Sunsama Review: An Essential Tool for Daily Planning

As a busy assistant headteacher, my working day is always busy, often hectic, and sometimes requires juggling at a level that would defeat even the most talented circus performer. Consequently I’m always looking for tools to help me to manage my workflow. A few years ago I came across Sunsama. According to the maker’s website, Sunsama is “The digital daily planner that helps you feel calm and stay focused.” Over the last couple of years, Sunsama has become an essential tool that I use to plan and manage my working day.

I thought it was about time that I shared my experiences here on my blog, hence this post. Rather than running through each of Sunsama’s many features (there are plenty of reviews that do this, if that’s what you want), I’ll talk you through how I use Sunsama, and how it helps me stay focused and productive.

Try Sunsama today – free for 30 days.

The monthly fee

Before we get too far, it’s worth acknowledging that Sunsama is not cheap. It’s a premium application, and comes with a premium price. It’s 20 USD a month – or 10 USD if, like me, you can persuade them to let you have an education or non-profit discount. For many, this would make Sunsama a hard pass, but as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. Ultimately the question comes down to value. If Sunsama offers real value, it’s worth paying for.

I’ve used Sunsama off and on for several years, and have debated whether the value I get from it is worth the fee I pay for it. Periodically, when reviewing my finances, I look at all those small monthly subscriptions and start ruthlessly cutting. And let’s face it, the Sunsama subscription, even at $10, isn’t exactly small. Consequently, I have purged myself of Sunsama on a couple of occasions. This resulted in an immediate drop in my productivity, and a hasty attempt to organise myself using other tools, before crawling back to Sunsama with my tail between my legs, accepting that actually, the monthly fee is worth every cent and offers a very strong value proposition. For me, Sunsama is undoubtably worth $10 of my hard-earned cash.

Daily Planning

One of the best features of Sunsama is its guided daily planning. 

As soon as I arrive in my office in the morning, I fire up the Nespresso. (That’s the number one priority!) After that, I load up Sunsama through the web interface, and am presented with a screen to plan my day. One column shows my tasks. If I’ve already planned tasks for the day, these will show up here, as will any tasks that I didn’t get to the day before. At this point, I brainstorm the day ahead, and throw in any tasks that occur to me, as well as “standing tasks” like checking my email.

An important step in this process (for me at least) is to set the planned time, i.e. how long I think each task is going to take me. I always add this detail, even if it’s just a rough approximation, as it helps me to get a sense of how busy I’m going to be, and to plan my time efficiently.

I also add each task to a “channel,” for example , , , .

Another column on this screen shows my calendar for the day, and gives me an opportunity to add these to my task list. I always do this, adding each event task to a channel. It is possible to automate this step, but I prefer to do it manually since sometimes (admittedly not very often!) there are things on my calendar that I know aren’t actually going to happen.

Once this is done, I click through to the next screen, which tells me how much work I have planned for the day. If’s a particularly busy day, for example one with Parents’ Evenings or late meetings after the school day, Sunsama gives me a warning: “Caution: unrealistic workload.” I will admit that this gives me a perverse sense of pleasure! At this point Sunsama offers the opportunity to drag tasks that can wait over to another day. If it’s a ‘normal’ working day, this can be really useful if, having planned my day, it looks like there’s just too much to realistically deal with in one day.

On the next screen I’m prompted to ‘Finalize my plans for the day’. I’m presented with a list of my tasks and invited to arrange them into some semblance of order, dragging and dropping them so that the tasks I need to tackly first are at the top, and those that are perhaps not so important to the bottom. Sunsama also shows me a view of my calendar for the day. When I’m happy, I click through to the next screen by confirming, ‘Looks good’, when I’m presented with a screen showing my daily planning and inviting me to share this with Slack or Teams. There is an option to ‘Skip this step in future’, and I probably should select this because I always ignore this! Then it’s time to ‘Get Started,’ which leads me into the main screen on Sunsama.

Running my day

The main screen on Sunsama tends to remain open on one of my monitors throughout the day, and is the essential tool I use for running my day. The main screen presents me with a task list and my calendar for the day. Having both of these side by side helps me to avoid missing any meetings or lessons, as well as helping me to see exactly what I need to accomplish that day.

Sunsama has a very useful timer function, which is a great way to stay focused and to track and monitor how I spend my time. When I begin a task, I select the relevant task, then click the ‘Play’ button, and Sunsama records how long I spend on each task. I’m something of a procrastinator, but I do find that having the timer running and visible helps to keep me focused, and away from the distractions of email, Mastodon and Facebook! My competitive streak also drives me to see if I can complete the task in less time than I allocated. I also find that I get great satisfaction from completing a task, stopping the clock, and clicking the big green tick to confirm that I have finished the task. Marking the task done greys the task, and drops it to the bottom of the list.

Within the task, Sunsama also offers a Pomodoro timer, which is not something that I’ve ever used, but is there if that’s how you like to work.

Sometimes I like to break down a task, just to help me to remember all of the various elements. For example, when writing reports recently I set “Write reports” as a task. Once the task has been created, you can click on the task to open it, and then click on ‘Add subtasks’. I then created each set of reports as a sub task within the main task, for example, ‘Year 7 reports’, ‘Year 8 reports’. You can then allocate an amount of time for each subtask, and the main task adds all these together and gives you a total anticipated duration. You can ‘play’ each subtask and mark them as done in the same way that you do with the main task. This is a really helpful way to monitor progress through a large task, and ensure that all of the elements are completed.

Integrations

Sunsama has a range of integrations, which sit in a panel on the right hand side of the screen. I haven’t fully utilised these, but I did have a play with Asana when planning longer tasks with multiple elements. I found that simply adding subtasks within Sunsama itself worked much better for me and avoided utilising another application, but if you’re someone who works in a team that uses these apps, then Sunsama should work well for you.

One potentially really useful integration is email. This also sits in the right hand pane of Sunsama, and, when set up, enables you to view your email directly in Sunsama. When set up, you can read your email within Sunsama, without having to jump into another application or webpage. Perhaps most usefully, though, it is possible to add an email to your task list. This is done by clicking on the button or typing ‘s’ when viewing the email, or simply by dragging the message across from the inbox view. Once in the task list, it’s possible to change the subject line to a more meaningful task name, and assign to a channel and set an expected duration just as you would for any other task. 

The great thing about setting an email as a task is that the whole context appears within the task details, so if someone has sent message with specific instructions or other relevant details, these are just a click away.

Sunsama also offers a number of automations when working with an email task: you can set what actions Sunsama should take when an email is imported (mark as read, mark as unread for example), and also what actions should be taken when an email task is checked off.

All of this seems to work with Gmail and Outlook accounts.

Whilst I use Outlook at work, my school has locked my Microsoft account to prevent access by third party tools. This is a bit of a pain, but there is a work round that works almost as well. Sunsama provides a secret email address to which emails can be forwarded. These emails then appear as tasks, which can be manipulated, assigned and managed in the same way as any other task.

The same restriction unfortunately applies to calendar sync too, which is a bit more of an issue. I managed to find an imperfect workround, which involved publishing my work calendar from the Outlook web interface, and adding the URL to my personal Google Calendar. This works – sort of, most of the time – although with a couple of issues. Firstly, I’m not sure how often Google reads my work calendar; it does take some time for any changes in my work calendar to show up in my Google calendar. Secondly, I can’t manipulate the calendar quite as efficiently as I would like in Sunsama. It’s easy enough, though, to check my work calendar each morning and if any events are missing to add them in through Sunsama’s daily planning routine.

Daily Shutdown

At the end of each day, Sunsama prompts me to perform a ‘Daily shutdown’. This takes me through to a screen with two separate elements.

The first shows me how much time I spent undertaking work and compares this with the amount of time I had intended to spend working. Below this is a circular diagram which shows how I spent my time. This uses the channels assigned to each task and clearly displays how much time I spent, for example, teaching, in meetings, marking, or working through email. 

The second, larger section of the screen shows me which tasks I worked on, and which I didn’t get to. This is often really encouraging! Sometimes it feels like my day has been generally unproductive, but when I see Sunsama’s breakdown of what I have accomplished, I feel genuinely uplifted that I have achieved much more than I thought I had!

Any tasks I haven’t completed roll over to the next day. When I work on tasks I started the previous day, the overall time spend working on the task is displayed, but the daily timer is reset so that I can see how much time I have spent working on the task that day, and in total.

Mobile apps

Whilst I generally use Sunsama directly on the web from my PC, there are mobile apps available. I have the iOS app on my iPhone. This has three main screens. The first is my daily task list. The second is my daily calendar. The third is for ‘More’ – settings etc. The app is really useful for adding a task on the go as it occurs to me, or if I’ve forgotten to assign it in my morning set up. The calendar screen is great for checking what’s coming up later in the day when I’m away from my desk. I personally wouldn’t use the app for any more than that.

I also have a Galaxy Fold 5. I’ve installed Sunsama as a Chrome web app. I have to say, this works really well, both on the small outer screen and on the large inner screen. When opened on the inner screen the experience is pretty much the same as that on my desktop, which is pretty impressive. The Fold 5 and Sunsama might, in fact, be the perfect productivity tool!

Conclusion

I’ve tried a range of productivity tools, including Akiflow, Asana, Routine, Ellie Planner and TickTick, plus a number of simpler to do apps, but Sunsama is definitely my tool of choice. It helps me remember all of my forthcoming tasks, plan out my working day, remain focused, work efficiently, and to track how I spend my time. I’ve tried not using Sunsama, but always find my productivity declines significantly. Sunsama has, like Superhuman, become one of those tools that I can’t imagine living without. With a very generous educational discount, Sunsama is something that would greatly aid busy teachers and educators as they juggle the demands of the working day; more efficient use of time at work means less to take home!

If you’re looking for something to help with planning and organisation, I cannot recommend Sunsama more highly!

If you’d like to give Sunsama a go, you can try it free for 30 days. Well worth a look!

Try Sunsama today – free for 30 days.

Please – go and visit your optician!

Last Tuesday was World Diabetes Day. This post, therefore, comes a little late, but better late than never.

I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in October 2020. This life changing diagnosis came completely out of the blue. I have a healthy diet, I exercise regularly, and am generally pretty fit and healthy. To suddenly find myself with a chronic condition, facing a lifetime of regular injections, was something of a shock.

I’d like to share the story of my diagnosis as something of a cautionary tale.

I’ve worn glasses since the age of eight. Sometimes when I’m tired I struggle a little with my sight. Not to any great extent, but enough that I notice my sight being a little worse than normal.

Back in October 2020, coming towards the end of a long and busy half term at school, I noticed that my sight had deteriorated a little. I initially put this down to tiredness, but after a couple of days I found myself struggling to identify the children who were sitting at the back of my classroom. This struck me as out of the ordinary. We were due to visit my parents in Suffolk that weekend, and when I mentioned to Claire, my wife, that I wasn’t sure I should be driving, and would she mind driving, Claire told me that if I thought my sight was that bad I should go and see the optician.

I managed to book an appointment with my usual optician on Monday morning, so I called into work sick, and popped along to Vision Express, thinking that this would just be a run-of-the mill appointment, potentially with a slightly stronger prescription dispensed.

I go to get my eyes checked every couple of years so I know the routine, and also how my eyes respond to the usual tests. This time, however, I could tell that something was wrong. I struggled to identify any of the letters on the chart. I felt a mix of concern, worry and upset building within me. This was exacerbated by the obvious concern of my optician, as he worked through the various lenses.

At the end of the test, my optician said that he was very concerned because my sight had deteriorated significantly since my previous appointment less than a year ago. He recommended that I visit my GP as soon as possible to get checked for potential diabetes.

After detonating that significant bomb, I was left completely shell shocked and just about managed to pay for my test before struggling out into the street. I immediately called Claire, who is a doctor in A&E. She said that it was highly unlikely that I had diabetes, but that she would take me to A&E to get checked out.

A couple of hours later I found myself with a verified diagnosis of diabetes, probably Type 1 (which later tests proved accurate), and struggling with the reality that I was now going to have to inject myself with insulin if I was going to survive-not just now, for this first time, but repeatedly, multiple times a day, for the rest of my life.

I am so grateful to that optician who recognised the deterioration in my sight and what this meant. I’m so glad that I routinely visit my optician, so that this unexpected deterioration was recognised.

Indeed, this is not the first time that a significant health issue was recognised by my optician. In 2008 it was my optician who first diagnosed my high blood pressure.

My message to anyone who might be reading this, therefore, is visit your optician. Not just once, but routinely. Go every couple of years. You never know the health catastrophes that you might be spared by getting into this habit!

Why isn’t Goshawk in the water?!

It’s June and my Westerly Centaur, Goshawk of Møn is still on the hardstanding at Titchmarsh Marina! How can this be? Well it certainly wasn’t the plan! 

A couple of weekends ago, my friend Stephen and I met at Titchmarsh to do some work on Goshawk. Stephen is a certifiable genius, one of the smartest people I know, and an electrical whizz. He also quite likes boats. He seemed like the perfect person, therefore, to help me do some electrical work on Goshawk. He very kindly gave up his bank holiday Sunday to traipse up from London with a huge set of tools and a large rucksack full of cables and more. 

When we arrived at the boat we were quite surprised by the state of the interior. The mainsail and boom were in the cabin. The coolbox had been lifted out. Cushions were everywhere and lockers open. Miles of yarn crossed the cabin, pulled through in place of cables, presumably. It also appeared that the cable to the depth sounder had been cut, which was unexpected!

Still, we had lots to do and limited time, so we (well, Stephen!) got down to business. 

In order to drop the mast to replace the standing rigging the cabling needed to be disconnected from the junction box in the heads. Unfortunately this had completely seized up over the years and had to be smashed in order to release the cabling. Stephen had brought a replacement with him, and managed to remove the old broken box and install the new one.

Remains of the smashed junction box

Unfortunately the starboard navigation had been broken last year and was held together in its non functioning state by tape. I bought a new set (port and starboard) from the chandlery and we installed both of these. They’re rather smart-they have posh chrome inserts! They both now work too, which is advantageous.

Replacing the navigation lights

With mast down and lying alongside the boat it seemed like a good time to test all the electrics. Stephen disconnected the radio and plugged in a large length of cabling which he used to connect the lights on the mast to power. Most worked, but the masthead light appeared to be dead. It didn’t work and appeared heavily corroded. We popped back to the chandlery to buy a replacement but Stephen baulked at the £150 price tag. I was happy enough to pay it, but Stephen decided a better option would be to remove the existing unit, strip it down and give it a good clean and see if he could bring it back to life. He was successful, and so saved me £150!

Testing the power on the mast

The final task was to replace one of the saloon light fittings. A couple of seasons ago Claire and I were sitting in the saloon when one of the lights went off. A little later, after being turned off and then on again, the light worked, before then going off again a little while later. Stephen had previously managed to diagnose the fault-the fitting is bakelite, and as it warmed up it expanded just enough that the bulb dropped away from the fitting. As it cooled down, contact was restored and the light worked again. To resolve this, Stephen had crafted a new light fitting(!) made of brass(!!), so the final job for the day was to install this. 

As an aside, a couple of years ago the original Westerly lampshade broke. Last week I posted about this on the Westerly Owners’ Association’s Facebook page. One of the other members, Phil, replied to say that he had a lampshade from a Centaur that he didn’t need, and that I could have it for the cost of the postage! What a result, and how kind of Phil! Westerly owners really are the best. 

It was quite a late finish at Titchmarsh but we got a lot done, and I’m so grateful to Stephen for giving up his time and lending me his expertise. 

So, with all of that work completed, why is Goshawk still not in the water?

The plan had been for Titchmarsh to put the mast up in the subsequent week, but unfortunately the wind on the east coast was just too strong, and they weren’t able to. Rather disappointing, since we had really hoped to get Goshawk around to Wrabness over half term, but it just wasn’t to be. 

I had confirmation earlier this week that the mast has now been restepped, however. Jim the rigger is now going to organise for the cables to be reconnected and the cabin to be restored to normal. I also had confirmation on Friday that my repaired genoa, with the new bolt rope to fit the new furler, was returned to the boat yesterday. Jim was going to reinstall this, but unfortunately it was too windy…

I think we’re basically there, however. With lighter winds forecast for the coming week, hopefully we can get the genoa fitted. Then we can try and find a day to sail her around to Wrabness, and arrange for her to be launched and the engine run up in readiness for this!

We better get some decent weather this summer after spending all this money on her this spring…!

Sail Update

Progress seems to be being made. Goshawk of Møn is slowly being readied for the season!

Last time I wrote I mentioned that the bolt rope on the genoa would not fit the new furling gear, which was an unexpected hiccup. I’m pleased to report that the cost of fitting a new luff tape that will work with the updated gear was not as high as I feared it would be. Similarly, the cost to repair the sail is at the lower end of expectations. Consequently I have asked Nick Mussett to proceed with the work. Hopefully it will be completed promptly so that we can get Goshawk in the water sooner rather than later!

I’ve also asked the marina to arrange for Goshawk to be antifouled.

We’re gradually getting closer to the moment we can launch her and sail her around to her summer mooring!

More problems with renewal of standing rigging

The rigger is hard at work replacing the standing rigging on Goshawk of Møn, my Westerly Centaur. As ever, this things are never as straightforward as they seem! I’ve already mentioned the problem he encountered with the wiring. Now he’s hit upon an issue with the furling gear for the genoa. This was no longer fit for purpose and so is being replaced. Yesterday I got an email from the rigger stating, “the new spar has a bolt rope size of 6.5mm yours is 7.5 and spars of that size are no longer available.”

Now when I received this I had no idea what a bolt rope is. A quick Google helped me establish that this is the bit of the sail that holds it into the furling gear, as below:

I’m not quite sure what the solution is here! The rigger is working with a sailmaker so hopefully he can resolve this for me. The sailmaker did phone me yesterday and left a voicemail, but apparently he is out of contact until Monday. I’ll guess we’ll have to wait until this to find out how to resolve this, and, perhaps more importantly, how much it’s going to cost me!

Preparation for a new season

It’s been some time since I last updated Goshawk’s blog. Suffice it to say that we had a wonderful season in 2022, with the highlight being a family trip to Suffolk Yacht Harbour.

Overnight at Suffolk Yacht Harbour

Ordinarily, Goshawk of Møn, my Westerly Centaur, would have been launched at Easter, but this year we’re a little behind because of some routine maintenance we’re having carried out. It is my understanding that a boat’s standing rigging (the wires that hold the mast up) should be replaced every ten years. We have no record of Goshawk’s ever being replaced, and given that she’s 50 this year we thought it was probably time we addressed that! Jim Berry at Titchmarsh Marina is currently doing the work for us.

As always, it’s not been as easy as it should have been. In order to drop the mast the wiring to the anemometer and the lights at the top of the mast needed to be disconnected. These were drawn into a junction box in the heads, which proved impossible to open. The only way to disconnect the wiring, therefore, was to smash the junction box, and worry about replacement later on. The mast is now down, however, and progress is being made on the replacement of the rigging.

The rather ancient forestay is also being replaced, along with the headsail reefing gear. I was given a couple of options here – a very expensive offshore system and a day sailing alternative, at a more reasonable price. Since we only tend to sail in the Stour and Orwell estuaries, I went with the cheaper option!

Whilst the rigging is being replaced I’m also having the jib mended. As we tacked towards the end of last season, the jib caught on the spreaders at the top of the rigging and ripped. Looking at the sail it would appear that this has happened previously, as there is evidence of a patch. Hopefully this can be made good so that the sail can be returned to the boat in conjunction with the new reefing gear.

I’ve also booked in a gas safety check (which I forgot to do last year…), and an engine recommission, with replacement of the anode. I need to book in antifouling too, but I’ve just had a bill from the marina and thought I should perhaps pay this before asking them to undertake any additional work!

I’m hoping that we can launch in the forthcoming half term break, ready for an action packed season ahead. Watch this space!

As ever, if you are a fellow Westerly Centaur owner and have any questions about this work, please feel free to leave a comment below or to send me a message.

Sailing on the Stour, summer 2022

Jesus Supreme

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 17th July 2022 at Connect Southwater Community Church, West Sussex. I also subsequently preached the same message at Manningtree Methodist Church on 31st July 2022. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

I had quite a memorable day recently. After working with my current employer for eleven years, I packed up my bag and left for the final time. It was quite sad saying farewell to some people who, over the years, have become good friends.

I start a new job in September. I interviewed way back in March, so it’s quite a long time to wait before starting. I did visit a couple of weeks ago, though and it was good to spend some time meeting colleagues face to face. I was also given my new email address, which meant that when my new boss emailed around brief introductions of those who start working in September, I was able to read what he wrote about me. He wrote:

Simon Lucas currently teaches History and Philosophy at Thomas’s Battersea Prep School. Previous to that he had worked at Worth and City of London Secondary Schools. He has also spent time as a freelance writer and this remains a passion of his. He is also an experienced sailor.

An interesting precis of 43 years of life! I assume that he picked out the details which he thinks are most relevant to the role I’m taking on, specifics that would vindicate his decision to appoint me, and something that might enable some of my new colleagues to make a connection with me.

Today’s passage is from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. After his introductions in the earlier part of this chapter, Paul immediately gets down to business with a rich section in which he re-introduces his readers to Jesus. He summarises Jesus’ life and work into a few short sentences. 

It’s complicated stuff, but it’s well worth digging into since it is truly remarkable. Let’s see if we can make sense of it together. 

If you do have access to the text, it would be well worth your while having that in front of you. A reminder that we’re looking at Colossians 1:15-28.

Our first point this morning, then, is – Jesus is supreme.

Paul wants his readers to understand that Jesus is superior to all others in authority, power and status and gives a number of explanations of this.

The first is that Jesus ‘is the image of the invisible God’. 

You don’t need to get too far into the Old Testament to see that many people before Jesus had close encounters with God. What is notable, though, is that in none of these encounters did anyone actually see God. He remained invisible.

Moses, in fact, asked God to show him his glory. But God replied, in Exodus 33:20, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” 

God is simply too holy to be encountered by humanity. 

But when people see Jesus, they see God. 

I find that absolutely amazing!

When we encounter Jesus in the gospels we’re not just reading about a great teacher, or a moral leader, but God himself.

What’s more, in verse 19, Paul says that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” 

All of God’s fullness, all of God, every aspect of his character, personality, power, righteousness and holiness are in Jesus. 

Wow. Just wow.

The second way in which Paul explains Jesus’ supremacy over all is by stating that Jesus is ‘the firstborn over all creation’ – still in verse 15. 

As the firstborn, Jesus is God’s heir, and as such everything in creation is his. Paul makes this clear in verse 16 – all things have been created for him. 

But it’s more than that. 

Paul says that all things have been created through him. 

Jesus is the creative force by which the universe came into existence. Things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible – all created through him and for him. 

And verse 17 tells us, in Jesus all things hold together. 

Creation depends on Jesus because he is the force that created it and that keeps it together.

All of creation was made for Jesus. 

All of creation was made through Jesus.

All of creation is sustained by Jesus.

The next way Paul explains Jesus’ supremacy is that he is “the head of the body, the church.” 

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 that the church is the body of Christ, and that each of us, as members of the church, are part of this body. Here in Colossians, Paul tells us that Jesus is the head of that body. As such, we depend on him completely. Without a head, a body cannot function. Without Jesus, the church cannot function. Indeed, without Jesus, there simply isn’t a church.

Finally, Paul says that Jesus has supremacy over all things because he is “the beginning and firstborn from among the dead.” 

Just as he is firstborn over all creation, Jesus is firstborn over the new creation. It is Jesus who was the first to rise from the dead. 

Jesus brought the new creation into existence through his death and resurrection. 

As a consequence of Jesus’ resurrection, we can be part of a new creation and enjoy an unbroken relationship with God. We too can look forward to the day when we will be raised to new life. 

Jesus has supremacy in all things because he is the image of God, he is the firstborn over all creation, he is the head of the body, and he is firstborn over the new creation. That’s quite a CV and certainly should provide us with plenty of motivation to love and follow him.

Paul now turns to consider the state of humanity before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this is our second point – alienation and reconciliation.

Claire and I recently enjoyed watching the final series of Derry Girls. When it first came out I watched the first episode and wasn’t impressed. Claire then made me watch every episode and it’s now one of my favourite television programmes. 

I found the final episode really poignant. It was set at the time of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, which sought to end the years of violence by bringing together loyalists and republicans into a shared political experience in which all views could be represented. 

Of course, nothing in this world is perfect, but the Good Friday agreement has generally been a real success. Northern Irish people who were once alienated by their views on Northern Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom have achieved some form of reconciliation. 

Let’s hope that this continues to be the case, despite the current difficulties the province faces.

In the next section of his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells his readers how they were once “alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.” 

This is the natural order of the world. It’s not what God intended but it’s what humanity have made of it. 

Humans turn their backs on God and fail to live to the standards he sets. 

Humans push God out of all facets of their lives, putting themselves and their own needs above everything else. 

But there is better news. They were alienated from God. They were enemies of God.

Look at verse 22. 

“But now.” 

The negative has been transformed into a positive. The Colossians have been reconciledwith God. Reconcile means “to restore friendly relations between.” Humanity and God can now have a more positive relationship. 

How this reconciliation has been brought about?

Paul says to the Colossians that God “has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” That’s verse 22. Humanity has had their friendly relations with God restored by the act of Christ dying on the cross. 

We saw in verse 19 that all God’s fullness dwells in Jesus Christ. There is nothing of God that is not in Jesus. Jesus is wholly, fully God. It is because of this that humanity can be reconciled with God through Christ’s death on the cross. 

Since Jesus is God, there is nothing wrong to be found in him. He is holy, without sin, without blame. 

Because he has no sin of his own, he is able to take on the sin of the world – the wrongdoing of all people – and to take the penalty that should be ours. 

The punishment for sin is death, but Jesus took this punishment for all of humanity. 

What’s more, he defeated death by rising again to life. 

The consequence of this is that Christ can present us to his father as “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” There is no sin for God to see in us, because it has been dealt with.

If I borrowed £10,000 from a finance company to buy a new car, I would be in debt to them. It would show up on their computer system. Now imagine if my friend phoned up the finance company and paid the loan off for me. That would remove my debt from their records. If I subsequently phoned them up and tried to pay off the loan, there would be some confusion as their systems would say that there is no debt in my name. There is nothing for me to pay off. It has been dealt with.

It’s similar, but on a massively more significant scale, with God and my sin. When a Christian appears before God on the day of judgement, there will be no record of sin because it has been dealt with. That means that if we turn to Christ and accept that he died and rose for us, we can have a relationship – we are no longer enemies.

If we read on, though, there is an “if” here. Paul continues in verse 23, “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.” 

We must, as one of my teachers at school used to regularly tell us, “keep on keeping on.” 

Being a Christian is not just about a singular conversion experience, but a life lived out day by day, holding onto hope held out in the gospel. 

If we are to hold onto this hope it is necessary for us to know and understand the gospel message as found in scripture. We will want to immerse ourselves in the word of God regularly. We will want to live out the teaching we find in scripture, building on the foundations of our conversion.

It’s like doing anything – if you want to be a runner, you have to run. By running regularly you ensure you remain fit and healthy, and able to run. Over time you will get better at running. If you neglect your running, your fitness suffers and before you know it, running becomes very difficult, and eventually you’ll find yourself unable to run at all.

Once we were alienated from God, but through Jesus we have been reconciled to him. Now we need to live our lives holding onto the hope held out in the gospel.

Our third point this morning is perhaps the most challenging – sharing in affliction.

When I was a student I had a Saturday job working in the books department of WHSmith. By this point I was in my early twenties and had already undertaken management training with Marks and Spencer. With the exception of our older supervisor, the rest of the team were teenage girls. Together we did a great job, despite some strange requests from management. We went through a period where it seemed as if every week we were asked to reorder all of the books in the department in ever stranger ways.

Despite our competence, our supervisor did periodically like to get really cross with us. It was generally the girls who bore her wrath; I don’t think she liked the idea of picking a fight with me – maybe because of my gender, or my age or my experience. Sometimes, if one of my colleagues did do something wrong, I would take the blame as generally our supervisor would grumble under her breath for a minute and then move on, whereas if one of my colleagues admitted her wrongdoing, she would be strongly chastised. I guess I felt able to take the fire for the younger, less experienced members of the team.

That might seem like a rather random thing to drop in at this point, but I do think it is relevant – as we may or may not see shortly!

In verse 24 Paul tells the Colossians, “now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you” and continues with the even more confusing, “I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” What does he mean by this?

Before we address this, perhaps we should look at what Paul considers to be his mission. He tells us in verse 25 that he has become the servant of the church, commissioned by God, who entrusted him with the task of presenting to the Colossians the word of God. Paul is to share “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.” 

But what is this mystery that Paul is commissioned to share?

Thankfully Paul answers this in verse 27 – the mystery, he says, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” 

If we follow Christ, then he lives within us as the Holy Spirit. He promised his followers that his Father “will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” This Spirit, he says, “lives with you and will be in you.” You can read this passage in full in John 14. 

Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, lives within us. His presence marks us out for glory – a resurrection of our own.

Simply put, then, this mystery, which Paul is to share, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that through his death and resurrection we might share in his glory, be reconciled with God, and spend eternity with him in glory.

But why is Paul suffering? And why does he rejoice in his suffering?

Paul rejoices because he is suffering for the young church. Whilst he is in prison he is taking some of the fire away from younger Christians who might not yet have the same level of understanding or spiritual maturity that he has. As the figurehead of the new movement allied to Christ, he serves as the lightning conductor, drawing the ire of the authorities, and reducing the pressure on others. Paul endures it “for the sake of Jesus’ body, which is the church.”

But there is also a spiritual dimension here. Paul understands that we live in a period that could be known as the ‘between times’. Jesus has come, has died, and has risen. This brought about God’s new creation, of which Jesus is the first born, as we saw in verse 18. 

But Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, and to take all who follow him to glory. 

Paul, like us, lives between these two periods. The new creation has begun, but has not yet seen its fulfilment. That leaves us in a period of great tension, a period in which some people follow Christ and strive to serve him, whilst others continue to live in darkness, rejecting Christ. Those who turn their backs on Christ are often openly antagonistic to him, and subsequently to those who follow him. Thus when Christians are subjected to abuse, it is as a consequence of their love of Christ; in essence it is Jesus who is being abused. In verse 24, then, Paul understands that the suffering that fills up his own flesh is a continuation of the abuse that Christ received.

None of us want to experience suffering, and few would join Paul in rejoicing in suffering. It’s not uncommon to suffer for our faith though. I’m sure that there are people here today who have endured suffering because of their beliefs. You don’t have to look too far to see people who endure real hardship, punishment, imprisonment or worse for holding on to the gospel of Christ. 

Maybe we can draw comfort from this passage, however. If we find ourselves enduring suffering, we are doing so on behalf of Jesus; it is he who upsets people, it is his gospel that people find offensive. 

Jesus himself warned us of this in Matthew 24, when he warned “then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” 

Not an easy message at all, but again, it is clear that those who endure persecution do so as a consequence of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. 

Maybe we can also hold onto the fact that if we face trouble because of our faith, like Paul we may in a way be protecting those who are newer in the faith, younger Christians who, if they faced the same level of challenge, might be tempted to renounce their faith and fall away. Consequently, we can see how the persecution of individuals is actually persecution of the body of Christ, the church, and those who face it do so to protect others, and ultimately build up the church.

Well, we’re coming to the end, you might be relieved to hear! This is a really challenging passage, and I hope that we have a better understanding of what it means.

In summary, it starts with that terrific acclamation of who Jesus is – the supreme being over all things, no mere teacher or miracle worker, but the image of the invisible God himself. The whole fullness of God dwells in him. Our natural state is alienation from God, but through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have been reconciled by him. As a consequence of Jesus’ death, we can approach God as holy, without blemish and free from accusation. A truly remarkable gospel message which it is good to remind ourselves of frequently.

Paul drops in an ‘if’ though – we will be reconciled “if” we continue in our faith, establish and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. 

As Christians we are expected to continue working to build up our own faith, not moving from the hope held out in the gospel. That’s why it’s so important that we regularly remind ourselves of this gospel message, and don’t neglect it once we have become Christians. 

And then there’s that message that suffering may follow conversion, but if we encounter this we do so as a consequence of who Jesus is and what he has done, not because of who we are. 

By suffering we play a part in building up the body of Christ, the church.

But ultimately, we need to remember that at our head is Jesus, the image of the invisible God, supreme over all. It is he whom we worship, he whom we dedicate our lives to serving and he on whom we build our hope.What a remarkable message that is!

Si’s Bible Reflections
Si’s Bible Reflections
Jesus Supreme
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May your word to me be fulfilled

[26] In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, [27] to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. [28] The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” [29] Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. [30] But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. [31] You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. [32] He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, [33] and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” [34] “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” [35] The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. [36] Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. [37] For no word from God will ever fail.” [38] “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Luke 1:26-38

How do you feel when your boss asks you to do something? Maybe if it’s something simple, or you have a good relationship, it’s not an issue. Perhaps if they asked you to do something tricky, or time consuming, or if you don’t get on with your boss, it might get you a little hot under the collar. Whenever my boss approaches, I always start panicking; what have I done? What is he going to ask me to do?

In today’s passage, Mary is visited by someone even more scary than a boss; an angel. It might seem odd to describe an angel as scary; our image when we think of angels is of little girls in white sheets, with tinsel halos, ballet-dancing across the stage at a nativity. Not exactly an image to frighten the living daylights out of you! But this is not a Biblical image of angels. Whenever people encounter angels in the Bible, one of the first things the angel says is, “do not be afraid.” Angels evidently strike fear into the hearts of all those to whom they appear. Today’s episode is no exception; the angel, Gabriel, says to Mary in verse 30, “do not be afraid Mary.”

Not just that, but Luke records that Mary “was greatly troubled” at Gabriel’s words. At this point, Gabriel hadn’t said a great deal, simply, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” Gabriel hadn’t mentioned the fact that Mary was going to give birth to God’s son yet, simply that God is with her. The greeting alone was enough to trouble Mary!

You’d think that Gabriel’s message would trouble her even more. 

What does Gabriel tell her?

She has found favour with God. 

She will conceive and give birth to a son, whom she is to call Jesus. 

He will be called great and will be the son of God. 

God will give him the throne of his father, David. 

He will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever. 

His kingdom will never reign. 

How would you react if you were given that message? It’s shocking. It’s unsettling. It’s remarkable. 

It is astonishing.

I think I would be lost for words. 

Mary’s response is to ask how this could be, since she has a virgin. As far as she knows, virgins don’t give birth…

Gabriel answers her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

How does a young girl, engaged to a decent man, get her head round that? To take on board that the Holy Spirit is somehow going to make her pregnant, that she is going to endure nine months of pregnancy, that she is to give birth, that she will bring up a child who, according to the angel, is the son of God? How will she cope? How can she possibly afford this? How is she going to explain this  to Joseph? How will he react? Will he break off the engagement? Will she be stoned, since this was the punishment for bearing another man’s child? How will her family react? How will her community respond?

There’s no way that she can go through with this surely.

Surely she just turns to the angel and says, “thanks, but no thanks. Find someone better suited to this role.”

Yet she doesn’t. In one of the most remarkable statements in the Bible, Mary says to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Mary was perturbed when the angel appears. Yet her response to his earth shattering message, is yes, of course. I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to your word.

This, then, is why Mary was entirely the right person to give birth to Jesus. She completely accepts God’s plan for her life. She knows the impact that this will have, she knows that her life will be changed forever, she knows the risks involved, yet she says to God, “of course.”

How many of us, when confronted by God’s plan for our lives, respond as Mary did, “I am the Lord’s servant?”

Or how many of us, Jonah like, run away in completely the opposite direction?

Or how many of us just do our best to ignore the plan that God has for us, that’s niggling away inside us, nervous of the impact that it will have on our lives, and the lives of our family?

As Christmas draws closer, let’s reflect on Mary’s response to Gabriel in this remarkable passage of scripture, and strive to emulate her attitude more as we go through our lives, day by day.

They will call him Immanuel

[18] This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. [19] Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. [20] But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. [21] She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” [22] All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: [23] “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). [24] When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. [25] But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Matthew 1:18-25

A week today it’s Christmas Eve! It’s funny because on the one hand it seems to have come round really quickly this year. On the other, since Christmas seems to begin in the retail world in August these days, it seems to have been coming for a very long time. I suppose it’s the combination of the two that means that the Big Day just creeps up on us!

It’s unlikely that Christmas Day crept up on Mary and Joseph. I think that they must have had a rather interesting nine months before the birth of Jesus.

Matthew says surprisingly little about Mary in his account of Jesus’ birth. We get a sense of the remarkable situation in which she found herself, however. She was a young girl, engaged to Joseph. One day, much to her great surprise, she discovered that she was going to have a baby. What’s more, before she and Joseph ‘came together’ “she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”

What thoughts must have been running through her head? How can I have a baby, I’m a virgin? Can the baby I’m carrying really be God’s son? Why me? How on EARTH am I going to explain this to Joseph? Is he going to call off the marriage? What will happen to me and my child? Will anyone believe me? Will I be rejected by my family? Will I be an outcast?

Will I be stoned to death for sleeping with someone else whilst betrothed? That’s how it could look to others…

Was this an exciting time for Mary? A worrying time? A challenging time? A daunting time? Probably all of these!

What about Joseph? We get a picture of a decent man – a good Jew “who was faithful to the law,” who did not want to expose Mary “to public disgrace,” and therefore decided “to divorce Mary quietly.” One word from him and Mary would indeed be stoned. But he was not that kind of guy. And he cared too deeply for Mary to allow that to happen. 

I’m not surprised he wanted to call off his marriage. It must have been incredibly humiliating to discover that his fiancée was pregnant, carrying a baby that could not possibly be his. How upsetting for him. He thought he had his future worked out – a good life with Mary – and now it looked like it was going to come to an end before it had even started.

But then one night an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

What. A. Revelation. His fiancée was carrying the son of God! God himself! How utterly remarkable. Mary, his Mary, was going to give birth – to God?!

I cannot begin to imagine how stunned Joseph must have been by this revelation. But, since he was a good man, he did exactly what he was told and “took Mary home as his wife.” What’s more, “he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth.

We have here a picture of two decent, upright, honest, devout, kind people, who honour and respect God, and who honour and respect each other. 

Wouldn’t it be great to see a few more people like this in the world today?

Well you know what they say, “be the change you want to see!”

Of course, we could hardly look at this passage without reflecting on verses 22 and 23:

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

The baby that Mary will bear is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. He is the long-awaited Messiah, sent by God to rescue his people. Indeed, this baby will BE God – Immanuel – God With Us.

There’s a chorus in a contemporary carol that hits me hard every time I sing it :

And who would have dreamed or ever foreseen

That we could hold God in our hands?

The Giver of Life is born in the night

Revealing God’s glorious plan.

I’ve known the story of Jesus’ birth for forty odd years now, but singing that chorus still gets me every time. It’s a succinct expression of the truth of Immanuel.

Mary held God in her hands.

The one who gave life to all was born in the night.

God’s plan for humanity was revealed through the birth of this baby boy.

So, how can we be more like the decent, God-loving Mary and Joseph today and in the weeks and months ahead?

And what does it mean to us that Jesus is Immanuel – God with us, born to humanity, dwelling amongst us? What does it mean to us that our God should enter our existence in order to save us from our sin, and to reunite us to him?

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men

[22] When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. [23] They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.

Matthew 17:22-23

It’s really hard to lose a loved one. That’s probably an understatement. It’s gut wrenching. It’s heart breaking. It hurts like nothing else. It brings even the strongest to tears. Even if we know that they have gone to be with the Lord, it can still be deeply traumatising for those of us left behind. It just hurts. Really hurts. 

In today’s reading, Jesus, for the second time in Matthew’s Gospel, predicts his death. Even under normal circumstances this would no doubt have been hard for his closest friends to bear. But the particular circumstances in which Jesus says he will die are deeply unsettling. He will be delivered into the hands of men and they will kill him. This is not a “normal” death, from sickness or from old age. This is not even a tragic accident. This is a violent death at the hands of his enemies. 

Jesus’ disciples must have been deeply shocked by this revelation. If they accepted that he was the Messiah, the last thing they would have expected would be for him to be killed. According to their expectations, the Messiah would be a triumphant king who would lead his people to victory. A brutal death at the hands of his enemies was definitely not what they expected to happen to their Messiah.

The reaction of the disciples is completely understandable. I’m not surprised that they were filled with grief. 

The revelations don’t even begin there, though. Look again at that first part of Jesus’ statement here. “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” This is a clear foreshadowing of his betrayal. Someone is going to hand him over to his enemies. Being delivered suggests that someone whom he knows and trusts is going to hand him over to the people who will kill him. This is deeply shocking. 

I wonder if the disciples grasped the enormity of what Jesus was saying? It looked like one of them was going to be responsible setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to Jesus’ execution. 

Jesus is making it clear that he is going to die. What’s more, he’s going to suffer a brutal death at the hands of his enemies. And as if that were not enough, his death will be precipitated by a betrayal by someone close to him.

It’s not surprising that the disciples were filled with grief. I expect they were stunned to the point of despair. 

Sometimes if someone tells you bad news you’re so overcome that you don’t hear what they say next.

I wonder if the disciples heard what Jesus said next?

“On the third day he will be raised to life.”

For Jesus his execution is not the end. He will beat death. Death will not be able to hold him. Death will be defeated. 

And Jesus will be raised to life!

What’s more, Jesus’ resurrection foreshadows what will also be true for all of Jesus’ followers.

If we put our hope in Christ, we too will be raised for life!

That is remarkable!

I feel a little sorry for the disciples here. It feels as if they’re the only ones who don’t know what’s going on. Jesus has a clear understanding of his own fate: betrayal, execution, resurrection. We are in the fortunate position that we also know what will happen to Jesus. But the poor disciples have no idea. It’s not surprising that they were troubled. 

Jesus, though, understands the mission that lies before him. He knows that he has been sent by his father to take the punishment for our sin. He has been sent to bear God’s wrath, the wrath that would consign us to eternal damnation if we were forced to bear it. He has been sent to defeat death, to defeat the grave, by rising to new life after his physical death. He has been sent to be the first to ascend to heaven. He has been sent to open the prospect of heaven for us – if we accept his death and resurrection, and seek to follow him. 

The disciples were filled with grief by the prospect of the death of their friend. But that’s because they didn’t grasp the full significance of his sacrificial action. Death would not be the end for him; he would rise to new life on the third day. And by doing so he paves the way for them, and for all who believe, to also draw comfort that death is not the end; we too will be raised to new life.

And that’s quite a revelation!