The Power of Story

Reading about the history of Israel has again brought home to me that what mattered to the ancients is very different to what matters to us. For them, history was not an academic exercise of recording facts. They were creating a narrative to bind the people together, enabling Israel to imagine a future and to survive. They did a remarkable job.

Remove the Jews from their native land, spread them across the four corners of the planet, abuse them, and, thousands of years later, they remain a people. I know of no other example that comes close. Somehow, the biblical authors enabled the people of Israel to see the world differently from those around them and, in spite of all, toIt was easy for them to imagine a time when their God, who had delivered them from the Egyptians and been so gracious to them in the past, would again show his favour and deliver them. A time when wrongs would be put right, they would be forgiven and God would dwell among them. For good. What was unimaginable, was that God would forget his promises and abandon them. Their response was to repent. So, while in Exile, at a low point in their history, they began to be loyal and obedient. Today, most Jews will honour Sabbath and Passover, whether they believe in God or not, it has become part of who they are, their identity. In the New Testament, Paul tells the same stories in his Epistles, which is kind of odd, given that many of his readers would have been Gentile. For Paul, the story remains important, even if it has now been eclipsed by a larger story, the story that God had actually come.

I was struck by the power of story to give identity to the Jews. Yet, I carry a more powerful story, but it does not carry the same impact. I’m missing something. I read stories differently. I am more concerned with facts. The Gospel is interesting, fascinating even, but I take the story and place it on the shelf of academic interest. That is not how the ancients read their story. It should not be how I read it. It should not just inform my mind through its worldview, it needs to shape my imagination, just as the story the Jews carried shaped theirs. I need to rediscover our story.

Kingdom Impact

I recently visited some of my family. Unfortunately, they are not Christian and I was acutely aware that the Kingdom needed to impact them, but I was not sure how. An intellectual discussion on the Kingdom would have done little to impress. Somehow, they needed to experience it, and there was the rub.

I can honestly say that I am not the man I would have been if I had not encountered Jesus all those years ago, yet, for all that, how much difference do people see? I hope they see someone who is, at least in some ways loving and not judging. Yet there are plenty of people like that who are not Christian. Would anyone really see anything in me that they would want to follow? To be honest, I doubt it. Yet, if they encountered Jesus in the same way I can’t help feeling they would respond differently. Those who encounter Jesus encounter the Kingdom in a very real way. Even before his miracles are reported, people wanted to follow him. So I am left frustrated. Frustrated by my own inadequacy, by my own inability to demonstrate the life of the Kingdom.

It is in the midst of this frustration that I have needed to remind myself that it is not all down to me. Even Jesus said he only did what the Father was doing. It is the Spirit at work in our lives that makes the difference. And I cannot control the Spirit, who blows where he wills. What is left then, is what Jesus commanded, that we pray “your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. It may not seem much, but it is a start, and it is what has been commanded. It is like a farmer planting seed. Once planted, there is nothing left to do, but sit back and wait for the rain.

What is Real?

We believe we know what is real, but maybe we are wrong. The world around us seems real enough, but the Kingdom of God knows another reality: the Spirit that blows where he wills. We stand in wonder when we hear of miracles and puzzle over why we don’t see more. Yet, we are part of a culture that imbibes the myth that this world is based on just facts and reason. It is a belief that has so got under our skin that we no longer realise it is there. Is it any surprise if that is all we get?

In the nineteenth century, the writing was already on the wall. Kierkegaard shouted his warning to a church that was becoming enmeshed in rationalism – either stripping Christianity of the miraculous or converting it into a system of logical premises. The premises may have been extracted from the Bible, by they just as certainly stripped it of mystery. Needless to say, Kierkegaard was not heard. He was probably not even understood. And we live in its legacy. It is what we teach our children and embed in our culture. We base our view of reality on the tip of an iceberg, while its true substance remains hidden from us.

We may think we have a ‘Biblical Worldview’, but Bill Johnson summed up the problem when he said that God never goes against the Bible, but he can surprise us by going against our understanding of it. If we try and place God in a box, he will at some point break out. We can’t predict what he will do next. He is beyond our understanding, beyond our reason. It took Job a while to figure this out, but in the end he got it. God will be God. The Spirit blows where he wills.

God is the only reality. It is in him that all things have their being. Our God who is, who was and who will be. We cannot describe him, understand him, or fit him into our boxes. He just is. We need to get it in our heads around the fact that we will never fathom God, even though we have an eternity to do it in, God is just too big for us ever to grasp.

But I need to ground this, so, here is a fact: dead people don’t rise. If a doctor certifies someone as dead, they will not be expecting them back for a follow up appointment. Death is final. Yet, Jesus arose from the dead. The resurrection matters. It is the turning point of history, without it, Jesus death on the cross is just another execution. Paul understood. Everything hinges on the resurrection. If a man, three days dead and cold in the ground can get up, then we need to re-assess how we see the world. This is the reality of the Kingdom, it is redefined around the Spirit of God.

The Enlightenment’s view of reality has become so embedded in our culture that we no longer see the extent to which we ourselves have imbibed it. It is powerful, because it is partly true, just not the whole truth. As subjects of the Kingdom, we are called to live from another reality, one based on a God who is. The resurrection is our touchstone and we need to embed its truth in our lives. And on the journey, don’t be surprised when the unexpected and miraculous happen. We should expect it, because, after all, the Sprit has always blown where he wills.

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.

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.