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.

 

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

Fields of Poppies

Living in rural Tasmania for the last eight years has been a wonderful experience – character building, invigorating, inspirational, isolating and also communal. It is fascinating to be an insider in this rural culture that is so rich with generations of family life, and so diverse with a multitude of migrants and mainlanders. One aspect of rural life that has been quite pronounced is the desire for an egalitarian ethos in all that is said and done. To hold a position of influence in these communities is extremely difficult, being held to the highest account by a wide variety of people whom you live closely alongside.

 

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[Artwork of the Poppy Fields of Deloraine by Evelyn Antonysen @ WordPress EvAntArt]

One of my favourite Australian bands from my youth, The Simpletons, had put this observation of rural life in Lismore, into a song called ‘Tall Poppies’.

‘Please help me cut the tall poppies down… they’ve grown too high… let’s cut ‘em down and watch ’em die!’ – Cheyne Gelagin.

It was their most popular song, perhaps because it struck a chord with the Australian ethos and our lived experience, it is possible that this is derived from our past as a penal settlement. Aside from this cultural analysis of rural Australia, this is not meant to be a judgement on our rural neighbours – who are, in fact, wonderfully hospitable, generous and hard-working.

Instead, I have been examining this Tall Poppies syndrome in light of Scripture and wanted to set out some suggestions as to how Christians, both as members and leaders of their community, can be inclusive of all people and encourage one another to prosper in the life of the church and the local community.

Many local churches have a strong shared oral history among the congregation and their long list of leaders are painted in gold on an honour board and remembered by long-serving members. This signifies that endurance in the faith is demonstrated and honoured through long tenure, stability, commitment and endurance in a particular place, position or role. It has been noted by cultural commentators that rural churches (arguably the majority of churches in Tasmania due to our small population size) operate in a similar way to a ‘Country Club’. The longest-serving and most dedicated members are given positions of influence and newcomers are given ‘L’ plates for a considerable time or prevented from serving at all, unless they have a strong connection with the leadership through social circles, family or work relationships.

This experience is a stark contrast to serving in a church elsewhere, where all members, whether new or long-serving, feel an ownership to welcome and encourage all new people to serve in the capacity that God is calling them toward. Once, upon walking into a church service for the first time in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, my husband and I had arrived early and were the only ones sitting in the pews. The youth leader stood up the front and called out to us, ‘does anyone know how to play drums?’ I raised my hand and was inducted into the music team immediately upon first meeting; this church became our beloved spiritual home for the next three years and nourished our faith and desire to serve God both as leaders and members of our church. Such fond memories of being openly welcomed into a church family upon first meeting have remained with me the past 18 years, as I have since served in eight churches in three states, and attended dozens more as a visitor, with mixed experiences.

We are in an age where people live transitory lives moving from place to place to find work, affordable real estate, a new start, education, a place to raise a family. The church must seek to become a spiritual haven for newcomers and strangers, or as one Chaplain put it:

Jesus came for ‘the last, the lost and the least’. – Luke Campton

All people who claim Christ as their personal saviour are part of God’s plan and purpose to build up His church.

Inclusive church practices. From my positive experiences – there will usually be a conversation between the newcomers (as individuals, couples, or families) and the leadership, usually at the Minister’s home or a home visit is made, or for larger churches a welcoming session is held where each person is encouraged and the particular values and goals of that church are shared. This welcoming ritual is not just a tool for ensuring greater numbers attending a church; or for sussing out their theology and making an assessment of their suitability to become a serving member.  It is not an appropriate time to assert the leaders’ authority or try to find out the state of their marriage, mental health, financial status, or employment prospects.

We must lovingly welcome others into the wider church family to love and serve God and one another.

Offer newcomers an opportunity to be known and loved by God and His people in your place. Validate and encourage that person’s journey of faith, their gifting, stage of life, opportunities and willingness to grow and learn in the Body of Christ.

Pray with them. Christians should pray with and for all members of their church community to shine the light of Christ in all aspects of their life. If Christians do not pray together regularly, the Body is not communicating with the ‘brain’ who holds us together.

Ask them what God is doing in their life. God is the author of our salvation and is also the director for all our lives. Avoid imposing pre-conceived ideas upon a person about how they should or should not serve based upon their ‘newness’, age, stage of life, or denominational background.

Church leaders spend a considerable amount of time inspiring passion in others to serve God in their community. Yet those who are passionate to serve can sometimes be viewed as over-zealous or disrespectful of church authority for seeking to do a work that was not authorised at the last Synod, Parish Council or elders meeting. Passion to serve God is like a fire that cannot be quenched, if you try to control or suppress someone’s desire to serve in a capacity, it will likely consume them – they will seek to serve elsewhere to follow God’s leading. Consider the ways that each person can serve based on mutual prayer, discussion, and openness to the many ways that God’s word can be proclaimed.

The people are not pegs, and the ministries are not ‘holes’. The Body of Christ is a living being that has many parts and must be joined in unity to the head, which is Christ.

Discipleship involves journeying with a person in prayer and searching the Scriptures so that we might model ourselves on the champions of the faith. Self-sacrifice in the church is giving up our own selfish desires to serve God and others and proclaim God’s word in our area of influence. Self-sacrifice is not about giving up a ‘calling’ or work because it does not ‘fit in’ with the plans or programs of the institution. The limiting nature of Tall Poppies syndrome chokes the opportunities for new ministries, the raising up of new leaders, missionaries, influencers, teachers, encouragers, evangelists.

Jesus himself was seen to be a Tall Poppy threatening the long-standing values and cultural practices of the Pharisees and paid the ultimate price for it, for our sake and for our salvation. We must keep our eyes open to the mercies of God in His provision of people, gifts, resources, and opportunities in our community – without choking out new ideas because we ourselves did not conceive them, or they were not considered a priority by the ‘board’. For surely, God is able to do much more than we can ask or imagine, and He graciously gives His people the desire and capability to serve Him in ways and means that we would not consider possible.

Tertullian famously said, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of church’. The martyrs of the early church gave their lives for the proclamation of God’s word, they were cut down in their life and ministry by those who would persecute and oppress Christians, because they did not obey the governing authorities. Let us not cut one another down, like a house divided against itself, but let’s water and nourish the seed of faith, growing a ripe harvest for God.

As we venture into another year of our lives, consider what direction God is calling you toward. We need to make time to reflect and pray each day to consider His word and His work around us, and ask for His grace, mercy and forgiveness to allow us to be open to His divine work within us and in our midst.

‘to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.’ – Jude 1:25

Glory

I’m keenly aware that last time I stuck my neck out, it was chopped off. Such an inglorious fall from grace must surely not be repeated? Yet, I’m also assured that my body does not belong to me but to the true head, who is Christ. So, as painful as it is to be humbled by others and brought low in circumstances, none can compare to the sacrifice made by Christ on the cross at Calvary.

The joy that surpasses all understanding is mine despite the shape of my body, the soundness of mind or emotion, the clarity of speech, the winsomeness of my writing; God has revealed to me time and again in His Word and whispers, ‘You are mine.’

I, forsaking all others, have pinned my hopes and fears upon the cross. As Christ’s bride, we all acknowledge that there is no person on earth that deserves the glory that is bestowed upon the Son of God by the Spirit at work within us.

We need not be ashamed of our words and deeds, nor the possibility of wrong motives, for we present ourselves as a living sacrifice and God accepts our humble deeds in the midst of our messy lives as acceptable to Him. God’s love is boundless and eternal, it covers over all our sins and washes us -sanctifies us – so that we may remain in His presence for eternity.

To God Be the Glory, Amen.

 

Image Source: Getty Images

The Hands of a Surgeon

We put our lives in people’s hands every day. Pilots, train drivers, medical staff, even those who prepare our food at restaurants, these are just some of those skilled workers who are entrusted with the lives of others. We often do not think about this trust we place in people who are complete strangers to us. We would never think to check or questions the qualifications or experience of the airline pilot or aircraft maintenance schedule before checking in our baggage at the airport.

When things do go wrong, we must also trust the integrity of those investigating the problem, that the problem will be identified and corrected.  The potential problem and the identified disaster are all invisible to our eyes, yet we feel the consequences deeply – either personally or on the news or social media. These hidden problems and their impact affect us all.

What about our own hidden problems, are they so easy to hide and deny also? To whom are these defects evident, whose responsibility is to fault-find and rectify problems? Who ‘mops up’ the consequences when our faults in the framework of our character rise up and cause collateral damage in our lives? Who can be held accountable for these things, is it that loud person standing at the complaints department who is to blame for the disruption to the peace?

It is a painful process to look within and decide that there needs to be an adjustment in our behaviour, attitudes and beliefs. It is common practice at this time of New Year to do a systems check on ourselves and our relationships from the previous year and decide upon inner-change in some form or another. Most often it is the physical aspect which is decided to be unhealthy, with resolutions to stop smoking and drinking and start exercising as the perceived way to be a better person in the year ahead. This might make us look and feel better about ourselves, it might even make others look upon us with admiration or even envy for a trim physique.

What if our true need is much deeper and the symptoms harder to identify in us? Have we been putting off the comprehensive health check that involves our temperament and behaviour towards others on a daily basis, at home, work, school, in our neighbourhood? There is a heart to this problem – the will is at work and is not easily identified as it is also our will that glosses over it. There is only one person who can see within us and search our hearts and minds and wills to determine what problem exists and rectify it.

It is the Maker who is also the Judge of our condition. God is a skilled Surgeon and can excise a wound or cancer in our character and repair and heal the damage. Sometimes what is required is a full heart transplant in order to restore us back to full health. Putting ourselves into His care and attention will require full trust in His diagnosis. We must bring ourselves to Him, remain in His presence, be still and trust in His knowledge and wisdom. To put ourselves on the operating table we need to be at rest and peace, rejoicing in the outcome of the restored body, tending the wounds from the excision with care and patience.

It is God’s purpose as the Creator of everything to ensure its good and right order, to restore us and change us to become more like His Son, Jesus – who is for us the perfect model, a blueprint for humanity, He made a way for us to be redeemed and made new, to become more and more into the likeness of Christ.

‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.’ Titus 2:11-14

Lord, search us, cleanse us and change us by the work of your hands that made us, shape us into the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ. Give us clean hands and pure hearts to live with honesty, humility and gentleness in community with one another. (Psalm 24:4)

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Heart Hands image source

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