Category Archives: worship

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!

 

I will!

Oh, praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, you who serve at night in the house of the Lord. Lift up holy hands in prayer, and praise the Lord.

May the Lord, who made heaven and earth, bless you from Jerusalem.

(Psalm 134)

I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but the Psalmist never says – “Praise God, because you are feeling good, and you want to.” The command is never conditional on our feelings, or our circumstances, but always the right and proper response to who God is. I find that a great relief, because so often my feelings are not particularly optimistic or buoyant, and if I had to somehow generate an ecstatic mood before coming to praise and spend time with God then I would be very seldom likely to do it!

The wonderful thing is that so often, when we obey the command – as loyal and covenanted soldiers ought to – we find that the act of praising, of considering God’s qualities and astonishing power at work in the world, does of itself lift our mood, out of pessimism and drab monotony to a lively appreciation and delight. This is nourishment to our spirits, food for our souls, and perhaps another way of understanding what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples that he had food which they knew nothing about!

There are times – surely in the life of every follower of Jesus – when reading the bible seems like an empty exercise, when the word seems dry and academic, when their walk of faith is through a drab and somehow colourless landscape. This is perhaps when our promise of obedience is most vital in sustaining us. If we continue to obey, in spite of our feelings – or even the lack of them – meeting with our fellow believers to worship, taking time to read the word, praying for others as well as ourselves, then we keep putting ourselves into a position to hear and receive from God.

If we choose to stop reading, stop meeting, stop praying, we damage ourselves, and make it much harder for God to speak to us, and how then can we find strength to endure the dryness? The deceiver of our souls would have us give up, shut ourselves away to grieve over the absence of feelings which we enjoyed in the past, nurse our anger against God that we no longer sense his presence. And when we manage to look carefully at this attitude, we see the reality of it, the danger of it. We are behaving like sulky children, resenting the absence of a particularly appreciated treat, and punishing our loving parents by refusing to enjoy the humdrum daily routine which is the foundation of our lives.

Jesus never promised that our walk with him would be easy, comfortable, trouble-free, nor that it would be a continual series of ecstatic experiences! He said ‘take up your cross’, and promised grief, sacrifice, and then he said ‘and I will be with you always, even to the ends of the earth’

So we can choose to persevere, obediently walking with him through the dry times, and the troubled times, knowing that regardless of our feelings, he is ever present, loving and cherishing us. Or we can act like sulky children, refusing to stir a step without an enticing bribe and wheedling words, never growing in stamina, never looking beyond our own feet.

Sometimes I have to listen very hard to hear beyond the immediate storm of resentful, or simply weary and disheartened thoughts, to hear the voice of my soul which says each day to her Lord and Lover, ‘I will’. But that voice is still there. I am ashamed that so often I choose not to listen for it, and instead indulge myself in self-pity, resentfulness, and even laziness.

Praise God, for he is good. He knows that voice in my soul is the truth about who I am, and he continues to keep company with me, in spite of my childish sulks, my indolence about spiritual disciplines.

Praise God, for he is good. He sees the desire to become more Christlike, that desire which is his own sweet gift to me, and he continues to work in my life to make that happen.

Praise God, for he is good. His love endures for ever!

The foundation of obedience..

Take off take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy..

(Joshua 5.15)

So Joshua has successfully led the wandering people of God’s promise into the land where they are to settle. He has seen the floods of the Jordan back up to create a dry pathway for their feet, and heard the thunder of returning waters after the last foot left the river bank. He knows from his spies that the people who live in the land – even in the great fortified cities like Jericho – are terrified at the coming of this bunch of nomads, because of the reputation of the God who goes with them.

He could be forgiven for becoming a little presumptuous about the next steps, for assuming that he just had to walk up and challenge the gates of Jericho, to see everyone flee in terror. But it seems he was not – one of the things I love about the stories of Joshua, are the way they reveal an utterly humble and faithful servant heart, I look forward to meeting this hero of God’s story in heaven and hearing all about it!

Joshua went wandering, prowling around the hills near the city, perhaps debating in his mind how God would want him to proceed. He is answered, in a heart-stopping encounter with an armed stranger, who is revealed to be neither an enemy, nor a member of his own army! This is the true commander, come to remind Joshua that God is God, and owes alliegance to no man. It is the work of God which will open the land to his people, not the strength of Joshua’s strategies or soldiers. The question is, where does Joshua’s alliegance lie? Has he become proud – as Saul would later in Israel’s history – and unwilling to wait on God’s leading?

There is no question in Joshua’s mind, as he drops to the ground in reverence, and identifies the stranger as ‘my Lord’, asking what the instructions might be. We should be cheering this faithful servant, rejoicing that God has answered him so directly and convincingly! But we can also learn from him, and the way that God dealt with Joshua – as he dealt also with Moses all those years before in the desert encounter with a burning bush.

Our God is a holy God – that means that anything impure is utterly abhorrent to him and it cannot abide in his sight, but will be consumed as if by fire. Joshua, this mere man, a creature of flesh and weakness even as we are, knew that to be on holy ground was a terrifying thing, fraught with danger. He surely knew as the writer to the Hebrews would later put it that ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.‘(Heb 10.31)

We shrink from the idea of a God who should be feared, preferring to dwell on the wonderful love which is revealed through Christ’s life and death for us. And it is good so to dwell. But the same holy and righteous God is active in the life of Christ. We see him condemning those who reject his kingdom, assuring all who listen that those who continue to shut their ears to God will suffer and know his wrath. This is not easy reading, it should frighten us! Our God is above all one who must be taken seriously – both in his love for us, and also his power and holiness.  Do we? Do I sometimes sit far too casually with my familiar sins, instead of seeing them as my living God does – as the appalling and deadly thing they are? Does my obedience and desire for growing holiness of life really spring from a growing awe at the God who has called me to be His own?

I believe that Joshua served God gladly, with joy and even pride in what God had called him to do. But there was a right spirit about his service that I desire for myself – a spirit of prostrate worship before an utterly holy God; to whom nothing but perfect obedience should be given, because nothing less could be an acceptable expression of his love and devotion.

May God grant us each an ever deepening grasp of his beautiful, terrible holiness, blindingly bright, and irresistibly lovely, so that we might worship and serve Him worthily, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Praise to the holiest…

Praise to the holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise – 

In all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways.

(J.H. Newman 1801-90)

I am an amateur musician, a choral singer, with no formal training but a deep delight in singing as part of a larger group. It has been one of the greatest joys of my life to be part of a large symphonic chorus here in my home city, where we are privileged to work with professionals and perform on a public platform with world-class musicians. I especially appreciate singing music which expresses or reflects aspects of my faith, and the words with which I opened this post are from one such piece – The Dream of Gerontius, by the English composer Edward Elgar. He set words by Cardinal John Newman, meditating on the passage of the Christian through death to glory, which include this great hymn rejoicing in the utter goodness of our God. It was our close of season concert this year, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively, and our voices are all very tired today!

The composer, Elgar, was a devout Roman Catholic and dedicated the work to the glory of God, pouring out into it a very personal expression of faith and the beauty, peace and strength which it brought to his life. When I sing such pieces, I am worshipping God too, regardless of the views of those around me, pouring out my voice as an act of willed praise and testimony. Many of my fellow musicians, while not sharing my faith, are deeply moved by the music and words which they sing, and I pray that God will be at work in their lives to remove the blindness which keeps them from seeing and accepting Him as the author of all the good things which they love and appreciate so much.

I believe that our worship of God consists of much more than merely our singing of songs on a Sunday morning – or on any other occasions! Worship is about an attitude of heart and mind, in which all that we are and have is continually made available to God for his glory and the blessing of others. So it can be as small and quiet a thing as a moment of urgent, silent prayer for a friend who is in need; the making of a cup of tea for a colleague who is too busy to get one for themselves; the hug or squeeze of the arm to someone in distress. My worship of God is my whole life – although I know that every day I am distracted and forget, this is still the truth, and is still my daily goal. May God be glorified in and through me, whether by noisy, obvious acts of praise, or by quiet private acts of service, they are all equally valuable.

But of course, as a singer, I am thankful that God has made it clear in the bible that music can be central to our expressions of joy, thankfulness, adoration, lament and grieving. We are made, in God’s image, in such a way that melody and rhythm are an integral part of who we are and how we express ourselves – surely that means that God is the source of all melody, that he is the great singer of songs and the consummate composer! When we make music, we reflect something very significant in God’s character, and can therefore surely delight in the gift while always remembering the Giver! When we begin to revere the music itself, seeking our fulfilment there, then we have set up an idol in place of God and begin to be led astray by it. But when God is first, then music is a wonderful tool for our own pleasure and the blessing of others.

I know that I will be singing bits of Gerontius to myself for days, it is so fresh in my mind and has gone so deep – and what better phrases to have buzzing in my mind than these?

O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail!

O generous love! that he who smote in man, for man, the foe, the double agony in man, for man should undergo…

(JH Newman)

May this generous love be flowing so deeply and strongly through us in the days ahead that our lives bring blessing to all those around us, and glory to the Holiest in the heights!