21/06/20 Isaiah 46

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Isaiah 46 contains two sharply contrasting pictures; the first is of people carrying their god, the second one is of God carrying his people.

Isaiah can’t help smiling when he sees the shallow religion of the nations around Israel, what a miserable thing it must be to have a god who is a burden, who has to be carried from place to place. So he draws a humorous picture of a glittering god that looks great, but needs half a dozen men to carry it, a useless burden that weighs them down.

The second picture is of God our Heavenly Father, who carries his people from before birth, through life and past death into eternity.

Read: Isaiah 40:28-31

These two pictures represent two types of religion. On the one hand, one that has to be carried, that’s a burden, that’s a duty, that weighs us down and wears us out. On the other hand, one that worships a God who upholds with his powerful arms, one that carries us, lifts us, lightens our spirits and fills us with peace and joy.

I know which religion I prefer! Unfortunately, there are some Christians who choose the heavy, burdensome religion. Is it any wonder people reject it?

The disciples who met the Risen Jesus on the Emmaus Road recognised him when he broke bread. Their spirits were lifted: Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? Luke 24:32

Commissioner Catherine Bramwell-Booth wrote:

Come, blessed Jesus, come;
Break bread again for me;
Lord open Thou my eyes that I
Thy living self may see.
Then joy shall fill my heart,
My strength be all renewed
To witness of Thy death and life,
By Thine own power endued.

As we open ourselves up to God our Heavenly Father, and as we come humbly into his presence, he lifts us up and fills us with his nature.

Let’s not be content with a religion of strain and struggle, fear and duty, heavy hearts and clouded faces, when we can have a faith that carries our burdens, lightens our spirits and fills us with love, joy and peace.

True faith is attractive, it draws others to Christ. May we never turn antone away because our religion is joyless, judgemental and narrow. See: 1 John 5:3-4

Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day because of the heavy loads they put on the people. See: Matthew 23:1-4

How refreshing, then, are the words of Jesus: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

May that be real in our lives, and may we share it with those around us, as we recognise the true nature of God our Heavenly Father.

14/06/20 Quiet Times

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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)

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.

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.

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.

 

Northumbria Community

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In these bewildering times, you may find some solace and strength from the Northumbria Community, especially their regular Daily Prayer. These can be used by individuals, families and friends and can be easily shared over the telephone or via video calls. They can provide a much needed daily routine and a sense of grounding in a rapidly changing and confusing world, where we are all asking many questions and searching for answers that may not immediately be to hand.

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.

The New Doctor (Carol Service Talk)

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I’m a big Doctor Who fan, and I love Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor. She was a great choice and for many children she’ll be their first Doctor; this is the case for Freddy and Matilda, as we let them see a recent episode that wasn’t too scary. How wonderful to see a woman in that role! (See also here).

How far back do you go?
Who was your first Doctor?

Show selected PowerPoint slides of past Doctors.

William Hartnell was my first Doctor, and I can vividly remember watching the first ever episode as a nine-year-old boy on an old black and white television.

I have my own particular favourite Doctors, but I’m loving the new Doctor; a perfect combination of courage with compassion, confidence with humility, and strength with vulnerability.

Having those characteristics in balance is really important; not just for the Doctor, but for all of us in life. And we see that balance of qualities in the life of Jesus.

• In his life he had the courage to fight for what he believed in, but it was always done with compassion for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the outcast. We see him fighting the oppressive religious and political system, yet having time for those who were victims of it.

• He was confident in his mission of bringing God’s Kingdom of love and grace, but it was always expressed with humility. We see him firmly setting his face towards Jerusalem and certain death, but never forcing himself on people or using violence to get his way.

• He had a resilient strength about him, yet at the same time he was vulnerable. He willingly faced great suffering and death, yet chose to go through with it for us.

The Apostle Paul (Philippians 2:5-11) tells us to be like Jesus:

who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus became one of us, as the Apostle John (John 1:14a) puts it, in a modern paraphrase:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighbourhood.