Day 19 - Issue 24

January 25, 2018

Matthew 7:26 NLT

'But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand.'

I can be a foolish man. For many years I have consistently built upon sand. Not that I was foolish by design, just that what I hoped was rock only turned out to be sand with the benefit of hindsight. Many of the things from my Christian past have sadly been washed away and are no more than a memory born of an inappropriate appreciation of the gospel message and my calling.

The start of the storm was Katey’s diagnosis with MS. Then we experienced a change in the weather surrounding our lives. Where once we were future focused and carefree, now a storm began to form around and within us. At first I thought this storm required managing. I didn’t reckon upon its ferocity. All my carefully laid plans were washed away by torrential rains. All our possessions stripped from us; our preconceptions torn down; our confidence scattered. All that was left was the two of us. We felt naked, alone and frightened.

I had not wilfully chosen sand as my foundation. Yet, this storm revealed a formulaic, somewhat triumphalist strain of Christian expression that owed little resemblance to the life and witness of Jesus. At first, shell-shocked, we shouted back to the storm-filled skies, assuming we might through human endeavour tame this untimely weather. We slowly realised we’d lost that argument even before we’d started. This was a season of discovering we were and are nothing apart from Jesus. Human reason, resilience and endeavour were mere vanity before God’s weather systems. We embraced self-pity long before we settled on yielding to God and recognising he was indeed the rock. Whether reduced to nothing or raised up in some way, only God mattered. Outside of dependence on God, there can only ever be sand.

QUESTION: Is there any sand in the foundations of your relationship with God?

PRAYER: Lord, help me to build upon the rock of the gospel of your Son, Jesus Christ, and be faithful to him.

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Day 18 - Issue 24

January 24, 2018

Matthew 23:26 NLT

'You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.'

For much of my early Christian life, I operated on a right/wrong axis. There was truth and there was error and I held a dualistic view of the world. I was enlightened and self-aware enough to know that an audit of my life would reveal that much of it sat under the error column. Yet, I hoped I might disguise that from church leaders and others who might advance my rise through the ranks of organised Christianity. Of course, this reveals another deadly deceit, regarding Christianity as a construct rather than a relationship.

Clearing my hedge revealed the death and decay lurking just beneath the surface, but it also revealed birds’ nests, symbols of hope and life. Here in the dark inner recesses, birds had found safety within a hostile garden environment to rear their young. Eggs hatched as symbols of redemption in both a dark space and a dangerous world. This impacted me and I reflected on the good there is so often hidden within the faults we can easily identify in both ourselves, yet perhaps more frequently in others.

Christianity that demands correctness to a set of external measures always falls foul of turning into a mechanistic expression of gospel life. At the very heart of Christianity is an organic reality that life emerges, grows and discovers for itself how to survive in a hostile environment.

Responding to love takes time. Until I feel secure in that love, I can never relinquish the fears that past wounds will be reopened. Married to Jayne, who was abandoned by her first husband, I experience the struggles she has had truly trusting that the love I offer is substantial and secure. My responses are themselves subject to my own experiences of life and may only go to exacerbate the situation, for sadly I am no ‘saint’. It is in the risk of working towards love and experiencing our insecurities that we can move closer to God who called and created us.

QUESTION: What helps you feel safe and secure in a relationship?

PRAYER: Loving heavenly Father, I thank you that you are good and that within your loving embrace I am secure.

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Day 17 - Issue 24

January 23, 2018

Matthew 23:27 NLT

'What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs – beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.'

I have become a passionate gardener. For the first time in my life, my home includes a large garden, which fills me with joy. My initial fear at the scale of the project and scepticism about my ability to manage this space has been replaced with a deep sense of pleasure in working it, including making room for an allotment.

Making room was the challenge. I needed to clear 27 Cypress trees that formed a thick hedge about one metre deep and three metres tall. So I set aside a month over which I would accomplish my plan. My trusty tree saw in hand, I literally worked my way down the hedge. Green and verdant on its edges, as I cut through towards the main trunk I was showered with dirt, dust and dried, dead needles within. Many of the limbs and some of the trunks of the 27 trees were rotten. What had appeared to be a healthy hedge included much dead and rotten wood. After each visit to the hedge I needed a shower to remove all the dust and dirt from my hair and body.

