Category Archives: perseverance

To win the prize

But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. . forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

(Philippians 3.12-14)

Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it.

(Revelation 2.17)

I have become involved in a weekly lunchtime event with some of our primary school children, an informal “athletics” session, when we run, jump, throw, catch and generally do sporty things just for fun…But watching some of the little ones, I see such a strong drive to win, to be first, every time – even though there is absolutely no competition going on! Humanity has a strong competitive instinct, and takes so much pleasure in winning – even if the activity is walking slowly with a beanbag balanced on the head!

Is it this kind of prize which Paul is talking about in his letter to the believers in Philippi..one which some will gain at the cost of others losing? I think not! Our faith is in a finished work by a triumphant Saviour; we receive our eternal life as a gift from a gracious God, not as a result of some stupendous effort by which we outstrip our fellows. So what kind of prize does Paul mean?

Last year I ran for the first – and probably the last – time in a 10km event, and received a medal for completing the course, not for a fast time, or a stylish run, or even for overcoming any significant obstacles in order to take part. I was rewarded for persevering to the end…and it is this kind of prize which is in view as Paul writes. The apostle is seeking to encourage his young church in their faith, to strengthen them in the face of difficulties of many kinds, and by his own example, to help them see what it looks like to imitate Christ in real, daily living.

We have been laid hold of by Christ, taken into his team, as precious individual beings whose particular character and talents are known and valued, with a unique contribution to make to his work, his church. We are with him, because this is where we belong, where we make a difference for eternity, and where all that we are is most richly expressed and exercised. Perfection is in store for us, dimly glimpsed here, and gloriously realised in the life to come, when his purposes for us will be complete.

I am called to be the perfect version of me – and although on this side of death, I will not see it, yet by his grace, God is working in me to realise that perfection. To the extent of my obedience, of my glad submission to his will for me, and my striving with his power to leave sin behind and follow Christ – to that extent, I press on, straining toward the goal. The prize which awaits is not a reward for being “better” than anyone else, it is the prize of being the perfect me – that unique and glorious daughter of the King of Kings; whose voice has music only for her Lord and who will dance before him unsullied by any stain of sin.

The prize is not some standardised medal, no one-size-fits-all T-shirt; it is to receive that intimate name, that ultimate assurance of being known for oneself..known, accepted and exulted in! No one else will ever fill the place in the eternal dance which is meant for me – and each of you has your own space, where the Father will seek and delight to find you, playing your own perfect part and bringing joy to the whole.

Is not this vision, this prize which Paul describes to us, a great encouragement to persevere in our faith; to see beyond the darkness of the battlefield, or the dimness of the sickroom, and the dullness of the routines?..We are becoming beautiful in his sight, every day a little brighter, and everything that we encounter on the way is another opportunity to press on.

Let us join with Paul, in pressing on toward this brilliance, this wonderful future, rejoicing that it is God who works in us, thus ensuring that we will receive all he has in store!

Living with failure..

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness… My dear children, I write this to you so that you will  not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence – Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

(1 John 1.8-2.2)

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Saviour.

(Psalm 24. 3-5)

I am perhaps not alone in being of a rather self-critical frame of mind – I am invariably the first to apologise in a painful situation (often when I haven’t actually done anything that I can see was wrong!); and given the opportunity for introspection will tend to dwell more readily on my failures than my strengths and successes.

As a parent, I have a great deal of material on which to dwell, looking back over 21 or so years where I have missed opportunities to model a lively faith; a healthy marriage; a missionary spirit…There are friends whom I have neglected, or unwittingly hurt deeply; siblings whom I have failed to support in their times of need as I feel I ought to have done. And that most poisonous of regrets – things I failed to do for my parents while they were still alive and within reach of my words and hands.

I have failed to pray for the tormented and suffering in the world – near and far – as faithfully as I could have done; I have failed to give thanks for answered prayers – for myself and others. I have not studied my bible regularly, not committed the words to memory, not learnt to share it with others in a way that can reach and bless them.

