Category Archives: frailty

Consider the stars..

There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

(Deuteronomy 33.26&27)

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”…He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

(Psalm 91.1,2, 4-6)

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose….Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long, we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

(Romans 8.18,28,35-37)

Consider the stars in the sky;
When it is darkest they shine out the brightest
Consider the stars in the sky
In every anguish, Oh, child take courage

Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid
He who made all of this, and who holds all of this,
Holds you in his hands

(Keith & Kristyn Getty, 2015)

 

We have a bad habit of re-casting God’s promises into our own terms, to suit our own circumstances, and then expecting Him to fulfill them according to our understanding of what is best.. We take the words such as those from Psalm 91 above, and decide that should mean that we are to be kept miraculously safe from every physical threat to our bodies – always! Sometimes, there are instances where God has indeed created supernatural protection for his children, hiding them in plain sight from their enemies, or healing them from fatal illnesses, and we do well to rejoice in such deliverances. But they will always be part of a bigger picture, and a higher perspective that we cannot see. God does nothing at random, and nothing is ever wasted, so that a miraculously preserved life will have some particular call upon it which is yet to be fulfilled.

But our experience, in a broken world, is surely not that which might be expected from a superficial reading of Psalm 91 – everyone suffers from illness, assault, weakness, fear, and eventually the debilitating effects of age. So where do God’s promises come into the picture? In what sense are we supported by the everlasting arms, pictured in Moses’ wonderful final song in Deuteronomy?

I believe that Paul puts it best for us, when he affirms that there is NOTHING which can separate the child of God from the love of the Father, because of the redeeming work of the Son. In one sense, we may be vulnerable to the effects of human suffering, but in another, we are invincible! The grasp of the everlasting arms upon us is unbreakable, and our eternal future, in transformed bodies, in glory and joy and fulfilment, cannot be taken from us. In that ultimate and most essential sense, nothing can touch us!

If we can take hold on that truth – a process which I find I have to go through repeatedly, as new trials come along – then we are indeed sheltered from the storm, as under wings, because our heart is at rest. It may be in agony, but in recognising that there is one who loves us and bears with us, who knows our pain, and above all who knows that the future glory is worth it, there, we find we can hold firm.

I often walk at night by the sea, and the stars throng the sky above me, a source of wonder and awe. They speak of the utter ‘otherness’ of the creator, of my utter insignificance, and cause me to stand in adoration again of the God who “made all of this, and who holds all of this,” yet holds even me in his hands.

Friends, let us pray for God to stir up our faith, when all around seems darkest, that his presence and promises will shine brightly, and we will hold fast, trusting him, and rest in the everlasting arms.

 

Photograph of the stars, courtesy of F. Wotherspoon.

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Keeping a clear spring flowing…

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

(Luke 6.43-45)

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen….Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice….But among you there must  not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

(Ephesians 4.29,31; 5.3&4)

Finally, friends, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things..

(Philippians 4.8)

How is your mind furnished? What things of beauty are placed there to encourage and inspire you? What lurks in the corners, unwanted but somehow stuck there, and likely to roll right out into the centre of your thoughts just when it is least appropriate?

I have images, words in my head which I wish I could wipe right out, things that I read or watched in moments of weakness and now deeply regret. Because I agree completely with the diagnosis that Jesus gives, that what we say and do comes from what we think and imagine and cherish in our minds, in our inmost being. We are responsible, as believers, for the things that we allow to find room in our hearts, because they will imperceptibly come to influence how we think and act. We can become de-sensitized to violence, blasphemy, obscenity and cruelty if we expose ourselves to them too much. My preference is to avoid them at all costs, except where it is impossible – in the living of daily life in this fallen world. Where is the ‘entertainment value’ in revisiting such things, when they reflect and dwell on the pain and darkness which God weeps over? Is it not enough to experience the realities, to see lives being destroyed around us by the evil which stains every life, and warps every impulse towards good?

There is so much in the world that is worth celebrating, worth dwelling upon, so many things that reflect the goodness of God and the image of his character which yet lives in his creatures. I passionately believe that we are missing out on God’s highest purpose and desire for us when we choose to focus on the darkness instead of the light, allowing our view of the world to become skewed and in danger of losing hope. What are we modelling for young believers, for our children, if we allow the bad news, the dark stories, and the secular narratives of humanists and aetheists to dictate our thinking? We have a radical, transforming story to share, and a God who has filled the world with witnesses to his power and glory, whose church is growing and whose power is undiminished.

What do our books, films, music and social media preferences say about how we see the world, about the view of God in the world that we have, about how we are furnishing our minds? We surely know enough already about the dark side of human nature from our own thoughts without needing adult movies, explicit literature – of sex or violence – and amoral song lyrics providing the soundtrack and moving pictures in our minds!

Or is it just me…am I naive and impractical?

As I grow older, I find I am more and not less sensitive, and this doesn’t trouble me in the least. It means that when I read of real suffering, or meet it in those around me, I hurt, I feel pain which prompts prayer, action, compassion and anger against the author of all this destruction – the devil, who, we thank God, has been defeated, but whose power in the world is not yet finally destroyed.

May God continue to help me to guard against all those things that might pollute and poison the new life, and pure spirit which he has caused to well up within me. There is enough remaining that needs cleansed without me adding more!

 

 

Looking for my lover…

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing..

(1Peter 3.8&9)

Who is this coming up from the desert leaning on her lover?…Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away…

(Song of Songs 8. 5,6-7)

As a sinful creature – saved, yet vulnerable to the old temptations and weaknesses, open to many distractions and easily swayed – among other sinners, I am answerable to the King of Kings for the way I treat his precious children. I am commanded to live peaceably, and not only that, but in a way which consistently seeks the good of others.

I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to love people when they are a generalised grouping, strangers whose lives have little impact on mine. It is a good deal harder to love those whose daily lives impact directly on me – for good and ill – because my own experience of them seems to get in the way all the time! It becomes hard to know what will be good for them, and harder still to do it, when I am preoccupied with how their latest actions have made me feel. It is as though “I” am getting in the way of the calling which God has given, to love and serve him in his people. My own needs for unconditional love, forgiveness and tenderness shout too loudly, drowning out the quiet voice directing me to obedient love for others.

I love that verse in the Song of Songs where the bride is described as coming up from the desert, “leaning on her lover”. She has found in a dry and arid place, the one who delights in her, and because of his love, she has the courage to return to the city and face the business of life again.

I too, have a heavenly Lord and Lover, who loves me – sacrificially – and who delights in me, who actually likes the person I am. He enjoys the playful spirit he gave me, so that while I may feel oppressed when the company of others suppresses it, when we are alone together, I can play and be glad, knowing I am loved.

He gave me a heart which loves to share, to listen to the hearts of others. When those around shut me out and refuse to be known by me, I go back and listen to his heart, and it speaks strong and loud of his joy, his beauty, his goodness. All these things are spread before me like a rich feast, with his great ambition for creation together with the pain which it is costing him. Here I find one who never keeps me at a distance, but reveals himself and is glad that I should be learning to know him. What a marvel, that God should choose to reveal himself to such as we are.

And this, my God loves all his children thus, seeing and cherishing each one; full of compassion for the struggles and pain which they feel. This, my God, longs to be known and delighted in by his people, and holds out his arms in welcome.

When I experience rejection by those I love, when I am not at liberty among them to be myself gladly and be delighted in, let me remember the heart of God. That great heart which is continually rejected and shut out by those he loves, whose tenderness is wounded again and again by their refusal to enjoy and accept him as he reveals himself through Jesus Christ. God knows my pain, and calls me to accept it in obedience, not dwelling upon it, but coming back again and again for refreshment and to lean upon the strengthening arm of my lover.

Then I will be in the right position to react as God reacts to us – in forgiving, loving patience, bearing with us in spite of all we have done and continue to do. As he has loved me, so may I love others, depending upon his strength and drawing on his love, so that all my needs are met in him and I am free to give as he does – to overflowing!

 

Not of my choosing..

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”

(Luke 9.23&24)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

(Matthew 11. 28-30)

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long O Lord, how long? Turn, O Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love…The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.

(Psalm 6.2-4,9)

When my late father was undergoing treatment for cancer, he discovered – much to his chagrin – that a great deal of the good temper and exemplary patience which he had enjoyed all his life had been due to his excellent health! When that health was undermined, he discovered that perhaps it was not so easy to be gentle, forbearing and always cheerful, and found a new sympathy with those whose health had never been good.. In the same way, a person who has never experienced real deprivation may lack sympathy for those who truly suffer from it, may not have compassion for their anxiety and may even judge them for a lack of hope and confidence..

God sees clearly those areas of our lives where we are most proud of ourselves, where our self-esteem is most deeply rooted, and where we are least dependent on his sustaining power. I believe that at times he permits those very dear things to be undermined, in order that we might learn to cling to him alone in a new and closer way, accepting that EVERYTHING we have is only ever a gift, which may be withdrawn, and which cannot be relied upon for our peace of mind and sense of worth. These things are in danger of becoming idols in our souls, displacing Christ from the place of pre-eminence which is his right, and weakening us in our life of faith and witness. It is grace when God in his wisdom chooses to uproot them.

I do not have permission to choose the cross which I am called to take up daily, and which requires me to deny, to silence those voices which cry out against God’s will and clamour for my own way in everything. Will I trust my God for this trial, this cross? Do I believe him, when he promises to sustain me through it, even to glorify himself in my life as I lean hard on his arm for strength? Am I willing perhaps NEVER to see how God uses my experience for good, but to believe that he will because he has promised it?

At the moment, I am experiencing a particular trial – a gentle undermining of my health which has gone on for over four years now, in various guises, preventing me from doing things which are important to me. My estimation of myself is diminished, I am tempted to despise the rather feeble person I am become, as I try to live within the limitations imposed by my body. Is God any less delighted with me as his daughter, because of these things? NO! Am I in any way less able to pray for his work, to witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ? NO! And yet, and yet, I fret and mourn for what cannot be, tempted to despair instead of rejoicing in all I am and have in Christ.

As my running shoes remain unused, and mountains remain untrodden, I am drawn to cling to my God, to pour out my regrets and fears to the God who knows and loves me so tenderly, who gave me a desire to run and climb in the first place! He knows the burden which he is asking me to bear at this time, he knows how much it is costing to pick up that cross daily and then to walk with it cheerfully.

When we bring our crosses into that loving presence – whatever they may be – we find one who knows how we struggle, and who himself bore burdens beyond our imagining . And he comes alongside to bear us, to draw the sting of anxiety and dread, to give us for every pang the sweetest assurance of his presence and love.

In our daily carrying of our individual crosses, may we find the fellowship we enjoy with Christ so dear, so sustaining, that the burden does indeed become light, since we bear it for his sake and with his strength. In our weakness, may his power be made abundantly plain, and our delight in his grace towards us grow ever greater!

But that’s not my job Lord…is it?

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel..

(Eph 6.19)

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ…that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

(Col 4.2-4)

Finally brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.

(2 Thess 3.1)

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

(Heb.13.17)

I make no apology for the number and length of bible passages quoted this week, because they illustrate the theme which is very strong in my mind, namely our role as church members in supporting our leaders.

I was at a meeting recently where the speaker gave some insight into the ministry of CH Spurgeon, a great teacher of the early 20th, whose sermons and writings continue to bless the church today. He once told his congregation that the day they stopped praying for him, would be the day he hoped to die, since it was only in the power of God, released by prayer, that his ministry had any worth and effect. I was challenged, disturbed, wondering how many of those who bear the burden of leadership in our churches know that they are faithfully supported by the prayers of their people.

Have we any idea how lonely it must be for them? Week after week, disciplining themselves under the word; by study and meditation, wrestling to receive the message which God reveals to them for their people. How much do we take for granted the preaching and teaching which we receive week by week, the knowledge which is required to inform and instruct us in our faith? When did we last take time to talk to our teachers, to share the ways that God in his grace has used them to heal us, to correct us, to encourage and inspire us? They are human too, and while the satisfaction of obedience to their calling is their ultimate reward, they will thrill to know that God is using them. Sometimes it can be what seems a disastrous sermon to the preacher which turns out to be the greatest blessing to the people – but how much better if the preacher knows than if he or she goes home despondent and unaware!

But more than speaking even, is the real responsibility we have, to PRAY for our leaders. And Paul spells out what to pray for them – that they may preach fearlessly and clearly, that the gospel might go out with power, without restraint, and that the end result would be honour to God. When did we last pray, like that?

The point of Spurgeon’s comment was to emphasise that without prayer for the word of God to speak to hearts and transform lives in Christ, there was no point in his preaching. Sometimes the word will be a rebuke, it will hit hard and bring distress – that is why Paul asks us to pray that preachers might be fearless. They must be so submitted to the word that they are willing to deliver hard messages – think of the prophets in the Old Testament who brought dreadful warnings to their hearers! But if a preacher fears the reaction of his hearers, he will be tempted to soften the message, to avoid the hard things, and that will lead him to disobedience and his work will indeed become a burden to him. So let us pray for fearlessness for our preachers.

Clarity – how can we learn if we cannot understand? What a crucial prayer this is, that people might see and know exactly what the good news of Jesus is, that they might be saved and transformed into his likeness. Unrestrained power – praying that the devil will not hinder, distract or dilute the message by hindering the preacher! A pulpit or platform is a battlefield when God’s word is being faithfully proclaimed and we as a congregation can claim victory on behalf of our teachers, so that they are free to preach what they have prepared.

I hope that I will be able to take this challenge to heart in the years ahead, that I might commit to the discipline of praying for my preacher: – fearlessness; clarity; unrestrained proclamation, and above all, that God in his power will speak through the word to transform lives and bring glory and honour to Jesus Christ, our Lord and the focus of all that is said in his name.

 

Slow..to the point of immobility!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every thing that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 

Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

(Hebrews 12.1-3)

If my life were to be pictured as a race, what kind would it look like? A sprint? – fast, strong, utterly focussed? Or a steeple-chase, with obstacles over which I leap gracefully, recovering my stride and moving smoothly onwards? Or even a marathon – not very fast, but nonetheless dogged and relentless, without swerving from the allotted course?

Alas, my life as a race would resemble the progress of a blindfold athlete, who had forgotten to put on the proper clothes, and who was carrying most of their belongings on their back in a pack. My progress would be uncertain, without direction, with frequent periods when I simply sat down wherever I happened to be and cried for a while out of sheer frustration and self-pity.

At the beginning of a new year, we often make promises to ourselves about a new start, fresh commitments. I have been here often enough to know that is a recipe for despair and self-loathing by the end of January at the very latest! Instead it seems to me healthier to focus for a time on the ways which God has kept me through the previous year, to see more clearly his provision and all the ways he has brought good for me- and perhaps others – out of times of pain, and difficulty. But, in racing terms, that only counts as a breather! And I am called – as a follower of Jesus – to follow, which implies movement, forwards in a given direction..

So how can I realistically face this new twelve-month, knowing that I have no way of preparing for the unknown events ahead; that I may not even live to see the end of it? Paul’s exhortation to the readers of this letter are like the encouraging – and bracing – words of our coach and mentor..

Look who is watching, who has completed this race before you! They are witnesses to God’s power to keep you and transform you and be glorified through even such frail creatures as we are. You can do this, because God is with you!”

On the one hand, I remember those heroes of the faith who were commended in chapter 11, all of whom were frail and sinning people like me – and God, through the writer of this letter, calls them his faithful servants. If they can be commended, after trying and messing it up, then I can too!

Seeing this, I can take courage to commit myself to the ongoing effort to become more like Christ – letting him dominate my sight and thought, recognising and letting go (or cutting out), those things which distract me from him, and distort his image in me. This is God’s work in my life – but I know I can choose to hinder it, so I pray for a submissive heart and willing attitude to co-ooperate with that work, knowing that God can and will complete what he plans.

I am a slow learner in this following life; I never know what to say when asked earnestly, “So,what is the Lord trying to teach you at the moment?”. I think God knows what he is doing, and I prefer not to look too closely for myself – but rather to do as Paul exhorts his readers…to fix my eyes on Jesus, to consider him and let nothing else get in my way.

This I know, that if my heart is fixed on obedience to Christ; and my desire is to become more like him, then whatever else happens in 2017, I will be given grace to persevere, and to glorify God in it. I may not see any progress, but He will, and that will be sufficient.

Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me, all his wonderful passion and purity.

May his spirit divine all my being refine, Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.

(Tom M. Jones) 

Just be gentle…

“Go out and stand before me on the mountain”, the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

(1Kings 19. 11-13)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. the Lord is near.

(Philippians 4.4&5)

My father was a ‘gentle-man’, it was one of his outstanding qualities. He was strong, physically and emotionally, stubborn and loyal, but very gentle. He had big hands, but would delicately cup a rose bud or seedling as he transplanted it. He never shouted or snapped at us as children – and I don’t think I have just forgotten it either! I have no memory of him talking about others to demean or mock them, but sometimes he would express regret that their actions and words had unfortunate consequences.

As I go on in life I increasingly appreciate gentleness, and thank God that in my father, I was shown such a clear example of God’s own gentleness in his dealing with his children. I will always be a child of God. I will always need my Father’s love and provision, and part of that provision is for the balm of gentleness.

When a child is frightened, hurt or astray and worried about coming home in disgrace, they need above all to be met with gentleness. That quality speaks of a love which understands our weakness, and knows that we need above all reassurance, not a brisk reprimand or exhortation to ‘get over it and get on!’ Perhaps in due time, the reprimand will be given – gently – or the exhortation to continue on the way will come. But first and foremost is the comfort, the healing of a forbearing love.

True gentleness is hard to fake, and easy to recognise. It is a quality which draws people towards itself, as moths to a flame, as cold hands to a warm glowing fire. Jesus had it, and so drew to himself so many wounded and rejected, worthless and despised people. They knew that he was different, that he would not add to their pain but would recognise, respect and minister to it.

Jesus valued everyone as a child of God, created to know and love and be loved, to add their own unique voice to the eternal song of glory to God. When we fail in gentleness, we are failing to demonstrate that same awareness of the priceless value of each person. Surely that is part of what Paul is driving at when he exhorts the church in Philippi to be known for their gentleness, by reminding them that ‘The Lord is near.’ This Lord who crafted each person in his own image; who longs for each one to come into a loving relationship with him; who longs for each one to know life in all its fullness within the community of God’s people here on earth.

I know what it is to crave gentleness from those around me, in times of distress and even in times of gladness, I find it hard to be handled brusquely and feel somehow diminished and irrelevant. A lack of gentleness tells me that I do not matter, that my feelings don’t matter, and I am of little value. This is not what the story of God’s love tells me, and I cling so closely to his gentle arms, listening for that gentle whisper which speaks his presence and his constant love. He tells me that I am special, beloved, worth everything to him, and that gentle voice brings healing.

Let me minister this healing to others, since I know how precious it is for me. Let us all seek to grow this Christ-quality in all our dealings with one another, so that we may build one another up, and not cause any to fall down or become discouraged, thinking that they do not matter to us – or to God.

Let our gentleness indeed be known to all, that God might be glorified and his people blessed!