Category Archives: frailty

Bland, boring and inoffensive…

Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

(Ps 43.3-5)

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

(Matt 5.13)

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

(Rev 3.14-16)

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(From: the Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the 25th Sunday after Trinity)

I am not by nature one of life’s optimists; not an entertainer, or source of endless jokes and funny anecdotes. Life to me seems a very earnest business, and while I love to laugh and be with people who are positive and funny, it would be wrong for me to aspire to be like them. I am, to put it very poetically, one of the darker shades in life’s tapestry!

Given that temperamental foundation, what does my Lord ask of me, as his witness and a channel of his love and messenger of the gospel to my community? I am to be as salt – that which brings savour, has a strong taste and cannot be ignored. I am to be noticeable, one whose life and message provoke thoughtful response. I am to be fruitful in works which glorify God, and bless others. He does not ask for a change in temperament, but he does look for a passionate, committed life, one which at every level reflects my dependence upon and delight in him; a life which speaks clearly of a close and loving relationship with the Lord Jesus.

I don’t know how my community would judge me on these things at present; but I fear that I am far more like the lukewarm, bland and nauseating church at Laodicea, who were condemned in such strong language by the faithful and true witness of Revelation. I am ashamed of my lack of passion, of the way in which I seem so often to fail in witnessing to the transforming and life-sustaining power of Christ.

Is this because I have never known it truly for myself? Surely, once a believer has come into that relationship with Christ they are for ever after going to be on fire for him? Actually, I believe that our lives as believers do ebb and flow, and that while we cannot but be ashamed of the times when we feel so utterly lacking in passion, yet we dare not condemn ourselves. The devil would love nothing more than to see saints write themselves off as a result of feelings; when the reality of our salvation and our hope is not our feelings about them, but the truth of God’s power and promises.

So in my shame and coldness of heart, I cling to and echo the prayer of the psalmist, begging that God will send his light and his truth in power, to guide me – by that truth which cannot change – back to his sanctuary, to the place of intimate fellowship with him; the place where I am filled with joy and passion again in praising him. And I echo the old words of the prayer book, asking God to stir up my soul, by his Spirit to reawaken my desire for him. It is his work, and he alone can accomplish it. I want to be so full of the beauty and wonder of the gospel that it spills out continually in all my conversations; I want to be so attuned to the Spirit within me that I can discern where God is working in other people’s lives and so align myself with that work; I long to be part of seeing his kingdom grow in this place…

Even the darkest shades in a tapestry have depths of colour and make a significant contribution to the beauty of the picture; let me be content to be a dark shade, but Lord, fill me with the intensity of colour and depth of passion that comes from a growing understanding of the wonder of your love for me.

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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.

Relentless, single-minded…love?

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.

(John 15.12-14)

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love….. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

(Eph 4.1&2; 15&16)

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

(Mark 11.25)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?….You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye……If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you…”

(Matt 7.3&5;18.15)

Lord, your love is perfect: mine is so imperfect.

You fear nothing: I fear so many things.

Out of your love, you cause me to face pain and difficulty, that I might become the glorious creature you know that I can be.

Out of my feeble shadow of love, I shy away from inflicting pain or causing others to face difficulty, because I am afraid of what they might do to me.

If I loved you as I ought; if your will truly ruled in my heart; if I truly loved others, then nothing would stop me from speaking the truth in love that they might grow according to your glorious purposes for them.

Oh Lord, forgive me, that I do not love as I ought. Forgive me, that I have failed to love others as I ought, and have let fear of my own pain hold me back from obedience to your will.

Have you ever considered that laying down your life for others might look more like a sentence of hard labour than a death sentence? That sounds a little severe, but let me unpack what I mean..Jesus spoke these words on the night before he died, and so we often associate them with his sacrificial death – and rightly so. But is it not also possible to apply them to the years leading up to this night?

Jesus had given up his life for his disciples, for three years. He had lived and worked with them, walked and eaten with them. He had borne with their foolishness and ignorance, their misplaced ambitions and squabblings, he had even borne with the presence of the one whom he knew would betray him. His life had been a living sacrifice of service to these men, a worked example of divine love in action.

I have been challenged recently to apply this to myself, to see that my life is also poured out in love to others, for their blessing and growth in grace and faith. If I choose to follow my own instincts – which are for peace at any price, and the avoidance of all confrontation – then I will effectively fail in my calling. God asks me to be his agent of love to people – to speak truth in love to them, that they might hear through my loving voice the word of God calling them to repentance and change. This is a huge responsibility, and for one like myself who goes in great fear of doing “the wrong thing”, it is terrifying!

But God gives me no choice; as his child, one in whom Christ dwells by the Spirit, I am called to play my part in building up the individual members of his body and that means helping others to see the truth about themselves. Will I choose to trust that He can and will direct my words; give me wisdom and humility; use what I say for the good of those to whom I speak; and above all, help me to overcome my fear of everything except disobeying him?

Loving Lord, I pray that you will so fill me with your relentless love that I will no longer hold back, but will speak the truth in love; humbly acknowledging my own great sinfulness and need of forgiveness; depending on your grace and power to change us all according to your will and looking forward eagerly to the day when we all stand revealed in the glory that you have in store for us. 

A little self-knowledge….

Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders. My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law……

Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word…..Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good….

May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word.

(Ps 119. 27-29, 36-38, 41&42)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

(Jer 17.9)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

(Matt 5.3-6)

It can be profoundly disconcerting when the word read speaks directly to the heart; when the spirit pierces our understanding, and we see a little of our own reality as God sees. I thank him that we do not see the whole, being spared that picture, which if seen would cause us to despair of living for even a few moments in a truly godly way! Thanks be to God for his mercy, in shielding us from the truth: for surely we are none of us perfect yet, and so much remains that is contrary to the beauty of holiness which we see in Christ. In our ignorance we persevere, trusting that God will reveal – in his good time – what needs to be dealt with, and accepting that there is a good deal of it!

But when it is so revealed, then what do we do? The temptation is to resist the vision, to replay in our minds all the soothing, deceitful reassurances that this world would give us, that this thing is no sin, but an understandable and justifiable line of thought or action given the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves…… Our culture cannot deal healthily with the idea of shame, of grieving that we are less worthy than we held ourselves to be, and cries loudly against it. But the word of God speaks firmly, of the standards to which we are held accountable, and the power which is given to us to live up to them in the life of the risen Christ within us by his spirit.

When I, who have so many of this world’s good things, and all the blessings of salvation and the hope of a life to come, find myself persistently anxious, petulant and discontented, then the response is not to perform more acts of love and indulgence towards myself, but to confess as sin this wrong attitude, this utter lack of real gratitude and lived trust in God. My heart is indeed deceitful when it tries to blame anyone but myself for this attitude, to copy Eve in her desire to excuse herself and put the burden of guilt on another. I am responsible before God for my attitude to the days he gives me; to the people who fill my life; for my use – or abuse – of the talents, possessions, and time he has allotted to my stewardship.

I am a flawed human being, living with other flawed human beings; and my Lord and Father knows all that is part of my lot. And he commands praise, obedience, joyful embracing of his will for my life – not on the basis of my feelings, but on the facts of his nature and acts. I have no excuse before him for failing to render these things, but oh how very easily I speak false comfort to myself and claim excuses for just that failure.

I do indeed hunger and thirst after righteousness; I long for my heart and mind to be turned effectively away from selfish desires; I grow weary of the battle for holiness, and sick at heart when I see fresh glimpses of my own deceitfulness and failures.

Thanks be to God then, who has given us full and free forgiveness in his Son, by whose death we receive life, and whose blood covers all our sins. Yes, we rightly grieve over our failures, and long for transformation; but we also have the right to claim victory over the one who taunts us with our failures, over the devil who would love nothing better than to keep us in the bitter dust of self-pity and despair.

Let us claim the promised comfort; the guaranteed inheritance; the blessed assurance of forgiveness and acceptance, so that the accuser of the brethren will depart, and we may labour on for a time in peace, with confidence that our God who began this good work in us will finish it and one day we shall rejoice in knowing ourselves perfected in Christ!

He knows me so well…

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,…

(Psalm 103.13-17)

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

(Psalm 139.1-6)

May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works – he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke. I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.

(Psalm 104.31-34)

Some people have a gift for saying, giving, or doing, just the right thing to communicate their love, encouragement, compassion and sympathy. It is a gift; we can all seek to cultivate it, but for some it comes easily! They have an instinctive understanding of those around them which allows them to see what will speak most clearly – what will convey the message most effectively. Their friend’s lives are enriched by their presence and they can make a huge difference to the weary, lonely and hurting, as well as adding to the joy of the glad in their celebrations..

And I believe that this gift is a reflection of God’s incredible ability to communicate his love to each and every one of his children, in ways which speak intimately and personally to us, bringing healing and deep contentment in his presence. He knows us, through and through, the strengths as well as the weaknesses, the darkness as well as the light; and in his love for our frailty, he delights to meet us with daily gifts – private pleasures which we can share with him.

I believe that when we learn to notice these gifts, and make a conscious effort to thank God for his goodness in each one, that he delights in us, and the total sum of our joy is much greater than if we had simply accepted the gift as our due and passed on. I want to be one of the works which my Lord rejoices in; I want to dwell and meditate on his goodness in ways which help me to live every more closely with him!

We are indeed frail creatures, only God knows how pitifully thin is the line which separates us daily from illness, danger and death. And in his wonderful compassion for his beloved children, living in a beautiful world gone badly wrong, he pours out tokens of grace upon us – new days dawn, sunsets herald night and starlight; we wake, breathing and living; we have work to do, people to care for, and beauty, might and power all around for the seeing.

I may be called to bear bitter crosses at times, but the daily gifts of love will still be there for me to receive, as nourishment, as gentle caressing touches from a Father’s hand. The hardest times are when the pain of the burden clouds the eyes and dulls the spirit, so that the gifts seem worthless, their value cannot be appropriated by our weary hearts and so we neglect to give thanks. Then indeed, the cross becomes a terrible thing, because we have cut ourselves off from the one who would bear it with us, and the only one who can truly understand our troubles.

As I labour on, bearing the appointed cross and earnestly desiring to glorify my Lord by imitating his attitude, may I continue to notice the daily gifts – the touch of a warm breeze after winter, the passing beauty of foam tossed up by the river, the chance encounters with bird and beast – fellow creatures, fearfully and wonderfully made, the pleasures of eating good food, and the smell of freshly laundered, wind-dried sheets! In giving thanks, may I encounter again the Father’s gaze of love, and hear the precious assurance of his constant presence and holding of me. How wonderful indeed, to be thus intimately known by the Lord of Lords, let me rejoice, and be glad!

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.

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!