Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A Shipwrecked Saint

The story of the USS Indianapolis is one of the untold stories of World War II.  On July 27th 1945 the ship left Guam and sailed for the Leyte Gulf through the Philippine Sea Frontier.  Despite VE Day being announced in Europe – the war in the Pacific raged on.  Little did the sailors on the USS Indianapolis know that the strange crate they had just delivered to the B-29 Superfortress base in Tinian was the components (including uranium 235) of the atomic bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki quaintly named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’.  With no destroyer escort, the huge USS Indianapolis had no sonar to detect enemy submarines.    

To compound matters, the United States command centre for the Pacific (CINCPAC) did not inform Captain McVay that the Japanese Tamon submarine group had been patrolling the very route the ship was to take.  They had sunk the USS Underhill just days earlier.  CINCPAC was desperate to hide the fact that they had deciphered the Japanese codes through their ULTRA program and randomly withheld information from US ships to bluff the Japanese.  The ship sailed in the ‘Yoke-Modified’ position – with doors and hatches open completely unaware of what was about to happen.

On the evening of July 29th, on a calm night, sailing due west at 17 knots, the Captain gave the order to ‘secure from zigzagging’ a technique to avoid torpedoes.   Little did the crew know that deep below the surface 105 crew in a Japanese submarine called I – 58 were stalking the unsuspecting USS Indy.  Just after midnight Captain Hashimoto of I-58 gave the order to fire 6 torpedoes.  The fist torpedo ripped the front of the boat off with the second one hitting midship exploding the ammunition magazine.  Deep below deck was a 21-year-old Christian called Edgar Harrell from Kentucky.  Year later he wrote an acoount of the disaster called 'Out of the Depths'.  Standing on the deck of the burning ship he writes;

Eternity was before me.  And in the midst of my fear and helplessness, I cried out to God in prayer. Anyone who has ever experienced a similar situation will understand what I am to say: There are times when you pray, and times when you pray!  This was one of those latter times.  No one offered to help me because no one else could help me. I was alone – or so it seemed.  But as I reached out in desperation to the Saviour of my soul, He suddenly made it clear to me that He was going to be the Saviour of my life. There was no audible voice.  Something far more comforting suddenly given to me. An unexplainable and ineffable peace enveloped me like a blanket on a frosty night…

For four days, perhaps as any as 600 sailors and marines bobbed about in shark infested waters watching helplessly as colleagues succumbed to dehydration, madness and exhaustion.  Scorched during the day and frozen during the night – the number of survivors dwindled hour by hour.

Men prayed like I never heard men pray. With inconsolable grief each man who was able to talk poured his heart out to God.  With swollen tongues we did our best taking turns to pleading with God for deliverance.  And before one could finish, another would interrupt with his supplications.

In Psalm 77, we see the Psalmist responding to tragedy, or a series of tragedies with a prayer.  He struggles with deep despair and anxiety as all of us will at some time in our life.
We may not be shipwrecked or lost in the ocean but all of us sooner or later will face storms.  We may face what those sailors faced; hopelessness, despair, isolation, trauma, betrayal.

The Bible doesn't shy away from these issues.  We see the subject of spiritual depression and despair in the Psalms (42, 88), in Job, in Jacob, Moses, Hannah, Jeremiah and in Elijah.  Proverbs says; ‘The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?’ ch 18 v 14 and ‘A man’s spirit can endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?’  ESV.  The illness of the mind is even worse than the body.  It is a reality that we see in the Bible and we will all face to a greater or lesser degree.  As one pastor says; 

The Psalms treat depression more realistically than many of today’s popular books on Christianity and Psychology.  David and other psalmists found themselves deeply depressed for many reasons.  They did not, however, apologize for what they were feeling, nor did they confess it a sin.  It was a legitimate part of their relationship with God.  They interacted with him through the context of their depression.  Steve Bloem

So what can we learn from this Psalm?  Let's notice firstly;

1.  A Shipwrecked Saint
The Psalmist is in distress of soul.  His distress is loud, late and long.

a) A loud cry
This is not some small complaint.  The Psalmist is affected mentally, emotionally physically and spiritually.  He cries aloud in verse 1.  His distress has erupted, it has overflowed,  He can’t bottle his emotions any longer.  What are some of the feelings of depression?  Sadness (self and others)
·         Worthlessness
·         Anxiety
·         Panic
·         Self-hatred

We see these mirrored in Psalm 77;
·         v 2,3,4 troubled, unable to be comforted, insecure, scared, inconsolable.
·         Overwhelmed, full of anguish v 3
·         Isolated, cut off from God v 7

b) A late cry
The Psalmists lament was in the night.  Edgar Harell says in his little book that ‘Without light you are unable to see anything including the horizon.  The blackness of the night wraps itself around you with an infinite darkness, causing a surreal disorientation and profound isolation.’  Depression eventually affects our physical behaviour. 

Crying, weeping, sobbing
·       Emotional instability or fragility
·       Groaning
·       Sleeplessness – ‘in the night’
·        Inability to speak
·        Inability to pray

Perhaps the Psalmist was weeping when everyone else was in bed.  Perhaps he found the long dark nights the worst.  It brought his feelings of despair into even sharper focus like the the writer of Ecclesiastes;  'For all his days are sorrows and his travail grief; ye his heart, taketh not rest in the night.' Ecc 2 v 23

c) A long cry

The Psalmists distress in not a passing feeling.  It was long, sustained and comprehensive.
We aren't told where the Psalmists depression comes from and we need to be careful in our diagnosis.  It can have physical, emotional and spiritual causes.  We must be very careful not to always think there is a spiritual cause to depression.

As Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones says;
Many Christian people, in fact, are in utter ignorance concerning this realm where the borderlines between the physical, psychological and spiritual meet. Frequently I have found that such [church] leaders had treated those whose trouble was obviously mainly physical or psychological, in a purely spiritual manner; and if you do so, you not only don’t help. You aggravate the problem.

Most of us can bear temporary trials, but when they are long and appear to never end, then we are tempted to despair.The Psalmists distress affected his relationships, it affected his sleep and it affected his faith.  The Psalmist thinks on God, but there is no comfort, no sweetness, no joy.  The thought of God makes him groan.  As Hendry says; ‘When he remembered God his thoughts fastened only on his justice, and wrath, and dreadful majesty, and thus God became a terror to him’.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t think of God but he could only see certain aspects of God.  He despairs of ever experiencing Gods love and favour again.

Does this describe you?  Are you passing through deep waters?  Is your lament loud, long and late?  Do you feel shipwrecked by the events of life?  Let’s look at how the Psalmist responds.

2.  A Silent and Searching Saint v 4-9

a)    The cries are silenced v 4
Either through exhaustion or through mood swings, the Psalmist goes from crying aloud to silence.  Calvin suggests he was so ‘choked with calamities’ he couldn’t even speak.  Some things in life are beyond words.  Grief is often so painful we can’t even articulate the pain.
Perhaps this was why Eli couldn’t hear Hannah – her lips were moving as she poured her heart out to God but no sound was coming out – I Sam 2 v 13.

b)    Looking back v 5,6
The Psalmist thinks on former times.  In his depression the Psalmist was focussed on himself, his troubles and his affliction.  Now he seeks to consider the past – ‘the years of ancient time.’ v 5 (Geneva).  He remembers happier times when he sang in thankfulness.
V 6 ESV ‘Then my spirit made a diligent search.’  As Calvin says God would have us search our hearts when adversity presses upon us, and it is perversely stupid to refuse to do so.  The Psalmist seems to be going from a state of passive distress to a state of active enquiry.

c)  Searching out 7-9
He asks these desperate questions in verses 7-9.  The Psalmist gropes in the darkness for answers.  He is like Christian and Hopeful in Doubting Castlein Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress;
"What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom called Promise that will (I am persuaded) open any lock in Doubting Castle."  When we are in despair we turn to the promises of God.  The Psalmist asks in v 7 (Geneva) ‘Will the Lord absent himself forever?’  or in the ESV ‘Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable?’  Paul answers that question in Romans; 'Hath God cast away his people? God forbid' – Romans 11 v 1.  The Psalmist says; ‘Surely the Lord will not fail his people, neither will he forsake his inheritance’ Psalm 94 v 14.  His aim was not to undermine his faith but to encourage it.  He asks these questions to seek out the God who he had enjoyed in the past.  As Calvin says In our trials, let us ask the same question, ‘Has God changed his nature so as to be no longer merciful?’ The prophets and fathers also prayed, in wrath remember mercy’ (Hab 3 v 2).  When we are distressed, we need to apply the word of God more than ever.

3.  A Saved Saint v 10-19

a)  A breakthrough v 10
Suddenly the Psalmist stops in verse 9, he pauses - Selah.
The psalmist is beginning to see light again. 
He diagnoses his condition – I see what is wrong with me!
 V 10 Geneva ‘And I said This is my death; yet I remembered the years of the right hand of the most High.
He appeals to ‘the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.’

