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.