Monday, 5 November 2012

Still Gone: a darkness to see by

laying a golf ball at Dad's tree
2 years ago today was my Dad's funeral. Around that time I wrote down some reflections. As I read them back recently it reminded me that often the darkest moments in our lives can provide us with what we need to see life that little bit more clearly. I felt as though a part of me was missing, like something inside had been chopped out. Below are some of the things I wrote around that time. I hope it doesn't seem too self-indulgent to put on as a blog, I only know that a change in perspective is often just what we need to help keep our priorities aligned and in order.

GoneOne word, four letters and a whole world of meaning and implications. More than ever before I feel as though my life is in perspective. 

To my dad I now live in the future, a time that his eyes didn’t get to see. He doesn’t know this time and this date, these events are something he’ll never be able to recall. It’s the little things that seem to carry the greatest sadness like the grass of the park covered with autumn leaves, the cold fresh sea air and the beautifully calm channel. The little joys and pleasures of everyday life are reinforced by his absence, I am enjoying them for two people now.  The latest films being released at the cinema he’ll never hear of or go to see, the next book by Conn Iggulden he’ll never read and I’ll never be able to recommend another tv show for him to watch. I am an endnote to his life.

I can close his story off with some reflections of my own but there are no new events to be recorded and written down, nothing new to be said about him that has yet to happen. If my dad’s life were a film then we’d all be expecting the credits anytime now. My life feels as though it is out of focus, it has faded out of view. In the story of my dad’s life my life was of interest and relevance only as it related to him and since he's gone my life has little significance. What I learn is that I was only a co-star not the protagonist.

What does it matter what I do now, who I am or what I achieve?

What does it matter since what I do makes no impact on him at all, he’s not here to report to. I can’t tell him what I’ve done, what I’ve been thinking about and what new discoveries I’ve made, I’ll never know the joy that came from seeing him impressed (or amused) by my developments. My life as it relates to him is an appendix stored away at the back of his book, not part of the main story but there for someone’s musing to satisfy someone's curiosity. In twenty years time those who knew my dad will say to themselves ‘I wonder what Steve’s son is doing.’ That is who I am ‘Steve’s son’ only Steve isn’t here anymore so I am nobody’s son at all. I cannot say ‘my dad does this, or lives there or thinks this.’ I can no longer phone my dad or ask him for advice, my life as it relates to him is over. Dad is gone fini; roll credits.

I am my mother’s son and a living reminder of her love for my dad. For her I am a constant reminder of the good life she enjoyed with dad, the love they shared and the happy memories they created. I am living evidence that my dad existed even though he cannot be seen. I have a responsibility to my mother’s memory of dad to live a dad-honouring life to remind my mum regularly of how wonderful her husband, my father, was. My life has meaning in this, I have a duty to care for her and support her which is a duty I owe not to her but to my dad, to the work he has done in me the time and energy and effort and money that was spent on creating me like I am.

I am endnote and an afterthought in my dad’s story but since I am also a father I feel I'm of use to the world. As my son looks to me he cares nothing for my dad and his passing. For Riley, my dad’s life has made very little impact on him; or so he thinks. He hasn’t learnt anything from my dad, he hasn’t been for walks or kicked a football or been on holiday with my dad. My dad’s life has been the introduction to Riley’s. As far as Riley is concerned all that is past is indeed preface for him and his life. He relates to me as the one I once looked to my dad to be, the teacher and orchestrator of his life, his shepherd and pastor. My life is far from insignificant where he is concerned. The past is gone and means nothing to him what matters is the future and what it holds and how it’ll shape him. He needs me to look forward and to prepare for his life to make an impact on the world. 

