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.

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.

The Divine Imperative

Imagine: The light is dazzling, slowly your eyes adjust to the brightness and we see a man whose head and hair are white as snow and whose eyes blaze like fire. We hear his voice, and it is like the roar of the ocean and in his right hand he holds the seven stars of the churches. He is Lord of all, yet, when we look towards the earth, we realise that our enemy has not been sitting back, but is sowing lies and discord within the church.

In heaven we see God firmly on the throne, surrounded by heavenly beings pouring forth praise – they have no doubt who reigns. Yet, some things must be allowed to take place; seals that need to be broken which will release long held back disasters: there will be wars, famines and disease. We have sown its seeds and we must reap its harvest. Yet, God has set limits to the sufferings we have sown. Yes there will be times of woe, but we don’t always know when.

Today, we are beguiled by comfort and all appears well. We are warm, well fed and secure. We fail to see those who suffer. Yet, the rules haven’t changed: some do well at the expense of others. All that changes are those who benefit. We enjoy the candy, but fail to see its price. We live in a world where God is dead or no longer relevant, we flounder for meaning and value, where all that remains is the will to power. We build on poor foundations and will find no Utopia at the end of this road. Indeed, all empires come to and end eventually: they carry their own seeds of destruction. But, we are not without hope.

God has not abandoned the world that he loves. He has left his church as witnesses of him. Just as Jesus was sent into the world, so now the church is called to follow. We manifest God to the world and show it God’s love. Or at least, that is the plan. Over the years, we have lost our way and become confused, but God is calling us back to fulfil our destiny: To leave the proud city and come out from Babylon. We leave its perspectives, but we remain at its heart. We know it’s fate is sealed, and yet we stay, showing a God who loves the world more than anyone can imagine and who is the answer to their hearts deepest longing. The world needs our story. We are God’s gift to the world for its redemption. Yet darkness opposes the light and we should not expect to be unopposed. Being a witness could cost us our lives.

As times get darker, it is as though we watch the vast forces of our enemy assemble, like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. We sense a pending battle, whose outcome is uncertain. We await the conflict… only, there isn’t one. The enemy is simply tossed into a lake of fire. For all the hubris, the outcome is not in doubt and we have nothing to fear.

As a church we have our failings, but we are making ourselves ready and will one day fulfil our mission to be witnesses of God and his love. The call goes out to us now, to leave the city and follow the one who is worth following. Fulfilling the divine imperative, we will find our destiny and hearts deepest longing. We will, at last, be a people who begin and end with Jesus.

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.