Romans 1: 18-23For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Reflection There is a danger in wanting to know too much. At the end of the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (warning - spoiler alert!!) the character Irina asks for all knowledge. When she is receiving it, she realises that it is too much to bear and asks for it to stop. Her request is denied and her head literally explodes through too much information.
In an age of enlightenment, science and discovery, we are in danger of presuming to know too much and the window through which we see God becoming smaller and smaller. But the acquisition of knowledge should make our “God shaped” window bigger as we become more and more amazed at how the world works. We can never know everything, but we can be inspired by all we see and attribute all to God, not just the bits we can’t explain. If we worship knowledge, or the objects of our discovery, we deny God and stir his wrath. If we accept that knowledge of Creation and Creation itself comes from God, we worship God and wonder at His works.
PrayerLord of Creation,
to you be all praise.
We can never fully understand
all that you have made,
but we can stand in awe
of all that we can
see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
You have given us our senses
to feel and our brains to learn more of you.
May we use our knowledge
to grow in our wonder of you
as we explore the world around us.
Psalm 33: 1-9Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous.
Praise befits the upright.
Praise the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
Sing to him a new song;
play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle;
he put the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm. Reflection “In the beginning” are the three words that start both Genesis and John’s Gospel. Here the Psalmist is reflecting on this world that God created and on his own life. He exhorts the readers to rejoice and praise God using voices and musical instruments. We are reminded that all the work that God does is done in faithfulness.
Do we respect the faithfulness of God in the way we treat the world He created?
God made the host of the heavens by the breath of his mouth and we burn fossil fuels and pollute the atmosphere.
He gathers the waters of the sea as in a bottle and today we throw away millions of plastic bottles every year and some of these end up in the oceans where they help to destroy many of the sea creatures that God created.
While many people seem to live and care nothing about this earth there is a growing movement of Christians who are working to change attitudes and reduce the damage we do to God’s world. Christians have a chance to lead the world by changing what we do as individuals, as churches, as a denomination and as Christians. Eco Church and Eco Congregation Scotland unite churches who want to stand against the destruction of God’s world by making small, or large, changes. As we stand in awe of God and of all that is created we have to choose, do we continue to destroy it or do we make changes that start to change the world. The world stood firm when God spoke and yet is is being eroded by human action, we have to show our respect for God, for God’s creation and for all creatures by changing and lessening our impact on this fragile earth.
we are sad when we see
the damage to your world.
We praise you for the majesty
and diversity of all that you created.
We ask your forgiveness
for all the damage we have done.
We ask that you guide us
as we strive to do better
and that you help us when we fail
and show us what we can do
to change how we treat this world.
Genesis 1: 1 - 25In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Reflection “How can you possibly believe what the Bible says about the world being created in six days?” an incredulous new friend asked me.
Personally, I don’t believe that God created the world in six days (and then rested on the seventh) a few thousand years ago. I believe there is a difference between taking the Bible literally and taking the Bible faithfully. Taking the Bible faithfully means that I read the Book of Genesis not as a scientific textbook but rather for the stories of faith and wisdom and for the insight into our living God.
A God who is with us in every moment: past, present and yet to come. A God who is still creating and re-creating our world today. And that means a God who is still creating and re-creating our understanding of our world.
Diana Butler Bass writes in her book Grounded: “God is not a far-off Weaver of the Web, like God once depicted as the Watchmaker who assembled creation and left it to run on its own. No, God is part of the web, entangled right here with us.”
So, what does that “entanglement” mean for the way we approach and engage with creation?
When we think and act out of greed and destructiveness. God is with us.
When we think and act out of apathy and indifference. God is with us.
When we think and act out of compassion and conservation. God is with us.
Yet, it is only with the last statement that I think it can be truly said that “And God saw that it was good.”
who created and continues to create
all that lives and grows on our world,
we pray for our beautiful, diverse planet;
a place that is often polluted, abused
or taken for granted.
You are with us in yearning
for a world characterised
by compassion and conservation.
