[un]conscious-stream[ing]

Psalm 144:4 Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow.

Lance Armstrong

This is being written on the eve of the airing of the Oprah show where it is suspected that Lance Armstrong, once seven-times Tour de France winner (stripped of his titles by USADA) will confess to doping throughout large portions of his career.

As I was listening to BBC Radio 5Live tonight, I heard two presenters discussing whether it would be better for Lance to be interviewed by a “terrier like Paxman” or by someone who is more like a friend or confidant. They came to the conclusion that someone gentle who could talk with Mr Armstrong as one friend talks to another, encouraging him
to open up and be more candid would make it more likely that we would “see the real Armstrong”.

That immediately got me thinking.

And my mind jumped to Peter Rollins and a talk he did at Mars Hill Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The core of what Peter was saying was that the ‘real us’ is not the ‘us’ we see behind closed doors or on the couch with a friend, it is not the stylised and sanitised self projection of who we want people to thing we are that we out up on Facebook, but the ‘real us’ is the sum of the ‘totality of our existence’.

Meaning that to look at the whole picture of a person is to see the truth about their material reality. Peter used the idea that behind closed doors, Hitler may well have been a ‘really nice guy’, when he was playing the piano and people were drinking tea and having dinner with the polite house painter. But the material reality of Hitler – the totality of his existence, the big, whole picture was that he sanctioned and ordered the ethnic and elitist ‘cleansing’ of Germany and the killing of over six million Jews.

Which led me to the thought that, if Lance does admit to the doping allegations, then no matter who interviews him, we have already seen the ‘real Armstrong’. The ‘real Armstrong’ is in the totality of his material reality, not in the soft, contrite and repentant man that we might see on a tv screen attempting to win back the favour of the public.

If the allegations are true, the ‘real Armstrong’ has already revealed his hand and shown his true colours: someone who is ruthless, prepared to systematically cheat his way to the top of a sport, push others out, lie repeatedly about it, bully his way through to rule the peloton and bully a number of journalists on the way as he churned out untruth after obfuscated distraction over and over again (I’ve heard many of the interviews over the years). Someone who has to be in control and on top and will stop at nothing to get there.

I’m afraid that no amount of tears or contrition can change the ‘real Armstrong’ that we have already seen.

That doesn’t mean there is no room for forgiveness, redemption, healing and change, and yes, the Livestrong foundation has done some great things, but we are going to need to see a whole, long, complete change of Armstrong’s material reality to be convinced that he is someone different to who he has already shown himself to be, should the allegations be true.

Which brings us back to me and to you! What material reality do we live in? Do we constantly live the ironic gesture

  • saying we are against child labour but still buying products made in sweatshops
  • bemoaning global warming whilst cruising along the motorway at 80mph in our gas guzzling SUV
  • ranting about evil multinationals while we sip our Starbucks cappuccino or shop in Tesco because it’s convenient
  • whatever other example you want to choose

I accept most of us live in a certain amount of paradox and hypocrisy, it’s hard to live any other way in our culture, but, especially for those of us who are claiming to follow Jesus, does the totality of our material reality genuinely reflect that claim as a way of life or are we fooling ourselves and just going through the motions and saying we believe something without actually putting it into practice?

Nobody can answer that question for me but me and nobody but you can answer it for you. Maybe observing what has happened to someone who was once a hero to many might just be the mirror we needed to look in to help ‘clean up’ our own act?

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
James 1:22-25

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Burgled

Just in case you missed the news… We were burgled on Saturday night, some time between when it went dark and 21:00 ish when we got home.

The kitchen window was smashed. The burglar came in to the dining room to take our 3 laptops that were stacked neatly on our dining table, snatched a pillowcase from our bed to stash them in and made off out of the back door.

barely anything else was disturbed, nothing else was taken because we don’t own anything else of any value except the cars.

Before I continue, I’m mildly annoyed at the frustration of having to write this post on a 4 1/2 year old iPhone 3G using wordpress for iOS, but I am also aware of the incredibly fortunate position I am in:

  • I have an iOS device to use
  • None of us were injured or anything like that
  • We are so comparatively fabulously wealthy that we had 3 laptops in the first place
  • We are insured (another benefit of comparative wealth)

With that said, I am more frustrated at the hassle than anything else. Yes, I worked hard and saved up for a few years to buy the most recent Mac in September. Yes, I had just spent a few hours set up my 9-year old ‘retiring’ Mac for the use of my children – for school work and general safe surfing etc. I can live with that.
I’m disappointed that my most recent backup may not be recent enough to include some of the best most-recent pictures of little (arguable depending on you perspective) Harry.
It’s annoying that it may take up to 8 to 10 weeks to get the windows sorted as they are specialist widows that we originally sourced from the US (yep, another identifier of incredible comparative wealth).
I’m hoping that we don’t get any bumps in the insurance claim process, I’ve heard about people having insurers wriggle to try to get out of paying!

