Thursday, 30 May 2013

Beyond death do us part

"For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."(Eph 5:32)

Maybe cute for a Save the Date
Shadows grow longer and days often feel like just a blink before the dusk claims the sun and takes the fleeting warmth with it. From the chimney tops, smoke trails into the wintry skies throughout the days, and the scent of burning wattle drifts through the bare treetops. Distant sounds are brought near on thin air. We bury our hands in coat pockets or hold them out to the flames for relief. Dogs and children become frisky and "boundless energy" takes on a new meaning...

Daylight is treasured and treasures are re-discovered during the cold hours. Just recently, my little ones asked me to put on the richly embroidered Kashmiri skirt that served as my wedding dress. Drawing a deep breath to allow space for the intricately looped buttons to close over my waist, I twirled around in a whisper of silk. What a joyful day that was. A sun-dappled garden, filled with rich colours and textures, woven together with the sound of laughter and the faces of many loved ones. Vows exchanged so earnestly and full of trust.

Our wedding day. A day that is remembered and cherished with a mixture of emotions. In retrospect, I realise that wedding vows are made, like so many other promises, with earnest intent. But even the most perfect husband and wife can never fully honour their vows, without trust being broken in some way. Or disappointment marring the "perfection" of that hour.

What is, and will forever be honoured is the marriage covenant with God through Jesus. God's blessing is on the sanctity of a marriage anchored in Him, but the promise and the mystery,  goes far beyond this.

Genesis 2:24 is the first mention in the Bible of a marriage covenant - one man and one woman becoming one flesh. Great "godly" men like Abraham, David and Solomon ignored this by taking many wives and concubines, and this area proved to be a major stumbling block in their walk.

Israel's unfaithfulness to their covenant with God is also referred to as a breach of the marriage bond, and Isaiah 54:5 reaffirms this bond so beautifully: "For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name". Jeremiah 3:14 cries to the people of Israel: "Return, O backsliding children, says the LORD, for I am married to you".

In the book of Hosea, the prophet takes (at God's prompting!) Gomer as his wife. A woman who is a prostitute. This becomes a powerful metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel, meaning that despite Israel's unfaithfulness to God, he continues to cherish her. As in-grafted covenant people of  God through Jesus, our heavenly husband will truly never stop loving us, regardless of how far we have strayed, how "untrue" we have been to him - his arms are always open, if we are willing to repent and turn back to Him as his forgiven bride.

Bridal love for the Lord is not the same as the love between a bride and bridegroom in a human relationship. It is divine love - pure, genuine and truly satisfying. Isaiah 62:5 says "As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you." Bridal love for Jesus is a blissful secret you carry in you heart like an earthly bride who has found someone who not only loves her, but whom she loves in return. Jesus has many ways to answer the secret longings of the soul. Loving Jesus means owning the most precious treasure in heaven and on earth, and giving Him your all in return as a sacrifice. You either love Jesus with an undivided heart, or you do not love Him in truth. (Excerpt from M Basilea Schlink - Bride of Jesus Christ)

In Revelation 21:9 the Church is called "The Bride, the Lamb's wife." We will get to sit down at the greatest wedding reception ever imagined. "The Marriage Supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:7-9). In glorified bodies, accompanied by a heavenly choir we will sing, each in perfect harmony, without distraction, distress, disappointment or discomfort, doing what we were created to do - worship Him.

Marriage is used in both the Old and New Testament as a metaphor for the relationship between God and His covenant people. The Old Testament refers to the covenant between God and Israel under the law. Through Jesus we enter into a New covenant, where we are not under the law, but called to a higher obedience through his Spirit who now lives in us. It is worked out on a corporate (Israel and the Church) and an individual level. God not only values marriage, it is the ultimate example of how we relate to Him through Jesus.

Revelation also reveals the end times full expression of this: "The whore of Babylon" referred to in Rev 17:5, represents those "married" to the world, contrasted with the Bride of Christ, arrayed in fine linen clean and white, (the righteousness of saints), referred to in verse 8.

