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

Category Archives: encouragement

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.

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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.

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)

Holy Ground


I was a great fan of the classic 80s TV cartoon “Spiderman and His Amazing Friends” when I was growing up, but there was one of the characters that I particularly aspired to be – ‘Ice Man’. Spiderman was pretty cool with all his swinging on his webs, though I struggled to see what the other ends stuck to, and tangling up the bad guys ready for the police to pick them up, but ‘Ice Man’ was the persona I assumed in the school yard at break time. Very much like ‘Frozone’ from the 2004 movie ‘The Incredibles’, ‘Ice Man’ was able to produce a constant stream of frozen water from his outstretched hands upon which to skate from place to place, slipping up criminals and blocking the pathway or projectiles of the evil nemesis of the week. It was this ability to provide his own personal path that attracted me to ‘Ice Man’ and eventually, inevitably, I began my habit of discovering the spiritual within the ‘secular’.

In Exodus 3, God calls to Moses from the middle of a burning bush. It should probably be noted that it was effectively a non-burning bush, the bush was on fire but was not burned up.
However, God calls Moses over and then says to him “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Moses was probably fairly surprised. Firstly, there was a voice coming from a bush that was on fire but not being consumed. Secondly, the voice knew his name and thirdly, It told him that the ground on which he was standing, ground he had probably passed over many hundreds of times over the forty years he spent as a shepherd, was ‘holy’.

Moses, at this time in his life was a failure. He was a prince-turned-shepherd, the very antithesis of upwards social mobility. It was the equivalent of Moses playing caste snakes and ladders and stumbling onto the snake at square 99 that took him right back to the beginning. Shepherds were, culturally, in this historical context, not far from the vagrants or homeless of our contemporary society. If you spotted a shepherd you might have crossed the track because they spent their time with smelly sheep, sleeping in the dust and dirt, tramping through dung and whatever else to take the sheep to the next pasture or waterhole.

Yet still, the voice spoke to Moses, called him by name and said: “Take off your shoes, you stand on holy ground.” Moses knew he wasn’t holy, he knew he was a murderer and a coward, he knew he was a traitor and a runaway. Moses ran to Midian to escape punishment from either Egyptian or Israelite sources, that’s not the actions of a ‘Holy’ man.

Yet still, the voice spoke to Moses, called him by name and said: “Take off your shoes, you stand on holy ground.” The Hebrew for ‘holy’ – ‘qodesh’ (incidentally, the first use of it in the bible) literally means ‘separate’ or ‘sacred’ or ‘set apart’, which wouldn’t have made much sense to poor Moses. Moses knew the ground wasn’t ‘holy’, he had walked it many times with his sheep and ground is far from ‘holy’ once sheep have trodden it down. Moses knew that this dust, mud, scrubland – wilderness was, aside of the asbestos bush, essentially, completely ordinary, very different to ‘holy’.

Yet still, the voice spoke to Moses, called him by name and said: “Take off your shoes, you stand on holy ground.”

What was God teaching Moses in this experience?

The ground on which Moses was standing was made holy not by the presence of Moses.
It was not made holy because of the place it was, because of the particular area of Midian or because of some special attributes.
Moses stood on ground made Holy because of the presence of God.

The very special thing about Moses’ experience was that God came to meet him, not the other way round.
When God presented himself to Moses, he asked him to connect to the ground on which he stood there and then, by removing his shoes.
God wanted Moses to appreciate the ordinariness of the ground on which he stood, the ground on which he walked and worked, the ground he was accustomed to, familiar with, comfortable on and to connect it to the place to which God was calling him.

God was asking Moses to connect with God in the place he stood and connect that place with where God was calling him to be.

The same call comes to us too, not just echoing through the centuries and the scriptures but clearly, boldly in the here and now of our everyday lives. God calls to us in our lives and in our places of work, rest or play and speaks the same sobering, yet vibrant and exciting words.

Do you constantly feel or have you been constantly told that you are ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ or ‘too worldly’ or ‘too spiritual’ or ‘too clever’ or ‘too thick’ or ‘too good’ or ‘too bad’ or ‘too liberal’ or ‘too conservative’ to be connected to the mission of God?

To each of you, God says: “Holy Ground” The ground on which you stand is made holy not by your presence, not because of where it is, but by God’s presence as he comes to you to meet you where you are.

What’s your position or place now and where do you think you are heading?
What is your whole life circumstance in which God comes to you and says: “Holy Ground”?
What can you see now that can connect to somewhere God might be calling you to?

Can you hear the love call of God saying: “Take off your shoes, you stand on holy ground”?

How could you find ways to listen out more carefully in your life to God’s call?

Whilst it could easily be argued that the whole world is ‘holy’ as “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), the personal, intimate presence of God does make a profound difference.
I like to imagine my life journey with God as a constant walk through a continuous stretch of ‘holy ground’ being laid out in front of me.
In much the same way that ‘Ice Man’ created a frozen pathway for his feet, God paves the way ahead of me with his footsteps and says: “walk in my footprints, take off your shoes, you walk, with me on holy ground.”

(First published in Endeavour Magazine, December 2011 Edition)

Jubilee Economics

Jesus walks into a Synagogue and starts reading from Isaiah. (Sounds like the beginning of a joke doesn’t it!)

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Isaiah 61

And then he rolls up the scroll and sits down again!

This section in Luke 4:16-20 ends with the sentence:

The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him…

To which I would add “I bet they were!”

The Jesus story is well known, maybe not this bit, but much of it, yet the audacity of Jesus’ action here – coming in and reading only a few sentences from Isaiah’s prophecy, never ceases to have an impact on me.

The people in the synagogue would have wondered what in the world was going on.

The hindsight that we can view this passage from gives us a lot of perspective and the rest of the story, because most people (Christians especially) already know the ‘ending’, ends up detracting from the cultural, historical power that Jesus’ next words carried.

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Picture it: Israel as a whole was occupied by a suppressive Roman presence. Perhaps the most potent section of the ‘great prophet’ – Isaiah – the most venerated among the ancient voices, was being firmly pushed in their faces by a comparatively young upstart Rabbi. He was claiming to be the one who was bringing “good news to the poor freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed.” That he was “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour” possibly passed them by in their surprise.

But in many ways, that’s the really important bit! The ‘Year of the Lord’s favor’ is another way of saying ‘Jubilee’ as described in Leviticus 25.
Jesus was claiming that in his coming, true Jubilee was being declared.
The picture of Jubilee in Leviticus is one that encompassed some of the other things Isaiah spoke of, namely; freedom from slavery, cancelling debts, returning land to it’s historical family’s ownership. A vision of a utopian paradise where justice and equality were maintained, where the next generation of people were given another chance to get it right if their parents had messed up or a chance to make their own living rather than have it left to them by their well-to-do ancestors. Debts and bad decisions never lasted more than a generation – 50 years, and everyone got a huge party and a clean slate at least once in their lifetime.

Who wouldn’t want a part of that?

I was recently pointed towards this talk by Walter Bruggeman at Mars Hill and found it compelling, encouraging and challenging in equal measure. I say “found” but really I mean “find” because the clarity and freshness of his words loose nothing in the third, fourth or even fifth hearing.

Brueggeman encourages the Mars Hill community to re-vision what a ‘new Jerusalem’ might look like in the contemporary picture of failed economics and a society that has ruined itself on greed and corruption. The talk was given just after the ‘sub-prime‘ fallout and collapse of Freddy Mac & Fannie May in 2008, but I think it’s just as pertinent now as we watch the possible failure or even complete disintegration of the European Economic Community. In Brueggeman’s words, the message of Isaiah is teased out for the present, reminding us that God’s Kingdom is designed, not as an exclusive gentleman’s club where only the ‘pure and true Israelites’ (see Ezra Ch4:3, Ch7:10 and Ch9) were allowed in, but where even the people with “messed up sexuality”, those eunuchs that had ‘sold out to babylon’, compromised themselves to work in the King’s harem, the ‘foreigners’ (Isaiah 56:3-7) were also welcome. The only caveats that Isaiah includes are those of keeping Sabbath and of ‘neighbourliness’. That is, not being people that are preoccupied with production and consumption, of being stuck in the 24/7 world of consumerism, but in being people that are practicing the principals of jubilee. I love that one of Brueggeman’s key points was that our neighbourliness needs to impact our “private economic wellbeing”. If we don’t really feel any impact on our own quality of life when we give, are we giving enough? That’s not a rhetorical question, but it’s one I feel is worth (me at least) grappling with.

I would strenuously encourage you to listen to Brueggeman’s talk, it’s excellent.

Jesus’ arrival in the world, though he speaks out the words of Isaiah and embodied the prophesy, did not herald the completing of the fullness of God’s plan. We still live in a world where all the things Jesus said were ending in this proclamation are still going on, perhaps even more so.
Jesus’ proclamation of ‘Jubilee’ was as much a declaration of his own presence to begin the process of restoration as it was a promise of a future free from injustice, inequality or exclusivity.

No wonder the people at the time had some difficulty accepting the message, the same difficulty that people today still struggle with. We are too used to things being finished and all wrapped up in our time. We are impatient for the promise to be a current reality, but, much like the last episode of spooks, no matter what the fallout, no matter what struggles we face, life goes on. Our Job is to find ways to bring foretastes of the Kingdom of God into this world while we await it’s triumphant arrival. Can we do a better job than Israel who never managed to act out Jubilee?

Let’s live Jubilee lives, the world can’t afford to live ‘The Dream’ (especially not ‘The American Dream’), but we can all do with getting to grips with some individual redistribution here and now.

Jesus began the work of jubilee living by pouring himself out for the world – John says as Jesus approaches “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

Can we continue the jubilee principals in our lives – giving generously and unselfishly to spread out the excess we have to those that need it?

Isaiah’s vision of Jubilee, pointed at the Israelite’s returning to their land, it pointed at Jesus, it pointed at us and it is still pointing beyond to the return of our King.

See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labour in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.
Isaiah 65:17-25

Third World Symphony

Shaun-Groves-Third-World-Symphony-iTunes-banner-728x90

Before 16th September 2011, I had never heard any music by Shaun Groves!
However, I have been a regular reader of his blog for several years.
In the process of releasing his latest album, Shaun had released various pre-mastered, development versions of his song “All is Grace“, none of which I listened to, yet I still bought the album. In fact, I pre-ordered the album and then I bought it on iTunes too.

Before you think I’m completely mad doing this, there are two reasons why I chose to do this.

  1. I wanted to listen to the album in its entirety without any previous Shaun Groves music experience so I could write as objective a review as possible.
  2. I bought into the reasons Shaun was writing the music, I resonate completely with the way he lives and the principals he subscribes to and the background to why he wrote the album.

The reason I went “crazy” not only contributing to the ‘Kickstarter’ project to raise money for Shaun to record in the first place and pre-ordering the CD, but also buying the digital version was that I believe in what Shaun was doing / trying to do / is doing.

So Here goes.

Since I bought it, I’ve listened to almost nothing else on my iPod (save for a couple of Mars Hill / Gerard Kelly podcasts). Because the album is that good.

The album as a whole is ‘bite-sized’, it takes just over 37 minutes to listen to which is, I think comparatively short in album terms. That’s no criticism, I like how you can listen to the whole thing fairly quickly and have a really nice overview of the music and lyrics.

The things that most struck me about the album as a whole are the clarity of Shaun’s voice and the excellent instrumental balance throughout. I really love the mandolin and banjo in there and the rhythm section discreetly sets the whole thing off very well.
Somehow, though it’s all new music, new songs, new words, none of which I’d heard before, the album immediately had a familiarity which I can only attribute to the fantastic ability of the profoundly gifted songwriter and musically mature creative spirit that Shaun shows himself to be in this album.

The only drawback for me, which is purely a personal preference is the flute on some of the tracks. Possibly because it seems from the credits that it must have been a synthesized flute not a real one (I might need to be corrected by Shaun on that?) but possibly because I have an incomprehensible, inexplicable dislike of the flute.

Initially I thought that there were too many ‘2 bars intro then add the vocals’ type of tracks, but the more I listen to it, the less that strikes me and I think the balance of differing styles of the songs fit really neatly together.

On to the individual tracks. All lyrics can be found at the Third World Symphony lyrics page.

  1. All Is Grace
    What an opener! (aside of my mild annoyance at the flute bit) Every time I listen to this track, I get shivers down my spine. The clear tone of Shaun’s voice, coupled with the lovely jangle of the mandolin makes a beautiful rolling, building song that naturally climaxes through the choruses and the unresolved ending is so completely fitting. Leaving the end of the song on an unresolved chord immediately gives me images of this ongoing journey, echoing the sentiments of the lyrics that “You have loved us all so We love all”, It’s not a process that is finished, It’s something that continues daily, hourly, remembering the Love God has for us, evoking our response to love others as part of our expression of love for God.
    My lovely wife was slightly confused by the breathy way that Shaun sings “All” for “All is grace”, making it sound a bit like “Hall is grace”. For me, I quite like it but then I knew the title and the lyrics and she didn’t when she first heard it.
  2. Come By Here
    Another ripsnorter of a song, it’s catchy it sticks in your head, the words again are delicately sung and right ‘on the button’: a plea for God to bring his Kingdom here on earth sooner, not for selfish reasons or personal gain, but for the good of the world, especially the downtrodden and rejected.
    I particularly love the tinglefactor that I get from the combination of the musical pause and Shaun’s impassioned “come and meet us here” at the beginning of the final chorus.
  3. Kingdom Coming
    With similar sentiments to the previous song, I might have put this song much later in the album, maybe even at the end, not just because of that, but also because of the cascading, more fully orchestral-style climax of the song, which lends it to be a bit of a ‘showstopper’ or finale piece. Once again, I like the open, unresolved chord that it ends on, musically creating the expectation, the anticipation and eagerness for God’s Kingdom to come fully as well as the ongoing call for it to come through us in the way we live.
  4. Sing
    Another solid, catchy melody. I like the song, I don’t have a lot else to say about it!
  5. Awake My Soul
    Shaun has infused this song with ‘essence of good quality indy-brit-pop’ and reminded me of all the bits of Radiohead that I really enjoyed. The feeling of the chord sequences took me back to (weirdly enough) “Karma Police” from “OK Computer” though quite different in content! The other song it brought back to me was “True Love” by “Phil Wickham” which is probably a more flattering comparison.
    Similarities to other songs to one side, I love this song, the haunting tune and guitar with plenty of reverb on it give it the feeling of a passionate appeal to the apathetic heart of middle-class, wealthy, comfortable Christianity to really respond to the longing love call of our intimate God.
  6. I’ve Got You
    I think this song is lovely. Shaun wrote a blog post about what inspired him to write that track and reading it, combined with the simple beauty of this song, both musically and lyrically, never ceases to soften my hard, cold, cynical heart.
    As soon as I get a link to the original post (because it has disappeared!) I’ll stick it in here, it’s worth reading.
  7. Enough
    This song is fantastic in every way even though the upbeat, bouncy tune seems to be slightly out of keeping with the subject material in my mind. First time I heard it, it made me think of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” (also a fabulous track).
    The theology behind the song is so right and yet so far from the experience of so many western Christians and more to the point non-Christian observers. Which is a shame but also the very reason EVERYBODY needs to listen to this album. Shaun Writes here and here about ‘Enough’ (and in plenty of other places in his blog). Shaun is a man that lives what he believes and it’s a fantastic way to show the Gospel – your life displays the Gospel of Jesus when it looks like good news for other people, not just yourself.
  8. No Better
    This might be my least favourite song on the album, (despite the great mandolin work) though I do still like it. Partly because I’ve never really got into country or bluegrass and partly because I guess it speaks most revealingly to my own vulnerabilities, sins and shortcomings. When a song like this shines it’s spotlight on your life, it gets pretty uncomfortable. For me, it’s a timely reminder not to judge others, because as Shaun says “I’m no better”.
    That said, the chorus is pretty catchy and sticks in the head. One other thing… it seems to end a bit abruptly.
  9. Down Here
    Listening to ‘Down Here’ always brings a lump to my throat and I’ve been pretty close to tears a few times. It’ beautiful and compelling, music fits the words like a glove and the symphonic nature of the climactic second chorus is something of a musical masterpiece.
    The epilogue section of the song really rounds it off to be filled with truth and hope, the kind of hope that speaks to the heart of all people that ‘death does not have the last word’ because we believe in resurrection and in the words of Rob Bell, “resurrection announces that God has not given up on the world”.
  10. Just as I am
    Shaun added this traditional song at the end of the album for some very good reasons. And I won’t steal his words so you can read them for yourselves here and here.
    I really love this version of the song with Shaun’s extra words.

I mentioned my lovely wife earlier, and she’s generally not a massive fan of music that isn’t classical in genre, being a very talented lady with an honours degree in music, but she really liked the album too. A definite sign it’s really, really, really good.

You really should buy this album, from iTunes, or Amazon or Direct.
I Promise, Promise Promise I’m not getting any commission. Shaun doesn’t even know me, but You Have to hear it, buy it, support it. And if you like, Go sponsor a child too, it’s a really good and fun thing to do.

Listen to the album below.
Third World Symphony by shaungroves

Move over Tycho Brahe, Shaun Groves is my new hero

He may not be a world renowned astronomer, he may not wear a false copper-alloy nose, he probably doesn’t own an alcoholic elk, and I’m darn sure he doesn’t have a clairvoyant dwarf to entertain his dinner guests, but Shaun Groves is alive now and he has just released what I personally would describe as one of the most important albums of all time!!

If that sounds pretty extravagant in praise, you haven’t hear the album yet, nor do you know all the background behind it.
If you want to get the low-down on why and how this album was ‘squeezed out’ of Shaun, you really should trawl through the last few years of his blog. Not only is his music fantastic, but the thought processes behind it, the stories that have shaped it, the heart he pours into it are admirable, laudable and inspirational!

If you are a Christian, you need to hear this album because it will remind you of the kind of bible-based life you promised to lead when you said you would follow Christ.

If you are a non-Christian, you need to hear this album because it speaks the very heart of the Christian message in a way that cuts through all the rubbish that we Christians have piled up against it for centuries.

This album is beautiful, compelling, challenging, convicting and frankly AWESOME.

It’s easily worth several times more than it costs, which incidentally is another reason why I chose discretion over business acumen and avoided putting an affiliate link to it on my blog!

I’m going to review it in full over the next few days / weeks and post my praise of this piece of musical genius that I have not been able to get out of my head nor stop listening to for over a week now since it arrived on my door mat.

Oh, did I mention… I really like Shaun Groves’ new album!??! You really should go and buy yourself a copy.

You can find Shaun Groves on twitter @shaungroves or facebook/shaungroves too.

p.s. No, I didn’t get paid to write this, I just really love the album.

Inspire

Having been disappointed and depressed by the rioting, I’m sure that you would appreciate something inspiring and uplifting.

Not all the world is bad, mad or sad and it was incredible to see the community spirit of Manchester as hundreds of people, all ages, shapes, sizes, religions, races, colours, political views etc. got involved in the clean-up operation. Of course, it happened in all the other major cities as well, but I’m generally most concerned about my local news so I’m not going to link them all!

In the big clean-up, we have seen that there are plenty of young people that are willing to live sensibly and honestly, be good citizens and work as volunteers for the good of the whole.
Interestingly, the word volunteer comes from the Latin ‘voluntarius’, which has the root concept of ‘willingness’ or ‘of one’s free will’. In France, the word ‘volonté’ means willingness, which describes to me a level or joyful participation in an activity as opposed to having your arm twisted behind your back and even more apt is the French word for ‘gladly’ – which is ‘volontiers’.

Lastly, not wanting to be smug or blow our own trumpet, but I was really impressed by my Kids over the last few weeks of their school term.
Kate had a letter from UNICEF asking for support for their mosquito net programme to prevent malaria in Mozambique.
Jacob asked her what it was about and since finding out, he and Lily have been feverishly making Hama bead mats and selling them at school, at church, to grandma and anyone else they can find, to raise money for mosquito nets.
So far they have raised over £90 which I think is really great and as you can probably tell, I’m pretty proud of them for it.
It has also led to the most amusing quote of the year from one of Lily’s school friends.

Child: “Mum, can I have £500”
Mum: “What? Why do you want £500”
Child: “Well, Jacob has made these mats that kill flies in Africa and I want to buy some to help out!”
Mum: “What? I don’t understand.”
Child: “or £1?”

The innocence of children!

That inspired me to run my ‘Birthday for a cause‘ again and plenty of people have been really generous. I’ll be closing the ’cause’ on the 20th August so there’s still some time to give if you missed me mentioning it elsewhere.

Let’s be inspired by these young people and children to leave the world a better place than when we got here.

Church (part 10) – Epilogue

I’m wrapping up here! Everything I couldn’t fit into the other posts because they were either too long or it didn’t fit quite right.

We are planning to use a song that we’ve not had at the fellowship weekend before, a song by Christy Nockels called Hosanna.
I think it really encapsulates all we’re trying to achieve, all the motivation behind it, Tim’s points, and a lot of what I’ve been writing about in this series.

As you listen to the song on the video above, have a look again at Tim’s points

The general approach being to show how Jesus used a community outreach approach to preaching bringing out the following principles:

  1. Committed to growth
  2. Touch and teach
  3. God in control
  4. Need for labourers using their God given skill
  5. Single clear message – ‘The Good News of the Kingdom of God’
  6. Cast your net on the other side – do things differently
  7. Diverse approach for diverse market
  8. Long term plan – 3 1/2 years for Jesus

The parts of the song that stand out most for me are verse 2 and the bridge.

“I see a generation
Rising up to take their place
With selfless faith – with selfless faith
I see a new revival
Stirring as we pray and seek
We’re on our knees – we’re on our knees

Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things unseen
Show me how to love like you have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks yours
Everything I am for your kingdom’s cause
As I walk from earth into eternity.”

For me it encapsulates the vision I hold of this life being important because of what God has done for us and continues to do with us and how that stimulates our joy which triggers a worshipful, active and gospel-displaying response in the way we live.

It’s a vision of ‘resurrection living’ as I’ve shared before from Rob Bell:

“Resurrection announces that God has not given up on the world
because this world matters
this world that we call home
dirt and blood and sweat and skin and light and water
this world that God is redeeming and restoring and renewing

greed and violence and abuse they are not right
and they cannot last
they belong to death and death does not belong

resurrection says that what we do with our lives matters
in this body
the one that we inhabit right now
every act of compassion matters
every work of art that celebrates the good and the true matters
every fair and honest act of business and trade
every kind word
they all belong and they will all go on in God’s good world
nothing will be forgotten
nothing will be wasted
it all has it’s place

everybody believes something
everybody believes somebody
Jesus invites us to trust resurrection
that every glimmer of good
every hint of hope
every impulse that elevates the soul
is a sign, a taste, a glimpse
of how things actually are
and how things will ultimately be
resurrection affirms this life and the next
as a seamless reality
embraced
graced
and saved by God”

(Rob Bell)

That’s the way I view the underlying drive as to why we are even thinking about ‘outreach’.

The weekend verse is 1 John 1v2

“The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”

I think that ties into this song really well

“I see a generation
Rising up to take their place
With selfless faith”

That speaks to me of a relational approach, founded on intimacy with God “We’re on our knees”.

I think this bit of the Song also picks up on points 2 and 4 in Tim’s outline.

Point 2 I think can be a 2 way point – ‘touch and teach’ is also, at least in my mind possible to look at in a ‘I have been touched by this and so I will teach’ kind of way as per the song bridge:

“Show me how to love like you have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks yours
Everything I am for your kingdom’s cause”

The last line again, Tim’s point 4

And then

“As I walk from earth into eternity.”

I don’t think Tim is specifically referring to God’s long-term plan in point 8, but it also fits with that angle. Our walk with God is a current reality, not a future possibility.  It’s an ongoing, present-tense journey, which also kind of picks up on Tim’s point 1.

The song as a whole for me proclaims Tim’s Point 5 – Single clear message – ‘The Good News of the Kingdom of God’.

In Revelation 21 the Apostle John hears the words declared from heaven ‘behold, I am making all things new’.
His vision seems to be of future events, yet the voice speaks in the present tense – and is set in the context of prophetic imagery drawn from the past, from the proclamations of Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel.
Past, present and future merge in a dramatic declaration of the purposes of God.
Not only does John’s vision give us insight into what God has done and is doing in the world, it also models how we are to answer the question ‘what is God doing right now’?
In any given time and setting, John implies, the events we see unfolding before us can be ‘read’ against two horizons – the horizon of all that God has done and spoken in the past, and the horizon of all He has promised for the future.
The purposes of God are like an underground river, flowing invisibly beneath the events of history.
Rooted in the world’s in-God beginnings and moving towards its promised in-God end, these purposes are always consistent with God’s character.
The best way to fully understand the present is to have God’s perspective on the past and future. From the ‘it was very good’ of Genesis 1 to the ‘all things new’ of Revelation 21, visible history is a reflection of God’s unseen plans, and can only truly be interpreted by their light.
(Gerard Kelly)

To really finish this series off, Rob Bell has some interesting thoughts in his book ‘Velvet Elvis‘ which I agree with and thoroughly recommend as a great and challenging read!

“I believe being generous is a better way to live.
I believe forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to live.
I believe having compassion is a better way to live.
I believe pursuing peace in every situation is a better way to live.
I believe listening to the wisdom of others is a better way to to live.
I believe being honest with people is a better way to live.”

I would go on to say personally, that I believe affirming truth where there is truth, is a better way to live.

All of the above are ways to live in love, ways to respond to God and to the incredible love and grace he has for us.
And that is how I understand church, the purpose and mission of the church:

Church is a movement of people, intent on existing to bless the world by acting like Christ to the world.
It is a body of believers that live selflessly, for others, displaying to others the love that has been shown to us.

It is openly embracing, fully engaging, equally contributory, committed to community, centred on Jesus and a shared journey to explore the message of the bible and remain open to the movement of God’s spirit among us.

Different congregations will look different as they work out their communal path together but God loves diversity as much as he loves people.

I pray that all our churches will be places that grow both in number and in faith and shine like beacons of love in the neighbourhoods they exist, both physically as meeting places and for each individual member.

God’s way is infinitely attractive, it is irresistibly beautiful, I pray our churches will be the same.

Church (part 9) – Outreach – A natural response

‘Outreach’ or ‘Preaching’ can mean many things to many people, from the ‘manic street preacher’ that you might see on a Saturday on Market Street M1, to a discussion with a friend over a coffee, from a ‘public address’ to meeting a private need.

Preaching or outreach is not ever, never, never is it about telling someone / some people “This is what I believe and you should believe it too”.  
It should always be a case of “I can hear music, it makes me want to dance, can I share this music with you, maybe you will hear it and want to join in the dance.  Maybe your dance will look different to mine and that’s ok, but I really want to dance with you and learn with you and learn from you and hope that you also will learn from me and together we can discover more about the source of the music.”

Preaching or outreach isn’t always going to be easy, in fact it’s rarely going to be easy to ‘preach’, be it in our churches or individually.  The encouragement we are aiming to give people at the fellowship weekend 2011 is hopefully going to ignite some passion, but it’s likely that it will fade over time, and that’s completely normal.  

Preaching cannot always be an easy, joyful, reflex response to the love God has shown us, and in the same way that there are times when we have to choose to praise, there will be times we will have to choose to preach and it won’t feel like the natural thing to do or what we particularly want to do at the time.  

Hopefully there will be more times when it’s a natural response to God rather than a conscious choice, but we can’t ignore that at times it will be hard.  

Last year, we ran the Bethel Festival and are planning to run it again this year.

After the Bethel Festival last year, someone commented to Kate (my wife) that they went away over-faced – thinking “I’ll never be able to do anything that big with the person-power we don’t have at our church”. They were paralysed by the bigness of it and were disheartened that their church wouldn’t be able to match up to something like that.
When people go home from the weekend, it is entrirely possible that they might feel they don’t have the manpower, impetus, momentum or possibly even desire to do big things like that and there will probably be some times when it’s a plain old slog and you meet a large amount of resistance from within the church as well as possibly from without.

Lets be honest, if it wasn’t for all the people at the fellowship weekend last year, The Bethel wouldn’t have been able to run the festival at all! On any normal day, week, month, that’s way bigger than anything we’d ever even conceive of doing as a church.

None of our ‘outreach’ at The Bethel is motivated by “doing something big to be seen” In fact, no ‘outreach’ should be about focussing on doing ‘big’ or ‘great’ things.  Everything is about building relationships, bringing God into the small things, showing the love of God in the way we act & interact. If God is living in us, that should be evident and his love will be spilling out.

“We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.
It is not how much you do, but how much Love you put into the doing that matters”
(Mother Teresa of Calcutta)

The practical application of that is probably going to look pretty different, depending on the people in the congregation, the surrounding community, how much the church is a commuter church as opposed to a community church and how much it is a consumer church as opposed to a contributory church, how much the church has managed to engage and embrace as opposed to exclude and entertain.

However, doing ‘small things with great love’ must be the motivator and aim. Without love, it’s all meaningless.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Shane Claiborne (founder of “the simple way“) has a notice above the inside of their door. It reads:

“Small things with great love or don’t answer the door.”

The foundation understanding for the statement is that ‘if you aren’t prepared to see the face of Christ in the person that is knocking on your door and therefore be prepared to act like Christ would towards them, then you are better off giving yourself a break and letting someone else open the door.’

The most important {commandment},” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
(Mark 12:28-34)

Love God
Love People
Small things with great Love

Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:14)

What is the background to our outreach?
Hopefully, the kind of church that we are inviting people into is:  Strong at the centre, Open at the edges.  Diverse and yet still united, unity is not the same as uniformity. A Church that is contributory, embracing, engaging and community focussed, community rooted.

‘Preaching’ and ‘Outreach’ is more about how we live than what we say. It’s about ‘living the Resurrection’.

“resurrection says that what we do with our lives matters
in this body
the one that we inhabit right now
every act of compassion matters
every work of art that celebrates the good and the true matters
every fair and honest act of business and trade
every kind word
they all belong and they will all go on in God’s good world
nothing will be forgotten
nothing will be wasted
it all has it’s place”
(Rob Bell)

God is preparing a banquet, everybody is invited. How can we not want to spread that invitation to everybody we meet? An ‘all-nighter’ party, well, more of an ‘all-eternity-er’ of joy, peace, fulfilment and intimacy with the creator who is so deeply in love with His creation that He showed us Himself through His Son, and underlined it by allowing people like us to kill him, so that he could win a great victory over our flawed and hopeless selfishness.

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:57)

And when it feels hard or you think you can’t do it or you think it’s too big or too much, remember to take one small step at a time, that small things with great love is the way to go, and take some comfort from One of my favourite poems from one of my favourite poets: “I see a new city” by Gerard Kelly.


Here’s the last verse

“And though I wait
And though I long
And though the sacred city may seem slow,
Still I will hope,
Still I will pray,
Still I will, today,
Rise up and build.”

It may seem like we are having to choose against the odds to live a life that reaches out, and we might feel like nothing we are doing is making any difference and it might be that we don’t ever see the harvest from the seeds we sow, but because of God’s great love for us, we continue to work with Him, let him work through us to build His new city.

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