Matthew 11

#nofilter

Jesus is hard to understand because we have so many filters. That’s why children find it easier.

I think of this chapter as about the filters, and Jesus showing us how great love, grace and relationships are designed to be when the filters are stripped away.

Because God is relational. 3 in one. Here it’s like Jesus is constantly texting the father.

John the Baptist gets wind of Jesus’ ministry in prison. His disciples ask Jesus if he’s it, is there something else?

No hint of motives. Was John gently directing his disciples towards Jesus’? Was he disappointed? Was Jesus more low-key than he expected?

No hint either of whether John was satisfied by the answer. It makes no difference because Jesus knows what he is doing. He simply announces what has been described an extra beatitude:

Blessed are those who are not offended by me

John is the last and greatest prophet, but that way of knowing God is a filter. The commentary said it’s like the brightest night is still darker than the dullest day. With Jesus, a new day has come.

And Jesus let’s fly at those who try to build their own comprehension to suit themselves, on top of partial revelation. He calls it a violent raid on the kingdom of God.

When fuller revelation and understanding is freely available, religious practices and other theories of knowledge can perversely operate to obscure God.

I think.. it’s a tricky passage!

Jesus comments on the spin people put on him and John… That John was too hard and critical and Jesus is too lush and compromised by mixing with corrupt people. Watch this space, he says: “wisdom is proved right by its deeds”.

He gets really angry about the towns, including his home that saw lot of miracles but were indifferent.

That’s when he does a check-in with the father in prayer, and mollifies his anger by rejoicing at what a leveller god’s love is.

Some of the simplest people get it from the smallest hint, and some of the most sophisticated struggle to grasp it when it’s right under their noses. And that’s how God likes it to be. You’ve got to strip away the baggage and unlearn.

He talks about the open and filter-free relationship he has with the father. And then he invites us in.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

v 28-30

His anger with the indifferent towns is ultimately the frustration of compassion for them. The way of struggle and complexity, of reaching forward in the dark like the prophets, or following leaders who are as blind as you are, they are gone. We can come direct to Jesus. The “message” translation called it the unforced rhythms of grace.

There is work to be done, sure, but relatively Jesus’ work it’s like rest from the struggle of not knowing Jesus.

His claims are astonishing. If you want to regard him simply as a great teacher, he is preposterously arrogant. He claims to be gentle and lowly of heart, …and able to choose who will know God.

It only works if he is God. If so, yes, God is humble, gentle, inviting us in, freely sacrificing himself so we know simple, abundant love.

All kind of sad and wintry here. I applied for some jobs yesterday. Its all in God’s hands.

Matthew 7

There’s a whole extra chapter of sermon on the mount. Who knew?

All these phrases are so well known to Christians, many are part of common culture.

This chapter has:

  • not judging the speck in your brother’s eye when you have a log in yours.
  • Pearls before swine.
  • Ask, seek and knock (Jesus is ready and waiting for you).
  • Do unto others…
  • The wide gate and the narrow gate.
  • Jesus warning of false prophets, to whom he’ll say “I never knew you”.  And
  • the foolish or wise builder who build on sand or rock.

Reading them, I had an odd experience of being distracted by old hurts. Partly a symptom of working in a Christian organisation.

I used “ask, seek and knock” as the framework for a major project that I was dumped from. I thought it was some of the best work I had done, but it was buried.

That started me on the path, as I read through, of casting myself as the victim of Jesus’ scenarios: my boss should have taken the log out of his eye. My pearls were before swine. If the tables were turned, I wouldn’t have treated them so badly…

I’m feeling sorry for myself, thrown out of my job when the economic situation is so bad. Feeling too old, tired and unconfident for another job change.

A day has passed, and I’ve read it again with the hurt subsided. There’s no way around it, I was being the person Jesus was criticising. I was judging, pointing to the speck in someone else’s eye.

The familiarity of the phrases belies the strangeness of Jesus’ flow of ideas, which undermine all my defences.

