Maundy Thursday 2021

In the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane we begin to glimpse something of what he went through spiritually, mentally and emotionally before his physical suffering and death on the cross.

Bible Reading: Luke 22:39-46

But let’s go back to Palm Sunday as Jesus rode into Jerusalem in defiance of the people’s expectations, they misunderstood the nature of his coming and purpose. He came as the Prince of Peace, having previously set his face towards Jerusalem, resolved to go the way of the cross.

Jesus never took the easy way out of a situation; he wasn’t going to be turned from this final challenge. He knew the direction his life was taking, he wasn’t a weak-minded person overtaken by events, he was in full command of what was happening. This resolve was thoroughly tested in Gethsemane, but his mind had already been made up.

Holy Week is not just about the victory of Easter morning, but the victory Jesus secured when he set his face towards Jerusalem.

In Gethsemane we see both his humanity and divinity; his humanity telling him to escape the situation, his divinity telling him to obey. Luke tells us that Jesus, being in anguish, prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

We can’t attempt to fathom the depths of his suffering at this time, as the hymn says, ‘We do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear’.

My music of choice on Good Friday is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It selects itself, and still has the power to shock and move the human spirit. This moment is powerfully expressed:

He is ready to taste the bitterness of death,
to drink the cup into which the sins of this world,
hideously stinking, have been poured.

Here we have the paradox of a loving God and a suffering Christ, something we can’t fully explain, yet:

We believe it was for us,
he hung and suffered there.

Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Sin separates us from God. As Jesus took on our sin it separated him from his heavenly Father, a moment of true abandonment. But the psalm has a positive ending, it’s victorious. It foreshadows the Resurrection, and this was why Jesus was able to say ‘your will be done’ in Gethsemane.

Note: A reworking of material from here.

Aqualung (Jethro Tull)

The classic and influential Aqualung album by Jethro Tull is 50 years old today (19 March 2021). I bought it on vinyl soon after its release in 1971 and have listened to it countless times since. It impressed me then, and continues to inspire me today. It’s a very thought provoking and challenging album using language in ways that may offend, but to powerful effect.

With its iconic cover and distinctive opening, it’s a concept album focusing on the differences between organised religion and God. It’s been described as musical musings on faith and religion.

The album also links in the themes of homelessness and poverty, with the title track perfectly describing the life of a homeless man, ‘you snatch your rattling last breaths, with deep-sea-diver sounds’. The Salvation Army even gets a mention, ‘Feeling alone, the Army’s up the road, Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea’.

The album covers many genres, with some great guitar work, and the distinctive flute sound of Ian Anderson (an instrument not common on rock albums, but central to the sound of Jethro Tull). This is an album unlike any other, and the best way to appreciate it is to simply give it a listen.


Here are some lyric tasters:


People, what have you done?
Locked him in his golden cage, golden cage,
Made him bend to your religion,
Him resurrected from the grave, from the grave.

He is the God of nothing,
If that’s all that you can see.
You are the God of everything,
He’s inside you and me.

And the bloody church of England,
In chains of history,
Requests your earthly presence,
At the vicarage for tea.


Well, the lush separation enfolds you,
And the products of wealth,
Push you along on the bow wave,
Of their spiritless undying selves.
And you press on God’s waiter your last dime,
As he hands you the bill,
And you spin in the slipstream,
Timeless, unreasoning,
Paddle right out of the mess,
And you paddle right out of the mess.


And I asked this God a question,
And by way of firm reply,
He said: “I’m not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”.

Well, you can excommunicate me on my way to Sunday school,
And have all the bishops harmonise these lines.


Temptation 2 (Lent 3)

This devotional post follows on from last Sunday’s post. You might like to read it before continuing this post, it can be found by clicking here. Although I use a photo of food again, temptations are much deeper than just craving chocolate.

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

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.

Jesus resisted temptation with exactly the same resources that are available to us: namely the Word of God, prayer, self-discipline, obedience and faith. This comes as a great encouragement to us.

This wilderness experience of Jesus has much to teach us, more than might be immediately apparent, especially as the account can only have come to us from Jesus himself. He clearly wanted us to know about it.

The first thing we learn is that it’s not a sin to be tempted. Temptation isn’t the same thing as sin. If Jesus was tempted, it follows that we’re not immune. So the moment the inappropriate thought comes into our head we have a choice to accept or reject it, to act on it or dismiss it. Jesus was at his weakest, the time when temptations often come, yet he was prepared.

Temptations often come to us when we are at our weakest, and they can sometimes take us by surprise. As Christians, temptations are bound to come, we should expect them and be prepared for them.

And the nearer we are to God, the closer our walk with him, the more likely we are to be tempted. C. S. Lewis wrote: There is a silly idea about that good people don’t know what temptation means.

The second thing to learn is that temptation often comes after a spiritual high point. This was the case with Jesus. He’d just been baptised in the River Jordan, been owned by a voice from heaven, and experienced perfect communion with his heavenly Father.

After being especially aware of God’s presence in our lives is often the time when we are thrown into a wilderness experience: when doubts, fears and temptations can come flooding in. What was true for Jesus is true for us.

The third thing to learn is that it’s not the Spirit who tempts. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert, but it wasn’t the Spirit who tempted. God may allow us to be tempted, but he never tempts. The fact that Jesus was tempted alerts us to the fact that it can serve a useful purpose.

Someone has said that our character is not usually developed by drifting along in the calm waters of tranquillity.

Speaking of trials and temptations, Peter writes: These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:7

Our trials and temptations are God’s opportunities. Opportunities to be filled with the same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus. The dove that made him gentle also made him strong.

In conclusion, Jesus was tempted to turn from the way of the cross, but he was victorious for us. His Kingdom was established and his mission fulfilled. This is perfectly expressed in Song 74 of the Salvation Army Songbook, based on Philippians 2:5-11 that I’ve written about recently.

At the name of Jesus
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him
King of Glory now;
’Tis the Father’s pleasure
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.

At his voice creation
Sprang at once to sight,
All the angel faces,
All the hosts of light,
Thrones and dominations,
Stars upon their way,
All the heavenly orders
In their great array.

Humbled for a season,
To receive a name
From the lips of sinners
Unto whom he came,
Faithfully he bore it
Spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious
When from death he passed.

Bore it up triumphant
With its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures
To the central height,
To the throne of Godhead,
To the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory
Of that perfect rest.

In your hearts enthrone him;
There let him subdue
All that is not holy,
All that is not true;
Crown him as your captain
In temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you
In its light and power.

See also: The Essence of Lent

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.

Continued here.

See also: The Essence of Lent

The Woman at the Well (Lent 1)

Whataboutery annoys me. It’s when someone responds to criticism, or an opposing view, by accusing someone else of similar or worse faults. Whataboutery is a shallow way of diverting attention away from yourself (often, but not always) when criticised. Irritating in children and pathetic in adults. You find it everywhere, in Facebook conversations, in politics, and in media interviews etc.

Often it’s simply trying to change the subject, at other times it’s trying to start a diversionary argument when the truth becomes too hot to handle. I think sometimes it comes out of instinct, a learned response, especially since it’s so prevalent today, not least in news media.

Equally, whataboutery is nothing new, it’s been around as long as humans have. In the third chapter of the first book of the Bible, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake! Genesis 3

When the Risen Jesus challenged Peter to follow him despite all the challenges, Peter pointed to another disciple and said, ‘Lord, what about him?’ John 21:21

But the Bible passage I have in mind is John 4:1-42, read it now and look for examples of whataboutery.

In this reading from John’s Gospel we see an act of kindness with enormous consequences, the fact that Jesus and the Samaritan woman even began a conversation. For centuries Jews and Samaritans had been hostile to one another. The safest way to live together was to keep their distance, live in their own little world and not notice the other’s presence.

Most people would have considered Jesus to have been very brave, or very foolish, to have been in Samaritan territory at all. And to stop at a well was double trouble, because that was where the women came to draw water, and in a society where the sexes were carefully separated it wasn’t the place for a man and woman to be found on their own.

The modern equivalent of a well is the water cooler, an opportunity for conversation. But far from getting off to a good start, it looks like the conversation will get bogged down in whataboutery, misunderstanding, and cross purposes.

I’m not going to go over what you can read for yourself, but a careful reading and re-reading of the passage will pay dividends.

You’ll notice how Jesus wisely refuses to become engaged in an argument, and how often we fail in this respect when we want to score points on social media, for example. He doesn’t take the opportunity to reinforce a partisan position, but rather he proposes that the true worship that God desires is worship in spirit and truth, not dependent on any particular place or shrine. He keeps a level head.

The story is about evangelism, and how it can start with a simple encounter and a conversation that broke down prejudices, and allowing entry into a new world shaped by God.

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:11-14

Here is the universal longing of the human condition, that our spiritually emptiness might be filled, and this thirst is something Jesus satisfies. Here is God’s continuing presence with his people, and he nourishes us day by day in our journey of faith.

Jesus said, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6), but he also demonstrated the perfect example in his response to whataboutery.

Note: This Sunday (21 February 2021) is the first Sunday in Lent. I’ve not mentioned Lent in this devotional, but you can click here for one of today’s Lectionary readings and find out more here.

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)

Diwali: Festival of Lights

Diwali came very much to the front of my mind when I lived in Leicester, mainly because the city has a very large and diverse ethnic minority population, their Diwali celebrations are widely believed to be the largest outside of India.

Diwali is the Indian Festival of Lights, it’s one of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, symbolising the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.

Obviously restricted in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, normally there are 6,500 lights all along Belgrave and Melton Roads, around fifty separate events spread across the city over a two-week period, including music, dance and live performances in a variety of venues, all ending with a spectacular firework display.

14/06/20 Quiet Times

silhouette of man sitting on grass field at daytime

Bible Reading: Philippians 4:4-9

Isaiah 30:15 reminds us that, in quietness and confidence shall be your strength. That’s been my experience of faith during both good and bad times, and is my continuing experience now. The quiet times before God are so important for our spiritual health as Christians, and for our confidence and strength in ministry and service. Something we are all called to exercise.

Over the years I’ve a found a variety of resources that have helpfully enriched my prayer life, but the pure simplicity of coming before God in prayer after reading his word has so much to commend it. It’s helpful at the beginning of the day, but it can be flexible. I’ve also found that a written list is invaluable, so I remember all the people and situations I need to pray for.

Sometimes music has helped me, sometimes it’s been the beauty of God’s creation (especially at the top of mountains in South Wales), and at other times it’s been a quiet space in the midst of the rush and bustle of life (an example of this being the chapel of a hospital). So next time you’re in a hospital, maybe visiting someone or there for an appointment, find the chapel and spend a few moments of quietness and say some appropriate prayers.

Sometimes, when life has been hard, prayer has been difficult for me (I’m only human after all). At these times I’ve found a holding cross very useful. These can be bought from good Christian bookshops, along with a booklet of advice and prayers. When you can’t pray, you can hold the cross and simply allow your feelings and emotions to become a prayer to God, our heavenly Father.

We also come to God in prayer to listen, to open our hearts to his Holy Spirit and to allow him to make us the people he wants us to be. I find prayers in the Celtic tradition helpful in this respect, and I finish these thoughts with one of them:

Awaken me to your presence,
Alert me to your love,
Affirm me in your peace.
Open to me your way,
Reveal to me your joy,
Enfold me in your light,
For my heart is ready,
Lord, my heart is ready.

David Adam (from The Open Gate)