Monthly Archives: April 2016

29: Cracked

cracked egg Earl53 MF

And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey.” Joshua 9:13 NIV

I don’t know the circumstances of your life, dear reader, but I’m sure that at some point you have known something of the way I feel today, cracked and dried up and worn out. I am struggling even to write this piece, my energy is so low. And yet the Lord is quick to bless me with the understanding that being cracked is often the first step towards the release of precious things. I am probably cracked to let my soul sing out his praises today when all the circumstances of life are hard. I am probably half-baked, delirious, seeing much desired mirages, trudging along in the dry places and desperate to find an oasis. How often do we come to such dryness in life and fall on our knees in thankfulness to drink from the running streams that God can bring forth even from the cracking of a rock?

Eggs are cracked to release yolk and white, or the life of a young bird. Earth is cracked to release green shoots, and the seed cases and nuts and beans themselves must also be cracked by life to germinate and travel onwards. Cracks in the ground pour forth spring water, tiny cracks in our skin allow it to breathe. Mountains crack over millennia to let rivers form. There are few shells and containers and hearts in life that are immune to cracking, and it is only lifeless eggs that never crack, and hard hearts that never leak compassion. Light, life, love and imagination must break out and burst forth.

There is nothing to be despised in the old and weary and weathered. We are cracked souls where the light gets in to the world, and the Lord does not despise a contrite heart.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18 NIV

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com

28: Feeling Sold Out

28 sold out sgarton mf

You sold your people for a pittance,

gaining nothing from their sale.” Psalm 44:12

Yesterday we talked about us giving up on false gods, today our scripture is about how it feels when the Living God seems to have given up on us. The psalmist, as is so often the case, goes back and forth from speaking about the Lord’s great love and faithfulness to the awful things that have and are happening to his people, seemingly at God’s hand. Imagine if we sang such words in church about the tragedies that are part of life today! I kind of wish that we did, because although it might not feel theologically correct, it would be an honest heart cry about how harsh life sometimes feels.

Slavery was a huge part of Old Testament life and a captured city or state could expect to have nearly all its inhabitants carted off into a life of slavery or hard labour. Slaves were part of the spoils of war and people were openly sold, as was still the case in Jesus’ time. Slavery still exists of course, though it tends to fly under the radar of western legality where it is no longer acceptable. Evil usually finds a way to perpetuate its most profitable trades. But this verse tells us that God himself sold his people into slavery, and that he did so without even ascribing them any worth. This is no empty accusation, but a deep and heartbroken lament.

This Psalm could have been penned by Job himself, echoing as it does the cry for justice and the innocence of the ones who feel accused. What can we say? There are times in the history of each one of us, as well as in the history of an entire people, when it seems as though God has abandoned us. Let’s be honest, since truth is a powerful prayer. There are times when we feel that God counts us nothing, and would sell us for a trifle. But this is only how it seems.

We can admit too though, if we have the courage to do so, that how something seems and feels can actually matter quite a lot. And we can ask God into the pain we are experiencing at the very same time as we wonder if he has brought this upon us. We can cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as we suffer, and it is not heresy. It is not wickedness. We are allowed to feel pain and to feel abandoned and to question our God. He is so mighty and gracious that he does not hold this against us, but encourages us to speak our hearts, to call out to him.

As Christians we know too, that he has lived out the very same human awfulness and is somehow, mysteriously, living out our suffering with us, even as we cry out for his help. Perhaps at a deep level there is a symbiotic connection of empathy going on at these times, where we are sharing in his suffering, and he in ours. His love becomes the last drop of hope we clench our fists around, and we know even as we feel ourselves fall, that it is somehow all we need, and wholeness is found in the emptiest of places.

“We are brought down to the dust;

our bodies cling to the ground.

Rise up and help us;

rescue us because of your unfailing love.”   End of Psalm 44:25-26

 

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com

27: Giving up our gods

27 giving up our gods mf milza

So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. Then they set out, and the terror of God fell on the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.” Genesis 35:2-4 NIV

Purifying ourselves ready to worship the Lord is an age old ritual. Outer purification can be a symbol for the cleansing of our hearts or our inner world. In this case, Jacob feels that building an altar to God isn’t something he and his household can do without first ridding themselves of their foreign gods and the symbols of occult protection which were traditionally worn in the ears, made of gold and imprinted with images of sun and moon gods and so on.

