Tag Archives: repentance

Light at the end of the tunnel

Into the Light

(A six-minute read)

Lent is a time of heading into the light. But it’s the light at the end of a tunnel. A 40-day tunnel, of repentance, prayer and fasting. That’s the theory anyway, that the light is there. I can’t see it from here, but I’ll walk the tracks knowing that the light will arrive before the train.

Some years I’ve done this lenten walk better than others. This year I am wholly intent. I need to bring myself low for a while. It’s time to remove some bad spiritual habits to make room for better ones. This is all preparation for greater challenges to come.

Just to be clear: Lent is not a religious obligation. Lent is a man-made thing; it ain’t in the Bible. Nevertheless, it is a useful man-made thing because it allows me to humble myself voluntarily. The Lord is kind to me when I do that. He loves the process.

The other method, where He forces me out of my own stupid mistakes, or hard-headedness or (worse) hard-heartedness, is much more painful. Been there, done that, am wearing the scars.

But at least they are scars from pruning. God nips off the useless bits so I grow better and bear more fruit later.1

I’ll skip the details about this year’s walk because they are less important than acknowledging the process. It’s one I wrote about a couple years ago, and which is worth revisiting here.

When I came out of radiotherapy at the beginning of 2020 I began a 40-day devotional by Harold Myra based on the writings of Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence was a 17th century Carmelite monk featured in a now-beloved tract called ‘The Practice of the Presence of God.’ It’s a combination of conversations he had with his friend Father Joseph de Beaufort and letters Brother Lawrence wrote to others.

A seemingly impossible task

The essence of his teaching is how to align myself for an ongoing conversation with God. In those moments when I forget (and they are frequent!) I simply come back round, apologize for turning away, and start over. God’s grace is endless for this, because He greatly desires to be in a relationship with me, with you, with all of us.

In one famous passage it’s written of Brother Lawrence, ‘that he was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts.’

How can I come to such a simple and unassuming place in life?

Brother Lawrence taught me how: go forward by going backward. Define the goal and then step backward to where I stand. Then I retrace those steps back to the goal. I have a lifetime to arrive.

When I first approach God I’m in an unregenerate state (that’s a fancy theological word meaning I’m not born again in Christ). I’m stubborn and sinful, and stand obstinately in opposition, refusing to accept His love.

Then, for some reason, perhaps a personal crisis, perhaps an ‘aha’ moment, perhaps the silent inward working of the Holy Spirit, I decide to respond to God’s invitation and pursue Him.

That pursuit can only come after a long sequence of changes in me, as I retrace the steps toward the goal. Here’s how it works.

A process for pursuing God

I can’t pursue God until I desire Him.

However, I can’t desire Him until my desire for other things lessens.2

My desire for other things doesn’t diminish until I recognize who I truly am (in Christ).3

That true identity doesn’t become clear until I understand why I was created.4

An understanding of my purpose in life only appears when I decide my way isn’t working, and I humble myself to receive God’s grace.5

It’s a not-so-vicious circle. It began on my knees, and it actually took me somewhere. The Bible instructs us to do things ‘heartily as for the Lord’ and not for men.6 So even if I’m doing work for someone else, I pursue it as though I’m serving Christ directly. Even if I am merely picking up a piece of straw.

The phrase ‘as for the Lord’ in the Modern English Version is rendered ‘as to the Lord’ in the New King James and ‘as though you were working for the Lord’ in the New Living Translation. The Passion Translation suggests ‘as though you were doing it for the Lord Himself.’ The Message Bible reveals that I should ‘work from the heart for my real Master.’

Through it all, I must remain conscious of my imperfection. God can only use me if I’m aware of how inadequate I am. I stand best when I stand on my knees.

1. John 15:1-22 – ‘I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that bears no fruit, He takes away. And every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.’
2. 1 John 2:15 – ‘Do not love the world of the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’
3. Romans 8:5-6 – ‘For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.’
4. Proverbs 19:21 – ‘There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the counsel of the Lord will stand.’
5. Psalm 38:17:18 – ‘For I am ready to stumble, and my pain is continually before me. For I will declare my iniquity; I am anxious because of my sin.’
6. Colossians 3:23-24 – ‘And whatever you do, do it heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. For you serve the Lord Christ.’

Trinity engraving

A Majority of One

(A seven-minute read)

(Note: I began writing this several weeks before it was ultimately published. One week before posting, the Church of England, where I’m a member, voted up a proposal to allow church blessings of same-sex marriages. It was an incredibly divisive and unhappy debate over a sensitive and challenging issue for the church. I don’t touch on that here, but the conclusions are relevant for both)

The UK’s Census 2021 showed for the first time that Christianity is not the majority religion in England and Wales.

There’s been much hand-wringing about this, and the inevitable blame-throwing, analysis and discussion. It was an Outrage Of The Week.™ But it doesn’t matter, really. God didn’t come to earth as a human to win a popularity contest, but to save us.

This news filled some podcast time, some column inches and the continuously gaping maw of the 24-7 electronic news cycle. But only for a while. It won’t change belief or impact the spiritual landscape at all. Our short attention spans have moved on.

The world pays attention to emissions from the Outrage Machine™ instead of thoughtful discourse. Let’s engage in the latter.

Why I Am Not Fussed About This

What people say and what people do don’t always match. In large parts of the public sphere, we can claim we are one thing when we may actually be something else. A personal identity statement now can trump a created identity statement. It’s the ultimate self-love. It’s narcissism writ large. Because this belief system is so prevalent, some people who call themselves Christians may actually be confused about what it even means.

If Census 2021 had asked ‘Do you take up your cross daily and follow Jesus?’ or ‘Do you put more stock in what Jesus says than what the world says?’ (with definitions) the actual number saying yes would have been much smaller. And a large fraction of those answering ‘yes’ may still have been deceiving themselves.

If who I claim to be doesn’t necessarily line up with who I actually am, that’s okay nowadays. Men say they are women, and women claim to be men. Some people insist you address them as though they were actually an animal. Some nations are enshrining laws to protect these things. Pronouns have been hijacked from the grammatical standard to be wielded as weapons of political warfare.

Some Christians suffer from a spiritual language barrier.

Who Am I, Really?

Let me use a personal example about this mis-match between who I am and who I can claim to be. In my days of being actively and dysfunctionally alcoholic, lying about my condition didn’t make me normal. Or sober. But that didn’t matter, really. It build the fiction in my own mind that I was okay, that I was maintaining, that my life was acceptable and everything was under control.

None of this changed my ultimate reality, which was that I was dying by degrees from excessive alcohol consumption.

When I eventually got sober, I regularly and religiously attended AA meetings to say, ‘My name is Alan and I’m an alcoholic.’ But wait: I was no longer drinking; I was abstinent, and yet I took the label of alcoholic on myself, even though it didn’t reflect my ultimate reality as a sober person. It spoke of who I had been, not who I was.

Taking on that false identity helped me fit in with my new set. I used the language of convenience to signal that I was acceptable to my new tribe. That, I think, is what’s reflected in these census results. It’s called virtue signaling.

What an accurate term. People signal their virtue because they subconsciously realize they have no virtue of their own. This leads them to say and do the ‘right things’ so people will believe they are the right thing.

Whatever that current thing is.

What does this worldly confusion mean for me as a self-professed Christian? It should affect nothing in my life, unless I’m also confused about what it is to follow Christ.

If I attend church weekly, donate to charitable causes and say all the right things, can I claim to be a follower of Jesus? If my weekday self doesn’t match my church-going self, am I actually a Christian? I’d say no; I’m a pretender.

The Good, The Bad and The True

The good news: there would be hope for me, because I’d hang out with those who at least profess Christian faith.

The bad news: If I don’t move in God’s direction, He won’t move in mine.1 If I don’t respond to the love and salvation that God offers through Jesus, I remain a Christian In Name Only and am deceived and in darkness.

The true news: salvation is mine, but only if I receive it. Unless I’m a Christian in Truth, I remain on the bubble. Even in receiving salvation, I still have to live it to experience it fully. That can mean a harder life than the one I had before I was saved.

Welcome to Tribulation

Christianity is not the current thing. In fact, it’s becoming more out-of-style every day. Despite this, many people label themselves Christians to claim virtue. But when the going gets tough, as it will… well, we shall see what they say then. I pray that I remain true to my Lord Jesus Christ.

All of which is to say (in my typical round-about fashion): claiming to be a Christian doesn’t make me a Christian any more than calling myself Rover makes me a Border Collie, despite any xenogender proclivities I may harbor.

Finally, the Bible itself shows that this census report (like 95% of what we worry about) is unimportant. It’s not that the UK (or the US for that matter) can or should profess to be a ‘Christian nation’ so much as whether those of us here live like it. And those of us who are will face opposition, ridicule and worse.

From this corner, it’s very hard to claim that either my adoptive home or my birth home can make the claim.

Why None of This Ultimately Matters

None of this matters, really. Nowhere is the saying ‘the devil’s in the details’ more ironically apt than when discussing the nuances of Christianity. When we insist on details, we till a field for division, and that’s where we find the devil. Where we find Unity, we find Christ. It’s that simple.

Worry and anxiety remain for many of us, especially regarding the state of the global Church.

Three things to bring you hope

1. God always preserves a ‘remnant’: In those eras where the world seems to be unusually mad and institutions crumble, there always remains a group of loyal believers. We see this throughout the Old Testament before, during and after the Exile.

Perhaps the most well known example of this in ancient times is in 1 Kings 19 where Elijah is hiding in his cave, complaining to God ‘I alone am left, and they seek to take my life’ (verse 10 and again in verse 14). God’s response? ‘Still, I have preserved seven thousand men in Israel for Myself, all of whose knees have not bowed to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him’.

We’ve seen it throughout the history of the Church as well. Even in the most oppressed nations, a remnant remains. That’s because the ones given to the Son by the Father cannot be taken from Him.3

2. Human beings cannot destroy Christ’s church: The church belongs to Christ, not humanity.

Jesus said the church is his bride; it’s not our creation. Jesus said this about marriage: What God has joined together, man should not separate.4 It’s a metaphor. Christ will return one day for his bride, for a glorious church.5 He makes no mention of what it looks like, nor how many of us might be resident in it, nor who we specifically might be.

The encouragement here is to stay the course. Let’s avoid worldly conflict about it. God has had it in hand since before the world was created. Let Him continue to handle it. Don’t grab the wheel; you’ll crash the car.

Meanwhile, engage in the Great Commandments: Love God. Love Your Neighbour.6

3. God is ultimately victorious: No matter what we see around us, we should never fear. ‘So what do you think?’ Paul asked the Roman church: ‘With God on our side like this, how can we lose?’ 7

God is, after all, a majority of One, and His vote is the only one that counts.

1. James 4:8: Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.’
2. Jeremiah 29:12-14: Then you shall call upon Me, and you shall come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.You shall seek Me and find Me, when you shall search for Me with all your heart.I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will turn away your captivity and gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back into the place from where I caused you to be carried away captive.
3. John 6:37
4. Mark 10:6
5. Ephesians 5:27
6. Matthew 22:36-40
7. Romans 8:31 (MSG)

Mystery Equals Freedom

I’m engaged in a life-long love story but I didn’t realize it until just a few years ago. The story reflects a remarkable thing the Apostle Paul wrote, celebrating the unending impact of God’s glory in my daily life. It’s a powerful idea.

Because you and I are made in the image of God, we are by definition something amazing. From this it logically follows that God could have nothing but good plans for all of us. ‘For we are God’s Masterpiece,’ Paul wrote. ‘He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.’ 1

I answered Christ’s call not for eternal life – ‘go to heaven when I die’ as is often said. No, I wanted a release from pain, a release from bondage. I wanted freedom. I wanted it now! Fortunately, freedom doesn’t wait until we’re dead. Freedom is an immediate reward of grace. Heaven intersects with earth for those of us who believe it will.

But there’s a price to pay to live in the Land of Freedom. It’s the necessity of living in the World of Mystery. One of my mentors, Chuck Parry, teaches this simple equation: Mystery = Freedom.2

What does he mean by this? He means that the mysteries of life open up opportunities to seek God’s ways and have a closer relationship with Him. This relationship underscores the freedom. Relying on Him by embracing the mystery takes the stress off me.

When I’m willing to live with mysteries, instead of striving to make sense of them, I rely on the Lord for answers. When I do, what I need always arrives right on time, even if I don’t understand how it got here. God’s grace must exist because free will exists in a world where sin exists.

Read that again: grace must exist because free will exists in a world where sin exists. If that weren’t so, God wouldn’t a loving God, would He? His nature demands He give us a way to reconcile ourselves to Him after we messed everything up. That is the Christian story. It’s the story of Christ.

In his letter to the Ephesian church Paul tells his readers that each of them is God’s ‘Masterpiece’ – variously translated elsewhere as ‘poem’, ‘workmanship’, ‘creation’, even ‘made out of nothing in the Messiah Jesus for good works.’ The Greek word he uses is poiema, literally ‘that which has been made.’ Poiema comes from the word poieo, which means ‘to perform something that has been promised’. You and I are God’s promise. We are His Masterpiece, promised by God Himself to minister to a world in desperate need.

Despite the choices I made in life, or perhaps because of them, God called me back to Him after decades of sinful self-destruction. Because I was willing, He refined me through many trials and brought me out as something new. Years after the fact, being ‘born again’ now seems less about my circumstances (peace, joy, hope, optimism and a desire to give love) than it does about my identity.

I am now, finally, as I always was made: God’s handiwork, His Masterpiece.

God works through broken people like me. It’s all He has to work with. He’s the master at taking people like me back to their beginnings for a fresh start. All the Bible’s heroes fit that mold: Abram (a fearful liar);3 Jacob (his very name means ‘deceiver’);4 Moses (a murderer 5 and frightened runaway);6 Samson (an egotistical7 blasphemer8 and lawbreaker9); David (an adulterer and murderer10).

I’m in good company: Alan (once a drug abuser, alcoholic, porn addict and fraud), but now living with a glorious future. Now, a Masterpiece. And no matter what you may have done, you too were made for His good purpose. You are His Masterpiece, just as I am. I know. It makes no sense. It’s a mystery. But now you know what that means. It means freedom.

This contains some material originally prepared for my first memoir, Masterpiece: A Love Story (A memoir about sexual abuse)

1. Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)
2. Chuck Parry, Director of Bethel Healing Rooms, speaking at a London UK conference 25 July, 2019
3. Genesis 12:12-13
4. Genesis 27:12
5. Exodus 2:12
6. Exodus 2:15
7. Judges 15:16
8. Judges 16:17
9. Judges 16:1
10. 2 Samuel 12:9-10