It’s not about the music….

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

(Romans 12.1&2)

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him. Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness. Tremble before him, all the earth!

(1 Chron 16.28-30)

But the Lord said to Samuel,..”The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

(1 Sam.16.7)

Jesus declared,…”a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

(Jn 4.23&24)

Worship….what does it look like in my life, to really ‘worship’? I believe that to worship anything is to give honour, to defer and make that object the grounds and goal of all one’s decision-making. It is to express humble adoration, to elevate the adored object and rejoice in being in a position to serve, to dedicate all that is best in myself, to the glorifying and blessing of that which I worship. A worshipper delights to be with others who share the same faith, but is also delighted to have solitary time to contemplate and dwell with the beloved.

The worshipper who is a follower of Jesus Christ, one who is – by faith in the redeeming power of his death – privileged to enter freely into the presence of Almighty God and to call him ‘Father’; that person has the joy of giving their adoration, service and  commitment to one who is utterly worthy. We need have no doubts about our God, our King, He is splendid in his holiness; glorious in his purity; faithful in his justice; and awesome in his grace.

Is the worship – the elevation of, the service to, the humble commitment and dedication of all that I am – of this God to be expressed only when I sing? Surely not! Music may form a very small part of my worship of God – for some people it may be more significant than others – but it cannot and must not be the only way in which we think of this word. My God sees my heart, sees my thoughts, and knows my secret desires and failings. This God is not taken in by the public face I may put on at church on a Sunday, not fooled by enthusiastic singing, or particularly delighted by ecstatic emotional experiences which can arise just as readily at a concert of secular music as in a church service of praise!

He sees my heart, weighs my motives, discerns my private rebellions and those things which I refuse to surrender to his will and purpose. It is here that my true worship begins, in the willed abandonment of any claims to self-government, in deliberate aligning of my own thinking to his law and his truth. True worship, stems from the prostration of my spirit at the cross and results in a life which – in every aspect – is at his command.

I am only too well aware of the extent to which I fall short of this true worship. And I am thankful for this awareness, because it keeps me from the dangers of pride or boasting, or of judging others. I am completely dependent on his loving forgiveness, and daily grace for the small measure of obedience and worship which I am able to render. Praise him for his fathomless mercy and love towards his wayward children, whom he is tenderly leading home!

 

Worshipping God faithfully requires that I remember that I am not my own, but His; bought with a price and for a purpose. My body, intellect, emotions and will are gifts, and I am accountable to God for the use I make of them. True worship requires that I steward these resources according to His will and for His glory – pursuing holiness, selflessness, a proper appreciation of all His gifts. I must continually be asking – why am I doing this, does it glorify God, build up His church, proclaim His love and mercy?

Joyful, faithful, humble stewardship – this is my worship.

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Nowhere to hide…

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

(1Jn.1.5-7)

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

(Deut.19.16)

“The most important [command],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this:’Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

(Mark 12.29-31)

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

(1Jn1.8-2.2)

I have to confess to having a very soft spot for the apostle John, author of the gospel and widely accepted as the author of the three short letters which we find immediately preceding the book of Revelation. His approach to unfolding the mystery of the Incarnation, and the narrative of Jesus ministry is profound, and touches my heart. His writing also seems very warm and loving, and especially in these letters, gentle and coaxing. In his last years, the apostle is reaching out in earnest concern for believers who are being misled and in danger of accepting false teaching. His desire that they should know, and stand in the truth arises from his deep love for them, and it is this which speaks through everything he writes.

Perhaps the old man was speaking out of his own years of experience of seeking to follow the master whom he loved so well, and of seeing himself fail, time and again, to meet those exacting standards of perfection. We none of us like to disappoint those whom we love, and who love us, and yet as fallen creatures, this is what we do to our loving, faithful God. I know, that I am often tempted to fall into self-pity and even despair, over the ways in which I fail. Perhaps we might argue that our sins are not so bad as they might be, that we have done nothing worse than anyone else in our church and community….but Jesus clearly set a standard which none of us can claim to achieve every minute of every day.

