Day 5 - Issue 23

October 6, 2017

Philippians 3:13b NLT

'Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead…'

One trauma of tragedy is how it can derail one’s whole life. News of chronic illness, bereavement, bankruptcy may be events around which we can craft a narrative, yet the personal impact drains life’s essence from one’s veins. In the months after Katey’s MS diagnosis, before even comprehending what we faced, my whole world detached itself from the reality of my personal life. Instantly, an external intrusion disabled my compass and my entire navigation system. I froze, while the world continued to spin around me.

As months became years, reality began to sink in. I stood still, while colleagues empathised and moved ahead with their lives. Hurting, I spent time reviewing events, searching for solutions, praying and complaining in equal measure. I felt I must return along the path we’d walked together searching for something we’d lost along the way. Our future was now different to the one we’d imagined, if not planned. It was lifted from our control.

Only as we determined to strip away the baggage of what we thought were faith-based aspirations, were we able to grasp the present reality. First we acknowledged life was changing, and then we decided if we were able and willing to make room for God on this unanticipated detour. Internal dialogue with self combined with helpful and unhelpful conversations with others, but this only sketched in the contours of this new landscape. Theological reflection itself became an obstruction to entering this new land. We saw the giants and they intimidated us. We yearned to go back in time, but that door was self-evidently shut.

We set aside what lay behind us. Not simply history, but unrealisable dreams. We embraced the challenge less than enthusiastically. Walking forward, our nerves strained, we entered an unknowable future hoping, more than trusting, that God would accompany us.

QUESTION: How well are you able to press ahead, or do you mark time in the hope there’s a different path?

PRAYER: Eternal One, you know the road that lies ahead before me; help me walk this path in faith.

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Day 4 - Issue 23

October 5, 2017

Deuteronomy 34:4 NLT

Then the LORD said to Moses, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have now allowed you to see it with your own eyes, but you will not enter the land.”

I remember being on holiday in the Lake District, climbing a peak with my dad, and being amazed how fit my father had kept himself. Even as he aged, it appeared the climb made little impact upon him. We walked mainly in silence, concentrating on our footing. On summiting, we sat and gazed back over our route that wound its way back down towards a glistening expanse of water. Here we talked, about my choices in Christian ministry, and his disappointment that I had not maximised the opportunities he believed Oxford university had given me. There was no tension, merely a crisp honesty to match the morning air.

There are times when we do well to gaze back. Moses reached just such a point as he considered his life at the border of a land promised, yet never entered. This was as far as God brought him, and God freely told him why. We are all products of our history, yet by God’s grace need not be prisoners to it. However, as we face significant transition points, reflection is healthy.

Moses had battled all his life to lead the people into the Promised Land in obedience to God’s commission. Yet, he was to die just a few metres short. This was no failure, although Moses may have felt it was. Regret and resentment for finishing short of this borderline would have been understandable. Of course, he might also have looked at how he had galvanised and sustained a troublesome people to walk out of slavery, survive the wilderness and grow in friendship and service of God. He had trained and mentored a successor, who would prove worthy of his trust, and God’s.

Moving forward, transitioning well, is acknowledging the regrets, letting go of those things we aspire to that cannot happen, and celebrating those markers that reveal our faithfulness through uncertain and difficult times.

QUESTION: When facing transition, do you focus upon regrets?

PRAYER: Lord, help me to run the race you have set before me and to trust the future to you.

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Day 3 - Issue 23

October 4, 2017

Matthew 16:23 NLT

Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.”

When starting primary school, my mum tried to teach me to tie my shoelaces. She was left-handed and I right-handed. So I found it impossible to follow her, which confused and frustrated us both. Wanting to please, a neighbour’s daughter taught me at school and I learned immediately. A mirror will create the same distorting effects. So what we observe in the rear-view mirror may, in fact, be a distortion of the truth.

Peter, who I love for the honest quality of his discipleship, discovers that to impose his own reading of a situation upon the divine plan is to court disaster. Having bathed in Jesus’ affirmation, he now experiences his wrath as he attempts to square an impossible circle. Once we try to understand the kingdom within the narrow confines of human reasoning, all hell literally breaks loose.

