Category Archives: Resilient faith

What’s my uniform?

I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me. Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit….You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you for ever.

(Ps 30.1-3,11&12)

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, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

(Eph 6.10-18)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

(Col 3.12)

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness, my beauty are, my glorious dress;

midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed, with joy shall I lift up my head.

(Nikolaus Ludwig, Graf von Zinzendorf: 1739-, translated by John Wesley)

The hymn which I have quoted above was sung often at the church where I grew up, and it remains a precious source of comfort and reassurance to me – in spite of the antiquity of the language – pointing as it does to the great truth of our salvation…it is nothing to do with our own efforts and merit, or failings and faults but rather all to do with Christ! I have long exulted in the picture of being clothed, as with ceremonial robes, in his beauty and glory and then proudly standing as his beloved before my Creator and God. The thankfulness of the psalmist in his deliverance from death reflects this wonderful picture and sense of being wrapped all around in something that shouts “JOY!” for all to hear and see.

Ultimately, Christ’s perfections are what all believers wear before the judgement throne – we have nothing else! But the bible also uses the language of clothes, garments and even armour, in describing our lives as believers, and it can be very helpful to apply them to our daily living and interactions with  others. Think of them as our uniform, and consider why they might be important, even necessary…

In Colossians, Paul urges his readers to put on all these beautiful qualities of love in action, reminding them of all they owe to Christ as the fount of their blessings and that they ought to love one another as Christ loved them – patiently, sacrificially, humbly and gently. This is a uniform that will help us to do our appointed task as believers well; these are the qualities which we need to seek out, and cultivate with the help of the Spirit so that increasingly we don’t even need to think about putting them on – choosing to live in this way – but do it naturally.

This uniform will also help us to recognise one another as believers; these qualities of faith and love in action are the outworking of God’s promise to refine and shape us until we become like his son. As we are increasingly transformed, so that family likeness – the ‘uniformity’ of God’s people in spite of their wonderful diversity – is to be seen in us. We can encourage one another as we see these qualities more strongly and more often, urging one another to persevere through trials and trust God to be at work in and through them to clothe us increasingly with the image of his son.

And then there is the familiar image of the armour, beloved of Sunday school teachers and for good reason – it is simple and yet powerful in conveying both the dangers we face and also the resources we possess, the job we have to do and the way we are to do it. We have protective armour, because we are in a battle – how often do we forget this, and then wonder at the state we get into because we have not noticed how the evil one has drawn us away and robbed us of our peace? We are given armour in order to resist him – to deflect and quench the piercing arrows of old guilts ; to protect our thinking so that we reason and make good, godly decisions based on truth, not on lies from the Father of lies; to stand firm at peace in the midst of turmoil and to move with confidence because we know that wherever we are called, God is with us and the victory is his. And we have his precious word, our only weapon, with which to both defend ourselves – as Christ did in the wilderness temptation – and also to play our part in working out God’s victory over evil in the world.

We have all the promises, all the truth of salvation freely offered and completely achieved. God has promised to build his church, has promised that all the powers of hell cannot prevent it, and we claim that power and truth every time we pray in Christ’s name for his kingdom to come, and his will to be done….

We have so much to wear, are so richly provided for and equipped for the life which God has given us; let us rejoice daily and gladly wear our uniform, proud to be known as His and to be part of his amazing and growing church.

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Bland, boring and inoffensive…

Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place 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 43.3-5)

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

(Matt 5.13)

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

(Rev 3.14-16)

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(From: the Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the 25th Sunday after Trinity)

I am not by nature one of life’s optimists; not an entertainer, or source of endless jokes and funny anecdotes. Life to me seems a very earnest business, and while I love to laugh and be with people who are positive and funny, it would be wrong for me to aspire to be like them. I am, to put it very poetically, one of the darker shades in life’s tapestry!

