Archives For God

“The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.

Everything was created through him; nothing – not one thing – came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.”

John 1:1-5, The Message

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“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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You may not have heard of Josh Riebock, but he’s someone worth watching out for. An author and speaker based in the USA, his book Heroes and Monsters is one of the most brutally honest accounts I’ve read in a long time.

Before I say what I thought of it, Josh was good enough to take some time to answer some questions – and these are well worth spending some time reading.

***

The book clearly makes reference to some painful memories in your past. What was is that led to want to write it, and was it a difficult experience?

One of the most pressing motivations for me was the desire to write the kind of book that I would want to read. Something honest. Something unconventional, imaginative. Something that doesn’t spell out the moral of the story. Something that cherishes the magic of words. Something that some people are going to hate and not understand. Those kinds of books are the ones that seem to stick with me longest, and well, I wanted to write a book that would stick with people. Beyond that, writing this book was my way of retrieving a big piece of the sanity that I’ve lost through a lot of different events and years. It was a cheaper form of therapy. And, at times, yes, it was difficult. But reliving the painful memories, tracing back over my scars wasn’t the most difficult part. The most difficult part was working to capture the events and emotions and thoughts of my life in a thoroughly vivid way. I had a lot of fears that in writing about my life, I might cheapen it, both for me and for others, that the words on the page wouldn’t present, in a lively way, what life has often felt like. That’s the wonderful and frustrating challenge of writing: arming words and sentences with the electricity of real life. Doing that was very difficult.

There’s a strong sense throughout that we live in an uneven world full of uneven people. Where do you think God fits into all of that, and how do you reconcile God with this uneven world?

Well, in a lot of ways I have no idea. But to me, one of the most wonderful aspects of life is born out of this very thing. The idea of God loving composed, symmetrical, good people is a fine idea, but it doesn’t stir my soul all that much. But the idea that God loves uneven people, and an uneven world? That moves me so much. And I believe that. He doesn’t love me or you or whoever because we are refined, or even because we’re going to become more refined. He loves us. That’s it. He loves us regardless of whether we grow or not, whether we mature or not. Of course, in the broken way that I view the world, I sometimes find it easier to see beauty in an ideal, in some kind of perfection. But beauty doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with perfection, or the absence of flaws. Often, the greatest beauty is the presence of love or hope or peace or freedom in places of endless flaws. So for me, knowing that God loves me, a wildly erratic man, well…I don’t know if there is anything more beautiful than that. The fitting together of him and us is stunning because of the differences between us.

The book is at times brutally honest; do you think that people today find it difficult to be honest, both with themselves, with others and with God?

Well, I know that I certainly struggle with being honest. And while I’m confident that I’m growing more and more honest with myself and others and God with every passing year, that goal of being fully transparent and open is still far away. It’s still a dot in the distance. And I suppose part of me is okay with that. Part of me wants it that way. In some ways I’m in no rush to be more honest because a lack of honesty has often served me pretty well. That’s the trouble of it all. At times, my lack of honesty grants me acceptance with others, career or social success, personal safety or comfort or pleasure. Lack of honesty helps me avoid things that I don’t want to deal with, numbs me. And often I don’t want to give those benefits up in order to become more honest. In that way, the journey toward honesty is really the journey towards believing that the benefits of being honest with others and God and self outweigh the benefits of refusing to be honest.

What does your ideal day look like?

Ha, I always hate questions like this. I’m so tempted to lie, to concoct a really exciting or odd or adventurous answer, because I don’t want to come across as dull. I guess my actual ideal day isn’t nearly as interesting as the one I could invent. So can I do both? I’ll do both. First, my invented ideal day…I wake up next to my wife, after a night of camping on a beach. I step into the sand and do sunrise yoga, my breathing set to the rhythm of the tide. After that I catch and cook breakfast for my wife and dog and I. The fresh fish is always good. Our afternoon is spent wandering art galleries and book stores, sitting cross legged and sipping beer and wine, pointing to the pieces and sentences that we love, trying so hard to explain why we love them, but never quite finding the words. In the evening I attend my weekly piano lesson with an old jazz musician, and he tells me that I’m almost ready for my first live gig. He wants to be there, in the front row. A few hours later, my wife and dog and I climb up onto the side of a hill, blankets in hand, and bundled together, we watch the sun melt into the water. For dinner, it’s seafood at a local restaurant, and then it’s off to a movie marathon—80s movies, movies starring Daniel Day Lewis and Edward Norton, slightly weird but honest and gritty art movies. Then we retire back to our house. The rest of the night is spent on the back porch with a few close friends, laughing and playing cards, sharing stories and writing all over the interior walls of our house in chalk, creating murals that we hope will never fade. And they never do. Yea, that’s my fake ideal day…Now for the true ideal day. My wife and dog and I sleep in, happily. We spend the entire day together, going for walks, drinking coffee, not worrying about work, laughing and laughing and laughing some more, watching a movie or two, never getting out of our pajamas, never really needing to in order to have an ideal day.

Where is your favourite place to be?

Oh I’m such a homebody, so there is rarely a place that I’d rather be than at my house in Austin, TX. I travel a good amount for work, but when I’m back in Texas, I often won’t leave our house for days. I’m not always sure why that is. As a kid, I spent loads of time at home, alone, so I’m sure that’s part of where my love for being home comes from. But I also think that the older I get, the more I crave familiarity, and being at home—in my bed, at my table, lying on the couch with a book, on the floor with my dog, the smell of my wife’s hair in every room—provides that sense of familiarity. Being there, I sense that I belong. And everybody wants to belong.

If there’s one thing you want people to take from the book, one thing they carry from it, what would it be?

Well, I think you just said it. My hope is that they would take one significant thing. Maybe that will be a newfound freedom to be honest, or the belief that they aren’t alone in their struggles and doubts and pains and neurotic behaviors. Or maybe that will be a newfound inspiration for creativity or pursuing their dreams. Or maybe that will be a fresh belief that no matter what, they are loved and they aren’t alone. But I really don’t care too much what that thing is. If someone reads this book and takes something significant with them, then it has done what I hoped it would.

***

So what do I think? I think Josh has written a book which is difficult to read. Not because it’s a badly written book (it’s beautifully written) or because it’s not interesting (it’s absorbing).

The reason it’s so hard to read is that it is so honest. I can’t remember the last time I read a book in which the author was so brutally upfront and honest about their life, relationships (both with others and God) and situation.

The notion of story that runs through the book is vital, and as a reader I found myself sucked into Josh’s life story, sharing the moments with him and feeling his pain at times.

I have a huge amount of respect for Josh for writing this book. In a sense, the answers he’s given above provide more of an insight into the book than I could ever give. But I would say that if you want to read a book that challenges you, makes you feel uncomfortable, and forces you to question those things closest to you, then this book will do all those things and more.

***

Josh was kind enough to provide answers to the above questions for this review, but graciously made no attempt to influence my review. Having communicated with him over the last few weeks, I can also say that he is an outstanding person, and I appreciate his honesty and help.

A life of seasons

September 26, 2012 — Leave a comment

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I’m quite a big fan of weather.

It’s not the coolest thing. But I love huge variations in weather, from blisteringly hot summer days to bitingly cold winter nights. There’s something about the ever-changing nature of the weather which I find intriguing.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about seasons – both seasons of weather and seasons of life.

In nature, seasons are part of the intrinsic cycle of life. Spring offers new life and green shoots, which bloom and flourish in summer. Autumn heralds the beginning of the end of this time of colour, whilst winter superficially seems dead but nests next spring’s hope underneath its cold blanket.

This cycle comes and goes each year. There are variations, yes, but the overall cycle is the same. Without fail.

***

I think the same is true of our lives. I don’t know whether we follow the same set pattern that nature does. I think it’s probably not quite as structured and planned as that.

But our lives go in seasons. There are times when we are full of hope and expectation, when there are new beginnings and opportunities. These times often turn into summer seasons, when we flourish and grow.

Then there are autumn times, when it can feel as if nothing is happening and we are treading water. During autumn, it can feel a little as if the good things are dying off, as if we are losing them. Autumn invariably leads to winter, where we find ourselves hopeless, lost and without direction.

A life of seasons.

***

Ideally, we’d be able to lose the winter season, make the spring and autumn shorter and spend most of our time in the summer. Ideally. But in the same way that nature would not be able to survive on just one season alone, the same is true with us.

The seasons all have a value, all have a purpose. Even if sometimes, that purpose can be painful. The winter season can be long and bleak. But it teaches us to trust, to remember that spring and summer will come, and to rely on the roots we have grown in the warm seasons.

Seasons come and go, but God’s love never once falters or fails, never lessens or becomes conditional. Despite the seasons, God’s love runs through them all.

That promise is what we root ourselves in.

***

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.” Lewis Carroll

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Someone asked me the other day how I knew when God was telling me to do something specific, or to follow a certain path.

My answer was that, more often than not, I’m rarely fully sure. I have times when I think I know what God is saying, but it’s never 100% clear, and there’s always a part of me which worries that I’m just convincing myself that it is God’s voice rather than mine.

All in all, it’s a very confusing business.

***

Looking back, the times God has guided me haven’t been signposted by Damascene moments, accompanied by bright lights and a booming voice.

Instead, I can look behind me and see a series of doors which have opened for me, and some which have been closed. I see conversations with people, things I’ve heard at church and passages of Scripture all fall together into a path which I’ve followed, even though at the time I didn’t relise I was following it.

Rather than tell me from the start where I’m going, God instead seems to prefer leading me one step at a time.

The difficulty with this is that it results in a lot of uncertainty. For a lot of my journey, I don’t know where I’m going. But I think it’s partly so I remember God en route. If he was to tell me the path, tell me the destination and tell me the obstacles I’d encounter on the way, I wouldn’t need him as much. I might remember things he said, but I wouldn’t rely on him.

I’d rely on me.

By taking me through one door at a time, guiding me step by step, God teaches me to rely on him. Trust him. Follow him.

Don’t get me wrong – I’d love for him to speak louder sometimes.

But he knows what he’s doing.

***

Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back and home to bed.
Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Working on my reflection

September 21, 2012 — 1 Comment

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I love Jesus. I’m quite the fan.

But frankly, I really struggle to be like him.

I know it’s because as a fallen human, I am not perfect, and so can’t ever be completely like Jesus. The thing is, I want to be more like him, but I find it really difficult.

I find it hard to love those who annoy me. There are plenty of people with whom I don’t see eye to eye, and I struggle to treat them as Jesus would have. He’d have loved them, given them time and shown grace to them. All things I probably don’t.

If I’m honest, I find it hard to love the poor and the lost as Jesus would have done. Yes, I give money to charities which support them and provide hope. But whilst money and support is vital in helping these people, Jesus never gave anyone cash. He gave them his presence and his love.

***

I wonder what would happen to those around me if I was more like Jesus. More compassionate, gracious and loving. I don’t wonder that from a self-centred, “wouldn’t it be brilliant if more people looked at me and thought I was amazing” perspective.

I wonder it from an honest place of longing to be more like Jesus. Despite all the wonderful programs, five-year goals and objectives our churches put in place, these aren’t going to transform the lives of those around us.

Only meeting Jesus is going to do that.

We are the representatives of Jesus for so many of those in our lives. In my life, I know there are some people whose only contact with the church is me. So how I act matters. How well I reflect God’s love matters.

***

I wish it was easier, but it isn’t. Being like Jesus can be hard, because it flies in the face of what the world defines as successful.

But the impact it can have on people is beyond anything this world can offer.

For all the struggles we may have with it, the difference our reflection of God can have in the lives of those around us echoes into eternity.

I think it’s time I worked on my reflection.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

“If only. Those must be the two saddest words in the world.” Mercedes Lackey

I’ve started to notice myself use a dangerous expression lately. In fact, it’s quite a common phrase, and one most of us will utter many times a day without realising.

If only.

“If only I hadn’t been made redundant from my last job.”
“If only I was more like that guy.”
“If only I could do this/that/the other better.”

If only.

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The reason I think it’s so dangerous to say if only all the time is because it means we forget or intentionally want to reject who we are in God’s eyes.

If I mutter, “If only I could be more like Mr X”, then I’m dismissing the person God made me to be, the child he created for his purposes. Mr X may be incredibly strong and have an excellent ability to lift weights, but he isn’t me. He isn’t who God made me to be. He’s Mr X.

It applies to our communities as well. “If only we had these people involved”, we say. “If only more people came to this.” To say these things is to ignore the people who God has brought to us, the people who God has drawn into our communities to surround us and grow with us.

If only makes us always want more, rather than recognising the blessings already around us.

***

I get that sometimes, things don’t work out how we expect them to. And I don’t for a minute want to suggest that it’s wrong to be upset when things go pear-shaped, or that we shouldn’t long and pray for greater things.

I didn’t expect to be unemployed this summer. There have definitely been times when I’ve thought, “if only that job had worked out”.

But then I wouldn’t have seen all the things I have this summer. I wouldn’t have been able to spend the time with friends and family that I have, wouldn’t have been able to figure out what my long-term dreams are.

If only doesn’t help me realise my dreams, it only forces me to feel like I’m constantly under-achieving.

***

So my challenge is to stop myself from saying if only. I’m not quite sure how best to do it yet (I might treat myself to one of these each time I stop myself), but my intention is not so much to lose a phrase as to gain a better and richer recognition of all God has done and is doing in my life.

I’m under no illusions – I’ll probably fail often. But I think it’s worth trying.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

It’s no secret that for lots of Christians, God seems to go silent for a while. Times and seasons come and go where we struggle to hear from God, struggle to discern his voice and his purpose for our lives.

These periods of drought can be short-lived or painfully long. There can sometimes feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel, but also like the tunnel is getting darker and darker.

For me, it’s something which is a huge struggle. I can go for weeks without hearing from God (or without thinking I’ve heard from God).

At times when I feel I should be hearing from him most, I seem to hear from him least.

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Part of the reason I think it can be difficult to go through seasons like this is because it can feel like God has forgotten us. Like he’s either too busy doing other things, or like he’s simply missed our prayers.

Which of course isn’t true.

But it can feel that way. I know that for me, there’s a constant need to remind myself of God’s love and goodness on a daily basis, if not more regularly. I take a lot of comfort from the Israelites, who constantly referred to God by mentioning his past actions (Joshua 24:17 and many more).

Despite constantly feeling like God had forgotten them, the Israelites called out to God and recognised his hand in their lives. They recognised the value of their testimony. They recognised that God had not forgotten them.

***

That’s the thing about God. He never forgets. He never leaves us. His mercies are new every morning, and his love endures forever.

That’s what I tell myself when I feel like things are tough. Like I’m forgotten. And with that shift in perspective comes a feeling of comfort and of peace.

A whisper that I’m not forgotten.

***

“God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over). He’s all I’ve got left.” Lamentations 3:22-24, The Message

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Here’s a snapshot of the sort of conversation I have with God on a regular basis:

Me: “Hi God, it’s James.”
God: “I know.”
Me: “Oh yeah. Right. Anyway. How’s it going?”
God: “Tell me about you.” (No matter how many times I ask God how his life is, he seems pretty reluctant to reply.)
Me: “Well there’s a few things bothering me, some of which I’m sure you can deal with, but a couple of which I’m not sure you’d really…you know…get.”
God: “You don’t think I’d get them?”
Me: “Nah, you wouldn’t understand.”
God: “Try me.”
Me: “It’s OK, I’ll figure it out myself. It’s better that way.”
God: “Alright then. Let me know how that goes.”
Me: “Will do. Have a good one.”
God: “OK. Peace out.”

***

When it’s written out like that, it seems the most ridiculous thing in the world to say there are some things I don’t trust God with.

But the reality is, this is something I desperately struggle with. I find it hard to hand over to God things which are troubling me, things which I can’t see panning out well. I don’t mind handing over the things that are going well but when it comes to giving major decisions to God – crossroad moments – I usually retract my offer.

Why? I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t trust God. There’s just something in me that thinks I can do it better.

Which isn’t true.

But still I do it. So I’m shaping my prayers to make sure I hand these things over. I’m making sure I tell God what is really going on with me (he knows anyway) rather than trying to hide things so I don’t have to tell him.

Slowly, it feels like it’s working. Very slowly. Like a child learning to walk, I have a couple of steps of progress followed by a fall.

But it’s still progress.

***

“Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” Mother Teresa

Over-complicating God

September 12, 2012 — Leave a comment

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

God is pretty complex. There’s a lot to him. After all, he made the universe and everything in it, knows the numbers of hairs on each of our heads, and knows what has been, what is, and what will be.

The Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exists in perfect harmony, is the same but different.

Frankly, I don’t really get it.

I did a theology degree, and took modules in how to understand God, and I still don’t.

Sometimes, this frustrates me. I want to be able to logically formulate why God loves me, and why he forgives me. I want to find some theologians who back me up, academics who I can name-drop when I need to. I don’t know if it’s because I sometimes find it hard to fathom God’s love, but I find myself trying to produce a formula to prove it.

God = creator. Jesus = creator’s son. Spirit = creator’s presence on earth now. (I’ve probably said some heresies already). God loves us. You. Me. Jesus died for us. The Spirit came for us. God + love + Jesus + his death + coming of the Spirit = salvation.

That’s not even close.

***

I think I spend too much time trying to explain and understand God, and not enough time enjoying him and loving him.

There’s no doubt there is a time and a place for trying to understand God, for theology and exegesis and picking apart the story of Jesus.

Ultimately, however, I think God wants us to love him. Wants us to believe his promises, to trust him, to shelter in his grace.

Sometimes, it’s that simple. The life we get in return isn’t always easy or straightforward. More often than not, it’s the opposite.

But through it all, God reminds us of his love, and longs for us to love him with all we have.

His message to me, and to all of us, is simple.

I have done, and will do, anything for you. You are my child. Take shelter in me. I love you.

***

“No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this, never so much as imagined anything quite like it – what God has arranged for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9, The Message

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

For years, I’ve led worship in church.

I by no means think I’m amazing at it, and I still have serious doubts about my ability to do it, but it’s what I do. The reason I do it is because I meet God most through worship. It’s always been that way.

Part of the reason I love to lead worship is because I long for others to meet with God, and if singing is a way in which they can do that, then it’s a privilege to lead them in it.

Lately, however, something feels like it’s been missing when I’m leading. In fact it’s not only leading, but when I’m being led as well. For a while, I thought maybe it was something I was doing wrong – making too many mistakes, trying too much or too little.

Put simply, I’m struggling to meet with God during worship.

I can’t put a finger on why. I’ve been through all the obvious options – I’m not trying hard enough (or at all), I’m worried too much about the music and not enough about the One to whom I’m singing. And I feel like despite all my efforts, despite my longings to meet with God, it’s just not happening.

***

Initially, I didn’t know what to do with this situation. Singing has always been my connection with God. I love reading the Bible, praying and learning about him, but worship has always been it for me. So to see that bridge begin to crack and falter hurt and worried me.

However, a while ago I suddenly started to see God and recognise God’s movement in other things, other creative outlets which I had not really tapped into before. For instance, I became very aware that God was speaking to me through what I was reading – not only Christian books and blogs, but the novels I was reading as well.

The same thing happened with poetry. Which is odd because I’ve never really read poems. Now, I read a dozen or so a day. Some about God, some not. Not all of them leave me on my knees in awe, but I’m certainly seeing God’s character through different mediums now.

***

My worry with all of this was that I’d have to stop leading worship. Not so much because I enjoy being at the front (although most worship leaders will tell you they fight a constant internal battle to make sure it’s not a performance, and I’m certainly no different) but because I believe God wants me to lead worship, and I believe he still wants me to, despite these struggles.

The more I think about the this season, which I’m still very much going through, the more I think there’s been a reason for it.

As is always the case with God.

I’ve found him in different places, discovered different ways of expressing my creativity. Perhaps the lesson has been that sometimes I need to break out of the mould, and not simply rely on meeting God through worship. That will always be a part of my relationship with him, but I think he’s telling me that I need to be cultivating other parts as well.

And so whilst I’m sure this will be an ongoing process, I’m starting to see spring appearing. Buds of different flowers I’ve never seen before. A different perspective.

In it’s own way, it’s extremely exciting.