Category Archives: contentment

Celebrating the ordinary

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..

(Ecclesiastes 5.18&19)

Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty. (The Lord) waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.

(Psalm 104. 1,13-15)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 4.6&7)

What does it take to make you realise how many gifts you receive daily from the hand of God? I know that I sit far too lightly to the bounty which is bestowed upon me constantly, and am guilty of a perverse and persistent discontent, recklessly discounting so many good things.

Perhaps you have suffered periods of illness, been confined to your bed, or to the house, even unable to move independently. Is it not the case that in the early days of your restoration to health and freedom of movement, you rejoiced in every step, every breath of fresh air? I know that has been my experience, and there is some faint memory of the depth of my gratitude for the gift of health and physical strength. But it quickly fades, and we become impatient of lingering weaknesses, or inexplicable aches and pains, choosing to focus on the negatives instead of rejoicing in the good things we have.

Perhaps you have been deprived of the company of those you love for a long period of time – due to work commitments, study arrangements, or even just the natural process by which children grow up to leave home.. How sweet it is to be reunited, to see their faces, feel their hands in ours, have their physical presence once again. And how long before their habits, their opinions, all those little things that are not quite to our liking begin to irritate us, and we long for their absence?

What fickle creatures we are, how much in this regard we fall short of the image of God in us! Our God never tires of his people – think of that for a moment…NEVER! In our most irritating moments, when we have chosen for the umpteenth time to disregard his loving care and to resent his directing of our lives – even then, he is waiting patiently for us to turn again in repentance and glad desire for a fresh start in his company along the road which he knows is best for us. We have so much to learn from him in the ways that we receive and celebrate one another – may we grow in this accepting and affirming love, willing always to see the good, and to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Not every one of God’s children has enough to eat and drink, not all have the shelter and peace they need to thrive. But if those of us who do have these things fail to give thanks and appreciate them, does that help anyone? Of course not! In fact, the more grateful we are for what we have, the more aware we are of those who do not, and the more generously we will seek ways in which we may meet those needs. The gift of contented gratitude for all we receive is not one which should anaesthatise, but rather galvanise us, into reaching out to others.

Let us give thanks for simple food, seeking to restrain our greed so that we may provide for those who hunger and thirst.

Let us give thanks for health and strength, seeking to resist self-indulgence so that we may serve others whose bodies are not so vigorous.

Let us give thanks for our gifts, no matter how insignificant they may seem, so that we recognise we too have things which our God desires to use to bless his people.

Let us give thanks for the gift of contentment, recognising that God has freed us from the prison of envy and  that our personal worth is not determined by our possessions, looks, career or anything except the priceless sacrifice of Jesus for us.

Contented people are able to serve others gladly, selflessly, sacrificially and joyfully because their worth is in Christ; their peace comes from knowing him and trusting him to do all things well.

God grant us this gift of grateful content, that we may freely give…

 

 

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Worth losing?

Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is  more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

(Philippians 3.7&8)

A picture of a cake.. which may seem odd given the text I have quoted above, but there is a connection! The cake was inspired by one made by a very good and generous friend when I last visited her, and so represents hospitality, love, years of friendship and support – as well as a celebration of our time together. Most of us have many such reasons for celebration – in our spouses and families, our health, our friends and the many good things which God lavishly bestows on us daily. It is always good to give thanks for such gifts, lest we begin to take them for granted and fail to appreciate them.

But if we are to follow the apostle Paul in the particular part of this letter to the young church in Philippi, he is arguing that all the good things he has received in his life are worth giving up without a second thought, if by that means he might grow in his union with his beloved Lord Jesus. This is a challenge which I think we spend our lives working out in practice, as we experience gains and losses, and watch others struggling to cope with their own griefs. It is one thing to say boldly, that ‘Christ is enough for me’, but quite another to put that into daily action, when facing the loss to death of a beloved husband or wife, or the brutal impact of disease or injury upon our own bodies and our capacity for independent living.

The great Scottish preacher and letter writer, Samuel Rutherford spent prolonged spells in exile from his parish, closely confined, unable to receive visitors and forbidden to preach. His writings from that time speak of his grief at these losses, but also breathe his sweet delight in the presence of his Saviour, and his satisfaction in considering the loveliness of Christ. Rutherford learnt to say with Paul that so long as he had Christ, he would be content.

Do I live in such a way that I am not looking to any human being for fulfillment of my deepest needs? Am I so aware that every day, every breath, is a gift from God, that I would be able to give up physical health and freedom if He required them of me? These are very hard questions, and I am glad that we are not allowed to see our future days, not to know what sacrifices we will be called to make until the time comes. It is not for me to worry about how I might cope if these things happened to me, but rather to focus here and now on living ever closer to my Lord, and trusting that he will be sufficient for me when the day comes. We are not called to deal in advance with such burdens, but to carry those of today with as much grace and cheerfulness as we can.

If I can learn to hold all my daily blessings on an open hand, as one offering them back to the giver, then I will not depend on them for my fulfillment and contentment. This certainly does not mean that I fail to appreciate these good things, that would be to waste the gifts of my loving Father! Rather it means that I must learn to look more and more through the gifts to the giver, to see that in them, I receive his love, perceive his greatness and the unfathomable beauty of his character.

God must become more and more the centre of my life. Jesus is the lover of my soul, my heavenly bridegroom, my redeemer and friend. All the human relationships which enrich my life are simply pale imitations of the richest relationship of all – between the church and her head, Christ, who loved her so much that he gave up his life for her.

I believe that when God calls me to let something precious go – as when my parents died some years ago – he is calling me into a closer relationship and satisfaction with himself. In God, I find the truest father and mother-love, meeting those deep needs which my human parents could never touch. I can give thanks for all they were and did, and rejoice that now they are with the Lord whom they loved. But I need not fret for myself, because my God knows and meets my longings to be loved as a child again.

He is so gracious, so gentle, so compassionate.. Let us cling ever closer to him, and be content with whatever is left to us so long as we have Christ as our own!

I can’t hear you Lord!

At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

The tempter came to him(Jesus) and said, “If you are the Son of God….” Jesus answered, “It is written:…”

(Matthew 3.16,17; 4.3,4) 

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

(Mark 1.35)

The voices around me are deafening. They tell me that I am foolish, irrelevant, an irritation and a waste of space. A woman who has made nothing of herself, who has wasted opportunities and squandered abilities. They whisper in my ear that there is no hope of joy or fulfillment, that I am a doormat, weak and without courage or self-respect. Where is the career, the salary, the validation of self through work? Where is the assertion of self, and the fulfillment of goals which rightly belong to this stage of life?

They are silent voices – does that make sense? No one physically speaks the words, and yet by their actions, attitudes, and the way they treat me and talk to me, the message comes through loud and clear – tried, and found wanting…

It is my experience that the voices of those far off are never the loudest, and it is those around us every day, those closest to us whom we hear most clearly, and find it hardest to resist believing. The resulting chaos of our thoughts can be exhausting, nothing comes through except a weary resignation, an acceptance of this loudest and most urgently present message. Our own voice begins to say the same things, and we give up resisting.

But is it necessarily the truth? In all the muddle and confusion, I find a desire to believe that it is a lie, that I am neither hearing nor seeing reality as God sees it. Somewhere, beyond the cacophony, is a place where there is peace, health and wholeness, a place where I am worth something.

What did Jesus do, when immediately after his very public validation by his Father, he was taken away from all support, and exposed to a relentless attack on his identity by Satan? The loudest voice in all those weary days in the wilderness was that which cast doubt upon his very being, the truth which God had affirmed so clearly. And what did Jesus do? He turned to scripture, to the words given by God to his people for their instruction and foundation of faith. I have access to that same resource, if I will only use it! Three times, it is recorded that Jesus dismissed the attack on his identity with a rebuke from the words of the Old Testament. He knew his bible, and knew that it was his weapon for attack and a shield for defence against just this kind of assault. Do I?

The bible teaches so much more than the bare mechanics of our salvation – glorious as that is! We find there all the resources we need to understand who we are made to be, to grasp our identity as new creatures in Christ. When I am feeling worthless, I remember that the Son of God considered me worth leaving glory for, worth clothing himself in human flesh for, worth dying for! When I am tempted to consider my life of no account, I remember the promise that God has prepared good works for me to do, and that my faithfulness in small things will not go unnoticed. When I am forcibly reminded of my weakness and failures, I cling to the promise that God will finish the work he has begun in my life, and that I am being made into the glorious new creature who will be fit to share eternity with her Saviour!

It seems to me that if I am to hear the voice of my Lord through the turmoil which is so loud and close every day, then I need to make the effort which he did – so often it was recorded that he withdrew to a solitary place to pray, to restore his ability to hear his Father’s voice. Praying – the deliberate sharing of my thoughts with my Father all the time – is a sure way to discern truth from lies, and to break the power of those insidious and undermining thoughts. It is always hard to hear a single voice in the midst of a crowd, so if even Jesus felt the need to be alone, how much more do I?!

May I learn to hear his voice more clearly than any other; to let his truth about me be the foundation of my identity – then I will be able to hold up my head, as a daughter of the King of Kings, dressed in clean and beautiful robes, with a future brighter and more glorious than any ‘happy ever after’ can imagine!

Buried in the cause…

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

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

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

(Psalm 116. 12-15,17&18) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The single eye.. and the audience of one

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.

(Galatians 6. 4&5, the Message)

I think that one of the hardest lessons to learn as followers of Jesus, is that we have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again! I know that I do, and I don’t think I am alone in this…

It is a dreadful blow to our pride to realise that issues which dogged us in the past continue to entangle our thoughts, bring doubts and lead us away from quiet, peaceful service of God. We think that surely we must have matured and grown enough in faith and experience of the Christian life to be able to avoid such mistakes and trials. Finding ourselves back at the bottom of a familiar pit – whatever yours might be, I know mine only too well – we look around in despair and say, “Lord, I can’t believe I am here again, where did I go wrong this time?!”

The temptation for me then is to indulge in a serious bout of self-pity, painting myself as an abject failure, stunted in faith, whose life is a lie and her service of God a sham… It is horribly easy to get into this habit of thought – and it is a very clever trick of the Devil’s, by which he paralyses me, a captive to my own thoughts in dark hopelessness. I wonder if this is how Peter felt after betraying Jesus by that fire, the bitterness of realising that he was not as strong and true as he believed. How deeply pride runs through our thoughts, how we love to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, and despise others for their perceived weakness and vulnerability to things which are not a problem for us!

Yes, it is painful to see ourselves clearly, with all our faults, to admit that in our own strength we will never amount to much that is worthy or beautiful. So what is the healthy response to the pain of finding myself in the pit again?

Think of David, lamenting in Psalm 51 over his sin with Bathsheba, full of grief for the pain he has caused to his Shepherd, and bewailing his sinfulness. He turns back in repentance, and yet also in confidence that his prayers will be heard, and that God will answer. He relies on the revealed character of God, the one whose love is steadfast, the one who sees the heart of man and cannot be deceived by fine words or deeds. He knows that God values the offering up of “a broken and contrite heart”, and by the end of the psalm is already anticipating the renewed joy of praising God with a clean heart.

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

(Psalm 51.11&12)

The passage from Galatians with which I began is very helpful alongside this psalm in helping me to deal with the reality that I will continue to fail as long as I live! Paul exhorts his readers to take a good hard look at themselves, and to be humble about what they see – not puffed up with conceit, but content with whatever God has given them. Their focus is to be on doing their own tasks for God as well as they can, and at all costs resisting that dangerous urge to look at other people. We are only responsible for ourselves, and that is quite enough. I can be glad when, with God’s help, I am able to serve and live for him; and when I fail, I can have confidence that my sin is dealt with, that God is not surprised by it, and that He is gently urging me to keep moving on, recognising that sin no longer has any power over me – either to cut me off from God permanently, or even to keep me in the pit of despair and self-pity.

May our patient, loving God continue to create in us pure hearts, so delighted by Him that we care nothing for the opinion of anyone else. May His presence in our hearts continue to transform us, so that we can live with others without envy, jealousy or pride, content  and willing to do what we can and steady against the temptation to despair over our sins. In Christ, we have the victory, and nothing, NOTHING can take that from us!