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Swollen hearts

As gross as a swollen heart sounds, it’s the only way I can describe the way I feel when I watch these.

‘Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word ‘glory’ a meaning for me. I still do not know where else i could have found one.’ (Lewis, ‘The Four Loves’, p.30)

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My brother proposed to his girlfriend last night. And she said YES!

I think I was quite probably equally as excited as he was in the hours leading up to it, but it’s been a hugely joyful time of celebration with family and friends. And what’s more, there will soon be TWO Steph Judds! Oh, the frivolity. Andrew has dubbed us Steph Judd the Wise and Steph Judd the Brave, for differentiation purposes. (Yes, he has always been a geek).

As we sat in the front room drinking champagne, I commented to Steph about how crazy seasons of life are, and how from the vantage point of one season, it is very unlikely that you can anticipate what or when the next season will be. 6 months ago, Steph wasn’t even dating anyone, and now she is engaged to a man who she will covenant to spend the rest of her life with.

I’ve been reading a book by an Australian woman who spent years as a physio in Nepal with an organisation called INF. I’ve been turning over some thoughts in my mind, about how you can’t speed on the turning of the seasons in your own life. In fact, restlessness with the season you are in robs you of much of the focus and richness and benefit of where you’re at right now.

As a chronic visionary, I always want to keep my eyes on the horizon; and I don’t think that’s bad. It becomes unhealthy, though, when the horizon becomes the focus of your gaze and the things in front of you blur to the peripheries. Because we only ever live in the present, right? Surely it’s better to dwell fully in the present, to be attentive to the details of now, whilst constantly being aware of the horizons?

But what then do you make of the mandate to ‘SET your mind on things above, not on earthly things’ (Col 3:2) and to ‘FIX your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith’ (Hebrews 12.2)?

I was mulling over this (granted, only for about 30 seconds, so it might not hold up), and I concluded that perhaps the hope of the impending Kingdom, and the reality of Jesus’ Lordship, is the lens through which we focus on the things before us in the present. It’s not a ticket to disengage from this present reality and gaze off into the future with sighs. Fixing our eyes on what is unseen, not what is seen (2 Cor 4.18), doesn’t preclude this. Nor does groaning with longing for the sons of God to be revealed (Romans 8). This reality is both physical and spiritual, right? Which means that being attentive to the NOW means having an accurate understanding of the times in which we live, the condition of our world, and the trajectory on which its heading.

It’s like when you’re playing hockey: sure, you can focus intently on your stickwork by keeping your head down with single-minded attention. But your stickwork in a game works much better, and according to the purpose for which you learn stick skills, when you are spatially aware, and are constantly looking up to see where you are running, which defenders/attackers you’ll need to handle, and so what stickwork you’ll need to use. (I don’t know if that made sense to anyone else apart from me…) Similarly, the purpose of Kingdom vision is so that your present-mindedness will be more ‘spatially aware’, if you will. If you locate where you are at now within God’s broader purposes, your focus on the present will be according to reality.

Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:13)

It would seem that setting our hope fully on the grace of Jesus means that we engage more faithfully, live more boldly, love more radically, and focus more attentively on the people and circumstances around us with each precious passing breath that has been entrusted to us.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this unintelligible babble.

Renewal

I have been sick, lately. Like the rest of Sydney, apparently.

My usual approach to sickness is to ignore it. If it gets worse I’ll drug up and become more socially inept than I normally am. But very rarely, I get slammed by a flu that morphs into an infection, and end up bedridden for days.

It must’ve been years since the last time that happened, so I was more than a little frustrated when it happened to pop by on the last week my dear friend, Blythe, was visiting Sydney from Oklahoma.

During this time, another friend, Cloudy, sent me a text one evening. It instructed me to check my front doorstep. ‘Lo and behold, this is what I found:

What an act of unmerited kindness!

The card she’d written included this poem, by Helen Steiner Rice. It’s entitled, ‘A Time of Renewal’. It might be a bit cutesy for some (it rhymes, so all the indie kids out there will be cringing in their skinny jeans and fake frames), but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe you will too.

No one likes to be sick

And yet we know

It takes sunshine and rain

To make flowers grow.

And if we never were sick

And we never felt pain,

We’d be like a desert

Without any rain,

And who wants a life

That is barren and dry,

With never a cloud

To darken the sky?

For continuous sun

Goes unrecognised

Like the blessings God sends,

Which are often disguised.

For sometimes a sickness

That seems so distressing

Is a time of renewal

And spiritual blessing.

TALK 1: My Treasured Possession

More expansive notes (for brief summary, see this previous post):

The week started by acknowledging that there is a disconnect between how we see the church, and how God Himself sees the church. At worst, we have contempt for it, and at best, ‘Christians have fallen into the bad habit of acting as if the church really does not matter as we go about trying to live like Christians.’ (Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 69.)

Our understanding of anything should defer to, or derive from, how God sees it. The reason? God IS ultimate reality. Through Him, by Him, in Him, all things exist and hold together (Col 1.16-17); ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17.28).

So, how does God see the church?

Well, preserved for us in the Old Testament scriptures is an incredible story of God calling to himself a people. They were to be his ‘treasured possession out of all the peoples’ (Exodus 19.3-6), a priestly kingdom, a holy nation. This apparent favouritism often jars with me. But, as Bill Dumbrell says in The Search for Order, ‘Israel’s role as a priestly kingdom and holy nation means that she must serve the world by her separateness […] By her difference Israel is to lead the world. The holy nation of Israel is to exhibit that character of national purity befitting one who is Yahweh’s “treasured possession”; the priestly kingdom of Israel is to be a worshipping community […] the call of Israel in Exodus 19.5 has the world in view.’ (p. 45)

God rescues his people out of Egypt, and idolatry to the ‘detestable things your eyes feast on’ (Ezekiel 20.7), rescuing them from physical and spiritual slavery.

God gathers them out of this slavery and idolatry because of HIS great love and faithfulness, not any inherently worthy quality in the Israelites. ‘[T]he LORD set his heart on you and chose you’ not because they were more numerous/powerful/significant/worthy; they were the ‘fewest of all peoples’ (Deut 7). No, it was because of the Lord’s love and faithfulness to the oath he swore to the ancestors of this people, recorded in Genesis 12.

This extravagant action by the living God, who has called them to be His own, warrants a response; Israel was to be holy, to reflect the holiness of God (Lev 11.45; 20.7-8). Their holy worship of the Lord looks like:

LOVING THE LORD ALONE: Deut 6.4-5. This was expressed through temple observance (including sacrifices and festivals), the Sabbath, circumcision, and ritual purity.

LOVING YOUR NEIGHBOURS AS YOURSELF: Lev 19.18. This was expressed through the way they dealt with property, injury, sex, strangers and family.

They were blessed with his presence (Ex 29.46), which dwelt at Mt. Sinai, and then a continuing presence over the tabernacle, and eventually over the temple.

At this point, it’s helpful to clarify that there is a distinction between God’s ambient presence and God’s localised, intensified presence. God fills the heavens and the earth (Jeremiah 23.24), but God also is capable of intensifying His presence in a particular locality (e.g. in the camp of the Israelites: Numbers 5.3).

More than that, the Lord manifests His presence amongst His people by both His WORD (Lev 1.1-2) and His SPIRIT (Isaiah 63.11-14).

Throughout redemptive history, and particularly evident in God’s Old Covenant people, there coexists grit with glory; the grit of the failures and inconsistencies and disloyalty and stubbornness and faithlessness  of Israel, and the glory this nation experiences because of the faithfulness and mercy and unmerited love of God.

The glory of the Church is the faithfulness of their God to His promisesnot their impressiveness as a people-group. So, this means that there is reason for me to stop gauging the worth of the church, both global and local, according to my standards (usually measured by how awkward/cringe/whingey/selfish/uninspiring the people are) and start recognising that it is precisely that weakness that makes the faithfulness of God’s promises to this motley crew all the more ASTOUNDING.

What kind of a God would extravagantly love THESE PEOPLE? What kind of a God would be faithful to THESE PEOPLE?

The one, true, living God.

Grit and Glory: The Church 1.0

If you follow me on Twitter, you would have noticed that last week, I was perpetually hashtagging “ancon11” at the end of pretty much every single tweet.

The reason for this is that I was engaged in a highly competitive race to the top of the Twitter Cloud of the Annual Conference (AnCon) of the Sydney University Evangelical Union (EU). The elbows were out, attempts to sabotage reception were rife, and …

(I really shouldn’t try to be funny)

But the purpose of these next few blogs is to try to consolidate the crazy amounts of teaching we received. Rowan Kemp is notorious for his thorough and illuminating theological instruction, and the Spirit often uses him to explode our minds with His truth over the course of the week.

Sadly, I missed the first talk, which was apparently a ‘framework’ through which we could understand the week’s talks. That said, the notes in the booklet we take notes in are very thorough, so I will attempt a concise summary of each talk (and some of my own tangential ramblings). Keep in mind they were an hour+ long, so there is a lot of content to cover.

TALK 1: MY TREASURED POSSESSION

The Story of the Old Covenant People of God

Summary:

1. God has a view of the Church that is different to how Christians see the church. We ought to align ours with His.
2.  In order to understand the Church now, we need to understand how God has interacted with His people, His own, throughout redemptive history. i.e. the Israelites.
3. God rescued a people for Himself out of slavery and idolatry and into holiness (set-apart-ness/distinctiveness) so that they might testify to the character of God as holy, faithful and loving.
4. The holy worship of God’s treasured possession was to be expressed primarily through (1) loving the Lord alone and (2) loving your neighbour as yourself.
5. God blessed His people with His presence, manifested by His Word and His Spirit.
6. The glory of the Church is that God chooses to show mercy, shower love upon, and be faithful to His promises to a people who are thoroughly unimpressive, unfaithful and outright disobedient. Their brokenness serves to highlight the character of God and magnify His great worth and glory.


Tangled

Perhaps I should be bashful about having watched two movies in two consecutive nights.

But I’m not.

The background to this is that I’ve been coughing my lungs up (with great elegance, I might add) (…? who am I?), and so I’ve been bedridden for the last day and a half. Consequently, I’ve been reading, knitting, chasing thoughts whilst staring at my ceiling, and watching 30 Rock with my dear brothers (it’s rare that they’re both home).

My dear friend Claudia has given me company for much of the past 2 days, for which I am a little bit overwhelmed – thankful, grateful (there’s a semantic difference there, surely?) and feeling very blessed by her gracious love towards me. In fact, that’s something that I was talking with Blythe and Clouds today about: how being sick for the past 6 years has been something that God has used to weather down my stubborn independence from people. In that, I used to not ever want to accept help from people. I would never take days off school, I would refuse assistance and would generally try to do things by myself. Because people helping you makes you incompetent, right?

Praise be to the grace of God that He has saved me from myself, and is refining that part of my personality away. Generally being physically unable to do the same things I used to do has taken me on an uncomfortable road to accepting help, initially out of necessity. I think that necessity broke a lot of my barriers down, which may have paved the way for greater humility to accept grace from people.

But this totally wasn’t what I started this entry to write about.

TANGLED.

I’m getting tired, so this is briefly what I wanted to say. Sometimes people get angsty about Disney movies, and the way they instill unrealistic expectations about what a child’s life can be into their impressionable hearts. But, you see, I feel that there’s something in the DNA of humanity that instructs us to lift our vision to grander stories; legends, mythologies, dreamtime stories, fairytales… aren’t these a testament to the longing of the human heart to live bigger, to be a part of something greater than themselves and their present circumstances? Definitely, I think that there is a place for skepticism, in that we don’t want to have our heads so up in the clouds about what could be in a different reality that we spend our real lives gazing longingly into the horizon, and never actually do anything with the time given to us. BUT cynicism, that reactive disposition of the heart that fears the pain of those dreams never being realised, is crippling and destructive.

See, I think that we WERE made to live bigger, bolder and riskier lives. Lives of faith, lives that see us stepping out in heavy dependance that our God is in control and will come through for us. I think our hearts were wired with the grand narrative of eternity set in them, this deep pulse that knows that our lives, our selves, were made to participate in the greatest story ever told. That we are valued and treasured. No, I don’t think that the happily ever afters are ours on this side of Jesus’ return; no, I don’t think that this longing for a fairytale life is helpful or healthy if it leads you to put off living your life, perennially waiting for something magnificent to occur.

But living boldly, loving recklessly, and living a life of risky faith – living OBEDIENTLY to a wildly passionate and steadfastly loving God? Doesn’t that sound like a life worth writing a story about? Or, rather: doesn’t that sound like a life that is a penstroke in the greatest story ever told?

I certainly think so.

 

Stranger than Fiction

Four years ago, around this time of year (June/July), you could find me watching, pausing, re-winding, and re-watching two Marc Foster films. One was a beautiful piece starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet (Finding Neverland), and the other was this present piece, featuring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thomson and Dustin Hoffman (even Queen Latifah?!). The former was a supplementary text for 2U English in my HSC, and the latter, Stranger than Fiction, was a supp text for 3U English.

