Category Archives: perseverance

Not our will, but yours O Lord….

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

(Hab 2.18-3.2)

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

(Matt.16.15-18)

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

(Eph 2.19-21, 3.10&11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dust-bound…

I lie in the dust, completely discouraged; revive me by your word. I told you my plans, and you answered. Now teach me your principles. Help me understand the meaning of your commandments, and I will meditate on your wonderful miracles. I weep with grief; encourage me by your word. Keep me from lying to myself; give me the privilege of knowing your law. I have chosen to be faithful; I have determined to live by your laws. I cling to your decrees. Lord, don’t let me be put to shame! If you will help me, I will run to follow your commands.

(Ps 119.25-32)

If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject criticism, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding.

(Pr 15.31-32)

So get rid of all the filth and evil in  your lives, and humbly accept the message God has planted in your hearts, for it is strong enough to save your souls. And remember, it is a message to obey, not just to listen to. If you don’t obey, you are only fooling yourself. For if you just listen and don’t obey, it is like looking at your face in a mirror but doing nothing to improve your appearance. You see yourself, walk away and forget what you look like. But if you keep looking steadily into God’s perfect law – the law that sets you free – and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, than God will bless you for doing it. 

(Jas 1.21-25)

I am thankful that when we read the scriptures handed down to us, we find the people of God struggling with doubts, burdened in spirit and sometimes utterly discouraged. Their experiences – recorded for us in God’s mercy and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – are profoundly reassuring when we face our own periods of heaviness, doubt and despondency.

Here we find the saints of old pouring out their grief over the world, and over the state of their own hearts – the largest to the smallest matter is fit to bring to the mercy-seat of the Almighty when it comes burdening one of his beloved children. How wonderful to have such ready access to a loving, accepting heart; how amazing to know that when we come in near despair at the apparent inactivity of the God in whom we seek to trust, still he welcomes us and cherishes our tears and agonies. Our struggles to believe in the face of the barrage of reasons to doubt are precious to our Father, and our resolute clinging to his word as our source of security and strength is entirely the work of his spirit.

So today I am summoned not to hide my griefs away, to put on a brave face, but to come with all the mess, doubt and fear which stirs within me and robs me of my peace. To come and confess that I have deceived myself, harbouring false images of my own godliness. It is painful to be undeceived, to see that I had begun to take pride in myself, but it is necessary. Instead, I am forcibly presented with unpleasant truths about selfishness, indolence, and an unloving spirit.

O God, when shall I be free of this deceitful spirit? When shall I finally live as one with nothing to be ashamed of? Only when my resurrection body finally stands before you in glory shall I know that total freedom of which now I have tantalising glimpses. Only then shall I be free of this interminable battle to stand against my own weakness and the wiles of the evil one – make it happen soon, dear Lord your children are hungry for holiness and weary of war…

Only in Jesus’s death for me can I find comfort in these days – this is love; unmistakeable, inexplicable, unshakeable. My failure to grow in holiness; my self-centred and small-mindedness; my failure in loving and serving; my ineffectual living….all these things are somehow forgiven, and I am loved. I am ashamed to fail my Lord in so many ways, to bring so little honour to his name – and to know that this will be the case until he mercifully takes me home.

O Lord, encourage me in your word; teach me your ways and comfort my griefs.  I can do nothing worthwhile, think nothing good, believe nothing true, unless you enable me. May I receive your gentle and loving correction as you show me the truth of my own heart, so that your word and Spirit bear fruit in my life which does honour to you, and blesses those to whom you have sent me.

 

Divine discomfort..

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?…If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.

(Isa 58.6&7,9&10)

You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground…you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain…You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts….Seek good, not evil, that you may live…Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.

(Am 5.7,10,11-15)

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?….He has showed you , O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

(Mic 6.6&8)

“Then the King will say..,’Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…..whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

(Matt 25.34-40)

Reading recently through the prophecy of Isaiah, I was overwhelmed time and again by the contrast between the glorious future prophesied for God’s chosen people, and the reality in which they lived –  in which we live now. We are in-between people; saved and assured of an eternal life in glory yet still living in a broken and pain-riddled world. We live with the tension between God’s promised rest, fulfillment and security, and the appalling suffering which exists across the globe.

