Monday, 28 April 2014

Here I am: send someone else

It's about time I came clean, I think. 

Yesterday we had one of those sermons that reaches out and grabs you. It was about having the confidence to speak to people about our faith. About being brave enough, honest enough, sure enough to take an opportunity to tell someone about Jesus.

I am sure enough; I've never been surer of anything than I am of the truth that God loves us so much that He sent Jesus Christ to die in my place. That Jesus rose from the dead and is alive today. That because of Him my life is transformed; that I live with His Spirit in me, that I am never alone, that when this life is over I will go to be with Him for eternity and then I will know real joy.

That it will be alright in the end, and if it's not alright, it isn't the end. 

So it's not because I'm unsure. So why is it that I'm so reluctant to tell people what I believe? 

I'm afraid. I've had many a conversation with myself over the years on this subject and I have hidden behind many things.  I don't have a gift for evangelism. A friend of mine does; wherever he goes he seems to meet people who are curious about his faith and he always carries those little leaflets that explain the Christian faith. He has endless stories about introducing people to Jesus. I tell myself that this is his special gift, and not mine. 

I tell myself that I am far too shy and reserved to reach out to people like this. I am an introvert - when I did the Myers Briggs tests last year I was as far over to the Introvert side of the scale as it's possible to be without being a hermit (and that sounds remarkably attractive to me at times). So, because of my love of solitude and my preference for being quiet, I am not the person to be trying to share my faith.  Far better someone gregarious and sociable. 

I write, and that somehow excuses me from actually saying anything. This is my contribution towards spreading the gospel. I have a few readers (hello, both of you!) and maybe some anonymous person on the Internet might read and be inspired. So that's my thing; talking to the person at the bus stop? Not so much. 

I am more of an encourager than an evangelist. My gift is to encourage those who already know Jesus as they muddle through life, which I know can be difficult at times. I know this because I make heavy weather of everything, and I know that other people do too, and the 'Me Too' moments are an immense help. I am good at sharing, building up, encouraging... not telling people how it is. 

So, that's why I don't tend to tell people about Jesus. 

Or, in other words, I keep the Good News to myself. 

The sermon yesterday hit a raw place in me because earlier on in the week I played a song in the car and the words began to leap out at me for the first time. I say they only 'began' because as soon as I gathered what the song was about I flipped to the next track. I really did; the subject matter made me uncomfortable. It was about telling your friends about Jesus.

It's called 'Love you with the Truth' by Casting Crowns.

For the longest time, I believed the lie
That I'm not a strong enough believer
To be the friend that can take your hand 
And lead you straight to Jesus
I'm waiting on the preachers, singers and the teachers
To string the perfect words together*

...and that's pretty much it. It's not my job to tell people about Jesus; others are far better equipped than I am. I don't have all the answers. There are great gaping holes in my knowledge of the Bible and I know for a fact that my theology is a bit dodgy in places. 

I am not an up-front sort of person. I break out in a cold sweat at the idea of everyone looking at me. Other people are better than me at that sort of thing. Let them get on with it. I'll back them up... 

And then there's the fear aspect.  

I have an almost pathological fear of what people think. I struggle with being a people pleaser and regularly have to remind myself that the only person's opinion that matters is God's. I play for an audience of One. So I realise the irony of my position where I don't want to tell people about God, for fear of what they might think of me - when God's is the only opinion I should pay attention to, and He wants people to know about Him. 

Sigh.

If I tell people what I believe they might think I'm odd. They might make fun of me. They might be offended or annoyed if they think I'm trying to tell them they're wrong. They might be defensive, combative, argumentative. They might stop wanting to spend time with me. 

They might be interested. 

In the sermon yesterday it was pointed out that it's not my job to save people - it's God's. It's not my job to make it happen, that mysterious, powerful, life-changing heart thing; that's God's job. Their response is not down to me. My job is to say, 'I believe in Jesus. He has changed my life, and He can do that for you, too, if you want.'  My job is to share what I know, and leave the rest to Him.

God prepares the ground and He provides air, water and sunshine for it to grow into a tree. The seed just needs to be planted.

