Category Archives: the life of faith

Doing what comes…. naturally?

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

(Hebrews 13.20&21)

How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will fulfil my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.

(Psalm 116.12-14)

This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.

(Jeremiah 31.33)

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men..For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And He died..that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again..if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

(2 Corinthians 5.11,14&15,17)

My parents made promises before God and their fellow christians when they brought me to be baptised as an infant, promises which bound them among other things to “teach the truths and duties of the Christian faith” to me, their child. I was blessed by their keeping of those promises, and grew up in a home where life revolved around the priorities of worship and service, primarily in their local congregation. It was entirely normal that the weekend should be dominated by the Saturday prayer meeting, and then two services on Sunday, usually with generous hospitality shown over a meal to visitors.

The sense of ‘duty’ extended beyond mere attendance, to personal devotion, professional integrity, sacrificial giving, opening their home and hearts to hundreds of people over the years, in addition to the hard work of parenting, discipline and patient forbearance with three children! They kept their promises, as far as they were able, and clearly demonstrated what Christian duty looked like.

That word ‘duty’ has come to bear a less than positive aspect, bringing with it a burden and a weariness which makes people avoid any sort of responsibility for fear they will be shackled to an unbearable weight! But is this how I should think as a Christian? Surely not!

My ‘duties’ as a follower of Jesus are an expression of my sense of indebtedness to him, recognising that his sacrificial love for me has placed me forever in his debt and that nothing I can do to serve and glorify him is too much to give! It is this which the psalmist puts so clearly in Ps116 above, as he boasts not in his ability to fulfill his vows, but in the greatness and worth of the God to whom those vows are made.

Those same ‘duties’ are also my privileged and appointed tasks, commanded by my King and Lord, who has the right to direct and spend my life according to his perfect pleasure and will. He has told me that these things are what he desires of me, that they are for my blessing, and will bring him glory – should I not be all eagerness to fulfill them?! What reasons could I give for rejecting his command, for denying myself the privilege of serving such a Master?

Our daily grief as believers is, that in spite of our best aspirations, and deepest sense of sweet obligation, we find it so hard to do our duty, to live according to the pattern which Christ commends to us. We are disappointed in ourselves and tempted to give up, to resent that God asks so much, instead of asking for his help.  Because the wonderful truth is that help is readily available, and we already have the basic provision that we need.

The bible makes it clear that as those who call on Jesus as ‘Lord’, we have been transformed, given a fresh start, made ‘new’ as Paul says in 2 Corinthians. Our nature has been renewed by the indwelling Spirit, and it is as though God had written his desires upon our hearts, so that our natural inclinations are now a mirror image of his own – although still badly clouded by the deceptive remnant of rebellion that haunts us!

That deep desire to honour God through fulfilling my duties as a believer – that is my new nature at work; those little victories over old bad habits and selfishness – that is my new nature, growing stronger under the influence of the Spirit; the increased ease with which I reach out in love to serve, and the joy which it brings – are the fruits of God’s gracious equipping of me with all that I need to do his will.

Instead of despairing over my failures, let me promptly bring them to God in repentance, and then set off in joy and renewed trust to try again, confident that his power and provision for me, the new nature he is nurturing in me, will bear good fruit. In doing my duties as a Christian, I express my debt to my Lord, and serve him with delight, exulting in the privilege of such a position and resting in his understanding love.

May God continue to give us daily the things we need, and strengthen his likeness in us, so that we may serve naturally and gladly, bringing glory to him and blessing to others.

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Looking around…

Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath..Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: he bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it…But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.

(Psalm 39. 4-7)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. so don’t be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows.

(Matthew 10.29-31)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

(Matthew 16.24-26)

For many people, the end of a calendar year is a time of reflection, a time to reassess their lives and discern patterns, changes, new opportunities which might be opening up. There is also much – often hidden – pain at this time of year, as people remember those whom they have lost, to death, to breakdown in relationships; and also recognise disappointments, dashed hopes and unfulfilled expectations. Look around, and all the people you know will be experiencing this potent cocktail of emotions to varying degrees. We carry joy and pain simultaneously; anger and bitterness alongside thankfulness and appreciation.

Those who follow Jesus are human too, not immune to this annual malaise, and we need to think carefully about how we deal with these feelings. The bible shows us humanity in all its variety, expressing every emotion under the sun; and in the book of Psalms particularly, we find such transparency and honesty as should give the lie to any idea of the “stiff upper lip” and brave smile being the correct Christian response to life!

We have a perfect loving Father, and a great Saviour who is also a man. We have nothing to hide from our God; no emotion which can shock or make him turn away. Indeed, I believe that it is when we refuse to recognise and name our feelings before God that they begin to rule us, and that is so dangerous.

Our feelings change like the weather – and in my part of the world, that means from minute to minute! But our God is unchanging, and as followers of Jesus, we have a relationship with him which is grounded and held in his character, his promises, his love – not our feelings. The truth about our lives is not how we feel about them, but what he says about them!

So I bring my sometimes toxic cocktail of feelings to my Father, pouring it all out as I sit close and then I listen for his voice. In the place of my sense of failure and loss, I hear the loving voice which says that I am precious, that in him I can do all he desires for me – and all that he knows is good for me. I hear his repeated forgiveness for my failures and sins, and the promise that I have a fresh start. I hear the heartbeat of his love which is the only thing that matters, and which drowns out the clamour of the world around me, to measure and value myself on the basis of my looks, my status, my talents, my connections and achievements.

As I sit there, I receive confidence and courage to go on living quietly, living for him, living without worldly acclaim and trusting that this portion is all I need. My days are brief, but in his eyes they are not wasted; my voice is small, but he always hears me; the hairs on my head are increasingly white, but his hand is still over me in loving and tender protection. I am indeed worth more than many sparrows!

My life surrendered into his hands, is lost to me, but given back to be lived for him and in that transaction, I am the winner, the prize of eternal life is mine. A soul saved, a child brought home, who can look around her beautiful and troubled world, and be at peace because she knows the one who keeps her in it. May this be your experience in the year ahead..

What’s on your Christmas list?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth….From the fulness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.

(John 1.1,14&16)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgivenness of sins..

And he made known to us the mystery of his will…to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

In him we were also chosen..in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory…Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.

(Ephesians 1.3-14)

At Christmas time, we remember the birth of the one who has been, and is and ever will be…and whose existence is Blessing, Goodness, for us.

Our Lord as the Word, was with God before ever we were thought of, and through him, all that we know was made. Made solely in order that we might exist, might live and discover him, and come into eternal relationship with him.

Our Lord as the incarnate Christ, abandoned the glories of the heavenly realm, and all the rights of Sonship, in order to be good for us. He is the only one who could give what we needed, could be what the law required, could be love in action for us.

Our Lord as the risen Saviour, reigns now over all the powers of evil, having defeated them for ever, and standing between his children and that grasping, destroying darkness to keep them safe until the very end.

What more could we wish for this Christmas? What more could we look for under the tree than we already have received?

Ah, the Lord and our Father know that we are but children, that we always love to unwrap new things; and that although we have received so much, we can only somehow appropriate it one day at a time!

So the prophet could write in Lamentations,“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”(Lam 3.22,23). Each day is a gift, every breath that wakes me is another opportunity to live and love and serve and enjoy the abundance of life; each person is made in the image of God and is a gift to me; each situation is experienced in my Lord’s company and he waits to see how I will enjoy it with him. Dark days are a gift too, because it is then that I see more clearly and lean more fully on my Lord’s strength and love, in my total need of him.

There are unsought gifts – those moments and experiences that surprise and delight us – chosen and prepared for us as the best gifts always are, by those who know us best. Then there are also the gifts we ask for, knowing that we will appreciate them, knowing perhaps that we need them! Our good God gives us both, every day.

So we live in happy anticipation of what surprises the day will bring from our loving Father’s hand; and also in quiet confidence, that whatever we find ourselves needing, will also be provided. We can say with the writer to the Hebrews,“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”(Heb.4.16)

Let us then celebrate with great joy the gift of God to his people, the light of the world which is life, hope, forgiveness and new-birth to us. Merry Christmas to you!

Of course..Christmas is for the children

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac was the father of Jacob..Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam…..Matthan the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

(Matthew 1, various)

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…born of God.

(John 1.11&12)

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! the reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

(1John 3.1&2)

I am that child, the one who was never popular, never cool, the one who didn’t push herself forward or think she was anything special.

I am that child, the one who looks at the world and feels the fear, cowers at the darkness, shivers at the evil and malice, wakes from screaming nightmares of the power of humanity to wound, humiliate and destroy.

I am that child, the one who is tired of trying, of finding her own strength inadequate to the adult-sized task, tired of being patronized, dismissed, ignored and demeaned, who is beginning to believe what the stories of others tell her about her own worthlessness.

I am that child, the one who lashes out in her own weakness, and then stands appalled at the damage she has done, the one who holds back for fear of hurting others and is then trampled all over, her restraint mistaken for surrender.

I am that child, so ashamed of her own mistakes that she wants to hide away for ever, to punish herself for the mess and pain she has caused, the one who knows the truth behind the big public act, knows only too well that she is a fraud.

 

Who will comfort this child?

Who will be her shelter?

Who will show this child that she is beautiful, precious beyond all telling?

Who will teach this child that she can be whole, pure and fiercely, gloriously holy?

Who will heal the wounds of this child, and pour the cleansing of true forgiveness over her stains?

Who will lift this child’s head, look into her eyes, and show her that there is a life worth living, a journey worth taking, a love worth giving, that she is called and qualified to give?

Who will bring this child into the light, and say, “This is my beloved daughter, she is perfect, because she is as I made her to be; and in her I delight!”?

Who, if not her perfect heavenly Father?

Oh, how I need the good news which the angels brought, of a child born in Bethlehem who would be Immanuel, God with us! How I need to know my Father’s love, his will and power to save me, to transform me, to show me my true worth.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, all the children of the world find firm ground for hope, and good cause for joy.

Let us be the children who make much of Christmas, who rediscover with delight the gifts being bestowed on them by their Father, who nestle in the security of his arms and face the days ahead with confidence knowing he will go with them.

Glory to God in the highest!

 

 

And is it really possible?

If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it – you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked – well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.

(Romans 4)

How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is. He’s the father of our master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ.

Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the cross, we’re a free people – free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making.

(Ephesians 1)

Both taken from the Message, the New Testament in contemporary language.

Five hundred years ago, a theological fire raged across Europe, one which left relations between church and state in tatters, and transformed culture and social life for ever in many nations of the north. The varied rumblings and outbreaks of discontent with the established Roman church found a focus in the life and work of Martin Luther, and in 1517, he publicly appealed for a debate on the many areas where he believed reform was needed.

The failure of the church authorities to engage in this debate saw Luther push to clarify the proper relations of scripture and state, priest and people, and having once begun to rely on the scriptures for his guidance, he found more and more reasons to protest against the status quo. This ‘protestant’ movement against the claim of supreme authority by the pope over the understanding and interpretation of the bible was to set intellectual life free in Europe, empowering and encouraging enquiry and personal enlightenment.

What Luther found in the pages of the bible transformed his life, from that of a pious but desperate monk, unable to find any assurance of salvation despite a life of rigorous labour and upright conduct, to a confident, humble and passionate believer in the salvation freely and solely offered through the death of Jesus Christ. When Luther finally saw that all of the demands of God’s holiness or righteousness upon his life  had been met in Jesus’ sacrifice, and that it was God’s love gift to him received simply by faith, he wrote that it was as though the doors of paradise swung open to welcome him. The prospect before him was too beautiful to be true, and yet it was!

It was this which drove Luther in his work to translate the bible from Latin – unintelligible to his fellow-Germans – into their own language; to write books and pamphlets explaining the true means of salvation and sweeping away the confusion caused by false teaching; to teach and nurture other teachers in turn who could preach and bring this light to their congregations. In his defence before the emperor, accused of heresy and in danger of his life, he would say that he was “captive” to the word, and incapable of speaking of anything else, or of covering up what he found there.

In recalling with thankfulness the ways in which God used Luther and his fellow reformers – with all their flaws, and failings – am I guilty of forgetting what a wonderful thing it is that they restored to us in simple beautiful clarity?

We rest on the authority of Scripture, as God’s revelation of himself to us, and specifically the revelation of Jesus Christ as God incarnate. We trust solely in the atoning death of Christ to deal with the wrath of a holy God, accepting that of ourselves we are powerless to change our fate. We rejoice to receive solely by faith the power of that sacrifice, by which the holy God declares us to be clean, put right with him, and destined to share eternity with him. All has been done as a result of God’s grace, nothing is required of us but faith, and all the glory goes to God.

The door is open wide, the voice of love calls to me saying “Come child, hurry and be at home with me”, will I hesitate? Will I reject the price that was paid?

God grant that a fire may burn in our hearts too, as in Luther’s heart when he found the truth, so that we long to share the message and see others set free by our God, who has done all for love of us..

A new look?

With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him…But..Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy.

(Ephesians 4.17&18, 21-24)

Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

(Romans 12.2)

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will not longer live for themselves….This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

(2Corinthians 5.15&17)

No one carefully reading the letters of the apostles written to the early church, could make the mistake of thinking that Christian faith is simply a matter of being nice and having a warm, comforting feeling about life and the future.. Our faith is not a matter of instinct, habit or gut feelings; it is action, constant struggle and an endless ache for things we as yet do not see. It is a daily contest between the remnant of our sinful self – the voice that bewitchingly says we are “worth it”, when temptations come our way; that beguiles us into selfish behaviour and thought on the basis that meeting our needs is obviously the priority for our lives – and the new person we are becoming through the life we now live in Christ Jesus.

The apostles use a variety of images to help their readers – that’s us too – to understand what it means to live as believers in Jesus, as those who have been forgiven and restored to fellowship with God, who are being transformed into his likeness. One of the most striking is the idea of a garment being put off or on.

No one puts on clothes by accident; you don’t just wake up and find yourself dressed for a day in the office! It requires at the very least a routine of laundry, and a modicum of organisation to present oneself appropriately attired for the day. And this is the point for believers: we too have to be actively involved in our daily life of faith, in preparation and organisation, so that we are fit to be seen as God’s witnesses in the world.

The person who believes in Jesus, and desires to be actively growing in maturity as a believer has a job to do – God has given us the privilege of being his fellow-labourers, as he by his spirit works in us. We are given many promises, but what good are they to us if we do not – by faith – choose to act as though we believed them? It is all very good to read of the peace of God, but unless I actively strive to put off my anxiety and trust God, then peace remains only a dream.

I choose to believe that I am forgiven, to accept and rejoice in that forgiveness and therefore to put away, or cast off, any clinging and debilitating guilt.

I choose to believe that I have a purpose in God’s great plan for the world, and therefore look actively for ways in which he is already at work where I can offer myself in service, rejecting the self-pitying and discontented spirit which resents my present circumstances.

I choose to believe that God is indeed at work in me, that he will complete that work so that I shall be transformed into the Christ-version of myself which was God’s original purpose. And so I give thanks even in times of struggle, weariness and pain, trusting that he is forming treasure within me and none of it is wasted.

It is a battle..so often I am ambushed by my own thoughts and feelings, and find I have failed to put off the things which are not of Christ, but cling to them instead! I do not have that single-minded focus which keeps my eye on him – the author and perfecter of my faith – but, when I am thinking clearly, I know that God wants this focus for me too, and therefore even as I strive for it, he is strengthening my gaze.

All praise to him, who keeps us from falling, comforts and forgives us as we stumble and wander, and who provides such riches for our clothing – that we might be found arrayed in all the glorious, spotless robes of Jesus. Let’s get dressed!!

Leaning hard..

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.

My enemies will retreat when I call to you for help. This I know: God is on my side!

I praise God for what he has promised; yes, I praise the Lord for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me?

(Psalm 56.8-11)

O Israel, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield. O priests, descendants of Aaron, trust the Lord! He is your helper and shield. 

All you who fear the Lord, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield.

(Psalm 115.9-11)

Do you ever find yourself wondering what exactly some familiar phrase means? This happens to me often in my life as a follower of Jesus – sometimes in the middle of a sermon – so that I want to stand up and ask the preacher to unpack the expression, explaining what is meant in hard daily life by the familiar words! If we cannot translate the phrase into meaningful action and understanding, then it is no use to us, and may even be unhelpful. The attempt to understand and grapple for myself is one of the motivations behind this weekly blog – if I can articulate it, then I have in some measure begun to make it my own and put it into practice.

“Lean on God”, is one such phrase, and I have been wrestling over recent days to work out what it means – because it sounds attractive, comforting and something I want to do very much!

Recently, I was part of a group who went out to climb a mountain, on a day when the weather was less than friendly, greatly adding to our difficulty in scaling the steep slopes and navigating the sharp ridge at the top. I walked with my poles, occasionally finding that they were in my way, but more often finding that they were giving me confidence and some measure of security as I struggled along the hillside, trying to resist the gale force winds which were continually threatening to topple me over. Here was an example of leaning in action! I was literally putting all my weight on these slim rods, trusting that they could bear it and would keep me moving safely in a very dangerous situation.

The words of Psalm 56 had struck me sometime earlier, where the writer declares that he is praising God for what has been promised – NOT what has been already received! Is this what trust is? For the follower of Jesus, we are called to look to the promises, and to put our faith in them, because we put our faith in the God who makes them.

Promises may seem slender and feeble when we are in the midst of a storm of life, and our own promises are often compromised by our circumstances. But our God is not one to break his word, and the revelation of his character in the stories of the bible encourage us to trust him – literally, to allow all that we are and treasure to be held by him, because we know that of ourselves, we cannot keep them safe.

When I am using the walking poles, they do not transport me out of danger, but enable me to move through it. When I lean hard on them, I am held up, stabilised, made stronger than I can be alone. So it is as I ‘lean on God’. My circumstances do not change; the storm rages, my emotions threaten to derail me and events to overwhelm me. But I trust in a God who is greater than these things, who has promised to be with me through all my life and to bring me safe home at last.

When I turn to this God, when I deliberately contemplate his works and praise him for who he is; then I am choosing to trust myself to him, in other words, I am leaning on him for the strength I do not have in myself. When I call to mind his promises, turning my thoughts in spite of my feelings, to consider the truths which never change, I can move(albeit slowly!) forward through the troubles and trials, always towards him, sustained by his word.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth.

Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

(Isaiah 46.3-4)

What a faithful God we have; Alleluia! and Amen.