Friday, 31 July 2015

Shy of S I N, short of glory

For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,
Being justified freely by His grace, 
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. - Romans 3:23,24

Light breaks through the dark of night with icicles in its wake. I woke up a few times during the night to hear the sleet pelting the tin roof with a rapping scraping rhythm. So it was no surprise to see the mountains draped in white through the parting clouds. Ice still clung in crusty patches to the deck. The window panes were partially frosted with condensation where the warmth from within met with the freeze from without. Then sun struck the treetops and split each particle of moisture into glittering reflections of light. Watching it all from an easy chair next to the fire seemed limiting, so I quietly crept out the door, feet crunching and slipping on the icy surface. A merciless breeze nipped at my skin and found a way through all the layers of clothing into the marrow. I resisted the urge to go back inside for a little longer, and stood feeling the wind burn, tossing my hair into my eyes. I feared the mountain chill when we first moved here. I did not think that a sun-lover such as myself, could ever adapt to such a seemingly harsh environment. I denied and defied it by keeping the curtains closed on grey days, hiding under ever increasing layers of clothing with stiff fingers and a rigid back. I cannot honestly say that I have since embraced the bitter cold. I have just been given the grace to see the beauty in it, the possibilities as well as the limitations.

I read the other day that "pain is a magnifying glass for beauty". It rang true. Still more - it makes that of eternal value the most urgent and beautiful of all. None choose pain, but how sweet a drop of water tastes on parched lips and tongue, how much more magnificent is the sunrise after a dark night of torment. How could I ever know the overwhelming wonder of God's love and glory if not contrasted against my own black heart. I always thought that I have lead a reasonably "good" life so far. I didn't break too many rules or cause major scandals. I often felt rebellion in my heart, but never lived it beyond the extent to which it caused more than a few ripples in the lives of those who love me. Or so I thought.

Slowly I am becoming more and more aware of my own depravity. This may sound self-effacing. As if I have a need to wear a coarse cilice (hair shirt) against my skin -  but it has in fact been very "freeing". Most of us are familiar with the analogy of how stars are best seen when it is truly dark. They are still there when it is bright and light, but are not visible to the human eye. I have recently heard this metaphor used to contrast our sinful nature against the glory of God. If I were so "good", why ever would I need a redeemer, the Redeemer. While it is true that God does not see my sin when He looks at me, He sees Jesus, it does not mean that the sin is not there anymore.

The me in me still wants to scream at my children, slam a door when I'm angry, become snappy when I feel insecure. My thoughts are still often dark, my heart turned towards self-pity, my needs too often selfish ones, and laziness sets in as I justify prolonged periods of "rest". I still tend to inwardly gauge my sins against my "neighbour's", my self-worth against what I achieve each day and my spiritual growth against the time I spend reading scripture and in prayer.

This is then obviously followed with a thorough dumping in the guilt-well. Resulting in more inertia en self-searching and gloom. But as in many of the amazing accounts of people chosen by God to reveal His glory, there is the "but then" turning point in the tale of woe.

From the pit, confronted with the consequence of my own slippery slide, a loving Saviour calls. And when I look up it is not a condemning, frowning face I see. Like a little child standing before a parent, conscious of his misdoing, eyes averted and shrinking from what may follow. Then there is the moment of unbelief when the parent crushes the child to his breast and whispers: "I love you so much, now please go play and don't do that again". Over and over this is repeated, and so secure is the child in the parent's love, that the inevitable discipline that follows is met with shock, anger and even defiance. His security seems to be shattered and it is only when he finally creeps back to apologise to the parent, who seems to have turned his back on the child in anger, that the little one sees the same pure love in the face that looks at him. Feels the same warmth in the embrace. But if he cared to linger and look, he would see a glimpse of the hurt that his wrong has brought the parent, the hope that this time the remorse would be real and deep and the wish that the lesson was learnt well.

What trumps the realisation of my own hopeless state, is the place it forces me to. On my knees before God. Faced with the sin I was born into, which ever pursues me and threatens to engulf me at times, I'm drawn back to His throne. Stripped of all that I thought gave me worth and esteem. Laying it all down, holding nothing back. Ironically this is exactly the point where, at a backwards glance, I see the "but thens" in my story:

But then... empty of all she thought she was or had become, HE was able to fill her with all that HE is and always has been. And as HE reached down with a nail scarred hand, she placed her hand there, was lifted to her feet, and led with yet faltering steps onto a path where HIS footprints were etched, for her to follow. Where HIS light ever broke through the treetops to reveal yet another step for her to place her foot onto. As her tread grew lighter, she no longer needed to scan the path to find the prints of his presence. Her feet had learnt the feel of HIS way. Now she only kept her eyes on the beautiful light before her. What joy that upturned face brought HIM. She feels it, He marvelled, my beloved, my own.

A consciousness of sin hurts. It should hurt. It should remind me of the pain it caused Jesus, who without as much as a stain, was willing to take the consequence of sin, my sin, onto His bloodstained back. To be rejected by all humanity, forsaken by His Father, to descend to hell and claim the keys to the place of eternal burning, where I was destined before this sacrifice. Could the glory of Jesus' victory over death, the magnificent reality of heaven - now my undeserved destiny, ever be appreciated unless set against the weight of my own sin?

This is not intended to weigh you down. Does a man who feels living water flow down his burning throat and fill his whole being with relief and freedom from thirst, sit down in the hot sand and lament the time of drought? No, he dances, he sings - he takes draught after draught of that sweet water. Growing stronger and praising - not his limbs for their renewed vigour, but the WATER which brought it.

When Jesus compared life with Him to a never-ending, thirst-quenching spring, the image resonated with a hardworking Samaritan woman. Water got her attention, for she was thirsty. But salvation kept her attention, for she was "dirty" and longed to be clean. An awareness of thirst is good, for Jesus can quench it evermore, but an awareness of filth is crucial, for only Jesus can wash and clothe me in such a manner that I may walk in His righteousness, head held high.

"In the dry desert season of the heart, we are watered by God’s promise of sustenance and fullness of life to come." – Wendy M. Wright

Thursday, 9 July 2015

A time to serve - with heart and joy

Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. (Phil 2:17) KJV

I started writing this seven days ago as we stepped into the week. With cold feet and wet noses. After a mild wintry Sunday under pale but cloudless skies, the day was caught in an icy grip. The veld lay white beyond a heavily frosted deck. The dogs were pawing at the back door and the cat lay in a tight curl in the folds of our unmade bed. Then a week went past and I came back to three lines, trying to pick up my train of thought after a week of busyness. That's how it often is with the way I write. I steal an hour here and there, jot down a thought or two, have to pause to look at a lady-bug proffered to me on an upraised palm, or to pull a thorn from a small dirty foot, pick red ants off pant-legs and kiss a scraped arm better. Woman are supposed to be good at multi-tasking, but when it comes to trying to finish a sentence in between five other thoughts or tasks, I often loose the thread, miss the train and sit stranded on an empty platform with nothing to say. Then I stare out the window, like now, watch the mists rolling in, and with gentle nudges, like the first quickening of life in the womb, the thoughts start coming back.

This is how I know and I'd like you to know, that what I write is mostly very disjointed. Like when you walk in the mist and the shapes before you have outlines that are only vaguely recognisable until you get really close, and the image becomes clear and defined. Somehow the Spirit of God draws near, breathes on the lines and paragraphs and fills in the gaps. It reminds me that nothing I do, is from from my own strength or wisdom, but from Him who fills my cup each day.

I remember I woke up a day or two after I wrote the previous blog thinking, (once again) that it was not complete. Truly it is a "Time to serve" now more than ever, and a "Time to serve, fully and truthfully". But if there is no heart and no joy in serving, it is a bland offering, lacking conviction. I enjoyed this quote that I came across recently: "To serve God means to submit to Him in a way that makes Him look amazing."

If I am to see myself as a representative of the heavenly Kingdom and Him who reigns there, would it be a true reflection if  I served with a frown or a sigh? We represent our final homeland on foreign territory. What picture do the citizens of this alien soil see of Who I represent? Is it constant? Does it depend on how I wake up, what my current circumstances are, or how I feel? Or does it rise above that and draw from the heart of my Redeemer?

Paul refers to himself as an "ambassador in bonds". The word used to describe "bonds" in this context means "chain". He was chained to the soldier who was to watch over him. He seems to speak of this chain as a badge of dignity rather than a burden. To ambassadors, indeed, it belongs to be safe from imprisonment; but it was his greater glory to wear the chain for Christ - willingly. Paul was a fallible man, but could mirror Jesus under these circumstances with His joy and strength. He was "in chains" for proclaiming the gospel of Christ - boldly. Yet, his letters are not witnesses to self-pity and bitterness, but letters of hope, encouragement and instruction.

Paul is sitting bound in jail. Things are not looking good for him. No doubt he is uncertain about his future. But yet he rejoices. His language tells us that his rejoicing was present and ongoing not in spite of his sufferings but rather in them. It would be one thing if Paul managed to rejoice at the onset of his troubles, but then gradually sank into discouragement after having been in them for some time. That makes sense to us, and all too often reflects my own experience. But instead what we see is the joy of a servant proclaiming the gospel in the midst of the sufferings associated with his ministry. He is not expecting rewards, his reward is his salvation.

I am always challenged by the way in which the early "fathers of our faith" served as a way of life - a real life offering rather than a commitment here and there to silence a guilty conscience or answer to a sense of duty. He declared himself ready; “very gladly to spend and be spent for you” and in the same breath delivered this sad testimony: “though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved” (2 Corinthians 12:15).

This is often true in the life of a Christian and probably the main reason why our hearts grow weary and despondent when our attempts at bearing witness, serving or guiding are met with hostility. I have realised that the more I love with a Christ-filled heart, the more vulnerable I become. But a child of God does not love in order to be loved. It is a contradiction the world does not understand. In becoming vulnerable on account of the gospel that lives in you, Jesus is able to fill you up with His strength. "When I am weak then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10). And in that strength is joy.

One of the church fathers is quoted saying: "nothing, the limb feels in the stocks, when the mind is in heaven". How can I regard the difficult times and opposition as a true servant of Christ? I looked at Paul again. Did his trials cause him to lose heart? Did his unrelenting difficulties and even the prospect of execution bring him down to the point of hopeless discouragement? Did he complain, question or resent what God allowed to come across his path? No. For, even as it were; being poured out as a drink offering on behalf of those to whom he ministered, he was glad and rejoiced. He had joy in the midst of extremities that would have broken many a man.

How did he do it? Since I do not have the answers to many tough questions that people ask regarding suffering as a result of your faith (and remaining hope- and joyful), I thought to look at how Paul approached his trials. 

1.His rejoicing was neither a result of irrational optimism nor comparison to others.

2. He did not play mind games with himself or others or deny reality. He underwent his trials –pain and all– with his eyes wide open.

3. In each situation, he sought Christ’s help, pouring out his heart in prayer.

4. He kept in view the truths of God’s sovereignty and greatness and His sufficiency to overrule seemingly bleak circumstances to His ultimate glory.

5. He had confidence that the grace and strength of Jesus would carry him through and above his weakness.

6. It was not mere positive thinking  It was based on a biblical view (i.e. I am weak. God is almighty and faithful, always true to His Word. That is why I appeal to Him through Christ, my all sufficient Mediator, for help).

7. Paul's abiding joy was not dependent on his circumstances and therefore not sporadic, but bound up in the God of grace who saved him.

8. Paul's joy was grounded in humility, for there can be no rejoicing in the heart of of a person who thinks he or she deserves far better than what they receive.

The joy of a faithful servant is centred in Jesus. If the Master is served, exalted, known and glorified, then the servant is more than content – he or she rejoices. If your joy is grounded in your own reputation, then it will rise and (mainly) fall with your honour in the world. An honour which will never amount to much if you are faithful to your Lord. If it is tied to your prosperity, it will be changeable as the sea and could even be snatched away entirely in an instant. If it has its roots in circumstance, it will crumble when you most need to manifest that joy for Christ’s glory.

There will be hard times, but when they come, we may turn to Christ Jesus, and make our complaints known to Him. Our sovereign God has more than enough wisdom and power to turn our most desperate needs and our direst straits into occasions for our sanctification and inner peace and joy. And - above all - Christ’s glory. Is Christ weaker now than He was in the days of the apostles? Is He less loving or less gracious?

I find it quite comforting and freeing to know that I don't always have to try and see the silver linings on the darkest clouds. We are not promised that we shall see these wonderful mysteries, but we know that it is there, even when hidden from our eyes.

I am weak, but Christ is strong and faithful to the end. I can rejoice in knowing Him and doing His will and serving Him, even when all things seem against me, driving me to despair.

His ear is open to your cry; His eye is on His beloved; His heart is entirely for us; His own hand will bring Him the victory and His children an everlasting joy. The moment I set my feet on the path to serve Him, everything I need to do this will I find along it. At exactly the right time. He will edge the path with His sweet fragrance to lift my spirit and my gaze from the thistles at my feet. What I offer to those I meet on this path will carry that fragrance, releasing hope and sweetness and an offering of love to His throne.

(Note: Much of what I wrote was inspired by an article on the "Founders" web page, called "The joy of Paul's ministry". It echoed so clearly with what I had in my heart, that I decided to share some of it with you.)