Is it both, either or neither? Many Christians feel a sense of split identity – saint or sinner? Perhaps sometimes feeling more ‘saintly’ whilst at other times feeling a ‘downright sinner’! Have you ever felt this? St Augustine was one such who agonised over the good person he wanted to be and the sinner that he publicly confessed himself to be. This painting of him portrays something of that tension. Born in 354 AD to Monica, a devout Christian, he had at least two mistresses, an illegitimate child and lived a life of life of hedonism ruled by lust and worldly ambition, famously saying: “God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”. Yet when he was 31, he became a follower of Christ, then the Bishop of Hippo laying down much Christian doctrine. Bishop Possidius of Calama recorded him as one who ‘ate sparingly, worked tirelessly, despised gossip, shunned the temptations of the flesh, and exercised prudence in finances’.
When many hear the word ‘legacy’, their minds run to what they stand to gain. Where does it lead you? The person who built this stile might have hoped his or her legacy would have lasted somewhat better than this broken down remnant. By definition, a legacy is what we leave behind for those who follow. Mostly, the legacy is a bequest of physical possessions and assets to family members, friends or others who we may want to bless. Sometimes there may be legacy issues leading to a squabble over a Will. Perhaps a dispute may arise from an aggrieved person who feels left out or hard done by. However, the truth is that we all give legacies in life and in death to all those who are part of our lives. The abandoned footpath sign accompanying this broken stile is a poor legacy. Contrast that with the better legacy given by the person who taught you to read a map and use a compass. Now is a good time then to consider the legacy you give to others each day.
How are your ossicles today?! These three tiny bones in your middle ear are known as the malleus, incus, and stapes. More commonly they are referred respectively to as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. Although these are the smallest bones in your body, each play a vital role in your hearing. 'Shell-like' has been used to mean a person's ear since the late 19th century. Clearly this refers to the ear's shape with its opening and possibly the fact that shells were used as the earliest form of hearing aids! The earliest citation of the phrase ‘shell-like’ is Thomas Hood's romantic poem Bianca's Dream, 1827: ‘This, with more tender logic of the kind, He poured into her small and shell-like ear’. What do you hear in your shell-like? It all rather depends on how close you are to the one speaking and how much noise is going on around you. This applies to the two types of hearing – natural and supernatural.
Mortals love portals! Technically speaking, on the one hand portals refer to gateways, doors and openings. On the other, a portal specifically means a website or web page providing access or links to other sites. It is a word that has grown in popularity and breadth of application to include video games and various secure log-in technologies. How do you understand the word? What portals would you say that you use or rely on for your everyday life or for the deeper things? With the rapid changes, today’s technology will be yesterday’s technology tomorrow! You need multiple connections to keep up but even those portals for mortals are soon out of date.
Dementia is experienced by some 50 million people around the world and the number is increasing as people are living longer. Christians seem to rationalise physical illnesses more easily than those which affect the mind. Having a loved one whose Christian faith has been strong throughout life then suffer with dementia and sometimes an apparent loss of faith is much harder to bear. Dementia is indeed a tough nut to crack and there are no easy answers but it is something we need to understand better. Pressures in life can act like nutcrackers as they pivot upon us affecting physical and mental health but dementia is in a league of its own. Many conditions can cause dementia, including degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s but it is also associated with infections, vascular diseases, stroke, depression and chronic drug use. What we fail to know, God knows.
Can you remember a time when you were ‘homesick’? The first time away from home, family and friends is never easy. There is a longing for familiar faces and places which steals upon you. One young man left home with big ideas and a bounce in his step to find new pals and the high life only to discover that what he had found was the low life and ‘fair-weather’ friends. Things got so bad that he had to take a job as a swineherd. As he watched them enjoying family life and friendships, in his poverty he realised that even the pigs had it better than him! Coming to his senses, his thoughts turned to home and he took those first vital steps albeit with trepidation.
