Day 18 - Issue 26

July 19, 2018

Psalm 88:5 NLT

'They have left me among the dead, and I lie like a corpse in a grave.'

After Katey died I felt forlorn, abandoned and alone. I’d been grieving one way or another throughout the 18 years she wrestled with MS. Yet, once she left this world, I began a new journey with grief. No longer could I sit alongside her, hold her hand, or gently stroke her cheek. The reality was hard to accept, harder still to embrace.

In a similar way, I both lost sight of God and grieved the loss of my previously held convictions. These had been born and sustained largely through my success within the context of evangelical Christianity. Now, with my wife dead, I felt as though my life had come to an end, as if my purpose was concluded.

I was sad, yet sadness led me into the mire of self-pity. While I recognised that my future was apparently to be alone, it did not mean I needed to be lonely. I had the power to open or close my heart. I had the freedom to accept or reject God. Why was it I avoided those who might offer me encouragement and nourishment in desperate times? The bruised part of me determined to sever my connections with everyday life and remain hidden from public view, even avoiding the gaze of God. Yet, that part that longed for spiritual nourishment cried out in lostness and confusion, hoping to find God again.

I slowly realised that God operates in the land of the living. I had to choose to live and place myself in the way of God. Starting a journey with the spiritual inertia I had built up was difficult and took time. I needed to find who it was I was pursuing and how I might re-encounter the God I had once so keenly followed. Leave the dead to bury the dead (see Matthew 8:22), get up and follow Jesus.

QUESTION: How is the gospel good news to those stuck in “the mire of self-pity”?

PRAYER: Lord, for those who are suffering and struggling with grief and loss, help them rediscover the God of all life.

00:0000:00

Day 17 - Issue 26

July 18, 2018

Psalm 88:3 ESV

'For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.'

The phrase “the shadow of one’s former self” is familiar. I certainly observed that in myself as I fulfilled the role of carer for my first wife. It was the unrelenting impact of her declining health combined with my own lack of an answer to make everything better again. My mood darkened, my humour became barbed and my patience exhausted. It was difficult to accompany Katey over those days. My faith was challenged and all those positive affirmations so easily presented from the pulpit all came back to haunt me. I was unable to find comfort from a single one, however deeply embedded in truth they were.

The psalmist here refers to Sheol, the land of the dead in Hebrew understanding. Populated by shadows there was no memory, no sound and no light. It was the destination for all, human and beast, righteous and unrighteous. Here we discover the psalmist has reached the end of himself. He fears he is on the very edge of Sheol. Hope drains from him and he holds onto God with little hope or expectation of deliverance. We can find ourselves there.

My own journey taught me that I needed to reach an end of myself. Surprisingly to me, this took far longer than I imagined possible. I fought this draining of my hope and the essence of life itself. I fought it, not by taking my stand with God, but rather by complaining about the loss of everything I wanted from God to make my life comfortable and complete. I wanted a God-shaped plan designed by myself. I was ill-prepared to walk alongside a God who reminded me I’d surrendered all of myself to him.

A longing for death was born out of the apparent failure of God or my friends to rescue me from my hellhole. I thought back to the reactionary child within me, always wanting his own way, and discovered God’s discipline was as painful as that of my parents’. I fought hard and lived among the shadows of Sheol for a time.

QUESTION: What do you do when your soul is full of troubles?

PRAYER: Lord, I’m thankful that even in the valley of the shadow of death you have promised you will be there.

00:0000:00

Day 16 - Issue 26

July 17, 2018

Psalm 88:2 NLT

'Now hear my prayer; listen to my cry.'

When I regularly travelled throughout the world for work, I was fascinated by the variety of landscapes I experienced; from the familiarity of the Manhattan skyline to the rocky desert of eastern Turkey. Each had its own charms, its people bringing vibrant colour and texture. I saw vast wealth and abject poverty. I was struck by the resilience of humanity. I also discovered that everyone craves a stable life where they might care for family and find a measure of happiness.

I assumed as a youngster that I might somehow avoid tragedy in my life. I experienced no tragedy growing up and assumed that once I became a Christian I’d established a Holy Spirit firewall between me and misery. How naïve and arrogant! Busy with pursuing life, I’d little time to observe human tragedy acted out all around me. I joyfully assumed everyone was as settled and stable as I felt I was.

Prayer was central to my early Christian life. I made my requests known to God (Philippians 4:6) and assumed that God’s responsibility was to answer my prayers. God must protect me from anything ‘evil’, or that disadvantaged me. It was a rude awakening when the reality of life landed on my doorstep. My request was not answered and I experienced acute disappointment. Oh, how I called out to God. I requested, demanded and pleaded with God to, “incline [his] ear” (Psalm 86:1, ESV) to my request. I was greeted with silence! I concluded God was merely capricious, refusing to hear and respond to my prayer. Little did I understand the ways of God or appreciate what persevering in faith required of me.

When God appears silent and absent, it’s easy to conclude that he is no longer committed to me, or that he no longer exists. When God is silent, apparently absent, he hasn’t evaporated. It’s the landscape through which God leads us that presents us with overwhelming challenges. While life appears to be drifting towards chaos, God is still ordering its progress. The question is, do I have the capacity to persevere through the pain and despair I encounter and experience?

QUESTION: How many unanswered prayers have you buried, fearing they might injure or even destroy your faith?

PRAYER: Lord, whatever the landscape you lead me through, whether wilderness or peaceful meadows, help me to trust in you.

 

00:0000:00

Day 15 - Issue 26

July 16, 2018

Colossians 3:15 NLT

'And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.'

Peace is defined as “a freedom from disturbance”. When we moved St Cuthbert’s Oratory from the city of Portsmouth to a large village outside Romsey, we immediately lost the disturbance created by noise. Actually, I quite missed the ‘buzz’, having lived in an urban setting for most of my adult life. But now I have come to love the stillness to which I awake each morning. However, the more unsettling ‘disturbance’ is experienced within the human heart.

For many of us, life is made difficult as much by the feelings we experience as by the external circumstances we have to navigate. Paul reminds us that we are to look to Christ for the peace that enables us to live with external pressure and the internal anxiety it generates. Our anxiety is usually caused as we worry about aspects of life that lie beyond our control.

A useful way of looking at life is to apply the TOP principle. This invites me to look at my situation and identify what is Totally within my control, what lies Outside my control and what is Partially in my control. Most of us spend our time seeking to resolve, usually within our heads, things that lie outside our control. This is wasted energy and effort for the simple reason we don’t have the authority to affect them, no matter how much we worry. Better to be thankful that we can carry these things and name them before God and know that our future lies within God’s hands. I now apply the TOP principle, act on what is in my control, totally or partially, and then present that and what’s outside my control to God in prayer, grateful I can leave it with him. My emotions may take a while to catch up, yet I quell the inner disturbance and find the promised peace of God and give thanks.

QUESTION: Will you let God know the source of your anxiety and own your very real fears? Then give God what lies outside of your control and request God’s peace with thanks.

PRAYER: Lord, give me the wisdom to discern what I can act upon and what I must leave in your care, grateful that you are always present.

00:0000:00

Day 14 - Issue 26

July 13, 2018

James 1:3 NLT

'For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.'

Thankfulness in life’s bleak times doesn’t sound like common sense. Why and how can we give thanks when things go wrong? In my ‘now’ pain, it’s tough to see any good reason to be thankful. Yet, scripture reveals it is through challenges we face that God seeds resilience in our soul. Naturally my first response is to be disheartened by the challenge, yet I have within me God-given resilience and elasticity to absorb the challenge and then bounce back.

I recently visited a dear friend who has faced two major battles with cancer with the most intrusive treatments. I find her at peace, even though she doesn’t have the all-clear yet. She has an inspiring fortitude with no ounce of anger, bitterness or regret, surely the work of God alone.

I remind myself that God is always only a breath away. When we breathe it’s an unconscious reminder of God’s presence, for human life was animated through God’s breath, and life continues as long as we breathe. Every breath can be its own prayer, especially useful when I cannot form words or focus upon scripture. It’s a reminder that I am always so close to God, a reminder I too often take God’s presence for granted as I rush through life. An unexpected challenge interrupts my life and provokes me to consider where I am with God and, more importantly, where is God in my life? Scripture helpfully reminds me, ‘The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed’ (Psalm 34:18).

Disappointment is perhaps the greatest test to our faith. Will I find the resilience to continue, or lie down and give up? This is something Jonah tried, and God still spoke back to him. Initially we may feel like giving up. However, God walks with us, simply a breath away, and we can, with countless others, find our way to giving thanks to God despite circumstance.

QUESTION: What do you need that might help you become resilient? Make that known to God.

PRAYER: Lord, thank you that you are always at hand to guide, strengthen and sustain.

00:0000:00

Day 13 - Issue 26

July 12, 2018

Psalm 138:3 NLT

'As soon as I pray, you answer me; you encourage me by giving me strength.'

We live in an increasingly instant age. If I want something, I want it now; not next week or next year. From essentials made instantly available on credit to luxuries purchased in the moment and paid off over time, advertisers promise me access to all my dreams today, with no invitation to consider the reality of my subsequent indebtedness. Unsecured consumer debt in the UK, that is, debt that is not backed up with any means to pay it off, averages £13,000 per UK household (this excludes mortgage debt) and is predicted to reach 47 per cent of household income by 2021 by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

In a culture conditioned to expect instant material gratification, do we expect the same of our life with God? Do the promises in scripture invite us to treat God’s grace as a form of unrealised credit so we might have all our wildest prayers met? Life suggests this doesn’t happen. Indeed, some grow disenchanted with God, even bitter, when prayers are not answered in the terms in which they’re prayed.

Life is full of challenges, so how can the psalmist state so boldly that prayer is answered as soon as it is prayed? Jesus says much the same (Luke 11:10). The problem is that my appeal to God can become confused with my specific request of God. Jayne has a life-impacting chronic pain condition. I pray and I would love that condition to be removed in its entirety. Yet, I may not have clarity from God that this is the prayer I may make. So I carry Jayne into God’s throne room of grace and hold her before the Lord. This is prayer – to act as a go-between or to intercede. I carry someone and hold them before God. I know God receives them and hears my prayer. I draw encouragement and strength, while thankful for the opportunity to approach God.

I have slowly learned to be thankful. The act of prayer, presenting the challenge to God, provides the strength to continue to keep going, while highlighting my humanity and where I need to discern the grace of God today for myself.

QUESTION: How do you react if God makes you wait for something?

PRAYER: Lord, help me to trust in your ways when I am impatient.

00:0000:00

Day 12 - Issue 26

July 11, 2018

Isaiah 30:21 NLT

Right behind you a voice will say, “This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or to the left.'

On many days, the roads I drive down are choked with queues, jams and delays. Roadworks spring up and new housing developments lay claim to already crowded roads. So I am thankful for GPS and the opportunity to drive along little-known roads, usually without another car in sight. Both my journey time and personal joy increase in equal measure – in fact, I can declare with the psalmist that ‘My cup overflows with blessings’ (Psalm 23:5)!

In the early spring I left a meeting exactly at 5pm. Rush hour was moving into full throttle. I knew my normal route would be slow all the way home. So I plugged in maps on my phone and was delighted as I was directed along roads less travelled. The sun was setting, resulting in that beautiful light that precedes the dusk. The fiery ball of the sinking sun accompanied me throughout. I meandered through the Hampshire countryside along minor roads. Surrounded by trees and woodland, my eyes drank in their beauty. Stress rolled off my shoulders and I found myself thanking God aloud for the glory of nature all around me.

So often, thankfulness lies within our grasp, yet we choose to travel the wrong road and end up grumpy and frustrated. Had we taken a different path, one that perhaps did not offer the quickest route to our destination, we might unlock the sights and sounds that will cause our heart to sing and make its way into the throne room of God. That was my learning and experience that evening. The only time when I ran into traffic was when I chose to ignore the GPS because I recognised a road. Trusting in my own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) only led me back into traffic unnecessarily and delayed my ultimate arrival home by 15 minutes, or so my phone smugly informed me.

QUESTION: What opportunities does today offer to slow down, open your eyes to what is around you and give thanks to God?

PRAYER: Lord, there is so much beauty all around and so often I miss it. Open my eyes and help me see.

00:0000:00

Day 11 - Issue 26

July 10, 2018

Colossians 4:2 NLT

'Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart.'

In February I needed to prune the runaway beech hedge in my garden while it was still dormant. All of life has seasons within which certain tasks need to be achieved. A twelve-foot thick hedge was to become an eight-foot hedge and we would recover four feet of garden in the process.

I was intimidated by the size of the task but set about it with a tree saw, since there was not enough room to wield a chainsaw safely. As I began, I wondered where I might meet God in this task. I have discovered everything affords an opportunity for thanksgiving. It’s just that we need to open our eyes to observe God even in the most mundane of situations. I found the rhythm of the sawing, the removal of tree branches, the slow but definite inroads I made upon my task, all caused my heart to sing.

There is something beautiful about manual work. I feel the strain as the work demands muscular endeavour as much as mental ability. It grounds me and reminds me that I am body and spirit. So much of life can draw on just one aspect of our beautiful humanity, yet God is committed to wholeness, illustrated in the way three persons are also one God. There’s a chance any one of us can look down on one or more aspects of their humanity. We may feel ugly, fat, unintelligent or lacking in confidence. Yet, God sees each and every aspect of who we are created to be and to become, and all barriers to beauty are of our own making.

Just as my beech hedge needed some radical cutting back, there are seasons when the bad thoughts I have about myself require the pruning of the Holy Spirit so that again, like my hedge, I might grow back stronger and healthier. We are so often our own greatest critics, thereby stunting our growth.

QUESTION: What aspects of your character needs pruning?

PRAYER: Father, thank you that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NIV) and yet Lord, shape me for good growth.

00:0000:00

Day 10 - Issue 26

July 9, 2018

Galatians 6:10 NLT 

'Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone –especially to those in the family of faith.'

One family tradition we have is to watch the movie The Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. It’s fun, nostalgic and now an essential part of our Christmas together. It also carries the message of Christmas. How we perceive the world and our place in it will determine our actions. As Scrooge discovers, perhaps to his surprise, he is capable of reframing his world and to move from selfishness to generosity.

It seems society has taken a course that promotes self-centredness above generosity. God’s way is to seek the good of all in every circumstance. As you make your long-term plans for Christmas, you will wrestle with two challenges. The first is the challenge of self-centeredness and the second is the challenge of generosity.

Since Christmas is a season of goodwill, it offers the perfect time to plan how we might live for others ahead of ourselves through this season. In planning, we’ll face all the objections our selfish self will raise as highly logical and appropriate reasons why we cannot afford to be generous. I find it a revelation, especially as I gaze back and can consider that I am here today by God’s grace. God hasn’t failed me yet, even though the going has proved tough physically and psychologically.

This thought process will free you up to frame Christmas in ways that reflect a generosity of spirit to others and your church community. You can plan to decide the best way to express the heart of Christmas. It will act as a defence against being driven by the forces that are unleashed from Black Friday onwards. Like Scrooge, you will make decisions born of your choice ahead of selfish instinct.

QUESTION: How can you reshape your Christmas around practising generosity and doing good?

PRAYER: Generous Father, help me to see ways of living for others and growing in generosity so Christmas becomes more about you and less about me.

00:0000:00

Day 9 - Issue 26

July 6, 2018

James 1:27 NLT

'Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.'

Last Christmas a friend of mine worked with his wife to provide a social space for people who would be on their own. It was facilitated by the local Churches Together group. It offers the opportunity to demonstrate the welcome and hospitality Jesus offers to all. Now, for a lot of people the pressure of their family Christmas will mean they need to rush home after the service. Yet, for a number of others, there is no one and nothing to rush home for. What a beautiful gift, enabling lonely people to find fellowship together on this day of all days.

I confess that my favourite activity on Christmas Day is the church worship gathering. In our church it’s at 9am. I love the families, the excited children and the congregation swollen by visitors staying with friends and family. It is a brief hour of singing carols and celebrating the incredible incarnation of Jesus. Our church has a crib and I loved the fact this year there was a photograph of a teenage boy included among the usual suspects, symbolising the displaced peoples at Christmas who Jesus has not forgotten, reminding us to offer our prayers and any other support we can.

However, I would love to serve my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who have been bereaved in the year and face their first solo Christmas. We can all too easily assume everyone has some family somewhere to celebrate with over Christmas, but it is a misplaced and false assumption.

Now’s the time to consider if you can mobilise others and provide an opportunity for the lonely in the church to have something of a Christmas moment before heading back to your own celebrations. It would be helpful to have a large notebook open in which you could encourage people to write up their favourite Christmas memory. What a record that would provide for future church generations.

QUESTION: How could you make space for people who might be on their own at Christmas?

PRAYER: Lord, at Christmas we remember that you gave us the gift of your presence. Help me see ways I can make that gift to people too.

00:0000:00