St David’s Day

Saint David is the patron saint of Wales, and his feast day is celebrated on 1 March, the date of his death in 589 CE. I have fond memories of eight years lived in South Wales during my working life as a Salvation Army Officer and celebrating this special day with my family.

The Welsh will be especially celebrating this year (2021) after their victory over England in the Six Nations Championship, only two days prior to this traditional festival. I’ve always supported Wales (and still do) as long as they’re not playing England, but it never worked the other way round – England being seen as the ‘enemy’. It was often the subject of gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) teasing during the welcome and announcements on Sunday in worship at the Salvation Army, I gave as good as I got and often fully deserved the reaction I provoked.

Traditional symbols of daffodils (Wales) and leeks (Saint David) are worn, traditional Welsh food eaten, and traditional Welsh dress worn by the women and girls. I well remember my (now grown-up) English daughter proudly going to school in her Welsh costume. Teasing aside, we’re all enriched by appreciating and (when and where appropriate) respectfully sharing in the traditions of others.

Temptation 1 (Lent 2)

Lent is a time of giving up things, and in the Salvation Army it’s a time when we think about our Self-Denial Altar Service. In the Christian year it’s associated with the time Jesus spent being tempted in the desert.

Lent is traditionally a time of fasting, but spiritually it might better be considered a time to feast. A time to feed our souls by reflecting on the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter.

Bible Readings: Mark 1:9-13 and Matthew 4:1-11

The time of temptation in the desert comes at the start of the earthly ministry of Jesus, and it was a time of real challenge to him. Had Jesus been diverted from his task at such an early stage, Satan would have won a great victory. Jesus would have fallen at the first hurdle.

He faced three very specific temptations, three very real challenges, and three very desirable shortcuts to popularity and power. What was common to each of these challenges was the temptation to doubt, If you are the Son of God…

Jesus was reflecting and agonising on the direction of his ministry, and these three shortcuts to popularity and power came in the form of economic, religious and political challenges.

  • When Jesus was tempted to use his power to turn stones into bread, it wasn’t merely for his own physical need. He was being shown one way that he might achieve popularity, by meeting people’s economic needs.
  • When Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the Temple, it wasn’t merely a test of his divine status. It was another way of gaining recognition, by proving to the religious leaders that he was God’s Son, by satisfying a religious need.
  • When Jesus was tempted with all the kingdoms of the world, Satan was not merely appealing to his ego. Satan was dangling before him the carrot of political power, the opportunity of using dubious methods to exercise power over people.

So three temptations, three shortcuts to popularity and power: economic, religious and political.

  • The first was resisted because it was the wrong way to recruit followers and the wrong approach to human need: It was a way that avoided the cross.
  • The second was resisted because recognition that came by flaunting divine power would be shallow: It was contrary to God’s character.
  • The third was resisted because Jesus could never rule by force: It was contrary to God’s will.

These were real challenges, different – yet not so different from the ones we face every day of our lives.

Temptations are actually about ways of satisfying our own needs inappropriately, masking our true selves by showing off and making ourselves look better than we really are, or forcing ourselves onto other people against their will. They’re much deeper than just craving chocolate!

As the writer to the Hebrews says:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Hebrews 4:15

Use this week in Lent to reflect on the Bible readings above, and on Christ’s experience in the desert.

See also: The Essence of Lent

To be continued…

The Woman at the Well (Lent 1)

Whataboutery annoys me. It’s when someone responds to criticism, or an opposing view, by accusing someone else of similar or worse faults. Whataboutery is a shallow way of diverting attention away from yourself (often, but not always) when criticised. Irritating in children and pathetic in adults. You find it everywhere, in Facebook conversations, in politics, and in media interviews etc.

Often it’s simply trying to change the subject, at other times it’s trying to start a diversionary argument when the truth becomes too hot to handle. I think sometimes it comes out of instinct, a learned response, especially since it’s so prevalent today, not least in news media.

Equally, whataboutery is nothing new, it’s been around as long as humans have. In the third chapter of the first book of the Bible, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake! Genesis 3

When the Risen Jesus challenged Peter to follow him despite all the challenges, Peter pointed to another disciple and said, ‘Lord, what about him?’ John 21:21

But the Bible passage I have in mind is John 4:1-42, read it now and look for examples of whataboutery.

In this reading from John’s Gospel we see an act of kindness with enormous consequences, the fact that Jesus and the Samaritan woman even began a conversation. For centuries Jews and Samaritans had been hostile to one another. The safest way to live together was to keep their distance, live in their own little world and not notice the other’s presence.

Most people would have considered Jesus to have been very brave, or very foolish, to have been in Samaritan territory at all. And to stop at a well was double trouble, because that was where the women came to draw water, and in a society where the sexes were carefully separated it wasn’t the place for a man and woman to be found on their own.

The modern equivalent of a well is the water cooler, an opportunity for conversation. But far from getting off to a good start, it looks like the conversation will get bogged down in whataboutery, misunderstanding, and cross purposes.

I’m not going to go over what you can read for yourself, but a careful reading and re-reading of the passage will pay dividends.

You’ll notice how Jesus wisely refuses to become engaged in an argument, and how often we fail in this respect when we want to score points on social media, for example. He doesn’t take the opportunity to reinforce a partisan position, but rather he proposes that the true worship that God desires is worship in spirit and truth, not dependent on any particular place or shrine. He keeps a level head.

The story is about evangelism, and how it can start with a simple encounter and a conversation that broke down prejudices, and allowing entry into a new world shaped by God.

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:11-14

Here is the universal longing of the human condition, that our spiritually emptiness might be filled, and this thirst is something Jesus satisfies. Here is God’s continuing presence with his people, and he nourishes us day by day in our journey of faith.

Jesus said, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6), but he also demonstrated the perfect example in his response to whataboutery.

Note: This Sunday (21 February 2021) is the first Sunday in Lent. I’ve not mentioned Lent in this devotional, but you can click here for one of today’s Lectionary readings and find out more here.

Ash Wednesday (Start of Lent)

Ash Wednesday is a Christian day of prayer and fasting marking the start of Lent, the second period of reflection in the Christian year, the first being Advent. More specifically, it’s an opportunity for self-examination, fasting, confession, and repentance – a time to grow spiritually before Palm SundayHoly WeekGood Friday, and Easter.

Ash Wednesday (the day after Shrove Tuesday) derives its name from the placing of ashes on the forehead to either the words ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel’ or ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. The ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves (from the previous Palm Sunday) on Shrove Tuesday.

See also: Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)

Note: You can find out more (along with an Ash Wednesday poem) by clicking here.

Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)

Shrove Tuesday (more commonly known as Pancake Day) is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Christian year. Lent is associated with the time Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. The date of Shrove Tuesday is determined by the date of Easter each year, but always falls on a Tuesday (obviously) as Easter always falls on a Sunday. The name comes from the word shrive, meaning absolve.

Lent is the second period of reflection in the Christian year, the first being Advent. More specifically, it’s an opportunity for self-examination, fasting, confession, and repentance – a time to grow spiritually before Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter.

Making pancakes was one way to use up food before fasting. Traditionally, many different types of food would be given up including meat, fish, eggs and dairy-based foods. These foods were cooked and eaten on Shrove Tuesday so they wouldn’t be wasted during the period of Lent.

As this is the last day of the Christian liturgical season historically known as Shrovetide, before the penitential season of Lent, related popular practices, such as indulging in food that one might give up as their Lenten sacrifice for the upcoming forty days, are associated with Shrove Tuesday celebrations. The term Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which begins on Ash Wednesday. Many Christian congregations thus observe the day through the holding of pancake breakfasts, as well as the ringing of church bells to remind people to repent of their sins before the start of Lent. On Shrove Tuesday, churches also burn the palms distributed during the previous year’s Palm Sunday liturgies to make the ashes used during the services held on the very next day, Ash Wednesday. Wikipedia

Today, making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday can be simply a cultural thing, and (for retailers) a marketing opportunity. So, whatever the meaning, or combination of meanings, for you – will you be making and tossing pancakes? If so, let me know how you get on. As for me, I’m quite proud of my pancake tossing skills.

See also: Ash Wednesday (Start of Lent)

Living Life in God’s Love

Love it or loathe it, you’ll know that today (14 February) is St Valentine’s Day. It’s a Christian festival, but also a huge marketing opportunity for shops and online retailers. While I was a corps officer and leading worship, it was always helpful when this day fell on a Sunday, and this year (2021) it does just that.

Although there was a Saint Valentine, there are several after whom the day may have been named. I’ll focus on the traditional attribution, but you can find out more here.

Legend has it that the emperor was dismayed that the men of Rome were not enlisting for the army, because they loved their wives and families too much to become soldiers. So he decreed that engagements and marriages were against the law. Valentine was a priest and doctor in Rome, and he refused to obey. He went on marrying young men and women because he believed that was God’s way. He got dragged before the authorities in Rome on 14 February 270 (actual date not known) and, having refused to change his ways, paid the price.

We’ll never know how true the legend is, but Saint Valentine has been associated with this lovers’ festival for many centuries. As Christians, the one love story that we especially celebrate is that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great love for us, he was prepared to sacrifice himself in life and on the cross.

Bible Reading: Ephesians 5:1-20

Paul wrote: […] live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God

The love expressed on Valentine’s Day might be deep and meaningful, it might just be shallow and expected, and it might even be it might be a joke or a bit of fun. But the one thing we can be sure of is that we are all loved with the very love of Jesus. No one deserves it and no one is left out.

None of us are perfect, none of us deserve this love, because we are all flawed human beings. Sometimes we don’t recognise our collective failings, thus making it difficult to cope with human weakness, both in ourselves and others. Sometimes we ascribe sinfulness to others and not to ourselves, it’s the oldest human failing.

Of course, there’s clearly goodness in individuals, but we are all flawed because of our basic humanity. This is a big subject, and the discussion of inherent evil or inherent good is for another time and place.

Christian teaching shows us that we are insignificant and worthless in relation to the universe, but significant and of infinite value to God, even though flawed and without any claim on grace.

Edward Norman has written: The supreme loveliness of the life of Christ exhibited the sacrifice of God himself for creatures who were undeserving. It was not because men and women were good that Christ died for them. How can it have been? On the hills of Galilee and in the desert places of Judea the Saviour had loved those whose lives encouraged no love and inspired no pity. Nothing in human nature has changed, and it is not going to. Jesus came into the world precisely because we were not good, and because we are not capable of self-correction. People today will begin to cope with the evils of existence if only they will bring themselves to accept that their own natures are inherently flawed. And the hand of God himself extends from the cross to lift and save those who reach out to him.

Accepting responsibility for our own sinfulness can open the floodgates of God’s mercy and love in Jesus, and we can be transformed. We can also better accept the sinfulness of others. Although we don’t deserve it, God offers us love through Jesus, and he challenges us to live a life of love in response, loving him, others, and ourselves.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:15-20

On this Valentine’s Day, do we need to give more of ourselves to God? Giving ourselves to him as a fragrant offering and sacrifice? As Rick Warren has written, let’s move from smelling the odour of waste to the bouquet of grace.

Finding Peace in Five Verses

Just a simple (yet hopefully profound) Sunday devotional today. It’s based on five Bible verses shared in a recent newsletter from Our Daily Bread Ministries.

The newsletter reminds us that we live in anxious and uncertain times (not that we need reminding) and that peace can seem like a rare commodity. God’s peace is something completely different and reliable though.

It’s suggested that when we need to experience his peace, we dedicate some time to meditate and reflect on these five verses. I would also add that you might like to consider them in context, as this is always important in our reading of God’s word. So, why not find a quiet place, and immerse yourself in these verses?

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4:8
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. 
Isaiah 26:3
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
John 14:27
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
Colossians 3:15

Prayer: Peace to you from God who is our Father. Peace from Jesus Christ who is our peace. Peace from the Holy Spirit who gives us life. The peace of the triune God be always with you. Amen.

You might also find this post helpful: Be still, and know (Will J Brand)

In our brokenness (Stephen Poxon)

I’ve just finished this devotional anthology by my author friend Stephen Poxon, who wrote a guest post for this blog a while back. You can find his books on Amazon by clicking here.

A Response to Grace is ‘a gathering of thoughts, jottings, poems and songs’, with the premise that God is present in the everyday things of life with its sometimes mundane circumstances and problems.

Grace is permanently concerned, available, widespread, willing, and reliable. Empowering grace is promised and indefatigable. Grace understands and meets us where we are.

