jesus and the invisibility cloak

21 09 2014

You know the story about Jesus and the invisibility cloak? Well, technically it wasn’t his. Maybe that’s what confused you. It’s not a well-known artefact in New Testament studies, but then, it’s easy to hide with an invisibility cloak. 

The story begins with a woman, name unknown. This woman is invisible. Or at least, she wears an invisibility cloak. When she walks the streets, nobody sees her. She is still there; they can still bump into her. It’s hard not to bump into someone you can’t see.  She doesn’t like being invisible, but when you wear the cloak, there’s not much you can do about it. 

Except at night. The cloak doesn’t work at night. At night she is seen, especially by men. Men who can pay. They see her… or, they see something in their heads, they definitely touch her, but they still don’t ‘see’ her. And they certainly don’t see her when walking with their wife in the market the following day. But at least she feels she exists at night.

Or that was how she felt. Until she met this man. Not the usual meeting with a man. He was… different. He didn’t take advantage of her, exploit her; he didn’t look straight through her. He looked straight at her. He saw her. Properly saw her. And he saw her yearning to be different, her shame over her lifestyle and her hopelessness about changing it. And he changed it for her. He forgave her. The cloak of invisibility lifted from her. She felt no shame. She felt… alive! 

 She needed to say thank you. She knew this man would be having dinner with a man called Simon that evening. Simon was the opposite to her. He was very visible. When he walked through the market, people didn’t bump into him; they saw him and moved out of the way. She was a sinner; he was righteous. Or so they all thought. So for one last time she put on the cloak, and joined the other invisible people at the edge of the party, hoping for scraps from the table.

It didn’t go to plan. Amazed at Simon’s rudeness to Jesus, the invisible woman took control. She tore off the invisibility cloak, and knelt at Jesus’ feet. She wept on his feet, dried them with her hair and poured perfume on them. The crowd were stunned at such a brazen act. Did this woman not know she was meant to be invisible? Simon waited for Jesus to rebuke her. Instead, he rebuked Simon. The proud man, the righteous man, the visible man. Jesus showed him for what he was. Visible, but hollow. Unlike her, who was invisible but full of love.

Looking at the woman and talking to Simon, Jesus asked: You see this woman? No, thought Simon. The point of women like this is you do not see them. They are invisible. But Jesus went on. He commended the woman for her love, shown in such dramatic fashion. And he rebuked Simon for his rudeness. At this point Simon wished he was invisible. Your sin are forgiven, Jesus said to her. Go in peace.

The woman left with her head held high. And she left the invisibility cloak crumpled on the floor, never to be worn again. 

This is a true story. I may have made up the cloak bit.

If you feel like you are invisible, this story is for you.
If you feel like a sinner unworthy of Jesus’ attention, this story is for you.
If other people have put the cloak on you, this story is for you.
If you have put the cloak on yourself, this story is for you.
If you put the cloak on others, this story is for you.

May we leave our invisibility cloaks behind as we follow him. 

 

 





sewing up the curtain

14 09 2014

So often it seems we celebrate the curtain being torn in two, then spend Sunday mornings trying to stitch it back up again. Maybe if your church is anything like ours, you know what I mean. We talk about being able to approach the throne of grace with confidence, then we design our churches like throne rooms with the ‘special bit’ where God is, over there, whether it’s an altar (it’s a table. A TABLE!), or the pulpit, or the worship band stage – it’s where the important stuff happens anyway. And it’s over there. Up there. Elevated.

the bishop wasn’t convinced about the reordering of the chancel

I know my denomination is probably worse than yours. We use words like altar, we have priests, special clothes… all of this serves to create this image that we say one thing, then do the other. We talk about a level playing field, whilst we build our side higher. But I guess most denominations are as bad. All church leaders know people – in church and outside of it – who think we have a ‘hotline’ to God, that we can ‘put a good word in’ because somehow our word is ‘worth more’. Like we’re some kind of religious order of butlers, taking messages and carrying the dinner and knowing the secrets of the King.

I understand why. It makes more sense to think that we all need someone else to approach God for us. Because that’s like real life. We don’t get to talk to the big wigs, we have to go through go-betweens. And God is the biggest of bigwigs. And it’s scary too, to think of approaching God. Especially if our picture of God is coloured by memories of strict headmasters or vicars who tell you off for genuflecting half a second late. So we let other people do it – the ordained, the prophetic, the musical…

But we are all welcome to approach God with confidence. His throne is a throne of grace, not malice; of mercy, not judgement. We have to intentionally choose to believe that. Choose to trust, not to fear. Otherwise it is like stitching the temple curtain back up again. 

This matters, it really matters. Because there are some people in this world who walk round with a sense of entitlement, but I don’t meet many. Most people I meet carry a sense of belittlement, of insignificance, so will hide outside the door to God’s throne room forever in fear of what he will do if he catches them sneaking around. We need to change that.

Church, let’s remember the curtain came down. Let’s leave it down. 

 

 





on conquering snowdon, and other untruths

11 09 2014

So I did it! The 20-mile + obstacles Man vs Mountain race over Snowdon was the hardest physical challenge i’ve ever done. Here’s what happened and some life and leadership lessons learned. 

We began at sea-level inside Caernarfon Castle. The weather was cool and slightly damp – perfect running conditions. The first 5 miles on the road were straightforward: choose a comfortable pace, don’t use all your energy going off too fast. Lesson 1: pace yourself.  Having all the kit doesn’t make you a good runner, just someone with all the kit, so we set our pace by those  running at our pace, not those who looked the part. Lesson 2: look at outcomes, not image. As we hit the off-road the grinding nature of the constant uphill began to bite.

IMG_3451

fresh-faced and slightly terrified inside the castle

Running with my brother, we were chuffed at 10 miles to be met by our dad, who had walked to encourage us and give us some much-needed nourishment. We took a rest, as others passed us, knowing the next 3 miles to the summit would make or break us. Lesson 3: learn to rest mid-journey, enjoy the view and eat something. Joining the Snowdon Ranger path here, the terrain got tougher, steeper, and visibility foggier. The line of runners became a line of walkers zig-zagging up into in the fog. Much-needed encouragement was given and received as runners stretched aching muscles, took on food, put on layers, and we collectively hoped the sun would break through. Lesson 4: encourage others who are struggling, it matters.

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beautiful sight as the clouds began to clear

At this point I could have run faster, but I held back to pull my brother up the hill; however, if I had gone quicker, I think I would have overdone it. Lesson 5: slower may well be wiser. Don’t rush everything. As we neared the summit, there was a beautiful moment as the sun burst through, melted away the mist and we got an amazing view from the summit, where we took the obligatory summit-selfie, briefly paused, my brother and I said our goodbyes and I set off for the descent. The 7 miles down was tough, with tripping, slipping and braking, so I took it steady and tried not to think about the Merrell Vertical KM up ahead. I was happy that up until now I had paced it well, done the right amount of training, and hadn’t got lost! Lesson 6: discipline in preparation is essential.

IMG_3473

the obligatory summit-selfie, looking not-quite-so-fresh!

As we reached Electric Mountain at Llanberis after 20 miles, the evil nature of organisers raised it’s ugly head! First up was the Vertical KM, a steep uphill slog up the slate mine, treated as a timed race-in-a-race. I was feeling pretty good at this point, so I decided to push it, going past many who were walking, and trying to ignore the burning thighs and the fear of cramp. I was unexpectedly rewarded with a 12th place out of 750 in this challenge, in a time of 11m48s, only just over a minute slower than the winner. Lesson 7: training does actually makes you stronger.

the vertical km results

the vertical km results

Next up was the abseil. This I was terrified of. There was a walk-around for those who didn’t want to do it, but I decided I would do it. As I climbed over the edge of the railway bridge, I decided I wouldn’t look down. Ever. And didn’t. I looked at my feet. So I had no idea how high it was, or how far to go. I chose to trust the equipment and the instructors. I was surprised when the arch of the bridge left me dangling. But I did it! Lesson 8: choosing to trust rather than fear is just that – a choice.

Grinning widely and proud that I had done it, I ran to the next obstacle – a 20 ft leap off a plank into a lake, exiting by swimming through a submerged gate. Again, this was terrifying for me, but I again chose to trust my knowledge it was safe, rather than my fear that it wasn’t. I shouted “what a sense of achievement!” to nobody in particular, and nobody replied. Lesson 9: not everyone knows your fears, and unless you tell them, they may never know

The cramp was truly setting in to my legs now. The effort of the Vertical KM was taking its toll, and I longed for the end to come. Just 2 more water obstacles and the final run to the finish… oh no, not quite. The two 7 foot walls just before the finish were the final evil sting in the tail.  I made the first one by climbing the edge of the scaffolding, thanks to advice shouted from a spectator. Lesson 10: those on the sidelines have a better view, so don’t ignore their advice. The second wall was beyond me. In full view of spectators and my dad’s camera, my legs totally cramped and I lay prostrate on the floor. I’ve never known cramp like it. Lesson 11: dignity isn’t as important as receiving help

Snowdon Run 2014 020FR

i thought I’d have a sit-down, just a few feet from the finish

A leg stretch and a leg-up from the marshall later, I was over the finish line, 134th out of 750! A total of 4 hours 49 minutes, 2 bananas, 4 gels, 2 shortcakes, 1 energy bar, half a bag of dried berries, 3 bottles of water, 1 mountain, 1600m and whole load of fun. I’ve never been so appreciative of hot soup. Thank you to my brother, thank you to my dad for being our team support, and thank you to all those who sponsored me on behalf of Sutton Schoolswork. Lesson 12: I couldn’t have done this alone

the overall results

the overall results

The question is, did I conquer Snowdon? Did I win in the Man v Mountain challenge? No, of course not. She was kind to us, but she was very much in charge. She taught me many lessons, which I will never forget. A race like that is such a good metaphor for life, especially the Christian life that I follow. My final lesson? Lesson 13: don’t just take care, take risks. If you live life safely at the bottom of the hill, you never get to see the view. Or as Jesus said, make an effort or be bored. Ok, he actually said “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”  

Snowdon Run 2014 024FR

proud, wet, exhausted and happy!

Here’s my 13 lessons in life and leadership:

Lesson 1: pace yourself.
Lesson 2: look at outcomes, not image.
Lesson 3: learn to rest mid-journey, enjoy the view and eat something.
Lesson 4: encourage others who are struggling, it matters.
Lesson 5: slower may well be wiser. Don’t rush everything.
Lesson 6: discipline in preparation is essential.
Lesson 7: training does actually makes you stronger.
Lesson 8: choosing to trust rather than fear is just that – a choice.
Lesson 9: not everyone knows your fears, and unless you tell them, they may never know.
Lesson 10: those on the sidelines have a better view, so don’t ignore their advice.
Lesson 11: dignity isn’t as important as receiving help.
Lesson 12: I couldn’t have done this alone.
Lesson 13: don’t just take care, take risks.

As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us.
Heb 12.1





ideology upside-down

3 09 2014

Ideology. Now there’s a loaded word. It tends to be associated these days with hard-liners and loonies. It’s an old-fashioned kind of concept. But what it means is the system by which you hold to your principles. The foundation on which you build your decisions. 

There is a dearth of ideology in the public sphere. It used it be that – politically – the parties were ideologically motivated, and were overt in that. Now, ideology is generally second-best to whatever works for me right now. Which means – politically – that like chameleons we will change our policies to keep public opinion on our side.

Maybe it has always been so. There is no golden era. But currently that dearth of political ideology – other than the need for power and control – sits alongside a dearth of social ideology too. We the public don’t really know what we stand for either. So we don’t notice that those in power don’t stand for us, because we don’t what it would mean if they did.  

Why am I saying this? The Government’s response to the British men going to fight for the IS militants in Iraq and Syria. Those young men have at least one thing most of their peers do not – an ideology. Albeit a terrifying one – 13th century ideology & theology with 21st century weapons is a horrific combination. The Government’s response is about power and control. As it has been with dealing with the deficit. In this case, it is to take away passports; to deny British citizens their citizenship.

While it might sound a good ‘robust’ approach, it doesn’t get underneath the problem and ask why it is that British-born young men are able to be so convinced by such an inhumane ideology. Is it because there is nothing to counter it? Instead of threatening to take away passports after the event, we should be working alongside our youth – regardless of religion or background – helping them to understand themselves, to find they way in the world, to work out what is important to them and why.

This used to be called education. Youth work. This was where it happened. But now education is basically exam-factory and youth work is all but disappeared. We need it back! We need our young people to know what they stand for, to understand their ideology, even when they don’t realise they have one. 

Christians have an ideology. We don’t always get it right, but mostly we know what we stand for. To love God, and to love our neighbour. Jesus said blessed are the poor in spirit, the humble, the mourners, the peacemakers, the gentle. That is a confident, robust ideology that turns power and control and money-making on its head. That seems like a good place to start.

See more spoken word from Dai Woolridge at Spoken-truth.com 

 





top corner second lap

31 08 2014

Top corner second lap. Even the words make me shudder. Or at least, they used to. I regularly do the 5k Banstead Parkrun which is 2 lopsided laps through the woods. And the top corner second lap, about 3/4 of the way around – I used to hate it. It’s just after a long hill, with a steep start. Physically the legs and heart are struggling – but more than that, for me it was psychological. At that point, the self-doubt creeps. The negative voices in my head telling me give up, stop; you’re no good anyway, you’re a rubbish runner, just walk, go home. Did I tell you you’re also a rubbish vicar? And don’t get me started on how you’ll cope with that adoption idea…

But part of maturing is knowing that when things are tough you don’t just give up. And part of being a Christian who writes is knowing that running metaphors are very biblical, so no-one can tell you to stop going on about it. Pushing on through the self-doubt, chronic though it is sometimes, is essential to living fully. When you believe in something, you are prepared to suffer for it. Life as a follower of Jesus is like a long-distance race, just as Paul said it was. Moments of self-doubt, moments of cruising; moments of pain, moments of feeling unbeatable; moments of loneliness, and moments of needing to run together. As the African proverb says, if you want to quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. 

 

Why don’t I fear the top corner second lap anymore? Because I’ve taken on a challenge to run Man vs Mountain, 20 miles over Snowdon, which is further and harder than I’ve ever run before. For this south Londoner, Snowdon is about as similar as Saruman to Neville Longbottom. Why? Because I love a challenge. Yes. But also because I am raising money for Sutton Schoolswork, our local Christian schoolswork charity. So I have been training. Hard. I have run more, and further; I have sought out hills; and my time at the Banstead parkrun has come toppling, culminating in three PBs in a row (17.34), taking a minute off my time in 3 months, and winning it this week (yay to me!). 18 miles over Box Hill no longer scares me. 20 miles over Snowdon? Ok, yes that does. 

Funny how putting the work in gets results though. I firmly believe in Christian schoolswork. It is not about covert evangelism; it is not some sinister underground movement. But it is about putting the Christian faith on the radar for our children and young people, a faith as real and lived, not as taught in books by people who usually just don’t get it. How can you understand the world without understanding faith in God, even if you don’t believe it yourself? We have a lot to say about the things that young people need to hear; and we have ears to listen to what they have to say. We teach on lifestyle and ethics and history and knowing yourself; we open people’s eyes to justice issues like human trafficking and bullying. And we are invited by pretty much all the schools in Sutton, because they trust us: 45 primaries, 11 Secondaries, 35,000 kids. And currently just 2 schoolsworkers. 

If you want to sponsor me and support Sutton Schoolswork, then click here to donate by text, or send a cheque; you can also pray for me on Saturday 6th September, beginning at 8am! And more than that, pray for your local schools. Get involved. Support your local schools workers. Thank you. IMG_3432

 

 





what’s the point in praying for Iraq?

11 08 2014

What’s the point in praying for Iraq? This is part 1 of a question I was asked the other day. It is a very good one. It is not a new one, but it is a very pertinent one. Part 2 of the question was even tougher. Referring to the horrific story told by Canon Andrew White (‘Vicar of Baghdad’) of a Christian child (he had baptised) being cut in half, my friend asked, surely the child’s parents had prayed. That didn’t work. What difference will our prayers make? Ouch. Fair point. 

My first response is to do with my bowels. And Jesus’ bowels too actually. Bear with me. When I hear these terrible stories I am moved with compassion – far deeper than that actually, a pain inside – which is described in the New Testament, when Jesus felt compassion, with the word splagchnizomai. It literally means ‘to be moved in one’s bowels’. The bowels were the seat of feeling. It’s that depth of pain in your gut. That, addressed to God, is prayer. 

#wearen

Does that achieve anything, though? Or does it just salve our consciences, feeling a bit more active than clicktivism of changing our Facebook photo or signing a petition? Well, to feel is to live, so to feel deep compassion – literally meaning ‘with suffering’ – is to know you’re alive. So yes, it matters; and yes, getting together to lament and pray matters. But that’s still about us.

Here’s two thoughts about the difference prayer makes. First, the practical; second, the spiritual.  The practical is like this: if my neighbours house is burning down and they are stuck inside, and I realise I cannot help, what do I do? Go and make a cup of tea, draw the curtains and watch TV? No. I do what I can. I call the Fire Brigade. Fetch blankets. Make tea for others. I might buy my neighbours smoke alarms.  But if I never looked out my window, I would never know there was a fire. Imagine how my neighbours would feel then. Prayer is looking out the window and feeling. 

The spiritual (this is a false dichotomy, by the way) is this: there is a spiritual war for people’s hearts. I know that sounds a bit hard-core weird. No, I don’t know how it works. But there is such a thing as evil, it does take hold of people. It has in the militia of the IS. Prayer is our weapon against that. Again, I don’t know how. 

BBC News

So prayer is about actively standing in solidarity with those who suffer; it is about actively shaking ourselves out of a comfortable malaise, seeing where the world is burning and how we can help; and it is us actively taking our part in the spiritual battle of good vs evil. All of which can actually change the world as it changes us, as the more we pray, the more the Holy Spirit can work in us. But we don’t do it for that. We do it for those we pray for.

So, does prayer ‘achieve’ anything? Is there a point? It is not a slot machine, a magic formula, or a psychic communication;  but neither is it a waste of time or should ever be dull. And it may just be more significant than we realise.

If you are able to give financially, Andrew White’s Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middle East are one of few organisations still active in Iraq. For more about religious persecution see my post The Awkward Silence About Religious Persecution and this article in the Independent.       





a prayer for rebellion against us

9 08 2014

What’s your 20 year prayer? Because when we pray for young people, that’s what we’re praying. What do you wish people had prayed for you when you were 5? 10? 15? At our annual vision day for Sutton Schoolswork, we were invited to look ahead and pray for the future, and see where God led our thoughts. My prayers got quite big.  And even have a theme song.

My prayer is that this generation of young people will rebel against mine. That they will see our lazy, vacuous and self-interested society for what it is and they will rise up against it. I pray that they will be so filled with the Spirit they will not be able to control themselves from standing up against the lies we have peddled. And yes, we have peddled them, if only by our inaction. 

Where are you values? they will ask. You think that because you have abandoned religion your values are neutral and therefore better everyone else’s. But they come from inside yourself, where there is a greed and insecurity and the human tendency to self-preservation at all costs, and you wonder why your world has gone to hell.

You’ve sold us a lie that my self worth comes from my stuff. That my achievements are worth more than your love. That humans beings are consumers, not communities. That if we turn a blind eye to suffering it does not exist. That laziness leads to poverty and hard work to accumulation of trinkets and shiny stuff.

In a world more connected than ever you have cut yourselves off from any sense of duty, sacrifice and self-giving. You lie to protect your own interests and you do not hold each other to account. You have not shown us love.  

We refuse to follow you.

And when they say this, I pray that we, us, me – that we will not spend all our time defending the castles we have built for the sake of our pride or fear of change, but that we will allow them to challenge us, to change us; that we will see the world with the fresh and radical eyes of youth, and in doing so may be able to offer something to their struggle to recover our world from us. 

This is why young people are important. They will be in charge of everything in 20 years. They are the present and they are the future. Pray for them. And begin to prepare to let go of your castles and trinkets. Invite God to set a fire down in your soul that you can’t contain and can’t control. Do that, and everything becomes that much more scary exciting. And maybe more godly.  

On 6th September I will be running the Man vs Mountain race to raise money for Sutton Schoolswork. This is a gruelling 20 mile race over Snowdon, including abseiling and water obstacles just for extra fun. If you are willing and able to give, please do so through the website. Thank you. 





lite of the world

20 07 2014

I’m not usually one to bang on about duty. The Protestant work ethic ends about 10am after my first hot chocolate. But. Yes, a cheeky but.

I have a worry that there are too many people like me in danger of leading the faithful into a lackadaisical lazy religion-lite. I’m so fearful of placing a burden on people – the burden of religion, of ‘works’, of doing lots of churchy things and being busy – that I fear I under-emphasise the commitment and the cost.

lite of the world.001

 I wrote this at our last parish Day of Prayer:

Lite of the world
means you just come and go
as you feel like it
especially when you need something
or have nothing better
to do.

Light of the world
means we are sent
into darkness
to serve the needs of others
often at great
intentional cost. 

So many people do not realise that the faith, fully and properly lived, is about intentional cost. Duty. Service. But it is so hard to talk about this sort of thing without sounding like a grumpy old vicar who just wants his church full of busy guilt-ridden high-achieving religio-warriors with no time for their family or work or getting out there being the light of the world. Believe me, it’s really not that.

It’s just that it’s tough being the light of the world. Religion-lite is so much easier. So much less demanding. But let’s not settle for that.





the awkward silence about religious persecution

9 07 2014

Christians are numerically the most persecuted people-group on the planet. The figures are astounding: 450,000 Christians have left Syria; 3,000 Christians are imprisoned in Ethiopia;  50-70,000 are in concentration camps in North Korea. At the turn of the 20th century 20% of the Arab world was Christian, now it is barely 2%. According to Pope Francis, there are more Christian martyrs today than in the 1st century.

Hear the awkward silence. The scraping of chairs. The buzzing of electric lights. In our secular/religion-lite society, in which people would like religion to remain a quiet, quaint and inconsequential lifestyle choice, the concept of real persecution takes some teasing out. People wonder first why anyone would care about something as vague as another persons religious belief. It’s not like it’s football. 

Even when we explain we aren’t talking about mild teasing, or inconvenience, but of limbs cut off, of imprisonment without trial, of congregations murdered in cold blood their churches… still, politically, awkward silence. 

I went to an event in Parliament yesterday organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on International Freedom of Religion or Belief and Christians on the Left, hosted by shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP and Baroness Berridge. They are a group committed to raising the profile of persecution, not just of Christians, but people of all faiths and of none, as a human rights issue. Because despite being the most commonly abused human right, it is the least openly discussed in this country. 

Douglas Alexander said that anti-Christian persecution should be named as such, and along with anti-semitism and Islamophobia be talked about and not ignored. Not because Christians are better or more important, but because they need a voice, and because they are human. As do every other persecuted minority group. 

This is where we get twisted in knots. In international politics religion plays such an important and defining role, and yet our own political discourse tries to ignore it. Nobody quite knows what to do. If we mention persecution of Christians, does that mean we are ignoring other groups? No. Does it mean we think we should prioritise them over other groups? No.  It means that Christians are our neighbours too.

As in our local communities we would help people regardless of their beliefs or ethnicity, so globally we should help people regardless of the same. 

Wouldn’t it be a good thing that instead of being bullied or frightened out of talking about Christian persecution, Christians were known to be those who actively cared; not just for Christians, but for all who are persecuted. As Douglas Alexander put it, ‘modernity and secularism has created a society with the presence of layered identities in communities that we have to hold together; we are in danger across the globe of retreating from the ‘other’, those whom we do not understand, and we cannot allow that to happen.’ It is a Christian principle to have a ‘sustained capacity for sympathy for those who are not like us’. We must take hold of that, and be global leaders in that.

We cannot simply hope the issue will go away, or just applies to a few irrelevant religionists.  Yes there are complications. There are many vested interests in local and global politics, many who want no mention of religion in this nation’s dialogue; and issues about trade, aid, and what it ‘looks like’ to be meddling in other country’s politics. But I commend the APPG and CoTL for putting it on the agenda. This is a serious human rights issue. To love our neighbour is to care about it. 

Resources: Douglas Alexander’s full speech will be available on the CoTL website
The Freedom Declared website is intended to be a portal for information about religious and belief persecution worldwide, therefore broader than groups such as Open Doors who focus specifically on persecution of Christians.
A good background article can be found on God and Politics UK.

 

 





babylon and baby heads: revenge and Psalm 137

6 07 2014

I love words. Words have this amazing ability to paint pictures in our minds. All I have to say is “Tower Bridge” and there it is in your mind. Or The Shard, or a mountain top, the seaside, Bugs Bunny, love, hate, war, revenge and that feeling you have when you think you’ve left the house without your pants on. 

Some things we all see the same – say, for example, my hand – but then, our imaginations and experiences can take a simple word like hand and transform it. If your last memory of this hand is that I hit you with it; or held your hand; or fed you; or pointed you in the right direction, then how you describe this hand will change. So words might look the same, but they can take us to very different places. 

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The Psalms use words to describe feelings, but more than feelings – they use words to describe their very being. The Psalms cover life and death and love and faith and faithlessness and doubt and when everything is fine and when everything has gone wrong. The Psalms are the song and lyric book of faith, they aren’t always pretty, but they are always honest. The Psalms are almost without fail addressed to ’you’, the ‘you’ being Yahweh, the God of Israel. You are this, you are that, we blame you, we love you, we worship you… they are nothing like the prayers of nations around them, always trying to appease and flatter their gods, but they are addressed to Yahweh who is trustworthy enough to be angry at and to be vulnerable with. They’re not just meditations on life, they are prayers to God; and not any old spiritual presence or vague hope, but Yahweh, the I Am, the God of Israel.

Psalm 137 is pretty honest. This has one of the most well-known first lines and least-liked last lines. ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ obviously brings to mind Boney M; and the less well-known ‘happy are those who seize your babies, and dash them against the rocks.’ That’s never taken off as a catchy line. Its awkward. It’s written from a different time and different place, a world of tribal warfare, of more immediate violence, and also a culture of directness of expression. It doesn’t mean they would actually go and dash babies heads; although it might mean they wouldn’t argue if someone else does it; and it certainly means that what they feel like.

The Psalm tells a story of a people who have been humiliated and captured and what we want now is revenge. Revenge on Babylon, revenge on everyone. Who hasn’t wanted revenge? 

Harnessing our feelings, and pouring them out to God, is so important, so valuable, even the most unattractive ones. Worship and faith is about being real, not presenting a veneer of respectability whilst inside we seethe with unspoken rage. Once spoken, the feelings that need redeeming, changing, or taken away can have that done. God is thick-skinned. And, because he’s not a magic we can control he won’t go and do what we’ve asked just because we’ve said ava kadava and summoned a patronus.

God is not just God when everything is working out well. God is not absent when things have gone belly up. I struggle with the absence of God, the inaction of God. Like the Psalmist I can stand on a high mountain and be overawed by God’s creation and his wonderfulness; and I can be in the depths of sorrow or anger when I see injustice and poverty and loneliness and my own ineptitude and feel lonely in a crowd and want to crawl into a hole and everything to just stop.

Like the Psalmist, when we see people destroy what we love most – for them it was Jerusalem and the temple, for us it might be our families, ourselves, our homes, our safety – we are hurt and angry and want revenge.

That is where we come back to Jesus, who took on himself at the cross all that anger and those thoughts for revenge, who broke that cycle of revenge and violence with his grace, grace that gives the power to forgive, the power to hand over anger and revenge to him, him who took it to the cross. Otherwise it sticks to us, and when it sticks to us, it defines us. We become bitter and twisted and end up only singing this one Psalm. 

Let’s be honest with God, and let’s be poetic, let’s express ourselves and be a bit less British and reserved and a bit more Middle-Eastern about it, and let’s trust that God can handle it, that it is good for us, and that he can take our sadness, disappointment, rage, and thirst for revenge and transform it into something beautiful.

 

 








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