(This article was originally posted at www.rabbitroom.com)
Two years ago at Hutchmoot, Doug McKelvey and I did a session on the importance of both anchors and grappling hooks in the life of a writer. For me, the topic was born out of a growing desire to understand why certain stories, music or art have impacted me more deeply than others, in many cases fundamentally shaping my own view of the world and my place within it.
To some degree at least, this conscious questioning was sparked by a fascinating moment in C. S. Lewis’, “Till We Have Faces”, his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche has told her sister Orual that she has become the wife of a god and, convinced that the gods are a sham and Psyche has been duped, Orual attempts to find her sister and convince her that the things she believes to be true are simply in her imagination. As she searches, Orual pauses and kneels at a river to drink, looking across at the empty space where Psyche claims there is a palace. Suddenly, through the mist, Orual can see it.
This is how Lewis puts it;
“When I lifted my head and looked once more into the mist across the water, I saw that which brought my heart into my throat. There stood the palace, grey - as all things are grey in that hour and place – but solid and motionless, wall within wall, pillar and arch and architrave, acres of it, a labyrinthine beauty. As she had said, it was like no house ever seen in our land or age. Pinnacles and buttresses leaped up – no memories, you would think, could help me to imagine them – unbelievably tall and slender, pointed and prickly as if stone were shooting out into branch and flower……… Then as I rose (for all this time I was still kneeling where I had drunk), almost before I stood on my feet, the whole thing was vanished. There was a tiny space of time in which I thought I could see how some swirlings of the mist had looked, for the moment, like towers and walls. But very soon, no likeness at all. I was staring simply into fog, and my eyes smarting with it.”
For just a moment, Orual is given a glimpse into a world that has previously been hidden from her. A curtain has been pulled back and, for an instant, she can see things as they really are. While this unveiling is temporary it is enough to shake her understanding of the world and slowly begin the process of unravelling her unbelief.
As a writer, my longing is that the things I write would be used by God to create moments like this in others. That, even for a fleeting moment, a reader would catch a glimpse of something that begins to shake the foundations of their fear or doubt or unbelief. I know I am not alone in this. So much of the art and conversation around the Rabbit Room is charged with this desire to bring the true stories of the Kingdom to life, awakening or fanning into flame the longing that reminds us of our true home. The question is: how can we do that?
I think certain stories take hold of us because they contain within them glimpses of truth that resonates in the deepest parts of our soul. If this is the case, then surely to write them we must be intentionally in pursuit of and saturated in truth ourselves. In these weeks when so much attention has been focused on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is perhaps timely to suggest that the anchor we need above anything else is the anchor of Scripture.
When I think of moments when heaven is unveiled and people are tasked with sharing the things they have seen, two occasions spring to mind. The first is in the book of Exodus, when God commissions the building of the Tabernacle. Gathering the people together, God charges them with creating the place he will inhabit. A place where God Most High can dwell amongst the bruised and broken pilgrims he has called his own. In Exodus 36 v 1 he gives them this charge; “So Bezalel, Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the LORD has given skill and ability to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the LORD has commanded.”
To construct and maintain the Tabernacle would take a wide variety of skills, including some highly specific artistry. It is interesting that the Israelites were not told to create something and then bring it to the Tabernacle so that a place could be found for it. They weren’t asked to get together and decide what they thought a fitting house for God would look like. Instead, their task was to collectively use their gifts and talents to create a picture of something that already existed, allowing others to catch a glimpse of a world that was beyond their understanding. In order to do so they had to know and follow the pattern God laid down for them.
The second incident is in the book of Revelation. John, in exile for his faith on the island of Patmos, is given a glimpse of things so incredible he falls down as though dead. In Rev 1 v 19 God gives John this instruction, “Therefore, write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”
I’m not suggesting that our writings are comparable to John’s vision in Revelation, however his commission is an incredibly helpful template. As he begins to share what God has unveiled to him, John is asked to write 3 things:
1. What he has seen
2. What is now
3. What will take place later
1. What he has seen.
Whether it was the artists in the Tabernacle, John in Revelation or the countless others in between, the truth God’s people were called to share never originated with them. The diversity of gifts, personalities and art forms meant they told the story in a thousand different ways, yet their job was always to write, reflect or recreate the things that God had shown them. Similarly, if our desire is to write something that is real, we can only write out of the overflow of what God has revealed to us. If we haven’t seen it, we can’t share it, no matter how creatively gifted we are.
