Category Archives: trust

Accepting my limitations

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.     “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, ” declares the Lord.

(Isaiah 55.6-8)

Then Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted…Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know….My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

(Job 42. 1-6)

Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

(Habbakuk 3. 17&18)

Has it ever struck you that many of the stories contained in the biblical narrative are of people in really horrid situations? The bible is not shy of confronting us with the brutal realities of life – war, torture and destruction; famine and starvation; murder, rape, abuse, enslavement and humiliation inflicted by one human being on another; abuse of power and status – and we recognise them all around us today.

Why are the stories there? It is not because in every case, God intervened to make everything right again and to create some fluffy happy endings. There are individual examples of particular provision, miraculous escapes, healings and even resurrections, but they are the exceptions not the rule. Why?

I believe that one of the main reasons we have these stories, is to help us to face our own realities with faith – not in a God who makes everything ok at once, or even in our own lifetimes; but a God who is big enough to see from beginning to end, to see the roots of the trouble and to be willing to deal with it. This is what the bible narrative reveals – a God who never gives up. Many generations of Israelites died in abject slavery in Egypt before Moses arrived to lead them out. Countless, nameless thousands died over the centuries in wars and famines, just so much collateral damage in the power games of nations.

And yet, we have the testimony of prophets like Zechariah, that in the midst of the apparent chaos, lawlessness and despair, God is not absent, that he is and is good, and that justice, healing and wholeness will come. We have the examples not only of the psalmists, but also men like Job, who when things appeared to have gone hopelessly wrong and God was surely absent or even powerless, chose to respond by passionately appealing to him for justice, and lamenting their wrongs.

We don’t need to have faith in something when we can see and understand how it works, we need faith when there is a mystery, when we cannot make sense of what is going on. The stories of the bible show us what such faith looks like – the faith that says with Habakkuk that we will rejoice in the God who is our Saviour even though there is no sign of his salvation.

In our time, the pride of man in his achievements has made it hard to accept that anything can or should remain mysterious, and it is common for people to use the mystery of suffering as a condemnation of a just and loving God. But, as Job learned, who are we to put the creator upon the stand and accuse him of being inscrutable? Am I willing to accept that God is beyond my understanding, with all that implies? Indeed God has revealed himself to us in Christ Jesus, and there we see love and purity and so many of the wonderful characteristics of God. But surely it is only to be expected that a God who can create on the scales that we now perceive, a God who is outside time and space, must be utterly other than we can comprehend?

In the face of suffering and evil in all its dreadful manifestations, as the hand of God in judgement is still withheld and creation groans, I have a daily choice. Either I allow the inexplicable darkness to poison my mind and spirit, and bitterly reject any notion of a sovereign and good God; or I turn to him in faith, in that trust which says, “I cannot begin to understand this Lord, but I see your love laid bare upon the Cross of Christ; I see there the pain that this darkness causes you, and I will choose to believe that none of it is wasted, and that you know what you are doing. You will not delay a moment longer than you need, and in the end, the judge of all the earth will surely do right!”

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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..

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.

 

Will you sit with me?

O God, listen to my cry! Hear my prayer! From the ends of the earth, I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed.

Lead me to the towering rock of safety, for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.

Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings!

(Psalm 60, 1-4)

Oh, why give light to those in misery, and life to those who are bitter? They long for death, and it won’t come. They search for death more eagerly than for hidden treasure. They’re filled with joy when they finally die, and rejoice when they find the grave. Why is life given to those with no future, those God has surrounded with difficulties? I cannot eat for sighing; my groans pour out like water. What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come true. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; only trouble comes.

(Job 3.20-26)

People don’t like to hear the truth sometimes…they find it upsets their own faith when fellow believers struggle and suffer for no reason. When depression or deep sadness come to faithful Christians and they walk in the dark, they may well find themselves reluctant to share what they are feeling, afraid of unsettling others and aware that no one can actually help them…

It is so much easier to be around those who are finding life positive, seeing much to be thankful for, obviously overcoming and triumphing by God’s help over the various trials they experience. Who wants to sit, like Job’s comforters(before they spoke a word!), in the dirt, in silence, weeping with him and pouring out an agony of lament? That takes courage, humility, deep love, and a deeper faith.

But is it more glorifying to God for me to pretend that all is well, when the reality is a bleak, numb hopelessness? If God is God, good and loving, holy and faithful, with our best interests at heart and a great master plan for glorifying his son in which we play a part, then my experience of darkness is not enough to undermine his power. Does the reality of my – or anyone else’s – struggle need to be hidden in order to protect his reputation?

As ever, the bible shows us the right response in the darkness. To tell it out. Tell it loud and clear. Tell it to the one who above all is concerned for my heart, who more than anyone else can understand and feel for my pain. Lament; weep and cry; leave no detail unexplored and lay the entire ugly, messy, appalling burden in the lap of God the Almighty, who although beyond our meagre understanding, is never far from us but close and tender-hearted toward us.

Can we extend this same grace to one another? Are you willing to hear a fellow believer share their experience of apparent defeat without jumping in to tell them what they should be doing about it? Will you sit and weep a while; listen to the truth of their darkness as it speaks without demanding that they focus on the light which will surely shine at some point? Will you comfort – that is to gently reassure someone that they are heard, loved, and never alone? All without judging or assuming that you have all the answers?

The time may come when you can give words of direction or even exhortation; but as a soul who knows very well how it feels to be in this darkness, may I encourage you to restrain your kind enthusiasm, and just let me know that you are with me. You may not know how I feel, but you can allow me the opportunity to feel and express it, without trying to shape my thoughts into forms which suit you.

When I am in the darkness, when I am unable to rejoice in God’s gifts and when hope is utterly gone, the best help you can give me is to pray for me; sit with me; and if you want to speak, then help me to bring everything to God. While he is my focus for lamentation, I am safe and you will have done all you can.

 

 

To arms, to arms!!

You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light…..It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze. You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; you stoop down to make me great.

(Psalm 18. 28,33-35)

Finally be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

(Ephesians 6.10-13)

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.  And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

(1Peter 5.8-11)

It sneaks up on me, little by little, one cord here, another there. I stumble, something bruises me, my eyes are clouded by some distress and I lose sight of the path. Before I realise what has happened, I am struggling desperately in a trap, as hopeless and terrified as a child stuck in the dark of a strange room at night, unable to find the way out..

I am surely not the only follower of Jesus who has experienced such ambushes, oppression and assault, realising only too late that my adversary, the devil, is playing with me for his own devious and harmful ends. My failure to recognise and deal with him promptly has left me vulnerable to a tightening of the trap, a deepening of the darkness, and the emotional confusion makes it hard to think clearly.

I thank God that he opened my eyes to what was happening, that he showed me how the accumulation of small things was all part of an assault on me and on my family – and something not to be surprised at, since where God is at work, there the evil one will also come to undermine and oppose. My husband is a minister, he deals in proclaiming the gospel and making disciples – is it any wonder that his family should be in the firing line? We should not be surprised at such things, and yet all too often, I am; I fail to recognise the enemy until I am down and weakening.

Thank God, who opens our eyes to see and our minds to understand these things, and who graciously forgives all the times we failed to perceive soon enough what was going on! And thank God for the friend by whose conversation I was reminded of the call to arms, the call to strike in defence of who and what I am in Christ!

We shy away from the language of warfare which is used in the bible, but it is surely the best way to understand our part in God’s work in the world today. In Christ, we have ultimate victory over death, the wages of sin are paid and the devil has NO jurisdiction in our lives. But he is fighting a desperate rearguard action, and if he can, he will render us useless for Christ by binding us in traps of despair or even just indifference.

It is for us to claim the victory we have in Christ – hence Paul’s rousing words to the Ephesians! We have the armour, and in Christ, we have the king who has dealt the fatal blow to our enemy. Christ is my king, the Lord of my life, and the evil one has NO right to interfere and no authority to destroy. I can and must take all the weapons given me and stand firm, resisting until he flees. My marriage is God’s calling of two into one, and the devil has no place in it; in Jesus’ name I can shut him out. Our congregation is God’s family in this place, and we can claim the protecting arms of the great Shepherd around his sheep.

Praise God, for in him we have a final victory; and also the strength to stand firm and claim that victory in each part of our lives. I do not say this lightly: we don’t presume that every difficulty will be removed, but rather that in Christ, we can and will bear suffering with hope, and confidence. There is – as Paul so famously says in Romans 8 – NOTHING, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that is our victory!

A gentle prod in the right direction..

So the Lord must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion, for the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help.

O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries. Though the Lord gave you adversity for food and suffering for drink, he will still be with you to teach you. ..Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, “This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or the left.

(Isaiah. 30.18-21)

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone.

(James 1.5&6)

I believe in a God who promises to guide and direct his children; a God who desires their ultimate good, which may lead through times of trial and suffering as well as times of ease, comfort and plenty.

I have experienced in my own life these last 18 months, the clear directing of that loving hand, as my husband and I were invited to consider this new place of ministry, and one by one, the objections fell away, and the doors opened even before we pushed them! As the days and months go by, we are deeply at peace here, absolutely convinced that God desires us to work and live in this remote place, within a small community, things we have never done before. He called, and He is enabling, generously!

On a personal level however, I am still seeking guidance and direction, since I am not the parish minister, only his backup team, and that is not a full-time job! I do not know yet, just what my life here is to consist of – whether paid employment alongside housekeeping and church work; or a small mosaic of voluntary occupations, serving as well as I can. I am waiting..a recent job application led to a clearly closed door – an answer of sorts for the moment.. and I wait.

I am getting to know people, using my own interests and things which bring me joy to make connections which might grow into relationships within which I can share Christ. But these are quite selfish ways to use my time, and it has been pointed out to me quite forcefully, that the relationships are principally with folk my own age or older, not the younger members of the community..

There are many good things which need to be done – both church and community based – but I don’t think awareness of a need constitutes a call that I should fulfill it – God knows that none of us can stretch that thinly. How am I to discern what to do? I follow the advice of James, the ever practical apostle, and ask – and keep asking, not only for guidance, but that I might recognise it when it comes! I wait, trying to use my time well, but not committing to anything permanently, testing out the different opportunities and asking for that voice to speak clearly.

Father God, your child is  stumbling a little; unsure of her footing and of the way, she looks for your hand and strains to hear your voice: Fulfill your promise and guide her.

Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: you spoke to your children so clearly at times, directed their ways and they knew what to do: Fulfill your promise, and guide this child now.

Delivering God, who confronted Moses in the desert from within the fire, speaking with power and then led your people by fire and cloud up from slavery, fulfill your promise, and lead this child.

You see her heart’s desire is to glorify you; and she longs to know how this is to be done, here, now, in this place; fulfill your promise Lord, and grant her heart’s desire.

Purify her heart and thought of all that would mislead her, tune her ears to hear your voice, strengthen her will that she might obey if the call is to some work which she finds daunting.

Above all Father, so fill her heart with love for her precious Lord, that any labour for him is a privilege, no matter how humble, and any sacrifice of selfish pleasure is worthwhile.

Only let her know that she is doing your will, for the blessing of her community and the glorifying of your Son’s wonderful name.

Amen

But Lord, you promised!

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

(Proverbs 13.12)

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 

(2Cor 1.20-22)

We are human, you and I. We have hopes for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities and our world. How often have you tasted the bitterness of dashed hope? Too often to entertain the thought that everything we wish for can be ours if we will only believe in and work hard enough for it!

Where do you go with your broken expectations and hopes? Some may have been unrealistic, and in retrospect we recognise and learn from those experiences – while also acknowledging the very real pain which our disappointment has caused us. It is good to know that our Father God understands how easily we set our hearts on the wrong things, and is patient and compassionate with our grieving. By his grace, we learn to set our strongest hopes and expectations only on those things which he has promised, but even here, we must learn wisdom and discernment.

I recently spent a little time looking at the life of Sarah, wife of Abraham, and was reminded of the explicit promise which that couple received from God – a son of their own, founder of a nation which would be numerous as the sand on the shore. It was an outrageous promise, but coming from God they had no reason to doubt it would be fulfilled….No reason except human weakness and impatience, which is our common lot, so we can’t really criticise Sarah when she resorted to manipulating circumstances in order to get a son by other means! Certainly, it gave Abraham the son he craved, but it also set in motion a train of events which continues to this day to cause great trouble and grief in the world. We all have reason to regret Sarah’s decision to give her servant as child-bearer to her husband – and Abraham’s willing cooperation with that action!

In the end, God’s promise was fulfilled in the supernatural way he had always intended, and Isaac was born to the elderly parents, bringing delight and joy and that sweet fulfillment of hope which is indeed like a tree of life. If only…if only Sarah had been more holy and faithful than we are, she would have waited and trusted God even when it appeared that he had forgotten his promise. Let us be wary of judging this woman for acting as we are so often tempted to do – trying to find ways to get what we think God has promised us in any way we can make it happen! May we be restrained from acting rashly, causing more problems than we solve, and may we find ourselves willing to go on trusting, and meantime praising the God who has promised – who is good and who keeps his promises.

The shepherd boy who would one day wear the crown in Israel had learnt that lesson, and all through the long years when David – as the anointed and future King – was on the run from Saul, he never took the opportunities available to him to kill Saul or injure him in any way. He maintained his respect for the king, and waited, and waited, until his heart must at times have sickened within him and murmured that God was only waiting for David to act…

Then came the word of Saul’s death in battle, and David’s hour had come – without any need to dress up as obedience an act which would have been in truth a rebellion against God’s law – and the first thing he did was to mourn for Saul, honouring even in death the man who had pursued him so viciously  for many years.

What has God promised me? Health and happiness? No. Suffering and struggle? Yes! Let no one convince you otherwise, than that our life in this world will be marked by trouble, and our response should not be ‘why me?’ but rather ‘why not me!?’ Far more significantly, we are also promised the constant presence of our Saviour and God, dwelling in us by the Spirit and continually strengthening us, counselling and directing us. We are promised complete forgiveness, and freedom from guilt about the past, and we are promised a future more glorious, exciting, fulfilling and fun than we can possibly imagine!

All God’s promises to us, are ‘YES’ in Christ – and we don’t need to manipulate anything to receive them, but freely accept them as God’s gift to us. Oh let me learn to live in those promises, to set my heart and desire on them, that their fulfillment might be for me a tree of life!