Names of hope

Names in the Bible often have significance, and that is why I’ve found reaching the end of 2 Chronicles (and therefore the end of the Old Testament in the Hebrew order) fascinating.

The last King of Judah to achieve anything is Josiah (whose name sounds something like: May Yahweh give, or perhaps ‘may Yahweh heal’ according to a different dictionary), who reforms Judah’s worship, rebuilds the temple and rediscovers the book of the Law as he follows Yahweh wholeheartedly.  Yet even these reforms do not accomplish anything lasting, the kings after him do not follow his ways, and the people return to their idolatry.

2 Chronicles 36 lists these final kings, and it was their names that caught my attention as I read.  There is Jehoahaz – which sounds something like ‘Yahweh is strong’ or ‘Yahweh gives strength’, but he only lasts 3 months before the King of Egypt deposes him and takes him off to Egypt.  He is replaced by his brother: Jehoiakim, which sounds something like ‘Yahweh exalts’, but after 11 years of his reign Nebuchadnezzar invades and takes him into exile, replacing Jehoiakim with his son Jehoiachin.  Jehoiachin’s name sounds something like ‘Yahweh establishes’, but he only lasts 3 months, enough time to do evil in the eyes of Yahweh, and then be replaced by Zedekiah whose name sounds like ‘Yahweh is righteous’.  Despite the promising name Zedekiah too does evil and after 11 years of his reign Babylon invades once more, and the survivors of the population are taken off to Babylon in exile.

It is striking that as Judah goes on the downhill route to exile because of their continued rebellion against God their kings have names that should remind everyone of who is really in control.  It is possible to conceive that even while rebelling against Yahweh, and worshipping other gods, that the royal family is still determined to sound like it is doing the right thing.  Perhaps they are among those who say ‘this is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’ in Jeremiah 7, and who follow the deceiving  prophets that Jeremiah has to contend with who say ‘peace, peace’ but there is no peace.  They can say the right things, and yet reject God in their hearts.

And yet even if these kings are named out of a false show of piety they testify to the reality of what is going on behind the scenes.  Behind the scenes God is still the one who gives strength.  God is the one who lifts up and brings low, God is the one who establishes and God is the one who is ultimately righteous.  The Babylonians were the instrument of his judgment – yet behind them he was already raising up the Persians who would allow the Judeans to return, as the end of 2 Chronicles testifies.

The book of Daniel points to the rise and fall of many empires on the world stage, but in the midst of these empires rising and falling there is rock not built with human hands.  There is one like a son of man in the midst of beastly empires.  His reign and rule will be established by God.  And he will reign in righteousness for ever.

The encouragement for the believer in a 2 Chronicles 36 type world where God’s people seem under pressure, and in decline, is that God’s character remains the same.   He continues to make strong and to build up.  He is righteous, and his righteous kingdom will know no end.  In such a world he simply calls for faithfulness.

Josiah’s reforms didn’t achieve very much.  Within 3 decades Jerusalem was overturned and had fallen – his reforms did not last beyond his lifetime.  And yet he was faithful, and was commended for his faithfulness. Sometimes our faithfulness will be like that.  Sometimes we won’t achieve very much.  But the call is the same.  Keep on seeking to do God’s will God’s way, and trust him with the results.

Doing God’s work his way does go into a bigger picture.  Josiah’s reforms at least meant the book of the Law was rediscovered, and when the people went back to the land they could build on God’s Word rather than making it up.  The reforms were too late to save the kingdom, but they sowed the seeds for the next stage of God’s plan.  We don’t always get to see that plan.  Josiah didn’t see that plan.  We simply have to act, as Josiah did, in obedience, one step at a time, to our faithful God and leave the outcome in his hands.

As we do that we know that the outcome is secure, that Christ’s kingdom will come in all its fullness, that we may not see reasons right now, or understand why obedience is necessary – but it will one day be worth it when the righteous King takes his throne for ever and he establishes and lifts up, when he puts right what is wrong.  That gives us strength not to listen to the false prophets of peace, and not to follow the paths of idolatry away from our God.  On that final day we will see and know the one we hope and trust in now, and we will see and know that the difficulty of following now was worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

Missing

Tomorrow, 22nd March, would be Mum’s 80th birthday. For her 70th my friend Cate and I bought my wedding dress. For her 60th I was in my final year of my undergraduate degree. Days I never got to mark with her because she had died December 1994. Time does heal but time also brings a new ache. Becoming a mum myself has given new shape to my memories of her, of our relationship, of what might have been. While there is sadness that she has not been around to meet Mark or the boys, it is in having a daughter of my own that the ache has deepened. In so many ways I see my younger self in our determined independent daughter and in mothering her I am given new insights to mum and my own relationship with her.  I long to say sorry, to ask forgiveness, to forgive, to hopefully laugh as we recall moments from my own childhood that are being played out again with me as the mother this time. Over the past few days I have had little reminders of my mum’s sacrifices she made for us, her volunteering; as a children’s play assistant at the local hospital, and with meals on wheels to name two that stand out in my mind. The meals we had every day, clean clothes, a home. I long to be gathering with all the family tomorrow to sing her happy birthday and to celebrate her. For her to be celebrated not because of what she did,  but because she was her.  As with me she was not perfect, but she was and is my mum and tomorrow there will be something missing in my day.

With mother’s day this coming Sunday as well, there is a rawness to my edges this week, a frailty to my desire to have it altogether, to not be swayed by things so easily. Today has been a day when the tears have spilt easily and awkwardly at different times. And as happens so often it is never just one thing that tears are spilt in an ache that is runs 22 years deep. But however deep it is, it is the channel into which other past journeys find their way and spill out.  God led me to the passage today in John’s gospel where Mary Magdalen encounters the resurrected Jesus in the garden. I was preparing it for an Easter reflection I am doing in a couple of weeks with the ladies fellowship and realising that mum might have been part of such a group. I thought I was on safe ground getting on with preparing this for others. For some reason I forgot that it was God’s word and that is not how He works. This was a passage He was and is going to first use in my life. Twice Mary is asked why she is weeping. It is not as an accusation but as a concern, a recognition of where she is at. It is Jesus who asks her the second time  and he follows it with the question ‘who are you looking for?’ And through my own tears I sensed God asking me that question, in my tears and rawness ‘who are you, Roz, looking for?’ I am looking for someone who is not brought to tears as easily as I am, who does not feel vulnerable and fear like I do. I am looking for the good parts of my life to have been woven into a different past. I am looking for a way to make the truths stand out louder than the lies.  I am looking to not doubt and wobble. And in looking for a different me I miss God and His ways. I miss Him calling my by my name. I miss that in my weakness He is made strong. I miss Him.

So tomorrow I will invite the children to join me in the garden, a place that mum loved and where many of happy memories of being with her are rooted, along with sitting Sunday by Sunday in church holding hands as we joined with those around us to say the Lord’s prayer. To be in God’s creation, to get my hands dirty, to root myself where He has placed us, to tell them stories of Granny, talk with and about God to them. To remember Mum and know that God is present and while sometimes we can miss Him He never loses sight of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peniel

A couple of Facebook posts, combined with lack of sleep due to the sickness bug sweeping through our family have put me in rather nostalgic mode.  One thing people have often noted about talking to us is how alive we come when we are describing our years at Regent in Vancouver.  The two sets of images in this post are one way of answering why we loved it so much.  The first comes from Regent Library.

The post invited us to describe our memories of Regent Library – this is what I put:

From the hours in my first summer term, doing ‘suicide’ Greek homework in the afternoon in the comparative cool of the library before emerging into the hot sunshine. The progression over the three years from at first Roz wheeling our eldest in the stroller to dig Daddy out of the library, and then his enjoyment at going into the library to get Daddy to come home, or come up for a hot chocolate at the well.

Speed reading CTC readings and writing summaries into some strange format for Moodle – actually very good training for the complex and frustrating hermeneutics summaries (which in turn were vital groundwork for further study).

The moment of realisation as I translated the story of Elijah and the widow’s son from 1 Kings for 2nd year Hebrew – this Yahweh who provides in such strange ways is the same Yahweh I trust today, and still provides in strange ways for our family.

