A Walk to Emmaus

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.

Storks and Sparrows

Ukraine’s National Bird

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.

Mother’s Heart

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.

Sparrows

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.

Nowruz : Persian New Year

We learned from our Iranian friends their celebration of Nowruz, their New Year traditions at the spring equinox. This ancient festival predates Islam and is celebrated by many countries with links to Persian culture. With its emphasis on new life, darkness to light, barrenness to fruitfulness, I find it easy to incorporate it into my wonder of Easter when I remember the death and resurrection of Jesus; in Christ the old is gone and everything is made New.

Haft-seen Table

Each year families prepare the special Haft-seen table like we might dress a fir tree at Christmas. The table is decorated with seven items beginning with the letter sin (s) in Persian. Each one is a symbol of spring and renewal. As I prepare my Haft-seen table this year, I’m thinking of all asylum seekers, refugees and now the millions of displaced people from Ukraine. Leaving home, family and all that’s familiar must feel like trying to settle in a desert place, with no roots, no friends and an uncertain future.

God’s Table

God affirms in the psalms that he can spread a table in the wilderness (Psalm 78:19). As we pray for those fleeing war to find a welcome and warm hospitality wherever they find themselves, let’s determine to be part of the answer. God even prepares a table in the presence of enemies (Psalm 23:5). May those living in war-torn cities, cities under siege, find miraculous provision and protection. Let’s keep praying.

In this time of suffering and great trial, in countries plagued by war, famine and disease, many church leaders have stayed to serve the people. More Iranians, Afghans and Kurds are following Jesus. In Ukraine Scriptures are in demand. Deep questions are being asked, and the weapons of praise and prayer are being wielded. As the nations are shaken may many come and find meaning in The Lord’s Table of bread and wine, symbols of Jesus’ body and blood given for us. We all need forgiveness, strength to persevere in faith and hope that God’s new day is coming soon.

New Day

How we long for the day when the Kingdom of God fully comes and peace reigns on earth. Then the tears of individual believers will be wiped away. However, God seems to acknowledge national suffering too, for he says the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of nations (Revelation 22:2), and the Psalmist prays, “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” (Ps 67:4).

Prayers for Ukraine

Did you know Ukraine is the world’s largest producer of sunflower seeds, and that the sunflower is their national flower? It is impossible not to be impressed by the courage and solidarity of this nation. Like a field of sunflowers they are standing tall, facing the future together.

Prayer:

Thank you for the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people. Thank you for the church and the many believers in Ukraine and Russia. Like sunflowers that turn to follow the sun, in this time of great trial may there be a massive turning to you, their true Son!

Did you know Ukraine is nicknamed the ‘Bread basket of Europe’? Vast tracts of arable land and fertile black soil make Ukraine ideal for growing wheat and other food crops. It is one of the largest wheat producers in the world. As we continue to pray with our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and around the world, may there be a spiritual harvest for surely the fields are ready (John 4:35).

Prayer:

We know that we can’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Thank you for the courage of your church and their leaders who continue to care for their people and sow the seeds of your Word broadly in these desperate days. May this crisis bring a spiritual awakening throughout Europe.

Did you know Ukrainians are proud of their gas lamp invention? Two Lviv based Ukrainian pharmacists invented it in 1853, and today in that city there is a pub-museum with the second largest collection of gas lamps in Europe!

The Chief Rabbi in Ukraine has called all Christians to join with Jews in praying Psalm 31 together. A staff worker for the Ukrainian Bible Society and pastor of a church says this psalm of David is their reality right now and God is speaking to many through its timeless words of truth. May the Word of God continue to be a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (119:105).

Prayer:

Faithful God, your people are in distress; they are filled with sorrow fear and grief. You see their affliction in cities under bombardment. Mute the lying lips that spread fake news, and bring down the proud. You are God. Show your love, bring deliverance as we plead together with the Ukrainian saints for mercy. Let your people be strong, take courage and wait for you, Lord.

Entitlement

Over the past weeks the spirit of entitlement has dominated our news. Despite the appalling situations of ongoing suffering in other parts of the world, here in the UK we have been caught up with the lies and cover- ups of the rich and famous and those in positions of power. Whether it’s been the dodgy vaccine exemption of Djokovic, the Prince Andrew scandal or the shenanigans at No 10, ‘entitlement’ is the word that comes to mind.

Entitlement is the sense that rights, privileges and special treatment should be enjoyed because of status. Pride of this kind leads to extraordinarily risky, immoral behaviour; people feel invincible – even untouchable, making it hard to face up to any wrongdoing. Blame shifting and apologies for hurt felt, rather than repentance for attitudes or actions taken, are a common response.

Yesterday the Sue Gray report revealed a real failure of leadership in our country. Regardless of our political leanings, we surely feel shame and grieve for our democracy, that our Prime Minister is being legally investigated. I pray that the humiliation of these days will lead to a chastened, humbler character.

Pride

Of course, not everyone in the public eye suffers from this sense of entitlement; many serve sacrificially, but pride is the temptation of us all. I’m not aware of it at work within me until I’m passed over, and feel the smarting of my ego and my hurt pride crying out, ‘It’s not fair!’

My first memorable experience of this was when I was ten years old. I had written a farewell poem for our teacher and was to read it out on the last afternoon of the school term. At lunchtime my mum persuaded me to change into my best dress and new cardigan. When I arrived back in the class, the decision had been made that Heather, the cleverest girl, should read out my poem. Of course, I was disappointed, my pride hurt, and I felt embarrassed to be sitting ‘dressed up’ in the classroom. Mrs. Owler must have understood what was happening, and covered my feelings of humiliation. She asked me to stay behind while she looked in her cupboard and brought out a poetry book to give me as a gift.

Grace

As Christians we often say God’s grace is enough, but when we don’t get what we want or our plans are thwarted, we find there are other things it’s hard to live without. Whether it’s the approval of others or something concrete like a spouse, children or a better job, there’s a feeling that we deserve better and that somehow God owes us it. This sense of entitlement will keep us from living in the love, peace and joy of the Holy Spirit.

It’s good to remember how we began our Christian walk. God took the initiative. We knew we were unworthy, unable to save ourselves. It was when we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). God owes us nothing but judgement, yet through his amazing grace, we have inherited the promised Holy Spirit, know God as our father, are with him forever and are part of Christ’s mission to the world. In Greek the word for ‘grace’ also means ‘gift’. As the Apostle Paul says, ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’

We can’t change our own hearts, but God can if we allow him to search us. He can help us understand our emotions and become more aware of lurking entitlement and self pity. As we acknowledge and confess, God like my school teacher will be quick to cover any humiliation by giving us an even deeper experience of his love in Jesus, and we will walk more humbly with him.

New Year Aspirations

As we draw our Christmas celebrations to a close and I take down the decorations for another year, I’m thinking about Epiphany (January 6th) that remembers the visit of the wise men from the East. Here are my three personal desires, inspired by them, that I want to take with me into 2022.

More Awake to God’s Presence

These Magi were watching and they noticed the star. I’m asking God to help me be more present to him in the coming year, to take time to use all my senses. During the lockdowns I rediscovered the beauty of nature – I saw and noticed so much more. I don’t want to lose that! Christmas fragrances like cinnamon and cloves and evergreens are passing, but already I’m looking forward to the scent of the spring hyacinth. Yes, I want to appreciate the natural world and spread the beauty and aroma of Christ. We lost the joy of touch and some lost their sense of taste during this pandemic. How we appreciate these senses when we get them back! Let’s taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), and let’s get back to hugging each other as soon as we can.

Mostly, though, I want to be still enough to hear the whisper of God and be willing to follow.

More Anchored in his Word

Experiencing God with my senses will never be enough, just like noticing the star and even following it, wasn’t enough for the Magi. To find Jesus, their search had to be anchored in the Scriptures. These Persian sages would have been aware of the prophesies of Daniel who more than 500 years before had been chief of this priestly tribe. Perhaps they read other Jewish writings like Balaam’s word about a star to mark the birth of the king of the Jews (Numbers 24:17), and the scripture from Micah 5:2 was important to locate the baby in Bethlehem.

If I’m not living in the Word of God, or only focusing on my favourite verses and passages, it’s easy to start to make God in my own image instead of the other way round. So, I’m pressing on with my reading plan covering the Old and New Testaments, because I want to keep exposing myself to the ‘whole counsel of God’.

More Adaptable to Change

God interrupted the plan of the Magi and ‘led them home by another way’ (Matthew 2:12). We don’t know what 2022 will look like. The future is as uncertain as ever with a crippled NHS and a struggling economy, and that’s just here in the UK. Global problems abound. Change seems to be accelerating. I want to be teachable, amenable to interruptions to my plans and adaptable to however God may lead. May we all –

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths”(Proverbs 3:5-6).

The Wonder of Christmas

This week I was chatting with a young mum watching her two-year-old mesmerised by a small revolving Christmas tree. She was sadly anticipating the day when her child would grow up and lose her sense of ‘wonder’.

This conversation has made me think about the concept of ‘wonder’, that capacity for rapt awe and amazement. Of course, for children everything is new; wonder comes easily, while adults can become jaded by familiarity. Perhaps, that’s why so many are constantly seeking out fresh experiences and new thrills.

As we head for another Christmas amid Covid 19 uncertainties and restrictions, it’s an opportunity to marvel again and be gripped by the real reason for the season, and allow God to restore the joy of our salvation and even childlike wonder. There are many wonderful depths of truth and meaning in the simple story of the nativity, but these are the thoughts that are fuelling my worship this Christmas.

His Wonderful Works

Christmas confirms to me again that God is in control. He has a plan – a big plan for the whole world, and he will move heaven and earth to accomplish it. Look how he orchestrated angels and wise men and even a star for the birth of Jesus, and how he led Caesar Augustus, emperor of the known world who himself was declared a son of god, to call a census that would take Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, fulfilling his Word (Micah 2:5)!

Though wars, famines and global catastrophes fill our news, we need not be alarmed, for we know these are the beginning of birth pains in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming (Matthew 24:8).

His Wonderful Ways

A manger? This seems so contrary to what Mary might have expected. she to give birth to the Son of the Most High, destined to reign (Luke 1:33)? How reassuring it must have been to hear from the shepherds that the manger was the angel’s sign to them. It’s not surprising that Mary treasured it in her heart as she reflected on God’s ways. We all want confirmation that we’re in God’s will, part of his plan, but we don’t expect it to come through disappointment, hardship and suffering – like a manger! It fills me with wonder that even when I don’t understand the twists and turns of my life, God sees me, knows all about me, and is never taken by surprise.

His Wonderful Name.

He shall be called Immanuel – God with us (Isaiah 7:14). This is a truth we need to embrace this Christmas, especially if we are alone or isolating. God is with us! He is with you and with me, and his name is Wonderful Counsellor, to guide us with supernatural wisdom, Mighty God, strong for us who are weak, Everlasting Father, caring and providing for our needs, and he’s the Prince of Peace who brings us into right relationship with God and each other (Isaiah 9:6).

All this is possible because his name is Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). The older I get, the more self-aware, sin-aware I become, and the greater my felt need of a Saviour. The miracle of his love come down makes my capacity for wonder and an awe of God larger than ever.

Of course, we can’t live life in a constant state of amazement, but may we shun busyness, take time to reflect and have an openness of spirit to be surprised by joy when the wonder of Christmas breaks through.

Coleus Comeback

Growing up I had a problem with God. I loved the natural world, but was well aware of its dark side. I knew the word ‘gall bladder’ at an early age, because my adorable cat would hunt, catch, torture and eat mice, always leaving that bitter part on the garden path!

I loved plants and flowers too, but hated the way they died in the vase causing the water to smell so bad. My plants always died too, either from my overwatering or sheer neglect. Yes, God’s creation was beautiful, but not perfect, and neither was I.