b)  New Thinking v 11
There is a new confidence – ‘I will remember.’
The Psalmist starts his recovery by thinking differently.
What we can find though is that depression causes us to think in unhelpful ways.  We perceive events and experiences in a certain way which may reflect but also contribute to depression.
•           False extremes – Job 13 v 24, 33 v 10
‘Why do hide your face and count me as your enemy?’
‘Behold he finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy.’
•           False generalisations – Jacob Gen 42 v 36
‘Everything is against me.’
Joseph was gone, Simeon was in prison and they wanted to take Benjamin.
•           Turning positives into negatives – Jonah 4
‘It is better for me to die than to live’.
•           False should’s and ought’s – Martha Luke 10 v 40-42
            Martha was distracted with much serving.
Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone?
Victim or martyr mentality
‘Martha, Martha you are anxious and troubled about many things but one thing is needful.’
•           False responsibility – Moses Num 11 v 14-15
‘I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me.  If you will treat me like this, kill at once, if I find favour in your sight, that I many not see my wretchedness’.
‘While we often cannot change the providences we are passing through, we can change the way we think about them so we have a more accurate and positive view of our lives, thereby lifting our spirits’. David Murray

c) Past Deliverances
The psalmist persevered through his distress and his questions, until he eventually begins to focus on God once again.  As John Calvin says;  ‘With new found courage, the psalmist firmly grips the memory of God’s past favours’.

Two things comfort the psalmist;
i)  That God’s way is in the sanctuary v 13

As the Geneva/AV says ‘Thy way is in the sanctuary.’  The psalmist can’t understand the trials he is passing through, and he can’t understand the depths of his despair but he is comforted that God’s ways are in the sanctuary – they are beyond our comprehension.  God’s power and holiness are what sets him apart as God.  His holiness is perfect and his power is infinite.  God is not afflicting us out of some perverse pleasure.  He is not the divine watchmaker who stands back and watches his people suffering while he is helpless.  He is holy and pure in his character, therefore all his dealings with his people must be for their good and his glory.  God’s way is not among men – his way is in the sanctuary of heaven.

As Asaph begins to think on God he breaks forth in adoration v 13.  As he focuses on God’s attributes he is comforted.  He starts to see God for who he is – not the parts he saw in his depression.

b) That God’s way is in the sea.
God’s ways are compared to the deep sea which cannot be fathomed. 
He is a god like no other God v 13.  He is God of almighty power.  God’s deeds stand as records of his power in history.  The Exodus in v 15 when God rescued and redeemed his people – the children of Jacob (the covenant) and Joseph (preservation).  The Psalmist also sees God's power in the parting of the Red Sea v 16 and the destruction of Israel’s enemy’s v17.

The power of the sea has led many to feel helpless and hopeless but the Psalmist embraces the God who has power over the elements.  The same God who calmed the storm can calm the storm in the life of the Psalmist.  As Dr Guthrie once wrote; 'We seem sometimes to forget, when we cower down before the tempest, and look before us with a fearful eye on the mighty billows that are rolling on. We seem to forget what the sailor boy said ‘my fathers at the helm’.

4.  A Secure Saint

The psalm ends rather abruptly with this reference to Moses and Aaron leading God’s flock.
Moses had of course been a shepherd for his father in law Jethro and was the shepherd or leader of the Children of Israel.  Aaron of course was their High Priest.

The people needed direction and they needed acceptance with God.  This was the job of the High Priest – to offer up sacrifices in the tabernacle for the sins of God’s people.  By the end of the Psalm it would appear that the Psalmist knew something of the direction and feeding of the good Shepherd.  He felt secure.  He may have been in the valley of the shadow of death but he was now grazing beside the green pastures.  Is this Psalm surely not pointing forward to the Great Shepherd who offered himself up as a once for all sacrifice for our sins?  The one who was ‘despised and rejected by men: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,’ Isaiah 53 v 3.  Jesus was no stranger to sorrow and anguish.  He never doubted God was in control but he still felt real sorrow, real sadness and real grief. 

How much more than Asaph can we go to our High Priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses – who is touched with a feeling of our infirmities.  Heb 4 v 15

We have seen a shipwrecked saint, a silent and searching saint, a saint saved and a secure saint.  As soon as Asaph started meditating on God; his attributes and his deeds, his fears vanished.  It might not be quick for all of us.  But this Psalm helps us to see and understand that when the storm comes, we have nothing to fear.  Whether we are shipwrecked, abandoned or distressed, God is in control.  And God is able to save in the most remarkable ways.

On the fourth day of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis – when all hope was gone a Lockhead Ventura PV-1 bomber was flying overhead at 3000 feet.  Due to a problem with a weighted antenna sock falling off, Ly Chuck Gwinn was flying overhead and noticed an oil slick.  Dropping to 300 feet he suddenly broke radio silence ‘ducks on the pond’.

