Tag Archives: church

Landscape of Love 97: Churchyard

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Ancient of Days, yew circles the holy ground and stands sacred guard. Her hollowness disguises fullness, and even her dank rotten places are teeming with abundant life; jewelled scarabs and luminescent fungi adorn the lightning wounds and tend the darkness. Toothed fort of the dead, domino headstones re-etched by lichen look ready to fall after centuries of marking mounds of mourning. And life, undeterred, springs up in grasses and buttercups, golden grails full of dew, bluebells ringing out the hours, a carpet of prayer covering the crypt.

 

© Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2016

Photo from Pixabay

Veil of Tears 95: Double-minded

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But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” James 1:6-8 NIV

When I was younger, I used to get frustrated by the wishy-washy prayers I would hear in church, in prayer meetings, or prayed over the sick or the suffering. Something in me would balk, not at gentleness or acceptance, but at the sheer lack of expectation. I haven’t been well enough to be a regular church goer for some years again now, but I get frustrated still if I hear the same lacklustre attitude coming out of my own mouth, and fight to set it back on a course of faith.

It is not that I think fervour will cause a prayer to be answered more quickly, nor that flowery words or long speeches or lots of amens or proclamations (these rile me most of all) will be of any use, as though God were withholding something and just needed his arm twisted a bit. But what matters in prayer are not so much the words we use, but the heart we are believing and meaning them with.

If I am asking for healing, but actually deep down I believe God to be a rather strict and heartless person, then I come with low expectations of an answer, if any. That’s not going to stop God acting, but it will affect how often and with what perseverance and faith I pray. Likewise, if I believe myself to be unworthy of any answered prayer, God will still act, but it does stop me asking. All we need to come to God with is faith the size of a mustard seed. Far worse than either of these scenarios is the heart that doubts because it is saying words it does not mean at all, because all is for show. Honesty in prayer (as in all life) is the best policy.

One of the most heartless prayers in my view is the one that is all about the person praying, and not about God or the person they are praying for. It is the one that is self-centred in intercession. It is the prayer that says look at me, I am being holy now. I am so close to God, I’ve got this. I know exactly what God wants in this situation, in this person’s life, and I’m going to proclaim the reality of it over them until it manifests. If it doesn’t work, (as though prayer were an electric circuit and they the qualified electrician) it’s not my fault. We have authority given us through Christ, but it is to be exercised in wonder, flowing from him, not dispensed by us. This prayer comes from the heart that will never say, I don’t know, rarely if ever say, I bow to your will, and does not understand the value of waiting, gentleness, or grace and cannot accept no as an answer.

But the most double-minded, literally (dipsychos in the Greek!) is that prayer which cannot decide which kingdom takes precedence. It is as though the person praying it has one foot in each camp, of faith and doubt, of heaven and earth, and shifts their weight unceasingly from one to the other. It is not always obvious to someone else listening, but God hears the whole. It will go something like this….

Out loud: ”We know Lord that you can heal us.”

Inner voice: We do? Do we? What about Dave, he didn’t heal Dave that time he had a bad leg.

Out loud: “so we ask for you to heal so-and-so’s leg.”

Inner voice: Well, you know, it’s worth a try.

Out loud: “But if you don’t/ if you choose not to heal, we ask for the strength to bear it for so-and-so”

Inner voice: That’s better, then I won’t look a nitwit when nothing happens. And I can smile at so-and-so and go home.

Basically, the type of prayer James is warning us about is the one that cannot make up its mind. No-one has certainty one hundred percent of the time in their faith. But to be so unsure in the faithfulness and goodness and generosity of God , although still a better prayer than nothing, is not likely to move heaven or earth. And let’s face it, we have all prayed like this at some time or another, and we all hear these kinds of prayers a lot more than we’d care to admit. The trouble is such tepid and wavering faith tends to have a weakening effect on those around it. So let us guard our hearts and minds against feeling split in two, and ask in faith for heaven always to have the stronger voice in our prayers!

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Pixabay

 

79: Sibling Rivalry

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The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.” Genesis 25:22 NIV

Brothers and sisters who become jealous of one another and can’t seem to stop infighting or competing are something of a motif in the Old Testament. Right from the off, where Cain and Abel eye up each other’s sacrifice to God and end up becoming murderer and victim, it continues on in a sometimes vicious enmity. We see the troubles between Joseph and his brothers and half brothers, between Rachel and Leah, between Jacob and Esau. Robes, husbands, birthrights and even lives are stolen.

In a way, it is a picture of the way the whole human race competes and fights, even though we are all brothers and sisters under the parenthood of God. The Pharisee looks down his nose at his brother the publican, the well-to-do despise the tax collectors and sinners, we all watch and count and judge.

Suppose that instead we decided to watch one another in order to celebrate the good things that we see, to encourage the gifts that each one of us carries, how might that look? Suppose that all the churches did that too, so that from Evangelical Protestant, through Episcopalian and Catholic right across to Greek Orthodox, we looked at one another to see what is wonderful in one another’s traditions, instead of imagining that the Father loves us best, we are doing it right, and the birthright belongs to us alone. What might that be like? Perhaps we might ask one another valuable questions and if we actually listen, learn a new tradition or practice that will help us know Father God better.

To be truly equal, loving brothers and sisters, children of God knowing our value both to him and to one another.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 NIV

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo from Pixabay

64: Lukewarm

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I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:15-16 NIV

It is quite possible to coast along these days as a professed follower of Christ. One can simply be seen to do all the right things, baking for church sales, singing in the choir or worship team, tithing, going to Bible study, etc. etc. and you could have a faith tinier than a mustard seed, or none at all, and no-one would know. These are all good things to be doing of course, and perhaps it’s not surprising that in our surface-obsessed culture there can easily be style without substance even in the place where we are meant to be living out the true meaning of life.

It is more surprising, perhaps, that such lukewarm attitudes were already to be found in the first century in the Laodicean church. In a time and culture where being a Christian could get you killed, it seems quite odd that the Lord should chide any of his followers for being tepid in their faith. But it seems from my research that Laodicea wasn’t persecuted in the same way as other churches at the time, and perhaps this, coupled with the riches they had that Christ goes on to talk about, had left this group feeling complacent, self-sufficient and therefore quite akin to a lot of our own faith communities in the western “developed” world today.

Staying ambivalent and comfortable is very tempting when there is nothing pushing us to be different or shaken. And yet the heart of the gospel is to be counter-cultural, and Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind (Matthew 22:37), indeed with our everything. Following Jesus is an all or nothing venture. It isn’t something we hang up in the wardrobe along with our Sunday best to harbour mothballs for the rest of the week. If it is, then we really have not understood our calling to be disciples. Loving Jesus means being willing to do the work we are given, where we are chosen to do it, and often involves sacrifices and worldly discomfort and disappointment.

People who are apathetic about God are the hardest to persuade of his love. It is the comfortable middle classes who see no need for a saviour, and that appears to have been the problem in this church nearly two thousand years ago. Human nature does not change very much! Even atheists have a kind of religious passion that one can engage with, but an agnostic or a tepid believer is often happy sitting on the fence, dangling his or her legs over each side, hedging their bets and perhaps picking and choosing the bits of Scripture that they find easiest to live with. They are the people who hold the spread of the gospel back far more than any persecution, and there is a bit of them in all of us.

That bit of us that doesn’t want to be challenged, that wants to read a cosy book about how easy life is supposed to be, wants to hear about gentle Jesus meek and mild, to sing about a personal saviour but which will avert its gaze from a bloody crown of thorns and go pale and indignant at the thought of sharing in the sufferings of Christ and glazed and distant at the idea of falling into the mystery of love.

Let us then, come back to that first flame of love, and fan it with our deepest longings for God, so that there is no danger of his finding us distasteful!

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Photo on Yahoo used under creative commons license.

