Saturday, 21 June 2014


WHEN THE TOWERS FALL: Rebuilding your Life in the Rubble 8

I guess it's partly because I'm writing a series of spy novels - about a fictional spy Vicar during the Napoleonic Wars -that I have a fondness for the story of the prostitute called Rahab. 

According to Joshua chapter 2 Rahab was clearly a resourceful and insightful woman. 

When Joshua sent two spies into her city, she decided to offer them refuge. In return for keeping them safe, she and her family were spared when the Israelite army invaded. 

Rahab is notable for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that she features in the ancestry of Jesus in Matthew's genealogy at the beginning of his Gospel. 

She also figures as an exemplar of true faith in the list of Biblical heroes in Hebrews 11. 

As I once put it in a sermon when I was Vicar of St Andrew's Chorleywood, she went from 'call girl' to 'called girl', from a 'prostitute to a princess,' and thereby became a beautiful and abiding trophy to the divine mercy.

But there's more.

The no 1 reason why I want to celebrate Rahab is because she provided the first known example of a 'safe house' in history.

According to our friends at Wikipedia, 

'a safe house is, in a generic sense, a secret place for sanctuary and it may also be a metaphor.'

According to Spooks expert James Sangster:

'It's a house or other building owned by the Security Services and known to its officers and agents, where they can go to when they're in trouble and request backup.'

Safe houses are crucial places of refuge for spies in danger.

Anyone who has enjoyed the BBC's eight season series, Spooks, will have seen and appreciated this.

Those in danger need their safe houses.

Why am I writing about 'safe houses'?

It's because they are an indispensable resource for anyone who been felled, who has fallen, or whose life has fallen apart.

Those who are surrounded by rubble need safe houses.

Whatever the reason for their rubble - self-inflicted or thrust upon them - people who are living in vulnerability rather than victory need these places of refuge, these safe houses.

Safe houses are vital for the recovery of every inhabitant of Rubble Town.

Safe houses are places where trusted, kind and generous friends offer unconditional love and warm hospitality in times of loneliness and lack.

They are places where there's a bedroom and a bed that offers the opportunity of uninterrupted sleep and untroubled dreams.

They are places where faces that are worn and wan from crying can begin to burst into life again, often around food and wine.

They are places where a person seeking refuge can find a safe place to bear the soul, to express their true feelings - free from the fear of censure and thoughtless platitudes, away from the prying eyes of rubber-necking passers by.

Such places are invaluable.

They are essential for anyone wanting to rebuild their lives in the rubble.

There are several more women in the Bible whom I want to celebrate before I share more personally.

There is first of all the Shunamite woman who provided a safe house for the bald prophet Elisha. According to the Message version of 2 Kings 4, a leading lady of the town of Shunem decided to host Elisha every time he visited the area. At first she would simply cook him meals. But before long this developed into something even more lavish. She spoke to her husband and said, 'why don't we add on a small room upstairs and furnish it with a bed and desk, chair and lamp, so that when he comes by, he can stay with us?'

And that is what they did!

They built an extension in their house reserved for the prophet.

They created a safe place.

Now let's turn to the New Testament. In John chapter 11 we see the sisters of Lazarus weeping at the death of their brother. Jesus arrives and raises Lazarus from the dead. He then stays with the two sisters and their restored brother, sharing a celebratory meal in honour of the miracle.

Now all this is familiar territory but perhaps what's not so widely appreciated is the fact that Jesus often stayed at this home in Bethany.

He often slept there, in a spare room.

He often ate there.

Lazarus was a beloved friend.

His home was a safe house for Jesus.

While we're on this, let's not also forget that in the Old Testament there were six 'cities of refuge where those who were guilty of manslaughter could find sanctuary from the blood lust of those seeking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

These six cities were Golan, Ramoth, Bosor, Kedesh, Shechem and Hebron.

In these places, those who were on the run were protected. They found a safe place where to hide from those who were hunting them.

These were therefore asylum cities for fugitives.

They were an expression of God's mercy for those who were in danger.

Cities of refuge in Joshua 20 are macrocosmic versions of the 'safe house.'

Even the literal meaning of their names points to the kindness of God.

To those whose lives are in danger - for whatever reason and of whatever kind - safe houses can be the difference between life and death.

You cannot recover from the chaos of implosion without a little help from your friends - and specifically, without a little hospitality from your friends.

In the chaos of my own rubble, I have been blessed and amazed by a small group of people here and abroad who have opened their homes and their hearts to me - who have made a safe house for me and who have extended themselves to create a space for me in their world.

I cannot thank them enough.

In a time of self-inflicted chaos, their hospitality has offered moments of serene and blessed order.

In a time of intense stress, their homes have offers me moments of shalom - of divine harmony, integration, and peace.

Today I can safely say that these people are my most highly treasured friends.

They have brought heaven's kindness to earth.

Safe houses are without doubt a prerequisite for recovery whenever anyone is passing through Rubble Town.

But I can't end there.

Ultimately it is not earthly spaces that form our surest safe house.

That can only be found in the arms of the Father.

The Father's heart is our safest safe house.

It is our heart's true home.

It is the harbour where our ship comes in and our vessel gets repaired.

It is the place where the penitent prodigal finds his forgiveness.

It is the place where the broken-hearted finds their healing.

So even in praising the physical structure that is 'the safe house', I want to agree for once with Wikipedia. 

This is also a metaphor.

It is a metaphor of that place where we find our truest refuge and our surest safety.

As King David - who knew a thing or two about rubble - once put it:

God's a safe-house for the battered
A sanctuary during bad times.
The moment you arrive, you relax;
You're never sorry you knocked.

Psalm 9:9-12 (The Message).

Monday, 12 May 2014

WHEN THE TOWERS FALL: Rebuilding your Life in the Rubble Part 7

Greetings from Rubble Town, especially to those who are rebuilding their lives at ground zero. 

This month I'm going to write again about what I've been learning in the heart of darkness and in the middle of mess.

This month I'm writing about a lesson that's very fresh in my heart and very real in my experience.

I'm writing about the importance of rebuilding your nest near God's altar. 

I'm talking about rebuilding and re-creating in God's presence, with his people, not on your own.

Let me tell you a bit of my story.

I came into this new year with a hunger that I'd not known in a long time - a hunger for the people and the presence of God.

I had been in a God-ordained season of hiddenness. Tucked away in the heart of my Father, I had embraced the solitude that he'd advocated and enjoyed a fresh revelation of the fact that he is jealous for me - profoundly jealous. Even if I sometimes couldn't feel his presence, I knew he was there, tenderly appealing to me, whispering words of hope and healing. I knew he was all around me. Like King David, I knew that there was and is nowhere that I can go from his presence.

But this season of solitude was not meant to last forever. I had been wooed into the desert for a restoration of intimacy with the Father. But at the turn of the new year I awoke with a new longing - a desire for his presence and his people. 

When that came I realised that it was time to come out of the wilderness.

It was time to come out of isolation.

It was time to find an altar and build my nest there.

Immediately I was confronted by a choice. There is after all a vast difference between hiddenness and hiding.

Hiddenness is something that the Father allows at certain moments in our journey. When we find ourselves in the rubble - whatever that rubble looks like - he sometimes grants us time in which we go to him on our own so that we can hear his voice without the distractions of Job's well-meaning comforters.

But then there comes a time where divinely-permitted hiddenness can morph into a humanly motivated hiding.

That is not healthy.

His hiddenness and our hiding are galaxies apart.

Hiddenness is what sons and daughters embrace.

Hiding is what orphans crave.

When God hides us, it heals us.

When we hide, it often harms us.

So my biggest choice was not to collude with the orphan tendencies in my heart, tendencies that lead to self-imposed exile and isolation.

My choice was not to join the swelling ranks of those who have left local churches, protesting that churches aren't necessary or that they don't offer what they need.

I knew that I could never have the revelation of the Father while at the same time avoiding and even undermining his family.

I had to choose to respond in the Spirit as a son not react in my flesh as an orphan.

The flesh isolates.

The Spirit integrates.

It was time to reconnect with the people and the presence of God.

That was the choice.

King David knew a thing or two about rubble. His was very public and self-created. Yet after his heartfelt repentance (so poignantly recorded in Psalm 51), he clearly began to experience an ache for the people and the presence of God. He sensed the call to reconnect with the Father and with the Father's family.

This call came in the form of a yearning - one so powerfully and lyrically expressed in Psalm 84.

I find it hard to look at and read these words with dry eyes.

How lovely is your dwelling-place,
Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh cry out
for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young -
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.

There's so much that I could say about this, but I'll confine myself to one thought.

David looked at the birds.

'They build their nests near the heart of God's presence, in the house where his people gather to worship.'

That's what he saw.

That's what he sang.

And that's what was awakened in me.

Okay, I'm just a tiny swallow - like those that used to dive and soar around my father's house in Norfolk when I was a boy.

But even swallows and sparrows long to build their home near God's altar.

