Category Archives: the life of faith

It’s not about the music….

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

(Romans 12.1&2)

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him. Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness. Tremble before him, all the earth!

(1 Chron 16.28-30)

But the Lord said to Samuel,..”The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

(1 Sam.16.7)

Jesus declared,…”a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

(Jn 4.23&24)

Worship….what does it look like in my life, to really ‘worship’? I believe that to worship anything is to give honour, to defer and make that object the grounds and goal of all one’s decision-making. It is to express humble adoration, to elevate the adored object and rejoice in being in a position to serve, to dedicate all that is best in myself, to the glorifying and blessing of that which I worship. A worshipper delights to be with others who share the same faith, but is also delighted to have solitary time to contemplate and dwell with the beloved.

The worshipper who is a follower of Jesus Christ, one who is – by faith in the redeeming power of his death – privileged to enter freely into the presence of Almighty God and to call him ‘Father’; that person has the joy of giving their adoration, service and  commitment to one who is utterly worthy. We need have no doubts about our God, our King, He is splendid in his holiness; glorious in his purity; faithful in his justice; and awesome in his grace.

Is the worship – the elevation of, the service to, the humble commitment and dedication of all that I am – of this God to be expressed only when I sing? Surely not! Music may form a very small part of my worship of God – for some people it may be more significant than others – but it cannot and must not be the only way in which we think of this word. My God sees my heart, sees my thoughts, and knows my secret desires and failings. This God is not taken in by the public face I may put on at church on a Sunday, not fooled by enthusiastic singing, or particularly delighted by ecstatic emotional experiences which can arise just as readily at a concert of secular music as in a church service of praise!

He sees my heart, weighs my motives, discerns my private rebellions and those things which I refuse to surrender to his will and purpose. It is here that my true worship begins, in the willed abandonment of any claims to self-government, in deliberate aligning of my own thinking to his law and his truth. True worship, stems from the prostration of my spirit at the cross and results in a life which – in every aspect – is at his command.

I am only too well aware of the extent to which I fall short of this true worship. And I am thankful for this awareness, because it keeps me from the dangers of pride or boasting, or of judging others. I am completely dependent on his loving forgiveness, and daily grace for the small measure of obedience and worship which I am able to render. Praise him for his fathomless mercy and love towards his wayward children, whom he is tenderly leading home!

 

Worshipping God faithfully requires that I remember that I am not my own, but His; bought with a price and for a purpose. My body, intellect, emotions and will are gifts, and I am accountable to God for the use I make of them. True worship requires that I steward these resources according to His will and for His glory – pursuing holiness, selflessness, a proper appreciation of all His gifts. I must continually be asking – why am I doing this, does it glorify God, build up His church, proclaim His love and mercy?

Joyful, faithful, humble stewardship – this is my worship.

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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.

When there seems to be no “right” way..

Do good to your servant according to your word, O Lord. Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I believe in your commands…I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path..

(Ps 119. 65&66, 101-105)

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

(Eph 5.15-17)

I believe that since I have confessed Jesus as Lord, and since I depend solely on his death on the cross for my salvation and acceptance in God’s eyes, I am assured of my position as a beloved, redeemed and secure child of God. I have a heavenly Father who delights in me, who forgives me and bears with me, and whose plan is all for my blessing and his glory. He is at work daily, by his spirit within me, through his word and all the circumstances of my life, to cleanse and purify and also to use me to bless others. I desire with all my heart to co-operate with this work – to be a blessing, and to know myself transformed, made like Christ.

BUT…I also believe that each of us starts with our own particular temperaments, strengths and weaknesses. Things which others may struggle with, may pass me by. While things which bring me to my knees in fear or catch me unawares over and over again will not trouble my friends at all! It is so important not to judge ourselves by other people’s lives, but to try and look only to our Father for approval and acceptance. In the meantime, I am wrestling once again with an issue which has troubled me all my life…knowing (in any given situation) what is the RIGHT thing to do.