So, a song and a sermon. And a message. I sit here trying to fill myself with resolve and determination and courage and I don't feel brave or determined or resolute. I feel weak and inadequate and intimidated, but I know also that when I am weak, then He is strong. 

'I believe in Jesus. I'm pretty pathetic, but He's amazing.'

How hard can that be?  Really, really hard. 

I find myself convicted and past the point of admitting that I am not good at this, that I've been ducking the issue for years and justifying my avoidance in increasingly creative ways. I find myself wanting to change, to be open to what God would have me do in this area of my life as I have in others. I know that prayer changes things, and so I'm hesitant to pray. I'm afraid of offering myself in this way for fear that He might take me up on it.
Isaiah 6:8
'...I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: 'Whom shall I send? And who will go for Us?'
Then I said, 'Oh, Lord, send someone else. Other people would do a better job than I would. I've got other gifts, but not this one (and I don't really want it, thank you all the same). If you need suggestions I could give you the names of some people who'd be really good at this kind of thing but not me. Please, not me.'
I have some Good News, and there are people who don't know it. People that I care about, who don't know what they're missing; who don't know what they will miss if they finish up without Jesus. This should be motivation enough, shouldn't it? My reason to be is Jesus and I know that what happens after I've taken my last breath here will be far, far better than the best, most fulfilling, exciting, wonderful things that have happened to me in this life. And yet I pussyfoot about hoping that people might miraculously see something in me, in the way I live, in what I do, without making it explicit and just getting on and telling them. 

I can see how important it is. There isn't anything more important; it's life or death, quite literally. One day it will be TOO LATE. 

I clearly need to get over myself. 

I pray and I pray that God would soften hearts, prepare people to hear His voice, bring them into the family. Maybe He's done all that and all that remains is for someone (surely not me?) to tell them about Jesus?  

Lord, help. You know that my heart's in the right place, but it keeps running and hiding. You told us to go and make disciples. To tell people the Good News. You told us we wouldn't be on our own; that you would always be with us. You told us not to care what the world thinks of us. 

You told us to love people, and as the song says, loving them means telling them the Truth. 

Let's try that again:

'...I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?' 
Then I said, in a very small voice, 'Here am I. Me with my anxious expression and wobbly legs. Send me.'

And this is why:

I believe in Jesus
I believe He is the Son of God

I believe He died and rose again
I believe He paid for us all


And I believe He is here now

Standing in our midst
Here With the power to heal now
And the grace to forgive**

I do believe it. I am sure.  

And maybe that knowledge might make an eternity's worth of difference to someone. 





*Sony/ATV Tree Publishing, 2013 Words and Music Mark Hall & Bernie Herms

**Mercy/Vineyard Publishing, 1997 Words and Music Marc Nelson




Friday, 18 April 2014

It's going to be alright: Mary's story

Someone told me that they had come for him.

You know how people love to pass on bad news? Someone rushed to my lodgings to tell me the worst news there could be, and close behind them my daughters pushed past to kneel in front of me. They would have been more gentle with their choice of words but the news would have been the same.

They had him and they meant to kill him.

I have no words to describe the agony of that moment. I know that I have no right to speak of agony having witnessed what they did to my beautiful boy, but I was torn apart right then. There was a stillness in the room as time stopped and my heart began to bleed. I couldn't take a breath. 

It was over. 

I had never understood my boy Jesus. To be honest I longed for him to live a quiet life, to take over the business, to stay with us and find a nice girl to marry and bring me my first grandchildren as befits my eldest son, but I always knew that it wouldn't happen like that. That there would be no easy life, no perfecting the carpentry skills that his father taught him. Joseph always said he was a good woodworker - had a feel for the wood in his hands - and with practice he could be great, but Jesus always smiled said nothing. He knew that his hands were made for something other than sanding wood. 

As he grew up I knew that he was not like the other children, even though in many ways he was just the same. He had a sense of fun, a ready wit, a boy's curiosity. He had something about him... he was such a good boy. No pushover, don't get me wrong, he was no goody-goody. I used to say that he was stubborn, but Joseph always laughed at my exasperation and told me that it was determination. The other children looked up to him. They deferred to him; he had presence, even as a small boy. And as he grew up and Joseph took him to the temple, we were soon in awe of his understanding. It was as if he were from another world.  Ha. 

I knew. I think I always knew. I knew that day at the wedding when he did the thing with the wine; I knew when I heard reports of amazing things that he was doing. I knew he was born for something greater than staying at home with his mother. If only.

As I wept and rocked back and forth that awful night and wished for a husband to hold me, and a strong carpenter son to walk through the door to tell me that it would be alright, just as he always had - that's when it came back to me.

Thirty three years ago. 

I was in a room not dissimilar to this one, and I was sleepy. 

'Don't be afraid, Mary. You're going to have a baby, and you'll call him Jesus. He will be great - he will be the Most High - his kingdom will never end.'

That's what the angel said to me. Have you ever had an angel speak to you? I remember the turmoil in my head that night, and then the strange, unnatural calm that came over me. It would be alright. I've looked for that same calm many times since then but it doesn't come from inside me. No, it comes from God. When I was with my eldest son I usually felt calm; he had that effect on people. I saw it over and over again as he was growing up. 

These last few years it's been different, somehow. He still inspired, still comforted, still reassured, but I saw a few people narrow their eyes when he talked to them; some people didn't get it. They didn't open their minds to his message. And this is what got him into such trouble. His determination - that stubbornness - to get the message across made him his enemies. He spoke out more and more. Yes, he did his wonderful things, he healed people, he taught people, but he challenged them too. He didn't pull his punches, and some people don't like to be told.

But I digress. There was something else. Quite apart from the circumstances around his conception and cousin Elizabeth's response, apart from the angels and the shepherds and the wise men, as if those things weren't enough!

Something else. 

Back from the early days when I still didn't know what being a mother was all about. I was so, so tired that day that I could barely put one foot in front of the other but it was time to take him to the temple for purification, and so we did. Joseph was so proud. You should have seen his face; and when I think how hard it must have been for him... he was the proud daddy of that baby boy that day, let there be no mistake. He was a good man, my Joseph. I miss him so much. 

So - at the temple. We presented Jesus and they all crowded round. An old man called Simeon came up to me. He looked at me with urgency in his eyes and tears on his cheeks and he told me that my baby was special. He would save people. He said that he could die in peace now because he had seen the Holy One of Israel.

Joseph and I wondered at it. Simeon gazed at Jesus for a long time. I wasn't sure what to do as he was due another feed and I really didn't want him to make a scene in the temple. I should have known better. There was nowhere that he was more content than at the temple. Before Simeon turned to go, he put a hand on my arm and spoke in a low voice. His eyes filled with something I didn't recognise, but I now know it to be pity. 

He said, 'A sword will pierce your heart.'

I told Joseph about it when we got home and he didn't get it either. He dismissed it as just something else that we didn't understand about our baby son. He put his arm around me and told me 'It will be alright,' and my heart settled. I believed him. God has had his hand on this boy's life since the beginning. Why would it not turn out alright? Great things were in store.

That day, when they told me that he'd been taken, the old man's words came back to me. It's exactly what happened. I sat there, my daughters' faces buried in my skirts, and I wailed as if I had been stabbed in the heart. I thought I might die, it hurt so much. 

The thing is, I have had to be strong. From the day that I found out I was pregnant, life has had moments where I've needed to be strong above anything else, and this was one of those moments. I was no use to anyone if I crumbled and refused to get up off the floor. I brought my beloved son into the world and I nursed him, and I taught him everything I knew, and then listened as he taught me.

I would not fail him.

I cannot talk about the next hours. I saw it all. I saw him endure more than a man can endure and I must confess that I shook my fist at God as I watched my eldest son, my perfect boy, suffer so completely. They did unspeakable things to him and they left him on that hillside to die. I saw it all. My throat was hoarse from sobbing and my eyes ran out of tears and became so dry and sore from the dust and...from seeing things that no mother should have to see. 

My boy. My beautiful son. He knew I was there, you know; he spoke to me as I leaned on John and watched him bleed. I take some comfort that he knew I was there. I didn't run away as some did; I didn't fear the Romans. What could they do to me that they hadn't already done? They took my firstborn son and they killed him. They broke my heart.

I watched that kind man Joseph take his body down and I kissed his bloody forehead as they wrapped him in his grave-clothes. Even in death he was not diminished, you know. He was still so beautiful to me. They couldn't hurt him any more. I took the thorns from his head and I smoothed his hair as I used to when he was small. They had to pull me away as they laid him in the tomb. I would have stayed there with him. They could have buried me too.

They took me home and the girls sat with me late into the night. 

I have nothing more to say, because you know what happened on Sunday. You know that this wasn't the end, even though it seemed like it. 

I don't know what the eleven did that night but I didn't see them. They would have known that I'd have words to say to them - where were they when my boy needed them? They stayed away from me. I imagine they hid, and I suppose I don't really blame them. Who knew if the soldiers would come for them too?

But I sat and I wept some more, and I berated God who had asked me to bring his child into the world in the first place. I wanted him to take the pain away. To bring back my son. To make it alright. But surely nothing would ever be right again.

I didn't move all night and all day Saturday. The girls brought me something to eat, but there was no way that I could feel hunger. I prayed. I gave him all my tears and my pain and my pierced soul. I laid it down. I had nothing left.

And then things changed. Everything changed.

I knew before they came bursting through the door for the second time in three days. I knew before Mary took my hands in hers and stammered out her tale of joy and wonder.

It came to me in the night as I sat, lost in my pain. That strange, unworldly feeling of calm. God spoke words of peace once again; this time not to a naive young girl with an unplanned pregnancy - this time to a mother whose soul was torn apart from watching her perfect son crucified. He didn't leave me in my agony.

I knew that they would go to the tomb to take care of the body.

I knew that they wouldn't find him there.

It's all going to be alright. 






Picture credit: 1. Cenetaph003.jpg (sic) by LittleJack 
Courtesy of Morguefile.com
Used with permission.

Reposted from not long ago, actually, but it seemed the right thing for Good Friday.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A short account

I'm so familiar with the phrase, 'keeping a short account' that I realised the other day that I've stopped considering what it means. It came to me in a sudden revelatory kind of way that I am not very good at confession. Not very good at all. 

Now, I've been reading lately about revelation (small R) and about how God communicates with us and I read about the term, 'apokalupsis' which is a Greek word used in the Bible as one of the several kinds of 'revelation'.  It means uncovering; when something hidden becomes visible. One of those moments when something that you've known and thought you understood suddenly becomes Real. When head knowledge becomes heart knowledge, maybe. When the words jump off the page, or when you stop in your tracks and your eyes widen slightly because abruptly you get the message. 

The penny drops. 

Well, it's right out there, obvious for anyone to see, but I didn't see it. 

I am not very good at confession. I don't tend to keep a short account; in fact my account has run to many hundreds of pages. 

I know without any doubt that it has already been settled in full by Jesus but I do know that I need to keep a track of it. Make sure that things are dealt with in a timely way so that I don't get dragged under by the sheer weight of rubbish that I carry round with me, or damage other people with the unwieldy things that I haven't sorted out.  I need to keep an eye on what is accumulating around me and keep it from piling too high, because that in itself has consequences.

I mean, there are times when I think to myself, 'Oops, shouldn't have said that, sorry, God,' or send a quick arrow apology up when I'm calming down after shouting at the children, but that's only the tip of the iceberg, isn't it?

There are a few opportunities to stop the accumulation that are handed to me on a plate; for example the general confession that we do corporately early on in church on a Sunday. That's all very well, but if one of the children chooses that moment to ask me a question (anything from the deeply theological, 'Mummy, how come God can be three people at the same time?' to the scarily mundane, 'Are there parsnips for dinner? I don't like parsnips,' to the ominous, 'She won't let me touch her model walrus,') and my attention is far, far away from my sin. 

So I go straight onto soaking up the absolution and blessing (if I get a chance) without the effort or inconvenience of examining myself. 

Alternatively, but with an equally negative effect, is when I am asked to bring to mind my own wrongdoing over the past week and all I can think of is what someone else of my acquaintance should perhaps be confessing. I could be quite helpful in compiling a list of transgressions on someone else's behalf; my own - not so much. 

Bypass the confession bit. Let's sing something.

And then came my Apokalupsis moment:  

I had a picture of myself, walking in a valley. A beautiful, wide, lush valley with majestic, snow-capped mountains either side - several of my significant scenes take place here. God is here, in my valley. It's very beautiful. I am enjoying being there, strolling around and looking at the view. I can feel God as the sun on my face, on my skin. I am warm, relaxed and happy.

I turn away from God to examine something beautiful and I still feel His warmth on my shoulders. I bend and pick something up, and then my hand closes on it too tightly, and it breaks. I hold the broken remains of this beautiful thing for a moment, and then I decide that there is nothing I can do about it, and I throw it over my shoulder. I move on.

A moment later I reach in my pocket and I take out a piece of paper. It has writing on it, but I don't know what it says. It annoys me. I screw up the paper with both hands and throw it behind me, over my shoulder. I walk a few more steps and pull something else out of my jacket; it's been tucked inside, in an inside pocket. I don't know what it is, but I laugh unpleasantly and I discard it behind me. I walk on.

I keep going, and I keep throwing away bad things over my shoulder. I go through a range of emotions; disgust, aggression, fear, anger, slyness, bitterness, self-pity, pride, spite, resentment, malice. I discard each one because I want rid of it but there's always more. Sometimes the sin is represented by an object - a half-eaten apple with a grub in the middle of it, a book with the cover ripped off, a bracelet with the precious stones missing... and sometimes it's a word on a piece of paper, or even a bad smell. They all go behind me as I wander on, my back turned to God.

At last, I sense that something has changed. I am cold. I can't feel the sun any more.

God has gone. He's left me. 

I whirl round and immediately see what's happened. There is a huge pile of rubbish towering above me. God hasn't gone; He is still where He has always been, but I am some distance away. All the mess that I've discarded is blocking out the light and warmth of the sun. I am standing in a shadow. 

No wonder I'm cold. 

I hesitate, not knowing what to do. I am amazed that I had not been aware of all these things that I had been carrying around - where did they come from, to make such a huge mountain of rubbish? But I know, in my heart - that's where. They came from inside me.

And now they're blocking me from experiencing God. I can't feel Him any more. I can't see the light, and my beautiful valley is in a terrible state. It isn't beautiful any more, with the offensive landfill of my life strewn across it. 

What can I do? 

*

And that was it. That's what I realised about confession. I was still in my valley; God hadn't cast me out, because I have a right to be there. Jesus paid the price for my huge pile of rubbish, and yet its presence there was ruining everything for me. The sense of space was gone, the fragrant air now smelled of refuse, and most importantly, I couldn't feel the warmth of God on my skin. I couldn't gaze into His brightness, for the way was blocked.

I need that light and warmth. I can't grow without it; I can't manage without it. It might be a while before it seeps into my consciousness to notice that it's faded, but I am lost without it. 

So I got out my journal and I asked God to send the Holy Spirit to show me what I needed to confess. I wrote a list. I numbered them, and I wrote without stopping as specific things popped into my head one after another with no repetition. I stopped when I got to one hundred and one things. 

One hundred and one.  

I think I only stopped then because He took pity on me. 

I realised how bad I am at confessing things. And also how thorough the Holy Spirit is. 

How small I felt, and yet how grateful. How God is endlessly patient, endlessly forgiving. How nothing had changed, but something was different. 

How after I finished with my journal that evening how calm I felt and how well I slept. 

I am trying to do better. I'm trying to examine the state of myself each night instead of letting things get so out of hand. I know that I'm fighting a constant battle against the things that lurked in that huge towering pile of rubbish but I know that now and again, something that I threw away stays thrown away, and that's a triumph.

And by the grace of God, I am facing Him again, now. 

I can feel His warmth on my face.  


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