The Transfiguration

He often retreated from the crowds and found quiet places

Still places where he could be alone to pray

But this time he asked us to join him

And as we walked up the mountain

Our minds were filled with thoughts of all that had gone on before

At the top, he knelt down to pray and suddenly

Before our very eyes his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white

We were amazed and our amazement grew more when we saw two men with him

They appeared in glory and we were sure they were Moses and Elijah

A few days ago he had spoken of great suffering to come and death

I was overwhelmed.  How could this be?  He had called us; and we had left everything behind to follow him.

He sent us out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

He had even given us power and authority to drive out all demons and cure diseases.

Had he not cured the sick, raised the dead and fed more than 5,000 people?  He even forgave people of their sins.

And now the three of them were speaking of his departure again…but things had only just started.  We had been obedient to his call; surely it couldn’t end like this?  How could this be?  Why could we not see?

It was too much to take in and we all felt so tired….exhausted even.

But then we became fully awake as we encountered his glory.  He stood there full of splendour.

It was a moment I never wanted to end, and without thinking I offered to put up three shelters.

One for our teacher, one for Moses and one for Elijah.

But as I was speaking we were surrounded by a great cloud and in our terror we all heard a voice saying “This is my Son; listen to him.”  In my heart echoed a prayer, “Lord give me ears to hear, eyes to see and a mind to understand.”

Community

One of my favourite commentators on community is Jean Vanier.  In case you haven’t heard of him, he is a Canadian Catholic philosopher turned theologian, humanitarian and the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of group homes for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them.  When he speaks about community, I am challenged and feel very moved to listen.

In his book ‘Community and Growth’, Jean Vanier states “A community becomes truly and radiantly one when all its members have a sense of urgency in their mission.  There are too many people in the world who have no hope.  There are too many cries which go unheard.  There are too many people dying in loneliness.  It is when the members of the community realise that they are not there simply for themselves or their own sanctification, but to welcome the gift of God, to hasten his Kingdom and to quench the thirst in parched hearts through their prayer and sacrifice, love and acts of service, that they will truly live community.”

It is a grand quote, a bold statement.  But it is also, in my opinion, absolutely spot on and I love it!  Today I was blessed to be able to welcome people into church for a community event – a production of the musical Annie.  Some incredibly talented children, along with their families, came together for 3 hours on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to demonstrate their talents.

In welcoming people,  I said I was all too aware of all that is required to make these things happen – all the behind the scenes things that are so important, but not always visible.  Parents and community members had been involved in marketing and PR, poster design, ticket design, face-painting, costume design, catering, cleaning, and of course helping the children to learn their lines and know their parts.

It was a pleasure to see community groups join together to make this happen.  It was moving and powerful.  In addition to parents and community members, there was also the community centre, the local school, the church, the city council, and a music and drama company – representatives of which gave freely of their time and talents.

All of the people involved have a uniting passion – community.  Vanier said “A community becomes truly and radiantly one when all its members have a sense of urgency in their mission.”  The people I spoke to yearned for a deepening of community, for its members to know dignity, purpose, pride and hope.  Back to Vanier again, as he says “There are too many people in the world who have no hope.  There are too many cries which go unheard.  There are too many people dying in loneliness.  It is when the members of the community realise that they are not there simply for themselves or their own sanctification, but to welcome the gift of God, to hasten his Kingdom and to quench the thirst in parched hearts through their prayer and sacrifice, love and acts of service, that they will truly live community.”

No one was there for themselves or their own sanctification.  It wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about any other single person – important as it may have been to recognise, acknowledge and thank all the individuals involved.  It was about community and purpose and a group of kids singing and acting their hearts out.