The Pacific Ocean is 63,780,000 square miles.  The chances of spotting these men were a billion to one – God saved in answer to prayer.  Yes depression and anxiety will be the reality for every Christian – but God hears, God answers and God delivers.  Psalm 77 gives us great hope that when we least expect it God can deliver in the most remarkable way.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Reforming Worship

This is an article written by my father Rev John J Murray in January 2016

Reformed Theology and Reformed Worship are one

The conflict over worship today manifests itself in what have been called ‘the worship wars’. In many church buildings you witness a platform with a plethora of musical instruments. If you check out the order of service  you will find that more time is given to so-called ‘worship’ than to the reading and preaching of the Word of God. You may hear people say ‘We had a time of worship and then we had a message from the visiting speaker’. Is this a sign of spiritual health? Have we made progress in the last twenty years? Or is it a mark of the lack of genuine spirituality and a question of filling a vacuum?

Has the time come for another reformation?  For Calvin it was the issue of worship that necessitated the 16th century Reformation. He said: ‘The primary rudiments by which we are wont to train those whom we wish to win as disciples of Christ , are those; viz, not to frame any new worship of God for themselves at random, and after their own pleasure, but to know that the only legitimate worship is that which God himself approved from the beginning’. In his tract entitled On the Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin speaks of ‘the whole substance of Christianity that is a knowledge first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained’.

What is required to recover true Biblical worship? There are certain basic considerations:

 1 True worship is directed wholly to God

‘Worship’ is a transitive verb. It demands an object. Everybody worships some thing or somebody.  Everybody has an altar and every altar has a throne. The question is who is on the throne? What is highest in our lives? What do we value most? The highest object ought to be the triune God. We come to this God and we ascribe His worth.. We make a response to God and we have a passion for God. He must be the sole object of our worship. (Exodus 20.3)

The worship of the Reformers and the Puritans cannot be understood without the high vision of God contained in the Bible and in their Confessions of Faith. The restraint which marked Puritan worship sprang directly from much humble meditation on the inexpressible glory of God’s being. They were  drawn to delight in this glorious God and His image was reflected in them.. Dr J I Packer makes a comparison with them and us:  ‘The experimental piety of the Puritans was natural and unself-conscious because it was so utterly God-centred, our own (such as it is) is too often artificial and boastful, because it is so largely concerned with ourselves.’ (Among God’s Giants, Eastbourne, 1991, p283)

2 True worship is centred in the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven
For Calvin, Christians ascend into heaven while worshipping. Worship  draws the Christian into heaven in communion with the ascended Christ. Our Mediator descended in the incarnation to lift us up to heaven. ‘He has entered ‘into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us’ (Heb 9.24). Believers are seated with Christ ‘in the heavenly places’ (Eph 1.3). They are united to Him. They have an entrance into the Holiest through Him and their persons and offerings are accepted in Him. He leads the praise of His brethren for ‘he is not ashamed to call them brethren , saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee’ (Heb 2.11-12).

But that is not all.The Church that is in the heavenlies is also on earth. Paul writes to ‘the saints which are at Ephesus and to the faithful in Christ Jesus’ (Eph 1.1).  They have two locations.They are a colony of heaven. They are the Body of Christ on earth. The link between heaven and earth is Christ dwelling in the believer and in the Church by the Holy Spirit. As Calvin observes, the enthroned Christ helps us heavenward as His Spirit descends to empower the Word and sacraments of the Church. ‘Such is the weakness of our minds that we rise with difficulty to the contemplation of his glory in the heavens.’ The Hebrew Christians were hankering after the glories of the old Levitical system. They were forgetting the greater glory - the glory that surrounds our High Priest in heaven. God is the glory in our midst.

3 True worship is dependent upon Spirit-inspired truth

We all need to ask why our worship is not more uplifting and transforming? The response  of many is to try to make worship more pleasing to the senses. The tendency even among some Reformed Churches is to make services more user-friendly and so be a means of winning converts.  But the question needs to be asked: What have these changes done so far to inspire holy living, to give a hunger for the Word of God or to arrest falling numbers in churches?

Worship expresses our theology. W Robert Godfrey says that Calvin would have insisted that those who think they can preserve Reformed systematic theology  while abandoning a Reformed theology of worship are wrong. (The Worship of God, Mentor, Fearn, 2005,p 49). The two go together. Salvation is all of God and so too is worship. Reformed worship like Reformed doctrine is God-centred and God-directed. The late Dr William Young declared  ‘Man’s will may contribute nothing more to God’s worship than to God’s plan of salvation, and it is no accident that will-worship and rejection of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone flourish together’.  (Worship in the Presence of God, Greenville, 1992, p 80).

The true public worship of God is counter-cultural. To make people feel at ease is not its purpose. It is that they may sense the presence of the living God. The teaching of I Corinthians 14.23-25 is rather overlooked today. The Spirit who inspired the truth is the One who can make the means of grace efficacious to sinners. Words spoken by T E Peck in Columbia, South Carolina in 1884 are worth pondering. He refers to those who resort to the devices of human wisdom ‘instead of humbling themselves before the Holy Ghost in earnest prayer for his quickening which alone can make any ordinances efficacious for salvation..The true glory of Christian worship consists in the presence and power of the Holy Ghost and without the Holy Ghost,  all our paraphernalia of  “long drawn aisle and fretted vault” of painted windows and “ dim religious light”, of symbols of lamb and dove, of pealing organs and what not are but the paraphernalia of a corpse lying in state. It is a vain attempt to conceal the reality of death’ (Quoted by Iain Murray  in To Glorify and Enjoy God, Banner, 1994, p191).

May the Lord intervene in His mercy to reverse the trend!. As Terry L Johnson says ‘The way we worship today will determine the shape and substance of our piety for generations to come.’

Friday, 15 January 2016

Everyday Hero

What makes a good father?  As the father of five boys most people seem to think I have this particular question nailed.  I don't.  But I do spend a huge amount of time thinking and praying about it.  Over the last 16 years I have made a lot of mistakes, shed a lot of tears and had the privilege of a very patient wife and five long-suffering sons who still love their Dad (even when he messes up).  I also talk to lots of other Dads who struggle with all the same issues I do; juggling all the pressures of work, family and church, trying to pay the mortgage while always trying to nurture our own relationship with God.  I've written before on my own upbringing and reflections on my own father in 'Reflections of a Forty-something Father' which you can access here.

Obviously our parenting style is heavily influenced by our own parents.  I had a really happy childhood but it was overshadowed by the death of my sister, Lynda in 1980.  You can read about my reflections here.  Watching my parents cope with this trauma taught me a lot about resilience and faithfulness in difficult times.

A few other things stick out in my mind that helped me form my own view of parenting.  One was when I was out in America in 1992.  My Dad was ministering in Detroit but we had the chance to travel around.  We visited some friends up in Lamont called the Lannings.  I remember being incredibly impressed with Ray and Linda and how 'normal' their kids were.  As a family they loved Jesus, they had fun, they loved sport, they were involved in their community and they all seemed to get on as a family.  I guess it felt very 'holistic' or 'joined up'.  I remember, as a 19 year old, chatting to Linda about raising kids and she said something I never forgot.  She said that she had agreed with Ray, before they even had kids, that they would parent in such a way that they would enjoy their children and wouldn't have to spend their all their time disciplining and correcting them.  This meant setting down the ground rules early, communicating expectations and then covering everything in lots of love and prayer.

For us, this means putting family worship, at the centre of our family life every day. Reading the Bible, prayer and singing the Psalms introduce a whole set of values to my boys on a daily basis. Most importantly they learn about Jesus, the greatest example who ever lived.  People seem to think that worshipping as a family is really difficult.  But it doesn't need to be.    This year we have been reading through Kevin De Young's 'The Biggest Story - How the Snake Crusher brings the Garden back to Life'.  It is beautifully illustrated by Don Clark and is made up of short chapters that take you through the whole Biblical story. We are also using Tim Keller's new book 'My Rock My Refuge' which is a lovely meditation on the Psalms.  Either would be a great place to start worshipping together as a family.  We've also really enjoyed the 'Jesus Storybook Bible' by Sally Lloyd-Jones for the younger kids.

I'm a great believer in bringing up boys to be boys.  I encourage my boys to play shinty, football, attend army cadets, get muddy and occasionally have a wee scrap (they can almost take me when they jump me at the same time).  I try and keep them off the xbox and other devices as much as possible and make sure they treat their mother and brothers with respect. Most of all I want them to grow up knowing and loving Jesus.  We have that great promise from Proverbs 22 v 6 'Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.'

I hope (and pray!) that my boys look on me as some kind of example albeit a very imperfect one.  I guess I would love to be their hero - maybe not a super hero but I would just settle for an everyday hero.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Analysis Paralysis - Living Purposefully in 2016

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ Lamentations 3 v 22-23.

As most of us crawl through our first week back after the Christmas holidays, its a good time for reflection and change.  It is so easy to drift through life wasting time and having a lack of purpose.  I'm reading through John Hayes book 'sub-merge' at the moment and he talks about 'analysis paralysis' among Christians.  I was struck by something he said about the blind man in John 9.  His disciples took part in what Hayes calls ‘analysis paralysis’.  Hayes says; ‘Jesus sidestepped the counterfeit debate and recast the negative scenario as one of hopeful opportunity.  The issue, He said, was neither the man nor his parents; the issue was that God wanted to reveal His power to the blind man.’  Hayes continues; ‘Jesus was, and is so different.  He simply reached out and touched the man.  It was embarrassingly simple: Jesus acted.  Christ committed Himself to a ministry of compassionate presence, not dispassionate distance.' 

I want to make 2016 a year of 'hopeful opportunity'.  Some of the changes I am making is to read more.  I've taken up Tim Challies 'Avid Reader' challenge and hope to read a book a week.  We are also going to give ourselves as a family much more to hospitality on a weekly basis.  If you are eating anyway why not invite others to join you?

I found these 10 questions from Kevin de Young really challenging. You can read DeYoung's answers here and mine are below.

1. Am I spending time slowly reading God’s word and memorizing Scripture? 
I had a look at various Bible reading plans towards the end of last year but I'm sticking with my tried and trusted M'Cheyne Bible reading plan. It is normally 4 chapters per day and lets you read the New Testament twice, the Psalms twice and the Old Testament once.  I find I can usually read it while travelling on the train in the morning although more recently I've enjoyed listening to the Bible on my new kindle fire.  Memorisation is a challenge but surely a necessity if we want to store God's word in our heart.  I think keeping a journal can help with this.  There are lots of reading plans available here.

2. Am I having consistent, focused, extended times of prayer, including interceding for others? 
No.  I long to pray in a more focussed way.  This year I am keeping a journal so I can write down prayer request and answers.  Finding time and peace and quiet are a challenge but something I need to wrestle with.

3. Am I disciplined in my use of technology, in particular not getting distracted by emails and blogging in the evening and on my day off? 
Again a real challenge for me.  It is easy to get lost on facebook or in online news sites.  In terms of blogging I'm keen to blog more often this year.  I'm hoping to put aside Tuesday evenings for this.

4. Am I going to bed on time?
I'm better than I used to be but too often its nearer 12 than 11.  Can they not put Newsnight on a bit earlier?

5. Am I eating too much? 
Apart from falling off the wagon over Christmas I'm now wheat and dairy free.  This has helped my eczema and my waistline.  I'm fairly committed to 12 stone but my wife is a very good cook!  Marmite crisps are my downfall.

6. Have I exercised in the last week? 
I've got the option of 5 a sides on a Tuesday, walking 2 miles from work to the station every night and shinty on a Saturday.  Hopefully between the different options a get a wee reminder each week of how unfit I am.

7. Am I patient with my kids or am I angry with them when they disobey or behave in childish ways?
My answer is pretty similar to DeYoung on this - you need to ask my kids.  I also find the winter much tougher with the kids not running off much energy.  I've made the decision to preach much less in the coming year and we try and keep Tuesday and Friday nights as well as Saturday and Sunday as family days.

8. When at home, am I “fully present” for my wife and family or are my mind and energy elsewhere? 
With five boys it's easy to seek refuge in the converted garage - 'I'm just watching the Channel 4 News!'.  If I'm being totally honest I can bring the problems of work home with me and I need to work at being 'fully present'.  As anyone with young children will know, parenting is incredibly rewarding but it can also feel like a long dark tunnel.  As our kids get older, and as the older ones can babysit (please James) my wife and I are now committed to getting out at least 2 Fridays a month. 

9. Am I making sermon preparation a priority in my week or am I doing other less important things first?
Unlike DeYoung I'm not a minister so perhaps not so relevant.  My only commitment to preach is once per month in my local prison.  I want to do this much better than over the past year.  I hope to work through 'Encounters with Jesus' by Tim Keller.  Apart from that I've decided only to preach in my own local church with perhaps 1-2 exceptions.

10. Have I done anything out of the ordinary to cherish and help my wife? 
This is a good reminder to be much more 'intentional' (terrible word) about this.  I probably need to ask my wife more about what makes her feel cherished. 

DeYoung makes a great point that our faith is all about grace and not works.  No amount of 'performance' will bring me any closer to the Lord.  God does, however, want us to bear fruit and lots of it.  By living our lives in a purposeful, organised and accountable way we can achieve more for God's glory and His kingdom.  Let's make 2016 a year of action not paralysis - redeeming the time not wasting it.  Let's be known for a ministry of compassionate presence not dispassionate distance.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

God's loving kindness in tragedy

I recently preached in Stirling Baptist Church on Ruth and the Brokenness of Family Life. You can listen to the sermon here.  The following blog post is a summary of what I said.

I was recently at a course on the 'Power of Storytelling'.  It was a great course and it proved that our brains are wired to respond to stories rather than large amounts of data.  As one of the facilitators said 'storytelling is data with soul'.  Surely this is why God has given us so many great stories in the Bible?  Through these powerful stories God doesn't want us to understand dry data but living truth and exciting doctrine.  He uses rich and powerful stories to teach us eternal truths which point us to our need of Christ.

There can be few more powerful stories than Ruth in the Bible.  It asks some of the big questions like; Where is God in all the suffering around us?  Where is God in death?  Can God still be in control when there is so much evil and chaos all around?

Perhaps, like we often ask in Bethany Christian Trust , you are asking, how does God want us to respond to
the poor?
 to the destitute?
 to the refugee?
 to the widow?
 to the hungry?

These are the questions that are asked and answered in the story of Ruth. 

There can be few Biblical stories more relevant to Europe in 2015 that the story of Ruth;

 A couple face the stark choice of bringing up their family in the midst of a natural disaster (a famine).  They give up everything and travel to a strange country.  They arrive disenfranchised, powerless and with nothing but what they can carry.

While away in this strange land, the tragedy turns into nightmare as Naomi stands at three open graves.  With no tears left to cry, Naomi returns to her homeland bereft, alienated and lonely.

How many millions of people are experiencing what Naomi experienced in this book?

As the church seeks to respond to the challenge of our age, what can we learn from Ruth?

We can look at Ruth chapter 1 under 3 headings.

1. Rebellion

a)  When the Judges ruled

Chapter 1 begins with the words ‘in the days when the Judges ruled’.

What kind of days were they? The last verse of Judges 25 tells us. It was a time of chaos, rebellion and apostasy.

The covenant God Jehovah had promised blessings for his chosen people when they came into the promised land. These blessings were dependent on their faithfulness to God’s law.

Deuteronomy 28 promises that God will bless the people of Israel;

And the Lord make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord swore unto thy fathers, to give thee.  The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, even the heaven to give rain unto thy land in due season, and to bless all the work of thine hands: and thou shalt not lend unto many nations, but shalt not borrow thyself.  And the Lord shall make thee the head. and not the tail, and though shalt be above only, and not beneath.   Deut 28 v 11, 12, 13.

God had laid out the requirements of his people very carefully but they had rebelled.

Doesn't that sum up Scotland today?

We are living in a time of national rebellion.

We see this in family life don’t we?

·        The CSJ published a report in July 2014 stating that while 62% of 15 year old boys in the UK had a smart phone butonly 57% lived with their fathers.

·        1 million kids had lost contact with Grandparents as a result of separation and divorce.

·        Family breakdown cost the country £50 billion per year

·       By the age of five, 48 per cent of children in low-income households are not living with both parents, according to Government data.

We are a nation in rebellion against God.  He is judging us for our unfaithfulness.

b) Looking for help in the wrong place

The book of Ruth tells us that Bethlehem (House of Bread) was now a place of famine and desolation.  Instead of turning back to the Lord, Elimelech and his family turn their back on God.  They travel to Moab. Elimelech means 'my God is King' while Naomi means 'pleasant'.  They were Ephrathites – from the area of Ephrath or Ephrathah – now Bethlehem.  These were true Hebrews – they would have known the law of God.  But Elimelech took his family to Moab – a people God had forbidden Israelites to have anything to do with.  The  Moabites had refused to give Israel food and water in their wilderness journey (Deut 23 v 4).   Balak, King of Moab, called for Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 23 v 7).  God commanded the Israelites; ‘Do not have anything to do with the Moabites or the Ammonites in all your generation, forever (Deut 23 v 3)

Elimalech had heard God’s voice in providence, in the famine, and he had also heard God’s voice clearly through the law.  So why did he disobey?

Elimelech was addressing the wrong problem.  The problem was not the lack of bread – the problem was the lack of a right relationship with God.  There had been famines before and God had raised up Joseph to respond to that famine (Psalm 105 v 16-17).

The famine wasn’t the issue it was the rebellion that was the issue. 

Isn’t this the problem with our society?

So often we are addressing a whole range of issues when the fundamental issue is a spiritual and moral one.

What Scotland needs more than anything else is a spiritual and moral revival. 

No amount of social work intervention can ever stem the tide of family breakdown, abuse, domestic violence and intergenerational poverty.  Social workers do a heroic job in incredibility difficult circumstances with increasingly limited resources. Of course we need to help people in crisis but fundamentally we need to build a stronger and more caring society and that can only happen through the gospel.

It will only happen as churches in Scotland live out the gospel in their community – touching broken lives and stemming the tide hurt and pain through grace and love.  Only Christ can ultimately heal our broken nation.

2.  Return

a) A change of name

The time that Elimalech and Naomi spent in Moab became a nightmare.

As strangers in a strange land Naomi lost not only the bread winner, but both her sons – she had no living fruit from her womb.  The sons left two widows – Orpah and Ruth.  We see three widows in a patriarchal society with no assets and little hope.  As Iain D Campbell says;

The family had left Bethlehem-Judah and they had come to Moab expecting to find great things; instead all that they found were broken hearts and broken dreams, and sore experiences under God’s hand.

What good could possibly come out of this tragedy?

How could God be at work in such devastation?

Naomi is numb with grief as she says in Ruthe 1 v 13 and 20 – 21.

Naomi is not saying ‘the Lord has embittered me’ or ‘I am very bitter’.  Rather she is saying ‘I have experienced bitterness.’

In the midst of tragedy Naomi did not embrace atheism but rather anchored herself in the God of the Covenant.

b) A change in circumstances

We see in v 6 ‘the Lord had come to the aid of his people.’  Naomi hears that the famine had come to an end and prepares to ‘return.’  Just like the Prodigal Son, while she is in the far country people in Bethlehem are feasting.

Often we see in scripture that words that give signals.  'Return' is used 10 times in chapter 1

Return or go back – v 6, 7, 8,10,16, 22
Return home – v 11, 12
Going back – v 15

This Hebrew word 'shub' is used again and again to illustrate that Naomi and Ruth weren’t just going back to Bethlehem – but they were also returning to God and his covenant grace and mercy.   This was more than a journey for Ruth it was a spiritual transformation as we see in verses 8 – 18.  Orpah returns but how does Ruth respond?

Where you go I will go....

This word ‘return’ is running like a melody line throughout the whole story.  God is at work in the midst of tragedy.

This isn’t just a journey – it about turning back to God, it is about returning to his grace, it is about coming to faith.

Here we see God starting to work out his purposes.  This tragedy was used by God to bring a heathen Moabites to trust in Jehovah.

We see in the passage that all the women wept.  Orpah perhaps wept because she had left Moab and wanted to return.  Naomi wept tears of regret because she had gone to Moab ‘because the Lord’s hand has turned against me’ v 13.  Her decision (along with Elimalech) had brought down the judgement of God.  Ruth wept tears of joy because she had a new life, a new path and new people.  She no longer worshiped the gods of nature – she worshipped Jehovah.

Don’t you see God’s hand as we look back at this story 1000’s of year later?

Out of death God brings life.

As Sinclair Ferguson says It is a gospel secret that death is the way of life.

Think of the death of Stephen – stoned to death.  Yet this was the means to awaken Saul.

3  Redemption

Finally Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem.  The city was ‘moved’ or ‘stirred’.

How did God provide for these widows?  What provision was there in the Biblical economy?

Will the Lord answer Naomi’s prayer of verse 8?

a) The law of love for the poor

We often think of the Old Testament laws as harsh and cruel.  But God’s law actually expressed his love, particularly for the poor.  Leviticus 19 v 9-10 and 23 v 22 commanded farmers not to exhaust their crop but to leave it for those in need.  Everyone within the compass of God’s covenant – the haves and the have not’s had provision.  This was the law of grace – the rule of a bountiful father.

The Bible shows us again and again that God is interested in the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  God is concerned for justice for the oppressed and mercy for the needy.  Provision is made for Ruth by good laws from a gracious God.

Notice Ruth’s willingness to work.  Work gives people purpose, dignity, confidence and self-esteem.

b) The ties that bind

Notice also that in God’s providence help is to come through the family.  Ruth gleans in the field of a relative of her father in law – Boaz.

After her first day of harvest she brings back around 30lbs of barley.  See the surprise of Naomi in Ch 2 v 19.  You see what God is saying: ‘Naomi rebelled and came back empty, Ruth put her trust in me and has come back full.’

It was no accident that Ruth gleaned in Boaz field.

Boaz was Ruth’s guardian redeemer or kinsman redeemer.

Boaz showed Ruth kindness or hesed ch 2 v 20.  This word hesed is used 250 times in the O.T. – it means God’s loving kindness.  As Sinclair Ferguson says;

It [Hesed] means God’s deep goodness expressed in his covenant commitment, his absolute loyalty, his obligating of himself to bring to fruition the blessings that he has promised, whatever it may cost him personally to do that.

You see, through all the darkness, death and tragedy, God’s hesed was at work.

Ruth eventually marries her kinsman redeemer (Boaz) and they have a son called Obed, who has a son called Jesse who has a son called David.

As Ferguson says;  What God was quarrying out of the suffering of these two women was nothing less than his purpose to bring his Son into the world in Bethlehem.

God not only provided bread in Bethlehem but he went on to provide the Bread of Life.

The line of Jesus came through gentile woman with a Jewish mother in law.

What is God’s purpose in Naomi, Ruth and Boaz?  He was quarrying for diamonds.

By the end of the book they had all experienced God’s hesed.

The story began with no king in Israel
·        It led to a day when there was no bread in Bethlehem
·        A dark night when there was no children in her family
·        Now this covenant keeping, all sufficient God, Yahweh and El Shaddai, has given her a grandson, and within a few generations will give Israel it’s greatest king.

Do you know this King?  Have you come to know the ultimate Kinsman Redeemer - the Lord Jesus Christ?  This King who loves the poor and the marginalised?

‘Praise be to the Lord who this day has not left you without a kinsman redeemer.  May he become famous throughout Israel’ (ch 4 v 14).

Let's make our Kinsman Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, famous in Scotland.