Looking around…

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. Each man’s life is but a breath..Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: he bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it…But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.

(Psalm 39. 4-7)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. so don’t be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows.

(Matthew 10.29-31)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

(Matthew 16.24-26)

For many people, the end of a calendar year is a time of reflection, a time to reassess their lives and discern patterns, changes, new opportunities which might be opening up. There is also much – often hidden – pain at this time of year, as people remember those whom they have lost, to death, to breakdown in relationships; and also recognise disappointments, dashed hopes and unfulfilled expectations. Look around, and all the people you know will be experiencing this potent cocktail of emotions to varying degrees. We carry joy and pain simultaneously; anger and bitterness alongside thankfulness and appreciation.

Those who follow Jesus are human too, not immune to this annual malaise, and we need to think carefully about how we deal with these feelings. The bible shows us humanity in all its variety, expressing every emotion under the sun; and in the book of Psalms particularly, we find such transparency and honesty as should give the lie to any idea of the “stiff upper lip” and brave smile being the correct Christian response to life!

We have a perfect loving Father, and a great Saviour who is also a man. We have nothing to hide from our God; no emotion which can shock or make him turn away. Indeed, I believe that it is when we refuse to recognise and name our feelings before God that they begin to rule us, and that is so dangerous.

Our feelings change like the weather – and in my part of the world, that means from minute to minute! But our God is unchanging, and as followers of Jesus, we have a relationship with him which is grounded and held in his character, his promises, his love – not our feelings. The truth about our lives is not how we feel about them, but what he says about them!

So I bring my sometimes toxic cocktail of feelings to my Father, pouring it all out as I sit close and then I listen for his voice. In the place of my sense of failure and loss, I hear the loving voice which says that I am precious, that in him I can do all he desires for me – and all that he knows is good for me. I hear his repeated forgiveness for my failures and sins, and the promise that I have a fresh start. I hear the heartbeat of his love which is the only thing that matters, and which drowns out the clamour of the world around me, to measure and value myself on the basis of my looks, my status, my talents, my connections and achievements.

As I sit there, I receive confidence and courage to go on living quietly, living for him, living without worldly acclaim and trusting that this portion is all I need. My days are brief, but in his eyes they are not wasted; my voice is small, but he always hears me; the hairs on my head are increasingly white, but his hand is still over me in loving and tender protection. I am indeed worth more than many sparrows!

My life surrendered into his hands, is lost to me, but given back to be lived for him and in that transaction, I am the winner, the prize of eternal life is mine. A soul saved, a child brought home, who can look around her beautiful and troubled world, and be at peace because she knows the one who keeps her in it. May this be your experience in the year ahead..

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What’s on your Christmas list?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth….From the fulness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.

(John 1.1,14&16)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgivenness of sins..

And he made known to us the mystery of his will…to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

In him we were also chosen..in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory…Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.

(Ephesians 1.3-14)

At Christmas time, we remember the birth of the one who has been, and is and ever will be…and whose existence is Blessing, Goodness, for us.

Our Lord as the Word, was with God before ever we were thought of, and through him, all that we know was made. Made solely in order that we might exist, might live and discover him, and come into eternal relationship with him.

Our Lord as the incarnate Christ, abandoned the glories of the heavenly realm, and all the rights of Sonship, in order to be good for us. He is the only one who could give what we needed, could be what the law required, could be love in action for us.

Our Lord as the risen Saviour, reigns now over all the powers of evil, having defeated them for ever, and standing between his children and that grasping, destroying darkness to keep them safe until the very end.

What more could we wish for this Christmas? What more could we look for under the tree than we already have received?

Ah, the Lord and our Father know that we are but children, that we always love to unwrap new things; and that although we have received so much, we can only somehow appropriate it one day at a time!

So the prophet could write in Lamentations,“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”(Lam 3.22,23). Each day is a gift, every breath that wakes me is another opportunity to live and love and serve and enjoy the abundance of life; each person is made in the image of God and is a gift to me; each situation is experienced in my Lord’s company and he waits to see how I will enjoy it with him. Dark days are a gift too, because it is then that I see more clearly and lean more fully on my Lord’s strength and love, in my total need of him.

There are unsought gifts – those moments and experiences that surprise and delight us – chosen and prepared for us as the best gifts always are, by those who know us best. Then there are also the gifts we ask for, knowing that we will appreciate them, knowing perhaps that we need them! Our good God gives us both, every day.

