Category Archives: Theology

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.”

 

 

 

Advent Reflections Week Two – Accepting

When I decided to use the carmelite themes to reflect this advent, it was this word accepting that captivated and confused me in equal measure.

For me at least, it conjures the concept of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and at last, acceptance. It’s the pinnacle stage in this model; whereby someone can see some kind of resolution to the pain of grief.

It’s place as the second week of advent then, feels almost jarring.

And yet, as I delved into the ancient stories again, both the gospel narratives and the story of the carmelites, I began to see it a little differently, because the carmelites had been crusaders who’d gone to fight but ended up so transformed that they stayed to pray and build a community in the holy land.

It reminded me how often in the scriptures God shows up in the most unexpected ways, calling unexpected people to do unexpected things.

A virgin conceiving.

A barren woman falling pregnant whilst her husband falls silent.

When we agree to follow the way of Jesus, we agree to the unexpected.

And sometimes the unexpected way we are called to hurts.

It’s all too easy to miss the trouble woven through the nativity.

Luke 1:29 tells us that Mary was “greatly troubled” by the angel’s greeting; Joseph and the shepherds are greeted with the words “do not be afraid.”

God does not hide from us that the walk ahead with Him is not easy.

As Timothy Keller writes in his book “Hidden Christmas”:

“The manger at Christmas means that, if you live like Jesus, there won’t be room for you in a lot of inns.”

Accepting the gospel truth and the invitation of God is not the easy – but God gifts us what we need to accept His invitation.

Perhaps Zechariah needed his silence to accept what lay ahead of him and Elizabeth.

I expect that both Mary and Elizabeth needed the time they shared together, to accept the extraordinary pregnancies and prepare them for the extraordinary lives their sons would lead.

Mary does not just accept the call grudgingly, however. She doesn’t say “All right then, if you must” – she sings a mighty song of praise.

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”

Whatever we have to accept in the course of our christian lives; Mary offers us a dazzling response to echo which is not based on our own strength but on our glorious Saviour.

 

 

 

Advent Reflections Week One – Waiting

This year for advent, I’m going to reflect each week on the Carmelite themes of Advent; waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing. Having read about them in author Sarah Bessey’s advent reflections, it struck me that they sound to me like stages of grief and lament and so I want to explore. Our emotional lives don’t necessarily follow the feelings of seasons – but God remains in them and with us in each season as we wait, as we accept, as we journey and as we birth.


Last year, the 1st December marked the end of waiting for us. It was our son’s homecoming day  after his first week of life was spent cannulated and treated for a chest infection.

The week before had been full of painful waiting; the promise of home dangled in front of us like a vista, but it kept being pushed back. When we were told we could finally leave; we felt the giddy excitement our son would late exhibit every time his daddy walks through the door!

The waiting was, I think, all the more painful because we didn’t know how long the wait would be. It was altogether different from the waiting of pregnancy which had consumed the months before; whilst we didn’t know a specific date, we knew that by Christmas 2018 our baby boy would be in the world.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are a waiting people. They are waiting for the Promised Land, freedom from slavery, to find their way home from exile – and above all – they were waiting for a Messiah, the one who would save them.

Today we wait for the final return of Jesus, the end of mourning, crying and pain. Each day, however, is full of waiting. Whether it be in the queue at the corner shop, for call from the doctor or loved one to return home, we have no choice but to wait.

We do have a choice how we wait.

Waiting without hope can consume us, twisting our desires into idols and longing into bitterness.

Waiting with hope can see God transform us in the waiting – because God is with us in the waiting.

These words of the 12th century carol ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ seem to capture something of the agony of waiting and the hope of what is to come. It reminds us the God who is with us, who ‘moved into the neighbourhood’ does not leave us to languish in our despair, but comes to us and sets eternity in our hearts.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

In the waiting time, when our ‘until’ feels endless and our loneliness exiles us from ourselves, our communities and our God, Advent reminds us that our wait is not wasted when we fix our eyes on the God who broke through time and space to be Immanuel.

It’s so tempting to rush through Advent, to miss it amidst the glitter of Christmas trees and carol singing – but this year – I invite you to wait in it and watch for how God might reveal Himself in the unexpected and the lowly just as He did 2000 years ago.

 

 

Present Tense Testimony

I’ve been sharing my testimony since I was thirteen and I first stood in a church pulpit. On that blisteringly hot day in July 2003, I spoke about the God I serve and the calling I felt. Since then, I’ve been sharing my story in blog posts, seminars, sermons and talks. It’s something I feel relatively confident in doing, I am well rehearsed in what I feel comfortable sharing and making sure that I can point away from myself to the God of my story in the course of sharing.

But as I was reading Stephanie Tait’s “The View From Rock Bottom”, one phrase leapt from the page.

“present tense testimony”

More often than not, the testimonies we share are in the past tense. They speak of things overcome, of the miraculous and the way live has changed for the better.

I can speak of a significant recovery, that I live a life I love, that I have not harmed myself in over a decade.

But that would not tell the whole story.

My present tense testimony is more complicated, more unfinished and less tidy.

My present tense testimony demonstrates no less of the glory of God and His grace.

My present tense testimony is that I still struggle; that I live with mental illness but that through grace, community and rest I live a life I love.

Patrick Regan brilliantly describes it as “healing in the slow lane” in his book, Honesty Over Silence.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we all bear our pain for the world to see every day, we don’t need to bear our open wounds – but we need to be honest that we are wounded.

It doesn’t look as shiny, but it is miraculous nonetheless, because there were days when I couldn’t lift my eyes to even consider a future and now I am living each day. Stumbling, yes; with help, most definitely – but more importantly with the knowledge of grace and God’s care in the day-to-day boring stuff.

It is, I think, the difference that the late Rachel Held Evans and my friend Tanya Marlow speak of so eloquently. Rachel wrote:

“But there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

This is what a present tense testimony offers; that even when the pains of life persist so do we and so, more beautifully, does God.

God’s work is both the lighting flash and the slow burning flame.

What glory in the mundane might our present tense testimonies reveal?

Kindness, Actually.

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Jennifer Dukes Lee

When I was pregnant with my son, I prayed many things over him – but one thing came to mind every time.

Kindness.

In a world where we are pushed to be more, do more, see more; my prayer was and continues to be that he will be kind.

We can’t all be academics, sporty, good looking or accomplished; but we all have an opportunity to be kind.

It is the moments of kindness which stick most clearly in my memory; I don’t necessarily remember presents I’ve been bought (though I do love a present!) but I remember people’s kindnesses towards me.

I remember the man who helped me get the buggy down the stairs the first time I got the tube with the baby.

I remember the friend who dropped everything to come over and lighten my load when I was struggling.

I remember the coffee my husband brings me in the morning.

And the kindnesses we share are but a reflection of the King of kindness.

God’s kindness, His hesed (literally translated as lovingkindness) is at the heart of who He is and everything He does.

Our hope is anchored in God’s loving kindness towards us, even in the darkest of times.

In the many psalms and passages of lament in the Bible; when people are crying out their most desperate petitions of pain to God, it is God’s kindness which marks the turning point to praise – because it’s what the promises of God rest upon and the praises to God rise from.

It’s the tenderness of Jesus as He wept, the care of the Father as He provided for the Israelites in exile and the presence of the Holy Spirit who translates our groans into prayers.

The most famous verse in the book of Lamentations 3.22 is the one which speaks of God’s kindness in the midst of prayers of agony.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;therefore I will wait for him.”

Our laments rely on the kindness of God – and they are not disappointed.

Michael Card writes in his book “Inexpressible” which studies the word hesed through the Bible:

“He demonstrates his incomparable strength by means of his infinite kindness.”

God’s infinite kindness isn’t separate from his power and might – it’s the vehicle of it.

And it’s our role to be His vehicles of hesed on earth.

To show loving kindness to our families, our friends, our neighbours and our strangers.

Tracing the Tears – Resurrection #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


“Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying.”

John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection begins with tears.

The tears of Good Friday and Holy Saturday were still wet on the faces of Jesus’ friends when He returned to them.

