Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Disappointment at Christmas

It strikes me that much of the Christmas story is full of disappointment & unfulfilled expectations. A more sanitised version may be appropriate for children's retelling, but as adults have we settled for a watered down or selective version of events?

As we enter the Gospel narrative hopes & dreams are dashed left, right & centre.

Joseph discovers his beloved young bride is pregnant, and he is not the father.

Mary gives a quite remarkable answer to the angel Gabriel on the announcement of her pregnancy - "I am the Lord's servant, may it be as you have said"
- but no woman dreams of giving birth in a dingy manger, estranged from family.

Or what about Herod? He was disappointed by the potential arrival of a new king. So terrified that his power would be usurped, he ordered the brutal murder of hundreds/thousands of baby boys in a mad fury.

What about the parents of these children? What of their hopes & dreams for these beautiful, energetic little boys, just discovering this world & savagely removed from it?

The Christmas story is horrific. It is distasteful. Even offensive. And yet it is Good News. How?

Because into this dark, evil world full of disappointment a light was coming that could not be snuffed out... ever.

John grasps this as he writes from first hand experience of Jesus Christ "in Him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overpowered it."

Perhaps there are unmet expectations & great disappointments in your life at the moment. Perhaps horrific things have happened to you like that first Christmas.

Real hurt & disappointment is to be unveiled, not buried deep, but my prayer for you this year is that you would know the light of the world breaking into your darkness & obliterating it. He is waiting to come in, if you will but open the door & receive Him.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Mountain Mover

Are you standing in the dark shadow of a huge mountain?

Recently, I've observed that many of the young people & young adults with whom I spend my time, find themselves in dark & difficult places, facing huge & unmovable obstacles.

Perhaps its a struggling relationship... a challenging decision to be made with no obvious solution... a destructive habit or character flaw... limited work prospects... a financial burden... a physical disability or a mental health problem.

This mountain just will not move. For some they have stood in its shadow for so long that they have grown accustomed to the darkness.

These difficulties are not to be overlooked or belittled. We should never make molehills out of mountains. But only focusing on the mountain will not bring us hope, only despair.

If you find yourself here. You are not alone.
Can I encourage you to shift your attention from the size of your mountain to the power of the Mountain Mover? In this season of Advent, a dark time in which we wait for the "light to shine the darkness", may we learn to wait patiently on our Messiah's arrival.

Psalm 65:5-7
"God our Savior, You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds,
the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas,
who formed the mountains by Your power,
having armed Yourself with strength,
who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves,
and the turmoil of the nations."

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Seeking Applause

In his book What God Thinks When We Fail, Steven C. Roy tells a fictional story about a young violinist who lived in London many years ago. Although he was a superb musician, he was deathly afraid of large crowds, so he avoided giving concerts. But after enduring criticism for his unwillingness to give concerts, he finally agreed to perform in the largest concert hall in London.

The young violinist came onto the stage and sat alone on a stool. He put his violin under his chin and played for an hour and a half. No music in front of him, no orchestra behind him, no breaks—just an hour and a half of absolutely beautiful violin music. After ten minutes or so, many critics put down their pads and listened, like the rest …. After the performance, the crowd rose to its feet and began applauding wildly—and they wouldn't stop.
But the young violinist didn't acknowledge the applause. He just peered out into the audience as if he were looking for something—or someone. Finally he found what he was looking for. Relief came over his face, and he began to acknowledge the cheers.
After the concert, the critics met the young violinist backstage …. They said, "You were wonderful. But one question: Why did it take you so long to acknowledge the applause of the audience?"
The young violinist took a deep breath and answered, "You know I was really afraid of playing here. Yet this was something I knew I needed to do. Tonight, just before I came on stage, I received word that my master teacher was to be in the audience. Throughout the concert, I tried to look for him, but I could never find him. So after I finished playing, I started to look more intently. I was so eager to find my teacher that I couldn't even hear the applause. I just had to know what he thought of my playing. That was all that mattered. Finally, I found him high in the balcony. He was standing and applauding, with a big smile on his face. After seeing him, I was finally able to relax. I said to myself, 'If the master is pleased with what I have done, then everything else is okay.'"
So, whose applause matters most to you?

Friday, 11 November 2011

Henri Nouwen on Leadership

"Too often I looked at being relevant, popular & powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry... However, the truth is that these are temptations.

Jesus asks, "Do you love me?"
Jesus sends us out to be shepherds.
Jesus promises a life in which we increasingly have to stretch out our hands & be led places where we would rather not go.

He asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer;
from worries about popularity to communal & mutual ministry;
and from leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us & our people."

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Cave Hill & Reflections on Life

The sun came out to play in what has turned out to be a smashing day in Belfast & I felt that it was time for a long overdue trek up our featured mound... Cave Hill. Sitting on the edge of our wee city, Cave Hill (Binn Unamha in Irish) overlooks Belfast Lough & is distinguished by its famous ‘Napoleon’s Nose’ feature which some claim to have inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

I decided to take the moderately challenging circular route to the top which lends itself to spectacular views over Belfast (making it look like a matchbox town) & on such a clear day it was easy to spot Scrabo Tower, the beautiful mountains of Mourne & even a man in a kilt drinking Iron Bru on the tip of Scotland. As I was a failed member of the YOC in my childhood I couldn’t tell the difference between the kestrels, peregrines & buzzards flying over head, but they looked pretty majestic gliding through the air.

It was supposed to be a leisurely stroll to give my head a bit of breathing space & spend some time thinking with God about some of the things that have been happening in my life recently. However, about 45mins into my journey I noticed that I was “bombing it up.” The sweat was lashing off me, my breathing was heavy, my legs were getting tired and I’d already passed several of the wonderful look-out spots without pausing to admire the fantastic scenes on display. The guide had suggested 2hours for the journey, but was body was keen to finish as quickly as possible.

It was then that I felt something inside me (present, but not physical) put the brakes on. Something within my spirit was telling me to slow down & pay attention. Our spirit can be hard to define & get our heads around, but it is the place within us that God so often communicates. It felt as if God was whispering, “woo... slow down, enjoy the view, experience my artistry, be still for a moment & appreciate my work, it’s a gift for you.”

In that moment I realised that this walk up Cave Hill was like an analogy of how I tend to live my life, especially within youth ministry. I often find myself so focused on the multiple tasks to be completed or the goals to be achieved, that I miss out on important experiences along the way. I concentrate so hard on reaching the final destination that I lose the wonder & enjoyment of the journey. I become so focused on the finishing line, that I get fatigued, anxious & hurried trying to cross it & in doing so become blinkered to the soothing, joyful & reassuring voice of life’s great Travel Guide.

This autumn my congregation has given me the gift of Sabbatical – a chance to rest & reflect & listen for the gentle whisper of God. It is my hope that this gift will help me to better hear His instruction & find a more sustainable rhythm to life & ministry. To walk slower, but still with purpose so that I can prolong the journey, reach that finish line walking rather than crawling & stop off to enjoy the process along the way.

So next time you spot a kestrel on Cave Hill, perhaps spare a thought to what pace your life is moving at – and whether it is helping or hindering you from hearing from your Travelling Companion.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Convenience Store Christianity

There’s been a question rattling around in my head for quite some time. It’s quite a challenging question so I’ve tried to run away from it, ignore it, or repackage it as something easier to swallow, but God’s Spirit keeps barging back in there with it. It’s a question that I think He is posing firstly to myself to wrestle with, but also to the young people & young adults with for whom I have a pastoral responsibility in our church.

How seriously are you taking your discipleship?

This is the initial, overarching question, but it leads to many more. It pokes & prods at my heart & asks “Be honest, how committed are you actually to allowing God to lead & shape your life? Are you really living “All for Jesus... surrendering all of your ambitions, hopes & plans into His hands” or just the bits that are convenient? Are you not just doing enough to lead a cushy life & keep a healthy public image?”

Discipleship put simply is following Jesus. But what does this actually look like in day to day living? How does following Jesus impact upon our attitudes, actions & words?

To help let’s think of call of discipleship as three things (although it is more than this)...

The call to wise training: God has given us some training tools to help us receive the power & perspective that we need to live the life He has prepared for us. The most commonly cited are prayer, Bible study & church worship, but there is also solitude, silence, fasting, sacrifice, meditation & confession. These things do not earn God’s favour, but they are the means by which we begin to live like Jesus (in a similar, but greater way that a strict diet, daily training sessions & disciplined lifestyle helps an Olympic rower achieve a gold medal).

The call to obey God’s way of life: a willingness to listen to God’s moral code for living revealed in the Bible covering everything from our attitude to money, sexuality, immigrants & our enemies, to how we use our time, who we date/marry, where we live & work and coping with stress, failure, disappointment & hopelessness.

The call to serve God with our lives: working out how you can use all of your life (work, family, friends, church) to love other people & help them to discover who God is, what God has done & follow Him for themselves. We often refer to this process of working out who God has made you & for what purpose as our calling, but calling embraces the first two also.

So let me ask you (as I am asking myself), how seriously are you taking your discipleship journey? Are you training well? What is your attitude towards spiritual discipline? Do you go to church, read your Bible & pray when you feel like it or because you know that you need it?

How seriously are you taking the call to obey God’s way of life? Have you brought all of your life before Him & asked for His direction – your anger, your friendships, who you date, where you work, how you feel about money & stuff? Do you listen to & obey His advice when it’s easy (or even just a little challenging), but ignore that thing which is most difficult?

How seriously are you taking the call to serve God with your abilities, passions & gifts? Is this one of the central organising principles of your week or something you squeeze into what’s left (if anything) when you’ve done what you want to do? From what I observe in my own life & in the church, we try to serve God without embracing the call to wise training & holy living. I guess it seems easier, looks better to those around & often costs us less to do so, however, I’m starting to wonder whether this not only cheapens our service for God, but actually makes its redundant.

So how seriously are you taking your discipleship? Perhaps the answer will be best revealed in how long you spend prayerfully pondering some of these questions.

A final note to those who might feel smug or guilt ridden after reading through this... There is always a danger of feeling self-satisfied when thinking about our discipleship practices (reflecting on what you do do & what others don’t) or indeed to feel deflated or overwhelmed (“I am so rubbish, I could never....”).

God is a wonderful (& perplexing) God of grace. We’ve all messed up when trying to follow Him, this realisation simply helps us to remember that we need Him more & hopefully open ourselves more to His power. The Gospel is not just for us before we become believers, but for every step along the journey. Let Him lift you, restore you, challenge & shape you... but most of all let Him love you.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Redeeming FaceBook

Warning! I’ve hummed & haa-ed about posting this blog for a week for fear of sounding like a bore with a prudish overreaction. Please read this as my evolving thoughts/experience & I’d love to know what might ring true for you...

Here goes!

I like FB. I am one of the 600million account holders & use it almost every day. I am grateful to Mr Zuckerberg & Co for their invention which helps me to remember birthdays, connect with friends in faraway places, enjoy other people’s happy moments (engagements, passing exams, photos of children, etc), laugh at goofy videos & status updates whilst making failed attempts at humour with the “comments” function. I also partake in the odd games of Uno, Scrabble & FB stalking.

As a Christian, I find it a helpful & appropriate forum to receive & share thoughts, insights, encouragements & questions to help us on our spiritual journeys (indeed this is what I am attempting to do at the moment!)

However, I have some concerns. Mainly about myself & the impact that my relationship with FB can have on my character. I suspect I am not alone in this so let me share some thoughts & see what you think (please do post a comment).

Since acquiring a “smart” phone I have made the following observations...

Ø The amount of time I spend on FB each day has greatly increased.

Ø I often feel “disconnected” if I haven’t checked out what has been happening in my social media world (although it is rarely anything of significance).

Ø I sometimes find myself getting a little upset if people have not “liked” or “commented” on my status updates (especially in the ones where I try to be funny).

Ø Whilst I enjoy sharing ideas, comments & photographs with my friends, I sometimes find myself under a compulsion to share useless information (I’ve just examined previous status updates wondering, “why on earth did I need to share that?”).

Whilst I like FB & enjoy its many benefits, it has the potential to promote self-obsession (e.g. a recent application allows you to see how many people have looked at your account recently) and a compulsion to over-share (do we really need to know what you ate for breakfast, that you can’t sleep, how many times you have visited the toilet or what you’d change your name too if you were transgendered?)

Here are some questions I’ve been asking of myself recently, perhaps you might find them interesting too...

Ø How much time have I spent on FB today/this week? How does this compare with the amount of time I have invested in my spiritual formation (prayer, Bible study, serving others etc)?

Ø How would I react if I chose not to use FB for a week/month? If I wouldn’t even consider this or if I try & find it really difficult, what does this reveal about me?

Ø Do I ever use FB when I am in the company of other people? What message does this send out to the people I am with?

Ø Do I check FB last night at night & first thing in the morning? Why? Do I find myself using FB as 2min time filler between meetings or on the toilet? If so, is this the best use of my time?

To be honest I’ve found these questions quite challenging so here are a few action steps which I feel the Holy Spirit is leading me towards to ensure that my use of FB doesn’t hinder my spiritual development.

Ø Regularly “fast” from FB. Stop using it for a day, week, month.

Ø Don’t check your status or updates when you are in the presence of someone else.

Ø Instead of using FB as a “time filler” as I wait for someone to come to a meeting (or even on the loo!), use those few moments to notice the good things that God has given me that day.

Ø Take part in my FB Challenge (every time I log onto FB, say a quick prayer for first 3 people in my news feed).

So it’s your turn. What do you think about FB?

Ephesians 4:29... Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The truth we keep forgetting

“We live as if doing for Jesus is more important than being with Jesus. We work as though everything depends on us rather than everything depending on God.” James Lawrence

God loves you.

No really, God loves you.

Not the you, you want to be. Not the you, you pretend that you are. God loves the real you.

The flawed, messed up version. The you that sometimes gets things really right & sometimes completely wrong.

God loves you.

There is no more fundamental truth. And from personal & pastoral experience I suggest that there is no truth less easily believed or so easily forgotten.

God loves you.

When we lose sight of this we begin to work for God’s love, rather than from God’s love.

You are a child of the living God... not because you are worthy or have earned His favour anymore than you earned the right to be born. You are adopted into His family because of the love of God the Father, Christ’s generous self-giving & the work of God’s Spirit.

Your identity is not rooted in what you do, but in relationship with Him. You are significant because you are made by God, because you are loved by God & because God has great plans for your life.

Chew over the following passage & savour its goodness deep within.

“It wasn't so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn't know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat.

It's a wonder God didn't lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish! We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” Ephesians 2v1-10

Stuck... Unstuck. Polluted... Cleaned up. Sin-dead... Alive in Christ. Deeply loved... Deeply loved.

God loves you!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Cuppa Soup Faith in the Fast Lane

"Beware of anything that competes with loyalty to Jesus Christ. The greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is service for Him.” Oswald Chambers

My devotional life is more like a cuppa soup than a four-course banquet. Like a ready meal it’s fast, temporarily satisfying, but provides neither the nutrients needed, nor the time to digest its goodness.

Do I understand the importance of time with God & “feeding on His Word”? Of course.

Do I not enjoy this time or benefit from it? Absolutely not; it’s great & is the bedrock of my life.

So what’s my problem? I have allowed other people & things to set the agenda of my day, week & month (the ultimate form of laziness) and have embraced overbusyness & people pleasing above living out the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:37-38).

I suspect that I am not alone in these struggles.

Our society places a high value on busyness. We wear it like a badge of honour (“How are you? How are things?” “I’m busy”) as if to be unbusy means to be lazy or unworthy. We hate to wait at traffic lights & smile at the checkout lady (whilst “mentally maiming” her) if she chats too long to the customer in front. There are never enough hours in the day or days in the week & other people’s priorities our adjudged frivolous by comparison to our “higher calling.”

The problem with busyness is that it leads to hurry... and hurry leads to not noticing others around us or missing the voice of God speaking into our lives.

Overbusyness has infiltrated church life. We rush from meeting to meeting, programme to programme... We meet with people, but aren’t fully present... We spend much time serving God, but invest so little hanging out with God.

I suspect this has its roots in an identity crisis; that we have placed too much emphasis on what we do, and too little on who we are. We have allowed our sense of significance to depend on what we achieve & on how others evaluate our achievements. So we press on, working, working, working to please people & receive their acceptance; craving the buzz that the compliment or word of affirmation brings.

Yet this is an identity that can only deliver momentary satisfaction & ever elusive feelings of love, joy, hope & contentment. We struggle to separate who we are from what we do. We do more of the work of God, but it destroys the work of God in us. It’s not long before a spiritual life once well connected & flourishing for Jesus, becomes dull, dead, empty & languishing.

Thankfully there is an alternative... hopefully see you soon to explore it.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Losing My First Love

"It is easily lost. It is not so easily found.
I knew it, but I'd forgotten.
I believed it, passionately. I still lost it.

I am extremely fortunate. I love my work. I have a great church where I am given appropriate amounts of responsibility, encouraged to develop areas in which I am gifted & allowed to make loads of mistakes. I am constantly growing, learning, being stretched & stimulated.

On the surface all is well. I love my work, I love God, I love sharing the Good News of Jesus with others, but underneath is a different story.

It was so subtle I didn't even realise it was happening; slowly the way I was doing the work of Christ was destroying the work of Christ in me. I didn't stop praying, I didn't stop believing in God, I didn't succumb to escapist sin. I simply lost my first love. Year by year the busyness of work, the fun of ministry, the changing circumstances of my personal life, the painful experiences & the emotional exhaustion slowly focused my attention elsewhere.

While my head was full of new & exciting ideas, my heart grew cool. While I led others to a place of finding new life in Jesus, my life in Jesus was decidedly stale.

I could give a thousand reasons why this took place, but I won't."

These are not my words... but I guess they could be. They come from James Lawrence the author of Growing Leaders - a book written to help the local church to raise up & nurture leadership.

Over this next blog series, I'll be using his ideas & my personal experience to reflect on how as Christians we can lose our sense of call/direction and how we might better live by Jesus words. If you find it interesting/useful, why not leave a comment.

Jesus said to His followers, "I am the Vine; you are the branches. When you're joined with me, & I with you, the relation intimate & organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated you can't produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up & thrown on the bonfire." John 15v5-6