Category Archives: Church

Is fruitfulness something we do, or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)

We humans love secrets. Secrets form the basis of most click-bait on the internet. We love whats new and novel, we love to be in the know. But only to a certain point it seems. If it’s a secret that means we know what others don’t, we can’t wait to hear it. If it’s a secret that means we have activities and obligations, suddenly everybody is backing away and not making eye contact.

I know I get nervous when I sense I’m getting myself into something that’s going to require my time and effort. Life is full. Like, it’s FULL. I work full time, I’m a single mum, I’m studying part time, oh, and I’m a blogger. Anything else? Nope. Nope. Nope.

I don’t think I’m alone in this and I certainly don’t have a monopoly on having a full life. We have learned to fill the gaps in our lives with stuff. Work, overtime, kids, pets, sports, housework, caring for older family members, second jobs….the list of things we can fill our time with is endless. So when we sense an obligation coming, our hearts sink. Even in our church life we can get “full up” – Bible study, pastoral care, making a meal for that friend who’s having a hard week, checking in on people, church events, prayer triplets….. There can be so much church “stuff” that this can feel overwhelmingly like a chore too.

Jesus himself said that we should be fruitful. This statement in enmeshed with the “secret of the kingdom of God”. Ohh a secret! Oh. Fruitfulness. <heart sinks>

But are these chores and time fillers what Jesus meant by fruitfulness? Is it something we’re supposed to do?

Let’s start with the secret of the kingdom of God. What is the secret? Strangely, the secret is the Parable of the Sower. You may know this parable:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” (Mark 4:3-8)

It’s one of those parables we hear heaps and so tend to skip over. It can also be taken out of context. So lets get back to basics and see what it’s really saying. The “seed” is the word of the gospel. The “soil” Jesus described are four different receptions to the gospel:

  1. For some, when they hear the gospel, it doesn’t even get planted. The seed falls by the wayside and doesn’t take root at all. So we have some who hear the gospel and reject it.
  2. For others, the gospel initially finds reception. But it seems when things get tough and the seed is put under pressure, the roots are not deep enough to withstand the heat.
  3. For others, the seed falls on soil that is choked with weeds and thorns. This means the gospel never has a chance to really go down deep. The seed is planted it seems, but never bears fruit.
  4. Finally, some seed is thrown on good soil. The result is fruitfulness disproportionate to the number of seed.

There are several pointers and questions in here. First, the seed is thrown out in abundance. It is not carefully planted one by one. It is cast out liberally across all ,and any soil types. Does that mean the “soil type” is up to us? Do we have to be the right soil type to hear God’s word? I don’t think this is the point of the parable but it is worth a quick excursus to explore this point.

It is not incumbent on us have the right kind of heart. God prepares the way, and just because he foreknows who will be receptive, doesn’t mean he doesn’t cast out the seed for everyone.

However, when the word is cast out, we rely on godly teachers to help us make sense of it. This is why ministers are held to so much of a higher standard (see James 3:1). We need our ministers to help us appreciate the gospel so it can go deeper into our hearts. So we can read it, understand it, meditate on it, prayer about it, apply to our lives and be discerning and wise about it. Without this help, our roots are shallow and we are at spiritual risk.

In addition, there are two things at play here: Faith and Fruitfulness. Faith is where the seed takes root (Soils 3 and 4) but fruitfulness is where the good soil provides an environment for faith to bloom and replicate the seed (Soil 4). What the parable implies is that it is this good soil that is our goal. Truly good faith will produce fruitfulness.

Does this mean we have “stuff to do”? Yes and no. If we have received the gospel and the roots have gone down deep, fruitfulness will come from a response of the heart. Like a knee-jerk reflex. When the patella is tapped, the knee flinches. It’s a direct connection and is a reflex – not a conscious decision. What we aim for in our discipleship is this kind of reflex. We see a need, and our hearts are so gospel aligned, that our response is unconscious and immediate.

So yes, it is stuff we do. We care, we pastor, we speak, we pray and we throw out our own seeds.

But also no. It is not stuff we do, it is something that we are. By being gospel aligned, our hearts change. Our hearts determine what words we speak and how we behave. It’s what makes us look different. So our fruitfulness also comes from just who we are.

But this is the secret to the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11) and it has been given to us. so what are we to do with this?

First, we cannot know for sure what kind of soil we are (or were when we heard the gospel). We can pray that we are good soil. We can pray for God’s help in the Spirit to be good soil. But one marker of our soil is our fruitfulness.

How can we tell if we are fruitful? By our lives and by our deeds. Does your life look different to the world? For example, do you notice that you swear less than the non-Christian people around you? Is what you read, listen to and look at different to the rest of the world? Are you boundaries different? Do you pray? Do you self-reflect? Do you repent? If the answer to any or all of these is Yes, you are guarding your heart and the difference will show in your attitudes and behaviors. It will show in the choices you make and in how you conduct your life.

And it will show in your deeds. Do you give have a spirit of generosity? Do you give to your church and to missions? Do you give to charities and support causes? Do you give of your time and of yourself to support people around you? Do you open your home to fellowship with people? Do you share words of the gospel as you can, among those you meet? Deeds are an integral part of the faith – not as a means of salvation (which we already have) but as evidence of our faith. James talks about this, explaining that our deeds will be a product of a changed heart (cf. James 2:14-26).

What gets in the way of doing this? Jesus himself tells us what faithful but unfruitful soil looks like:

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19)

We don’t know if this is the soil we were when we heard the gospel. But we can work now to ensure we are avoiding and reducing the worries of this life and chasing wealth and other things that we tend to idolise. This means we must remain self-reflective and we must remain vigilant of our hearts. This doesn’t mean being Puritanical. For example, we don’t have to hate money and fun. We just need to be wise and intentional in how we approach them. It’s not bad or ungodly to want or to make money. Idolising it and letting it rule our lives is.

Similarly, in looking at what soil we were/are, we can’t know or assume what “soil” other people are as we share our lives and the gospel with them. Remember, the sower threw out his seeds liberally on all soil types. He didn’t select the right soil and focus on that. We must not make that mistake. We must throw out the seeds of the gospel liberally, making no assumptions as to its reception. Part of our fruitfulness is obedience. In obedience, we throw out our seeds – whether that be direct expressions of the gospel, or servant evangelism, or living by Christian example – even blogging.

That’s the extent of our job. We don’t judge the reception. We just throw out the seeds. Let’s face it. If our soil type was judged before we received, none of us might be here.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35

Jesus made us a new family – Does church really feel like that? (Mark 3:13-35)

Churches can be like an old fashioned village. Small, parochial, cliquey. Alternately, they can work like a well-oiled machine. Or, there can be different political “factions” that oppose each other over everything from church finances to how the biscuits should be put out at morning tea. They can be hubs of support and love and care. And they can be enclaves of grumbling and toxicity.

What we forget among the brokenness, and even among the awesomeness, is that our church is supposed to be our family. We say it, of course, but do we really know what it means? What did it mean in the early church – for those who knew Jesus? And what did Jesus mean it to be?

In the early church they were suspected and accused of immorality and incest because their doctrine was love and they called each other “brother” and “sister”. A second century document outlines a mock debate that discusses the principle charges. In response to “we also hear that you meet in secret, even before sunrise, and the gross immorality that we hear goes on in those places is repulsive — especially the incest.

The second party says: “If you came to one of our meetings you would find that the lovemaking and intimacy you are so quick to imagine is of a totally different nature. We meet before sunrise because we are working people. We have jobs to go to. We do not always meet in secret, but we have no temples or synagogues, so we use somebody’s home which has enough room. We call one another brother and sister and pledge to love one another because that is what our Lord commanded us to do. And we greet one another and bless one another with a holy kiss, not out of lust but out of genuine love and concern for one another. Come and you will see that we demand the highest standards of morality among all who join us.

Source: https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/why-early-christians-were-despised-11629610.html

The concept of “family” for the Israelites centred on the household – that is, the immediate family, extended family and slaves and servants. All these made up the household. Outwards from this centre was the clan, which could refer to a group of households tied by kinship. Outwards from this orbit was the tribe, which included multiple clans within one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each circle was bonded by close ties of kinship, patronage and obligation. We see this working throughout The Old Testament – Boaz was a kinsman redeemer to Ruth, under Jewish rules of kinship and obligation for example.

What we see in Mark 3:13-35 is a series of scenes:

  • 3:13-19 Jesus calls the 12
  • 3:20-21 Jesus’ family Part 1
    • 3:22-30 Conflict with the Pharisees
  • 3:31-35 Jesus’ family Part 2

The order of events is important here. In the calling of the 12, Jesus draws his “family” to him – and they are chosen. And, they include the one who will betray him. Jesus knows this when he calls him. I find that staggering. As God, Jesus knew this. As a man, I really feel for him. Imagine picking the people who you would work with forever, and included is the person who you knew for a fact would stab you in the back. How would you go interacting with them, working with them, loving them, knowing that they would do that to you?

Anyway, it’s significant that Jesus calls 12 – an embryonic new Israel, representative of a new covenant.

Next comes what is known as a “Markan sandwich” – its a literary device where Mark starts a story, then puts in another one, and then finishes the first story afterwards. So a meat in between two bits of bread if you will. Its a literary device but it has a purpose in bringing to light something the author wants us to see, so lets dig deeper.

In the first scene, we see “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.  When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Just as his own family say that Jesus is out of his mind, we switch to a scene in which the Pharisees – the leaders of Jesus’ Jewish “family” – say that he is possessed by Beelzebub. But what is it about this conflict with the Pharisees that provides the key to interpreting the “Markan sandwich” literary device?

The Pharisees say he is nuts because he is driving out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Note that they don’t disagree that Jesus is driving out demons – he seems to be doing this pretty successfully. They are arguing about in who’s name Jesus is doing it. That is remarkable. The miracles are real. They just argue about the authority behind them.

Jesus, by way of explanation, gives two responses. The first is “How can Satan drive out Satan?” and the second is “no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” The former says basically, how can you have a civil war with both parties on the same side? They would just be killing each other for no reason and with no winner. So what the Pharisees are saying makes no sense. They are saying the spirits are from the devil and Jesus’s authority comes from the devil. Nope. No sense.

In the latter response, Jesus gives more. He is saying that something or someone has already gone ahead of him and tied up the strong man. Then the house can be robbed. So he’s saying that the devil has already been tied up and then Jesus can complete the work of casting him out. The devil has already been defeated! But what Jesus says next is truly astonishing.

“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

What does blasphemy against the Spirit mean? Many conflate this with “taking the Lord’s name in vain” which minimises this statement to a slip of the tongue. In the context of what Jesus is saying here though, blaspheming against the Spirit is a rejection or a refusal to acknowledge the existence and work of the Spirit in people’s hearts and minds. The devil is defeated by the work of our triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To deny the Spirit, is to deny the Father – which is the eternal sin.

From here we go back to Jesus’ immediate family. Jesus’ mother and brothers had arrived. In Mark 6:3 his brothers are identified as James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. James, it should be noted, was not one of the disciples, but later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was martyred in the early 60s AD. At this point however, James and Mary and the rest of the family, were definitely not acolytes.

Both Jesus’ immediate family, and religious family, say he is out of his mind. This whole scene started with Jesus choosing the new representatives of the new covenant. And ends with his assertion that all those who do the will of God are his family. Again, this “family” includes Judas – his betrayer – and I’ll bet it includes all manner of other great people, boring people, annoying people, nice people and awesome people. They are not a group of shiny holy Christians surrounded by doves and soft lighting. They are the family of God, joined together in Jesus. This is the point of the Markan sandwich – showing the ties that bond the family of God outweigh the earthly ties of our other circles. This is a new society, a new covenant, a new age.

If we look around our churches, do they feel like family? Bearing in mind, that our church family is similarly not meant to be a perfect soft-lighting tableau either, but a rag-tag mixed bag of the good and the bad and the faintly annoying. BUT they ARE our family. We are bonded to them by Jesus – a source stronger and more profound than any other. And we will be with them in heaven.

This can be difficult, especially for those whose churches and ministers have disappointed them. I have no answer for that, and, in love, I pray everyone finds their home in a church that will love you exactly how you are and where you’re at.

But hurts meted out to us by the church or those who lead it, cannot drown out the scriptures. And Jesus says clearly that those who do the will if God are his family. However, in this Jesus is not abolishing his earthly family. He is however, establishing his church family along lines that would have been shocking at the time. The assembled “family” was not drawn along kinship or household lines, it was open to Jew and Gentile, any race and gender, and even cut across hierarchical lines. This is a new family whose primary allegiance was to God and whose citizenship was in heaven.

This includes us.

