Edward Colston Statue in Bristol

Northern_end_of_The_Centre,_Bristol,_March_2018

During today’s ongoing worldwide anti-racist demonstrations, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol was toppled and unceremoniously dumped in the harbour. You can see the BBC News report of the demonstrations here.

For now though, let’s park our thoughts about the rights and wrongs of tearing down a statue, and simply seek to empathise with how black people would have felt walking past Edward Colston every day. In this highly-charged atmosphere, with the added tensions of coronavirus, we need to keep our focus on the deep issues of racism and white privilege. Let’s discuss these issues respectfully and communicate with grace.

Knowing the history of Bristol, I personally feel that the statue should have been taken down officially and (possibly) placed in a museum long ago. Such an official act could have acknowledged the hurt of the past and brought people together. It could have been a profound moment of repentance, redemption, reconciliation and renewal. Sadly, that moment has been lost.

In these difficult and challenging times we need visionary leaders in all countries and at all levels, unfortunately they currently they seem to be few and far between.

Note: I attended a Yes concert in Colston Hall in the 1970s. They played Tales from Topographic Oceans in full before the album was released in 1973.

Longing (Matthew Arnold)

person covered with gray blanket
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For so the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.

Come, as thou cam’st a thousand times,
A messenger from radiant climes,
And smile on thy new world, and be
As kind to others as to me!

Or, as thou never cam’st in sooth,
Come now, and let me dream it truth,
And part my hair, and kiss my brow,
And say, My love why sufferest thou?

Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For so the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

VE Day 2020

large_000000
VE DAY IN LONDON, 8 MAY 1945 (HU 49414) Two small girls waving their flags in the rubble of Battersea, snapped by an anonymous American photographer. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205018927

Whilst acknowledging the need to tread carefully and sensitively in any comparisons between the Second World War and the current coronavirus pandemic, I believe there are some useful ones we can make to help us in our thought processes and thereby benefit our collective mental health.

VE Day in 1945 reflected a victory over a visible enemy, although also an invisible enemy of evil thoughts and ideas. The enemy we face now is totally invisible and does not care one iota for those it harms. Fake news is not new, they faced it back then; had they had social media, that would simply have been another front on which the war would have been fought. Today, not only in the coronavirus pandemic, we face a war against those who would deceive us. We need to guard our way of life against those who would lie to us, who seek to destroy the freedoms won for us then.

The Second World War was marked by terrible suffering, the like of which is hard to process, along with the inhumanity of it all. Today, many have been devastated by an invisible enemy, and we pause to remember the lives lost and the families and friends grieving.

Back then the world faced life-treatening jeopardy and, for many today, this is the first time we have faced real jeopardy. Yes, I remember the Cold War, but that’s the only threat that comes anywhere near what we face today. There’s fear and anxiety everywhere, and so we need to affirm, encourage and support each like never before. It’s the same for everyone, yet we all have unique circumstances and all react individually.

Back then, not everyone was celebrating, and for those who were it was only a brief celebration. The world faced an uncertain future and there was much rebuilding to be done, it was many years until food rationing was eased for example. In our own time, we might celebrate relaxations to the lockdown, but we still face the reality of an uncertain future and the prospect of rebuilding society. Then it was a collective experience, so it is today and will be for us. I’m neither being optimistic nor pessimistic; just realistically reflecting that there’ll be much to do in the coming weeks, months and years.

Today we celebrate the heroes of yesterday’s battles, but we also celebrate the new heroes in the NHS and all the key workers fighting a very different battle today. Come to think about it, the creation of the NHS was one of the great rebuilding efforts after WWII, and we are reaping its benefits today.

Who are you celebrating today? What can you do to help and support someone today and in the uncertain future?

Postscript: Today is ‘Victory IN Europe Day’, not ‘Victory OVER Europe Day’ as some history revisionists are suggesting for their own agendas.

Note: I chose the photo for this post because it reminds me of my two youngest girls, Pollyanna (2) and Matilda (3).

