Saturday, 1 September 2018

Be Still and Know

I get the chance to visit a lot of churches.  It is great to how God is working in many different churches and I have learned so much from other Christians.  I love the church and I am not arrogant enough to think that the one to which I belong has got it all right.  But one thing I feel is missing from many churches is a sense of transcendency.  

Now I accept that I am on the more traditional wing of the church (although hopefully not a traditionalist).  I'm all for vibrant joyful worship but I like my hands very firmly in my pockets rather than in the air.  I like worship that feeds my mind and moves my heart towards the transcendent God of the Bible, not some sentimental figure dreamed up by a few 20 somethings in a church in California.  I need worship that covers all the bases so I like to sing though all the themes of the Bible not just ones that make me feel better about myself.  I like to sing about the glory of God, faith in crisis, sin being an ever present reality and life being really tough so I gravitate to the best hymn book: the book of Psalms.

As a reformed Christian, I believe that the word of God expounded through the sermon needs to have central place in the public worship of God.  I like to come out of sermons feeling like I have met with God, that the preacher has helped me to see the force of God's word and how each part of the Bible brings me back to the glorious story of redemption.  I want to feel humbled, moved and, in the midst of all my sin and failure, loved by the only Saviour of the world.  I also need to be convinced that a preacher has first been moved by what he is preaching himself.  As Tim Keller's book 'Preaching' says in his chapter on 'Preaching Christ to the Heart' he says this;

If you want to preach to the heart, you need to preach from the heart,  It's got to be clear that your own heart has been reached by the truth of the text.  This takes a non-deliberate transparency.  Heart-moving preachers (in contrast to heart manipulating ones) reveal their own affections without really trying to. What is required is that as you speak it becomes evident in all sorts of ways that you yourself have been humbled, wounded, healed, comforted, and exalted by the truths you are presenting, and that they have genuine power in your life.

Preaching isn't about 'information takeaways' its about meeting with God as the Holy Spirit applies the word of God to our hearts.  It is different from lecturing.  It is 'logic on fire' not a well crafted essay read out word for word. This is why the prayer life of a preacher is so important.  As Keller says: If your heart isn't regularly engaged in prayer and repentance, if you aren't constantly astonished as God's grace in your solitude, there's no way it can happen in public.  You won't touch hearts because your own heart isn't touched.  This is why the spiritual walk of the preacher is just as important as the content of the sermonA sermon needs to touch and move the hearers to change, a process traditionally called application. As Keller says earlier in the book, A good sermon is not like a club that beats upon the will but like a sword that cuts to the heart. (Acts 2:37). At its best it pierces to our very foundations, analysing and revealing us to ourselves (Hebrews 4 v 12).

But its not all down to the preacher.  Listeners play a huge part.  In out rush to be 'missional' and 'contextual' (things I feel we passionately need), we have jettisoned the transcendency of worship.  We as listeners need to prayerfully prepare for worship.  This stuck me powerfully recently when I got the new Banner of Truth edition of The Westminster Confession of Faith, (which also contains the Larger and Shorter Catechism, the Sum of Saving Knowledge, the National Covenant, the Directory for Public Worship and the Directory for Family Worship).  You can order a copy here.  If you have never read these documents I would encourage you to do so.  I particularly find the Larger Catechism a huge help in in understanding the Bible.

The Directory for Public Worship was an attempt to bring some Biblical order to a time when the church had become very confused over worship.  It was after the reformation where the church had sought to reform after centuries of corruption and idolatry.  Worship had become sensual and man centred, a process that we are once again descending into in the 21st century church. 

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What is interesting is the plea for solemnity in the public worship of God which reads so strangely to our modern minds.  Listen to this paragraph on the 'Assembling of the Congregation, and their Behaviour in the Public Worship of God.'

When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having before prepared their hearts thereunto) ought to come and join therein; not absenting themselves from the public ordinance through negligence, or upon the pretence of private meetings.  Let all enter the assembly, not irreverently, but in a grave and seemly manner, taking their seats or places without adoration, or bowing themselves towards one place or another.  

