28/06/20 Shaping the Future

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This is my final Sunday message before I retire in a few days time. Technically, I’m on holiday, but I’ve been pleased to share these weekly thoughts during June.

I mentioned at my welcome in 2015 that moving to Wallsend was more than just a new chapter in my life and ministry as a follower and servant of Jesus Christ, it was a whole new section of the book. I’d married Naomi the previous year and we arrived with Freddy who was three months old. I now leave to retire with our completed family, Matilda and Pollyanna having been born during our time here.

At a time of change we naturally think about making a fresh start, sorting things out, reflecting on how we can do things better, and taking positive steps into the future.

Although the future is unknown, we can play our part to make it a better place. It has to start today, because the only place we can live is in the present. It’s said that there’s no time like the present. So, if we want to shape the future, we need to start today.

We don’t need a special occasion, or a time of change, even though it often helps. We can take positive steps that will help shape the future of our own individual lives and that of others at any time.

Let me share some lovely words by Denise Brine with you:

Father God, I seek your guidance,
For I have a part to play
In the shaping of tomorrow
By the way I live today.
Take my hopes, my dreams, my passions,
Take my strength, my weakness too.
Shape my life; fulfil your purpose;
Start today; make me like you.

If I want to shape tomorrow
Then I need to start today,
Seeking, Lord, a revelation
Of your will and of your way.
If my passions, prayers and lifestyle
Are the witness people see,
Do I need a reformation
Of your Kingdom-life in me?

My todays will shape tomorrow!
Does that prospect please your eyes?
Are there changes that must happen?
Are there faults to recognise?
Shape me as seems best to you, Lord,
Start today, and help me see
That tomorrow will be better
When your life is seen in me.

David (in Psalm 51) prays in verse 10: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. The Message paraphrase words it in a very interesting way: God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life. Matthew Henry suggests that David is praying, Lord, fix me for the time to come.

Life isn’t easy for many people today, especially with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. We need to be there for them and for each other. We can share the best of humanity, as well as the love of God, by small acts of kindness to others. A simple smile, an offer of help, a genuine word of encouragement, beautiful actions of love.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are [together] on the road,
We are here to help each other,
Walk the mile and bear the load,

I will hold the Christlight for you,
In the night-time of your fear,
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

May that prayer be answered in each of our lives as we daily move into an unknown future, but one into which we can all take a hopeful and positive contribution.

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.

03/05/20 Candidates Sunday

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Candidates Sunday is an opportunity for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to be provided with the space and the opportunity to listen and respond to God’s call on their life right here, right now. Let’s get involved by praying, considering and celebrating spiritual leadership in The Salvation Army. Under the theme of ‘Be Alert’, this year’s Candidates Sunday is a strong call to pay attention to all that God is doing and understand what our response must be. Today’s online worship is based on this theme and uses resources provided here. Major John Ager.

Song: God grant to me a vision new (SATB 53/God’s Soldier)
(Denise Brine and Harry Read)

1. God grant to me a vision new
Of what you’re wanting me to do;
New understanding of the way
You plan for me from day to day.
Lord, by your Spirit help me see
The way of fruitful ministry,
Exciting possibilities,
God-given opportunities.

We’re going to fill, fill, fill the world with glory;
We’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown;
We’re going to sing, sing, sing the gospel story;
We’re going to turn the world upside down.

2. Lord, I would know your life in mine,
Your resurrection power divine;
Your Spirit’s strong life-giving breath
Ending the grasping hold of death.
I claim your Spirit’s strength and grace
To meet the future face to face,
New lease of life when all seemed dead,
New strength to face the days ahead.

3. The future glows more brightly now,
I hear again God’s gracious vow –
‘I know the plans I have for you,
Plans that will prosper, not harm you’.
New purpose and direction planned,
Supported by God’s guiding hand,
His hopeful future spurs me on,
To greater victories to be won!

Bible Message: Look up! Look in! Look out!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. Colossians 3:1-2 (The Message)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Colossians 3:1-2 (NIV)

Focus: What are you looking at? As followers of Jesus Christ, it’s all too easy for our focus to be looking down, bogged down in the things of this earth, or perhaps distracted by what this world tells us we should have or achieve. What could happen if we changed our perspective, if our focus was no longer to look down but to ‘be alert and look up to what is going on around Christ’? How could our lives and the lives of those around us be transformed if we began to see things from his perspective?

Introduction: ‘Look up!’ When things or situations look up, we usually understand this to mean that they increase in quality or value; if there’s a person we look up to, this is someone we have respect for. Looking up means a change in how we view things or people and usually involves an improvement of some kind or a positive response.

There was once a young tourist who found herself fortunate enough to be exploring Manhattan in New York. After a long day of sightseeing, the traveller had the Empire State Building as the last place on her list to visit. Her eyes were glued to the screen of her phone, trying to make sense of the map and looking for the little blue dot which would tell her that she had reached her destination, but to no avail. She was hopelessly lost. In true tourist fashion, the woman hailed a yellow New York cab and, with a slight hint of desperation in her voice, wearily pleaded with the taxi driver to take her to the Empire State Building. The taxi driver looked somewhat confused at this, so the woman frustratedly repeated the request. ‘Please can you take me to the Empire State Building!’ Calmly and with a smile on his face, the taxi driver pointed upwards. ‘You were here all along!’ he laughed. ‘You just needed to look up.’

In his letter to the Colossians, the church in Colossae, Paul is reminding the people there not to lose their focus or be distracted by the things around them, but to keep their focus on Jesus Christ and the things around him.

Look up! This idea of looking up and changing our perspective is a frequent message throughout the Bible.

  • In times of trouble or difficulty, the Psalmist reminds us, I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalm 121
  • When miraculously feeding the five thousand, Jesus keeps his focus on the Father. Mark 6:41 says, Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] gave thanks and broke the loaves.

On each occasion, in times of blessing and challenge, the direction is upwards, towards God.

  • Paul reminds the Colossians to do the same. They are being distracted by the demands of those around them, the teaching of other religions and ‘earthly things’ (3:2). Or as The Message describes it, ‘Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.’
  • In the Old Testament, as described in Genesis 15:5, God made his covenant with Abram, saying, Look up at the sky and count the stars, if indeed you can count them. Then he said to him, So shall your offspring be.
  • We look up and our focus is on God, our perspective is no longer restricted to the earthly things that distract us and we recognise that we are part of a much bigger picture. Not only does our perspective change when we look up to him, but our purpose does too. Going back to our lost tourist, if only she had looked up she would have seen the landmarks that would have given her a sense of location and direction. When we look up, look up to God, we find our purpose and direction.
  • If you have ever sung in a choir or played an instrument in a musical group, you’ll know how easy it is to be absorbed by the printed music in front of you, focusing on your own part. However, if you want to know the tempo and volume you should be playing or singing, then you must lift your eyes to the conductor.
  • Music is transformed when we are playing together, led by the conductor. Our corps, centres and communities can be transformed when, together, we look up to follow God’s direction.

Look in! With the focus rightfully placed on God, looking up to him for our purpose and direction, we can see things from his perspective and allow ourselves to be continually transformed by him.

  • The Message version of Colossians 3: 1-2 uses phrases like living this new resurrection life with Christ and pursue the things over which Christ presides.
  • The NIV translation says, Set your heart on things above, and the word for ‘set your heart’ literally translates as ‘seek’.
  • There is an active intentionality within the life of the believer when we try to see God’s perspective on things. We don’t simply look up as passive observers; we actively search for Christ and allow him to have lordship over our lives.
  • Every aspect of who we are, every thought, aspiration and action, should be governed by Jesus Christ.
  • We sing the words:
    Over every thought, over every word,
    May my life reflect the beauty of my Lord,
    Cause you mean more to me than any earthly thing,
    So won’t you reign in me again.
    Brenton Brown 1998 Vineyard Songs (UK/Eire)
  • That’s the message of Colossians 3: 1-2: we seek the things above, the things of God and consequently live life with a different purpose and direction. But when we look up to the things of God, this demands that we look in towards ourselves and see those areas of our lives which need to come under his reign.
  • This is the life of holiness, the journey of Christlikeness. The Message describes this beautifully in verses 3-4 of Colossians chapter 3: Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life, even though invisible to spectators, is with Christ in God. He is your life.
  • Looking up helps us to look in.

Look out! Paul’s desire was not for the Colossian people to stop there. Living under the reign of God helps us to look up to the things of God, and look in to our new life with him.

  • Paul then tells the church in Colossae to consider what the practical outworking of this might look like. Colossians 3 gives lots of wise advice about how to live and how to behave as people focused on the things of God.
  • Verse 17 encourages us to Let every detail in your lives, words, actions, whatever, be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.
  • If we live here and now with a heavenly perspective, we will no longer place importance on the things that the world places importance on.
  • Christians will view everything against a backdrop of eternity and no longer live as if this world was all that mattered. (William Barclay)
  • So when we look outwards, what do we see? The amazing thing about lifting our gaze upwards is that it immediately widens the view.
  • Changing our viewpoint to God’s viewpoint does not mean that we take ourselves out of the world or cease to be a part of it. In fact, the very opposite is true. Colossians 3:12-25 tells us how we should work out family, relationships, community, work, all from God’s perspective.

Conclusion: So what are you looking at? On this Candidates Sunday, what is God’s perspective on your life?

  • Maybe you are distracted by the things of this world, the challenges of life or the ambitions and achievements that dazzle. It is so easy to lose our way when we have our heads down and focus on the immediate.
  • But Paul warns us, If you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. (Colossians 3: 1 The Message)
  • Jesus calls us to look up! To look to him and find our purpose and direction, to see things from his perspective.
  • Seeing with God’s perspective, we can then look in at our own lives and see where God needs to rule. Which aspects of our lives, our thoughts, dreams and achievements, are seen through our human eyes and what might these look like through God’s lens?
  • Once we find our purpose and direction, once we see those areas of our lives which need to be in Christ, we can look out and see how to live this new life on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Then we can begin to be alert to what is going on around Christ, that’s where the action is. (Colossians 3:2 The Message)

Response:
‘Where are you now
When all I feel is doubt?
Oh, where are you now
When I can’t figure it out?
I hear you say,
“Look up, child.”’
(Look Up, Child by Lauren Daigle)

Responsive Benediction
Leader: Look at your hands.
All: God made them for a purpose.
Leader: See the touch and usefulness.
All: We shall use them to do God’s work.
Leader: Look at your feet.
All: God made them for a purpose.
Leader: See the direction and example.
All: We shall use them to do God’s work.
Leader: Look into your heart.
All: God made it for a purpose.
Leader: See the love and determination.
All: We shall use it to do God’s work.
Leader: Look at the cross.
All: God made it for a purpose.
Leader: See God’s Son, the Saviour.
All: We shall follow him in God’s work.
Leader: Look at your world.
All: God made it for a purpose,
Leader: See where God calls you to serve him.
All: We shall go out and do God’s work.
Leader: May the God who loves you endlessly lead you from belief into action.
All: Amen.

See also: 17/05/20 Sunday Questions

Good Friday 2020

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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)

22/03/20 Sunday Worship

Social distance with emotional and spiritual connection.

Welcome to our Sunday worship, it’s so good we can all share together in this way. Given the current situation, I think it’ll be good to start by watching this encouraging video by our Territorial Commander, Commissioner Anthony Cotterill.

Please note: the song links will take you to an online songbook, you’ll have to search for the song number manually in the 2015 Song Book (possibly by going back to the homepage). I’ll try and sort this out if possible, it’s all been put together in a hurry as you’ll appreciate. Also, apologies for any mistakes, but please let me know.

Our opening Song 948 is a reminder to stay strong in the grace of God, having confidence in him. The third verse says: Be strong in the grace of the Lord, Be armed with the power of His might; Be daring when dangers abound, Courageous and brave in the fight.

