Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Losing my Religion

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NightWieselWhile thinking about the Auschwitz memorial last week I read the moving story of one of the inmates, Elie Wiesel, who wrote about his experiences in his book “Night.”

Because of the terrible persecution and massacre, Elie found himself losing his cherished faith in God. At Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, he was unable to bless the Lord, finding only words of execration in his tragic inner conflict.

“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fibre in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? …But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.”

This isn’t the intellectual atheism that comes from science and psychology – inevitably relying on its own fiduciary framework, but the bitter cry of the believer trying to salvage a faith that is being shipwrecked on the rocks of incalculable suffering.

Perhaps Christ himself battled with the same agony when he cried out:

“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”

This strident cry, owned by millions over the years, still questions the goodness of God in a world where there is both personal and universal suffering. Some noble fellows, like Elie, prefer to choose atheism – or agnosticism, in a brave effort to exonerate God from the responsibility of being a despot!

Every generation is confronted with the basic question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil – a question which the thinker Leibnitz framed in the term “Theodicy”. Is it possible to answer both of the following questions in the affirmative?

Is God good?
Is God all powerful?

For Wiesel, an affirmation of God’s power was in contradiction to an affirmation of his goodness. Why didn’t the all powerful God step in and change things if he really is good?

I remember hearing a young Rwandan lady testifying. She hid behind a large chair while Hutu rebels invaded her home and began to massacre her Tutsi family. She watched them raise the blade of a machete over her beloved father and brother. She said how hard she had prayed at that moment, asking God for help and divine intervention. In spite of her prayer, the deadly blade still drew blood and killed.

“It was at that moment that I lost my faith,” she continued.

Is it possible to still affirm God’s goodness in the face such apparent contradictions?

The Biblical Patriarch Job faced the same contradictions in his own life. Why had he, a just man, been so painfully afflicted and suffered such unbearable loss? In his struggle for understanding – and it always is a struggle, he refuses to compromise on God’s goodness.

“Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised. In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” Job 1:21-22

Never sin by compromising God’s essential character of love! Always begin your answer to the theodicy question with a relationship, with intimacy, with total affirmation of God’s goodness. Begin with the person before the power. This is the tragedy of Wiesel – having begun with affirmation God’s omnipotence he finds his faith overcome by the inability to equally affirm his goodness in the midst of such horror.

Convinced of God’s immutable love, we can now dare to consider the question of his power. Let God himself answer the question. The apostle Paul was faced with dreadful suffering from a satanic messenger. In spite of his earnest prayers and upright life he found no relief. In despair he cried to God and heard the Lord answer him.

“But he said to me. My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…”  2 Corinthians 12:9

We need to reframe our idea of power. True omnipotence has vulnerability at its heart. The apostle John, weeping at the tragedy of world history, received a paradigm shift on power when he had a vision of the Sovereign throne of heaven.

“Then one of the elders said to me, Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals. Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” Revelation 5:5-6

Lions and thrones – the things of power, and yet at the heart of all that is a little, suffering lamb –“Slain from the foundation of the world.”lamb

We cannot simply affirm a pagan, totalitarian power to God. His power often seems totally defeated by evil, only to rise again in the perfect sevenfold strength of resurrection.

Paul, still painfully pierced by his thorn, also understood such a radical concept of God’s power which passes through a cross.

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Many have asked the very legitimate questions of why it is necessary to “rejoice in weakness.” No easy answers here. Suffering is always shrouded in a certain mystery. However, here are some thoughts?

My first advice is to always resist suffering in all its forms. Paul prayed three times! Don’t seek it out. There are basically three approaches.

Resist – A huge amount of suffering is a direct result of Satan’s attack on the human race. God has sown good seed but evil seeds are also sown in the middle of the night.

“An enemy did this!” Matthew 13:28

Before having the knee jerk reaction of blaming God, it might be worthwhile considering that there may well be an evil adversary at the origin of such suffering.

Linked to this, is the notion of suffering as a consequence of our own wrong decisions, sins and errors. The Apostle Peter speaks about this.

