Category Archives: the loveliness of Christ

Take courage my heart!

Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves…Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.

(Philippians 2.3, 12&13)

The old way, with laws etched in stone, led to death, though it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. For his face shone with the glory of God, even though the brightness was already fading away. Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory under the new way, now that the Holy Spirit is giving life?…We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away…to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ..So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. 

Therefore, since God in his mercy has given us this new way, we never give up.

(2Corinthians 3.7,8,13, 14&18)

Take courage my heart, your Lord sees your true desire and is delighted by it. He is merciful as well as just, and will not despise you in your weakness, but will bestow strength for each new need. Praise the Lord my heart, for he shines upon you like the sun.

Take courage my heart, your Lord sees your deep sorrow, and is full of compassion for you. He knows that you are frail, and longs to take the burden from you – cast it at his feet, and leave it there; over and over again, cast it down! Praise the Lord my heart, for he carries you in his arms and lifts your heaviness like the tenderest parent.

Take courage my heart, your Lord sees the way that lies ahead, and understands your fear. He has prepared good things for you to do for him, and his strength will not fail to make you able for them. Praise the Lord my heart, for his mighty power is freely given to all his children for their labour in his name.

Take courage my heart, your Lord is working in you though you do not see it. In his mercy, he spares you from foolish pride in yourself, he gives you a humble spirit and a tender conscience. Praise the Lord my heart, for he shines through you all unawares, and gains glory for his name in your humility.

Take courage my heart, your Lord has dealt with sin forever on your behalf. When the accuser deceives or torments you, cry on Jesus name, proclaim the Saviour’s death, and receive anew the assurance that you are forgiven, washed clean, and free. Praise the Lord my heart, for his mercies never fail, and his love covered all my sin.

Take courage my heart, for as the flowers raise their faces to the sun and in receiving light, are transformed, so also you are changing. From one degree of glory to another, you are being made new, made whole, made like Christ. Praise the Lord my heart, for one day, he will look into you and see himself, perfectly reflected.

To him be the glory, the honour, and the praise. Amen!

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Infinite beauty

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again – rejoice!

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

(Philippians 4.6&8)

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

(Isaiah 53.5 & 61.1-3)

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. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

(John 1.14-18)

There is a common misconception about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this messy and troubled world, where life can be unbelievably hard and painful for so many people. It arises from this verse in Philippians, when Paul exhorts his readers to ‘rejoice’ always in the Lord. It is not only false, but also deeply unhelpful, to argue that this means that we are all meant to triumph continually over every adversity, to smile perpetually in the face of pain or tragedy, and to face injustice and oppression as though they were nothing.

Look carefully at what Paul says – we are to rejoice in the Lord, not in our circumstances, nor in some pretended victory over those circumstances. It is only right that as mortal beings, created in God’s image, we should grieve over death and destruction, should be provoked by injustice and deceit. As followers of Jesus – who wept over Lazarus, and delighted to heal those who suffered in their bodies – we should feel the pain of this broken world, not pretend it doesn’t exist for those who profess faith.

So what does Paul say? That our primary source of gladness, of joy and the strength which comes with it, is to be Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is as we contemplate this man, this God-made-flesh, that we are refreshed in our spirits,  growing in faith and trust, and thus able to continue to witness to God’s goodness and saving power. This source of joy can never fail us, never dry up or become contaminated. We can never reach the end of his loveliness. This Jesus combines in himself all the wonderful attributes of God, and a perfect humanity, and therefore ticks all the boxes of things Paul is exhorting his readers to think about!

Every good quality that we celebrate in one another, is seen to perfection in Christ.

Every need that we find in ourselves, and most desperately the need for forgiveness, restoration to fellowship with God, and freedom from sin; is given abundantly in Christ.

Am I weary? He is patient and strong.

Am I grieving? He is my tender comforter, and ever-present companion.

Is the devil stirring up dead ashes of guilt about old sin? He is my all-conquering captain, victorious over that enemy and blowing the ashes away with the strong breath of his forgiving and cleansing love.

Am I toiling with private griefs and seemingly endless trials? He is faithful in bearing the burden as I repeatedly lay it upon him; and as I contemplate his death for me on the cross, I am comforted that even through my troubles, he can work all things together for good.

My beautiful Lord..faithfulness made visible, love made flesh and blood, holiness completely allied to mercy..

Praise God, praise with great praise, for the joy which we receive as we gaze upon the infinite beauty of Christ.

How true is my vision?

Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because..the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

(Exodus 40.33-35)

The priests then brought the ark of the Lord’s covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the Most Holy Place, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim….When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.