When I consider my thoughts, deeds, motives and words in the light of the great commands, I am silent before my God. I have not loved either my God, or my neighbour as I ought. I have made excuses, blamed others for my failures, and allowed the powers and attractions of a fallen world to guide and direct my thinking and acting. May I not add to these sins by denying them, and claiming that God has lied! May I be aware of the seriousness of my situation, and not call trivial that for which God sent Jesus to die.

Rather, in tenderness of conscience, may I look ever to the cross, to the place where God’s wrath and God’s mercy met; where divine justice was satisfied by divine love poured out in the blood and broken body of the God-made-man on behalf of sinners.

Because Jesus died, I CAN have fellowship with this holy God. My sins – persistent, ugly, polluting and utterly offensive to him – are dealt with and my guilt washed away as I stand with my holy advocate before the throne of God. In Jesus holy name, I am welcomed into the presence of the light and indeed walk always in it. My persistent sinfulness is no barrier to that light – so long as I remain fully aware that it depends entirely upon my remaining in Christ.

Let me not hide away from this light, ashamed of my sins; but rather come boldly to the throne, claiming the forgiveness and cleansing which I need and which is promised. Let me rejoice in the unbounded grace which delights to give to those who delight to admit their need – not proud of the sin, but so very, very proud of the Saviour whose loving sacrifice deals with it.

In danger of drying up?!

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, to those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ: Mercy peace and love be yours in abundance…..But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life….To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen

 1, 2, 20, 21, 24 & 25)

My little corner of Scotland is into the third week of an incredible spell of early summer weather, with blue skies and high temperatures every day, and virtually no rain. This is of course a great blessing to the holiday-makers, but to those who are trying to get on with their jobs, and those trying to bring on tender plants and seeds, it is very challenging! I have been basking – there is no other word for it – in the heat, doing every outdoor job I can think of, and am out every night with the watering can, trying to keep my plants alive!

The weather has affected my powers of concentration, and I had become anxious that I had no clear idea what to write about this week, until I sat this morning with my breakfast, feeling the warmth of the day growing about me, hearing birds busy in the trees, and decided for no good reason, to have a look at the little book of Jude. God is so gracious and faithful to his children, even in their weakness, so that my distraction and lack of application has not prevented him from encouraging me from his word, and it is this which I want to share with you this week. When it seems that the word is dry, that your spirit is hardened up and no refreshing can penetrate – keep applying the water of the inspired scriptures, keep going back for more, keep putting yourself in the place where God can speak to you. Because he will….

The words that spoke to me so clearly this morning were about keeping, and being kept, perhaps you noticed them in the quote above? On the one hand, at both the beginning and end of the letter, Jude reassures his readers that they are “kept”, by one who has effectively summoned them to his presence, and who has the power to retain them there in the face of all the powers of this world which might be ranged against them. We are the beloved of the Lord, redeemed at his will, by the obedient sacrifice of the Son, and there can be absolutely no doubt of his ability and purpose to keep us safe, and more, to bring us finally and faultlessly into his eternal joy. When my heart seems dried up, and I find it hard to focus on the task of obedient living, it is so good to focus on this keeping power and purpose – because it reminds me that it is not upon my own resources and faithfulness that my salvation depends. My dear Father knows my weakness and frailty, and has made all necessary provision for my inevitable failures

The second “keep”, which is found near the end of the letter, is a different perspective, reminding Jude’s readers that they can – if they choose, and he obviously wants them to make this their preferred way of living! – be actively involved in nurturing the faith they have received. If I seek to grow in my faith – through bible study and learning from the teaching of others – and if I exercise the gift (and responsibility) of prayer, which is given me that I might take part in God’s work in the world, then I am deliberately placing myself in God’s love for me. And where else would I rather be?!

I rejoice in my safe-keeping; I rest in the strong and irreversible love of a great and awesome God who has chosen me as his child. I look forward in hope to the eternal reality which is promised – which will make this life with all its vivid glories look a pale shadow – and thank him that in his mercy towards his children, he has guaranteed our future. I confess that my love is often weak, my commitment less than whole-hearted, and give thanks that there is always a fresh start, and new opportunity to play my part in keeping in the centre of his love and his will.

May his grace and mercy stir me up to ever deeper and more whole-hearted devotion, that I might bring honour to his name, now and forever!

Never stop learning!

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

(Prov 9.9&10)

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart…Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I trust your commands…It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees…Your statutes are my heritage for ever; they are the joy of my heart. My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.

(Ps 119.33,34,66,71,111,112)

For the word of God is alive 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. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

(Heb.4.12&13)

I was greatly blessed recently by the presence in our home of two of the brightest saints I know, whose company is always a joy and encouragement, and whose zest for life and the service of their Saviour is unquenchable. It was an honour, but also a very humbling experience, to see their strength in the Lord’s service, their zeal for his glory, and their vigour. They would claim no special talents, but only boast of the wonderful God who has enabled them for a lifetime of service – on the mission field in Africa, and here in Scotland – which continues in their “retirement”, with a schedule that would leave many of us gasping.

In the course of one of our many conversations, we touched on the importance of having a “teachable spirit”, and by that we did not mean being one who pursues learning for the sake of head-knowledge, but rather the one who is always aware that they are not yet what God desires them to be, and that there is always something to learn. The verse from Proverbs puts it beautifully, showing that wisdom can ALWAYS be added to, and that those who truly seek to grow in godliness will find God willing to teach them. Those who fear the Lord, will truly make it their aim to be life-long learners, pursuing to the very end of their days a deeper understanding of his word and of how he desires us to live.

There are perhaps two distinct kinds of wisdom in view here. Firstly, that which we direct ourselves, through our choices in reading, listening and watching. As followers of Christ, we can choose to engage with the bible in a way that helps us to understand deep truth, to wrestle with moral and ethical issues in the light of its teaching, so that our witness will be informed, humble and truthful. This is where conscious choice operates, perhaps based on events around us, or on topics which have arisen in conversation or in a sermon.

The other kind of wisdom is directed by our own circumstances, or those of our loved ones, where we have little or no control over events and cannot forsee where they are taking us. When the psalmist writes that it was “good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees”, he is touching on a mysterious truth. Human beings learn faith best under adverse circumstances; our pain and suffering drive us beyond our own resources to admit that we are not in control and to cling to God for strength and aid in our extremity of need.

My visitors have known both kinds of learning, and their lives testify that they continue to seek after God’s truth both in their deliberate study of his word and also as they experience trials of many kinds. It takes humility to admit that after decades of following Christ, one still has things to learn, and that is what we meant by that phrase a “teachable spirit”. Do I have it?…

When I find myself impatient with the failings of others….Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn your patience, because you have not given up on me;

When I find myself confident in a human being, trusting in an organisation and a structure……Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn that all men are as grass, frail and fallible and none may be truly relied upon save you alone;

When I find myself despairing of my own failings…..Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn to live in the light of your promises, resting on the assurance of your putting away of all my guilt through the death of Jesus for me;

When I become proud, and independent….Lord, forgive me, bring me back to utter dependence on you and grant that I might learn to walk ever more closely with you.

Channels of blessings…

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…

(Genesis 1.31)

How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures..May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works…I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. may my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.

(Ps 104.24, 31, 33&34)

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

(1 Tim.4.4&5)

The evening sun is still high above the horizon, and its brilliance casts a path of silver onto the waves as they drive in across the bay. There is a strong breeze in my face, but I am warm in my coat and boots, and the winter bite has gone from the air. The air is full of the sounds of wind and sea; of little birds calling to one another as they forage among the stones and pools, of gulls mewing as they ride the wind and glide effortlessly high above me, of waves breaking and breaking, then hissing backwards over the shingle. I can smell and taste the salt scent of exposed seaweed and seawater, and the underlay of clean, soft west coast air. Under my fingers, the beach is not cold, but sun-warmed, the stones rounded by countless years of agitation under the waves, each one unique, from tiniest chip to weightiest boulder a creation of water and wind, every variety of colour and gentle in my hands.

Sometimes, it is as though my senses are newly wakened – often it happens after a time of illness, or in this current case a time of intense labour and anxiety. The bright light of sunshine after a cloudy morning beguiled me out to walk in the evening and the empty beach called me down off the road. I sat- I don’t know for how long – and felt myself nourished, felt tension easing and peace restored, as I literally grounded my body in the reality of creation and allowed blessing to flow in through my senses.

What joy, to be a child of this world’s creator; to know to whom we owe the immeasurable debt of gratitude for all his provision for us – that it should be so much more than the bare minimum of necessities of life, but this incredibly bountiful experience. How wonderful to know that in providing us with senses by which we can navigate and exist safely in the world, our God also provided channels through which we can receive so much pure pleasure, and feel ourselves nurtured and loved. Truly we are fearfully and wonderfully made!

In one sense, beauty and pleasure are not necessary for life…but we know that without them, we are impoverished and suffer deep in our spirits. We know that Christ came to give us life in all its fulness, a rich and fruitful life which results in thanksgiving and glory to the author of our creation, our redemption and the new life which is in us. And in that context, the gifts which we receive by our senses are as much nourishment as the food and drink which we consume. Anyone may appreciate beauty – God gave that gift to all his children – but the believer has the particular blessing of knowing to whom thanks is due, and of sharing her delight in beauty with its author. Our joys are thus multiplied and deepened, and our lives enlarged and enriched.

May I never confuse the gifts with the Giver, nor pursue their pleasure at the expense of his will; may I allow him to decide when to bless me with that occasional ecstasy of delight which sends my heart soaring in thankfulness and praise, and not make it my goal in life to repeat the experience. I can live richly from day to day on the unnumbered pleasures of normal food and drink, sights, sounds, scents and touch, if only I will notice them and appreciate them as they come. Praise God, from whom ALL blessings flow, and who has given us so many ways to receive them…

 

When there seems to be no “right” way..

Do good to your servant according to your word, O Lord. Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I believe in your commands…I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path..

(Ps 119. 65&66, 101-105)

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

(Eph 5.15-17)

I believe that since I have confessed Jesus as Lord, and since I depend solely on his death on the cross for my salvation and acceptance in God’s eyes, I am assured of my position as a beloved, redeemed and secure child of God. I have a heavenly Father who delights in me, who forgives me and bears with me, and whose plan is all for my blessing and his glory. He is at work daily, by his spirit within me, through his word and all the circumstances of my life, to cleanse and purify and also to use me to bless others. I desire with all my heart to co-operate with this work – to be a blessing, and to know myself transformed, made like Christ.

BUT…I also believe that each of us starts with our own particular temperaments, strengths and weaknesses. Things which others may struggle with, may pass me by. While things which bring me to my knees in fear or catch me unawares over and over again will not trouble my friends at all! It is so important not to judge ourselves by other people’s lives, but to try and look only to our Father for approval and acceptance. In the meantime, I am wrestling once again with an issue which has troubled me all my life…knowing (in any given situation) what is the RIGHT thing to do.

Let me make it clear. There are obviously situations in which we choose between sin and holiness, between obeying a clear command and disobeying it. I am not talking about those, because there the issue is temptation or weariness and weakness. I am concerned with how I discern what action to take, what attitude to cultivate, when the choice is between a number of equally likely or appropriate alternatives! In other words, a choice between varieties of obedience!

On the one hand, I believe in a sovereign God, who directs my life according to his perfect will – miraculously working all things together for his glory and my blessing. That should mean that I can trust him to use whatever choices I make…and yet somehow I still feel a dreadful burden of responsibility – I don’t want to be the child who goes off down dead-ends and has to be retrieved at great effort, when another choice would – with hindsight – have been better. Is it pride that underlies the whole thing? Perhaps it is, the pride that hates to make mistakes, to cause disappointment, and to put others to trouble to sort out the mess.

I remember a minister talking about “sanctified common sense”, and what he meant was that our ability to make rational and sensible decisions is just as much affected by our ongoing transformation into Christ-likeness as the rest of us. We are gifted with this sense of what is wise – an inner balance which puts ‘pros’ on one side and ‘cons’ on the other, and looks at the result. As a follower of Jesus, I should be able to trust this sense, because it is more and more informed by his word and guided by his spirit. The things which weigh in the balance will be the things which matter to him – like stewardship of my gifts, love to my neighbour, obedience to his word, serving his mission in the world.

So as I look to the next big question, the choice between equally valid options, I will be praying for that wisdom which comes from my saviour’s transforming of my mind, and for the trust that will enable me to act upon my decision without fretting that I have somehow gone wrong!! Praise God that he IS big enough, merciful and loving enough to work everything together for good, and for his patience with a dithering, over-thinking anxious child like me….

A little self-knowledge….

Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders. My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law……

Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word…..Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good….

May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word.

(Ps 119. 27-29, 36-38, 41&42)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

(Jer 17.9)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

(Matt 5.3-6)

It can be profoundly disconcerting when the word read speaks directly to the heart; when the spirit pierces our understanding, and we see a little of our own reality as God sees. I thank him that we do not see the whole, being spared that picture, which if seen would cause us to despair of living for even a few moments in a truly godly way! Thanks be to God for his mercy, in shielding us from the truth: for surely we are none of us perfect yet, and so much remains that is contrary to the beauty of holiness which we see in Christ. In our ignorance we persevere, trusting that God will reveal – in his good time – what needs to be dealt with, and accepting that there is a good deal of it!

But when it is so revealed, then what do we do? The temptation is to resist the vision, to replay in our minds all the soothing, deceitful reassurances that this world would give us, that this thing is no sin, but an understandable and justifiable line of thought or action given the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves…… Our culture cannot deal healthily with the idea of shame, of grieving that we are less worthy than we held ourselves to be, and cries loudly against it. But the word of God speaks firmly, of the standards to which we are held accountable, and the power which is given to us to live up to them in the life of the risen Christ within us by his spirit.

When I, who have so many of this world’s good things, and all the blessings of salvation and the hope of a life to come, find myself persistently anxious, petulant and discontented, then the response is not to perform more acts of love and indulgence towards myself, but to confess as sin this wrong attitude, this utter lack of real gratitude and lived trust in God. My heart is indeed deceitful when it tries to blame anyone but myself for this attitude, to copy Eve in her desire to excuse herself and put the burden of guilt on another. I am responsible before God for my attitude to the days he gives me; to the people who fill my life; for my use – or abuse – of the talents, possessions, and time he has allotted to my stewardship.

I am a flawed human being, living with other flawed human beings; and my Lord and Father knows all that is part of my lot. And he commands praise, obedience, joyful embracing of his will for my life – not on the basis of my feelings, but on the facts of his nature and acts. I have no excuse before him for failing to render these things, but oh how very easily I speak false comfort to myself and claim excuses for just that failure.

I do indeed hunger and thirst after righteousness; I long for my heart and mind to be turned effectively away from selfish desires; I grow weary of the battle for holiness, and sick at heart when I see fresh glimpses of my own deceitfulness and failures.

Thanks be to God then, who has given us full and free forgiveness in his Son, by whose death we receive life, and whose blood covers all our sins. Yes, we rightly grieve over our failures, and long for transformation; but we also have the right to claim victory over the one who taunts us with our failures, over the devil who would love nothing better than to keep us in the bitter dust of self-pity and despair.

Let us claim the promised comfort; the guaranteed inheritance; the blessed assurance of forgiveness and acceptance, so that the accuser of the brethren will depart, and we may labour on for a time in peace, with confidence that our God who began this good work in us will finish it and one day we shall rejoice in knowing ourselves perfected in Christ!