 

54: Two by Two

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They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. And the LORD shut him in.” Genesis 7:15-16

We can sometimes be forgiven for thinking or feeling that there is little place in life (and perhaps especially in church) for those who aren’t part of a couple. “Two by two” seems to be rather a mantra in a lot of church families I have known. Single women and men are sometimes seen as subtly undermining the status quo, and if they have chosen to be single, looked upon as rather odd. If on the other hand they are looking for a partner, they can be frowned upon as a distraction or worse still, a threat. I have known attractive single women who have been made to feel very uncomfortable, as though they must watch their step and their dress so as not to upset or tempt any of the males in the congregation.

Widows and widowers may meet with more patience, but are still seen as different, and those who are divorced or separated (often through no fault of their own) can feel so isolated and judged as to feel almost like pariahs. Obviously this is only in extreme cases, but the sense that singleness is not quite right is subtly palpable very often, and probably partly a reflection of the way society urges us all to pair off, partly a natural inclination to want others to be the same as the majority, and partly impressed upon us by teaching from Scripture. And yet, at the same time as celebrating marriage, Scripture is actually tremendously supportive of the single life.

Many great prophets stayed single, as did Jesus of course, and his Apostle, Paul. Paul even tells us that the single life is a superior state (1 Corinthians 7: 32-35). We are told in no uncertain terms to be kind and generous to widows (and widowers by default, we must remember in Biblical times women on their own had no respectable way to support themselves) and God uses and blesses the unmarried just as often as those with spouses. In truth, though we might think of Adam and Eve, and of the animals heading into the ark two by two, there is a greater variety of comings together and fallings apart going on in the Bible, since it is, amongst other things, a history of humanity and the behaviour of God’s people is possibly more often a warning than it is a prescription!

The truth is that every kind of relationship status you can think of is present somewhere in the Bible as it will be with us, and we need to be more realistic about the different forms families can take and less prescriptive about pairing people off. Neatly two by two with the door carefully shut behind us isn’t going to happen, nor is marriage everyone’s ultimate goal.

Perhaps we would do better to embrace and celebrate singleness and family in all its forms and advantages, without perpetuating yet another divide in God’s household. I feel that diversity is something to be welcomed. I know it can feel very challenging to our dualistic mindsets, where some of our comfort and certainty comes from defining ourselves against things, or setting up norms and calling things “other,” but I wonder if part of us all becoming true community means that we need to drop our severe outlines and instead embrace the whole spectrum of what it is to be a human being, loved by grace.

 

© Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

photo from morguefile

 

48: The Lonely God

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It was for me the day of vengeance;

the year for me to redeem had come.

I looked, but there was no one to help,

I was appalled that no one gave support;

so my own arm achieved salvation for me,

and my own wrath sustained me.

I trampled the nations in my anger;

in my wrath I made them drunk

and poured their blood on the ground.” Isaiah 63:4-6 NIV

No, your eyes are not deceiving you, I am using the same text as I did yesterday, because I have a little more to say. It’s about the things we see and don’t see. All of the commentaries I read about this section of scripture for yesterday’s piece emphasise that it is a messianic vision of Judgement Day, that Jesus is both the sacrificial lamb and the warrior figure. None of them mention the sadness that pervades the text.

If we look past the violent imagery in this prophecy, the overwhelming sadness and anger of the Lord is that he is working alone. He wanted help and support and there was none in the offing. This appals, or in some other translations, astonishes him. For this is our forsaken God, sad but nevertheless walking out in triumph. His fate is always to be left alone, forgotten, turned away from, left to do it all himself. And this is heart breaking. And it is as true in acts of judgement as it is in his lonely cry on the cross. And within this I hear a deep call to Oneness for all believers. For God has always and will always want us for his family, for his friends, for his children. But I wonder if there are some things, nevertheless, like a king or a general, that he must do alone.

But this surprise the Lord shows makes me wonder, might we then partake in the work of redemption? Would he have needed his wrath to sustain him if he had had company? Might the redeeming work have been done, or be done, a different way with help? Of course, the idea of prophecy is that it comes true, but there are times when it is used to spur change. Jonah prophesied the destruction of Nineveh, but because the city repented, God relented and the prophecy did not come to pass. This does not mean that the prophecy was in any way a lie, because it was what was going to happen when Jonah preached it. The outcome was changed by the action of the people and the heart of God. As Jonah says, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2 NIV partial).

So perhaps this image of our Lord striding home bloodied from battle might spur us into asking him how we might help, how we might ease his burden. In truth it seems a foolish thought. But if the Lord wants help and support, what might be prayed now or done now to offer him the succour and help that this scripture tells us he will one day long for? I know that the most painful times in my life have been when I have felt utterly alone, especially when facing a mammoth or uphill task, and so this piece of scripture makes my heart ache for God. He certainly does not need my help, but perhaps he would like it. And maybe if those of us who love him come together as true church as his bride, we might work together with him, working towards the redemption of the world, and at least willing to walk with our general when the battle comes.

 

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyattt

Photo from Pixabay

40: Put it Away!

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if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear. 16You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by.” Job 11:14-16 NIV

So here is some of the rest of Zophar’s speech to Job, who is sitting, sick, boil-covered and grief-stricken on the dungheap of terrible suffering. Zophar’s logic is that Job couldn’t possibly be suffering this much as an innocent, he must have done or be doing something terrible. As soon as he turns from his wicked ways and repents, everything will suddenly go right with his life.

Sadly, this is still a nonsense that gets thrown around at the sick and the hurting today in church. I know, because I’ve had this boomerang hurled at me enough times. Put the sin away from yourself and suddenly all will be well. Well I say, put that self-righteous, ignorance away and I might be more inclined to listen to you!

Of course habitual sin is bad for us, and of course no-one is without sin. But when Jesus’ disciples see a blind man begging at the roadside, and ask, “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus treats the question as the nonsense it is. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:2-3 NIV To the Lord, every piece of suffering is an opportunity to put things right. It is an opening for grace to be encountered, not a time to talk of blame or sin. God answers Job’s suffering with encounter, and Jesus does the same with the man born blind. Encounter for this man brings healing, but it also (maybe even more importantly) allows this man to become an evangelist. He turns out to be a very vocal and courageous supporter of the gospel, defying the leaders of the synagogue and even his own parents to tell the truth about Jesus.

I don’t pretend to know a great deal about healing, it’s a very complicated subject often, but I believe that with God, encounter and healing are always about wholeness. God doesn’t deal with us in bits, the way that our modern medical systems are geared to do. If God heals you physically, he will most likely heal your purpose and your being, and I think this is why he says to so many that he heals, “Your sins are forgiven you,” not because it was their sin causing the harm, though sometimes holding in hurts can cause us great bodily, mental and emotional grief, but because the transformational work he does treats us as entire, complex and spiritual beings.

In any case, most of us who are genuinely seeking God, like Job, and hopefully those of us in church, find one of the toughest things to do is forgiving ourselves (hence perhaps Jesus’ reassurance), we really don’t need any help looking for inner or “hidden” sins. If you are sick a long time, believe me, you’ve done a lot of soul searching already.

Equating sin with punishment in this life is to not understand the grace and the goodness of God. The Lord is all compassion and mercy and loving kindness. The greatest barrier and the greatest help to healing in the gospels is faith or lack of it, and usually this is the faith of the person or people praying for the sick, as it is also in James’ letter. We are scripturally more at liberty to blame our intercessors when healing doesn’t come, rather than those being prayed for. But blame in all its forms is to rather miss the point. Zophar and the rest of Job’s “friends” do this rather spectacularly. Suffering that presents an opportunity for God to be given glory is just not on their radar. I wonder if it is on ours?

 

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

Artwork “Put it Away!” by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

 

185: Church

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Do the bats in your belfry bother you, or do you carefully count them out and back again at dawn and dusk, mindful of each individual member of the congregation? Here at the bottom looking up are committed campanologists, signalling the changing of the tides by the heaving and letting go of yokes on ropes. Matins to compline, all is in order, and if we listen closely we may hear the soft hushed slip of uncommon prayer book covers being caressed by those who come rain or shine to let the words fall sensuously into the praise-filled air, saturated by centuries of liturgical love.

 

© Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2016

Photo by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt