Saturday, June 27, 2009

What does Grace Look Like?

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:16

It’s a well known verse. You may be one of those people who learned it by heart when you were a child.

I have to confess that when I have read this verse I have always focused on “approach the throne of grace with confidence”. I have always thought of the attitude in which we come.

Once while on holiday in Paris, I was approached by a beggar. That’s not entirely true. The beggar didn’t do any approaching at all. I suppose I did the approaching since the beggar was in my path. She was kneeling on the floor before me with her hands held out in supplication. I was moved to compassion and thought that no one ought to be in that position, kneeling before another person, hands held out. There was something about the posture of the woman that stirred my spirit.

Thinking later about it, I was glad that I do not need to approach the throne of God like that…on my knees, my eyes to the ground, holding out my hands in supplication. That is not confidence or boldness.

This morning, it was the end of the verse that captured by attention, the bit that I know is there but don’t really look at “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

“Grace to help us” isn’t an escape hatch to avoid the troubles we go through. Too often what I am looking for is a way out rather than a way through the difficult times that I am going through. I want not to feel so torn up inside. I don’t want my brother to be have cancer, or to think about another funeral on the horizon. I want stop crying. I want my sunny days without clouds.

God doesn’t offer that. He offers grace to help us in our time of need.

What does that look like? We had a visit from a friend of ours last night. She and her husband have some kind of time share arrangement. An apartment near Feungirola, where my brother lives, is available to them for a week in July. They have offered the apartment to us if we want it, so that we can spend time with my brother.

That’s what grace looks like!

Approaching the Throne of Grace

Despite this being a weekend, my body was in wake-up mode. Last Sunday we were talking in church about being people who spent time with Jesus. When Peter and John came up before the Jewish council, what set them apart from just being uneducated men was the fact that they had spent time with Jesus. Too often, even in my quiet times, I am not spending time with Jesus, but just ticking a mental box somewhere, that I have “done” it.

I was reading the end few verses of Hebrews 4, about Jesus our High Priest, and the confidence with which we can enter the throne room of God. I was reminded of a FW challenge entry I wrote based on how Aaron, the first High Priest, entered into the Most Holy Place.

Into the Most Holy Place

Aaron rolled over, the faint light of dawn seeping through the window. The space where his wife would normally be sleeping was cold and empty and her lingering fragrance was absent. Soon the Day of Atonement would be over and their enforced celibacy would come to an end. Today he would enter the Most Holy Place making a sin offering for the people.

Aaron Phillips rolled over, the shrill siren of the alarm clock drumming through his head. Rubbing his forehead, he tried to massage away the beginnings of a headache. He couldn't remember how many bottles of beer he had drank last night. Sighing, he rolled on to his stomach. Getting up on a Sunday always seemed to be such a battle. He tried to remember last week's sermon - just in case the pastor asked!

Aaron stood in the sanctuary, a bowl of clean cold water beside him on the floor. The water against his skin felt refreshing. As he washed every area of his body he reminded himself that he belonged wholly to God. Reaching over, he carefully stepped into the linen clothes, inhaling their freshness. He tied the linen sash about his waist, and patiently wound the turban around his head. He flexed his shoulders, ready for the burden of the ephod.

The shower sprayed hot water in a power jet against Aaron's skin. He lathered a palm full of shower gel into a white froth and smothered his chest arms. He hummed tunelessly, trying to remember the songs from the live band that had been playing last night in the club. Wrapped in a towel, he opened the wardrobe door, flicking his way through the hangers. The dark blue weave of his suit would best highlight the blue flecks of his hazel eyes.

The bull stood patient and placid as Aaron ran his fingers down its legs, checking that there were no imperfections. He could feel the strength of its muscles beneath the hide. He imagined the swift slash of the sharp knife against the bull's throat, the warm rush of blood spilling over his fingers and gushing into the bowl. The ram was less placid ,rather skittish, shuffling about on its hooves and Aaron knew that it would take a lot of his strength to hold it still.

Aaron upturned the cushions on the sofa searching for his Bible. A glass of orange juice held at a hazardous angle drizzled a sticky trail down green leather. He yelled to his wife, asking her if she had seen his Bible anywhere. He pulled books from the bookcase selecting the ones with likely looking spines - anything with black leather and gold writing. Suddenly Aaron remembered that the Bible was probably still in the boot of the car, nestled up against his tool kit.