It is tempting to withdraw into a shell of comfort, shutting out troubling pictures of reality and thinking of our own security and hope of eternal life. But..the majority of Christians in the world today cannot do that, since they live without most of what we in the prosperous nations take for granted. They endure that tension, as poverty, war, violence and climate change make each day an ordeal in survival – all the while believing that God’s promises are to them, for their peace, their flourishing too. If we who are wealthy proclaim a faith that does nothing to address the reality of suffering, and the agonising tension between the ‘now and the not-yet’ of fulfillment, then we have nothing to offer our world, we have no ‘good news’.

I would make so bold as to say that any Christian who can live without being profoundly disturbed by the state of the planet – climate, ecology, society, economy – is ignoring God’s clearly revealed message in scripture.

We serve a God of justice – where then is our concern to see justice for the oppressed, the ones who have no voices, who suffer at the hands of unfair trading systems and corrupt governance?

We serve a God of compassion and mercy – where then is our concern for the people who are being exploited and broken – the trafficked sex-workers, the debt-slaves, the prostitutes and addicts, the mentally ill, the abused children, and the confused and frail elderly?

We serve a Creator God, we are his stewards commissioned to cherish his good work – where then is our concern for the flourishing of the planet on which we live; for the climate systems on which our lives depend, and which human greed is gradually destroying?

I have been profoundly challenged in these days by my complacency – to argue that the problems are too big for me is no argument at all. God doesn’t ask me to fix it, but he does ask whether I care? If my faith does not issue in works, it is dead. I am called not only to be a child of God, but a servant, a witness, a worker.

I am praying that I might be willing to live with the divine discomfort caused by a restless spirit, one unable to do nothing in the face of the brokenness of our world. I am praying that I might find where God wants me to use the small gifts I can offer – time, intellect and anything else I can bring – in bearing witness to the love of God for this world and all its people. I am praying that I might be willing to serve in a very small way, in a great campaign where I may not see the outcome, but be content in having obeyed the call.

 

The potency of patience

 

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

(Isa 46.3&4, 9-11)

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

(1 Tim 1.15&16)

Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

(Jas 5.7&8)

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

(2 Pet 3.8&9)

Do you ever stop to consider that it is only because of the ‘umlimited’ patience of God that you and I are alive? God’s patience with sinful humankind has led him to wait, to wait for hundreds of years since the resurrection, looking for those who will repent and recognise their need. Our God is holy and just, and at any point in those long years, he could have decided that enough was enough, and it was time to bring an end. Yet in his wisdom and power, he has chosen to wait – to go on working out all our mess and pain for good,  in bringing people to repentance and new life in Christ. I can trust him with the world, in all its turmoil, because he has not finished…

The bible assures us that God is at work in history – His Story – and that all he plans will be accomplished. Although it may seem that he is absent, yet his timing is perfect and when the right moment comes, he acts. The rebellion of his people did not deflect his purposes; and their very betrayal became a stunning demonstration of his patience with those whom he has chosen for his own. I can trust him with myself, because he does not give up on his children – in spite of their failings….

The patience of God is powerful indeed – drawing people to repentance; painstakingly weaving history into a complete and purposeful whole; bearing the unimagineable pain of a Creator who sees his handiwork spoiled and yet restraining his anger against the despoiler; wooing his redeemed children ever closer to his heart as they respond to his patient love and kindness.

 As I consider the mess which has been and is being made by humankind, both of the world and of each other, Lord, I marvel at your patience. Your works are despoiled, and you are misunderstood, reviled and dismissed – yet your hand is restrained. 

I praise you because in your patience, you wait to see all the chosen called into the kingdom; because you know the end and can wait; you can contain your righteous anger perfectly.

Thank you for your patience with us, your children. You use us in spite of our persistent faults – we don’t have to be perfect to be useful; you invest in us over years and gradually reveal our sin as we are transformed by your spirit. How marvellous to know that in spite of all our flaws, you are glorified in us, and we can serve you as we are.

Help us Lord, to see your patience for the wonderful quality which it is – forgive us when we chafe at ‘delays’- and let us by faith fully trust your timing, for ourselves, our loved ones, and our world. And let us cultivate patience with ourselves and others, that we might live and love to your glory.

Outlook..changeable!

Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men. You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the pace where you dwell.  Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

(Ps 43)

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed….Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

(2 Cor.4.8&9, 16-18)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!…Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

(Phil 4.4&6)

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

(1 Thess 5.16-18)

One of the many effective ways in which our enemy, the devil, can cause us to stumble in our walk with God is by making us doubt our salvation. And one of the easiest ways for him to do that is to tempt us to focus on how our lives in this world continue to be dogged by difficulties – suffering of every kind. If he can once begin to direct our thoughts down the line of “if I were a real christian, surely I would not find life so hard, I would triumph over all my difficulties”, then he has got us trapped in a mire of self-reproach, self-preoccupation, and lies.

I say lies, because if we actually take time to look at the stories of believers’ lives – both faithful Old Testament followers and disciples in the New Testament – what we find are very familiar patterns of struggle and despondency, in a world that looks as dark and difficult as our own. The psalmists wrote of great joy, and also of deep despair – even of a sense of abandonment – but always from the conviction that God was listening, and powerful to act. They freely expressed their troubles, but had learnt that their experiences were not to be relied upon as an indication of God’s presence, absence or favour.

Time and time again, we find their darkest hours are underpinned by the rock-solid belief that God is, that He is good, and that somewhere, somehow, He is at work in this situation. They pressed on, in faith, not pretending to be perfect, not imagining that the world should be kinder to them than it was, but trusting God to keep them and use every trial for his glory and their blessing.

The same picture is painted for us in the lives of the saints, the believers of whom we read in the New Testament. They have the full revelation of Christ, knowledge of God’s saving love for them on Calvary, and yet they continue to struggle with the reality of life in a broken world.  Not only do they suffer persecution from non-believers, but also internal divisions within the churches. They experience illness, bereavement, personal disagreements and alienation, famine and natural disasters. All of human experience continues to be their experience – the joyous and the troubled – as it is ours. And nowhere do we find believers rebuked for their suffering, as if it were somehow the result of a lack of faith.

Rather, the apostles are concerned that they be wise, mature in their understanding, and above all grounded in faith in the nature of God. Just as for the Old Testament followers, it is not emotional experience which is the basis of reality and truth, but what God says – about himself and about us as his children. We WILL have trouble in this world – Jesus promised that! But we WILL also have his presence with us always, until the very end, when all troubles will cease and the need for obedient perseverance will finally be over.

We must encourage one another, through the ups and downs of our lives, to remember that while the ‘weather’ of our situation may change dramatically, the God who is in charge does not change. We will always feel cold when it is icy, get wet when it rains, and struggle when it gets too hot – those are normal and right reactions to our conditions. In the same way, we will grieve, feel fear or anxiety, anger and horror, depending on what is happening. We bring those feelings to God – as the psalmists did – and with thanksgiving (as the psalmists and the apostles did) we rejoice that He does not change, that He is in control, and that He will prove faithful through it all.

Living with imperfections..

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me..When..you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways…I will hold you accountable for his blood..Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! ‘”

(Ezek 33.7&8,11)

Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. for I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God..”

(Acts 20.26&27)

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on…Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice.

(Phil 3.10&12, 4.9)

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith…

(Heb 13.7)

The apostle Paul is revealed through his words – recorded in the book of Acts, and in his pastoral letters to churches and leaders – as a passionate evangelist and church planter, consumed with one desire – to make Christ known across the ancient world. His single-minded pursuit of this goal took him through dreadful suffering and persecution, and enriched his life as he saw God transforming lives through the preaching of the gospel.

Paul was urgent, earnest, and fully aware of the responsibility which God had laid upon him – to call the wicked to repentance and faith through Christ. In his powerful final address to his beloved friends in Ephesus, he declares himself ‘innocent’, a watchman who had fulfilled his calling and warned of the coming judgement and present offer of salvation. No one could accuse him of withholding good news from them; their guilt would be on their own heads for rejecting God’s grace.

Paul knew that he was not perfect, indeed he refers on several occasions to his ongoing weakness and struggle. But, it is not that which defined his ministry, it was his tenacious obedience, and total dependence upon Christ for salvation and acceptance with God. When Paul invites his readers to imitate him, it is not because everything in his life was holy and without fault. Rather it is because he knows it is not, and he has sought on every occasion to model how the believer should conduct themselves in light of that knowledge.

