Did you see the rainbows of hope? Can you hear the call of God? Do you feel God’s patience, his long suffering, his mercy and love for us.
How fitting that the Queen, such a faithful servant, should be given grace to finish her work of appointing our new Prime Minister before she died.
How fitting that she should die at Balmoral in her beloved Scotland.
How fitting that rain should pour down as our tears flowed in sorrow and mourning.
How wonderful to see rainbows! Over Windsor! A double over Buckingham Palace!
Last weekend we were in Devon where Julyan conducted the funeral of his cousin Ruth. Originally she was given just a few months to live, but she had three more years in which time she recorded 2 CDs of her ‘Songs in the Night’ – melodies and Scriptures she believed God gave to sustain her.
She had time to plan her own funeral and chose the hymns and readings, making sure Julyan and his brother would lead the committal and thanksgiving service. The tributes all referred to Ruth’s faith, and as we listened reverently to one of her worship tracks we heard the voice of Jesus calling family and friends to come close, to follow him in a deeper walk with God – to choose life!
Call of God
Our history is steeped in God references – the proclamations, the pageantry, the vows. So many of those being interviewed concerning our Queen are stressing the importance of her faith. She, herself, was often vocal about the strength found in her relationship with her Saviour and Lord.
God is surely with us. The many details of events are showing us his grace and mercy.
In the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s death, he is calling us to reflect on our history and look to him for the future. May the millions who will watch the Queen’s funeral hear the voice of Jesus saying, ‘Come to me!’ as we did as we listened to Cousin Ruth’s ‘song in the night’.
“Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Last weekend we visited the New Victoria Gardens – one of the oldest allotment sites in Glasgow. Opened in 1872, Saturday was their 150th anniversary celebration. We entered down a few steps and through a door in a wall to a labyrinth of plots, each with its own small wooden gate. Several holders wore Victorian dress to mark the occasion, and all were eager to show off their produce and offer advice to any would-be gardeners. No two gardens were the same, but all were thriving. What a joy to stroll along the paths and appreciate this oasis of vegetation and floral abundance – a haven for bees and wildlife hidden away amidst the busyness of urban Pollokshields.
A large trellis of sweet peas took my attention and reminded me of childhood. Growing up in Kirkcaldy an annual highlight was the Flower Show held in the Adam Smith Hall. It was a wonderful event with breathtaking flower arrangements and huge prize- winning vegetables. Perhaps my favourite section was the miniature gardens. I still remember the intricate shed made from lollipop sticks, rows of tiny cauliflowers and little ducks on a small mirror pond.
One memorable year The Elizabeth Ann School of Dancing gave a display at the end of the show. I was full of nervous excitement as I rehearsed the steps in my head. To me, a child, the Adam Smith Hall seemed huge, and the enormous stage draped on either side with heavy maroon velvet curtains very high up and very grand.
After our performance the leftover flowers were all auctioned off. Amongst them was the most beautiful bunch of white sweet peas with a tag that read in big letters, ‘Swan Lake’. Dressed in my white ballet tutu and pink ballet shoes, my dark hair scraped up into a bun, I felt very much the ballerina. “These flowers are mine!” I thought to myself. “Please, please can I bid for them?” and I was given a shilling. “A shilling,” I called out. Everyone smiled – no-one dared outbid me. The sweet peas smelled heavenly and I’ve loved them ever since.
Gardens, growing flowers and all things green are good for the environment and ecology, so allotments that once fed the rural poor have become a popular hobby. They are good for us too. Apart from the obvious advantage of producing healthy food, the exercise involved must increase fitness. They also encourage a community spirit and are good for mental, emotional and spiritual health,
Perhaps we enjoy gardens so much, because of a memory trace back to Eden where there was beauty and joy in our relationship with creation and our Creator. In my hippie days in the early 70s I stuck a flower in my hair and sang to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Of course in those days we ignored the Fall and completely bypassed personal sin and accountability as we searched for peace and spirituality anywhere but in Christianity.
As Jesus agonised in the Garden of Gethsemane, the final outcome of his sin bearing sacrifice on the Cross would bring us more than Eden restored. What God has purposed is so much better. The new heavens and earth pictured at the end of the Bible are described as a vast city filled with the ‘ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Revelation 5:9) and this city is set in a garden, yes, mirroring Eden, but each detail more glorious (Revelation 22:1-5).
My Sweet P’s
I’m not very good with plants, unlike some of my green fingered friends who provide me with their delicious rhubarb and kale. This year I attempted sweet peas, but was only moderately successful. I may never have a productive garden or allotment, but I can testify with King David that my allotment from God ‘has fallen in Pleasant Places’ for he is my ‘Portion’ (Psalm 16:5-6). Amazingly, as we look forward to that Promised future garden-city of God, we get to taste its Produce now. Perhaps these are the sweetest P’s of all – Christ’s Pardon, his Presence, his Peace, his Provision and Protection and so many more….
As the loved of the Lord, may our overwhelming Passion for his Praise make us a garden of delights for him (Song of Songs 4:12-16).
Yes, I’m still sad for the people of Ukraine ….. and the many other countries in conflict. However, we spent last week in Sweden with Somali Christians living in Europe. Each one was a refugee from civil war at home and through hardship and suffering has put their trust in Jesus. Life is tough, but the praise was vibrant.
Somalis, themselves Sunni Muslims, have always been very strong supporters of Islam. Followers of Christ used to be rare indeed. Things are changing. With all the upheaval in that war-torn land people are moving and more willing to form new alliances.
Shino and Shania, leading members of this European network, have clear testimonies to God’s grace. They had come to Nottingham with their two children leaving their extended families back in Sweden. One day Shania was shocked to open a friend’s email attachment and watch a man being beheaded in Iraq. Horrified by what she saw done in the name of God, she cried out in prayer, but for the first time her prayer was in Somali, her mother tongue, not in Arabic.
“God, is this what you want? Is this what you’re like?”
God was quick to answer and that night she had a dream. A man in brilliant white shining like the sun was coming down from heaven and he was surrounded by throngs of worshippers and Shania, herself, was there among them. When she woke she knew she must find out who this man was, so she prayed again.
The following night she dreamed again. This time her mother was calling her to sit by her and read from the Qur’an. Shania often did this for the family. She opened the book and heard herself read in Somali, not Arabic, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way the truth and the life.’” Everyone was angry, realising these words were not in the Qur’an. Again she heard herself read these unfamiliar words. Just as she was about to be attacked, the figure in white came, scooped her up and she escaped. Now, she knew it was Jesus she must worship. She Googled the verse, bought a Gospel of John, found a church and believed.
Full of enthusiasm she shared with Shino and the family back in Sweden, but for them this was a shameful act. Apostasy means instant divorce for Somalis, and Shania’s mother said Shino must leave her and take the children. He was also angry, but he himself had been raised without a mother and couldn’t bear to see his children suffer likewise. As long as she didn’t make them Christian too, perhaps he could live and let live. It was too late! His son and daughter were already believers and wanted to attend the church Shania had found. They shared with Dad, “Jesus said, ‘If you disown me before men I will disown you before my Father in heaven'” (Matthew 10: 33).
Shino was challenged and secretly began reading John’s Gospel in his taxi between fares. When the threats from Sweden got stronger telling him he must kill his wife, he noticed it’s the thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy; Jesus, the Good Shepherd, brings life (John 10:10). Finally, one night he read the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). It seemed similar to Islam, the punishment being stoning…..but the ending was so so different. The one without sin should throw the first stone. From his Muslim background and reading of the Qur’an Shino knew Jesus was sinless and that he, alone, had this right. And yet he didn’t. Deeply moved he read on and found Jesus speaking directly to him. “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins (John 8:24)!” Shino returned home literally trembling at the Word and was united to his wife in faith.
Now, they are sharing their stories over the internet with Somalis right across the globe. Through their YouTube channel and social media outlets they are helping Somalis understand the gospel, come to faith and grow in the Lord.
I heard sad words last week spoken by an Afghan woman in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that shook Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan.
“God is trying to find as many ways possible to kill us.”
With over 1,000 dead and thousands more left injured and homeless, there is mourning in every street.
At last the international community are being welcomed in with humanitarian aid, and the government are allowing them to be in charge of distribution; in the past the the Taliban were guilty of diverting aid to their own supporters. Operation Mercy has been waiting months for permission to do a nutrition programme for women and children. Now, they have a mandate from the Taliban to feed twice as many malnourished infants as had been proposed! The turn around is earth shattering!
Something similar happened in Iran in 2003. A huge earthquake hit the southern city of Bam, and many of the traditional mud brick houses collapsed; out of a town of 100,000, around a third perished in the earthquake. Suddenly the government that had expelled foreigners threw open their doors and 87 NGOs from all over the world were entering Iran, without difficulty, collecting visas at the airport. God answered our prayers to open the country, but not in the way we had imagined. Julyan arrived, representing Operation Mercy, to a scene of utter devastation.
Behind the statistics were countless tales of human tragedy. A woman in the graveyard was screaming and throwing dust over her head in hysterical grief as she mourned the loss of her husband and all five of her children. This childless widow in her destitute state seemed to express the immeasurable pain of the suffering community at a time of national disaster. She resembled the Daughter of Zion, the Old Testament people of God, who experience the calamities of God’s judgement. The prophet Jeremiah laments on their behalf,
‘Look around and see. Is there any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the Lord brought on me in the day of his fierce anger?’ (Lamentations 1:12).
The Bible does teach earthquakes are a sign of the last days, when everything that can be shaken will be shaken, in order to reveal that which cannot be shaken. However, Muslims only understand God as Creator and Judge. It is the Christian’s privilege and responsibility to share he is also a gracious, forgiving Father who comes alongside us in our sorrows as a comforter, and who has overcome death in the resurrection of Jesus to give us hope. Those experiencing trauma and hardship, wherever they may be, need Christ’s presence alongside them demonstrating God’s compassion, helping to rebuild shattered lives, offering the true hope of the gospel. The church must be there in the hard shaken places to be both witnesses and advocates for the suffering.
If the inhabitants of Bam in Iran, or Paktika province in Afghanistan, are to find Jesus the Saviour God’s people have to go through the hardship with them. Like Jeremiah, the church must become the eyewitness, helping them to give voice and lament heavenward, acting as an advocate before God and the world. Those suffering mustn’t feel forgotten. Someone needs to speak tenderly and cry out like the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people!”
Footsteps of Blessing
Initially in the city of Bam there was need of relief work, but as the months passed the larger NGOs left. Operation Mercy staff stayed. They stayed through fiercely cold winters and suffocatingly hot summers to establish a rehabilitation centre to help survivors with spinal injuries who couldn’t find work. Sohrab was one who had to be carried to the centre in a blanket. Since breaking his back he had suffered terrible bed sores. Unable to cope, his wife had left him, and Sohrab had given up the will to live. With nursing care, good nutrition and the hope filled atmosphere at the centre, Sohrab’s health improved. He found the strength to persevere with the physiotherapy that enabled him to sit up and use a wheelchair. His wife returned, and he took up wood carving again.
After the earthquake in Iran, a local driver commented,
“The footsteps of the Christians have blessed Bam.”
What did he mean? The blessing was in their coming. It was in their staying, walking with them in their pain. As Paul said, quoting the prophet Isaiah, ‘Beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News’ (Romans 10:14-15).
I’m so glad God created the blue flax flower – maybe my life depended on it ….. and a few mishaps along the way!
In 1855 an Englishman left the lid off his paint tin and the linseed oil, produced by crushing the seeds from the flax flower, oxidised leaving a solid layer on top of the paint. This discovery led him to develop linoleum from the Latin for flax (linum) and oil (oleum).
When he failed to trademark his product correctly, Michael Nairn, the Scottish entrepreneur, stole the name and turned his floor cloth factory into a linoleum works. Soon my home town, Kirkcaldy, had seven factories employing 4000 people and became famous as ‘the town that floored the world’.
After the war, my parents both worked for Barry Ostlere and Shepherd Ltd, the main rival to Nairns. Romance began when my father, a joiner, was sent to the typing pool to mend Mum’s chair. Only Dad’s older brother was given the opportunity of further education, and Dad had rather reluctantly become Grandad’s apprentice. Mum was always trying and failing to lose weight, but maybe had she been skinny, she wouldn’t have broken her chair, and never married my dad! When my brother Barry was little, my parents didn’t want to have another baby so soon. Of course, they got used to the idea, but I wasn’t exactly planned …. except in the heart of my Heavenly Father (Ps.139:14).
This weekend I was sharing thoughts from Psalm 139 with a group of women, and was struck again by the awesomeness of God and his ways! We struggle to hold the mystery of God’s sovereignty together with our free will and responsibility, but they’re really two sides of the same coin. God’s ultimate authority and power give me great security and confidence; not like fate that makes folk passive. Our decisions and choices really are important, but without belief in God’s sovereignty I would be paralysed to take action in fear of making mistakes. It’s a great relief to know God isn’t taken by surprise when we get it wrong, and never has to play catch up. Rather, knowing us inside out, our motivations, thoughts, words and habits, he still lovingly allows us to partner with him, and this should make us brave to live for him, because he really does work all things together for his good purposes. His complete knowledge and constant presence with us should motivate us to co-labour with him and pray fervently,
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps139:23)!
Whether you’re an ardent fan of royalty or not, you can’t grudge our Queen a platinum jubilee celebration. Seventy years of faithful service is a real achievement, and in a day when duty and sacrifice are not highly esteemed the Queen is a great example of commitment to her coronation vow and resolute dedication to her role. She would be the first to give the credit to God’s grace and to Jesus, the bedrock of her Christian faith.
Jubilee has come to mean a big celebration, but its first mention is in the Bible. Every 50th year was to be a Jubilee, a kind of reset for the people of God. We read about it in Leviticus 25. The law provided for restoration socially, economically and even environmentally, as slaves were set free, land was returned to the original owners, and the earth was rested for a year. Yes, it was radical, and there seems to be no evidence that the Israelites actually kept it. We shouldn’t be surprised because we all fail to keep God’s laws.
When we look at our world today, we see our relationships with God, our fellow human beings and creation itself, are all marred by sin. Most people realise that something major has gone wrong but feel helpless to bring change. Many know fragmentation in their own lives, aware of personal psychological issues, unresolved emotional pain and mental health problems. There’s a lostness, a brokenness that yearns for reconciliation and healing.
How great our need of a Saviour!
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he announces ‘the year of God’s favour’, or Jubilee, foretold by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 61). Jesus unpacks God’s vision of freedom and renewal and clearly identifies himself as the Messiah who fulfils this Jubilee. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4 v21).
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee of her 70 year reign coincides with Pentecost, when after the ascension of Christ to the throne of God 2000 years ago, he pours out his Holy Spirit, writing his law on our hearts and empowering us to live out a countercultural Jubilee lifestyle, renouncing greed and selfishness.
On Thursday evening our long weekend of celebrations began with the lighting of beacons all across the UK and the Commonwealth countries, in recognition of Queen Elizabeth’s outstanding life’s work. Lighting beacons as a means of marking key milestones has a long tradition dating back centuries to when it was a communication tool; the chain of beacons being used to spread important news.
Oh, that the Holy Spirit this Pentecost would kindle fire in our hearts, making churches a chain of beacons of hope throughout our land and across the world, proclaiming the Kingship of Jesus, and of God here now, and coming one day in all its fullness.
Let our hearts’ cry out, ‘Please light the beacons!’
On Wednesday a Palestinian journalist covering an Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank was shot dead allegedly by an Israeli soldier, though this was denied by the Israeli military. The killing of a clearly identified member of the press in a conflict area violates international law and the UN has called for a prompt and transparent investigation into her death.
Two days later I was flicking through news channels and while BBC was obsessing over the Wagatha Christie trial, I began to follow the live coverage of Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral on Al Jazeera. I listened to eye witness accounts of fellow reporters standing with her when she was shot in the neck, and with her colleague Ali Samudi who was shot in the shoulder. Another in the group said they had been told about Israeli snipers on the roofs, but as it was quiet and they were wearing vests marked ‘press’ they felt safe from any real danger. Now, in their minds they were not caught in crossfire but rather targeted because they were Palestinian journalists.
The 51 year old veteran reporter was much loved and respected, so it was no surprise that thousands flocked to pay tribute by accompanying her coffin from the hospital in occupied East Jerusalem. I watched horrific scenes unfold as the Israeli police brutally assaulted the pallbearers. Officers fired tear gas and stun grenades and beat the mourners with batons in their efforts to confiscate national flags. At one point the coffin almost hit the ground, so fierce was the attack.
Politics and People
I feel privileged to have watched this live coverage, because there were details largely missed by other news outlets. Shireen was a Christian from Bethlehem and was buried in a Christian cemetery on Mount Zion. Her death united all Palestinian communities and has brought them a fresh emphasis on working together for their cause. In the months before her death Shireen was studying Hebrew in order to better understand Jewish reporting. The priest who would conduct her funeral was interviewed briefly above the bedlam as he headed into the church.
“I am standing here in Jerusalem to declare that we Christians believe in the power of love, not the love of power, and in the words of Jesus, ‘Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.’”
On Friday bells from a variety of denominations throughout Jerusalem rang out for half an hour in mourning, and today sirens wailed across the West Bank as hundreds of thousands in refugee camps remember Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, when the state of Israel was founded.
The events of these last few days are a reminder of how deep the anger and bitterness of this conflict runs in Palestinian hearts and minds, and how heavy-handed Israeli forces can be in response. As Christians we don’t need to take sides. We can love the people without endorsing the actions of their governments. Let’s stand with the church on both sides of the conflict, interceding and lamenting and like Shireen having compassion for the poor and oppressed. Like her, may we be willing to speak truth to power and support peacemaking initiatives, knowing that deep and lasting peace only comes through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The horrors of war and suffering are nothing new, yet this conflict in Ukraine has brought it all much closer to home. As I look around the world at increasing troubles on so many fronts, I fear it will get worse, not better, in the years ahead.
My need of God, not a god made in my image, nor my wishful thinking about God, but God as revealed in Scripture, is greater than ever. Perhaps I need to take a walk along the road to Emmaus!
On Easter Sunday two disciples of Jesus, confused and saddened by events of that weekend, are joined by ‘a stranger’ as they walk home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Their problem? Despite the teachings of Jesus and his explicit warnings on several occasions, they had focused on only one aspect of Messiahship. He would be the triumphant king! In their minds this had to mean the end of occupation, not death in weakness and shame on a Roman cross.
Open the Scriptures
Jesus calls them foolish, slow to believe ALL that was spoken by the prophets. What a wonderful teaching session that must have been, as the very author of life unpacks for them the things concerning himself in ALL the Scriptures (Luke 24:25). How we need this. Jesus from Genesis to Malachi! The Old Testament is important to help us appreciate who Jesus is from Matthew to Revelation, and Jesus in the New Testament is vital to our understanding of the Old.
Open our minds
What did Jesus share concerning himself? Starting with the Books of Moses he no doubt drew their attention to Adam and Eve’s shame being covered with skins and the promise that though her descendant would crush the serpent’s head, his heel would be bruised. I’m sure he talked of the promise to Abraham and the substitution of the ram in place of his son – then the Passover lamb and the protection of the blood. Did he show how the whole sacrificial system foreshadowed the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 who would be led like a lamb to slaughter and pierced for our transgressions.
Sometimes I fear our understanding is limited because we focus on our favourite verses, without grasping the big picture of God’s plan for the world, and the role he has given to us, his followers. Perhaps this Bible study with Jesus brought home to them the awfulness of sin, the deep deep love of God and the inevitability of Calvary, that the path to glory was through pain and death. It was this opening of Scripture and the opening of their minds that caused their hearts to burn.
Open our eyes
Later in the chapter when the resurrected Jesus appears again we read he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:44).”
Our friends on the road persuade Jesus to stay, and he turns from stranger to listener, to Bible teacher, to host at the table. Suddenly they see clearly; they recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread. What wonderful communion as at last their hearts are in harmony with his. Jesus suddenly disappears but Cleopas and his friend have had their eyes opened to God, his plan and their role, all much bigger than they had thought. With great joy they return to Jerusalem and obey their commission to go and tell.
Ukrainians love storks. They come to nest and breed in springtime, then migrate to winter in Southern Africa. They are considered monogamous, often returning with their mate to the same nesting site, where both parents share the feeding of their young. The stork is Ukraine’s national bird, symbolising family, loyalty and patriotism.
Yesterday was Mothering Sunday and I was thinking of mothers in Ukraine left alone to explain to their children why their family has been separated. So many sad farewells at the windows of packed evacuation trains. Of course, their Mother’s Day is celebrated, like the rest of the world, on May 8th. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if by international Mother’s Day this ugly war was over and like their national bird, they could return to their homeland.
It’s hard to imagine going back to cities where homes and infrastructure are totally destroyed. So many fathers and husbands killed. I just read about a woman who arrived at the Hungarian border with four children. Only one was her own. One was her sister’s. She had gone to search for water but didn’t come back. Another she found in the street beside her parents who were lying dead. The fourth child she had met wandering in the ruined streets, so she took him in as well. This is just an example of so many tragic stories.
I remember comforting my own children in the 80s when my husband Julyan was arrested with other members of the Turkish church; plain clothed policemen searched our house in the middle of the night and removed bibles and many of our Christian books. Emma, aged 7, was relieved her dad was together with the ‘uncles’ she loved and trusted and who could help answer difficult questions. Samim, aged 4, was concerned that if the police were reading all our books to understand Christianity, it might take a long time! He suggested we send them his books which had pictures.
Actually, it was a children’s story book that gave my heart peace. ‘The Very Worried Sparrow’ reminded me of God’s care. We read and reread it. A sparrow need not worry for not one bird falls to the ground without the Father’s knowledge. Jesus encourages us not to be afraid for the very hairs on our heads are numbered (Luke 12:6-7). May the mothers in Ukraine find strength and serenity through many tokens of God’s love and grace encountered along the way, and may their present ordeal end soon.