(1Kings 8.6,10&11)

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look”, he said,” I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”….While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed,”Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

(Acts 7.55, 56, 59&60)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

(2Corinthians 4.6)

We really have no idea just what the ‘glory’ of God is like, although the references quoted from the Old Testament suggest that it is something before which humanity quails and cannot stand. Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple sees him convicted of his sin and unworthiness to be in God’s presence, and the shepherds on the hills around Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth were terrified by the glory which shone around them.

We habitually think of glory as having some of the quality of light about it, especially the light of the sun, which obscures its source because of its brilliance and concentrated power. We quite literally cannot bear to see the sun with our naked eyes, and must wait for a reflection, or a veil, or some other device to moderate the light by which we see and by which all life is sustained.

Is the glory of God then something like this sunlight which ancient peoples worshipped as a god which gave them life? God is pure, there is no spot or imperfection in him. His justice, holiness, power and love are of scale and quality beyond our ability to see or comprehend. God is literally hidden from us by his own indescribably beautiful and holy qualities – we cannot bear to see him unveiled, because we are made of such inferior stuff, tainted and undermined by sin. Even a glimpse in a dream or vision was enough for Isaiah to proclaim that he was a doomed man, certain to perish from having been exposed to such divine power and holiness.

And yet, the bible story is one of God’s yearning to reveal himself to us, to be known by us, and to welcome us into his presence for all eternity that we might share in his glory! How is this possible?!

It is the miraculous revelation of God’s character through Jesus Christ which has allowed fallen humanity to behold the face of God and not perish on the spot. All the divine qualities of the Creator are somehow translated for us into the person of the Son, and there we can see and understand in some measure, just what our God is like. The overwhelming brilliance has been shaded for mortal eyes, so that we might not be blinded but illuminated. Our minds can grasp in their small capacity a little of the greatness of our God, and in realising just how dim our vision is, we also realise how very bright and dazzling the unclouded light must be.

God is good to his children, and in Stephen’s moment of extreme need, he received a special vision of glory, a view as it were over the heads of his persecuters of the place which was open to welcome him home. God’s work in Stephen’s mortal life was complete, he was going home to glory, to the arms of his Lord and Saviour who stood ready to receive him. Stephen had found the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus, confessing the divinity of this crucified and risen Son of Man, and pledging allegiance to him. Now Jesus stood to acknowledge his servant; to claim him and honour him in glory.

May I grow in the knowledge of the glory of God in the face – the whole person and work – of Christ, so that I may be faithful through trials, and walk humbly before my great and awesome God.

 

 

 

When it hurts too much…

Hasten, O God, to save me; O Lord, come quickly to help me. May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace. May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” turn back because of their shame.

But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, “Let God be exalted!”

Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay.

(Ps 70)

I have never known what it is to have my life threatened as David did, nor to have people who actively sought to cause me harm. I am blessed and thankful to know such peace, and have an obligation to pray for those who are oppressed in this way.

But I do not think it is inappropriate to apply this psalm to those times in our lives when it seems our spiritual life is under threat, when we are assaulted by doubt, fear, and the relentless voices which wear us down into a dungeon of self-pity and hopelessness. The devil is wily and knows how to use our experiences to twist our perceptions and undermine our faith in the goodness and faithfulness of God.

When I am under such assault, it may take a while to realise what is going on, and to gather my wits to claim the victory which is mine in Christ. This happens most readily when it is my feelings which are attacked, and the resulting emotional storm is hard to ride out. It happened today.

There is a grief in my life which has been my companion for many years, and which, like Paul, I have begged to have removed. The Lord has thus far answered me as he answered Paul, saying that his strength will suffice for me, and I must trust that means he can be glorified through the wounded soldier and servant that I feel myself to be!

Sometimes, I can bear it more easily than others, and have my eye fixed more securely on God’s faithfulness and less on the pain and my own weakness. But not today.

Today, as I floundered on the brink of despair, God has been pouring out extravagant love gifts of beauty upon me, as brilliant winter sunshine picked out the snowy summits of our mountains, each one clear as a razor edge against the blue sky. Each fresh sight cut me afresh, like a wound. The contrast between the grief and darkness within my heart, and the tender love which was being proclaimed across the land, was just too much to bear. It was as though I was on one side of a chasm, with my pain; and the beauty and my dear Lord were on the other side, taunting me with my inability to reach them.

All I wanted to do was run away home, to leave this weary world of warring emotions, messy lives, and endless struggle to keep in step with the spirit of God. I wanted to be where there is no more need to endure, only the privilege of enjoying our God for ever. But of course, I couldn’t run, I have to stay until the time God decides is right for me, so how can I bear it?!

There is no magic formula; this life of faith is indeed a struggle, and at times a bitter one. But I can testify to the power of God to keep me in and through each fresh bout – because by his grace and mercy, he draws me back again and again to Christ.

