31/05/20 Pentecost Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

19/04/20 Bible Message

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Because I’m currently on ‘holiday’ (at home obviously) here’s an edited version of the Bible message I gave last year at Wallsend Corps when we united with North Shields and Shiremoor Corps on the Sunday after Easter. I’m hoping to publish a full online worship meeting next Sunday. Major John Ager.

Bible Message: The Road TO and FROM Emmaus
Bible Reading: Luke 24:13-34

The well-known song You’ll Never Walk Alone from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel has become the ‘anthem’ of Liverpool Football Club and has very poignant associations with Anfield following the Hillsborough disaster.

It’s the song that sums up so much for the club and supporters alike. It captures the importance of unity crucial to everything achieved by the team, and it remains a source of comfort to those affected by the tragic events that have hit the club.

From a simple song in a musical, it’s become a worldwide secular hymn of encouragement and hope in the face of difficulty, suffering and death. But Christians, because of Easter can truly sing You’ll never walk alone because it sums up the whole message of the resurrection.

The Crucifixion must have traumatised Jesus’ disciples and followers, even though he’d tried to prepare them for it, not just once but repeatedly. They failed to realise the full significance of his words and so ‘the penny didn’t drop!’ The bottom had fallen out of their world; they were defeated and downcast, devastated and discouraged.

Significantly, the Risen Jesus came alongside two followers walking on the road to Emmaus. But they were kept from recognising him. The original Greek here uses what’s known as a ‘divine passive’, with God as the implied subject. It’s as if God intentionally blinded their eyes until the moment of revelation, that moment when Jesus broke bread with them. He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.

No wonder they were surprised that someone hadn’t heard. The Romans conducted crucifixions at major public crossroads to make examples of their victims and warn others against revolt. It really was quite unthinkable to these disciples that a Passover pilgrim wouldn’t have heard about Jesus’ crucifixion.

All their expectations had been dashed, even if they misunderstood or hadn’t fully comprehended the nature of Jesus’ purpose and ministry. The phrase ‘we had hoped’ speaks volumes about their feelings, but it’s also a Messianic reference; his coming to save Israel, the message of Palm Sunday hadn’t taken root in their hearts. One version says they stopped short, sadness written across their faces.

And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.

These verses help us to understand their confusion and disorientation; they were struggling to make sense of it. Wanting to believe the reports, yet doubting in their hearts.

He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Just imagine what it must have been like to have Jesus himself explain the scriptures? But ultimately the road TO Emmaus is the road of confusion, doubt, and weakness.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going further. But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.

Then comes the moment of insight, the moment of clarity, the moment of recognition; here is such a wonderful moment of recognition and insight: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

See also: Supper at Emmaus (Caravaggio)

Suddenly they received new energy from somewhere: They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’

They initially failed to recognize him, but as he stayed and broke bread with them the truth dawned, and they realised they would never ‘walk alone’ again.

Because of Good Friday and Easter, we can truly sing:

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart,
And you’ll never walk alone…
You’ll never walk alone.

The disciples were changed from being defeated and downcast, devastated and discouraged, to being confident in their Saviour and Lord. They faced the future with hope and returned to Jerusalem with a new spring in their step because they were not walking alone.

Good Friday and Easter prove that he knows the worst about us, yet still loves us, enough to die for us, and he’s with us forever in the journey of life. Moments we share with each other in worship, fellowship and eating are so important. Times we might appreciate more after the current coronavirus pandemic lockdown. The Last Supper in the upper room was a highly significant occasion, as well as being a tremendously poignant one.

As Christians meet together in worship, fellowship and yes, feasting, we’re sharing something divine. The Risen Christ comes and blesses us with his presence: While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’

What incredible moments these must have been as they gathered in the presence of the Risen Lord; such moments of collective insight and clarity, everything falling into place, especially after Jesus opened up the Hebrew Scriptures to them.

In contrast to the road TO Emmaus, the Road FROM Emmaus is the road of clarity, insight, energy, and peace. It’s the way of peace and the presence of Jesus.

Those disciples must have been so weary after their long journey, travelling home always seems longer and harder when the heart and emotions are burdened. But they were still able to offer hospitality though, and I’m sure it was genuine.

How important it is for us to come alongside others on their journey through life and offer love, support and hospitality. None of us fully know what the other person is feeling or going through, the pain and the daily struggles.

Brother, sister, let me serve you,
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant, too.

It can be very moving when we dedicate ourselves to being with each other on life’s sometimes difficult journey, but also sharing the joys as well. This is something we do in our individual corps and as we unite together as brothers and sisters in Christ, walking with each other and walking with Jesus. Even though this is now happening online.

Song 79 (TB 199/Brantwood)

I know thee who thou art,
And what thy healing name;
For when my fainting heart
The burden nigh o’ercame,
I saw thy footprints on my road
Where lately passed the Son of God.

Thy name is joined with mine
By every human tie,
And my new name is thine,
A child of God am I;
And never more alone, since thou
Art on the road beside me now.

Beside thee as I walk,
I will delight in thee,
In sweet communion talk
Of all thou art to me;
The beauty of thy face behold
And know thy mercies manifold.

Let nothing draw me back
Or turn my heart from thee,
But by the Calvary track
Bring me at last to see
The courts of God, that city fair,
And find my name is written there.

Benediction: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

Supper at Emmaus (Caravaggio)

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I’ve recently posted about the National Gallery in London and described some of the paintings there as old friends. Here’s another favourite, one that’s appropriate for the days just after Easter. The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio.

Painting Description: On the third day after the Crucifixion, two of Jesus’s disciples were walking to Emmaus when they met the resurrected Christ. They failed to recognise him, but that evening at supper he ‘… took bread, and blessed it, and brake and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight’. Luke 24:30-31

Painted at the height of Caravaggio’s fame, this is among his most impressive domestic religious pictures. He brilliantly captures the dramatic climax of the story, the moment when the disciples suddenly see what has been in front of them all along. Their actions convey their astonishment: one is about to leap out of his chair while the other throws out his arms in a gesture of disbelief. The stark lighting underlines the dramatic intensity of the scene.

Typically for Caravaggio, he has shown the disciples as ordinary working men, with bearded, lined faces and ragged clothes, in contrast to the youthful beardless Christ, who seems to have come from a different world.

Easter (Edmund Spenser)

people crowd walking
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

Good Friday 2020

black and white cemetery christ church
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are some Christians who look for easy answers to situations we face in everyday life, and this is especially so in the current coronavirus pandemic. I’d love to be able to give you a ready-made answer to why this is happening, but I can’t. This is the age-old problem of evil in a world created by a loving God.

What I can do though, is point you to the events of the first Good Friday and suggest that we find the beginnings of an answer there.

I came across this article at the end of March and I’ve been saving it to share here on Good Friday. N. T. Wright is the Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, a Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University and the author of over 80 books, including The New Testament in Its World.

Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?

Well, you can read the article for yourself.

Good Friday is a day when we reflect on the most profound and spiritual things, and many will have time to do that today in lockdown and I encourage you to do so. You might find poetry and prose helps, music might work for you, maybe paintings or other forms of art.

Let me finish though with one more quote from the article:
It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.

Here is a worship song that may help you in your thoughts on this very sacred day.

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing,
God never changeth!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth. Amen.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), translated Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Sunday (David Bowie)

Nothing remains
We could run
when the rain slows
Look for the cars or signs of life
Where the heat goes
Look for the drifters
We should crawl under the bracken
Look for the shafts of light on the road
Where the heat goes

Everything has changed
For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed
For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end
And nothing has changed
And everything has changed

[first voice]
In your fear
Of what we have become
Take to the fire
Now we must burn
All that we are
Rise together
Through these clouds
As on wings

[2nd voice]
In your fear, seek only peace
In you fear, seek only love
In your fear, seek only peace
In you fear, seek only love
In your fear, in your fear

As on wings
This is the trip
And this is the business we take
This is our number
All my trials, Lord
Will be remembered
Everything has changed

This is the opening track of the Heathen album.

Franciscan Prayer for Women’s Day

women-26-01Lord, make me an instrument of peace:
Bless all women who daily strive to bring peace to their communities, their homes and their hearts. Give them strength to continue to turn swords into ploughshares.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love:
We pray for all women who face prejudice, inequality and gender disparities. Help us see and to face the discrimination against women in all the many forms it may take.

Where there is injury, pardon:
Comfort all women who suffer from the pain of war, violence, and abuse. Help them to become instruments of their own reconciliation and peace.

Where there is division, unity:
Forgive all women and men who let differences breed hate and discrimination. Let your example of valuing all of creation help us to see that we are equal partners in the stewardship of your world.

Where there is darkness, light; where there is untruth, truth:
Comfort all women who struggle in the darkness of abuse, poverty, and loneliness. May we stand with them in light to acknowledge their suffering and strive to remove the burdens of shame or embarrassment.

Where there is doubt, true faith:
We pray for all women who live in fear of their husbands, fathers, and forces that control their lives. Help them to be empowered to be their true selves through your everlasting love and faith.

Where there is despair, hope:
We pray for all women who live in the despair of poverty, violence, trafficking, slavery, and abuse. May the light of your love bring them hope.

Where there is sadness, new joy:
Help us to see the strength and goodness in all women and men. Transform our hearts to celebrate the love and grace of all people. And may we be blessed with the courage to follow our own path of love for you and all sisters and brothers. Amen

Note: I came across this here. I modified it slightly (as above) and used it in worship on Sunday 8 March 2020 at Wallsend Salvation Army.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Modern slavery is often hidden in plain sight, right in front of us. It’s happening on our streets and in our towns, and awareness is a key to combating it.

Hidden in Plain Sight is a short video which shows how anyone could come across men and women held in slavery in places they visit, like nail bars, car washes and cafes in any corner of the UK, meeting the demand for cheap goods and services. It illustrates, in a compelling and cinematic way, the visible signs of modern slavery in everyday life,

The Salvation Army provides specialist support through a Government contract to rescued victims of modern slavery to help them begin to rebuild their lives. Modern slavery is sadly growing with more than 10,000 people being referred to The Salvation Army for support since 2011.

Victims frequently say they believed their traffickers when told that no-one would help them if they escaped. The Hidden in Plain Sight film ends with an opening door and a message that the Salvation Army will believe them and is ready to help. The film was gifted to the Salvation Army by director Alex Haines and the Fat Lemon Production Company.

Hidden in Plain Sight has been shortlisted in the 2020 Charity Film Awards and public votes are now needed to take the film to the finals. Please click on the link to vote, so that more people will see it. You could make a huge difference.

You can take action against modern slavery by spreading the word, sharing the video, learning how to spot the signs, and donating to help provide essential support to the thousands of people still caught in slavery today.

See also here: Unseen Promise