A seamless life

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Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139:23-24

In my last post I mentioned The Verses Project. For the last 10 weeks the focus has been Psalm 139, and today I’ve been enjoying the final instalment which covers verses 23-24.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading and hearing a similar message from several different directions, and it concerns the importance of my heart condition and the need to actively search my heart and protect my heart. I’ve been thinking about what it means to live a life of integrity, ensuring that there is no room for disparity between my inner and outer life.

The more I think about it, the more I realise how often we try to maintain some kind of pretence in our lives. We work so hard to convey the right external appearance to the outside world; we are remarkably good at hiding the way we really feel about things; we worry about how others will perceive or accept us. Now, I’m not suggesting we should all be bearing our souls to just anyone and everyone, but I think we could find greater freedom and joy by ensuring our inner and outer lives are seamlessly connected.

After all, it’s very tiring trying to hide something or keep up an appearance. And the condition of our hearts will always manifest itself eventually in what we do and what we say.

Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Matthew 12:34

I’ve been following the current sermon series at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church on the theme of making good decisions (This or That: The Secret to Making Great Decisions). Two weeks ago Scott Scruggs was speaking about regret and the legacy of previous bad decisions. He spoke about the importance of having relationships in which we can be absolutely honest and ask each other difficult questions. Here’s a transcript of part of the sermon that impacted me particularly:

“I used to meet with a good friend of mine for breakfast every week. We literally went through a list of
really significant questions about our lives, really difficult questions, questions about money and sex and
relationships, questions that were difficult to answer honestly. The most important question was always
the last one. We would ask each other at the end of the conversation, “Did you lie about any of the
previous questions?”
I had to be honest. There were times where I had to say, “Yes, I did. I left out a detail. I avoided telling
you this part. I kind of made this thing sound a little better than it actually was.” Do you guys know what
I’m talking about? You see, we Christians love telling people, “Oh yeah, we’re broken. Oh yeah, we make
mistakes,” but what we really want to do is name about 10 to 20 percent of what is really going on just so
we sound normal but so we don’t have to really dig into where we feel deep fear, shame, or
embarrassment.
Sometimes it’s okay. If you go talking about your deepest, darkest secret at every dinner party, you’re not
going to have any friends, but on the other side of that, there is a really important truth here, and it’s this.
There should be nothing in your life that at least one person doesn’t know. There should be nothing in
your life that at least one person doesn’t know because God can’t redeem your past until you own up to it.”

In the same series, the sermon from John Ortberg last week featured a description of the 12 Steps programme at the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous. Steps 4-7 of the programme are as follows:

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

That’s the essence of Psalm 139:23-24.

I’m praying for God to help me live a life of integrity, with no things that are hidden or covered up. Search me, O God!

Keep your heart with all vigilance for from it flow the springs of life. Proverbs 4:23

Let your eyes look directly forwards, and your gaze be straight before you. Proverbs 4:25

 

Hiding God’s word in our hearts

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In recent weeks I’ve been challenged to start memorising God’s word in a systematic fashion. During Lent I read a resource from Open Doors about life as a Christian in North Korea. It made me think how unbelievably blessed I am to have such easy access to the Bible, in multiple formats and translations, in my own language. I’m ashamed that I take it so much for granted.

It also made me think how I would fare in a place where it was illegal to own a Bible. One of the safest places to keep the Bible would be in the mind and heart!

The writer of Psalm 119 talks of how he has hidden God’s word in his heart, or in the ESV translation:

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Psalm 119:11

If I will do the work of committing God’s word to memory, he can bring it to my mind just when I need it. I’ve discovered that the process of getting the words and phrases to sink into my mind makes me look at certain verses in a new light, or notice small details that I would have overlooked. Having verses from the Bible buzzing around my neural networks can work on my heart, even when I’m doing other things or falling asleep! I’ve been surprised by how it is eminently possible to memorise extended portions of the Bible – I’m currently committing the book of Philippians to memory using a technique described in the first resource below.

Here are a few resources that are making my memorisation challenge easier and more enjoyable:

1)  An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture, Dr. Andrew Davis (Kindle link here)

This short book sets out a technique for memorising longer sections of scripture. It’s not rocket science, but it’s helpful. There’s also a helpful and motivating introduction that explains the benefits of memorising the Bible.

2) The Verses Project

This website is the work of a collaboration of creative and gifted people who are committed to helping Christians memorise God’s word. Each week there is a new section to memorise, complete with a musical rendition of the verses and visual art that can be downloaded, printed or just appreciated online. Parts of the Bible are tackled in a systematic way, building week on week.

3) Scripture Typer

This is an free online resource and pay-for app (currently priced at £3.99, available on iOS, Android and Kindle Fire) which allows you to learn Bible verses and then test yourself on them by typing them out (first letters of each word only) or viewing flash cards. Being a rather competitive soul, I love this! You can choose from a selection of pre-loaded themed verses or choose other sections of the Bible.

So, do you already memorise Bible verses? Or do you feel prompted to start?

Are there other resources or techniques you’ve found helpful?

Something greater is needed…

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We’ve reached the end of the Nehemiah study with SheReadsTruth and the challenge today is to consider the way that the book of Nehemiah ends. The city of Jerusalem and its walls have been rebuilt, the temple has been rededicated and the people have worshipped God enthusiastically and vowed to keep his law again.

Nehemiah returns to his old job in the service of the king in Babylon. Some time later he discovers that all is not well in Jerusalem. The people have been neglecting their offerings to the Levites, so the priests have been forced to abandon their work and return to their fields; the Sabbath has become just another regular working and trading day; the men of Judah had married foreign wives from the surrounding pagan nations, and their children couldn’t even understand Hebrew (so they would have no chance of being able to understand the word of God). Tobiah (him again!) has been given a room in the temple by one of the priests (a relative) and he’s using it to store his household furniture!

Nehemiah is very angry.

He does some chasing and chastising and cleansing and even some hair pulling!

Even at the end of the book, when he’s reclaimed the temple back for God and reinstated the priests, the reader is left with the feeling that things are unlikely to continue to go well…

So why does the book end in this way?

I’ve considered three possible reasons:

1) God wants to show us that this pattern of enthusiasm followed by complacency and backsliding will always be a risk for his people whilst they live in a fallen world. Whilst we’re sin-prone humans, we will continue to mess up. We easily forget, we look away from God’s face, we get distracted by the shiny things in the world around us.

2) God wants to show us our need for Nehemiah-types. We need people who will stand up against wrongdoing and complacency in the church and get angry and pull some hair! We need to be called back by prophetic voices and shaken up when we’re wandering in the wrong direction.

3) Most of all, I think the message of Nehemiah is like the message of all the other books in the Old Testament. It’s the recurring story of all the heroes of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Kings. We need something greater. We need a greater Moses, a greater Joshua, a greater Joseph, a greater David, a greater Nehemiah.

We need somebody greater.

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem before the Passover, he enters the courts of the temple and finds them to be full of people trading, swindling and robbing the poor in the name of religious effort (John 2:13-22).

Jesus is very angry.

He does some chasing and chastising and cleansing and even some whip cracking!

Jesus promised to rebuild the temple of his body in three days when it was destroyed. This claim was misquoted against him in his trial before his crucifixion. When Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. He came to finish the work, to remove the yoke of atonement-by-law-keeping from his people. When he died, it was finished.

The message echoing through the pages of the Old Testament is the need for a permanent solution to the perpetual problem of sin. Jesus comes to provide this permanent solution.

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Romans 3:19-25a

Remembrance

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been following a study series on the book of Nehemiah from SheReadsTruth. In the last two days we’ve reached the section where Nehemiah and his fellow workers have successfully rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and they have gathered together in order to hear God’s word read aloud. In chapter 8, Ezra reads God’s law to the people, standing on a wooden platform they have built for him. A group of Levites go amongst the people, helping them to understand what the words mean. The people listen attentively for several hours and then respond whole-heartedly to what they hear with weeping and mourning. They are convicted of the ways they have broken God’s laws and rebelled against him. However, Ezra and Nehemiah assure the people that the focus of the day is on renewal and celebration, not mourning:

“Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

In chapter 9, the Levites pray to God on behalf of the people and their prayer is preserved for us in Nehemiah 9:1-37. This prayer contains a description of the ways that God has dealt faithfully with his people and the ways that they have acted wickedly in return. The thing that strikes me as I read this section is just how many times God patiently and mercifully forgave his people and how generously he provided for them. Their repeated acts of rebellion and sin stand in stark contrast to the way God dealt with them.

This made me think about the way I feel when someone appears ungrateful or rude when I’ve tried to be helpful or kind. It’s a strong emotion that is provoked. As a sinful human, the emotion I feel is always tinged with some self-righteous selfishness and pride, which I do not have the right to feel. But our holy God is perfectly righteous and it is altogether appropriate for him to feel anger at our sin and holy jealousy for his own name and honour. His sorrow is pure and untainted and his heart is grieved.

I once heard it described in this way: God’s people have treated him in the same way as a child who sits on the father’s lap and slaps him in the face. A shameful image. And yet God is so patient and merciful with his people. He is so patient and merciful with us.

Jesus was subjected to humiliation and shameful abuse when he went to the cross for us. He died in order to provide a permanent solution to our fatal sin problem. I think it is so helpful to reflect, like the Israelites did, on where we have come from and what God has done for us. A sober evaluation of the ways we have sinned and rebelled against God can be an antidote to pride. Only when we have a correct understanding of just how far we were from God and what it cost him to save us, can we fully understand the joy that is ours.

“For you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.” Nehemiah 9:33

“Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.” Nehemiah 9:5

Encouragement

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Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down,
    but a good word makes him glad.

Proverbs 12:25

Ooh, it’s been rather a long time since I posted! Sometimes I think we need seasons of time away from a project or activity and then our energy and inspiration can be renewed. I’ve been pretty busy on a number of projects, including my series on the Minor Prophets (which you can find on Dave Roberts’ Partakers site here) and I’ve also been exploring some different approaches to prayer. There’s a lot to be learned from some of the contemplative practices which are familiar to many monastic traditions. I may share some more about that in the coming weeks…

The thought I wanted to share today is about encouragement. Yesterday I was feeling a little despondent about something I was working on and I reckon Satan was having a go at discouraging me in an attempt to make me give up. Yesterday evening I received a message from a friend about this very same project, which was so encouraging and up-lifting.

God uses us to encourage each other.

If you have any sense at all that God is prompting you to encourage another believer, just do it! 🙂

Good Friday

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One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’  Luke 23:39-43

This small section of the crucifixion narrative is only found in Luke. In the other gospels, the two criminals crucified with Jesus are mentioned, but only Luke includes this brief exchange between Jesus and one of the criminals. This is a moment of unexpected hope and beauty in the midst of the horror of that day.

Even in his state of utter humiliation and suffering on the cross, there was still something about Jesus that made an impact on the wretched man hanging next to him. We don’t know anything about this man – who he was, or what he had done to deserve execution. We don’t know whether he’d ever encoutered Jesus before that day. But somehow, during the agony of those hours on the cross, he becomes convinced that Jesus really is the King of the Jews, the King of Heaven, the King of the world.

In his dying moments, this man makes a statement of confession and a request for forgiveness to Jesus. The words that Jesus utters to him are filled with comfort, hope and certainty –

‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’

What started out as the worst possible day in this man’s life, and in fact, the last day of his earthly life, is transformed in an instant into the first day of his eternal life. Jesus is giving his life for him. The Saviour dies next to the sinner he saves.

The two criminals are powerful pictures of the two responses to Jesus. One rejects him, the other accepts him. One is lost, the other is saved. Nothing more is needed than to recognise the need for salvation and to ask Jesus for it.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Charlotte Elliott (1835)