My Grandmother grew coleus plants in pots in her greenhouse. I chose one with reddish pink variegated leaves edged with green, and it sat on the windowsill of my Glasgow bedsit. Sadly, like those gone before, it died.

It was a Friday when I left for my long September weekend with the youth group of Charlotte Baptist Chapel. Closing the door, I glanced at my dead coleus and gave a sigh. It was while I was away at the St Ninian’s Centre in Crieff that I finally understood the death of Jesus was for my sins. He drank the ‘gall’ of suffering, the bitter cup of God’s judgement, that I might know the sweetness of His closeness.

I returned late on Monday night with what felt like new life pumping through my veins.

My dry brown plant was sitting on the windowsill; I noticed it as I got into bed. For a moment I considered getting up to water it, but I didn’t. It was well and truly dead. Imagine my shock and delight when in the morning my coleus had sprung back into life. The leaves were fresh, lush and healthy.

I was a new believer, avidly devouring the New Testament. It wasn’t long before I reached the book of Romans. Then I realised God had answered my problem! One day when Christ returns and the children of God are bodily resurrected and revealed together with Him, the whole of creation will be delivered from its bondage to corruption and share our freedom (Romans 8:19-25). No more death. No more decay.

Of course, like those raised to life by Jesus in the Gospels, my coleus plant later died again. It was a temporary comeback, but a glorious sign of Christian hope. In this season of Advent, as we look forward to celebrating Christmas, we also eagerly wait for Christ’s second coming and inwardly groan with all of creation until that day when all things will be made new.

Cop26 and Armistice Day Overlap

Was it just a coincidence that Cop26 overlapped with Armistice Day? Isn’t that what we need – a big global armistice? Our desire to be masters of the universe has caused a great disconnect between us and our Creator God, between humans, and also between us and planet Earth – even between Earth and itself.

Perhaps in Glasgow we witnessed a mini armistice as countries came together and reluctantly made compromises to agree terms for the health of our planet. Many are disappointed by the tepid text which they interpret as too little too late, while others are cynical as to when, how and if pledges will actually be implemented. The fact that 197 countries agreed to anything at all seems quite a feat in itself and is in the right direction.

The Just Judge

There was a big emphasis at Cop26 on justice. The relationship between the rich and poor nations is challenging us deeply; it’s clear that the countries suffering most because of global warming are contributing least to the problem. And before we point the finger at the big carbon emitters like China and India, and their reluctance to phase out coal, we have to acknowledge much of it is fuelling Western consumerism. The climate crisis is bringing us face to face with human greed and selfishness. So, if we want true justice we need an impartial judge who knows the end from the beginning, and can read the secrets of our hearts (Romans 2:11-16).

The Caring Creator

How should the church respond? Christians have not shone in the area of creation care or environmental concern and we need to repent. Loving Christ should involve love for all he has made; we have a God given mandate to steward the natural world. While the pundits remove God as Creator from the start of the story with several delegates referring to ‘Mother Nature’ and God as Judge from the end of the story, he still faithfully sustains the universe and our commission to care for Planet Earth stands firm. Our responsibility as those who acknowledge God and are called by his name is huge,

‘If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).’

The Big Armistice Day

The earth groans and we groan with it (Romans 8:22-23). Together we have been subjected to the death and decay of unredeemed bodies. Even those with no knowledge or interest in Scripture are aware this world is running down. It’s always been hard to talk about ‘end times’ without sounding like a sandwich board donning nutter, but perhaps as people face the environmental consequences of human sin, despair could turn to hope.

Jesus, through whom and for whom all things were created, and who has the authority to judge all peoples on earth, is also Saviour of the world. He signed the armistice treaty between God and man on the Cross with his own blood so that his sacrifice might reconcile all things to himself and usher in a New Creation (Colossians 1:19-20). When Jesus comes again our bodies will be made new in the resurrection, and this old earth will be made new too.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness (Psalm 96: 12-13).