Let me make it clear. There are obviously situations in which we choose between sin and holiness, between obeying a clear command and disobeying it. I am not talking about those, because there the issue is temptation or weariness and weakness. I am concerned with how I discern what action to take, what attitude to cultivate, when the choice is between a number of equally likely or appropriate alternatives! In other words, a choice between varieties of obedience!

On the one hand, I believe in a sovereign God, who directs my life according to his perfect will – miraculously working all things together for his glory and my blessing. That should mean that I can trust him to use whatever choices I make…and yet somehow I still feel a dreadful burden of responsibility – I don’t want to be the child who goes off down dead-ends and has to be retrieved at great effort, when another choice would – with hindsight – have been better. Is it pride that underlies the whole thing? Perhaps it is, the pride that hates to make mistakes, to cause disappointment, and to put others to trouble to sort out the mess.

I remember a minister talking about “sanctified common sense”, and what he meant was that our ability to make rational and sensible decisions is just as much affected by our ongoing transformation into Christ-likeness as the rest of us. We are gifted with this sense of what is wise – an inner balance which puts ‘pros’ on one side and ‘cons’ on the other, and looks at the result. As a follower of Jesus, I should be able to trust this sense, because it is more and more informed by his word and guided by his spirit. The things which weigh in the balance will be the things which matter to him – like stewardship of my gifts, love to my neighbour, obedience to his word, serving his mission in the world.

So as I look to the next big question, the choice between equally valid options, I will be praying for that wisdom which comes from my saviour’s transforming of my mind, and for the trust that will enable me to act upon my decision without fretting that I have somehow gone wrong!! Praise God that he IS big enough, merciful and loving enough to work everything together for good, and for his patience with a dithering, over-thinking anxious child like me….

The hope of the resurrection

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I and not another.

(Job 19.25-27)

In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you..

(John 14. 2)

When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each seed he gives its own body….so it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a supernatural body…..then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

(1 Corinthians 15. 37,38, 42-44, 54&55)

There is so much that we do not know about what God has in store for us on the other side of death, so many unanswered questions and it can be tempting to indulge in speculation, seeking for comfort in bereavement and struggling to accept the absence of a precious companion.

But I believe that most of what lies ahead for us is simply beyond our understanding, and therefore God in his mercy has hidden it from us for the present. It makes sense, that even as we struggle to imagine the eternal present which is God’s presence, so we cannot begin to comprehend how humanity can exist within that context. We are utterly bound within time and space, and our future lies in a different realm!

I believe that we have been given as much as we need, grounds for hope and assurance, and glimpses of glory to whet our appetites. We see Christ, our Saviour and elder brother, going ahead of us through death into a resurrected body. His people could hold him and recognise him, and yet his body was – as Paul says – raised in glory, raised imperishable. This same body is in heaven now, a glorified and perfect human being is there in God’s presence – so we know that we too will dwell in recognisable form with God. That in itself is incredible to us, and wonderful!

A human form, imbued with eternity and perfectly equipped to thrive in the new heavens and new earth which are promised after God has wound up this era of suffering, pain and toil. Does this not thrill us? Are we not deeply conscious of a longing to explore all that humanity is capable of in its perfect state? We don’t long eagerly for a disembodied state, nor for annihalation – that is to reject the promise which God created in us, and is a rejection of his vision for humankind. We are broken and marred, yes indeed, but the solution is not the destruction of self for ever, rather it is the redemption and transformation of self by the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

I believe that the piercing joys, the fleeting moments of glory and intense gladness which are our experience here are simply foretastes of what God has in store, in that home for which we are all looking and longing. There we will belong, there we will have tasks which inspire, enthrall and satisfy us – perfectly suited to our unique qualities and characters. We will not disappear into some bland uniformity, but rather become more intensely and gloriously ourselves, the “I” whom God saw in us from the beginning, now free of all weakness.

Oh, friends, may God give us patience and courage to wait for this, wait for his timing, and meantime to exult in the hope we have! These words express something of the ecstatic joy which fills me even as I write, perhaps they will lift you too for a moment, to glimpse the glory:

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship, when, at his bidding, every storm is stilled,   Or who can say how great the jubilation when all the hearts of men with love are filled.  But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture, and myriad, myriad human voices sing, And earth to heaven, and heaven to earth will answer: At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world is King!

(William Young Fullerton, 1857-1932)

A sweet, sweet incense…

What do I hold in my hands, but fractured dreams, and faded hopes? The shame-filled memories of hurts given and received, the hidden scars of wounds sustained at the hands of those from whom I looked for kindness.

Are these a fitting sacrifice to bring to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

What haunts my prayers, but the bitter knowledge of the many, many, too many times I have forgotten to look to Love, have refused to look to Love, have embraced self-pity and chosen to cherish resentment and despair.

Is this a fitting heart to open before the throne of a holy and just God?

What drains my courage, but the suspicion that while God could change things, he seems to be choosing to change me instead – and I am sometimes just so very tired of being the subject of his potter’s hand, of being re-shaped, of being pruned and disciplined. I don’t see the fruit of his labours….is there any?

Is this a fitting spirit in which to bear witness to an almighty, loving and redeeming God?

……………………………..

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

(Psalm 51.8-12, 15-17)

What relief, what joy, to find in the words of the psalmist the answer to my cries! I am welcome before the God of heaven; I am called to be made clean, to be restored, to be lifted up. My brokenness and weakness, my inability to remember what I learn, or to put it into practice consistently, all is acceptable to God as a sacrifice.

Why? Because when I am broken and crying out to him, then I am fully relying on the finished work of my saviour, I am utterly without any pride or self-reliance, and am finally admitting that without God, I am helpless in my need..

In this world, the children of God will have trouble – Jesus promised as much – and the big question is what we do with it! Will we collapse under it, reject God and become bitter and alienated from him? Or will we seek to turn, and turn again towards him, begging for his strength, claiming the fulfillment of his promises to us – for his constant presence and enabling power, for his provision for our true needs? Even when I am on my knees, if I am crawling towards God, not away from him, then I am in the safest place and am assured that he is working for and in me.

Dear friends, let us encourage one another with the truth that we have been given; but let us also be gentle with one another as we limp together through the various trials with which God has entrusted us.

The words which I wrote so recently are ringing through my mind again….am I willing to thank God for trusting me with this long-term burden, thanking him for sustaining me thus far under it, thanking him for the ways it has driven me over and over again into his arms?

God grant me the ability to say “Yes, yes Lord, I thank you. I believe that you are working this out for my blessing and the blessing of your church, and the glory of your name…I believe, Lord help my unbelief!”

Spelling it out..

When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?………..Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll – are they not in your record? I am under vows to you, O God; I will present my thank-offerings to you. For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.

(Psalm 56. 3,4,8,12&13)

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. I cry out to God most high, to God, who fulfills his purpose for me. He sends from heaven and saves me…God sends his love and his faithfulness…My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music….I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.

(Psalm 57.2,3,7-10)

Turn to God, look up from your clenched hands, look up through your tears;

Reach out in faith, confess your lack of resources, that you might receive from him.

Understand that even in this trial, you are in his care, in his love, in his heart;

Submit willingly to the trial, and seek to lean hard and learn of him in it, and

Then make your sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, to God most high…

 

I have been freshly convicted recently about the way in which so often my praise of God is purely thankful – not that this is inappropriate, we ought indeed to be filled with gratitude for all that we have and are receiving, and will receive! But the response of mature faith to the revelation of God – in creation and most especially in his word and in Christ the incarnate word – should also be adoration..

By this I mean that I need to move on from thanking God for his gifts, to worshiping and praising him for simply who he is.

I have fond memories of attending a weekly prayer meeting while a student, where the first 15 or 20 minutes of prayer were purely adoration and thanksgiving, celebrating God’s character and all his goodness. It was an excellent discipline, focusing our minds on God, lifting our eyes from our own preoccupations to the eternal realities, and keeping the “shopping list” of intercessory prayer in its rightful place.. But even the great prayer warriors assembled in that room often found it easier to express gratitude than simply to praise!

It is this ability to adore, to be enchanted by the holiness, power, wisdom and love of God which is most powerful in supporting me in the darkest times. These are unchanging realities, unaffected by my feelings, by the things which are oppressing me. I may feel I have little to be thankful for – although this is rarely true…But I can ALWAYS celebrate the goodness of God, rejoice in his utter purity and the perfect loving communion which exists within the trinity. He has spoken, and his promises must be kept, because his nature and character demand that he keep his word. Therefore, I can trust him.

When I feel that the particular purposes of God being worked out in my life through my current trials are obscure and improbable, that I can hardly bear to endure, I can contemplate the incredible love and commitment which planned my redemption in Christ. Such passionate engagement on my behalf by eternal God is not to be wasted! If he has said that he is working for my good, then he can be trusted, and all the weight of my grief, confusion and despair can properly be cast on him.

Let us learn to contemplate and rejoice in the God who has made us his own, let’s learn to spell out for ourselves what we know….

He is Abba(father); He is Beautiful; He is Compassionate; He is Defender: He is Enthroned: He is Faithful…

I leave you to continue the list for yourself… God bless us and give us clearer vision that we might glorify him!

Keeping a clear spring flowing…

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

(Luke 6.43-45)

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen….Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice….But among you there must  not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

(Ephesians 4.29,31; 5.3&4)

Finally, friends, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things..

(Philippians 4.8)

How is your mind furnished? What things of beauty are placed there to encourage and inspire you? What lurks in the corners, unwanted but somehow stuck there, and likely to roll right out into the centre of your thoughts just when it is least appropriate?

I have images, words in my head which I wish I could wipe right out, things that I read or watched in moments of weakness and now deeply regret. Because I agree completely with the diagnosis that Jesus gives, that what we say and do comes from what we think and imagine and cherish in our minds, in our inmost being. We are responsible, as believers, for the things that we allow to find room in our hearts, because they will imperceptibly come to influence how we think and act. We can become de-sensitized to violence, blasphemy, obscenity and cruelty if we expose ourselves to them too much. My preference is to avoid them at all costs, except where it is impossible – in the living of daily life in this fallen world. Where is the ‘entertainment value’ in revisiting such things, when they reflect and dwell on the pain and darkness which God weeps over? Is it not enough to experience the realities, to see lives being destroyed around us by the evil which stains every life, and warps every impulse towards good?

There is so much in the world that is worth celebrating, worth dwelling upon, so many things that reflect the goodness of God and the image of his character which yet lives in his creatures. I passionately believe that we are missing out on God’s highest purpose and desire for us when we choose to focus on the darkness instead of the light, allowing our view of the world to become skewed and in danger of losing hope. What are we modelling for young believers, for our children, if we allow the bad news, the dark stories, and the secular narratives of humanists and aetheists to dictate our thinking? We have a radical, transforming story to share, and a God who has filled the world with witnesses to his power and glory, whose church is growing and whose power is undiminished.

What do our books, films, music and social media preferences say about how we see the world, about the view of God in the world that we have, about how we are furnishing our minds? We surely know enough already about the dark side of human nature from our own thoughts without needing adult movies, explicit literature – of sex or violence – and amoral song lyrics providing the soundtrack and moving pictures in our minds!

Or is it just me…am I naive and impractical?

As I grow older, I find I am more and not less sensitive, and this doesn’t trouble me in the least. It means that when I read of real suffering, or meet it in those around me, I hurt, I feel pain which prompts prayer, action, compassion and anger against the author of all this destruction – the devil, who, we thank God, has been defeated, but whose power in the world is not yet finally destroyed.

May God continue to help me to guard against all those things that might pollute and poison the new life, and pure spirit which he has caused to well up within me. There is enough remaining that needs cleansed without me adding more!