July 26, 2017
Genesis 32:24 NLT
'A man came and wrestled with him until the dawn began to break.'
Alone and fearful, Jacob finds himself fighting for his life. So often the most intense battles I have endured have been through the night, alone, feeling isolated and in many ways wondering as to the purpose of my life, if not fearing for it. This is similar in many ways for without hope, life itself becomes a burden, apparently unendurable.
In my youth I was supported by a naïve enthusiasm about life. I had not endured many setbacks. Life stretched out before me and through education, the encouragement of parents and an expansive self-confidence, I assumed all would be well in this best of all possible worlds.
Having outwitted his twin, Jacob stood between a rock and a hard place. Having had his trust in humanity seriously challenged through his service of Laban, he faced the prospect of his brother taking his revenge as he returned home. Everything precious to him appeared to be under threat and his confidence in his ability to scheme his way out was minimal.
I can remember discovering the harsh reality of competitiveness that undergirded Christian ministry. I was shocked at the misrepresentations made about those sharing the same Christian blood ties. My assumption that the Christian community by virtue of its shared faith and Lord was immune from the mores of wider society soon began to peel away. I was shocked to discover that taking the name of Christ was not the same as taking the form of Christ. When tragedy struck my own life, my confidence in myself and in my chosen beliefs drained away. Where once I was full of eager anticipation, now I awoke each morning an empty shell with little motivation or desire to rise and greet the day.
The man I wrestled with was myself. It was also the persona of God as I had imagined him to be. So in my despair and caught up in a fight, I, like Jacob, demanded to know God’s name. This was because my experience was neither what I’d expected nor indeed wanted. I had to rediscover myself that I might mature in my faith and understanding.
QUESTION: Does life feel as if you are wrestling with God?
PRAYER: Lord, mould me and shape me into your image and no others.
July 25, 2017
Genesis 32:24 NLT
'This left Jacob all alone in the camp.'
Fear is isolating. Jacob finds himself alone and must face his inner fears. Fear is isolating because we experience the weight of our nightmare and no one can live in our shoes. While others may empathise and we sense their love and support, fear is my own battle and one I must navigate very personally. There is the fear in confronting its source as well as the harsh reality that there are no alternative options left to me.
I can, of course, create diversions in an attempt to avoid my deepest fears. Yet a diversion is only ever a delay, a postponement, in facing an unavoidable reality. God’s intention is always that I grow through my fears, for maturity is born walking on the path of my own foreboding.
Fear robs me of my inner peace. It consumes every ounce of my thinking capacity. It crushes my emotions. In fact, it dominates my skyline so that I can see nothing other than my fear and my own imagined outcomes. Fear diminishes me as a person and forces my hand into making choices that I grow to regret because they are framed around the fear itself.
Childhood experience with dentists convinced me that as an adult avoiding dentists was the best way to manage my fear. However, 16 years of avoidance merely ensured that I had to return, fear increased and well-established, and endure complex and painful dental work to pay for my failing dental hygiene. I discovered that my fears were related to a bad dentist and I had made a resolution based on a partial truth. Yes, there are bad dentists, but not all dentists are bad.
Here we discover one aspect of our uniqueness in God. While there are many commonalities in our journey with God, God has a unique road for each of us to tread. God’s purpose is that our friendship with the divine grows and that my unique fractures are addressed in ways only God understands. There are no generic solutions to Christian discipleship, only bespoke ones.
QUESTION: Which fears is God wanting to confront in you?
PRAYER: Lord, you said so often to not be afraid; help me to place my hope in you.
July 24, 2017
Genesis 32:11 NLT
'O LORD, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau.'
Fear is a powerful and often controlling emotion. It drives us to make bad decisions in the vain hope that we might retain control over the events of our lives. Some fear is self-induced, other fears more imagined than real. Yet, fear so easily diminishes us and robs us of our future.
From the fear of the consequences when failing to complete my homework when young, to that of some carefully buried secret being discovered and made publicly known, each of us deals with the hold fear puts upon us. As a youngster I became skilled at weaving a web of lies and untruths to cover my tracks. For fear of discovery, I was forced to maintain concealment through building lie upon lie. Then, I feared losing track of my own constructed false narrative.
