the sounds of Bethlehem

It happened when my first child was small. A bundle of beauty at about 7 months old – all the joy of my life. We sat Christmas morning in a family members church – a beautiful building, built in a time when parishioners were expected to sit quietly and mod-cons weren’t included.

My perfect bundle started to wiggle and make noises, and there wasn’t a modern nursing room to retreat to or even an easy retreat, that didn’t involve clanking sounds on wooden floorboards and pushing past people in the narrow row. I sat in that unfamiliar church on Christmas morning feeling uncomfortable, feeling a perceived disapproval from the mainly older congregation.

Then words from the front diverted from the liturgy and planned delivery.

‘Isn’t it nice to have the sounds of Bethlehem in the church this morning.’

and I can’t even write those words without tears filling my eyes 9 years later.

advent cover option

 

To be so wholly welcomed, so valued, so included when we weren’t the expected demographic in that particular place.

The grace of those words.

The echo of those words speak so deeply into my own heart-beat for the church.

There is room for everyone.

I so want to be the balm of those words to other weary travellers… to people squirming in the seat, to people unsure if there is a space for them, to people who just feel like they don’t fit the demographic.

I think about that first Christmas – the smells, the sounds, the outcasts, the angels…. the sounds of Bethlehem aren’t perfect choirs with hours of practise, amazing stain glassed windows and perfectly vaulted ceiling arches. As much as I love those things, the sounds we are called to first are the mucking in despite the lack of harmony, sticking at it in discord, welcoming whatever odd sounds we might find ourselves surrounded by.

The sounds of Bethlehem are broken, wonder-filled, imperfect people gathering around an unexpected manger at a rescue mission delivered in a tiny little bundle.

It seems to me we could all of us be those grace words today.

Those words that say – I’m glad you’re here, you are welcome.

Let’s be grace words to weary souls today. Let’s be wildly abundant with our love. Let’s be kind and gracious and generous in our welcome even if it disrupts our plans.

 

 

 

Letting People Change

Lately I’ve been thinking about people and places in my past. Perhaps it’s the do-you-knows on facebook, maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s just growing older…

Still, I’ve been challenged about the way I press pause on people and places. I look back at how someone behaved or didn’t behave, I think about the theology of churches I’ve been involved in and I realise I have set them in concrete instead of water.

When I think about who I am now, I hope they don’t have me set in stone as I was then.

But I do that to them, and it’s wrong.

People are always changing and growing. I am changing and growing. I have been immature, selfish, arrogant, unkind, impatient… I could go on…. and I’m not finished with those flaws but I hope I’m less-so than I was.

Lately I’ve been challenged to let go of my perceptions and judgements of my past.

Yes people hurt me, yes I have hurt people. Yes churches had different ways of seeing things than I do now, or maybe I understood them differently than I do now but, that doesn’t mean that they are still like that.

It seems very unfair to not give grace to allow others to change over time just because I haven’t journeyed with them.

Maybe if I only ever met Peter in the courtyard while Jesus was on trial I’d deduce that he was kind of weak and fearful. If I never met him again I might not discover that he actually became rather bold in time, that he later died for what he once denied.

If I met Saul when he was on a genocide mission for Christians I might have never believed the person he could become.

If I set a person, an organisation, a church, in stone I am essentially saying ‘that’s who they are, they will always be that way, they cannot change, God cannot change them‘ and if I say that, and believe it, then I am declaring it about myself too.

I don’t want that for me.

I want people to believe that I will have changed. I want them to remember the better aspects of my character and trust that God is making more of those and less of my imperfections.

I’m challenged to allow the world to go on changing and developing even if I’m not there to see it. I’m challenged to think people might be a little different, better even, than I remember them.

I’m allowing some old ways of thinking to be confronted because I want to be allowed to be a changing and different person – so maybe I need to extend the same to others.

God your reach is everlasting, your redemption never ending, your work never finished and I want to keep on changing. Give me the grace to never be cynical, the maturity to judge people by their best intentions and the humility to know that none of us are there yet and you have good plans for all of us. Give me faith to know you can change any of us, even me. Let me love with an expansive heart that always believes people will have journeyed forward in the best of ways.

Forgiveness

The house is bathed in angry voices as immediately-required forms for school have disappeared. The clock ticks and bell time comes fast. Angry voices find volume and speed and tears add to the disarray.

Threats of missing out. Emotions scattering like whirlwind debris jarring off walls.

School run done in muted tones of anger and frustration.

Back in the silent house forms are located. I am to blame.

Forms are returned to school. Fault is owned.

In the afternoon I choose not to enter into elaborate explanations and excuses about my behaviour. I make eye contact, I own the fact that my tone and my words were unacceptable, I own the fault of missing forms and ask forgiveness.

I add it is not okay for me to speak with heated angry words to you.

