Planting Trees with a Cannon!

Polar ice caps are melting; forests are burning. The rate of global warming is faster than we thought. It’s a climate emergency and we need to act quickly. The simplest and most cost effective way to reduce our emissions of CO2 from the atmosphere is to plant trees. It appears that woods and forests absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries, so as well as planting trees, we must protect existing ones.

Trees are essential for the environment in helping to prevent flooding, cool temperatures, reduce pollution and enrich the soil. We can’t survive without them.

War and Deforestation

Apart from the obvious toll on human life and the ongoing fear and grieving, war is incredibly destructive to the environment. According to the experts, a country like Afghanistan should have at least 15% of it forested, but war has reduced this to only 2%. Sadly, countries at war are not thinking about environmental issues, so places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen are among the most vulnerable in the world to climate change, and the least equipped to handle it.

The carbon footprint of war is enormous. Many forests and farmlands in Afghanistan have been burned and degraded by heavy military technology and chemicals; some woods were deliberately destroyed to remove hiding cover for warring factions. Displacement of people also strains an area’s natural resources.

War brings poverty and with the destruction of electricity grids in Afghanistan many have had little choice but to cut down forests to fuel stoves and keep warm in winter. Half of the country’s pistachio trees are gone, as are the almond and juniper trees. These important cash crops have been sacrificed for fuel.

Then there’s a kind of ‘timber mafia’ involved in an illegal logging trade of spruce and pine over the border to Pakistan; the money is used to fund insurgents.

Afghanistan was a stopping ground for migratory birds, but deforestation, drought and war have ruined wetlands and reduced the number of these visitors by 85%.

The climate crisis in Afghanistan is predicted to get worse with increased droughts and flash floods. Yet, this is a country that is rich in mineral resources, unable to be mined because of constant conflict. It doesn’t need to stay poor. Lithium and copper, both highly sought after in the modern world along with iron, cobalt and gold deposits are all there, but the country doesn’t have the skills or infrastructure to capitalise on these resources.

Plowshares and Pruning Hooks

It takes faith to plant trees that you will never see fully mature, but the ‘Planting Dukes of Atholl’ did just that in the 18th century in Scotland. They embarked on the extensive planting of millions of trees including the historic Hermitage woodland in Perthshire with a variety of deciduous and evergreens.

These forests of Scots pine, oak and rowan mixed with larch, sycamore and the towering Douglas firs, the tallest in Britain, are famous for their lush, green beauty. The 4th Duke was known as ‘Planter John’ and is reported to have filled clay balls with his tree seeds and fired them from a cannon to scatter them!

The thought of a cannon, a weapon of war, being used to work with creation, instead of as an instrument of destruction, thrills me. It reminds me of the passages in Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3. There the prophets share a poetic picture of the ideal, promised, peaceful land where God is sought after and war is no more.

‘They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’

Healing the Nations

God loves trees. The Bible is full of them, from Genesis 2:9 where he chooses a tree as the symbol of life in the Garden of Eden, until the end of the Bible where we find this tree on both sides of the river of the water of life. The tree of life produces fruit every month and its leaves are for the healing of the nations ( Revelation 22:2).

When Jesus returns, we read in Revelation 21:4 that he will wipe away every tear from our eyes and there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain. He has full knowledge and understanding of each of his children’s personal griefs and losses. Individuals, however, are part of nations and there are sufferings and traumas experienced in this world that are peculiar to our ethnicity and land of birth. Perhaps that’s why God talks of healing the sickness of nations. Even the leaves of the tree carry power to heal the tears we’ve cried together.

We pray for peace, an end to violence and a government committed to serving the people. Let’s see if the Taliban can do that while also fulfilling their pledge to tackle climate and even to plant trees! Whatever happens, we know that Jesus himself, who died on a tree, is that tree of life whose presence gives life and healing love to all who trust in him – even in Afghanistan.

