It is well with my soul… reasons to love Good Friday

Once again it’s the time of year when our thoughts are drawn to the cross, to the pain endured there, to the freedom achieved there. But, if I’m completely honest, Good Friday hasn’t always felt like good news…

I first decided to follow Jesus when I was fifteen, and somehow in those early years I picked up the idea that Good Friday was all about feeling bad and guilty.  This was a special day in the church calendar when we all took a good long time to think about how awful we were, about how much our beautiful saviour went through for us, and about how responsible we were for that terrible pain and suffering.

I don’t remember anyone teaching me that this was ‘Guilt Friday’, but that’s what I learned. This was the day to look at the cross really hard, and then to feel really, really bad.

and I did.

But a beautiful revolution happened about 15 years later…

Late one lent evening, as I sat in a prayer-space looking at a wooden cross draped with red silk,  I had one of those moments where something you’ve known in your head for a long time finally makes it into your heart. God showed me the cross as if it were an enormous power shower towering above me. I suddenly realised that as I knelt beneath the flow of Jesus blood, as it poured out over my hands, my head, my heart, it didn’t stain me with responsibility, it didn’t make me guilty – it made me clean.

So I realised that on Good Friday I couldn’t come to the cross and feel bad about myself, or about how much Jesus suffered for me. Not because I’m not a sinner, or that Jesus didn’t suffer, but because some much bigger, more glorious things were filling up my head and heart so much that there wasn’t room for anything else.

As I said to a friend at the time:

“I know I should be feeling bad, but I just can’t help myself, when I look at the cross, all I can feel is clean

Awesomely, gloriously clean.

And when I remember what Jesus was prepared to go through in order to heal my relationship to the Father, what he chose to endure so that you and I could be made clean and whole and entirely free from guilt and shame, I don’t feel bad (all that clean-ness gets in the way), but I do feel very, very grateful, and very LOVED.

Really really loved.

The words of this hymn, It is well with my soul by H. G. Spafford, explains the feeling that wells up inside me better than I can:

My sin – oh the bliss of this glorious thought! –

My sin, not in part, but the whole,

is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

With that in your head it just won’t be possible to look at the cross and feel bad.

So this Easter, as you’re celebrating the extraordinary victory of the cross and resurrection, take another look at the cross and see if you can see this power shower.  If you feel even the smallest part dirty, or guilty, or unworthy or ashamed – step in.  The cross can wash you clean.

.power shower

Ready?

Are you ready?  This is an ancient trumpet used in Bible times to communicate urgent messages to the people. A blast on this was a call to attention, an urgent warning, a sign that something was about to happen.

I found a lot of references to trumpets in the Bible today.  From the trumpet sound that announced the arrival of the Lord in Exodus to the seven trumpets of Revelation. All of them saying:

Stop, look, listen, pay attention.  Whatever it is you were waiting for is happening now!

There’s something quite scary about the idea of an unexpected trumpet call announcing something big and imminent. Like an air-raid siren or smoke alarm going off, you have to react immediately, follow a plan you already made, be ready.

Reading Nehemiah especially it strikes me how much his fellow builders were ready.  With one hand they were building up the wall, and in the other hand they held a weapon.  They knew that the moment the trumpet sounded they needed to gather together and defend themselves.  To switch instantly from building to battle. No time even to swap one implement for the other.  They hadn’t stopped doing what they were called to do- but they were ready.

For Nehemiah’s men the trumpet was a warning – a message that you need to start fighting, right now.  In the other verse that caught my attention today the trumpet sound heralds good news- the best news- that Jesus is about to return:

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
1 Corinthians 15:52

In either case, the blast of the trumpet is not saying ‘now’s the time to get ready’.  I suspect that if you wait to get ready until you hear the trumpet, it might already be too late.

I have no idea when that final trumpet call is going to sound, and no interest in predicting when it might.  But I know I want to be ready. And I know that until then we’re not supposed to stop and do nothing and just watch… That’s the job of the guy with the trumpet.  Our job is to be ready and to get on with the task we’ve been given at the same time.  And maybe to know what we’re going to do when the trumpet sounds.

