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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Start The Year With Jesus

Tonight people will be partying. In the island state of Samoa the New Year will come a day earlier than it did last year because they have decided to switch to the other side of the International Date Line in order to be in line with their trading partners in Australasia. They are going into 2012 with a sense of hope and optimism that this one small change will fuel economic growth. Their weekends will now coincide with other nations in the region which means there will be more time for business activities between Samoa and other countries. It’s a clever little trick.
Many other people around the world will also be starting the New Year thinking about economics. They will be concerned about how long their jobs will last, if they will be able to pay the post-Christmas bills and whether or not they can maintain their living standards.
But for one night they will party, trying to send their anxieties to oblivion and attempting to be optimistic about the future - surely 2012 has to be better than 2011.
I used to belong to a church which every year held a New Year’s Eve party. It was full of fun and games and the whole church family joined in. Two things separated it from the kind of parties going on elsewhere. The first was a lack of alcohol. The second was that, at the stroke of midnight, we prayed and gave thanks to God. We started the year with Jesus.
There was none of the flamboyant frothiness and wishful thinking that somehow chiming in a New Year was going to change everything. Instead there was a sense of gratitude that whatever we’d been through in the past twelve months Jesus had walked with us through it, and the certainty that whatever we would face in the coming year He would always be at our side.
As 2012 begins I pray that you will know the love of Jesus throughout.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Confessional Prayer

A friend recently asked me, "what does it mean to live a godly life?"

I didn't feel that I gave her an adequate answer so I've been pondering for a couple of weeks.

I pretty sure that I'm not the best person to ask as I certainly don't manage to live what I would describe as a godly life. I also think that a century ago we would have been able to see living examples of godliness in the Christian community which aren't there now. We have lost a great deal of our desire to be holy.

However, several things have come to mind which may help us to understand so I thought I might share them.

When I spent some time with Wycliffe Bible Translators at their UK HQ I remember being shocked by a Bible study one of the translators on furlough did for us. She was sharing a psalm (I don't remember which one though I could probably find it if I sat down and read through them all) and drew out the point that God was far more interested in who we are than where we are. Up to that point I was trying to please God by finding out where He wanted me to go and what He wanted me to do. It's a trap I continually fall into. But the truth is that when He wants us to go or do it's because He wants us to grow. He is often gracious to use us to advance His kingdom in some way but the important thing for us is not the doing but the becoming, learning lessons in the environment where He has placed us.

As I said, I can't find that psalm quickly but the message of Micah 6:8 is the same:
He has showed you, O (wo)man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

I think that is one definition of godliness.

I'm reading a book on prayer by Moody at the moment and something he said struck me. He talks about the importance of confession and says how valuable it would be if we frequently repeated David's prayer in Ps 139:23-24. We need to let God search our hearts and show us our sin. It's no good simply looking for sin within ourselves because we often don't recognise it - the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9).

I think those two thoughts - walking humbly with God and asking Him to search our hearts are probably the key to living a godly life. I also think that as we learn to live a godly life, His plan and purpose for us will naturally unfold. It's no good being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing if we're not right with God.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Confession

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. - 1 Jn 1:8-9

The word confess simply means to acknowledge or to declare. Within the context of Christian faith it has been adopted to cover a number of different concepts. The one I want us to look at in this chapter, within the subject of prayer, is admission of guilt.

The Lord's Prayer
The traditional version of the Lord's prayer includes the phrase, "forgive us our trespasses," so we can see that seeking forgiveness from God is a vital part of prayer. But this word trespasses is not one that is in common usage today so it benefits from some explanation. Modern versions of this prayer use debts or sins, two words which have quite different connotations. Interestingly, the two passages in the gospels which contain the Lord's prayer, have different Greek words underlying the English too.
Here we are going to take a slight diversion into New Testament Greek so we can understand a little more about confession and forgiveness.
In Luke 11:4 the Greek word used is hamartias which is the usual word for sin which implies making an error or missing the mark, in other words, falling short of perfection. We would like to define sin as being when we deliberately do something wrong. That would let us off a lot of hooks. We could think of ourselves as good if we only made minor mistakes which didn't really hurt anyone. But the Bible won't allow for this kind of self-delusion - for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
James tells us that whoever breaks just one small point of the law is guilty of breaking all of it (Jms 2:10). Unlike current legal systems which have different documents defining what is and isn't legal in different aspects life, the Israelites were given one single master document to cover their whole legal system. We have different Acts for road traffic offences, burglary, murder, education and so on. The Israelites had Deuteronomy. We think of breaking only certain laws and not others as making us somehow less guilty. God's standard is different. While there are different punishments for different types of crime, all lawbreakers are equally guilty. I don't want to get stuck in too much theology here - a whole book could be devoted to the subject. Suffice it to say that it is not simply individual sins that need to be confessed but our sinful nature, our inability to keep the entirety of God's law.
In Matthew 6:12 the Greek word translated debts is opselemata from a root meaning a debt or obligation. In our materialistic world we are all too familiar with the concept of financial debt and being obliged to repay what we owe. The only way out of debt is to pay it off or to legally declare oneself bankrupt. When we ask God to forgive our debts we are declaring our moral bankruptcy before Him and acknowledging there is nothing we can do to make ourselves righteous. All we can do is ask that God no longer counts our debt against us. We are asking for a legally binding accounting contract which will no longer demand what we owe.
Now all of this is important because it points us back to the heart of the gospel which is that God is just and cannot accept us in our sin. God will not simply write off the debt as some people believe. The price has to be paid by someone and that someone is the Lord Jesus Christ who paid it on the cross at Calvary. However, you have to accept that payment for yourself. It's not automatic. People today are being told to invite Jesus into their heart. This is not in the Bible. On the contrary, we are told to "repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out" (Acts 3:19). That word repent literally means to turn around through 180 degrees and go the other way. In the Christian context it means to turn away from living your life your way and do the complete opposite, living God's way. That means submitting our own ideas to God's word - if I disagree with the Book, I'm the one who needs to change.

Confession Is Not Enough
It is not enough to confess what we have done wrong, or even to confess that we have an inherently sinful nature. Confession on it's own is simply a statement of fact. It amazes me how many people with short tempers are actually proud of the fact. They confess it freely with no sense that they need to repent and behave differently. All that confession does is warn people there might be trouble. God wants us to be remorseful and repentant. He is looking for a change of heart and for us to produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt 3:8).
In times of revival, when the church begins to grow at unprecedented rates and large numbers of people are being converted (changed), there is always a great deal of genuine repentance usually with tears of remorse. There may be signs and wonders too but these are secondary and repentance and confession are the true marks of revival, just as they are the true marks of Christian conversion.
Not only are these the marks of conversion, they will continue to be an ongoing part of a Christian's prayer life. The Christian's desire is to be pure-hearted before God. This is exemplified by David's words.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. - Ps 139:23-24

Repentance
Repentance becomes an inherent part of a Christian lifestyle, not out of duty, but out of love for the Saviour who sacrificed Himself.
The flip side of the confession and repentance coin is forgiveness. There seems to be something built in to the human psyche which recognises that if we do something wrong we deserve punishment and that we have to pay in some way. The passage at the beginning of this section reminds us that God's currency includes faithfulness and justice. Justice is appeased by the death of Christ and God's faithfulness will not allow Him to do anything other than to adhere to that justice. So we can be confidence that when we come and confess with a repentant attitude we will be forgiven. We should never allow ourselves to think that we also need to be punished. There is one sacrifice for atonement. There is no need for penance or metaphorical sackcloth and ashes, being gloomy and depressed. Forgiveness needs to be accepted fully so that we are available to God for what He wants to do in and through us.
That is not to say that restitution should not be made if we have offended against a person. There are detailed laws in the Old Testament about restitution and Jesus taught that the moment we realise our brother has something against us we should go and sort it out (Matt 5:23-26). If what you have done has cost someone else, you need to put it right.
Nor is it a case that being forgiven by God means that you get away with the consequences. There may be major implications to be faced up to. God is not going to remove the points from your driving license after you've been found guilty of dangerous driving, neither is He going to miraculously heal the disease which resulted from an unholy sexual relationship. But if you do repent and cast yourself on Him, He will get you through the resulting problems and you will learn valuable lessons, not simply about getting yourself in a mess, but also about the love and faithfulness of God.

Prayer College Assignment
Take some time to be still before God and ask Him to examine your heart as David did.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

In The Shadow

Many of my friends are walking through the valley of the shadow of death at the moment. Some have lost precious loved ones, others are facing serious medical problems which have the potential to be a threat to their physical existence, and a few are struggling with depression which, in itself, can be a life-threatening condition. In a sense, as mortal beings, we all constantly live in the valley of the shadow of death whether we are aware of it or not. I wrote the poem below several years ago when I was staring into to the face of a desire to give up living.

In The Shadow
A Psalm For The Suffering
(Ps 23:4, Ps 17:8)

The gorge of shadows in my mind
With death's voice stalking me,
No hope to leave the valley floor
For lacerating scree.
The only path is through the vale
Of tears and lightless days,
Stumbling through the rocks, despair
Leans on a staff of praise
And staggers on with faintest faith
Shutting out the grief which stings
'Til shadows of this hell become
The shadow of Your wings.

And here I rest to feel Your warmth
Caress my mind with peace
And salve my tattered, bleeding soul
'Til all my weeping cease.

(c) Lynda Scotson

Different Shadows
What I discovered at that point in my life was that there is a very close relationship between the horror of the valley of the shadow of death and the comfort of being in the shadow of God's wings.

In Psalm 61:4 David recalls his history with God and his current difficulties prompt him to say that he longs to be in the shadow of God's wings. It is clearly a place of great comfort to him. There are a surprising number of references in the Bible to the shadow of God's wings and each of them teach us something a little different.

The Shadow Of His Wings
The first mention is in Ruth 2:12 when Boaz pronounces a blessing over her. Ruth, he says, has come to take refuge under the shadow of God's wings. This is important because we need to understand that we have a choice about whether or not to occupy this place of safety and comfort. We don't just find ourselves there in difficult times, we have to make the journey, as Ruth did. We have to seek out and take up the offer of sanctuary.

The Psalms have many references to the shadow of God's wings. In Psalm 17:8 we learn that it is a place where we can hide from our enemies. Psalm 36:7 teaches us that we don't have to be anyone special to be able to find this place of refuge - it is for both high and low. In other words it doesn't matter whether you are in church leadership or a brand new believer, you don't have to know your Bible inside out but it doesn't matter if you do, you can be wealthy or surviving on state benefits, you can be a reasoning adult or an innocent child. The shadow of God's wings is available to you.

Psalm 57:1 shows us that we can stay in this place of comfort until the disaster is past. There is good news and there is bad news in this verse. The bad news is that, just as Jesus told us, we are going to go through very difficult times. The good news is that we can stay in the shadow of God's wings throughout those times. It isn't just a temporary place of respite where we can go to lick our wounds before going out and facing the attacks again. God doesn't tell us to stop running away and pull ourselves together. He makes this place of safety available to us for as long as we need it.

Psalm 63:7 talks about singing in the shadow of God's wings. It is a remarkable truth that even in our times of despair, when we draw close to God, we have something to sing about, something to worship Him for. In the shadow of His wings we are close to His heart, surrounded by His love. In Psalm 91:4 we are reminded that under God's wings we are covered by His feathers. We are not simply in the shadow of His wings - He wraps them around us, drawing us close to Himself.

Finally we come to what Jesus said while looking over Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing." (Matt 23:37)

Here is perhaps the most wonderful truth of all - He loves us so much that He longs to draw us into this most intimate place of the shadow of His wings. These words are spoken over those who have most firmly rejected God and His word to them. Even those who have turned away from the Lord can return and find refuge in Him.

Prayer College Assignment
Ask God to show you how you too can take refuge in the shadow of His wings.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A New Year Letter To Jesus

Dear Lord Jesus,

I thank You for the way You have shown Your love to me. You stepped down from heavenly majesty into grubby humanity. You exchanged the glory of being worshiped by all the hosts of heaven to be worshiped by sin-riddled, hurting and confused people. In Your absolute purity You allowed yourself to be touched by lepers and kissed by prostitutes. You showed absolute compassion to the oppressed and raged at those who oppressed them. You became love incarnate and those who knew they needed love opened their hearts to You.

But then You carried out the most loving act ever witnessed in this world - You gave yourself to us completely and submitted yourself to be brutally murdered. We often say that You gave yourself for us and it is true theologically because Your sacrifice has paid the price for us to be reunited with the Father. But You also gave yourself to us as utterly as it is possible to give. Because of what You did we can now have You living within us, closer to us than our own breath, loving us from the inside - something which no human being can ever do for us.

Lord Jesus, I thank You that You love me completely, that Your love for me will never fail. Your love cannot grow because You are love, but my understanding and appreciation of Your love can grow. Please help me to love You more and more each day and give You the worship which you deserve.

Amen