Monthly Archives: May 2016

An open hand..

Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said

I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!

In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God.

(Job 1.20-22)

Grief, and worship.. How often do we actually manage to put these two together in our own experience? Perhaps if our idea of worship involves singing songs that make us happy, then we can’t begin to combine them. But this is not what Job was doing, and it helps me to see past the current fashion for worship leaders, bands, fancy lighting, and music-induced emotion. In Job’s actions here, his response to a devastating loss of life, I see true worship – which is to give God his rightful place, to acknowledge his power, majesty, mystery, and to put myself in the right place before him – flat on the ground.

How hard we find it to get rid of the persistent notion that we are entitled to anything in this world! Our culture continually encourages us to acquire, to aspire, to achieve, and even to demand – because we are ‘worth it’. We are exhorted to stand up for our rights – even when that means trampling the rights of others. And what does the bible say about this? That we came with nothing; that every day we live, every breath we take, is the free and undeserved gift of God! We can expect nothing as of right; not health, wealth, freedom from oppression, family life, or fulfilling work…Nothing.

And yet we have so much! Perhaps it is the very bounty of God, the mercies we have enjoyed daily since birth, which makes it so easy for us to take it for granted, take it all as our right. Job knew better, and when he lost everything dearest to him, he continued to give God the right to be God, to be good and just and holy, and altogether greater than Job could comprehend. He didn’t pretend that he was happy about the loss of his children, and subsequently his health. He lamented, and poured out his grief in some of the most powerful language recorded in the bible. But he always addressed himself to God, as God, never questioning that this was the right and proper thing to do.

 I am thankful not to be facing such appalling loss, but the forthcoming change in our family circumstances does mean that I will be giving up some very precious – to me – activities and things.

For ten years, I have sung as an amateur singer with a Symphony Chorus, performing alongside a professional orchestra, world-class soloists and conductors, and making music at the highest level. It is very hard for me to express how much pleasure and satisfaction I have been given through this gift, but I know that as I face leaving the city, and the chorus, I will lose one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Does God know, does he care? Of course he does! It was his gift of music in me which I celebrated in joining the choir in the first place. And every concert has been a time of rejoicing in what music is, one of the greatest gifts mankind has been given.

So as I close the music, say farewell to my fellow singers for the last time, and as the echoes of the final bars of sound die away, I will grieve, bitterly. And that will be fitting, because I have been deeply blessed, and and profoundly thankful for all I have been able to do and experience.

And my Father will see the tears, the pain, and in his tenderness will come closer than ever to hold and reassure me. He gave, and he is taking away. Blessed be his holy name.

I must and will trust him for these losses, for the wounds caused by parting. His love for me, and my dependence on his grace is what will keep the wounds clean and wholesome, will make the scars themselves a thing of beauty. I will – with his help – rejoice for what has been, give thanks whenever I remember, and turn any pang of regret into prayer for greater trust, so that I might say , with Paul that I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances, and that through Christ who gives me strength.

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There’s no hurry..

WordPress has deleted the text for today’s blog, my apologies to all who came looking for it. I cannot locate the lost text, and this is just a paraphrase of it! This text from Isaiah was my starting point.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.

He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favour has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.

To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.

In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory.

(Isaiah 61.1-3)

Think about it, all of us who are so often aware only of our failure to obey and live lives which glorify God as we desire to do…

Here we are described as ‘like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory!’

I don’t know about you, but I don’t often feel much like a great oak, much more like a weedy sapling, with inadequate roots and little strength to hold up against the storms of life. My leaves are few, and there is little sign of fruit.

But it is in the righteousness we have that we are to be like these great trees – and what is the source of our righteousness? Jesus! It is because we have been healed, forgiven, given a purpose and identity in life by him, that we have any righteousness at all.

We are crowned with the beauty of adoption as God’s children, and clothed with the royal robes of Jesus’ perfection, and because of his obedience and sacrifice for us, we have received all we could possibly need.

It is his life in me which grows strong and tall, producing fruit and withstanding the storms. It is his perfection which is the beauty of the mature believer, and the only reason that our lives glorify God.

And it is for this purpose that we have been ‘planted’ by the Lord – wherever we are – so that Christ in us might shine out in all his loveliness and God be given all the glory for what we have become.

Perhaps I might be allowed to read something else into the picture which is not explicitly there – namely that oak trees take a very long time to mature! Our good and loving God knows that our growth to the beauty of full maturity cannot be rushed, and is patient with us – at times a very unpromising bunch of saplings..

One day, someday dear sisters and brothers, we shall indeed be like great oaks, breathtaking in the grandeur and majesty of their form, strong against every blast, and bearing abundant fruit. And like them, we shall glorify our God in everything we are and do. Until that day, we continue to hold fast to Christ as our righteousness, our hope, our very life, so that He might shape nurture us. To him be the glory, and praise, from even the spindliest of his plantings!

The scandal of grace

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus….God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. All honour and glory to God forever and ever! He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen.

(1Timothy 1.12-14,16&17)

I had never really noticed this passage from Paul’s letter to the young man, Timothy who had been appointed as a church leader and who needed encouragement to persevere in that work against opposition from those who condemned him as too young and inexperienced. The whole letter is full of strong and yet tender exhortations from Paul, seeking to build up Timothy’s confidence – not in himself, but in the God who called, and who therefore will equip and provide all he needs for the work.

As he often does elsewhere, Paul uses his own life as an example of what he is teaching, and in this case it is that no one is beyond God’s grace when it comes to transforming lives! He is encouraging Timothy to believe that youth and inexperience are no obstacle to God’s appointment, and that God’s work in a leader’s life can be a powerful witness to others.

This is tremendously encouraging for us all, and should help us to avoid the mistake of trying to behave as if we were already perfect and that everything in our lives is wonderful. Paul certainly refuses to wallow in self-pity, or to allow his past failures to hold him back from undertaking God’s work, but he also clearly recognises that his personal holiness is far from complete, and that it is an ongoing work which God alone can do.

How do I behave when I am aware of sin in my life, of past griefs or failures that continue to shadow my thoughts, or painful struggles with present burdens of poor health, bereavement or other trauma? If I learn from Paul, then I am willing to acknowledge the ways in which I am affected, thanking God for all his grace in sustaining and saving me from the power of sin, while also asking for and expecting that he will continue to change me through this struggle. I also expect that God will use my own experience as an example to others – of his sustaining power; of his grace to sinners; of his leading and healing of his children. If I am not willing to be honest and open about my own life, then how can God use me in this way?

As I contemplate moving to a new congregation, a new church family, I need to be praying that God will indeed give me strength to do his work in that place. I also need to be asking that my life might be a witness to God’s scandalous grace – all the riches of life in Christ poured out on undeserving rebellious humanity. God chooses and blesses us regardless of our past. Paul, the vicious persecuter of the early church; Jacob, the deceiver who manipulated his brother and plotted against his father; Peter, the self-confident, impetuous blunderer…  and me, with all my weakness and doubt.

Am I willing to be open and honest with my sisters and brothers in Christ, so that my life story might be used by God for their blessing too? It is after all only another variation of the great theme of the bible, that without Christ, there is no hope for us. He is supreme; the one and only means by which we may be saved. All our hope is in him, and we can and should take great pride in telling all the world of his beauty, his power, his generous grace and his tenderness, so that others will join in praising his name.

Whose job is it anyway?

I may have done the planting and Apollos the watering but it was God who made the seed grow! The planter and the waterer are nothing compared with him who gives life to the seed. Planter and waterer are alike insignificant, though each shall be rewarded according to his particular work.

In this work, we work with God..

(1 Corinthians 3.6-9, JB Phillips translation)

This blossom is on the apple tree in our garden, borne by a carefully trained branch, on a well pruned tree which only last year gave its first real harvest of delicious eating apples. There is some relationship between the care given by the gardener, and the fruit of the tree, but ultimately, we recognise the truth of what Paul is saying in this extract from his letter to the Corinthians: it is God alone who brings forth the life and fruit of the plant in due season, and to him alone belongs the credit!

As I prepare to lay down my responsibilities in order to move to our new place of ministry, I find that I have fallen into the trap of thinking that the work which I am leaving is somehow ‘my work’. I find myself unhappy about leaving a less-than-perfect arrangement behind me, or not finding people to take over my particular role before I leave. And as I consider why I am so upset, I find some very unattractive things going on.

I am behaving as though my worth and value depend upon the work I do instead of upon the identity I have as a child of God.

I am assuming that I will be judged upon the work I do, and if it is found wanting, then I am afraid of the condemnation of other people – instead of entrusting myself to God as my sole judge.

I am resenting the fact that other people are not willing to step up and take on jobs which can be demanding and time-consuming; when I know that I sometimes resent those same demands! I am being unloving, lacking compassion, and above all, not trusting God to provide for the work which he wants to do in his own way.

It is a painful grace when God shows us what is really going on in our hearts and minds, because we are ashamed of the reality – the ugliness and depth of pride which are revealed. But it is still grace, because he is giving us the chance to repent, to learn, and to move forward into a new way of living.

As I considered this, I thought of the great apostle Paul, who was required so many times in his ministry to pack up and leave – sometimes after very short periods – and who must have learnt very quickly how to handle this experience of relinquishment. In these verses from the first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul lays out very clearly his understanding of his role in God’s work – he describes himself as ‘insignificant’ and ‘nothing’. Now we know that in other places Paul describes his labours on behalf of the churches in great detail, and encourages them to follow his example of service and sacrifice. So he is not claiming to do nothing, but rather that in comparison to God, his role is ‘as nothing’.

God has chosen to give us, his children, the privilege of serving him, of working with him as he prepares for the return of Christ and the coming of the new creation. This is our great purpose in life, and one which we can be rightly proud of. But, we are not responsible for its completion. In fact, we only ever play a passing role, and must always be ready to be moved on and let God deal with what we leave behind. So it comes back to trust again..

Am I willing to trust God for the jobs I used to do? Am I willing to let things get messy, or even stop altogether and still believe that he is in charge and that I have not failed him? Am I willing to put to death the pride which longs to hear the praise of people for the ‘successful’ things I have done?

As I begin to see how deeply my pride is dragging me down into anxiety, frustration and resentment, I long to be free of it, and gladly confess that I need to be changed.

May God who honoured me by allowing me to serve him give me grace to let go and not fret, but recognise that obedience is what I am called to. May I be content to rest in his approval alone, and not look for affirmation anywhere else. May he continue to expose the roots of pride which disguise themselves so effectively, and cause me to stumble.

To him be the glory, in all things, for ever and ever, Amen!

Buried in the cause…

How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints..

I will sacrifice a thank-offering to you and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people..

(Psalm 116. 12-15,17&18) 

I recently heard this phrase used by a preacher who was referring to the Scottish athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell, a man who surrendered himself to the call of Christ to make disciples of all nations, and followed his parents to the mission field in China – where he would die in a Japanese interment camp at a relatively young age.

Liddell, and many others over the centuries, have been literally “buried” for the sake of the gospel, as they died in the lands to which they went – African deserts and Ecuadorean jungles – sometimes of disease, and other times deliberately martyred by those who opposed them. Some, like Jim Elliott and his colleagues, had their stories broadcast to the world, and God used their dying as a witness to the living, of how powerfully the gospel inspires and what an amazing gift it is we have to share. But so many others have died invisibly, silently, and only God knows their story. Does that make their lives and deaths of any less value?

The psalmist would certainly not say so! His words in Psalm 116 are such a tender declaration of God’s care and delight in every individual child, they always touch me deeply. But I think they also reassure me that my life is precious in God’s sight! So  many of the figures in the bible narrative are people who lived ‘small ‘lives, in a limited geographical area, without political or military power, and who were barely noticed while they lived, let alone died. And yet, time and again, our attention is drawn to them as the story of their lives is woven into God’s great plan for redemption. Consider Rahab, the woman of Jericho, whose courage protected the spies and who would be absorbed into the people of Israel after the destruction of her city. Or the young girl – whose name we do not even know – who sent her master Naaman to seek out the prophet Elisha, and receive healing. There is Mordecai, in exile and under continual threat from powerful opponents, who yet was used by God to protect and deliver all the Jews in captivity.

As our family prepare to leave the city for a new ministry, these examples of ‘small ‘ lives, faithfully lived in obedience to God are an encouragement to me.

It does not matter whether the world considers that we are burying ourselves in a small place and a small work. What is small about sharing the transforming power of Christ with the people for whom he died?! It is no matter to us whether we are called to 5,000 or 2,000; our worth does not depend on the number of people in our parish, but on the love which God has for us, his beloved children. We are called to obey: to pray for lives to be touched by the gospel: to make disciples, through teaching and walking alongside them: to walk closely in fellowship with God ourselves, so that our own lives might be a story by which the gospel is told. All of these are valid whether anyone is watching or not; and our worth does not even depend upon the fruit of our labours, but simply on God’s love for us.

Yes, it will be hard if we are called to work without seeing what God is doing, to sow the seed and trust that someone else will tend the crop and reap the harvest in God’s good time. But it is our calling simply to fulfill our vows, to obey, and to find our contentment in knowing that – however faltering the effort – our heart’s desire has been to say ‘ Yes Lord, I will.’ Our inspiration is the cross and our reward is his constant, loving presence.

Upon that cross of Jesus, mine eye at times can see

The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;

And from my smitten heart, with tears, two wonders I confess – 

The wonder of his glorious love, and my own worthlessness.

I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place;

I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of thy face:

Content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss – 

My sinful self my only shame, my glory all, the cross.

(from “Beneath the cross of Jesus”, E.C Clephane 1830-69)