Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Take Heart

As we enter the New Year in less than 24 hours I find myself feeling a mixture of sorrow and hope. Sorrow at what has been a very difficult year for us as a family and hope that this new year is full of opportunity. As I spent a few moments this morning in reflection and prayer I came across this verse from the book of Psalms "Praise be to the Lord, to God our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens." (Psalms 68:19) and then in the New Testament book of Hebrews these words of Jesus ""Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5).

In our saddest moments during 2014 we have not been left alone. God has been with us even though we have not found it easy to discern his presence at times. I have a very close friend, Martyn, whose dear wife Gill died suddenly just over a year ago, and who found great help and comfort in his grief in a song by Fernando Ortega, "Take Heart my Friend" and it has become precious to me also.  In the dark nights of pain I have played it often. It has been my encourager as I have sat in my car watching the waves pounding angrily on the sea-shore. As I face tomorrow with its wet sand just waiting to be written upon by whatever God has planned for Diane and me, I do take heart from the fact that we are not alone. Read the lyrics here and see if they help you also.

Take heart my friend, we'll go together
This uncertain road that lies ahead
Our faithful God has always gone before us
And He will lead the way once again

Take heart my friend, we can walk together
And if our burdens become too great
We can hold up and help one another
In God's love, in God's grace

Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night

If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to Him who rules the waters
Who spoke His peace into the angry tide

He is our comfort, our sustainer
He is our help in time of need
And when we wander He is our shepherd
He who watches over us, never sleeps

Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night

Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night

When the time comes, Diane and I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lighten our Darkness

It is so appropriate that in our part of the world Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. Displays of light, whether consisting of candles or LED's, abound as we make the most of this dark season to proclaim the coming of 'the light of the world'. But in another sense this reminds me that every year, almost without fail, the most appalling acts of darkness, natural or unnatural disasters, seem to take place at or around Christmas. Even in my own short memory I recall events like the Penlee lifeboat disaster from 1981 in which 8 volunteer life-boatmen gave their lives to rescue the crew of a sinking freighter at Christmas. Then there was the dreadful downing of the Lockerbie PanAm flight right near the special day, and of course, 10 years ago, I was in London for hospital treatment when Diane came back from a Boxing Day carol service to say that thousands were feared dead in a terrifying tsunami. By the time that particular horror had run its course nearly a quarter of a million people had perished - what a Christmas! And then this year we have wept at the savage, inhuman slaughter of the little ones in Pakistan.

A Child in DistressBut then, like it or not, that's how Christmas started out. We love to idealise the stable scene with its kneeling wise men, adoring shepherds and hushed animals all worshiping the baby in the manger, but the reality included much less savoury facts. The young parents in Bethlehem were very soon to be engulfed with the most appalling sorrow as every child under 2 years of age was put to death by evil King Herod. The young Jesus with his Mum and Dad escaped as refugees like thousands of others in Jordan and Syria today, leaving behind them mourning and crying as the prophet Jeremiah described so powerfully, "Rachel crying for her children and not able to be comforted".

Why is there this dark side to Christmas?  Just co-incidence?  Maybe if you subscribe to the co-incidence view of history, but I prefer to recognise that the coming of Jesus was the greatest threat to the powers of darkness that they had ever faced, or would ever face. Just as evil King Herod feared that this baby had come to take away his kingdom and power, so there are forces in our world that tremble at the sound of the songs of Christmas. The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the hinges on which the door of human history hangs. As we celebrate his coming this Christmas let's not lose sight of the dark side but rejoice that the light has come! "Joy to the world, the Lord has come.  Let Earth receive her king!" Amen to that!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pre-Christmas Exhaustion and its Cure!

A mum was out Christmas shopping with her two children. After many hours of looking at row after row of toys and everything else imaginable; and hearing both her children asking for everything they saw on the shelves, she finally made it to the lift to leave the store. She rubbed her weary eyes with a hand weighed down with three loaded carrier bags and sighed as she waited for the lift to come to her floor, the kids pulling constantly on her coat sleeves and screeching in tired frustration. She was feeling what so many of us feel during this time of the year. Overwhelming pressure! Pressure to go to every party, or get the kids to theirs, taste all the holiday food and treats, get that perfect gift for every single person on our shopping list, not forgetting anyone on our card list, and the pressure of making sure that Christmas is altogether 'magical'.

Finally the lift doors opened and there was already a crowd inside. She pushed her way into the lift and dragged her two kids in with her and all the bags of stuff. When the doors closed she couldn't take it anymore and muttered with bitter resignation, "Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up and shot." From the back of the lift everyone heard a quiet calm voice respond, "Don't worry, we already did that - we crucified Him." For the rest of the trip down the lift was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.

It can be so hard to keep our heads above water at this time of the year and find space to maintain our own peace, and especially our walk with God.  I don't think Jesus invented the modern Christmas and must be feeling pretty left out of it all anyway. But I came across a really helpful translation of a passage in the ancient gospel of Matthew that just about sums up what Jesus might say to us if we had a minute for him. "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (Matthew 11:28 – 30 from The Message).

If Christmas feels "heavy or ill-fitting" we can be pretty sure Jesus didn't lay it on us, and maybe we should spend a few moments tuning his way at a time supposed to be all about him? Give it a go anyway and see if you can get through this season "freely and lightly".

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fragile but Precious

When people ask me how I am now in the aftermath of recent medical intervention I usually reply 'Doing well - but fragile!'. This got me thinking about fragility generally and especially as we start receiving parcels marked 'FRAGILE' in advance of Christmas. What does it mean and what do I mean when I use it to describe my state of health? The dictionary offers two meanings for the word - "able to be broken easily" and "in a weakened physical state" and so it's the latter sense that I am using. But there is another aspect of the word that takes my interest - the fact that so many precious things are fragile. Glass ornaments, prized artefacts, antiques, sensitive technical equipment, medical kit - all these important and valuable things may be described as 'fragile'.

When faith is fragile it is sometimes open to criticism, especially from those whose faith is robust and strong. Like the man who used to get sand kicked in his face in the advert for muscle-building products, Christians can feel intimidated at times when their faith is fragile. Perhaps in the aftermath of trauma or bereavement, or the barren wasteland of loss and disappointment, faith can be especially fragile as we travel the journey of our lives. Yet this fragility itself speaks to us of the precious nature of the cargo. Our faith - whether fledgling faith like that of Jesus' disciples or bruised faith like that of those of us who have suffered long and hard - is of immense value to God.

You see, just a little faith placed in a mighty God can achieve amazing things! A small and faltering step taken on a strong bridge will get us so much further than confident stamping on a shaky artificial temporary walkway! When we see that someone else's faith is fragile, let's not be too quick to criticise. In fact, when illustrating the power of faith placed in God, Jesus took the smallest of all the seeds in a Middle-Eastern garden, the mustard seed, to show how precious such faith can be. So instead, maybe we need to back off and pray that their small and fragile faith may be placed in a powerful and loving God and so bring forth the fruit that it is capable of producing in the long run.

Till then, I'm doing OK thanks, but fragile!