He never said it would be pretty…

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt…they put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labour..but the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. ..then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every [Israelite]boy that is born you must throw into the Nile…”

(Ex 1.8,11&12,22)

In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel…Ahab..did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him..he married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him….Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him…

(1 Kings 16.29-33)

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honour, he was enraged. yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

(Esther 3.5&6)

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you though him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross..God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact..

(Acts 2.22-23 &32)

We are easily overwhelmed by the rampant violence, evil and brokenness of the world in these days of the 21st century, and wonder just where God is in the midst of the chaos? We hear those who do not follow Jesus exclaiming that ‘if there was a God, surely He would not let such things happen!’, and struggle to know how to respond ..at least I do.

I have been helped recently through a series of sermons on some of the truly evil, powerful and apparently uncontrolled characters of the bible narrative, thinking about what their stories have to teach me – about our world and God’s plans for us. I should say at this stage that I am not setting out to give easy answers to the big questions about evil, only to share some insights which have helped me to be less afraid of the questions.

We find that from the very beginning of the great story of redemption, evil was active in humanity, and that God never claimed to be in the business of addressing every wrong at the moment it occured – or even of preventing things which appeared utterly contradictory to his promises and plan.

The bible shows that God is so far above our thoughts that we simply can’t begin to understand how love and goodness can be expressed in the ways which he chooses….how could a good and loving God permit generations of Israelites to suffer and die under brutal slavery in Egypt, and finally see a form of genocide enacted against them? How could he permit his people to be led astray by king after king, into idolatry which would bring judgement upon them? How could he permit the destruction of all he had promised, and the people’s exile under threat of extinction from the scheming Haman?

His ways are beyond our understanding, and although sometimes we receive glimpses of his working – as when Joseph speaks of God’s planning for good through his brother’s evil plot; and when Esther is made queen and therefore empowered to protect her fellow Jews – we are more often called to trust. When we demand that God be accountable to us, abiding by our definitions of love and goodness, we only demonstrate how limited is our grasp of his greatness, and how selfish our understanding of our own role in the unfolding fulfilment of his plans. We want to feel safe…he wants to make us glorious, in his coming kingdom!

We should never be surprised when things don’t work out smoothly and easily; when God’s people go through great tribulations; when death, disease and suffering of every sort appear to be afflicting increasing numbers of the world’s population. God never said that it would be beautiful in our eyes; but he did say that he would bless the whole world, every people and nation, through the one who would come from Abraham – the Christ whose life and death once for all defeated the power of evil in the lives of God’s children. That is why our good and loving God permitted the suffering and death of the only perfect man who ever lived; why the Son of God willingly entered the unimaginable darkness and pain of separation from his Father.

On the cross, we find the place where God declared his love and goodness, and evil appeared to triumph, only to be defeated by it’s own plans, as God’s infinitely greater wisdom and power overcame death and showed us that no matter what is happening, the things that really matter are safe in his keeping.

How thankful I am, that I have a God who is so much greater than all that evil can do, so much purer than I can imagine, with a love that knows that suffering is not all bad, and that the glory and eternal goodness which await are worth the fight. May I learn more and more to trust him in the darkness, and not to be surprised by evil, but to rejoice in its defeat in Christ.

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Daily, hourly, moment by moment…

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.

(Gen 8.22)

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you for ever for what you have done, in your name I will hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.

(Ps 52.8&9)

It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night…For you make me glad by your deeds, O Lord: I sing for joy at the work of your hands. How great are your works, O Lord, How profound your thoughts…

(Ps 92.1,2, 4&5)

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..

(Eph 1.3)

Sometimes, it is best to keep it simple…to say thank you…

For the laws underpinning the universe which determine our planet’s course, that bring us into sunlight every day, and moonlight every night.

For the limits which are decreed so that the seas remain within their boundaries, the water flows downwards, and the winds and air move in such a way that rain falls to refresh and quicken the ground.

For the capacity of our planet to support life, to bring forth trees and plants which purify our air, feed our bodies, and clothe our lands with colour.

For the image of God within us which stirs our spirits to appreciate what we see, hear, smell, touch and taste, so that we agree with our Creator, who made it good.

For the minds we have been given, to receive understanding, to read and learn and grow in wisdom.

For the unique character in every child which has the potential to flourish and show our God to the world around.

For the bodies which operate so intricately, are balanced so delicately, can heal themselves and continue to function in spite of injury and disease.

For the gifts of friendship and of satisfying labour; for the security of family and the refreshment of leisure.

Every hour, of every day, we receive from God the gift of life, of breath, of a heart that is still beating and a mind that functions. We must not presume on these things as a right, they are incredibly fragile and we know in our hearts that we are indeed as fleeting as the grass outside our windows.

Every hour, of every day, we are being loved by God, who is longing for us to find our home more and more in him. He yearns over us, completing that work which he began when we received Christ by faith and became his beloved children.

Above all then, we give thanks for Christ.

For a sinless Saviour, who became sin for us.

For a perfect Saviour, who lived the perfect life for us.

For a risen Saviour, who died but returned, transformed, to show us that death is defeated, heaven’s plan of redemption has succeeded, and our future in God’s new kingdom is absolutely secure.

I still fall short of the holiness which God requires – but in Christ, I have achieved it. I still sin, and need to be forgiven, cleansed and set on my way with renewed joy and confidence – but in Christ, I am assured of both forgiveness and strength, and I need fear neither judgement nor failure.

This, then, is the foundation upon which my life stands – every moment of every day, month and year which the Lord has yet in store for me. No matter what happens, and especially no matter how I feel about myself, or my circumstances, these things are true.

In Christ, and in him alone, I am complete, secure, and untouchable. Alleluia, God be praised, for his marvellous gift to us!

A nourishing soil…

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked..But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.

(Ps 1.1-3)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statues of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure enduring for ever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are much more precious than gold..they are sweeter than honey..

(Ps 19.7-10)

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.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

(Col 3.15-17)

At a recent small group bible study, we were challenged to think just what it means for the word of Christ to “dwell richly” in us, and these thoughts are largely the fruit of that discussion. It is a phrase which I instinctively warm to, even though it takes some unpacking. This is something which I want to be true in my life, a prize which I covet..so what might it look like?

My first thought – as a gardener – was of the way in which plants either thrive or struggle in a given environment, and the difference which a little care and appropriate nourishment and attention can make to them. If we consider that the word of Christ has been planted in us – the source of our new life, and all those wonderful things celebrated in Psalm 19 – then we have a choice as to how we treat it.

Each person is unique, and each will respond more easily to certain parts of the word than others, depending on how they are made – for some reason, I find it easier to read and learn from the letters in the New Testament, than from the gospels for example. The letters readily bear fruit in my life, I connect with them easily. Does this mean that I neglect the gospels? No, it means I need to think like a gardener with a reluctant plant – I take time, I study how this particular species needs to be treated, and I approach it accordingly, confident that my actions will bear fruit. The results may not be spectacular, and this particular ‘plant’ may never come as easily and abundantly to me as the others, but I will be enriched nonetheless.

I can rejoice that God by his Holy Spirit stirs up within me an appetite for his word and a desire to be changed by it, so that I become rich in those things which matter – the Christ-likeness which is God’s purpose for me; holiness, love, discernment and courage to withstand evil and preach the gospel. The word dwells richly in my life when it is the most beautiful, the most dominant, the most desired thing I have – it is my prize because in it I find Christ and all the love of God for me.

As a singer, I especially rejoice in Paul’s suggestion that the word dwells richly in us when we sing just as much as when we speak together! I find immense blessing in singing the truths of faith, and in the way that the God-gift of music can embed the God-gift of gospel truth in my heart and mind. You may have heard people say that music ‘enriches their lives’, and surely for a follower of Jesus this is even more true, since our songs carry the word of Christ with them! Our emotions are a part of God’s making of humanity in his image, and while it is not wise to be driven by them, we are supposed to receive blessing through feelings – as we grieve over sin and rejoice in salvation; as we are eased by the beauty around us, and stirred by tunes which admirably fit the words to which they are set.

As we meet our fellow believers today, and as we live in a world which desperately needs to know our Lord, may his word be deeply embedded in us, bearing fruit and creating in us the beauty which is a faint mirror of his. May we speak and sing his truth, to his glory and the blessing of many..

Fighting the wrong battles?

 

The Lord said to Samuel, “..fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king….Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power….David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran. Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines…

(1 Sam 16.1, 12&13: 17.45&46,51&52)

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me….Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. “

(Matt 10.21&22, 34)

Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” and they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I told you that I am he, ” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.”…

(John 18.7&8)

As a parent, and friend I have often found myself choosing which ‘battles’ to fight, having to decide whether there is something worth fighting for, and whether I am the person to do the job. I believe that in our lives as followers of Jesus it is easy to get these decisions wrong, and end up at best wasting my energy, and at worst, getting into a dreadful state of despair and exhaustion!

In both the old testament story of David, the boy warrior (but also the anointed King and God-appointed leader and representative of his people), and the salvation narrative of Jesus death on the cross, we see one person stepping out on behalf of others who are unable to fight this particular battle for themselves. In both cases, God has called this one person to the task, and particularly equipped them for it. The role of the rest is to stand back, to let God’s warrior take up his weapon and then to follow after, pursuing a defeated enemy in order to establish the rule of the rightful king.

We are not meant to learn from the tale of David that we too may be giant killers – the whole point is that only God’s anointed one could do that! Our job is to recognise that the great foe has been defeated, and our enemies are in retreat – we are on the winning side and nothing can change that, even if we lose our own lives in the smaller conflicts that follow.

Jesus rebuked his own followers when they struck out against the soldiers who had come to arrest him – this battle was not theirs, and indeed, he spoke strongly and clearly to ensure that they were not taken captive, but left free to observe, to wait, and in due time to take up their role of pursuing a defeated enemy by spreading the good news about the risen and victorious Christ. We may be up against strongholds, where the powers of evil appear untouchable, but the truth is that nothing can withstand the power of the God whom we serve, and he has promised to build his church, for eternity.

The message which we proclaim is of peace with God, through the atoning death of Christ – but as Jesus himself said, that message itself brings bitter division and hostility, as the pride of the human heart rebels against the truth and will have none of it. This is why followers of Jesus have throughout the centuries been accused of stirring up trouble – the truth we witness to is indeed a stumbling block to many; an offence beyond bearing. And yet that gospel is our weapon, the only one we have in our pursuit of the defeated foe. Truly, God’s ‘foolishness’ is greater than human wisdom!

May God grant us wisdom, that we do not find ourselves fighting for our salvation when it has been won for us; may we discern the strongholds which are our job and be given the faith and confidence to go up against them in the name of our victorious Jesus. We have been given peace with God through Christ, may we recognise when the Devil is trying to steal it (loading us with guilt, low self-esteem, the endless to-do lists), resisting him in the name of Jesus. We will face opposition, and pain, but through it all, may the love of Christ be seen in us, so that even those who are appalled by our message might be unable to dismiss it.

 

Reality check..

Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it only leads to evil.

(Ps 37.3-8)

Jesus said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

(Luke 9.22-26)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things…Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord..It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

(Col 3.1&2, 23&24)

It is terribly easy to fall into the habit of selective reading of scripture, picking out those passages which make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves, and losing sight of fundamental truths which present a challenge to our thinking and acting.

Psalm 37 makes us feel good; we think about how God will give us our heart’s desires, and vindicate our good name, and it is reassuring! And then, the Holy Spirit prompts a recollection that this would have been one of Jesus own songs, one of his prayers too…..what did it look like for this to be fulfilled for him? He was the only perfect human being who ever lived, and therefore surely his cause was righteous, his desires were fulfilled and his way vindicated by God?

Our Lord delighted in God the Father, we read so many times of his prioritising time alone to pray and of his speaking of his love and obedience to God. And what did God give Christ? Hardship, foolish and faithless followers, persecution, injustice and finally an agonising, humiliating death. Jesus committed his way to God the Father, from his earliest days he sought to be about his Father’s business and publicly declared that everything he said and did was as directed by God. And his righteousness was despised, his name was blackened, and he was condemned as a criminal.

He was still before his accusers, he waited patiently through the agony of crucifixion to accomplish his allotted task, to achieve his desired end; he refrained from anger, and prayed forgiveness for his persecuters. His road to glorious and absolute victory led through what looked like abject failure and defeat…and he calls me, he calls you to follow him.

Our victory is assured in Christ, we cannot fall out of God’s loving grasp; but even as we will share in his future glory, so we are called now to share in his path of obedient self-denial and submission. God calls me to follow Jesus in doing the hard things, the painful things, the lonely, secret and insignificant things which are involved in dying to myself – a sacrifice which is for God’s eyes only, not to make a public performance or to win human praise.

My heart’s desire may truly be for the glory of God and the building of his kingdom, but am I really prepared for what that will mean in my own life? Being a follower of Jesus is not meant to be easy, smooth and comfortable – his path was none of those things! All those things which self clings to as its right – health, security, family and a good name – are disposable in the will of God, and I must hold them lightly, ready to yield them up if necessary with an obedient and willing spirit.

May God in his grace grant me his strength to do the work of dying to myself, that I might live for Christ; may the vision of the glorious and risen One draw me on steadily through my own path of self-denial, keeping me steady and full of hope that even as I share his sufferings, so also I will share in his glory.

 

What am I..?

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy one of Israel, your Saviour…you are precious and honoured in my sight, and ..I love you..

(Isa 43.1-4)

Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his, we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

(Ps 100.3)

Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s…For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 

(Ps 103.2-5&11)

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

(1Jn 3.1)

I have written before about my personal temperament, about the strong inclination towards pessimism and negativity which colours so much of my reaction to daily life. I rejoice that God, through his power at work in my life, is transforming this as well as every other part of me, and that one day, I will be free of that shadow. By his grace, I can choose to see good in others, to love them in the way that God loves them, and can encourage them to believe in God’s love and care for them and to persevere with confidence and hope. I can be positive for other people, and I enjoy doing it – truly we are greatly blessed when with God’s help we deliberately set out to bless others!

But… it is somehow much harder to extend this same grace to myself, and to use my words positively and helpfully in that personal soul-talk which is part of our christian discipline. What do I say to my soul when the day’s plans don’t work out as I hoped; or when I don’t come up to my own expectations in living for Jesus? What is the pattern of my thoughts as I get on with the business of daily life, the messiness of relationships and the uncertainties that are our lot as human beings?

I am so thankful that God has shown me so clearly in the bible just what he thinks of us, of me, as his child. For a start, there is that astonishing word itself ‘child’ – I, this little person in this small village, am the beloved daughter of the King of Kings, and heir to all the promised inheritance of heaven. This is nothing to do with how I think, act or react; it is a statement of fact, grounded in my salvation in Jesus, and utterly secure.

I AM, God’s delight and joy as his precious and honoured little one.

I AM one of his flock, the object of his personal attention and provision. All the details of my life are of concern to my shepherd, and He is able to work all things together for my good – whether I see it or not, I can trust him absolutely.

I AM completely forgiven of all my sins – past, present and future – as I depend upon Christ’s sacrifice, which means that I have no fear of being cut off from God and need bear no guilt. I may repent, and do grieve for ongoing sin, but that need not be a burden that weighs me down and binds me in despair, because God has declared me blameless in his sight.

I AM the way He always intended me to be – for His glory and the blessing of his people. I may not see the reasons, or the blessings, but I can trust Him to use both my weaknesses and my strengths according to His will.

Lord God, beloved and mighty Father, thank you that I can trust you to be at work in me for good. As I speak to myself, I pray that I might not condemn where you have forgiven; that I might be content where you have provided; that I might bring failure and weakness to you in perpetual confidence and hope, not in self-recrimination and paralysing despair. By your Holy Spirit’s continually refreshing power, cleanse my mind of lies, and fill me with the truth which you have declared about who I am, so that I may learn to live in the freedom of the forgiven, restored and beloved child, with nothing to prove and no reason to fear. Destroy all the remnant of pride which causes me to resist these truths and let my life be a beautiful testament to your amazing grace..

 

I believe…

The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies above can compare with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him…Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.

(Ps 89.5-7&14&15)

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no-one deceives you…when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines..

(Mark 13. 5,7&8)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them…Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.

(Rom 1.18,19&28-32)

I believe in the wickedness and depravity of the human heart….in greed, selfishness, malice, violence, pride, callousness and hatred.

I believe in the brokenness of the physical world..the cruelty of nature, the destructive powers of fire, wind, earth and water.

I believe in the powers of evil, ranked in implacable opposition to Almighty God, willing to use and abuse every beautiful part of his creation against him in order to thwart his purposes.

I find it easy to believe in these things, because I live with human beings – and more pertinently, I am human. I find within myself the seeds of all those appalling fruits which Paul lists in his letter to the Romans. The human heart is fatally flawed, and it makes no sense to me to advocate education, meditation, mediation or any other kind of self-help as a means of dealing with that flaw. Our brokenness goes so deep that we cannot make ourselves whole again.

I live in a physical world which demonstrates great cruelty, where disease, and death, neglect and violence rule. Not all the troubles that we see are the result of human exploitation and abuse of God’s good gifts, but rather come from within creation itself. This wonderful world, this incredible universe and the galaxies beyond, all somehow warped and stained and not what they could and should be.

And so I believe in the evil with which our race chose to align itself when we rebelled against God as King and Lord, and deluded ourselves into thinking that we knew better, that we couldn’t trust our Creator to be good. We fell straight into slavery to that darkness, within our hearts and in the world around us, powerless now to break free, and often blind to the reality of our chains.

We live today under judgement – our plight is the result of our own choices down the generations – and still we refuse to recognise the truth about ourselves, about our slavery to sin, and the reality of our desperate need for God’s salvation.

When I consider the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I believe in the reality of God’s love and of his plan to save us and make all things new. If any other way had been possible, then the Son of God would not have died. But he did, and in the mystery of mercy and justice meeting at the cross, he achieved our complete rescue from evil, and offered freedom to the slaves.

I believe in the hand of God to gather all things together in his perfect time, to keep his  people through turmoil of every kind as the end draws near, and to deliver us into the new creation when Christ returns in glory and every knee – willing or reluctant – bows before him as Lord.

I do not understand why so much agony must be endured as we await his coming; why famine, war, abuse and neglect, slavery and exploitation, genocide and terror continue to afflict so many. But I believe in a God who is great and good beyond my puny comprehension, and with his help, I will trust and persevere.

I accept with humble joy his daily gifts of love and beauty, I worship him in his power and majesty, and I pray for his will to be done and his kingdom come.