‘I am the true grapevine, and my Father is The Gardener’..reflections on a garden clearance!

Often, over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege to minister to people who have been undergoing the process of spiritual pruning. To a lesser, or a greater degree, areas of both their lives and ministries have come under the careful viticultural expertise of the Divine Gardener. Questions have flowed from cracked and parched lips: what is God doing to me? Why does it hurt so much? I don’t understand what’s going on! Where is God? Is this God? When will it end?

Now look, it’s a bit embarrassing to be honest, so let’s keep this between just the two of us. Please? I don’t think this last year for me has been a mere pruning. It’s been more a garden clearance! The really embarrassing bit is that when I asked God why, I felt him simply say ‘because you said yes, and therefore you needed it’. Oooch.

Ok, so I’m probably being a bit hard on myself. But there again; maybe not. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, you see the beautiful thing in all of this is simply that I know the gardener. He’s my Father and that’s why I can share this with you. Before the foundation of the world He landscaped my life. He planned the seasons, chose the colours, laid out the borders. And as any gardener will know, producing an award-winning garden (and by the way, every one of us is a ‘Gold Medal Garden’) takes many seasons to accomplish.

He planted the seeds, they were watered, and he was growing them. However, naturally not all of the shoots were bearing fruit, growing in the correct direction, or particularly healthy. I’m afraid that’s just what a life-history like mine has led to; there is plenty to redeem. But, you see, that’s how God gets His Glory. My part was and remains to simply keep saying yes, regardless of not knowing either why, or sometimes not even what God was doing, and remain in Him. Sometimes we can feel that all we have been left with is the knowledge that God is good. And it’s often then that you realise two things.

Firstly; that’s all we need and He is sufficient! Secondly; get a life Ben! In western Christianity I have been so far removed from what true cost is, that maybe it’s time to stop living in self-pity and start living in the reality of what being a true disciple of Jesus really means.

What a powerful combination.

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EU, Immigration, Assylum, The Press, The Holy Spirit; How to Vote on the 23rd!

_88388044_88388039 ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God’ Rom 8: 14 (NLT)

Having at last had some space to reflect on the last few days of the media mayhem that often surrounds controversy, some important issues have reared their heads that I believe are pretty central to the way forward as a Nation, (a Holy Nation that is). Our citizenship is not of this world, regardless of how passionately we engage with politics, social justice, or anything for that matter. I was so encouraged by the balance and journalistic integrity that Chris Burn and the editorial team at the Sheffield Star exhibited in reporting the case of Linda Okungbowa. I was less so, with the approaches of the tabloid press. The difference being that Chris was sat in court and was a witness to what took place; the tabloids seem so often to both feed from and partner with fear. I remember so well during my military service the way that some elements of the media reported events that I too had been a witness to. This brought a great frustration and sadness, as lives were further damaged in the process. There is little doubt that Linda’s life too has been further damaged by this.

Jesus prays in John 17 to his Father not to take us out of the world, but to protect us from the evil one. We are currently surrounded by a media frenzy of comment, claim, counter-claim and editorial bias concerning the EU Referendum. What saddens me even more is to see church leaders posting photographs of their postal ballot forms on social media in order to make ‘their’ case heard. No matter how prophetic we may be, it seems unlikely that we can really know what the future holds either way. And even if we have the most powerful conviction that we have ‘heard from God’, we still see and hear in part. It’s called humility.

It seems already apparent that the question of how to vote on the 23rd is causing a new level of division in the political arena, regardless of the outcome. As the Bride of Christ, we have two options facing us. We either partner with the world, or partner with heaven; we cannot have two masters in this. We partner with heaven through prayer and through our relationship with Jesus; Wisdom himself. What we must not do is partner with fear, as we have the privilege to be bond-servants of love himself. Simply put, if we partner with fear (either way) we are in danger of allowing that fear to attempt to drive yet another wedge through the perfectly united Bride that exists in Christ.

I have prayed, and I know how I will vote on the 23rd. I am a witness to his witness to me that God is love. What will mark us out from the world on the 24th is our ability to celebrate His Kingdom together, a Kingdom that is undiminished by politics. So, I urge you to simply to pray. Take time away from the media frenzy that has wrought confusion, and listen to Him. That way, we can all be united in the simple fact that we decided to recognise His Lordship rather than our desires, or may I say fears. You never know, he may ask you to vote in a way that you least expected him to. Now that would be interesting!

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Love is Out of This World!

Print“Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me, because you loved me even before the world began!”

