Celebrating the ordinary

Then I realised that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God..

(Ecclesiastes 5.18&19)

Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty. (The Lord) waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.

(Psalm 104. 1,13-15)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(Philippians 4.6&7)

What does it take to make you realise how many gifts you receive daily from the hand of God? I know that I sit far too lightly to the bounty which is bestowed upon me constantly, and am guilty of a perverse and persistent discontent, recklessly discounting so many good things.

Perhaps you have suffered periods of illness, been confined to your bed, or to the house, even unable to move independently. Is it not the case that in the early days of your restoration to health and freedom of movement, you rejoiced in every step, every breath of fresh air? I know that has been my experience, and there is some faint memory of the depth of my gratitude for the gift of health and physical strength. But it quickly fades, and we become impatient of lingering weaknesses, or inexplicable aches and pains, choosing to focus on the negatives instead of rejoicing in the good things we have.

Perhaps you have been deprived of the company of those you love for a long period of time – due to work commitments, study arrangements, or even just the natural process by which children grow up to leave home.. How sweet it is to be reunited, to see their faces, feel their hands in ours, have their physical presence once again. And how long before their habits, their opinions, all those little things that are not quite to our liking begin to irritate us, and we long for their absence?

What fickle creatures we are, how much in this regard we fall short of the image of God in us! Our God never tires of his people – think of that for a moment…NEVER! In our most irritating moments, when we have chosen for the umpteenth time to disregard his loving care and to resent his directing of our lives – even then, he is waiting patiently for us to turn again in repentance and glad desire for a fresh start in his company along the road which he knows is best for us. We have so much to learn from him in the ways that we receive and celebrate one another – may we grow in this accepting and affirming love, willing always to see the good, and to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Not every one of God’s children has enough to eat and drink, not all have the shelter and peace they need to thrive. But if those of us who do have these things fail to give thanks and appreciate them, does that help anyone? Of course not! In fact, the more grateful we are for what we have, the more aware we are of those who do not, and the more generously we will seek ways in which we may meet those needs. The gift of contented gratitude for all we receive is not one which should anaesthatise, but rather galvanise us, into reaching out to others.

Let us give thanks for simple food, seeking to restrain our greed so that we may provide for those who hunger and thirst.

Let us give thanks for health and strength, seeking to resist self-indulgence so that we may serve others whose bodies are not so vigorous.

Let us give thanks for our gifts, no matter how insignificant they may seem, so that we recognise we too have things which our God desires to use to bless his people.

Let us give thanks for the gift of contentment, recognising that God has freed us from the prison of envy and  that our personal worth is not determined by our possessions, looks, career or anything except the priceless sacrifice of Jesus for us.

Contented people are able to serve others gladly, selflessly, sacrificially and joyfully because their worth is in Christ; their peace comes from knowing him and trusting him to do all things well.

God grant us this gift of grateful content, that we may freely give…

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

A new look?

With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him…But..Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy.

(Ephesians 4.17&18, 21-24)

Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

(Romans 12.2)

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will not longer live for themselves….This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

(2Corinthians 5.15&17)

No one carefully reading the letters of the apostles written to the early church, could make the mistake of thinking that Christian faith is simply a matter of being nice and having a warm, comforting feeling about life and the future.. Our faith is not a matter of instinct, habit or gut feelings; it is action, constant struggle and an endless ache for things we as yet do not see. It is a daily contest between the remnant of our sinful self – the voice that bewitchingly says we are “worth it”, when temptations come our way; that beguiles us into selfish behaviour and thought on the basis that meeting our needs is obviously the priority for our lives – and the new person we are becoming through the life we now live in Christ Jesus.

The apostles use a variety of images to help their readers – that’s us too – to understand what it means to live as believers in Jesus, as those who have been forgiven and restored to fellowship with God, who are being transformed into his likeness. One of the most striking is the idea of a garment being put off or on.

No one puts on clothes by accident; you don’t just wake up and find yourself dressed for a day in the office! It requires at the very least a routine of laundry, and a modicum of organisation to present oneself appropriately attired for the day. And this is the point for believers: we too have to be actively involved in our daily life of faith, in preparation and organisation, so that we are fit to be seen as God’s witnesses in the world.

The person who believes in Jesus, and desires to be actively growing in maturity as a believer has a job to do – God has given us the privilege of being his fellow-labourers, as he by his spirit works in us. We are given many promises, but what good are they to us if we do not – by faith – choose to act as though we believed them? It is all very good to read of the peace of God, but unless I actively strive to put off my anxiety and trust God, then peace remains only a dream.

I choose to believe that I am forgiven, to accept and rejoice in that forgiveness and therefore to put away, or cast off, any clinging and debilitating guilt.

I choose to believe that I have a purpose in God’s great plan for the world, and therefore look actively for ways in which he is already at work where I can offer myself in service, rejecting the self-pitying and discontented spirit which resents my present circumstances.

I choose to believe that God is indeed at work in me, that he will complete that work so that I shall be transformed into the Christ-version of myself which was God’s original purpose. And so I give thanks even in times of struggle, weariness and pain, trusting that he is forming treasure within me and none of it is wasted.

It is a battle..so often I am ambushed by my own thoughts and feelings, and find I have failed to put off the things which are not of Christ, but cling to them instead! I do not have that single-minded focus which keeps my eye on him – the author and perfecter of my faith – but, when I am thinking clearly, I know that God wants this focus for me too, and therefore even as I strive for it, he is strengthening my gaze.

All praise to him, who keeps us from falling, comforts and forgives us as we stumble and wander, and who provides such riches for our clothing – that we might be found arrayed in all the glorious, spotless robes of Jesus. Let’s get dressed!!

Looking for my lover…

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing..

(1Peter 3.8&9)

Who is this coming up from the desert leaning on her lover?…Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away…

(Song of Songs 8. 5,6-7)

As a sinful creature – saved, yet vulnerable to the old temptations and weaknesses, open to many distractions and easily swayed – among other sinners, I am answerable to the King of Kings for the way I treat his precious children. I am commanded to live peaceably, and not only that, but in a way which consistently seeks the good of others.

I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to love people when they are a generalised grouping, strangers whose lives have little impact on mine. It is a good deal harder to love those whose daily lives impact directly on me – for good and ill – because my own experience of them seems to get in the way all the time! It becomes hard to know what will be good for them, and harder still to do it, when I am preoccupied with how their latest actions have made me feel. It is as though “I” am getting in the way of the calling which God has given, to love and serve him in his people. My own needs for unconditional love, forgiveness and tenderness shout too loudly, drowning out the quiet voice directing me to obedient love for others.

I love that verse in the Song of Songs where the bride is described as coming up from the desert, “leaning on her lover”. She has found in a dry and arid place, the one who delights in her, and because of his love, she has the courage to return to the city and face the business of life again.

I too, have a heavenly Lord and Lover, who loves me – sacrificially – and who delights in me, who actually likes the person I am. He enjoys the playful spirit he gave me, so that while I may feel oppressed when the company of others suppresses it, when we are alone together, I can play and be glad, knowing I am loved.

He gave me a heart which loves to share, to listen to the hearts of others. When those around shut me out and refuse to be known by me, I go back and listen to his heart, and it speaks strong and loud of his joy, his beauty, his goodness. All these things are spread before me like a rich feast, with his great ambition for creation together with the pain which it is costing him. Here I find one who never keeps me at a distance, but reveals himself and is glad that I should be learning to know him. What a marvel, that God should choose to reveal himself to such as we are.

And this, my God loves all his children thus, seeing and cherishing each one; full of compassion for the struggles and pain which they feel. This, my God, longs to be known and delighted in by his people, and holds out his arms in welcome.

When I experience rejection by those I love, when I am not at liberty among them to be myself gladly and be delighted in, let me remember the heart of God. That great heart which is continually rejected and shut out by those he loves, whose tenderness is wounded again and again by their refusal to enjoy and accept him as he reveals himself through Jesus Christ. God knows my pain, and calls me to accept it in obedience, not dwelling upon it, but coming back again and again for refreshment and to lean upon the strengthening arm of my lover.

Then I will be in the right position to react as God reacts to us – in forgiving, loving patience, bearing with us in spite of all we have done and continue to do. As he has loved me, so may I love others, depending upon his strength and drawing on his love, so that all my needs are met in him and I am free to give as he does – to overflowing!

 

Try resting..

It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night..For you make me glad by your deeds, O Lord; I sing for joy at the work of your hands…The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. 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.”

(Psalm 92.1,2,3,4&12-15)

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 my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

(Psalm 91.1&2)

Twenty four years ago this week, my husband and I arrived in the little village in this picture to spend the first days of our married life, and we attended the church during our visit. We had no particular reason for choosing this place, other than that we thought no one would recognise either of us! This village is now one of three centres of worship in our parish, and I come here every Sunday evening to meet with fellow believers (in a different building), to worship the God whose ways are truly beyond our understanding! This is a place where I now delight to be at home, to be known and recognised.

It is marvellous to me to look back, and to acknowledge that my Heavenly Father knows so much better than I do what is right and good, so that all the ways he has led us over the years have brought us to this place at the right time. Two city born folk, finding themselves utterly at home in this remote seaside parish; adjusted completely to the intricately connected community way of living, and thankful for the slower pace of life. Truly, our God is wise in all his ways, and his works are a source of gladness to his grateful children.

It is good for us, when in times of uncertainty and adjustment, or seeking God’s way for our lives, to look back and consider all the paths he has led us down to reach this current resting place. It is good to catch the racing thoughts, the anxious internal conversations, and to bring them still into the moment, the present, and turn them into thankful prayer to God for his untiring, unfailing goodness.

As I consider the pattern of my life here, and continue to seek God’s guidance as to how my time is best spent, I am tempted to worry and fret – and that achieves nothing, while making me at the same time very unhappy and unpleasant to live with. When I give in to this temptation, the devil wins and peace is lost.

Thanks be to God, that he uses many things to catch our attention and draw us back to himself, unflagging in his determination to bless us and help us to grow in resilient, obedient faith. So today, as I laboured in my garden, I was able to silence the relentless internal complaint, and to rest in the moment that the Lord was giving me; sunshine on my back, strength in my arms and legs, soil to dig and plants to nourish and enjoy. I can even rejoice that I have leisure in which to become anxious – not for the anxiety but for the luxury of unhurried days, and the growing sense that I can enjoy my Lord’s company without rushing from one good work to another!

May I learn to rest more peacefully in his shadow; may I be deaf to voices that drive me to compare myself to others, and hear only his voice saying ” Darling child, I love you so much, spend time with me, tell me your thoughts, tell me how you love what I give you.”

I want to trust him for everything, and he sees my heart and knows this. If there are things that he wants me to do, is he not able to show me? If I see no clear signs, and have asked and looked and waited, then for the moment I can perhaps rest more deliberately in his presence, allowing his love to refresh me, and trusting that when the time comes, the God who has been the author of all my life story will reveal the next chapter and lead me gently into it..

 

 

Log?..What log?

By the grace give me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you…Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves.

(Romans 12.3,9&10)

..And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, “Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,” when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

(Matthew 7.1-5)

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

(1Corinthians 13.4-7)

How tempting it is to use higher standards when we judge the conduct of others than when we review our own…and how very humbling when God mercifully reveals to us just what we are doing! This is the thrust of Jesus’ warning in the passage from Matthew, when he points out that all too often the very fault which we are so quick to identify in another person is present in much more significant measure in our own hearts!

The exaggerated image makes the point very clearly, laughably even – I can picture the listeners being very amused by the thought of a person with a log in their eye trying earnestly to undertake the delicate operation of removing a speck from another..How easily we overlook our own persistent sins, and criticise others, blaming them all too often for our troubles – when in fact we will answer to God for our reactions to them, as they will answer to him also for their actions. If a person is rude or deceitful, difficult to live with, proud or quick to anger, then my first reaction must be to humbly examine myself before God, asking where these things are in my life; and secondly to pray lovingly for that person, forgiving them as I have been forgiven, and seeking their good as God does.

My excuses and evasions, attempts to pass responsibility for my failures to other people, are all exposed as the sins they really are – with their roots in Eden, when Eve blamed the serpent for her disobedience. Such behaviour is far removed from the love in action to which we are called as followers of Jesus – the love which is patient and kind; which seeks the good of the beloved; which honours them above itself and delights in all that is true and of God.

Yes, the sins of others will have an impact on me, but with God’s help and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in me, I can react in a Christlike way – a way which I need not be ashamed of before God when he calls me to account. If God reacted to us in our sins, in the way that we react to one another, what hope could we have?! And we are called – and crucially enabled, by the new Christ-life pulsing in our transformed hearts – to be like God.

Peter encourages his readers in his fourth letter to “love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1Peter 4.8). He is pointing our that it is our business as followers of Jesus, to love our fellow believers – the business of dealing with each others’ sins belongs to God. Our love is not blind, but our awareness of sin in others should humble and soften our hearts, reminding us that we too are always in danger of falling – not driving us to harden our hearts and sit in judgment.

When we love like this – humbly, forgivingly, prayerfully, then our fellowship becomes a safe place in which to receive God’s exposure of our own sins – and this is crucial, since it can be a very painful experience in which we will need the loving support of others.

May we be given grace to love in this way; understanding our own need of forgiveness and vulnerability to sin, and dealing as gently as Jesus with those who – like us – have fallen.

 

Leaning hard..

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.

My enemies will retreat when I call to you for help. This I know: God is on my side!

I praise God for what he has promised; yes, I praise the Lord for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me?

(Psalm 56.8-11)

O Israel, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield. O priests, descendants of Aaron, trust the Lord! He is your helper and shield. 

All you who fear the Lord, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield.

(Psalm 115.9-11)

Do you ever find yourself wondering what exactly some familiar phrase means? This happens to me often in my life as a follower of Jesus – sometimes in the middle of a sermon – so that I want to stand up and ask the preacher to unpack the expression, explaining what is meant in hard daily life by the familiar words! If we cannot translate the phrase into meaningful action and understanding, then it is no use to us, and may even be unhelpful. The attempt to understand and grapple for myself is one of the motivations behind this weekly blog – if I can articulate it, then I have in some measure begun to make it my own and put it into practice.

“Lean on God”, is one such phrase, and I have been wrestling over recent days to work out what it means – because it sounds attractive, comforting and something I want to do very much!

Recently, I was part of a group who went out to climb a mountain, on a day when the weather was less than friendly, greatly adding to our difficulty in scaling the steep slopes and navigating the sharp ridge at the top. I walked with my poles, occasionally finding that they were in my way, but more often finding that they were giving me confidence and some measure of security as I struggled along the hillside, trying to resist the gale force winds which were continually threatening to topple me over. Here was an example of leaning in action! I was literally putting all my weight on these slim rods, trusting that they could bear it and would keep me moving safely in a very dangerous situation.

The words of Psalm 56 had struck me sometime earlier, where the writer declares that he is praising God for what has been promised – NOT what has been already received! Is this what trust is? For the follower of Jesus, we are called to look to the promises, and to put our faith in them, because we put our faith in the God who makes them.

Promises may seem slender and feeble when we are in the midst of a storm of life, and our own promises are often compromised by our circumstances. But our God is not one to break his word, and the revelation of his character in the stories of the bible encourage us to trust him – literally, to allow all that we are and treasure to be held by him, because we know that of ourselves, we cannot keep them safe.

When I am using the walking poles, they do not transport me out of danger, but enable me to move through it. When I lean hard on them, I am held up, stabilised, made stronger than I can be alone. So it is as I ‘lean on God’. My circumstances do not change; the storm rages, my emotions threaten to derail me and events to overwhelm me. But I trust in a God who is greater than these things, who has promised to be with me through all my life and to bring me safe home at last.

When I turn to this God, when I deliberately contemplate his works and praise him for who he is; then I am choosing to trust myself to him, in other words, I am leaning on him for the strength I do not have in myself. When I call to mind his promises, turning my thoughts in spite of my feelings, to consider the truths which never change, I can move(albeit slowly!) forward through the troubles and trials, always towards him, sustained by his word.

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.

(Isaiah 46.3-4)

What a faithful God we have; Alleluia! and Amen.