Tag Archives: Psalms

church…a work in progress?

So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly , which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand..Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord. The Levites..instructed the people..making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.

(Neh 8.2,6-8)

Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.

(Ps 149.1-4)

It was he[Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.

(Eph 4.11-13)

…Christ is the head of the church, his body of which he is the Saviour…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless

(Eph 5.23, 25-27)

Have you ever wondered at the gulf between the passionate, potent love we see in Jesus, and the qualities of the church which is his body in the world? Why does the community which is commissioned to witness to divine love, and incredible grace have such a record of intolerance, bigotry of every kind, division, coldness, selfishness and worldliness? Why do so many people outside the church view Jesus as someone admirable, and then reject the gospel because of those who claim to know and love him?

Our record as a people called to bear God’s name fruitfully, making disciples of all nations, rejoicing in our salvation and provoking the unsaved to envy of our peace, unity and hope is woeful. Our record as a people able to pick quarrels, hold grudges, mistreat, suspect, withhold forgiveness, abuse, lie, conceal and hoard on the other hand is quite impressive. How shameful, how heart-breaking, that the body of Christ in the world should be a source of such grief, pain and rejection of the gospel.

We have the incalculable riches of the word of Almighty God – his personal revelation of himself, his great purposes in creation and redemption. We have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, whose task is our daily transformation and enabling for the work of mission – whatever that may look like in our unique calling. We have Jesus, our salvation, our glory, joy and crown, by whom we stand in the the immediate presence of a holy God, with a guaranteed eternity in which to finally and fully live. What happens to us, that our lives fall so short of our calling, our identity?

From earliest records, we see that the body of Christ has been flawed, there was no golden age when everything went well. We are a community of sinners who have been saved, and who – this side of death – remain prone to every temptation known to humanity. The result is that the bride for whom Jesus died is far from pure, united and holy, and her continued existence is itself a cause for wonder and humble thanksgiving. Only God could have preserved a witness for himself in the face of so much weakness and failing. The larger our institutional churches get, the more they become like worldly institutions, with the same flaws. The tragedy is that Christ’s body in the world ought to be different. Unbelievers know this, and mock our faith; we know it, and grieve for the trap from which we seem unable to escape.

We have to take responsibility for our own personal witness, and pray for the reform of our institutions, pray for our leaders and confess our failures and sins. We also have to continue to work at being a community of believers. Each of us has a role to play in the body, in addition to our own willingness to give reason for the hope we have. We look to love, to build up, to encourage. We look to unite in praise and in learning from the word – reverencing the revelation and hungry to learn for ourselves what it means for us.

Lord of the church, for whom you died, have mercy on us. Fill us afresh by your Spirit, so that we shine for you – as individuals and as a body. Cleanse us from our persistent sins so that we honour you, and show how we treasure the blood shed to make us clean. Do not give up the work of building your church in our day, in our land, but in your mercy let us see your power poured out and a new generation of people coming to new life in Christ.

Music ..while we wait?…

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.  I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

(Ps 130)

Praise the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord; praise him, you servants of the Lord, you who minister in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God. Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing praise to his name for that is pleasant..

(Ps 135 1-3)

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is..be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Eph 5.15-19)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say, ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us..and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

(Ti 2.11-14)

The concept of ‘waiting’ recurs throughout the bible, as a major part of our relationship with God and his purposes in creation and redemption. Consider the way that Abraham was called to wait upon God’s timing in fulfilling the promise of a son by Sarah – and the unintended consequences when Abraham became impatient and acted on his own (and Sarah’s) initiative. Consider the years which lay between David’s anointing as king of Israel and his final accession to the throne, while he waited for God to deal with Saul, and tried to keep out of trouble. Consider the generations who lived and died, ‘waiting’ for God to deliver the people from exile back to Israel, and those like Isaiah who prophesied of a glorious future for the land and people, but died before seeing it..

God himself waited, until the time was right for the birth of Jesus, and even now is waiting patiently, extending the offer of grace and the good news of Jesus to all who will believe, because he is unwilling that any should perish. He is still waiting, until just the right time comes to finally wind up this broken creation and make everything new – including us – so that his rule and reign can be fully realised. Jesus himself, as a human being, waited for decades before embarking upon his short ministry, trusting God’s timing and willing to submit to the years of quiet, hidden faithfulness and training.

It is so hard for us to wait, especially when what we are longing for appears to us to be entirely in accordance with God’s revealed purposes – perhaps the salvation of a loved one, the establishment of a new ministry to particular people, the creation of a new resource to share the gospel, the end of particularly bloody, destructive warfare or oppression, the restoration of the planet’s resources…whatever your particular longing is!

In my own struggle with this ‘waiting’, with unfulfilled hopes, I find Psalm 130 particularly comforting in its honesty and encouragement. The psalmist reminds himself- and me – of God’s qualities, encouraging trust and confident hope. With God – my God, your God – there is forgiveness of sin, so that we can know and serve him without fear of judgement. With God – your God, my God – there is unfailing love,  that rich promised reliability and intent to bless which underlies the covenant promises on which God’s people rely down the ages. We look at the evidence, and as we see Jesus on the cross, at the empty tomb, and ascending into glory, we see the lengths to which unfailing love will go for me, for you, and we can have peace in the face of trouble.

I cannot know just how long my waiting will last – will I trust the one who has said ‘Wait, and see what I will do’?. With God – my God, your God – there is perfect redemption, so that I can respond to his love, unburdened by guilt, and free to make the most of the time I have to share the gospel, live a life worthy of his name, and praise him in all I am and do.

Heavenly Father, have mercy on your child in her impatience. Grant that profound trust in your ways, and your timing, which is your gift and her desperate need. Set her free to give thanks to you for everything, singing as she waits and doing good in your name to your glory and the blessing of your work in this needy world.

Seasonal labour..

I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.

(Ps 123.1&2)

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

(Ps 126.4-6)

Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.

(Ps 127.1)

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:..a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to tear down and a time to build…a time to mourn and a time to dance..a time to search and a time to give up..a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate…

(Eccl 3.1-8)

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

(Matt 28.18-20)

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labour For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

(1 Cor 3.7-9)

I was blessed this week to spend time with a wise woman – one who has walked long with God and proved his faithfulness – who encouraged and helped me as I wrestled with the heaviness of these days. God grant that I may be such a friend in turn to others in their need, as he uses us to bless one another! Two things in our conversation were particularly helpful and also connected with recent readings in the Psalms, and I share them with you now.

Firstly, the idea of seasons. As a gardener, I come close to the rhythm which God has placed at the very heart of our planet, and the mysteries of soil, water and life. I know that a seed must die if a plant is to live and bear fruit; I know that ground must lie fallow in between crops; I know that rain, cold and time must be allowed to do their work on soil which has been cleared and fertilised. There are activities which are proper to each season, and it is pointless and even destructive to engage in the wrong labour for that time – where would be the use in digging up daffodil bulbs to see if they are going to flower only 3 weeks after planting them? Those days call for expectant and patient waiting, not faithless digging!

As one who believes in a God who declares himself both Almighty and Sovereign, so that EVERYTHING that happens comes within the sphere of both his knowledge and great plan and purpose, I choose to trust him for this season in our world’s existence. I cannot know how long it will last, nor what will follow – perhaps there will be a time of glorious harvest as many find faith and hope in Jesus, what joy that would be! But this whole time – the political, economic, ecological, moral and social turmoil across the globe – is under his dominion, is part of his plan. I will only find peace in this season as I choose to accept that sovereignty, trust that He will prove his goodness and justice one day, and look for the ways He is already at work in it.

And this brings me to the second idea we spoke of – the choice to focus on what CAN be done in this season, rather than on what CANNOT be done! Yes, there are many restrictions on us, and our lives are not what we expected at this time. But that doesn’t mean that we are helpless and aimless, that God has nothing for us to do! I cannot say what your particular tasks in this season will look like – each of us has a unique place and a particular calling as God’s fellow workers – but they will be there.

Listen – to God’s word, ponder and be open to correction and surprises..to the stories of God’s people around the globe, let the stories of your brothers and sisters inspire and encourage and motivate you.

Pray – talk to Him about everything and everyone, asking for direction to be active and in tune with His plans.

Live – act on what you read and hear – love those around you, reach out to encourage and bless; rejoice in the life you have been given, instead of resenting what is withheld.

We look to God, as to our master, to see where He would have us act; remembering that it is He who builds, not us, He who gives life and increases the kingdom, not us. We may weep as we sow, but God can still grant fruit and we may hope for joy in harvesting .

The relief of unconditional love….

How long, I Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?..But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.

(Ps 13.5)

Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful to me and answer me…do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Saviour. Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me…I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

(Ps 27.7,9&10, 13&14)

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness..as a bride adorns herself with her jewels..

(Isa 61.10)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins…Each one of you should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms..so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

(1 Pet 4.7-11)

As the tension level rises, my stomach churns and I want to both scream and fight, and also run away, I draw great breaths and cry out to God for mercy in my time of trouble.

As the atmosphere gets colder, conversation more and more awkward so that everything I say is somehow wrong and irritating, I cry out to God for mercy in our time of trouble.

As everything I am seems to be difficult for others to live with – both my strengths and my weaknesses, I weep in my heart and curl up small, trying not to cause more trouble. I cry out to God for mercy in my distress and beg his enabling for those who have to live with me.

I give thanks, starting with the little things that daily remind me of God’s provision for me and I am calmed. The provision for my bodily comfort which is more than adequate; the beauty of the land around me which ministers to my spirit; the exhilirating shock of cold sea water on my skin which reminds me of the precious gift of life itself.

I turn my thoughts to the gospel which is the greatest gift God gives to his children; I remind myself that I deserve nothing and yet receive more than I can imagine. I remind myself that I am just as deserving of judgement as those who may have hurt me, or whose reactions to me show how difficult they find me. I focus on mercy, on grace, on the totally free outpouring of forgiveness and the new birth into eternal life which IS mine in Jesus. I am humbled and ashamed of the critical spirit which has been raging in me against my fellow sinners.

My soul, hear this…the God of the universes desires your companionship. The maker of the stars in all their glory looks at you and is glad, delighting in the beauty and richness of all that you are. The Almighty, holy and pure and unable to look on sin, enjoys your delight in the world and all that each day and moment brings. Your quirks and bad habits do not exasperate the one who calls you ‘Beloved’; your lack of intellect and the narrowness of your interests does not bore or alienate the one who died to save you. Oh my dear wounded, rejected and frightened self, run to your Lord’s loving arms and take refuge there. In that secure clasp take comfort and breathe deeply, relax and be held by the one who has promised NEVER to let go of you.

And in time, you will find that you are able to return in his strength to the task appointed, to the people whom you are privileged to love in his name. And your first task is to forgive them, even as you are forgiven by your Father, so that they might receive from you that unconditional love which alone heals and restores and sustains. You cannot love perfectly, but you can keep on asking for divine help, and giving thanks for the divine grace and providence which works in and through you  in spite of your ongoing failures.

May God in his mercy be pleased to continue his work in and through each one of us, as we love and serve one another in his name, forgiving as many times as necessary and choosing love and loyalty over resentment and revenge. To him be the glory, as he fulfills his purposes so that in us, as well as in everything else, God may be praised through our Lord Jesus.

Longing and belonging..

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens..the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

(Gen 2.4&7)

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?..You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings..made him ruler over the works of your hands…all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea…O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

(Ps 8.3-9)

Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity

(Ps 98.7-9)

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God..”Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God…I did not see a temple in the city because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple…The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city..

(Rev 21.2&3;22, 22.3)

Almighty God, how I rejoice in your works today! I worship you, maker of so much more than I can ever comprehend or imagine, and I glory in my God.

The wonder of your creativity continues to astound us, from the tiniest sub-particles, to the apparent infinities of space – and all of this is by your design. This is the setting for your plan to create and enjoy fellowship with us – how could we ever have imagined such a destiny, such a glorious purpose?! Thank you for revealing yourself to us, for unveiling this glorious destiny, and above all for making it possible through Jesus for us to fulfill it.

In my heart, I know that I was made for this world, and yet for so much more. When I read that I am a dust-child, frail as grass and easily perishing, I recognise the truth of my transience. And yet, I also know that I live by the breath of God, my very being protests against the idea of annihilation, and thrills at the prospect of a life more vivid, fulfilling, glorious and perfect than any this world can offer. I was created to know, and to be known by eternal love, to be at home in a place where heaven and earth embrace, where God dwells with his children in joy and peace

I love this world; it is my home, the place was made to be just right for humankind by the author of all good things, and he does not make mistakes. So I can find a proper joy in the world which God has gifted to us, rightly reluctant to leave it and delighting to recognise the fingerprint of my master in every detail. Creation itself has so much to teach us – even though we have spoiled it so badly. Praise of the maker rises at every point of the compass, in every reach of every universe, directing honour and glory to God and obedient to his commands. Would that my own life more and more did the same, pointing others to my creator and saviour, prompt in obedience and satisfied with his providence for me! I make it so complicated, and long for a purer, steadier faith.

I am at home here and yet homesick for something more..and how precious to us are those visions and promises in God’s word which give glimpses of that home for which we are ultimately destined! Our resurrection bodies will belong in our new-made earth, in the place where at last God will live with his beloved children and they with him – with no shame, no pain, no fear – every longing satisfied and the constant presence of our beloved Lord to enjoy.

So what does all this mean for my daily walk, the round of duties, opportunities and occupations which fill my time? Primarily, it is something which I talk to my Lord about – a great deal – bringing the tension between now and not yet to him. What sweet relief to share the burden, with one who made me and knows me, and gives daily gifts in love to sustain me! I find great joy in the world around me, and choose to trust that although I cannot begin to imagine a new-made earth, that my God knows how it is going to work and it will be PERFECT.

When the sinister, sickening and pathetic realm of human affairs threatens to overwhelm me, I take courage for the day from this. God, who made all this to give us a home, who sent Christ to make me right in holiness and purity, is not going to fail in the end. Truth, justice and love will see to it that every promise is fulfilled, and I can trust his ways and his timing.

 

His door is never shut…

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

(Ps 23.5&6)

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. For what you have done I will always praise you in the presence of your faithful people. And I will hope in your name, for your name is good.

(Ps 52.8&9)

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.

(Isa 33.5&6)

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

(Heb 10.19-22)

A few months ago, I knew nothing about ‘social distancing’, COVID19 and ‘shielding’. I met friends in coffee shops, stayed in their houses in order to attend choir practice, visit the hairdresser and go shopping. I thought nothing of hugging, touching, expressing love through my hands as well as my words. And every week, I met with fellow believers to sing, pray and study God’s word in a variety of buildings around our parish.

So much has changed, we have learnt – through great upheaval and at the cost of thousands of lives and millions of pounds – just how powerful a virus can be, and how vulnerable we are. We have learnt that we can adapt incredibly quickly, discovered unexpected resilience, unlikely heroes have emerged, and at last we are discovering that true caring is priceless, and seriously undervalued in our society. And we have discovered just how much we are meant to live in community, how even a casual conversation in the street at an appropriate distance can sustain another day in isolation from family and friends.

But what of church? What difference has it made for me to be locked out of the buildings, to be forbidden to meet with others to sing, pray and study God’s word? I have been humbled and thrilled to discover that – just as the bible tells me – I am one who dwells for ever in God’s house. By faith in Christ, I am at home with my Heavenly Father and nothing can shut me out from his presence, or his arms. I can share every meal with him, every moment of my days is lived with him, and his word is my daily nourishment. I have been privileged in these days to experience what persecuted Christians around the world know in much harder circumstances, namely that I am never alone and God cannot be kept from me, his beloved child.

I don’t need to be in a particular building or even with certain people in order to worship God and delight in his presence. His word is with me, speaking to me and directing my thoughts. The wisdom and knowledge of God, the inestimable treasures of salvation, all these are mine, unlocked for me by Christ and providing a sure foundation on which I can depend when all around is uncertainty and fear. I can pray for my fellow believers even though I am not with them, because we are all united in Christ and stand before God’s throne of mercy together.

Great saints down the ages have known what it is to be deprived of their freedom and sent to prison or exile – and there they prove this truth, that God never abandons his children. While we are saved into a community of believers, and it is good to be physically present with one another, sharing praise and service and our lives, yet we are each directly united with Christ, and thus live always in God’s loving presence. When the distractions of ‘normal’ life are removed, we perhaps learn to think more of Christ and to see him more clearly – to celebrate the love which sent him to Calvary, and the goodness which informs everything that happens to us.

May these days of isolation and distance from one another bear this fruit in my life, and yours, that we learn to depend more and more upon Christ and find in him our satisfaction and refuge. The words of Samuel Rutherford – a Scottish minister of the 17th century who was imprisoned for his ministry and teaching beautifully express something of this :- “Let us be glad and rejoice in the salvation of our Lord, for faith had never yet cause to have wet cheeks and hanging-down brows…Faith may dance because Christ sings; and we may come in the choir and lift our hoarse and rough voices, and chirp and sing, and shout for joy with our Lord Jesus!” 

Not tame…but good!

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm…”Brace yourself..I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand…On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?..Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this…”

(Job 38.1-4,6&7,16-18)

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.

(Ps 8.1)

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.

(Ps 19.1&2)

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see….By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

(Heb 11.1&3)

I do not see the point of so many things – slugs and midges, the common cold, why hair has to turn grey or fall out, hiccups and stinging jellyfish..I don’t understand so much of God’s ways in the world – tyrants, war and misery apparently unchecked, human morality veering ever further from God’s principles, God’s apparent inaction in the face of people rejecting and reviling him. And I also don’t understand beauty, the persistent presence of goodness, truth, kindness and selflessness in the midst of chaos, pain and darkness.

But Jesus never said we would understand – he reminded his disciples that their faith should be like that of little children, who depend implicitly upon those who have power to protect and provide for them. Our faith in God is not because we understand what he is doing right now, or can predict what he will do next – we are not qualified to participate in the divine work at that level! Ours is a humbler role – which presumably is why humanity as a whole rejects it, our pride rebels against things we cannot understand and (by implication) control.

By faith, we depend upon God to be true to himself – the character revealed in creation, in scriptures and uniquely in Jesus himself. We do not and should not try to comprehend him, but rather recognise the wild, glorious goodness and power revealed in the Maker of this incredible world; who yet is also the crushed and bleeding man upon the cross.

In his Narnia books, CS Lewis cautions us against trying to fit God into our own image and understanding, as through the character of the great lion Aslan, he reveals one who is good, and yet not tame, one before whom we will rightly fall in trembling worship only to find ourselves utterly secure and safe in his presence.

When I am overwhelmed by the weight of the world’s troubles, tempted to doubt and despair, feeling helpless and ashamed that I cannot see God’s transforming work and have no answers to give to those who mock my faith – then I focus on two things. Firstly on the marvellous universe in which we live – God’s magnificent challenge to Job brings me such fierce joy as I share some of my Creator’s delight in the mysteries of the physical world. Secondly on the cross – the place where almighty power appeared in absolute weakness and conquered sin and death for ever, where the wild, unimagineable power of my God was fully revealed.

Let me be content to be mocked by more sophisticated minds, as I choose to make this God my foundation for life and hope. Let me be steadfast in reverent worship of the one who called the morning stars into being, and who has walked the recesses of the ocean! Lord, let me have total confidence in you; for although your ways are wild and strange to me, yet I believe in your goodness, because of Calvary. How I long for the day when  your name will be vindicated before all people; when your justice will be celebrated not derided and when faith will no longer be needed, for we shall see and live with you for ever….come Lord, come soon!

When the world shrinks..

Yet I am always with you, you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

(Ps 73.23-26)

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Matt 6.31-34)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. …I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

(Phil 4 4-6,12&13)

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

(Jas 4.14&15)

One of the most interesting lessons to come out of these strange days when the entire world is almost ‘on hold’, is the sense of learning to live one day at a time. For many believers in the developing world, this is a reality which they have no trouble inhabiting, since poverty, climate change, war and other factors make each day a fight for survival. Their faith in the God who loves and sustains them is humbling, a quiet rebuke to those of us whose lives are clothed in (to them) unimagineable luxury and security, and whose faith is perhaps less vigorous as a result.

Do I really mean it when I sing with the psalmist that ‘earth has nothing I desire beside you?’. Am I really choosing to live each day as if it were my last, and I am mindful only to be glorifying and enjoying God?

All of us are facing a very real grief for aspects of our lives which have been lost in the current situation. I think it is important to recognise and allow this to happen – the important thing is to bring the grief to God and ask him to keep the wounds healthy and clean, free of resentment. We will not get these days back again – days which should have been spent with loved ones, getting to know new babies, saying farewell to the dying; days set aside to be holidays and festivals, celebrations and joyous experiences; days which should have been spent away from home pursuing particular interests, opportunities for service.

We have a choice, in our confined condition, as our world has shrunk to our four walls, our immediate neighbourhood, to a future void of plans and only the shadows of anticipated pleasures which will not now be ours. We can choose to accept that since God is sovereign, good and just, he knows and is control of all that is happening. He knows our grief and loss, but he also knows that we can cope with his help, and find contentment – trusting that even our wounds can be a blessing. Or we can choose to resent all that we have lost, to disbelieve God’s goodness and faithfulness, and infuse our mourning with bitterness and self-pity.

Heavenly Father, thank you that we can come to you in our grief for all the many things which are not to be ours after all; for the days which cannot be recovered and which we had anticipated with so much pleasure. Thank you that you know how we are made, and you understand the wounds we carry and the temptation to resent what you are permitting in these days, to wallow in self-pity and choose sullenness.

Lord, in your mercy help us to choose instead to delight in what you have given – to remember our riches in Christ first and foremost, but then also to see so many other good things which are ours. Help us to accept with humble and reverent hearts that your will is the best place for us, even though we may not understand it, and even as we grieve, may we do so in a way that glorifies you and honours you. In Jesus’ precious name we pray, Amen.

Bad debt..or good?

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations..Circumcise your hearts, therefore and do not be stiff-necked any longer..Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him..He is the one you praise, he is your God who performed for you those great and awesome wonders …Love the Lord your God..

(Deut 10.14-11.1)

Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour me.

(Ps 50.14&15)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures for ever. Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story – some wandered in desert wastelands..some sat in darkness, in utter darkness..because they rebelled against God’s commands…some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction… Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things..he breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron…Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.

(Ps 107.1,2,4,8-9,10,16-17,22)

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

(1 Thess 5.16-18)

I love the fact that everything in the bible is there for our good, to help us learn about our God, and to have confidence in living for him in this weary-yet-wonderful world. I love the fact that the whole sacrificial system instituted under Moses, directed by God, was to teach people how much God yearned to dwell with them, and how sin must be addressed in order to make that possible. And I really love the fact that there is a whole category of offerings/sacrifices which are simply described as fellowship offerings – distinctive because there was no element of atonement for sin or cleansing of guilt, and the worshipper shared in the communal meal associated with the sacrifice. The focus was on the fellowship which God delighted to share with his children – they had a meal together and enjoyed one another’s company!

Thank offerings were one particular type of fellowship offering, perhaps for occasions when something special had happened, or to celebrate a trial endured with God’s help. Above all, while they express a sense of indebtedness to God for all he is and does, they are NOT an attempt to repay the debt. When we make a sacrifice of thanksgiving, we express love and worship to God, recognising that he is the source of all good things, and his power in us is the reason we are able to achieve anything.

Are we sometimes tempted to think of our relationship with God as one where we need to keep up with him in terms of generosity in loving? In human relationships, there can be a struggle to accept gifts which we feel unable to repay; we may take pride in being “no man’s debtor”. And there is the dangerous word – pride – which has no place in a relationship of love and trust. Parents do not love their children and provide for them with a view to getting services and gifts back again in equal measure. Spouses do not love according to strict rules of equal generosity – or if we do, it is fatal to the health of the marriage.

There is equally no room for pride in our relationship with God. Who are we to think that we can ever repay the debt we owe the Creator of the Cosmos? Consider all that has happened in order to make your life possible, and it quickly becomes clear that we have nothing to offer in return. When we add the incredible gift of forgiveness and new life in Christ Jesus, and the transforming power of the Spirit – by whom alone we think, act and live godly lives – our debt becomes infinitely greater.

With the coming of Christ, all our sins are paid for, and the only sacrifice which is now necessary is the fellowship offering, when we come and share our delight in all that God has done for us. We have an unpayable debt, which God delights that we should not even try to address – rather we are to exult in it! The magnitude of our debt simply makes the work of Christ and the love of God even more splendid, and his grace more beautiful.

When we make a sacrifice of praise, we are focusing not on the sins (forgiven, and yet to be), but on the new life and relationship we now have with God. The root of sin is defeated, and we are always welcome to share the fellowship meal with him, celebrating Christ and anticipating his return. Our right response to this great debt of love and mercy is humility, fearless witness and continual thankfulness. On this debt we can depend as on a sure foundation, and a resting place where all fear is banished. I am loved, accepted and forgiven..Alleluia!

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing; nor fear with thy righteousness on, my person and offering to bring.

The terrors of law and of God, with me can have nothing to do; my Saviour’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

The work which his goodness began, the arm of his strength will complete; his promise is yea and amen, and never was forfeited yet.

Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above can make him his purpose forego, or sever my soul from his love.

My name from the palms of his hands eternity will not erase; impressed on his heart it remains in marks of indelible grace.

Yes I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is given more happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in heaven.

(AM Toplady 1740-1778)

 

The beloved voice….

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”….the Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake…the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. when Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

(1 Kin 19.11-13)

The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic..the voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.The voice of the Lord shakes the desert..The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare, and all in his temple cry, “Glory”.

(Ps 29.3,4,7-9)

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.

(Ps 42.8)

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.

(Zeph 3.17)

“..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 can 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. I and the Father are one.”

(Jn 10.27-30)

A few weeks ago, I had the extraordinary experience of hearing – in quick succession – the voices of the three ministers who shaped my faith and life for my first thirty years. They had been recorded at a conference, and my husband was playing the recording to illustrate something to our daughter. I had to ask him to stop the recording, as I found that I was weeping and couldn’t bear to listen anymore – it had been such a surprise, and I was not prepared for it. Why should I cry to hear them? All three are now in glory with the Lord they served so faithfully, having lived long and rich lives to the blessing of untold numbers. And yet it hurt to hear them…

When people whom we love, and to whom we have owed a great deal are gone, any reminder of them is precious and also painful. Voices are such a distinctive part of personalities, and until they are silenced, we perhaps don’t realise how well we know them and how much they conjure up the speaker. And it is extraordinary how instant recognition can be, even for those we have not heard for a long time. Sometimes I wonder whether we shall sound the same in our new bodies in the new earth, so that we may recognise one another in a crowd again…

The pain and pleasure of those recollections set me thinking about all the ways the voice of God is used in Scripture. We have a communicating God, Hallelujah! We are not left to wonder what to do, or whom to worship, but hear from him in many ways…..God spoke with Adam and Eve in the garden, sharing in their life and enjoying their company. God spoke in dreams and visions, through angels and prophets directing his people and sharing his heart. God speaks in creation, in power and vision, in infinite detail and providential creativity for the sustaining of life. God thunders, and he whispers; and sometimes he is silent so that his people might learn to hunger for his voice again, and repent of their rebellion and rejection of him. God speaks intimately to the hearts of his children – singing lullabies over us, songs of deliverance and gladness in our relationship to him.

Do we know his voice well enough? When there is a cacophony of noise, competing claims on our attention and conflicting opinions on what is right, can we discern the Shepherd’s voice?

The three men of whom I spoke earlier ministered for decades here in Scotland, influencing thousands of lives for the gospel. I listened to them, submitted to the word lovingly preached and committed to share in the lives of their congregations. I learned to know and love them, and in their integrity saw that they were to be trusted as under-shepherds. Their voices came to be to me as the voice of God, and I gladly followed when they called.

Have I learned to know the voice of God in this way? Have I learned to love him? I see the work of creation; the tragedy of the Fall and all that has followed and I see the great redemptive work of Calvary where God said so clearly “I love you”, and I choose to trust him. I press on to know him better, not depending on the preacher but also wrestling with the word for myself, trusting that as I do so I may learn to hear the beloved voice more clearly and more often.

May I become more like Samuel, who listened attentively; like Jesus’ mother Mary, who listened submissively; like Mary Magdalene, who in listening discerned the loving voice of her beloved Lord and found resurrection hope, triumphant faith, and courage for life.