Saturday, May 30, 2009

So much of Grace…

Grace cannot be understood by any ledger of merits and demerits. It cannot be held to any patterns of buying, losing, earning, achieving or manipulating, which is where, unfortunately, most of us live our lives.
Grace is, quite literally, "for the taking." It is God eternally giving away God—for nothing—except the giving itself.
There has been so much of grace just lately. Hilfield, the time in silence, the conversations I had there, the gentle touch of the Spirit, were all grace upon grace. It’s far too soon to go deciding things, but the path looks clearer, and God’s call to the life of prayer is stronger every day. Things are beginning to fall into place. I’m trying to take it easy, to tell myself not to run ahead of myself, that no-one will believe the clarity with which I’m being shown things—but despite everything, I have to admit that I’m excited, and scared, in equal measure.
Give me your failure; he says I will make life out of it. Give me your broken, disfigured, rejected, betrayed body, like the body you see hanging on the cross, and I will make life out of it. It is the divine pattern of transformation, and it never seems to change.
We’ll still be handicapped and terribly aware of our wound, but as St. Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me.” Our wound is our way through. Or as Julian (of Norwich) also put it, at the risk of shocking us, “God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honours… For he holds sin as a sorrow and pain to his lovers. He does not blame us for them.” (Chapter 39, Showing 13, Revelations of Divine Love) We might eventually thank God for our wounds, but usually not until the second half of life.
Richard Rohr, from Everything Belongs

Monday, May 25, 2009

Into God’s territory…

There is another essential aspect of Christianity: the interior, the silent, the contemplative, in which hidden wisdom is more important than practical organizational science, and in which love replaces the will to get visible results.

Thomas Merton, Love and Living, Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart, eds. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975 p. 202

This, if you will pray for me, is where I need to be over the next few days. In a recent article, Bayless Conley wrote:

If God confirms the most important decision [our conversion] we’ll ever make in life by the inward witness of the Spirit, why should we look for some outward sign to give us direction when we’re in a crisis? When you look for the spectacular, you’re liable to miss the supernatural that is right in front of you all along.

Or as Paul says (Romans 8.16): “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.”

What I need is the stillness, the openness (not easy in a crisis of the heart), to hear God’s authentic voice, to hear the secret patterns of the Spirit within all that I am; that same Spirit that led Paul to write (Romans 8.28), “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

I must listen, watch, with all my attention on God, and not on myself or on what I may hope or fear for my path from here, deeper into God’s territory, into the mercy of Christ.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Unless you pray…

Someone will be wounded unless you pray.
Someone will give up unless you pray.
Someone will be deceived unless you pray.
Someone will yield to temptation unless you pray.
Someone will make a foolish choice unless you pray.
Someone will grow faint unless you pray.
Someone will collapse under the load unless you pray.
Someone will go AWOL unless you pray.

Dr Ray Pritchard, Asymmetrical Spiritual Warfare, IX

When you wake with the horrors in the cold hours before dawn, could it be God waking you to pray? Could the terrible things running across your imagination be what you need to pray about, to open that part of your heart that is crushed and torn by them to God’s healing touch, and so become a channel of grace through which Christ’s limitless mercy can heal, rescue, protect?

Just sayin’…

Sunday, May 17, 2009

One of the dangers of blogging…

Wonderful post on Tim Chester’s blog:

We [bloggers] commend one another for echoing back the same thoughts. All the time, we feel we are part of the cognoscenti, the cabal of people who know what is right. But ‘on the last day we stand or fall on the approval of one Person, one Master, the Lord Jesus.’

Scary. Read it. Go on, read the whole thing

The weapon of worship...

I have no pleasure in any man who despises music. It is no invention of ours: it is a gift of God. I place it next to theology. Satan hates music: he knows how it drives the evil spirit out of us.

Martin Luther

I think sometimes in this world of iTunes and mall music, we don't quite realise what we’ve got hold of. Music is a spiritual weapon, one of the greatest blessings God has given to humanity.

Ray Pritchard has written tellingly of the role of music in the life of prayer in his wonderful series Asymmetrical Spiritual Warfare:

Preaching is one thing.

Prayer is one thing.

But music is something else.

It touches the heart and soul at a level too deep for words. Music is not better than preaching or better than prayer, but music takes the words of the sermon and brings them home to the heart, and music lifts our spirit to believe the words we bravely utter in prayer...

Music is a weapon of spiritual warfare. And the devil hates it when we sing. He hates our music because our singing rouses our souls, gives us courage, lifts our hearts, restores our faith, builds our confidence, unites our voices, and lifts up the name of the Lord like a mighty banner.

Music is not just preparation for warfare. Music is spiritual warfare. When God’s people sing together, we invade the devil’s territory...

Go ahead.

Drive the devil nuts.

