Praise the Lord with Music and Song

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Bible Readings: Psalm 95:1-7a & Psalm 150

Both these Psalms are an encouragement to praise the Lord, especially to praise him with music and song: Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.

Psalm 150 begins and ends with the words, Praise the Lord or Hallelujah. The verses in between invite us to praise, telling us where and why to praise, and instructing us how to. We praise God because of who he is and because of what he has done, his surpassing greatness and his acts of power.

We praise him supremely because of what he did in sending Jesus to be our Saviour and Lord. We praise him with music, with song, and with our very lives. Psalm 150 expresses the sheer exuberance of lives given to God.

We thank God for lives devoted to him, who praise him day by day. The challenge comes to each one of us to use our talents and gifts, whether they are musical or whatever, to praise God and extend his kingdom. Also, in these days of coronavirus pandemic, many are discovering new talents and gifts for ministering in unexpected and exciting ways.

I finish this short thought with a prayer of praise I came across recently:

Creator God,
from the moment your spirit
hovered over the waters of this earth,
we were part of a vision
held lovingly within your heart.
From the moment you spoke
and separated darkness from light,
you created space
where we might one day walk.
From the moment your joy
spilled out into green and living things,
your beauty was revealed
for us to taste and see.
Creator God,
for this world,
beauty and majesty,
passion and artistry,
a green and pleasant place,
we praise your mighty name.

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Nothing has changed

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As I retire from my working life, I don’t retire from life. As I conclude a major chapter of my journey, my ongoing contribution to humanity continues. As I conclude forty years as a Salvation Army Corps Officer, I remain a Salvation Army Officer with a different Christian ministry. I start a new chapter, with fresh opportunities. Life goes on.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

28/06/20 Shaping the Future

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This is my final Sunday message before I retire in a few days time. Technically, I’m on holiday, but I’ve been pleased to share these weekly thoughts during June.

I mentioned at my welcome in 2015 that moving to Wallsend was more than just a new chapter in my life and ministry as a follower and servant of Jesus Christ, it was a whole new section of the book. I’d married Naomi the previous year and we arrived with Freddy who was three months old. I now leave to retire with our completed family, Matilda and Pollyanna having been born during our time here.

At a time of change we naturally think about making a fresh start, sorting things out, reflecting on how we can do things better, and taking positive steps into the future.

Although the future is unknown, we can play our part to make it a better place. It has to start today, because the only place we can live is in the present. It’s said that there’s no time like the present. So, if we want to shape the future, we need to start today.

We don’t need a special occasion, or a time of change, even though it often helps. We can take positive steps that will help shape the future of our own individual lives and that of others at any time.

Let me share some lovely words by Denise Brine with you:

Father God, I seek your guidance,
For I have a part to play
In the shaping of tomorrow
By the way I live today.
Take my hopes, my dreams, my passions,
Take my strength, my weakness too.
Shape my life; fulfil your purpose;
Start today; make me like you.

If I want to shape tomorrow
Then I need to start today,
Seeking, Lord, a revelation
Of your will and of your way.
If my passions, prayers and lifestyle
Are the witness people see,
Do I need a reformation
Of your Kingdom-life in me?

My todays will shape tomorrow!
Does that prospect please your eyes?
Are there changes that must happen?
Are there faults to recognise?
Shape me as seems best to you, Lord,
Start today, and help me see
That tomorrow will be better
When your life is seen in me.

David (in Psalm 51) prays in verse 10: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. The Message paraphrase words it in a very interesting way: God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life. Matthew Henry suggests that David is praying, Lord, fix me for the time to come.

Life isn’t easy for many people today, especially with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. We need to be there for them and for each other. We can share the best of humanity, as well as the love of God, by small acts of kindness to others. A simple smile, an offer of help, a genuine word of encouragement, beautiful actions of love.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are [together] on the road,
We are here to help each other,
Walk the mile and bear the load,

I will hold the Christlight for you,
In the night-time of your fear,
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

May that prayer be answered in each of our lives as we daily move into an unknown future, but one into which we can all take a hopeful and positive contribution.

21/06/20 Isaiah 46

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Isaiah 46 contains two sharply contrasting pictures; the first is of people carrying their god, the second one is of God carrying his people.

Isaiah can’t help smiling when he sees the shallow religion of the nations around Israel, what a miserable thing it must be to have a god who is a burden, who has to be carried from place to place. So he draws a humorous picture of a glittering god that looks great, but needs half a dozen men to carry it, a useless burden that weighs them down.

The second picture is of God our Heavenly Father, who carries his people from before birth, through life and past death into eternity.

Read: Isaiah 40:28-31

These two pictures represent two types of religion. On the one hand, one that has to be carried, that’s a burden, that’s a duty, that weighs us down and wears us out. On the other hand, one that worships a God who upholds with his powerful arms, one that carries us, lifts us, lightens our spirits and fills us with peace and joy.

I know which religion I prefer! Unfortunately, there are some Christians who choose the heavy, burdensome religion. Is it any wonder people reject it?

The disciples who met the Risen Jesus on the Emmaus Road recognised him when he broke bread. Their spirits were lifted: Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? Luke 24:32

Commissioner Catherine Bramwell-Booth wrote:

Come, blessed Jesus, come;
Break bread again for me;
Lord open Thou my eyes that I
Thy living self may see.
Then joy shall fill my heart,
My strength be all renewed
To witness of Thy death and life,
By Thine own power endued.

As we open ourselves up to God our Heavenly Father, and as we come humbly into his presence, he lifts us up and fills us with his nature.

Let’s not be content with a religion of strain and struggle, fear and duty, heavy hearts and clouded faces, when we can have a faith that carries our burdens, lightens our spirits and fills us with love, joy and peace.

True faith is attractive, it draws others to Christ. May we never turn antone away because our religion is joyless, judgemental and narrow. See: 1 John 5:3-4

Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day because of the heavy loads they put on the people. See: Matthew 23:1-4

How refreshing, then, are the words of Jesus: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

May that be real in our lives, and may we share it with those around us, as we recognise the true nature of God our Heavenly Father.

14/06/20 Quiet Times

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Bible Reading: Philippians 4:4-9

Isaiah 30:15 reminds us that, in quietness and confidence shall be your strength. That’s been my experience of faith during both good and bad times, and is my continuing experience now. The quiet times before God are so important for our spiritual health as Christians, and for our confidence and strength in ministry and service. Something we are all called to exercise.

Over the years I’ve a found a variety of resources that have helpfully enriched my prayer life, but the pure simplicity of coming before God in prayer after reading his word has so much to commend it. It’s helpful at the beginning of the day, but it can be flexible. I’ve also found that a written list is invaluable, so I remember all the people and situations I need to pray for.

Sometimes music has helped me, sometimes it’s been the beauty of God’s creation (especially at the top of mountains in South Wales), and at other times it’s been a quiet space in the midst of the rush and bustle of life (an example of this being the chapel of a hospital). So next time you’re in a hospital, maybe visiting someone or there for an appointment, find the chapel and spend a few moments of quietness and say some appropriate prayers.

Sometimes, when life has been hard, prayer has been difficult for me (I’m only human after all). At these times I’ve found a holding cross very useful. These can be bought from good Christian bookshops, along with a booklet of advice and prayers. When you can’t pray, you can hold the cross and simply allow your feelings and emotions to become a prayer to God, our heavenly Father.

We also come to God in prayer to listen, to open our hearts to his Holy Spirit and to allow him to make us the people he wants us to be. I find prayers in the Celtic tradition helpful in this respect, and I finish these thoughts with one of them:

Awaken me to your presence,
Alert me to your love,
Affirm me in your peace.
Open to me your way,
Reveal to me your joy,
Enfold me in your light,
For my heart is ready,
Lord, my heart is ready.

David Adam (from The Open Gate)

07/06/20 How are you?

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Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually. 3 John 2

‘How are you?’ we ask. And ‘fine’ comes the reply. But what are we really asking? And do we actually want to know, anyway?

Some years ago, I said ‘How are you?’ to a mentally disturbed man in church. With rare honesty, he responded, ‘You don’t want to know’. ‘But I do’ I protested (perhaps less honestly). ‘Well, look at your feet’, he replied, and I realised that I was walking past him even as I mouthed my automatic question.

Many languages have formulae for greeting, with questions about one’s neighbour’s family, animals, work, travel, sleep, eliciting standard responses. They oil the wheels of everyday life in society.

But what kind of interest in others might we convey in those short exchanges while travelling, on arrival at work, at the school gate, in the check-out queue or (when we get back) in church?

The apostle John, writing to his ‘dear friend Gaius‘, expressed three heartfelt wishes. First, that his friend should have good health. Second, that everything in his life should go well. Third, that his spiritual life should continue to thrive. Three wishes on the physical, circumstantial and spiritual planes.

We appear to think almost entirely about people’s health when we ask ‘how are you?’ Sometimes we scarcely wait for the expected answer, but that little answer ‘fine’ may veil a newly diagnosed cancer or a marriage on the rocks. ‘Fine’ may veil a lost faith or a broken heart.

If we genuinely care for others, we must be interested in their whole lives, in the issues they are facing in their families and in their work. Do we also have courage, with our Christian friends, to ask ‘How is your relationship with God?’

We need to pray for people on all these three planes like John, and when we write to people we need to ask after all these aspects of their lives. But in our everyday greetings, too, may we try to find ways of encouraging others by expressing a genuine concern for things that are going on in the deeper recesses of their hearts and minds.

A Calming Influence (Gaz Rose)

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The other day I posted on Facebook: OK friends, I need album suggestions of seriously calming music while I work this evening. Wrong answers also welcome. Go! I received some great suggestions, and I’m working my way through them.

Gaz Rose replied (with a smile), “Would it be wrong of me to suggest my new one? His brass neck cheek was just the nudge I needed to buy and download it, it lived up to the promise and I can thoroughly recommend it. Find it in the usual download places.

There’s no real official blurb, it’s simply an album for personal or corporate reflection, using Christian songs as a basis for the relaxed feel music. There’s something for everyone, including a track for the Christmas market – which I skipped by the way. The album finishes with an arrangement of Ascalon, his favourite hymn tune.

Gaz hasn’t paid me to promote this, but he owes me a coffee!

31/05/20 Pentecost Sunday

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Greetings on Pentecost Sunday. This would have been my last Sunday leading public worship before my retirement on Wednesday 1 July 2020. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Next month I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home before retiring and moving away from Wallsend.

It’s a matter of personal regret that I’ve not been able to lead Wallsend Corps in worship over these last few months, have a public farewell, or hand over leadership in the usual way. My sincere hope and prayer is that Wallsend Corps will be able to move forward into a new future under the leadership of Cadet (soon to be Lieutenant) Luke Cozens. I’m currently preparing handover information and I’m in contact with Luke to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in unique circumstances, ones I believe can be seen as both a challenge and opportunity. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Here’s a short video message from our Territorial Leaders Anthony and Gillian Cotterill introducing a Pentecost Sunday worship meeting, click here for more details. You can find an outline of it by clicking here.

Here’s my Bible message for Pentecost Sunday, the Bible readings are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 which can be read by clicking on the links.

When Chichester Cathedral was being renovated in 1962 they found that the medieval builders had built a magnificent cathedral on poor land and hadn’t extended the foundations far enough. As a result of this oversight, the 20th Century renovators had far more work than anticipated.

We don’t need reminding of the parable of the house built on the sand and the one built on the rock. It’s so important that we build our lives upon Christ, getting the foundations right and then building in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But let’s go right back to the beginning, literally, to the Book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis means ‘beginnings’, it’s a book that deals with the beginning of everything, not in a scientific way, but in a far more profound way.

Genesis focuses our attention on certain aspects of life, the first eleven chapters paint a picture of the world as God meant it to be, but they also show the appalling mess we’ve made of it; the message is timeless, because we continue to make a mess of it.

In these opening chapters of the Bible we have parables of immense significance. From there on, the rest of the Bible show us what God has done to get us out of the mess, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

We have the story of Noah and the Flood, the message being that the world merits nothing less than total destruction. The Flood symbolises God’s timeless judgement on humankind, as appropriate now as when it was written.

Noah wasn’t perfect, but he represents those in every age who walk with God. God always offers a way back to himself, if only we live our lives with reference to him.

Then we have the story of the Tower of Babel, a story that echoes the Fall: human defiance of God. But instead of the story being set in a garden with two people, the setting is bricks and mortar with a developing civilisation.

The age-old problem is that individuals and humankind as a whole build for their own glory rather than for the glory of God.

William Neil writes:
Man wants to run the world in his own way. He wants to put himself at the centre of his civilisation on a pedestal inscribed with the name: “Glory to MAN in the highest”.
Note how verse 4 says: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for OURSELVES”.

This is the mistake we make again and again. There is only one God and Creator, we are created in his likeness, and our destiny is to know him, to live in fellowship with him, humbly seeking and obeying his will for our lives.

The builders’ desire for autonomy recalls the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, and establishes the need for Abraham’s redemptive faith in the midst of international disorder. Far from the original garden, the first cities in Genesis represent arrogance, tyranny and wickedness. The city on the Babylonian plain was a magnet for human pride and idolatry, a tower that reaches into the sky. NLT Study Bible

When we put ourselves first, God comes and confounds our plans, and there is chaos and disorder. The confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel story is but a symptom of a much deeper disharmony that prevents unity and common understanding.

We talk about people ‘not speaking the same language’, meaning that their positions are so far apart that they might as well be speaking a different language.

We see this between individuals, groups and nations. Pride, injustice, and selfishness: all preventing meaningful communication and reconciliation.

But had you ever considered that the story of Pentecost balances the story of the Tower of Babel?

The divided language of Babel becomes the common language of Pentecost, the story is turned upside down; or more correctly the right way up.

The miracle of Pentecost was that a new language came with power, the language of love, the language of the Spirit, the language of unity, a language that all could understand; the love that God showed in sending his Son as Saviour and Lord, a suffering servant for all humankind.

God’s love in sending Jesus is something that speaks to the human heart far more eloquently than words could ever do. As we open our hearts and lives to God’s Holy Spirit he fills and empowers us to live this language of love in the world.

God can work in and through us when we’re open to God’s Holy Spirit, who takes our weaknesses and makes us strong, who takes our brokenness and makes us whole. Then the Holy Spirit can do the work of building the kingdom.

We can always move forward in his power and strength; building on the past, building in the present, and building for the future – especially in these new circumstances of coronavirus. Building, not for our own glory, but for God’s glory.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with thee I will one will
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.

Silent Joy in Grief

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It was one year ago (26 May 2019) that my 94-year-old mother (Jean) died in hospital in Northampton, my father (Fred) having died in 2013.

As I’ve written previously, special days and anniversaries awaken powerful emotions which lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, along with the ongoing emptiness of loss. Additionally, this is combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, a feeling which may be magnified for me because I’m an only child of only children.

I had the following words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer printed on the back of the order of service for both their funerals as they expressed something my family wanted to articulate. These words have become even more meaningful to me with the passing of time, and I hope you find them helpful as well.

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve, even in pain, the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

Commissioning Day 1980

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Forty years ago (23 May 1980) I was ordained and commissioned as a Salvation Army Officer (Minister of Religion) in the Royal Albert Hall, London. This significant anniversary comes as I prepare for my retirement in a world that’s vastly different from the one in which I commenced my vocation, but one that continues beyond the end of my working life.

There’s so much I could write, but here’s just one memory of the day. My mother was chosen to come onto the stage to receive her Silver Star badge (presented then to mothers and now to both parents of officers) as a representative mother. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find her way through the tunnels in the bowels of the building in true This is Spinal Tap tradition. Fortunately, she had the presence of mind to come back up to the auditorium and make a grand entrance via the central stairs onto the stage!