Category Archives: paradox

And yet I dare to enter…

And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me. 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.

(Isaiah 45.21-24)

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel…Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

(Hebrews 12.22-24,28&29)

One of the pitfalls of having spent my entire life within a christian community, is that so many of the phrases we use and read are so familiar – I stop seeing them, stop noticing how bold and audacious they are!

And then God in his goodness gives my mind a nudge, the Spirit opens my eyes and ears, and suddenly I see it afresh. That happened with the little phrase from Isaiah, “And there is no God but me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me.”

To the mind of sophisticated 21st century humankind, that statement is outrageous, arrogant, or ludicrous – depending on one’s viewpoint. As a follower of Jesus in Scotland in 2017, I am in the minority, regarded by many as deluded and foolish, by some as dangerous in my commitment to my faith. The notion that there is a God is mocked by many, and others would argue that all faith systems lead to the same place, so that all “gods” are equal.

Where do I stand? I am made uneasy by the strength and vehemence of the secularists, as they denounce my faith and my God. I am dumb in the presence of articulate intellects, mocking all that I hold dear, and dragging away the foundations of my world. I cannot defeat clever speech, nor do I desire to mock others for their beliefs – mockery is no way to gain respect or a hearing for my own belief.

When I am conscious of being under assault, I fling myself back at the foot of the cross – that great pivotal point in history, when God declared that He would not be mocked by sin, and that the devil would not have lasting dominion over God’s creation.

I believe in an historical Jesus, God-incarnate walking the earth, working steadily towards the unveiling of an unparalleled act of divine intervention. Who else has a God who is utterly holy, just and pure – a searing brilliance that our polluted minds cannot being to imagine – and YET who is full of mercy and love, and chooses to reconcile his love and his justice in order that He might be re-united with his unfaithful people?

There is truly NO God like this, and all our philosophies and science, all the pride of  man in his thinking and discovering has uncovered nothing as beautiful and life-changing as this God in his act of reconciliation through Jesus death on the cross.

I would rather be a fool for Christ, than considered wise by men; would rather remain on the fringes of society as a faithful follower, than enjoy popular success without my Lord. He has opened the way for me – even me, so broken and flawed by sin – to enter the presence of this righteous God, and not to enter as one dreading well-earned punishment, but rather as a beloved child.

What does it matter to me if men mock? My eternal fate is not in their hands, but safe in the hands that bled for me, the hands that are raised to intercede for me, the hands that extend to welcome me with love into my Father’s presence. He is mighty and glorious indeed, and worthy of reverent praise, but because Jesus died, I dare to run to him, to cling and call him Father. In his house, I am at rest and safe, and nothing can drag me from his arms.

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And by the way…

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.

(1Thessalonians 5.23&24)

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 1.3-6)

I think I have written before about how I have been blest throughout my christian life by teachers who believe that all of scripture is God-breathed and necessary to my growth in faith and godliness. I am thankful to them for their faithfulness in helping me to study unattractive texts, and learning how to hear God’s voice as I read lists in Numbers, and gloomy, violent curses in the minor prophets!

But there are bits of the bible which I find much easier to learn from than others – namely the Psalms, and the apostolic letters in the new testament (basically everything after the book of Acts, but possibly not Revelation!). The writers of the letters to the young churches were urgent and focussed in their messages, and every phrase counts. The letter to the church in Rome is perhaps the ‘meatiest’ in that it requires careful reading and thought to follow all Paul’s reasoning. Some of the others are more direct and even pithy, as the authors fire out clear instructions to the young believers about how to live godly lives, to recognise and deal with heresy, and to bear witness under severe persecution.

I love instructions, for every area of life! I am the person who is most unhappy when faced with a responsibility or task for which she can find no ‘this is how to do it right’ kind of manual, so it is perhaps understandable that these relatively short letters appeal to me so much. Of course, the fact that the instructions are so clear does not mean that they are easy to fulfill – how many of us can truthfully say that we are always ‘alert and self-controlled’, or that we always ‘live in peace with each other’? But these types of writings do help us enormously to see what christian love should look like, when lived out with God’s help, in our daily lives. They help us to put high-sounding sentiment into hard demanding action, dealing with the sometimes brutal realities of life for ourselves and other people.

In his letter to the very young church in Thessalonica, Paul has been principally concerned to encourage and strengthen them in the face of persecution, and self-doubt, and the whole tone of the writing is full of wonderful affection for the new believers whom he had to abandon so early in their growth in faith. The latter half of the final chapter however is an almost breathless list of things which Paul asks them to do. One can almost picture the apostle realising that he has only limited space or time left in which to complete his writing, and so his thought becomes concentrated on the really important things he wants to say – and how briefly he can say them!

