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)

Edward Colston Statue in Bristol

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During today’s ongoing worldwide anti-racist demonstrations, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol was toppled and unceremoniously dumped in the harbour. You can see the BBC News report of the demonstrations here.

For now though, let’s park our thoughts about the rights and wrongs of tearing down a statue, and simply seek to empathise with how black people would have felt walking past Edward Colston every day. In this highly-charged atmosphere, with the added tensions of coronavirus, we need to keep our focus on the deep issues of racism and white privilege. Let’s discuss these issues respectfully and communicate with grace.

Knowing the history of Bristol, I personally feel that the statue should have been taken down officially and (possibly) placed in a museum long ago. Such an official act could have acknowledged the hurt of the past and brought people together. It could have been a profound moment of repentance, redemption, reconciliation and renewal. Sadly, that moment has been lost.

In these difficult and challenging times we need visionary leaders in all countries and at all levels, unfortunately they currently they seem to be few and far between.

Note: I attended a Yes concert in Colston Hall in the 1970s. They played Tales from Topographic Oceans in full before the album was released in 1973.

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.

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.

Remembering Ian Curtis

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Forty years ago (18 May 1980) Joy Division lyricist and singer Ian Curtis took his own life, a tortured star whose influence both at the time and since has been immense. Actor Sam Riley brilliantly portrays Curtis in Control, Anton Corbijn‘s 2007 film of the Joy Division singer’s life and suicide.

Although there have been those who have sought to glamorise his death as a rock and roll suicide, in reality it was a consequence of his lack of control over many aspects of his personal life. The debilitating effects of epilepsy, the deception of having an affair, the almost inevitable breakdown of his marriage, and the prospect of separation from his year-old baby daughter. As he sang, “All the failures of the modern man”.

The classic and influential album Unknown Pleasures (released in 1979) revealed a profoundly dark poet and a starkly grim realist, a very different voice in music at the time, one who added deep insight and intelligence to the post-punk movement.

The clues were there though. In the track Shadowplay, Ian Curtis sings, “In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more…” and in New Dawn Fades, there’s one in the very title as well as the words, “The strain is too much, can’t take much more”.

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Once the truly shocking news broke that Ian Curtis had taken his own life, there came the full realisation that his writhing and twisted dancing on stage wasn’t simply performance art, he was genuinely wrestling with his emotional and physical demons, as well as reflecting how hopeless, meaningless and inhuman he felt our world had become.

Tragic as any death is, we’re often drawn to those in public life who take their own lives, and there are many examples. Listening to the album Closer (released soon after his death) was uncanny and slightly unnerving, a feeling that persists even now.

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So this is permanence, love’s shattered pride
What once was innocence turned on it’s side
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move
Deep in the memory of what once was love

Oh, how I realized I wanted time
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find
Just for one moment I thought I’d got my way
Destiny unfolded, watched it slip away

Excessive flash points beyond all reach
Solitary demands for all I’d like to keep
Let’s take a ride out, see what we can find
Valueless collection of hopes and past desires

I never realized the lengths I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know
Just for one moment, hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all

Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong
Got to find some therapy, treatment takes too long
Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway
Got to find my destiny before it gets too late

Twenty Four Hours (from Closer)

I remember a survey from a few years back revealing that more people take their own lives in May than in any other month. Apparently, “the juxtaposition between a literally blooming world and the barren inner life of the clinically depressed is often too much for them to bear”.

We remember Ian Curtis because of his musical influence and legacy, but there’s also many thousands of young men who take their own lives each year, and I particularly remember one whose funeral I conducted a few years ago. A reminder to do all we can to reduce the stigma of mental illness in society, and to support those who are suffering. On this tragic anniversary, a fitting way to remember Ian Curtis.

See also: Transmission (Joy Division)

17/05/20 Sunday Questions

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Greetings on this fifth 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 questions based on two Bible passages: Genesis 22:1-18 & John 21:15-25.

Imagine receiving something that you’ve always wanted. Imagine achieving your lifetime ambition. Imagine winning a million pounds. And then imagine losing it or willingly giving it away. I’m sure we can all picture in our mind’s eye what our emotions and feelings would be.

So I guess we can all begin to put ourselves in the mind of Abraham as he was put into the position of being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. This was the son he had longed for, this was the son through whom God had promised many blessings, and this was the son he was now called to sacrifice. A difficult story from the Old Testament, but let’s put our thoughts of the emotional harm to a young child to one side for now.

Abraham had, of course, already learned many lessons of faith, of stepping out into the unknown in complete obedience to God. But surely nothing could have prepared him for this.

Being a Christian and being part of a faith community is not an easy option, because obeying God is often a struggle when we’re challenged to give up something we truly want. As I move towards retirement after forty years as a Salvation Army Corps Officer, I look back on those things I’ve had to sacrifice. Not that I would have made a different decision to follow this calling, even though at times it’s been difficult and especially so now in coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

You see, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that obedience to God will be easy or come naturally, we all like our comfort too much, but sometimes God calls us out of our comfort zone.

It was through Abraham’s difficult experience that his commitment to obey God was strengthened, and he learnt great lessons about God’s ability and willingness to provide.

But let’s move to the New Testament, and the disciple Peter:
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. Matthew 4:18-22

When Peter followed Jesus, did he realise the cost of following him? Peter was the one who, at Caesarea Philippi declared Jesus to be the ‘Messiah, the Son of the Living God’. He was the one who boldly, if rather impulsively, proclaimed that he above all the others would not fall away.

Peter was always the one who opened his mouth first, and the one who opens their mouth first usually puts their foot in it. He made a number of confessions of faith, but when he was put to the test in the High Priest’s courtyard he denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted.

But let’s not to too ready to criticise Peter, as all the other disciples had left long ago. At least Peter stayed with Jesus the longest, even if he ‘followed at a distance’, at least he placed himself in a position where he might be challenged about Jesus.

Nevertheless, when Abraham faced his test of faith he passed with flying colours, but when Peter faced a similar test he failed miserably. Can we begin to imagine how he must have felt?

That then, is the background, for the meeting of Peter with the Risen Jesus in the Bible reading. The scene is a solemn one; the disciples had gone back to their everyday jobs, only to find that the risen, glorified Lord could meet them even there.

Jesus begins a searching enquiry of Peter:
[Peter] son of John, do you truly love me more than these?

Now this can mean one of two things, but most probably both. It could mean ‘do you love me more than all else?’ or ‘do you love me more than they do?’ Both would go right to the heart of how Peter must have been feeling, realising that he had not loved Jesus more than everything else, realising that his bold claims had been empty promises. He was a broken man, just the kind of person that God wants to be his follower. In the harsh light of reality Peter has to face his failure, the self-confidence has gone.

So what are we to make of these three questions of Jesus to Peter? There is actually something going on here that is not immediately obvious, because there is a subtle difference in meaning between the word for ‘love’ that Jesus uses, and the word for ‘love’ that Peter uses in reply.

It’s a difference that’s not easily communicated in English; the NIV attempts it by using ‘truly love’ and ‘love’ on its own.

Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you truly love me….?’ And he uses the word for love that means total self-sacrifice and self-giving. Peter replies, ‘you know that I love you’ but he uses the word for love that simply means brotherly affection or care.

He naturally shrinks from using the stronger word that Jesus used, the word for ‘love’ that implied deep and total commitment. Peter realised that he was far from perfect, that his commitment was less than total, yet Jesus still gave him a task to do, ‘Feed my lambs’.

Christ doesn’t wait for us to be perfect before he will use us in His service, he’d wait forever. No, he uses ordinary men and women who will admit their need for forgiveness and recognise that their confidence and strength comes, not from themselves, but from Christ. It’s no longer I that liveth, but Christ that liveth in me.

The second time Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you truly love me?’ and again he uses the word for the highest form of love, and again Peter replies with the lesser word, he can’t bring himself to use the word Jesus uses.

Then comes the crucial third question, and we are told that Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time. We might assume that he was hurt because Jesus asked him three times, but we would be wrong.

Peter was hurt by this question, not because it was the third question, but because of the word Jesus used. Jesus uses the word for ‘love’ that Peter had used for his replies to the previous two questions. In the third question Jesus is challenging even the small amount of commitment Peter has admitted to.

Peter had been brought to his knees, to his point of need, to the place we all need to come to before God, to the place where he could use him. He’d been gently brought to the point of admitting his need, he could never be the same again, and in that moment he receives the commission, ‘Feed my sheep’.

‘It is a broken and a contrite heart’ that the Lord requires, and when we come to him like that he fills us with his Spirit. We come empty, we leave filled.

Jesus gets to the heart of the matter; Peter had to face up to his true motives and feelings. Jesus then goes on to tell Peter that he will die as a result of his faith, and issues the challenge he issued on that first lakeside encounter, ‘Follow me’.

Peter is now less self-confident, more Christ-confident and, ultimately, did lay down his life for his risen Lord. And what a spiritual giant Peter became in the early church, but even then he was a fallible human being, just like you and me.

In conclusion, Jesus is still calling men and women today. He calls those who in their own estimation and in the eyes of their contemporaries are unworthy and he makes them worthy. He knows what is best for each individual, for our Army and for his Kingdom. He demands devotion and loyalty from those who choose to follow his call. He recognises our weaknesses and still loves us when we disappoint him. He welcomes back those who have failed him, and offers them another chance. Please use this song, well-known to Salvationists, as a final prayer.

Knowing my failings, knowing my fears,
Seeing my sorrow, drying my tears.
Jesus recall me, me re-ordain;
You know I love you, use me again.
You know I love you, use me again.

I have no secrets unknown to you,
No special graces, talents are few;
Yet your intention I would fulfil;
You know I love you, ask what you will.
You know I love you, ask what you will.

For the far future I cannot see,
Promise your presence, travel with me;
Sunshine or shadows? I cannot tell;
You know I love you, all will be well.
You know I love you, all will be well.

See also: 03/05/20 Candidates Sunday

The National Anthem (Radiohead)

The National Anthem (Radiohead)

There are times when you need an uplifting song to raise your mood, at other times a sad song can emotionally connect with particular feelings and be more meaningful. Indeed, many people consider sad songs better and deeper than happy songs, as they speak profoundly to the human condition.

Just sometimes though, we need to rage and let our feelings out, as this can be very cathartic. Here’s a Radiohead song does just that, it’s a song of rage from their album Kid A released in 2000.

Everyone
Everyone around here
Everyone is so near
It’s holding on
It’s holding on

Everyone
Everyone is so near
Everyone has got the fear
It’s holding on
It’s holding on

It’s holding on
It’s holding on
It’s holding on

Thom Yorke sings short, ambiguous lyrics, using voice distortion and a feedback echo that creates a sense of isolation and fear. The looping heavy bass line that leads the song was composed by Yorke when he was 16 years old. The early electronic instrument called ondes Martenot, played by Jonny Greenwood, was inspired by Olivier Messiaen. The free jazz-style brass section was inspired by the work of Charles Mingus. Added to that are some interlaced sound effects and mysterious samples creating quite a unique track.

10/05/20 Sunday Reflections

Sunrise at Llyn Padarn at Llanberis, Snowdonia National Park

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.

VE Day 2020

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VE DAY IN LONDON, 8 MAY 1945 (HU 49414) Two small girls waving their flags in the rubble of Battersea, snapped by an anonymous American photographer. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205018927

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).

Sadness is not competitive

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I saw these wise words by Rev. Kate Bottley on Twitter today, and wanted to highlight them here:

Sadness is not competitive. Just because there are ‘others worse off’ doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel down. You don’t need to look on the bright side or be glass half full. It’s OK to want to throw the glass against the wall. You go right ahead and feel what you feel. Your feelings are real and valid. It’s OK.