Monthly Archives: May 2015

Praise to the holiest…

Praise to the holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise – 

In all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways.

(J.H. Newman 1801-90)

I am an amateur musician, a choral singer, with no formal training but a deep delight in singing as part of a larger group. It has been one of the greatest joys of my life to be part of a large symphonic chorus here in my home city, where we are privileged to work with professionals and perform on a public platform with world-class musicians. I especially appreciate singing music which expresses or reflects aspects of my faith, and the words with which I opened this post are from one such piece – The Dream of Gerontius, by the English composer Edward Elgar. He set words by Cardinal John Newman, meditating on the passage of the Christian through death to glory, which include this great hymn rejoicing in the utter goodness of our God. It was our close of season concert this year, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively, and our voices are all very tired today!

The composer, Elgar, was a devout Roman Catholic and dedicated the work to the glory of God, pouring out into it a very personal expression of faith and the beauty, peace and strength which it brought to his life. When I sing such pieces, I am worshipping God too, regardless of the views of those around me, pouring out my voice as an act of willed praise and testimony. Many of my fellow musicians, while not sharing my faith, are deeply moved by the music and words which they sing, and I pray that God will be at work in their lives to remove the blindness which keeps them from seeing and accepting Him as the author of all the good things which they love and appreciate so much.

I believe that our worship of God consists of much more than merely our singing of songs on a Sunday morning – or on any other occasions! Worship is about an attitude of heart and mind, in which all that we are and have is continually made available to God for his glory and the blessing of others. So it can be as small and quiet a thing as a moment of urgent, silent prayer for a friend who is in need; the making of a cup of tea for a colleague who is too busy to get one for themselves; the hug or squeeze of the arm to someone in distress. My worship of God is my whole life – although I know that every day I am distracted and forget, this is still the truth, and is still my daily goal. May God be glorified in and through me, whether by noisy, obvious acts of praise, or by quiet private acts of service, they are all equally valuable.

But of course, as a singer, I am thankful that God has made it clear in the bible that music can be central to our expressions of joy, thankfulness, adoration, lament and grieving. We are made, in God’s image, in such a way that melody and rhythm are an integral part of who we are and how we express ourselves – surely that means that God is the source of all melody, that he is the great singer of songs and the consummate composer! When we make music, we reflect something very significant in God’s character, and can therefore surely delight in the gift while always remembering the Giver! When we begin to revere the music itself, seeking our fulfilment there, then we have set up an idol in place of God and begin to be led astray by it. But when God is first, then music is a wonderful tool for our own pleasure and the blessing of others.

I know that I will be singing bits of Gerontius to myself for days, it is so fresh in my mind and has gone so deep – and what better phrases to have buzzing in my mind than these?

O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail!

O generous love! that he who smote in man, for man, the foe, the double agony in man, for man should undergo…

(JH Newman)

May this generous love be flowing so deeply and strongly through us in the days ahead that our lives bring blessing to all those around us, and glory to the Holiest in the heights!

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In Christ…..

I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace….For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.

(Galatians 5 4&6, the Message)

Sometimes as followers of Jesus, we find ourselves grappling with phrases which are very familiar and yet almost impossible to translate for those who do not yet believe. This concept of being “in Christ” can be one such challenge, and yet to fully grasp it is so gloriously liberating!

I believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the only and the utterly adequate way by which humanity can be restored to a relationship with a holy, just and mighty God. I can add nothing to that work, I am incapable of making it more effective by any efforts I might expend. I cannot unleash the potency of that work in my life by labouring to reach some perceived standard of ‘good behaviour’ and thus achieve merit in God’s sight. I cannot cajole or persuade God to be kind to me on any terms other than those which He has revealed, and those are very clear…

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made know…this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace…

(Romans 3. 22,23,24)

There is the key… justified (meaning declared innocent, free of any condemnation) freely (at no cost whatever to ourselves) by God’s grace. And what brings about this astonishing transformation in our circumstances before God? What great labours are required? None, on our part, since all has been done by Christ, and therefore it is as we identify Jesus as the source of our salvation and trust in the completeness of his work that faith is born in us, and we receive the righteousness (meaning a new and right relationship with God) which is promised.

A great Christian writer once said “Faith is the gaze of the soul on a saving God” (AW Tozer), and as I gaze upon the Christ who died for me, confessing my need of him as saviour, so God looks upon me as it were through the prism of Christ’s saving work. I am seen by a holy God as a beloved and welcome child, because God looks on me and sees the holiness of Christ, the beauty and perfection without which I could not endure God’s presence. It is as though when I finally admit my helplessness before God and claim Jesus as my Lord, then “I” die – the proud, rebellious, wilful me perishes. When by faith I rejoice in the forgiveness and fresh start I receive from God, then a new “I” is born, one who is no longer bound by the old rules, and who now lives in direct loving relationship with the Giver of Life! The apostle Paul puts it like this to the church in Colossae..

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God….. you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.( Col 3. 2,9&10)

So when I think about being “in Christ”, I consider how my assurance of eternal life depends on him; how my daily walk with God depends on him; how my need for forgiveness and cleansing is met in him; how all my feeble efforts to truly love others are only possible because of his love for me. And yet I know that I have not begun to express the full riches of what it means to be “in Christ”. I think I am not alone in this, and it will be good to revisit the subject again! But today I will close with one of Paul’s wonderful outbursts of praise:-

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!

(Ephesians 1.3)

Coming home…

They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.

(Exodus 29.46)

The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John 1.14)

Jesus replied,”If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

(John 14.23)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

(Revelation 21.3)

I believe that the Bible reveals a unifying narrative, the great plan which God is putting into action in ways which we can’t grasp across time and space. Certain themes occur again and again from the beginning which underpin that plan, themes reflecting God’s character and also what lies behind His breathtaking plan of redemption for us.

At the very beginning, in some early dawn of history, we read of Eden, of that state of perfect communion which God enjoyed with his beloved children as they walked together in the cool of the day. This is what we lost, and are forever seeking, the natural loving companionship of our creator throughout our days. The staggering thing is that God misses it too, that our absence from his immediate presence is a source of such deep agony to him that He will go to incredible lengths to bring us back! I need to ponder this truth more and more, to allow it to heal the places in my heart where I feel worthless, insignificant and a failure. Each and every one of us is priceless in the eyes of our heavenly father – let this be my answer to a world that would discount me for my age, lack of career or obvious achievements, for the ordinariness of my life or the things I struggle with.

In the book of Exodus, God is creating a model which will demonstrate his desire to dwell with his people – a temple or tabernacle – while also showing that the way to communion with him is not yet reopened, and that it is the need to be purified of sin which keeps us separate from him. The sacrificial system, the role of the priests, all speak of the holiness or otherness of God, and of how our rebellion against Him has created a barrier to fellowship. But the overriding desire is clear – He wants to be with us.

With the coming of Jesus, the Word, John tells us that God is beginning to fulfill His great plan, and that the barrier of sin – that fault-line in each one of us – is now being addressed. All the sacrifices of the old system were simply signs, pointing forward to the great sacrifice which would one day be paid – by the perfect Lamb, our flawless Christ. Through faith in Jesus, in His work of salvation and atonement for our sin, we are made whole, restored as places fit for our God to dwell. Does that not leave your mind boggling? King Solomon, in dedicating his wonderful temple, stated quite truthfully that no temple made by human hands could ever be fit or adequate to welcome the Almighty, and yet Jesus says quite simply that He and His Father will make their home with those who love Him.

Think about it, let it astonish you, move you to tears and songs of joy and humble gratitude to the God of all goodness, that He should desire to dwell – not visit, not say hello in passing, but DWELL – with you.

God lives with me, within me, at the very core of my life.. if this is true, then what should follow?

Let me keep no part of my life hidden from God’s loving transforming power to heal and bring glory:

Let my relationships be like an open window, so that the love of God might be seen clearly at work in my life for the blessing of others:

Let me rest utterly in this glorious truth of God’s saving of me – I have nothing to prove or achieve in order to enjoy his presence now, and in unimaginable ways forever, in the new creation.

God has come home to his children, and we will never be alone again.

Lord, I come before your throne of grace: I find rest in your presence and fulness of joy

In worship and wonder I behold your face, singing “What a faithful God have I!”

What a faithful God have I, what a faithful God, What a faithful God have I, faithful in every way!

(Dawn & Robert Critchley 1989)

The power behind the throne?

The Lord is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?

Psalm 113, 4-6

After several weeks of political campaigning, long enough for most of us to get bored of it, my country voted last week to elect a new parliament, a new group of people to govern our land, direct our policies and address our problems. As most of you will know, the outcome was not entirely as predicted, and many are deeply worried about the results, and what they may signify for the future of our country – not least its unity and stability. As a follower of Jesus, I am very grateful to live in a country where I am free to practice my religion without fear of persecution, and to share my faith with anyone who will listen. I am also very grateful that we live in a country which has been at peace for 70 years, and where political freedom is guaranteed – it is so easy to forget what a huge privilege this is and to take it for granted.

We do not in any way deserve such freedom, any more than those who do not have it are worthy of oppression! It is a gift, and also a responsibility… what are we doing with it? In the same way our material wealth and international influence are a gift and responsibility, a means to bless others and to bring health, hope, and the gospel of Jesus to places where they are so badly needed. I am so thankful that we have agencies which can take our financial contributions and turn them into aid, support and long-term investment which can transform lives and communities, so that people can fulfill their potential and come into a living relationship with their loving Father.

The bible is very clear that as followers of Jesus, we are to be ‘in the world’, fulfilling our responsibilities as citizens and supporting the rule of law. We are thankful that many of our politicians are also followers of the Lord of heaven, and have a duty of care to pray for them in their work and witness, regardless of their political stance! It is a relief to me to be reminded from the bible that although rulers and powers arise from among us to govern – sometimes oppressively, sometimes in ways that we are deeply unhappy about – yet over and above all, there is a greater power, a higher throne. While others may look to their politicians as the only hope for change, for stability or prosperity, I can raise my eyes higher, to the real seat of power, and entrust my land and all our hopes to God.

The psalm which I quoted above goes on to tell me what the manifesto of my supreme ruler is:-

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people. He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the Lord. (Ps 113, 7-9)

Mercy, justice, and community… I can wholeheartedly commend my heavenly Father’s manifesto! His desire for his world is to see healing and wholeness, to see his beloved creation fulfilling the purpose for which he brought it into being. We are made to glorify our God, and to enjoy him forever, and through all the turmoil of history, the agonies of so many, the darkness and uncertainties which continue to abound, the people of God continue to assert that he will accomplish his goal.

His term of office will never end, and his appointed party leader is one who knows and cares about all the woes and burdens of his people. As a follower, I can be hopefully active in my own community, and trust that even through my own small deeds of faithful service, God is working to fulfill his purposes. I can pray for and encourage our human leaders to pursue justice and mercy, because I know that these things are according to God’s will. I need not fear the future, because God can work through whatever my elected politicians choose to do, in order to bless his people and fulfill his plans. The ultimate aim is all good, all glorious, and although we will have troubles, we need have no fears and can proclaim with the voices of heaven:

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.

(Revelation 11.15)

..but God gives the increase

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen

(Rev 1.5&6)

I have been reading this week in Deuteronomy, of the end of Moses’ life and his final exhortations to the people whom he had led so faithfully from Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the borders of the land promised to them by God as their new home. It is a poignant tale, as the great leader reviews God’s mighty acts of deliverance, the people’s rebellion and struggles, his own weaknesses, and the very real choices which lie ahead – to obey and receive the covenant blessings, or to disobey, and bring curses upon their heads.

I think Moses knew quite well that there would be great trouble and sorrow ahead – he had not forgotten the disobedience, idolatry and deep doubts which the Israelites had shown during their wanderings. He knew their hearts, their weakness, and had no illusions that the bounty of their new home would bind their hearts permanently to worship God alone. It must have been very sore, to lay down the burden of leadership, to see the faithful Joshua take it up in full knowledge that the job would take all he could give, and at times almost crush the life and hope out of him.

Did Moses ever wonder whether there would be anything to show for all his labour a few years after his death, any lasting fruit at all? In those times of doubt, perhaps he would go back in his mind to the miraculous provision of food in the wilderness, of water from the rock, and take strength in his faith that this God would not abandon the people. Or perhaps he would go further back to the dramatic time when God – seeming to be exasperated beyond bearing by the disobedience of the people when they created and worshipped a golden calf – had threatened to destroy them utterly and build a new nation around Moses’ own family. That day, Moses had reminded God of the promise made to Abraham, God’s own sworn covenant, to build a nation that would show his glory to the nations. What boldness on Moses’ part, and yet, what faithfulness too, seeking always to serve and magnify God, to honour and obey his word.

I think that this is the key to our own faithfulness in serving God – which is what we are called, enabled and privileged to do. We are made new creatures in Christ, commissioned to bring the good news of the gospel and the kingdom of God to all people, and promised the presence and power of God as we go. We are emphatically NOT given quotas, targets, deadlines or performance indicators. We are not given annual reviews and spreadsheets to complete. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to make it clear where the credit for their coming to faith should lie!

What, after all is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1Cor 3.5-7)

It is God who builds the church, as it was God who called, saved and formed the people of Israel, keeping his promises to them in spite of chronic disobedience over centuries. Moses was not blamed for their failures, but commended for his faithful obedience in doing all that God had asked of him. So also, Paul points out that each labourer in God’s harvest field is rewarded for his labour, but is not responsible for the fruit – or lack of it.

We need to pray for our church leaders, that they will remember God calls them only to obedience, trusting him for growth in due time, and grieving over a lack of response without taking wrong personal responsibility for it. We need to hold God to his promises, as Moses did, that he will build his church, that he will be glorified among the nations and gather his church from every people under the sun. It is not our job to produce the fruit in other people, but to labour as God gives us abilities and opportunities, in loving and proclaiming the kingdom. In this way, all the glory goes to the one to whom it belongs, and we have the joy of exalting him alone!

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen!

(Jude 24,25)