Bible ReadingRomans 8:31-39

As Paul, in that reading tells us, we are more than conquerors. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Our next Song 30 reinforces that theme.

Prayers: Use this time to make your own prayers and use the one below, which can be found in context here. Apologies if I’ve infringed copyright.

Christ, as a light
illumine and guide me.
Christ, as a shield
overshadow me.
Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Christ as a light;
Christ as a shield;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.

We’ll now take up the Offering and listen to the Announcements: For those of you who give a weekly (or other regular) offering to your church, please save these up as they will be much needed in due course. Additionally, there may be those of you who would like to make a donation to a charity of your choice. Please check your local church for arrangements during this bewildering time, and don’t forget to check back here. I’ll do my level best to have a Sunday worship service (meeting as we call them in the Salvation Army) online for you each week. You can download a modified handout (PDF format) for distribution to those not online here.

Let’s listen to the Band as they bring us a lively march with an uplifting message.

Bible Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

We turn to Song 48 for our Testimony Time. Please share your testimony with someone with you now in person, over the telephone or online.

Bible Reading: John 3:14-21

Before we listen to the Bible Message, let’s watch this beautiful video by Major David Chadwick. Selected verses from Psalm 91 with scenes of the Lake District and music from Chelmsford Salvation Army Band and Songsters. Words of encouragement as we enter a prolonged period of self-isolation.

Bible Message (Major John Ager)

Our main Bible reading contains one of the most well-known verses from the New Testament: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But the short passage we shared is not the whole story, you might like to read the whole chapter for context. Our reading had no mention of Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night seeking answers to his questions and no mention of being born again.

Instead, the teaching of Jesus is linked to the story of Moses in the wilderness having to deal with a discontented people found in Numbers 21:4-9.

Life used to be better for them, but now they have left Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses they have achieved freedom. They are no longer slaves. This was what they longed for, the fulfilment of their hopes. But now they are hungry. What food they have is boring. It’s not like the good old days in Egypt when at least they had good, interesting food to eat. The memories of their hardships have faded and all they know is that their bellies are empty and life is tough.

They are and should be people who are journeying towards a high destiny. They’ve been called by God for his purposes. They must reach out to the future and not dwell in the past, particularly on unrealistic memories of the past.

Moses is told by God to make a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole. When anyone who had been bitten by a poisonous serpent looked at this bronze serpent they would live. For many centuries this symbol has been used by those involved in healing and health care as their sign. One of the explanations of this clearly links it to the story in Numbers.

The symbol is still used widely today and maybe part of what it’s intended to convey is that health and healing are gifts. It was God’s gift of healing to an undeserving people, a rebellious, complaining, petty-minded people. Here it was a gift that would help them to become what they were capable of being, God’s chosen people that now includes all who name Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

In the Gospel reading (John 3:14-21) Jesus refers to this passage from Numbers and sees it pointing to his own destiny. The Son of Man will be lifted up and whoever believes in him will have eternal life.

This is a recurring theme in the gospels, that believing is what brings about the change in people and in their situations. Believing is the gift of God, the grace of God, and with that gift of grace all sorts of things become possible in people’s lives.

God loved us so much that he gave his only son. But that’s in the past tense, it needs to be in the present tense, because the activities of God are always in the eternal now. God loves the world so much that he gives his only son. That love is from eternity to eternity and nothing can separate us from that love.

On this unusual Mother’s Day, what we experience in the best of parental relationships, we experience even more in our experience of God. In fact, it’s our experience of divine parenting that becomes the model, the benchmark for human parenting. God loves the world so much. We look to God and live. In God’s love is all our renewal and healing.

We turn to an old favourite now, Song 453. Words that I hope will reinforce my Bible message in your hearts.

In this time of Reflection, Response & Prayer, please spend some moments quietly in ways that you find helpful.

We finish with Song 959. The places we can go might be limited, but we can still ‘go in the strength of the Lord’, finding new ways to share God’s love.

Benediction:

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.

You can find a deeply personal post about Mother’s Day 2020 here.

God bless you all, Major John Ager.

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.