Friday, 26 August 2016

No Stone Unturned

The world we live in is wonderful. I am mean that in the literal meaning of the word, it is full of wonder. One of the unexpected delights of having my own children is that I get to relive the world again through their eyes. It's something I wasn't expecting. Life sparkles again.

A few weeks ago now when I was painting the garden fence Zach, my 18month old, was exploring the flower beds and searching under every stone in search of a woodlouse or two. It was fun to watch him trying to look under the rocks and, after he had done so, to bend down and stare intently at the creatures. Sadly for the invertebrates he discovered the staring soon turned into prodding and full on squashing; they didn't last much longer once that began. I didn't intervene, it was science after all, an experiment was taking place - if I squeeze, slime oozes forth... was the postulation of the day. I didn't want to stand in the way of discovery.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Happy to be a hobbit

I've come to see that much of my angst and anxiety about the future comes from an over inflated view of myself. There I've said it.

I've come to see that much of my pursuit of success is a lot more about a pursuit of personal acclaim than it is about success. Although it's true that I'm among the world's most privileged people and that I do have a responsibility to live conscientiously, much of my drive isn't as other-centred as I'd like people to think it is.

I have found that there is a lot of freedom and joy to be had in the concept behind the title of this blog. A hobbit knows his place in the world and isn't torn apart by aspirations. He is happy to let wizards be wizards and enjoy their company. A hobbit understands that dwarfs simply are the way they are, and there's nothing he can do to change it. Hobbits know that they cannot save the world, that they aren't as wise as wizards or as strong as men or as mysterious as elves (but they will save the world when called upon). They are creatures of duty and are in love with the small and simple pleasures in the world. In fact they recognise that there really are no small and simple pleasures in the world, and it's this that makes pleasures so well, pleasurable.

'I am, and I am not' and happiness comes from knowing exactly what I am and what I am not.

I am one human being in 7 billion. I am not more valuable or worthy than anyone else on the planet. I am loved by God as are everyone else. I am not entitled to happiness or health. I am the man my children call dad and I am looked to by them to be their dad. I am creating the men of the future by how I am a man to them. I am not able to be a perfect father. I am not full of patience and peace and my wisdom comes in fits and starts (and is more fitty than starty). I am not as useful as I think I am but neither am I as useless as I'd sometimes like to be or wish I was.

I could go on.

I am a lover of God and I have found my deepest satisfaction comes from him. I am not consistent with this discovery and I am still fond of wandering away from my Centre. I am not a hypocrite but I am inconsistent. I am addicted to approval and I am not cured of pursuing approval from others. I am prone to post things online that reveal this addiction and I am not even sure if this blog is not yet another one of those posts. I am needy for significance and I am made to feel significant by the love of those around me. Having said that, I am not satisfied by the praise of those closest to me since I know that I am made with cravings incapable of being satisfied outside of my creator.

I am happy to be a hobbit, but even that self-professed happiness might well be more of my saviour-complex by a humbler name.

In one of his parting letters an older man once wrote to his younger follower:
Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, 
I'm coming to learn that for myself. The great gain we all seek may look different from one another and we may believe it to be at the end of differing rainbows, but this man's advice is that what will set us in the right direction is simply this: honour God with contentment. Contentment is happy thankfulness for the present, and this comes from having a sober assessment of oneself ('for we brought nothing into the world...) and an understanding of the dangerous appetite of greed (those who desire to be rich fall). Honouring God flows out from the humility these realisations create.

Hence: I am and, I am not.

I am a member of the human race, a race marked out not by it's large neo-cortex or its capacity for abstract thought but a race endowed with image and likeness of God. I am a standard bearer for God by virtue of being human yet I am part of the broken race living east of Eden.

I am loved and I am not treated as my inherited and chosen sin deserves.

There is great gain in this. Great gain to be had in living here. Happy to be a hobbit.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Only For You

Jesus you called my name
       giving me life again
Forever I'll sing, forever I'll be
       only for you
-- Sam Cox, Newday 2015 
Last night Jesus spoke to me through a dream I woke up with fresh in my mind:

I was preaching at church and it was going well, I was in my stride and making what I felt to be good, points when all of a sudden (for good and legitimate reasons) people began to make their excuses and leave, one by one. Before long I was left preaching to a room of only two or three people; at this point I was faced with a dilemma, do I carry on preaching? I stopped preaching, disheartened by how few people were left in the room.

This is how it can feel in Seaford from time to time, disheartening; this is not due to the people in the church - the people are fantastic. The family of the church are phenomenal and a genuine blessing, but building a church here to a size of sustainability and evangelistic effectiveness is slow going.

But then the image in my dream changed. There was a train on the edge of a platform and a man in the carriage and some of the people who'd been listening to me there was well. The man in the carriage was lacking in personal hygiene and quite obviously poor. One of us offered to wash his feet for him, an activity that was truly disgusting due to the state of his feet; we were left with filthy hands from the job.

Almost instantly the meaning hit me and I woke up with it on my mind; it was as if Jesus himself was speaking to me and reminding me of what he has called me to. I am not/we are not to measure success by the size of the crowd but by the service that's offered. As far as the Lord is concerned (and surely it's his opinion that is important) all we are ever supposed to be are foot washers. We are called to greatness and by his own words, the servant is the greatest.

In this service the smellier the feet the more fragrant the worship offering (literally!); in this service the grimier the task, the more hand-dirtying the task, the more it matters to him. Jesus knew what it was to be adored by crowds and he also knew what it was to preach to a dwindling crowd; yet his measurement for success wasn't in the numbers he spoke to but the faithfulness with which he ministered.

Besides that, if we're honest, it's far harder to wash someone's smelly feet than to speak in front of crowds of people. It's far harder to embrace the path of service than the path of being served!

All of this, all we do (all we have) and all we bring, is always only ever all and only for him; for his eyes only. If it's happiness and contentment I'm after (which it is), then I'm to trust him and live only for him.

I was very encouraged to wake up with this in my mind today. Thank you Jesus my king and my friend. Only for you.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Life IS Boring

When I was a teenager I remember the horrible pressure I felt each Friday & Saturday night to be out doing something AMAZing or HILarious. And I remember the restlessness I'd feel every time I just stayed home; after all, what if people were out having fun and laughing and I wasn't included? What if I was the butt of their joke? What if, by missing the joke, I missed out on learning what people really thought about me? Oh the anxiety and restless turmoil of those stay-at-home Saturday nights. It's safe to say that I don't miss teenagehood.

Times changed, I Uni'd the thirst for parties out of my system and now I have no problem staying in on a weekend; I'm really quite good and vegetating on a sofa in front of a film now.

Times have changed and so has the trigger for those emotions, but the restlessness still surfaces from time to time. Now it's not so much about missing a party but about an opportunity, or not making the most of good health and youth. There is a reluctance in me to admit that life is a lot more mundane than I want it to be. That's really what was going on when I was 18. I refused to admit (it couldn't be true after all) that life wasn't a constant weekend or a daily adrenaline/lust fuelled encounter. My restlessness was a wrestling match between reality and fantasy. I wanted life to be all consuming and intoxicating. I wanted life to exhaust me and exhilarate me and thrill me. Instead it just sort of was. Life just is and I'm a single solitary soul in the middle of an ecosystem that seems able to balance itself and sustain itself each morning just fine without me.

What I mean to say is that I think our need for adventures and for a good story is killing us. It was fine when we weren't individuals like we are now; fine when our lives were connected more to our communities. Now that we're expected to find a story/purpose big enough from within the confines of our own two eyes, I'm not sure we can cope. Individualism and the sovereignty of the individual is leaving red marks on our shoulders; this backpack's too heavy to carry. I certainly can't carry it, I don't think I'm made to.

Left to ourselves, to myselves, life IS boring and we weren't made for boring. There's plenty of wonder and beauty and majesty and adventure in this world, but almost all of it takes place out there; outside ourselves shared with others.

The everyday, regular and mundane is only boring when it's disconnected from any bigger meaning. I only need to 'reinvent' myself if the 'myself' I've invented is detached from the 'ourselves' of community/nation/family. Then again I don't believe that community is enough either. Deriving more meaning from community/family/nation is certainly possible but I don't believe that's enough for us either. We are complex creatures who thirst for purpose and story; unusual since we've convinced ourselves that the thing we thirst for doesn't really exist. It's only when I see my life, and my friends and my virtue and my experiences, as things connected to ultimate reality that I start to discover a story big enough to rid me of the bored restlessness. It's only then that my mundanes turn into memories, my chores become choruses and every routine becomes a worship ritual.

What I'm saying is that our lives (individually) matter to God. Our creator and Father takes delight in, and derives pleasure from us his creatures. He knows about the birds, he calls the sun out each day, he's there with the mountain goats giving birth and he orchestrates the times and seasons of life under the sun. Our lives are not mean simply to become absorbed into nothingness, a corporate faceless, nameless blancmange of vanilla. He made us to be known by him, to know the pleasure he derives from us irrespective of success/achievement. Life may feel random and meaningless but it isn't?

What if it was true that there is a story and a meaning and a reason for everything? Could it be that the reason our soul craves it is because it actually exists? After all, physical hunger exists because food does not in spite of it.

My life matters because God delights in me and my life is an adventure since he's on an adventure and I'm with him. Life is boring when it's about me but it isn't, so it isn't.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

It needs cooking

Today, this morning, I received probably the most glowing piece of encouragement I have ever had after preaching a sermon. Reflecting on this I feel I've learnt something really quite valuable that I want to mark down for personal posterity.

I preach often these days, a reality that never ceases to amaze and thrill me; I used to daydream about and long to do the thing I get to do often now. I'm not a little grateful to God. As a regular preacher to a small congregation of around 65 adults I'm not unfamiliar with discouragement. Not the verbal, aggressive and critical kind; more the passive, struggling to stay awake in your seat, silent spectator kind. Add into that that I'm a fairly needy individual - my top 'love language' being words of affirmation; which basically means that I NEED to be told nice things or else I'll die! - it's a struggle sometimes to maintain joy and faith in this setting. Church planting is a monthly cycle of discouragement and encouragement, with there being more 'dis' then 'en'. That's not to say that the church are discouraging, they're wonderful; just church planting you understand.

Back to the point, ah yes preaching. I preach often, as I said, and as a regular communicator I'm familiar with the 'this week is good', 'this week isn't good' cycle of trying to prepare fresh and spiritually vital messages; messages that both compel non-believers to trust Jesus and strengthen and bolster the faith of the already Christians.

Today's sermon had me feeling unsure before preaching it. My focused prep time was cut short by illness, I wasn't convinced I was pitching it right, or that I'd chosen the right text for the day or that I had enough illustrations or jokes or props or... it was one of those Sundays.

But I'll tell you what I did do this week, I prayed. Now, don't misunderstand, I pray each time I preach. I'm not a maverick but this week I prayed differently; I shut my laptop, snuck off to an adjacent room and I tried to pray for the weekend, for my message and for the people. If I'm honest the time of prayer didn't feel fruitful or beneficial and it was cut short by the onset of a migraine. But along with praying I spent some time journaling about the passage I was preaching on in the expectation that the Holy Spirit would speak to me.

Then came Sunday, an ease in preaching and a wonderful encouragement I'll carry with me for a long time. What made the difference this week? It wasn't the preparation of the message it was the preparation of my heart that was different. I didn't take myself too seriously, I didn't tense up and stress out and over analyse and squeeze out a solid performance in the pulpit. No, instead I just tried to make sure I spent a decent amount of time cooking the thing.

Prayer, intimacy with God and a desire to carry a 'burden' for the people (or if not a burden then a 'heart' for the message) is key.

Today's success came as a result of a shift in focus, away from myself and my performance and my preaching and my track record, and instead onto Jesus and the privilege of the gospel. I was the chef, he was the ingredient selector and they were the diners. I simply cooked what he gave me and served it as best I knew how.

Preachers let's not give our people food poisoning any more, let's cook the thing and cooking the thing looks very different from merely preparing it.

