Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Who is our God? A post for Lent.



“Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” Philippians 3:19.

John Pritchard writes in The life and work of a Priest, that as the head of a sunflower stays turned towards the sun, so we ought to keep our hearts and minds always fixed upon God.
Today is Ash Wednesday, and as I sit here, my forehead recently smeared with oily ash, I’m pondering how much this is true of me. The question I want to ask of myself this Lent is: What do I keep my attention fixed upon most often? What dominates my thoughts and my desires? What are my priorities? What do I care too much for that it's stopping me from lifting my head up and keeping my eyes fixed upon God? Which makes me want to ask the question: who or what is my God?

Who is our God?

Is our iPad our God? Our tablet, or our mobile phone? Does it claim our attention in the evenings; something we disappear into, and zone out, so we don't interact with the people around us? How often do we check it? Are the “push notifications” which buzz and ping perhaps drowning out the quiet, whispering voice of God?

Is food our God? Is it more to us than just sustenance and fuel? Food is, of course, a pleasure and meant to be enjoyed, but has overindulgence become a habit? Has the mentality of “treating yourself” and “deserving it” become a well-worn mantra; over used, and over-done. Do we eat to fill a void inside us that God ought to be filling? Or do we deny ourselves food in an attempt to wrestle back control of a body that we sometimes feel powerless over? Is denying ourselves food the only thing we can control, in a world where we feel out of control, and disempowered, and ignored?

Is coffee our God? Can't get up in the morning without having it, right? Can't do without it.
What about chocolate? Or wine? Are Friday nights just not worth living through if we can't kick back and relax, without a glass of Shiraz or Chardonnay, or whatever our poison is?

Is the gym our God? Do we live for the adrenaline rush that only comes after we’ve done 10k on the treadmill, or 50 lengths of the pool? Do we need the addictive endorphin rush that comes from knowing we’ve smashed our personal best, or we’ve beaten our latest target. Is winning our God?

Is work our God? Do we live to work, rather than working to live, despite that this keeps us out of the house and away from our  family. Or are we  just addicted to being busy, all the time, and are unable to just sit still, and be?

Is our mirror our God? Are we obsessed by our own image, and scrutinise it incessantly for any flaw? Do we take – and re-take – endless selfies, which we painstakingly apply the most flattering filter to, in order to upload onto our social media so we can bask in the number of “likes” that we get? Is our own image our God?

Take a quick leaf through the Old Testament, and you'll quickly learn that nothing ticks off God more than His people worshipping false idols. We might not be burning children, or engaging in orgies (well, not all of us) but I'm certain that our modern preoccupations with worshipping ourselves, celebrities, and the all-mighty dollar, aren't going to impress Him either.

Give it up. Give it all up. Give up trying to be in control and let God take the wheel for once. Give up all those things – all that stuff – that you think you need and that you consider essential for your daily happiness. Strip back the over-reliance on the iPad, or the caffeine, or whatever you rely on to get through the day. Make yourself vulnerable, and allow yourself to rely on God instead. When you deliberately punch holes in your daily life, in your routine or your habits, then you create space for God to move in.

From dust we came, and to dust we shall return. Repent of sin, and turn towards Christ.”

Sin encompasses those things which separate us from God; in fact, you could argue that this is the very definition of sin. During this Lenten-tide I'm going to give up my over reliance on comfort and all the many crutches that I think I depend on. I'm going to allow that hollow place deep within me to remain empty for once, rather than stuffing food into it, or endless cups of coffee, or whatever I do in order to fill it, and I'm going to allow God to address it instead. It is a God-shaped space, after all.
And like the sunflower following the light of the sun, I will turn towards Christ.

Friday, 6 January 2017

A post-Christmas post on Epiphany



We have a Nativity set which I bought from Chester cathedral a few years ago. When we put our Christmas decorations up at the beginning of December, we place our nativity characters inside the wooden stable that my dad made; Mary and Joseph either side of the tiny manger, a lone shepherd with one sheep, and an angel. Our three kings, we place in another room. This year they were on the bookcase in our dining room, and every few days they slowly processed across the room, into the living room, upon the fireplace, and finally, today, they arrived at the stable, because today it is Epiphany.

Now, there's so much wrong with this whole set-up, that I don't even know where to begin, and that's not even mentioning the fact that our beautiful ceramic Nativity characters are all wearing cable knit-wear. Just for starters, as my eight year old pointed out, why is the shepherd there before Christmas Day? Or the Angel? Or indeed, any of them? In short, why keep the Kings (or wise men, or Magi, or whoever) from the party until January 6th when the whole thing is out of sync anyway, chronologically inaccurate, and largely arbitrary?

I don't have a good, logical reason, except that I like Epiphany. Here's why:

The business of Christmas is finally over; there's nothing left in the tub of Celebrations other than bounties and empty wrappers (if your family are complete monsters of course), you're starting to crave vegetables and salad, someone has callously shrunk your best jeans, and the only exercise you've had in twelve days is the upper body workout of cramming (unsuccessfully) a mountain of cardboard and wrapping paper into the recycling bin.

You're back at work. The kids are (probably) back at school. There is a cold, dead, empty space in your living room where your brightly lit tree once stood, and everything looks as bare and as lifeless as the naked trees outside. Normal programming has resumed on the telly; and honestly, there's nothing festive whatsoever about Homes under the Hammer, not when you could be watching a kids’ movie, or something to do with food, or anything other than regular daytime television. Advertising, which a short while ago was encouraging us to gorge and splurge and spend, is now telling us that we’re fat, debt ridden, missing out on endless bargains, and we probably need to buy a sofa. Again.

Lord, it is so depressing. No more lounging about, forgetting what day of the week it is, while you punctuate every trip to the kitchen by sticking your hand into an open box of chocolates, and when you answer every food or drink related query with “oh heck, why not. It’s Christmas.”

Now it's January, and it's not so much comfort and joy, as discomfort and despair. And you know it's right to keep these things in perspective, and remember those people who are really suffering right now, and wham: along comes guilt to add to the misery cocktail, and it's all just grim beyond belief.

Now is when you need an epiphany – a moment of sudden realisation.  You see, all those lights which
marked the Christmas season weren't just there to make it look pretty. They were there to remind us all that light is the essence of Christ – He illuminates dark places, and no amount of darkness can extinguish Him.

No amount of darkness.

Not the darkness of January, brown and sloppy though it may be. Nope, not even on those days when it rains non-stop, and there is mud everywhere. Not on those days when merriment is a distant memory, over-indulgence a thing of the past, and self-denial and deprivation are the order of the day. Not on those days when here, in the Northern hemisphere, the days are still so short, and the darkness feels thick and all encompassing.
Not the darkness of Aleppo. Or Damascus. Or Baghdad. Or any of those dark, dark places, where it must feel like there isn't even the tiniest chink of light anymore.

I have hope that there is light, because God is with us; Emmanuel has come. We live in post-Christmas times.

Those three little kings on my living room side-board bear cable-knitted, sparkly testament to the knowledge Jesus is the light of the world; He came to bring light to the gentiles; to all of us. Those ancient magi travelled far to find Him, then they didn't quite know where to look. They probably didn't expect to find Him in such humble circumstances:
He was a child.
He was poor.
He wasn't powerful, or imposing, or bedecked in jewels and fine robes.
He wasn't remotely Kingly.
And yet, the magi (well, they were reportedly rather wise) knew Him and recognised His majesty.

So we know that light shines in unexpected places; it doesn't always look like we think it might. It might look like the very opposite of what we think it should. We might even mistake it for the dark.

Cling on friends. Cling on. Look for light and nurture it, like a hand around a flailing lighter flame, on a windy day. Look in unexpected places. And keep looking, for the darkness cannot overwhelm it. It really can't.

In place of the gaping wound that our Christmas tree left, we replace it on January 6th with our Epiphi-tree* - a bundle of branches collected from the woods, decorated with glitter, and placed into a slim vase along with some pebbles for ballast. We adorn it with shiny ornaments, and more kings. There's even a camel. It marks the season and it makes the demise of Christmas just that little bit easier to bear.

It reminds us to look for Jesus, in everything we do. It reminds us to keep the light of Christmastide shining all the year through. It also reminds me that I still have a few Roses chocolates left, so I better get cracking on them. Well…it is January after all.

*I would dearly love to take the credit for this term, but that honour must go to Homer Simpson.