In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Dear <<First Name>>
I hope you have enjoyed our journey through Ephesians over the last month or so. Many churches observe a season focused on Creation following a lead from the Orthodox Church's Ecumenical Patriarch. Over the next two weeks we are going to be reflecting on passages of Scripture which concern Creation and our response to it.
As ever I am humbled by the positive feedback that people send in about the Daily Devotions and the stories you tell me about where and how you use them. Over 2,600 people now receive them via email, another 300 or so read them via our dedicated Facebook page and around 150 people get them in PDF booklet format and either print them out for their own use, or for folk in their congregations who prefer them on paper, or use this format and load them on a Kindle. The Devotions' own website has all the previous devotions, the booklets we've created so far and an ability to search the archive for those who'd like to explore a bit more or use the material in small groups.
with every good wish
Coordinator, Daily Devotions from the URC Project
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Psalm 631 O God, you are my God alone;
I seek your face with eagerness.
My soul and body thirst for you
In this dry, weary wilderness.
2 I’ve seen you in your holy place;
Your power and glory held my gaze.
3 Far better is your love than life,
And so my lips will sing your praise.
4 I’ll bless you, Lord, throughout my life
And raise my hands to you in prayer.
5 My joyful lips will sing your praise;
My soul is fed with richest fare.
6 Upon my bed I lie awake
And in my thoughts remember you;
I meditate throughout the night
And keep your constant love in view.
7 Because you are my help alone,
In shadow of your wings I’ll sing.
8 You hold me up with your right hand;
To you, O God, my soul will cling.
9 All those who seek my life will die;
Down to the depths they will descend.
10 They will become the jackal’s food;
The deadly sword will bring their end.
11 The king will then rejoice in God,
With all who swear by God’s great name.
The mouths of liars will be closed,
And they will all be put to shame.
You can hear a Free Church of Scotland congregation sing this to the tune Crasselius here
In the first stanza of today’s Psalm, for example, we read of a physical longing for God - it brings to my mind generations of monks and nuns who, in the small hours of the night and the long hours of the day, come to chapel to sing the Psalms. People who have such a need of God that they leave their normal lives to devote themselves to prayer, worship and work never fail to impress me. The radical monastic commitment was transformed at the Reformation with the family being seen as the place for the primary encounter with God and family devotions became the hallmark of good Protestant households; though the vocation to monastic life continues to enrich the Church.
In our complex lives I suspect we don’t pray together much as families - I hope I’m wrong - and monastic life is outwith the experience of the Reformed tradition. However, we still have those inner yearnings for God that the Psalmist identifies and monks and nuns seek to explore. We still live in an arid wilderness where our souls and bodies thirst for God. We still aspire, as in the third stanza, to praise God and have our souls fed with His richest fare.
The challenge for us is to discover, or rediscover, how to get the rhythm of prayer, worship, silence, work, family time and recreation right so that we balance the need to be in God’s presence, enriched by His grace and, at the same time, live our out vocation in the world.
help me to recognise
the longing in my being for you,
help me to seek you with eagerness,
to understand how my soul and body
thirst for you in this arid land.
Help me to bless you with my life,
to pray and praise you,
that my lips will sing your praise,
and my life reflect your glory.
Ephesians 6: 21 - 23So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts. Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ. Reflection So that you know what I am doing, I am sending a faithful witness to tell you the story…
What a responsibility Tychicus has been given! He has become the sharer of all he knows, has seen, and all that is burning within him: as well as the reality of what following the ‘Jesus-way’ involves. He wasn’t the first to be the ‘story sharer’; he wasn’t the only witness; and we are proof that he wasn’t going to be the last.
I find myself reflecting if in our world context, there is a renewed call and need for us to witness, to tell of Jesus and to share the hope that burns within us? After all, Jesus is not ours to lock away and make safe and if we are busy jealously hoarding him, surely we’ve got witnessing wrong?
How would our communities, our relationships, the places where we work and our front-line mission-fields be enlivened if the amazing hope of Jesus was invited to be an active, transformative part of the community’s shared narrative?
Like Paul, our hope and prayer for one another surely must be for “peace for the whole community and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.
Give us the strength
and focus that we need
to be your faithful witnesses:
Enable us share the hope
that burns within us
with those who need hope,
Let the work you ask of us
be the focus of all we are and do,
Give us the creativity to express
who we are with you;
in new, resourceful and creative ways.
Breathe your creative fire through us
and let us be faithful in our sharing.
Ephesians 6: 19-20Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. Reflection Encountering Ephesus is quite an experience. Once a bustling port and centre of trade, shiploads of tourists still clamour over its cobbled streets, whisked around by enthusiastic guides to learn its story: the great Library of Celsus, an amphitheatre holding 25,000 people and the Temple of Artemis - one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. It is noisy! A place where several roads from different parts of the Empire met, no wonder Paul asks for pray so that he may declare boldly the message of the Gospel for what a mission field he encounters as he visits the synagogue there!
Paul has previously described the armoury needed to defeat spiritual warfare. The focus now shifts from militaristic imagery to that of prayer. Praying and constantly asking for God’s help is how the soldier is able to stand his ground. Here prayer is not simply another of the soldier’s weapons but becomes the battle itself, a reminder that we accomplish things not by our own effort but by the grace of God.
Paul pleads for his readers to intercede on his behalf so that he may boldly and freely proclaim the hidden purpose of the gospel. Yet, he is an ambassador (verb not noun) in chains – a bizarre picture of someone who ought to be free to come and go to take the message of the One he serves wherever it is needed. He, therefore, needs their prayers. Such a bold proclamation is his God-given duty as an apostle - even in chains. His calling, and its purpose to reveal the mysteries of God, go hand in hand regardless of difficulties.
It is all too easy to think that we shall not be heard above the many voices calling on people’s attention but as I stood in the amphitheatre at Ephesus, and whispered, my voice filled the arena – a timely reminder that it is God, not us, who will bring everything into its tended purpose.
I know with my head
and with my heart
that if I can’t even dare to tell someone about the gospel
then how in the world will the gospel ever come to life?
Yet I often feel small and inadequate.
The task ahead hangs heavy over me
and I find myself embracing the anxiety
rather than enjoying the journey.
Break every chain
that hinders me from speaking boldly
full of courage and determination
so that I will step out in faith
and will not fear. Amen.
Ephesians 6: 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Reflection Ephesians draws us to another thread of truth about what standing firm in the faith might mean.
It’s all about prayer - it’s source and context. The source involves the most staggering interaction captured in this short verse. Prayer is from within; it is that offering up - in glorious language, stumbling silence, or anguished groans - of all we would share with, and hope to receive from, God. Prayer is our ongoing conversation with our creator and redeemer; our source, guide and goal. It comes from the powers of our minds and the deep wells of our hearts. It can be laughter and tears. It can carry passion and hold fear. It cannot ever be just about me, or just from you. If it is, then prayer has slipped into something less, something self-centred. God save us from that. And, writes Paul, God has.
We pray: “in the Spirit at all times in every prayer…” Here’s the source. The assurance and promise is that, as we turn to Christ, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Our praying is no solo effort, no private assault upon the hiding place of a distant God. The Spirit is God’s assurance that we have already found our true home within God’s love. The Spirit abides in each of us, breathing with us as we breathe into the silences and give ourselves to the words. Prayer is part of God’s collaboration with us in friendship. We cannot pray alone because, in prayer, the Spirit is.
This is prayer’s context. It isn’t about me - it’s about us. As we live out our witness we need help that ultimately comes from God. We play our part by responding to God through praying for one another. Just as the Spirit is the agent at work in my praying, so I become part of the symphony of prayers offering others into God’s grace and mercy. Prayer reminds me that I belong to God. There is more; prayer reminds us that we belong to one another.
hear our prayers for your creation.
Hear our anguish at its agonies.
Hear our thanksgiving for its treasures.
hear our prayers for your people.
Hear our anguish at their agonies.
Hear our thanksgiving for their treasures.
hear our prayers.
For you have taught us to pray
and shown us your way,
through your Spirit,
in Christ’s name.
Seasons of the Spirit
Dear <<First Name>>
with every good wish
Coordinator, Daily Devotions from the URC Project
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Ephesians 6: 10 - 17Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Reflection Years ago I worked with someone whose hobby was being a re-enactor, a member of a group which re-enacts battles of certain historic periods. Gradually, we were all inveigled into joining him in making chain mail during the lunch break.
One of the intriguing things about this passage is the pieces of armour which the writer chose to highlight: belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, sword. The undershirt to prevent chafing and which, together with the short leather skirt, help absorb the shock of blows, is not listed. Nor is chain mail mentioned; lighter and more flexible than the earlier form: strips of metal fastened together.
The writer doesn’t say if the belt carries sword and dagger or specifies the heavy broad sword and certainly doesn’t include the greaves and helmet guards to protect the legs and head from slashing long sword blows. “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Heb 4:12
There is nothing in the list for comfort and little for protection, except what is almost the secondary use of the item. Interlinked shields in ‘testudo’ formation effectively make individuals into a fighting whole. We naturally tend to think of “we are all parts of the one body” solely in terms of eyes, ears, hands, feet etc. Protected by interlinked shields of faith we are more than individuals: effectively becoming Christ’s body in the world.
I am not surprised by the inclusion of the caligae, the iron-hobnailed shoe that carried the legions across a continent. This is the call to arms begun in Eph 1:21, 22 now spelled out. The age to come is imminent - be prepared with only the things that further the ability of Christ come again to rule with authority, power and all things under his feet.
PrayerLord you provide for our needs and equip us to help provide for the needs of others and for our world environment. Even as we see the contrasts of people’s lives and the events happening around them you provide the belt of truth which help us to name them.
We lock our shields of faith together, in testudo formation, ready shod to deliver the gospel of peace in politics, to those in authority from governments to international companies and global organisations.
We think of those who have no voice and for whom we must proclaim, sharply as with the sword of the word, the possibility of education for all; freedom from sexual harassment and safety from armed conflict.
In this world of contrasts give us the breastplate of righteousness to protect us from self-righteousness so that, shod with the things which make us ready to proclaim the gospel, we can walk through your world in integrity. Amen
Ephesians 6: 5 - 9Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. Reflection When we think of slavery, most of us I suspect first think of the Atlantic slave trade. We should of course be glad that that time in our history is long gone. But the danger is that we make the mistake of living as if slavery itself was completely eradicated as it no longer seems to be a day-to-day reality for us.
We occasionally hear in the news stories of so called ‘modern day slavery’, and people trafficking, and it is of course right that we make every effort to end this scourge of our time too.
However, this too is something far removed from most of our realities.
Much closer to home however is the so-called ‘gig economy’. Not slavery perhaps, but insecure employment where workers on extremely low pay, irregular hours, and no employment rights, try to make a living knowing if they do not ‘obey their masters’ there will be no work for them and another will simply take their place. This work does suit some as ‘pocket money’ to be earned flexibly around their primary commitments. But for an increasing number of people this kind of work has become their only source of income, without which they wouldn’t survive.
May our eyes be opened to ‘slavery’ all around us, when buying a drink, having takeaway delivered, or ordering an online taxi.
We know everything we have
comes from you,
and what may seem
like the fruits of our labour
comes to us as much through good fortune as our endeavours.
We pray for those who work just as hard,
whose material needs are just as many,
who do not receive just reward
for their labour,
who are trapped in relative poverty
and have little choice
but to ‘obey their masters’. Amen.
The Martyrs of Papua New GuineaThe Church in Papua New Guinea has been enriched by martyrdom twice in the twentieth century. James Chalmers, Oliver Tomkins and some companions were sent to New Guinea by the London Missionary Society. They met their death by martyrdom in 1901. Forty years later, during the Second World War, New Guinea was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army and Christians were severely persecuted. Among those who died for the faith were two English priests, Vivian Redlich and John Barge, who remained with their people after the invasion of 1942 but were betrayed and beheaded, together with seven Australians and two Papuan evangelists, Leslie Gariadi and Lucian Tapiedi.
