Tracing the Tears – Palm Sunday #OurHolyWeek

This Holy Week, I’m going to be blogging each day, tracing the tears Jesus shed for Jerusalem to the tear filled eyes who first saw the Risen Christ. Throughout I’ll be following prompts from #OurHolyWeek


Hosanna.

They welcomed Jesus into the city like a king and yet he chose a donkey.

They cried ‘save me’ and then called ‘crucify’.

They thought they were witnessing the beginning of a political revolution, a plot to overthrow Roman rule.

They didn’t understand that Jesus was coming to offer Himself as the lamb that was slain.

Their King was not a warrior, but a weeping servant.

Because as he approached his destination; perhaps as the hosannas were still ringing in his ears; he wept.

He wept because he knew what was coming for his city; he knew that in rejecting him, they were rejecting peace.

He wept because he knew he was facing rejection and crucifixion.

Two thousand years later, Jesus’ tears for his city have become our tears for our cities.

When I look at our cities; I can feel tears prick my own eyes.

The way of peace is not being chosen.

For so many fear-filled people, the answer seems to be to make others fearful.

Fear of knives leads people to arm themselves.

Fear of radicalisation leads to yet more fear and further radicalisation.

Following the way of the Saviour who weeps is the only way we can find peace.

We can lament and weep to our Saviour because first wept and lamented to the Father.

Jesus’ tears showed a new way to face agony; and as we trace his tears through Holy Week, I think we can see that in the upside down kingdom of God it was only a weeping Saviour who triumphed over the grave.

And the years of our sorrow
Have rolled on and on
And the wars of our pride
Never cease
We have ravaged the earth
With our envy and greed
Tell me when will we
Welcome his peace
When will we welcome His peace?
Oh when we will we welcome the Prince of Peace

Graham Kendrick, Rumours of Angels

 

 

 

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Love and Grief

On Thursday, it was our fourth wedding anniversary, a day to look back at the day our journey of married life began. I flicked through photographs, remembering the joy; the funny stories (as I left the hotel for the church my shoe got stuck in a grate and I had to be rescued by a rather bewildered maintenance man!) and the overwhelming sense on the day that all was right with the world.

Phillip & Rachael Newham Wedding-345

On Thursday, it was also the day I attended the funeral of my Grandfather-in-Law (is that a thing? I’m not sure, but let’s go with it). It was a sad, hope-filled day to remember a man who you couldn’t speak about without speaking about his faith, the two so intertwined.

It was a reminder to me how closely grief and love sit together.

One cannot be had without the other; we only grieve when we lose things or people we once loved. Perhaps that is part of what it means when it talks about death being beaten?  That not only will there one day be no more death or crying or tears, but that here and now loss is not felt without love.

On a calendar in my Grandfather-in-law’s house, there was a verse given for each day, and on Thursday the day of his funeral the verse was this:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

His life and death proclaimed this; and 1 Corinthians 15 was read at his funeral service along with the words which have featured in countless hymns:

“Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?

I’ve been wondering recently what that means in the here and now. Because I lost my own beloved Grandpa a couple of weeks ago and I don’t feel like there was victory, I don’t feel like death has lost its’ sting when he was so cruelly eaten away by dementia.

Death was not part of God’s original perfect creation. It is the consequence of our fallen world, and so it doesn’t always feel like it is beaten, that we are victorious.

And over the past few days I’ve been wondering if, this side of heaven, the victory we have in Christ over death is found in the love that is shown as we grieve.

Because I believe that we can and should grieve our losses. Even with the knowledge Jesus had, he still wept at the death of Lazarus – it was a sign of His love for his friend. It says in 1 Thessalonians that we should not grieve without hope, it doesn’t prohibit grieving, rather that our grief can be marked with hope.

Beth Slevecoe writes in her beautiful book “Broken Hallelujahs”:

“Grieving always involves love. We can’t grieve until we are able to recognise our love for what is lost.”

Death is not the end, it has been defeated and one day it will be banished.

But in this now-and-not-yet land, when death does still sting; it is still swallowed up in the victory Christ established over the grave. His victory is our hope and the love of God that drove Him to the cross is the balm that comforts death’s sting.

In this fallen world waiting for a new heaven and new earth, we can’t experience love without  grief to go with it – because human love has an end in death – but God’s great love is eternal.

God’s love and light were not extinguished on the cross because God’s love and light are the very things that lifted the man Jesus from his grave.

This is the balm for death’s sting, and the victory that swallows death.

 

 

Hope Rising

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When Meg Cannon asked me to be a part of her project to publish a years devotions for young women -I jumped at the chance. My teenage years were nothing if not fraught, and I can remember reading and rereading Beth Redman’s “Soul Sista” as I tried to find God in the midst of the chaos. It was brilliant – but having something new to read and chew over every day, pointing me to hope and to God would have been amazing. I love this poem written by Meg which features in the book.

I hope that Hope Rising enables young women to find the God of hope in the middle of all that life can bring; from social media to relationships, suicide to stress, happiness to despair and everything in between.

Our God is Immanuel, with us in the middle of it all.

 

Out of Control: Book Review

I have to admit that I began reading Natalie Collins’ “Out of Control” with no small degree of trepidation. Not only is domestic abuse something outside the realm of my experience,  but it’s also something that the church has struggled to respond to well.

The first thing that struck me upon reading, however, is the gentleness with which Natalie writes. At the beginning and end of chapters the reader is given space to breathe and practice self-care which, when reading about something as harrowing as domestic abuse is not only important, but vital. She does not shy away from the horrors of abuse, including sharing her own story which enables the reader to understand the issues presented in a way that is more than theoretical.

The following sentence, quite literally took my breath away, and it’s as true for domestic abuse as it is for many other difficult issues that the church faces.

She writes:

“If we are to walk with people in their pain we have to be willing to witness the brutality, not shutting our ears when the stories are horrifying or the language offends us.”

Without doubt the strongest parts of the book are those which can be used to inform pastoral practice. First and foremost for the majority of churches is the recognition that domestic abuse is probably present in their congregations, as Natalie writes:

“Presuming that abuse is present without our congregation… is the only way to ensure that our communities become safe contexts for those subjected to abuse.”

Secondly, the importance of reviewing how our church practices and language can be used to keep women trapped in abuse. Her point about the language of redemption used is interesting; that it may help to collude with an abuser and allow them to continue their  behaviour is important, but I also think that our understanding of redemption needs to be greater. Redemption is not a free pass for what has gone before, but relies on the character of God; not an individual’s actions

Natalie’s understanding of the sociological and psychological effects of domestic abuse are incredibly useful to those wishing to understand how best to support sufferers. Her explanations of trauma theory enable us to get to grips with the way those subjected to abuse may act or respond in certain situations which we must be aware of in our churches. 

I did find one part of Natalie’s argument problematic. Chapter 3 can be seen to dismiss any reasons which may lead men to abuse women. It’s true that reasons are in no way excuses, and that they should not be used to keep women trapped in abusive situations or seen to be mitigation for their crimes; but to ignore men’s own backgrounds and the way their own life experiences have led to their behaviour is troubling to me.

Exerting power may be central to men’s abusive behaviours, but I can’t help but wonder how men’s own experiences of abuse or violence inform their later choices?

The book is worth buying for chapter 10 alone in my opinion; it’s intensely practical but also highlights the difficulties people face in accessing the help they so desperately need which must inform our pastoral care. It’s all very well knowing where to signpost, but we must also be prepared to wait with people until they get what they need, not as pseudo-professionals but as the body of Christ, family.

This is a book that every church leader should read. Not only for the knowledge it imparts, but the way in which Natalie tells her story and because it broke my heart for those affected by domestic abuse and highlighted how the Church can help.

 

 

The Story Unfolds Guest Post by Luke Maxted

My friend Luke Maxted is the Children and Families minister for the Chalfont St Peter Parish Churches and has self-published an amazing fold out book with his own translation of the creation story. This post originally appeared on his blog – you can find it and buy his book “In The Beginning” here.


The process of designing, making, and sharing In the Beginning has been surprisingly painful and vulnerable.

Really I should have seen it coming. I should have known that it would be incredibly hard and gut-wrenchingly hurtful, but I didn’t.

It’s been nearly a year since I first received a completed copy of the book and it went live for sale online. It’s not been an easy journey. There was a long time in which I didn’t even look at it because I felt an overwhelming sense of shame.

How strange that something which I poured my heart and soul into, took a fair financial risk on, and has largely (although not completely) been received with resounding praise and positivity, could lead me to such self-loathing.

Now on the one hand I know this of myself, that I have always been hyper-critical of the things that I do. Anyone who has heard me preach knows that almost everything I say is couched in self-deprecation. It seems only natural that I would feel pain at the prospect of sharing something that I have made. On the other hand I think it might be deeper than that. There is an apparent trend of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt that pervades the creative community. I have found myself asking why that is.

Why are creativity and the paralysing sense of vulnerability so closely linked? And what can I do about it?

Creativity and Humanity

I believe that at the core of humanity we are creative and compassionate. We are fundamentally relational and seek to express ourselves and our experiences to our communities. That belief is a significant part of why the creation narrative is special to me and why I wanted to find a unique way to share it with others. Rather than being an historical account of how the world was made I think Genesis 1 is a poem of identity, it is a lyrical expression of our spiritual DNA.

In days 1-5 we see God’s joyful self-expression in bringing everything-ness out of nothingness. He speaks and everything starts, each time adding an extra layer and increasing the complexity. He loves what he makes and calls it good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, and 21). On day 6 God makes humanity and in doing so says that he is making men and women in his own image (v27), describing his creation finally as ‘very good’ (v31).

Now assuming that this is the start of the book and the first thing that you hear/learn about God you have to wonder what that image is. He hasn’t been described yet, we have no way of imagining his appearance, we only have his actions. His actions tell us that he is joyful, creative, and expressive. It seems to make sense that if that is all we know of God at this point and we are made in his image then that is what is true of us.

It makes little sense, however, if this creativity and joy of expression is inherent in us to find that it is also the cause of so much pain. So why is creativity so difficult?

Creativity, Vulnerability, and Risk

The clue to this, I think, is in in the rejection God experiences at the hands of his creation. Beginning in Genesis 3 and continuing throughout the Bible God is rejected by the ones he loves the most and is proudest of. We see it perhaps most strongly in the histories and the prophets where the people reject God and go their own way – Hosea is a great example of this.

Hosea is commissioned by God to marry a prostitute as a representation of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Hosea 1:2). This seems painful and cruel, but perhaps that’s the point. Whether using the metaphor of the unfaithful wife or that of the wandering child (Hosea 11:1-3)The pain of unfaithfulness and rejection is a pain that God feels as part of the result of his creativity. Worse for him is that his desire is to have her back. God is not giving up on the unfaithful wife but calls her back to himself (Hosea 2:14-3:1) and hopes for the return of the ungrateful child (Hosea 11:8-11).

Loving something, being proud of it, taking joy in it, comes with risk and vulnerability. If one cares about nothing one cannot be hurt. If one has no joy then one’s pain is reduced. Creativity, then, creates vulnerability and a possibility of hurt, pain, rejection, and all its accompanying emotions. We become anxious because we fear rejection, we feel ashamed because we experience ridicule. These feelings do not come because what we make has little value, but rather because we place such great value on them and the reflection that they are at the core of ourselves.

Perhaps, then, if the risk and fear are part and parcel of creativity then it really isn’t worth the effort…

Keeping Going

But that would make the word a really boring place…and there are a few good reasons that I can think of the keep going.

Firstly I think the prophets help us again. They were the great dramatists of their time and were incredibly creative (or are given creativity) in how they conveyed their messages. Ezekiel 4 is my favourite example of this. Ezekiel is asked:

  • to take a brick
  • make it into a city
  • put a frying pan as a wall between him and the city
  • lie on his side for ages – until it wastes away
  • prophesy to the brick with a dead arm
  • make bread baked on top of poop and eat that for over a year

After that he has to shave himself and scatter/burn his hair and other such very normal things.

As strange as this is it’s important because the prophets were willing to look ridiculous to convey their message. If creativity causes vulnerability then these were some of the most vulnerable people in human history. They suffered great hurt – both physically and emotionally, yet they also achieved incredible things and stood before the most powerful people of their time demanding justice and a fairer society.

Much of creativity comes from having something worth saying, whether because we are expressing love and joy, or because we are sharing our sorrow and hurt in light of the pain of those people or things we love and cherish. The prophets show us that the vulnerability of that pursuit is worthwhile in what it achieves.

Secondly it is worthwhile because it enables and empowers others who are seeking to share their passions and imaginations.

Seeing that others are creating and showing their loves, fears, passions, and dreams often allows us to realise that we are not alone, either in their own experience or endeavour. That sense of commonality and solidarity is a fundamental part of the relationality that we all experience in one way or another. Sharing your creativity and imagination allows others to know that it is ok for them to do so.

Finally it is worth being creative and taking those risks because without them we are not ourselves.

If it is true that being creative, sharing joy, and expressing love are a part of our spiritual DNA then not doing those things is akin to being something you are not. You might as well try to be a chair or a turnip, because once you start to hide those things about yourself then you run the risk of stopping being a human.

Now you might be reading this thinking “Yes, but I’m not actually creative, so maybe I am a turnip.” but all of us have an imagination and something inside that is there to say. It is entirely possible that you just haven’t found a way to let it out yet. I can’t draw or paint or act or dance or anything else really, but then one day I tried folding some paper and it worked for me. There are so many things left to try… and if you find it scary then it may well be exactly the right thing for you to do.

Treasure in the Dark?

Since the arrival of my son, I’ve seen more hours of darkness than usual, and it got me thinking about whether darkness is all bad. There is something about those silent hours in the dead of night that have a kind of peace to them (except when the baby is screaming!)

So often, darkness is demonised, and yet we need it. We need the darkness of night as much as we need the light of day and many beautiful things have their beginnings in the darkness. As Barbara Taylor Brown writes in her excellent book “Learning to Walk in the Dark”

“New life starts in the dark whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb.”

It seems obvious when you think about it, Jesus wasn’t resurrected in the sunshine, but in the darkness of the tomb, flowers need the darkness of the ground to bloom, babies need the comforting darkness of the womb to grow before they face the light of the world.

Darkness wasn’t created, it’s an absence not a presence – but God didn’t eliminate it from the creation He called ‘good’. Perhaps it’s because, as Psalm 139 recounts, “Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day Darkness and light are alike to You.”

So I wonder if it’s time to rethink darkness, to the wonder and potential that it holds. The late poet Mary Oliver understood a little of this I think when she wrote the words:

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

What can we learn in the darkness, that we couldn’t learn in the light?

In the darkest days of depression, I learned to lean on God in ways I never would have done without it and I’m reminded of the things that are revealed in the darkness throughout the Bible.

Jonah in the darkness in the belly of the whale, David in the cave at Adullam – God transforms people in their darkness.

And I wonder what treasure can be found in whatever darkness you face? (Isaiah 43:5)

 

Catching Contentment

Liz Carter is the author of Catching Contentment and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about life, lament, writing, faith and living with a chronic illness.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to write the book?

I’ve been ill all of my life with a lung condition, and I struggled to cope with the reality of this in line with my Christian faith. All around me, I was hearing stories of healing and restoration, of lives turned to happiness and joy, and all I felt was a stark sense of disappointment. I wondered if I was getting it all wrong, if others were right when they told me I simply didn’t have enough faith. The word ‘contentment’ seemed far from me, an unreachable concept that only applied to those whose lives seemed more perfect than mine. For me, my reality was chronic pain, repeated infections and a career that I had to give up because I was too sick.

But when I read the book of Philippians, I noticed Paul talking about contentment which he had found in all situations, and I was intrigued, because it didn’t look like he was talking about the transient kind of contentment I’d associated with the word before. Paul wasn’t living an easy life, all mended and fixed by knowing Christ – quite the opposite, in fact. He was regularly in chains for his faith, seeing his friends persecuted and murdered. 

How did you find the writing process? What were the best parts and the most difficult?

I’ve always loved writing, and there’s nothing better than those times the ideas flow, the words spilling out in a great exhilarating tidal wave. Some of the time it was like that, but much of the time it was harder work – especially at the editing stage, when I had to go back in and get rid of all that flowery language I loved too much! For me, the best part of writing this book came when I was crafting the third section which is all about being captivated by God. Writing about worship, yearning and surrender fired me and filled me with the contentment I was trying to represent. 

I found a couple of the chapters particularly tough to write. The first was a chapter about being confident in our identity, because for so many years I thought of myself as nothing, useless, and hopeless. In this chapter I wrote about how I was bullied as a teenager, and that was a vulnerable place to write from – I found that as I wrote, some of the feelings came rushing back in, leaving me emotionally wrung out. And the other section I found more difficult to write was the chapter about focusing on God through our ‘dark nights’. When I first wrote it, I wanted to give all kinds of solutions to this problem so many of us experience – that of not being able to ‘feel’ or ‘sense’ God, of feeling almost like we have been cast out from his presence. But I found that the more I wrote about solutions, the more I realised that this was not the way to go – it somehow took any nuance away from the problem, without actually addressing the lived pain at the centre of it. So instead of taking this approach, I simply looked at Jesus in his dark night, and I found him right there in my own darkness.

What does contentment look like in the context of chronic illness?

It’s easy to think that contentment can only be for those who have perfect lives. But the biblical narrative offers something up which replaces this circumstance-based version of contentment, which can never go further than the next thing or the next relationship or the next holiday. In God’s story, contentment is on offer when we choose to chase it and catch it, because contentment doesn’t come in the form of a reward for things going our way, but as a result of looking to Christ in all we do. Paul says that he counts everything else as loss when compared to knowing Jesus (Phil 3:8), and talks about rejoicing at all times (4:4), whether things are going well for us or not. He then says that he has learned to be content, implying that it isn’t something that just happens, but something he is intentional about. So contentment in chronic illness doesn’t look like a shiny happy smile, a pretence of joy when there is pain, but a soul-level knowledge of a God who has gone through the worst of pain, and who sits with you in that deep pit, holding your hand. Contentment in chronic illness is a confidence in God’s nature and a courageous decision to pursue and love God.

You talk about a number of experiences being prayed for – some helpful and some less so! How do you think we can pray well for the healing of those with chronic illnesses?

I think that everyone who has struggled with chronic illness – whether physical or mental – has probably come across the kind of prayer which seems to lessen them as a person, and focus only on the presenting need. Instead of offering to pray for healing, I think it’s so often more helpful to listen to the person, to sit with them and understand their need, to ask what they would like. Imposing a loud healing prayer can be intimidating, or even aggressive, because it can be so very exhausting to sit through the same words, once again, and feel like you are somehow disappointing the person praying. The prayers which have blessed me most have been about praying for God to comfort me, to bless and hold me, to speak to me and to pour out the Spirit upon me, assuring me of his love and presence. Somehow, those prayers have been incredibly healing, even when ‘healing’ isn’t evident.

I love how you talk about the need for lament – how can we practice lament more fully in our churches?

I think that lament is so crucial, and it is grounded in scripture. Somehow, in our churches we have forgotten what it means to truly lament, and instead concentrated on the ‘Jesus helps me feel better’ narrative of salvation and Christian life. While this can so often be true, and Jesus has come to heal and save, when we leave out the weeping we are at risk of a very grey brand of Christianity which doesn’t speak to the pain in our communities. Many of our worship songs have ditched lament in favour of quite a self-centred brand of worship, praising God for all he has done for us. Yet the Bible is littered with lament – there is even a book named for it. We are given permission to lay out our agony in all its stark reality, to hurl out our pain before God, to scream out our disappointment and our lack of understanding as to where God is in it all. We have all this biblical material immediately accessible to us. I love that I am hearing more songs of lament now, such as Rend Collective’s ‘Weep With Me’. 

The phrase “doubt needs room to breathe” really resonated with me; how do you think we can best make room for doubt in our faith?

I think that we all need to entertain doubt in order to build our faith. If not, our faith will be built on a kind of pretence, a shifting sand of refusal to question. Yet when we let our doubts surface and let them breathe in us, we will so often find that our faith is strengthened and underpinned with greater confidence. For me, allowing doubt room has involved voicing the doubt, perhaps writing it in my journal, and praying about it. Most of all, I find that reading – scripture and Christian books – has given me so much more of a firm foundation for my faith. I’ve become a big fan of apologetics books, and I am so grateful for the internet, when there is so much information and wisdom at the tip of our fingers. Often, through the doubt, God is teaching us so much more about who he is and who we are in him. And sometimes, those doubts will be unresolved, but they must be aired and examined in order to balance them in our minds. Sometimes, we must make a choice to live in ambiguity, always knowing God is holding on to us and knowing that God is faithful, unchanging and loves us passionately and unconditionally.

Liz’s book Catching Contentment is published by IVP and available online from Amazon* and other retailers.

*Please note this is an affiliate link.