we follow. Ultimately, our relationship with Jesus is all that matters, a relationship with a God who was born into this world, died on a cross and rose again. He is the way, and he is enough.

Mind the Gap

The train pulls in at the station and the announcement is heard: “Mind the gap”. It is an iconic sound of London, a warning that there is a gap between the train and the platform a gap where danger lies.

When I began to boil down my notes I was not sure where it would take me, I just knew it was the next step of my journey. I was not expecting it to converge so quickly. A fog I had been grappling with for years seemed to blow away and I knew where I was heading, reaching its climax in the last three posts. I had only ever meant to tidy up my notes on Genesis 3, but then the story took over and it led me to an uncomfortable place. It brought me to the edge of a gap. Truth must be lived, yet I wasn’t living it. So I found myself hovering at a precipice, until I decided I must follow this path and face the gap that was opening up with increased clarity: as God’s representative on earth, I was lacking, we all are.

Maybe I am idolising the goal and should set my sights lower? But then, if I am called to follow Jesus, I can’t quite imagine him, settled down, living in a mid terrace, doing a 9 to 5. Not the Jesus of the Gospels anyway. It would not be long before the sinners, the prostitutes and the broken beat a path to his door. If I were his neighbour, I’d want to complain to the council. Yet, maybe I am more like Christ than I realise and it is just that the people around me are hard hearted. I can imagine my wife’s response to that. There again, maybe I should just repent of my sloth and rebellion: Dust and ashes, and all that. Yet, is this even a possible goal? So many options. Maybe I just need to see a doctor and get a life.

However, I cannot write a theological narrative and just move on. Theology is nothing unless it means something and this gap must be faced. I must allow myself to be nailed to its uncomfortable truth until it becomes my reality, or until I hear God.

We can look back on history and see that we are not alone in our failure to bear witness to our God of love, yet this is no excuse. It is not an excuse, but perhaps a lesson, a lesson it has taken us nearly two thousand years to learn: We cannot close the gap, for it is not in our power – and never has been. Something the first disciples knew, but somehow never quite passed on. We tried too hard. We shouldn’t have tried at all. The first disciples knew they could not do it. Peter tried, and learned when the cock crowed the third time. Saul tried, and learned on the Damascus road, becoming Paul. All that effort, all that determination, amounts to nothing. And once we know we can do nothing, we release God to do everything. For this is also what the first disciples knew: nothing is impossible, and that one day the church will have made herself ready. A day that is getting closer, for, without doubt, God is today wooing his church back. The hour has not past, and now may even be the time – the time to end the gap.

Suffering

Some people may struggle with this post and, to be honest, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with it. God just does not neatly fit into my idea of what he should be like, so shaped am I by my culture.

It is easy to question whether the authors of John’s Gospel and John’s Revelations had anything in common. What has a God ‘who so loved the world’ to do with the releasing of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse? It is a challenging question. Just as challenging as the common complaint about a God who allows, say, a woman to be violently raped or a child killed by abuse. Is God culpable by standing by and allowing it to happen, or is he merely incompetent, not able to prevent it? A stock answer I have heard is that this is consequence of the serpent deceiving Eve and the subsequent ‘Fall’. Yet, whatever we make of that story, it only moves the question: Did God stand by, knowing the misery that would follow, or did he merely not know what was going on in the garden?

Perhaps perversely, I feel that God would affirm that, yes, he is culpable, he has allowed something he could have prevented. No excuses. It is a difficult idea, but then love can be hard to separate from suffering. As a father I have wanted my children to grow up and that meant allowing them to increasingly make their own decisions for their lives. Sometimes that means standing by as they make mistakes and suffer as a result. As a parent I too suffer as I watch on. There is something about love that seems to bring with it its own suffering. For, as John points out, God so loved the world… that he chose to suffer and die amongst us. Extreme suffering on a cross, because of love.

For us though, the problem of suffering remains a big deal, even though, until quite recently, suffering was seen as just a part of life. People die. People get hurt. We accepted it, even if we did not like it. The Apostle Paul, for example, said it was something to rejoice in. Something that the early Christians had plenty of opportunity to put into practice, as they were fed to lions or burnt alive, often while singing. Their joy in death was duly noted, even if it puzzled the surrounding world.

But, our world sees things differently. We are pervaded by the ideas of Enlightenment, such as the ‘pursuit of happiness’ or seeking the ‘greatest utility’. We think we have the power to build for ourselves a better world, with its Benefits system, Health Service, all part of the relentless march of progress, towards a modern Utopia. In this scheme of things, suffering has no part, it is best hidden or buried in some alcoholic or opiate stupor. Suffering has become an embarrassment. A denial of our Utopian dream.

Yet, maybe, suffering is an important part of life, though we may not understand it. I am reminded too that, as Christians, our call is to follow Jesus, the man who suffered and died. A man who showed us the true nature of God, a God who suffers with us. Maybe one day we will stand back and marvel at this part of creation, a part that includes a cross, and a God who does not stand apart from us in our suffering, but firmly alongside us in the middle of it.

A Less Ordinary Life

Some people inspire us, sometimes they are great men like Martin Luther King, but at other times they are ordinary people, like a seventeenth century monk working in a kitchen. Brother Lawrence lived in the presence of God. As far as he was concerned God was interested in every area of his life and it was his act of worship to include God in them. God permeated his life and, furthermore, others noticed. Still, he was a monk with a vocation for spending time with God, which is not quite the same as the world I inhabit. So how realistic is this for me?

I got my answer through Frank Laubach, an internationally recognised educator from the twentieth century. He too learned to pray without ceasing, but in the midst of a busy modern life. For sure, he did not find it easy, but as he involved God in the daily demands of life, things somehow fell more readily to hand. What surprised him most was that the people he worked with seemed to be drawn to him, as though they wanted to follow him. He felt himself ‘God intoxicated’, to use his expression. I like the idea behind that.

My journey with Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach has gone on for a long time now. My God had been too small. If my God is willing to count the hairs on my head, then he is more than willing to be involved in the rest of my life – even the reports I write for the bank I work for. Oddly, I recall struggling with that. I took pride in the reports I did. They were my craftsmanship and I was scared that I’d loose that, as I could, perhaps, no longer claim them as mine. That pride needed dealing with, yet I still have pride in the reports I write, often more so, but they feel more like joint efforts. For sure, the graft is mine, but I am less willing to claim credit for the inspiration that often lies behind them. I still enjoy the satisfaction of finding solutions to difficult problems or the craftsmanship of the things I do, yet I no longer do this alone. I have to admit that my journey has been a bumpy one. It still is. I let God in far less than I intend. Often the task still takes over leaving God outside waiting for me to remember him again. I have a long way to go before I catch up with Brother Lawrence or Frank Laubach, but I am not disheartened. God is closer than when I began.

I recently read John Wesley’s ‘Plain Account of Christian Perfection’ and it struck me that he was saying much the same thing. When you love someone you want to be in their presence and being in God’s presence changes us. This also seems to be at the heart for both Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach, though I am not sure what it says about my efforts. Still, my desire for being in God’s presence has not diminished over the years. I have realised that it is not just about finding God in the big events of my life, which may be few, but in the limitless ordinary moments: moments of work, play and even while reading a book, of which I do a lot. I too easily get distracted, but when I remember to look up, I find that God is always there waiting and is only too pleased to be involved in my ordinary life.