“But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” 1 Peter 2:20

“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” 1 Peter 4:15-16

Don’t blame God for the consequences of your own bad choices. Resist the enemy and he will flee from you. Turn away from your sins so that times of refreshing may come upon you.Hiding Place

Grow – St Irenaeus saw suffering as a necessary part of “soul making.” The simple, sin stained clay of Adam is destined to sit with Christ on a throne alongside God. When suffering comes it can purge us of human dross and transform us to Christ’s image.

“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” 1 Peter 1:6-7

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Romans 5:3-5

Purpose – Corrie Ten Boon, The famous Dutch author of “The Hiding Place” – which recounts her ordeal in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, saw suffering in life as two sides of a tapestry. Sometimes we only see the ragged, incomprehensible, disordered strands from our side. However, on the other side there is a beautiful tapestry woven in heaven. This is her famous poem which brough her comfort in the horrors of the camp.

“Life is but a Weaving” (the Tapestry Poem)
My life is but a weaving
Between the Lord and me;
I may not choose the colours–
He knows what they should be.
For He can view the pattern
Upon the upper side
While I can see it only
On this, the under side.
Sometimes He weaves in sorrow,
Which seems so strange to me;
But I will trust His judgment
And work on faithfully.
‘Tis He who fills the shuttle,
And He knows what is best;
So I shall weave in earnest,
And leave to Him the rest.
Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needed
In the Weaver’s skilful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

TenBoomTapersteryThere is a sense of some divine plan, some redemptive suffering, some purpose behind it all.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Suffering will always cause various emotions to rise up in our hearts. Let’s call them the tree “R’s”

Rebellion – This is the most natural emotion. It is important to give it space to come out, but do not let it take root.

Resignation – When you realise that you can’t actually change some things a certain stoic fatalism can set in. This is better than rebellion but must never be our final destination.

Resurrection Hope – This is the place of glorious victory – the place where the dry bones live again (Ezekiel 37:1-10), where a devastated Marie Magdalene hears her name (John 20:16) and where the world finds hope.

“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” 1 Corinthians 15:19-20

God was not entirely lost to Elie Wiesel. During the hanging of a child, which the camp was forced to watch, he heard someone, outraged by the cruel spectacle, ask:

“Where is God? Where is he?”

Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy died slowly. Wiesel filed past him, seeing his tongue still pink and his eyes clear.

“Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.”

We end with a paradox. Is God hanging dead in the Nietzschean sense – overcome, vanquished by horror? Or is he hanging with us in our deepest sufferings, identifying fully with our pain as the little slain lamb and leading us to the hope of resurrection?

Prayer – God really is good

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is-god-goodThe ongoing ideology around us and overwhelming media coverage of death and suffering are constantly challenging the image of a good God. Like the proud beast in Revelation 13:6, Satan’s strategy is to constantly undermine the character and goodness of God.

“He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling-place and those who live in heaven.”

We are almost deafened by the cries – carried often on the wings of our own cruel suffering and loss,  that God is somehow nasty, asleep, unfair and uncaring.  We are constantly challenged to push against this prevailing blasphemy and find the true perspective of God’s love. This is the heart of spiritual warfare as we battle against a wrong perception and experience of who God really is. To pray successfully we need to be healed of this wrong perception and gain fresh revelation of God’s ultimate goodness and willingness to answer prayer on our behalf.

Satan’s strategy is to deform our perception of God, and slander Him to us thus destroying our faith and vitality.

From childhood authority figures, from teachers to parents to political and religious leaders, are sometimes abusive and mould deep within our beings a wrong conception of God.

Jesus himself recognised this truth in his own teaching on prayer, so let’s learn from the master. It is important to note that, as a good teacher, Jesus exposed the wrong conceptions in the hearts of his listeners before replacing them with the radical truth of God’s grace. Certain phrases are repeated over and over again in Christ’s teaching as he juxtaposes our erroneous conceptions with the truth concerning his Father. It is important to grasp these “leitmotifs” as they lead us on the path to a genuine vision of God’s greatness and love. Phrases like, “How much more”, “So I say to you”, and “And will not God”, open the texts up to comparisons between human and heavenly perspectives.