Aaron walked towards the entrance of the most Holy Place. Lighting the incense in the basket, he watched a cloudy mass fill the place where he stood, and twitched his nose at the strong fragrance. It was essential that he wait long enough for the smoke to fill the room before he entered. Aaron knew well enough that no amount of smoke could hide him from the awesome God, but the smoke was there to remind him that he could not look upon the face of the Almighty God and live. Just before he stepped into the smoke filled room, Aaron checked the rope tied about his ankle. If anything were to go wrong, and God found cause to destroy him, at least his body could be pulled out of the room. Aaron felt his heart shiver fearfully as he entered into the Most Holy Place to an encounter with the Living God.

Aaron pulled neatly into the last car parking space outside the church. He dismissed the thought that he aught to show consideration to the couple following behind him. He didn't recognise them and thought they must be visitors. Aaron glanced at his watch, calculating the possible timing of the meeting, hoping he would be home for the start of the game. He ran his hand over the gleaming red bonnet of his car, thinking it might be an idea to take it over the car wash later this afternoon. There was a slight chill in the air and Aaron shivered as he opened the church door. He never entered the Most Holy Place and missed an encounter with the Living God.

(I am glad that we don't need to enter God's presence the way that Aaron, the High Priest, had to. But neither should we enter with the mind-set of my character Aaron Philips)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hands Held High

I was reading this morning from the account in Exodus of Joshua fighting the Amalekites down in the valley while Moses stood on a hill with the staff of God in his hands held high. I wondered if Joshua could actually see Moses. Come to think of it, it doesn’t matter whether Joshua could see the hill or not. In the midst of the swing and clash of steel he couldn’t really afford for his eyes to stray to a hill behind him. A glance backwards to the hill might have been enough time for the fatal thrust of the enemy blade to kill him.

Did Joshua know what was happening on the hill? Had he made the connection between what Moses was doing on the hill, and how the battle was turning for him, or for his enemies? I suspect not, seeing as the account ends with God telling Moses to write down what happened and to make sure that Joshua gets to hear it all.

Joshua might have thought it was all up to him and his troops to save the day. Those times when they were winning might have been just because of effort on their part, of a second wind blowing in their direction. The times when they were loosing might have been down to weariness on their part as they had been fighting for the better part of the day. It is only in hindsight that he can join all the dots together to see the picture of God’s intervention.

Sometimes I think that I must be like Joshua right now. My battle isn’t physical one. Much as I would like to have a flesh and blood enemy that I could see, and a gleaming sword to swing at them, that’s not the case.

I think that my enemy is a big black hole of sorrow that would love to just suck me in. The Amalekites appear to me as dark thoughts, or a sense of helplessness or a wave of anger at the way in which what is happening to my family is unfair and God chooses not to intervene to stop it all.

I picture another man with His hands held high.

”Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” Romans 8:34

There is nothing to say what posture Jesus has adopted as He intercedes for me, but just as Moses stood on a hill with his hands raised high, interceding for Joshua on the battlefield below, something in my spirit tells me that Jesus is standing with His hands held high in heaven, before the throne of God. He doesn’t hold a staff like Moses, but clearly visible are the scars on His palms which remind God that Jesus died for me, that He has a claim upon my life.

I can’t see this particular hill, or this particular man. Like Joshua I am too busy with the clamour of the battle, but He is there nonetheless. And with him rests my victory.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Hug

Have you ever felt in need of a hug? It has to be the right kind of hug! Too many people who hug me are too tall and I find myself almost nestled beneath their armpits. We are not like two jigsaw pieces that slot neatly together. I want to be able to rest my chin on someone’s shoulders but to do that they would need to be kneeling down!

I dreamt about a hug one night. I am not even sure that it qualified as a dream because I wasn’t quite asleep at the time.

I had been thinking about my brother. I wasn’t asleep. The rumble from the air conditioning unit on the wall was keeping me awake, as was the slightly louder rumbling from my husband stretched out next to me.

I was thinking that my brother was probably lying awake too. The tumour on his back doesn’t really allow him to lie down in a comfortable position. Sometimes the morphine has worn off and he the pain is gnawing away at the edges, or not so much gnawing as biting viciously.

I thought to God that it would be nice if someone could just hug him so that he would feel better. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if I could just hug him and some of my strength could just pass through my skin and through his and into his body and just ease the soreness he was feeling?

I had a picture in my head. It was as if I was watching. I saw God give my brother a hug. It wasn’t an embarrassing pat on the back, and over and done with in as short a time as possible. It was a solid hug, and through it, God imparted strength and comfort. There was nothing awkward in the giving or the receiving.

As God hugged my brother, I couldn’t help but smile. I felt more at peace than I had done for a long while.

God’s a good hugger!

The Time We Have Left

There is one prayer meeting, and I have been to few, that really sticks out in my mind. I suppose that if I could describe it in one word it would have to be “right”. There was no hype about anything, no whipping up emotions. It could have been a departmental meeting I was at. It was about conducting business…business in the heavenlies!

What happened was that there was a list, an agenda, if you will. They would take an item from the agenda, and then pray about it. They would get passionate in their prayers, but then, during a natural lull, someone would ask, “What do you think God is saying about this?”

They would be quiet for a while, and then someone would give insight into what they thought God was saying, and then they would all begin to pray again, taking a slightly different direction or focus. At the next lull, it would happen all over again, someone asking what God was saying, the silence, the insight, they continued prayer in the slightly different direction.

It was like correcting the cannon direction in a war. Moving it slightly to the left, or the right, or upwards, or downwards.

Eventually they reach a point where there was nothing left that needed to be said and move on to the next item. It was not your run of the mill, predictable prayer meeting, and you really felt that you were conducting holy business. No words were wasted. There were no long stretches of silence, but nothing said was irrelevant or waffle.

I suppose that to do that you would have to trust the sensitivity of the people involved in the praying. I am not sure that I would trust myself that much!

They came to one item which involved a young boy diagnosed with cancer.

They began praying fervently for God’s intervention and his healing touch. I am sure you can supply the words! They were looking for the cancer to be stopped in its tracks, for tests to come back clear.

The lull came, along with the question, “What do you think God is saying about this?” The answer supplied was that the boy was not going to recover. There wasn’t a day of recovery written in his book.

My jaw dropped! I thought that it was a given that God healed. You prayed for healing, sometimes you got it, sometimes you didn’t.

The nature of the prayers changed dramatically. The prayers were about comfort, and strength, and inner healing for the boy and his family through the time ahead. This was not a demonstration of a lack of faith, but a response to a word of knowledge.

I learned something about praying that night. It is not just what you say that counts, but what you hear from God. Too often I am more concerned about what I say on the matter rather than what God has to say on the matter.

There have been times when I have shared with friends that my brother is dying of cancer. There have been some that have not known what to say. There have been others who have been quick to testify of other people they have known who have been diagnosed with cancer, given months to live, been prayed for and then in a subsequent test, there is no sign of the tumours.

I prayed a lot for the recovery of my sister when she was unwell. I rebuked the illness. I found words in my daily readings that built up my faith. The times when I felt faithless I felt that I was letting her down, or letting God down, or just plain jinxing her recovery. So much energy expended and she passed away. I wouldn’t say that I stopped believing in God, but I was wary.

I should have spent more time asking the question, “What do you think God is saying about this?” rather than just presuming the given that God healed, that you prayed for healing, sometimes you got it, sometimes you didn’t.

I spoke to a work colleague yesterday about my brother’s diagnosis. It is cancer, in its later stages, inoperable, terminal, with a six month use-by date. My colleague’s response was to ask what my brother intended to do with the time left to him.

I had been so focussed on praying for healing, or praying for salvation, so that if the healing doesn’t happen at least he gets to go to heaven.

Inside of the question of what my brother is going to do with the time left to him, comes another question.

What am I going to do with the time that I have left with him?

I want to enjoy his company, share a tinnie or two, to laugh with him, to cry with him, to tell him funny jokes, to sit on the terrace and watch the sun go down of an evening!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Climbing Mountains

“Who may climb the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?” Psalm 24:3

I read the whole of Psalm 24 this morning, but the bit that caught my eye was this verse about climbing the mountain of the Lord. In the NIV it’s called a hill rather than a mountain. A hill doesn’t seem so daunting. You can climb a hill and maybe you get out of breath a bit, if you’re me. Mountains are a different type of climb!

As I read the words, they reminded me of an article I had posted at on the topic of endurance. I likened it to a mountain climbing experience I had when I was on a Geography field trip at school. One big mountain, one short Mel, one ever-stressed heart, one huge distance lagging behind everyone else, one very red face and one kind teacher who dropped back to walk with me and encourage me that the view from the top was worth the climb.

Thinking in terms of spiritual mountains and challenges in the article I wrote these sentences: “Some mountains move when I apply my mustard-sized faith in prayer. Other mountains are for climbing. True wisdom is being able to distinguish between them.”

How much effort is wasted when we try to climb a mountain that God had ear-marked for moving! How much angst we go through trying to move a mountain that God has set aside for climbing! “True wisdom is being able to distinguish between them”

I am not sure if I am half way up a mountain that I ought to be moving out of the way by faith, or half way up a mountain that I am supposed to climbing! If I am supposed to be moving it, I am not sure that I possess the mustard sized faith to do the job. I have taken a bit of a battering faith-wise over the last few months. If I am supposed to climb, I am not entirely convinced that the view from the top is going to be that spectacular!

Guess who needs wisdom?