Category Archives: Comfort

A pleasure, and a privilege..

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in agreement with the faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him lead diligently; if it is showing mercy let him do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.

(Rom 12.6-13)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms…so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

(1 Pet 4.7-11)

Tomorrow, for the first time in many months, there will be guests in our house, sharing food around a table. A simple thing, denied to us for so long because of the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on daily life designed to restrain and defeat it. We have learned a great deal over these months about ourselves, our habits, the freedom and activities we took for granted.

It felt so good today, to be pottering about the house preparing to welcome people, thinking about the food but also looking out dishes and glasses which will be a pleasure to use, clearing a space which will be pleasant to sit in, and anticipating the conversations which will be a joy to participate in.

Offering hospitality was something in which my parents excelled, and barely a weekend passed without a gathering of folk over a meal on a Sunday after church. I appreciate only now as an adult, the work which went into this, but I know that my parents offered it as part of their service of the Lord whom they loved, and for the sake of his people. Hundreds of folk found a haven there over the years, many became friends, others passed on having been refreshed and blessed by the food and the encouragement of time with faithful believers. It was offered with no expectation of return – although my mother did love it when someone invited her round even just for a cup of tea! Rather, this was a way of using their gifts to glorify God, even as Peter directed the readers of his letter.

Another dear friend made it a habit to open her house every Friday morning for coffee to any who wished to drop in. A simple gathering, but one which over the years became for me a place of refuge, encouragement, and deep affection. This was her gift to us, a place of love and acceptance, a celebration of friendship. 

When we are willing to bless others in this way – by opening our homes to them for refreshment and conversation – we are using the gifts which God has given us, and it is a pleasure to do so. We offer out of his generosity to us, in order that they should be encouraged and give thanks to God in turn. Our privilege as those in possession of homes, food, and somewhere to sit, is to use these things for God’s glory. We can use them in reaching those who know nothing of Jesus, sharing our lives as well as our food, choosing to be available and vulnerable and involved with our neighbours. 

As the freedom to welcome others into my home is restored to me, how am I going to use it? Will I choose to offer what I can, to make the awkward conversation with the folk I should have invited a long time ago? Will I begin to make it a habit to invite people in for a meal or just a cuppa, keeping it simple but genuinely engaging and opening my life to them so that when the opportunity arises, we might speak of Jesus, of a love which passes understanding, and a hope which cannot fail? 

This I do know..

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.

(Ps 27.4-6)

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?..But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Matt 6.27,33&34)

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun..

So what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen?

(Rom 8.29-33, The Message)

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. 

(2 Cor 4.16-18)

What does it mean, to love God? Is it about feelings? Is it a continual state of joy, an endless experience of peace?

I would counter with another question…what does it mean to love another person? I think it means to seek what is best for them, whatever that may look like. Love is what prompts a parent to release their children into the world, into independence and adulthood, having spent years caring for them. Love is what prompts a spouse to go on forgiving their partner, to go on asking forgiveness, to go on trying to be more gentle, understanding, supportive – it is love which seeks to see the other thrive, whatever it takes. Love for the other is what can drive us to become better people – for their sake we tackle the weaknesses and failings which cause them so much trouble. The care-free young adult, on becoming a parent may find stores of patience, determination, and self-sacrificial commitment which transform them, all for the sake of the infant committed to their care.

So when I am tormented by the enemy of God’s people about my own feeble commitment to Jesus, when I am reminded of my ongoing sin, continued failures, the weaknesses which injure others and undermine my witness, I hold on to this thing that I know..I hold on to the truth about love…it’s not about my feelings, but about my motivation and actions. What drives me, what grieves me, what do I hunger for?

The answer to those questions is – as truthfully as I can tell it – that I long, like the psalmist, to dwell in God’s presence, to see his face and be worthy to be there with him. I remind myself that God’s own Son was willing, out of love,  to die for me – I matter that much to him, and in that death, my sin is dealt with once and for all. It cannot be used to drive me away from him, but only towards him in dependence on that full forgiveness. He knows how bitterly I grieve for my own sin, for the ways I fall short of righteousness and holiness….and he hasn’t given up on me. He knows I hunger to be more steadfast, eloquent, fruitful, Christ-like …..and he hasn’t given up on me. He knows how easily I am swayed by self-pity and general self-centredness…..and he hasn’t given up on me.

How glorious is this reassurance to all those – like me – who are making their way steadily, but full of self-doubt, along the road to our eternal home! God is going to finish what he started, and that heart-hunger to give him joy is his gift of reassurance, that I am on the right road. I may not feel joyful or victorious, powerful or holy – so what! I KNOW that God has saved and forgiven me, loves me, and is ALWAYS at work in me by his Spirit to realise the likeness of his beloved son, my saviour, Jesus.

On being worn thin…

Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways…Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it only leads to evil.

If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand…For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones..The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps and delivers them; he saves them, because they take refuge in him.

(Ps 37.1-8,23&24,28,39&40)

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.

(Hab 3.17-19)

Do not let your hearts be troubled, Trust in God; trust also in me..Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid….In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world..

(Jn 14.1&27, 16.33)

Lord God, hear my prayer today…I am being fretted away by sorrow and trouble as  wind and sand fret away the rocks until they collapse and are no more. 

Lord God, hear my prayer today….I am being distressed by evil and human wickedness as the smooth polish of fine wood is destroyed by sandpaper and rough handling.

Lord God, hear my prayer today… I am being robbed of all my peace by the aggravation of unquiet thoughts, as the traveller is rendered furious by assault of biting insects.

Have mercy on your servant in this, her distress, as she hears your command, ‘Do not fret’, and would seek to obey it. 

How should we deal with these continual pressures which bear upon us in this sin-sick world of ours? By what means can we resist this erosion of spirit and hope? We choose to make full use of the protection which God in his mercy has abundantly provided for his children. We are not passive victims of this process, but active agents with(God’s) power to change the situation, and the psalmist lays out clearly – both what we should do, and what we can confidently expect God to do for us!

  • Trust in the Lord, and do good – choose to believe and then act on what we believe.
  • Delight in the Lord – making his glory, power, love and goodness our chief source of joy and the focus of our thoughts. 
  • Commit our way to the Lord – handing over rule of our lives to the One who knows and does all things well.
  • Be still and wait before the Lord – his timing is perfect and it is his power which will achieve his purposes. He longs for our worship, not our advice or fussing and rushing about!
  • Turn from wrath – choosing to give to the God of Justice, the business of judging and carrying out the appropriate sentence; accepting that we cannot judge aright, and are ourselves forgiven sinners.
  • Take refuge in God – literally hiding ourselves, clothing ourselves in his protection as the secure wall we need.

And what does God undertake to do for those whom He loves?

  • God will fulfill the desires which arise in us as we rest in him.
  • God will display his righteousness in us, we shall shine as the sun at dawn because of his glory and strength at work in transforming us into the likeness of Christ
  • God will keep us from falling, steadying our steps as we lean on him.
  • God will be ever-present with us in love, delivering us from sin, protecting us from evil.

Jesus assured his disciples on the night before he died that their peace would be secure because the world which would seek to trouble them had been overcome. The One who came as light into our darkness has triumphed over it – that light CANNOT be quenched, and we stand in that light, clothed in that victory.

Thank you Father, that you have done all things needful, and that as I trust in you, I am at peace. Be glorified in my life, as your strength and love shield me from all that would wear me out and break my spirit. I will rest in you and be still.

when the child strays…

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding…A wise child brings joy to their father, but a foolish one brings grief to their mother.

(Prov 9.10&10.1)

“All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations – a people who continually provoke me to my very face…such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day.

(Isa 65.2-5)

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me..My people are determined to turn from me…How can I give you up Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man – the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath. They will follow the Lord; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west”

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall!…Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously…We will never again say, ‘Our gods’ to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion.” “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.”

(Hos 11.1,2,7-10; 14.1-4)

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing..

(Matt 23.37)

I have shied away from writing this piece for some time, fully aware that in it I will touch upon a most painful topic for many who might be reading – what happens when a child born to a christian family turns away from following Jesus personally in adulthood. I offer no ready answers, and I hope that I also treat the subject with the delicacy which it deserves, and in no way appear to trivialise it.

We believe that each individual is called to a personal relationship with God through Jesus, and that nothing can take the place of this intimate submission and enthronement of Christ. Our salvation does not depend upon the faith of our parents or anyone else close to us – but on our personal acceptance of the gospel.

As christian parents, we know that the highest good for our children is to follow us into such a relationship. But..we cannot make this happen, any more than by giving our child music lessons we can make them a world class performer! Our duty lies in modelling faith, in teaching what we have learnt, and in seeking to commend the gospel to our children at all times….and we know perfectly well that we fail in this, because we are not perfect. Be comforted dear friend, and remember that the perfect Father of all, our great loving God, also watches his children turn away from him all the time – and that not because he has failed in his loving of them, but because of the sin which is our birthright.

What then? What does our Father do? He calls, he waits, he allows his children to reap the consequences of their rebellions, waiting until they come to their senses and recognise that they are astray in a foreign land, starving, when back home in their father’s house, there is food, security and hope. And when they finally turn and call to him, they find him right there, with his arms wide open in welcome and his love to lavish upon them. God never forces himself upon the unwilling; but the mystery lies in the ways that he creates that willingness – by His spirit working through the very circumstances of the rebellion.

As we wait and love, pray and hope, watching our unbelieving children make their way in the world, we remember and take comfort from God’s understanding of our sorrows. Our own grief gives us a glimpse of the heartbreak which our Father experiences all the time, as his children reject and despise his love,  trying to find compassion and salvation anywhere else but in him.

Our heavenly Father wants our children to trust him, even more than we want it – do we believe this? We must, because the bible makes it very clear. The whole eternal scheme of redemption is designed to draw an unbelieving world into the arms of the One who yearns over them with the tenderness which we read in Hosea. Our own straying offspring matter so much that Jesus died for them, and rose to secure their inheritance, with ours, in eternity.

Let us therefore not lose hope, but cling to our Father in our prayers for the wanderers, knowing that his great heart recognises our grief and takes it up into his own. We are carried by the great Shepherd, who searches diligently, calling for his lost sheep, and does not give up.

Famous last words…

Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!

(Ps 150)

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

(Matt 28.18-20)

Therefore, dear friends….be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen

(2 Pet 3.17&18)

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”..Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life…He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

(Rev 22.16,17&20)

Intelligent writers and speakers know that their closing words will influence how people remember and respond to their messages. An effective summary, or an exhortation that follows from the content of a speech or written piece can enthuse, galvanise and equip for action.

All these scriptures close their respective books, and leave the reader in no doubt about the essential message intended by their authors. The Psalms close in a cacophony of celestial and earthly praise to the Lord who reigns on high; the perfect and ultimate King of his people, in whom alone lies security and where they find forgiveness, peace and wholeness. It is almost the Old Testament equivalent of the exhortation to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ which is found in the letter to the church in Thessalonica.

Matthew chooses to close his record with the commissioning of the church to make disciples, coupled with Jesus’ assurance that he will be with us to the end of all things. We are left in no doubt of our task, and of the resources – in Jesus – to accomplish it. The letters of the apostles often end in passionate exhortations based on theological teaching,  to make sure that their hearers are in no doubt about what it means to live as followers of the risen Lord – again combining comfort and encouragement with instruction. And Revelation itself ends in a glorious statement  of Jesus’ authority, of the gift of life which he alone can offer, and the promise that he will come soon – comfort for a persecuted church and to God’s people ever since as we wait in faith..

In church services, we refer to the ‘benediction’ – which might be translated as the ‘good word’ –  spoken over the congregation by the pastor or leader in closing public worship. These words  often remain in our minds and – if well chosen – can bring lasting blessing. I want to share with you two such ‘good words’, one which focuses on the immediate task of the church, and the other on its hope for the future.

We have a faith that is real, in a gospel that is true, about a Saviour who has come and is coming again, and has given us work to do. So let us go, and the blessing of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you, now and evermore…

May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest among you and remain with you until the day breaks and the shadows flee away…

Dear friends, we are called by the Saviour who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords to bear witness to him in a world of shadows, pain and darkness. He is the light, we the light-bearers; He is the healer, we the stretcher-bearers. We are able, because He is with us in the darkness and is the light within. We are weak, but He is strong and works in and through us. He will not rest until the dawning of the day when His kingdom comes in all its glory and all the shadows flee away; the day when he will come to dwell with his children in love and joy and fullness.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

[ my thanks to Stuart Smith for the first, and the late James Philip for the second benediction]

The relief of unconditional love….

How long, I Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?..But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.

(Ps 13.5)

Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful to me and answer me…do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Saviour. Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me…I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

(Ps 27.7,9&10, 13&14)

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness..as a bride adorns herself with her jewels..

(Isa 61.10)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins…Each one of you should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms..so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

(1 Pet 4.7-11)

As the tension level rises, my stomach churns and I want to both scream and fight, and also run away, I draw great breaths and cry out to God for mercy in my time of trouble.

As the atmosphere gets colder, conversation more and more awkward so that everything I say is somehow wrong and irritating, I cry out to God for mercy in our time of trouble.

As everything I am seems to be difficult for others to live with – both my strengths and my weaknesses, I weep in my heart and curl up small, trying not to cause more trouble. I cry out to God for mercy in my distress and beg his enabling for those who have to live with me.

I give thanks, starting with the little things that daily remind me of God’s provision for me and I am calmed. The provision for my bodily comfort which is more than adequate; the beauty of the land around me which ministers to my spirit; the exhilirating shock of cold sea water on my skin which reminds me of the precious gift of life itself.

I turn my thoughts to the gospel which is the greatest gift God gives to his children; I remind myself that I deserve nothing and yet receive more than I can imagine. I remind myself that I am just as deserving of judgement as those who may have hurt me, or whose reactions to me show how difficult they find me. I focus on mercy, on grace, on the totally free outpouring of forgiveness and the new birth into eternal life which IS mine in Jesus. I am humbled and ashamed of the critical spirit which has been raging in me against my fellow sinners.

My soul, hear this…the God of the universes desires your companionship. The maker of the stars in all their glory looks at you and is glad, delighting in the beauty and richness of all that you are. The Almighty, holy and pure and unable to look on sin, enjoys your delight in the world and all that each day and moment brings. Your quirks and bad habits do not exasperate the one who calls you ‘Beloved’; your lack of intellect and the narrowness of your interests does not bore or alienate the one who died to save you. Oh my dear wounded, rejected and frightened self, run to your Lord’s loving arms and take refuge there. In that secure clasp take comfort and breathe deeply, relax and be held by the one who has promised NEVER to let go of you.

And in time, you will find that you are able to return in his strength to the task appointed, to the people whom you are privileged to love in his name. And your first task is to forgive them, even as you are forgiven by your Father, so that they might receive from you that unconditional love which alone heals and restores and sustains. You cannot love perfectly, but you can keep on asking for divine help, and giving thanks for the divine grace and providence which works in and through you  in spite of your ongoing failures.

May God in his mercy be pleased to continue his work in and through each one of us, as we love and serve one another in his name, forgiving as many times as necessary and choosing love and loyalty over resentment and revenge. To him be the glory, as he fulfills his purposes so that in us, as well as in everything else, God may be praised through our Lord Jesus.

Dust-bound…

I lie in the dust, completely discouraged; revive me by your word. I told you my plans, and you answered. Now teach me your principles. Help me understand the meaning of your commandments, and I will meditate on your wonderful miracles. I weep with grief; encourage me by your word. Keep me from lying to myself; give me the privilege of knowing your law. I have chosen to be faithful; I have determined to live by your laws. I cling to your decrees. Lord, don’t let me be put to shame! If you will help me, I will run to follow your commands.

(Ps 119.25-32)

If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject criticism, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding.

(Pr 15.31-32)

So get rid of all the filth and evil in  your lives, and humbly accept the message God has planted in your hearts, for it is strong enough to save your souls. And remember, it is a message to obey, not just to listen to. If you don’t obey, you are only fooling yourself. For if you just listen and don’t obey, it is like looking at your face in a mirror but doing nothing to improve your appearance. You see yourself, walk away and forget what you look like. But if you keep looking steadily into God’s perfect law – the law that sets you free – and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, than God will bless you for doing it. 

(Jas 1.21-25)

I am thankful that when we read the scriptures handed down to us, we find the people of God struggling with doubts, burdened in spirit and sometimes utterly discouraged. Their experiences – recorded for us in God’s mercy and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – are profoundly reassuring when we face our own periods of heaviness, doubt and despondency.

Here we find the saints of old pouring out their grief over the world, and over the state of their own hearts – the largest to the smallest matter is fit to bring to the mercy-seat of the Almighty when it comes burdening one of his beloved children. How wonderful to have such ready access to a loving, accepting heart; how amazing to know that when we come in near despair at the apparent inactivity of the God in whom we seek to trust, still he welcomes us and cherishes our tears and agonies. Our struggles to believe in the face of the barrage of reasons to doubt are precious to our Father, and our resolute clinging to his word as our source of security and strength is entirely the work of his spirit.

So today I am summoned not to hide my griefs away, to put on a brave face, but to come with all the mess, doubt and fear which stirs within me and robs me of my peace. To come and confess that I have deceived myself, harbouring false images of my own godliness. It is painful to be undeceived, to see that I had begun to take pride in myself, but it is necessary. Instead, I am forcibly presented with unpleasant truths about selfishness, indolence, and an unloving spirit.

O God, when shall I be free of this deceitful spirit? When shall I finally live as one with nothing to be ashamed of? Only when my resurrection body finally stands before you in glory shall I know that total freedom of which now I have tantalising glimpses. Only then shall I be free of this interminable battle to stand against my own weakness and the wiles of the evil one – make it happen soon, dear Lord your children are hungry for holiness and weary of war…

Only in Jesus’s death for me can I find comfort in these days – this is love; unmistakeable, inexplicable, unshakeable. My failure to grow in holiness; my self-centred and small-mindedness; my failure in loving and serving; my ineffectual living….all these things are somehow forgiven, and I am loved. I am ashamed to fail my Lord in so many ways, to bring so little honour to his name – and to know that this will be the case until he mercifully takes me home.

O Lord, encourage me in your word; teach me your ways and comfort my griefs.  I can do nothing worthwhile, think nothing good, believe nothing true, unless you enable me. May I receive your gentle and loving correction as you show me the truth of my own heart, so that your word and Spirit bear fruit in my life which does honour to you, and blesses those to whom you have sent me.

 

His door is never shut…

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

(Ps 23.5&6)

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. For what you have done I will always praise you in the presence of your faithful people. And I will hope in your name, for your name is good.

(Ps 52.8&9)

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.

(Isa 33.5&6)

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

(Heb 10.19-22)

A few months ago, I knew nothing about ‘social distancing’, COVID19 and ‘shielding’. I met friends in coffee shops, stayed in their houses in order to attend choir practice, visit the hairdresser and go shopping. I thought nothing of hugging, touching, expressing love through my hands as well as my words. And every week, I met with fellow believers to sing, pray and study God’s word in a variety of buildings around our parish.

So much has changed, we have learnt – through great upheaval and at the cost of thousands of lives and millions of pounds – just how powerful a virus can be, and how vulnerable we are. We have learnt that we can adapt incredibly quickly, discovered unexpected resilience, unlikely heroes have emerged, and at last we are discovering that true caring is priceless, and seriously undervalued in our society. And we have discovered just how much we are meant to live in community, how even a casual conversation in the street at an appropriate distance can sustain another day in isolation from family and friends.

But what of church? What difference has it made for me to be locked out of the buildings, to be forbidden to meet with others to sing, pray and study God’s word? I have been humbled and thrilled to discover that – just as the bible tells me – I am one who dwells for ever in God’s house. By faith in Christ, I am at home with my Heavenly Father and nothing can shut me out from his presence, or his arms. I can share every meal with him, every moment of my days is lived with him, and his word is my daily nourishment. I have been privileged in these days to experience what persecuted Christians around the world know in much harder circumstances, namely that I am never alone and God cannot be kept from me, his beloved child.

I don’t need to be in a particular building or even with certain people in order to worship God and delight in his presence. His word is with me, speaking to me and directing my thoughts. The wisdom and knowledge of God, the inestimable treasures of salvation, all these are mine, unlocked for me by Christ and providing a sure foundation on which I can depend when all around is uncertainty and fear. I can pray for my fellow believers even though I am not with them, because we are all united in Christ and stand before God’s throne of mercy together.

Great saints down the ages have known what it is to be deprived of their freedom and sent to prison or exile – and there they prove this truth, that God never abandons his children. While we are saved into a community of believers, and it is good to be physically present with one another, sharing praise and service and our lives, yet we are each directly united with Christ, and thus live always in God’s loving presence. When the distractions of ‘normal’ life are removed, we perhaps learn to think more of Christ and to see him more clearly – to celebrate the love which sent him to Calvary, and the goodness which informs everything that happens to us.

May these days of isolation and distance from one another bear this fruit in my life, and yours, that we learn to depend more and more upon Christ and find in him our satisfaction and refuge. The words of Samuel Rutherford – a Scottish minister of the 17th century who was imprisoned for his ministry and teaching beautifully express something of this :- “Let us be glad and rejoice in the salvation of our Lord, for faith had never yet cause to have wet cheeks and hanging-down brows…Faith may dance because Christ sings; and we may come in the choir and lift our hoarse and rough voices, and chirp and sing, and shout for joy with our Lord Jesus!” 

Not tame…but good!

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm…”Brace yourself..I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand…On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?..Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this…”

(Job 38.1-4,6&7,16-18)

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.

(Ps 8.1)

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.

(Ps 19.1&2)

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see….By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

(Heb 11.1&3)

I do not see the point of so many things – slugs and midges, the common cold, why hair has to turn grey or fall out, hiccups and stinging jellyfish..I don’t understand so much of God’s ways in the world – tyrants, war and misery apparently unchecked, human morality veering ever further from God’s principles, God’s apparent inaction in the face of people rejecting and reviling him. And I also don’t understand beauty, the persistent presence of goodness, truth, kindness and selflessness in the midst of chaos, pain and darkness.

But Jesus never said we would understand – he reminded his disciples that their faith should be like that of little children, who depend implicitly upon those who have power to protect and provide for them. Our faith in God is not because we understand what he is doing right now, or can predict what he will do next – we are not qualified to participate in the divine work at that level! Ours is a humbler role – which presumably is why humanity as a whole rejects it, our pride rebels against things we cannot understand and (by implication) control.

By faith, we depend upon God to be true to himself – the character revealed in creation, in scriptures and uniquely in Jesus himself. We do not and should not try to comprehend him, but rather recognise the wild, glorious goodness and power revealed in the Maker of this incredible world; who yet is also the crushed and bleeding man upon the cross.

In his Narnia books, CS Lewis cautions us against trying to fit God into our own image and understanding, as through the character of the great lion Aslan, he reveals one who is good, and yet not tame, one before whom we will rightly fall in trembling worship only to find ourselves utterly secure and safe in his presence.

When I am overwhelmed by the weight of the world’s troubles, tempted to doubt and despair, feeling helpless and ashamed that I cannot see God’s transforming work and have no answers to give to those who mock my faith – then I focus on two things. Firstly on the marvellous universe in which we live – God’s magnificent challenge to Job brings me such fierce joy as I share some of my Creator’s delight in the mysteries of the physical world. Secondly on the cross – the place where almighty power appeared in absolute weakness and conquered sin and death for ever, where the wild, unimagineable power of my God was fully revealed.

Let me be content to be mocked by more sophisticated minds, as I choose to make this God my foundation for life and hope. Let me be steadfast in reverent worship of the one who called the morning stars into being, and who has walked the recesses of the ocean! Lord, let me have total confidence in you; for although your ways are wild and strange to me, yet I believe in your goodness, because of Calvary. How I long for the day when  your name will be vindicated before all people; when your justice will be celebrated not derided and when faith will no longer be needed, for we shall see and live with you for ever….come Lord, come soon!

When forgetting is hard..

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions….Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight..

(Ps 51.1&4)

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

(Ps 130.1-4)

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel'” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people….For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

(Jer 31.33&34)

In Christ, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us…

In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

(Eph 1.7; 6.16)

The enemy of God’s house and family, the so-called ‘accuser of the brothers and sisters’, is skilled in disguising himself and getting past our guard. How often have we had that mental shock when we catch ourselves going down a thought -path which seemed to start out well, but end up in places of bitterness, resentment, or flat out rebellion against God? We have been beguiled – as Eve was – by smooth and plausible words and ideas, and failed to recognise the personality of our companion.

This can be particularly painful when, as was my experience recently, the accuser takes our own lived experiences of sin and failure, and under the guise of our good conscience, stirs up a perfect storm of anxiety and grief over past hurts to others. The memories return too clearly – of hasty words; careless forgetfulness and selfish behaviour which have left a legacy in the lives of others. They may have forgiven us, but the damage was done and cannot be undone by all our tears and genuine repentance.

It was a dark time; swamped by awareness of my sin and the impact on others, I cried out to God for mercy and help as a drowning man calls for assistance. And the word came, the gracious reminder that this accusing voice did not come from God. My God has promised to keep no record of my sins, to make no effort to remember them and certainly not to use the memory of them to rob me of strength and joy for today.

What is the truth of our situation? Yes, we have sinned against others – and will continue to do so until we die. Yes, those sins have consequences. BUT, God in his mercy has provided forgiveness for our sins, so that we are released from guilt over our past, and it cannot define who we are anymore. AND, God in his grace promises that the consequences of our sin in the lives of others are all within his providential care for them – none of it is wasted, all is formed into part of the whole!

Even as God uses the consequences of other people’s sin in my life to teach me about his faithfulness, and my own need to depend on him alone – so he also teaches others through my failures. How wonderful, how marvellous; to know that even my most grievous wrongs are not able to thwart God’s purposes, and my loved ones are not somehow disqualified from God’s best for them by my sin.

As this year draws to a close, I rejoice in the daily mercies of forgiveness from God, and the ability which that gives me to forgive others. I praise him because nothing can separate us from his love – and that includes our sins against one another – because in Christ, we are securely adopted into his family. I choose to take up my shield of faith – faith in the effectiveness of Jesus’ blood to deal with sin, to quench the painful attacks of the enemy of my redeemed people, and faith in the Almighty God, who is working all things together for the good of those whom he has called.

God has forgiven me, let me never dare to refuse to forgive myself; but rather humbly and gladly accept that I can depend only and always on him to do what is right and best. I pray that I may never treat sin lightly, but I rejoice that forgiveness is always free, and I need not be crippled by fear of the consequences of my failures. I serve a great and awesome God, nothing is impossible with him!