Follow the Son

I love to see the sunflower growing in my neighbour’s garden. I can’t look at its sunny disposition and not smile. When we lived in Turkey we used to see whole fields of sunflowers. They need lots of sun! Not only do they look like the sun but they lift their heavy seed-laden heads and follow the sun throughout the day. It’s fascinating to drive past fields and see row upon row of these yellow faces upturned to the sun as it travels across the sky.

We are called Christians because we follow Christ, and the closer we follow the more we become like him. We’re like sunflowers, but not following the sun in the sky; we’re following the Son of God. He says to us, “Let me see your face, let me hear your voice.” (Song of Songs 2:14) and as we behold him we are changed from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Seeds of Promise

“Eylenje! Eylenje!” (Enjoyment! Enjoyment!) That’s what the street seller calls out as he pushes his barrow heaped with sunflower seeds. Nibbling seeds together is an enjoyable pastime in Turkey and on summer evenings groups of young people gather in the parks to sit and chat. In the morning the ground is covered with husks!

Jesus tells us that the seed is the Word of God. It points to himself, the promised living Word. Are we like sunflowers bursting with seeds? What are the Words of Promise that both challenge and comfort our hearts? Do we find enjoyment gathering together, sharing biblical truths? David says the Word tastes sweeter than honey (Psalm 119:103).

Precious Oil

In Turkey most of the seed harvest is crushed for the precious sunflower oil to be exported far and near. Oil is a symbol the Bible uses for the Holy Spirit. The night he was betrayed, Jesus wrestled in prayer in the Garden on the Mount of Olives. Gethsemane means ‘oil press’ and as his sweat fell like blood, Jesus was surely being pressed. As he bore the weight of the sins of the world on the cross, grace like oil flowed from him. Love oozed through the words he spoke:

Mercy : “Father forgive them.”
Hope : “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.”
Care : “John, look after my mother.”
Obedience : “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Longing : “I thirst.”
Faithfulness : “It is finished”
Trust : “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

When we are pressed, when life doesn’t go as we would like, when prayers don’t seem to be answered, when we feel we are suffering injustice, does the oil of his Spirit flow?

New Dawn

Once we were driving past a sunflower field at dusk. The sun was going down, setting in the west. We were surprised and intrigued to find that every flower had turned to face the opposite direction. They were no longer watching a fading glory. No, in absolute confidence, they were facing east, heads down as if prayerfully waiting for the new day to dawn. Expectant, sure they wouldn’t be disappointed. The sun would rise again!

As we come to the end of the summer and the pandemic drags on, let’s not become weary and lethargic but prayerfully expect God to surprise us with fresh vision. Let’s continue to follow the Son and be ready to embrace new things he may want to do in us and through us, individually and together where possible. God is our sun and shield (Psalm 84:11). He is our light, our life and our protection – everything we need to flourish in his field. From the rising of the sun till its going down, the Lord’s name is to be praised (Psalm 113:3).

* For more tales from Turkey, my book ‘You Will See Hoopoes‘ is now available on Kindle from Amazon.

Even the Sparrow Finds a Home

Psalm 84 is a psalm of longing – appropriate for me at this time, for I too am longing!

I long for this pandemic to be over. I long to gather with God’s people. It’s not the building I miss but joining with the Living Stones, to sing, to hug and to fellowship. I’m tired of Zoom! I’m not where I want to be but neither was the writer of Psalm 84.

The psalmist longed to be in the temple and in the presence of the living God. He even envied the birds nesting in the eaves of the roof (v1-4).

When we lived in Turkey in the early 80s we had to drive into Greece and back again to renew our visas. I always felt nervous as we approached the long line of officious customs officers in their booths. Would we be welcomed in? Yet, there along the eaves of the large shed were swallows’ nests. The birds confidently came and went and no one ever shooed them away.

Like a sparrow –

I feel like a sparrow at times – small, insignificant, defenceless. I know I’m not in control. Of course, this is not a bad thing. I need to learn more about God’s sovereignty, God’s plan, his will not mine. And I feel weak. That’s not a bad thing either, because it’s only when we are weak that God promises his strength.

How else could the psalmist talk of going from strength to strength if it wasn’t for God’s grace upon grace (v7)?

What about the swallow?

Never still, always flying. Travelling, travelling, even eating and sleeping on the wing. I have flown a lot over the years, but even when I haven’t been travelling my heart has often been restless, flitting this way and that.

Now the swallow has found a nest. She has stopped, she’s still – in order to birth new life. Is God calling us to something similar? Does he want us to stop, to settle – to nestle into him? Does he want to birth new life in us – new priorities or perhaps renew old priorities? To develop new rhythms of life and ways of serving him?

We may be unable to travel much in these days of lockdown, but it’s crucial that we continue to journey with God. The psalmist has set his heart on pilgrimage (v5). I want to know God deeper and stronger until that day when I’ll know him fully just as I am fully known. Even now, our valleys of weeping, the dry arid places can becomes springs of life – lush gardens with God. The Holy Spirit isn’t locked down. In him, through prayer, we can travel the world to dry places more needy than our own country and ask God to pour down his rain (v6).

Beware the sparrow hawk!

Sometimes like little birds I’m aware of a sparrow hawk out to get me. Like the serpent in the garden said to Eve, he wants to tell me God is not good, that he withholds good things.

Psalm 84 v11 says it’s a lie. We know it’s a lie. We know God is for us not against us. How do we know? Because he did not withhold his best gift, his only son Jesus Christ, but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also give us all things with him (Romans 8: 32)? He is our sun-giving life and shield-giving protection ( v11). He will bless us and deliver us from the taunts of the evil one. God is not an officious customs officer, but welcomes us into his presence with open arms.

I may not be where I want to be but this I know – One day with the Lord is better than 1,000 anywhere else, so I will continue to love and trust him (v10).

Fading Rainbows

This rainbow craze seems to have begun in Italy during their COVID-19 lockdown and spread via Facebook – a colourful cheer-up for worried and frightened people in the midst of a global pandemic.

Somehow the symbol of sunshine after a storm felt appropriate to lift spirits and engender a sense of better things to come. When the children in our street began putting crayoned rainbows in their windows I decided to join in. I bought coloured tissue paper and made a massive one with HOPE written in big black letters across it.

But my rainbow faded!

So, when Pentecost came, I bought more tissue paper, renewed my rainbow and added the dove to remind us of the biblical story. The return of the dove bearing her olive branch showed the earth had been cleansed by the flood, but not totally destroyed. The rainbow was a promise that God would never again flood the whole earth – a promise not just for Noah and his family but for all of creation corrupted by our sin.

But my rainbow faded again!

Was hope fading with it? Hope that our government would make wise decisions and hope that the public would obey the rules? Hope that this virus would end soon? Hope for a vaccine? Even my husband complained my faded rainbow was stopping us seeing out and hoped it would come down. So, more tissue and another rainbow but this time arched.

It has to be arched because the biblical word is ‘bow’ – as in archery. Noah built an altar and offered a sacrifice to God when he landed on dry ground, and God in response hung up his warrior bow in the sky. John Gill, the 18th century theologian, points out it is aimed upwards towards God, himself, who would offer the ultimate sacrifice for this sin ravaged world by sending Jesus.

Again my rainbow faded!

I suppose all man made rainbows like man made hopes for health, wealth and prosperity are bound to fade. As the pandemic drags on the disappointments mount up – the cancelled holidays, the missed family gatherings and looked forward to events. There’s a weariness with Zoom and also a growing anxiety over the economic downturn and inevitable unemployment. We desperately need a rainbow and a hope that will not fade.

Unfading hope

As we mourn this broken world and long for justice and the putting to right of so many wrongs, creation groans with us, longing for deliverance (Romans 8:20-25).  And God promises to act.  We know he hasn’t given up on his world.  Christ will come to judge and purify it with fire, bringing in a glorious new heaven and earth. We wonder why it is taking so long but Peter explains that God is delaying to give time for repentance (2 Peter 3:7-9), and Jesus says the gospel must first be preached to all nations (Matthew 24:14). 

Meanwhile, our future destiny is totally secure in the kingdom of God – an inheritance that cannot fade (1 Peter 1: 4), unlike my rainbows! If we believe this we can surrender our small hopes and dreams to his great plan, confident that his purpose will triumph.

Perhaps before Christ comes to renew the earth, he’s using this pandemic to renew his church.

Unfading rainbow

My latest rainbow is small. It too is fading but will be easier to renew. God’s rainbow like true hope is unfading. The prophet Ezekiel speaking to the people of God, suffering the trauma of exile, has a vision of God’s throne and sees the radiance of a bright rainbow wrapped in clouds of glory. At the end of the Bible John has a similar revelation; circling the throne is a rainbow of emerald green (Revelation 4: 3)

Yes, rainbows are actually circular! Scientists say that from the air they are complete circles, without beginning or end. From earth they look arched because they’re blocked by the ground and horizon. God’s rainbow is round – no beginning or end. And green? An evergreen rainbow promising eternal life for those who trust in his unfailing, unfading love and mercy.

More Than A Song

On the first Sunday of Lockdown we read Psalm 137 – “By the rivers of Babylon…” a psalm of mourning as the people of God went into exile. That’s what it felt like for us. We, as a church community, were going into exile! Forbidden to gather, to sing, to hug – our church building closed. Just as the temple vessels were stolen during the OT captivity, had our vessels of worship – our usual expression of worship also been taken away? With heavy hearts we hung up our lyres (or guitars) on the willows – weeping like the trees.

Singing has always been such an important part of our worship. Meeting together we unite through our music, through the words of our songs, declaring the works and ways of God as a means of deepening God’s truth in our hearts (Colossians 3:16) and encouraging one another to persevere in faith (Hebrews 10:24-25). As we sing we build up ourselves and one another (Ephesians 5:19).

There are so many exhortations in Scripture to sing God’s praises – about 50 times I’m told, though I haven’t counted. How, then, could singing stop? And, of course, it hasn’t!

Sing a new song!

The Blessing Scriptures from Numbers 6:24-26, have come to us via Youtube from all around the globe, from Korea, America, Africa, Turkey and even Uzbekistan, where 30 years ago there were but a handful of believers. We’ve seen church denominations unite, Christians of all ages from many tribes and tongues, singing out loud and clear to remind us that God has put his Name upon his people (v27), that we might experience the smile of his face and know his peace.

We’ve worshipped with playlists of songs old and new.

Each week worship leaders we know and love have come up close online – right into our homes to lead us, and we’ve seen the sincerity on their faces and felt the passion in their hearts.

More than a Song

Yes, we are missing corporate singing, yet we’re learning that worship is more than a song. Worship isn’t limited to singing. It’s much much more and the Holy Spirit who is not locked down in a building has Zoomed to our aid! Gathering around God’s Word, responsive readings, the Lord’s Supper in our homes, fellowshipping in chat rooms, prayer in pairs through WhatsApp or FaceTime and larger prayer events through Zoom and Microsoft Teams – our worship has found ways of expression.

Worship is more than a song for singing and music without hearts full of praise are empty and not worship at all. It’s a whole of life consecration (Romans 12). It isn’t tied to the building or vessels of religious activities, but tied to loving God and loving our neighbour.

Augustine said, “Sing with your voices, your hearts, your lips and your lives: Sing to the Lord a new song.” Singing without a godly life marked by obedience is hypocrisy.

God’s song!

The prophets tell of God’s work in exile to purify from idols and turn his peoples’ hearts back to himself ( Ezekiel 11:18-20). Perhaps God is working similarly with us. Is he not purifying our priorities, decluttering our lives -separating us from dead works to what really matters? The result according to Zephaniah is God singing! (Zephaniah 3:17). What a wonderful thought! If we take time to be still and listen, we might just hear him. God is working in our midst, pruning us for greater fruitfulness and greater joy.

Yes, as we experience a growing sense of God’s presence we’ll find songs of praise bubbling up from within. We’ll sing to him all the more with full hearts because he is firstly singing over us. In the midst of life’s troubles, uncertainties and even plagues, we’ll catch a glimpse of eternity and sing the deliverance songs of Moses and the Lamb, worshipping with the nations Almighty God whose deeds are amazing and whose ways are just and true (Revelation 15:3-4).

Black Lives Matter

Africans Matter For Our Christian Faith

Many of the early church fathers were African. They wrote in Greek or Latin because of the common language of their day, but they were not white!

Tertullian, a lawyer, was a gifted apologist who advocated for charismatic gifts and prophecy in the church. Origen was a great theological and philosophical thinker. Augustine, through the practice of biblical exegesis helped shape Christian doctrine for the Western church and the church as a whole. He wrote substantial works on the Trinity and on the relationship between church and state. His Confessions was the first autobiography of its kind. The writings of these African church fathers still influence our faith today.

Africans Matter For Our Nation

Gabrielle, a black Christian from Rwanda, arrived in Glasgow with her four children seeking asylum. They were housed in a high-rise estate in a deprived area of the city where drug and alcohol abuse was rife. There was no warm welcome for this African family. They were shouted at and spat upon. Neighbours refused to share the lift with them. When they were burgled a second time it was hard to know what to say. After church one Sunday morning I saw Gabrielle walking towards me, but before I could offer my sympathy she embraced me. With her usual flashing white smile she said, “What do a few things matter when I have my Lord with me?”

She continued to say, “God bless you,” to each person she encountered in her block of flats and at Christmas time put cards through all her neighbours’ doors. “They’re so needy,” she would say. Now, there are only very few Scottish Christians who have chosen to live and minister in the deprived areas of our cities, but God has brought believers like Gabrielle who are making a difference.

How is she able to be so generous in spirit? Perhaps a clue lies in her testimony. Gabrielle is someone who has suffered – someone who has been broken and suffered great loss, but someone whose heart has been healed by Jesus. Fleeing as she did from war torn Rwanda, the Lord worked a deep forgiveness in her heart. Now, she turns every set back to prayer with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6).

God is bringing fresh life to our nation. Increased migration driven by various political, economic and environmental causes has resulted in a rise in African Christianity throughout Europe. Then there are even those who have come to us as ‘reverse missionaries’. Shocked by the spiritual impotence in our culture and the lukewarmness of the church in the UK, they see their calling is to revitalise faith and are keen to plant churches in the more deprived areas of our cities. It’s humbling for us to be on the receiving end of missionary activity, but let’s acknowledge our need.

Africans Matter For Our Churches

Whatever their reasons for coming, we need to learn from the Gabrielles the Lord has brought amongst us. African Christians bring vibrant worship, spontaneous prayer, a sense of community and hospitality – gifts that could help re-evangelise Scotland if only we can find ways to capitalise on this mission potential. Our churches need our African brothers and sisters. If we can offer genuine friendship, helping them feel fully part of our fellowships, their cultural understanding would deepen and their mission be more effective.

Many Africans understand their Christian roots as dating back to the Scots who sacrificially took the gospel to them in the early 19th Century. Many come to us with a sense of gratitude. Actually, if truth were known, we are greatly indebted to them.

Something has Changed.

Real People!

My Zoom planning meeting had been scheduled for 4pm and I was ready for the call, but when one member couldn’t connect, it was postponed. As I closed my iPad, I heard some chatter coming from the street outside. I was shocked by my reaction. Speedily I made my coffee, grabbed a cushion and hurried out to sit on my front steps to join the socially distanced gathering. It was so so good.

Below the steps to my left, in the garden of her basement flat, sat Annie with baby Amelie under their large sun umbrella. Kirstie, with her newly acquired camping chair, wine glass in hand, was on her path to my right. Leon was trimming his hedge and Janice was passing by, leaning on the gate.

Something’s changed and we’re all talking about it. In Lockdown we’re getting to know our neighbours!

In our fast moving world of work and travel, neighbours are not usually our friends. They have a different role in our lives. You see, family and friends who live far away are no good when you’re locked out, your car battery needs help with jump leads or you’re out when the package is delivered. That’s the job of neighbours; in our street we’ve always enjoyed this kind of give and take neighbourliness.

Ours is a neighbourhood that goes further than many and organises community events. We congregate at ‘The Bells’ to welcome in New Year and in the summer have market stalls in our back lanes. Clapping the carers on Thursdays seemed like another of these occasions bringing a sense of togetherness: together against the virus, together in Lockdown, together for the NHS.

Real need!

All of this is good, but as I sat on the steps on my cushion, I knew something big had changed. My neighbours had become my friends. Truly we were meeting each other’s emotional needs – the need for human company, the need usually met by family and friends. It’s a need that can’t be met on Zoom and as I spoke it out to my neighbour friends, we all recognised our growing bond.

When our churches closed I think many of us determined to bless our neighbourhoods in any way we could. What could we give? Our time? Our resources? What could we do to bless others? Sometimes I fear we Christians like to be the strong ones, yet often it’s when we’re willing to be weak and vulnerable that we grow close to others.

That’s what’s changed. Lockdown has levelled us and we understand we need each other, not for spare keys, packages and jump leads. Let’s face it, we have been at home! But we’ve needed company, friends to hang out with. And it’s as we do this that we really begin to do life together. And that’s when deep sharing starts to happen. That’s when we naturally find ourselves talking about faith.

Real Exchange!

In John 4, incredibly, we find Jesus in the place of need. Christ, the second person of the Trinity through whom the universe was created, willing to be weak. That’s the wonder of the incarnation. Jesus asks the woman at the well to be his neighbour and give him a drink. This was much more than a very real physical need being met. Asking to share her cup involved emotional exchange. This gesture of acceptance must have spoken volumes, and then there’s the acknowledgment of her pain as her home situation is discussed. The roles change and Jesus becomes the neighbour. The great ‘I Am’ reveals himself to a broken woman and she becomes a neighbour to her villagers in their spiritual lostness.

Of course, as Lockdown is loosening, our families and friends are becoming accessible once more, but something has changed in my neighbourhood and I’m determined not to lose it.

Blossoms and Blackbirds

Blossoms and Blackbirds

As we experience ‘Lockdown’ because of the Coronavirus, an encouragement has been the blackbirds’ song. The apple tree, resplendent with blossom has filled the view from my bedroom window. There, amongst the branches, blackbirds sing their hearts out. No matter how I feel the blossoms are beautiful and the birds keep singing.

Life has slowed and quietened down; I am more aware than ever before of nature all around me praising God. This is how it was intended it to be.

Look around! David declares ‘the heavens rejoice and the fields are jubilant because of his faithfulness’ (Psalm 96:11-12). ‘God’s creation speaks of his eternal power and glory, wisdom and strength’ (Job 96:11-12).

Look up! Jesus urges us to notice the birds of the air and ponder his marvellous works. He provides for them every day: the heron fishing in the neighbours’ ornamental pond, the plump wood pigeons munching on the sprouting apple seeds and the little red faced goldfinch at the window feeder.

Look down! Consider the wild flowers. Admire their beauty, their variety, their colours: the crimson tipped daisies in the uncut grass, carpets of bluebells sheltering under the trees and yellow marsh marigolds rising among the pond reeds. Perhaps my favourite is the forget-me-not, small and dainty, perfectly formed, perfectly marked, flowering freely in our back lane.

Amazing that God would take such care, give such attention to the detail of tiny wild flowers which are here today and gone tomorrow. Yet, they are his special creation. They are not planted by man! They’re wild – many unseen by us as they spring forth in the desert or on remote mountain slopes far from human habitation. God enjoys his floral creation. He wants us to enjoy it too.

Could this really be the answer to worry – God’s antidote to anxiousness (Matthew 6:25-34. Luke 12:22-32)? The message seems to be:

Don’t be afraid, don’t be anxious. It’s your Father’s joy to care and provide for you. Look how he feeds the birds and lavishly clothes the flowers. You are worth so much more to him. How can he forget you?

The Lord wants to romance us with bird song and the blossoms of springtime (Song of Songs 2:12). So, receive freely and give freely and you will be emotionally healthy – beautiful inside and out.