Today has been a busy day, one involving a couple of train journeys and a walk in the rain, as well as the meeting up with some very new friends. It’s also been quite busy inside my head as I have talked, read, reflected and prayed.
In church on Sunday morning I talked about the Kingdom of Heaven being in the spaces between believers and as I reflect on today’s conversation I wonder (out loud, now!) whether it only really exists in community, the community of believers.
Today I have met, in the flesh, some of the people I have been in twitter contact with for nearly a year, and have been hugely blessed by them and their stories. Twitter is great for making contact, for short ideas and collecting information through blogs etc. It’s not so great for telling stories, so it was really amazing to have the occasion to meet face to face!
I have also today been reading God on Mute by Pete Greig. One of the great things about long(ish) train journeys is the uninterrupted opportunity to read! The big themes of this book relate to the Easter story:
1 Good Friday. When darkness descends: inexplicable, heart-wrenching darkness.
2 Easter Saturday. God is absent. After the horrors of Good Friday God goes awol: there is nothing, zip, nada!
3 Easter Sunday. Glory returns! Through tears, confusion, doubt and guilt we see He is Risen.
So where does God go in his absence? Why does He go silent? And why at key times? As you might imagine there are no easy answers, though I think this book does a good job of reflecting on scripture and other writers to give the reader a well thought through, lived out theology of prayer, the miraculous and God’s absence. One of the points that Pete explains is something I have been thinking about more recently and it’s not new. CS Lewis talks about it in The ScrewTape Letters and even as far back as Daniel and Job we can see a theme developing. The partial sentence in Daniel (3 v 18) that catches me now each time I read it is in the story of Shadrach Meshach and Abednego being thrown into the fire by Nebuchadnezzar. They are given one last chance to avoid the flames (mostly I think because Nebuchadnezzar didn’t want to lose 3 of his top men!) but tell the King that “Our God will save us. AND EVEN IF HE DOESN’T we still refuse to bow to you”. In The ScrewTape Letters ScrewTape is talking to his nephew saying “There is nothing more dangerous to us than when one of them doubts the presence, power and persistence of God and YET OBEYS HIM ANYWAY” (By the way, both these quotes are paraphrasing the actual words used and the emphasis is mine but the meaning is hopefully clear and not mis-represented).
I had a picture for a friend a little while ago of a thin piece of red cotton, representing her faith. Going through a painful break up and awful divorce, she was (and I think still is) hanging on by a thread. I was able to tell her that when we are down to our last reserves, when we are no longer sure God really is on our side, when we have nothing left except a very thin, fragile thread connecting us to God, that is worth more to God than all the extravagant praise of those for whom life is happy and pain-free. The faith of those who have nothing to show for it is the faith that is precious to God.
I’m not suggesting that God wants us to live in pain or unhappiness, but that somehow when we are in pain and life around us in unhappy, there God is with us (yes, even when He seems absent) and our faith enables us to stand a little straighter, to find peace and even joy in what can seem the most horrendous of situations.
Pete talks of Bethany, the place where Mary broke the jar of expensive perfume over the feet of Jesus only a week before his death, and the home of Lazarus and Simon the Leper (now healed!). Pete tells us that if he had been a disciple on that Easter Saturday, Bethany would be the place he would want to go. To be in the house where probably the perfume fragrance still lingered, no longer as strong as when it was first spilled but still there. To be with people who had been impacted physically by Jesus’ ministry. He asks the reader to consider who or where is our ‘Bethany’? Who are the people who build your faith, provide a shelter from the raging storms of life? To put it another way: who are the people of peace?
THIS then is where the Kingdom of Heaven is, sometimes there are healings and people flock to the Kingdom: to Jesus. Sometimes though it is in the seeming absence of God that we need our people of peace, our fellow believers, our Bethany people. This is when WE become the presence of God.
I met some of those people today. People of that Bethany place; people of peace; more believers doing Kingdom work; changing the world in the name of Jesus and telling their stories, one coffee shop crawl at a time!
This one is for you guys: Gabriella, Ricky, Roy, Lex, Sarah, Ruth, Laura, Martin, Jamie, Helen, Ben and Alex. And for Pauline, Rachel and Ellie: my own Bethany people.