Words

And never let ugly or hateful words come from your mouth, but instead let your words become beautiful gifts that encourage others; do this by speaking words of grace to help them.
Ephesians‬ ‭4:29‬ ‭TPT‬‬

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
James‬ ‭3:9-10‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

The Passion Translation of our Ephesian verse today uses the phrase “ugly or hateful” to describe undesirable words. In other translations we have “unwholesome” and “foul or abusive“. They all build a picture that Paul was trying to get across to his readers, that the words we use are important and that we need to make sure we use the right words, both in what we say and what we mean. He wasn’t the only New Testament writer who picked up on this theme. James, one of Jesus’ half-brothers, said much the same in our second verses today.

I walked past a group of men the other day, and their discussion about the war in Ukraine was interlaced with so many swear words that I quickly walked by. Hateful words cursing human beings. Seemingly the exact opposite of what Paul and James were writing about in their letters. But we don’t have to be using profanities for the words we say to still tick the “ugly or hateful” box. What about the times when we have run someone down. Perhaps a political leader we don’t like? Or our boss at work? The next door neighbour? In the process using words that are far from the definition of “words of grace”. James was quite right when he said that words from our mouths can at times be used and uttered in worship and praise of God but at other times can be destructive and offensive. 

So how does a 21st Century pilgrim only say words that are “beautiful gifts“? Holding our tongues when we hit a thumb with a hammer? Praying for our enemies not curse them? Cleaning up the words that come out of our mouths in a worldly workplace full of profanities and hate speech? And it doesn’t just end with our spoken words. If social media had been around in Paul and James’ days they would have included trolling and other negative posts in their teachings. Because God clearly was speaking through them and wants our “words of grace” to penetrate into this dark world with laser-sharp illumination. Showing a better way. A counter-cultural way.

It all boils down to our choices. We have a choice over what we say. We can react in anger and say things we will later regret, or we can hold our tongues, letting the feelings inside of us subside. Paul in Romans 12 wrote this, “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all He has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind He will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship Him. Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect”. 

In the verses in Romans 12, Paul exposed the importance of our thoughts. Someone once said, “What consumes your mind, controls your life.” I would develop this to say, “What consumes your mind, controls what you say”. There is a key for pilgrims in this sentence from Romans 12:2, “Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” We must turn our backs on the worldliness around us, instead allowing God to work in our minds, bringing to bear more of His presence, bringing sanctification to our “little grey cells”. Then our speech will become less and less problematic. A sanctified mind will make the right choices and the right speech will result. What we say to others will be gracious and “beautiful gifts“. But all of this won’t happen overnight. God is in no hurry. He is gracious, loving and gentle. And as we learn more and more to turn to Him in times of stress what comes out of our mouths will be the voice of God, helping those around us.

Light

“Your Word is a lamp to guide my feet 
and a light for my path.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭119:105‬ ‭NLT‬‬

This is a verse often quoted because it clearly states how important the Scriptures are in the life of our Christian pilgrim. The picture rises before us, of a person making their way along a dark path as it twists and turns through a forest or valley. A dangerous place where a light is essential. There are all sorts of boulders and other hazards in the way, but the pilgrim holds a lantern, perhaps on the end of a pole, which dimly lights  a small area of the path in front.

In our Western societies, total blackness, a total absence of a light source, is unusual. There are street lights, or glowing windows, or passing vehicles, or there is enough heavenly illumination to provide some light for a walk outside. But on several occasions I have experienced total blackness where there has been no ambient light at all. Typically this can happen in geographically remote places and under skies darkly obscured by a heavy cloud layer. It is a strange feeling. 

As we take this analogy into our spiritual lives, we too can visualise a place of total darkness, where God’s light is absent. Some people think a total absence of the light of God is a description of hell. But God’s light is all around us. We probably have no idea how well illuminated our lives are. His light holds back the dark forces of evil that are so prevalent, that are waiting in the wings, so to speak, to wreak their nefarious ways on unsuspecting people. 

From that perspective, we need access to some form of ambient light, and the Bible, God’s Word, is just that. Furthermore, in the Gospel of John, we read that the Word was Jesus. John 1:4-5, “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” So when we couple together our verse today from Psalm 119 with John 1, we immediately see that the Christian pilgrim has to be a Jesus-follower. Jesus is our Light. He is the One who illuminates our path through life. And it is only by following Him that we can avoid the problems and hazards in the darkness that surrounds us. At Christmas time we celebrate the coming of Jesus into this world; another verse from John 1, “The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, [is] coming into the world.”