If it's good enough for the birds, then it's good enough for me.

And here's the incentive.

The swallows and the sparrows build their nests near God's altar because this is where they can give birth. This is where they may 'have their young.'

What does that mean?

It means creativity.

The reason why it's so important to transition from exile to return and from isolation to community is simply this: the nearer you get to the presence and the people of God, the greater your productivity and creativity will be.

If we want to enter a season of new and indeed unparalleled creativity, then we cannot do that far away from the altar. It can only be done near the altar.

Furthermore, if we want to enter a season of new and indeed unparalleled creativity, then we cannot do that far away from God's people. It can only be done among his people.

God opens new doors for us in community, not in isolation.

As David said in Psalm 34 (the Message),

Blessed are you who run to him...
Worship opens doors...

So, to cut a long story short, my desire for the presence and the people of God has led to a major transition involving relocation.

The longing that was awakened in me has caused me to build a nest.

That nest was not primarily motivated by the landscape and the view (though both are breath-taking).

It was not primarily motivated by the need to be near great friends (though that was without doubt a factor).

It was motivated by a desire to become a part of a people where the presence of God is truly welcomed, where divine kindness is unmistakably evident, and where creativity is unleashed in connection, not isolation.

So if you're in Rubble Town right now, you may be in a time of God-ordained hiddenness.

But if that's somehow morphed into orphan-hearted hiding, then pray for a Davidic longing to rebuild your life near God's altar - the place where his people gather and where his presence is felt.

It is the place where doors open.

It is the place where tiny birds engage in great creativity.

It is the place where healing happens and where hope is born.

Friday, 18 April 2014

WHEN THE TOWERS FALL: Rebuilding your Life in the Rubble Part 6

It's Good Friday in Rubble Town and I guess I'm asking again the question that many ask: 'how does the death of Jesus two thousand years ago make a difference to my life - and to the lives of everyone else - in the rubble?'

Of course there's a variety of possible answers to this.

Here are the common ones:

The death of Jesus affects and transforms my life in the rubble because ....

No 1: in relation to my sin, Christ's death was an all-sufficient sacrifice

No 2: in relation to the devil's grip on my life, Christ's death was a total victory

No 3: in relation to my slavery Law and sin, Christ's death was a glorious redemption

No 4: in relation to my hostility towards God and others, Christ's death was a beautiful reconciliation

No 5: in relation to my guilty verdict before God, Christ's death was my undeserved pardon and release.

These are the five most common answers to the question I am asking today.

The first is taken from the Temple (substitution)

The second from the battlefield (liberation)

The third from the slave market (redemption)

The fourth from the political arena (reconciliation)

The fifth from the law courts (justification).

All of these are helpful answers.

But they aren't the only ones.

Today I'm so relieved that there are also other pictures in the Bible.

For example, I am comforted by a truth that has been largely neglected in Christian history but which cries out to us from the pages of the New Testament.

That truth can be summed up in the following statement:

In relation to my orphan state, Christ's death was a loving adoption.

To my knowledge this idea has hardly been given any air time by theologians over the centuries.

But it's Biblical and it's timely.

The truth is Jesus Christ embraced the orphan experience at Calvary. In his human heart he absorbed the full agony of what it feels like to be separated from a father's love.

He cried out, 'my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?'

In other words, in his human heart he experienced the crushing, dreadful and appalling tragedy of the feeling of his Abba's absence.

And that after having never known anything other than his Abba's intimate and affectionate presence.

But this wasn't the whole picture.

In reality his Father was there, holding him, comforting him, weeping over him, even though Jesus couldn't feel that in the moments leading to his death.

Our sin - condemned in his crucified body (Romans 8:3)- had separated him from his Father, at least in his human consciousness.

Our sin had made him feel like his Dad wasn't there for him any more.

What dreadful sorrow he must have felt.

And all for our sakes.

William Blake, in his poignant sketch of the Trinity at the Cross, captures this as perfectly as pen and ink ever could.

Jesus feels abandoned in his human heart. 

But in reality the eternal Trinity is not fractured.

The three are still one.

The dying Son is cradled like a new-born child.

Why did Jesus endure the excruciating reality of the orphan condition on the Cross?

My answer is simple.

The Son of God became an orphan so that we who are orphans could become the sons and daughters of God.

Now that is an angle on the Cross that has been almost totally unexplored.

It is virgin territory, which is why I've written a book about it called, My Father's Tears: The Cross and the Father's Love.

I wrote this because it's this revelation that has brought me comfort over the last two years in particular.

I may be a sinner, feeling sometimes a sense of the Father's absence, but he has never stopped holding, hugging and healing me.

Never will either.

I may have messed up and behaved like a total and utter orphan, but I'm still enfolded in the arms of the Trinity.

I'm still loved.


Wrapped in astonishing grace.

For those who live in Rubble Town, Good Friday is a good day because it reminds us broken ones that Jesus has lived and died in Rubble Town too.

It reminds us that the mess of Ground Zero is not the endgame any more than the devastation and detritus of Calvary was for Jesus. 

Out of the Rubble comes the Resurrection.

After the dismantling there is always re-mantling.

In the December of 2010, when most would have said my ministry was taking off, a dear friend of mine - someone with more than an average dose of the prophetic anointing - had a dream that suggested the exact opposite.

She saw me in a coffin, naked.

She and two other women were watching over me.

At that moment in her dream all she wanted to do was to cover my nakedness and protect me from public humiliation.

'He's my pastor,' she cried. 'We have to cover him.'

But then something happened.

My hair began to grow.

And I came back to life, rising from the coffin as a brand new creation.

The next morning she woke feeling troubled.

'What was all that about? Mark's ministry is taking off. But this is about death.'

Just under two years later she understood.

And when she shared it with me, so did I.

The Father had been warning her about what was coming.

But that's not all.

Even though she was warned of my crucifixion, she was also given a vision of resurrection (with new hair too, like Samson!).

She was told in effect that the story doesn't end in death.

For those of us living in Rubble Town, who often feel like they've been abandoned, the Good News is that we are still held by the divine love - perhaps now more than ever.

And the even better news is this: it may be Good Friday right now, but Easter Sunday is just days away.

And in the Father's kingdom, crucifixion is not a full stop.

It's a semi-colon.

So I guess if I have a sixth principle for rebuilding your life in the Rubble it is this:

Don't believe the lie that says it's all over.

It's only a matter of time before you're going to live again!

Mark Stibbe's new book, My Father's Tears: The Cross and the Father's Love is published September 2014 by SPCK.

Friday, 21 March 2014

When the Towers Fall: Rebuilding your Life from the Rubble, Part 5

I want to start this fifth message from Rubble Town with a brief expression of gratitude. I'm not going to overdo this. I just want to say a deep-down, heart-felt thanks to all those who have written messages of encouragement to me in response to these blogs.

You have truly reflected the kindness of the one who restores our broken walls (Isaiah 58:12).

And now to the fifth lesson I have learned in the seemingly well-populated territory of Rubble Town.

In the last blog I wrote about our identity. When the towers fall and catastrophe hits - whether self-inflicted or thrust upon us - our sense of self can implode too. In the rubble of our external circumstances we can experience a sometimes crushing sense of internal confusion as we ask one of the most fundamental questions of life: who am I? Now that my job has gone, my spouse has died,my mobility is removed, my health is shot, who really am I?

For a time, this can feel like a kind of soul death in which the fractured nature of our outer world becomes a stark reflection of our inner life.

But this is only for a season. It is not meant to last forever.

As I wrote in the last blog, our worst disasters can be the landscape for our greatest discoveries - including the discovery of who we really are.

So look for the real you in the rubble - not a fictional you (some people reinvent themselves more times than Madonna, after all). But the real you. The one with the divine imprint. The one that has 'kingdom' written all over it. The one, therefore, that cannot be shaken, even when everything else is.

All this is really just a lead-in to another revelatory journey and this has to do with discovering your true talent or talents.

So many of us, if we're honest, get diverted from the primary passion of our lives by the insistent demands of simply making a living. 

We get slowly lured away from what really exhilarates us by the expediencies of earning money, staying in work, keeping everyone happy, putting meals on the table, paying the rent or the mortgage and so on. 

In the process we make a sufficient living but we sometimes don't get to make a satisfying life. 

We survive but we don't thrive.

I believe there are many people like this, and not just those in Christian ministry in the church, or in jobs in Christian organizations.

They are everywhere.

I know I was like that for a long time - and for probably half my working life (if I live to over 70).

It is not comfortable.

In fact, it is deeply frustrating.

If you relate to this sense of frustration, this inner sense that your career and your creativity are out of sync, then I'd like to make a suggestion if you're currently in Rubble Town.

Start digging in the dirt for the talents that you forgot you had.

Look for shiny hints of destiny within the debris at Ground Zero.

I can guarantee there's revelation in the rubbish.

Do you remember the parable Jesus told about talents?

It's in Matthew's Gospel (chapter 25).

Jesus tells a story about a master who sets off on a long journey. He gives three of his employees bags of gold.

To one he gives five bags of gold.
To another two bags.
To the third, one bag.

The first and second immediately invest their money, doubling it in the process. The third man is so scared that he buries his bag in the ground. 

When the boss eventually comes back he is pleased with the first two but unhappy with the third.

'You could at least have put the money in the bank to earn interest,' he cries.

In the end the man is punished.

He loses even the one bag he had which is given to the man who had invested five (ending up with ten, or eleven as it now is).

This is a story familiar to pretty well all of us and there's a lot that I could say about it.

But let me confine myself to this one thought.

Many of us - like the third man in the story - live out of a centre of fear rather than a centre of love.

When we live from fear we seek to remain in control of our lives, choosing the safe option over risk every time.

What matters to us is not that we trustingly explore and utilize our unique creativity but that we keep the wolf from the door.

In the process we choose conventional paths and well-travelled roads and all the while we miss the adventure of investing the talent or talents the Father has given us.

We bury them in the ground.

On the other hand, when we live from a love centre - no longer bound by fear of poverty but trusting that God is a trustworthy and generous Dad - then we take hold of even the little talents and steward them faithfully.

As that happen we watch with marvelling eyes as what we have dared to invest begins to expand and multiply.

This then deepens our confidence as we take even bigger steps of faith in the investment of our talents the next time.

And so we learn to revel in convergence - the coming together of our true identity (who we are) and our true destiny (what God has called us to steward in faith).

So often it takes a trip to Rubble Town before we experience this alignment of what we do with what we have.

Maybe you're in Rubble Town now.

You've been living life one way, pursuing one particular path, but all that has come crashing down.

Now you find yourself asking who you are (identity), what you were doing with your life (history) and what your real purpose has been all along (destiny).

If you're in that situation now, here are some questions you can ask that will help you to find your buried talents.

These questions are ones that I have felt led to ask in my own rubble as I have had to look for clues about my real talents and my true destiny.

1. Is there a clue in your family history?

Is there something about your parents, your grandparents and even your great grandparents that could be a revelatory hint?

I know that may sound a little off the wall but we are radically shaped by both nature and nurture.

I know that's been true for me.

My birth mother's name was Storey (sounds like story, and I'm now focused very much on that in my new working life).

My adoptive father was a friend of C.S.Lewis, a lover of poetry, a writer and an absolutely fantastic reader of stories...

All these things are part of God's pre-ordained moulding of my personality and gifts.

They are clues concerning buried talents.

2. Is there a clue in your childhood?

Was there something you felt passionate about as a child or a teen - a hobby, a cause, a nation, an activity?

Is this something that you forgot when the responsibilities and pressures of adult life kicked in?

Did you forget that thing that made you sing when you were young and free?

Did your profession line up with your passion or did it bury it?

I know there were clues in my upbringing.

My childhood was profoundly shaped by storytelling.

I started writing stories at a very young age - the first one about my teddy bear. It was twelve pages long and my poor twin sister had to put up with me reading all of it to her!

How about you?

Chances are there's a forgotten hobby, passion or dream buried somewhere in the rubble.

3. Is there a clue in your voluntary input?

Is there something you have done outside your paid job, your career, your ministry and purely in a voluntary capacity?

Was there something you did for free and without expectation of reward because you loved the activity, the people the cause?

Whatever we voluntarily give time, energy and passion to is a massive clue about our true talents and our deeper destiny.

Looking back, can you see moments where you gave your all to something or someone in a purely voluntary capacity, because it resonated with your core passion?

4. Is there a clue in your moments of convergence?

Sometimes we have moments in our careers or ministries when we are energised by a feeling of alignment.

When I had the honour of being the Vicar of St Andrews Chorleywood I came up with the crazy idea of doing a Narnian Christmas!

For the whole of December the church building was transformed into a Narnian winterland as I shared about Lewis' faith and writings, enlisting my literary background in the process.

That month we saw extraordinary fruit in the number of people whose lives were touched and changed.

And speaking personally, I felt more alive in ordained ministry than I'd ever done or would ever do again. 

I felt a sense of alignment between my true self, my true gifts and what I was actually doing in my professional life.

That was a hint about buried talents if ever there was one!

These, then, are just some of the questions the Father has been encouraging me to ask. 

They are not taken from any book.

They are from my own personal treasure hunt.

They may be helpful for you as well.

So if you're in Rubble Town, why not start digging for buried talents and treasure?

And as you do, remember what God promises in the Book of Isaiah:

'I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places.'

(Isaiah 45:3).