Category Archives: Theology

Mothering Sunday: The Mothering of Moses

Exodus 2:1-10

It’s some story, isn’t it?

And it’s one of those stories that gets told in children’s bibles almost minus the horror. The imagery I have is drawn straight from the Prince of Egypt film (as well as the theme song which has been in my head all week!), a wicker basket floating casually along down a calm looking river – I d; but the reality was much scarier and less picturesque. 

God’s chosen people, the Israelites were a people in crisis. They were enslaved and under threat, the promises God had given Abraham of a land to call their own must have felt very far away; but the second part of the promise, descendants to outnumber the stars was being fulfilled as from the family of Joseph, now long forgotten, the Israelites had multiplied rapidly. 

This rapid reproduction rate had the Pharaoh worried; so he gives his deadly orders – that any baby boy born to a Hebrew woman should be killed. It’s a barbaric, unthinkable order, the murder of countless baby boys in order to prevent the Hebrews raising an army.

But the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah enact their own rescue mission, telling Pharaoh that the Hebrew women gave birth too quickly – that the task couldn’t be done. This is the first exodus; and it was through the women that God saved. We never know the name of the Pharaoh – but we hear the name of the midwives – in fact the word ‘midwife’ appears 7 times in as many verses. 

Despite the midwives best work however, Pharaoh is still determined and gives the order that every Hebrew baby born should be thrown into the Nile. 

And it’s into these terrifying times that Moses is born. 

As I was thinking about this morning; I couldn’t help but think of the babies born in the past year born into a climate of fear that will hopefully be hard to comprehend when they’re told about it in the years to come. Hopefully our own Exodus from this pandemic is beginning; but it will live long in our memories and shape our world in ways we don’t yet know of. 

But I’ve skipped ahead in the story. 

Because our reading begins with the birth of Moses. 

And I’m aware that for some of you here today, or listening online, these words may hurt. You may have wanted to avoid today all together; whether because your relationship with your Mum is a painful one, you’re grieving or if motherhood is something you long for – or any other multitude of reasons, but I want to encourage you today as we look at three key women in Moses’ life; his birth  mother Jochebed, his sister Miriam and his adopted Mum Bithiah. Three women linked in the way they mothered Moses and the part they played in the Exodus story. 

I’m aware that this morning might be incredibly painful; for those who are longing to be mothers, those grieving their children or mothers, or simply those who aren’t with their Mums this morning and are missing them like I’m missing them! I believe that this morning we need to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn. We want to rejoice with those who are celebrating with their Mums and children this morning, but we want to mourn with those who are apart, and who are hurting.

And I’m going to look at three things in the story of these three women; and the first of these is that mothering is a verb

In this passage the three women mother Moses is very different ways and whilst for Jochebed it involved the physical act of giving birth; that wasn’t the case for Bithiah and Miriam. 

It’s hard to imagine how Jochebed must have felt preparing to give birth to a baby that could be killed, as writer Kelley Nikonhenda puts it “birthed life under a death order”.

But I love this next part; where the text tells us that she hides him because he is a ‘fine child’. Now it’s common that parents think their child is the most beautiful child to ever be born – the language here is linking us right back to the creation story. The word we have translated as ‘fine’ (tov) is the same word that God uses to announce that his creation is ‘good’ – and the material of the basket she puts her son in was an ark of sorts – lined with tar to keep it afloat we’re meant to see the parallels between Moses’ trip down the Nile and Noah’s ark which carried God’s faithful through the flood.

Jochebed’s mothering uses the force that Pharoah’s wants to use to kill her baby to save him. Does it remind you of another story where the power of death is used to save life?

Mothering is a reflection of God’s heart just as much as fathering is. It’s the power of love and life over the forces of evil and death. 

I love that. It’s all too easy I think to reduce mothering to disposing of dirty nappies, doing the school run and for me, standing in the freezing rain of the park yet again! But we see a vision here of mothering as something that is more than the sum of our day to day lives – it’s a reflection of the gospel and mothering is a verb of love.

And it’s one where everyone, parent or not has a role to play. 

As Jochebed sent her baby boy along the river in the hope of saving his life; Moses’ big sister, who we will later learn is called Miriam is keeping watch. I love this image of a small girl keeping watch over her baby brother as he floats along the Nile; mothering him from a distance and then stepping in to ensure that her own mother can remain a part of Moses’ life. She fights for Moses in her mothering, and her role in this story, arranging for her Mother to be paid for nursing her own child, allowing them to remain close is proof if ever we needed it that “we are mothers when we generate life as much as when we advocate for the quality of life.”

Miriam is often referred to as a prophet and when she later leads the Hebrews out of Egypt alongside Moses and Aaron, she sings a song that we only hear a snippet of in scripture, but it’s enough for us to connect it to the song of another young woman tasked with a role God’s plan of salvation. 

And it’s here that we meet Moses’ third mother; the Pharoah’s daughter Bithiah, born into unimaginable privilege and presumably well aware of the grief her Father’s policy is unleashing on the Hebrew people. 

She is an example to us all in how to use our privilege, isn’t she? And I expect it was a risk to take in this baby, but the text tells us that she felt sorry for him – other translations talk about her being moved with compassion and she allows herself to be led by her love, rather than her fear in the same way that Jochebed and Miriam did before her. 

It’s perhaps one of the greatest challenges of mothering; to mother out of our love rather than our fear and in reality we probably do both most of the time. 

I know I do! My little boy loves nothing more than to scale play equipment far too big for him and to make friends with everyone he meets. I am by nature, much more cautious and it’s my constant inner dialogue about which risks to allow him to take, to allow him to explore and not be too limited by my irrational fears – but protected by the more rational variety! 

Protection is an inescapable part of mothering; whether it’s Mum’s protecting toddlers from scaling heights or the fight to make the streets safer for women to walk it’s another reflection of the God who loves and protects with tar lined baskets and nails in a cross to protect us from a death without him. 

And when Bithiah draws the infant from the water, she too is playing her part in God’s salvation plan. 

I often wonder what it was like for Bithiah later on in the story, when Moses flees his title as Prince of Egypt to free his people from Pharaoh when she, like Jochebed before her will lose Moses to the wide world before him. 

Mothering is a verb of lament, as much as a verb of love. 

Author Rachel Moriston writes; “that is what it is to be a mother… to love and nurture that which is fragile, mortal, unpredictable, uncontrollable and ultimately not ever truly one’s own.”

Bithiah demonstrates this even in naming the baby that she mothers. The name Moses means ‘son’ in the Egyptian language, but it sounds like the Hebrew “Mashah’ which means ‘drawn out of the water.’ For her part, Bithiah’s naming of Moses honours his beginnings and the mother who came before her and in doing so foreshadows how he will grow to draw his people from Egypt in the Exodus. 

In this world in search of shalom, of the fullness of peace, we cannot have love without lament. And mothering of any kind involves sacrifice. 

It’s long been said that it takes a village to raise a child; and it’s something anyone who parents children will have felt especially keenly in the past year, as we have parented largely without our village. 

It takes a village because mothering demands sacrifice from us, not just in what we give up in terms of sleep and time, but because the call of mothering is to one day let go. Children are not raised so that they stay as close to us as possible; but to be dedicated to God and allowed to lead their own lives once they’ve grown. 

I think of Hannah, later on in the Bible, praying and weeping for the child she longed for, but raising him so that he would go on to be Israel’s leader and of course Mary, the who treasured the words of the shepherds in her heart, was told by Anna and Simeon that her child would cause a spear to pierce her own heart. She too would flee with her child to spare him from a tyrannical king – and see his own side pierced as he hung on the cross. 

Whomever we mother; children, friends, colleagues or neighbours, we play a part in a sacrifice which points us to Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for the people of the world. Jesus welcomed children, yes but he also poured himself out for each one of us. 

Jesus lived as a sacrifice before he died as a sacrifice. He tenderly knelt and washed the feet of his disciples as his people were ruled by another tyrant in the Roman Emperor. Foot washing was a task so lowly that it was reserved for women, children, foreigners and the marginalised. Feet were calloused and dirty from walk It was, ostensibly women’s work and yet here was Jesus doing this work for his followers. Jo Saxton writes:

“[Jesus] tended to their wounds, washed off the dust and the dirt, washed the sweaty weariness. He saw where they’d been and how it affected them. He touched them, healed them, restored them and refreshed them for the journey ahead.”

And then he broke bread and shared wine with them, sharing of himself and pointing to the truth of what he was going to sacrifice for them. 

This is the work of mothering – and it’s the work of the church. Brene Brown said that ‘church isn’t like an epidural, it’s like a midwife’ and I love that. When we think of the Hebrew midwives we looked at right at the beginning Shiprah and Puah- they delivered babies into a dark world, holding hands and mopping brows, not taking away the pain of childbirth but coming alongside them and ushering in new life. 

We’ve looked at the mothering of Moses this morning, and I hope we can see that mothering – however it looks – is a reflection of the love of God for his family that welcomes everyone. That seats the sinners and the saints together to share in the body and blood of Christ as we will do at the communion table later on. 

And that as women all over the world pour themselves out for their children and in their communities; we can catch a glimpse of our God whose power parted the Dead Sea and whose love reached down from heaven to rescue each one of us. 

Through His Spirit may God bless those longing for their Mum this morning, 

May he comfort those who grieve for what was, or what could have been.

May those who long for motherhood be cradled by God’s love,

And may all who gather at this table to share in body and blood of God’s son

Be met with the joy of belonging together in God’s family. 

Advent Reflections Week Three: Joy

“Joy is nurtured, not by pretending everything is fine, but by holding our hope together with our grief, the good news with our sorrow, and naming both as reality. We practice joy because we are clear-eyed about our realities.”
Sarah Bessey

Advent is a strange time which both waits for joy expectantly and seeks the joy which pours through the cracks in our ordinary lives.  The shepherds had a dangerous and often unattractive job. They were most likely priests as well as shepherds, caring for the lambs which would be sacrificed at the temple. They lived in the space between the priesthood and the ceremonially unclean; and then God broke through their ordinary lives with an extraordinary angelic vision. 

Their words, as recounted in Luke 2:10 proclaim:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

Their joy when they met Jesus and later became the first evangelists as they shared their wonder, did not air lift them from their difficult circumstances (They most probably still had to return to the fields to watch their flocks the next nightbut their encounter with Jesus changed their perspective.

Going forward they would hold the memory of the night God broke through the skies – and we do the same. The joy evoked from our encounters with Jesus doesn’t necessarily change the specifics of our lives – but it changes us. 

We need the clarity of joy which is honest about our happiness and our grief but keeps our eyes fixed on our Saviour, the man of sorrows who is the source of our joy.

And we need joy more than every this year. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us.

“The joy Jesus’ birth is our reason to celebrate – despite the ruins of 2020. 

We need the clarity of joy which is honest about our happiness and our grief but keeps our eyes fixed on our Saviour, the man of sorrows who is the source of our joy.

Advent Reflections Week Two: Peace

“Advent recognises the absence of peace, yet the exquisite certainty of its coming.” Kate Bowler

I sometimes think that peace is one of those words we’ve got wrong.

It is deeper and wider than the images of still waters or pure white doves, it is not meekness – it is shalom – wholeness in mind body and spirit and being reconciled to God through Jesus.

Advent reminds us that the Messiah was called “Prince of Peace” in Isaiah; when the angels visited the shepherds they proclaimed peace over God’s people: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2:14)

And yet the peace the angels bring, the peace Jesus brings doesn’t look how we might imagine it to.

For the shepherds it looked first like fear at the sights of the angelic hosts; and Jesus disrupted the lives everyone he met. When Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple, they meet the elderly Anna and Simeon who have been waiting for the Messiah for their whole lives, but Simeon’s words aren’t what we might call comforting.

“Behold, this Child is appointed to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your soul as well.”

Simeon is warning Mary of the sorrow and anguish that will come with being Jesus’ mother – and the disruption He will bring to the whole world.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace came sometimes to disrupt the equilibrium whilst promising the hope of ultimate peace.

Advent, as Kate Bowler notes in the quote above, recognises that peace doesn’t reign – but it also reminds us that it is promised.

John’s gospel records Jesus’ words:

“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid.”

Jesus didn’t say that we would have no trouble (in fact he said quite the opposite!) but he promises His peace in the midst of the world’s lack of peace.

He sent the Holy Spirit to bring peace to our hearts when the world rages around us.

He gives peace of heart and mind whilst we wait for peace to reign – and this is part of the comfort we find in the heart of Advent.

Advent Reflections Week One: Hope

“The Advent season is a magnifier” Father Scott

Over the past couple of years; I have lost a baby and brought a baby home as the fairy lights shone and the carols have been sung. Advent has magnified both my grief and my joy.

The images of a cradle filled with the infant Jesus was unspeakably painful when my heart was broken and bruised; but I found comfort as I waited in my darkness that light would come. I didn’t know what the light would look like, but as Jesus descended into our darkness I allowed myself to imagine that there would be light on the way.

And a year later, I was captivated by the joy and wonder of cradling my own, longed for baby boy. I was and am, all too aware that this is not how everyone’s story of longing ends; but I began to see that my hope lay not in the baby I held close – but the One that Mary held.

Timothy Keller writes in his book “On Birth”

“Mary… as Jesus’ mother, will experience both the profoundest joy at seeing the greatness of her son and the deepest grief as she watches his arrest, torture and death.”

Mary’s story is one of hope and despair over and again. The fear at the sight of the angel, the wonder at the task before her, the joy at her acceptance to carry the Son of God, the wonder at the things she pondered in her heart, the confusion as she’s told about the sword which will pierce her own heart – over and again until his death and what she felt may be the end of all hope. Jesus’ whole life cycled between hope and despair just as ours often do – and herein lies our hope – because we are never alone in our despair, and it will not have the last word.

The advent season speaks to both hope and despair. It speaks to our despair because we are a people waiting in the dark; and perhaps that is particularly true of this year.

It speaks to our hope because we are promised that this is not the end – that dawn will break and end even the darkest of nights.

Isaiah 9:2-4 declares:

“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.”

Isaiah wasn’t writing from an ivory tower in which nothing troubled him – he’s writing from exile among a people waiting to return to their promised land. He is writing in hope about the dawn in the midst of the darkness – and don’t we do the same today? The difference is that we walk in Jesus’ footprints, that He has gone before us.

We cannot deny that this Advent, this Christmas will look different – but our hope remains the same – because we can bring all that hurts, all our hopes to rest in Jesus Christ.

Advent magnifies our hope, not by denying or dismissing our despair, but because Jesus reaches in and experiences it alongside us, our Emmanuel.

Facing The Past

I shared this message as a part of my church’s Coping Well in a Covid World – and I thought some might find it helpful.

Facing Up To The Past – Keeping it Together

“Oh yes, the past can hurt, but you can either run from it, or learn from it.” Rafiki

In my view, there is endless wisdom that can be gleaned from Disney films; and this is one of those gems. 

Simba (the main character) has run away because he’s been told by his evil uncle that he killed him Dad (are you keeping up?) and when he runs into someone from his not so shiny past, he freaks out. And the wise Mandrill (yes I thought he was a monkey too) has these words to say. 

“Oh yes, the past can hurt, but you can either run from it, or learn from it.”

They are some of those words which can bruise the tenderhearted among us today. 

I can barely get through the present, let alone the past – you might be thinking.

Or

The past is a no go, kept behind lock and key for good reason. 

It might feel too soon to try and unravel all the feelings that the coronavirus pandemic has raised. 

This is understandable, and let me encourage you that I’m not saying the past needs to be confronted right now – one of my favourite authors Kathryn Greene-McCreight writes:

“Here is God’s mercy, the sun rises slowly.”

For some of you, the past needs to be faced with someone qualified to ascend a mountain, for others now isn’t the time, and for still more of us, it might be time to gather a small group (socially distanced or online) to pray for discernment. 

So whether you’re in a place to look back or not, we’re going to look back at Joseph’s story, see how he faced his past and see how his life points us forward to the life of Jesus who took all of our stories; the beautiful ones and the breaking ones, to the cross at calvary. 

Because scripture tells us that facing up to the past is never done alone; it’s done alongside the author of our story. My story and Joseph’s story. 

So let’s dig into Joseph’s story a bit. 

It’s an interesting one, isn’t it?

There are all the ingredients for a blockbuster (or a musical starring Jason Donovan!)

Joseph is the favourite child; beloved by his Father and he’s a bit full of himself and his own importance. He’s a dreamer – and not particularly wise with it. He dreams of his older brothers bowing before him, worshipping him. 

I’m an only child – but even I can see that elder siblings are unlikely to appreciate this image!

The brother’s reaction, however, is perhaps a little extreme. 

They essentially kidnap their brother, trade as a slave for silver and go to tell their Father that his beloved son is dead – and they don’t see Joseph again for twenty two years. 

In those 22 years Joseph rises through the ranks, is lied about, jailed, becomes a trusted inmate, interprets dreams for the Pharaoh’s jailed staff members, and becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man as his preparations spare Egypt from feeling the effects of a famine. 

Never a dull moment with Jospeh!

And in Genesis 45, Joseph has been reunited with his brothers (who fulfil his dreams and bow to him), imprisons Simeon and tricks his other brothers into bringing their little brother Benjamin back with them to Egypt before framing them for stealing. The passage we read was the showdown – and in the musical I’m pretty sure it’s accompanied by a very dramatic score. 

Here is Joseph’s moment; after over two decades he is quite literally facing his past, some of the people who have most hurt him and he let’s the tears fall.

Joseph let’s it all out – in fact – he weeps so loudly that everyone in the vicinity can hear. 

Our tears aren’t crimes, they aren’t un-christian – sometimes when we are facing up to the past – tears are our most holy offering. 

Tears are fascinating, actually. 

There are three types; reflex tears help to protect us, they fall when we get dust in our eye or something!

Basal/continuous tears are the ones that stop our eyes from getting dry.

Emotional tears actually release toxins and hormones that accumulate when we are under stress or experiencing difficult emotions. 

Crying actually produces the same hormones as exercise – feel good hormones called endorphins.

Tears are a god-given way of facing up to our past – and grieving what has hurt us. 

I’ve certainly found myself crying more than usual since March; there have been a hundred little losses we have all endured since the beginning of lockdown; from worrying about what my son is missing out on, missing my friends – to the concern about how those who are grieving loved ones and what the pandemic means for the most vulnerable in our societies. It’s been a time of tears – and I think that’s okay.

Joseph does it, and thousands of years later tears fall down the face of Jesus when his friend Lazarus dies and when he surveys the state of the city he loves. 

When we face up to the past – sometimes we need to let our tears fall. 

Then we need to draw close.

“Come close to me, I am your brother Joseph who you sold into Egypt.” Says verse 4

Joseph had to close the gap between him and his brothers – and in doing so he makes a change from his trickery in the previous chapters – and allows them to draw close to him. 

This isn’t always possible, or safe for us however. We can’t always draw close to those who have wounded us – and neither should we feel an obligation to. 

It isn’t always practical at the moment with restrictions and social distancing in place.

But, we need to draw close to Jesus-  and we can draw close to Jesus even when we feel distant to everyone else. Because it was Jesus who took our sin, and the sins of those who have wounded us, to the cross – and He sent the Spirit to be with us – always. 

