He knows me so well…

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,…

(Psalm 103.13-17)

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in – behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

(Psalm 139.1-6)

May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works – he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke. I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.

(Psalm 104.31-34)

Some people have a gift for saying, giving, or doing, just the right thing to communicate their love, encouragement, compassion and sympathy. It is a gift; we can all seek to cultivate it, but for some it comes easily! They have an instinctive understanding of those around them which allows them to see what will speak most clearly – what will convey the message most effectively. Their friend’s lives are enriched by their presence and they can make a huge difference to the weary, lonely and hurting, as well as adding to the joy of the glad in their celebrations..

And I believe that this gift is a reflection of God’s incredible ability to communicate his love to each and every one of his children, in ways which speak intimately and personally to us, bringing healing and deep contentment in his presence. He knows us, through and through, the strengths as well as the weaknesses, the darkness as well as the light; and in his love for our frailty, he delights to meet us with daily gifts – private pleasures which we can share with him.

I believe that when we learn to notice these gifts, and make a conscious effort to thank God for his goodness in each one, that he delights in us, and the total sum of our joy is much greater than if we had simply accepted the gift as our due and passed on. I want to be one of the works which my Lord rejoices in; I want to dwell and meditate on his goodness in ways which help me to live every more closely with him!

We are indeed frail creatures, only God knows how pitifully thin is the line which separates us daily from illness, danger and death. And in his wonderful compassion for his beloved children, living in a beautiful world gone badly wrong, he pours out tokens of grace upon us – new days dawn, sunsets herald night and starlight; we wake, breathing and living; we have work to do, people to care for, and beauty, might and power all around for the seeing.

I may be called to bear bitter crosses at times, but the daily gifts of love will still be there for me to receive, as nourishment, as gentle caressing touches from a Father’s hand. The hardest times are when the pain of the burden clouds the eyes and dulls the spirit, so that the gifts seem worthless, their value cannot be appropriated by our weary hearts and so we neglect to give thanks. Then indeed, the cross becomes a terrible thing, because we have cut ourselves off from the one who would bear it with us, and the only one who can truly understand our troubles.

As I labour on, bearing the appointed cross and earnestly desiring to glorify my Lord by imitating his attitude, may I continue to notice the daily gifts – the touch of a warm breeze after winter, the passing beauty of foam tossed up by the river, the chance encounters with bird and beast – fellow creatures, fearfully and wonderfully made, the pleasures of eating good food, and the smell of freshly laundered, wind-dried sheets! In giving thanks, may I encounter again the Father’s gaze of love, and hear the precious assurance of his constant presence and holding of me. How wonderful indeed, to be thus intimately known by the Lord of Lords, let me rejoice, and be glad!

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And so it comes to pass…

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before him, singing with joy.

Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise.

Give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

(Psalm 100)

O God of Bethel, by whose hand Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage hast all our fathers led.

Our vows, our prayers, we now present before thy throne of grace;
God of our Fathers, be the God of their succeeding race

Through each perplexing path of life our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread, and raiment fit provide.

Such blessings from Thy gracious hand our humble prayers implore;
And Thou shalt be our chosen God, and portion evermore.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), Scottish Paraphrases, 1781

The hundredth psalm is subtitled in my bible, “for giving thanks”, a serious understatement when it comes to describing that glorious outpouring, in only a few verses, of praise and trust. I grew up in the Scottish psalm singing tradition, so that the words are inextricably linked to an ancient tune, and I can’t say them, but must sing, slipping into the familiar cadences and measured, joyfully steady pace of the music. I hear the echoes of my father and mother singing alongside, in the days when we shared in the worship of God together, and am grateful over again to the church where I was raised, for giving me this heritage of music and word together.

The same is true for the paraphrase (it means a song or hymn based very closely on a particular passage, or passages of scripture, and was a key part of Scottish church singing for centuries). Again, the marriage of words and music is so deeply embedded that I cannot sing these words to any other tune, but who needs variety when the originals are so good! This hymn of total dependence on God, based on his faithfulness to those who have gone before us, is a wonderfully rich prayer for every day of our lives, and those of our loved ones.

I am using them together this week, because our family is giving thanks, and looking to the future as we celebrate our son’s engagement to marry – at an as yet unspecified date – a young woman who shares his deep faith, and commitment to living for God wherever that may take them. It is very humbling when the next generation take such significant steps, another occasion for me as mother to learn to let go, and trust that my heavenly Father knows and loves even better than I do!

I rejoice that my God is faithful through all the generations; and I am deeply thankful that my son has grown into saving faith in Christ, witnessing publicly to his Lord and committing himself to a life of pilgrimage. As a Christian parent, I am well aware that such faith is the only really important thing that one’s child needs, and also, that I have no power to impart it, but depend on God’s grace and the work of his spirit in my children. What a joy then, to see him thus affirm his faith, and to find that God has led him to a life-partner, one who can cherish and console, can exhort and comfort; and one to whom my son can devote all his powers of loving and nurturing.

Christian marriage brings many of the same challenges as the union of those with no faith, but it has one key difference – the presence of a living, loving God by whose power both partners are enabled to forgive and live with one another, and to cope with whatever challenges they might face. It is a great relief, as a parent, to be able to commit these children of my heart to the God whom they trust, knowing that He has their best interests at heart too, and will fulfill his purposes in their lives.

The pilgrimage will at times be weary; the path will often be perplexing; but in looking to God, I can pray with confidence that my succeeding race will find all their needs are met, their faith strengthened, and that God will be glorified in and through them.

Hiding in plain view?

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil..The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written:’Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,”he said,”throw yourself down. For it is written:”He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “It is also written:   ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

(Matthew 4.1-7)

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

(1 Corinthians 10.12-14)

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

(James 4.7)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the command to die to self, about the supreme example which Jesus set for us as we follow him and God transforms us into Christ-likeness. And almost immediately, I was plunged into a turmoil, a maelstrom of emotion and trouble which threatened to overwhelm me as I struggled to cling to Christ,to discern truth and solid ground on which to stand. In God’s goodness, he provided me not only with praying friends, and sufficient self-restraint not to act or speak out of my agony, but also a clear insight into the source of my troubles..

I am a target, as are all believers, for the hostile and insidious activities of that enemy who was defeated on the cross but who nonetheless remains at large – a mystery of God’s sovereignty for which we must trust him. There is a devil, and his whole powers, such as they remain, are devoted to undermining the church, the body of Christ in the world, by all and every means possible. It behoves us, as those desiring to live for Christ, to be aware of this enemy – not in an obsessive way, but alert to the possibilities of his presence.

Our culture has largely dismissed this agent of evil, and if we are not careful, we forget and fail to recognise him at work – which makes us vulnerable to his tricks. He is a master deceiver, so adroit at clothing himself in selected truths and borrowed garments that we entirely fail to unmask him, and think we are meeting a friend, a trusted adviser who has our good at heart.

We see from the temptations of Jesus, that the devil is a master at using our natural desires and needs in order to undermine our trust in and dependence on God. Of course Jesus was hungry, and he had every ‘right’ as the Son of God, to transform the barren rocks into food. But Jesus discerned that this was not the time, and resisted, trusting God to meet his hunger instead. The devil quoted scripture to Jesus, persuading him that it could only be right to prove God’s care for him – again, Jesus resisted, taking scripture on his own side as vindication.

My particular weaknesses, needs, deep hurts or anxieties which I carry through life, are my points of greatest vulnerability to these attacks by my great enemy. And if I cannot recognise his hand at work, oppressing me; or discern his tones within the voice which is counselling me to put my own needs first, because “of course that is what my loving Father would want…”,it is all too clear how easily we can be led into dangerous thoughts and actions which result in the havoc in which the devil delights.

It is surely fitting that in the Lord’s prayer, we are taught to ask to be delivered from temptation, from the hands of the evil one! But we are also assured by God’s word that in every place of temptation, there will be a way out, the possibility of obedience to God is always there, no matter how loudly our feelings may be screaming at us to follow another direction.

Thanks be to God, for his kindness in revealing the source of my troubles, for unveiling the enemy, and thanks be to Christ, in whom I have the victory. I may be a wounded soldier, but I am still on the winning side, and my captain is always ready to respond to my call for his help!

Consider the stars..

There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

(Deuteronomy 33.26&27)

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”…He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

(Psalm 91.1,2, 4-6)

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose….Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long, we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

(Romans 8.18,28,35-37)

Consider the stars in the sky;
When it is darkest they shine out the brightest
Consider the stars in the sky
In every anguish, Oh, child take courage

Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid
He who made all of this, and who holds all of this,
Holds you in his hands

(Keith & Kristyn Getty, 2015)

 

We have a bad habit of re-casting God’s promises into our own terms, to suit our own circumstances, and then expecting Him to fulfill them according to our understanding of what is best.. We take the words such as those from Psalm 91 above, and decide that should mean that we are to be kept miraculously safe from every physical threat to our bodies – always! Sometimes, there are instances where God has indeed created supernatural protection for his children, hiding them in plain sight from their enemies, or healing them from fatal illnesses, and we do well to rejoice in such deliverances. But they will always be part of a bigger picture, and a higher perspective that we cannot see. God does nothing at random, and nothing is ever wasted, so that a miraculously preserved life will have some particular call upon it which is yet to be fulfilled.

But our experience, in a broken world, is surely not that which might be expected from a superficial reading of Psalm 91 – everyone suffers from illness, assault, weakness, fear, and eventually the debilitating effects of age. So where do God’s promises come into the picture? In what sense are we supported by the everlasting arms, pictured in Moses’ wonderful final song in Deuteronomy?

I believe that Paul puts it best for us, when he affirms that there is NOTHING which can separate the child of God from the love of the Father, because of the redeeming work of the Son. In one sense, we may be vulnerable to the effects of human suffering, but in another, we are invincible! The grasp of the everlasting arms upon us is unbreakable, and our eternal future, in transformed bodies, in glory and joy and fulfilment, cannot be taken from us. In that ultimate and most essential sense, nothing can touch us!

If we can take hold on that truth – a process which I find I have to go through repeatedly, as new trials come along – then we are indeed sheltered from the storm, as under wings, because our heart is at rest. It may be in agony, but in recognising that there is one who loves us and bears with us, who knows our pain, and above all who knows that the future glory is worth it, there, we find we can hold firm.

I often walk at night by the sea, and the stars throng the sky above me, a source of wonder and awe. They speak of the utter ‘otherness’ of the creator, of my utter insignificance, and cause me to stand in adoration again of the God who “made all of this, and who holds all of this,” yet holds even me in his hands.

Friends, let us pray for God to stir up our faith, when all around seems darkest, that his presence and promises will shine brightly, and we will hold fast, trusting him, and rest in the everlasting arms.

 

Photograph of the stars, courtesy of F. Wotherspoon.

The hope of the resurrection

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I and not another.

(Job 19.25-27)

In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you..

(John 14. 2)

When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each seed he gives its own body….so it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a supernatural body…..then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

(1 Corinthians 15. 37,38, 42-44, 54&55)

There is so much that we do not know about what God has in store for us on the other side of death, so many unanswered questions and it can be tempting to indulge in speculation, seeking for comfort in bereavement and struggling to accept the absence of a precious companion.

But I believe that most of what lies ahead for us is simply beyond our understanding, and therefore God in his mercy has hidden it from us for the present. It makes sense, that even as we struggle to imagine the eternal present which is God’s presence, so we cannot begin to comprehend how humanity can exist within that context. We are utterly bound within time and space, and our future lies in a different realm!

I believe that we have been given as much as we need, grounds for hope and assurance, and glimpses of glory to whet our appetites. We see Christ, our Saviour and elder brother, going ahead of us through death into a resurrected body. His people could hold him and recognise him, and yet his body was – as Paul says – raised in glory, raised imperishable. This same body is in heaven now, a glorified and perfect human being is there in God’s presence – so we know that we too will dwell in recognisable form with God. That in itself is incredible to us, and wonderful!

A human form, imbued with eternity and perfectly equipped to thrive in the new heavens and new earth which are promised after God has wound up this era of suffering, pain and toil. Does this not thrill us? Are we not deeply conscious of a longing to explore all that humanity is capable of in its perfect state? We don’t long eagerly for a disembodied state, nor for annihalation – that is to reject the promise which God created in us, and is a rejection of his vision for humankind. We are broken and marred, yes indeed, but the solution is not the destruction of self for ever, rather it is the redemption and transformation of self by the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

I believe that the piercing joys, the fleeting moments of glory and intense gladness which are our experience here are simply foretastes of what God has in store, in that home for which we are all looking and longing. There we will belong, there we will have tasks which inspire, enthrall and satisfy us – perfectly suited to our unique qualities and characters. We will not disappear into some bland uniformity, but rather become more intensely and gloriously ourselves, the “I” whom God saw in us from the beginning, now free of all weakness.

Oh, friends, may God give us patience and courage to wait for this, wait for his timing, and meantime to exult in the hope we have! These words express something of the ecstatic joy which fills me even as I write, perhaps they will lift you too for a moment, to glimpse the glory:

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship, when, at his bidding, every storm is stilled,   Or who can say how great the jubilation when all the hearts of men with love are filled.  But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture, and myriad, myriad human voices sing, And earth to heaven, and heaven to earth will answer: At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world is King!

(William Young Fullerton, 1857-1932)

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.

Gathering clouds…

The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!..”

(John 1.29)

Moses said to them, “Go..and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood…and put some on the door-frame…When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the door -frame and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

(Exodus 12.21-23)

Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will  mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

(Luke 18.31-34)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. ..those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins….But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God..because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those  who are being made holy.

(Hebrews 10.1, 3, 12&14)

As a boy growing up in a Jewish family, Jesus would have celebrated the Passover many times before the night in Jerusalem when he shared that final meal with his disciples. Do you ever wonder at what stage he began to discern that it was to be his privilege and pain to become the ultimate Passover lamb, The One who would die once and for all, so that God’s wrath against sin might be turned away from all who accepted the offered sacrifice?

The only scriptures he had were those of what we call our Old Testament, and that in itself should encourage us as 21st century believers to take those books seriously. In them, Jesus found mapped out the path which he was to take – as he reminds his disciples when he says that he is going to Jerusalem so that all that the prophets had written about him should be fulfilled. In the book of Genesis, he found the first promise of the coming saviour, and the assurance even then that suffering would be involved. In the story of Abraham and the covenant promises, he found that God’s blessing was intended for all the peoples of the earth. In the miraculous Exodus narrative, he found the decisive image of a sacrifice to avert destruction, and later a whole structure of temple worship which demonstrated that the wrath of a holy God against sin could not simply be set aside; that there was a price which must be paid; and it was a blood price.

I grew up in churches where the Old and New Testaments were held together, taught together, and I am so thankful for that heritage, which means that the oldest stories are full of symbolism, fore-shadowing what was to come, and that all through the wandering, rebellion, exile and restoration, the fine line of God’s faithful promise can be discerned.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem for this last time, after all these years of celebrating Passover in peace, he knew that his time was come, that there would never again be any need for sacrifice of lambs or any other beast in the temple, after his body had been broken and his blood poured out. These days were the culmination of centuries of God at work in his people, they were the centrepoint of time and the object of all His Father’s loving plan.  If the angels and heavenly beings had been “on the edge of their seats” at his birth, how much more were the host now intent upon the drama of the coming days? What weight of expectation lay upon those human shoulders, and coloured all the thought and actions of the son of Mary?

As we approach the season of Easter, and remember particularly – and fittingly – all the events of that last week of Jesus’ earthly life, I am humbled and drawn once again to worship this God-made-man, in his incredible love for humankind, and his complete submission to his Father’s will.

Worthy, worthy is the Lamb, all praise and glory to the One who walked unwaveringly into death, that we might live!