Wednesday, December 11, 2013

When the Strong Man Snarls

Ain't never seen this place so full
The crowd like bees a-hummin’
The word is out, all seats are filled
Cuz Jesus is a-comin’

The synagogue, the Sabbath Day
And all its rules a-tellin’
Every “do” and “don’t” laid out
Exuberance a-quellin

A trap is set, a wounded man
His withered arm a-holdin’
The teachers and the scribes sit back
Their tongues are schooled for scoldin’

They say there are six days for work
Six days to be a-healin’
The Sabbath is a day of rest
Before God’s throne a-kneelin’

Then Jesus comes, a solemn hush
Descends on all a-waitin’
He strides with power and confidence
Authority a-statin’

He spies the teachers, calls the man
And to the crowd a-saying’
An evil deed to leave a man
Your needful aid delayin'

Kindness isn’t shown at all
When someone is a-hurtin’
And you won’t lift a hand to help
Just platitudes a-blurtin’

One gentle touch, one quiet word
No fire and brimstone preachin’
But healing comes, an arm outstretched
Made whole… to heav’n… a-reachin’

Too many people lost in pain
The devil is a-skippin’
Around and through our broken lives
Our dignity a-strippin’

Enough to make the Strong Man snarl
When Satan’s rag’s a-wavin’
The Good News is that Jesus came
A-seekin’ and a-savin’

(Mark 3:1-6)

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Bethlehem's Choir

Please don’t ask me whether I have been to Bethlehem before. My answer would not be the one you are expecting. I should have listened when a friend told me that the past should remain firmly in the past and it’s never a good idea to go back to places.

I was in Bethlehem many years ago, long before it became part of the pilgrimage tour. It was just an unknown village nestling in the hills in a turbulent country just about the time when BC became AD. When the eyes of the enemy were focussed on the grand cities, golden palaces and great kings, the event that would have the biggest impact on the world was happening in the shadows.

I wasn’t a major player. I wasn’t the archangel announcing the birth the young girl. I didn’t slip into the troubled dreams of her intended husband bringing reassurance that it was all part of the Plan. I didn’t stir the wise men to travel thousands of miles for the glimpse of a child.

I sang in the choir that night.

There are some events in history that shouldn’t go unmarked. Something so pivotal was about to happen. Maybe it wouldn’t change heaven so much, but life on earth was about to be transformed. How could we not celebrate it?

It was just a small choir. The hosts of heaven yearned to be witnesses, but just a few were chosen. How like the Father not to exclude those that didn’t possess the best voices. I love to sing, but I don’t always hit a pure note.

Singing on earth is so different from singing in heaven. Eternity paints a backdrop that no earthly brush strokes can replicate. The light in heaven seems to catch the music as it floats in the air, bouncing off sound in a prism of colours. The earth with its borrowed light catches nothing. In heaven there is the unity off all the angels joined together in a celebration of worship. On earth no one really hears. Their ears may pick up a sound, but their hearts are deaf.

Tiny pinpricks of light were stapled on a black sky. I have never seen the stars from so far away. We sang the opening phrase.

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests."

Had you been there that night you would have thought earth was silent. Your ears would have heard no response. No loud “Amen’s”. But we could hear creation joining in. There was a melody in the wind that breathed through the trees and laughter in the water gurgling from the spring. The moon softly murmured and joy rippled through the grass. We heard it all. Creation was stirring, as realisation was dawning that soon captivity would be taken captive and freedom was close enough to smell.

A huddle of shepherds and a smattering of sheep were our audience that night. They stared at us, open mouthed, eyes pulled wide in their sockets. They had never seen the likes of us before, or heard the song that we were singing. Such a distance between them and the created world there was that for all their eyes, they could not see, and for all their ears, they could not hear. They couldn’t join in…not yet.

How many songs did we sing? Just the one. The words spelled out an ancient truth. The melody echoed the song of the stars as creation was made in the beginning.

This was a new beginning.

After a thousand years or more why do I return to the same place? My fingers trace the scars of war in the dust and I smell the lingering fragrance of gunpowder in the air. I read headstone after headstone in the cemeteries. I hear the sobbing of families robbed of a father or a brother. There is no laughter in the trees and the spring has long dried up. Disappointment on my tongue has a bitter sting. The world is still enslaved.

Just as I am about to leave, I hear it. Faintly. There is another choir singing our song of peace. Not inside a church, surrounded by stained glass windows and marbled columns, they stand on the corner of a street, a small choir of the Father’s children singing a song of peace to their Muslim neighbours.

I add my voice to theirs and, slowly, ever so slowly, creation joins in.

Friday, November 29, 2013

More Than Mere Dust

“For He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.”  Psalm 103:14

I have been doing more than a little dabbling in discovering new ways to spend time with God.  They are not really new ways at all, I suppose.  They are old ways that the old saints used that some of us newer saints are finding to be valuable. 