2. What is now.
What does it mean to write about what is now? It seems, on the face of it, to be a simple task. From Orual’s initial perspective ‘what is now’ was a misty space on a desolate piece of land beside a river. It turned out, however, that the reality was so much more. Her understanding of what was true was hemmed in by her limited vantage point.
In “Three Philosophies of Life”, Peter Kreeft argues that the best starting point for the gospel in our modern world is the book of Ecclesiastes. A work of literary genius, it explores what the world is like if what we can see in front of us, the world “under the sun”, is all there is. If only the tangible is true then, no matter how much it shimmers or how beautiful it appears, in the end it is all ultimately meaningless. However, when the curtain is drawn back and we see “beyond the sun”, even momentarily, it changes our perspective entirely.
If life under the sun is Orual kneeling at the cold river and seeing only empty mist on the other side, then to look beyond the sun is to catch a glimpse of the castle in all its towering glory, realising that what we understood to be real may not be real at all. Our vision is expanded and we are welcomed into the real story.
Jeremiah 33 v 3 says, “Call to me and I will teach you great and unsearchable things you do not know”. If the Bible is God’s call to see with new eyes then his invitation goes something like this; “Come to me and immerse yourself in who I am. Allow me to captivate you as I reveal my heart through the stories of my people. Journey with me through the brokenness and longing of the prophets and poets. Walk with me as I take on flesh and teach you what this age-old story looks like in the light of the cross. Sit with me and I will draw back the curtain and show you things you wouldn’t dare to imagine. Let me show you what is really true.”
When we are saturated in Scripture, and the Story that is at the heart of it, we begin to understand that we are part of something bigger than what is happening around us on any given day. As the themes and plotlines of Scripture become part of who we are it changes the way we think.
3. What will take place later.
We are part of a Story that is moving towards a crescendo and, in a sense, the role of the artist is the role of the prophet, pointing forward with hope. However, the hope we hold out must be real.
I have written before about the experiences our family has had over the last few years, particularly with our daughter’s Type 1 Diabetes. I remember when she was first diagnosed, people would say things like, “It’s all going to be ok.” I knew they meant well and I appreciated their concern so I smiled and thanked them but what I really wanted to do was scream, “How is it going to be ok? Is it ok that my daughter has to deal with this every moment of every day? Is it ok that she faces a future filled with all kinds of frightening possibilities? Is it ok that I have to watch this and I can’t fix it, no matter how much I want to? NO! It’s not going to be ok!” Well meaning as they were, the hope they offered was a platitude, rooted simply in their desire to ease our pain.
I think the most helpful thing anyone said to me in those early days was a simple comment by Sam Smith at the end of a Rabbit Room article. He said, “May every stab of joy and every shroud of evil sharpen our longing for the True New World.” That is a different kind of comfort. Hope that is not afraid to acknowledge pain, yet has the capacity to look beyond it. It makes a difference to know that the things we face now are not forever. To lift our eyes and remember that what we see now is not all there is. To quote Sam again, “It is what it is but it is not what it shall be.”
I don’t think it is a coincidence that C. S. Lewis’ profound skill as a storyteller was mirrored by a deep commitment to Scripture. Throughout the Chronicles of Narnia there is a constant sense of the sweep of history. I will never forget the first time I read the stunning climax at the end of The Last Battle, sobbing aloud as the things that had always been true were finally revealed and began to bleed backwards into the story I thought I knew. While stories like this are, in a sense, fantasy, at their heart they are profoundly true. Perhaps, rather than being an escape from reality, they are in fact an escape into reality.
If the things we write or create are to offer hope and meaning then they must be rooted in truth. We need the anchor of Scripture, not only to bring meaning to what we create, but also to stop us losing sight of the tale we are telling. In the words of Lewis, “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling." When we speak purely out of our own imaginations our words do little to penetrate the darkness, however hopeful they may seem. Only when we are anchored in what is true can we find the freedom to wrestle with life’s big questions without becoming despondent, to explore beauty without becoming hedonists and to enjoy the privilege of intimacy with God without losing sight of who He truly is.
I've never had much time for liturgy. Brought up in a independent church tradition that tends to reject anything with echoes of organised or state religion, it was something I was totally unfamiliar with. If I'm honest, I thought liturgy was for people who lacked the imagination to think up their own prayers.
Then I met Doug McKelvey.
My first introduction to Doug was when we were asked to share a session at Hutchmoot in 2015. Reading through his bio, I was more than a little intimidated. Around a week before Hutchmoot began, the fear that we would have nothing in common was further compounded by the arrival of a long liturgy, written by Doug, to be read communally at the close of the weekend. Worse still, I had to read one of the sections.
It turned out that the thing I was most apprehensive about was one of the highlights of the weekend. If you have met Doug you will know that he is genuine, humble and hilariously funny. (He told me a joke about a worm in the bottom of a bottle of Tequila that still makes me laugh out loud a year later.) He's also one of the most talented writers I've ever met.
His closing liturgy not only moved me to tears but also began an unsettling shift in my uninformed opinions on liturgy itself. I had always believed that repetition divorced the heart from the head, allowing a show of religion while at the same time allowing the reader to disengage from the deep impact of its truth. While that danger undoubtedly exists, to make such a blanket statement is both false and profoundly unbiblical.
Over the past two years I have been tentatively exploring liturgy, discovering that good liturgy has the opposite effect from what I always imagined. For me, the discipline of coming back again and again to a familiar rhythm has had a recalibrating effect. This intentional focusing on truth acts as a counter balance against the endless distractions of everyday life.
Last November, along with some close friends who were walking through a similarly difficult season in their lives, we decided to celebrate a Northern Irish version of Thanksgiving. Normally our meals start with one of the fathers giving thanks. On this occasion we began by reading one of Doug's liturgies together. Simply entitled, "A Liturgy for Feasting with Friends," it is a beautiful declaration of the significance of these times of feasting together and the truth they represent. There was something profoundly healing about sitting with my children and verbalising our hope, despite all that was happening around us. The tone of the meal shifted so significantly that we repeated the same process at New Year, to similar effect. Very quickly the Liturgy for Feasting with Friends has become part of our family story.
For some people, particularly those raised in a church tradition were liturgy is commonly used, my unfamiliarity will seem an odd thing. For others, this practice may still be a mysterious one. Perhaps just something that people in other churches do. May I encourage you to think again?
Even a quick glance at the Old Testament reveals how important intentional rhythms were for the people of God. Again and again their days and weeks were peppered with opportunities to stop and remember. To mark a moment out as holy and give thanks to God for His presence in even the most ordinary things. To once again declare their dependance on the God who called them His.
In the Jewish faith, frequent prayers of blessing are common practice. Known as berakhah, they are opportunities to train the heart in thankfulness and remember again that every good gift comes from God. In "Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus", Lois Tverberg describes them like this, "You bless God when you see the ocean for the first time in a long while or a king in his royal procession. You bless him if you see an exceptionally beautiful person or a gifted rabbi. You utter a word of praise if you are reunited with a long lost friend. When you feel a fresh orange and whiff it's bracing, zingy scent, you praise God, saying, "Blessed is he who has given a pleasant smell to fruits."
Not only does this intentional practice train you heart towards thankfulness, it also teaches you to see differently. I am beginning to realise how much discipline it takes to cultivate a moment by moment awareness of God's presence in all things and I am grateful for the new place good liturgy has come to play in this ongoing battle. In the course of two years I have gone from liturgy sceptic to eagerly anticipating the release of Doug McKelvey's upcoming book of liturgy, the beautifully titled Every Moment Holy. Rather than something just for ceremonial occasions, this book of liturgies enters into the practice of seeing everyday life as holy. As well as the Liturgy for Feasting with Friends, it promises liturgies for sunsets, the first hearth fire of the season and many more. Words for apparently ordinary moments, experienced by ordinary people and yet, if we take the time to see it, brimming with holy wonder. It's not often I have the confidence to recommend a book before I read it in its but, from what I have seen so far, I really believe this book will be something special.
If you want to find out more about Every Moment Holy visit the Rabbit Room. If this idea excites you as much as it excites me, you might even consider playing a part in bringing it to life by contributing to the campaign (click here). The great news is that for the month of May, any donation you make will be matched by a sponsor.
This is an adaptation of the full content of my 2016 session at Hutchmoot, the annual Rabbit Room gathering in Nashville, Tennessee. (This post was recently posted in two parts on the Rabbit Room website.) To find out more about the Rabbit Room click here.
The church in Ephesus had a fascinating back-story. Made up of people from every social and cultural background imaginable, from those steeped in Old Testament law to others raised in a culture of ritual prostitution and sorcery, it was as diverse as any modern church. Men and women who once stood on opposite sides of the ancient canyons of sex, race and social standing now found themselves shoulder to shoulder, facing the enormous challenge to live and love as the body of Christ.
As Paul writes his stunning letter to the Ephesians, deep fatherly love evident in every line, he begins by reminding them of their story. For three chapters blessing upon blessing tumble over each other, coming to a crescendo as he prays that the reality of their position before God would take root, deepening their understanding of who God is and transforming their lives.
Fast on the heels of this outpouring of favour comes the question raised at the beginning of Chapter 4. “If all this is true, then what?? How do we respond to this undeserved torrent of grace?”
It is often said that wisdom is asking the right questions. If this is true then the prevailing questions, particularly within Western Christianity, reveal not only a growing lack of wisdom but also a tendency towards a highly individualistic view of the Gospel. Again and again we ask; What is God doing in my life? How are my needs being met by the church? Where can I find a place where my talents are appreciated?
Pushing back against this mind-set, Paul reminds the Ephesians that grace not only sealed their place as children of God but also placed them firmly within His Kingdom. When we are welcomed by God, we are welcomed as part of His Church. While our individual, intimate relationship with God is both beautiful and crucial, it cannot properly exist outside of the rag tag bunch of broken souls who have been touched by the same grace. As God’s people, indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, we have been given a pre-existing supernatural bond that supersedes our differences. Paul, knowing the importance of this gift, urges the church in Ephesus to preserve it, doggedly clinging to unity as they give sacrificially of themselves for the good of the kingdom they are now part of. Like Jesus, Paul sees the way we respond to others as the first indicator of our intimacy with God.
It is in this context of intentional community that Paul turns to the subject of spiritual gifts, taking an approach that is perhaps very different from the one that has been sneaking into our collective understanding.
There is a beautiful passage in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” when, in the midst of a long and difficult journey, Father Christmas arrives with gifts for the Pevensie children. The conversation goes like this;
“These are your presents,” was the answer, “and they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.” With these words he handed to Peter a shield and a sword. The shield was the colour of silver and across it there was ramped a red lion, as bright as a ripe strawberry at the moment when you pick it. The hilt of the sword was of gold and it had a sheath and a sword belt and everything it needed, and it was just the right size and weight for Peter to use. Peter was silent and solemn as he received these gifts, for he felt they were a very serious kind of present.”
There is a gift for each child – a sword and shield for Peter, a bow and horn for Susan and a dagger and cordial for Lucy. Each gift is directly related to the personality and role of the child but each is given for the good of Narnia. Rather than diminishing the value of the gift itself, this knowledge adds a solemnity and significance that would otherwise be lacking.
While it is important to know what your gift is, I think it is equally important to understand the purpose for which it was given. Rather than simply a pat on the back from a benevolent father or a weapon in the fight for pole position, any gift we have is given as a crucial and integral part of the battle to defend, strengthen and build the Church of Christ. Ephesians 4v 11-13 says this,
“And he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
Whatever it is that demonstrates God’s character at work in your life, according to Paul, you have a role in getting God’s people ready for service. You have a part to play in building and nurturing the body of Christ and encouraging others towards wisdom and holiness, mending broken bones and helping other believers walk their road with a surer step. Paul reminds the Ephesians that the gifts they bring, however small, form part of the glue that holds the Church together, helping God’s people to cling to the supernatural unity that will mark them out as followers of Jesus. As we each, individually, lay down our skills and talents for the good of the Kingdom, we help one another come to an intimate, authentic, life shaping knowledge of God. Together, we are better equipped to fulfil our created purpose, reaching maturity in faith and living lives that are marked by and reflect the fullness of Christ.
Practically speaking, how does that look? More specifically (although the principles apply generally), what does it look like when writers, artists, poets, musicians and storytellers choose to use their gifts for the glory of God? Have you ever wondered why God chose to work into you a love of words? A vivid imagination? An ability to write poetry or compose music? An appreciation of colour and form and an ability to translate that into something tangible?
At Hutchmoot 2015, Michael Card spoke about the importance of imagination when coming to Scripture. Not imagination in the sense of dreaming up something that is not true, but the kind of holy imagination that helps us engage more deeply with truth. If I could point to one thing that has changed my Christian life it would be when I began to see Scripture as an epic story rather than disjointed books. We can be so factual about our faith. So theologically correct. I believe good stories help us exercise our imagination and awaken the sense of wonder that allows us to view God’s word with a sense of holy awe.
I will never forget the first time I read about Aslan’s death on the stone table. I was a small child but I remember sobbing uncontrollably, totally overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Even then I think I knew on some level that my tears were for something more than Aslan. The power of that story took the truth of the cross and buried it deeper in my heart, allowing me to feel the awesome truth of Jesus’ sacrifice in a way that went beyond mental understanding. I know that I am better for it. I am not suggesting for one moment that we abandon theology in favour of stories but I do believe that the one can be better understood in the presence of the other.
In many ways the storyteller also plays the role of prophet, allowing us for just a moment to see something beyond our natural vision. Last year, my friend Lanier Ivester wrote a beautiful post called “Creativity: Spiritual Battle and Spiritual Discipline” which changed my understanding of this. Sarah Clarkson had previously written about a time when she had asked God to give her a picture of what he was calling her to do through her writing. She says this;
Instantly, I do mean instantly, a Millais painting came to my thought. It has long enchanted me for its vivid, startling image—that of a blind young girl sitting amidst a glory of a golden field with two rainbows like stairways to heaven behind her. Not a bit of it can she see. But in that painting, a small child sits next to the blind girl, peeking out from under her cloak, neck craned in awe at the glory, telling the blind one of all the beauty. And I knew in that image that my task, as a soul, but particularly as a writer, is to be that child.
Lanier responded by asking God for a similar picture and I in turn did the same. On both occasions God answered in a way that was different and yet full of the same sense of purpose. I love the way Lanier sums up Sarah’s picture: “Write the rainbow, God told her. Tell this broken world of things it cannot see.”
A few years ago I was speaking at a conference and during my talk I mentioned the Chronicles of Narnia. Afterwards a lady came over and told me that she was a teacher in an inner city school. Some of the kids in her class had really difficult lives, evidenced by the defensive hostility they instinctively employed. As part of their course the teacher read through “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. At the end of a class, as everyone filed out, she noticed one particular girl at the back of the room. Visibly upset, the girl remained in her seat. When the teacher asked her what was wrong the girl mumbled through her tears, “I just wish Aslan was real. I feel like he would understand me.” Stories have a way of slipping past our defences in a way that can both break and heal us, softening hard ground in readiness for the Sower.
In a similar way, stories allow us to step back and view our own lives from a distance, perhaps seeing things we were otherwise too close to notice. The story of David and Nathan, in 2 Samuel 12, is a powerful example. After David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of Uriah, Nathan the prophet comes to visit him. Instead of confronting him with his sin, Nathan tells David a story about a rich man who took a poor man’s lamb and slaughtered it for a banquet, despite the fact that he had countless animals of his own. Incensed, David applies Scripture and pronounces judgement. When the truth is revealed, the power of the story is such that David is utterly broken by the revelation of his own heart, throwing himself on God’s grace with the raw grief of Psalm 51.
I grew up outside Belfast at a time when there was a sharp divide between the Protestant and Catholic communities. With very little contact between the two communities I had a subconscious wariness of those on the “other side”. When I was 10, I read a book called “Across the Barricades”. Telling the story of two teenagers from opposite sides of the peace wall who embarked on a relationship, it was a Northern Irish Romeo and Juliet that was based in a culture I knew. It brought a sense of familiarity to people I would not otherwise have come into contact with at that stage in my life. In allowing me to enter their world, it chipped away at the distance between us and broke down the prejudice that could easily have taken root.
Stories can deeply influence and develop our sense of community. When I read sweeping stories like Narnia or the Wingfeather Saga, or watch movies like Star Wars, they stir within me a sense of common purpose that can only find it’s true expression in the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the picture of community modelled so beautifully amongst those who gather at the Rabbit Room goes hand in hand with a profound love of story.
There are times in our lives when we are faced with things that weigh down upon us and stop us in our tracks. For me, this has often been when the poets, song-writers and musicians step in like angels of light, helping me name the struggle and grieve it’s presence, while at the same time bringing hope.
Biblically, this is the world of the Psalms. The place where questions are asked, hurts are expressed and trust is affirmed, even in the darkness. It is a place to wrestle with deep questions, acknowledging the pain and yet, at the same time, choosing to cling to the belief that God is good.
For me, the most moving example of this is Psalm 73. Alongside guttural cries of deep pain and confusion come beautiful declarations of faith. Pain and trust, co-existing around the central truth in verse 17 that only God’s presence is the difference between struggle and despair. This is the tension that is so beautifully expressed in songs like Andrew Peterson’s “The Rain Keeps Falling”, anthems that step in again and again to strengthen us in our weariness and walk beside us in our searching.
Music has a mysterious power to move us. While I have little musical ability, my appreciation of music has been forever altered by Ben Shive’s Hutchmoot session on the language of music. Despite the fact that most of what he said was far beyond my understanding, I left the session deeply moved by the ways that different music can make us feel. In some ways the patterns and their affects can be understood (well, by Ben anyway) and yet there is still mystery. Why does music impact us the way it does? It seems, even from the womb, God has breathed into us a response to music that goes beyond our conscious thought.
It is interesting that in 1 Samuel 16, when Saul finds himself repeatedly gripped by an evil spirit, the only relief he can find comes when David is summoned to play his harp. Similarly, in 2 Kings 4, when Elisha is faced with a situation which makes him so angry that he struggles to hear God’s voice, he calls for a musician to play so that he will be able to listen to God.
Life, of course, is not all shadow. There are seasons when light breaks through and illuminates the path ahead. In the paradox of God’s sovereignty, there are often times when the sorrow and the rejoicing go hand in hand. Whether in joy or suffering, the poets and songwriters and musicians have a glorious role in calling God’s people to worship. There is a beautiful moment in 1 Chronicles 15 v 16, when David asks the Levites to “appoint their relatives the singers, with instruments of music, harps, lyres, loud-sounding cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.”
Similarly, the ability of visual artists to change the way we look at the world astonishes me. Throughout Scripture God repeatedly uses the visual to communicate with His people. In a bush that was ablaze and yet growing within the flame, God called Moses, teaching him about His character and preparing him for the role he would play in the nation of Israel. For Peter in Acts 10, the image of a blanket let down from heaven and filled with all kinds of unclean animals was the catalyst for the welcome of the Gentiles into the Church. With one image God was able to sum up his call to Sarah and Lanier.
Whether it is through stories, songs, poems, art or some other creative expression of the heart of God, the role of people with gifts like these cannot be underestimated within the Church.
In Ephesians 4 v 14-15 Paul gives us a glimpse of the impact this sacrificial offering of our gifts will have.
“As a result we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”
In bringing our gifts to the Church we help each other to stand firm, protecting one another from being tossed here and there by everything that comes our way. For weeks now, the words of a hymn have been lodged in my heart and mind.
Still, my soul be still, do not be moved
By lesser lights and fleeting shadows.
Hold onto His ways, with shield of faith
against temptations flaming arrows.
~ Keith & Krysten Getty / Stuart Townend
Until recently, I tended to think of temptation only in terms of sin. While that is an obvious and very real part of the struggle, I have been learning that there is also a temptation to despair. In a season of struggle, that is the temptation I have faced. Yet, as proof of what I thought I already knew, the gifts of others, in so many forms, have helped me to stand firm. Pointing me again and again to the One who is the source and the reason for hope.
Not only do we have a role in helping others hold fast, we also teach one another to handle truth well. Not just to know it and let it change us, not just to speak it out but to do it all in love. Has there ever been a time when we needed this skill more? To invest intentionally and sacrificially in each other is to mature together, gradually growing in understanding, holiness and humility and becoming more like Christ.
Paul finishes this section with a final emphasis on the importance of this growing together and the part we each play in the process.
“ …we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” (v16)
If we as the Church are “fitted and held together by what every joint supplies”, if the body grows “according to the proper working of each individual part”, then the roles we have been given are not optional.
According to Paul, if we choose not to offer our gifts to God’s people the church is impoverished.
Madeleine L’Engle said, “We can’t take any credit for our talents, it’s how we use them that counts.” It is important that we are good stewards of our gifts, honing them and making them the best they can be, all the time remembering that the wisdom and strength we need to use them comes only from God. A friend of mine said recently that your prayer life is a barometer of how much you need God. We may have been given gifts but the task is still bigger than we are. There is great freedom in understanding that. Without grounding ourselves in God’s word and cultivating His heart we will fail, either because our strength gives out or because we begin to believe we have strength enough without him. The stirring exhortations of Ephesians chapter four are always a response to the grace of chapters one to three. In the same way, our service for God rings true when it is a response to everything God has already done for us.
If you don’t understand how important your gift is the church will be weaker for it. However, the responsibility that comes with that knowledge must be balanced with an understanding of the fact that we exist as part of the Kingdom. We are not lone rangers. Not even the introverts. We are not created to exist in solitude, or even to hang out in groups of like-minded people, praising and seeking praise. Paul makes it clear here and also in 1 Corinthians 12 that our gifts are for the common good.
People who consider a love of stories to be an indication of spiritual immaturity have often mystified me. I wonder if one of the reasons they devalue story is that they have a narrow view of the collaborative nature of Kingdom work?
If I, alone, am called to fully explain the gospel in everything I do, then stories or songs or art, in isolation, will have limited benefit. On the other hand, if they form part of a richer tapestry, where artists and theologians and caregivers and mums and pastors and teachers each bring their gift and offer it for the good of the Kingdom, the result is a fuller, more authentic picture of the heart of God. We are called to step into a story that is bigger than ourselves and to bring every gift we have to the collective task of telling it.
Individually, we can perfect and master the gifts and talents God has given us. And so we should. However, unless they are offered sacrificially to the Church, for the glory of God, they will always fall short of the very purpose for which they have been given.
The absence of light is almost oppressive this year. For weeks, those of us who live in northern latitudes have been getting up in the dark, driving to school in the dark and coming home in the dark. Every day we lose a little more light and the lamps have to burn for longer. Often it feels as though the gloom outside is mirrored by the shadows inside. News reports. Sickness. Friends in pain. Voices that whisper and demand to be heard.
As the darkness continues to gather momentum I have found myself drawn again and again to Psalm 73. It has become my Christmas psalm. The first verse is a bold declaration of God’s goodness, quickly overshadowed by the confession that, despite his best efforts, the psalmist’s feet are slipping. Images of chaos and pain have chipped away at his soul and hope is hanging by a thread.
All that opposes God is flourishing. Evil goes unpunished. Suffering multiplies endlessly. Men and women throw unspeakable taunts at the heavens and walk away unscathed, pride pinned to their breast as a badge of honor. As the arrogant flourish, the faithful are broken and beaten down.
Met with silence, the psalmist can no longer deny the questions that have been stubbornly gathering in his heart. Does God really see what is going on? Is He powerless to act or does He simply not care? Has God forgotten us? Torn between his desire to believe and the agony of the reality before him, the psalmist is in turmoil.
At the moment when his faith is almost consumed, we find one sentence that completely changes the direction of the psalm, scattering shadows and beginning to restore hope: “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me until I entered the sanctuary of God” (v16–17). Tortured by fear and confusion he brings his questions into the presence of God.
From a human perspective, the anguish around him remains unchanged. Suffering and evil continue to inflict fresh wounds on an already bleeding world. The difference for the psalmist is that the story no longer ends there. He has been given an opportunity to see beyond his tears and into the heart of the God who is present. The result is that instead of a creed to recite, he now has a story to tell. A story about a God whose presence is the difference between despair and hope. A story about a God who gave Himself the name Immanuel.
Soon the winter solstice will be upon us. On the twenty-second of December the sun will struggle into the sky for just a few short hours before sinking below the horizon once again. Taken in isolation, this day could be viewed as a victory for darkness. Without the benefit of history we could be forgiven for believing that the light will gradually be swallowed up and disappear. Armed with the bigger picture, we know that the longest night is simply a turning point. There are dark days still ahead but, from this night on, the coming of the light is inevitable.
In these days, as the advance of darkness is halted, Christmas rushes in. Twinkling lights are strung between rooftops and wrapped around pine trees. Feasts are laid out and gifts are given in celebration of the true Light that has come into our darkness. Candlelight spills from crowded halls as familiar music banishes the silence and the story is told again. The story about a God whose presence is the difference between despair and hope. The story about a God who gave Himself the name Immanuel.
There is so much to grieve over, both in our world and in our individual lives. As shadow piles on shadow we can find ourselves stumbling in the dark, the questions gathering stubbornly in our hearts.
“Does God really see what is going on?”
The Christmas story answers, “Immanuel, God is with us.”
“Is He powerless to act or does He simply not care?”
The Christmas story answers, “Immanuel, God is with us.”
“Has God forgotten us?”
The Christmas story answers, “Immanuel, God is with us.”
If the psalmist found hope in the presence of God, then for us Christmas is the turning point. There may still be dark days ahead but, from that night on, the coming of the light has been inevitable. Immanuel, our God is with us.