The chance conversations outside the library on the way in or out that were all part of learning in community. The piles of books as I went slowly mad getting a seminar paper written in my final year – fortunately I managed to get it written before our second son arrived!

Sitting on the sofas rocking our second son in his stroller while trying to read some more Childs, Brueggemann or other OT scholar for the comprehensive exam and willing him to sleep for another hour or so… The beautiful calligraphy in those pictures reminding me each day that learning more stuff is useless if it isn’t part of the reality of a daily living relationship with the LORD from whom all wisdom and knowledge comes. A great place. Haven’t found a library to match it…

The second image is these words:

lord-of-all-the-nations

This was the unofficial Regent hymn, sung at our welcome and at our leaving, and it encapsulates what I have occasionally tried to put into words and failed – the way in which our times at Regent had the effect of unmaking and remaking us.

The second verse speaks of purification, loosening, of God entering and untangling.  What they can’t say, until you experience it is the struggle this involves, the bewilderment and dislocation.  Sometimes an academic and intellectual dislocation, sometimes a very personal unmaking.

For us, for me it involved both – in my first year I remember the dis-orientation and bewilderment of trying to make sense of how Christianity and culture and philosophy have interacted and whether these different ways have been good and bad.  I remember the relief of realising I didn’t have to solve all these issues to still trust the good God who gives us all we need for our journeys with him.

The personal unmaking came later.  The pain of our second miscarriage in 2010, and the trauma of the aftermath followed me into the grey Vancouver November – and yet I remember too how that November was a time of deepening community ties, at church and  at Regent.  Of soup lunches after chapel, and soup evenings with our church small group.  Of a chapel service and evening lecture where the words spoken could have been written directly to me.  The assurance of God’s keeping and guiding.

Those unmakings may only be hinted at in the song – but when the song is sung at the end of the journey, then their reality comes to be a part of the song.  The final verse is the key – alluding as it does to the mysterious wrestling match between God and Jacob on the journey back to his brother.  In the story God is sending Jacob back – but it is not the Jacob who left.  The story in Genesis tells of a God who transforms Jacob into Israel.  Jacob comes away from the encounter knowing he is not in charge, and knowing that he has seen God face to face.  Jacob demands a blessing – and he gets one, but not what he expects.  God’s blessing is not to give us our way, on our terms.

God’s blessing is that we come away with identities built not on our achievement, background or gifts, but on his calling and design. God’s blessing is not that we are successful heroes, but limping servants, who, by walking with the limp show the power of Christ in us, the one whose power is shown in weakness.  God’s blessing to the world comes, not by political power, or charismatic magnetism, but by a crucified carpenter whose weak and foolish death overcomes the power and wisdom of the world.

And so we ask that he would indeed wrestle with our spirits until we are his alone.  Knowing that in this world that wrestling is ongoing.  There is always more of us to give to the more of him we are always discovering as we walk with him, and there is always more struggle from us when we recoil from the hardship, fail to understand the wisdom and refuse to trust his promise.  And yet, still we can turn and hold on to him.  Sometimes that is all we can do.  Sometimes there are no answers – and yet he is still at work.  In the darkness. In the pain. His holding of us means we can hold to the promise that the light will shine out the clearer for the darkness having been so dark.  That one day we will taste his glory, and the glimpses of his face will become sight.  One day he will touch us and make us fully whole again – for healing then will be total, real, and irreversible.  That day is to come.

And until that day we limp on, strengthened by times and places where God becomes more real and more vivid to us.  Regent was such a place for us – and that song, intertwined with our lives in that place, reminds me of the place of encounter it was for us.   That came flooding back a few weeks ago when our friends and neighbours from Vancouver days were able to be at our induction service in our new role.  When they walked into the building I could scarcely hold back the tears – and while doing my introduction to us up front knew I couldn’t look at them for fear of giving way to tears completely.  Their being there tied at least three aspects of my life together, and reinforced the sense that here, now, is the right place and the right calling, that will somehow use the experiences thus far for our good as a family and the good of the church, and for his glory.  I could go on but I need to sleep, praying that our family would sleep too.

 

Hopefully that gives a taster of the time Regent & Vancouver were, and the lessons learnt – lessons that help us keep on keeping on here and now – until the day when will indeed see clearly Peniel – the face of God.

Best Books of 2016

I’ve seen a couple of these posts go up by other people, and it seemed like a good idea for a blog post.  Look backing on 2016 I’ve realised that  I actually managed to read quite a range of books (rather than lots of academic monographs and journal articles).  So, in chronological order rather than any order of merit, here are my top reads – covering an eclectic range of books.

  1. The Shepherds Life by James Rebanks:
    https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-shepherds-life/james-rebanks/9780141979366
    This sneaks in, although technically it is a 2015 read, because it is the book Roz bought me to celebrate my PhD viva.  It was great to switch gear completely, and the book is a fascinating read about a part of the world I live, but telling the story of the people who live and work the land rather than the tourists who trample it.
    After that I’m sure I did read some books between that and my 40th birthday, but they have escaped my memory.
  2. The Bees by Laline Paull:
    https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-bees/laline-paull/9780007557745
    This was one of my 40th birthday presents (as well as organising a surprise party, Roz also ensured I received lots of books by asking people to buy books they had liked over the last year).  This is a fascinating novel, set in a bee colony.  If you like science fiction type works, then this is a generally good read, and it was the first thing like this I’d read for a while.
  3. The Humans by Matt Haig:
    https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-humans/matt-haig/9780857868787
    I really didn’t like this one for the first few chapters, but persisted as it was another gift, and ended up quite liking it due to the thoughts about what it is to be human that it provoked – it is another sci-fi type book.
  4. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
    https://www.waterstones.com/book/all-the-light-we-cannot-see/anthony-doerr/9780008138301
    Another gift, this one had both Roz and I completely hooked – set in the second world war it tells the intertwined tales of a young French girl, and German boy growing up and meeting.  It was utterly compelling.  The sections set in Germany reminded me once more of the horrors of Nazism, in particular the subtle seductions of giving up thinking for ourselves in exchange for being part of an “inner circle”, and the cruelty humans are capable of.  In a year when politics has become dominated by meaningless slogans of empty promises based around demonising the outsider reflecting on the way that ordinary people became part of extraordinary horror is vital so that we don’t make the same, or similar, mistakes again.
  5. Paul and The Gift by John Barclay
    https://www.waterstones.com/book/paul-and-the-gift/john-m-g-barclay/9780802868893
    The first ‘academic’ book to make it into the list.  I took advantage of having finished my PhD to actually read some current NT studies.  This is a really good book.  As well as being important and interesting it is also really well written.  Barclay analyses various ways in which the concept of gift was used in the world of the NT, and then the implications of this for understanding Paul’s theology – aiming to chart something of a middle way between ‘old’ and ‘new’ perspectives.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, although I’d probably need to reread and think further to fully evaluate it.
  6. Old Testament Theology (three vols) by John Goldingay
    https://www.waterstones.com/book/old-testament-theology/john-goldingay/9780830824946
    I’ve been working my way through these on and off for a while.  They contain lots of interesting exegesis and ideas, but you do need to read quickly as Goldingay is, rather like NT Wright, somewhat on the expansive side when it comes to writing.  He is always good for forcing the reader to go back to the text and see what it really says.
  7. A Praying Life – Paul Miller
    https://www.10ofthose.com/products/6022/a-praying-life
    This was another 40th present.  I had read it before – but am very glad that we now have a copy because it is the best book on prayer I have ever read.  It is easy to read, but never trivial.  It never pretends that life is anything other than very hard at times, but never lets go of the goodness of God in the midst of the pain.  Most importantly when I read the book I was motivated to actually pray.  Buy it now.
  8. Serving without Sinking – John Hindley
    https://www.10ofthose.com/products/14182/serving-without-sinking/
    This is also a very good book – for anyone who serves in any way in their local church or other christian organisation this is also a must read.  Helps us ground our identity in Christ so that we don’t take on too much.  Another book to read – once you’ve finished “A Praying Life”.
  9. Being Human in God’s World – Gordon McConville
    https://www.waterstones.com/book/being-human-in-gods-world/j-gordon-mcconville/9780801048968
    This was my present from Roz on graduating – my PhD supervisor’s latest book, completed about the same time as my PhD.  It is an overview of what the OT has to say about humanity.  I particularly liked the chapters on place and being made in God’s image.  Very useful overviews of the OT and scholarship on various different issues to do with what it means to live as humans in God’s world.
  10. Seriously Dangerous Religion – Iain Provan
    https://www.waterstones.com/book/seriously-dangerous-religion/iain-w-provan/9781481300223
    Only just sneaks in, because this was a Christmas present from Roz.  Between Roz and I we’ve probably taken most of Iain’s classes at Regent and for me his Introduction to the Old Testament was a wonderful start to my Regent experience – I was particularly struck by the affirmation of the goodness of God.  His course on Hermeneutics and Biblical Criticism gave me a map of how and why biblical scholars have thought and interpreted as they have over the last 150 years or so, and the seminar on OT Theology I took in my final year gave me the grounding and tools I needed for PhD studies, as well as 12 fascinating sets of readings and discussion in a great small group seminar.
    This book takes on those critics of the OT who think that it produces dangerous ideas of a nasty god, and by a careful reading of the OT (especially Genesis) shows that in fact God is both utterly good and at the same time far more dangerous than they have realised.  Dangerous that is to all those who want to live in comfort and security without regard for the fact that this world is the work of a good and loving God and who damage people made in God’s image and the world that is his good gift for people to take care of.  Well worth reading – with some really interesting sections comparing the biblical worldview with that of other religions and philosophies.  It always engages closely with the biblical text, and so even if you end up disagreeing with conclusions here and there you will have been forced to think carefully about what the text says and why you think it means what it does – never a bad thing!
  11. The Life you never Expected – Andrew & Rachel Wilson
    https://www.10ofthose.com/products/17758/the-life-you-never-expected/
    Technically this is a January 2017 book, but it is so good that I had to list it here.  This is the next book after “A Praying Life” that I would buy on this list. It tells Andrew & Rachel’s story of raising autistic children – but in the process gives a really good perspective on the whole of the Christian life, in particular on the reality that often really hard things happen that we will never (at least this side of eternity) understand – and we have to live with the unanswered questions.  This book is really useful in giving a perspective that will help to live in such times.

 

Learning to plough

I have not written weekly home ed updates this season. It’s been a very different season to the one I neatly time tabled and planned in colour code back in August. Our children are people with their own minds and for this season writing that incorporated their actions has felt an intrusion on who they are. It has been a session where I have named and started to own my anxiety. To recognise past actions that have fed into that, balanced with hormonal impacts and a lack of nightly solid sleep. The difference speaking them out loud to another makes sense. In scripture we are called to confess our sins to one another. Anxiety works the same way. We are freed from the hold of them when they are out there. We still have to address them, to face the consequences, to work through them but they no longer enslave us. Just this past Tuesday having spent the day going round in circles with anxiety and finally getting time late at night to share with Mark and laugh over them together was I able to drift off to sleep peacefully and enjoy Wednesday. Issues were still present but I was able to put logical thinking into action and address those that needed action.

It has been a term when we have journeyed through the application and interview process for a new job with a church which we will be starting in the New Year. That has taken far more out of me than I anticipated. It has meant facing up to many fears and events in my past. It has meant acknowledging pains and wrongs afresh as I look to head back into church ministry. In some ways it has meant a new journey with God. I want to say it has meant I have spent more time with Him, praised Him more. In reality it has more often than not meant leaning on the truths I know of Him of old and putting one foot in front of the other as laundry, meals and lessons have gone on, hoping that it is true that He has gone ahead and prepared a place. That He has promised to be with us to the end of the age as we go and make disciples.