I’ll limit myself to three specific texts of Jesus concerning prayer but we could find many more as well as finding overlaps in the epistles. Jesus lays down a foundation for prayer in Matthew 7 :7-11, Luke 11 :1-13 and Luke 18 :1-8. We will study these passages in the next posts.generations

In Matthew, Jesus is giving his disciples the key to prayer. Thinking back perhaps to his own commissioning in Psalm 2 : 7,

“You are my Son; Today I have become your Father.”

where the element of “sonship” was so important.

“This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven…”   Matthew 6 :9

He hammers the message home even more strongly in chapter 7, and I imagine him being quite humorous in his style, using everyday family images which would touch a chord in each heart. His longing is to heal his hearers of a wrong concept of Fatherhood.

“Ask and it will be given to you.”is the wonderfully frank truth of scripture. However in a world of hard knocks the hearers minds are already putting up barriers and get out clauses in a wounded, knee jerk response to such a generous theology. Jesus, however, is already one step ahead of them.

“Which of you , if his son asks for bread , will give him a stone ?”

Little Johnny, hungrily expectant at the dinner table, is suddenly summoned to the garden by his Dad. Grabbing his son by the hair he pulls him forward and rams a dirt covered stone down his throat !

“Here son, chew on that ! It’ll do you good !”

Next Friday he’s there again at the table looking forward to a promise of fish and chips when suddenly he is summoned once again to the garden. ( Remember Jesus was speaking to a middle eastern audience who had much more exotic things in their gardens than slugs and lettuce !). There stands his Father with a nasty snake which he quickly puts to his son’s tender mouth. Poisonous fangs await to do their damage. Other options on the menu include scorpions with a vicious sting in the tail ! (See Luke 11:12)

“Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake ?” 

By now you can almost imagine Jesus’ audience, amused and yet slightly enraged at such an ungenerous Father, wanting to butt in and say something more positive about Fatherhood. Jesus, having gotten them thinking in the right direction, beats them to it:

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

stoneHas our view of God been so warped that we think he will give us something hard like a stone ? Many, like the servant in the parable of the talents, think of God as being a “hard man”. Many of my Catholic friends here in France have a view of two ways to God. The hard way through God the stern Father, and the easy way via Mary.

Even in more evangelical circles there is often the hidden fear that God’s will for me will be something hard and horrible ! Deep down are we afraid of obeying God? Are we fearful of getting too involved in prayer, in case He might actually speak to us ? Do we think he has prepared something for us with a nasty sting in the tail ? The devil lies to us and perverts the truth of God’s love by filling us with fear.

Jesus goes to the heart of this fear and unbelief by gently bringing it to the surface in His example of the evil Father. He exposes such a concept for the demonic lie it is and unequivocally asserts the truth of God’s Fatherly care. His words carry the balm of healing and restore the image of God the Father in the hearts of His hearers.

Perfect love casts out fear ! Meditate on Christ’s words and enable Him to free you from your own deep-seated fears in order to be able to receive the faith to pray aright to a loving heavenly Father who longs to give good gifts to his children.

 

Prayer – O When the Saints…

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 “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Ephesians 6:18

Pray in the Spirit:

Be inspired, allow heaven to be continually invading your heart and giving utterance to you lips. Allow yourself to get carried away in the Spirit’s prayer and carried along by the spiritual tidal wave of other’s prayer. Luke 6:45, talking about good and evil utterance, states, “for out of the overflow of (your) heart (your) mouth speaks…”

OverflowDon’t always worry about finding the correct words. As we saw in the last post the Holy Spirit may often take us beyond words into longing. Hear what John Bunyan had to say about this:

“The best prayers have often more groans than words.”

On all occasions – the “kairos” moment:

The best way to overcome time is through prayer. We all know Martin Luther’s famous phrase,

“Tomorrow I plan to work, work, from early until late. In fact I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” 

The great preacher Spurgeon also learnt the priority of prayer as a means of making the most of every opportunity – redeeming time:

“We think we are too busy to pray. That is a great mistake, for praying is a saving of time.”

In Greek there are two words for time – Chronos, which is the seconds and minutes of a watch, and Kronos, which is the opportunity, the “timeless event” in time. “All occasions” is translated “kairos” here. True prayers live in the kairos moment and are no slaves to clocks and time.

All kinds:

Inspired by the Father’s love may our tongues flow into “all kinds” of prayers. Diversity is the hall-mark of prayer. There are as many ways of praying as there are personalities and cultures. It is always good to be open to learning from others, but the key of prayer is to be able to recognise and develop your own God-given style. Corporate prayer is like arranging a beautiful bouquet of different flowers. Just as the skill of a professional florist can bring beauty from the right arrangement, so the skill of a seasoned prayer leader will bring harmony and strength to the corporate prayer event.

Don’t be afraid of people who pray differently from you. Don’t shut down their utterance. Sometimes people need space and time to learn to pray out loud and refine their words. Initiate long sessions of prayer which allow such apprenticeships. Don’t expect perfection, or theologically correct phraseology, but allow the precious pearl to emerge from the mud of the field.embrance_diversity

Be alert – no hypnosis!

The Greek word used here is “ayrupneo” has its roots in “hypnos” which means sleep, and “a”, which means “out of”, or “no”. No sinking into the land of nod for those who want to pray. I have always been amazed to see how many yawns appear, and how many people begin to sink into the arms of Morpheus during a prayer session. It is a spiritual battle to stay alert! Somnos is the Latin equivalent for sleep. Prayer pushes us to “insomnia,” or as the Muslims say, “Prayer is better than sleep.”

Hypnos, in Greek mythology, had a twin brother called Thanatos which gives us the word “death.” When most of the people are half-asleep or non-engaged in the prayer, you are simply inviting a very deathly spirit into your session. Remember the context of spiritual warfare within which this teaching on prayer is given. “Be Alert!”

Always keep on:

Forsyth said:

“The chief failure of prayer is its cessation.”

You will never finish a marathon if you stop. The very nature of prayer is persistence – not simply a legalistic masochism to get to the end of the session, but a hard-working, painfully sweating, sweet communion with our Bridegroom King. We do not just pray to get stuff, but the very “praying personality” which God is forming in us has untold eternal value in itself. The Bride is indeed, with much faithful perseverance, making herself ready.

For all the saints:

Who are the saints? This is what Pope Francis recently said on his Twitter page.

“To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.”

Our prayers must never remain only mystical words. Beware the aimless strumming of a guitar, or the endless listening to a worship cd for hours on end that sometimes goes by the name of a prayer session. At some point your prayer must connect!

Praying for the saints doesn’t mean a mystical devotion to an old man’s bones or a young man’s singing. It means finding incarnation and communion. 

Prayer needs to be directed to real people and projects. It needs a group of bodies to live in.  It needs your own willing body. It needs a living sacrifice. King David sums up this necessary incarnation in Psalm 109:4 when he says:

“I am a man of prayer.”

Translated  literally he is saying: “I am prayer…”

Prayer needs to incarnate into unreached people groups, language learning, faith sharing, generous giving, servanthood…crucifixion.

saintsYour prayers also need communion. The Apostles creed states that we believe “in the communion of the saints.” This can only be fully grasped in the context of prayer. We ever live in our prayers. Groanings and intercession outlast time and death. We can still be in communion with the prayers of Saint Paul…but also Saint Evan Roberts, and all the other cloud of witnesses who have faithfully, and often anonymously,  prayed throughout the ages.

We are called to pick up the baton of such prayers and carry them forward into our own generation. Longings and dreams for revival, for the awakening of whole people groups. How Hudson Taylor’s groanings for China have been taken up by a whole generation of Chinese now on their way “back to Jerusalem.”

There is indeed a necessary Synergy of intercession – a deep communion with the living prayers of those who have gone, and are going before us.

The every day “koinonia”  of a prayer group’s life is also vitally important for the efficacy of prayer. In Matthew 18:19-20 we read:

” Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

“Symphono” and “Synago” – the sweet music of agreement, and the unity of the gathered, true synergy, genuine communion...

“the saints go marching in!”

 

 

The Little River

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The little river said,little river

“I can become big river.”

It worked hard, but their was a big rock. The river said, “I’m going to get around this rock.” The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock.

Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall. Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through. The growing river said, “I can do it. I can push it. I am not going to give up for anything.”

Then there was an enormous forest. The river said, “I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.” And the river did.

