21/06/20 Isaiah 46

15512339097_86182b2e44_b

Isaiah 46 contains two sharply contrasting pictures; the first is of people carrying their god, the second one is of God carrying his people.

Isaiah can’t help smiling when he sees the shallow religion of the nations around Israel, what a miserable thing it must be to have a god who is a burden, who has to be carried from place to place. So he draws a humorous picture of a glittering god that looks great, but needs half a dozen men to carry it, a useless burden that weighs them down.

The second picture is of God our Heavenly Father, who carries his people from before birth, through life and past death into eternity.

Read: Isaiah 40:28-31

These two pictures represent two types of religion. On the one hand, one that has to be carried, that’s a burden, that’s a duty, that weighs us down and wears us out. On the other hand, one that worships a God who upholds with his powerful arms, one that carries us, lifts us, lightens our spirits and fills us with peace and joy.

I know which religion I prefer! Unfortunately, there are some Christians who choose the heavy, burdensome religion. Is it any wonder people reject it?

The disciples who met the Risen Jesus on the Emmaus Road recognised him when he broke bread. Their spirits were lifted: Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? Luke 24:32

Commissioner Catherine Bramwell-Booth wrote:

Come, blessed Jesus, come;
Break bread again for me;
Lord open Thou my eyes that I
Thy living self may see.
Then joy shall fill my heart,
My strength be all renewed
To witness of Thy death and life,
By Thine own power endued.

As we open ourselves up to God our Heavenly Father, and as we come humbly into his presence, he lifts us up and fills us with his nature.

Let’s not be content with a religion of strain and struggle, fear and duty, heavy hearts and clouded faces, when we can have a faith that carries our burdens, lightens our spirits and fills us with love, joy and peace.

True faith is attractive, it draws others to Christ. May we never turn antone away because our religion is joyless, judgemental and narrow. See: 1 John 5:3-4

Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day because of the heavy loads they put on the people. See: Matthew 23:1-4

How refreshing, then, are the words of Jesus: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

May that be real in our lives, and may we share it with those around us, as we recognise the true nature of God our Heavenly Father.

Edward Colston Statue in Bristol

Northern_end_of_The_Centre,_Bristol,_March_2018

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.

26/04/20 Bible Thoughts

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

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)

Lockdown Tiredness?

light black and white portrait canon
Photo by Demeter Attila on Pexels.com

There have been times during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown when I’ve been overcome with physical, mental and emotional tiredness the like of which I’ve rarely experienced in my sixty-five years. Some of this can easily be explained by my circumstances, but much of it appears inexplicable at first.

Yesterday was a relatively good day for me, although even on those good days we can be easily knocked off balance. Today I’ve struggled with concentration, energy level and motivation. I’m forcing myself to compose these words, partly because I find writing cathartic and therapeutic, but also because (and I say this humbly) I know many of you are being helped by my blog posts.

Here is why you might be feeling tired while on lockdown

This article (published in early April 2020) is very insightful in helping to understand why we might be feeling tired (apart from the obvious things in our own circumstances) and considers how we might be feeling at the current point in the lockdown.

Full functional adaptation to a new way of life will happen after about three months. However, there is one period to be aware of that can occur around three weeks after the start, when a person can succumb abruptly to a bout of melancholy and a loss of morale. The worry in this case may be that the lockdown situation has now become permanent. But once this phase has passed these feelings of despondency tend not to return.

As well as addressing why we feel like we do, there are also some useful coping tips. Share how you’re coping in the comments or on social media.

Maundy Thursday 2020

agony in garden

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ Matthew 26:36-46

Pause for a moment, read the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, watch the video of the song The Servant King, and quietly read the prayer.

You call us to love those
whom you would love,
and give us the words to say.
You call us to bring wholeness
to lives that are broken,
and give us the words to say.
You call us to bring comfort
to those who are grieving,
and give us the words to say.
You call us to bring good news
to those who are seeking,
and give us the words to say.
Your word, living water
in desert sands.
Your word, blossoming
in parched earth.
Your word, bearing fruit
wherever it is sown. Amen.

Note: prayer source.

Misunderstanding Palm Sunday

man wearing black vest near crowded people
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

Mother’s Day 2020

20180412_140404

I hadn’t been looking forward to leading two worship services on Mother’s Day this year, because it would have been my first after her death last year. In fact, I hadn’t really given my preparation much thought, possibly secretly hoping that it would go away. Not only did the thought of it awaken some powerful emotions that continue to lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, but there’s the ongoing emptiness of loss combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, which may be magnified in me because I’m an only child of only children.

