Category Archives: transience

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!

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It’s ok to be small..

Let the whole world fear the Lord, and let everyone stand in awe of him.

For when he spoke, the world began! It appeared at his command. 

The Lord frustrates the plans of the nations and thwarts all their schemes. But the Lord’s plans stand firm forever; his intentions can never be shaken.

The Lord looks down from heaven and sees the whole human race. From his throne he observes all who live on the earth.

He made their hearts so he understands everything they do. 

We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone.

(Psalm 33. 8-11,13-15,20-22)

How do you react when something forcibly reminds you just how frail your existence is, how insignificant your life? Does the grandeur of a mountain landscape bring feelings of panic, or of worship? Does the increasingly frantic parade of disaster and woe across our newspaper headlines bring a sense of helplessness and despair, or compassion?

I firmly believe that human beings are created by God, in his image – that is to say we dimly reflect his loving nature, his capacity for compassion and mercy, his creativity and appreciation for beauty. but I do not believe that means we ought to attempt to share his capacity for bearing the burdens of the world which he created!

Time and again we see human beings in the bible rejoicing that it is God, and not they, who are in control, and handing over the burdens which they feel with huge relief to the one who alone is capable of carrying them. The psalms often show us the process by which God’s people come to him with some great grief or worry, and having lamented, raged and bewailed a truly dreadful situation, they find that once again they are conscious of God’s power to deal with it and are able to rest in him.

If the devil, who is always on the lookout for ways to undermine our faith, can create in us a spirit of anxiety, so that we are constantly worried about something far beyond our human power to influence, then he has effectively disarmed us and stopped us growing as followers of Jesus. We become paralysed by fear, angry with God for not acting as we have decided he ought, and increasingly oblivious to the immediate opportunities we have to love, serve and witness in our own lives.

I choose now to sit lightly to the world news, even the national news, because these things are burdens beyond my capacity to solve them. I can pray for leaders to be wise, restrained, compassionate; for wars to be ended, for the needs of refugees and those affected by natural disasters to be met. I can give to charities which take my small contribution and by wise use, turn it into great blessing to those in need. But I refuse to see these things as my responsibility.

I am responsible for being the eyes, voice, ears and hands of Christ in my family, in my community. I am called to witness to an all-powerful God by choosing to accept that my small life – in his hands – is an instrument for good, though I may not see what he does with it. I can pray that my speech and actions will be a means by which love is expressed and precious individuals for whom Christ died are nurtured, honoured and brought to fulness of life in him.

Living a faithful, honest, disciplined christian life; rejoicing in Christ through the real trials of human existence; fighting the battle daily against the weaknesses and persistent sins which remain – these are my appointed tasks, and in God’s eyes, I think they are not insignificant. He is at work to make all things new – even me – and the beauty of Christ being formed in me is his goal. Small but infinitely significant; beautiful, worth devoting my energies to, knowing that I have all the power of God at my disposal.

Let me be content with the task appointed for me, and leave the business of bearing the world’s burdens in the hands of the Almighty. I am the creature, let me trust the Creator to know his business, and concentrate my energies on faithfully following and serving him in the place appointed – as one of the small ones!

Solomon…in all his glory

And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 

And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

(Matthew 6.28-30)

Solomon…a name which conjures up images of wealth, splendour and majesty on a scale which was never duplicated in the history of Israel. He was the King who carried his nation to giddy heights of prosperity and influence, achieving great fame for his building projects, his wealth and also for his understanding and wisdom.

Wisdom and wealth, two things which we aspire to, thinking that in them we will find security and peace. And yet here we find Jesus dismissing Solomon’s greatness as nothing beside the fleeting yet breath-taking beauty of the flowers  growing wild in the hills of Galilee. Jesus’ words give the idea that God himself has designed the colours, shapes and textures of every flower with just the same care as the most exacting fashion designer. It is God’s infinitely creative nature which is at work all around us, revelling in the possibilities, and improbabilities that he has at his disposal.

The bible teaches that all of creation, all that we have discovered and are yet to learn about our world and the incredible cosmic context within which it is held, everything was made to provide humanity – the pinnacle of God’s handiwork – with a home, a place to belong and to share with him. How easily we dismiss such thoughts, forgetting to take time to wonder at what has been made for us to receive from our loving Father. Every single part of this creation bears the fingerprint of the maker, reflects his character and expresses his inherent qualities. He has literally taken limitless trouble to provide for us – and has delighted to do so.

In the same way that a master craftsman will take great pains with even those parts of a design which are unseen, because the perfection of the whole depends on that inner integrity: so also our God has seen fit to bestow his detailed attention on the humblest elements of the world he has made for us. It all matters.

And so, Jesus makes his point to the listening group, do we! In fact it is clear from the words he uses that he is trying very hard to make them realise how much more we matter than these other beautiful things.

The wealth and wisdom of Solomon did not prevent him from losing sight of the truth about God, that he must reign alone in our hearts, and we must never place a higher value upon anything else. In time, that great monarch would permit the worship of other gods, and it is sadly recorded that he followed his many wives in such idolatry – surely a warning to us to be alert to our own particular tendencies to rely on ‘other gods’.

Nothing on earth, and no one in the world will ever, or can ever, love us like God does. So why do we so readily value anything else above him? Why do we chase after even modest wealth, and pursue wordly wisdom – the latest techniques for self-improvement, for making friends and influencing people, the best ways to resist ageing and fight disease?! The list of alternatives to God’s ways is very long, we are forever adding to it, and losing sight again of the truth. The truth as revealed in our world, and ultimately in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is that God cares passionately about us, and we can and must trust him passionately, the only one who really cares about our lives.

Let these diamonds, strewn liberally over the wayside flower yesterday morning by the rain, remind me of the riches which God has in store, and which are freely available in Christ – forgiveness, new life, hope for the future, strength for today, and a joy in living which surpasses all that wealth and wordly wisdom can supply.

We are so much richer than Solomon…in all his glory, let’s enjoy it, and thank our bountiful God for all his grace!

An open hand..

Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said

I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!

In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God.

(Job 1.20-22)

Grief, and worship.. How often do we actually manage to put these two together in our own experience? Perhaps if our idea of worship involves singing songs that make us happy, then we can’t begin to combine them. But this is not what Job was doing, and it helps me to see past the current fashion for worship leaders, bands, fancy lighting, and music-induced emotion. In Job’s actions here, his response to a devastating loss of life, I see true worship – which is to give God his rightful place, to acknowledge his power, majesty, mystery, and to put myself in the right place before him – flat on the ground.

How hard we find it to get rid of the persistent notion that we are entitled to anything in this world! Our culture continually encourages us to acquire, to aspire, to achieve, and even to demand – because we are ‘worth it’. We are exhorted to stand up for our rights – even when that means trampling the rights of others. And what does the bible say about this? That we came with nothing; that every day we live, every breath we take, is the free and undeserved gift of God! We can expect nothing as of right; not health, wealth, freedom from oppression, family life, or fulfilling work…Nothing.

And yet we have so much! Perhaps it is the very bounty of God, the mercies we have enjoyed daily since birth, which makes it so easy for us to take it for granted, take it all as our right. Job knew better, and when he lost everything dearest to him, he continued to give God the right to be God, to be good and just and holy, and altogether greater than Job could comprehend. He didn’t pretend that he was happy about the loss of his children, and subsequently his health. He lamented, and poured out his grief in some of the most powerful language recorded in the bible. But he always addressed himself to God, as God, never questioning that this was the right and proper thing to do.

 I am thankful not to be facing such appalling loss, but the forthcoming change in our family circumstances does mean that I will be giving up some very precious – to me – activities and things.

For ten years, I have sung as an amateur singer with a Symphony Chorus, performing alongside a professional orchestra, world-class soloists and conductors, and making music at the highest level. It is very hard for me to express how much pleasure and satisfaction I have been given through this gift, but I know that as I face leaving the city, and the chorus, I will lose one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Does God know, does he care? Of course he does! It was his gift of music in me which I celebrated in joining the choir in the first place. And every concert has been a time of rejoicing in what music is, one of the greatest gifts mankind has been given.

So as I close the music, say farewell to my fellow singers for the last time, and as the echoes of the final bars of sound die away, I will grieve, bitterly. And that will be fitting, because I have been deeply blessed, and and profoundly thankful for all I have been able to do and experience.

And my Father will see the tears, the pain, and in his tenderness will come closer than ever to hold and reassure me. He gave, and he is taking away. Blessed be his holy name.

I must and will trust him for these losses, for the wounds caused by parting. His love for me, and my dependence on his grace is what will keep the wounds clean and wholesome, will make the scars themselves a thing of beauty. I will – with his help – rejoice for what has been, give thanks whenever I remember, and turn any pang of regret into prayer for greater trust, so that I might say , with Paul that I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances, and that through Christ who gives me strength.

Whose job is it anyway?

I may have done the planting and Apollos the watering but it was God who made the seed grow! The planter and the waterer are nothing compared with him who gives life to the seed. Planter and waterer are alike insignificant, though each shall be rewarded according to his particular work.

In this work, we work with God..

(1 Corinthians 3.6-9, JB Phillips translation)

This blossom is on the apple tree in our garden, borne by a carefully trained branch, on a well pruned tree which only last year gave its first real harvest of delicious eating apples. There is some relationship between the care given by the gardener, and the fruit of the tree, but ultimately, we recognise the truth of what Paul is saying in this extract from his letter to the Corinthians: it is God alone who brings forth the life and fruit of the plant in due season, and to him alone belongs the credit!

As I prepare to lay down my responsibilities in order to move to our new place of ministry, I find that I have fallen into the trap of thinking that the work which I am leaving is somehow ‘my work’. I find myself unhappy about leaving a less-than-perfect arrangement behind me, or not finding people to take over my particular role before I leave. And as I consider why I am so upset, I find some very unattractive things going on.

I am behaving as though my worth and value depend upon the work I do instead of upon the identity I have as a child of God.

I am assuming that I will be judged upon the work I do, and if it is found wanting, then I am afraid of the condemnation of other people – instead of entrusting myself to God as my sole judge.

I am resenting the fact that other people are not willing to step up and take on jobs which can be demanding and time-consuming; when I know that I sometimes resent those same demands! I am being unloving, lacking compassion, and above all, not trusting God to provide for the work which he wants to do in his own way.

It is a painful grace when God shows us what is really going on in our hearts and minds, because we are ashamed of the reality – the ugliness and depth of pride which are revealed. But it is still grace, because he is giving us the chance to repent, to learn, and to move forward into a new way of living.

As I considered this, I thought of the great apostle Paul, who was required so many times in his ministry to pack up and leave – sometimes after very short periods – and who must have learnt very quickly how to handle this experience of relinquishment. In these verses from the first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul lays out very clearly his understanding of his role in God’s work – he describes himself as ‘insignificant’ and ‘nothing’. Now we know that in other places Paul describes his labours on behalf of the churches in great detail, and encourages them to follow his example of service and sacrifice. So he is not claiming to do nothing, but rather that in comparison to God, his role is ‘as nothing’.

God has chosen to give us, his children, the privilege of serving him, of working with him as he prepares for the return of Christ and the coming of the new creation. This is our great purpose in life, and one which we can be rightly proud of. But, we are not responsible for its completion. In fact, we only ever play a passing role, and must always be ready to be moved on and let God deal with what we leave behind. So it comes back to trust again..

Am I willing to trust God for the jobs I used to do? Am I willing to let things get messy, or even stop altogether and still believe that he is in charge and that I have not failed him? Am I willing to put to death the pride which longs to hear the praise of people for the ‘successful’ things I have done?

As I begin to see how deeply my pride is dragging me down into anxiety, frustration and resentment, I long to be free of it, and gladly confess that I need to be changed.

May God who honoured me by allowing me to serve him give me grace to let go and not fret, but recognise that obedience is what I am called to. May I be content to rest in his approval alone, and not look for affirmation anywhere else. May he continue to expose the roots of pride which disguise themselves so effectively, and cause me to stumble.

To him be the glory, in all things, for ever and ever, Amen!

The only constant…

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

(Philippians 1.21)

 

It was on a night like this three years ago that my mother died. Soft, heavy snow fell steadily, drowning sound and creating a stark, eerily beautiful landscape, every branch bearing its weightless load.

We had known it was coming, and were thankful to be prepared, as ready as one can ever be to become an orphan. She was so ready to go home, and her saviour’s name was almost the last word on her lips.

God knows that death is too much for us, that we are made for eternity; that change and bereavement cause us to stagger, losing our bearings and succumbing to fear. Death is the ultimate insult to God’s creation of humanity in his image, the great scar which resulted from sin entering our hearts and breaking our fellowship with Him. It was never meant to be this way, and I take great comfort in knowing that my anger and grief in the face of death are a small reflection of God’s anger against this corruption of his perfect creation.

But I have learnt things through the deaths of my parents which would otherwise have remained merely theoretical. I have come to understand and rely on the Father heart of God for me, his beloved daughter; to trust in and take comfort from the Mother heart of God as I am cherished, and always understood. Perhaps it is only when precious things pass away that we learn to seek their essence in God – all the goodness and beauty of this world is a mere shadow of the truth and glory which are in Him.

It is a lesson which I need to keep learning. As my children have grown and become more independent, I am not ‘needed’ in the same way, and that role – which was so big that it became almost my entire life – is gone. I must not look to that relationship as my security and source of satisfaction in life. Nor should I depend on my status as ‘wife’, since that relationship too must someday come to an end. No, the only constant is that God, the creator and sustainer of life has chosen to reveal Himself to me, to make me his child, and to call me home to share in the glorious future planned for His people in the new creation.

It is His constancy which is my only security, everything else will pass away.

It is His arms which must be my refuge, since there are ultimately no other safe places.

It is His grace which is my only hope, since my own efforts and all the approval of others cannot make me worthy to belong in His kingdom.

It is in His beauty that I find the source of the glory which I only glimpse in the colours, seasons, sights and sensations of this amazing world. They dazzle me; how shall I bear being in the presence of the One and only, the great original?!

It is in His love that I find all my human loves purified, transformed and made perfect, so that I am finally at rest and fully myself.

May we be given daily grace to grow in dependence on Him, and to hold this world and all its riches with an open hand and yielding heart. For “our citizenship is in heaven. and we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to being everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body!” (Philippians 3.20&21)

A beginning…

A voice says. “Cry out.”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All men are like grass,

and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

because the breath of the Lord blows on them.

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of our God stands for ever.

Isaiah, ch 40, v 6-8

So what do I forget, all too often? I forget who I am, and I forget what is true about the world I live in and the One who made and sustains it.

I forget that in the end, all human achievement and glory will count for nothing, and that the praise and admiration of men is not where true peace and satisfaction come from.

I forget that it is not my own busy-ness which dictates my worth as a person, and my possessions are not the source of my identity and security.

I need to take time to remember the truth, the truth that sets me free to live in the light of eternity. I accept my insignificance, and transience, because the word of my God stands for ever, and that word tells me that I am a beloved daughter, one for whose freedom a great price has been paid, and who can never be torn from her Father’s side.

I take time to remember that the glory of the grass and flowers is the faintest echo of the glory that awaits God’s beloved children in the future He has prepared for us.

I remember that all my longings and desires are known to Him who loves me more than I will ever truly understand, and that He knows best how to fulfill those desires.

In remembering, may we find rest for our souls. May they be anchored in the truth of the word, so that no dazzle or distraction can take our peace away. In Christ, we are now and always, beloved, accepted, and sustained. Let us walk the days with him.