There is a passage in scripture that speaks of some being sowers and others watering and others harvesting. I have never felt any of those have been true of me. But one Saturday morning following The Well God showed me His calling for me and in a moment; that moment after my heart had sunk and gone ‘not again Lord’ as I saw the realisation of dreams I had held for a place come to fruition but once more not on my watch; so much of my journey behind and I suspect of what lies ahead is that I am called to plough. To simply go up and down the field turning the soil and preparing it so someone else can sow, someone else can water, someone else can harvest. A friend reminded me that without soil no seeds can take root and grow. It is a hard road, the ground has often been left and there is much that needs turning over, breaking up, softening and the plough and plough horses are too heavy to go on the ground once the seeds come and so that often means I have not been around to see any harvest. I had grown weary and frustrated wondering what it was God had called me to, but in that moment I was reminded He has called me to co work with Him and this is what He has called me to. Gardening and care of creation requires preparation, so does discipleship. So does evangelism, so does worship. Our hearts and minds need to be ready to receive so they can give.  God can and chooses to use me. Another friend when I shared this with her encouraged me with the thought of how long had God been ploughing and preparing this earth for us. We may not often talk about it but ploughing is part of God’s creative work if we think of what is needed to have what we have now.

Right now we have a new job starting in January but no home to move to till sometime in February. This is hard. I like to be in control. I like to be able to plan, to write detailed to do lists, to steadily work my way through them. To have a plan of action. I have none right now. For how much can you pack away now incase you don’t move till February? The thought of doing it all quickly straight after Christmas though throws me into a spin especially as it will be for a temporary move at that point if that plan works out.

So mixing the uncertainty of the move with the fears of my past record with churches and the thought right now of stepping into this new adventure has spiked my anxiety. Realising that the last time I was in a team ministry setting as the only woman was deeply wounding at so many levels. Spiritual abuse is so often misunderstood and disregarded and damaging to the person. That twice I have been asked to leave church, the very first at my infant baptism. It may not seem much to many but realising 40 years on that at a significant event in your faith journey the minister rearranges the service to baptise you right at the start and then ask your parents to leave the service with you because you are not quiet actually spoke massively over your life. To be told you might as well leave as there is nothing for you at the church you have grown up in and served and given everything you had for it because your understanding of loving God and youth weren’t on the same page let alone same book. Yet it was where God found you. To be in a church where you thought might be safe and shared your story of spiritual abuse only to discover that the same was happening there too. To balance that another church was the very opposite where I saw clearly God providing me with a save haven thanks to the actions of the church leaders actions in the months before going without them knowing I would be coming but because of my story. God has shown me the blessings of church but church overall for me is not the safe place many say it is or should be. But it is God’s place and He is safe, He can be trusted and so I trust Him, I trust that if this is His way that He wants the world to know His love than I will stick with it. I will follow Him. I will follow His way. I will plough where He asks me. I will do my part to be a light to the world of a God who loves us, who is mercifully and compassionate beyond measure. And I will plough the ground where He asks and let Him guide someone else to sow the seeds He has for those fields trusting that in the final redemption His light will shine bright in the lines that I have ploughed and others tended.

Living by the faithfulness of God

For a year now I’ve been working, and the salary from this, together with various other sources of income usually ensures we survive from month to month.  But for 6 years I didn’t have a full time job, while I studied first for a masters and then for a PhD.  When I started the PhD we had enough money for two years, but no idea how three was going to work.  Somehow it did, sometimes by grants for the studies, sometimes by one off donations from friends or family (often we knew that this meant someone else had been generous to them, and we were enjoying the cascading effects of generosity), and sometimes from completely anonymous people.  I vividly remember the time when, after spending £90 on an unexpected car bill, an envelope containing a similar sum appeared in our letterbox.  Sometimes people would say to me: “you must have lots of faith” or talk about how we were “living by faith”.  I know what they mean, but I doubt it is true.  If we lived my faith we’d be a pretty hopeless state.  Whenever our bank balance slides low my faith slides with it.  My worry levels shoot up.  I struggle to see how God will do it this time.  I don’t think we lived by my faith.  We lived and we live by God’s faithfulness.

It is this faithfulness that is the heart of the bible story I read to number 2 tonight.  I’ve loved it ever since I translated it in Hebrew class in my second year at Regent and it vividly hit me: the God I am writing about is the God who lives today.  I know this God – and this God knows me.  Here is the story – from 1 Kings 17:

8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, 9 “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” 11 And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 And she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” 13 And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’” 15 And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

There are a couple of things about this story that stick out.  Firstly, it is a change for Elijah – he has been by a brook, fed by ravens, but that has dried up.  So now God sends him to a widow outside Israel, to a widow who lives close to enemy territory, close to where Jezebel comes from.  God has commanded a widow to feed Elijah, but for the widow Elijah’s request is not easy.  She is preparing the last meal for her, and her son, and after that, she says “we will die”.

Then Elijah speaks: “Do not fear” – the widow has spoken out of fear of death and out of her despair – she knows no other possibility.  But Elijah knows.  Her flour and oil supplies will not run out until the Lord sends rain on the earth.  Until the economy gets moving again her supplies will provide all she needs.  But first she must obey the word of the Lord and feed Elijah.  If she holds on to the fear she will die.  If she trusts the word of God through Elijah she will live.

I remember that speaking vividly to me.  God provides – but one step at a time.  Our part is to listen to his word and do what he says.  We can trust that God will provide all we need – even if it looks like we’ve just spent the last oil we have.  We don’t just have Elijah’s word for it.  We have Jesus’ word for it.  Seek first his kingdom – and everything else will be added to you.  The word of the Lord can be trusted.   God is faithful to his word and his promise.

Life is still hard, and things happen that don’t make sense – read the next story in 1 Kings. But God remains faithful and the word he speaks remains true.  Where do your jars look empty?  Where is it that you cannot believe God will supply what you need?  It may not be money. It might be hopes and dreams for a relationship, or a career that fulfils.  But whatever the thing is that right now will cost you all your fears and hopes for the future can be poured out, and given to his service.  He can be trusted.

The next step may not be what you want.  It may not be your dream life or career.  But it will be a step taken with a God who is good and a God who is faithful.  A God who is true.  A God who is kind.  A God who loves you more than you can dream.  A God whose design for you is that you live out the life you were designed to live by your creator – a life that will at times be hard and full of tears – and yet a life that, in the long run, will be the best for us  and for this broken hurting world. Paul’s prayer in 1 Thessalonians holds true:

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

Who can sound the depths of sorrow?

I can’t quite remember a time when politics has depressed me quite so much.  Today I found myself searching for these words of lament over the state of our nation – 30 years old, but still ringing true today:

Who can sound the depths of sorrow
In the Father heart of God
For the children we’ve rejected
For the lives so deeply scarred?
And each light that we’ve extinguished
Has brought darkness to our land
Upon our nation, upon our nation
Have mercy, Lord

We have scorned the truth you gave us
We have bowed to other lords
We have sacrificed the children
On the altars of our gods
O let truth again shine on us
Let your holy fear descend
Upon our nation, upon our nation
Have mercy, Lord

(Men only)
Who can stand before your anger?
Who can face your piercing eyes?
For you love the weak and helpless
And you hear the victims’ cries
(AII)
Yes, you are a God of justice
And your judgement surely comes
Upon our nation, upon our nation
Have mercy, Lord

(Women only)
Who will stand against the violence?
Who will comfort those who mourn?
In an age of cruel rejection
Who will build for love a home?
(All)
Come and shake us into action
Come and melt our hearts of stone
Upon your people, upon your people
Have mercy, Lord

Who can sound the depths of mercy
In the Father heart of God?
For there is a Man of sorrows
Who for sinners shed his blood
He can heal the wounds of nations
He can wash the guilty clean
Because of Jesus, because of Jesus
Have mercy, Lord

Graham Kendrick

I thought of this weeks headlines.  In Britain the contribution of foreigners is being denigrated by our ruling political party (somewhat ironically in the name of attacking ruling elites, but we’ll leave that irony for another day).  Our business secretary wants businesses to have to disclose the number of foreigners they have working for them.  Apparently foreign experts are not welcome to advise the government on the implications of Brexit. There seems to a knee jerk nationalism creeping onto the Conservative platform in a way it hasn’t really shown itself before.  Yes, they’ve always claimed the patriotic mantle – but not usually directly attacking the contribution made by non-british born.  That leaves me sad, and not a little fearful of the direction of travel.  It’s made worse by the fact that the main opposition party is tearing itself apart, so it is left to the remainder of the Liberals to point out what is at stake.

