Category Archives: witness

They don’t have to be perfect…

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.

(Romans 12.3-6)

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

(Col.3.23&24)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.

(Eph. 1.3-8)

Some of you may know that over the last year, I have undertaken some further study – returning to academic labours after nearly 30 years – and have found the process more than a little challenging. It has been very illuminating to discover just how much latent pride in my own achievements continues to lurk – and there is no other explanation for the way I react to a less than excellent grade in my assignments. Classmates and lecturers assure me that I am doing extremely well, but for some reason, I cannot rest in “good enough” and instead fall prey to disappointment that I have failed to excel. Deep in my spirit, there is some seat of judgement which holds everything I do up to a standard of perfection, and then condemns me to the bitterness of failure when – of course – I do not reach it.

I am ashamed at this behaviour, and hope that as I progress with the course so I will also find that this inner judge is dethroned, and replaced instead by the only one whose opinion of me really matters – my heavenly father. I believe that as a follower of Jesus, it is not right for me to be so unreasonably severe on myself – to fail to show to myself the grace, acceptance and forgiveness which is so freely offered by God, the perfect one, himself. If he does not condemn me for less than perfect grades, then I must not do it for myself!! I have spent years telling my children that I love them not for how well they do, but for who they are – and does my heavenly father not love me in this way too?!

I have my own gifts, character, strengths and weaknesses; I also have my own work to do in the place to which God has called me – and I am utterly secure in his love, forgiven for all my sins and failures, everything taken carefully into account in God’s perfect plan for me, so that I am free to work hard, sin and fail, strive and achieve, all with a peaceful and cheerful heart! I DO NOT HAVE TO BE PERFECT, and I am praying that I might learn more fully what that means for daily life, so that I can be free from the bitterness of inappropriate disappointment with myself.

May God in his mercy be at work powerfully to transform my understanding, so that I might show in my life the freedom which is mine through Christ – the freedom of a daughter of the King of kings, who may hold her head high knowing that no matter how strong the feelings of being unloved, unworthy and inadequate might be, they are only feelings. The fact of my status in Christ remains, and on this I stand, amazed, overjoyed, and free…

 

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Barren ground…..

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil…Other seed fell among thorns…Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop.. When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

(Matt 13.3-8&19)

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

(Ezek 37.1-3)

Jesus said..”How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

(Luke 18.23-27)

How do we maintain our hope and confidence in God when the work to which he calls us seems to bear no fruit, and when the future of our churches is so lacking in promise? Why does the God of the universe, for whom nothing is impossible, choose to withhold the blessing of the work of the spirit in the hearts and minds of men and women, convicting them of sin and bringing them to repentance and saving faith in his Son? Why does Jesus commission his followers down through the ages to go and share their faith, to make disciples, when he knew that the response, if any, would be small?

The mystery at the heart of this is well beyond the scope of this brief writing; the impenetrable operations of Almighty God in the human heart, and the ways in which we both respond to and are worked upon by his spirit. God is the bringer of new life, the only one who can release sinners from their bondage to decay – and yet we speak of a person coming to Christ, as if it were all their own initiative! It is a great paradox of faith, and one which – in the limited nature of our understanding – we must learn to accept and live with. We are called to labour with our God in the business of leading sinners home, of bringing people from darkness into light – by prayer; witness; practical loving and truth-speaking, we play our part in the miracle of new birth in Christ.

But, I return to my first questions again…how do faithful servants, desiring to obey the Lord’s command, make disciples? In our community, there is little or no interest in the gospel outside those who already come to church. People seem to believe that they have understood enough of it to set it aside as dated, irrelevant or even offensive, and they settle for their own world views and faith substitutes, quite content to pass their remaining days and the unknown of death without Christ. We, as a community of believers, are tolerated with humour and affection because we represent some quaint traditional values, and we do some useful things which other people appreciate. But by and large, we might as well be another secular society, like the golf club or sailing club – merely another interest group which occupies its own niche and does no harm.

We believe that our neighbours and friends are dry bones; that without Christ, they might as well be dead as live! We believe that the gospel offers a hope which is worth losing every good thing in this world to gain, and yet our witness is merely tolerated and then dismissed, neither preaching nor outreach have any impact.

God seems to have called us to labour in entirely barren ground; to spend ourselves in fruitless endeavours while yet retaining a lively and joyful hope and confidence in him. I don’t think it is wrong to admit that we find this extremely difficult!! We stand with Ezekiel and look at this desert of dry bones, and say with the prophet, “Lord, you alone know if these bones can live”. It is not for us to presume upon the Lord’s timing or will; but it is also not for us to despair and say that there is no hope..

May the God who brought us to this place, at this time, in his will and for his purpose, also enable and strengthen us, cheerfully to carry out such work as we can, and above all, to continue to trust in the power for salvation which is offered in Christ.

 

It’s not about the chocolate..

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

(Mark 8.34)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

You attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.. he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!

(Philippians 2.5-8)

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

(1 Peter 2.21-23)

As followers of Jesus around the world take time over the next few days to remember particularly the events of the last week of his life, looking forward to his death for all who would believe in him, I have been thinking how easy it is to forget a very significant truth about how he lived for us first.

Before Jesus died to save us from the power and consequences of sin – to offer hope for all the brokenness that each of us carries and cannot by any amount of our own effort overcome – he died to himself.

He deliberately set aside his own desires, the urge for self-preservation, comfort and privacy, for a “normal”life and the freedom to grow old without pain, and in peace. He gave up his rights as the eternal Son, setting them aside in order to become as a servant, one to whom no honour was due; and whose life might be disregarded and set at little worth. He gave up his rights to have his needs met in the ways he desired; he gave up the right to justify himself and to have the last word in an argument; he gave up the right to seek justice on his enemies for the wrongs they did to him. He set aside any notion of status or human authority, and never fought for recognition for his gifts and talents. He did not sulk or scheme against others when their opinions prevailed and his was set at nought.

It is far too easy for us to read Jesus’ words about denying ourselves, and to take them in as 21st century people – immediately thinking of diets, or other forms of privation; as many people still do in Lent, even when they have no faith in the Saviour whose life and death that season is associated with in many church calendars. It is far too easy to confine self-denial to food, or tv, or our favourite social media, or some other relatively innocuous item which doesn’t touch the heart of the matter.

It is ‘self’, the root of all human rebellion against God which must be denied, and that goes so deep with us, that most of us will spend our lives discovering ever more ways in which it rules and must be toppled from the throne over again.

I have no rights. I can demand nothing from life which I am entitled to receive. As a believer, all that I am and have is a gift from God, freely given, for him to use or withdraw according to his purpose and pleasure – for a greater and more glorious future than I can currently imagine. Will I trust this God – as Jesus did? Will I choose to cling by faith to his goodness and his promises when all my dearest hopes are gone; if my health were to be chronically undermined, or my children materially to suffer? Will I choose to let him look after the honour of my name and reputation, if all around treat me like dirt? Will I choose to let the justice of my cause go undefended, trusting in God to see and know, and resting on his love and acceptance of me for all my peace?

Jesus did this. He calls me to follow, rejecting the self which weeps and cries, fights and resists, clinging to every last foothold in my spirit and mind with incredible tenacity and hiding itself behind so many specious arguments.

My precious Lord and Saviour, for whom every step along the road to Jerusalem, every word and deed that last week was an act of obedient submission to the Father, and of ruthless denial of self, may I receive grace to follow and to carry my cross as simply, humbly and selflessly as you. Put to death in me that fierce enemy of the King of my heart, so that he might reign alone, and be glorified by who he makes me.

A sweet, sweet incense…

What do I hold in my hands, but fractured dreams, and faded hopes? The shame-filled memories of hurts given and received, the hidden scars of wounds sustained at the hands of those from whom I looked for kindness.

Are these a fitting sacrifice to bring to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

What haunts my prayers, but the bitter knowledge of the many, many, too many times I have forgotten to look to Love, have refused to look to Love, have embraced self-pity and chosen to cherish resentment and despair.

Is this a fitting heart to open before the throne of a holy and just God?

What drains my courage, but the suspicion that while God could change things, he seems to be choosing to change me instead – and I am sometimes just so very tired of being the subject of his potter’s hand, of being re-shaped, of being pruned and disciplined. I don’t see the fruit of his labours….is there any?

Is this a fitting spirit in which to bear witness to an almighty, loving and redeeming God?

……………………………..

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

(Psalm 51.8-12, 15-17)

What relief, what joy, to find in the words of the psalmist the answer to my cries! I am welcome before the God of heaven; I am called to be made clean, to be restored, to be lifted up. My brokenness and weakness, my inability to remember what I learn, or to put it into practice consistently, all is acceptable to God as a sacrifice.

Why? Because when I am broken and crying out to him, then I am fully relying on the finished work of my saviour, I am utterly without any pride or self-reliance, and am finally admitting that without God, I am helpless in my need..

In this world, the children of God will have trouble – Jesus promised as much – and the big question is what we do with it! Will we collapse under it, reject God and become bitter and alienated from him? Or will we seek to turn, and turn again towards him, begging for his strength, claiming the fulfillment of his promises to us – for his constant presence and enabling power, for his provision for our true needs? Even when I am on my knees, if I am crawling towards God, not away from him, then I am in the safest place and am assured that he is working for and in me.

Dear friends, let us encourage one another with the truth that we have been given; but let us also be gentle with one another as we limp together through the various trials with which God has entrusted us.

The words which I wrote so recently are ringing through my mind again….am I willing to thank God for trusting me with this long-term burden, thanking him for sustaining me thus far under it, thanking him for the ways it has driven me over and over again into his arms?

God grant me the ability to say “Yes, yes Lord, I thank you. I believe that you are working this out for my blessing and the blessing of your church, and the glory of your name…I believe, Lord help my unbelief!”

Spelling it out..

When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?………..Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll – are they not in your record? I am under vows to you, O God; I will present my thank-offerings to you. For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.

(Psalm 56. 3,4,8,12&13)

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. I cry out to God most high, to God, who fulfills his purpose for me. He sends from heaven and saves me…God sends his love and his faithfulness…My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music….I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.

(Psalm 57.2,3,7-10)

Turn to God, look up from your clenched hands, look up through your tears;

Reach out in faith, confess your lack of resources, that you might receive from him.

Understand that even in this trial, you are in his care, in his love, in his heart;

Submit willingly to the trial, and seek to lean hard and learn of him in it, and

Then make your sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, to God most high…

 

I have been freshly convicted recently about the way in which so often my praise of God is purely thankful – not that this is inappropriate, we ought indeed to be filled with gratitude for all that we have and are receiving, and will receive! But the response of mature faith to the revelation of God – in creation and most especially in his word and in Christ the incarnate word – should also be adoration..

By this I mean that I need to move on from thanking God for his gifts, to worshiping and praising him for simply who he is.

I have fond memories of attending a weekly prayer meeting while a student, where the first 15 or 20 minutes of prayer were purely adoration and thanksgiving, celebrating God’s character and all his goodness. It was an excellent discipline, focusing our minds on God, lifting our eyes from our own preoccupations to the eternal realities, and keeping the “shopping list” of intercessory prayer in its rightful place.. But even the great prayer warriors assembled in that room often found it easier to express gratitude than simply to praise!

It is this ability to adore, to be enchanted by the holiness, power, wisdom and love of God which is most powerful in supporting me in the darkest times. These are unchanging realities, unaffected by my feelings, by the things which are oppressing me. I may feel I have little to be thankful for – although this is rarely true…But I can ALWAYS celebrate the goodness of God, rejoice in his utter purity and the perfect loving communion which exists within the trinity. He has spoken, and his promises must be kept, because his nature and character demand that he keep his word. Therefore, I can trust him.

When I feel that the particular purposes of God being worked out in my life through my current trials are obscure and improbable, that I can hardly bear to endure, I can contemplate the incredible love and commitment which planned my redemption in Christ. Such passionate engagement on my behalf by eternal God is not to be wasted! If he has said that he is working for my good, then he can be trusted, and all the weight of my grief, confusion and despair can properly be cast on him.

Let us learn to contemplate and rejoice in the God who has made us his own, let’s learn to spell out for ourselves what we know….

He is Abba(father); He is Beautiful; He is Compassionate; He is Defender: He is Enthroned: He is Faithful…

I leave you to continue the list for yourself… God bless us and give us clearer vision that we might glorify him!

Against self-pity

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him…and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

(1 Peter 1.6-9)

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

(Hebrews 12.2)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

(James 1.2-4)

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ…..I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…

(Philippians 3.7&10)

I am often guilty of wishful thinking; of comparing my situation to that of other people and wondering why I should have to bear my particular burdens. I know this is foolish – who knows what hidden struggles and trials plague the lives of others? I know it is sinful, and yet I find myself longing, wondering, scheming to find a way out of my own personal darkness.

I resent my sufferings; I don’t want anyone else to have to bear them, but I don’t want them either! And then I read these words from Paul…and Peter…and James, and am rebuked and see clearly what my attitude is saying.

I am accusing God of dealing unfairly with me; of giving me a burden which is too great for me to carry; of asking too much; I am refusing to trust that this God – who has so devastatingly shown his love for me on the cross – has my best interests at heart. I consider Jesus, my saviour, and also my example of obedient, holy living, and am ashamed of my disobedient, grumbling attitude.

We are taught that our sufferings have a purpose – the maturing of our faith, until it becomes like pure gold in which the maker can see his own likeness clearly reflected – but that can produce a stoic, teeth-gritting determination rather than a humble, thankful acceptance. I believe that there is another element to the process, which can transform our attitude. Have you ever considered that once we are in glory with Christ, we will never again have the privilege of suffering anything at all in his name and for his sake? There will be nothing to endure, only to enjoy!

Our trials in this world are our opportunity to prove God faithful in his promises to strengthen, comfort and keep us.  When, in the mystery of his will, we are permitted to experience trials and troubles of every kind, then I believe that he is inviting our partnership in the process of creating Christ-likeness in us. The late Helen Roseveare, missionary doctor and one who suffered much at the hands of the Congolese rebels in 1964, wrote of how God spoke to her in the midst of great suffering:

Was He saying to me,’Yes, I could have kept you out of this situation: I could have rescued you….but I thought I could trust you to go through this with me, as I have a plan and purpose for the future..Can you thank me for trusting you with this experience even if I never tell you why?” (Count it All Joy; Helen Roseveare 2017)

If, when faced with our own particular trials, we take refuge in self-pity, in blaming God, and devote all our energies to getting out of the situation by our own efforts, then I believe we are neglecting an opportunity – to grow in faith; to let God shape us through this particular experience of leaning and depending on him; to witness to his power at work in our situation and above all to glorify Jesus by our desire to offer our suffering up in worship. In my own experience, it is in the darkest nights that the tenderness of my Lord’s love is most dear, most present – shall I refuse to meet him there again?

I, the least of the Lord’s servants, am being counted worthy of suffering in his name – and I have his example to inspire me – scorning the shame, and for the joy that is to come, I can receive my trials as a means of blessing. The missionary and author Elisabeth Elliott – who like Dr Roseveare proved God faithful through many trials – puts it perfectly:

“Refuse self-pity. Refuse it absolutely. It is a deadly thing with power to destroy you. Turn your thoughts to Christ who has already carried our griefs and sorrows.”

Oh Loving God, Heavenly Father, grant me wisdom, faith and courage, to trust you and embrace all that you choose to permit in my life, for your glory and the blessing of others.

Looking around…

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

(Psalm 39. 4-7)

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

(Matthew 10.29-31)

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

(Matthew 16.24-26)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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