One plus one, makes one..

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

(Gen 2.20-24)

Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church – a love marked by giving not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her…and that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favour – since they’re already “one” in marriage. No one abuses his own body does he? No, he feeds and pampers it. That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body. And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become “one flesh”, This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it at all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honour her husband.

(Eph 5.25-33, The Message)

It is an uncomfortable truth that the hardest place to live out our faith consistently is within the walls of our own home, among people who know us inside out, and see every up and down of every day. I may be the most patient person in my workplace, but my family know only too well how short my fuse is at the end of a long day, and suffer from my bad temper and moods.

Family life, and the intimacy of marriage is where our true colours come to light, and the extent to which God’s continuing work of transforming us to be like Christ is seen. It is here that we have the chance to put the gospel into practice every day – forgiving and extending grace to others even as we depend upon God’s forgiveness and enabling. As I contemplate our son’s forthcoming marriage, I am only too painfully aware of the many ways in which I have failed to set a good example for him.

I rejoice that God is able, by his grace, to deal with the messes I have made, and thank him that my family are precious to him, so that nothing I have done or failed to do can prejudice his will for them. But I am also conscious of the need to pray for my son and daughter-in-law as they embark for themselves upon this high calling – of loving one another faithfully, through sickness and health, poverty and wealth, till death should part them. It is only by God’s help that they can do this, in a way which witnesses to the power of the gospel and to God’s love.

I rejoice that God has brought them to this commitment; and tremble at what might lie ahead for them. I rejoice in the faith that they share; and tremble as I know that they will be under assault as they explicitly pursue Christian marriage and ministry. I rejoice that my son has been given a woman who is committed to Christ first,  who knows that marriage is to be undertaken earnestly and with dependence on God; and I tremble as I know that she will be giving my son the power to nourish and cherish her, or to wound and weaken her – he is no more perfect than she!

No human marriage can reach the perfection of Christ’s love and care for his bride, the church; but we take courage from Paul’s insistence that this is the model on which we seek to live as spouses, and to pray for other marriages. God is at work for the good of his children, the church and the world through our relationships, and we can confidently depend upon him to strengthen and keep us as we ask for his help. Marriage is God’s idea, and his purpose is that it be for blessing.

As I watch my children set out on this wonderful, frustrating, exhausting, and mysterious relationship, I commit them to the Lord who loves them even more than I do, and know that they are in the safest place. As I renew my own vows in my mind, I thank the Lord for his keeping of my marriage – in spite of so much failure and sin – and pray on for his blessing of us, and through us, his church. To him be the glory, in all things!

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Dare I look?..

Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from wilful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

(Ps 19.12-14)

Do good to your servant according to your word, O Lord. Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I believe in your commands….It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Ps 119.65,66&71)

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart…..God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

(Heb 4.12; 12.10&11)

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and , after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.

(James 1.22-25)

Why do we have mirrors? To show us ourselves – not our neighbours, nor our spouses and children – and to show us our context, the place where we are standing. In biblical terms, the “mirror” is the word of God, the sure source of truth amid the distorting lies which the fallen world, and our own weak natures spin to us about who we are, and what life is really all about. This mirror will not lie to us, to make us feel better about who we are, or to pretend that all is well. This mirror will also not fail to speak the truth about who God says we are, and have been made in Christ.

This mirror tells us that without Christ, we are hopeless sinners in a broken world under the judgement of a holy God, and with a future of eternal separation from Love himself. It tells us that with Christ – as we are found by faith in him – we are redeemed, beloved children of God; there is no sentence of judgement hanging over us any more, and at heart, we are new creatures – no longer sinners by nature, but holy ones, or saints, who sometimes sin but not in settled rebellion against our creator. As we look into this mirror, we should come away filled with confidence and gladness, thankful for the new life we have received and the security that God is keeping us safe for an eternal future with him.

So yes, I should indeed dare to look into the mirror, and often! But it also shows me truth about the hidden and wilful sins which I – as God’s holy child – still commit so persistently, and this can be very painful to see. Too often, I come with my own idea of how I look – self-righteous, patronisingly long-suffering, martyred in my own eyes as other people let me down…

The mirror of God’s word has particularly revealing powers, bringing into sharp and painful definition all the ways in which I am committing those same sins which I attribute to others; full of pride instead of humility, and cherishing endurance instead of loving generously. God does not ask me to be the guardian of another person’s soul, but only to be accountable to him for myself – nothing excuses my unloving spirit; there is always good reason to forgive, because in Christ I am forgiven; I am given life and breath each day in order to bless others, to show God’s love to them, to give in the face of indifference and rejection and not count the cost.

No excuses, no special ‘make-up’ to cover the blemishes, only the searching gospel-light of scripture directed by the Holy Spirit which is designed to bring me daily to my knees in repentance and confession, then to my feet in rejoicing as I go in Christ’s strength and love to do the work in hand.

May the grace of God cover all those ways in which I let others down, and may he continue to show me where I am wilfully sinning, and to uncover hidden sins, that I might repent and be cleansed. What a faithful God we have, who having sealed us for eternity, also gives us all we need to live joyfully and with ever purer hearts for him each day!

As One….

God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits….Your body has many parts..but..you are still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ…We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything….Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain – his Spirit – where we all come to drink.

(1 Cor 12.4-13, Message)

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit..one Lord, one faith , one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all…It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets….to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ…speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together…grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

(Eph 4.1-6,11-13,15&16)

As believers in Jesus Christ, we are called to live out of the gospel grace which we have received – to show to others the same forgiving, persevering, patient love and profound acceptance which we find in our Saviour. There is no place here for holding ourselves aloof simply because of another person’s background, because of different traditions, or because of their particular characteristics and flaws which we may find irritating and hard to live with.

The bible clearly teaches that when we are adopted into God’s family as his children, we become part of that marvellous unity which is the body of Christ – the universal and eternal bride of Christ – so that whether we recognise it or not, we belong together. In the same way that a body cannot function as a series of individual organs, so we who are believers cannot fulfill our purposes as individuals, we must grow and learn and live together. I need the gifts – and weaknesses – of others; and they need mine.

If I try to remain independent of my fellow believers, I am rejecting the very ones through whom God desires to bless me, and to whom I have been called as a blessing. I must be willing to serve, but also to be served, to be vulnerable, to be incapable of doing everything. How many of us find it easy to ask for and accept help? Our pride and stubborn independence go so deep, and make it easy for the devil to undermine our fellowship as we hold ourselves apart. But when I confess my need, I create the opportunity for the Spirit to build unity as others do for me, and for the whole body, that which I cannot do. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which the Lord graciously provides for our weaknesses, showing his glory and power as the Spirit-prompted love flows from one member to another, bringing help, nourishment and healing – even as our own bodies continually work in a marvellous and complex unity.

Our life-blood as the Body of Christ is this love which we have received and which we – continually refreshed by the Holy Spirit – give to one another. Each of us is called to be ourselves, to use all that we are, for the building up of the Body, and none of us is disabled for that work. As one, we depend upon Christ, and increasingly as one, we live with one purpose and one source of strength. Whether my task in any given time is to give, or to receive, I am called to do both trusting that God is glorified through my service, and to be content with the part I play.

The glory is always there…

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked. “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha.

(2Kings 6.15-17)

Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples. For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendour and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

(Ps 96.1-6)

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white…then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

(Mark 9.2-7)

The bible narratives are full of reassuringly messy stories, showing how people have got it wrong about God for hundreds of years, and how he still chooses to be faithful to his promises, to be loving and forgiving, and above all patient with the work of his hands. He has a great plan for the realisation of a new creation – unmarred by sin, and eternally glorious – where we will be unashamed in his presence and finally free to be who he means us to be.

That purpose has been God’s aim since the beginning, and over and again he has demonstrated that he is utterly capable of fulfilling it, rock-solid trustworthy and reliable in the teeth of any and every challenge. The deliverance of Noah’s family through the flood-judgement; the gift of a miracle son to Abraham and Sarah; the astonishing miracle-soaked period of the deliverance from Egypt; the establishment of his people in the land promised to them, and their (brief)flourishing under a dynasty of godly kings. God spoke through judges and prophets, showed his power in miracles and battles, raised up leaders to cleanse the people and kept the line of promise intact through every imaginable threat. Ultimately, in virgin birth and holy life, Christ came to do the crowning work of redemption, and – as the miracles testified – God-in-man walked the hills of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. God’s credentials are unimpeachable…and yet, and yet…

All through the bible, and ever since the coming of Christ, we see the pattern of human doubt and mistrust, of chronic amnesia when it comes to the power of God to do his will, and the will of God to bless. We dictate terms to God, so that unless he shows up where we want, and in the way we choose, he has forfeited our trust in him. How utterly foolish, and ultimately self-destructive this is. It is our own peace which we forfeit when we refuse to recognise the oft-revealed truth of his power and glory and unimaginable goodness.

When Jesus took three men with him up the mountain, he was aware of all that lay ahead, and knew that this experience, this unveiling of his majesty, would be part of their preparation to be the leaders and teachers of the church – able to face the darkest days because they had seen the reality of glory which lay behind the human frame. They had seen what was always true about Christ – the glory of the Father revealed in the Son – and it was on that which their faith would be founded, not their own understanding and experience. All three would desert him before his trial, frightened and cowed by the religious and political powers. But that vision of glory remained, and in the days to come it would be embedded and become the foundation of their strength and calling.

Do I doubt God’s ability to deal with circumstances which darken my life, my community, my world? I need to ask for vision to see the glory which is always there, and be reminded that he is able to do anything he chooses. If, according to his perfect will, he chooses not to do what I desire, it is not because he cannot act, but because the ultimate goal is best served in another way, and I CAN TRUST HIM though I may never understand.

Lord have mercy on my forgetful soul, that I might remember your powerful works, above all that I might remember my complete security in Christ, from whom nothing can separate me, and in whom I am assured of your love and my eternal future.

 

He never said it would be pretty…

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt…they put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labour..but the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. ..then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every [Israelite]boy that is born you must throw into the Nile…”

(Ex 1.8,11&12,22)

In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel…Ahab..did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him..he married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him….Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him…

(1 Kings 16.29-33)

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

(Esther 3.5&6)

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you though him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross..God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact..

(Acts 2.22-23 &32)

We are easily overwhelmed by the rampant violence, evil and brokenness of the world in these days of the 21st century, and wonder just where God is in the midst of the chaos? We hear those who do not follow Jesus exclaiming that ‘if there was a God, surely He would not let such things happen!’, and struggle to know how to respond ..at least I do.

I have been helped recently through a series of sermons on some of the truly evil, powerful and apparently uncontrolled characters of the bible narrative, thinking about what their stories have to teach me – about our world and God’s plans for us. I should say at this stage that I am not setting out to give easy answers to the big questions about evil, only to share some insights which have helped me to be less afraid of the questions.

We find that from the very beginning of the great story of redemption, evil was active in humanity, and that God never claimed to be in the business of addressing every wrong at the moment it occured – or even of preventing things which appeared utterly contradictory to his promises and plan.

The bible shows that God is so far above our thoughts that we simply can’t begin to understand how love and goodness can be expressed in the ways which he chooses….how could a good and loving God permit generations of Israelites to suffer and die under brutal slavery in Egypt, and finally see a form of genocide enacted against them? How could he permit his people to be led astray by king after king, into idolatry which would bring judgement upon them? How could he permit the destruction of all he had promised, and the people’s exile under threat of extinction from the scheming Haman?

His ways are beyond our understanding, and although sometimes we receive glimpses of his working – as when Joseph speaks of God’s planning for good through his brother’s evil plot; and when Esther is made queen and therefore empowered to protect her fellow Jews – we are more often called to trust. When we demand that God be accountable to us, abiding by our definitions of love and goodness, we only demonstrate how limited is our grasp of his greatness, and how selfish our understanding of our own role in the unfolding fulfilment of his plans. We want to feel safe…he wants to make us glorious, in his coming kingdom!

We should never be surprised when things don’t work out smoothly and easily; when God’s people go through great tribulations; when death, disease and suffering of every sort appear to be afflicting increasing numbers of the world’s population. God never said that it would be beautiful in our eyes; but he did say that he would bless the whole world, every people and nation, through the one who would come from Abraham – the Christ whose life and death once for all defeated the power of evil in the lives of God’s children. That is why our good and loving God permitted the suffering and death of the only perfect man who ever lived; why the Son of God willingly entered the unimaginable darkness and pain of separation from his Father.

On the cross, we find the place where God declared his love and goodness, and evil appeared to triumph, only to be defeated by it’s own plans, as God’s infinitely greater wisdom and power overcame death and showed us that no matter what is happening, the things that really matter are safe in his keeping.

How thankful I am, that I have a God who is so much greater than all that evil can do, so much purer than I can imagine, with a love that knows that suffering is not all bad, and that the glory and eternal goodness which await are worth the fight. May I learn more and more to trust him in the darkness, and not to be surprised by evil, but to rejoice in its defeat in Christ.

Daily, hourly, moment by moment…

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.

(Gen 8.22)

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you for ever for what you have done, in your name I will hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.

(Ps 52.8&9)

It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night…For you make me glad by your deeds, O Lord: I sing for joy at the work of your hands. How great are your works, O Lord, How profound your thoughts…

(Ps 92.1,2, 4&5)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ..

(Eph 1.3)

Sometimes, it is best to keep it simple…to say thank you…

For the laws underpinning the universe which determine our planet’s course, that bring us into sunlight every day, and moonlight every night.

For the limits which are decreed so that the seas remain within their boundaries, the water flows downwards, and the winds and air move in such a way that rain falls to refresh and quicken the ground.

For the capacity of our planet to support life, to bring forth trees and plants which purify our air, feed our bodies, and clothe our lands with colour.

For the image of God within us which stirs our spirits to appreciate what we see, hear, smell, touch and taste, so that we agree with our Creator, who made it good.

For the minds we have been given, to receive understanding, to read and learn and grow in wisdom.

For the unique character in every child which has the potential to flourish and show our God to the world around.

For the bodies which operate so intricately, are balanced so delicately, can heal themselves and continue to function in spite of injury and disease.

For the gifts of friendship and of satisfying labour; for the security of family and the refreshment of leisure.

Every hour, of every day, we receive from God the gift of life, of breath, of a heart that is still beating and a mind that functions. We must not presume on these things as a right, they are incredibly fragile and we know in our hearts that we are indeed as fleeting as the grass outside our windows.

Every hour, of every day, we are being loved by God, who is longing for us to find our home more and more in him. He yearns over us, completing that work which he began when we received Christ by faith and became his beloved children.

Above all then, we give thanks for Christ.

For a sinless Saviour, who became sin for us.

For a perfect Saviour, who lived the perfect life for us.

For a risen Saviour, who died but returned, transformed, to show us that death is defeated, heaven’s plan of redemption has succeeded, and our future in God’s new kingdom is absolutely secure.

I still fall short of the holiness which God requires – but in Christ, I have achieved it. I still sin, and need to be forgiven, cleansed and set on my way with renewed joy and confidence – but in Christ, I am assured of both forgiveness and strength, and I need fear neither judgement nor failure.

This, then, is the foundation upon which my life stands – every moment of every day, month and year which the Lord has yet in store for me. No matter what happens, and especially no matter how I feel about myself, or my circumstances, these things are true.

In Christ, and in him alone, I am complete, secure, and untouchable. Alleluia, God be praised, for his marvellous gift to us!

A nourishing soil…

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked..But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.

(Ps 1.1-3)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statues of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure enduring for ever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are much more precious than gold..they are sweeter than honey..

(Ps 19.7-10)

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

(Col 3.15-17)

At a recent small group bible study, we were challenged to think just what it means for the word of Christ to “dwell richly” in us, and these thoughts are largely the fruit of that discussion. It is a phrase which I instinctively warm to, even though it takes some unpacking. This is something which I want to be true in my life, a prize which I covet..so what might it look like?

My first thought – as a gardener – was of the way in which plants either thrive or struggle in a given environment, and the difference which a little care and appropriate nourishment and attention can make to them. If we consider that the word of Christ has been planted in us – the source of our new life, and all those wonderful things celebrated in Psalm 19 – then we have a choice as to how we treat it.

Each person is unique, and each will respond more easily to certain parts of the word than others, depending on how they are made – for some reason, I find it easier to read and learn from the letters in the New Testament, than from the gospels for example. The letters readily bear fruit in my life, I connect with them easily. Does this mean that I neglect the gospels? No, it means I need to think like a gardener with a reluctant plant – I take time, I study how this particular species needs to be treated, and I approach it accordingly, confident that my actions will bear fruit. The results may not be spectacular, and this particular ‘plant’ may never come as easily and abundantly to me as the others, but I will be enriched nonetheless.

I can rejoice that God by his Holy Spirit stirs up within me an appetite for his word and a desire to be changed by it, so that I become rich in those things which matter – the Christ-likeness which is God’s purpose for me; holiness, love, discernment and courage to withstand evil and preach the gospel. The word dwells richly in my life when it is the most beautiful, the most dominant, the most desired thing I have – it is my prize because in it I find Christ and all the love of God for me.

As a singer, I especially rejoice in Paul’s suggestion that the word dwells richly in us when we sing just as much as when we speak together! I find immense blessing in singing the truths of faith, and in the way that the God-gift of music can embed the God-gift of gospel truth in my heart and mind. You may have heard people say that music ‘enriches their lives’, and surely for a follower of Jesus this is even more true, since our songs carry the word of Christ with them! Our emotions are a part of God’s making of humanity in his image, and while it is not wise to be driven by them, we are supposed to receive blessing through feelings – as we grieve over sin and rejoice in salvation; as we are eased by the beauty around us, and stirred by tunes which admirably fit the words to which they are set.

As we meet our fellow believers today, and as we live in a world which desperately needs to know our Lord, may his word be deeply embedded in us, bearing fruit and creating in us the beauty which is a faint mirror of his. May we speak and sing his truth, to his glory and the blessing of many..