Foundations

It’s too easy to make decisions and build plans on what’s presented to us in the moment.  We can be so reactive and responsive.  The real problem is we base our decisions on dodgy data, and we’ve not stepped back from our immediate problem to get the bigger picture, the overview, and a longer term view.

Such objectivity is a real skill, and something some of us need to be really intentional about.

James (in the Bible) writes “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow?” and goes on to describe people making business plans and speculations.  He cautions, “Remember, it is a sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.” James 4:13-17.

Paul, in the book to the Romans challenges us to, “present your lives to God as a living sacrifice… don’t be conformed to the world’s thinking, but discern what is the will of God.” Rom 12:-12

Our plans are too often based on asumptions: about what’s profitable, based on our own feelings and values: what we want to happen.  But we’re being challenged here to get a different perspective, and be touched by God’s agenda and not ours.

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand.” Colossians 3:1

“You are a building that is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone.” Eph 2:20

“No one can lay any foundation other than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ.” 1 Cor 3:11

We can be busy building all sorts of noble ideas and speculations. But as they say, make sure your ladder is leaning against the right wall, or you get to the top and realise you’re not at the destination you wanted.

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his home on the rock… it did not fall (in the storm) because it had been founded on the rock…” Matt 7:24-27

“The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high. He will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is key to this treasure.” Isaiah 33:6

Just take another look… what (or Who) are you building your life upon?  When you’re making your holiday, or career, or financial plans in this current pandemic climate, what sort of assumptions are you making?  Where are your priorities?

 “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow?”

But in yet a little while when this life is over, we step into the sure, unmistakable realities of what is beyond even this. How are things looking for us in the light of eternity?  Pragmatism and planning have their place, but they really do need to take their place in the line, behind the All in All, the First and the Last, Jesus, our sure foundation in troubling times.

“Christ, seated at God’s right hand… He placed all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.” Eph 1:22-23

“There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all who is over all, and through all, and in all.” Eph 4:4-6.

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

“In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling… we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Cor 5:7

Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” Psalm 119:18

Christ’s unfading splendour

Salvation’s Song

Loved before the dawn of time,
Chosen by my Maker,
Hidden in my Savior:
I am His and He is mine,
Cherished for eternity.

When I’m stained with guilt and sin,
He is there to lift me,
Heal me and forgive me;
Gives me strength to stand again,
Stronger than I was before.

So with every breath that I am given
I will sing salvation’s song;
And I’ll join the chorus of creation
Giving praise to Christ alone.

All the claims of Satan’s curse
Lifted through His offering,
Satisfied through suffering;
All the blessings He deserves
Poured on my unworthy soul.

So with every breath that I am given
I will sing salvation’s song;
And I’ll join the chorus of creation
Giving praise to Christ alone.

Singing glory, honor, wisdom, power
To the Lamb upon; the throne.
Hallelujah, I will lift Him high.
Singing glory, honor, wisdom, power
To the Lamb upon the throne.
Hallelujah I will sing with every breath that I am given
I will sing salvation’s song;
And I’ll join the chorus of creation
Giving praise to Christ alone.

Stars will fade and mountains fall;
Christ will shine forever,
Love’s unfading splendor.
Earth and heaven will bow in awe,
Joining in salvation’s song.

Copyright ©2007 Thankyou Music
Words and Music by Stuart Townend

So what’s the point of creating art when as material stuff it’s all going to fade and fall – only Christ will shine forever!? Is there some way that the glory of Christ – his image – his purpose and praise can be preserved through the making of and appreciation of beautiful things?

The way I relate to art – it calms my soul, it gives me hope. But maybe it’s a false hope, or perhaps instead it’s the nectar of what is to come in the unsurpassing glory of heaven, filled with the light which comes from the face of the Lamb on the throne. I want my world to shine brighter – with that real light.

Perhaps this light can be seen through art work and words on paper (books), as long as I accept that the very pages the words are written on, and the flesh that typed it into my computer will all turn to dust in due course. He is the one who preserves what is good… through the fires… it is possible that there is substantial good in art and literature, though God’s glory will cause it all to fade in the presence of the surpassing glory of Christ. He is the source of all that is good, the sustainer, the initiator and creator… it’s not that any other good or glory is a counterfeit. It can truly be a ‘shadow-of’, as long as I can accept that this is the best that it can be in this life.

No-one can match his glory – we have no talent, no ability to capture that glory… yet it never ceases to capture me, inspire me, provoke me to attempt the impossible – to show that glory and beauty and peace in words and colour and line… even doing so on materials that are fading and decaying by the moment. I work in a context of a decaying world. The whole fabric is falling apart around me. We have so little time – the race against time of destruction, death, decay… but there is time yet, to live, to be beautiful, to shine. And some of the brightest shining comes from the most withered faces, or the darkest circumstances. it’s the contrast that’s so startling – the spot of light in the dark corner – so strong, so bold.

I see the child, working with decaying leaf material, mud and stick… presenting a ‘creation’ to dad, saying ‘look! look! An aeroplane!’. Of course the thing won’t fly, or carry passengers. If thrown, it falls to bits, yet carried by the hand, he says ‘it’s flying!’. That innocent ‘gap’ between what you see, and what is possible by faith, by imagination, by stretching into the creative gap… That touch of ‘magic’ makes it a real plane to the child who believes. So is our faith a mere child’s play? Wishful thinking? or is it the ‘shadow-of’ the Real… reaching for something that is surely there, on the other side of our fleshly existence… the place where we have wings to fly, and where the One who makes this possible reveals his ‘magic’… his all surpassing power to transform decaying leaves and mud (dust that we are) into the glory of Sons of God?

