When did you last weep?

The words of Nehemiah..while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant,.. and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who… are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven..

(Nehemiah 1.1-4)

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people? Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!

(Jeremiah 8.21- 9.1)

Restore us again, O God our Saviour, and put away your displeasure towards us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. I will listen to what God the Lord will say; he promises peace to his people, his saints – but let them not return to folly. Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Love and faithfulness meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Rightousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.

(Ps 85.4-13)

I don’t know if you think of lamentation as a form of worship, but I do. When the psalmists and prophets come before God with the desperate “How long, O Lord?!”, they are worshipping the almighty God,  placing him in the position of ultimate authority, and recognising his sovereign power and will at work behind all that happened in the world around them. Their example gives us confidence to follow them in bringing to the throne of God all the things that trouble us in the world, not least the parlous state of the Church of Christ in many parts of the west.

We, like Nehemiah, should be moved to mourn as we consider the state of our part of the worldwide church – a body discredited, mocked, marginalised, torn within by division, polluted by heresy and undermined by chronic lack of confidence in the power of the revealed word of God to transform lives. Truly, our walls are torn down and our gates destroyed as if by fire, we should hang our heads in shame and horror and cry to God for mercy.

In reality, we are perhaps so used to the state of things that we have not allowed ourselves to feel, let alone express these emotions. But surely, if we take time to let God show us these realities, we ought to catch something of his grief for the condition of his people – and then our lamentation might, like Nehemiah’s, become a prayer for action, for change, and a plea for God to intervene and to use even such fragile instruments as ourselves in that mission of restoration.

We are a sinful people; the church is made up of those who have realised how broken they are, and how much they depend upon God’s mercy. So when we cry for God to intervene to restore his people, we are not claiming that we have earned or deserved his favour, but rather are reminding him – and ourselves – of our dependence upon his grace and unmerited favour. God’s glory is revealed not in the efforts of christians to build the church, but in the power which God displays in lives which he transforms, in the faithfulness which he grants to frail humankind, in the unity which he grants to fractured congregations and creates as he draws people to himself from all nations. It is for the loss of his glory that we weep when we consider our churches today; and for the restoration of his glory that we pray when we cry “How long, O Lord?”.

In our lamentations, may we not lose hope, but rather be encouraged, like Nehemiah, to ask God to use us in his plans for restoration. May we return with the psalmists to the great faithfulness which God has shown to his fickle people, trusting that the promises will yet be fulfilled, and our land will indeed yield its harvest – to his glory and for our blessing!

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..from a full heart, I sing!

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up ….He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the Lord helped us.”

(1Sam 7.12)

“I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord..”

(1Sam.1.27)

Lord, you have been our dwelling-place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God…Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days….May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendour to their children. May the favour of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.

(Ps 90.1,2,14,16&17)

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

(James 1.16&17)

Throughout the bible narrative, God calls on his people to review the ways in which he has dealt with them, acted in love towards them, rescued and provided for them – even though they couldn’t always understand the methods he used! Through the ups and downs of their lived history as the covenant people, they were to learn that God was good, that God could be trusted – no matter what happened. The repeated message is to “remember…”, and we do well to follow their example.

Our family recently celebrated the graduation of our son from university, after four years of study. It was a day full of ritual – as befits an ancient seat of learning – and joy, as all the students rejoiced together, enjoying a final few days before their paths diverge into the next stage of life. Graduation is a major rite of passage for a family, marking the end of formal education and in large measure the end of the role of parents in supporting and providing for their children. It is a time for reflection and thanksgiving, and as I watched my son beaming enthusiastically at his tutors (and their faces shining back at him), I was overwhelmed with gratitude to the God who gave us this precious charge, this child, to be raised for him.

The journey to this point has had its fair share of challenges – for one thing, he didn’t want to be born!! – and I have wept and agonised over his choices, and endured the torrid teenage years like other parents. There has been a measure of kicking over the traces, and he has his own particular palette of weaknesses – some of them mine, which is such a shame… But, but, but….God has promised, and has blessed us by fulfilling that promise while we are alive to see it, and our son professes a lively faith in the God to whom we committed him as an infant. Nothing else really matters, and I am so thankful that I can entrust my beloved child to my heavenly Father, who loves him with such a passion.

Here, I raise my Ebenezer; here I say, ‘thus far, the Lord has helped us!’; will he not continue to do so?! Let me learn from the years of child-rearing, let me remember that through it all, my God never abandoned us, never left us or broke his promises. Let me hold even more firmly to those promises as we look to the future, so that no matter what comes, I will be willing to trust God with my children.

Today, my heart is full of thankfulness, singing songs of praise to my heavenly Father, the source of all good things; today, my life is bursting with good things, and there are no clouds in the sky. When tomorrow comes, things may change, but my God never changes; and all that is permitted to touch me and mine comes within his sovereign will for us, and for his glory.