It jumps from our personal interactions to the search for God and back (Judge not, lest you be judged… ask seek knock … therefore, do unto others…).

There is a deep connection and flow between how we treat each other and deepening our relationship with God. There is an immediacy of god’s presence in our interactions, and of our interactions in God’s presence.

It also jumps disturbingly between the abundant generosity of god’s love (if earthly fathers love their children, how much more will your heavenly father) …and the rarity and difficulty of it (small and narrow is the gate that leads to life, few will find it)

There are false prophets and deceivers at every turn.

Jesus, you’re messing with me.

Of course you are!

Having shown me my pride, and thrown me from pillar to post, there at the bottom of the chapter is the rock, the word of God, Jesus’ words. All other ground is sinking sand.

Uniting it all is that humble swallowing of our pride, our acceptance that Jesus is king. Christianity is not a performance test, it is an acceptance test. Ask, seek, knock. Is all it takes.

The wide gate is our instincts, our incredibly strong addiction to looking out for number #1, as I did on the first read through. So many wise guys think they have life sussed. But they are flowing with the mainstream through that wide, obvious, self serving gate.

Jesus blesses victims of injustice, the beatitudes at the start said that. But how easily did I cling to my hurt greedily, as a debt the world owes me. As a blinder to my own need for God.

At a certain point we are accountable for choosing to listen to false prophets’ shortcuts and lies, because God has equipped us all with the ability to detect our own spiritual b.s.

The rock. Let it break you, let it support you.

Give me wisdom, father, as I use this time to order my thoughts, and do the work ahead of me. Give me humility as I prioritise my objectives. Guide and guard my interactions. Take away the prickles, help me focus on letting generosity flow into my interactions.

Matthew 6

You look after the sincerity, God will look after the perfection.

The sermon on the mount continues. Yesterday Jesus talked about being obvious to the world. Be like salt, be like light shining out.

I was interested that to a bunch of strangers this is quoted as among the first things he said. Giving that responsibility to those with little theological knowledge. To just anybody!

The teaching in today’s chapter is mainly about being sincere inyour private relationship with God. That is what Jesus says should be the foundation of your presence in the world. Thoughout the Bible, that honest humble sincerity seems so much more valuable to God than lots of knowledge.

Give to the needy because of your sincere conviction before God, not to work the human dynamic of what is considered moral. Ditto prayer, fasting and your attitude to wealth.

He tosses in the lord’s prayer, as you do. It’s a rich section that I can’t do justice in one day’s entry.

This sincerity before God introduces a reciprocity. These lessons are applications of the two great commands, to love God and thereby know how to love your neighbor.

Forgive as you would be forgiven. Give without making need shameful, as you would want help to be. Pray, earn money for the benefit of others, not to build up yourself. That is reciprocated as treasure in heaven. As above, so below; as below, so above.

I read an article this morning that struck me as being full of this spirit, by a gay “teacher in residence” in the US reformed church, where he may never be ordained, about why he stays.

He is in no way ashamed to be gay, but he is present and humble before those who do not agree with him. Here he is discussing a warm-ish email he got from a congregation member who initially would not greet him.

Emails like hers remind me of the power of presence. Our bodies and stories can accomplish what no court can. Even if she never changes her views on sexuality, perhaps I’ve been able to complicate her narrative and to instigate a pause, into which a thought might emerge: Maybe things weren’t as simple as I thought. But that line of thinking applies equally to me. Perhaps she has complicated my narrative, too. She has reminded me that the law that governs my faith doesn’t discriminate, even — and especially — when it comes to those who might discriminate against me.

Jeff Chu https://nyti.ms/38s4fxd

The legal template set by Jesus for the Christian faith says this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Even if I change no hearts, minds or souls, that higher law remains. The instruction is to love God — and to love my neighbor as she is, not as she might someday be. I crave that kind of love myself, even as I struggle to extend it to others. 

Jeff Chu

Beautiful, I think. It has that connection between private honesty before God flowing to loving interactions between people. In the way they disagree, they are being salt and light to each other, and templates of the kingdom of God.

This is the way of Jesus’ scary perfection then. When he says you should gouge out an eye that causes you to sin.

Give up trying by your own efforts to show off to God and other people what a good person you are. You’ll never get there. Every letter and more of the law is fulfilled if we give ourselves with sincerity to god’s mercy. If we sincerely receive Jesus’ perfect transforming love, a little of it will overflow out to others.

Matthew 5

Being perfect.

Jesus has started preaching… Now two chapters of what he is preaching. This chapter is full of those well known sayings of Jesus that are also strange and hard.

He lists a series of expectations on behaviour that set a very high bar. Impossibly high you’d think, except that God reaches it and demands it of those in the kingdom.

Simply being angry is like murdering. Lusting is as bad as cheating.  Not doing anything you say you will is like breaking the most solemn oath. Love your enemies.

In summary, be perfect, as God is perfect.

We can’t hear this. It’s too much to ask. This is the kingdom of God, perfect implementation of the law from the Torah.

No legalism allowed, no weasel words. You’ve got to be owning the spirit of it, doubling down on it and being creative in ways to go above and beyond.

Before that, at the start are the beatitudes, beautiful counter-intuitive statements about who will be in God’s Kingdom.

Blessed are those who mourn, are poor in spirit, meek. They inherit earth and heaven, and find comfort. Some of these are states of being, such as mourning. God’s law is not necessarily a code of behaviour. Is perfection sometimes simply passively deserving justice?

Then the active attributes – peacemakers, pure hearted, being merciful, desperate for rightness, to the extent of being persecuted

This is the way of perfection. It is the way of the forgotten, the victims and those with empathy who sympathise with them.

Jesus hates hypocrisy and showiness. He loves lives of sincerity, passion on behalf of what is right, humility.

It will become clearer tomorrow when we get to the second half.

Today is stern. The kingdom he is announcing is a great place to be: no cruelty, comfort for your pain. But we are not fit for it, we know it.

As close as we get to it is championing the cause of the weak and unjustly suffering. It’s like the impossible rules are to be forgotten, they are laid out there, but the content is passion for others.

“Perfection”, it seems to turn out is an attitude, a vibe thing.

Thinking about my life, what next. It’s a message that isn’t easily digested.

Hosea 3

The size of God’s love.

Hosea is already married to Gomer. And we are already God’s children, in that we are made by God, we bear a family resemblance… His image.

Yet here Hosea buys her time, which, as a prostitute, is for sale to any man. He pays a fantastic sum, and has her time for many days. He paid for the exclusivity that she had anyway, by virtue of being hosea’s wife. And Jesus paid a fantastic price, the blood of God, the life of God, to purchase us, who were already made in God’s image.

Hosea’s life is bonkers. His reality tv social experiment lifestyle is over the top. But God is powerfully explaining the size of his love for us. It’s also bonkers.

I’ve been working on a 60 second Easter animation. That story, constrained to under 50 words comes out blunt and brutal. The Cross is such an offence to throw into a social media feed. The script won’t fall into place.

It’s ugly, amazing love.

Ezekiel 43

Something happens in the dream temple this chapter, the glory of God arrives. It is in the same form as the amazing visions that opened the book: a big gleaming stack of images of God with Jesus on top. Its reappearance brings the book to a full circle.

And there is, to me, a pretty big hint of why it doesn’t really matter whether this temple is ever actually built.

Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins. Let them consider its perfection

The idea of it is powerful by itself, for illustrating god’s standard to the people. The vision then talks about being accepted by God, through the sacrifices in this unbuilt temple.

The vision is a reminder of what God hates, a call to recommit to God, and a promise of acceptability by God.

Spent a lovely holiday day with two friends, mother and daughter, on a road trip to the hot springs of Rotorua.

