Dark Night of the Soul

We are getting to the shortest day of the year when the sun sets early and rises late. The nights are long and there is little sun. While scientists admit it is still a mystery, they do agree that some people do suffer from a winter depression.

Long dark nights
With the shortest day of the year nearly here the nights are long and there is little sun

There are all types of depressions that afflict people and it is not uncommon for Christians to experience a spiritual darkness far deeper than the passing of winter. John of the Cross, a fifteenth-century Christian writer, called it ‘la noche oscura’ or dark night.
Martin Luther was so afflicted by melancholy that it threatened to destroy him; CS Lewis suffered following the death of his wife; Mother Teresa struggled from the founding of her Missionaries of Charity for the rest of her life; and Charles Spurgeon spoke of how he was “almost completely crushed in spirit” and experienced “deep spiritual depression”.
They are not alone . . .
Read on >>>

God Is Waiting

God is patient if nothing else. Although it had been a long and painful nine months for Joseph and Mary, God had been waiting since before the creation of the world.

“It had been a long and painful nine months for Joseph and Mary”

It was in the fullness of time that he came. The Creator born a creature; eternity inhabited time; God arrived as a fragile, small, helpless and dependent baby. The destiny of the entire human race implanted in the uterine wall of young virgin girl. As Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “God’s infinity, dwindled to infancy.”
God went from everything to nothing (2 Cor 8:9) and emptied himself (Phil 2:7) in the process. He had lived in eternity and had created all things, now he was part his own creation.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John writes (1:14). Though he was the designer of the Universe he came incognito as a baby – God in human flesh; God with skin on.
Here lies a mystery at the heart of our faith.  Read More >>>

In Praise of Worship

What is it to be a worshipper of the one who created the universe? Given the way we do church today it’s not surprising that many see worship and singing as synonymous. Neither is it surprising to note that the ‘praise and worship industry’, if I can call it that, is big business.
Sometimes you get the impression that worship is primarily for us – to meet our dreams and our needs – and that it’s about feeling good about myself, God and the world.

However WORSHIP, like a multifaceted DIAMOND,
is much more than that.

Certainly, singing praise is part of worship, in fact one of its highest forms as C.S. Lewis wrote: “All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise”. For Christians, praise of God is natural, however it is simply not all there is to worship.
When we gather in our buildings on Sunday mornings we call it ‘worship’ acknowledging that every part of our time is part of the act of worship. This includes our praying, confession, silence, being still, scripture reading, listening, taking notes, giving an offering, baptism, playing an instrument, communion, and greeting each other.
Sadly, we easily slip into thinking we have worshipped if we’ve been in the right place doing the right things at the right time. But, this is a very limited view worship. Worship is much more than an event within the four walls of a building.

Trevi Fountain, Rome
The iconic Trevi Fountain in Rome was begun by Salvi in 1732, and completed by Pannini in 1762. That’s my wife Jenny standing beside it.

Earlier this year, Jenny and I had the privilege to visit a number of art galleries across Europe. We saw works of art by people such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Renoir, and one of my favourites Van Gogh. While visitng the Louvre we caught a glimpse of Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile as recorded by da Vinci; and on another day marvelled at the perfection of Water Lilies painted by Monet. All these artists are household names, even though many of them died hundreds of years ago.
How is it that we know their names today? Throughout the centuries they have been admired by thousands of people who marvelled at their beauty and grace while acknowledging the skill, genius and character of the artists. The art remains a living legacy to the one who created them. So today in art galleries around the world, works of art are displayed each revealing something special about the one who created them.
Here we see a simple yet profound principal at work: created things reveal things about their maker. Whether that thing is a painting, or a sculpture, a birthday cake, music, a landscaped garden, or a dress, the principal doesn’t change.
The same is true of the earth and the universe, as they too are created things. In Psalm 19 the psalmist says,

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

In other words, the universe is a giant canvas displaying the work of a creative genius.
A painting is not just the work of an artist, but also reveals the nature of an artist.  So too creation declares the essential nature of the one who created it. Paul says in Romans, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Romans 1:20)
Throughout the Bible all things in heaven and earth are consistently implored to praise their Creator. It doesn’t matter whether they are heavenly creatures, angels, celestial bodies (the sun, moon, stars, waters), or the earth and its oceans, skies and land, if they are created they are to praise their Creator. Living creatures are not exempted either. Animals, birds, fish and bugs and everything that moves are called to give glory to their maker.
This is the essence of worship and the foundation of all praise,the relationship between a creature and their creator. That’s why you and I are inherently worshippers.  We are the handiwork of a Creator.

David after Michelangelo
This is a copy of Michelangleo’s David. The real one is inside the nearby Accademia Gallery which was shut the day we were in Forence

What does this mean for our understanding of worship?
It helps us begin to appreciate how worship has more to do with who we are than what we do. How does a work of art bring praise to its maker? How does the Mona Lisa bring glory to da Vinci? By being nothing more than being all that da Vinci painted it to be. The Mona Lisa just needs to be the Mona Lisa.
So too a star needs to be a star, a mountain a mountain, and an ant an ant. ‘Worship’, for them, is about being all they were created to be. It is the same for human beings. Worship is much more than singing in a purpose-built building on Sundays. It is as natural as eating or breathing. Just being all we were created to be we can exalt, honour, and bless the Creator at all times. As Martin Luther said, “A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.”
Conceiving of worship in this light gives new meaning to our understanding that we are a special creation of God’s, made in his image.
While every part of creation displays something of its Creator, there are qualities or attributes of God that can only be seen through humanity. Questions like – What is the Creator like? What is the Creator’s name? What kind of God is the Creator? – are asked by humans alone in all creation. Why do we ask them? It has to do with being made in the image of God.
God’s creativity, fellowship, community, mutual respect, justice, mercy, compassion and industry and so on, are only fully seen in and through humans. Being made in God’s image, we reflect these unique attributes of our Creator in a way no other creation does. Such attributes are more clearly seen in the way we relate to each other than it does in our singing.
From this perspective worship is not a part of life, it is life. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor 3:31) The early Christians, liberated from the constraints of the old law, saw their lives as a continuous act of worship. As Romans 12:1-2 Paul clearly states: we are to present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God – this is our reasonable act of worship.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the idea that Christians went to a place to worship. Archeologically there is no evidence that they had buildings purposely built and set apart exclusively for Christian worship. In fact it never says they ‘went to church’! For them worship was a lifestyle reflecting the image of their Creator.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t meet together, in fact the writer to Hebrews is very clear about this (Hebrews 10:24-25). However, the question is what should our gatherings be like? Interestingly, after saying we should meet together, Hebrews goes on to say that we need to encourage one another.
Throughout his letters Paul is clear that the overriding purpose of meetings is for the strengthening of God’s people, the church. In a stinging rebuke of the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul’s makes clear that their lack of love for each other showed they were living inconsistently with what it meant to be God’s people (Read 1 Corinthians).
Most people today would say that we worship God when we gather together, but the New Testament is clear, we don’t gather primarily for worship. It is true that by gathering we do worship God, but that is not why we gather. We gather for the purpose of encouraging each other and seeing each other built up. As British theologian I.H. Marshall wrote, “While it is true in the broad sense that everything which the Christian does will be ultimately directed to the glory of God, it is simply not the case that the purpose of Christian meetings was understood as being primarily and directly worship [in a ritualistic sense], homage and adoration addressed to God.”
When we gather together we do so as part of the family of God – to meet with our Creator and to meet with others. Our aim is help one another know, believe, and follow him.
Despite what one might glean from church services and Christian books, whether or not you are a real worshiper is not determined by your attendance at church services or how well one might sing. True worship is better determined by how quickly we forgive, how well we handle our finances, and what we do when no one is looking.
Worship is not confined to buildings, and it is much more than music or singing. Worship is what we do as we live for God in every aspect of our lives. So, let’s worship our Creator!
Stephen L Baxter

Work by faith for the glory of God

One of Martin Luther’s more provocative statements goes like this: “…the farmer in the field, or the farmer’s wife in the farmhouse, if they are doing their work by faith for the glory of God, are fulfilling as high and holy a calling as the pastor in the pulpit.”
Brother Lawrence said something similar thing in his book The Practice of the Presence of God where he determined to make sure he saw the presence of God in his kitchen as well as the church. His simple daily prayer was, “Lord of all pots and pans and things…make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.”
Every Christian is called. ‘Calling’ is God’s way of expressing his will for each and everyone of us. We are all called to be saved, it is God’s desire “that no one perish, but everyone come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) We are also called to grow in discipleship, love of each other, and move onto maturity.
When we respond to his call it is an act of faith, belief and obedience. Each of us has a choice. We can choose to live ordinary lives, doing ordinary things, in ordinary ways without any extraordinary sense of purpose. Or, we can choose to invest time, talent and treasure in being obedient to God’s will and direction in our lives no matter what the task and how simple it seems.
This was one of the great rediscoveries of the Protestant Reformation: it doesn’t matter what you do or who you are, when God calls you he calls you to a life of serving him. It doesn’t matter what it is, it is whether we do it faithfully and lovingly that matters.
This is both an encouragment and challenge to us all. We can ask ourselves, is my life lived by faith for the glory of God? We can easily discount what we do just because it doesn’t seem significant, big, or spiritual enough. But we need to be reminded that anything we do, whether it is at work, at home, at school, voluntary or not, can be the highest and holiest of calls.
As you live this coming week, let me encourage you to talk it over with God. You may be surprised that he sees what you do in a very different way. Perhaps you work for the glory God in a way you hadn’t previously considered!

Stephen L Baxter