- ‘The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration’ – Edwin Louis Cole
- ‘Every time I see my brother, I just praise God for God's grace in his life. Because if God can change Franklin from a prodigal into a man of God, he can do it for anybody’ – Anne Graham Lotz
Moving rhythmically to music is something that comes easily to some but seems impossible to others. In common with the ability to paint, sing or play a musical instrument, it’s something most people would like to do better. From the earliest age, we are all encouraged to express ourselves through words, drawings and actions. Not everyone is a Wordsworth or a Michelangelo but we are all principal actors in the drama of our lives. You could say that we are also principal dancers in the ballet of life. We dance to melodies only we can hear so sometimes our movements seem strange to others who do not hear those tunes or feel those rhythms.
One word which can easily be associated with the modern age is stress. If you go back to pre-industrial times, it was not a term in use. It was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as ‘the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change’. Today, it refers to ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’. It is also used by engineers to refer to ‘pressure or tension exerted on a material object’ and is useful to work out breaking points such as those used in construction. London’s Tower Bridge opened in 1894 and is a complex feat of engineering, allowing for stresses that constantly change, responding to different loads and weather patterns. It works as a combined drawbridge (bascule) and suspension bridge relying on ingenious hydraulics to lift each side weighing over 1000 tons in five minutes. Ten workmen died during its construction. Many people die today through health problems associated with stress.
It has been said that our plans amuse God! We can all certainly think of plans made at different stages of our lives that have come to nothing and perhaps seem foolish or naïve in retrospect. Compare the innocence of lambs which have no plans to those which litter the graves of every human being! Does that mean to say that it is wrong to plan? Have we not been given brains to weigh up options, consider priorities and find the best solutions to problems? It is the direction and motive behind every plan that is of greatest significance. Is the goal solely to satisfy self, even at the expense of others or perhaps in some way to have disregard for God’s ways?
Have you ever thought about the number of new beginnings you’ve made in your life so far? Your birth was the first but now start counting ... new words, new school, new friends, new job, new home, new targets, new horizons and you haven’t finished yet! Each day is a new opportunity for a new start. There are those in life who relish the change that comes with a new beginning, others who prefer the safety of the familiar and some who avoid change at all costs. We are all so different. What about your approach to life? Are you an architect, starter, builder, project manager or a completer-finisher? These arbitrary terms provide lots of scope for cross-overs but it’s interesting for personal reflection as to how you interact with the world around you. Imagine God the Beginner of things with a blank canvas and then KABOOM ... it’s the Genesis of all known things.
The four stages in the metamorphosis of butterflies are from egg to larva, then pupa and finally to adult butterfly. All of these are living unless perchance they run into someone with a net who collects them – a Lepidopterist, sometimes known as an ‘aurelian’! Lepidopterology is a branch of entomology (the study of insects) and comes from the Greek for ‘scale’ and ‘wing’. If you were a butterfly, you should avoid them for they are likely to stick a pin through you and mount you in their collection, after killing you humanely ... in a freezer! Whilst caterpillars have jaws and can bite back if threatened, a butterfly only has a long, curled proboscis, which is like a soft drinking straw—their jaws are gone and so is self-defence. Margaret Fountaine (1862–1940) was a Lepidopterist who collected more than 22 000 butterflies, published extensively and wrote a diary of more than a million words – that is a serious serial ‘Lepidopterist’. Imagine going through four life forms and the questions it might generate – who is the real me and will there be more to life after this next mutation?
- ‘No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new’ – Steve Jobs
There is a famous saying about Marmite spread – ‘you either love it or hate it’! The same could be said of golf – just speak to a ‘golfing widow’ or to someone who has just played the perfect shot ... swish, click, a bounce on the green and you have a happy golfer. Where it began is debatable – France, the Netherlands, China, Persia and England are all possibilities but the earliest claim is back to the Romans in the first century BC. The game was called ‘Paganica’ and involved players using a bent stick to hit a stuffed leather ball. However, the modern game of golf originated in 15th-century Scotland where the first written record of golf is James II's banning of the game in 1457 as an unwelcome distraction to learning archery. James IV lifted the ban in 1502 when he became a golfer himself. The aim of golf is to be able to hit a ball straight and true but, like life itself, it takes lots of practice.
What would life be without change? Yet not all change is progress nor is change the only constant as some believe. There are various ways to react to change – embrace and seek it; run and hide from it; deny that it’s happening. Park yourself for a year under a Horse Chestnut tree and you will not be able to escape the fact of change! Each season will come and go – even if you do not accept it, you will be unable to deny the leaves have come and gone. If you are far into denial, the falling conkers may bring you to your senses! Change in the form of the Leaf Miner Moth is now threatening the survival of these trees which can live for 300 years. So yes, for good or ill, change is part of the richness of this life but the way to face it is neither to run from it nor to seek it for mere entertainment – there needs to be a constant foundation to stand upon to come through every possible change that can come in life. If you are not already standing on that Rock, best advice is to look at the leaves changing and find it.
The fastest known thing in the universe is the speed of light which is 186,000 miles per second. An email makes it to the other side of the planet at nearly half the speed of light which is 670,616,629 mph. A slower means of communication is the post, also known as ‘snail mail’. Most postal systems aim for 1st Class items to be delivered the next working day, though obviously longer for international mail. Snails can travel just over one mph and so can cover 25 metres in the 24 hours! The longest time elapsed between a letter being posted and its delivery is 89 years. This was received in December 2008 by Janet Barrett, a guest-house owner in Weymouth, Dorset, UK and was an RSVP to a Boxing Day party invitation, which had been posted on 29 November 1919. The message inside read:
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
What did Brian Cox, Brian May and Sir Patrick Moore have in common? It’s true that they loved music – Brian Cox being an accomplished keyboard player with two bands, Brian May being the legendary guitarist with Queen whilst Sir Patrick was a keen pianist and player of the xylophone. However, their main bond was in their love of the night skies! Brian May is an astrophysicist and generously bought Sir Patrick’s house in Selsey allowing him to live there for a peppercorn rent when finances became tight. Patrick wore a monocle from the age of 16, becoming a specialist on the moon and an eccentric TV presenter who built an observatory in his back garden housing a 12 ½ inch reflector telescope. The fascination of these three astronomers is shared by many, not least the mysterious astrologers from lands afar who followed a star. We all want to know more about what is up there in the heavens above, whether it holds solutions for the problems of the earth and where the location is of Heaven itself.
In April 2012, an estimated £1.3 billion was spent celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth ll. This is somewhat ironic as the word ‘jubilee’ is a biblical term associated with the cancelling of debts – a time of emancipation and restoration, supposed to be kept every fifty years. It can be applied to any big anniversary for a reigning monarch and is to be a time of jubilation. What is it that makes you jubilant? Is it the same thing that makes God jubilant? There are many indications that you will find this ‘Jubilee’ in the heart of God as will be explored in this Booster. To understand freedom you must first understand captivity and oppression. With the pandemic of 2020 came an oppression of people as rich and poor alike had to wear face masks, endure lockdowns and long for release. When a vaccine was discovered and lockdowns ended, people discarded their masks – a bizarre symbol of jubilee.
Is this a modern or old-fashioned word would you say? Can you remember the last time you heard it used? Does it belong to fairy tales of the past and the world of the gramophone? Peter Rabbit might have chewed carrots like they were going out of fashion but let us chew on the relevance or otherwise of ‘faithfulness’ for our society today and for our own lives. True enough, the word may belong to a relatively small circle, but the concept is still very much needed. You may struggle to find many examples of this beautiful and most precious attribute lauded in the public arena but you will find many relationships that would have thrived if it was applauded in our private lives. In this era of Tweets, faithfulness is perhaps seen as being a little ‘twee’. How would you value it or quantify it?
There’s a neat little thing people sometimes say to bring comfort: ‘I’m always there for you’! How does it ring true to your own life experience? Growing up, we want to know that someone is with us and that we’re not alone. It is only natural for a child to find the dark frightening, to be anxious on the first day at school or if becoming separated from a parent’s reassuring hand in a crowded street. To be lost and alone is to feel helpless and hopeless. When the skies are dark and menacing, there is an inbuilt need to know that someone is truly near to bring help and a comforting presence. The childhood comforts of a dummy to suck or a teddy to cuddle may pacify a toddler but are of no use as adulthood approaches. Child or adult, the need to have someone always there remains despite the small comfort of substitutes, denial or just putting on a ‘brave face’.
As you look at this picture, what do you see? Who do you see and why? Unconsciously, we automatically categorise and evaluate what we see. It’s partly a faculty the brain employs to simplify life as it has to process thousands of images a day but … it’s also due to our own conditioning which has led to many filters and prejudices that shape our human interactions for good or bad. When you were last in a public place, inevitably you would have looked at people making conscious and unconscious assessments to pigeonhole people according to gender, wealth, skills, desirability, ethnicity and so on. Even Christians do it! Classification may apply to types of vegetable and animals, but should ‘class’ be applied to human beings?
- ‘The greatest lesson I learned that year in Mrs Henry's class was the lesson Dr Martin Luther King Jr tried to teach us all: Never judge people by the colour of their skin. God makes each of us unique in ways that go much deeper’ – Ruby Bridges
- ‘We judge people based on their clothes, social class, and, dare I say, ethnicity. Our comedians make light of these stereotypes regularly, and we laugh at their accuracy’ – Lecrae
The word alphabet is a compound of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. The English alphabet emerged in the 7th century, far later than the Greek one which was formed around 800 BC. The final letter of the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet is omega, hence ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’ meaning the ‘beginning’ and the ‘end’ or ‘first’ and ‘last’. Humans tend to think in terms of beginning and endings in a finite simplistic way but quantum physics tells us that neither zero nor infinity has an actual value! Some scientists say there are a finite number of atoms in an expanding universe whereas others conjecture that they are decreasing. Back to reality - this compost heap has two bins, one is a beginning and the other an ending, but then even that recycling process is a continuum. When one side is emptied, it then in turn becomes the new side once more. Life is not as simple as Lewis Carroll has it: ‘“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”’ – Alice in Wonderland
To a fisherman, a cobbler and a boxer, this would be true! It matters to a child but not to God. Does it matter to you? Most people’s desire is for more and more, bigger and bigger, faster and faster, stronger and stronger. Entering the world with nothing, many forget that we will take nothing material with us. It was the foolish man who tore down his barns to build bigger ones so he could enjoy life, for that very night was his last! The house, the car, the savings pot and every precious item collected over a lifetime will be left behind. Is it not then ironic that so much effort goes into gathering when all of it stays earth-bound until it also rots and decays? The mantra for the modern self is, ‘I must increase, you must decrease’! Yet John the Baptist who lived on the very minimum said to Jesus, ‘I must decrease, you must increase’! Each candle casts its light no matter its size.
When it comes to boundaries, love them or loathe them, we all have them albeit at different levels. They exist all around us, helping to define us and shape how we interact within the world we live. They can be physical, spiritual, moral and intellectual. Some will say that they refuse to be limited by them and will press through to achievements we can admire – perhaps artists, explorers, inventers and athletes. Others, believing themselves to be ‘free-thinkers’, might refuse to acknowledge legal and moral boundaries and are far from admirable role models. Yet whether you call them boundaries, parameters, boarders, safety nets or limitations, we need them and rely on them. Without them, it becomes a virtual world where nothing is real and everything is real, a world of fantasy. How aware are you of your personal boundaries and how have they changed over time? These white cliffs look pretty fixed but even they have moved over time. Time itself is a boundary for every human being.
Do you think of yourself as a weak or strong person? If it is as a weak person, do you know why? But if it is as a strong person, then what is the basis of your strength? Anyone who derives strength from denigrating others is not to be admired. Profaning the reputation or name of someone else to boost yourself is not only a sign of weakness but there are laws about defamation to criminalise slander and libel. Is it not then so sad to witness the pervasive ‘OMG’ defamation of God in today’s culture? Without a second thought, people trot out ‘O my God’ as part of their language and don’t even notice when their children do the same. What a beautiful contrast it is to hear someone call out to God, ‘O My Strength’ and really mean it. Our lips are made to bless not to curse, to praise not to blaspheme, to build up not to pull down.
Everyone loves it when the bunting comes out, joy is in the air and it’s time for the celebrations to begin. Most people know when and what to celebrate from the smallest to the biggest of reasons. What have you celebrated recently? Anniversaries, rites of passage, achievements, memorials or perhaps just being alive! Life is certainly richer for celebrating with others good things in their lives or perhaps your own.
- ‘Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words’ – Plautus
- ‘Life is too short not to celebrate nice moments’ – Jurgen Klopp
- ‘Celebrate your successes. Find some humour in your failures’ – Sam Walton
- ‘It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure’ - Bill Gates
How many Biology terms do you recall from school lessons? How about Symbiosis, Commensalism and Parasitism?! Symbiosis describes a close and long-term relationship between different species. Commensalism is a symbiotic relationship in which one species benefits while the other is not affected, with examples such as barnacles and birds nesting in tree hollows. Parasitism is a symbiotic relationship in which the parasitic species benefits while the host species is harmed. This is less pleasant but obvious examples are mosquitos, fleas, aphids and tapeworms! Whilst not such an extreme example of parasitism, ivy does use the structure of a tree or bush to support its growth, subsequent domination and eventual destruction of its host plant. If this ivy is not dealt with, it will destroy this vine meaning there will be no more lovely fruit. Addictions act just like this.
What do you see in the picture? People perceive, analyse and imagine in different ways but for this challenge there is only one right answer. Enlightenment will come as you read on! The very word ‘enlightenment’ can be taken in three ways – simply, it could be the process where someone is given greater knowledge and understanding about a subject or situation. It can also refer to a spiritual opening of the eyes or to a European movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries. More of that to come but first, how much of life is shaped by conspiracy theories, shadowy speculations and secret societies, some of which were created during the ‘Age of Enlightenment’? There are those who claim to have special knowledge which can lead to cults being formed, rituals being practiced and controlling power being wielded. Human beings are drawn to these darker things.
How much do you know about your heart? It began beating before you were born, 22 days after you were conceived! Your heart beats about 100,000 times in one day and about 35 million times in a year. During an average lifetime, the human heart will beat more than 2.5 billion times. The human heart has been described as ‘very deep’ which maybe apt when you consider its ability to pump 2,000 gallons per day. An Olympic swimming pool holds about 450,000 gallons so it takes a heart 220 days to pump this! In 70 years, a heart pumps 51,100,000 gallons – this is an amazing 114 swimming pools so it’s not surprising we can get a bit weary with every extra year! The heart has inspired poets, lovers, writers, scientists and philosophers. Aristotle identified it as ‘the seat of the soul and emotions’. How much can happen in a heartbeat?
Some people are professional backsliders and some do it just for the fun of it! The first recorded use of the term ‘luge’ was in 1905 and derives from the Swiss dialect of the French word luge, meaning ‘small coasting sled’. It involves lying on your back on the luge and hurtling down either steep roads or ice tracks at speeds from 80mph upwards with great risk to life and limb. Though most injuries involve bumps, bruises, broken bones and concussions, there have been at least four fatalities in public sporting events. To lie on your back puts you in a place of exposure to risk and makes you vulnerable. Not that this cat is going anywhere fast in its backsliding! However there are many ways that a person who once felt secure in faith begins backsliding. Where will it end? Many have argued that a Christian can lose their secure position – what do you think?
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:
Perhaps you don’t think of yourself as superstitious but take another look! Do you try not to count the number of magpies in a ‘parliament’ (those troublesome birds), avoid walking under ladders (surely that’s just common-sense), wonder if things really do come in threes or stop yourself thinking if it’s good or bad luck to see that black cat?! Such things may seem innocent and are often handed down from one generation to another. How many coins lie at the bottom of this ‘wishing well’? Would it be harmful to lob one in or doesn’t it matter? The child of God probably knows the answer or will instinctively have a ‘feel’ for whether it’s right to have the palm read or throw salt over the shoulder. Are there any past or present practices in your life that have passive or active power over you?
- ‘Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing’ – Helen Keller
- ‘Superstition is the religion of feeble minds’ – Edmund Burke
It was the American Chef Sherry Yard who said, ‘The appetite starts with the eye’. As a famous TV judge and cookbook author, she would know a lot about presentation and the importance of the visual but she could equally have said that appetite starts with the nose, the mind or with the tummy rumbles. However, we all know that whilst appetite is usually taken to mean a desire for food, it can apply to things besides food such as money, sex, possessions and power. Have you noticed that the more a person craves for something the more they crave?! Then what happens is that the thing that is desired for consumption turns to become the predator and consumes the person. Healthy appetites are a good thing but cravings lead to loss of control and a farewell to satisfaction. A person should be well-satisfied with this plate of food but this would not be true for everyone.
What do you see in this picture? How might you associate it with the title? Which way are you already thinking? Your answers to those three questions could be revealing your inner thoughts, perceptions and prejudices! Some things lurk in the alleyways of our minds that we wish did not so we keep them locked up as we do not want others to know they live in our ‘zoo’! We tend to make assessments based on limited information and on inner biases rather too quickly. If you look again, you will be able to see five water fowl that resemble adolescent ducklings but are in fact cygnets preening themselves, not fully aware that they are in process of becoming beautiful swans. Hans Christian Andersen wrote ‘The Ugly Duckling’ in 1843 – what do you remember about it?
So much of what we see and hear in the world today is fake! Who can you believe in this the age of phishing, scams, hoaxes and deception? When is it safe to click on a hyperlink or to open an email attachment? What happened to the world where people generally mean what they say and where you can turn on your computer without fear of ransomware or the need for antivirus software? Since the dawn of time there have been half-truths, heists and frauds but it has infiltrated modern life at every level, aided, abetted and accelerated by technology. The wise person knows all that glitters is not gold but cannot always detect the counterfeit because it looks so genuine. Back in the day, old bank notes like these shown were held up to the light to distinguish the false from the real currency. Now it is more complicated, to the point that you can’t even be sure whether media news is true let alone the notes in your wallet, that is if you still use them.
Who is sufficient for these things? The Way of Holiness is the path all those who follow Jesus are to travel and yet it is holy ground we often struggle to find, let alone to walk on or manage to stay on. Moses found holy ground when he was not looking for it – his response was to take off his shoes and hide his face. Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel, Paul and John all had visions of God in his awesome holiness and were overwhelmed. When mortals come before the immortal, to be overwhelmed is not surprising but how do we approach the One who dwells in ‘unapproachable light’? How can we who are so flawed in our human condition come into the presence of God who defines perfection and holiness in himself? Even the most beautiful diamond is a poor representation of the pure radiance of Almighty God. What’s it to be – shadows and lies or truth and beauty?
Some facts of life we are taught and some we discover! Here’s one that you may not have been told but is nonetheless a reality to be observed – DRIFT. People can seem firmly rooted in relationships, in jobs, in morals, in safety, in belief and faith until the powerful tides of life come along and drift begins. Like a boat that is moored with apparently securely knotted ropes, the knots can be found wanting, gradually loosening until the boat floats away from its moorings. It may be more sudden as when lightning hits a riverside tree dispatching a branch to the whims of the sea. Who knows which tree this piece of driftwood came from and its story before it was found battered and washed up on a remote beach in New Zealand?
Fantasy has never been more popular. Every time a person buys a lottery ticket, there is a fantasy behind it – houses, cars, holidays, retirement and lifestyle. Have you ever pondered what you would do if you had hit the jackpot? In October 2018, an anonymous winner in South Carolina scooped $1537 million. In 2019, sales of lotteries in America alone reached $91.32 billion, up from $85.59 billion in 2018. This represents a 1 in 300,000 chance of winning which is higher than the EuroMillions Lottery ratio of 1 in 45 million! Gambling does not make long term winners – studies show those winning will often lose what they have won within 10 years as well as gaining many worries and a possible addiction along the way. This cruise ship looks idyllic but eventually all passengers return to face the realities in their home port!
Suppose in stepping on to this beach, you are given two choices. Stay put to enjoy the scene or choose a boat and head off into the water? In this metaphor for guidance, if you get into a boat you then have further issues to resolve: which boat, where is the destination, how to get there, what supplies are needed and who to take with you (if anyone)? Your life will have been like this multiple times for big and small things. Sometimes you have a period of stability but other times, there is a need for a succession of choices as one thing leads to another. The story is told of a ship’s Captain who looked into the dark night and saw a light in the distance. Met by repeated refusals to alter course and give way, the impatient Captain sends a final signal: ‘Alter your course ten degrees south. I am a battleship.’ The reply was, ‘Alter your course ten degrees north. I am a lighthouse!’ Oh that it was always so easy to make a wise choice!
Are you risk averse or a risk taker? Is either position right or wrong? The truth is that from dawn to dusk and from first breath to final gasp, we take risks and are encouraged to do so. Our parents encouraged us to take risks as we took those initial wobbly steps, holding our hands and then releasing us to walk by ourselves. Whilst it may be true to say ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’, everyone lives within what they deem to be acceptable risk levels. Whether it is in the genes or in a person’s experience of risks already taken and consequences received, our risk parameters become established. One person with a high risk tolerance may think of someone with a lower level as unnecessarily timid; conversely, the view would be of irresponsibility! Many people routinely took the risk to cross the famous limestone Azure Window on the island of Gozo, but on the 8th March 2017, this ancient arch crumbled into the sea.
Few people like to admit that they have a strong need to be in control, unkindly or perhaps aptly referred to as ‘control freaks’. Some of the signs are that they often correct or belittle others, find themselves judging people, refuse to admit when they are wrong, sometimes use the silent treatment as emotional blackmail and always need to have the last word. Whilst this may apply to how they relate to others, ironically they themselves lack self-control over many things including the desire to be in control! There is also a healthy type of control for otherwise chaos reigns. Yet if you take control to its unhealthy extent you head into areas of domination and manipulation which indicate personal insecurity. Those who love power love to use it and to flaunt it as these armour-plated limousines and this fierce Presidential bodyguard demonstrate.
With two thirds of its surface covered by water, Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known to harbour life. Viewed from space, it is like a glowing blue pearl that astonishes astronauts with its beauty and obvious life. Earth is located in a galaxy of stars called the Milky Way which is 890 billion times the mass of the Sun. The Sun’s diameter is 864,400 miles which is 109 times that of Earth. The Sun weighs 333,000 times as much as Earth and is so large that 1,300,000 planet Earths could fit inside it. Betelgeuse, a red giant star, is 700 times bigger than the Sun and 14,000 times brighter. Astronomers estimate there are 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way alone. Outside that, there are millions upon millions of other galaxies also! This fragile planet fills us with wonder makes us ponder the biggest questions.
When it comes to relationships, are you and those around you ‘consumers-of’ or ‘investors-in’? Have you noticed that the more developed a society becomes, the more consumerist it’s practices? This leads to overconsumption, excessive production, a throw-away mentality and great waste. Humankind currently produces two billion tonnes of waste per year between 7.6 billion people. Perhaps then it is not surprising that littering and fly-tipping are common. Some would regard graffiti as litter whilst others call it art! Where are you on the approval-disapproval scale of littering and graffiti ... or indeed on your approach to relationships? Yet sometimes graffiti like the one pictured can make powerful statements rather than throw-away remarks. The deeper question it provokes is about the quality of relationships that last because of significant inward investment rather than those which are merely consumed and discarded.
The Human Race has been running for a long time reaching back to the start line with Adam and Eve! ‘Homo sapiens’ was a name introduced in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus which you may think is surprisingly recent – the translation from Latin is 'wise man'. In this race, many ‘drivers’ have motivated people for good and bad. The good can be seen in acts of kindness, charities, generous giving to others in need, works of service and emancipation. Outstanding examples can be seen in people such as Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce, Nelson Mandela and of course Jesus Christ. Sadly, on the other side there are just as many examples of those who have exploited and ruined others – the worst of these is perhaps Hitler who ruthlessly set out to rid society of those who did not fit his Aryan model and sent them to Auschwitz where 1.1million human beings were exterminated. It is a chilling place making one reflect deeply on the Human Race – on its past, present and future.
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)