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.
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.
You can find me on Goodreads (click the link), and see all my 2021 books here.
Today is the third Monday in January, a day designated as Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year in the northern hemisphere.
Unfortunately, this trivial label actually damages our understanding of mental health, just for the sake of a superficial piece of clickbait. Yes, I guess my title is itself clickbait, but if this article helps you to understand actual depression better it will have achieved its purpose.
We all know that in a normal year January can be a difficult month for our mental health (for a variety of reasons) and 2021 is not a normal year. So, even though the concept of Blue Monday appears to make sense, I feel we should reject it even more this year. The very real challenges we face this January make my premise even stronger this year, Blue Monday just isn’t real.
You’ll hear people say that it’s been worked out using a ‘scientific formula’. In fact, it first appeared as part of an advertising campaign for a holiday company, hardly the rigorous, evidence-based approach we might expect. Even the person whose name was on the original press release has since distanced himself from Blue Monday, admitting he was paid to help sell holidays. He now campaigns against Blue Monday.
Having said all that, the date continues to surface every January, and is increasingly linked to mental health and depression. In fact, it’s simply a day when we’re all supposed to feel a bit down, but even that is far-fetched if you give it some thought and view it through the lens of common sense.
A few years ago, the charity Mind attempted to dispel the myth that Blue Monday had anything to do with depression.
Depression is NOT something that happens one day and disappears the next, as if it has trivial ’causes’. Blue Monday is mumbo jumbo, pseudoscience that only serves to add to damaging preconceptions about depression and trivialises a serious illness that can be life-threatening. Depression has nothing to do with the third Monday in January.
The idea that depression is basically the same as feeling low is very pervasive within society, as if it’s ’caused’ by trivial things with the ‘cure’ a matter of ‘pulling yourself together’. Facile responses to depression, such as ‘cheer up’, merely reinforce the preconception it can easily be shaken off with determination and effort. This is not the case, depression is NOT the same as having a bad day.
Depression is way more than simply feeling a bit low, and this is what’s difficult for some people to grasp. It’s about guilt, feelings of worthlessness, lack of motivation, and a sense of emptiness, with simple tasks seemingly impossible to achieve. But there’s also the physical symptoms; headaches, aches and pains, lack of appetite, and sleep disturbances. On top of this can come insidious suicidal thoughts.
It’s an insult to think that the mental and physical complexity of depression can be encapsulated in a catchy named day. The negative things in everyday life that get us down are NOT the things that cause depression, it’s NOT something ‘catch’ from our circumstances. Yes, they can affect our mental health adversely, but they don’t cause depression. Depression can happen in good times.
The ‘why’ of depression is a complex and multi-faceted question. Please don’t trivialise it by falling for a gimmick, reject Blue Monday!
Finally, here’s a Blue Monday we mustn’t reject, enjoy! Click here.
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 2 contains one of the most profound passages in the New Testament (which may be an early Christian hymn). Paul’s purpose is to call the church to unity on the basis of the humility and servanthood of Jesus, and teach theology along the way. Take a few moments to read it through thoughtfully and prayerfully, maybe twice or more.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ 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.
This passage is central to Christian belief and practice. To be ‘united with Christ’ goes to the very heart of salvation and what it means to be a Christian. It’s a relationship with Christ as Saviour and Lord, one which places on us the joy of following and the responsibility of living like Jesus. Loving God and loving others in Jesus’ name, with no discrimination or favouritism.
We should be like-minded with Christ, and like-minded with each other. We will (of course) have our differing likes and views, but because we are ‘united with Christ’ there is an expectation that we will respect each other and seek to serve the common good.
Is there a relationship you need to mend? Is there a bridge you need to build towards others in your community? How can you reach out to groups you might consider ‘different’ from you in some way?
Heavenly Father, help us to live our lives with humble hearts, reaching out to our neighbours in love, and ready to serve suffering humanity. Amen.
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.
Happiness is fleeting, it depends on circumstances. Joy is something far deeper, it’s not subject to our changing circumstances, it’s rooted in a quiet confidence in God. This is central to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, along with humility, unity and self-sacrificial Christian living.
Chapter 1 begins with a warm greeting to the Philippian church: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.Philippians 1:1-6
Verses 12-14 are key verses in the chapter, and relate to the overall theme of joy in all circumstances. Paul relates how his suffering became an opportunity to share the message of Jesus: Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
There are so many things that can cause us to become bitter or give up, Paul saw his circumstances as an opportunity. His circumstances weren’t important, how he used them was. He turned a bad situation into a good one, reaching out to those around him.
What are the circumstances causing to concern right now? They may be personal challenges, or ones facing all of us in the world today. Whatever they are, they can be opportunities: to share your faith and to serve others in humility, following the example of Jesus.
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.Philippians 1:27a
It’s Saturday morning (9 January 2021) at the end of a draining week. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the schools were safe on Sunday, opened them after Christmas on Monday, and then closed them on Tuesday.
It was a tough call taking our children to school on Monday morning, of which the practicalities of getting the children to school was the easy part. I had trouble settling down on Sunday night as we were concerned about them going back to school. The circumstances were far worse than last September, and Boris Johnson had already suggested that stronger coronavirus restrictions were likely soon. The lockdown was announced on Monday evening.
On Tuesday I wrote on social media, that despite the personal challenges and societal problems (which I acknowledge are huge), the lockdown seems right, and I feel safe at home with my family. Taking the children to school yesterday didn’t seem right, and it felt very different compared to last term.
Although safe at home, like millions of other parents, we faced the immediate challenge of home schooling again – this time more organised and a legal requirement.
We felt a little shell-shocked, and sent the following note to Freddy and Matilda’s primary school teachers: We’re motivated for home-schooling and looking after the welfare of our children during lockdown, but this morning we’re a little shell-shocked. So we’re just stepping back today in order to adjust to this new reality. We’re being kind to ourselves as a family and trying not feeling guilty. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and not beat yourself up. We really appreciate you and value your professionalism, but we don’t want to feel too pressurised. We’re not experts and we want this to be relaxing and fun. Our default home schooling position is simply reading books (of which they have many) with them, and then moving on to the other tasks. Be affirmed and encouraged.
Home schooling is a messy mixture of frustration and satisfaction, but we’re really grateful for teachers who are doing everything they can in very challenging circumstances, delivering interactive, downloadable, and Zoom classes.
We recognise we’re fortunate that neither of us are working, but that can bring its own problems, and we really feel for those who are having to juggle competing responsibilities.
By Friday, we’d started to establish a routine, felt that we’d bossed the technology, and sorted out some workarounds when the tech didn’t scratch where we itched.
Everyone’s challenges are unique in the overall situation. It’s not a competition, there’s no prize for who’s coping best in lockdown with all its common (yet uniquely individual) challenges. We all need to encourage and support one other. One day it’ll be me screaming inside and you can encourage me. Another day it’ll be the other way round. None of us is immune. But, even in our struggles, we can choose to be an encourager.
As well as being the letter of joy, Philippians contains one of the most profound passages in the New Testament (Philippians 2:5-11) which may be an early Christian hymn, although Paul uses it as an illustration. His purpose is not just to teach theology, but to call the church to unity on the basis of the humility and servanthood of Jesus.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ 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!
Paul probably wrote the letter while under house arrest in Rome, with the likely year being 61-62. See Philippians 1:13-14: As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
Paul’s main reason for writing was to thank the Philippian church for the gift they sent when they learnt of his detention in Rome. He uses the opportunity to report on his own experiences, to encourage them to stand firm in the face of persecution and whatever their circumstances, and to develop humility and grow in unity (amongst other things).
As I’ve said, it’s a letter of joy, and the word joy (in its various forms) occurs some 16 times. You may like to read Philippians before I consider one chapter (there are four in total) on each of the remaining Sundays in January 2021.
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.
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.
Greetings on this fourth Sunday after Easter as we journey towards Pentecost at the end of this month. First of all, an opportunity to watch and listen to our Territorial Commander Commissioner Anthony Cotterill, and then some reflections on the Psalms and other Bible passages. See also: Psalm 23 (A Psalm of David).
The Book of Psalms in the Bible is the oldest hymnbook of the people of God, and it’s still going strong. I recently heard a suggestion on the radio that because the psalms are so emotionally expressive, reflecting such variety of feelings, they are useful for anyone to read in this coronavirus pandemic whether a person of faith or not. They are universally applicable.
The psalms echo down through the centuries the universal language of the human condition, resonating with the heights and depths of the human soul and experience. Whatever our emotion, there is sure to be a psalm which reflects it; whether triumph or defeat, excitement or depression, joy or sorrow, praise or penitence, wonder or anger.
But, above all, they declare the greatness of God and the wonder of his creation. We can come to know him better through the psalms, falling down at his feet and worshipping his greatness and majesty.
Here’s two short and well-known psalms to start us off, Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. Click on the links and read them now. Both have been paraphrased as hymns, and we have a number of them in the Salvation Army Songbook. Here’s one of my favourites.
Psalm 121 (click on the link) is one I especially grew to love while I live in South Wales in the midst of wonderful hills and mountains. Enjoy this video by Gaz Rose.
Psalm 46 reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble, and it encourages us to come before him in quietness, Be still, and know that I am God.
Turning away from the psalms for a moment, Romans 8:35-39 contains some of the most comforting and profound verses in the New Testament. If we know and experience the love of God as expressed through Jesus Christ, nothing can separate us from that love. His death and resurrection is proof of his unconquerable love, and we can have his constant presence with us.
Both the psalms and many passages in the Bible reassure us of God’s spiritual protection. We might find ourselves in challenging circumstances, as many are in the current crisis, but God promises to give us rest and peace in the midst of them.
In quietness and trust is your strength. God still speaks to those who take time to listen. He wants us to acknowledge him in our lives, and relax in his presence and care. Quietness and confidence in God brings strength and hope. As we are surrounded by God’s love, even when we are in the darkest valley, we can have hope and security. God will carry is through.
Be still, and know
Will J Brand
Only the quiet heart may know
Thy secret ways, O God;
And they that hasten to and fro
These paths have never trod,
Nor journeyed where still waters flow,
Supported by Thy staff and rod:
Only the quiet heart may know
Thy secret ways, O God.
Peace of the tranquil heart, Fall upon me; Gift of the Father My sentinel be: Guard Thou my heart In the presence of ill, Hold me – encompass me – I would be still.
Only the quiet heart is strong
It’s daily load to bear;
To greet the waking morn with song
And end the day with prayer,
Glad, though the road be hard and long,
That Love has borne the larger share:
Only the quiet heart is strong
It’s daily load to bear.
Yes, but the quiet heart is sure
That God is over all;
‘Be still, and know’, His words endure
Though crowns and empires fall.
Wait thou for Him, content, secure,
He serves thy need’s unspoken call:
Rest, quiet heart, forever sure
Thy God is all-in-all.
Please Note: I’m currently preparing to retire, you can find more information here. Blessings, Major John Ager.
Whilst acknowledging the need to tread carefully and sensitively in any comparisons between the Second World War and the current coronavirus pandemic, I believe there are some useful ones we can make to help us in our thought processes and thereby benefit our collective mental health.
VE Day in 1945 reflected a victory over a visible enemy, although also an invisible enemy of evil thoughts and ideas. The enemy we face now is totally invisible and does not care one iota for those it harms. Fake news is not new, they faced it back then; had they had social media, that would simply have been another front on which the war would have been fought. Today, not only in the coronavirus pandemic, we face a war against those who would deceive us. We need to guard our way of life against those who would lie to us, who seek to destroy the freedoms won for us then.
The Second World War was marked by terrible suffering, the like of which is hard to process, along with the inhumanity of it all. Today, many have been devastated by an invisible enemy, and we pause to remember the lives lost and the families and friends grieving.
Back then the world faced life-treatening jeopardy and, for many today, this is the first time we have faced real jeopardy. Yes, I remember the Cold War, but that’s the only threat that comes anywhere near what we face today. There’s fear and anxiety everywhere, and so we need to affirm, encourage and support each like never before. It’s the same for everyone, yet we all have unique circumstances and all react individually.
Back then, not everyone was celebrating, and for those who were it was only a brief celebration. The world faced an uncertain future and there was much rebuilding to be done, it was many years until food rationing was eased for example. In our own time, we might celebrate relaxations to the lockdown, but we still face the reality of an uncertain future and the prospect of rebuilding society. Then it was a collective experience, so it is today and will be for us. I’m neither being optimistic nor pessimistic; just realistically reflecting that there’ll be much to do in the coming weeks, months and years.
Today we celebrate the heroes of yesterday’s battles, but we also celebrate the new heroes in the NHS and all the key workers fighting a very different battle today. Come to think about it, the creation of the NHS was one of the great rebuilding efforts after WWII, and we are reaping its benefits today.
Who are you celebrating today? What can you do to help and support someone today and in the uncertain future?
Postscript: Today is ‘Victory IN Europe Day’, not ‘Victory OVER Europe Day’ as some history revisionists are suggesting for their own agendas.
Note: I chose the photo for this post because it reminds me of my two youngest girls, Pollyanna (2) and Matilda (3).
I read this poem the other day and, apart from the general ideas it conveys, I feel it’s especially appropriate in the current situation of coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Many of us are finding it difficult working from home (or in restricted circumstances) and are not as productive as we normally would be. But if we ‘have lived for today’ as best we can, we can truly say ‘I have had my hour’.
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.