Sunday, 25 October 2015

Psalm 51 - some thoughts

Psalm 51 first came to be very special to me when I was 15 years old. I was a somewhat rebellious teenager who overstepped the mark in some particular ways that made me feel uneasy in myself.  But it was more than just a reaction to certain naughtinesses, I knew that I was on the wrong track, heading in the wrong direction - I was deeply uneasy.  And I didn’t really have a clue what to do about it.

Fortunately God came to the rescue, but that is a different and longer story! It was at that time that Psalm 51 along with one or two others seemed to speak very directly into my situation.

Psalm 51 is the Psalm of everyman, everywoman, who struggles with and within themselves. They - and we - know that all is not well within, that they have spoken and behaved in ways that have caused hurt or injury to others, that do not reflect the nature and will of God.

First some background

Psalm 51 is attributed to David, and although it is impossible to be certain that he wrote it, it certainly sits appropriately alongside the events described in 2 Samuel 11-12. David slept with wife of one of his loyal soldiers. When she got pregnant, he sent word that her husband (Uriah) should be put on the front line of the battle so that he would be killed. In effect, the King, God’s anointed representative, committed adultery and murder. Nathan the prophet was sent to David to confront him, and he very cleverly trapped David into pronouncing judgement on himself. He told David a parable, in which a rich man steals a poor man's only lamb, to prepare a meal for a traveller. David is very indignant saying ‘As the Lord lives, the man deserves to die’ To which Nathan declared ‘You are the man!’

David instantly recognised the depths of the wrong he had committed and said, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’, words which are echoed in verses 3 & 4 of our psalm:

For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned and done what was evil in your sight.

As we come now to look at the psalm itself, the first point I want to make is that the psalm lays bare the reality of the human condition.

The Psalmist recognises that his sin is not just against Uriah, but against God. God is right to judge him, he deserves God’s displeasure, God’s punishment. Yet he is drawn to God, drawn in confession, longing for the distance opened up by his sin, to be closed.

This psalm, this prayer, is not a simply a deep, heartfelt recognition of the sin caused by these particular events. It recognises that sin is more than any specific act of individual wrongdoing.

Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

This verse has often been misunderstood. It is not about the wickedness of the act of procreation or the idea of original sin. It simply expresses the tragedy of the situation into which all of us are born. We are born into a world full of sin and temptation. By the time we learn to distinguish between good and evil, we already discover within ourselves that we have a will of our own, a strong will, that wants to assert itself, and is often at variance with the will of our creator.

The Psalmist recognises this self-will which is at odds with the divine will – he recognises it in himself. This is the truth he discovers deep inside himself, this is the place into which God’s wisdom has brought him.

In this psalm, the writer does not try to justify himself, to recall his good deeds or his previous integrity – something that is very much in evidence in most other psalms. He readily acknowledges his wrongdoing.

Psalm 51 lays bare the human condition, that constant tendency to walk our own way, to walk without recognising our total dependence on God.

So how does this affect the way we confess our sins Sunday by Sunday?

We usually have a quiet period before the confession in which we seek to identify the words and actions that have been hurtful or wounding or neglectful – that haven’t reflected the generous love of God. Sometimes I find it easy to identify particular things, at other times it seems to be much harder.

Perhaps on those occasions when I find it difficult, I just need to remember how easy it is for my self-will to assert itself, to recognise my vulnerability, and to take time to re-set my inner compass, to re-align my will with God’s, to do this consciously and intentionally at the start of another week.

The second point is that the Psalm declares the generous and steadfast love and faithfulness of God. in verse 1 the Psalmist says

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

The God to whom the Psalmist brings his sin is characterised by ‘steadfast love’ and ‘abundant mercy’. The word ’steadfast love’ is the word used of God’s covenant love for his people. God bound himself to his people, he was their God, they were his people. Though his people broke the covenant, God held on to them. His ‘steadfast love’ remained theirs, followed them in their wanderings, always reaching out to bring them back.

This is a God whose very nature is to love and to forgive, one from whom we cannot hide anything, one in whose bright light we dare to bring the inner secrets of our hearts, one who, in his all-sufficient love and mercy, will blot out our transgressions, will wash us thoroughly, will make us whiter than snow.

The word used for ‘wash’ in the Psalms is not a gentle word, it is a word which literally means ‘treading’, a vigorous and thorough exercise used to get rid of serious dirt. When I read that, it reminded me of my grandma’s dolly tub and the strong, rhythmic up and down movements of her arms as she pounded the laundry.

Facing up to sin, owning it, and daring to bring it into the light can be a rather painful process – certainly the Psalmist felt the weight of his sin – he writes of having his bones ‘crushed’, of being ‘broken’.

But having faced his sin and recognised the ingrained reality of our tendency to sin, having owned it and asked for mercy, he rediscovers joy and gladness as his sins are blotted out, erased. In the words of psalm 103:12 

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

We do indeed have an amazingly gracious, merciful, loving and forgiving God and we should never fear to come to him as we are.

Thirdly, and finally, the Psalm shows us that we need renewal as well as forgiveness. The Psalmist’s sin has been blotted out, he has been thoroughly washed, joy and gladness have replaced his anguish. BUT – he knows that the self-will that landed him in that hard place, that put him at odds with his creator, is still there, waiting to assert itself again and land him in trouble again.

So he prays in verse 10 that God will:

·         create in him a clean heart
·         put a new and right spirit within him
·         sustain him with a willing spirit
·         open his lips so that he may praise God

This is quite revolutionary. The wisdom of the day was that there were righteous people who were faithful and God blessed them, and that there were unrighteous people who were not faithful and who God punished them. This created real difficulties when bad people seemed to prosper and good people suffer, a dilemma addressed in Job.

This Psalm takes us into new territory. We are all equal, we are all born guilty, we all have that self-will that is at odds with the will of our creator, and we are all pretty helpless to walk in God’s way, unless our lives are lived in total dependence on him. It is God alone who can keep us out of sin’s way. He alone who can create within us a new heart, and put a new and right spirit within us.

The word ‘create’ used here is not the word used for God creating the world. It is a word very rarely used, and is used of God, in his sovereign power, doing something that is seemingly impossible. God, by his Spirit can do within us, that which it is impossible for us to do for ourselves.

This thought is also found in Ezekiel 36:26: 

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes.

It prepares the way for the Jesus' words to Nicodemus in John 3:3:

Very truly I tell you, no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew (from above) … no-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Yes, sinners we are. But God is full of grace and mercy. Our sins have been forgiven, we have been restored to a living and loving relationship with our God, and we are daily offered the renewing power of God’s Spirit, so that our lives and wills can be more closely aligned with that of our Creator and Saviour.

Jill Chatfield

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Alchemy: The Transforming God 2

The refiner’s fire
He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness... [Malachi 3.3 NIV]
Remove the dross from the silver, and a silversmith can produce a vessel. [Proverbs 25.4]
1.  We are the stuff of God’s alchemy, the raw material out of which he wants to fashion pure gold, the pure gold of lives lived for him, in him, and through him.
2.  But we know that our stuff – our raw material - is pretty messy, rough, flawed, impure, corrupt. And so God has to set his divine magic to work to refine us and make of us the beautiful things that he has always wanted, not make-up, make-believe or make-over, but re-creation, a new me, washed, purified, reworked. It is most mysterious, most magical, most wonderful, to think that God cares for us enough to want to create us all over again.
3.  And that divine magic involves:
a.  fire
b.  light
c.  words
d.  a reaction
4.  I don’t want to say much about fire today, because that’s the subject of the next Sacred Space evening, on June 14th. But I did have a conversation with our Simeon Centre intern this week about refining. She’s a material scientist, and she told me that if you want to refine a piece of metal, the best way is to heat it slowly along the length of the metal bar, and the impurities are driven to one end and can be cut off. It’s a bit like refining and pruning come together. Heat the metal, drive out the dross and cut it off!
There’s something about the pain and cost of being refined by God’s alchemy here, and Paul puts it well in his Letter to the Romans: We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. [5.3-5] It’s the fire of God’s love that refines us, not the fire of anger!
5.  And so to the next magical element, light. Paul again: Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light.
If you’ve ever turned a large stone over in the garden, you will have seen ants, or beetles, or other strange creatures of the dark, run for cover. I think Paul has this in mind when he says, Turn the stone of your life over, and shine God’s light on it.
What does that look like in practice? Well, we are very good at wriggling and squirming out of facing the people we really are. We make excuses for our actions readily: I was tired. He started it. It’s the way my parents showed me. I was distracted.
And the magic of God’s alchemy says Step 1: bring the dross of our lives into the light, own it, confess that we have sinned, sometimes tell others, admit that we are at fault [when we are, of course], squirm and wriggle a bit. And then God and me together can do the business.
Step 2: the magic words: I am sorry. Or, on the other side, I forgive you.
Step 3: a reaction takes place. God has magic words of his own. Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing. And later, after the resurrection, Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
6.  It’s really all about change. Change hurts. Change is costly. Change is hard. But God has given us a chance for change, a choice to change, and a challenge to think about what might happen if we
a.  chose to accept a bit of fire
b.  chose to lift the lid on the secrets of our hearts
c.  chose to utter the magic words
I will draw this together simply by quoting Corrie ten Boom, whom I return to over and over again when I want to make this point. I know of no one better to illustrate the magic of redeeming love, made possible in Christ.
[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Alchemy: The Transforming God I

On Saturday 9th May, I spoke at a Quiet Day for the Lordsbridge Team Ministry on Alchemy: The The Transforming God. This is the first of the three talks.
1. The philosopher’s stone
The medieval science of alchemy invested most of its energy in a magical quest for the philosopher’s stone, the mysterious stuff that would turn base metals into gold. It was a quest for wealth, for power, for understanding, for control of a troubling and troublesome world.
In Sacred Space this year, we are celebrating the stuff of life, the stuff of creation: earth, fire, air and water, and we’ll go on doing that for the rest of this year. Focusing on the elements of life got the team thinking about the one who is in charge of the elements: the transforming God.
And so we arrive at our theme for the day: Alchemy: The Transforming God. People’s lives often look like that alchemical quest: for wealth, for power, for understanding, for control. We need to tame our unruly world, our fleeting lives, our turbulent passions. And it’s a failed quest. In trying to tame our world, we end up like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who imitates his master’s magic, gets the jug to fill with water and then nearly drowns because he doesn’t know how to get the jug to stop. In desperation he cries out, and the master comes and saves him.
So the first step in this simple reflection is to turn back to God. Stop looking for the philosopher’s stone, stop looking for solutions, and turn to the philosopher himself: Almighty God. You’ve done that, of course, many of you, all your lives, I know. I simply need to say to you: Turn back to God today – it’s our daily task.
Here then are three things to think about, that might help us focus on God himself and turn back:
1.  Our God is a provident God. Providence is not something we think about much these days. We are much more likely to talk about chance, good fortune, serendipity or – at best – God-incidences in our lives. But Christian teaching is that God, who knows all things, cares for all things, and is steering all things, including our lives, towards an end in which he and we will be at rest together.
If I were in college today, I’d have a lot of hands going up saying, but what about Nepal, Syria, refugees in the Mediterranean, Rotherham, and I guess some of you are thinking that it doesn’t always look as if God cares very much. That’s why we try to sort it all out for ourselves, because we sometimes struggle to believe and trust in a God who cares.
That’s why it’s fundamental for us to turn back to God, to the beginning of the story, that God created the world, including us, as part of a plan, that we might be loved by him and love him in return. That’s why we also need to turn back to God in the middle of the story, where it’s all gone horribly wrong, and we see a cluster of crosses on Calvary. Here God declares his intention to recover, restore and redeem us in his providential plan.
And in the confidence of the resurrection, we work at trusting in a God who won’t let us go until all is well, until – as Julian of Norwich says – all manner of things are well, and we finally and forever rest in the loving care of God. We work at hope, at seeing that God is still at work, for us, and not against us. We pray: Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
2.  Secondly, our God makes beautiful, even magical things. He is a God of awesome wonder, and as we turn to him today, we need to respond with childlike delight, playfulness and amazement. Paul gets close to this when he says in Romans 15 that the Kingdom of God is ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ But let’s use Job to illustrate this. Imagine the master alchemist Almighty God in his laboratory, mixing, stirring, playing, fizz, sparkle and smoke everywhere, and Job says:
‘At this also my heart trembles, and leaps out of its place. Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
Under the whole heaven he lets it loose, and his lightning to the corners of the earth.
After it his voice roars; he thunders with his majestic voice and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.
God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend.
For to the snow he says, “Fall on the earth”; and the shower of rain, his heavy shower of rain, serves as a sign on everyone’s hand, so that all whom he has made may know it.
Thus God creates; we wonder and laugh out loud. In our laughter, we turn again to the world as God has made it, and back to God himself.
3.  The last of my three simple calls back to God is a call to respond to the power of God. Simply put, God is who God is; and we are to worship him, in amazement and sometimes in terror. As the children’s song goes, our God really is a great big God, and we should be very afraid.
We are so familiar with the idea of the power of God, and of the Old Testament stories in particular which stress that power, that I’m going to make this point by way of a question. Have you over the years tamed and domesticated your view of God? Is God simply a cosy, reassuring, comfort-blanket kind of God?
It was not so that Francis Thompson, his life ravaged by drugs and alcohol in 1890 experienced God, and wrote about it in his amazing poem The Hound of Heaven:

I fled him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled him, down the arches of the years;
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

Friday, 30 January 2015

1 Corinthians 11 and long red hair

Choose your commentary, choose your church tradition, choose your prejudices, draw your conclusions. I was once accosted on the street in Port of Spain, when my hair was long, dense and red, and told that I was a shameful sinner by a young man who had clear and hermetically sealed convictions on the matter. So sure was he that he never had the courtesy to greet me, name himself or open his heart to me. Shame, man!

I have three minutes to speak on a passage that Kenneth Bailey describes as a ‘dense and mysterious passage [that] does not reveal all its secrets to anyone’. Richard Hays says that it presents severe problems for the interpreter. So I refer you to Richard’s Interpretation commentary for an excellent exposition, and in the meantime, encourage you not to forget three things that can be positively drawn from this passage:
  1. Rejoice in your womanhood, or in your manhood. A healthy Christian community needs us all, with our distinctions, and not with some bland aspiration to neutral sameness.
  2. We are all free to minister, and in this passage at least, we see both women and men prophesying and praying. Grasp your God-given freedom to exercise that ministry, but do not allow your joy in the freedom of Christ lead you into licence, or acts that are culturally offensive, or shameful.
  3. Paul has his views on the position of men and women in the created order, but even he recognizes that in the new order, ‘in the Lord, woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.’ We are, in Christ, interdependent, given to each other, for each other, for the coming Kingdom.

And finally, don’t be afraid to preach on the hard passages, but never do so standing twenty feet above contradiction. If you don’t agree with what I’ve said, thank God that I’m not the Pope. Pray for me, as I will pray for you, that we will never lose that glorious Christian relief at being saved by grace, lest anyone, man or woman, should boast save in the cross of Jesus Christ.