Sitting holding Jayne’s hand as she experiences waves of pain courtesy of her chronic condition, silence surrounds us. I am quietly praying, usually the Jesus Prayer, but mostly expressing solidarity as best I can. Have I been tempted down the road on wondering why in my second marriage my wife faces a serious health issue? It would be a lie to deny it. Does Jayne apologise for carrying this condition into my life, having observed me accompany Katey? Well, yes, often. Yet, all attempts to rationalise can only fail us.

Firstly, any comparison with my previous marriage as Katey battled MS is subject to the distortions of the rear-view mirror. It is more likely to be affected by associated emotions marinated in the time lag between then and now. Wishing life was different is wishful thinking, a distraction from gazing on God. There are tears, there are disappointments, and there is frustration. However, there is also the invitation to look forward. We need to discover nothing can obscure our ability to discern God in all the movements of life.

QUESTION: Have the events of your past distorted your view of your present or future?

PRAYER: Sovereign Lord, you are the Alpha and Omega, you know the beginning from the end. Help me to trust each day in you.

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Day 2 - Issue 23

October 3, 2017

Luke 23:42 NLT

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

Gazing back across my life can prove unhelpful. There are many things I might like to change, without the power to do so. On reflection, I can grow somewhat morbid as I perceive how little I appear to have changed. The transformation I imagined I’d experience in spades through the light of Christ within is hard to discern. Jayne tells me not to be hard on myself, yet in all integrity I feel I must cast a critical eye, especially as I believe more deeply today than at any stage in my life.

I struggle the most about the broken relationships which I catch sight of gazing into the rear-view mirror. I don’t experience anything other than disappointment and pain. I have prayed and attempted to appropriately shut the door on all such fractured friendships. One Christmas I wrote to all who came to mind and apologised for any wounds I’d inflicted on them, and thanking them for the many benefits I’d gained for the years we accompanied each other closely. Yet, the shadow of my sorrow can return to haunt me.

Accepting God’s forgiveness is tough, for my human condition appears to want to face a measure of punishment for the things I know I did wrong; the attitudes I entertained that lay far from the love exhibited by Jesus. Such punishment is just yet one more way I yearn to earn my salvation. The crucified thief alongside Jesus had no time or opportunity to amend his past life. Regardless, Jesus forgave and opened the gates of heaven to him.

Failure to live within the gift of grace is itself sin. It’s the assertion of my own independence over and against God-dependence. Grace never denies the reality of wrongdoing, thinking or being. Grace is activated when, like the thief, I come to my senses, acknowledge the reality of my fracture and failures, and place myself at God’s mercy.

QUESTION: Do you have difficulty accepting and living in God’s forgiveness?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me.

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Day 1 - Issue 23

October 2, 2017

Exodus 16:3 NLT

“If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,” they moaned. “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.”

For me, learning to drive was both traumatic and taxing. To this day I remember “mirror, signal, manoeuvre”. The importance of the rear-view mirror was stressed continually. In fact, my instructor would ask as we drove, “What’s the colour of the car behind you?” or “What make is the car behind you?” If I hesitated or attempted a sly glance into the mirror, he was highly critical of what he termed “my overall road awareness”.

Here Israel has rather too much focus on the rear-view mirror as they criticise Moses for having brought them from a slavish, yet reliable, routine into the uncertainty of wilderness living. Their separation anxiety was high; their confidence in their leader limited. The ultimate orchestrater of their circumstance, God, was unimpressed with this desire to live out of their rear-view mirror. This whole generation, apart from Caleb and Joshua, never progressed beyond the wilderness, never experienced the Promised Land.

As we get older there is a temptation to dwell on the ‘good old days’. People regularly compare the present unfavourably with the past. We so easily romanticise what has been and use the rose-tinted, variable-focused view to colour our observation and subsequently our experience of the present. Like the Israelites, those who live looking back over their shoulders may only ever experience the wilderness in their encounter with God.

Most often, looking ahead can fill our hearts with anxiety. Ageing bodies make us aware of our mortality, discovering the abandonment many older people feel in old age, and the trauma of identifying a means to maintain dignity at an affordable price forces us to think as consumers. Like the Israelites, we feel what we knew before offered us greater security than what we see ahead of us. Here we have to find the courage to trust God and press ahead.

QUESTION: Will you hold onto the past, or will you focus on the road ahead?

PRAYER: Lord, I know focusing on the past robs me of my future. Instead help me this day to live with and for you.

 

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Day 65 - Issue 22

September 29, 2017

Luke 2:40 NLT

'There the child grew up healthy and strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.'

After the supernatural interventions surrounding Messiah’s birth, everything apparently settles down to a more familiar rhythm. Yet, God is working in preparation for the ministry that will ultimately open the doors long shut between heaven and earth. Once more it will become possible for God’s kingdom to be expressed in the earth as it is in heaven. Mary, Joseph and Jesus return to Nazareth, where Jesus grows into adulthood, growing in strength and wisdom, with God’s grace recognisably upon him.

At times I grow frustrated with the normality of life. The daily round of rising, eating, working and managing life’s irritations almost crushes me. I grow bored with the repetitive cycle. I struggle to find the energy to bother. However, seasons of apparent normality are also seasons of growth. Seeds planted in the soil do not immediately appear. They take their time, yet their ultimate harvest is contained within the kernel of that seed. Jesus, who is the seed of salvation himself, learned obedience and grew in understanding over years of apparent ordinariness.

After Christmastide, the Church calendar takes us into ordinary time. Ordinary time is the space for growing in strength and wisdom while learning to live in the grace of God. This is a precious season, for we can only ever live out of what we have discovered of God for ourselves. We cannot borrow from what others may have told us or what we have read yet failed to embrace in our own walk of faith.

QUESTION: What do you need to grow in to become healthy and strong in your relationship with God?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, feed me that I may help and encourage others.

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Day 64 - Issue 22

September 28, 2017

Luke 2:37 NLT

'Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer.'

Emerging from Christmas, it can prove a challenge to re-establish your everyday routine. It’s as if we have lived in a bubble for a few days, yet eventually normal life catches up with us. Holding my daily rhythm in place over Christmas is something I find exceptionally difficult. Yet, that routine is what sustains my life in every sphere. Here, Anna at 84 praises and announces the good news of who Jesus is. Her routine was regular fasting and prayer, and note, fasting precedes the prayer.

Managing Jayne’s chronic pain condition together, we have found a tremendous benefit in reordering our diet. Gone are dairy products and all sugars, apart from those naturally found in fruit. Caffeine was an addiction and we have discovered an excellent caffeine-free substitute. Friends of ours are Orthodox Christians and in conversation we heard of the Mount Athos cookbook. The diet is pescatarian, fish and vegetables, but nutritious and tasty. The monks also enjoy longevity with a very low incidence of cancer, dementia, heart and lung problems. They live in community, devoted to prayer and work. In other words, the rhythm includes every aspect of life from worship to eating, working to community.

Here in the Oratory we are slowly establishing our rhythms; slowly, not because we’re reluctant or resistant, but because the rate of unlearning is much slower than I’d imagined. Ensuring consistency and training the body to desire routine rather than have it imposed is a work of years. Now we seek to live God’s way out of desire and preference, not struggle.
The benefit of any break from life’s daily routine is that it affords an opportunity to consider if that is the routine one wants to return to and live all over again. Anna invites us to reflect on our spiritual disciplines and consider if they are consistent and, where we recognise gaps, make some practical decisions and lay some simple plans to build towards a more wholesome Christian life. Anna’s sensitivity to God was the work of years, not simply a spontaneous act.

QUESTION: What routines and rhythms do you have that help you daily follow Christ?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, train me again in the habits of learning and following your ways.

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Day 63 - Issue 22

September 27, 2017

Luke 2:21 NLT

'Eight days later, when the baby was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel even before he was conceived.'

The challenge for us when we view Jesus is that we approach his life as some form of retrospective. We know the end from the beginning. Yet, here Mary and Joseph have some angelic proclamations with no understanding of his call or evidence to support the angels’ claims. They are fuelled entirely by faith. So they take their new-born 8-day-old to fulfil the requirements of the Law according to their Jewish tradition. Jesus is circumcised and named. His name is significant for it is the name given to Joshua who also led the Jews into the land God promised to their father Abraham. Jesus was himself to open the doors to the promised kingdom of God through his life, death and resurrection. However, standing on the border of their own understanding, Mary and Joseph were simply doing what countless Jewish parents had done before, and all that they knew to do as parents.

Not one of us knows what tomorrow will bring. We can never be certain as to how we shall be remembered. So we act in accordance with our beliefs and the cultural norms within which we grew up. This is also the best way to pursue God. God’s will is most often the next obvious and appropriate step that lies before us. Yet, the significant difference is that as we take it, we pray in ways that ensure our identity as a child of God. Wherever we go and whatever decision we take, we pray that elements of the kingdom will be made visible in a world that still contests it.

From a day-to-day perspective, our lives can appear unremarkable. The remarkable thing is that we remain faithful in whatever circumstance, and to the best of our understanding and ability we express God’s kingdom life. Of course, each day feels much like the one before. Only with the benefit of hindsight and the long lens of history might we gaze back and see the purpose of God worked out, much as we do when we read the gospel and story of Jesus.

QUESTION: What’s your identity in Christ?

PRAYER: Thank you, God, for making me a new creation with a new identity as part of your family in Christ.

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Day 62 - Issue 22

September 26, 2017

Luke 2:19 NLT

'But Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.'

As a child, Boxing Day had a very special place in my heart. The frenzy of family, Christmas lunch, bags stuffed with now redundant gift wrapping gave way to a day that seemed so much more spacious than the day before. It was a day to really look over presents and take time to explore and play with them. There was little disturbance, the space was mine.

I think it offers a great opportunity to follow in Mary’s footsteps and ponder the treasure of blessings that is the incarnation. No one minds if I take myself off, usually well wrapped up, and sit in the gazebo in the back garden reading scripture and reflecting. It’s my day for journaling my Advent journey, capturing and revisiting observations from that season. It’s the day of individual and personal conversations as family and friends join me in the gazebo, freshly made coffee in hand. Here we talk nostalgically, reflectively. We enter into true, shared sacred space.

I always imagine that is what the scripture alludes to with its description of Mary’s “pondering” (see NIV). She entered a sacred space of her own making to reflect not merely on the detail and emotions of some event, but to engage with God in conversation about all this might mean, fully knowing that much mystery would remain well beyond the conversation.

In the loft I still have a small box of precious things that bring back memories. As such the memories, like strong spices, are redolent with scents recalling past scenes of importance to my emergence into adulthood. This I imagine is what “treasuring these things” (see NIV) mean. Today I have a mental box of memories from my life. Importantly today as I journal, I will draw back the lens from Advent alone and consider the year past, capturing those memories and milestones. I will quietly pray in some form over each one, as if this carefully packs it away. I draw strength from such reflection. I revisit success and mistakes. I rediscover joy and pain. Yet, throughout I leave space for the mystery of God where things remain unclear.

QUESTION: What has God taught you this year that you will treasure in your heart?

PRAYER: Heavenly Father, thank you for your kindness and patience in leading and teaching me this past year.

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Day 61 - Issue 22

September 25, 2017

Luke 2:16 NLT

'They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.'

In the heart of the busyness of Christmas, when can you have 15 minutes to take time with God in personal reflection today? If you are on your own over Christmas, then time will perhaps be more of a curse than a blessing, since you can feel more isolated and alone than at any time of the year.

Christmas Day itself is a day when, like the shepherds, we are urged to hurry off to find Mary, Joseph and the new-born child, Jesus. But where are we to hurry? In our household, quite some years ago, when my daughter was small and my mum and dad invariably stayed, it was a challenge to create an appropriate space to welcome Jesus. There was certainly plenty of hurrying in search of presents, yet it was all too easy for Jesus to be ignored on his own birthday. But we always hurried to the breakfast table, eagerly anticipating the day ahead, and paused to light a candle and sing ‘Happy birthday’ to Jesus, with a birthday cake.

My dad’s birthday also happened to be on 25th December, and one year when we brought out Dad’s birthday cake at teatime and sang him ‘Happy birthday’, our daughter climbed onto Grandpa's knee and, grasping his face in both her little hands, said in a hushed whisper, “Grandpa. I never knew you were Jesus!”

Just as the shepherds returned from greeting their King, so our 15 minutes of reflection is best centred on worship. It’s a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how we are beneficiaries of God’s grace; a moment to thank God for the incarnation, for all we know of God is revealed through Jesus’ time on the earth; and finally, to praise God for all we have discovered of friendship with him so far, and to offer a short prayer committing to go deeper with God throughout the year ahead.

QUESTION: How has God helped you in the past year, and what challenges do you see in the year ahead?

PRAYER: Holy God, I am so grateful for your grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. Thank you.

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