Monday, 20 May 2019

Who builds your house?

Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. ~ Psalm 127:1

Image result for autumn

Autumn slips softly into the mountains. At first the changes are subtle. The pale limbs of Silver Birches become exposed as yellowing leaves curl, and let go. Barely breathing or blinking, we spy on a Knysna Loerie. He is perched on a branch flanking the deck, his graceful neck and artfully painted face tilted towards us - frozen-to-the-spot inconspicuous.* In the distance, the first flecks of amber stand out against a green forest canopy. Dawn brings with it a hint of Winter, the smell of Wattle-smoke and a reluctance to leave the sweet warmth of night. I glance furtively at our woodpile, suddenly so insignificant, measured against the long winter months ahead. Outside our kitchen window, the tiny double collared sun-birds flit among the pineapple sage flowers. The male hangs upside down from a swaying stem, his jewel coloured breast shimmering in the sun. A curved beak disappears deep into the cerise heart of a flower. We find the swaying pod of their meticulously constructed nest near the washing line. The female (yes, the woman gets to build the house in this family... ) delicately weaves grasses, lichen, plant matter and spider webs to make a sturdy ball. Her design even includes a small veranda over the opening to shield her young from the elements. The interior of the nest is a cosy lining of soft plant matter, feathers, and fur.

I smiled (and cringed a little) as I remembered all the planning and deliberating that went into our wooden home. I had ambitious ideas of nooks and crannies, a loft for stargazing, carved wooden deck railings, etc... My brother (who was the builder, project manager and practical Dutch-stubborn-perfectionist), had other ideas. Which I eventually, although reluctantly, surrendered to, in order to save family relationships. With the result that we have a well-built, simple, strong and wonderful house that works. I also recall how meticulously the foundation was designed, and redesigned until my brother was absolutely sure that it would be sound, solid, secure, stable and enduring.

When setting out to plan and/or build the home that one intends to live in, raise children, be safe from the elements, no-one would want to cut corners or settle for shabby workmanship. As I grew up the daughter of a builder, dusty, raw building sites were often my playgrounds. I have a distinct memory of my dad pushing over a newly built wall with the ball of his foot. I watched in horror as the bricks fell away from us (fortunately...). With his practised eye, he could see at a glance that it was no good. Not enough or too much "daga", the wrong mix of cement and sand in the daga, the bricks not laid properly, inadequate foundation... Whatever the reason, the builder of that wall had laboured in vain, and his efforts were destroyed in a second.

The reason my thoughts have been on houses and their construction, is this verse: "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain." (Psalm 127:1). I picked it up in a song a while ago, and the phrase has been tip-toeing through my mind ever since. Even though the psalm was probably written by David for his son Solomon at the time when the temple was being built, it is not really our earthly houses or church buildings that God is concerned about. Both David and Solomon understood that the work of man had its place, but was of little ultimate consequence without the work and blessing of God.

In Scripture a dispensation/system/family is called a house. Moses was faithful as a servant over all his house; and as long as the Lord was with that house it stood and prospered; but when He left it, the builders of it became foolish and their labour was lost. They sought to maintain the walls of Judaism, but sought in vain: they watched around every ceremony and tradition, but their care was idle. Of every church, family and every system of religious thought, this is equally true: unless the Lord is in it, and is honoured by it, the whole structure must sooner or later fall in hopeless ruin. Much can be done by man; we can both labour and watch; but without the Lord we have accomplished nothing, and our wakefulness cannot and will not ward off evil.

In John 2:19 Jesus tells the Jews who had been asking him for a sign to prove His authority: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." Naturally the Jews were bewildered, hadn't it taken 46 years of building to finish the temple! But Jesus was referring to his body, and only after He walked out of that dark tomb, did the disciples understand... Later in John, we see Jesus comforting his disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit who was to come. He says:
"A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”

In 2 Corinthians 13:5, the apostle Paul asks the Corinthian believers a question: “Or do you not realise about yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you?”

Jesus is holy God, the Word (Logos) who became flesh, and we are fallen sinners. So how can Christ live in us? To accomplish His desire to dwell within mankind, God took some tremendous steps. First, God Himself became a man named Jesus Christ. This man, Jesus, lived an authentic human life on earth, yet without sin. In His living, His actions, and His speaking, He fully expressed God. After living and experiencing every aspect of human life for thirty-three and a half years, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Through His redemptive death, we can be forgiven of our sins and brought back to God. But this is not all. After three days He rose in victory from the dead, and in his resurrection became the life giving Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Paul asks: "Do you not know that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own, your were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your bodies."

"Temple" refers to the dwelling place or the house of God. The temple Solomon built was magnificent! Many parts of the temple were overlaid with pure gold, including the altar and the inner sanctuary (1 Kings 6:21-22). Why?
Our bodies, which are to be the temple of the Holy Spirit are equally magnificent. Made so, only by God's indwelling. Made holy and pure by His presence. The body that receives the gift of the Holy Spirit is precious to God and is to reflect His nature. I have been asking myself: Do I live in an awareness that my frail, fleshy body, houses the Spirit of the living Christ? Does His Word dwell in me richly? Do I keep the dwelling place of God clean for Him? Do I allow Jesus to build daily onto the wonderful foundation of His saving grace in me? Or do I labour in vain for "things" that please people or myself, rather than the Spirit that lives in me? Do I care more for my outward appearance than for the sanctuary that Jesus has made inside of me?

David praised God for His amazing creation - the human body.  As I followed the development of our two children in my womb, I could echo those words - fearfully, wonderfully... But why fearfully? The Hebrew word for fearful is "yare", which can be translated as "to be afraid" or "to stand in awe".  The way we were made, in the image of God, is not so that we can honour these amazing bodies we were given, striving to keep physically strong and happy. God alone is worthy of our awe. More and more, it is Jesus who I stand in awe off as I watch our children grow, knowing that their precious bodies also, were made for Him to live in.

I want to live in the awareness that my body is the temple of God. It is a temporary dwelling, held together only by His grace. In the increasing limitations of my own body, I want to be aware that I serve a limitless God. God who made the perfect way through Jesus, to receive not only forgiveness for sin, but His life-giving Spirit. God who has made a way, for what is decaying, to be eternal, beyond the bonds of bones and flesh... 

*These striking birds (the 10 species of the Turaco and the 2 of the Musophaga) are the only birds to possess true red and green colour. When you look at most birds, the color you are seeing is a reflection produced by the feather structure. The Turaco's red pigment (turacin) and green pigment (turacoverdin) both contain copper. In fact, if you stirred a glass of water with a red Turaco feather, the water would turn pink! The Knysna Loerie is thought to use its red wing feathers to escape predators. Indeed, when it flies, the predators tend to focus on the most visible colour and follow the red patch. As the Loerie lends and folds its wings, the red feathers of the wings become invisible and the Loerie has a chance of escaping unseen.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Be Refreshed!

He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth. ~ Psalm 72:6

It is a mercifully cool morning, with gentle breezes tugging at the curtains. Everything seems to sigh with relief after the melting heat. Our boys discover an old shoe-box full of photographs and time slips away, as we rummage through the past. The beds unmade, our little cat curled contentedly between us. The year has once again settled into a vaguely familiar rhythm, even if it tends to be a syncopated, abstract beat at times. When clouds swell and gather, we look longingly towards the horizon for a promise of moisture...

As parts of our country still thirst desperately for rain, and people become wearied by the pressing responsibilities and realities of the "not so new" year, I thought to turn towards the bible for a little time of refreshing.

Hosea 6:3 says: "Then we shall know, if we follow on to know the Lord: His going forth is prepared as the morning, and He shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and the former rain unto the earth."

Palestine was especially dependent upon rain, since the people who lived there, cultivated the sides of hills and terraces, which were parched and dry when the rains were withheld. The "former," or autumnal rain, fell in October, at the seed-time; the "latter" or spring rain, in March and April, and it was this rain that filled the ears of grain before harvest, reviving and refreshing the earth to produce an abundant yield. If either were withheld, the harvest failed...


In this we see a wonderful likeness of Him who is the Beginning and the End of our spiritual harvest. To know God is the secret to all wisdom, and for this reason we were created. To know Him as our Saviour, Master, Protector and Friend. It is the source of deep, lasting joy, regardless of the circumstances. The want or lack of this knowledge, can lead to misery and spiritual drought.

"Refreshment" means restoring strength, energy and vigour. A light snack is sometimes referred to as a ‘refreshment’. Rest or exercise can bring physical refreshment.

Paul tells Philemon that he has ‘refreshed the hearts of the saints’ (Philemon 7). Later on in the letter, Paul asks him to ‘refresh my heart in Christ’ (v.20). But how do we refresh our minds, hearts and souls?


1. Refresh your mind with the words of God (Psalm 119:121-128)


Gold is the most valuable thing this world knows. It cannot be tarnished. It shines with a glow like no other metal. Gold is the one metal that all humankind bows down to. Yet, God’s words are far more valuable than even the finest gold. The psalmist writes: ‘I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold’ (v.127).

The source of the psalmist’s soul refreshment is God’s words. Earlier in the psalm he said, ‘My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times … My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word’ (vv.20,28).

Nothing refreshes mind, body and soul, like God's Word.

2. Refresh your heart with the people of God. (Philemon 1:1-25)


Paul writes to his friend Philemon to ask for a favour (v.1). Philemon had a slave called Onesimus who had escaped. Whilst Onesimus was on the run, Paul had led him to Christ (v.10).
Now, in this letter, which is full of grace, humility, genuine love and charm, Paul writes to persuade Philemon to take Onesimus back – not as a slave (the normal fate of a runaway slave was death or flogging and branding on the forehead), but as a friend and brother (v.16). Centuries later, the ripple effect of these words contributed to massive social change. Local history became world history.

It is a request that Paul knows will receive a "yes". He is absolutely confident that Philemon will do what he has asked him to do (v.21). It is a shining example for us, and a challenge, to bring love, forgiveness and reconciliation, especially among our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Paul goes on to say, ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you have refreshed the hearts of the saints’ (v.7). And he asks Philemon to refresh his heart in Christ by another act of love (v.20). His whole appeal for Onesimus is ‘on the basis of love’ (v.9).

Forgiveness involves extending love and mercy to someone who has wronged or hurt you. It clears the way to reconciliation and restoration of a relationship.

Love refreshes the heart and the soul. Spending time with and edifying people we love and who love us, whether it is family, friends or neighbours, refreshes our hearts and souls.

3. Refresh your soul in the presence of God (Lamentations 2:7, 3:39)

We see in this passage that Jeremiah's heart is in great need of refreshment. As he looks out at the devastation of Jerusalem, he is surrounded by the most appalling suffering. There is destruction all around. The people are starving. It has reached the point where there is the possibility of women eating their own children.

It is not just that the suffering is all around Jeremiah. It is also in his own heart and soul. He writes, ‘My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground’ (2:11). His heart is pierced (3:13). He feels besieged and surrounded by ‘bitterness and hardship’ (v.5). He is dwelling in darkness (v.6).

But he knows that the answer lies in the presence of the Lord. He writes, ‘Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord’ (2:19).

He goes on, ‘My soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose 
hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him …
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love’ (3:20–25,32).

Times of refreshing come from being in ‘the presence of the Lord’ (Acts 3:19).

Our God’s mercy truly is new every morning. You and I have been given the freedom to make a fresh, new start every single day. Regardless of the mess the previous day may have turned out to be. Every day we may seek Him, wait for Him quietly, hope in Him, ask His forgiveness, and be fully refreshed by His beautiful presence, His wondrous Word, and His unfailing love.



Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Selah...

It is a new year... Cicadas' buzzing song infuses the heat and the cat is stretched long and limp at my feet. On cool forest walks, we spot the first wild mushrooms, with the Rameron Pigeons cooing in the forest canopy. Bramble berries ripen in the sun. It is a season of abundance, fruit trees bend low under the weight of mellowing fruit, fields of wild flowers dazzle, lush green foliage whisper in the breeze. The call of the seldom seen but often heard Piet my Vrou/Red Chested Cuckoo (called the Christmas-bird by the Xhosa people for obvious reasons) has become more drawn out and less urgent. The glossy starlings amuse us with their friendly chatter. A pair of inquisitive yellow billed hornbills come to perch on our deck-railings, clearly finding us as interesting as we find them. When the sun beats down, we slip into a nearby dam, mud curling between our toes. These long Summer days seemed endless, and "playtime" came to an end all too soon. We shed our childlike skins and square our shoulders to face reality. The pace picks up and time just skips ahead - an impatient child, rather hard to keep up with.

As with previous years, I hoped to have a bible verse to make my own at the beginning of this year. A verse which would be like a reminder or promise or a "theme" for 2019. Instead, I got a word: Selah... 

It is not even a word that is read out loud most of the time. A mysterious little word, with no clear interpretation or translation. In many translations of the bible, it is just spelt out phonetically from the Hebrew. The NIV have removed it altogether. It appears 74 times in the bible, 71 times in Psalms, 3 times in the book of Habakkuk. That makes it more frequent than two other "famous" Hebrew words from the bible, "Amen" and "Hallelujah". So it is an important word. Up to very recently, I just had no idea what it meant, or how I could apply it to my every day.

Some biblical scholars speculate that it’s a kind of musical notation, maybe indicating something like a key change, or a repeat. Others think maybe it marks a pause, or a shift in subject or tone. But it is still just speculation. The word Selah is, and will remain, a mystery.

For me, that’s kind of fitting. Some people may think that the Bible is simple, straightforward, and that they have it all figured out. Psalms, and especially "Selah" reminds me that there are many unanswered questions, many mysteries, "For now we see through a glass, dimly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." 1 Cor 13:12


Charles Spurgeon (the Prince of Preachers) wrote a beautiful interpretation of the word Selah - Lift up the heart. Rest in contemplation and praise. Still keep the soul in tune... let it be our aim to maintain the uprising devotion of our grateful hearts...

With that in mind, I thought to look at one Psalm and how "Selah" lifts my heart, moves me to rest in contemplation and praise, keeping my soul in tune, maintaining the uprising devotion of my grateful heart.

I chose Psalm 46. Two years ago our boys memorised this Psalm verse by verse. Reading it, I still see their faces, frowning with concentration and dramatising the "dramatic" parts with flourish.

Psalm 46 is not advice, like Proverbs or Psalm 1. It’s not about me, or you or anyone else. Psalm 46 is about God. It is reassurance about who our God is, where God is, and what God has promised us.

1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.

4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

7 The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

11 The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
.

Firstly, our God is a God of Might. Selah. God is our strength. The one who breaks the bow and shatters the spear, who will, on the wonderful day appointed by Him, make wars cease to the end of the earth. Or, as Martin Luther famously paraphrased this Psalm: A Mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing! (bulwark: a defensive wall, rampart, fortification, protector, guard, defender; or a ship's sides above the level of the deck.)

Our God is a God of Might.

Secondly, our God is a God of Mystery. Selah. Psalm 46 reminds me that no matter how desperately I want to understand why things happen in this world, why God does or does not do the things I may think God should do… there will always be some things beyond my ability to comprehend.


I value this mystery because it enables me to feel and trust in God’s love… love that was fully revealed in Christ Jesus. It reminds me that we are the players of life in God's universe, not the playwright.

God is always greater than our understanding of Him and there will always be mystery about Him that causes us to fall down in awe and worship. This mystery, which we may try to categorise, keeps causing struggles in our life. Every time we get God tidied up like a ball of rubber bands, another end bursts out and the struggle begins all over again... until we learn to live in faith with untidy ends. If everything was clear, then faith would be irrelevant! We are not called to solve the mystery... but enter it. 

Our God is a God of Might, and a God of Mystery.

But finally, and perhaps most importantly, our God is in our Midst. Selah

Immanuel.

God with us, among us, ever present;

Before we were born, throughout our lives, and after our days are done;

God who stands with us and strengthens us today and for the road ahead;

God who watches over us, guides us, protects us, comforts us. Selah.

Might, Mystery in our Midst...

So, as the year and the unknown stretches out before you and I, let us enter into the mystery that is our Trinue God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. With trusting hearts lifted up. Resting in contemplation, with souls in tune, keeping the uplifted devotion of our grateful hearts...