Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Choose Life

"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Col. 1:19-20)

Red skies in the morning, sailor's warning, red skies at night, sailor's delight. The day arrives in different hues of coral, and my husband quotes this line from an ancient rhyme, often repeated by mariners over the centuries. The rhyme is a rule of thumb for weather forecasting, dating back over 2000 years. It is based on the reddish glow of the morning or evening sky, caused by haze or clouds related to storms in the region. Due to the rotation of the Earth, storm systems travel from west to east in the earth's temperate zones. A reddish sunrise, caused by particles suspended in the air, often foreshadows an approaching storm, which will arrive from the west, on the same day. On the other hand, a reddish sunset would often mean that a storm system is on the west side, travelling away from our horizon.

I was quite thrilled to discover that Jesus is also quoted in Matthew 16:2-3, as saying: "When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’, and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times". (His apt response to the Pharisees and the Sadducees when they asked Him to give them a "sign").

How often do we also search and look for "signs" to confirm that God is still sovereign, still cares, still has everything under control. But when my eyes burn into the pages of His Word, looking for a magical word or sign from God, for comfort or hope - I keep on coming back to two things - the cross and His blood. What feelings are evoked when you close your eyes and think of blood, bloodstains, blood flowing, blood dripping? Comfort? Confidence? Unlikely. Blood is irrevocably linked to life, but caught up in a world of irrational fear, the connotation is mostly to death and horror.

In the Torah (Leviticus 19-30) a woman in her menstrual cycle is considered ritually unclean - "anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening". Touching her, touching an object she had sat or lain on, makes a person ritually unclean. Yet Jesus allows himself to be touched by a hemorrhaging woman and cured her (Mark 5:25-24).

Another precept from the Old Testament states: "But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat".(Deut. 12:23). But in John 6:53, Jesus is quoted saying to the Jews: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you". He continues by reiterating this in a few different ways, also saying that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood will dwell in Him and Him in them.

Jesus never taught anything in direct contradiction to the Mosaic laws. The Word of God is never contradictory, it serves to point us to the cross where we were set free from living under the law. His sacrifice brought salvation, but unless we "imbibe" the depth of His suffering and are willing to partake in it, we cannot have a living relationship with our Saviour and He cannot dwell in us.

In Leviticus, detailed specifications are given for different sacrifices. As atonement for sin, and restoration of relationship with God, a sacrificial animal had to be slaughtered, the animal bled and the blood sprinkled on the altar. It had to be a perfect specimen without blemish or flaw.The meat was sanctified and burnt as an offering to God. In the process the priests must have got themselves rather blood-splattered as well.

Once again - God no longer requires blood sprinkling and burnt offerings from us. The only perfect man who ever lived has sprinkled his blood over the altar of my heart, offered his body for my sanctification. Our relationship with God is restored for ever and we may therefore walk in His righteousness.

Stepping away from the Bible for a minute to a Shakespearean play of murder and deceit, a picture of a misery and hopelessness is painted as Lady Macbeth laments about a "damned spot" of blood which she could not remove from her hands. Blood does stain. Horribly. Sin stains, deeply, but in Revelations 7:14, I found this amazing verse which says that those "who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb".

No child is brought into the world without blood. The blood that courses through my veins as I type, carries life-giving oxygen, without which life ceases.  Arteries carry the oxygenated blood from the heart to the cells and tissues, whereas veins return the oxygen-depleted blood from the cells and tissues to the heart. Which keeps pumping fresh blood as long as I just keep breathing.

Life is seen to start when we are born, and depart from us when we stop breathing and die. Although, without a deeper understanding of the power, purity and beauty of the blood of the Lamb, we are like the living dead. We have no "life in us" unless we are willing to allow our hearts to stop beating for the world. And as you gasp and reach a desperate hand up to heaven - His hand reaches down from the cross, and the eternal life flows from his hands, his sides, his brow, into your veins. Pure and beautiful, each drop filled with a love and a power which we will never fully comprehend whilst trapped in these fleshy vessels. It is a power that gives us authority over demons, authority over fear, authority over temptation and lies. Over Satan. It is a protective shield, a force field which we can and should call on in times of threat and danger.

