24/05/20 Sunday Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time (Mary Ursula Bethell)

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‘Established’ is a good word, much used in garden books,
‘The plant, when established’ . . .
Oh, become established quickly, quickly, garden
For I am fugitive, I am very fugitive –

Those that come after me will gather these roses,
And watch, as I do now, the white wistaria
Burst, in the sunshine, from its pale green sheath.

Planned. Planted. Established. Then neglected,
Till at last the loiterer by the gate will wonder
At the old, old cottage, the old wooden cottage,
And say ‘One might build here, the view is glorious;
This must have been a pretty garden once.’

Mary Ursula Bethell (1874-1945) was born in England but her parents soon returned to New Zealand. The garden was her pilgrimage, her way to God.

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).

Happy the Man (Dryden-Horace)

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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.

John Dryden (1631-1700)
translating Horace (65-8 BCE), Odes, Book III, xxix

Impending Retirement

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My retirement was never going to be a normal one, the reason being that I have three young children under six, but that was before the coronavirus pandemic which has well and truly thrown all our plans into disarray.

The earliest I could have retired was February 2020 but, for a variety of reasons, I decided to work for another five months until the start of July 2020. So now I effectively retire at the end of May, as June is taken up with holiday entitlement.

We’re moving to a rented property in Norton, Stockton-on-Tees, on or soon after the beginning of July. Although this is in doubt because of government lockdown restrictions affecting property work and removal companies. We also have the problem of a house and garage which need sorting out, with charity shops and the local tip closed.

I have mixed feelings about retirement. It’s a huge change in our circumstances and we’ve all made many friends in Wallsend, not least our children. Also, most of our married life has been spent here.

Although I won’t have any work responsibilities in retirement, I’ll remain a Salvation Army Officer. I’m looking forward to Christian ministry in different circumstances, with possibly new areas to explore, and I already have some idea of what these might be and how they might be developed. One thing I won’t miss is administrative responsibilities.

Overall, I’m looking forward to retirement and the opportunities it’ll bring, I just wish the details weren’t so obscured by clouds of uncertainty.