Let’s just step out of time for a moment; away from our life, our notion of time and experience. We can only know what God has revealed; and he continues to reveal Himself, not in new scripture, but through an ever-deepening relationship with him through both what he has already given us and what he chooses to show us through the Holy Spirit. Just even this little glimpse of an eternal God, outside of our concept of time, is a rich source of revelation as to his character and purpose.

The Father’s House was there from before time; love existed before either our understanding of it or God’s revelation of it to us John 14: 2 (NIV). Love, therefore, is not a worldly concept but entirely existent in the eternal character of God. Love is unaffected by creation; creation was brought into existence from love; we were created out of love in order to reveal love. We have seen that the nature of God as love is an eternal concept, not a construct of creation. ‘God is love’ is an eternal statement; it would be true whether or not God had chosen to create the earth, heavens and us. It is the eternal Truth.

In John 17: 24 Jesus , the Son presents his desires for those that the Father has given him, and bases that request upon the love that existed between them before the foundation of the earth.

“Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me, because you loved me even before the world began!”

Jesus is wanting us to be with him where he is (not will be) so that we may share a view of the reflected holiness and goodness of God that has derived from the loving relationship that they enjoyed in eternity. At the very moment that Jesus was praying that prayer, he was experiencing the same complete unity with the Father that we now enjoy.  Jesus knew that there was no plea greater than to stand on the eternal and unchanging love that existed between them. A love that exists outside of the world, outside of creation; a love that he has brought into the world and is continually revealing to the world. The love of his Kingdom. There is no better place of plea. When we approach the Father, if our petitions do not come from that place of complete unity with love, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the Father will answer them. He cannot, as he cannot bring anything that is not born from love. Paul captures this truth when he encourages the church at Ephesus to:

“pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Eph 6: 18 (NIV)

As they pray in the Spirit, they are capturing the very heart of heaven and therefore the foundation of their prayer is firmly based within the nature and will of God.  Just as in The Revelation when a door was opened in heaven for John to see through, so in Christ a door is opened into the eternal house of love. Before a single angel or star was created (let alone us), love was being bestowed or given, and love was being received eternally.

Oswald Chambers puts this beautifully in My Utmost for His Highest;

“Before the foundation of the world, the Father in his essential being was Father relative to the Son, and the Son, in his essential being was Son, relative to the Father.”

The concept of fatherhood and sonship existed before creation – it was the blueprint from which we were created, not a construct through which we understand God. It can therefore not be destroyed, altered or created. It is eternally existent. It is not a personified abstraction, a way that we can understand God; sonship and fatherhood is the very nature of God himself. The doctrine of eternal sonship was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D and flows from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the writer of Hebrews Col 1: 13-16; Heb 1: 2.  Both reveal that all things have been made through the Son.

It is therefore from this place of eternal love that we need to receive love and allow it to flow from us to the world. If we look anywhere else, we are merely feeding from a copy, however good that copy may be. We need to exchange love directly with heaven first; receive it and return it in worship and then allow that same love to flow to those around us. It is no surprise, therefore, that Satan chose this very area of relationship to attack and distort. When he tempted Adam, through Eve, to disobey God and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he distorted the one characteristics of a child/parent relationship that is crucial; complete dependence. From that moment, humanity became orphaned, which in turn obscured the revelation of this pre-existent family relationship based within the flow of perfect love.

In worldly terms, the opposite of love is hate. In Kingdom terms, the opposite of love is sin. As God is love, anything that falls short of that love is outside of the holiness of God. The fall separated us from love, it is to love that we return. Reconciliation with our Father in Heaven does more than simply give us eternal life, it restores the image of the perfect flow of love from a father to a son and from a son to a father. It brings us from a place of independence to one of dependence and trust, the very nature of God’s identity, as love flows again through our entire lives and out to the world.

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Kingdom Birthing – Impregnated with the Sperma of the Spirit.

imagesNow there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3: 1-8 (NIV)

I was at a friend’s house a couple of weeks ago; it was a God appointment and I fell pregnant. Don’t panic Captain Mainwairing! But really, as I prayed there, at the place where an amazing Kingdom Ministry was born, I conceived. Not that I realised it before i went, but I was there to be impregnated with the sperma of God. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how much of what I (and plenty of others in leadership I may add)  have birthed was, in the end, born of the flesh and not of the Spirit. My experience was real, supernatural and has resulted in an immediate inner-knowledge or faith in what will be birthed. So, what is the spiritual mechanism of birthing in The Kingdom? How do we know that things are birthed from God? It’s all about the seed.