I am Amy’s husband. A title that fills me with joy and a role I relish. I am still the man she chose to be with, to build a home with, to serve God with. My vows to her and my commitment to her will continue on well beyond today and the loss of my dad. She looks to me to lead her, to encourage her and to love her above everything and everyone else in my life. This is my life’s aim. I am at the beginning of my journey with her, we are setting off still and with the arrival of Riley our lives have gathered fresh momentum. We are starting out where my dad was some thirty years ago. I owe it to him to live my version of the life he lived

My life has meaning as it seeks to fulfil what he created me for, the reason he raised me and loved me and led me as he did. He poured himself into me in order to fulfil his own joy yes but also to create my joy. He aimed me like an arrow from a quiver into life as he saw it. I may be an appendix in my dad’s life story but I am also the co-star in Amy’s, someone she looks to to help her fulfil her hopes and dreams and life ambitions. When Amy is old and grey and when she looks back on her life, her assessment of her life will in part be down to how well I have been her husband and succeeded in being what she hoped I would be for her.

I am a son, a father, a husband but I am also my own man. I am not only a player in someone else’s life but I am a life of my own. I live and think and breathe and I must make sense of the world for myself. I am crushed by feelings of how temporary life is, I am aware that my life is but a breath, a feint mist that will be gone just as soon as it gets going. What shall I be? I feel all at once as though my life is over and yet is just beginning. 

I am the result of my dad’s upbringing, my mum’s love and affection, and Amy’s devotion. I am not an island, independent and unmoved by those around me. I am not without responsibility and i am not without direction. One day I will have to give an account of my life not to dad, nor to my mum. Riley won’t call me to account and neither will Amy. One day I will die and I will discover what lies beyond the grave. I will learn whether or not I have a soul and whether or not I am in fact an eternal creature. I will come before the great judgement throne of God and I will have to give an answer for my life...

I will throw myself upon Jesus. 

I will be ushered into God’s presence into the company of the being who gives life and breath to every man. We often live our lives with so little direction beyond reacting to the people and moments that fill their lives. Who people need us to be, and tell us we are is often what we become. We are the product of the time, the events and the experiences we live through. One of the largest influences and sources of instruction, nurture and care in my life has died and I am at sea no longer trying to steer my vessel but waiting to see which way the waves move me. At some point soon I have a duty not only to those around me but to God who made me to steer in the direction my life is designed to go.
As a result i must get my definition for life and my bearings not from the people I interact with but rather from the God who created me. I will always be the appendix in his story, a tree in a story about a forest.

Ecclesiastes  7:2
"It is better to go to the house of mourning
  than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
    and the living will lay it to heart."

Friday, 28 September 2012

Are you quite done?

Is it off your chest and on the floor? Do you see how it looks now?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister who lived during Nazi Germany and eventually died at their hands just days before the end of the war. I came across one of this books this week that really seemed to speak into what I've been wrestling with.

A few things stood out with regards to the desire we all share for an inspiring and authentic church community. I thought I'd share them as I've found them to provide a sort of balm for the irritation of commercial Christianity we all sometimes feel from time to time.

Our desire to be part of and help build the sort of sacrifical, other-centered, powerful community that we read about in the New Testament is a good desire. The trouble is that this desire or hope, when deferred, makes us sick, frustrated and disillusioned with church. We conclude that it was a 'pie in the sky' utopian dream that was never going to happen. 

Bonhoeffer's comment was that 'There is a vision of community that can damage the formation of a community.' Whether it is a worldly vision of what community should look like (one where people are united by things other than Christ) or a scriptural one (like the church in acts 2). If we're not careful even a good vision can become a heavy weight to carry and eventually a stick to beat people with. Living with the vision of church as presented in Acts 2 is a good thing but if we start getting frustrated and bitter and grumbling that our church is not like it should be, then it is a bad thing and can destroy a church:

"The life or death or a Christian community is determined by whether it achieves sober wisdom on this point as soon as possible."

Spiritual communities united by Christ exist because of him and are created by his grace. We might say 'look they had all things in common and met together daily in one another's homes, we ought to do the same.' We want the outward appearance of community because of how it matches our vision of community, all the while not being aware that this longing can quickly become a hindrance to the sort of genuine article we're all looking for.

Human love can produce the community described in Acts 2 but it cannot produce the type of people we imagine were part of the community. Paul says 'I can sell all my possessions and give all I have to the poor,' not an impossible thing to do in the natural sense. I think it would be hard to do this in an unloving way and yet he goes on to say 'but if I have not love, I have nothing.' How can one give all their belongings away to the poor and yet be without love? Bonhoeffer says is is because the love we need is the love of Christ, a charitable divine love that forgets the virtue of an act but instead is caught up with the one who is Love himself.

I can enforce a 'house to house' policy on a church or I can open up my home and invite people to come round everyday. I may produce the outward signs of community but if it is not a community created by Christ it will not be the church, it will not proclaim the excellencies of 'him who called us out of darkness and into light.' I often love others out of selfish motives that look pure but in reality are masking my own selfish desires; I need to feel valuable and important or 'saintly'. Alternatively I can love others in Christ for Christ's sake and not my own. If I love them like this I allow them to be free and just as they are as God made them to be. Christ's love is a servant hearted, sacrificial, self-giving love that seeks to bless without any thought of exact returns. Human love is often a tit-for-tat 'I'm keeping tabs' sort of love; a self-justifying love. A love that is dutiful but that ends in feelings of pride or moments of self-congratulation at a duty done or a service enacted.

"Every human wish dream that is injected into Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive."
It is not a desire for 'community' that unites us and empowers the formation of a community but the identification with Christ, the unity of his Spirit that sees as a sort of by product or after thought the forming of a wholly unique community.
"Christian community is like the Christian's sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification... Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so too, the Christian community taking its temperature."
 A practical way that we can see a Christ-centred community formed is through thankfulness. Give thanks for the little things, the everyday and apparently mundane. Give thanks for the community we are, enjoy the church you're a part of. Thank God for the small and he will give us the large.

Avoid grumbling, offer support, keep gratitude as the prevailing attitude in your heart and see how God can add to it.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Lure of Hypocrisy

Spoiler alert.

I feel sick of slick. I feel sick of people who smile sweetly, who present a 'got it together' image. Sick of downloading vodcasts and podcasts of the latest Christian personality.

I feel sick of the celebrity culture in the church. The 'I follow Apollos' mentality that decides whether I'm in or out, credible or not. Bright lights and a camera on a crane. Popstars and doting faithfuls, carrying the bags and hanging on the words of bright minds and sharp wits. Sick also of the 'anointed' frauds I hear about and read about. 'Follow me' Jesus said to a group of fishermen and outcasts. Was this really in his mind? A church full of TV presenters and the nausea inducing age of Christianity I live in?

I haven't got room in my stomach for name-dropping or rhetoric. Words seem too deceitful to trust. I don't know who I am, or what I really think. I like only the sound of the syllables and the images, the twists they create in my mind. A clever phrase here, a long pause there. Tugging on heart strings, looking for weak spots for a good 'way in' to someone's heart. I hate it that when I hear a good story or am moved by a touching illustration my first thought is to file it away for a rainy day or a sermon that's lacking some 'fizz'.

I feel sick that my life and mind are full of inconsistencies and holes, I am double-sided at best. Am I successful Christian because I can preach? Am I faithful because I can hold a crowd or gain a following?

I want only to follow the saviour, want only to see him save souls, heal the sick and transform lives. I don't want hype, flashing lights, smoke machines and emotional responses. I want honesty, integrity and authenticity. Honestly. 

I feel the draw of jargon more than ever before, the lure of hypocrisy like I've never known. If I can present an image or a brand, use the right words, avoid scandal and keep everyone happy then I'll have made it. Grow a church and live a quiet life, isn't that what Paul told me to do? Act therefore. Fake it until you make it. Right?