And it was through the tears of Mary Magdalene that He chose to appear – that tells me a lot about the Jesus I follow.

It tells me that this suffering servant is acquainted with the deepest grief, but it also tells me that Jesus forever reigns over the agony, that death and agony are beaten.

Twice in the stories of Jesus’ resurrection He is obscured to the people He appears to; first here when Mary believes that someone has taken the body of Jesus she does not realise to whom she speaks until He speaks her name.

Jesus makes the first move, every time, and waits patiently for us to respond. He leaves the ninety-nine to go after the lost sheep and waits for us to invite Him in when we are found.

And secondly, in Luke we read that Jesus is not recognised until He breaks bread with the hopeless travellers on the way to Emmaus.

The Risen Jesus does things as unexpectedly in life as in resurrection (as if resurrection were not unexpected enough!)

He reveals His power over the grave through signs that others may call weak; Mary’s tears, Cleopas’ hopelessness, His own scars which prove who He is to Thomas.

Our first signs of life are our cries of a baby; and here we see that it is through tears that the risen Lord first appeared. Our tears signal the beginning of everything new; the new life Jesus offers, the new hope He embodies.

As the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, we are reminded that His mercies and our hope are new every morning.

Our hope is in the Christ who died for us, who suffered in His mercy.

Our hope is in the Christ who rose from the grave who has beaten death and evil, in His mercy still bearing the scars of crucifixion.

Our hope is in the Christ who will come again in glory and who in His mercy allows the dawn to rise slowly so that our eyes may become accustomed to the blistering light and life of who He is.

“We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” Pope John Paul II

 

Tracing the Tears – Holy Saturday #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


No one likes to talk about days like today.

There is no drama, no battle, no victory.

The grave is full and the grief is raw.

It feels like death has won.

Below is a reflection on Holy Saturday adapted from my book “Learning to Breathe“.


Holy Saturday is a day to lament.

Holy Saturday is the valley of grief and uncertainty, for us and for Jesus’ disciples.’

It’s the place where we spiritually live so often, when the worst has happened and we don’t know if or how we can go on – yet in the midst of darkness we trust that dawn will break. It’s often like this in the rest of life, I think. We often remember the most dramatic days, the happiest, but how often do we remember the days of silence, when everything is wrong but nothing can be done? I don’t know if it’s a good thing that we forget days like these in our own lives, but I think it would be good if we spent a little more time remembering Holy Saturday.

It goes beyond the agony of the cross, even. The day when it was finished – when Jesus was dead – because of our sins. It is a day of silence, it seems.

God doesn’t always speak. Sometimes the silence of God says it all. As I write, I’m reminded of Job. Job who lost everything and everyone who mattered to him. Job whose friends were worse than useless. Job to whom God remained silent, waiting to speak. It strikes me that the silence of God is more often than not followed by a presence of God that is so awesome, so mighty, that we can do nothing but bow in praise and awe.

A season like this Holy Saturday can seem endless. It’s the state in which we sometimes live our lives. It’s an open wound. Shelly Rambo writes:

‘The reality is that death has not ended; instead it persists. The experience of survival is one in which life, as it once was, cannot be retrieved. However the promise of life ahead cannot be envisioned.’

There is no happy ending on Holy Saturday. Jesus is in the grave and the shadows of His death keep this day dark without a hope for the resurrection dawn. It’s a mistake to rush beyond today, because it is reflected so often in life.

Holy Saturday continues the tradition of lament set out in the Old Testament, throughout the Psalms and, of course, Lamentations. It tells us that even when God is silent, he is still to be trusted.

It’s important not to rush past the silent days of lament.

We have to be able to deal with the times when God does seem to be on mute, to be absent.

Silence does not mean that God does not exist; scripture shows us that God’s work of life begins in the dark silence and reminds us that even on these; there is hope because Jesus has been in the dark of the tomb and it was the beginning of our greatest hope.

He blesses every love that weeps and grieves

And makes our grief the pangs of a new birth.

The love that’s poured in silence at old graves

Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth,

Is never lost. In him all love is found

And sown with him, a seed in the rich ground.

Malcolm Guite