[un]conscious-stream[ing]

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

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Deserving vs Entitled

I know this person.

They are, for want of a better phrase, quite incredible. They have an oxbridge degree, probably a Masters unless I’m much mistaken. They do that triathlon thing (shudders at the thought). They are intelligent, thoughtful, humble to the point of self-effacing, even self-critical, they are well spoken, kind, present themselves well and are thoroughly in the ‘good looking’ camp. The sun shines out of their smile and they write. I don’t mean just they write stuff, but they craft words in an incisive, creative, original, thought-provoking, non-selfimportant or self-indulgent or obsequious, quite excellent really, kind of way.

In fact, I know two of them. Both have that wordsmith quality, the ‘let me read the next bit because I want to imbibe more of those carefully sculpted sentences’.

Both of these lovely people, despite their delightful way with language, have struggled to land decent jobs or indeed hold on to jobs they have had (for various and disparate reasons). Now this second person, probably due to a more ‘devil-may-care’ attitude to the whole situation and scenario might have gone about things slightly differently if they were really serious about getting a job, but the end result is that they applied for over 400 jobs with no positive outcome. (see http://curriculumvitiate.wordpress.com [you will have to excuse the expletives if you are offended by them, just ignore them, it’s not your place to judge just because of a few f-bombs or other profanity]). Now you have hopefully calmed down and wiped the tears of laughter from your eyes; I know this chap, he is absolutely diamond to the core, borderline complete genius, unconventional but brilliant and great fun to be with. It might be clear to you why a job was not forthcoming but he is now gainfully employed in something that is satisfying, enjoyable and fulfilling to him (I think).

But back to my other dear friend. They have put considerable effort not just into their education, but also into job hunting, attending interviews, submitting their written material to agents etc. but to no avail. Their approach was more conventional, less confrontational you might say than the fellow you have (hopefully) just read from. Indeed, you might think and I have on many occasions… “Why on earth has nobody snapped up this gem of a person to employ them?”
It seems odd and has, I know, been disheartening, that, not content to collect Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), they have sought work and sought it pretty hard.

If you ask me, if anyone deserves a job, this person does. In fact, if you have a job going, let me know and I will request a CV to be sent to you!

It all seems a little unfair.

I also met someone else recently.

This person seems to have a different approach to their situation. They seem to be completely content without employment. They claim their JSA and numerous other benefits and every two weeks look forward to what they call ‘pay-day’. (I believe that in some sections of society, this is the term used for dole / benefit payments.) But seriously… ‘pay-day’, makes me want to ask “what are you being ‘paid’ for when you do no work?”
I’m not judging [ok, maybe I am a bit but I am trying not to], don’t get me wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be any desire to look for a job, even less actively go out to secure one. The posture is one of entitlement; “I am owed” by someone or something I’m not sure, I don’t want to elaborate and give specific examples but there are plenty.

And so we observe the awkward paradox.

Two incredibly gifted people, highly intelligent, university graduates struggle to get work, though they desperately want to be working.
One other person slipping into the trap of thinking that they are owed or entitled to the rest of society (via government hand-outs) supporting them not working.

Deserving people finding it impossible to land jobs.
Passive, inactive person content, maybe even feeling justified or having a right to ‘free money’.

It seems a little unbalanced and perhaps to our mind, unfair.

On the one hand, our ‘entitled’ example falling foul of the concept in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Yet perhaps ending up in the situation highlighted in a famous Russian political joke, “the authorities pretend they are paying wages, workers pretend they are working.” Motivation is diminished where benefits are so easily claimed.

Yet on the other hand, the two, eager to be employed, diligently putting in the leg work seem to have the experience that flies in the face of Proverbs 6:10-12 “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” They worked hard for no reward or recompense!

You were expecting a neat answer, a solution, a tidy ending with all loose ends tied up.

I’m sorry to disappoint, sometimes we have to hold things with open hands to allow the paradoxes and inconsistencies of life to exist without resolving everything to our ordered way.

Maybe someone has an answer. Until they share it with me, I’m just going to be praying for my friends, that the hard work will pay off and they will be rewarded with the right job, and my acquaintances, that they might learn the value of earning a living as opposed to accepting an existence.

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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

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.

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)

Vengeance and Retribution

Say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
(Isaiah 35:4 NIV)

I read this the other day with some degree of confusion.

Partly because in my experience of God and in my reading of the bible, I understand a loving God who is less vengeful and retributive, and more compassionate and gracious. Mostly informed by passages likeExodus 34:6, Psalm 145:8, Nehemiah 9:7, Lamentations 3:33 and 2 Peter 3:9 (among others).

The other part was the slight paradox of God ‘saving’ people with ‘divine retribution’. I’m not sure how that works. Some of the other translations have references to ‘destroying enemies’, but again, I’m faced with the dilemma of trying to reconcile a forgiving God with one that wants to crush and mash, not easy concepts to hold together.

The word translated here as “retribution” in the NIV is the Hebrew ‘gmuwl’ (ghem-ool’) and comes from the root concept of service or requital and seems semantically to fall closer to the meanings ‘benefit’, ‘desert’ (i.e. just deserts – given what was due), ‘deserving’, ‘recompense’, or ‘reward’.

Reading on the surface, there is a surprising paradox from “vengeance” to “divine reward”.

This is where digging below the surface a bit more reveals something almost as surprising again. The word “vengeance” in Hebrew is ‘naqam’ (naw-kawm’), it is rooted in concepts of revenge, avenging, and quarrel. This word is most commonly translated as ‘avenge’ which, as a concept of ‘bringing justice’ or ‘righting wrongs’ does seem to be falling more into line with the way God describes himself in the passages previously mentioned above.

Where does that leave this scripture in Isaiah? I suppose it could now read like this:

Say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come bringing justice;
with divine reward
he will come to save you.”
(Isaiah 35:4)

And so we see once again, God is not a vengeful, furious, angry monster in need of placation that wants to smash and crush and squish us all because we are all disgusting sinners, he is something entirely different. When we start to understand who God really is and what he is really like, perhaps we see that some of the ideas we have been fed over the years skew the true consistent picture into something man-made.

The ‘vengeance’ of God is in bringing freedom – God’s avenging – his ‘justice bringing’ comes in rewarding those with “feeble hands”, “fearful hearts” and unsteady knees by “opening the eyes of the blind, unstopping the ears of the deaf” etc.

Here’s the whole chapter from Isaiah (with my bold alterations based on the above exploration)

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come bringing justice;
with divine reward
he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and those the LORD has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Isn’t that the true picture of ‘Shalom’ – true peace, harmony of all things, joy, release of suffering and pain!?

That’s the picture painted by the God that I know and love and partner with in his rebuilding and restoring of this world.

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