Ruined

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I wonder if you have ever visited a set of ruins?

Perhaps a Castle, an ancient Abbey, or former stately home.  Through neglect, disuse and historical acts of vandalism, in Great Britain, we are left with these remnants of once magnificent structures.  We can only use our imaginations to picture what was once a thriving hub of activity and is now a heap of rubble.

I often find, as I look at a pile of stones and try and picture a magnificent hall, I have a feeling of sadness.  To me the stones seem to cry out “I once was something worth marvelling at.”  Ruins always have a feel of “once was” about them.

Many of our ruins are in their present condition because they were not required, or fit for purpose, or just too expensive to repair and maintain.  Society moved on and these structures were no longer viable.

That is the thing with society.  It has a tendency to change and develop.

I remember a visit to one abbey and hearing about its history.  As the monks moved away and the buildings fell into disrepair, many of the local people used parts of the abbey to repair their homes, build walls around their fields and construct amenities for their community. 

As society changed, these buildings did not die, they lived on in different ways.

I suppose, what got me thinking about ruins is a passage I was reading in the Biblical book of Ezra.  Ezra was living and working in Jerusalem at the time of major re-building work.  His concern was especially for the re-building of the temple.

This is what Ezra says;

He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.

(Ezra 9 vs. 9)

These words got me thinking about all that has happened in our community and church life over the past couple of years.  I believe, that we are at a time of re-building.  But, like those ruins of old, there are some things that will need to be re-purposed.  There are some things that we will need to leave behind.  There are some things that will need to be, lovingly, restored.

In the time of Ezra, the people came together to re-build the city.

I wonder if the same could happen today? 

Could you be part of the re-building?

At least….

At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.

(Job 14 vs. 7 – 9 NIV)

I felt battered, bruised and angry. 

Over the course of a few days, there had been the need to face an unpleasant situation.  I had felt that I was unable to defend myself, without making things worse.  So, I had no choice but to “put up and shut up.”

I felt battered, bruised, angry and frustrated and tired and… and… and…

It was somewhat of a relief that I had a Sunday clear.  Unusually for me, I did not feel like going to Church.  I really could not face standing up and smiling and saying how wonderful it is to be a follower of Jesus. 

Today it was not wonderful, it was painful.

There I was, on a bright Sunday morning, tramping through the forest.  Watching the just turning leaves.  Seeing the squirrels running across the path in their hurried preparation for coming season.  Listening to the birdsong and saying “good morning” to dog walkers, joggers and horse riders without having to really engage with them.  Breathing in the good, clear fresh air.

It was as I rounded a bend that I spotted it. 

photo by author

A tree. 

Blackened and burnt. 

I wondered how it had got in this state.  Had it been struck by lightning?  Maybe it was the victim of some careless, discarded cigarette or match.  As the forest was looked after, I wondered why the foresters had not removed it.  The blasted tree stood as, either a monument to natures power or human carelessness.  I could only look and wonder.    

It was as I turned to leave that my eyes were drawn to something.  Through the decaying and blackened wood, there was a patch of green.  New life was emerging from the deadened tree.  It may have only been the odd shoot, but there were definite signs of life.  Resurrection was taking place. 

At least there is hope for a tree

I may have felt battered and bruised but at that moment, I began to hope that there was also room for resurrection.

If there is hope for a tree, there must be hope for me. 

If there is hope for me, then there must be hope for you too.

Listen to the trees!

One of the highlights of my recent holiday was a walk I took in Sherwood Forest.  I was a very small child the last time I went.  I can remember being taken to see the Major Oak and hearing the stories of Robin Hood!

I was troubled by no outlaws on my perambulation through the forest, it was such a peaceful place.  I marvelled at the ages of some of the trees and wondered, if they could talk, what stories they would tell.  There was one I saw which fascinated me so, I had to take a quick photo of it.

(photograph by author)

The tree is, quite literally, split down the middle.  If you look carefully, you can see that it is held together by two thick, hefty metal bands.  I had never seen anything quite like it before.  It certainly got me thinking.  I found myself reflecting on some verses from the Bible which say;

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

(Colossians 3 vs. 12 – 14)

I looked at the tree which seemed, to me, a picture of the Church.  There are many things that drive us apart from one another.  The recent pandemic is an example of this; circumstances meant that it was unwise to be together and so, we were forced apart. 

There are other things too.  Opinions, preferences, theological interpretation, ideology all play their part in separating us.  As someone once observed “put two Baptists in a room together, you can get six opinions!”

I think we need to take Paul’s words, written to the Colossians all those years ago, on board.  We need to accept that, not everybody sees things the same way we do.  Sometimes, we need to be gracious and bear with those who do not see what we see. 

The final part of these verses, speak about “putting on love.”  As I looked at the tree in Sherwood Forest, I saw those metal bands as an illustration of the love that the Apostle Paul writes of.

If you use the word “love” some will see it as a weak, wishy washy, emotional response. 

It is not!

Those metal rings holding the tree together are serious lumps of galvanised steel.  They were so solid, that the tree was not going to split any further.  I believe that is the kind of love Paul is writing about. 

As I walked further on into the forest, I found myself thinking, if we do not “put on love” then, all we are doing, is helping the tree to split further.

It’s Easy To Lose Heart

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It’s easy to lose heart.

I imagine that is what happened to Peter, that night on the lake.  In the midst of the storm, as Jesus approached the battered boat he told his disciples to “take heart”.

Peter felt bold, courageous and he took Jesus at his word.  Peter was the one who had the courage to step out of the boat and walk towards Jesus, on the water.  Matthews gospel tells us;

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’

(Matthew 14 vs. 30)

How do you see the wind?  You cannot, of course. What you see is the effects of the wind.  So, Peter sees the height of the waves, he feels the cold of the breeze, his body feels the chill and buffeting of the breath of air and his mind calculates the danger he is in.

Even though Jesus was there, Peter found out that it’s easy to lose heart.

It’s easy to lose heart.

It happens to all of us, at one time or another.  We may not be boat sailing, storm facing disciples.  We may not even be the bold, walking on the water disciples.  We may think of ourselves as the normal, everyday run of the mill disciples.  When the wind blows we lose heart.

It’s easy to lose heart

The chill wind of criticism; the fear of a hospital visit; the facing of an unknown future; the hurt of a too painful past.  The wind blows, and our little vessel feels its effect.

It’s easy to lose heart

For Peter, that night on the lake, a hand reached out and grabbed his.  I imagine a gentle smile on the face of Jesus, as he says “why did you doubt?”  He knows that it is easy to lose heart.

It’s easy to lose heart, but when we remember that Jesus is present, his arm outstretched, ready to grab us and haul to security, we can dare to be courageous.

It’s easy to lose heart, with Jesus it is possible to find it again.

Hitting Pause

As the so called “freedom day” moves nearer, I am becoming increasingly nervous.

My nervousness is not just because of the increasing cases of COVID 19, although it cannot be ignored.  Nor is my nervousness because I do not think this “freedom” will not quite be what people are hoping.  The reality is, COVID is still with us, and there will be some precautions we will need to take for some time.

My nervousness is based on a concern that people will expect to pick up where we left off last March, as if nothing has happened.  I fear some people are going to be disappointed.

I do not want to pour cold water on peoples hopes, nor am I a “doom and gloom” merchant.  But, I have been reflecting on this as I read a Bible verse;

Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

(Mark 6 vs. 31)

Jesus had sent the disciples out on the mission field.  He had told them to take nothing with them, but to simply trust that God would provide for their needs.

What those disciples discovered was that God not only met their needs but, God had blessed them abundantly.  They had a message to preach.  They brought healing and wholeness.  There were signs of the kingdom breaking through.

When they return to Jesus they must have been absolutely “on fire” for the kingdom and raring to go. It was exciting and if Jesus had said to them, “That’s great guys, off you go again” they would have done.

Jesus response seems a little strange;

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Why, when everything just seems to be green light go, does Jesus slam the brakes on?

Why does Jesus hit the pause button?

After so many months of lockdown, many are straining at the lead and raring to go.  We want groups to re-open.  Activity.  We have had a whole year and a bit and now, this is it.

But, I wonder, if Jesus may be saying to us;

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Why would he say that?

I have come to believe that Jesus is inviting the disciples to step aside and process all that has been happening to them. 

I am sure that the Church I attend is not unique.  A lot has happened to us as individuals and as a fellowship.  We have said goodbye to some folk.  Some of us have faced major challenges in our working environment.  Others have had health issues.

Many of us have had to face our fears in the various circumstances in which we have found ourselves.  Most of us have had to live with disappointments.  Quite a few of us have been far busier than we would have expected to have been, under normal circumstances.

We need a chance to process, to draw breath and find where God is leading us now.

I don’t know whether we are going to be in normal, new normal or new new normal. What I sense is, Jesus is hitting the pause button.  I believe he is saying to us;

“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

As we do that, He will renew and strengthen us for the next part of our journey with him.

Life without all the answers

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How do you choose the books you read?

Perhaps you go by author, you have been challenged by or appreciated previous writings. Maybe a friend or colleague has recommended a particular writer. Maybe it is the theme of the book. The writer is addressing a subject that you are interested in, or want to learn more about.  Some may be attracted by the cover design which piques an interest and leads them to want to find out more.

With the book I have been reading recently, it was neither the theme, nor the writer; it was the strapline.  A few words on the front cover grabbed my attention and spoke to the emptiness within.  The writer is David Hansen, the book ‘The Art of Pastoring’, the strapline ‘Ministry without all the answers’. 

When the first lockdown was announced, I felt utterly bereft.  All of my activity, all my doing for God ground to a halt.  I can remember sitting in my study and praying “what do I do now?”. Having had quite a long ministry in my present Church, my role had markers throughout the week; tasks that needed to be accomplished on certain days.  I was living, to use David Hansen’s phrase, a “task driven ministry”.  With no tasks, my ministry was suddenly cut adrift and I did not know where I would float too.

Through reading David Hansen’s book, I actually believe I began to re-sense what my original calling was about.  Like many, I had become so busy “doing” for Jesus, I had lost sight of what ministry can truly be.  I felt really challenged as Hansen describes ministers and ministry as being a parable of Jesus. 

If my life was a parable, what was the message it was communicating?

A parable draws a comparison between something that is known and something that is un-known.  Jesus sometimes began his parables with the words “the kingdom of Heaven is like…” Hansen says:

Here’s what the pastoral ministry is for me: Every day as I go about my tasks as a pastor, I am a follower of Jesus.  I am therefore a parable of him to those I encounter.  The parable of Jesus works the power and presence of Jesus in their lives.

(page 31)

As we begin to emerge from this time of pandemic, many ministers and churches will, no doubt, want to make up for lost time and get busy again.  In the midst of my busy-ness, I am planning to take with me a question;

If my life is a parable, what message am I communicating?

If you would like to borrow the question, you are welcome!

Where are you?

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There has been a single verse of scripture floating around in my mind for a few days now.  It comes from a story in the book of Genesis.  Adam and Eve have disobeyed God and, in their shame, they decide that if they hide they might just get away with it!  The verse that follows this says;

But the Lord God called to the man, “where are you?” (Genesis 3 vs. 9)

I am sure this is a question that many of us have asked of God. Sometimes, we ask it in our fear.  Sometimes we ask it in anger at the state of the world.  Sometimes we ask it because we cannot work out what God is up to in our situation.

“Where are you in the face of this pandemic?”

“Where are you in the face of this diagnosis?”

“Where are you as I face loneliness?”

In the Genesis verse, God turns the tables.  Humanity is not asking the question of God, instead God is asking the question of humanity!

As I pondered these words, the first thing that occurred to me was that it is a strange question for God to ask.  After all, God knew the answer.  This is not a question of location.  God is not seeking the whereabouts of humanity, like a set of lost keys.

He knew what humans had done.  He knew that they had broken the rule of not eating the fruit from that particular tree.  He knew they were hiding from Him and, as He walked in that particular part of the garden, he must have known where they were hiding.  The scene that then follows is less than edifying.  The man blames the woman.  The woman blames the serpent.  The serpent hasn’t got a leg to stand on!

So, does God ask the question in order to humiliate and shame humans into confessing their guilt?

I don’t think so. 

As I have pondered the question, I see this as the universal, continual question raised by God to all humanity for all time “where are you?”

This is not a question of accusation, but it is a question of relation.

This is a question asked by the God who loves humanity, cares for humanity and is genuinely concerned for us.

As I heard the question, I took some time to journal; to pray; to share with God and, I discovered, as I answered God already knew.  Most importantly, God really cared.

Listen very carefully, I think God may be calling out to you – “where are you?”

Infectious?

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In January, I had an experience which recently came back to haunt me.

As a fresh lockdown had begun, I had spent a week working from home. I had not left our house for any purpose for the whole of the week.  I had not been to the shops, to the office or anywhere.

‘Twas on the Monday morning when I received the call.  I was needed for Grandad duty.  My mission; take my granddaughter to school and my grandson to nursery.

The mission was a success!

My young charges safely delivered, to their places of education.  I was looking forward to a, well earned, mug of tea before I tackled my duties for the day.  I had just returned home and was switching on the computer and kettle (not necessarily in that order) when my mobile phone started to make funny noises.

I had been “pinged” by the Track and Trace App.

It advised me that I had been in contact with somebody who had symptoms of COVID 19 and I was required to isolate.

I couldn’t believe it! 

Other than the school and nursery that morning, I had not been anywhere.  How could I have come into contact with anyone with COVID 19?  I hadn’t spoken to anyone.  I had walked past people true enough, but there was no interaction. 

I felt angry!

Someone “out there” putting others at risk of this awful disease?

My anger, however, quickly turned to concern.  Who was the carrier?  Were they okay?

Of course, I would never find the answer to my questions.  Thankfully, I never developed any symptoms and so was able to file the experience at the back of my mind, labelled “one of those things.”

The memory did resurface. This week, as I was reading I was reading Acts 7 and 8.  It is the account of the persecution suffered by the Early Church. 

Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him.

(Acts 7 vs. 58 – chpt 8 vs. 1)

I wondered why Luke, the writer of Acts, should tell us that Saul was a young man?  Also, why does he tells us that Saul approved of their actions against Stephen?

As I have mulled it over, I wondered if Luke was giving us a bit of a warning?

Whether we like it or not, we all influence others.  The attitudes we hold, often communicate far more powerfully than the words we use.  Like an unseen virus, our attitudes can be spread without us even realising we are doing it.  As the R number of our attitude increases we can end up “infecting” many others for good or ill.

Perhaps, Luke points out the youth and approval of Saul to warn us to watch our attitudes and warn us, a negative attitude, can cause injustice to perpetuate from generation to generation.

Saul, later Paul, was to write these words;

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus

(Philippians 2 vs. 5)

Or, as The Passion Translation puts it;

Let his mindset become your motivation.

(Philippians 2 vs. 5)

I think that gives us all something to think about! 

Hungry and thirsty?

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I was reflecting on one of Jesus statements in my quiet time today;

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

(John 6 vs. 35)

Jesus original hearers would have known what is truly like to struggle for food and water.

On that surface level, Jesus words mean very little to me.  I am one of the blessed people in the world; I have not experienced real physical hunger.   I have always been able to quench my thirst because, unlike many in our world, I have never had to live with a lack of clean water.

Of course, I have heard plenty of sermons on this passage over the years.  I know that there are deeper, internal hungers. We all have them.  The hunger for relationships, friendships, significance and being valued.  I am sure you could name many other ways in which you hunger.

This period of pandemic has, for me, highlighted the things that I internally hunger for.  I wish I could tell you that “Jesus has supplied my every need”, but I still hunger and I still thirst.  So, does this mean that Jesus cannot meet me in the hunger of my soul?

In my reflection, I tried a bit of role play (thankfully nobody else was near the office at the time!!!).  I imagined that I had gone to see my minister to talk through the problem.  I wanted to know what my minister would advise me to do.  The answer my minister gave was, “pray”.

At first, I thought my minister had missed the point of what I was asking.  Then I realised that my minister had given me the wisest piece of advice I had ever heard. 

Pray.  Such a small word that carries with it immense depth.  What I began to realise is that

The vacuum in my soul creates space for prayer

This type of prayer is not about talking and listening to God.  It is just about being in the presence of God, one friend with another. It is about being known and loved by God.  It is about being aware of God and, in that awareness, our souls are fed and watered.

If you are hungry and thirsty at the moment, allow me to give you the piece of advice that my minister gave me

Pray

Stepping off a ladder

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Have you ever had one of those moments when, suddenly, you see things more clearly than you used to?

It seems to be happening to me rather a lot at the moment.  Let me explain to you how, this is happening.

I have been reading a book called The Art of Pastoring – Ministry without all the answers by David Hansen.  There are two ways of reading a book.  You can rattle through it at break neck speed and tick it off the “books I have read” list.  Or, as I did with this book, slowly and reflectively.  As I soon discovered, I was reading this book in the way it really deserved.  I have taken the opportunity, every few pages to stop and journal my reflections.  I have been challenged, in ways I could not even begin to describe on paper, to re-think my approach to the way that I minister.

It has taken me nearly a month to reach chapter 4.  The topic was temptation of ambition.  I am not, by nature, an ambitious person.  I am happy with my calling to be a local Church Pastor.  I have never had the ambition to be an international speaker or celebrity pastor.  I must be on safe ground with this chapter I, mistakenly, thought.  It was when I read;

There is no other possible conclusion: every pastor must choose between ladder-climbing and love. 

(David Hansen The Art of Pastoring – Ministry without all the answers page 76)

It was then, that I heard God whisper “you may not have been on the career ladder, but you have stood on others” that it really hit me.  The temptation to stand on a ladder is subtle, so subtle that it can feel as though you are ministering

  • The ladder of being observed
  • The ladder of being noticed
  • The ladder of being significant
  • The ladder of being needed
  • The ladder of being heard

Jesus was spot on when he said;

No one can serve two masters

(Matthew 6 vs. 24)

As David Hansen brilliantly puts it;

The real nub of the temptation to climb ladders is the lie, fed me by the devil, that I can climb the ladder and love those around me at the same time.  It centres on me.  It feeds my ego.

(page 76 – 77)

I think there is a lesson for all of us here, whether of the “dog collar” variety or not, we all have a ministry.

I cannot judge others (that would be climbing another ladder), I can only ask for the grace of God to step off the ladders I am standing on.  I need to face the choice, daily, between ladder climbing and love.  My prayer is that I will make the right choice, my prayer for you is that God’s grace will help you make the right choice too.