Take for instance the “rhythm of prayer” – choosing to pray at specific times of the day – morning, midday, evening and night, and focusing on particular Bible passages from the Psalms, the gospels or the epistles. It’s not a legalistic thing, but more of a discipline thing.  It doesn’t replace a continual communion between God and me, but it puts into place some times when God can guarantee that I will be listening!

Discipline and I are casual acquaintances.  We have bumped into each other on many occasions.  We are not quite best friends. Someone once told me that if I make “discipline” my friend, one day I will turn around and discover “delight” has joined us. 

Today’s prescribed reading is Psalm 103:1-14.  The aim is to read through the words slowly and allow them to sink in and give the Spirit room to highlight a word, a phrase or a sentence.  I am trying hard not to treat the exercise like an old fashioned Promise Box – picking something out consciously and try to fit it to whatever circumstances I face. 

Psalm 103 is a familiar Psalm.  I can finish off many of the lines without reading.  Some of the lines come with music attached.  There is a plethora of words and phrases for the Spirit to highlight, but He waited till the end sentence.

“He remembers that we are dust.”

“The trouble is,” said God to me, “I remember that you are dust…but all too often you don’t! You think that you are something better than dust.”

Dust doesn’t climb any corporate ladders.  It’s not interested in how much money is in the bank account.  Dust doesn’t wear designer labels or have to have the latest gadgets.  Dust doesn’t compare itself with anyone.  It has no ambition to win or at least not come last in the game of life.

“I remember that you are dust,” said God to me, “and I’m very good with dust…”

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7

Dust in God’s hand is something more than mere dust.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Things I See in You

I see in you what I am looking for
A faith convinced that God is there
He turns His ear to every whispered prayer
And you - his name and nature bear

I see in you what I am looking for
A faith that fills your heart with song
To celebrate that you to Him belong
And in your weakness He is strong

I see in you what I am looking for
A faith that laughs at trying days
That thumbs the nose at come-what-mays
And in the battle always, always stays

I see in you what I am looking for
A faith that anchors in the storm
That sings for joy amid the locust swarm
And surrenders to God’s Spirit to transform

I see in you what I am looking for
A faith that lays before God’s mighty throne
All crowns and works of great renown
Content to ever be the Saviour’s own

I see in you what I am looking for
In all your scenes that play across life’s stage
The narrative God writes upon the page
With life in light and shadow you engage

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


“Deep joy is found only at the table of thanksgiving.” Anne Voskamp

Yesterday I was told that Jehovah Witnesses have Communion just once a year.  Even then, most of the congregation don’t take part.  It is something that is reserved for those who are part of the 144,000. 

Communion is a kind of re-enactment of the Last Supper.  The words and actions of Jesus are remembered as the bread and the wine are shared among believers.

He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.” Luke 22:19

καὶ λαβὼν ἄρτον εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς λέγων· Τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν διδόμενον· τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν.

Once upon a time, in my dim and distant past, I knew and spoke a little Greek. The letters were as familiar to me as any other set of letters.  I can even boast that once upon a time, in that same dim and distant past, I had also learned a little Arabic.  I don’t claim to have a gift for languages.  I swiftly forgot both languages when I stopped using them.

I remember enough to know εὐχαριστήσας has something to do with the word we translate as Eucharist.  I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. Where other churches might celebrate Holy Communion, we celebrated the Eucharist.   The Greek word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”.  The “Charis” bit of the word translates as “grace”.

If you are not allowed to participate in communion does that mean that you don’t have the opportunity to give thanks?  Does it also mean that you don’t have the opportunity to receive grace? From what was said by my friend sharing her experience as a Jehovah Witness, before someone introduced her to Jesus, there’s nothing to be thankful about and there is no grace needed. It’s all about how many doors you knock on, how many magazines you hand out and how many Bible studies you initiate.  It’s about meeting a quota.

My friend talked about two boxes in the Kingdom Hall.  One was for offerings.  The other was for service reports – the amount of doors knocked and the conversations you’d had.  40 hours a month minimum was required by the organisation to prove you were a committed member.  How different might our churches be if we committed ourselves to 40 hours witnessing and evangelism a month – not to prove anything, but because the love of God was so strong in us that we just couldn’t help ourselves!

I have been convicted about this thanksgiving and grace thing – this Eucharist thing.  In some churches perhaps they are so worried about communion becoming an empty tradition if done too often that they fall into the trap of not celebrating it often enough!  I am not sure if the early church kept count of times they broke bread together.  Remembering Jesus and expressing their thanks to Him for their salvation was always at the centre of their fellowship.  I think they probably didn’t allow themselves to fall into familiarity with celebrating the Eucharist.  I think they took great care to keep things fresh and vibrant.  They never got tired of saying “Thank you!”

I realised yesterday that I am having a hard time being thankful.  I appear to have fallen into a pattern of picking fault.  I have put myself into the centre of my universe and if things do not fall the way I want them too, I scowl! 

I scowled because a salad I had asked for came with more than half a plate of coleslaw.  I don’t like coleslaw.  I spent my mealtime scraping the mayonnaise off the ham and off the tomatoes.  I’d even said grace before the meal!

The absence of thanksgiving and gratitude robs us of joy. Without joy we are robbed of our capacity to see the things we should be grateful for.

How differently we would all live if we saw the things we should be grateful for and never get tired of saying “Thank you!”

Monday, November 04, 2013

Love Letter

I think, if you have been a Christian long enough, you have come across one or two testimonies of people whose lives have been turned around because of a Gideon Bible placed in the drawer of the bedside cabinet in a hotel room or hospital ward.  On a recent holiday I discovered a Gideon Bible on a shelf in the caravan we were staying in.

Surprising though it might be, according to the website, many people in Britain have never seen a Bible. Many seem to have a picture in their heads of a man sitting in an attic writing the Bible. They have never read it and can’t imagine a time or a place when they might want to. Some presume, because of the kind of Christians they have met, straight laced, sombre and sour faced, that the Bible is something that takes away the joy of life.  It is all full of “Thou shalt not…”.

They don’t know that it is a love letter.

I know it’s a love letter and I have fallen in love with the author. I know Him and I know His words.  They tell me that I am the apple of His eye and my name is written on the palm of His hand.  They tell me that wonderfully and fearfully He made me. They tell me that as my shepherd, He carries me gently on His shoulders.

I am blessed to be someone who loves reading.  I have never felt reading the Bible to be a chore. I haven’t always understood what I have read, and it has prompted me to dig a little deeper, or a lot deeper.  Treasure doesn’t always lie on the surface.

I treasure His words. They are life to my spirit.

One very tired and weary day last week, I read these words from Isaiah.  I read them, not silently in my head, but out loud declaring each phrase and sentence, speaking faith to my heart.  I didn’t feel tired or weary when I got to the end.

Have you never heard?
    Have you never understood?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of all the earth.
He never grows weak or weary.
    No one can measure the depths of his understanding.
 He gives power to the weak
    and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
    and young men will fall in exhaustion.
But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:28-31)

The Gideons place Bibles or New Testaments in many places like
hotels and hospitals, prisons and care homes...and schools.

One school I know had a visit from the Gideons.  They handed out small New Testaments to the first year pupils.  In years past, pupils had collected their New Testaments and spent time flicking through it, looking up the verses for “If you are sad…” or “if you have lost a loved one”. The novelty value lasted for a while but, in the end, it was just another book and they didn’t really like reading. 

We live in a different world.  Today I found the ground in front of the school littered with the confetti of half a dozen New Testaments torn to bits.

A love letter shredded.

It’s enough to break your heart.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Humbug

I was looking at the face of a friend at work and although we are of a comparable age, she has more wrinkles than I do.  Some might count this as something in my favour – I am less wrinkly.  In our age-obsessed society I have accomplished something my friend has been unable to do.  I have held back the ravages of time – and all without a single injection of botox.

What I felt was not elation that I looked younger but sadness that I didn’t have her laughter lines.  Her face was gentle and soft and so easily took to smiles.  I would quite like to have a face that folds itself into fun and frivolity, not one that smooths itself out into seriousness and sobriety.  I seem to take life too seriously – and myself too seriously.  I don’t have a “chill” setting. 

All this has nothing to do with my refusal to participate in anything Halloween.  Tricks are for clever magicians and nimble gymnasts.  Treats are for good dogs. 

I can’t swallow the whole “It’s just harmless fun” idea. 

Reading from the BBC webpage on Religions/Christianity/Halloween  “All Hallows' Eve falls on 31st October each year, and is the day before All Hallows' Day, also known as All Saints' Day in the Christian calendar. The Church traditionally held a vigil on All Hallows' Eve when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself.”

It doesn’t say anything about dressing up as ghosts and ghouls, knocking on people’s doors and demanding a treat. 

Today I am choosing not to sit in the dark or pretending to be out.  Technically there is no chance I will hear the doorbell as the battery hasn’t worked for ages.  People have to bang on the door if they want a response.  Removing my hearing aids will sort out the banging on the door – I’m not likely to hear that either. 

I just want to be left alone.  I don’t want to be labelled a party pooper and frowned upon by some accompanying adult because I don’t have a bucket of lollypops, or a selection of fruit for the health conscious.  I don’t want to be made to feel guilty because I am not joining in.

I am not joining in. 

Please don't knock upon my door
Into your hands I will not pour
The treats you think should come your way
Ghosts and ghoulies - go away!