Surely it is no coincidence that stillness and knowing God are inextricably linked.  Psalm 46 says 'Be still, and know that I am God,  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.'  It is when we still ourselves and come aside from the concerns of this word that we are better able to worship and listen to what God wants to say to us. Also check out Job 37 v 14, Psalm 4 v 4, 

I don't think church should be like a funeral.  I think there should be hearty welcome, especially for visitors.  I'm not against hospitality as people arrive.  But at some point, there needs to be silence, there need to be an acknowledgement that we are not at a football match, or a coffee morning, we are not at church primarily to catch up with our friends (nice as that is), we are here for something serious, life changing and transcendent.  That doesn't mean we need to create a hostile or austere environment but it does mean that there should be a stillness before the service and a reverence and seriousness throughout.  

Monday, 4 June 2018

The Slog of Despond

Its been a while since I've hosted a Guest Blog but I'm delighted that Dayspring Macleod, a freelance writer with a growing reputation was willing to pen some very honest thoughts about parenting.  If you want to read more of Daysprings writings check out her blog 'The Reliable Narrator' here.  Over to Dayspring:

I write for a Christian magazine, and each month the editor sends me an email asking for my column. Well, sometimes I’m ready for him and sometimes I’m still percolating an idea, but last month when I got his email I looked back in my mental files and thought: I’ve got nothing.

          Oh, it’s not that God hadn’t been speaking to me throughout the past few weeks. It had been a month of realising my weakness. Repeatedly.

          Like when the three-year-old was going through a period of particular defiance, coinciding with my own period of particular impatience, and the baby’s period of learning how to hit really hard. That was when I realised I need God’s strength to be a parent, and I need the humility of asking for help and advice and even criticism. There were days when my primary ‘thanksgiving’ was ‘thank you the day is over’.

          And when I realised that the renovations on our house are not going to take place as soon as I had hoped, meaning that I also won’t be going home to America as soon as I had hoped. That was when I realised that I need to submit to God’s plans, not try to push mine through.

          Incumbent on this was realising that I will only see my parents for four full days this year. My parents are getting older. So are my kids. The separation hurts, if possible, more every time we say goodbye. So I made a conscious decision to give thanks for the brief period we would have together rather than mourning the time we didn’t have. A resolution that went out the window the second they left for the airport.

          And then there were the long interruptions in the night when the baby was waking up for an hour each night with eczema. There was the almost complete lack of freelance work for weeks at a time. There was the discouragement and anxiety and feelings of helplessness when I saw people I’ve been praying for for years taking backward steps.

          There were the unanswered emails, the writer’s block, the lack of time and sleep, the repetition of housework, the conviction of sin and scariness of repentance, the worry, the failure.
          But enough about me…

          Just as I was writing out my litany of woes, I read an article pointing out that, in a testimony, Jesus should always be the subject of the story.

          Do you know what kind of story sees ME as the subject? A story with a God-shaped hole. One where ME is relying on her own strength to get through the parenting crisis, the worries, the exhaustion, the goodbyes, even the repentance. And since mine is not even a particularly hard life, just an ordinary life, I’m sure many of you have been to this place too. I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as a Slough of Despond. More a Slog of Despond. We’re just slogging along some months. We’re reading, we’re praying. We’re just not relying. We have faith that he’s there, just not faith that he’ll help.

          What if there was abundance? What if some miracle-worker came along one day and said ‘Excuse me, dear, that’s too heavy for you. Give it here – I’ll carry it. No, ALL of it – all or nothing!

‘Yes, goodbyes are hard…I’ll tell you what, would it help if you knew a day was coming when you wouldn’t have to do that again? And I know it’s scary not having work; but you’re a full-time mum. If you’re working all the time, when would you get to rest? I’ll take care of the shortfall, don’t worry about that.

          ‘It certainly is hard to see people you love struggling in life – but you’re not their provider, and you’re not their Holy Spirit. I Am. You keep talking to me about them, and if I want to use you in their lives, I’ll go with you, and I’ll give you the words. 

          ‘Too heavy for me? You want to take it back? No, this yoke is mine. Just remember one thing. Look for Me. If this is my burden, this is my story.’

Jeremiah 33:6  ‘I will…heal them, and reveal to them the abundance of peace.’

Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Red Sea Road

There are some days you will remember for the rest of your life.  The 27th February 2018 was a day that will live long in my memory.  Battling through the snow on the M8, after a long day at work, my phone went off.  I remember looking at the dashboard and seeing my sisters name and thinking 'Anna never phones my mobile'.  I should have known it was important.  When she broke the news that she had a tumour on her pancreas there was a sense of unreality.  Its almost like life suddenly stops.  Everything that seemed so important suddenly becomes really insignificant.  The future suddenly becomes a very uncertain and even frightening place.  That feeling hasn't really changed over the last few weeks.  Its hard to get very excited about a whole range of things that used to take up a lot of my time and energy.

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The last 8 weeks have brought many high and lows.  Initially there was hope that the tumour might be small and removable but sitting in a really bare and stark consultants office in the Royal Infirmary on 13th March we were told that it wasn't.  I guess I wasn't really prepared to hear the stark reality of the diagnosis.  I remember walking out and thinking how brutal it is to receive such life changing news with no support on hand.  Thankfully Anna's treatment has switched to the Western General and the staff at The Maggie's Centre have been amazing.  A friendly face in a non medical environment has been a massive help as we come to terms with the diagnosis.  If you want to do something at the moment please think of donating to a cancer charity but particularity Maggie's.

There were plenty of tears as we came to terms with the news, not least from me.  This is not the first time we have dealt with the trauma of cancer as a family and in many ways it makes it so much harder.  Trying to be a supportive brother, son, husband and father to 5 boys while coming to terms with an uncertain future is a whole new challenge but it has been an interesting journey over the last few weeks.  Friends and family have rallied round.  The best have grasped the difference between sympathy and empathy.  We don't need silver linings we just need authenticity.

A crisis of this magnitude helps you understand who you can turn to.  Amongst a few awkward moments there have been many remarkable moments of kindness, warmth and love.  My sister's church and Pastor have been everything a Christ centred fellowship should be, and while cancer is a lonely valley, she is surrounded my many loving friends and family.  After all, that is what empathy is, walking with somebody through the pain.  People keep saying to me 'I don't know what to say.'  That's OK - we don't need words at the moment as a family, we just need to know you care, that you are praying and that you are with us wherever we go over the next few months.  

Anna's 50th birthday party last week was a real tonic and Kirsteen did us all proud with the organising.  Having over 100 friends and family there was just wonderful.  It was a celebration of all that Anna loves: good food, the Scottish countryside, good friends and family.  There were a few talented musicians (and me).  We played all Anna's favourites like The Dark Island, Calum's Road and, of course, Wild Mountain Thyme.  Anna's pastor Phil Hair spoke very movingly of the congregations love for Anna and prayed beautifully before everyone sung Anna's favourite Psalm, Psalm 121.  Anna was genuinely overwhelmed with all the cards and presents and would like to say a huge thank you to all of you.  James has written a special piece of music for Anna's 50th entitled 'Anna' - you can enjoy it here.

Just after Anna's diagnosis was confirmed I was preparing to preach on Ruth chapter 2.  For some reason the enormity of the situation hit me while listening to some Christian music and 'emotion flowed'.  I had been preaching a few weeks earlier on Ruth 1 and how Ruth was most likely converted through the quiet dignity of Naomi and how she dealt with the loss of her husband and two sons.  I thought I was very clever in calling my series 'Three Funerals and a Wedding - God's Faithfulness in Testing Times'.  It suddenly struck me like a train that God knew I would be preaching through Ruth when Anna received her diagnosis.  Little did I know that my preaching on God's faithfulness would be tested in real life circumstances.

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I'm not a huge fan of contemporary Christian music but I recently listened to Ellie Holcomb's album Red Sea Road. The first track is about finding God in the most unlikely places and is entitled 'Find You Here'.  I guess it sums up the last few weeks pretty well.

It's not the news that any of us hoped that we would hear
It's not the road we would have chosen, no

The only thing that we can see is darkness up ahead

But You're asking us to lay our worry down and sing a song instead

And I didn't know I'd find You here

In the middle of my deepest fear, but

You are drawing near
You are overwhelming me, with peace
So I'll lift my voice and sing
You're gonna carry us through everything
You are drawing near
You're overwhelming all my fears, with peace

You say that I should come to You with everything I need
You're asking me to thank You even when the pain is deep
You promise that You'll come and meet us on the road ahead
And no matter what the fear says, You give me a reason to be glad

Sometimes it is in our deepest need and fear that we find God.  Don't we see that so clearly in the book of Ruth?  As Naomi and Ruth dealt with trauma and tragedy we see the theme of God's loving kindness coming through so clearly.  In such a beautiful story of ordinary, country folk, God was weaving an incredible story of redemption.  As Sinclair Ferguson says about the story of Ruth, God was 'quarrying for diamonds' in the midst of trauma and tragedy.  

