Category Archives: gratitude

Stop, look…listen!

Honour the Lord, you heavenly beings; honour the Lord for his glory and strength. Honour the Lord for the glory of his name. Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness.

The voice of the Lord echoes above the sea. The God of glory thunders. The Lord thunders over the mighty sea. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic. The voice of the Lord splits the mighty cedars; the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon’s mountains skip like a calf; he makes Mount Hermon leap like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord strikes with bolts of lightning. The voice of the Lord makes the barren wilderness quake; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks and strips the forests bare. In his temple everyone shouts, “Glory!”

The Lord rules over the floodwaters. The Lord reigns as king forever. The Lord gives his people strength. The Lord blesses them with peace.

(Psalm 29)

I don’t know if you have ever noticed how hard it can be to simply praise God, without slipping in a little request along the way? I used to attend a church where the Saturday night prayer meeting began with a time of praise. We sang a psalm and thought about it a little, then spent ten minutes or more simply praising God – absolutely no requests were made, the focus was entirely upon our God in all his aspects, and our response of worship. It was through this experience that I learned how important it is to stop my busy thoughts, to lift my eyes to the truth revealed about God, and give him his proper place.

When we spend time deliberately thinking about all we can see of God’s handiwork, and all it reveals about his power, beauty, imagination, playfulness, love and skill, we come into an attitude of profound thankfulness and also humility. The sheer scale and complexity of the created world is so far beyond our comprehension that we rightly marvel at the one who made it. When we realise how delicately everything has been balanced so that humanity can thrive, we are overwhelmed by the loving kindness which lies behind every detail.

As we focus our thoughts on God, not for what he may give us, but simply for who he is and all the wonderful and terrifying things we know of him, our perspective shifts and he takes his rightful place – on the throne of our hearts, undisputed ruler and subject of our highest loyalties and ambitions. Such adoring contemplation helps me to keep other things – principally myself – from taking that highest place in my life; and it is when God rules in human hearts that they are most fully human, we were not made to worship ourselves, but him!

This psalm demonstrates that beautifully, as the word “I” never appears, and God is referred to in every sentence. Try reading it aloud to yourself, feeling the growing thrill of wonder and worship as the psalmist heaps image upon image in order to express the power and authority of the Lord as revealed in his creation, until that wonderful response where all in the temple simply have to cry “Glory!”

And those final words are like a benediction. After so much contemplation of who God is, we turn to what he does..He rules and reigns. This God, whom we have seen is so powerful and holy and good; he it is who rules, and therefore we do right to bring all that we are and all that concerns us to him. It is his task to see that justice is done, and while we may have questions about how he chooses to do that, we can surely trust him. Our God is great enough to hold our unanswered questions and to give us peace in return, since we see his goodness and know that he must be true to himself.

How good it is to praise God, and how unutterably wonderful to have one who is entirely worthy of praise! Let us lose ourselves more often in worship of the Lord who rules and reigns forever, so that we might live by his strength and in his peace.

I just need to sing!

My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing and make music with all my soul. Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.

For great is your love, higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth.

(Ps 108.1-5)

I admit it is a little foolish to write about singing – I should just go and sing – but I wanted to explore and share a little of what happens to prompt my singing, of why it can be the only right response to what is happening in my life, and thoughts.

Consider the wonder which is a new day. The sun has risen again, all the laws of nature continue to operate , and life is sustained. I have slept – a huge blessing in itself – and am awake. My body continues to function – that is a gift of God, he could have chosen to take me home, but he has granted me this new day in which to live, breathe, see and talk to other people – each one of whom is a unique and precious creation in God’s eyes. The very pattern of the clouds in the sky above the hills is new every morning, never to be repeated. My eyes – a scientific marvel still beyond our full comprehension – register colour, shape, distance and details, so that my mind makes sense of the world around me.

In that world there is so much to touch my heart with wonder, and drive me to my knees in thankfulness to the creator, the original singer of songs. See the delicate details of petals, the brilliance of colour, and beauty of forms; look at the strong silhouettes of the trees – shorn of leaves at this time so that I may glory in the variety of structures, the colours and textures of bark. Listen for the birds in the thickets, or calling overhead as they ride the wind and exalt their maker by their effortless mastery of the air. Watch the tiniest finches throng the bird feeder, with bright colours and quivering alertness to every possible danger – and remember that not one falls to the ground without its maker knowing!

The savour of the simplest of foods, the smell of fresh coffee and superb thirst-quenching power of pure water – a luxury which I take too easily for granted – all should prompt my profound thanks.

All these good things, which I cannot earn, have not deserved, and yet which I receive in such bountiful measure…And somehow, until I have rendered thanks for them, my pleasure is incomplete, lacking. It is in praising my Father, the giver of all good gifts, that I fully realise the riches which I have. And for me, that means singing my thanks, my heart is much too full for mere spoken words to give expression to the joy, the sense of astonished gratitude, which is mine.

I am humbled when I remember that for too many in this world, the physical daily blessings which I receive are unheard of luxuries, but it is good for me to be reminded that my reasons for thankfulness must not depend upon my bodily well-being. If my thankfulness is not ultimately – as the psalmist’s was – for the love and faithfulness of my God, then it is misguided, ungodly and transient.

The God who made this world is good, all the time, and made a world which would speak of his power, beauty, and love. But the gifts themselves are not the ultimate good, God is, and I rejoice most truly when I rejoice in him – his character and his salvation, freely given to me, at great cost to him. This is why singing as part of public worship is so important – it allows us to give expression to our sense of indebtedness, our delight in God, our deep thankfulness for his love, and our awareness of how little we have deserved such goodness.

We are creatures with emotions, and we are made with music in our souls. I believe that we are designed to glorify our God at least in part by expressing our loving response to him in our singing – and that when we do, we are making an acceptable offering to him; a sacrifice of praise.

So next time you have been profoundly moved by your bible reading; by a sermon; by the beauty of a sunset or the laugh of a beloved child, let that gift prompt your praise in music. Join me in being those who sing songs of praise as they walk the hills and beaches; or drive under great trees and by fair fields, and who remember that the God who made all this has loved and saved us, individually for his glory and pleasure!

Whispers of wings?

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you ; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

(Genesis 12.1-3)

A perfect world, created to give a home to humankind, with whom God in his generous loving kindness has desired to share himself – not that he needs us, but his nature overflows with love, and the delight of the trinity in one another is to be shared with us! And in order that we might fully and freely enter into that love, we are made capable of rejecting it. In our folly, we chose to distrust our God and to put ourselves first.

So the beauty is broken, the relationship is fractured, and humanity learns the hard way that getting what we want is not always the good we expect it to be.. The earliest recorded stories of God’s dealings with humanity show that from the very beginning, he had a plan, an incredible scheme of rescue, which will ultimately bring into being the beautiful and satisfying relationship he always desired for us. Traces of it can be followed, like whispered hints of something wonderful yet hidden, through the old testament narrative, until it finds full expression in the gospels in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son and Saviour himself.

The readings at a Christmas carol service will often trace that thread, going right back to the promise given by God as Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, that the seed or offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent – a picture of the victory which would ultimately be won by Christ on the cross, defeating forever the power of evil to separate humanity from God.

The steady focus and continuity of God’s purpose is a source of great encouragement to us, because it shows that he is never deflected from his plans, no matter what it may look like from our limited human perspective. Those who were caught up in the days of the Exodus – the long desert journeys, the threat of starvation and armed attack – had no idea that this part of their corporate history as God’s people would stand for the rest of time as a clear example of God’s power to keep his promises. The Midianite refugee who followed her mother-in-law home and found a welcome, and a new life with Boaz, had no idea that her small acts of love and service were part of the plan of God to create a king, David, who would bless the nation.

With hindsight, we can see that there are hints all along the way, as in the covenant promise made to Abram, that all nations would be blessed through him – through his great descendant, Jesus. But for those living the story as it unfolded, there was no such understanding. They were called to obedience and faith in the world as they could see it, without God’s blueprint for redemption and re-creation in front of them.

How much more should we be willing to serve and obey, since we have that plan, revealed in all its fulness in Jesus himself! God, in his mercy and loving-kindness to a helpless and forlorn humanity, has opened the way for us to come home, and has provided all that we need for the journey. The promise which was only whispered at the beginning, is now trumpeted abroad by the angelic heralds, who proclaim at Christ’s birth that here at last is the Saviour, the Anointed and promised one!