I’m tired today, but a nice tired.  I feel satisfied, peaceful, and humbly grateful to a loving God who blessed this event.  Lord, may you continue to deepen community, to strengthen the connections we make, to make yourselves known to us and lead us into truth, hope and light. And Lord, help those whose lives are filled with all those things that break community – bitterness, resentment, hurts, lost hope.  Amen

Under construction

Even if a church is not a building, but the people gathered, it seems to be part of our humanity that we become deeply connected with spaces and places.  We can see that connection all the time.  You know if you have been away from home for a while and you walk through the door and put the kettle on for a much needed cuppa?  That moment when you sit down with a cuppa and you know you are home?  I’ve been living away from my hometown of Bradford for 15 years; but coming back now it feels like coming home.  There is that saying isn’t there…“You can take a man out of Yorkshire but you cannot take Yorkshire out of a man.”

When buildings are constructed there is often a ceremony that involves the laying of a symbolic foundation stone.  Somebody will quite likely be invited to give a speech, and then lay the commemorative brick or stone.  I think such ceremonies are important; they capture something of the hope for what the new building will be, and celebrate all the hard work of people that had made it possible.

Because these ceremonies generally take place on part of a building site, it’s important that people wear appropriate safety equipment.  Visitors are issued with hi-visibility smocks and hard hats, often with the logo of the construction company involved.    That in itself is not unusual – here is the hi-visibility jacket that belongs to me featuring the name of my former employee in secular employment.

Corporate identity and brand are big things.  Think how much companies pay to advertise their company logos on sports gear and at sporting events, whether it is Formula 1, tennis, cricket, football – the list goes on.  The thing is, when an employee takes off that hi-visibility smock or jacket – which is something that is visible and on the surface, it is hard to know that they work for that particular company.  When a Formula 1 sporting personality gets out of their racing car, and is wearing normal clothes it is hard to recognise what they do.  When I took off my hi-visibility jacket, you would not know that at that time I worked for that company.

But what about Christians?  Christians may wear a cross or a bracelet – but it isn’t as if they are generally clearly visible or on display.  They are often very private expressions of faith that point to something much deeper, something within.  Our reading from the letter to the Colossians uses a language of stripping off our old self and clothing ourselves with our new self in Christ.  Imagine if you will that our old self is like a hi-visibility jacket labelled ‘Sin’.  Before we give our lives to Christ, ‘Sin’ is our corporate identity.  And the reading makes it perfectly clear what being in such a company involves.

When we make a commitment to Christ and invite him to be Lord of our lives, a deeply profound change takes place:

a)    We begin to seek the things above

b)    We set our minds on the things above

c)     We die to self

d)    We are raised with Christ

e)    Our life is now hidden with Christ in God.  We have a new hope

f)      We take off our old self and we put on a new self

g)    We put God first

We set out hearts (or minds) on the things above, we seek to put to death the practices that belong to our earthly nature, and we seek to rid ourselves of those practices that characterised our fallen state.  We have consciously left that company called ‘Sin’.  That deeper inner change that comes from a new life in Christ may result in an outer-working in our lives.  There are former terrorists who have come to Christ and are now ordained priests in the Church of England, there are former drug addicts who could give a similar testimony.  These are people who when Christ came into their life were able to take off that mantle or garment of sin and put on that new garment of Christ’s righteousness.

Building sites often feature a sign which reads “Under Construction.”  If we were to wear any outward sign, I think that might be quite appropriate for us too – “Under Construction” or “Work in Progress.”  Another sign we can wear is the cross of Christ, reminding us of how we too are invited to die to self and take up that new life in Christ.  In giving our lives to Christ, we begin those steps on that journey – it’s like we invite the builders in to make a new building and Christ is like the management consultant who changes the very corporate identity that defines who and what we are.  That journey involves work and effort – continually dying to self, continually taking off our old self and putting on our new self – a new self that is “being renewed in knowledge of the image of its Creator.” We always live in the tension between the now and the not yet – what is and what will be.  God is the master architect; we can trust him to make sure our walls are straight and true….if we put him first.