With the strength of my Saviour, I can endeavour to love my husband in a way that reflects the greater love that the church (his covenant people) should have for Him, the bridegroom without flaw. But what a wonderful and huge responsibility our men have, to reflect Christ's unconditional love for his bride to the world. I pray that we may have a heavenly understanding of what this means, so that we can pray daily for them to have holy purified hearts, free from the constant lure of the world.

The beauty of why God uses the sacred marriage relationship between man and woman as an example of the bond we have in him, is (in part) still a mystery.

We get a glimpse into the "mystery" in Ephesians 5:32 where it says: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church." It could be seen as man and wife becoming "one flesh" before God and being one in Spirit in all aspects. But then Paul puts in a little twist. This is what I love about Scripture. Just a hint, following a small conjunction like "but". Causing you to look again.  Revealing here, that Christ has married "her", the church, to him through his death. And we will become one again when he returns as the triumphant bridegroom, to fetch his spotless bride to be with him in the only perfect marriage that ever existed.

The last rays of the sun kiss the top of the mountains, little dirty bodies are hustled inside, and I imagine families everywhere drawing together at the close of day. My heart sings with the wonder of these earthly blessings, but with awe and hunger for the unimaginable beauty to come:

BRIDE of the Lamb, awake, awake;
Why sleep for sorrow now?
The hope of glory, Christ, is thine,
A child of glory thou.

Thy spirit, through the lonely night,
From earthly joy apart,
Hath sighed for one that's far away,
The Bridegroom of thy heart.

Then weep no more; 'tis all thine own,
His crown, His joy divine;
And sweeter far than all beside,
He, He Himself, is thine.
                                   (Sir Edward Denny)

Thursday, 23 May 2013

First Love

"Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever." (Psalm 135:3 NIV)

A weekend of challenges, yet dappled with brilliant moments that will shape themselves into cherished memories. After another glowing time of fellowship, breaking bread, and a shared meal in a sunny window seat, the Sunday Sabbath came to a close with a stroll and clamber amongst the rocks. Discovering treasures in the crevices and filling our pockets with pine-cones for the home-fire. Dogs and boys with boundless energy playing like tumble-weeds in the wind. Marvelling at the shades of a sunset seen through a child's eyes. 

I was reminded of the verse in Ecclesiastes 1:5 that says: "The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again".

It never occurred to me that it hurries, hastes. There is a note of urgency in this; much like the restlessness of the world. Like the sun, it is never at a stand, but always moving, always busy. So also, the succession of generations of men, one after another, as the rising and setting of the sun continually follow each other. Man is so changeable. At noon day, he flourishes, as in the height of prosperity, but as this declines and sets, so he has his declining times and days of adversity. As the rising sun, he comes into this world, appears for a while, and then, like the setting sun, he dies; only with this difference, the sun hurries and comes back to its place from where it arose, but man who lies down to die, will not rise again until the heavens are no more, and never returns to his place in this world, and it does not know him anymore.

But the God of love, who created and directs the sun, is from everlasting to everlasting. He is outside of time and the passages of the sun and moon. His love for his children does not change and his faithfulness is the same from before time into eternity. His steadfast love endures forever.

After I wrote the last blog post about "worldly love devoid of true meaning and loving enough the speak the truth etc", I felt that I had to follow it up by focusing on examples of our Lord's steadfast love. Not only as bible references, but from my own life. In often seemingly small but intimate moments - I am reminded that He loves me enough to allow trials and tests to make me stronger and reflect more of Him to the world. But never without his nearness. Even in silence, everything around me still resounds with His love, should I be willing to listen.

Let me start with this morning as I sat alone before God, emptying my heart of all the doubts and uncertainties in our lives at the moment. Outside, clouds gathered and blotted out the joy of sunrise. I felt a warmth on my wet cheek and opened my eyes. The clouds had parted just enough to allow the sunlight to fall full and warm on my face. His love was there.

Later that day, during a time of sharing with a dear friend, I was reminded of a period in my life when I had to deal with the hurt of a failed marriage and all the ugliness of divorce. I went about in a daze of shock, my life a tangle of confusion. Tiny white pills, popped under the tongue at short intervals, were my ally. To me, God was far and silent. I was attending a work seminar with a group of woman, all strangers. During the second day, one of them came up to me and asked me if I was a Christian. I was taken aback a bit, but nonetheless managed something like: "Yes, I believe that Jesus is my Saviour". "Aah", she said, "I can see Him in you". That was His love - able to shine through me, even when I felt like a mess.

This incident reminded me that maybe at times I try too hard. In myself I am changeable, far too subject to emotions I can't trust. At the heart of my best efforts there is still an ego. Christ alone can shine His love through me into the world. Only my love for Him moves me to be obedient, and this will spill over with radiant rays into the world around me.

At the end of that same year, after the finality of a court case, facing the reality of life on my own as a thirty-something divorcee - I remember sitting under the canopy of an old stink wood- and camphor tree in my garden. I looked up at the still branches with questions fluttering through my mind like the leaves above my head. Next door, a family were enjoying a slow Sunday afternoon, sounds of children's laughter and splashing water were carried over the wall along with the alluring smell of food roasting over the coals. I felt small and sorry for myself, wishing this life to be mine. As I closed my eyes in an attempt to shut it all out, I felt something brush my cheek. Alarmed, I sat up, looked around for a fallen leave or something that could explain the sensation that I just felt. Then as clear as the laughter on the other side of the wall, I heard a voice saying: "Trust me". That was it. Part of me wanted more, but that was all I got.

Looking back over the fifteen plus years that followed, I realise that I did not get what I wanted at the time, not for many years to come. God loves us enough to not necessarily give us what we want, but what we need. It was good for me to be on my own, to rediscover my First Love and how much I was able to do with His strength. I learnt that I could cope with the cranky old anthracite heater in the lounge, survive on a single income, sort out minor electrical problems in my old wooden-floored house(!), live through the cold lonely nights and best of all; be peaceful and content in my own company.

This past Sunday, I looked around the table at my own and adopted mountain family, the aroma's of roast lamb, tender garden vegetables and caramelised pumpkin filling the sun-kissed room. Our two cherubs where darting in and out of the room, with reports and treasures from the garden. A new light shines through the eyes of my beautiful husband and we are joined in a shared Love, greater than my or any mind can fathom.

We both know that even if our love will be put to the test time and again, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Be reassured of the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord, for you. See, feel, smell how much he cares for you, from preventing you from tripping over your own shoelaces, t
o giving His precious life.
So that you may meet with Him one day, the Lover and the loved, together for all eternity.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Plant seeds of righteousness and harvest a crop of love

"For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity* in you". 2 Cor 9:10 NLT

(* Greek - righteousness)

I stretch my stiff fingers over the keys and as so many times before when I have felt uncertain, look out over the treetops to the mountain. A restless wind blows a bird on the wing off it's course, and I watch it struggle against the gusts. A door slams and the cabin shudders. In the distance I hear the grind of a chainsaw, the piercing cry of the neighbour's peacock. A dog snarls and then all at once there is silence.

I recognise the tension that often exists between two opposites. Do I sit on my comfortable perch, share a sweet familiar message of comfort; or do I go out on the limb before me, unknown and uncertain? Do I buy into the notion that I (we) have within ourselves the power to heal an aching world, or do I let the truth speak into my soul from the pages of a book that has never lied. The Word of God.

I was recently reminded of a pop song from the early nineties called "Sowing the seeds of love" by British group Tears for Fears. It was written in 1987 during the week in which Margaret Thatcher won her third term in office. It is an overtly political song, urging people of the working class to "end the politics of greed" by speaking up, becoming informed and "sow seeds of love". Here are a few more lines:

"I spy tears in their eyes, they look to the skies for some kind of divine intervention. So without love and a promised land,we're fools to the rules of a government plan".

It is very tempting to think that we have the ability to love the world better. Even the Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins? But love is greatly misunderstood by an unbelieving world. 
How can we distinguish the "eros" love of the world from the "agape" love of God?

The word - love - appears 310 times in 280 verses in the Bible; these are included in the count of words beginning with - lov~ - which appear 554 times in 471 verses. We have heard people say "God is love" so often that it probably has no more impact on most people than "Just do it", the daring Nike slogan.

Yes, God is love. But God is also unwaveringly just. And man fell from the perfect "love" relationship with Him. There had to be a charge. There had to be a sentence. It was and still is death and the eternal fires of hell. But then Jesus took the fallen state and death of all mankind onto himself, and a bewildered humanity still does not get it. Why would we choose to stay in that dark dank cell when the doors are open? Because the father of lies would have us believe that we can fix it up ourselves. We can lovingly transform this cell, make it smell nice, put plush furniture in it, fit some tasteful light fittings, fix the cracks, paint it a happy colour...

We accept the bail, but not the freedom from the world. We want the heavenly mansion, but not the narrow way leading up to it. The way that leads us firstly into repentance and a life of righteousness, into the spiritual battle field, into humble surrender, servitude and unconditional love. But also into an abundant life and joy in Christ, surpassing anything we can dream up. A voice may whisper: this sounds contradictory - another lie.

A Peanuts cartoon shows Lucy standing with her arms folded and a stern expression on her face. Charlie Brown pleads, “Lucy, you must be more loving. This world really needs love. You have to let yourself love to make this world a better place.” Lucy angrily whirls around and knocks Charlie Brown to the ground. She screams at him, “Look, Blockhead, the world I love. Its people I can’t stand.”

Love is the distinguishing mark of the true Christian (John 13:35). It means loving enough to speak the Truth into peoples lives. It means loving even if we don't always like. Because we recognise that if we love with the "agape" love of the living Christ, every soul becomes equally valuable. We would long for all to have freedom in Christ, to walk out of that dark cell and experience the true light of his salvation. We would not be tempted to compromise, to go and sit on that comfy couch and speak gentle words of comfort, when truth is needed. We would not feed into people's fears with more sensation, even if the facts are true. "For perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18)

Another uncomfortable truth is that we will all have to face the judgement chair of Christ one day. 2 Cor 5:10 reads: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." Hebrews 9:27 states that "it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgement". But our status with Christ determines how we will be judged. Every single person is promised a fair judgment before Christ one day. The young and old, poor and rich, saved and unsaved, believer or non-believer will one day come before the Lord and will be judged for their actions here on Earth.

The man Jesus was the only tangible evidence the world has ever experienced of perfect love. An intimate relationship with Him is the only way through which His love can be perfected in us, and we become able to touch others with that same love. He is the only one worthy of our love. But with His grace, there is a way to love and be loved beyond being deserving of it. That is AGAPE.

Hosea 10:12 I (The Lord) says: Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A Psalm a day keeps the dark away

"Sing to the Lord a new song;
   sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
   proclaim his salvation day after day."
(Psalm 96:1-2)

Frosty dawn, melting into day with a slow steam rising. Above it all the mountains reveal a dusting of snow. Ice crystals cling to the surface of the deck, and where small bodies of water collected in the sleet of the day before. The splendour of autumn has collected under the trees, a final play of falling leaves adding to it. I wonder how many love songs and poems have been written about the nostalgia of autumn. Nat King Cole sang this haunting song about a love lost:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands,  I used to hold
Since you went away, 
the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

Then we had Van Morrisson in "Moondance" who sang with a grinding voice and velvet lyrics:

And all the leaves on the trees are fallin'
To the sound of the breezes that blow
An' I'm trying to please to the callin'
Of your heart strings that play soft and low...

And when I returned to the classics I found this little gem from Margaret Postgate Cole:

Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,

But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.

What is it about poetry that makes us stop short and listen; then feel, then see, smell, trapped in the rythm of words and mind images? A friend recently started reciting a "nonsense" poem by Edward Lear. We were lunching in a beautiful garden and there was a easy hum of conversation and the tinkle of little voices all round. Suddenly there was a hush, the children drew nearer, I imagined even the birds stopped their twittering for a while. No great literary work of prose could have evoked the same reaction. As I have always loved poetry, but sadly never studied a great deal of it, this got me thinking (oh dear...).

I know that God has written countless pages of poetry for us, so I started with the Psalms. At the hand of David Pawson in "Unlocking the Bible", here are some of the wonderful things I discovered:

The three features of poetry that make the words beautiful for us is rhyme, rythm and repetition. Poetry has a much deeper effect on people than prose. It can penetrate parts of our personality that prose would leave untouched. It is more easily remembered, especially when set to music. The word Psalm itself means "pluck" or "twang", implying that it should be accompanied by a stringed (or other) instrument.

It touches the intuitive and artistic part of the brain, that can be left unmoved by the ordered arguments of prose. It evokes emotions, often reaching deep into the heart. Many of us remember part of a Psalm, either sung or often read, from childhood, only to understand the deeper meaning of it much later in life. But how can the Psalms, originally written in Hebrew, not loose their effect when translated into other languages? Imagine translating a stirring old English poem into German... But in Hebrew poetry, the emphasis is on the sense of the words rather than the sound of them, which is why it can be translated into any language. So it is easy to see why God chose such a medium. Hebrew poetry is based on a form of repetition called parallelism, that refers to the "correspondence" between the phrases of a poetic line.

Their is a timeless quality to the Psalms. They can still be applied to our everyday lives right now. I've often dug into the Psalms at times when I needed comfort, then ending up reading a Psalm out loud, my voice  gaining strength as I realise that praise is due to our God, even in troubled times. Over-analysis destroys the beauty of a poem and so also with the Psalms. It is lovely just to read it out load, let it sink in slowly and if necessary, repeat the process.

God is addressed by two names in the Psalms. Elohim, which simply means "God", though being plural, it refers to the holy Trinity. The other is Yaweh, derived from the verb "to be". Which got me thinking (again...) did Shakespeare realise what he was saying?  - "To be, or not to be" (or Yaweh or not Yaweh!) the famous  opening lines of a soliloquy by Hamlet, as he questions the meaning of life, and whether or not it is worthwhile to stay alive when life contains so many hardships. He comes to the conclusion that the main reason people stay alive is due to a fear of death and uncertainty at what lies beyond life...With Yaweh, we know that to live is Christ and to die is gain!

Back to the Psalms, (this happens when I think too much). David wrote the bulk of the Psalms, but many are anonymous. David had many roles, shepherd, warrior, king and musician. But it was the role of musician that meant the most to him, when he died, he thanked God that he had been Israel's "sweet singer". Our voices can also become "sweet" as we read or sing the Psalms in our daily worship. David is refreshingly honest in his writing. He curses men, complains about God and asks for revenge on his enemies. He tells God exactly how he feels - and since God knows this already anyway, he can understand and forgive us when we are honest before Him.

I was quite amazed to see all that is prophesied about Jesus, the Son of David, in the "Messianic" or prophetic Psalms. David was able to enter into the sufferings of Jesus on the cross, without ever having experienced them himself. Psalm 22 begins with "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (the words Jesus cried from the cross). We find twenty of these Psalms quoted in the New Testament, proving the relevance of the whole Bible now and always. If we could "enter" into these same sufferings in only a small way, we would be overawed by all that was sacrificed for us.

 The sons of Korah wrote 10 - a man named Korah features in a story recorded in the Book of Numbers. God punished him to death when he led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. But generations later, his descendants were engaged in Temple worship! The sons of Asaph wrote 12 psalms and they were part of the choir that served in the Temple at the time.

The Psalms tell us that God is Shepherd, Warrior, Judge, Father and, above all, King. In David Pawson's words: "In view of these attributes and actions of God, it is no surprise that in the Psalms theology very quickly becomes doxology. Truth leads inevitably to praise!"

Make a Psalm your own - give it a title. See and feel God responding to you. We discover their true beauty and power when we read them aloud, sing them, even shout them at times... The Psalms are meant to lead us into passionate praise that glorifies God. Do I do all the things I so easily recommend in these writings? Sadly not. But God sees our hunger and honours that. If we pray that we may have a deep longing for time in his Word, as well as have the "time" and opportunity to do it, he will be faithful. It is in our willingness to admit that we need more of Him, where He meets our need.

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
     let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
     let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
     he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
     and the peoples in his faithfulness.
                                                          Psalm 96:11-13

(Do read the whole Psalm out loud to yourself - then pray for the hunger to make this a daily habit. Our Lord will meet you there as His beloved).