In Christian circles we tend to be at the extreme end of a spectrum of feeling about such things these days. We can either be quite blasé about the strange ways people use talismans and amulets, thinking small pagan rituals harmless, or we can be completely over the top fire and brimstone in our reactions, bandying the word heretical about and condemning any practice that has a sniff of paganism about it, even in our ignorance, those practices which have been taken on board or transformed by the church. Somewhere in the middle might be more sensible.

Social media is full of adverts as I’m sure you know, and because a lot of my time is spent talking about spiritual matters, I do get some rather bizarre tailored ads, including those for pagan bookshops, witches’ groups and tarot cards. These I avoid like the plague, because I know however harmless they look, they are not compatible with a life that follows Christ. In his service, I am not going to focus on demonology, divination, curses or spells. I cannot serve two masters. And whilst we might say that that is an obvious split, there are those who try to walk both paths. It cannot be done. And Jacob knew this.

But what Jacob also knew was that it was not only superstitions and occult practices that needed to be banished from his household before they could come before the Lord, but also everything they held as gods. I imagine that a lot of the gold earrings were the only valuable things that some of his servants owned, so to give them up to be buried under a tree was like asking us to take our life savings and pour them into the sea! But if our hearts or vows or loyalties are tied up anywhere that opposes the Living God, then they need to be cut loose. These might be things like obsessions, or reliance on fashion, looks, money, power or pride. These things tie us to wrongdoing just as surely as the practicing of any dark arts. Only then, when we have given up our false gods and manufactured idols, including the imagined strength of our own egoes and independence, can we build the altar of our lives truly dedicated to the one true God.

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com

 

26: Seeing the Heart

26 heart-leaf-rain mf pippalou

Elisha stared at Hazael with a fixed gaze until Hazael became uneasy. Then the man of God started weeping.” 2 Kings 8:11 NLT

What must it feel like to be stared at by a powerful prophet of God? I should think Hazael must have been squirming inside. And yet Elisha was far more ill at ease. He wept because he knew what Hazael was to become, and that he was to do terrible things. It is a scene that was surely part of the inspiration for Macbeth, since Elisha predicts Hazael will become King, and Hazael takes this prophecy into his own hands and kills the current king, his master, the following day.

The things in the future that Elisha saw Hazael would be responsible for, which he called terrible and Hazael hears and calls “great”, are truly awful, murderous acts. It must have been beyond distressing for Elisha, and yet as a prophet he clearly felt impelled to tell the upstart his future, though we might wonder why. Some of us might say, well, if Elisha knew that Hazael would do all these terrible things, and kill the king, he should have stopped him, maybe even killed him. But to me, Elisha’s acts of staring and weeping are commensurate with his role. He stared because he saw and the seeing made him weep. But I am sure that as well as the future mapped out, he could see the heart of this man full of darkness before him. In fact, I think for a prophet the seeing and the reaction to it always go together. If we can see someone’s heart, we also see what they are capable of. This should make us uncomfortable too, for the Lord looks first and foremost at our hearts: “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 partial NIV

If your inner motives and greatest desires were being examined by a seer right now, would you be uncomfortable? I guess we all would up to a point. But knowing the heart is the seed bed for all sin and all belief, perhaps doing a little inner seeing might do us all good. When we bare our souls and consciences before the Lord in the prayer of examen, or we do soul or shadow work in prayer or with trustworthy mentors, this is a good thing. To know ourselves well means we can be on the alert for the things that would prompt our wicked desires into wicked actions, and we can ask the Lord to guard us and help us weed out those seeds. It is good to cultivate healthy heart desires, to pray for the Lord’s promptings to be the things that motivate us. I fear that men and women of God might weep to read the leanings of some of our hearts today. Lord have mercy.

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com

25: Rotten Fish

Trigger warning for abuse victims.

25 rotten fish rahulthadani MF crop

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” Luke 11:11 NIV

Sadly, as Jesus well knew when he said this, there are some fathers who would do just that. In this corrupted world, relationships that are meant to be precious and true are sometimes instead violent, abusive or destructive. And fatherhood is one of the most vile things once it becomes a travesty.

Just as our living God seeks to turn bad things on their heads and preaches to us an upside down kingdom for a gospel, so his enemies seek to turn the finest and purest things to darkness. With this in mind, I am moved to share a prayer picture given to me this morning, which may give us hope.