Let us rejoice this Christmas in the goodness of our God, in providing from the very beginning, a way for his estranged people to come home. And let us take heart, in the midst of a world which continues to be wracked by the consequences of sin, that we might be confident that God, who began this great work, will bring it to an end. He is faithful, and calls us only to be obedient in fulfilling our role in his plan. We have good news, the best gift anyone could receive, let us eagerly look for ways to share it in love, with our communities.

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!

Just keep walking..

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

(John 8.12)

I love to walk. I like to walk around new places, getting a feel of them by pounding the streets, hearing the voices and traffic, letting the smells and sights inform and enrich my experience. I like to walk with friends, to share time with them as we go together through parkland or by riverbank, or even just up the road to church. I like to run too, but due to persistent injury, that activity is forbidden for the present, and so the energy which I would normally expend in running is being channeled into walking as a way of relaxing!

One of my favourite times to walk is of an evening, as the light lengthens and the sky often clears to reveal a breath-taking depth of colours. And just as when I walk with friends in the park, it is a time of fellowship and friendship, this time, with the one who is always present, my Lord Jesus. He is my best friend, the one above all others who loves me as I am and delights in all that pleases me. He understands why I have to stop and caress a beautiful bud, smell the freshly opened rose, lift my arms to the stooping boughs of great trees. These things were made to be received with gratitude, and so I love to share them with my Lord, to notice each one as a gift from his love, just for me.

Sometimes, I will leave the house in darkness – the darkness of spirit which comes through sin; through the pain which our most dearly loved can cause us; or through despair as I have been reminded of the extent to which our race choose to reject God and to live without hope in the world.  On those walks, there may well be tears, there will be half-formed laments and protests against the agony I am feeling. But even as I walk, weep and talk, with my Lord, there will always be that profound assurance of presence. He never leaves me to walk alone in the darkness, never…

And his presence is light in my darkness; is it not the only thing which makes our struggles bearable, to know that we are not alone? And is it not true that even our greatest joys are somehow enhanced when we share them with someone who understands and loves us? What a blessing then, to have his constant presence bringing comfort for my pain, and enriching my life by receiving my thanks for all the good things I receive!

By the light of his presence, the darkness is put into perspective, and I am reminded that I cannot see the whole picture, nor know the end of the story. His loving light shows me the sin that remains in my own life, reminding me of the cause of all the darkness and cautioning me against judging others when I am so weak myself. And above all, the light of Christ is the love of God the Father for me, his redeemed child – that love which paid the ultimate price to make me his daughter. When I remember that loving sacrifice, then I can be sure that even the deepest darkness in the world around, or in my spirit can never separate me from him. I may not understand, I may deplore my circumstances and the evil done in the world. But in the light of his presence, I can rest, sure that one day I will go home to be forever with my Lord, and all justice will be done, to the glory of God and the praise of his name.

There is an old song which expresses that deep conviction of my Lord’s constant loving presence, and I will finish today with some words from it to get you singing.

I serve a risen Saviour, he’s in the world today; I know that he is living, whatever men may say;

I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer. And just the time I need him he’s always near.

He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.

He lives, he lives, salvation to impart! You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.

(H.A. Rodeheaver.1961)

End of chapter…

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal.

Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.

Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

(Matthew 6.19-21)

Moving house is a time when the quantity of stuff one possesses is frighteningly visible, being gathered onto a large lorry by a whole squad of people. It is  good to take stock and think about what is really necessary before adding to the heap of stuff to be packed, and we have given a good deal of time recently to doing just that.

There have been trips to charity shops, the recycling facility and the local dump, but also opportunities to help local organisations with things that we don’t need and they can use. It is a great blessing of our era, that social media and the internet allow us to find ways to make sure resources can be reused as often as possible. But some of the things are hard to let go….

The treasures I am reluctant to lose are largely connected with the raising of my children – books, toys, games and craft materials, all bearing witness to hours spent together and reminding me of their growth and development. But if the children – now both young adults in reality – are willing to let these things go, why am I struggling? We are passed those stages now, the colouring books and magnetic puzzles, the model-making kits and boxes of brightly coloured beads are redundant.

They are not perhaps the treasures that Jesus was particularly referring to, but I feel that his words here do apply to my situation as well. I have a choice here: I can cling on to the relics of childhood (telling myself that one day, someone else might come and use them, which is a delusion), or I can accept that this chapter of life is now closed, the story has moved on, and I must too. If I refuse to let go of these things, I am placing too much importance on what has been, instead of embracing what is, and looking to what will be.

My Father in heaven knows my mother-heart, he made it, so that I might love and raise these young people for him. He knows that I have many good memories, of simple days and the glorious free laughter and love of young children. Those were sweet to my spirit, and I am right to treasure them. But he has new blessings for me here, now, with the teenager and the young man who are increasingly independent, who laugh more at their little mother than with her, but who I am proud to call my own.

So what does it mean, as a mother, to store my treasures in heaven? Perhaps it is the literal and continual committing of my children into God’s hands, reminding myself that they were his before they were mine, and that his love for them is so much greater than mine. The love I bear for them, and the joy they bring me, are treasures which I can only keep sweet, healthy and clean by continually bringing them before God, to cleanse me of selfishness and the desire to control or manipulate their lives according to my own will.

I must also guard against allowing love for my children to become an idol, so that unless God gives them what I want for them, I cannot trust him. I have seen that happen, and it is such a painful situation, when God’s dealings with a child become the wreck of a parent’s faith. Ultimately, my treasure in heaven must be Christ alone, and my allegiance to him cannot be conditional upon my children’s prosperity, health or happiness.

So I will get rid of the stuff that my daughter is happily throwing out, to make room for her new life in our new home, and then the exciting adventure which will lie ahead after that. I will seek to walk gladly with her into the next chapter, thankful for the past but not clinging onto it, and trusting our loving Father for all our futures.

The scandal of grace

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus….God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. All honour and glory to God forever and ever! He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen.

(1Timothy 1.12-14,16&17)

I had never really noticed this passage from Paul’s letter to the young man, Timothy who had been appointed as a church leader and who needed encouragement to persevere in that work against opposition from those who condemned him as too young and inexperienced. The whole letter is full of strong and yet tender exhortations from Paul, seeking to build up Timothy’s confidence – not in himself, but in the God who called, and who therefore will equip and provide all he needs for the work.

As he often does elsewhere, Paul uses his own life as an example of what he is teaching, and in this case it is that no one is beyond God’s grace when it comes to transforming lives! He is encouraging Timothy to believe that youth and inexperience are no obstacle to God’s appointment, and that God’s work in a leader’s life can be a powerful witness to others.

This is tremendously encouraging for us all, and should help us to avoid the mistake of trying to behave as if we were already perfect and that everything in our lives is wonderful. Paul certainly refuses to wallow in self-pity, or to allow his past failures to hold him back from undertaking God’s work, but he also clearly recognises that his personal holiness is far from complete, and that it is an ongoing work which God alone can do.

How do I behave when I am aware of sin in my life, of past griefs or failures that continue to shadow my thoughts, or painful struggles with present burdens of poor health, bereavement or other trauma? If I learn from Paul, then I am willing to acknowledge the ways in which I am affected, thanking God for all his grace in sustaining and saving me from the power of sin, while also asking for and expecting that he will continue to change me through this struggle. I also expect that God will use my own experience as an example to others – of his sustaining power; of his grace to sinners; of his leading and healing of his children. If I am not willing to be honest and open about my own life, then how can God use me in this way?

As I contemplate moving to a new congregation, a new church family, I need to be praying that God will indeed give me strength to do his work in that place. I also need to be asking that my life might be a witness to God’s scandalous grace – all the riches of life in Christ poured out on undeserving rebellious humanity. God chooses and blesses us regardless of our past. Paul, the vicious persecuter of the early church; Jacob, the deceiver who manipulated his brother and plotted against his father; Peter, the self-confident, impetuous blunderer…  and me, with all my weakness and doubt.

Am I willing to be open and honest with my sisters and brothers in Christ, so that my life story might be used by God for their blessing too? It is after all only another variation of the great theme of the bible, that without Christ, there is no hope for us. He is supreme; the one and only means by which we may be saved. All our hope is in him, and we can and should take great pride in telling all the world of his beauty, his power, his generous grace and his tenderness, so that others will join in praising his name.