As we step out from that cleansing fountain of His blood and love - we are clothed in His purity, power and glory. We are alive in Christ, His spotless bride, fit for the Kingdom of God. No longer do we then live under a covenant of law, but rather covered by a covenant of love. Each page, each word of the Bible points to the cross and the Man who died there. The blood that flowed there. The price that was paid there. Jesus descended to hell itself to reclaim the keys of death which Satan stole. And on the third day the angels rolled back the stone and He stepped out of that tomb with the names of his saved children imprinted on the palm of His hand. When that hand reaches down for you, take it, let the blood flow over you, and taste the joy of knowing that your name is there also.

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There's power in the blood, power in the blood
Would you o'er evil a victory win?
There's wonderful power in the blood

Would you be free from your passion and pride
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide
There's wonderful power in the blood

Would you be whiter,
much whiter than snow?
There's power in the blood, power in the blood
Sin stains are lost in its life-giving flow

There's wonderful power in the blood
There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the blood of the Lamb
There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb
                                                   (Lewis E. Jones, 1889)

Monday, 13 January 2014

A Journey through hardship to Joy

"...We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5)

First light filters through a slit in the curtains. As the cat jumps lightly from her perch onto the bed, minuscule particles of dust take flight and dance in the sun. It takes a child's perspective to appreciate this, rather than to yank the blanket off the bed and drag it to the laundry basket. For ages and ages woman have waged war against dust, defiantly collecting on every surface as soon as we turn our backs. But a child will point out that even dust can momentarily be transformed into something magical. Like dew on web-covered spider's traps, weedy dandelion flowers in the morning sun, a rotting log with lichen and moss clinging to the crumbling bark.

We have the same urge when faced with hardships and suffering. We pray fervently for God to remove it, to let the cup pass us by. We praise God for His goodness, but can we trust Him for His faithfulness? Or perhaps I should rather ask - Do we trust Him to be faithful? Why does he allow trials to manifest in our lives? Or does it happen merely because we live in a broken world? Should we just grit our teeth and wait for the wheel to turn in our favour again? Or should we fight it with every ounce of strength, with every source available and as many possible allies cheering us on...?

At the very beginning of James, addressed to the twelve tribes (Jewish Christians) scattered throughout the world he writes: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds". This is a letter written by "James the Just", half-brother of Jesus, encouraging His followers far and wide with an opening phrase that carries quite a paradox. Trials are usually associated with a way of resolving a dispute or a trespass, but here the word translated as "trials" signifies affliction, persecution, or testing of any kind.

Would we ever think of trials as occasions for joy? My mom used to brush out my wispy knotted hair quoting the Dutch anecdote: "wie mooi wil gaan, moet pyn doorstaan". (You need to endure pain to be beautiful). James reminds us that the testing of our faith develops perseverance and that perseverance must finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything... That should be reason for joy, but not the joy associated with times of wealth and health, but with the deep deep knowledge that He loves us. As a redeemer, a shepherd, but also as a loving Father, wanting his children to grow, not remain spiritually stagnant.

Not all that long ago, when faced with a severe test of my faith, I found that my first reaction was to roll up into a little ball and feel betrayed. Engulfed in waves of self-pity I pounded my fists into my pillow, spat out bitter words against the God who dared to let me go through yet another nightmare. The sweet dream of "perfection" seemed so short-lived, so marred, the promise of a new beginning mockingly untrue. Joy seemed like a cloud that drifted past, allowing me a short passage afloat, before I tumbled back into reality.

"Reality" was not the nightmare I felt trapped by, and my perception of joy was self-centered and worldly. Being forced to my knees was reason enough for rejoycing, and after a time it became not only a life-line, but a time when the darkness would lift and the voice singing was my own. And when I could not sing, I would play music to His glory, cleansing the atmosphere of doubt and replacing it with trust. When I could neither pray nor sing, I had faithful prayer partners who waged this war in the spirit with me. But it required patience. The kind of patience that does not describe a passive waiting but an active endurance.

Faith is tested through trials, not produced by trials. Trials reveal what faith we do have; not because God doesn't know how much faith we have, but so that our faith will be evident to ourselves and to those around us. When trials are received with faith, it produces patience. Yet patience is not the inevitable result of hardship. If difficulties are received in unbelief and grumbling, trials can produce bitterness and discouragement. This is why James encourages us to count it all joy. "Counting it all joy" is faith's response to a time of trial.

"Patience must not be an inch shorter than the affliction. If the bridge reaches but half-way over the brook, we shall have but ill-favoured passage. It is the devil's desire to set us on a hurry." (Trapp)

If faith is tested, it shows that faith is important and precious - because only precious things are tested so thoroughly. "Faith is as vital to salvation as the heart is vital to the body: hence the javelins of the enemy are mainly aimed at this essential grace." (Spurgeon)

Trials, hard times and suffering can prove a wonderful work of God in us. I can so much relate to this quote by Spurgeon when he said: "I have looked back to times of trial with a kind of longing, not to have them return, but to feel the strength of God as I have felt it then, to feel the power of faith, as I have felt it then, to hang upon God's powerful arm as I hung upon it then, and to see God at work as I saw him then."

God's powerful arm is always there for us to "hang upon", His loving arms always there to hold us when we hurt, His face turned towards us when we cry out. We are not victims of circumstance, hapless and without hope. We are victors in Christ, reminded through each trial, that however hard it may seem, He endured more. He cares, He knows and He is faithful.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Pearl of great value

"The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it." (Matthew 13:45-46)

I wake up to the song of rain on our tin roof. The year begins with a shower. The rapping on the roof gives way to a rhythmic tap-tap, then to a cool silence. The clouds are drawn away and the clearest of blue skies appears. The boys ask for a story and I launch into an eerie tale of a dark ship sailing the stormy seas. The captain of this vessel is as troubled as the waters he sails on. He growls and sneers as his ship is pitched to and fro on the waves. His name carries dread and the sight of his ship sends all life a-scurrying. It flies a skull-bone flag snapping whip-like in the wind. Captain Dreadlock's face is set as flint, his hair lies matted against his sunken cheeks. The vessel itself seems to possess a sense of doom, and all who set eyes on the "Black Pearl" are filled with unease. The shipmates move about nervously, giving a wide berth to their master.

Then steps onto the deck a man, tall and straight, his countenance bright and his step light. His gaze is steady and his eyes sparkle with mirth. The captain loathes him, but can find no fault in his work, no error in his ways. He confuses the other shipmates with his humour, even the clouds seem to part just a tad each time he appears. Since the captain forbids merry-making, an uneasy silence hangs over the deck at all times. But when he disappears to his cabin, the cheerful stranger is heard whistling in the rigging, smiling with a secret joy, despite the gloom about him. One day he appears on the deck carrying a basket. The basket brims with glowing fruit, ripe with the promise of juicy sweetness. He walks over to the captain sulking at the wheel and places it in front of him with an almost imperceptible bow, then turns on his heel and carries on with his tasks. Captain Dreadlock draws his breath and glares at the horizon. Then he hands the wheel over to the second mate, picks up the fruit and disappears down below. In his cabin, he locks the door, places the basket on the only table in the dusky room and stares.

I pause and look at the two small faces before me, enraptured and wide-eyed.

Slowly the captain stretches out his hand, then pulls it back and bites on a dirty fingernail instead. But once again his hand is drawn out and as if in a dream he picks up a ripe and luscious peach, raises it to his cracked lips and bites into the flesh with worn yellow teeth. The fruit bursts open and juice drips and runs into his dirt-caked beard. His eyes close and he sighs. One by one he devours the fruit, chewing and swooning, crying and laughing with delight. Then he stops with fright, wipes his hands on his breeches and catches his reflection in the window. The man staring back at him, looks bewildered, exposed, deeply sad. He sinks down in a corner and cries like a child until tired and spent, he falls asleep in a heap of sorrow. In the dark of night he crawls out on the deck and under a waxing gibbous moon, lowers himself into the water with a rope. The cool water closes over his head and as he sinks tiny bubbles escape from his mouth and nose. He opens his eyes to a wonder-world of colour - fish darting about and coral reefs glowing in the filtered light of the moon. An undeniable urge to live forces him back to the surface, gasping and.... clean.

The story is wrapped up with Captain Dreadlock becoming Captain Sunbeam, the ship becomes the Golden Pearl, and its mission is changed from plundering to ferrying. Cargoes of fresh fruit are carried from harbour to harbour and the ship brings delight and renewal wherever it goes. Captain Sunbeam becomes a much loved legend and the stranger is never seen again. My boys leave the room with satisfied grins and I am afforded a sweet time of closeness with the Lord.

I'm drawn to a similar story in Matthew, where the kingdom of heaven is likened to a merchant who finds a pearl of great value. So overwhelmed is he by the wonder of the new-found treasure, that he sells all he owns to buy it. The merchant, (a wealthy man) in this parable is Jesus, who so much wants his people (the pearl) to return to Him, that He was willing to give up His life as the Son of God, let His blood flow in payment for us to be afforded a way into heaven. Interestingly enough, the oyster, a mollusk, would have been regarded as a lowly creature by the Jews. The law as found in Leviticus stated that everything under the water without fins was considered to be "unclean". Yet Jesus considers us worthy enough to lift us out of the water and through him we are cleaned and the hidden treasure is revealed. Is that not an amazing thought? - The Son of God comparing "us" to a pearl of great value... 

I started musing about how a pearl is formed. Pearls are found inside a living creature, an oyster. They are the result of a biological process - the oyster's way of protecting itself from foreign substances.Oysters are bivalves, which means that its shell is made of two parts, or valves.The formation of a natural pearl begins when a foreign substance slips into the oyster between the mantle and the shell, which irritate­s the mantle. It's kind of like the oyster getting a splinter. The oyster's natural reaction is to cover up that irritant to protect itself. The man­tle covers the irritant with layers of the same nacre substance that is used to create the shell. Slowly, delicately, a pearl, a gem is formed...

I look back over the year before and marvel once again how God used the pain that came into our family to bring new life and changed lives. Layer by layer the pearl is formed and the gratitude I feel, still deepens each day. I realise that He did not only afford us another chance, He pointed us to the One who not only gave us the treasure of His life and blood, but also rose in victory over the enemy who seems to have free reign in the world around us. But we forget that Satan is like a dog on a long leash. Prowling around, destroying and thieving, deceiving and causing havoc. But if we appeal to the Master and claim the victory through his Name and blood, he will cower and flee. He knows who rules supreme, and so should we. Our lives are not left to chance, and we do not create our own destiny as the modern day guru's would have us believe. Our future hope is in our Saviour Jesus - He is the only one worth living and dying for.

Our morning story's Captain Dreadlock also thought that as long as he held onto His anger - for whatever reason - childhood abuse, a wive who abandoned or deceived him, a government that did not please him - it would keep him strong, give him power over those he secretly feared. This is fertile soil for Satan to do his work. He will keep on feeding into this lie, appeal to the ego, throw oil on the fire of hatred and grow the lust for power and status. But then a "basket" was placed before him which rocked more than his boat. It contained goodness, but he could not have it, and hold onto his old life of bitterness and bile. Something had to give. The price seemed too great - so much so that he despaired, and all but lost his life in the dark water of another lie. What did he see when the glory of the Son shone through the gloom to afford him a moment of truth? I like to think that he caught a glimpse of the true "Golden Pearl" - the presence of a Saviour that helped him to emerge from those murky waters washed clean not only of grime and bitterness, but of every wrongdoing and sinful thought or deed in his sad and wasted life.

Even if the first day of a new year is just a date ticked of on a calender, time created by man for man, it is always a great time to "reflect". God is so faithful, he knows how I like to have a verse to hold onto at the beginning of a new year. Last year he took the wind out of my sails momentarily when he gave me Romans 12:3 - "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought..." It was humbling, but it pulled me back to a proper perspective each time I felt like patting myself on the back through-out the year. This year He was truly faithful in reminding me that even if things seem pretty good now, the best is yet to come. My "verse" for the year turned out to be from the much loved 1 Cor 13 where it wraps up to say in verse 12: "Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror - then we will see face to face. Now I know in part - then I shall now fully, even as I am fully known". 

Whatever the year may bring at the worst or the best of it, what we "see" or understand is only a poor reflection. Mirrors in Biblical times where probably not as commonplace as now and most likely not the best quality either. At the peak of our perceived "happiness" in this world we cannot begin to imagine the rapture, the fullness of joy the presence of Jesus will bring. Looking into His face will be like nothing we could ever dream or imagine longing for. We have been bought at a great price. We were considered worthy of that price... The Merchant will return to gather His pearl. His elect. The choice is ours.