Category Archives: faith

Walking not in my own strength..

Now, my brothers and sisters, I want to speak about the gospel which I have previously preached to you, which you accepted, in which you are at present standing, and by which  if you remain faithful to the message I gave you, your salvation is being worked out – unless, of course, your faith had no meaning behind it at all. For I passed on to you, as among the first to hear it, the message I had myself received – that Christ died for our sins, as the scriptures said he would; that he was buried and rose again on the third day, again as the scriptures foretold.

(1Cor 15.1-5: JB Phillips)

So then, my dearest friends, as you have always followed my advice – and that not only when I was present to give it – so now that I am far away be keener than ever to work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility, for it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose.

(Phil 2.12&13: JB Phillips)

..but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. ..Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees! “Make level paths for your feet “, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed…May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

(Heb 12.10,12&13; 13.20&21)

As I look ahead to a new year, with all it’s accompanying unknowns – good or bad – I am aware that I am by nature more pessimistic, than optimistic (I prefer to call it realistic), and am sometimes overwhelmed by the prospect! The past twelve months have yielded too many examples of my weaknesses, of how far I fall short of where I think I should be. The coming months will present new opportunities to mess up, to hurt people, to get things wrong and generally disappoint God – and myself. How can I find the courage to keep going? Perhaps to begin with, I need to recognise the false perspective which I adopt so easily – one centred on my opinion of myself, instead of the truth about me, which is God’s opinion!

Yes, I am a sinner. BUT, I am a redeemed sinner – the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news about Jesus, the anointed one has changed my identity, my purpose and my future once and forever. His blood has bought my forgiveness, I have a fresh start with God, and the promise of his presence with me every step of the way home. Yes, I do continue to sin. BUT, that too is covered by the blood of Christ, and the increasing sensitivity to sin is a sign of comfort to me that I am – amazing thought – being made more holy, more Christ-like as the years go by.

When I consider the path that lies ahead of me, I do so as one who has the ultimate companion at her side – one who never leaves me, one who cheers every step of the way, one who can give me strength and the desire to continue simply by being with me. He is working in me to achieve those things which he has promised will be done – and my task is to say, “Yes, Lord; let’s keep going, let me tackle this day’s journey cheerfully and confidently because you are here.”

It is a wonderful paradox – that my salvation is to be worked out in my life simultaneously by God and by me. It does not depend upon my efforts, but without my active obedience and earnest endeavour, I may crawl by the wayside as one crippled. That is no witness to the glory of God, no proper response to the wonderful gift of life and hope which he has given me.

The scriptures, and the pages of history reveal so many followers of Jesus who can testify to this mystery, of their labours and of God’s striving within them, as they walk the path of discipleship and service. As they grow in holiness, and see their salvation being worked out – made real and effective in every part of life- all the glory and credit is given to God, and yet we know that they have embraced the work, have given their lives to it in awe and full of the responsibility of bearing their part well.

This, then, is my prayer for 2019, that I might indeed engage more fully with the responsibility of working out my salvation; rejoicing that it is God who is at work in me, and giving thanks that he has provided all the things I need. May my focus be on him, on the complete adequacy of Christ my Saviour,  so that I might rest as I walk, refusing to bear burdens of guilt which are no longer mine and quietly glad to be in company with one who loves me more than all.

 

 

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to honour by trusting..

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God…my eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare.

(Ps 25.1&15)

Then Jehoshaphat stood up in the assembly..at the temple of the Lord and said: ” O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no-one can withstand you…If calamity comes upon us…we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress….We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.

(2 Chron 20.5,6,9&12)2

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear…Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field..how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!….But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well….Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Luke 12.22,25&32: Matt.6.33&34)

As a follower of Jesus, I am called to honour and glorify God in everything I do – that is, to make his name great, to give him his rightful place and encourage others to acknowledge his worth and greatness. God has not promised his children that they will have an easy path through life in order to glorify and testify to his power, rather he makes it clear that we are to worship and lift him high in the midst of the trials of life, mundane though they often are, and extreme as they can be. How do we do this? Surely one of the ways most clearly commanded to us – explicitly by the words of Jesus quoted above, and implicitly in many other places – is by our trust in God.

Our God is an awesome God; he reigns from heaven above with wisdom, love and power, our God is an awesome God. Do I believe it? Do I live as if I were the apple of his eye, the one for whom he guides all things together for my blessing and his glory? Do I give God credit for all his promises, and even more, for all the things he has done which prove his faithfulness? Too often, the answer has to be that I do not; that my actions – my addiction to worry and anxiety, to controlling and manipulating circumstances – all speak of a heart which does not trust God to do as he has promised – to deliver me and keep me safe. If a jury of my neighbours and friends were to consider the evidence for my dependence upon God, my reliance on him to do all things well, what would be their verdict upon me? I fear they would declare the case ‘not proven’, in face of my fretful and discontented thoughts and words; my self-centred actions and attitudes.

May I be forgiven for dishonouring my Lord in this way; for disbelieving his word, and dismissing his historic faithfulness, and living as though no one was looking out for me, but myself.

May I learn to be more like the godly king Jehoshaphat, who in time of great national danger came publicly to claim the help and protection of God – boldly reminding God of all that had been promised, and leaving the matter entirely in his hands. This is what it looks like to seek God’s kingdom before our own needs – to come and say, “Lord, I don’t know what to do, but I am looking to you, not to anyone else and certainly not to myself, for your good will to be done.”

In every circumstance, may this be my experience, to turn towards and not away from God; to run to his word, his promises, his character and find there my grounds for peace, for hope and for the security of all that I entrust to him. May I learn, as the flowers and birds have never forgotten, that I am called to live and thrive for as long as my Lord shall decree, and to honour him by my absolute trust that he knows and does all things well.

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’.

 

My God…the reader of my thoughts

I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed…Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. …”you have said harsh things against me, “says the Lord. “Yet you ask,’What have we said against you?’ “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evil doers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.'”

(Mal.3.6,7,13-15)

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked….When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny….Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

(Ps73.1-3,16,17,27&28)

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. “They will be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

(Mal 3.16-18)

How easy it is to forget that while we may hide our inmost thoughts and motives from even our dearest friends, we cannot hide a single, fleeting notion from our holy, almighty and just God. How foolish we are, reckoning that because we fool some of the people, for some of the time, that somehow God – who made the mind, in all its complexity, and who alone understands the human heart because He formed it – is deceived by our lip-service and nominal obedience.

In the book of the prophet Malachi, God challenges his people, stripping away their defensive arguments, to reveal the truth of their hearts, the things they really believe about Him and about themselves. They have fallen into the classic misunderstanding which continues to dog humanity in its dealings with divinity – that somehow they can and must earn favour by going through certain prescribed motions. The absurdity of the notion, that these little rituals of sacrifice/cleansing and fasting, by insignificant mortals, can in some way alter the attitude of an eternal, unimaginably holy and powerful God, just keeps slipping away from us and we assume that our performances put God in our debt! It is beyond ridiculous, and it also betrays a complete failure to understand the character of God, and our own utter helplessness.

It is God’s favour to us – undeserved, boundless and eternal – which calls forth from us a response of worship and obedience to his revealed will. The prophet is speaking on behalf of God, beseeching them to repent of their superficial religiosity, and instead to embrace obedience from the heart, not in order to earn favour, but in order to appropriately respond to what they have received. Ingratitude, rejection of God’s love, of His rightful place as Lord, all speak of hearts which are full of pride and self-reliance. Earnest – if flawed – obedience; the desire to keep on pursuing holiness by all the means of grace at our disposal, speak of hearts which are humble, realistic, and dependent on God.

The same rituals which were dismissed as bearing no fruit by the merely religious, could be a source of encouragement, a form of true worship by those whose hearts were changed. In our day, the so-called ‘duties’ of a believer – bible reading and prayer; attendance at church and active membership in a congregation; faithful giving of time, talents and money are all means by which we may choose to be blessed if we bring the attitude of a redeemed sinner to them, instead of a self-serving, self-reliant critic of God.

Let us be on guard against this attitude of entitlement – God owes us nothing, but has given us everything we need for this life and the next. Those who try to earn salvation by their deeds; or who reject the idea of God altogether and choose to live without him, will have their reward in this life, but will have no part in the treasure-house of God when He comes to gather it for eternity. May we be faithful in proclaiming this truth to those who do not know it, and meantime live humbly depending upon His grace to us, and not our worthiness to receive it..

Barren ground…..

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil…Other seed fell among thorns…Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop.. When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

(Matt 13.3-8&19)

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

(Ezek 37.1-3)

Jesus said..”How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

(Luke 18.23-27)

How do we maintain our hope and confidence in God when the work to which he calls us seems to bear no fruit, and when the future of our churches is so lacking in promise? Why does the God of the universe, for whom nothing is impossible, choose to withhold the blessing of the work of the spirit in the hearts and minds of men and women, convicting them of sin and bringing them to repentance and saving faith in his Son? Why does Jesus commission his followers down through the ages to go and share their faith, to make disciples, when he knew that the response, if any, would be small?

The mystery at the heart of this is well beyond the scope of this brief writing; the impenetrable operations of Almighty God in the human heart, and the ways in which we both respond to and are worked upon by his spirit. God is the bringer of new life, the only one who can release sinners from their bondage to decay – and yet we speak of a person coming to Christ, as if it were all their own initiative! It is a great paradox of faith, and one which – in the limited nature of our understanding – we must learn to accept and live with. We are called to labour with our God in the business of leading sinners home, of bringing people from darkness into light – by prayer; witness; practical loving and truth-speaking, we play our part in the miracle of new birth in Christ.

But, I return to my first questions again…how do faithful servants, desiring to obey the Lord’s command, make disciples? In our community, there is little or no interest in the gospel outside those who already come to church. People seem to believe that they have understood enough of it to set it aside as dated, irrelevant or even offensive, and they settle for their own world views and faith substitutes, quite content to pass their remaining days and the unknown of death without Christ. We, as a community of believers, are tolerated with humour and affection because we represent some quaint traditional values, and we do some useful things which other people appreciate. But by and large, we might as well be another secular society, like the golf club or sailing club – merely another interest group which occupies its own niche and does no harm.

We believe that our neighbours and friends are dry bones; that without Christ, they might as well be dead as live! We believe that the gospel offers a hope which is worth losing every good thing in this world to gain, and yet our witness is merely tolerated and then dismissed, neither preaching nor outreach have any impact.

God seems to have called us to labour in entirely barren ground; to spend ourselves in fruitless endeavours while yet retaining a lively and joyful hope and confidence in him. I don’t think it is wrong to admit that we find this extremely difficult!! We stand with Ezekiel and look at this desert of dry bones, and say with the prophet, “Lord, you alone know if these bones can live”. It is not for us to presume upon the Lord’s timing or will; but it is also not for us to despair and say that there is no hope..

May the God who brought us to this place, at this time, in his will and for his purpose, also enable and strengthen us, cheerfully to carry out such work as we can, and above all, to continue to trust in the power for salvation which is offered in Christ.

 

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.

And so it comes to pass…

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before him, singing with joy.

Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise.

Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

(Psalm 100)

O God of Bethel, by whose hand Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage hast all our fathers led.

Our vows, our prayers, we now present before thy throne of grace;
God of our Fathers, be the God of their succeeding race

Through each perplexing path of life our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread, and raiment fit provide.

Such blessings from Thy gracious hand our humble prayers implore;
And Thou shalt be our chosen God, and portion evermore.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), Scottish Paraphrases, 1781

The hundredth psalm is subtitled in my bible, “for giving thanks”, a serious understatement when it comes to describing that glorious outpouring, in only a few verses, of praise and trust. I grew up in the Scottish psalm singing tradition, so that the words are inextricably linked to an ancient tune, and I can’t say them, but must sing, slipping into the familiar cadences and measured, joyfully steady pace of the music. I hear the echoes of my father and mother singing alongside, in the days when we shared in the worship of God together, and am grateful over again to the church where I was raised, for giving me this heritage of music and word together.

The same is true for the paraphrase (it means a song or hymn based very closely on a particular passage, or passages of scripture, and was a key part of Scottish church singing for centuries). Again, the marriage of words and music is so deeply embedded that I cannot sing these words to any other tune, but who needs variety when the originals are so good! This hymn of total dependence on God, based on his faithfulness to those who have gone before us, is a wonderfully rich prayer for every day of our lives, and those of our loved ones.

I am using them together this week, because our family is giving thanks, and looking to the future as we celebrate our son’s engagement to marry – at an as yet unspecified date – a young woman who shares his deep faith, and commitment to living for God wherever that may take them. It is very humbling when the next generation take such significant steps, another occasion for me as mother to learn to let go, and trust that my heavenly Father knows and loves even better than I do!

I rejoice that my God is faithful through all the generations; and I am deeply thankful that my son has grown into saving faith in Christ, witnessing publicly to his Lord and committing himself to a life of pilgrimage. As a Christian parent, I am well aware that such faith is the only really important thing that one’s child needs, and also, that I have no power to impart it, but depend on God’s grace and the work of his spirit in my children. What a joy then, to see him thus affirm his faith, and to find that God has led him to a life-partner, one who can cherish and console, can exhort and comfort; and one to whom my son can devote all his powers of loving and nurturing.

Christian marriage brings many of the same challenges as the union of those with no faith, but it has one key difference – the presence of a living, loving God by whose power both partners are enabled to forgive and live with one another, and to cope with whatever challenges they might face. It is a great relief, as a parent, to be able to commit these children of my heart to the God whom they trust, knowing that He has their best interests at heart too, and will fulfill his purposes in their lives.

The pilgrimage will at times be weary; the path will often be perplexing; but in looking to God, I can pray with confidence that my succeeding race will find all their needs are met, their faith strengthened, and that God will be glorified in and through them.