Article Index

We use this page to highlight either 'news' items or other temporary information that does not fit naturally on the existing pages of the Riverside Church web site.  If you'd like to know what is going on today or this week, don't forget to checkout our calendar of events on the right, or contact us directly.

We are now worshipping together each Sunday at 10:45, but will continue to produce our weekly podcasts as well for the time being.

Week beginning 30 May 2021

After some 60 weeks of reflections on an amazing range of subjects and passages from the Bible, Robert and I have decided that the time has come for us to draw these items to an end.  We hope that you have found them at different times encouraging, thoughtful, provocative, challenging but, at all times, interesting, even if you didn't always agree with them! As we move towards some semblance of normality, I want to finish with a prayer from youversion.com:

Jesus,

Thank you for overcoming the world. Because of that, we can experience unity with you. And because we can be unified with you, we can experience unity with each other.

It’s by you all things are held together. As we seek to centre our lives around you, help us to see all the ways you are at work in the world.

Draw us closer to your heart so that we begin to see each other the way you see us. Would that encourage us to look out not only for our own interest but also for the interests of others.

We want your kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, so unite us in purpose so that nothing we say or do keeps people who may be searching for you from believing in you. May we experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent us and that you love them unconditionally.

Come, Lord Jesus, and do in our lives what only you can do.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

May God bless you all,

Peter

 

Week Beginning  23 May 2021 – Pentecost

Readings: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104: 24-34, 35b; Romans 8: 22-27; John 15: 26- 27, 16:4b-15

Filled to Overflowing

On the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples are filled, dramatically, by the Holy Spirit. A mighty wind and tongues of fire surround them, as they begin to speak in other languages, those understood by Jewish pilgrims from all around the world. Many ask what this might mean, but some mock the disciples, saying that they must be drunk.

Peter responds to the crowd, reminding them that this is the fulfilment of an 800 year old prophecy by the Prophet Joel. Israel’s hopes for a new bright new future have been fulfilled on a Jerusalem street at Pentecost, just 50 days after the dark days of Passover. All of creation is blessed by the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the church is born.

While the reading from Acts 2 associates the coming of the Holy Spirit with high energy and strong emotion, the passage from John’s Gospel is more personal. The Holy Spirit is to be a helper or advocate, coming from God and revealing the Father’s love. The advocate-Spirit is the reassuring presence of the Father-Son relationship that the disciples have seen in the soon-to-be-absent Jesus.

Jesus will send the Holy Spirit when he is no longer with them, to support, encourage and teach them. It will reveal the truth about God, giving him glory and continuing to speak Jesus’s words to them. As Jesus says, “All that the Father has is mine; that is why I said that the Spirit will take what I give him and tell it to you.” But as well as this, the Holy Spirit is an advocate, standing between people and God, as a representative, standing up for us against God’s judgement, as a lawyer might do in a law court. When the disciples are under pressure to speak up for Jesus, they have the authority of the Holy Spirit, which will give them the confidence they need to defend their faith in him. Jesus is going away, so that he can send someone else to be with his disciples. They are not to look backwards, but forwards in confidence, knowing that the Spirit, as advocate and comforter, will be with them.

When have you experienced the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit?

How might the Spirit be encouraging or prompting you, today?

Prayer: Lord, help us to look out for and listen for your Holy Spirit. Call us, inspire us, surprise us and challenge us. Give us confidence and calm assurance. Lead us to your power and love. Amen.

Every Blessing,

Robert.

Week beginning 16 May 2021

As we draw closer to unlocking, we're all aware of the value of friendships during the long period of the pandemic. The following blessing by John O'Donohue is a lovely way to bless our friends and reflect on all that they have meant to us.

Every blessing...and looking forward to seeing many of you next Sunday!

Peter

A Friendship Blessing

May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where
there is great love, warmth, feeling, and forgiveness.
May this change you.
May it transfigure that which is negative, distant, or cold in you.
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship, and affinity of belonging.
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them and may you be there for them;
may they bring you all the blessing, challenges, truth,
and light that you need for your journey.
May you never be isolated.
May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with your anam ċara*. 

 *The Anam Ċara

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship.  One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam ċara.  Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and ċara is the word for friend.  So anam ċara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.”  In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam ċara.  It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life.  With the anam ċara you could share your innermost self, your mind, and your heart.  This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging.  When you had an anam ċara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category.  You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”  The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul.  There is no cage for the soul.  The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other.  This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.  In his Conferences, John Cassian says this bond between friends is indissoluble: “This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part.”

In everyone’s life, there is great need for an anam ċara, a soul friend.  In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension.  The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are.  Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious.  Where you are understood, you are at home.  Understanding nourishes belonging.  When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul.  This recognition is described in a beautiful line from Pablo Neruda: “You are like nobody since I love you.”  This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person.  Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul. 

 

Week beginning 9 May 2021

The following is from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity Word for this week.

Every Blessing,

Robert

Wisdom for Life
Proverbs

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.’
PROVERBS 9:10

The good life put on hold.

These six words sum up a year in which many things we valued became impossible. Some we found we could easily do without, but others were vital things like friendship, community, and touch. Their gradual restoration provides an opportunity to reflect, re-evaluate, and reset.

How can we make sure, in doing so, that we grow in wisdom? The Bible is a good place to turn for help. It contains some books and passages that explore how wisdom relates to the good life. Nowadays, ‘wisdom’ is often used interchangeably either with knowledge or intellectual insight. I may ask a colleague for their wisdom on the benefits of new software. Or a school leaver may decide to study philosophy to gain wisdom from history’s greatest thinkers. But wisdom in the Bible is about practical wisdom. It is even used of those engaged in crafts (Exodus 31:3).

Honing the practical skill needed to live the good life is what the book of Proverbs is all about. Indeed, the book covers an amazing array of down-to-earth matters, including work, sex, relationships, debt, business, charity, and poverty. In doing so it presents wisdom, often personified as a woman, as the pragmatic art of good decision-making and living well.

Despite this apparently earthbound emphasis, wisdom is presented in Proverbs as an attribute of God. Hence the book’s repeated insistence that ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’. This fear is not about terror but about awe, which means living life humbly and openly before a God to whom all human beings are accountable. Living this way is, in fact, the antidote to terror and anxiety. For the person who fears the Lord ‘rests content, untouched by trouble’ (Proverbs 19:23).

Because of this and many other benefits to the fear of the Lord, Proverbs insists, the wise do better in life than the foolish. Yet most of us know wise people who suffer and foolish people who prosper – a problem addressed in Ecclesiastes and Job (see the next instalments in this series). In the meantime, Proverbs’ practical wisdom serves to highlight a wonderful truth: God is Lord of all the practicalities of ordinary everyday life. 

Peter S Heslam
Peter is director of Faith in Business, Cambridge.

What practical wisdom from Proverbs can help you this week on your frontline? 

Week beginning 2 May 2021

In recent weeks, I've been challenged very much about how important it is for Christians to take seriously the climate crisis. Two documentaries which I watched on Netflix - Cowspiracy and Seaspiracy which address how much animal agriculture and fishing have a massive impact on the climate, even greater than fossil fuels - have made me think very seriously about what I can do as an individual. The following article is an extract from a flyer from Sojourners, a transformational Christian community of activists in America. I think it follows on very appropriately from the conclusion to Robert's piece last week. We ignore this issue at our peril.

Every blessing to you all

Peter

Why should Christians care about the climate crisis? The climate crisis is jeopardising the health and well-being of our most vulnerable neighbours around the world. This is a matter of serious injustice—it’s not fair that the people who do the least to cause the problem bear the burden of the crisis first and worst. And because we believe in a God who calls us to steward the earth wisely and pursue justice and peace, caring for God’s creation and God’s people is a deeply Christian issue, not a party political one.

Sure, the climate is changing, but hasn’t it always been changing? Is it really a “crisis”? The climate does change in historic cycles. Scientific studies show that our earth has gone through full cycles of warming and cooling every 100,000 years. Without human influence, one typical warming cycle would take half of that time, about 50,000 years. Yet, the same rate of warming we are seeing today is happening at an unprecedented rate: In 100 to 200 years instead of 50,000. This alarming rate of warming, scientists tell us, is due to the excess amount of greenhouse gases—particularly CO2 and methane—that we add to the ozone layer of our atmosphere primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, but also through deforestation and corporate agricultural practices that trap heat in our atmosphere. Today, there is a 97 percent consensus among scientists that evidence points to human-induced climate change. Human-induced climate change has caused the global temperature to rise 1 degree Celsius since 1880; at the current rate of emissions we will reach a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030—a change with catastrophic implications for human and animal life.

But God gave us the gift of fossil fuels. Why shouldn’t we use them as resources? The reckless use of fossil fuels, which trap heat into our atmosphere, destabilise weather patterns, and cause people and wildlife to suffer, is not wise stewardship of God’s resources. It is disobedience of God’s commandment to cultivate and keep all of creation. The book of Genesis describes God’s many acts of creation, and Genesis 2:15 says that “the Lord God put people into the Garden of Eden to ‘tend’ and to ‘watch over’ it.” In the original Hebrew, these two words are avad and shamar, which often appear in reference to God watching over and protecting the people. God gifted us an abundance of natural resources with the responsibility to steward them with utmost care for the flourishing of all life. Instead of fossil fuels, there are more responsible, less harmful methods of creating the energy we need to sustain life—such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy. Plus, these energies are becoming cost-effective; the solar industry is producing more jobs than coal, oil, and natural gas combined.

Okay, I’m on board. How can I respond faithfully to the climate crisis? As Christians, God calls us into a journey of sacrificial, transformative discipleship in order to become more like Christ. To respond faithfully and compassionately to the suffering caused by the climate crisis is to participate in this journey. We can take the first step by making thoughtful lifestyle choices that minimise our individual impact on the climate crisis—like buying and using less, reducing our energy use, eating less red meat, recycling, and composting. You can find your individual carbon footprint and discover ways to reduce it with this simple tool. This is personal discipleship. We can go deeper in our journey by taking action for the well-being of our climate-affected neighbours—praying for and petitioning our members of Parliament to prioritise climate, advocating for policies that address the climate crisis, supporting and voting for local legislators who share this concern, and even voting with our feet in the streets through direct action. This is public discipleship.

This is so overwhelming! How can we stay hopeful in this time of crisis? When we tune into the litany of climate disasters happening at such a massive scale and speed, it can be so easy to slip into despair and apathy. And yet biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that the basis of Christian hope is the reality that God is a real character and effective agent in the world. Hope is created when we partner with the living God, bound to God’s vision of a transformed, renewed, and reconciled world where all creation can flourish. What better way to experience that reality than to stand alongside our brothers and sisters on the frontlines of the climate crisis and advocate for justice? In the process of participating in this ministry of reconciliation, we recognize we too are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. We recognise that commitment to climate discipleship in community will involve creativity, talent, and compassionate sacrifice from each member of this body. Climate discipleship will also require seasons of rest, art, resistance, and joy as we build this movement. That is hope against hope.

Week beginning 25 April 2021

The following is reproduced from the Arthur Rank Centre where ministry to Rural churches is supported.

Every Blessing, Robert.

Praise the Lord!

Bible Reading: Psalm 150

Praise the Lord

Praise God in his sanctuary;
 praise him in his mighty heavens.

Praise him for his acts of power;
  praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
  praise him with the harp and lyre,
Praise him with tambourine and dancing,
  praise him with the strings and pipe,
Praise him with the clash of cymbals,
  praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

Reflection

Going back some sixty years or so when I was at the Minster School in York, the choir used to sing an arrangement of Psalm 150 by Dr Francis Jackson, Organist and Master of Music after every service. They still sing it today. The words of that glorious psalm of praise and thanksgiving had a profound and long-lasting effect on me. It became one of my favourites of all the Psalms.

This current coronavirus pandemic is the biggest single event that has hit the world for decades. The numbers of cases that were admitted to hospital during the last year has been completely unprecedented. The immense numbers of relatives and friends that so sadly passed away was horrendous. The excessive number of cases of anxiety and exhaustion amongst NHS staff have never been known before. The effect on many people of lockdown is probably immeasurable.

This has become prevalent in rural areas, with loneliness and isolation really hitting home. So as we begin, very gradually, to come out of lockdown and see the restrictions on our lives eased in a measured and controlled way, we should be giving thanks with every ounce of strength that we have. We should praise the Lord for all that has happened in the way of COVID-19 testing, the wonderful way that the NHS has responded, the scientists and technicians that created the vaccines, all of which are designed to bring us back to some sort of normality again!

We should praise the Lord for his creation as well. The second verse of the Psalm fits well here, ‘Praise him for his acts of power […] for his surpassing greatness’. The Lord’s creation talks very much of power and greatness. That creation provides us both with our food and the opportunity for people to exercise in, discover and wallow in the beauty of rural areas.

I have always believed that as Christians it is our job to protect our natural environment, nurture it, look after it and protect it from being spoilt. There are those however, who would wish, through wilful stupidity to ruin it for everyone else. The amount of fly tipping and general rural littering that is happening at present has, according to Natural England, leapt by 83% in the last five years. If we do not do something about it soon, rural areas will begin to be spoilt for good. We can change things!

So, despite all the pain, suffering, grief and anxiety that lots of us have endured during this last year or so, let us praise the Lord for all his goodness and love. As this country very slowly begins to move out of lockdown and restrictions, we have far more things to be thankful for than not!   

Prayer

If my lips could sing as many songs as there are waves in the sea: if my tongue could sing as many hymns as there are ocean billows: if my mouth filled the whole firmament with praise: if my face shone like the sun and moon together: if my hands were to hover in the sky like powerful eagles, and my feet ran across mountains as swiftly as the deer; all that would not be enough to pay you fitting tribute, O Lord my God. Amen.

Jewish prayer

Response

A new, refreshed Countryside Code has been recently launched by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales. Take time to read it and promote it to others (gov.uk/government/publications/the-countryside-code).

We should protect God’s creation by being greener in our daily lives. Encourage your church to become an Eco Church (ecochurch.arocha.org.uk).

Think about what we can do for our countryside. Pray regularly, both privately and in corporate worship, for our rural areas and those who live and work in it.

If you are able to do so in a safe, COVID-secure manner, consider picking up any litter you see on verges and hedges when you’re out for a walk in the countryside. Dispose of it appropriately, either in public bins or when you get home. Be aware of safety and legal issues around discarded drug paraphernalia.

Praise the Lord!

Revd Richard Kirlew, Rural Officer for Dorset, Chair, Agricultural Chaplains Association

Week beginning 18 April 2021

Apologies for posting this a little early, but we're getting a few days away this week. This reflection is from an unusual source, and not one I might normally be expected to read: it's from the website of the Order of Servite Friars, a Catholic order whose motivation is the sanctification of their members and preaching the gospel. They have a particular devotion to Mary, with which you may disagree, but their daily reflections are really inspiring and uplifting. You can find more of their reflections at thegrotto.org .

Every blessing

Peter

Born again in Spirit

Who is Nicodemus? He was a Pharisee, a Jewish religious group known for their obedience to the law. He was also the leader of the Jewish religion. Thus his knowledge and piety could not be doubted.

Nicodemus came to Jesus because he was attracted to Jesus and respected Him. Jesus said that Nicodemus needed to be born again in order to have a share in the kingdom of God. This is interesting because Jesus explained it to Nicodemus, who had such a strong Jewish religious background. Jesus then explained that new people can enter into the Kingdom of God if they are born of water and the Spirit. This refers to Ezek. 36: 25-27. These verses make it clear that water is a sign of cleansing, whereas the Spirit is given to provide renewal. This confirms that sin has made all people unworthy of entering into the glory of God, unless they are renewed by the Spirit.

Nicodemus’ answers show that he did not understand at all what Jesus was talking about, even though he was a scholar of the Scriptures. It turns out that a person with strong religious knowledge and piety like Nicodemus did not necessarily understand and experience the new birth. In fact, people must be born again in order to enjoy and experience a heavenly life. How can people be born again? John 1: 12-13 explains that those who accept Jesus and believe in His name will become children of God. If we believe in Jesus we will be born again and therefore will receive eternal life.

The new birth can only take place in faith in Jesus Christ, the One who came down from heaven and returned to heaven. That is the new birth in the Spirit. Like the birth of a baby, the transition from old life to new life often requires going through things that are uncomfortable, make doubts, maybe cause you to wonder about it. The transition of new birth in the Spirit is not easy for everyone to accept. Just as a baby does not receive when he/she escapes the comfort of the womb by weeping, so too a person who is born again in the Spirit is accompanied by a mighty cry. If the cry is not coming from yourself, it is very likely that it is coming from other people, people around him, who may also be trying to obstruct the process of the new birth.

Fellowship with Jesus Christ is what makes our lives new. Without it we are still in the old man. That fellowship makes our lives comfortable again, our lives can bear fruit, we have guaranteed safety in them.

Do we have the courage to be born again in the Spirit? The promise of the hope of being born again in the Spirit is eternal life and salvation.

Amen.

Week beginning 11 April 2021

We join with millions in giving thanks to God for the life of the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and the contribution he made to the life of our nation, and most of all for his long and loving partnership with our Queen. We pray for her, for Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, and for all who mourn his loss. We give thanks for the ways he has influenced many people in this nation, not least with young people through the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

May God bless the Royal Family at this time, comforting them in their grief, and assure them of His loving purposes for them. Amen.

Every Blessing,

Robert.

Week beginning 4 April 2021 (Easter week)

Sam Wakeling, a father of two small children, was arrested whilst taking part in a prayer vigil outside London City Airport as part of an Extinction Rebellion protest in October 2019. This week he was convicted for failing to provide his name and address when asked by a police officer prior to being arrested, despite explaining to the court that he was silent because he was in prayer. Sam wasn’t able to read his whole statement in court, but it is so powerful it needs to be heard. So I’ve reproduced it here. This is probably the longest piece I’ve posted all year, but I think it’s the most important and I urge you all to read every word.

Every blessing

Peter

I’m charged with staying silent. And for that I am surely guilty. Like so many of us, I have stayed for too long as a bystander. A silent witness of unspeakable things. But the day in question, sitting in prayer at an airport, is the first time my silence has been called criminal.

Crime?

Breaking the law is not my intention, and we claim that this country protects in law the right to protest, and the right to practice one’s faith. My legal claim is very simple – that according to articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights I was participating in both legitimate protest and practice of well-recognised faith, and that the Police’s actions in preventing this were not proportionate or necessary, and therefore were not lawful. 

I was not the one breaking the law that day. 

The prosecution has not shown evidence of any threat I was posing to national security, public safety, health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of other people, nor was my presence any cause of disorder or crime.

In this upside down world is it not the government of this country who, by gratuitous negligence of failing to respond properly to the climate emergency, are guilty of each and every one of those things? 

