March 16, 2018
Luke 2:35b NLT
'And a sword will pierce your very soul.'
One great challenge I hadn’t anticipated ahead of time is the pain of releasing a child into the world. It’s all wonderful offering support, love and protection through their early years. Then, as they grow into an independent, semi-responsible human being, they want to explore life for themselves, stepping ever further from your parental grasp.
Telephone calls from university to say my daughter had been taken to A&E due to an accident, and later because she’d been set upon by a group of men and beaten up as a young adult making her way in London, caused my blood to run cold. Yet, this is growing up and a clear reminder that life happens and no one is immune from difficulty. All my parental instincts flew in two directions: a sharp inner pain because of my inability to protect her and make it all better, and an ungodly anger that issues threats and promised violence to the perpetrators of such unkindness.
Following Jesus to his crucifixion is Mary, his mother. For years she has carried this prophetic word, recorded by Luke’s Gospel, in her heart. Now the reality strikes home with a level of pain that is unimaginable. What parent can bear to watch the agonies of their child dying? What mother anticipates burying their son? Faith in God is no panacea for such pain. An angelic vision is no preparation for the outworking of God’s promise. Standing on Golgotha offers only despair, for the empty tomb is unknown and is itself a mere promise from the lips of a tortured man.
The only way to live life is to hold firmly to the promise of the empty tomb while navigating the despair of apparent destruction. My daughter emerged wiser from her wounds. We were impressed at her resilience and the way she bounced back. Yet, these intrusions into our prayer and desire for a charmed life for our child had to be processed, for they might have proved disabling as we all returned to everyday living; disabling in that we might have become crippled by fear for her future.
QUESTION: How do you react to the pain and brokenness of the world?
PRAYER: Lord God, please give comfort and hope to all those parents who are watching their children suffer.
March 15, 2018
Psalm 145:14 NLT
'The Lord helps the fallen and lifts those bent beneath their loads.'
The wonderful kernel of reality that lies at the heart of the gospel is God’s abiding forgiveness and acceptance. Carrying a cross, when already weakened by extreme circumstances, is no simple task. Like Jesus, we will falter and stumble under its weight. Most often we then struggle with the reality of that stumble. God, however, gazes upon our steadfastness under extreme duress. Eternity marvels at faithfulness when there appears so little reason for that faith.
My initial attempt at shouldering the cross of affliction was to focus my energy on being what I imagined a faithful Christian must be. Big mistake! The only resources I had to draw upon were my own, and they were strictly limited and quickly expended. My secondary reason was that I wanted to prove before others, rather more than to myself, that I was who I claimed to be in every sermon I’d made. I chased authenticity, but from a foundation of deceit. It took time before I was forced to my knees. I thought I was a failure, and judged myself harshly, which led to an unhealthy reaction.
My theology messed with my head and heart, but my theology was wrong. God did not judge my stumbles. God loved me in each and every one of them. They revealed my humanity and highlighted my need of God. Once I took my eyes off my self-criticism and judgement, I had eyes to look for Jesus in my fear, pain and despair. Why else did Jesus stumble on the way to the cross but to acknowledge following the way of God lies beyond human ability?
I have no explanation as to why Katey lived just 53 years. Yet, I saw in her eyes the Spirit of God shining ever brighter, even as her humanity faltered and finally failed. We knew Jesus even as we stumbled and fell.
QUESTION: How have you responded when you’ve stumbled in life?
PRAYER: Lord, I’m grateful that you lift up the weak and give them strength.
March 14, 2018
John 19:17 NLT
'Carrying the cross by himself, he went to the place called Place of the Skull.'
Each one of us is invited to walk a unique path through life. My greatest aspiration is not to mirror a life I choose to recognise as successful, but to take up my own cross and attempt to carry it. As I grew up, the idea that life involved carrying a cross never entered my mind; both because I wasn’t in a Christian family, and because I dreamed of happiness, free from pain of any sort.