Through Christ’s death, resurrection and exaltation, we aren’t what we used to be, and because we aren’t what we used to be, we may experience success in becoming all that we can be – all that we were created to be – to reach out and claim that truth for our own.  I give thanks to God for that, and that I am a work in progress.  And we may do that safe in the deep security of God’s love and grace – God tells us that “When Christ, who is our life, appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.”  It is like the grand unveiling. Christ has done everything necessary; we just need to accept the invitation.

Some people of course find it hard to take off that old garment.  The rich fool in our Gospel reading had not had that life changing experience.  He was preoccupied with possessions and material things.  He was building up idols in his life, he was consumed by greed.  He was trying to get God to submit to him rather than accepting that he needed to submit to God.  It is a dreadful thing to be greedy – if you study economics, one of the biggest criticisms of capitalism is that it always wants MORE.  You can never be satisfied and you lose the ability to truly value anything.  The rich young fool wanted everything and gained nothing.  God said to him “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

If you close your eyes for a moment and think about the things in your life that are like that old garment, an old garment that perhaps you struggle to take off.  You are not alone in that – we all struggle to take off that old garment sometimes.  I would like to invite you to consider what spiritual garments you wear and think about whether you need to have a change in your wardrobe.  As your eyes are closed, just imagine taking that coat or jumper off and throwing it away.  Imagine Christ stood beside you with a beautiful shining garment.  It is yours.  Carefully reach out and take it and put it on.  See how easily it goes on?  It is made for you.  Know that Christ has created in you a clean heart, he has renewed your spirit.  Hold on to that truth that you have been raised with Christ.  Take his hand and walk with him.  He is the author and perfecter, the pioneer and completer of our faith.

Amen

Teach us to pray

Prayer is a tremendous challenge for many people.  The reality is that many of us feel inadequate or even guilty when we think about prayer.  There are perhaps four key reasons for this:

a)    We don’t pray enough.

If you are a parent with young children, you will be all too familiar with how challenging it can be to have a quiet time at the beginning or end of the day – or even during the day!  The same applies if you work shifts or long hours.  It can be really hard to develop a pattern of spirituality that feeds us and sustains us.  I am sure we’re all familiar with the expression “the spirit is willing but the body is weak.” Even when we do sit down to pray, we so easily get distracted and find our mind starts to wander.  My friends sometimes calls me kangaroo brain because even at my best, my mind is jumping all over the place thinking about all sorts of different things at once.  For me, my mind needs no encouragement to get distracted or wander and so I have to try really hard to concentrate when I pray!  It can be very hard to sustain a disciplined routine of prayer.

b)   We don’t think we are very good at prayer.

We struggle to find the words, and we are constantly having little internal debates in our minds: can God really hear me? Is He there at all? Are my prayers simply bouncing back off the ceiling?  What will He think of my prayers, my fumbled words?  Are my prayers good enough? And if we are praying in a group, what will other people think of our prayers?  It is as if in our mind we can sometimes have a view of what prayer should be like, complete with big, flowery, complicated words and faced with that perceived gap we just give up.

c)    We give up when we don’t get immediate answers or the answers we want.

It has been said that there are three possible answers to prayer:

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Not yet

Why is it I wonder that we so often are only content when the answer is yes?  Jesus said “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)  When we ask for something in someone’s name, there is an implicit sense of intimacy, trust and respect.  If I am seeking to realise those qualities in prayer, it would hardly be fitting for me to pray for an Aston Martin or a Ferrari so hardly surprising that such prayers wouldn’t necessarily be answered.

Many years ago I knew an elderly lady at church who was really faithful in prayer.  She shared something of her faith journey with me one day, and spoke of praying for her husband.  She had been a Christadelphian for a big part of her life, and had been praying that her husband might become one too for over 20 years.  But then she had a personal encounter with Jesus and gave her life to him; she was released into a fullness of life and relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Her prayer and the focus of her prayer shifted…she now prayed that her husband too would have that relationship with Jesus and spent the next 20 years thanking God that he hadn’t become a Christadelphian.  We must ask in Jesus’ name to the glory of the Father.  We must pray to the Father in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

d)   We find it all too easy to pray on our terms and not God’s.