But all that aside, I’ve learned yet again that even in the least comfortable and most unpleasant of circumstances, there is always a spiritual lesson or two.

1.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
Matthew 6:19+20

It is another reminder for us not to get too attached to stuff. It’s just stuff, stuff is replaceable, people and relationships are way more important than stuff.
When we replace our technology, this is what I need to hold on to, to make sure I use I as a tool, and not be a slave to it.

2.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

We still have so much, we are so fortunate / well blessed (however you want to view it) we are all unharmed and healthy among many other first-world benefits!

3.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
Philippians 4:11

We have enough, more than enough and we are refusing to either live in fear or pine for something we don’t have or that has been taken.

4.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Mattthew 5:16

The way we respond to the things that happen to us shows what kind of people we are. If we are God’s people, we need to display that and not repay evil with evil, we need to be exercising forgiveness and a desire for redemption, not vengeance and retribution.

I figure perhaps this is one of our best opportunities to witness to others and demonstrate who Christ is and how he has impacted our lives.

Worship

I have heard so many times, increasingly more recently “letʼs worship together” or “weʼre going to have a time of worship”, before a congregation sings together and the term ʻworship setʼ used to refer to the songs that are going to be sung.
It seems there is a narrowing of the scope of ʻworshipʼ, there seems to be an idea creeping in to Christian consciousness that worship = singing; and only that.
It may just be lazy use of words or sloppy terminology, but if we arenʼt careful, we will start forgetting the importance of ʻworshipʼ being a way of living, not just the songs we sing together.

The first use of the word ʻworshipʼ in the bible is in Genesis 22, verse 5, when Abraham “said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
This is before the ʻsacrificeʼ of Isaac, I donʼt imagine Abraham was referring to him and Isaac going off and singing a hymn together, there is more evidence that Abraham was referring to the act of sacrifice he was about to undertake.

The second use of the word is in Genesis 24, it is used in response to generosity from Rebekah to Isaacʼs servant. It says in verse 26 & 27: “Then the man bowed down and worshiped the LORD, saying, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my masterʼs relatives.”

This is very clearly a prayer, a prayer of spoken worship.

Through the Exodus story, Moses constantly asks Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go (out of Egypt) so they could ‘worship God’. Clearly this is more than just singing, they could easily do that in Egypt. The worship was going to be a complete separation of the people from their oppressors and the toxic culture of Egypt, a time to truly worship God. The worship was to include sacrifice and burnt offerings to God (Exodus 10:25) and maybe other things, even Moses says to Pharaoh in v 26 “until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the LORD”.

Many of the references to worship in Genesis and Exodus include ʻbowing downʼ, a symbol consistently used to show reverence and deference to someone of higher authority or to indicate humility.

It is very rare in the scriptures that the word ʻworshipʼ is coupled with singing, not that I am saying that singing isnʼt worship, only Iʼm advocating a much wider use of the word than the narrow term that it seems to be becoming.

Worship breaks down to ʻworthʼ ʻshipʼ – the act of giving something ʻworthʼ, holding something in high esteem or honour and most of the references in the Old Testament refer to one Hebrew word ʻshachahʼ – meaning to bow / fall down / reverence / stoop. It has a wide range of possible meanings but all seem to point to putting yourself in a humble position and lifting up someone or something else. Incidentally, the other word that only occurs in Daniel, translated as worship (KJV) is ʻcgidʼ and has a very specific meaning – to ʻfall down / prostrate yourselfʼ.

The Old Testament definition of worship seems to be completely tied up in, putting something or somebody else above yourself and sometimes above anything else.

Obviously this is relevant and appropriate when thinking about our relationship with God but not always with other things.
The most common Greek word in the New Testament for worship is ʻproskuneoʼ, meaning reverance, to adore, to fall prostrate before, followed by less frequent but still very common ʻsebomaiʼ – to be devout and ʻdoxaʼ, meaning glory, honour or praise.
Again, no mention of singing in any of these uses. Donʼt get me wrong, Iʼm all in favour of singing, I think itʼs an important part of worship, but it doesnʼt seem sensible to refer to worship exclusively as singing when biblically, worship seems to be about a whole way of living and an attitude or posture toward God (when spoken of positively) or other things (when warned against).

Someone once said: “everything is an act of worship, you just choose what you are worshipping”.

I think thatʼs broadly true, we make choices daily what we are holding up as most important. It changes throughout the day and in different seasons of life, for some of us, most of the time itʼs God, and for some others, God gets worshipped very infrequently, perhaps only one day a week when we join others to worship.

Of course, Iʼm no better than anyone else, I need to point the finger at myself more than anyone else. I often worship myself above God – looking after my own needs, desires, vanity before I look to God. I often put technology in a position higher than God, preferring to answer emails or do other things on the computer / phone than focus on my Father in heaven. Some of us put our health or appearance up as an object of worship, some of us houses or cars, holidays, other humans… the list could go on and on.

I think that it is really significant that an act of sacrifice was the first event referred to as worship in the Bible.
Abraham was asked to worship God by sacrificing the thing most precious to him, the thing he had invested everything in, his son Isaac. What is more, it is crucial that we see how Abraham was absolutely prepared to go through with it. God said to him “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore… …and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me”. For believing God, and that being credited to him as righteousness, Abraham was known as a friend of God.

Could I, in the same way, be classed as Godʼs friend? I know I would have failed Abrahamʼs test, I canʼt imagine ever being able to get even close to agreeing to deliberately harm my son or daughter. However, we are called to make sacrifices, we are called to put nothing above God in the things we give worth to, the things we worship. More than that, worship really needs to be a whole approach to life, not just the singing we do together when we meet.

Romans 12:1-2 says it all, more succinctly than I could.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of Godʼs mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what Godʼs will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Live life in a way that puts God at the top in every thought, word and action, thatʼs a life where your whole body is a ʻliving sacrificeʼ, thatʼs a life dedicated to loving God with ʻall your heart, soul, mind and strengthʼ.

Colossians 3:23-24 puts the idea of ʻlife as an act of worshipʼ into context for us: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

For me, too much of the time it is purely aspirational, but through Godʼs grace and the power of His spirit working in us, we can slowly move towards that idea for it to become more of a reality.

Life is an act of worship, not just singing. It might include a fair bit of singing, but please, lets not allow it to stop there and lets not make the mistake of subconsciously accepting that by using lazy language.

This first appeared as an article in the Endeavour Magazine December 2012 Edition (though the language was ancientified by the editor)

For Christians Only

For over 2000 years, the Jesus story has inspired people, spilling over into art, culture, music and many of our institutions, but today’s culture sees it only as part of our history, something to be escaped from, not part of our present to be embraced.

Our job as contemporary Jesus followers is to re-imagine, re-paint, re-compose, re-inspire the next generation by not only describing but displaying the complete and concrete relevance that this story still holds.

It’s time to re-tell the Jesus story in language that today’s ‘post-Christian’, ‘developed west’ can understand as original and vibrant, without allowing it to slip into just another self-help or health & wealth corporate branding message.

The question is how?

The future of our churches is held not just in the hands of the current generation of believers, but also those of the young people who grow up in contact with those believers, be that in our homes, in our youth programmes or just in our neighbourhoods – young people who are exposed to the goodness of Jesus by the things that we do.

One of the problems is that the young people of today are very different to the young people of 30 years ago and vastly different from the young people of 60 years ago.
Not only can this lead to differences of opinion and conflict but, more fundamentally, it gives rise to a completely different perspective and worldview.

Today’s young people are brought up on (sometimes even by) technology. We think nothing of seeing a 2-year-old successfully navigating their way round an iPad, iPhone, ‘cbeebies’ or ‘milkshake’!
The young people of 30 years ago are the ones that watched the workstation become a personal computer and begin its inexorable march into our homes and take its vice-like grip on our lives.
The young people of 60 years ago are mostly still trying to understand which button to press to answer the mobile phone or why the page on the computer screen they were looking at has suddenly disappeared, seemingly for no reason.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many iPad grannies around and plenty of tech-savvy over 70s along with innovative and progressive over 40s, but the mindset of today’s young people, broadly speaking, differs immensely.

I thoroughly recommend Shane Hipps‘ books “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture” and “Flickering Pixels” if you want to understand the changing face of media, just how much media has shaped our lives and how electronic media is shaping the lives of our young people. I would also recommend Gerard Kelly‘s book “Get a Grip on the Future without Losing Your Hold on the Past” as a really good rounded view of changing cultures.

My point is that if, as followers of Jesus, we don’t adapt and change and constantly re-imagine the way we share the incredible, impactful message of God’s love, our churches will wither and die, not because the underlying message is changing but because the ‘same-old, same-old’ approach that today’s young people view as archaic and irrelevant is inaccessible and uninspiring.

That isn’t to say that today’s young people are not passionate about things, it would be wrong to say that today’s young people are not engaged in or concerned with social justice, poverty relief, overcoming injustice and freeing the oppressed (incidentally all the things that Jesus was passionate about and got killed for, see Luke 4:18-19). These problems are close to many young people’s hearts, only, over many years, they haven’t seen enough of the people in the church(es) going about acting this out significantly.

Today’s young people are less interested in what the people in the church say they believe and more interested in observing how the people in the church behave.

They are interested in seeing people who say they are ‘followers’ of Jesus actually following Jesus, i.e. living in a way that honours him and displays him to others.

“Indeed, a quick glance around this broken world makes it painfully obvious that we don’t need more arguments on behalf of God; we need more people who live as if they are in covenant with Unconditional Love, which is our best definition of God.”
Robin R. Meyers, from ‘Saving Jesus from the Church’

There’s always been a lot of talk in the church (take that to encompass any denomination, sect and community) but there hasn’t always been a lot of action, reaffirming people’s underlying view that the church is often no different from the world – just a place for empty rhetoric and endless flavours of ‘church’ to sample to see if it suits me. It ends up catering for consumer Christians, but we don’t need more consumers:

“This is a world long on options, short on substance, offering an unprecedented array of goods & experiences but little that is rooted in the permanent or meaningful”
(Gerard Kelly – ‘Get a grip on the future without losing hold of your past’)

Unfortunately, churches have, in the past, and probably to some extent now, constantly talked about “God’s coming Kingdom”, “Heaven”, “the Kingdom of God”, “the Kingdom of Heaven” or “eternal life”, however you understand it, whatever you want to call it, unfortunately, there’s not been enough practical demonstration of that concept it has generally all been intellectual exploration.

“Eternal life is not just what we’re waiting for – it is not simply a description of the age to come. It is what we live now, when faith and the resurrection power of Christ are at work in us.”
(Gerard Kelly)

So what are we to do?

Firstly, ground our response in scripture:

Galatians 5:6
“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

Start with Loving people, in the way Jesus did, then introduce people to him.

If your devotion to God makes the needs of the world seem more distant, you are in danger that you are expressing escapism, not faith.
(Gerard Kelly – ‘Get a grip on the future without losing hold of your past’)

Taking up the challenge of expressing your faith through love and fulfilling God’s purpose for your life means pursuing your neighbour’s wellbeing in the same way you are pursuing your own wellbeing.

Feeding the poor, playing football, leading worship events, putting on plays, creating art, shopping for old folk, campaigning for justice, creating and using wealth, skateboarding, dancing, writing, recording, singing, clubbing… All these can and do have their legitimate place in God’s purposes. They are transformed into a valid re-imagined way of spreading the Jesus story and taking part in God’s mission when they are done in response to God’s word and in obedience to the guidance of his spirit.

There are and will be many expressions and nuances of this new re-painting of Jesus incredible story for our current generation and we must hold them with open hands as we pass on the baton to the next generation.
I encourage you to share your ideas and expressions of new ways to share the living Jesus in the comments section, here are a couple to go along with.

bless. Business

bless
I spent this morning having breakfast with Gerard Kelly whilst he presented the vision of bless. to a gathered few.

From this breakfast meeting, some incredible salient points came out.

What bless. are doing in Bethanie and in their mission trips into Eastern-Europe is amazing, giving young people a taste for God’s mission in this world by taking them into Eastern-Europe, providing spiritual input and support and processing their experiences together through prayer.

One of the most important things that they have found is the cultural displacement that happens on these trips, which creates change within the missionaries, bearing incredible ‘fruit’ in them, perhaps more and maybe more crucially than the ‘fruit’ that is borne in the communities that they engage with ‘on mission’.
The change in the young people’s circumstances in the mission context in that pivotal time in their lives – the mid teens to mid twenties, seems to lead to greater engagement in and heart for God’s mission in the world and a growth in desire to serve others.

Some of the most dramatic maturing that they have observed in young people who have taken part in bless. programmes has been as the young people discover their usefulness within the team in the micro-community that forms on these mission trips. As they find their place, discover they are needed and accepted, it opens them up to God, and God’s drawing out of their gifts, some of which they themselves were completely unaware of.

bless. have seen that the combination of cultural displacement, serving others, spiritual guidance coupled and sealed with prayer has led to permanent, long-term engagement of people with the mission of God in Europe.

In discussion, the ‘business plan’ (for want of a better phrase) of the project was questioned. People were very much enthused and compelled by Gerard and the bless. vision, but felt the business plan and fundraising model (essentially at this point to raise ~£320,000 by the end of the year), was flawed.

This led me to think about (and incidentally share) the business plan I created and was once asked to give to a friend who was hoping to use some ideas for a university project to create a business plan for a private practice.

So, here it is.

  • Do the best I can for the people that come to see me as a practitioner
  • Trust that God will provide what I need to pay my bills and feed my family
  • Pray the prayer from Proverbs 30:7-9 daily and mean it.

    Two things I ask of you, Lord;
    do not refuse me before I die:
    Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
    Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
    Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.

  • Give away more than I think I can afford to give

I suggested that the tutor probably wouldn’t be too interested in that as a business plan, but I always wanted to say to people who asked “how did you build a successful practice over these years”…
“I didn’t, God did.”

I’ve never gone hungry or without anything we need, God has always provided enough!

In not knowing where the funding for a project (or even your day to day life) is coming from, in not having everything sown up and neatly boxed, you are leaving space for God to work and so often you see something supernatural happen. I feel like that’s always what we are called to do (something I was reminded of by Shaun Groves’ last blog – Accepting no Substitutes), whilst planning and preparation are important, prayer and leaving space for God is more important.

Full reliance and surrender to God , His plans, His pace, His agenda is difficult and scary, but the reward of seeing the movement of God among his people, doing things that can only be attributed to Him is wonderful and powerful.

You can see the vision and the project at http://www.blessnet.eu/125 and I strongly recommend you take part in donating or finding others to donate to the bless. project. The people are honest, worthy, honourable and have such a great heart for the mission of God in Europe (including the UK). The point? Well, bless. are equipping these young people to come back to be the creative leaders of the next generation of Church, instead of them being a ‘missing generation’, they will become a ‘mission generation’ and grow into being the driving force, leading the Church for the next thirty years and more. That’s a long-term plan worth getting involved with.

Blessed are those who mourn

I love the Beatitudes, partly because they are a bit confusing, but mainly because Jesus is announcing something new and fresh and we are often too dull, even now, to fully grasp the newness and freshness of Jesus’ words.

But this one…

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
Matthew 5:4

Sorry, mourning? Just say that again Jesus, I’m blessed when I am mourning? Just what about mourning am I supposed to be feeling good about, what is there about mourning that is a blessing?

It wasn’t until recently that I really understood this beatitude.

I’ve spent parts of the summer in mourning for various reasons. All of them trite and shallow so don’t get thinking that there’s anything to worry about.
I have been in a minor state of mourning because

  1. The Olympics ended
  2. The Paralympics ended
  3. We didn’t have a proper summer

I told you they were inconsequential! However, there is a serious point to this. As I blogged last month, somehow, I came over all tribal and patriotic, weeping at the slightest thing (if you call other people contesting and receiving medals the slightest things). And then when it was all over, I felt profoundly depressed for a while, until the Paralympics, which elicited the same leaking eye symptoms at every TeamGB success. Of course, once again, when it all ended, the blues returned, only allayed by that spectacular US Open win by Andy Murray. Gosh I must sound shallow and vapid, having my whole emotional stability propped up by British sporting achievement.

Anyway, back to the topic. To a certain extent, the ‘comfort’ from mourning came from new, exciting things, fresh success, new records, boundaries pushed, but because they were temporary, because that feeling was based on transient moments and memories, they faded and I was left with the feeling that something was missing once the events were over. Incidentally, there was a very interesting interview with Victoria Pendleton on BBC Radio 5 where she described the same sort of thing for athletes, even after winning Gold or a world championship, they often experience a profound low patch.

I use these fairly light examples to introduce the concept because my journey to truly understanding the beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” is a much deeper, more personal voyage.

I find the re-worded version by Don Davis more helpful to me personally as I can make more practical sense of it based on my own experiences.

Fortunate are those who’s hearts are completely broken over loss, because God Himself will carry their load.

I think perhaps that it is only once you have experienced this that you really understand it, much the same as many other spiritual and relational concepts.

Being comforted and having the pain of loss taken away is not the same thing. Feeling comforted, cared for, held securely in the arms of a loving God does not necessarily mean you will suddenly find all the emotion, heartache, disappointment and sadness disappears.
Being held close to the heart of the divine comforter brings the appreciation of God’s presence with you in the pain and sorrow and God’s presence in the middle of your disquiet brings a profound sense of shalom.

I use the word shalom because, though the literal translation of it is ‘peace’, it means so much more than just ‘peace’. Shalom peace is more than the absence of noise, it is more than calm, it is more than space and shelter, it conveys the distinct sense of everything being in the process of being made right and at one with God, the feeling of comfort, contentment and completeness even in the storm of our own troubles. Shalom is the sensation of wholeness and harmony, homeostasis and symbiosis as God comes to live with and in his good world, this world, the one He is interested in, the one He has been restoring and redeeming and renewing from the beginning.

It was not only on looking back on how God had carried us and our turmoil of emotions, anxiety, feelings of loss and raw, deep, aching heartbreak that we felt His shalom but also at times within the whirlwind. Between 2009 and 2011, we experienced four consecutive miscarriages and within that period there were unmistakable times that the peace of God broke through and it genuinely was like sitting in the eye of a hurricane. Life, life’s problems, life’s emotions and experiences were whirling around on the outside, but the peace of God brought contentment, courage, strength, energy and purpose. Knowing we were not abandoned, but rather, carried, gave us the will to carry on and the desire to choose to live in a way that was not made bitter by our anguish but made better in our response to God’s love and care.

Unfortunately, well meaning and with the best of intentions though they were, lovely, caring people reminding us that ‘at least we had two healthy children’ was not what brought us comfort. The pain of loss in this situation was not reduced in being reminded of what we had and whilst that might sound ungrateful, it really isn’t, it’s just the truth of the raw feelings that we experienced.
There were many wonderful and supportive friends and family that committed to emailing and texting words of gentle encouragement and others that were just there for us, sat with us, cried with us and it was in these moments, we felt the touch of the divine.
When God works in the world He most often works through people and that is our experience, a God who was hurting with us and holding us close to Him, making his presence felt through the people that propped us up and clung on to us to make sure we didn’t fall.

Being comforted in mourning and therefore blessed, being fortunate when our hearts were completely broken over loss, because God carried our load and brought us shalom, was an experience I wouldn’t change for anything despite the pain and tears, maybe even because of what I learned through the agony and weeping.

My main reason for writing this is not to open wounds or start a dialogue about our past but in knowing that there are bound to be many people in many and various situations, going through many trials, sorrows, excruciating pain, loss, relationship issues etc. Much of the time, when you are in the middle of it, you can’t see the end, you can’t see a way out, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and even if you can, you suspect it is a train approaching in the opposite direction. But my point is that you can get through it, it will be ok, when everything seems lost and broken, lying shattered on the floor around your feet, God is still God and God is still Good and He will find a way to redeem you and your situation however bad it may seem.
It may take some time, it may take many different things, maybe even including; counselling, swallowing your pride, seeking or offering forgiveness, reaching out in utter, helpless desperation or just surrendering everything into the hands of the one who promises to “never leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6), but somehow, some way, it will be alright. I can speak from experience, even after the fourth miscarriage and rather scary aftermath, it was ok, God made sure we were still ok, it wasn’t what we planned, it wasn’t what we wanted, our hopes and dreams were in tatters, but still, God was still with us and even in mourning, we felt that comfort, we felt fortunate that God carried our load. Without that, what hope could we have had?

Perhaps strangely, the passage that gave me most comfort was from Daniel. In Daniel 3, Daniel’s friends are told to worship the image that king Nebuchadnezzar had made or face being thrown into the furnace. When they don’t worship the image, the king threatens them with the furnace again and their response is this:

“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Daniel 3:16-18

Daniel’s friends choose to worship God because they believed that their circumstances don’t change who or what God is. Worshipping isn’t always a reaction, a heartfelt response or an emotional connection, sometimes it is a choice. In the middle of the sadness and despair that we faced between 2009 and 2011, we chose still to worship God because we understand that what happens to us doesn’t change who and what God is. God is still God. God is still Good. Bad things, unpleasant things, unplanned things, painful things may happen to us, but that doesn’t change who God is.
In those years of uncertainty and sadness, we learned to personalise and pray the prayer of Daniel’s friends:

“The God we serve is able to deliver us from our situations, able to take away the pain and tears, able to ‘fix’ everything for us and make it all the way we want it… but even if He doesn’t, we will still worship Him.”

So take heart, during and after all sorts of troubles and difficulties in life, it can be alright and it will be alright.
I’m not pretending it is easy, as I already said, the pain continues to be very real and very obvious, but we found that even in the thickest fog of despair, the deepest chasm of sorrow, the murkiest waters of upturned aspirations, you are still loved by God. You are, by His grace and sometimes only by His people, still held close to the steady, rhythmical beat of His heart and offered access to an endless peace, serenity and comfort. Trust God, be open to His presence and the work of His spirit in your life, and you will feel the shalom that He brings.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Fortunate are those who’s hearts are completely broken over loss, because God Himself will carry their load.

Something wrong with me

I think there’s something wrong with me.

Last Friday, we watched the opening ceremony for the Olympics. I thought it was excellent, very well pitched and overall, a great reflection on lots of the good bits about Britain.

While I was watching it, I was, at some (many) moments tearing up. I could feel the lump in my throat, eyes starting to water! I had to tell myself to get a grip and pull myself together.

Saturday morning, while Jacob was catching up on the previous night’s ceremony via BBC iPlayer, I was getting all emotional again, at the same parts!

I’m not sure what or why, but that’s what happened and I’m sure that something in me is broken, I’ve gone all soft.

Worse still, every time I’ve been watching events or listening on the radio and Team GB athletes have been winning medals, the same thing has been happening!!! I can’t work out whether they are tears of joy or just being an emotional wreck who needs a bit more sleep.

Anyway, now I’ve given myself a good talking too, it won’t happen again and I thought I should post something improving.

I have been seriously impressed not just with the opening of the games but also with the dedication and commitment of the athletes. Obviously, particularly Team GB, who I find myself inexplicably getting all tribal and patriotic about, and tears aside, it is obvious from the reactions of the athletes how much effort they have put in to get where they are and how much winning a medal (or missing out on a medal) means to them.

Cruel events like the Silver medal being snatched from the grasp of the GB gymnastics team on a technical appeal, the slightly harsh (IMHO) disqualification of Varnish / Pendleton in the women’s track cycling sprint event, the millisecond difference between Gold, Silver & Bronze in the Rowing Men’s 8 final all go to emphasise the emotional as well as physical investment that the athletes have put into their disciplines.

This brings into even starker light the shameful actions of the badminton pairs that were disqualified for not trying hard enough so they could get an easier next round. When the honour of all the athletes, coaches & officials has been promised at their pledges in the opening ceremony, it’s a great shame that this sort of thing happens against the contrast of the endeavour that the rest of the competitors are putting in.

This leaves me with a sort of uneasy paradox. The olympic adage coined by Pierre de Coubertin: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part, for the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well” Is true and important and the integrity of all the people involved is at stake.

But…

Winning is important, don’t tell me winning isn’t important, all you have to do is look at the faces of the athletes that do win and the ones that miss out to see how important winning is. Winning fairly within the rules is priceless.

At the risk of sounding cliched and being accused of jumping on the olympic band-waggon, it’s possible for everyone to win, no, not at the olympics but in something more important and more lasting.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
1 Corinthians 9:24+25

The journey is as important as the destination, living well, finishing well is very important, but the prize is also important, the aim, the goal, the destination is crucial. If we aren’t aiming at the right things, what hope have we got.

Likewise, if all we are doing is aiming at the goal and using nefarious ways to achieve the prize, we have also missed the focus. The two have to go hand in hand, so that we can eventually speak with Paul

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day —and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:7+8

Let this olympic season not just inspire the next generation of athletes but the next generation of God-fearing disciples who are willing to live like Jesus as they walk on into eternity, experiencing a life inspired by resurrection, affirming “this life and the next as a seamless reality
embraced
graced
and saved by God.”*

(*quotes are Rob Bell’s words)

My Sister

Abi Emmens-Green is my sister.

That is a good thing.

If you don’t have a sister, I recommend you implore your parents to give you one. If they are too old to acquiesce to your request, adopt one, find one, maybe even catch one, you won’t regret it.
If you have fallen out with yours, pull your finger out and make-up, you owe it to yourself and to her to patch things up because sisters are really a mighty blessing.

Sisters are incredible beings, speaking from >33 yrs of experience, I can honestly say that sisters rank among the top 5 things in the world (other contenders include God, parents, spouses, children).

So let me eulogise for a moment about the one blood sister I have. I do have one sister-in-law and a number of other females that I would class as sisters by marriage(s) in the family, all of which I have great affection and respect for, but, no criticism intended at all, none of them can hold a candle to Abi.

Abi & I are wired the same, in respect to humour, protestant work ethic, creativity, taste, (I could go on) and that definitely helps a great deal with us getting on, but most of all, I think the primary reason(s) that we get on so well is because Abi is older, wiser, more mature, more lovely and more humble than me.

Abi makes me laugh, she’s never made me cry (that I can remember, except tears of joy or laughter) but I’ve cried with her and for her and on her and have been a shoulder to cry on for her.

Abi builds me up. She is unselfish and kind and always has a sensible word to say, an apposite bit of advice to give, some astute guidance to offer. Whether we are together or apart, Abi always looks to uplift and encourage me and doesn’t try to pull the rug from under my feet or cut me down. Even when I need my feet putting back on the ground or bringing down a peg or two, Abi finds a way to bring out the positive and gently point me in the right direction.

A rare quality Abi has is in finding ways to be encouraging in any ‘criticism’. It is an incredible gift that she can inspire and be positive in the way she critiques or disagrees with things and that’s something that disarms me, stops me being defensive and then makes me a better person.

Abi is creative and wonderful to work with, I wish we could live closer together so we could work together on stuff more often because just being with Abi gives me lots of ideas.
In fact many of my ideas turn out to be crazy and one of the best things ever about Abi is that she can see / hear one of my crazy ideas and twist it slightly and turn it to deep, helpful, spiritual ends. It’s another gift she has and I remember it from way back when we had a small bible study group in London, when I was a student; I’d say something crazy / mad / funny, just for laughs, and Abi would turn it into some profound spiritual point within 20 seconds.

“This woman must be a saint” I hear you say! And you are right, and I’ll fight bare-fisted anybody who dares to contradict.

She may have flaws, but doesn’t everyone!? She is probably too dedicated / conscientious and probably a bit too generous and definitely has problems with saying ‘no’ when asked to do some things she probably ought not.

I’m not sure what prompted me particularly to write this but maybe I just thought Abi needed reminding how much she is loved and how much she is needed and she probably didn’t want it broadcasting publicly, but if I can’t embarrass my own sister by shouting about how wonderful she is then the internet shouldn’t exist!

Proverbs 7:4 says: “Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and to insight, “You are my relative.”

I’m going to do something very naughty by hacking scripture.

“Say to my sister, “You are wisdom,” and to my relative, “You are insight.”

Abi… You Rock.

Word Power

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”

I have no idea who came up with that little rhyme, but you try telling that to a thirteen year-old schoolboy who is relentlessly, verbally bullied by his peers because of some minor difference in his life compared to theirs.
It won’t wash, very quickly, his eyes will glaze over or you’ll get a terse “whatever”.
Perhaps more accurate is the adage coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839:

“The pen is mightier than the sword”

Words have power. Written words have huge power as we can see from the intense and profound effect that the modern era and the printing press have had on our current ‘postmodern’ age. We still heavily draw on textbooks and written material in our education system, we place immense value on reading and writing in our society and those that fall short are often marginalised in the adult world of jobs and employment.

Perhaps not as widely recognised though, is the incredible power of the spoken word. Stories that we share are full of power and meaning, but more than that, the words we speak out loud have the capacity to shape not just our relationships and interactions, but our lives and the lives of others too.

Think of the power words have to break things in ourselves.

To speak out loud the words “hi, I’m Alex and I’m an alcoholic” names the person, the problem and gives ownership of it. All the rehab step-programmes use this style of introduction because something once secret or denied, when spoken out loud no longer imposes the same grip over us.
If we speak truth out loud, we expose the habit, problem or inner thought and make it public, maybe we are then slightly vulnerable and more importantly, we become accountable to those around us, which gives the words the power to re-programme our brains to overcome the difficulty.

Sometimes, we speak out to break a bad thing or air an issue we are having. Words are powerful.

Words are also powerful to build. When we vocalise the words “I can do this” or “I will overcome my addiction” or a relatively well known rallying cry of tour-de-France cyclist Jens Voigt “shut up legs”, we emphasise our ability to prevail. Speaking our thoughts out loud increases the power of the words and backs up the positive “I can do it”.

The same can be said for other people. If our own words can affect us so deeply, think how they can affect others.
The words we speak to our children have huge impact. Encouragement or chastisement, both are appropriate at different times but spoken out loud or even written down, they have incredible power.

And so also the words we use to each other are not just poignant or appropriate, but powerful and meaningful. A few words of encouragement to a friend can have incredible weight, but also, one word can slay people and destroy self-esteem or confidence.

So be careful what you say and maybe make the effort to think first to make the words that come out of your mouth ones that lift people up and spur them on rather than discourage and cut them down.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire…

…With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
James 3:3-6 & 9-10

Showing how we’re saved.

Max Lucado writes daily ‘blessings’ or ‘devotionals’ – little short, spiritually uplifting thoughts, one a day, and I find them very useful.

Here’s one from 28th March 2012

A person is made right with God through faith.

If you’re trying to save yourself—you never know for sure about anything.

If you’ve hurt enough. Wept enough. Learned enough. Those who’re trying to save themselves promote themselves.

Those saved by works display works.

Those saved by suffering unveil scars.

And those saved by doctrine—well—you got it. They wear their doctrines on their sleeves.

Dare you stand before God and ask him to save you because of your suffering or your sacrifice or your tears or your study?

Neither do I. Nor did Paul.

Good works, suffering, or study may be the result of salvation, they’re not the cause of it!

How will you escape God’s judgment? One way: through faith in God’s sacrifice.

It’s not what you do—it’s what He did!
(Max Lucado)

Those lines 1/3 of the way through really struck a chord.

Those saved by works display works.

Those saved by suffering unveil scars.

And those saved by doctrine—well—you got it. They wear their doctrines on their sleeves.
(Max Lucado)

These words got me thinking. They are so true, and you can see so obviously how each individual Christian responds to the good news by the way they behave.

So I just wanted to add to Max’s words as an encouragement to myself to be a little more like Jesus and a little less like me.

Those saved by faith display faith.

Those saved by grace show grace.

Those saved by Jesus begin to look like him a little bit more every day.

It’s a gradual, natural progressive change that we undergo as God works in us by His spirit.

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
(2 Corinthians 3:18)

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