Lost and Found in Afghanistan

Afghan forces capitulated; Ashraf Ghani has left the country and the Taliban have established themselves in the presidential palace. Thousands are internally displaced; thousands have fled the country. Although their rhetoric is conciliatory, Taliban actions on the ground are reminiscent of the 90s with forced marriages and reprisals for those deemed anti-Taliban. A return to a strict shariah regime seems inevitable. There is great fear among women who have enjoyed education and career possibilities; among those who have helped the allied forces in any way; and among those who have found faith in Christ.

Seeking the Lost

It was December 2006 when I visited Afghanistan. I’d been at a Christmas party where some ladies in Kabul heard the story of Jesus’ birth for the first time. They heard how his name means ‘Saviour,’ how he came to seek and to save the lost. Susan gave me a lift back to where I was staying, but when we arrived my bag was not beside me in the car. We’d dropped off three local women at their homes; it must have fallen from my lap when I got out to kiss them goodbye. Oh dear, we couldn’t remember where exactly that had been. It was late and everywhere was dark; there was no electricity and no street lights. Everywhere looked the same, dry mud roads without pavements and high mud courtyard walls rising up on either side. We decided to try to retrace our journey.

My bag was precious to me. It was a purple suede shoulder bag, a 15th birthday present from my grandmother. When the colour faded my mother covered it in colourful Afghan crochet squares. I was emotionally attached to it. Not only that, the contents were of actual value – my passport! And I was flying home the next day.

So with a prayer on our lips and hope in our hearts we drove around the streets of Kabul. As we turned a corner, there in the car headlights, we could see five Afghan men walking down the middle of the road. They looked scary with long beards and turbans, but one of them was carrying …. my bag! We wound down the window and he kindly handed it to me.

Later that night I sat on my bed hugging it tightly. As waves of relief washed over me I savoured the warm feeling that comes when something precious that was lost is found. “Forty years I’ve carried this bag,” I thought to myself as I laid it on the bed in front of me. “That’s a generation.” Then, in the stillness, it was as if God said to me, “You feel this way about a bag. How do you think I feel about the Afghan people? I’ve been carrying them for many generations and still so few are found.”

Something of God’s emotional attachment and his sorrow touched me and I couldn’t help but sob. I opened my passport to my face and my name and was struck by the value God puts on the individual. It made me think of the coin in Luke 15 that had fallen into a dark and dusty corner. It was searched for carefully by lamplight until the glint of silver was revealed. For the true advent of peace to come to Afghanistan, it would take Christ’s church, like that woman, to keep sweeping and sweeping, seeking the lost with that same kind of devoted perseverance.

Finding Faith

A lot has happened since my visit 15 years ago. Development projects have continued to focus on training the trainers and enormous progress has been made in health and education. Millions of girls have been to school and the infant mortality rate has been halved.

The Dari Scriptures were finally published in 2008, and now there are tiny house fellowships and individual believers scattered across the country. The vast majority of them are Dari speaking Hazaras, a people group despised by Afghan Pashto speakers. The Scriptures in Pashto were only completed last year, so it isn’t surprising that the Pashto speaking Taliban know little of God’s love, forgiveness and life in Jesus.

Prayer

For peace without bloodshed and retributions.
For the gains in education and health not to be lost.
For the hungry, homeless, grieving and fearful.
For protection and courage for believers.
For wisdom and faith for Christian workers.
For encounters with Jesus.

Stains and Wrinkles

It’s good to see all the weddings, put on hold because of COVID-19, finally taking place. So many were postponed not once but several times due to changing restrictions. Brides were ready, had the dress, the venue, the guest list, but then felt they had to wait. The church, often referred to in scripture as the Bride of Christ has had to wait a very long time; she’s still waiting, not because of COVID-19, but because she isn’t ready – she’s still preparing and being prepared.

Waiting is hard. Keeping clean, staying pure is not easy.

Stains

Some years ago my husband Julyan was best man at a wedding. The groom’s parents had travelled up from England and were with us for a light lunch before the ceremony. Our kids thought it would be fun to introduce this English couple to our ‘other national drink’, and they hurried to the corner shop and back with a bottle of Irn Bru.

We were sitting around the table. I unscrewed the top and orange fizz squirted forth and sprayed the two white wedding shirts hanging on the back of the living room door! I whisked them to the bathroom, washed off the stains and spent the next hour drying them with the hairdryer.

I’m so glad it wasn’t the bridal gown hanging on the back of the door. A dirty bride is unthinkable.

Cleansing and Anointing

Jesus has washed us through his Word (Ephesians 5:26). The gospel message has made us clean. During the last supper Jesus told his disciples they didn’t need another bath, but they did have to keep washing their feet. Yes, Jesus has made us clean, but we get very grubby through daily living.

It could be an age thing, because this is happening to me more and more. I think I’m clean till I go out into daylight, look down at myself, and then I see a spot or stain I didn’t notice before. In a similar way it’s when I come into the light of the Word of God and among his people that I see it – the bad attitude, the thoughtless word, the prompting I’ve ignored.

As we wait for our heavenly bridegroom, the great wedding and the consummation of our relationship, I find Esther’s wedding preparation helpful. In the book of Esther we read she went through a period of cleansing followed by a period of anointing before her marriage to the king (Esther 2:10). Sometimes I would like the anointing of the Holy Spirit without the cleansing, but in my experience true spiritual growth issues from a deeper embracing of the Cross. Allowing it to work repentance and forgiveness in us keeps us clean, and then we won’t run out of oil like the foolish virgins in Jesus’ parable, who were not ready when the bridegroom came (Matthew 25:1-13).

Wrinkles

God has covered us in the righteousness of Christ, but that should work out in our day to day living. It matters how we live. When we forgive instead of taking offence, bless instead of blame, give generously instead of hoarding, turn away from immorality instead of indulging, share our faith instead of hiding it, these little choices for righteousness become glorious garments of pure, bright linen to adorn the bride forever (Revelation 19:8).

Aah! I’m so glad the fine linen is given by God – he can do the ironing! Julyan has a linen suit and I just refuse to iron it. It creases so easily – if I try to iron one wrinkle out, I manage to make two more. My own wrinkles have come with age, and even my best deeds that Christ has created me for and prepared beforehand (Ephesians 2:10) can be very wrinkly. There are old habits, old sinful thought patterns that make a fold of self seeking here, a crease of self pity there…..

Hallelujah!

When Christ returns for the wedding banquet there will be lots of hallelujahs. Our God will be seen to reign. Sin will be gone forever and even the church will be purified – no more spots, stains or wrinkles. When we see Jesus, our bridegroom, as he is, we will be ready.

Out on a Limb

Last Sunday was traumatic. Sevgi, our kitten, climbed the ash tree. It was easier to go up than down, so soon she was high above the ground and literally out on a limb! She is fearlessly adventurous and curious, but she’s still little, and though her sense of balance and spatial awareness are developing fast, she can still get it wrong. Indoors, she’ll leap up to a ledge chasing a fly, only to miss and come down with a bump, and no, she doesn’t always land on her feet.

Our faithful neighbour friends gathered in our garden calling and coaxing. We used binoculars to see her; she was so high and often hidden by foliage. We spread duvets underneath, and coaxed some more. The steep downward climb seemed too hard for her, and for three hours she would approach the trunk, mew like crazy, then go back along the branch.

Of course, we were praying. Then something unexpected happened. Three menacing magpies began to circle above her, squawking and closing in. I think she realised she couldn’t fight them off and still hang on to her branch. Her fear of the birds became greater than her fear of the difficult descent; she found enough desperation to try. I couldn’t watch! Each small section was heart in the mouth stuff, but I’m sure an angel was sent to support her as she scrambled her way down. All ended well and with an overwhelming sense of relief we enjoyed a celebratory sherry with our neighbours.

Good Fear

I’m still amazed and so thankful that Sevgi is safe and well, and after 45 years I’m still amazed my own life was saved and all is now well with my soul!

In my early 20s I made a series of foolish, bad choices that seemed exciting at the time – like Sevgi climbing her tree. Only my life was spiralling downwards! Just about that time my brother came to faith in Christ and began praying for me. He invited me to a weekend away and I went.

The speaker quoted the words of Jesus, ‘He who is not with me is against me.’ (Luke 11: 23) Suddenly there was revelation. It was as if a thick black curtain came down between me and the others in the group. They were together with Jesus in the light and I was on the outside, alone in the darkness. A sense of foreboding came over me, a fear of impending doom. My life was headed for a bad end, and for the first time I felt a healthy fear of God

Out on a Limb

A ceilidh was planned for that evening, but I didn’t feel like dancing. I wandered out into the night. It was dark and lonely – just like I was feeling. How I needed a saviour and I found myself pouring out my soul in repentance to God. I had never understood why Jesus had died on the Cross. That night I realised he had died for me – quite literally, he had gone out on a limb to save me. He died on a tree!

A ceilidh was planned for that evening, but I didn’t feel like dancing. I wandered out into the night. It was dark and lonely – just like I was feeling. How I needed a saviour and I found myself pouring out my soul in repentance to God. I had never understood why Jesus had died on the Cross. That night I realised he had died for me – quite literally, he had gone out on a limb to save me. He died on a tree!

When I arrived at the ceilidh it was as if the celebration had been laid on because of me, like in the lost sheep, lost coin and prodigal son parables of Luke 15, reflecting the joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Our celebration glass of sherry with our neighbour friends seemed very appropriate. We really thought our kitten couldn’t survive her folly, but our little Sevgi was safe in my arms.

The Beautiful Game

The Euros have given me a lot of pleasure these past weeks; it’s been good for us to be inspired again by watching football played well. I love the skill of a passing game when players know each other’s strengths and play as a team, discerning the path of the ball and keeping possession. I get excited when there’s a sudden burst of dynamic dribbling down the wing, past defenders, then an accurate cross to the anticipating striker who with a first touch scores – GOAL!

Turkey, a team I support, played poorly in the Euros and were put out early. With several quality clubs back home, it was strange to see them appear unfit, panting in the heat. Scotland played really well against England- sad they didn’t progress further.

No team wants their fate decided by penalties. Watching the final shoot out between England and Italy was excruciating. Great to see Gareth Southgate consoling and comforting the young players who missed. Holding their faces in his hands, looking them in the eye, he tried to cover their shame by taking responsibility himself.  

The Ugly Side

I hate to see flagrant fouling on the pitch, the dives and feigned injuries, but the supporters’ behaviour can be worse – really ugly. There was booing of the national anthems, that wicked laser attempt to dazzle the Danish goalkeeper in the semi-final, and the fights that broke out on Sunday when fans without tickets rushed the gates of Wembley stadium. The litter and wasteful disrespect for property and a complete flouting of COVID-19 restrictions during the Euros have meant massive clean up operations in many cities.

After all the hype and ‘coming home’ rhetoric surrounding the Euro final, fuelled by media obsession, the trough of despair for England fans was inevitable. We are rightly horrified by the ugliness of the racist abuse directed at the three young black men who missed England’s penalties.

Racist? Surely not me, Lord

It was thirty years ago that God cornered me and put his finger on racism in my own heart. I was shocked and would never have recognised it had I not been living abroad. In Turkey I was part of a delightful international community, and my friends often drew attention to what they considered my rampant nationalism. I continually argued Scotland’s case, giving geography lessons to those who thought we were a part of England, history lessons to those who confused English with British, never missing the opportunity to put people right over all manner of cultural issues. It was confusing for me to be accused of nationalism; I knew I was pretty tame compared to friends at home!

I was actually in Kazakhstan taking communion with a group from many nations, east and west, north and south, when it happened. The leader invited us to take ‘the cup’ and share it with someone from another country and pray together. Immediately I knew what I must do. I found Sue – the only English person there. There was something ugly inside me – a stereotyping of the English as arrogant, and a despising of them that seemed to be inherent to my Scottish culture. I wanted to be rid of the defensiveness – the felt need to battle for Scottish recognition.

As I brought my sinful attitudes to Christ’s death on the cross and prayed together with Sue, I felt a shift inside me. It’s hard to describe, but I knew something ugly had left. There was a new liberty in my heart. I was free to celebrate my Scottishness without an angry negative edge. This apparent small step of obedience proved to be a gateway for me to more effective intercultural ministry across the globe!

Taking the Knee

If we can’t love our neighbours with whom we have much in common, we are fooling ourselves to think our hearts are free from racism towards those less like us. The post match racist abuse on social media is blatant, but much prejudice remains as an unconscious bias until it is brought to our attention.  And yet, it’s only together with believers from all nations that we can fully understand the extent of God’s love. It’s to this end that the Apostle Paul ‘takes the knee’. He says he kneels before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that we might have strength and wisdom to comprehend this love and be filled with the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-20).

So, let’s kneel before Christ who is able to do much more than we can ask or think, and allow him to root out prejudice and malice whenever it rears its ugly head. Let’s rejoice over our neighbours’ victories and weep with them in defeat. And let’s enjoy the beautiful game.

My Ceiling Caved In!

What a shock I got! I was standing over by the desk in the window of my husband’s study when suddenly I heard an almighty crash behind me. Almost a third of the ceiling had fallen; the floor was covered with plaster, dust and stour filling the air. I hadn’t noticed any cracks or sagging prior to this. I’m just so thankful it didn’t land on my head.

It happened just after the Miami building collapse, for me just a tiny taste of the horror created when something you regarded as stable crashes down around you.

‘Stable’ – that’s how Martha Hancock described her marriage prior to last week’s devastating disclosures. I’m sure she feels her roof has caved in.

As Christians we are not immune to the storms of life. Who would have thought our lives could be dramatically changed so suddenly and for so long because of a virus. Yes, we have been shaken and experienced many and various losses during these months. Many feel weary and spiritually lethargic, cautious about a return to live church engagement, preferring to stay virtual.

Building Back

Our house is old, so we need to talk and get advice from builders and plasterers. Can we repair the ceiling or does it all have to come down? We’ve cleared the rubble, but I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more dust along the way. As we consider local church expression post- pandemic, what changes need to take place? Are we ready for the hard work? We need God’s wisdom to envisage the future and move forward.

Coming out of lockdown is a bit like coming out of exile. In the Old Testament it was a small proportion of the people who returned to rebuild the ruined temple and the city. They soon became despondent, disappointed by the slowness, feeling small in the face of opposition. Any enthusiasm they had was directed towards themselves; not many were concerned for God’s glory. They excused themselves by saying it wasn’t God’s time for action (Haggai 1:2).

How does the prophet Haggai motivate them to get on with the work needing to be done? Perhaps he can motivate us too.

Haggai addresses the leaders Zerabbabel and Joshua individually by name, and then also the people. He rebukes discouragement that has led to fear by stirring up strength and courage; they serve an almighty God. ‘Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts (Haggai 2:4).’

The prophet goes on to present them with a big vision, for he knows that without vision God’s people lack focus and forget their calling to ‘seek first the kingdom of God.’ He tells them God will shake the nations and to get ready for a great ingathering. There is an immediate fulfilment to his prophecy when the Persian King Darius decides to pay the builders’ wages from the royal revenue (Ezra 6:8)!

Shaken and Stirred

God is shaking the nations, including ours. This is not the time to hang loose, but the time to be stirred and energised for action. The felt needs around us are great in the aftermath of the pandemic. Lives can feel ruined through loss of loved ones, earnings and opportunities. People are looking for help and hope as they struggle with mental and physical health crises, loneliness and broken relationships.

Worldwide people continue to be displaced by war, and the refugees continue to flee to the west.

Viyan had fled the war in Syria and found herself living as a refugee. One night as the family slept, she was restless. Her body felt heavy and dirty and she cried out for deliverance from darkness. In a vision she saw herself walking high on top of a crumbling building, and filled with fear she tried in vain to find a sure foothold. This was a picture of her life. Her city, her business, her home and even her religious faith were in ruins. Just as she was about to fall, a shining figure in white caught her from behind. She learned it was Jesus who had saved her and her whole family.

Let’s keep praying that in all the shaking, God would be stirring hearts to seek and find faith in Jesus, the solid rock. Haggai brought a sense of urgency with his message to the people of God. Likewise, we need to be stirred, for if our hearts are right, God will work with us. We Christians are the ones with true hope. What a comfort to know we are in the hands of a sovereign God and belong to a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Our gratitude should overflow in Christ honouring worship and witness (Hebrews 12:28).

Freda’s Farewell

Two of my friends died recently, a prayer partner and a prayer mentor. Esther and Freda had much in common. Both had been missionaries – Esther in Belgium and Freda in what was then called the Belgian Congo. Both lived life to the full, always thinking of how to serve others. Both were humble, unassuming, down to earth women of faith and prayer.

Their deaths were both sudden and unexpected, yet very very different. Unlike Esther who was raped and murdered in her flat by a stranger, Freda died peacefully on her way to bed. She had recently celebrated her 90th birthday and her encouragement to our ladies prayer fellowship was to persevere in faith and prayer. The night she died she had laid out her clothes for the morning, turned back her bedcover and opened her Bible reading for the next day: the promise of resurrection (Acts 2:27-28)!

Living and Dying in Faith

As I thought about Esther and Freda, I read again the famous Bible chapter Hebrews 11, with its list of heroes who lived and died in faith. It begins with Abel who was murdered, and Enoch who didn’t see death at all! I reflected on the apostles James and his brother John. James was killed by Herod, but John lived to be an old man. Remember Peter’s post resurrection chat with Jesus by the lake. Jesus revealed to him how he would glorify God in martyrdom. Then he had to rebuke Peter who, seeing John behind him, asked, ‘What about him?’ The answer was pointed, ‘What’s that to you, Peter? You follow me!’

The Freda Principles

It’s so easy to compare ourselves with others, or have some sort of ranking system for believers in our hearts, often subconsciously, until God catches us out. We can be so like the disciples of old who argued about who was the greatest.

When our ladies prayer fellowship gathered on Zoom to remember Freda, each one spoke of her Christian character, in particular her attitude towards individuals. She always saw the good, treated people with respect, and wanted to encourage each one to joyfully follow the path mapped out by God for them. Interestingly, the NHS wants to have a similar approach to health care (without the God bit) and talks about the Freda principles. They are well named.

F: Fairness

R: Respect

E: Equality

D: Dignity

A: Autonomy

Of course, unlike the NHS, church is a family with much closer relationships. Freda was a constant in my walk with Jesus over 45 years, a mentor who often spoke a word of wisdom into my life. One friend said Freda was like a big sister, sometimes even like a mother who could tell her off! I want to be more like her, with more appreciation of others, more compassion for those less fortunate, and the grace to bring a word of challenge when appropriate.

Turn your Eyes upon Jesus

Funerals are a time to consider our values in life and face the inevitability of death. As we sang Turn your eyes upon Jesus at Freda’s Farewell, I felt her mild rebuke. Freda and Esther were so heavenly minded they were of great earthly use, for Christ was both Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of their faith. That end goal is now achieved and the pain and sufferings of this life are but a distant memory. I know both these friends would echo the words of the Apostle Paul,

‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).’

Thank you Freda, prayer mentor for 45 years, for through your passing and poignant farewell you have helped me process the death of my prayer partner friend, and renewed my desire to live life in the light of eternity.

Esther Brown – a Woman who Prayed

The city of Glasgow was shocked when it was reported that Esther Brown had been found dead in her flat on Tuesday under suspicious circumstances. It’s still hard to believe she has been murdered and those who knew her are still reeling with the sad and tragic news.

There have been many tributes in the press to Esther Brown’s good works and community service from neighbours, friends and church. She was involved in so much care in action, her description in the media as ‘a pensioner’ or ‘elderly’ seems to conjure up the wrong picture altogether. I knew little about the outward workings of her life. She didn’t talk about herself, but I understood her heart through her prayers.

We met as part of a group of ‘Prayer Pastors’ who partner up at our base in St George’s Tron church to pray for the Glasgow Street Pastors’ night patrols. I loved being paired with Esther, praying for those on the streets and interacting with the police on duty, the pastors and first aiders in the ‘safe zone’ in the church foyer. The nights were long from 10pm-4am, but they never dragged. Since the pandemic we are meeting remotely as a prayer group, and she has been a stalwart of these times on Zoom.