It's times like this that really test your theology.  As Christians we believe that God not only knows the future but he also foreordains all that comes to pass.  We believe that God is good and that in the middle of our pain, He is working out His purposes for His glory and our good.  We also believe that whatever is ahead of us over the next few months God is faithful and steadfast.  Anna knows that great truth from 2 Corinthians 4 v 16 'So we do not loose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.'  This is the great hope of the Christian, this life is not the end but the beginning of an eternity with Jesus who died to that we might live for ever.

What we need more than anything at the moment as a family is your prayers, your love and some really practical stuff which people have very freely offered.  I guess Anna has supported lots of people over the years and now, to a great or lesser extent, we need to carry her through this experience.  As you probably know with pancreatic cancer, eating is not easy which makes social occasions a challenge.  Please don't bring or send food at the moment.  She also gets tired easily so please understand if she can't respond to all the lovely cards, texts and messages you have sent.  She is incredibly appreciative of them all but simply can't respond to them all.

The road ahead feels daunting.  I am so thankful I/we are not walking along it on our own.  We have a Saviour who has promised to be with us and never forsake us.  In many ways it feels like a 'Red Sea Road'.  God's people have crossed many red sea roads over the last few thousand years and as Elle Holcomb has put it:

We will sing to our souls
We won't bury our hope
Where He leads us to go
There's a red sea road
When we can't see the way
He will part the waves
And we'll never walk alone
Down a red sea road

We are thankful that God's grace helps us to walk roads we thought we could never walk.  He has promised grace for each day.  

Much as I love music I always come back to the Psalms with have been the strength and comfort of God's people through many tragedies and crisis.  Psalm 143 v 6-8 has been a particular comfort at this time.

 6  Lo, I do stretch my hands
       To thee, my help alone;
    For thou well understands
       All my complaint and moan:
    My thirsting soul desires,
       And longeth after thee,
    As thirsty ground requires
       With rain refreshed to be.

 7  Lord, let my pray'r prevail,
       To answer it make speed;
    For, lo, my sp'rit doth fail:
       Hide not thy face in need;
    Lest I be like to those
       That do in darkness sit,
    Or him that downward goes
       Into the dreadful pit.

 8  Because I trust in thee,
       O Lord, cause me to hear
    Thy loving-kindness free,
       When morning doth appear:
    Cause me to know the way
       Wherein my path should be;
    For why, my soul on high
       I do lift up to thee.

Please continue to remember us as a family as we walk through this valley over the next few months.  Anna has started her chomo this week and we are so grateful that everyone has rallied round with lifts.  We are so thankful that as we walk through this particular valley we have the Good Shepherd with us and that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.  

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Wings of Refuge

I've been doing a small series at Livingston Free Church called 'Three Funerals and a Wedding - God's Faithfulness in Testing Times.  You can listen to the sermons here.

This morning we looked at Ruth 2 under the title of 'Grace and Gratitude'.  Among various points I spoke about the 'wings of refuge' in verse 12.  Ruth and Naomi had come to Bethlehem full of grief, in utter poverty and without hope.  In a patriarchal society they had both lost their husbands and therefore their protection, income and future.  As we see right throughout Ruth the Covenant God loves the stranger and the widow and graciously takes them under his care.

We often find the imagery of God being like the eagle.  In many ways this sums up the whole theme of the book of Ruth.  An isolated grief-stricken widow comes under the care and protection of the Covenant God of Israel.

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The eagle imagery is used frequently in Scripture.  In Exodus 19 v 4 we read: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself.’  The imagery is of the strong eagle redeeming the Children of Israel by grace.  Interestingly the prequel to the Ten Commandments was all about God's grace towards his people so the idea that there is no grace in the law is wrong.  There is no grace to save in the law but God gave his laws in love to protect his people from sin and disobedience.  The whole context of Ruth is about God's covenant laws that protected and provided for the poor (Leviticus 19).  The whole reason Ruth gleaned in the field was because of God's law of love that obligated farmers to leave some of their harvest for the poor.  Boaz went far beyond the law in terms of his love an generosity and showered Ruth with blessing.  He is a picture of the grace and love that the ultimate kinsman redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, will shower on his people.

We see the eagle imagery used again in the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 v 11 ‘Like and eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him.’  We see this beautiful imagery about God’s love for his people in that chapter when God says: ‘he kept them as the apple of his eye.’  There is a strong emphasis on God's individual love for his people.

We see this imagery of wings used in the Psalms.
Psalm 17 v 8 ‘Hide me in the shadow of thy wings, from the wicked.’
Psalm 36 v 7 ‘how precious is thy grace! Therefore in shadow of thy wings men’s sons their trust will place.’
Psalm 57 v 1 ‘Yea in the shadow of thy wings my refuge I will place, until these sad calamities do wholly overpass.’
Psalm 63 v 7 ‘In shadow of thy wings I’ll joy, for thine my help hast been.’

What do God’s wings demonstrate?  Well they certainly demonstrate safety, refreshment, stillness, help, rest and hope  Isn’t that just what Ruth needed?  This frightened, vulnerable widow with no sense of belonging finds rest under the wings of Jehovah the covenant God – a God who loves the poor and the stranger.  She is offered a place at Boaz table, a beautiful picture of acceptance and community.

Is that what you need today?  Shelter under the wings of the Lord.  God’s love for Ruth was personal not general.  As St Augustine says "God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love."  God loves outsiders, outcasts, strangers, the lost, the broken and the filthy.

He loves to cover sinners under his wings of love.  As A.W. Tozer said in a similar vein to Augustine; 'Jesus Christ came not to condemn you but to save you, knowing your name, knowing all about you, knowing your weight right now, knowing your age, knowing what you do, knowing where you live, knowing what you ate for supper and what you will eat for breakfast, where you will sleep tonight, how much your clothing cost, who your parents were. He knows you individually as though there were not another person in the entire world. He died for you as certainly as if you had been the only one. He knows the worst about you and is the One who loves you the most.'

Saturday, 17 February 2018

God is Stranger

I don’t know what its like in your house, but meals are pretty important in our house.  We have 5 boys ranging from 4 to 18 so we go through a lot of food on a weekly basis.  

In our house meals take place around our kitchen table.

But we don’t just eat around our table, we make memories.

Recently we celebrated by oldest son, James, 18th birthday around that table.  My parents and my sister came around and my sons new girlfriend sat around our table for the first, and I suspect not the last time.

I’ve written application forms for jobs on that table, we’ve organised our finances around that table.  Pictures have been drawn on that table, inventions have been created, sermons have been written, important conversations have taken place, big decisions have been made.

We have laughed, we have cried, we have argued, we have debated, and we have prayed, at times, some desperate prayers around our kitchen table.

Most of all we have welcomed strangers around our table.  Relationships have been made that have lasted for years.

The table, and the meals we enjoy are so much more than wood and food – lasting memories have been made, relationships have been formed and we hope, we have come to see Jesus a little more clearly as a result of those meals.

Meals are important in the book of Luke.  Tim Chester says in his book A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community and Mission around the Table: ‘In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.’

And that’s what we have in Luke 24 - we have three strangers gathered around a table, sharing food.  Two of them, Cleopas and his friend, start the meal broken and blind but leave with bursting and burning hearts.

Firstly we notice that two on the road to Emmaus were broken, Their dreams have been completely shattered.  Notice their disappointment in v 22 ‘But we had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.’  

How often do we have our hopes disappointed? 

Maybe like these disciples you’ve invested everything into a relationship only to be let down badly.

Maybe a job hasn’t worked out, maybe a church has let you down, maybe you have a dark secret you’ve never told anyone – whatever it is you feel broken.

Maybe you prayed for healing but your prayer wasn’t answered in the way you wanted.

Maybe you’ve begged Jesus to show up in your own ‘Road to Emmaus’ – a place of brokenness and disappointment but He never showed up.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a time when you were sure God was going to come through but in the end, He didn’t, at least in the way you wanted Him to show up.

As Krish Kandia says;

‘Sometimes it’s easier to believe in a God who never heals than to believe in one that does but won’t. Sometimes it’s easier to believe in a God who doesn’t intervene than to believe in one that does but hasn’t.  Sometimes its easier not to raise our expectations because there is less distance to fall when it all goes wrong.  Sometimes it is just easier to go home, shut the door and forget all about the God who has gone elusive on us, all the promises that evaporated.’

These disciples has seen their hopes dashed.  Their hero was dead.  They were hopeless, broken and alone, except for a stranger who had turned up uninvited.  

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Secondly, as well as being broken, we also see that the disciples were blind.

Isn’t it amazing that in all their brokenness, when Jesus himself drew near in v 15 we are told that ‘their eyes were kept from recognising him’.

The incredible thing about the disciples on the Road to Emmaus is that Jesus was there all the time, walking with them but they couldn't see him.

Isn't that our own experience?  Often when God feels like a stranger, that is when He is nearest.

Remember in Gen 16 how the Lord met Hagar in the desert.  He approaches as a stranger when she was in desperate need with nobody to turn to.  Eventually Hagar called the well ‘Beer-lahai-roi’ – ‘the well of the living one who sees me’.  As a slave she had been invisible but the Lord sees her for who she is – He then gives her hope and a promise.

Remember in Genesis 18 when Abraham was camped at the ‘oaks of Mamre?’  Three strangers turned up and Abraham offered them hospitality.  Eventually one of them tells him that he will be back in a year by which time he will have a son. It was what theologians call a Christophany.

It also happened to Jacob, Gideon and to Daniels three friends in the furnace.  God turns up unannounced and (at least initially) unrecognised.

Why does God sometimes do this?  Why doesn’t he just appear and reveal himself and explain exactly what is happening?  Could it be that God sometimes wants us to wrestle with some tough questions about who He really is?  Isn't this why Jesus probes them rather than immediately offering them comfort?

We see this in Gen 28 when Jacob has a dream and suddenly awakes and says: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’

Could it be that like these disciples we are so close to Christ yet miss him entirely?

Jesus is striking at the heart of the problem for so many of his disciples.

These disciples were familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures but had failed to understand the central message that Christ, the Messiah would die and be raised to life.

So much of the Christian church uses the Bible like some kind of text book but fails to understand its central message, the good news of Jesus for the stranger, the outcast and the marginalised.

As Kirsh Kandiah says; ‘it is possible to love the Bible but miss its message. It is possible to know the Scriptures but miss the Saviour.  Jesus points out to both the disciples and Pharisees alike that taking the Bible seriously should help us recognise Jesus in the stranger.’

We are never more Christ like than when we show love to a hungry, thirsty and underfed stranger.  Of course they need so much more than love - they need the gospel, but in showing love we point them to Jesus who alone can save them.

The big question for all of us is ‘have we seen Jesus?’  Do we see him as a great prophet or do we see him a Saviour and redeemer?

The disciples were hungry for more systematic Bible study, so they compel this stranger to stay with them and share a meal.  Is is the simple act of hospitality that they start to see Jesus clearly.

Thirdly and lastly we see disciples with burning hearts.

Given the priority of meals in the Gospel of Luke, it is not surprising that Jesus makes himself known through a shared meal.

Jesus takes the bread and breaks it and suddenly the two hosts recognised Jesus for who he truly is.  Some commentators wonder of the two friends looked at Jesus' hands as he broke the bread and saw the marks of the nails.  We can't say for sure but the brokenness and blindness is gone and instead we read in v 32: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road, ‘while he opened to us the Scriptures.’

Jesus had been there all along but they were so broken and blind they couldn’t recognise him.

Suddenly the Bible makes sense as Cleopas and his friend see the Old Testament through the mission and identity of Jesus Christ.

Jesus used meals to be socially disruptive – he knew that eating with outcasts, and the marginalised was a way of demonstrating social acceptance – table fellowship.  Eating in Jesus time was highly stratified – Jews wouldn’t eat with Gentiles, there were all sorts of Levitical food laws.  

As Tim Chester says ‘…meals expressed who were the insiders and outsiders.  Jesus turns all this…inside out.  Outsiders become insiders around the table with Jesus.’

Again, and again Jesus teaches that our welcome of others is the litmus test of our relationship with God.   How do we respond to the stranger who is hungry, homeless, thirsty, in prison, homeless, isolated, penniless and hopeless?

How do we respond to the sinner who, like the Prodigal Son, makes choices we don’t agree with?  Do we show them love and compassion as they seek refuge?  Or do we sulk in the garden and bring shame on our father?

You see it was as these disciples sought to bless a stranger that they were blessed.

This is what characterised the early church: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship. To the braking of bread and to prayer…And all who believed were together and had all things in common’ Acts 2 v 42

What changed the world in the first century was the good news of the gospel coupled with reckless, revolutionary hospitality and love of the stranger.

This is what God calls us to today.  Our world is more divided that ever before.  The time is ripe for us to respond to God’s call to show radical hospitality and show people Jesus through the simple sharing of food of very ordinary tables.

When we do this, we see a glimpse of a future worth longing for, where there will be no more strangers.  Heaven, will be the great weeding feast, when everyone will finally be equal and where we will all see Jesus clearly.  

As Krish Kandiah says; ‘The hospitality we show now. Sharing our lives with the needy, gives the world an enticing taste of what is to come.’

That is one table I am looking forward to sitting at.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

2017 The Good, the Bad and the Utterly Amazing

The Good

As an old man with five increasingly strapping offspring, I love nothing more than talking about how fast time flies.  Everything seems to be getting faster and more frantic these days.  Daniels words in Daniel chapter 12 v 4 seem very apt; 'many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall increase.'  In a frantic world we desperately need to slow down and reflect on the past and think about the future.

This year, if we are spared, my ever patient wife and I will be celebrating 20 years of marriage and I will be officially entering my mid-late 40's.  How did that happen?  A few days ago my small army of children were screaming and shouting on Bayble Beach where it feels like only yesterday Kirsteen and I were sitting and chatting the night before our wedding which took place in the wee Bayble Mission House in 1998.  She is like a fine wine that gets better with age and she has lost none of her Island charm and beauty.

For the first time in 8 years we find ourselves up in Lewis over Christmas.  The last time we drove up we had 4 children including a 6 month old baby, a Jack Russell from South Lanarkshire with an attitude problem (no major developments in that department) and we drove up through 6 inches of snow at about 4am in the morning to get the ferry.  The tactful Cal Mac guy at the car park in Ullapool said 'your 5 minutes late' seemingly oblivious to the worst weather conditions in decades.  Over the last 20 years Lewis has always been like a haven.  A place to recharge and refocus after a busy time at work.  I'm still missing my trips to Point but gradually adjusting to the big smoke of Stornoway.

Last year has had many highlights.  It is a joy to see my boys growing up to be young men. Like all siblings they fight and scrap but generally they are a pleasure to be around and love each other dearly.  The two oldest boys in particular dote on their wee brothers and I love seeing the wee ones snuggle up to James and Calum for stories in the evening.  The boys are very resilient and generally are very content with what they have.  There are many wonderful moments as a parent where you get to drop some reassurance into a child's life or give them a hug when they least expect it.  

Highlights last year were taking my boys to see some great music and, as always, getting to some great shinty games.  Calum and I sped up to Killin in June to see the amazing Tidelines and a slightly larger posse made the trip to the Best of the West Music Festival in September to see Argyll's brightest new band Heron Valley and the incredible Skippinish.  It was great to see my boys play in a senior match for the  'dubh is gorm' (Lewis Camanachd) despite being hammered at Kilmallie.  It is wonderful as a parent to be a 'memory maker' and so often with kids it is the journey rather than the destination where the memories are made.  David and I have great times at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum on the way up and back to shinty games.  James and I also had a great day at the 'Beast Race' in Inverness in September and Kirsteen and I were delighted with his profession of faith which I wrote about here.

A couple of small but significant things happened in the last 12 months.  Around Easter time we started a Celebrate Recovery group in Livingston Free Church.  It has been a real roller coaster ride but it has been a privilege to journey with a small group through their brokenness and recovery.  I feel blessed working alongside a dear brother from Elim Pentecostal Church in Livingston and we have a great unity in the gospel.  I think the best word to sum our discussions around the Bible are 'authentic'.  There is a reality in the recovery community that I have rarely come across in any other circles. I am constantly humbled by the brutal honesty of the members of that group.

Another small change I made in May/June 2017 was to go completely gluten and dairy free.  It's amazing how this has changed my life in all sorts of ways - from going out to restaurants to visiting people.  I have also given up beer and whisky which I should have done a long time ago.  My waistline is much smaller than it was and I spend a huge amount of time studying ingredients!

Two big highlights stand out over the last year.  The first was the Skye Shinty Camp.  For years I have wanted to organise and run a camp where kids could enjoy the amazing sport of shinty in a good environment where they can also hear about the good news of the gospel.  It finally happened in July/August this year.  Almost half the camp had little or no church background which made it very challenging but all the more rewarding. You can read about all the ups and downs here.  Amazingly the emotional scars have healed quickly and plans are well underway for next year.

Another highlight of last year was celebrating a certain lady's 40th birthday.  I could write a short book on my negotiations with the behemoth that is the Dalmahoy Country Club but the night went off well with Kirsteen surrounded by close family, good food and music.  The setting was beautiful and was a suitably special occasion to mark 40 years of a remarkable woman.  We never know what is ahead of us so family occasions are so precious.

The Bad

As I look back over the last year I made the classic mistake of pushing through exhaustion for weeks and months towards the end of the year.  I had to cancel my October holidays for various reasons and fully intended to take the time back but it just never happened.  Despite decades of hard lessons that I am not Superman, I thought I could work long hours, speak most weekends, be out most evenings and somehow everything would be still standing at the end.  As has happened so often before, my family and particularly my marriage suffered.  I forgot that while relationships are resilient, they are also fragile and need to be nurtured and treasured.

I've been enjoying Bill Hybels book 'Simplify' recently.  It has been a word in season to me.  Two of my top five strengths or traits are 'responsibility' and 'arranger'.  This basically means I feel incredibly responsible for everything and constantly take on too many responsibilities!  I find it hard to say no.  While this can be exhilarating when I have energy, when I get depleted, what Hybels calls 'toxically depleted', the results are not pretty.  As Hybels points out in his book the two biggest traits of being depleted are irritation and resentment.  Over the last few weeks I had both of these traits in spade loads.  I tend to withdraw further and further into myself and quite happily avoid time with family while all the time making very legitimate excuses.  

This quote from Hybels hit me like a bus;

Sometimes, people derive a disproportionate amount of their self-worth from being over achievers.  They keep doing and doing, thinking that what matters most is the end product not the process.  Sometimes, people feel an undercurrent of guilt for taking time to do things that fill their buckets, as if somebody will judge them for having fun or for spending time doing something for themselves rather than for others.  This is especially true of those who work in compassion related fields.

The result was I started the Christmas holidays with full blown flu and complete exhaustion.  But often when God flattens us he reminds us of our frailty and utter dependence on himself.  The last two weeks have been a time to kick back, rest and refill a very empty bucket.  I've been thoroughly enjoying getting to grips with my new ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible.  Space and time to read, pray and listen to God have been a life saver.  Reconnecting with Kirsteen has also been critical.  Being around somebody and being present with someone are two very different things.  

This blog post entitled 'Fighting for your Wife' was another word in season for me.  Most of us only get one marriage.  We will have lots of jobs and will probably attend several churches, but we have one marriage and we need to fight for it.  Great marriages don't just happen, we need to work hard at communication and affection.  When you have kids you need to fight for time with each other with so many competing priorities.  I've resolved to love my wife better in 2018.

The Utterly Amazing

Last Sunday morning in Stornoway FC  we were treated to a great on sermon on Matthew 13 v 24-33 on the 'little leaven that leavens the whole lump'.  Often leaven is used in scripture to describe the widespread and insidious effects of sin, but in this passage it is used very positively.  It is incredible to think with all our flaws and failings that God still chooses us to build His kingdom in this earth.  Leaven or yeast is such a minor and insignificant ingredient and yet it can and does have a transformational effect in baking.  As we go into into a New Year my prayer is that I am used more in his kingdom to bring transformation and change in my family, in my church and in wider society.  I need to remember I am not Superman, I need rest, I need recreation and I need to keep my family close.  It is when I drift from the Lord that I get my priorities all wrong.  I can only stay focused if I stay close to the Lord and His word.  

I was reading a few days ago in 2 Chronicles 34 about the reforms of Josiah and I was greatly struck by verse 27; 

because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes, and wept before me.  I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 

My prayer is for a tender and humble heart to serve the Lord in 2018.  What is your comfort and hope as we start a New Year?  Who knows what is ahead for any of us.  God is offering you the greatest gift of his son the Lord Jesus Christ.  I am sustained by the amazing fact that God loves me and gave himself for me.  As J.I. Packer says in Knowing God; 'What matters supremely is not the fact that I know God but the larger fact that underlines it - the fact that he knows me.  I am graven on the palms of his hands (Is 49 v 16).  I am never out of his mind.'  What a great thought to take us into a new year.