There’s not much more to say about our verse from Psalm 119 today, except that we have a choice – we follow Jesus and His teachings, His ways, or we stumble around in the darkness, succumbing to all sorts of hazards. Surely a place without Jesus is a scary place to be.

God’s Provision

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, 
is God in his holy dwelling. 
God sets the lonely in families, 
He leads out the prisoners with singing; 
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
Psalms‬ ‭68:5-6‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

In this Psalm, the author, David, puts his finger on two people groups who were social outcasts in his day. Orphans and widows. In a society without a social security safety net, these people were vulnerable to abuse and injustice. In His time spent with God up the mountain, Moses particularly highlighted and wrote about those people in his society who were in need (Deuteronomy 10:18), and David repeats the principle in these verses. The verses we are reading today declare that God would provide for the orphans and widows. In those days, begging was a common way of receiving provision, as well as the expectation that friends, neighbours and the wealthy, would show favour to those in need. But as we read from Jesus’ words in the Gospels, caring for the disadvantaged was an aspiration rather than a realisation.

Today there are still orphans and widows. But the responsibility for looking after them has shifted from members of society to the state, with the provision of benefits for those in need, or foster homes for the orphaned. Progress? Perhaps. But we still have a responsibility, as Christians, to look out for those people in our society who are disadvantaged. Being a friend to the lonely. Keeping an eye on that elderly widow lady next door, doing her shopping or cutting her grass. And through us, God will look after those in social need. But is this an aspiration rather than a realisation? It’s up to us to turn it into a reality.

But what about the prisoners? From what were they being set free? We are all prisoners of something, to a greater or lesser extent. Many things can imprison us. Lack of finance. Mental and physical illness. Disabilities. Loneliness. Abusive neighbours. Lack of education. Substance abuse. The list is endless. But David says that through God we can be set free from the incarceration we experience. We can rise above our cells of misery and want. We can look up through the bars and see our loving Heavenly Father, and be filled with a new song of joy and freedom. One of my favourite Scriptures is Isaiah 40, and the last verse reads, “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Through God we can soar into Heavenly places, elevated from our bi-dimensional existence. 

Finally, there is a sad side to these verses. The last part of verse 6 mourns the fact that those who have rebelled against God, by rejecting or ignoring Him, will have to live in a dry and hot place. Is this a prophetic muse about the time to come, when those who have rejected God will spend eternity in the place of their default choice?

But back to the message in these verses. As God’s servants on this planet we have a responsibility to look after those less fortunate than ourselves. And when we do so we too will have song in our hearts. 

God is Alive

The Lord lives! Praise be to my Rock!
Exalted be God my Saviour!
Psalm 18:46 NIVUK

There are three words in this short verse that stand out a mile – “Lives”, “Rock” and “Saviour”. Or to expand a bit, God is alive, He is our Rock and our Salvation. But let’s take the first phrase – “The Lord lives”. How does that make us feel? We looked earlier in one of my blog posts at the thought “God is dead” but here is the concept that He is alive. There is no half way state between life and death (though looking at our elderly pet Westie asleep in his basket, I wonder sometimes).

There are published theological proofs claiming that God is alive, but for me the situation is simpler. Jesus, the Son of God, and a part of our Trinitarian God, came to this world as a man, walked the highways and byways of Palestine and then was cruelly crucified, suffering the Roman-applied criminal’s death. But, on the third day after this happened, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples for a period of fifty days until His ascension back to Heaven. So He’s not dead any more – He has just moved to a new address. The Apostle Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, 8:34, “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” We can look back at the events 2000 years ago but the Psalmist David didn’t have that benefit. However he developed a relationship with God that was so vibrant that he knew God was alive. And his heart overflowed with grateful praise as he exalted the living God, his Saviour.

