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"I am His-I am redeemed"

Coming out of Easter, I think it is an apt time to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ ultimate Victory on the cross and how people responded to the Sacrifice he made for all. It’s always struck me that the crucifixion scene is a tale of great doubt but also of amazing faith.

The male disciples were, nowhere to be seen. Their ‘rock’ (Peter) denied knowing Jesus 3 times rather than admit having ever known Him. The only disciple who may have been at the cross was “the disciple beloved by Jesus” (John 20:2) who is never identified but could have been John the Evangelist. What the Gospels do tell us though is that there were “many women” (Matthew 27:55-56) following  and supporting him through his mission and who were there right at the very end. In fact, there could have been as many as 5 Marys present at the cross (Jesus’ mother, the mother of James and Joseph, the mother of Zebedee’s sons, Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene). And of course, the resurrected Jesus was first seen by 3 women (Joanna, Mary-the mother of James and Mary Magdalene), and they were also the ones to tell the disciples the Good News even though they again doubted.

It’s Mary Magdalene though I would like to focus on, as I think she is an incredible example of how Jesus transforms peoples’ lives if they just let Him. This especially hit home with the excellent and first ever multi season show about Jesus- The Chosen- which started its 2nd series over Easter and it is free to watch-so binge on Jesus!

As you can see from the video above or here: Mary Magdalene explains what Jesus did for her to Nicodemus the Pharisee - Bing video, this is the scene where Nicodemus the Pharisee sees Mary after he tried to heal her from her affliction (7 demons had been got out) , and then meets her a few days later delighted but surprised to see her fully restored and ‘born again’.

When Mary talks about what has happened to her she simply states:

It was someone else (who cured her), He (Jesus) said ‘I am his-I am redeemed’”.

When Nicodemus asks who it was who healed her, she tells him:

“I don’t know his name but even if I did, I would not tell you…the time for Man to know has not yet come”.

Mary explains: “ I was one way and now I am completely different, and the thing that happened in between was Him, so yes, I will know Him for the rest of my life”.

For Mary she went from someone with little or no quality of life, possessed by demons, who needed to be exorcised, and became a new person. It has been a common but almost certainly false myth that Mary had been a prostitute but there is no evidence of that in the Gospels, and that instead she had what we would now call serious mental health problems.

Mary became a senior confidante and follower of Jesus and was hugely instrumental in the really big moments of human history- at the crucifixion, the burial and finally the Resurrection.

I am reminded of the kind of emotions she must have experienced, when she was redeemed, by the song I Don’t Know How To Love Him from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) where Mary sings:

“ I don’t know how to love him, what to do, how to move  him. I’ve been changed, yes really changed. In these past few days, when I’ve seen myself, I seem like someone else”.

Those of us fortunate to have experienced the Lord will know how she felt, because we are transformed. Like Mary, we were once “one way” but now we are “completely different”. Say Amen to that!

Desiderata-"things devoutly to be wished"

I have often thought how remarkable it is that certain works catch on and take on a life of their own, and in time, they can have a deep influence on people and life. I think a very good example of that is the piece of prose simply known as ‘Desiderata’ (one definition of it is ‘things devoutly to be wished’). It consists of just over 300 words and many people have talked about how it has inspired and shaped their life.

It was written by a German Methodist, Max Ehrmann, around 1927, but not published until around WWII when he had settled in the USA- and although urban myth suggested it is of older (17th century) vintage it isn’t but was written to help people. It has been handed out by churches and psychologists to help their patients with its gentle and profound message. I find it continues to speak vividly to us today and which, I suggest is a splendid guide for a fruitful and peaceful life:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant for they too have their story”.

These opening lines set out in simple terms how to find peace and that we need to avoid reacting to the “noise and haste” of our lives but rather seek out those places of quietness, stillness, and refuge. We should aim to  be nice to those we meet, to hear their stories but also for us to speak our own truth- but in a way that is not loud or difficult to understand.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons for they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans”

I suspect we have all had experiences with some people who seem to sap our spirit and energy, and in modern terms are ‘toxic’ to us- Max Ehrmann is saying that we should avoid them for our own spiritual and mental health. Don’t compare yourself with others as that is unhelpful and can tempt you in thinking that you are less (or greater!) a person than you really are. Also enjoy your successes in life- cherish and embrace them, rather than continually making plans for another project or experience.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble. It is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is. Many persons strive for high ideals and everywhere life is full of heroism”.

I think this part of the prose is important especially today. As individuals, we, for understandable reasons, think the best of people and can easily ‘believe their truth’ but of course as Max Ehrmann reminds us “..the world is full of trickery”. There are scams left, right and centre, and you only have to look at the awful tragedy of sexual abuse (and its cover up) in the Church of England and elsewhere, to realise that as a society we have to be more aware of the dark side of human nature and that means on occasions we have to be less trusting. I think a ‘healthy scepticism’ in life can be very beneficial- and a life saver for the vulnerable.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection, neither be cynical about love for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune, but do not distress yourself with dark imaginings as many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Shakespeare in ‘Hamlet’ got it right when he said “To thine own self be true”. There is only ever one of us as we are all unique-God wants you to be you- not someone trying to imitate someone else. Be open to Love and avoid fearing the worst.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars and you have a right to be here. And whether or not is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be a peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. Whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful and strive to be happy”.

In bringing ‘Desiderata’ to its climax, Max Ehrmann encourages us to be disciplined but gentle individuals and to realise our worth on this earth. That we should have faith in God that life is happening all around us and we should in a sense, ‘say yes to our universe’, to accept that rather than fight it. We need to be at peace with God and ourselves and aim to be content.

I used to have a poster of ‘Desiderata’ on my bedroom wall, and it meant (and means) a lot to me. I hope it will guide you too.

Supporting each other

I am currently reading ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ which is one of the most evocative memoirs of the London ‘Blitz’ during WWII written by Frances Faviell, who was an exceptionally brave Red Cross volunteer at the time.

In it she writes about how important being encouraged was during that time when Britain was alone and had some of its darkest ever days. She talks about the impact that Winston Churchill’s famous “I have nothing to offer  you but blood, toil, tears and sweat” & “You ask what is our aim? I’ll answer it in one word: VICTORY” speech in May 1940 had on the nation. Frances Faviell said the reaction to Churchill’s speech was immediate:

“’So assured and confident was the voice of the man who had taken over leadership of the country that a great wave of elation swept over us. ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ appealed somehow to the mood of the public and the words themselves caught the public fancy. …The single word ‘Victory’ gave the man in the street a simple definite aim, just as the genius who used it meant it too”.

The end result of course was that the British public were galvanised like never before or since and stood firm during a period where like France, and the rest of Europe, we could have buckled under.

So we can see the huge impact that being encouraged and supported can have on us individually but also as a community- which is why as a Lent Act of Kindness it is so important.

One of the things I learnt working in HR with different kinds of organisations was that the most successful and compassionate ones are not the ones who either offer their people the biggest cash bonuses, the greatest promotions, or those who simply order their people to achieve things- or else. The really successful and effective ones are where they treat their people as valued individuals and people that matter to them.

If you can make people -whether it is someone that works for you or a friend or neighbour- feel appreciated, valued and someone who makes a difference to things, then amazing, wonderful things can happen. People on the whole want to be acknowledged for either what they do or who they are, we all want to be loved- and that is what such support and encouragement really is- a way to show your genuine love for the people in our lives.

How do we do that though? I heard a recent church sermon on this issue recently which highlighted the importance of having some kind of relationship with people, even if to begin with, things may not initially improve. Like all human interaction, you need to work at it, to be interested in them, to understand someone and to truly listen to them. In so many cases, relationships break down (or don’t even start) because people feel they are not listened to. We can so often be selfish even if we don’t realise it at the time. We can all gain so much by being open to what a neighbour or friend has to say to us- and often all they want is for us to listen to them in a non-judgemental way. Matthew 7:1 is clear that “Judge not, that you may not be judged.”

So as we go about our daily lives both this week and beyond, we should ourselves be encouraged that all of us have a power that we have yet to truly unlock, so that we can do our best. And that starts with a conversation. Who are you going to start listening to today?

Seeking Justice

As part of Lent (the Christian run up to Easter) a number of people are focussing on the issue of seeking justice. Justice tends to be inexplicably linked to the issue of fairness. But what is fairness? That was firmly brought home to me some years ago when I heard someone say: “Is it fair to eat a beefburger? If you are desperate for food you will think it is very fair, but if you are the animal who has to give up its life for you to eat, then it is very unfair”.

Now the person in question wasn’t trying to be smart or clever but was making the point that quite often the idea of what is just or fair can depend on your individual perspective or point of view. One person’s freedom fighter can be another’s terrorist for example.

That said, we all know that there are things in this world which are without doubt clearly an injustice or unfair. The genocides of the Holocaust, those carried out in Cambodia, in Rwanda, under Stalin and going on now as we speak, of the Rohingya people in Myanmar (Burma) are unjust to anyone’s view, and no matter what reparations are made, they are crimes against humanity and God.

Closer to home there are innumerable personal injustices that people have had to endure. I think of the families of Jonathan Ball (aged 3) and Tim Parry (aged 12) who were killed in the Warrington IRA bombings in 1993 and to this day no individuals have been brought to justice for their deaths. I think also of Marie and William McCourt whose daughter Helen was murdered 32 years ago. Her killer was recently released from prison but to this day he refuses to say where he hid her body, thus preventing any real closure or burial by her family.

These are just dreadful stories, and I don’t think anyone can imagine the nightmare that these families have had to live through where no sense of justice has prevailed and in all likelihood may never happen in this world.

So how do we cope with these kind of global and personal tragedies where injustice haunts your being? I think there are two things that can help to sustain us.

The first is a recognition that whilst we desperately want to right a wrong it is ultimately down to God to judge people (Hebrews 10:30) and that in time He will do that, and we cannot act as an avenger no matter how justified we feel. We should not act as if we are Charles Bronson or Liam Neeson in a Death Wish or Taken film. Be assured that in the end all wrongs will be righted.

The second is probably the greatest blessing we have which is Forgiveness. As horribly difficult as it is, the reality is that we are called to forgive, and justice is not a requirement in order to forgive someone. Jesus’ command is clear. When Peter asked him: “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”, Jesus replies “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

However, forgiveness is amongst the hardest acts you can perform- quite often it is the very last thing you want to do in case it somehow reduces the severity of someone’s or something’s actions against you or others. However, I don’t think you can truly heal unless you forgive. As the old proverb goes: "the person who seeks revenge should dig two graves".

Sometimes however, the offence in question is so grave that you feel you just cannot come to forgive someone for what they have done. If that is you, I would say that what can help is to do two things. First, forgive yourself for not being to forgive and second, pray for that other person-as praying for them can come easier than to forgive them.

At other times genuine good can come out of an awful tragedy. Again, I think of the death of those boys Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry. Two of the parents (Colin and Wendy) wanted to understand why

their boys died and went to visit people in Northern Ireland as well as the Republic of Ireland to find out how  people were trying to work for peace there. As a result, they set up a charity (‘Tim Parry Jonathan Ball Peace Foundation’) and eventually a Peace Centre to assist and help victims of terrorism and they now “campaign for peace knowing that sadly conflict is inevitable but violent conflict is not.”

Good will always overcome evil.