The nature of the cross we each carry is both the inner turmoil we must sort through as well as external intrusions that rock our world. I found I had little by way of a toolkit to address either. Consequently, I imploded and took out my confusion on those around me. In other words, I seriously damaged at least one set of tools I needed. I have a great friend today who has spent his life investing in networking. This is not for his self-advancement, but simply out of enjoyment of others’ stories and experience. I know he will never be short of a drinking companion. I recognise I destroyed most of my networks as I was overtaken with my own inability to manage inner and external pain, and the two often danced in tandem.
While I cried out in anguish at the size of the cross I felt I bore unfairly, Jesus in contrast says not a word but shoulders his roughly hewn wooden cross on lacerated shoulders. Who can conceive the physical pain? Yet, this was Jesus’ unique path through life, a path that led to the end of his road. Somehow he found the resolve to walk under his load, through a crowd of jeering critics, without his friends, and continually beaten by his captors. I have little sense of my capacity to walk such a path, and I do not have to. However, I will discover the crosses laid upon my shoulder and I will discover if I have the resolve to shoulder them in obedience. Will it be a walk of learning or complaint?
QUESTION: What crosses are you bearing today?
PRAYER: Please, Father, give all those who need it the strength to persevere and to keep walking.
March 13, 2018
John 19:16 NLT
'Then Pilate turned Jesus over to them to be crucified.'
For many years my instinctive reaction to being misunderstood was to launch into a robust justification of myself. Not so Jesus. He was despised and rejected and here betrayed and condemned. His close followers abandoned him and he stood alone before the might of the state and religious authorities. I know if it had been a younger me I couldn’t have helped defending myself while angered by the injustice.
Reflecting on life I now know that self-justification is primarily the response of a wounded heart. It is a deeply felt need to excuse my own behaviour and resist the narratives placed upon it by others. I would start calmly enough yet the volume and intensity of my defence quickly rose, designed to flatten my critics even if I failed to persuade them. I left these encounters angry and with increased amounts of self-doubt.
This has been a great battle for me. I have projected who I wanted to be onto the world’s stage and have been surprised and angered by the honest critique colleagues and friends have given it. Only as I accepted this bruising was to my own imagined phantom was I freed to concentrate on discovering who I truly was.
Words still hurt, of course, and yes, I continue to suffer misrepresentation, but I cannot influence how others choose to depict me, and they will have their clear reasons for so doing. I take comfort in knowing and being known by God, if at times confused by the path God requires of me since I do not relish what appears its ignominy and pain. I guess that’s obedience.
QUESTION: To what extent are you wrestling with the perceptions of others?
PRAYER: Lord, teach me to be confident in my identity in Christ.
March 12, 2018
John 18:4 NLT
'Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them.'
It’s seldom I can say I know everything that’s going to happen to me. I remember as a youngster, when I knew I’d done something mischievous yet ultimately wrong, how I did all I could to cover my tracks. I wanted to throw the ‘grown-ups’ off the scent. I became a great avoider not just of consequences but, more worryingly, the harsh realities of life. There are some incoming tides we can’t outrun.
Over the next ten devotionals, we will walk with Jesus leading up to his death. Knowing the reality of resurrection, it can prove too easy to process Jesus’ journey in the light of the cross. Yet, every journey of uncertainty can only be worked out in each of its many moments. I thought that together Katey and I might wrestle MS to the floor and overwhelm it. This was one flood tide that swept us off our feet, tossed us around as if we were unimportant flotsam and jetsam. We had no control over our destiny, cast adrift in a turbulent tide, carried with the current. In that chaos we had either to give up and drown or gather our thoughts and prepare for every eventuality from miraculous healing to final destruction.
Being an adult involves learning to take responsibility for consequences, even when they were not a direct result of our actions. Reacting to the apparent injustice of our situation seemed ridiculous when considering Jesus’ journey of sorrow. Jesus had found the resilience to make his way to an excruciating death, confident in his ability to endure, constantly focused on his Father in heaven. It took me too many years to become an adult, well into my 40s. Adulthood has little to do with age beyond biology. It has everything to do with discovering how to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Together we will explore the Jesus way and reflect upon our way. Death certainly concentrates the mind, as do unanticipated reverses through life. On this final push to Easter, let’s reconsider how grown up we are in our discipleship.
QUESTION: Are you able to find the grace to look to God even as you hold all future possibilities together?
PRAYER: Loving Father, mature me and grow me into the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ.
March 9, 2018
John 14:26 NLT
'But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative – that is, the Holy Spirit – he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.'
Here Jesus promises a helper in all of life, the Holy Spirit. As a new Christian I discovered the Spirit for the first time as I was, to use the language of the time, baptised in the Holy Spirit. My introduction to the third person of the Trinity brought my two years of Christian discipleship to life. I found an intimate connection with God that had eluded me to that point. I prayed and developed the ability to distinguish between my emotional responses and the Spirit’s leading. Our meetings were alive as we made space for the Spirit. Our lives were devoted to pursuing the leading of the Spirit.
Initially, when the wheels came off following Katey’s diagnosis, my spiritual navigation system crashed. I was consumed with me and haunted by my fears, all at a very human, mortal level. Only slowly did I rebuild that navigation system and discover the Spirit was as present in our crisis as in the prime of my ministry. Jesus’ promise of the Spirit was true and I needed to learn how to live in the Spirit with pain, anger and disappointment. Together Katey and I listened to God’s Spirit and even as we were sinking beneath the weight of our bleak circumstances, found the light of the Spirit to guide our steps and the means to live along the way.
The Holy Spirit, always present to God’s disciples, is easily drowned out through our human capacity to take control of and manage our lives.
QUESTION: In what ways do you experience the Spirit’s leading in your life?
PRAYER: Spirit of God, illuminate my heart and fill my day with your light.
March 8, 2018
John 14:20 NLT
'When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.'
In facing our mortality, we can address the immediate anxieties our death presents us with. Of all people, we are those who should anticipate dying well. Yet, if death surprises us, as it may, or we fail to give it the attention it deserves, it can come as a shock and be shocking in equal measure. Jesus, although we see his deep humanity in the garden of Gethsemane, knows that he is safe with God. He declares as much to his disciples. The good news is we can be equally assured that in death, as in life, we are in God and God is in us.
Katey and I had a long time to consider her death. Even then it was a shock when it occurred. Yet, for both of us that shock was the reality of the moment, not the reality of death. This was an event we prayed and planned for. Words had been kindly and gently exchanged and we both intended to make this death a point of glorious departure. Katey was magnificent as she quietly stepped off this stage and into the space Jesus had prepared for her ahead of time. The only learning was that having held a wonderful celebratory, yet heart-breaking, funeral, the cremation felt hurried, corporate and simply utilitarian. How I wish I had walked that through with Katey ahead of time.
The learning was good and recently Jayne and I took ourselves off to visit a natural burial site. As we wandered around, we made the decision that this was where our mortal remains would be laid to rest. Surrounded by God’s glorious creation, what better place to release our discarded bodies back to the dust from which they were created. There is no more magnificent cathedral than God’s handiwork expressed through nature. I was at peace and could make all the preparations necessary so that my daughter will not have to rush around making funeral arrangements. She can simply turn up with family and friends and contemplate a life lived and now transferred to a different address within an eternal realm.
QUESTION: What should Christians think about death and dying?
PRAYER: Lord of the living, thank you for the assurance of your eternal promises.
March 7, 2018
John 16:33 NLT
'Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.'
The medieval Church developed the practice of [itals]memento mori[end itals], Latin for “remember that you will die”. It may sound macabre, yet this is what Jesus takes a large amount of time explaining to his disciples. None of the benefits of redemption were unlocked until Jesus died, which is perhaps another positive way to look at death. Jesus’ own words remind us of the reality of crucifixion and resurrection as he declares that he has overcome every principality and power that seeks to assert itself against us.
At the end of the Second World War, my dad found himself in Berlin surrounded by all the consequences of war. Rubble from 600,000 homes plus public buildings littered the streets. All the normal life-supporting services were gone and there was a lack of food, no means for employment and no legitimate government. Yet, within a short period of time, Berlin rose from the ashes to become today the leading European city, capital of the strongest European economy.
It takes resilience and imagination to recover from apparent disaster. Living among rubble while struggling to sustain life on a daily basis offers little by way of hope. Yet, if we can look beyond the immediate landscape and see what lies ahead, anyone can rise above their circumstances and make huge differences for their life and the lives of others. This is as much a challenge to us as it was to those first disciples. They had to take Jesus at his word. As his wounded body hung dead on a wooden cross, all bets were off regarding a spirit-filled future. Yet, Jesus rose and appeared to those disciples and confirmed his victory. They were invited to engage in a massive rebuilding project, one in which the reality of death was never far from them. Many indeed gave their lives in consolidating that victory.
Where we see rubble and the consequences of war, God invites us to acknowledge the fragility of life. Yet, he also calls upon us to strengthen our resolve and imagine the end from the beginning. Only then can we rebuild from the apparent total destruction of many hopes and dreams.
QUESTION: What vision of the future do you have?
PRAYER: Sovereign Lord, praise you that out of the rubble you can rebuild and restore.
March 6, 2018
John 14:1 NLT
'Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.'
I find “there’s always tomorrow” a comfort. Not because it means avoiding doing today what needs to be done but because it expresses hope, especially when the day has got me down or I’m behaving like a fool. Life throws multiple spanners into the works and some days getting through the next hour is a challenge. As a carer my days could prove isolating and lonely, and then all of life was bleak.
As his disciples wrestle with his departure, Jesus reassures them that there is a future, or “there’s always tomorrow”. He encourages them to seek inner peace for their mental and emotional turmoil. He encourages them to prepare for their future while he prepares for their eternity. Preparing for end of life takes many forms. First we face our mortality, and remove it from the long grass of forgetting. Having faced our mortality, we are then in a good position to sort things through.
Here Jesus begins a long monologue to equip his disciples. Much of the content will only become relevant after Jesus’ death. How are those surviving me going to continue through the grief of loss? I will not be there to support them. Perhaps thinking through what is important for me to communicate with them is useful. Organising my business affairs is also relevant. Jayne told me the other day that she has no clue where and how I file things relating to us both. Time to sit down and let go of the assumption it is either clear or useful for her. Don’t let your hearts be troubled is all about peace of mind.
Discovering this demands conversation. For Katey, end of life care was a priority. So she made an appointment with a lawyer that did not include me, and made a living will, a legal document that expressed her wishes about how she wanted to be treated and cared for if or when she lost capacity to make or communicate her decisions. This proved indispensable when it came to her death. Knowing her wishes made a difficult decision just that little bit clearer.
QUESTION: What will give you and those who survive you peace of mind, both now and into the future?
PRAYER: Lord of all life, help me not fear or avoid the difficult conversations but prepare wisely now.
March 5, 2018
John 17:1 NLT
'Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so he can give glory back to you.'
I find myself wondering when precisely Jesus came to terms with his imminent death. Not in some theological manner, but in his humanity. We live in a society that finds it very hard to talk and deal effectively with death. Following the 9/11 assault upon the USA, the popular response was an increased search for personal security. There were also spikes in gambling, drinking and cigarette sales. The human response to mortality is to seek to relieve our fears, rather than face them.
I remember the many meetings we had with medics and social workers as Katey’s condition deteriorated. We just wanted some way of measuring the time we might expect to have together. On one occasion, as we asked Katey’s neurologist about a prognosis, he responded by addressing me and stating that I could expect Katey to outlive me. This may have been the answer he thought we wanted, but it terrified both of us. Katey, already in steady decline, was frightened at the thought of this continuing for many years to come and also at the thought of continuing without me. I, on the other hand, already struggling with my back from having to lift Katey to aid her getting comfortable, both reacted badly to the thought of caring into my grave and fearful that my body wouldn’t stay the course.
We disengaged from the medical route not long after that, finding little encouragement from the medics and even less pleasure hanging around in overcrowded and unimaginative waiting areas. We believed we were best off supporting each other and entrusting ourselves to God. What it did provoke was a healthy conversation as well as self-reflection around our mortality. Like St Paul we reached the place where we were able to say, “O, death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55, NLT) We were comfortable within our own flesh and also comfortable that this body was merely an interim stage en route to eternity with Christ. We had the joy and privilege of looking at our own death and then living life fully and freely in the knowledge and acceptance of our fragile mortality.
QUESTION: Do you fear dying? If so, why?
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, you said that you are the resurrection and the life; give me the confidence to trust you in this.