In this anthology is all of life, its ups and downs, its best and worst, and all embraced, redeemed, and lifted up by grace. Here you will find drama and cabbages, heartache and Handel, politics and prayer, even marching in the rain – and that’s just the first five devotions! Here are heartfelt observations and reflections drawn from real life encounters, along with deeply personal insights that speak to the depths of our human condition.

I could have quoted from any of the pages, but I specifically chose this poem (which can be sung to the tune ‘Trust in God’) because it speaks to our humanity and (to some extent) our current circumstances in the coronavirus pandemic.

In our brokenness, we see the Saviour,
Gently holding lives now torn apart;
Consequence of sin and our behaviour
Chosen wrong that breaks the Father’s heart.
There we see, as well, the God of comfort,
Showing lame and weary how to dance,
Cradling innocents and weeping victims,
Those who never really stood a chance.

Through the moments of our greatest weakness
Runs a strand of pure sustaining grace;
When the stuff of life is fraught with burdens,
Then our gaze is turned to Jesus’ face;
And our God, all merciful and gracious,
Sweeps attendant evil all away,
And our hearts again are drawn to love him,
Lest those hearts should ever Love betray.

This is God, so gentle, kind and tender;
Pain of guilt removed, its stain erased;
This is God, so infinitely patient,
Hanging there, in every sinner’s place.
Every blemish covered by his mercy,
Every scar, by pity made to fade;
This is God, who knows our greatest sorrow,
This is God; our ransom wholly paid.

With a broken world, so marred and fractured,
Broken people share a God of love;
He whose charm our wayward lives has captured
We impart as manna from above;
Beggars sharing of our bread with others;
Calv’ry’s cross upright on level ground,
Where the heaviest burdens can be lifted,
Where a peace supernal can be found.

© Stephen Poxon (reproduced with permission)

Please Note: This book is only available from Stephen directly. If you would like to buy it, message him directly (or via myself if necessary). Ten per cent of all income from this book goes towards the Salvation Army’s Training College in Sri Lanka.

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

You can read Chapter 4 by clicking here.

In this final chapter of his letter to the Philippian church, Paul makes a closing appeal for steadfastness and unity: Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

Having spoken generally in Chapter 2 about humbly having the mind of Christ, he pleads specifically with Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled after an argument.

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Philippians 4:2-3

This is followed by one of my favourite Bible passages, one I often use in pastoral ministry: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7

Paul goes on: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:8-9

These verses always make me smile when I read them, because Paul comes across as a little boastful about his Christian life. Clearly, this isn’t the case, especially because he’s been writing about humility and only boasting in the Lord in this very letter. It does remind us, though, that we have to be careful how we come across to others – arrogant, judgemental, and ‘holier than thou’ Christians do not serve Jesus well, they turn people off God.

In verses 11-13 Paul shows he’s learnt some important life lessons, that we should take on board: […] I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

In his final greetings, Paul thanks the Christians for their gifts. He speaks of them as a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. He reminds them God will meet all their needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, we are reminded that we can make a gift of our lives to God and others, a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

Chapter 3 (click on the link to read) is about joy in believing and having no confidence in rituals for salvation or living the Christian life. Rituals are important in our worship, but they point to something else. They are symbols of deeper truths, and can be very powerful, but it’s the spiritual experience they represent that’s vitally important.

The ritual that Paul refers to is circumcision, because Christianity is rooted in Judaism. He’s countering the argument of those who suggested that Gentile Christians needed to submit to the Old Testament Jewish laws to obtain salvation.

He powerfully reminds his readers that our salvation is based on the work of our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Put no confidence in the flesh he says. It’s not the ritual that’s important, it’s the experience in the heart that matters.

He goes on to point out that, because of his background in Judaism, he has more reason that most to boast in the ritual – but he counts it as loss for what he has gained.

I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Having said that though, he’s quick to point out that he hasn’t fully achieved it yet, he presses on. There’s no place for arrogance in the Christian experience. We humbly accept our nature as imperfect Christians striving towards a goal – in God’s strength, not ours. He’s effectively echoing his own words in Chapter 2 about the humility of Jesus.

I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, here’s a helpful prayer and reflection based on this chapter, I encourage you to spend some quiet time going through it.

The good news therefore is this:
In Jesus Christ we are accepted,
we are loved, we are forgiven.
Thanks be to God!

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)