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I’ve just had the check up appointment on my foot, which I broke and sprained 6 weeks ago. (To recap, I fractured the fifth metatarsal shortly before a family trip to California, then 11 days later posted a video on Facebook in a state of excitement, because it had just been prayed for by Bill Johnson at Bethel church, Redding, resulting in a feeling like an ant crawling along the fracture, and a loss of pain).

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So I told the doctor the sequence of events – prayer for healing after 11 days, the unusual and intense tingle on the fracture, with immediate reduction in pain at the fracture area (to the extent I could squeeze it with no pain), then in the following days some ongoing soreness around the foot but progressive improvements, doing hikes in Yosemite on the 19th and 20th day, then a run after 4 weeks and 3 days, by which time the soreness was all gone. Apparently these fractures can sometimes take 6 months to heal. But in other cases much sooner.

The doctor felt the area for sensitivity, asked a few more questions, and discharged me with confidence that it is well healed. It was definitely an unusually quick improvement.

But as to it being a definitive miracle, it is tantalisingly open to interpretation. The doctor said that fractures are actually stimulated to heal by movement (whereas instinct says to rest it and keep it straight while it hurts, because it’s easy to imagine re-breaking a healing fracture).

I am fascinated by the question of whether God himself or the power of faith alone brings change. I know it can be both – I believe in the truly miraculous healings that have occurred at Bethel and elsewhere, as the actions of God, through the prayers of believing people. I am also not offended or challenged by Derren Brown’s recent stage show mimicking healings through the temporary adrenaline rush of a fervent event. And I can celebrate the real positive changes people have brought to their lives through positive thinking alone. (To explore further, Google Derren Brown’s recent interview with Premier Radio; and look for Rhonda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’).

Because of the very unique and unexpected nature of the tingle I felt during prayer, I believe there was a divine intervention at that moment. I can also see that the full healing was aided by my ongoing (if faltering) faith and my choice to act as if it was healed. Stepping out on it quickened the healing.

So faith ‘worked’. And in choosing to believe in God I see his goodness even more in this process of healing than in an instant fix, because I learnt so much and felt empowered in the process. (Not least because, before Bill Johnson prayed someone else prayed for me and said they believed God was NOT going to fix it instantly, but to teach me something through a process. But I wanted to keep asking and seeking!).

It was like a condensed lesson in life – that there is transforming power in choosing to live in hope rather than wallowing in the pain of the past or present. We tend to get more of what we dwell on. And this is the sort of lesson that a good father wants to teach his children, rather than resolving everything for them just because he can.

I also realise how this can be seen as circular thinking, to someone with no faith. And that is so often the nature of faith – it’s a choice that could be argued both ways.

One thing I have learnt is that, in choosing our worldview, we rationalise it either by the existing ‘evidence’ (which is so often open to subjective interpretation), or by the ‘fruit’. The first approach is somewhat passive, reacting to what we see around us, and failing to acknowledge the limits and subjectivity of our viewpoint. The latter approach is dynamic in that it means stepping out in faith and then seeing what results. ‘You can tell a tree by its fruit’. And if the fruit is good, we have compelling evidence for the goodness of the paradigm that produced it, evidence we didn’t have before we stepped out.

So as to my own journey of healing, you will choose your own interpretation, and I’m ok with that. As for me, I choose to believe.

One last addendum: sometimes we see no immediate fruit from faith. Sometimes it is a long hard slog, in the face of confident doubters. And yet, for those rare people who seek and trust in God alone, not just for what He can do for them, there is a depth of character, peace and authority that can’t be denied. The more I learn about Bill Johnson’s personal journey, the more I understand this. I feel I have received a blessing as a result of his faithfulness, and this inspires me to live the same. It is a choice every day, and I keep faltering. But as one man in the bible said to Jesus:

‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief!’

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I haven’t written for a while, so rather than procrastinating over it, I’ll try a very quick piece on one of my current preoccupations: perseverance.

Sometimes it’s bold and strong, pushing through the barriers.  But often perseverance is a matter of clinging on, in weakness and doubt, just sticking with it.

It’s easy to persevere when the vision is clear and you have the strength for a fight.  It’s not so easy when your strength is gone.  But sometimes that’s what it feels like to really be strong.

The more I find out about the people that inspire me, the more I discover they had plenty of the same doubts and fears as me.  Maybe sometimes they failed or even gave up for a while, but they got back in the fight and in the end they didn’t let the doubts and fears win – they believed in something better and kept working for it, and that’s what made the difference.

The following is a personal impression, a point for discussion, on which I will happily be corrected.

All religions contain contradiction and paradox.  This is true of life in general, but religious people are particularly adept at explaining away the more troubling teachings.  A mild cognitive dissonance becomes a normal and acceptable state of mind when reading the scriptures.

Still, one reason I am a Christian and not a Muslim is that the key figure of my faith, Jesus Christ, is so uncompromisingly good.  Even in his anger there is love and in his judgements there is compassion.  He did not favour one people group above others.

Islam has a teaching of ‘abrogation’ to explain earlier contradictions, however Muhammad appears to have become only more warlike in later life (for further reading see here).  In contrast Jesus reinterprets the more troubling verses of the Old Testament in clearly peaceable terms (eg Matthew 5:43-48).  His example holds the key difference between the 2 faiths.

Islam aspires to peace.  Yes I believe it does.  A peace that would come through the establishment of a universal law and set of beliefs. A glorious and much-longed-for ideal of unity under Allah.  Perhaps not so different in the hearts of believers to our Christian prayer ‘Lord let your Kingdom come’.  I can only imagine how desperate this longing becomes in the hearts of Muslims who have experienced persecution, marginalisation and injustice.

But it is this very aspiration which makes it terrifyingly easy to justify the destruction of those who refuse to embrace the system.  How else can the only hope, the glorious plan of God, be established, except by removing those who oppose it?

In contrast Jesus leaves no doubt as to whether the end justifies the means: ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’ (Matt 5:44-45)   He is all about loving others whatever the circumstances, even if it brings us pain.   It is how we live right now that indicates whether we are truly ‘sons of our Father in heaven’.   And loving those who are against us is the only recipe for peace.  (Which is not to say we should not sometimes use force to oppose evil.  We can still love, and not hate; we can still regret and mourn the situation).

I know that most Muslims are normal peace loving human beings.   And I would welcome a firm rebuttal of any wrong impressions that I have of Islam.  What I am saying here is that if I was a Muslim I would be deeply troubled by the ease with which my scriptures could be used to justify terrible things, as a necessary means to a glorious end.  And I wonder if my own good nature would be the main source of my restraint more than the teachings of my faith.  I imagine my conscience would strive against the scriptures as I try to submit to them.  And my cognitive dissonance would reach new heights.  It would especially trouble me that ISIS can so easily claim the authority of the Koran for their evil deeds – for example with verses such as Surah 9:5.

But as I have said, all religions hold paradox.  Many troubling verses can be found in the Old Testament, and in the name of honesty I must admit that I have been unsettled at times by the earlier scriptures of my own faith.

Which is why I return again and again to Jesus who brings such clarity and peace.  He is the hope for us all, and I am encouraged to know that Islam itself nudges it’s followers towards Jesus/Isa. The way is open for Muslims also to study the words of Jesus and to discover that these words of peace have not been changed since before Muhammad’s own time.   And even long before that the book of Isaiah prophesied his coming, which we remember at Christmastime:

For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, And cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

Isaiah 9:5-7, 8th Century BC

 

 

I came to write again, to relieve pressure on the dam wall of thoughts and anxieties in my head.  I planned a piece about Jesus, a cry of hope and love, a way through this madness.  I often resist Him or rail against Him, but I can’t escape the beauty of His life and teaching, and it’s relevance for now.  His moral clarity combined with grace and forgiveness.  And above all the fact that when they cut Him open He only bled love.

If only the terrorists knew His way.  They seek to drag the world deeper into fear and hate – the only currency of their religious understanding.  We can either withdraw in despair, or pour ourselves out in love, like the French opening their veins for the wounded.  Only radical love can drive out fear.  We are all responsible now.

Grief in FranceWith life already full of my own small concerns, I glimpse hope only occasionally.  Stressed and tired from work, I fail even to love my wife and daughter the way I aspire to, let alone cope with the great darkness in the world.

Just now I read a piece by a friend that could have been describing me – a time in her life when she was consumed by the pressures of a career while the really important things were slipping out of her grasp, and the demands were piling on.  She made some big changes, but the struggle continues.

And this reminds me truth and hope is found in personal testimony, not just theory or theology.  I have been struggling lately, big time.  Just knowing that someone else struggles is great comfort.  Even moreso to see they have found the strength to carry on.

We long for an easy solution and an end to troubles, but still the mess drags on.  So what we really need is a path, a way through, and the strength to keep walking however long it takes.   We need to walk it together.  We are made for relationship.  Connection.  We need people around us to share our burdens.

Yes, Jesus is the Way.  The Truth and the Life.  I believe this.  But too often in comfortable Christian circles that has been a learned response, a theological concept.  An exclusive ticket to our club.  When all along, if only we would see it, His every action and word said:

‘Love’ – at all costs love.  Not simply in order to convert to a set of beliefs, but because love is both the path and the goal in itself, and it is the very nature of God.

‘Love one another – this is how they will know you are my disciples.’  ‘Don’t let your love grow cold.’

Love your enemies.’

Why?  Because He first loved us, undeserving as we are.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Just as it is written:
“For Your sake we are being put to death all day long;
We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered”

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer
through Him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present,
nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing,
will be able to separate us from the love of God,
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:34-39)

I like to write.  An article I read today challenged me to write for 15 minutes rather than complain about not having the time.  So I’m doing it now.

I have been thinking about limits.  In limits there is freedom.  Endless possibility can mean paralysis.  Chaos alone does not lead to beauty or truth.  It is creativity working within boundaries that really makes something special.  And it’s only once you know the rules that you really know how to break them, as I think the Dalai Lama said.

I love Jazz, partly because improvisation is one of the best examples of all this.  Only by first learning the rules of scales, chords, rhythm and song structure can a musician be free to soar to the heights of his creativity and self expression, and to do so in harmony with others.

Perhaps one of the reasons we wrongly believe we will find freedom unshackled by any limits is because limits/rules/boundaries – whatever you want to call them – hold the possibility of transgression or failure.  And we fear this.  Yet without the possibility of failure there is no meaningful achievement or purpose.

I write this the day after a crushing failure for the English Rugby team.  First ever host nation to be knocked out at the group stages.  Huge knock on effects to national morale, plus economic effects.  And yet it’s only a game.

And isn’t it interesting to think that any game is nothing but a collection of arbitrary rules, made significant only by collective agreement and historical familiarity?  And isn’t this how so much of life is really structured?  We all agree to some common ways because without them we are adrift in meaningless, at odds with each other or with nothing to hold onto.

The rules themselves, often are less important than what they represent, or the good effects they seek to produce.  Was the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden itself in anyway harmful?  Or was the rule about it simply a representation of the need to submit faithfully to something – someone – so much better, wiser and more beautiful than anything our own willfulness could lead to?

15 minutes is up, clicking publish.

I aspire to love others the way Jesus did – fearlessly, tenderly, and at great personal cost.  But I rarely do.  Probably never.

Just occasionally, I have a thought so out of the ordinary that I sense a touch of heaven in it.  A different logic, beautifully right.  Even more occasionally, I might act on one of these thoughts.

Like, what if I buy this drunken, tobacco-stained homeless person a KFC, instead of walking past?

That’s a small one really.

So, what if I help him get his coat back on?

Slightly better.  Now here’s the thing: what if I don’t force a conversation about how God loves him, don’t patronise him in any way, but just sit with him in the gutter?  Give him some attention and respect, because he deserves it as much as anyone else.

He deserves it more: ‘The price must be paid by those who are blessed and fortunate, for those who are lost and in despair.’ (Dr. James Chinkyung Kim.) This is living the gospel, rather than talking about it.

Religious hypocrites want the poor and needy to be sanitised objects of our selfish piety.  In reality they are difficult or dirty – because that’s what despair and poverty does to you.  And we are all as vulnerable as they are, though we easily forget.  Jesus loves us all just as we are.  (Except, perhaps, the hypocrites.)

Related but slightly different to the above thoughts, the thing I really want to say is below.  Bear with me if it seems like a change of theme.

After feeling powerless against the prejudice, violence and death being inflicted on Christians in so many corners of the earth, I decided to train for a sponsored run this September, to support them.  I need to set up a sponsorship page soon.

‘We’ are now the most persecuted people group on earth.  Apparently, eighty percent of all acts of religious discrimination across the globe are against Christians.  And apart from the North Korean regime and other country-specific issues, there appears to be a strongly Islamic nature to the problem.   For some groups, like ISIS, the hatred of Christians (and others) is theological.  I wrestle with all this, trying to see the common humanity in all people without giving in to hatred or fear.   (In one of my darker periods I wrote this poem).

One day, on a Muslim friend’s Facebook page, I saw an article about Buddhist extremists oppressing, killing, and burning Muslims.  And immediately I felt the injustice and pain that I knew he felt.  I thought of the injustices held close to heart by many Muslims about so many things – Gaza, Bosnia, drone attacks.

And another thing gave me pause for thought.  I recently rang up a different Muslim friend (a gentle man of peace who I respect), to suggest getting together for a coffee to get to know each others’ beliefs better.  To build bridges where so many are retreating from each other.  Somehow I got talking about the violence in the world and I think I drove him away.   I became too intense (oops, I sometimes do that!).  He didn’t want to meet.  He couldn’t be sure of my motives.  He said he doesn’t listen to the news anymore, but focuses on thinking about good things and creating a good home for his precious children.

How many of us, as we look around, are wondering will there be a place of safety for me anywhere in this world?  Perhaps this is the issue for some who distort their humanity into acts of terror – a longing for a place of safety, to get rid of those who threaten them; to create a state where everyone is like them.

Shamefully, I feel a resistance to empathising with oppressed people groups or religious groups who are wholly foreign to me, or especially who threaten me.  A part of me wants the clarity of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  A part of me needs my ‘own’ injustices to be the most important.  I want to forget our common humanity in case I seem (or actually become) naive, in case I start to justify the evil acts of a minority of people who come out of those groups.

The web of injustices is too tangled to really give anyone the moral high ground (though some clearly occupy the low ground).  Over and again the oppressed become the oppressor, and all are victims.

Am I wishing for the oppressed to be devoid of vengeance or hatred before they are worthy of my compassion?  Am I wishing for them to come only from people I can identify with, before I am willing to help them?  Am I wishing for them to be sanitised, before they are worthy of my selfish acts of piety?

Would it honour Jesus Christ more to dedicate my sponsored run only to the people who bear his name, or to share my sponsorship with those who are oppressed under a different name?  Even to support those who it’s tempting to call our enemies?  This was the thought I had today that might just have the touch of heaven in it.

In one of Jesus key phrases, where he reveals what he’s really all about, he says:

‘Love your enemies and bless the one who curses you, and do what is beautiful to the one who hates you, and pray over those who take you by force and persecute you.’ Matthew 5:44

A friend of my wife’s, a lovely lady, told us how she went door to door fundraising, in her hijab, for Gaza, when kids were being killed in the latest Israeli incursion.  Instead of just feeling powerless she picked up a bucket and did what she could, she’s that kind of person.  But she faced consistent disinterest from the older white members of the community.

Perhaps they were afraid of the unknown.  Surely they cared about dying kids and suffering people, but maybe they feared giving money to someone they didn’t know, someone they were ever so slightly fearful of.  What if they were accidentally supporting a cause they might not fully agree with; the promotion of an ideology they weren’t comfortable with?

I have imagined myself going door to door in this community to raise money for the persecuted church.  I have imagined myself being rebuffed by some Muslims, but striving to ‘open their eyes’ to the huge injustices against Christians in their country of origin.  I have imagined myself compelling them towards compassion.

But have my own eyes been fully opened to the injustices they too feel so keenly?  Am I seeking only to be understood rather than to understand?

Am I willing to stop the ‘us and them’ mentality, and to raise money for the oppressed on ‘both sides’ because really it should never have been about taking sides in the first place?  What else will stop the madness?

To love our enemies is risky.  it is a different logic, and beautifully right.

Please give me feedback.  Please share examples of the different logic.  And while I already have a charity in mind to support the persecuted church, please suggest charities who might be a trustworthy channel of funds to persecuted people of other faiths.

Since it’s first transformation from seed to seedling the giant redwood on my windowsill has changed very little in recent months.  In the meantime, the strange caterpillars I found last August and put in a tin have just emerged from their cocoons as moths – earlier than expected.  (The elephant hawk moth is particularly stunning.)  And within 2 weeks of planting, my daughter’s sunflower seed already towers over the giant redwood.

Elephant hawk moth and lime hawk moth

Giant Redwood and Sunflower SeedlingsSometimes growth is sudden – a step change.  Sometimes it takes a long time – a strengthening of what is already there.  Often it happens in the dark, underground, when nothing seems to be happening at all.

In our own times of darkness or waiting, the world around us reveals the promise of hope and new life.  Every endless winter is followed by another spring.  Even destructive forest fires burn out eventually and life bursts forth stronger than ever.  What was once concealed out of sight in seed or cocoon, reaches for the open air in miraculous splendour when the time is right (and the shell that once protected it is discarded – dead – so the new life can be set free).

Moth Pupa Cocoons

There is a time for everything and everything has it’s time.  Some grow slow, some fast, but all have their own purpose and beauty, and a comparison between the redwood and the sunflower at this stage will not hold up in 100 years!

As the natural world shows, times of darkness and waiting are necessary to growth, and even death and pain release new life.

Kahlil Gibran said it so well:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses
your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted the seasons that
pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the
winters of your grief.