Temptation 1 (Lent 2)

Lent is a time of giving up things, and in the Salvation Army it’s a time when we think about our Self-Denial Altar Service. In the Christian year it’s associated with the time Jesus spent being tempted in the desert.

Lent is traditionally a time of fasting, but spiritually it might better be considered a time to feast. A time to feed our souls by reflecting on the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter.

Bible Readings: Mark 1:9-13 and Matthew 4:1-11

The time of temptation in the desert comes at the start of the earthly ministry of Jesus, and it was a time of real challenge to him. Had Jesus been diverted from his task at such an early stage, Satan would have won a great victory. Jesus would have fallen at the first hurdle.

He faced three very specific temptations, three very real challenges, and three very desirable shortcuts to popularity and power. What was common to each of these challenges was the temptation to doubt, If you are the Son of God…

Jesus was reflecting and agonising on the direction of his ministry, and these three shortcuts to popularity and power came in the form of economic, religious and political challenges.

  • When Jesus was tempted to use his power to turn stones into bread, it wasn’t merely for his own physical need. He was being shown one way that he might achieve popularity, by meeting people’s economic needs.
  • When Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the Temple, it wasn’t merely a test of his divine status. It was another way of gaining recognition, by proving to the religious leaders that he was God’s Son, by satisfying a religious need.
  • When Jesus was tempted with all the kingdoms of the world, Satan was not merely appealing to his ego. Satan was dangling before him the carrot of political power, the opportunity of using dubious methods to exercise power over people.

So three temptations, three shortcuts to popularity and power: economic, religious and political.

  • The first was resisted because it was the wrong way to recruit followers and the wrong approach to human need: It was a way that avoided the cross.
  • The second was resisted because recognition that came by flaunting divine power would be shallow: It was contrary to God’s character.
  • The third was resisted because Jesus could never rule by force: It was contrary to God’s will.

These were real challenges, different – yet not so different from the ones we face every day of our lives.

Temptations are actually about ways of satisfying our own needs inappropriately, masking our true selves by showing off and making ourselves look better than we really are, or forcing ourselves onto other people against their will. They’re much deeper than just craving chocolate!

As the writer to the Hebrews says:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Hebrews 4:15

Use this week in Lent to reflect on the Bible readings above, and on Christ’s experience in the desert.

See also: The Essence of Lent

To be continued…

Social Distancing Reflections

There are so many health benefits of human contact and hugs, and these benefits have been denied many during the current coronavirus pandemic. In addition, dating for single people is fraught with difficulties, and it’s a total nightmare for tactile individuals.

As Virgina Satir, a respected family therapist said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” It concludes that hugs are having a great role in improving our life’s quality. In addition, hugs also have many health benefits you have never expected before. Source

You can easily find out more by clicking on the above link (and Google is your friend), and it’s well worth doing so. I might blog about it sometime, but it’s not the main subject of this post.

One friend commented that being safe (in lockdown) isn’t the same as being alive, because alive isn’t the same as thrive. I know that many can identify with this inability to thrive in lockdown. She also said, “I’ve never felt so alone in my entire life. I’m losing both good and bad parts of me. I’ll never be the same after this”.

Since the start of pandemic I’ve been reflecting on how social distancing might affect our long-term human interaction, especially with strangers. Initially, I discouraged handshaking in Wallsend Corps, greeting each other by touching elbows. This was met with a mixture of amusement and anxiety, the latter due to the uncertainly of what the future might hold, but it wasn’t long before the first lockdown was announced.

A phrase I coined at the start of the pandemic was: Social distance with emotional and spiritual connection. If I could go back twelve months I would change it to: Physical distance with emotional and spiritual connection, as this better reflects my considered thoughts. We need all the social connection we can get within the restrictions. But laptops, tablets and Zoom meetings have their obvious limitations, we need actual human contact to thrive. That said, video calls have been a lifesaver for many.

Another friend said, “Our [adult] son has profound and multiple learning disabilities including autism. He is in a care home. He is non-verbal and touch is how he communicates whether it’s to hug you, hit you or take you to something he wants. Needless to say social distancing hasn’t been good for him. When he sees us to wants to come over to us but can’t. Socially distanced walks with a carer bringing him in the wheelchair to make sure we don’t get close to him is the best way to deal with. Once when on the walks he tried reaching out to stroke a dog that came up to but had to be pulled away. When the dog came up it was lovely to see his smile but heart breaking to see his disappointment when he wasn’t allowed to touch the dog. I dread to think how all this is affecting him long term. However one lovely thing when we’ve done video calls with us, he will touch the screen to acknowledge us.”