All who do God’s will are in Jesus’ family. That includes you. And what is God’s will? Go to Matthew 22:36-40 and Micah 6:8 which Jesus paraphrases in Mathew 23:23. Look at them. Meditate on them. Pray about them. They are not how you get into Jesus’ family – you’re already in it. These are the bedrock of our discipleship. These are the foundations of our familial obligations.

Look afresh at your church. They are you’re family. And look to your discipleship. Maybe it needs a kick start. Maybe it’s something to share with your Christian family. But above all, know that you are already in Jesus’ family. When he said “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” he was talking about you.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12

“Who do you say I am?”

Last week I asked what book of the Bible I should choose if we were to try a follow-along-Bible-study. There were some great suggestions and I was really torn. But with prayer, it seemed to me we should start at the very beginning – with the gospel. You might roll your eyes and wish I’d picked a juicy Old Testament nugget. And I was so close to going with Judges or with Ezra! However, sometimes even the most theologically savvy Christian needs to go back to the beginning and to re-remember who Jesus is.

The gospels are absolute gold mines of wisdom. I am also a crazy history nerd and there’s a lot in the gospels that we miss because we’re not 2,000 year old Jews. So, I’ve chosen the gospel of Mark as our first follow-along-Bible study (acronym FAB – how awesome is that?).

It’s commonly believed that Mark was the first gospel to be compiled, and on which both Matthew and Luke were partially drawn. It’s shorter and it’s written in “fisherman’s language” – that is, unlike Matthew which has quite dense Jewish references, and Luke which is quite polished and lyrical, Mark is clear, simple and down to earth.

The date of this gospel could be anywhere from the mid-50s AD to the late 60s. Clement of Alexandria (writing in the late 100s AD) claimed that it was written while the apostle Peter was in Rome (this was in the 50s or 60s). The early church historian Eusebius (writing in the early 300s AD from memories of earlier church fathers) claimed that Peter actually came to Rome when Claudius was emperor (which would have been more in the early 50s). Church tradition says that Peter was executed in Rome during the reign of Nero (around the mid-60s). There’s no way to tell for sure. What’s interesting though is that while there’s lots of academic reasons for chasing a date, we should remember that even in the 60s, this was a mere 30 years after Jesus’ death. That’s like having a memoir written today for John Lennon or Ronald Reagan. It’s really not that long between events and writing.

Who was Mark? That also is a mystery. Popular tradition has it that he was Peter’s interpreter. This mainly comes from Papias who was a Christian leader in 120-ish AD – within 100 years of Jesus’ death. Papias was born after Jesus died but is said to have been a disciple of the apostle John and so had many memories of a direct eye witness who was close to Jesus. Papias is quoted by Eusebius as saying “Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lords sayings and doings.” And that “he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no mis-statement about it.”

So Mark himself had not known Jesus but was writing down Peter’s memories some time in the mid-50s to 60s. At this time, there was no other gospel (as far as we know). It had spread by word of mouth as the first Christians spread from Jerusalem with the first persecution that had started with the martyrdom of Stephen (as told in Acts 7). There were some letters. 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Philippians were all in existence before there was a formal gospel.

With the early church and the converts stretching to Rome, Mark’s gospel in its fisherman’s language and easy style, is targeted at Gentiles. He explains Jewish concepts and leads the reader through an exploration of who Jesus is, from the perspective of a Jew but to readers who have no messianic tradition.

It has a strong and fast-paced narrative style. As we go through, notice how many times Mark uses terms like “Immediately…” as the next thing happens – it appears 42 times in Mark (compared to only 5 times in Matthew and once in Luke). He uses several other devices deliberately designed to draw the reader in and lead us to the truth of Jesus. We’ll talk about these as we go through.

So, once a week, we’ll take a chunk at a time and look together at this gospel. If you have any questions about the setting, authorship, historical context and date or anything I’ve talked about here, feel free to post. This is meant to be as open and interactive as you want.

If you want to read a commentary, there are some that read as easily as novels. My absolute favourite is Mark: The Servant King by Paul Barnett. It’s a brilliant read. King’s Cross by Tim Keller is also good. If you want to go crazy with reading, David A deSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament is a chunky text book but one of the most interesting I’ve read. It includes lots of historical, literary and cultural context to all the New Testament books.

My prayer for all of us is that we will get to know Jesus again, and get to know him more. I pray that we will be drawn together and to God. I pray that we will find some online community with respect and gentleness – because the reason we are all here is Jesus. It is he that brings us together and binds us all.

Which book of the Bible should I choose?

What do you think?

I’m thinking about blogging through one book of the Bible – a chapter a week. People can follow on and post comments. That way anyone and everyone can engage and interact. Or, you can just follow along if you like.

The idea is to treat it a bit like an online Bible study. In the future this might develop as I find new and interesting ways to use features on my Facebook page, but right now I’d like to start this way to see how it works. I’d love to get some online fellowship going!!

SO – what book of the Bible should I choose? Is there a book you’d love to look at with other women? Is there a book you’re not that familiar with and would like to understand more? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or send me an email!

Ruth xx

PS if you want to engage on Facebook, here’s the link 🙂

https://m.facebook.com/meetmewhereiam/

Why “Meet Me Where I Am”?

Some of the best pastoral care I’ve had over the years has been within my church small group. I love everything about small groups – a group of women, meeting weekly, digging into the Bible together, praying for each other, eating an inordinate amount of snacks together, crying, laughing, learning and growing. Within a group of women like this, we truly do life together. We get each other. We can sympathise and minister to each other with all the raw honesty that is needed and without any “Sunday church politeness”.

The most troubling pastoral care I’ve had is when people have tried to meet me where they are, not meet me where I am. What do I mean by this? When someone comes to us with a pastoral issue, we can sometimes instinctively do any of the following:

  • Try and solve the problem without listening to the full extent of the issue;
  • Question the viewpoint (Did that really happen? Isn’t that over-reacting? I wouldn’t have taken it like that. That doesn’t seem to me to be that big of a deal. I know the other party and they probably didn’t mean it. Is the problem that your husband is away for work? Is the real problem that you’ve forgotten to take your antidepressants? Aren’t you being overly emotional?);
  • Jump straight to a Bible passage to try and make the person feel better.

All of these, as well meaning or as accidental as they can be, actually meet the person where we are. What do I think about this situation? If I would react in X way, but the person is responding in a Y way, I’m going to pastor as though you should be responding in X way, because that’s the way I understand the correctness of this situation.

This is problematic. And it can contribute to a feeling that churches are disconnected from reality. Great theology, but lacking in understanding and grace. Meeting people where you are inhibits trust (and actively promotes distrust). It makes people feel misunderstood and at worst, not cared for. It can build a picture that there is a disconnect between the pulpit and the pew – which is a sad assumption that the general populace have of the church anyway, without us accidentally contributing to it.

It can also become self-perpetuating. This kind of pastoring creates barriers. It stops open communication. It makes people feel they can’t be honest in revealing themselves. So they hide. They hide behind their polite-Sunday-face. And the issue gets hidden. Down deep. Where it festers and spreads like a cancer in the soul. And all the while, growing a resentment towards the church because you feel like they don’t get you and don’t hear you.

Women need to feel heard. And they need to feel valued. Good pastoral care is not reactive when a crisis has happened. Good pastoral care is walking through life with them on the good days, and sitting with them in the darkness on the bad days.

Great pastoral care is knowing people enough to know what to pray for them – on the good days and the bad.

Jesus didn’t meet people where he was – and if anyone had the right to do that, it was him. Jesus met people where they were. In Mark 5, Jesus went to find the demon possessed man. He didn’t judge the mans situation and how he got there and he didn’t question if things were really that bad. He met him where he was.

When, in Matthew 9, the woman who had been bleeding for years approached him secretly for healing, he didn’t judge her condition even though, in Jewish culture, it should have been personally distasteful to him. He met her where she was.

When in Luke 7 a woman come and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus does not judge her or question her or solve her problem with a vague scriptural platitude. He meets her where she is.

The reason I called this blog “Meet Me Where I Am” is because that’s my plea. And it’s my prayer for every woman. Real women have real problems. We have mental health issues. We struggle with our faith. We struggle with our confidence. Sometimes we snort when we laugh. Many of us have kids and now avoid jumping up and down. We struggle with our weight. We can’t wait to take our bras off at the end of the night. We love Jesus. We love the Bible. Sometimes we cry in the shower for no reason. We want to feel valued. We want to have a voice.

We love our churches. We have wonderful ministers and pastors and Christian sisters. But we want to be met where we are. We don’t want our pain to be questioned or a quick solution presented. We need pastoral care to be as important as the pulpit. We need theology and humanity.

And let’s not forget – women make up over half of our churches. If we support and nourish our women, we support and nourish the whole family. On top of that, women are seed sowers. We talk to everyone. We connect with people far beyond our immediate landscape. If we make our women feel valued, they will feel confident. If they feel confident, who knows how many seeds they will sow?

I have had the benefit of being around some wonderful ministers and I’ve been around some others with a few blind spots – nobody’s perfect. This is a general plea and prayer for all though. Meet me where I am. Meet all of us where we are. Let your growth in Christ-likeness include putting the self to one side when pastoring a woman. Resist the urge to solve or question. Just let us be heard. Be real with us. And let us be our real selves with you. The church will be enormously enriched by it.

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Why aren’t there more divorced people in our churches?

Here’s an interesting thing – based on the 2016 census, there is 12% of our population who are separated or divorced. Based on the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS), 6% of our church population is separated or divorced. Half! Does this mean that churches are amazing at supporting marriages? Or does it mean that people feel that our churches are not welcoming to divorced and separated people?

Is there a stigma attached to divorce? And if there is, does that come from the church congregation, or from the church leadership and culture?

My personal experience is to have felt as though I was morally tainted in some contexts, and welcomed and supported in others. In the former, I think this was brought into sharper relief by my own feeling of failure. A divorced person is highly sensitized to any sense of rejection, moral failing and stigma. It’s hard to walk into a church as a single-again. If it’s your own church, then it’s a very public declaration that you are now on your own. Everybody knows (or at least can see the evidence of) your business.

If its a new church you’re going to, one of the first questions is always about your family situation. What do you say? Will they judge me? You become acutely aware of being a lone parent checking your kids in at kids church. You become super paranoid that people can see the paler band of skin on your finger where your wedding ring used to be.

In addition, churches are largely set up for families. 65% of the church population is married (NCLS) compared to 48% in the general population. So what is “normal” in the world, is “abnormal” in the church. You stick out.

So, if people are even remotely cold or seeming to lack in grace, the separated person will go running for the hills.

In some ways, its understandable. Throughout all cultural changes and world movements, the church has remained steadfast. With no-fault divorce and the explosion of divorce rates subsequently, the church remained focused on the centrality of the family and marriage as the bedrock of a Christian community. That’s a good thing. Our churches cannot move with the times just “because”. We have to stay true to what we believe.

But one of the things we believe is grace.

If churches are havens of the broken, why are there not more single-agains in them? Churches should feel like a safe space for the lost. And yet they are not – or at least, not seen as being so.

There is a biblical phrase that has been bandied around very unhelpfully. “God hates divorce.”  This comes from Malachi 2:16 which is translated either as ““The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”” or as ““I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence”” The context of this passage is covenant breaking on the part of the priests that Malachi is rebuking. Notwithstanding, it provides a clear indication of what God appears to think of divorce.

But here’s a thing everyone should know – all divorced people understand completely why God hates divorce. Because its terrible. It’s painful and torturous. It hurts whole families. It is horrible for the children. It tears up families, friends and can even split communities. We know intricately and agonisingly why God hates divorce. We know better than anyone.

When Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce, he relates his answer to Genesis and comments “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:6). When asked about this unequivocal stance when Moses allowed divorce, he says “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8) Divorce was never the plan. Perfect harmonious relationships are the plan – but we are human. So divorce is not a gift, but it is a gracious provision in the face of our human rubbish-ness.

Now that doesn’t mean we should be like the world and dash about marrying and divorcing with impunity. It does mean that we need to treat each other with grace because we are imperfect.

Unfortunately, church history and tradition have over-layed the “God hates divorce” thing. For the Romans, divorce was terribly functional. Like the dissolving of a business partnership that no longer worked, divorce had no moral taint attached to it. In the early church, there was a speedy move to the indissolubility of marriage except in certain circumstances (on the basis of Jesus’ teaching), but they didn’t really get involved unless one of the parties wanted to re-marry. As the church gradually took over jurisdiction of marriage, by the early Middle Ages, divorce became far more regulated and commented on. Divorce was even deemed to be criminal. That attitude pervaded until at least the 19th century and we still have hangovers of it today.

Divorce is a very public “sin”. If you are divorced, you must have done something wrong. There is a presumption of sin and sinful behavior. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you let it happen. You failed.

Here’s what Kevin deYoung said of divorce: “Is every divorce the product of sin?  Yes.  Is every divorce therefore sinful?  No.”

Its a helpful reminder. We can never assume what the story is. Undoubtedly there has been sin somewhere but we do not know what and by who. We cannot and ought not, to assume guilt. Assuming guilt throws shame on the broken. If there is sin, then surely we must walk with people to help them repent? People don’t repent because they’ve been judged by other humans. They repent because their hearts have been moved by God. If there is no sin, then we must envelope them with the love and warmth of Christ.

Above all, we must help people to know that they have a place in our church, that they are welcome there, that they belong.

I would gently challenge churches to consider how a single-again would feel if they turned up to your church for the first time. What is the culture? Would they feel welcomed as though they had a place there? What about if one of your parishioners marriages imploded? What support mechanisms are there? Would they feel they can talk freely and honestly?

The main thing here is to be aware of how over-sensitive single-agains can feel, and that perception may be out-weighing the reality. In which case you may have to over-compensate to change pervading attitudes and assumptions as to what the church thinks.

Also, lets think about how the world sees us. We know that we are havens for the broken. But the world often sees us as oases of homogeneity. We are either nice white middle class community centers for families with small kids, or we are stern ivory towers of judgement on anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. That’s how we are seen. How do we change the perception, so that at the worst possible time in someones life, they know they can turn to the church for support and love?

I don’t have all the answers, but it seems to me that we need to think about this if we are to help the lost to feel as though church is a safe space for them to come and find belonging in the arms of Jesus and find his love in action in his community.


NOTE: Many churches are starting to offer Divorce Care. This is an excellent course and you can find a group here or even find more information on how to set up a group in your church.

Reader question: When do we sabbath?

Every so often, I get a reader who sends me a message with a subject they’d like me to talk about. One recent question was when do women sabbath? You’ll see a bit later why I’ve broadened it to include women and men. But I appreciate why she asked the question of women particularly. On the face of it, it’s an easy answer. We roll our eyes and look at each other and acknowledge that women never sabbath. There’s always something to do – groceries, cooking, cleaning, gardening, laundry, kids, kids activities and sports, birthday parties, homework….the “sabbath” seems to have become the day that’s left over to do all the jobs we don’t have time to do in the rest of the week.

BUT it’s actually a really good question and it’s not an obvious answer.

There are several bits of the question we need to unpack. One is what exactly is the sabbath and what do we mean when we say that? The second is why women particularly?

Modern Christians talk about the sabbath as Sunday, and as a day of rest. But this is not biblically or historically correct. Let’s dig into the past a little…..

The sabbath is a peculiarly Israelite rite observed on the seventh day – Saturday – linked to God’s rest after he had completed his work of creation. For the Jews it’s the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, not your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11).

It is a day to honour God and the work of his hands in creation. It is to be holy – that is, consecrated, set apart for God’s use – so it’s not a day of rest for rest’s sake.

By Jewish reckoning (who calculated days from sundown to sundown), the sabbath lasted from Friday night to Saturday night. When Jesus was crucified, the earliest Christians focussed their attention, not on this seventh day of the week (Friday to Saturday), but on the first day of the week (for the Jews that was Saturday night to Sunday night) in remembrance of the day of Christ’s resurrection.

Some early Christians, coming from the Jewish tradition, still observed the sabbath, but focussed on Sunday as of key importance. Other early Christians, converted Greeks, disliked the keeping of the sabbath as too “Jewish” for the new Christian tradition.

At no point though, was the Jewish sabbath of the seventh day, the day or rest, equated by the Christians with the first day of the week, Sunday, a day of celebration of the resurrection.

So when did “sabbath” come to mean what we modern Christians commonly think it means? Well, the Roman Emperor Constantine (who made Christianity an official religion of the Empire), in the year 321AD, ruled that the first day of the week was to be a day of rest. This is the first conflation of the sabbath rest concept with the first day of the week. And, now that Sunday was an official day of rest, Christians had the luxury of time and their meetings and liturgies became longer and more elaborate.

