Never stop learning!

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

(Prov 9.9&10)

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

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

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

(Heb.4.12&13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Channels of blessings…

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

(Genesis 1.31)

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

(Ps 104.24, 31, 33&34)

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

(1 Tim.4.4&5)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

(Eph 5.15-17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little self-knowledge….

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

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

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

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

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

(Jer 17.9)

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

(Matt 5.3-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knows me so well…

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,…

(Psalm 103.13-17)

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

(Psalm 139.1-6)

May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works – he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke. I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.

(Psalm 104.31-34)

Some people have a gift for saying, giving, or doing, just the right thing to communicate their love, encouragement, compassion and sympathy. It is a gift; we can all seek to cultivate it, but for some it comes easily! They have an instinctive understanding of those around them which allows them to see what will speak most clearly – what will convey the message most effectively. Their friend’s lives are enriched by their presence and they can make a huge difference to the weary, lonely and hurting, as well as adding to the joy of the glad in their celebrations..

And I believe that this gift is a reflection of God’s incredible ability to communicate his love to each and every one of his children, in ways which speak intimately and personally to us, bringing healing and deep contentment in his presence. He knows us, through and through, the strengths as well as the weaknesses, the darkness as well as the light; and in his love for our frailty, he delights to meet us with daily gifts – private pleasures which we can share with him.

I believe that when we learn to notice these gifts, and make a conscious effort to thank God for his goodness in each one, that he delights in us, and the total sum of our joy is much greater than if we had simply accepted the gift as our due and passed on. I want to be one of the works which my Lord rejoices in; I want to dwell and meditate on his goodness in ways which help me to live every more closely with him!

We are indeed frail creatures, only God knows how pitifully thin is the line which separates us daily from illness, danger and death. And in his wonderful compassion for his beloved children, living in a beautiful world gone badly wrong, he pours out tokens of grace upon us – new days dawn, sunsets herald night and starlight; we wake, breathing and living; we have work to do, people to care for, and beauty, might and power all around for the seeing.

I may be called to bear bitter crosses at times, but the daily gifts of love will still be there for me to receive, as nourishment, as gentle caressing touches from a Father’s hand. The hardest times are when the pain of the burden clouds the eyes and dulls the spirit, so that the gifts seem worthless, their value cannot be appropriated by our weary hearts and so we neglect to give thanks. Then indeed, the cross becomes a terrible thing, because we have cut ourselves off from the one who would bear it with us, and the only one who can truly understand our troubles.

As I labour on, bearing the appointed cross and earnestly desiring to glorify my Lord by imitating his attitude, may I continue to notice the daily gifts – the touch of a warm breeze after winter, the passing beauty of foam tossed up by the river, the chance encounters with bird and beast – fellow creatures, fearfully and wonderfully made, the pleasures of eating good food, and the smell of freshly laundered, wind-dried sheets! In giving thanks, may I encounter again the Father’s gaze of love, and hear the precious assurance of his constant presence and holding of me. How wonderful indeed, to be thus intimately known by the Lord of Lords, let me rejoice, and be glad!

And so it comes to pass…

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before him, singing with joy.

Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise.

Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

(Psalm 100)

O God of Bethel, by whose hand Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage hast all our fathers led.

Our vows, our prayers, we now present before thy throne of grace;
God of our Fathers, be the God of their succeeding race

Through each perplexing path of life our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread, and raiment fit provide.

Such blessings from Thy gracious hand our humble prayers implore;
And Thou shalt be our chosen God, and portion evermore.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), Scottish Paraphrases, 1781

The hundredth psalm is subtitled in my bible, “for giving thanks”, a serious understatement when it comes to describing that glorious outpouring, in only a few verses, of praise and trust. I grew up in the Scottish psalm singing tradition, so that the words are inextricably linked to an ancient tune, and I can’t say them, but must sing, slipping into the familiar cadences and measured, joyfully steady pace of the music. I hear the echoes of my father and mother singing alongside, in the days when we shared in the worship of God together, and am grateful over again to the church where I was raised, for giving me this heritage of music and word together.

The same is true for the paraphrase (it means a song or hymn based very closely on a particular passage, or passages of scripture, and was a key part of Scottish church singing for centuries). Again, the marriage of words and music is so deeply embedded that I cannot sing these words to any other tune, but who needs variety when the originals are so good! This hymn of total dependence on God, based on his faithfulness to those who have gone before us, is a wonderfully rich prayer for every day of our lives, and those of our loved ones.

I am using them together this week, because our family is giving thanks, and looking to the future as we celebrate our son’s engagement to marry – at an as yet unspecified date – a young woman who shares his deep faith, and commitment to living for God wherever that may take them. It is very humbling when the next generation take such significant steps, another occasion for me as mother to learn to let go, and trust that my heavenly Father knows and loves even better than I do!

I rejoice that my God is faithful through all the generations; and I am deeply thankful that my son has grown into saving faith in Christ, witnessing publicly to his Lord and committing himself to a life of pilgrimage. As a Christian parent, I am well aware that such faith is the only really important thing that one’s child needs, and also, that I have no power to impart it, but depend on God’s grace and the work of his spirit in my children. What a joy then, to see him thus affirm his faith, and to find that God has led him to a life-partner, one who can cherish and console, can exhort and comfort; and one to whom my son can devote all his powers of loving and nurturing.

Christian marriage brings many of the same challenges as the union of those with no faith, but it has one key difference – the presence of a living, loving God by whose power both partners are enabled to forgive and live with one another, and to cope with whatever challenges they might face. It is a great relief, as a parent, to be able to commit these children of my heart to the God whom they trust, knowing that He has their best interests at heart too, and will fulfill his purposes in their lives.

The pilgrimage will at times be weary; the path will often be perplexing; but in looking to God, I can pray with confidence that my succeeding race will find all their needs are met, their faith strengthened, and that God will be glorified in and through them.

Hiding in plain view?

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil..The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written:’Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,”he said,”throw yourself down. For it is written:”He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “It is also written:   ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

(Matthew 4.1-7)

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

(1 Corinthians 10.12-14)

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

(James 4.7)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the command to die to self, about the supreme example which Jesus set for us as we follow him and God transforms us into Christ-likeness. And almost immediately, I was plunged into a turmoil, a maelstrom of emotion and trouble which threatened to overwhelm me as I struggled to cling to Christ,to discern truth and solid ground on which to stand. In God’s goodness, he provided me not only with praying friends, and sufficient self-restraint not to act or speak out of my agony, but also a clear insight into the source of my troubles..

I am a target, as are all believers, for the hostile and insidious activities of that enemy who was defeated on the cross but who nonetheless remains at large – a mystery of God’s sovereignty for which we must trust him. There is a devil, and his whole powers, such as they remain, are devoted to undermining the church, the body of Christ in the world, by all and every means possible. It behoves us, as those desiring to live for Christ, to be aware of this enemy – not in an obsessive way, but alert to the possibilities of his presence.

Our culture has largely dismissed this agent of evil, and if we are not careful, we forget and fail to recognise him at work – which makes us vulnerable to his tricks. He is a master deceiver, so adroit at clothing himself in selected truths and borrowed garments that we entirely fail to unmask him, and think we are meeting a friend, a trusted adviser who has our good at heart.

We see from the temptations of Jesus, that the devil is a master at using our natural desires and needs in order to undermine our trust in and dependence on God. Of course Jesus was hungry, and he had every ‘right’ as the Son of God, to transform the barren rocks into food. But Jesus discerned that this was not the time, and resisted, trusting God to meet his hunger instead. The devil quoted scripture to Jesus, persuading him that it could only be right to prove God’s care for him – again, Jesus resisted, taking scripture on his own side as vindication.

My particular weaknesses, needs, deep hurts or anxieties which I carry through life, are my points of greatest vulnerability to these attacks by my great enemy. And if I cannot recognise his hand at work, oppressing me; or discern his tones within the voice which is counselling me to put my own needs first, because “of course that is what my loving Father would want…”,it is all too clear how easily we can be led into dangerous thoughts and actions which result in the havoc in which the devil delights.

It is surely fitting that in the Lord’s prayer, we are taught to ask to be delivered from temptation, from the hands of the evil one! But we are also assured by God’s word that in every place of temptation, there will be a way out, the possibility of obedience to God is always there, no matter how loudly our feelings may be screaming at us to follow another direction.

Thanks be to God, for his kindness in revealing the source of my troubles, for unveiling the enemy, and thanks be to Christ, in whom I have the victory. I may be a wounded soldier, but I am still on the winning side, and my captain is always ready to respond to my call for his help!