Psalm 23 paints this picture for us, before Jesus even came to begin his earthly ministry, but Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, which teaches us that He takes on the role the Psalmist spoke of.

A psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

    he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

    through the darkest valley,[a]

I will fear no evil,

    for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

    forever.

And as I’ve re-read this psalm, I’ve seen the story of Joseph reflected in it.

Jospeh provides for his family during the famine, he gives them a new home and plenty in a time of wanting. He sits at the table with those who have hurt him and tells them that everything is going to be okay – that their sins didn’t have the last word. 

And Jesus does the same for us today and more. All we need to do is accept grace.

He is our provision in a land of want. 

He is our refreshment in a parched land.

His is our guide when we feel lost, our comfort in the dark, our joy – even in the pain. 

Facing up to the past isn’t just about facing up to what has hurt us – it’s about facing all Jesus has done for us. 

When Joseph’s brothers see the face of their sin, the consequences of their sin, they are reminded that sin doesn’t have the last word. 

They had the plentiful land of Egypt to live and flourish in; and we have the hope of heaven to look to. 

Verse 14 tells us that there is more weeping; as the brothers reunite. It’s a wonderful picture of facing up to the past and finding resolution and comfort around the dinner table as millions do throughout the world.

And years after Joseph’s meal with his brothers – Jesus would sit around a table with his friends and point to a way they could reconnect to their past – and to him. 

I used to really struggle with communion. Years of struggling with self-harm meant that I found the talk of blood and bread incredibly painful – instead of realising that I could come to the table with all my brokenness and baggage – I felt as though I had to arrive at the communion table with everything ‘sorted’.

I didn’t believe I was good enough to be at the communion table. I felt as though everything I had been through; everything I had done to myself stood between me and Jesus. 

I wonder how Joseph’s brothers felt as he embraced them? Did they feel unworthy to accept what he was offering them?

There is good news; both for Joseph’s brothers, for me and for you. 

We don’t have to wait to feel worthy, to be worthy. We don’t have to have faced our past to be accepted at God’s table. It’s not something to be ticked off a checklist – it’s about accepting the invitation of grace that God offers us. 

None of the men around the table with Jesus on Maundy Thursday were worthy. In the three years they’d travelled with Jesus they’d got into fights, battled for supremacy, missed the point more than once and before the week was out one would betray Jesus and another would deny him. 

And yet despite their futures and their pasts – they can meet with Jesus.

The same is true for us. 

The restoration and reconciliation Joseph gave his brothers is available to us through Jesus. 

We may not be able to reconcile with the people who have hurt us. We may feel as though aren’t even at the start line in our marathon task of facing up to the past – but Jesus brings good news. 

When he took the most ordinary food – bread – and broke it – He made it holy.

Glenn Packiam writes in his book “Blessed, Broken, Given” “Could it be that God’s grace comes rushing into the very brokenness of our lives? Maybe brokenness has a way of opening us up to the Lord. The more aware we become of our frailty, the more we are able to embrace the grace of God. “My strength is made perfect in weakness” the Lord told the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9) Or as Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” To be broken is to be opened up to grace.”

Joseph’s journey had broken him countless times. Broken as he was trafficked by people who were meant to love him, broken as he sat in prison, wrongly convicted. But Joseph’s speech to his brothers shows us all that our brokenness isn’t the end of the story. 

“Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves” he tells the men who left him for dead. 

When we face up to the past with God’s grace within us, we cannot help but end up with something greater than our brokenness. We can trust our author.

In the text, he reminds his brothers – and us – that it’s not him who has brought goodness from the pain. 

“you sold me… but God sent me.”

The communion bread tells the same story. The bread is broken – but in its breaking it can be shared. The broken body of Jesus allowed the grace and love of God to be shared with the whole world.

It tells us that how we begin, our past is never the end of the story because God’s grace is an interruption which can make our lives more beautiful, more purposeful than they ever could have done without the brokenness. 

The Japanese art of kintsugi says something similar. The word kintsugi means golden joinery. It’s the art of joining broken pottery headed for the bin into something more beautiful by mending it with a gold coloured liquid resin. It declares “I was broken, but in my mending I’ve been made more beautiful.’ 

The challenge is if we’ll allow it. 

Will we allow God into our broken places? 

Perhaps it will be sharing a chapter of your story with a trusted friend; or writing your story down for the first time. 

It might be seeking the advice of a counsellor or pastoral carer. 

It might be praying in your heart that God softens your brokenness and shows your way forward. 

Or it may be about resting in the knowledge that Jesus is our bread of life; broken for each one of us. Jan Richardson writes

The Hardest Blessing

If we cannot

Lay aside the wound

Then let us say

It will not always

Bind us.

Let us say

The damage

Will not eternally

Determine our path.

Let us say

The line of our life

Will not always travel

Along the places

We are torn.

Let us say

That forgiveness

Can take some practice

Can take some practice

Can take a long

And struggling time.

Let us say

That to offer

The hardest blessings

We will need

The deepest grace;

That to forgive

The sharpest pain

We will need

The fiercest love;

That to release

The ancient ache,

We will need

New strength

For every day.