So I appeal to the rule of law, as independent and providing protection for every person regardless of status? But when the Supreme Court, our highest court, rules as on the Heathrow expansion, that the Paris Agreement should be disregarded rather than holding our government to its own laws, it becomes all the clearer that my faith cannot lie simply in the courts to uphold justice.

I hope instead to speak of where I find and place my faith. Not in the crown but the cross.

I have today sworn to tell the truth, and since I am charged with failing to answer why I was sitting on the pavement outside London City Airport, I will give my reasons.

I think back to the day London City Airport opened, on October 26, 1987. 6000 miles away in Cape Town, I am aged three and walking with my mother alongside a busy road. My red sandals dusty from the hot concrete slab pavement. The metallic tang I could taste I would now know as diesel exhaust. We were on our way to the preschool of St Luke’s church Wynberg. I wasn’t aware of it then, but we were participating in an activity which the South African government then called illegal. The church was multiracial and as such it and its activities were against the law.

It should have been an early clue to me that what a government tries to stop, and even makes illegal, may not necessarily be wrong. And the harder a government tries to silence dissent, the harder we must all look at what they’re afraid of people saying.

A few months later, in January 1988, and on almost the opposite side of the world in Hawaii, a little-known observatory on Mauna Loa recorded atmospheric carbon dioxide above 350 parts per million for the first time. 

These three events – opening an airport, an illegal playgroup, and crossing the threshold for a stable atmosphere – would help lead me to that day in October 2019.

Emergency?

Today I stand here in a courtroom festooned with the hazard tape and warnings which make it inescapable that we are in an emergency, a global pandemic. The media talks of little else, governments have upended society, and used constant communication at the highest levels to convey the seriousness of the situation to the public.

How different from the climate and ecological crises. We are told the UK are world leaders, that innovation will save us, and that everything is somehow under control.

Instead of trying to wake us up, those with power seem intent on pressing snooze for as long as they can – moving now from blunt, old-fashioned denial, to instead pointing at distant targets and greenwash, something Prof Kevin Anderson calls“mitigation denial”. The result is to further brutalise and steal from people and lands across the majority world in a desperate attempt to prop up this sick and tired world order.

As the prophet Jeremiah said “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Jer 8:10-11

Yet there are many who need no waking up. 

Millions who have lived with their house on fire for hundreds of years. People who have been on the sharp end of Global Britain. Black and brown people treated as less than human, their lands treated as resources and their labour taken without choice or charge.

For centuries wealthy white men have looked around the world for more of ‘nature’ to claim as their own and turn into what they can recognise as wealth. This climate crisis does not spring out of thin air, but out of patterns of exploitation, many of which trace back to the City of London. 

And the City of London, while financing the emissions doing violence to our climate, are also a main customer base for London City Airport. 

Airport

This airport serves the richest passengers of any major airport in the UK, perhaps the world, with the average incomes of their 5 million passengers in 2019 at around £89k – very literally an airport for the 1%.

Aviation kills, yet the vast majority of the world have little or nothing to do with it. Half of all the emissions from passenger air travel globally are caused by just 1% of the world’s population.

And it is growing. The UK likes to celebrate that since 1990 our territorial emissions have halved. Yet in that same time, and not counted in the territorial figures, emissions from aviation have more than doubled

London City Airport is determined to continue this growth, especially expanding their capacity for hosting private jets. Months after our actions they announced the airport was now carbon neutral(through buying offsets, and not counting the 95% of their emissions from flights). In 2020 they boasted that while building their new taxiway they saved 3000 tonnes of CO2. They didn’t mention that unfortunately this much is then emitted by the flights the airport normally hosts in just the three days you’d need for a long weekend to Amsterdam.

Apartheid

We now look to future projections of climate change and see terrifying prospects, with the earth on course to be heated beyond 1.5C by around 2030, with the food supply disruption, unbearable heatwaves and further social breakdown this would bring our children. 

I am afraid, and I do fear for my children – how could I not? They are 4 and 2, and ought to expect to live to see the 22nd century, whatever that might look like. But by no virtue of mine they are some of the safest in this world. They are not likely to find themselves trapped the wrong side of a border, starving while others feast, or denied simple treatments for disease. 

We in the UK, in one of the least vulnerable parts of the world for climate impacts, cannot stay blind to the reality that this future that we fear is already here for many of our brothers and sisters.

Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate says:

“Historically Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions and yet Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts fuelled by the climate crisis. Rapidly intensifying hurricanes, devastating floods and withering droughts. Many Africans have lost their lives while countless more have lost their homes, farms and businesses. The droughts and floods have left nothing behind for the people. Nothing except for pain, agony, suffering, starvation, and death.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu compares this global separation with the apartheid into which I was born:

“Sadly, the leaders of some of the largest contributors to climate change show little interest in human rights and justice. The prospect of what some are terming climate apartheid, in which the rich pay to protect themselves from the worst impacts while the poor take the full hit is becoming depressingly real.”

Today we can see this play out in distribution of the vaccine for Covid 19, itself another symptom of ecological breakdown. The head of the WHO calls this a grotesque moral catastrophe, saying “Countries that are now vaccinating younger healthy people at low risk of disease are doing so at the cost of lives of health workers, older people and other at risk groups in poorer countries.”

He warns that this is self-defeating and will prolong the pandemic.

This is a stark comparison to the climate: if our richest countries try to do as little as possible while they feel less affected, the risks of disastrous global impacts will continue to increase.

In the last few years our society has worried a lot about disposables. Plastic straws, cups, masks. In 2018 London City Airport trumpeted that it was the first airport in the country to ban plastic straws. But we hear less concern about the human lives which are considered disposable, on which their business model depends.

In Copenhagen in 2009, Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di Aping, called a 2C target “a suicide pact.” And noted “It is unfortunate that after 500 years-plus of interaction with the West, we [Africans] are still considered ‘disposables.’ “

Prayer

But having heard these things: the towering injustices and racist exploitation by the powerful, the urgent need to change course however intractable things seem. Why did this lead to me sitting in prayer?

I can simply say that it was where my body needed to be to feel honest. 

I’ve grown up in churches, and have recited the Lord’s Prayer countless times. But as the small group of us – including grandparents, and a nun – spoke it sitting on that concrete paving it was more real for me than any time behind stained glass. 

To pray “your kingdom come” was to look to an authority above the crown badged on the police standing over us. And “may Your will be done, on earth as in heaven” reminds us that this God we seek is profoundly invested in this earth we sit on. This faith I was practicing on that pavement is no call for spiritual escape, but for redemption and transformation of our world’s real injustices, through our real, bodily lives. 

This is holy week, when Christians remember Jesus visiting Jerusalem. He went to the temple, and he turned the place upside down. He could not stand the authorities running systems of economic and racial division and exploitation in the name of God. He turned the tables, scattered their money and quoted ancient prophets saying “my house will be a house of prayer for all nations, and you have made it a den of robbers”.

To follow this man, is to follow someone willing to disrupt in order to speak the truth, to demand justice alongside oppressed people.

Of course, this got him into yet more trouble, and we all know how the week ended, as the brutal violence of the empire tried to silence yet another troublemaker.

We also know the strange whispers of the week that follows. His dejected and despairing followers seeing things that couldn’t be true, telling each other of hope that couldn’t be justified. Of women meeting a gardener. Of someone cooking fishermen breakfast. Someone determined to show that he wasn’t a disembodied theory or a detached soul, but a real – if somehow changed – body. 

This faith means following a man who told a different story with his actions, who challenged corrupt, racist exploitative power, without becoming like them. He taught his followers to pray and dream that God’s Kingdom would come here on earth. For freedom for all God’s children, especially those who have been pushed down, marginalised, racialised and made less than. 

He taught of a Kingdom where the last would be made first, and many who are first now would come last. 

Vanessa Nakate said the world community had two choices – life or death. “Choose life for the people, choose life for the ecosystems, choose life for the planet. If we are united, if we work together, if we demand climate justice, we will be able to transform the world and make it a better place.”

In conclusion

I am here today because of silence. You can decide whether you believe this was criminal. 

I’ve spoken of my childhood brush with an ugly apartheid regime, and of this same deadly logic of white supremacy and capitalism, wrapped in denial and sleepy delusion that it can continue devouring forever. And I’ve spoken of a kingdom that whispers of healing, turns tables on injustice and brings life out of death.

My prayer on that ground was a protest, maybe like every prayer is – a dream that another world is possible. Maybe that’s foolish. Maybe this government calls it criminal. 

I don’t believe that makes it wrong. 

It makes it even more necessary.

Whether criminal or simple fool, I am here today, as I was at the airport that day, a broken man, searching for grace. I’m privileged with everything this crooked world can give, but still starving and thirsty for the freedom that none can have unless we all are free. 

Jesus called himself the truth, and said that truth could set you free. I hope I have said something that’s true today.

We find ourselves, each of us, alive here, facing the fierce urgency of now. It is never too late to do what is right. And never too soon to start.

You will pass judgement on my actions. I pray, as the motto over the door to this court says: “Lord direct us”.

That you, and I, and all God’s children may be free.

Sam was originally arrested for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance and breach of the peace; this later dropped by police and the Crown Prosecution Service.  He was given a 12 month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £796 in costs after the court decided that religious practice and personal belief could not be a reasonable excuse because the bylaw he was charged under was without qualification.

 

Week beginning 28 March 2021

The following is a Reflection for this week from the book Oceans of Grace by Tim Chester. May God bless you as we approach this Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Robert.

OUR PHOENIX RISES

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15 v 56-57)

The first Easter Sunday was a day of victory and the beginning of an eternity of victory. For us that victory is still partial. Jesus rose as the beginning of a new era, but the old era continues and will do so until Christ returns. So sin still can influence us, Satan can still accuse us; guilt can still assault us, and fear can still besiege us. But it is also true that Jesus has atoned for our sin, defeated our enemy, cleansed our guilt and assuaged our fears. So for now we live with this tension—feeling our mortality but knowing that immortality awaits, battling temptation but knowing that victory is assured. Some days we will feel the struggle keenly. But even on those days we can look up to see the resurrected Jesus, the promise of our coming victory. For one day Jesus will return, and his victory in our lives will be complete. Let the words of the 17th-century pastor Thomas Adams, as he writes of Easter Sunday, express your confidence in the victory of the resurrection and point you forward to the consummation of that victory when Christ returns.

Eternal Father, we praise you for this day, the Sabbath of the new world, our Passover from everlasting death to life, our true jubilee, the first day of our week, and the chief day in our calendar.

Today our Phoenix rises from his ashes, our Eagle renews his feathers, the First-begotten of the dead is born from the womb of the earth.

His death justified us; his resurrection justified his death.

His resurrection was the first stone of the foundation and the last stone of the roof.

Satan danced on Jesus’ grave with joy, thinking he had Jesus entombed for ever.

But Jesus rose again and trampled on the devil’s throne in triumph.

As you spoke to the fish, and it cast up Jonah, so you commanded the earth, and it delivered up Jesus.

Eternal Father, we praise you, for Christ leads us to heaven through the grave, just as Moses led the people to Canaan through the wilderness.

Christ’s resurrection is not only the object of our faith but the example of our hope.

The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for us, preserves our bodies and souls into everlasting life.

We all carry mortality about us, and the strongest man is like Nebuchadnezzar’s image: though his head be of gold, yet his feet are of clay.

Did death kill Christ? Christ shall therefore kill death.

He who this day rose from the clods of earth we expect one day from the clouds of heaven: to raise our bodies, to perform his promises, to finish our faith, to perfect our glory and to draw us unto himself.

There shall be dry ground instead of this valley of tears, a land of the living instead of this Golgotha of the dead, a settled mansion instead of this impermanent tent.

Christ had his Easter Day by himself; there shall be one general Easter Day for us all, when the wicked shall rise to contempt and the faithful to an eternity of days.

Eternal Father, we praise you that on that day there shall be no terror to frighten us, no sorrow to afflict us, no sickness to disturb us, no death to dissolve us, no sin to endanger for evermore.

You once said, “Take and eat of every tree but one.” But man wrongly took the fruit, and ate and fell.

Now Jesus says, “Take and eat; this is my body, which is given for you.”

Let us not mistake again, but eat and live for ever.

Thomas Adams (1583–1652)

 Week beginning 21 March 2021

What follows is another reflection from Kurt Willems of Pangea Church, Seattle, linking this past year of the coronavirus with the Easter story.

Every blessing

Peter

"One year of limbo. You’ve likely experienced the tension of the in-between before. But usually this isn’t with the entire world. Even though the whole world is apparently in this state of being, the truth is that many of us have never felt so alone. We are all in this together — except, we’re not.

Distanced at no less than six feet from everyone else, solidarity has never felt so lonely.

I imagine this is what it must have felt like for Mary Magdalene between the first Good Friday and Easter. Rather than six feet between her and Jesus, she found herself longing for her Lord who was now metaphorically six-feet-under. She was alone. She was grieving. She couldn’t see a way out of the messy circumstances that had thrusted themselves at her. The ever-present Jesus she had come to know was ever-distant, and so were like her hopes and dreams. So, she wept.

A Pain-Filled Year

In the past year, we’ve experienced personal and collective pain, to varying degrees. The effects of the pandemic differ for each person depending on circumstances. Some folks have suffered with COVID-19. Others, not only suffered, but died. We all mourn to some degree, but the deepest griefs come from those who have lost a loved one to this disease. 

For others, socio-economic effects brought another layer of hardship. Black, Indigenous and people of color found themselves in a fight with the disease in disproportionate ways. Many people lost their jobs that were hardly paying the bills before the shutdowns began. For people who might have already been struggling, the battle for survival was taken to whole new heights. Then, we saw the videos. A knee on the neck of one of God’s beloved children led to protests, important conversation and sadly for some, a deeper resistance to seeing the racial inequity that has existed since the first European boats hit land. 

COVID-19 came and so did depression. Loneliness. Anxiety. A sense that we are living out a twisted version of Groundhog’s Day, where each day flows into the next as though our lives are stuck on repeat, is unrelenting. Before the pandemic, many of us felt stuck or caught in the “in-between” of circumstances like career moves or completing high school or college. Some already felt the symptoms of a perpetual “senioritis”—longing for graduation into the next big opportunity — and then, the world’s pause button was pressed. A year ago, grade schools across the country shut down, many of which have never gone back to in-person instruction.

The world simply stopped. We were stuck. We were only six feet apart, but ever so alone.

During the past year, many of us have asked: Where is Jesus when life hurts? Is he a far-off God? Where’s the human Jesus, the one who steps into the messes with us in a posture of compassionate humanity?

When Jesus Goes Missing

The moment when Jesus went missing in the gospel accounts is perplexing. This isn’t a surprise to the reader because of the way the author composed these stories. But to the people living within that space and time — people like Mary and her friends, the disciples, and the many others mourning the death of Jesus — despair was real. Jesus was gone for good. 

When Mary came to the place where Jesus had been buried, all her deepest desires were contradicted by what she believed to be true: Jesus was dead. In the ground. In that tomb lay all the hopes and dreams she had invested into this almost messiah. But now, those buried hopes had gone missing. His body was gone. She wanted to find Jesus in her most painful of circumstances. 

For those of us committed to the way of Jesus, we relate to Mary in this story. We know what it’s like to feel the wrath of a broken world kick us when we’re down. I know that in my most challenging moments, I want Jesus to fix things. When I’m anxious, I want Jesus to take it away. When a loved one is hurt, I want Jesus to heal. When our world is facing a pandemic, I want Jesus to pull off a global miracle that no one can deny (I mean, come on Lord. This would be good marketing for you.) Again, we ask: Where is Jesus?

That question, elusive as it is, makes sense for us to ask as followers of Christ. But, the honest truth is, that no matter how we answer that question theologically, we will never be fully satisfied with the answers. Pain still happened. It is still happening. So what can we do with it?

Stepping Through Pain with Jesus

Recently, my spiritual director shared some helpful reflections on suffering that have kept this past year in perspective. There are three postures that we often have when facing pain. 

First, we may say, 

Jesus, you fix it. 

We direct everything toward God. Then, we may say, 

Jesus, join me in my suffering. 

Finally, we might learn to join Jesus in His suffering, which connects us to the pain of others. We may say, 

Jesus, I want to experience your pain, which includes mine and the suffering of others. 

In this stage, we’ve moved from a focus on personal problems to joining Jesus in His own pain as He holds the pain of the world. Jesus steps into the mess and invites us to find counterintuitive hope and healing as we meet Him there. 

At our best, following Jesus out of the pandemic might look like this third level of pain. Imagine if the church, rather than being known for the many negative labels it’s had in recent years, was known as a suffering community — with Jesus for the sake of the world? Our suffering, the real struggles of this pandemic, could be a catalyst for reflecting the light and love of God to our culture. What we need is a deeper understanding of the compassionate humanity of Jesus, an empathy that feels the pain of others while offering hope on the other side of it.

In Solidarity with Jesus’ Compassionate Humanity

Eventually, Mary found herself in conversation with a gardener. This gardener asked her, “Why are you crying?” (John 20:13). At first she was nearly offended by the question, but her guard completely dropped when her heart was opened to the fact that it was the resurrected Jesus who was speaking with her. Jesus’ body wasn’t missing. He had been there the whole time. She just couldn’t recognize Him, even when He was closer than six feet away. 

An echoing hope reverberated from the empty tomb into the depths of Mary’s soul. That same Jesus who showed up compassionately to her in a garden of tombs is with us now, even when we struggle to recognize him. His compassionate humanity is on offer to us, not only for our sake, but for the sake of all who are holding pain. 

One year later, we are weary from standing six feet apart. One year later, we are mourning losses. One year later, Jesus is still here. One year later, Jesus invites us to name our pain and to allow it to connect at a profound level with him and all of our suffering neighbours. Together, one year later, we can step into this next year with profound love and the hope of Easter. Imagine if the church — as a whole — took this posture toward our collective pain. It would change everything. We are not alone. We are united by our pain, with Jesus, and invited to step into the pain of others empowered by Jesus’s compassionate humanity."

 

Week beginning 14 March 2021

Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, Bible teacher and pastor's wife from Durham, North Carolina, USA. She writes about these verses from Philippians 4:10-20:

‘I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

‘Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

‘To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’

Here we arrive at perhaps the most famous verse in all of Philippians. This verse is everywhere! Plastered across everything from bumper stickers to bracelets to t-shirts and framed art you can find these words:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

This verse is incredibly popular. The trouble is, it is often taken out of context. Too often, these words are co-opted into a spiritual form of the American dream, upholding our ambitions for prosperity and personal success as if to say, “Through Christ, I can get that raise, buy that car, or afford the larger house!”

But this isn’t at all what Paul was saying. In order to understand it, this verse needs to be read within the broader chapter and letter, starting with the verses preceding it.

In verse 12, Paul offers a summary of all that he has endured throughout his life and ministry: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound… I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (v. 12). Paul has seen it all. He has experienced poverty and prosperity, gain and loss. Through it all his joy has persevered, unaffected by his circumstances. How? Because of Christ: “I can do all these things through him who strengthens me.”

In short, Paul isn’t talking about personal prosperity through Christ. He is talking being content in Christ, whether or not prosperity comes. He can endure any hardship and still rejoice because it is Christ alone who strengthens him. 

Plain and simple, Philippians 4:13 is about being content, no matter our circumstances. 

Paul’s Habit of Joy
All of this gets to the heart of Philippians and this “joy” which Paul can’t stop talking about. His joy is not shiny or cliché. It’s not simple and easy and detached from what’s actually happening in the world. Paul wasn’t skipping around with a smile painted on his face. Instead, his joy was an act of willful defiance. This is exactly why Paul repeats the refrain again and again: “rejoice!” 

Paul isn’t gushing here. He isn’t tap-dancing over his pain. Instead, he is making a choice. He is practicing the habit of joy which has shaped him into the man he has become. For Paul, and for us, joy is a discipline. It’s something we commit to—whether we feel like it or not— and over time our souls are transformed. 

That’s why Philippians is such an important contribution to how we think about joy. It banishes all the clichés. Here is a man who is honest about his suffering and betrayal, which means we can be too. Grief does not lessen or dull the hope we have in Christ. The paradox of our faith is that we can hold sorrow and joy together in the same hands, even in the same moment. One doesn’t cancel out the other.

And let me tell you, the world needs this kind of joy. Fake joy isn’t cutting it, and neither is shallow joy. If we clamor after all the same things as the rest of the world—wealth, success, the perfect family, the perfect body—claiming them “in the name of Jesus,” we aren’t any different than anyone else. Our joy is based on all the same things.

But true Christian joy—the “foolish” illogical kind—is the kind of joy that endures no matter what comes. This is the kind we’re promised in Christ. This defiant joy is complicated and messy and it isn’t built in a day, but it is the gritty joy our gritty world is craving.

Every Blessing,

Robert.

Week beginning 7 March 2021

When we think about Jesus, I think it's very easy for us to dehumanise Jesus: to play down his humanity in favour of his deity. What follows is an extract from a new book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain by Kurt Willems of Pangea Church, Seattle., which addresses this directly. I found it really helpful.

Every blessing

Peter

"While overdeifying Jesus isn’t possible, since as a Christ follower I’d rather not rob God of any glory, it’s increasingly clear to me that many Christians underhumanize him. Christians often talk about as though this one image in the New Testament is meant to split physicality from spirituality. I’ve heard sermons and read books and blogs that talk about “the flesh,” referring to our bodies (and sinful desires) as what we will leave behind for brand-new spiritual bodies in heaven.

Sometimes we get the impression that our human bodies will not be redeemed in the end, that we’ll be ghostly. No. The body is good. Very good. Its impulses and lusts (“the flesh”) must be transformed for the good life Jesus offers. These impulses, of course, are often the inversion of healthy desires (lust is rooted in a desire for intimacy, for example). But the point is that the human body isn’t disposable; it’s redeemable. The imaginations of the writers of the New Testament were always informed by the idea that spirit and matter are deeply intertwined. When did we lose this?

Some Christians believe that our humanity will be shed in eternity. But if we are invited to become like Jesus, why would we desire to escape the humanity he willingly put on himself? Jesus was and is human. So are we.

We miss half of Jesus’s significance when we miss his humanity. I’m not talking only about cognitive beliefs about him (most people believe Jesus was a human). Instead, we experientially neglect his humanity. In a strange way, lots of us want to primarily associate Jesus with the God “up there” so that we can keep him at a safe distance from the muck and mess of our daily lives. He’s in the sky somewhere when we need him for a crisis or when we’re feeling connected to God because we’re having a good day. (I want more of Jesus than this.)

Honestly, I’ve had seasons when going to church to worship Jesus on Sunday gave me just enough to get through the struggles of the upcoming week. Church can become a means of spiritual survival to remind us of a God out there who helps us. The rest of the week we sprint from work, to day care, to carpool duty, to soccer practice, and eventually to bed, only to start the marathon all over again the next day. Jesus the human being shows us that a more truly human life is possible. In short, Jesus gets it.

Look, it would be easy to let a lot of this divinity versus humanity stuff stay in the abstract. Shoot, the early church had to host multiple ecumenical councils (gatherings of bishops and theologians) to settle what the Bible teaches: in Christ are two perfect natures. I’m not stepping into that argument. It was settled a long time ago.

So then, what’s the payoff, really, for you and me? At the end of the day, Jesus offers us example after example—through teaching and lifestyle—of what we humans should do when we encounter situations similar to those he did. He shows us a real picture of how to be human. We can become human, just like him. (Even if imperfectly until the final day of resurrection.)

Jesus wants us to see him. All of him. This means we have to look closely at his humanity. The Incarnation—God taking on human flesh and experience—is what makes Christianity so compelling.God in a body. That body means God is human. Jesus is what it looks like to perfectly live as an image bearer. We could learn a thing or two by watching how he does it."

Week beginning 28 February 2021

In a new book for Lent called ‘An Ocean of Grace’, Tim Chester has put together a series of reflections and prayers from a number of people from the past. This one is from Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist preacher.

With Every Blessing,

Robert.

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3 v 17-19)

In today’s prayer, Charles Spurgeon marshals all his considerable powers of oratory to express the love of Christ. Spurgeon tries to quantify Christ’s love by measuring the distance between what he came from and what he came to: “from the height of majesty in glory to the depths of shame on earth”. But Spurgeon, like Paul in Ephesians 3, readily admits that describing Christ’s love cannot be done. Yet, even though Christ’s love is something that “surpasses knowledge”, Paul still prays that his readers might “know this love”. We will never bottom out Christ’s boundless love. But we need to see more and more of his love. Every time we sin, we need to appreciate afresh this love that welcomes sinners. Every time we suffer, we need to appreciate afresh this love that mysteriously works all things for our good. Every time we face temptation, we need to appreciate afresh this love that captures our hearts.

‘Your love, O Christ, in its sweetness, its fullness, its greatness, its faithfulness surpasses all human comprehension.

Where shall language be found which shall describe your matchless love, your unparalleled love, towards the children of men?

Your love is so vast and boundless that, as the swallow skims the water without diving into its depths, so all descriptive words merely touch the surface of your love, while depths immeasurable lie beneath.

For your love took you from the height of majesty in glory to the depths of shame on earth.

Who, Lord Jesus, can tell of your majesty?

When you were enthroned in the highest heavens, you were very God of very God.

By you were the heavens made and all the hosts within them.

Your own almighty arm upheld the spheres.

The praises of cherubim and seraphim perpetually surrounded you.

The full chorus of the hallelujahs of the universe unceasingly flowed to the foot of your throne.

You reigned supreme above all your creatures,

God over all, blessed for ever.

Who can tell the height of your glory?

And who can tell how low you descended?

To become a man was something; to become a man of sorrows was far more; to bleed, and die, and suffer—these were much for you, who were the Son of God.

But to suffer such unparalleled agony—to endure a death of shame and desertion by your Father— this is a depth of condescending love.

The most inspired mind must utterly fail to fathom this love.

Here is love!

And truly it is love that surpasses knowledge.

Oh, let this love fill our hearts with adoring gratitude and lead us to practical manifestations of its power.’

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892),

Week beginning 21 February 2021

If your thoughts as you prepare to begin Lent are of what you plan to give up and of how much you will suffer without chocolate or alcohol during the next six weeks, perhaps it is time to realign your approach to the season. Will your chosen Lenten observance help you to grow as you journey towards Easter? Philip Endean SJ wants to remind us that ‘this great season of grace’ is not a time for constriction: ‘Lent is only Christian if it is positive.’ Every blessing, Peter

"Before I was ordained, I worked for a year in a primary school in Mexico City. On Ash Wednesday morning, I arrived on the site at 7.30 am, as usual. Three things became quickly clear. Firstly, the headmistress had forgotten to engage a priest for the day. Secondly, absolutely nothing could happen within the culture of that school on Ash Wednesday before ashes had been duly distributed to all and sundry. Thirdly, in default of a proper padrecito, the foreign seminarian was going to have to step in.

Thus, through a distorting microphone in the school yard, I found myself improvising a catechetical dialogue: imagine Joyce Grenfell in bad Mexican Spanish. ‘Now, children. I’m going to make the sign of the cross on all your foreheads. We use a cross because someone died on it. Does anyone know who died on the cross?’ It was a deliberately easy question, expecting the answer ‘Jesus’. In fact, eight hundred children answered back with impressive volume and unanimity ‘Dios’ – God. I was taken aback by the theological robustness here, but I pressed on with my lesson plan regardless. ‘And what did Dios do after he died?’ Silence. Pedagogical failure. All I could do was tell them the ‘right answer’ piously, and hurry on to the real ritual business.

‘God died’: end of story. Behind those children’s response lay an inheritance of long suffering and oppression, something to be reverenced, not patronised. Nevertheless, there is also cause for concern here. The Acts of the Apostles tells us of disciples who had never heard of the Holy Spirit (19:1-2); here we have Christians with no knowledge of Easter. If anything like this explains why Mass on Ash Wednesday, despite the lack of ‘obligation’, is generally one of the most crowded celebrations in any Catholic church’s year, then the situation is quite worrying.

Jesus’s claims to be God, of one being with the Father who made heaven and earth, cannot rest simply on the fact that he lived nobly, for a worthy cause, and died as a result. That much is true of lots of other people too – from Socrates in antiquity to the firemen who gave their lives on the morning of 9/11. Our big stories about Jesus being one with God depend on the fact that he, and he alone, rose from the dead, and was seen by the very disciples who had failed him. We proclaim his death precisely because it was not the end. He also rose, and he will come again. Lent is the preparation for Easter: the celebration of new life, not of God’s death.

Lent thus cannot be a time for wallowing in the negative. The English word ‘Lent’ comes from the same root as ‘length’. Lent, the time of spring’s first stirrings, is a time for our being lengthened. We are to grow into the full stature of Christ, to move nearer the kingdom prepared for us before the world’s foundation. It may be very noble, and may meet some psychological need within ourselves, to think about Lent as our trying hard, as our effort. But when we think that way, the focus is probably on ourselves. What Lent is really about is opening ourselves to someone else, about stretching ourselves, so that we can receive the gift of new life coming from God alone.

Many churches in these days will sing the hymn that begins:

Forty days and forty nights Thou wast fasting in the wild; Forty days and forty nights Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Think of Jesus, hungry and tempted, and the next step seems just obvious:

Should not we Thy sorrow share And from worldly joys abstain, Fasting with unceasing prayer, Strong with Thee to suffer pain?

Well, maybe. But by the time we get to this stage in that hymn, I normally feel pretty uneasy. Those well-crafted lines make the whole business sound so heroic, so stiff upper lip, what the British Empire was built on. If we resist our temptations to chocolate or alcohol, we somehow gain merit, and rise above mere sensuality.

But this way of thinking does not have much to do with the gospel. When Matthew and Luke in their different ways name the temptations Jesus faces, it seems as though Jesus himself is growing into, being stretched towards, the full reality of his mission. He has to recognise that his way is not that of simple miracle-working, despite the triumphs with which his career in the gospel seems to open. He has to realise that his kingdom is a kingdom in the truest sense, a kingdom given from above, and therefore not of this world (John 18: 36-37). Jesus is not proving his moral fibre, but growing in his sense of his own identity.

This piece could almost be called ‘On Not Giving Up For Lent’. Almost, but not quite. What is important is that we avoid superstitious practices that are at best mere window-dressing, and at worst thoroughly destructive, reflecting the styles of religion from which Jesus came to free us. The real point is about the mindset we bring to Lent. I am trying to insist that Lent is ‘this great season of grace’, God’s gift to the Church – to use the words of the Missal when it was still in native English. Lent places us before the author and pioneer of our faith, Jesus Christ, and asks us how we might follow him more deeply. Lent is only Christian if it is positive.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius Loyola in various ways encourages us to pray, not out of our conventional selves, or with the skills we have already developed, but rather from the parts of ourselves that are being ‘shaken up by different spirits’ (Ex:x 6). We need to be in touch with what can transform us, what makes us confront new questions, what stretches our commitment and identity. It is that kind of focus that should characterise Lent. Where am I growing? Where are there questions in my life? Where am I being called to something deeper – something which, precisely as such, I cannot get my head round? What is my equivalent of the desert, of Jesus’s temptations? How can I enter into that place fully, freely, generously?

Now, such questions may well still give us the normal answers. Lay off the sugar or the cigarettes or the meat – not because the enjoyment I get from such things is bad in itself, but because the pleasure they give may be dulling my awareness of the tough issues that really matter. And though no-one can live at full spiritual stretch all the time, it is good for us to have a designated six weeks every year when we try more intensively to open ourselves to God’s stretching. We should not be too ambitious; if we are, we’ll almost certainly fail, get discouraged, and give up some time round the first Sunday. We need realistic targets: enough to stretch us, not so much as to crush us. We need to go slowly, to seek sustainable growth.

When such considerations inform our indulgence in standard Lenten penance, well and good. But we can also be creative, and develop practices that are less conventionally ‘penitential’. Some of us might need to give up some element of our religion. Some of us may need to sleep more. Some of us, particularly if we are given to the single or celibate life, may need to work more deeply at our relationships, and stop avoiding the all too challenging ways in which they alone can stretch us.

Lent is for lengthening, not for constriction. As we begin the forty days, we need to ask the Spirit where we are being called, here and now, to grow. We need to ask ourselves what we must do in order to further that divine purpose. We need to stop confining ourselves, and instead be open to the one who calls light out of darkness, brings life out of death. It is not really about our effort, still less about our looking miserable. Rather, with humble pride, we boast that all we can do is to plant and to water. The real growth, the true lengthening, comes from God (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).

Philip Endean SJ is Professor of Spirituality at Centre Sèvres, Paris. 

Week Beginning 14 February 2021

Here are another couple of thoughts from Revelation from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. Every Blessing, Robert.

Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times: Seeing and Hearing 2/3

On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet… I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.
Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel… After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.’

REVELATION 1:10, 12; 7:4, 9; 21:2–3

Do you prefer to see things, or hear them? Do you like reading books, or playing audio books? Watching television, or listening to the radio? We have become a culture of the visual, with the explosion of images and videos on the internet and delivered by streaming services – yet radio listenership is also on the rise, and there are now more podcasts than you can shake a stick at.

The dynamic of ‘hearing and seeing’ is threaded all through the Book of Revelation – yet, strangely, most ordinary readings miss this. We are so fixed on the idea that John is describing visions (things he sees) that we miss the role of all his auditions (things he hears) – which turns out to be 43% of the English text! (Yes, I counted!)

But what John hears and what he sees are closely related – the one interprets the other, and together they paint the full picture of John’s understanding. In the opening chapter, he hears a voice ‘like a trumpet’, an Old Testament description of the voice of God speaking to his people (see Exodus 19:16) – but he sees ‘one like a son of man’, dressed like a priest, like the Ancient of Days, and like an angel. Jesus is thus the word of God, our High Priest, and the one who brings God’s message to us. In chapter 7, John hears that God’s people are a counted, Jewish army in serried ranks – whom he sees as uncountable and multi-ethnic, praising God having come through deep suffering. And in chapter 21, he sees a city coming from heaven to earth – but hears that this is the presence of God with his people. The future intimacy of God with his people is described in the medium of extravagant architectural metaphor.

All this reflects a consistent Johannine theme of ‘what we have seen and heard’ (1 John 1:3; Acts 4:20), but the terms have wider significance. To ‘see’ is to understand, and one day we will see God even as we are already seen by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). To ‘hear’ is to obey (Deuteronomy 6:4), and one day our small obediences will be perfected (Philippians 1:6).

This week, what new thing will you see about God – what new understanding is he leading you to? And what new thing will you hear – what new call to a fruitful life of joyful obedience?

Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times: Where Do You Think You're Going? 3/3

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates...
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp… Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life… Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

REVELATION 21:9-12, 23, 27; 22:1

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ In Alan Bennett’s famous spoof sermon, the metaphor of journeying becomes a clichéd image of direction in life. But the spoof only works because the metaphor is so powerful – we might ‘take the road less travelled’, ‘start the longest journey with the first step’, or choose to ‘walk together’ with a friend.

The metaphor is found all over the Bible. Jesus called the first disciples to ‘Come, follow me’ (Mark 1:17). The whole middle section of Luke’s gospel is styled as a long, meandering journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Paul talks about ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), drawing on Old Testament and Jewish images.

The Book of Revelation also uses this metaphor of journeying, but in a more oblique way. John does his theological painting by numbers: the two witnesses, an image of God’s faithful people, prophesy for 1,260 days (Revelation 11:3), which (with months of 30 days) is the same as the 42 months during which the outer court is trampled and the beast makes war on the saints (Revelation 11:2; 13:5-7). John is recalculating Daniel’s time, times, and half a time of ‘tribulation’ (Daniel 7:25: 3.5 years = 42 months) and identifying it with the Exodus journey through the wilderness – which took 42 years stopping at 42 different places (Numbers 33).

In other words, we who follow the Lamb are on a new Exodus journey, from slavery to freedom in a new Promised Land. We are returning from exile to our true home in Jesus, and suffering tribulation until sin and death are finally defeated (1 Corinthians 15:55). Our destination is the New Jerusalem, which is not so much a place we will live but a people we will be – a community that is safe (high walls), welcoming (open gates), holy (no unclean thing will enter), radiant with the glory of God, and through which flows the Spirit, the river of life. And unlike on other journeys, as we head towards this goal, we actually become more and more like the place we are heading to – changed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).

So this week, as you go about life on your frontline, in which direction will you be travelling? Away from this destination, or one step closer to it? Becoming less, or more, like the people we will one day be.

Rev'd Dr Ian Paul
Ian is a biblical scholar and theologian.

Week beginning 7 February 2021

A thoughtful reflection on Easter:

Who Believed in Easter First: Mary or John?

Some rationalists might say, “If I could see a miracle, I’d believe in the supernatural.” Or some skeptics might say, “If I could have seen Jesus alive, I would have believed in his resurrection from the dead.” Yet, Jesus said multiple times, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign” (Matthew 12.39; 16.4), that is, in order to believe in the supernatural. And when doubting Thomas saw the risen Jesus, with the holes in his wrists and the hole in his side due to the crucifixion, and then he believed, we read in the Gospel of John, “Jesus said to him, ‘because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed'” (John 20.29). That refers to all of us who will soon celebrate Jesus’ literal resurrection from the dead.

I believe if Jesus had not risen from the dead and showed himself to his disciples, there never would have been any Christianity. That caused Jesus’ disciples to go into many parts of the world and preach about this no matter what the cost to themselves. Indeed, tradition says that most if not all of Jesus’ apostles, with the possible exception of the Apostle John, became martyrs for their faith in Jesus.

Since Easter is just a few weeks away, the title of this post is a timely question. The right answer is that it depends on who we ask. If we had asked Mary Magdalene, “Who was the first to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead?” she would have answered that she was. She would have been correct. However, she actually saw and conversed with the risen Jesus. Whereas, if we had asked another one of Jesus disciples, he would have answered that he was a little more like us in being the first to believe in the risen Jesus even though we didn’t see him alive when we believed. It’s all about evidence.

Here’s what happened, according to the New Testament gospels, several women on early Sunday morning had gone to the graveyard at Golgotha to further anoint Jesus’ body, in accordance with Jewish custom. His deceased body was entombed and laying on a shelf in that cave-tomb (Luke 24.1, 10). But the women discovered that Jesus’ body was not there. Then, two angels dressed in bright-shining, white clothing appeared to them inside the tomb. They told these ladies that Jesus had risen from the dead. And these angels reminded them that Jesus earlier had predicted to them that this is exactly what would happen (e.g., Matthew 16.21; 17.22-23; 20.18-19). Then they told the women to go tell his disciples, even mentioning specifically Peter, to tell them. So, the women fled and went to do so.

Then we read of Mary Magdalene, “And so she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved [probably the Apostle John, which is according to Christian tradition], and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him'” (John 20.2). What! The two angels had just told Mary and the other women that Jesus had risen from the dead. So, at this point we cannot accept that Mary Magdalene was a full believer in Jesus’ resurrection. But it was the same with the men. For Luke tells us that when the women told the male disciples about the missing body and what the angels had told them, “they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women withthem were telling these things to the apostles. And these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them” (Luke 24.10-11). So much for the gender thing!

The Gospel of John then tells us, “Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they were going to the tomb. And the two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter, and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. Simon Peter therefore also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he beheld the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb entered then also, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes” (John 20.3-10). “The disciples” refers to Peter and (probably) John.

The word “homes” in John 20.10 appears in every modern, major, English version of the New Testament (“own home” in KJV) despite the fact that it is not in the Greek text (Nestle Aland 28th ed; United Bible Society 4th ed.). It should not be added. Instead, Peter and John (probably) likely returned to their home where they were staying. Christian tradition says the two brother apostles, James and John, owned a home in Jerusalem, besides their home in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, because they were commercial fishermen, as were brother Andrew and Simon Peter, and they traveled back and forth to sell their salted fish in the Jerusalem markets (Mark 1.16-21). That is may be why the Apostle John obviously knew some of the members of the Sanhedrin–the Jewish Council that condemned Jesus to death.

Why does John 20.8 say the Apostle John (assuming the beloved is him) “saw and believed” that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead? It was because of the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection which he had just seen–“the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.” John must have realized that no one would steal a dead body by first removing the grave cloths and folding the face-cloth and laying it on the shelf where the body had laid. Why not?

Israel was not a sovereign state. In fact, the land of Israel was the only territory within the confines of the Roman Empire that was not part of the Roman Empire. Thus, Israeli Jews were not Roman citizens. It was because the Romans viewed Jews as a rather odd bunch, what with the strange way that they dressed and their unusual dietary laws, all due to their religion. Moreover, many Roman citizens viewed Jews and subsequent Christians as atheists because they did not believe in, or worship, the Roman gods at their shrines. Romans viewed that as disruptive to pax Romana.

So, the Roman Empire, like many ancient societies, protected religious shrines and honored human burial grounds and the remains inside of them. Thus, it was a capital crime deserving of death to desecrate religious shrines or graveyards or steal human remains from the latter. Thus, if anyone had stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb, and been apprehended, that person likely would have been executed by the state.

So, a wise thief would not have taken all of that time to strip Jesus’ body and nicely roll up the face-cloth, thus further risking getting caught. And the theory of skeptics, that the gardener had removed Jesus body to another location within the graveyard, as Mary originally had thought, is most unlikely because the gardener certainly would not have removed the grave cloths, since they with the 100 pounds of spices mixed within them were for the purpose of preserving the body as long as possible from decay. The nearby Egyptians were famous for doing that with mummification.

Apparently, when Mary Magdalene had told Peter and John about the missing body, and they ran to the tomb, Mary then left the house and followed them back to the tomb. But she very likely had no need to run there. Thus, by the time she arrived at the tomb for the second time that morning, both Peter and John had left the tomb.

Thus, we read in the Gospel of John, in John 20.11-18 in the NASB, “But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stopped and looked into the tomb; and she beheld two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.’ When she had said this, she turned around, and beheld Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which mean, Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.”‘ Mary Magdalene came announcing to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ and that he had said these things to her.”

Because of this, in Christian tradition Mary Magdalene has been called, to the delight of Christian womenfolk, “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Indeed, but was it not easier for Mary Magdalene to believe in the risen Jesus than it is for us? After all, she got to actually see the risen Jesus close-up and have a rather sublime conversation with him.

I think the Apostle John would back us up on that assessment due to his experience. He did not get to see the risen Jesus until that evening, when the disciples were gathered together, probably in the Upper Room. That is where they had celebrated the Last Supper on Thursday evening, the night before Jesus was crucified. Yet John had believed that morning when he saw the evidence of the grave cloths and face-cloth, indicating that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

Thus, there is much solid evidence that Jesus of Nazareth literally arose from the dead. And I believe that to ignore such solid evidence of Jesus’ resurrection as rationalists and skeptics do–in which God revealed himself through the man Jesus–is to do so at one’s own peril.

Every blessing

Peter

Week beginning 31 January 2021

The is the first of three items from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity and is quite topical, I think. Every Blessing, Robert.

Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times
The Word We Need - 1/3

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near…I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (REVELATION 1: 1-3, 9)

As we struggle through this third lockdown, hearing both scientists and politicians warn us not to hope for a date when life returns to ‘normal’, we long to hear a word from God – or perhaps three. 

First, we long for a revelation – a pulling back of the curtain, so that we can see, amidst all the confusion and chaos of conflicting accounts of what is ‘really’ going on, some heavenly truth. We are not the first. ‘Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…!’ cries Isaiah, faced with the promise of God’s faithfulness, and the reality of the people’s sin (Isaiah 64:1). The heavens were indeed rent at Jesus’ baptism – yet John’s readers, at the eastern end of the Roman Empire, are under pressure both from jealous Jews who resent this new Messianic movement, and pagan peers who demand they conform to cultural norms. They need a fresh revelation of who Jesus is, what he has done, and what it means to be faithful to him.

That is what God gives to John to pass on – a revelation (‘apocalypse’) of Jesus, God’s anointed, slain for us yet raised by God, who now shares his Father’s throne. This is no novel belief, but stands in the long line of prophecy – indeed, Revelation has been called ‘the climax of prophecy’. John shares what he sees and hears in words saturated with the Old Testament: redemption through Jesus is the fulfilment of all God had promised to his people.
 
But beyond a revelation, beyond a shared prophecy, we long for a word to us. What John writes is an apocalyptic, prophetic letter, written to particular people in a particular place at a particular time. It can become a particular word to us too, as we listen to what God is saying to us through what John said to his readers. 

John’s central assumption is that we have three things in Jesus: suffering (‘tribulation’ in the KJV); kingdom; and patient endurance (Revelation 1:9). Let’s rejoice in the healing grace of God’s rule in our lives, brought by Jesus and made real by the Spirit. Let’s also share in the groaning of this age, which does not yet see the redemption we enjoy. And, in the tension of these two, let’s commit ourselves to live lives of patient endurance as we look to the return of Jesus and hold out hope to the world.

Rev Dr Ian Paul
Ian is a biblical scholar and theologian.

Week beginning 24 January 2021

I'm sure that for all of us 2020 was one of the most difficult years we've ever known. There was much about it to make us sad and depressed. So, for once, I'm not posting a Christian reflection. Nothing in the post below is specifically religious, but all of it reflect things which we, as Christians can feel incredibly thankful for. I hope you agree.

Every blessing

Peter 

 

Week beginning 17 January 2021

The following came into my inbox from one of my former churches and uses the readings from this Sunday’s lectionary.

Readings:        1 Samuel 3:1-10

Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18

1 Corinthians 6: 12-20

John 1: 43-51

Come, See, Hear

Today’s readings encourage us to reflect on how God speaks to us and to other people. God’s voice is often unexpected and may leave us asking “why?” Why me, why now? But if we listen closely, if we allow God to call us, to encourage us, to use us, we, like the characters in today’s readings, can be transformed as we hear and obey God’s call for our lives.

Samuel hears the Lord calling to him in the night, but does not immediately understand what is going on. Three times he goes to Eli, three times Eli sends him back to bed. Finally, Eli realises what is happening, that it is the Lord calling to Samuel, and sends him to bed telling him to reply with the words “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

Sometimes God calls disciples directly, other times he uses other people to help and encourage a call. Both are seen in our passage from John’s Gospel. Jesus finds Philip and then Philip finds Nathanael, telling him “We have found the Messiah”.

But Nathanael questions Philip – “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” He tells him to “Come and see” – the Greek here meaning far more than just take a look – to see in this context meaning to understand. But Nathanael needs more than just Philip’s words. It is only when he meets Jesus, and hears Jesus’ words of encouragement and knowledge – “Here is an honest man, a true Israelite” – that he responds with enthusiasm, recognising Jesus as the Son of God.

How do we hear God’s voice calling to us? Do we, like Samuel, need others to interpret for us? Or are we like Nathanael, only believing when we can check out the facts and spend time with God. Or are we like Philip, bursting with enthusiasm, and wanting to tell everyone the Good News. If so, who is God calling us to share the Good News with? How can we welcome others into our churches and communities of faith?

We thank you, God, for those times when we have sensed your presence, heard your voice, seen new insights – particularly when we have needed those things. Thank you also for those who do not remember hearing your voice and still believe. Teach us how to make space, how to hear you and to recognise your presence with us. Amen

Every Blessing for this coming week,

Robert.

Week beginning 10 January 2021

If you have the YOU Bible app on your phone, there are a number of study plans which you can follow. One of them is written by Nicky Gumbel and is a journey through the whole Bible in a year. This is today's section:

Facing the Storms of Life

On 31 July 2003, the adventurer Bear Grylls led a team of five across the North Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable rigid dinghy. They set out from Halifax, Nova Scotia, heading for John o’ Groats, Scotland. On 5 August, a great storm arose. There were 100-foot waves. They lost satellite contact. They (and we) feared for their lives. Thankfully they survived to tell the tale (see Facing the Frozen Ocean by Bear Grylls).

Not all of us will have to face physical storms of this kind. But Jesus said that we would all face the storms of life (Matthew 7:25–27). Life is not easy. These storms are many and varied. Abraham, David and Jesus’ disciples all faced storms in their lives. What can we learn from their example?

Psalm 7:10-17

Take up the shield of faith

In the midst of the storms David says, ‘My shield is God Most High… I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High’ (vv.10a,17).

If we fall for temptation and start to enjoy and nurture it, David warns, ‘Whoever is pregnant with evil and conceive trouble give birth to disillusionment’ (v.14). In another image, he likens it to digging a hole, scooping it out, and then falling into the pit we have made (v.15).

The apostle Paul says that you are to take up a shield with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one (Ephesians 6:16). The shield is the ‘shield of faith’ or, as David puts it here, his shield is ‘God Most High’ (Psalm 7:10). This is the best protection you could ever have against the attacks of the enemy.

Lord, thank you that I, too, am able to say, ‘My shield is God Most High.’

 

Matthew 8:23-9:13

Trust in Jesus the Saviour

Sometimes the storms in our lives appear without warning. Jesus was in the boat with his disciples sleeping when ‘without warning, furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat’ (8:24).

Presumably the disciples were used to storms on the Sea of Galilee; it was renowned for sudden flash storms, stirring the water into twenty-foot waves. However, this storm must have been a particularly serious one because the disciples woke Jesus up and said, ‘We’re going to drown!’ (v.25).

During the storms of life, it is natural to panic (certainly, I tend to). Sometimes it appears that Jesus is ‘sleeping’ (v.24). He does not appear to be doing anything about our problems. Thankfully, we can all cry out, as they did, ‘Lord, save us!’ (v.25).

The natural response to the storms is doubt and fear. Jesus tells them that the response to storms should be trust (‘You of little faith’, v.26a) and that you should not be afraid(‘Why are you so afraid?’ v.26a). Jesus is quite capable of calming the storm and that is exactly what he did. Trust God and fear not.

Having shown his authority over the elements (‘Even the winds and the waves obey him!’ v.27), he goes on to demonstrate his authority over evil powers by freeing the two demon-possessed men (vv.28–34). Jesus was far more concerned about people than possessions, unlike those who pleaded with him to leave their region (v.34).

Jesus goes on to make the point that forgiveness is more important than healing. But healing is not unimportant. Jesus does both. He shows his power over sickness and disability by healing a paralysed man (9:1–2). ‘The crowd was awestruck, amazed and pleased that God had authorised Jesus to work among them this way’ (v.8, MSG).

In the midst of the storms there are moments of calm. Today’s passage ends with such a moment as Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. Jesus is invited to dinner at Matthew’s house.

The Pharisees are surprised to see Jesus eating with ‘a lot of disreputable characters’ (v.10, MSG) and say, ‘What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cosy with crooks and riffraff?’ (v.11, MSG).

‘Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what the scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”’ (vv.12–13, MSG).

God’s ‘mercy’ is his kindness and forgiveness towards people who do not deserve it. Today, receive and enjoy his mercy yourself and be merciful to others.

Lord, thank you that in all the storms of life I can cry out, ‘Lord, save us.’ Help me to trust you and not to be afraid.

 

Genesis 21:1-23:20

Thank God for his provision

Abraham certainly faced storms in his life. The passage for today is full of struggles, but it starts with a wonderful moment of calm in the midst of these storms. ‘The Lord was gracious to Sarah... and… did for Sarah what he had promised’ (21:1). Like us sometimes, they had had to wait a long time, but eventually God’s promise was fulfilled. During the waiting period, the challenge is to keep on trusting God.

‘Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him’ (v.2). It was a moment of great joy. Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me’ (v.6).

But very soon Abraham faced a storm in his own household. Ishmael mocked Isaac (v.9), and this led to deeper divisions in the family (v.10). Tragically Hagar and Ishmael left (v.14). These divisions were ultimately the consequences of Abraham’s previous sin in making Hagar his mistress, following his lack of faith in believing that Sarah would have a son.  

Sometimes the hardest situations in life to face can be those of our own making. Even so, God is still with Abraham (vv.12–13), and he watches over and blesses Hagar and Ishmael (vv.17–18). We see God’s grace at work in the midst of a sinful situation.

Abraham was about to face the biggest storm of his life: ‘God tested Abraham’ (22:1).

God sometimes allows us to be tested. Personally, I don’t think God ever intended for a moment that Abraham should actually sacrifice his son Isaac. The sacrifice of children was always an abomination to the Lord. But, he wanted to establish Abraham’s priorities.

The New Testament reminds us that this test came after God’s promises to Abraham about Isaac (Hebrews 11:17–19), and was therefore a test of both Abraham’s faith and his priorities.

The test was of his faith, because it challenged him to trust that God could fulfil his promises about Isaac, even if Abraham was willing to sacrifice him. Abraham had to trust that no matter what happened, Isaac would be restored to him (v.19).

Yet it was also a test of Abraham’s priorities. Your relationship with God is meant to be the number one priority of your life – above all other loves, the vision God has given you for your life and even above your closest human relationships. Abraham was willing to obey God whatever the cost. His great strength was that he loved God more than anything or anyone else.

Thankfully, God provided the sacrifice that was necessary (‘God himself will provide the lamb’, Genesis 22:8). This foreshadows the great sacrifice God was to make on our behalf. As you think about how Abraham must have felt at the thought of sacrificing his son, you get a glimpse of what it cost God to give his one and only Son for you and me (John 3:16).

Jesus is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). If God provided the ultimate sacrifice to meet your greatest need, will he not also provide for all your other needs? Here Abraham calls God ‘Jehovah-Jireh’, or ‘The Lord Will Provide’ (Genesis 22:14). He is acknowledging that God providing is part of his character.

God is the great provider. So often, I have found this to be true in my own life and in our community. God is true to his promise. As the apostle Paul put it, ‘My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19).

Our task is to obey God (to ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’, Matthew 6:33a) and he promises that if we do that, he will provide for all our needs (‘All these things will be given to you as well’, v.33b).

God’s provision and blessing is almost unbelievably great (Genesis 22:16–18). It included this: ‘And in your Seed [Christ] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed’ (v.18, AMP).

“Lord, thank you that you are my shield, my Saviour and my provider. Help me to keep trusting in you and to not be afraid. Help me to keep you as the number one priority in my life.”

Every blessing

Peter

Week beginning 3 January 2021

The following is from Dave Hopwood, an author and speaker who is a regular participant and former community member at Lee Abbey.

God of blank pages

On New year's Eve a few years ago, I took up my Bible to glean a few thoughts for the coming year, and it fell open in an unusual place. A couple of pages with no chapters or verses. The pages that separate the Old and New Testaments. It struck me that all Bibles have this gap, and it's very easy to flick the page and move on.

But this papery intermission represents 400 years! 400 years! We read the last few verses of Malachi, the promise of a better day coming, and then... Nothing. Blank pages.

Pages that represent centuries of waiting, hoping, crying out, wondering. People being born, living and dying in that long pause. And it seemed to me appropriate for a New Year’s eve. As we hover on the crest of a New Year. Those of us who follow the invisible God, are invited, like Abraham, to step into the unknown. To live in the tension between what has been and what will be, what was and what might be. And to live in this tension is not easy, we are all creatures of habit, of the familiar, but like Abraham we inhabit the now and the not yet. Receiving and carrying a promise of hope in a restless, unpredictable world. The knowledge of Jesus on our side. With us, through each experience. 

This year has been full of waiting and hoping. And no doubt praying too. So many of us longing for a better day. Perhaps it has resembled a blank page in some ways. We have been reminded of our fragility, of our need. These have been days of worry and questioning. And I'm convinced that God is as present in these times, as He is in others. In these blank-page days. Psalm 46 verse 10 calls us to still ourselves, and calm our racing hearts and minds by tuning into God's presence. Actually, many verses in the psalms invite us to do this. To allow ourselves, even for a few seconds, to do 'nothing' with Him. To worship Him with our precious time and silence, and in doing so to let something of His nature rub off on us. As we stand on the doorstep of a new year, it's no bad thing to pause, and worship silently, and in doing so to let the God who emptied Himself for us, shape us and replenish us for all that lies ahead.

Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty.
I don’t concern myself with matters too great or awesome for me.
But I have stilled and quieted myself,
just as a small child is quiet with its mother.
Yes, like a small child is my soul within me.
 O Israel, put your hope in the Lord – now and always.
Psalm 131
 
'Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act.' 
Psalm 37:7

Every Blessing for 2021,

Robert.

  • Ephesians 4:29

    “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

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