Love to the power of nothing

My family is pretty immense. At the risk of making my parents sound like members of the Borg collective, they are both one of five.  So that’s eight sets of aunties and uncles before you’ve even started. I stopped counting at 20 cousins.

We are also a pretty diverse bunch; a mix of races, sexualities, educational attainment, geography, tastes and lifestyles.

With a family that big it’s never very long between ‘occasions’ and the fact that we all enjoy celebrating together regularly is a powerful testament to how our mutual love, affection and shared history totally trumps our differences and holds us all together. Nice.

This gets me thinking about the breath-taking diversity in God’s creation and the immense, unfathomably creative power that must be holding all that together; connecting us to each other and to Him.

In the bible, God challenges this guy called Job with some heavyweight questions about His power over the universe. Imagining myself being confronted with some of these questions, could go like this:

God: Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?

Me: How about ‘no’?

God: Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place….?

Me: Erm….nope again.

God: Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons?

Me:  ……..Dah.

If you’ve ever seen the film Bruce Almighty, you’ll know the scene where Bruce first realises that the entirety of the power of God has been given to him. What does he do? Drenched deep in a sense of his own powerlessness, he uses God’s power big himself up. Who wouldn’t, right?

Not Jesus.

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing.”

– Philippians 2:6-7

 

The thing that blows me away about this is that Jesus – he through whom all things were made – made himself nothing.

Here we have Jesus, the creator of the universe, with infinite unspeakable power, imagination, resources and time – the very ‘hands that flung stars into space’ – choosing to make himself nothing, so that I – we – could be ‘something’.

Humility personified. Love to the power of nothing.

We often think of and experience power as something too compelling not to use. Power is so often something that we want in order to get gains in our own direction; something that allows us to control people and events for our benefit or advantage.

Not Jesus. Apparently, ‘down is the new up.’

When he ‘turns it on’, power is always for the benefit of others. Motivated by love, he can choose to announce his power in the wonder of creation for his glory and our amazement, and he can also choose to withhold his power when it’s necessary for our ultimate good.

And on the cross, Jesus held back on the chance to use his immense power to save his own life in that moment, so that God’s bigger picture of salvation through grace could be revealed through Jesus rising from the dead three days later.

I wouldn’t consider myself to be particularly powerful as a human being, but this challenges me deeply. How humble am I in the face of any power I might have? Am I more like Bruce, tempted to wield it for shits and giggles? Or am I ready and willing to humble myself, as Jesus did, for the sake of the bigger picture, and for the benefit of others? Think on.

hands that flung stars

Good or safe – when things get ‘ouchy’

“Let His Majesty guide us wherever He will. We are not our own; we belong to Him. His Majesty may do what He likes with the soul. It is His property. The soul no longer belongs to itself. It has been given over wholly to our Lord. Let it, therefore, cast its cares wholly aside forever and ever.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

My current read-on-the-bus book is ‘Leadership Pain,’ by Samuel Chand. In it he talks about the inevitability of pain as a leader, yet notes that, “new insights – ones that couldn’t have been learned another way – become treasures found in the darkness. The person now has more compassion, deeper joy and more love to share with others.”

Wise words.

Indeed, in my own life I can say with all honesty that whilst I would not want to repeat certain desperately painful events; if it was not for that pain, I wouldn’t have discovered the deeper and wider realms of God’s love and mercy for me, nor his delight in me.

And so, as someone who is tentatively moving into ‘Christian leadership’, I’m at times painfully aware of my novice status and my oftentimes crippling sense of inadequacy for what God might be calling me towards. Against that green-shoot backdrop I’ve found myself recently knocked for six by a relational breach which I’ve experienced as confusing, wounding to my already fragile sense of relationship-ability and out-of-the-blue anxiety-generating.

The temptation towards feeling defended, angry and condemned has been uncomfortably close; at times like rancid breath down the back of my neck. But by the grace of God, being kicked into the black pit of the unknown has been faith-enlarging, trust magnifying and God-intimacy growing. Alongside the temptation to allow my heart for relationship and community to develop a ‘squint’, my soul-eyes have been opened all the wider to the expansive and surer reality of God’s goodness and sovereignty. And in this potentially isolating space, God has revealed himself faithful in my being wrapped around and threaded through by a diverse community of people who hold me close and steady and love like family.

One aspect which has been especially difficult to bear has been wanting to be able to express my own hurt, but without doing it in a way that hurts the relationship even more. In ‘holding in’ my own pain I’ve assumed a type-of-silence that has at times felt choking and unjust. Yet as is very often the case when external and expressed silence occurs, you become all too aware of the noise within. Oh, how I wrestled and wrangled and interrogated anything and everything I could in order to understand what might have ‘gone wrong’.  Seemingly endless ‘why’ ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions attempted to flood my thoughts and draw my attention away from the One in whom I trust.

And so from wrestling to rest.

A re-reading of Isaiah 40:31 beamed God’s perspective-altering radiance like a shaft of light in the fog.

“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Those who wait for the Lord.  In every waiting situation, we have a choice to make about what (or rather who) we are waiting for, and that choice fundamentally changes our perspective in the pain. As I wait, I ask myself, “Am I waiting for a circumstantial outcome that depends on another person?” If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then it strikes me it would have the potential to induce the opposite effect within me to Isaiah 40:31. It would sap my strength. It would make me tumble-fall like Icarus. I would become woefully weary and leaden-footed. But what if I am ‘waiting for the Lord’?  A perspective shift in this ‘waiting space’ leads me to realise what I am expectant of is God’s joy to burst in on the scene. I’m waiting for God to reveal himself.

In all this, I am reminded yet again of God’s immense goodness; abundant enough to cover all of this. And it’s that surety which I want to be both my circumference and my centre in this, despite the uncertainty that remains about the outcome. As ever, The Chronicles of Narnia expresses this feeling so pertinently;

“Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he…quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

safe-good

 

Alpha and Omega

I read today that an estimated 47% people are going through some kind of life transition. As someone familiar with change and upheaval, it was comforting (as it always is) to learn I’m not the only one.

I’ve recently been challenged by some difficult changes and have been steadied in this by remembering that God is the Alpha and Omega – He knows the start and end of me and the start and end of every situation I face; as well as all the details of the in-between.  He holds it all and I trust he will bring light to it and life from it.

So, poet me came out to play. Which was nice.

Alpha omega

 

Gotta love a good story…

I was intrigued to discover an article recently explaining how a key quality in leadership is effective storytelling – defined as the ability to “shape and express engaging narratives”. Some of the reasons offered for this were that good story-telling:

  • boosts morale and empowerment
  • builds ties and social networks
  • gives a fresh perspective and helps to ‘contain’ conflict in groups
  • helps people handle stress better
  • helps people find purpose and meaning

Interesting stuffs.

There are, of course, leaders and people in power who are good at a kind of ‘storytelling’ which has the opposite effect; where their leadership and power is built and rested upon narratives that demean, disempower and divide. And we’ve certainly seen plenty of that in political debates lately as well as the defence in the recent Stanford sexual assault case.

Anyway, it got me thinking about our ‘stories’ – the narratives of our lives – and how in telling and retelling our stories we are not only expressing who we once were or have become, we are also dynamically shaping the narrative of who we are becoming as we interpret and reinterpret the meaning of the events that have shaped us.

I wonder how many of us would ever attempt to articulate our lives as a whole story? If someone else was to write your story, would there be ‘chapters’ that you would prefer to be edited out?

I recently had the pleasure of organising a surprise family get-together for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and I wanted to ‘tell their story’ in a creative way, so I wrote a poem.  I won’t include it here, but as I so easily amused myself working out verses for the earlier chapters of their life, I found myself suddenly floored and lost for words when it came to ‘shaping and expressing a narrative’ about the loss of their first born son, my older brother, to cancer in 2002 aged 34.

I found myself needing to heavily edit their story and move swiftly on to the later verses. Any words I attempted to mould together seemed tenuous and inadequate as a means of expressing an event so profoundly painful and deeply life-altering.

But none-the-less it remains part of my parents’ story – part of our story as a family. And part of my story as a sister. I may be able to edit it out of a poem, but I can’t edit it out of our lives. Ian’s life and death shaped who I am, probably more than any other person. Much of my identity has been both hinged and unhinged on his presence and his absence.

My brother’s death is one of many dark and unlovely chapters in my life I could be tempted to ‘edit out’ of the story. But it strikes me that if I were to pursue that course, it would have two effects:

  • Firstly, it would confine me to a shrunken space; to only expressing those bits of my story that are pleasing, uplifting and ‘nice’ – I’ve got to be honest, with that approach, I’d be on starvation rations pretty quickly…..
  • Secondly, it would mean those chapters remain forever static; becoming calcified and unchanging skeletons in a suffocating closet.

Newsflash: that’s not me.

I want my darker chapters to be pierced perpetually by God’s light; to be opened up and edited with the creative renewal and healing that God’s abundant love and faithfulness can bring. I want all my chapters – ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ – to be dynamic stories that I can tell and re-tell because they say something about a visionary Creator whose mission in me, in all of us, is to bring joy from mourning, beauty from ashes and life out of darkness and death.

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Will the real me please step forward

My dear brother, a super-talented hair stylist was recently telling me about some of his more entertaining clients, including one who kept using the well-renowned Bristolian phrase, “fair play” in response to pretty much everything he told them. Fair play, to ‘em.

It got us wondering how this little turn of phrase reflects the Bristolian culture. We couldn’t decide whether ‘fair play’ is simply a generous spiritedness celebrating freedom of expression, or if it’s potentially a complete disregard for whatever the other person has just said.

Let me explain this second theory by way of a possible conversation:

Steve: “Ere, Dave, what d’you you do at the weekend, mate?”

Dave: “Oh, me and me missus dressed up like rampaging Vikings and rode a cup-la badgers down Whiteladies Road.”

Steve: “Oh fair play, mate.”

What do our accents and the way we talk say about us? Some psychologists would argue that a person’s accent has a greater impression on people than the way they look; that our accents reveal more about us as people than our visual appearance.

Why am I saying all this?

Like many others at this time of year, I’ve been reading the Passion stories in the Bible and this year have been really struck by the behaviour of Peter.

He was in the courtyard outside where Jesus was facing his so-called trial by the High Priest, and this where he denied that he knew Jesus. When he was asked, he said, “I don’t know the man” -as if he was saying, “I’ve never heard of him, I don’t know what you’re on about”. He actually seems to have gotten quite narky about it!

But despite what he was saying, the way he said it – his accent – was noticed. The bystanders said, “your accent gives you away.” It’s as if they were saying, “Oh come on, mate, d’you really expect us to believe you’ve never heard of Jesus, you’re from the same neighbourhood!”

Despite Peter’s ‘best’ efforts, he gave himself away.

People are funny like that. We sometimes try (with a quite strenuous effort) to give an impression about ourselves to others to avoid ‘giving ourselves away’. We fear being judged, misunderstood or rejected. Maybe we’re struggling with something and assume everyone else has ‘got it sorted’ so we keep shtum and pretend while inside we feel discouraged or alone.

In his book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ John Joseph Powell explains that our answer to the question, could quite simply be, “I am afraid you might not like who I am . . . and I’m all I’ve got.”

I don’t know about you, but if ‘I’m all I’ve got’, then surely I owe it to myself and others to pursue being as real and authentic a person as possible. And for me, that has only come about by discovering who I am in Jesus. Despite all the crap and abuse and negative narrative I’ve lived through, I’m compelled to press on into discovering the beautiful truth that it’s God’s view about me that reflects the real me. That is my ‘authentic self’.

Christianity Today magazine summed this up perfectly by saying that authenticity is: “transparency and admission of failure…. the rejection of pretence and hypocrisy. It’s truth-telling about all areas of life. …. Christians serve a God who is always truthful. Never lies. Never deceives…..For Christians, our true self is found in Christ, and we are on a pilgrimage to become more like him.”

zeph 3-17

Vision? What do you see?

I’ve got an eye test at the end of this week. Oh goody. At my age, it’s yet another eagerly anticipated opportunity for me to develop ever-more elaborate ways to say ‘no’ to the question of, “Would you like to try bifocals?” Despite my staunch resistance to yield to this suggestion, I cannot deny that my vision is not as good as it used to be. I may give in one day when I find myself walking into door frames too often.

This morning’s news was that ahead of the election, a ‘Bishop’s letter’ is going to be published calling for “a fresh moral vision for the country’s future.” And it got me to thinking about vision more generally. We talk about ‘vision’ a lot, especially in business or churchy circles. There’s always some kind of visioning exercise* going on somewhere or another. Having a ‘vision’ is clearly important. But how are we different and better with a vision? And are we always poorer for the lack of one?

(*The phrase ‘visioning exercise’ causes me to slightly shudder.  I imagine it may involve being forced to watch severely uncomfortable and out-of-breath people doing some kind of ghastly over-energetic physical activity whilst trying to reassure me it’s ‘fun’ and I should join in. I think not. I’m afraid I would have to politely decline.)

My current daily devotional is the simple but delightful ‘Love Out Loud’ by Joyce Meyer, and yesterday’s offering was called ‘What do you see?’ (in my case not too much without the right glasses!) Anyway…. Joyce quotes Habakkuk 2:2:

“Write the vision and make it plain.”

Joyce goes on to say,

“Writing down your vision brings it into the real world and makes it solid.”

I like that. We can so easily tune into a lot of sobering and potentially depressing stuff within and around us – crises, ill health, financial insecurity, threats to our safety, social and cultural fragmentation – whether you’re of faith or not, these things are real and pressing. It strikes me that how we respond to them will be defined in part by our vision (or lack of) for our future. If we rehearse these fears in our minds and in our conversations with friends we end up ‘writing them plainly’; they become real and solid and unavoidable to us. On a personal level, for example, I could choose to have a quite depressing and hopeless vision for my future; an ageing divorcee with no kids and huge debts. Oh, how terribly lonely and sad I will be, rattling around in my baggy old pyjamas with no friends, occasionally bumping into door frames because I can’t see properly. 

So, what do we see? A future vision where we simply ‘duck and cover’? Where we retreat from the threats until there’s simply nothing left of us? I hope not. Thankfully, as a Christian, my vision isn’t just about the here and now; it extends beyond this realm of existence into something far more glorious and hopeful than I can ever imagine.

Richard Ostling says in ‘Kingdoms to Come’:

“A futurist speculating about what things would be like from the perspective of a scientist in the year 2090 wrote: It seems amazing now that there was ever a time when science was supposedly the enemy of faith, and religion was deemed hostile to technological investigation. The end of atheism and agnosticism became inevitable as soon as computer calculations made improbable the odds that random natural selection could be the sole explanation for the ever increasing intricacies found in biology. Equally influential was the discovery of multiple universes, which astronomers found at the macrocosmic level and physicists found in the microcosmic. Science thus established the current Age of Faith, re-creating the Creator. Nowadays only the fool says in his heart, “There is no God”.

Reflecting on this, along with Joyce Meyer’s question of ‘what do we see?’ I’m challenged to write plainly of a vision for my life that is based around such an awesome God that has built himself intricately into his creation at every turn, and of which I am an intimate part. You can’t get that vision down the opticians!