Chewing it over…and over..

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.

(Ps 1.1-3)

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, for the display of his splendour.

(Isa 61.1-3)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

(Gal 1.3-5)

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom… the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving; considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

(Jas 3.13,17&18)

It is always good to remind ourselves of what the scriptures say is true about us, to choose to let God’s words be the basis on which we evaluate not only what is going on around us but also what weight to give our own thoughts – those constant companions which colour our actions and words.

When I feel that I am astray in this present evil age, weak and wayward, I recall that Christ has died to rescue me – and that he succeeded! The resurrection proves that my debt is paid, and I am free from the powers which so cruelly dominate our world. As one of his ransomed and precious children, I have total security in my Saviour’s work, and in the place to which God is leading me is called home. 

The work of Jesus is completely sufficient, and not only am I rescued, but also transformed. For the dust and ashes, the rags and tatters of human brokenness, I receive a crown; beauty for brokenness, rich royal robes fitted for a princess. And these are mine not to cover up shameful secrets, to deceive God as if He could be fooled. Rather, these are now my proper possession as His child. I am a new creation, a beloved, beautiful God-delighting daughter, and all that He bestows on me now is simply my birthright – all because of Jesus.

This is wisdom then; to chew over these truths again, and again. Choosing to make them the basis on which I face each fresh challenge and stage of life. Choosing to live as though they were and are and always will be true, so that more and more my thoughts follow God’s thoughts about me, and I have that never failing stream of renewing, nourishing life flowing through me. 

I am planted by the Lord, to bear witness to his glory and power and righteousness as the One who keeps his promises and does all things well. I am not here because of an accident, but by His design and to fulfill his purposes. What keeps me anchored here is the life which is flowing – by the spirit in me – from his grace and inexhaustible love. As I meditate on the truth, his truth, my roots go deeper and hold more strongly, and my surroundings matter less. I can, and must, ground and nourish myself in this heavenly wisdom, trusting that it will bear fruit in my life for God’s glory and the blessing of those around me.  Trees don’t actively decide to bear fruit… it happens because they are healthy trees. May I remember that next time I am fretting over the apparent fruitlessness of my life, and trust that while it may not be obvious to me, yet my heavenly Father will be satisfied that this particular bit of his planting is doing just what he planned it should!

Watch your feet!

Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers… For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

(Ps 1.1&6)

Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful to me and answer me. My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek… Teach me your way, O Lord lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.

(Ps 27.7,8 &11)

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

(Lk 1.76-79)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me…. You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me…. If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you..”

(Jn 14.1,4-6,23 & 27)

I love to walk, on my own or in company, in the city and in the countryside. It just feels good to be moving, to be experiencing my surroundings directly, all the sights, sounds and scents, and the occasional interaction with other people on the way. It is not always wise to simply wander however – especially here where  following one’s nose can lead to a sheer drop, a boggy morass, or a river in flood! I need to keep my wits about me, and to be wary of assuming that I am on safe ground.

The metaphor of life as path along which we walk is frequently used in the psalms, and it was this which prompted my thoughts for today. How often, as a follower of Jesus, do I ‘walk’ in my thoughts to places that attract or intrigue me but which might not be particularly safe or helpful? It is easy to follow our noses, follow the company around us in a conversation, follow the trend of our culture, and find ourselves in new places. We stand and look around, then perhaps we find ourselves settling there, ‘taking a seat’ mentally as we choose to identify with this new place. Or perhaps we don’t agree altogether with it, but the thought of extracting ourselves and walking away again is too daunting, too much effort and even embarrassing for us.  

We need to walk warily my friends. We need to remember that while we are called to live ‘in’ the world, yet we are not to be ‘of’ it, nor to make ourselves at home. Where am I headed each day? What is my daily path of thoughts, occupations, assumptions? I cannot and must not cut myself off from this world, but I must remain vigilant and notice my surroundings as I walk. 

The psalmist prays for the Lord’s leading into a ‘straight’ or safe path, and so may we. We can pray for wisdom to discern dangers on our path and its surroundings, so that we are prepared to keep our minds on the Lord and his word, his promises and faithfulness. We can pray to be delivered from thoughtless wandering into dangerous company where we might be tempted to settle down, because in so many ways it feels good, perhaps even familiar. It is so easy for the enemy of our souls to camouflage wrong thinking, making it attractive and comfortable – less likely to provoke the wrath of our godless world. 

Lord Jesus, you are our only safe way; only by you can we walk in peace into our eternal inheritance and glorious future; only in you do we find perfect wisdom, and through you find our joy in living. Let us so deeply crave crave your peace, wisdom and joy, that we cannot be comfortable anywhere these things are not found. May the wisdom of the world never beguile us into making ourselves at home in it. Watch over our ways, guard us and keep us always in your paths.

Whose headlines?

The Lord reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgement. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”

(Ps 9.7-10)

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

(Jn 16.33)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

(Rom 5.1-5)

It is some years since I stopped watching news programmes on TV, and I mean stopped altogether, not just the late night bulletin which would upset and depress me just in time to go to bed…. all of them. My preferred radio station has the briefest possible bulletins, and no chat shows or analysis programmes. Our family newspaper is only skimmed by me, and I pay more attention to the articles on rugby union than UK politics!

Why? Because I am fully aware of the impact on my attitude to life and to the world around me that the ‘news’ can have. How often do we hear really good news on the radio or TV? When did a headline in the papers last make you think, ‘How really wonderful!’? The sad reality is that bad news sells, attracts and keeps attention, and so our media news channels focus on that – on disagreement, on the dramas of international disputes, on natural disasters and the threats of more.

I know that some outlets are more reliable than others when it comes to an accurate and unbiased reporting; I know that some sources are more likely to take account of all the facts and avoid pursuing some political agenda of their own. But, I also know that since none can actually take a broad, complete picture, they will inevitably distort and fail to convey the full picture.

And so, as a follower of Jesus, I choose to place little weight in the news as reported. I choose instead to rely on the statements by the one who truly sees and knows all, who holds the nations in his hand and sees into every heart, discerning motives and desires which are hidden from the world. I choose to trust God’s headlines over those of the media, and to find in his viewpoint, my security and my analysis of the situation.

There is so much more going on than we ever hear about. There are so many things which are good, and true and beautiful that never make the news. God’s love is in action, all around me people are caring and giving and celebrating because He is, and has loved them. I believe that only eternity will show the full significance of all the apparently ‘small’ good things that are happening all the time. If I am to hold a balanced view, I need to make sure that the reality of God’s love and goodness, of his beauty and power are at the forefront of my mind, balancing the pain, evil and misery which is also part of our broken world.

And what are God’s headlines?

The Lord reigns for ever. He will judge in righteousness. He has overcome this world’s evil, and the victory is given to all who trust in him for forgiveness and eternal life. We are on the winning side! Whenever you are being overwhelmed by the latest tidal wave of bad news, dear friends, take a step back and remember what God says about this world and all that is happening and will take place.

Not only is our Lord reigning already, but he is also present with his people in their journey through this place so painfully compounded of joy and sorrow, light and darkness, beauty and ugliness. This holiness came and lived with our sinfulness. Nothing that we encounter can shock or defeat him. Nothing that the darkness hides goes unseen by him. We never walk alone….

So much good news, from the most trustworthy source imaginable: my friends I pray that we might never lose sight of it, and might indeed discern it every day in the lives of those around us – the faithful love of a spouse for a failing partner; the committed work of missionaries, carers, healthworkers and emergency services; the unselfish generosity of neighbours and the positive community efforts to care for the weakest and least visible in their midst. God’s headlines may not always be the most dramatic, but they will always help me to walk more steadily through our troubled world, and to offer hope to all who will receive it.

Where are my wells?

The angel of the Lord found Hagar.. and he said,..”go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”

…God said to Abraham, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant… I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bow shot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink…

(Gen 16.9&10; 21.12-19)

But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand….the poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.

(Isa 41.8-10, 17&18)

On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”

(Jn 7.37&38)

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful..

(Heb 10.23)

Hagar, servant of Sarah, concubine to Abraham, mother of Ishmael, suffered greatly at the hands of those who could and should have known better. Abraham and Sarah, in their abuse of Hagar, did not honour the God whose call they had obeyed and whom they worshipped. God showed grace and compassion to Hagar, as the mother of Abraham’s first son, she entered a relationship with a covenant keeping God and this long story shows that faithfulness of God’s character at work. In all the machinations of Sarah, and complaisance of Abraham, yet God was at work for good for this slave woman and her unwanted child. And when the crisis came, Hagar found that God intended to do for her all that he had promised.

I was greatly moved by this story when it was preached in our church last week, as we were encouraged to recall that we too are those who have received God’s promises. As his chosen ones, called through Jesus to be his children, we are the object of his love and it is his purpose to bring us to glory. While the world may leave us tired and vulnerable, and those close to us may hurt or neglect us, yet God is at work and cannot be thwarted.

Friends, are you, like me, oppressed and feeling as though life is a desert? Can you see only the death of your hopes and no purpose in carrying on? Let me encourage you to be like Hagar, to cry aloud in your distress and to listen for the voice of the Lord who has promised that he will quench your thirst abundantly.

This way is the one in which God is leading and calling you. This, therefore, is the place in which he will sustain and bless you. This way is the one where you will find wells, springs of refreshment. There may only be small springs, rations for each day’s journey – but herein lies the challenge of faith. Will I accept today’s refreshment and trust for tomorrow’s, even though I may not see it yet? Will I choose to follow and rejoice, one day at a time?

What wells lie in your way today? As you cry to your Father who sees all things, what will he give for your thirst? Perhaps a song, or piece of music which brings His faithfulness to mind and allows you to express worship and trust, or to lament and lay your burden before him. Perhaps the companionship of a fellow traveller with whom you can share your situation, and whose own burdens you can lift to God in prayer. Perhaps an opportunity to serve, to use the gifts you have for the blessing of another. Perhaps a fresh awareness of his power and majesty in creation.

May we learn to trust him more fully for our daily needs, and to journey in faith, like Hagar. May we see the wells which God’s goodness has provided, and having drunk deeply, go on.

Out of hope…not fear

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled…You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Saviour.. The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy. You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.

(Ps 65. 1,5,8-13)

For this is what the Lord says – he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited – he says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right…Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked. Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.'”

(Isa 45.18&19,22-24)

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…..

(Matt 6.9&10)

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, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them…..” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

(Rev 21.1,3&5)

The debate around climate change, and the very compelling evidence for the scale of the crisis now faced by humankind, is one of the most disturbing things which we face as believers. I am continually overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, and the seemingly inevitable suffering which lies ahead, especially for those already oppressed by poverty, disease and war.. When one adds a degree of realism – or is it undue pessimism? – about the capacity of the major global agencies to actually cooperate and act constructively and decisively, it is hard to find grounds for hope.

BUT, as a believer, I must wrestle with this, and recently in my struggle I have been greatly helped by being reminded that we are not in this alone. There is nothing in the scripture to suggest that God simply set up creation and then abandoned it to the mercies of human beings. Rather, there are multiple indications that God is intimately involved with the ongoing life of our planet; sustaining its laws, caring for its creatures and also celebrating and appreciating his own handiwork. We are also told very plainly, that God is in the business of ‘making all things new’ – of realising his purposes in a perfected creation, where He can live with his redeemed and glorified people, enjoying everything as it was always meant to be. 

So what can I do as I seek to live as God’s child, God’s representative, in this troubled time?

I can be sure that God is still involved in this world; and that as his child, I am called to follow his example of caring for and celebrating the beautiful, abundant creation around me. God’s hands are still on his handiwork, for good.

I can be sure that God will fulfill his purpose for all creation; to deliver it from the effects of sin into a place of abundance and thriving which I cannot even imagine, but which one day I will delight in as my eternal home!

I can pray ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..’ and then expect that God will answer, and that I can be part of that answer – even though I may not understand the paths He chooses to take. I can be part of that answer, by looking at my own life and the opportunities I have to do things differently; and also by encouraging other people to see the goodness of this earth and to cherish it. 

I can encourage others to hear how creation shouts aloud of God’s love and generosity; celebrating all his greatness and power, and responding in loving stewardship of those things which it is in our power to influence. I can encourage them to believe that since we are working with our God in a world which is precious to him, for a purpose which is glorifying to him, then our efforts will never be altogether futile, no matter how small. 

God is with us, now and always, therefore we need not fear – though the oceans rise – but can work with him in hope and expectation. May we be strengthened to live in this way in these days, that our hope might cause others to seek Jesus, and find salvation for themselves.

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When it pulls so hard…

Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgements he pronounced.. He is the Lord our God; his judgements are in all the earth. He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations….. He confirmed in to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant.

(Ps 105.5,7,8&10)

I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands….Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.

(Ps 63.2-4,7&8)

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand…”

(Jn 10.27-29)

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that… we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf..

(Heb  6. 17-20)

Have you ever watched a boat straining at its anchor rope in high winds and rough waters? The rope is taut, and at times the strain is so strong that the boat appears to being pulled under the crashing waters as it cannot move with them and cut loose from that security. I wonder if at times as believers we feel like that boat?

The old hymn speaks of the ‘anchor that keeps our soul, steadfast and sure while the billows roll’, but we perhaps forget that the strain exerted upon the boat by its anchor-rope against those billows is immense! If the anchor were not strong enough to hold firm in the seabed, the boat would certainly move freely again upon the waters, but it would also, and just as certainly, come into danger of destruction as a result. I would like to think about the way that our connection to God, through Jesus, is like that anchor rope, and to ponder what that means when we are in the stormiest waters and like to founder.

Sometimes, I find myself so deeply troubled by pain and suffering – my own and that of others, that I am tempted to wish I did not believe in a God of love who cares for me. The tension between what I am feeling – or seeing others endure – and what the bible tells me is true, is so powerful that I am being torn in two and cannot bear it any more. But consider friends, if God’s loving hold upon me was not so strong, I would not feel that tension at all, I would simply choose to walk away from an inconvenient set of beliefs, and seek another way to make my peace with the realities of life in this broken world (not that I believe there is such a thing).

I believe that we can take comfort from the very intensity of our struggles – they show just how firmly God’s love is grasping us, just how determined he is to fulfil his covenant promise in us, and to what lengths he has gone and will go to glorify his name by saving us in spite of all our faults and failings. It is no credit to believers when – either in the midst of the storm, or in the succeeding calmer days – we testify to our perseverance. Rather, all the glory goes to God who has laid hold upon us, chosen to keep us for his own name’s sake – does a boat take credit for remaining at anchor through a storm? No, it is the one who has set the anchor, chosen and attached the rope to the boat who deserves praise.

What a relief to know, as we endure current trials and submit to what may come in the days ahead, that our anchor is totally secure – because of the one who has attached us to himself so utterly and completely. We can trust him, even when the tension is like to tear our hearts in pieces, to be faithful to his promises and to be glorified in and through what is happening.

Thank you Father that when, like Jesus in Gethsemane, we are in agony and wrestling to accept your will, we can know that it is your love for us that holds us fast, and your love in us which is refusing to let go and surrender us to the darkness of the storm. When we are in pain, may we even there be able to rejoice that you have given us love for you, faith in Jesus, and reason to hope.

But…Lord, I don’t understand, forgive me…

The Lord said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!…Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God’s and can your voice thunder like his?”

(Job 40.1&2,8&9)

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion…..The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…

(Ex 33.18&19; 34.6&7)

Watch out that no-one deceives you….You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of the birth pains.. you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death because of me.. many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations

(Matt 24.4-14)

I am back on familiar ground, wrestling with the sheer scale of human suffering – today and in the past, and in the future as it seems to be unfolding before our very eyes. Wrestling with the tension between the revelation of God’s love and power and will to save as seen in Jesus, and the heartbreaking cry which is going up every hour of every day as people face pain, horror, oppression and death without hope.

The very doubts which arise in my mind make me feel guilty – adding to the messy and distressing nature of the fight. And yet, I think of Job who cried out in his agony and loss, and whom God commended for speaking truth about the Almighty – truth about God’s justice and holiness and absolute trustworthiness. And I think of Jesus, in very nature God and able to heal, resurrect and create new life, who nonetheless spoke to his disciples that they would ‘always have the poor with them’, and whose mission in his short life was not to tackle social justice, create an ideal state, overthrow the oppression of women, or heal every illness and deformity which could be found in the world in his time. 

If Jesus had a different, and greater, agenda, then is it not possible for me to try to grasp that other agenda too, to begin to see beyond this world and its very real troubles to the greater and more glorious reality beyond? Am I so embedded in the physical present that I cannot even begin to understand or imagine there might be something immeasurably better? May I not learn to trust that there is something worth hanging onto beyond the immediate and enveloping misery which clouds my vision of the world?

God tells us that his ways are higher than ours, and yet to our shame we continue to fall into the devil’s trap of sitting in judgement on the Divine, of weighing God’s plans and purposes by human values. Surely this must be one of the forms by which ‘wickedness’ has increased, so that so many in the world today are deceived into condemning God without really listening to the gospel and to the claims which Jesus made for himself. As CS Lewis put in the title of his book, we put ‘God in the dock’, and having found fault with the plans of the Almighty, decide he is untrustworthy, and not to be considered in any of our thinking about life and creation.

With shame, I confess it again, I really struggle with these great unanswered questions, these mysteries which surround God’s great plan of redemption. I pray, “Thy will be done..” and then am tempted to add a qualifier – “but not if anyone is going to get hurt by it…” 

Father God, I believe that you could end all human suffering and pain tomorrow, if it were your plan and purpose to do so; if by that means, all glory would go to your Son my Saviour. And so I pray, “thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven”. Help me, dear Father, to trust you for the prayers which seem unanswered, for the answers that involve ongoing mess and pain for billions around the world. And dear Father, forgive and cleanse me of this arrogance, this pride which keeps on rearing its head and demanding that you give account of yourself to me, for my approval. I am so ashamed to recognise this attitude in my heart. Thank you for the mercy which I have in Jesus, so that my sin is forgiven in his name. May my passion be for the proclamation of that mercy to all nations, so that he might be glorified, and your kingdom come on earth.

On feeling very, very small…

[God] spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight. He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it. He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness. The pillars of the heavens quake…By his breath the skies became fair;… and these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?

(Job 26.7-14)

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…How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.

(Ps 139.1-6,17&18) 

Can you spot the boat in the picture? It is almost invisible, lost in the sheer expanse of the horizon as the sea opens beyond the mouth of the loch. Every wise sailor knows that they must go carefully into open waters, the forces arrayed against them are huge and must be reckoned with. How then do we – as tiny craft upon a great ocean of life in this world – venture with confidence?

Many years ago, a dear saint in my congregation gave me a little card, a bookmark and remembrance which I still have, bearing the words, “My boat is small, your sea so vast: Dear Lord protect me.” We do well to be lost in admiration and worship as we consider the scale of God’s creative powers as displayed in our world and the unimagineable reaches of space beyond. We do well to feel how very small and insignificant we are on this little green planet, lost among billions of other human beings, present for a tiny moment in time and then lost to sight and memory, leaving no trace of our passing.

This sense of our transience and irrelevance is one of the things that God uses to call people to seek him – since the eternal likeness to himself which is implanted in every person cries out against it. Somewhere deep within, we believe that we matter, that we have purpose and value, and yet…behold how great the ocean, how unmoved by humanity are the mountains and the great winds. 

This is one of the many blessings we receive in the gospel, as we join God’s covenant family and share in his promises and purposes in the world. We discover that while our sense of inadequacy and smallness remain, we now know that God the creator and sustainer of all things knows and cares intimately for us. We have been brought into a personal, loving relationship with the one who keeps the stars in their courses, who sees and rules the great beasts of the deep and who holds our planet in its life-supporting place in the universe. How marvellous to realise that although we are as dust on the ground, yet we belong to the awesome, holy and good God who made all things. Our frailty no longer defines our future – He does. Our past sins, and present failings no longer define our future – He does. Our tiny efforts to please him, to labour for his glory and the building of the kingdom do not define our future – He does. 

My friends, as we today consider how small we are, how easily lost within the vastness of creation and humanity, let us rejoice that we are never lost to the God who made us, who saved us in love to live for and with him. Let that knowledge bring peace and freedom to venture out with courage into the smooth or turbulent waters that lie ahead, trusting the great navigator to keep us just where we should be, right under his eye and in his hand.

Pray for your enemies….

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises…In his pride the wicked does not seek the Lord; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.”… But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand.

(Ps 10.1,2,4,11&14)

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Matt 5.43-48)

As it is written: “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless….There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says, it says…so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in his sight.. But now a righteousness from God.. has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

(Rom 5.10,11,18-24)

Two years ago, I was privileged to visit New York and to stand beside the two great holes in the heart of that city which mark the foundations of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. Sombre, dignified, heart-breaking.. the sound of the ever-falling water and the sight of name after name, after name inscribed on the surrounding walls combine to stir up powerful emotions.

What do we do in the face of such devastating – for so many people, life-shattering – events?

We rightly lament for and with those who are directly affected, and we commit to their welfare over the long haul which will lie ahead for them – practical, emotional support and courage to walk with them even though we cannot enter into or carry the pain for them. We commend them to the God who loves them and who longs to bring comfort and hope back into their lives, and ultimately to bring them home to himself.

We seek to discipline our own reactions, and to reflect God’s truth in our words and attitudes. While we may – with the psalmists and prophets – cry out in lament and wrestle with God’s providence, yet we also hold fast to the truth of his justice and holiness. We proclaim a God who cares about injustice and evil, and who has not abandoned the world he made to its own self-destruction. The sacrificial death of the perfect Son of God – the payment for evil for all who will believe – was the sign of just how much God DOES care about us, the people fashioned in his likeness.

We also remember and acknowledge with trembling, that before a holy God, no one is righteous. The basic sin of rebellion against God, as God, lies behind the actions of every human being who ever lived – apart from Jesus – and the need of every human being is to be transformed from rebel to beloved child. The astonishing thing about God’s offer of salvation, is that anyone may accept it and find forgiveness. Ultimately, this is what we are to pray for all those whom we may be tempted to view as our enemies – that they may come to saving faith in Jesus and be forgiven. Yes, forgiven, even as we trust to be forgiven, and for the same reason – the blood of Christ which was poured out for the cleansing of sinners.

Please, do not misunderstand me. This in no way reduces or dismisses the scale of their offences, nor the pain, destruction and long-term consequences of their actions. But it does mean that we commit the whole business of eternal justice and judgement into the hands of God, who alone is able to do right in such circumstances. When we pray for our enemies to be saved, we are loving them as Christ loved us, seeing the desperate condition in which we languished, and showing mercy.

Father God, who loved this world so much that you sent you Son to die for us so that we might know you again and be whole, we pray for those who might be called our enemies today. Deliver us from the bitterness of unforgiving hearts, and make us tender like Jesus, to love those who have not loved us.

For those who, through culture, poverty, trauma and radicalisation, have come to believe so passionately in their own creed that they will, in turn, inflict unimagineable suffering upon others – Father God, we pray that the love of your Son might come with healing and cleansing power and they might find peace.

For those who, in pursuit of wealth and power, have come to feel nothing for the suffering of the poor and marginalised, exploited and abused by the wealth-creating system – Father God, we pray that the love of your Son might break through and break their hearts to show compassion and to use their power for good.

For us all, Father God, may we see afresh our desperate state when we choose to live without you. May we never regard anyone as beyond your grace – since you have shown it even to such as we know ourselves to be. Your grace is truly amazing, and it is the power that we need to see at work in our world today. May each of your children be a grace-bearer and mercy-giver, a speaker of truth and the good news of forgiveness in Jesus, so that we might see your kingdom come and your will being done in our world as it is in heaven. 

What gets my ‘thumbs up’?…

Praise be to you, O Lord; teach me your decrees. with my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statues as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.

(Ps 119.12-16)

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else and not your own lips….As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart….The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but people are tested by their praise.

(Pr 27. 2,19&21)

These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…

(Isa 29.13)

..store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also….No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

(Matt 6.19-21,24)

We know – because we are continually being told – that the great internet companies succeed in part through their ability to gather information about us, their customers. This enables them to target what we see every time we engage with our social media – stimulating our desires and generating (as they hope) more spending to keep the great money machine ticking over. By diligent monitoring of our habits, viewing activities, previous purchasing and ‘likes’, they build up a picture of what we are like, of our preferences, even our likely political opinions. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to see the ‘profile’ created for me by these companies, would I recognise myself? Would I see anything that would suggest that I am – as Christ instructed me – laying up treasures for myself in heaven?

It is relatively easy, when in the company of other believers, to say the ‘right’ things and give an impression of devotion and commitment to Jesus, but the Lord sees my heart and knows just how far those verbal affirmations go in telling the truth about me… He knows what really makes me glad, or sad. He sees when I am bored of being holy and instead choose self-indulgence, laziness and conformity to the society around me. Who am I trying to fool when I make the right noises, but live a lie? Shame on me, if I am trying to fool my fellow believers – surely it were better that I admit my struggles to remain faithful, and ask for the help of my sisters and brothers in Christ?

The choices I make, in doing and spending, in speaking and remaining silent, all add up to a clear picture about what really motivates me in daily living. As a new creature in Jesus, forgiven and transformed by the indwelling of his Spirit, the potential to be driven by love for my Lord and a desire for his glory is already in me. Do I choose to harness that potential, to ask for his help in setting my heart on heavenly treasures? Sometimes I do, and sometimes, I don’t have to ask! Just occasionally, I am blessed by the realisation that Christ is indeed at work in me, and the desires of my heart – the things that I value and praise – are the things of God, of eternal value, the glory of the Saviour himself. Thank God for such occasions in your life, for the encouragement they give to your perseverance and the testimony to his power at work in you.

The transformation of our characters into the likeness of Jesus doesn’t lead to a bland, half-lived life. Rather we enter into a fuller life, because our passions are now godly and can be expressed strongly and safely, they are all under his command and direction. We learn to love justice as he does – so we can be rightly angered by injustice, oppression and exploitation. We learn to see his power in creation, to realise the privilege of sharing in stewardship of this great gift, and so we can be passionate about looking after our planet, its ecosystems, and all the people whom God loves so much that Jesus died for them. We know the value of each human life, so we can be passionately interested in our neighbours, in what is good for them and our wider communities – we learn to love as God loves, appreciating each individual in all their unique glory. We see the devastating effects of sin, throughout creation, and so we long passionately to share the good news of Jesus and the defeat of evil which he achieved.

Our Father in heaven, stir up in our hearts all those desires for heavenly treasure which you have imparted to us. May we burn more steadily and more brightly for you, so that it is clear for all to see just where our hearts are. We pray this for the glory of Jesus our Lord, and for your work in the world. Amen