What’s missing?

Do you have those days when you feel you haven’t achieved anything? Sometimes that’s because you’ve given yourself permission to be lazy; sometimes that’s because you haven’t been able to get motivated; sometimes that’s because the day took a different route and you didn’t achieve what you set out to do; sometimes that’s because you feel whatever you touched has turned to ashes.

People who have been working from home during lockdown are saying they’ve been working harder – longer days and not taking appropriate breaks. I know that’s true for me. Why do we find it so hard to have time out or take time off? What is it that drives that sense that we have to get things done for a day to be ‘successful’? Is it because we otherwise feel lazy or selfish? Is the thought of doing nothing in particular a scary one?

Jesus encouraged us to take time out and we know that he went off to think and pray and have time alone. If not today, find time to reflect on:

Do you give yourself time to rest?
What keeps you busy?
Does your brain race from one thing to another?

If we’re so focused on what we have to do and feel we have got to do, we can lose sight of who we are; who we’re alongside; who has come into our lives today; who we’ve not paid attention to because we were ‘too busy’.

Remember the words of the psalmist:

The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want
He makes me lie down in green pastures (Psalm 23)

Still straining at the oars?

You may have heard the story of Jesus stilling the storm many, many times. Most sermons on it offer us the reassurance that Jesus will be with us in the storms of life and can even bring us peace in the storm. As I read the story again yesterday in Mark’s gospel (Mark 4: 35-41), a few other thoughts came to me.

Firstly, it was Jesus who wanted to go across to the other side of the lake. Although fully human while on earth, he clearly possessed insights from his close relationship with God. Did he know there was going to be a storm? If so, why did he want to lead his friends into it?

After his disciples had woken him up and he’d stilled the storm, he asked them, “Have you still no faith?” What faith was Jesus looking for? Faith that the storm would pass? Faith that God would protect them? Faith that they would get to the other side? Was Jesus disappointed that they had been unable to weather the storm and see it through in the knowledge that he was with them, without him having to intervene?

We can perhaps imagine the disciples, a number of whom were fishermen who would have been used to storms, straining at the oars to keep the boat on course (or perhaps they’d even decided to go back; we’re not told). Was Jesus looking for the sort of faith that lets go of the oars, surrenders to the storm and entrusts to God where they might wash up? Are you currently straining at the oars, set on your course as your boat is buffeted by a storm raging around you? Is God calling you to let go and see where you wash up?

Lost or found in translation?

Yesterday I wrote about how different translations of the Bible make a difference to how we read things. Some people always read the same version or have views on the accuracy of some translations. A number of writers have written modern versions of the Psalms. This morning I joined the Methodist Diaconal Order’s morning prayer online. The Warden of the Order read Nan C. Merrill’s version of Psalm 74 from Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness. The particular phrase which hit me as I listened was “I am a prisoner in my own being”. Having been struck by that phrase, I think I need to find time to reflect on why it hit me; am I in some way such a prisoner; what might God be saying to me?

The Message is the Bible in contemporary language. I share below its version of the well-known text relating to nothing separating us from the love of God. Perhaps something new while strike you upon which you might like to ponder.

“So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:

They kill us in cold blood because they hate you.
We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.” (Romans 8: 31-39 from The Message)

The God who confides in us

Sometimes when I’m reading the Bible, something strikes me in a way that it hasn’t before. Sometimes that can be because I’m reading a different translation, and sometimes it can be because they’re the words I need to hear at the time. This morning was one of those occasions when that happened. I would have read Psalm 25 many times in the past, but it was as though I was reading verse 14 for the first time when I read:

The Lord confides in those who fear him;
    he makes his covenant known to them.

The Lord confides in me! Really? We perhaps tend to think of ourselves as confiding in God, but the idea of God confiding in us suddenly took me to a whole new level. Wow! As I said, which translation of the Bible you’re reading has a bearing here. I was reading from the New International Version. When I looked up the same verse in other translations, words like God being our friend and sharing secrets with us came up. It really is all about our relational God, who seeks relationship with us in spite (or maybe because) of all our foibles. Is God trying to confide in you? Are you listening for God whispering to you , a word of comfort, a word of love, a word for you to do something?

You’ll never walk alone

I admit to being a bit stumped as to what to write today. I then recalled a film clip I’d see a few years ago of movie scenes set to the song “All you need is love”. I’d saved the link in my ‘Favourites’ at the time but found that it had expired when I clicked on it to share with you. A Google (other search engines are available!) search failed to turn it up, but I came across something similar by the same Producer, David Paul Kirkpatrick, set to the song ‘You’ll never walk alone’. The link is below if you wanted to watch the video, but I thought I’d use that theme for today’s reflection.

Perhaps the most well-known representation of the idea that we do not walk alone is the poem ‘Footprints in the sand’. I have found that people who perhaps would not profess an active Christian faith or any faith are familiar with the poem and find the words ‘lovely’, even if they do not draw actual comfort from them. ‘Footprints in the sand’ is overtly Christian. ‘You’ll never walk alone’ was written by Oscar Hammerstein for the musical Carousel and, although it has religious overtones, its context is rather about a loved one who has died walking with us. The point I want to make is that the secular can speak into the Christian, just as the Christian can speak into the secular. God is creativity and if something speaks to you of God and God’s action in the world, hang on to whatever it is and ponder upon it. Perhaps God is speaking to you through these words:

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone

Is cynicism ever healthy?

The other day I wrote about the quiet day I took a few weeks ago. Something else which came from the day was recognising in myself a dose of cynicism which isn’t always healthy. That led me to wonder if cynicism is ever healthy? Cynicism itself is a whole philosophy from the time of the ancient Greeks. Today, dictionary definitions include ‘scepticism’, ‘pessimism’, ‘doubt’, ‘mistrust’ and ‘disbelief’, words which often come into play when faith is being questioned. My cynicism is often about the world around me.

As I continued to ponder the issue, the Bible text which came to me was Jesus’ words to his disciples: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16). I think Jesus was advising his disciples to be worldly-wise without buying into the ways of the world. Perhaps a little dose of cynicism is necessary for that; a counter-balance to naivety.

I think where cynicism tips to the unhealthy is where it stymies new ideas and creativity. There’s a difference between asking realistic questions and being completely negative when something new is proposed, which is something I clearly need to bear in mind!

Have you ever spent time noticing what is within you. Ask God to show you. It might be something God is asking you to guard against or it might be a an untapped gift.

Wilderness time

What do you think of when you hear that Jesus went into the wilderness? I think of cacti, sand, blazing heat, thirst, lots of space and no people. Lockdown can be compared to a wilderness. For some that means the discomforts already mentioned; for others that’s meant time to think, pray and listen. Perhaps it’s been a mixture of those things for you, as it was a time of trial and prayer for Jesus during his time in the wilderness.

Being in the wilderness without choice can also speak of deep loneliness, feeling lost
and afraid, not recognising any landmarks to know which way to go. In deserts, we find oases and mirages. Remember God is our oasis and that with God there are no mirages, only truth to set us free.

Hands together

“See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16)

What a precious image it is that our names are engraved on God’s hands; the idea that God cannot forget what is engraved on his hands so we are ever before him. And the promise belongs to us all. We might sometimes think that God has left us or forgotten us. In such times, let us remember that we are remembered by God. Think too about our names being engraved on Jesus’ hands when cruel nails were driven through his palms for us, symbolising that that one time act of salvation was for all time and for us today.

“... others will write on their hand, ‘The Lord’s’” (Isaiah 44:5)

Just as our names are on God’s palms so his name should be on ours. Our names on God’s hands; God’s name on ours. Another lovely image.

You might like to draw around your hands. On the one hand write “The Lord’s”, and on the other write your name as a reminder that you are the Lord’s and that all our names are engraved on his palms.

Tolerating tolerantly

Jesus talks of us being salt and light in the world. That said, as John Wesley pointed out in his sermon on salt and light, some people, normally those with something to lose if an injustice is corrected, will take pains to prove that the light is darkness. How often have you heard the term “do-gooder” used in a derogatory way? But what would be the opposite of that – a “do-badder”; a “do-nothinger”?

We need more tolerance in society. Sadly, being tolerant about something seems to be interpreted these days as putting up with something in a grudging way.  Yet the Cambridge Dictionary definition of tolerance is a willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them. There’s a respect aspect of toleration which means we overcome the paradox of intolerant toleration and instead tolerate tolerantly.

Prejudice is still allowed a place in our contemporary society because too often we fail to shine a light on injustices. When our prayers in the face of injustice appear to go unanswered, is it because God is saying we’re complicit by being ‘do-nothingers’, we’re not being the lights of the world God, through Jesus, calls us to be?

Asking the right questions

The other week I had a quiet day at home. Aren’t all your days quiet days at home during lockdown you might be asking? In terms of being at home and not particularly speaking to anyone, yes they are, but I’m talking about taking specific time out to spend with God. There are various books and materials which can be used for quiet days and I chose to use some materials which I’d recently picked up but hadn’t had the opportunity to engage with properly. I don’t want to focus so much on the materials, however, as on what I got from the day.

I began by offering the day to God and, perhaps unsurprisingly, in doing that the day didn’t go down the route I’d intended. As we start to come out of lockdown, lots of questions are being asked about what church will look like, what have we learnt, what might we jettison and what might we do new. My intention was to seek God’s will for my ministry: should I do this or should I do that? As I engaged with the materials I had (a painting and a Bible passage accompanied by a series of questions), I was challenged to look at myself.

By the end of the day, I felt that God had turned things around. It wasn’t about whether I should do X or Y, but rather about two other things: God wanted me to look at the gifts and experiences I have to offer and to take notice of what God is already doing and join in. Those things, of course, bring a different perspective to what I was seeking.

If you’ve been persistently putting something to God and feel that God isn’t answering, take time out to consider whether you’re asking the right questions, whether God isn’t asking you a different question or answering your prayer in a way you haven’t noticed.

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