Category Archives: obedience

Relationships, not rules..

..Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your god my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me , be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

(Ruth 1.16&17)

Therefore, I urge you, sisters and brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual or reasonable act of worship.

(Rom 12.1)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

(Eph 6.25-27)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds the all together in perfect unity.

(Col 3.12-14)

We recently completed a short study in the story of Ruth, and as I came to write this blog about sacrificial living, it struck me that she is the embodiment of what Paul wrote about. Ruth freely chose to embrace uncertainty, danger, poverty and alien status – why? She committed herself to loving Naomi, whatever it took. Her whole being was involved in that commitment, she left nothing behind in Moab, and so far as we can read in the story, never looked back in longing for her ‘freedom’. This was unconditional love in action, a rather one-sided relationship perhaps at times, where Ruth got virtually nothing in return. But she never seems to have wavered in her commitment and faithfulness, and as a result, her story is one of the most beloved of all scripture, her character held up as a pattern for us to follow and admire.

Ruth personifies for us the love of God, ultimately revealed in Jesus; the mercy which Paul speaks of in the letter to the Romans. It is a pattern of living which brings life and hope and love to those who need it so badly, and asks nothing in return but the privilege of serving. If our Lord and Saviour, who lived a perfect life which glorified God – and thus worshipped His Father- then why should not we follow that example. In this way, we too may worship God most acceptably. And this kind of worship has little to do with an hour in a building once a week, and everything to do with the kind of people we are every hour of every day in every place which we go.

What might sacrificial living look like for you and I today? There may be seasons in our lives where the needs of others will be clear – dependent children or relatives, neighbours who have a call on our time and abilities – and then out of love for them – not because somehow by serving them we gain credit with God – we give and serve in love. At other times it may be less obvious, but as we offer our gifts, money and time to God, he will show us where they are to be used – for the body of Christ in the church and in the wider world. We all have something to offer, and we can all receive from others as they serve us!

It can feel frightening to commit to unconditional love – and it goes against the grain of much contemporary culture. We fear being trodden underfoot, left behind in the race for self-fulfilment and success. But we are not called to measure success and fulfilment as the world does. When we look through God’s eyes, we see clearly that our human measures are false and temporary. True and lasting joy, fulfilment and success come as we follow the servant-King, looking to love, not merely obey rules. It is not in some ‘rub-my back and I’ll-rub yours’ sort of transaction that we live lives of worship and love. Rather it is as Christ lived – pouring himself out unstintingly, and trusting God for the outcome – for himself and for others.

Measuring ministry…

He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.” But I said, “I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” And now the Lord says – he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength – he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

(Isa 49.5&6)

Jesus called [the disciples] together and said,”.. whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Matt 20.25-28)

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… he humbled himself and became obedient to death..

(Phil 2.5-8)

Followers of Jesus, people of the Way, called to a life, not merely an intellectual creed or habitual observances. My faith, unless it be manifest in works – in ministry and a godly life – is dead. But do you find it difficult to discern sometimes what your ministry is? It may not involved anything explicitly evangelistic, no teaching and training of disciples over text books and bible commentaries. You may not be the one who leads children’s work or speaks boldly at every mission prayer meeting… that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a ministry, a role to which God has called you and for which you are given strength, insight and perseverance each day. In fact, there may be several things going on at once!

The work of child-rearing; of house-keeping; of integrity and compassion brought to the daily tasks of your employment; of volunteering  among your community; of caring for elderly relatives and neighbours; of cleaning up toilets and washing dishes; of doing DIY and gardening chores for others; of praying in private, again and again and again for the lost sheep of the Great Shepherd. All of these are ministries, and there will be so many more, reflecting the gifts, situations and opportunities of God’s children around the world. Let us pray for one another, and encourage one another in these less visible ministries, where our service for the Lord is not under a spotlight, but is nonetheless our opportunity to delight in copying Jesus’ servant heart and humility.