But I ask the inevitable question – is God alive for us today on Planet Earth, in the societies of which we are a part? Do we look at local and global world events and ask ourselves why God is not intervening? The wars and suffering, the malnutrition and disease. Does God’s life or death make any difference either way? There are no glib, off-the-cuff answers to this question, this dilemma that we face every day. For me personally, living in this sin-soaked world is difficult. It has its challenges. But the day is coming when God will cry, “Enough!” and we read in the Book of Revelation about the end times and the new heaven and earth. And, soberingly, we read about the day of judgement coming as well. Why doesn’t God sort out the world now? That’s where the concept of grace comes into play. God in His loving kindness and mercy gives everyone the opportunity during their lifetime to make that leap of faith and put their trust in Him, thus ensuring a place at the banquet and a home in a mansion, that Jesus told His disciples about.

Blaise Pascal the great 17th Century mathematician and philosopher was credited with the following quotation, “If I believe in God and life after death and you do not, and if there is no God, we both lose when we die. However, if there is a God, you still lose and I gain everything.” In other words, if God is alive, as David claimed, and we align our lives to Him through the sacrifice Jesus made for us at Calvary, then we have a glorious future awaiting us. If we don’t then, like Blaise suggested, we’re “losers”. Something else to meditate over our day ahead?

Forgetful People

Don’t kill them, for my people soon forget such lessons; stagger them with Your power, and bring them to their knees, O Lord our shield.
‭Psalms‬ ‭59:11‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Psalm 59 continues the epic journey of David and his thoughts as he focuses on avoiding Saul’s malign attempts to end his life. In this Psalm, David rants before God about the nasty people who are out to get him, waiting for him to return home. They are “criminals”, “murderers”, “vicious dogs”, people with “sinful lips”. David doesn’t have much good to say about them at all. But at the end of the Psalm he again lapses into the comfort of his relationship with God, waiting for Him to rescue him. 

But today’s verse is interesting. David knows what people and their memories and thought processes are like. He knew that if God killed David’s enemies it would be a warning to some at the time but then quickly forgotten. Human nature is still the same today. Take for example someone’s driving behaviour if they see a road traffic accident caused by speeding. Their driving style and speed might moderate for a few miles, but for how long will it stay that way? Sooner or later they will forget or ignore what happened and carry on as they did before. The reoffending rate of people imprisoned for burglary is another example. Many soon forget their period of incarceration and return to their old ways. It is a trait of human nature to forget sinful events committed by others or ourselves, adopting an “it will never happen to me” mentality, or ”I’ll be more careful next time and not get caught”.  

However, David appealed to God to “stagger [such people] with [His] power and bring them to their knees“. He knew that someone repenting of their sins, on their knees before God, would have a far greater impact on the society around them. I know a lovely man in Glasgow, jailed in his teens for a drug offence. He found God in prison and is now the Pastor of a church in the very same community where he committed his drug offences. What an impact he has had! He is a constant reminder to the people in that community of God’s grace being available for all sinners, even him. David knew, and recorded in his Psalm, that a life snuffed out will have no future value, but one redeemed from sin will last forever. If my Pastor friend had continued in a life of drugs and crime, there would have been no lasting legacy, no outpouring of God’s grace, no constant reminder that there is a God in Heaven who cares for all mankind, and particularly those in his community.

So we need to be gracious. We need to pray, and keep praying, for those in our communities, workplaces, families, circle of friends, anyone we know who may be causing us difficulties. These people may not be enemies in the way David describes, but they may be telling lies, or posting unfavourable comments on social media about us. They may be ignoring us in the street. They may even be unpleasant to our faces. But prayer changes things. As we pray God will work on their hearts, and give them the opportunity to kneel before Him, asking for His forgiveness. And as we pray, He will change our hearts too, helping us see these people through His eyes, even loving them as He loves us. I can only say in response to such a gracious God, “What a Saviour!” Do I hear an “Amen”?

The Ziphites

Save me, O God, by your name; vindicate me by your might.
You have delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.
Psalm 54:1,7 NIVUK

David is a hunted man, lurking and hiding in the wilderness of Judah. King Saul is after him and there are many opportunists who want to cosy up to Saul to gain his favours. The Ziphites are amongst them and they try and expose David’s location to King Saul, not just once, but on two occasions. And they did this even though they were tribally related to David, but, sadly, they considered him a rebel. Knowing their own territory, they were keeping tabs on David and providing intelligence to Saul about his whereabouts. But as things worked out, one might say they were backing the wrong horse.

Psalm 54 is the record of a part prayer, part chat, part declaration, between David, his Father God and anyone who was listening at the time. David starts in prayer, appealing to God to keep him safe and vindicate his yet to be fulfilled status as Israel’s king, in spite of the grave threats to his life. He then lapses into explaining why he was praying in such a way before finishing the Psalm with a declaration of praise and thanks. Prayers for help to a result in seven verses. Can’t be bad!

Does this Psalm still have validity today? It was written in a lawless society (at least by today’s standards) where a king could do pretty much what he liked. In our Western society, we have much more stability, or so we like to think, but there are still times of peril when God is the only One who can fix things for us. Those calamitous times when we, in our panic and fright, shout out a hurried “Save me” prayer to God, relief flooding in when He answers us. I’ve been there, and I’m sure you have too. But David didn’t write this Psalm on a whim. He wrote it out of a vibrant and personal relationship with his Father in Heaven. And out of that relationship he could say with confidence that God would come through for him. There is no substitute for a life spent in the company of our Creator God. Perhaps time spent with God will lead to a less stressful life, free of perilous situations. Or, more likely, it will lead us through any “valley[s] of the shadow of death” that we encounter, our walk fearlessly accompanied and comforted by the Lord our Shepherd.

So let me ask you a question today. Are you a fearful person worrying that something is waiting to zap you around the next corner, hoping that you will have time to shout out the “Save me” prayer, or are you a person who spends time with God and is confident in His ability to protect you come what may? Hmmm…

Olives

Why do you boast about your crimes, great warrior? Don’t you realise God’s justice continues forever? All day long you plot destruction. Your tongue cuts like a sharp razor; you’re an expert at telling lies. You love evil more than good and lies more than truth.
But I am like an olive tree, thriving in the house of God. I will always trust in God’s unfailing love. I will praise You forever, O God, for what You have done. I will trust in Your good name in the presence of Your faithful people.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭52:1-3, 8-9‬ ‭NLT‬‬

A Psalm about two people. A great warrior who tells lies and the Psalmist who likens himself to an olive tree. It could be the actor list for a stage play or the character list in a fantasy novel. But then the seriousness of the message unfolds. David, the Psalmist, was recording the wrongs of a man called “Doeg the Edomite”, a man who massacred priests at Saul’s behest. We can read about the event, and his evil, in 1 Samuel 21 and 22. But what can we learn from this Psalm? I think the main message is that there is an eternal reality about God and His righteousness and justice. There have been many men and women, past and present, who are self-serving, mirroring the behaviour of the “great warrior” and thus assuring themselves the fate reserved for evil people. Perhaps David introduced a hint of sarcasm when he referred to Doeg as being a “great warrior”, because anyone with that title would be expected to be brave and courageous, and with a character befitting the word “great”. David referred to Doeg’s tongue as being like a sharp razor; he was apparently no stranger to boasting about his ruthless deeds and he used his mouth as the vehicle for underpinning his evil reputation. But Doeg was a man without a conscience and his one motivation in life was to maximise his own selfish rewards – an original “what’s in it for me” person – and he came to a early end, dying, according to Jewish traditions, at the age of 34. In today’s culture, the spirit of Doeg lives on, and many a person, not just those in a position of power or leadership, shipwreck their lives on a sea of lies and deceit. 

But David turns away from his rant to more personal matters. He likens himself to an olive tree. Why an olive tree? Why not an oak tree? Or one of those cedars of Lebanon? Perhaps he saw an olive tree planted close by while he wrote down his thoughts in God’s house, and was impressed by its fruitfulness. He saw the blessings of God manifested in this vigorous, long lasting tree; it was perhaps getting close to the time of a rich harvest of olives, and he equated it to his own life of trust in his loving Heavenly Father. A life full of “olives” of praise and thankfulness, a life founded on his relationship with God.

The moral of the story is that sooner or later, a life of deceit will face a time of reckoning. Lies will be exposed before the almighty Judge. And those people who commit to a life of righteousness will be amazed at how blind such deceitful people can be. They will laugh about the fate of even the most mighty of “warriors who do not trust God“. The righteous look on and observe godless, self-seeking evil people as they tumble down the slippery slope leading to the ultimate home of the father of lies.

The House of God

“These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.” Psalms‬ ‭42:4‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Phil 13b-14 NIVUK

One thing that has happened during the pandemic is that many churches have experienced a drop in attendance. Bluntly, people who faithfully went to church every Sunday don’t go anymore. Their commitment has failed to survive the hassles of lockdowns, and a transition to services being live-streamed or held using Zoom. But what about their commitment to God and His people? There will always be things trying to get in the way of our God-worship, and difficulties will often expose what is in people’s hearts.

