Friday, 5 April 2013

Adversity and Illness - Are These Blessings?

Adversity and illness can be the best teacher one can ask for, and I have found this to be true.  Indeed, what this teacher tells me is not always pleasant.  He faces me up with uncomfortable truths that strike the conscience with a force that is devastating. 

One of those truths concerns how Christians live while everything is going fine.  Their living is almost by rote.  They worship by rote; they pray mechanically; they serve God because it is their duty to serve God; they attend church because it is what is expected of them as Christians.  They read the Bible because that’s what Christians do; they pray for the same reason.  They attended evangelical meetings because it is their duty to be there.

But if and when they sit down and ponder what it was they were doing all these years, they may be in for a great surprise.  To help you grasp this, let me ask you, as Margaret and I have asked ourselves, was your heart in what you were doing?  How deep and real was your love for Christ?  Was it just a mere profession?  Did you really look forward to meeting with Christ in the Word and in prayer, or were these things done mechanically?  

Was your religion a religion that was done without thinking?  Was going to worship the Lord of all the earth something you did unconsciously?  Was it just your habit to do so?
These are very uncomfortable questions to address.  For when you are faced with a potentially life-threatening situation, such religion is utterly useless to anyone. And the really frightening thing is that so many church people are depending upon their mere church involvement to get them to heaven.  So long as they believe the right things, go to the right church, be seen with the right people, use the right language, little else matters.  But this is all vanity. 

When I think as a minister just how little heart there was in my service, I cringe.  When I consider how many things were done just because someone else expected me to do them, I tremble.  When I recall how many empty prayers I prayed, I feel ashamed.  When I recall how often I read the Scriptures without even thinking about what the Lord was saying to me, I fear.  I fear that so much was done because it was the practice to do them.  I simply followed tradition because it was tradition not because it was biblical. 

Looking back, I am glad that circumstances changed and God brought me to where I and Margaret are at today, because in the past we missed so much.  We were not really touched by other people’s hurt, their problems, their situations.  Oh, the bane of ministerial professionalism.  What a blight on the Church of Jesus Christ!  I am sure the gracious Lord had to teach me these lessons that I could not or would not learn elsewhere.  There is no place like the furnace to burn away the dross from a Christian profession. 

The great English Puritan, Richard Baxter (1615-1691) wrote the words of this mighty hymn (the last five verses):

If life be long, oh, make me glad
The longer to obey;
If short, no labourer is sad
To end his toilsome day.

Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
And he that to God's kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.

Come, Lord, when grace has made me meet
Thy blessed face to see;
For if Thy work on earth be sweet,
What will Thy glory be?

Then I shall end my sad complaints
And weary, sinful days,
And join with the triumphant saints
Who sing my Saviour’s praise.

My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But 'tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.

Do these words warm and thrill your hearts?  See the humility of Baxter as he submits to God’s sure providence.  Let us imitate him in these things, and we, too, will be greatly encouraged to walk the pilgrim path with joyfulness and hope.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Loneliness - Is There a Solution?

Loneliness is not a nice thing.  I remember being away from home on my own on a study tour, and feeling very alone, isolated, cut off.  It’s just not nice.  Especially when things do not always work out as you would have hoped.  Friends all gone and feeling very alone. 
Christians also feel very alone at times, but for them it’s usually a temporary thing.  Christians have Someone to Whom they can turn at any time and in any circumstances.  Jesus told us that He’ll not leave us like orphans after He goes, but will send another Comforter (Jn. 14:16, the Holy Spirit) to be with us right throughout life in this world.  And when Jesus said He would do this, He kept His word, and the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost.
Just one important thing to note: if anyone does not have the Spirit of God living in his/her life, s/he is not a Christian.  To have the Spirit of Christ living in you is to be a Christian.  Every Christian has the Spirit in Him.  But have you?  Is Christ living in you by His Spirit? 
What a comforter He is.  It is Jesus Who baptises, or fills, us with the Holy Spirit, as the Scriptures clearly teach (see Mt.3:11; Mk1:8; Lk.3:16; Jn 1:33; Ac.1:5; 11:6).  This is something He does.  And when He comes to us and floods our hearts with His grace and power, then we know that we are not alone anymore.  To have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who is given to us (Rom.5:5), is what sets Christians off from the rest of the world.  The Spirit has been given to us.  Do you realise that?  Do you realise Who it is that is dwelling in your heart?  God the Holy Spirit.  That means that you will never be left alone permanently.  He is not only with us but is in us. 
Friends, I say these things in order to stir up your hearts to know that Christ lives in us by that same Spirit.  And it is the presence and power of the Spirit of Christ Who helps us to pray.  When our praying is nothing but groaning in the very depths of our hearts, then it is that the Holy Spirit interprets our groaning and presents our praying groans perfect before God the Father.  God loves groaners, not moaners.
So, if we want our prayers to be effective, we must seek the filling of the Holy Spirit on a day by day basis.  Jesus said, you remember, “Without Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).  Maybe much of our difficulty in prayer lies in the fact that our relationship with God is merely a formal one.  Perhaps we have been trying to ‘do’ Christianity in our own strength and without seeking His enabling.  Maybe we are all much too self-sufficient for God to bother with us.  Pride in our Christian faith leaves us untouchable by God.  If we don’t need Him, He’ll not bother us.  That seeks eminently fair, does it not?
So let us ‘get real’ about Christ and His service.  Read through the book of Acts and see there what the normal Christian life actually is.  There you see the church throbbing with spiritual life.  Is your church like that?  Is it truly a New Testament Church?  Is your Christian experience a reflection of that of the first believers?  Or have you rationalised your spiritual deadness by saying that we are now living in ordinary days whereas the days of the apostles were extraordinary?  Are you buzzing with spiritual life and vitality and is your church the same?  Is your church so alive spiritually that if Paul was here today he would feel compelled to write to your church a letter like the one he wrote to the Corinthians in an attempt to curb excesses?  Is vibrant spiritual life a problem for you and your church?  Praise God if it is.  Or have you settled down to a spiritual life of mediocrity and believe that to be the norm?
These are disturbing questions that bring conviction of sin to us.  But we must put right what is patently wrong in our walk with Christ.  The Christian life is not meant to be ‘ordinary.’  Had that been the case, the first believers would not have been persecuted, imprisoned, or martyred.  The early Christians were full of the Holy Spirit, full of joy, of power, grace, love, assurance; and we were meant to be like them.  Now there’s a challenge.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Praying Aloud - Is This a Problem Today?

Did you ever wonder why you find it difficult to pray out loud?  Ever wonder why you cannot pray aloud while others can with ease?  Do you think you’re not a Christian because you cannot pray aloud?
Some Christians think like this, and you could argue that this does point to a spiritual problem.  There are Christians who have never once prayed aloud, either in a prayer meeting or even at home. 
But here’s what we have found: there’s nothing like deep, real, pressing, life-threatening trouble to get you a-praying.  Margaret never prayed aloud in any prayer meeting, and only once at home when she was faced by a particularly trying situation.  But that was it. 
Now, what was it that got her a-praying?  Cancer.  Can you understand why she thanks God for her cancer?  It got her meeting with the Lord in a way that neither of us knew before. 
You see, God has His own way of getting us to take our Christian lives and profession seriously.  When He really touches us, we’ll pray.  Remember when Saul was converted on the road to Damascus?  How did the disciples know he really was a Christian?  They said, “Look! He’s praying” (Ac.9:11).  Prayer is the cry of the living child of God.   Prayer is how the child of God communicates with his/her heavenly Father.  It is how we enjoy communion with our Lord. 
But look.  Be very careful when you say you can’t pray aloud.  God has His own effective ways of getting us a-praying.  We can take either the easier way, or be faced with a much more difficult way.  But either way, the sheer blessedness of communion with our Saviour is worth it all.  To be in His presence, and know it, is a rare blessing.  To know that you and the Lord are actually speaking to each other – He through his Word to us, and we in our prayers to Him, is a blessing not to be missed.  To sit silently in His holy presence is both an uncomfortable thing and an encouraging thing.  To know “the love of Christ being poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who is given to us” – well, the only thing better than that is heaven itself (Rom.5:5).  To be filled “joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Pet.1:8), well, that’s amazing.  You just cannot describe what it’s like.  Words fail you.  It is so magnificent and awe-inspiring that language proves useless to tell what it’s like.
And when God visits you in some such way, then you’ll know spiritual delights that you never thought it was possible for you to know and experience.  

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Easter Rising

On this day that some branches of Christendom call Easter Sunday, it is so great to remember the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and Saviour of the world.  To think that apart from His sin-bearing love for the world, we’d all be lost and undone. 
And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
When Jesus died on Calvary, it wasn’t for any sin of His own, but for my sin, my vileness, my rebellion.  He died to take it away, which is what the Lamb of God came to do (Jn.1:29).  It is utterly amazing.  Charles Wesley got the import of what God did in Christ when he wrote “’Tis mystery all! The immortal dies, Who can explore His strange design.”  What an unusual way to redeem mankind!  How can the immortal die?  It baffles our understanding.  The eternal Son of God compressed into a human body, and then taking the full rigour of the law against us as God’s wrath was poured out on Him.  Why?  He did it for you and for me.  And He did it because He loved us.
That’s why we celebrate the resurrection of Christ every Sunday – resurrection day.  We meet to worship the resurrected Lord every Sunday.  This is the Lord’s Day.  And we rejoice in it. 
We also rejoice because given our mortality, when Christ died, death died with Him.  For believers death is dead.  Now that’s something to shout about, is it not?  Death has been defeated once and for all.  There is no fear in death because Christ conquered death.  And His victorious resurrection on the third day confirms that fact.  Death is defeated.  Death is dead. 
For the Christian, death is little more than the doorway through which we pass to get into His nearer presence.  But for the unbeliever, death is still the “king of terrors” (Job 18:14).  Even believers do not look forward to meeting this king, despite knowing that he has no hold on them.  But it is still not something we welcome, whenever and however it comes.  If it holds some fear for Christians, what must it not be for unbelievers?  It is “the king of terrors;” and as one old preacher added, “The terror of kings.”  Death frightens everybody, however high or however low they might be.  We have only ever met it second hand (in someone else’s death), but one day we will meet it personally.  For the believer it will be like meeting a chained animal, able to go so far but no further; for the non-Christian, he will meet it head on and be everlastingly destroyed by it.  It will not be a pretty experience.
But the Gospel brings us this tremendous assurance that death has died in the death of Christ.  It also assures us that when Christ was raised from death by the power of God, He signalled the final and eternal defeat of this last enemy, death. 
Therefore we celebrate what God has done for us in Christ.  It brings a “joy inexpressible and full of glory” into our hearts (1 Pet.1:8).  It fills our hearts with the deepest gratitude to God for “so great a salvation,” (Heb.2:3).  To think that the Lord Whom we have offended so deeply by our sin has found a way to forgive us and accept us as His children is utterly amazing.  To realise that when God looks at us, He sees us as clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, not as we are in our sins.  To recognise that God has found a perfect way to pardon us and still remain just and holy is mind-blowing.
I think the trouble with many of us is that we are far too familiar with the Gospel record that we miss the sheer thrill of what was done for us in and by Christ.  We need to sit down and allow these facts to sink in.  They are astounding.  We have lost the enormity of what God has done for us in Christ.  And our prayers reveal it!  We can thank God in mere words only, and no heart.  I think we need to discover how to utterly abandon ourselves to this Christ Who has done such astonishing things for such worms of the earth.  Only when we have abandoned ourselves to Christ will we see “what it meant for Him the holy One to bear away my sin.”
Perhaps, these few rambling thoughts will help us do that.  May it be so.
Margaret has had a good week, all things considered.  Her back pain is still quite acute and if this was healed, she’d be in very good form.  Her love for the Christ of the Gospel is deepening by the day, and how she loves to hear it preached with clarity and passion.  And how angry she becomes when such a glorious message is delivered in a lifeless way.  She shares Puritan Richard Baxter’s complaint of ‘the living word of the living God being preached by dead preachers to dead congregations.’  It is obscene, and both of us share that.
To hear her sing the old Gospel hymns in praise to the Lord is heart-warming.  And her concern for those known to her that are still dead in their sin is obvious.
You know, there is surely no better comfort when facing cancer than not just to know a few things about Christ or to have made a decision at sometime in the past, but to know Him experientially, know Him in the heart, and be assured of our sonship of God.  Knowing Him is much more than knowing about Him.  It is an intimate relationship with Christ that is spoken about, a relationship that is productive and deeply satisfying.  Margaret knows Christ in this way.  Do you?  What better comfort can anyone have than such knowledge!