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Such good news!

“Is anyone thirsty?
    Come and drink—
    even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—
    it’s all free!
 Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
    Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
    You will enjoy the finest food.

 “Come to me with your ears wide open.
    Listen, and you will find life.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you.
    I will give you all the unfailing love I promised to David.
 See how I used him to display my power among the peoples.
    I made him a leader among the nations.
 You also will command nations you do not know,
    and peoples unknown to you will come running to obey,
because I, the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, have made you glorious.”

 Seek the Lord while you can find him.
    Call on him now while he is near.
 Let the wicked change their ways
    and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
    Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.

 “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
 For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.

 “The rain and snow come down from the heavens
    and stay on the ground to water the earth.
They cause the grain to grow,
    producing seed for the farmer
    and bread for the hungry.
 It is the same with my word.
    I send it out, and it always produces fruit.
It will accomplish all I want it to,
    and it will prosper everywhere I send it.
 You will live in joy and peace.
    The mountains and hills will burst into song,
    and the trees of the field will clap their hands!
 Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.
    Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.
These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name;
    they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.”

It has been a long week..last Sunday we had our last meal together as a family in Glasgow, and by Tuesday evening, we were in the new house, surrounded by boxes, shell-shocked but thankful for all the mercies which had attended our removal. Beautifully dry weather, exemplary removal men, and a house which was clean and ready for us to move into – thanks to the efforts of our new congregation in finishing off the alterations and getting a superlative team of cleaners on the job!

I have been unable to think straight, to contemplate much beyond the next box and where to bestow its contents, my body manifesting the stress through pain and a weariness I have never experienced before. It is at times like this that faith is a matter of just keeping going, trusting that our feelings are transient, and not the grounds of our salvation or God’s love for us! I have been hard to live with, and yet my faithful Lord has been ever present, tenderly bearing with my weakness and helping me recognise my blessings! I am so grateful for his patience and covenanted love for me in such circumstances.

Last night, my husband and our new congregation made promises to love and serve our great God together in this place, in mutual love and faithfulness – a solemn and joyous occasion, like a marriage ceremony in its formal vows made before God. We admit that this is not about feelings, it is a commitment of the will, made in obedience to God; made in trust that by his power, we will keep faith with him and one another in the days ahead. It was good to sing, pray and hear God’s word together, including these from Isaiah, a triumphant declaration by God about the power and priceless treasure which is his word to us.

Since I have been unable to think coherently enough to write for myself this week, I leave you with the words of God through the prophet, because it is his word, and the power of God through that word which is good news for our own lives and also the work to which we are all called. We obey, but it is God who is at work, and we look forward in this place to seeing how his word will bear fruit in lives transformed by his love and forgiveness.

Jesus Christ, the apple tree?

The tree of life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit, and always green,

The trees of nature fruitless be, compar’d with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel, by faith I know, but ne’er can tell,

The glory which I now can see, in Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought; 

I missed of all but now I see ’tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m wearied with my former toil, here I will sit and rest a while; 

Under the shadow I will be of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

With great delight I make my stay, there’s none shall fright my soul away,

Among the sons of men I see, there’s none like Christ the apple tree.

I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine, it cheers my heart like spiritual wine.

And now this fruit is sweet to me, that grows on Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive;

Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

(  Anon , first published in the 18th century)

Old songs can be hard to sing, hard to understand, because their language is antique and unwieldy, words have shifted in their meaning, and images and allegories which were once familiar are now strange.

Many of the older songs traditionally sung at Christmas come under this heading, and I appreciate that for this reason, few modern leaders choose to use them in congregational worship. But if – like me – you have enough of a taste for old language, for rich imagery in praise, then there is great sweetness in these pieces.

The picture of a tree full of fruit and goodness is an attractive one, and for the Christian, the image immediately conjures up the tree of the Garden of Eden – of the knowledge of good and evil – where humankind first rebelled against God and rejected his authority in their lives. But the tree of life is described in detail in Revelation 22, with its continual fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. This tree is not a source of curse and loss, but of healing and life! And we know that it is in Christ, by his work on the cross, that we are healed and restored to newness of life.

The beauty of Christ’s love for us, that heart-piercing loveliness which brings us to our knees in adoration of the one who counted us worth dying for, makes this tree the one above all which we cherish, and prefer. Nowhere else are we so satisfied as here, and here we rest, as in the shade of a tree on a hot day. In Christ we rest, because all the labour of our salvation was his, not ours, and he has extended to us all the privileges of glory to treasure.

And so we live by his fruit, because it is the forgiveness which he won for us which lifts us out of darkness into light and God’s favour; it is the new life which is ours in him that enables us to live in hope in this world and with confidence for the next; it is the constant presence of his spirit within us, like the food which nurtures our bodies, that feeds our souls, our faith, our walk with God. If I do not eat, I die; and if I refuse the fruit of my precious Lord, then surely I will starve and waste away, and the life which Christ died to give me will be a travesty, a ghost and dreadful to see.

So as I anticipate the feast of Christmas, celebrating the coming of Jesus, God with us, I will feast on the great images which deepen my understanding of him – the Shepherd; the Gate; the Water of Life; the Bread of Life; the Alpha and the Omega; the bright morning star; the Messiah; the son of David… and the apple tree!

May we be richly nourished in the days ahead..

It’s all just so… wrong!

O God, do not keep silent; be not quiet, O God, be not still.

See how your enemies are astir, how your foes rear their heads. with cunning they conspire against your people; they plot against those you cherish.

(Psalm 83. 1-3)

Do you ever get really desperate with God about the mess that things are in? I do, I find myself full of questions and anger that so much beauty, love, and goodness are being assaulted, wasted and destroyed on a daily basis. I get furious that God’s people across the world are being oppressed, attacked and martyred every month. I despair over the ways that the family of God, the church, the body of Christ, manages to misrepresent the truth about its Lord – we fight and quarrel, we stand over in judgement against one another; we acquire wealth and status, and love to sit in the seats of power, while neglecting to love our needy neighbours and to wear the garment of humility in all our dealings with men.

It is therefore with great relief that I turn to the Psalms, to the book of songs recorded for the people of God to use in worship and in prayer, and from which generations have been blessed. These songs are not like many of those we sing nowadays, which might give the impression that being a Christian is an easy or instantly fulfilling life. Very few of our modern writers manage to accurately mirror the truth about our life of faith, with all its struggles, doubts and darkness – which are not a passing phase, but things we will live with until God takes us home and makes us new.

But the psalmists know real life. Their songs speak to my own situation, and give me words to use in prayer and worship as I come before God, as I live before him in daily life in this broken world. Do you ever think of your lament as a form of worship? I believe that it is, a most profound act of surrendering our questions, doubts, fear and anger to the one who above all has the power to heal, answer and quieten our storms. The throne of the almighty is THE place of justice, of appeal against wrong and evil. We give the Lord of Hosts his rightful place when we call upon him to put right all that is so painfully wrong in his world. It is when we recognise our own pitiful limitations and cast ourselves entirely upon him that we truly worship – give him his full worth. So let us not hold back, but come often to lay down our burdens of grief, discouragement, fear and anger at the ways which our world and particularly our race, are damaged.

It is good to be sufficiently alive to the goodness, glory and love of God that we see and feel most keenly the evil, darkness and hatred of this world. I didn’t say it was comfortable! The greater our understanding of God, the more deeply we will mourn over the ways in which his children have rebelled against him and are destroying all the beauty he has given them.

As we grow in our understanding of God’s love for us, in the riches which are available to us through faith in Jesus Christ, so we will become more and more tender-hearted toward our fellows in their need to be saved. John tells us in his gospel that “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”(Jn 3.19) Do we not see this? People reject the witness of Jesus’ followers, they shut their ears and will not listen to the offer of life, forgiveness and restoration, because they do not want to see the truth about their deeds. They would rather remain in the darkness – and how heart-breaking is that for our Father God?

When we grieve and lament over the broken lives, and corrupted world we inhabit; when we come before the One who made all things to be good and share something of his pain; when we receive a fresh vision of his love and mercy towards the lost, then we find that our witness becomes more urgent, our prayers more fervent, and our rejoicing in daily blessings more whole-hearted.

How right the psalmists were, to bring their grief and anger to God, who can use these experiences to strengthen and equip us to be more faithful servants, and to live even closer to him. Praise the Lord, O my soul!

Doing it all… Or not!

P1020171Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm,

let sense be dumb, let flesh retire, speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,

o still small voice of calm!

These words are the climax to a well loved hymn by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) , which is a heartfelt prayer for God to be present and speak to us so clearly that we recognise and are thrilled by his voice. The reference to earthquake, wind and fire are from the story of Elijah, who in a time of great personal weariness and despair was  blessed by an encounter with God which would invigorate him and direct his future. It was not the terrifying fire from heaven, nor the invisible power of the wind, nor even the shaking of earth’s foundations which conveyed God’s presence in this instance, but rather a ‘gentle whisper’ as the bible tells us in the nineteenth chapter of the first book of Kings.

