And then you take my breath away..

This world, green and blue, suspended in one of countless galaxies, so small and insignificant, yet so large as to contain the lives and ambitions of billions of people. This world, teeming with life and yet existing only because of an exquisite balance, which you uphold Lord my God; daily and hourly you decree that we should continue.

All our boasted scientific knowledge only reveals to us more about your creating genius, leaving us more to marvel at and a humbling sense of the responsibility you gave us in putting all this into our hands as your stewards. How unworthy we have proved to be of that great trust, squandering your riches; destroying your creatures; polluting the air, the water and the land.

And not only have we abused the bounty of nature, but one another too. Our failure to see that every human creature bears the imprint of a heavenly Father’s nature, reflects – however imperfectly – his character, has brought untold misery and suffering upon our race.

We are deserving of judgement and destruction – indeed, we are perhaps hastening the day by our own actions! We have rejected you, rejected the idea of ourselves as subjects, and grabbed selfishly at some pseudo-lordship of our own.

Oh God, in your holiness and utter ‘otherness’, we are so completely cut off from you, rebellion against you is in our very bones, and we cannot overcome it of our own efforts. What hope do we have?

Of ourselves….none.

And into that void, you speak.

Into our despair, our rebellion, our darkness, there came a voice, a man, who said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

And you took our rebellion, our shame and guilt, and he bore it away, so that we are free for the first time. Free from the stranglehold of sin on our lives, free to see and taste, smell and touch, hear and speak of all your goodness and love to us. 

Such love: selfless, sacrificial, soul-searing and saving.

Your love,

takes my breath away.

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Keep me hungry Lord..

I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O Lord; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.

(Psalm 119.10-16)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man or woman of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 2.15 & 3.16)

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

(Colossians 3.15-16)

I was always taught that it was important for a follower of Jesus to set aside time daily to pray and read the bible – and I suspect most of us know that it is a good habit to acquire, although we may struggle to establish it! We know in our heads that God speaks to us through the words of the old and new testaments, and that through them, we grow in our understanding of God’s plan for redemption and above all in knowledge of Christ Jesus our saviour.

But how often as human beings do we put into practice things which we know to be good for us?! It is an ongoing struggle for me to find ways to engage with the bible which do not become a rushed, cursory skimming of the text, and perhaps a slightly less rushed perusal of the commentary provided by printed or online notes.. I am almost too familiar with the bible, taking it for granted and assuming that I know enough to get by without trying too hard to improve and continually refresh my knowledge.

I do not believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to this challenge, nor even that what suits at one time of life will be appropriate at another. The single mother, caring for children and holding down a full-time job  will find it hard to make time for in-depth daily study – and her Lord knows and understands. A short dose of scripture morning and night might prove as effective and nourishing to her faith as anything more ambitious, because the Holy spirit will use that to speak to her need. Someone who learns better by hearing and seeing than by reading, will find recorded talks and short video clips stimulate their understanding, and prompt their worship and praise just as effectively as prolonged meditation on the complexities of the book of Romans!

The point is, as Paul writes to the Colossians – that the word should “dwell richly” in us, a beautiful expression which I take to mean that it ought to be treasured, to be alive in us, like a welcome presence, influencing every part of our lives. The great 119th psalm is an incredible outpouring of praise for the word, for the treasure which we have in it, and a reminder that it is only as we live by the word that we are in fellowship with God.

Paul writes to encourage the young church leader, Timothy, to work diligently at his knowledge of scripture, so that he can bless others through his teaching and life. We too, have a responsibility to one another to be as skillful in handling scripture as we can be, so that the body of Christ – the church – nurtures and comforts and grows stronger in unity as we teach one another.

When I consider my daily time of bible reading in the light of these thoughts, it is a good deal easier to motivate myself to do it! I am helping others, not just myself, and fulfilling my calling as a member of the church. Through the bible, I see Christ, and he is the end, the purpose of all my studies – to see and know and grow more like him.

May God in his mercy increase my hunger and longing to see Christ, my desire to live with and for him, so that I never grow tired of reading his word and so that it will indeed dwell richly and bear fruit in my life, and be a blessing to those around me.

 

It’s all happening..somewhere!

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”

(Acts 1.8)

“You know the saying,’Four months between planting and harvest.’ But I say , wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest. The harvesters are paid good wages, and the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life. What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike! You know the saying, ‘One plants and another harvests.’ and it’s true. I sent you to harvest where you didn’t plant; others had already done the work, and now you will get to gather the harvest.”

(John 4.35-38)

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!”

(Revelation7.9&10)

There are some passages in the bible which I find I cannot read aloud without emotion overwhelming my voice, and this little bit of Revelation is one of them. The picture of the redeemed of all the earth, rejoicing in the presence of God and praising the saving work of the Lamb, our beloved Saviour, is deeply moving, provoking a great ache for the day when I shall be one of them.

It is meant to be an encouragement to persecuted believers; John was writing to an infant church which was coming under appalling assaults, and needed to know that they were on the winning side – no matter what happened! The book as a whole can be quite bewildering, but we certainly get the message by the end – no matter how bitter the struggle, evil is defeated and nothing but glory lies ahead for the people of God as they dwell with him for ever.

The passage is also an encouragement to us in these in-between days, after Christ’s ascension and before his return in glory, to wind up time and sit in judgement upon all humankind. We are shown the end results of the great harvesting of which Jesus spoke in his time on earth – the fruits of all the labours of his people, and the work of the Spirit in transforming hearts and lives. We are called to be workers in his harvest fields, and to toil without losing heart, even when there seems so little to show for our labour. We are so often called to plant seeds, trusting that another will harvest in the future and resting in the assurance that God knows and values our obedience.

I have been encouraged for many years in this quiet labouring by hearing of fruit from other fields – through the work of mission societies around the world. The Spirit of God is at work in so many lives, in so many ways, and we can draw great courage and hope from hearing stories of unlikely conversions, underground or hidden churches, faithful servants in other lands seeing great fruit.

We are so familiar with the story of Philip and the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch  (Acts 8), that we perhaps don’t realise how profoundly miraculous it is, don’t give sufficient glory to God for his power to bring people together in just the right way! There are similar stories happening today, in Latin America, in the oppressed lands of the Middle East, and the closed lands of Asia. God is working, God is no less powerful than before, and the church is growing. Perhaps not where I live, but these stories from around the world help me to believe that even here, even now in my secular society, the Spirit is moving.

Can I encourage you, if you are not already regularly hearing from mission agencies, to make it happen? Spending time hearing about their work, hearing the stories of their workers, and above all praying  for them and their people to the Lord of the harvest, will bring you to a place of hope for your own work and witness.

May our vision of God’s great plan for our world grow ever clearer, that we might labour faithfully – whether planting or harvesting – and contentedly, in the place to which we are called. When we gather before the throne together, we will see that it was all worthwhile!

My baby!!

Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones..”Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; 

(Isaiah 49. 13&15)

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children – with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.

(Psalm 103.13-17)

When my first child was born, it was as though a whole new world of understanding and experience opened up before me – all of a sudden the miracle of the incarnation became something more profound, more deeply mysterious and moving; the burden of Jesus’ mother as she watched her son on the cross became more excruciating; and the tenderness of God towards his wayward children became even more awesome!

Now, I am launching my little one, the baby, upon her next stage of education, which means leaving home to study at university – the same institution at which my parents launched me a good many years ago!

Does this mean that because I have no one at home to look after, that somehow all this love, the mothering that has been a huge part of who I am suddenly ceases to exist?! As the apostle Paul would say – By No Means!! What it does mean is another transition in life, another change of circumstances, and another opportunity to lean hard upon my God, depending upon him and clinging on to the identity I have in him.

I believe that God created humankind in his image, and that in mothers – and by that I mean all those who nurture the lives of others, whether those to whom they gave birth or others – we see a huge part of God’s character. When we see the lengths to which a mother will go to protect, nurture and obtain what is best for her child, we see the heart of God for us. When we see the joy and delight a mother takes in watching her child, in noticing all the little details, in listening to the endless chatter, then we see the heart of God for us.

Because this is true, I believe that in God, I have one who understands fully what I am going through and will face in the days ahead, as I learn to live day-to-day without the presence of my baby. There will be times when her absence may be like an open wound – my God is a great and tender physician, he can bring the right balm and comfort to me. There will be times when I find myself questioning whether I have any purpose in life now that she is gone – my God is the lover of my soul, he delights in who I am, and has enrolled me in his great plan of redemption; he can show me that my life matters even though this chapter is closing.

His heart for me has been mirrored, however faintly, in my heart for my own children. I matter to him as they do to me; he cares that I get tired and sad, he will listen and encourage me from his own store of tender, compassionate love. He will share my joy in my children, and also my concerns for them – because they matter even more to him than to me. He will not ask me to take on a burden or task for which I am not fit – although he may show me that I am stronger than I think!

My children are the children of believing parents, they were brought before him as infants and God’s promises claimed on their behalf. If I care that they should commit their lives in faith to Jesus, how much more does my loving Father care! I have a faithful God, or rather, he has me. And I will choose to entrust my children to him – releasing them to the care of one who knew them before they were born, and who gave me the inestimable privilege of raising them to live for and with him.

My immediate task is finished, and a new relationship lies ahead. May God enable me to fulfill that faithfully, that I may be a blessing to my children, and bear witness to the steadfast love of God as my strength.

From everlasting, to everlasting, He is God, and He is good..Hallelujah!

Celebrating the ordinary

Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God..

(Ecclesiastes 5.18&19)

Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty. (The Lord) waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.

(Psalm 104. 1,13-15)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 4.6&7)

What does it take to make you realise how many gifts you receive daily from the hand of God? I know that I sit far too lightly to the bounty which is bestowed upon me constantly, and am guilty of a perverse and persistent discontent, recklessly discounting so many good things.

Perhaps you have suffered periods of illness, been confined to your bed, or to the house, even unable to move independently. Is it not the case that in the early days of your restoration to health and freedom of movement, you rejoiced in every step, every breath of fresh air? I know that has been my experience, and there is some faint memory of the depth of my gratitude for the gift of health and physical strength. But it quickly fades, and we become impatient of lingering weaknesses, or inexplicable aches and pains, choosing to focus on the negatives instead of rejoicing in the good things we have.

Perhaps you have been deprived of the company of those you love for a long period of time – due to work commitments, study arrangements, or even just the natural process by which children grow up to leave home.. How sweet it is to be reunited, to see their faces, feel their hands in ours, have their physical presence once again. And how long before their habits, their opinions, all those little things that are not quite to our liking begin to irritate us, and we long for their absence?

What fickle creatures we are, how much in this regard we fall short of the image of God in us! Our God never tires of his people – think of that for a moment…NEVER! In our most irritating moments, when we have chosen for the umpteenth time to disregard his loving care and to resent his directing of our lives – even then, he is waiting patiently for us to turn again in repentance and glad desire for a fresh start in his company along the road which he knows is best for us. We have so much to learn from him in the ways that we receive and celebrate one another – may we grow in this accepting and affirming love, willing always to see the good, and to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Not every one of God’s children has enough to eat and drink, not all have the shelter and peace they need to thrive. But if those of us who do have these things fail to give thanks and appreciate them, does that help anyone? Of course not! In fact, the more grateful we are for what we have, the more aware we are of those who do not, and the more generously we will seek ways in which we may meet those needs. The gift of contented gratitude for all we receive is not one which should anaesthatise, but rather galvanise us, into reaching out to others.

Let us give thanks for simple food, seeking to restrain our greed so that we may provide for those who hunger and thirst.

Let us give thanks for health and strength, seeking to resist self-indulgence so that we may serve others whose bodies are not so vigorous.

Let us give thanks for our gifts, no matter how insignificant they may seem, so that we recognise we too have things which our God desires to use to bless his people.

Let us give thanks for the gift of contentment, recognising that God has freed us from the prison of envy and  that our personal worth is not determined by our possessions, looks, career or anything except the priceless sacrifice of Jesus for us.

Contented people are able to serve others gladly, selflessly, sacrificially and joyfully because their worth is in Christ; their peace comes from knowing him and trusting him to do all things well.

God grant us this gift of grateful content, that we may freely give…

 

 

How true is my vision?

Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because..the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

(Exodus 40.33-35)

The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim….When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.

(1Kings 8.6,10&11)

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look”, he said,” I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”….While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed,”Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

(Acts 7.55, 56, 59&60)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

(2Corinthians 4.6)

We really have no idea just what the ‘glory’ of God is like, although the references quoted from the Old Testament suggest that it is something before which humanity quails and cannot stand. Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple sees him convicted of his sin and unworthiness to be in God’s presence, and the shepherds on the hills around Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth were terrified by the glory which shone around them.

We habitually think of glory as having some of the quality of light about it, especially the light of the sun, which obscures its source because of its brilliance and concentrated power. We quite literally cannot bear to see the sun with our naked eyes, and must wait for a reflection, or a veil, or some other device to moderate the light by which we see and by which all life is sustained.

Is the glory of God then something like this sunlight which ancient peoples worshipped as a god which gave them life? God is pure, there is no spot or imperfection in him. His justice, holiness, power and love are of scale and quality beyond our ability to see or comprehend. God is literally hidden from us by his own indescribably beautiful and holy qualities – we cannot bear to see him unveiled, because we are made of such inferior stuff, tainted and undermined by sin. Even a glimpse in a dream or vision was enough for Isaiah to proclaim that he was a doomed man, certain to perish from having been exposed to such divine power and holiness.

And yet, the bible story is one of God’s yearning to reveal himself to us, to be known by us, and to welcome us into his presence for all eternity that we might share in his glory! How is this possible?!

It is the miraculous revelation of God’s character through Jesus Christ which has allowed fallen humanity to behold the face of God and not perish on the spot. All the divine qualities of the Creator are somehow translated for us into the person of the Son, and there we can see and understand in some measure, just what our God is like. The overwhelming brilliance has been shaded for mortal eyes, so that we might not be blinded but illuminated. Our minds can grasp in their small capacity a little of the greatness of our God, and in realising just how dim our vision is, we also realise how very bright and dazzling the unclouded light must be.

God is good to his children, and in Stephen’s moment of extreme need, he received a special vision of glory, a view as it were over the heads of his persecuters of the place which was open to welcome him home. God’s work in Stephen’s mortal life was complete, he was going home to glory, to the arms of his Lord and Saviour who stood ready to receive him. Stephen had found the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus, confessing the divinity of this crucified and risen Son of Man, and pledging allegiance to him. Now Jesus stood to acknowledge his servant; to claim him and honour him in glory.

May I grow in the knowledge of the glory of God in the face – the whole person and work – of Christ, so that I may be faithful through trials, and walk humbly before my great and awesome God.

 

 

 

A new look?

With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him…But..Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy.

(Ephesians 4.17&18, 21-24)

Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

(Romans 12.2)

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will not longer live for themselves….This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

(2Corinthians 5.15&17)

No one carefully reading the letters of the apostles written to the early church, could make the mistake of thinking that Christian faith is simply a matter of being nice and having a warm, comforting feeling about life and the future.. Our faith is not a matter of instinct, habit or gut feelings; it is action, constant struggle and an endless ache for things we as yet do not see. It is a daily contest between the remnant of our sinful self – the voice that bewitchingly says we are “worth it”, when temptations come our way; that beguiles us into selfish behaviour and thought on the basis that meeting our needs is obviously the priority for our lives – and the new person we are becoming through the life we now live in Christ Jesus.

The apostles use a variety of images to help their readers – that’s us too – to understand what it means to live as believers in Jesus, as those who have been forgiven and restored to fellowship with God, who are being transformed into his likeness. One of the most striking is the idea of a garment being put off or on.

No one puts on clothes by accident; you don’t just wake up and find yourself dressed for a day in the office! It requires at the very least a routine of laundry, and a modicum of organisation to present oneself appropriately attired for the day. And this is the point for believers: we too have to be actively involved in our daily life of faith, in preparation and organisation, so that we are fit to be seen as God’s witnesses in the world.

The person who believes in Jesus, and desires to be actively growing in maturity as a believer has a job to do – God has given us the privilege of being his fellow-labourers, as he by his spirit works in us. We are given many promises, but what good are they to us if we do not – by faith – choose to act as though we believed them? It is all very good to read of the peace of God, but unless I actively strive to put off my anxiety and trust God, then peace remains only a dream.

I choose to believe that I am forgiven, to accept and rejoice in that forgiveness and therefore to put away, or cast off, any clinging and debilitating guilt.

I choose to believe that I have a purpose in God’s great plan for the world, and therefore look actively for ways in which he is already at work where I can offer myself in service, rejecting the self-pitying and discontented spirit which resents my present circumstances.

I choose to believe that God is indeed at work in me, that he will complete that work so that I shall be transformed into the Christ-version of myself which was God’s original purpose. And so I give thanks even in times of struggle, weariness and pain, trusting that he is forming treasure within me and none of it is wasted.

It is a battle..so often I am ambushed by my own thoughts and feelings, and find I have failed to put off the things which are not of Christ, but cling to them instead! I do not have that single-minded focus which keeps my eye on him – the author and perfecter of my faith – but, when I am thinking clearly, I know that God wants this focus for me too, and therefore even as I strive for it, he is strengthening my gaze.

All praise to him, who keeps us from falling, comforts and forgives us as we stumble and wander, and who provides such riches for our clothing – that we might be found arrayed in all the glorious, spotless robes of Jesus. Let’s get dressed!!