Tuesday 4 November 2014

Broken dreams and Psalm 42

Conchiglie Seashells 01/Alessio Sbarbaro/Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

   As children bring their broken toys
With tears for us to mend,
I brought my broken dreams to God
Because He was my Friend.

But instead of leaving Him
In peace to work alone,
I hung around and tried to help
With ways that were my own.

At last I snatched
   them back and cried,
"How can you be so slow?"
"My child," He said, "What could I do?
   You never let them go."

What does one say to a friend whose heart is aching?
When life's challenges seem to be eroding the hopes and dreams of the future...

Nothing on the scale of a tsunami.
More like a powerful spring tide,
Nevertheless, every time the moon is right, it creeps up the beach a little higher and a little stronger.

 As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  
When can I go and meet with God?
Most of us have been there, haven't we? So many times.
   Worn out by the relentlessness of life's challenges.
Spiritually it's like wandering on a deserted beach with nothing to drink... the tide is coming in again... it gets harder and harder to keep walking. Tired. Parched.
   I need fresh water.
So thirsty for God. He is the only one who can give me streams of living water...
   I need him so desperately.
Yet I find myself crying salty tears of disappointment and disillusionment - there's nothing else to eat.

My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    ‘Where is your God?’

I begin to wonder that very thing myself. Where is my God in this mess? Those who do not share my faith in God think he's left me... and it appears he has.

 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    ‘Where is your God?’ 

I'm suffering inside and trying to hide it from the world. And there's a deep sense of being alone in this trouble, everyone else seems to be getting along just fine... except me.
Casting my mind back to happier times does not help - joy seems almost elusive now. It won't do to dwell on what used to be...
      "Once upon a dream" when my hopes were young, and my heart expected a fairytale.

These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

Instead I feel like I am drowning. It would be so easy to give up... I'm done. Or undone.

 Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

Is this really what living the victorious Christian life is supposed to look like?
Not much overcoming. So much defeat. And guilt. 
   Perhaps I'm doing this all wrong?

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?

Yet, there is still hope! Even though I ask God,  
   ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’
      I already know that I am not abandoned on sinking sand - there is a Rock to cling to...

Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Saviour and my God.

And so I told my friend what I have to keep telling myself when my friends, my family, my church, my job or my health fail me, when my hopes and dreams seem to be washing away... I must let go of trying mend my life, or the people in my life, and instead cling to the One who saves.

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me –
    a prayer to the God of my life.

And so I pray to my God who loves me and is able to save. He can mend what is broken. As a child I approach my Father and with tears running down my face I whisper...

"Daddy, my dream is broken. I was trying to be careful with it... But it slipped out of my hands and shattered on the floor... I can't get it back together again... it's in a million pieces. Please, please could you mend it? I know you can fix anything, and I loved it so much."

"Child, my precious child, nothing is impossible for me. I am able to do so much more than you can ask or imagine. I delight over you, but I want you to see that it is not a mended dream that is going to bring you lasting joy - it's me, your Father. Fixing a dream is easy, but instead I chose to do what is hard... it cost me everything, for what needs mending is your heart. I know it hurts, and it seems to take a long time, but when I have made your heart completely new, then you will find that all your dreams come true. Because then, and only then, you will delight in me, the Dreamgiver, and you will find that I am everything your heart desires."

Saturday 1 November 2014

A ghost story

By Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Isn't this picture hauntingly beautiful? It's nicknamed the Ghost Nebula and you can easily see why. There is a mysterious, brownish luminescence in the ghostly shapes of the cosmic dust clouds that create an otherworldly appearance, and on the left there seem to be human-like figures with arms raised as they drift through the starry expanse of the night sky.

Perfect for a night on which (according to pagan Celtic beliefs and folklore) the curtain dividing the living and the dead was supposed to lift allowing the spirits of the dead to walk among the living as ghosts haunting the earth. Eery to say the least. Enough to send a few shivers down my spine...

So, I'll ask - have you ever seen a ghost?

Jesus' disciples thought they did. But let me start the story at the beginning.

It was a dark and stormy night! (Matt 14:22-27; Mark 6:45-50) Very dark - sometime between 3am and 6am. And very stormy - the wind was blowing fiercely and the waves were buffeting the boat. The disciples were on their own and a considerable distance from land. I doubt they were getting much sleep. Actually, they were straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Cold, exhausted and alone... while Jesus was back on shore having a prayer retreat by himself up in the hills overlooking the lake.

Cold and exhausted, yes. But neither Matthew nor Mark mention anything about the disciples being scared... yet. Until... until they catch sight of something moving on the surface of the lake! Something, or someone? It's a human figure - walking on the water - and it's coming towards them.

How they manage to see a figure approaching the boat in the darkness I am not sure, perhaps it was glowing softly, but they all can, and they are terrified. After all, it couldn't be human - humans can't walk on water - it must be something sinister, and supernatural, like a ghost! The storm is mentioned as no more than an afterthought and we almost forget that it is raging on in the background. All their eyes are fixated on the ghostly figure, and their hearts are gripped with fear and terror.

But immediately
      the terror of the moment passes
            and the apparition speaks in a voice that is strangely familiar...

 ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’

Then they know... they know that voice! It's Him... Jesus! It's not a ghost at all! They don't have to be afraid.

I believe that Jesus still speaks these words to us today. No matter what our circumstances or what we may be terrified by we need to see that the One Person who can bring peace amidst the storm and instil courage where there is paralysing fear is here, with us.

See that Jesus is real: "It is I."

      Listen when he tells you, "Don't be afraid."

            "Take courage!" he's not a ghost. Instead he reminds us:

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.(John 16:33)

Friday 31 October 2014

It is finished but not over yet.

Yesterday I wrote my final Greek exam for the year. I think it went relatively well. Outside the examination room afterwards, there were the many "What did you get for that one?" type questions among students as each of us wanted to compare our own (often rather creative!) version of the sentences we were asked to translate.

Dissection of a Greek exam paper inevitably catapults me into various combinations of the following pendulum-swing reactions which tend to alternate in rapid succession:

  • firstly (and hopefully mostly), I experience the sweet confirmation of a correct answer,
  • and secondly (though far too commonly), I become perplexed at the bitter realisation that I have failed to recognise a form or incorrectly translated a word thereby throwing the whole meaning of a New Testament sentence into question theologically!

Ah well, it's finished. And after two semesters of learning Koine Greek, yes, I do feel a certain sense of accomplishment! And yes, I do want to share it with everyone in my world... or least with my social media networking world! But, what should I share? Of course, something intelligent, wise, articulate... perhaps even somewhat profound and inspirational...

Immediately veni vidi vici sprang to mind - a short, pithy statement in an ancient tongue that encapsulated the victory of my moment! But no. As much as I love Latin, it will not do the job of Greek, and in any case I am not fully convinced that I did in fact conquer.

Maybe some words from the New Testament itself then? How obvious! My Greek language studies were now finished. I wanted to declare exactly that, "It is finished!" and of course those same words are to be found in John 19:30 on the lips of Jesus himself:
“Then when he received the sour wine Jesus said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
What could be more appropriate? And so, having been warned by the lecturer that our level of Greek is now somewhat dangerous (mainly because after one year we know some Greek - enough to be able to read a fair chunk of the New Testament and therefore become tempted to think we are experts and not merely beginners - thanks Alan!) I armed myself with my Greek-English NT and looked up John 19:30 in the original language. After all, what good is it if I don't (carefully) apply what I have learned? And this is what I discovered...

It is finished is only one word in Greek: τετελεσται. Yet it is a HUGE word, not so much in size, but in its significance, some of which is lost in translation.

Now don't glaze over... work with me here. It's worth it, I promise.

τετελεσται [tetelestai] comes from the verb τελεω which means: I end, finish, accomplish, pay. So Jesus is saying right before he dies (it almost seems with his last breath) - after he has done everything... including coming into the world, living among us as a servant, proclaiming good news, and suffering a criminal's punishment despite being innocent - that something has at that point been accomplished, completed, finished, paid.

It had not all been for nothing (although it initially seemed that way to his followers).

Something really, really important had been done. It had actually been achieved.

The mission had been completed. And it proves to be of universal significance.

It was not Jesus saying, "I am finished." He says "It is finished." And the implication seems to be that "it" has been completed by him.

So I began rethinking my decision to use τετελεσται in declaring that I had finished my Greek exam. My self-described accomplishment can hardly be compared with Jesus' suffering and finished work on the cross. It seems to me that it is really only Jesus who can perfectly claim to have perfectly completed the work he was sent to do.

The Greek brings the significance of τετελεσται out more fully than the English since it is in what is called the perfect tense - Jesus' declaration is perfect! This is hugely significant for you and me, because the Greek perfect tense doesn't just tell us that an action occurred in the past and is over and done with, like my exam for instance. The perfect tense describes a completed action that has happened (in the past) and which continues to have implications for the present.

Jesus finished what he started out to do. And in finishing, it changed everything. For every human being. His life, death and resurrection has ongoing effects for our lives in present time. His "It is finished" was not an end at all, but a new beginning... it wasn't over yet!

τετελεσται is the perfect Greek word to declare completion (consummation), i.e. that the necessary process is finished  – with the results "rolling-over" to the next level (phase) of consummation.

He finished it. He said he finished it. It would be pretty useless if it wasn't perfect, if it didn't have ongoing effects for you and I. The power comes in the application of what has been finished. And for the one who believes on His name it will NEVER BE OVER.

So what shall I say then, I mean about my Greek exam being finished? I suppose there is a level on which I could still acceptably cry τετελεσται although it would never have an iota of the significance and universal effects of Jesus' words... it will all depend on whether or not I continue to apply what I have learned in one year of Greek during the months ahead, so that Greek might never be over for me, but might always be "finished" in the perfect sense!

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Wandering in search of Spring...

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,

Monday 20 October 2014

Inside the toolshed.

Photo by Michael Coghlan licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
I am the sort of person who asks a lot of questions. I always have. Not always out loud. Nowadays I mainly ask them quietly to myself inside my head (a very noisy place) since it is one thing to be a child who is constantly asking questions and quite another to be a grown up who hasn't learned to stop asking Why? How? What? and Where? I want to know!

If you were I (or I were you?), for one thing you would have hundreds of internal dialogues happening with yourself at any given moment... yes, even right now, and amongst the many, many discussions might be a rather simple yet obvious question:

Why would I call a blog "Just a speck of dust dancing in the Sonlight"?
And here is the reason, I read this:
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
  Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences. [C. S. Lewis, Meditation in a Toolshed, originally published in the Coventry Evening Telegraph (17 July 1945), reprinted in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970, 212]
By recording his observation of something completely ordinary and predictable that happens almost everyday in toolsheds around England, or at least in ones that have a crack at the top of the door, C. S. Lewis explained how I could understand my [Christian] worldview. For me it was a 'light bulb' moment.

Of course I realised that in order to see the trees and the Sun I must look along the beam - I must have the vantage point of a speck of dust floating within that ray of light. Translating this in terms of my faith: I know who God is because I can experience Him directly, and this influences the way I view and understand the world.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” ~C. S. Lewis

But there is also another way of seeing. It is a true yet different perspective that requires me to be the person looking at the sunbeam from the outside and watching the specks of dust caught in it. By stepping outside myself (as it were) I am able to see who I am in relation to God. Reality check...

I am almost nothing. I am like a speck of dust in comparison to the massive Sun. Astronomical, literally.

A few decades after Lewis' death, Voyager 1 proved this. On February 14, 1990, as part of its final photographic assignment the spacecraft turned around and took 60 images of Earth, the most famous of these is the picture below.

It is a snapshot of Earth taken from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometres and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. Can you see it?

In the image the Earth is a tiny point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the centre of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun.

A pale blue dot.
   A speck of dust floating silently in the vastness of the solar system caught in the light of the Sun.
      Almost insignificant.


Looking at the beam as an outside observer is a pretty humbling experience. I had never seriously thought of myself in terms of being dust. Specks of dirt. One speck of dirt. But, I needed to see myself this way. And then I rejoiced...

As a father has compassion on his children,
    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
    he remembers that we are dust. ~Psalm 103:13-14

God remembers dust. We are dust. God remembers us. We are not forgotten.

Having looked at the beam, I must also look along the beam. I am free to float and swirl in the Light, for I know and am known by the Son...

Just a speck of dust dancing in the Sonlight