Day 59 - Issue 24

March 22, 2018

Luke 23:28 NLT

But Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”

There is a great challenge in disentangling good advice from future proofing against disaster. As I entered the unstable world of Christian youth work after finishing at Oxford, my father was angry. He observed me throwing away my opportunity for a secure future, or one he defined as such. He wasn’t a Christian and the anxiety must have been overwhelming. It had a negative impact on our relationship which lasted for years. I have subsequently experienced similar emotions as my daughter has pursued her path into the entertainment industry, which offers little by way of secure, well-paid jobs. Like my father, I ponder how much she may regret my lack of a steer into a more stable lifestyle.

Jesus makes his way towards crucifixion. Women who had faithfully followed him now wept at the sight of a brutalised Jesus. Yet, he reminds them in the starkest possible way that life offers no guarantees of either happiness or fulfilment. We are to learn to be wholly present in each moment and consult with God about what steps we are to take ahead of each tomorrow.

One clear lesson from accompanying Katey with MS was that each day was to be enjoyed for what it offered. Our plans for our future had turned to ashes. Progressive MS had no trustworthy prognosis, so we lived in the moment. What was the purpose of setting anything aside for a tomorrow we might not enjoy together? This lesson challenged so many of my own deeply embedded insecurities. The only future proofing is the kind Jesus describes. We are to prepare our hearts by exploring how we can deepen our trust and confidence in Jesus. In this way we shall navigate our future, whether tomorrow brings sunshine, showers or a mighty storm.

QUESTION: How much effort do you make in trying to make your life safe and secure?

PRAYER: Lord, teach me how to be wise in my present but trusting you for my future.

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Day 58 - Issue 24

March 21, 2018

Isaiah 53:4b NLT

'And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins!'

As Jesus made his way towards Golgotha, the exhaustion and pain following his trial and torture must have brought him to his knees more than once, even with Simon’s assistance. How quickly the worship of his welcome into Jerusalem morphed into the insults that accompanied his walk of shame.

For many of us, when we are recipients of bread and fish among a crowd of onlookers, or when our loved one is miraculously healed, Jesus is the source of our joy and fervour. However, when tragedy strikes, our health resists every prayer for restoration, our reputation becomes defined by others, our security implodes, we lose sight of Jesus and make our complaint to God.

Here Jesus is powerless, and chooses to remain so. This is not his time to reveal the authority that is his by right. Even his disciples abandon him. Yet, Jesus keeps the prize in view, even though the prize demands his life. When I committed my life to God I did not imagine my life would be marked by sorrow. I expected God to protect me from pain. How little I understood the purpose of my life. God took me at my word, accepted the life I exchanged for his love and forgiveness, and began the task of leading me deeper into his heart. I was now in God’s hands; I had voluntarily surrendered my rights to my life.

Jesus had wrestled with this reality in Gethsemane, yet yielded to God. His life was now being drained as he struggled to carry his cross to his execution. This made no sense to those who wanted and needed a Messiah, but one in their own image. Messiah meant victory, strength, power. Jesus knew that power came from emptying oneself of everything, of becoming the willing servant of all.

QUESTION: Ask God to reveal to you the nature of obedience, and search for the grace to say yes to God.

PRAYER: Lord, give me the courage and boldness to obey all the things that you ask me to do.

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Day 57 - Issue 24

March 20, 2018

Isaiah 53:3 NLT

'He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.'

I have become increasingly aware of how little society respects those who lose their health and, with it, their independence. I know Katey’s disability and physical disfigurement brought on by her MS inevitably removed her from the mainstream of society. She not only lost her health, but with it the teaching job she loved, her ability to cook, to shop, to participate in social events – the list is endless. This in turn led to isolation, a severe loss of income and exclusion from many of the decisions that affected her. There was no malice, but Katey slipped out of society long before she died.

My mum, who has moved into a care home now, is experiencing the same disengagement from society. A welcoming home that houses only people in their last years of life is like a cruise ship. It is adrift within its own reality and surrounded by a vast ocean of indifference. Never have I understood the phrase, “waiting room for death” as much as I do entering that home. The perpetual sound of buzzers, each a call for help from a human being, reminds me of staff shortages. Even my mum describes those who gently serve her needs to wash, dress, eat etc as “my carer”, unable to remember names that change as frequently as the days.

I read and hear of a compassionate society which I fail to observe. First Katey in her nursing home, now Mum in her care home. In both situations kindness was self-evident, yet these were hostels to house the disfigured, those whom society chooses to hide their faces from. Life is ugly in many respects. Yet, Jesus, by his own admission, came for the unlovely, those at the margins, those society wanted to forget and neglect.

I have no answers, and I wince as I write for I too hide my face from all that I don’t want to confront. I can’t face what overwhelms me and I sense demands my time and resources in ways that intrude upon my independence. Yet, Jesus embraces ugliness in solidarity with the unlovely.

QUESTION: Are there needs in those you know that you’re choosing to ignore?

PRAYER: Merciful God, help me be your arms and feet to those who need your love and mercy.

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Day 56 - Issue 24

March 19, 2018

Luke 23:26 NLT

'As they led Jesus away, a man named Simon, who was from Cyrene, happened to be coming in from the countryside. The soldiers seized him and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.'

One thing I discovered after Katey died, or more specifically after her funeral, was that life went very quiet. I felt the huge weight of my aloneness. I could hear the sound of silence throughout the house, our home of 16 years. My eyes saw every image in stark definition. I made tea for two instinctively, one for the deceased whose death I seemed to forget.

One person promised to visit me every Thursday for the month following the funeral. He did so faithfully and it was a source of help and hope. We would walk, drink coffee and eat. It normalised one day in the week. I have little memory of our conversations, but I know I had a channel through which I could express myself, however conflicted that self was at that time. No judgement, just acceptance and support.

Simon of Cyrene, no doubt in Jerusalem for his religious observance, is dragged into supporting Jesus’ cross.  Forced against his will, yet he shared the weight of Jesus’ burden as much as he could. This was Jesus’ journey alone, yet without experience or skills, Simon gave the best support he could through this stage of Jesus’ agony.

While nothing takes the reality of the sufferer’s pain away, the burden can be shared for a season. If I am to step in and offer my support, it will certainly disrupt my plans, play havoc with my schedules and perhaps be the last thing on my mind. Yet, such support is a gift beyond measure. Simon completed his task under duress and disappeared back into his own life. I too had my Simon for that season of grief, and then that relationship, so important in that season, faded and is no more. Yet, the encouragement found in such companionship might prove the difference between completing that walk and faltering part-way along its path.

QUESTION: Is there anyone you know who you can come alongside and help carry their burden?

PRAYER: Lord, thank you for friends who help, and help me to be such a friend to others.

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Day 55 - Issue 24

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.

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Day 54 - Issue 24

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.

 

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Day 53 - Issue 24

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.

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Day 52 - Issue 24

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.

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Day 51 - Issue 24

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.

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Day 50 - Issue 24

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.

 

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