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?

In 2015 I will not… fear

Photo by Mihaela Muntean (c)

Photo by Mihaela Muntean (c)

As the fervour of another New Year sets in and everyone contemplates resolutions and fresh starts, there are many for whom the start of 2015 does not conjure up anticipation and excited expectation. They won’t make any resolutions or dare to dream of lofty pursuits; they may be uncertain of what lies ahead. Many just want to get by and survive the year without too much trouble.

As I look ahead to 2015, not one particular aspiration or goal springs to mind for me. It’s as if I’m open to ideas and direction as each day passes.

I’m not against goals and dreams – I think they can be helpful. It’s just that I’m not really sure what I will pursue yet – and as my faith is the most intrinsic part of my life, that means waiting on God and his leading.

The verses found in Proverbs 16:3 and Proverbs 3:5-6 are comforting sources of guidance. Essentially, the verses infer that it’s OK to make plans & commit them to God, who’ll ultimately direct our paths and make the way ahead straight. But I don’t have to make plans which begin on January 1.

Inspiration or revelation can come at any time, and each day can be seized with enthusiasm and giving my all.

It’s good to set goals, but it’s even better to listen to God, who doesn’t work according to my timetable or limitations. He doesn’t tend to stick to the calendar or restrict himself to our human conventions or practices, so I want to be open to his leading/backtracking/ sidestepping or detours.

Flexibility might just well be what God wants me to learn this year. It was while he was en route to heal Jairus’ daughter that Jesus let himself be distracted by the woman with an embarrassing uterine problem. Will I let myself be distracted by other people or situations that God puts in my path, for the purpose of life changing impact? Or will I be so intent on following my own agenda that I miss the plans God has for my life?

Life can be a beautiful mess when we’re open to exploring the alleyways and crooked places where Christ wants to shine his light, often away from the smooth, easy path we would lay out for ourselves.

So this year I’m not going to set myself impressive targets. I’m simply going to be open to where God’s leading me and not fear for the future. There’s much to be worried about and always something that demands my attention. But, for now, that still, small voice impressed upon me these words: “I will not fear for the future.”

Surmountable: Risks and Rock Climbs

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If someone were to have shown me a picture of this rock (without the people at the top) and said, ”That’s a pretty easy climb, you could get up there”, I would have assumed they were either foolish or crazy thrill seekers.

Up there! That looks like a feat only for experts or skilled mountaineers with impressive equipment. Surely I couldn’t possibly entertain the idea of scaling that?

We were on a marked hiking trail in the hills of Northern Majorca. The sun blazed down, a calm breeze blew and we marvelled at the impressive views once we had reached this high point to the right of the trail. After veering off the path and clambering up some rocks, we could go no higher. But we were intrigued by the imposing rock opposite, that dominated the skyline.

We asked some hikers along the way about the route and discovered that it was indeed possible to ascend the rock, yet we were somewhat hesitant. We weren’t even equipped with our proper hiking boots, clad only in trainers, or in my case, pumps.

Yet lurking within me is a slight adventurous streak, emboldened all the more by the childhood years of being denied such risks and thrills. ”Get down!” ”Be careful!” “You’ll hurt yourself!”

It’s only in adulthood that I’ve climbed a mountain, learned to ice skate and rollerblade, jumped off a diving board, hitchhiked (with a friend), camped in the open, and stayed up all night. Glancing up at this apparently insurmountable obstacle before me, something stirs within me and I find myself saying “Let’s do this!”

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The start of the ascent up the rock, from a relatively easy hill climb, passes through this tunnel cut into the rock. At the other side follows an ultra narrow path, perilously close to the cliff edge. It looks frightening.

But it’s all a matter of perspective. As you walk along the rock face, there’s a sturdy iron chain anchored into the edge, which you can hold onto around the most dangerous curve. When you’re certain of your safety, you don’t mind dangling your foot out for an impressive photograph. Take away the iron chain, and it would be a whole different story.

Looking perilous?

Looking perilous?

Not only that, but when you see a variety of faces on their descent, from children to spritely pensioners, it reassures you that others have gone before you and accomplished the climb to the summit. If ordinary looking people without mountaineering gear can accomplish this feat, it makes you pretty certain that you’ll also be successful. If we’d only seen seasoned mountain climbers with helmets and ropes and hefty boots, I know my feelings would have been completely different. We would have undoubtedly turned back.

With those certainties – an iron chain and ordinary hikers – I felt inwardly confident. “I can do this.” “It’s not beyond my capabilities” – were my recurring thoughts.

It’s all about making judgements based on evidence before you, and considering perspectives at each stage. At one moment, I watched my teenage son turn sharply up and along what seemed like a dangerous short stretch, clambering over lofty rocks.

En route to the summit

En route to the summit

It seemed highly risky from my viewpoint, but he assured me it was fine. I was reticent but then I remembered that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad as it appeared.

It wasn’t. It was tricky, but it was doable for an adventurous and semi fit person like me. I just needed to take my time and scramble up the rocks, making sure I had a good foothold where it was slightly steep.

The next part involved pressing onwards and upwards – twisting from time to time, round rocky paths and minor inclines. There was no set path; you just had to choose which way round to tackle the incline. Most people would manage this part of the climb – you just had to keep going up.

Time for a treat!

Time for a treat!

The satisfaction of reaching the top was immense. It called for a minor celebration by eating some Kendal mint cake (which I discovered had lurked in the front section of my rucksack since last summer.) From the tunnel to the top had only taken about twenty minutes, but when you think about what was conquered, it inspired a sense of achievement. Especially for an average hiker like me who tends to avoid anything too risky.

The Rock

If I showed you this image, you’d probably say no way. If I showed you the safety chain, the winding paths away from the edge, and the flat summit with the breathtaking views at the top, you may have a different perspective.

View from the summit

View from the summit

And that’s how you conquer your fears and achieve the seemingly unachievable:  listening to others, following those who’ve gone before you, and telling yourself that it’s possible.  It’s amazing when you discover that something is actually surmountable or possible, simply by stepping out and having a go.  We’re often capable of far more than what we attempt to achieve.  Scaling this rock showed me that there are greater things ahead that are within our reach, if only we’ll take the risk. At church this morning, I was reminded by Adam Bradley that this principle applies not only to the physical realm, but also the spiritual – where stepping out in faith often involves elements of risk and challenges – challenges that are surmountable. Adam said that he’d learnt that faith is spelt R.I.S.K. Like most risks, there’s often a great sense of achievement and satisfaction in knowing that you gave something your all – and that is was absolutely worth it in the end. How awesome that God wants us to exercise faith and take some risks!

 

 

 

Faith Journeys: We’re all in a different place

Creative Commons: JayRaz

Creative Commons: JayRaz

You’ve been dating your gorgeous boy or girlfriend for three months, have just received a phone call confirming that you’ve got the job you always wanted, and you’re looking forward to an upcoming holiday in the sun. Life is good and you can’t help skipping along the street or walking around with a ridiculous grin on your face. Worship on Sunday morning is a sheer delight; you’re just so thankful for everything.

Or maybe you’ve experienced the pain of losing someone close, you’re suffering with persistent health issues and you’ve just opened yet another rejection letter. Nothing seems to be going right in your life and you’re greeted by Mr Happy as you reluctantly slink into the church service, five minutes late, wishing that you hadn’t bothered coming at all. Life is miserable, and you don’t feel like clapping along to some hyper praise song with snazzy guitar riffs.

Perhaps the incredible thing is, that the two people described above could be one and the same person, just 5 -10 years apart. Those statements could more or less describe me. Life can be a rollercoaster sometimes.

I remember it well: We were on a boat off the shore of San Francisco’s bay, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and the vague outline of hills in the twilight beyond. Having tucked into a wonderful four course meal, as a live band played  on board, we were then called out on deck to watch an amazing firework display. Hand in hand, gazing into the sky, we couldn’t believe our luck. Here we were, my husband and I, on an all expenses trip that only my husband and a few others from the UK had been awarded courtesy of his company.  The drinks flowed, the sky dazzled and everything seemed so perfect. It was as if we were momentarily caught up in the centre of a live movie. We would return later to our room at the downtown 5* Marriott Hotel with its huge 6ft wide bed and glamorous marble bathroom. Life was good! It seemed a world away from the reality of Birmingham, which we called ‘home’ at that time.

At 22 my life had been pretty stress free and enjoyable for the most part. My childhood had generally featured fun and friends; my teens and beyond marked by opportunities to dive into travel, drama, youth events, and hanging out in pubs. Even my foray into the world of work had been fun, as I found my skill at evening telemarketing earned me lots of money in commission for every appointment I made.  Everything I aimed for seemed to work out; every door seemed to open for me. I was accepted into my first choice of university, met my husband to be on the day I arrived (yes, really) and within a few years we would find ourselves living in New York City. Pretty sickening, eh? I had even enjoyed quite good health up until this time; the only problem I experienced involved a few dental operations.

Not long after this trip of a lifetime, things began to change. I didn’t get the jobs I wanted, friendships were hard to come by, and I noticed that things often didn’t work out. I felt unsettled, but hopeful that things would soon turn around for the better.

When we started a family,  that was probably the biggest change of my life. Whilst five years of marriage had been pretty much a breeze, this parenthood business was no easy feat.  My first son was colicky and difficult; my family were across the Atlantic. Even when we moved back to the UK in 2000, we arrived back to the wettest November in 200 years (similar to what we experienced just this January and February), and then I was hit by morning sickness of a second pregnancy. For  several years, life seemed challenging or disappointing in so many ways. (Yes it’s possible to be married and feel lonely or miserable – even though your partner is wonderful. Feeling constantly tired doesn’t help.)  Although things started to pick up work wise, and a few opportunities came my way over the next few years, I began to suffer from several health problems and sometime later watched my wonderful dad slowly degenerate due to cancer, dying  within a year and half after a couple of surgeries.  I’d never lost someone close before; my heart ached.

Through the hard times I grappled with sadness, wrestled with God and learned to accept that life will never be all round perfect all the time.  Compassion and empathy are developed during the times of adversity we experience. I’ve learned to read people better and listen more, my eyes now opened to the realisation that everyone is at a different stage of their life. Not so much in terms of age or marital status, rather the joy or pain they’re experiencing at that time. It’s good to develop sensitivity in view of that knowledge, and be open to hearing others’ life stories.  That subdued looking person at work or church could be you in a few years’ time. We all go through highs and lows; disappointments come to us all.  It’s crucial to give people the space to reveal where they’re at and what their struggles are.

As I grew and developed in my relationship with God in that time,  I also learned about waiting, disappointment, regret, anger and anguish. I discovered my weaknesses and fought with failure. I began to see situations differently – to not have an easy answer for everything. And I learned acceptance – acceptance that we can’t possibly explain why certain stuff happens in our lives. I finally began to grasp what was meant by that phrase ‘character building’ – which is far from sentimental – instead raw and tumultuous – and painful. It’s navigating through trials and troubles that shape and define you, that chip away at self until you learn to be desperately dependent on God. I basically grew up in my faith at the very time that God seemed most distant.

For me, creativity was also developed out of the tough times. I wrote poetry and a novel during my darkest hours – evidence of the beauty that can spring out from the dirt of a broken life.

Spiritual Climate /FaithWalk

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I’m sitting on the balcony wearing a sleeveless summery top and denim shorts. The hills, palm trees and sailing boats contribute to the delightful scenery  from our holiday apartment. I watch people as they stroll along the promenade beside the beach and it’s amazing to observe who are the tourists and who are the locals.

It’s April in Majorca – a stark change from the wet and cold conditions still dominating the British Isles. It’s warm and sunny, but only the start of spring on this holiday resort.

There’s a woman crossing the road wearing a coat and winter scarf. It’s inching towards 20 degrees and I chuckle to myself. She’s obviously Spanish; she won’t be ditching the coat till it’s a couple of degrees warmer. The Brits are easy to spot; they’re wearing very little. Starved of sunshine and warmth after a brutally cold, long winter, they’re quick to strip off the layers and soak in the sunshine. Having left behind temps barely hitting 5 degrees for so long, 20 degrees feels blissfully hot.

So why the difference in attire? Most will recognise immediately that it’s all a question of acclimatisation. The Spanish are used to the Majorcan sun – it’s nothing special or unusual to them. They don’t feel a desperate need to catch a bit of a tan; they know they’ll be plenty more sun on its way. The thermometer will likely reach 35 or 40 in a few weeks and, for now, 20 is just pleasant, if not still slightly cool to them. Admittedly, even we have felt rather cold indoors in the evenings since we arrived.