19/04/20 Bible Message

road_emmaus

Because I’m currently on ‘holiday’ (at home obviously) here’s an edited version of the Bible message I gave last year at Wallsend Corps when we united with North Shields and Shiremoor Corps on the Sunday after Easter. I’m hoping to publish a full online worship meeting next Sunday. Major John Ager.

Bible Message: The Road TO and FROM Emmaus
Bible Reading: Luke 24:13-34

The well-known song You’ll Never Walk Alone from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel has become the ‘anthem’ of Liverpool Football Club and has very poignant associations with Anfield following the Hillsborough disaster.

It’s the song that sums up so much for the club and supporters alike. It captures the importance of unity crucial to everything achieved by the team, and it remains a source of comfort to those affected by the tragic events that have hit the club.

From a simple song in a musical, it’s become a worldwide secular hymn of encouragement and hope in the face of difficulty, suffering and death. But Christians, because of Easter can truly sing You’ll never walk alone because it sums up the whole message of the resurrection.

The Crucifixion must have traumatised Jesus’ disciples and followers, even though he’d tried to prepare them for it, not just once but repeatedly. They failed to realise the full significance of his words and so ‘the penny didn’t drop!’ The bottom had fallen out of their world; they were defeated and downcast, devastated and discouraged.

Significantly, the Risen Jesus came alongside two followers walking on the road to Emmaus. But they were kept from recognising him. The original Greek here uses what’s known as a ‘divine passive’, with God as the implied subject. It’s as if God intentionally blinded their eyes until the moment of revelation, that moment when Jesus broke bread with them. He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.

No wonder they were surprised that someone hadn’t heard. The Romans conducted crucifixions at major public crossroads to make examples of their victims and warn others against revolt. It really was quite unthinkable to these disciples that a Passover pilgrim wouldn’t have heard about Jesus’ crucifixion.

All their expectations had been dashed, even if they misunderstood or hadn’t fully comprehended the nature of Jesus’ purpose and ministry. The phrase ‘we had hoped’ speaks volumes about their feelings, but it’s also a Messianic reference; his coming to save Israel, the message of Palm Sunday hadn’t taken root in their hearts. One version says they stopped short, sadness written across their faces.

And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.

These verses help us to understand their confusion and disorientation; they were struggling to make sense of it. Wanting to believe the reports, yet doubting in their hearts.

He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Just imagine what it must have been like to have Jesus himself explain the scriptures? But ultimately the road TO Emmaus is the road of confusion, doubt, and weakness.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going further. But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.

Then comes the moment of insight, the moment of clarity, the moment of recognition; here is such a wonderful moment of recognition and insight: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

See also: Supper at Emmaus (Caravaggio)

Suddenly they received new energy from somewhere: They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’

They initially failed to recognize him, but as he stayed and broke bread with them the truth dawned, and they realised they would never ‘walk alone’ again.

Because of Good Friday and Easter, we can truly sing:

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart,
And you’ll never walk alone…
You’ll never walk alone.

The disciples were changed from being defeated and downcast, devastated and discouraged, to being confident in their Saviour and Lord. They faced the future with hope and returned to Jerusalem with a new spring in their step because they were not walking alone.

Good Friday and Easter prove that he knows the worst about us, yet still loves us, enough to die for us, and he’s with us forever in the journey of life. Moments we share with each other in worship, fellowship and eating are so important. Times we might appreciate more after the current coronavirus pandemic lockdown. The Last Supper in the upper room was a highly significant occasion, as well as being a tremendously poignant one.

As Christians meet together in worship, fellowship and yes, feasting, we’re sharing something divine. The Risen Christ comes and blesses us with his presence: While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’

What incredible moments these must have been as they gathered in the presence of the Risen Lord; such moments of collective insight and clarity, everything falling into place, especially after Jesus opened up the Hebrew Scriptures to them.

In contrast to the road TO Emmaus, the Road FROM Emmaus is the road of clarity, insight, energy, and peace. It’s the way of peace and the presence of Jesus.

Those disciples must have been so weary after their long journey, travelling home always seems longer and harder when the heart and emotions are burdened. But they were still able to offer hospitality though, and I’m sure it was genuine.

How important it is for us to come alongside others on their journey through life and offer love, support and hospitality. None of us fully know what the other person is feeling or going through, the pain and the daily struggles.

Brother, sister, let me serve you,
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant, too.

It can be very moving when we dedicate ourselves to being with each other on life’s sometimes difficult journey, but also sharing the joys as well. This is something we do in our individual corps and as we unite together as brothers and sisters in Christ, walking with each other and walking with Jesus. Even though this is now happening online.

Song 79 (TB 199/Brantwood)

I know thee who thou art,
And what thy healing name;
For when my fainting heart
The burden nigh o’ercame,
I saw thy footprints on my road
Where lately passed the Son of God.

Thy name is joined with mine
By every human tie,
And my new name is thine,
A child of God am I;
And never more alone, since thou
Art on the road beside me now.

Beside thee as I walk,
I will delight in thee,
In sweet communion talk
Of all thou art to me;
The beauty of thy face behold
And know thy mercies manifold.

Let nothing draw me back
Or turn my heart from thee,
But by the Calvary track
Bring me at last to see
The courts of God, that city fair,
And find my name is written there.

Benediction: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

12/04/20 Easter Sunday

Welcome to Easter Sunday worship. This is much shorter today because our Territorial Leaders Commissioners Anthony and Gillian Cotterill are leading online worship with contributions from across the United Kingdom Territory.

Bible Reading: John 20:1-18

Easter Bible Message (Major John Ager)

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.

But why am I going back to Thursday on Easter Sunday?

Actually, I could go back further, to Palm Sunday and even back beyond that. On Palm Sunday he 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 his 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. Yes, this resolve was thoroughly tested in Gethsemane, but his mind had already been made up, and we see his composure during the trial. Jesus even spoke of his coming death as an accomplishment, referring to it as his victory.

So it’s not just about the victory of Easter morning, but the victory secured when Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.

The time of anguish in the garden sums up his whole life and ministry:
‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’ Mark 14:36

We see both his humanity and his divinity; his humanity telling him to escape the situation, his divinity telling him to obey. We can’t attempt to fathom the depths of his suffering at this time; we do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear.

Luke tells us that Jesus, being in anguish, prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Luke 22:44

The words in an earlier verse cannot adequately be translated into English; he experienced severe horror and suffering. The best we can do are the words distress and anguish, different versions try to plumb the depths of his experience.

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.

That’s the victory, the mystery of God’s love that Christ should suffer for us. The paradox of a loving God and a suffering Christ, we can’t fully explain it, the reality will always be bigger than the theology of our finite minds, yet:

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

The innocent one suffered for us and, in that moment of death, took upon himself the whole load of humanity’s sin and folly.

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

Sin separates us from God and, as Jesus took on our sin, it separated him from his heavenly Father, in a moment of true abandonment.

Yet the psalm has a positive ending, it’s victorious. It foreshadows the Resurrection, so Jesus was able to say, Thy will be done.

I hope you can see now why I’ve gone backwards from Easter, because the Resurrection was the vindication of the victory already achieved in his life.

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. Philippians 2:9-11

Be Easter people in a Good Friday world.

See also: Resurrection (Rob Bell)

Misunderstanding Palm Sunday

man wearing black vest near crowded people
Photo by Aloïs Moubax on Pexels.com

It’s exciting to be in a crowd, but it can also be very frightening. The mood of a crowd can rapidly change, the dynamic of the mob can quickly take over. Who knows what the crowd will do next, especially if its expectations are not met?

The crowds surrounding Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem were no different. The emotions and excitement were reaching fever pitch, and the conditions were right for the whole thing to turn nasty.

You can read the story of the first Palm Sunday in Luke 19:28-44.

There would have been thousands of hot, excited, sweaty people all wanting to see Jesus; all wanting to know who he was, all wanting to see what he would do.

Jesus approaches and enters Jerusalem in the full knowledge that both the religious and political leaders were feeling threatened by his teaching and ministry, and that the crowd could easily turn if he didn’t fulfil their expectations and hopes.

The first Palm Sunday was a dramatic and hugely significant day in the life and ministry of Jesus. Prior to this, Jesus had resolutely set his face towards Jerusalem, to very publicly announce the coming of his kingdom.

He carefully chose a time when the people would be gathered in Jerusalem, and he chose a way of proclaiming his kingdom that was unmistakable.

But, as Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wept over it:
If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

These weren’t the words of a human king, but rather the words of divine Saviour whose heart broke because of the spiritual and moral blindness of the people. He’d come to bring true peace, but they didn’t want it.

The crowd in Jerusalem thought they understood as they cheered, shouted, waved, and threw palm branches, but completely misunderstood Jesus’ identity.

They were full of nationalistic fervour and failed to recognise the true nature of Jesus’ kingship. Palms had been a symbol of Jewish nationalism from the time of the Maccabees and appeared on Jewish coins during their revolutionary struggle against the Romans, and now they were oppressed by them.

Jesus showed the people his true identity by riding on a donkey; a sign, according to the Old Testament, of the Messiah coming in peace. The people expected the Messiah to bring victory by force, but Jesus came to conquer by the Cross. The way of Jesus is not one of hatred, force or violence, rather it’s the way of sacrificial love.

The praise and adulation of the crowd was not the glory Jesus wanted, his glory was to come through self-sacrifice and suffering.

On this Palm Sunday, may we make our own decision to set our face towards Jerusalem; resolving to go God’s way, despite the expectations of the crowds, and live like Jesus.

See also: 05/04/20 Palm Sunday Worship

Mother’s Day 2020

20180412_140404

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)

Jodie-Whittaker-13th-Doctor-Who

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.

The Dark Side of the Moon

Dark-Side-Of-The-Moon-is-elected-the-best-album-of-all-time

I love music and have a very wide and eclectic taste, equally at home listening to Bach, Bartok or The Beatles. Purcell, Prokofiev or Pink Floyd.

There are certain albums that have become legendary and (quite possibly) changed the course of music history. The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is clearly one, but so is Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon which celebrates its 45th anniversary this month (March 2018).

I well remember buying this album in vinyl with its iconic gatefold sleeve, which I poured over as I listened to this amazing music for the first time, wondering what a VCS3 was! Nothing quite like this had been heard before.

It’s the ultimate concept album; moving (through its roughly 43 minutes) from birth to death, describing the human condition. It still speaks to us today, and I expect people will be listening to this album long into the future. Life, time, fear, madness, money, war, suffering, solitude, withdrawal, selfishness, relationships, breakdowns, fame, politics and (ultimately) death.

Yet this merely touches the surface of what Pink Floyd manage to squeeze into this magnificent work. The themes are bleak and dark, yet the album is positive in the sense that it’s asking the listener to explore what it means to be human, to embrace our common humanity. There are some great lyrics.

At the end you hear a voice saying, “There is no dark side of the moon really, matter of fact it’s all dark”. To spiritualise it, this is a picture of a Good Friday world, with the possibility of new life, but lacking the means. During Lent and Holy Week Christians reflect on the death and resurrection of Jesus, with the means whereby the dark side of human nature might be redeemed. The following verses from the Bible speak about this possibility:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:1-4 & 12-17 NIV

Our Common Humanity

hope-1804595_960_720

Imagine the thing that is most precious to you, then think how you’d feel if it were twisted and used against you for evil purposes…..That’s how ordinary Muslims feel when Islam is hijacked, distorted and abused by terrorists who want to justify the murder and maiming of innocent people.

Muslims not only feel the pain and suffering we all do, they also feel that something sacred has been defiled. If that double-whammy wasn’t enough, there are those who would spread hatred and promote Islamophobia for their own agenda. Let’s celebrate our common humanity and be peacemakers, because that’s what the world needs above all else.

See also here.