Six uses of suffering

If you’ve got it, use it.

Lonely walk at night

When it comes your way, and if you can’t avoid it, you may as well use it. I did a recent talk and found one strategy for suffering and six uses.

Strategy

The strategy is simple, even cliched: use your suffering to get face to face with God. ‘In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God will guard your hearts.’1

Uses

As you keep doing that — same field, same labour — fruit follows:

  1. Joy and peace. Inexplicable, but a fruit of coming to God with thankfulness. Not that you are thankful for the suffering; you are thankful for the goodness of God in the midst of it.
  2. Character. So: suffering + taking it God =  peace. Repeat this many times and individual experiences of grace and peace accumulate into lines and traits in our soul. Character is shaped. Suffering doesn’t rock you like it did. Think seasoned timber — many storms and seasons have gone into it.
  3. A clean out. Urgency to deal with the pain can cause us to act. How much of this pain is my fault? What parts can I put right?  ‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?’2
  4. Know that your comforts will comfort others. As Paul wrote: ‘[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in trouble.’ 3 People who’ve been through stuff can speak the same language as those who are going through stuff; no-one else can speak that language natively.
  5. Discover the secret of power in Christian service: weakness. Paul again: ‘I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight … in hardships … for when I am weak, then I am strong.’ 4 Popeye opens a can of spinach; we lay our pain before God with thanksgiving to him for his goodness. Same effect. 
  6. Exercise your hope muscles. There is honestly nothing like despair, nothing like the deepest night, for making you remember that day will come. ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning … I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”‘5

On not taking risks

Horse Ploughing show.My friend Miriam Cowpland shared this gem from her own reading of  the devotional writer A W Tozer

In Tozer’s book ‘Paths to Power’ there is a chapter entitled ‘Miracles follow the Plough’. He contrasts two types of ground: fallow ground (fallow meaning ground which has been left for a period of time without being sown), and ground which has been broken up by the plough. The fallow field has chosen safety, security and contentment. But, says Tozer, at a terrible price. ‘Never does it see the miracle of growth; never does it feel the motions of mounting life nor see the wonders of bursting seed nor the beauty of ripening grain.’

In contrast the cultivated field has yielded itself to the ‘adventure of living’. ‘Peace has been shattered by the shouting farmer and the rattle of machinery: it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but the rewards come hard upon its labours.’

I’m sure you can see the parallels which Tozer then goes on to draw with our lives: the fallow life that doesn’t want to be disturbed, that has stopped taking risks for the sake of fruitfulness, contrasted with the life that is marked by discontent (at fruitlessness), yearning for the work of God, willing to be bruised and broken so that seed can be planted.

Which kind of field am I? What kind of field are you?

Breaking up the fallow ground begins with seeking God. Prayer, deep longing crying out to the Lord for Him to work in us, in our teams, in our places of ministry – this is where it begins. Are we doing that?

Counting things to get to sleep

Just don’t do the sheep thing

Entre para por sobre con contra de desdeCounting sheep to get to sleep is one of those memes that should have been deleted from our collective consciousness years ago – along with other mother’s-knee nonsense like ‘a watched kettle never boils.’ (Have mothers’ knees not heard of the laws of thermodynamics?)

For those of us who spend many hours in bed but not asleep, there are many better things to do.

First, recognize insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave. It is perhaps an unwanted gift, like singleness, but it is nevertheless a gift.

Insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave.

Two, try to connect to God. I have found this such a help. It doesn’t matter if it’s a spotty connection, or if your mind wanders, or if you fall asleep in the attempt. God has seen us at our worst and it’s still OK.

I heard once of a very old lady who climbed into bed each night and started bringing up memories of all the people she’d loved or former friends who had already died. She remembered them with thanks to God, dozens or perhaps hundreds of them. Instead of feeling lonely I imagine she felt herself surrounded by a cloud of supporters who had loved her and gone ahead to eternity.

Or you can pray through the alphabet. Pray for something beginning with A. It doesn’t matter what – something. There’s only you and God there: you have fun together.  Pray for artichoke farmers. Or Australians. Or people who remind you of apes. Then move onto B. Or for an extra challenge, start with Z and work backwards. 

Insomnia’s a gift. Just don’t do the sheep thing.

The drinking straw and the eye-dropper

Looking for signs of the Kingdom

 

Drop

The drinking straw

We Christians, I thought the other day, look at the world through a drinking straw. We search the whole realm of nature for familiar markers of God at work that we can note and approve of: Bible-studying, praying, church-going.

People who encounter us feel this. They feel themselves scrutinized and judged through a drinking straw. We don’t see the totality of them, or care about their world really; we’re only interested in what fits through our drinking straw. Unsurprisingly, they are not attracted.

The eye-dropper

There’s another way of looking at God’s work: the eyedropper. In this picture, the activity of God  is like a drop of ink dripped into a clear liquid. The liquid could be a moment in time, or a human soul, or the whole world, or the whole universe. (The scale doesn’t matter; the principle is the same.) God colours the whole.

This seems to me a more Biblical picture. The Kingdom of God is the mustard seed that takes over the garden, the yeast that ferments all the flour, the feast at the end of the time to which all humanity is invited. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his Son.’

Who are we?

So are we evangelicals drinking-straw servants of an eye-dropper God, the narrowly-focussed in the service of the Wide? It can certainly seem that way. Our services are all about Jesus, our noticeboards are full of people all doing Jesus-themed things. Our Sunday Schools could be site of the old joke, where the new teacher asks the kids ‘what’s got a bushy tail, lives in trees and eats nuts?’ And after a long silence a kid pipes up, ‘I’m pretty sure the right answer is “Jesus” but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’

Drinking straw servants?

Drinking straw servants of an eyedropper God? It’s an easy charge, and I think we are somewhat guilty, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Here’s why. There is a place in love for infatuation. There is a season for a deep, greedy, obsessive searching for and finding God. There’s a time to get the drinking-straw perspective deep into your heart. When you decide to marry someone, you spend time, in love, obsessively rearranging your mental furniture. Perhaps it’s similar when you make Christ your Lord.

But I don’t think we should get stuck here. Oh God, give us breadth. Securely loved,  with the basics settled, we are all the better set up to see God’s life dripping everywhere, and to cooperate  with it.

A creation that works together

Sometimes organisms make things easy for each other

‘[Fungi] are often completely essential to the trees they form a relationship with, and can even pass nutrients from one plant to another. This is yet another example of how the ‘red in tooth and claw’ picture of the living world is only one side of the story. Cooperation is every bit as important as competition. It is thought that fungi helped plants to transition onto land, and that in fact nearly every major transition in the evolution of living things involved a new type of cooperation. In other words, in the struggle for survival, a bit of snuggling is often needed.

Quoted from Ruth Bancewicz’s Science and faith blog — always worth a read.

‘Pruning’ = slowing

This blog argues the virtues of slowing down, and it tries to frame the argument as part of Christian discipleship.

How to square the two? The Apostle Paul, for example, did not appear to slow down in later life, take it easy, pick up a hobby or two. A busy friend of mine grumbled that his (retired) wife wanted him to ‘go to garden centres in the afternoons’. He would rather be pressing on with work.

Yet there is a Biblical metaphor for slowing down: it’s called ‘pruning’ and makes its appearance as those familiar with the Bible will know, in John chapter 15. It makes sense as slowing down. My apple tree is in full blossom at the moment. If the bees get busy, soon it will sprout loads of fruit, baby apples. Some will fall off of their own accord. But some I ought to take off. I remove some fruit to make the best fruit. I cut down its fruitful options to make it put its strength into just making good fruit.

My tomatoes at the moment are hopeful little seedlings poking out of a flower pot. When they are bigger, I will pinch off the top so they stop growing. I will nip out some of their fruitful options. They won’t reach the sky. But they will make good tomatoes.

I wrote to a friend the other day about the joys of the third age: house paid for, kids flown, perhaps free to choose your fruiful work for now–at least until or unless other circumstances overtake you.

I think God kept pruning the Apostle Paul and slowing him down by throwing him in jail. This is best avoided. Cut down, slow down, fill your best fruit.

‘Trust in the slow work of God’

My blog’s theme, thought of by someone else and expressed better

esalen_pointhouse_092

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The end of a claustrophobic life

Midlife: A Philosophical Guide
I read a wonderful description of middle-age angst the other day, written by a 41-year-old. He called it:

‘a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear.’ 1.

The best thing was remembering feeling exactly that–perhaps when I was in my forties too– but not now feeling it anymore.

What changed?

For me it was a years of ill-health and disappointment. My heart stopped in 2011, though happily they managed to re-start and fix it. Then in 2013 I spent a month in a coma and the following couple of years in and out of wheelchairs.

At work, from 2008 onwards  I had ten years of painful transition from a publishing contract to a self-publishing life. 2 I sell fewer books but now I write and teach things that refresh and renew my spirit (occasionally, they help other people too).

In that desert time I think I found three things that really mattered: worship, relationships, and vocation.  Add in a couple of others (recovered health, financial security, kids doing great) and I have been able to make the following Bible text my screensaver:

In my distress I cried out to the Lord

The Lord answered me and put me in a wide open place

Worship, relationship, vocation; not claustrophobia, a wide open space.

It feels like a discovery.

The need to unknow

Uncertainty and scepticism strengthen faith

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.

Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:

It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).

Your God is too small

by J. B Phillips [The Epworth Press]
Price: £4.51 - - -

I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.

Star Struck

by Dr. David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey [Zondervan]
Price: £8.72 - - -

Happy failure

The value of oops and downs

oopsWith the start of a new academic year looming, this is one my better subjects: failure. The kind of failure I’m thinking of is not some kind of accidental slip-up, a bit of inattention.

I mean the failure that comes despite careful planning and good counsel and, if you’re a Christian, diligent prayer. Despite your best efforts, it didn’t work out. However you spin it, it didn’t succeed.

Here are notes I made while reflecting on my failures and disappointments:

  1. We are in process with God, his ways are not ways, and ‘failure’ and ‘success’ look different to him than they do to us.
  2. Failure is a normal part of life.
  3. It is a false spirituality to think that we are immune from failure, and so must re-define it as success.
  4. There are puzzles in this Universe we will never solve.
  5. It’s good to be reminded to put our motivation and trust in God, not in our own success or our own selves.
  6. God’s presence, in the midst of failure or while pursuing an ultimately failed attempt, is an enduring sign of his favour. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.’
  7. There’s a freedom and joy that comes from belonging to the community of the failed, the got-it-wrong.