Let us say 

The wound 

Will not be

Our final home – 

That through it

Runs a road,

A way we would not

Have chosen

But on which

We will finally see

Forgiveness,

So long practiced

Coming toward us

Shining with the joy

So well deserved. 

Faith, Strength and Weakness: Guest Blog by YouBelong

(Please note: I have used the term ‘He’ to describe God because this is a pronoun I am comfortable using but please replace it with whatever pronoun/s you feel more comfortable with when reading it that enables you understand God in all their fullness). 

When Rachael asked me to write something for the blog, she asked that I write something on the topic of faith and strength/ weakness. At first, this felt impossible because strength and weakness are opposites. 

You might be familiar with the words of 2 Corinthians 12:10 which say, ‘That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and the troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong’. This reminds us that although there might be times we feel strong, for example after a good gym session, or when we are able to overcome a mental challenge, we are only truly strong enough to overcome the hard things that life throws at us when we acknowledge our weakness. When we do this, we allow God to step in and be our strength and even the world’s strongest person cannot compete with God!

When I became unwell back in Spring 2014, I was unable to eat or drink and lost lots of weight which eventually led to me becoming too weak to stay awake more than a couple of hours at a time or walk up and down the stairs in my house without being exhausted! At the time, I was spending all my free time being involved and serving in my local church and this meant that my faith was filled to the brim and overflowing which enabled me to give my weakness to God. Although my body remained physically weak, my faith never failed and even during the worst of tests, procedures and operations, I felt God with me and felt His strength working in and through me. 

Thankfully, I had an operation in the December of that same year which enabled me to gain weight back and start to become a bit stronger. A few months on and I still wasn’t back to where I had been before becoming unwell but every doctor I saw told me it would just take time. Almost 5 years on, I have faced more medical issues and spend more time in bed and resting or asleep than I have ever done before. As someone who loves ticking off items on a to do list and puts a huge amount of my worth into productivity and getting things done, I really struggle to work out my purpose and love myself as I am on days when I can’t do things I need or want to do.

 I am reliant on those around me to deal with a lot of the household chores and to cover the financial costs of the household as I am unable to do those things which as someone in their late 20s, is really hard to deal with. I am heavily reliant on other people and even if I really wanted to, there are some things I just can’t do anymore. The Free Dictionary defines ‘weak’ as ‘lacking’ – lacking in physical strength, emotional strength, mental strength, spiritual strength etc.

In Psalm 23 we read, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.’ Worldly speaking, I lack quite a lot. I lack relationships, independence and freedom (from pain, to choose what I eat, to go out and do what I want, when I want and more), but I know that when I put my faith and trust in God and follow Him, He leads me into a life of fullness, peace, provision, protection and more. 

When we depend on God, we do not lack. I reckon you know this all already though. I knew this before I became chronically ill but it’s not very easy to put into practise.

So how do we go about trusting God and allowing His strength to become ours in our weakness?

YouBelong, which I have founded and manage, as a community are currently doing a bible study which is taking us through the Psalms in chronological order (as close to it as we can anyway). Some of the earlier Psalms are written by David and tell us about his time running away from Saul and other dangerous people. David felt weak in those moments. He knew there was nothing he could do to save himself but God could. He recognised his weakness and God’s strength, he recalled scripture, worshipped God in his victories, connected and shared with other believers and asked God to help and save him… and God showed up. God gave David the strength to get through those times because David accepted he was weak and leaned into God. 

Nehemiah 8:10 reads, ‘The joy of the Lord is our strength’. Happiness is something that we feel when we receive a nice gift, eat something tasty, spend time with good friends or watch our favourite film but joy is different. Joy isn’t circumstantial – it is a choice. We can choose to be joyful even when life is full of difficult things. When we feel unwell, when we are upset, sad or angry, when the year doesn’t turn out the way we wanted (hello 2020!), we can still choose joy when our joy comes from knowing Jesus. I could never say that I feel happy Jesus endured great suffering and died a horrendous death but I am joyful because He did it for me to give me eternal life. Life can be very hard and there’s no denying that, even Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble…”. Becoming a follower of Jesus doesn’t make life easy but we have something that unbelievers don’t have and it is through knowing God that we can find joy and through the joy of our relationship with Him that we can find strength in our human weaknesses.

There have been many times that I have felt weak, physically, emotionally and mentally, but each time that I recognise I am weak and that God is strong, read my bible, pray, worship and lean on Him, I can feel God’s strength seeping in. I know it’s His and not mine because it happens at times when I have no strength left. Sometimes in those moments God gives me physical strength but more often, it’s a mental, emotional or spiritual strength that enables me to get through the times of physical weakness rather than overcome it. 

As I said before, this is easier said than done. It takes time to get to know and trust God and to remember (and choose) to go to God straight away rather than rely on our own strength (or more often than not, lack of).

Today might be a day that you are feeling particularly weak. Perhaps your physical strength is gone, or you feel mentally and emotional unable to deal with the day ahead. That’s okay. I said at the start of this post that I wasn’t sure how to talk about weakness and strength because they are opposites but God’s kingdom is a place of opposites; give to receive, serve to be served, to live means to give your life and the last will be first. Being weak is often viewed as a bad thing in this world but we need to remind ourselves that in God’s kingdom everything is upside down and back to front. A weakness given to God is a great strength because in God’s kingdom, when we are weak, then we are strong, because of Him. 

Laura is the Director and Blogger for YouBelong

Words for Worrying Times

In the uncertainty and fear,
The panic and the path ahead unclear.

Breathe in for seven,
Breathe out for eleven.

It’s okay to be unsure and frightened.

And yet.

Philippians 4.6 used to be my least favourite verse, it felt patronising, heaped shame upon pain.

But then I learned that anxiety isn’t a sin, it’s a way to keep us safe. This verse isn’t telling our bodies not the respond to danger, but telling our minds to rest in the midst of the panic. The JB Philips translation puts it like this:

“Don’t worry over anything whatever; tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus.”

It’s not a call to shame, but a reminder that all our fear and pain can be brought to Christ. Christ whose sweat was tinged with blood (an anxiety reaction), Christ who endured the worst so we may have hope. Our situations may not change – but let us breathe in the peace of God, the assurance of His mercy and care.

God’s peace is not incompatible with common sense – it’s at the heart of it.

Trust in the Lord and follow public health advice.

Take necessary precautions for yourself, the vulnerable and those you love.

Allow the unfailing peace of God to hold you and your fear. Let your worries turn to prayers and know that they are heard.

Ash Wednesday Reflections: Rend Your Heart

It’s one of those phrases that I’ve heard countless times – usually around this time of year – “rend your heart”.

But what does that really mean to rend your heart?

The word rend literally means to “tear something into pieces”, to “separate into parts with violence”. This is not gently pulling away from something – it’s not me peeling myself away from my sleeping son to rest him in his cot – it’s pushing something as far away from myself as possible, making sure every connection is broken.

Joel 2 is a call for God’s people to return to Him in repentance – not to just make a show of repentance for the eyes of the world by tearing their clothes – but to realise the gravity of their sin in a way which breaks their hearts wide open – allowing God to fill the broken places.

Returning to God is not about coming to Him cowed by shame – it’s returning to the God who is grace, compassion and love.

As we are marked with the ashes today, we are reminded of our sin. The reality of our broken world, our broken relationships, our broken hearts.

We are also reminded to look forward however, to what God does with broken things and broken people.

This is not a season to be rushed – we must wait awhile in the dust, recognising the pain we cause, the pain we are in – but it’s never a hopeless pain.

Lent is a season of lament – and hope is found, as ever – not in the things we can do to fix ourselves or the world around us – but in our God who fills our broken places with Himself.

The rending can be painful, but the glory comes in what God does in those broken places.  The Japanese call is kintsugi – where broken spaces are filled with gold and made all the more beautiful in those broken places.

For now, though, we wait for the filling and sit among the broken pieces waiting for God to show His glory.

I love this blessing from Jan Richardson from her book “Circle of Grace”*, take a moment today to pray and reflect.

Rend Your Heart

A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

To receive this blessing,
all you have to do
is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
to go.

Your entire life
is here, inscribed whole
upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken
or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave
in shadow,
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet
to find.

It could take you days
to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.

And so let this be
a season for wandering,
for trusting the breaking,
for tracing the rupture
that will return you

to the One who waits,
who watches,
who works within
the rending
to make your heart
whole.

—Jan Richardson

 

*affiliate link

Holding Out Hope

Whether or not you’ve ever watched anything that the late Caroline Flack presented, it’s unlikely that you won’t have heard that over the weekend, Caroline died by suicide.

News of her death has filled column inches, clickbait articles and provoked debate around everything from the existence of shows such as “Love Island”, to press intrusion, the worth of mental health awareness and the need for more kindness.

Every ninety minutes someone dies by suicide. Every other hour a life is lost which leaves unimaginable pain, unanswerable questions and grief in its wake.

But in the course of everyday life, very few of us consider this, we are simply getting through our own days, so when suicide pushes itself so forcefully back into the public consciousness, we are astounded yet again by the scale and the pain of it.

The loss of someone so prominent on TV screens up and down the country brings the tragedy of suicide into our own living rooms. We are forced to conceive of that which is inconceivable. It raises age old questions:

“How could they do it?”

“Why?”

As Kay Redfield Jamieson, a psychiatrist and author writes in her book Night Falls Fast:

“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible. Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities, and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of a life can be only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete.”

For those of us who have experienced suicidal thoughts; considered, however briefly, taking our own lives there is a sharp edge to these questions. A sharp edge to the passing judgements of strangers online which declare that suicide is “selfish” or “stupid”, because it is a very real reminder that some have been unable to stay in the world.

Suicide cannot be considered in those terms; it is unspeakable for so many, both because of the pain it leaves with those whose lives are claimed, and for those who have lived in spite of a pull toward an abrupt ending.

Suicide is not selfish, because for the most part, the people who die by suicide believe themselves to be relieving others of a great burden. Caroline herself wrote on Instagram in the months before her death that she feared “being a burden”, it can be an impossibly high barrier to reach across to ask for help.

It is not stupid; because it is often seen as the only course of action for those who have reached past their tether.

Suicide is a tragedy. Over the past thirteen years as I’ve both battled with suicidality, studied it and written about it, tragedy is the only word that even begins to do justice to the enormity and pain of it – for those who lose their lives, those who lose their loved ones and those who  live through it.

For the christian, there are more questions. Is it the unforgivable sin? Can they be saved?

And all I can do is to look to scripture, and to lean on the character of the God I have known and trusted for almost twenty-five years. The only unforgivable sin recorded in the Bible is that of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – which is nothing to do with suicide, and the idea that those who take their own lives being unable to enter glory because of their inability to repent renders the gospel of grace obsolete. Not one of us dies having confessed and repented every sin!

But more than this; we see how God responds to those who consider suicide in the Bible and we are presented with a picture of care and grace, help and hope.

There are a number of completed suicides and considered suicides in the Bible; from King Saul falling on his sword, to Elijah begging for death on Mount Horeb, from Judas’ death to the desperate philippian jailer. In these accounts, there is no moral judgement made. There is prohibition of taking life, yes, in many places in the Bible; but the responses the scriptures record to those considering suicide speak volumes to me.

Elijah is ministered to with food, drink and rest.

The philippian jailer is drawn from harming himself – to hearing the gospel and being baptised.

These passages do not encourage suicide, but they do widen the angle of our viewing to see that when people are desperate they can be ministered to and helped. There is hope.

So that is what I think we need to do, to widen our angle of viewing to consider not just what things look like at face value, to minister to the hurting and hold out hope for those whose view is blurred by tears, until they can hope for themselves once more, drawing from the infinite kindness of our God.

Advent Reflections – Journeying

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are on the move, and God seems to do much of His work in people through their journeys.

Abraham’s journey to Canaan.

The Israelites protracted journey to the Promised Land.

Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem in the months before Jesus’ birth.

We can but imagine the maelstrom of emotions evoked during this journey; the uncertainty, the more than likely physical aches and pains of Mary, the anticipation, the worry perhaps – about having your first baby far from home?

I can remember, all too clearly, the relatively short journey to the nice clean and safe hospital to have my own son just a year ago, knowing my life would never be the same again, stepping into the unknown and trusting that my feet found some solid ground.

There’s something about journeys that disrupt us, perhaps it’s that they signal change (something I’m not a great fan of), and throughout history, God disrupts His people. He sends them to new places, on new adventures and asks us to take each step away from certainty and toward Him. Perhaps the reason He speaks so loudly to us on journeys is because we are already distracted from day to day life.

I remember studying Abram’s call during some of my first lectures at LST – how he had been called away from everything he’d known to enter a promise unseen – and I felt stirred by it, a similarity, even though my journey was only 30 miles down the motorway and nowhere near as drastic as Abram’s life-changing journey! But I had left behind the life I had known and stepping into something new where each step was one of faith.

It’s that journey that I remind myself of now, when I’m fearful of the next steps, or the next journey; because at the time it was the scariest thing I’d ever done and yet it was one of great joy.

We each go on countless journeys throughout our lives; some are inconsequential (such as the one my husband has gone on to get bin bags from co-op as I write), others are earth shattering and life changing, like the journey to Bethlehem or my own through university.

One of my favourite journeys recounted in scripture is one Jesus takes the morning of His resurrection, when he takes a walk with a man named Cleopas and his friend who are lamenting the loss of the one ‘they had hoped’ for and hoped in. It’s a sliver of a story which reminds us that the journey matters – that through Jesus – God walks with us on our journeys and reveals Himself in the tenderest of places, in the tenderest of ways. For it was not through lighting flash and growling thunder that Jesus revealed His identity on the journey, it was not even as he recounted His own story through the scriptures, but as He ate with them and broke their bread with His own scarred hands.

Advent retells Jesus’ journey to be with us, one not done in majestic fashion, but one that began in the womb of a teenager and ended on a sinner’s cross.

They journey of Advent is nearing its close for this year; soon the darkness of these weeks will be pierced by the unquenchable light of the God who came wrapped in a mother’s womb to save in the most unexpected of ways. Jesus’ journey to be with us is the greatest comfort in the darkness and ignited the flame of hope forevermore – it is what keeps me walking this strange journey of surrender and freedom.

Malcolm Guite’s beautiful poem O Emmanuel captures something of the mystery of Jesus’ journey to us as our hope.

“Be folded with us into time and place,

Unfold for us the mystery of grace

And make a womb of all this wounded world.”