Gradually, over hundreds of years, the sabbath concept became attached to Sunday rather than Saturday. In addition, as the mystery of the Eucharist became centralised in the Catholic tradition, Sunday rites and practices became more somber and focussed on the body and blood of Christ, rather than rejoicing in the resurrection.

The world was also moving on. The Reformation gave people God’s word in their own language again. This assisted the rise of personal piety outside of convents and monasteries as people connected with Jesus in a way they had not been able to before. This gave Sundays a particular significance for devotion and reflection for some groups. It’s possibly this is what we’re thinking of when we say “when do we sabbath”.

In our modern world, our barrier to “sabbathing” is not language and tradition, but busy-ness and a lack of a cultural tradition. As I said above, Sunday is commonly seen as a day to catch up on chores. We go to church, we might even seek hospitality and fellowship for lunch. But by and large, we get the laundry done, clean the house, put the bins out and get the uniforms and lunches ready for the coming week. Do we rest? Possibly, by snatching some Netflix time or playing with the kids in the garden.

But when do we sabbath? The answer is, I think, never. Not in the Jewish way, but that’s ok because we’re not Jewish. Do our Sundays reflect those of the early church? Possibly in part. Those early Christians met before dawn because most had employers and owners that required their work. Their time was not their own. So they met and broke bread and worshipped and rejoiced in the risen Lord. And then they went to work. In one way, our Sunday is similar – we meet and then we go about our business. In another way our Sunday is not similar – we sit through our church services, but do we rejoice and celebrate the resurrection? Possibly not. Or possibly a bit.

This presents a conundrum. What are we supposed to do on our sabbath? Do we try and follow a Jewish tradition (but on a Sunday rather than Saturday), mixed with some early church rejoicing and fellowship? Or should we be like the Puritans of the 17th century? Being holy and spending time in reflection and consecrating our time to God?

The simple answer is that we’re not supposed to do anything. Jesus was the Lord of the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) and he changed the Jewish understanding of the day. But Jesus made no comment on keeping “the Lord’s day” (ie Sunday) because he hadn’t died yet.

A full answer would take a whole book, but I think there are some important take-aways. First, Jesus was a Jew and while he came to fulfil the prophets, he still set aside time for prayer and worship. This is a key element in consecrating time to God. There must be set time(s) that we keep holy at church and at home.

Second, rest is important. The prophets and Jesus himself had a lot to say about it. So it seems to me that this remains an important element of the time we set aside.

Third, personal piety and devotions are also really important. It shows obedience, but it also feeds our faith and grows our relationship with our God. It’s part of time that we keep holy and set aside and offer up to God. Giving time is a worthy sacrifice to God.

Fourth, when we talk about sabbathing, I suspect we often think of it as an individual thing. From the beginning, the sabbath and then Sunday observance was a communal thing. And, from the Reformation, piety enveloped the family. I can highly recommend reading about the Puritans. They were pretty amazing and have been given some bad press. But they were the Reformed Evangelicals of their day and their focus on family devotion and godly growth together is amazing.

Given all this, the one to set the pattern for your sabbath is you. If you are a family unit, I would recommend having a full conversation and pray about it. But be clear about what it is you want to achieve. Is it time for personal piety? Is it a family observance? If you are single, the same decisions apply. What time are you going to consecrate and how are you going to use it to honour God?

This observance will take some discipline. As a family you’ll need to work together to make sure it happens. As a single, we’ll also need some self-control to stick to our decisions. This is a man and woman thing.

But for women, this is of particular emphasis. If we are seeking a sabbath because we crave rest, there is a conversation to be had. Maybe Sundays need to look a little different. Remember, rest is super important and wanting it is OK!

If we are seeking communion with God, we must look to creating time and space for devotional time – and sometimes we need help to do that. At the very least, we should carve out time for retreats and conferences. This gives us a solid chunk of time to commune with God and shut out the noise of the world for a little while.

We also need to give ourselves a bit of a talking to. Because a sabbath is not about the blessed relief and quietness of a cloister. And it’s not about walking slow motion on a beach while we listen to the Bible on audible. We are not in a fantasy. We are in the real world and we can be our own worst enemy. There is always something to do and something that needs to be cleaned or cooked or folded. We need to be tougher with ourselves. We need to choose to be ok with some chaos if it means taking some sabbath time.

Above all, grace. We don’t have to do anything. Jesus has already done it all. Be kind to yourself. Build your sabbath on God’s grace.