What’s in a name..?

For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who …Choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him…these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.

(Isa 56.4-7)

The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.

(Jn 10.3,14&15)

Greet Priscilla and Acquila..my dear friend Epenetus..Mary, Andronicus and Junias, Ampliatus, Urbanus and Stachys..Apelles, the household of Aristobulus, Herodion, the household of Narcissus, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus and his mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas…

(Rom 16.3-15)

Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.

(3Jn.14)

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.

(Heb 12.22&23)

I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no-one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name..

(Rev 3.11&12)

Deep down in our spirits, we know that each one of us matters; uniquely, eternally, matters. Our very existence has significance, and we strive to honour and respect the memory of those who have gone, as if the act of forgetting somehow wipes them out forever, and makes them of no account. This came home to me most recently at the sombre and moving memorial on the site of the twin towers in New York, where the names of those who died are recorded – not on some inaccessible wall or behind screens, but on plinths where they can be read and touched.

Each name represents a person made to reflect God’s character in the world; represents so many experiences, hopes and achievements – and above all a person for whom the world was made. We do well to remember that the terror and destruction of that day – and of so many other dark days in human history, like the Holocaust, the genocides of Africa and the Balkans, the purges of Stalin, Mao Tse tung and the Khmer Rouge, the great world wars and the invisible and forgotten conflicts that drag on today – all of these happened to ordinary people like us. In remembering, we express our own fear of being forgotten, swept away like dust with nothing to show we had ever lived.

Memorials are a cry against annihilation; a plea for it not to be true that after we die, there is nothing!

The bible teaches very clearly that the spirit in us is speaking a truth – that we are made for more than a few years of mortal life, and that our lives do have eternal significance. We have an inheritance – literally a place with our name on it – in the new heaven and earth which God is unfolding. No one can take that from us, no matter how short, troubled and apparently insignificant our mortal lives may be.

The shepherd king knows each of his sheep by name – he knows the very number of hairs upon our heads, and every detail of every day appointed for us to live. We matter to him, to the Lord of the universe, to the sovereign over every power and authority and the judge who will at last see righteousness rule over all things. He notices our little struggles and also our little victories; and he appreciates all that we seek to do in his name and for his glory. Even if our names are not recorded in some list of thanks by an apostle, we can be sure that our shepherd sees and values our labours, and we can truly rejoice because our names are written indelibly in heaven.

And there is this promise of a new name, to be given when at last we embark upon our new life with the redeemed in the perfection and joyous freedom of resurrection bodies and complete fellowship with Christ – a name which will maintain both our unique identities but also clearly show that we belong utterly to him.

I rejoice, O Lord, to know that my name is written in your book of life; and I praise you that one day, I will receive the new name which will proclaim to all the congregation of your people that I am your beloved, perfect and accepted, come into my inheritance and at peace!

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Grey hair and laughter lines..

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.

(Ps 39.4&5)

Lord, you have been our dwelling-place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God…for a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning – though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.

(Ps 90.1,2,4-6)

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree..planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish…they will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

(Ps 92.12-15)

Grey hair is a crown of splendour; it is attained by a righteous life.

(Prov. 16.31)

The glory of young men is their strength, grey hair the splendour of the old.

(Prov 20.29)

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you;  I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

(Isa 46.3&4)

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

(John Newton)

One of the temptations to which I most readily succumb is to be disappointed in the apparent lack of difference which my life has made in the world and lives of people around me. When I put it down like this, I can laugh at such arrogance, at the pride which looks for validation on the basis of a list of achievements…and yet the underlying discontent remains.

It is perhaps more pathetic than ridiculous for a middle-aged woman to look back on her life and feel she has somehow missed out on her big mission. I have stopped reading the blogs and magazines which portray others who have ‘found’ themselves and their purpose in life, who are doing big things and giving off an aura of accomplishment and fulfilment – because it only feed my discontent. Is this right thinking for a follower of the Lord Jesus, whose mission was to give his life to serve, to pour himself out in love according to the Father’s will?

I have seen discontent in the lives of others; it is ugly, distorting everything good and beautiful, and destroying peace. I am afraid of growing ugly in that way, instead of beautiful with the crown which belongs to God’s ageing children – the increasing serenity of one who has learnt that she can trust God to meet her needs and has nothing to prove or regret. I want to remain – as the psalmist puts it – green and fruitful in my remaining years, perhaps more fruitful than before since I see so little yet…

The key to this will be accepting the place and role which I have been given; trusting that if God has something new and different for me to do then he can and will make it plain; and above all conquering the shameful pride which in so many ways still seeks to make a name, to make an impact and do something big for God.

I am fully accepted by the Father, delighted in and cherished. I have his assurance that he will carry me into the years ahead – no matter what they may hold – and the promise of eternal life with him. I am free from caring what others think of me, because the only opinion that matters is that of my Father and he calls me his beloved, holy child.

Oh Lord God, I am not what I should be, not what your love spurs me on to desire to be. But what I am, is all by your grace and in itself is cause for great thanksgiving. Let my restless desire to glorify and serve you be channelled increasingly and effectively into those areas of life and service which are mine now, instead of wasted on wondering where I ought to be. Let me be content dear Lord, for the sake of your glory, the blessing of my family and  community and my own peace of spirit, with the life you have given me, and the small things which are my portion. Let the days and years which you have left for me be marked by growing contentment and delight in you, and in doing whatever you give me – regardless of its apparent significance. Let me have the privilege of bearing fruit yet for you, of using all you have given me to the best of my ability in the place you have appointed. And above all let me be content to let you be the judge of the value of my life – not the world’s standards, nor my own, but only you.

 

Serving in sending

Just as each of us has one body with many members…so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a person’s gift is…serving, let them serve;…if it is encouraging, let them encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let them give generously….Love must be sincere. …Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality….

(Rom 12.4-8,9&12)

Dear friend, I am praying that all is well with you and that your body is as healthy as I know your soul is. Some of the brothers recently returned and made me very happy by telling me about your faithfulness and that you are living in the truth. I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children live in the truth.

Dear friend, you are doing a good work for God when you take care of the travelling teachers who are passing through, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church here of your friendship and your loving deeds. You do well to send them on their way in a manner that pleases God. For they are travelling for the Lord and accept nothing from those who are not Christians. So we ourselves should support them so that we may become partners with them for the truth.

(3 Jn 2-8)

I believe it is easy to underestimate the power of small things, of seemingly trivial or insignificant words and actions, but that when we harness them in the cause of the gospel, God is glorified and his kingdom enriched and advanced…what am I thinking of here? It is the ministry of hospitality, of sharing what we have in order to encourage and bless other members of the body of Christ.

If we are able to offer a place to sit, some food and drink, and the precious gift of a listening ear and a loving heart then we can serve one another in hospitality…it is one of the most basic and practical ways of loving and building one another up, of sending one another out in a ‘manner which pleases God’ as John said when he commended Gaius for his generosity. Whether or not we are able to contribute financially to the work of gospel ministry, of overseas mission or local outreach, we can all offer our presence, our homes, as an encouragement to God’s servants so that they go on their way strengthened and refreshed in spirit.

Such actions testify very practically to the unity of the church of Christ, as we welcome strangers and discover in them new brothers and sisters with whom we will spend eternity adoring our Lord and God. Our hospitality is a witness to our common life, and shows our non-believing neighbours and communities what it means for there to be no distinctions in God’s family. A willingness to share may prove the beginning of a lifelong friendship, or it may be that we never meet again this side of glory, but either way we have obeyed our Lord by offering what we have in the service of his people and kingdom.

Gaius offered hospitality and expected no return other than the approval of his Lord; but he was surely blessed and encouraged himself by the gentle commendation which John gives him, and also filled with gladness to know that his own faithful service has brought such joy to the old apostle! Do we not rejoice when those whom we revere in the service of Christ, those whose example inspires us, take time to commend and encourage us in our own obedience by saying how much they see in us of holy and Christlike living?

The devil loves to see Christians paralysed by self-doubt and condemnation, so John’s words were a strong weapon to release Gaius from doubts, and to inspire his ongoing service and obedience. We too can exercise this ministry for one another, taking the time for a message, a phone call, or a face-to-face conversation when we share how much a friend’s life and example speaks of Christ, showing his love and the transforming power of the Spirit.

As we partner with one another for the truth of Christ’s redeeming work, for the good news of hope and forgiveness, let us not neglect the ministry of encouragement – by our words and hospitality – so that the body might be strengthened in unity and God be glorified among his people.

It’s real, more real than anything I have known yet!

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day.

(Gen 1.1&31)

Creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed…the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God

(Rom 8.19&21)

When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed….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 spiritual body…when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

 (1Cor 15.37,42-44,53-54)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God… I am making everything new!”

(Rev 21.1,3&5)

Our church does not regularly use spoken affirmations or statements of faith, which is perhaps why when I do speak out, I find it particularly moving. To hear my own voice confessing faith in God, in the incarnate and sacrificed Christ, and in the Spirit, is powerful, and strengthens my resolve to live for and with God. I have always been particularly glad to be able to say that ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’, and this truth becomes ever more precious to me as years pass and loved ones go ahead of me into glory.

On a purely personal level, I long for the day when I will see God face to face without fear or shame – because all that remains of sin and weakness in me will have gone, and I will be perfect, fully alive for the first time and with all eternity in which to be and do for and with my Saviour and his people. I will not need to hold back, to be careful, to watch my thoughts and words, because I will no longer be in danger of sinning – can you imagine how wonderful that will be?!

I also believe that, since God has shown us in Christ what a resurrection body is like – a physical presence, like and yet utterly different from our own frail flesh – that we will inhabit a physical world, one where all that is currently wrong is righted.

But all of this is also part of a much greater picture, of the cosmic plan of redemption which God is completing around us even now – bringing everything back into harmonious submission to his sovereignty. In the new heavens and earth which God is making, He will finally realise his desire to dwell with his people – no intermediaries or priests will be needed – in a perfect sanctuary, and there will be no more divisions or barriers between us. His great vision is not to take a chosen people out of the world, but to make it possible for us all to be in it together

I love the place where I live, and I know that our globe is full of wonders and marvels, most of which I will not live to see….but I do not fret, because I believe that one day, not too far off, I will dwell in the new earth and have all eternity to appreciate its wonders, and share in its hymn of praise to the creator. There is much beyond my understanding, but I trust in the one who promises that he will make me new, that I will live with him and be part of that great symphony, that expression of beauty beyond the tongue or brush of any artist or writer. Today, I groan with all creation, in bondage to decay….but one day, I will shout and sing with joy in fitting praise; one day everything I do, think, and am will be perfect. I will BE!

Praise the Lord God, who has made and is remaking us for this, glory to his name…

What are my priorities?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your reasonable act of worship.

(Rom 12. 1)

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in you?.. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body..

(1 Cor 3.16 &6.19&20

 

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ…..Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?…These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence…

(Col 2.6-8,20-23)

There are many socially acceptable ‘sins’ which we tend to gloss over when we encounter them, and justify to ourselves in order to indulge in them – and there is a significant word…”indulge”. How ready we are to listen to the philosophies of the world which encourage us to ‘treat ourselves well’, to prioritise ‘self-care’ and make sure that all our needs are being met so that we can take care of others and fulfill our mission in life.

It is all plausible, and in some ways attractive and compatible with the gospel, with God’s love for us and his plans to do good for and through us. BUT, I become very uneasy with it, all too aware that we use this to justify behaviour which the bible would bluntly describe as shameful for one who professes to be a disciple of Jesus.

At what point does my proper desire to look after the body which God has given me tip over into idolatry? What do my habits of consumption mean for those around me – am I setting a good example of self-discipline, or encouraging others in slothfulness and greed – or the opposite evils of obsessive control over food and weight? I try to keep fit, to ensure that I am functioning well and able to do the tasks allotted to me and not burden my family with caring for me in preventable illnesses. But, I must not let that become a lifestyle based on the conviction that if I will eat/exercise etc in certain ways, then I can somehow avoid every ailment and attain long, healthy life! The Lord alone knows the span of my days, and having lost both parents relatively young to cancer, I know full well that healthy living doesn’t guarantee longevity.

Paul speaks many times of the sufferings he went through as a servant of Christ – he also speaks of living in a focussed way, of keeping himself ‘in training’ for the race of his life of service. He speaks of being content in every situation – that speaks of a mind and heart which rests in God, not in its own controlling routines of food and exercise. He knew how to enjoy the good things of life, but also how to keep all things in right relation to the priority which was his commitment to Christ and the spreading of the gospel. I wonder how Paul would react to the phrase “self-care”?! Not positively I suspect, and mainly because of the presence of the word “self”, which should sound alarm bells for every believer who has entrusted themselves to Christ, believing that he alone is the source of our security, purpose, and the only one who can meet all our needs. My focus must be on him, not on myself…

There is clearly a balance to achieve; and we are not called to neglect ourselves either – Paul exhorts young Timothy to look after his health, and we too should not be irresponsible. But the emphasis must be on this, that I am not my own boss anymore. All that I am and have is a gift from God, and is surrendered to his service when I confess Christ as Lord of my life. He bought me with his blood, and in loving response, I seek to use all that I am in his service, seeking only his approval and his direction.

May God help us to live joyfully, in whatever circumstances are allotted to us; using our bodies responsibly and honouring him as we do so, so that we might indeed – with Paul – complete our race and win the only prize that matters, when our Lord says, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

 

Doing it together…

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

(1Cor 1.7-9)

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others..

(Phil 1.1-4)

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 

(1 Jn.13-7)

If you have had the privilege of being in a church family for some time, you will be familiar with the phrase “a time of fellowship” – it is often used to describe that time after a worship service when members gather to drink tea or coffee, standing and sitting about chatting and dropping biscuit crumbs on the heads of small children weaving their way through the room!

Our bible verses today suggest there is rather more to it than ‘tepid tea and soft biscuits’ as I recently heard one preacher say….and the definition which he went on to give fits so well with my own experience – and more importantly with the way the bible uses the word – that I wanted to explore it in this blog. Fellowship simply means “doing life together”, choosing to live out in practice the reality which is our unity in Christ, and our unity with Christ.

It is our union with Christ which is the foundation of our freedom and power to live as followers of Jesus – we can do life together with God the Father, Son and Spirit because we have been redeemed, transformed and forgiven; we have God’s life within us and our thoughts, desires and actions increasingly reflect his character and will. As God’s beloved children, we are able to draw upon all that he is and has done and will do, in order to live the lives he has laid out for us. On our own, we are incapable of anything good, but in Christ, all God asks of us is within our reach and we do it WITH him, in fellowship.

As those who are now walking in the light, not hiding from God or striving to be independent of him, but entering into his will for the world, we and our fellow believers are increasingly walking on the same road, in the same direction – towards the full realisation of the kingdom of Christ. We share a common life – we all have received God’s new heart for our old one, and all depend upon his daily forgiveness and cleansing; we all know that our power and vision come from Christ and that our own wisdom and motives cannot be relied upon to guide us securely.

It is our calling to work together towards the return of Christ in glory, witnessing to all as we have occasion, and building up the believers among whom God has placed us by bearing one another’s burdens, and practically ministering to the needs which each one has. This is “doing life together” – looking to Christ as our goal and also our enabler, recognising in each other the likeness of God and the obligation to love as he has loved us.

Let us, with the apostle John, seek to build one another up in the glorious truths of the gospel – of our salvation, and who we now are as God’s beloved children – so that together we rejoice in the vision of glory, and the complete assurance we can have. And as we do so, let us not be ashamed to “do life together” – since God has called us to walk in this intimate way with him, we should not be afraid to welcome others into our lives, to accept as well as give love and companionship in our labours for the kingdom. May our fellowship with one another make our joy complete and bring glory to God who has made it possible!

 

One plus one, makes one..

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

(Gen 2.20-24)

Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church – a love marked by giving not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her…and that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favour – since they’re already “one” in marriage. No one abuses his own body does he? No, he feeds and pampers it. That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body. And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become “one flesh”, This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it at all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honour her husband.

(Eph 5.25-33, The Message)

It is an uncomfortable truth that the hardest place to live out our faith consistently is within the walls of our own home, among people who know us inside out, and see every up and down of every day. I may be the most patient person in my workplace, but my family know only too well how short my fuse is at the end of a long day, and suffer from my bad temper and moods.

Family life, and the intimacy of marriage is where our true colours come to light, and the extent to which God’s continuing work of transforming us to be like Christ is seen. It is here that we have the chance to put the gospel into practice every day – forgiving and extending grace to others even as we depend upon God’s forgiveness and enabling. As I contemplate our son’s forthcoming marriage, I am only too painfully aware of the many ways in which I have failed to set a good example for him.

I rejoice that God is able, by his grace, to deal with the messes I have made, and thank him that my family are precious to him, so that nothing I have done or failed to do can prejudice his will for them. But I am also conscious of the need to pray for my son and daughter-in-law as they embark for themselves upon this high calling – of loving one another faithfully, through sickness and health, poverty and wealth, till death should part them. It is only by God’s help that they can do this, in a way which witnesses to the power of the gospel and to God’s love.

I rejoice that God has brought them to this commitment; and tremble at what might lie ahead for them. I rejoice in the faith that they share; and tremble as I know that they will be under assault as they explicitly pursue Christian marriage and ministry. I rejoice that my son has been given a woman who is committed to Christ first,  who knows that marriage is to be undertaken earnestly and with dependence on God; and I tremble as I know that she will be giving my son the power to nourish and cherish her, or to wound and weaken her – he is no more perfect than she!

No human marriage can reach the perfection of Christ’s love and care for his bride, the church; but we take courage from Paul’s insistence that this is the model on which we seek to live as spouses, and to pray for other marriages. God is at work for the good of his children, the church and the world through our relationships, and we can confidently depend upon him to strengthen and keep us as we ask for his help. Marriage is God’s idea, and his purpose is that it be for blessing.

As I watch my children set out on this wonderful, frustrating, exhausting, and mysterious relationship, I commit them to the Lord who loves them even more than I do, and know that they are in the safest place. As I renew my own vows in my mind, I thank the Lord for his keeping of my marriage – in spite of so much failure and sin – and pray on for his blessing of us, and through us, his church. To him be the glory, in all things!