We are made up of body, soul and spirit. Our spirits, before we are born again, are encapsulated by the hard exterior of our body and soul. In 1 John 3: 9, John writes :“No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.”  Literally, when we open up our souls to give God access to our Spirits, his seed (sperma in the greek) enters us and we are literally re-conceived as children of God; thus, we are born again of the Spirit. His Spirit to our spirit. Over time, as that seed grows from the inside, it begins to regenerate us from the inside out. We are instantly a completely new creation in Christ, our DNA has changed with this new conception, and as we mature, so that becomes more and more visible.

It’s the same with birthing the things of The Kingdom. We go to the source; Jesus. He impregnated us with the seed, not other people. Each new Kingdom birthing has to begin with a journey to the source; Jesus. That journey is often a courtship, a Song of Solomon romance where we give up our desires for anything or anyone but the sower himself.  We cannot get the seed from man’s ambition. Yes, God places midwives around us to help us in the carrying and birthing until it can take on a life of its own; however a life of its own it must have. We have to allow that seed to grow, to develop from within before anything of value is visible. Yes, we may ‘look’ pregnant, however few remark on the beauty of the bump, in comparison with the beauty of the birth.

This experience has led me to ask the question of so much of what I do. Was it born of the Spirit? Have I carried it, nursed it, wrestled with it? Or, did I just decide one day to start it? Was it born of God, or was it born from the flesh? It’s important to know.

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Perfect Love

cross-backgroundI had been brought up with a worldly notion of love that I think had distorted my theology. The world had told me that love was invisible and existed as a concept that could only be seen when it was given and received. In other words, love and its revelation depended on and was shaped by human activity.  All of the work that has been done on ‘love language’ is powerful and extremely useful in helping us to ensure that we have healthy and loving relationships. However, there is a note of caution to be had. If we focus on love as being the product of how we interact, we are in danger of reducing it to merely an entirely human concept. Love is not a concept, an emotion or an activity. Love is a person; Jesus. We can love, only because we were born again as children of God and so took on an identity that flows from being literally ‘in’ love or ‘one’ with love. The manifest presence of God brings love, direct and unfiltered, straight from heaven. As we both enjoy and host his presence, we are intentionally communing with love himself. Unselfish, perfect, other-centred.

Jesus describes this relationship perfectly when he prays to his Father that we may be one, just as he and the Father are one.  ‘As you are in me, Father and I am in you’ John 17: 21 (NIV) The seemingly impossible trinitarian Russian doll. Literally Jesus is saying that he is completely one with his Father and his Father is completely one with him. No separation. As we become born again, we too become one with Christ. We are literally crucified with him, die with him and are then raised with him. Rom 6: 3-5 (NIV) Our old self literally ceases to exist. Our spiritual circumcision cuts us away from who we were, and we become this new creation in Christ Jesus. That new creation represents the person of Jesus, the person of love. As He is love, so we too become love, in Him.

John describes this perfectly in his first letter. It is not that we loved God (our actions), but that God loved us first, as we were created out of love himself. 1 John 4: 10 (NIV) We came from God; nothing existed before God, he was pre-existent. We can initiate nothing, as nothing of us exists outside the context that he set at creation. God showed his love by showing us himself, and through that his Father. The Holy Spirit brings love directly from heaven, directly from the throne of Grace. Paul writes that love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us Rom 5: 5 (NIV). No wonder Jesus had to leave us! He had to allow us to transition from the representation of love (the incarnate Jesus) to a relationship with love (through the Holy Spirit).

Love flows from God. It comes first from him. Our first and most important responsibility as His children is to open ourselves up to accepting and receiving that love, from which place we can be obedient in loving God. We cannot love God unless we know his love through the Spirit. To fully worship God we need to be abandoned fully to God. We return that which he has freely given to us, to Him.

God is love. It is therefore love himself that existed before the foundation of the world; a love that remains undistorted by the lenses of what he created and un-infected by the fallen and broken world. Love was not broken by the world, he chose to become broken, on the cross, for us to know that love to bring us hope.

Although many have written on the origins of life, few of us have truly grasped or live in the full knowledge that the very origin of life is the person of love. It is therefore fair to say that love is the source of life and all that He created was created from love. We, therefore, were created in the image of love. We were born to love (as the song goes) and Jesus, through both his humanity and his divinity, came to reveal that love to the world.

We hold the message of the cross of love, through which God reveals himself simply as love.

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The Well of Suffering – A Pathway to Intimacy

cup_of_sufferingSong of Songs was one of C.H. Spurgeon’s favorite book in the Bible; and did you know that not only did C.H. Spurgeon suffer from depression, but also gout that was so painful, he spent most of his life being hardly able to stand. Now, if you haven’t read Song of Songs in the Passion Translation yet, it’s a complete must. In Chapter four, we find this romance that reveals more about maturity in Christ than probably any other passage. It’s the Bridegroom speaking to us. He starts, because he first loved us. Nothing he asks of us comes from ourselves, it comes from his love. He speaks of our beauty, our eyes glistening with love, our devotion to him. We have taken his fruit, tasted his word, our lives becoming clean and pure. We demonstrate grace, balance; we display truth. The words of our mouth, to him, are as refreshing as an oasis, we bring him pleasure. This is how Jesus sees us; all of us. He sees our open hearts of love, he sees our passion for him; our surrender. These words strike deep into the very core of our being, his love for us is outrageous! We have been spared!

And then we respond. The Shulamite makes up her mind; she will go to the mountain top with him, she will climb with him, she will climb the mountain of suffering love, the hill of burning incense. Yes; she will be his bride. His love for her conquers her soul. And it is then that she is ready, bride of the mountains, to come, to climb the highest peaks together. The mountain of suffering love is literally ‘ the mountain of myrrh’ – the emblem of suffering. It’s the death spice, the spice of the embalmer.

And his response is a torrent of excitement; he calls her his equal! No; how could we be? And yet, his acceptance of our willingness to share in his cup, to give him our all, to submit to his overpowering love, takes us into that place of such intimacy that he is willing to share even his place with us. His invitation to truly sit with him, in the heavenly places, to share his seat comes from our willingness to respond with our whole lives. The aroma of our willingness to drink from and share his cup is intoxicating to him; it thrills him.

Accepting and embracing his suffering in our lives is a route to an intimacy that is truly beautiful to him. He does not bring or send that suffering, it comes as a consequence of our devotion. From it, our inward life sprouts, unfolds. Our life flows into his, from allowing his life to flow into ours.

 

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Kingdom Effect – Why Theoretical Theology is just dumb

main-qimg-0a72520fb385aceff4024075ee8e99fbFor several years of my military service I was involved in what is termed ‘fires’. Basically, ‘fires’ is anything that has an explosive effect on a battlefield (literally); this includes aircraft, artillery, mortars, drones etc. My part in this was varied, but at one time it was my job to sit in an armoured vehicle and drive around the battlefield directing artillery and air support. During training, we used to use simulators. We used to plan the most incredible and complex strategies. At the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst there was a huge lecture hall that we used to call ‘the sleeping bag’.  I learned all sorts of things in there that held no value over the next ten years of service. Mostly because the world moved on so quickly.

And then I had to do it for real. Instead of sitting in a comfortable simulator, I was bouncing up and down in the metal box on tracks, looking at a tiny screen, talking on three radio sets at once, as well as directing the driver of the vehicle, not to mention the nagging fear. Suddenly, all of the strategies seemed so pointless, so naive. Nothing was as we thought it was, the situation changed all of the time. Visibility was reduced; however much you wanted to, you couldn’t see the whole picture. Suddenly, all that mattered was the effect on the ground. Lives were at stake here.

In the Kingdom of God, the effect on the ground is love. Whilst we sit, dis-engaged from the battle, sat in the simulators of theological discussion and argument, we can come up with all sorts of ideas, thoughts and opinions. We can build whole ministries on them; theoretical ways of building ‘community’ for example, so complicated that nobody really understands them. We can decide ‘where we stand’ on a whole range of issues that cause lines to be drawn between brothers and sisters, and yet, if the effect on the ground is not love, they are worthless. Jesus wasn’t theoretical. Jesus isn’t theoretical. Jesus never will be theoretical. Jesus didn’t teach his disciples to sit on a hill, in a simulator, and get all the ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed. He sent them in to fight, using the weapon of the Kingdom of God, which is the revelation of God’s love through the power of the cross.

What if we agreed to never talk about theology outside the context of personal testimony? What if we agreed that we would not even hold firm opinions on issues that we hadn’t personally witnessed God’s love flowing into? What if we stripped away posturing, denominational bigotry and theoretical theological opinion that seeks only to divide, rather than unite. What if we focused the whole of our lives on simply loving God and seeing the subsequent effect of our relationship with him lived out through loving our neighbour? What if we looked at the Bible in terms of the person of Jesus Christ, rather than a means of shoring up the totem pole that we have built, in order to take the high ground and claim our position to be the ‘right’ one.

It’s time to step out of the sleeping bag, get into the trenches and see the effect of God’s unconditional love in action before we make any stand on any issue. If the effect of our theology is to bring anything but the unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus Christ to bear on either our own lives, or the lives of those around us, making us ministers of reconciliation between the world and their Father in heaven, it simply ain’t God mate.

You see, when we say to the world ‘God is Love’, they say to us, ‘prove it’.

 

 

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