26/04/20 Bible Thoughts

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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)

A Year of Us (Naomi Ager)

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Naomi and I have been considering the adverse effect the coronavirus pandemic lockdown can have on couples, especially those (like us) with young children. I posted something to this effect on Facebook today, not because we had fallen out, but because we both recognise that couples need to work harder on their relationships in times of crisis. This is her guest post. Thank you Naomi, I love you.

I saw this book on Amazon and, given the stress we find ourselves under as a family, but more so as a couple in these days of lockdown, I thought engagement in a couple’s journal together might work in some way to deepen our connection and allow us to explore each other and not lose sight of ‘us’.

There’s always something else you can learn about the person you love whether you’ve been together for a week or 60 years. By sitting together each evening to explore the 365 interesting questions laid out in this book, I feel it will give us a beautiful insight into our hopes and dreams, as well as our most desperate needs that perhaps are going by the wayside right now.

I’m personally finding it difficult to do something as simple as engaging in meaningful conversation when the children have gone to bed. But, having explored this book prior to us starting it together, I think it will give us the opportunity to bring up issues whether deep and heartfelt or more whimsical in nature.

In this period of lockdown, it’s more important than ever to maintain healthy discussions as a couple and to ensure important things are openly talked about. Things such as family finance and sex life (for example) and hopes for now and the future when we are eventually released back into the big wide world again.

It’s also important to talk about our hobbies and interests with each other, and in turn to encourage the person we share our lives with and love with the things that interest them. I want to take even more of an interest and have a better understanding of what interests John. So maybe I’ll read up on stars, planets, space and the universe or listen to one of his weird and wonderful music albums.

Making time to talk about our interests outside of homeschooling the children and general survival at this time, in my opinion, can only solidify the foundation of our relationship and improve life massively, especially whilst living under such pressure.

I plan to share a lot of the daily questions with my friends on Facebook, so they too can sit with their other half, turn off the television, put pen to paper and learn a little more about each other.

Maundy Thursday 2020

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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.

Facing Challenges

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The challenges we face at the moment are many and interconnected. They are shared challenges, yet deeply individual at the same time. I believe we’re all trying to do our best, whilst admitting the collective need to lower expectations of ourselves and others. Many things in this crisis are counterintuitive. like desiring human contact but needing to stay apart. It’s OK to admit we’re not OK, whilst at the same time supporting and encouraging others. We need each other more than ever in these hard times, we’re all hurting and struggling.

We’re learning valuable lessons about ourselves and discovering the things that are important for our emotional and mental wellbeing, our relationship values and working lives. I believe we’ll emerge from this stronger people, better able to take our place in a changing society. Stay strong and stay safe.

Social distance with emotional and spiritual connection.

 

My Last Duchess (Robert Browning)

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This narrative poem is of an altogether different nature to the ones I’ve been posting here recently. This is sinister and full of intrigue, one that amply repays careful and repeated reading. A favourite poem of mine for many years.

FERRARA

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Don’t give up (Helen Austin)

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My online friend Helen Austin (who has previously contributed a guest post) wrote this three years ago. I share it here (with permission). Artwork by another online friend Adam Howie, a piece he chose especially for Helen’s words.

Don’t give up on people.
People are complicated.
Complex.
Don’t give up on them.

We are complicated and complex.
Don’t give up on us.

We are all broken.
Broken people.
But there is hope.
Life doesn’t have to stay broken.
It can heal.
Move forwards.
Be different.

It will never be the same again. As it was before we broke.
But it can be beautiful again.
It really can.
Beautiful in its brokenness.

Don’t give up. On people. On us.
On you.
Don’t give up on yourself.
You belong here.
You are loved.
You are being thought of right now.

Don’t give up.

Your Discomfort Is Grief

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We’re all finding life difficult at the moment in the current coronavirus pandemic, feeling overwhelmed and emotional, with so many questions.

A friend shared this article today and it rang a bell with me, it helped me to understand the struggle I’m having right now. The deep visceral emotions I’m experiencing are exactly those of grief, ones that resonate with what I felt (and to some extent still do) following the death of my mother last year.

But enough of me. Read this article for yourself, I’m sure you’ll find it helpful.

Harvard Business Review: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

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.

Mother’s Day 2020

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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.

Dear friends…

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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.