Monthly Archives: July 2015

Lonely or solitary?

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thought 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…

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

(Psalm 139.1-4,7-12)

Do you like being alone? Does the prospect of time without other people present stir up fear, or anticipation? I know that each of us has a natural disposition which will incline us to one or the other, and that is a part of the wonderful variety which makes us all individuals. But I also believe that ultimately none of us need fear being by ourselves… Because as followers of Jesus, we are never truly alone!

The psalmist is well aware of the fact that God sees and knows him through and through, that there is nowhere on the earth that God is not present with him. I am never quite sure whether this is seen as a good or a bad thing! Perhaps there are times when our feelings are in such turmoil, or our consciences so troubled, that we feel we want to hide from God until we get sorted out. But the psalms reveal over and over that the best way to get sorted out, is to be in the presence of God, acknowledging our struggles, our failures, our anger and grief, and allowing the steady, healing and cleansing light of his holiness and love to quieten our spirit. Here is one of many such occasions:

When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love , O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.

(Psalm 94. 18 & 19)

This for me is one of the most precious truths of my faith, that in my solitude, I am never alone. I have a perfect companion. I have one who knows my thoughts, who understands my tastes, and who delights to share with me as I experience every moment of life and savour each detail of my days.

I cannot irritate him with my eye for the tiniest details of a leaf or flower; he waits joyfully and patiently while I appreciate the beauties which he has placed for me to enjoy! When my spirit lifts with the majesty of great trees around me, my companion hears my cry of delight and thanksgiving, and rejoices in my pleasure. Did you know that our loving Father loves to be thanked, to see us enjoying what He has made – from the tiniest detail to the most breathtaking panorama? It is one of the greatest pleasures of solitude, to have uninterrupted communion with the one who has made all this beauty, and be able to deliberately share our pleasure with him.

 And in my darkness – whether I have sought it out deliberately, because of weariness or grief; or have been overshadowed by it in spite of my best efforts to remain in the light – I am not alone.. there is nowhere that my Lord cannot reach me, cannot be with me, comforting and holding, his arms ever around me even when mine are too weak to hold on to him.

David spent many days and hours in solitude as a young man – shepherding sheep for his father – and I believe that he learnt then what it was to be loved by a God who was always present. We see from the songs David wrote that he hid nothing from God, whether of grief or joy, frustration and anger, fear and despair, triumph and rejoicing. He knew the presence of God was not simply a special feeling that came and went, but a fact, on which he could rely.

It is a fact on which I rely too, which transforms loneliness into solitude, a precious space shared only with my Lord, where I can be utterly at rest because I am utterly known, accepted and loved. Thanks be to God, who through Jesus his Son, brings us into this most intimate of relationships and gives us peace!

Answering my fearfulness..

For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

(Ps 95. 3-7)

I have mentioned in this blog before that I am not an ambitious or driven sort of person, and I have never had a burning desire to pursue a particular career or line of study. I have enjoyed working in the past, and found my studies rewarding, but have no desire to return to the profession which once was mine. I have been blessed with the raising of two children, the care of a lovely home and a garden, and have many friends and church family with whom I share much of my life.. And yet I am conscious of a sense of unease, uncertainty, a haunting fear that somehow I have failed to use the gifts and opportunities given me in the way that God desires.

In two years, my daughter will be finished school, and my role as mother-at-home will be over. What then? Does God want me to go on being quietly busy with many small tasks, loving people, listening and caring as I can; or is it time to embark upon something bigger, something new, which will change the pattern of my life? When you recall my lack of ambition, this kind of dilemma is a particularly tricky one to resolve, as I really have no idea what I could be doing instead!

The real point of this though is that I am in danger of letting myself believe that my lack of career/achievement indicates a lack of significance or status, or worth. I am being tempted to think that if I became as busy and super-efficient as many of my friends, then somehow I would be doing better with my life – is that necessarily true?

The bible states over and over that my worth derives from the price which God – my maker – puts upon me; and in the death of Jesus on the cross that price is written large enough for even me to see! I am worth the blood of the precious son of God, there was no higher price which could be paid. I am incapable of making myself more precious to God by anything I do!

So if my worth derives from God’s incredible love for me, not my achievements, how can I know what is the right thing to do with my time and talents in the days and years ahead? Am I to continue to be content with the mosaic of small, beautiful and relatively undemanding jobs which I currently fulfill? Or is it necessary to make some big changes, perhaps to return to study?

This dilemma is not ultimately mine to solve , and if I can learn to keep handing it over to the God whose business it is to guide and shepherd his flock, then I will find the peace I crave as I wait and look for the way ahead. Will I not trust that the Great Shepherd is able to show a willing sheep the way it should go?! Do I not really believe that He has my best interests at heart, and that these will be for His glory as well as my blessing?

This is my challenge for the days and months ahead. To wait upon God with hope and expectation that He can and will make the path clear for me, in His good time, and until then to continue in a spirit of contentment with my life as He currently directs it. Active waiting does not come very easily to us, we want immediate answers and direction for the future. But perhaps in the waiting itself, God is doing something very significant in our hearts and our relationship with Him. Faith that has not learned to trust in God’s silences, in times of apparent inactivity, is vulnerable. By contrast, the trust and peace demonstrated in the lives of those who have learnt to wait in hope for God is incredibly attractive and a powerful witness to the work of God in their hearts.

May I be given the strength each day to wait in hope, to trust that God will do what He promises to do, and to let my fears be silenced by the song of His love for me which He pours into my ear at all times.

Crushed?.. no just hard-pressed!

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed….

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

(2Cor 4. 8,9,16-18)

For some of our christian brothers and sisters in the world today this passage is a physical reality, as they suffer oppression, injury and death as a result of their faith. Here in my homeland, I know nothing of this, and can barely imagine how I would react under the pressure. There is always a challenge to us in these words of Paul, who did know pain, persecution and much deprivation, to ask what we will do with our wealth and freedom for our fellow believers in need? How am I reacting as a part of the body of Christ to the suffering of other parts of the body: am I ignoring it, trying to numb myself to the pain? Or am I allowing myself to feel the ache, to let holy anger drive me to prayer, to lobby my politicians, to support agencies working to bring practical help and comfort to my brothers and sisters?

There is another sense in which these words apply to all of us, and which allow us to draw strength from Paul’s rallying cry to persevere in faith. I am thinking about the way in which life itself, the messy business of relationships, of dealing with family, work, health problems and so on, seems to get in the way of having a strong and joyful witness! How often do we find ourselves struggling with questions of guidance, of making wise decisions in very tricky circumstances. Or facing broken-down cars; faulty boilers; unfortunate complications in our travel arrangements; things just not working out smoothly and easily for us?

I think it is very important to see that Paul does not explain his troubles as being the result of unusual persecution; nor as the result of mistakes he has made in his walk with God. They are part of life, to be expected – although not necessarily welcomed with glee! We live in a broken world, among broken people, and until the wrapping up of this world and the inauguration of the next, we will have trouble. The challenge is what we as followers of Jesus do as a result of our troubles.

Do we allow them to drive a wedge between us and our God? Do we allow difficulty and weariness to feed our doubts about God’s love and faithfulness? Not Paul, he saw clearly through the immediate swirling clouds of struggle, to the clear shining light of a heavenly reward, and the hope of what God was already doing in his life as Paul continued to trust him.

This is a continual challenge for me, to do battle with my doubts and fears in the face of the pain of the world, and my own small struggles, and to trust in the utter goodness of God. I find it enormously comforting that Paul doesn’t hide his suffering, but rather brings it to the right place – into the open at the throne of God. Here is the one who sees and knows all that is happening, and who alone knows the true picture of which each individual life is a single thread. He is in the business of creating glory, harmony, beauty, an eternally satisfying and living work of art; and when we finally see it and take our rightful place in it, we will no longer question the maker!

 So in my perplexities and doubts, as I face tangled situations where there seems no right way ahead, I keep coming to God, trusting that He can take each small step I make and use it for my blessing and His glory. The key is to keep moving, to do the next thing, even if it seems tiny, so that He can direct my journey. If I stand still, paralysed by doubts, I will get nowhere, and be rendered useless in my Lord’s service. The words of an old Scottish paraphrase based on Genesis 28, where Jacob has fled from home, and is literally in the middle of nowhere without a clue what to do next, are a fitting way to end this week, and a lovely prayer for every week!

Through each perplexing path of life our wandering footsteps guide;

Give us each day our daily bread, and raiment fit provide.

O spread thy covering wings around, till all our wanderings cease,

And at our Father’s loved abode our souls arrive in peace.

(Paraphrase 2, – O God of Bethel!,Gen 28.20-22, verses 3&4)

So it’s like this Lord…

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.

(Ps 37. 23&24)

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..

(Ps 103.13-17)

There is a heaviness which comes on my body and spirit sometimes, not for any obvious reason that I can trace – that would make it more bearable, and somehow reasonable – which seems to leave me numb to the joy of being loved by God, blind to the beauty of his creation and deaf to his love songs. It leaves me in a dark place, vulnerable to storms of emotion and over-sensitive to the ways that life can wound me.

I have learnt that there is no help in trying to drag myself out of this by reason, or by rebuking myself for my weaknesses. All that happens is an increasing sense of guilt and failure, of being bound in a trap. And that is what I believe is really happening at these times. I am – as we all are – a frail human being, with a body and mind which operate so completely as one unit that physical weariness can depress my mood and stifle positive emotions with devastating effect.

What is the follower of Jesus to do in such situations? I find the passages with which I started today’s blog very comforting when I am flat on my emotional face so to speak! The Lord, the God of all power, holiness and wisdom, is also the God who created me, knit me together and knows better than any scientist ever will, just WHY the human machine operates as it does. This great God sees me in my distress and weakness, and what does he do? He has compassion on me, he is gentle with me, understanding and accepting all my distresses and not scolding me for being upset.

I was on duty in our church creche this morning, helping to care for our smallest people, picking them up when they fell over, sharing their exuberant pleasure in noisy toys and bouncing balls, reading stories and holding pencils and crayons as they scribbled all over the colouring page! We are like those little ones in God’s eyes: we wobble, we fall, we are one moment full of joy and the next heart-broken with grief. And what does he do? Like a father, he has compassion on us. We are gathered up into his arms and held, reassured and comforted, kissed and soothed, until the terrors pass, the shock wears off and we are strong enough to be put back on our feet for the next adventure. These children cannot explain their fears and grief, but a loving presence is enough to restore their joy, and so it is with me.

If I scold myself when distressed, rebuking my lack of faith and joy, then I simply add guilt to a toxic bundle of emotions which are keeping me face down in misery. So what I need to do is look up, lift my hands like a little child to the father who is always with me, for his great loving embrace to take me into safety and comfort. He is unchanging, always good, full of tenderness and mercy to me; and he is so much more patient with me than I am with myself! I desire to become holy all in a hurry, to get it all over and done with; but he knows that it is the work of a lifetime, and that steady progress is much deeper and more fruitful than a rapid, superficial transformation.

Let me sit quiet in his arms, remembering his goodness even though my heart is still numb to joy; let me listen to his voice of love and forgiveness, even though my ears can’t thrill to the music of his song; let me look at his beauty and be at rest, even though my eyes seem colour blind. In time, the joy will return, the music will ring out, and the colours will return to the world. For the moment, I can be at peace, trusting in his unchanging power to keep me safe and to ultimately work all things together for good – Praise to his holy name!

In the arms of his love, I find rest; In the arms of his love there’s sweet quietness, nothing can harm me, no reason to fear, safe in the arms of his love…

(Carl & Leanne Albrecht, 1989)

Being the bride?

The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord:

She is his new creation by water and the word;

From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

(SJ Stone, 1939-1900)

This old hymn, which we sang at a recent communion service, uses the image of a bride in describing the relationship between the church and the Lord Jesus Christ. As with so many old hymns, it is packed with ideas from the bible, truths which inform and give life to our faith and deepen and strengthen our relationship with God. I love to sing these songs, they go to my heart and head like a strong wine, filling me with joy and lifting my spirits no matter how much I am struggling. This is surely one of the main reasons why we are exhorted to sing and use our praise to recall all that God has done for us!

But what really touched me as I sang this time was the fact that the bride is one being, a single entity, not a multitude! It is so easy to lose sight of the truth that in God’s eyes, His people are one, across time and around the world. Our denominational tribes are not relevant, our preoccupation with defending purity of doctrine at the expense of fellowship and the sharing of the good news of Jesus is a source of sadness. The old creed, the statement of faith puts it quite simply…

……I believe in the Holy Ghost; the Holy Catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.   Amen!

In this context, the word ‘catholic’ has its proper meaning of “universal/relating to the entire body of Christians”, and what a glorious affirmation it is to make! I do believe that we are one in Christ, no matter how our traditions seem to divide us, or our expressions of praise and worship feel strange to one another.

It is our human weakness, our fearfulness and pride, which drive us into divisions, into putting up walls to make ourselves feel safer, better, holier, than those outside. What shame this brings to the name of Jesus, who prayed the night before he died that his people  might be one, might be known for their love for and unity with one another… But we can choose to sit lightly to those boundaries, to reach wherever possible out to those who worship Christ in spirit and in truth, wherever they come from. The reality is that what unites us is so great and glorious, that our differences should pale into insignificance by comparison.

There is a wry joke made by Christians that when we get to heaven we will be a little surprised to see who else is there – and they will be equally surprised to see us!! The point is being made that we none of us can claim to have all the answers, to be absolutely perfect in our interpretation of the bible and our practice of the faith. The important and overriding truth on which our salvation depends is the death of Jesus on the cross, and our trust in him alone.

We have been wooed, as a bride must be, drawn to love and commit ourselves to our beloved – the prophet Hosea speaks beautifully of how God does this:-

I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord.

(Hosea 2.19&20)

It is the love of God, revealed in Jesus which entrances and captures our hearts, and it is his death and resurrection which are the source of our strength, joy and hope. It is as we grow in faith in him, serving the world in his name, loving one another as he commanded, that we become beautiful in his eyes, transformed and made ready for our future. It will be at the dawn of the new creation, when all believers finally stand together before the throne, united in praise, love and adoration of the saviour, that we will truly be dressed in our wedding clothes and fit to meet the Lord. Then all our struggles will be past, all barriers to fellowship will be removed, and in glory we will rest. Let this wonderful vision of our future bring us joy and strength now, and inspire us to reach out in love to all who call on the name of Jesus as their saviour.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 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. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

(Revelation 21. 2-4)