Category Archives: perseverance

Thank Offerings…..

Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you: I am God, your God. I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Sacrifice thank-offerings to God, fulfil your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour me.

(Ps 50.7-15)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures for ever. Give thanks…to the One who remembered us in our low estate, His love endures for ever..and freed us from our enemies, His love endures for ever. Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures for ever.

(Ps 136.1,23,24,26)

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)

I suspect few of us are familiar on a day to day basis with the sacrificial system outlined for the people of Israel, in the text known to us as the book of Leviticus, but I would commend it to you as worthy of attention – with a good bible guide to help you along! The whole pattern for worship and life for God’s people is laid out there, with the aim of enabling the nation to live under God’s loving care and authority, to thrive as their lives were rooted and guided by him, and also to be a visible witness to the nations around them, demonstrating the glory, love and supremacy of the Lord Almighty.

The sacrificial system in particular is of great interest to followers of Jesus, because it is this system which his death replaced – in a supreme once-for-all act to address the consequences of sin. So in Leviticus we learn about how different offerings are dealt with in particular ways, depending on whether they address the impact our sin has on God in his holiness, or the impact our sins have on others, and on ourselves – guilt and the long-lasting effects of living with unforgiven sin.

Under that system, one special group of sacrifices had nothing to do with sin at all, and everything to do with spontaneous praise of God by the worshipper, expressing gratitude and rejoicing in the fellowship which his people enjoyed with him. These are called the ‘fellowship’ or ‘peace’ offerings, and the particular offerings for thanksgiving fall under this heading. They reflect the delight which we have as God’s creatures when we are in a right relationship with him – because of his faithful love, and forgiveness towards us as we depend upon his mercy and acknowledge his sovereignty over us.

When God calls his people in Psalm 50 to sacrifice thank offerings, this is what he means – and how wonderful it is to see the consequences of that sacrifice. When we live thankfully with God, acknowledging our total need of him, he delights to hear and answer our prayers for deliverance. Not only this, but our response to that assistance is more thanksgiving from us, and honour given to God – we worship him, give him his rightful position in the world, when we are at his feet, exulting in his deeds and character, giving glory where it is due.

I do not need to feel happy to be thankful; my situation may be grim, may appear without hope, but I can still choose to honour God by giving him his rightful place – the source of my life, my salvation and my eternal home. I can still be in fellowship with this great and holy God, can know that he delights in me – not because of all I give him or achieve for him, but because he loves and has saved me. Here is surely a great source of peace, a place of rest and nourishment for my soul, as I feast on all his goodness and the blessings which come from being his redeemed and beloved child.

His love endures for ever….Alleluia, Praise the Lord!

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Making marks in eternity..

I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. I will glory in the Lord, let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.

(Ps 34.1-3)

We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.

(Ps 33.20-22)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground….

(Eph 5.10-13)

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

(1 Pet 1. 6&7)

It is easy to forget that our lives as followers of Jesus are acted out before a great audience of spiritual beings, and yet the bible makes it plain that this is the case – think of Job, and of how God calls Satan to witness the faithfulness and true quality of that much tried saint. Paul also, in writing to the believers in Ephesus, points out that they operate in spiritual realms, not just the physical; so that their enemies while appearing in human form, or in the guise of the troubles of the world, are actually spiritual.

This invisible reality is enormously relevant for our attitudes to our daily lives, so often seemingly mundane, with petty troubles, and common challenges to overcome, and nothing very significant going on. The truth is that every day brings us fresh opportunities to make choices which will glorify our God, causing the angels to rejoice in the power of Christ in a person’s life to transform them completely. We may not see or hear the joy, but that doesn’t mean that it is less real!

As we grow in faith and understanding, our lives will come to reflect the pattern of Christ-likeness which is God’s ideal for his children, but we will also increasingly be out of step with the spiritual tone of the world, which is still so much in thrall to evil. Our growth in faith may not even be evident to us, as we feel increasingly that we are struggling with many trials arising from our choices and our beliefs. In reality, the spiritual reality which we do not see, that very consciousness of struggle is a sure sign of growing faith – if we did not so ardently long for holiness, we would not react so strongly against all those things which would drag us down. It is therefore possible for a faithful saint to look back over many years of following Jesus, and fear that they have made little progress, when in reality, their continuing struggles to choose purity, honesty, faithfulness and integrity are a sign that they have never been closer to him. It is the very precious reality of our faith which makes the fight against sin most bitter and prolonged.

Since this is true, we can encourage one another with the fact that every time we make a decision for Christ in the midst of the trial – choosing to think, speak and act according to his pattern – we are making our own mark in eternity, our own contribution to the great structure of worship and praise to the Saviour which is the work of the church. It is indeed all by his grace and indwelling spirit that we are able to do these things, and so all the glory goes to him when his followers prove his strength and faithfulness.

Although we may feel that our trials are secret, ashamed that we continue to face the same troubles over and over, yet we may rejoice that in the eternal story, our part is valued, and our own small experiences of his enabling will be significant. It is all worthwhile, nothing is wasted! All will be to our blessing, and to his glory: Amen, so let it be!

What a faithful God…

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away..

(Song of Solomon 8.6&7)

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

(Col. 3.12-14)

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children – with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.

(Ps 103.1-18)

Twenty five years ago, I stepped into the dress of which this photo is a detail, took my father’s arm, and walked down to the front of my church to meet and take vows with the man who is my husband. Four homes, two children, and two congregations later, we are still here, still married, and still utterly dependent upon our faithful God for his power to keep us together.

It is one thing, in the rosy days of romance, to say that we will love the sinner to whom we have given our promise…it is quite another to learn to do this in practice, day in and day out, through the exhaustion of early parenting, through the doldrums of teenage angst, in the face of external and internal stresses and challenges. In every situation which we face as husband and wife, we have to remember that we also face our own sinful tendencies, and the not-yet-cleansed thoughts and habits and weaknesses which can cause so much pain. As I celebrate these twenty five years, I do so with a profound awareness that it is only by God’s grace that I am still here.

Over the years, the knowledge that my father God understands all that I am facing, and all that I am forcing my husband to face, has been probably the mainstay of my strength. There is one who knows and understands, who has compassion upon my weakness and who has, in his incredible providence, already provided for the ways in which my mess will be absorbed into his amazing plan to make everything work together for his glory and my blessing. This is an indescribable relief, to know that none of it is wasted, nothing is irretrievable, and that over and under and through it all, I am loved by a perfect, powerful, and present God.

Because I am loved by God, I can love my husband; I will seek his good, pray for his walk with God, show kindness and compassion.

Because I am forgiven by God, I can forgive my husband; I will extend to him the same grace which I depend upon daily, trusting in God to enable me to refuse to harbour grudges or grievances, even as God refuses to remember my sins.

Because I am delighted in by God, I can delight in my husband; I will choose to remember and celebrate that he is unique, beloved of God, one who in the days of the new heaven and new earth will be revealed as glorious.

Because I am accepted – as one made in God’s image, being made whole and Christlike – by God, I can accept my (also a work-in-progress) husband!; I will choose to encourage and support him, to be a place where he may rest and be refreshed, to hold him in honour, as one upon whom God has set his love.

We cannot tell how many more days, or years, the Lord may grant us to walk this earth together, nor what trials may come to challenge us – and what a mercy that we should be kept in such ignorance. But we choose to say now, that we have a faithful God, and that we will trust him for what will come. May we live to be a blessing to others, and to give glory to our God, in whatever ways he may direct.

Barren ground…..

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil…Other seed fell among thorns…Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop.. When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

(Matt 13.3-8&19)

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

(Ezek 37.1-3)

Jesus said..”How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

(Luke 18.23-27)

How do we maintain our hope and confidence in God when the work to which he calls us seems to bear no fruit, and when the future of our churches is so lacking in promise? Why does the God of the universe, for whom nothing is impossible, choose to withhold the blessing of the work of the spirit in the hearts and minds of men and women, convicting them of sin and bringing them to repentance and saving faith in his Son? Why does Jesus commission his followers down through the ages to go and share their faith, to make disciples, when he knew that the response, if any, would be small?

The mystery at the heart of this is well beyond the scope of this brief writing; the impenetrable operations of Almighty God in the human heart, and the ways in which we both respond to and are worked upon by his spirit. God is the bringer of new life, the only one who can release sinners from their bondage to decay – and yet we speak of a person coming to Christ, as if it were all their own initiative! It is a great paradox of faith, and one which – in the limited nature of our understanding – we must learn to accept and live with. We are called to labour with our God in the business of leading sinners home, of bringing people from darkness into light – by prayer; witness; practical loving and truth-speaking, we play our part in the miracle of new birth in Christ.

But, I return to my first questions again…how do faithful servants, desiring to obey the Lord’s command, make disciples? In our community, there is little or no interest in the gospel outside those who already come to church. People seem to believe that they have understood enough of it to set it aside as dated, irrelevant or even offensive, and they settle for their own world views and faith substitutes, quite content to pass their remaining days and the unknown of death without Christ. We, as a community of believers, are tolerated with humour and affection because we represent some quaint traditional values, and we do some useful things which other people appreciate. But by and large, we might as well be another secular society, like the golf club or sailing club – merely another interest group which occupies its own niche and does no harm.

We believe that our neighbours and friends are dry bones; that without Christ, they might as well be dead as live! We believe that the gospel offers a hope which is worth losing every good thing in this world to gain, and yet our witness is merely tolerated and then dismissed, neither preaching nor outreach have any impact.

God seems to have called us to labour in entirely barren ground; to spend ourselves in fruitless endeavours while yet retaining a lively and joyful hope and confidence in him. I don’t think it is wrong to admit that we find this extremely difficult!! We stand with Ezekiel and look at this desert of dry bones, and say with the prophet, “Lord, you alone know if these bones can live”. It is not for us to presume upon the Lord’s timing or will; but it is also not for us to despair and say that there is no hope..

May the God who brought us to this place, at this time, in his will and for his purpose, also enable and strengthen us, cheerfully to carry out such work as we can, and above all, to continue to trust in the power for salvation which is offered in Christ.

 

In danger of drying up?!

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, to those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ: Mercy peace and love be yours in abundance…..But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life….To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen

 1, 2, 20, 21, 24 & 25)

My little corner of Scotland is into the third week of an incredible spell of early summer weather, with blue skies and high temperatures every day, and virtually no rain. This is of course a great blessing to the holiday-makers, but to those who are trying to get on with their jobs, and those trying to bring on tender plants and seeds, it is very challenging! I have been basking – there is no other word for it – in the heat, doing every outdoor job I can think of, and am out every night with the watering can, trying to keep my plants alive!

The weather has affected my powers of concentration, and I had become anxious that I had no clear idea what to write about this week, until I sat this morning with my breakfast, feeling the warmth of the day growing about me, hearing birds busy in the trees, and decided for no good reason, to have a look at the little book of Jude. God is so gracious and faithful to his children, even in their weakness, so that my distraction and lack of application has not prevented him from encouraging me from his word, and it is this which I want to share with you this week. When it seems that the word is dry, that your spirit is hardened up and no refreshing can penetrate – keep applying the water of the inspired scriptures, keep going back for more, keep putting yourself in the place where God can speak to you. Because he will….

The words that spoke to me so clearly this morning were about keeping, and being kept, perhaps you noticed them in the quote above? On the one hand, at both the beginning and end of the letter, Jude reassures his readers that they are “kept”, by one who has effectively summoned them to his presence, and who has the power to retain them there in the face of all the powers of this world which might be ranged against them. We are the beloved of the Lord, redeemed at his will, by the obedient sacrifice of the Son, and there can be absolutely no doubt of his ability and purpose to keep us safe, and more, to bring us finally and faultlessly into his eternal joy. When my heart seems dried up, and I find it hard to focus on the task of obedient living, it is so good to focus on this keeping power and purpose – because it reminds me that it is not upon my own resources and faithfulness that my salvation depends. My dear Father knows my weakness and frailty, and has made all necessary provision for my inevitable failures

The second “keep”, which is found near the end of the letter, is a different perspective, reminding Jude’s readers that they can – if they choose, and he obviously wants them to make this their preferred way of living! – be actively involved in nurturing the faith they have received. If I seek to grow in my faith – through bible study and learning from the teaching of others – and if I exercise the gift (and responsibility) of prayer, which is given me that I might take part in God’s work in the world, then I am deliberately placing myself in God’s love for me. And where else would I rather be?!

I rejoice in my safe-keeping; I rest in the strong and irreversible love of a great and awesome God who has chosen me as his child. I look forward in hope to the eternal reality which is promised – which will make this life with all its vivid glories look a pale shadow – and thank him that in his mercy towards his children, he has guaranteed our future. I confess that my love is often weak, my commitment less than whole-hearted, and give thanks that there is always a fresh start, and new opportunity to play my part in keeping in the centre of his love and his will.

May his grace and mercy stir me up to ever deeper and more whole-hearted devotion, that I might bring honour to his name, now and forever!

Never stop learning!

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

(Prov 9.9&10)

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart…Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I trust your commands…It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees…Your statutes are my heritage for ever; they are the joy of my heart. My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.

(Ps 119.33,34,66,71,111,112)

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

(Heb.4.12&13)

I was greatly blessed recently by the presence in our home of two of the brightest saints I know, whose company is always a joy and encouragement, and whose zest for life and the service of their Saviour is unquenchable. It was an honour, but also a very humbling experience, to see their strength in the Lord’s service, their zeal for his glory, and their vigour. They would claim no special talents, but only boast of the wonderful God who has enabled them for a lifetime of service – on the mission field in Africa, and here in Scotland – which continues in their “retirement”, with a schedule that would leave many of us gasping.

In the course of one of our many conversations, we touched on the importance of having a “teachable spirit”, and by that we did not mean being one who pursues learning for the sake of head-knowledge, but rather the one who is always aware that they are not yet what God desires them to be, and that there is always something to learn. The verse from Proverbs puts it beautifully, showing that wisdom can ALWAYS be added to, and that those who truly seek to grow in godliness will find God willing to teach them. Those who fear the Lord, will truly make it their aim to be life-long learners, pursuing to the very end of their days a deeper understanding of his word and of how he desires us to live.

There are perhaps two distinct kinds of wisdom in view here. Firstly, that which we direct ourselves, through our choices in reading, listening and watching. As followers of Christ, we can choose to engage with the bible in a way that helps us to understand deep truth, to wrestle with moral and ethical issues in the light of its teaching, so that our witness will be informed, humble and truthful. This is where conscious choice operates, perhaps based on events around us, or on topics which have arisen in conversation or in a sermon.

The other kind of wisdom is directed by our own circumstances, or those of our loved ones, where we have little or no control over events and cannot forsee where they are taking us. When the psalmist writes that it was “good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees”, he is touching on a mysterious truth. Human beings learn faith best under adverse circumstances; our pain and suffering drive us beyond our own resources to admit that we are not in control and to cling to God for strength and aid in our extremity of need.

My visitors have known both kinds of learning, and their lives testify that they continue to seek after God’s truth both in their deliberate study of his word and also as they experience trials of many kinds. It takes humility to admit that after decades of following Christ, one still has things to learn, and that is what we meant by that phrase a “teachable spirit”. Do I have it?…

When I find myself impatient with the failings of others….Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn your patience, because you have not given up on me;

When I find myself confident in a human being, trusting in an organisation and a structure……Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn that all men are as grass, frail and fallible and none may be truly relied upon save you alone;

When I find myself despairing of my own failings…..Lord, forgive me, and grant that I might learn to live in the light of your promises, resting on the assurance of your putting away of all my guilt through the death of Jesus for me;

When I become proud, and independent….Lord, forgive me, bring me back to utter dependence on you and grant that I might learn to walk ever more closely with you.

A little self-knowledge….

Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders. My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law……

Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word…..Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good….

May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word.

(Ps 119. 27-29, 36-38, 41&42)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

(Jer 17.9)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

(Matt 5.3-6)

It can be profoundly disconcerting when the word read speaks directly to the heart; when the spirit pierces our understanding, and we see a little of our own reality as God sees. I thank him that we do not see the whole, being spared that picture, which if seen would cause us to despair of living for even a few moments in a truly godly way! Thanks be to God for his mercy, in shielding us from the truth: for surely we are none of us perfect yet, and so much remains that is contrary to the beauty of holiness which we see in Christ. In our ignorance we persevere, trusting that God will reveal – in his good time – what needs to be dealt with, and accepting that there is a good deal of it!

But when it is so revealed, then what do we do? The temptation is to resist the vision, to replay in our minds all the soothing, deceitful reassurances that this world would give us, that this thing is no sin, but an understandable and justifiable line of thought or action given the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves…… Our culture cannot deal healthily with the idea of shame, of grieving that we are less worthy than we held ourselves to be, and cries loudly against it. But the word of God speaks firmly, of the standards to which we are held accountable, and the power which is given to us to live up to them in the life of the risen Christ within us by his spirit.

When I, who have so many of this world’s good things, and all the blessings of salvation and the hope of a life to come, find myself persistently anxious, petulant and discontented, then the response is not to perform more acts of love and indulgence towards myself, but to confess as sin this wrong attitude, this utter lack of real gratitude and lived trust in God. My heart is indeed deceitful when it tries to blame anyone but myself for this attitude, to copy Eve in her desire to excuse herself and put the burden of guilt on another. I am responsible before God for my attitude to the days he gives me; to the people who fill my life; for my use – or abuse – of the talents, possessions, and time he has allotted to my stewardship.

I am a flawed human being, living with other flawed human beings; and my Lord and Father knows all that is part of my lot. And he commands praise, obedience, joyful embracing of his will for my life – not on the basis of my feelings, but on the facts of his nature and acts. I have no excuse before him for failing to render these things, but oh how very easily I speak false comfort to myself and claim excuses for just that failure.

I do indeed hunger and thirst after righteousness; I long for my heart and mind to be turned effectively away from selfish desires; I grow weary of the battle for holiness, and sick at heart when I see fresh glimpses of my own deceitfulness and failures.

Thanks be to God then, who has given us full and free forgiveness in his Son, by whose death we receive life, and whose blood covers all our sins. Yes, we rightly grieve over our failures, and long for transformation; but we also have the right to claim victory over the one who taunts us with our failures, over the devil who would love nothing better than to keep us in the bitter dust of self-pity and despair.

Let us claim the promised comfort; the guaranteed inheritance; the blessed assurance of forgiveness and acceptance, so that the accuser of the brethren will depart, and we may labour on for a time in peace, with confidence that our God who began this good work in us will finish it and one day we shall rejoice in knowing ourselves perfected in Christ!