There are many famous gates in the world built to celebrate military victories or to proclaim national prestige. Obvious ones include the Brandenburg Gate, the Golden Gate (known as the Gate of Mercy in Jerusalem) and Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe at 49.5 metres high. Not to be outdone by France, North Korea’s Pyongyang's Arch of Triumph finished in 1982 is three metres taller! However, at 54 metres high, the Buland Darwaza built in 1576 AD by Mughal Emperor Akbar is the highest gateway in the world. The pictured gate makes no pretences or grand claims but is simply evocative of ‘secret gardens’ and of things that are beyond. Every gate is there for a reason but not every gate is noticed nor is the reason for it being there always understood.
How many times have you heard it said that we are all ‘on a journey’? This is applied indiscriminately to individuals going through a time of change, organisations seeking to reinvent themselves, political parties going through necessary redefinition, countries facing upheaval and even churches dealing with difficult issues. To say we are all ‘journeying’ is true but what does it actually mean – travellers we? Some individuals and communities choose travelling as a lifestyle – travel writers make a living out of it, travel documentaries entertain, ‘travellers’ move on together in community, ‘tramps’ keep moving away from something that haunts. Would you say that your life is life a journey? If so, where have you come from and where are you going? ‘These boots are made for walking’ goes the old song by Nancy Sinatra – how many miles, how many tears, how many smiles?
It is a curious thing that plants can heal but they can also kill! Basil can cure itches, Sage is good to gargle for sort throats and Mint can be helpful for upset tummies. No wonder then that you will find these in many gardens. Other plants such as Mistletoe, Poinsettia and Aconitum (known as Monksfoot or Wolf’s Bane) can be fatal. They can look so pretty but are less welcome guests in gardens. A weed is defined as a plant in the wrong place – does your garden have any?! Why is it that plants which grow so easily are often unwanted – Bind Weed, Knotweed and Ground Elder? It just takes a tiny root from these plants to spread into a thick mattress that strangles – a bit like bitterness! It’s a root that is very hard to get out and is also very destructive.
Molluscs live alone in their shells, not through shyness but these invertebrates need protection. Hermit crabs like their own company unless they come out to fight a competitor for a bigger shell! They are no more likely to share their new home than an introvert would choose to throw a party! Personality types come in all shapes and sizes but the message in this bottle is that no one type is right or wrong – even shell bound creatures need to live in community. For human beings, solitary confinement is a punishment – we too are made for community, thriving in relationships rather than being shut away in isolation.
History tells the stories of when human civilisation has come under great threat through war, disaster or disease. Around 1350, an infectious fever killed up to 200 million people. Rats carrying infected fleas from China and India brought The Black Death resulting in populations being reduced by up to 50% around the world. It is still around in some parts of the world but using the broad-based antibiotic streptomycin has proven to be dramatically successful against the bubonic plague within 12 hours of infection. What is the time on the clock for humanity and who might step forward ‘for such a time as this?’
You could go down a street, house to house and person to person looking for the answer. The question is what is the question?! If you get to the end of the street, whichever country, whatever the style of housing, you might come to a House of God where you should find the answer. You can only give an answer to the biggest questions if you have first had the answer yourself. If you have, then that answer will be known by you, seen by others who know you and can be known by others who badly need to find the question so they can find the answer by finding you!
Germs, disease, viruses and bacteria breed fear that threatens human community life. Whenever there is some new outbreak, society can go into meltdown. Often the media seem skewed towards the delivery of bad news as it creates more reaction, sells more newspapers and improves viewing figures. When pestilence of any kind stalks the streets, you can be sure that a journalist is not far away. All of this feeds the fear of the crowd, leading to mass insecurity, selfish bulk buying and a breakdown of community interaction.
- ‘There is a type of snobbish, pompous journalist who thinks that the only news that has any validity is war, famine, pestilence or politics. I don't come from that school’ – Piers Morgan
- ‘Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not’ – Bill Gates
It happens to us all. One day is bright and joyful, the next has a blue filter over everything. You can feel submerged in those blue feelings, uncertain why and how to get back to the surface. Apparently January is the saddest month of the year and the third Monday of January is said to be the most depressing day of the year! Depression is an extreme version of ‘The Blues’ and hits many people with something like one in four of us experiencing it at some point in our lives. Jim Carrey, Anne Hathaway, Johny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Harrison Ford, Amy Winehouse, Hugh Lawrie, Karen Carpenter, Winston Churchill, Gwyneth Paltrow, Freddie Flintoff and Prince William are just a few of the famous who have acknowledged poor mental health at times. It affects all types and Christians are not immune! It’s not something to be ashamed of and is not a mark of failure. One song-writer shows it’s nothing new:
Imagine yourself walking through a dark dense wood – you cannot see a path, the way ahead is blocked by branches, the light is poor and you start wondering if you’re going ‘to make it’. This experience of feeling boxed in is claustrophobic, debilitating and can be frightening. People find themselves trapped to the left and the right by many things – guilt, sorrow, shame, besetting sin, lack of self-worth, pain and circumstances. This is neither how the child of God should live now nor will it be in the future for our inheritance is freedom from the land of shadows. To discover the way into the spacious places with God is true breakthrough.
