Category Archives: honesty

When there seems no way out of the woods..

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you….I am God and there is none like me..I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do as I please.

(Isa 46.3,4, 9&10)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed…

(2 Cor 4.7-9)

..rejoice in the Lord..whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ..I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me..our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally brothers, 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. Whatever you have learned or received from me, or seen in me – put it into practice…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

(Phil 3.1,7,14,20-21; 4.6-9,12&13)

The words spoken by Isaiah from the Lord came to a people who were on the edge of catastrophe, of military defeat and exile, from which many would never return. They were likely to spend the remainder of their lives under alien rule, far from the temple and all they knew of comfort and familiar ways. To these people, God speaks of his faithfulness, making no exceptions regarding their future place of residence or the impossibility of carrying on temple worship in Babylon.

Their departure from the land was entirely within God’s purpose, the Babylonian invasion would not take him by surprise, any more than the circumstances of our lives do. When believers find themselves called to hard places, we have this precedent to which we can turn, seeing God declaring his commitment to his children as they live in hard places, deprived of much which others take for granted, and consequently finding life a struggle.

I do not in any way intend to make light of the dreadful conditions in which many live, poverty, political and social persecution, violence and pain, the realities of disease and disability, of mental illness and abuse. But I do believe that the bible refuses us permission to treat these things as beyond God’s knowledge. We cannot understand why these things are permitted but we can know that we are never out of His sight or forgotten by His love.

Some are called to situations which – humanly speaking – are unlikely to change for the duration of their natural lives; always walking in what can feel like thick woodland, sometimes a very dark and frightening place, with little light upon the way, and no mountain top from which to see a clear path ahead. Each day can be a huge struggle, and the temptation to despair is real. The snare of comparison with others more fortunate than ourselves is equally fatal to our perseverance and joy, and for this reason it is good to remember Paul’s words to his churches as he exhorts them to persevere and find contentment through trials and uncertainty.

The only comparison Paul makes is between the trials which he is facing, and the glorious inheritance which is guaranteed to him by Jesus. He looks not to the relative ease and prosperity of other Roman citizens, but to the inexhaustible grace of God, to the goodness and beauty revealed in salvation and shining from Jesus to enlighten us. The ultimate in noble and good things to contemplate in our darkness, when the wood seems never-ending and our courage fails us, the Lord Jesus is within us by his Spirit, and therefore, we cannot be lost.

My path may be harder than I had hoped, but if it is the one to which I am called, then I can expect and  thankfully depend upon the sustaining of the God who put me here. I can trust in his power to provide each day’s resources, and can fully empty my load of care at his feet as often as necessary. It is his desire that I glorify him in my dark wood;  surely he will then provide me with all I need in order to prove him faithful.

When everything else has fallen away..

O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief…The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground; he makes me dwell in darkness like those long dead. So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed.

I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Answer me quickly, O Lord, my spirit fails.

Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.

Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Rescue me from my enemies, O Lord, for I hide myself in you. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.

(Ps 143.1, 2-10)

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. about the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(Matt 27.45&46)

As followers of Jesus, we live with a continual tension between the reality of a broken, and pain-filled world, and the revelation of God’s loving purposes for his creation. This is not the place to unpack the many discussions which can arise, rather I have been considering how we can pray for one another when the crises come. To be a Christian is not a recipe for a protected, pain free existence, and anyone who tries to convince others that the gospel brings health, wealth and happiness is to be rebuked and avoided at all costs. We will face suffering, even as every human being does.

Every trial known to humanity happens to believers too – rape, abuse, violent assault, homelessness, cancer, addiction, debilitating and degenerative diseases, disability, poverty, war, earthquakes and all natural disasters. How may we pray for one another when our lives are shaken to their foundations, when all the walls collapse and in an instant, we are naked to the winds and vulnerable to utter destruction? This is intercession, the ministry of other members of Christ’s body for those who are stunned and reeling, unable to pray for themselves, possibly running away from God, certainly in great agony of spirit.  We may be called to it for hours, days or years, and we may not see the answers we hope for – our own faith may be challenged. Are we willing?

We can pray for protection of their faith – that they will continue to bring all to God, not turn away from him. He is big enough to take all our frantic furious words and his fathomless love refuses to walk away from his hurting children. We can pray that their anger will be poured out before him, so that their spirit may be preserved from the infection of bitterness and the petrifying power of resentment. The psalmists give shape to such lament, as do Job and the prophets.

We can pray for that steadying and grounding which guards against drastic and desperate action, for wisdom to hold through confusion and the turmoil of grief. The presence of compassion and practical support, of burden-sharers, and those who can advise and bring comfort by their presence. Perhaps we ourselves may have a part to play in this. How often Paul speaks in his letters of the comfort which friends brought – by their gifts and their companionship – as God’s support to him in his need.

We can pray for for freedom from paralysing fear as they contemplate a future which they hoped never to see. How many of us deliberately contemplate what life might look like if disaster struck? We don’t, we focus instead on enjoying what we have and easily forget that life can change in an instant. A beloved may walk out of the house, and out of our lives with no warning, and how shall we live without them? A diagnosis may come which shifts life into an endurance event, full of obstacles, and pain. We don’t want to anticipate these things, but they are the stuff of real and daily life. How much we need God’s help in living through those situations, in dealing with the fear of suffering, of loss, of death.

Above all, we pray for mercy from the Omnipotent on the dust-creature whom he loves, and who is at this time flat out in stunned despair and hopelessness. Tomorrow, it could be my turn, or yours. We live, day by day depending entirely on God’s providence, and by grace we cry to him as Father for his presence. We have his love, an eternal inheritance, a daily indwelling strength by his Holy Spirit, and although we may feel abandoned, we can give thanks that we are never truly alone. Because Jesus was forsaken, we are not..

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

(Matt 28.18&20)

This I do know..

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.

(Ps 27.4-6)

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?..But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Matt 6.27,33&34)

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun..

So what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen?

(Rom 8.29-33, The Message)

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. 

(2 Cor 4.16-18)

What does it mean, to love God? Is it about feelings? Is it a continual state of joy, an endless experience of peace?

I would counter with another question…what does it mean to love another person? I think it means to seek what is best for them, whatever that may look like. Love is what prompts a parent to release their children into the world, into independence and adulthood, having spent years caring for them. Love is what prompts a spouse to go on forgiving their partner, to go on asking forgiveness, to go on trying to be more gentle, understanding, supportive – it is love which seeks to see the other thrive, whatever it takes. Love for the other is what can drive us to become better people – for their sake we tackle the weaknesses and failings which cause them so much trouble. The care-free young adult, on becoming a parent may find stores of patience, determination, and self-sacrificial commitment which transform them, all for the sake of the infant committed to their care.

So when I am tormented by the enemy of God’s people about my own feeble commitment to Jesus, when I am reminded of my ongoing sin, continued failures, the weaknesses which injure others and undermine my witness, I hold on to this thing that I know..I hold on to the truth about love…it’s not about my feelings, but about my motivation and actions. What drives me, what grieves me, what do I hunger for?

The answer to those questions is – as truthfully as I can tell it – that I long, like the psalmist, to dwell in God’s presence, to see his face and be worthy to be there with him. I remind myself that God’s own Son was willing, out of love,  to die for me – I matter that much to him, and in that death, my sin is dealt with once and for all. It cannot be used to drive me away from him, but only towards him in dependence on that full forgiveness. He knows how bitterly I grieve for my own sin, for the ways I fall short of righteousness and holiness….and he hasn’t given up on me. He knows I hunger to be more steadfast, eloquent, fruitful, Christ-like …..and he hasn’t given up on me. He knows how easily I am swayed by self-pity and general self-centredness…..and he hasn’t given up on me.

How glorious is this reassurance to all those – like me – who are making their way steadily, but full of self-doubt, along the road to our eternal home! God is going to finish what he started, and that heart-hunger to give him joy is his gift of reassurance, that I am on the right road. I may not feel joyful or victorious, powerful or holy – so what! I KNOW that God has saved and forgiven me, loves me, and is ALWAYS at work in me by his Spirit to realise the likeness of his beloved son, my saviour, Jesus.

Whose church is it anyway?..

I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace..Keep watch over yourselves..Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood..

(Acts 20.24&28)

For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

(Col 1.13-20)

To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you form him who is, and who was, and who is to come…and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

(Rev 1.4-6)

It may seem an odd question, but the implications are far-reaching..

If it is the church of Jesus Christ – expressed through all the multi-faceted organisations which now exist across the globe under that single word’church’ – then I need not be too parochial in my concerns, not worried about the fact that another fellowship in my neighbourhood is experiencing a season of growth and deepening faith. Rather, I rejoice with my neighbour that the kingdom of God is growing, and the church of Christ is a living and loving presence in my community. I will resist being bound by denominational boundaries, and see only a place where Jesus is worshipped as Lord, where his people seek his face.

If it is the church of Jesus Christ – albeit expressed through human institutions of varied size and traditions – then I will be at home with my brothers and sisters wherever and however we meet, because in every case we are celebrating our membership of the family of God, and pursuing a deeper and purer relationship with our Lord Jesus. 

If it is the church of Jesus Christ, then it exists to carry out his will, to express his love to the world which needs him so badly, and to care in his name for the people to whom we are sent. As ‘church’, we exist primarily to enable one another to serve in his name, for his glory and for the saving of souls into his kingdom. 

If it is the church of Jesus Christ – and not a social club which exists to provide comfort and familiar rituals for a small group who like a particular pattern for their meeting together – then the driving force behind our gatherings is to see his face, to hear his voice; to repent together and individually of sin, to rejoice in our forgiveness, and to systematically let go of all the things which hinder us from obedience to his will.

The great voice which summoned the apostle John at the beginning of the book of Revelation gave him words to the seven churches, and in every case said: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening? What is the Spirit saying to us today? Or are we so used to our own idea of what church is about, and who it  belongs to, that we are deaf to the voice of him who died to redeem to himself a people, to call into being a church?

Am I really saying to the First and the Last, the Living One who was dead and is now alive for ever and ever, “Lord, I don’t think you are right about this, I like ‘my’ church the way it is”? 

At the very beginning, God’s chosen people decided that they knew, better than God did, just what was good for them, so they took it. What are we, as the church of Christ doing today? Will we humble ourselves, repent of our adherence to tradition, comfort and self-serving; our fondness for status and social acceptability; and ask Jesus to breathe new life into our moribund churches so that we begin to resemble our Lord and Saviour – the fearless one, the one who welcomed all comers, the one who had no time for empty rituals and salvation by merit?

Son of God, whose eyes like blazing fire see all things, uncover my false thinking about your church, and humble me to seek your face. Teach me to follow you, not my tradition; to love you, not my habits of worship; to live for your glory, not my own comfort. Spirit of the Living God, speak, and let me hear…

When the fields seem barren..

Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.’ All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But in the Lord all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult.

(Isa 45.22-25)

He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.

(Lk 10.16)

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God…I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes..for in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last..

(Rom 1.1,16&17)

You must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed..by the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men..

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

(2 Pet 3.3-9)

When all that I am is for God, and it seems that he has chosen to put me on the shelf. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I can see that he has gifted me with abilities and character crafted to his work, and he calls me to situations where those abilities are not needed. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I know that he has called me to share the gospel, to speak his word to anyone and everyone, to give the shocking invitation of illuminating grace to those in darkness, and he surrounds me with people who politely, firmly and tolerantly refuse to let me speak..Oh Lord, have mercy!

When my heart burns to see his glory in transformed lives, to see communities healed and individuals blossoming in the light of his love, and he permits me to be smothered by indifference. Oh Lord, have mercy!

When I have promised to serve the body of Christ in a particular situation, looking to see his power at work in spite of the weakness of human institutions, and instead am faced with decline, denial, the collapse of vision and hope on every side. Oh Lord of the church, have mercy!

This is the lived experience of so many of God’s faithful under-shepherds today, on their knees before their Lord, begging for some sign that he still has worthwhile work for them to do, wondering why he called and gifted them only to set them aside to waste away in the dying churches of the west. There is only so much that one preacher, pastor or teacher can do, and without the work of the Holy Spirit, there will be no fruit for all their labour.

The prophets and faithful servants of God have known this experience – think of Elijah despairing in the wilderness, of Jeremiah called to preach to a people who WOULD NOT listen – and it is one of the hardest things that he calls his followers to do, to be apparently redundant.

No one wants to see life drifting by without satisfying outcomes for their work, to feel abilities atrophy for lack of use, to sense the springs of life and zest for the task dry up and vanish. The good news burns within them, they feel shame that they cannot reach their communities and give this priceless news of forgiveness and life eternal. And it is very, very hard to find reason to hope. We know in our hearts that God could break into our country, our culture like an earthquake, breaking the thick protective coating of indifference, sending men and women running to find someone who can answer their desperate questions about eternal things. But we also know that – for his own good reasons – it hasn’t happened yet, and we begin to doubt that it will.

Friends, let us pray for our pastors, and teachers, those called to ministry and leadership. Let us intercede for them, praying against despair and for a fresh anointing of courage. Pray that in their sense of futility, God will meet them and teach them that obedience and submission to him in this situation are not wasted. Let us pray for ourselves as their flock, that we might grow in our own faith and hope, believing that God will yet raise up many in our land to call him Lord, and that we might be privileged to serve him and be part of that revival.

In the breakers

But I pray to you, O Lord, in the time of your favour; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation. Rescue me..do not let me sink; deliver me…from the deep waters. Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up..Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.

(Ps 69.13-17)

I cannot keep my footing, the waves come with such force that I am tumbled over and left breathless. I can barely stand, as the churning waters have stripped the sand off the shore and all is stone, bruising my feet and leaving me off balance. The wind sweeps my breath away, and the hailstones sting my skin like bullets. I am vulnerable and nearly in danger, but not quite, as I stumble out of the sea back to my clothes and head for home.

The sea this morning matched what was happening in my heart and mind – wave after wave rolling in, before which I have no defence, leaving me weary from the conflict, and longing for a place of security and peace.

What is the right response of a follower of Jesus in these circumstances? As I scramble to find my footing again, what restores my balance?

I follow the example of the psalmists, and all God’s people down the ages, as they cry out to God. I turn in all my bewilderment to my heavenly father, and like a small child, ask for his comforting presence, for his loving arms to be my shelter. I bring my grieving questions to him, knowing that there may be no direct answers but also that he understands my pain and I do right to speak first to him.

But in the same way that a chilled swimmer cannot feel the rope around their body to bring them to safety, I cannot feel the comfort. I know that God who promises to work through all my trials for my blessing and his glory will do what is right. But when the breakers have been over me, I cannot feel the security that this should give me.  I am chilled by hopelessness, by a sense that these waves will keep coming because I have caused them and cannot make them stop. I am wearied by the prospect which they present, year upon year of this pain and aridity.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves..I am confined and can not escape; my eyes are dim with grief..

(Ps 88.6-9)

Oh Lord, God of heaven, you are just and holy, pure beyond my conceiving and mighty in creation. What am I that you should consider me? Yet, you have laid your hand on me and called me to be your daughter, beloved and delighted in. How ashamed I am to confess the many ways that I have failed you, hurting others, myself, and setting up consequences which I must live with for as long as it may please you to sustain my life.

Lord, you promise not to leave your children in their troubles, but to sustain them and bring them through somehow purified and made more like Jesus. I want to believe this, but am so weary of the turmoil, and of seeing so little change! How long, O Lord, how long, before you say “Enough” and let me come home, away from the battle and the sin, the wearisome burden of years living with my sinfulness and that of other people?

You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them… Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord. They rejoice in your name all day long; they exult in your righteousness. For you are their glory and strength..

(Ps 89.9,14-17)

I will praise your name, my God and my Salvation. Eternal hope is mine, regardless of what you permit for my temporal days, and that hope grows ever brighter in the darkness of the here and now. Only give me the ability to live day by day in that hope, and let me know your presence through the chillling cold of weariness, so that I might not disgrace my calling and bring your name into dishonour by despairing of life itself. Lord, have mercy, that I may know how to glorify you in these breakers, how to shout your name in praise over the winds, and to exult in the God who is sovereign and will do all things well – even in me!

On being confused…

The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple…Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.

(Ps 119.130&133)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God..

(Matt 5.9)

Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men I will disown him before my Father in heaven. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth I did not come to bring peace, but a sword..Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;…and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

(Matt 10.32-38)

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word..Therefore ..it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you..so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

(Luke 1.1-4)

..these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

(Jn 20.31)

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to come to the gospel without any background understanding or knowledge; no preconceptions or expectations, no ingrained bias or barriers to understanding..perhaps no one comes this way, since everyone has consciously or unconsciously made some deductions about how life works and what – if anything it means. But still I wonder, struggling to read the four accounts of Jesus life and ministry without hearing again the interpretations of past teachers, and trying desperately to learn for myself from the written record.

As a christian, Jesus is not only my role model for life, but also the one who by his Spirit lives in me to make that new life possible and desirable. I know, because the bible tells me so, that as I dwell on him, worship and love him, so I am being transformed into his likeness, and that this is for my highest good. But if this is so, then why do I find his teaching so puzzling? So much seems obscure, depending on years of study and intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) to be understood. Is it really meant to be so hard? Why do we hear of non-believers reading the gospel accounts and coming to faith, when I frequently come away bewildered and wondering what I ought to have learnt?

Perhaps I am simply intellectually too lazy to do the necessary work; perhaps my heritage does truly hinder me, as I am so accustomed to learning from the preacher, and not from personal bible study. But the fact remains that while I can read much of the scriptures to great personal benefit, finding encouragement and direction, when I come to the gospels, I am often baffled.

But I persevere, trusting that even what seem like superficial observations are worth making, and that in my own confusion, I might identify with Jesus’ disciples, who must often have wondered..Who is this man who first commends peacemakers, and then claims to have brought a sword to divide the closest families? Who is this man who shows love to the outcasts, and shockingly rebukes the religious leaders?

One thing is becoming very clear as I read in Matthew….Jesus polarises opinion, leaving no middle ground when it comes to our response. It is not possible to say, “Oh he was a good man, a great teacher”. His teachings are puzzling, challenging and disturbing. He speaks more about judgement and hell than anyone else in the bible. He claimed to be the Son of God, equally divine, with full authority over creation and the spirit world.

If I will not accept Jesus on his terms – as God; as the physical manifestation of the Almighty and Eternal Judge as well as the loving and redeeming Saviour; as the only true Lord of my life, before whom every other human tie or principal must submit; as the Sovereign whose ways are utterly beyond my finding out, and who must be trusted, not understood – then, I am rejecting him utterly, and in so doing, I am putting myself beyond the reach of God’s mercy. This was the tragedy of the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day, that the Messiah whom they longed for stood before them, but because he didn’t fit their theology and expectations, they rejected him with merciless fury, and stood thus condemned before God.

Jesus says, “Take me, and you find God. Reject me, and God will not know you.” He will not force anyone to accept him, but if – as he claims – he is the only true way by which I may find hope, home and healing in God, then I must and will persevere in my quest to know and love him as he is. May God grant us humility and understanding as we feed upon his word, and are transformed by the Word into His likeness.

The relief of unconditional love….

How long, I Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?..But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.

(Ps 13.5)

Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful to me and answer me…do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Saviour. Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me…I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

(Ps 27.7,9&10, 13&14)

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness..as a bride adorns herself with her jewels..

(Isa 61.10)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins…Each one of you should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms..so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

(1 Pet 4.7-11)

As the tension level rises, my stomach churns and I want to both scream and fight, and also run away, I draw great breaths and cry out to God for mercy in my time of trouble.

As the atmosphere gets colder, conversation more and more awkward so that everything I say is somehow wrong and irritating, I cry out to God for mercy in our time of trouble.

As everything I am seems to be difficult for others to live with – both my strengths and my weaknesses, I weep in my heart and curl up small, trying not to cause more trouble. I cry out to God for mercy in my distress and beg his enabling for those who have to live with me.

I give thanks, starting with the little things that daily remind me of God’s provision for me and I am calmed. The provision for my bodily comfort which is more than adequate; the beauty of the land around me which ministers to my spirit; the exhilirating shock of cold sea water on my skin which reminds me of the precious gift of life itself.

I turn my thoughts to the gospel which is the greatest gift God gives to his children; I remind myself that I deserve nothing and yet receive more than I can imagine. I remind myself that I am just as deserving of judgement as those who may have hurt me, or whose reactions to me show how difficult they find me. I focus on mercy, on grace, on the totally free outpouring of forgiveness and the new birth into eternal life which IS mine in Jesus. I am humbled and ashamed of the critical spirit which has been raging in me against my fellow sinners.

My soul, hear this…the God of the universes desires your companionship. The maker of the stars in all their glory looks at you and is glad, delighting in the beauty and richness of all that you are. The Almighty, holy and pure and unable to look on sin, enjoys your delight in the world and all that each day and moment brings. Your quirks and bad habits do not exasperate the one who calls you ‘Beloved’; your lack of intellect and the narrowness of your interests does not bore or alienate the one who died to save you. Oh my dear wounded, rejected and frightened self, run to your Lord’s loving arms and take refuge there. In that secure clasp take comfort and breathe deeply, relax and be held by the one who has promised NEVER to let go of you.

And in time, you will find that you are able to return in his strength to the task appointed, to the people whom you are privileged to love in his name. And your first task is to forgive them, even as you are forgiven by your Father, so that they might receive from you that unconditional love which alone heals and restores and sustains. You cannot love perfectly, but you can keep on asking for divine help, and giving thanks for the divine grace and providence which works in and through you  in spite of your ongoing failures.

May God in his mercy be pleased to continue his work in and through each one of us, as we love and serve one another in his name, forgiving as many times as necessary and choosing love and loyalty over resentment and revenge. To him be the glory, as he fulfills his purposes so that in us, as well as in everything else, God may be praised through our Lord Jesus.

Not our will, but yours O Lord….

Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is not breath in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. …Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.

(Hab 2.18-3.2)

“What about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you..for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

(Matt.16.15-18)

..You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord…His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Eph 2.19-21, 3.10&11)

One of the hardest lessons in the great narrative of the bible is that God consistently acts in ways which bewilder his people; they stumble and falter as time and again, he works through gross evil and hostility to accomplish his purposes. We consider the role which Pharaoh played in the great redemption story of the Exodus – how the adamant resistance and pride of that ruler played directly into God’s plan to reveal the full magnificence of his power to deliver the people of Israel. 

Perhaps most shockingly, and hardest to keep in focus for those like me who have known the story all their lives, is the role of the Jewish establishment and Roman authorities in crucifying Jesus and thus bringing about the salvation which God had ordained from the very beginning. The injustice, malice, and concentrated evil which was at work to overcome Jesus acted instead to achieve exactly what had been intended, and from apparent defeat, God drew absolute victory. 

What happened next? The sustained persecution of the new believers in Jerusalem sent them far across the known world, spreading the gospel as they went and bringing hope to every people whom they met. Our God IS working out his purposes – but how ready we are to assume that those must be the same as our own, and how wrong we may be!

The ‘church’ is the people of God – those privileged to be citizens of heaven, members of God’s family – and our ultimate purpose is to demonstrate to the heavenly powers that God is good and wise and powerful, not that we are! It is God who is building, not us. It is God who sustains and inspires, and his Spirit which breathes life into those who are dead in their sins – not our strategies, or missions, or institutional magnificence. We are being built up together in Christ – not into a human organisation – and our purpose is to be the place where God’s presence dwells in the new heavens and the new earth. 

We are not there yet….by a long way, and I am just wondering whether part of God’s purpose in these days of global turmoil is to shake us as believers completely out of the complacency which continues to trust in human institutions. Is it possible that all the trappings of Christianity which we still cling to – buildings, hierarchies of clergy, denominations, ritual and pomp – all these have been hindering us from seeing and obeying God’s call? As we are forbidden to meet together, and are forced to take responsibility for our own spiritual lives in unprecedented ways, is God pruning off dead wood? This trial is revealing whether people are putting their faith in God, or in the human institution which we call the church, but which perhaps never really merited the name…

Let us pray in these days that God will find us ready to listen to his direction; to obey his call; to put away those things which are hindrances to gospel living and loving. Let us cry to him for direction and above all for encouragement that through this trial, he will reveal his power at work in building his church – in spite of all the obstacles which our ‘church’ has put in his way. 

Mind-bending and magnificent..

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

(Dan 7.13&14)

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

(Gal 3.26-29)

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls our, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

(Gal 4.6&7)

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ..And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms with Christ Jesus..

(Eph 2.4&6)

It is probably not possible for us to fully realise the impact of the gospel of Jesus on the cultural institutions of the Roman empire, but it is nonetheless worth trying. The exercise will help to illuminate the radical nature of the kingdom of God, and challenge us to look at our own attitudes to those around us.

Jesus’ life and ministry was – among other things- a revelation of the new kingdom which God was inaugurating, where human beings would be able to live as God intended, in direct, loving fellowship with him and with one another. The values of that kingdom challenged social structures, religious legalism, exploitation and oppression, and generally turned everything the Jews thought they knew about God and faith upside down! That is why the ministry of Jesus was finally perceived by the establishment to be so threatening that he must be killed. It is by faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus that human beings enter into the kingdom, and are made new; spirit-born and heart-transplanted so that we now live by his spirit not our own – finally both willing and able to choose God’s ways over our own.

The young churches bore witness to the power of gospel and radical nature of kingdom – in the practical eradication of social boundaries, whether based on class and status, gender or economic power. They lived the truth of who we are now in Christ – not only free from slavery to sin but adopted into the same family – of whom? Our Father is the greatest king, the eternal ruler. Our status derives from our family, and believers claimed that in Christ they were all equally valued, all significant, all loved, all worthy of honour not on grounds of social status, gender or power but because we all belong to a royal family. God has put us into place as part of his new creation, and that place is as the younger brothers and sisters of the Prince of Peace. The ultimate coming of the kingdom of God will see us realise our full potential as rulers, in God’s name, of his new creation.

While the boundaries in our own culture may not be exactly the same as they were for the early church, the challenge remains. We must not destroy our witness to this transforming gospel by despising or discriminating against our sisters and brothers. We must guard against everything which might cause division in God’s family – racial difference, cultural clashes, age or gender. There should be nothing which makes us stand aloof from a fellow believer, or – crucially – refrain from offering the gospel to another human being as if somehow it was not for them. We pray for honesty to discern in our hearts where we struggle to accept others, but also rejoice with repentance that God has accepted us too, has forgiven our sins and is at work to cleanse us from all unrighteousness – even prejudice and a critical spirit.

The unity of the early churches – breaking boundaries as they did – was not perfect, but it made a huge impact for the gospel and offered real and solid proof that God could change people, and that his kingdom was a place worth being in. Let’s pray that we too in our christian lives might mirror that loving acceptance of others, and exalt our God by our unity and welcome to all whom he is calling into his family today.