Day 39 - Issue 24

February 22, 2018

Exodus 16:3b NLT

'There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.' 

Dependency is not something we commend in our social construct. Often those who are dependent are looked down on and find themselves described as scroungers. We pride ourselves on independence, an ability to take responsibility for ourselves. Sadly, not everyone is as independent as they might like. Others move from independence to dependency through ageing or life-changing events, such as a serious accident. The other side of the coin is that as a society we define so much with reference to the individual. As a result a large swathe of society’s communal space is only accessible to those who remain independent.

The Israelites, rather like us, stumble from one crisis to another. No sooner has God intervened on their behalf, than they find themselves moaning about the lack of future provision. Their moaning, like ours, is always the precursor to despair. They are unable to find how they might sustain themselves, and have as yet failed to discern that God, who delivered them from the hands of Pharaoh’s army, is capable of sustaining them through every wilderness they wander into.

This, I think, is the major struggle for us all. Is it really possible to live my life wholly convinced and then dependent upon God’s ability to care for me? Declarations of conviction can roll off the tongue easily enough and are supported by innumerable scriptures. Yet, I feel more comfortable when I take responsibility for myself and look to God for assurances to run alongside my own independent stewardship. In honesty I hope I can entirely trust God, while in practice I find it difficult to place all my confidence in God’s provision.

I also have to distinguish between my choices and God’s provision. As with Israel, manna and quail may not have been their menu preference. But it is a provision and God’s choice for the season they find themselves in. On every walk of faith, there is the need to acknowledge personal dependency on God and the courage to test this dependency.

QUESTION: What does it mean for you to ‘live by faith’?

PRAYER: Father, they called you ‘Jehovah Jireh’, the God who provides; help me to see that in you too.

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Day 38 - Issue 24

February 21, 2018

Exodus 15:27 NLT

After leaving Marah, the Israelites traveled on to the oasis of Elim, where they found twelve springs and seventy palm trees. They camped there beside the water.

When Katey died, it was a moment of great stillness and beauty. It was also the start of a fresh season of grief, the intensity of which took me by surprise, since we had known for years that this was the end game we faced. Grief, unique to each individual, slowed me down. I tired easily, had minimal concentration and lost all sense of time. Those who visited and called were both present and distant, for to this day I cannot remember engaging with them.

This shadowland I had entered was another wilderness to navigate. I didn’t know what I wanted, only that I had to get through each day as it happened. I knew God in the heart of this wilderness and started a fresh journey of listening and responding, although for a year it was listening in the main; my capacity to respond was shot. I was an empty shell, disorientated, confused and uncertain. I recall making a personal day retreat on the anniversary of Katey’s death and here I found something within me rising in response to God; this was my ‘Elim’, a shaded oasis to rest awhile and draw strength. Here I said yes to God’s call to explore the way of the hermit, although I knew little of what the word or the call entailed. I was just grateful to discern God’s voice.

For some weeks I moved out of the shadowlands. Everything hit me with a fresh intensity; the warmth of the autumn sunshine, the colours of the ripe berries in the trees, the bright hues of the sky and the crispness of the air. I became present to life and the world once more. I felt alive, more alive than I had ever felt.

QUESTION: Where is your oasis, your place to gather strength and hear God speak?

PRAYER: Lord, lead me beside still waters that my soul can be renewed in you.

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Day 37 - Issue 24

February 20, 2018

Exodus 15:26 NLT

He [God] said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.”

Healing is greatly prized throughout society. We fear terminal illness and we struggle with the thought of the physical body’s decline. Each of us is mortal, yet to accept our mortality can prove a struggle. That struggle is more acute when we are invited to face up to our mortality sooner than expected.

I discovered I had blinkers on when it came to Katey’s MS and healing. Yet, two things slowly became clear to me. As I devoted more energy to prayer than was my norm because now I needed the mountain of MS to move, God revealed to me the variance there was between God’s voice and my life. I had been living as I chose to live in response to God, rather than living as he requested me to live. Quite simply I had failed to listen, discern and then live obediently in God’s way. My walk of faith was superficial even though it was sincere.

