STOP BY

You know those places you pass by many times through the week that you suddenly notice something you had not done before? Well, I had one of those moments earlier today. It’s a turning point into a main road at the corner of our local cemetery. It has two benches, next to each other. Not that unusual. Well maybe a tad unusual as you would have thought that one might have been enough as there doesn’t seem to be huge amount of wannabe bench sitters in that particular spot.

What was striking to me was the fact that both were facing the cemetery.Of course, they would have provided someone with the much-needed restful gaze perhaps towards the place that a loved one had been buried. But I guess – it isn’t just for them. It might be for all of us. a daily and necessary reminder to all passers-by – that we will all have to face our immortality.As Kingsley Amis wrote:

“Death has this much to be said for it: You don’t have to get out of bed for it. Wherever you happen to be they bring it to you, free.’
This is a strange pit stop for the soul, in a world that prefers so often to be blind, deaf and mute about the big D word. Perhaps one of the last taboos of our Western world…Yet smart people think about death – not with a morbid fascination – but with a sober preparation. Many questions could pester us: what happens after, when will it happen, will it hurt, how will I cope?
We are wise to remember the words of Saul Bellow:
“Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.”
The thought of it should bring clarity to our everyday life. The striking thing is that many people in the Bible die well. It is one of my humble goals in life: to learn to die well and teach others to do so too.

Think of Simeon:
 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.” (Luke 2:29).
Or Paul:
“I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:23) and For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21).
Take that journey today, sit on the bench, ponder and re-frame your life in the light of your mortality

 

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Top Manager

It’s that time towards the end of the Premier League football season and many are debating who has been the best manager this season. While Tony Pullis and Brendan Rogers might be the popular choices – I think Robert Martinez tops it for me. Here are my reasons – and most of those are helpful leadership lessons:

  • He learned to say ‘no’ to arguably better jobs (LFC) or unsuitable jobs philosophy-wise (AVFC). Saying ‘no’ is not easy. You could miss an opportunity. Weighing things up and having the courage of conviction is great mark of smart leadership.
  • He learned to put the past behind – having tasted victory with Wigan and then relegation – there were plenty of naysayers who did not consider him a suitable manager for EFC. Yet he stepped up knowing that he had something to offer despite the failure of relegation.
  • He showed he was a ‘learner’. i read somewhere that around Christmas time he invited all the Everton greats to a meal that he put on for them. There he gave them his number – expressing an availability to always get feedback from them. That showed that he knew those men are the heart and soul of the club and having them on his side would only benefit the club in the long run. Giants of shoulders kind of stuff.
  • He took a personal interest in his players. I still believe that man-management is essential. Read what Steven Naismith had to say about how Martinez convinced him to come and sign – and you discover a player who for a significant part of the season was happy to play his cameo role. How come? He knew that the manager knows what he is doing and esteemed him for it.

Day Four

What would you do in the last day before your execution? Do something selfish? Be with those whom you love? Hide away?

If yesterday seemed like a slow day, today it really picks up pace. Jesus seems to focus on spending with the disciples, not for His encouragement but for edification.

He distils the essentials. His sacrificial death and the link to salvation (Last Supper). The importance of a divine relationship (abide). The upside down nature of Kingdom servanthood (foot washing). He demonstrates it practically, not just in words, with a stark visual reminder. Just so they will not be ignorant or forget.

It makes me wonder how many of the essentials get lost in unimportant details? Because these very things are challenging.

We don’t want a broken Saviour because it makes Him look weak, and oh, how we despise weakness…
We prefer a contract signed sealed and delivered, without any further interference, rather than abiding…
We love to see the towel and the basin used, just not by us but for us…

Then Jesus retreats. His only seemingly ‘me’ time is in prayer. And how much this does not resemble our prayer. This is maybe where the battle of Calvary was half won. This is maybe where the resolution is sealed and the emotions are strengthened. This is the unedited Jesus. The One I can relate to every time I intercede for those not yet answered prayers. Yes, he understands…

Day Two

If there were any PR people amongst the disciples, on that Tuesday they must have had a nightmare day. This was like a public war of words, betraying Jesus’ deep disappointment with the self righteous.

They tried to trap Him with both political and religious questions but with no avail. He knew more than they thought He knew and His time just wasn’t finished. How often do we play this game too…We get so engrossed in relatively insignificant trivia, while ignoring the blatant spiritual issues that marr our lives.