‘Christ will shine forever, Love’s unfading splendour’

Topology

Her work still flows like the steady curve
of hammered Dorset beach.
Inky lines carrying hues
you’d find underfoot
at Christchurch.
The beach is yet awash
with blue and orange,
greys, inky greys,
and bloody reds,
a green here, burnt umber there.

Such you see in her windswept
and beautiful creations.
She saw the beauty there.
That place she loved became a part of her.

screenshot-2020-05-05-at-12.20.51-2048x1540-1And so her work poured out
among the brick and walls
of now another foreign place
still smells of salt
and sounds like thunderous waves.
Familiar, those gulls grew friendly,
knew her name, her dogs.
And swooping still
they fire her vision,
causing line to fly.

fullsizeoutput_4701-768x350-1The fabric, lace,
hung artfully on walls
speak of another place –
the linen echoes of the silks
that even now
still ripple in spice-laden desert breezes.
Those silks are hung
among her memories now.

Those carved archways,
blue and ornate tiles,
the sound of rhythmic music
on another continent –
they filter through her urban work
and fill the air, my senses,
Now a dream of foreign fantasy.

I turn, and drink another piece
within my soul,
and feel, somehow
the coldest marble underneath
my barest foot, convention overturned
and British ways abandoned.
Her lines and sketch, inviting,
like a window to another way
and take my soul a-travelling.

(Dedicated to Sarah Grace Dye, dear friend and talented artist. www.sarahgracedye.com, the nomadic northerner)

– – –

But me, I am less travelled,
but still influenced.
You see and feel the breeze among my words,
rippling the sentences
like leaves upon the branch.
And in the background,
humming traffic shamed
by blackbird oratory,
piercing soul with searing incandescence.

I stood upon a new-shorn tree-stump earlier
and in a moment stole the space
that tree had years-long claimed.
And there I stood,
embodying that ghost of tree,
a phantom limb.
For a moment, I surveyed the setting
dreaming of
what it would be
to tree.

The sky above as glorious
as Meadow Blue
and like the butterfly
I flew.

The cirrus whisped wild this morning,
caught me upwards as I watched its flow.
And there suspended, dancing,
two plain Cabbage Whites, enraptured,
locked in inseparable combat-love.
They danced and circled higher.
A pigeon flapped
about my height above the barley,
and then red kites came soaring overhead,
showing all a mastery of flight.
Magnificent, supreme.
My eyes rose higher once again,
transfixed by heavenward cloud,
and our monstrosity of engineering conquest
thundered through
and failed to beautify the sight.

It was the cirrus, and the kites
that caused my feet to lose their footing
and my soul to sprout fresh feathers
and to fly.

– – –

 

“When everything else has gone from my brain – the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family – when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”  – Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

 

Wait for me

When I stepped forward as a teen in the 80s at a Billy Graham rally, to ‘register my response’, I had no idea, really.  I was in many ways already culturally a Christian, but it was good to make a public stand of it, and ‘pray the prayer’ for real.  I heard the gospel, I heard Billy’s characteristic ‘the Bible says…’, and that night I saw in my heart a crucified Christ whose blood was poured out as the punishment for my own sin. And I also knew that he stood fully alive, resurrected, beckoning me to follow him that night with my whole life. I was compelled – by love – to respond.

I had no idea what I was getting into.
I’d embarked on a journey in the same way that He had always admonished:

‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts…

Mark 6

I was hopelessly unprepared, without chart or even knowing the destination. But somehow, that evening, none of it seemed important.  What was important was that I was going on this journey of life with Him.

I had no idea.

Within only a few years, my journey had led through stalking, debilitating depression (twice), exam stresses, straight A’s, and by the age of 20, I had lost my mother to cancer.

 – – –

At Passover all those many years before, the disciples were also in the dark,  understandably anxious as Jesus approached the cross:

Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

John 14

Jesus’ answer was simple, yet obscure:

Jesus answered, I am the way and the truth and the life. 

He knew what was coming, but He didn’t give them a map, or even reassurances. Instead, he commited to being their personal Guide.

 – – –

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me…

Psalm 23

I sure needed that ‘comforting rod and staff’ in the valleys I passed through shortly after deciding to follow Jesus. Plunged into dark despair, surrounded by taunting ‘why?’s, I wanted answers. I wanted understanding, a map, and a sure way out of my suffering.  Whether or not He was moving on, I wanted to escape to a place of peace and some better days.

It’s easier to feel we have life ‘figured out’, able to look ahead and scan the horizon for threats or opportunities. We want the bigger picture, the full chart; we want control. We want to make our own choices, and steer clear of trouble. Where did we get the idea that we are skilled enough navigators to study and interpret a chart, and then – trusting the accuracy of our man-made instruments – still have the ability to hold a ship to the desired course, even in the midst of raging wind and unpredictable seas? Really?

That’s why it’s insane to try reading the Bible without knowing the Author and listening for his interpretation. It’s as mad as a simple farmhand staring at an incomprehensible chart, and then taking the wheel of the ship in high seas, choosing to navigate with his finger to the wind.

On a slight tangent, (but I’ll get to my point, I promise) it turns out there is a whole science to predicting the future – of financial markets or how society or technology will develop. People who try to make such predictions are called ‘futurists’ and talk about saturation and s-curves and the like. Back in the late 60s a futurist named Alvin Toffler wrote a rather dramatic book called ‘Future Shock’ predicting all kinds of apocalypse and exponential societal change in the coming decades.  Reading it 50 years on, we can see he was right in some respects, and wrong in many more.  It turns out, even with the science, we can’t really be sure of the future. Toffler himself says:

“In dealing with the future… it is more important to be imaginative and insightful than to be 100% ‘right’. Theories do not have to be ‘right’ to be enormously useful. Even error has its uses. The maps of the world drawn by the medieval cartographers were so hopelessly inaccurate, so filled with factual error, that they elicit condescending smiles today when almost the entire surface of the earth has been charted. Yet the great explorers could never have discovered the New World without them. …”

Alvin Toffler, Future Shock

And in the 1600s, people boldly set out into uncharted territory based on all sorts of spurious stories of gold and fortune awaiting. They stepped out in faith, inspired by the possibility of lands to be discovered somewhere on those erroneous maps. They suffered weeks (and often death) at sea, and arrived (if still alive) only to die of starvation or sometimes hostile attack from the existing inhabitants in the land. Welcome to the promised land. They had no idea.

But they responded to the imaginative and compelling vision – to hope – without seeing the full picture or knowing exactly what kind of suffering lay ahead of them. Ever more of them embarked on the journey, often wholly unskilled and ill-equipped for pioneering life. Over time, as more of them survived (more by luck than planning), colonies were established and a New World inhabited. The rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s the challenge.  If you had a map to hidden treasure or El Dorado (or whatever kind of happy place you may be aiming for), and you know it was written by an incompetent fool, would you even embark on the journey?  Having a chart in hand is one thing, but knowing the credentials of the one who made it is a much more important factor.

And even if the chart is trustworthy, because you know the author and have confidence in the accuracy of their charting, do you trust enough to embark on that journey yourself and arrive safely at your destination? With so many factors at play – the seaworthiness of the vessel, the unpredictability of the seas and weather, your own navigation skills and accuracy of the instruments – I’m not so sure you’d want to go there by yourself.  Not without someone like Jesus, who speaks to waves, and they surrender.

 – – –

So we see Jesus’ wisdom in dodging Thomas’ question, and providing the Answer they truly needed.  Don’t worry about the destination, guys, I Am the Way. (And, incidentally, everything you need).

When I responded to Him in the 80s, I wasn’t signing up for adventure to a specific destination. I responded to the Captain’s call.  That voice was the one brought the world into being.  It stills the ocean waves. And that same voice compelled my heart to follow. I may not have been fully aware back then, but that night I embarked on a journey under the orders of a commanding officer, wherever it may ultimately lead.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

Matthew 28

25 ‘All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

John 14

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

Psalm 23

 – – –

You may think by now, after years of walking with him, that I’d be steadfast and footsure. The reality is sadly quite different. Too often I still find myself adrift, searching for the way, anxiously scanning the horizon. What am I searching for? Whenever that happens I now know I’ve usually not lost my way, but lost sight of my Guide. It’s only his presence that can bring the reorientation and comfort I need.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Romans 8

 – – –

I close this post with a heartbreakingly tender song sung by Jubilant Sykes, called ‘If I should fall behind.’  It tells the story of two in love, seeking to walk through life together hand in hand even into an uncertain future.  But life, being what it is, threatens to tear them apart.  The song is a commitment to ‘wait’ for the other, should they be separated by trial or circumstance…

I’ve endeavoured all these years to travel closely with Jesus as my Way, my Shepherd and Guide. But I have also (too often) fallen behind. I daren’t think where I would be today but for His overwhelming kindness and patience – He has unfailingly ‘waited for me’ every time.

 

The many faces of Wisdom

When I set out on life with the naivety and hope of a teenager, I was searching (as many do) for the Good Life.  Where might it be found?  What actions or goals would deserve a lifetime of investment? What could be worthy of all my energy and attention? I was burdened by the sense of ‘you only get one shot at life’, and I wanted to make mine count.

Raised by churchgoing parents, I was of course influenced by the Bible and by Christian values. Perhaps parents are unaware of how dangerous it is to expose a child to such incendiary texts.  Without the muting of compromised church culture or a hardening of life experience, a child is likely to absorb the Word quite literally and very trustingly. ‘Unless you become like children…’, Jesus said, ‘you cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.’ So like a child, I read the Proverbs, and thought Lady Wisdom held an answer to my search.

My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding –
indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
He holds success in store for the upright,
he is a shield to those whose way of life is blameless,
for he guards the course of the just
and protects the way of his faithful ones.

Proverbs 2

Here a way of life is proposed: if I did this, then that would result. It sounded like a great deal – finding God? Being protected from harm?  Well, I knew I needed that.  For me, I already had a sense of inadequacy, and a heightened sense of threat from strangers (that’s another story), so I wanted to build my life on solid ground, and aim for noble goals.  Self-righteously, I wouldn’t be going after trivial pursuits. I wouldn’t be enamoured by mere material successes.  wanted to make a difference, to know God and do his exploits.  I wanted to be an A-grade Christian, as I’d excelled in every other area of study thus far. I planned to work the system, for good.

I wasn’t arrogant enough to imagine I could do this myself. But doing it for God, and in his name, well surely I would know his favour and enjoy success?  The arrogance of youth took a perverse Christian twist: “Out of my way, world. Here I [me and God] come! We’re going to make an impact!”

I was putting all my hopes, like eggs in the basket, in God’s promises and faithfulness, or so I thought. With that innocent, immature understanding, I read the Biblical promises as binding contract, and I tried hard to keep my side of the bargain. Over time, my God became smaller and my expectation that He should bend to my will grew larger.  I thought I’d found wisdom by seeking the good life in ‘godliness’ – when in fact I was mostly out for the ‘good life’ promised, rather than the ‘good God’ who gave it.

That illusion of ‘contract’ soon shattered, when we lost mum to cancer in my 20s.

Where’s God in times like that? Why didn’t he come through for us? We were trying so hard to live His way! How can he let such a godly (Proverbs 31 kinda) woman die so young? Didn’t I pray? Could I have prayed harder? Why didn’t he hear my prayer and answer? What of the ‘good life’ now?

Well, it turns out I had made the ‘good life’ an idol, and I was offended that God wouldn’t bow at its feet.  After that bitter Christmas loss, I had a bitter heart to deal with.  With my sense of how the world (and God) should work in tatters, I shut Lady Wisdom’s simple words out of my heart in disillusionment. I felt betrayed by God, by the Bible, and betrayed by Her. As they say, ‘I threw the baby out with the bathwater’ and gave her no further thought, respect or credence. God had failed me. Wisdom had failed me.  And I found myself unmoored, with neither compass nor chart, company nor counsel.

So I sought another guide, one who would prove more trustworthy, and more honest. Well… I found company of a new kind of character: the Teacher of Ecclesiastes:

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.’

What do people gain from all their labours
at which they toil under the sun?

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.

Ecclesiastes 1

Here was a voice that resonated with my own heart, and with my newfound bitter experience of the world.   After the cancer-storm brutally wrecked my harbour, I was cast adrift in turbulent seas with this bitter refrain: “What’s the point? What’s the point of loving God? Of seeking out wisdom? Why go on, when life’s so fickle, and it seems God Himself is fickle and indifferent?” The Teacher seemed to affirm my complaint, with a somewhat cold empathy.

The months turn to years… and my heart and mind strains towards a better attitude. I keep up Christian appearances. I still believe the blood of the cross was for my forgiveness, and I’m still convinced by the facts of the resurrection. I can’t ‘unknow’ God. So I try to tug against this black heart, preaching hope and truth to myself, paddling against the current yet always bailing water.  ‘What’s the point?’  ‘Where can I find joy in anything?’ ‘How can I live with hope in a world that is so devastatingly random, and where the righteous suffer so?’

The Teacher is not pleasant company to keep, quite the contrary.  And so, I found myself grieving not only my mother, but the loss of the hopeful company of Lady Wisdom from the Proverbs too, the one I had so bitterly banished as a cruel betrayer.

Little did I know that Wisdom still travelled by my side, but now I see a different face. I first knew her as the Wise Lady calling to my youth in Proverbs. And now I know him as the Cynic-Preacher of Ecclesiastes who sees things as they desperately are.  Meaningless! Smoke shape-shifting in the wind! Who can grasp it? Why bother trying?  The two seem to have little in common.

If I had only ever walked in the company of the Lady Wisdom of Proverbs, I would have forever been striving to do the right, to gain the good. I would have forever expected predictable outcomes, retribution for the wicked, reward for the righteous. And so I would never have needed to know the God who created a world where there is justice and reward for right living; know the God who affirms her simple words as true.

And after my experience of death and disappointment, I abandoned this simplistic trust, and chose instead to walk only in the company of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Without Lady Wisdom’s beauty and hope in an essentially just and rewarding world ruled by a Good God, I found myself sinking immobilised in the despair of the Teacher’s much darker view of reality.  What’s the point of working for good, of building a tower or planting a field?  If time and chance may destroy it, why invest in anything? Adopting his cynical view, I’m never rudely disappointed by false hopes dashed. I see the cruelties of the world in the daily headlines and in the crazy driving on my roads, and think, ‘yep, that’s just as the Preacher predicted’.  But what comfort is it to know the ‘hard truth of things’ but have no hope?

 – – –

It’s worth remembering that God has revealed himself to us as three in One, eternally holding difference in tension. It is Love that binds all together, though He shows various faces.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

Hebrews 1

Seeing God in the face of Christ is often the thorniest and yet most converting encounter; the point at which heaven’s love touches our earthbound hearts, and our fears and doubts melt before him. The High and Lofty One shows us himself in the humble face of Christ. The Jews, holding so fast to their view of the transcendent G-d of Sinai still seem blind to the possibility that such a bloody, earthy face could also be the face of this God – their Glorious Meshiach. This Christ is known as both Lion and Lamb… to know only one side of him is to not know Him at all.

This is the same God who disguised himself to Elijah, and revealed himself not in violent winds or dramatics, but through a quiet whisper. How can this whisper be the voice of the One who spoke the world into being? And how can this despised and rejected Jew –  the crucified and buried Jesus – be the Eternal One who lives forever in transcendent power?  Could they possibly be one and the same?

 – – –

Wisdom is found in the contradictions – inexplicable and irreconcilable – in the company of both the Lady of Proverbial Hope and the Hardened Cynic of Ecclesiastes. These two wise and truthful personas are poles apart, and yet Mystery can hold the two together. We have met two faces of the Wise trinity. Now for the third.

When we lost mum, I turned to Job as a man who intimately knows sudden loss. I cried the tears he cried. And I tried to pray his prayers too:

20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1

But I couldn’t worship God like Job, and hold the hand of Lady Wisdom at the same time.  She’d made me ‘promises’, and not fulfilled them. I turned to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, and he indifferently shrugged, as if to say, ‘What did you expect? Smell the coffee.’ And so I hovered between the two, unable to reconcile my mother’s death and what I read in the Bible. My ‘WHY!’ resonated, the rage hung in the air, and I could find no way of clearing things up between me and God. Finally, wearily, I fell into Job’s story and found his unanswered Question swallowed up mine. Without answers, without ever fully understanding, he became a Companion who truly knows what I’m going through, I’m now in the presence of the third face of Wisdom: Mystery.