In our human frailty, we long to be rewarded, praised and recognised for our contributions, and to see fruit for our labours. I think our Father knows this, and therefore he also understands when our particular ministries don’t seem to bear fruit and we are tempted to be discouraged. We can pray for one another here too – let’s be honest about our discouragements, in order that we may serve one another faithfully by restoring our focus on Jesus. We are called to serve, but we are not promised an experience of the outcome of our service. We may never see fruit for our labours – does that mean they are worthless?

By no means (as Paul would say!). As the passage from Isaiah says, our reward is surely in the Lord’s hand – to be kept for us until his good time. He decides what fruit will come, and whether we should see it or not. Perhaps it is better for us – sparing us the danger of pride and self-conceit – to be delivered from success in the world’s eyes. Perhaps we couldn’t cope with the potential shipwreck of our faith on the admiration and praise of other people!

Loving Heavenly Father, thank you that in Jesus we have a perfect example of life and ministry to follow. Help us to sacrifice our pride, our desire for human praise, even our natural hunger for fruit for our labours, at the feet of Jesus. It is our privilege to serve in his name, to love in his strength, and to seek his glory. When others see fruit, receive praise and even perhaps take credit for our labour, let us humbly rejoice that you are over all, and that you have a greater reward than we can possibly imagine awaiting us in glory. Make us content with whatever you choose to give, or withhold, so long as you fulfil your purpose in us. For Jesus’s sake, and his glory we pray, Amen.

Obedience in the face of uncertainty

As for me, I trust in You, O Lord. I say, “You are my God.” My times are in Your hand – O save me from the hand of my enemies, my pursuers. Shine Your face on Your servant, rescue me in Your kindness… Be strong, and let your heart be firm, all who hope in the Lord.

(Ps 31.15-17&25, R Alter translation, 2007)

The Lord performs righteous acts and justice for all the oppressed. He makes known His ways to Moses, to the Israelites, His feats. Compassionate and gracious, the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. He will not dispute for ever nor nurse His anger for all time. Not according to our offences has He done to us nor according to our crimes requited us. For as the heavens loom high over earth, His kindness is great over those who fear Him… As a father has compassion for his children, the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him.

(Ps 103.6-11&13, R Alter translation, 2007)

Then Eli said, “he is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

(1 Sam 3.18)

Joab said, “..Be strong, and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The Lord will do what is good in his sight.”

(2 Sam 10.12)

“Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”

(Isa 46.8-10)

We can always know what God is like…. we cannot always know what he will do… I was struck recently by the reminder that we are called to trust in God in the same way that a very small child trusts in its parents – a trust which depends not on understanding the circumstances and giving an intellectual assent to particular actions, but a trust depending entirely on belief in the one who is making the decisions.

The pages of the Hebrew bible are full of stories which illustrate what happens when people – just like us, who have days when they seem on fire with faith in God, and days when they live as though he didn’t exist – have to choose whether to trust God, or to take matters into their own hands. It doesn’t end well when we try to take control, and although God redeems these situations over and over again, the painful and obvious lack of trust remains a problem. Do we trust God because we think he will do what we believe is right? Because we think we can direct and control him through our devotions, our doctrine, our liturgy (or lack of it), our fasting and praying?

Friend, think again if you are ever tempted to entertain such ideas. God owes his creatures nothing. God is utterly beyond our comprehension, coercion, and cajoling. His goodness, power, holiness and justice; his vision of what is to come, is so much greater and more glorious than we can imagine – how could we possibly know what is good and right for ourselves in this particular circumstance, when our lives are totally enmeshed in the lives of countless other people? God’s goodness is of another quality entirely, not based on human notions of indulgence, treats, or even prosperity, health and long-life. God’s goodness is working relentlessly to save all those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, whose home is eternity and who are being transformed into the image of Christ day by day.

Today, I am called again to trust in God, not my own beliefs about him or denominational dogma and practice. I am called to trust all that I cannot know about him, all that lies hidden by the brilliance of his holiness, otherness, eternal nature and divinity.

Today, I can trust him, can step out in obedience into the unknown, can launch into deep waters with confidence, because he has promised to be loyally kind, utterly faithful in finishing what he began – ushering in a new creation, my future home, where I will dwell with Christ in glory. It is my part to obey, and his part to see that all things do indeed work together for my good – even if that doesn’t look good in the world’s eyes, or feel good to me.

The Lord will indeed do all that he pleases – will I trust and obey, working with him? Or will I fight, resist and make harder for myself and others along the way, losing all opportunities to bring him glory as my trust in him is revealed to be well-grounded?

On being set aside…

“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

(Job 1.21)

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you… for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

 (Phil 4.9, 11-13)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God… Endure hardship as discipline… God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees!

(Heb 12.1,2,7,10-12)

The missionary Amy Carmichael wrote, ‘in acceptance lieth peace’, and surely this is the key to those seasons in our lives when all our plans are thrown askew by unplanned interruptions, and especially when through illness or accident, we are left by the side of the journey of life to watch and be waited on by others, wondering what our purpose is and fretting over those tasks undone.

The intellect may have assented to the proposition that my health, talents and productivity are all surrendered to God, to do with as suits his divine purpose. But when I am called to live out that surrender with a quiet heart and a cheerful face, the reality can be quite different. How can it be that God wants to suspend my useful activities? How can it help his purposes for me to be unable to labour with the talents he has given? It is extremely tempting to believe that without my particular input, nothing can usefully be achieved, and that somehow, by my inactivity, I am failing God, my neighbours, and his kingdom-building work.

All of these thoughts demonstrate that I haven’t really understood and accepted just what it means to fully surrender all that I am and have to God, to be used as he sees fit. If the Creator and Lord of all wishes to lay me aside for a season – whether long, or short – that is his business, and mine is to accept his decision, to look for his lessons for me in this time, and to expect that he has things for me to learn and do even in this unwelcome inactivity. Some of God’s most productive saints have been those who have embraced his unexpected, apparently limiting, plan for their lives – consider Joni Eareckson Tada, wheelchair bound and crippled for life, who has been enabled to minister to hundreds of thousands of people, sharing the love of Christ through her weakness.

Perhaps I need to learn to be served, to embrace the humility of asking for assistance and graciously waiting until someone is able to give it. Perhaps I need to learn again that I am not the only person who can do my tasks, or that they are not quite so important as I like to pretend they are. My true worth lies not in how significant my labours are, but in my Lord’s love and sacrificial death for me. If I were to be laid aside for the rest of my life from active service, yet I know that his love and delight in me would be undiminished.

Perhaps I need also to learn a deeper sympathy and compassion for those who are truly limited in their activity – the long-term housebound, those with life-limiting conditions. Lord, let me take to heart the frustrations, losses and narrowed opportunities which are mine in these days, so that I might be more sensitive and imaginatively loving to those who are denied so much all their days.

Above all, perhaps I can live more slowly and deliberately, willing to be quiet and still, to truly see the beauty around me, the good things with which I am so well supplied, and to be profoundly thankful as I consider from whom all has come.

May I accept this discipline from my Lord with grace and cheerfulness; trusting that as he has called me to it, so he will give me the strength to bear it with a stout heart and in hope that it will not be wasted. May I look for and learn the lessons he has for me in it, that I may come through stronger in faith, and more able to serve, glorify and love him in the days ahead. As the clouds of heavenly witnesses testify with glad shouts to the faithfulness of the Lord, may I be encouraged to prove for myself by obedient acceptance, that he is indeed worthy to be praised.

An unlikely asset in our mission..

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

(Matt 28.18-20)

After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua… “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan river into the land I am about to give to them…

I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous.. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

(Jos 1.5-9)

Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

(Matt 6.33&34, the Message translation)

Strategies, visions, special training programmes and extra staff…are those what we think the church needs to fulfill the great commission of her Lord? Or is it simpler than that?