There I find one who knew the pains which we bear in our human experience; and who can enter into the feelings which torment and drag us down. I praise God, that he turns me toward and not away from him in my need. I confess that I am still far more poor and needy than I like to admit, but rejoice that he will never give up on me and never abandon me to destruction by the forces that assault me.

There is no place for pride here, only profound thankfulness that our God is sufficient, ever-attentive to our cries and never running out of patience with us. Let our cry  in our need always be that of the psalmist:

..come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and deliverer; 

Just wondering….

For I am jealous for you with the jealousy of God himself. I promised you as a pure bride to one husband – Christ. But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted…

(2Cor 11.2&3)

And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ…For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.

(Eph 5.25-27)

Fear not; you will no longer live in shame. Don’t be afraid; there is no more disgrace for you. You will no longer remember the shame of your youth and the sorrows of widowhood. For your Creator will be your husband; the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the God of all the earth.

(Isa 54. 4&5)

What does it mean, to call God ‘Husband’? Why do the hymns refer to Jesus as the ‘Lover of our souls’? What does it look and feel like in daily life, to live the reality of this aspect of our relationship with Almighty God?!

I wrestled for a long time with this particular imagery, and it is only in recent years that I have come to understand a little better just how sweet and precious a picture it is, and to rejoice in the reality which lies behind it. I am not planning to write some profound analysis of marriage in this column, only to try to articulate something of the blessing which it is to have Jesus as the lover of my soul, my Redeemer as my husband…

In many cultures today, the situation for women is still as it was in biblical times – an unmarried or widowed woman was without rights or status, vulnerable to exploitation and without protection. A husband was a woman’s guarantee of security, with prospects for a peaceful and fulfilling life. He took upon himself the right and duty of providing for and protecting her, and as a unit they would grow together in affection and through their daily labour, relying on and complementing one another. It is crucial to remember that the bible does not give us examples of perfect marriages to follow, but the real messy stories of human beings making an attempt to live out the ideal which God always intended for us. What we experience is only a pale imitation of the depth of union and love which God made us capable of before sin broke the lines of communication and left us vulnerable in this most foundational of relationships.

When I call Almighty God my husband, I claim the right to use his name as my own, his authority gives me status and rights to an inheritance. When I call on my Redeemer as my husband, I call on the one whose strength is sufficient to keep me through every trial and to bring me to a place of honour. The stigma of being unwanted, rejected or abandoned, is gone, because I have a husband who makes public his love for me and his commitment to my well-being – that is what happened on the cross! Jesus stretched out his arms, and said “I love you.. I am for you…you are precious and beloved, and I will do anything to ensure that you can be mine for ever”.

The words from Ephesians make it very clear that Paul understood the ‘husbanding’ of Christ in this way – “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or blemish..”

A human husband knows that loving his wife should mean seeking the best for her – encouraging, nurturing, sometimes perhaps confronting or challenging, but always putting the fullest realisation of her potential first. A human husband also knows that he will fail, and fail often…

But our heavenly husband, our divine lover, is one who never fails in love, patience, compassion and tenderness. Oh how good it is to have such a lover, one who never fails me in my need, who never gives up on his ambition of seeing me made perfect, radiant and lovely!

Let me never give up on saying ‘I do’ daily to this dear Lord, but go on seeking to know him and his love as the foundation for my life, and as the sweetest blessing that I can share..

Worth losing?

Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is  more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

(Philippians 3.7&8)

A picture of a cake.. which may seem odd given the text I have quoted above, but there is a connection! The cake was inspired by one made by a very good and generous friend when I last visited her, and so represents hospitality, love, years of friendship and support – as well as a celebration of our time together. Most of us have many such reasons for celebration – in our spouses and families, our health, our friends and the many good things which God lavishly bestows on us daily. It is always good to give thanks for such gifts, lest we begin to take them for granted and fail to appreciate them.

But if we are to follow the apostle Paul in the particular part of this letter to the young church in Philippi, he is arguing that all the good things he has received in his life are worth giving up without a second thought, if by that means he might grow in his union with his beloved Lord Jesus. This is a challenge which I think we spend our lives working out in practice, as we experience gains and losses, and watch others struggling to cope with their own griefs. It is one thing to say boldly, that ‘Christ is enough for me’, but quite another to put that into daily action, when facing the loss to death of a beloved husband or wife, or the brutal impact of disease or injury upon our own bodies and our capacity for independent living.

The great Scottish preacher and letter writer, Samuel Rutherford spent prolonged spells in exile from his parish, closely confined, unable to receive visitors and forbidden to preach. His writings from that time speak of his grief at these losses, but also breathe his sweet delight in the presence of his Saviour, and his satisfaction in considering the loveliness of Christ. Rutherford learnt to say with Paul that so long as he had Christ, he would be content.

Do I live in such a way that I am not looking to any human being for fulfillment of my deepest needs? Am I so aware that every day, every breath, is a gift from God, that I would be able to give up physical health and freedom if He required them of me? These are very hard questions, and I am glad that we are not allowed to see our future days, not to know what sacrifices we will be called to make until the time comes. It is not for me to worry about how I might cope if these things happened to me, but rather to focus here and now on living ever closer to my Lord, and trusting that he will be sufficient for me when the day comes. We are not called to deal in advance with such burdens, but to carry those of today with as much grace and cheerfulness as we can.

If I can learn to hold all my daily blessings on an open hand, as one offering them back to the giver, then I will not depend on them for my fulfillment and contentment. This certainly does not mean that I fail to appreciate these good things, that would be to waste the gifts of my loving Father! Rather it means that I must learn to look more and more through the gifts to the giver, to see that in them, I receive his love, perceive his greatness and the unfathomable beauty of his character.

God must become more and more the centre of my life. Jesus is the lover of my soul, my heavenly bridegroom, my redeemer and friend. All the human relationships which enrich my life are simply pale imitations of the richest relationship of all – between the church and her head, Christ, who loved her so much that he gave up his life for her.

I believe that when God calls me to let something precious go – as when my parents died some years ago – he is calling me into a closer relationship and satisfaction with himself. In God, I find the truest father and mother-love, meeting those deep needs which my human parents could never touch. I can give thanks for all they were and did, and rejoice that now they are with the Lord whom they loved. But I need not fret for myself, because my God knows and meets my longings to be loved as a child again.

He is so gracious, so gentle, so compassionate.. Let us cling ever closer to him, and be content with whatever is left to us so long as we have Christ as our own!

Just be gentle…

“Go out and stand before me on the mountain”, the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

(1Kings 19. 11-13)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. the Lord is near.

(Philippians 4.4&5)

My father was a ‘gentle-man’, it was one of his outstanding qualities. He was strong, physically and emotionally, stubborn and loyal, but very gentle. He had big hands, but would delicately cup a rose bud or seedling as he transplanted it. He never shouted or snapped at us as children – and I don’t think I have just forgotten it either! I have no memory of him talking about others to demean or mock them, but sometimes he would express regret that their actions and words had unfortunate consequences.

As I go on in life I increasingly appreciate gentleness, and thank God that in my father, I was shown such a clear example of God’s own gentleness in his dealing with his children. I will always be a child of God. I will always need my Father’s love and provision, and part of that provision is for the balm of gentleness.

When a child is frightened, hurt or astray and worried about coming home in disgrace, they need above all to be met with gentleness. That quality speaks of a love which understands our weakness, and knows that we need above all reassurance, not a brisk reprimand or exhortation to ‘get over it and get on!’ Perhaps in due time, the reprimand will be given – gently – or the exhortation to continue on the way will come. But first and foremost is the comfort, the healing of a forbearing love.

True gentleness is hard to fake, and easy to recognise. It is a quality which draws people towards itself, as moths to a flame, as cold hands to a warm glowing fire. Jesus had it, and so drew to himself so many wounded and rejected, worthless and despised people. They knew that he was different, that he would not add to their pain but would recognise, respect and minister to it.

Jesus valued everyone as a child of God, created to know and love and be loved, to add their own unique voice to the eternal song of glory to God. When we fail in gentleness, we are failing to demonstrate that same awareness of the priceless value of each person. Surely that is part of what Paul is driving at when he exhorts the church in Philippi to be known for their gentleness, by reminding them that ‘The Lord is near.’ This Lord who crafted each person in his own image; who longs for each one to come into a loving relationship with him; who longs for each one to know life in all its fullness within the community of God’s people here on earth.

I know what it is to crave gentleness from those around me, in times of distress and even in times of gladness, I find it hard to be handled brusquely and feel somehow diminished and irrelevant. A lack of gentleness tells me that I do not matter, that my feelings don’t matter, and I am of little value. This is not what the story of God’s love tells me, and I cling so closely to his gentle arms, listening for that gentle whisper which speaks his presence and his constant love. He tells me that I am special, beloved, worth everything to him, and that gentle voice brings healing.

Let me minister this healing to others, since I know how precious it is for me. Let us all seek to grow this Christ-quality in all our dealings with one another, so that we may build one another up, and not cause any to fall down or become discouraged, thinking that they do not matter to us – or to God.

Let our gentleness indeed be known to all, that God might be glorified and his people blessed!