Monthly Archives: August 2015

Morning (and evening) glory!

Praise the Lord! Let all that I am praise the Lord.

I will praise the Lord as long as I live. I will sing praises to my God with my dying breath.

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them.

But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them.

He keeps every promise for ever.

(Psalm 146. 1-6)

Do you ever feel a little ashamed of being happy, or deep-down glad ? It can be a temptation to allow the very real cares and troubles of the world to cloud our own lives to the extent that we are never joyful, because there is always someone, somewhere who is in distress. Perhaps it seems holier to be always solemn, and in earnest about the burdens of our suffering world, than to allow ourselves to be caught up in gladness and wholehearted praise?

I believe this is a clever, but crippling deceit of the enemy of our souls, a means by which we are robbed of the joy and rightful lightness of heart which belongs to God’s redeemed children. Our Lord Jesus taught his disciples that they were to resist the temptation to be weighed down by the cares of the world.

In the long address known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that we cannot serve both God and money, we cannot have divided loyalties in our lives. If we are genuine followers of Jesus, then we are able to shake off deep anxieties about our needs for food and shelter, about our future and that of our families. God’s provision for the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air should reassure us that He knows what we need and cares to provide for us – as we are so much more valuable to Him than they are! All our worry cannot add even a minute to our lives, or change the circumstances which are shaping them. Our priority must always be to live in the present in a way that demonstrates our confidence in God to keep and deliver us through even the most desperate times, into His glorious presence.

Yes, we are to care for one another, and when possible to provide for one another’s needs. But this need not be a source of continual anxiety either! If the way to bear our own burdens is to bring them to the cross and allow Jesus to take them, then surely this is also how we support one another? The suffering of others should always be a prompt to prayer, reminding God that each human being is a precious child, needing to know His love and imploring His aid for their needs. Perhaps there will also be practical things which we can do to relieve suffering. BUT, it is wrong to get so bound up in suffering with others that we fail to give their burdens to Christ to carry. It is a false kind of pride to take such responsibilities upon ourselves. Only God can deal with the scale of suffering in the world, and we must not try to act and think as though it were all up to us.

The author of the psalm which I quoted today was surely not ignorant of the realities of pain and injustice in the world around him; he probably had witnessed at first hand the effects of sickness, war, oppression and starvation – in ways that many of us have not. And yet, he pours out words bursting with delight in the great God whom he worships. He has not allowed the real shadows of suffering to dampen his joy and gladness, nor to repress his praise.

I think that times like this come to all God’s children, moments or hours when we are simply so full of deep joy in the goodness and greatness of our Father, of delight in the depth and strength of our Lord’s love, that the worship which the Spirit is always stirring up in our hearts simply has to pour out – in music, words, actions or even wrapt silence and contemplation. I believe these times are a gift from our loving Father, a great refreshment to our spirits, and cause for great thanksgiving. Let us not feel guilty when we are filled with gladness, not spurn the gift of sheer joy in giving praise to one who is entirely worthy. In these moments, our duty as well as our delight is to join the psalmist in saying,

The Lord reigns for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

(Psalm 146.10)

When your place is in the shadows..

Cursed be the day I was born!

Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?

(Jeremiah 20.14&18)

My splendour is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.

(Lamentations 3.18)

The prophet Jeremiah is not perhaps our favourite personality in cast of bible characters. He has a name for gloom, for predicting disaster and generally spoiling the party! It is quite true that much of his writing is filled with warnings of judgement to come, of rebuke to a stubbornly rebellious people from their long-suffering God. Jeremiah spoke the heart of God; a broken heart, a jealous heart, which could no longer hold back the tide of invasion, destruction and exile which would finally destroy the last hold of idolatry from the heart of the people whom He loved.

But do you ever think about the cost which this ministry was to Jeremiah? As you take the time to read his words – both the long prophesy and also the devastating book of Lamenations which follows it – you find a desperate man, bereft of comfort and wrestling with the God who called him to this appalling ministry.

In his words, his grief, anger and despair, I find comfort for my own struggles. Am I the only follower of Jesus who is disappointed with some of the ways that God has chosen to direct their life? Does everyone else really live in the sunlight all the time? I beg to doubt it, and I thank God that in the words of this faithful prophet, we find permission to speak our pain; and comfort that we are not alone in it.

Very few of us are called to such a difficult path as that which faced Jeremiah – and that alone should give us cause to rejoice, and to see that we are greatly blessed to have been spared much pain! The point is that Jeremiah was doing exactly what God had called him to do, and yet his life was incredibly hard and sad. How often do we fall into the trap of thinking that a difficulty or sadness in our lives is a sign that we should be changing something, “fixing it” in any way that seems good to us? I believe this can be a very clever distraction and even a trap for us, by which the devil distracts us from faithful obedience into a fretful dissatisfaction with God, and even outright disobedience.

God is not primarily in the business of making life easy for his children. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t, because the bible never promises that He will. Instead, we are assured that we will suffer; we are told that the world will hate us for Jesus’ sake; we are reminded that until the coming of the new creation, there will be sin, pain, death and suffering of all kinds. God is in the business of calling his people, of making all things new, and only he can see the full picture of which our lives are a tiny part. He is building a kingdom, making the name of his son known throughout the world and creating disciples. My role in the process will not be clear to me, and indeed I may feel it is completely insignificant if it has any value at all. BUT.. if I am making choices about my life directed by God’s word, desiring always to obey and glorify him then I will be a useful tool in his hand and bring him pleasure through my service.

So, whether it is a job which becomes incredibly difficult and challenging to sustain – seeming to call for qualities which I do not possess – or a relationship which drives me continually to my knees in prayer for strength to go on giving love, forgiving hurt and trusting God for the future; in all and any such callings, I have the example of Jeremiah to draw on in my struggles. What did he do? Over and over again, and often in the midst of a prophecy, he turns to God in his agony and pours it all out. First the pain, the anger of being in such a difficult position; and then his determination to trust God to be good and to be faithful to him.

Heal me , O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved, for you are the one I praise. 

They keep saying to me, “Where is the word of the Lord? Let it now be fulfilled!” I have not run away from being your shepherd; you know I have not desired the day of despair….do not be a terror to me; you are my refuge in the day of disaster.

(Jeremiah 17.14-16)

May we know and share the faith which allowed Jeremiah to cling to God in the darkness and to continue in faithful submission to the calling which he had received. Our Lord quailed in Gethsemane at the prospect of pain which lay before him, but chose obedience – may we by His strength be enabled to do likewise.

The single eye.. and the audience of one

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.

(Galatians 6. 4&5, the Message)

I think that one of the hardest lessons to learn as followers of Jesus, is that we have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again! I know that I do, and I don’t think I am alone in this…

It is a dreadful blow to our pride to realise that issues which dogged us in the past continue to entangle our thoughts, bring doubts and lead us away from quiet, peaceful service of God. We think that surely we must have matured and grown enough in faith and experience of the Christian life to be able to avoid such mistakes and trials. Finding ourselves back at the bottom of a familiar pit – whatever yours might be, I know mine only too well – we look around in despair and say, “Lord, I can’t believe I am here again, where did I go wrong this time?!”

The temptation for me then is to indulge in a serious bout of self-pity, painting myself as an abject failure, stunted in faith, whose life is a lie and her service of God a sham… It is horribly easy to get into this habit of thought – and it is a very clever trick of the Devil’s, by which he paralyses me, a captive to my own thoughts in dark hopelessness. I wonder if this is how Peter felt after betraying Jesus by that fire, the bitterness of realising that he was not as strong and true as he believed. How deeply pride runs through our thoughts, how we love to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, and despise others for their perceived weakness and vulnerability to things which are not a problem for us!

Yes, it is painful to see ourselves clearly, with all our faults, to admit that in our own strength we will never amount to much that is worthy or beautiful. So what is the healthy response to the pain of finding myself in the pit again?

Think of David, lamenting in Psalm 51 over his sin with Bathsheba, full of grief for the pain he has caused to his Shepherd, and bewailing his sinfulness. He turns back in repentance, and yet also in confidence that his prayers will be heard, and that God will answer. He relies on the revealed character of God, the one whose love is steadfast, the one who sees the heart of man and cannot be deceived by fine words or deeds. He knows that God values the offering up of “a broken and contrite heart”, and by the end of the psalm is already anticipating the renewed joy of praising God with a clean heart.

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

(Psalm 51.11&12)

The passage from Galatians with which I began is very helpful alongside this psalm in helping me to deal with the reality that I will continue to fail as long as I live! Paul exhorts his readers to take a good hard look at themselves, and to be humble about what they see – not puffed up with conceit, but content with whatever God has given them. Their focus is to be on doing their own tasks for God as well as they can, and at all costs resisting that dangerous urge to look at other people. We are only responsible for ourselves, and that is quite enough. I can be glad when, with God’s help, I am able to serve and live for him; and when I fail, I can have confidence that my sin is dealt with, that God is not surprised by it, and that He is gently urging me to keep moving on, recognising that sin no longer has any power over me – either to cut me off from God permanently, or even to keep me in the pit of despair and self-pity.

May our patient, loving God continue to create in us pure hearts, so delighted by Him that we care nothing for the opinion of anyone else. May His presence in our hearts continue to transform us, so that we can live with others without envy, jealousy or pride, content  and willing to do what we can and steady against the temptation to despair over our sins. In Christ, we have the victory, and nothing, NOTHING can take that from us!

Fragile.. Handle with care

But the fruit of the Spirit is love,

joy, peace, patience,

kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

gentleness and self-control.

Against such things there is no law.

(Galatians 5.22&23)

Which of the words in that list, describing the various aspects of a character increasingly dominated by the Spirit of God in us, are most precious to you? They are all beautiful qualities, and perhaps it is unhelpful to single one out as if it were of more worth in itself, but that is not what I am doing. I think that for each of us, there will be things here which we will prize highly because we so often miss them in others.

If we have experienced deep betrayal by those closest to us, then faithfulness will be a particularly prized quality; while those whose lives have been chaotic and full of uncertainty will value peace. For me, the two words which touch me very deeply are ‘kindness’ and ‘gentleness’. This is not because my family were cruel to me as I grew up, far from it! Rather, that because of the character of my parents, and their love for us, we grew up in a home where teasing and mockery were almost unknown..

I know that for many people, these ways of relating to others are quite natural, and meant entirely without malice, but if one has not experienced them, it is very difficult to believe that they are not meant to wound. I am the person who leaps to defend the one being teased, only to discover that no one else is taking it seriously, and to my sense of hurt on behalf of the one being targeted, is added the embarassment of being judged to have overreacted!

I have described this lack of resilience as being ‘think-skinned’, or ‘raw’, and can think of no better image to convey the vulnerability which it brings. Things which other people laugh off, will cut me deeply, and leave me distressed and frustrated with my inability to respond in kind. For me, this behaviour is neither gentle, or kind, and I struggle to understand why it should be accepted by those who are following Jesus.. Does God ever tease his children, or mock them? Where in the whole of the revelation contained in Scripture do we find God laughing at us for our weaknesses, or mocking our distress when we have got ourselves into a mess – again!?

Jesus shared his life for three years with a group of men who had their share of faults and weaknesses – the gospels record many episodes which demonstrate their humanity clearly, as they squabbled about who was greatest, jostled for attention, doubted their teacher and spectacularly failed to live up to their own estimations of themselves. But nowhere do we find Jesus laughing at or mocking them in their distress. When Peter stepped out of the boat in faith to tread the waves, and then began sinking, he was saved and gently rebuked, but not laughed at! Jesus loved his disciples, he was patient with them and faithful to them, even though one would betray and all would desert him.

I know that for many people, humour is a way of dealing with difficult things in life, and for some it is used as a shield – I think perhaps many of those who tease are in reality suffering deeply inside but afraid to show it, to show their vulnerability, and so they turn aside all genuine efforts to engage with them by taking nothing seriously. But how would Jesus have dealt with such people? I don’t believe that he would have joined in the mockery, and left the person alone in their pain. He loved people, and that meant taking them seriously, recognising that each one is a divine creation, unique and beloved, and worth infinite pains to redeem.

Do we deal with one another like that, refusing to be brushed aside by humour and persevering with earnest love, so that we offer genuine acceptance to the hurting and lost? Let me commend gentleness and kindness to you, they are exquisite characteristics, modelled by our Lord throughout his ministry, and there is nothing like enough of them around in our world today! The definition of love given by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians is particularly effective in the paraphrase of the Message, and a fitting challenge to us as we seek to love one another as Jesus has loved us…

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, DOESN’T REVEL WHEN OTHERS GROVEL, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

(1 Cor 13.4-7, the Message)