Overall there was probably more deadwood and leaves that we carried to the tip than there was good. And so I reflected upon my own life. I knew I was very able at presenting a positive image to the world in which I lived and worked, and yet reflected on how much dirt and dying debris was carried beneath my well-manicured image. I also considered how I had maintained that hedge each year and never realised just what lay beneath the many vibrant surfaces it presented to the casual onlooker. It provoked me once again to attend to the hedges surrounding my own life and ensure I was more than a “whitewashed tomb”. Graves can be well maintained and attractive, yet we must never forget they are only ever filled with lifeless remains.

QUESTION: When was the last time you gave your soul a spring-clean?

PRAYER: Lord, thank you that when you prune us and cut us back it reveals your fatherly love and care.

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Day 16 - Issue 24

January 22, 2018

Ecclesiastes 3:3b NLT

'A time to tear down and a time to build up.'

One of the most unsettling, yet fulfilling, aspects of my personal journey alongside Katey’s pilgrimage with MS, was the deconstruction process I chose. Exhausted by my complaint to God, I struggled to find any stability in my faith. I was challenged to let go of my faith altogether, but could never deny my initial encounter with Jesus as a teenager. This was too real, and its impact too complete to reject completely, however much I desired to walk away. But my behaviour and mood swings were not reflective of the Christian Way.

I determined to explore what I believed and why in great detail; to place a microscope over my belief system. Anything that didn’t work I would reject; everything that held together I would reinvest in. So I began a journey, as I ran my heart and mind over years of accumulated belief and practice.

My choices lay largely around those things I had adopted as culturally and contextually relevant to find acceptance within the church stream within which I floated. I say ‘floated’ because I had simply been carried along on a rising tide of acceptance and popularity. I’d grown lazy, making few strokes to sustain my journey and failing to challenge much that, on reflection, caused me inner discomfort. My faith was shaped more by my enjoyment and benefits. The actual voice of God had grown dull and my decisions were largely the result of applied reason ahead of faith.

So began a journey of stripping back the accumulated vegetation that had seeded itself on the reality of my initial faith in search of both authenticity and peace.

QUESTION: When was the last time you reflected upon the reality of your faith choices and practices?

PRAYER: Lord God, help me build like a wise man through obedience to the way of your Son, Jesus.

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Day 15 - Issue 24

January 19, 2018

1 John 4:18 NLT

'Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.'

The purpose in prayer is, as one writer succinctly describes it, “Being present with the presence.” Often our humanity associates presence with feelings. Yet feelings are emotional states of response. My approach to God will prove different when feeling content and secure to when I have a raging toothache. Often we make judgements about church worship, even whole church congregational gatherings, simply upon the feelings they induce. Nothing wrong with feelings per se, but be warned, they are an untrustworthy measure of reality. As Jeremiah reminds us, “The heart is deceitful above all things” (17:9a, NIV).

Presence is the truth and reality that God is with us always. The question is, will I rest in that reality, no matter my feelings, with an undistracted mind? To acknowledge the reality of God and his presence, despite my ever-changing circumstances, is to stand in the presence of God. It is no diversionary tactic, for the realities of such circumstances don’t change. What changes is the way in which I choose to frame them. I can frame them with the fears or pleasures they induce. Or I can perceive the presence of God and frame circumstance the Godward side of my experience.

As my first wife, Katey, battled with MS, we managed our own journeys from different perspectives. Katey experienced the loss of physical and mental ability that accompanied progressive MS. I fought anger, resentment, God’s apparent abandonment, the God who I’d served faithfully. Consequently, we proved a handful to others, most of whom, understandably, took a large step back from us. Like Jacob, we wrestled long through the darkness of our night. Only as dawn peeped above the horizon, the dawning recognition of God’s presence in the bleakest of contexts, did we begin to touch God’s presence. God was not some external, impotent fraud outside and unable to intervene within our situation. God had always been accompanying us within this, the bleakest experience of our life to date.

QUESTION: What helps you discern God’s presence in your life?

PRAYER: Lord God, thank you that in Christ you have promised never to leave us nor forsake us.

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Day 14 - Issue 24

January 18, 2018

Psalm 123:1 NLT

'I lift my eyes to you, O God, enthroned in heaven.'

For some, discerning God’s presence in the silence is too passive. For years my prayer was a response to present circumstance, with no focus on the end in view. I learned that God thinks from the end backwards. I have been created human, in the image of God, for the purpose of growing up into maturity in Christ. If I merely engage with the realities of the present it will lead to a stunted, abnormal Christian discipleship. Attentiveness enables me to discern the present in light of the end. I recover perspective.

As my first darling wife, Katey, battled with MS, our initial prayer focus was consumed with the present; an assumed need that she be physically healed. We knew God does intervene and heals physically today. We’d both prayed and seen medically confirmed healing through the vehicle of prayer, for others and ourselves. Yet, our learning was to be that physical healing is only ever incidental and not the end God has in view. This end is most certainly about healing, yet healing as wholeness or completion, where death is the door to such completion. While Katey and I, and a concerned congregation, threw every prayer we had at seeking to determine a new, or different, present, we failed to be still and attend to the distinct word of God in this season. In fact, we assumed we were mounting a raid against Satan to rescue Katey from what we assumed could only have been the devil's work.

Exhausted and disillusioned, alone and with a sense of abandonment, while an exhausted and confused congregation melted away, we began to pay attention to God, seeking to discern his voice. We again reminded ourselves we were God’s property, albeit “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NIV). God alone has the word of life, and so we directed our gaze to the Lord. No longer consumed by physical disease, we waited and began to develop attentiveness to who God was in this set of circumstances and discern his unique words for us both. We found comfort even as we knew pain and disappointment.

QUESTION: What are the challenges within your present circumstances?

PRAYER: Lord, help me to follow where you are leading me and not where I think you should be taking me.

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Day 13 - Issue 24

January 17, 2018

Psalm 46:10a-11a NLT

'Be still, and know that I am God! …The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us.'

If stillness draws us into the prayer space, how are we to avoid the pitfalls of constant distraction? When I first began to explore prayer beyond my intercession, my mind was restless, interrupting all attempts at stillness. I soon learned my mind could not be controlled, however hard I tried. What I lacked was the essential attentiveness to God.

Attentiveness has two distinct meanings. We all recognise the demand to pay close attention to our context; for example, driving a car requires attentiveness to road and traffic conditions, it’s not the time to write a complex rebuttal to a disagreeable proposal or to use a mobile phone. Once in the stillness, therefore, it’s not the stillness itself that is the objective of our prayer. It is the space such stillness has introduced us to. On summer mornings I sit enjoying the swelling sounds of the dawn chorus; I hear a cacophony of birdsong fill the air. However, when attentive, I distinguish blackbird from song thrush, robin from goldfinch. This ability depends on familiarising myself with the different garden bird songs. The attention I’ve given in life to discerning and distinguishing the character and the ways of God is the foundation to establish prayerful attentiveness. I hear, yet I must learn to discern what it is I am hearing. I learn to listen beyond the distractions.

Yet, attentiveness also means attending to the interests and comfort of others. In approaching God, it is not simply that I anticipate or demand that God in some interventionist way attends to my ever-swelling bandwidth of 'needs'. Instead I attend to the ‘needs’ of the Divine. Can I really suggest that an all-powerful God has a ‘need’ of my attentiveness? Regardless, I do. Because God’s will in the earth is expressed through the obedient action of those who are determined to love and serve God. We are literally God’s hands and feet in the earth today.

QUESTION: What do you find hard about being still?

PRAYER: Lord, knowing you lies at the heart of all that your people are and must do.

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Day 12 - Issue 24

January 16, 2018

Psalm 46:10a NLT

'Be still, and know that I am God!'

Prayer can be my endless monotone of requests, concerns and appeals to God. God is seen as our lifebelt which we reach for to stay afloat in stormy waters. In reality, prayer is a precise response in search of a God who I deeply desire to encounter. With such love there are no guarantees of reciprocation, and my search for God might prove fruitless since God can only and ever be sought through faith. And faith is literally without substance, established solely upon an insubstantial foundation. For faith is to knowledge what skill is to sport: Intuition + Practise = Performance.

The first essential of all prayer is stillness. This is the absence of motion, the stillness of mind and heart in the face of myriad distractions. Stillness is my choice. While the mind is never free from processing millions of bytes of data sent via our senses for interpretation, we must teach our brain the art of stillness. Here, years of activity including work, hobbies, family etc take their toll. Our brains demand stimulation, and such activities offer this up in plenty. This is something we believe stillness can never give us. Forced to do nothing, we are restless. Periods of illness or the daily repetition of retirement reveal the challenge to occupy time effectively. As has been said, most people fear eternity for they don’t know what to do with themselves on a wet Sunday afternoon.

Stillness is the process by which we grow to know ourselves and become content in our own company. It steadily reduces our need for distractions. It creates the space where we can wait, seek and discover God. God refuses to compete with our constant need for distractions. God demands my full attention and is wounded when my attention drifts elsewhere. First steps into stillness take time and demand my total attention. It can feel painful, for stillness is nowhere practised in an accelerating society, where stillness is equated with lack of purpose and meaning. This so easily strips us of our self-worth, for we think we are what we do. Yet, stillness before God reveals that we are so much more.

QUESTION: Have you the courage to explore stillness?

PRAYER: Lord, there are so many distractions, so much noise, and my attention is so often divided. Yet, help my heart and mind be wholly yours.

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Day 11 - Issue 24

January 15, 2018

Matthew 2:9 NLT

'After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was.'

Prayer has been described as “Standing face-to-face with God with undivided heart, mind and will”. It’s here that we are made complete and that we are completed as children of God.

Like the Magi, the first step in prayer is to respond to God’s invitation. They observed and correctly analysed the purpose of the star, yet if they had never responded to the invitation to follow, they would never have discovered the Messiah. Our life of prayer is the pursuit of the reality who is God. In our information age, where knowledge is simply a keystroke away, we can become highly informed yet remain inexperienced. Prayer is to enlarge the heart, the core of who I am, not simply to swell my head.

Response demands I journey in pursuit of God’s invitation. Following God always demands journeying from where I am to where I know not. It will lead me through a variety of landscapes and emotions. Much of the journey is discovering who I am even as I seek to discover more of God. Where once I relished travel, I now hanker to sit at home and engage in the Oratory rhythm of work and prayer. Yet, my spirit responds to the invitation to test the substance of the claims of the ancients that the inner light who is God might be knowable at ever deeper levels. I must stir myself, face discomforts of the road and travel as and where God’s leads.

Like the Magi I arrive, I kneel, I worship. There is nothing else I can do when I encounter God. My gaze is captivated by God, my prayer an expression of love, amazement and praise for the Lord of all of creation.

QUESTION: How might you breathe fresh life into your prayers?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, I love, worship and adore you.

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Day 10 - Issue 24

January 12, 2018

Matthew 2:22 NLT

'But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee.'

In reflecting upon the journey with God, it’s natural that much is spoken and written about listening to him. However, just as the Church journeys through the liturgical season called ‘Ordinary Time’, so our lives have long seasons that might be named ordinary. Joseph is finally alerted to the fact that Herod is dead and he can safely return his family to the land of Israel.

However, hearing that Herod’s son is still ruling and fearing for Jesus’ life, he takes a decision to locate his family in Nazareth. He believes this to be beyond the reach of Archelaus, ruler of Judea. The point is that we do not need inspiration to take godly decisions. God leaves the majority of decisions within our own hands with little need of supernatural intervention. Indeed Mary, Joseph and Jesus entered into a long period of ordinary time up to the start of Jesus’ ministry.

As Katey and I battled with childlessness, we engaged in numerous fasts and prayers demanding God’s reversal of our infertility. Yet, slowly we came to realise that we must walk in all God had for us now. Walk through a very ordinary time with little encouragement for our faith, save maintaining our regular rhythm of life, including prayer and considering scripture together. Little did we know that ten years ahead lay a child who was to choose to adopt us as additional parents alongside a single mum to whom we offered a home.

I believe in an interventionist God, for I have experienced such interventions too often to deny their potency and reality. Yet, I also recognise God treats me as an adult and expects me to get on with life, however I find it, and take decisions that don’t require God’s approval. Life in the main is living by the revelation of scripture that has sufficient within it to reveal what constitutes the virtuous, or godly, life.

QUESTION: Do you expect God to intervene on a regular basis or alternatively do you make all your decisions without regard to God at all?

PRAYER: Lord, teach me your ways throughout all my days to honour and glorify you.

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