Monthly Archives: February 2017

When it hurts too much…

Hasten, O God, to save me; O Lord, come quickly to help me. May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace. May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” turn back because of their shame.

But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, “Let God be exalted!”

Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay.

(Ps 70)

I have never known what it is to have my life threatened as David did, nor to have people who actively sought to cause me harm. I am blessed and thankful to know such peace, and have an obligation to pray for those who are oppressed in this way.

But I do not think it is inappropriate to apply this psalm to those times in our lives when it seems our spiritual life is under threat, when we are assaulted by doubt, fear, and the relentless voices which wear us down into a dungeon of self-pity and hopelessness. The devil is wily and knows how to use our experiences to twist our perceptions and undermine our faith in the goodness and faithfulness of God.

When I am under such assault, it may take a while to realise what is going on, and to gather my wits to claim the victory which is mine in Christ. This happens most readily when it is my feelings which are attacked, and the resulting emotional storm is hard to ride out. It happened today.

There is a grief in my life which has been my companion for many years, and which, like Paul, I have begged to have removed. The Lord has thus far answered me as he answered Paul, saying that his strength will suffice for me, and I must trust that means he can be glorified through the wounded soldier and servant that I feel myself to be!

Sometimes, I can bear it more easily than others, and have my eye fixed more securely on God’s faithfulness and less on the pain and my own weakness. But not today.

Today, as I floundered on the brink of despair, God has been pouring out extravagant love gifts of beauty upon me, as brilliant winter sunshine picked out the snowy summits of our mountains, each one clear as a razor edge against the blue sky. Each fresh sight cut me afresh, like a wound. The contrast between the grief and darkness within my heart, and the tender love which was being proclaimed across the land, was just too much to bear. It was as though I was on one side of a chasm, with my pain; and the beauty and my dear Lord were on the other side, taunting me with my inability to reach them.

All I wanted to do was run away home, to leave this weary world of warring emotions, messy lives, and endless struggle to keep in step with the spirit of God. I wanted to be where there is no more need to endure, only the privilege of enjoying our God for ever. But of course, I couldn’t run, I have to stay until the time God decides is right for me, so how can I bear it?!

There is no magic formula; this life of faith is indeed a struggle, and at times a bitter one. But I can testify to the power of God to keep me in and through each fresh bout – because by his grace and mercy, he draws me back again and again to Christ.

There I find one who knew the pains which we bear in our human experience; and who can enter into the feelings which torment and drag us down. I praise God, that he turns me toward and not away from him in my need. I confess that I am still far more poor and needy than I like to admit, but rejoice that he will never give up on me and never abandon me to destruction by the forces that assault me.

There is no place for pride here, only profound thankfulness that our God is sufficient, ever-attentive to our cries and never running out of patience with us. Let our cry  in our need always be that of the psalmist:

..come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and deliverer; 

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My heart is full of thankfulness..

Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart..

(Ecc 5.18-20)

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

(1Tim 4.5&5)

As someone who lives in a relatively very rich country (in world terms), and who has not been required to find paid employment in order to keep a roof over her head and food on her table, I am well aware that I occupy a very privileged position – and as a follower of Jesus, it is not a very comfortable position! What am I to do with all I have? What is it for? I can’t send away everything I possess, it is not solely mine to give, and much of my riches consist of things which cannot be physically shared – good health, loving friends, the beauty of the natural world, the gift of music, and above all my salvation and heritage as a child of God.

For this reason, I was delighted in the course of a recent time of preparation for a bible study, to come across this passage in Ecclesiastes, a challenging but ruthlessly truthful portrayal of the futility of human existence apart from God. It seems to sit very comfortably alongside Paul’s advice to Timothy, the young pastor, exhorting him to accept and enjoy God’s  generous provision – and to teach his congregation also to do so.

God has indeed made and given us lavishly of good things, how ungracious and foolish it would be if we were to reject them! Imagine presenting someone with a carefully chosen gift, reflecting your love for and relationship with them, only to see them shrink from accepting it, because they had already received a gift from someone else, or because they felt they did not deserve it..

None of what we have is earned, or deserved. All is a gift from our good and gracious God, given that we might enjoy it, and return thanks to him as the source, all the while recognising that our ultimate satisfaction is in the Giver, not the Gift. When I am receiving God’s gifts with a thankful heart, using them to return glory to him and to bless others in any way which I can find, then I find I can accept and be content with the life God has called me to. A disposition of thankfulness is a great aid to a cheerful and contented heart, and in keeping a godly perspective on life and “stuff”! Perhaps that is what is referred to at the end of the quote from Ecclesiastes, where the gladness of a man’s heart in what God is giving him now, enables him to live very much in the present, not dwelling regretfully on the past, or anxiously on the future.

The faithfulness of God in providing good things for us to receive thankfully, and enjoy generously, gives us confidence that at every stage of life, we can trust his care. He is our Father, who loves and knows how to give us good things – even though we may not at the time see in what way they are good for us!

Such contentment is indeed a gift from God, and one which we might usefully seek, by learning to rejoice in what we have and receive daily, so that there is a deep wellspring of joy – of delight in the God who gives so lovingly and personally to each of his children. When to this daily provision we add the unspeakably precious gift of forgiveness, redemption and hope which we receive through Jesus Christ, we have a continually refreshing source of thanksgiving. Let us say with the Psalmist:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures for ever.

Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures for ever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures for ever….

to the One who remembered us in our low estate, His love endures for ever;

and freed us from our enemies, His love endures for ever,

and who gives food to every creature. His love endures for ever..

(Psalm 136. 1-3,24-26)

But I will boast!

As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of  that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died. It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle, they are the new people of God.

(Gal 6.14-17)

This is what the Lord says: “Don’t let the wise boast in their wisdom, or the powerful boast in the power, or the rich boast in their riches. But those who wish to boast should boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the Lord who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and that I delight in these things. I, the Lord, have spoken!”

(Jer 9 23-24)

The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…. there is a subject upon which one could lavish a lifetime of study and reflection and still never reach the end! It is the pivotal point upon which all of history revolves, and by which the eternal destiny of humanity is determined. And for every individual follower, it is the foundation of their new life, the power which re-creates them as children of God with the promise of eternal life and the guarantee of his constant presence.

In the cross, God demonstrated that he was indeed a God who brings justice to the earth, because it was there that the price demanded by holiness for sin was paid – the wages of sin is death. And there too, was demonstrated the unfailing love of God, because it was God himself who paid the price, so that we might be spared! Our God, he it is that delights in justice, in unfailing love, and righteousness – that all should be done well. How great should our delight in this God be! We can most legitimately boast in our God, the only one who can fully deal with the brokenness of our hearts and our world, while at the same time restoring us to the perfect relationship with him for which we were designed.

What human wealth could ever buy a clean conscience or a quiet mind? What power on earth can bring a holy God back into fellowship with rebellious, proud and stubborn creatures? What wisdom could discern the only way to restore the broken image of God in his creatures? When we begin to understand what was achieved on the cross, then we begin to understand our great God, to glimpse the unfathomable love, the amazing grace, which are his essential character. There can be no end to the ways in which we can truthfully glory in, boast about our wonderful God.

This afternoon, I watched my small nation’s rugby team winning – against the odds – the opening game of the 2017 Six Nations tournament. It was thrilling, nerve-wracking, exhilirating – all the things a great sporting occasion can be; and I am proud tonight to be a Scot, to identify with the team in their commitment, passion, skill and doggedness. But as we all know – especially Scots! – sporting greatness is a fleeting thing, and not to be relied on for national pride or peace of mind. As individuals, we dare not invest our security or identity in such things, because they CANNOT be relied upon, they will fail us and leave us adrift and vulnerable. That is the point which Jeremiah is making when he dismisses the claims of wealth, power and wisdom to our loyalty and reliance.

There is nothing upon which it is safe to build our identity, our lives, except the Lord of unfailing love, who delights to bring justice and righteousness to the world. And it is supremely in the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord that we see this God revealed to us, when everything  needful was done to restore us. We add nothing, no matter how wise, powerful or rich we are, to the cross. If we cannot accept it without paying or contributing in some way, we have failed to understand what God is doing, and what a state we are in before his holiness. Let us rejoice in this complete work, in the cross, and be at peace!

I will not boast in anything, no gifts no power no wisdom;

But I will boast in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection!

Why should I gain from his reward? I cannot give an answer;

But this I know with all my heart, his wounds have paid my ransom.

(Stuart Townend) 

 

What are we for?

And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus…

God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

(Eph 3.6,10&11,20&21)

I wonder what answer you might give if someone asked what the church – not just your local congregation but the entire body of believers around the world and down through the ages – is for?

Humanly speaking, there may appear to be many different purposes, some more prominent at times than others – some purposes of which we are now ashamed such as the violent crusades of the Middle Ages, or the misguided propagation of western culture under the guise of mission. At times, the churches have wielded political power, or acted as the moral authority for a nation – enforcing certain patterns of behaviour regardless of belief or understanding. In the western world today, many regard the church as primarily an agent for social action, usually on the side of the oppressed and needy.

These are not necessarily bad things in themselves – to our deep shame and regret, there is more need than ever in our world for compassionate, radical change to transform lives blighted by poverty, war, starvation and oppression. But this is not the special calling of the church, the body of Jesus Christ in the world today. And I believe that without a clear vision of what we ARE for, there is a real danger of allowing ourselves to be squeezed into the socially acceptable pigeonhole of compassionate care, and campaigning for the weak. Those activities will not offend our secular society, they might even make us quite popular!

In the book of Proverbs(29.18), there is a verse which – in the old King James version reads as follows: Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Our modern translations give it this way: When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful. 

What is the vision, which we need in order to avoid perishing; the divine guidance which we must accept in order to avoid running wild (and by implication, away from God’s care and salvation)? What is the church for?

Paul is stunningly clear, and absolutely emphatic in his letter to the Ephesians, that the church universal, through all time, exists in order to show every power which has ever existed just how amazing God’s love is; just how breath-taking his wisdom, in addressing the deepest need of humankind – to be united in fellowship with him.

Consider for a moment what this means for your congregation.. that particular gathering of people, whom you know to be imperfect, and whom you struggle to love at times (as perhaps they struggle to love you!). THAT congregation, has an amazing purpose in God’s great plan of redemption, to be a place where God reveals his power and wisdom, in transforming lives and bringing light, hope and new life to people who were as good as dead in their inability to save themselves. We..you and I …are part of a body of people who are designed to be a showcase for God to our world!

Our unity, as believers and children of God, is to be a demonstration of God’s loving wisdom, fulfilling his plan to create a people for himself whose diversity celebrates his infinitely rich character, while reflecting the loving harmony between Father, Son and Spirit. In the same way that God is glorified in Jesus – our Saviour, Redeemer and Lord – so also he is to be glorified in the church!

Since we remain in a fallen world, we confess how badly we fall short of this vision. How much bitterness, division, selfishness and coldness exists – within and between congregations and denominations. God forgive us; we rob him of his glory, and blind people to his beauty by our own ugliness.

Oh may our hearts and minds be increasingly filled with the vision of the glory of Christ, so that blind to all else, we love one another for his sake – seeing his image in one another and united in our desire to see others come to know and be transformed by his forgiveness and love. Then and only then, will we truly glorify God as we ought.