Bridging the gap

How do you respond when the pressure is on? Where do you go for comfort and help? Do you reach for the chocolates or crack open a bottle? Or do you hit out at whatever unlucky individual is nearest? When stress hits, do you go for fight or flight? Are you fists up or head down? Are you rhino or hedgehog?

What did Jesus do at the worst of times? He didn’t blame, he didn’t run, he didn’t hit out, he didn’t hide. He prayed.

Luke says, “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44)

In the toughest week of his life, we see Jesus praying the longest prayers. And they weren’t navel-gazing, self-preservation prayers. They were prayers of surrender and they were prayers for us.
If you have some time in the week leading up to Easter, look at what Jesus prayed in that week of his life in John 17 because in it we have a glimpse of what God most wants for us,
“I want those you have given me to be where I am and to see my glory”.

Jesus is facing the lonely scary prospect of the Cross and how does he respond? He prays for us. He pours out his longing that we would be with him. All the blame for the Cross should be on us and Jesus is saying, Father, I want these ones who will cause such pain to be with me forever. Oh, how he loves us. If we realised how much Jesus wants us near, we would run to him today.

As I write this, I am in Wales with my boys and I can feel my happiness steadily climbing like a thermometer in the sunshine. I love it when they are with me. Yet it astonishes me that God feels the same about us. God loves to have us with him.

That’s the prayer at the crux of the Cross – God’s desire to have us with him.

A few weeks ago, I visited Rome and of course had to join the 25,000 others cramming our way into the Sistine chapel. As we walked out, my son commented on the fact that there was no joy to be seen on the painted figures that decorate the chapel. Every face was frightened or severe. It is an extraordinary visual feast but spiritually it is bereft of the gospel. The image that imprinted itself on my mind was the gap left between man and God. In Michelangelo’s world, God is ultimately untouchable.

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The gospel declares that Jesus came to bridge the gap so that we can bridge it too.. He prayed so that we can pray.

Isaiah opens up the deepest mystery of all, that the cross is itself intercession,
“For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12)

As Jesus hangs on the Cross, he is offering himself as a prayer, appealing to the heart of the father that our sins might be forgiven so that we might come home to be with him. The joy is that this prayer is perfectly tuned to the will of the father so the answer is a yes that rings through our eternity.

As he makes intercession by pouring out his life, he articulates it with his first words from the Cross,

“Father forgive them…”

This is is much more than his loving prayer for those around him – this is ultimately the prayer of his whole life on earth. He is born and dies that we might be forgiven, that we might be with him.

As you meditate on the Cross this Easter, consider Christ praying for you, pouring out his life to make intercession for you – that you might be forgiven, that you might be with him – and allow him to draw you near.

And next time stress hits, remember that you can pray because he did.

Ablaze


Have you got a favourite remedy for winter blues? How do you brighten up a colourless, damp, dank day? Here’s mine. Build a fire.

I lit a fire in our garden and watched as flames touched dry sticks to life and warmth, lighting up our faces. This is what our winter world needs – men and women ablaze with Christ.

A fire draws a crowd. At my nephew’s wedding, there was a bonfire like the bonfires I remember from my childhood, set in a huge field. It was almost scarily hot and gloriously bright, darting sparks up to the stars, towering above us all as we drew near to the warmth.

The apostle Paul said, “Don’t quench the Spirit.”

That took me aback. Could little me quench the powerful Spirit of God? Evidently I can. We can grieve the Spirit. When I choose ingratitude, when I refuse to hear his voice, it’s like pouring a bucket of water over the fire that God has placed in my heart.

If your fire has dwindled, ask the Father to fuel it with his burning love for you. Don’t let it die down into ashes, find others on fire to set you blazing.

Sometimes I do the opposite to fuelling; I wrap myself up with comfort and complacency. But even a ziplighter can’t catch fire without oxygen. A box full of ziplighters unexpectedly came through unscathed in a huge warehouse fire because they were all shrink-wrapped. It’s only by being open to the breath of God, to the wind of his Spirit that we catch fire.

Fire warms, fire purifies, fire draws, fire fascinates. How our world needs a church ablaze with the love of God.

Thou who camest from above
The pure celestial fire to impart
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart.
John Wesley

Pour out your heart

Trust in him at all times!
Pour out your heart before him
For God is our refuge
(Psalm 62:8)

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One of my favourite games as a kid was rigging up old curtains across the sofa to make a den.  It was my place where I hid away, played games and felt safe.
Where’s your refuge? This week, I spoke to a little girl at the school where I am chaplain. She told me about her hiding place under a table at home where she goes when there is shouting. It’s her refuge. She liked this verse from Psalm 36:
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
Imagine a little chick hiding under an eagle’s wings – utterly secure. That’s us.
Where’s your refuge? It’s important we pick a trustworthy refuge.  Another top childhood game of mine was “It” which I played for hours with my younger brother. One day we decided to make the window seat into “Home”. It’s a flawed plan to view an upstairs window seat as a safe place. As I chased my brother, he raced towards the window seat at full pelt and I vividly remember my horror as I watched him go straight through the window.  Amazingly he survived but we found a new “Home” for our game!
We have a much better refuge – one that we can “trust at all times”. Our loving God is so trustworthy that we can pour out our hearts to him and know that they won’t go flying through a first-floor window and hit the ground.
What does it look like for you to pour out your heart to God? Have you ever done it? It is a bit scary, rather demanding because it entails being real with him. One of my favourite moments this last Christmas was when Dave from our church told his story of coming back to God after decades away.  The short version is that everything changed when he prayed a heart-felt prayer to God.
That’s stuck in my mind. It’s too easy to go through the motions, not to deeply trust ourselves to God, to barricade our hearts. God invites us to pour out our hearts, our hopes and fears and dreams, our love for him and as we are known by him, he will be known by us.
I wonder what holds you back from pouring out your heart to God? Sometimes I don’t like what’s in my heart and I am not sure that God will. Here is reassurance:
“Those who take refuge in you will never be condemned” (Psalm 34:22)
Our hiding place is no less than Christ himself, Christ who was condemned so that I might not be.
So I can pour out my heart to the Almighty who loves me, who cares about the deepest secrets and hidden longings of my heart. He knows me so well that he alone can unearth the buried pains and set free soaring joy.

“I will trust you Lord today and pour out my heart to you for you are my refuge.”

The best advice

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Last week, my son Connor edited a video of my dad talking about the defining moments of his life so this is a teaser for the clip I will show in the New Year. My dad has walked with Jesus for decades now and it shows. This picture is of him. What stuck with me was dad’s answer to Connor’s question, “What is the main piece of advice you would give to the next generation?”

Dad replied, “Daily meeting with the Lord”

This is the greatest discovery – God, Almighty God, longs to meet with us.

I pray today you might have a glimpse of how much God wants to meet you and pour his love upon you. It changes our times with God when we realise it isn’t about ticking a box of reading the Bible and gaining another bit of information. It’s not about trying in vain to be a good Christian, whatever that is. It is meeting our Father and our friend, the lover of our souls – the one who fills our hunger, mends our cracked hearts and sets us free to dream dreams that change the world.

God himself is waiting to meet us as we open his word and come to pray. Wherever you are today physically, emotionally or spiritually, God longs to meet with you.

So much so that he came in person, reaching out to us with tiny hands, small enough for us to hold onto.

So much so that he let those hands to be pierced on a Cross.

So much so that those hands hurled all that separated us from him as far as the East is from the west.

So much so that he promised us his Spirit to help us meet with him every day.

When we meet him, it is indescribably wonderful – there is glory, there is transformation, there is overwhelming love.

And always there is deep strengthening. As a child, I loved the picture from the Narnia stories of Lucy burying her head in Aslan’s mane and being strengthened. God invites you to draw near and lean our heads on his shoulder.

The Father loves you. He wants to meet with you today.

 

The Surprise Winner

 

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Sister Madonna Buder runs triathlons. As one who never runs unless I am late for a train, I am impressed by anyone who runs a triathlon. I am jaw-droppingly impressed by her because she is 86 years old and she runs Iron Man triathlons – that’s a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run! I like to think maybe it was her English twin who overtook my husband Trevor on his marathon. I remember him feeling rather disgruntled when a grey-haired lady with a bus-pass overtook him on the last leg.

For us – “Joy is like the marathon runner who comes up in the final mile and sweeps past the opposition…. at times it looks as if joy isn’t going to win but God’s promise is that joy will overtake sorrow.”   (The Promise of Blessing)

The redeemed of the Lord will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
GLADNESS AND JOY WILL OVERTAKE THEM
and sorrow and sighing will flee away
Isaiah 35:10

Engraved by God

Having engraved my name on his hand, God engraves his name upon me. He tells his priests to bless his people and then concludes,
So I will write my name on my people!”
Blessing is how the master engraver marks as his own.

 Why do you name things? For starters, it stops them getting lost or stolen. God names us to say,
“You are mine – you’ll never accidentally get lost.”

“You’re secure.”

“You belong.”

But naming isn’t only about belonging; God wants to engrave who he is on our lives. We were made in his image but often we are like a smudged piece of paper and we need him to give us a new sheet and rewrite his image across our lives to display the glory of his name.

engravedIs your life engraved with his name? I was at a retreat last week when we were supposed to write a verse on a stone. I broke the pen! Stone is impenetrable, resistant, hard – like my heart. I can’t write God’s name on my heart.

 

But he can. Praise God who gives us hearts of flesh for our stony hearts and promises to write his ways upon them. How? With a giant pen or as I did when I engraved my stone, with a knife? Does he send an angel to do it? No, the living God draws near to do it himself. Just as he engraved the 10 Commandments on stone tablets by writing with his finger (Exodus 31), now his Holy Spirit is the finger of God writing on our hearts.

So God makes us his letter to the world, written,
not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” 2 Cor 3:3

Every moment becomes an opportunity for us to welcome him to write his goodness on our lives. Sometimes the hardest moments are when we see his imprint most clearly in the end.

Will you join me in praying the engraving prayer of blessing?

Father bless us and keep us,

make your face shine upon us and be gracious to us,

turn your face towards us and give us your peace.

So write your name upon our lives.

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The Master Engraver – Part 1

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The Master Engraver – Part 1

“See I have engraved you on the palm of my hands”    Isaiah 49:16

Why would you do that? That’s got to hurt. I tried to find a picture of a tattooed palm but it must hurt too much because I couldn’t see one online. Just the thought of it makes me flinch. This is my hand and I thought of writing on it for the photo but I didn’t even fancy that.

One of our friends has the names of his four kids tattooed on his body. Enough to stop me having any more kids! But he is a devoted dad. Basically that’s what God has done for us – you are his tattoo. And Jesus does bear literal marks on his hands for you.

In telling his people that they are engraved on the palm of his hands, God is saying, “I don’t forget you.”

God doesn’t write your name on a sticky post-it note, the type that you lose, that end up in recycling. He engraves you and me on his hand.

I’m always losing reminders on bits of paper. But if you write them on your hand, there they are in front of you. God says that you are always before him, in his sight, on his mind. Right now.

And forever. Engraving is designed to be permanent. Couples engrave a wedding ring or carve their initials in a tree as a sign of covenant promise. Of course human covenants often fail. Apparently Johnny Depp had a tattoo that said “Winona forever”. Forever turned out to be brief and when they broke up, he changed it to “Wino forever”. But God’s forever is forever. You are engraved on the palm of his hand because he is eternally faithful to you and because he wants you forever.

The elitists are the losers

I discovered recently that there are still clubs in London which only accept “gentlemen” members who have been to appropriately illustrious schools.  I shouldn’t have been surprised. Most of us love to fit in. We look for those of our tribe.

The signs that mark out a tribe are sometimes subtle, sometimes glaringly obvious.

“Oh you’re reading the same newspaper as me – you’re my sort”.

“You dress like me.” That makes tribe-spotting easy. Just look for the similarities in groups together. Fake eyelashes are usually worn in batches of well-bronzed, thoroughly made-up girls with long hair while the Jaeger tribe wear mute autumn tones, nude make-up and helmet hair that costs a salary in itself.

We gravitate towards our own, towards those who make us feel safe. I have the uniform. I won’t be judged. Even wild individualists play this game, gathering in clans of eccentricity and evicting anyone who carries the aura of establishment.

The internet is increasingly tribal. Chat rooms are often more parochial and boundaried than a little village in the wilds of Ireland, full of people who are from the same backgrounds, affirming in other in their narrow views.

Jesus smashed through tribal distinctions of every kind. He spent time with the highly educated Nicodemus and with illiterate peasants. He taught women as well as men. He mixed with the lowest in his society, with cheats and prostitutes and he taught in the synagogues. He reached out to the most hated tribe, the Samaritans and he healed the servant of a Roman centurion, the loathed oppressors. Jesus saw beyond externals to love the person inside the outfit, inside the gender, inside the race.

So Jesus says to us,

If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:47)

Why do we find it so hard? Is it that stepping out of my tribe means losing the rewards of mutual back-patting, the little advantages that it gains me? It’s harder to give without a subtext, without an agenda of applause, without expecting a return.

Jesus calls us to break through barriers of class, race, gender, status and perceived success and ability. I have been deeply inspired by the L’Arche communities. These were founded by Jean Vanier in 1964 after he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalised with learning disabilities. He took the radical step of inviting Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux to leave the institution where they lived to share their lives with him. Philippe said,

Before I had no life. It was just sitting all day in a chair in one room. We weren’t allowed to go out or do anything. I was bored. When I came to L’Arche I was just so pleased to be there!

Jean Vanier saw beyond apparent differences to discover the gold within.

vanier9To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’

Jean Vanier

This love brings freedom. Not desperately trying to fit in, not excluding and judging those who don’t. Instead we see ourselves and each other all as beloved creations of God. The result is a fuller life. Vanier explained that those who refuse to accept disabled people lose out because it’s not about being do-gooders to disabled people, “rather receiving the gift of their presence transforms us”. It makes me think of my friend’s son Olly with Down’s Syndrome which he calls Up syndrome . Olly has a gift for joy which he passes on very generously.

Vanier’s vision saw beyond the surface, beyond the tribes. He puts it beautifully,

To love someone is to reveal to them…the light shining in them.

When we grasp this, we are on our way to the stunning vision of heaven that we see in the book of Revelation,

I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

That’s where we are heading. Let’s start practicing.

Don’t forget God when you pack your suitcase

I will never forget watching my husband lurching towards the aptly named finish line of a marathon, looking finished. Most people don’t look like superman when they reach the end of the race. As I have talked to people desperate for their holidays, I have been reminded of Trevor apparently on his last legs until he ate a jelly baby which clearly have extraordinary restorative properties! There’s a picture of life for many on the run-up to the holiday season. Maybe it’s what you are feeling like, dreaming of the day when you can escape the stress, shut off the emails, stop the incessant ticking clock for a while and eat your holiday equivalent of a jelly baby.

Does it come as a surprise that God approves of holidays? I have obviously inherited a skewed view of God from somewhere because it always seems surprising to me that God invented rest. After creating the world, God took a day off.

Did God need a holiday? Was he tired? No, of course not! As Isaiah explains:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary.” (Isaiah 40:28)

God didn’t take a day off because he was weary. He wasn’t putting his feet up because it was a lot of effort creating a universe. God was showing us that life isn’t solely about work and that it’s alright to have time that isn’t about achieving. How we need that. It’s good to say “Phew, the world isn’t on my shoulders!” When I take a holiday, it is a declaration that the world won’t fall apart without me – God is in control.

But holidays only provide deep rest when we rest in God. What a mistake to imagine a holiday will solve every problem in life. I have definitely fallen for the lie: “if only life really was a beach, then I wouldn’t be stressed.” Real life isn’t like that. Couples sometimes think that a holiday will heal tensions in their relationship. In fact, nearly a third of divorces in the UK are initiated after a difficult holiday. Sometimes a holiday just exposes the dysfunction covered up by the busyness of life.

Holiday originally came from “holy day” – that’s time devoted to God. God’s good plan is to give us time away from work’s demands to give him attention, so that he can give rest to our souls. It’s tempting to leave God behind when you pack but to my amazement, God wants to spend my my holidays with me. I never get used to the fact that God wants our attention. God likes my company – and yours. And he knows that you need time to slow down and recognise that he is above it all, above all the things that disturb and distress us.

The last months have shaken our world. Whether it is the sight of a divided Britain or a upturned government, many people are fearful of their futures. Just this last week, there has been an attempted coup in Turkey and a tragic atrocity in Nice. We live in turbulent times. We must pray for the nations and we still grieve with those who grieve. But it is in this turbulent world that God wants to give us rest – not just a holiday but deep rest for our souls.

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62 5-8)

God invites us to find rest in him, a deeper rest than the rest that comes from an exotic holiday or different scenery. He wants to give us rest for our soul, the rest that comes from pouring out our hearts to him and from his reassurance that he is the hope for every difficult situation, he is the Saviour who makes us whole and he is the rock eternal who will never be shaken.June 2014 005