31/05/20 Pentecost Sunday

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Greetings on Pentecost Sunday. This would have been my last Sunday leading public worship before my retirement on Wednesday 1 July 2020. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Next month I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home before retiring and moving away from Wallsend.

It’s a matter of personal regret that I’ve not been able to lead Wallsend Corps in worship over these last few months, have a public farewell, or hand over leadership in the usual way. My sincere hope and prayer is that Wallsend Corps will be able to move forward into a new future under the leadership of Cadet (soon to be Lieutenant) Luke Cozens. I’m currently preparing handover information and I’m in contact with Luke to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in unique circumstances, ones I believe can be seen as both a challenge and opportunity. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Here’s a short video message from our Territorial Leaders Anthony and Gillian Cotterill introducing a Pentecost Sunday worship meeting, click here for more details. You can find an outline of it by clicking here.

Here’s my Bible message for Pentecost Sunday, the Bible readings are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 which can be read by clicking on the links.

When Chichester Cathedral was being renovated in 1962 they found that the medieval builders had built a magnificent cathedral on poor land and hadn’t extended the foundations far enough. As a result of this oversight, the 20th Century renovators had far more work than anticipated.

We don’t need reminding of the parable of the house built on the sand and the one built on the rock. It’s so important that we build our lives upon Christ, getting the foundations right and then building in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But let’s go right back to the beginning, literally, to the Book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis means ‘beginnings’, it’s a book that deals with the beginning of everything, not in a scientific way, but in a far more profound way.

Genesis focuses our attention on certain aspects of life, the first eleven chapters paint a picture of the world as God meant it to be, but they also show the appalling mess we’ve made of it; the message is timeless, because we continue to make a mess of it.

In these opening chapters of the Bible we have parables of immense significance. From there on, the rest of the Bible show us what God has done to get us out of the mess, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

We have the story of Noah and the Flood, the message being that the world merits nothing less than total destruction. The Flood symbolises God’s timeless judgement on humankind, as appropriate now as when it was written.

Noah wasn’t perfect, but he represents those in every age who walk with God. God always offers a way back to himself, if only we live our lives with reference to him.

Then we have the story of the Tower of Babel, a story that echoes the Fall: human defiance of God. But instead of the story being set in a garden with two people, the setting is bricks and mortar with a developing civilisation.

The age-old problem is that individuals and humankind as a whole build for their own glory rather than for the glory of God.

William Neil writes:
Man wants to run the world in his own way. He wants to put himself at the centre of his civilisation on a pedestal inscribed with the name: “Glory to MAN in the highest”.
Note how verse 4 says: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for OURSELVES”.

This is the mistake we make again and again. There is only one God and Creator, we are created in his likeness, and our destiny is to know him, to live in fellowship with him, humbly seeking and obeying his will for our lives.

The builders’ desire for autonomy recalls the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, and establishes the need for Abraham’s redemptive faith in the midst of international disorder. Far from the original garden, the first cities in Genesis represent arrogance, tyranny and wickedness. The city on the Babylonian plain was a magnet for human pride and idolatry, a tower that reaches into the sky. NLT Study Bible

When we put ourselves first, God comes and confounds our plans, and there is chaos and disorder. The confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel story is but a symptom of a much deeper disharmony that prevents unity and common understanding.

We talk about people ‘not speaking the same language’, meaning that their positions are so far apart that they might as well be speaking a different language.

We see this between individuals, groups and nations. Pride, injustice, and selfishness: all preventing meaningful communication and reconciliation.

But had you ever considered that the story of Pentecost balances the story of the Tower of Babel?

The divided language of Babel becomes the common language of Pentecost, the story is turned upside down; or more correctly the right way up.

The miracle of Pentecost was that a new language came with power, the language of love, the language of the Spirit, the language of unity, a language that all could understand; the love that God showed in sending his Son as Saviour and Lord, a suffering servant for all humankind.

God’s love in sending Jesus is something that speaks to the human heart far more eloquently than words could ever do. As we open our hearts and lives to God’s Holy Spirit he fills and empowers us to live this language of love in the world.

God can work in and through us when we’re open to God’s Holy Spirit, who takes our weaknesses and makes us strong, who takes our brokenness and makes us whole. Then the Holy Spirit can do the work of building the kingdom.

We can always move forward in his power and strength; building on the past, building in the present, and building for the future – especially in these new circumstances of coronavirus. Building, not for our own glory, but for God’s glory.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with thee I will one will
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.

Silent Joy in Grief

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It was one year ago (26 May 2019) that my 94-year-old mother (Jean) died in hospital in Northampton, my father (Fred) having died in 2013.

As I’ve written previously, special days and anniversaries awaken powerful emotions which lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, along with the ongoing emptiness of loss. Additionally, this is combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, a feeling which may be magnified for me because I’m an only child of only children.

I had the following words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer printed on the back of the order of service for both their funerals as they expressed something my family wanted to articulate. These words have become even more meaningful to me with the passing of time, and I hope you find them helpful as well.

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve, even in pain, the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

Commissioning Day 1980

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Forty years ago (23 May 1980) I was ordained and commissioned as a Salvation Army Officer (Minister of Religion) in the Royal Albert Hall, London. This significant anniversary comes as I prepare for my retirement in a world that’s vastly different from the one in which I commenced my vocation, but one that continues beyond the end of my working life.

There’s so much I could write, but here’s just one memory of the day. My mother was chosen to come onto the stage to receive her Silver Star badge (presented then to mothers and now to both parents of officers) as a representative mother. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find her way through the tunnels in the bowels of the building in true This is Spinal Tap tradition. Fortunately, she had the presence of mind to come back up to the auditorium and make a grand entrance via the central stairs onto the stage!

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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Photo by Thiago Matos on Pexels.com

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

Psalm 23 (A Psalm of David)

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23 from the King James Version (1611) of the Bible. For a more modern and accurate translation from the New International Version (1978) click here. See also: 10/05/20 Sunday Reflections.

10/05/20 Sunday Reflections

Sunrise at Llyn Padarn at Llanberis, Snowdonia National Park

Greetings on this fourth 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 reflections on the Psalms and other Bible passages. See also: Psalm 23 (A Psalm of David).

The Book of Psalms in the Bible is the oldest hymnbook of the people of God, and it’s still going strong. I recently heard a suggestion on the radio that because the psalms are so emotionally expressive, reflecting such variety of feelings, they are useful for anyone to read in this coronavirus pandemic whether a person of faith or not. They are universally applicable.

The psalms echo down through the centuries the universal language of the human condition, resonating with the heights and depths of the human soul and experience. Whatever our emotion, there is sure to be a psalm which reflects it; whether triumph or defeat, excitement or depression, joy or sorrow, praise or penitence, wonder or anger.

But, above all, they declare the greatness of God and the wonder of his creation. We can come to know him better through the psalms, falling down at his feet and worshipping his greatness and majesty.

Here’s two short and well-known psalms to start us off, Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. Click on the links and read them now. Both have been paraphrased as hymns, and we have a number of them in the Salvation Army Songbook. Here’s one of my favourites.

Psalm 121 (click on the link) is one I especially grew to love while I live in South Wales in the midst of wonderful hills and mountains. Enjoy this video by Gaz Rose.

Psalm 46 reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble, and it encourages us to come before him in quietness, Be still, and know that I am God.

Turning away from the psalms for a moment, Romans 8:35-39 contains some of the most comforting and profound verses in the New Testament. If we know and experience the love of God as expressed through Jesus Christ, nothing can separate us from that love. His death and resurrection is proof of his unconquerable love, and we can have his constant presence with us.

Both the psalms and many passages in the Bible reassure us of God’s spiritual protection. We might find ourselves in challenging circumstances, as many are in the current crisis, but God promises to give us rest and peace in the midst of them.

In quietness and trust is your strength. God still speaks to those who take time to listen. He wants us to acknowledge him in our lives, and relax in his presence and care. Quietness and confidence in God brings strength and hope. As we are surrounded by God’s love, even when we are in the darkest valley, we can have hope and security. God will carry is through.

Be still, and know
Will J Brand

Only the quiet heart may know
Thy secret ways, O God;
And they that hasten to and fro
These paths have never trod,
Nor journeyed where still waters flow,
Supported by Thy staff and rod:
Only the quiet heart may know
Thy secret ways, O God.

Peace of the tranquil heart,
Fall upon me;
Gift of the Father
My sentinel be:
Guard Thou my heart
In the presence of ill,
Hold me – encompass me –
I would be still.

Only the quiet heart is strong
It’s daily load to bear;
To greet the waking morn with song
And end the day with prayer,
Glad, though the road be hard and long,
That Love has borne the larger share:
Only the quiet heart is strong
It’s daily load to bear.

Yes, but the quiet heart is sure
That God is over all;
‘Be still, and know’, His words endure
Though crowns and empires fall.
Wait thou for Him, content, secure,
He serves thy need’s unspoken call:
Rest, quiet heart, forever sure
Thy God is all-in-all.

Please Note: I’m currently preparing to retire, you can find more information here. Blessings, Major John Ager.