My Baptism

March 20, 2018

God does indeed move in mysterious ways and it is only just now, as I think about it, that I realise I did something this week for the first time ever, randomly at the time, but which makes sense now – I ironed my christening robe. I even put a picture of it on FB! Baptism! The truth is that this step of obedience was, for me, fraught with contradictions and real heartache.

I was baptised into the Catholic Church on 3 February 1957. I looked really cute in my beautiful christening robe, proudly held tight by my godmother in a photo I have to this day. This marked me as a catholic. Later on I took First Communion (yep, still cute, I have the picture to prove it!) and these two sacraments put me on the road to being a good catholic. The problem was that I rejected it all and found myself a Christian, a Protestant, with no equivalent photos. What to do?

I turned to Scripture. By now I was an older teenager (17 years old), well used to enquiring of God through His word. And I found baptism! More exactly, Jesus baptism and then His command for baptism of believers. I was amazed I had never heard a sermon about this in my church and decided to speak to the elders about it. I really challenged them, but they turned me away with ‘we are a mission, not a church, we don’t baptise’. I was devastated but, loyal as ever, accepted the verdict and said no more. I was so disappointed! I really wanted to make my commitment public in this way but short of going to another church, this was not going to happen.

The real pain came when I found out, years later, that the elders had changed their minds and baptised everyone but, by then, I was living in London. I was so mad that they had not bothered to contact me and invited me to join them! I was hurt. So much that I refused to consider baptism ever again. Surely my baby one was enough! It took years of persistent challenge from my husband before I agreed to be baptised. And, even then, it was a private service attended by just a handful of people. We lived in North Kensington then, so sometime around 1988/9 I think.

My baptism(s) could not have been more different to Jesus’! But, I think that, the act of ironing my christening gown, finally brought me peace about a practice that is so central to faith and became so complicated for me. God was there when I was named Maria Manuela, when I challenged the elders, when Tony Powell baptised me as an adult. They may have come at separate times across the decades, but I did have my moment(s) of decision, assurance, equipping, revelation and dedication. And, in carefully guiding my steam iron over the shiny satin undergarment, the gossamer like dress and the delicate lacy bonnet, I finally smoothed out the wrinkles of pain I carried for so long.

I look forward to my grandchildren wearing that gown! (subject to parental approval, of course!)


The Mind of Jesus, the launch

July 31, 2013

Blink and you miss it, but there it is in Mark 1. “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” Matthew tells us He moved to Capernaum in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. Luke adds that He did it in the power of the Spirit. John alone connects the miracle at the Cana wedding with the launch of His public ministry, “He thus revealed His glory”. Quite a lot going on after all.

Having established in the desert how He is going to proceed, where and what come next. So, why Galilee? For one thing, Jesus was familiar with it, it was His patch, having been brought up in Nazareth. Strategically, Galilee was ideal: populous, accessible, rebellious, the Galileans having a reputation for being eager, forward-looking, receptive to change. Ultimately, it was to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy (9:1-2). I love this combination of divine appointment, socio-political strategy and personal experience. In Jesus’ case, it was wildly successful. Perhaps it provides a pattern for our own enterprises?

The ‘what’ is equally intriguing. Proclaiming the good news of God (Mark 1:14). Mark quotes Jesus saying “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” A brilliant tweet! Matthew is even more succinct: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (4:17). Luke gives us more of a Facebook status update: “news about him [Jesus] spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and everyone praised him.” Can’t help wondering how many ‘likes’ this would get.

John, being far more into encounters, gives us Instagram-worthy accounts of Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem, clearing the Temple, performing miraculous signs and holding a night-time meeting with a senior national leader. Jesus’ campaign may have started in the North but His presence was quickly felt in the capital. Can’t help thinking this was quite deliberate, the good news was never going to be just a northern phenomenon; Jesus had the whole earth in mind when He started in Capernaum. The local never became parochial. His sense of calling and ultimate destiny fed His ministry from the start and gave it a momentum He knew would lead to His death and resurrection (John 2:19), the fulfilment of His mission. I am awed and challenged in equal measure by Jesus’ depth of thinking and strategising when it came to the ‘where’. Might this be a pattern for us too? And perhaps an invitation to embrace the macro while living in the micro – to have high ambition, deep strategy, broad vision and wide approaches as we learn to love and serve Him wherever we are.

Now back to the ‘what’, His message. In the light of the nearness of the kingdom, repent. Change your mind. Turn to God. I love repentance, metanoia! It offers me hope, possibility, freedom. I am not stuck in my painful past, I am not powerless in my sinful present, I am not hostage to my uncertain future. It is a real shame that the word repent has become so repellant in our culture when it has so much to offer. Clearly Jesus made it central to His message, much like John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets before Him. How can we rescue it and re-introduce as the portal to deep and lasting liberation? As for the kingdom, that is for another post.



March 25, 2013

At some point, life got so difficult for King David that all he wanted to do was escape. “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly way and be at rest –“, classic flight response to overwhelming circumstances.

But who could possibly cause this brave king to want to flee to the desert, in his troubled mind now a place of shelter? Not the usual suspects: “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him.” Yet David is deeply distressed. His mind is troubled, his heart is in anguish; he is distraught, terrified and horrified. These are not emotions we are often encouraged to dwell on for they are so very negative, poisonous even. Yet, David did. What is more, he did it in the context of prayer – “Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me.” This psalm is not a piece of self-indulgent, self-pitying, navel-gazing poetry. David is praying and he is praying honestly.

Might this be a Selah moment, a moment to stop and think about the need to be truly honest when we pray? This is the word of God, and David is giving us permission to come to our heavenly Father with whatever is in our hearts, no holds barred. In fact, he is giving us words for when we are too hurt to find our own. How else can God administer the antidote of His promises of peace, joy, security and deliverance if we do not confess the poison of stress, anguish, terror and horror?

David’s honesty also encompasses how he sees the situation and how he wants it resolved. He is labouring under the anger of some new enemy. And this anger is causing chaos: violence and strife, malice and abuse, threats and lies. “Destructive forces are at work in the city” is how David summarizes it. David feels betrayed, opposed, attacked, deceived. It gets so extreme that the very sight and sound of this new enemy throws him into inner turmoil. So he wishes them confused, confounded and dead before their time. David is not going to flee to the desert after all; instead he proposes to God a different solution – disgrace followed by swift and permanent removal. David’s hurt turns to anger and to its natural child, revenge. A classical fight response.

Surely, wishing disgrace and death on an enemy is even less acceptable than dwelling on how bad they make us feel so perhaps we need another Selah moment. Far from removing him from God’s presence, David’s bitter feelings and vengeful anger enable him to access God. David knows that God is a God of justice as well as mercy and that in ‘naming and shaming’ his enemy in prayer, he is exposing the evil of violated trust and ruptured community. Isn’t that what God does through His prophets? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as Christians?

David’s prayer becomes particularly poignant when we discover who David’s enemy is – “But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked in the throng at the house of God.” Can you feel David’s pain, anger and confusion? This is no stranger, no ‘other’ like so many David fought throughout his reign. Their covenant of love is broken and his friend’s words, smooth as butter and more soothing than oil, have become like drawn swords, carrying betrayal and war. This is as dark as it gets. Upside down and inside out, there is only one thing David can hold on to – the belief that God hears his voice. As he casts his cares on the Lord evening, morning and noon, he declares that God will ransom and sustain him. God will never let David fall. “But as for me, I trust in you.”

One final Selah moment. David has given us words to express our feelings of anger and betrayal with rigorous honesty. He shows us that these feelings are a gateway into God’s presence. Now, his final confession of trust puts the problem and solution firmly in God’s hands. We don’t know how this appalling situation resolved. There is no fairy tale ending. Just as well, not all broken relationships end happily ever after. But we do know that David prayed for his enemy to be driven into the hands of God. I cannot think of a better place for anyone to be. Can you?

You might like to read Psalm 55 now.

The inspiration for this piece comes from Professor Ellen F Davis profound insight into the cursing psalms. She teaches that “the cursing psalms are the vehicle whereby we yield to God our own claim for vengeance, and that is the crucial first step to the healing of the entire community.”


The Mind of Jesus, Stones

February 23, 2013

At the very centre of the desert experience is the contrast between prevailing ideologies concerning the Messiah, and the task God the Father entrusted to Jesus – to redeem by sacrifice. The established ideas of the Messiah and his mission were about to be turned upside down and inside out. An ideological revolution was taking place in the desert, one with immense consequences for Jesus.

So, how was Jesus going to use His power? In a state of deep starvation, the little pieces of desert limestone rock called out to Him. And since this was not His appointed hour, what could be more logical than turning them into bread, ensuring His survival by His own powerful hand? But this seemingly logical and expedient course of action required a number of decisions, all of them disastrous: to break His fast; to prioritise His status; to meet His needs; in other words, to be inauthentic, to act in direct contradiction to His baptismal commission.

It is not surprising that, in exploring how He was going to proceed, Jesus turned to Scripture. Yet, from all the myriad of passages He could have quoted, Jesus chose Deuteronomy 8:3. Why?

Part of the ‘Do not forget the Lord’ sermon Moses had delivered hundreds of years previously, Jesus’ answer gives a powerful glimpse into His thought processes. He was recalling Israel’s experience in the desert, particularly the exact time six weeks (42 days!) into their deliverance from Egypt when God promised to rain down bread from heaven in a such a way that it would test them to see whether they would follow His instructions (Exodus 16:4). Moses amplifies this in his sermon, saying that the Lord had provided in such manner to humble them, to test them in order to know what was in their hearts and to teach them that man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Exodus 8:2-3).

So there we have it. Satan took Jesus’ most pressing need and served it back to Him with a twist. There was truth and there was challenge – Jesus WAS the Son of God and HAD the power to turn stones into bread. The twist was to combine these in such a way that it would jeopardise the entire mission, His Exodus. His response, those few words, exploded Satan’ logic and revealed Jesus’ own.

He had been brought into this place to be humbled and tested in order to know what was in His heart. There He found the guiding principle of His whole mission – it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work (John 14:10). Dependency on the Father would be the hallmark of this Messiah. His journey in the desert had begun by the Spirit and would end by the Spirit. Here, Jesus lived on every word that came from the mouth of His Father. And He never deviated from this fundamental principle, not even on the cross, when He was similarly tempted.


The Mind of Jesus, Desert

February 23, 2013

It is all very well to know what to do and when to do it. Crucially, it is essential to know how to do it. And Jesus found His ‘how’ first and foremost in the desert. This is perhaps the closest we get to seeing right into the mind of Jesus. He alone could have told the disciples about it, although He did not have to. I like to think I know why, but more of that later!

Baptism was the launchpad for the desert experience. After the heights, come the depths. After facing the crowds, He faces himself: 40 days (i.e. a long time) of fasting and searching His heart, discovering not just what is to be done, but how it is to be done. These things take time. Even for the Son of God. I find it interesting that John comes out of the desert, John and Jesus meet at the River Jordan, and Jesus goes into the desert.

The Greek word traditionally translated as tempting is most accurately translated as testing – PEIRAZEIN. We usually think of temptation as seducing into evil. That cannot be the case here for the Spirit Himself leads Jesus to the desert. In this desert place, we learn that testing is meant to enable us to conquer sin. It’s meant to make us stronger, finer, purer. Testing comes to those whom God wishes to use.

The temptations addressed the central issues of Jesus’ nature and mission head on. None of them came out of left field; they were not ludicrous or irrelevant, making them easy to spot and resist. Instead, they offered solutions to the ‘how’ Jesus was exploring. What is more, none of the suggestions was obviously evil, quite the opposite – on the surface and in the short-term, they appeared logical, advantageous, attractive. Sounds familiar? I am reminded of the Garden of Eden, that one other place of immense testing. Unlike Eve, however, Jesus did not enter into dialogue with His tempter and, unlike Adam, He did not remain silent. Jesus chose a different way, and so can we.

I will dwell a little longer on each temptation, but for now, dare I say it? I believe that Jesus told His disciples of His time in the desert because all our temptations are hidden in His. And His answers reveal a way through testing that will make us more like Him. At least I hope so.


The Mind of Jesus, River Jordan

February 23, 2013

The prophetic voice has not been heard in the land for 300 years. Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, all in their different ways, are trying to prepare the way of the Lord. They are all looking for Elijah, the precursor to the Messiah. God has a surprise in store for them all!

Yes, the prophetic voice can be heard again. Yes, that voice calls, like all other prophetic voices, to repentance, the essential prelude to the coming of the Messiah. Yes, he looks and sounds like Elijah. But John’s message is also completely radical and new. Repent and be baptised! No Jew had ever been called to this in their whole history. Ritual washings, yes. They were common within and without. But baptism of repentance belonged exclusively to the Gentiles who wished to become Jews. It does not get more radical than this – John has excommunicated the whole nation! And the nation flocks to John. So does Jesus.

This was a defining moment for Jesus. By insisting on being baptised by John, He identifies with the crowd in their quest for righteousness (Matt 3:15), in their preparation for the coming of the Kingdom, in their search for God. He identifies Himself with the sin and sorrow of humanity. Iraneus said that Jesus became what we are to make us what He is. A moment of self-identification with humanity.

While what is going on in Jesus’s mind can only be inferred from His actions, we know exactly what is going on in the Father’s mind. Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 are brought together by the Father and declared over the Son, a totally unique blending of two, hitherto, central but distinct ideas: the triumphant Messiah and the Suffering Servant. I find this moment utterly exciting. Conflicting concepts that had exercised the minds of scholars for centuries and led them up many blind alleys, were now beautifully revealed as one in the person of Jesus. This was it! And, in submitting to the words of the Father, this is the moment of self-dedication to His purposes.

William Barclay writes that this was the moment of decision, of assurance, of equipping (lest we forget the dove!), of revelation and of self-dedication. Jesus understood the sign, willingly stepped forward in response and God poured on Him and into Him an eternity of revelation and power that would make Him the Saviour of the world.

Jesus’ mind was made up, mine is blown away!


The Mind of Jesus, Nazareth

February 23, 2013

Luke 2:52 says, And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. Goodness, there is so much meaning in those few words!

Clearly, Jesus went to school and learnt to read and write (John 8:8). He would also have received instruction in His religion.

He became a TEKTON (Mark 6:3), a skilled craftsman who could build anything from a house or a small bridge to a chair or table. Hands that flung stars into space, fashioning His own creation … He would have been physically fit, carpenters had to source their wood by cutting trees themselves.

He also grew up in a family. Terms of endearment such as TALITHA, little lamb, may well have been spoken first by His mother to His younger sisters. (Mark 5:41). And His ease and love of Abba, the name of God that came most naturally to His lips, might that have something to do with Joseph?

Jesus also grew up in, arguably, the most beautiful region of Israel. The land flowing with milk and honey! Many a parable bears witness to His taking it all in, observing the rhythms of nature both wild and tamed. “Common actions and happenings of life became windows through which to catch a glimpse of the truth and the glory of God”, William Barclay. How true! Leaven, wine skins, lost coins, weddings, sowing, fishing, shepherding, etc etc, all was noticed, absorbed, stored and later used to speak of the kingdom. No paraphernalia, no barriers!

One interesting thing about Nazareth. Although it was secluded, it was not isolated. The great roads of the East passed through Galilee, particularly the one that went from Damascus to Egypt, Road of the Sea, and from the coast to Parthia, Road of the East. The hilltops behind Nazareth offered Jesus expansive views of the world He had come to save.

Education. Work. Family life. Local economy and activities. International trade and movement. What else?

One more thing. The last prayer Jesus prayed on the cross, was the first prayer every Jewish mother taught her children to pray from Psalm 31:5. Jesus added the word Father. He learnt to pray and make prayer central to His ministry during this time. Amazing that His baby prayer was also His last.