This Present Anguish

Being in nature, we are provided with persistent reminders of God’s word and its significance to our lives. Working on the land, there are seasons where the thistles and weeds dominate the landscape if left unattended. Once the weed has flowered and gone to seed, it is said that another 100 years of weeds will be sown on the wind – spreading across the surrounding landscape. To engage in the exhausting work of pulling out weeds by the roots year after year leads to the establishment of a pleasant and productive landscape for all to enjoy. In the bible, weeds are indicative of a problem in a persons’ heart – what lies in the heart often comes out in their speech and behavior and grows to become evident in the person’s character, their public and private life.

Listening deeply to another person’s heart takes some effort, patience and resilience when caring for others. Importantly, it is not acceptable to weigh and judge the words of others but to examine our own hearts by listening to God’s voice. You see, the unresolvable questions and burden of unpleasant experiences, if left unchecked can cause a contagious illness to spread among the hearers. This illness is described as ‘bitterness’ in the bible and is like a weed in the good soil, with the potential to destroy the crop or harvest.

Take a look at the verse in Hebrews, how the context of this verse shows that bitterness may prevent us from living in God’s grace due to unforgiveness, it destroys peace, is a barrier to living a holy life and can corrupt those around us.

Hebrews 12:14, 15 – ‘Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.’

For an excellent article on bitterness, I’ve chosen two articles, one from a woman’s perspective and one from a man’s perspective. I like Erin’s concluding sentence, indicating that we cannot dig up the weed of bitterness ourselves. For, it is only God who can cleanse our hearts and revive our communities.

Erin Davis – ‘4 Ways to Spot a Bitter Root’ on the Revive our Hearts: True Woman blog.

https://www.reviveourhearts.com/true-woman/blog/four-ways-to-spot-a-bitter-root/

John Piper – ‘What is a Root of Bitterness?’ on Desiring God, 1 April 1997.

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-a-root-of-bitterness

We see the fruit of bitterness in people’s lives; anger, malice, slander, gossip, grumbling – it steals our joy, stunts the growth of the fruit of the Spirit and can even change us physically over time.

Recently, reading ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Dostoevsky, spending over 400 pages in the mind of a bitter and tormented man who longs to know God and the love of another; I found this interesting summary of what it is like to live in anguish… (emphasis mine)

“He kept tormenting himself with these questions, even taking a certain delight in it. None of the questions was new or sudden, however; they were all old, sore, long-standing. They had begun torturing him long ago and had worn out his heart. Long, long ago this present anguish had been born in him, had grown, accumulated, and ripened recently and become concentrated, taking the form of a horrible, wild, and fantastic question that tormented his heart and mind, irresistibly demanding resolution… Clearly, he now had not to be anguished, not to suffer passively, by mere reasoning about unresolvable questions, but to do something without fail, at once, quickly. Decide at all costs to do at least something, or… ‘or renounce life altogether!’ he suddenly cried out in frenzy. ‘Accept fate obediently as it is, once and for all, and stifle everything in myself, renouncing any right to act, to live, to love!’ (43)

‘He was pale, his eyes were burning, all his limbs felt exhausted, but he suddenly seemed to breathe more easily. He felt he had just thrown off the horrible burden that had been weighing him down for so long, and his soul suddenly became light and peaceful. ‘Lord! He pleaded, ‘show me my way; I renounce this cursed…. dream of mine!’

In spite of his weakness, he was not even aware of any fatigue in himself. It was as if an abscess in his heart, which had been forming all that month, had suddenly burst. Freedom! Freedom!” (57)

We are all subject to torment and anguish, we are all exposed to unpleasant experiences – though some more than others. It is a consolation that ‘no temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.’ 1 Corinthians 10:13.

When we consider the character of those who have been a voice for the oppressed and led the way for change throughout history, we are strengthened in our own difficulties, no matter how small they may seem in comparison. For example, the words of Nelson Mandela speak of triumph over evil and sin, his relentless self-examination to root out any bitterness towards his oppressors is the true source of inner freedom. His selfless act to speak out for the justice of many, regardless of the consequences, leads to growth in character and opportunities for a nation’s people to be given the right to act, to live, to love – in freedom.

‘It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.’ – Nelson Mandela

‘For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’ – Nelson Mandela

What can be done to save the harvest as it is so susceptible to weeds, besides guarding our own hearts and bringing our burdens to God each day for his grace, mercy and forgiveness? We can be a gracious and merciful listening presence among others who experience this present anguish and the torment regarding the difficulties of the past. We can speak out as Christ’s love compels us, to challenge evil and oppression, the abuse of power and be a voice for the vulnerable. God’s love is revealed to others when His people come alongside another person in their life’s journey, as we pray for one another, asking God to show us the way.


Nelson Mandela on character, Foreign Correspondent’s Association’s Annual Dinner, Johannesburg, South Africa (21 November 1997). Source: From Nelson Mandela by Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations © 2010 by Nelson R. Mandela and The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky, Penguin, 1993.

Featured Image: Spear thistle (UK)

Dreaming of Raskolnikov

If you would allow me to speak frankly, in the way my thoughts are naturally carried, I feel as if these past 10 years have been like a dream, an out of body experience even to reflect back on them. My sleep is an escape from it, when I wake I recall the insanity of this waking dream and lament.

Let me tell you that some time ago, when I was in my prime, in my element in life, several friends laid upon me their own waywardness. I became their scapegoat. It is a curious motif in Scripture that I’ve dwelt upon heavily in this dream-state of daily living.

I would not (at all) call myself spotless, but most definitely innocent of the crimes and vices projected upon me. I felt exiled, though truly the burden of it caused me to exile myself from certain social circles. I went to the fringe of society and felt comforted by those around me – extraordinary people.

A question arises about the ancient times, what would have happened if there was no scapegoat? The leaders would bow before the holy of holies and die. (Leviticus 16:7-10)

The questions still remains, then, what happens when the scapegoat returns from the wilderness and seeks to dwell again among the people? Those who cast her out feel shame, disgusted, their holiness questioned, they are more than put out.

They may well unleash their fury upon the creature and sacrifice it – lest it open its mouth to proclaim the horrid truths. You see, the biblical advice tells us there are dark things lurking within humankind, things that ought not be spoken.

However, that is what I did, I spilled it all to the highest on high in the spire. It was such a wild and lurid story I told – it was simply unbelievable, both to myself and to the keeper of the crook.

Again, we return to the question of what happens when the goat returns to the town. I was sacrificed, yet again I must say I sacrificed myself so to have the ordeal come to an end. I’d left the extraordinary people in the wilderness to return to the town, to be met with an inhospitable welcome and sarcastic frown. So, I continued to the city where all types and manners of humankind meet. The whispers in the backrooms drowned out by the heavy music, the chatter of the crowd, the beat.

A stayed, buoyed kind of happiness returns to me. As we consider that God makes a much better Master than men. So, I have no choice but to continue to offer myself as a living sacrifice – so to speak. For God gave all burdens to Christ, even mine, even the ones I carry that do not belong to me. So I can only say to Christ, I love thee.

‘Even in the wilderness, nature is not so stern as man.’

William Hepworth Dixon in ‘The Holy Land’

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Image credit: Photo by Alex Forestier on Unsplash

Isaiah 40:3-4; John 1:22-24

 

Wilderness: 

2048 érēmos – properly, an uncultivatedunpopulated place; a desolate (deserted) area; (figuratively) a barren, solitary place that also provides needed quiet (freedom from disturbance).

In Scripture, a “desert” (2048 /érēmos) is ironically also where God richly grants His presence and provision for those seeking Him. The limitless Lord shows Himself strong in the “limiting” (difficult) scenes of life.

[2048 (érēmos) in the strict sense expresses a lack of population (not merely “sparse vegetation”). This root (erēmo-) does “not suggest absolute barrenness but unappropriated territory affording free range for shepherds and their flocks. Hepworth Dixon (The Holy Land) says, ‘Even in the wilderness nature is not so stern as man…]

Strong’s Greek Concordance

 

A Torrent of Love

John 15:9-17 (NIV)

9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit — fruit that will last — and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.


We are chosen by God to become friends with Christ. This is love with a purpose: to bear fruit by obeying God’s command to love one another.

The world greatly values love, but the purpose of love in the world is often for self-satisfaction. To love for our own sake, or a moral expectation to treat other people well is only a small part of the love story. God’s story of love for his people is told throughout the Bible and through generations of Christians for thousands of years.

We have not been able to demonstrate God’s love to others in our lives or in the church. We see the wounds and scars of this brokenness in our society, in our relationships.

When we commemorate special occasions like Mother’s Day, it can be a time of great joy mixed with feelings of loss and sadness. Even our closest family relationships can leave us feeling empty.

When our human family relationships are at their very best, they bring us a glimpse of the joy we will experience when we join God’s family for eternity.

God is a loving Father, yet he cares for us like a nurturing Mother and befriends us through Christ like a brother. We don’t feel we deserve such perfect love, yet this is God’s grace and mercy in fullness.

God’s command is to love others, but first, be filled with His perfect love—to fill the emptiness and disappointment that is sometimes caused by human relationships. God’s love is sufficient and brings us joy and hope overflowing. Out of this abundance of God’s love, we are able to demonstrate the love of Jesus to those around us.

Prayer— Like a river overflowing, Lord, may we know your great love for us, and know the grace and strength of Jesus Christ to love others; to love with purpose, for your glory, forever. Amen.

 

‘But you were washed’ – Denying the spirit of judge-mentalism

In my former years, I would go outside for a durry, but now I go out to breathe fresh air. For some of us, this statement rings true also for our whole lives. The toxic habits we used to live by may have taken their toll on our health – emotional, mental, physical or spiritual. Some of these old ways become ingrained, in our speech, actions, appearance, even the lines on our face tell a story.

We can judge another person without even speaking to them, we judge by what we see, perceive or hear about them, allowing our own motives and prejudices to guide us. This kind of judgementalism is unjust and is a sign of our humanness. Though broken, humanity still bears the image of the invisible God that is his glorious creation, despite our misgivings concerning one another.

We’ve all gone the wrong way, and we’ve all suffered pain. Who should judge their friend for being a smoker; for being tattooed perhaps at a time when life, love or grief overcame them; for having been admitted to a hospital because their emotional pain was too much to bear alone? When we judge one another for outward appearances or for our experiences during times of stress, suffering and pain, we deny one another an opportunity to be loved. The love of God is the source of all comfort, help and wisdom – it is expressed through one another by His word and Spirit, in our words and deeds.

A spirit of judgementalism has crept into our churches in many forms over many centuries. Are you saved? Are you from this place or that? Are you learned? Are you friends with those people? Are you faithful enough not to despair in times of suffering? What work do you do?  …  (Are you better than me?) Did you pass the test?

This testing of one another reminds us of the disciples jostling for pole position next to Jesus’ side (Luke 22). It is a false gospel that is proclaimed, it is not what Jesus taught his friends. Jesus’ friends also struggled with this spirit of judgementalism time and again. They did not fully understand who Jesus was nor did they understand what the kingdom of God would bring.

Christ-culture. We, as friends of the resurrected Jesus, come to him just as we are, every day. We come to him first, knowing that ‘there is only One who is good’ (Mt 19:17) before we open his whole word and listen for his Spirit which is one of love, unity, fellowship and forgiveness. It is God who teaches us how to love and serve him and one another because he is motivated by love – he is Love.

Turn around from that treacherous road you were travelling upon and believe and understand with your heart, mind and soul that Jesus is Lord of all Creation, our communities and our lives. Live in light of that knowledge, relying on God’s wisdom and the Spirit of gentleness and discernment. Give glory and power and honour to him who is the Just Judge over all things, forever. Amen.

Less-quoted sayings of Jesus: (Recommended reading in context)

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…’ Mark 14:32-34

“Leave her alone… why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Mark 14:6

“Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Luke 20: 46-47

“Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” Luke 21:17

“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” John 7:24

“…why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” Matt 15:3

“Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Matt 16:23

“Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matt 20:14

“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials.” Luke 22:27-28

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Image credit:

A lost sailor photo by Michael Olsen on Unsplash

Dewdrop reflection photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The Year of Treading Carefully

Today my husband found a baby bird in our backyard that had fallen from its nest. The bird’s family were noisily protesting against our dog sniffing the bird, as they watched helplessly from the tree above. As my husband used his large, strong, gloved hands to gently return the bird to its nest, it reminded us of the fragility of life and how helpless we can feel when faced with situations we cannot control.

We watch scenes of natural disasters on the news and feel compelled to send money and goods to those affected areas. We hear of friends suffering relationship breakdown or health problems, we often do not know whether these situations can be healed. ‘God knows’ the dangers we face and the future that lies ahead of us. In Matthew’s gospel, we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ concern for the wellbeing of His followers and His advice for how to live their lives in the face of uncertainty and even hostility.

Jesus sends the first twelve disciples out with plenty of guidance, warnings, instructions and wisdom, couched in words of comfort of God’s presence, promises and protection.

Read: Matthew 10

Prayer and discernment are required for Jesus’ followers to make good decisions about how to spend their time and energy, and with whom. As fellow bearers of God’s peace, we do not hold back our blessing on others, but simply offer it to those who are willing recipients.

To spend our time and our lives with those who are willing to harm others is not in accordance with God’s purposes for His people. Just as a dove would not be wise to nest in a lion’s den, we must protect ourselves, so that God’s word might be faithfully proclaimed to those who have ears to hear. We guard our hearts and minds, our time and energy, we watch our lives and doctrine closely – but rather than sacrificing significant relationships or putting ourselves in physical or spiritual danger needlessly, we must invest in relationships wisely so that we can sharpen one another and be united in our faith in Jesus Christ.

