Monday, 24 June 2019

Still Quarrying 64 - Listen and Live!

It’s strange when something you are reading connects with what’s going in in the nation or the world at large.  In Robin Jenkins novel A Would-Be Saint the success of Lendrick Rangers Junior Football Club is generally recognised to be due to the skills of two very different men, Gavin Hamilton and Grunter Houliston.  Gavin is the perfect role-model:

‘He had never been known to utter a bad word on or off the field, he drank nothing more intoxicating than Iron Brew, he did not smoke . . . and he was Superintendent of St Andrew’s Parish Church, Auchengillan.’  

This led some people to wonder if his skill as a footballer was connected to his ‘clean living’.  On the other hand, however, Grunter:

‘ . . . cursed and blasphemed, drank heavily, smoked 40 fags a day, and fornicated with loose women.‘   

This leads the writer to aver:

‘It had to be accepted therefore that there was no necessary connection between a man’s private morals and his public performance, whether as a footballer, a clergyman, or a politician.’  

If you listen to the news or read a newspaper then this will sound familiar.  The latest shadow to fall on Boris Johnson’s private life has led some people to question whether he is morally fit to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  But there is no shortage of people who would argue that nothing that has been revealed about Johnson’s character should disqualify him from high office and many examples of effective Prime Ministers and Presidents have been cited whose private lives have not measured up very well to the highest standards.  

Whatever you feel about this what is beyond doubt is that character was very important to Jesus.  Consider his parable in Luke 8: 16-18:

“No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.  For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.  Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.”

His disciples have to recognise that they are called to shine as lights in the midst of their community.  And to remember that in the presence of God they have no private lives.  Nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nothing concealed that will not be brought out into the open.  The way forward to authentic discipleship, to consistency in living according to Jesus’ ways is to listen carefully, to allow the teaching of Jesus to take root in the depths of their being,  to shape their character and make their witness effective.  

It is interesting that this parable is sandwiched between the Parable of the Sower and the story of Jesus‘ mother and brothers coming to see him while he was teaching but unable to get near Him because of the crowds.  The Parable of the Sower speaks of seed that fell on good soil which stands for ‘those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.‘  (Luke 8: 15)   When Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have turned up he says: ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.‘  (Luke 8: 21)
So listening to the Word is of vital importance, that listening that results in lives that are shaped by the Word and can stand up to scrutiny.   How deeply has the Word taken root?  

It may well be that the private lives of sportsmen, actors, singers, politicians do not have a negative effect on their public performance but for the follower of Jesus there is no hiding place.  Sadly the history of the Church is littered with examples of those who performed the Christian life in public but in private were very far from the ways of Jesus.  There is a sense in which none of us is totally consistent in our character.  That’s why it’s important for us to continue to listen carefully and as a consequence live fruitfully.  

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Still Quarrying 63 - Solid Rock

When I was minister of Stevenston: Ardeer I often visited members in Crosshouse Hospital.   It was a time when I would regularly bump into colleagues from all over North Ayshire.  One of those was Alex McIlroy who was minister of Darvel Parish Church.  Alex had been brought up in Stevenston and was always interested to hear how things were in the town and with Ardeer in particular.  

I began to notice that I hadn’t seen Alex for a while and was quite shocked to learn that he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer and was facing major surgery.   I was able to visit him when he was recovering and celebrated with him and his wife Tina when the surgery was deemed to be successful.  However, the experience had taken so much out of him that he decided to retire early on health grounds.   That brought him back to Stevenston and he and Tina became members of Ardeer.  

I remember many of Alex’s stories but one in particular has stuck.  He told me that after his surgery he awoke in the recovery room and everything was dark.  He had a moment of panic.  Where was he?  What had happened?  Had he died and this was it?  He said: ‘It was then the words of a hymn came into my head - and it’s not even a hymn I like: “When darkness seems to veil his face,/I rest on his unchanging grace . . .’  

The hymn is ‘My hope is built on nothing less’ written by Edward Mote in the early nineteenth century.  It was left out of the latest revision of the Church of Scotland hymnary and it could be argued that the language is very much of its time.  But reading it again it’s not totally beyond comprehension and I for one am grateful for the opportunity to state in the words of the refrain:

‘On Christ the solid rock I stand
 All other ground is sinking sand.’

And there are surely times for us all when we can connect with the final words of verse 3:

‘When all around my soul gives way,
 He then is all my hope and stay.’

There aren’t too many hymns that acknowledge that sometimes the darkness of human experience seems to veil the face of God and that sometimes we experience the collapse of our inner life.  But these are realities for us which require us to gather everything we know about our God.  And what we know about our God has been revealed supremely in the life and ministry of Jesus.   There are times when we cannot be led by feelings however powerful they may be.  We need to stand on what is true.  Jesus has made it possible for sins to be forgiven.  Jesus has promised His Spirit to those who trust Him.  Jesus has prepared a place for all His people in His Eternal Kingdom. 

‘On Christ the solid rock I stand

 All other ground is sinking sand.’

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Still Quarrying 62 - Tired And Wired

‘Tired and Wired.’  That was my response to the nurse’s question.  I said it might be a good title for this chapter in my life.  She laughed and said it was a good description of the chemo experience.   I’ve read so many descriptions in the last three months or so and they all struggle to nail it.   For me the big thing is the physical fatigue that makes you think twice about the shortest walk co-existing with the constant buzzing in your head that takes your thoughts in all directions.  At least there is the reassurance that this is not normal, that it is drug induced, that this is the way to better health, and it is working.  

At a deeper level, while this is going on, it’s good to focus on a verse or verses of Scripture  that point to the presence of God in the midst of every circumstance, dark or bright, pleasing or painful,  happy or sad.   The Psalms bear witness to this and are a constant source of strength.  Just this morning I read the powerful Psalm 51 which is associated with David’s response to being confronted with his adultery with Bathsheba.  Overwhelmed by his sense of failure he prays:

‘Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.’  (v. 10-12)

Despite the consequences of his sin and his inner turmoil David is assured that God is present and He is the source of renewal and restoration.    

Max Lucado once turned his quirky perspective on the story of Jesus calming a storm.  You can find it in Mark 4: 35-41.  Remember, Jesus and his disciples are sailing across a lake and a ‘furious squall’ blows up.  Things are not looking good, the boat is in danger of being swamped, the disciples are panicking and, remarkably,  Jesus is sleeping in the stern.  ‘Don’t you care if we drown?’ scream the disciples.   Jesus responds by speaking to the elements!  He rebukes the wind and says to the waves: ‘Quiet! Be still!‘   ‘Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.’  

It’s what Jesus says to the disciples that burns itself into the mind: ‘Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?‘   More than anything Jesus called men and women to trust Him for who He is.  In their moment of fear the disciples see Him as one who does not care.  They need to grow in their knowledge and experience.   They are getting there when they ask ‘ Who is this?  Even the wind and waves obey him!‘   

In the end, what I am faced with is God in the midst of storm, fear, panic, disorientation.   Maybe I don’t feel it but this is the truth that can keep my spiritual equilibrium.

Here’s Max:

‘Christ-followers  contract malaria, bury children, and battle addiction, and as a result, face fears.  It’s not the absence of storms that sets us apart.  It’s whom we discover in the storm: an unstirred Christ.’  

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Still Quarrying 61 - Rubbish!

The nurse said to me: ‘How are you feeling?  Rubbish?’  That’s how many people describe the chemotherapy experience.  Rubbish.  Something you don’t want, something to be discarded, something you want to be distant from.  Most of what I am experiencing I thought I was prepared for but it’s one thing to hold it in your head and quite another to actually live it.  I long ago came to the realisation that the Christian response is not just to grit your teeth and get on with it which is just as well because there are days when I feel I don’t have the strength to grit my teeth.  But that is not a bad thing because it’s then that I am driven to follow the example of the Psalmist in one of his darkest days when he prays:

‘Let your face shine on your servant;
 save me in your unfailing love.‘    (Psalm 31: 16)

He wasn’t just winding up all his natural resources but turning to the God he knows for his strength and his sense of purpose.  David was a strong man but there were times when he was brought to the end of himself and realised that the strength he needed could only be found in the God he knew.  That has to be the direction all believers must take.  If God has come to us in Jesus, lived our life, dealt with our sin, defeated the power of death and promised His Spirit in every circumstance - then the way forward is to keep our lives firmly oriented towards this God.  To make David’s prayer our own:

‘Let your face shine on your servant;
 save me in your unfailing love.‘  

It may not always work in the sense that power and peace surges in but while I am being still, meditating on the Word, enjoying the fellowship of friends I am reminded of the unfailing love that surrounds me however rubbish I may be feeling.  

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Still Quarrying 60 - Yellow

The thing is

Yellow is not my favourite colour,

Despite the magic Vincent drew out of it.

But in the Beatson it’s everywhere,

In the shop t-shirts, mugs, pens, badges.


Not to mention the decor.

But then someone wrote:

‘Yellow is the brightest colour of the visible spectrum, and is the most noticeable of all colours by the human eye.  It means happiness and optimism; it is the colour of the sun shining, or bright light or creativity.’

I get it Vincent.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Still Quarrying 59 - Waiting.

A friend once shared on Facebook her experience of a three hour wait at a clinic made worse because she was without a book.  This prompted another friend to respond: ‘What is this ‘without a book’ of which you speak?‘   I actually laughed out loud at that.  Unthinkable that anyone should face any stretch of time without the ‘blessed companion’ that is a book.  

This came to mind yesterday during the two and a half hours I spent at the Eye Clinic at Gartnavel General ‘without a book’.   I should say that I had the blessed companionship of my wife but after a while the sighs become a bit more frequent, the backs and lower regions begin to protest and you begin to wonder if somehow we have been forgotten.  When eventually your name is called it’s not so much relief as surprise.

But why the Eye Clinic?   For the last two weeks or so I’ve been suffering from conjunctivitis along with sties and it was thought that further investigation was in order.  Any infection in a cancer patient has to be treated seriously.   In the end it appears my presently dodgy immune system is at the heart of the problem.  However with antibiotics and appropriate eye drops things are definitely improving.  

But to get back to this waiting business.  You have to get used to it as a cancer patient.   By and large it  is understandable.  You are not the only patient in the world, you are by no means the most catastrophic patient, the medical staff have a great many unforeseen challenges that arise, you have to accept that waiting patiently is all part of the cancer experience.  

‘Waiting patiently‘ is another of those themes you come up against in the Psalms.   In Psalm 37 David calls upon the ‘righteous’ to stand against what seems to be the relentless advance of the ‘wicked’.  In the face of this David’s counsel is:

‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
 do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
 when they carry out their wicked schemes.’  (verse 7)

Those of us with a practical turn of mind might wonder how we can cultivate this stillness, this waiting patiently.  Can we expect the Holy Spirit to zap us with these qualities so that patience is as familiar to us as breathing and fretting a distant memory?   My experience and that of many other Christians is different.   None other than John Newton shared his experience in a poem I Asked The Lord That I Might Grow:

‘I asked the Lord that I might grow
 In faith, and love, and every grace;
 Might more of his salvation know,
 And seek, more earnestly, His face.’

The answer he received was not what he anticipated.  He wished for the subduing of his sins and rest.  But:

‘Instead of this, He made me feel 
 The hidden evils of my heart;
 And let the angry pow’rs of hell
 Assault my soul in every part.’  

This almost drives him to despair until he realises that this is the way God answers ‘prayer for grace and faith’.  He places His people in circumstances where they need to depend upon His grace alone and exercise faith in Him alone:

‘These inward trials I employ,
 From self, and pride, to set thee free;
 And break thy schemes of earthly joy, 
 That thou may’st find thy all in Me.’  

The message is: ‘You want to be more patient?  Well, here are a really irritating set of circumstances.  Be patient.‘   Sounds harsh but as David sees it we are still ‘before the Lord’, we wait patiently for Him.   In the poverty of our inner resources we turn to the Heavenly Father from whom comes the strength and the peace that are proof against every challenge.  

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Still Quarrying 58 - Unfailing Love.

There are something like 26 references in the Psalms to the ‘unfailing love’ of God.   Whatever the circumstances, however he feels, the Psalmist is convinced that he is enfolded in the love of God.  No anxiety is strong enough, no pain sharp enough, no shadow deep enough to separate him from the unfailing love of his God.   And this was not wishful thinking or a leap into the dark.  He could turn his mind to the history of his people where that love had been demonstrated.   Before God delivered the Law to Moses He declared:

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’  (Exodus 19: 4).

God comparing His love for His people to the enveloping love of a mother eagle for her young.   A love that would be engrossed in the Law that was destined to shape the life of the nation of Israel:

‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’  (Exodus 20: 2)

There can be no doubt that Saul the Pharisee would often reflect upon these words and seek to experience more of the love of God in his life.   He would carry this into his new life as Paul the Apostle but now he had more than the Exodus for his faith to feed upon.  You cannot read his letters without being struck by the centrality of the Cross to his faith and preaching.  He was well aware how much of a problem the Cross was to Jew and Gentile but still Paul persisted for here was the ultimate assurance of the love of God for humankind.  That it was shown in the midst of such suffering led Paul to make what is surely one of his boldest declarations:

‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’  (Romans 8: 38)

The greatest aspiration of my life must be sharing that rock-solid conviction of the Apostle.  There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.