Final full day of the Sabbatical.
Seven weeks have flown by, gone in a whirlwind, the press of an enter key, the stroke of a pen. It seems like forever. It seems like no time at all.
When I wrote Salvation’s Song, in Cambridge back eight years ago, I took an entire year out. It was a hard year, a wonderful year, a life-changing year. Its journey was slow and gentle, its development crept up on me, though the big idea of that book - the cross as the place of ultimate worship - was a blinding moment of revelation that came as I drove in my old Mondeo from Watford back to Cambridge after chatting with Mike Pilavachi one afternoon.
This always had to be different. First, before going to Cambridge, I had really not prepared for that time to write. The idea only began to form at the end of August. I turned up in Cambridge on October 1st. This time, I have been preparing for two and a half years, the last of which has been quite regular prep, with the ideas and shape of this book regularly fermenting in my brain. So maybe I didn’t need the time I needed for Song, because I had already taken that time. I just needed the write-up time.
But secondly, this is a very different book. That was a simple, easy-read theology book. Hard ideas, (hopefully!) accessibly written. This is something else altogether.
I have two ideas I am peddling. Number 1: forgiveness matters more to the person doing the forgiving than to the person receiving it. Now, there are qualifications to be made on that. Repentance is the way to receive forgiveness, and without being sorry, we don’t get it - but as human beings we aren’t meant to wait till everyone says sorry before we begin to offer our forgiveness. Why am I so sure? Because as Christians we are to follow the example of Christ, who certainly doesn’t take that tack. If he did, the cross would never have happened the way it did. He couldn’t die for my sins till I was sorry for them. But instead, he dies first, and there is no guarantee I will ever repent. Yet still he offers forgiveness. And asks we do the same to each other.
Number 2: When, after teaching the Lord’s prayer, he goes on to comment that if we don’t forgive our neighbour we don’t get forgiven, this can be taken two ways. Either, the forgiveness we thought we had been offered gets removed (ie God changes his mind), or if we fail to get it it's because we never really had it in the first place. It has to be the second. God doesn’t change his mind on this central issue. And Jesus’ teaching here is to focus us on seeing that the sharing of forgiveness as the completion of being forgiven: if we have truly been forgiven, we will pass it on. What we have received, we will give away.
Or to sum both of those ideas up - we who have been forgiven become the forgiving. We who have been redeemed become the redeeming. We who have been saved become the saving in the world by taking what Jesus has done for us and passing it on.
Now. How to best express this?
In a blog, in this many words? In a theology book with Bible texts and references and quotations?
Or another way? I wanted to try something more creative. Perhaps a little different. So I went for that. It may never see the light of day. It may be terrible. I may not be up to it. I wrote a novel about these issues.
I don’t know if it’s any good. What I do know is that at church yesterday, the pastor led a great confession about the things we do that need forgiving, and that my heart was far more moved and my soul touched and brought close to God than ever normally is the case after writing these things and thinking them through in this way. And if someone might read these words and find themselves similarly impacted, then a little good has been done. It feels a bit like it did when I’d finished Song. Like I’d learned something. Like I’d been changed. Like I wouldn’t be the same again.
I can only pray that this moment lasts. The sunshine on the picture at the top - I am waving goodbye to all that. I am sitting by the pool in temperatures of 80 degrees - I am waving goodbye to that too. Stephen’s Path, the road here where I have been living in Florida - bye bye. Seven weeks away from the responsibilities of running the parish - that’s gone. I get back in a couple of days’ time, parachuting back onto the escalator. But this moment, the moment where I dimly see that the worship of Jesus on the cross is the sacrifice that offers forgiveness, so the worship of our church (always our first call) should be about becoming a Jesus-centred worshipping community that instinctively and always offers forgiveness - and that surely is a tie-in to my perennial search for how worship and evangelism work together - this moment I pray will last and last and last.
This moment is what my services in Wengen, my times in Rock’s cafe or at the Falken, my conversation with Tory over that sandwich (and his subsequent sermon line which has shaped my whole thinking ever since), my visits to Heartland and Falls and Nashville have all been about: I glibly say that the word "sacrifice" is a worship word and then focus on worship. But sacrifice is there for a purpose, and that purpose is forgiveness. This is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
I have been asked endlessly, "Is this book a sequel to your first?" and now I discover to my surprise and delight, that the answer is "Yes".