To say that I loved 3U would be an understatement. For starters, I had the best and most influential teacher I have ever had: Hoody was my debating coach, my 4U mentor, and my 3U teacher, and he made Postmodernism a JOY. Our class of about 10 was ridiculously entertaining, intellectually rigorous, and really relaxed, which was such a fantastic learning environment.

Hoody and Jamie. Hand = Very self-aware. Classic.

Postmodernism is fundamentally a dynamic concept, because it is reactionary; it offers a response to the dominant themes and discourses of the social, cultural and intellectual epoch in which it exists. It shouldn’t be altogether surprising that there are several, not necessarily cohesive, impulses encompassed within postmodern theory. But there are bound together by a similar approach to textual construction and analysis.

Baudrillard said, epitomising the sense of belatedness which pervades postmodernism, that “everything has already occurred… nothing new can happen.” Accordingly, the postmodernist seeks to play around with the existing material, in order to present their message. It is innovation, not creation.

Stranger than Fiction focuses explicitly on itself as a construct, exploring originality, the control of meaning and authorship in a brilliantly executed artwork.

The premise is simple, but the nuance comes in the execution. Harold Crick (Ferrell) is a senior IRS agent whose bland existence is interrupted by the sudden intrusion of a disembodied voice, apparently narrating his life. Playful ontological games ensue, blurring the barriers between the constructor and the constructed, as the author who narrates Harold’s life (Thompson) enters the plot as a character on the same ontological level as the character whose story she is constructing. What is pricked my interest as I watched it again last night, was how much it reminded me of Don Miller’s ‘A Million Miles in a Thousand Years’, and the whole notion of living a good story. You see, Karen Eiffel (Thompson) is an author who is notorious for killing off all of her main characters; Crick discovers this, much to his alarm, when she narrates that, “Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.” Without disclosing much of the plot, this revelation catalyses a totally new life for Harold; he LIVES boldly, forging headlong through his fears and insecurities, doing things he would never have dared to do in his ‘previous life’. Freed from the tyranny of routine, he is reckless in his pursuit of love and life – he has a clarity of vision about what is significant in the face of the brevity of his life! This is the final voiceover:

As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true. And, so it was, a wristwatch saved Harold Crick.

At its heart, I think the movie valorizes experience over theory and love over cynicism. I think it wouldn’t be stretching it to say that it is a universal sentiment to long to live to suck the marrow out of life. To have a sense of one’s own mortality, to invigorate and motivate the self to dwell fully in the present and to live according to what matters – this sentiment isn’t novel!

In fact, the Psalmist expressed this longing:

“Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.” (39:4)

But I feel that although living in a gear of life that savours the nuances of life isn’t all there is to the sentiment. I think it finds its roots much deeper in the human heart. We are but a breath. We long for our lives to count for something. And I think that’s because our hearts were fashioned to participate in a great story, to be caught up in greatness outside of ourselves, a magnificence so captivating and other that we revel in the bliss of self-forgetfulness. We become more ourselves than we have ever been before; everything is illuminated by the brightness and beauty of the one in whom true life is found.

There is not a frenetic striving to make your life count, because settling in your place within the grander narrative lends a joy in soaking up and leveraging the insignificant moments. It isn’t all about you. So you can be content in simply being faithful with the moments given to you.

Why waste life on trivialities

 

 

This is a response to a guy’s blog from earlier in the year. It’s pretty much what I think about justice, and is heavily derived from the writings of NT Wright, Tim Keller, Frederick Buechner and the thoughts of my dear friend, Ed Springer. I still find it hard to live this. But in His gracious mercy to me, may His Spirit continue to teach me to love as He has loved.

It’s the hope of the new creation that propels us headlong into the darkest of places. Because this hope was secured by a love from which we will never be severed, the joy that springs from it is resilient. It can withstand the buffets of pain and frustration, at least in part because its source is not our own love for these people. When I burn out or feel weighed down by the brokenness of it all, it’s often because I have been looking to my own resources.

A dear friend once unpacked the beautitudes as resting on the foundation of ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’. From that posture of spiritual bankruptcy, we come to the foot of the Cross and cry for help. Not just for salvation; everything. Including the fight for justice.

When we cry to Him in anguish over the corruption of the world, I think He responds by energising us with two things:

First, the assurance that the in-breaking of His Kingdom has already begun, and there is a Day fast approaching when all things will be restored. Justice and healing are His purposes; and His purposes will prevail.

Second, the love with which to fuel the fight. Not our own limited resource we approximately call ‘love’. His love for people. And with that love flowing through us, to them, from Him, we are free to love – without fear, and without self-regard.

As Buechner says, ‘He says to follow him, to walk as he did into the world’s darkness, to throw yourself away as he threw himself away for love of the dark world.’

It was offensive to respectable society.

It wasn’t just that Jesus the Nazarene carried incidental conversation with them out of politeness; he sought them out at his initiative and engaged in the social norm which was an expression of the closest social acceptance – table-fellowship.

‘They’ were the hamartōloi, the resha’im… the wicked. Although there was a degree of factionalism involved in the use of the word (‘if you don’t subscribe to my interpretation of the law (and accordingly, breach it), then you are a sinner!’), there was a considerable degree of commonality in the use of the term. It was derogatory, to say the least; these were not the kind of people that respectable people would trust with their kids.

It was offensive to respectable society in first century Palestine that Jesus associated with them so closely. And it is offensive still today.

My thought yesterday was approximately this: the fact that those who follow Jesus are often ‘worse’ people than those who do not grates with a lot of people. To an extent, this is attributable to people affiliating themselves with Jesus who aren’t in a relationship with Him, yes; to and extent, this is a smokescreen complaint for someone who wants to keep the claims of Jesus at arm’s length, yes; and particularly, to an extent, this is just the inconsistency of those who follow Jesus but are still plagued by their daily disobedience. Yes.

But what I was reflecting on yesterday in the car was that Jesus associated with those who respectable people didn’t think were kosher. Similarly, although respectable society today looks different (pluralistic, tolerant, PC, etc..), it remains offended by the people Jesus chooses to draw to Himself. It deems them inappropriate candidates for who God would want to be in relationship with. It assumes that because these people are flawed, broken, and inconsistent, that the One they say they worship must not be God. The only real difference between now and then, is the qualities that we associated with ‘the wicked’ have changed. Whereas it was once ‘tax collector, prostitute, thief, liar’, it is now ‘arrogant, narrow-minded, rigid’. Respectable society is hugely resistant to the idea that these people would ever be acceptable to God.

The crucial point is exactly this: those who are otherwise unable to be acceptable to God are approved by Him on the account of Jesus’ blood.

Jesus dined with those who people didn’t like, and didn’t think should ever be able to get a hearing with God, let alone share table-fellowship with Him.

Granted, of course, I’ll be the first to fall to my knees and cry out to God about the way Christians treat other people; our lovelessness and selfishness isn’t normative! It’s residual of who we were when we met Jesus, not a fruit of our relationship with Him. And there is more of a lesson in Jesus’ dining with ‘sinners’ for those who claim to know God, yet exclude those with whom Jesus appeared to be closest.

But this is so important to understand: the fact is that awful people are just the people who Jesus sought out then, and they are just the people He seeks out now. Why? Well, because when by His grace they are transformed into better, truer, fuller, more whole, versions of themselves, it will not be attributable to them ‘just being a nice guy/gal’; JESUS will get the glory.

It’s not to give them a licence to stay in the clothing of their old self; far from it. Jesus’ practise of dining with sinners was not acquiescence to their ways, but a practical parable of his message that the kingdom of God was breaking in, and that it was a free gift to any and all who would accept it through repentance. Repentance required a change of mind about God, about themselves, and about other people. Jesus’ contact with them over a meal triggered that repentance, which in turn brought them into a relationship which would gradually transform their external behaviours.

I’m not sure if this makes sense. Or if I am propagating a total heresy. Indeed, I am so so grieved by the loveless contempt displayed by many who profess Jesus as Lord. I think that they often represent the religious elite against whom Jesus reacted vehemently. And, to be honest, there is more to be said for an analogy of the church as Pharisees than as the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus associated (maybe they are both?). But that is matched by the contempt of those who react against their sin (lovelessness) and their designation that these people are beyond redemption.

Jesus tells us that no one is beyond redemption. Even the most despicable and contemptible among us.

Because His grace goes deeper still.

Today, I felt that there was an analogy between long-distance relationships and the way that the bride of Christ waits for Him to return. This is how I felt the thought could be expressed:

While you are away,

I while away my moments thinking about how

(while you are away)

I while away my moments thinking about you.

 

 

I wish the same were true of the way I waited for Him. Times a million.

 

Because while He is away,

His thoughts of me outnumber the grains of sand in the sea.

Because while He is away (and into all eternity),

He bears scars in His hands and feet.

Not a single moment goes by that He isn’t thinking of me (I’m feeling uncomfortable now).

For, if He were to cease those thoughts,

I would cease.

For, in Him, all things hold together.