Monthly Archives: September 2015

Praying for my children….

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you greatly rejoice, though now  for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

(1 Peter 1. 3-9)

How often when praying for those dearest to us do we find ourselves asking God to keep them safe, to make their path smooth, and trouble free? It is all too easy, and very natural since as parents we expend so much time and energy in protecting and nurturing them as they grow! But is it healthy for their growth in faith? I fear not, and this passage from Peter’s letter would suggest otherwise. It is of course very painful for parents to see their children suffer, or drift away from faith in the God whom we believe is yearning over them. I do not wish in any way to minimise how we struggle to bear it when our children are in trouble, or how our own faith is tested in those circumstances.

Nonetheless, we do them no favours if we will not recognise that their lives are outwith our control, that they belong first and foremost to God, and we cannot control his dealings with them! For some parents, this will entail watching a child walk deliberately away from faith, with no guarantee that they will live to see them return. For others it may be a time of physical or mental suffering, perhaps a broken relationship or failure in some cherished ambition or career path. Even for the child whose path appears to be smooth and secure, there is never any guarantee in our sin-sick world that it will remain so, and nothing can be taken for granted.

So how should I pray? Obviously until they come to personal faith in Christ, our prayer will be that God will be at work to remove the barriers to faith, drawing them to himself, and convincting them of his claim to be lord of their lives. We must accept that the paths they take may not be those we would choose. For as long as they deny Christ as lord, their decisions will not be based on seeking God’s will, and how could we expect otherwise? But they are never further from God than anyone else, no less likely to be reached by His love and power, and so we pray with confidence and trust in His saving grace for their conversion.

And for believing children, I think the most important thing we can pray is that God will be at work by his spirit in their lives to create resilient faith. What do I mean? I mean faith which is strong enough to weather storms, to face darkness and hold fast to God’s promises. The kind of faith which is modelled for us in so many places in the bible, by real people who endured struggle and loss and yet trusted in God. Think of Joseph, all those years in an Egyptian prison; or David, on the run from Saul and wondering if his promised kingship was a daydream; or Esther, who put her life on the line for her people, believing that she was God’s instrument at that moment for their deliverance.

This is the faith which Peter tells his readers is being created in them as they face persecution, and is it not true in our own experience that it is only as we face the reality of our own helplessness that we fully learn to rely on God? Am I modelling that kind of faith for my children? If I am serious about praying for my children – and in fact any disciple of Christ – then I need to pray for their trials and struggles, that they would glorify God in and through them by standing firm in their faith. God never wastes our experiences of trouble if we accept them as opportunities to experience and witness to his grace and perfect goodness in meeting our needs.

May we, and those we love, learn to say with the Psalmist:

Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living.

Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.

(Ps 27. 13&14)

Advertisements

When there are no words….

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. 

Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.

You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.

I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.

I call to you, O Lord every day; I spread out my hands to you.

(Psalm 88 6-9)

This psalm is unusual because although – like many others – it contains great depths of lamentation and grief, there is no respite, no lightening of the darkness. The author ends his prayer-song with the heart-breaking verse:- “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)

We are left to sit in silence, reflecting on the dreadful experience of suffering which has been poured out, and sharing in the unresolved tension between the psalmist’s conviction that God can save him, and the brutal reality of unabated suffering.

It can be hard for us to be silent in the face of suffering. If our faith is of any value then it must have an answer for even the deepest pain. We believe in a God who is all-powerful, loving and just; surely then there will be reasons to give and grounds for optimism? And if we cannot find answers, we fear that our faith is worthless, a mere folly and delusion.

My thoughts have been prompted by the many I know who are either suffering themselves from long-term mental health issues; or whose children are suffering in this way. For all our mastery of the tools of medicine to heal our broken bodies, we are still relatively powerless in the face of eg. severe depression, bi-polar disorder, and that demon which haunts the parent of every teenage girl, anorexia nervosa. To watch one’s own child disappear into the darkness, to see them destroy themselves and be unable to forestall the dreadful end is a torment beyond the imagination of those who have not experienced it.

What can I say when I meet such people? What has my belief in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, in the eternal loving Father and the ever-present Spirit got to do with their agonies?

My faith is in a God who cared so much for a world hopelessly marred by the rebellion of humankind against his loving lordship, that he suffered the outrage of losing his own son to the darkness in order to heal us. His compassion for our plight is where I must begin when I meet those who are lost and raging against the oppressive darkness which is upon them. May we be so filled with God’s love that we do not shy away from such encounters, fearing the pain we might witness. May we be the means by which the presence of God is made real to those who suffer, weeping with those who weep – like Job’s friends who sat seven days in silence with him. Sometimes no words are needed.

I believe in Jesus, who while he walked among us witnessed great suffering, and saw the impact of pain upon the faith of the people. He dealt so gently with those who were struggling to believe in the face of their troubles, commending even the smallest grain of faith where he found it. Remember how Thomas was finally drawn out of his desperate doubts by Jesus? There was only encouragement, no rebuke. Our dear Lord knows that when we are in the dark – for ourselves or perhaps even more for those we love – that our faith is shaken. Let us then recall the words of Isaiah describing the Saviour’s gentleness :- “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out,” (Matt 12.20). May I be willing to pray for those who can barely pray for themselves, and to trust that God hears and will answer. We depend on his keeping of us, not our hold on him, and what a relief that is!

Finally, let us pray for ourselves, to be strengthened in our faith, willing to live with mystery, and not defeated or broken by the suffering which God graciously permits. The book of Job is very precious in this context, with its overriding theme that we are unable to understand the ways of God. Our comfort lies not in getting all the answers, but in encountering our great God. Only then can our trust in him be renewed.

I believe that one day, in glory, all our suffering will be seen to form part of God’s re-creating of his world, his making all things new, and of glorifying his beloved son, our Lord. In the great wonder of God’s providence, nothing is wasted.

These few words barely touch a profound mystery, but I pray that God might graciously use them to help us to think and live in accordance with his word.

the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised

(Job 1.21)

Lists, and more lists!

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.

Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me.

I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.

I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.

I have kept my feet from every evil path, so that I might obey your word.

I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.

(Ps119.97-104)

I have been privileged to sit all my life under the ministries of men who believed that the bible is the Word of God, a living and powerful means by which God speaks to and transforms people. Week by week, I have listened to sermons which present the words of these ancient texts as relevant to my life, full of meaning and to be taken seriously. I have been comforted, challenged and taught – and I pray that will continue, as I am by no means a finished piece of work!

In addition to believing that the bible must be preached in order to see lives transformed, my ministers have all practised what is called “systematic exposition”. This simply means that they have chosen not to avoid any part of the word of God on the basis that it is too hard, too embarassing, or in some way irrelevant. A book is preached through from beginning to end, and studies undertaken in the Old Testament as well as the new. Our current series in church is looking at the visions of the prophet Ezekiel – challenging for both minister and congregation! It is not a radical approach to preaching, but puts into practice what Paul said to Timothy in his second letter to the young pastor :-“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man(and woman) of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2Tim.16&17)

Naturally, different types of book require a different approach – the visions of Revelation and Daniel for example cannot be preached in the same way as the Gospel narratives; while the epic stories of the Exodus and early days in the Promised land are different again from the letters to the young churches in Asia. But the basic fact remains, that all of our bibles are there for a reason, for our good as we hear what God will teach us through them.

I think it is wonderful that every kind of literature is found in our bibles – and every aspect of life and feeling too! There is nothing about life on earth which is outwith the interest of God, and no area of our lives which is beneath his notice. He knows that some of us are moved more by great stories than by poetic images; that some respond better to direct instruction while others learn through narrative and example. That is not to say that it is good for us to only study those parts of the word which appeal to our own temperaments – that would be like basing our weekly family menu around everyone’s favourite holiday treats! I am grateful to my ministers over the years for making sure that I study the parts of the bible which I find harder to deal with, and for giving me the conviction that the struggle is worthwhile!

Recently I have been reading in Nehemiah, a book which contains many names of people long dead, and it is tempting to wonder why anyone recorded, let alone bother to read them. But have never found yourself scanning a long list for one particular name, perhaps a friend who is due to qualify in a particular course? Or perhaps you had a family member who engaged in past conflict overseas, and you search the records for their name, for proof that they were there and perhaps of some award for bravery or endurance? Sometimes, the presence of a name is of huge importance for us.

The book of Nehemiah records a significant time of national rebuilding, of re-commitment and return to faithful worship of God after exile. In the years after it was written, one can imagine the descendants of those first returnees listening eagerly as the story is retold, waiting for the name of their ancestor to hear again the confirmation that they played their part, and obeyed God’s call. I picture the children cheering when they hear that particular name, rejoicing that their family is recorded as being part of God’s great people, that they belong. I like to think that one day in glory I may meet these faithful servants, and rejoice with them that my name too has been included in the lists of those whom God has called to be His own for ever!

It all comes to this..

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance – an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.

(1 Peter 1.3&4)

Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.

(Hebrews 3.1)

Sometimes we are blessed by the presence in our lives of very wise souls, whose company and conversation are always a refreshing, and sometimes challenging experience. I am privileged to know several such people, and to see them regularly.

Last week as I shared with one lady about how my latest ‘devotional’ reading book had left me rather unimpresssed, she confessed that she had altogether stopped buying such things. They left her dissatisfied, and uninspired – rather like spiritual junk food which swiftly leaves one craving again! At the grand age of 91, she had decided that the only and best way to ensure in her growth in faith was simply to ‘keep close to God’. Her words have been ringing in my mind ever since, and as I came to write, they were before me.

She is right. Not all the most learned theological books, the most persuasive sermons, or ‘inspirational’ writings, can do us as much good as spending time looking at our Lord, considering His power and glory, His character and wisdom, His life, death and resurrection. In Jesus, we see our God revealed, the depths of His love and the lengths to which He was willing to go in order to bring us into His presence. It is true that theology, good preaching and inspiring words can help us to focus on Christ, to grasp more and more of who He is, but ultimately we must depend solely upon Jesus himself.

We rejoice in the presence of a God who is greater than our minds can begin to comprehend – and give thanks that in His mercy, He has revealed Himself to us in ways which we can understand! Is it not wonderful to us that the creator of all things should choose to “confide in those who fear him”(Ps 25.14)? Who are we that this majesty should notice us at all? The libraries of divinity colleges are stuffed with works exploring the nature of God, the person of Jesus, the work of the Holy Spirit, and all that flows from that. Twenty centuries of scholarship since the coming of Christ have not exhausted the subject, and every generation finds fresh food for thought and engages in a new way with the word of God. Truly our God is unfathomable, and our worship should spring from a place of humility as we realise this afresh.

And yet… the truth about our God is also very simple, so that we teach it to our children, in confident hope that as they grow in years, so they will grow into faith. How many of us remember singing these words from our earliest years?

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak but he is strong!”

A lifetime of steadfast study and growth in faith cannot exhaust the riches of our Lord Jesus Christ, and yet the whole truth can be summarised in one verse:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

(John 3.16)

Our loving Father made us, and knows us, and has provided all that we need to grow in our faith. We have his word, the true and reliable guide to his character and his work in the world. And we have Christ, who lives in us, whose Spirit directs our thoughts and inspires our worship and service and stirs up the inclination of our hearts towards our saviour.

In Christ, we have all the nourishment our souls need for this life, and indeed for eternity. In him, there is beauty without blemish; power without pride; love without measure. Here we find a subject to engage and fascinate us, one which transforms us as we immerse ourselves in it. This above all, is a matter worthy of our full attention and devotion, at whatever level we can engage with and express our response to it. From the youngest child to the oldest saint in the congregation, we are able to cry out together in genuine worship of our beloved Lord. Let His be the praise and the glory, as ours will surely be the blessing!

O Let the praises of my heart be Thine, for Christ has died, that I may call Him mine,

That I may sing with those who dwell above, adoring, praising Jesus, King of Love.

(W.V. Higham 1926-)