Think on these things

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Photo: Creative Commons/ withbeautiful

Unlike those who can briefly consider an issue, mull over it for a few minutes and move on, carrying on as usual with all the minutiae of life, work and family – like many others, my mind is overwhelmed by all that is going on in the world. For those who can’t help thinking and evaluating, or inwardly critiquing and projecting, last year’s events and the first few weeks of 2017 have barely allowed pause for rest.

From our political turmoil here to the stark leadership change Stateside; from the rise of Isis to the increase in humanitarian crises; from what appears to be an increasing legitimisation of sexism and racism, to the post-truth explosion spreading through social media; from the global economic uncertainty, to the housing and rent crisis – it just seems relentless. All that, in addition to the usual stories of violence, family breakdown, loneliness and poverty.

Even our churches and Christian communities are not immune to the onslaught of uncertain times and conflicting interests or beliefs. It’s easy to get caught up in the arguments that divide and that hurt. We’re often not the huge, happy family we’re meant to be; we read from the same Bible but people think differently from us.

And in this context, in this hive of anxiety and criticism and uncertainty, I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s encouragement to us in his letter to the Philippians: to think on whatever is true, whatever is right and whatever is lovely.

I don’t think that this means we should simply ignore the big issues all around us or turn a blind eye to the suffering or injustice (as some suggest with the phrase: “I don’t watch the news, it’s too depressing”). There is a time and a place to consider all these things and to take action. Rather, I think the verse refers to our default state of mind; to the everyday, undercurrent feelings that set the tone in our spirit and souls.

It doesn’t mean we shy away from addressing the big issues (clearly, Jesus also never avoided the difficult stuff), but it’s being mindful of what dominates our mind; what pervades our spirit most of the time. Do I wake in the morning and think about God, sensing His presence, or do I wake up worried about the state of our world and its future?

I’m not advocating for a return to superficial, feel good Christian soundbites like: “Everything’s ok, God’s in control!” – smiley face – or: “Never mind about that, let’s just praise God!” God does mind about what’s going on in our world. He hates lying, violence and injustice (Proverbs 6:16-19 and Jeremiah 22:13). He weeps with those who weep (John 11:35).

In Isaiah the prophet describes Christ the Messiah as: “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”. Jesus never aligned himself to superficial, super-happy faith; he was moved by the people and situations around him. He showed anger, not just overturning tables in the temple, but also towards the Pharisees who were always trying to find fault (Mark 3:5). Jesus experienced frustration, just as we do.

But there is something about our faith that is steadfast, that holds us onto the rock of Christ through all the stormy change and turmoil. It’s not that we ignore the storm, but we don’t have to be swayed by it, we don’t have to be overwhelmed.

Like Peter, we need to try to focus our eyes on Christ as the waves rage around us, otherwise we’ll too easily find ourselves sucked under by the surrounding current, gasping for air, unable to fully function. When we’re overwhelmed by all that’s going on, we need to fix our eyes on Christ the truth – our God made flesh – who is the Word of God.

Whatever is right. Whatever is true. Whatever is good – think on these things. The word to the Philippians in another translation is “meditate” on these things. Our underlying thoughts can be saturated by what is true and lovely, even when all that surrounds seems ugly or wrong.

So let me ask the question: how does Christ shape our thinking in this age of post-truth? Do we let Him, rather than the day’s latest news, overwhelm our hearts?

Jesus is the light of the world. As the world seems to become ever darker and atrocities abound, His light becomes ever brighter as we reflect the Christ in us and shine to those around us through our words and actions. Are we letting his light shine through us in these times of fear and uncertainty?

A Voice for Good// Thoughts from the Public Leadership Weekend

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What do you get when you walk into a room and mingle with a former barrister, a councillor, a children’s entertainer, two Christian radio DJs, a provider of GP training, a nutritional therapist and an eclectic member of the General Synod?

Well – apart from the opportunity for endless, enlightening conversation – you discover that these are only half the fascinating men and women of different ages and diverse backgrounds who’ve also signed up to attend a Public Leadership media training weekend. If you’re a more ordinary mortal like me, who dabbles in education or writing while juggling life as a parent, or someone who might hesitate to consider such an event – even though you can’t resist the calling – then you need to think again.