Keep on singing and drive him away.

He hates the music God loves.

Satan hates a singing church.

So sing out and make the devil mad.

One final word. I add this because we live in a day when music has become a contentious issue in many churches. For the last fifteen years we’ve heard a great deal about “worship wars” that have torn apart many local congregations. Instead of using music to fight the devil, we’ve used music as a weapon to fight each other. How sad. How tragic. How Satan must crow over our divisive attitudes. Ask God to deliver you from musical smugness. As I have traveled the world, I have learned that God’s people worship him in a bewildering variety of styles, languages, accents and rhythms. When we look down on others whose musical tastes differ from our own, we run the risk of destroying the unity of the body of Christ. We don’t all worship the same way, and that’s okay. But we do worship the same Lord. And it’s in his name that we will win our battle with the devil. Keep the main thing the main thing and all will be well.

Singing will bring new strength to your spiritual walk.

Singing will bring new power to your spiritual warfare.

Singing will build up your faith.

Singing will strengthen the whole church of God.

God loves it and the devil hates it when you sing for the glory of God.

Sing out … and you will see the salvation of the Lord... Amen.

Dr Ray Pritchard, Asymmetrical Spiritual Warfare, V

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A call to prayer

I feel God is impressing on me more and more the need to pray for a revival along the lines of the Wesleyan Revival of the 18th Century. In so many way we are at a similar point: there is deep distrust of Government - a sense of kakistocracy, government by the worst and least suitable people; a distrust of the Police and the armed forces (seen very clearly in the reaction to the G20 demos); moral decline; addiction; a weakening, or at least the appearance of weakening, in the traditional churches; rampant atheism; unrest overseas, with consequent commitment of home troops abroad... it goes on and on.

Now, I'm not in the least concerned here about the rights and wrongs of different political parties, different attitudes to things like civil liberties, policing and immigration, and so forth. Justice must always be at the heart of our prayer, as Isaiah 61 was at the heart of Jesus' prayer - in fact, his entire ministry. What concerns me is the unrest, the public cynicism and distrust, that these things engender. We are in danger as a society as 18th Century society was from the Jacobite Risings, the French Revolution, even in some ways the American Revolution and the Enlightenment - all of which were ideas which clearly appealed to the British public in view of the rottenness of the state in which they lived. We have only to look at the appeal of the BNP on the one hand, and radical Islam on the other, to see how we are flirting with similar ideas in our own time.

I've been looking into the Wesleyan Revival, and I'm really encouraged to see that God rescued the British people, and saved others throughout the world, and eventually revived the poor old broken CofE, as well as helping to alleviate the former persecution of Baptists, Presbyterians and other "non-conformists" by means of the rise of Methodism, without there necessarily needing to be freedom from strife within the leadership. See Wesley's falling out with Whitefield over the former's Arminianism vs. the latter's Calvinism - they mended their friendship, but never did agree theologically. But the Revival went ahead nonetheless.

God is just filling my heart with longing for his glory, his grace, his mercy, on our land in this time, our own time, and in our grandchildren's time. We must pray. I know that I'm no one to lead anything, but I know I have to pray for those who might. I'm sure the Prayer House movement is crucial to this, as well as a revival of prayer in local churches even deeper and greater than that which began in the 1990s. We must truly "pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying..." (Eph 6:18) until God's fire falls. I've never been so sure of anything.

Disclaimer: this is a call to prayer, not to political debate. I am not a politician, and I don't want to enter into that arena, as it would be a distraction from the purpose of this post, and I'll moderate any comments to avoid it. However, if anyone is genuinely curious about any of the issues I've raised, I'll do my best to point them to things I've read / heard / seen that have informed my response to what I feel is God's call, to me at least, in all this.

This post is likely to make more sense if you also read my recent Letting ourselves go...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Letting ourselves go...

If we can let ourselves go in prayer and speak all that is in our minds and hearts, if we can sit quietly and bear the silence, we will hear all the bits and pieces of ourselves crowding in on us, pleading for our attention. Prayer’s confession begins with this racket, for prayer is noisy with the clamor of all the parts of us demanding to be heard. The clamor is the sound of the great river of being flowing in us.

Ann & Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech, with thanks to Inward/Outward

This is another of those places where the relationship between contemplation and intercession becomes clearer and clearer. The "great river of being" is more than just "all the parts of us demanding to be heard": it is broken creation itself demanding to be heard, crying out in our hearts for healing... As Paul says, in that most wonderful chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans (vv 18-27), it is in some extraordinary way through us that creation will be restored. That has to be our prayer: for Christ to make all things new (Rev 21:5) no matter what the cost - and this is the scary bit - to ourselves (Romans 8:17).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Can we drink the cup?