After firing out ‘respect those who work hard among you;‘ and ‘help the weak, be patient with everyone‘, he goes on to even briefer and harder hitting phrases, ‘ be joyful always‘, ‘test everything‘ and ‘avoid every kind of evil‘. We are left almost breathless, and certainly rather daunted by the weight behind his bullet points! Who could ever hope to keep up this level of perfection in the daily battle of following Jesus in a world which rejects him, where the remnant of sin in our own selves so easily drags us off course?

And so the great apostle suddenly changes tack, the whole tone of the writing changes again, as his compassion for his audience swells up and he remembers that they – like himself – are still frail human creatures, easily discouraged and vulnerable to despair. He launches into a great prayer to God on their behalf, a prayer which puts all the burden back where it belongs, into the hands of their Creator, Redeemer, Father and Lord. It is God who is called to make them perfect – to ‘sanctify them’ and to make sure that when Jesus returns, they are still safe within his grasp.

We are called to the utmost effort in loving obedience, but it is God who is responsible for creating perfection in us – what a relief! And what joy and peace there is for us in those wonderful words, ‘The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it!’ 

Amen Lord, so let it be!

Inaccessible light

Let all that I am praise the Lord.

O Lord my God, how great you are!

You are robed with honour and majesty. You are dressed in a robe of light.

You stretch out the starry curtain of the heavens; you lay out the rafters of your home in the rain clouds.

You make the clouds your chariot; you ride upon the wings of the wind. The winds are your messengers; flames of fire are your servants.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath!

May all my thoughts be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.

(Ps 104 1-4,33&34)

Dressed in a robe of light…What an amazing picture, and one which takes me straight to the opening lines of Walter C Smith’s wonderful hymn with which I grew up –

Immortal, Invisible, God only wise; In light inaccesible, hid from our eyes…. 

We live as created beings with a great hunger in our hearts for something or someone greater than ourselves, something eternal from which we can find meaning in the world and on which we can build with what we have. The bible reflects this hunger in the book of Ecclesiastes, where the writer speaks of how he pursued every imaginable source of satisfaction in life, in vain. All was ultimately meaningless and unable to quench the hunger in his heart.

Through the great narrative of the bible stories, we see God revealing himself as the only true satisfaction for humankind, and declaring over and over his deep desire to dwell with us, his people. Our creator knows how we are made, knows that only in relationship with him can we be at peace and fully alive. And yet surely it is also true that we can never really know him. By definition, our God is so much greater than we can even begin to imagine. If we could understand everything about God, then we would be the creators, not he. We hunger to know him more, to discover more of his character, and yet find ourselves unable to stretch our minds enough to cope!

So we have to live with this tension and not allow it to undermine our faith in God’s love, goodness, holiness and faithfulness to us.

We cannot see him clearly; he is indeed wrapped in light, as in a garment. We are dazzled and blinded and unable to see past the glory of his holiness and purity, our minds cannot comprehend his greatness – one who by his word called into being billions of stars, and set in motion forces which we are only beginning to guess at, creating the conditions for life to exist and flourish on this single tiny planet of one star.

How wonderful to find that God, in his compassion for our limitations, came in person, came as one of us, so that we might see and hear him, learn to know him as a man, so that our confidence in him as God might be strengthened. Jesus tells his disciples that since they have seen him, they have seen their heavenly Father, they can know what he is like. So much remains a mystery to us, so many questions arising from our sin-sick world and all the suffering which has scarred God’s beautiful handiwork. What do we do with those unanswerable questions? What did Job do with his? He brought them to God, and was answered – not with a detailed list of explanations, but with a fresh vision of God’s greatness, a reminder that he is ultimately beyond our understanding and utterly good and holy.

Then Job replied to the Lord:”I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked,’who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know..” (Job 42.1-3)

The psalmist contemplates the greatness of God in creation, rejoicing in all he sees and in the knowledge that this same creator God is the one who is his God – the one who has promised to be with us and for us! We have the testimony of creation, but also the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ, revealing God to us and inviting us into that personal, fulfilling relationship which is our true satisfaction.

May our thoughts about God indeed be pleasing to him, as we worship what we can see and know; and accept that the mysteries which remain are good and right, and our God can be trusted. He is hidden in light, not darkness, and worthy of all our praise and honour!

 

Honestly…

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

(Matthew 7.7-11)

I love to read and hear of answered prayer, of those wonderful stories of healing, deliverance, divine provision for financial and physical need which we find in the bible but also in the stories of many believers down through the ages.

We are rightly encouraged to pray for one another, to ask God to heal, provide, direct and work in and through us as we seek to obey him and work together for the increase of his kingdom. Jesus, in these words is telling his disciples – and through them, us – to ask, expectantly and with faith, and then to await the good gifts which God will give us.

In obedience therefore, I pray for friends, for missionaries, for the work of preaching and evangelism, discipling and serving which is going on all the time. I pray for the growth in faith of my children, for God’s leading and directing of their lives according to his will. I pray for my own life, that I might bear faithful and lively witness to the love of God for me and the power of his spirit to transform and make beautiful that which was marred by sin.

And yet, am I the only one who sometimes reads those words of Jesus, and wants to cry out in agonised response that God’s answer feels like a stone instead of bread, like a vicious, stinging snake instead of a nourishing fish?

What of those prayers of faithful Christian parents for children who are steadfastly walking away from Jesus, choosing to reject the Lord who loves them? What of the spouse praying earnestly for the healing of a diseased partner, and watching instead as the life of the beloved ebbs away? We surely all know of believers who have watched livelihoods vanish through no fault of their own, families crumble under economic strain and physical trials. How does Jesus’ command sound in the ears of parents watching their children suffer and die as a result of war, famine and displacement? Where are the good gifts of God then?

I believe that we do ourselves no good if we ignore such troubling questions, and I also believe that our God knows we must wrestle with them, because he made our minds to question and enquire. We must face the reality that the answers to our prayers are not always what we think are good for us, and we struggle to see how they can possibly be the will of a good and loving God. Honesty compels us to bring our doubting and bruised hearts to God, who has commanded us to pray and to ask in confidence.

When I do this, I am acknowledging that although I do not understand, I am submitting to the mystery of God’s infinite understanding. Jesus sought for an answer to prayer which was denied him, as he asked in Gethsemane for the cup of suffering to be taken away. He got the very thing he most dreaded, and chose to trust and embrace that answer because he knew the one from whom it came. How we struggle with mystery, and strive by any means to make God do as we desire!

Consider Paul, who asked three times for his particular ‘thorn’ to be removed, but God instead said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. Consider Ezekiel, who was unable ever to fulfill his heart’s desire and serve God as a priest in the temple, because he was born and lived all his life in exile. Consider Hosea, who was called to be faithful to an unfaithful wife, living with the open wound of her adulteries. These men never got the answers which they longed for. Instead, they received grace for their need.

Am I willing to go on trusting God when he consistently answers my prayers for good things in ways which cause me continued grief?

I must, because the death of Jesus for me – like a solid foundation – proves conclusively the lengths to which God will go to show his love. If that death is true, and I believe it is, then no matter my struggles, I must accept that I am loved, in and through all that happens to me, and that His grace will be sufficient also for my weakness.

A divine substitute?

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,

Yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

(Isaiah 53. 4&5)

The mystery at the heart of the Christmas story, is the mystery of who this miraculous child really was? Why was he foretold by God’s prophets hundreds of years before his birth, and what is the significance of the way he was described in those ancient writings? Babies were born regularly, frequently, it was nothing new, so why all the fuss about this one?

We have the testimony of the gospel writers, who must surely have had the details directly from Mary herself – who else could have told of the visit by the angel to her home in Nazareth all those months before the trip to Bethlehem? That testimony refers again and again to the prophecies given over the years, which pointed to a coming saviour, one who would save his people, would dwell with them, would bring justice, an eternal rule of peace, and real healing of our sin wounds.

We have Jesus own testimony about himself, coming as the fulfillment of all the old testament scriptures, coming as the one who would reveal God to his people, and would lay down his life for his sheep.

We have God’s direct testimony, at Jesus’ conception, birth, baptism, transfiguration, and ascension into heaven. This was God’s own son; beloved, sent, broken and blessed – for the redeeming of the world.

So on the one hand we have a very simple story; a young woman conceives and gives birth to a son. On the other hand we have a mystery which enchants and inspires us even as it perplexes us; God himself is enclosed in embryo, the creator of the universe submits to the process he himself devised, and takes on human flesh. When he was finally born in Bethlehem, the angelic host could contain themselves no longer, and burst forth in praise and adoration to announce to the shepherds that something absolutely unprecedented was going on!

All through his life, the paradox continued to develop. He was fully human, and lived a sinless life; He was sent to save his people, yet never raised a sword or led an army; He came in fulfillment of all the scriptures, yet the religious leaders opposed and hated him, utterly failing to recognise him. And ultimately on the cross, his death in disgrace and shame was to be his greatest triumph and the means by which his mission was accomplished. By his sufferings for our sins, all those who trust and believe in him are set free from the consequences of sin. His death for us, conquers death for us. His life laid down for us, births new life in us. What a mystery, what profound depths are these to consider!

This is the child whose birth we anticipate and celebrate over again each year; this Christ, the helpless baby who was also the eternal, all-powerful word of God. I am so thankful that at the heart of the story of Christmas is this great mystery, from which every year I am freshly blessed and find new cause for praise and thanksgiving. It is no empty sentimental excuse for a party, but the only gift which could ever really do me good, given by a God whose love I have every reason to trust.

The best songs are the ones which focus my thoughts on this truth, the simple, stunning reality that in Christ, God sent someone else to take my place; and this week, I have been singing one of the simplest and best of them. I close with it, and pray that for all of us, this truth will shine like the light in our darkness in the days ahead.

Child in the manger, infant of Mary;

Outcast and stranger, Lord of all!

Child who inherits all our transgressions,

All our demerits on Him fall.

( Mary Macdonald, 1817-1890; tr Lachlan Macbean, 1853-1931)

When there are no words….

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.

You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.

I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.

I call to you, O Lord every day; I spread out my hands to you.

(Psalm 88 6-9)

This psalm is unusual because although – like many others – it contains great depths of lamentation and grief, there is no respite, no lightening of the darkness. The author ends his prayer-song with the heart-breaking verse:- “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)

We are left to sit in silence, reflecting on the dreadful experience of suffering which has been poured out, and sharing in the unresolved tension between the psalmist’s conviction that God can save him, and the brutal reality of unabated suffering.

It can be hard for us to be silent in the face of suffering. If our faith is of any value then it must have an answer for even the deepest pain. We believe in a God who is all-powerful, loving and just; surely then there will be reasons to give and grounds for optimism? And if we cannot find answers, we fear that our faith is worthless, a mere folly and delusion.

My thoughts have been prompted by the many I know who are either suffering themselves from long-term mental health issues; or whose children are suffering in this way. For all our mastery of the tools of medicine to heal our broken bodies, we are still relatively powerless in the face of eg. severe depression, bi-polar disorder, and that demon which haunts the parent of every teenage girl, anorexia nervosa. To watch one’s own child disappear into the darkness, to see them destroy themselves and be unable to forestall the dreadful end is a torment beyond the imagination of those who have not experienced it.

What can I say when I meet such people? What has my belief in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, in the eternal loving Father and the ever-present Spirit got to do with their agonies?

My faith is in a God who cared so much for a world hopelessly marred by the rebellion of humankind against his loving lordship, that he suffered the outrage of losing his own son to the darkness in order to heal us. His compassion for our plight is where I must begin when I meet those who are lost and raging against the oppressive darkness which is upon them. May we be so filled with God’s love that we do not shy away from such encounters, fearing the pain we might witness. May we be the means by which the presence of God is made real to those who suffer, weeping with those who weep – like Job’s friends who sat seven days in silence with him. Sometimes no words are needed.

I believe in Jesus, who while he walked among us witnessed great suffering, and saw the impact of pain upon the faith of the people. He dealt so gently with those who were struggling to believe in the face of their troubles, commending even the smallest grain of faith where he found it. Remember how Thomas was finally drawn out of his desperate doubts by Jesus? There was only encouragement, no rebuke. Our dear Lord knows that when we are in the dark – for ourselves or perhaps even more for those we love – that our faith is shaken. Let us then recall the words of Isaiah describing the Saviour’s gentleness :- “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out,” (Matt 12.20). May I be willing to pray for those who can barely pray for themselves, and to trust that God hears and will answer. We depend on his keeping of us, not our hold on him, and what a relief that is!

Finally, let us pray for ourselves, to be strengthened in our faith, willing to live with mystery, and not defeated or broken by the suffering which God graciously permits. The book of Job is very precious in this context, with its overriding theme that we are unable to understand the ways of God. Our comfort lies not in getting all the answers, but in encountering our great God. Only then can our trust in him be renewed.

I believe that one day, in glory, all our suffering will be seen to form part of God’s re-creating of his world, his making all things new, and of glorifying his beloved son, our Lord. In the great wonder of God’s providence, nothing is wasted.

These few words barely touch a profound mystery, but I pray that God might graciously use them to help us to think and live in accordance with his word.

the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised

(Job 1.21)