After first reading about the weekend, I was hooked. The central theme of being ‘a voice for good’ has resonated with me ever since I had my first article published in a local New Jersey paper back in 2000, through to the time when I began a blog or when I delved into PSHE teaching (an unusual option for a Christian) several years ago. And yet, I felt inadequate. I’m not at the top of my field(s) like many who would be going to the event. I’ve purposefully avoided some opportunities to lead as it conflicts with family life and have often taken on voluntary roles in the last several years alongside part-time work. So, what right did I have to even apply? I don’t know, but I finally shut out that fear and went ahead with the application. Still, I had my doubts and considered pulling out.

I’m so glad I didn’t. My mind remains in overdrive after taking in all that was covered at the conference – which managed to successfully incorporate high quality talks, devotions, discussion, group activities and role play into a worthwhile, challenging weekend. And still allow time for eating and drinking! (And a few dips in the pool for some.)

The content covered current political, theological and practical issues pertaining to the development of Christian voices in the media, with much opportunity to think, reflect and share a timely and vital conversation. And yes, the name of Trump did crop up in that context! All the speakers, who included a communications director and a former Radio 4 journalist, were incredibly engaging and motivating. The potential for influence through engagement in public life was highlighted in different ways as each contributor shared their knowledge and experiences, including pitfalls and lessons learned along the way.  I would have readily listened to every single one for twice the length of time that they were allotted. No mediocre talks here whatsoever!

A standout feature for me at this event was definitely the interactive nature of the programme. We weren’t just talked at but were continually encouraged to take part, to contribute our experiences and to ask questions of ourselves and others. For instance, one group task involved examining the day’s newspapers and discussing the content, and to look for any positives (a distinct lack of which was found) as well as the story perhaps not being reported.

I also learned so much from the other attendees, each of whom brought a unique dynamic and perspective to the sessions. The focus throughout seemed positive and boundary breaking – in the sense that we seemed to be caught up in something momentous. There were several injections of humour, too, along with chances to chat over meals that fostered unity and common vision, despite our disparate interests and occupations. The spiritual dimension was intentionally at the core of this weekend, drawing our minds repeatedly back to biblical concepts and examples of godly leadership throughout Scripture.

We discovered practical ways to play a part through learning to communicate better and how to engage well with the media. The language we use, for example, is a crucial part of whether the things we say will be well received. Neill Harvey-Smith talked (via video link) about how Jesus had extraordinary insight into people’s lives. “We need to become people who are brilliant at insight…experts at what motivates and interests people,” he said. How can we “reach into the culture in which we live?”

The weekend has given me the kick I needed to take that next step and be ready to speak up, and I’m sure that I’ll be better equipped as a result of the training. The role play session was particularly challenging and enlightening and I’m so glad I had the chance to take part in such an activity (with a professional radio interviewer). I discovered the importance of injecting personal story and avoiding focussing on the negative. Christopher Landau advised us to “be alive to the context, the audience you’re trying to reach.”

My main thoughts by the end of the weekend encompassed the sheer wonder at all the potential in one place, and the names and faces of people I know who would equally benefit from attending a future event. Dr Dave Landrum’s final encouragements included “Taking responsibility for where God has called you” and “leading change intentionally”, while emphasising the need to be resilient and to take a long view into the future.

I may be biased, but as far as weekends or Christian conferences go, the Public Leadership weekend is a cut above the rest. Look into it here.

 

The Love

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Neither bullets nor bombs

Neither peril nor storms

No person, no problem, no harm, no scorn

can separate us from the love

 

Neither life nor death

Neither darkness nor last breath

No danger, no stranger, no blues, no bad news

Can separate us from the love

 

Neither sickness nor strife

Neither fist nor knife

No statement, no hatred, nothing secular or sacred

Can separate us from the love

 

Neither borders nor barriers

Neither heights nor limits

No politicians, no saints, no rulers, no cynics

Can separate us from the love

 

Neither future nor past

Neither status nor class

No law, no dictator, no lover, no hater

Can separate us from the love

Of our Father God, through Christ the Son

 

Death & the Purpose of Living/ Poem

This is a poem I wrote for Good Friday and read this afternoon at my son Dan’s baptism…

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Death hangs in the balance
Shifting tentatively between the
Living
here and now
And closer to beyond
towards eternity

He swings
further in that direction
Every soul
Not just the elderly, the sick, the weak, the dying
Each day, everyone
is moved one step closer
To final destiny
Door to breathing closed
completely

As pendulum swings us
nearer to
meeting our Maker

Make the days count
Let them find meaning
For that is the true
Purpose of living
A life hidden in Christ
For Christ IS meaning

Giving up, surrendering, losing
Is actually
Winning

That, the paradox of faith
Dying to self now
Propels to a Future
and a Now with the
Creator of everything

Death is not the ultimatum
Christ overcame cross
Orchestrating gain from loss
Life outlives death
All is not lost

We are His purchase
Bonded, reborn
made new

At Easter it is declared
Death is fleeting, it’s
Not the End, only
The Beginning and
We all are granted
Reasons for living

Life is bonded to Christ
Through this symbol of baptism
The past does not define
Limits cannot defy
Fear cannot despise
Who we are in Him
No force can diminish
Dark Friday could not relinquish
No one can ever prohibit
His power
At work in us

Only in choosing
To die in these waters
Do we find how to truly
Start living

The Spirit descends like a dove
We are transported above
The supernatural becomes the normal
And we are flooded in
His unending
All-encompassing
Unrelenting, sacrificial
Amazing Love

Love that never fades
never dies
When all else fails
Love holds us, Love guides
and keeps us
Through storm and valley
Through darkest night

The imagery of Good Friday is Cross
Blood, sweat and tears
But for the rest of your years, Dan
Good Friday symbolises
Loss of the old life
And ahead with a new, baptised you
Going forward in faith
Set apart for Christ
This is the start of your New Life

Don’t look back
When doubts creep in
Fix your eyes on the Cross
Stay focused on Him
His love is enough
On this path of faith
Hold on to him
Stay rooted in grace
For This is your journey
This is your race

Remember your testimony
Stay firm in His Word
Til one day you meet
The crowned, nail-pierced Lord

 

 

 

 

Merry Christmas – It doesn’t have to be perfect

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In all the preparation for slick singing and powerful performances during the festive season in churches across the West, and in the pursuit of creating amazing decorations, presents and fine food, it struck me how laid back God’s plans were for the birth of the Saviour of the world, far off in the dusty Middle East.

Mary and Joseph weren’t informed in advance to not bother trying for a room at Bethlehem’s inns. No, God let them experience the frustration and  disappointment of being turned away, and watched them simply trust him for the safe arrival of the promised Messiah.

We don’t read anything about fear or anxiety gripping the young parents’ hearts; simply that they pressed on and were happy to accept whatever alternative arrangements the innkeeper could make for them. They didn’t complain about the provision they were offered; they focused on welcoming their baby and settling down for the night.

The coming of the King of Kings wasn’t orchestrated with much fanfare and hype. (Except for the chorus of angels when they made their announcement to the humble shepherds – and, even so, not everyone got to witness this wondrous display in the night sky.) The actual birth was a simple affair in a rustic setting, something that reflects the nature of our God. Jesus – God in human form – chose to dwell among regular people in  an average part of town. He could have been born in the finest palace. But God chose a manger in a basic spare room, most likely a barn.

This Christmas it’s good to remember that God’s not looking for perfection, but rather willingness to follow his calling and readiness to accept circumstances that might seem strange, whilst knowing that he’s got it all figured out. We don’t have to know what’s coming next or how everything will work out; that’s God’s job. We can find the Prince of Peace and experience supernatural calm when we focus our hearts and minds on him. Even when our plans go wrong and the perfect Christmas, or family, or life doesn’t materialize. Christ wants to meet us in our mess, in his time and in his way.  Are we ready to welcome him in the stillness, away from all the season’s noise?

You Can’t Buy Joy// FaithWalk

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(c) photocillin/ Flickr

At this time of year there’s a pressure from retailers and advertisers to persuade us that happiness can be bought. In all our frenzied gift buying and searching for the ideal thing or gadget, we take delight in knowing that the faces that we see unwrapping those gifts will reflect heightened happiness – that is, if we’ve chosen well! – on Christmas morning.

But joy is something beyond happiness. It cannot be bought, it cannot be faked – it’s a deeper, richer state of being than happiness. It doesn’t depend on what we have or on our circumstances; it doesn’t depend on where we live or our status in society. This doesn’t mean that we won’t experience problems or pain – but the promise found in the Bible is that “Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

Even when we’re dragged to the depths of despair and everything’s going wrong, joy wins. Paradoxically, joy can be an underlying state – the default setting for the Christian life that underpins our lives – even when, at times, it seems everything’s against us.

Westerners are often astounded by the joy on little kids’ faces on dusty village streets in poorer parts of Africa. They have so little, but their community and sense of fun reflects their inner joy.

Unlike happiness, which is often fickle or eludes us, joy keeps bouncing back. Much like oil which can’t be whisked or stirred away in water – joy can’t help but rise to the surface. At Christmastime we sing ‘Joy to the World’ because Christ has given us hope and given us meaning.

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Creative Commons – Justina Turpin

If Christ is in us and we have hope of his promises – joy bubbles to the surface, sending its rippling effects into the mundane or hopeless parts or life. It may not deplete all the bad stuff, but its presence is a tangible and noticeable force in the murky water of life.

The band Pentatonix, featured in the video below, have produced a brilliant, a capella rendition of that famous carol and enthused it with their own passion and energy. And joy is etched on their faces as they sing, even though they may not believe in the God who created them with smiles and shiny eyes to reflect His image and His glory. I’m sure that God who gave them lungs to breathe and voices to sing loves to hear everyone sing his praise, even if they don’t believe the words they’re singing.

While happiness is at the mercy of circumstances and dependent on feelings, joy is eternal. Even in the wealthy West, with all that we have and all the opportunities afforded us, we can still find ourselves unhappy.

The wonderful thing about joy is that it’s not about us; it’s about the person of Christ and it’s about our hope and our future – things that can never be taken away from us. Happiness is about me and how I feel, or whether others are making me happy; joy is found in Someone else whose feelings towards me don’t fluctuate.

This Christmas, Christians everywhere pause from all their shopping, parties and rushing about to focus on the One who came to bring peace, hope and joy. And that makes the greatest difference throughout the year, not just during the festive season.

Interactions and Integrity – Hitting the Right Notes// FaithWalk

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I sing and play guitar (Takamine G Series, wine red) in a worship band at church. I’m up the front on a regular basis, looking worshipful and maybe perceived as one of the chosen few spiritual ones to handle a mic. I’d happily not be at the front (actually, the centre, at my place of worship – as we meet in a lecture theatre), but leaders don’t like the thought of guitarists or singers standing fourth row from the back or singing at the sidelines, which might well be my preference.

I’m also far from super spiritual, acutely aware of my shortcomings (impatience, self-centredness, negativity to name a few) whilst realising the responsibility of maintaining a heart that is intent on worshipping Christ and not focused on looking and sounding good. (Though playing badly through lack of practice is verging on unforgivable!)

My daily life, as for most, is filled with little interactions with a cross section of people in varied places… From chatting with my family round the dinner table, to petty talk with a cashier at the supermarket, to interactions with delivery guys or other people who come to the door. We all interact with those we know well and those we don’t know at all throughout the week. Neighbours. Parking attendants. Doctors or nurses. Teachers. Colleagues. Baristas.

And in those (often) insignificant moments there lurks something absolutely significant: As Christians, we represent Christ – and that either shines through to the people we meet, or it doesn’t. At worst, our flawed characteristics shine through (anger, jealousy, impatience).  And those attributes may be how we are remembered.

Shortly after a negative interaction with someone, in which I’ve shown little grace or displayed annoyance or impatience, I’ve almost immediately regretted my behaviour. It’s possible to apologise, but sometimes it’s too late. You’re already home unpacking the shopping when you wince over the way you huffed over the person in front of you in the queue who took forever.

That person who may have recently been issued with divorce papers. Or who just received a diagnosis of cancer. Or whose job is at risk of being axed.

The same person who could possibly show up at church next Sunday and recall the way you looked at them with disdain while you’re belting out… ‘I am a child of God’.

Yes, no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. But I’ve found it helpful in my engagement and interactions with others, to keep in mind that the person serving me at the petrol station or cafe could move in across the street from me or turn up at church next Sunday. Will I aim for integrity in the daily minor interactions I face, will I represent the living Christ in me, or will I stomp through the day, caught up in the things I need to get done, unaware of my curt or impatient responses?

A smile or a helping hand or a kind word don’t cost anything, but they can mean a great deal to someone who is struggling or lonely.

It’s easy to think that the little things don’t matter but the little things often resound loudly to others. If just one string on my guitar is out of tune, it affects the whole sound of the other five strings when a chord is played. In the same way, I may display Christian attitudes and a heart for God most of the time but when my character becomes even a little out of tune with Gospel living, the song my life plays no longer sounds right, it’s out of tune with God and it may even drown out the positive parts.

I long to grow in integrity, patience and humility. I hope to reflect Christ. And the more I spend time in his presence, the more that becomes second nature. But it’s a constant fight to push back the old, inner self and let Christ be present in both the big and small aspects of life, day by day, moment by moment. We all need encouragement and grace to allow ourselves to be fine-tuned into a person of integrity, someone who can’t help resounding love, peace, patience – the fruits of a Spirit-filled life.