When the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give her sons a special place in his Kingdom, Jesus responds, "Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?" (Matthew 20:22). "Can we drink the cup?" is the most challenging and radical question we can ask ourselves. The cup is the cup of life, full of sorrows and joys. Can we hold our cups and claim them as our own? Can we lift our cups to offer blessings to others, and can we drink our cups to the bottom as cups that bring us salvation?

Keeping this question alive in us is one of the most demanding spiritual exercises we can practice.We all must hold the cups of our lives. As we grow older and become more fully aware of the many sorrows of life - personal failures, family conflicts, disappointments in work and social life, and the many pains surrounding us on the national and international scene - everything within and around us conspires to make us ignore, avoid, suppress, or simply deny these sorrows. "Look at the sunny side of life and make the best of it," we say to ourselves and hear others say to us. But when we want to drink the cups of our lives, we need first to hold them, to fully acknowledge what we are living, trusting that by not avoiding but befriending our sorrows we will discover the true joy we are looking for right in the midst of our sorrows.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

For me, at any rate, this is what lies at the heart of prayer. Nouwen's words bring me back, yet again, to Isaac of Nineveh's:

An elder was once asked, “What is a merciful heart?” He replied:

“It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.

For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th century)

This kind of prayer, that I once clumsily dubbed "contemplative intercession", is the closest thing I know to an obedience to Paul's instruction in to "pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints." (Ephesians 6:18) It's not an easy option, and certainly it is a million miles from some people's idea of contemplative prayer, a sort of mantric self-realisation programme for spiritual connoisseurs. It's entirely down-to-earth, really, but it is the only answer that works (for me, anyway) to Romans 8:26-27:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

Strangely, hard though it can be to bring ourselves to pray with this degree of vulnerability (a particularly poignant way of imitating Christ, if you recall that "vulnerability" means "liable to be wounded) it is not without immediate rewards, as Paul hints elsewhere:

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A land full of bloodshed, and a city of injustice...

David Gushee has a post that every Western Christian ought to read, on the Associated Baptist Press website, entitled "A Christian's lament over the Pew torture poll".

He says,

Dear Jesus,

Everyone seems to be talking about the poll put out last week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. They found that 62 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe “the use of torture against suspected terrorists to gain important information” to be often or sometimes justified. Only 16 percent of this group -- a community that by self-definition is very, very serious about following you -- believes torture is never justified. That number was lower than any other group polled.

I think that what really got people’s attention with this poll, Lord, is that both evangelical identity and church attendance were positively correlated with support for torture. Thirteen percent more evangelicals said torture was often or sometimes justified than in the general population. In other words: The more often people go to church, the more they support torture. So those of your followers who go to church every week support torture at 54 percent, while those who seldom or never go support it at 42 percent...

But, Jesus, can it be that the problem is that the churches are already empty? Can it be that the institution that you founded to advance your mission in the world is already empty of any understanding of what it might really mean to follow you? Is it already empty of people who take your teachings and example so seriously that they might have the capacity to resist seductive and dangerous ideas floating around our culture -- like the idea that if torture “works” to “protect national security,” and thus is something that followers of Jesus Christ ought to support as good loyal Americans?

Is your church already empty of courageous leaders who are willing to lose their jobs in order to say a resounding NO to a heretical idea like that? Is it already empty of people who understand that if you are a Christian, you cannot serve two masters, like, for example, Jesus and National Security? Is it already empty of people who understand that because all human beings are made in your image, there are some things that we just can’t do to anyone, no matter who they are?

What is this thing called “Christianity” in this country, Lord Jesus? Does it have anything to do with you? It seems a strangely Americanized thing, a disastrously domesticated faith toward which people can nod their heads in loyalty as long as it doesn’t conflict with their full participation in whatever this country feels like it wants to do.

You founded an international, countercultural movement filled with followers who did everything you taught them to do to advance the peaceable and just reign of your Father in this rebellious world. We American Christians have turned it into a culture-religion that has nothing to say even about, say, waterboarding, slamming people repeatedly into walls, forced nudity, prolonged shackling, 11 days of sleep deprivation, psychological terror, sexual humiliation, religious desecration, and so much more! Or that even supports all of this to protect ... America!

O Jesus, what have you to do with a religion like this? “I spit you out of my mouth” -- these words of yours somehow come to mind (Rev. 3:16)!

But really you ought to go and read the whole thing.

I wonder what the result would be in this country, in the UK? Probably less support I think, both within and without the churches - but with the present government's human rights record sinking lower and lower (witness the policing of the G20 demonstrations) I wonder how long it will remain like that. Do read David's article, though, and think and pray it through for yourself. This is important. If we don't know what we as Christians think about things like this, how can we possibly know how to be the hands and feet, and voice, of Jesus in the election booth, or on the street? How can we pray, unless our hearts are broken for those who suffer such things?