So there’s a sense of relief I’ll not have to minister to others in public on this sensitive occasion because of the coronavirus pandemic. But clearly, I’d rather have had my vulnerability and emotions laid bare than being in this current health crisis. Equally, I’ve discovered over the years that my ‘wearing my heart on my sleeve’ nature has been used by God in Christian ministry to bring comfort and strength to others, a very humbling experience. Central to my faith is the vulnerability of Jesus, demonstrated powerfully in his willingness to suffer and die. This reminds me that emotional openness and vulnerability must never be confused with weakness, for in our weakness we can be strong.

For this year, that’s all I’m going to say. I’ll leave others to share their thoughts, emotions and spiritual insights on Mother’s Day, and I’ll be pleased to read and share them.

Note: The photo of my mother and daughter Pollyanna was taken in 2018.

Staying Friends on Social Media

image

The algorithms of social media often dictate that we live within an echo chamber of friends who share our outlook on life. But not everyone agrees with us, nor do we always agree with others. The old adage of ‘agreeing to disagree agreeably’ sometimes goes out of the window when passions run high, and social media can be a catalyst to entrench our opinions and polarise debate.

In an increasingly divisive society, we may need to relearn the concept of being nice, affirming each other and appreciating diversity.

When I post something on Facebook I expect disagreement, but I don’t expect rudeness. People can get so angry that others have a different, well-considered opinion from them, one that may be part of their very being.

Often on social media there is no engagement with the issue(s), just simply shouting an alternative opinion, with no concept of nuance in any discussion. We are not heard by shouting. There needs to be respect, both for ourselves and for others. It’s also perfectly acceptable to admit the merits of someone else’s position whilst not necessarily agreeing with it ourselves.

Please don’t think that I’m saying I’m perfect in this regard, I’m not. But I do feel we all need to take a careful and humble look at ourselves and how we respond to things posted on Facebook and social media generally.

Personally, I approach this as a person of faith, and so many of my attitudes, thoughts and actions derive from this and make me the person I am.

Paul writing to the Philippians says: 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.

Here is the context of the whole passage, where Paul suggests we should have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. Be kind to each other.

Coming out as gay

JS81153456

I write as a straight man, even though someone once found my website using the phrase ‘is john ager gay’, but also as someone who seeks to empathise and understand those who struggle with their sexuality and societal attitudes.

It came as a complete surprise when I heard this morning that Phillip Schofield had come out as gay, even if there were those who said they always knew.

Much has already been spoken and written about this, and I can’t possibly (nor do I intend to) cover all the issues raised by this announcement. However, I would like to raise questions of why it’s so difficult for people to come out, and why can’t people be allowed to be who they are in the first place?

I found a number of well-articulated comments on Twitter helpful in this important discussion and I leave them with you:

Owen Jones: It’s up to all LGBTQ people how or when or whether they come out. But when someone with a public platform comes out, it helps people who are struggling with their sexuality. Love and support to [Phillip Scofield]

Patrick Strudwick: Next year will be 30 yrs since I came out. (14, at my comprehensive school, it stopped me killing myself). To STILL see people trapped in the closet for decades before having desperate, highly-charged comings out reveals how little things have changed. We have so much more to do.

Sam Wise: [Phillip Schofield] grew up in a time when gay people didn’t have any rights and nobody can blame him for feeling he could not come out. Still today homophobia is alive in our society and people in the public eye feel they can’t be who they are…the fact that [he] has only felt able [to] come out now says more about our society than it does him. He’s made a courageous step today and the fact his wife and kids are right behind him with love and support is excellent.

Coming to terms with and being your authentic self is never easy, especially in the public eye. Phillip and his family deserve our love and support.

Dear friends…

brexit-really-mean-brexit

I completely and passionately remain (did you see what I did there?) of the view that the decision of the UK to leave the EU is fatally flawed. I believe some dark forces have been at work, and feel (like many Remainers) that something of my identity has been taken away. Passions run high.

But things have changed, Brexit is happening and the legal process of leaving has begun, although the full effects will not be felt until the end of the transition period in eleven months time.

It was a divisive referendum in 2016 and continues to be a bitter debate which has divided friends and split families, but now is the time for us all to come together and start healing those divisions.

It’s not the outcome I wanted, but both Leavers and Remainers need to take positive steps to understand each other and work together for the common good, because we all want what’s best for the UK.

I apologise if any of my comments or posts have caused offence over the last few years, and I hope for a similar response from others. My views haven’t changed, I need to remain true to myself, but let’s all agree to disagree agreeably and move forward together. After all, relationships are what life is ultimately about.

PS – I’ll try very hard not to say ‘I told you so’ when things go wrong, but I can’t promise. We’re all human. John.