Log?..What log?

By the grace give me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you…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.

(Romans 12.3,9&10)

..And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, “Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,” when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

(Matthew 7.1-5)

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

(1Corinthians 13.4-7)

How tempting it is to use higher standards when we judge the conduct of others than when we review our own…and how very humbling when God mercifully reveals to us just what we are doing! This is the thrust of Jesus’ warning in the passage from Matthew, when he points out that all too often the very fault which we are so quick to identify in another person is present in much more significant measure in our own hearts!

The exaggerated image makes the point very clearly, laughably even – I can picture the listeners being very amused by the thought of a person with a log in their eye trying earnestly to undertake the delicate operation of removing a speck from another..How easily we overlook our own persistent sins, and criticise others, blaming them all too often for our troubles – when in fact we will answer to God for our reactions to them, as they will answer to him also for their actions. If a person is rude or deceitful, difficult to live with, proud or quick to anger, then my first reaction must be to humbly examine myself before God, asking where these things are in my life; and secondly to pray lovingly for that person, forgiving them as I have been forgiven, and seeking their good as God does.

My excuses and evasions, attempts to pass responsibility for my failures to other people, are all exposed as the sins they really are – with their roots in Eden, when Eve blamed the serpent for her disobedience. Such behaviour is far removed from the love in action to which we are called as followers of Jesus – the love which is patient and kind; which seeks the good of the beloved; which honours them above itself and delights in all that is true and of God.

Yes, the sins of others will have an impact on me, but with God’s help and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in me, I can react in a Christlike way – a way which I need not be ashamed of before God when he calls me to account. If God reacted to us in our sins, in the way that we react to one another, what hope could we have?! And we are called – and crucially enabled, by the new Christ-life pulsing in our transformed hearts – to be like God.

Peter encourages his readers in his fourth letter to “love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1Peter 4.8). He is pointing our that it is our business as followers of Jesus, to love our fellow believers – the business of dealing with each others’ sins belongs to God. Our love is not blind, but our awareness of sin in others should humble and soften our hearts, reminding us that we too are always in danger of falling – not driving us to harden our hearts and sit in judgment.

When we love like this – humbly, forgivingly, prayerfully, then our fellowship becomes a safe place in which to receive God’s exposure of our own sins – and this is crucial, since it can be a very painful experience in which we will need the loving support of others.

May we be given grace to love in this way; understanding our own need of forgiveness and vulnerability to sin, and dealing as gently as Jesus with those who – like us – have fallen.

 

Leaning hard..

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.

My enemies will retreat when I call to you for help. This I know: God is on my side!

I praise God for what he has promised; yes, I praise the Lord for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me?

(Psalm 56.8-11)

O Israel, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield. O priests, descendants of Aaron, trust the Lord! He is your helper and shield. 

All you who fear the Lord, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield.

(Psalm 115.9-11)

Do you ever find yourself wondering what exactly some familiar phrase means? This happens to me often in my life as a follower of Jesus – sometimes in the middle of a sermon – so that I want to stand up and ask the preacher to unpack the expression, explaining what is meant in hard daily life by the familiar words! If we cannot translate the phrase into meaningful action and understanding, then it is no use to us, and may even be unhelpful. The attempt to understand and grapple for myself is one of the motivations behind this weekly blog – if I can articulate it, then I have in some measure begun to make it my own and put it into practice.

“Lean on God”, is one such phrase, and I have been wrestling over recent days to work out what it means – because it sounds attractive, comforting and something I want to do very much!

Recently, I was part of a group who went out to climb a mountain, on a day when the weather was less than friendly, greatly adding to our difficulty in scaling the steep slopes and navigating the sharp ridge at the top. I walked with my poles, occasionally finding that they were in my way, but more often finding that they were giving me confidence and some measure of security as I struggled along the hillside, trying to resist the gale force winds which were continually threatening to topple me over. Here was an example of leaning in action! I was literally putting all my weight on these slim rods, trusting that they could bear it and would keep me moving safely in a very dangerous situation.

The words of Psalm 56 had struck me sometime earlier, where the writer declares that he is praising God for what has been promised – NOT what has been already received! Is this what trust is? For the follower of Jesus, we are called to look to the promises, and to put our faith in them, because we put our faith in the God who makes them.

Promises may seem slender and feeble when we are in the midst of a storm of life, and our own promises are often compromised by our circumstances. But our God is not one to break his word, and the revelation of his character in the stories of the bible encourage us to trust him – literally, to allow all that we are and treasure to be held by him, because we know that of ourselves, we cannot keep them safe.

When I am using the walking poles, they do not transport me out of danger, but enable me to move through it. When I lean hard on them, I am held up, stabilised, made stronger than I can be alone. So it is as I ‘lean on God’. My circumstances do not change; the storm rages, my emotions threaten to derail me and events to overwhelm me. But I trust in a God who is greater than these things, who has promised to be with me through all my life and to bring me safe home at last.

When I turn to this God, when I deliberately contemplate his works and praise him for who he is; then I am choosing to trust myself to him, in other words, I am leaning on him for the strength I do not have in myself. When I call to mind his promises, turning my thoughts in spite of my feelings, to consider the truths which never change, I can move(albeit slowly!) forward through the troubles and trials, always towards him, sustained by his word.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth.

Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

(Isaiah 46.3-4)

What a faithful God we have; Alleluia! and Amen.

 

Praying from the shadows

How long, o Lord, how long?

I stand here in the shadows, looking at the light of your power and might in creation; your boundless inventiveness and artistry; your generous provision for the physical needs of all that you have made and the sheer mind-blowing scale of your works. I consider the great dance of the planets in their galaxies, and am crushed by a sense of insignificance and transience. You, my God, are beyond telling great, and your works praise your name.

I stand here, in the shadows, looking at the light of your salvation in the lives of millions around the world today. I see hope restored, purpose bestowed, forgiveness received, and the beauty of Christ shining in faces of so many races, tribes and tongues. Your power to save is marvellous in my eyes, and I join with all the redeemed in worshipping you.

I sit here, in the dark shadows, considering all the ways that I fall short of perfection in Christ, the good things I have not done, and the wrong things I have said or thought or done. I take hold of the forgiveness freely offered in Christ, that blessed washing away of stain and blemish, so that even as you forget my wrongdoings, I also may not be haunted and burdened by my past. I throw myself on your mercy, and for the sake of Christ, you declare me blameless.

I sit here, in the dark shadows, looking at answers to my prayers in the lives of others, and thanking you for them. Your hand is mighty to work all things together for the good of those who love you and who trust in you. It is a mystery and a comfort, this praying, this beseeching for and sharing of all things with you, our maker and Father.

I lie here, in the cold, dark shadows, wondering if I will ever feel the warmth of the sun and see the light upon myself again. I see it on others, and know that they feel the warmth, strong and healing, life-giving and sustaining, but I do not.

You know all things Lord, you know what it is that comes between me and your light, like a moon eclipsing the sun and causing darkness to fall upon all under its shadow! You know and see the things that blot out the warmth and while I know your power and your love are undiminished, yet I cannot seem to receive their benediction.

You are almighty, all-knowing, eternally good and loving to your children. I believe this, and believing it must somehow make sense of my darkness.

You promised never to leave me alone – therefore you are with me here and now, in spite of the deadness at heart which cripples me.

You promise to hear and answer my prayers – therefore you know what I am asking and what troubles me, and are chosing to answer in ways which I cannot see or understand. I must believe that you are planning blessing for me or other people through this, and that is why I must remain in the dark.

O Lord, give your word power to comfort me in the darkness, that I may have courage to remain.

Let me see that your strength is made perfect in my weakness, that you are a real refuge and fortress to your children when they are weary and sad.

Let my words come to you from the shadows, Lord, and be swift to answer me!

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness in stead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. 

They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour.

(Isaiah 61.1-3)

Amen, Lord let it be..

 

Will you sit with me?

O God, listen to my cry! Hear my prayer! From the ends of the earth, I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed.

Lead me to the towering rock of safety, for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.

Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings!

(Psalm 60, 1-4)

Oh, why give light to those in misery, and life to those who are bitter? They long for death, and it won’t come. They search for death more eagerly than for hidden treasure. They’re filled with joy when they finally die, and rejoice when they find the grave. Why is life given to those with no future, those God has surrounded with difficulties? I cannot eat for sighing; my groans pour out like water. What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come true. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; only trouble comes.

(Job 3.20-26)

People don’t like to hear the truth sometimes…they find it upsets their own faith when fellow believers struggle and suffer for no reason. When depression or deep sadness come to faithful Christians and they walk in the dark, they may well find themselves reluctant to share what they are feeling, afraid of unsettling others and aware that no one can actually help them…

It is so much easier to be around those who are finding life positive, seeing much to be thankful for, obviously overcoming and triumphing by God’s help over the various trials they experience. Who wants to sit, like Job’s comforters(before they spoke a word!), in the dirt, in silence, weeping with him and pouring out an agony of lament? That takes courage, humility, deep love, and a deeper faith.

But is it more glorifying to God for me to pretend that all is well, when the reality is a bleak, numb hopelessness? If God is God, good and loving, holy and faithful, with our best interests at heart and a great master plan for glorifying his son in which we play a part, then my experience of darkness is not enough to undermine his power. Does the reality of my – or anyone else’s – struggle need to be hidden in order to protect his reputation?

As ever, the bible shows us the right response in the darkness. To tell it out. Tell it loud and clear. Tell it to the one who above all is concerned for my heart, who more than anyone else can understand and feel for my pain. Lament; weep and cry; leave no detail unexplored and lay the entire ugly, messy, appalling burden in the lap of God the Almighty, who although beyond our meagre understanding, is never far from us but close and tender-hearted toward us.

Can we extend this same grace to one another? Are you willing to hear a fellow believer share their experience of apparent defeat without jumping in to tell them what they should be doing about it? Will you sit and weep a while; listen to the truth of their darkness as it speaks without demanding that they focus on the light which will surely shine at some point? Will you comfort – that is to gently reassure someone that they are heard, loved, and never alone? All without judging or assuming that you have all the answers?

The time may come when you can give words of direction or even exhortation; but as a soul who knows very well how it feels to be in this darkness, may I encourage you to restrain your kind enthusiasm, and just let me know that you are with me. You may not know how I feel, but you can allow me the opportunity to feel and express it, without trying to shape my thoughts into forms which suit you.

When I am in the darkness, when I am unable to rejoice in God’s gifts and when hope is utterly gone, the best help you can give me is to pray for me; sit with me; and if you want to speak, then help me to bring everything to God. While he is my focus for lamentation, I am safe and you will have done all you can.

 

 

One Church, One Faith, One Lord!

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

(Philippians 2.1-4)

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you….May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

(John 17.20,21&23)

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!

(Psalm 133.1)

It is a very sad reflection on the chronic brokenness of human hearts that down through the ages, the church of God has been marred by ferocious divisions and internal strife. The pride and stubbornness which marked our race from Eden have fractured the body of Christ again and again down the centuries, and we read the prayer of Jesus on the night he was betrayed (John 17, quoted above), with heavy hearts, recognising what a miracle such unity would be!

No physical body experiencing the breakdown in unity which has characterised the church could have survived, it would have died long ago. The miracle is that God has sustained his church thus far, in spite of all the quarrels and battle-lines, so that although divided, she continues to grow and to bear witness, and by his grace to minister to a world in desperate need of salvation. Praise him for his power, and his patience with us!

We may not be in a position as individuals to change this situation, but we are called to pursue unity wherever we can – by modelling ourselves on Christ in his humility and servant-heart, seeking the good of others, not putting ourselves first nor insisting on our own rights. Although we may – for whatever reason – belong to a different branch of the church from our neighbour, there is no excuse for failing in love towards them, or avoiding active service alongside them for the gospel.

Paul reminds us in Philippians that we are one in Christ, and that we share fellowship by the one Holy Spirit. From that starting point, we can have the same purpose and labour together, to reach our communities with the good news of Christ, so that people may be gathered into the kingdom of God for eternity, and begin to live the values of that kingdom here and now. Indeed, such united effort is itself a witness to the love of God, and draws people out of the darkness to the light of the gospel which has caused such transformation.

Our unity in wielding the weapons of faith against the spiritual forces which keep our communities from turning to Christ encourages us in the fight, and strengthens our hope and confidence in God. Like well-trained soldiers, we know that there is safety in numbers, and that together we are so much stronger and less vulnerable to attack when there are comrades at our back!

The challenge is to be willing to labour with others, to see fruit in another field, and to be content since all the growth is to the glory of God and the increase of his kingdom. It is a human weakness to want to get all the benefit of our labours in our own particular church family – but does it really matter, in the light of eternity and of the great extent of God’s amazing plans for his church? Is it not sufficient that souls are saved, discipled and grow to mature faith somewhere?

May I be willing to work faithfully alongside believers from every part of the body of Christ, to accept that differences are not necessarily barriers, and that God is so much greater than our artificial denominational boundaries. May I accept that true growth anywhere is to the glory of God and the praise of Jesus Christ, and rejoice in it without envy or resentment even if my own church is not blessed at this time.

Tell me again..please?

Therefore, I will always remind you about these things – even though you already know them and are standing firm in the truth you have been taught. And it is only right that I should keep on reminding you as long as I live….For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendour with our own eyes….because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets.

I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Saviour commanded through your apostles.

(2 Peter 1.12,16,19 &3.2)

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the good news I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this good news that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you…I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the scriptures said.

(1 Corinthians 15. 1,3&4)

 Our world in these early years of the twenty-first century is driven by rapid change – population growth; expanding economies; transforming technologies. We in the prosperous and stable European nations enjoy an unprecedented standard of living and are swept along in the current of constant innovation which drives our economies and personal lives. Every few years, we replace appliances, cars and pieces of furniture, and obsolescence is built in to much of what we use,  we accept it cannot last for long. We are increasingly driven by novelty, the lure of the new and different. It was ever thus, humanity is easily bored, but the pace of change today is breath-taking.

Do we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking about faith in this way, as if there ought to be some innovations by now, some new and exciting insights and teaching which will render much of our tradition obsolete? Well, perhaps there is a case for arguing that much which is traditional is no longer helpful, but actually obscures the gospel, and it could therefore be set aside. But, there is a foundation of truth upon which our faith must rest if it is to have any validity at all, and that foundation remains today as it was when the apostles wrote about it two thousand years ago..

We believe in a God who became human, lived a perfect life, died the death of a sinner, and was raised to new life, ascending into heaven where all those who accept his death in their place will also be received. It can be reduced to the simplest of statements, as the children’s hymn puts it, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so..”

There is sufficient profound theology behind this truth to occupy the greatest minds; and yet it is clear enough to be understood and embraced by the youngest and simplest of us. And it does not change…this is what we believe, and without this, we are astray upon a sea of conjecture, tossed by fashionable philosophies, driven by ruthless atheists, and without any real grounds for hope. It is this truth which we need, more than anything else, to give us courage to face life, to face ourselves in all our weakness, failure and malice.

Jesus loves me – therefore I am of worth, I have value in God’s eyes and can hold my head high no matter what others say of me; Jesus loves me – and his death has dealt with all my sins, the past, present and future, I am forgiven and the burden of guilt has no weight for me: Jesus loves me – I want to live in a way that honours him and recognises that my life is no longer my own to waste; Jesus loves me – and that love is for all who will receive it, therefore I have good news to share with my world!

This old story, of Jesus and his love, is what I need to receive afresh every day of my life. It is as basic to my existence as the food I eat and the air I breathe. Without this story, I have no hope, and am at the mercy of my own sin, the wiles of the devil, and the power of evil in the world.

Praise God, in his infinite wisdom, that his great story of redemption is complete, that nothing need be added by all the cleverness of humanity to make it effective. There is no need to look for new versions of the good news of Jesus; the old story, the unchanging story, is never obsolete, always effective, and the only sure foundation of faith. Alleluia, and Amen!

Stop, look…listen!

Honour the Lord, you heavenly beings; honour the Lord for his glory and strength. Honour the Lord for the glory of his name. Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness.

The voice of the Lord echoes above the sea. The God of glory thunders. The Lord thunders over the mighty sea. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic. The voice of the Lord splits the mighty cedars; the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon’s mountains skip like a calf; he makes Mount Hermon leap like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord strikes with bolts of lightning. The voice of the Lord makes the barren wilderness quake; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks and strips the forests bare. In his temple everyone shouts, “Glory!”

The Lord rules over the floodwaters. The Lord reigns as king forever. The Lord gives his people strength. The Lord blesses them with peace.

(Psalm 29)

I don’t know if you have ever noticed how hard it can be to simply praise God, without slipping in a little request along the way? I used to attend a church where the Saturday night prayer meeting began with a time of praise. We sang a psalm and thought about it a little, then spent ten minutes or more simply praising God – absolutely no requests were made, the focus was entirely upon our God in all his aspects, and our response of worship. It was through this experience that I learned how important it is to stop my busy thoughts, to lift my eyes to the truth revealed about God, and give him his proper place.

When we spend time deliberately thinking about all we can see of God’s handiwork, and all it reveals about his power, beauty, imagination, playfulness, love and skill, we come into an attitude of profound thankfulness and also humility. The sheer scale and complexity of the created world is so far beyond our comprehension that we rightly marvel at the one who made it. When we realise how delicately everything has been balanced so that humanity can thrive, we are overwhelmed by the loving kindness which lies behind every detail.

As we focus our thoughts on God, not for what he may give us, but simply for who he is and all the wonderful and terrifying things we know of him, our perspective shifts and he takes his rightful place – on the throne of our hearts, undisputed ruler and subject of our highest loyalties and ambitions. Such adoring contemplation helps me to keep other things – principally myself – from taking that highest place in my life; and it is when God rules in human hearts that they are most fully human, we were not made to worship ourselves, but him!

This psalm demonstrates that beautifully, as the word “I” never appears, and God is referred to in every sentence. Try reading it aloud to yourself, feeling the growing thrill of wonder and worship as the psalmist heaps image upon image in order to express the power and authority of the Lord as revealed in his creation, until that wonderful response where all in the temple simply have to cry “Glory!”

And those final words are like a benediction. After so much contemplation of who God is, we turn to what he does..He rules and reigns. This God, whom we have seen is so powerful and holy and good; he it is who rules, and therefore we do right to bring all that we are and all that concerns us to him. It is his task to see that justice is done, and while we may have questions about how he chooses to do that, we can surely trust him. Our God is great enough to hold our unanswered questions and to give us peace in return, since we see his goodness and know that he must be true to himself.

How good it is to praise God, and how unutterably wonderful to have one who is entirely worthy of praise! Let us lose ourselves more often in worship of the Lord who rules and reigns forever, so that we might live by his strength and in his peace.