Tag: #rest

Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)

Sometimes to me, the concept of “Jesus loves you” can feel a bit impersonal. It’s not an impersonal concept of course, but there can be something in us that stops us from thinking it applies individually and personally to ourselves. We might understand it intellectually – I understand that Jesus loves us as a group, enough to die for us even. But I find it harder to apply the concept to myself personally. Jesus loves me? With all my issues and sins and general losing-at-lifeness?

If this is you too, I feel you. I know it because the Bible tells me. But I find it hard to believe it because I know me.

But what today’s Bible passage shows us, is not someone telling us that Jesus loves us. It’s Jesus showing us he loves us – and specifically seeks people out, even in all their worst kind of mess.

In Mark 4:35, after teaching the crowds on the kingdom of God, Jesus says “Let’s go over to the other side.” That is, he wants them to cross the Sea of Galilee and go to the Decapolis, a series of 10 towns in what was a Gentile area. When a violent storm erupts, the disciples are terrified and Jesus sleeps soundly. They wake him and he calms the storm with a word.

Once he was rebuked the storm, Jesus turns and rebukes the disciples. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?

I find this very challenging. Because I fear a lot. I fear for a million things over my kids. I fear not having enough money to pay all the bills. I fear making mistakes at work.

What Jesus says is that the disciples fear is evidence of a lack of faith. If they understood who he was, they would not fear. The disciples do not yet fully understand who Jesus is, and Mark uses this to great effect as a literary device to bring the reader along the same journey. The way the disciples pose the question “who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” places the reader in their shoes so they too are asking the same question.

Of course only God rules the waves. In Psalm 89:9 it says “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” It’s similar to the the Pharisees having asked “who has the authority to forgive sins but God alone?” when Jesus interacted with the paralysed man. So the reader is starting to get it, even if the disciples are a still a bit slow.

For me though, I need to re-remember who Jesus is – because I do know, and yet I still fear. Fear is very natural, and it’s not as though we’re not supposed to fear. But for us, fear should be a prompt to take things to God. Mental note to self: when I feel the fear, don’t start furiously plotting and planning and organising. Take it to God.

When they get to the other side, they are at a cemetery and a man possessed by demons comes to meet them. This figure is one of the most tragic in the whole Bible. He had been bound hand and foot with chains, but in his demented state had torn them off. Can you imagine? So tormented that he had actually torn iron shackles from himself. He must have been covered in cuts and scratches and blood and dirt. He was so anguished that at night he would cry out and self-harm, cutting himself with stones.

He sounds terrifying and tragic. If I saw him on the street – a drunken crazed man covered in cuts, I would avoid him and get away as quickly as possible. Everything about this man should have made any Jew run a mile – he is demented, he’s a gentile, he lives among the dead and he is covered in blood. Jews are not supposed to associate with Gentiles. Blood and death make Jews ritually unclean. And yet Jesus has specifically gone to find this man. How do we know this? Because they broke away from teaching the crowd to come here, and when Jesus has healed the man, they get back in the boat and go back (5:21). Which means Jesus had done what he went there to do. Which means that Jesus specifically went there to find and heal this man, and then leave again.

This isn’t me being told Jesus seeks out individuals. This shows me.

This shows me he has and will come specifically to find me where I am. It shows me that in all my mess, in all the things in my life that I see as unclean, impure, messy, shameful and embarrassing Jesus will walk through them to save me. To save me.

I need to remember that Jesus is that personal. I need to remember that he is that powerful. I am his and he is mine and when I fear, I am lacking in faith in who he is. When I fear (which I will) I need to remember who he is and the power he has. He has the power to calm the wind and the waves. He has the power to calm me and my fearful heart.

I need to practice this so the trigger to turn to God (instead of relying on my own ability to overcome the fear with planning and organising things) becomes instinctive. This is a part of the process of growing as a disciple of Jesus. It is part of re-visiting who Jesus is and what he came to do through Bible studies like this. I must always keep reminding myself that God is far bigger than I imagine him and far more personal.

Huge and transcendent, and yet close and personal.

Everywhere for eternity and yet close by my side.

Loudly present in our world, and yet quiet and still in my heart.

This is who Jesus is. This is our God. And this is who came to find us, personally and individually. This is the God who specifically sought you out.

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
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

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.

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.

Praying for peace when you’re too tired to even finish this sentence

Life is really hard. I mean, it’s great, but it’s really hard. We all have those days when, half in jest, we pray “Hey Jesus, if you’re thinking of coming back soon, now would be a reeeeeeally good time.”

Sometimes it seems relentless, unending, even hopeless. The days flow on, one after another, like the incessant march of wartime. We didn’t really plan for this, but the days go on like war came to our doorstep whether we liked it or not. And now we’re in it, we just have to keep going until the war is over.

When will the war be over? We think. When will it get less difficult? I’m so tired.

At times like these, usually the Bible is one of the last places we go. We’re too busy trying to do life. But that’s why we need it. The more we strain to get through the day, the more we tend to rely on our own initiative. Head down, bum up, organising, planning, running things, keeping small people alive, happy and safe, just managing to keep putting one foot in front of the other…… It is easy to fall into self-reliance.

But that’s where we have gone off course, and we need to get back to God’s word.

God gets us. He so gets us. The place where he communicates with us is the place we find people who have gone before who have done and felt the exact same thing as us. And they rest in the pages of the bible so God can redirect our attention to the right place.

The book of Micah is one such place. Micah was a prophet in the 8th century BC – it was just before the Assyrians wiped out the northern kingdom of Israel and came right to the door of the southern kingdom of Judah. War is coming. The Assyrians are coming. When will there be peace?

Micah tells them in chapter 4 that God’s peace will come. The law will go out from him and he will judge and settle disputes. The people, Micah says, will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (4:3b). There will be no need for these weapons. They will turn weapons of war into tools of the farm. Prosperity. Fertility. Peace.

Then he says:

Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (4:4).

Can you imagine that? Sitting somewhere in complete safety and tranquility. Master or mistress of your own little spot. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to fear. Nothing to lose.

What would it look like for you? For me it’s a late afternoon, sunny but cool. The light casting a faint orange glow over the countryside. The sound of the breeze in the trees – not even birds chirping. Breathing in the sweet air with the faint whiff of hay and honeysuckle. My kids playing and laughing.

Nothing to worry about. Nothing to fear. Nothing to lose.

Peace. God’s peace. That’s what he promises in Micah. One day, this will be real. It won’t look like that – who knows what it will look like? But it will feel like that. One day we will be there, in God’s full peace. In his presence. He promised it. He communicated it, and he is faithful. It will happen.

How does that change the tough days? Hope.

It lifts me because I know what sitting under my own vine would look like, what it would feel like. I pray for the day I will sit under my own vine, but I also know it is a certainty, and so my bad days become not so bad. I can imagine being in God’s peace and it calms me.

It even pushes me forward – if that is a certainty, what should I be doing before I can relax under my vine? What is the work that’s still to be done? That drives me back to God again. What shall I do, God? What can I do so that when I sit under my vine, I do so as a good and faithful servant? Complete, replete, God’s own. Forever.

Sleep well, friends. Be well. Be hopeful. God has promised and it will happen.