Sometimes, it is through great signs of power that we perceive God’s presence and are reassured, but at other times, we need a tender and intimate touch. Elijah was utterly at the end of his resources, and which of us has not felt this way? Firstly, God had provided food, and sleep, so that the body was nourished – a lesson for all of us who stay busy when we perhaps ought to stop. Next, came this astonishing visitation by God, as he takes time to question the disgruntled prophet, and tease out exactly what is going on in his mind! Elijah was utterly discouraged, convinced that he alone was on God’s side, and that the task ahead was simply too much for him.

Do we fully realise just how intimately our God is concerned with our thoughts? This is such an encouragement to share all that is in our hearts, the sorrows and joys, discouragements as well as triumphs. Our own thoughts and emotions can easily become a storm, bewildering us, leaving us unable to see the best way to act or decision to take. Here we see the way that God quiets Elijah’s personal storm, and then, once he has the prophet’s attention, speaks clearly. He speaks truth into Elijah’s confused understanding of the situation, and gives instructions which indicate very plainly that God remains very much in control and there is every reason to keep on believing in and serving him. Far from everything depending on Elijah, God tells the weary man that he is one of over 7000 faithful servants, among them the young Elisha, who would become Elijah’s successor! God was on the job, and it did not depend on the ability or strength of one frail human being.

What a wonderful God we have, what a relief to know that we matter to him so much, and that his care is so personal. May we learn to recognise his voice more and more clearly as we listen for it and bring our storms to his calming presence! There, we find that we are not alone, and are reminded that it is not our strength which matters, but that of the almighty God whom we serve. All praise to Him!

‘X’ marks the spot

P1000328  Where do I find the source of the strength I need to face each day? Where do I find the joy in serving, and the refreshment to my spirit for each new task? Sometimes, our lives can seem so small, so full of trivialities, and we wonder if anything we do is worthwhile?

Last night, I was privileged to attend a meal and celebration marking the retirement from full-time employment in Scripture Union Scotland of a woman whom God has used mightily to advance His kingdom in our land. She has served SU for 33 years, involved in residential events, missions, development of new ministries, strategies for change and nurturing of countless leaders and young people along the way.

It was humbling to see the number and variety of people who assembled to pay tribute and express their love and appreciation to her. But it was glorious too, because ultimately, we were thanking God for all the ways He has gifted, sustained, led and enabled her in His work.

We are not all called to such high profile ministries, but we can be confident that this same God is our sustaining power, and take comfort from these words which were written to the Thessalonians:

So we keep on praying for you, asking our God to enable you to live a life worthy of his call. May he give you the power to accomplish all the good things your faith prompts you to do. Then the name of our Lord Jesus will be honoured because of the way you live, and you will be honoured along with him. This is all made possible because of the grace of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”  (2 Thessalonians 1v 11&12)

What a privilege is ours, to be the means of bringing honour to the Lord who loves and saves us. It is not our strength or cleverness which achieves this by itself, but rather the power of God working through us. Our gifts and abilities are used most tellingly in His service when we surrender them to His direction, and engage in the “good works” to which our faith leads us.

Faith prompts us to believe that God loves and desires to save our friends, family and work colleagues – so we in turn love them, and by our actions, and words, seek to share that love and help them to encounter Christ. Faith tells us that this world is not all there is, but only rather the prologue to a grand adventure, beyond our imagining – so we can be content to serve, to put others first, to value the small and forgotten ones, knowing that we are not in any sense blowing our chances of a good time! Faith prompts us to believe that God provides for those He loves, and to see that everything we have is a gift – so we are free to share and give, not hoard and strive to acquire more.

And all this is possible because of the grace which is God’s endless gift to us, daily, hourly, minute by minute grace. Continually He loves us, forgives us, heals and comforts us, sets us back on our feet and on the road to walk another step closer to home. This is ‘X’, the spot where treasure lies, and not one which can be frittered away, but which is without limit, always sufficient for our needs. It is grace which fuels our labours, and enriches our pleasures, and helps us to see that nothing we do for God is ever wasted – whether that is on a small or a large scale. By grace, I am significant to the God of heaven, and He takes pleasure in my company – here is priceless wealth, and treasure indeed!

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be ours, now and forevermore.. Amen

New every morning…

There is P1010160a song which I learnt so long ago that I can’t remember, which is a straight quote from the book of Lamentations – chapter 3 v 22&23. It is simple, and yet also profound.. a statement of faith in our awesome God. When I am enjoying times of peace in life, of personal ease from pain or trouble and my loved ones are happy, this song comes easily. But when I am in trouble, when all around is bewildering in the depth and complexity of despair and destruction it presents, these words remain a reassuring statement of faith.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.”

These words were written by the prophet Jeremiah – not known for his frivolous approach to life, but rather as one who writhed in agony under the message he brought, and the pain he witnessed. Jeremiah saw dreadful things happening to the people of Israel and Judah, and he himself suffered in ways most of us will never know. Yet still he asserts the loving faithfulness of God. Did he know the words which the tormented soul of Job uttered after utter disaster had come upon him?- “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2, v10).

Were these men deluded? How can we assert the goodness of God in the face of pain, evil and darkness? The story of Job concludes with a stupendous encounter between the stubbornly faithful but despairing Job, and His great God, whom he refused to curse, yet struggled to praise in his pain. God never answers the questions which the poor man has poured out, but as if drawing back a curtain on the wonders of creation, challenges Job to think about how very very limited he is in relation to the limitless creator of the universe.

Time and again, I think believers find themselves here, utterly overwhelmed by the realities of our God in creation – its complexity, diversity, delicate balances and vast scale. We say with Job,” I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…. therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42, v3 & 4).

When I am in the darkness, I call to mind this picture, and remember that I am but dust, unable to comprehend God, or to see the truth as He can. I call to mind the cross, and remember that this great God did not remain remote from our suffering, but entered into it, more fully than I can ever understand, and that there our sorrows and griefs were laid upon him too. Jesus accepted pain and suffering from God, trusting that this was the right and only way to bring salvation, that even in this, God was faithful and his mercy would endure.

Let this example of trust in the steadfast love of the Lord be an encouragement in our own darkness, and as we pray for others in their distresses. And when we feel that we are walking again in pleasant places, we can sing the song with particular joy, knowing from experience that our God is faithful and reliable.

In loving arms

Sometimes, the child within  me becomes very tired and frightened, the effort of being brave and strong for others, of being patient and kind, giving without expecting anything in return, becomes too much. I want to run away and hide, to find that place where as a little one, I used to feel safe, and protected, a place to rest.

Yesterday, I saw a painting of a woman sitting with a child in her lap, a solid toddler, with heavy eyes and lolling head who was ready for sleep. The sense of heaviness in the child’s position really caught  my attention, and brought back those times when my own children would rest in my arms. When a little one is  tired and feels utterly secure, there is a particular kind of rest that comes to them, as every ounce of weight is relaxed into the arms that hold it. They stop holding themselves, and give the entire burden to the loving, surrounding presence.

And so I realised again, how blessed I am, because even as a grown woman, I have such a place of security to rest in. The God of heaven is my refuge, and not merely in the sense of a defence against danger, but also this loving, warm resting place. He knows my heart, and sees how like that tired child I am. There are many passages in the bible which talk about His care for His people, this one is particularly lovely:-

“In His love and mercy He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old”

Isaiah 63,9

These are the arms which surround us, which are bearing us even when we think we are alone with our burdens. As I struggle to bear the sorrows of those around me, or to find wisdom for a difficult decision, or feel grief for my own disappointments, my God is holding me. Will I let myself relax into that embrace, instead of sitting rigidly upright, tense and braced?

The apostle Peter writes to encourage early believers, and in turn also those of us come lately to the faith, telling them to “Cast all your anxiety on him“… and why can they do this? “Because he cares for you” (1Peter 5,7). Today, I choose to let go, to trust that the one who bears me, can bear my burdens also.

Today, let us take God at His word, and find rest for our souls as we are carried peacefully in His unfailing and intimately personal love for us.P1010432

A loud song!

Still waters

Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel!

Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!

The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy…

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.

He will take great delight in you,

He will quiet you with his love,

He will rejoice over you with singing.

Zephaniah ch 3, v 14,15&17

The bible is full of songs and singing, and in most cases it is God’s people singing of and to him, in praise or lament, triumph and occasionally despair. I love to sing, I know that music is a gift which can bless both the maker and receiver of it, and that in lifting my voice I do a good thing. But here, God is described as singing over me, making music, making beauty, over me!

This soul, stumbling through her days, seeing her own weaknesses and faults, and weary of letting others down; this is one in whom God takes great delight. If only I could imprint this in the front of my mind, to carry it with me everywhere I go, like a shield against the wounds and struggles of life. When I feel useless and insignificant, this word tells me that God rejoices over me – not merely tolerating my presence, but like a lover, delighting in me, in who I am.

What kind of love is this?! Beyond our understanding, outshining our human loves as the sun blasts away all recollection of candlelight, enduring and unyielding, utterly to be relied upon. This love is what our souls need to rest in, where there is no need to strive or disguise our flaws in order to be accepted.

The One who loves like this is mighty to save; it is He who has turned back our enemy and taken away our punishment, so that we can be forever quiet and at peace – resting – in his love. He has done it,all for love of us. All praise and glory to his name, and may you find songs of gladness and thanksgiving on your lips through the days ahead.