It’s frustrating to see such an opportunity yet those who saw themselves ‘in’ were either too deluded or arrogant to see themselves in need of grace.

Like a good prophet He paints the picture of the future, offering yet another chance of repentance. He does it with creativity and simplicity, through the power of the story. But so many just don’t want to know. The ‘here and now’ of power is a strong spiritual narcotic that deters us from understanding the future.

This is the day that Judas does His dirty deal. It might have been about money but I suspect that the shattered expectations of worldly success provided most of the motivation for ‘selling Jesus out’. You make a customised IJesus and when it does not ‘deliver’ – you betray Him. That story gets repeated again and again.

10 for Holy Week

I confess: I love Holy Week. I love seasons and rhythms. I love the variety and the opportunity. Many church traditions can become devoid of significance and perhaps empty rituals. Yet they can also be a missed opportunity. Next week can be just like that. Make it different.

Every year I re-journey with Christ. This prepares me for the depths of the Good Friday ‘low’ as well as the ‘highs’ of Easter Sunday. Yes, it’s both intelligent and emotional, and it strengthens my affection for Christ, it reminds me of how amazing grace is and it reinforces my identity as a disciple.

Here is what you might find helpful too – and none of these are exclusive to Holy Week:

  1. reflect on the relevant gospel passages each day – I’ll post something later
  2. join in with other disciples: Palm Sunday, Thursday, Good Friday and other gatherings
  3. take time to serve the ones you love and maybe you’re taking for granted
  4. take time to be quiet, you will hear people and God more clearly
  5. do some cleaning – not to show off and feel self-righteous but almost as an act of putting off the old and putting on the new
  6. gossip the good news of Easter bringing hope in a pretty hopeless world
  7. let the ugliness of sin and the beauty of grace collide again in your soul
  8. learn to rejoice like you never did before – knowing that Jesus is alive
  9. get outside and experience the Resurrection of nature – through spring , a mirror of God’s redeeming power
  10. do something for the least: maybe unwell, imprisoned, poor or lonely

 

Call the Midwife

Yes, I admit, I love that show. Maybe because of the retro chic closer community. Maybe because of the beauty of dedicated people who have embraced a difficult vocation. Who knows why.I have been challenged a lot recently about the whole process of spiritual birth. I meet people who think they are Christ-followers but they are just religious aficionados. They made a decision – often to do with buying spiritual insurance – but never became disciples. And most of the time it isn’t their fault…

God is at work in sovereign and mysterious ways in people’s lives, long before they start the journey as disciples of Jesus.Yet I also know that we – as a faith community – have a responsibility to birth people spiritually or help people start well. God often works in people’s lives in spite of our amateurism, but that should not be an excuse. A tension between divine sovereignty and human systems.

This is more about me/my ministry rather than a pointed finger at others. I am becoming increasingly challenged about ‘what’ I invite people to respond to – because too often people would commit to just a felt needed in a particular context or an incomplete version of the Gospel – rather than the Gospel.

Here are some of my current penciled resolutions:

  1. Preach the Gospel with simplicity, clarity and courage when you invite someone to become a Christ-follower. Be gracious with yourself knowing that you might struggle to do this well.
  2. Journey with people, don’t rush, don’t push, offer respect – trust the attractive power of the Gospel.
  3. Don’t skirt around the tough issues – this will con people. Jesus often dissuaded superficial followers from just being ‘hangers-on’.
  4. Talk more about ‘kingdom’ and ‘discipleship’ rather than just ‘heaven and hell’ – as life with Christ is for now not just then and it’s a lifestyle rather than a spiritual legal document.
  5. Discipleship is life-apprenticeship rather than just a book or a course. Ideally new believers have believers who are further ahead in the journey, walk with them through real-life situations.

The Wrong Turn

Several weeks ago I had an ‘incident’ that is somehow still fresh in my memory. Following our small group meeting, in an area that I’m not overtly familiar with, I decided to try a new route home. All because I’d heard people say that it’s shorter.

I started the journey into the unknown territory and very quickly I thought, ‘boy this is muddy’. Never mind. You do what most blokes do. Just power on ahead, hoping to make it out. But, it got worse. The mud seemed to get deeper and the sides of the huge Cumbrian hedge seemed to wall me in tighter and tighter. I kept going until I was forced to stop. It was only as I got out of the car that I realised the idiocy of my venture. I was in deep trouble.

It was a miracle the car came out of there that night. Miracle, because it was a God sized task. Fortunately, God’s instruments were people, one who was an amazing ‘reverser’ and three very strong buddies. What should have been a tractor pull job in the daylight, with the attached scorn by the farmers ribbing the silly townie, was a job done in the middle of the night.

It’s one of those stories I can laugh about, but there are many lessons learned.

  • Shortcuts aren’t always shorter.
  • Do your homework before trying something new.
  • If it looks bad, it doesn’t always get better.
  • It’s not always embarrassing to admit defeat and do a u-turn.
  • Asking the right questions might save you plenty of hassle.
  • Mistakes are life’s growing pains, you won’t grow without them.
  • God has an amazing ability to put the right people in the right place.
  • Life events will teach the teachable soul many lessons.

Fighting Fear

Fear is our enemy.

It speaks a language that often no one else understands.
It taunts you. It blindsides you. It is our Chinese water torture.
It hits the young and the old, the rich and the poor.
It spreads and often seems to play it’s hide and seek game.
It’s nested in the mind but it affects your whole body.
It’s yours but it spills into the life of all those around you.

Some allegedly seem to thrive on it – the daredevils of our day – while most of us are sidelined by it.

God knows all this.
That’s why often, His message was : ‘fear not’

When I am afraid,
I will trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
In God I trust; I will not be afraid.
Psalm 56:3-4

Facebook Matters

Unbelievably, it has been the tenth anniversary since Facebook launched. It’s probably as good a time as any for an evaluation of how it changed our lives. Here are some of my personal reflections.

While I didn’t engage in the whole Facebook movie malarkey, I did look back at some of my old contributions. Just as much as I would have laughed watching recorded footage of my first attempts to ride a bike, it did bring me a smile.

The truth is, life wouldn’t be the same without Facebook. It’s easy to malign its faux sense of ‘friendship’, the nauseating embarrassing pictures, the uber-dull status updates or sadly the many broken marriages (reignited interest in ‘old flames’), the time wasted trying to attract ‘likes’ and the incessant snooping some people engaged in.

Yet, while all these might be unpleasant realities of the Facebook world, I have many reasons to extol its virtues too.

  • It reunited friends otherwise lost in the big wide world.
  • It offered a voice for many isolated people in great need of help.
  • It gives me the chance to rejoice or weep with friends experiencing essential rites of passage.
  • It gives me a visual glimpse into other worlds.
  • It introduces me to beautiful sights, cool bikes and great art.
  • It makes me smile, just when I need it – even involving the silly jumping cats videos.
  • It inspires me through uplifting words.
  • If helps me to share with the world things I am passionate about.
  • It speeds and widens the communication of prayer needs.
  • It is about people, and in a world that becomes increasingly disconnected any communication is a ‘plus’.

Christmas Broken Dreams

Some people just grow up really fast. And often it’s not through the happiest circumstances. The hard knocks of life often dismantle us for life or fast-track us to maturity.

Mary presumably had to grow-up pretty fast. As a woman with a devout heart – she probably dreamed (sexist stereotypes aside) of serving God through the family life with a blessed husband and children. No idea how much of a scrapbook a Galilean girl would have put together – but I’m sure she dreamed of her special day and a special ‘nest’, that was her own.

We all have our dreams, and as much as they can be our inspiration – the expectations can often become our curse. We expect God to bless us by aligning His will with our plans. And only then we feel as if our destiny is fulfilled.

And yet – as Mary discovered, God has a better yet often harder way to mature us. She was highly favored but had to face the potential contempt of her fiancée and the ridicule of her community. She gave birth while almost on the run. She saw her son grow up knowing that something dark was going to end up his life. She went through the proverbial roller coaster ride of seeing his rise to fame as well as his brutal execution. Surely not something she would have had as her perfect life on her Pinterest wall.

It’s admirable that we should seek the weaving of our desire for fulfillment with the destiny God wants for us. Yet rarely we realize that the two might have different blueprints. Mary remained committed to let God shape her life, family and destiny. She did it willingly and gladly. and she must have made daily choices to back that early surrender. And it paid off – from eternity’s perspective.

The secret? She TRUSTED God.
His wisdom, His power, His goodness.

A timely reminder to us all.