I see God’s love as a bright blue, ever flowing, all pervading, yet gently patient force, a kind of liquid grace that will not be deterred. It seeks to seep in everywhere, knows no boundaries, fears no dark places, endures and will never give up.

I see the enemy as a small charred demon clutching a soul to its chest and that the difference between love and hate, light and dark is that whereas hate wants us for itself, love loves us in order to set us free. The Father’s love aims to release us into love, that we might experience it, see it, know it and seek to join it, adding to the flow. Love does not seek to gratify or glorify itself, it loves outwards, whereas darkness “loves” (in its travesty of what it thinks love is) only itself and inwards. Real love cannot fail because it will eventually arrive everywhere, whereas darkness will fall in on itself, imploding.

Evil is, I am given to understand, like a black hole, trying to take everything with it, it wants all to suffer the fate it suffers; but the universe will keep birthing more and more love, like matter, to love and embrace. In short the difference is that between embracing and grasping.

Even if we have been victims of the darkness, and been captured by those greedy, grasping hands, that would laughingly give us a snake instead of a fish, or a stone instead of bread: poison instead of sustenance, hardness instead of softness; even if we were or are one of those who allowed themselves to become perpetrators of such darkness; we can still, with the courage given us by grace, open our hearts and beings up to the waves of real parental love which are waiting to engulf us in their sweet veracity.

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com

24: Jammed

24 jammed studiozed99 mF

“During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Exodus 14:24-25 NIV

The Egyptian charioteers were expert drivers. They had the best chariots and horses that money could buy (and slaves could build or train) and they were used to being the victors. They had had the upper hand over the Israelites for so long, it must have been one heck of a shock to find themselves on the receiving end of God’s wrath.

When we are used to being the best at something, it can be a literal as well as metaphorical jolt to suddenly find our wheels jammed or clogged (one translation has “twisted”). At such times we need to be clear about where our reliance is founded. I remember feeling like this during my first attempt at university, where I first got ill in 1990. I suddenly felt as though someone had jammed the brakes on, like my brain was clogged with cotton wool, like exhaustion was waiting for me round every bend, and the wheels of life, well, they just weren’t turning.

And the glandular fever I was later diagnosed with (which precipitated my M.E.) was not the only jolt. Used to being the clever clogs, I found there were people far brighter than I was, and that most of the people there were not there to learn, or to save the whales, or for any reason akin to my own motives, but to get the right degree to earn them the most money, to drink themselves stupid and to generally be hooray henriettas. I was bewildered and disappointed. Had I been well, I might have rallied and found some like-minded folks. Ill as I was, I didn’t stand a chance of coping, and six weeks after starting what I thought would be a new dream, I was back home with my parents feeling dreadful, and staring failure full in the face. I felt like the wheels on my chariot weren’t only jammed, but had fallen off.

A juddering halt like this in life is heart-breaking and soul-destroying. But it is also an opportunity, especially to re-evaluate. Sometimes our wheels need some repair and recalibration. Wheels on cars have to be rebalanced every so often, and ours in life are the same. My priorities in life had to change, because I’ve never been well since, but I did manage to go to a much more open-minded university and begin a completely different degree a year later. And who knows who I might have become if I’d just gone sailing on into the fray? Would I be a writer or an artist now? Would I know the Lord the way I do? I doubt it. One thing I do know is that ifs and buts, maybes and what ifs do us no good, and can keep us just as stalled as broken hopes.

Retreat is sometimes our best plan. It certainly would have been the most sensible option for the Egyptians. When what normally carries us forward is spinning in the mud getting us nowhere, it could well be time to get ourselves off the battlefield for a while, and take the chariot in for a service. Finding a new balance, and a more reliable set of wheels.

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com

23: Sulking in the Sun

23 sulking in the sun MF imelenchon

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” Jonah 4:9 NIV (But please do read the whole of chapter four if you have time.)

 

So, having explored what self-pity is not, in my last few entries, I wanted to try and give an example of what it actually is occurring in Scripture, and poor old Jonah is the victim I’ve picked. Now I am quite an expert on self-pity, having mastered it slowly over a number of years and then having been (mostly) released from it.

