Monthly Archives: June 2015

Fullness of living…. in Christ!

With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

(Romans 8. 1&2, the Message)

Sometimes a fresh translation of a familiar phrase in the bible reveals an alternative aspect of truth, a new way of thinking about things, and that is why ‘The Message’ as a modern telling of the bible has been so hugely popular. This particular re-phrasing of a part of Paul’s great letter to the church in Rome is a great example – stepping away from a literal translation of the original text into a free and imaginative expression of the truth.

The picture is a glorious one, of stepping out of the darkness of a heavy cloud, into a brilliant sky of light and air, with space to stand tall and breathe freely. I live in a part of the world where we can for live for days under grey skies – not always very dark, but unbroken and featureless, so that one can feel oppressed by the sense of a thick barrier blocking out sunshine, and refreshing winds. Then finally there comes a change, a break appears, and suddenly the heaviness and dullness lifts, our streets and parks are flooded with light and it is as if we see in colour again instead of shades of grey!

As a picture of the change which comes upon a person who believes in Jesus for their salvation, and depends on him completely, it is very powerful and captures the sense of life being transformed by his presence in us. It is not a change which I can recognise in my own experience, having grown to faith from early childhood as naturally as I grew into the physical and mental maturity of adulthood. I was deeply blessed to be raised in a christian home, and to have no memory of a time when I was apart from God, but only an ever deepening understanding of what it meant to be his beloved and redeemed child. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the picture of the life of faith being like walking in the sunshine – all the time! My life is lived in full colour, there is nothing between me and the glory of heaven except what remains of my life in this broken world, and I trust my God to keep me safe through that. He sees and knows me, loves and accepts me, and each day lavishes gifts on me from his endless stores – the love and kindness of family, friends and strangers, the beauty of the natural world around me, the priceless knowledge of his love for me and his promises to me, and the presence of Christ in my heart as my soulmate.

I have enough experience of life to know that it will not always feel ‘sunny’, and many of our fellow believers are suffering greatly under persecution, famine, exile, war, disease and discrimination, so that it might look as though they walk in darkness. But their humbling testimony to us who know so little of their sufferings, is that in the light of God’s love for and presence with them, even these appalling trials are not dark. I believe that it is as we immerse ourselves more and more fully in Christ, in His love and saving power, that the light shines more and more brightly on us – no matter what is happening in the world around and even in our own bodies.

The words of this old hymn are not very elegant, but all my life they have expressed deep truth about the fullness of life which we enjoy in Christ, and I hope they will encourage you too in persevering through trials and appreciating the daily grace you receive.

Loved with everlasting love, led by grace that love to know,

Spirit breathing from above, Thou hast taught me it is so….

Heaven above is softer blue, earth around is sweeter green;

Something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen…

His forever, only His; who the Lord and me shall part?

Ah with what a rest of bliss Christ can fill the loving heart!

Heaven and earth may fade and flee, first-born light in gloom decline,

But while God and I shall be, I am His and He is mine.

(George Wade Robinson 1838-77)

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Finishing the race…..

O Lord, by all thy dealings with us, whether of joy or pain, of light or darkness, let us be brought to Thee. Let us value no treatment of thy grace simply because it makes us happy or because it makes us sad, because it gives us or denies us what we want;

But may all that thou sendest us bring us to thee, that,

knowing thy perfection, we may be sure in every disappointment that thou art still loving us, and in every darkness that thou art still enlightening us, and in every enforced idleness that thou art still using us;

yeah, in every death that thou art still giving us life, as in his death thou didst give life to thy Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, Amen

(Phillips Brooks, 1835-1893)

I was introduced to this prayer by the writing of a woman called Elisabeth Elliott, a woman whose words have shaped my faith and thinking about faith since I discovered her as a teenager. She is known primarily for her many books, exploring in ruthlessly practical ways, the business of working out what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus – as a man, a woman, a parent. She wrote with a lyrical power, without frills, taking the reader straight to the heart of the matter, and always challenging – because every page is saturated with the truth of God.

Her words are strong meat for the soul, leaving the reader with no excuses for not understanding and acting on what God has said. But she is also very comforting to read, because her life experience has included being widowed twice – the first time after only 2 years of marriage, by the martyrdom of her husband at the hands of the Auca Indians in South America. This woman can write about trusting God in the dark times and be taken seriously, because if anyone has proved God’s promises, she has. I wholeheartedly commend her books to anyone who wants to take the business of living a faithful christian life seriously.

The prayer which I quoted above sums up her own faith and overwhelming desire to trust in God, seeking him alone, and not only his gifts. This rings all through her writings, and I believe that is because it is central to faith for us all. If we ever find ourselves desiring anything above God himself, then we are setting up an idol, and heading for trouble. Our desire for God may be weak and fitful, but we long to see it grow, and to become the ruling passion of our lives. Elisabeth Elliott could testify to the struggle which is involved in trusting, at many different stages of her life and through many trials. Her ability to articulate that struggle, and her honesty in identifying the weakness which drags us down, the doubts which undermine us, make her writings enormously helpful to others. Here we find someone who has travelled the road ahead and can prepare us for what we might meet, encourage us to persevere, and provide strong scripture staffs on which we can lean. This quotation from her book ‘The Path of Loneliness’ (1988, Thos Nelson Publishers), demonstrates all these qualities:-

“Accept your share of the hardship that faithfulness to the gospel entails in the strength that God gives you. For he has saved us from all this evil and called us to a life of holiness – not because of any of our achievements but for his own purpose. Before time began he planned to give us in Christ Jesus the grace to achieve this purpose” (2 Tim 1.8-10; JBPhillips.)

That is a wonderfully comforting word to me. God had included the hardships of my life in His original plan. Nothing takes Him by surprise. But nothing is for nothing either. His plan is to make me holy, and hardship is indispensable for that as long as we live in this hard old world. All I have to do is accept it….a distilled act of faith, a laying one’s will alongside God’s, a putting of oneself at one with His Kingdom and His will.

Elisabeth Elliott died on 15 June 2015, after living for several years from dementia. She was  ready to finish the race, to enter into the rest of her Lord, and I rejoice to think that now all her suffering and waiting is over. Surely for her, the voice has rung out, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

But for myself, I am rebuked by the way in which my life continues to fall short of the faith and trust she so humbly demonstrated. May God give me grace to learn afresh how to receive all that he sends with joyful acceptance, offering it up in responsive praise to him again.

All my hope on God is founded, he doth still my trust renew;

me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true!

(Joachim Neander 1650-1680, translated, Robert Bridges 1844-1930)

Out of the shadows.. into Christ!

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

(Colossians 2. 16&17)

One of my favourite images in thinking about the work of Jesus on the cross, is of a timeline, with the cross at the centre, casting a double shadow, back towards Eden, and forwards to the new creation and final judgment. The shape of the backward shadow is the temple, with all its sacrifical systems, rituals of cleansing and rules of life. Those were designed to demonstrate that a holy God, loving and desiring to be with his people, was nonetheless separated from them by their sin.

Until the time was right for Jesus to come, God used the rituals, sacrifices and physical exclusion of people from the holiest place of the temple, to point forward to the day when a single perfect sacrifice would fully accomplish all that the blood of lambs and bulls could not. There would be a spotless lamb one day, who would put an end to, by fulfilling, all the sacrifical system had been designed to do – turning aside the wrath of a holy God against the unspeakable pollution of sin.

One day there would be a priest who could enter the holy place without shedding the blood of lambs, because he had shed his own blood. One day there would be a  great priest who could enter that presence and remain for ever, bearing the people of God upon his heart just as the old priest bore twelve precious stones to represent the people of Israel upon his breastplate. Not only so, but the people themselves, because of the great priest’s sacrifice, would be in God’s presence, no longer waiting outside to know whether their offerings had been accepted. All barriers to fellowship would be removed, and the children welcomed home to their Father’s house.

On Good Friday, that day finally came, the perfect sacrifice was made, and the curtain in the temple ripped itself apart as the power of sin and death to bind us away from God were destroyed. From that day onward, there has been no need for ritual sacrifices or observances. In Christ, all the demands of the Law – for justice and purity – are met. We do not live under a shadowy promise of forgiveness to come, but under the glory of complete cleansing, the bright light of a fresh start in the love of God..

The ‘shadow’ which is cast forward into time by the cross is barely dark at all, except that it is pointing to a brighter and more glorious future than we can possibly imagine! The shape of this shadow is the table around which we – all who love and trust in Christ for salvation – remember and celebrate his death for us, and his resurrection guaranteeing our eternal future with him. This is not a ritual which we observe in order to avert punishment, or earn favour, but the very source of our lives, our true nourishment. If we neglect this, the feeding of our souls upon his body broken and blood shed for us, then we will perish indeed, our faith withering away under the slightest trial or choked by the pressures and pleasures of the world around us; or worse, poisoned by false pride in our own good deeds and upright attitudes!

Let us not neglect to meet together, to feed together upon the truth of the gospel – all must be done, and has been done by Christ – so that we might grow in love for him, for one another, and in courage to share that love with our wounded and wayward world. In Christ, we stand in radiant glory, utterly secure, let us be the means by which God sheds his light into the darkness.

Behold Him there! the risen Lamb! My perfect spotless righteousness, 

The great unchangeable I AM, the King of glory and of grace!

One with Himself, I cannot die, my soul is purchased by His blood;

My life is hid with Christ on high, with Christ my Saviour and my God.

(Charitie Lees De Chenez, 1841-1923)

The sting is drawn!

Go forth upon thy journey Christian soul! Go from this world; Go in the Name of God the Omnipotent Father, who created thee! Go in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Son of the living God, who bled for thee: Go in the name of the Holy Spirit, who hath been poured out on thee!

Go on thy course; and may thy place today be found in peace, and may thy dwelling be the holy mount of Sion: through the same, through Christ our Lord.

(John Henry Newman; 1801-90)

It is not given to all of us to know when our death is near, or to have the luxury of strength and clarity of mind to prepare for that threshold, but for the follower of Jesus, it is always possible to be sure of our destination! That is because of the complete assurance we have that through our faith in Jesus, in his effective salvation of us, we can know that we are now acceptable to an utterly holy God, and that our place in glory is guaranteed to us. We can rejoice now in the peace that comes from knowing that our state of health and mind at the end will not separate us from the love of God through Christ, that no amount of confusion, pain or forgetfulness can undo that great work upon the cross.

The words at the top of this blog are another extract from the Dream of Gerontius, the poem by Newman which was so memorably set to music by Edward Elgar. This passage in particular is achingly beautiful – I love to think I could be listening to it when my time comes to leave this world, because it speaks so strongly of the confidence which I have, and which those who love me can share even as they let me go. It is a great valediction, the commending of a soul to the faithfulness of the God who has promised and done all that is needed, so that even in the dissolution of imminent death, there need be no fear. Our confidence rests in the character and revealed will of God, whose work of redeeming his beloved children was accomplished at such unimaginable cost. This God, will never set aside that sacrifice or break his covenant with us and we give ourselves wholly and confidently up to him.

I believe that the bible makes it clear that death, the destruction of the physical body and the awful separation from all that life and love mean, was never part of God’s original plan for us, His beloved children. Over and again it is described as the ‘wages of sin’, the direct result of the rebellion which humankind staged against God’s authority and rightful supremacy in our lives. Surely this is why we never get used to it, why the prospect is so awful. It is indeed an affront to the image of God which is in everyone, that we should be bereaved and die.

But in Christ, we see that for all who have faith in him, in his power to save, the apparent finality of death is not real, not true! The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth writes:-

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

(1 Corinthians 15.20-22)

As I grow older, and more and more of those dear to me pass ahead through the dark valley of death, the truth of our eternal life to come is more and more precious. It allows me to experience the loss of loved ones with hope, though not without grief. It equips me to face my own likely experience of frailty, illness, pain and perhaps confusion with confidence – because NOTHING can separate me from the love of God which is made manifest in Christ Jesus.

There may indeed be troubles ahead, times of great darkness and sorrow – none of us can escape the valley of the shadows, the only question is whether for us it will be a long journey, or a brief crossing. But we have a confidence which is gloriously embodied in the words with which I began this blog, resting upon the very character of the God above all, the Lover of our souls.

May we be a blessing to all those whom we know are close to the valley of shadows, reminding them of the sure and certain hope which they have, of our Lord’s presence in the darkness, and his welcoming embrace in the glorious light which lies ahead.