The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down. The river said, “I’m going to go through this desert.” But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river. The river said, “Oh, no. I’m going to do it. I’m going to get myself through this desert.” But the river soon drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool.

Then the river heard a voice from above. “Just surrender. Let me lift you up. Let me take over.” The river said,

“Here I am.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud. He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and make the fields far away fruitful and rich.

There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves. But there is the voice that comes,

“Let go. Surrender. I will make you fruitful. Yes, trust me. Give yourself to me.

What counts in your life and mine is not successes but fruits. The fruits of your life you might not see yourself. The fruits of your life are born often in your pain and in your vulnerability and in your losses. The fruits of your life come only after the plow has carved through your land. God wants you to be fruitful.

The question is not, “How much can I still do in the years that are left to me?” The question is,

“How can I prepare myself for total surrender so my life can be fruitful?”

Our little lives are small, human lives. But in the eyes of the One who calls us the beloved, we are great-greater than the years we have. We will bear fruits, fruits that you and I will not see on this earth but in which we can trust.

Solitude, community ministry-these disciplines help us live a fruitful life. Remain in Jesus; he remains in you. You will bear many fruits, you will have great joy, and your joy will be complete.

Inspirational snippets from Henri Nouwen

Jedidiah

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In my previous article I talked about times of pruning by the divine gardener, and how we should find our identity in our bud rather than the branch. The bud is our dream, our intimacy with Christ our future hope for fruitfulness.bud_break

We also saw how in the pruning times the vines weeps and then dries back. In the desert time the danger is that the dryness might even destroy the precious bud.

This can sometimes happen leaving a feeling of total devastation and emptiness in the ministry. We may pray, fast and implore the Lord as we see the bud dying…

How do you survive the death of a bud, “the dark night of the soul”, the death of a dream?

Well, we can learn a lesson from good vine dressers…

Always leave a second bud!

Understand that God has left a second bud. There is always the possibility of a new beginning. As your tears dry and you come to terms with the loss and the dry barrenness, you suddenly discover that there is still the possibility of a new dream.

The story of David in 2 Samuel 12:15-25 can illustrate this concept in a moving metaphor of a second chance.

David’s first “bud” is dying, slain in innocence by the sin of its environment. “The Lord struck the child…” 

David hangs on, pleading with God, fasting, weeping and spending his nights “lying on the ground.” Like all of us, he cannot bear to see his dream die.

Beautifully Broken Web Banner“On the seventh day the child died.” For David it was seven days, but it may be seven years or thirty. God knows the perfect time to die and end a season.

I take great encouragement to see how David reacted at this critical moment of finality.

 

He “got up from the ground.”

He refused to stay crushed under the weight of sin and failure. He defies the natural gravity of depression and chose to move on. Perhaps God might be asking you to get up from the ground as well?

He “washed”

Seasons of loss can impregnate our spirits with sadness, unbelief and bitterness. It is important to allow the cleansing blood of Christ to wash us clean.

“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”  Hebrews 9:13-14

He “put on lotions”

Be perfumed by the Holy Spirit. When the woman broke her jar in the Gospels, perfume was released. Your very brokenness and loss releases more of God’s fragrance on your life.cleansed-25561-300

He “changed his clothes”

Allow the Lord to move you on to a new context. Like clothes that may have become old-fashioned or too small, we might need to put on and move into a more relevant Christian identity.

He “worshiped”

This was his beautiful victory. Like Job of old, he turned away from his personal problem and lost himself in the contemplation of the divine.

“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” Job 1:21-22

May we too have this same worshipful victory of keeping our hearts from any bitter slur against the loving character of God.

He “comforted”

The ultimate Comforter, the Holy Spirit, restored David and with the comfort he received he was able to pass on comfort to his wife. Take time to be comforted and restored. If necessary take a time out to heal, and renew the close relational links you may have.

And as he came to terms with his loss…he discovered that God had left a second bud!

He found “Jedidiah”

jedidiah-04His wife gave birth to a new son. The people knew the son as Solomon, who was to become a great and reigning king, but the hidden prophetic name was Jedidiah – “loved by the Lord.”

After the “man of blood” there was the man of peace who would build the temple. After the cross there is always the second bud of resurrection. After the guilt there is always a second chance at innocence.

May you find your second bud today if you need it. May you discover your own new beginning in Jedidiah and may you be truly “loved by the Lord.”

Bud or Branch?

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“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” John 15:1-2

We all get the chop sometime!grapeVines

This well-known passage begins with very good news, and then adds some less encouraging truth.

The good news is that every unfruitful piece of your life, your unbelief, pride, fear, rejection, and sinfulness will all be “cut off” in Christ’s vicarious death on the cross.

The less than exciting news is that your good fruitful works will also be cut back to prepare a new season of fruitfulness.

Many people never get beyond the first phase. Christian life for them revolves around a never-ending, sin centred ritual of personal survival, where they are constantly confessing and committing sin. Both inner and outer fruitfulness is sadly lacking in such a life which hangs on to a minimum level of grace but never actually produces Christ honouring fruit. It is a dangerous place to be as the longevity of such a faith is always in doubt and, as John the Baptist said in Luke 3:9:

“The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

We are all called to bear fruit

Fruit in handThe normal Christian experience must be to cultivate the inner, Christ like fruit of the Spirit as well as to impact the world around us with fruitful ministry.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” John 15:16

How is this working out in your own life? Perhaps you are at the beginning of your Christian life, the sap is rising and there is great promise for future fruit. Or you may be in the midst of a fruitful time of gathering and growing. Whatever your age, you must have a testimony of fruit. If you’ve read this and feel convicted by a lack of fruit in your life…don’t despair! The very conviction you feel is a sign that the sap is still in you. Make a decision to turn away from every barren thing in your life and get back into the Word of God and worship. Nurture the soil of your heart and fill it afresh with the living seed of Christ. Fruit will follow…

Seasons of pruning

For many, you will have produced fruit in the past but may be feeling the hard cut of the blade as years of fruitful ministry seem to be swept away leaving you with nothing to show. Perhaps after a dynamic start you have encountered a “dark night of the soul”, and find it hard to get close to God. Trials and testings may have eaten away at the fabric of faith while relational breakdown may also have cut in on the fruit of forgiveness.

The works of many years may need to be passed over to others. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 2:21, found this a grievous thing:

“For a man may do his work with wisdom knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it.”

Persecution and trouble may also have ended the fruitful work of years in an instant.

As I said at the beginning, pruning will come to us all. How do you survive a season of pruning?pruning close up

The main thing is getting your perspective right. Let me explain.

I lived for many years in the South of France so had the first hand experience of living amongst vineyards. When the vine is pruned, its gangling branches, which have borne the grapes, are cut right back to the vulnerable infant bud which is so near the original gnarled vine.

So what is your perspective? Are you a branch or a bud? In our success orientated world we are so used to comparing our branches and grapes. No-one seems interested in a little bud.

Do you see your personal identity in the branch or the bud?

bud_breakThe branches are our works but the bud is our intimacy with Christ. Cultivate intimacy and you will come through the pruning with a renewed energy to grow again. Stay close to the True Vine and find your value and identity in the simple love relation with Jesus.

Someone once said:

“I am successful because I am loved by Christ and can love Him in return.”

He must have been a “bud” to say that!

 

Tears and dryness

When a vine is cut back it “bleeds” profusely. Sugary saps leaks out from the broken branches for days. When the “tears” stop, a desert time begins when the branch will “dry back” to the bud.

In the same way, leave time for the bereavement, the seasons of tears followed by the times of dryness. This natural process is preparing the way for a new season.

Indeed, may we all end up, “even more fruitful” bringing glory to our Father.

“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” John 15:8

New oil for a new season…

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“Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” Matthew 25:8lamp

Matthew 25 opens with the challenging parable concerning ten virgins going out to meet the bridegroom. The foolish have only their shining lamps with a first deposit of oil while the wise have brought along jars in which to carry fresh oil.

I fear that many times we may be more like the foolish maidens if we only spend our time on the instant satisfaction of ministry and meetings rather than on the lengthy cultivation of a deep relationship with the Lord. In an ideal world we no doubt do both, but it seems that the coming emphasis may be more on the “jars” than on the “lamps”.

In Matthew 7:21-23 we are presented with the stark reality of a ministry in action without the corresponding intimacy of relationship. “Lamps” may have burned in casting out demons, or shone brightly in prophetic revelation, but the terrible final verdict is, “I never knew you…”

A midnight hour awaits this world; when, like the disciples at Gethsemane, the Church will become drowsy and even fall asleep. Let’s make the most of our ease and happiness while it lasts, as difficult times may well be ahead.

There is a critical moment in time just before the return of the Bridegroom. The virgins stir from their slumber and “revival” seems to be in the air. A wonderful time of opportunity presents itself as light pierces the darkness to illuminate a path for the Beloved’s return.

But is it sustainable?

So often it is easier to light a lamp than to sustain its burning. Early enthusiasm can wane in the lonely darkness of the midnight hour. The love of most can grow cold as wickedness increases.

Burn outBurn out or burn on? That is the question!

Whatever the eschatological time frame you use, many of us, here and now are confronted with this question. As John the Baptist sought to prepare a way for the Lord and rejoiced at the sound of the bridegroom (John 3:29) so churches and missions throughout history have trimmed their lamps in active ministry.

The oil may be running out of some our present structures and ministries. Excellent books have been written about the various paradigm shifts in history and the need for a different approach to an ever-changing world. (Transforming Mission – D.Bosch; The Shaping of Things to Come – Frost and Hirsch)

The lamp of our own minds and bodies can also ebb and flow in the natural rhythms of life and, rather than drift into the inevitable entropy of burnt out broken dreams, we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit shine on into a new season of usefulness.

How? Well, we need to be wise. We need to be able to draw on the stored resources of fresh oil.

We need new oil for a new season.

The bad news for the foolish Church, nourished on the instant “junk food” capitalist gospel, which says that you can just go and buy it, is that “You can’t!” Don’t miss out on the King’s return by losing your way on the consumerist religion road.

In fact, it would be better to wait in the acknowledged bankruptcy and darkness of our oil less life, trusting in the ultimate grace of the Beloved, rather than lose the whole thing by trying to buy our way out of the situation.

So where do we get this oil?

We need to take another road, the road that leads to the oil press, Gethsemane. Gethsemane means oil-press in most Hebrew interpretations.Oil Press

Gethsemane is the place of suffering, stress, and prayer. It is the ultimate place of obedience.

“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”  Matthew 26:42

We store up this new oil in our jars as we follow Jesus into costly obedience. We take responsibility for the lot in life that has fallen to us and push through the pain barrier in vulnerable prayer, finding our strength at the cross. This is the oil of intimacy that will burn in the “end time” church and which has always burned in the faithful throughout history.

Do you remember the Jewish “Hanukkah” story which is inspired by the books of 1&2 Makkabees in the Apocrypha?

Under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes the Jewish temple had been destroyed and desecrated by the invaders. The “hammer” of the passion of the Makkabee family struck back and regained the temple, only to find that everything had been polluted. They so longed to light the lamps but only enough oil was found to burn for one day. It would take eight days to make and consecrate new oil. Then the slow burn miracle happened. The lamp, instead of burning out, burned on into the eighth day.

It burned on into a new beginning.

menorahMy prayer as I write these lines is for the costly oil of Gethsemane and the miraculous Hanukkah oil of new beginnings.

May none of us be foolish and “burn out”. Even though the midnight darkness closes in and our brows are damp with pain, may we continue to say “yes”. Even though we feel desecrated, broken and oil less, may we know the miracle of burning on to the transcendent eighth day of new start.  Dean Stanley writing many years ago about Gethsemane mentions eight olive trees. This is indeed a fitting image of the Hanukkah new beginning and the Gethsemane oil together.

“In spite of all the doubts that can be raised against their antiquity, the eight aged olive-trees, if only by their manifest difference from all others on the mountain, have always struck the most indifferent observers. They will remain, so long as their already protracted life is spared, the most venerable of their race on the surface of the earth. Their gnarled trunks and scanty foliage will always be regarded as the most affecting of the sacred memorials in or about Jerusalem.”

The time to fill your jars is now!