I know there have been times in my life when I thought I knew better than God.  For the record: I don’t!  When Abraham interceded for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-19:29), there was no arrogance in his heart and prayers.   He knew a poverty of Spirit and a willingness to “speak God’s heart to himself.”

So then we come to today’s Gospel reading which features the  Lord’s Prayer which is one of the most beautiful, complete and balanced prayers that we find anywhere in Scripture.  The first ‘half’ of the Lord’s Prayer is centred on the glorification of God. The second ‘half’ covers the physical and spiritual well-being of believers…there is a completeness to it.  It’s reminding ourselves of God’s character and what being in that relationship with a loving Father will be like.  It is a prayer of prompting…we are prompted by an awareness of the presence of God, Our Father in Heaven and our response is to bring Him praise.  There is a purpose and a hope, a recognition of His provision, a getting right with him and one another and a request for protection.

Let’s step back for one moment and think about this time and this place when Jesus was with his disciples.  We are told that Jesus was “praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”” (Luke 11: 1).  The disciples had heard Jesus praying to His Father; prayers of faith, prayers of hope and prayers of intimacy and love – not some formal, stuffy, high-minded, complicated prayers with lots of flowery words.  The disciples too were no strangers to prayer themselves; it will have been embedded in their culture, custom and practice.  And yet here they are, having heard Jesus’ prayers that were somehow different with their heartfelt request…“teach us to pray”, much as John’s followers had been taught by him.

I tend to think that when Jesus heard the disciple’s request “teach us to pray”, His heart must have rejoiced.  He must have had a huge smile on His face.  I sometimes wonder if in His response, with that huge smile, He might have said “Oh, alright then…if you insist!”  I also wonder what on earth the disciples expected Jesus to say, how did they expect Him to reply?  Is Jesus’ reply what YOU might have expected?

In reading the Lord’s Prayer, I really want us to be encouraged.  We would be deceiving ourselves if we didn’t think that Jesus sometimes has hard and testing things to say to us in the Gospels.  But on prayer, I am pretty sure that the last thing He wants for us are feelings of guilt or inadequacy.  God yearns for us to be in relationship with Him and the relationship we have with God is something that shapes our spirituality and approach to prayer.  The great theologian A.W. Tozer said “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”  Our image of God should be based on his revelation of himself in his Word and in his Son, our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ.  How do Jesus’ words of teaching on prayer shape our understanding of God, and therefore our spirituality and approach to prayer?

It seems pretty clear from Jesus’ words that he was encouraging his disciples – and us – to pray in a way that shows intimacy with and reliance on God.  Jesus tells us to use that very personal and intimate language “Father.”  Jesus using ‘Father’ as a title is highly distinctive; it is not a title given directly to God in the Hebrew Scriptures, although it is occasionally used as a metaphor. The Aramaic word for ‘Father’ is “Abba” which is a term of endearment and intimacy. St Paul writes in both Romans and Galatians that as sons and daughters of God, we cry out Abba, Father.  We pray because we have a good Father, who gives good gifts to his children.  Our asking is not a heavy pleading with, or an anguished persuading, but the natural response to a loving God who cares for us.  In its simplest form, prayer is chatting with God from our heart about the things of the day with humility and gratitude that a great, awesome and holy God yearns for us to enter into his presence.    I also believe that when we have courage to pray, coming before God just as we are, that he rejoices.  It is all about our attitude…our heart attitude, our head attitude and our attitude of spirit.  In prayer we “join our hearts with Gods”.  No wonder St Augustine said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

Since the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, it suggests that prayer is something we can learn.  I think prayer is like a muscle we can “work out” and one of the power foods we can use to fuel that work out is God’s Word.  I don’t believe any sincere and heartfelt prayer is ever wasted.  I do believe even the shortest of prayers prayed in this way can move God’s heart – it’s about how we pray not how many words we use!  And you know, however weak and inadequate we feel, Jesus himself takes our poor, hesitant prayers, and perfects them by joining them to his own perfect and complete offering of prayer to the Father, which is why in the Christian tradition we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. No wonder one introduction to the Lord’s Prayer is “Uniting our prayers with the whole company of heaven, as our Saviour taught us, so we pray.” We do not pray alone.  And, as St Paul reminds us, the Holy Spirit – the good gift the Father gives us when we ask him, himself prayer deep within us, with inarticulate groans of desire.

Prayer is something that is active and dynamic – it implies action not inaction.  To pray, ‘hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come’ (11:2), is to hand over the sovereignty to God. To be able to continue, ‘Give us each day our daily bread … forgive us our sins … do not bring us to the time of trial’ (11:3–4), is to find that he then supplies all our need. The old life is shed, abandoned to him; then the new is received, and may be characterized as the new life in the Holy Spirit.

In our passage, immediately after his teaching on prayer Jesus presents his disciples with two parables.  The first one deals with the practice of prayer (11:5–10), and the last one speaks into the nature of prayer (11:11–13).  The first parable (the story of the friend’s request for loaves at midnight) teaches us to pray persistently…“because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” In other words, it is about the practice of prayer – our part in it.  The second parable is concerned with the basis of prayer, or God’s part in it, is the subject of the sayings about the father who naturally will not give his son a serpent or a scorpion if the boy has asked for a fish or an egg.  God listens, and understands.  He “perceives our thoughts from afar”…he is “familiar with all our ways”…there is nothing about us he does not know.  God knows our needs better than we know them ourselves.

When we seek to single-mindedly yield ourselves to him, what happens? We find that this great, holy and awesome God is also our heavenly Father, who meets our seeking with his giving. When we ask, seek, and knock, he gives the answer we need (11:9–10). As the response of a human father to his son’s need is not one of cynical disregard (11:11–12), neither is God’s response to our need anything less than the provision of ‘good gifts’, and what Luke sums up as the gift of the Holy Spirit (11:13).  God constantly sends himself, such is the enormity of his desire to be in relationship with us.

So trust in God, know that your prayers are heard and never ever wasted, that your prayers are like a beautiful fragrance to God no matter how short or fumbling and be persistent knowing that God really will provide your needs.  Amen

Pre-pentecost musings

I have been reflecting on John 17:11-19 recently.  It features  part of Jesus’ longest recorded prayer, the part in which he prays for his disciples.  It can be argued that since we too are disciples his prayer extends to us too.

In it he prays for 4 things:

  1. That they may be protected (both from the world that hates them and from the evil one)
  2. That they may be united
  3. That they may be delighted
  4. That they may be sanctified

I want to share with you three thoughts to consider:

  • It really struck me that (huge generalisation here) the church rarely prays for protection, and I think that is a huge omission.  Remember, as Christians we are in the world but not of the world.  I feel moved to pray for protection, especially in what for me is a time of transition and invite you to reflect on the passage and join me in that prayer for your church and community if you feel burdened too.
  • Jesus didn’t simply pray that the disciples would be united; it was much stronger than that, “so that they may be one, as we are one.”  If you want to see a perfect example of unity and relationship, look to the Trinity.  And that’s how Jesus wants us to be too.  The hard question we need to ask ourselves when engaging in anything is “Does this glorify God, and does it demonstrate unity?”
  • Jesus prayed for the disciples to be sanctified, to be set apart, to be made holy.  And again he didn’t simply pray that; they were to be sanctified in the truth and God’s Word is truth.  God’s mission is one of light confronting darkness.  We must be the light-bearers to those who walk in darkness; we must help them to find that light where they are. We are to be ‘set apart for the gospel of God’ (Rom. 1:1).  And we are set apart by the Word of God.  Jesus and God’s holy Word have to be at the centre.  If we want to know Jesus more, we read the Bible.  If we want to get to know God the Father more, we get to know Jesus.  And as we approach Pentecost let’s not forget that we come to the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Lord, help us to be protected, united, delighted and sanctified.  Amen

New Life

Something we can all struggle with from time to time is impatience, particularly when we live very full and busy lives.  We can even be impatient when we have time on our hands because we don’t want our time to be wasted by other people.  I am sure you, like me, will have had experiences of trying to make direct contact with people at your mobile phone company, utility provider, or IT technical support hotline only to have your patience tested at times beyond the limit.

Imagine though if you contacted the technical support line about a problem that you had already been told had been fixed.  You just weren’t in a place to listen or believe or even acknowledge that that was the case.  We can get so caught up in our impatience that we can lose clarity about what the actual status of the problem is because things didn’t happen as we expected or planned and certainly not to our time scale.  We can become so self-absorbed that we project our expectations onto others.

Now imagine if you can a people living under oppression.  Imagine what it must be like for the people of Syria or North Korea who are living under oppressive regimes.  What must hope look like to them?  Would they even believe it if someone came along and said I am here to bring you freedom?  They would probably find it hard to even imagine it might be possible and could even respond with some measure of hostility.  Has anyone ever told you not to give them false expectations or build up false hope?  The thing is when we have these experiences we can become desensitised, we can find it so difficult to embrace the truth and hope even when it stares us in the face.

I think perhaps that the Jews were like this, living as they were under the oppressive Roman regime.  And today’s reading presents us with an account that is deeply tragic.  People who had built up false expectations and false hope had come and gone.  And then Jesus came.  You get a sense of their frustration when they asked Jesus “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  When translated literally it becomes even clearer…“How long do you intend to annoy us?”   So we see a people who had lost hope, a people who had become completely desensitised to the truth of the gospel and therefore unlike Jesus’ sheep they couldn’t recognise him as the Good Shepherd.  Even when Jesus made an incredible statement, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand”, the people quite simply couldn’t, or chose not to, hear.  And in response, the account goes on to tell us that they took up stones again to stone him.

Jesus offers something to each and every one of us that is truly incredible.  He offers NEW LIFE and all that that entails.  It is an ABUNDANCE of life.  It overflows with love, hope, truth, freedom, security, peace, safety, belonging, provision, self esteem and purpose.  We have a simple choice…do we accept it and embrace it, or do we turn our back on it?  And Jesus brings that choice into brokenness, into oppression and yearns to re-sensitise us, to breathe new life into us, just as Peter did with Tabitha.

I would like to invite you to do something.  If you are in a place in your life where you are tired, where you have lost hope, where you would like to rededicate yourself to God, where you would like to know more of Jesus breathing new life into you, simply say out loud or in the silence of your heart “Come, Lord Jesus”.  I pray that you might know His presence, and the Holy Spirit restoring and renewing you.  Amen

The Invitation

A friend of mine recently shared a poem on Facebook which was written by Shel Silverstein.  I reproduce it below for you.

“If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin
Come in! Come in!”

(The Invitation by Shel Silverstein, 1974)

(http://www.shelsilverstein.com/html/About1.html)

I have to say the poem intrigues me.  I would love to have been able to chat to Shel about it to get to know what inspired him to write it, but sadly he passed away in 1999.

So what do I like about this poem? Well, the poem is called The Invitation.  That along with the lovely picture of people coming in to sit by the fire conjures up for me a place of warmth, a place of fellowship and a place of intimacy.  That’s how church is supposed to be.  I wonder if when we talk about church – the local church that we are part of – do we talk about it to strangers with such fondness?  When we have conversations with people about Church do they leave feeling invited?

I also like it because it reminds me of the kind of people Jesus ministered to…the dreamers, the wishers, the liars, the hope-ers, the pray-ers, the magic bean buyers and the pretenders.  I am sure at one time or another you will have been able to include yourself in one or more of these categories.

Do you know that Jesus presents you with an invitation all of the time?  Do you hear his “Come in”?  In this world we need to hear those flax-golden tales; but the ones that Jesus presents us with are not tall tales, or fables.  His words are the words of truth and life.  So come in, warm yourself by the fire and listen.