Nothing has changed

photo of rocky shore during sunset
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As I retire from my working life, I don’t retire from life. As I conclude a major chapter of my journey, my ongoing contribution to humanity continues. As I conclude forty years as a Salvation Army Corps Officer, I remain a Salvation Army Officer with a different Christian ministry. I start a new chapter, with fresh opportunities. Life goes on.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

28/06/20 Shaping the Future

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This is my final Sunday message before I retire in a few days time. Technically, I’m on holiday, but I’ve been pleased to share these weekly thoughts during June.

I mentioned at my welcome in 2015 that moving to Wallsend was more than just a new chapter in my life and ministry as a follower and servant of Jesus Christ, it was a whole new section of the book. I’d married Naomi the previous year and we arrived with Freddy who was three months old. I now leave to retire with our completed family, Matilda and Pollyanna having been born during our time here.

At a time of change we naturally think about making a fresh start, sorting things out, reflecting on how we can do things better, and taking positive steps into the future.

Although the future is unknown, we can play our part to make it a better place. It has to start today, because the only place we can live is in the present. It’s said that there’s no time like the present. So, if we want to shape the future, we need to start today.

We don’t need a special occasion, or a time of change, even though it often helps. We can take positive steps that will help shape the future of our own individual lives and that of others at any time.

Let me share some lovely words by Denise Brine with you:

Father God, I seek your guidance,
For I have a part to play
In the shaping of tomorrow
By the way I live today.
Take my hopes, my dreams, my passions,
Take my strength, my weakness too.
Shape my life; fulfil your purpose;
Start today; make me like you.

If I want to shape tomorrow
Then I need to start today,
Seeking, Lord, a revelation
Of your will and of your way.
If my passions, prayers and lifestyle
Are the witness people see,
Do I need a reformation
Of your Kingdom-life in me?

My todays will shape tomorrow!
Does that prospect please your eyes?
Are there changes that must happen?
Are there faults to recognise?
Shape me as seems best to you, Lord,
Start today, and help me see
That tomorrow will be better
When your life is seen in me.

David (in Psalm 51) prays in verse 10: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. The Message paraphrase words it in a very interesting way: God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life. Matthew Henry suggests that David is praying, Lord, fix me for the time to come.

Life isn’t easy for many people today, especially with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. We need to be there for them and for each other. We can share the best of humanity, as well as the love of God, by small acts of kindness to others. A simple smile, an offer of help, a genuine word of encouragement, beautiful actions of love.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are [together] on the road,
We are here to help each other,
Walk the mile and bear the load,

I will hold the Christlight for you,
In the night-time of your fear,
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

May that prayer be answered in each of our lives as we daily move into an unknown future, but one into which we can all take a hopeful and positive contribution.

Different (Clere Parsons)

young man in denim jacket is reading a book near river side
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One of the aims of poetry is to make to think for yourself, and (of course) this can be said of many song lyrics, as they’re basically the same thing. I don’t want someone to explain them to me, I want to do the thinking myself. Here’s a good example. Reflect on it, think about it, work it out for yourself.

Not to say what everyone else was saying
not to believe what everyone else believed
not to do what everybody did,
then to refute what everyone else was saying
then to disprove what everyone else believed
then to deprecate what everybody did,

was his way to come by understanding

how everyone else was saying the same as he was saying
believing what he believed
and did what doing.

Clere Parsons (1908-1931)

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.

24/05/20 Sunday Thoughts

ascension_by_eddiecalz-d678cy0

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.

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.

VE Day 2020

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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).

Sadness is not competitive

young gorgeous woman standing behind iron grate
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I saw these wise words by Rev. Kate Bottley on Twitter today, and wanted to highlight them here:

Sadness is not competitive. Just because there are ‘others worse off’ doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel down. You don’t need to look on the bright side or be glass half full. It’s OK to want to throw the glass against the wall. You go right ahead and feel what you feel. Your feelings are real and valid. It’s OK.

Happy the Man (Dryden-Horace)

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I read this poem the other day and, apart from the general ideas it conveys, I feel it’s especially appropriate in the current situation of coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Many of us are finding it difficult working from home (or in restricted circumstances) and are not as productive as we normally would be. But if we ‘have lived for today’ as best we can, we can truly say ‘I have had my hour’.

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

John Dryden (1631-1700)
translating Horace (65-8 BCE), Odes, Book III, xxix

Maintaining Mental Health

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Looking after our mental health is always important, but especially so during the lockdown associated with the coronavirus pandemic. As this BBC web page says: Coronavirus has plunged the world into uncertainty and the constant news about the pandemic can feel relentless. All of this is taking its toll on people’s mental health, particularly those already living with conditions like anxiety and OCD.

How has the lockdown affected your mental health? I asked this question on Facebook and the following are some of the responses I received. They have been sensitively edited and permission for sharing given.

Karen: I’ve been struggling big time with not being able to talk to people properly and my depression has hit an all-time low, but I feel it’s not fair to speak to my doctor about it because they’re so busy with everything else. We have a houseful, so it’s not caused by loneliness, simply not having breathing space and time to think. I’m finding I sometimes just have to walk around the garden alone and talk myself out of the way. I feel we’re all grieving as well as my nana died recently, so keeping busy is my only way of getting through it apart from my 10 minutes out time. Not sure how helpful this is, but helps to share how I feel and not feel like a failure as a person and mother.

Joy: For a couple of weeks leading up to lockdown I was really anxious about going into lockdown. I stood and cried in the chemist queue. I knew I was getting very low and feared what lockdown would do to my mental health. To be honest I envied two people I knew who had passed away before this. I was becoming forgetful, forgetting things like bringing the washing down in the morning which i do I every morning, and forgetting to take my daily medication which included anti-depressants which also didn’t help my mental health! Once I realised this was an issue I gave hubby permission to remind me every morning. First week of lockdown I woke up feeling quite panicky, but got better as the day went on. I’ve had to learn not to put myself under pressure to achieve anything great. Getting through the day is in itself and achievement. I always use my one allowed walk each day. Three weeks into lockdown and I’m doing better than I thought I would. I can now get my head round cooking proper meals, but still can’t keep on top of housework. Initially, I was more anxious about lockdown, now I’m probably more anxious about the virus. Sorry it’s a long one but it’s done me good to share.

Paula: I’ve found it hard, but have found incorporating daily exercise and limiting the wine has helped! I’m still working, and so is my husband, so that has helped keep some sense of normality!

David: I’ve not struggled as much as some, partly because I’ve been working from home for three years now. I have my own business, so actually having work to do every day has filled my day. So, in a sense, I didn’t expect to struggle, but there have been a few for me, just the unsettledness of the situation has had an effect on my concentration levels. I’ve been used to my daughter being out at school every day and my wife in and out all the time. Now there are three of us rattling around this modest 3-bed semi, it’s really strange and has taken some adjustment for me.

Kate: I’ve been up and down through this so far. Trying to keep busy, but there’s only so much to do. It’s the isolation that’s the hardest. I’ve been exercising a lot, which helps, and playing lots of music. And also allowing myself to feel a bit rubbish, because it’s a rubbish time. It’s ok to struggle a bit, it’s really hard.

Kevin: It hasn’t really affected me, I’ve spent a lifetime social distancing anyway. I think though if you are suffering, it probably helps to keep busy. Writing a blog or an online diary documenting your feelings and day-to-day experience is a good idea. Something you can share that might help others, who in turn can help you. There’s always cooking, gardening and a myriad other hobbies that needn’t cost a lot.

Kerrie: I’m an introvert and enjoy time at home anyway. I’m never bored and could often go a weekend without speaking to or seeing anyone, but having a two and a half-year-old on my own, and as a key worker also trying to work from home I’ve found it very hard. I don’t have time to do all of the things I can see others doing, such as reading and other hobbies. My mum can’t come and help at all as she’s on the vulnerable list. Getting shopping is difficult. I don’t drive and I’m a single parent now, my daughter also has a heart condition, so don’t want to risk taking her into shops so I rely on friends to get what I need and just muddle through. I feel huge guilt that I’m not doing enough with my daughter and also huge guilt that I’m not doing enough with my work. I’m a Domestic Abuse Practitioner and I know this is increasing at this time, but there’s little I can do with no childcare and a toddler on my own. My mum doesn’t have any facility to video call and we both don’t drive so are cut off. But I think of Anne Frank, Terry Waite and others who had to endure far worse and know we have to keep on keeping on.

Heather: For me physical exercise truly helps. As a nurse I encourage grounding techniques, there are many suggested. I also recommend: Headspace. Helpful techniques.

Finally, Sarah helpfully suggested some advice being given out to students:

  1. Reach out before you freak out! Call a friend, a family member, pastor (teacher in our setting) or a hotline – it’s better to talk before it’s too overwhelming.
  2. Be gentle with yourself. If all you managed to do today in this pandemic was make it out of bed to go to the bathroom or grab a glass of water or something to eat, well done – your survival brain is working hard enough for you so take the time to rest.
  3. We are all in this together – no one has it all together right now no matter what Facebook or Instagram says, this is an unprecedented time we are all trying to figure it out.
  4. Stand outside and ground yourself for at least 5 minutes (15 is better). Feel the sun/wind on your face. Touch the plants. Take your shoes off and let your feet feel the earth below you. This is a scientifically proven technique to assist mental health, grounding is vital.
  5. Finally, just know that you are not alone. Reach out before you Freak out!

Thank you everyone for your contributions, feel free to add any more thoughts in the comments. Be affirmed, John.