The Apostle Paul suffered greatly in his missionary journeys – many of his challenges are listed in 2 Corinthians 11 – but nothing ever stopped him from doing what he knew God had asked him to do. So he pressed on to fulfil his mission in life. We may not be high profile missionaries like Paul, or evangelists like Billy Graham, but we too have a mission in life and responsibilities to God and His people. And so in this continuing pandemic season, there is perhaps an opportunity for a reset, for forgetting the difficulties of the past 18 months or so. Those anxieties, griefs, and worries, the lockdowns, that have blighted our lives. Instead we must reach out to God for a fresh infilling of His Spirit and remember that today is the first day of the rest of our lives. We cannot change the past but we can ensure that our future is aligned to God’s will and purposes.

God’s Master Plan

“O Lord my God, you have performed many wonders for us. Your plans for us are too numerous to list. You have no equal. If I tried to recite all Your wonderful deeds, I would never come to the end of them.” Psalms‬ ‭40:5‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Any attempt to unpick and drill down into this verse can only end up in becoming lost in the depths of our Creator God, full of grateful praise and worship. The bottom line is that God’s wonders, plans and deeds are uncountable because there are so many of them. For example, just take the environment in which we live. The number of conditions that combine to enable life as we know it on this planet are uncountable. And it was God’s plan to create a world where His plans could be developed. And look at the complexities of human life – how could two cells coming together in a mother’s womb ever develop into a human being capable of so much? It beggars belief that so many people believe the lie that our world and all its contents happened by chance. As the verse above points out, our Creator God has performed many wonders and deeds in implementing His plans.

But there is a wonder, a plan, a deed, that is far above anything else God has done for the human race. We find in the Genesis account that God created men and women in His image. And He wanted to have a relationship with them based on love and friendship. But things went horribly wrong with man’s response to God, as we can find in the early accounts of the Israelite nation. God wasn’t going to give up on His creation, though, and He devised a master plan to reconcile mankind back to Him. His love for us was so intense that he wasn’t going to let us continue in living a life less than how He designed it to be. A life without the ultimate richness of being a friend of God. We can read about God’s master plan through the words of Jesus in John 3. This is the Message version. “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” That was God’s plan. To put the world back into the place He had designed it to be. He wasn’t going to give up on His creation and He never will. Through Jesus, God’s Master Plan, everyone person living on this planet can find out about God’s wonders, plans and deeds. If they want to. The choice is theirs. The choice is yours.

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

“I said to myself, “I will watch what I do and not sin in what I say. I will hold my tongue when the ungodly are around me.” But as I stood there in silence— not even speaking of good things— the turmoil within me grew worse. The more I thought about it, the hotter I got, igniting a fire of words:” Psalms‬ ‭39:1-3‬ ‭NLT‬‬

The Psalmist is in worldly company. This Godly man is in a quandary – the worldly talk going on around him is distressing and sinful. It probably contains language and humour he disagrees with, and alludes to practices he abhors. So he keeps silent. And becomes seriously upset internally – turmoil is the word he uses to describe his feelings. And eventually he is unable to hold within himself the feelings of frustration, and he blows up, blasting his companions with a torrent of words. Sound familiar? It’s a place where I have been during my work-a-day life. Conversations take place in the office that I find degrading and upsetting. Gossip, smutty jokes, character assassination, foul language, sexual innuendo. It’s all there and as a Christian it’s a place where I don’t want to be. But I have to be there because it’s a place where I earn the money I need for life.

But there is a different meaning in these verses. We see from later in the Psalm that the Psalmist is perhaps quiet before the “ungodly” because of his sins. And in the Psalm he goes on to reflect on the temporary nature of life, his sins, his hope in God, being disciplined by God and finally pleading with God for his prayers to be heard.

But whatever interpretation we choose, the message is clear. The dichotomy between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the world is stark. We can’t have a foot in each kingdom. Jesus was clear about this in His teaching during what we call the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:24 Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” Once settled in the Promised Land, Joshua delivered a rousing message to the Israelites which was recorded in Joshua 24:15, “But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” The choice he laid before his countrymen was the same choice we have before us today. Whom will we serve? As for me I can say without hesitation – I and my family will serve the Lord.