Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Be like a child: be furious

Sweet, innocent and furious
 Jesus said "unless you change and become like little children" you will never enter the kingdom of heaven". When interpreting this most people think of all the lovely qualities of children, so trusting, meek and gentle.

A few days ago I was in some woods with my family and some friends of ours. My daughter (four years old) rushed up to tell me something just as the son of my friend demonstrated his ninja kicking skills on a large branch. The branch whistled past my daughter's head, mere millimetres from knocking her out.

I held Irina whilst she recovered from the initial shock, reassuring her that it was alright to cry if she wanted and that it was no-one's fault, just an accident. When I finally let go of her the expression on her face wasn't a tearful one, but one of unbridled fury - utter rage shining in her eyes. But it wasn't directed at poor Sam, despite the depth of her emotion she was holding the anger, controlling it. Just. Without speaking she pointed towards our car. She wanted me to stop fussing over her and to leave.

Children feel things. They really feel things. They haven't yet been tamed by the world. They're capable of incredible selfishness and malevolence but also astonishing joy. I think it's been decades since I enjoyed anything as much as my daughter enjoys being bounced around on my knee. A simple pleasure without filters, the joy of being.

I want to feel like that again. But you can't have the joy without the anger. We need to be whole people, healed people with healthy emotions, and that means the totality of human experience. The pleasures but also the pains.

The bible says to be angry but do not sin. Irina is often angry, sometimes shaking with rage. I've been trying to teach that it's ok to be angry, but she can't direct it at people. To master her anger, not be mastered by it. A hard lesson for an adult let alone a four year old. That's why I was so pleased to see her hold her anger, not to direct it. I want her to stay that wild, to be untamed, to experience life with intensity. But to be angry at the right things.

Anger is an energy (that reminds me of a song...), a power, a motivating force that can make things happen and bring change. It can be hate. It can be destructive, selfish and evil. But love hates too. Love hates injustice. Love hates when people suffer and hurt. And love does something about. It starts with being angry. Really, really angry.

If you've never felt the anger of God then you're missing out on a big part of his nature and character. We mustn't be afraid to acknowledge and experience the anger of God. God is love, and love is angry.

So be like a child. Be furious.

Bring on the battle. A call to war.

Ragnar Lothbrok

I've been watching a TV series called Vikings, following the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok and his band of fierce vikings as they fight, love and adventure their way across Europe. The series is fictional but based on the norse legends of an at least partly-historical warrior king called Ragnar Lothbrok.

In this TV series the vikings fervently believe that their place in Valhalla is secured by dying in battle. Warfare is not something to be feared, but relished as either a means of acquiring wealth and land or securing their place in paradise. And so they rush joyfully and fearlessly into the fray, more afraid of dying in their beds than on the battleground. This makes them a terrible force, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

In the episode I watched yesterday, season 3 episode 9 I believe, the vikings are attacking Paris (an historical event from the 9th century apparently). The warfare has turned against them and it looks like the vikings will be repelled. At this point Ragnar's son enters the fray, climbing up the siege ladders as his comrades are fleeing and dying. Seeing his son advance into almost certain death Ragnar runs, not to dissuade him but to join him in the fight.

The image that struck me was Ragnar, a hopeless lone man at this point, descending onto a horde of the enemy. In his eyes is a look of fierce determination, and the joy of battle. This is what he was born for! And he enters the melee with fury, scattering the French before him until he is finally thrown from the walls.

Christianity, renowned as a religion of love and peace, is also full of the imagery of war. Put on the whole armour of God, we fight not against flesh and blood but against evil, the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, and many more. My church is even called The Jesus Army.

Life is hard. It can feel like constant hand-to-hand combat at times. It's a struggle to find meaning, a struggle to bear responsibilities, a struggle to love, a struggle to know what to do and a struggle to find God in it all. But that spirit that Ragnar carried is what I want. A struggle or not, life is all we have. So let's descend upon the struggle with the joy of battle in our hearts and in our eyes. Through the mess, the difficulty, the wounds and the pain, let's enter the melee with energy and fury. Let us be terrible and magnificent. If not this then what is the alternative. To sit back and let life be something that happens to us? I refuse. I will be something that happens to life.

There's nothing else, no other option but to fight. If we can't find a joy in this, then we can't find joy at all. So rejoice in the warfare, descend upon the enemy without fear - for to die in battle secures your eternal victory! Death is not the enemy, the only defeat is retreat, to give up. Fight my brothers and sisters fight, whatever your battle, whatever your struggle, gird your loins, lick your wounds but pick up your axe. We have a war to win, and a warrior king to lead us!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Rehabilitating Intensity

I've been in my church, the Jesus Fellowship UK,  for nearly twenty years now. Again I'm feeling old! The church has been through many changes, and indeed is in a particular period of change right now.

It used to be, back in the day, that we would often chasten brothers or sisters who were over-zealously applying rules "don't be too intense".

Maybe in those days we were too intense, both in fervour and in our desire to conform other people's behaviour to our expectations. The change to a more relaxed approach, accepting people for who they are and concentrating on loving them, is certainly an improvement in many ways.

But I'd like to rehabilitate intensity. Not intensity of enforcing rules, but intensity of faith and experience. I don't want my life to drift, wondering if it could or should have been more. I want my life to burn, to blaze, to mean something.

David, a man after God's own heart, wrote:
Psalm 69
9 for zeal for your house consumes me
In both Hebrews and Deuteronomy it is written "our God is a consuming fire". Or how about:
Isaiah 12:6
“… Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

1 Peter 1:9
you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,

Plenty more examples abound. Our experience of God, the normal Christian life, is meant to be intense. Inexpressible joy, God great in our midst, consumed with zeal - this is what being a Christian is meant to be like. Maybe not all the time, but certainly some of the time and preferably more of the time.

I want my experience of God to be intense. I want my experience of the power of God to be intense, not as an end in itself but because if we want to know the life and power of God at work in the church - changing lives, healing people, doing a work that is real and lasting - it's going to take some intensity! We seem to think that moving in the power of God means praying and hoping he'll do something. The call, the challenge, the opportunity, is for us to know and move in the power of God.

So how do we get there? Well let's start by asking how much of the power of God can you cope with? How much intensity can your mind and soul bear? The power of God moves through renewed minds and souls. For this to happen with any strength takes a healed and strong mind and character. Strength of mind and character seem to be underrated qualities these days, but if you want to know the power of God you'll need them. This is why I recommend meditation for developing strength of mind in a disciplined way. The deep soul healing that goes along with this is a nice bonus! If we're to do the things that Jesus promised, then it's going to require his power moving through us. We need to be vessels that can carry that life and power. Exercising the power of God isn't simply a case of praying and hoping God does it. He wants us to do it, and so we must be capable of carrying the intensity of his love and it must be part of our experience. If the power of God is weak in you how can you expect to do great things in his name?

This is not about emotionalism or seeking after an experience. It's about being strong and deep people capable of reaching into the depths of God, and that takes determination and a growing intensity. We're too far from God, we're too weak, and we only scratch the surface of what is possible. You know there's so much that is possible, that the power of God is beyond what we see currently. But this isn't a depressing fact, it's an opportunity. There's more, let's push on into it! The depressing thing would be if this was all there was.

Beyond this, intensity of knowing the love and power of God doesn't just happen. Our God isn't a capricious, stingy miser - doling out and withholding his love and power at random or on a whim. The power and life of God is there for us to take! Again I return to the scripture " the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force". (Alternative interpretations notwithstanding...) It takes an act of force to fully enter the kingdom. Deep is the darkness that covers the earth, we don't easily see or hear God and what he is doing. Being fully transformed is going to take some force! Not all at once maybe, gradually over time certainly, but force and power nonetheless.

Finding God isn't hard, but it requires dedication. Buying the kingdom pearl requires us to sell everything else. It's that process of searching, of turning our lives into God, that changes and refines us. As we search for God in a real way, with our lives not just our minds, we become fit to meet with him. If we are to love God with all of our heart, all of our mind and all of our soul then we must be able to bring them all to him. And that means dragging our minds and souls out of what they're entrenched in. We're big people with big souls, capable of far more than we can imagine. All of our past, our relationships, our skills and abilities, desires and longings. There's far more to you than you realise. The challenge is to bring all of that to God, let all of your soul be filled with the life of God. Again, the most effective way I've found for unfurling the (sometimes murky) depths of my soul and bringing it to God is through meditation.

But whatever spiritual practise you find brings you to God, approach it with dedication and determination. Let your faith reach your guts, not just something of the mind or even the emotions. If we want to really burn with life, if we're willing to be consumed with zeal, then we need it to reach into all of what we are. With strength. These aren't just words. Not just fanciful ideas. Find a way to make it real. Actually do it! Otherwise you're just another person building a house on the sand and dreaming of the rock. If your spiritual life isn't driving you into intensity, then find something that does! Not something that tickles the mind, that inspires you with interesting ideas, but something that reaches your core - consumes you with zeal. This is the search, how do we find God in a real way? I keep using that word "real". Let us know the real God who created the universe and let's experience his power amongst us. Let's see the promises of Jesus fulfilled amongst us, let's see people find life and finding healing. Otherwise what are we doing, why are we wasting our time with half a faith - claiming we believe but not willing to prove it. But know this: if you dare to take God at his word, to push your life fully into him risking intensity and what it might cost, pushing all else aside, he won't disappoint.

The safeguard against a weird intensity, wrong intensity. Is always love. Love for people and love for the kingdom. If your search for God, your zeal for his house, doesn't help you love people then you're doing it wrong! Passion may (should?) make people feel uncomfortable at times, it should be challenging and sharp, but it must drive you to love. A good measure, on the whole, of whether you're really loving people is do they feel loved. Feelings certainly aren't everything, and speaking the truth in love doesn't always leave people feeling loved at the time, but as a general guide it's a good one. So assess yourself humbly and honestly, am I really loving people? How do you spend your time, your thoughts, your energies. And if a God focus, an intense search for his life, is leading you to spending more time with people and loving them more then there's a good chance you're onto something! Let's get there together, and burn with life. Intensely.