As redeemed sinners, we are free from the fear of sin because we have full forgiveness whenever we need it, and the burden of guilt is taken from us. Our sin no longer defines us, and cannot hinder God in the working out of his purposes. We are on the winning side and although our enemy is powerful, our captain is victorious and our very struggles are – by his grace – working out for our blessing and his glory.

When the writer to the Hebrews invites the reader to imitate their leaders, it is faith which is mentioned, not perfect lives. What is faith? It is the assurance of things not seen – our promised eternal life at home in glory, our future perfection and the full realisation of the sanctifying work of Christ in us. Faith is depending upon God’s promises, and basing our lives on the truth of what he says about us – forgiven, justified, adopted, beloved, glorious. This kind of faith does not pretend that there is no sin left, nor is it obsessed by the fear of sin, but rather it knows the quickest way to the Father’s side, to the mercy-seat, to the fresh cleansing fountain of forgiveness and the strength of Christ in us to resist temptation and if we fall, to get up in confidence that God is with us and we can keep going.

This is how we live with imperfections, by imitating Paul and others who have taught and modelled the christian life for us – as a persevering, a dogged and cheerful obedience which knows that we are not earning salvation, but living in it. This side of death, we cannot know complete freedom from our weaknesses, and from the pain of sin in the world. But we can live free from fear of those things, because Christ has conquered them, has promised that none of them can separate us from him nor prevent the completion of his work.

God grant us a burning desire to be holy for him, total dependance on Christ’s saving work and the Holy Spirit’s power so that as we press on, we will indeed be changed increasingly into the likeness of our glorious captain, to whom be all the praise and honour!

 

Learning in serving

[Moses] said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day…they are not just idle words for you – they are your life!”…”The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms…Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword”..since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.. 

(Deut 32.46&46; 33.27&29; 34.10)

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts..so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body..God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be..God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body..If one part suffers, every part suffers with it

(1 Cor 12.12&13,18,24&26)

While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there..on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands..and mark that you do this with humility and discipline – not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences…..Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift..working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive in Christ.

(Eph 4.1-3,712&13: The Message)

I know of very few things which are as effective in showing me the true state of my soul as the necessity of serving my fellow-beings, and more to the point, serving as Christ would do – in love. I can gloss over my weaknesses when alone, or when in congenial company with no challenges to my pride and sense of self-satisfaction, but it is a different matter on the frontline of fellowship.

An opportunity for service may initially strike me as a way to bless others, to do God’s work in a particular sphere, and in a myriad of ways, to feel good about myself and what gifts I bring to my community. Those things may be true – God prepares good works for us, so that his body, the church, might be built up in every way and it is right that we should seek to use the gifts we have to that end. BUT, it is also true that I am not perfect, far from it in fact, and that God has much to teach me and to change in me. Did Moses, that great servant of God, not discover many uncomfortable truths about himself as he obeyed God’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and through 40 years of desert wandering? His final words to the people ring with the authority of one who has been tested, and has proved the faithfulness of God – and also the forgiveness of God – as the only basis for our lives, but that authority came from years of learning about his own weakness, and crucifying his pride as leader.

Christ is always my example in my dealings with others, but how easy to forget when we are frustrated by another’s failure to be and act in the ways we want – when ‘our’ project is not being carried out as we planned it. How readily we give up on those who do not share our gifts, energy, intelligence or talents but who nonetheless are alongside us in serving the body of Christ. It is never my job to condemn, ridicule, undermine or lose patience with my fellow-believer – but how often I am tempted to do so. May God have mercy on me, show me the places where pride still reigns, and love is smothered by self.

Father God, thank you for the privilege of being part of the body of Christ; let me never forget that this is all by your gift, not my merit.

Lord Jesus, thank you for the privilege of serving the Church, your body; let me never rate my gifts too high, but in continual humility see the value of what you have given to others. Let me always be willing to repent of pride, and learn to cherish each unique child of God.

Holy Spirit, thank you that you are the lifeblood, the oxygen in the veins of the body of Christ, bringing continual fresh supplies of grace, and healing, transforming power, so that I – along with my fellow believers – am being renewed in the image of Christ himself.

Following…who?

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.

(Ps 1.1-3)

Watch out for false prophets..By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 

(Matt 7.16&17)

As I urged you…stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer…these promote controversies rather than God’s work – which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about…

(1 Tim 1.3-7)

If you point these things out …you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus..train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

(1 Tim 4.6-8)

The goal of God’s work in his children’s lives is their godliness, the creation of an ever clearer reflection of himself in them, showing his glory and beauty to the world. In the same way that a silversmith purifies the metal by fire, burning off impurities until he sees his face reflected in the liquid metal surface, so also our God is working out his good purposes in us.

We can choose to cooperate with this work, to embrace our destiny with faith and hope, trusting in God to be at work in all things, and seeking to learn in every situation what his will is for us. We can choose to hunger for godliness, choose to yearn after the fruit of the spirit above all worldly ambitions and make every effort to reject those things which frustrate our fruitfulness. The psalmist celebrates the power of the word of God to grow us into fruitful disciples, and when we meditate on it – chew it over, consider it from many angles, allow it to shape our thoughts – we are transformed indeed.

But we also make choices about what kind of people we admire and emulate, whose advice we take seriously and whose lives are our example. It is about choosing such people wisely that Jesus teaches when he speaks of looking for grapes on thornbushes! It is good to have role models, but what qualities should I look for?

Firstly, I need to find people who at least claim to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, our sacrificial Lamb, the Risen and returning Judge – a tree that looks like one which ought to bear good fruit. Secondly, I need to consider what fruit their lives actually bear, since this may give the lie to their claims. Paul warns Timothy about those who claim to be christians, but who bear bad fruit in disputes, divisions, doubts and pointless speculation. The effect of their ministry is not growing godliness – in themselves or their hearers – and this is a sure sign that they cannot be trusted.

So if I am looking to be inspired and encouraged by others in my journey of faith, I need to find those who bear good fruit after the manner described by Paul – lives of godliness, showing peace and self-control, faithfulness and patience, love, joy and kindness. It may well be that those qualities are in lives which are small and quiet in the eyes of the world, and even those considered foolish – so be it, these are the things which I desire. Let me learn humbly and reverently from God’s servants wherever they may be found, recognising in them a means by which I may be drawn further into godliness.

It is also good to find teachers who can educate us in the things of God, and we can serve them in praying for their protection – the history of the church is littered with sad tales of prominent saints who were led astray, and whose status proved a temptation to which they seemed to have no defences. We are all vulnerable and none should judge another for falling, but rather pray God’s keeping from sin and deliverance from temptation for ourselves and all those called into public service for the gospel.

Lord God, I thank you for all those who teach and lead me in your ways. Keep us all from sin, and make us quick to run to you when tempted to go astray. Keep your name in honour among us, that we might above all things fear bringing it into disrepute, and strive with all our might to be found increasingly in the image of Christ. For your glory and our blessing we pray, Amen!

Learning to speak…fluently!

Then Abraham approached [The Lord] and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?…far be it from you to do such a thing…Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

(Gen 18.23&25)

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven….”O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name….”

(Neh 1. 4&11)

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him.

(Ps 32.5&6)

Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I…

(Ps 61.1&2)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(Phil 4.6&7)

what is prayer?

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will in the name of Christ with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.

(Shorter catechism, Question 98)

Jesus taught his disciples about prayer both in formal exhortation, and also through his own example – he gave them what we now call ‘the Lord’s prayer’, and they were present on many occasions when he prayed aloud. They could also testify to his habit of spending prolonged hours alone in prayer. They learnt that when they spoke to God, they came as beloved children to a Father who cherished them; they learnt that prayer could be short and confident – as when Jesus spoke before the raising of Lazarus – and also that it could be prolonged, agonised pleading – as in Gethsemane. They heard for themselves the final words addressed to God from the cross, prayers for forgiveness, of lament and cries of desolation.

It is clear from the record of the Acts of the apostles, and from their letters, that the disciples embraced prayer as integral to their lives as believers – and the foundation for the work which God called and anointed them to do. They prayed for one another’s faith and witness; for the work of God in far off lands and also close at hand; they prayed against the power of evil, and faithfully offered sacrifices of thankful prayer no matter what their circumstances might have been.

We don’t really need to know much about how they prayed – sitting, kneeling or standing; eyes shut or open; hands raised or clasped before them; aloud or silent; in a group or alone. The point is, that within a very few weeks of Jesus’ death and resurrection, these uneducated men were praying – fluently and confidently, in the face of attack and in times of rejoicing. We have much to learn from their example, if we too desire to honour God and bear fruit for him as faithful, obedient disciples.

If we have not learned to submit ALL our desires to God in prayer, and to share with him everything that is on our hearts, then we may find it hard to begin when we face severe trials. If we have never practiced prayer in the easier times of life, then the crises may find us woefully inadequate, unable to articulate our thoughts, and more seriously, unable to call to mind the promises of God, the teachings of scripture about his character and plan for kingdom building, and new-creating. We may find ourselves unable to echo Christ’s words in Gethsemane – “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”(Luke 22.42)

Cultivating fluency in prayer is not about eloquent speeches, but is about knowing by experience how readily we can bring all our thoughts, fears and hopes to God – and doing it. Prayer is not some emergency helpline for believers, which we call on only when we can’t cope ourselves, it is the language of the kingdom, and one of the primary means by which we grow in faith and dependence on God. Failure to grow in prayer, leaves us stunted and vulnerable as believers – with only ourselves to blame for the trouble that may bring upon us.

I fear that I have yet much to learn about persevering, faithful prayer; but I rejoice in the ways that God has taught me through godly friends and leaders. May I not give up, but rather press on earnestly, growing more fluent in prayer, that I might fulfill what God is calling me to be and do for his glory in our world. Lord, teach me to pray!

(photograph courtesy of Peter Geddes, 2019: Carloway, Lewis)

Growing old, or growing up?

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah….

(Ps 95.6-8)

“Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear: should you not fear me?” declares the Lord.

(Jer 5.21)

“I could not address you as spiritual but as wordly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.

(1Cor 3.1-3)

I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again….so come on, let’s leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place…God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. but there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!

(Heb 5.11-6.3: The Message; Eugene Peterson)

Much as we may enjoy and even cherish the infant stages of life, we would be deeply disturbed if they never passed into something else – it would be a sign that something was wrong, and cause for great concern. We are designed to grow up, to mature, to become capable of bearing responsibility and in time, nurturing the next generation. This is just as much true in our spiritual lives, as in our human bodies, as these words from an understandably exasperated apostle illustrate!

Each of us must make our own response to God’s word – we are charged to work out what God is saying to us, and then to do it. We are commanded to meditate on the word, letting it dwell in our hearts so that our thoughts and actions are transformed. God’s word can be resisted, we can close our hears and minds to his loving command and if we do so long enough, we become unable to hear him.

Is this not a terrifying prospect? I don’t believe that I can fall utterly away from God’s safe keeping, but I long to be found responsible in my handling of all the good gifts which I have received, to know that I have glorified God by bringing every aspect of my life under his command to be used as he pleases.

The bible teaches us in so many ways, that God is continually seeking to draw his people closer to him in faith and obedience, and that it is through their witness that his name is honoured. The people of Israel brought dishonour on God when they doubted him in the desert after leaving Egypt; they dishonoured him when they turned again and again to the worship of idols; they dishonoured him when – in Jesus’ day – they worshipped the observance of the law and temple procedure instead of the holy One himself. Am I bringing dishonour on Jesus by refusing to let him work out his purposes in  my life, closing my mind to what he says?

As a ransomed, new-created and holy child of God, I am called to grow out of my infant diet; to progress from the early stages of understanding my new position to working out in detail just what difference God makes in my life, and how he does it. Mine should be a mature faith which can stand the test and grow, stepping forward to embrace trials as a means by which God shows his love and manifests his glory. It is maturing faith which can step into positions of responsibility, and be entrusted with the pastoral care of others. It is mature faith which can say with Job – “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him”

I know that the days, months and years which God has yet for me will include difficult times, pain and suffering – my own, that of my loved ones and of the wider world. I do not want to be like a vulnerable infant, dependant on the people around me to look after me, but rather a responsible adult, one who can do the task for which God has called and enabled me. I want to grow up in my faith as I grow old in my body, making the most of the time that I am granted to serve my gracious God as faithfully as I can.

May God keep my spirit soft to receive his teaching, and my ears sensitive to his voice. Although I may weary of my own imperfections and repeated failings, God does not give up on me, and I ask for a persevering spirit to continue to grow in faith and to press on towards the glory which he has promised.