Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Poetic Meditations

I have published a poem with Christian content on the poetry section of my Bloggery. It is The Fear of Not Having Enough.

This emerged from an exercise in a writing class. It turned out to be more than a mere writing exercise. I have to confess that it speaks of a real fear of mine. I also found that God spoke to me as I read aloud what I had written. If you share this fear, then I hope that you too will be encouraged by these words and find that generosity of spirit need not be limited by what we perceive to be our material limitations but is instead funded and underwritten by the unending wealth of the God we worship.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On Being Ready

My dog was looking a little glum this morning as I was reading my bible and having a quiet start to the day. He didn't know what I had planned for him so, to cheer him up a bit, I decided to tell him.

Talking fairly quickly so he would not quite get everything and act prematurely, I told him that he was coming with me in the car and that I was taking him to spend the day with a friend of our's of whom he is particularly fond - but not yet, he would have to wait.

I could see from the expression on his face and the tilting from side-to-side of his head that he was listening intently, trying to make some sense out of the stream of noise I was producing. He got the word 'car' and our friend's name but, as I expected, missed and was a little bemused by all the padding.

Well, once I had stopped talking, you could see the cogs still whirling behind his eyes and the excited whine he suddenly emitted told me that he had worked it out. Of course, being a dog, and living in the moment, he missed the word 'wait' and wanted to do it now. He settled again as I read on but gave out a pleading, and sometimes demanding, whimper every so often, just to let me know that he hadn't forgotten what I had promised him and he wanted to get on with it! (No, I'm not imagining all this, he really is that bright.)

The time came to go, and his contained excitement exploded into action. He started crashing about the place while I tried to put his lead onto his collar, bit on his collar as I tried to pass it under his chin, jumped on me as I tried to put my shoes on and basically got in the way of all my efforts to prepare him for the journey. If he had cooperated calmly, we would have been under way sooner... Silly dog. But we did get there, in the end.

Unfortunately, Christians can be a bit like this. We hear from God about something he has planned for us but he leaves the picture a little hazy so we don't jump the gun. We don't get quite the whole picture but grasp enough to understand the general idea. Then we get all impatient and want to do it now, and start telling others what they should be doing (why is grace so often the first casualty?) before we have understood properly and they are anywhere near ready for it. Then the time comes and we try to do it ourselves and get in a right old tangle; unfortunately, we can do a lot of damage in the process.

So many moves of God have fallen into disregard and disrepute because of our immature behaviour. We get caught up in the excitement and forget the purpose. We think we are ready but he still has preparations to make. We decide we know what we are doing and miss the guiding hand of God; worse still, we think we are the only ones who know what we are doing and form factions. We even get in God's way and stop him doing what he wants to do. We think we've arrived but, really, it's only the next step in the journey.

Silly people. But he gets us where he wants us, in the end...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Big Twelve

This is a collection of poems written for a church writing project. The subject matter is the 'The Big Twelve', the values that the life of the church is built upon. They are, of course, my expression of the values, and do not necessarily represent the 'official' stance of the church. Each title relates to one of the values.

Passion
Almighty God
From Everlasting
To Everlasting
Author of life
Source of all things
Still, small voice
Father

Creator of all
Judge of all
Lover of all
Saviour of all
Lord of all
Over all
All-in-all
Jesus

Gentle dove
Roaring flame
Whisper of truth
Indwelling power
Inspiring guide
Breath of God
Holy Spirit

Come, dwell with us
Or we are corpses
Without life,
Without hope;
Empty husks
Driven before the wind.

You are our life,
Our hope,
Our dreams,
Our meaning,
Our purpose,
Our all.

Grace
Lord, we are imperfect,
But that you know
And love us anyway.
We get things wrong,
But, wonder of wonders,
Still you love us.
When we’ve wandered afar,
Your love has always
Waited for us,
Understood,
Forgiven.

You’ve given us a family
Of which we’re unworthy –
No surprise there.
We know our lack,
When we take time to be honest.
In your family,
We find grace, give grace,
Have room to grow;
Brothers and sisters
Of each other
And of Christ.

Together, in your family,
We’re learning to love,
And that love covers sins.
We are life and breath
To each other.
Happy, hurt and hurting,
Together we’re learning
The value of family, your family,
Where Blood
Counts for more than
Being Right.

Truth
There is a Book of ageless wisdom
Whose pages show,
In shades of light and dark,
The lives of people of a by-gone day.
Their stories tell the timeless truth
That life is lived best
In contact with its Source.

Although the times have changed,
And modern men face challenges new,
The Truth holds true:
The Companion still guides us best
Life’s fullest potential to attain.

The priceless treasures of the Book
Still lead us right.
Illumined by God’s Fire,
The written word yet points us to
The Living Word, to Christ,
The Lord, the Source of Life,
The Way to God, absolute Truth.

Welcome
Welcome!
Not just, ‘Good morning,’
Or, ‘How do you do?’
But, Honoured Guest,
In this, our special place,
There is a special place for you.
Here, there is peace and sanctuary;
A place to be your genuine self
Without prejudice or distinction.
Come, bask in the warmth of love,
Enjoy respect for who you are;
Your unique presence
Completes our company.
When you leave,
Go with our peace,
And plan to return.

If, among us, you find
Meaning and Purpose, then
Stay.

Share with us in
Joy or sorrow,
Failure or success,
Victory or defeat.
Grow with us;
Become one with us
And find belonging
And acceptance.

For we are family, related by Blood
And always there is room at the Table
For another.

Unity & Diversity
My brother,
You are not like me,
Nor I like you;
Our viewpoints overlap,
Not coincide.
I do not have your gifts,
Nor you mine.
Your weaknesses are not mine
But, then, mine are unvisited on you.
Together, we are strong:
You lift me when I fall;
I stand and fight beside you.
We each know pain,
And so can understand.
We each know success,
And can cheer the other’s victory.
We need each other.
We have each other.
We are one,
Joined not at the hip but at the Cross.

Gathered & Dispersed
You are there,
I am here;
Our God is in both places.
You’re asleep,
I’m awake;
He still sees both our faces.
Together now,
Side-by-side;
Our union God embraces.

Life (I)
Life is for living:
That’s how God made it.
We are for life:
For, so He made us –
To dance,
To sing,
To feast,
To work,
To play,
To enjoy,
To worship from a full heart.

Dour religion is not in the plan;
Someone else makes that…

This wondrous world is
A place for us to be,
God’s gift to us –
A place made for us:
Its sights,
Its sounds,
Its smells,
Its tastes,
Its textures.
All of life
Offered to the Creator is true worship.

Life (II)
Choose life that lasts for ever,
Choose hope that will not fail.
Face the fallen realm with vigour
And laugh in the face of Death,
Whose sting is drawn,
Whose grip is greased.
Choose life that lasts for ever.

Society
The world needs Jesus.
We have him,
Yet he is not ours to keep
But to share.

The world has lost its way.
We have a course,
And we are lights on it
To help others navigate.

The world needs hope.
We have the means
To show what can be,
If we’re bold enough to use it.

The world needs justice.
We can take our stand
With the down-trodden
And help them lift their heads.

The world needs mercy.
We can help
The damaged lives we meet
Make new beginnings.

The world needs a friend
To lean on, share with,
Turn to, grow with.
The world needs Jesus.

Dependent
If we could convince men of wrong-doing,
and persuade genuine change of heart…
If we could reach the hearts of the lonely,
and satisfy them with fullness…
If we could bless the children,
and give them a future full of hope…
If we could touch the hopelessly sick,
and fully restore their health…
If we could shine light into darkness,
and make God known…
If we could steer our own lives,
and keep a true course…
If we could, then we would
have no need of the Holy Spirit.

We can’t.

He can.

Giving
A week has 187 hours.
For a third of them, I sleep;
For more than another third,
I travel and work, work and travel.
Then I eat and wash, and walk the dog…
How much time do you need?
Here it is, and thanks for yours.

