Please Oh Please

There’s something in all of those who believe in God, that wants to please Him. I’ve written before about getting all our veges in a row, only to find that they’re the wrong currency. But there’s a big fat clue in Hebrews which says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Why is it so impossible?

Well, for starters, “whoever comes to God must believe He exists.” This is the part I’ve always thought was emphasised: you can’t approach someone who’s not there. So, a lot of sermons and apologetics have focused on “yes, there is a God, we’ve got kind-of proofs here, and here, and here; and in any case there’s no better or less fanciful explanation for this, and this, and this.”

The second part of the verse comes in for a bit of neglect: “and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” The only time I’ve really heard much on this part was when the unspoken question, “Why do I feel God disapproves of me?” has been self-answered with, “You obviously haven’t sought Him diligently enough … He said He would be found by you if you searched for Him with all your heart. ALL your heart. So, if you’re having trouble finding God, guess what? You’re at fault. Again. Big surprise.”

(Yes, I know. Very negative self-talk. We’ll get to that. Sometime this year, I believe.)

But back on the topic of faith. Whenever I’ve thought about praying for things with faith (miracles, healing, character transformation) I’ve thought that the faith He’s after is my faith in His abilities. If I ask myself the question, “Is God capable? Is God competent? Is God powerful?” then the answer always has to be “yes”. Of course the God who made the universe is sublime and brilliant and incredible. He has to be. But despite the seeming guarantees of Scripture, what we like to call the “precious promises,” large numbers of us remain unhealed, unfulfilled, and ratty – and I have no explanation for that.

But lately I’ve been thinking along different lines. Likely this is an “and” situation rather than an “or” one. But here’s my thought. Instead of focusing on CAN God, what if I asked myself WON’T God?

Last year I felt that God was challenging me to see Him as a generous Father. “You don’t ask big enough,” He said. “It’s like you don’t really believe I’m a good dad who’s, ahem, dying to bless His kids.” Now there are reasons for this: strong childhood inculcation against Greed, Idolatry, Mammon, Ambition, Selfishness. But I’m no longer a child. The schoolmaster of the Law has left the building (though his influence rightly remains). And either God is a good, good Father, or He isn’t; or, His ideas of good are radically different from any “good” as we define it. This last is what I believed most of my life: let God be true, and every man a liar; denial, denial, denial. But there is no use in a good that isn’t good. That itself is idolatry – to worship a “good God” whose goodness looks remarkably like badness or indifference. I don’t believe either that that’s who my God is or that this pleases Him (though a determination to stick to Him whether we get our own way or not, may). I do believe that it may be legitimate to look at my misfortune and shake my head and smile and say, “Come on now, Lord. You love me much more than this.” That’s not entitled. That’s faith.

But here’s the thing. My faith needs to be not in the abilities of God, but in His character. And He is a self-confessed lover. “God is love,” the Bible asserts. He Himself is Love, capital L, agape, the unconditional, benevolent, transcendent love. This is not something about Him: it is His structure, if I can put it that way without reducing the complexity of His personhood to one ephemeral virtue. God is Love in the sense that He is composed of it, it’s all through Him like a tissue in a glass of water and water in the fabric of the tissue. It is His modus operandi, and it is also the state in which He Himself exultantly lives in His internal community of the Trinity.

So why did God not say, “Without love it is impossible to please God”? He could have, you know. The statement is more or less true. The two greatest commandments are all about love: for God, for neighbour, for self. (Yes, you heard me: you’re expected to love yourself.) I do believe (and I’m on shaky ground, so hold the phone) that it makes God happy when we love well. He loves love (though I’m not talking about eros) and as John Piper has pointed out, He loves Himself, because He is not an idolater and cannot fail to value what is supremely valuable. The fact that He goes on to love US should make us feel very encouraged, therefore, about the value He places on us.

It’s been said that God is moved by faith, not need. I believe He is not unmoved by need – only that it’s faith that tends to get Him to act. The picture is like a kid with a skinned knee, running past his dad. The dad sucks in his breath over the skinned knee; he feels how painful it is. But until the kid remembers that Dad’s the one with the tender compassion and the Band Aids, and comes to Dad knowing that Dad will make it better – Dad sits tight. He’s probably holding his breath, though. A smart kid knows that Dad is more concerned about his knee than he himself is. A smart kid goes to Dad to put Dad’s mind at rest by giving him the earliest possible opportunity to help.

Here’s the thing. If my faith is not merely in God’s competence, but in an unshakable conviction that He is a good Father who delights in delighting His kids, setting them up to succeed and grow and flourish and remain lovingly connected to Him as their source – then everything shifts. If I believe that God is not passive or unmoved but actively rewards those who seek Him, because He loves us and loves us to come to Him – then through His competence all things become possible.

God cannot love you a little bit. He cannot love you a medium bit. Love is not like an array of coffee cup sizes at Zarraffa’s. Love, by definition, is all in. It’s more like a switch – it’s either on or it’s off. It’s either fully committed, or talk-to-the-hand. God loves you completely. He cannot love one person more than another. He can have elbow room to move in their life to different degree than in yours, but it doesn’t mean He loves us unequally. Love is not quantitative; it’s qualitative, and it goes all out in a tailored direction or loses its definition.

This means that if you have faith in God’s love, and that faith is as small as a mustard seed, that is all you need to tap into the full, rich, deep, high, broad ENTIRE SEA of love that is God. Because with God’s love, an inch is as good as a mile. It’s not a bigger faith you need: it’s a bigger God, and they don’t come any bigger. Of course, if you do happen to have bigger faith, you’ll find the immersion experience in that sea far more thrilling. But you don’t have to feel disqualified if your faith is small. His love is vast, and any amount of faith legitimises a claim on it. It’s not about the size of you. It’s about the size of Him.

The thing about faith is that it comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. We could quibble here a little about Jesus being the Logos, the actual personified Word, and the point would still hold. Your faith will never rise higher than your level of revelation. When we pray, we pray according to what we know. The more we know about God, the more informed our requests can be, and the deeper our praise. But the way to know more about God – and thereby increase our faith – lies in getting revelation. You get that through the Word (either by reading the Bible, which is the written Word of God, or by spending time with the Word – Jesus, the embodiment of the testament of God). You get it also through hearing new things mined out of the Word by experts, the best of whom lives in you in the person of the Holy Spirit. You get it through songs and sermons and articles and soundbites and memes. But you don’t get it by passive wishful thinking. Faith is the gift of God, perhaps a treasure hunt. No hunt, no treasure. Little gems of revelation are waiting for you all over the place if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, if you are hungry for more of God. He is certainly hungry for more of you.


All The Way

This year’s Christmas offering, with hat-tip to W. Paul Young.

Some will meet you halfway

And you must bridge the gap between

They want you to struggle, and to pay

For your share … pay your fare

I see empty pockets, and emptier eyes

How could I close Mine

When you are dear to Me?

I would travel any path you take

Oh, to meet you, to be with you

You don’t need to bring a thing but faith

And I’ll greet you, and be with you

You see distance, and I know you’ve questions

We’ll take them day by day

I just want you to see I’ve come all the way.

Some would tell Me to let go

And some would say, “Be angry!”

But I put on your skin, so you’d know

I’ve been there, “Love was here”

I see My children, and the greater plan

How could I leave you out

When you are dear to Me?

Heaven to Bethlehem: the journey began

On a road that led Me to Calvary …

I would travel any path you take

Oh, to meet you, to be with you

You don’t need to bring a thing but faith

And I’ll greet you, and be with you

You see distance, and I know you’ve questions

We’ll take them day by day

I just need you to know I’ve come all the way!


Not halfway … all the way, to be with you!

You see distance, and I know you’ve questions

We’ll take them day by day
I just want you to see … I’ve come ALL the way.
(C) 2016 Rebekah Robinson

Catch A Phrase

I see a lot of memes on my Facebook feed – more memes than personal news, sadly. The proliferation has become something of a litany: believe the following things. The irony is that I know I’m adding to the torrent, because I, too, love a well-crafted meme! The issue I have, however, is that no matter how beautiful the photograph, or how empathetic (or pathetic!) the font used is, that doesn’t make the content true. I’m daily resisting the urge to make a nuisance of myself by correcting the bulk of these. From time to time I’ll interject an “angel’s advocate” comment, just to make people think beyond the surface. (No doubt there are also soundbites I’m swallowing whole, that others would love to rip up.) In the same way, if I imagine myself preaching this message, raising my voice to an inspiring crescendo so that you all stand and clap and cheer – that doesn’t make my content true, either.

At the moment I see a lot of things like this: “Your mess will become your message. Your test will become your testimony. Your trial will become your triumph. Your victimhood will become your victory.”

If this helps you, awesome. It would have been a word from God at some point for some person (Joyce?). And there will be people who will receive that as a Rhema word of God for their lives, because it is.

But what if you’re not in that category? What if you’re sitting on situations where your weakness has not become your weekender, your beaten-up-ness has not become beatific, and your sins have not become your symphony? I’ve heard better men and women than I say things like, “Why? I don’t know why. I’ve had to learn to just leave some things on the shelf.” And, “What was xyz all about? I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

Here’s the thing. In education we have this thing called an IEP: Individual Education Plan. God, it seems, has written an IEP for each of us. There’s a curriculum, oh yes. But there’s a tailored way to get through it. What works for and speaks to me, won’t always work for or speak to you, because you’ve got your own IEP. And yours is just as valid as mine. Your journey will be different. To borrow from Masterchef, your Mystery Box will have some same, and some totally different ingredients from mine.  My children’s walks of faith don’t look anything like mine, despite being raised on the same principles, because their life experiences and cultural surrounds aren’t anything like mine, and they’re not me. So don’t feel like you’re not making the grade, simply because you see a meme that doesn’t “sit” with your experience. You’re not obligated to fit in with anyone’s timeline for your life other than God’s. And He’s written you an IEP that’s nobody else’s business.