So we live in happy anticipation of what surprises the day will bring from our loving Father’s hand; and also in quiet confidence, that whatever we find ourselves needing, will also be provided. We can say with the writer to the Hebrews,“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”(Heb.4.16)

Let us then celebrate with great joy the gift of God to his people, the light of the world which is life, hope, forgiveness and new-birth to us. Merry Christmas to you!

Of course..Christmas is for the children

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac was the father of Jacob..Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam…..Matthan the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

(Matthew 1, various)

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…born of God.

(John 1.11&12)

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! the reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

(1John 3.1&2)

I am that child, the one who was never popular, never cool, the one who didn’t push herself forward or think she was anything special.

I am that child, the one who looks at the world and feels the fear, cowers at the darkness, shivers at the evil and malice, wakes from screaming nightmares of the power of humanity to wound, humiliate and destroy.

I am that child, the one who is tired of trying, of finding her own strength inadequate to the adult-sized task, tired of being patronized, dismissed, ignored and demeaned, who is beginning to believe what the stories of others tell her about her own worthlessness.

I am that child, the one who lashes out in her own weakness, and then stands appalled at the damage she has done, the one who holds back for fear of hurting others and is then trampled all over, her restraint mistaken for surrender.

I am that child, so ashamed of her own mistakes that she wants to hide away for ever, to punish herself for the mess and pain she has caused, the one who knows the truth behind the big public act, knows only too well that she is a fraud.

 

Who will comfort this child?

Who will be her shelter?

Who will show this child that she is beautiful, precious beyond all telling?

Who will teach this child that she can be whole, pure and fiercely, gloriously holy?

Who will heal the wounds of this child, and pour the cleansing of true forgiveness over her stains?

Who will lift this child’s head, look into her eyes, and show her that there is a life worth living, a journey worth taking, a love worth giving, that she is called and qualified to give?

Who will bring this child into the light, and say, “This is my beloved daughter, she is perfect, because she is as I made her to be; and in her I delight!”?

Who, if not her perfect heavenly Father?

Oh, how I need the good news which the angels brought, of a child born in Bethlehem who would be Immanuel, God with us! How I need to know my Father’s love, his will and power to save me, to transform me, to show me my true worth.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, all the children of the world find firm ground for hope, and good cause for joy.

Let us be the children who make much of Christmas, who rediscover with delight the gifts being bestowed on them by their Father, who nestle in the security of his arms and face the days ahead with confidence knowing he will go with them.

Glory to God in the highest!

 

 

Making holes in the dark…

In the beginning was the Word..In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it… When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said,”I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

(John 1.1,4&5; 8.12)

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.

(2 Corinthians 4.6)

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

(Matthew 5.14-16)

By choosing to celebrate Christmas at the darkest time of the year (for dwellers in the northern hemisphere), the church has been able to explore so many ways in which the description of Christ as the “Light of the World” is a powerful and transforming one. When one lives for weeks with less than 7 hours of daylight, and much of that heavily shrouded in clouds and rain, the presence of light is a precious gift, and one for which we are profoundly thankful. Truly, it takes the darkness to make us appreciate light fully, and in particular to see how every pinprick shows up clearly – think of the old children’s hymn which speak of that bright distinctiveness – Jesus bids us shine, with a pure clear light, like a little candle burning in the night. No one is disqualified from their part in the witness of the church to the source of all brightness, Jesus himself, the light of the world.

We are called not to reflect the light – like mirrors, which have no power within them – but to shine with light, like torches, lanterns, or candles. So the light must dwell within us first! Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, even as he has taken that title upon himself – is that not amazing?! Paul in his letter to the Corinthians tries to explain what the light is – the knowledge of the glory of God, which was so full and complete in Christ, that he could say to his disciples, “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father”.

It is as we learn to know God, to worship and appreciate him in all his glory, that we will shine more and more brightly in the world – making things visible, illuminating what is true and real, showing the need for salvation and the loving God who offers it freely in Christ. The sanctifying, transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives scrubs away those things which obscure the light and prevent it from shining – the selfishness, the fear, the grudging and bitter resentments which can build up. And it is God himself who gives us the light, as well as making us fit to shine for him! It is not by good deeds that we obtain light, rather that one of the ways in which the light is seen is by the godly things we are prompted to do and be in our world.

Here is the challenge for us; are we shining like this? Are we so afraid of the reaction of our dark world that we try to hide the light of Christ dwelling within us, and let it out only when we are in a safe Christian environment? We don’t need candles or torches when we are bathed in sunlight, but when night has fallen, when there are no windows in the room, when the trees crowd so thick overhead that light is blotted out.

We are to shine with Christ-light in those places, where there is darkness, so that the prisoners can see, so that freedom can be obtained by those who are in despair… As we have received, so let us give – freely, abundantly, joyfully.

What a gift we have to celebrate this Christmas time – light not only for our own lives, but for all who need it! May God in his great mercy continue to make us more like Christ, so that we might bear that light of the knowledge of his glory into the world which needs it so badly…

Divine forbearance…

First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come..They will say,”Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But do not forget this one thing, dear friends:  With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

(2 Peter 3.3&4, 8&9)

“Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End…I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take of the free gift of the water of life.       He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

(Revelation 22.12&13,16&17, 20)

I am greatly comforted in these early years of the twenty first century since Jesus walked on our earth, to read the words written by Peter to a group of struggling and fearful believers only a few years after the events of the first Christmas. The apostle wrote to reassure them, to encourage them in their faith as they faced ridicule from their society, and to remind them that the promises of God are trustworthy. Our wise and loving Father in heaven knew full well what his children would have to face, and provided for our need!

We too live in an age of scepticism, an age when to have faith in a creating, loving, forgiving, and holy God who will judge with righteousness is to be regarded as the ultimate folly. It is all too easy to look at the world around us and say with the ‘scoffers’, “Where is this second coming? Surely if it were true, things would have happened by now!” We see so much pain and suffering, and we rightly long for the justice of God to be seen, for evil to be abolished and all wrongs put right. How can God endure to watch his creatures enduring in this broken world, when he is planning to put an end to it all for ever?

Peter writes to remind his readers – and us – that we are trapped within time, and God is not, so that we cannot share the divine perspective on what is happening. He points out that the delay is due to God’s incredible patience with his creatures, and his yearning love, reaching out to all that they might yet respond to his offer of eternal life through Jesus Christ. When we become impatient with God’s timing, we demonstrate how little we share his love for the lost and fail to care enough that they might indeed come and take the free gift of the water of life.  Surely the God who went to such lengths to open the way of salvation will not be hasty in closing that way until all who are to walk in it have been welcomed in! May we be forgiven for our lack of love for the lost, forgiven for wanting everything arranged according to our meagre understanding and for our comfort..

And yet, I believe it is right that believers should in some measure be longing for the end to come, for the final glorious winding up of time, and the purging fire of cleansing and judgement. It is surely right that as we come to be formed more and more after the likeness of Christ, that we should share his desire for the time when the church will no longer suffer and be cut off from him by the remnants of sin and evil. We are meant to long for that glorious union, which is so richly portrayed for us by John in his Revelation visions. As the bride and groom look forward to their wedding day, so we as believers should be eager to see the day when we might dwell in the holy city, in the new creation, in full fellowship with our Lord.

He will come, dear friends, do not lose heart but persevere; labouring in his name, and rejoicing in the sure promise that he is coming soon…Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

A cold shower?

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word..

(Ephesians 5.25&26)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

(Psalm 19. 7&8)

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

(Hebrews 4.12)

Sometimes, the things which are good for us, are not the easy or comfortable things…as fallen creatures, we lean constantly towards the quick fix, the path of least resistance, and the minimising of effort and discomfort. But in our hearts, we know that such traits are unhealthy – in the long run, we will pay the price for our current bad choices.

Healthy eating, appropriate exercise, moderation in our spending and generosity in our giving…we know that these are good for our bodies and minds, but what about the nurture of our spirits?

The bible is very clear that for the follower of Jesus, there is an obligation to pursue holiness – a lifelong quest to become like Christ, in obedient and loving response to his sacrificial death for us. It is also made clear that left to ourselves, we will twist and distort this noble quest into some travesty of God’s plan – we become bitterly judgemental like the Pharisees of Jesus day, and fall into the sin of pride in our own achievements.

Praise God, that in his mercy, he has not left us alone to pursue this quest. Instead, we read that it is Christ at work in us, the Spirit moving in power, who makes the changes. And the tool he has appointed is his word, the revelation contained in the bible, which is God’s inspired and infallible word to us his children.

We turn to the pages of the bible gladly enough for comfort, and for inspiration, but there is a danger that we will choose to ignore those passages which come too close to our bad habits and cherished sins! It is certainly true that God is working to sanctify – to make us clean and pure and whole – but we are called to work to cooperate with him in that process. Such co-operation requires our willingness to be open to rebuke, correction and the death of pride. When God grants us faith to believe that his love is perfect, and has only our good as its goal, then we find the will to trust that love in action, in convicting us of sin, bringing us to repentance, and re-shaping our minds and hearts so that sin’s stain is forever removed.

I believe that we must discipline ourselves to submit every part of our lives to God’s searching and transforming power, holding nothing back. It may be that there will be things we don’t even recognise as sins until the Spirit takes the word and cuts through to the heart, showing us the ugly realities of thought and deed. God is merciful, he knows how frail we are, and does not choose that we should be overwhelmed by understanding all at once just how deeply rooted our sinful nature is – we are not able to bear such self-knowledge. Instead, as we open ourselves up to the truth of the word, he opens our eyes, little by little, so that over the years, he washes us clean of stain after stain.

These words of an old hymn express a beautiful prayer for such steady, cleansing interaction with the word of God – an interaction which should be just as much part of our daily routine as eating, washing and brushing our teeth!

Make the book live to me, O Lord, show me Thyself within Thy word;

Show me myself, and show me my Saviour, and make the book live to me.

(R. Hudson Pope)

Sometimes, it will be a comforting encounter, sometimes as shocking and bracing as a cold shower, but every time we open the word, we invite God to do something in our lives. All praise to him, that in his mercy he is working patiently and lovingly to make us holy, and beautiful in his sight!

Accepting my limitations

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.     “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, ” declares the Lord.

(Isaiah 55.6-8)

Then Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted…Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know….My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

(Job 42. 1-6)

Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

(Habbakuk 3. 17&18)

Has it ever struck you that many of the stories contained in the biblical narrative are of people in really horrid situations? The bible is not shy of confronting us with the brutal realities of life – war, torture and destruction; famine and starvation; murder, rape, abuse, enslavement and humiliation inflicted by one human being on another; abuse of power and status – and we recognise them all around us today.

Why are the stories there? It is not because in every case, God intervened to make everything right again and to create some fluffy happy endings. There are individual examples of particular provision, miraculous escapes, healings and even resurrections, but they are the exceptions not the rule. Why?

I believe that one of the main reasons we have these stories, is to help us to face our own realities with faith – not in a God who makes everything ok at once, or even in our own lifetimes; but a God who is big enough to see from beginning to end, to see the roots of the trouble and to be willing to deal with it. This is what the bible narrative reveals – a God who never gives up. Many generations of Israelites died in abject slavery in Egypt before Moses arrived to lead them out. Countless, nameless thousands died over the centuries in wars and famines, just so much collateral damage in the power games of nations.

And yet, we have the testimony of prophets like Zechariah, that in the midst of the apparent chaos, lawlessness and despair, God is not absent, that he is and is good, and that justice, healing and wholeness will come. We have the examples not only of the psalmists, but also men like Job, who when things appeared to have gone hopelessly wrong and God was surely absent or even powerless, chose to respond by passionately appealing to him for justice, and lamenting their wrongs.

We don’t need to have faith in something when we can see and understand how it works, we need faith when there is a mystery, when we cannot make sense of what is going on. The stories of the bible show us what such faith looks like – the faith that says with Habakkuk that we will rejoice in the God who is our Saviour even though there is no sign of his salvation.

In our time, the pride of man in his achievements has made it hard to accept that anything can or should remain mysterious, and it is common for people to use the mystery of suffering as a condemnation of a just and loving God. But, as Job learned, who are we to put the creator upon the stand and accuse him of being inscrutable? Am I willing to accept that God is beyond my understanding, with all that implies? Indeed God has revealed himself to us in Christ Jesus, and there we see love and purity and so many of the wonderful characteristics of God. But surely it is only to be expected that a God who can create on the scales that we now perceive, a God who is outside time and space, must be utterly other than we can comprehend?

In the face of suffering and evil in all its dreadful manifestations, as the hand of God in judgement is still withheld and creation groans, I have a daily choice. Either I allow the inexplicable darkness to poison my mind and spirit, and bitterly reject any notion of a sovereign and good God; or I turn to him in faith, in that trust which says, “I cannot begin to understand this Lord, but I see your love laid bare upon the Cross of Christ; I see there the pain that this darkness causes you, and I will choose to believe that none of it is wasted, and that you know what you are doing. You will not delay a moment longer than you need, and in the end, the judge of all the earth will surely do right!”