Travelling mercies and wayside glories!

By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them..and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light..

Moses said to the Lord, “…You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favour with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you…” The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here…” 

So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels.

(Ex 13.21;33.12-15;40.38)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.

(Ps 23.1-4)

There is a famous song from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical ‘Carousel’, entitled “You’ll never walk alone’, a song which tugs at the heartstrings quite unmercifully, and speaks powerfully of our desperate need of presence as we face the trials of life. Although I doubt that it was written with the Christian faith in mind, it does fit very well with the words of the psalmist, as he rejoices in the knowledge that the Lord is present at all times and in all places, even the valley of the shadow of death. As believers, we do not rely on the memories of departed friends for comfort, nor even on the actual human presence of fellow travellers, but on the promise of God himself to be with his people.

As Moses urged God to remain with the Israelites – well aware that their sin and rebellion deserved no such favour – so also we cling to God in prayer and depend on his promise to be with us always – to guide us and to bring the light which drives out fear. Ultimately, we all face life alone, since no one can live for us, or share our experience of it completely, and so unless our companion is the Lord himself, our maker and sustainer, we will be astray and vulnerable. But with him, we are fortified against whatever may come. He often uses the presence of others in our lives as a means of communicating his love, and making provision for us in our need – do you ever think of your friends as travelling mercies and wayside glories, gifts to sustain and strengthen your faith for the day ahead? They are both those things! The love of others – fellow believers and those who do not yet know him – and the gift of their friendship are among the loveliest things that the Good  Shepherd bestows on his flock.

In addition to these human gifts, we receive direct from his hand those things which he knows are best suited to our nature by way of encouragement, and the restoration of our souls. For many people, the wonder of creation in nature is a boundless source of joy and encouragement, and I know for myself that even the most desolating times have been pierced by light from God as my attention is drawn to some delicate flower or moss, the colours and textures of rock and wood, the grandeur of distant mountains and the perfectly timed appearance of a rainbow or particular bird.

We do not rely on these things, but we do well to be open to receiving them from the Shepherd’s hand, as gifts for our good, and tokens of his loving presence in the midst of whatever we are facing.

There is an old song, perhaps a little trite sounding, but precious in the deep reality of which it speaks for Jesus followers:

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me, and talks with me along life’s narrow way.

He lives, He lives, salvation to impart; you ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!

The One who loves us, the One who died for us, the One who rose to stand forever at the Father’s side to intercede for us; this is He who lives within our hearts and from whom nothing can ever part us again. Let us take care to be on the watch for his daily mercies to us, and the glories which are so lavishly bestowed along the way, so that we may be restored in our souls. We have his presence to guide us, and the light of his victorious glory to drive away our fear. We are safe in his hand and need never walk alone!

On being a dust-bather…

Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and  my hope is in you all day long..Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord. Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.

(Ps 25.4,5,7&8)

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.

(Pr 11.2)

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.

(Matt 10.8-31)

..I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 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.

(Eph 4.1-3)

The house sparrows are using my flower bed to take dust baths, an astonishing sight as the tiny birds flutter and spin in the hollows and clean their feathers of dirt and parasites. I was reminded as I watched them, of Jesus words to his followers about their value, and how God notices ‘even’ the sparrows when they fall. Little brown birds, insignificant and easy to miss, just quietly getting on with their lives in a small corner of the grand scheme of things…and their Creator sees each one. There can be some sense that we want to make a big splash with our lives, and some of us are called to such tasks. But for most, God asks us to trust Him and then to walk humbly and quietly in his presence, to get on obediently in our quiet corner of the grand scheme of God’s plan.

Am I content to be a dust-bather? Am I content to have been spared the dazzling plumage of the peacock that draws all eyes, or the power and skill of the great raptors which fill us with admiration? Will I let God’s estimate of my worth be sufficient, or do I crave recognition, praise and adulation from those around me? 

The history of the church is sadly littered with the stories of those who were entrusted with responsibility and significance, only to fall into pride and disobedience to God, disgracing themselves and doing untold harm to God’s people and their witness. Consider Saul, David, and Solomon, and more recently, the leaders of christian ministries who have found that an exalted position is not always a healthy place to be in. How we should pray for those who are gifted in leadership, who find themselves in positions of power and influence! The enemy of God’s people so often succeeds in destroying their witness through human weakness to which we are all vulnerable.

Let us give thanks if we are called rather to less public sphere; let us ask God to continually remind us of our need for a Saviour and to deliver us from false pride in anything except the cross of Christ. We seek his leading in our lives, that we might do his will – even if it seems insignificant, who knows what will be revealed in eternity about the ways that God uses us? We seek courage to bear witness to him and to own ourselves followers of Jesus, no matter at what cost. We ask God to keep us gentle with one another – remembering how Jesus bore with his disciples – and especially to keep us in prayer for those who can’t stay quietly out of the limelight, but must step out to lead. As our brothers and sisters in the Lord, we have a duty of care to pray for them, to encourage them and pray for wise counsellors who can alert them to danger. 

In all our lives, may God be honoured and Christ exalted, to the glory of his name and the building of the kingdom!

When everything else has fallen away..

O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief…The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground; he makes me dwell in darkness like those long dead. So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed.

I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Answer me quickly, O Lord, my spirit fails.

Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.

Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Rescue me from my enemies, O Lord, for I hide myself in you. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.

(Ps 143.1, 2-10)

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. about the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(Matt 27.45&46)

As followers of Jesus, we live with a continual tension between the reality of a broken, and pain-filled world, and the revelation of God’s loving purposes for his creation. This is not the place to unpack the many discussions which can arise, rather I have been considering how we can pray for one another when the crises come. To be a Christian is not a recipe for a protected, pain free existence, and anyone who tries to convince others that the gospel brings health, wealth and happiness is to be rebuked and avoided at all costs. We will face suffering, even as every human being does.

Every trial known to humanity happens to believers too – rape, abuse, violent assault, homelessness, cancer, addiction, debilitating and degenerative diseases, disability, poverty, war, earthquakes and all natural disasters. How may we pray for one another when our lives are shaken to their foundations, when all the walls collapse and in an instant, we are naked to the winds and vulnerable to utter destruction? This is intercession, the ministry of other members of Christ’s body for those who are stunned and reeling, unable to pray for themselves, possibly running away from God, certainly in great agony of spirit.  We may be called to it for hours, days or years, and we may not see the answers we hope for – our own faith may be challenged. Are we willing?

We can pray for protection of their faith – that they will continue to bring all to God, not turn away from him. He is big enough to take all our frantic furious words and his fathomless love refuses to walk away from his hurting children. We can pray that their anger will be poured out before him, so that their spirit may be preserved from the infection of bitterness and the petrifying power of resentment. The psalmists give shape to such lament, as do Job and the prophets.

We can pray for that steadying and grounding which guards against drastic and desperate action, for wisdom to hold through confusion and the turmoil of grief. The presence of compassion and practical support, of burden-sharers, and those who can advise and bring comfort by their presence. Perhaps we ourselves may have a part to play in this. How often Paul speaks in his letters of the comfort which friends brought – by their gifts and their companionship – as God’s support to him in his need.

We can pray for for freedom from paralysing fear as they contemplate a future which they hoped never to see. How many of us deliberately contemplate what life might look like if disaster struck? We don’t, we focus instead on enjoying what we have and easily forget that life can change in an instant. A beloved may walk out of the house, and out of our lives with no warning, and how shall we live without them? A diagnosis may come which shifts life into an endurance event, full of obstacles, and pain. We don’t want to anticipate these things, but they are the stuff of real and daily life. How much we need God’s help in living through those situations, in dealing with the fear of suffering, of loss, of death.

Above all, we pray for mercy from the Omnipotent on the dust-creature whom he loves, and who is at this time flat out in stunned despair and hopelessness. Tomorrow, it could be my turn, or yours. We live, day by day depending entirely on God’s providence, and by grace we cry to him as Father for his presence. We have his love, an eternal inheritance, a daily indwelling strength by his Holy Spirit, and although we may feel abandoned, we can give thanks that we are never truly alone. Because Jesus was forsaken, we are not..

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

(Matt 28.18&20)

A pleasure, and a privilege..

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in agreement with the faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him lead diligently; if it is showing mercy let him do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.

(Rom 12.6-13)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms…so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

(1 Pet 4.7-11)

Tomorrow, for the first time in many months, there will be guests in our house, sharing food around a table. A simple thing, denied to us for so long because of the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on daily life designed to restrain and defeat it. We have learned a great deal over these months about ourselves, our habits, the freedom and activities we took for granted.

It felt so good today, to be pottering about the house preparing to welcome people, thinking about the food but also looking out dishes and glasses which will be a pleasure to use, clearing a space which will be pleasant to sit in, and anticipating the conversations which will be a joy to participate in.

Offering hospitality was something in which my parents excelled, and barely a weekend passed without a gathering of folk over a meal on a Sunday after church. I appreciate only now as an adult, the work which went into this, but I know that my parents offered it as part of their service of the Lord whom they loved, and for the sake of his people. Hundreds of folk found a haven there over the years, many became friends, others passed on having been refreshed and blessed by the food and the encouragement of time with faithful believers. It was offered with no expectation of return – although my mother did love it when someone invited her round even just for a cup of tea! Rather, this was a way of using their gifts to glorify God, even as Peter directed the readers of his letter.

Another dear friend made it a habit to open her house every Friday morning for coffee to any who wished to drop in. A simple gathering, but one which over the years became for me a place of refuge, encouragement, and deep affection. This was her gift to us, a place of love and acceptance, a celebration of friendship. 

When we are willing to bless others in this way – by opening our homes to them for refreshment and conversation – we are using the gifts which God has given us, and it is a pleasure to do so. We offer out of his generosity to us, in order that they should be encouraged and give thanks to God in turn. Our privilege as those in possession of homes, food, and somewhere to sit, is to use these things for God’s glory. We can use them in reaching those who know nothing of Jesus, sharing our lives as well as our food, choosing to be available and vulnerable and involved with our neighbours. 

As the freedom to welcome others into my home is restored to me, how am I going to use it? Will I choose to offer what I can, to make the awkward conversation with the folk I should have invited a long time ago? Will I begin to make it a habit to invite people in for a meal or just a cuppa, keeping it simple but genuinely engaging and opening my life to them so that when the opportunity arises, we might speak of Jesus, of a love which passes understanding, and a hope which cannot fail? 

This I do know..

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.

(Ps 27.4-6)

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?..But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Matt 6.27,33&34)

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun..

So what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen?

(Rom 8.29-33, The Message)

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. 

(2 Cor 4.16-18)

What does it mean, to love God? Is it about feelings? Is it a continual state of joy, an endless experience of peace?

I would counter with another question…what does it mean to love another person? I think it means to seek what is best for them, whatever that may look like. Love is what prompts a parent to release their children into the world, into independence and adulthood, having spent years caring for them. Love is what prompts a spouse to go on forgiving their partner, to go on asking forgiveness, to go on trying to be more gentle, understanding, supportive – it is love which seeks to see the other thrive, whatever it takes. Love for the other is what can drive us to become better people – for their sake we tackle the weaknesses and failings which cause them so much trouble. The care-free young adult, on becoming a parent may find stores of patience, determination, and self-sacrificial commitment which transform them, all for the sake of the infant committed to their care.

So when I am tormented by the enemy of God’s people about my own feeble commitment to Jesus, when I am reminded of my ongoing sin, continued failures, the weaknesses which injure others and undermine my witness, I hold on to this thing that I know..I hold on to the truth about love…it’s not about my feelings, but about my motivation and actions. What drives me, what grieves me, what do I hunger for?

