Laughing with joy

It doesn’t often snow in London. When it does we make the most of it. So when the little flurries turned into a good, thick snowfall with nice, fat flakes the other day, we made the most of it as a family – snowball fights, snow forts, sledding. We had lots of fun and we laughed a whole lot. It was really good for us.

Laughter. Not as common these days as it was a year or two ago, perhaps. I don’t mean derisive laughter, bitter laughter or skeptical laughter. I mean the good type. You know the one: when the goodness and wonder of a moment overflow in an experience of unconstrained joy. The kind of laughter you see at weddings or at a family gathering celebrating the birth of a child … or a family having fun in the snow. Genuine joy.

In Genesis, Sarah finally gives birth to a baby. She’s in her 90’s. She’s been waiting almost her entire life for this moment and it is a moment overflowing with joy and laughter. She even names the baby Isaac, which means ‘he laughs.’ She is filled with joy at the birth of her son and declares “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me.” It’s a beautiful moment of hope and longing fulfilled. But this account isn’t the first one in which we’ve heard Sarah or Abraham laughing.

A little earlier on in the story, in Chapter 17, Abraham (Sarah’s husband) laughs for joy when God promises him that he will have a son. It is the delight that comes from the confidence in good things to come. It’s the laughter of new hope. Like the light shining in the eyes of a child that knows that the next day is their birthday. These moments are glorious. The Scriptures are filled with truths that hold overwhelmingly positive implications for us and they are a delight when we discover them. We need to cherish these sparks of light, celebrate them and remember them: dwell on them, meditate on them, write them down and refer to them often.

We see some more laughter in Genesis chapter 18, still a little while before Sarah falls pregnant. This time, however, it is the wrong sort. It’s the kind of laughter that comes when we allow our circumstances and our mood to get on top of us, obscuring the greatness of God. Sarah laughs in her skepticism when she hears the promise spoken again: she has waited so long, her body is so old, there is too long a history of disappointment and hurt. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the darkness of the present and the duration of the wait. This is when we have to choose joy. Paul repeatedly encouraged the Philippians to rejoice, even though he was in prison himself at the time. Sometimes joy is found through deliberate action rather than it being thrust upon us. The Psalmists exhorting their souls to rejoice. When we have waded through an age of hardship, when the night is the darkest and our sorrow most bitter: this is when we force our gaze on to the Lord – clinging to him to prevent doubt and misery from overtaking us.

But, as we persist through the shadows and the haze, we will (and it is an emphatic and an absolute ‘will’) see the fulfillment of His promises. And then we will laugh with a joy that is pure and rich and invaluable. We will laugh like Sarah laughed when her son was born at last. We will laugh with joy at the goodness and love of God.

Let us remember the promises that God has made. Let us hold fast to them (and to Him) when life is difficult and they seem to be fading away. He will not disappoint us or let us down. He will bring every promise to fulfillment (even if we have to endure more than we had expected). In this we can be sure and in this we can rejoice.

We can and we should look forward to the laughter.

Forgiveness

I was retelling the story of Joseph and his brothers to my children this morning … the later bit of the story when Joseph is already a top bloke in Egypt and his brothers come to Egypt to find food. Aside from realising that the details of this story are extraordinarily complicated (pretense, guilt, hostages, journeys back and forth …), I was struck by the extent and thoroughness of the forgiveness that Joseph demonstrates. It’s a beautiful type of the love and forgiveness which God offers us.

So, Joseph first does a whole bunch of things to test the genuineness of his brothers’ contrition but when it is clear that they deeply regret the way they treated him and will even sacrifice their own lives to prevent something similar happening again, Joseph redeems them entirely.

1. “Have everyone leave my presence!” He doesn’t make a public spectacle of his forgiveness. He’s not trying to prove something or gain additional credit for his forgiveness. We sometimes do this: when we forgive we secretly hope that others will admire us for our graciousness and look down on the other party as a scoundrel. Joseph doesn’t. He sends everyone else out, he makes his reconciliation a private affair. His forgiveness is humble and focused entirely on the recipients of his brothers.

2. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” His brothers are terrified when they realise who he is but he draws them near. He doesn’t want them to fear him or his power. He wants them to feel his acceptance and love. Forgiveness is not just a theoretical concept. It isn’t paperwork It isn’t a check box and a signature from an unfeeling bureaucrat. God wants us to feel forgiven, He wants us to feel His love and His redemption. He wants us to feel close to Him.

3. His forgiveness is raw – it flows from the belly of his being. He throws himself on them and weeps over them. Its messy but there is nothing held back. He doesn’t partially reserve a little caution or a little dignity. Its all there. Unrestrained. An expression of overflowing love.

Joseph was only human and this can only be considered an incomplete representation of the forgiveness we receive in Jesus. Jesus grace is more glorious, more loving, deeper, purer and more enthusiastic whilst also being more narrowly defined. Being forgiven by Him is heartfelt, unrestrained, emotional and complete.

The image of God: reason for kindness

Hi everyone. It was the weekend – but not anymore. It all blurs into one at the moment. So following on from last week’s post on compassion and kindness – and in the light of heightened levels of anxiety, anger and frustration I think many of us have been experiencing in the last while – I have a question for myself and you too (if you like): why should we be kind to others?

The obvious answer (and I’m sure many of you were quick off the mark with this one – like a pastor’s kid in Sunday School) is because it is the righteous and loving thing to do: it’s what God would want from us, it’s His standard and His expectation and His demand. This is quite obviously correct. But there is another layer here that I think needs to be explored. We need to be kind to each other to a degree greater than we are called to be kind to animals or the environment, say. And I am, not for one moment, suggesting that we should be less kind to animals or the environment – on the contrary, I think these are areas that require a lot more improvement. All our actions and all our thoughts should be considered, gracious, compassionate and generous (not that any of us are quite – or even remotely – there, yet). This is the standard we should aim for, the higher calling, the prize we strive for. But when it comes to people, there is an inherent need to take it up a notch. Why is this?

It may be because there is something deeply and inherently valuable in humans – something that transcends mere notions of life and existence. Yes. The short answer is an easy one. We have been created, imbued, designed, intended and instilled with something which sets us far apart and above all other aspects of the universe we live in: the very image of God.

So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

I cannot overstate how critically important this verse is in establishing a correct worldview for our relationships and interactions with one another. It elevates our significance and worth to the heavens: we carry something in our very beings which is more valuable than we could ever imagine. We all (every one of us) bear the image of the one God: the everlasting, all-powerful, omniscient God. This means that every human life, every person, is astonishingly precious.

Now, there is a fair bit of debate over what the ‘image’ of God is exactly. Is it His creativity, His authority, His capacity for independent reason and choice? It’s quite probably all these things and more. I don’t want to chase that rabbit right now. But whatever it is, it is remarkably and incomparably valuable and important.

This is a remarkably important concept. It gives us value and dignity – irrespective of our circumstances, ability, gender or ethnicity. It means that we can confidently believe that there is not another person on this planet that is more valuable than we are: we carry a rare treasure inside us. Human life is significant. I am significant. You are significant.

Moreover, this truth is the great leveler amongst us. It is of such significance and value that everything else about us is almost immaterial – and every one of us has it in equal measure! In the light of this one great attribute, the amount of money you have, or how many degrees you have, or how attractive you are, or how many employees you oversee pales into infinitesimal nothingness. The reply to every boast of human endeavour, success or popularity is easily and overpoweringly “but I too carry the very image of God.” We cannot allow ourselves to measure human value on anything else – this would be pettiness and would be ignoring the awesome truth: a truth that means that we are all equally and tremendously important and valuable.

This truth, then, demands that we treat ourselves and one another with the utmost respect, no matter who the ‘other’ may be. Indeed, this one truth is the singular and overwhelming rebuttal to any notion or idea that I can treat anyone poorly because they are different to me. It is the final and winning argument against slavery, racism, sexism and tribalism. It is why husbands should never treat their wives as anything less than equals and also why we should honour and care for the elderly and those that are less able. It is a powerful moderating concept to the man-made economic systems of which we are a part (think income inequality and the strata of success and power which some systems create, think of the way other systems strip individuals of their individual identity and value) and to the wide-spread rise in nationalism that we are seeing around the world. It urges us to help the immigrant, reach out to the poor, and work against systems of discrimination and oppression. It even demands that we take care in the way we treat prisoners or those that we feel have got themselves into a mess of their own accord.

Jesus went so far as to teach that we should in fact go out of our way to respond proactively to those that are most different to us. We need to actively counter our prejudices, choosing to be neighbours to those who we would naturally be least likely to connect with – ensuring that we respect them and honour them as co-bearers of the image of God. It was the Samaritan who chose to be a neighbour to the beaten Jewish man in Jesus’ parable (Luke 10:25-37). Samaritans had a different religion, were ethnically different and were despised. Who then should we go out of our way to be a neighbour to?

As we battle the challenges of this time – COVID-19 and the changes it has wrought, racial tensions, political tribalism, hyper-cynicism, fear of the unknown, economic depression, and so on – let us never forget that every human is intrinsically valuable beyond measure. Every life lost is a tragedy. Every moment of oppression or discrimination is an abomination. I know that I need this truth to shape my thoughts and attitude towards those around me. I know that I have to get to grips with the nuances of how this plays out in my circumstances. It is my choice. I hope that I have the courage to serve and honour others and afford them the dignity they deserve – as I know Jesus did.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

‘til next weekend.