And then I woke up this morning to the latest from the USA.  Words fail me.  This is such a wrong attitude to women – and his actions and words since give little grounds for believing his attitude to women has changed much.  This is why the song is in my head.  It was originally penned about abortion, but it applies to anything that treats people as less than what they are – people made in God’s image – loved by him.

It applies we imagine that the foreigner is automatically under suspicion, simply because of race.  It applies when we think we can treat women as objects to be used and thrown away.  It applies when think that people holding this attitude should hold power over us and that we should value such traits.

This isn’t the place for an in-depth analysis of how we have got to such a place.  But I wonder at the Christian response.  This is where I think the song is especially important and powerful.  We are to come back to the Father heart of God for his creation.  We are to see people as he sees them. If we are Christians we are Christians first and British, US, Irish, Canadian or whatever second.  Christians obey the state (Romans 13) yet profoundly threaten it because they refuse to worship it (Revelation 13).

We are strangers and exiles.  Exiles.  People in a foreign land.  The world is our home – because it is made and will be redeemed by God – and yet the world is not our home, because it is in rebellion against its creator – and yet it is this world in all its badness that is loved by God.  It is loved by God so much that he comes as the man of sorrows who for sinners shed his blood.  He doesn’t come as a bully threatening and boosting his image. He comes as a baby, grows to be a man and dies on a cross – and it is in this death, even death on a cross that he displays his greatest glory.  We are to lament the state of our world, and see God’s heart for his creation in the midst of it all.

So as Christians how do we respond when politics turns so ugly?

First – I think we repent of our part in these attitudes.  When have we been suspicious of difference?  When have we treated women, or men, as less than human, in thought, word or deed?  We search our hearts and repent.

Second we repent of putting our hope in princes – and not in the Prince of Peace.  For those times when we have thought that getting the laws right, or the judges right, or the right person in office would solve things, or advance God’s kingdom.

Third we recognise there are no perfect choices.  Standing in the ballot box we vote for who we can in good conscience support.  We take into account all the different options, and when we shudder at the different possible results we trust God that he is sovereign over the kingdoms of men.

Then we recognise that sometimes the result will look like defeat for truth and righteousness.  Sometimes Nebuchadnezzar will carry off the temple vessels to Babylon.  Sometimes elections mean that a Hitler comes to power.  If that happens we remember our calling.  We remember we are called to be faithful and obedient in our daily choices.  To live lives of justice and mercy one choice at a time.

There are no political parties or philosophies of government here and now that will bring God’s kingdom.  We signpost people to God’s kingdom one choice at a time, looking forward to the day when God will establish his reign of truth and justice.  Until that day we look to do the good we can, in whatever way we can.

Sometimes that means Christians influencing public policy and being involved in government.  Sometimes the doors to that path are shut.  And then we need to shine out all the brighter in a dark world.  It may just be that in the west that politics is about to turn really nasty – after a decade of economic depression that wouldn’t exactly be a surprise (can’t help remember European history in the 1930s here…).  It may be that freedoms we have taken as our rights are about to be taken away – probably always for the best of reasons, and with the most plausible sounding arguments.   If that dark turn happens then we keep trusting.  Keeping obeying God once choice at a time and see what he does.

And if things don’t turn out that badly.  If there is still a door open to hear the Christian perspective then it is still about right decisions one step at a time.  Each of us seeking to obey God’s call on our life – in whichever situation we are placed, to use whatever influence we can to show God’s ways and encourage justice and mercy in public life. We remember the example of biblical characters like Daniel who spoke truth to power (see Daniel 4-5 especially). We must always repent of the triumphalism that says we spread Christianity by the state, whether by violent means or by the ballot box.  Micah 6:8 is always the call:

He has told you O man what is good – and what does the LORD require of you, but that you act justly, and that you love mercy and that you walk humbly with your God.

Do not despair when politics turns dark.  Pray for Christians in places of power and influence.  Influence where you can.  Participate in politics.  But know that our hope is not in politics.  Our hope is in the King.  He is coming.  And until the day when our faith will be sight we are called to walk now in the dark places of the world showing his reign in lives of just action, merciful love and humble walking with our God.