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.

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)

24/05/20 Sunday Thoughts

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Greetings on this sixth Sunday after Easter as we journey towards Pentecost next Sunday. First of all, an opportunity to watch and listen to our Territorial Leader Commissioner Gillian Cotterill. Please note that I’m preparing to retire on Wednesday 1 July 2020 and during June I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home.

I imagine not many reading this today will remember the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was the year before I was born, but I do remember my parents talking about it and seeing souvenir books and magazines from the time around the house.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, and today is the Sunday between it and Pentecost next Sunday.

The Ascension is not easy for us to understand with our 21st Century mindset, but I think it helps if we see it as Christ’s Coronation. Two Bible readings can also help us, the first one is the story of the Ascension itself (Luke 24:44-53) and the other is an early Christian hymn found in one of Paul’s Letters (Philippians 2:5-11). Click on the links to read these passages.

The Ascension is a mystery, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve used abstract art to depict it rather than a traditional image (click on it or here for the source). Having said that, there had to be a point at which the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus came to an end, when his earthly ministry finished and the ministry of the Holy Spirit could begin.

The disciples were told to wait for what was promised, I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

I guess they were impatient, as we often are, but they didn’t have to wait long. Before leaving them they were prepared for the task ahead, and the power came at Pentecost.

He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Their minds were opened to fully understand the scriptures, and given the power to accomplish their work after ten days. They were just ordinary people empowered for God, and we can be like them in the same power of the Spirit. Pentecost is a week away but, unlike the disciples, the power can be ours now. Power to live like Christ and boldness to share his message of love and salvation, new life for all.

03/05/20 Candidates Sunday

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Candidates Sunday is an opportunity for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to be provided with the space and the opportunity to listen and respond to God’s call on their life right here, right now. Let’s get involved by praying, considering and celebrating spiritual leadership in The Salvation Army. Under the theme of ‘Be Alert’, this year’s Candidates Sunday is a strong call to pay attention to all that God is doing and understand what our response must be. Today’s online worship is based on this theme and uses resources provided here. Major John Ager.

Song: God grant to me a vision new (SATB 53/God’s Soldier)
(Denise Brine and Harry Read)

1. God grant to me a vision new
Of what you’re wanting me to do;
New understanding of the way
You plan for me from day to day.
Lord, by your Spirit help me see
The way of fruitful ministry,
Exciting possibilities,
God-given opportunities.

We’re going to fill, fill, fill the world with glory;
We’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown;
We’re going to sing, sing, sing the gospel story;
We’re going to turn the world upside down.

2. Lord, I would know your life in mine,
Your resurrection power divine;
Your Spirit’s strong life-giving breath
Ending the grasping hold of death.
I claim your Spirit’s strength and grace
To meet the future face to face,
New lease of life when all seemed dead,
New strength to face the days ahead.

3. The future glows more brightly now,
I hear again God’s gracious vow –
‘I know the plans I have for you,
Plans that will prosper, not harm you’.
New purpose and direction planned,
Supported by God’s guiding hand,
His hopeful future spurs me on,
To greater victories to be won!

Bible Message: Look up! Look in! Look out!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. Colossians 3:1-2 (The Message)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Colossians 3:1-2 (NIV)

Focus: What are you looking at? As followers of Jesus Christ, it’s all too easy for our focus to be looking down, bogged down in the things of this earth, or perhaps distracted by what this world tells us we should have or achieve. What could happen if we changed our perspective, if our focus was no longer to look down but to ‘be alert and look up to what is going on around Christ’? How could our lives and the lives of those around us be transformed if we began to see things from his perspective?

Introduction: ‘Look up!’ When things or situations look up, we usually understand this to mean that they increase in quality or value; if there’s a person we look up to, this is someone we have respect for. Looking up means a change in how we view things or people and usually involves an improvement of some kind or a positive response.

There was once a young tourist who found herself fortunate enough to be exploring Manhattan in New York. After a long day of sightseeing, the traveller had the Empire State Building as the last place on her list to visit. Her eyes were glued to the screen of her phone, trying to make sense of the map and looking for the little blue dot which would tell her that she had reached her destination, but to no avail. She was hopelessly lost. In true tourist fashion, the woman hailed a yellow New York cab and, with a slight hint of desperation in her voice, wearily pleaded with the taxi driver to take her to the Empire State Building. The taxi driver looked somewhat confused at this, so the woman frustratedly repeated the request. ‘Please can you take me to the Empire State Building!’ Calmly and with a smile on his face, the taxi driver pointed upwards. ‘You were here all along!’ he laughed. ‘You just needed to look up.’

In his letter to the Colossians, the church in Colossae, Paul is reminding the people there not to lose their focus or be distracted by the things around them, but to keep their focus on Jesus Christ and the things around him.

Look up! This idea of looking up and changing our perspective is a frequent message throughout the Bible.

  • In times of trouble or difficulty, the Psalmist reminds us, I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalm 121
  • When miraculously feeding the five thousand, Jesus keeps his focus on the Father. Mark 6:41 says, Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] gave thanks and broke the loaves.

On each occasion, in times of blessing and challenge, the direction is upwards, towards God.

  • Paul reminds the Colossians to do the same. They are being distracted by the demands of those around them, the teaching of other religions and ‘earthly things’ (3:2). Or as The Message describes it, ‘Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.’
  • In the Old Testament, as described in Genesis 15:5, God made his covenant with Abram, saying, Look up at the sky and count the stars, if indeed you can count them. Then he said to him, So shall your offspring be.
  • We look up and our focus is on God, our perspective is no longer restricted to the earthly things that distract us and we recognise that we are part of a much bigger picture. Not only does our perspective change when we look up to him, but our purpose does too. Going back to our lost tourist, if only she had looked up she would have seen the landmarks that would have given her a sense of location and direction. When we look up, look up to God, we find our purpose and direction.
  • If you have ever sung in a choir or played an instrument in a musical group, you’ll know how easy it is to be absorbed by the printed music in front of you, focusing on your own part. However, if you want to know the tempo and volume you should be playing or singing, then you must lift your eyes to the conductor.
  • Music is transformed when we are playing together, led by the conductor. Our corps, centres and communities can be transformed when, together, we look up to follow God’s direction.

Look in! With the focus rightfully placed on God, looking up to him for our purpose and direction, we can see things from his perspective and allow ourselves to be continually transformed by him.

  • The Message version of Colossians 3: 1-2 uses phrases like living this new resurrection life with Christ and pursue the things over which Christ presides.
  • The NIV translation says, Set your heart on things above, and the word for ‘set your heart’ literally translates as ‘seek’.
  • There is an active intentionality within the life of the believer when we try to see God’s perspective on things. We don’t simply look up as passive observers; we actively search for Christ and allow him to have lordship over our lives.
  • Every aspect of who we are, every thought, aspiration and action, should be governed by Jesus Christ.
  • We sing the words:
    Over every thought, over every word,
    May my life reflect the beauty of my Lord,
    Cause you mean more to me than any earthly thing,
    So won’t you reign in me again.
    Brenton Brown 1998 Vineyard Songs (UK/Eire)
  • That’s the message of Colossians 3: 1-2: we seek the things above, the things of God and consequently live life with a different purpose and direction. But when we look up to the things of God, this demands that we look in towards ourselves and see those areas of our lives which need to come under his reign.
  • This is the life of holiness, the journey of Christlikeness. The Message describes this beautifully in verses 3-4 of Colossians chapter 3: Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life, even though invisible to spectators, is with Christ in God. He is your life.
  • Looking up helps us to look in.

Look out! Paul’s desire was not for the Colossian people to stop there. Living under the reign of God helps us to look up to the things of God, and look in to our new life with him.

  • Paul then tells the church in Colossae to consider what the practical outworking of this might look like. Colossians 3 gives lots of wise advice about how to live and how to behave as people focused on the things of God.
  • Verse 17 encourages us to Let every detail in your lives, words, actions, whatever, be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.
  • If we live here and now with a heavenly perspective, we will no longer place importance on the things that the world places importance on.
  • Christians will view everything against a backdrop of eternity and no longer live as if this world was all that mattered. (William Barclay)
  • So when we look outwards, what do we see? The amazing thing about lifting our gaze upwards is that it immediately widens the view.
  • Changing our viewpoint to God’s viewpoint does not mean that we take ourselves out of the world or cease to be a part of it. In fact, the very opposite is true. Colossians 3:12-25 tells us how we should work out family, relationships, community, work, all from God’s perspective.

Conclusion: So what are you looking at? On this Candidates Sunday, what is God’s perspective on your life?

  • Maybe you are distracted by the things of this world, the challenges of life or the ambitions and achievements that dazzle. It is so easy to lose our way when we have our heads down and focus on the immediate.
  • But Paul warns us, If you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. (Colossians 3: 1 The Message)
  • Jesus calls us to look up! To look to him and find our purpose and direction, to see things from his perspective.
  • Seeing with God’s perspective, we can then look in at our own lives and see where God needs to rule. Which aspects of our lives, our thoughts, dreams and achievements, are seen through our human eyes and what might these look like through God’s lens?
  • Once we find our purpose and direction, once we see those areas of our lives which need to be in Christ, we can look out and see how to live this new life on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Then we can begin to be alert to what is going on around Christ, that’s where the action is. (Colossians 3:2 The Message)

Response:
‘Where are you now
When all I feel is doubt?
Oh, where are you now
When I can’t figure it out?
I hear you say,
“Look up, child.”’
(Look Up, Child by Lauren Daigle)

Responsive Benediction
Leader: Look at your hands.
All: God made them for a purpose.
Leader: See the touch and usefulness.
All: We shall use them to do God’s work.
Leader: Look at your feet.
All: God made them for a purpose.
Leader: See the direction and example.
All: We shall use them to do God’s work.
Leader: Look into your heart.
All: God made it for a purpose.
Leader: See the love and determination.
All: We shall use it to do God’s work.
Leader: Look at the cross.
All: God made it for a purpose.
Leader: See God’s Son, the Saviour.
All: We shall follow him in God’s work.
Leader: Look at your world.
All: God made it for a purpose,
Leader: See where God calls you to serve him.
All: We shall go out and do God’s work.
Leader: May the God who loves you endlessly lead you from belief into action.
All: Amen.

See also: 17/05/20 Sunday Questions

26/04/20 Bible Thoughts

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Just some Bible thoughts this Sunday, when we would have been uniting in worship at Wallsend with North Shields and Shiremoor Corps, rather than a full online meeting. This is neither an apology nor excuse, merely a reflection of the kind of week I’ve had in lockdown. I’m simply doing what I can and not what I can’t. My hope and prayer is that these thoughts will be an encouragement to you, as well as stimulating your own reflections and thoughts. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Bible Reading: Philippians 2:1-11

One of the corps I was appointed to in the past had the following mission statement, this was its raison d’être: To put Jesus first and grow as Christians, through Bible reading, prayer, worship and fellowship. To share God’s love and forgiveness, especially through loving service in the local community.

That was and (as far as I know) still their purpose as a church and community centre; the focus of that group of Christians, both individually and collectively. It’s important to have focus and purpose as a fellowship of God’s people. Yes, I know businesses have mission statements, and the church is not a business; but the principle still applies. Having a defined focus helps us to be better Christians.

The church is currently unable to meet because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and some of the things that are essential are not able to happen in the normal way. Having said that, the church is finding new ways of doing things, although nothing can fully replace the actual meeting of people in a place of worship. Collective worship and fellowship are a vital part of the Christian life. Whilst many people say you can be a Christian without going to church, I disagree.

Watch the beautiful (although actually sad) song I Am A Rock by Paul Simon and pay particular attention to the lyrics.

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

The words are very telling, we need each other. The lyrics of this wonderful song are actually the very antithesis of what it means to be a Christian. Yes, we can be hurt when we tear down the walls we build around ourselves, because we become vulnerable. But, as Christians, we follow one who became vulnerable for us, and when we open up to him we open ourselves to the love of God and others.

As we gather together again for worship and fellowship, at some yet unknown date in the future, we may have to reassess our overall vision.

As Salvationist poet Will J. Brand once wrote:
…so much we deemed essential is forever left behind.

See also: No man is an island (John Donne)

Easter (Edmund Spenser)

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Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

Most glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye,
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live for ever in felicity!

And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
—Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Edmund Spenser

Misunderstanding Palm Sunday

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Photo by Aloïs Moubax on Pexels.com

It’s exciting to be in a crowd, but it can also be very frightening. The mood of a crowd can rapidly change, the dynamic of the mob can quickly take over. Who knows what the crowd will do next, especially if its expectations are not met?

The crowds surrounding Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem were no different. The emotions and excitement were reaching fever pitch, and the conditions were right for the whole thing to turn nasty.

You can read the story of the first Palm Sunday in Luke 19:28-44.

There would have been thousands of hot, excited, sweaty people all wanting to see Jesus; all wanting to know who he was, all wanting to see what he would do.

Jesus approaches and enters Jerusalem in the full knowledge that both the religious and political leaders were feeling threatened by his teaching and ministry, and that the crowd could easily turn if he didn’t fulfil their expectations and hopes.

The first Palm Sunday was a dramatic and hugely significant day in the life and ministry of Jesus. Prior to this, Jesus had resolutely set his face towards Jerusalem, to very publicly announce the coming of his kingdom.

He carefully chose a time when the people would be gathered in Jerusalem, and he chose a way of proclaiming his kingdom that was unmistakable.

But, as Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wept over it:
If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

These weren’t the words of a human king, but rather the words of divine Saviour whose heart broke because of the spiritual and moral blindness of the people. He’d come to bring true peace, but they didn’t want it.

The crowd in Jerusalem thought they understood as they cheered, shouted, waved, and threw palm branches, but completely misunderstood Jesus’ identity.

They were full of nationalistic fervour and failed to recognise the true nature of Jesus’ kingship. Palms had been a symbol of Jewish nationalism from the time of the Maccabees and appeared on Jewish coins during their revolutionary struggle against the Romans, and now they were oppressed by them.

Jesus showed the people his true identity by riding on a donkey; a sign, according to the Old Testament, of the Messiah coming in peace. The people expected the Messiah to bring victory by force, but Jesus came to conquer by the Cross. The way of Jesus is not one of hatred, force or violence, rather it’s the way of sacrificial love.

The praise and adulation of the crowd was not the glory Jesus wanted, his glory was to come through self-sacrifice and suffering.

On this Palm Sunday, may we make our own decision to set our face towards Jerusalem; resolving to go God’s way, despite the expectations of the crowds, and live like Jesus.

See also: 05/04/20 Palm Sunday Worship

The New Doctor (Carol Service Talk)

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I’m a big Doctor Who fan, and I love Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor. She was a great choice and for many children she’ll be their first Doctor; this is the case for Freddy and Matilda, as we let them see a recent episode that wasn’t too scary. How wonderful to see a woman in that role! (See also here).

How far back do you go?
Who was your first Doctor?

Show selected PowerPoint slides of past Doctors.

William Hartnell was my first Doctor, and I can vividly remember watching the first ever episode as a nine-year-old boy on an old black and white television.

I have my own particular favourite Doctors, but I’m loving the new Doctor; a perfect combination of courage with compassion, confidence with humility, and strength with vulnerability.

Having those characteristics in balance is really important; not just for the Doctor, but for all of us in life. And we see that balance of qualities in the life of Jesus.

• In his life he had the courage to fight for what he believed in, but it was always done with compassion for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the outcast. We see him fighting the oppressive religious and political system, yet having time for those who were victims of it.

• He was confident in his mission of bringing God’s Kingdom of love and grace, but it was always expressed with humility. We see him firmly setting his face towards Jerusalem and certain death, but never forcing himself on people or using violence to get his way.

• He had a resilient strength about him, yet at the same time he was vulnerable. He willingly faced great suffering and death, yet chose to go through with it for us.

The Apostle Paul (Philippians 2:5-11) tells us to be like Jesus:

who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus became one of us, as the Apostle John (John 1:14a) puts it, in a modern paraphrase:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighbourhood.