Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A hell of a chapter

Fire and brimstoneFaced with nineteen verses of fire and damnation, I wasn’t sure what to write.

I write a weekly bible study for the Jesus Army. (The bible chapters for each week roll round on a rota, covering the whole bible every seven years or so – the New Testament, being shorter, is completed more like every three years).

What would you write when faced with Nahum chapter 3, as I was this morning? No offence to Nahum, I ought to say, as I may well meet him one day on some golden street up yonder. He had a job to do. And yet…

I’m not at ease with fire and judgement, and I’m skittish about Christians who are. It is clear that judgement, yes even eternal judgement (it’s a hell of subject) are very biblical. A God who isn’t Judge is not the God of the bible. But unlike that feisty early church theologian, Tertullian, I can’t rub my hands at the thought of sinners roasting.

To be clear, Nahum chapter 3 is not about hell. But it is about the destruction of a vast metropolis and everyone who lives in it. Nineveh’s evil, violence and oppression have overspilled the measure, and God says ‘Enough’. Time’s up. Cue fire and brimstone.

‘Will not the judge of all the earth do what is right?’ asked Abraham when faced with a similar city-becomes-bonfire scenario. And I can get where nervous old Abe’s coming from on this. Slightly worried, seeking reassurance that all the destruction is – well – right.

It was then that I noticed that the book of Nahum ends with a question. Which is unusual in the bible. In fact, a quick check confirmed there’s only one other book in the bible that ends with a question: Nahum’s prequel, Jonah.

Which got me thinking about those two questions: one  – Nahum's – about the human cry for justice (and God’s answer), the other – Jonah's – about human incomprehension of mercy (and God’s answer). And this is what I wrote. Hope it helps you, like it helped me, to understand just a little more about God – His great passion for justice, and His massive heart of mercy.

'Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder… Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord' (v.1, 5). This last chapter of Nahum paints a dramatic picture of the destruction of Nineveh, capital of Assyria (an empire whose violence oppressed the entire ancient world). After eighteen verses detailing destruction, the book ends with a question: 'All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?' (v.19) The implied answer is ‘nobody’; nobody has escaped Nineveh’s evil, and therefore everyone rejoices at her destruction.
  There is only one other book in the bible that ends with a question – the ‘prequel’ to this one: Jonah. Like Nahum, Jonah was told by God to proclaim Nineveh’s destruction (Jon.1:1). But in Jonah’s day the Ninevites repented and were spared (Jon.3:4-5). Jonah’s response to God’s mercy was to sulk, and the question that ends the book of Jonah is from God: 'Should not I pity Nineveh?' (Jon. 4:11). The implied answer is, of course, ‘Yes’.
  Nahum’s question reveals human thirst for justice, for an end to oppression. God is not unmoved by this heartcry: He will bring judgement and restore justice. Yet we must hear Nahum’s message with Jonah’s in mind, too: God’s mercy is bigger and wider than our small human hearts expect. The judge of all the earth will do what is right (Gen.18:25); and in the end mercy will triumph over even judgement (Jas.2:13).

The  questions such a passage make me ask myself are: what injustices do I long to see ended? Am I working towards that myself in my words, actions, prayers? And where might I need to have a bigger heart, and show more mercy?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Lost Voice

A beautiful, bittersweet poem by my friend Wilf:
'Writing hand' by brokenarts of

THE LOST VOICE (For a dead artist)
In his early days he could charm words
Like birds from a tree
Singing on his lips
Beautiful, meaningless and free,

Songs of wizards and elves
In forests full of fauns
Willow women dancing
Before the noble unicorn,

A guitar strumming
Hand drums drumming
And all the acid folk
Came tripping and running
To the king of the meaningless and free

He could have taken down
His ill fitting crown
He could have learned
He could have turned
Then his songs would have soared
From his heart and strings
To the only
True king

But he went down to the fairy woods
And they swallowed him up as fast as he could
A crippled fipple
A neutered flute
A ruined tune
And a voice now mute
Down in the woods
Just splinters and blood

But another song will go on without him
Ten thousand times ten thousand singing
In that new magical dawn
And though there is room in it all for him
And he like everyone is like no one else
Still the the harmony is complete.
The tears that were shed for his lost voice
Cannot diminish this song of praise
And if any dissonance is cast on account of him
God alone could hear
- Wilf, 26th March 2013

Fipple - part of the mouthpiece of a flute or recorder which makes the sound

Friday, March 08, 2013

Correspondence with God

Dear God...
An 11-year-old wrote a letter to God recently. A youth leader passed it onto me and asked could I reply – on God’s behalf? Quite a responsibility! This is that letter, and my (God’s?) reply.

Dear God,
I’m kind of losing faith in You. Nothing very good has come out of my attempts to connect with You. It’s like flogging a dead horse. But I want to keep trying because I’ve heard of your effect on people. Show me something that will change my mind about You otherwise there is no point in pursuing this ‘fantasy’.
From Ashley*, still hoping.

Dear Ashley,
I don’t usually write letters to people and even this one I’m writing through my friend James. (He doesn’t always get me quite right, but I know he’ll try his best.) You told me that because I’m not always easy to find (because I don’t write letters and that sort of thing) you’re losing your faith in me. I hope this letter helps you because I made you, I love you, and I want you to have deep faith because it’s faith like that that can shape you into who you’re meant to be.

So why don’t I make myself more obvious? Why don’t I write more letters? (In fact, I have written an important letter, but I’ll tell you about Him later.) Why don’t I do lots of obvious miracles for you or send a shining angel to tell you I’m real? The reason is, like I said, that I want you to have faith. When I first made people – human beings – they turned away from me, didn’t trust me. They were faithless. That cut them off from me. It meant they couldn’t grow up into who I made them to be.

I made them to be like me: wise, powerful, creative, loving. But doubt and fear stole their destiny. To rescue my human creatures I had to give them room to have faith. If I made it too easy, if I made faith not necessary, if I just gave them certainty – they’d never grow up.

My rescue plan got going with a man called Abraham. He believed some pretty unlikely stuff that I whispered into his thoughts – about having lots of babies even though he and his wife were past the age to have children. He believed me, unlikely though it seemed. His faith joined him to me. Bit by bit, he started to become who he was meant to be. He wasn’t perfect. He struggled to believe and to understand. But he kept hold of faith in Me. Today he’s got millions of children. In fact, everyone who has faith – who believes – they’re all his ‘children’.

That was the start of My rescue plan, but it went much further than that. It breaks My heart that fear and doubt and death spoil My children. When the right time came, I did write a letter: a letter to every person, everywhere. It wasn’t a letter made out of words on a page. It was a person – Jesus. If you want to know who I am, look at Him, ‘read’ Him. (I got some other friends of mine, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, to write down what He said and did, and that might help.

You know about Jesus, of course. But I want to ask you to keep looking at Him, keep finding out more about Him, keep listening out for His voice. That will make faith grow in you – the kind of faith that changes you into who you were made to be.

Jesus had to have faith as well – even though He’s My Son! He had to learn how to trust Me when it was hard to understand or believe. There was one time when He was desperate and afraid. He was praying in a garden and He asked Me to change things, to rescue Him. I had to say no – and Jesus knew I’d said no. He knew He was going to be crucified. At that point He made a decision – like Abraham had, only His decision was even harder – to trust anyway. To believe anyway.

In that moment Jesus – yes, even Jesus – grew up. He became who He was made to be. And His death (and His resurrection because I didn’t abandon Him) meant that he became the Saviour of the world.

I want you to be like Jesus. You’ll still be you – uniquely you, I’ve made no-one else exactly like you – but like Jesus: grown-up in faith and love.

Then you’ll know that it’s not that you can’t see Me – but that by Me you can see everything else.

With love, still hoping,

*Ashley is not the 11-year-old's real name