To be faithful followers of Jesus, we cannot be faithful followers of the world or its barrage of messages preached in the media. Those members of God’s family who seek to know the world and learn its ways for its own sake, are in fact denying God’s ways and His name. This is the type of conflict – a war of two worlds – that we are likely to encounter with our friends and family. We are asked to hold ourselves and one another accountable, with the life of Christ as our standard for faithfulness – that is, faithful until our death.

The smallest and simplest test of a generous spirit is given to us, as offering a cup of water to those who have open minds and humble hearts to receive God’s forgiveness, grace and mercy. The cup of living water is what Jesus gives to everyone who turns their lives to Him, ours is a smaller gesture, yet no less significant in God’s view. For to bless those who love God is to be a part of God’s Kingdom family.

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Be Wise and Pure Matt 1016


Matt 10:16 – ‘innocent’ (ἀκεραιος) has a sense of not destroying others, moral innocence, harmlessness, and purity – not to be tainted by sinful motives and ambitions. (Strong’s Greek #185)

Photo collage image credits:

Desert feet Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Watering grass Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Bird in the hand Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

(C) Lisa Haynes 2018

A Monotone Monofaith in My Salvation

The message of many Christian evangelicals is one of personal salvation by faith in Christ. This is perceived to be the essence of our belief in the one true God, who sacrificed His Son so that ‘I’ may be saved. This message, while correct, is only a portion of the message, yet it appeals to our desire to be seen as acceptable – in God’s sight and in the sight of others. It comes with a bitter pill of accepting that without God I am unacceptable, I am a sinner, my life before Christ was full of sin and I must repent of my former ways and become completely new.

This is an uncomfortable message of a mini-gospel – The evangelist who first shares this message with a non-believer earnestly wishes to see whether their persuasive words take effect in that person’s heart and mind so that they can imagine another notch on their belt of salvific works in partnership with God. They have thrown another soul into the lifeboat of which they are at the helm. We look out onto the sea and there are so many souls bobbing around if only they would accept our offer of God’s help and be saved. If they do not, they are not wise, but foolish and will deny it at their own peril.

We can look out to a sea of lifeboats, all of various shapes and sizes and colours, with completely different people at the helm. Some will make the lifeboat as comfortable and attractive as possible, knowing that passers-by will simply climb onto the rope ladder hung over the edge. Others do not allow just anyone in; they must be tested and drilled for their knowledge and beliefs first.  Some make the soul survivors recite special words, like an entrance test before they can be deemed acceptable to join the lifeboat. While some will not accept anyone who has been in a different lifeboat and jumped out when they were starved or mistreated – such people will be treated with suspicion as to why they ‘jumped ship’.

This analogy is not at all biblical. Yet it is such a common lived experience of the Christian life that perhaps it has become normalised and is no longer challenged. Its prevalence has been growing steadily for the past 500 years, though it is as old as the Church itself.

If we were to take a bird’s eye view of this scene, how does this look like a family, a Kingdom of God, a bride prepared for her groom, a body consisting of many parts?

Many evangelical Christian faithfully rote-learn passages from the Bible, especially from Romans, but it takes regular prayer and reflection to examine the context. Here in Romans 12:1 we are given what can be perceived as a ‘do or die’ message. This is the way many live their faith, it is honourable, we make sacrifices, and we sacrifice our own wellbeing and sometimes our friends and families for the sake of the ‘gospel’. Yet, this is also a message fed to us by the world – that our own plans and purposes (for work, for achievement, for accolades) are more important than relationships with others. I contend that God’s will is – good pleasing and perfect, and our will is not. The will of the world is one of selfish ambition and it can creep into our lives, our faith, our ministries and families on a daily basis. Our personalised mini-gospel is too small for God’s kingdom purposes.

A Living Sacrifice

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

God’s View of Gospel Church

It is no accident that the following verses of Romans 12 set out exactly what God’s will for the Gospel church looks like (ps. there is no notion of individual lifeboats floating on an ocean of drowning souls):

Humble Service in the Body of Christ

3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your (the) faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, (or to provide for others*) do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Romans 125 collage

What is the image of a Gospel-shaped faith that seeks to love God and one another in all of our lives? A chorus of voices proclaiming the Gospel to every nation in many languages, inspiring hope in salvation for all God’s people for His purposes for eternity. A lived faith in God as our Creator, Redeemer and Helper for the sake and salvation of the world.

 


*Notes:

  • Rom 12:8 – the one who leads (προιστημι) has a sense of direction, protection, ‘to care for’, ‘to help’, ‘to assist’, ‘to join with’. – Strongs Greek #4291

 

Image Credit for  Photo Collage:

Sunset family on beach – Photo by Stuart Vivier on Unsplash

Mountain hiking group – Photo by Kevin Delvecchio on Unsplash

Faith heart woman – Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

Bible verses and notes from bible.com

© Lisa Haynes 2018