The answer to those questions is – as truthfully as I can tell it – that I long, like the psalmist, to dwell in God’s presence, to see his face and be worthy to be there with him. I remind myself that God’s own Son was willing, out of love,  to die for me – I matter that much to him, and in that death, my sin is dealt with once and for all. It cannot be used to drive me away from him, but only towards him in dependence on that full forgiveness. He knows how bitterly I grieve for my own sin, for the ways I fall short of righteousness and holiness….and he hasn’t given up on me. He knows I hunger to be more steadfast, eloquent, fruitful, Christ-like …..and he hasn’t given up on me. He knows how easily I am swayed by self-pity and general self-centredness…..and he hasn’t given up on me.

How glorious is this reassurance to all those – like me – who are making their way steadily, but full of self-doubt, along the road to our eternal home! God is going to finish what he started, and that heart-hunger to give him joy is his gift of reassurance, that I am on the right road. I may not feel joyful or victorious, powerful or holy – so what! I KNOW that God has saved and forgiven me, loves me, and is ALWAYS at work in me by his Spirit to realise the likeness of his beloved son, my saviour, Jesus.

When I want to look away..

Our Father, who is in heaven

Almighty God, creator and sustainer of all life; in whose image all humanity is made, and who desires that all might know and love you, might walk in joyful fellowship with you and with one another, hear our prayer.

As a Father you yearn over your children, from every race, tribe and tongue you call us forth to live together in peace as your family and to glorify you as each brings their own unique part to complete the whole. 

In our rebellion and pride, we long ago rejected your wisdom, your lordship, and chose what we consider right in our own eyes. And see what a price we are paying for our pride and so-called freedom…

The heart of humanity is fatally flawed, and without you, our best and highest aims become the grounds of our corruption, the motivation for the darkest deeds. Almighty God, we confess our sin afresh, and mourn for the grief which has come upon us because of sin, because of our rejection of our God.

Hallowed be your name

We are no longer motivated by your glory, but by our own. We are driven by a desire for power to make ourselves secure; to win vengeance over our neighbour for his wrongs; to be the biggest, the fastest, the wealthiest, the strongest, the most enduring. Our empires(large and small) are fed on exploitation, on corruption, on manipulation and domination, on injustice and dishonesty; they grow fat on the poverty of others, and strong through the killing, intimidating and oppression of others. 

God, we deserve your judgement, we confess the darkness in our hearts and those of our leaders, and cry for the mercy which we do not deserve. Truly, your glory and honour require our condemnation and destruction.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…

With trembling hearts, we praise and worship you because the judgement which was rightly ours has been taken by Jesus, by our perfect substitute, and even as he took that punishment on himself, so we by faith receive his perfection and are made acceptable and beloved children in your family. We rejoice to know that this, this astonishing salvation is your will for all your children, and that ultimately we shall dwell together with you in joyous harmony in a new and sinless earth. 

Your kingdom has been  inaugurated through Christ’s life, death and resurrection; and will be fully realised on his return in glory when your appointed time has come. But until then, Lord, how should we work and pray as we consider the bloody battlefield of this world?

As I write, my mind is full of the grievous and intractable situation currently prevailing between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people; images of destruction and violence; images of fear and hatred writ large on human faces; images of hopelessness and despair as the infected wound of a decades long conflict breaks out yet again. The roots of this agony are complicated beyond words, each generation inheriting the consequences of previous decisions and unable to reverse or disentangle them. The decisions taken by my own nation some hundred years ago have their part to play, I must not pretend that our hands are clean..This is not someone else’s problem, it is mine, because these people are my brothers and sisters, and who can say what I might do in their situation, under their provocation?

There are other battlefields to remember – Yemen, Eritrea, South Sudan, Syria,  Guatemala, Colombia, Myanmar, North Korea, Western China, Tibet, Chad, Niger, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Turkey, Ukraine….you could add to the list those places dearest to your heart. Not all the battles are physical, many are economic, religious and racial state-sponsored oppressions.

How do we – as those who believe that God’s kingdom has come and is coming – pray and work in these situations? We pray for God’s glory to be seen and for justice to be forthcoming; for that lasting peace which allows humanity to flourish and the gospel to be preached. We speak out to our own lawmakers and politicians, to those who can be heard on global stages, urging the respect for human rights which we cherish and which reflects the God-imprint which is in each one of us. We ask God to help us not to look away from conflict, injustice, prolonged suffering, but rather to be motivated through what we see to care enough for our fellow human beings to pray, and to act. We seek those agencies through which we might extend aid to the suffering, and justice to the persecuted, and we commit ourselves to being involved.

Almighty God, I pray today for all those in the land of Israel who acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, and in his name seek peace in their land. Give them courage to stand against injustice and violence, and help them to hold together – as ethnic Jews, Arabs and Palestinians united in Christ – so that your name might be honoured. May the witness of your people encourage all who work for a lasting and just settlement, and may it strengthen every local effort to end hostility and bring reconciliation.

Sulky exiles, or responsible citizens?

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile..:”Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce…Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

(Jer 29.4,5&7)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God…You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Matt 5.9,43-45&48)

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

(1Tim 2.1&2)

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right…..Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the King.

(1Pet 2.13,14,16&17)

As followers of Jesus, redeemed children of God, we often think of ourselves as exiles in this world, of people whose real home is not here, not in this place of darkness, pain and evil. We rightly think with joy on the prospect of a life to come, when we shall be free of sin- in our own lives as well as those of others- and when the new creation will be our glorious dwelling place, all as God intended and designed it for us.

But the words of the prophet Jeremiah to the exiled Jews in Babylon give a clear instruction for God’s people in that situation – get stuck in, be involved, care about your community, be constructive and positive and be at home there. It may not be your ‘forever’ home, but it is the place of God’s calling for this time, and his plan is that through your presence, it might be blessed. There is no distinction between seeking God’s will for their lives and seeking God’s will for the place where they are living, no need to choose which should be their  focus.

I believe that this is also a word to us in our time, uncomfortable though it is for followers of Jesus as our culture increasingly rejects him and the truth he stands for. God has placed us here for this time, with all the opportunities and abilities chosen and crafted for us by his plan to bless us and through us the communities of which we are part. Will we be enthusiastic in our place of exile? Or will we sulk and withdraw into holy huddles, bemoaning our situation and withholding our gifts and presence from those around us?

Our challenge then is to be fully invested in our communities, supportive and active, without falling into the patterns of thought and behaviour which may characterise that community. To be Jesus followers is to be peacemakers, to be those who refuse to believe the worst; who chose to respect those with whom they disagree; who choose to love, not demean their critics and who will pray for all as those created – like us- in God’s image and precious in his sight.

In this week of elections to the Scottish Parliament, the need for respect, truth-telling, love and humility are obvious. We may not always find these qualities in our politicians, but we must always pray for God to be at work through them to bring the stability of our society, the welfare and compassionate care needed by so many, the equality and protection of dignity for the weakest, and even the freedom which allows people to disagree strongly. We pray in effect, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” in our society, even through our imperfect politicians, and we play our part in supporting and respecting the institutions through which we enjoy the rule of law, the provision of public services, and the freedoms which so many in the world are denied.

I cannot do everything needful for the transformation of society, and indeed that will happen only when Jesus comes to make everything new. But in the meantime, I pray that I might learn to hear his voice and to obey his calling to live for him, and in doing so, to bless the place to which he has called me.

Continue reading

Whose church is it anyway?..

I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace..Keep watch over yourselves..Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood..

(Acts 20.24&28)

For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

(Col 1.13-20)

To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you form him who is, and who was, and who is to come…and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

(Rev 1.4-6)

It may seem an odd question, but the implications are far-reaching..

If it is the church of Jesus Christ – expressed through all the multi-faceted organisations which now exist across the globe under that single word’church’ – then I need not be too parochial in my concerns, not worried about the fact that another fellowship in my neighbourhood is experiencing a season of growth and deepening faith. Rather, I rejoice with my neighbour that the kingdom of God is growing, and the church of Christ is a living and loving presence in my community. I will resist being bound by denominational boundaries, and see only a place where Jesus is worshipped as Lord, where his people seek his face.

If it is the church of Jesus Christ – albeit expressed through human institutions of varied size and traditions – then I will be at home with my brothers and sisters wherever and however we meet, because in every case we are celebrating our membership of the family of God, and pursuing a deeper and purer relationship with our Lord Jesus. 

If it is the church of Jesus Christ, then it exists to carry out his will, to express his love to the world which needs him so badly, and to care in his name for the people to whom we are sent. As ‘church’, we exist primarily to enable one another to serve in his name, for his glory and for the saving of souls into his kingdom. 

If it is the church of Jesus Christ – and not a social club which exists to provide comfort and familiar rituals for a small group who like a particular pattern for their meeting together – then the driving force behind our gatherings is to see his face, to hear his voice; to repent together and individually of sin, to rejoice in our forgiveness, and to systematically let go of all the things which hinder us from obedience to his will.

The great voice which summoned the apostle John at the beginning of the book of Revelation gave him words to the seven churches, and in every case said: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening? What is the Spirit saying to us today? Or are we so used to our own idea of what church is about, and who it  belongs to, that we are deaf to the voice of him who died to redeem to himself a people, to call into being a church?

Am I really saying to the First and the Last, the Living One who was dead and is now alive for ever and ever, “Lord, I don’t think you are right about this, I like ‘my’ church the way it is”? 

At the very beginning, God’s chosen people decided that they knew, better than God did, just what was good for them, so they took it. What are we, as the church of Christ doing today? Will we humble ourselves, repent of our adherence to tradition, comfort and self-serving; our fondness for status and social acceptability; and ask Jesus to breathe new life into our moribund churches so that we begin to resemble our Lord and Saviour – the fearless one, the one who welcomed all comers, the one who had no time for empty rituals and salvation by merit?

Son of God, whose eyes like blazing fire see all things, uncover my false thinking about your church, and humble me to seek your face. Teach me to follow you, not my tradition; to love you, not my habits of worship; to live for your glory, not my own comfort. Spirit of the Living God, speak, and let me hear…

A too familiar path..

Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple…Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees.

(Ps 119.129&130, 131-135)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope..O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

(Ps 130.1-5, 7&8)

When Christ came as high priest…He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption…For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free…Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people… 

(Heb 9.11,12,15,27&28)

‘Let no sin rule over me’…surely this is a prayer which we could make every day for the rest of our lives as followers of Jesus, because until we are raised in glory, there will be daily tests and trials which will bring to light the deep-seated and persistent sins which can subtly and irresistibly lead us into trouble and away from the Lord.

I am particularly prone to the sin of despair, or hopelessness, and the enemy of my soul knows it well! So I should not have been surprised when I recently experienced a veritable ‘tsunami’ of thoughts and feelings about the many ways in which I have failed those whom I love best. The darkness of such experiences comes on so quickly, and is so absolute that before I realised it, I was drowning in self-pity and self-condemnation, focussed entirely on myself, on the memories of failure, and the consequences of it. I have been on this path before, far too many times, and I suspect that I will return to it again regularly in the days ahead. But perhaps it is time that I learnt to deal with the experience a little better, so that when the wave hits, I no longer crumble under its weight or get tossed and bruised in its turmoil..

When my thoughts condemn me, listing the shameful and painful memories, the psalmist exhorts me to turn to God’s word. That word which gives light, and brings understanding to the simple – even the persistently foolish and forgetful! In the word I find that with God, there is forgiveness of sin – and this is no glib brushing over, but rather a full, sacrificial payment for everything I have done, and will do yet, which is not His will. I am reminded that the Lord’s love is unfailing – which means it never runs out, nor can my persistent failure exasperate him to the point of giving up on me! This both astonishing and profoundly reassuring, when I recognise my own weakness and tendency to repeat my mistakes..

Since I am forgiven, and will be forgiven again, and again…and again; since I am loved with an unfailing love – which is patient and kind, which keeps no record of wrongs, which protects, and trusts and perseveres – I can hope! Hope for answers to prayers for mercy, for direction in daily living, for deliverance from persistent sin so that I can obey my Lord and bring him gladness.

God’s perfect love keeps no record of my sins – so when I am next accused in this way, I can remember that it is the enemy who is behind it, and can stand against him because of the perfect redemption bought by Jesus. God’s perfect love perseveres – so when I am overwhelmed by the consequences of my failures in the lives of those whom I love best, I can remember that they too are loved by God, and his power in their lives is infinitely greater than all my mistakes! Can the Almighty not accomplish all that he purposes? Who am I, that wounds which I inflict should be beyond his healing?! May God help me to recognise the foolish pride which lies behind such thinking, and to repent of it, even as I pray his mercy on those whom I have hurt.

As I face a new week, walking familiar paths, I pray with the psalmist that the Lord might make his face to shine upon me, and by that light, I will walk more steadily, humbly and obediently…

It does me good to stop..look…and give thanks

Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn – shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 98

The sun is brilliant from behind a veil of silver clouds in the west, and the stiff breeze whips colour into my face. Overhead, the gulls are riding the wind, arrogantly motionless, they soar aloft, their mewing cries joining the voices of sea and wind in exaltation. All the earth around me is indeed singing for joy to the Creator, the Lord of all things. Colours are intensified by the low sunshine, and glory sounds on every hand, from green field, deep yellow gorse, and the white-ruffled blue of the water; from the wisps of cloud scattered across the skies, and the sharp faces of mountain peaks. 

I do not worship creation…but I look, and am healed, comforted, nourished and inspired by the beauty which the Creator has put into this tiniest corner of a mind-boggling universe. I do not worship creation…but I look and wonder as all that is made gives glory to its maker by being itself – reflecting his power and expressing his greatness. I do not worship creation…but I look and am humbled, reminded of just how insignificant we are, and how resolutely we continue to dishonour our maker, to destroy his creation, and reject the very notion of his existence.

Why should the Lord of all this beauty, the power which created and sustained it, be concerned in the lives of human beings who defy, deny and destroy? Why should his right hand and his holy arm work salvation, revealing his righteousness to the nations? Why should the judge of all things choose to act in such a way that sinful humanity might be delivered from the justice which would require our destruction?

Why should God choose to set his love upon humanity, and then go to the Cross in the person of his Son so that we might know and return that love, living with him in hope here, and in fulfilled and perfect immortality? 

He loved us, because he loved us, because he loves us…

This is why my heart sings when I see the beauty all around me, from the tiniest frond of moss, to the stars lavishly scattered across the night sky. Because all these things proclaim the God who loves me..all these things are now mine to cherish as his gift to me, as his provision for me, and because when I rejoice in them, I bring delight to the heart of the giver. 

There is so much that I cannot understand, so much grief and darkness in my own life and in the world around me. But when I take time to look, to remember what creation is telling me every moment of every day, that the Creator is no distant, uncaring or arbitrary deity but a God of bounty, of beauty, of blessing who gave his Son that I might know him, I take courage for the next step of obedience. 

Sin remains, weakness persists, temptation recurs; but the Lord has done marvellous things, and salvation for all who believe, from every nation to the ends of the earth is accomplished. Friends, let us avail ourselves often of this encouragement from the beauty around us – that our Creator God, the holy and righteous judge, has done for us all that we need, so that we stand beloved in his presence, and raise our whole being in praise, in chorus with all his creation, shouting for joy before our King.

and arbitrary