In return I receive love. I am hugged and told I am loved.

I am given love.

And the love is so much sweeter because I gave no excuses for my behaviour. I didn’t cheapen the grace by manipulating the giver into thinking I deserved it.

And it is oh.so.tempting to temper the apology with a ‘this is why I was such a stinker’ tag line. Maybe I was tired, maybe I had lost something else that morning, maybe I had a million things I had to do, maybe I am loving most of the time…. but at that moment I was badly behaved towards someone I loved and acknowledging that, in and of itself, is what matters.

Being unkind, harsh, unduly angry and hurtful is a slight on me. It shines light on the state of my character.

Out of the heart the mouth speaks. Can a well produce fresh and polluted water?

I think we fear apologising without a reasonable excuse. It gives another person proof that we are in fact truly broken, truly sinful, truly unable to redeem ourselves. It takes us down a peg, or several. It elevates them.

It is uncomfortable to stand on lower ground.

We tell ourselves excuse helps them to understand… but when we are on the receiving end of such an apology it makes our forgiveness about them and not about us.

I don’t deserve forgiveness because I am nice 99% of the time. Forgiveness is a lavish gift that is bestowed out of the beauty and grace of another. Giving excuses and reasons why it should be handed out cheapens the gift.

Imagine turning up at a birthday and when you are handed a gift saying of course you spent money on me because I am so kind, and generous, and you are so lucky to have me as a friend. We do not dare to cheapen the generosity of another in such a crass way.

Excusing our hurtfulness to others probably does not help them understand us better, it justifies our behaviour and cheapens their forgiveness.

There are times when reasons might be needed. But, I know in my heart, when I offer reasons it’s about me trying to prove to myself and them I am really not as bad as I seem. Truth is, I am as bad as I seem.

I am probably worse.

We are all the recipients of unimaginable grace. Radical forgiveness. Oh so expensive, your life for mine, forgiveness. Freely given. Let us never delude ourselves that we somehow deserve it, that our sins are mostly excusable.

My shortcomings nailed my saviour to the cross. Our shortcomings have broken the world and wounded many people God loves. These are no trifles to be discounted.

May we never stray so far as to think we had a part in gaining the inheritance we are adopted into. Our adoption was not cheap, it was not easy, it was not won without blood and heartbreak.

Our forgiveness is the most lavish, life-changing, awe-inspiring thing we could ever receive. So let us never deceive ourselves and cheapen its value by telling ourselves a story about how good were really are.

God I am sorry, I am broken, I am in need of every-day, moment by moment forgiveness. Your grace to me is radical, it is undeserved and I will never earn it. Give me grace to love and forgive others like you so freely do to me.

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and all are justified freely by his grace that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3v22-24

righteous anger

There is this bit in the bible where Jesus walks into the temple,

God’s scared space, and he loses it with the temple sellers.

He really goes for launch,

tables go flying,

there’s a whip,

I’m pretty sure the words he uses aren’t quiet and calm.

…. can you imagine the awkward pause afterwards?

The thing is these temple sellers were making big money from poor people. People had to have the right kind of sacrifice to bring – perfect – and unless you were in the business of doves or lambs you didn’t have the goods….

enter the entrepreneurs – we have the perfect dove right here and you can make the right sacrifices for the right money

All of a sudden coming to bring a sacrifice became an opportunity for some people to make money….

some people were being denied access because they didn’t have enough

suddenly there was a roadblock

…. and the cross stops it right in it’s tracks …

Matthew 27v50-51 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.

the enormous curtain torn from top to bottom,
suddenly entry to the temple isn’t just free,
entry to the holiest place where only the most purified can go,

that place

entry to that place – is open

the walls are broken down and the access is clear
there is no longer any criteria because no one could meet the criteria

in all of the universe only Jesus

and so we see how it breaks God’s heart, it causes Jesus to make a public spectacle, this thing of making it hard for people to get in.

All around the world we observe people who are denied – education, water, health care, rights, faith…. and we cannot say that doesn’t matter to God.

Jesus died to give us access, to invite us to boldly approach the Throne of Grace

What in my life makes it hard for people to find The Way?

Do I hold onto a faith that subtly agrees with buying/earning/working my way in to the Holy Place?

We are all justified because none of us can be self-justified – that is the cross. We cannot come in without the cross that says all were denied and now all are welcome.

In the journey to the cross I must shut my eyes and ears to the voices of the ones who try to sell me the way in and accept the rugged, blood stained, difficult walk to the foot of a messy cross that offers salvation that cannot be bought or sold. 

Too expensive for me to ever purchase, and yet free.

Limping on to Good Friday, one overwhelming step at a time.

Hebrews 4v16 So whenever we are in need, we should come bravely before the throne of our merciful God. There we will be treated with undeserved kindness, and we will find help.