I look up to the hill of God with the psalmist and recognise that I am not the man of clean hands and pure heart who may ascend and stand there by right. It is a high and glorious mountain, the beauty of God dwells upon it, and it is where I long to be – but my persistent sin keeps me so far from the summit.

 As a follower of Jesus, one who claims his atoning blood to cover all my sins, I know that God has forgiven me and that I start afresh each day with a clean sheet. I know that the power of sin to enslave me has been utterly destroyed through the death of my Saviour – the holy and pure sacrifical lamb – and yet I still succumb to the temptations of idleness, selfishness and that dreadful immobilising self-pity. I do not claim to be without sin, but so frequently confess my shortcomings that I fear God must be weary of me.

Yet I cannot find any word in the bible of God wearying of his people’s repentance, nor a reluctance to forgive them when they come again in their need. Why then do I find it so hard to live with my continuing failures and shortcomings, when God’s forgiveness is assured and abundantly available? He has forgiven me; why can I not forgive myself for these things? I fear it is pride, a stubborn desire somewhere in my heart to prove to God that I am capable of better, of purer, holier living if I just try harder. And my disappointment is sore because my pride is hurt, my idealised ( and foolish) picture of myself as a mature follower of Christ, is shown to be a delusion. I am so tired of failing, that I want to give up, my courage is gone and my confidence in God’s power to sustain me as a faithful and cheerful witness for the remainder of my life is completely undermined.

May I be forgiven, for such foolish weakness and pathetic pride. May my heart and mind be increasingly filled with the beauty and power of my Saviour, who has ascended the great mountain on my behalf, and who every day is making it possible for me to keep climbing. May I rejoice and triumph ever more in what he has done – and keeps on doing – as his love drenches me, soaking out the sin stains and breaking the chains of regret for past failure. May I trust ever more in his power to work all things together for the good of those who love him – including their own failures – so that all the glory goes to him!

Slow..to the point of immobility!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every thing 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. 

Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

(Hebrews 12.1-3)

If my life were to be pictured as a race, what kind would it look like? A sprint? – fast, strong, utterly focussed? Or a steeple-chase, with obstacles over which I leap gracefully, recovering my stride and moving smoothly onwards? Or even a marathon – not very fast, but nonetheless dogged and relentless, without swerving from the allotted course?

Alas, my life as a race would resemble the progress of a blindfold athlete, who had forgotten to put on the proper clothes, and who was carrying most of their belongings on their back in a pack. My progress would be uncertain, without direction, with frequent periods when I simply sat down wherever I happened to be and cried for a while out of sheer frustration and self-pity.

At the beginning of a new year, we often make promises to ourselves about a new start, fresh commitments. I have been here often enough to know that is a recipe for despair and self-loathing by the end of January at the very latest! Instead it seems to me healthier to focus for a time on the ways which God has kept me through the previous year, to see more clearly his provision and all the ways he has brought good for me- and perhaps others – out of times of pain, and difficulty. But, in racing terms, that only counts as a breather! And I am called – as a follower of Jesus – to follow, which implies movement, forwards in a given direction..

So how can I realistically face this new twelve-month, knowing that I have no way of preparing for the unknown events ahead; that I may not even live to see the end of it? Paul’s exhortation to the readers of this letter are like the encouraging – and bracing – words of our coach and mentor..

Look who is watching, who has completed this race before you! They are witnesses to God’s power to keep you and transform you and be glorified through even such frail creatures as we are. You can do this, because God is with you!”

On the one hand, I remember those heroes of the faith who were commended in chapter 11, all of whom were frail and sinning people like me – and God, through the writer of this letter, calls them his faithful servants. If they can be commended, after trying and messing it up, then I can too!

Seeing this, I can take courage to commit myself to the ongoing effort to become more like Christ – letting him dominate my sight and thought, recognising and letting go (or cutting out), those things which distract me from him, and distort his image in me. This is God’s work in my life – but I know I can choose to hinder it, so I pray for a submissive heart and willing attitude to co-ooperate with that work, knowing that God can and will complete what he plans.

I am a slow learner in this following life; I never know what to say when asked earnestly, “So,what is the Lord trying to teach you at the moment?”. I think God knows what he is doing, and I prefer not to look too closely for myself – but rather to do as Paul exhorts his readers…to fix my eyes on Jesus, to consider him and let nothing else get in my way.