This got me thinking about my faith – whether I’ve grown accustomed to the spiritual climate around me, such that I’m happy to walk around burdened by layers of stuff, rather than appreciate the newness of each day’s sunshine. Could I possibly be looking for opportunities to strip off some unnecessary layers such as legalism or spiritual striving, and simply enjoy basking in the presence of the Son? Or will I continue to take His presence for granted some days, knowing that He always promises to walk beside me?

Perhaps I’m so settled in my spiritual climate that I don’t even notice that things have changed? Has my love for God grown cold or predictable? Maybe I need to shed my coat of mediocrity and my scarf of smug satisfaction and revel in the warm glow of Christ’s grace once again, stripped of the cumbersome layers of obligations and concerns. I’m often so busy trying to achieve in my Christian walk that I neglect the simplicity of enjoying Christ and relaxing in his presence.

Just as the Spanish might take the sun for granted, it’s so easy to start taking the Son’s presence for granted. Whilst I hope that’s not true for me, I’m aware that I often don’t really make the most of  revelling and delighting in him daily. I’ll never know when I may next be led to walk through a valley or dark shadow. Life has shown me those dark days will come.

I should brim over with the goodness and spiritual warmth he pours out on me today. What a wonder to experience his light and tangible warmth! God is good.

It’s That Time Again – New Year, New Start/ FaithWalk

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Graphics credit – Sweet Dreamz Design, Creative Commons

The wonder of fresh starts… Even the word ‘fresh’ conjures up images of warm, baked bread, newborn babies, crisp cotton sheets or budding shoots of spring. It just sounds right – something positive we should embrace.

As we approach another new year, the vibe online has begun to spread epically over the last few days. It’s all about resolutions, goals, plans and dreams.

We have grown accustomed to valuing the first day of the year, almost to mystical proportions; you can feel it in the air. The first day of January demands our attention.

Such is the fervour and interest in what others have begun or have planned, that it’s difficult not to get caught up in an urgency to formulate our own resolution; perhaps a measure of guilt or jealousy if we ourselves have not aspired to equally lofty goals.

A few days into January though, and often we find that the super plan to get fit, stop smoking or start a new daily habit, has been hijacked by other life events, crises or distractions. Failure looms over our heads and we think we may as well give up.

Perhaps our goal was too ambitious. So next year we make none at all. But deep down something tugs at our spirit, almost willing us to at least attempt a new start.

Something is built into our psyche, that propels us forward, urging us to not settle for mediocre, not settle for the way we are. We know that we are capable of more.

The beauty of the Christian life is that every day is a fresh start, a new chance to start again. We can defy Western convention which dictates when a clean page may begin, such as January 1st or a milestone birthday – whether 30th, 40th or 60th.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say… “And on the first day of the next year the man of God rose early and decided to change the course of his life by making a few major decisions and plans.”

No! We are not to be restricted by cultural norms or ancient traditions. Every day can start anew. Every day is an opportunity to pursue a goal or make a difference.

2 Corinthians 5:17 confirms this: “Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come.”

I love that. If my life is entwined with Christ’s, the new has come. That holds true every day of the year.

Now is the time to do what you know is right or begin what you know you must complete. Christ in you can make it possible.

A fresh start. Why wait a couple more days? December 30, 2012 can be the day you made a change that changed your life. Do it!

(Astute readers may note that in my last post I stated that that would be the last one of the year. Well I changed my mind and didn’t want to wait ’til New Year’s Day!)

What I love about Bear Grylls

In an era of cynicism and negativity, I find the character of Bear Grylls exceedingly refreshing. Constantly upbeat and dynamic, he encourages everyone to step beyond their small mindset and think big – to achieve what others call ‘the impossible’.

Chief Scout in the UK, enterprising, risk-taking and wholly inspiring, Bear Grylls is also a model parent. Having three sons myself, I take a keen interest in both his style and wisdom. I also share the same faith as Grylls and find his words concerning the spiritual to be genuine and heartfelt.

What better person to feature on my last blog of the year?

Here is a short Christmas message that was recorded at a London church recently. I find it worthy of repeating here – a simple and timeless message. Enjoy.

Be sure to also check out the amazing song ‘Mary Did You Know’ (a couple of posts down).