I’m blessed with many talents.
Some of them are useful.
Some of them, well, less so – but fun!
I can do some things you can’t do,
And some I don’t need to do.
What do you need me to do for you?
Here’s my talent, and thanks for yours.

I have an income.
The government wants a cut – a big one…
I have to eat, have somewhere to live,
Pay the bills, run the car, fund a church.
And, yes, get things I don’t actually need…
What are you short of? Can I pay?
Here’s my money, and thanks for yours.

God has thousands of cattle
On thousands of hills;
Bucketsful of gold, and bathsful of silver,
Righteousness, holiness, purity, more,
And the biggest debt of all to pay…
How does He help? What does He say?
‘Here’s My life; and thanks for yours…’

Balance
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All church and no home makes Jack a dull boy.
All Jack and no Jill makes Jack a dull boy.

Jack is Jill’s, and Jill is Jack’s;
Joy in church, at home – relax;
Vocation kicks! Chill at the Flicks;
All this makes Jack a brilliant boy.

Body, Spirit, Soul are we.
God made us thus, so feed all three!
God gives you life and, with it, He
Gives all things richly to enjoy!

Excellence
My best,
Your best,
All our bests –
For the Best

He is not ‘Good enough’,
His offering not ‘Near enough’,
His grace not ‘Make do and mend’,
His mercy not ‘As much as could be spared’,
His love not ‘The thought that counts’.

He is perfection,
His offering, complete,
His grace, unbounded,
His mercy, crossing a universe to be expressed,
His love, bleeding and dying on a cross.

The best we can do
With the best we have;
He deserves no less.
For we proclaim an unseen King
To a blind world that walks by sight,
And guess what it sees first…

My best,
Your best,
All our bests –
For the Best

Copyright © 2008 Desmond Hilary

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Value of Discipline

Last weekend was a difficult one, at least as far as my dog and I are concerned. Last weekend I had to administer discipline, and it was not easy. What it taught me, in a limited measure, is how God must feel when he has to discipline me. It makes me feel sorry for the grief I have caused him in my time, never mind the grief I have caused others. I think of David’s statement in Psalm 51, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned,’ and maybe for the first time understand what David meant.

We had family staying with us, and my dog decided to let my nephew know his position in the pack. He did so in a typically doggish way by snapping at the boy: no serious harm intended, just a warning. Naturally, we humans disagreed with Max’s point of view and he had to be disciplined – a measure amounting to immediate isolation for a while. Later that day, he decided to assert his ownership of a tennis ball when I approached him by snapping at me. Again, this was not an opinion I could share with him, and so, once again, he was dragged into isolation by the scruff of his neck. The outcome was his total lack of interest in the tennis ball, even when I later offered it to him.

The next day, he had another argument with my nephew. Realising that he had not learnt his lesson, I put him into isolation for the whole of the evening and, whenever I had to enter the same room in which he was incarcerated, totally ignored him. This time, the message got through. Max lay in his cage looking forlorn. At each of my appearances, there was the most pathetic of appeasing flickers from the end of his tail, and an upward glance in my direction from beneath flattened ears; he was in the doghouse and he knew it. The punishment was compounded by my bringing my nephew into the room, both of us ignoring Max, and my making very clear the boy’s rank in the pack above Max.

Max had to be allowed out for essential relief before bed-time, but the whole process was conducted with curt orders and immediate compliance, and ended with a return to solitary confinement.

The following morning, Max seemed to be behaving himself. As far as he was concerned, this was another day, and the pack order had been changed for reasons he was unable to remember. He showed no interest in my nephew, who still wanted to stroke Max, and who had learnt to act important so as to reinforce his status in the pack.

The whole episode was a painful experience for dog and owners alike. The problem is, we love our dog and are fully aware of the extreme circumstances under which his unruly behaviour was being expressed. As a dog, he needs exercise, discipline and affection, in that order, to be a balanced, calm animal. Currently, he is recovering from major surgery on his hind leg and is not able to have all the exercise he needs. To his credit, he has needed very little in the way of discipline during this time of inaction but, perhaps to our discredit, and, because of our anthropomorphic tendencies towards our dog, he has had more than usual affection. Added to this, he found himself in the unusual circumstance of being surrounded with new house guests who had to be fitted into his world view. It is not entirely surprising that he had ideas above his station.

Nevertheless, as responsible dog owners, there is no way that we could tolerate his wrong assessment. We also love our nephew, and would be horrified to think that he came to any harm because of our dog, or even became afraid of dogs. Max wasn’t going to learn the easy way and so he had to learn the hard way. Even so, I wanted to let him out of solitary and tell him that everything was OK, and I found it very hard (but necessary) to hold my nerve and persist with the discipline.

I am reminded of passages in Isaiah where God expresses his anger at the sins of his people, and in the next breath his agony of love for the same offenders, his only desire being to show them mercy.

When we do wrong, we hurt not just the person we sin against, but the God who loves us. The pain he feels is not because he is just and holy but because he loves us and wants us to live in relationship with him. Scripture tells us of a God who is slow to anger but quick to be merciful, who bends over backwards to avert judgement, who sent prophet after prophet to his people with warnings when he could have justifiably dealt out wholesale justice without delay.

Well, I think Max has learnt something. He has certainly been more readily obedient since, and has enjoyed restored favours: he is certainly loved no less for his misdemeanours. I think I have learnt something too. God does not enjoy handing out discipline. He would far rather show mercy but discipline us he will, when we need it to bring correction of behaviour and to restore right relationship to him. I have realised that I cause God double grief by my offences, firstly by the offence itself, and secondly because he has to embark on a course of action that is not pleasurable for him. Furthermore, the purpose of discipline is not to mete out justice but to restore the balance and preserve the good, to make love available to us once more.

That makes me want to live right.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Vision of Delight

I wonder how many people understand what God thinks of them. I mean, really understand what He really thinks. I have, I think, some insight into what He thinks about us because of what I think about my dog.

Max was a rescue dog; we adopted him into our family (more on that one later, perhaps) as a totally unknown quantity. We liked the look of him and, when I get around to uploading a picture of him, you will understand why. Actually, I must confess to being a bit put off by the drooling he demonstrated on his first trial walk with us, and the potentially soggy carpets of which it was a portent. Fortunately, we managed to see past that to - well, what? Obviously, in the 40 minutes or so that we spent with him, we had no idea what he would be like or if we would be able to manage him, especially as we had never owned a dog before. I don't know what it was about him, but we decided to take him on.

He's a big dog, a boxer-labrador cross (I usually explain to people that he runs and dribbles like a boxer and eats and swims like a labrador) and has loads of personality; a great sense of fun, and is full of vitality. Consequently, he needs lots of exercise, and we have no option but to go with him. That is usually no problem because we enjoy the excercise too.

The thing about Max is that he is always behaving like a dog. He spends his whole life doing doggy things. He loves to play with his tennis ball, to chew sticks, to roll about on his back, to run and run and run, to swim, to sniff (all sorts of things), to do the things a dog must do (doggy-doo) and, having done them, to make sure other dogs know he was there (graffiti is much less of a problem when seen in this light). He likes to meet other dogs; sometimes he likes to play with them, and other times, for some reason, take a dislike to them. My amateur behavioural psychology of dogs is not yet well-tuned enough to see for certain who starts the bother that we sometimes get into. Sometimes it's Max, sometimes it isn't.

Whatever he does, he is doing what he is designed to do. He can't help it, he's a dog, and being a dog is what he does best. The point is, I love him being a dog. He delights me in all sorts of ways, just by being what he is, and doing what he does. It is fascinating studying him, and interacting with him. There is one specific aspect of his behaviour that is especially delightful: his willingness to please and live under my authority as his pack leader. Even when he gets things wrong, I still love him, and so I correct him, and he still follows.