This I know, that if my heart is fixed on obedience to Christ; and my desire is to become more like him, then whatever else happens in 2017, I will be given grace to persevere, and to glorify God in it. I may not see any progress, but He will, and that will be sufficient.

Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me, all his wonderful passion and purity.

May his spirit divine all my being refine, Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.

(Tom M. Jones) 

Whispers of comfort

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you. “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. 

 (Isa 54.10-11)

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 

(2Cor 1.3)

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

(Rev 21.3&4)

Lashed by storms and not comforted, surrounded by a land laid waste by disaster and conflict.. This image in Isaiah’s prophecy of the desolation suffered by Jerusalem is a powerful and heart-rending one – calling to mind for us in these days places like the Syrian city of Aleppo, where distress beyond telling is the daily experience of so many people. Our globe continues to suffer the consequences of human rebellion against God – and humanity’s exaltation of itself.

Sometimes it can be a very private and personal desolation, a series of losses, setbacks and disappointments – in others and ourselves – which leave us reeling, breathless and weak. It was into such a personal situation many years ago that my mother read these words to me, bringing word from God of his tender compassion for my grief and agony. They were a lifeline, a trustworthy and secure connection to the solid ground of God’s over-arching provision for me through Jesus’s death and resurrection. All would one day be well, and I could hang on in the dark to that promise.

Is this not one of the most precious elements of the riches which we find in the coming of Jesus to be our Saviour? We are to be comforted – held closely by loving arms, like frightened or lonely children; warmed by the fiery love of God dwelling within us; quieted in our spirits by the knowledge that there is one in control who is all-powerful and ultimately victorious. Do we not all carry around in our adult bodies the spirits of little children, looking for a home and security, a place to lay down a burden of responsibility which is too great for us? Surely this is what Jesus meant when he called us to bear his yoke, which is light, and to allow the Almighty and Everlasting God to be God, to take from us those things which crush and destroy?

Our guilt for past sins – gone, by the grace of God in the atoning death of Christ on the cross. Our regrets for what might have been – lifted by the promise of eternal life in a new creation with infinite possibilities for good, and by God’s ability to work all things together for good for those who love him. Our fears for the future – transformed into quiet hope and expectation, that with God, we can do all that needs to be done, and that He sees and knows how to value our desire to obey and keep faith with him.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned.”( Isa 40.1)

The comfort which God offers is ultimately guaranteed by the fulfillment of all the prophecies about the coming of a Saviour. That comfort comes to us at the price of God’s son taking on human flesh, and then taking that flesh to the cross – for me, for you – where he was not comforted in his appalling isolation and pain, but mocked and abandoned.

What we receive, Jesus gave up. In his darkness there was no comfort, only agony and degradation as sin shut him out from his Father’s presence. Do I even begin to grasp what the perfect Son of God suffered for love of me? No, I can only wonder, and worship, and reach out passionately to grasp the precious comfort which his death provides for me – how I need this!

Be comforted, be warmed and reassured this Christmas, as you celebrate the coming of such a Saviour, and have confidence in telling others. We have tidings of great comfort and joy!

Rough and steep….

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going..It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old. She believed that God would keep his promise.

(Hebrews 11. 8&11)

When we make a promise, a commitment before God, we cannot know in what ways he may choose to test that promise, or what circumstances will try us. We promise to do things not because we believe we will always feel like doing them, but because they are the right things to do. When I professed faith in Jesus, and made promises as a new member of my congregation, I committed myself to certain actions – prayer; bible study; joining in worship; giving of my resources – not to nebulous feelings of connection with my fellow believers!

We did not put conditions on our promise, it was absolute, and made in good faith – made because we believed that it was what God was asking us to do at that time. Our promise was our obedient response to God’s leading, just as Abraham obeyed God’s call to set out for a new land. That act of obedience was like a promise to trust, to follow, and to accept God’s plan for his life.

