Be Joyful in Hope

faith believesOn Wednesday evening as part of our Lent course, a group of us from church studied a passage from Romans 12: 9-21. In the CEV the chapter is entitled ‘How to live the new life of Love’. How to… indeed… that is the question.

This passage gets really specific. 21 instructions follow one after the other, after the other. All fleshing out what it means, what it actually looks like to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (the second of Jesus’s two commandment summary, the first being to love God). It means hospitality, respect, sharing what you have, blessing those are mean to you, not thinking too highly of yourself, not paying back evil for evil.

It’s a pretty tall order!

We all aspire to it but, let’s be honest, there are bits in there that are downright difficult.

This time though, the phrase that ‘shimmered’ for me when we read this passage reflectively was ‘Be joyful in hope…‘. The amplified version says ‘Rejoice and exult in hope‘.

How is this possible for any of us when we are in the middle of any story of pain, uncertainty or even just find ourselves in a situation that makes us anxious for which we don’t yet know the ending.

What came to me is that it’s only possible to be ‘exultant in hope’ if you know how the story will end. If you are confident that things will, eventually, one way or another turn out okay, you don’t know how, you don’t know when but only if you are sure that one day ‘all will be well’ then you CAN be exultant in hope’.

I am a sucker for films with happy endings. Actually I’m worse than that, I do my best to avoid films with sad endings. Before watching a film, I will ask around about the ending ‘I don’t know want to know how it ends’ I say, ‘I only want to know if it’s sad or happy’.  Is is a ‘weepy’ or a ‘whoopee’?

Then I can relax. I don’t then mind how bumpy or scary the story is along the way because I have the security of knowing that ultimately it will turn out okay.  Yes, you may think I’m pathetic as far as this analogy relates to films and I’m willing to admit that I am!

But it’s true of life, how can we face the unbearable sadness all around us unless we have hope? Big scale issues like the pollution, the oppression, the inequality between the rich and the poor and small scale personal tragedies: illnesses that become terminal, sicknesses that becomes chronic, accidents that happen meaninglessly and violence that robs lives.

Being an optimist that things will ultimately turn out okay in the face of that long list can sometimes feel as unlikely as whistling a melody in a storm and hoping your tune will be heard.

But Paul wasn’t an unrealistic optimist. He asked us to be ‘joyful in hope’ because there really is certainty that ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’ (Julian of Norwich in her Reflections on Divine Love). He bases his hope on the historical fact of the Resurrection: death is beaten. It has been dealt a mortal blow, and although death still reigns now, it will ultimately be done away with. And God ‘who does not want anyone to perish’ will have his heart’s desire, the people he created in order that he might love them and that they might know His love in return.

‘God will be forever God, all loving, all holy, all compassionate and we will grow in our knowledge of God, discovering ever greater depths to that love and compassion and goodness; and God’s love will not let God rest until all of God’s creatures have been drawn into the ambit of that love and compassion and caring… This is how highly God regards us, how deeply God loves us; and it is beyond our computing, beyond our comprehension.’  Desmond Tutu from In God’s Hands  the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book recommendation.

Another voice, from the opposite end of the theological spectrum, says the same thing:

There will be pain, and then great joy. In the end, joy wins. So if joy has not won yet, it is not the end’ 

(John Ortberg in Soul-Keeping, easily the best book I read last year.)

And to go back to that list of 21 commandments – how or why do we try to live that way? Desmond Tutu again ‘God hopes that we, who have experienced the wonder and depth of God’s love, will be enlisted in God’s team, to seek to draw in those outside, by emulating God’s ways. We are enlisted to attract the recalcitrant, ultimately by love, by compassion and by caring. After all many in the Ancient world were drawn into the Church when they witnessed just how these Christians loved one another’.

“Be Happy” – yes, but how?

Is it me or has anyone else noticed that we are being bombarded by lists of instructions to ‘Be happy/Be creative/Be patient’ at every turn.

Here is one such list I saw for sale in shop whilst on holiday

2014-07-23 16.35.20These lists pop up all over the place. Twice I’ve seen them on shopping bags (but I didn’t have the courage to stalk the person carrying them just to take a photo) but clearly there is a marketing trend trying to tap into our deepest aspirations – to be happy, good, beautiful, kind, considerate people.

There are several reasons such lists make me say ‘Hmm’ . I don’t mean to be contentious as  the qualities we are urged to express are very often worthy but there is a big part of me that says ‘Yes BUT, it’s not that easy.

First objection: It’s not that easy to pin down what are the actual things it would be most beneficial for us to be. One bag I saw said ‘Dance, sing, floss and travel’. Now I understand items 1,2 and 4 but ‘floss’? Really? Will I be a better person if I simply floss consistently?  Anyway some of the loveliest people I know can’t dance, can’t sing and have never travelled much beyond their home town.  In spite of this (and perhaps to the astonishment of those who think such things as travel or music essential) they still manage to be human beings with big, generous, calm, contented and well-ordered souls.

Second objection: the propaganda behind such lists is a false assumption –  and the false assumption is that ‘merely wanting to be a nice person’ will make me a nice person. It really isn’t that straightforward. Who of us doesn’t want to be a nice person? No-one would disagree with the idea that if we could all just be nice/polite/kind/generous etc the world would be a better place. But we aren’t and the world is often a yucky place where children are oppressed and the vulnerable rejected.

Just sitting having beatific thoughts about love, truth, goodness, honesty, compassion isn’t enough to change us.

We are fundamentally and  deeply flawed – broken inside- and this disintegration between our wills (our good intentions), our feelings, and our actions is what the Bible calls sin. Paul in the letter to the Romans writes

‘so the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want todo what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead I do what I hate’

Substitute the word ‘law’ for ‘list’ like the one above and Paul is expressing exactly my discomfort with this list. I admire the list, I want to have/demonstrate all those good qualities but some how I simply can’t: I stop short of stealing (clearly wrong) but can I give generously (clearly good)? I don’t like it when people are unkind, or inconsiderate to me or call me names but when I call them names or speak disparagingly about them, I rationalise it ‘I’m not a bad person, they deserved it, they hurt me’. We rationalise  all sort of small deceits and slights (‘I’m not really queue jumping or speeding, I’m just a very busy person with a lot of things to do’).

We have what John Ortberg calls a ‘God given ache for goodness’ which is why we admire these aspirational lists but without God reintegrating (‘curing’) our souls we have no power to achieve it. There are numerous lists in New Testament of qualities which God followers should reflect but  none of these passages suggest we should just get on with it by ourselves. Every time we are directed to the fact that it is only as we stand in right relationship with the one who made us, that we find the power to live the way that Creator intended us to live.

‘The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control’. Galatians 5:22

‘To focus on my soul means to look at my life under the care and connection of God… to focus on my self apart from God leaves me powerless to change’ but the modern world revolves around the self and not the soul. ‘The self is a stand alone, do it yourself unit while the soul reminds us we were not made for ourselves’ (summarised from a brilliant book I have just read called Soul-keeping: caring for the most important part of you by John Ortberg).

And that’s the problem with all of these lists – they are ‘self improvement’ projects and we can no more self improve ourselves than we can pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces.  God offers ‘soul transformation’ but it only comes about slowly and only when God has a proper place in our lives.

That’s why you don’t see the advertising/marketing people mass producing fancy artworked version of the 10 Commandments or even of Jesus’s summary of 2 Commandments (love God and love other people) both of which are impossible to improve on as far as a summary of how humans should live in way that results in a good society. When God gave the first list he as good as said ‘write it down, pin it up on your walls, (he actually said ‘pin it to your forehead’ which is why devout Jews have little boxes on their head and wrists to remind them of the law).  But because both of these lists start with putting God in his proper place, they are no longer popular, instead we get these hopeful but fairly vapid, meaningless alternatives. We all want to be nice people but only when we orientate our lives around worship and love for God (what we were made for) do we find that we are no longer alone in the process of transformation.  The trouble is most people prefer to be self-directed not God directed.

‘You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe… the most important thing about you is your soul. What you are constructing, the person you are becoming is the only thing that will last. You were made for God, and made to need God, which means you were not made to be self sufficient.  Your soul can be right when everything in your world is all wrong. And sooner or later everything in your world will feel all wrong – what will matter at that moment is the soul you have constructed’. (Ortberg)

So ‘be happy/be understanding/generous/patient’ but don’t kid yourself that you can do it on your own. You need forgiveness first for the cracked pot state of your own soul and only then can you find forgiveness/patience/compassion/kindness for all the other cracked pots around you.

 soulkeepingPublished byZondervan 2014

Rags to Riches

I confess I have left the whole Lenten self-examination thing a bit late this year but finally this week I’ve dragged my soul in front of a 360 degree mirror and it wasn’t a pretty sight: bashed, bruised and attempting to sulk in  corner pretty much describes the situation.

A series of demanding circumstances, a few small misunderstandings and a couple of big stresses and you have the ‘perfect storm’ for full on ‘soul shrivelling’.

So what to do?

I’ve spent the last few days committing Ephesians 4: 31 to 5:2 to memory and I am almost there.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Learning something by heart is very powerful. In that first sentence there are six, yes SIX, different things that can shrivel your soul: bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice. Learn that lot off by heart and you really think about what the words mean.

‘Wrangling’ is my favourite: it’s such a pithy description of all the manoeuvring, ‘spinning’, manipulating we all do to avoid situations instead of  (forgive the gender specific term) ‘manning up’ and getting on with it, whatever ‘it’ might be: confronting/apologising and moving on.

John Ortberg in his brilliant book The Me I want to Be has an acronym for sin: RAGS

It stands for all the things we mean when we say the phrase ‘forgive us our sins’ and it brilliantly describes the state that all those things leave us in: rags.

R – Resentment

A – Anxiety

G – Greed

S – Superiority

(Ha! If you thought you were doing okay on the first three, then last one certainly applies!)

The more I’ve thought about this list the more comprehensive I’ve realised it is. It pretty much covers every vice, everything we do wrong relates back to one of these attitudes.

Thoughts  like:

“No-one really understands how hard I work” = superiority.

”Why doesn’t so and so do such and such” = resentment

“I really deserve… a break/a better deal…” = greed/resentment (so closely related to that most dangerous of all thoughts ‘God owes me’. God owes no one anything, we owe him gratitude for every breath we take).

“Nobody’s looking out for me” = worry

“How dare he/she/they….” = anger

Now you ARE allowed to be angry. In fact the NRSV almost makes it sound like a command

‘Be angry’ (yes really!)

but it quickly follows it up with ‘but in your anger do not sin’ which is a kind of spiritual health warning: ‘anger can be bad for your soul’.  So be angry (let’s face it, you can’t help it) but listen to your anger, ask yourself what you are angry about, learn from your reactions and over-reactions and, whatever you do, don’t let anger settle into the bitterness that will shrivel your soul.

So I’ve been taking off my RAGS in prayer, in worship and in appropriate acts of restoration and today is Easter Sunday. God gives me his RICHES. I am robed in forgiveness, I can ‘live in love’ and I am a beloved child.

More than enough reasons to ring out the ‘Hallelujahs’. Happy Easter everyone.

The Me I want to Be John Ortberg published by Zondervan