Questions… and the Answer

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“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ (John 10:28-30)

It’s Hanukkah, and Jesus is walking through Solomon’s Colonnade in Jerusalem. It was known as the “Porch of Judgement” because it was here that the great King would pronounce judgement, a thousand years before. But now in a massive irony (of which the author is only too aware), “a greater than Solomon is here,” physically embodying the justice and kingship of God.

But those questions persist: “The Jews who were there gathered round him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’”

Questions, questions. Jesus must have been weary of them.

I was reading an Anne Rice novel and came across this passage: “Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds — justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner.”

That is to say: “Do you really want to know the truth?” Pilate asked “What is truth?” but didn’t stop for a reply.

Can you handle the truth?

The truth for Pilate was standing right next to him, and for these questioners too.  The answer was a whirlwind which would threaten their stability.Courage doesn’t happen when you have all the answers. It happens when you are ready to face the questions you have been avoiding your whole life.

The real point was: if Jesus is who He says He is, what are you going to do about it?

But Jesus answers, calmly, I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me.”  The things He has done are plain enough for those who really want to see.

But the questions in this passage go beyond mere intellectual proof. They are questioning not only his identity but if his power is  from God.

Doubt persists.

It’s there right at the triumphant end of Matthew’s gospel, when you would have thought that all occasion for doubt is long gone. The resurrected Jesus is standing right there in front of them! But “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Were they doubting the evidence of their own eyes? 

I guess the truth is that we all experience doubt. We doubt our ability to make it through; we doubt if we can really overcome that old addiction; we doubt God’s presence in our lives and we doubt God really knows and loves us.  Doubt and questioning are normal parts of our lives as people and as persons of faith.

Paul Tillich said: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

So often in church we talk about faith and that is a powerful thing to talk about, but to not claim the flip side of faith, the perpetual travelling companion of faith -doubt – means we are not leaving room for the real life experiences of people. Even the most faithful have moments of doubt.

There’s an old saying: “God never gives us more than we can handle. I just wish God didn’t have such faith in me.”

The truth is that God knows us full well -even our doubt- and allows for it. He walks with us in it.

Jesus is saying much the same thing. He is telling the doubters that he is one with God, that he knows his followers, and that they know him: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. “(verse 26-27) It’s the same vivid image of sheep to describe his followers from the Good Shepherd passage earlier (10:1-18). And he is declaring that he knows all who follow him and they know him for who he is.  Jesus is once again providing proof that his actions are God-sanctioned  (verse 25). But He knows, really, as Criss Jami put it: “Friends ask you questions; enemies question you.” The folks who are once again nagging him about his identity are not part of this flock.

And then comes the amazing passage I’ve already quoted. It’s the heart-ground of all assurance and the answer to any disabling doubt: ““I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’

Everyone experiences hard times, disease and the fear of it, bereavement and the pain of it. Everyone has felt unprotected, endangered and belittled. But the voice of the Gospel is a voice of peace and radiant grace. Two things -only two things- are all we need. We need to hear Him and we need to follow Him.

“Now, this is what the Lord says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

It’s the ancient promise, now enacted by Jesus the Good Shepherd. It involves summoning, naming and claiming! “I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” And the consequence of that call  is protection and presence: “No one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ ” That thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy has no place here. Psalm 16:11 reminds us that “You will show me the path of life: in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures for ever more.”

Amen

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Compassion is a verb

It was en-route to the city, after being warned off by the Pharisees that Herod was after him, that Jesus gave an astonishing word-picture: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

What a picture of the yearning of God to embrace His own. This is the God we come to worship. Schopenhauer said “Compassion is the basis of morality… for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

Did you know that mother hens have the ability to feel their chicks’ pain?

This is a quality called empathy,  an ability that was once thought to be uniquely human.  But recent studies suggest that animals may also experience empathy. “A new study has uncovered, for the first time, that mother hens are such attentive, caring parents that they ‘feel’ their chicks’ pain.  In experiments, female chickens showed clear signs of anxiety when their young were in distress.  [They] found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy – the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.”

Empathy.  The ability to feel my pain.  Being moved to protect me from pain.  I think those are qualities I would like in the God I worship.

When your life is filled with suffering and pain, it’s nice to have a mother hen.  Caring, welcoming, warm.  I think those are qualities I would like in the God I worship.

Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.

Some years ago I read a story about Margaret Cundall, a retiree who offers sick children from Chernobyl an incredible gift – the chance to boost their health. The 9-and-10-year-old children, from Belarus, in Russia, which suffered 70% of the fallout from the nuclear disaster in 1986, take to Margaret like chicks running to a mother hen when she welcomes them in the summer.  She is caring, physically demonstrative, and exudes warmth that draws the children to her. 

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

The hen and the snake.

Delmer Chilton, a Lutheran pastor and writer, tells the story of going to get eggs from his grandmother’s chicken yard one evening and hearing a racket.  “A sudden raising of dust, flurry of feathers and scattering of hens and chickens, much screeching and squawking, and then, just as suddenly, things calmed down and an old gray hen emerged from the bushes with a large black snake in her mouth.”

Strength.  Courage.  Non-nonsense.  A bold female risking all to protect her chicks.  I think those are qualities I would like in God I worship.

Your kids require you most of all to love them for who they are, not to spend your whole time trying to correct them.

But it costs to care.

Frederick Buechner said, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”

Like that old gray hen, Jesus is not afraid of that fox, King Herod.

Jesus is not afraid of dying, and he sends a message back with Pharisees that Herod doesn’t even have to come after Jesus.  Jesus will go to him, right to Jerusalem.  Because that’s what a prophet does – goes bravely into the spaces of danger to confront evil.

But when he mentions Jerusalem, suddenly the tone of Jesus’ words shifts.  They turn to words of sadness.  He laments that the people of Jerusalem are like chicks that refuse to be cared for, looked after or protected.  “You were not willing.  Your house is left to you.”

Says Chilton:  “All too often, we have failed to understand or respond to God’s love. All too often, we have turned God’s word of love into a life of hate; all too often, we have turned God’s call to repentance into pointing fingers and a call to arms.  The sly fox of the world turns us away from that which is good and eternal and pulls us in the direction of those things that satisfy now but do not linger and live with us for an eternity with God.”

 

Knowing what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t want protection.  Knowing the pain that comes in realizing that you can’t save them, you can’t make them change, you can’t make them choose a different path.  Knowing a mother’s pain and yet giving her peace.  I think those are qualities I want in the God I worship. 

Like a mother bird, wings pinned to the cross, still sheltering us from evil.

Leah Schade writes: “You can have your king-god.  You can have your warrior-god.  You can have your father-god.  Today, I’m opting for the Mother-Hen-God.  The God who welcomes all her children under her wings, no matter how they behave, or how they look, or what annoying and inappropriate things they do.  The God who opens her heart of healing.  The God who feels what I feel, who validates me as a mother, who assures me that when I have made mistakes, when I have wandered from the right path, and when I have been overwhelmed by the foxes, those holy wings are still spread over me, protecting me, sheltering me, keeping me safe, loving me.”

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The Call to Ponder

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“When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?’ His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” (Gen 37:10-11)

Joseph blurts out the story of his dreams to everyone who’ll listen. It’s a fledgling gift and it comes out wrong. He sounds arrogant and foolish and so his dad rebukes him, and his brothers are jealous of him.

Two perfectly natural reactions.

But there’s a third one which you might just miss. The Bible adds, “His father kept the matter in mind.” It’s the call to ponder.

You see it in Mary, the mother of Jesus, too. She sees all the amazing things happening at the birth of Jesus -words spoken, events and circumstances, shepherds, angels and foreign intellectuals- and the text says that “she pondered these things in her heart.”

When you walk with God, you develop a sense of timing. He who believes does not make haste.” You come to realise that not only are “the steps of a righteous man are ordered by the Lord” but also the stops. God orchestrates the delays and keeps you waiting.

He’s not being difficult. He’s working with divine precision for just the right time. Remember that phrase, “In the fullness of time“? It suggests the exact moment when the ripened apple is ready to drop. When the time had fully come, God sent His son… The time is up and it’s time to drop!

The call to ponder is the call to wait on God, to trust His timing, and to keep a close eye on what He’s doing.

This is particularly appropriate in the whole business of parenting, grand-parenting and discipling. These are activities which I am beginning to discover are of absolutely cardinal importance. It’s the business of seeking God for someone else -someone you love and are committed to. After all, Mary and Jacob were both pondering the future of their children and the phrase means that though they did not understand, they trusted. They listened, they waited, they pondered.

And later, they realised what it was all about.

God may give you dreams about other people, because those other people -the ones you wake up in the night thinking about- are the souls whose burden you carry. You just can’t help it – their lives are laid on your heart. This is why Simeon prophesied to Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

He was anticipating the future pain of pondering.

Jim Packer wrote this, in that wonderful and influential book, Knowing God:  “Wait on the Lord” is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.” 

This is the call to ponder, to reflect, to consider and to weigh up just what is going on in what is going on. God wants us to grow up in this regard. The healthy Christian is not necessarily the extrovert, ebullient Christian, but the Christian who has a sense of God’s presence stamped deep on his soul, who trembles at God’s word, who lets it dwell in him richly by constant meditation upon it, and who tests and reforms his life daily in response to it.

And since I’ve now opened my old thumbed copy of Knowing God, I can’t resist a further quote on the same theme:

“Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives. As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesmen to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it .The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were , with no sense of direction, and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.”

Every circumstance is “strange, mad [and] painful” unless you entrust its circumstances to the One who made all things. The call to ponder is the call to trust. Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!

Joshua was encouraged to ponder God at the very moment when Moses -the main prop of his life- was taken away. Moses may be gone, but the word of God remains. So, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.”

Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God. It is an activity of holy thinking, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God.

It’s something that I find easier to do as I get older! I have come to see that real spiritual growth is always growth downward, so to speak, into  humility. Every day I know less and less, and trust more and more. My faith gets simpler as I gradually learn to just ponder, to wait, to watch and to listen…

A lovely old Graham Kendrick song is in my mind. Here’s a part of it:

God is at work in us
His purpose to perform
Building a kingdom
Of power not of words
Where things impossible
By faith shall be made possible
Let’s give the glory
To Him now.

Though we are weak, His grace
Is everything we need
We’re made of clay
But this treasure is within
He turns our weaknesses
Into His opportunities
So that the glory
Goes to Him

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Church: The Beauty of Being Small

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I was reading the Message version of Ephesians 4  and was struck afresh with Paul’s take on just how lovely church fellowship can be:

“You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.”

He emphasises that sense of unity. There can only be one central hub to our fellowship, and that’s Jesus. There can only be only way of coming to Jesus and that’s faith. But that doesn’t discount the value of diversity:

“But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift. …until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.”

Isn’t that a wonderful picture of synchronicity? It made me think of a murmuration of starlings, all moving according to one impulse; each individual bird distinct, but creating something beautiful in the corporate whole of their mutual commitment to fellowship.

And in then church that unity and diversity flows from Christ:  

“God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.”

 

“…from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”

Now this is a description of how the church, the body of Christ, “causes growth” and is built up in love.

Now I’m not saying that I don’t want our church to grow, but I just want to note four wonderful things that emerge from being small.

1. Being in a small church has forced me to be in community.

2. Being in a small church has forced me to serve.

3. Being in a small church has forced me to reckon with diversity.

Someone might look at our little body and say, “What on earth do you have in common?” And that is exactly how the church should be. We come together because we have one important thing in common: our Head, Christ.

4. Being in a small church has offered opportunities I might not otherwise have had.

It’s strange but true. I’ve found that there’s much more opportunity to do Christ-centred work in a small church than in a large one. And in this respect there is more chance to come closer to Christ.

For Christ is not passive and distant. He is a living, dynamic, active head of the body. He is supplier and guide by his Spirit. But will we receive his supply? Will we expect it and channel it to each other? That’s the first thing to see: Christ is the living source of church life and growth. The Whole Body . . . Causes the Growth of the Body” So even though growth and up-building are from Christ, the head, it is the whole body that builds the body.

.Notice: “To EACH one of us grace was given.” And then in verse 8 that grace is expressed in terms of gifts: “Therefore, it says . . . he gave gifts to men.” So what verse 16 means when it says that “the whole body causes the growth of the body” when “each individual part is working properly,” it means that all the members have gifts, and all of those gifts are to be used in building up the body “in love.” And this is how Christ, the all-supplying, supernatural Head of the body, builds and cares for his church.

The beauty of being small is that we have a chance to listen to the Spirit and to do all this in His power..

Of course, we may miss the opportunity. There’s a way of turning our Bible studies and prayer times into something impersonal. But there is also a great chance of recognising the chance of something magnificent – of being unified in our diversity, of being mutual in our affection and of being radical in the use of our gifts for the sake of Christ and for the love of one another: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

So here’s my prayer: that we recognise the gifts in one another and we allow each other to release them in service and ministry,  and that together we equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

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The Shocking Combination

Kyle Corbin : Perfected, Yet Being Sanctified

“By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb 10:14). This verse makes what John Piper called a “shocking combination” of two ways of thinking about the cross of Christ. One is to stress that Jesus has died for me and completely dealt with the problem of sin forever.  It’s a done deal!

Of course, we know that is true, but if you push the point too far without any qualification, it sounds as if you just don’t have to try to live a moral life anymore! It is as if it’s given you a clear field to do whatever you like, and God will cover it. It’s like having a rich daddy who’s going to bail you out of trouble every time you crash the Ferrari. (Ah, you had a dad like that too, right?).

The other way is to stress the “bit by bit” bit, getting better and better, trying hard each day to live a good life. The trouble with that is it can turn into a matter of “It’s just me, trying my best.” But that’s not grace at all, is it? So in this wonderful verse, the two sides of the coin are brought right back into one grace-reality. By the one sacrifice of the cross he has completely dealt with the issue of sin forever (Justification) for those who are “being made holy” (Sanctification). You see, the only basis for the second (Sanctification) is not self-help and effort, but the first (Justification).   It’s BOTH AND.

So let’s take the verse as one profound encouragement to turn our eyes upon Jesus here and see two things about Jesus that relate directly to our lives together today.

1. First notice that Christ has perfected his people, and it is already complete. “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” He “has” done it. And he has done it “for all time.” The perfecting of his people is complete and it is complete forever. Does this mean that Christians don’t sin? Don’t get sick? Don’t make mathematical errors in school? That we are already perfect in our behaviour and attitudes?

Er no.

Look at the last phrase. Who are the people that have been perfected for all time? It is those who “are being sanctified.” The tense is so important. Now “those who are being sanctified” are not yet fully sanctified in the sense of committing no more sin. Otherwise they would not need to go on being sanctified. So here we have the “shocking combination”: the very people who “have been perfected” are the ones who “are being sanctified.” 

But what does that mean? The answer is given in the next verses (Hebrews 10:15-18). The writer explains what he means by quoting Jeremiah again on the new covenant, namely, that in the new covenant which Christ has sealed now by his blood, there is total forgiveness for all our sins. Verses 17-18 “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more. Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” So he explains the present perfection in terms of forgiveness. Christ’s people are perfected now in the sense that God puts away all our sin (Hebrews 9:26), forgives them, and never brings them to mind again as a ground of condemnation. In this sense we stand before him perfect. When he looks on us he does not impute any of our sins against us, past, present or future. He does not count our sins against us.

2. Verse 14 tells us plainly: “By one offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” So notice, secondly, for whom Christ has done this perfecting work on the cross. You can put it provocatively like this: Christ has perfected once and for all those who are being perfected. Or you could say (and the writer does say as much in verse 10): Christ has fully sanctified those who are now being sanctified. Or Christ has fully accomplished and guaranteed the holiness of those who are now being made holy.

What this means is that you can know that you stand perfect in the eyes of your heavenly Father if you are moving away from your present imperfection toward more and more holiness by faith in his future grace. Let me say that again, because it is full of encouragement for imperfect sinners like us, and full of motivation for holiness. This verse means that you can have assurance that you stand perfected and completed in the eyes of your heavenly Father not because you are perfect now, but precisely because you are not perfect now but are “being sanctified“, “being made holy“, that, by faith in God’s promises, you are moving away from your lingering imperfection toward more and more holiness.

But there’s a vital question remaining:

Does your faith make you eager to forsake sin and push forward towards God? That is the kind of faith that in the midst of imperfection can look to Christ and say: “You have already perfected me in your sight.” This faith says, “Lord Jesus, I am a faulty specimen that gets almost everything wrong but I hate my sin. For you have written the law on my heart, and I long to do it. And you are working in me what is pleasing in your sight. And so I hate the sin that I still do, and the sinful thoughts that I still contemplate but I rejoice that, according to your promise in Hebrews 10:14, I have been perfected for all time by a single offering, your precious self.”

This is not the boast of the strong. It is the cry of the weak in need of a Saviour. I invite you and urge you to be honest and weak enough to trust Christ in this way. And to claim those victorious final faith-assurances:

“But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15:57)

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you unblemished in His glorious presence, with great joy —  to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all time, and now, and for all eternity. Amen” (Jude 24)

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And there the Lord commands the blessing…

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“Behold how pleasant and how good it is when brethren dwell together in unity…” (Psalm 133:1)

Oh the joy of getting on. It’s pleasant. It’s good.

The Hebrew words for pleasant and good are significant. The word for pleasant suggests a pleasing aroma, like bacon frying or fresh bread out of the oven, or your morning coffee percolating. It’s pleasant, unmistakably pleasant. And everybody recognises the fact. It’s obvious how nice it is.

And the word “good” carries the connotation of something wholesome and straight, moral and guileless. He saw that it was good.

These are the attributes of life lived in peace.

It’s like… Oh, how can I describe it? The writer seems to lean back in his chair and stretch for a suitable metaphor. And then he finds it. Oil.

It’s like the anointing oil poured on to Aaron’s head, curling on to the beard, dripping on to the shoulders and chest…

When I was a very young believer, I had a good friend called Jonathan and together we were visiting one of the elders of the church, a wonderfully patriarchal man called Jack. Jack’s back was playing him up and he instructed us to pray for him, to lay hands on him and anoint him with oil. So, with a bottle of olive oil from the kitchen, we began to pray. Now, I had neither heard about this nor seen it done, but somehow I was the one holding the bottle whilst Jonathan prayed.

One thing I did know, however, was this Psalm. How pleasant, how good…like the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and beard…

So taking my cue from Psalm 133, I unscrewed the bottle top, leaned towards the very top of Jack’s head and poured the whole bottle out. It gushed into his ears, rushed down both sides of his face, hesitated over the beard until it formed a spike of hair at the bottom of his chin from whence it drip-dripped on to the parquet floor, forming a widening, golden circle.

Memorable.

And Jack never said a word about it. He just continued to sit there, smiling, with his hands palm-open, receiving this surprising blessing in serene dignity.

Later, when I saw other people dabbing tiny blobs of oil on sick people’s foreheads, the recollection of praying for Jack made me (and makes me) hot with embarrassment. But the memory is not all negative. Even though I was naïve and ignorant, I was at least sincere and obedient to what I understood Scripture to say. It was only the human tradition with which I was unfamiliar.

And there was something exuberant, generous and delightful about the flow of that oil. It was pleasing.

But –here’s the thing- Jack gave me a tremendous gift with his silence, his smile and his encouragement. He received my offering with pleasure and somehow made it a godly thing.

That’s the unshakeable memory that I always associate with this verse. The blessing of unity is the experience of relational love.

When we come as people from different churches to work together for the kingdom, it is not at all easy or straightforward. There are often old suspicions or hurts which have to be negotiated. We have to handle those situations gently, with humility and vulnerability.

And we may well get things wrong, and outrage sensibilities all over again. We may offend, with our doctrines and practices, through ignorance or naivety, but the effort is worth it.

Joel Osteen said: “One of the main reasons that we lose our enthusiasm in life is because we become ungrateful..we let what was once a miracle become common to us. We get so accustomed to his goodness it becomes a routine..”

If we serve each other with love, we express the generosity of God and give and receive healing. It is pleasant and good. It makes you smile in pleasure. It’s worth the attempt.To have our needs met, to love, to be loved, to feel safe in this world and to each know our purpose, is a simple matter of creating those blessings for others.

And there…right there in the pouring out of lives, “God commands the blessing.”

“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace ~ (Numbers 6:24-25)

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“An improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul…”

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“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.” ( Bessie Anderson Stanley)

Of course we all know it, deep down. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that success is NOT loads of money, masses of acclaim and your picture on the front of the paper. And the stuff that we deride as folly really is just that. We all know that.

George Carlin said, “The reason they call it “the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

So when Bessie Anderson Stanley wrote on the subject (winning a 250 dollar prize in 1902), her obvious truthfulness shines through. But somehow it’s still surprising.

Part of the surprise comes when you realise that all this is free. It’s free to laugh (so far); it’s free to give and to love. It’s free to earn respect and affection and to give it to others too. All the things that make a difference – character, integrity, good manners, clear speech and the habit of reading – none of these depend upon your bank balance.

But the big surprise comes at a deeper level. What is it to “Fill your niche and to accomplish your task”? What is, truly, to see and love the beauty of the world and its people – and to express your appreciation? What does it mean to leave the world better than you find it with “an improved poppy, or a perfect poem”? What is it, really, to look “for the best in others and give them the best you have”? What is, finally, to rescue a soul?

And you realise that everything you thought was wise has to be turned on its head.

And because I’m a Christian, I start to think about Jesus. I think about the one who was entirely himself, and yet was entirely God’s; focused on God, looking to his Father and listening for his voice in every moment of every day. “I only do the things I see the Father doing.” He filled the niche of himself in such an unworried, lovely way.

I see the way Jesus loved people. He didn’t reserve his affection for the “worthy” or the morally upright, but gave it freely to every broken-down needy person hovering about for a free hand-out. Peter said “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” And you know exactly what he meant. It recalls those lovely words of Chris Tomlin: “It’s love so undeniable, I, I can hardly speak. Peace so unexplainable, I, I can hardly think.”

Our version of holiness comes over as self-righteous, prideful – even a bit snotty. But Jesus’s comes over as the tenderest, kindest, loveliness that fills your eyes with tears and you don’t know why. He stood amid the broken and lost and said “Come unto me, all you who are burdened and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

This isn’t conventional wisdom. He looked for the best in others and never stopped looking. He talked with a well-off sophisticated intellectual and told him he needed to start as a baby all over again. He talked with the destitute and told them of their worth in God’s eyes. He knelt at the feet of Judas and washed his feet. His love was not determined by the worth of its recipient.

His life and his love was an inspiration, and his memory a benediction.

But then he died, and he died in such a way, such a horrific way.  This didn’t make nonsense of his claims, but explained them fully to those able to hear and see.

For the cross of Christ is God’s success story. It is God’s love story. It is God’s life story. This is how God lives and loves. This is how love wins.

And it makes nonsense of our ideas about success or about what life and love really mean. When Paul came to talk about the cross of Christ he said:

The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written, I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots. So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

In the next chapter he says, “I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.”

For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. And the cross shows just how far God is willing to go with His love. The cross exposes human sinfulness – it shows what we are capable of – but it also exposes God’s faithfulness.

And more -much more. It shows us how humanity is to be lived. It is to be like Jesus, lived in entire focus. It is designed for the entirely purposed connectivity with God and with others. This is what being “entirely sanctified” really means. It means being committed to God and His purposes and simultaneously sold out in love for others.

What an inspiration! What a benediction! And now, the life I live, I choose to live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. “An improved poppy, a perfect poem,… a rescued soul…”

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