Here’s Kelly and Ren in the soda pool… Hotter than a comfortable bath in several places, from gas bubbling up into it from… hell? I dunno! With blessing from God coming down in the form of light, obviously, too.

Another day here, and then we head down to Wellington, the launchpad for the South Island.

The two 16 year olds are getting along fine, seem to have the ease they had in primary school, even though it’s been years.

Ren is asking some really stimulating and awkward questions about morality and religion that I find difficult to have the space, in the dynamic, to answer. It’s a pity because obviously I have a lot of thoughts about all that stuff, so I hope I get an opportunity to. But it’s really nice and comfortable and relaxing so far. And I’m loving the luxury of time. There is nowhere if rather be, no other people I’d rather be with.

Ezekiel 34

The good shepherd (John 10:11-18), the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Two of Jesus’ most beautiful and powerful teachings. Both have their origin in this chapter.

Jesus’ ideas come so deeply and so often from scripture.

It’s a wonderful promise of showers of blessing from God, but also a really vivid reminder of what God thinks of as an irresponsibly lived human life.

People are compared to bad shepherds and pushy sheep. The metaphors are a bit mixed up. In both instances though, ungodly people are criticised for selfish lives that don’t look after the weak, aren’t community minded; that prioritise #1.

Shepherds and rams don’t have to be powerful. In the human and animal scheme of power, they are reasonably far down the influence chart. But they must use the energy and influence they do have on behalf of others.

We need to do what we can do worthily.

And so often, the means of practical grace is community: shared burdens, multiplied energy and effort.

I am, regrettably in the light of this word of God, in a completely lazy and indulgent phase. My brain is definitely in neutral. I take ridiculous wrong turns on roads I know perfectly well, it’s just fuzz inside the noggin.

The only task I give any effort to is planning my new Zealand holiday. Oops on the worthiness stakes.

I’m theoretically writing a song based on Ecclesiastes called “Relax” (thanks Annie!). But the well of creativity is dry. I just keep mucking around. Chasing after wind, form is mimicking substance.

I’m theoretically finishing off a wall in my son’s room. He’s 16, he could use one. But everything in me rebels against being task- oriented, so I am making exceptionally lack-lustre progress.

In my defence, it’s very hot. And the doom of raging bush fires everywhere only increases the mood of existential pointlessness.

It will be a big year. Plenty to do at church and work and at home. This lull before the new year is never permanent.

I have noticed that the energy levels don’t come back quite as strong with the advance of years, but I’m working smarter, or at least more pragmatically, and that compensates.

It kills me that I will miss a planning day on Jan 20 with the indigenous group at work. But I will still get to help a lot no doubt.

In the meantime, I eat leftovers, chase Google rabbit holes for hours as I feel like it, have long, circular conversations and wait for the time to gather stones together. Can’t rush time.

Ezekiel 30

The sadness, for Israel, of accepting that this is how it is meant to be. Like death. That person you need most is not coming back.

God pushes us forward to trust in him. The Israelites hate this new adventure, where Babylon smashes their culture and their offspring. They want to go back to Egypt. A familiar, comfortable enemy.

This chapter of lament over the neutralising of Egypt as any sort of powerful ally is all about God emphatically saying that there’s no going back

We need to go forward, into God’s will, no matter how horrible it seems. Israel has the example of Abraham, who God asked to kill his son Isaac. So do we.

I do lack courage Lord, often. Give me fearlessness when seeking your will.

Starting to relax a little, going into the Christmas break. There is a sadness of things that won’t change. My hope for the children refuses to become God shaped.

The holiday is coming together, 3 weeks in New Zealand. I’m actually looking forward to it. But Kelly’s sister is in a really bad place, getting nowhere accepting the death of her marriage.

The weekend with the extended family in Orange was really quite enjoyable. Not a bad Christmas.

Family is an odd connection. As we all know each other less, our lives continue to run in parallel, and we connect on shared cultural history more than shared experiences. It’s great if the experiences we do have together are good ones.

It’s worth the effort. They are relationships that feel a bit random, we happened to grow up together. The extra time allowed by staying all weekend together allow us to renew a bit too.

Sadness, scars going forward, and a bit of hope too.

Psalm 127

“If the building is not of the Lord, there’s no use in starting the building”.

Verse one was used for an old chorus I recall singing. It had an odd melody that started solemn and then went cutesy and light. The two halves of the phrase were disconnected.

Similarly, the two halves of this 4 verse psalm challenged my brain to see the connection.

The start of the psalm, talks about building houses and guarding the city, and doing it in the Lord’s name or there is no point. And the second half talks about the benefits of having a quiver full of straight arrow children.

Unfortunately, the only way I can connect them makes me a little sad because it’s praising, I think, some of the very things I’m worst at in life.

It’s for people that want legacy.

We have various ways of reconciling our eternal and temporal natures. The grass is always there because it is replenished.Each blade has a life cycle, a circle of life.

But we are more complex than grass. We start to mourn the individual blades, and get invested in whether the blade has a long or short life. Because God had given us the desire to mean something.

And an answer, this psalm says, I reckon, is to invest in your legacy of offspring. Work, build houses, guard your stuff, for them. Have lots of kids.

But do it in the Lord. The commentators made the comment that an arrow isn’t just any old stick. It’s honed, worked, made perfectly straight and for purpose.

As if! I dream of that sort of influence.

That’s where I feel vulnerable. My kids aren’t exactly a quiver of straight arrows. Love ’em, recognise me in ’em. But the closest I get to fine is accepting that they will be what they will be. Particularly the older ones… 26 and 25.  I have a little fading influence over Ren, 15.  But he is such a typical teen – carving out his own identity.

I feel vulnerable, so for me I suppose this psalm is an encouragement.  I need to work at my relationships with the kids, but its in the Lord’s hands. And I could do a lot of stuff: financial support, coaching, moulding, pushing, bullying, encouraging, and it could come to nothing.  I’ll try to remember to pray, turns out that might be the best legacy.

I’ll cling to that!

Song of Songs 8

The blaze in every soul.

This is the chapter I return to the most.

I was moved, I always am, by the culminating praise of love itself:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.

Followed by the wonderful ownership of her person and her sexuality by the girl: “my own vineyard is mine to give”. I love that passage, it’s one of my favorites in the whole Bible. It says it all about who and what God created us to be. About the nature of his love for us.

It’s one of two books of the Bible that never mentions God’s name. There’s so many things it barely mentions.

It only incidentally refers to marriage, but it is all about monogamy. Passion is jealous, and the giving to each other is absolute, it has no place for casual sex.

It’s not prudish, no sir-ee… but it’s prudent. It acknowledges what unique greatness is unleashed, and what is at stake, when one loves deeply and completely.

And it has more in common in some ways with God’s love than earthly relationships. How often is he described as a jealous God? We’re told to “love him with all your heart, mind and soul”.

This book is all about young love: the blaze of romantic obsession, the power of attraction, delight in the newness and overpowering nature of it all; the yearning.

It doesn’t talk about the different beauty of long marriages: that survive hardship and changes, that bring up children and learn to adapt as life throws u-turns, that forgive failure and weakness, and face getting old, undesirable and sick together.

It made me sad and conflicted. I had to force myself to read it. I’ve loved it, but I had to take it slow, in doses. It’s made me feel inadequate, second best. I haven’t been in the mood, so to speak.

What does it mean for my relationship, which is at a very different phase? It’s a bit like the crummy feeling other people’s perfect lives on Instagram can give you.

I’ve had lot of valuable thoughts about God’s love, but maybe just as valuable is remembering and rekindling some of the intensity of that first love with my life partner. It’s certainly made me think about that. Complex feelings at the intersection of spirituality and physicality.

The open ended invitation at the very end, to come away and be like a gazelle and a young stag on the spice laden mountains… Maybe the whole thing has been a remembrance? Maybe that invitation is for us who need reminding of what it is to be young.