Category Archives: worship

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 yet I dare to enter…

And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, “In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.” All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.

(Isaiah 45.21-24)

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel…Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

(Hebrews 12.22-24,28&29)

One of the pitfalls of having spent my entire life within a christian community, is that so many of the phrases we use and read are so familiar – I stop seeing them, stop noticing how bold and audacious they are!

And then God in his goodness gives my mind a nudge, the Spirit opens my eyes and ears, and suddenly I see it afresh. That happened with the little phrase from Isaiah, “And there is no God but me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me.”

To the mind of sophisticated 21st century humankind, that statement is outrageous, arrogant, or ludicrous – depending on one’s viewpoint. As a follower of Jesus in Scotland in 2017, I am in the minority, regarded by many as deluded and foolish, by some as dangerous in my commitment to my faith. The notion that there is a God is mocked by many, and others would argue that all faith systems lead to the same place, so that all “gods” are equal.

Where do I stand? I am made uneasy by the strength and vehemence of the secularists, as they denounce my faith and my God. I am dumb in the presence of articulate intellects, mocking all that I hold dear, and dragging away the foundations of my world. I cannot defeat clever speech, nor do I desire to mock others for their beliefs – mockery is no way to gain respect or a hearing for my own belief.

When I am conscious of being under assault, I fling myself back at the foot of the cross – that great pivotal point in history, when God declared that He would not be mocked by sin, and that the devil would not have lasting dominion over God’s creation.

I believe in an historical Jesus, God-incarnate walking the earth, working steadily towards the unveiling of an unparalleled act of divine intervention. Who else has a God who is utterly holy, just and pure – a searing brilliance that our polluted minds cannot being to imagine – and YET who is full of mercy and love, and chooses to reconcile his love and his justice in order that He might be re-united with his unfaithful people?

There is truly NO God like this, and all our philosophies and science, all the pride of  man in his thinking and discovering has uncovered nothing as beautiful and life-changing as this God in his act of reconciliation through Jesus death on the cross.

I would rather be a fool for Christ, than considered wise by men; would rather remain on the fringes of society as a faithful follower, than enjoy popular success without my Lord. He has opened the way for me – even me, so broken and flawed by sin – to enter the presence of this righteous God, and not to enter as one dreading well-earned punishment, but rather as a beloved child.

What does it matter to me if men mock? My eternal fate is not in their hands, but safe in the hands that bled for me, the hands that are raised to intercede for me, the hands that extend to welcome me with love into my Father’s presence. He is mighty and glorious indeed, and worthy of reverent praise, but because Jesus died, I dare to run to him, to cling and call him Father. In his house, I am at rest and safe, and nothing can drag me from his arms.

How true is my vision?

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

(Exodus 40.33-35)

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

(1Kings 8.6,10&11)

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

(Acts 7.55, 56, 59&60)

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

(2Corinthians 4.6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Stop, look…listen!

Honour the Lord, you heavenly beings; honour the Lord for his glory and strength. Honour the Lord for the glory of his name. Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness.

The voice of the Lord echoes above the sea. The God of glory thunders. The Lord thunders over the mighty sea. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic. The voice of the Lord splits the mighty cedars; the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon’s mountains skip like a calf; he makes Mount Hermon leap like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord strikes with bolts of lightning. The voice of the Lord makes the barren wilderness quake; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks and strips the forests bare. In his temple everyone shouts, “Glory!”

The Lord rules over the floodwaters. The Lord reigns as king forever. The Lord gives his people strength. The Lord blesses them with peace.

(Psalm 29)

I don’t know if you have ever noticed how hard it can be to simply praise God, without slipping in a little request along the way? I used to attend a church where the Saturday night prayer meeting began with a time of praise. We sang a psalm and thought about it a little, then spent ten minutes or more simply praising God – absolutely no requests were made, the focus was entirely upon our God in all his aspects, and our response of worship. It was through this experience that I learned how important it is to stop my busy thoughts, to lift my eyes to the truth revealed about God, and give him his proper place.

When we spend time deliberately thinking about all we can see of God’s handiwork, and all it reveals about his power, beauty, imagination, playfulness, love and skill, we come into an attitude of profound thankfulness and also humility. The sheer scale and complexity of the created world is so far beyond our comprehension that we rightly marvel at the one who made it. When we realise how delicately everything has been balanced so that humanity can thrive, we are overwhelmed by the loving kindness which lies behind every detail.

As we focus our thoughts on God, not for what he may give us, but simply for who he is and all the wonderful and terrifying things we know of him, our perspective shifts and he takes his rightful place – on the throne of our hearts, undisputed ruler and subject of our highest loyalties and ambitions. Such adoring contemplation helps me to keep other things – principally myself – from taking that highest place in my life; and it is when God rules in human hearts that they are most fully human, we were not made to worship ourselves, but him!

This psalm demonstrates that beautifully, as the word “I” never appears, and God is referred to in every sentence. Try reading it aloud to yourself, feeling the growing thrill of wonder and worship as the psalmist heaps image upon image in order to express the power and authority of the Lord as revealed in his creation, until that wonderful response where all in the temple simply have to cry “Glory!”

And those final words are like a benediction. After so much contemplation of who God is, we turn to what he does..He rules and reigns. This God, whom we have seen is so powerful and holy and good; he it is who rules, and therefore we do right to bring all that we are and all that concerns us to him. It is his task to see that justice is done, and while we may have questions about how he chooses to do that, we can surely trust him. Our God is great enough to hold our unanswered questions and to give us peace in return, since we see his goodness and know that he must be true to himself.

How good it is to praise God, and how unutterably wonderful to have one who is entirely worthy of praise! Let us lose ourselves more often in worship of the Lord who rules and reigns forever, so that we might live by his strength and in his peace.

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!

All the little things

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our Salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.

(Psalm 95. 1-5))

It has been an ordinary kind of Saturday, no special parties to go to or visitors to entertain; no heart-stopping drama or sporting event to watch. But oh what a day of glory it has been!

A cloudless dawn under a frosty sky, with the sea moving imperceptibly under a polished silver skin. A day of full sunshine, of October heat, with enough breeze to set the white shirts dancing on the washing line, as the late low sunlight glowed through them. A day spent out of doors, digging, painting, sorting out storage and finally putting some plants into the ground ahead of the winter. We drank coffee in the sunshine, and treated ourselves to a carry-out for tea, feeling the tightness in our skin that speaks of a day outdoors in idyllic conditions.

Across the bay, I see the mountains, rearing greenish grey velvet heads against the sky, great dramatically moulded monuments to my creator’s genius. The sea, after days of driving gales and huge waves, is like a silver or brilliant blue blanket, spread gently around the base of the hills and forming the perfect foil to their stark slopes. Closer at hand, the great swathes of bracken which have been invisibly green against the grass all summer have suddenly gone intensely fox-bronze, burning brightly in the sunset.

I continue to be astonished that it should have been our privilege to be called to live and work in a place where this world’s beauty is so lavishly displayed – I feel permanently stuffed with good things! And is it not so often the case that we do not need to look far to find things which speak of God’s greatness in creation, his passion for colour, texture and light, which he has made us able to appreciate and which feed our spirits so deeply? I am profoundly grateful, and delight in knowing to whom I owe my daily debt of thanksgiving!

The habit of recording these daily gifts of good things, received from the Father from whom all such come, has become very precious, creating in me a spirit which looks for and expects to find – in every situation- something to give thanks for. Days like today make it very easy, because although in themselves, none of the events of the day have been noteworthy, yet all the little details have added up to something priceless. I may not remember it all in vivid detail, but it has been very good for me to be fully aware of all that I have received, resting in and relishing every moment.

Sometimes, it will be harder to find something to be grateful for, but the habit of looking has helped me to trust my Father’s faithfulness and grace towards me, as so often even the hard days prove to be full of gifts – whether of the kindness extended to me by others because of my distress, or the relief of bringing the whole horrid mess before my God. At times, there will even be the precious experience of finding an oasis in the midst of trouble, when for whatever reason, the burden lifts, the darkness is pierced by light, and we experience respite, refreshment and heart’s ease. If it were not for the trials, these times would go unnoticed, and we would have missed the chance of learning more about God’s faithfulness to us through every part of life.

Our lives are like a mosaic, so many individual little parts making up a whole, and as yet we cannot see it, we only guess at the final picture which will be unveiled as part of the new creation. But, we can choose whether we take the different pieces from God with confidence, or with fear; trusting the loving Father’s plan or fighting against all he desires to create in us. Today has been a day to build my confidence, a little shiny piece of golden stone which may stand out clearly because it is surrounded by darker pieces – but I will choose again to believe and say with the psalmist:

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;

For he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

(Psalm 95.6&7)

Inaccessible light

Let all that I am praise the Lord.

O Lord my God, how great you are!

You are robed with honour and majesty. You are dressed in a robe of light.

You stretch out the starry curtain of the heavens; you lay out the rafters of your home in the rain clouds.

You make the clouds your chariot; you ride upon the wings of the wind. The winds are your messengers; flames of fire are your servants.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath!

May all my thoughts be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.

(Ps 104 1-4,33&34)

Dressed in a robe of light…What an amazing picture, and one which takes me straight to the opening lines of Walter C Smith’s wonderful hymn with which I grew up –

Immortal, Invisible, God only wise; In light inaccesible, hid from our eyes…. 

We live as created beings with a great hunger in our hearts for something or someone greater than ourselves, something eternal from which we can find meaning in the world and on which we can build with what we have. The bible reflects this hunger in the book of Ecclesiastes, where the writer speaks of how he pursued every imaginable source of satisfaction in life, in vain. All was ultimately meaningless and unable to quench the hunger in his heart.

Through the great narrative of the bible stories, we see God revealing himself as the only true satisfaction for humankind, and declaring over and over his deep desire to dwell with us, his people. Our creator knows how we are made, knows that only in relationship with him can we be at peace and fully alive. And yet surely it is also true that we can never really know him. By definition, our God is so much greater than we can even begin to imagine. If we could understand everything about God, then we would be the creators, not he. We hunger to know him more, to discover more of his character, and yet find ourselves unable to stretch our minds enough to cope!

So we have to live with this tension and not allow it to undermine our faith in God’s love, goodness, holiness and faithfulness to us.

We cannot see him clearly; he is indeed wrapped in light, as in a garment. We are dazzled and blinded and unable to see past the glory of his holiness and purity, our minds cannot comprehend his greatness – one who by his word called into being billions of stars, and set in motion forces which we are only beginning to guess at, creating the conditions for life to exist and flourish on this single tiny planet of one star.

How wonderful to find that God, in his compassion for our limitations, came in person, came as one of us, so that we might see and hear him, learn to know him as a man, so that our confidence in him as God might be strengthened. Jesus tells his disciples that since they have seen him, they have seen their heavenly Father, they can know what he is like. So much remains a mystery to us, so many questions arising from our sin-sick world and all the suffering which has scarred God’s beautiful handiwork. What do we do with those unanswerable questions? What did Job do with his? He brought them to God, and was answered – not with a detailed list of explanations, but with a fresh vision of God’s greatness, a reminder that he is ultimately beyond our understanding and utterly good and holy.

Then Job replied to the Lord:”I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked,’who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know..” (Job 42.1-3)

The psalmist contemplates the greatness of God in creation, rejoicing in all he sees and in the knowledge that this same creator God is the one who is his God – the one who has promised to be with us and for us! We have the testimony of creation, but also the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ, revealing God to us and inviting us into that personal, fulfilling relationship which is our true satisfaction.

May our thoughts about God indeed be pleasing to him, as we worship what we can see and know; and accept that the mysteries which remain are good and right, and our God can be trusted. He is hidden in light, not darkness, and worthy of all our praise and honour!