Tag Archives: spirituality

Loss and Hope

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And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
(Revelation 21:3-4 NRSV)

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
(John 14:2 NRSV)

The Festivals of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November), certainly come at a fitting time of the year, and they are much more profound than the nonsense which Halloween has become. (Halloween – “All Hallows Eve” – draws its name from the fact that it is the eve of All Saints Day).

But these two festivals engage with us at the levels of our faith and our sense of mortality. The days are shorter and the nights are drawing in and memories of the passing year, and of passing time, come to the fore. And so this time of year is naturally a time of remembrance.

On All Saints Day we give thanks for those men and women, famous and unknown, who have, little by little, changed the world by living their Christian values, by putting Christ at the centre of their world, in their everyday, ordinary lives.

On All Souls Day we give thanks for our loved ones, those who have nurtured us and cared for us, befriended us, protected us and taught us – and we do so especially for those whose loss we have recently borne.

A few days hence, of course, in the UK we remember with pride and thanksgiving those who have paid the greatest price in the wars and conflicts of our land; whose gift and sacrifice has kept us safe; something we so often take for granted.

It is a time for Remembering.

There are many things which we share as part of our common humanity and, sadly, suffering and death is one of them.

And yet, each death, each loss, is such a personal thing. The person we mourn is a husband, a wife, a mum or a dad, a grandmother or grandfather, a child, a relative, a partner, a friend, a lover. The grief is raw and personal, and we think that no-one can understand what we are going through.

And that is true; because no matter how psychologists attempt to label our feelings, grief is a very individual phenomenon. It’s different for each of us, even though there may be some common threads.

The feelings associated with the loss of a loved one cut to the core of who we are as human beings. It can cause us to ask some very fundamental questions about the meaning of life.

Sadly, for example, at such times some people give up on God, because their grief brings out a very understandable sense of anger. They blame God for their loss. How could a “Good God” allow this to happen to me, to him, to her? If this is the place you are in, have a look in your Bible at Psalm 22. See how it begins; see how it ends.

Then, if you have time, take a look at Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 23, verses 33-48.

For other people, however, those fundamental questions of existence and the meaning of life set them off on a journey which draws them closer to our Lord. The pain is just as deep, but somehow it seems a little more bearable because of their hope and trust in the words of our Lord.

That’s what hope is; not a form of wishful thinking, (as in “I hope things turn out for the best.”), but rather a trust in the promises of God.

And we catch just a glimpse of those promises in the two excerpts at the top of this page.

The passage from the Book of the Revelation was written at a time of great tribulation; and yet the writer is able to describe a vision where God has put an end to pain and suffering – death even, and will wipe our very tears away. That passage, and other similar ones, have given great comfort and consolation to millions of people through the centuries, and continue to do so around our world today.

In the passage from John’s Gospel we hear Jesus reminding his bewildered friends of their eternal hope. He speaks of a house with many rooms which he prepares for us, and even offers to be our guide.

He couldn’t be clearer: there is a place in God’s eternal Kingdom for all. It is a powerful metaphor of the truth that death is not the end, but simply a way-point on the journey. And, Jesus went on to demonstrate that truth through his own suffering and death – and his glorious resurrection.

What many of us want to know, when we lose a loved one, is “is that the end? Is there more? Is there really a heaven? If so, is the person I love there and in safe hands?”

The words of Jesus spoken just before his own terrible suffering, offer us that reassurance, that true hope.

No one else may be able to understand what we are going through in our grief – but God does; and, if we allow him to, he will enter the painful silence and emptiness of our hearts, and bring us healing and hope – hope for our loved ones and for ourselves. Hope that God will eventually wipe away our tears, in that house with many rooms; hope, not to give up and retreat into ourselves, but to continue our lives until that promise is fulfilled for each of us.

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Just Ask

If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
(John 14:14 NRSV)

At the heart of a living relationship with God is prayer.

The problem is that so many of us take such an individualistic consumer approach to prayer that when things don’t go our way, we assume that prayer doesn’t work and we give up.

But I have seen prayer work, and I have seen lives changed by prayer, including my own.

But what is prayer, and why bother to pray? Well, many books continue to be written on the subject and there are a whole range of prayer and spiritual disciplines.

In a nutshell, though, prayer is our conversation with God. In healthy prayer, just as in a healthy conversation with other people, we talk and we listen. If I am having a conversation with my wife, I don’t think I would be all that popular if I am doing all the talking. That’s especially true if all my talk is about the list of things I want her to do for me!

No, if our relationship means all that it should, we will talk, listen, and sometimes just sit quietly and enjoy each other’s company. And If I want our relationship to continue to grow and develop I will make sure that I take an interest in the things that are important to her. Finally, neither of us would ask the other to do something which was clearly not right for them, or not in character.

Our prayer life can be similar. Through it each of us can grow in our spiritual relationship with God. Yes, we can lay our burdens before him, and we can make our requests in prayer, but how much better it is to take God seriously enough to want to get to know him better along the way.

Just talk to God, anywhere, any time. Don’t use religious language; just tell him what’s on your heart. And take the time to listen, too.

Jesus said, “Ask anything in my name.” – and the clue is in those words: “in my name.”

Prayer is not the presentation of a shopping list of demands to God. It is the cornerstone of our relationship with him, and a means by which our lives can be transformed.

Jesus,
teach me to pray,
teach me to talk, to listen and to keep silent.
Amen.

Some Help Along the Way

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
(John 14:15-16 NRSV)

The concept of the Holy Trinity is firmly established in Christian understanding about the Nature of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or, if you prefer, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer) is the shorthand for a way of understanding the God who was there before all things, who entered into relationship with his own Creation and who ultimately pervades every aspect of life.

I find it to be mind-boggling stuff and prefer to leave it to those who are experts in various “-ologies” to argue things through.

That’s not intended to be an act of inverted snobbery but rather an acknowledgement that we can get so caught up in the finer details of a topic that we might miss what God is saying to us. We need to stand back from the trees to see the forest.

When Jesus talks about “the advocate” he is referring, of course, to the Holy Spirit, whose role is to enlighten, inspire and empower us as we seek to follow his teachings. The Spirit is the helper and guide, symbolised by the dove and by flames.

Jesus knew that for the Kingdom to grow he would have to leave his disciples to carry on and carry forward his work. Shortly before his arrest he tells them that after he has gone they will be given another helper for the task ahead. They couldn’t do it alone.

It was that special gift of God’s Holy Spirit which enabled Jesus’s followers (a motley bunch of ordinary people) to get up and proclaim the Gospel of God’s love right across the known world. That special gift continues to be at work in our time and is the one who, if I may be so bold as to say so, is at work in you as you explore your own questions of faith.

Jesus,
Thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
May I be empowered to serve your Kingdom,
inspired to proclaim your love
and enlightened to know your truth.
Amen.

Growing Faith

“Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
(Luke 8:8 NRSV)

I really came to faith as an adult. It was a bumpy road of exploration, for a number of reasons. I well remember the time when one of my best friends said to me, “You haven’t gone and got religion, have you Nigel?” That stung.

But the most difficult obstacle for me to overcome was about how to deal with a world-view which I had simply taken for granted up until that point.

I was, and still am, fascinated (amongst other things) by the discoveries of science and technology. Did I have to “unlearn” what I had read in order to be a “good” Christian? Could I read the Bible and still thank God for Charles Darwin? These and a myriad of other questions represented what I then saw as a fundamental clash of world views, and I spent a long time seeking answers.

I do, now, believe that God was working on my heart and mind throughout that time and that, as I explored the Scriptures and learned from others, he helped me to grow a little in my thinking. I began to see the love of God in the pages of the New Testament and in the lives of those around me. It convinced me that the Christian journey is a process of growth for the whole of our mortal lives.

It’s not always an easy journey because it goes to the core of who we are. But if we do embark on it I think that we grow, not just as people of faith, but as human beings.

When Jesus talks about “those who have ears” he means those who are open to the possibility of that life-changing encounter with God. My experience of that encounter has made me passionate for others to experience it, too.

Oh, and, er, God bless Charles Darwin.

Jesus,
open my eyes to the richness of your word,
my mind to the wonders of creation,
my heart to the depth of your love.
Amen

Living Faith

I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.
(Luke 6:47-48 NRSV)

My late Grandma, Lizzie, was quite a character! Born at the height of the Victorian era, she sailed to Canada well before the First World War. In Toronto she married and raised a family. There she stayed for over 50 years until, in her mid-eighties, she got on a plane and came to live with us in England, to help my mother who had been recently widowed.

Lizzie lived into her 102nd year and, although crippled with arthritis, was still planting potatoes in the garden well into her nineties. She had lived through two world wars, the great depression and much else; she had experienced great poverty, and the growing prosperity of the post war years.

There wasn’t much that Lizzie hadn’t seen or experienced. She had considerable personal courage, a very sharp mind and a dry wit. She also had strong opinions on many things, which she would happily share.

And Lizzie was a woman of quiet but profound faith. In her time with us getting to a church would have been difficult for her, but she read her huge King James Bible every day, and she prayed quietly by her bed every night.

I didn’t understand such things at the time but I now realise that Lizzie’s faith was part of who she was; it had shaped her life and she had a natural relationship with God through her prayers. I don’t remember any great religious debates taking place in my childhood home, and unless you saw Lizzie with her Bible or at prayer you might know little of her devotion. She did not wear her religion as a badge.

It seems that for many of us, faith is a subject for discussion and debate, or perhaps even a matter of allegiance. For Lizzie her walk of faith was her journey of life; without fuss or ostentation. She had built her life on the solid foundation of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus,
show me the way
to build my life
on the solid foundation
of your words.
Amen.

Faith and Doubt

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
(John 20:24-25 NRSV)

Poor old Thomas. Though he was one of Jesus’ closest followers he is often castigated as the doubter, perhaps a little unfairly. “Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas” we are told when we are unsure of something which is assented to by others.

Here is Thomas: grief-stricken that his friend and master had been brutally executed just a few days earlier, being asked to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. His doubt is not unreasonable, to say the least!

Sadly, faith is often described as an “in or out” thing, or perhaps as a “yes or no” decision. For some people that will be valid. However, I would wager that you could look around the vast majority of church communities and see a variety of understandings of faith.

As a Christian minister, my role is not to persuade everyone to think like me and believe everything I believe about God. Rather, my role is to encourage people to see that they are deeply loved by God, and to help that discovery to nurture and shape their lives – to help them feel that they belong to the community of faith (in all its diversity), and to believe that they are precious children of God, so that we can all better learn to love God and each other.

That is why I think that the best worshipping fellowship – church community – has boundaries which are so nebulous that members of the wider community will feel “safe” to come and explore what faith might mean to them, without feeling that they are being “signed up”.

Faith and doubt are not incompatible.

Faith can often be there in the presence of doubt. There is no necessary conflict between rational and spiritual thought. We can grow in faith through our questioning.

Growing in faith is like learning to be more fully human; and that can be a lifetime’s project.

Jesus,
Accompany me
on this lifetime journey of exploration;
help me to grow
in my understanding of God’s love
so that it may shape my life
and deepen my faith.
Amen.

Using the Same Measure

He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
(Luke 11:2-4 NRSV)

The Lord’s Prayer, in its different versions and many languages is surely amongst the most commonly used of all Christian prayers. If you can’t think what to pray then the Lord’s Prayer will certainly do.

It is not, in fact, a “religious” prayer in a sectarian or denominational sense. Anyone and everyone can pray it.

But the words do indicate the radical and subversive nature of Jesus’ teaching. It is a prayer of praise and adoration, an acknowledgement of God’s providence, a prayer for protection, a prayer of healing and reconciliation: and a prayer for justice.

“Forgive us our debts (or sins or trespasses)” is a part of the prayer which many of us might offer at times when our consciences trouble us; but the prayer also offers a caveat of pragmatism – “for we ourselves forgive . . .”

Do we? Do we forgive others to the same extent that we expect God (and people) to forgive us?

Do we ask God to use the same measure with us, as we do with our neighbours? Because that is what the prayer means: “Judge me with same level of justice that I judge others.”

For justice is not only about restitution; and it is certainly not about revenge. Justice will ultimately involve painful reconciliation and healing; and that will also involve a degree of forgiveness.

Some will find this shocking; but without forgiveness there can be little chance of reconciliation. Those who forgive bear the cost, the pain, the insult of the offence. It can be the most difficult thing; but it is the way of the Kingdom of God.

Our Father in Heaven,
may you be praised and honoured above all.
may your Kingdom of justice, mercy and love come;
may your will be done on Earth as in Heaven.
Give us today the food we need.
Forgive us the harm we have caused
to the same extent that we forgive those who have caused us harm.
Do not lead us to the time of hard testing, but protect us from evil.
Amen

Go, for Me

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:18-20 NRSV)

So what was that all about?

No fond farewells, no words of appreciation, no “Thanks for being my friends guys. Gotta go now. Its been a blast!” None of it.

But Jesus knew what he was doing, and so did the Gospel writer. There are no farewells because Jesus is speaking of his presence with them – for ever. This is the moment he has been preparing them for.

If Jesus stays then his friends will not do the very thing he needs them to do – to carry on his work for the Kingdom. They have done their “basic training” and now its time for them to go and get on with it.

In fact, that little paragraph has become known over the years as “The Great Commission”. They are to make disciples (more learners) in every nation and of every nation. And they are to be the teachers and exemplars of this new way.

Can you imagine the scene? A motley bunch of eleven disciples – with not a great leader amongst them – some of whom are not completely sure that they are believing what they are seeing, listening to Jesus tell them to go out and change the world.

But the evidence that they must have done so is to be found all around us, in the lives of many who have influenced us, and in the many-faceted stories of the Christian Church throughout twenty centuries and around the world.

“Go and teach, go and welcome people into my Kingdom, go and take healing with you, go and care, go for justice, for genuine community, for those who are left behind. Go until the hungry are fed, the broken-hearted are bound up, there is sight and speech, and those in bondage are free. Go and nurture; go and make new disciples, new teachers, new healers, new workers for my Kingdom.

Go in faith, because I will be with you. Go in the face of opposition and apathy. Go into the cacophony of the marketplace of ideas, and live what you know.

Go, for me.”

Jesus,
help me to learn of your way
and to grow in my love;
not just for my sake,
but so that others may know
of your love for them, too.
Amen

Live This Life

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
(Matthew 6:26-27 NRSV)

Like many others I have spent too much of my life worrying: chiefly worrying about the future, or worrying about what others might think. What a waste of time! My family and friends, the people who know me and love me (warts and all) do so, I presume, because of the kind of person I am, or who I try to be. And I love them dearly for the same reasons. What more could matter?

And as for worrying about the future . . . ! Does worrying about it really change things? I doubt it.

So I’m learning.

And yet I meet so many people who are stricken with anxiety that I think it must be one of the major conditions of our time.

But Jesus says, “Stop worrying”. You are the person that God has created; the person who God loves and who God wants to be in relationship with. God cares passionately about every aspect of your life and will bless, sanctify and transform each of those aspects to the extent that you allow him.

I firmly believe that so many of us get it wrong about God, and that Jesus seeks to correct our misunderstanding. God is not interested in how religious we are, or how pious we can be. He doesn’t want us to worship him because we are worried about what might happen in eternity. Rather, he wants us to realise that we are living in eternity now, and that this life matters because it is God’s loving gift to us which he wants us to live as fully as possible.

To live for today, to be true to who we are, to journey with integrity, to seek justice and the good of others, all in thanksgiving for God’s gracious love, is to honour the life that God has given us.

Does anyone feel a party coming on?

Jesus,
teach me to stop worrying
about everything under the sun,
and to live today
as a precious child of God.
Amen

Welcome to the Kingdom

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
(Matthew 13:31-32 NRSV)

A recent family trip overseas highlighted to me the levels of nervousness which some countries now feel towards those who enter their territory. Bags are x-rayed and sometimes searched, shoes and belts are removed for body scans, occasionally people are searched and questions are always asked. The officials concerned are properly performing their duties but to an infrequent traveller it can all be quite intimidating. It was quite a relief that, on returning home, we found that we could just scan our passports and head for the baggage claim.

If our modern secular kingdoms are difficult to enter, the same is not true of the Kingdom of God, otherwise called the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus makes many allusions to God’s Kingdom throughout his ministry, and it is pretty clear that this is the place to be!

But where is it? What is it?

Well, Jesus shows us that the Kingdom is not primarily a geographical place, though it may be found everywhere. There is, certainly, an eternal dimension to consider but the here-and-now may be enough for us.

The Kingdom of God is to be found wherever the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, the broken-hearted are comforted, where the peacemakers rule, where the last are first and everyone is valued regardless of who they are. It is a kingdom where life, indeed all creation, is hallowed, justice and mercy abound, forgiveness is the norm, diversity is standard, joy is paramount and God’s love is celebrated and lived.

It is the place where relationships are not only valued, but deeply loved.

In other words, God’s Kingdom is to be found wherever God’s ways are lived out in the lives of his children: including you and me.

Welcome to the Kingdom.

Jesus,
guide me to see
the glimpses of the Kingdom
which are all around me,
and to celebrate their reality.
Amen