When I first charted my course, I hoped – and prayed – that I would live my life in the company of Wisdom. Now 3 decades later, I still pray this… but I am finding Wisdom has a complex personality, and can often be hard to keep up with.

Living in wisdom’s company isn’t easy or predictable. I can’t count on my actions to provoke God’s favour, or my wisdom to result in success as day follows night. I can’t expect that random disaster won’t strike, maybe even from the hand of God himself.  But in holding counsel with Wisdom, three+ in one*, I can now live with questions in a way that trusts God’s sovereignty and goodness. Wisdom’s presence overshadows all the highs and lows, twists and turns that this life can send my way.

I now appreciate the Preacher, but I’m no longer choking in his meaningless smoke. And I turn again to Lady Wisdom, receiving her with more forgiveness, and open up to her hope without making her ways into an idol. Like Job, I can face an uncertain and mysterious future with more confidence than ever before, despite the devastation and disappointment in my story thus far.

* God’s wisdom is ‘manifold’ (Ephesians 3:10), so probably has more than 3 faces!

 – – –

I thought seeking out wisdom would lead to the good life. Well, God’s upended that misdirected project.  He always wanted something far more profound:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1

Who’s to say the goodness of God won’t break out for me in my latter years, as it did for Job? And if it doesn’t, well, by now that’s of no great consequence. It turns out I’ll have spent my whole life in the glorious, unsurpassing company of Wisdom – God Himself.

 – – –

Immense thanks goes to the guys n gals at The Bible Project who invested so much to explain the Wisdom Literature in visual language – my heart language.  I can read words, for sure, but the power of an image speaks louder to me than any other.  They were the ones who introduced me to these three very different faces of Wisdom – The Lady, The Cynic, and Job – and caused me to finally see that I have been walking through life in the company of Wisdom all along, even when on the darkest and bitterest paths.

Transient strangers

too-busy-to-see-we-re-blind-1b90099a2fa4ecf0466ee3d20df8f447There are times when life flies past me in a blur, as if I’m standing still in the long-exposure shot while all else moves around me. Everything’s shifting, changing.  It’s in those moments of disengagement that I feel most alienated, struggling for breath in turbulent seas, trying to find solid ground somewhere beneath me.

Nowadays we’re encourage towards ‘mindfulness’. To breathe, let the blur go, and reinhabit our own space and body. To be grounded. But where, in truth, is the solid ground? We’re invited into this space as if our own bodies are safe enough, the firm and eternal place to build our lives from. And yet we ourselves change year on year; these bodies are ageing, failing us slowly by the day. Most of us spend our lives caught in a ‘reality’ of perpetual movement, scrabbling through each day. Where then is security to be found?

The relentless shifting and instability leaves me untethered, without a home or solid foundation. Life whistles by in a gust like the countryside passes an open train window.

‘Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.

12 ‘Hear my prayer, Lord,
listen to my cry for help;
do not be deaf to my weeping.
I dwell with you as a foreigner,
a stranger, as all my ancestors were.
13 Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again
before I depart and am no more.’

Psalm 39

I reflected on this in my previous blog, Alienation. The neighbours seemed secure, and yet I found our interaction so shallow. I might try to live out the same life-narrative, through career, relationship, or buying bricks and mortar. But would my life feel more stable if I had that relationship, career identity or sense of place?

There’s a caution here,

17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives for ever.

1 John 2

Even as He birthed a nation, God gave the Israelites unique laws and customs which were designed to prevent them from becoming too attached to the soil beneath them:

23 ‘“The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.

Leviticus 25

Yet I, like the Israelites, still search for permanency in solid ground here and now. And so my soul searches through history, to listen to the patriarchs like Abraham,

Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, ‘I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so that I can bury my dead.’

Genesis 23

and David,

Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.

1 Chronicles 29

And Peter, who speaks of the people of God both as nobles and exiles,

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.

1 Peter 2

To truly live a life of faith, we find ourselves – with all our forefathers – as strangers and exiles. So if I am to find a sense of belonging among God’s people, I won’t find a place of home on earth.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

Hebrews 11

This blog post gets pretty depressing at this point.  The more we search for stable ground,  the more we find ourselves sinking lower. We long for belonging and home, and realise we’re exiles and vagabonds.  We want to own possessions and treasures, but find the trinkets only rust and decay.  The truth is harsh, and humbling:

1‘Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
like fleeting shadows, they do not endure…

11“As water evaporates from the sea,
And a river becomes parched and dried up,
12 So man lies down and does not rise.

Job 14

20though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field,
they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke.

Psalm 37

2as wax melts before the fire,
may the wicked perish before God.

Psalm 68

11My days are like the evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

Psalm 102

Withering flowers, mists, smoke, melting wax, shadows.  There’s nothing of substance here that stands secure. The human condition – living with awareness of our fallibility and death – is a brutal experience.  It so easily leads to despair and overwhelm,

Hear my prayer, Lord;
    let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
    when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
    when I call, answer me quickly.

For my days vanish like smoke;
    my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
    I forget to eat my food.

Psalm 102

We may, like Jonah, sink under the waves and lose all hope. Yet he prayed too:

‘When my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
    to your holy temple.

Jonah 2

At rock bottom, we find the Rock, truth and a firm foundation.  We must admit we are mere dust, and find our humble place at last.

‘All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
25 but the word of the Lord endures for ever.’

1 Peter 1

We can’t rely on society to remain stable, as values and morals shift with each generation at whim. Our own perspective and values change over the years too, as life experience hardens or tenderises us. But what if the Word of the Lord truly is as enduring as the Psalmist claims? Then it makes a moral claim upon us.

And so what if, as we endure the furnace of life, there’s a still hotter furnace to pass through ahead? What if we face consequences for how we live our lives? How could we ever survive that testing?

But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.

1 Corinthians 3

The experience and pace of life leaves us breathless and bruised and empty. If we are to build our lives on a solid foundation, it has to be on the truth that we’re frail, fallible, and that we are in need of rescue. We can’t get this right on our own.

In the course of my life he broke my strength;
he cut short my days.
24 So I said:
‘Do not take me away, my God, in the midst of my days;
your years go on through all generations.
25 In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
and they will be discarded.
27 But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.

Psalm 102

God, in his mercy, allows life to break us. And thus the boasting of the party in Alienation eventually turns to heartbroken despair sooner or later. Yet in this place of humble honesty, there’s a gentle Hand to take hold of us that has no intention of breaking us irrevocably.

‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight; …
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;

Isaiah 42

The psalmists and prophets didn’t find a destroyer either, but a Father who cares,

13 As a father has compassion on his children,
    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
    he remembers that we are dust.
15 The life of mortals is like grass,
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
    and its place remembers it no more.
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
    the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
    and his righteousness with their children’s children –
18 with those who keep his covenant
    and remember to obey his precepts.

Psalm 103

He is the one who takes the broken and makes us beautiful. In our weakness we encounter a God of love; one who lets the weak say, “I am strong!” even as we rely on his strength to sustain us. We come to know a Father who disciplines us as children, and so offers us a challenging sense of belonging, with secure boundaries where we find real meaning and identity.

And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
    and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?

12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

Hebrews 12

The foundation of God’s word is reliable because of the goodness and enduring character of the One who speaks it. We can depend on his love and fatherly discipline with our whole lives. So when we are honest about our weaknesses and surrender to God’s supremacy, we finally find our home – and our foundations – in him.

That means, of course, that we’ll never be at home here. There’s a reason we don’t fit in. We have been forever changed.

Alienation

640px-a_classic_circular_form_spider27s_webI’ve often had a feeling of ‘there-but-not-there’ when in social situations.  For many years, I would think there was something wrong with me. Well, that view has changed, or perhaps matured, softened.  ‘Wrong’ is probably the wrong(!) adjective.  ‘Fundamentally different’ may be a more honest description.

 – – –

Back in my mid 30s I lived in an inner city neighbourhood, in a terraced property. It was that old format where the back yards were all joined by a common path, where the toilets were originally outside with the coal shed… Fences low enough to see what’s going on in the kitchen next door. Compact. Neighbourly.  And on one occasion – it may have been a birthday – my housemate and I were invited round for some drinks ‘with the guys’ in the cool evening air.  We sat around, and talked ever more philosophically under the stars as the wine flowed freely.  And throughout the evening, I struggled with a profound sense of disconnect.  I felt like a child among adults – the men shared ever-increasingly impressive stories, ultimately trumped by the stories of The Troubles from my ex-military neighbour.  He was clearly psychologically scarred by it, and that silenced the rest of us who didn’t have a wilder story to share in response to his.  Then, after an awkward hiatus and the pouring of more wine, there was trivial chit chat about material things: the latest gadgets or holiday plans or home renovation projects.  It was pleasant enough company, but I was screaming on the inside at the godlessness of it.  Not that they were rowdy or uncouth, not at all. It was ‘civilised’ company.  But there was no space at all in their hearts (or conversation) for the existence of God, as if such was idiotic, childish, contemptible. I felt, literally, like an alienated alien at this party.

I was quiet, mostly, watching and listening.  I had no ‘greater tales’ to share. I had no interior decorating advice.  I had no savings with which to travel (and thus no current plans to discuss), though I may have mentioned a visit to Israel on the rare occasion when I had enough life experience to add some value to the conversation. This was again quickly trumped by someone else’s more dramatic travel adventure: a hirecar prang in the middle of a busy roundabout in Rome, as I recall.

Later in the evening, when deeper questions were considered, they cast votes about God – many quarters found the idea ridiculous.  I may have been bold enough to say something in His defense – a feeble, doubtful resistance to the hypothesis of a completely Godless universe.  They weren’t convinced, of course. And so, out on a limb, I soon finished my wine and eventually retired politely, to leave them to see in the small hours with the rest of the alcohol.

I barely had the strength to inhabit the ‘faith-space’ in that discourse.  I stood like a feeble and naive child in the face of the Goliath of competent, self-assured, bold, mature, godless adults.  And they may have masked their scorn, but I keenly felt the clash of worldviews as bitter, extreme, and it left me disturbed for days and weeks afterwards.  I vividly remember that evening to this day.

– – –

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1

– – –

There were other awkward interactions in that season, too.  There was an occasion when we’d been chatting over the hedge, nibbling at the edges with curiosity about each others’ lives and experience.  And an invitation was proffered at one point to ‘come round for a drink sometime and I’ll show you the photos [of x, y or z]’. Innocent to the last, I was indeed interested in the photos.  But it never happened.  Shortly thereafter, another lady visitor appeared on the scene who sidelined his attentions for a while. When, after a week or so, the ’round for a drink’ hadn’t happened, I asked again to see the photos. He offered a lame excuse, a deflection that initially confused me. I felt rejected, lied to, confused and angry. And then came the slow, burning and shameful realisation that it had been a mere pretext that had been completely lost on me. His bid of ‘photos’ had nothing at all to do with honest engagement and the sharing of personal stories. When would I ever learn?

Once more, I found myself evidently living on another planet, an alien speaking a vastly different language and operating with immensely different cultural mores.  I engaged with people with sincerity and innocence, yet I repeatedly went under the bus; embarrassed and bruised over and over again. Through those years, I floundered: to the point where I ultimately gave up trying to understand or be understood by ‘those folks’ at all. The chasm had grown too wide to traverse safely.

 – – –

And yet… I could see something didn’t sit right in his worldview.  For all the logic of his humanism, I caught him one late summer morning after breakfast, transfixed by a spider weaving a perfect web outside his back door.  He was embarrassed I caught him watching it, and mumbled something about how astonishing it was that an insect so small could create something so perfectly formed.

I smiled, and probably prayed silently for him.

 – – –

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Romans 1

 – – –

 

Late (or not even invited?) to the party

rubens_apostel_thomas_grt

St Thomas, Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640)

You’ve had that awful experience, right, when you suddenly realise that all your friends got invited to ‘that thing’, and you weren’t?  And you’re left thinking, was it an oversight, or am I really not wanted there?  And then it’s all too awkward to go to the host and ask, ‘Can I come too?’  Or, after the event, you realise they all had a wonderful time, and… FOMO realised.

Well, imagine how Thomas is feeling this (figurative) week. Resurrection Day has already happened, and there’s excited talk and a strange new mood among the 12+ men and women you’ve been doing life with over the last couple of years.  They tell you they’ve seen Jesus, alive!

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’22 And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.

John 20

When Mary first started talking this way, let’s face it – the disciples probably weren’t having any of it. But at least Peter and John were kind enough to indulge her, and look into the empty tomb for themselves. She may be confused in her grief, but her story threw up a critical issue: who’s stolen the body?  And now… she’s now got this weird, stunned, awed and hopeful look about her!  They’ve never seen a greiving woman like it.

So Sunday morning, they were still despondent, crushed, afraid and stressed out. And after Mary comes back with her news, bewildered.  But by Sunday evening, the disciples were filled with peace, and just starting to process this incomprehensible news together: We’ve seen him alive!

Except for Thomas.

We don’t know exactly when Thomas came back to the upper room, or heard that news. But we know how he reacted when he did.

25 … the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’

But [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’

One way to deal with the ‘I missed the party’ issue is to fake it. ‘No I’m fine, I was busy anyway.’ ‘Glad you had such a great time.’ ‘It’s OK, I’m sure she just forgot to include me on the email.’ ‘It’s my fault, I don’t check whatsapp. Must have missed the invitation.’  But at some point, you’re not part of the afterglow. You don’t get the joke, the ‘remember when [that thing happened] and wasn’t it hilarious?’. Everyone laughs. You laugh too, but it’s hollow, disconnected. You have no idea what they’re laughing about.

Thomas lived through several days like that, hanging out with his friends-gone-mad, watching a transformation happening in them before his very eyes.  And he was probably jealous for that kind of peace and hope himself.  As I mentioned in Counting Days, the group were still facing the tense logistical challenges of hiding out in a hostile Jerusalem without Jesus; so this kind of shift in mood is a welcome relief.

Maybe, in those following days, Thomas started to laugh along with the others, carried by their upswell. But the lingering doubts persisted, along with the persistent worries about security and provisions. And he knew – in his heart of hearts – he didn’t believe. He  wouldn’t fake it. Believing something like this is no joke; it has huge implications.  It could set them permanently and critically on a confrontational path with both the political and religious leaders of the day. This – if it’s true – sets them on a do-or-die and very risky trajectory indeed.  Let’s not forget this is the Thomas who said only weeks prior, when Jesus proposed to go to Judea to heal his friend Lazarus,

16 ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

John 11

The disciples are laughing as if death itself nor the dangerous situation they’re in have no meaning for them now. I’ve sat in on gatherings like that, everyone else happy and laughing, and yet I’m on a very different page, anxious.  There’s a smile on my face, but I’m not in the right mood, or I don’t get the joke. I wasn’t at the event. I don’t know what they’re talking about, really. And underneath it all, no matter how ‘gracious’ and ‘forgiving’ I tried to be, I am actually hurt that I didn’t get invited.  There’s that feeling, wondering if I was never meant to be part of the party anyway.  When that ache weighs really heavily, the rejection and self-doubt can be enough to make me offer my excuses, quit and go home early.  Just let them party on together, I need to find my own space.

But Thomas has nowhere else to go.  I wonder if, as he watched and listened, he held the tension of ‘why did Jesus miss me out?’ with ‘but what if he comes again when I am here?’  Was there a growing glimmer of belief?  Often when we read about ‘Doubting Thomas’ we over-focus on his words ‘I will not believe.’ But that statement was never final, closed, or a confession of bitter unbelief. It was coupled with ‘Unless…’.

And that’s where a lot of us live, in this place of ‘I’m trying to believe, but help my unbelief.’ Just as the father of a sick child had to confess to Jesus:

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, ‘How long has he been like this?’
‘From childhood,’ he answered. 22 ‘It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’
23 ‘“If you can”?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’
24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’

Mark 9

Thomas had been at that party. As he tries to process this turn of events, sitting in the upper room with men he’d grown to know and trust, his mind wanders back over recent months. He remembers the day Jesus healed that child, and the many other days He’d done astonishing things. Perhaps those words from Jesus start to haunt Thomas during that first Resurrection week: Jesus said, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’

What could Thomas do now, but wait, and hope, and wonder? His only other option was to ‘leave the party’ and act like the rejected one who was never meant to be there anyway. Peter, on Saturday, had been talking about heading back north to fish in Galilee again.  But now… that plan’s apparently out of the window.

So… what if what they’re saying is true?

 

Resurrection through the eyes of Artists

I recently used some art by the French painter James Tissot (1836-19020 in my post ‘Counting Days‘. In a strange twist of serendipity, I was then browsing through some other posts on the theme of ‘counting the Omer’, including ‘Yeshua (Jesus) Appeared While His Disciples Were Counting the Omer‘ from the Messianic Prophecy Bible project (a project completely new to me, but Google led me there!). And wouldn’t you know, their post was peppered with art through the ages – including another from Tissot, The Ascension.

madgalene-runs-to-cenacle01

 Mary Magdalene Runs and Tells the Disciples That the Body of Christ Is No Longer in the Tomb – James Tissot (1836-1902)

brooklyn_museum_-_the_ascension_lascension_-_james_tissot

The Ascension (circa 1890), by James Tissot

I decided to find out more about Tissot, and was amazed to discover his prolific production of Biblical art, wondering what could have prompted this in his later years. According to wikipedia, ‘In 1885, Tissot had a revival of his Catholic faith, which led him to spend the rest of his life making paintings about Biblical events. Many of his artist friends were skeptical about his conversion,’ thinking it politically motiviated. You can see more of his work in a series of 365 gouache illustrations showing the life of Christ (1886-1896) at the Brooklyn Museum, and at another online gallery at jamestissot.org.

Also on the Messianic post, Caravaggio’s characterisic reds, shadows and contrast:

1080_caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1603), by Caravaggio

One more from him:

1920px-supper_at_emmaus-caravaggio_28160629

Supper at Emmaus (1606), by Caravaggio

Here’s Rembrandt’s take on the same moment:

rembrandt_-_the_pilgrims_at_emmaus

The Pilgrims of Emmaus (1660), Rembrandt

There’s more to see than time to blog on it, but if you want to see more you might consider a google image search on ‘Resurrection art’.

Spring Clean

4914990I’ve failed again to do anything remotely resembling a Spring Clean this year, and dread to think what’s lurking down the back of my cupboards or under my furniture.

By contrast, my exercise class friend has spent the last couple of months thoroughly going over every inch of her property, showing herself to be a true Domestic Goddess. I’m jealous, and shamed. To add to my sense of inadequacy, I also hear about the Jews, who (if observant) have just deep-cleaned as well, eliminating every trace of yeast from their homes in time for Passover.

‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’, they say.
(and now I’m worried!)

But there’s also a sense in which cleanliness is an image of healing, and of forgiveness.  Throughout the Bible there are images of ‘sins like scarlet’ becoming ‘as white as snow’, or of a need for ‘cleansing from sin’.  Take the psalmist here, for example:

7Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Psalm 51

We know well what it means to have a ‘black heart’.  And increasingly it is recognised that a broken soul affects us at every level, physical health included; the Psalmist is feeling his guilt as crushing his bones.  We carry burdens in our souls, and these so often manifest as breakdowns in our health.  That’s not to say all sickness is purely psychosomatic, but there’s evidence of some sort of connection.

But the secular journals who might report evidence of psychosomatic illness often fail to go further, to point to the need for an even deeper healing: of our spirits, a restoration of our relationship with God. In Isaiah here, God points to a root cause and the real need for cleansing.  Not mere muck on our bodies. Not a disease to be healed. But sin that we need to repent of – turn away from – and find cleansing for.

Wash and make yourselves clean.
16Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
18 ‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’
says the Lord.
‘Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.’
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 1

It’s not a free pass here.  There’s a big IF. If you are willing, obedient… then…, and if you resist and rebel.  This is uncomfortable reading.  If I fail to clean my flat, I live in a pigsty, and possibly develop dust allergies or worse (though it’s not that bad, yet!).  There are consequences to my choices and behaviours.  And there is a remedy. Bleach, polish, and elbow grease.

The leper in the New Testament knew there was a remedy for him too:

40 A man with leprosy came to [Jesus] and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

Mark 1

The leper’s healing wouldn’t come through his own effort, nor was it ultimately in the hands of the Doctors.  His healing was in the hands of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And it took boldness and humility to reach out to Him for the needed cure. So he begged, and wasn’t refused.

This healing and cleansing that Jesus offers isn’t cheap.  It’s not automatic.  We have to turn to him, and that’s simultaneously a turning away from our sinful ways.  And in forsaking the very actions and heart attitudes that so defile us, he takes our brokenness and makes us clean. He heals at every level.  He does this, because he gave it all for us.

6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

1 Corinthians 5

When the Jews go through their routines of eliminating yeast from their households, they are enacting a parable of something much deeper. An act of cleansing their whole lives before God, in order to remember the great act of rescue that God performed when he brought their ancestors out of Egypt. The time that the blood of their Passover lambs caused the angel of death to ‘pass over’ each household. Through their thorough obedience on that fateful night, their firstborn sons were saved, ‘healed’, and the whole nation stepped out of slavery and into new life. They also prepare for and anticipate the coming of their Meshiach (promised deliverer and Messiah). They are still waiting for Him to come.

Around 2000 years ago, another group of Jews gathered to remember that event.  They sat in an upper room in Jerusalem with the very Lamb of God (or so John the Baptist had named him) and they still didn’t see how he would heal, cleanse and deliver them:

3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’
7 Jesus replied, ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’
8 ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’
Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’
9 ‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’
10 Jesus answered, ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’ 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

John 13

Jesus offered that cleansing to every one of his companions.  But one still chose to betray him. Judas turned his back on his Rabbi, and Jesus saw it coming.

He looks on our blackened hearts, and still offers to cleanse them. How are we going to respond to Jesus kneeling at our feet with a towel and basin in his hands?