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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thursday 14th October
‘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.
Wednesday 13th October
‘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.