Esther had a deep concern for the homeless, the marginalised and the vulnerable. Her prayers were infused with love for our city, our nation and the world. Clearly her prayer life was the power behind her active service. It’s ironic to realise her life was probably taken by the very kind of person she cared and prayed for most.

In Scripture we read of another Esther – another woman who prayed. In fact, her intercession before the king and subsequent saving of her people was the most significant fact of her life. It was said of her that she had surely been brought to the palace with access to the king ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14). I believe Esther Brown had that same calling. She knew she had the ear of the King of Kings, and now as his bride she is in his very presence.

We will probably never know the full circumstances of Esther’s death, nor understand why, but the book of Esther is all about how God, who is never actually mentioned, fills its pages, working providentially behind the scenes, fitting events together for his people’s good and for his glory.

May Esther’s prayers that rose as incense before the throne be answered, may we follow her example and persevere in prayer, and may God raise up many intercessors of like passion in her place.

Keep your eye on the ball? Sounds like good advice but not always…….

My Dad was good at sports and he taught me to play cricket when I was still quite young. He was a keen bowler with excellent aim. I remember our bat being big and heavy. Actually, it was full size – only the handle was a little shorter. Amazing I managed to hit the ball every time!

Stand still. Hold the bat. Look at my face.

That was the secret of my success. Dad knew if I saw the ball coming towards me I’d never be able to manoeuvre the heavy bat in time. I’d just panic and miss completely. All I had to do was stand still with bat in place, look at my dad’s face, and his ball never missed …..the bat! Of course, the skill was all his, not mine, but we both enjoyed our game.

When life’s events seem to be coming fast and furious I often hear my Dad’s words to me, or is it my Father in heaven speaking? Stand firm in faith, sword of the Spirit in hand, and look to Jesus. Peter learned the same lesson: look to Jesus, not the waves! Certainly, Jesus is the founder and finisher of faith, the one who birthed faith in me and the one who will finish the work he began (Philippians 1:6). My path is marked out specifically for me (Ephesians 2:10), coming straight to my bat. He asks me to persevere by standing in faith, for he is faithfully persevering with me.

Fix your eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2)

What do we see? We see Christ crucified for us and for the sins of the world, enduring the shame of the cross for the joy that would be his. I think doing his Father’s will and finishing the work he’d been given was part of that joy. I see him on the cross, dying that I might live, and with triumph announcing, ‘It is finished!’ I want Jesus to have the reward of his sufferings – a beautiful people from every tribe and tongue (Rev 5:9). That’s a passion that has fuelled mission zeal over the centuries.

But, we also see Christ glorified. Forty days after Easter, on the Mount of Olives, the shekinah cloud of God’s presence received the resurrected Jesus and the Father exalted him to his right hand, the place of honour and authority. Jesus ascended to the throne of God and as king he inaugurates us, his body, by his outpoured Spirit to advance the Kingdom of God. We have just celebrated Pentecost Sunday, but let’s remember that event is dependent on Ascension Day and the glorification of our Saviour.

Jesus had joy in going home to his Father. He told the disciples they should rejoice with him because he was returning to the glory and intimacy he had with God from all eternity (John 14:28). His glory was veiled during his years on earth, except for the glimpse on the Mount of Transfiguration – an experience Peter never forgot (2 Peter 1: 17-18). It was the vision of Christ in glory that enabled Stephen, the first martyr, to die with such grace.

Suffering and glory

When we fix our eyes on Jesus, the Cross gives us a passion to love, serve and suffer with him. His ascension to glory commissions us with power and authority for all he calls us to do. There, exalted to the father’s right hand as king, he is also our great high priest who continually bears our names before the father (Hebrews 4:14-16) able to sympathise with us in our weaknesses because of his own sufferings. In what’s called his high priestly prayer for his disciples in John 17, knowing all the troubles, persecutions and martyrdoms that lay ahead for them, he asked that their joy would be full, that they would be with him to see and share in his glory.

The Apostle Paul thought the glorification of believers was so certain he wrote about it in the past tense (Romans 8:30)! One day all vestige of my sinful nature will be gone; I will see Christ face to face and be glorified in him. This is a joyful prospect – a future hope that should certainly infuse my present day reality.

Culture Shock

Looking back over my journey through this pandemic with its imposed lockdowns, I recognise the various phases of culture shock I experienced when I moved to live in Turkey 40 years ago. It was a new country and a new way of life. Then I had similar experiences in reverse on returning home to Scotland 15 years later.

Entry

Arriving in Ankara in 1980 I felt lost and confused. There was so much that was strange and different that I had to learn. Three areas were similar to learning to live with the pandemic. Greetings? – Turks hug and kiss much more, Personal space or social distancing? – practically none! Dress code? – no masks but more modest and sometimes a head covering.

There was no church and until then much of my Christian faith had been expressed through church activities. I felt afraid. Would my faith wobble? We proved then and now the faithfulness of God.

Honeymoon

The next phase I passed through was a kind of honeymoon experience where I could see the positives in my new culture, like the wonderful emphases on family, community and hospitality. My relationship with the Lord was deepening as I grew in prayer and learned to feed myself on his Word.

During the pandemic I’ve been very aware of some gains we have made through lockdowns, like a slower pace of life with time to walk more, appreciate nature, reflect and be creative, and really get to know our neighbours. Prayer fellowship on Zoom, locally and internationally has been a blessing.

Dark Side

Honeymoons don’t last and as time went on I became aware of a dark side to the culture. The down side of strong communities can be unhealthy hierarchical structures and traditions that control and manipulate individuals. In Turkey it was hard for followers of Jesus who were often shamed, shunned or persecuted by society.

Of course, eventually the dark side of our imposed lockdowns has caught up with us all – missing key events like birthdays, weddings and funerals bring the inevitable sad sense of loss and isolation. The technology that was novel becomes wearisome and we long for face to face relationships.

Acceptance

Finally, there was an acceptance of the way things were in Turkey. We learned to embrace what was good in our new culture with thankfulness, while acknowledging the bad and praying for change. Life began to feel more ‘normal’ and less emotionally tiring. God was working and in the midst of turbulent times the church grew.

This is true of this pandemic. We have learned to seize opportunities to bless others, concentrating on what we can do, rather than what we can’t. Around the world the church is growing. In some of the worst hit places like Yemen, Afghanistan and Turkey social media and the good works of national Christians are having an impact.

Reverse Culture Shock

Returning to Scotland in the mid 90s brought an intense experience of reverse culture shock. The emotional journey was similar to that of my initial entry to Turkey, only worse, because I didn’t expect it! I felt frustrated with those around me and angry with myself; I felt fitting back in should have been easy. The problem was I had changed, and everyone else had changed too.

As we see restrictions easing and life opening up again, we should expect to experience reverse culture shock. We have all changed and in ways we’re still not fully aware of. Although we’ve been in it together, each has had a unique and personal experience. As we come out of this pandemic, many feel anxious. Some are desperate to gather again in large groups, shake hands and hug, while others feel panicky at the thought and will resist meeting indoors even when it’s allowed. Family and friends may differ in attitude, adding to our stress.

Moving Forward

Let’s be aware that reverse culture shock is real and happening. Be kind and patient with ourselves and those around us. We remember that none of this has taken God by surprise. He proves himself faithful and keeps his promises to refine our lives, grow his church and manifest his kingdom. Our role is to commit ourselves whole heartedly to his purposes. So, let’s reflect on what God has been teaching us, what he wants us to hold onto and what we should just let go as we move forward. Let’s keep what’s good, while enjoying and using the new freedoms.

Looking to Jesus

Jesus is the founder and finisher of our faith (Hebrews12:1-2). He knows the end from the beginning and will sustain us as we yield our wills to his. The faithful who have gone before us all endured hardships of various kinds while honouring God. They are cheering us on. Let’s take heart, trust him and allow heavenly joy to beckon us forward, giving us strength for the journey.