Given that temperamental foundation, what does my Lord ask of me, as his witness and a channel of his love and messenger of the gospel to my community? I am to be as salt – that which brings savour, has a strong taste and cannot be ignored. I am to be noticeable, one whose life and message provoke thoughtful response. I am to be fruitful in works which glorify God, and bless others. He does not ask for a change in temperament, but he does look for a passionate, committed life, one which at every level reflects my dependence upon and delight in him; a life which speaks clearly of a close and loving relationship with the Lord Jesus.

I don’t know how my community would judge me on these things at present; but I fear that I am far more like the lukewarm, bland and nauseating church at Laodicea, who were condemned in such strong language by the faithful and true witness of Revelation. I am ashamed of my lack of passion, of the way in which I seem so often to fail in witnessing to the transforming and life-sustaining power of Christ.

Is this because I have never known it truly for myself? Surely, once a believer has come into that relationship with Christ they are for ever after going to be on fire for him? Actually, I believe that our lives as believers do ebb and flow, and that while we cannot but be ashamed of the times when we feel so utterly lacking in passion, yet we dare not condemn ourselves. The devil would love nothing more than to see saints write themselves off as a result of feelings; when the reality of our salvation and our hope is not our feelings about them, but the truth of God’s power and promises.

So in my shame and coldness of heart, I cling to and echo the prayer of the psalmist, begging that God will send his light and his truth in power, to guide me – by that truth which cannot change – back to his sanctuary, to the place of intimate fellowship with him; the place where I am filled with joy and passion again in praising him. And I echo the old words of the prayer book, asking God to stir up my soul, by his Spirit to reawaken my desire for him. It is his work, and he alone can accomplish it. I want to be so full of the beauty and wonder of the gospel that it spills out continually in all my conversations; I want to be so attuned to the Spirit within me that I can discern where God is working in other people’s lives and so align myself with that work; I long to be part of seeing his kingdom grow in this place…

Even the darkest shades in a tapestry have depths of colour and make a significant contribution to the beauty of the picture; let me be content to be a dark shade, but Lord, fill me with the intensity of colour and depth of passion that comes from a growing understanding of the wonder of your love for me.

Are we nearly there yet?…and other complaints

“Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? who is like you – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed the Egyptians. In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling….”

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur…the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

(Ex 15. 11-13,22&24)

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron…”If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat…but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”…The Lord said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.'”

(Ex 16. 2&3, 11&12)

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were;…We should not test the Lord, as some of them did….And do not grumble, as some of them did…These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

(1 Cor 10. 6-13)

It all started so well, with the people of Israel rejoicing over their miraculous deliverance from Egypt and the sheer awesome power of their God, that power which he promised would bring them to their own fruitful and peaceful land. But within a few weeks, there was bitter complaint against the servant leader, and by implication, against their God, for the conditions in which they had to live as pilgrims.

So it would continue off and on for years, resulting in the deaths in the desert of all those who had doubted God, and the exclusion of Moses from the promised land. So much for their joyful song of faith and trust in God – when life got hard, it was just so many empty words.. and I have to recognise this same weakness in myself. As Paul astutely warns the Corinthian church, we are all prone to this lack of trust and to a discontented, complaining spirit, a spirit which grieves God deeply.

I am rescued, redeemed from a spiritual bondage which by my own efforts I could not escape. I am free to live with hope and purpose, looking forward to a promised land, an eternal future which is beyond my wildest imagination. I know, in my mind and sometimes in my heart, that the power which delivered me, and the love which planned that deliverance, are good, and that I can trust God absolutely with my life. But…but….

I am ashamed to see how often I have a grumbling spirit; how often I complain about the length of the journey which lies before me (and I don’t even know how long it will be!); or about the sinfulness of my travelling companions (who have to put up with my sinfulness); or about the arid and hostile land through which I have to travel (when in worldly terms, I live in a prosperous, peaceful and highly desirable situation).

Oh Lord, forgive me. Too often, I have come to you with complaints, instead of with thankfulness for my deliverance, for the many good things which you have already provided and above all for the daily renewal of your love and forgiveness of me.

You have called me to a pilgrimage, you have placed in my heart a hunger for a home which is not of this world, and you have promised to provide for all my needs on the journey. You have promised that all that is permitted to come into my life will be for your glory and my sanctification and blessing. And I have failed time and time again to live as if I believed it. Forgive me for doubting your goodness and love, that is at the root of all my grumbling, and how shameful that I should even entertain such doubts when you have shown your love for me so powerfully in Christ.

When I am tempted to complain, let me rather thank you first for all I have, all you give. Then let me present my needs with a humble submission to your will, recognising that you know best. Let me cultivate the spirit of one who travels in hope, and in patience, and in trust, that her guide will not fail her and she can follow with confidence wherever he may lead!

And so it comes to pass…

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before him, singing with joy.

Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise.

Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

(Psalm 100)

O God of Bethel, by whose hand Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage hast all our fathers led.

Our vows, our prayers, we now present before thy throne of grace;
God of our Fathers, be the God of their succeeding race

Through each perplexing path of life our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread, and raiment fit provide.

Such blessings from Thy gracious hand our humble prayers implore;
And Thou shalt be our chosen God, and portion evermore.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), Scottish Paraphrases, 1781

The hundredth psalm is subtitled in my bible, “for giving thanks”, a serious understatement when it comes to describing that glorious outpouring, in only a few verses, of praise and trust. I grew up in the Scottish psalm singing tradition, so that the words are inextricably linked to an ancient tune, and I can’t say them, but must sing, slipping into the familiar cadences and measured, joyfully steady pace of the music. I hear the echoes of my father and mother singing alongside, in the days when we shared in the worship of God together, and am grateful over again to the church where I was raised, for giving me this heritage of music and word together.

The same is true for the paraphrase (it means a song or hymn based very closely on a particular passage, or passages of scripture, and was a key part of Scottish church singing for centuries). Again, the marriage of words and music is so deeply embedded that I cannot sing these words to any other tune, but who needs variety when the originals are so good! This hymn of total dependence on God, based on his faithfulness to those who have gone before us, is a wonderfully rich prayer for every day of our lives, and those of our loved ones.

I am using them together this week, because our family is giving thanks, and looking to the future as we celebrate our son’s engagement to marry – at an as yet unspecified date – a young woman who shares his deep faith, and commitment to living for God wherever that may take them. It is very humbling when the next generation take such significant steps, another occasion for me as mother to learn to let go, and trust that my heavenly Father knows and loves even better than I do!

I rejoice that my God is faithful through all the generations; and I am deeply thankful that my son has grown into saving faith in Christ, witnessing publicly to his Lord and committing himself to a life of pilgrimage. As a Christian parent, I am well aware that such faith is the only really important thing that one’s child needs, and also, that I have no power to impart it, but depend on God’s grace and the work of his spirit in my children. What a joy then, to see him thus affirm his faith, and to find that God has led him to a life-partner, one who can cherish and console, can exhort and comfort; and one to whom my son can devote all his powers of loving and nurturing.

Christian marriage brings many of the same challenges as the union of those with no faith, but it has one key difference – the presence of a living, loving God by whose power both partners are enabled to forgive and live with one another, and to cope with whatever challenges they might face. It is a great relief, as a parent, to be able to commit these children of my heart to the God whom they trust, knowing that He has their best interests at heart too, and will fulfill his purposes in their lives.

The pilgrimage will at times be weary; the path will often be perplexing; but in looking to God, I can pray with confidence that my succeeding race will find all their needs are met, their faith strengthened, and that God will be glorified in and through them.

Keep me hungry Lord..

I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O Lord; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.

(Psalm 119.10-16)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man or woman of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 2.15 & 3.16)

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

(Colossians 3.15-16)

I was always taught that it was important for a follower of Jesus to set aside time daily to pray and read the bible – and I suspect most of us know that it is a good habit to acquire, although we may struggle to establish it! We know in our heads that God speaks to us through the words of the old and new testaments, and that through them, we grow in our understanding of God’s plan for redemption and above all in knowledge of Christ Jesus our saviour.

But how often as human beings do we put into practice things which we know to be good for us?! It is an ongoing struggle for me to find ways to engage with the bible which do not become a rushed, cursory skimming of the text, and perhaps a slightly less rushed perusal of the commentary provided by printed or online notes.. I am almost too familiar with the bible, taking it for granted and assuming that I know enough to get by without trying too hard to improve and continually refresh my knowledge.

I do not believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to this challenge, nor even that what suits at one time of life will be appropriate at another. The single mother, caring for children and holding down a full-time job  will find it hard to make time for in-depth daily study – and her Lord knows and understands. A short dose of scripture morning and night might prove as effective and nourishing to her faith as anything more ambitious, because the Holy spirit will use that to speak to her need. Someone who learns better by hearing and seeing than by reading, will find recorded talks and short video clips stimulate their understanding, and prompt their worship and praise just as effectively as prolonged meditation on the complexities of the book of Romans!

The point is, as Paul writes to the Colossians – that the word should “dwell richly” in us, a beautiful expression which I take to mean that it ought to be treasured, to be alive in us, like a welcome presence, influencing every part of our lives. The great 119th psalm is an incredible outpouring of praise for the word, for the treasure which we have in it, and a reminder that it is only as we live by the word that we are in fellowship with God.

Paul writes to encourage the young church leader, Timothy, to work diligently at his knowledge of scripture, so that he can bless others through his teaching and life. We too, have a responsibility to one another to be as skillful in handling scripture as we can be, so that the body of Christ – the church – nurtures and comforts and grows stronger in unity as we teach one another.

When I consider my daily time of bible reading in the light of these thoughts, it is a good deal easier to motivate myself to do it! I am helping others, not just myself, and fulfilling my calling as a member of the church. Through the bible, I see Christ, and he is the end, the purpose of all my studies – to see and know and grow more like him.

May God in his mercy increase my hunger and longing to see Christ, my desire to live with and for him, so that I never grow tired of reading his word and so that it will indeed dwell richly and bear fruit in my life, and be a blessing to those around me.

 

Tell me again..please?

Therefore, I will always remind you about these things – even though you already know them and are standing firm in the truth you have been taught. And it is only right that I should keep on reminding you as long as I live….For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendour with our own eyes….because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets.

I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Saviour commanded through your apostles.

(2 Peter 1.12,16,19 &3.2)

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the good news I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. It is this good news that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you…I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the scriptures said.

(1 Corinthians 15. 1,3&4)

 Our world in these early years of the twenty-first century is driven by rapid change – population growth; expanding economies; transforming technologies. We in the prosperous and stable European nations enjoy an unprecedented standard of living and are swept along in the current of constant innovation which drives our economies and personal lives. Every few years, we replace appliances, cars and pieces of furniture, and obsolescence is built in to much of what we use,  we accept it cannot last for long. We are increasingly driven by novelty, the lure of the new and different. It was ever thus, humanity is easily bored, but the pace of change today is breath-taking.

Do we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking about faith in this way, as if there ought to be some innovations by now, some new and exciting insights and teaching which will render much of our tradition obsolete? Well, perhaps there is a case for arguing that much which is traditional is no longer helpful, but actually obscures the gospel, and it could therefore be set aside. But, there is a foundation of truth upon which our faith must rest if it is to have any validity at all, and that foundation remains today as it was when the apostles wrote about it two thousand years ago..

We believe in a God who became human, lived a perfect life, died the death of a sinner, and was raised to new life, ascending into heaven where all those who accept his death in their place will also be received. It can be reduced to the simplest of statements, as the children’s hymn puts it, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so..”

There is sufficient profound theology behind this truth to occupy the greatest minds; and yet it is clear enough to be understood and embraced by the youngest and simplest of us. And it does not change…this is what we believe, and without this, we are astray upon a sea of conjecture, tossed by fashionable philosophies, driven by ruthless atheists, and without any real grounds for hope. It is this truth which we need, more than anything else, to give us courage to face life, to face ourselves in all our weakness, failure and malice.

Jesus loves me – therefore I am of worth, I have value in God’s eyes and can hold my head high no matter what others say of me; Jesus loves me – and his death has dealt with all my sins, the past, present and future, I am forgiven and the burden of guilt has no weight for me: Jesus loves me – I want to live in a way that honours him and recognises that my life is no longer my own to waste; Jesus loves me – and that love is for all who will receive it, therefore I have good news to share with my world!

This old story, of Jesus and his love, is what I need to receive afresh every day of my life. It is as basic to my existence as the food I eat and the air I breathe. Without this story, I have no hope, and am at the mercy of my own sin, the wiles of the devil, and the power of evil in the world.

Praise God, in his infinite wisdom, that his great story of redemption is complete, that nothing need be added by all the cleverness of humanity to make it effective. There is no need to look for new versions of the good news of Jesus; the old story, the unchanging story, is never obsolete, always effective, and the only sure foundation of faith. Alleluia, and Amen!

For my children..

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

(1Timothy 6.6-12)

Nearly twenty two years ago, I was safely – and belatedly – delivered of a son, a precious gift and source of great joy and contentment, as well as not a little grief and anxiety over the years of his growing! Four years ago, he left home, first for a gap year, and then to university. There he thrives, and we have had the pleasure of watching him relish every opportunity to learn; every friendship which has come his way; and above all, of seeing him grow in faith, seeking to reach his community with the gospel. He is a man made by and for God, and he knows his maker – a blessing which cannot be quantified, and one which every christian parent craves for their children but cannot guarantee.

I say these things not to boast – it is none of my doing, and even as I give thanks for the blessings he has received, I yearn over the children of christian friends who as yet are choosing to walk through life without putting their faith in Christ, sitting lightly to the question of their salvation. So why talk about him at all? Because this  morning, after a week of holiday with friends here, he left me again…

Does it never get easier, this parting from the one who once was utterly dependent on me? Does the raw place where my heart was ripped from his never really heal over? I have no fear for him, and yet how sore it is when he leaves, returning to the larger life he now enjoys with friends who are so dear – in which I barely play a part – and all of life ahead of him.

The bible regularly uses the imagery of a father – or mother – to describe God’s yearning over his children, and I believe that this longing love is something that human beings experience in smaller degree. In our parenting; our nurturing of new life and raising for independent living, we experience a little of the passion with which God loves us, his beloved children, driving him to seek after and bring us to himself again. The very pain which is part of letting our children go, is a window into the heart of a tender God. How are we to use it?

I can resent the ways that God has chosen to ordain my life, separating me from my children and leading them away from me..or I can rejoice that for a little time, I was privileged to be in their lives, loving and caring for them on his behalf. They were his before they were ever mine, and if I remember that, then I can take comfort even as I watch them go – God’s love for them is so much greater than I can ever imagine, and they can be in no better place than the centre of his will for them.

I can follow the example of Paul, who though not the human father of Timothy, yet wrote tenderly to that young man, calling him a dear son, and addressing many earnest and loving words of advice to him. Paul does not caution Timothy to look out for his own interests, but challenges him to the highest calling – a life devoted to God, in which those qualities of godliness, love, endurance, faith, gentleness and righteousness are always growing stronger.

Who knows what this will look like in real life? A calling to full-time christian service; to overseas mission or ministry in this country? A life lived in an increasingly secular and hostile society, bearing faithful witness to the rebuke and challenge as well as the offer of the gospel? A life of single chastity, or marriage and parenthood? A life blessed with good health, or plagued by illness?

I cannot tell, and I thank God that I do not know. But I can and do pray for my children – and for their friends, the precious young lives which come into contact with mine – that their faith will be in Christ alone; that their will to obey might be fixed; and that they might live to glorify and serve the God who made them for such a time as this.