Romans 8: 35 - 39Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Reflection The consolation of these words from Romans was hard-one by a persecuted Early Church.
They are likely to be familiar to most of us, as they are often used at funeral services, giving confidence to those who go on living that God’s love is constant across all time and space.
Such reassurance cannot be underestimated when we learn of the circumstances surrounding the massacre of James Chalmers (known as ‘Tamate’), Oliver Tomkins and companions in Papua New Guinea.
Such reassurance is needed as we face the constant stream of bad news in the media; the relentless examples of human pain and brokenness.
We are never – never separated from God’s love.
Just take a moment to know that truth. Breath it in.
When we proclaim that ‘all are welcome’ in the Church, it is this truth from Romans that underpins our declaration. For just as it is true that nothing separates you from God’s love, I’m afraid it is also true that nothing separates me either.
Nothing separates Donald Trump, immigrants crossing borders, Teresa May, those still facing screams of abuse at Pride marches, Syrians (who seem to have slipped our minds), the lonely living next door, or the 215 million Christians facing extreme persecution worldwide.
Nothing separates (insert list of all humanity here…)
God’s endless love is the place we start with faith.
Following Jesus on the way of mercy, justice, light and resurrection are what follow. They are the truths that judge us and shine light into the darkness that causes us to need reminding of God’s love in the first place.
PrayerGod of never-ending, lavish love
What have we done
that has hidden this gift
from those around us?
What have we done
that means our response
to Paul’s words in Romans is not
“well of course we are loved!”?
What have we done.
Words that we have spoken
at the foot of the cross.
How rich is your gift to us?
How strong is your love in the face of us?
How bright is its light,
searching all our gloom?
As we begin or carry on with this day,
give us a renewed sense
of the boundless nature of your love
and the desperate need for us to live it.
Psalm 621 My soul finds rest in God alone;
From him comes my salvation sure.
2 My safety, fortress, sheltering rock—
In him alone I am secure.
3 How long will you assault a man?
Do you all seek to lay him low—
This leaning wall, this tottering fence—
And bring about his overthrow?
4 They plan his fall from his high place;
They take delight in spreading lies.
With false and flattering mouths they bless,
But in their hearts curse and despise.
5 Find rest, my soul, in God alone;
In him my hope is ever sure.
6 My safety, fortress, sheltering rock—
In him alone I am secure.
7 My honour and salvation rest
On God, my rock and mighty fort.
8 O people, trust in him always;
To him alone pour out your heart.
9 The low-born man is but a breath;
The high-born man is but a lie.
Weighed in a balance, side by side,
They come to nothing but a sigh.
10 Do not seek after wealth by force,
Or triumph in ill-gotten gain;
And even though your goods increase,
Set not your heart on what is vain.
11 My God has spoken; I have heard
12 That you are strong and loving, Lord.
Each one according to his deeds
You will assuredly reward.
You can hear a Free Church of Scotland congregation sing this to the lovely tune Fossebridge here.
Looking down from my study window, our garden is surrounded by a fence, which consequent of the winter’s wind, is distinctly ‘tottering’. Looking up from my study window, the vista is over the Clyde valley to the Campsie Fells and Kilpatrick Hills, and on a clear day to distant Ben Lomond; ‘rocks that shelter’ Glasgow cradled below.
‘Tottering fence’ and ‘sheltering rock’ are pictures the Psalmist paints to speak of life and struggle and God. The Psalmist opens proclaiming trust in God, then with seeming undue haste, opens the heart in anguish, challenging God with tales of the enemies that assail in the bad lands of life.
Then the Psalmist changes tack, offering a way through the maelstrom. The line, “to him alone pour out your heart” reads as an invitation to try prayer. In doing so, perhaps, just perhaps, a new perspective may be perceived.
When the Westerlies of life hit, it can be easier to blame God than turn openly to God. It can be easier to advise of a path to peace than to navigate it. But if our tottering fence reminds me of being overwhelmed in life, then the distant hills remind me that God is there, even if obscured on a dreich day. May our tottering fence also remind me that when life is buffeted, it is time to go out on an intentional walk, to seek and then chew the fat with God, and be open anew to God’s rock-like presence and purpose, and maybe to find a path to peace.
When life gets stormy,
nudge me to seek your haven,
my sheltering rock.
Ephesians 6: 1-4Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Reflection As we are reminded, this is the only Commandment which comes with a promise of a good if it is obeyed. Others of course come with a warning and still others are stated baldly as being somewhat obvious.
The author of Ephesians extends this Commandment from "honour" to "obey" and introduces a counterpart obligation on fathers, with perhaps the promise of a long life for both parent and child. There is no mention of mothers, so perhaps the unstated assumption is that the father is responsible for ensuring the good behaviour of the child whereas the unconditional mother love for the child she bore encompasses and ensures its general welfare, so no reward is necessary. As for the child, obeying probably leads to a quieter life all round.
Of course, there is that word "discipline". Down the years many a father has interpreted this in the light of the aphorism "spare the rod and spoil the child". But surely that goes against the extended requirement not to provoke the child to anger. Ignoring this has resulted in many a life being blighted by the smouldering anger of resentment built up against a harsh (but not necessarily cruel) father who no doubt felt he was acting in the best interests of the child in the long run.
Society has moved on and it is thankfully not now acceptable to discipline a child harshly either physically or mentally.
But that word discipline remains.
We as a denomination are engaging in Walking the Way - the way of discipleship. Same root. Discipline: discipleship: discipling. Which should be our priority? Fathers (and mothers) what can you do better than try to disciple your children by and in your life so that their days (and yours) may be long on the earth. A good for all.
PrayerFather God and Mother God
help us to treat our children
and the children of others
so that in our lives
and in our behaviour
we may provoke them
to catch discipleship
Ephesians 5: 22 - 33Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. Reflection This passage leaves us scratching our heads due to the content and the way the it has been used over the centuries. Of course the injunctions to husbands were never preached on as much as those to wives, the context of ancient Rome, with its brutal patriarchy and slavery based economy (more disturbing passages there!), is different to our own, but what does one do with this passage?
Some preach against it: the writer was wrong just as we sometimes get it wrong; the way this text has been used to oppress just proves the point. Others try and look at the writer’s context and say it is so different to our own that we can’t take anything from the passage - he may have been right then but he’s not right now. Others still see this passage as having divine origin and words of divine truth and would wish to uphold the literal truth of the passage. All these approaches have their merits and problems.
I think, however, it’s a passage we have to wrestle with - there are plenty of those in the Scriptures after all. There is a truth in being subject to each other - responsible to each other for our journeys of discipleship. There is a truth in that our marriages (which may be rather more complex than in the writer’s time - my own, for example, may not have been approved of by the writer) need to reflect God’s love poured out in Christ. There is a truth in seeing the relationship between Christ and the Church as being as sacred, strong and intimate as the marital bond.
Maybe we have to struggle to separate out timeless truths in the passage from problematic patriarchal pronouncements recognising the harm that these have caused. Of course this approach is no easier than the others outlined above but I think God wants us to wrestle with difficult passages, and difficult questions so that we are both changed and challenged.
PrayerLord of the Church
remind us of the bond you have with us,
as close as the marital bond,
as fierce as a husband’s love,
or a wife’s fierce tenderness.
Open our hearts and minds,
so that when we struggle
with Biblical passages,
you meet us in that struggle,
and strengthen our faith.
Ephesians 5: 6 - 14Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light - for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.’ Reflection A prisoner once told me that the day he became a Christian was ‘the best day of my life but also the worst’. He had spent seven years in prison before he came to faith and thought of it as ‘part of what happens in my line’. When he became a Christian he told me ‘I understood all the pain and hurt I had caused others, that will never go away now, but I also know that I can lead a different life’. Now he was approaching the end of his time in prison, seven years on in his faith, he was given an opportunity to become a chef in a Church café on release. In many ways he could be described as someone who had woken up to things and would not go back to sleep.
But I have to wonder about Paul in this passage. What if there were no prison chaplains or others to step beyond the perimeter fence to engage with the people who find themselves behind bars? I am very reluctant to say ‘step into the darkness’ because in my time as a prison chaplain I have seen a lot of light in prison, as well as many who are in the darkness of despair and hopelessness.
However. Paul talks elsewhere about being ‘ambassadors for Christ’. As ever, Paul is speaking into a particular context in this passage. Chaplains – of whatever sort (hospital, industrial etc) are precisely that, people of faith – here I include my fellow Muslim, Sikh, Jewish etc. colleagues as well – who go to where people are and remind them that where they are right now need not be where they are tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that.
But we also are reminded of the Church who decided to employ this ex-offender on his release. They had woken up to the possibility of helping people back into society and into Church-life on release. Could your church community do the same?
Prayer‘When I was in prison you visited me’
says Jesus to the sheep.
Loving God today we pray
for all those in the criminal justice system.
Those who work and those who are imprisoned.
We pray for the victims of crime
and their families and friends.
We ask that you will be
in all the dark places of our world
and that there may be
ambassadors of light
and hope to make your presence clear.
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen
Ephesians 5: 3 - 5But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Reflection It’s fair to say the reason I chose this reading today, isn’t because I love it, it certainly doesn’t rank as one of my all-time favourite scripture! Rather, it’s because I signed up late and it was one of the very few ‘left-overs’. It isn’t a passage, I’ve ever preached on without its surrounding, more encouraging context, when we are called ‘light of the Lord’ and exhorted to ‘Be filled with the Spirit’. It would be lovely, if we could extract the difficult bits, from the Bible. To have ‘light’ without ‘darkness’, ‘fragrant offerings’, without ‘sacrifice’. But it isn’t an option and light reveals shadows.
Paul refers to these shadows, the ‘unspeakable, that must not even be mentioned among you’. ‘Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them, for everything exposed by the light becomes visible’. Ephesians 5:11-12.
We may have shadows, needing to be brought into the light, confessed to God, for his mercy and forgiveness. But, urges Paul, don’t forget in all things thanksgiving.
PrayerSorry Lord for the times I’ve been selective about your Word, seeking comfort not challenge. Help me to engage with your word, even when it means revealing the shadows in my life. Transform me, by the power of your Holy Spirit and equip me, to be an instrument of praise, giving glory to you. Amen.
Ephesians 5: 1 - 2Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Reflection There is a suggestion, here, that we have a duty to emulate our parents. As strange as that may sound now, it is only a couple of generations since children routinely lived lives indistinguishable from those of their mothers, fathers, or other caregivers. Children dressed in miniature versions of adult clothing and here, in South East Northumberland, boys typically followed their dads down the pit until the 1980s.
Today, we perceive teenage rebellion as a cultural norm - a rite of passage - with some parents becoming worried if their youngster doesn’t wear questionable clothes or have appalling taste in music. Focusing on the ways that generations differ, we ignore all that we have in common until, that is, the day when we hear ourselves saying one of our parents’ catchphrases and discover that we too have unconsciously become replicas of what went before.
If it requires no effort - or even will - to become like somebody we haven’t chosen as a role model, why is it so difficult to imitate God as today’s passage requires? Sadly, it goes against the standards and customs of our place and time to give as freely as Christ. In fact, if there is one thing our capitalist society is firmly against, it is giving something for nothing. So much so that we are even afraid of getting something for nothing and most people look for a catch when unexpected generosity occurs. Perhaps, then, a first step to giving as freely as God is to learn to receive freely, simply saying “thank you”.
help us to receive gratefully
allowing others the pleasure
of offering us their love and care.
Let us learn
how to emulate your generosity
and make our lives a fragrant offering
to the Christian doctrine of love. Amen.
Ephesians 4: 25 - 32So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Reflection I have to admit I don’t always find Paul easy to understand, but this passage is really clear. Maybe, because in this, his most impersonal of letters, he is being careful to give guidance that is more general and not tightly engineered for a particular group to meet a particular need. Whatever the reason, we see a clear list of things that a disciple of Christ should do and not do. In simple terms, this is an explanation of what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. It is quite a test to mark ourselves against this standard!
There is, perhaps, one small exception to the clarity. In verse 26 we are asked to be angry, but not in a sinful way. At first sight this is a strange request, but It won’t take you long to list a few times where Christ’s anger was recorded in the Bible; and this is our guide to non-sinful anger – Jesus was angry on behalf of others, when he saw them being maltreated. Some time ago, a Muslim friend of mine presented me with a sobering thought. “You see Christians around the world being persecuted, tortured and murdered why are you not angry? When we see our Muslim sisters and brothers being hurt we get angry.” Let me finish with a couple of sentences from William Barclay’s commentary: ‘The anger which is selfish and uncontrolled is a sinful and hurtful thing, which must be banished from the Christian life. But the selfless anger which is disciplined into the service of Christ and our fellow [women and] men is one of the great dynamic forces of the world.’ Amen
PrayerLord, I pray
that you will give us all
the wisdom, courage and stamina
to live our lives
in the light of your example.
Enable us to forget self
when we are tempted to become angry
because someone has hurt us.
Help us to channel our anger
towards those who deprive our neighbours
of your great blessings and freedoms.
Psalm 611 O hear my urgent cry, my God,
and listen to my plea.
2 From earth’s remotest bounds I call
when my heart faints in me.
O God, conduct me to the rock
that’s higher far than I.
3 For you’re my refuge from the foe,
my tower of strength on high.
4 O let me dwell within your tent,
for ever there to live!
O for the shelter of your wings,
the refuge which they give!
5 For you have heard my vows, O God,
and you have given me
The heritage of those who fear
your name continually.
6 Prolong the days the king will live;
his sovereign rule extend
For many generations more,
established without end.
7 May he for ever sit as king
enthroned before God’s face;
Appoint your love and faithfulness
as his protecting grace.
8 Then will I ever bless your name
with songs of joy and praise,
And will fulfil my holy vows
with care throughout my days.
You can hear a Free Church of Scotland congregation sing this to the tune Wetherby here or the lovely American tune Land of Rest here.
Writing around the middle of the 20th Century, the psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined what he called a “hierarchy of needs”. He suggested that human needs and motivations can be portrayed as a kind of pyramid, with the most basic and fundamental requirements for survival at the bottom, and the more esoteric and aspirational goals further up; at the top of the pyramid is “self-actualization”, meaning a person's desire to fulfil her or his own potential. We start at the bottom and build upwards.
Although Maslow's methodology and conclusions have been criticised (and indeed he himself continued to refine his theory over time), in broad terms this is an idea that seems to make sense, and to resonate in our experience: when we're deprived of food or physical warmth, for example, we'll worry more about meeting these needs than about adding to the books on our shelves.
There's a trace of this, in miniature, in today's Psalm: the general progression from desperate plea towards confident praise, and the particular progression in the detail of what the Psalmist is seeking. First comes the cry to “conduct me to the rock that's higher far than I” - to be brought simply to a place of physical preservation from surrounding danger. Then, the request to “dwell within your tent” - to enjoy the comfort and hospitality that can be found in an offer of sanctuary. Yet once this is in place, the very next phrase reveals a yearning for an even closer intimacy: “O for the shelter of your wings”, a feeling of being held close within the presence and protection of God.
We, and the people among whom we serve, may each be at different places on the journey – at different points on a pyramid of personal needs and concerns. So in our worship, work, and witness, in aspiring towards spiritually mature and cohesive communities, let us not overlook the more fundamental needs close-at-hand: shelter, food, and a place of safety.
PrayerOur Father in heaven,
your name be praised,
your kingdom come,
and earth and heaven enact your will.
Give us the food we need this day...
(and when hunger is assuaged:)
bring release from guilt and from debt...
(and when freedom is known:)
keep us from being put to the test,
and rescue us from evil.
For you rule, God, eternally,
and the power and the glory are yours.