Monthly Archives: January 2015

The sweetest thing

If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.

Psalm 37 v 23&24

These words were written by David, the shepherd boy, giant killer, outlaw, singer-songwriter, king, adulterer, schemer and thief: the man whose wonderful songs reflect every aspect of his rich and varied life. He is one of the great characters portrayed in the bible narrative, and although it can be tempting to focus on his good qualities, we are never allowed to forget his faults. The hero of his story is not David himself, but the God whom he worshipped, trusted, disobeyed and before whom he often had to repent and confess his sins.

Why is his story given to us, along with many other records of the rulers of Israel and Judah over the years? What can we learn from their histories for our lives in faith in the 21st century, where kings are largely powerless, and it is money, politics, sport and show-business which provide our major influential figures? I believe that the verses quoted from the psalm give us one insight into the lessons to be learned – that while they may stumble into sin, the man or woman whose heart is right with God will not fall and be lost. The records of the kings of Israel and Judah are full of phrases like this:

‘ Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life’ and, ‘ but Omri did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him’. (1 Kings 15v14; 16v25)

Their stories are a record of how fallible human beings have always lived – making mistakes, having good intentions yet failing to completely carry them out, but always on the basis of a fundamental attitude of the heart. Either they have rejected God’s authority over them – in the case of many of the kings, they deliberately adopt other gods- or else they are seeking to follow the ways which God had revealed to the nation, putting themselves as well as their people under the rule of God. These stories encourage me to be compassionate towards those in authority, remembering that they are no more able to rule perfectly than David or Solomon could. Even the wisest, most talented politician or business leader will not always get it right; and while I should pray for them to remain close to God, to submit to his authority in their lives and use their power for the good of others, I must allow them to fail, as I do! The ultimate hero of all our stories is God, and no human being can bear the weight of such a responsibility.

We can also take great personal comfort from these records, because the hero, the God who was rejected and disobeyed so often, is also our God. He demonstrated his love over and over to these flawed servants, and it is that faithfulness which is celebrated in our Psalm. David was well aware of his own weakness and knew quite well that in all his sin, it was God who hurt most deeply. But rather than dwelling morosely on his failure, and hiding in despair, he cries out his repentance, affirming his faith in God and delighting in the grace which pours out forgiveness and restoration in abundance. How should we not be filled with praise for this God who looks upon the earnest heart of his child, and quietly puts away the things done amiss!

I find sweet comfort in this truth, that although I will spend the rest of this life in a process of transformation, never entirely free of sin, yet my Father God has provided complete forgiveness through Jesus, and I need not carry the weight of that failure. If I choose to focus on what Christ has done well, instead of what I have done badly, then I am able to rejoice even after failure. His grace is such that every moment of every day is a fresh start, and I am free to live and love and delight in him. The following words by the great Charles Wesley are a prayer of response to this amazing grace, and a fitting conclusion. May they be our prayer this week.

O for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free;

A heart that always feels Thy blood so freely shed for me.

A heart resigned, submissive meek, my great redeemer’s throne,

where only Christ is heard to speak, where Jesus reigns alone.

A humble, lowly, contrite heart, believing, true and clean,

which neither life not death can part from Him that dwells within.

A heart in every thought renewed and full of love divine,

Perfect and right and pure and good: a copy, Lord, of thine.

Thy  nature, gracious Lord, impart, come quickly from above;

Write thy new name upon my heart, thy new best name of love.

Advertisements

The quiet days

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

(1 Thessalonians, 4 v 11 & 12)

 Ambition? Those who have known me long and well will assure you that I never had any, and they will be right. This little verse from Thessalonians might have been written for me, as Paul encourages the believers in that church to be diligent, to be content with what they have and to let their quiet daily faithfulness speak of their faith and the God whom they trust. I love days when there are tasks to be done, but no pressing deadlines, so that I can be fully conscious of what occupies my mind and hands, not thinking ahead all the time to the next job and wishing it was all over! I can take no credit for this desire for quietness, it is natural to me, a gift for which I am deeply grateful to my maker. But Paul is advising the Thessalonians to adopt this attitude even if it does not come naturally to them, why?

I wonder if there is a connection to the teaching of Jesus here, to the many times when the disciples grieved his spirit by their competition for the place of honour, whether on earth or in his coming kingdom. In every account of Jesus life, we find him turning their understanding of status and honour upside down. Time and again, they are told that in God’s eyes, greatness is nothing to do with social standing, wealth, race, gender or age. Jesus welcomed the children, honoured the disregarded women, engaged with the foreigners, commended and comforted the repentant sinners and infuriated the elite of the religious establishment by denying that they had any authority or special status. Towards the end of the gospels, each one in turn makes a clear statement about this issue, these words are from Matthew 23 v 11&12.

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

A servant, one who seeks only the pleasure and approval of the master, and is content to do any appointed task for no other reward. That attitude requires the death of pride, of self- regard, of the spirit which claims authority over my own life and rejects God’s claim on me. If I am to be such a servant, to be ambitious to live a quiet life, then I must die to that self which seeks the approval of my peers in order to be satisfied, which looks for material prosperity, or security as a sign of my personal worth.

We have the example of Christ in this, as Paul reminds us in his words to the Philippian church :-

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2 v 5-7)

Perhaps this is why Paul stresses the ambition for a quiet life, because it indicates that pride has been conquered in a believer’s life, that they are growing more and more like Christ, and His life in them is shining more clearly. This work of being made Christ-like is one which lasts all our lives, and which will not be complete until He returns in glory and raises us to new life. But we can take courage and hope that the work continues, and can rejoice when we are able to see signs that it is progressing. For me, the quiet days are such opportunities, when I find myself content with small and private service of others, prayers and works of love which only God sees, domestic chores which will need done again very soon, noticing of small tokens of grace and goodness and rendering thanks to the giver.

May we learn more and more to be content with the tasks appointed, seeking only our Lord’s approval, and rejoicing in the quiet riches of a life free from fretting ambition and the need to impress others.

Mother love…

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

Genesis 1 v27

These words, coming at the outset of God’s revelation of himself to us in the bible, give us an enormous amount of information about ourselves, not least the easily overlooked idea that it takes both masculinity and femininity to fully express the image of God in human form! The human package simply can’t contain all the necessary characteristics in one unit, and so two were created. Their interaction through life, and union in marriage reflect aspects of God’s character too – the delight that God has within the trinity, and the love which is continually expressed there.

In the same way I believe the bible reveals that human love – in all its forms – reflects aspects of divine love for us. No single human love is rich and complex enough to convey the full treasury of love which God has for us, his beloved creation. Through our experiences of relationship and love, we taste a little of the goodness of divine love in all its variety. Although it is sadly true that many people experience a great deal of pain, and are let down badly by those who should love them, yet the principle remains valid. Through our human loves, we learn about God’s love, and in time learn to receive directly from him all that our hearts need, so that no human failure to love can ultimately destroy us.

I was privileged to have a godly and loving father, who was spared to see my children born, and who – through his faithful loving of and genuine delight in me – showed me so much of the heart of my heavenly Father. Even as I mourned him, I knew what kind of fatherly love was being poured out on me from God, full of comfort and steady as a rock.

What of a mother? A mother just wants to be with you, to share in all the ups and downs, to hear all the little details of your life, because it is a delight to her to watch you living. She has yearned over you for years, laboured to care and equip you for life, borne the tantrums and sulks, the laundry and faddy diets, the bizarre fashion and messy rooms – because she loves you, and her love goes so deep that you are part of her. Your joys are hers, your heart is her heart beating, when you weep, she weeps.

Two years ago this weekend, my mother died, and there is no one now to do these things for me. No one to whom I can safely pour out my mother pride in my own children, or share the little frustrations of life. I cannot get a picture of her life into words, cannot find a way to close the chapter yet, but this I know, that her loving of me was faithful, costly, and a great joy and pride of her life – and that I never said thank you enough!

The bible has very few explicit references to mothering as a quality of God, but when we explore what it actually involves, it is clear that when he made mothers, God put an enormous amount of himself into them! My God delights in my company, in sharing my thoughts and all my activities; remember those lovely words in Psalm 139 v 2& 3

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.

He wipes my tears away, and numbers the very hairs on my head; my name is engraved on his hands and he will never forget me. The gift of Christ his son, to be my saviour and lord, to be my very life, means that my heart is his heart, and all that grieves and wounds me, is felt by him. I am and will always be a daughter, even though my mother is dead, because my God mothers me, and I am comforted, nourished and affirmed by that faithful, costly and joyful love, which always puts my needs first.

How can we rightly praise and thank our God for such love? Nothing will ever suffice, but a delighted awareness of our debt, and continuing thankfulness for all that we receive is surely a fitting way to use the gift of life which we have been given. May God enable us more and more to receive and share this love, to his glory and the blessing of the world.

 

Fasting and Feasting

For in Christ all the fulness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fulness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

(Colossians 2 v 9&10)

The first weeks of a new year are often associated with diets, new exercise regimes, and  rigorous attempts to cleanse our systems after a period of too much food and too little physical activity. There is an uncomfortable tightness about our clothes, and sluggishness about our energy levels, and we hope to deal with these by self-denial and the imposition of new disciplines… and that can be a very necessary thing to do!

But there is another, more significant aspect of our lives which need never diet, or deny itself the object it craves in order to flourish – our relationship with our Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ. The passage quoted above is delightful in its use of the word ‘fulness’, stressing one of the foundational beliefs of Christians, that Jesus was and is fully God, as well as fully man! It is easy to skim read a passage like this, and only vaguely to register the notion of Christ’s deity, without  benefitting from the treasure trove of truth which it represents. Yes, indeed, Christ is as completely God as the Father himself, but that is only one sense of ‘fulness’. There is also the sense of being filled to overflowing, packed with goodness – and Christ is filled with all the attributes of deity.

The bible narrative reveals a God who desires to be all in all to his people, that they might realise that only through intimate relationship with him can they find true satisfaction and fullest life. Our folly has lain in stubbornly refusing to believe that such a relationship can fill our needs, and trusting our own judgement and inclinations instead. The desperate state of our world today reveals only too clearly the results of such folly. But what if God were right? What if we can truly find in him all the things we need? The security, the sense of self-worth, of significance and adequacy which we crave and chase through endless mazes of material goods, human relationships and activities. Listen to the words of the ancient prophet, Isaiah

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

(Isaiah 55 v 1 & 2)

And then to these words from Jesus, as he addressed the sincere, seeking religious people of his own time;

‘For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ Sir,’ they said, ‘from now on give us this bread’. Then Jesus declared, ‘ I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.’

(John 6 v 33-35)

The words in Colossians convey a stunning truth, if we will slow down reading long enough to recognise it.. When a believer confesses that Jesus is Lord, that their salvation depends entirely on Jesus, not themselves, they receive Christ himself – and all the glories of his divine character! When do I ever take enough time to really let this sink in and change how I live? Everything in the treasury of God is made over to us as believers, to equip, support, encourage and transform our lives, and enable us to fulfill our roles in God’s new creation. How often do we take that transaction seriously and claim those riches? We are summoned to a feast, and all too often make do with meagre rations!

This blog is part of my personal response to this question, an attempt to focus my thoughts for a sustained period of time and thereby to engrave another small aspect of the truth on my heart so that it might change my thinking and living. A recent gathering of friends saw us take time to meditate on the different titles and names given to Jesus in the bible – we found at least 35, and I am sure there are more – through which we began to catch a glimpse of the overwhelming adequacy of our Lord to satisfy our deepest longings and fill us with good things.

For myself, my experience has been that the more I feast on Christ, the more I hunger to receive and make my own. I close this week with the words of a great writer and preacher of the Scottish church from the 1600’s, Samuel Rutherford, whose language may sometimes seem archaic, but whose sentiments remain an inspiring expression of what it means to live for Christ alone.

Christ is as full as feast as ye can have to hunger.

I think I see more of Christ than I ever saw; and yet I see but little of what may be seen.

May God stir us up to desire ever deeper, fuller fellowship with Christ, as He has already provided all that is needed to satisfy that desire!