Authenticity. I hate the word because of its overuse but I have no other. Authenticity. Not a brand or an image but a genuine heart felt and honest pursuit of Jesus' intended meaning for my life. Oh how I want to love people, to see people healed and delivered, to see the Kingdom of God established as Jesus and Isaiah described it. His vision for my life is far better than anything I could ever have concocted on my own, his understanding of my nature more comprehensive than I ever would have dared to admit, his remedy more satisfying for my soul than I could have imagined. 

Surrender. Complete and utter, honest surrender. The end of hypocrisy, the end of acting. The end of idolatry and self-centered decision making. The end of 'I'm ok' and the end of 'I'll do it my way.'

As I am he bids me - "come". Shortcomings and all, questions-a-plenty and the removal of any masks I might wear. 

I shall live for ever in pursuit of him and his vision of church: a crowd of honest, faith-full, spirit empowered lovers of God and others. A place of no pretence. A place where healing, restoration and obedience sometimes-through-gritted-teeth and other times in joy and delight honours Jesus; the God-man who conquered our greatest enemy and rose to new life and complete authority. The greatest hoax the world has ever known - or true.

Nothing else will cut it, nothing else will do. The world has seen a show, it's been to the West End and it has watched countless X-Factors. Now let's give it the church.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Jesus my colleague


He's the one I work with, sorry for. You may have heard of him. He's there in every meeting I attend and since I work for a church, most meetings are about him. Occasionally I take time out to ask him what he thinks of this or that decision but most of the time I assume I know what he wants, I've read his book after all.

I want people to follow him, and I'd love to introduce people to him but in reality I don't much like talking to strangers and it's hard to change someone's mind about the type of toothpaste they use, let alone the god they worship. Surely he knows that.

I do want him to be worshipped and honoured as the ruler and king that he is. In our church services I want to sing and shout and dance and delight, but I sang this song last week, and the week before that and I'd really rather sit down and listen to a talk about him (it's far less demanding).

I do love working with, sorry for Jesus but it's just that he follows me home as well. If I could do a job and say goodnight at the end of the day it might be ok. I could clock out and go home and do what I want - on my own time.

I'd like to tick off my to-do list and tell him what I've done and how I tried to point more people to him. Maybe I could get the occasional bonus (or be the recipient of a church member's Spirit-led generosity) for my labour.

The trouble is (and it is a trouble) he's more concerned with my marriage than with my ministry - oh wait that's not the right distinction is it? I mean he cares more about how I speak to Amy than he does about how many emails I replied to that day, and that's a nuisance. I wish I could impress him simply by putting in more hours, by showing him how devoted I am. I wish I could gain his approval by avoiding certain films or by swearing less. I wish my colleague (sorry my boss) would give me clearer targets, ones that could be ticked off and filed away. That way I'd be able to show off how good I am.

In short I wish I could be left alone when I'm at home. I'd like to emotionally withdraw to build a castle and live in it and have him make no demands on me. I wish I could indulge in my selfishness and be answerable to no-one.

I only wish I could be left to build my own kingdom where I'm appreciated and respected (but from a distance so that I'm not bothered too much) by all. I wish people would speak highly of me and make their every decision only after consulting me (and afterwards give me the credit for any success they experience). I wish every sermon could have a reference to my piety and talent or humility and authenticity, that every illustration had me as its example. I wish I could set trends in fashion and influence people's shopping habits. In short I wish people would acknowledge my brilliance so that I wouldn't have to try and prove it to them.

The trouble is that Jesus, as much as he is my colleague (and my boss), is my friend and my redeemer. The trouble is (and it is a trouble) that Jesus doesn't care too much about what I do as a day job, but only how I do it. Jesus is far less concerned with externals than I wish he'd be. If only I could pull the wool over his eyes. If only he'd be happy with my TV presenter persona, the image I present to the world or to the church.

Oh. Bother.

What a (insert sufficiently watered down and less religious sounding version of 'wretched' here) man that I am. More like the Father of Lies than my Father in Heaven.

Who will save me from this body of death and wickedness and self-centered, ego-stroking life of mine?

Thanks be to Jesus, my colleague from hell - but my saviour and rescuer from heaven.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Inevitability of Dominoes

One falls and they all fall, that's how it works isn't it? It does if you've set it up right.

There are few things more anti-climatic than a poorly arranged domino chain. It just gets going, just starts to gain momentum and then... it's over.

'Decisions are like dominos' someone once told me, it's stuck with me. He was right. Every decision we make whether big or small has consequences to it. We can't always see all the implications of every decision we make but we know there'll be some. Take my decision to ask a friend to shave my hair off a week before my wedding... small decision, a lot of grief and a lot of dominoes. Now every time we look at our wedding photos, I'm reminded of that decision. Little did I know as I did it that I'd forever be plagued by the memory of it, rarely does the 'issue' not come up when talking with friends about our wedding day. Rash decision, many dominoes.

Right now I'm in the process of watching some dominoes fall over that I hadn't anticipated going down; at least not yet, not for a while.

13 years ago after some soul searching and general investigation I knocked over a domino, I made a decision to submit my life to Jesus and acknowledge him to be the world's true ruler and rescuer. At the time I knew it was a domino decision I knew that my life wasn't going to stay as it was, it couldn't. If Jesus is in charge, then we're not and that has not a few implications on our lives. What I didn't know at the time is where it would lead or just how many dominoes would go down. Like agreeing to board a train I knew that by making a decision to follow Jesus I was leaving the station and things were going to change, the landscape of my life was about to change.

In the past 13 years many dominos have fallen in surrender to the authority of Jesus. There were heavy dominoes that fell early on like my decision to trust him with my sex life, my finances, my passions and my dreams. There have been soul searchings and long months of questioning, long wrestlings of his will with mine. There has also been more joy, delight and answers to prayer than I thought they'd be. So much of what the would call good fortune or what the Bible calls goodness and mercy seems to follow me now. It is a domino I'm certainly glad I knocked over, a decision (and many subsequent decisions) that I haven't regretted.

My current situation is that within a few weeks we'll be uprooting and moving house to lead a new church (proof that God has a sense of humour!) in a town a few miles down the road from where we currently live. Our life plan has taken an unexpected turn. This is a domino I wasn't expecting.

The thing I'm convinced about is that if a decision's worth making it's worth making properly. Many people don't ask the right questions or don't see their decisions through to the end, many people don't make decisions at all too scared of where they might lead (although that is in itself a decision). Many people stop the domino chain in mid-flight, and that just doesn't seem right it seems a little too anti-climactic.  

Don't live in fear of the 'sliding doors' moment, the 'what if' or 'what could be'. Instead, ask questions, use reason, think and then make a decision and go for the ride. The world needs people of integrity, people who don't shift and change or who are blown around by every latest trend or idea. People who stick to their guns and finish what they start.

I wince when I know a painful domino's coming up, wince when I miss one that should have gone down but didn't because I allowed inconsistency to creep in. Today I choose to firm up my resolve to continue to allow the decision I made was I was 16 (and again when I was 18, and 20 and 24 and 27) to play out in my life. I don't want to look back on my life and see dozens of half finished domino chains, I want to live well to strive for consistency and integrity. I want to whole-heartedly and unreservedly follow Jesus, come what may, come dominoes big and small, heavy and light.

I'm not advocating close-minded narrow living...

or maybe I am.

When a sailor knows where his ship is heading he better be close-minded to every other possibility or else he'll never reach his destination.

I suppose what I'm saying is - point your life, aim it and make the relevant decisions to get you where you want to go. Don't quit.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The soundtrack of our lives

Del Amitri Roll To Me, Seal Kiss From A Rose and Shanks & Bigfoot Sweet Like Chocolate; Three songs that mean a lot to me.

Roll To Me was played to death on a skiing trip in France aged 18 and every time I hear it I'm transported back there and can recall with striking intensity, the minibus ride through France and up the Alps. Kiss From A Rose - the summer of 1994, Batman Forever and Summer Squash Camps at Lee On Solent and Sweet Like Chocolate the summer of 1999 and leaving school, of beach parties, fruit picking and the Solent in the sun, magical.

Songs have a way of conjuring up memories, of transporting us. Do you ever wonder what the soundtrack to your life would consist of? If I was to listen to my life I wonder what the reoccurring themes would be? What would shine through as the most listened to pieces of music or genres of music? Would it be my overdose on Nirvana and Guns N' Roses when I was 14 or my brief flirtation with Hip Hop & R&B in 2001? Or maybe Alanis Morisette's Jagged Little Pill album that was stuck on repeat one summer? How about you, what would be some of your themes and stand out moments?

Yesterday I was up on the Downs in Eastbourne enjoying God's creation (I live in an extremely beautiful part of the country it has to be said). As I walked along taking in the sights I suddenly became aware of a bird singing in the sky above me. It was a swift (I'm not a bird-man I can't tell my sparrows from swallows but I can spot a swift). It cut across every other sound and it was soon all I could hear as I walked across fields and over stiles and it dawned on me at that moment that the song had been playing ever since I began my walk, the hills were full of different bird calls. From the car park on it had formed the musical bed of the countryside, it was the soundtrack to my walk - but I hadn't noticed it until then. It was always there and if I had been listening to the sounds rather than taking in the sights I'm convinced that I would heard very little else besides this.

Although it's true that at various points in my life, particular songs have taken on particular significance, I am sure that if I were to hear my life played back as a collection of songs there would really be only one song, one noise that would dominate and drown out all the others. It's a song that at times I don't notice, too busy caught up thinking about/taking in other things, but it's a song that has been there all the time forming the musical bed to my life. It is the song of God's love for me.

Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that God 'rejoices overs us with singing.' God delights in us, God sings over us. When you love someone/something, the natural thing to do is to express it; often in song (think football games, concerts, jigs in the kitchen with the kids). God is not unlike us (or rather, we are not unlike God) in this respect, he sings over what he loves and the Bible reveals that he loves us; he loves me.

I am convinced that if we were to hear our lives as a song we wouldn't be able to hear anything other than God's love, his song over us drowns out all other songs. Imagine collecting onto one CD all the songs or sounds that you think have played a part in your life, imagine putting this CD into the CD player and pressing play. How would you feel if instead of hearing the songs you thought you'd hear all that comes out is the low hum of a bass note played over and above all of the songs on the CD. You'd conclude that there was a mistake or a malfunction in the burning of the CD, you'd throw the CD away and start again, at least I would.

But today if you hear God's voice if you notice God's song do not harden your heart, do not shrug off the thought, do not throw away the CD. Your creator loves you and sings over you, delights in you. In every moment of your life he has been there, singing in the sky above you and in the room besides you. When you were hurting and in need of strengthening, he was there and when you were celebrating success he was still there - singing. Singing 'I love you, I'm for you, I love you, I died for you, I love you, I choose you, I love you, I don't reject you, I love you, I'll never leave you.'

Some loves transport us, some loves focus us. Some loves make us forsake all other loves.

Are you worthy of this love? Have you done much to merit it? No. But then some things are loved because they're worthy (think sports car, super model, professional footballer) and other things are worthy because they're loved like teddy bears and objects with sentimental value.

God delights in you, has always delighted in you, he sings over you and gives you worth, meaning and value because he prizes you above everything else in creation. His song is relentless, his song is all-consuming and his song will never be drowned out by anything we do. His song is there, always in the background, always there and today take a moment and stop and listen to it, hear what he has to say through it. Allow his love to be the lens through which you see the world and carry on your walk through the countryside.

There are some joys that make us serious.