What can we draw from all this? Well, God made us as human beings and he really likes what he has made. He doesn't expect us to be anything other than human beings, except, perhaps to be human beings in full possession of our spiritual faculties. He made us with incredible talents and abilities, and I'm sure he is disappointed when we invent all sorts of religious reasons for placing aspects of our God-given make-up off-limits (see the entry on 'Grace'). Of course, there are contexts where our nature may be wrongly indulged but our human condition is not, of itself, abhorrent to God: after all, he brought it into being.

God is most delighted with us when we recognise his authority in our lives and follow him and his plans and purposes for our lives. Even when we get things wrong, he still loves us and corrects us as necessary; always with the intent that we continue to follow him; never to push us away.

So, just as I delight in my dog because he is a dog and want him to be the best dog he can be, God delights in me because I am a human being, and his longing is that I become fully the human being that he made me to be.

Just knowing that God delights in me makes a whole lot of difference to the way I view Him, and approach Him. It makes me feel special just as I am, and does my self-worth a whole heap of good.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Grace

The Grace of God is amazing. I am amazed that I could spend so many years of my Christian life in ignorance of it and in trying to earn the favour I have already been given for free, amazed that I could wander so far from the path and still find a ready welcome on my return, amazed that, eventually, I have begun to realise that His grace and not my effort is the thing that holds me close to God.

So much of what I have learned of the Christian life was, in fact, nothing more than legalism. I have to say that no-one was actually trying to lead me into error; we were all of us sincerely trying to do the best we knew how. Even so, well-meaning people teach new converts rules instead of relationship, and we learn a pattern of behaviour rather than a walk. I ‘grew up’ (from the age of 17 onwards) with a list of things to avoid in order to not be ‘worldy’. I even learned a number of things that I should do in order to be ‘spiritual’. All these things I willingly took on board because of a genuine desire to please, to do right, and, less commendably, to be accepted in my new social circle. I learned to talk authoritatively about things of which I had no real experience, to stand up for things that needlessly erected impenetrable barriers between me and my friends and family.

I have wondered why God puts up with our legalism and our imposition of it on others – and I have done my fair share of that. I think the problem arises because, although we are tuned to the right station, the tuning is poor and interference from other sources confuses the message. Strangely enough, I think that it is precisely because God is gracious that he puts up with our lack of grace. He knew where I was at and where he wanted me but He could not uproot and transplant me too soon without damaging me.

When the time came, He got me moved to University in a whole new city. Lesson number one was that there is life in other denominations (even the Baptist one!) and nowhere near as many taboos! I was daft enough however, to go back after graduation because of some misshapen view of the will of God for my life. It took Him another seven years to move me out again.

Whilst I was always taught that God loves me (and on many occasions was fully aware and convinced of that fact), and that we are saved by grace, not works, I never really understood the enormity of the concept of grace (I think enormity is probably the right word). I found that a lot of the things I was supposed not to do were actually very attractive to me, and the things I was supposed to do did not fit in at all with the way I functioned. (For example, I am not good at rising at 5 o’clock on a Friday morning for a weekly leaders’ prayer meeting and then doing a full day’s work. Why is staying up late to pray less spiritual than getting up early?). Failure to comply brought guilt. Guilt led to separation – well, an assumed separation – not just from God but also from my fellow believers who appeared not to be afflicted with my inadequacies. Discovering that many of the taboos were not actually in the Bible only added to the confusion, and made me feel rebellious because I could see no good reason why I should not enjoy these things but could not admit openly that I did.

(I once read an article in a denominational magazine about the ‘Loophole Mentality.’ The thesis was that Christians who claim that they can do certain things because the Bible does not forbid them have a ‘how much can I get away with’ attitude. It was another way of categorising worldly-mindedness. I think this is pharisaical. Why invent rules that God has not put in place? All that leads to is misplaced guilt. I also think it is farcical because every group’s rules are different. Now, of course there are things best avoided, but what those things are for me depend largely on what my shortcomings are; my limitations should not become blanket restrictions for all. Conversely, I have a responsibility that my liberties do not become stumbling-blocks for you.)

Well, eventually God managed to teach me a lesson about faith, and got me moved to yet another city in the North. Once there, I left behind the narrow straights in which I had been trying to sail and moved into more open waters. It is true to say that many of the behavioural patterns I had learned continued to operate in my life. It is also true to say that many of the unwarranted constraints were off and I began to explore who I was and to make up for lost time. I regret to note that some of the new experiences were sinful ones, and I have been horrified at how low I could sink after so many years of apparent Christian living. Some of my most damaging episodes (to others) left me wondering if I could ever walk with God again. Yet I have been gobsmacked by God’s determination that I should be His. I found myself restored and useful once more – and entirely because of God’s grace. Unfortunately, I continued to be motivated by performance to earn acceptance. Some of us are very slow learners, and old habits die hard.

The biggest blow of all came when my mother’s illness and death from cancer led me into depression. For several years, I could not read the Bible, I wondered if there were really a God, and came close to giving up completely. It is only the grace of God that has kept me. Before this darkness closed in He warned me very clearly what I was to encounter, although I had no idea what the prophetic picture he placed in my mind meant for me at the time I saw it. I had also received a prophetic word that ‘God was going to shatter some of [my] evangelical faith.’ I think the prophet concerned had either misheard God or had been reluctant to give full voice to what he heard: my faith has undergone wholesale demolition. Forewarned truly is fore-armed, and these presages of what was to come became anchors for me in my darkest times.

My only expression of faith in my journey through the darkness has been to say, ‘God, you must hold on to me because I cannot hold on to you.’ If only we could see it, this is exactly how God’s grace operates anyway: we none of us gained entry to or remain in the kingdom of God by our own effort. I am not ‘saved’ because I follow anyone’s rules; I am ‘saved’ because it pleases God to save me. I am learning that I am in a covenant relationship with God; his incomprehensible grace is part of that covenant, and he has held on to me, and I grow in confidence that he will always hold on to me. I am learning (painfully) that God is in no hurry with me, and that when faith grows weak because progress seems so slow, hope looks forward to the day when I shall be a little more tangibly what God wants me to be. He who has begun a good work in me will complete it. I am finally beginning to learn what it means to be a new creation, and not just to talk about it: my present, never mind my future, does not have to be determined by my past. I do not have to walk about with the burden of past failure, or to measure up to anyone’s expectation of what I should be right now.

In my experience, sin has certainly abounded but Grace, I am delighted to say, abounds much more. He gives more Grace; and love, and mercy, and forgiveness, His Holy Spirit, acceptance, sonship, and all he asks of me is that I do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. Who has any right to demand more?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Me and My Dog; My God and Me: Introduction

It's surprising what manner of things can inform one's faith. We acquired a dog during the tail end (no pun intended) of an episode of reactive depression triggered by the illness and death of my mother. Apart from the benefits that derive from having a great big, furry friend to cuddle (and I'm talking about the dog, not my wife who is neither great big nor furry), I discovered that my developing relationship with this intelligent animal made me think about my relationship with God in ways I previously had not.

We are, the dog and I, different species and we look at the world in different ways. For all that the British like to treat their dogs as children or anthropomorphised family members, dogs are dogs and they only ever interpret our behaviour in the light of their own understanding. Nevertheless, it is possible to develop a strong and mutually rewarding relationship with a dog. The trick is in communicating with the dog in language that he understands, and abandoning any expectation that he will learn any more than a few words of the Queen's English or accommodate human social conventions.

He is a social animal, like the human being, and that is why we are able to relate as well as we do. Even so, his society is based on the pack with a clear pecking order, and not democratic principles or freedom, fairness and equality. It has to be said that the pack is not a concept foreign to man: even our democratic society has its pecking order, oppressive regimes more so, and criminal and street gangs display pack dynamics with graphic clarity.

So, although we are different, we have points of contact, my dog and I, where our worlds collide; an interface through which we can express our wants and needs, joys and sorrows in ways that the other can understand and so respond. I have discovered many parallels between my two relationships, one with my dog, one with my God, and in this series of articles I intend to unpack them in the hope of encouraging my readers, whoever they may be. There is no heavy theology here, nor is there any intended trivialisation, merely simple observation that can inform the way we live our lives.