Let the possibilities of future troubles not cloud the celebrations of today; let me take in full measure, the joy and satisfaction which my Lord is pouring into my lap in so many ways. This is a time for singing the songs of fullness, of gratitude for good gifts and answered prayers; a time for storing up reasons to be thankful against the days when I am in the dark. My God will prove faithful then, and I can rest in his unchanging love and nature, come what may…

They don’t have to be perfect…

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.

(Romans 12.3-6)

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

(Col.3.23&24)

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. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.

(Eph. 1.3-8)

Some of you may know that over the last year, I have undertaken some further study – returning to academic labours after nearly 30 years – and have found the process more than a little challenging. It has been very illuminating to discover just how much latent pride in my own achievements continues to lurk – and there is no other explanation for the way I react to a less than excellent grade in my assignments. Classmates and lecturers assure me that I am doing extremely well, but for some reason, I cannot rest in “good enough” and instead fall prey to disappointment that I have failed to excel. Deep in my spirit, there is some seat of judgement which holds everything I do up to a standard of perfection, and then condemns me to the bitterness of failure when – of course – I do not reach it.

I am ashamed at this behaviour, and hope that as I progress with the course so I will also find that this inner judge is dethroned, and replaced instead by the only one whose opinion of me really matters – my heavenly father. I believe that as a follower of Jesus, it is not right for me to be so unreasonably severe on myself – to fail to show to myself the grace, acceptance and forgiveness which is so freely offered by God, the perfect one, himself. If he does not condemn me for less than perfect grades, then I must not do it for myself!! I have spent years telling my children that I love them not for how well they do, but for who they are – and does my heavenly father not love me in this way too?!

I have my own gifts, character, strengths and weaknesses; I also have my own work to do in the place to which God has called me – and I am utterly secure in his love, forgiven for all my sins and failures, everything taken carefully into account in God’s perfect plan for me, so that I am free to work hard, sin and fail, strive and achieve, all with a peaceful and cheerful heart! I DO NOT HAVE TO BE PERFECT, and I am praying that I might learn more fully what that means for daily life, so that I can be free from the bitterness of inappropriate disappointment with myself.

May God in his mercy be at work powerfully to transform my understanding, so that I might show in my life the freedom which is mine through Christ – the freedom of a daughter of the King of kings, who may hold her head high knowing that no matter how strong the feelings of being unloved, unworthy and inadequate might be, they are only feelings. The fact of my status in Christ remains, and on this I stand, amazed, overjoyed, and free…

 

Barren ground…..

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil…Other seed fell among thorns…Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop.. When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

(Matt 13.3-8&19)

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

(Ezek 37.1-3)

Jesus said..”How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

(Luke 18.23-27)

How do we maintain our hope and confidence in God when the work to which he calls us seems to bear no fruit, and when the future of our churches is so lacking in promise? Why does the God of the universe, for whom nothing is impossible, choose to withhold the blessing of the work of the spirit in the hearts and minds of men and women, convicting them of sin and bringing them to repentance and saving faith in his Son? Why does Jesus commission his followers down through the ages to go and share their faith, to make disciples, when he knew that the response, if any, would be small?

The mystery at the heart of this is well beyond the scope of this brief writing; the impenetrable operations of Almighty God in the human heart, and the ways in which we both respond to and are worked upon by his spirit. God is the bringer of new life, the only one who can release sinners from their bondage to decay – and yet we speak of a person coming to Christ, as if it were all their own initiative! It is a great paradox of faith, and one which – in the limited nature of our understanding – we must learn to accept and live with. We are called to labour with our God in the business of leading sinners home, of bringing people from darkness into light – by prayer; witness; practical loving and truth-speaking, we play our part in the miracle of new birth in Christ.

But, I return to my first questions again…how do faithful servants, desiring to obey the Lord’s command, make disciples? In our community, there is little or no interest in the gospel outside those who already come to church. People seem to believe that they have understood enough of it to set it aside as dated, irrelevant or even offensive, and they settle for their own world views and faith substitutes, quite content to pass their remaining days and the unknown of death without Christ. We, as a community of believers, are tolerated with humour and affection because we represent some quaint traditional values, and we do some useful things which other people appreciate. But by and large, we might as well be another secular society, like the golf club or sailing club – merely another interest group which occupies its own niche and does no harm.

We believe that our neighbours and friends are dry bones; that without Christ, they might as well be dead as live! We believe that the gospel offers a hope which is worth losing every good thing in this world to gain, and yet our witness is merely tolerated and then dismissed, neither preaching nor outreach have any impact.

God seems to have called us to labour in entirely barren ground; to spend ourselves in fruitless endeavours while yet retaining a lively and joyful hope and confidence in him. I don’t think it is wrong to admit that we find this extremely difficult!! We stand with Ezekiel and look at this desert of dry bones, and say with the prophet, “Lord, you alone know if these bones can live”. It is not for us to presume upon the Lord’s timing or will; but it is also not for us to despair and say that there is no hope..

May the God who brought us to this place, at this time, in his will and for his purpose, also enable and strengthen us, cheerfully to carry out such work as we can, and above all, to continue to trust in the power for salvation which is offered in Christ.

 

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.

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!