But I wonder as well if there might be moments when God blows a trumpet in our individual lives or the lives of our church communities.  Each one saying ‘pay attention- the time is now’. Sometimes a warning, sometimes a herald, but every time vitally important that we hear and respond.

Are we ready to drop everything and listen up; to discern whether it’s time to enter into a new battle, or whether God is about to arrive in our lives in a new way?

 

 

 

free to dance

Today I’m altering costumes.  It’s big show night tonight for my daughter and her outfit is too big.  If you want to dance in something, it needs to fit really well. There’s no time to get the right size, so I’m making a few adjustments.

I’m also wearing clothes that don’t fit properly.  I lost a little bit of weight recently. Not much, just enough in fact to make my jeans fall down if I try to run anywhere.  I really need to find the time to get a new pair of jeans that actually fit me. But until then I’m just getting by with the old ones and making sure I hold onto them if I need a turn of speed.

This theme of badly fitting clothes in my life at the moment reminds me of this verse from Ephesians 4: 22-24

 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (NRSV)

When we chose to follow Jesus and accepted his gift of a new heart and a fresh start, our old ways of living stopped fitting.    It’s as if we have become a totally different shape.  But we often keep wearing bits of our old lives out of habit.  The list in Ephesians is pretty long: malice, anger, unforgiveness, bitterness, stealing, harsh words…

Those ways just don’t fit the new you.  You need to break the habit of wearing them.

Firstly: They don’t suit you.  They’re not your colour.

Secondly:  You can’t dance in something that doesn’t fit.

Why not ask God today if you’re still wearing something that doesn’t really fit you.  Something that’s restricting your movement or stopping you from running forward.

It might be something from Paul’s list, or something more difficult to spot, like the negative things you whisper to yourself or  say about yourself, you’ll never amount to anything, you can’t do that or I’m rubbish, I’m useless. Or it might be something hidden away for fear someone will see it.

Ask God, because he has priorities. He knows which thing he wants to help you deal with today. It’s not meant to be an exercise in thinking about all the things which are awful about ourselves, but in asking God to pinpoint the one thing he’d like us to get free from first.

Whatever it is, ask God to help you to take it off. Then accept his all-covering forgiveness and pick up the new clothes that he has for you to wear:

Clothes that fit well enough to dance in.

 

P.S For those of you who’ve noticed – this is painted in acrylics instead of watercolour – a temporary departure!  It’s a favourite of mine and I wish there was a word for the-freedom-generated-by-the-dance.  If there was, that would be its title!

P.P.S Thank you to everyone who has bought a copy of Postcards from Heaven. If you have time to go and write a review on the Amazon or BRF listing that would be wonderful x

 

 

 

 

When I’m with you

It’s not so much a picture that’s captured my attention this week as a song that I keep hearing.  My car radio is broken – stuck on the local forces radio station and a DJ with a fairly limited playlist, so I keep hearing the same songs over and over.  This week’s favourite is a song written by a girl for her best friend – it has some pretty dubious lyrics, but there’s one line that sends powerful echoes through my soul every time I hear it :

“When I’m with you, I’m standing with an army”

Isn’t that awesome?  When I’m with you I’m standing with an army.  When I’m with you I can face anything because I know I’m not facing it alone.  When I’m with you I can be brave and courageous, because I know I have back-up, I know someone is covering my back.

When I’m with you, I’m standing with an army

It’s a statement of faith, a statement that slices through fear. And better than that, in Christ, it’s actually true:  One of the names of God that describes who he is and what he is like is ‘The Lord of Hosts’.  It’s used more than 200 times in the Old Testament, is sometimes translated ‘Almighty’ and means that God has ultimate power over all created things, including the mighty angelic host of heaven.

The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Psalm 46:1 NRSV

What a beautiful, awesome verse.  Pause with it for a moment.  Read it again, drink it in..

God is a both a refuge- somewhere you can run to and be safe- and the leader of a mighty army who will fight alongside you. He is your shield and the sword at your right hand. He will defend you and he will fight for you.  He is with you and when he is with you there is a whole host of heaven that stands with you too.

 

Are you fighting a battle?

Sometimes it feels like I’m fighting several skirmishes on several different fronts.  It’s tiring and painful and I easily forget the mighty army that stands with me and fights alongside me. I often make the mistake of thinking that I’m fighting my battles alone.

Sometimes the reality is harder to see than the deception.

And yet this is the truth:

When Jesus is with me, I’m standing with an army.

 

 

 

 

 

Pitchforks

Say pitchfork and immediately I see a scene of angry villagers.  They’re probably in a black and white movie about Dracula, each of them wielding a different harvest-tool to fight against a common enemy. Terrified and terrifying in equal measure they band together and attempt to root evil out from their community.

When I heard God say that I should paint a pitchfork in action today, I decided that the angry farmer motif wasn’t going to fly, so I did a little bit of research on what seemed to be the more peaceful use of a pitchfork – winnowing.

Wheat has to be threshed – a fairly violent process which loosens the grain from the stalks and chaff (husks and little bits of straw).  And then winnowed – separating the grain from the rest.  I grew up on grain-growing land, surrounded by fields of golden corn every summer, but I had no idea about winnowing because for a long time there have been machines that do the job very efficiently.

In Bible times, however, and in parts of the developing world still, the job is done by throwing the pile of mixed grain, straw and chaff into the air and allowing the wind to blow away the straw and chaff while the heavy grain falls to the ground.

To winnow is to separate. To remove that which is unwanted. To purify.

That made me smile: It turns out that whether it’s used by a mob against a vampire or by an individual on a windy summer’s day; a pitchfork is for separating out evil from good and removing it.

In the Bible itself winnowing as a metaphor is often about God coming and getting rid of sin; about purifying the nation; about blowing away all that is bad.

This awkward and difficult task is part of what we’re called to as his people.  It strikes me as important though that the pitchfork doesn’t poke about and separate stuff while it’s on the ground.  It has a very specific task – that of lifting the whole mess up into the wind.

The wind itself does the work.

 

winnowing2

 

Perhaps this postcard is personal.  Perhaps you are aware that the job of threshing has been done.. that sin or shame in your life has been loosened, but is still in there in the mix. Perhaps you need a time of lifting up your own soul into the wind of God, of surrendering to his work.

Or perhaps it’s about your part as a voice to your nation.

I listened to a radio programme this morning about mobile phones.  One part of the discussion was concern that we’re becoming a generation of bystanders, that rather than intervene when something isn’t right, we’re more likely to take out a phone and video it. I wonder if this pitchfork is a challenge to become more of an intervener than a watcher. Perhaps it’s time to take your voice and use it – to pray, to expose truth, to not just be a bystander. To lift up the way our society works into the wind and see which way the grain falls.

 

winnowing

 

 

 

 

Willow

I’m a bit willow-ish – not willowy, that’s for sure – but willow-ish.

It’s about nine years since God told me I’m like a pile of sticks.  Words from God aren’t always easy, but sometimes the most difficult ones have the most value.  I was (and still am a bit) like a pile of dry willow sticks: brittle, stubborn, prickly, awkward, broken in places and very much in need of being bent into shape.

But God, because he is gracious, also gave me a picture of how I could be…

This is a basket made out of willow.  It can both hold a harvest and carry a feast. It is strong.  It is still what it once was, but also completely transformed.

God and I have talked many times about the process of transformation that makes useless sticks into a beautiful basket. And I always end up with these two ‘keys’ to becoming:

Soaking and Surrender

Willow must be soaked, preferably overnight, to make it flexible.  Otherwise when the weaver attempts to bend it or twist and wind it between the uprights it will simply snap.

Dry willow is brittle and inflexible: soaked willow is soft and pliable.

I need soaking.

I need to immerse myself in God’s presence and in his word.  I read once that we are like pendulums, we need to swing between abiding in God and working; worship and ministry; backwards and forwards.  Not spending enough time in God’s presence will make my heart brittle again, but time soaking him in will quickly soften it up.

And as he softens my heart I become more and more ready to be transformed into the shape he wants for me. But even then I need to be willing to let him.

In my willow-ness, most of my task is to surrender. Some of my stubbornness has been soaked out, but most of my determination remains.  I have to choose to allow the weaver to create whatever shape he has in mind for me and not to insist on becoming something else.  It’s so easy to try to second-guess God, to demand to know exactly what he’s doing, or even to come up with a ‘better’ idea.   It’s a challenge to trust him, to rest in the truth that he knows what he’s doing, but it’s necessary.

Soaking and surrender.

It’s great when God gives you a picture of how you could be, especially if he then reveals the keys to becoming.  It may take a long time to get there, but we have do some ability to speed up the process.

For me, and I suspect for many of you, a continual process of soaking and surrender is the way forward.

basket

Squeezed

Ever feel like you’re being squeezed by life?  Yes. Me too.  Today I feel squeezed by little things and big things, important things and unimportant things. Things that need to be done right now, things that needed to be done yesterday and things that I have no idea how to do. All building up and squeezing away.  If you feel a bit like that this postcard might be for you too…

I’ve had the picture of an accordion in my head for a couple of days now.  It’s funny how different instruments or pieces of music can tug at a memory or make an association for us even if we’re not entirely sure why. For some reason when I picture an accordion I always hear the tune of ‘the Old Rugged Cross’ or ‘How Great thou Art‘ playing in my head.   I can probably blame my grandfather, Reg, for that as I’m told he played a concertina (similar to this) enthusiastically and rather badly for most of his adult life and apparently those hymns were in his repertoire.

I’ve found out today that this family of instruments, also called ‘squeezeboxes’, all work by compressing air with bellows and then forcing it over reeds. The reeds vibrate at different pitches creating the sound that we hear.  Depending on the combination of keys and buttons pressed by the player, the air can be forced over several reeds at once so harmonies, chords and a bass line can all be played at once.  The more pressure is created by the air, the more notes can be played loudly at the same time.

Pressure and worship.

You probably can’t avoid pressure in life, (and it probably wouldn’t be good for you if you did). But like this accordion player: you do have the choice about what you do with it.  On a squeezebox you can make an awful cacophony… or by pressing the right buttons you can turn that pressure into worship.  It still might not sound all that beautiful to listen to: but it will be worship.

My favourite example of this is Psalm 22. It begins with David under pressure and wondering why he’s been abandoned. His description of his circumstances is pretty colourful but my attention is caught today by this line: ‘My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs’ (Psalm 22:16 NLT).  I know that feeling. As though a hundred little things, and one or two really big things are snapping away at my heels. Stressful, painful, tiring, everyday pressure. And yet David seems to manage to choose to turn that pressure into worship. A few lines later he declares:  ‘All who seek the Lord will praise him, their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy’ (22:26).

Of course you can’t just pick up an Accordion and instantly know how to use it.  You have to learn, and then you have to practise.  But it’s a challenge isn’t it?  To take whatever is causing stress, pain or pressure in your life and choose to learn how to turn that pressure it into worship.

 

accordion

 

**********************************************************************

In amongst all the everyday stresses something rather wonderful happened this week. Postcards from Heaven – The Book was published on January 22nd.  Already I’m hearing stories of God speaking life and grace into people’s hearts who have received a copy as a gift. So a huge thank you to those of you who have bought it and given it away!

If you haven’t got one yet:

If you’re in the UK I recommend getting a copy direct from the publisher here

or those of you in the US or Australia can buy a copy here

If you’ve already read the book and  it would be really helpful if you have time to find the book on Amazon or Waterstones and write a review!  Thanks

 

 

 

 

Words and Pictures to help you hear from God

%d bloggers like this: