Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Laughing Man

The book of James is straight talking. I love it because I’m pretty straight talking too but I have to confess that I find myself so challenged by the things that it says. Sometimes so challenged that I skip over the details because it is such a challenge that it seems out of reach or even irrelevant.

It is not irrelevant.

It just feels that way because I am not spiritually mature enough to understand it. Take James 1:2-4,the very opening verses of the book. I have looked at these verses before in Ouch! That was uncomfortable but the uncomfortable-ness of these words still remains. I haven’t got it yet!

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind consider it joy because you know the testing of your faith produces endurance and let endurance have it’s full effect so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

Consider it joy?!!! JOY?!! Some translations actually say ‘pure joy’.

Everything that is human about me cannot align myself with this verse but everything that is spiritual about me desperately wants that to become my natural (super-natural perhaps!) reaction to it. It might seem far off but it is a challenge to me to get to a place where this is true. It is the word of God. I believe it is true so I want to get there.

We can look at people’s situations and see tragedy around us and think ‘How will they ever laugh again?’ The truth is, it is their choice whether they laugh again. Joy is our choice, no matter what our circumstances are. There a very few people I know who’s first reaction to a trial is to ‘consider it joy’. I do know a handful of people who have worked hard to feel that way, but human nature does the complete opposite of that. I am not saying don’t feel pain, you must… you must be honest about your feelings but what if, in the midst of tragedy, you are able to chose joy. There is freedom in it and a life of joy is what we were intended for.

Give yourself permission to live a life of joy.

If I go back to thinking about those people that I know who are an example of understanding pure joy in trial, the only perfect example is Jesus. Kay Warren in her book ‘Chose joy, because happiness isn’t enough’ (which is so brilliant and I highly recommend) opened up something to me that in all my life I had not dwelt upon. It was the idea of Jesus being a man of joy.  The Bible tells us in Isaiah’s prophecy that Jesus was a man of suffering or sorrows but she opened up to me the man of joy.

How Jesus has been depicted in art throughout history has had so much influence on the way that we view him. I don’t know about you but until I watched The Passion of the Christ I did not understand the suffering of the cross. Having seen paintings and films where Jesus is shown on the cross with maybe one scratch on him, with his face in tact but showing a solemn expression, wearing a covering and a crown that looked uncomfortable but gently resting on his head, I saw just that… I thought the cross was uncomfortable. I thought I was grateful that Jesus had done that for me. When I saw The Passion of the Christ I was traumatised. I was so affected by the horror that as I walked out of the cinema everything seemed so insignificant that I accidentally stepped out in front of a car. I was so moved by that portrayal of Jesus that the whole world looked different.  I can’t bear to imagine the real scene. In fact as a write my eyes well up and my heart aches that He suffered unimaginable horror for me. I am more grateful having had a deeper insight and having seen another person’s interpretation of that day, and my understanding is enriched because of it.

Over the years people have read the Bible and interpreted what they have read through paintings, art, poetry and film. And these observations have subconsciously built us a picture of who Jesus was and what he did. We can do nothing but use our imaginations.
He was a man of sorrows and suffering but sometimes, because of how heavily we are influenced by the things around us, we struggle to see him as a man of joy.

Kay opens up in her book the verses that give us evidence that Jesus too was a man of joy. He knew he was sent here to die but yet he was someone who people wanted to be around and follow around. If you knew that your purpose on earth was to be mocked and scorned and brutally murdered what would your face look like everyday? Mine would not be one that drew people to me. Most people would steer clear of me because I would’ve been such a negative influence, but not Jesus. People were drawn to Jesus; they wanted to be around him. He changed the atmosphere and brought light with him. I know that my countenance sometimes does not lift an atmosphere. You could argue that there are times when it is hard just to get up in the morning never mind take joy with you wherever you go. That is true, and I am not for one minute saying that you are not allowed to feel sad or be in pain…  of course you are, but there are times too when we must look at the life of Jesus and say to ourselves, if he can do it then I am going to try too.

I had an experience recently where I was in church. I was worshipping and singing to Jesus. I felt I could enter in to his presence. My heart had been very heavy, but in His presence it was lighter. I, however, decided that I didn’t want to feel the lightness, I wanted to feel the heaviness. so I entered His presence feeling a bit sorry for myself. I chose not to show my true reaction to the presence of God and God told me off! He said ‘How dare you enter my presence like that?’

In that moment I saw a glimpse of the holiness of God and I felt a conviction in my spirit that I will remember for the rest of my life. I feared Him and I had to say sorry. When my spirit acknowledged my sin I then felt the love of the Father, whose grace stood me up again. There is great joy in God’s presence and there was great joy in the presence of Jesus while he was here on earth too.

Jesus was and is a man who smiles and laughs. I believe He smiles over us. 1 Chronicles 16:27 tells us that ‘Splendour and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his dwelling place.’ If joy is in God’s dwelling place you can be sure that, not only is there joy in His presence, but that this was true of Jesus while he lived on the earth. My home is my dwelling place and it has seen sorrow but it is full of joy. The two things are inseparable. Where there is sorrow you cannot help but acknowledge joy in things around you and where there is joy you cannot help but acknowledge the sorrow in this world. Kay Warren describes them as train tracks that run parallel to earth other, when you are on one you cannot help but see the other.

Children see joy better than we do and they experience it more than we do. Children see people who exude joy and want to be around them. The Bible tells us in Mark 10 that people were bringing children to Jesus that he would bless them and the disciples tried to stop them. But Jesus said ‘let the little children come to me; do not stop them’ and he took them in his arms and blessed them. Children are often a good judge of character. If Jesus were forlorn and solemn would they have wanted to be with him? We must remember that Jesus is also our father and, as a Dad, children would bring so much joy to him.

Let’s think back to art and how our view is affected by the things that we see. How have we seen Jesus with children in our imagination? Are we influenced by images like this:

We see a serene or somber Jesus blessing the children. Is this how we see this moment as told in the gospels?

Or do we see this:
Until now I have never seen Jesus like this. Not even in my imagination. Look at the face of the boy on Jesus’ lap. That is joy. This is the joy of a father blessing his children.

This is Jesus, the laughing man.

This is a man who endured sorrow and suffering but this too is a man who understands joy. He is our role model for the verse in James. He understood what it meant to be lacking in nothing while he was here on earth.

So today, however you feel, whatever your situation, chose joy. That doesn’t mean your pain is any less but it will help you to endure it. We are His children. This mighty man, this man who suffered more than we will ever understand, this man whose faith was tested, this man who laughed and brought light to the earth.

And in your time of trials consider it joy to run into the arms of Jesus, the man of sorrow and of joy and ask him to help you endure until you are complete.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Find a Puddle

It’s been a long time since my last blog, at least since I’ve posted one anyway. In truth I have felt dry, like I got stuck in the desert and I have found it suffocating sometimes. Seasons come and seasons go, and for me this season is hot and dry and in this climate it’s not easy to breathe. The heat got to me and I felt burnt, damaged and deformed by the flames. I didn’t recognise myself. I have felt I had nothing to say; no words left, no fruit and any means of bearing fruit that I had are dehydrated.

I have asked many questions of God: all without an answer. I have asked for Him to show me signs and visions but those prayers come back void. I have held on to hope but I feel disappointed. In every church, in every town all around the world there are people who feel like me. We may not want to acknowledge them, or know what to do with them but they are there. They turn up every week to worship and hear the word of God, and there is power in ‘turning up’, but if every week they hear nothing but the great things God has done they can feel isolated and alone, and can end up wondering what it is about them that means that God won’t answer them. Stories of God’s goodness do lift our spirits, I am not for one minute saying they don’t but I know myself that I can do more to remember the balance of people’s reality. We do a lot of rejoicing, as we should, but we can stop weeping too soon. If someone loses a loved one, our care for them needs to go beyond the first few days of finding out. Grief can still be very raw 2 years in to the process and it matters that we remember that.

Job 30:20-22 says this:

“I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me. You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm.”

It appears to me that if Job can say these things of God and they made it into the Bible then it is ok for us to have times of feeling like this, it is what we choose to do with those feelings that matters. Rick Warren in one of his Daily Hope readings says that God is not surprised by our emotions after all He created them. God is big enough for our questions, but are we big enough to keep standing if He never answers them? And the chances are He will never answer them and even if He did, it might not help us.

Rob Bell refers to this in his book ‘Drops like stars’ as the art of honesty. He says:

Pain has a way of making us more honest. I know a family whose son committed suicide. He was taken to the hospital, where he was laid on life support for several days, brain-dead but breathing-barely. His eleven year old cousin came to see him before the machines were turned off. When she got to the room, she told everyone to leave her alone with him. When they got out in the hall and closed the door, they could hear her through the wall, yelling at him: “Why did you do this? I’m so angry with you!!! Why did you do this?” She said what everybody wanted to say. She did what they all wanted to do.
It’s the art of honesty.

He talks about the empty place. The place that is left when your resources are depleted, when you are dry and burnt: the place that is left when you have suffered or are suffering. When that empty place is there and people ask ‘how are you doing?’ It can be a difficult question to answer. You have a choice. You can say “Yeah, I’m doing ok or fine thank you” or you can let the empty place open up, you can practice the art of honesty. It may be uncomfortable for us or for the listener who did not expect it, but in Proverbs 24:26 it says, ‘An honest answer is a kiss on the lips’ and for the one of whom the question is asked perhaps the art of honesty allows us to feel a kiss from heaven on our lips. Perhaps then we need to consider our responses to an honest answer.

Does our response to honest answers like, ‘I feel nothing but sorrow’ or ‘I am empty’ or ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’ open a door to heaven for the person who is answering or does it shut them down?

Are we equipped to open up our empty place to share in someone’s suffering or do we run away from it, not knowing what to do? The truth is when you are suffering there are times when nothing anyone says makes you feel any better but there are times when what someone does or doesn’t say can help or make you feel worse.

I am not saying it is easy. It’s not. It’s hard.

If we are careful with each other we can open up each other’s empty places and encourage fruit to grow and creativity to flow and faith to be born out of even the emptiest places. It matters how we respond to those who are suffering or grieving.

We all have our own theologies around why God allows suffering. You may align yourself with one theology and that may help you manage your suffering. You may completely disagree with another thought and feel that anyone who thinks that surely hasn’t suffered like you have. I think it’s helpful in times of pain to make peace with God in a way that sits easily with you. As long as it is not in conflict with the word of God, as humans we have to find our own peace and our own understanding of who God is and who we know Him to be.

I know He loves me because the Bible tells me so. I know He does miracles because the Bible tells me that too, but as for the details: ‘the ifs, whys and buts,’ I just don’t know. My circumstances have left me feeling confused, but does that mean that I will stop expecting him to do something miraculous?

I can’t.

I can’t accept that God is not on my side or that he doesn’t hear my cries. So I have to change. God will not change: I have to.

If He is the God of miracles I have to let myself be changed and shaped until I have seen it with my own eyes. I have been shaken but I will not move unless He tells me too. If we look at honesty as an art, there must be creativity involved. If we allow heaven to kiss our empty places or if we open a door for another to experience the kiss from heaven, we are practicing honesty as an art and it’s possibilities have no limits. God only knows what will come out of the empty place. I should imagine so many movements, organisations or initiatives were born when someone allowed their empty place to open up and let heaven kiss it.

In his book Rob Bell encourages us to change our questions from “why did this happen?” to “what now?”

What are we going to do now?

Well, life is the answer! We are going to do life and we are going live with each other in this heavenly community, the family of God. We are going to lead each other to life giving water and together we are going to bring our empty places to life.

I have loved watching Africa with David Attenborough. I am awestruck at the creativity of God in creation, which incidentally was born out of an empty place. (Genesis 1:2) Just ponder that for a moment, the whole of creation happened when an empty place was opened up and as the Spirit of God hovered over it heaven kissed it and brought it to life!

I was impacted by a plant called The Resurrection Plant. This particular plant had been dead for 100 years. It was withered and had suffered extreme dehydration. The defining feature of this plant is it’s ability to cope in it’s environment. This was an extreme desert condition. As I watched a sand storm, the wind picked up the plant and tossed it across the sand. Perhaps that is how Job felt, spiritually sapped of life and tossed about in a sand storm. The wind carried the plant into a puddle and the second it landed in the water it opened up and came back to life: it was resurrected! As the time lapse unfolded the plant was given life from the puddle, it bore seed which the winds took and spread around and planted and they grew, but just a few hours later the sun had dehydrated them and the young plants died and the old plant was uprooted from the puddle and blown into barrenness again until they would all be resurrected again when they were lead back to life giving water.

100 years that plant had been dead. But in the emptiness of a desert all it needed was a puddle for new life to spring up. This film was a piece of art. This plant endured extreme conditions and sometimes we face extreme conditions. There is no point pretending we don’t or not acknowledging the emptiness in these places, but in our honesty, if we are able to say ‘I am dead inside’ ‘I need water’ what can our God do? He can make all the winds and storms lead us to a puddle of life. He can use us to carry each other to water, where truth flows, where resurrection happens, where we are brought back to life. These puddles are made up of the presence of God, the truth of his Word and the worship of Heaven. If we can get to these things, we will be revived. 

I want to be someone who can open up my empty places and encourage others to do the same. I want to practice the art of honesty and let creativity flow out of it with a kiss from heaven. Nothing is wasted. It may take time but no pain is wasted unless you allow it to be.

Our God is the God who wastes nothing.

There is still fruit waiting in the emptiest of places if you can just find a puddle and ask God to help you open up.