It needs cooking.




Saturday, 6 February 2016

Wonder

Stories. I love stories. I love the feeling of clarity a good story gives me. I love that feeling I get when a good story touches some deep part of me and opens my eyes again to wonder.

The common threads in stories that evoke such emotion are overcoming adversity, break through in discovery, achieving something of immense value, and love.

I resonate with what I've heard described by Chesterton about the true myth. The reason I think I love stories so much is because they are able to reach a deep part of me that longs for and aches for the true story of God's love for me. As much as I talk about and think in terms of 'significance' and 'meaning', 'purpose' and other grand themes, I think that what I really need and long for is Love.

A mother's love for a child that empowers that child to achieve excites me in as much as it reminds me of God's love for me. I see in her smile and her embrace, His. Her resilience is a shadow of His.

A man working and striving to overcome all the odds to achieve his dream, to become famous and successful and popular and, significant. It stirs me to believe for myself of course, but deeper than this it touches the part of me where the gospel scratches deepest. It reminds of the ultimate pot of gold at the end of the only rainbow that really matters; knowing Jesus.

He is the home the hobbit longs for and the goal the athlete shoots for. He is significance and meaning.

I loves stories because in stories I discover the most truly human part of me. Stories remind me of my God-imaged-ness. They remind me that I was made with appetites nothing in this world will ever be able to satisfy. They remind me of the wonder God sprinkled every part of human existence with, the hurt and the pain, the joys and delight. Stories, the best stories, raise me above the average flat landscape of most moments. Stories allow me to encounter God.

And that's why I daydream of preaching. The gospel is the ultimate story, the interface between longing and satisfaction. It is this gospel I was made to communicate and when I say 'made' to I mean, love to. I'm not making a statement of competency but of satisfaction.

He satisfies more than anything else and his gospel enriches life, indeed it enables me to fully enjoy life and fully appreciate and enjoy other people.

Stories are more than folklore passed on to enable our species to survive. They give us meaning, balance and purpose and the ultimate story gives us the ultimate meaning, balance and purpose possible.

The gospel is my ballast in life. I pray I never stray far from this tree.

Friday, 22 January 2016

FIGHT: for joy

Scripture
In your presence is fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures evermore. -- Psalm 16:11
Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. -- Psalm 37:4
Though you do not see him you love him and you believe in him and you are filled with inexpressible joy. -- 1 Peter 1:8 
Observation

The Christian life involves a fight. We've been looking at that concept together now for several weeks. We are told to stand against the devil and his demons and to not be unaware of the Enemy's schemes against us. We can't pretend like we're living during peacetime, we're not.

As a Christian I believe God wants me to be happy and, since he wants for me to be happy, I have a responsibility to fight for my joy and contentment. Consider the scriptures we've just read. God is happy, overflowing with and possessing joy evermore, pleasures in abundance. We as Christians share in his joy. Peter describes the experience of Christians everywhere when he says 'although you haven't seen him face to face, in the flesh, you love him and... are filled with inexpressible joy.'

Let's consider a few facts about God and joy:

  1. FACT: God is happy. 'Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,' Psalm 135:6
  2. FACT: Jesus is happy, 'God has anointed you with the all of gladness above your companions.' Hebrews 1:9
  3. FACT: We are made to know God. 'All can know you from the least, to the greatest.' Hebrews 8:11
  4. FACT: Knowing God makes us happy '...filled with inexpressible joy.' (see above)
  5. FACT: Sin offers the pleasure and happiness we were made to find in God. Deuteronomy 28 for example.
With that in place the question becomes 'how do I seek my happiness in God, who is the eternal and ongoing source of joy, rather than in the fleeting and shallow pleasures of sin?' Now, that's a good question.

We've shared before as elders about ways that we seek joy in God. Andrew calls it 'joy fuel' (or #joyfuel if you prefer).

Some of the things Andrew's got on his list of 'how to fight for joy in God' are:
  1. Put Jesus before church/ministry. Make bread & wine a regular activity in your life.
  2. Use electronic media wisely. Avoid the sites and places that rob you of joy and instead find blogs and video clips that lift your spirits rather than drain them.
  3. Get the relationship between body and soul the right way round. As the body behaves, the soul often feels. We dance our way into delight rather than waiting to delight in God before we dance. God deserves our noise, our kneeling, our clapping and our cheering. We give it to him, and our soul is reminded and responds with joy.
  4. Read the scriptures. Don't be intimidated by the size of the Bible as a book. 'Bite off' small chunks if it helps and spend time reflecting on them until the light of revelation floods you with joy. 
  5. Fast sometimes. To fast means 'to fasten ourself to God' and clinging fast to him gives us more of him; and he is happy.  
  6. Speak positively. Words have the power to create or to destroy. As the mouth speaks, the heart believes.
  7. Get baptised in the Spirit again and again. Wait on God's Spirit, until he fills you. Being baptised means to be 'plunged into'. When you were baptised in water, you knew about it. When you're baptised in the Spirit, you know about it. 
Which one's can you identify with, pick up and apply to your life as they are? Go for it. Fight for joy. Don't settle for drinking from puddles when God has promised rivers of living water to flow out from your inmost being. 

Weekly Challenge

This week, your challenge is to come up with you own list of what you could do and where you could go to get happy in God. Is it a regular meeting with a close friend? If so, schedule it in. Is it a private Bible study? If so, schedule it in. 

We do not get to know God accidentally, we do not get happy in God without meaning to. 

Find out what makes you happy in God and make a habit out of it. 

Try starting with a list of 5 things, five pieces of #joyfuel if you will. Then, if you're really serious about joy, think of some activities that correspond to particular 'rhythms' or 'seasons' in your life. Try thinking of 2 weekly, 2 monthly and 2 annual activities you could do. For me, that would look like:

Weekly:
1. At least 3 mornings of Bible journalling and prayer
2. Praying with Amy at least 3 times a week

Monthly:
1. Spend time with a good friend who makes me laugh and encourages me
2. Go on a prayer walk in the countryside

Annual:
1. Fast from food for a day or two (usually during the Hunger rhythms at Kings)
2. Have a holiday where a switch off all phones and computers

What would it look like for you? 

Have fun. Seriously, have fun!

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Essence: Rescued

Scripture

Following on from Sunday's message, today's Bible reading is Colossians 1:13-14.
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
 Observation

Tim Peake made history recently when he became the first British ESA astronaut to visit the international space station. On 15 December 2015 at 11:03am he took off on board the Soyuz TMA-19M en route to the International Space Station where he'll remain for 6 months performing experiments on behalf of researchers on Earth.

The weightlessness being experienced by Peake must be a strange and remarkable reality to get used to. I heard one commentator mention that astronauts new to the space station spend much of their time in the first few days losing things. Their belongings simply don't stay put any more, but instead seem to take on a life of their own floating away from wherever they're left. For this reason instruments have velcro on them in order to be easily stuck on to an astronaut's space suit. The simple fact is that in space different rules apply to those on Earth. In weightless conditions human beings need to learn to live by a new reality.

A similar dynamic is true for us as Christians. As followers of Jesus our identity has changed. We no longer live by the old identity and the old rules. Before we were believers we lived in the 'domain of darkness', whereas now we are in the 'kingdom of God's beloved Son.' Before, we were enemies of God whereas now we are friends and sons/daughters, coheirs with Christ and members of Christ's body. A similar relearning process needs to take place to that undergone by the astronauts.

This week we're considering the idea that we are rescued ones. Just as Tim Peake needed to be inside a vehicle for transportation out of gravity's reach and into weightlessness, so we needed rescuing out of darkness being unable to help ourselves. We could not and cannot save ourselves. Prior to becoming Christians we are bound by the power of satan, sin and death and there's nothing we can do about it. Powerless, we live separated from God under the restrictions of darkness's domain. And there's nothing we could ever do to get free from it. This is worth stating again; there's NOTHING we can do to get free by ourselves. 

No amount of moral effort or energy and no amount of religious observances, of church attendance or fasting, can set us free from this domain. Any attempts to do so simply don't appreciate the severity of our condition. It's as foolish as thinking you can reach the moon by jumping off a high tower. In gravity's domain you need something more than hard work to break free. Gravity bound earthlings need a space craft to be free from its control and for those in the realm of darkness, a saviour is needed. A rescuer needed to come and, praise God, a rescuer has come. As Isaiah promised long ago 'On those living in a land of deep darkness, a light has come.'

Jesus came to rescue all those who are willing to admit that they need it. He has come to take us out of darkness and bring us into light. Today as you go about your day, remember - you needed rescuing, you could not save yourself and as such you need to remain humbly dependent upon the saviour. We never graduate beyond being a rescued one.

Weekly Challenge

Scripture is an essential guide for helping us live in the good of our newfound rescue. It makes sense then, that we give ourselves to learning it and being shaped by it. Becoming familiar with truth doesn't happen accidentally. Spend this week reciting daily the following statements that relate to our identity in Christ:
In Christ I am God's child (John 1:12)
In Christ I belong to God (1 Corinthians 6:20)
In Christ I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self control (2 Timothy 1:7)
In Christ I am born of God and the evil one cannot touch me (1 John 5:18)
In Christ I am holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4)
In Christ I am forgiven (Ephesians 1:8)
In Christ I am a saint (Col. 1:1)

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A Sword For the Fight

Scripture : Today's full reading can be found here
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might... 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. 
Observation:

Paul concludes his letter to the Ephesians with an instruction to put on spiritual armour. After all he's communicated to the church about the Christian life, about their position in Christ, about their need to be filled with the Spirit and about how they are to prize unity he concludes by saying, essentially '...and don't forget, it's a fight!' 

In this fight we're given metaphorical armour to help us: Faith is like a shield, righteousness becomes like a breastplate, salvation a helmet. It has often be pointed out that all of the equipment we're given to help us in this struggle is defensive and protective; all of it that is apart from one item, the sword of the Spirit. The sword of the Spirit, we're told, is the word of God. The one thing that can help us gain ground and not simply stand it, is scripture; the Bible, the good Book, God's word.  

I was reminded of this recently when praying through something I was struggling with. I have become quite good at trying to reason with my anxiety. I'll analyse facts in cold blood, I'll discuss what I'm worrying about with others, and I'll attempt to pick apart negative thought patterns and reduce them in size. All the while failing at actually picking them apart and reducing them in size. While praying (or worrying aloud as it often becomes) it struck me how little I was using the truth of scripture to help me in my struggle. I was essentially trying to break apart a mountain using only plastic hammer and chisel. It wasn't working and neither could I expect it to. Reason doesn't have anything like the power that scripture does. 

Jesus when tested and tempted by the Devil in the wilderness (here) didn't try to win the argument or reason the Enemy into a corner. Instead he leaned on and trusted in the power of scripture to help him. Read it for yourself and you'll notice the repeating statement of Jesus 'it is written.' The devil tempted him with self sufficiency and independence from God and he replied with 'it is written...'. The enemy offered him success over his enemies, fame and glory and he replied 'it is written...'.

If Jesus leant on scripture this way, then I need to as well - and so do you. You cannot flourish as a believer without it, you cannot withstand the onslaught of the enemy or even the onslaught of your own sinful desires without it. We need to lean on and trust in the same truth that Jesus trusted in. And the promise comes that as we draw near to God 'he will draw near to us' and as we resist the devil 'he will flee from us.'

Weekly Challenge

Since scripture is so essential it makes sense that we give ourselves to learning it and being shaped by it. Becoming familiar with truth doesn't happen accidentally. Spend this week reciting daily the following statements that relate to our identity in Christ:
In Christ I am God's child (John 1:12)
In Christ I belong to God (1 Corinthians 6:20)
In Christ I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self control (2 Timothy 1:7)
In Christ I am born of God and the evil one cannot touch me (1 John 5:18)
In Christ I am holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4)
In Christ I am forgiven (Ephesians 1:8)
In Christ I am a saint (Col. 1:1)