I’m not coming to an overall conclusion, but these are personal reflections. We all know how physical distancing is affecting us and our loved ones, but we can’t be sure of the long-term effects. Will we remain ‘distant’ from others, even when we go back to some sort of normality? Reaching out to others, with its associated physical contact, is vital for us to thrive individually and collectively. May we never lose this.

Ash Wednesday (Start of Lent)

Ash Wednesday is a Christian day of prayer and fasting marking the start of Lent, the second period of reflection in the Christian year, the first being Advent. More specifically, it’s an opportunity for self-examination, fasting, confession, and repentance – a time to grow spiritually before Palm SundayHoly WeekGood Friday, and Easter.

Ash Wednesday (the day after Shrove Tuesday) derives its name from the placing of ashes on the forehead to either the words ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel’ or ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. The ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves (from the previous Palm Sunday) on Shrove Tuesday.

See also: Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)

Note: You can find out more (along with an Ash Wednesday poem) by clicking here.

Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)

Shrove Tuesday (more commonly known as Pancake Day) is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Christian year. Lent is associated with the time Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. The date of Shrove Tuesday is determined by the date of Easter each year, but always falls on a Tuesday (obviously) as Easter always falls on a Sunday. The name comes from the word shrive, meaning absolve.

Lent is the second period of reflection in the Christian year, the first being Advent. More specifically, it’s an opportunity for self-examination, fasting, confession, and repentance – a time to grow spiritually before Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter.

Making pancakes was one way to use up food before fasting. Traditionally, many different types of food would be given up including meat, fish, eggs and dairy-based foods. These foods were cooked and eaten on Shrove Tuesday so they wouldn’t be wasted during the period of Lent.

As this is the last day of the Christian liturgical season historically known as Shrovetide, before the penitential season of Lent, related popular practices, such as indulging in food that one might give up as their Lenten sacrifice for the upcoming forty days, are associated with Shrove Tuesday celebrations. The term Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which begins on Ash Wednesday. Many Christian congregations thus observe the day through the holding of pancake breakfasts, as well as the ringing of church bells to remind people to repent of their sins before the start of Lent. On Shrove Tuesday, churches also burn the palms distributed during the previous year’s Palm Sunday liturgies to make the ashes used during the services held on the very next day, Ash Wednesday. Wikipedia

Today, making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday can be simply a cultural thing, and (for retailers) a marketing opportunity. So, whatever the meaning, or combination of meanings, for you – will you be making and tossing pancakes? If so, let me know how you get on. As for me, I’m quite proud of my pancake tossing skills.

See also: Ash Wednesday (Start of Lent)

Finding Peace in Five Verses

Just a simple (yet hopefully profound) Sunday devotional today. It’s based on five Bible verses shared in a recent newsletter from Our Daily Bread Ministries.

The newsletter reminds us that we live in anxious and uncertain times (not that we need reminding) and that peace can seem like a rare commodity. God’s peace is something completely different and reliable though.

It’s suggested that when we need to experience his peace, we dedicate some time to meditate and reflect on these five verses. I would also add that you might like to consider them in context, as this is always important in our reading of God’s word. So, why not find a quiet place, and immerse yourself in these verses?

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4:8
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. 
Isaiah 26:3
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
John 14:27
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
Colossians 3:15

Prayer: Peace to you from God who is our Father. Peace from Jesus Christ who is our peace. Peace from the Holy Spirit who gives us life. The peace of the triune God be always with you. Amen.

You might also find this post helpful: Be still, and know (Will J Brand)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

You can read Chapter 4 by clicking here.

In this final chapter of his letter to the Philippian church, Paul makes a closing appeal for steadfastness and unity: Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

Having spoken generally in Chapter 2 about humbly having the mind of Christ, he pleads specifically with Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled after an argument.

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Philippians 4:2-3

This is followed by one of my favourite Bible passages, one I often use in pastoral ministry: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7

Paul goes on: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:8-9

These verses always make me smile when I read them, because Paul comes across as a little boastful about his Christian life. Clearly, this isn’t the case, especially because he’s been writing about humility and only boasting in the Lord in this very letter. It does remind us, though, that we have to be careful how we come across to others – arrogant, judgemental, and ‘holier than thou’ Christians do not serve Jesus well, they turn people off God.

In verses 11-13 Paul shows he’s learnt some important life lessons, that we should take on board: […] I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

In his final greetings, Paul thanks the Christians for their gifts. He speaks of them as a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. He reminds them God will meet all their needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, we are reminded that we can make a gift of our lives to God and others, a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

Peace (Amy Witting)

At the ship’s bow. It was my eye that drew
the perfect circle of blue meeting blue.
No land was visible. There was no sail,
no cloud to show the mighty world in scale,
so sky and ocean, by my gaze defined,
were drawn within the compass of my mind
under a temperate sun. The engine’s sound
sank to a heartbeat. Stillness all around.
Only the perfect circle and the mast.
That moment knew no future and no past.

Amy Witting (1918-2001)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

Chapter 3 (click on the link to read) is about joy in believing and having no confidence in rituals for salvation or living the Christian life. Rituals are important in our worship, but they point to something else. They are symbols of deeper truths, and can be very powerful, but it’s the spiritual experience they represent that’s vitally important.

The ritual that Paul refers to is circumcision, because Christianity is rooted in Judaism. He’s countering the argument of those who suggested that Gentile Christians needed to submit to the Old Testament Jewish laws to obtain salvation.

He powerfully reminds his readers that our salvation is based on the work of our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Put no confidence in the flesh he says. It’s not the ritual that’s important, it’s the experience in the heart that matters.

He goes on to point out that, because of his background in Judaism, he has more reason that most to boast in the ritual – but he counts it as loss for what he has gained.

I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Having said that though, he’s quick to point out that he hasn’t fully achieved it yet, he presses on. There’s no place for arrogance in the Christian experience. We humbly accept our nature as imperfect Christians striving towards a goal – in God’s strength, not ours. He’s effectively echoing his own words in Chapter 2 about the humility of Jesus.

I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, here’s a helpful prayer and reflection based on this chapter, I encourage you to spend some quiet time going through it.

The good news therefore is this:
In Jesus Christ we are accepted,
we are loved, we are forgiven.
Thanks be to God!

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

Brexit – a personal reflection

The UK has now fully left the EU, something I consider to be a huge act of nationalistic self-harm.

Sadly, the reality of what we’ve lost will only be fully demonstrated in the weeks, months and years ahead. But we are where we are, and we really are all in this together. I hope all Brits want what’s best for the UK (which, of course, may now break up) and we have to make it work. Remain voters are experiencing a palpable sense of loss and sadness, and this needs to be worked through.

‘Getting over’ this will inevitably take time before we can genuinely move forward, powerful human emotions are not easily dismissed by pressing an [ESC] key.

The campaign to rejoin the EU starts today!

Advent 4 Devotional Candle

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The season of Advent is the first period of reflection in the Christian year, the second being Lent.

The first candle in the Advent wreath symbolises HOPE and is known as the Prophet’s Candle. The second candle represents FAITH and is called Bethlehem’s Candle. The third candle symbolises JOY and is called the Shepherd’s Candle. The fourth candle represents PEACE and is called the Angel’s Candle. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming Prince of Peace. The angels announced that Jesus came to bring peace, to bring people closer to God and to each other.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Isaiah 9:6-7

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ Luke 2:13-14

When Jesus came he taught people the importance of being peacemakers. He said that those who make peace shall be called the children of God. When Christ comes he brings us peace, and everlasting peace when he comes again. We light the candle of peace to remind us that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and that through him peace is found.

Peace is like a light shining in a dark place. As we reflect on the light from this candle, we celebrate the peace we have in Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, Light of the World, the prophets said you would bring peace and save your people from trouble. Give peace in our hearts this Christmas. We ask this as we wait for you to come again, that you would remain present with us. Help us today, and every day to worship you, to hear your word, and to do your will by sharing your peace with each other. We ask this in the name of the one who was born in Bethlehem. Amen.

See also: Misunderstanding Palm Sunday