At the same time I was forced to remove my blinkers and learn that healing was about wholeness. While Katey declined physically she grew immeasurably in God. The battle became less about Katey’s ability to embrace God and move quietly towards God’s eternal embrace, as it did about my inability to loosen my dependence upon her. My search for physical healing was more about my own need for stability and satisfaction than Katey's.

Life is a gift from God and in rediscovering faith I acknowledged this reality and faced the challenge of entrusting all my life into God’s care. It faced me up with my own inner need to control my present and future, which is something God demanded I give over into his safe-keeping. This was the start of a long and often lonely battle.

QUESTION: Are you able to hear and then submit to God’s voice?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, you said often what matters most is not just to hear your will, but to do it. Help me do what matters most.

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Day 36 - Issue 24

February 19, 2018

Exodus 15:23 NLT

When they came to the oasis of Marah, the water was too bitter to drink. So they called the place Marah (which means ‘bitter’).

At the start of any journey there is a mixture of excitement and anxiety. The destination is the goal, but the details of the journey start to demand our attention. I travel easily and I travel light. Even so, there can be unanticipated events that disrupt my planned arrival at my destination. Such external interruptions have an impact upon my inner being.

As Israel miraculously escaped through the Red Sea, after brief celebration, they quickly discovered the reality of the wilderness they’d entered. They were pioneers exploring the consequences of saying yes to God. Their first experience was finding refreshment that proved bitter to the taste. This in turn caused them to despair.

I can see that life is a journey towards God’s eternal embrace. I have little control over the time at which I step into that embrace, something Katey and I discovered as MS took her life aged 53. This was not the destination, the end point we’d imagined, and one we were ill-prepared for. Initially assuming that God would intervene and physically heal Katey, we were disappointed at the bitter reality that this was not to be the case. Like the Israelites, we looked to blame someone for this. We called out to God, yet God’s answer, or our ability to hear and take hold of that answer, was not conveniently located in the equivalent of the next verse.

We had to find the resilience required to continue our journey in faith. The wilderness was a place of difficulty with no obvious sources of life support. We had to decide if we were to go on or turn back.

Resilience, the ability to recover in the face of difficulties and then go on to overcome them is a fundamental for every follower of Jesus determined to walk the way of faith. Without developing resilience, we will most certainly falter and jeopardise our chances of ever reaching our destination.

QUESTION: How resilient is your faith?

PRAYER: Lord, you have never promised me a life without trial or testing, but I’m grateful you have promised to never leave me through all the trials of life.

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Day 35 - Issue 24

February 16, 2018

Deuteronomy 4:29 NLT

'But from there you will search again for the Lord your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.'

While specific sin requires contrition and confession, penitence is a continuous state of being. The word means ‘repenting’. This is the condition within which we live as Christians, for true repentance is a consistent awareness of the reality that each one of us lives by grace. I find that my natural inclination when it comes to a prayer of confession might be to reference some single action that I recognise as being ‘wrong’ and which weighs heavy upon me. The ‘wrong’, whatever it might be, from the trivial to the serious, is no more than the consequence of the fault line that runs through each one of our fallen and therefore fractured lives.

As I reflect upon the journey behind me, I can describe many seasons through which I proved a disappointment to myself. Despite having confessed my sins and receiving God’s forgiveness, I can be robbed of the life of God by living in the shattered remnants of my past. God forgives and forgets.

Others who experienced me in such seasons find it much harder to forgive and forget. I might walk free by the grace of God, yet they become voices of remembrance that can only lead me to an unhealthy visitation of that which no longer exists, for God has forgotten it. Sadly, I have to move on from exposure to such people, for I cannot enter into what lies before me within God’s grace if I am weighed down by the false perceptions of others. Such perceptions act as shackles restricting my walk of faith, which is the way of the penitent. Mindful of God’s grace, I live aware of my fracture yet God’s deliverance, and so forgive myself as surely as God forgives me.

QUESTION: Do you still feel shackled by past ‘wrongs’?

PRAYER: Redeeming Father, thank you for the grace which has rescued me and forgiven me.

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Day 34 - Issue 24

February 15, 2018

Psalm 32:5 NLT

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.

My tradition as a new Christian was that confession remained a private matter between me and God. I was never quite comfortable with this. One thing I did know before I ever found Christ was my capacity to deceive others. I was less aware of the fact that I was equally deceiving myself.

Confession is the appropriate response to contrition. The darkness that lingers within each of us regardless of redemption can create a confusing battle in deepening our knowledge and encounter with God. This struggle is always best confessed rather than retained. While I can make such confession alone, I have found it best to confess my sins to others within the family of faith as well as to God. This helps me own my inner shame and acknowledge my fractured humanity.

Darkness offers far greater opportunity to hide than does the light. My fractured self loves the darkness, for I can determine the character of my appearance upon the stage of life. Everyone else relates to the persona I choose to present, and the more I present that persona, the better I become at both living out of this false self as well as convincing myself this is the authentic me. After a while, I lose complete sight of my true self. Out of touch with myself, I am most certainly out of touch with God.

I acknowledge to God my brokenness. I declare in honesty what I am seeking from God. I seek to clarify the internal barriers that obstruct my path towards greater enlightenment in the ways of God and a deepening trust in God’s capacity to care for me. Confessing my sins as well as my aspirations towards godliness is essential in my journey of deepening my faith walk.

QUESTION: How are you on confession? Shame and secrecy are tools that only oppress and finally crush us. Confession offers a road leading to freedom. Consider confession this Lent.

PRAYER: Lord, thank you for the grace of confession and the reminder that Christ has freed me from the grip of sin.

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Day 33 - Issue 24

February 14, 2018

Psalm 51:17 NLT

'The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.'

As we begin Lent, we’ll look at three words associated with repentance – contrition, confession and penitence. In some Christian traditions people will receive ashes, symbolic of choosing to lay sinful practices and events behind them. Originally begun in the fourth century for prodigals, those who had deliberately strayed from their Christian commitment, in the eleventh century it expanded to include all who decided to use Lent to renew their devotion to Christ.

I’ve found the journey of discipleship one of acute inner turmoil, even pain. My early Christian life knew nothing of this inner struggle. Only as I determined to know more of God was I overwhelmed with inner darkness, a loss of orientation and emotions ranging from anger to despair. Concentration diminished and I was restless. My prayer was to discover more of God’s inner light, to live out of grace alone. Yet, my experience was of distraction.

The word ‘contrition’ means ‘ground down’. This best describes my inner experience at this time. Is this what the psalmist means by a “broken spirit” and a “broken and contrite heart” (NIV)?

I discerned pride in my intention. I wanted people to notice, nod approvingly, acknowledging my deepening spirituality. It was self-aggrandisement, bringing a sacrifice so that others might see the scale and quality of my devotion. It had little to do with reverence of God. God was the side show, I was the main attraction. Contrition, I found, is that willingness to live in darkness, in lonely anticipation of God, regardless of the personal cost. True humility is hidden from all but God.

QUESTION: What would stop you from beginning a new adventure of faith with God today?

PRAYER: Lord God, I am far from where I could be, need to be, and only you can lead me there. Only you are the way, the truth and the life.

 

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Day 32 - Issue 24

February 13, 2018

Ephesians 5:2 NLT

'Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.'

Easter, or Holy, Saturday was the day many new Christians were baptised and welcomed into the Church. Lent was the period of preparation for these Catechumens, as they were called, for their reception into the Christian community and their first opportunity to receive bread and wine. Then Good Friday and Holy Saturday were added to the Lenten fast and Lent grew to 36 days of fasting. Over the next centuries, the Church established the practice of welcoming back the prodigals at Easter on Maundy Thursday alongside the Catechumens, or new Christians, on Holy Saturday. Since Wednesday and Friday were traditional fasting days in the Church calendar, the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent became the time to mark these penitents with the sign of the cross in ashes. This sign they didn’t wash off until Maundy Thursday, so wore throughout Lent.

So four more days were added to Lent, Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before the first Sunday of Lent, giving us 40 days of fasting, excluding the Sundays when the fast is broken in acknowledgement of Christ’s resurrection. Yet, fasting is not seen as some trial we must endure. It is seen as something that trains us in looking to God for completeness in our Christian life. We fast for something. The idea of missing a meal and replacing it with a period of prayer and scripture reading is that we might become more confident of the Christ we follow. It is especially important over Lent as we prepare to renew our commitment to following Jesus. All too often the Lenten fast has been replaced with an attempt to lose weight by giving up chocolate, with Jesus the excuse rather than the focus. Only fast if it is out of a desire to become more like Jesus, remembering to break that fast each Sunday and celebrate the reality of the resurrection.

QUESTION: Over these next few weeks, do you want to commit to deepening your friendship with Christ? If so, how will you fast?

PRAYER: Holy Spirit, train me, heart, mind, soul and body to live for Christ and Christ alone.

 

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Day 31 - Issue 24

February 12, 2018

2 Corinthians 2:15 NLT

'Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing.'

I invite you to join me on a journey into Lent. The word itself means ‘lengthen’ and reminds us of the season of springtime as the hours of daylight grow longer. It also speaks of the light that increasingly displaces the darkness, symbolic of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection in defeating the principalities and powers of evil.

Last summer, as I mentioned earlier, I decided to clear a long and large hedge of Cypress trees to make space for a vegetable plot. The trees had stood for many years with branches interwoven and thick with age. Having cleared all the branches with no more than a pruning saw, I used a chainsaw to bring down the trunks. Nothing prepared me for the sweet aroma that was released by each trunk as the saw felled it; a perfume that was pleasant and rich, which lingered on in the air.

I reflected on the choices we have, that even in adversity it’s possible to release the sweet aroma of Christ. While people look on empathetically yet grateful that my difficulties are not theirs, there is opportunity for the fragrance of Christ to overwhelm them and hopefully present some critical questions about the truth of the gospel and the reality of Messiah within disappointment. This is surely the message of Calvary; naked brutality and human torture releasing the fragrance of hope and redemption. Remarkably, the reality of Jesus is often found in the most appalling of life experience.

In preparing for Lent, we are invited to focus less upon sacrifice than on celebrating hope. Hope lifts our spirits and cannot help but prove contagious to those around us. We in no way marginalise the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice; rather, remembering those sawn-off trunks, we can reflect on the fragrance that is released through brokenness. The fragrance reminds us that through brokenness new life, new hope, new opportunity and new nourishment can be birthed.

QUESTION: In what ways is the fragrance of Christ being released through your life, whether in struggles or in successes?

PRAYER: Lord of all light, may in these dark days the light of Christ shine ever more brightly through your people.

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Day 30 - Issue 24

February 9, 2018

1 John 2:6 NLT

'Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.'

Together with a friend, I recently launched an online learning business. I hope this will provide a source of income, freeing me to pursue a life of prayer and spiritual mentoring of others here in the Oratory. Every hermit is instructed to take responsibility for their own income. In doing this there is that perennial question of describing myself in a way that might give others confidence in my training competence. The challenge is always to resist overselling oneself and simply describing one’s capability as a trainer of others.

Over the years, I have experienced a lot of identity change. Life experience has made considerable impact upon this, while the practices I adopt equally shape who I grow into. My identity is never static. It is forever influenced by the habits I adopt.

When I began to explore this way of prayer, a clear call God placed before me, and one which I took up with a fair measure of reluctance, I discovered there was a difference between praying and being a prayer. For all my years as a Christian, and even before, I had prayed. It was part of the landscape of discipleship that I embraced and practised. Yet, praying made little impression upon my identity. It was more like a smart phone app I utilised before switching to another app for some other activity. Slowly, I discovered that if I was to grow into a prayer, it was about identity change. It was about those characteristics that determined who I was. It involved letting go of things and people so that I might embrace the new me, crafted through the Spirit’s invitation.

Slowly over 15 years I have established my prayer habits. I can now contrast my contemporary self with the person I was 15 years ago, and I am shocked at the difference I perceive. I think others perceive it too, leaving some confused and uncertain of the person I am today. No matter, for I now inhabit the habits I developed through obedience and the identity that has emerged through the practice of those habits.

QUESTION: What habits do you need to stop and start in order to become more like Christ?

PRAYER: Father God, may my identity be that of one made new in Christ.

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