When we read the story of Joshua, on the verge of entering into the land which God has promised to the people, and which it is their mission to take possession of, we expect to find God issuing instructions about military strategy and training, logistics and procedures. Instead, we find that Joshua is commanded to hold fast to the word of God, absorbing it into the very fibre of his being, so that his thoughts are coloured and shaped by it. This command lies at the heart of the great assurances of the first chapter of the book – and this means that they are the focus or highpoint of the chapter. God is effectively saying that if Joshua holds fast to all he learns about God in the book of the law, then he will be in exactly the right place to succeed in his mission. Nothing else matters as much as this foundational dependence.

Joshua’s commission came with the assurance of God’s presence. Our commission likewise, comes with Christ’s word that he will never leave or forsake us. He has authority to send us out – just as God’s authority sent Joshua into Canaan – to take possession of that which already belongs to him, namely all those for whom he died, the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ..

So, the challenge is to us to follow Joshua’s example. We have so much more than Joshua in terms of God’s revelation of himself through his word – we have the living Word himself! We have God’s authority, and his command, to go and make disciples, trusting that – as for Joshua and the people of Israel – God will go before, to fight the battles, break down the walls, and change the hearts of those whom we face.

It is as we live on, and by God’s word – committing every day and resource to him for his will and his glory; never assuming that he is following our agenda, but looking to be guided by the spirit; putting his interests before our own worries and preoccupations – that we find ourselves by the Lord’s side, on the victorious side, watching as he opens up the way and brings us into full possession of the kingdom which he has decreed will be our home.

May we be made bold and courageous as we fix our eyes on the Lord, so that as his word becomes our food and drink, our daily direction and focus is to be where he is working, loving those whom he loves, and believing that he will be glorified in our time.

Be strong and courageous my friends, for the Lord himself is with us and will never forsake us. In his name, let us live bold and obedient lives, for the battles belong to him, and the victory has been won!

Quiet confidence

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws…. you will be my people and I will be your God.

(Ezek 36.26-28)

“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another counsellor to be with you for ever – the Spirit of Truth… The Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. 

(Jn 14.15-17,25-27)

“.. but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.. you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses..

(Acts 1.4&8)

Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

(2Cor 1.21&22)

So I say, live by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature… but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control..

(Gal 5.22&23)

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

(Eph 2.10)

How good and gracious is our God, and how abundant his provision for the people he has called into his family and his great work of redemption and re-creation!

As Jesus prepared his disciples for their future after his ascension, he told them that the great prophecies of God’s anointing and indwelling Spirit were shortly to come to pass. By that spirit, God’s people throughout all time to come could live in intimate fellowship with God, dwelling in joyful harmony and unbroken communication with him.

The Spirit is within us is a guarantee of our inheritance as beloved children – a first taste of what awaits us. The Spirit within us is our teacher, taking the words of scripture and applying them, making the book live to us and feeding our faith for the journey. The Spirit within us is our constant companion, bringing Christ alongside in every situation and interceding for us in our praying. The Spirit within us continually reminds us and points us to Christ, to his love, sacrifice, power and glory, so that we might grow in love for the Lord. The Spirit within is our counsellor, prompting us in our thoughts and actions to be obedient to God’s will, and to discern where and how we might join in God’s work. The Spirit within is also our power, divine enabling and provision for every good work which is prepared for us to do.

Friends, I do not think that this is a matter of feeling, but of fact. As those who have confessed Jesus as Lord, we are indwelt by the Spirit, God’s gift to his church so that we might live to glorify him and enjoy him forever. The gift is for our blessing, and for the growth of the kingdom, and as we live in faith that this is our reality, we can have confidence in God’s provision for every task to which we are called.