- ‘The truth is I love being alive. And I love feeling free. So if I can't have those things then I feel like a caged animal and I'd rather not be in a cage. I'd rather be dead. And it's real simple. And I think it's not that uncommon’ – Angelina Jolie
- ‘How does the Meadow flower its bloom unfold? Because the lovely little flower is free down to its root, and in that freedom bold’ – William Wordsworth
In sport and media entertainment, people love series, episodes and sequels. The greatest story of all needs no external actors, lighting, special effects or extras because every human being has a part to play in it. Each one of us is in this story and now we are in Part lll, awaiting Part lV which is the grand finale! Part l’s title could be ‘In the Beginning’, Part ll ‘The Coming of The King’ and Part lll ‘Between The Ages’. That would then make Part lV’s title, ‘THE RETURN’! Not everyone knows the plot, their role, the importance of timings and that this is real life in the making, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute and second by second.
Can you think of a promise you made that you’ve broken? It’s a painful thought. A more painful thought would be if you could think of a promise God has broken – thankfully God’s very nature makes it impossible for him to do this. When God makes a covenant promise, it stands good for all time. We may break a promise from our side but he never does. Once in the grip of God’s amazing grace, he never lets go. Shepherd boy turned King, David celebrates this reality throughout the Psalms that told the story of his spiritual ups and downs. In Psalm 19, his soul sings out ‘my Rock and my Redeemer’ and this is the theme tune of his life. Let it be yours rather than disappointment with the deceitful shallow promises all around us in the world and you shall be as solid as a lighthouse to shine out for others.
Moral dilemmas and ethics have always been around and always will be whilst the earth spins – in a certain situation, what is the right thing to do, think or say? Journalists, the media, writers of books and films know that these make good stories which sell by holding a mirror up to entertain and enthral us. On the way through life, no doubt you’ve had some dilemmas to consider and you know there will be more to come. How can we know what is wise? The young should be able to look to their elders for maturity and wisdom as to the right way to take when facing a moral crossroads. We are often confronted with professionals and experts but not often with wisdom. What sometimes passes as worldy wisdom often falls short of God’s wisdom as revealed in the Bible. Where are you drawing your wisdom from for your dilemmas? Some and some – here are some carefully selected for you to sift through:
Do you have music in your heart? Take a moment to consider what is playing – heavy drums and pounding bass of the world that drown out your inner soul-space or another music? We all listen to something, even if we are hard of hearing there will be some inner music. Apparently there is music in space: just listen to the sound recorded on this YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQL53eQ0cNA. Who is writing the tune, making the instruments and conducting the universal sounds?! Each one of us is an instrument in this cosmic pattern and makes a sound that is either in harmony or discordant, never mind the body sounds that ‘electronic tattoos’ are now able to pick up – each of us has a unique sound signature!
Do you think of yourself as childish or childlike? What do you think the difference is? Do you think of yourself as mature or immature? How would you define those terms?! Being a child at heart is different to being childish and immature. Can you still enjoy the ‘merry-go-round’, if that is what life is to you, or do you now look out to sea past the waves with a heavy and solemn disposition? Are your eyes still capable of childlike wonder or have the increasing years knocked the stuffing out of you?
Go back to the 15th Century and you will find that this was when Masquerade Balls began, people wearing masks at public events. It gave people the opportunity to pretend to be someone else, to behave and speak differently, even opening up the way for crime and lewdness. Many films feature heroes and villains in masks such as The Mask of Zorro, Darth Vader, Phantom of the Opera and Batman. Whilst it may seem ‘fun’, it is essentially deceitful. Double lives have been lived by spies, bigamists and those using social media to groom the vulnerable. To what extent would you agree that we all have lived behind masks at one time or another?
Have you ever planted a tree? It is a good thing to do as they breathe for us – the Rain Forest of Brazil is described as the ‘lungs of the world’. Capability Brown planted many but hasn’t lived to see the stunning results. You see, it all takes time. Trees seem to have plenty of this – the oldest Yew tree is about 3000 years old and lives in Fortingall, Perthshire. ‘Methusaleh’ is the name given to a Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains of California, reputedly aged 4,851 in 2019. It is not surprising then that trees are often associated with ‘patience’. What a contrast to a man with a chainsaw!
Isaiah spoke of a righteousness that was high above the heavens and prophesied that it would be poured down upon the earth: ‘You heavens above, rain down my righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness flourish with it; I, the Lord, have created it’ – Isaiah 45:8. Although he told of a virgin being with child and of a suffering servant-leader, just how we could be declared righteous was unclear. Over 700 years later, revelation comes with the person of Christ Jesus as to how we can be righteous, now.
Do you see personal righteousness as a lofty ideal beyond the bright blue skies or as a ‘now reality’?
Like all the good gifts from God our Father, forgiveness is something we need and something we must share. You could apply that to most things – our time, our money, our love … our smile!
At their request, Jesus gave his disciples a model prayer, which included asking ‘our Father in Heaven’ to ‘forgive us our sins . . .’ followed immediately by ‘. . . as we forgive those who sin against us.’ (Matthew 6:12). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, echoed Jesus’ words from the cross as he was stoned to death for his faith: ‘Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing!’ (Acts 7:60). The parable of the unforgiving servant ends with the sobering words ‘if you do not forgive neither will you be forgiven’ (Matthew 18:35).
If ‘character’ is who you are and what you do when no one is looking, then D L Moody is right: ‘Character is what you are in the dark’. What is ‘character’? What is good or bad? What is your character? Who is interested anyway?
Supposing you were asked to give a full character reference for someone, what would you include? What if you had to give a genuine character reference for yourself? Here’s a dictionary definition of ‘character’: ‘the total quality of a person’s behaviour, as revealed in his or her habits of thought and expression, actions and personal philosophy of life’.
Ever wondered what it’d be like to be living alone on a small inaccessible island? Lighthouse keepers are not the only ones who do – there are many who either choose to be alone or who find themselves alone through life circumstances. Unwanted singleness, bereavement, friendship breakdown, loss of sight, hearing or capacity and loneliness can descend like a dark dense brooding cloud. Joan Collins said that ‘loneliness is the universal problem of rich people’ yet surely it is the poor who are often short of friends.
What do you see as you look around you – blessings or curses? Is that glass half empty or half full? Do you recall the old song with the line, ‘Count your blessings name them one by one and it will surprise you what the Lord has done’? Blessings look like family, peace, flowers, bees, butterflies, people, food, freedom, life, breath, health and of course those wonderful fresh tomatoes – we all have many of these and some have all of them. We start with nothing and then God just keeps pressing blessings into lives.
Grieving the loss of a loved one is part of what it is to be human – it belongs to the ‘former things’ but it has no place in the ‘future realm’. We must not deny grief, ours or others, but we must feel it for the mystery of emotion is like the mystery of healing. If we have never grieved, we have never loved; if we have never loved, we have never truly lived. The outpouring of grief touches the very heart of God and often brings a new vulnerability to intimacy with him. Remember that darkness is as light to God for he sees everything and the darkest night is followed by the new dawn. God moves in mysterious ways.
Sometimes you hit a wall and it seems impossible to go on. For those going through assault course training, it’s encouragement from the team that get most over the wall. As marathon runners hit the wall after 20 miles, its encouragement from the crowd that can make the difference. If you’re facing some kind of wall, you need encouragement – getting over or through that wall is possible and it will make you stronger. Others have trod where you are treading.
‘God help us, we can't keep up this pulling, that is certain. Amongst ourselves we are unendingly cheerful, but what each man feels in his heart I can only guess’ – Captain Robert Falcon Scott
This is not a beauty product advert - it is somewhat less superficial! Most of us want to be pure and know that we are meant to be pure, but what does it mean to be pure? The simplest dictionary definition gives this: ‘not mixed or adulterated with any other substance or material’, stating that it can be applied to matter, colour, sound and morality. For the child of God, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.
‘God is looking for clean hands and a pure heart’ – Monica Johnson
Some people see life as a pack of cards that they are dealt by ‘The Dealer’ whilst others are less fatalistic recognising everyone faces light and shade. Whichever is closer to your position, how do you deal with pain in your life? Whether expected or not, it comes along – we all know that pain can be emotional, physical, spiritual, light, extreme, temporary or worst of all it can be permanent.
Victoria Arlen was eleven when she lost the ability to speak, eat, walk, and move. With little hope of survival, she went on to battle through and become a winning Paralympian. Here’s her take on pain: ‘The climb might be tough and challenging, but the view is worth it. There is a purpose for that pain; you just can't always see it right away’.
From the beginning, Christians have been persecuted for having faith in Jesus Christ. Today, Open Doors estimated that over 215 million are facing high levels of persecution. Jesus himself tells us, ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also’ – John 15:20. So the oppression against Christians is no surprise to Jesus but every slight, injustice and cruelty against you matters to him: ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven’ – Matthew 5:11-12.
Sadly, persecution is everywhere and is here to stay until the Lord Jesus returns – it may be subtle or flagrant but it is very real.
‘Christians are being persecuted, not just in the Middle East but here in this country’ – Wendy Long (American Attorney).
Can you be anything or anyone you want to be? Do you know what and who that is? What is it that defines you – gender, ethnicity, nationality, family, abilities, wealth, achievements, history, sexuality, politics, religion? How do you want people to think of you?
‘When you have a lot of people telling you what you are and perceiving you in a certain way, it's difficult to find your own identity’ - Sia (Kate Isobelle Furler)
Things are not always as they seem. Sometimes there is a hidden meaning and you must persevere to tease it out. Riddles can be absorbing, time consuming and frustrating until you solve them – then they bring pleasure as you perceive the answer, taking care not to gloat when others do not see it yet! Newspapers and puzzle books earn income through their crosswords, sudoku, word wheels and many other intriguing puzzle formats. Here is a short one for you – what Bible character does this picture suggest and why? Try not to glance down for the answer yet! Here is another one – have you solved the riddle of life yet? If so, what is the answer and do you like to tell others?
Do you remember any of these simple riddles from school? They are a bit of fun for you to have with youngsters:
Now humour is a funny thing! What is humorous to one person leaves another stone cold wondering what other people are laughing at. It is both very subjective and cultural but to be truly human is to have some humour. Perhaps it is the sixth sense unique to humans who can be amused in a way that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Whilst hyenas, monkeys and rats can sometimes be described as laughing there is no genuine evidence that it is due to humour – at best it seems to be merely physical behaviour. You may hear some people making the sound of laughter but that too can be mere physical behaviour! Take two apples, one carrot, a banana and a floppy hat – some will smile, others will give a blank stare or just see a fruit salad ... best to keep that under your hat! But find the switch for any person and you might get anything from a chuckle to a gut-wrenching uncontrollable belly laugh.
Some people still tie a knot in a handkerchief and most of us still write a list of some kind to help our memories. It might be an old photograph, the whiff of a familiar smell, the lines of a poem or the sound of an old tune and our memories can be triggered. They might just conjure up a face from the past, an event that happened, a past friendship or they could unlock a dam so that you are flooded with powerful emotions. Why do we remember and what value is there in remembering? How could a glass of wine and a bread roll have such profound significance for remembering? The simple Forget-me-not flowers provide the clue!
The Lord doesn’t say ‘if you pray’, for we all do, don’t we, at some point, in some circumstance, even if it’s not a daily ‘thing’? Did you do so today, in some long past crisis, perhaps just yesterday or maybe you will some day? The content of the prayer is less important than the fact that you want, or have had, a conversation with God. Susanna Wesley had 19 children, nine of them dying as infants – her life was hard and she had little time to herself. Famously, she would withdraw for prayer every day by sitting in her favourite chair and pulling up the kitchen apron over her head so the large family knew she wasn’t to be disturbed! Do you have a time and place for prayer or is it any time any place? Jesus liked to go to the Mount of Olives, the privacy and quietness of olive groves and gardens.
Thankfully there doesn’t seem to be a wrong time or place for sincere prayers to God our Father for he always wants to hear from his children. Prayer can be silent or spoken, alone or with others, and although no prior appointment is required, there is a need for a genuine heart.
What does the word ‘comfort’ mean to you? To some, it means a lovely handsome slice or two of cake! For others, it’s going to be booking a holiday, getting the pay bonus, soaking in a long hot bath or perhaps resorting to the bottle. One list of the top ten comforts taken abroad includes tea bags, slippers, tomato sauce, your own pillow, a dressing gown and a photo of a pet! Maya Angelou had a very hard life but said this: ‘The best comfort food will always be greens, cornbread, and fried chicken’. No doubt we all have our own lists but these are all comforts for the body which have a temporary value. How about the comfort we need for the soul?
Today we speak of the ‘legacy footprint’ that every person leaves. You could see this as a thing of ecology or of theology. If you plant an acorn, you can reasonably expect an oak sapling! If you plant an apple seed, it would be ridiculous to be waiting for lemons! The DNA of each seed predetermines the fruit that will come in time, given the right conditions. We are all fruit-bearers during our lives and God our Father is described as ‘the gardener’ watching for the fruit of our lives:
No matter whether you identify with saintly John or reckless Peter, all is well for both of these were characters in need of transformation! Both were with the Lord when he was himself ‘transfigured’ in front of their eyes up that special mountain. You may have a special place where you find it easier to feel close to God, perhaps even like the one pictured, but he doesn’t need to take you there to transform you! God has been working on you, your character and your spiritual maturity ever since you first worked out that he loves you. You are a work in progress and God sees already the finished product so he’s not about to give up on you – he knows all the experiences, circumstances, people, times of plenty and want that you need in the stages of your refining. Be encouraged and recognise God’s continuing work in making you into what you will yet become.
The Madonna lovingly holds her son and you can only imagine the thoughts she pondered and treasured in her heart. What do you hold most precious in your life, truly? Those who know you best will probably have a good idea from seeing how you spend your time and money. Sometimes, you appreciate the value of something fully only when it is taken away from you – freedom would be a good example of this. Mary was holding far more than her son – she was cradling the very Gospel of your future hope and it is this that is precious beyond words. Not everyone sees it this way for other things are more precious to them:
Have you ever noticed how a healthy child learns? They don’t stop to think ‘I must learn’, they just do it through in-built curiosity. And so the child progresses from ignorance to knowledge, which can lead on to wisdom or to folly depending on the lesson learnt! The mature person is never too old to learn but the immature person thinks they already know it all. Moses acquired a lot of knowledge in his Egyptian classrooms from his tutors but God had some bigger lessons to teach him, so he took him into the wilderness. Tired of tending sheep, Moses became curious when he noticed a bush that blazed but did not burn up – that was the beginning of his personal tutorial with God. Any bushes burning around you? Ready to learn something new with God?!
Morality has been laughed at, spat upon and been the subject of countless TV shows, but why does it even exist in the first place? It can be defined as good behaviour, conduct or simply as ‘the right thing to do’. People like to have a view on this but the question is whether it is a Relative thing which changes over time or whether it has an Absolute character. If it was wrong to steal in the past, we think it is still wrong in the present and that it will be in the future. Morality applies to big issues like international justice and ‘small’ ones such as telling the truth. We look for morality in politicians to be worthy of our vote, heroes to be worthy of acclaim and others to be worthy of our trust and yet ... we find it hard to honestly review our own morality knowing we often fall short! Left or right then in the moral maze? First then, the wider perspective:
Have you had a vision of God? Do you want one? The old saying is, ‘you don’t get because you don’t ask!’. Actually it was Jesus himself who said this: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you’ (Matthew 7:7). Have there been special moments when you’ve sensed God right next to you, in what you’ve seen, thought or heard? Everyone who is called has heard a call, distant or close. Some hear it in the early part of life as a child, some hear it in the crises of mid-life and others hear it in the very last parts of life. It doesn’t matter when so long as you recognise and respond to the one calling. So here are some visions others who’ve gone before have had and some thoughts to mull over!
‘And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days’ – Joel 2:28.29
Have you ever been tempted to define yourself by your failure rather than by the grace of God? When that thought comes, you need to deal with it quickly or it threatens to ruin not just your day but your life! The Bible is a frank record of those who failed but began again through the grace of God – take Peter, Thomas and Paul for example. Whether your failure is caused by wrong actions, wrong belief or wrong deeds, God’s grace is enough as it was for each one of these examples. Quotes from famous people tend to major on what we can learn from failure with the incentive that if we’ve never failed then we’ve never tried. Whilst there’s truth in this, some failure for a Christian can cripple them and rot the soul – at that point, only God’s Word can rehabilitate and heal the soul:
The Channel Island of Jersey has a public area known as Liberation Square where freedom from military occupation is celebrated annually on the 9th of May. There are still many signs on the island of that painful occupation during World War Two – discarded bunkers, gun towers and casemates ravage the otherwise beautiful coastland as reminders of Hitler’s mighty ‘Atlantic Wall’. A day after VE Day, German forces surrendered unconditionally and Jersey found precious freedom again. It is not just in war that people lose freedom and live under the tyranny of occupation – many are living like this today but this is not the destiny for a child of God. Are you on the freedom path?
Life is made up of a rich tapestry – dark and light threads, bright and dull colours, rough and smooth textures. You may have heard it said, turn the cloth one way and it is messy, a bit ugly with tied knots and makes little sense; but then, turn it over, and it is a fine woven lovingly embroidered tapestry telling a beautiful life story. Do you see your life as a work of art full of worship and wonder or as a mess? The Embroiderer calls us to a relationship where the wonder brings out the worship. Or as Thomas Carlisle puts it: ‘Wonder is the basis of worship’.
Sometimes it seems that your faith is hanging on by a thread as life falls apart – a spouse deserts you, an illness is diagnosed, a loved one dies. It can be as sudden as one of those tragedies that hits you out of the blue or it can be a sustained ‘East Wind’ prevailing against you – lack of support from church, loneliness in your faith, depression.
Despite strong roots, a tree can be bent sideways by prevailing winds – and yet, they can still hold on. A limpet will cling on, but one sudden tap from a seagull when it’s not prepared and it’s history. If you’re reading this, you may identify more with the tree than the limpet. God seems to allow ‘prevailing winds’ into our lives of many sundry kinds but they do shape us. Take Jacob – using sleight of hand to deceive he was always on the move, suffering family traumas and personal insecurity, he learnt to sleep using a rock as a pillow!
Do you have a ‘tree of peace’? It might be a ‘metaphorical tree of peace’ or a real one as in the picture where you can shelter in the ‘heat of the day’. To have both ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ peace is something most precious but they are in short supply these days. The pace of life exhausts us while the noise of life means silence can be hard to find. John Lennon asked us to ‘imagine all the people living life in peace’ and yet his son told another story:
- ‘Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world, but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces - no communication, adultery, divorce? You can't do it, not if you're being true and honest with yourself’ – Julian Lennon
Should these two words be so closely associated with each other let alone with donkeys? Which one of these pair looks well-named ‘Gentle’ and which one ‘Humble’?! Surely ‘Jeremiah’ and ‘Hezekiah’ would be more fitting names! Does society nowadays recognise and respect humility as an attribute – what is humility anyway? The same question could be asked of ‘gentleness’. Can you be gentle without being humble and vice versa? Why are these two things important in a Christian and is it possible to be both? So many questions need an answer to make sense of it all and these come in the person of Christ:
‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ – Matthew 21:5
Love is a ‘many splendored thing’! So it was described in the book, film and song of 1955 but what did they mean? People have been trying to work out what love means from the very beginning! Boy meets girl and ‘lust’ pretends to be ‘love’. Whereas lust surfs on the crest of the wave until it crashes spent on to the beach, love moves steadily in the depths with the strength of a whale. The world promotes shallow definitions and poor imitations of love:
This little guy represents all of us – he knows he’s been found out, it’s weighing heavy on him and he’s pleading for mercy! Which way will those scales weigh – mercy or justice? How do they weigh for you?
‘“My friend” resumed the Bishop, “before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them.”… Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb. He took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with a bewildered air. “Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace.
Sometimes life can seem like a game of mental health snakes and ladders – people going up, people going down, people passing by, people going somewhere, people going nowhere. You can be sure that this is everyone you meet, past, present and future in this stressful world.
- ‘Mental health is a continuum, and people may fall anywhere on the spectrum. You certainly can't prevent all mental health problems - factors like genetics and traumatic life events certainly play a role. But everyone can take steps to improve their mental health and prevent further mental illness’ – Amy Morin
‘A garden requires patient labour and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfil good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them’ – Liberty Hyde Bailey
Did it ever occur to you that the Bible begins and ends with a garden? Adam and Eve were able to walk with The Gardener, God himself. For a time, the best intentions thrived throughout creation in the garden but things fell apart when the best intentions were not followed through. Fast forward from Genesis to Revelation and you come to a beautiful garden where trees are constantly bearing fruit and even the leaves of the trees bring healing.
Ever seen someone who is frustrated? Ever been the one who is frustrated?! A dangerous maelstrom of swirling emotions start spinning when you are unable to do something you once did or achieve something you’ve set your heart on – impatience, exasperation, annoyance, irritation, resentment, bitterness and anger are not far away.
‘I grew up with lots of anger, frustration, and violence in my heart’ – Rose Namajunas
‘It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness and a mood of helplessness prevail’ – Lech Walesa
‘Everything we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see’ – Martin Luther King Jr
Just as for Jerusalem, everyone wants a piece of the cross, laying a claim to it. So far as the cross goes, here are some of the claims to consider:
- The Jewish Authorities – without them (the High Priest, the Teachers of the Law, the Pharisees), who would have taken such offence to a person loved by the people as he healed them and taught them? Yet they needed to get someone else to kill him as a ‘cursed convict’ on a cross, so the Roman Empire was convenient.
Is the hope you have a shifting verb or a steadfast noun? You can hope for many things that may never happen but the Christian hope is an anchor- like noun.
‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf’ - Hebrews 6:19-20
To have such a hope without substance would be to pass a verdict without evidence but we are not called to groundless faith, so what is the hope we can have and what is the substance?
What do John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs and Eleanor Roosevelt have in common? They were all orphans and yet they went on to achieve many things. Living with the knowledge of being an orphan has deep effects on a person’s psyche – to have feelings of rejection, insecurity, abandonment and poor self worth would be typical.
‘I’m trying to find myself. Sometimes that’s not easy’ – Marilyn Monroe
Ever been in a storm, seen clouds gathering and dreading the perfect storm conditions? People the world over have probably suffered these worse than you will ever have to and yet storm surges can happen in our own lives. Suddenly, out of the blue, something happens and a storm is upon you to threaten your very life and existence – a squall. Perhaps this is your current situation or you know someone who is in the middle of one.
‘If you want to see the sunshine, you have to weather the storm’ - Frank Lane
‘If patience is worth anything, it must endure to the end of time. And a living faith will last in the midst of the blackest storm’ - Mahatma Gandhi
Who do you think said this - ‘When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves’? They were some inspired words from Buddha.
What does JOY mean to you? Is it to do with purity and the beauty of a summer’s day with no cloud in the sky?
‘Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift’’– words of another wise man … Albert Einstein. How are you doing with ‘nature’s most beautiful gift’?! Does joy mean something more to you? No clouds in the sky sounds a good start - if matched by a clear mind, purity and no shadows then the day is full of promise.
It is surprising to read that some are intolerant towards those who are ‘agnostic’ – why should it offend to be undecided? Yet here’s three commentators with that view:
‘I may have had a prejudice against agnosticism as a body of thought: sort of a fence-sitting theory, where you can't make up your mind one way or another’ – S. T. Joshi
There are subtle nuances in meanings between some words – take kindness, mercy and compassion for example. If someone sends you some flowers, it could mean they love you, they are sending condolences or they are appreciating you. This thoughtful act may have traces of mercy and compassion but it is primarily a friendly, generous and considerate action of kindness. Think back to when you last received some flowers or indeed sent some – what was the impact other than the giving or receiving of happiness? It is said that ‘what goes round comes round’ – if this is true, then there is a ‘kindness circle’ in life which is loved and respected the world over. Was Nellie Bly right when she said: ‘It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world’? Surely ‘the milk of human kindness is more prevalent?
There are many types of ‘lockdown’ but in all of them there is no escaping the time of waiting. Even before you are born, your mum and other people were waiting for you! The young can’t wait to grow up and gain their independence. The old find they have to wait for everyone else to do things for them as they progressively lose their independence and sense of value. We usually wait for something that matters to us and in doing so give that ‘something’ meaning. It might be waiting for the bus, the answer to a proposal, the job offer, the operation ... or even the exam to start, to stop or to get the result! There’s lots of waiting in every part of life and we can do it with expectation or dread, with patience or impatience and with trust or in fear. How do you wait? What are you waiting for in this phase of your life? Some are waiting for rescue and others to die. We always seem to be waiting – even gardeners wait!
Some people are good with seeds, sowing and gardening – you might hear them described as ‘green fingered’! For others, it is a rare joy when seeds sown begin to resemble any like they look on the packet. There are so many obstacles to success – too hot, too dry, too cold, too wet, too little time, too much time, birds, cats, too many things to mention! Even if we bother to clear the ground, have a seed bed and protective netting, it’s a long time from sowing to reaping with no foregone conclusions. If we couldn’t just pop to the market or a shop, there would be a lot more interest and a lot less procrastination when it comes to the sowing of seeds, leeks or otherwise!
When David was racked with guilt, he longed to be cleansed so that he could be ‘white as snow’. Despite the murder of Uriah and adultery with Bathsheba, there was a route for David out of the dark shadows to renewed joy and purity. That route’s signpost is the same for everyone for ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – confession. From the mightiest royalty to the poorest pauper, there are any number of ways we can lose our joy and intimacy with God but there’s only one way it can truly be restored: ‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." And you forgave the guilt of my sin’ – Psalm 32:5
A clean slate, a fresh beginning and a new flowering – these are the yearnings of the soul. It’s not so much to do with the ‘severity’ of the sin as with the state of the heart and how we handle the little word ‘IF’.
To be trapped physically in a snow drift is very scary and you might wonder about your survival. Erik Weisz made his career out of sensational escape acts in the early 1900s. He was better known as Harry Houdini – despite appearing trapped in chains, he always managed to escape. Many today are genuinely trapped in all manner of circumstances – poverty, illness, success, failure, poor self-image, relationships, lack of relationships, anxieties, fears and phobias of all kinds. It’s ironic to think that everyone begins their existence ‘trapped’ inside the body of their mother and finds freedom through birth. Sadly, it doesn’t take any of us long before we become trapped through many snares, disbelief and cynicism turning a double lock. Happily many find freedom through a second birth!
Bees work away in their hives building their wax to store honey on ‘man-made super frames’ which are regular pre-shaped slats. They are diligent workers conforming to a pattern – here is a picture of Christians living ‘under the Law’ which you read of in Romans 7. However, taking away these imposed structures gives them freedom to create their own shapes for honey combs which led to this beautiful work of art by a bee colony. This could represent a Romans 8-style ‘Life in the Spirit’ – wonderful, strong, purposeful and shaped by the Spirit to the glory of God. If your Christian life was represented by a honey comb, would it be a free-form thing of beauty or conformed to a rigid pattern?! Have you understood the difference?
There are two things that no one reading this can avoid – birth and death! It has been said that Christians die well! Why and how? It is reported that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world - the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity says that 900,000 Christians have been 'martyred' in the last decade, equating to 90,000 a year and one every six minutes. Three hundred thousand Christians in North Korea live in fear for their lives with incentives being offered for information leading to their arrest. Many other countries have strong opposition and persecution for Christians. When the church was young, the Roman Empire persecuted Christians for fun. Stephen was the first martyr and died well because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, walked closely with God and at the end he caught glimpses of heaven, crying out as they stoned him, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ (Acts 7:59). Although we can see no stairway to heaven, there are steps leading there. Christ Jesus came from heaven so we could eventually join him there and he promises to be with each one who follows him.
Have you noticed the four major contrasts in the story which we belong to and which belongs to us as Christians? There is God who is also Man and Father who is also Son. Confused? But then we have the Lion who is also a Lamb and the King who is also the Servant. How about the contrasting sub themes – dead and alive, mercy and justice, flesh and spirit, now and the future, light and dark, free will and predestination, heaven and hell? Have you got it all worked out? Do you grasp a bit more of it than you once did? Can you see the big picture or is it a little blurred? Where do you fit in? So many questions so time for some answers!
The central character is God who calls us to join him in this story and make it ours. So we see boat-builders, prophets, shepherds, angels, warriors, fishermen, and ordinary men, women and children woven into the Big Story – people like you.
What is your experience of the Christian life? Some say Christianity is a crutch for the weak but to follow Christ is to choose the narrow uphill path, tough-going at times and beset with battles as those who travel this path well know. Many get bruised and battered, some fall by the wayside or just give up and pursue what seems to be an easier way. Science Fiction depicts super heroes that have awesome armour and carry amazing weapons – take Darth Vader’s Helmet with Breastplate, a Jedi’s Lightsabre or Captain America’s Shield. Of far greater worth than these fictional items is the heavenly armour that the Apostle Paul describes to support Christians on each one’s epic tough journey. Can you describe it, visualise it and do you wear it?
Just how much evidence is required for certainty or to reach a conclusion that is beyond doubt? The modern age stands or falls on the application of scientific methods - hypothesis, theory and law. When new evidence comes to light, new hypotheses will lead to a questioning of previous assumptions and theories which can even undermine reasoning formerly taken to be factual, sound, solid laws! This is the way bodies of knowledge develop and are passed on to subsequent generations as ‘received fact’. It means however that many theories are overturned and some taken as fact now will be overturned in the future! Let’s consider science and faith to see where the evidence points.
How would you finish that statement if you were thinking about life? To some it all makes perfect sense whilst to others it is complete nonsense. If you know something about this picture then it makes sense but if you don’t, then it is abstract and beyond understanding. The artist alone can explain what was in his mind and what he saw – for sure it wasn’t a baby! Do you know The Artist who alone brings sense to this life? His colours and brush strokes come at times boldly whilst at other times faintly but there’s no doubting that the picture includes a baby, a mystery, a messed up world that is made good and you are in it! At first the canvas is all dark, but then the Word is fleshed out and light blazes into the picture with the Incarnation of Christ Jesus as a baby, God with us. Into the darkness comes the Light of the world, but not everyone sees it or understands it.
If you were able to ask this Praying Mantis what its life’s purpose is, it’s unlikely you would get an answer! And yet it would go about its business of survival and reproduction without a further comment! Many human beings act in the same way on the treadmill of life in their established daily routines, giving little thought as to any ‘grand purpose’. When a baby takes its first breath, it has no concept of there being a purpose to life and certainly has no idea that there is one. Growing through the life cycle, most people will think about the big question of ‘why am I here’, for it is the most important thing a person wants to discover. Sadly, the majority will draw their last breath without discovering life’s big purpose.
How often do you notice the generosity of God shown to us in nature? Just take this wayside picture from Jersey Island, despite pouring rain, there was beauty all round and in the cobwebs knitted into the heather were seemingly dazzling jewels dripping like diamond necklaces – thrilling if we have eyes to see. God’s nature is a generous one which can be seen in the multiplicity of acorns, conkers, chestnuts, sweetcorn, wheat, lighting, sensory abilities, herbs, fragrances, music and, of course, people. Unsurprisingly, the generosity of his nature is unending, not least to us in the grace and mercy we find he gives us.
Have you ever heard a comforting book of fiction or poetry described as being like a hammer? It doesn’t happen! Then come before the Word of God and you’ll discover what the prophet Jeremiah meant: ‘”Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’ – Jeremiah 23:29. Christians regard the Bible as the authoritative Word of the Living God full of Absolute Truth – if they are wrong, the Bible is ‘absolutely irrelevant’ and people should revert to living based on their ‘relative suppositions’. Presidents, Royalty, scientists, brilliant legal minds and ordinary people have been convinced that it is God’s Word for life – how about you?
• ‘Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face’ – Ronald Reagan
What represents the greatest power today – a president, a multinational, a nuclear bomb, gravity, the sea, the wind? Greater than all of these was that felt by the eighth man to walk on the moon:
‘The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God. I felt the power of God as I'd never felt it before’ – James Irwin
This is a golden age for the self-obsessed where image is everything and nothing. Yet way back in the 1570s, famous poet Edmund Spencer had it right: ‘Gold all is not that doth golden seem’. Diana Ross suggests that a golden dream is possible but that, ‘You've got to get out there and make it happen for yourself’. So what is this golden glitzy image that people so crave?
- ‘An image is not simply a trademark, a design, a slogan or an easily remembered picture. It is a studiously crafted personality profile of an individual, institution, corporation, product or service’ – Daniel J Boorstin
- ‘The 'self-image' is the key to human personality and human behaviour. Change the self-image and you change the personality and the behaviour’ – Mazwell Malz
‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you’ – Matthew 17:20
We all face mountains – they may block the way, intimidate and seem impossible to climb let alone move. What mountain are you facing? What did Jesus mean when he linked faith to a mountain, even faith as tiny as a fragile little seed compared to the largest solid dark mountain?
A true friend is always there for you and doesn’t abandon you in tough times – they are a stronghold in times of trouble. This is why they are rare precious gifts to nurture. We have many colleagues, acquaintances and people we like, but a real friend is in a different league. What is a real friend? How do we find them? How do we keep them? Do we have what it takes to be one? Do you have one?
There are some who find it easy to rest and some who don’t – we all know which category a domestic cat falls into but what about you? Is it ‘time to rest’ or can you not find ‘time to rest’? Many of us struggle to be still and spend much of life busy chasing our tails and wonder where all the time has gone!
‘What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, you’re a follower of The Prime Example of Revival – the great creeds drawn from the Bible tell us how he was alive, he died, and he lived again by the power of God’s Spirit. If you’re not yet a follower of Jesus Christ then you’ll struggle to understand why Christians get excited about revival until you ‘get’ what Jesus meant when he said:
‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ - John 11:25-26
Dreams can be powerful to shape us, for good or bad. It is in that subconscious dream-world that we find some of our hopes and fears interacting in a space where we can also meet with God and hear him speak. How can we know which dreams are plagued with phantoms, which are the often outrageous fantasies and which are the ones that can have meaning? Joseph and Daniel were given understanding of dreams and it shaped destinies of people and nations. Young and old alike can be inspired by dreams and visions – the fact is we need more people who are:
Fear paralyses – absolute fear paralyses absolutely. It can’t always be rationalised for it is often irrational. The face of fear has many masks but our fears must be faced if we are to be free to live a life worth living.
‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear’ – Nelson Mandela
‘We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light’ - Plato
So what fears are you facing? Are they long-standing fears that have dogged your life from childhood or are they the dogs that began to stalk the corridors of your adult mind?
It is in the very nature of temptation that it is hard to resist and that it is common to every single person. Temptation takes many forms and has many disguises but be in no doubt that the aim of the one who tempts is to rob you of joy in your walk with God and the ultimate goal is to ruin you.
‘No one is above temptation. No one is above life in general’ – Kevin Jonas
And yet, every temptation is an opportunity either to bring glory to God through overcoming it or to bring pain to your soul through giving in.
Something dangerous can happen in the heart of a person and in that of a community when a general distrust arises. It is then that cynicism is at work and leads on to a sceptical hardening of the heart which questions everything and believes nothing.
Just as hardening of the arteries is dangerous for physical health, so creeping cynicism can be dangerous for spiritual health. It was Pharaoh’s hard heart that led to his rejection of God and the tragedies experienced in Egypt. A hard heart is a dying heart.
There are many with broken dreams who carry the heartache of disappointment – it could simply be a new car gets mangled or it could be cherished dreams wrecked and destined for the scrap heap. Such emotions are common to all of us but it is perhaps this younger generation that feels it most keenly. Consequences of credit crunch and austerity have led to weighty student loans, unattainable home ownership, uncertain pension prospects and feelings that they have been let down.
Slavery seems to belong to a past era of slave ships, shackles and castle dungeons but sadly this is a delusion. William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln are names of those passionate to abolish slavery who accomplished amazing things. And yet:
‘Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery. It is a scourge for humanity’ - Jeff Fortenberry
‘You can't regulate child labour. You can't regulate slavery. Some things are just wrong’ - Michael Moore
Describing slavery as ‘a dreadful thing’ in the Nineteenth Century, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and became an icon of courage and freedom: ‘I think slavery is the next thing to hell. If a person would send another into bondage, he would, it appears to me, be bad enough to send him into hell if he could’.
Can it be a choice? Is Plato right to say, ‘Nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety’?
If it’s that simple, why do so many suffer with it?
‘If I can centre down and strengthen the core of who I am, and the core of who I am is my relationship with God, then that helps me maintain peace deep down. If I can maintain a healthy spiritual core, I think that's enormous for helping the stress.' - Anne Graham Lotz
TAGS – God, Prayer, Spirituality
The best teacher can take a complex thing and make it simple – the worst will take the simple and make it complex. So here’s what we know: