Category Archives: bible study

The beloved voice….

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”….the Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake…the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. when Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

(1 Kin 19.11-13)

The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic..the voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.The voice of the Lord shakes the desert..The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare, and all in his temple cry, “Glory”.

(Ps 29.3,4,7-9)

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.

(Ps 42.8)

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.

(Zeph 3.17)

“..My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

(Jn 10.27-30)

A few weeks ago, I had the extraordinary experience of hearing – in quick succession – the voices of the three ministers who shaped my faith and life for my first thirty years. They had been recorded at a conference, and my husband was playing the recording to illustrate something to our daughter. I had to ask him to stop the recording, as I found that I was weeping and couldn’t bear to listen anymore – it had been such a surprise, and I was not prepared for it. Why should I cry to hear them? All three are now in glory with the Lord they served so faithfully, having lived long and rich lives to the blessing of untold numbers. And yet it hurt to hear them…

When people whom we love, and to whom we have owed a great deal are gone, any reminder of them is precious and also painful. Voices are such a distinctive part of personalities, and until they are silenced, we perhaps don’t realise how well we know them and how much they conjure up the speaker. And it is extraordinary how instant recognition can be, even for those we have not heard for a long time. Sometimes I wonder whether we shall sound the same in our new bodies in the new earth, so that we may recognise one another in a crowd again…

The pain and pleasure of those recollections set me thinking about all the ways the voice of God is used in Scripture. We have a communicating God, Hallelujah! We are not left to wonder what to do, or whom to worship, but hear from him in many ways…..God spoke with Adam and Eve in the garden, sharing in their life and enjoying their company. God spoke in dreams and visions, through angels and prophets directing his people and sharing his heart. God speaks in creation, in power and vision, in infinite detail and providential creativity for the sustaining of life. God thunders, and he whispers; and sometimes he is silent so that his people might learn to hunger for his voice again, and repent of their rebellion and rejection of him. God speaks intimately to the hearts of his children – singing lullabies over us, songs of deliverance and gladness in our relationship to him.

Do we know his voice well enough? When there is a cacophony of noise, competing claims on our attention and conflicting opinions on what is right, can we discern the Shepherd’s voice?

The three men of whom I spoke earlier ministered for decades here in Scotland, influencing thousands of lives for the gospel. I listened to them, submitted to the word lovingly preached and committed to share in the lives of their congregations. I learned to know and love them, and in their integrity saw that they were to be trusted as under-shepherds. Their voices came to be to me as the voice of God, and I gladly followed when they called.

Have I learned to know the voice of God in this way? Have I learned to love him? I see the work of creation; the tragedy of the Fall and all that has followed and I see the great redemptive work of Calvary where God said so clearly “I love you”, and I choose to trust him. I press on to know him better, not depending on the preacher but also wrestling with the word for myself, trusting that as I do so I may learn to hear the beloved voice more clearly and more often.

May I become more like Samuel, who listened attentively; like Jesus’ mother Mary, who listened submissively; like Mary Magdalene, who in listening discerned the loving voice of her beloved Lord and found resurrection hope, triumphant faith, and courage for life.

Observation..or celebration?

Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath..for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.

(Ex 20.9&11)

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

(Ps 27.4)

I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.

(Ps 34.1-3)

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath..

(Matt 11.28;12.8)

One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.

(Rom 14.5&6)

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you ear or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality however, is found in Christ.

(Col 2.16)

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall..

(Heb 4.9-11)

One of the benefits of this strange time is the extra opportunity to learn from the bible, to think about what it means to live in a fallen world where I am called to witness and work for God’s glory and kingdom. It can be easy to let the preacher think for us, instead of learning in the life-changing way which comes by personally wrestling with the truth. There can be challenges, as the truth is not always obvious, perhaps not what we have always assumed it to be. But what riches are found when we put in the effort, as the whole of scripture begins to speak with a unified voice, all leading to Christ and glorifying him!

The idea of ‘rest’ is one of the unifying themes of scripture. Did you realise that from the very beginning, God designed us to dwell with him in a place where he had done all the work? That is what Eden and the first day of rest was all about. And with the Fall, that divine rest was lost to humankind – we are on a continual quest for it, unable to find it because ultimately until we are at peace with God again, we cannot rest.

The commandment to remember the seventh day (because on that day the Lord rested), was a call to lay aside all human labour, to recognise that God has made all things; is sustaining them, and ultimately only He will provide the rest for which they were designed. It was always meant to be a day pointing to God, to his great love and mercy, to his promise to save his people if they would only depend on him and not on themselves.

Jesus makes it clear that he came to fulfill the law, to offer the promised rest  in himself. This rest is founded on peace with God, and Christ alone as the perfect sacrifice could create that peace. As Lord of Sabbath, he proclaims himself the king of rest, the one with absolute power to introduce a new creation where his people could live in the reality of that ‘rest’-ored relationship with God. The old regulations about Sabbath observance were now redundant, because the promise or fore-shadowing of rest had been fulfilled in Christ.

When we enter God’s offered rest, in Christ, we in turn rest from our own works – all our attempts to gain salvation and peace through rule-keeping; rituals and rites. To turn again to rigid ‘sabbath observance’ is therefore a dangerous nonsense! I am free in Christ to celebrate every day as a gift from God, graced with forgiveness and the liberating truth that it is all by his work that I am saved and welcomed into the Sabbath-rest which is the heritage of God’s children.

I am free to especially mark a particular day in appropriate ways in order to focus on the rest which is mine in Christ – but I am not free to impose on others or to judge them for their choices. I am free to celebrate – and for many of us this will be on a day when we can meet with other believers, and take extra time to enjoy God’s good gifts, perhaps Sunday, but perhaps another day depending on our culture!

I am also free to serve, expecting nothing in return, because God is all in all to me, and has promised to care for me. And significantly, I am free to sacrifice – to forgo my expressions of freedom if they cause another to stumble in their faith.

I do not observe the Sabbath. I celebrate the day which the Lord has made; the salvation which he has won; the sure hope of eternal life with him which is mine; and the daily reality that – no matter what is happening to me, within me, and around me – I am at rest with God forever. I have peace, Thanks be to God!

 

Like a spring of living water..

A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever.”

(Isa 40.6-8)

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.

(Jer 17.7&8)

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”

(Jn 7.37&38)

On 31st August, 2014, the first ‘forgetfulsoul’ blog was published, the fruit of many months of pondering and preparation, and also a step of obedience to a call to speak, to cry out what was in my heart and trust that if God wanted my words, he had plans to use them to bless.

The writing of these pieces has been a great blessing to me, as well as a healthy discipline, proving over and over the truth that God’s word is alive and powerful, endlessly relevant and the only reliable foundation for our faith. In scripture, I find the great narrative of God’s actions in creation and re-creation, as he works to bring about his dwelling with his people in perfect union and harmony. I see that my salvation is but a tiny part of an eternal theme of love, redemption, and transformation. I see Jesus, high and lifted up, the man in glory where his resurrected body stands as a guarantee of my own eternal future.

As I have wrestled with concepts and scriptures week by week, I have been reminding myself of the truth; pursuing the renewing of my mind according to God’s will; seeking for strength, hope, comfort, words to express my joy or despair, and finding over and over that He is faithful. Although I am ashamed that I seem to need the same lessons over and over again, yet I am also exultant, because the Lord has called me beloved, precious and even beautiful. He sees my weaknesses and has taken all into account, so that I can rest in his love for me, as one who is fully known and yet delighted in.

In writing and publishing these meditations each week, I have offered them to God for his use in blessing others, in encouraging his children wherever they may be, to persevere and to trust him. It has been a privilege to occasionally hear from people that they have indeed been blessed – and all the glory goes to the great author himself, who has given me the words and spoken through them. What a delight and honour, to be able to serve in this way, and to cry out for the Lord who loves and has saved me!

So I give thanks today, for these five years of service to the King of Kings, offered in faith and for the blessing of his people. Rejoice with me in the love which has been bestowed on us; the costly salvation which has been won for us; the grace which daily covers all our weaknesses and continues to forgive and cleanse us.

Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will.

Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion. 

Praise the Lord, O my soul!

(Psalm 103.20-22)

Dare I look?..

Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from wilful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

(Ps 19.12-14)

Do good to your servant according to your word, O Lord. Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I believe in your commands….It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Ps 119.65,66&71)

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart…..God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

(Heb 4.12; 12.10&11)

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and , after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.

(James 1.22-25)

Why do we have mirrors? To show us ourselves – not our neighbours, nor our spouses and children – and to show us our context, the place where we are standing. In biblical terms, the “mirror” is the word of God, the sure source of truth amid the distorting lies which the fallen world, and our own weak natures spin to us about who we are, and what life is really all about. This mirror will not lie to us, to make us feel better about who we are, or to pretend that all is well. This mirror will also not fail to speak the truth about who God says we are, and have been made in Christ.

This mirror tells us that without Christ, we are hopeless sinners in a broken world under the judgement of a holy God, and with a future of eternal separation from Love himself. It tells us that with Christ – as we are found by faith in him – we are redeemed, beloved children of God; there is no sentence of judgement hanging over us any more, and at heart, we are new creatures – no longer sinners by nature, but holy ones, or saints, who sometimes sin but not in settled rebellion against our creator. As we look into this mirror, we should come away filled with confidence and gladness, thankful for the new life we have received and the security that God is keeping us safe for an eternal future with him.

So yes, I should indeed dare to look into the mirror, and often! But it also shows me truth about the hidden and wilful sins which I – as God’s holy child – still commit so persistently, and this can be very painful to see. Too often, I come with my own idea of how I look – self-righteous, patronisingly long-suffering, martyred in my own eyes as other people let me down…

The mirror of God’s word has particularly revealing powers, bringing into sharp and painful definition all the ways in which I am committing those same sins which I attribute to others; full of pride instead of humility, and cherishing endurance instead of loving generously. God does not ask me to be the guardian of another person’s soul, but only to be accountable to him for myself – nothing excuses my unloving spirit; there is always good reason to forgive, because in Christ I am forgiven; I am given life and breath each day in order to bless others, to show God’s love to them, to give in the face of indifference and rejection and not count the cost.

No excuses, no special ‘make-up’ to cover the blemishes, only the searching gospel-light of scripture directed by the Holy Spirit which is designed to bring me daily to my knees in repentance and confession, then to my feet in rejoicing as I go in Christ’s strength and love to do the work in hand.

May the grace of God cover all those ways in which I let others down, and may he continue to show me where I am wilfully sinning, and to uncover hidden sins, that I might repent and be cleansed. What a faithful God we have, who having sealed us for eternity, also gives us all we need to live joyfully and with ever purer hearts for him each day!

A nourishing soil…

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked..But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.

(Ps 1.1-3)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statues of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure enduring for ever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are much more precious than gold..they are sweeter than honey..

(Ps 19.7-10)

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

(Col 3.15-17)

At a recent small group bible study, we were challenged to think just what it means for the word of Christ to “dwell richly” in us, and these thoughts are largely the fruit of that discussion. It is a phrase which I instinctively warm to, even though it takes some unpacking. This is something which I want to be true in my life, a prize which I covet..so what might it look like?

My first thought – as a gardener – was of the way in which plants either thrive or struggle in a given environment, and the difference which a little care and appropriate nourishment and attention can make to them. If we consider that the word of Christ has been planted in us – the source of our new life, and all those wonderful things celebrated in Psalm 19 – then we have a choice as to how we treat it.

Each person is unique, and each will respond more easily to certain parts of the word than others, depending on how they are made – for some reason, I find it easier to read and learn from the letters in the New Testament, than from the gospels for example. The letters readily bear fruit in my life, I connect with them easily. Does this mean that I neglect the gospels? No, it means I need to think like a gardener with a reluctant plant – I take time, I study how this particular species needs to be treated, and I approach it accordingly, confident that my actions will bear fruit. The results may not be spectacular, and this particular ‘plant’ may never come as easily and abundantly to me as the others, but I will be enriched nonetheless.

I can rejoice that God by his Holy Spirit stirs up within me an appetite for his word and a desire to be changed by it, so that I become rich in those things which matter – the Christ-likeness which is God’s purpose for me; holiness, love, discernment and courage to withstand evil and preach the gospel. The word dwells richly in my life when it is the most beautiful, the most dominant, the most desired thing I have – it is my prize because in it I find Christ and all the love of God for me.

As a singer, I especially rejoice in Paul’s suggestion that the word dwells richly in us when we sing just as much as when we speak together! I find immense blessing in singing the truths of faith, and in the way that the God-gift of music can embed the God-gift of gospel truth in my heart and mind. You may have heard people say that music ‘enriches their lives’, and surely for a follower of Jesus this is even more true, since our songs carry the word of Christ with them! Our emotions are a part of God’s making of humanity in his image, and while it is not wise to be driven by them, we are supposed to receive blessing through feelings – as we grieve over sin and rejoice in salvation; as we are eased by the beauty around us, and stirred by tunes which admirably fit the words to which they are set.

As we meet our fellow believers today, and as we live in a world which desperately needs to know our Lord, may his word be deeply embedded in us, bearing fruit and creating in us the beauty which is a faint mirror of his. May we speak and sing his truth, to his glory and the blessing of many..

Bible colouring exercises..?!

You must go on steadily in those things that you have learned and which you know are true. Remember from what sort of people your knowledge has come, and how from early childhood your mind has been familiar with the holy scriptures, which can open the mind to the salvation which comes through believing in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living. The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God, and fit him fully for all branches of his work.

(2 Tim 3.14-17: JB Phillips, the New Testament in Modern English)

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness….Teach the older men…teach the older women..so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men…set them an example..so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us…Teach slaves…so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and wordly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

(Titus 1.1; from 2.1-10, 2.11-14)

I am part of a group of women in my community who meet together to study the bible regularly. We use DVD’s, books, and occasionally an approach which I find hugely enjoyable, called Inductive Bible Study. It requires us to print out the bible passage with plenty of space on the page to scribble on, get hold of coloured pencils and start… there are a few key questions, but no study guide and no formulaic answers.

What is so good about this technique is the way it builds confidence in the follower of Jesus, confidence in their own capacity to hear God speaking through his word without a preacher explaining it to them! I love to listen to sermons, it is my favourite way of learning about the bible and receiving the word. BUT I also know that I need to be able to read and learn from the scriptures on my own and in a small group, so this technique for bible study is very encouraging.

Perhaps you can guess from the texts quoted above that our study recently was the book of Titus – all three chapters in one session. It was fantastic fun! We traced the key ideas which cropped up all through the book, and all of a sudden, something which we had initially read rather mechanically, became enthralling and relevant to us here and now. If you are not familiar with Titus, and assume that since Paul wrote it, there must be some difficult arguments and hard concepts in it, please think again! The book is a delightful exposition of what it looks like to grow in the ‘knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness‘, basically a handbook of practical christian holiness.

In Titus, we are reminded over and over that God is trustworthy, his word is true and comes to us through the scriptures and the preaching and teaching of that word. In our culture where everything is relative and the devil would have us believe that there is no such thing as truth, how we need to remember and affirm the truth about Jesus, about God, holiness and judgement. We are warned to be on guard against those within the church as well as in our culture, whose beliefs and actions are deceitful and self-promoting. And we are reminded that our growth in godliness, in purity and the lovely qualities of Christ-likeness to which we aspire, should speak as loudly as our words in showing Jesus Christ and the gospel of salvation to those around us.

What a challenge Titus gives us: is my life self-controlled, upright and godly? Am I reverent, eager to do what is good, not a gossip or a glutton? Am I encouraging others to grow in their faith, and waiting in confident hope for the glory to come? None of these things are a means of earning the salvation which God’s grace gives; rather they are all manifestations of my response to that free gift.

May God stir up within me a spirit of thankfulness, dependence and eagerness to grow in godliness, so that I too might ‘make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’.

 

Never stop learning!

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

(Prov 9.9&10)

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart…Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I trust your commands…It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees…Your statutes are my heritage for ever; they are the joy of my heart. My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.

(Ps 119.33,34,66,71,111,112)

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

(Heb.4.12&13)

I was greatly blessed recently by the presence in our home of two of the brightest saints I know, whose company is always a joy and encouragement, and whose zest for life and the service of their Saviour is unquenchable. It was an honour, but also a very humbling experience, to see their strength in the Lord’s service, their zeal for his glory, and their vigour. They would claim no special talents, but only boast of the wonderful God who has enabled them for a lifetime of service – on the mission field in Africa, and here in Scotland – which continues in their “retirement”, with a schedule that would leave many of us gasping.

In the course of one of our many conversations, we touched on the importance of having a “teachable spirit”, and by that we did not mean being one who pursues learning for the sake of head-knowledge, but rather the one who is always aware that they are not yet what God desires them to be, and that there is always something to learn. The verse from Proverbs puts it beautifully, showing that wisdom can ALWAYS be added to, and that those who truly seek to grow in godliness will find God willing to teach them. Those who fear the Lord, will truly make it their aim to be life-long learners, pursuing to the very end of their days a deeper understanding of his word and of how he desires us to live.

There are perhaps two distinct kinds of wisdom in view here. Firstly, that which we direct ourselves, through our choices in reading, listening and watching. As followers of Christ, we can choose to engage with the bible in a way that helps us to understand deep truth, to wrestle with moral and ethical issues in the light of its teaching, so that our witness will be informed, humble and truthful. This is where conscious choice operates, perhaps based on events around us, or on topics which have arisen in conversation or in a sermon.

The other kind of wisdom is directed by our own circumstances, or those of our loved ones, where we have little or no control over events and cannot forsee where they are taking us. When the psalmist writes that it was “good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees”, he is touching on a mysterious truth. Human beings learn faith best under adverse circumstances; our pain and suffering drive us beyond our own resources to admit that we are not in control and to cling to God for strength and aid in our extremity of need.

My visitors have known both kinds of learning, and their lives testify that they continue to seek after God’s truth both in their deliberate study of his word and also as they experience trials of many kinds. It takes humility to admit that after decades of following Christ, one still has things to learn, and that is what we meant by that phrase a “teachable spirit”. Do I have it?…

When I find myself impatient with the failings of others….Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn your patience, because you have not given up on me;

When I find myself confident in a human being, trusting in an organisation and a structure……Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn that all men are as grass, frail and fallible and none may be truly relied upon save you alone;

When I find myself despairing of my own failings…..Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn to live in the light of your promises, resting on the assurance of your putting away of all my guilt through the death of Jesus for me;

When I become proud, and independent….Lord, forgive me, bring me back to utter dependence on you and grant that I might learn to walk ever more closely with you.

A prickly character….?

Now we ask you brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you , brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.

(1 Thessalonians 5.12-15)

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

(Romans 12.18)

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of  no advantage to you.

(Hebrew 13.17)

One of the most amazing signs of God’s love and grace is the continued existence of his church in the world. Think about it for a moment..Within a few short years of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the gospel had spread across the known world – all very good and encouraging – BUT the infant church was riddled with divisions, hostility and false teaching. The letters to the young churches in the New Testament address a depressingly familiar set of problems, and Paul, Peter and John must have wondered what on earth the future could possibly hold for the church as a whole!

Although I have referred to the problems as ‘depressingly familiar’, there is also a sense in which we can be profoundly encouraged..Why? because in spite of the chronic weakness and persistent failures of believers from the very beginning, the church still exists! God has preserved the witness of his people, has extended the reach of the gospel and continues to transform lives around the world through the power of the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross.

I have been struck afresh recently by just how very hard it must be for our leaders to maintain their energy, hope and vision for the work to which God has called them. Consider the gulf between the ideal church, as described in the extracts above, and the gruesome reality.

Instead of being respected, leaders are taken for granted, put upon and made to suffer unrealistic expectations. Instead of being a people on fire for the gospel, with hearts full of love and practical ways of reaching out, we are largely lukewarm, nominally committed, preoccupied with other parts of life, and indifferent to the call to pray and dig into the word that we might grow and share our faith. Instead of regarding ourselves as fellow labourers, we sit back and criticise when our favourite hymns are not sung, or a visit is not made, or someone sits in our seat. Instead of seeking to live lovingly and peaceably, we indulge our grudges and become touchy, prickly, hard to work with and dangerous to cross.

We are not a beautiful sight, we sheep of the great shepherd. We are lazy, ignorant, easily distracted and selfish. These are not pleasant words, but if we consider our own lives and look around us, we can see their truth. If all the people who – on paper – are members of our churches were living as the apostles describe, and living with a passion to see God glorified in their lives and communities, what a difference there would be. How our pastors and teachers would rejoice when they came to meet with their flocks, seeing the eagerness to learn, to praise, to seek God’s will and power at work in this world. How their labours would be lightened as they humbly wrestled with the word, preparing to share it with the people that we might all learn and grow.

Yes, of course, this side of heaven the church will always be full of sinners who have been saved, and who are being transformed – but is that an excuse for not trying to engage more enthusiastically with God as he seeks to change us? Does the love of God in Christ not call forth a stronger response in us than dutiful attendance, and occasional participation?

I don’t want to be a burden on my pastor, a drain on his enthusiasm, a quenching of his God-given vision for the work. I want to be one of those who encourages him, whose attitude and presence gives him hope that God is working and can make a difference, one in whom he can trust and find sympathy and love.

May God find me eager to submit to his transforming work in my life, so that I might be good for his church, good for my leaders, good for my community, and above all, might bring glory to him!

A cold shower?

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word..

(Ephesians 5.25&26)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

(Psalm 19. 7&8)

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

(Hebrews 4.12)

Sometimes, the things which are good for us, are not the easy or comfortable things…as fallen creatures, we lean constantly towards the quick fix, the path of least resistance, and the minimising of effort and discomfort. But in our hearts, we know that such traits are unhealthy – in the long run, we will pay the price for our current bad choices.

Healthy eating, appropriate exercise, moderation in our spending and generosity in our giving…we know that these are good for our bodies and minds, but what about the nurture of our spirits?

The bible is very clear that for the follower of Jesus, there is an obligation to pursue holiness – a lifelong quest to become like Christ, in obedient and loving response to his sacrificial death for us. It is also made clear that left to ourselves, we will twist and distort this noble quest into some travesty of God’s plan – we become bitterly judgemental like the Pharisees of Jesus day, and fall into the sin of pride in our own achievements.

Praise God, that in his mercy, he has not left us alone to pursue this quest. Instead, we read that it is Christ at work in us, the Spirit moving in power, who makes the changes. And the tool he has appointed is his word, the revelation contained in the bible, which is God’s inspired and infallible word to us his children.

We turn to the pages of the bible gladly enough for comfort, and for inspiration, but there is a danger that we will choose to ignore those passages which come too close to our bad habits and cherished sins! It is certainly true that God is working to sanctify – to make us clean and pure and whole – but we are called to work to cooperate with him in that process. Such co-operation requires our willingness to be open to rebuke, correction and the death of pride. When God grants us faith to believe that his love is perfect, and has only our good as its goal, then we find the will to trust that love in action, in convicting us of sin, bringing us to repentance, and re-shaping our minds and hearts so that sin’s stain is forever removed.

I believe that we must discipline ourselves to submit every part of our lives to God’s searching and transforming power, holding nothing back. It may be that there will be things we don’t even recognise as sins until the Spirit takes the word and cuts through to the heart, showing us the ugly realities of thought and deed. God is merciful, he knows how frail we are, and does not choose that we should be overwhelmed by understanding all at once just how deeply rooted our sinful nature is – we are not able to bear such self-knowledge. Instead, as we open ourselves up to the truth of the word, he opens our eyes, little by little, so that over the years, he washes us clean of stain after stain.

These words of an old hymn express a beautiful prayer for such steady, cleansing interaction with the word of God – an interaction which should be just as much part of our daily routine as eating, washing and brushing our teeth!

Make the book live to me, O Lord, show me Thyself within Thy word;

Show me myself, and show me my Saviour, and make the book live to me.

(R. Hudson Pope)

Sometimes, it will be a comforting encounter, sometimes as shocking and bracing as a cold shower, but every time we open the word, we invite God to do something in our lives. All praise to him, that in his mercy he is working patiently and lovingly to make us holy, and beautiful in his sight!

How shall they hear?

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got – all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols….”It is plain to see that you Athenians takeyour religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, TO THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.

(Acts17)

This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God – “Jesus is my Master” – embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation…It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help….but how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if  nobody tells them?

(Romans 10)

Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.

(1Peter 3)

All from The Message – the New Testament in contemporary language

When Paul stood up in the Areopagus in Athens, to direct the attention of this diverse and intelligently curious people to the ‘unknown god’ whom they worshipped, he faced a major challenge. Which language should he use?

As a Pharisee – a teacher of the Jewish law – he was skilled in using all the technical language which grows up around faith and the literature on which that faith is built. The terminology was second nature to him, and he was adept in drawing on scripture for his arguments. In his new life as an apostle, and a church-planter and teacher, these skills were hugely significant, equipping him to articulate and elucidate all the implications of the coming of Jesus Christ as the long- awaited Messiah.

But as he moved further from Jerusalem, and as the Holy Spirit moved him further from Jewish populations, he had to articulate and teach faith to people who had no background in the books and culture of Judaism, and no family history of observance to inform their understanding. Paul had to learn new ways to communicate this world-changing faith, this good news about Jesus Christ, which would be understood by people of completely different religious backgrounds. His speech to the Athenians as recorded in Acts 17 is one such attempt, and is often cited as a model for evangelistic addresses in places where there is no history of christian faith (and he didn’t hesitate to call for repentance in light of coming judgement!)

In studying this passage with folk at church recently, we agreed that in order to effectively share our faith with our neighbours – a thing we agree is right – we need to purge our speech of all the technical jargon which followers of Jesus tend to adopt. We need to have thought clearly about what is meant by salvation, about the incarnation and the divinity of Jesus, about resurrection and sanctification – all these big words which we use so lightly!

It can be helpful to read regularly in versions of the bible such as the Message, because they use contemporary language for complex concepts, and we learn how to express ourselves in the words of daily life when sharing our faith. I was challenged by this study, to think how readily I talk in an almost coded ‘faith-speak’ which would be incomprehensible to a person without a long experience of the bible. In the same way that I lack the knowledge to ‘read’ ancient religious mosaics, so my hearers will fail to understand me. I may well be speaking truth, but the message isn’t getting through!

If I am serious about sharing the good news of a new start in life, a real healing for brokenness and hope for the future, then for the sake of my neighbours, I need to put in the work and learn to talk simply and courteously about Jesus.

How shall they come to faith in God, if no one tells them about him? And if the words I use, and the life I live is too remote from their experience of daily life, then they will not hear, no matter how earnestly I speak to them.

May I become in this more like Jesus, who lived among us, full of grace and truth, and in his words and actions, spoke directly to the hearts of his hearers.