Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Looking to the hills

"I look up to the mountains, does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!" (Psalm 121:1-2) NLT

A slash of sun stretches along the foot of the mountains, the rest still hidden in a thick mist. From our "nest" a few dwellings stand out in this golden light, others still somber under the clouds. Like eagles, perched on high, we look over this landscape each day, witnessing changes of weather, seasons, sometimes even raging fires. We've seen so many moods shift over these hills, glowing in the last rays at dusk, foreboding before a storm, ghostly under a rising moon. Ever shifting, changing - solid but not still. When I lift my eyes up to the hills, it is no longer for comfort, but they do serve as a reminder that even as mountains may crumble and oceans dry up, the God that spoke these things into life is everlasting.

When I re-read the first lines of this well-loved Psalm, I wondered to myself: "Why do people think of mountains as places of refuge? We "escaped" to the mountains, thinking that we would find peace in a place where we could freely pursue our dreams. Truth is, even if the hills offer a potential refuge, they may also hide a potential menace... One of the first things that struck me about Hogsback is how you can drive down or up every single path and windy lane in this village and never encounter a single soul. Homes are hidden away, and their inhabitants prefer it that way. Many of these hill-dwellers were drawn to a place such as this to get away from the constant pressures or scorn of society, or simply to live simply.

Where there is a need to hide though - there is insecurity, secret lives, hurt or depression. We are surprised to find that it is not only in the movies that these high places provide a wonderful hiding place for criminals. It draws those who worship nature, and on a less obvious level becomes a place where Satan can "hide" his workers. These clash harshly with the Spirit of Truth that lives in you when you have given your life to Christ. (Interestingly enough Psalm 121 forms part of  "the songs of ascents", a collection of hymns that the pilgrims used going up to Jerusalem for the annual feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacle). The psalmist answers his own question with the acknowledgement that his help is from the Maker of heaven and earth alone. Maybe he needed protection from a possible menace hidden in the hills. We do not know. What we do know is that looking for refuge in the mountains or anywhere else but with our Lord is futile.

If I look back over the last few years, it is with awe. The memories of a very dark time are still fresh, but at the same time distant and unreal. Our escape also proved futile. We faced so many personal hurts and disappointments, that my natural instinct was to reverse the escape and run back. I feared for the future of our family, the little one growing under my heart, and his brother, who often witnessed his confused parents' turmoil. But God promised that he had plans to prosper us and not to harm us (Jer 29:11) and I held onto that with all my strength. And when I had no strength left, he held on for both of us. There was a noxious cloud over our home, and until I realised that the battle had to be fought on a spiritual level, I felt utterly lost. I had to reaffirm again and again that there is no condemnation for those whom are in Christ, that He has overcome the world and that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

The battle seemed endless, but in retrospect we can see that it was mercifully short but fierce. A few people who knew of our situation prayed with all their hearts and offered unending support and insight. We have lived a year of incredible healing, miraculous forgiveness and a solid re-anchoring of our family. In other ways the challenges have increased and the battle has intensified. But the challenges we face together in Christ and the battle we partake in willingly - with our armour in place (see previous blog).

So, some of you may think that the writings in this blog border on the extreme, veering toward the edge of obsession with faith. And I agree with both. Only loving Christ to the extreme, being fully focused on and totally surrendered to Him, answers our true calling, fulfills our true need. Not lifting our eyes up to false gods, hiding in financial security, or trusting in worldly systems and comforts. I do not ever write from a place of judgement, but from painful experience and a deep longing that no one else should need to live a life trapped in similar deceit. God promises us that His "burden" is light, and like all the other promises He gives us, it is the truth. It does not mean that it will be easy going. On the contrary, we are told that in the world we will have trouble, but to take heart, for Christ has overcome the world. Simply put - hang in there, I am your strength.

I like to think of my life as one of those old mechanical scales: when I have placed all the "weights" on the side marked "eternity with Christ", God balances the other side with ALL that we need to survive and flourish in this crazy, upside-down world. In this way we are able to stay in balance - in all walks of life.

I have grown to love this beautiful wild corner of the world and its eclectic mix of inhabitants, but my hiding place is in the Rock of all ages, under the shadow of His wings. Outside, the mists have lifted and the golden hour of dusk arrives. Shadows stretch ever longer and swirls of smoke rise straight up in the chill air. Mothers gather their chicks and the men fetch more firewood for the cold night. 

Above all this, the Lord watches over our coming and going, both now and forevermore.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Battle

"You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." 1 John 4:4

Autumn skies - growing pale and hazy while a wintry breeze billows the curtains. Tiny pink "everlasting" flowers dapple the fields, the expanse of the horizon as unending as God's grace. Surrounded by so much beauty each day, one is easily lured into complacency. We all need to escape into something at times, and our beautiful mountain-home provides endless opportunity for this. But if it becomes a false peace, a gap that we fill with a temporary filling, it will "fall out", leaving the hole gaping and painful. Worse still, we may continue living under the impression that all is well, always finding something to fill that painful gap.

While it may be "well" with my soul, the reality is: we live in a time in which there is such a great surge towards peace and well-being, but a spiritual ignorance of the war that continues to rage over human souls. We walk the streets and byways, fearing physical attack. We care for our bodies, fearing physical decline. But the struggle is (and always has been) not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12) We are wrestling in precisely the place where we have been placed in Christ. Chapter 1 of Ephesians tell us that we sit with him in heavenly places!

The believer's enemies are the demonic workers of Satan, always assembled for mortal combat. This may sound a bit radical for a peace-loving Christian. But if we take the above verse as truth, we have to re-assess our comfortable lives, sign up as warriors in the real battle. Sound scary? It needn't be. The amazing thing about this battle is, it has already been won. The day Christ was lifted from the grave, he rose victorious over death and "Hades". 

In apparent contradiction we live in an age where Satan's influence seems more visible than ever. But he is under Jesus' feet and he knows it - and we are being deceived into thinking that he isn't. The chaos in the world is not a result of God's inability to reign, but the world's unwillingness to accept his reign. The brokenness of the world was brought about by human sin, and humanity remains in rebellion against the sovereign God, and release from sin through accepting Jesus as their Saviour. 

As believers, we are called to stand in this victory, be ready. "Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand" (Ephesians 6:13). 

And we do not need to stand unarmed. "Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God." (v14-17). 

The belt of truth allows us to rebuke the father of lies and as well as speak the truth of who we are in Christ. 

The breastplate of righteousness is the place we have obtained before God as a result of what Jesus did on the cross. ("For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ" - 2 Cor 5:21). This offers ultimate protection against the forces of darkness that try to invade that "place". To stay in right standing before God and keep this part of our armour impenetrable, we need to repent and ask for forgiveness of sin daily.

Our feet fitted with readiness in the gospel of peace, is the ability we have to "walk" freed from sin in His authority. With the same authority, we are also called to share the "gospel of peace" in our daily walk.

The shield of faith in Jesus and God's sovereign control of our lives, should be taken and held up to form an impenetrable barrier of trust and belief, that will ward off and extinguish the enemy's fiery darts. This refers to the Roman soldier's shield that was covered with a very soft wood. The flaming darts that plunged into the wood went out. So all the fiery darts that the Devil fires can be absorbed by our faith.

The helmet of salvation protects the head, a very vulnerable part of our anatomy, making it a vital part of the armour. If we are not sure of our salvation in Christ, a blow to the head means eternal death.

Lastly, the sword of the Spirit - the Bible, is the only weapon mentioned in the arsenal, which may call us into active participation in the battle. (It refers to the Roman gladius, adapted from a Spanish design. The prowess of the double-edged gladius in close range combat made it a fearsome tool in the hand of a skilled Roman warrior. When sharpened, its dual edges wreaked havoc on enemies, while its tapered point could pierce through even heavy metal armour.)

The Word of God is living and powerful, we can (like Jesus in the desert when He was tempted), use it to slay demons and evil spirits. God's Word also illuminates. It reveals to us the good and the bad, the wise and the unwise. It is the ultimate tool in learning how to live the best possible life, free from the restraints of stumbling in darkness. We do need to remember that it is by God's sword that we are saved. (Read the account of Gideon in Judges 7).

How often do we need to do this? Is it not enough that we have surrendered our lives to Him and received protection as a result? The truth is, the nearer we come to Jesus, the fiercer the attack will become. This is again, no reason to become fearful or "escape". It is a place of honour to stand in the ranks of God's army. It is exciting to be considered a threat in Satan's eyes. Does this all sound a bit fanatical, a bit way-out, weird? It may be all of these to the world, but I am deeply grateful for this armour which I put on each day so that I may be able to stand and withstand. To protect those I love and and be an offence and threat to Satan and probably those that are deceived by him.

Those of you that have actually been in combat may ask - what about the back? With all this fancy armour in place, the back is still exposed and vulnerable. This is the place that Jesus takes up to stand with us, His blood covering us anew each day.That is why we should never retreat, we are to stand and not take a backward step.

I look out from the deck of our Inesi home at our little ones rolling around in the tall grass - pulling out "naughty" plants with their Dad. I cannot protect them from the world, but I can protect them from the one that is in the world. Their names are imprinted on the palm of God's hand. I know that in this world they will have trouble, but they will grow up knowing that they do not need to fear or despair, for HE has overcome the world.

Wil om Uw naams wil hen in Uw verbond bewaren,
(Keep them in Your covenant for Your name's sake,)
En laat ze nooit van U vervreemden, nooit, hun leven lang.
(And let them never grow estranged from You, never throughout their lives.)

Ik leg de namen van mijn kinderen in Uw handen.
(I place the names of my children in Your hands.)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Through the eyes of a child

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father, except through me." (John 14:6) NLT

An icy hand brushed over my face as I opened the kitchen door this morning. At first I sighed at the prospect of dark mornings, frost-covered spaces and the fading grandeur of Autumn. But the heavy sigh forced me to draw a deep breath, and the sharp chill refreshed all the way down. The thin air brings new sounds to my ears, memories of our first year in this wonderful home. The change of seasons (for me) always brings different ways of reflection, at times nostalgia, and an apprehensive kind of excitement of how our God will reveal Himself in the days and weeks to come. Our boys continue to bring such joy and heartache as their awareness of Jesus, and the world, grows - side by side. Getting to know Him again through their eyes in a childlike and trusting way. I am always amazed at how everything from the shape of a flower to the way the loo works is questioned, but the great mystery of Jesus is devoured like hungry puppies, without question or doubt.

Martin Luther said: The heart of the gospel is a changed life in Christ. But who is Jesus Christ of Nazareth to a child? Jesus Himself says: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). The heart of a child knows that. They came from the Father. And when Jesus continues to say a bit later in the conversation: "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;" a bit more of the mystery is revealed. God made flesh through his Son, who walked the dusty roads, got thirsty, hungry, angry and deeply sad. Who had fish braais on the beach with His friends the disciples. Was tempted in the desert by the devil and deserted on the cross by the Father, where he died so that we may have access to the same Father who woke Him up from death and seated Him on His right hand. "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30). All it takes to understand this, is the heart of a child. If we try to argue our way around it intellectually, we get trapped in our own perceived cleverness or confusion.

But how are we "changed" in Christ? By being obedient as a child that knows that he can trust his parents to guide him away from danger (darkness) into safety (light). Jesus continues to say in v 15: "If you love me, you will obey what I command". And then in chapter 15; almost sounding contradictory at first glance: "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in His love".  But as we give up our love of ourselves, and make Jesus our First Love, would we not want to do as He wishes? And as we stay obedient (faithful) to our first love, we are able to remain in a place so near to His heart, that our own hearts will be set aflame each time we turn to Him.

How do we know what He commands? Through His Word. Because: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man (woman) of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16). And all Scripture is relevant today, as much as it was when it was written. We cannot argue bits of it away by saying it was written for another time, directed only at specific individuals or groups. Old Testament or New - all relevant, now more than ever.

In Deuteronomy we read: Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you. Even though Jesus released us from bondage to the laws of the Old Testament, it is still irrevocably relevant if applied with the discernment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself said: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). Why? For it all points to our Saviour. V18 confirms this: I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God's law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in  the beginning. (John 1:1) Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega. What are the first words of the Bible? In the beginning God created the world. How? Through the Word - Jesus! The last words of the Bible: "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen.

At the bottom of our "garden", at the entrance of the forest, the leaves and limbs shelter a newly made tree-house. Up and up a tall ladder leads to an open door. As my little boy ascends into this lofty place my heart contracts and my stomach flutters on his behalf. "Don't wari mamma" he says, "I ask Jesus to go with me". Ah yes, lets ask Jesus to go with us, each rung leading us closer to Him, each step in faith nearer to the glorious day when:

I shall see Him as He sees me. Face to face, the lover and the loved. 

No more tears, the longing will be over. There with my precious Jesus.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Who's There?

"Look! I stand at the door and I knock" (Rev 3:20)

A brief break in the weather allows us to don our gumboots and tread deeply in the saturated soil. It sucks and yields under out feet and the earthy smell of moss and mold fills the air. Over our heads the clouds swell and darken, this respite will be all too short. I am reminded of a Dutch saying: "If the skies should fall, we shall all be wearing blue "beanies". Used mostly to urge someone not to dwell on the possibility of something negative happening. The present, however sweet or dark is where we are now. The heavens will come down, perhaps sooner rather than later. Not even the angels know the day or time. But what we do know is that it will bring the presence of our risen Saviour, returning in the same victory with which he ascended.

This compels me to ask this question: Am I ready for this? What unconfessed wrongs are there in my heart? Of what do I need to repent or who do I need to forgive to truly receive His forgiveness. These are not easy things to write about. But then I read in 1 Pet 4:17 this morning: "For the time has come for judgement, and it must begin with God's household". Not gentle uplifting words, but nonetheless there for us to receive and believe. I have been postponing it, but felt that it was leading up to this - so please hear my heart.

Jesus is at the door, he is knocking. He says: "If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends... (Rev 3:20). Sharing a meal with Jesus. Will I even be able to stand in His presence? Will I not also, like John, fall at His feet as if dead? But I know even then, He will put his right hand on my head and say : "Don't be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one. I died, but look -- I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave." (Rev 1:17-18).

As in the words of Mother Basilea Schlink: "Despite failures and defeats, my life (as bride of Christ) can be marked by victory, the love of Jesus guarantees that."

We live in a time of closed doors. Jesus stands outside and says: "I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot or cold. I wish that you were one or the other. But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot not cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!"  The sad truth is that He is not talking to the unbelievers, He is standing outside our church doors, benches filled with people, their hearts longing for the warmth of a fellow-believer, a soothed conscience and comfort gained from a human voice rather than His Spirit and truth. For either we love Jesus with an undivided heart, or we do not love Him in truth. When He says: "You do not realise that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, he is not addressing beggars or outcasts. He is crying out to His bride - the church. Particularly in our sin and "wretchedness", the bride of Jesus discovers who the Bridegroom is: Love and nothing but love, full of compassion for us in our weaknesses.

He says to her (the bride): "I advise you to buy gold that has been refined by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness. Clothed in righteousness, we will long for his coming and with ointment for your eyes, we will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So, be diligent and turn from your indifference.
And finally: Anyone with ears to hear, must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches." (Rev 3:15-22).

So how do I turn from indifference? By returning to the cross, in full realisation of my wretched and miserable state. And then that "nasty" word: "Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near."(Matthew 3:2) "Repentance implies sorrow for past offences, a deep sense of the evil of sin as committed against God, and a full purpose to turn from transgression and to lead a holy life. A true penitent has sorrow for sin, not only because it is ruinous to his soul, but chiefly because it is an offence against God, and is that abominable thing which he hates. It is produced by seeing the great danger and misery to which it exposes us; by seeing the justice and holiness of God;  and by seeing that our sins have been committed against Christ, and were the cause of his death" (Barnes' notes on the Bible).

My sins were the cause of Jesus' death and suffering! That alone is enough to yank me from a place of indifference to numb shock. We know that we are forgiven, but are we truly saved? Saved from ourselves, our ego's, our worldliness, our indifference...? I suddenly realise that I write this more for myself than anyone else. Tears flow down my cheeks as I type in a blurr. I read recently: "Nothing is more needful than the discovery of sin, and a conviction that we cannot be saved by our own righteousness. Curiosity, and love for novelty and variety, may bring many to attend a good preaching, and to be affected for a while. Only when we are filled with sorrow and shame to our own guilt, are are we ready to receive Jesus Christ as our righteousness". Jesus' suffering did not end at the cross. As He looks down at a depraved, rushed and content humanity, His own children falling away from their calling, His heart all but breaks.

I really do want to conclude with sweet words of inspiration or a promise. But this is where the Holy Spirit calls me to a halt. Heb 12:14 reminds us that anyone who tolerates their sins, and have grown accustomed to them, soothing his conscience with the thought that Jesus is sure to forgive him, will never reach the goal, the City of God...  Jesus says: "Look, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who obey the words of prophesy written in this book" (Rev 21:7). "I Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne. I am the bright morning star". (Rev 21:16)

"Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!"