When Jesus lived here in a body like ours, there was an incident where the local bigwigs tried to entrap Him. They managed to catch a couple in the act of adultery. One can only speculate as to how they knew what the pair would be up to at a given hour on a given evening: perhaps there was more than one trap set that night. The man screwing her got away Scot-free, which gave a great big lie to the whole proceedings anyway, since both were legally stoneable. It is one of the most unjust red flags in the whole purported quest for “justice”. I’ve even wondered if it was a personal vendetta against the woman: had she spurned one of their number? slept with one of their sons? was it a sting? was one of the accusers her cuckolded husband or purported lover? or were they all unqualified to throw the first stone because they’d all had her at one point? Or …  was it possibly her very first and very unlucky deviation from the straight and narrow?

We can’t know. All we know is that they dragged her to the temple courts (possibly still half-clothed from the bed) and threw her down in her shame at the foot of the holiest man in the town, the man they couldn’t get a handle on, the man she probably hid from wistfully, the last man she wished her soul and body bared before.

What would Mr Upright do? Nobody had seen Him commit any sort of sin. Sure, He’d been unpredictable. Uncomfortable. Nonconformist. She was clearly guilty and the Law said she ought to be stoned. Would He lead the slut-shaming, stoning charge? Would He finally say something outrageous they could pin Him on, something like, “adultery isn’t really a sin”? Or would He take one look at those long, shapely legs and slip her His number? Suspense swelled. Stones trembled with anticipation.

Jesus bent over and started writing in the dirt.

Every eye left the woman and was transfixed by the moving finger of God, writing in the dust of the earth.

Somewhere, a mic dropped. Doesn’t the finger of God write in stone? Didn’t He give the Law immutably inscribed on tablets – first written by His own hand in the stone, the instructions; and then after that Law was immediately broken, literally broken, written again by the hand of Moses, adding in curses and consequences? Wasn’t the thing the finger of God tended to write in stone, inevitably judgment? You have been weighed and found literally Not Up To Scratch. Disaster follows.

But Jesus is not writing in the stones gripped by the vengeant. He is writing a new testament in the dust from which we are formed. He is writing the woman’s IEP. Perhaps His inner ears are ringing with the words of His Father through Ezekiel: “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh; then they will follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws.” Because you can’t love God and your neighbour from a heart of stone, and that was the core of the Law in the first place. There was absolutely no neighbourly concern going on in that court at that moment. And if there was devotion to God, it was buried under a mountain of red tape. The first commandment is incomplete without the second: faith without works is dead, and love for God must overflow into love for those He loves. Jesus is looking forward to a time when this woman and the man she was with and all of us like them, would be described thus by Paul: “You show that you are a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” The new testament was a return to Eden, to the first man and woman in their purity, dust made flesh with beating hearts and options, Deeper Magic from before time – and law – dawned. Relationship parameters have been reset. It is once again up to the human heart to decide to follow Christ: it can’t be mandated.

Does God not know that human hearts are fallible? Is He ignorant of what His makings are made of? Yet this is what He has purposed. He doesn’t want to present the world with only a photograph of Himself. He wants to present the world with art. He knows the brush strokes our lives draw Him with will be flawed. That is their beauty: that when the paint has dried out on the brush and the lines are sketchy and the perspective’s a bit wobbly, He will still be recognisable, despite the imperfections of what we are, as His DNA is slowly unpacked and extrapolated in us over a lifetime. And each portrait will be unique and it will be beautiful and He will be there in it. It will be layered over again and again as our revelation of Him grows and the details are filled in and corrected. It is as much our portrait as it is His.

Your mess won’t always become your message. Not every test will become your testimony. Some trials are just trials and or random happenstance and you won’t always get the victory. Because sometimes we screw up. Sometimes, we get screwed over. And sometimes we just have a screw loose! The thing you can cling to in those moments is not the well-meaning motivational poster on your wall, which may or may not apply to you, or the ten memes you saw in your newsfeed today, some of them patent nonsense or contradictory. The thing you can cling to is the character of God, whose loving, living finger is writing your Individual Education Plan as we speak, for all times are Now to Him. And let me tell you about God.

God is kind and He likes you.

God doesn’t blow hot and cold.

God understands what you’re made of, and He is  not frustrated but empathetic.

God will never leave you or forsake you.

God knows the end from the beginning and will write ’til the last stroke.

He is the Living Word and the last word.

Life will be partly engineered and partly random, but God will not drop the ball.

God will not give up on you, no matter how badly you stumble, because He has ordered your steps and is always ready to lift you to your feet again.

If you have an ounce of faith in you, then that’s His gift and it means you are chosen, you are marked for loving adoption. God will not let you go. He will pursue you. A good parent’s thoughts are never far from their child and their senses alert and prickled for danger. He will come for you when you wander, He will stalk you if necessary, He will sit with you when you crash and burn, and you will always have a room in His home and heart. Love that permits itself to be crucified might be patient, but it is not tame. This is not insipid, passive love. You are wanted, from your mother’s womb. This is forward planning, adaptable on the fly, at-all-costs, go get ’em, do and/or die love. It is the only love you will ever know in your life that sees right to the core of your being, appreciating every single one of the hundreds of small beauties and fascinating quirks, seeing clearly the template of His own image, yet knowing also all the smeared corners and rotten basements, still willing and eager to say, “That’s My kid, that one there, Mineminemine!”

So the safest place to fall down in moments of shame, is at the feet of the One who alone is qualified to stone us, but who refuses to. He is the only one entitled to be the Author, but rather than write us off, He chooses to also be our perfecter. He would far rather write a new story in the dust that we are, than sentence us in stone. He is hope, He is grace, and He is there. Look up.

Not So Good Friday

“Celebrating Easter” – it sounds very pious, doesn’t it? But Easter is tricky to “celebrate”. It’s not like Christmas. We celebrate Christmas because it is unequivocal good news: the Saviour has been born to us! Aslan is on the move! But Easter is a different story. It is tragedy, high drama, horror. And yet it is hope, light and incredulity. I can’t celebrate my Jesus being ripped to shreds for things He didn’t do. I can, though, celebrate His conquering of the monster Death. And I can celebrate, too, the extraordinary courage it took for Him to face the cross. Knowing God was His Father wasn’t a ticket to confidence for Jesus. He knew exactly what sort of father He had … beautifully, lovingly ultimate, but inscrutable and agenda’d. Jesus was committed to that agenda, but He was stressed. And He could have gotten out of it. But He threw all of His trust into the Father; and to the world looking on that day, He was proved a fool. But to the universe looking on that week, He was proved the champion.

I wonder if it’s like that for the modern-day martyrs, who place all their reliance in One who said He would save them and protect them, only to have their heads cut off on Syrian beaches. We will never know, on this side of Reality, whether or not Jesus appeared to them inside their hoods, and strutted up and down like Guido in Life Is Beautiful, mocking the killers who thought they were winning. Even if He didn’t, they weren’t. We will not know for a very long time how complete the martyrs’ victorious homecoming was – if Heaven staged a ticker-tape parade for these people the villains saw only as losers and infidels. I have to cling to this. I have to believe that what we saw was only a slice of the whole story. It’s one vignette in a trailer for an unspeakably epic movie, and like most trailers, what you see isn’t reflective of the overall story arc. We’re living in this trailer and it isn’t even a highlight reel. Much of the time, it’s trailer trash.

Can anything good be upcycled from trash?

The whole premise of the Gospel story is preposterous.

Looked at baldly, this is how it reads:

“I will give you every advantage, including My heart, and you will throw it all away betting on your own ingenuity. Everything will then be wrecked. I will spend millennia showing you the path back. I will send you the One dearest to My heart to reconnect that path. You will torture Him to death. I will get Him back, and we will then offer to adopt you.”

Jesus’s commandments for us to love our enemies and forgive all offences might be a tall order, but you can’t say He doesn’t practise what He preaches!

You could posit a god who thumbs his nose at a creation bent on rebellion, and just walks away, leaving us to massacre each other The One-style. You could posit a god who incinerates the planet in a fit of rage. If you really, really stretched your imagination, after several centuries you might come up with a god who was actually capable of forgiving such outrageous acts as the scourging and crucifying of his clone-son. But nobody is insane enough to envisage a God who would then turn around and say, “I did this for you, because I love you and can’t bear to lose you. See My family of three? We are holy. We are unparalleled in the universe because We are outside it and created it. We are untouchably pure and elevated unless We choose to descend. And this family of light, of unequalled wisdom, of pure intellectual and passionate love, this Three-in-One – We have decided to open Our home. We would like you to come live with us, and be centred in our love forever. Not with daily reproach, either – with full pardon, to be celebrated and cherished, and with full inheritance rights. Just wait ‘til you see your room!”

This is what makes me fall on my knees. That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The Greatest

Recently I was watching a science fiction movie with my husband, when something he’d once said, about whether we’d be able to see the sun in outer space, nudged me in the noggin. Now, I have almost no science. But it seems to me that light is only visible when it bounces off something. You can shine a light, but if the light doesn’t bump up against something to show it off, it’s pretty pointless. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? To which the proper answer is, literally, “Who cares?” Light is invisible until it affects something.

It occurs to me that love is much the same. C.S. Lewis refers to it as a “translunary virtue”, but even such a virtue is meaningless without a focus. Until love bounces off a subject, it might as well not exist. Love doesn’t just feel; love does. There is a paradox wrapped up in 1 Corinthians 13: without love, words are just noise, gestures are just robotic. But love itself can’t exist until it generates such words and gestures. And to do that, there must be someone on the receiving end. Without an object of love, there’s nothing to feel or do anything towards.

Faith likewise: faith without deeds is dead, for faith is both an inner evidential conviction and an outer evidential expression. Without faith it is impossible to please God, because without faith in His existence nobody would approach Him to please Him; and without faith in His rewarding nature, it becomes a futile or even a terrifying prospect. Note that God does not merely settle for “yes, Lord, You exist” but pushes for “yes, Lord, You exist and You welcome me”. The fear of the Lord might be the beginning of wisdom, but adoration of His loving nature is surely at the other end of it.

Hope, too, is a reflected value. Hope is often symbolised as the anchor mentioned in Hebrews 6:19. An anchor has to have something to grapple, or it is merely a big heavy object being dragged aimlessly along the seabed. In the case of Christian faith, the anchor of hope sticks on the premise and promise that those with Abraham’s faith are credited with righteousness as he was, whether they are his genetic descendants or not.

The idea that “God is love” comes from 1 John 4:8, where it says that you can’t know God without knowing love into the bargain. For John, knowing God, knowing love, loving God and others, and living as Jesus did were all of a piece (1 John 2). The acid test of knowing God was loving God and showing it by how you lived and loved.

God is love. It sounds so beautiful – so abstract – the translunary virtue again. But God’s love cost Him. He set that fierce love on us. He sent His only clone to be ripped apart to ensure He could get His adopted kids back. When we examine what that meant for God, it becomes astounding on more levels than we can count. In the words of Browning, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

One of God’s characteristics is that He is preexistent. That means He IS, before time and space existed. “I am that I am.” The Bible states that God IS love (not God WAS love or God WILL BE love). Therefore, love is an eternal descriptor for God, backwards and forwards and andwards and eckwards in eternity, in all directions and dimensions. God is love.

But if love must have a subject, then God cannot be love unless He really is a trinity. Back before He had invented subjects, He is love. So, back before there was anything but God, God is a community of three in one, living in perpetual love. If God is not a trinity, God cannot possibly be love – because, let us say, the “Earth Experiment” takes up a minute fraction of such an eternity. It would be innaccurate to say that God is only going to be Himself for the duration of that fraction. In eternity past, God had to already be love: wholly balanced, wholly satisfied, wholly pure, wholly unique, the only God, centred and self-sufficient in the fellowship of His tripartite being. Perfect communion, perfect unity, with no misunderstandings, mistakes or misappropriations.

And this holiness is what was sliced up for our sake at Bethlehem and at Calvary and at Pentecost. I cannot begin to fathom that. Their aeons-long intimacy, interrupted for the little Legoes they had made. Think of the closest love you have experienced. Now imagine sending your loved one to be tortured to death to save the life of someone who hates you. It’s mind-boggling. That intense love, opened up to let us in, and under such conditions!

When 1 Corinthians 13 says that this side of Heaven, we are left with faith, hope and love, and love is the greatest, I have a theory as to why love is the greatest.

The Bible tells us that it’s impossible to please God without faith. It’s faith that is the gateway to the grace that saves us. Why isn’t faith the greatest? And hope: “Abraham in hope believed” – doesn’t that make hope the precursor of faith? “In His name (Jesus, literally “God saves,” His identity as Saviour) the nations will put their hope.”  If hope is essential to faith, and faith leads to salvation, why isn’t hope the greatest?

Nowhere does it say “God is hope”, though hope can sustain a soul. Neither does it say “God is faith”, though there is such a thing as positive thinking that gets results. No. Out of the three things that remain, God is love. He is action and sacrifice and providence and affection and commitment. It is not written, “For God so hoped for the world …” or even “For God so believed in the world …”. No. For God so loved the world that from its foundations He preempted action to save us … and gave. Love has its origins in the preexistent nature of God. Faith and hope, on the other hand, are temporary derivatives of the situation we find ourselves in.

In addition, as we’ve shown, faith, hope and love are all virtues that become complete blanks without a subject. But God does not exercise faith as we do: He knows all things, and does not have to take anyone’s word for anything. God does not hope as we do, for the same reason: He knows the ending from the beginning. But God does love. And I think that’s why love is the greatest: because we are given the gifts of faith, hope and love, but love alone is something we and God share reciprocally. Besides that, love alone is part of the divine nature. And we are invited to touch it! Reflect it! Revel in it! Copy it! Participate in it!

Unlike faith and hope, sermons and language barriers and prophecies, baby talk and naïveté, or a penpal you’ve never met – love never gets superseded by fulfilment or maturity. Love begins and ends as its own fullness, and so it never fails by becoming obsolete. Love is a dynamo whose use generates more love in perpetual motion, a battery that charges itself and far from gradually depleting, accumulates ever-increasing energy. If the universe collapsed tomorrow, God would still be a trinity and still be love within that trinity. How blessed we are to bask in the light of that love, and to be invited to live in it forever!

For The Unfallen

Each year there are moments when we pause and remember those who have fought for our freedom. One such occasion here in Australia (and in my native New Zealand) is Anzac Day, in commemoration of the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. I adapted Laurence Binyon’s famous poem into a song, one version of which you can hear here if you’re interested. This year, and every year before it, I was stirred by the legacy of those who have given their lives for their country and their cause. I salute all those sacrificial souls and bodies, and what follows is in no way meant to dim the light they have shone.

Here’s the thing.

Every day there is another battle being waged against faithful citizens of a great kingdom. And there is no memorial day, or veterans’ day, or any such commemorative occasion associated with them in our mainstream life, that I am currently aware of. Why is it that we do not have a Martyrs Day?

It need not be gory – though it could easily be made so. It most definitely should not be about taking an unholy curiosity in others’ agonies. In fact, it need not even be specifically Christian, if we were talking about creating a community-wide occasion to celebrate those who were so wholly faithful that they gave their lives for their beliefs. (That would be problematic in regard to those who have given their lives in a way that took extraneous people with them.) It is, however, specifically Christian martyrs that I’m thinking of today, and specifically in the context of church events. I’m aware that in Catholic tradition there are saints’ days, and many of the saints were, of course, martyrs. I’m guessing that in the way-back-when, these days would have been feasts in honour of the saint named, and perhaps days of reflection or almsgiving toward the cause each was noted for. But I’m thinking that it wouldn’t be too much to ask my own church to hold an annual vigil Sunday of some sort, in honour of our brothers and sisters who have given their lives for the cause of Christ and His passionate love affair with humanity. At the very least it would raise awareness either for financial relief projects or for directing our prayers.

Martyrs did not die out in the Dark Ages, by the way. There are Christian martyrs – spiritual soldiers – dying every day, and not just a few. Last century it was the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain*, and I’m not even sure how many curtains there are anymore; but they exist. Today, the most persecuted minority on earth is Christianity. The irony is that Christianity, for all its terrible mistakes, in its purest form remains a bastion of love, forgiveness and acceptance that it makes no sense to eliminate. Are not these the supreme values our society longs for? And yes, most of us fall far short of these ideals. But most of us are sincerely growing into them, little by little, as well. And Christianity’s purest form is, of course, Christ Himself. The Christ whose body was destroyed and resurrected, and then succeeded by the ‘body’ comprised of us: the church, the modern-day Body of Christ. We’re bad at it, but we’re at least trying. Why He had so much faith in us, I can’t say, but at least I know that when His Word tells us we can’t come to God without faith, well, He’s put His money where His mouth is, so to speak, and returned the favour.

*Remember when Communism was the boogeyman? Yeah. That.

Spiritual soldiers. Let’s talk about that for a minute.

We have historically sung a lot of ditties in church about “marching together to battle”, meaning, usually, a spiritual battle in which we wage warfare against dark powers with noncorporeal “weapons”. It’s what unchurched people refer to as exorcism, at least in part, if they believe in the spiritual realm at all. The main weapon we refer to is prayer, in which we ask for God’s direct intervention and for strategies to mitigate damage. Paul describes the active Christian ideally kitted out in salvation covering the mind, righteousness defending the heart, sandals of readiness, truth around the whole body, faith as a shield and the Bible as a sword. It’s debatable whether this means we use the Bible for attack or defence, but remember, we’re not talking about attacking people, but spiritual entities – territorial spirits and the like. Frank Peretti’s powerful novels depict spiritual warfare as a battle waged, if you like, by angels and demons in the Reveal Codes dimension lying underneath the text of our daily life. The metaphor works well – that there are overlapped dimensions in which two sets of interdependent events take place simultaneously in real time. It seems ridiculous to speak of angels and demons factually in plain talk and in a blog, but it’s the quickest way to say it, though those terms have become somewhat fantasy-loaded over the years. But few can deny that there are inexplicable things in the world. This is the way the church explicates it.

The songs we sing about such warfare are partly taken from the New Testament, which talks a lot about such weapons being able to pull down spiritual forts or bastions of dysfunctional thinking and being, normally the result of influence or manipulation by dark forces. And they are partly taken from the Old Testament, most notably the Psalms, of which many were for singing in the first place.

Here’s where I take issue a little. I’m not denying the truth that God does fight battles for us in the heavenly realms. I’m not denying that from time to time He saves us from dangers known and unknown. But look at the context. King David writes around 1000BC, “He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bronze bow.” We put this line into a fun little praise song and we forget that David was actually getting up in the morning and going out with his ragtag warband of mercenaries to kill marauders. When Moses writes, “When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: ‘Hear, Israel: today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory,’” he’s not talking about a lofty spiritual concept. He’s talking to people going out with actual swords and actually facing the prospect of being maimed for life, captured into tortuous slavery, or killed. If the armies of ancient Israel sang Psalms on the way to war, they weren’t fun little tunes to brighten the day – they were cadences. Their idea of relying on the Lord to “help” them wasn’t about overcoming smoking, or deciding on the blue house over the red house, or even bearing up under an arrogant supervisor. Relying on salvation from God was life or death for them. Often, if God did not fight for them, they were sunk. And often, God did.

I think we can apply warfare songs built from the New Testament’s talk about spiritual battles quite rightly. But I think we need a grain of salt when we apply Old Testament physical battle songs and try to make them fit our spiritual battles. Mileage is going to vary, because the situations vary. If God, well, zaps you with a truth from one of those verses – go for it. But if not, be careful about minimising the massive faith it took for those historical people to go out onto the battlefield armed with a belief that God was on their side, even if numbers and training weren’t.

There are, however, spiritual soldiers.

And if we’re talking about spiritual battles, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: spiritual casualties. It’s not a battle unless the possibility of defeat exists. So for all our cheerful singing, there are some battles we lose. And we don’t even know which ones. I suppose these would be people who have been burned out. People who were involved in a battle which we won but some lives were nevertheless lost. And people like Judas, who insisted on serving his purpose.

Are our soldiers ever really lost? Is this a question that’s really tackling the thorny issue of eternal salvation, “once saved, always saved”, versus election, “no one can snatch you out of God’s hand”, versus agency, “… but if you wanted to, you could JUMP out”? If so … we’ll be arguing about that til Jesus comes back. All I can tell you is that if it is  up to me, I’m  not keen to jump.

I think many of our spiritual soldiers are POWs. These are people who have not quite given up on God, but are stuck in what we would call a “backslidden” state, a not-so-God-honouring-lifestyle. And perhaps there are some of us still in church, who are also prisoners of war in that we are living in unnecessary bondage and don’t even know it. We can be prisoners of bad theology, some of it handed to us but much of it going in pure and coming out poop because our spiritual “liver” is faulty. We all have filters through which we hear things, and sometimes these filters don’t serve us well. They get clogged over the years, coloured by all our experiences and interpretations of those experiences. This is the life we have to work with. And this is why we need direct contact with God: He is Himself the Word and the Sword that can divide between soul and spirit, bone and marrow, truth and nearly-truth.

So I’d like to have some respect for Christians who are no longer with us in church, because, for all that I wish they were still enlisted, they’re veterans of our wars. They’re the walking wounded. If we gave them loving care and medals instead of the back door, perhaps there’d be less of them. Some of them need us to go into the war zone of intercessory prayer and pluck them out. Can we be willing to do that if we’re busy looking down on them as deserters?

The final thing I want to look at today is rescue.

We’ve been talking a lot about prisoners and casualties. I’d like to shift that along just a little and talk about unanswered prayer – people who find themselves prisoners of sickness or traumatic situations. People who fight the good fight and then die anyway.

There are lots of places in the Bible where it talks about ways that God rescues, saves, heals, delivers, and even raises His people from the dead. We love to quote these stories and claim precedent when we need intervention in our own lives. “Standing on the promises”, we call it. Here’s the thing, though: not all of those promises are for every single one of us every single time. They can’t be, because then either God doesn’t know how to keep His promises, or we’d all be living lives with not one single thing ever going wrong in them.

Four months ago, my father-in-law passed away after a long battle with neurofibromatosis, pheochromocytoma, ankle problems, heart problems, lung problems and a host of other comorbidities. Forty years he prayed for healing. If you can name the hoop, he’d jumped through it. He had faith – enormous faith, which wobbled now and then but lasted the distance. His family and friends had faith. He named it and claimed it and confessed it and tested it – you name it, he did it. He received answers to prayer only some of the time. And he could get up in the morning and look in the mirror at a face bubbled over and still say “God loves me,” and that was perhaps bigger faith than anyone I know. And he died, still bubbled.

Now, we’ve all got to die sometime. Even the Bible says this, despite its talk of “never seeing  death.” But it’s been very hard for me to process the inconsistency between “some people get completely healed” and “Dad didn’t get completely healed”. All the conditions were met. All qualifications were met. Jesus had no less love for Dad than He had for Lazarus.

In church yesterday, my pastor Kirsty spoke from Jeremiah 29. “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ” She went on to say that this is a verse often used to comfort people who have little hope. And so it does; but again, as she said, consider the context. This was part of a letter was written to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. And this was the main thrust of the whole message: Rescue is not coming. Not this time. So deal with it. Get on with your life. You can’t see My plan? Doesn’t mean I don’t have one. You don’t like the story so far? Doesn’t mean this is the end of the story. Your imagineers can tell you any fairytale they prefer, and whack My name on the end of it, but that won’t make it truth. So settle in for the long haul.

Just a few chapters back, God was railing against such false prophets and dismissive leaders, saying ‘Because you have scattered My flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,’ declares the Lord.. ‘I myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.’ And there’s your prisoners of war.

The Bible contains many promising things that may or may not be promises on a given day to any one of us. I think of it as a smorgasbord, I guess, but that doesn’t mean everything on the menu is for me. If we’re going to say it is, then we also have to say all the negative things, curses and so on, are also for each of us at any random time. I believe (and your mileage may vary) that these good things become promises to us if the Holy Spirit impresses them on us, rather than if we simply see them, like them, and try to appropriate them. So for me, rescue is not coming  is actually a comfort. It reassures me that God’s acting  and God’s not acting  are both valid responses from His throne.

Hebrews 11 talks about people of faith who kept going even when there was no observable reason to: “… who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”

Clearly, some win and some lose, even when all have high levels of faith. If you don’t get healed, it doesn’t mean you missed some boat. Look at Job’s experience: the reasons for his suffering were so far outside of observable phenomenon that his ‘friends’ had to invent impugning explanations to cover it. Sometimes the reasons are just outside our ken, and they have nothing to do with our personal worthiness or even our relationship with God. And for every promise of deliverance there’s a warning of persecution. For every revelation there’s a piece of God’s agenda hidden from us. And, technically, the Creator doesn’t have to explain Himself to His creatures, so it’s a miracle we get the amount of information we do. It becomes a question of am I going to trust that God’s reasons for not acting hold water?  Which is really the larger question does God really love me? and by extension is God really love?  If I am to answer this question yes, God is love, then it follows that I must trust His love. His love must work all things together for the common good and the personal good, even when it doesn’t look like it, even when He is inscrutable, which is all of the time. For all I know, God could have been saving the best mansion in Gold Street for Dad to occupy for all the aeons of eternity, and that’s why he was allowed to suffer so much for a comparatively-paltry 73 years. I simply do not know. There are SO MANY things I simply do not know. But I can choose. And I vote for love. I choose to believe God is love, and all that love entails. And this is my faith. May I hold it ’til the end, unfallen, as have so many before me.

Did Jesus Have Fears?

Did Jesus have fears? I think He might have. For one thing, He was fully human as well as fully God. It would be natural (as a human) to have fear cross His path. It would be supernatural (as God) to dismiss fear as soon as it arrived, because the love He shared with His Father was perfect, and perfect love has a trust so deep or a self-interest so abandoned that it fears nothing for itself.

But I think He feared the Cross.

He might have feared, for a moment before scorn took over, the shame. Naked and ten feet up, when you’re not a hunk? when you’ve been talking smack about the VIPs looking on? with your friends nowhere to be seen, lest they be judged guilty by association? with all your grand claims looking like a worthless scam? He could be dying of asphyxiation, though He brought breath back to a dead girl. He could be dying of blood loss, though He halted the lady’s endless vaginal haemorrhage. He could be dying of heart failure, though He raised Lazarus from the dead whose heart was fully His. His joints were dislocated, though He healed the paralytic. His skin was ripped to shreds, though He cleansed the lepers. As far as the religious hardliners could tell, He was dying because God lets sinners die – ergo, He was a sinner. He could be dying of a broken heart, deserted there in His misery with not even enough breath to scream.

He would have feared the Cross’s pain, of course. Just because people lived a barbaric 2000 years ago – behind the haze of historical distance – does not mean they didn’t possess nerve endings. Jesus would have seen crucifixion victims first-hand. Knowing Isaiah 53:5, He would have had some inkling that His own upcoming crucifixion was going to be much, much worse.

It was worse because most people enduring crucifixion were not flogged first with the flagrum. That could cause death all by itself: if not by immediate blood loss, then surely by septicemia within an agonising few days.

It was worse because unlike most victims, He was not a helpless insect pinned to a card. He had a free pass up His sleeve. It would have been harder to STAY there than to leave. He had no reason to stay except love for His enemies, which alone proves there is nothing He asks of us that He is not willing to do Himself. He not only could have extricated Himself from the nails, but He could have whistled in the apocalypse.

But He had a job to do.

He had a tower to build.

In Luke 14: 27-30 He tells His fans, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple. Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”

Jesus was a builder and He had a church to build … and He had two bits of wood and three nails to do it with. He had sat down with His Father and they had estimated the cost. They had laid the foundation before the Universe Project commenced, extrapolating their plans forward in time; for though human freewill is real, so is divine omniscience, and He knew then what would happen and what would be required of Him. But He hadn’t been through it yet.

Jesus was speaking in this passage about the cost of others following Him; but so much of what the Bible says, it says in many layers and levels across time, so I don’t think it’s too much of stretch to see subtext here. I’ve said already that He never asks us to do anything He’s not willing to do Himself. And clearly the reverse is true: He asks us to be willing to do what He does. He sets the example we are to follow. So I believe that if in His human heart Jesus feared anything, He feared not finishing.

I do not know if, in Jesus’ incarnation, He left behind His omniscience and was given only glimpses or visions – as was the case with the prophets – or if the dimensional veil parted at His baptism when the Holy Spirit descended onto Him. So I do not know if He knew absolutely that He would go through with it. It would seem in Gethsemane that He still held out one last hope that another way would be found, and this would suggest that He had no guarantees in His heart, as well as a sort of partial amnesia as far as the forward planning was concerned. It certainly speaks to a very human desperation.

There was one further worsening element to the ordeal that other victims did not endure: the purely OCD horror the sinless Son of God would have at the prospect of being plunged into several millenia’s worth of utter filth as He bore and became Sin for us and killed its power once for all. It would create a recoil worse than seeing a child drowning in a septic tank. And He would have to holdHimself under.

I also fear the circumstances of laying down my life, and even more, I fear not finishing well – and for the same reasons, that I do not want to disappoint my Father, I do not want to set a bad example, and I want to complete the work and character I’ve been given to the best of my limited ability. So I pray for faith in the journey and courage to the end, and I thank Him for the grace that covers even my worst failures. That grace came at a terrible cost, but I’m not the one who bought it. In fact, in a sense it bought me.

Jesus went through all this for the joy set before Him – the knowledge that He was providing salvation for billions, each known and named intimately by the Father. That joy was us. That’s how deep His love runs. And how fierce His relief and elation and exultant victory as He sucked in His last breath and cried, “IT IS FINISHED!”