Archive for July, 2009

// the reason we sing (part 5)

THE STORY SO FAR

So if this is all about God’s glory dwelling within us in order that He is eventually given glory by all people, then what exactly are we doing when we worship? Yesterday we were talking about the conditions for worship; what our worship should look and sound like, and how it should be structured…

Asking what, in short, is the reason we sing…

DAY FIVE

Except, as we well know, worship doesn’t just come down to singing. It can’t. And God’s glory doesn’t just show itself in our collective gatherings. That’s a visible fact. And if you look closely at the line that divides the reason we live and the reason we sing you realise that the two overlap and keep overlapping, blurring into each other whether you like it or not, until it eventually becomes clear that the two are, in fact, inseparable…

Because it turns out that the reason we live is the reason we sing, and vice-versa…

All of this comes down to God’s glory, and I’m neither the first person to notice that nor the first person who said it.

Which means, at the end of all of this, that our singing is just the outward expression of a life dedicated to giving glory to God.

That is to say (deep breath…)

If God’s glory dwells within us, and God’s glory is the emblem of His presence with His people…

And you are one of those people, who acknowledges their need for Christ’s sacrifice and seeks God’s glory…

Then God’s glory is going to be outworked in you. In you personally. In the passions that you have been given. In the way that you pray. In the way that your mind works, And in the way that you worship – whether that’s with organ or with acoustic guitar or with electric guitar or with DJ booth.

You are an integral feature in the glory of God. Not because He needs you, but because He chose you. He chose to have His glory dwell in you, and He made a way for that to happen, because you are important in all of this.

And in a strange way that brings us full circle; back to a woman sitting at a well talking about history and theology with Jesus himself.

A woman talking about a mountain, and a temple, and the glory of God.

“Sir… I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:19-20).

Jesus’s answer? “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… a time is coming and has now come when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers that the Father seeks…” (v21, 23)

Worship just walked into that situation. Worship is implicit in this moment. And that’s the truth of worship, too, the truth of our lives; you just walk into these situations into which you have been called and you worship in the midst of them, you give glory back to God. Standing at that well is the same as standing on that mountain where we began all of this. It’s still an experience of the life-changing, awesomely powerful glory of God. That glory is still being declared for all the world to see. And this is still a meeting with God.

Because the glory of God is in the face of Jesus Christ. Right here.

Everything changed, even as nothing changed.

Jesus stands at a well and a woman’s life is changed; by the glory of God, and for the glory of God.

And he has called us to be like him, to do as he did. His glory dwells within us, and we’ve been given that gift, we’ve met that same figure, the risen Christ, in order that God will be brought glory in all of this world.

That means our Sunday gatherings become the final expression of what God has been doing in the week leading up to them. They’re places of involvement, where we are made aware of what God is doing and we are stirred towards engaging with it. They’re places for reflection, where we can look back on the past week, let God’s spirit stir our hearts and direct us to where it is that His glory needs to be seen. They’re places for celebration, where we can celebrate God’s glory with us, celebrate what He is doing and what He has done. But they’re not an endpoint in themselves, just a continuation…

To acknowledge that, that might mean more worship songs written into direct contexts – think of Bluetree’s “God of this City”, written among Thai sex districts, or David Crowder Band’s “Here is Our King”, a reaction to the Boxing Day Tsunami, or John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves”, written in the aftermath of the death of a youth pastor. That may mean restructuring our gatherings so that they are not so self-contained, so consciously *complete*, but instead acknowledge that there is work to be done outside, and church is not the culmination of that work, but just the beginning…

The glory of God is in our midst. It is walking amongst a dying world and it is meeting women at wells and it is modelling God’s love, God’s nature and God’s character to the people it meets.

Or, at least, it should be…

***

But this is not the end of this discussion, because this discussion ends with you and God. If there are questions that you need to ask Him; like, ‘have I really sacrificed anything?’; like, ‘am I living a life for Your glory?’; like, ‘where are you calling me – where, or who, need to see You the most?’; then this is the time to ask those questions. The answers may not be instantaneous. This may be a process. But I assure you, the end point will be worth it.

I am not you, and I don’t know what your endpoint will be, or even what it will look like. We have to work this one out in community and with God, work out how this all works in practice, what bringing glory to God in our lives and in our worship looks like. But hopefully as a starting point (as that is what this is, and nothing more), this got you excited.

As I’ll tell you this: it got me excited. I can’t wait to hear what God is doing in you. I can’t wait to hear what comes next. I really can’t.

Something is coming, and it’s for His glory.

And I want to be a part of that, even though at the moment its conclusion is terrifyingly unknown.

What about you?

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// the reason we sing (part 4)

THE STORY SO FAR

Asking God to be glorified in us is an act of sacrifice; a statement that we are no longer our own, and that we are willing to go wherever He is calling us. That moment is a moment in which we lay down our own pretensions at worth, our own efforts, in order to let His glory dwell in us; it is about coming to Him in honesty and vulnerability, in awareness of our own faults and the sacrifice that He made for us. And in praying that God will be glorified through us, that His glory will dwell within us, we remind ourselves that all of this is about bringing glory to His name. First and foremost, before all else, it is that end to which all of this points.

This is all about Him…

DAY FOUR

All of which brings us back to a drug rehab community in Madrid, and the starting point of this whole discussion: the reason we sing. All those people who feel a sense of discomfort in worship gatherings, who don’t know entirely what to do with it, or how singing forty minutes’ worth of songs once a week relates in any way to the rest of our lives, this is for you, and I’m glad that you exist, as these are questions that need to be asked…

If you’re anything like me, you’ve read passages like Psalm 50 or Isaiah 58 or Amos 5:21-27 (by the way, if you’ve not read them, go do so now – I’ll be here when you get back – but be warned, as they may just make you very uncomfortable indeed…) and wondered where you stand in all this. Are you one of the good guys, or are you one of those people who Isaiah is calling up?

I don’t know, as I don’t know you as well as God does. But I do know that those passages make me very, very uncomfortable, and they also get me thinking about the whole point of worship, and its relation to God’s glory, and what it is that we’re supposed to be doing in our gatherings…

With the past few days in mind, then, here’s some thoughts on how our worship gatherings need to relate to God’s glory:

First, I’d argue that our worship gatherings need to be places of consecration; that is to say, places where we come to be made holy again. The person who does that is Jesus, the man who the author of the letter to the Hebrews describes as “our great High Priest” (Hebrews 7-8), and so that means that our worship must provide the space for us to come before God honestly, individually as well as collectively, and admit our faults.

That shows itself in more than just the speaking of a confession. It’s reflected in the choice of songs, bringing us back to an awareness of God’s power, God’s character, God’s purposes. It’s reflected in the space provided to meditate on these things, too. This isn’t something to be hurried past to get to the ‘real purpose’ of the service; this is a vital part of preparing ourselves to meet with God.

None of this is meant to be about putting ourselves down or dwelling unnecessarily on what is past – on how flawed we are, how inadequate or sinful (although we need to remember that) – rather it’s about refocussing our perspective towards God, and away from ourselves; as this is all about Him, after all. If God’s glory is going to dwell among us, we need to come to the place of worship aware of the purpose that lies behind His revealing it, aware of what it is that this whole experience points towards.

Secondly, our worship gatherings need to provide the space for intimacy. God’s glory directed the Israelites, and it was the emblem of His presence among them; our gatherings, too, need to provide the space to listen to God, and to discern where He is calling us, both individually and collectively. If we are to be a people who will declare His presence and power where it needs to be declared; if we are truly seeking His glory; then first we must listen.

Our God is not simply a concept, an abstract, invented figure; He is a relational God, a God who speaks even now, a God who has chosen to come and dwell in human hearts. I would argue, too, that our response to this requires some measure of emotion – requires us to be stirred with passion at the injustice of what goes on in this world, to be overwhelmed with love for the God who saved us, to be broken-hearted at the thought of those who do not know Him. John Piper puts it like this:

If God’s reality is displayed to us in His word or His world and we do not feel in our hearts any grief or longing or hope or fear or awe or joy or gratitude or confidence, then we may dutifully sing and pray and recite and gesture as much as we like, but it will not be real worship. We cannot honour God if “our hearts are far from Him”.

Worship is a way of gladly reflecting back to God the radiance of His worth. This cannot be done by mere acts of duty.

In our intimacy with Him, we will find ourselves asking, ‘Lord, for Your glory, what do You require of me?’

And we need the space to ask those questions and to see His answers, rather than simply having the answers told to us from the front…

And thirdly, our worship gatherings need to be the space in which we declare God’s glory to a world that needs to hear it. If this life, this world, is all about His glory, that means our worship needs to engage with this life and this world, in some cases directly. Not just in abstract pleas that God will change our world, but speaking His truth and His word over the things that are profoundly wrong in it – over human trafficking; over devastating poverty; over genocides and persecutions; over loneliness, hopelessness, despair.

Over these situations we declare “our God reigns”, that these situations are not the way that they should be, but that our God will be glorified in putting them right.

And we pray that in willingness to go if we are called to.

As Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman put it brilliantly, “the shadow proves the sunshine”; things may be dark, and they may be broken, but the fact that we recognise that means that we can envision something different – and in declaring that different world in our prayers, we can become those whom the theologian Walter Wink said could “believe the future into being”. In our gatherings we are the ones praying that God’s glory will dwell in those situations. And if God’s glory dwells in us

Well, that might just mean booking a plane ticket out there.

And finally, our worship gatherings need to be places in which we are transformed. And that can’t be forced. That will happen when we pursue God, individually and collectively. It will come in order that He is brought glory in the places where His glory needs to be seen the most; it will come as we learn holiness, and obedience, and worship…

But our worship is not abstract. As John Piper puts it, talking about Jesus’s meeting with a Samaritan woman at a well, “worship has to do with real life. It is not a mythical interlude in a week of reality. Worship has to do with adultery and hunger and racial conflict”.

It’s not optional. It’s vital. It’s part of your existence in this world. It’s a vital expression of God’s glory and a vital part of the outworking of His purposes. It’s the extension of our prayers and our pleas and we need to learn to worship, to learn just how inseparable it is from His glory, and to learn that both things are about laying down our lives in front of an awesome God and saying, ‘this is all about You’…

That is what our prayers add up to. That is what true worship points towards.

And that is a story for tomorrow…

[TO BE CONTINUED]

// the reason we live (part 3)

THE STORY SO FAR

So, in the New Testament, everything changes, even as nothing changes. The manifestation of God’s glory shifts from occurring within a rigid ceremonial framework to dwelling within human hearts; Paul told the Corinthians, “you are a temple of the Holy Spirit”, and the reason behind all of this is Christ’s death on a cross – fulfilling the Law and making it possible for people to be holy in God’s sight. So now it is possible for God’s glory to dwell directly in His people, but it’s fairly obvious that this doesn’t happen automatically, or in an entirely simple form…

And then years of debate get us to 2009, trying to establish just how this all works…

DAY THREE

If you accept that it is now possible for God’s glory to dwell directly with His people, with you and I, then so what? Practically, what does that mean right now? Does God’s glory dwell with us all the time, or only in particular moments, like back in the Old Testament? Are there conditions to it? Would we even know what it looked like if we saw it? There are a million questions, and the simple answer is that we don’t really know for sure. But that’s okay, because from the very start God’s glory has been something mysterious, and that mystery isn’t a bad thing – it’s that which gets us started, gets us seeking God’s wisdom and resolving to go deeper…

Arguably, the big danger with all of this is that we start off viewing it like it’s all some kind of cosmic theological equation – like, Christ’s sacrifice makes us holy; our holiness makes it possible for God to draw near to us; God’s drawing near to us makes us glorious; our gloriousness brings glory back to God. That’s fine, but does it not sound a little like (kids’ game) Mousetrap to you? Things are rarely that simple, and especially not when it comes to God’s glory.

There are a number of assertions that I’ve asked you to accept over the past few days – that we are made holy by Christ’s death; that God is brought glory by His people acting in obedience to Him; that His glory may now dwell among those people, and that this is, in fact, what He desires. Assuming that you’re still with me on those, then when we pray “be glorified in me” or “Lord, let your glory fall”, can you see just what is that we’re asking, and how careful we need to be?

When we ask God to be glorified in us, we assert the power of Christ’s sacrifice to make us clean, and we remember our own place in the universe. We are simply vessels of God’s glory, irrespective of how impressive those vessels are; it is His sacrifice that has made a way for His glory to dwell within us, and it is His glory that we carry. Our praying that God will be given glory in us is a moment of sacrifice, then; admitting that we have nothing to offer God that He needs, and asking Him to use that which we give to communicate beyond itself and bring glory to His name. That’s an honour, but also one that needs to be viewed with healthy respect.

When we ask God to be glorified in us, we must come in awareness of the areas where we have failed and in awareness of our own inability to deal with those failures. God’s glory dwells with His people in moments of obedience, and moments of holiness; before we see it, we must come to Christ in vulnerability, in honesty, admitting our faults to him and asking to be made clean. Glory and holiness go hand in hand, but holiness does not happen automatically. Yes, we have the potential to be made holy, but we must come to a person – to Jesus, to the living Christ – in order to ask for that, and that means admitting that we messed up, that we are not good, that we need help.

When we ask God to be glorified in us, we come in willingness to let Him do whatever He needs to do through us, even if that seems discomforting or bizarre. We come laying down our selves, in true, godly weakness, prepared to listen and prepared to respond.

And, crucially, when we ask God to be glorified in us, we do so with full awareness that the purpose of this is to show that God is with His people and to declare His name to the world. It’s not to prove something to each other or to our meetings, and if it’s a place where we’re built up, we are built up in order to go out and carry God’s glory to the rest of the world. Our praying that God will be glorified taps into the very reason that we live; to bring glory to His name. That’s why we’re here. And it’s clear that He’s capable of doing that apart from us – He did so in the OT – but he has chosen to use us to display His glory to the world.

He chose you for that purpose.

So what do we make of this? How do we respond? What does our bringing glory to God mean? Why, and how, do we do it?

We start with accepting that this is not, and has never been, about us. Our actions are not our own; they point beyond themselves. There is a place for introspection here, for asking God to reveal those aspects of our lives that are motivated by ego and selfishness, and asking for the help we need to see and change those. We ask God to be glorified in us, and that’s the start of a process – and sure, we will get it wrong, we will forget and need to come back to Him again – but in that first statement, we start off by saying, ‘I am no longer my own’…

Paul’s much-quoted claim that we must “offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1) is what gets us started. We sacrifice ourselves, we state that we want Him to be glorified, and then we listen. To what this God is asking of us, to where He calls us to go. And we go, in the knowledge that, like the fire and the cloud that accompanied the Israelites, His glory will go with us if we set out with Him in the first place.

That may show itself in quiet and undemonstrative ways. It may be dramatic. It will be powerful. It will display God’s nature, God’s character, and God’s purposes. It is a huge responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly. But it is also thrilling

The God of the universe chose you. He has a purpose for you, and He knows why you are made the way you are. You were created to bring Him glory and to demonstrate His glory to a world which needs to see it…

He is making you glorious, in order to show just how glorious He truly is.

And that, if anything, is a reason to sing.

But that’s a story for tomorrow…

[TO BE CONTINUED]

// the reason we live (part 2)

THE STORY SO FAR

In the Old Testament, glory, the mark of God’s presence with His people, is something awesomely powerful. It shows itself in the moments where God’s people commit themselves to Him, moments of holiness, and the ceremonial process by which His people were made holy, eventually only served to distance those people from their God, a God who seemed remote and incomprehensible and, frankly, terrifying. And as the story of the Israelites progresses throughout the OT, God’s glory is seen less and less, and the people get further and further away from Him, until the memory of what God’s glory even is becomes faded in the minds of the Israelites.

And it’s then that something changes.

DAY TWO

Whilst in the OT God’s glory is something distancing, something viewed with awe but also unapproachable, in the opening pages of the New Testament something very odd happens. In the Temple, the place where God’s glory was meant to dwell, a baby is brought to an old man called Simeon, a righteous man, waiting for “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2). The baby is, of course, Jesus, and Simeon’s words are astonishing:

Sovereign Lord, as You have promised,
You may now dismiss Your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
Which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
A light for revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel…

At this point, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a little out of character for the God who appears as a “consuming fire”, the God whose glory is so powerful that it strikes people dead for even touching the Ark of the Covenant with Israel. So, His glory used to be something powerful, and now His glory is a baby? Is this still the same God we’re talking about here?

Except then you look a little closer, and realise that what changed wasn’t the God, just the way in which His glory is expressed. God’s glory was in the first place the sign of His presence with His people, guiding them and showing them that He was with them, and, apparently, this child is the new embodiment of that glory. Where in the past it was found in an Ark carrying the tablets of the Law, brought out of that “consuming fire” by Moses, now it’s found in a child who fulfils that Law in its entirety.

This is what glory looks like now, apparently.

John, the writer of another gospel, opens his story even more directly. “The word became flesh,” he writes, “and made His dwelling among us. And we have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Inexplicably, mysteriously, it seems that there is something glorious about this man Jesus – something powerful and holy – even if it’s difficult to express exactly how that works. Jesus even says it himself later in John’s gospel; “I am not seeking glory for myself… if I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim is your God, is the one who glorifies me” (John 8:50, 54).

Remember the tabernacle? The place where God’s glory dwelt? Well, says Jesus, that glory has a new dwelling-place, and it’s in this man in front of you. And, what’s more, he calls the people of Israel to follow him. To live as he lives, and do as he does.

It’s like everything changes, even as nothing changes. God is still calling His people to live a certain way; His glory is still present with Israel, still dwelling in a holy place; except that ‘holy place’ is now walking around in public, healing and teaching and disrupting. And, eventually, dying, too.

It would be easy to write an entire book on how Jesus expresses and models God’s glory in his life, death and resurrection, and there’s a massive amount to say about that. However, at this point in time, what I’m interested in is what happens to the glory of God after Jesus has been resurrected and taken up to heaven, as it’s as though it expands – the glory of God is catapulted outwards, and that explains in some way how we got to where we are today…

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul starts describing what glory looks like in the aftermath of Christ, describing the Corinthians alongside himself as being those “who, with unveiled faces, contemplate the Lord’s glory” (2 Corinthians 3), again using the example of Moses, back on that mountain all those years ago, as a way of explaining what is going on in their lives. Moses met with God, and his face shone as he returned to his camp, Paul reminds his readers; and the same is true of them. They have all been brought into God’s presence, have seen the glory of God in the face of Christ, and they are being transformed “from glory into glory” as a result…

In his earlier letter to the Corinthians Paul asked his readers, “do you not know that your bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you received from Christ? You are not your own; you were bought at a price!” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) The people have become the temple. They have become the ones who are carrying the glory of God, modelling His presence, demonstrating His power and character to the world. Everything changed, and yet nothing changed. God started out using His people, Israel, to be a light to the nations, to demonstrate His glory to the rest of the world. And that’s just what He’s still doing. It’s just that the expression changed slightly.

In Christ’s death, in that moment where he defeated sin, he made it possible for us to became holy. That’s grace in action – all those years of rules, all the rituals of ceremonial cleansing that were required for Israel to be holy enough to even come near to God, are fulfilled, and now it is possible for them to draw close to Him. And so, in that place of holiness, it is also possible for us to see God’s glory. His glory can dwell in us, and with us, as He has made us clean…

And if Christ is the ultimate representation of God’s glory, and we are being transformed into the image of Christ…

Then we are the emblem of God’s presence in this world.

You are the emblem of God’s presence in this world.

We are the carriers of a frightening holiness.

You are the carrier of a frightening holiness; holy enough to hurt the eyes. What the apostle Paul called “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). That’s how we came to be carriers of God’s glory; that’s how God’s glory came to dwell anywhere near us at all.

As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm… You have come to God, the Judge of all… to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12).

Sure, this is a new kind of glory. But it’s also, in a strange way, the old kind of glory as well.

And of course, there is more to say. There are conditions behind the revelation of God’s glory, and there are reasons behind the way in which He works, and much, much bigger questions to be asked. And it’s evident even from this that this is just the beginning, just the surface level, and there is so, so much more to be said about all of this…

But that, again, is a story for tomorrow.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

// the reason we live (part 1)

DISCLAIMER: I am not theologically trained; I’m simply trying to work this all out for myself. If I am wrong; if you have greater insight or knowledge than me, please correct me or contribute to this discussion. The idea of this is to get people thinking and talking about this stuff, to work out how it all works in practice. And that involves you as much as it involves me.

INTRO

For as far back as I can remember, people have been talking about the glory of God. We sing songs about giving God the glory and we pray that He will be glorified in us, or in spite of us; we quote the Westminster Confession’s claim that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”; many Christians (me included) see their purpose on this planet as being ‘to glorify God’. But it’s only recently that I’ve started wondering if I even know what that means. I’ve said it and sung it and prayed it so many times without even questioning what it looks like or what I’m asking God to do…

That’s what I’m trying to work out here, and over the next week, with the slightly limited resources of Newcastle public library at my disposal. This discussion started in the conversations that came out of a trip to Christian drug rehab charity Betel, attempting to work out the relationship between our musical worship and the way in which we live, and that’s why it’s called “the reason we live” – it’s intended to explore how the reason we live affects the way we sing. It’s not intended to be exhaustive, and I don’t know enough for it to be, but it is supposed to be a starting point for further exploration. To explore any of this, though, we have to go back; back to when the text in front of us starts talking about the glory of God, back to the Old Testament, and back, oddly, not to Genesis, but rather to Exodus instead…

DAY ONE

After God has handed out the Ten Commandments to Israel, in a moment some scholars believe is akin to a marriage contract, with both sides laying out the rules by which their new relationship is going to function, there’s this moment where the glory of God settles on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:16). It’s one of the first mentions of the glory of God in the whole of the Bible, and it’s a revealing moment. God’s glory reveals itself here at a moment of obedience, of his people dedicating themselves to Him, and to the Israelites that glory supposedly looked like “a consuming fire” (v17) on top of the mountain. Only one man is permitted to enter the presence of God, and that’s Moses; and when he does, he is given instructions regarding the construction of a sanctuary, a “tabernacle”, in which the presence of God is going to dwell.

Still with me?

From the start of this, then, it becomes very clear that God’s glory is not something that can be defined simply. The author of Exodus struggles, and he was there.

So, he writes, there’s this cloud that descends upon Mount Sinai.

And that’s the glory of the Lord.

And from the outside it looks like “a consuming fire”.

It’s like he’s struggling for words, struggling to define what it is that he’s seeing in front of him.

Later in Exodus, too, there’s another moment where Moses asks God, “show me your glory”, and God tells him, “you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Instead, God tells Moses, “when my glory passes you by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back…” It’s another profoundly weird moment. Make no mistake, these Old Testament writers were aware of God’s glory, but aware of it as something that could be viewed at a distance, something holy enough to hurt the eyes, awe-inspiring and powerful and incomprehensible…

Throughout the Old Testament the glory of God keeps doing this. At the very end of Exodus, for example, Moses consecrates the sanctuary that the Israelites have built to carry the Ark of the Covenant around in, and then the text lists how “the cloud entered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because… the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” And much, much later, returning the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel after it’s been lost in battle, a guy called Uzzah stumbles and touches the Ark, the emblem of God’s presence with Israel. He dies immediately. (2 Samuel 6:6) God’s glory seemingly shows up sporadically, usually in moments of consecration, covenant-renewing, and His holiness is asserted in the sheer power of his presence. It’s overpowering, beyond words, mysterious and valuable and necessary, but it all started out as being something that had to be viewed at a distance.

For reasons that I’ll go into over the next week, something changed between then and now. But I don’t know that I ever realised quite what this thing that I was praying for was, or even looked like. I sing lines like “Lord, let your glory fall” without any sense of the awesome holiness that I’m asking to see or the effect that it had on the people who first spoke those words. Or the conditions that lay behind that, for that matter.

So Israel gets it wrong. Repeatedly, in fact. They keep messing up the marriage covenant that they made at that mountain, forgetting the God who they have only ever viewed at a distance, and seeing His glory less and less. Accepting that they are His chosen people, the ones whom He has set His glory among, even as they walk away from Him. Until things get bad enough that the Ark of the Covenant is captured (1 Samuel 4), and a child is named ‘Ichabod’.

“The glory has departed”.

The pattern repeats. Later Solomon builds a temple where the Ark can be stored permanently; where the glory of God can be found by all those seeking it. Over time this too is corrupted, defiled, and throughout Israel things just keep on getting worse, both in their actions and in their minds…

They weep because they lose this emblem of God’s presence with them, this thing that they can’t define but whose importance they know in spite of it. And in doing so, they rediscover their need for God’s presence, the awareness of the glory of God among them. And then they forget again, and they set up structures and systems that are entirely contrary to God’s way of doing things, and so they lose it. Again. Until, eventually, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to tell what it looks like to have the glory of God in their midst at all.

The book of Ezra describes the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple. “The people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord,” it says, “because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.”

But then it continues: “many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundations of the temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No-one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise…” (Ezra 3:12-13)

It’s a haunting moment, because glory can be unquantifiable. It may appear to be there even when it’s actually departed. Things can look glorious when they are anything but; things that don’t point to God’s character or His worthiness or holiness, even as they claim to do so. The same goes for the opposite, too, and there’ll be more on that over the next week. But glory is necessary. It is emblematic of God’s presence with His people. It is complex, and baffling, and mysterious, and utterly vital…

And then, in a strange way, everything changes – even as, apparently, nothing changes.

But that – well, that’s a story for tomorrow.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

// scattered

Soul in the cityIf you’re still fortunate enough to get a summer holiday that lasts longer than about fourteen days (as i currently am, although probably for the last time ever), then you’ll doubtless know the experience of dissipation that accompanies the end of term – when your community separates and heads off back to the rest of the country, and you return home to a place that doesn’t entirely feel like home anymore. It’s a strange state of affairs, one that reminds you that what constitutes ‘home’ is frequently people rather than place, and that only serves to highlight just how dislocated you are apart from the community that you end up being a part of.

I’m regularly startled by how much of the Bible is written into that same context of dislocation, too. Has it ever struck you as strange that so much of New Testament literature is made up of letters? Without Paul’s separation from his community and his desire to support and encourage them, we’d simply be missing a large part of our theology. And yes, i know, he was divinely-inspired, but that doesn’t change that fact that Paul wrote with a reason and a specific context, rather than having his hand guided by some invisible force, and his letters are personal as well as sacred. They’re ways of keeping in touch…

We may be scattered for a less lasting or painful reason than the early church was, but we are scattered nonetheless, and it would be a shame if we stopped talking, thinking and supporting each other just because of that. In the advent of facebook, skype, twitter, the Blackberry and photo messaging, it is easier than it has ever been to update people on the books that you’re reading or the situations that you find yourself in, and there’s scope in that for our discussions to continue. Working in Betel a couple of weeks ago, for example, it was fascinating to note how our conversations kept coming back to worship, even when we started off talking about something entirely different; we would start by talking about themes of justice or glory or pop music or whatever and without noticing, we’d start talking worship all over again. Out of those conversations you end up realising that worship is something central to our being, but you need to be around others to see it; in our relationships this is revealed as something we think about and instinctively perform, even if in some cases we worship the wrong objects. These discussions are not simply theoretical, though; they’re followed through in the weeks afterwards, in our changed perspectives, and it’s the easiest that’s it’s ever been to carry that discussion on, even across continents or time-zones. This conversation isn’t over, it’s only just beginning…

And that’s exciting, by any standards. The prospect of worship leaders and theologicans discussing and debating alongside students and worshippers and professionals, people who are passionate about justice or youth or mission, and all suddenly learning to talk… The end result of those conversations, that could be something that could equip and challenge the church in the years to come. I’m not saying that a new canon of Scripture is necessary, not at all – those letters of Paul and John and Peter are the word of God, and He’s a God who’s big enough to make sure that His word reaches the world in the right form. They’ve stood this long for a reason. But this is the time to work out how to live this stuff out; not in isolation, but in conversation.

A week or so before my term ended i attended a conference at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford called ‘In Christ Alone’, aimed at ‘uniting worship and theology’. It was an excellent day, but it also served to demonstrate just how scattered we were even within that room; when Louie Giglio asked which individuals in the church owned Mac computers, pretty much the entirety of St. Aldate’s church, sitting in one block, put their hands up in unison (myself included).

There were maybe 10 other hands that went up across the room.

It may be that it’s easiest to stick together with the people who are most like us, who think most like us and have been through similar experiences, but learning to talk across those invisible lines, starting to discuss this stuff in a reasonably non-threatening manner (even if that’s via computers), that’s a good start, at least.

We are not alone, even if it feels like it, and the distance between us may simply mean that we need to send a text with our thoughts or mail a book through the post rather than our normal channels of communication. But, at the risk of sounding like an advert for a mobile phone, let’s keep talking.

It’s better that way.

// rehab

syringepenSitting in my kitchen last night, having just got back from a week-long trip to Christian drug rehab charity Betel, my mother and I got talking about guilt – and specifically the culture of guilt that she grew up in. As a straightforward evangelical, she was brought up thinking in terms of ‘how many people saved’, ‘how much time spent praying’, ‘how much money given’, a standard that she was never able to measure up to – nobody could – and although God’s grace has softened that over time, those initial habits and ways of seeing are nonetheless hard to shake. We ended up talking about whether this was the best way of doing things, the best way of seeing things, and whether it was ever fair to call ourselves the ‘saved’ ones, especially given the mess that our church and its members are in. Many evangelicals have had this same conversation, and we find ways to beat the guilt, but all that seems to do it is the fact that we’re all apparently in the same boat…

It made a stark contrast to my time in Betel, an organisation in which almost everyone is a former drug addict. At some point, everyone in that place has hit bottom, realised that they can’t go on, and recognised their need for help. You buy coffee from a coffee shop staffed by a former addict, listen to sermons delivered by a former addict (who, incidentally, left school at the equivalent of Year 8, but has recently taught himself Biblical Hebrew, as you do), and travel into the drug camps to offer people a way out alongside pastors who are former addicts. Everyone has been broken, and they know where they’ve come from, know that they are still learning to live and relate all over again.

In Betel it is okay to be broken, because you’re surrounded by people who have been there, who are able to counsel you, who know what it’s like, and who will love you in spite of your brokenness, your appearance, or your smell.

The culture of guilt that my mother grew up in, and that, to some extent, I grew up in too, that comes from a very particular understanding of our purpose on this planet. It states that God is given glory by people being saved, and the aim is to get people saved so that God is glorified, and to do that we should be the most effective savers as possible, the most concise and educated and well-groomed people that we can be. Which is fine, except that it sort of doesn’t work; as, if you’re telling broken people that they need Jesus while you’ve apparently got it all sorted, then they’re naturally going to see that as impossible, unattainable: after all, they’re broken, and you’re sorted.

I’m not so sure that it doesn’t work in the opposite way. The small community that I’m a part of in Oxford have been reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians over the past year, a book that comes back again and again to the glory of weakness. It starts with mention of the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we may comfort others”; it moves on to Paul’s description of how he and his companions are “hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed”; and then, after all this, after Paul has listed how they’re still standing, how they’ve survived it all, he goes on to talk about the ‘thorn in his flesh’, and boasting in his weakness. For Paul, it’s as though there’s no point in faking, because his weakness is already glorious. God is glorified in his transformation, in the process of becoming holy, not just in the end result. At the end of the day, his letter seems to state, this isn’t about being a community of the sorted ones; this is about being a community of the broken, looking to the one who can save us. If you don’t class yourself as part of that, maybe it’s time to look again.

We are all sinners. It’s just that some of us are sinners in rehab.

We are all broken people. It’s just that some of us are getting the help we need. Learning how to relate to the world again, surrounded by people who know how hard it is, as they’ve been there, and they too are involved with that process. That’s what church should look like.

John’s first letter describes that kind of agape love, too, that “perfect love that casts out all fear”. It’s that kind of love I see in Betel, at the moment where ‘us and them’ breaks down – where it is okay to come in all your brokenness, Oxford student or high-school drop-out, and find that kind of unconditional love and support. Where it is okay to not be okay. You know, I don’t know about you, but I would love it if our churches were like that. I would love it if I was like that, too, and I’m learning – that people don’t need to be excluded just because they have issues, as we too have issues, we’re just slightly further along in the programme. We’re still addicts, addicted to the thought that God is not good, addicted to sin, and although we remember that we’re a “new creation”, we also know all too well where we’ve come from.

A friend of mine keeps using the phrase, “the only difference between a sinner and a saint is that the saint knows he’s a sinner.” I’m inclined to agree, and that puts me in a difficult position – aware that true engagement means becoming vulnerable, means admitting that my flaws and my struggles are the same as those of the guy sitting next to me and becoming less strong – losing my cool, in short. That’s where humility starts, but it would be easier to do that (not to mention healthier) if you joined me in that too. I don’t mean telling everyone everything; I don’t mean wallowing in self-pity or excessive introspection; but I do mean a fresh level of honesty, both in our lives and in our evangelism. Working at engaging. Asking “how are you?”, and then listening to the response. Standing by people in their pain, even when there are no words to comfort them. Modelling grace in the moments where I get it wrong, or when the worship band get it wrong, or when the guy up at the front gets it wrong.

Surely that’s what “perfect love, that casts out fear” looks like. Where people aren’t afraid of condemnation if they mess up, as before you open your mouth you recall the first time that you personally got that same thing wrong. Where you are not afraid to stand beside people in all their issues, brokenness and stench as you are aware of your being somebody who, to all intents and purposes, looks just the same as them. Where we are all working this out together. That’s what God’s love looks like, and there’s something glorious about that. Perhaps that’s what glory in weakness looks like, too.

I am another one who is emphatically not sorted, who is still working out how to live this life in step with God, and frequently getting it wrong, even after this much time.

Bear with me for the moment. I’ll get there in time.