Nothing to add

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I am sure you, like me, watched in disbelief as Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was engulfed in flames.  My husband and I had our wedding in Paris and so we felt personal sadness to see this iconic landmark so badly damaged.

There was a particular poignancy that the fire happened a week before Easter and so photojournalists competed to get the perfect picture of the inside of the church.  The winning shot was on every newspaper and every digital outlet the next day – a large golden cross on an altar, rising undamaged from the rubble, highlighted by dusty sunbeams.

And I couldn’t help but think of the utter simplicity of the gospel.  When we take away all the religious clutter that we so often add, we are left with an absolutely perfect love story that is without equal.  And it stands alone, complete.  Our religiosity adds nothing.  Zero.  Nada.

We humans are funny. We somehow think that Almighty God needs manmade, ornate adornments.  And yet all of creation exists to worship Him.   Every mountain peak, every ocean belongs to Him (Psalm 95).  The heavens declare His glory (Psalm 19).

Isaiah 66.1 says it best.  ‘This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Could you build me a temple as good as that? Could you build me such a resting place?’

It is just so easy to complicate God’s story.

And it is easy to complicate my response to it. 

It is so easy to try and add to what God has done, to think that religion and ritual add value to God’s gift or make our worship more pleasing to a distant and difficult God.

But when Jesus said, ‘It is finished’, He meant it.  When the curtain that concealed the holiest area of the Temple was torn in two, it was clear that God’s presence could once again be accessed directly and worship would now be based on internal obedience, not outward ritual.

But some of us struggle to accept a free gift.  It makes us very uncomfortable.

When I was growing up, we had an apple orchard.  In apple season the trees would produce far more than we could handle, even with my industrious mom canning endless jars of applesauce and apple butter.  So, one day we decided to put a basket of apples out by our fence with a sign saying, ‘Help yourself’.  You would not believe the arguments we had with people who insisted on paying us for them!  Their pride just wouldn’t let them receive free apples.  In the end, most of the fruit was spoiled and had to be thrown away.  What a waste.

And so it often is with faith.  It feels good to offer God something in return for His sacrifice.  It somehow relieves our guilt or makes us feel less helpless to attempt to add to what He has done. Religion is an easy way to earn something that is offered as a free gift of grace.

Notre Dame is a lovely structure and it is historically significant but it is just a building.  We are no closer to God in a fancy cathedral than we are in our back yard or driving in our car or sitting in the hall our church rents on a Sunday.  Worship is about a relationship, not ritual.  Liturgy is lifeless without love.

And even though I am tempted sometimes to earn what I have been given, the cross reminds me just how silly that really is.  Because the gospel story is very simple.

I desperately needed a Saviour.

He came.

It is straightforward and it is beautiful.  It is all I need.  It is enough to fuel my worship for all of eternity.

There is nothing to add to it but gratefulness, nothing to do but to give my whole heart to Jesus in trust and obedience.

Whatever you are doing this weekend, enjoy the simplicity of the cross of Jesus Christ.  Worship Him in grand buildings or rented halls or living rooms.  Sing with choirs or with your kids and a CD.  Enjoy His free gift with a thankful heart. Sit in the sun, breathe, smile, rest.

It is finished.  And it has just begun.  And we are right in the middle of all the glory of what God has done and what He is doing and what He is yet to do.

Happy Easter.

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Who will I be? It depends.

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Recently Paul and I walked again around our favourite lake.  It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and we bumped into very dear friends that we had gone to church with many years before.

They are older than us, around my parent’s age, and yet they hadn’t changed from how we remembered them.  Their circumstances are different, of course, and they are now blessed with about a dozen grandchildren.  But the essence of them hasn’t changed.  They still have the gentle meekness, the same kindness in their words, the same contented outlook on life.  He smiled as he told us how he continues to play the drums in church, more than thirty years since we first met them.   They gushed about the lovely day and the bacon sandwiches they had treated themselves to and their upcoming special anniversary trip.  They generously asked after all our children and we all said how good God is.

As we continued our walk I just couldn’t stop thinking about them.  ‘I want to be like them someday’ I said to Paul and he agreed.

A week later, my husband was walking the dog at the same spot when he bumped into another old friend who was cycling past.  Paul hadn’t spoken to him in probably 15 years.  And, he hadn’t really changed much either.  Still busy and hassled, talking too fast and always in a hurry.  The refrain was familiar.  Life is hectic and busy and stressful.  He, by his own admission, is overextended because his lifestyle is expensive to maintain, in both money and time.  He will have to work until he drops.  He is sorry he can’t make time for church, but his days are already invested and there are none left.  He misses it but not too much.  And he cycled away.

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As I think about those conversations, there is an uncomfortable truth that I am faced with.  And it is this.  The way I am living my life today is more than likely the way I will be living it in 20 years time.  Because habits take only 40 days to form and so after 40 years they are pretty much carved in stone.

It is so easy to think in ‘somedays’.   We tell ourselves that someday we will slow down and enjoy our family.  Or someday we will give our relationship with Jesus the time it deserves.  Someday we will serve others more.  Someday we will go on that mission trip or study a book of the Bible.  Someday we will step out in faith and do something risky for God or finally obey what we know He has been asking us to do.

But change is really hard.

And every day that goes by it gets harder. 

Over decades we dig deep grooves in the soil of our lives that are nearly impossible to ignore.  We have ways of doing things, natural tendencies and preferences.  We also have bad habits and we have well-practised excuses for those bad habits. And we just keep going.

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Nowhere in the Bible is this process better illustrated than Psalm 1.

‘How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.’  Psalm 1: 1-3 (NASB)

Here we see a beautiful tree, planted in a stunning location.  It is healthy and vibrant and fruitful.  It is prospering in every possible way.  Each leaf is glossy and green, every root is strong and stable.

And the key to a life like this is in the previous verses.

Decisions. Habits. Priorities. Choices.

There is nothing ‘someday’ here.  It is all about what I do right now.  It is about where I spend my time and who I hang out with.  It is about what gets my undivided attention and what doesn’t.  It is about who I admire and what values I live my life by this week, today, now.

It is all about the place that God has in my life, whether He is just an add-on or whether He is the absolute centre of everything that I think and do.

And, the truth is that it will probably never be easier than today to make hard choices and decisions.  It will never be easier to make God my first love and to make serving and following Him the centre of everything.  There will probably never be fewer demands on my time or distractions in my mind.

There will never be an easier, better day to make changes than today. 

As I sit at my desk, my mind full of worries and frets and to-do lists and diary appointments, I am wondering who I will be in 20 years.  If you were to bump into me walking at the lake (with my fourth labrador!) who would you see?

My deepest desire is that all the good that Jesus has already done in my life will be magnified for His glory and that the good habits I have started, even if I am inconsistent, will have produced fruit in my life.

And I hope that I will have had the courage to keep changing.  I hope that the things that hold me back now will have been overcome and that I will have continued to allow the character of Jesus to be fully formed in me.

And I hope that I will be full of fresh testimonies of the power and grace of God as He continuously moves me from the old into the new until the day I go to be with Him.

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Not wasting my waiting

 

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‘But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’  Isaiah 40.31.

I feel like I have been doing waiting all wrong.

And I have done a lot of waiting.  I’ve waited for many answers to prayers, long after I expected them to be answered.  I’ve waited for God’s direction and for His solutions to problems.  I’ve also waited, through tears, for spiritual understanding after confusing disappointments.

And my waiting has not looked remotely like Isaiah’s description.

Far from renewed strength, waiting has often felt like the life was draining from me.  Rather than running, I barely crawled.  At times I was in danger of completely losing hope.   Instead of eagle-soaring, I curled up on the sofa with a bowl of ice-cream and a box set.

Because waiting is really hard.  The most difficult times in my life have been lived in the space between the promises and the provisions of the Lord.  Those times can feel hard and long and really desperate.

And yet James 1.2-4 says, ‘My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.  But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete lacking nothing.’

There is a better kind of waiting than the one I have experienced.  There is useful patience in trials.   There is a way to wait that reaps spiritual benefits.

So, how can I wait well?

I can make Jesus my focus.  Isaiah is describing those who wait on the Lord‘.  Sometimes I am so fixated on circumstances they are all I think about.  They become my first thought in the morning and my last thought at night.  This is not good for me.  And it will never produce faith or hope.

Turning my attention towards God’s truth and His faithfulness helps me to rest while I wait.  This rest is a source of renewed strength and without it, I will wear out.  Focusing on the goodness of God and His faithfulness to me makes my spirit strong and helps me to handle discouragement and doubt.  By starting the day with worship, whether I feel like it or not, I am choosing to focus on God, not the situations I cannot control.  By filling my thoughts with God’s word throughout the day I am choosing what He says over what my circumstances are telling me.

I can also saturate my waiting with gratefulness.  Otherwise, I will become discontent.  Praying for something that I desperately need from God without thanking Him for what He has already done is dangerous for my soul.  It causes me to lose perspective and turns my waiting into whining.  Gratefulness is a simple habit to learn.  But don’t underestimate it, it is a powerful weapon and it will kill self-pity with one blow.

And finally,  I can be expectant of blessings while I wait.   Look at those verses in James again.  There is a promise that patience during times of difficulty brings complete provision of everything that we need! Read those words and believe they are true.  Then expect abundant provision to be produced when you wait with faith and hope.

When we find ourselves in a painful season of waiting, we can decide to view it as a conduit of blessing.  We can expect to receive something that we are lacking.  It is a promise from God.  Times of waiting, however grueling they feel, are opportunities for supernatural provision.  God uses trials to heal us, mature us, make us more like Jesus and to prepare us for whatever is next.

There a spiritual sweet spot in the gap between what I am believing for and what I have received.  It is the spot where Christian maturity is produced and my readiness to receive blessing is expedited.  If I don’t resist or resent these seasons, they won’t be wasted.

And I really don’t want to waste my waiting.  It is already painful enough.   On this grey Thursday, while I am waiting for God to answer, I want to squeeze out every drop of goodness.   I want to look to Him, worship Him, thank him and expect Him to provide everything that I need.

I want to never waste an ounce of waiting and then by God’s grace, I will be ready for the answer when it comes.