40 days of reflections in celebration of 40 years following Jesus.

I offer them in the hope that they will provide food for the soul over the autumn and up to Advent.

A new reflection each day.

 

Ian Stackhouse

Reflections

Day 40

Saturday 27th November

‘I will lift up the cup of salvation’. Psalm 116:13

It was Karl Barth who said that gratitude is the reflex of grace. In other words, although we can’t pay God back for his gift of salvation – not one cent – we can certainly be thankful. More than that, we can celebrate. And in liturgical gestures this culminates in the lifting up of the cup. As God comes down in giving grace, our instinctive response is to lift this grace up for all to see. We are a Eucharistic people whatever else we are. In bread and wine, we celebrate God’s sacrificial love. And as we do so, we renew our commitment, in the presence of all the people, to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. Grace may be free, but it will demand everything we have.

Prayer: Gracious Father, as I come to the end of these 40 days, I lift up the cup of salvation, marvelling in your love even as I lay down my life to follow you.

Day 39

Friday 26th November

‘Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’ Exodus 32:10

I must confess I’m not entirely convinced about God’s anger here. When someone says to me in the heat of a row, ‘Now leave me alone’, I register that, rightly or wrongly, as a sign of hope. It sounds final, but in another way it’s opening a door. It’s telling me in so many words – only four words actually – that the person is not so much angry as hurt, in which case things can be repaired. After all, if God really was going to destroy Israel, why tell Moses? Surely he would just get on with it. The first Moses would know about the destruction would be after the event. By telling Moses to leave him alone, therefore, God is making himself vulnerable to an appeal. At least that’s how I see it. And if you think that sounds ridiculous, just look what happens next. Emboldened by the hint of merciful intent, Moses sought the favour of the Lord. In other words, he prayed like mad, with the result, surprise, surprise, that the Lord relented from what he had threatened. And it’s not that his anger was fake. Not at all. The Lord was angry alright. He has every reason to be angry. But since anger is really just the flip side of love, it’s no wonder that his mercy so often triumphs over his judgements. If that’s not true, then what is the cross all about?

Prayer: Lord, I am so grateful that it is in your nature to show mercy. If this were not so, where would we be.

Day 38

Thursday 25th November

‘Whenever he cut the hair of his head—he used to cut his hair once a year because it became too heavy for him—he would weigh it, and its weight was two hundred shekels by the royal standard.’ 2 Samuel 14:26

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been a bit suspicious of big hair on a man. Apart from Bjorn Borg, who was my childhood hero, men with big hair seem a bit creepy to me. Vain is the word I’m looking for. And I wondering now if the reason I think this (which I realise is very unfair), is simply because of Absalom. His hair was so big it weighed about 6lbs after he had it cut. And what with his other fine features, there was not a more handsome man in the whole of Israel. The trouble was, he knew it. He was too good looking for his own good, and one day that hair would prove to be his undoing. The thing that he prized most, and probably spent hours grooming in the mirror (not to mention weighing every time he had it cut) is the very thing that gets caught up in the branches of a large oak tree as his mule passes under it. The proud pretender to the throne, the rebellious son, left hanging by his arrogance. Was it ever thus? He who exalts himself shall be humbled. The artist John Farleigh captures it best.  If you’ve ever seen his wood-engraving, there is hair everywhere, and a look of horror on Absalom’s face because he realises of course that he is a dead man. In the context of the story, it represents poetic justice. For us, it is possibly tinged with jealousy. For David, however, it was heart-breaking. Absalom may have been unscrupulous, but he was his son.

Prayer: Dear Lord, keep me ever close to you. Whatever gifts you have bestowed on me, help me to carry them graciously.

Day 37

Wednesday 24th November

‘She named the boy Ichabod, saying, ‘The Glory has departed from Israel’ – because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband.’ 1 Samuel 4:22

Ichabod: the glory has departed from Israel. Can there be a more devastating phrase in scripture, and a more chilling name? When you think that Israel’s whole existence, her reason for being, rests on the glory of God being among them, then this is as damning an indictment as you could imagine. Without the weight of glory, which is that intangible yet at the same time very substantial sense of God’s presence among us, then we are nothing. Yes, there is the still the infrastructure of religion – temples, priests, liturgies, and so on – but without glory it all looks very drab. In so far as glory means heavy, weighty, then no glory means ‘unbearable lightness’. Fancy walking around with the name Ichabod. Your very presence reminds everyone there is no presence, and that however illustrious the past was, the future is bleak. Things did change of course. Israel’s fortunes revived. And the glory returned. But just for now, it is good to linger with this phrase if only to remind ourselves how dangerous it is to trifle with God. If you play light with religion, as Eli’s sons did, what can you expect? God is not a genie we can summon at will. If we treat him that way he will simply depart. On the other hand, when we cherish him, when we honour his being among us, there is a beauty about us that is beyond reason.

Prayer: Lord, I can cope with many things. What I cannot cope with is a lack of glory. Give us glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, as you have promised.

Day 36

Tuesday 23rd November

‘Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes.’ John 15:2

We live in a world that celebrates the exponential: that is, statistics that go off the chart. If something grows rapidly, we regard it as a success. Whether it’s a business that doubles its sales in a year, or even churches that increase from one hundred to five hundred, we revel in the momentum. And why not? There is something very attractive about being part of something that is thriving. The only problem is that the church is not a business. Indeed, to treat the church as such, to aspire to growth, year on year, without asking the tough questions, is to court danger: for growth in the Christian sense is not mathematic but organic. The metaphor is a vine. And for vines to grow, as any vintner will tell you, one has to cut back. As brutal as it sounds, spiritual growth thrives by pruning. Whether we have the ability to embrace this way largely depends on whether we do counter-intuitive, because this is what Jesus is talking about here. As always in scripture, blessing comes through renunciation; flourishing comes through pain; resurrection cones through crucifixion.

Prayer: Lord, I willingly submit to your pruning knife, trusting that you mean to cause me to grow.

Day 35

Monday 22nd November

‘For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.’ Lamentations 3:33

What a relief to know that God takes no pleasure in judgement. It’s a relief because when you consider the attitudes of some of his followers you would think he did. You would think he couldn’t wait to afflict the ungodly with the heat of his anger, whereas the truth is, there is a great reluctance in the heart of God. Judge he must, because he is holy. Indeed, if the Almighty did not execute his judgements, the moral fabric of the universe would unravel in an instant. But that’s not to say he has a personal vendetta against humankind. Here, almost in the exact middle of the Lamentation, the preacher clarifies, like a shaft of sunlight breaking through a dark and turbulent sky, that there is no willingness in God’s afflictions. The unwillingness can be traced back to Sinai, where the Lord is described as ‘slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’ Most of all it can be found at Calvary where God willingly bears his own affliction and grief.

Prayer: Thank you for the cross, where wrath and mercy meet.

Day 34

Saturday 20th November

‘The Shout of the King is among them.’ Numbers 23:21

Having spent all my Christian experience in the ‘happy clappy’ section of the body of Christ, I know all too well the criticisms that are levelled against this exuberant form of singing. I dare say I have made some criticisms myself over the years. At times, the positivity has been suffocating and a hindrance to the development of a mature faith. What mustn’t happen, however, by way of a corrective, is to lose the note of triumph that ought to be present in any score of Christian worship. When Balaam came to pronounce his curses over the people of God, what prevented him from doing so was not the sound of nice middle of the road singing – that doesn’t ward anyone off – but something akin to a shout of victory. One imagines it was the shock of seeing such a terrifying sight in the valley – a congregation that looked like a pack of lionesses – that caused Balaam to blurt out involuntary blessings from his vantage point on the mountain. It surely has to be one of the most delightful stories in the whole of scripture, and a warning not to be snooty when it comes to the question of decibels.

Prayer: Lord, deliver us from a crude triumphalism, but help us nevertheless to be exuberant in our praise. You are worthy of it all.

Day 33

Friday 19th November

‘My conscience is clear but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.’ 1 Cor 4:4

It is a rare person who has the humility to recognise their inadequacies. More often than not we are so caught up in self-justification that it is impossible for us to imagine a verdict where we might be in some way culpable. Not so with St Paul. Even though his conscience is clear, which for most people is enough to claim innocence, he acknowledges that even our conscience can prove deceptive, hence the need for searching judgements of God. In the history of western thought, I reckon this to be a remarkable insight. Just when we think individual conscience is the final arbiter of everything, we are confronted by the disturbing possibility that even something as precious as our conscience can be tainted by sin. But once we have gotten over the shock of this, it is actually quite liberating. Knowing that there is ultimate judgement, and that all our judgements are, by definition, penultimate, can free us to get on with life, and maybe even, just once in a while, not take ourselves too seriously.

Prayer: Lord, help me to suspend ultimate judgment to you, and keep me ever open to your Spirit.

Day 32

Thursday 18th November

‘Not realising that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.’ Romans 2:4

Repentance sounds a harsh word. Even worse if the exhortation to repent it is said with a Rev Ian Paisley kind of tone. Images of judgment come to mind, the wrath of God against all kinds of human wickedness! Judgment is real of course; we deceive ourselves if we think there is no reckoning. Just as we deceive ourselves if we think we have no need to repent. But where it gets interesting is that the impetus for repentance comes – or it should do – not from some hell-fire preacher whipping up the crowd into religious hysteria, but rather from a revelation of the patience and kindness of God. Indeed, real repentance, of the kind that is truly transforming, is hardly ever the result of fear, but almost always the consequence of hope – hope that God is infinitely more gracious than we could possibly imagine. As St Paul puts it, it is the kindness of God, not his harshness, that leads us to repentance. In which case, the best thing we can do is to live not casually, for that is a sure sign we have not grasped grace at all, but gratefully. What else should the long-suffering love of God inspire? If it doesn’t arouse overwhelming, life transforming gratitude and joy then we are guilty of nothing less than contempt for the cross of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord, I am so grateful for your patience and kindness. Were this not the case, I don’t know where we would all be. Let this kindness of yours inspire me to transformation.

Day 31

Wednesday 17th November

‘Jesus wept.’ John 11:35

What a shame that these two words have become, in our day, an expletive: shame because it is never nice to hear the Lord’s name taken in vain, but shame also because these two words (which constitute the shortest sentence in the Bible), surely represent the most profound insight into the humanity of Jesus. That Jesus wept reminds us, lest we find ourselves spiritualising our Christian faith, that Jesus was, and still is, vulnerable to the very tenderest emotional responses, without shame or embarrassment. Why he wept is not entirely clear, of course, nor worth speculating on too much, in my opinion. Like all grief, I suspect it was a combination of loss, anger, and possibly even dismay. At the very least it was solidarity with those around the tomb of Lazarus. But whatever prompted Jesus’ tears, the fact is: weeping is not a sign of weakness but a sign of grace. Jesus wept, and in those tears he affirms all our weeping as divine relief.

Prayer: Gracious Father, help me to give permission for people to cry, and give me courage to be able to cry myself, when the occasion arises.

Day 30

Tuesday 16th November

‘Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you!”’ Ruth 2:4

What a beautiful greeting that Boaz offers to his men. At one level it seems pretty innocuous: a platitude, even, that doesn’t really mean much. I’ve certainly heard it used that way. But in the context of the book of Judges, in which this little pastoral book is set, ‘The Lord be with you’ enters like a shaft of light into a dark room. As we shall soon discover, Boaz’s field is like a pocket of warm piety in the midst of a cold climate. ‘The Lord be with you’, with its antiphonal ‘The Lord bless you’ from the harvesters, represents a generosity of heart that extends to the very poorest in the community who are invited to take the gleanings from the edge of the field. Of course, Boaz’s blessing is protective as well as abundant. He may be an idealist, but he’s realistic enough to know that even in a town like Bethlehem not everyone has good intent towards a young woman like Ruth. For now, however, it is enough to let his words pervade our imagination. If you want to add to the bucolic feel of the scene you might even say the blessing in that lovely rural Anglican tone. For Jane Austen fans you might even start mistaking Boaz for Mr Knightly. Either way, be thankful that even in the most chaotic times there are still people who speak the language of faith and who see it as their task to pass it on to the next generation.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the mediation of my heart, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord.

Day 29

Monday 15th November

‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart’ Hebrews 3:7

There is an urgency to Christian faith, it seems to me, that you can’t do much about. When it comes to hearing the word of God, which can come to us through various means, we have a decision to make: either to yield our heart to whatever it is that God is saying to us, or else harden it. What we cannot do, given the present tense immediacy of ‘today’, is remain indifferent.  Indeed, indifference is possibly the worse sin of all. Indifference is a kind of contempt for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit – a wilfulness to stay exactly as we are. In effect, it is just another expression of hardness. Too much of this, of course, and we cease to hear anything at all, which is about as perilous a place one can be. Sometimes people complain to preachers that the message that day was a difficult one to hear. It troubled them. To which I say, ‘well, at least you’re still hearing the word of God. It’s when you cease to hear that you should feel anxious.’ The inability to respond is a sign that one has so hardened one’s heart to God that finally, as with Pharaoh who resisted Moses, God will harden your heart for you. Hence, the urgency: today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.

Prayer: Lord, forgive the times when I have hardened my heart to you. Help me to keep my heart ever open to your transforming word.

Day 28

Saturday 13th November

‘They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.’ Jeremiah 6:14

A true prophet strikes at the heart of the issue. Like a surgeon, they are not afraid to cut deep in order to get the cancer out. Failure to use the knife would be an abdication of one’s vocation. Yet, time and again in the story of God’s people what we observe are preachers who operate only on the surface. Afraid to inflict pain, they trade in niceties. Terrified of being unpopular they say nothing terrible. As in Jeremiah’s day, they speak ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace. As a matter of fact, the enemy is at the gate. But as far as these prophets are concerned everything is just fine. One wonders at the lies they have to tell themselves in order to do what they do. One marvels at the delusions they have to buy into. Making light of something as serious as sin and judgement requires a remarkable level of denial. Presumably the short-term gain of truth avoidance is deemed worth it compared to the upset that a word from God can stir up. But as is always the case, short term gain is long term disaster. The wounds of the world are deep, and sharp are the words of the prophet who heals.

Prayer: Lord, your word is sharper than a two-edged sword. Give us the courage not to blunt it with nice sounding phrases.

NB The next reflection will be on Monday 15th November.

Day 27

Friday 12th November

‘He will drink from a brook along the way’ Psalm 110:7

Who knows what’s going on in this verse? Or even why this detail is included. It feels superfluous to the rest of the Psalm – unnecessary even. But maybe that is the point: here is a King who is so at ease with himself, so unhurried, that he can take time to kneel down by a brook to refresh himself. And it’s not that drinking water in the midst of battle is unnecessary. Of course not. But the manner in which it is stated speaks of poise. To meditate on the verse has the effect of slowing oneself down. It reminds us that nothing is so urgent that we cannot pause for a moment, take time to gather oneself, even listen to the sound of a babbling brook. In so doing, we return to the fray of battle with renewed confidence that victory is already ours.

Prayer: Lord, help me to eliminate hurriedness from my life. Give me the courage to come aside, even today, in order to be refreshed.

Day 26

Thursday 11th November

‘He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me’
Philippians 2:30

We live in a risk averse society. Large amounts of time are devoted to minimising risk and ensuring safety. How interesting then that right at the heart of this affectionate letter St Paul honours a young man, Epaphroditus, for literally ‘gambling’ his life away.

The issue was the apostle’s well-being. He was stranded in prison without means to survive. So, at great risk to his own life, Epaphroditus makes the long trek to Rome, intent on delivering the provisions that were needed. We might not think this is so exceptional, but when you think what a target Epaphroditus would have been for wayside bandits, not to mention the physical challenge of travelling such a long way, you begin to get a feel of how brave this young man was. His risk assessment would have failed miserably. These days someone would have raised all kinds of questions as to his sanity. But he did it anyway. If Jesus emptied his life away, became obedient unto death, then why shouldn’t someone who claims to follow Jesus do likewise?

During the plague in Carthage in the third century, there was a group of Christians who at great risk to their own health went out onto the streets to gather the dead bodies and give them a proper funeral. They were known as the Parabolani, which is the same Greek word used to describe Epaphroditus – gamblers for God. In the current climate, how we need such people.

Prayer: Lord, I don’t want to be reckless for the sake of it, but even so, help me to take the risks that you want me to take, even if it is not readily understood.

Day 25

Wednesday 10th November

‘So Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.’ Genesis 32:24

I used to think wrestling was a brutal sport, and a strange metaphor for the spiritual life. Until I had sons. And then I realised that wrestling was a kind of intimacy: an instinctive, if not primitive way of drawing close, and just about the perfect image to describe the tussles we have with God. Unless of course you have life sorted out. In which case wrestling as an image of prayer doesn’t work at all. In fact, nothing could be more uncouth. But since most of us don’t have life worked out and find ourselves stranded like Jacob on the other side of the river, all alone, then the appearance of a man who wrestles with us till daybreak is not as weird as you might think. Mysterious, to be sure, and not a little sweaty, but not wholly inappropriate, for our relationship to God, at its most basic level, is one of face to face engagement. Why else is Jacob renamed Israel, but for the fact that God loves our wrestling with him and from thereon in wants this to be the primary way we identify ourselves: Israel, one who wrestles with God. That it will leave us with a limp is because all great encounters do. Love’s bonds wound us as much as they strengthen us. But they keep us trusting.

Prayer: Lord, deliver me from pretty prayers and help me to enter into the struggle of real, honest prayer. Help me begin today with the things that most occupy my thoughts.

Day 24

Tuesday 9th November

‘Through the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour’. Titus 3:5-6

There’s nothing I like more when I am served a meal at a restaurant, or at someone’s house, than a generous portion. I don’t know why, but it signals love. It conveys warmth and hospitality. It assures me – and this is where a psychologist would have a field day – that everything is going to be fine, that there is more than enough for everyone. Rightly or wrongly, I bring all of this visceral reaction to my reading of this text. When I read that God saved me through the washing of rebirth and renewal through a ‘generous’ outpouring of the Holy Spirit I’m back at the table. I’m inwardly digesting (which is after all what meditation is), that God is not miserly, as many suppose, but outrageously liberal. It would have been enough, surely, for St Paul to say that the Holy Spirit has been poured out through Jesus Christ our Saviour. But the insertion of the word ‘generous’ takes it to another level. It takes us beyond adequate into abundance. It takes us beyond a credal statement, which is what Titus 3:3-5 is, into a Pentecostal experience. It reminds us, above all, that there is no lack in God, and that the gospel is, at heart, the overflow of his love and kindness. Nothing formulaic, nor measured, but over the top, unlimited, no holds barred, magnanimous grace.

Prayer: Dear Lord, I thank you for your generous love. Sometimes it feels too good to be true, so grant me the faith to the receive it.

Day 23

Monday 8th November

‘…beginning with the eldest’ John 8:9

Notwithstanding the fact that the story of the woman caught in adultery is a disputed text, I am drawn to John’s comment that it was the eldest who were the first to drop their stones and walk away from the scene. The significance of the observation may lie simply in the cultural norm that youth ought always to defer to age. In other words, no one moves until the eldest say so. Or is it that the eldest leave first because whatever else age gives you, it is the freedom to stop pointing the finger. Age doesn’t guarantee this kind of humility. Not at all. We don’t tie the word ‘cantankerous’ to the word ‘old’ for nothing. But the reason the eldest are so often the first to quit judging is because they have lived with themselves long enough to know that it would be utter hypocrisy to think of themselves as any different to the woman caught in the act. The younger men think that too, eventually. It just takes a little longer. Youth tends to see the world in black and white – goodies and baddies, saints and sinners – with themselves on the right side of the divide. But once life happens, it all gets a lot more messy – the messiest person to deal with being oneself of course. I’m so glad Jesus stoops down to write in the sand. It gives us all time to take a good look at ourselves. It gives us time to recognise that our need of grace does not diminish the older we get; it only intensifies.

Prayer: Lord, give me the humility to see my own faults before I start pointing out the faults of others. Above all, give me a warm, compassionate heart.

Day 22

Saturday 6th November

‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Galatians 3:28

We come to God not on the basis of good deeds but on the basis of faith in Christ. And although this has huge implications for how we understand our personal relationship to the Lord, it also has huge implications for how we understand our relationship to one another. For if faith is the basis upon which we all come to God, then it stands to reason that there is no such thing as ‘bragging rights’. As the preacher says, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. In the light of Christ, all the old distinctions by which one group sets themselves over against another are rendered obsolete. There is now only one reality and one song. I labour this point, because I used to think this ecclesiological melting pot was incidental to the gospel – a nice-to-have but not something to fight for. These days, however, I regard it as essential: the distinguishing hallmark of the gospel. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if the church does not reflect this variety of colour then you have to wonder what kind of gospel is being preached.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for the way in which your Spirit breaks down barriers and hostilities and makes one people in Christ. Deepen this instinct in us.

Day 21

Friday 5th November

‘If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up’. Daniel 3:17-18

The belief that God can deliver but may not choose to do so would have been regarded, in the circles I used to move in, as a lack of faith – a negative confession, to use the jargon of that particular theology, and deserving of the very strongest rebuke. Faith according to their definition permits no ambivalence. You either believe or you don’t, and any thought that God might have a will in the matter other than that of complete healing was a sure sign of doubt. As it is, the assertion of the three young Israelites that even if their God did not deliver them from the fiery furnace, they would not serve Nebuchadnezzar’s gods or worship his image of gold, stands as possibly the most profound expression of faith in the whole of scripture. Indeed, it is so profound that the question of deliverance is not even the issue. The issue is whether they will stay faithful, regardless. The ‘even if’ of our heroes reminds me, strangely enough, of the words of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Our cause, says the senior devil (which is of course to destroy Christian witness) is ‘never more in jeopardy’ than when a believer ‘looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.’ In other words, there is no greater faith.

Prayer: Lord, give me the faith to reach out to you for deliverance, and the courage to keep faithful even when my prayers are not answered in the way I expect.

Day 20

Thursday 4th November

‘He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.’ Philippians 2:6

We live in a world which says, ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it.’ Foolish is the man or woman who does not make the most of their attributes, who doesn’t exploit the advantages or opportunities that life has bestowed on them. Indeed, we have a whole industry these days devoted to accentuating our profile to maximum effect, often at the expense of truthfulness. This being the case, and success being the idol of our age, how strange then to contemplate someone who really does have power, namely Jesus, but who voluntarily gives up that power in the name of love. It is so outlandish as to make it scandalous. And that is what it is: the scandalous but utterly revolutionary appearance of a man who was in very nature God yet did not consider this equality with God a thing to exploit (which is surely what the Greek word harpagmos means) but made himself nothing. In terms of politics nothing could be more stupid. As Boromir tries to convince Frodo concerning the power of the ring, with such an asset the evil of the world could be overcome. But salvation doesn’t work like that. The healing of the world, as Jesus supremely demonstrates, comes not through the acquisition of power but through renunciation. Foolishness to be sure, but only if you are looking in the wrong place.

Prayer: I praise you Jesus for your obedience which took you all the way to the cross. Make me like-minded, so that service and not success becomes the motivation of my heart.

Day 19

Wednesday 3rd November

‘My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast’
Psalm 57:7

It’s difficult to describe the effect of this verse on the soul. The image of an anchor is useful except that so few of us really know what it is like to be anchored out at sea. Nevertheless, it is true that simply praying the words creates a bedrock of faith: a reminder that no matter what the day will bring it is possible to remain centred. In one sense it is akin to speaking to one’s soul. It is a prayer, to be sure. But the effect of the prayer is to assure one’s own heart that there is enough ballast (to use another nautical term) to withstand the storms that inevitably come to us as we journey forward. Another good word might be ‘poise’, not in the sense of self-assured, because there is so little of the self to be assured about, but in the sense of composure: in short, I can trust God to keep me calm throughout the day. Of course, as soon as we leave the safety of our morning sanctuary, we are struck by urgencies. It doesn’t take long for our peace to be disturbed. So this is not easy. But with steadfastness as our core, we need not panic. Instead, we can approach each and every challenge with wisdom and discernment.

Prayer: My heart is steadfast, O God. Help me to keep it so as the day unfolds.

Day 18

Tuesday 2nd November

‘The life of my master will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the Lord your God.’ 1 Sam 25:29

If there is anything we know about David, it’s that he was a shepherd boy become King. Long before he took up the throne, he roamed among the hills counting his sheep. We also know he was pretty good with a slingshot. With one smooth stone from the brook, he felled the giant Goliath. Here in this moment of crisis, David’s anger at boiling point having been spurned by the foolish Nabal, Abigail takes David back in his memory and reminds him, like every good counsellor, of that defining moment in the valley of Elah. She assures him that God can take care of David’s enemies, just like he did with the huge Philistine. More tenderly than that even, she assures him that his life is enveloped, quite literally, in the life of God. Like a stone in a shepherd’s pouch, we count in the heart of God.

Had Abigail not headed David off at the pass, he would have surely killed the man who insulted him. So wrapped up in himself, he would have rushed headlong into bitterness, and blighted his biography by needless bloodshed. But now, confronted by beauty – an icon of God no less – he finds himself wrapped in the bundle of the living by the Lord his God, and Nabal just a footnote in his story.

Prayer: I thank you, God, for the many times you have sent people my way to speak sense to the crisis, and to remind me that I really can trust you to fight my battles.

Day 17

Monday 1st November

‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ Matthew 28:29-30

Everyone is yoked to something. There is no such thing as an unyoked life. The question is: what are you yoked to? And for many people that has a lot to do with jobs, money, success, and the like. Why else are we so tired most of the time? Because we are hitched up to things that demand a lot of us. To be clear, the life that Jesus calls us to is not without its demands either. Renouncing the world is certainly not a ticket into a land of perpetual holiday. We have burdens as followers of Christ that the world knows nothing about. What is different, however, is that Jesus carries the greater load. In calling us, he draws near to us, offering to take the strain of our burdens. Whether we avail ourselves of the offer, learn what Eugene Peterson calls the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’, largely depends on how honest we are. Most of us learn the hard way and wait till we are about to drop before we come to Jesus for rest.

Prayer: Lord help me daily to yoke myself to you, lean upon your grace, and rely upon your love.

Day 16

Saturday 30th October

‘So that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.’ 1 Thessalonians 4:13

We have this bizarre notion in the Christian world that grieving the loss of a loved one is a lack of faith and a denial of the resurrection. How many times have I heard well-meaning Christians, even clergy, urging mourners at a funeral not to cry because the deceased is now with Jesus in glory? It’s as if a belief in heaven neuters the emotions, preventing perfectly natural sadness to be expressed. No matter that Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus; these days grief has been medicalised as depression. I wonder whether the reason we have arrived at this cultural moment is, in part, the result of a reaction. For example, the reason families, these days, instruct guests to wear ‘something bright’ to a funeral is because they don’t want the service to be a Victorian dirge. And who can blame them? I don’t want a dirge either. But just because we know that our loved one is in a better place doesn’t mean we can’t weep. Death has lost its sting to be sure. As Christians we celebrate this Easter truth. But even so, it still blooming well hurts when a loved one goes to be with Jesus. The trick, it seems to me, is to hold hope and grief together.


Prayer: Lord, I fear that there is a lot of unaddressed grief in our communities. Help it to come out gently and help us to be places where tears can be shed without shame and with undying hope.

N.B. A reminder that the next reflection will be Monday morning.

Day 15

Friday 29th October

‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’ Genesis 12:1

I’m always struck in the story of God’s call of Abraham how utterly radical it was. Normally when you make a big decision, like relocating, you want a few things lined up: a house to go to, job security, and maybe even a few people you might already know. Until these things are clear, only then do we consider taking the step of faith and letting go of what we have. In Abraham’s case, and I suspect in the case of a good many descendants of Abraham, it’s the other way round: before you get to experience any of the new things, or even know what they look like, you have to let go. How we wish it were not so. How we wish that God would show us and then we could leave, rather than leave and then God will show us. Although it does occur to me now, having ventured out on more than one occasion without really knowing where I was heading, that there is some wisdom in this on God’s part. Maybe if we were shown everything ahead of time, we would never leave. Maybe God knows this about us, which is why the summons is often so blunt.

Prayer: Lord, give me the courage to let go and the faith to trust you to lead me.

Day 14

Thursday 28th October

‘The lions may grow weak and hungry but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.’ Psalm 34:10

Sometimes even scripture comes across as a bit pat: the pious get blessed and the ungodly are cursed. Simple. But when you consider that David was on the run when he wrote this Psalm, fearful to the point that he feigned madness to save his skin, you begin to see that the seemingly glib statement about those who seek the Lord lacking no good thing is not glib at all but an expression of profound trust. It arises from a faith that can only be cultivated in the darkness; and it reminds us that for all the impressiveness of the animal kingdom, for all the stateliness of lions who inspire awe among us humans, we have resources in God that far exceed anything they can lay their paws on. Come the crisis, fresh supplies of grace are given to those who ask. If this were not true, I for one would not have survived. The line between sanity and insanity is a very thin one indeed.

Prayer: Gracious Father, you are more than able to meet me in the crises of my life. Help me to lay hold of your resources today and grant me that peace that the world cannot give.

Day 13

Wednesday 27th October

‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up…’ Mark 3:35

The darkness before the dawn is a special grace. The silence is palpable. Anticipation is in the air, to be sure. Soon the chorus of birds will eventually awaken something like the poet Auden’s ‘half-light’. But here, as night continues to wrestle down day, as nocturnal creatures go about their business, Jesus wanders to a lonely place to go about his business, which is to pray to his Father. No one sees this of course. It is hidden work. But it’s precisely the secrecy of the work, as Jesus will eventuality instruct his followers, that makes it so powerful. By such praying the world keeps turning. As the monastics keep reminding us, weightier things are spoken in the deep dark dells of obscurity than in the limelight of popularity. To find such places, to court the loneliness of the night hours, as Jesus so often did, is to discover a subterranean seam of eternity.

Prayer: Dear Lord, I rise early today, not out of anxiety, but out of sheer love for you. May you be my first thought in the day, and may the early dawn always remind me that each day is filled with Easter promise.

Day 12

Tuesday 26th October

‘And Daniel remained there until the first year of Cyrus.’ Daniel 1:21

At one level this is a very innocuous piece of information. We discover the interesting but unremarkable fact that Daniel remained in post as an advisor to the court for about sixty years. But when you think of everything that has gone before this verse, and then everything that will come after it – the might of Babylon, the power of King Nebuchadnezzar – you begin to see that Daniel remaining in post until the first year of a new regime – a Persian king – is a hint, very early on in the story, that we shouldn’t take the kingdoms of this world too seriously. Babylon may look permanent but in truth its days are numbered from the moment it steps onto the stage of world history. Kingdoms come and kingdoms go, but God’s purposes straddle them all, more often than not through the faithful presence of laypeople like Daniel. Indeed, when the new Persian administration took up office, with all the usual stuff about new dawns, thousand-year rules, and so on, I imagine Daniel briefing Cyrus about a few things, retiring back to his room, and then throwing his windows wide open towards Jerusalem. When you’ve seen it all before, political power doesn’t seem half so impressive as the throne of God.

Prayer: Lord, you must smile at the way people strut around on the world stage. In the midst of all the pretensions of power, but also all the good rulers who have exercised power, we pray Your Kingdom Come.

Day 11

Monday 25th October

‘I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.’
1 Corinthians 1:4

If you know anything about St Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church, this is a very odd beginning to the letter. In the light of everything that follows – his attack upon their spiritual pride, their crude triumphalism, their disregard for basic Christian ethics – this opening thanksgiving looks insincere, to say the least. Indeed, some scholars wonder whether these verses belong to a different letter, or if it is the same letter then the thanksgiving is little more than a pleasantry before the apostle starts giving them a piece of his mind. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the gospel. Thanksgiving for Paul is never just a pleasantry. Rather, it arises from a deep instinct that no matter how messy the church is, or how despairing we are about the state of our own lives, such is the power of the gospel that there will always be traces of God’s grace to be grateful for. Contrary to what we might expect, God does not wait for us to get our act together before he can look favourably upon us. Rather, he begins with favour, and trusts that the power of grace will eventually transform everything. The discipline of giving thanks, in my experience, is a big part of that divine project. It is our way of celebrating the work of God in our midst.

Prayer: Gracious Father, help me to view the church as you do, and to see the fingerprints of your transforming love in the most unlikely settings.

Day 10

Saturday 23rd October

‘To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ John 6:66

This is not exactly the most enthusiastic expression of commitment. It feels almost begrudging – as if we arrive at faith by a process of elimination. Indeed, when you think of how many disciples turned back at this point in the journey, you wonder whether there is an element of feeling sorry for Jesus. Someone has to follow him, don’t they, even if it is hard? Stay a little longer with the sentence, however, and you begin to see that this is not the sentiment at all. Peter doesn’t follow reluctantly because he hasn’t had a better offer, but rather because whatever else is on offer simply doesn’t compare with Jesus. As so many people have testified since, when you have met Jesus you are ruined for anything else – no matter how costly discipleship is. Think about it: what could be more compelling than eternal life? What is there on offer out there that can possibly match the abundance of grace that is found in God?  ‘To whom shall we go? is not so much a shrug of the shoulders, nor even a question, but more an exclamation of surprise. Once you have tasted the real thing, why would you want to go anywhere else?

Prayer: Lord, it is hard to follow you, but to be honest it is dull to do anything else. Keep before me a vision of your eternity so that I can keep walking in faith and trust.

Day 9

Friday 22nd October

Even the sparrow has found a home,

and the swallow a nest for herself,

where she may have her young—

a place near your altar.

Psalm 84:3

 

There is something quite wonderful, don’t you think, about an enormous building, like the temple in Jerusalem, and the sound of birdsong. In much the same way as the artist Chardin would use a small knife to enhance the stillness of his objects, the wheeling of swallows around the altar simply enlarges the sacredness of space, until we wonder if we have arrived in heaven itself. No wonder the Psalmist longs to be there. As a matter of fact, he’s envious. Whilst he resides in some far-flung diaspora, those little birds have the freedom of the city of God. They even make their nests there, thus making the temple less a pristine shrine and more a lived-in sanctuary. This is good, of course. Who wants to worship in a mausoleum? We want to hear the sound of new life, however fledgling it might be. We want our religious spaces to intersect with the creation beyond, not keep it out. As St Francis of Assisi exhorts: ‘All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia, Alleluia.’

Prayer: Thank you for planting in my imagination these wonderful images, and creating in my heart this deep longing to be near to you.

Day 8

Thursday 21st October

‘And he took the children in his arms, laid his hands upon them and blessed them.’ Mark 10:16

Unless Jesus was incredibly strong and had the ability to gather up whole groups of children into his arms, I imagine what Mark is describing here is very much a one-at-a-time affair. And I am so glad it is because what this affirms to us is not only the sanctity of children but also the utter uniqueness of each and every one of them. In other words, Jesus didn’t treat children as a job lot and pray a general prayer (any more than he treats us as a job lot), but takes time with each one, taking them in his arms, laying his hands upon their head, and then praying a very personal blessing. One suspects he may have even asked of their name; such is his love of the individual. But even if he didn’t ask their name, it is enough to have been held in the arms of God. And this was no perfunctory blessing but an anointing from the hands of Jesus that would have remained for a lifetime.

Prayer: Dear Lord, children felt incredibly blessed whenever you were around. Help us to build communities where our children feel likewise, and know that they are held in your love.

Day 7

Wednesday 20th October

‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ 2 Corinthians 13:14

 

Some versions of the atonement have God the Son pitted against God the Father: as if Jesus is an innocent whipping boy in the hands of an angry God. Only reluctantly, according to these versions, does God grant salvation, on account of the sacrifice of Jesus. What I love about this benediction, what we commonly refer to as the grace, is that it puts paid to that ridiculous notion by demonstrating, via a beautiful sequence, that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is not at odds with the heart of God the Father but flows from it. In theological language, the grace of Jesus does not procure the love of God but is a consequence of it. The love of God is the foundation of everything. To an otherwise clinical, mechanistic view of the atonement, the centrality of the love of God brings warmth and, without in any way ignoring the justice of God, convinces us, nevertheless, that the cross of Christ is the Father and the Son working together for our salvation. In short, there is no tension in the heart of the trinity, just an outpouring of grace that flows from love and reaches us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer: I thank you Father that your love is the bedrock of everything. I praise you that at the heart of the universe is a trinity of astonishing grace. May I experience it today by the power of your Spirit.

Day 6

Tuesday 19th October

Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’ John 21:22

 

I’m often struck when I read the gospels by how blunt Jesus is. Contrary to the dreamy, head in the clouds Jesus of religious art, it turns out that he’s pretty ‘down to earth’. One might say that he is a bit of a northerner, by which I mean that he speaks directly; and never more so than in this little cameo at the end of John’s gospel when, in response to Peter’s enquiry about the apostle John’s destiny, Jesus basically tells him to mind his own business. He’s right of course. If Jesus wants to charter a different path for any one of our peers, what is that to us? Not only is it none of our business, but it also detracts from giving ourselves fully to the course Jesus intends for us. Indeed, given the intensity of Jesus’s call on Peter’s life, he really shouldn’t be worrying about what is happening elsewhere. But such is our tendency to compare ourselves to others, it’s not five minutes and Peter is already feeling insecure: more specifically, insecure about the profile John might attain in contrast to the passion he will endure. Understandable in a way – we all make comparisons – but an utter waste of time. The only thing that matters, as Jesus so starkly puts it, is that Peter follows him. That another might capture the limelight, be celebrated as the one who rested his head against Jesus’ breast (and even possess some kind of resurrection power), is quite frankly, besides the point. Our only concern is to be faithful to the way Jesus has set before us. 

 

Prayer: Dear Lord, help me to stop looking around to see how others are doing. If I do so, may it only be to celebrate your work in their lives. And then strengthen me in your call over my life.

Day 5

Monday 18th October

‘Keep me as the apple of your eye.’ Psalm 17:8

 

It’s impossible to hear this phrase without thinking of the very human affection of a lover and a beloved, or a parent and a child.  We say, don’t we, of someone really precious to us that they are ‘the apple of our eye’. And like so many idioms of speech that come to us from the Authorised version it has a delightful ‘te-dum te-dum’ rhythm to it. What we mustn’t fail to register, however, is that the tenderness that lies behind the image, the joy of that bouncy rhythm, is not the human affection of one person to another (at least not in the first instance), but God’s affection towards us. Indeed, the Hebrew idiom is even more graphic for it suggests the reflection of oneself in the eye of the one gazing upon us – the ‘little man’ that forms in the pupil of God’s eye as he looks so tenderly at his children. In the context of the Psalm, we are being torn to pieces by slander and accusation. Our enemies have nothing but contempt for us. So, keep us, O God, as the apple of your eye. Keep us in your gaze. Let your protective love eclipse their callous disregard.

Prayer: I find it hard to believe, Lord, that you have such tender affection towards me. I can imagine others being the focus of your gaze, but not me. So give me faith to grasp it, and the power of the Spirit to experience it.

Day 4

Saturday 16th October

‘But now your kingdom will not endure; The Lord has sought a man after his own heart.’

1 Samuel 13:14

 

In the context of Samuel serving notice on the kingship of Saul and handing it over to a man after God’s own heart, there is only one person that could refer to, which is David of course. But in what way could David be a man after God’s heart, we might ask. David was an adulterer for goodness’ sake, and a murderer to boot. In many ways he was worse than Saul whose only crime seemed to be his inability to wait for the prophet to arrive. What is so interesting about the two men, however, is that when Saul sinned he fell backwards. In other words, Saul’s concern was not with God but with himself, not least his reputation among the people. When David sinned, he fell forward into God. His business, as it had been in the valley of Elah when he fought Goliath, was to do with God, only this time in how he had grieved the Holy Spirit. ‘Against you only have I sinned,’ says David in the penitential Psalm 51. No attempt to justify his actions; no hiding behind victimhood, which is so common these days; just a broken and contrite heart, and a desire to have joy coursing through his body again. So yes, David is not exactly a model of virtue, but he is most definitely a man with a heart. Maybe that is all God asks of us.

 

Prayer: Gracious Father, help me to keep open-hearted towards you and to allow you in to the whole of my life, not just the bits that seem to work.

 

N.B. A reminder that the next reflection will be Monday morning.

Day 3

Friday 15th October

‘She wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.’ Luke 7:44

 

No wonder Simon the Pharisee accuses the woman of seduction. Could her actions be any more sensual? The only fitting place, surely, for a female to be draped over a man, her hair loose, and perfume pervading the air, is in the marital bedroom, not in a religious seminar. Yet, she seems not to care. And more shocking than that, Jesus seems not to care. Indeed, he positively encourages the attention of the woman, and rebukes the one man in the room who seems to have any sense of propriety. Which all goes to prove that we barely have the first idea what Jesus is really about, nor any clue about what is proper when it comes to devotion. We may side with the woman in the story because we know how it ends. Furthermore, we have a pathological dislike of Pharisees. But I suspect that if we saw a lot of weeping and kissing we too would frown because religion, even for us, is probably more spiritual than it is physical. Only when we are truly overcome by grace will we understand that ‘touchy and feely’ is the very height of piety. The woman is not seducing Jesus. She’s adoring him with everything she has.


Prayer: Dear Lord, help me not to judge those who might be more expressive than me in worship. In fact, let those people be my teachers as I try to give expression to the worship that is in my own heart for all that you have done for me.

Day 2

Thursday 14th October

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‘who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.’ 2 Corinthians 1:4

 

I used to think that ministry to others was a matter of competency. In other words, the only reason you could be of help to anybody was because you were just that little bit further on in your understanding and knowledge. These days, I think differently. Yes, we may have some skills in a particular area, but it is not skills that qualify us to help others, but rather, as St Paul says, our troubles. As a matter of fact, skills can sometimes get in the way. We can be so sure of ourselves that we fail to listen to what is really going on in a person’s life. Troubles, however, break you down in such a way that it finally becomes possible to draw near to another’s suffering not in order to fix them, but so that we can comfort them. As the late Henri Nouwen once said, we are, at best, ‘wounded healers’. And the moment we think of ourselves as anything other, we cease to have anything to offer. In the economy of grace, we comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 

 

Prayer: Dear Lord, I am truly astonished by the way you use my wounds to minister to others. May you continue to redeem my life so that I can comfort others with your redeeming love.

Day 1

Wednesday 13th October

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But while he was a long way off his father saw him…’ Luke 15:20.

 

I could be wrong about this, but for the father to catch sight of his youngest son returning home, even though the prodigal lad was still ‘a long way off’, does suggest something quite astonishing. It tells us that for all the shame the youngest had brought upon the family, all the pain that he had inflicted on his father the day he told him to ‘drop dead’, even so, there was never a moment when the old man did not scan the horizon for some sign of his return. Some might call this foolishness. Some might argue that the father should have severed all connections with his son, denied he ever knew him. At the very least, he should have kept him waiting when he decided to come home.

 

Instead, abandoning all sense of dignity, the father hitches up his skirts and runs through the village to embrace him. For this is a parable not only about a prodigal son but also, and perhaps more accurately, about a prodigal father – one who needs only a flicker of remorse before he kisses us, clothes us, and throws a party. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Hard to imagine a love so tenacious – reckless even – that it keeps watch when all hope seems to have gone. But this is what God is like. And as is so often the case with scripture, it takes only a phrase – ‘but while he was still a long way off his father saw him’ – to communicate this passion to our hearts. 

 

Prayer: Dear Father, help me to believe that your love is so utterly faithful, even when I am unfaithful. Grant me today an experience of your all-embracing love and the dignity that you want to bestow on all those who come to you in brokenness.