Category Archives: thanksgiving

To win the prize

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

(Philippians 3.12-14)

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

(Revelation 2.17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My heart is full of thankfulness..

Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart..

(Ecc 5.18-20)

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

(1Tim 4.5&5)

As someone who lives in a relatively very rich country (in world terms), and who has not been required to find paid employment in order to keep a roof over her head and food on her table, I am well aware that I occupy a very privileged position – and as a follower of Jesus, it is not a very comfortable position! What am I to do with all I have? What is it for? I can’t send away everything I possess, it is not solely mine to give, and much of my riches consist of things which cannot be physically shared – good health, loving friends, the beauty of the natural world, the gift of music, and above all my salvation and heritage as a child of God.

For this reason, I was delighted in the course of a recent time of preparation for a bible study, to come across this passage in Ecclesiastes, a challenging but ruthlessly truthful portrayal of the futility of human existence apart from God. It seems to sit very comfortably alongside Paul’s advice to Timothy, the young pastor, exhorting him to accept and enjoy God’s  generous provision – and to teach his congregation also to do so.

God has indeed made and given us lavishly of good things, how ungracious and foolish it would be if we were to reject them! Imagine presenting someone with a carefully chosen gift, reflecting your love for and relationship with them, only to see them shrink from accepting it, because they had already received a gift from someone else, or because they felt they did not deserve it..

None of what we have is earned, or deserved. All is a gift from our good and gracious God, given that we might enjoy it, and return thanks to him as the source, all the while recognising that our ultimate satisfaction is in the Giver, not the Gift. When I am receiving God’s gifts with a thankful heart, using them to return glory to him and to bless others in any way which I can find, then I find I can accept and be content with the life God has called me to. A disposition of thankfulness is a great aid to a cheerful and contented heart, and in keeping a godly perspective on life and “stuff”! Perhaps that is what is referred to at the end of the quote from Ecclesiastes, where the gladness of a man’s heart in what God is giving him now, enables him to live very much in the present, not dwelling regretfully on the past, or anxiously on the future.

The faithfulness of God in providing good things for us to receive thankfully, and enjoy generously, gives us confidence that at every stage of life, we can trust his care. He is our Father, who loves and knows how to give us good things – even though we may not at the time see in what way they are good for us!

Such contentment is indeed a gift from God, and one which we might usefully seek, by learning to rejoice in what we have and receive daily, so that there is a deep wellspring of joy – of delight in the God who gives so lovingly and personally to each of his children. When to this daily provision we add the unspeakably precious gift of forgiveness, redemption and hope which we receive through Jesus Christ, we have a continually refreshing source of thanksgiving. Let us say with the Psalmist:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures for ever.

Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures for ever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures for ever….

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,

and who gives food to every creature. His love endures for ever..

(Psalm 136. 1-3,24-26)

I just need to sing!

My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing and make music with all my soul. Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.

For great is your love, higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth.

(Ps 108.1-5)

I admit it is a little foolish to write about singing – I should just go and sing – but I wanted to explore and share a little of what happens to prompt my singing, of why it can be the only right response to what is happening in my life, and thoughts.

Consider the wonder which is a new day. The sun has risen again, all the laws of nature continue to operate , and life is sustained. I have slept – a huge blessing in itself – and am awake. My body continues to function – that is a gift of God, he could have chosen to take me home, but he has granted me this new day in which to live, breathe, see and talk to other people – each one of whom is a unique and precious creation in God’s eyes. The very pattern of the clouds in the sky above the hills is new every morning, never to be repeated. My eyes – a scientific marvel still beyond our full comprehension – register colour, shape, distance and details, so that my mind makes sense of the world around me.

In that world there is so much to touch my heart with wonder, and drive me to my knees in thankfulness to the creator, the original singer of songs. See the delicate details of petals, the brilliance of colour, and beauty of forms; look at the strong silhouettes of the trees – shorn of leaves at this time so that I may glory in the variety of structures, the colours and textures of bark. Listen for the birds in the thickets, or calling overhead as they ride the wind and exalt their maker by their effortless mastery of the air. Watch the tiniest finches throng the bird feeder, with bright colours and quivering alertness to every possible danger – and remember that not one falls to the ground without its maker knowing!

The savour of the simplest of foods, the smell of fresh coffee and superb thirst-quenching power of pure water – a luxury which I take too easily for granted – all should prompt my profound thanks.

All these good things, which I cannot earn, have not deserved, and yet which I receive in such bountiful measure…And somehow, until I have rendered thanks for them, my pleasure is incomplete, lacking. It is in praising my Father, the giver of all good gifts, that I fully realise the riches which I have. And for me, that means singing my thanks, my heart is much too full for mere spoken words to give expression to the joy, the sense of astonished gratitude, which is mine.

I am humbled when I remember that for too many in this world, the physical daily blessings which I receive are unheard of luxuries, but it is good for me to be reminded that my reasons for thankfulness must not depend upon my bodily well-being. If my thankfulness is not ultimately – as the psalmist’s was – for the love and faithfulness of my God, then it is misguided, ungodly and transient.

The God who made this world is good, all the time, and made a world which would speak of his power, beauty, and love. But the gifts themselves are not the ultimate good, God is, and I rejoice most truly when I rejoice in him – his character and his salvation, freely given to me, at great cost to him. This is why singing as part of public worship is so important – it allows us to give expression to our sense of indebtedness, our delight in God, our deep thankfulness for his love, and our awareness of how little we have deserved such goodness.

We are creatures with emotions, and we are made with music in our souls. I believe that we are designed to glorify our God at least in part by expressing our loving response to him in our singing – and that when we do, we are making an acceptable offering to him; a sacrifice of praise.

So next time you have been profoundly moved by your bible reading; by a sermon; by the beauty of a sunset or the laugh of a beloved child, let that gift prompt your praise in music. Join me in being those who sing songs of praise as they walk the hills and beaches; or drive under great trees and by fair fields, and who remember that the God who made all this has loved and saved us, individually for his glory and pleasure!

Slow..to the point of immobility!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every thing that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 

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

(Hebrews 12.1-3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Tom M. Jones) 

Food for the journey..

A feast of joy unspeakable is spread, by him who is himself the living bread, A place for hungry souls is now prepared, a life of endless glory to be shared.

Yet places at this feast were dearly bought when Jesus Christ came down and souls were  sought, and found and saved by his own precious blood, to make our peace with heaven’s holy God.

That gentle hand, once pierced, will pour the wine, the liquid life of love our souls refine, in heaven’s hall of wonders still to come, when God in matchless mercy brings us home.

And there, together saved by lavish grace, the room ablaze with light from Jesus’ face, and every trace of sin and darkness gone, we’ll sing the praise of God’s all-radiant Son.

(Malcolm Macgregor: sung to ‘Ellers’ by EJ Hopkins)

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

(1 Corinthians 11.23-26)

It is just a year since we first suspected that we ought to be seriously considering the call to come to this remote part of Scotland, and came to visit the area, the church and manse and meet with a few of the members. Only twelve months, during which time our lives have changed profoundly, and God has demonstrated his faithfulness and tenderness time and again in providing for our needs and giving us strength and peace through the changes.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Lord’s supper in the most northerly of our three church buildings, remembering together what Jesus did for us on the cross, and taking time to give thanks again; to receive strength for the next stage of our journy; and take courage that whatever the world may say of or to us, we have complete assurance of our eternal destination.

It is such a simple act, a bit of bread, a cup of wine (or grape juice!), shared by a miscellaneous bunch of people in a remote corner of Scotland. And yet a profound act. A deliberate act of remembering what was done for us, by  God’s son, the perfect one, who alone could die the death we should have died, in order that we might live. An action which we take with fellow believers, a statement of unity and belonging that transcends every possible barrier of age, gender, race, and which links us with all who have gone before. We are ONE in Christ, and that bond goes deeper than any other. These people, whom I as yet barely know, are my people, and we belong together.

And it is an action that looks forward, as Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians – we do this according to Jesus’ own command, to declare his death for us ‘until he comes.’ A day is coming, when we will share in a glorious feast of communion, a celebration of Jesus Christ, with him at the head of the table, and with all our travails behind us for ever. In his promises we have hope, and his grasp on us is the foundation of our faith, not our hold on him which is weakened by circumstances and our own frailties. Glory be to God, who has given us this sign which we share, remembering the past, celebrating the present and straining with hope towards the future.

We sang the words which I quoted above in our service last Sunday, and I was moved to sweet tears – of joy, of hope and longing for that holy feast. He has done it all; His lavish grace has rescued and restored us, and keeps in store a life rich beyond our imagining  So when we come to the table, let us come with joy and be filled again with love for one another and for those who are yet to believe, that we might proclaim the Lord’s death with pride until he comes!

All the little things

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our Salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.

(Psalm 95. 1-5))

It has been an ordinary kind of Saturday, no special parties to go to or visitors to entertain; no heart-stopping drama or sporting event to watch. But oh what a day of glory it has been!

A cloudless dawn under a frosty sky, with the sea moving imperceptibly under a polished silver skin. A day of full sunshine, of October heat, with enough breeze to set the white shirts dancing on the washing line, as the late low sunlight glowed through them. A day spent out of doors, digging, painting, sorting out storage and finally putting some plants into the ground ahead of the winter. We drank coffee in the sunshine, and treated ourselves to a carry-out for tea, feeling the tightness in our skin that speaks of a day outdoors in idyllic conditions.

Across the bay, I see the mountains, rearing greenish grey velvet heads against the sky, great dramatically moulded monuments to my creator’s genius. The sea, after days of driving gales and huge waves, is like a silver or brilliant blue blanket, spread gently around the base of the hills and forming the perfect foil to their stark slopes. Closer at hand, the great swathes of bracken which have been invisibly green against the grass all summer have suddenly gone intensely fox-bronze, burning brightly in the sunset.

I continue to be astonished that it should have been our privilege to be called to live and work in a place where this world’s beauty is so lavishly displayed – I feel permanently stuffed with good things! And is it not so often the case that we do not need to look far to find things which speak of God’s greatness in creation, his passion for colour, texture and light, which he has made us able to appreciate and which feed our spirits so deeply? I am profoundly grateful, and delight in knowing to whom I owe my daily debt of thanksgiving!

The habit of recording these daily gifts of good things, received from the Father from whom all such come, has become very precious, creating in me a spirit which looks for and expects to find – in every situation- something to give thanks for. Days like today make it very easy, because although in themselves, none of the events of the day have been noteworthy, yet all the little details have added up to something priceless. I may not remember it all in vivid detail, but it has been very good for me to be fully aware of all that I have received, resting in and relishing every moment.

Sometimes, it will be harder to find something to be grateful for, but the habit of looking has helped me to trust my Father’s faithfulness and grace towards me, as so often even the hard days prove to be full of gifts – whether of the kindness extended to me by others because of my distress, or the relief of bringing the whole horrid mess before my God. At times, there will even be the precious experience of finding an oasis in the midst of trouble, when for whatever reason, the burden lifts, the darkness is pierced by light, and we experience respite, refreshment and heart’s ease. If it were not for the trials, these times would go unnoticed, and we would have missed the chance of learning more about God’s faithfulness to us through every part of life.

Our lives are like a mosaic, so many individual little parts making up a whole, and as yet we cannot see it, we only guess at the final picture which will be unveiled as part of the new creation. But, we can choose whether we take the different pieces from God with confidence, or with fear; trusting the loving Father’s plan or fighting against all he desires to create in us. Today has been a day to build my confidence, a little shiny piece of golden stone which may stand out clearly because it is surrounded by darker pieces – but I will choose again to believe and say with the psalmist:

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.

(Psalm 95.6&7)

Getting to know me…

Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Ephesians 5.18-20)

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speed; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

(Psalm 19.1-4)

David, the shepherd boy, the giant slayer, and beloved king of Israel, is also described in the second book of Samuel, as “the man anointed by the God of Jacob, Israel’s singer of songs. The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his word was on my tongue.” (2Sam 23.1)

The gift of song-writing was given to David as part of God’s great plan to bless the whole world through his chosen nation, although his people probably valued his military and leadership skills more highly while he was alive! David’s songs, left to us in the collection of Psalms, are the word of God to us just as surely as the words of the books of law, history and prophecy. He knew that this gift came from God, and that what he was doing was of eternal power and significance.

More than that, David knew that they were songs, not just poems or words to be spoken. He knew that music has a divine power to drive truth into the human heart, and to release human sorrow, joy and gladness, bringing healing and wholeness to the singers. Modern research simply confirms what singers have always known – it is good for you! We feel physically better, but also emotionally better, when we sing. And as followers of Jesus, we have much to sing about.

We join in the song of creation, adding our voices to those of the heavens in praising our maker. We sing with all the ransomed souls around the world, adoring the one who loves us enough to become human and even to die so that we might live with him. And we also follow David’s example in singing about our griefs, our struggles with injustice and oppression, with the sheer wanton destruction caused by evil in the heart of mankind.

Our new congregation has for some years held a weekly Songs of Praise event during the summer months, open to all and giving us the chance to sing the sun down on a Sunday evening. Although it can seem a bit daunting to go out again after two services, it is in fact such a sweet and wholesome time of fellowship together and well worth the effort. No preparation is required, our accompanist can play literally every song in the book, so folk just call out what they would like to sing and away we go!

At the close of the service last week, my neighbour turned to me and said, “That’s a bad cold you’ve got!” I replied that it was no cold which had caused me to blow my nose and wipe my eyes so frequently, but rather the emotions which our songs had brought. One after another celebrating the awesome sacrifice of Jesus; His tender love for us; our sure hope – through all trouble – of glory to come; our shame at our sin and thankfulness for forgiveness, cleansing and transformation; affirmations of our own vows to follow and serve him and him alone. It had been a night of floodgates opening in my heart, and I was utterly drained and profoundly thankful.

I hope that my new congregation will quickly accustom themselves to the sight of their minister’s wife in floods of tears, because it happens so often! I cannot sing of my Lord and his love without being deeply moved, and how can I not show it? Perhaps my own tears – sometimes of joy, sometimes of sorrow, sometimes of homesickness for heaven –  will help others around me to freely express their feelings and enrich our times of worshipping God together.

I am not ashamed of my Lord, and I will not be ashamed of the depth of emotion which he stirs in my heart. Let us all rejoice in his praise, and join the glory of the heavens in lifting his name high!