Saturday, 14 October 2017

Life Star

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar:

        Not in entire forgetfulness,

        And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come
        From God, who is our home:

William Wordsworth “ Ode : Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
My mother always said that babies know a lot more than we think they do. When you consider the reasonably similar appearance of most babies, it is quite amazing how differently they all turn out. Every person soon demonstrates their own unique personality, preferences, disposition, talents and weaknesses, as well as physical characteristics. Is this simply the product of a comingling of genes and environment?

To me, the lines above written by William Wordsworth, are some of the profoundest sentiments written in the English language. We are not born without prior consideration by God. The Bible tells us that we were thought about before God even created this physical world:
Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. Ephesians 1:4

And that God created us with our birth and extent of our lives planned by Him:

For you created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”  (Psalm 139:13-16)
We may not remember our life in the womb, but God assures us that He knew us then and was with us from our conception. He has implanted in us a soul, that deepest expression of our humanity and link to the eternal. We are birthed from the thoughts of God, created in His image, and if we are committed to Him through Jesus Christ, return to our Heavenly home.
For the past two years, I have worked with people who are severely disabled, both physically and intellectually. Some ill-informed folk would argue that they have no reason or purpose to be alive. Yet I can attest unequivocally that working with them has been the greatest privilege. Each one is a unique personality and has their own way of interacting with others. Each has a range of likes and interests and has ways of enjoying life, even with all its challenges. Each has a soul. They are inspiring and make their community and this world a richer place for their being in it. God does not make “useless” humans.
Our conviction of the existence of the soul inherent in every human is the reason that Christians strongly oppose abortion and euthanasia, trusting God to decide the span of our lives and caring deeply for others during this lifespan.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Wilderness years

Ever had contact with a grumbler? They can steal your joy in a second. For some people, life is a series of complaints and they love to share them.
The Exodus story is one of struggle, and victory and great miracles. The events leading up to the crossing of the Red Sea make exciting reading, let alone movies. Yet following the immense parting of the waters and destruction of Pharaoh’s army, the ensuing years seem to be a bit of a letdown. A journey that should be a few day’s duration turns into a trek of forty years wandering around in the desert.
People who wanted their freedom so much, who saw God’s miracles suddenly seem to lose the plot. In chapter sixteen we see them complaining that they are hungry. “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt” they exclaim,” There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted”. They had decided that they were facing death, rather than trusting the Lord who had brought them out of bondage to provide.
In chapter seventeen, having been provided with manna to eat, the people now grumbled that there was nothing to drink and complained again to their leaders, Moses and Aaron. In subsequent chapters, their lack of faith is demonstrated by the fact that when Moses was absent, receiving the Ten Commandments from God they demanded an idol to worship, in the form of a golden calf. Finally, when God brings the Israelites into the vicinity of their Promised Land and Moses sends out spies who report of its hostile inhabitants, the people grumble again. “The Lord hates us; so He brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” (Deuteronomy 1:27)
Perhaps slavery had worked an effect of passivity and dependence on this population. God demonstrates His provision and faithfulness, yet they fail to appreciate His blessings, thank Him and trust Him. They continue to sin against Him.  That is why a whole generation wanders in the wilderness instead of entering the promised land.
The stories of the Bible of course are not just history. They demonstrate principles which are as relevant to daily life today as they were three thousand years ago. The Exodus story is one of coming out of bondage, into freedom and new life. This life is one of blessing and provision and change, change for the better if we are able to trust God beyond our external circumstances.
Criticism can become a habit, one that Satan can use to deadly effect in churches.  Critics don’t like the music. They don’t like the preaching style of the minister. They don’t like newcomers coming into the congregation with fresh ideas. Like sparks in a brushfire, the grumbles of a disgruntled few can spread and destroy whole ministries. Those in leadership need our prayers and encouragement.
Similarly, on an individual level we must ensure that we don’t take the blessings of God for granted and grumble when we experience trials and setbacks. In the parable of the sower, Jesus explains how troubles and testing and worries can destroy the gospel message in the heart of the believer. Satan will snatch away your life, if it is not rooted in good soil.
 How do we cultivate such soil? By prayer and praise, study of God’s word, time spent with Him and through fellowship with other Christians in a caring church community. It’s hard to grumble when counting your blessings. The early apostles, themselves no strangers to trials and persecution remind us that times of testing deepen our faith and character. James goes so far as to advise “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (James 1:2).  Paul writes Not only that, but 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)
There is a verse in the great account of love in 1 Corinthians 13 which always resonates with me. Verse 6 reads “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” I always think of this verse when I hear people talking about the state of the world today with its manifold problems. Sometimes conversations can turn into “pity-parties” – “oh, isn’t it awful” when we consider crimes or immorality or personal afflictions. It’s the salt and light of Christ which heals and gives hope in dark times and we are called upon to share it, gently and respectfully.
It’s easy to look at the Exodus account and wonder why the people grumbled. After all, we know the end of the story. It may not be so easy to be relaxed about major problems that we face in this life, some of which may have no earthly solution or ending. However, we can take heart from God’s word.
“Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” (Deuteronomy 1:29-31)
“The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you and you have not lacked anything.” (Deuteronomy 2:7)

Images at Kata Tjuta, Central Australia

Friday, 8 September 2017

Living in the Shadows

As a lover of art, I’m often browsing paintings on the internet and today I came across an intriguing work that I’d hitherto not seen – “The Shadow of Death” by William Holman Hunt. It was painted around 1873 and now resides in the Manchester City Art Gallery.  It’s a clever construction, depicting Christ as very much alive in His workshop but with distinct references to his future crucifixion and back to his birth in Bethlehem. Mary, his mother, who had much to ponder about following her child’s miraculous birth and prophecies about his future, is seen looking towards the shadow on the wall.
Christ knew that His time on Earth was limited. He knew that He would suffer a horrendous and unjust death.  No matter what joy and fellowship and earthly pleasures He knew in this life, in a sense there was always that shadow upon it, the shadow that cumulated in the intense agony of Christ’s soul in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He sweated drops of blood, pleading with His Father God to spare Him, yet submitting to God’s will.
We all know shadows in our lives. The most fortunate of us know minor flickers of trouble or sadness. Others live with shadows that will follow them throughout their earthly lives- the pain of a permanent disability; the grief of an unexpected tragedy; the ticking time bomb of a loved one’s life-reducing illness; loss, betrayal – the list goes on. Shadows that never leave, that change forever the person that we were, the life that we expected to have.
Yet what is a shadow but a momentary lapse of the sun?
We know that death was not the end for Jesus. In a sense, the picture also tells another story. The earthen floor becomes that of a tomb, the reflected opening that of the open door where the stone was rolled away and we see the risen Christ, the cross and earthly Roman world behind Him, his body vibrant and muscular. Death and suffering are defeated. Jesus reigns.
So it is for us. We may suffer in this life, but we have the comfort and joy of Christ's love, and the presence of His Holy Spirit with us till the end. We have the  hope of a glorious life to follow in Heaven, where all tears are wiped away. Jesus said:

" Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."( John 14:27)
and the Bible promises the believers:
"Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:3,4)
This hope brings comfort and lasting joy unlike any other comforts that the world can provide. It is a sure and true hope for those in dark places. 
In the shadows, the Son still shines.