I can recognise now that the hallmarks of self-pity are that it is prolonged (though we often dip in and out of it), that it becomes an attitude we live by, that it is almost entirely self-centred, that it smacks of an attitude of entitlement or of self-loathing, and that it twists the facts cleverly to make everything look as though we are at the centre of a vortex of unfairness.

In short, self-pity is permanent sulking. It is our ego throwing a toddler tantrum every time something doesn’t go our way and imagining rightly or wrongly that the world is out to get us. It is all encompassing and often even manages to defy logic. We have persuaded ourselves somewhere deep inside that nothing can go right for us and that the world is not giving us the fair deal we deserve.

Jonah is the daddy of all sulkers. He sulks himself onto a ship, he sulks himself into being thrown overboard and after being rescued miraculously and performing his prophetic duty like a pro, then reverts back to sulking, even about the success of his mission. I told you this is what would happen! is the gist of what he says to God, in one of my all-time favourite Bible verses: “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3 partial NIV)

Jonah is such a practised sulker, he can even take offence at God’s goodness whilst praising him for it. And even though he knows that the city will be spared, he still storms off and sits in the desert “to see what will happen”. He was sent to Nineveh to ask the people to repent and they did. Instead of outward compassion, Jonah displays the giveaway characteristic of someone stuck in the rut of self-pity: he turns even his own successes into failures. Believing that the Lord relenting makes him look foolish is more important to him than thousands being saved from death. This is an ego in extremis. And yet, I have great sympathy for Jonah. I relate to his sufferings, so much so I even wrote a short book about him (yet to be published).

But the thing that lifts my heart about Jonah is, that even sitting in the sun sulking, God is patiently trying to teach him compassion via the lesson of the plant he sends and then withers. The Lord is trying to show him a way out, trying to help him understand the heart of the God he serves, which, (another mark of self-pity) actually Jonah already knows, and judging from the verses I quoted, better than most. He is just choosing anger over compassion because it is easier, because it is ingrained and because his own heart isn’t ready yet to be freed from the stranglehold of ego. The only thing that can perform that kind of often slow emotional and spiritual surgery is love, and God is there with him and us, writing the book on it.

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com

22: Target Practice

bummerbirthmark

Will you never look away from me,

or let me alone even for an instant?

If I have sinned, what have I done to you,

you who see everything we do?

Why have you made me your target?

Have I become a burden to you?” Job 7: 19-20 NIV

 

When Job speaks these words he is beyond rock bottom. He’s had everything suddenly taken away from him: his children; servants; livestock; livelihood; reputation; health. He has nothing left but his God, so he speaks out his anguish. The truly amazing thing about Job is that he never curses the Lord, despite even his wife advising him to. He only asks why, because the wisdom that has been handed down to him says that disaster has befallen him as a punishment, and yet he knows that he has not sinned. Even the religion that he has practiced all his days is no comfort to him, it makes no sense in the face of his huge suffering. All he has left is what he knows in his heart, that God must be good.

He is hurting and broken and sick, and wants to be left alone. He wants God to avert his eyes and let him die. No wonder he feels that God is using him for target practice. He wants the pain to end, he wants to crawl into a hole and be done with life.

As with Micah yesterday, I want to point out that this is not self pity. It is a normal, reasonable, grief-stricken reaction from Job to what is happening to him. It should pull at all the heartstrings of our compassion and make us want to come and sit silently on his dung heap with him and help him keep the vigil of tears and outrage and broken-heartedness. Instead of which of course, Job is visited by friends who do not know the value of silence or understand his suffering. More on that another day.

The feeling of being targeted is a horrible one. We can be targets for bullying, insults, mockery, lies, abuse, perjury, theft and assaults of all kinds. When these things happen we too might want to crawl away and hide, even from the eyes of God. But as the psalmist tells us (Psalm 139), and as God declares to Jeremiah, there is nowhere where this is possible. “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD.(Jeremiah 23:24 NIV)

The answer to Job’s first question is that God will not leave him alone. God never leaves us alone or turns his eyes away, despite all the times it might feel this way. The difference between wanting to hide from God and wanting to be his dwelling place is really one of trust. None of Job’s questions are answered the way he (and we) want them to be. For the answer is not theology, not a detailed explanation of why suffering exists or why it is visited on some of us in bucketloads, nor does God present Job with a neatly packaged understanding of his own life and its errors and hardships. No, God’s answer is not explanation, but encounter. He shows Job who he is. It is, perhaps strangely to us, all he needs. It makes sense to me that seeing, hearing and experiencing God’s majestic goodness leaves us able to trust him, and live without those reasoned, helpful answers that we long for. God’s presence is overwhelmingly enough and more, and it shows Job that he is a target only for the love, faithfulness and mystery of God and his holiness.

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Cartoon by Gary Larson, which I had to use, as it fits so well, but I’ve no idea where to apply for permission, since his work is so successful all over the net, I will hope to be forgiven this once. If you haven’t come across him, do check out his work, he is my favourite cartoonist ever. 🙂

21: Woe is Me!

21 woe jentsoi MF

Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the grapes have been gleaned: there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.” Micah 7:1 ESV

Are you waiting for something, searching for something, unable to find it? Have you been praying for relief and none comes, that elusive hope dulled and despair taking its place? What a perfect description of such despair this verse in Micah is! All the good grapes are gone and the poor have been in to take the leavings, so that as you arrive there is not one left. As you come along hunting for that one good thing, there is nothing. Everyone else, it seems, has had what you wanted and there is none left for you.

This is how we feel when we are poor, and those around us are buying new things and having holidays. This is how we feel when everyone else has a job and we have been unemployed for a long time; unwanted and marked out for misery. This is how we feel when all our college friends seem to have their next steps and careers all worked out and we are drifting in a fog of unknowing. This is how we feel when a friend is having her fourth child and none came along for us, and we feel this despite our joy for them. It is not jealousy, but it is like we are the opposite of special. Like we and all our hopes have been cast off into the dust, and not one of the things we were hoping for have shown up.

Unkind people will call such feelings a “pity party”, and tell us to “pull our socks up” and that we have “first world problems”, or that there are “plenty of people worse off” than we are. Oh, how I loathe those phrases! Sometimes, especially with good reason or when we are low or suffering from depression, it is good and healthy and okay to say, “Woe is me!” The Psalms are absolutely full of such honesty. God values it and hears us and he does not tell us to shut up and count our blessings or pull ourselves together. He is all compassion and understanding. At such times I am sure he longs to gather us to himself “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings,” (Matthew 23:37 partial, NIV).

Here’s a little thing I have learned over some difficult decades: suffering is personal. It is not relative. It cannot be compared. My pain is my pain and yours is yours. There is no measuring stick. You feel what you feel. And today the love of my life is incredibly down and he is hurting, and nothing I can do can make it better, and our finances just got dealt another unkind blow, and so I say, “Woe is me!” and it’s okay. Such outbursts need to be short-lived of course, else they can fester and lead to self-pity, with manifestations across the spectrum of pride, from entitlement to self-loathing.   But self-compassion, cried out and genuine, can be related to as good emotional sense and spiritual honesty, leading us back to our own helplessness and to the feet of the source of all true help. And God hears, and he hurts with us, and his company is good to have at such a time.

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com

20: Crying Blood

20 blood Chelle MF

“The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” Genesis 4:10 NIV

Abel’s innocent blood spilled by his brother Cain, so calls to God’s heart that it is as if it cries out to him from the ground. I believe this holy crying out happens every time an innocent life is taken, indeed every time any innocent is wronged. The wounds we suffer cry out to God, like echoes of sorrow, from small sighs on the wind from the tiniest hurts, to raging tornadoes from travesties of justice. The Lord hears them all, just as he hears our prayers. And despite what we may think at times, he also remembers them and acts upon them, and they have consequences for the perpetrator as well as for the victim; just as Cain has to suffer the curse of the ground, becoming a “restless wanderer.”

Guilt is also a restless wanderer, that follows us around for the rest of our lives, and there is only one cure, which is the blood price paid by Jesus on the cross. This truly sets us all free, for it redeems the sinner and heals the one sinned against, allowing them to forgive.

I find it interesting that the Lord says, “Listen!” and I think this tells us that we too ought to be able to hear those cries from the injustices done all around us, if we are willing to stop for a moment and be open to the sounds that rise from our lives, from the very earth on which we stand. This might be what we are doing when we ourselves come to the Lord in the prayer of examen or in confession, open to seeing and hearing our shadow selves, laying down our sin and hurt before him, both to forgive and be forgiven, via the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, love covering a multitude of sins.

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Morguefile.com