Here Jacob, who had tricked Esau out of his birthright, returns home after a difficult time serving his father-in-law, Laban. He confesses to God his fear of his twin brother and, out of fear, imagines a solution. While this manufactured solution is presented as a peace offering to Esau, it’s truly all about Jacob’s self-preservation.
My fear as the MS progressed drove me to attempt so many imagined deals with God to secure Katey’s healing that I lost count. Every one demanded effort, and the failure of each one merely deepened my grief. If I wasn’t lying to another, I was perhaps most sadly deceiving myself. Both Katey and I had to face the reality of our own denial of a progressive disease that we couldn’t halt. Was this the fault of God? Or perhaps it wasn’t my place to determine our future. Until we let go of controlling the outcome, if not denial completely, we had little chance to meet God and experience God’s will and way in the heat of our battle. The apparent loss of my preferred future can, in fact, be the birthing of God’s.
QUESTION: How much do you seek to craft your own future?
PRAYER: Lord, help me to trust you for my present and my future.
July 21, 2017
1 Corinthians 15:19 NLT
'And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.'
In life we quickly establish there are no guarantees. Katey and I married in full expectation of producing children and living long into our dotage together. Both assumptions proved false and we had to discover the skills required to navigate disappointment and anger, while deepening our friendship with God. In the event it boiled down to trusting God, even when we desperately didn’t want to, or more honestly, feel able to.
The way of faith is to walk in the darkness in pursuit of the light. It is to know God while darkness obscures all aspects of God’s reality. Learning how to live comfortably and with confidence in the darkness proved the greatest obstacle to our growth in faith.
Here Paul declares that if all we have believed proves to be no more than an exercise of divine deceit, then we are, of course, to be pitied above all. For we have traded our lives for a lie. The temptation is to seek to keep a foot in both camps. Generate financial provision for now and the future, live life to the full and raise walls in an attempt to restrain the rising tide of evil that might impact our lives, while equally adopting a Christian way of life to demonstrate our faithfulness to God and God’s word.
Sadly, when we hedge our bets in this way we rob ourselves of ever catching a veiled glimpse of God within the darkness, for we have drawn a line in the sand through our actions that we cannot cross. If God is real, and knowable, then we have to stake everything on the reality of the incarnate, risen Christ.
QUESTION: How willing are you to stake your life and well-being on the truth of God’s revelation?
PRAYER: Lord, help me to live in such a way that it is clear I am a follower of Christ.
July 20, 2017
Colossians 3:1a NLT
'Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven.'
The Bible tells us that each one of us is made in both the image and the likeness of God. Indeed, whereas the rest of creation is called forth, humanity, the crown of God’s creation, is carefully crafted in this way. Image tells us that God is recognisable in each of us and directs us to treat each other with the same respect and awe with which we approach God. Of course, in a highly secularised society, where economic viability appears the dominant driver, there is a shift towards seeing people according to their economic value, and losing sight of their divine and intrinsic value. This allows decisions about human welfare to be made primarily from the economic realities with all else no more than mitigating circumstances.
However, we are also made in the likeness of God and this presents an opportunity that our behaviours might either rise to reflect the incarnate Jesus or sink to the lowest levels of depravity. Our problem is that we can with reason create a host of evil experiences for others well beyond the instinctive destruction that the animal kingdom is capable of when threatened. Our world is a storybook of inhumanity exercised by one group of humans over another. Our news broadcasts cause our hearts to ache and tears to flow.
One purpose of deepening our friendship with God is that we might increasingly discover those characteristics of Jesus and through prayer and discipline aspire to incorporate them into our own lives. Through such prayer we discern the behaviours associated with Jesus and discover the means to access and practise them. Yet, we can only ever aspire to such a mindset if we are unwilling to develop a personal and consistent practice of continuous prayer. And such a practice simply means making time to regularly draw aside with God and nurture that friendship. Ten minutes at the start and end of each day is a great place to start to establish such consistency.
QUESTION: How well is the likeness of God flourishing in your heart and behaviours?
PRAYER: Father, I long to serve you and to become more like you in this world. Help me set my mind on things that are above.
July 19, 2017
Mark 7:15 NLT
'It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.'
My daughter has always loved theatre. She’s creative in all things and a wonderful performer. However, once she decided she wanted to have a go at pursuing performance as her career, our parental fears began to rise. We assumed that the world she was entering was fraught with danger, and we were uncertain how strong her resolve was to resist its many temptations. Eight years on, our fears have proven unnecessary. She has made good choices, based upon her real commitment to achieve her ambitions. She might so easily have been misled, yet if she’d never tried she might only have nurtured regrets.
The Church is perhaps known for its conservatism. This has some important benefits, for it pays heed to tradition and reflects long on the reasons for significant change suggested by cultural change and theological revelation. To move slowly is not wrong; driving in fog requires caution to protect lives. Yet, driving slowly is not the same as parking up. I was schooled in a Christian mindset that appears at odds with Jesus’ teaching. It was as if I might catch sin like one catches a cold if I placed myself among germ carriers. And most of those beyond the walls of the church were largely germ carriers.
The message of the incarnation is that God assumed humanity to live among us germ carriers that the reality of God might be made known. No message travels far unless it finds its way into fresh markets. I can’t catch bad behaviour, but I may choose to behave badly. Self-evidently, if the dominant culture’s values are corrupt, then I have a greater likelihood of being corrupted. This isn’t because I am forced or destined but that I choose to give expression to the fractures that lie deep within my life.
Jesus reveals that it’s possible to live the God life in a pretty messed-up world. I can either mess it up some more by giving vent to what lies within my corrupted self, or through deepening my friendship with God, begin to live God’s life in my surroundings.
QUESTION: Do you fear the world at large, or do you see it as a place for mission?
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, help me live boldly for you so others would know of your grace.
July 18, 2017
Mark 7:9 NLT
Then he said, “You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition.”
The problem with tradition is that it can become the very reason for doing something, and we forget why we follow that tradition in the first place. At university, after I became a Christian, different inherited traditions caused havoc across the Christian Union.
Some demanded a tradition where women covered their heads to pray, while others insisted we only use the Authorised (King James) Bible. There were those who declared confidently that the gifts of God’s Spirit had ceased with the closing of the New Testament period, while others excitedly issued invitations to ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ evenings. At one CU, we had a plethora of opinions, all firmly rooted in long-standing Christian tradition. Even UCCF, a Christian organisation who facilitate university CUs, had their own traditions that dictated who might hold office and who might speak at a CU.
I followed the line of those who discipled me as a new Christian. I soon discovered it was assumed I would hold and define the position of my particular ‘camp’. And naturally I did, believing this was the truth and everyone else was wrong. Deep within I yearned for one body united around Christ with a diversity of views, yet I still felt I needed to defend the truth expression out of which I’d been birthed.
It took me years to begin to trust my own instincts. My message, expressed through my way of life far more than my words and, in my view, expressed far more effectively, offered hope ahead of condemnation, hospitality ahead of hate. My horizons expanded where once they were continually reduced by my defining myself by what was wrong with another and what I was against.
QUESTION: Consider carefully what your faith is made of and where your traditions come from.
PRAYER: Lord, help me hold to the truth of your word with humility and with grace and to love my brothers and sisters in Christ.
July 17, 2017
Mark 7:8 NLT
For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.
Growing up in a secular country, I don’t recall any traditions that society required. My dad taught me always to offer my seat to a woman when on public transport, and to place myself kerbside when walking with my mum or sister anywhere. The first of these was fine until one day I offered up my seat and provoked an inspiring speech about feminism from the fiery young lady in question. I smiled awkwardly and shrank back into my seat covered with both confusion and embarrassment.
Traditions have an origin. So, walking on the outside comes, I understand, from medieval times when the contents of the latrine bucket were tipped from upper storeys onto the street below. Hence the male was expected to offer some safeguard to the woman; a practice that is thankfully no longer needed. Jesus makes reference to not merely the Jewish tradition of hand-washing, but highlights the way in which the Pharisees had embellished this tradition with a series of additional rules as a means of demonstrating their holiness. Jesus cuts through this to illustrate that the purpose for a tradition counts. We all still wash our hands before eating for hygiene reasons, much as the Jews have always done.
It’s good to question the reason why we do certain things. Why attend congregational gatherings weekly? Why read the Bible daily? Why pray? There’s a great danger that any of us can become caught up in a tradition born of routine from which neither we, nor God, derive any real benefit. Faithfulness in external behaviours is no real expression of faithfulness. It reflects learned behaviour and perhaps has been passed down to us from a previous generation. We practise it at our peril if it is not true to who we are.
So we must ask ourselves the questions that count. For example, why pray? Well, to deepen a real relationship with God. But if prayer is no more than a routine, and if in prayer we fail to experience an encounter with God, we need to revisit the practice.
QUESTION: Take time to examine the traditions you have established and ensure that God remains at the heart of your practice.
PRAYER: Lord, may all I do draw me closer and enliven my love for you.
July 14, 2017
Proverbs 1:33 NLT
'But all who listen to me will live in peace, untroubled by fear of harm.'
As a child I was not known for my obedience. It wasn’t that I was deliberately disobedient, rather, I failed to pay much attention as I was easily distracted. Indeed, I still am. As a teenager I became increasingly frustrated with the dead hand of bureaucracy. It is little wonder that following university, any job that invited me to join the legions of bureaucrats provoked me to run far away.
Also perhaps little wonder that my friendship with God developed so slowly. I certainly devoured knowledge about God, yet in reality found little time or space to grow a relationship. So once MS crashed through the roof of our life, I had very few resources to manage my own inner turmoil. Listening means obedience. It’s recognising that I have limitations. God is only discovered by taking time for personal encounter. Making space for that time proves challenging if one is easily distracted and finds it difficult to pay attention. Yet, our personal frailties are not intended to rob us of God’s presence.
One of the challenges I face is my own anxiety over my future. Recently the Teacher’s Pension office wrote to tell me that the small income that they passed onto me following Katey’s death was not, as I had assumed, a survivor pension, but concluded with my remarriage. Six years on from that date they informed me I owed them £23,000. Now, I don’t do savings, apart from my tax account that held £3,500. Anxiety over how I could deal with this woke me in the early hours and prevented me from sleeping. I recognised how shallow my confidence in God really was. Here was I frustrated because I couldn’t work out how to resolve it rather than benefiting from God’s invitation to live at ease, without dread of disaster.
I learned that although I knew I had journeyed some distance, yet I still had some distance to go. Here I was investing useful listening time into fretting. No obvious answer has emerged, yet I am confident in God’s love for me, however this situation ultimately resolves itself.
QUESTION: Does worry about the future rob you of knowing God in the present?
PRAYER: Jesus, you said to your followers not to worry. Help me to cast all my cares on you.
July 13, 2017
Proverbs 1:21 NLT
'She calls to the crowds along the main street, to those gathered in front of the city gate.'
Throughout Proverbs, Wisdom reveals the way of God that the disciple is invited to follow. Knowing the way and walking the way are not the same. There’s a lot of angst moving from aspiration to the perspiration that walking the way generates.
I long had Katey in my sights as the girl I wanted to marry. To achieve that end I had to see off two suitors already in the race as I joined it. I developed my strategy and got my nose in front. Having got to pole position I then of course had to summon up my courage to ask her out and eventually to propose. However, I was outmanoeuvred here. While attending a friend’s wedding, just six weeks after going out, Katey asked me to marry her. And no, she wasn’t inebriated!
With Jesus we can either retreat within the recesses of our comfortable church club, or step outside and discern the truth of God along the highways and byways of life. We may be wrestling with a crowd flowing through the underground and fail to see the kindness of one stranger helping another with their toddler’s pushchair. Or wait frustrated in the supermarket checkout queue, little realising that this checkout assistant is the only conversation her elderly customer will have today.
Blinded by my priorities I fail to see Jesus on the street corners and shopping aisles of my neighbourhood. Consumed with protecting myself from the cancer of corruption that infects the world beyond the altar, I offer no alternative medicine to that which will only enlarge the tumour and take away life. Why else would the Son of God step out of eternity and become completely human as well as divine if the message of hope and healing was self-evident? Jesus had time to see faith in a Gentile centurion and a Samaritan pauper even as the rest of life brushed past. Wisdom surrounds us every day, everywhere. We are simply required to travel at the pace of Jesus and pray for eyes to see it.
QUESTION: What are the needs you see in your community?
PRAYER: Jesus, you saw those who were lost and you were filled with compassion. May it be the same for me.