The path of obedience for Abraham took him to some dangerous places – involving both physical danger to himself, but also moral danger. Twice we see him fall into the temptation of denying that Sara is his wife, instead of trusting God to protect their marriage and thus fulfill his word that the child of promise would be their own son. I cannot judge Abraham for his failures, because I too may find myself in difficult and unwelcome places in the course of keeping my promises, and seeking to live in obedience to God’s call on my life.

What do I do when obedience finds me in a situation which fills me with fear, or hopelessness? How do I react when the logical explanation of my difficulties is that I have utterly failed, and not acted wisely or in a godly way? Does this mean that God has lost, or forgotten me? Does he not know my need, my weakness and my longing for relief from my distress?

It may well be that, like Abraham, I have made a tricky situation into a really bad one by making some wrong decisions, and often that may be due to losing our sense of God’s greatness and power to achieve his ends. But surely the story of Abraham also demonstrates very clearly that God keeps his promises, in spite of our failures to follow through on our own commitments.

What a relief, to know that my failures, my wrong decisions, do not make God’s commitment to fulfilling his promises to me somehow invalid. The mess I find myself in may be partly of my own making, but it does not put me beyond God’s reach. I am also encouraged to know that God does not want me to give up on my own commitment to obedience, to fulfilling my vows to him. He sees my failures, sees how discouraged I get by the struggle it can be, and says,”Child, I know, you are sore and distressed by your own failures. Receive the forgiveness I offer, let my love wash away that stain and ease the ache of regret. Now, rest, and then we will go on together; I know you can do this, and you will!”

God kept faith with Abraham, as he will with me.

He knows my heart’s desire is to do his will, and that – although I fail so often – I want to trust his power in my life to sustain and enable me to do that.

There is a very old chorus that came to mind recently, which I will quote to finish today, and hope that you find it encouraging as I did.

When the road is rough and steep, fix your eyes upon Jesus;

He alone has power to keep, fix your eyes upon him.

Jesus is our gracious friend, one on whom we can depend;

He is faithful to the end, fix your eyes upon him!

Running on empty..

Just to be clear…. I do not feel that my life is quite the demolition zone that you see in the picture, but there is a definite sense of dismantling going on just now. Today sees our last service with the congregation to which we were called 22 years ago. How do you say farewell to people after that? In a month, we will leave the house which has been our home for 17 of the 23 years of our married life. The garden which has grown under my hands will be handed over to others to care for – it feels almost like abandoning a child to the care of others.  I will drive away from city life; from a rich network of friends and activities and work which have supported and encouraged and satisfied me, to …what?

I am continually being asked if I am excited about the new adventure which faces me? And if I am being honest, I have to say no! I am not temperamentally an adventurous person, but one who likes the familiar, the known and predictable. I deliberately avoid situations that take me out of my ‘comfort zone’, and only really relax where I am in control of my surroundings, timetable and food! What peculiar creatures we are, and how difficult we find it to truly trust God for all our needs..

The last few weeks have brought a steady stream of thoughts along the lines of ,’This is the last time I will..’ Over and over I am confronted with special people saying thank you, and goodbye, receiving gifts and cards, being prayed for and commended to God’s care. It is humbling and very sweet – in the nourishing sense of the word – to know that one has been appreciated and will be missed. But I feel very little in myself on these occasions, hardly knowing what to say, and only glad when I can slip away and brace myself for the next encounter. All the glory and thanks belongs to God, the one who made and saved me, the one who brought me into these situations and who was pleased – through me – to bless others. I am nothing, it is all Christ in me, and I praise him for his goodness and generosity to me, allowing me to be a channel of his love to others.

Perhaps, given all of this, it is not really surprising that I have this sensation of ‘running on empty’; that my spiritual flame is low and I am simply following on, obeying because I know that is what I must do, but lacking vigour and liveliness in my walk with God.

I am so thankful that we have had days of sunshine and heat to bask in, that my garden is full of beauty and life, that our plans for moving continue to work smoothly, and that we can have holiday before that day comes. I know that I am daily receiving loving mercies from my Lord, and that in his tenderness and compassion for my low state, he is patiently keeping company with me.

I know that he has plans for blessing others through me in the place to which we are called, and I will choose to trust him to reveal those people and situations to me in his good time. And knowing all this, yet I still find myself emotionally numb, in an almost dreamlike state, where nothing seems quite real and so nothing touches me directly.

Perhaps this is a blessing in itself, as I am being spared exhausting emotionally experiences at a time when I need to be able to keep functioning, sorting, organising and preparing for the move. Perhaps after it is over and we are settling into the new home, I will come back to life again and then the sense of being fully engaged with life will return – and as often happens when numbness wears off, it may be very painful!

Through it all, my Lord keeps asking,’Do you trust me?’ And my answer must remain,’yes, I trust you. Help me to keep putting one foot in front of another and moving with you, and not fret about what I cannot control.’

It is one of the hardest things I have yet had to face; and what a relief to know that it is his power in me which will make it possible, not my own effort. Praise God, that he never changes, never fails us, and his grace will always be sufficient for my needs.

I will!

Oh, praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, you who serve at night in the house of the Lord. Lift up holy hands in prayer, and praise the Lord.

May the Lord, who made heaven and earth, bless you from Jerusalem.

(Psalm 134)

I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but the Psalmist never says – “Praise God, because you are feeling good, and you want to.” The command is never conditional on our feelings, or our circumstances, but always the right and proper response to who God is. I find that a great relief, because so often my feelings are not particularly optimistic or buoyant, and if I had to somehow generate an ecstatic mood before coming to praise and spend time with God then I would be very seldom likely to do it!

The wonderful thing is that so often, when we obey the command – as loyal and covenanted soldiers ought to – we find that the act of praising, of considering God’s qualities and astonishing power at work in the world, does of itself lift our mood, out of pessimism and drab monotony to a lively appreciation and delight. This is nourishment to our spirits, food for our souls, and perhaps another way of understanding what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples that he had food which they knew nothing about!

There are times – surely in the life of every follower of Jesus – when reading the bible seems like an empty exercise, when the word seems dry and academic, when their walk of faith is through a drab and somehow colourless landscape. This is perhaps when our promise of obedience is most vital in sustaining us. If we continue to obey, in spite of our feelings – or even the lack of them – meeting with our fellow believers to worship, taking time to read the word, praying for others as well as ourselves, then we keep putting ourselves into a position to hear and receive from God.

If we choose to stop reading, stop meeting, stop praying, we damage ourselves, and make it much harder for God to speak to us, and how then can we find strength to endure the dryness? The deceiver of our souls would have us give up, shut ourselves away to grieve over the absence of feelings which we enjoyed in the past, nurse our anger against God that we no longer sense his presence. And when we manage to look carefully at this attitude, we see the reality of it, the danger of it. We are behaving like sulky children, resenting the absence of a particularly appreciated treat, and punishing our loving parents by refusing to enjoy the humdrum daily routine which is the foundation of our lives.

Jesus never promised that our walk with him would be easy, comfortable, trouble-free, nor that it would be a continual series of ecstatic experiences! He said ‘take up your cross’, and promised grief, sacrifice, and then he said ‘and I will be with you always, even to the ends of the earth’

So we can choose to persevere, obediently walking with him through the dry times, and the troubled times, knowing that regardless of our feelings, he is ever present, loving and cherishing us. Or we can act like sulky children, refusing to stir a step without an enticing bribe and wheedling words, never growing in stamina, never looking beyond our own feet.

Sometimes I have to listen very hard to hear beyond the immediate storm of resentful, or simply weary and disheartened thoughts, to hear the voice of my soul which says each day to her Lord and Lover, ‘I will’. But that voice is still there. I am ashamed that so often I choose not to listen for it, and instead indulge myself in self-pity, resentfulness, and even laziness.

Praise God, for he is good. He knows that voice in my soul is the truth about who I am, and he continues to keep company with me, in spite of my childish sulks, my indolence about spiritual disciplines.

Praise God, for he is good. He sees the desire to become more Christlike, that desire which is his own sweet gift to me, and he continues to work in my life to make that happen.

Praise God, for he is good. His love endures for ever!