The apostles, after receiving the Holy Spirit, lived every moment of their lives in confidence that God would enable and provide for their needs. The handful of women and men who received that Spirit went on – in that power – to turn their world upside down, and birth the church of which we are the heirs. They were ordinary people, indwelt and loved by an extraordinary God – our God, who longs to work through us in the same way.

As we face the everyday, and also the extraordinary, things which God has put in our way, we can do so in confidence that we will have the help of the Spirit for every need. We do not start each task in fear, in case somehow the Spirit has abandoned us, but rather quietly commit ourselves to obedience and to glorifying our God as we go.

Am I living in fellowship with God? In so far as I know, am I obeying his commands and sensitive to his direction? Do I long to please him above all others? Then, let me go out in quiet confidence and thankfulness, rejoicing that I am living in the strength which God gives, that his power is at work in me, and that all I need to tackle each situation will be provided for.

Filial love..

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

(Lk 15.3-7)

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. “

(Jn 4.34-36)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love……. You are my friends if you do what I command…for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you…. I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit – fruit that will last.

(Jn 15.9&10,14-16)

…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God

(2 Cor 5.19-20)

If someone was given the task of observing from my life, my words and actions, the priorities and principles on which I make choices, what could they tell about the God whose name I confess? What does my life tell other people about his character and purpose? Would they know that the God whom I worship is passionate in his pursuit of humankind, longing to restore relationship with them and bring them home to his eternal family?

I suspect that I do not make a very clear or consistent sermon, that my life is too often dominated by self-centred concerns, and lacks the fire which characterised Paul and the early disciples as they poured themselves out in evangelism and church planting.

However, I am not an apostle, not an ordained minister, not a missionary. I live a small quiet life, in a small community, where there is strong and established resistance to the gospel. Our neighbours like having us here, so long as we don’t try to talk to them about faith and the claims of Christ….

So does that give me an excuse to just focus on those parts of being a Christian which make me feel good? By no means (as Paul would say)! I am one of those for whom Jesus died – that great act of divine love which did for us what we so desperately needed but were incapable of doing. I am one of those destined for an eternity apart from God, until Jesus died for me. I am now his loyal, loving and obedient servant, as well as a cherished daughter. And Jesus commanded his disciples to obey his commands as they remained in, lived from within, his love. I cannot claim to be God’s child and choose to ignore His great plan for re-creation and the coming of his kingdom. So, again, I ask, do I share my heavenly Father’s passion for the lost? Does His heart’s desire matter enough to me?

As one of Christ’s ambassadors, it is my duty as well as my privilege, to speak his words and show his character in the place where he has called me. This is what the word means! To represent, to show forth and speak the will of another, one in authority over me whom I serve. There can be no doubting – from scripture – what it is that will bring joy in God’s presence…. the saving of lost souls, and the growth of God’s kingdom. Does that matter enough to me, enough to make me overcome my fear of giving offence, my fear of being rejected or ignored?

 What kind of love do I have for God if I can blithely ignore his passion for souls and live as though hell did not exist and Christ’s death was simply irrelevant?!

God, forgive me for my indifference and stir up within me a holy passion, like yours, to see my neighbours saved and brought into new life within your family. Let me care more for your heart than my own comfort; more for the destiny of others than their favour towards me. O Lord, give me wisdom to discern opportunities, courage to take them, and the fire of love which comes from your spirit within to keep me in prayer for others. For Jesus’ sake – his glory and exaltation, Amen

Stout… but in a good way!

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for me. He sends from heaven and saves me, rebuking those who hotly pursue me. 

Selah

God sends his love and faithfulness. I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts – men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth. They spread a net for my feet – I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path – but they have fallen into it themselves. 

Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast: I will sing and make music. Awake, 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, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.

(Ps 57)

Humble yourselves.., under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith… And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong and firm and steadfast.

(1 Pet 5.6-10)

How often the psalmist gives us words, helps us find relief for pent up feelings and concerns, and the expression of the roller-coaster which happens inside as we face the ups and downs of life. In Psalm 57, David is in acute distress; on the run from Saul and in danger of losing his life. He has no power or authority in the situation, but clings for dear life to the promises of God, the God who has been his lifelong companion and in whose name Samuel anointed David as the future king.

David is quite realistic about the situation – and rightly estimates his enemies as ruthless men who would destroy him. But rather than simply bewailing the situation, David is enabled by the Holy Spirit to stand firm, calling his scattering and fearful thoughts back to focus on the God in whom his trust lies, instead of the threats which lie so close.

Here is the key for me, as I face major threats and discouragements, or merely the daily trials and disappointments which are the lot of humankind in a fallen world. Will I chose, like David, to ensure that as I bring my concerns and fears to God, I am continually disciplining my thoughts to focus on the strength, goodness and faithfulness of the One who hears me? Or will I instead turn my prayers into litanies of self-pity, continual recounting of my trials and a refusal to acknowledge that God is on the throne of my life, but also over the whole world, and is at work for his good purposes even if I can’t see them?

David prayed for help from God – in other words, he humbled himself and didn’t even pretend that he could deal with this situation safely alone. Will I follow that example? Will I ask God to help me exert the self control needed to stand firm in the face of troubles large and small? Without that divine assistance, I will surely fall into despair and fail to honour God. But if I follow David in casting my burdens at the feet of the sovereign who has given his life for me, then surely I will be able to face what comes stoutly, confident in His strength and trusting that my obedience is the channel through which His victory is realised in my life.

These words from the daily prayers of John Baillie are a monthly reminder to me of the absolute necessity to humble myself and depend upon God, may they help us all to pursue our way like steadfast followers, confident and uncomplaining, looking to Christ our leader and friend as we go.

Oh Lord my God… give me grace, I beg Thee, to understand the meaning of such afflictions and disappointments as I am called upon to endure. Deliver me from all fretfulness. Give me a stout heart to bear my own burdens. Give me a willing heart to bear the burdens of others. Give me a believing heart to cast all burdens upon thee.

(from ‘A Diary of Private Prayer’ by John Baillie,1936)

Watch your feet!

Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers… For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

(Ps 1.1&6)

Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful to me and answer me. My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek… Teach me your way, O Lord lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.

(Ps 27.7,8 &11)

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

(Lk 1.76-79)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me…. You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me…. If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you..”

(Jn 14.1,4-6,23 & 27)

I love to walk, on my own or in company, in the city and in the countryside. It just feels good to be moving, to be experiencing my surroundings directly, all the sights, sounds and scents, and the occasional interaction with other people on the way. It is not always wise to simply wander however – especially here where  following one’s nose can lead to a sheer drop, a boggy morass, or a river in flood! I need to keep my wits about me, and to be wary of assuming that I am on safe ground.

The metaphor of life as path along which we walk is frequently used in the psalms, and it was this which prompted my thoughts for today. How often, as a follower of Jesus, do I ‘walk’ in my thoughts to places that attract or intrigue me but which might not be particularly safe or helpful? It is easy to follow our noses, follow the company around us in a conversation, follow the trend of our culture, and find ourselves in new places. We stand and look around, then perhaps we find ourselves settling there, ‘taking a seat’ mentally as we choose to identify with this new place. Or perhaps we don’t agree altogether with it, but the thought of extracting ourselves and walking away again is too daunting, too much effort and even embarrassing for us.  

We need to walk warily my friends. We need to remember that while we are called to live ‘in’ the world, yet we are not to be ‘of’ it, nor to make ourselves at home. Where am I headed each day? What is my daily path of thoughts, occupations, assumptions? I cannot and must not cut myself off from this world, but I must remain vigilant and notice my surroundings as I walk. 

The psalmist prays for the Lord’s leading into a ‘straight’ or safe path, and so may we. We can pray for wisdom to discern dangers on our path and its surroundings, so that we are prepared to keep our minds on the Lord and his word, his promises and faithfulness. We can pray to be delivered from thoughtless wandering into dangerous company where we might be tempted to settle down, because in so many ways it feels good, perhaps even familiar. It is so easy for the enemy of our souls to camouflage wrong thinking, making it attractive and comfortable – less likely to provoke the wrath of our godless world. 

Lord Jesus, you are our only safe way; only by you can we walk in peace into our eternal inheritance and glorious future; only in you do we find perfect wisdom, and through you find our joy in living. Let us so deeply crave crave your peace, wisdom and joy, that we cannot be comfortable anywhere these things are not found. May the wisdom of the world never beguile us into making ourselves at home in it. Watch over our ways, guard us and keep us always in your paths.

If not me, then who?

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem…..” Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved, prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem….

Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles..they returned..each to his own town, in company with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah: The list of the men of the people of Israel: the descendants of Parosh, 2172; of Shephatiah, 372…the men of Bethlehem, 123; of Netophah, 56…

(Ezr 1.1-5; 2.1-4,21&22))

The great Hebrew Scripture narratives of exodus and exile are associated with lists….huge lists of names and numbers, relating to the people who were involved in these historic events. As modern readers, we are tempted to skip over them – we can’t pronounce most of them, and they mean nothing to us! But consider their significance to generations of Jews, who would trace their own family name back to one of these, and remember with awe that their ancestors were part of those hugely significant events. The inclusion of these names is a reminder that all of God’s work in history has involved individuals, real people like you and me, whose lives were caught up into his overarching purpose. 

As those called to be God’s people, we are pledged to obedience and faithfulness (as God enables us), and we are not free to dictate the terms on which we will follow where God is leading – we are slaves to Christ, not his employees and certainly not his employers! If all the exiled Israelites had responded to God’s prompting of their hearts by saying – ” returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple is a great idea…let someone else do it, I am quite comfortable here with the way things are and I don’t like change..”: then there would have been no return from exile. I wonder how those who chose not to go felt in later years? Did they regret their failure to be part of that work of return and rebuilding, or had their faith never been in God at all, but rather in the trappings of prosperity and security which they now found in Babylon?

It is our personal commitment within the body of Christ which leads to corporate obedience. If I choose to delegate obedience to another, what is to prevent them doing the same? It is entirely possible for us to miss out on being part of God’s work in the world – but we will be the losers, and our faith and spiritual health will suffer. Is my trust in Jesus as my Lord, or in the habit of meeting in a certain place at a certain time? Is my faith a matter of habit and laziness – of letting someone else tell me what to think and avoiding the difficult questions and self-disclosure which might prompt self-examination, confession, repentance and change? 

Most of us recognise that many formal church structures are collapsing, and that perhaps it is time for far-reaching change if we are to support local believers in authentic witness and outreach to our communities. What will my response be to change that hurts? Will I reject it and cling to my own comfort, or will I allow Christ’s love to compel me along the difficult path, trusting his provision and enabling? If each member of the church in turn says, “Change is good, but let other people change, I am comfortable here”, then there will be no corporate submission to God’s leading into new things.  We will have shown that even the abundant grace shown to us in Jesus, and all the lavish promises of God are not as valuable to us as our comfortable traditions.

Change starts within each one of us….

Do I worship Jesus as Lord of my life? Then I must at the least be willing to set aside anything which hinders his work – including cherished music, forms of worship, translations of scriptures – and also to make myself available to do things differently – perhaps to learn in new ways, to be more active in sharing with others. The pain or struggle of doing this will be real, but is his love not worth anything I can give? What does the old hymn say?

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life my all.”

I hold my personal comfort in an open hand, I offer it to the Lord and say, take this and use it according to your pleasure. I will trust you to be with me, no matter where and when I meet with your people; no matter what we sing – or don’t sing; and to speak to me whether there is an ordained minister present or not! Lead me into whatever you have for me, and I will follow, all that matters is that Jesus is honoured and obeyed.

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