Phil

Compassion during a crisis

Hi everyone. Its the weekend again. I’ve been thinking about how we, as Christians (little Christs, as it were), can best respond to the circumstances we’re in at the moment with dreaded viruses prowling around outside the door. And, I don’t think I’m overstating it here, these are extraordinary times for many of us.

Now, I’m sure there are lots of right answers here and, other than ‘love God and love your neighbour,’ I don’t know if anyone can pick out one response as being the most important or the most correct. So let me pick one today: compassion.

Peter (a chap not known for his mildness or reluctance) writes to encourage Christians facing suffering and persecution in 1 Peter. He says:

Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9 NLT)

I love this passage. Of course, I didn’t always realise how hard it would be to remain united and ‘tenderhearted’ towards others when everyone is under pressure … and particularly when that pressure is a little more than moderate. Mildness, gentleness, kindness – these things don’t come easily when I’m feeling frustrated, insecure, threatened or stressed. You should see me glare at people who stray too close to us when I’m out with the kids. I currently bear grudges against joggers, dog walkers and care-free young couples (or maybe I’m just jealous). I have also noted an increasing tendency in myself to be suspicious of others’ motivations and cynicism taints my every thought. It’s particularly bad when it comes to social media or the news.

But even in the heat of this, Christ’s response would be compassion. When his cousin, John the Baptist was brutally and flippantly executed, Jesus was deeply affected. He tried to find some solitude but the crowds followed him. I think I would have lost my mind but Jesus (and I find this astounding) responded with compassion! He spoke to the crowds, healed the sick and then went on to provide them all (and there were thousands of people) with a miraculous meal. They didn’t consider him when he was hurting but he found the love and strength to consider them. Gosh. That’s a hard act to follow … but He is our example.

As I face new degrees of change – considering sending my kids back to school, spending more time out and about, going back to the shops and exploring ways of doing church again, I’m going to be trusting the Lord that he will help me overlay everything with compassion and kindness. I’m also going to try and refrain from making snap judgements when people comment on social media or when the government or other authorities make decisions: respond with humility and kindness before cynicism.

Here are a few things I’m trying:

  • pray regularly for all those around me and for the whole world, crying out to God for mercy in our suffering
  • try and remember that I don’t really understand what someone else is going through before I judge them for not considering me the way I would like
  • try not to solve people’s problems for them, just listen and be gracious
  • be actively kind whenever I can – Jesus gave his harassers attention and food, what can I do?

Of course, we have to be compassionate and kind towards ourselves as well. We can’t care for others if we are not caring for ourselves. I’m still learning how to do this.

Let me know your thoughts on these things and on the passage from 1 Peter. Your feedback is welcome.

‘til next weekend.

Phil

Christ Light Letters – A new blog

So it’s the weekend and we thought we’d impose a new blog on you. It’s important to keep in touch when we can’t actually meet up face-to-face. We’re going to try some of our posts in video format too … which is a whole lot more risky. I’ll keep the vids to under three minutes and I’ll try to post something every week (no promises). Let’s see how that goes. (Shrugs shoulders).

So, obviously, there are a lot of opinions out there right now. I don’t want to add more unnecessary noise to the cacophony and I certainly don’t want anyone to think that my opinion counts for very much in the big scheme of things. It doesn’t. As always, we need to rely on the Scriptures for our perspectives and our insights. However, I don’t want this to be a sermon either – I’m going to try and keep these posts short and to the point and I don’t think that I’m good enough a preacher to deal with any scripture with brevity and still do it any real justice. So I’m just going to try and share some of my thoughts each week. I want to try and get us thinking and talking about things that matter. But I’ll also try to point you to relevant Scriptures and Biblical concepts for you to look into and understand for yourselves. It’s always best for us to be like the noble Bereans who didn’t take Paul at face value but searched the Scriptures to verify what he was saying (Acts 17:11). So I hope to prompt some thinking but, hopefully, the thinking will be shaped by the truth.

I’ll never pretend like I know all the answers or can’t make mistakes. If there is something which you read on this blog with which you disagree or would like to discuss, feel free to get in touch. I promise to acknowledge it when I get something wrong or realise that I’ve communicated something poorly.

I hope I can encourage and inspire a little … and maybe even make you smile occasionally.

On that note, check out our instagram profile, #legochurchplanter has made a small come back due to popular demand. 🙂

’til next weekend.

Phil