Giving Thanks

IMG_1410.PNGThere’s something you and I can do that’s really good for us, and for others. This thing is powerful, infectious and situation-changing. It’s not hard to do, but most of the time it involves a conscious choice. What am I talking about? I’m talking about giving thanks.

I shared with The Belfrey’s Staff Team this week 3 things that thankfulness brings. Here they are:

1. Brings Presence
If you’ve ever been to a prayer meeting you’ll know it often starts with thanksgiving. That’s not just because of tradition but because Psalm 100 says: ‘Enter His gates with thanksgiving’. Thankfulness is the gateway to God’s presence.

We had a week’s holiday in Jersey in August. It was late afternoon and I’d just had a shower and was sitting on the hotel bed. I was listening to a podcast by Bill Johnson and he was recalling some of the amazing things God had done in the building in which he was speaking. He talked of how someone had been healed of an illness over there. How someone had given their lives to Christ down there. A couple whose marriage was falling apart has stood together over there and received a divine impartation of love that had transformed their tired unfulfilled relationship. And as he was speaking I found myself agreeing with him. I found I too was thanking God for these things. And as I did that the presence of God came to me in that hotel room. And I began to weep as his presence touched me. The tears were good tears, tears of thanksgiving coming from deep in my heart. I was so thankful for the goodness and kindness of God.

Do you want more of the Lord’s presence? Be thankful. It’s a key to entering God’s presence

2. Brings Perspective
A life without thankfulness is an empty life. That’s because we’re made to be thankful.

When in lived in Sheffield, I got chatting to a man one day who was about 30. He told me that he had quite a good job which was going well. He was married and loved his wife. They’d recently had their first baby. And he felt that life was good. He said he wasn’t a religious person. He was wary of church and services and had no faith. And then he said this to me: ‘I’m so grateful for my life, but I’ve got no-one to say thank you to’. In the end we met again and he spoke out loud his thanksgiving, which I turned into a simple prayer. I hope it was useful in his journey to faith. Since then I’ve often thought about his statement and wondered how many others feel just the same. We’re made to give thanks to God. We actually have a deep need to be thankful. Without that, our view of life is wrong. That’s because thankfulness puts things in perspective. It stops us being selfish. It keeps us humble.

In our family at end of the day, we often look back and say thank you to the Lord. We’ve taught our children to do that because Psalm 92:2 says ‘it is good to give thanks to the Lord… to sing of your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night’. Thankfulness gives us perspective. It helps us look back and see the Lord’s hand at work in our lives. Even in the most ordinary and mundane of days.

Do you pause at the end of the day, and give thanks to God? Do you make that your habit? It’s one of the best habits to develop in life.

3. Brings Prophecy
Thankfulness is God’s will for you. 1 Thess 5:18 says just this: ‘give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’.

This tells you that the will of God for you is not just about the details of life – like whether you become a teacher or a musician, or whether you buy this shirt or skirt. It’s about how you position your heart in relationship to God at all times. It tells you that what God really wants is for you to have a thankful heart.

It also tells you that to embrace God’s will in your life involves action. You have to give thanks. It involves your will. This is particularly important in times of difficulty, weakness and uncertainty. To do that requires faith. You have to step out and say ‘Lord, I’m not going to get consumed by this. I’m going to be thankful.’ And as we do this, so something begins to happen inside of us. God begins to show us things. Things about our situation. Things about ourselves. He speaks to us. His prophetic word often comes to us. It might be a simple word, like: ‘everything is going to be ok’ or ‘my grace is sufficient for you’ or ‘do not fear’. Or it may be something much more specific.

This is because thankfulness releases the prophetic word of God. That’s why when St Paul writes about thanksgiving in 1 Thessalonians 5, the very next thing he does is talk about prophecy, because thankfulness often releases the prophetic. It brings the heavenly word of God to us. The word that brings life and hope.

So thankfulness is basic to every human being and especially to the follower of Jesus. Conversely, not being thankful is a slippery slope that can cause bitterness to take root. Not being thankful is a very dangerous place to be and according to Romans 1:21 can take us so off course that we end up in idolatry.

So be thankful! Choose to be thankful!! It’s God’s best for your life. And you can start right now.

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Great to be Humble; Humble to be Great

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Humility, according to leadership expert Jim Collins is one of the key characteristics of Level 5 leaders. Collins defines Level 5 leaders as those who lead not just good organisations, but great ones – ie. organisations that consistently outshine others. That humility is a mark of the very top leaders amazes some, but read his research (in Good to Great) and you’ll see and be convinced. But it’s not a surprise to followers of Jesus because Christ couldn’t have been clearer when he said ‘whoever wants to become great must become a servant’ (Matthew 20:26).

So what is it to be humble? The words often attributed to CS Lewis are a helpful start: ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.’ But what does that mean in practice? It simply means putting God and others first. It doesn’t mean we neglect ourself or our loved ones. It doesn’t mean we become a doormat. It doesn’t mean we never question or challenge. It doesn’t mean we don’t take good rest or can’t enjoy some of the good things of life. But it does mean that we dislodge ourself from the centre. So it’s no longer about me. It’s about Him. And others. That’s at the heart of what it is to be humble.

How do we become humble? It begins by really grasping who Christ is and who we are. These are issues to do with identity. Jesus asked ‘who do you say I am?’ (Mark 8:29) – because he wanted people to know that he is God-with-us, the friend of sinners and Saviour of the world. Knowing who he is changes who we are. Living in relationship with Jesus Christ radically reshapes our identity. We know that we’re wonderfully made, totally forgiven and Spirit-filled. Knowing that our identity is dependent on Christ keeps us thankful, prayerful and humble. That’s why Kris Vallotton is right when he says ‘true humility is a choice, but the fact is that the best way to choose humility is to choose to believe what God says about you.’

Do you know what God says about you? Do you know how deeply he loves you? How passionately he likes you? How strongly he protects you? How strategically he has plans for you? You can hold your head up high. Because of Jesus Christ.

Realising that it’s all because of Jesus Christ stops us becoming arrogant and keep us humble. That is a great place to be. That’s why it’s great to be humble. And humble to be great.

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A Culture of Honour

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Festivity is one of the values we’re pressing into at The Belfrey. That’s not only about how we worship but about how we are. How we live our lives. How we relate to others.

To live festively means that the way we interact with each other should be positive and encouraging. We should be looking for every opportunity to praise, build up and affirm. Bethel Church in Redding express this through having what they call ‘a culture of honour’, picking up the bible phrase ‘honour one another above yourselves’ (Romans 12:10). They’re always looking to speak well of each other. I like that.

Having festive relationships means that when someone does something that we might question, our default position is to think the best and give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they might just have been distracted. Or simply have expressed themselves badly. Their mind might have been elsewhere. We don’t know everything they’re going through. So we are gracious. Alternatively we can think the worst … and react sceptically, critically and cynically. How would you prefer to be treated?

Raising a culture of honour doesn’t mean there’s no place to question or challenge. Jesus said there’s a place for that (eg Matthew 18), but we must do so kindly, gently and lovingly.

All this doesn’t mean that we can’t be sad or grieve. The bible clearly says (Romans 12:15) we should ‘mourn with those who mourn’. It doesn’t mean that we forget those who are suffering or struggling in life. The bible talks (in Rom 8:18) about acknowledging ‘our present sufferings’ so we must recognise the difficult things in life. But also see God as present and sovereign in the midst of those things. Even in sadness there is much to be grateful for.

Being festive means praising God with enthusiasm and effort, with zest and zeal. Not just in church gatherings but in our families and homes and streets, in our schools, universities and workplaces. It means applauding the good things in life – like achievements, milestones, anniversaries, new jobs, new babies, new homes. It means we can celebrate good things around us, like great design, scientific breakthroughs, beautiful art, and even tennis champions and World Cup football matches!

The church should model this to the world. Sadly at times we haven’t. For so many, church is associated with being dour, dreary and dreadfully dull. Robert Louis Stevenson struggled with church and once wrote in his diary something very surprising: ‘I have been to church today and I am not depressed’. God, forgive us and the church when we’ve made faith in you irrelevant and boring.

Living festively doesn’t stop us from speaking about important or difficult things – like life and death or heaven and hell. But at the end of the day, we can and must be festive because Christ is risen! That’s why the Archbishop of York, when he came to license Greg Downes as our Associate Minister a few weeks ago, was right to tell Greg that he should be full of joy, and that if he wasn’t, he’d send him back!

But it’s not just Greg and the clergy who should be full of joy. Joy is for everyone. All of us. All the time. And it’s to spill out in all our relationships, as the Spirit of Jesus fills our lives.

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Love the Body You’re In

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Yesterday we finished a 4-week series at The Belfrey called Love the body You’re In. It’s been all about the quality of relationships. It’s helped me see with fresh insight that disciples are called to invest not only in their relationship with God but with others too. Disciples are called to put God first and then to ‘honour one another above yourselves’ (Romans 12:10). To do this requires a mind-set shift. Let me explain.

When a couple get together and begin a relationship it often starts – to be totally honest – for selfish reasons. They pursue each other for what they can get out of it: love, security, affection, friendship, affirmation, etc.. But if the relationship is going to thrive then there needs to be a mind-set shift in the couple so their thinking changes from ‘how can this relationship help and please me?’ to ‘how can I help and please them?’ It becomes about giving rather than getting. That’s a mature relationship – a true love relationship. A relationship that will last. And of course if both give, both end up receiving!

It’s the same in other kind of relationships, including relationships in the body of Christ. Many join a church for what they can get out of it. They like the style of worship, the programmes, the kids work, the people, etc.. But to thrive in church-life there similarly needs to be a mind-set shift so our thinking changes from ‘how can this help and please me?’ to ‘how can I help and please others?’ It becomes about giving rather than getting. When church is full of people like that, that is a mature church. And of course if everyone gives, everyone receives!

This sounds great, but it’s difficult.

It’s difficult partly because we’re so shaped by the individualistic culture in which we live. Many of us have such a me-centred mind-set that we don’t see the selfishness behind much of our decision-making. We find it hard to perceive the consumerist mentality that dominates. But unless it named, exposed and changed we won’t really be able to Love the Body We’re In.

And it’s also difficult because there’s an enemy who wants us to live self-centred lives. He wants to keep us constrained in please-me cages. He hates to see generosity, kindness, forgiveness and humility embodied in a people. Because those kind of people will change the world.

But this kind of mind-set shift is not difficult for the Spirit of God. It’s easy for him if he can find a people who are willing. Romans 12:2 describes this mind-shift as ‘the renewing of your mind’. How does it happen? Romans 12:1 tell us it happens as people live in the light of the cross of Christ, ‘offering yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.’ It happens to a people who dedicate themselves to the Lord. A people willing to sacrifice and surrender.

If you really want to Love the Body You’re In, surrender to God and ask for your mind to be renewed. It’s not about you. It’s about loving God and loving others.

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Festivity is Driven by the Young

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Festivity is driven by young people. That’s one of the points I made when I spoke last Sunday to the evening congregations at The Belfrey. We were considering the story found in 2 Samuel 6 of the Ark being brought into Jerusalem. The very first thing we’re told, which sets the context for this amazing story of celebration is that ‘David again brought together all the able young men of Israel’ (v1). I find that fascinating.

Older people were no doubt there as well, but the ones encouraging and pressing into the festivity were the young. David didn’t do this by accident. He did it on purpose. He did it because young people love to celebrate and party. They love to sing. To dance. To make music. And they have energy for it – something I’m beginning to lose in my mid-40s! So if you want to really rejoice and be festive, gather everyone – especially the young!

Over the last year at The Belfrey we’ve been having a stronger push on encouraging the young. We’re seeing more clearly the biblical mandate to particularly call young people, which it’s easy to miss. That’s what Jesus did when he called his first disciples. They were young. That’s what Paul did when gathering his mission teams. They were predominantly young. That doesn’t mean we exclude those who are older (see yesterday’s blog – Called to Flourish). We are a church for all ages. But it’s the young who should be driving our celebrations. Go to places where the Spirit of God is being poured out and where cutting-edge mission is happening and the role of young people is crucial. What happens to churches that forget this and allow older people to decide how church celebrations happen? Normally within two or three generations, they’ve ceased to exist. They’ve died.

To survive and indeed to thrive requires mission be restored to it’s rightful place at the heart of the church and for young people to be raised up and lead our celebrations. All this is even more important in the UK today, where 50% of churches have no young people at all and many of these churches are in the North of England. That’s why we need more churches to be on the forefront of calling the young to Jesus Christ.

This is no excuse for the young to disregard or disrespect those who are older. Neither does it mean that older people have no place in celebrations. But it it does mean that older people have to make space for the young to serve and lead. And the result for me – as someone who is no longer young – will be that the style and flavour is unlikely to be my preference. The music might feel a little too loud. The language too contemporary. The dress-code too relaxed. And there’ll be more energy and enthusiasm than I can bring. And all this is fine and good. In fact it’s how it’s supposed to be. Because festivity is meant to be driven by the young.

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Called to flourish

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Last weekend we welcomed lots of folk to The Vicarage from our Sunday 9am Congregation. There was a great selection of cakes, lots of conversation and laughter and the summer sun shone warm and bright. But what stood out most for me was the surprise and then smile on Margaret Hornby’s face. We used the gathering as an opportunity to celebrate her turning 95 this week and so she received her own cake and flowers and a special rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. And she loved it!! We were pleased to mark the occasion – not only because 95 in quite a milestone but also because Margaret is a wonderful person. She’s a warm-hearted, encouraging, kind and prayerful woman – whose life has not always been easy and who continues to shine bright for Christ.

Churches and communities across the North include people like Margaret – older people who have cared and given of themselves and continue to do so. But they are sometimes forgotten or simply taken for granted. In these days when there is rightly so much emphasis on reaching the young it’s easy to miss those who are older. I’m sure at The Belfrey we don’t get it right all the time, which is why it was good to celebrate with some of our senior members last week, and especially with Margaret.

Psalm 92 describes people ‘flourishing’ as they live in relationship with God using the picture-language of a strong tall cedar tree. And it includes the wonderfully descriptive line: ‘they will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green’ (v14). That’s a great reminder that there’s so much wisdom and life in the elderly which should be honoured, appreciated and shared. God’s kingdom includes all ages. And he is calling many in our day to enter that kingdom and to flourish. The young. And the old.

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‘Great’ Britain

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I live in Great Britain and am pleased to do so. Not everything about our nation is brilliant, yet there are lots of good things to be thankful for.

So what is it about Britain that makes it ‘great’? I was reading a few proverbs to our boys last week from the New Century Bible and this one stood out:

Doing what is right makes a nation great. But sin will bring disgrace to any people. (Prov 14:34)

Greatness comes from doing the right thing. From making right choices. By living wisely and well. That’s what makes a nation great. Whilst every nation wants to prosper, it’s not primarily about economic wealth. Whilst every nation wants to be secure, it’s not primarily about political influence or military power. Whilst every nation wants to be healthy, it’s not primarily about having the best health service. Important as these things are, there’s a larger vision, a higher notion, a more noble calling. It’s about ‘doing what is right’ – what our ancestors used to call being righteous.

The word righteous is rather out of favour these days as its use has often been twisted to mean an imposed morality – a forced draconian way of living. But that’s not what being righteous is supposed to be about. It’s simply about doing what’s right. Doing the right thing. Making the best choice – sometimes the hard choice – for the sake of others. Jesus said greatness is linked to serving (see my 2012 blog Great Olympics, Great Britain). That’s how Christ lived. And that’s how his followers are called to be, empowered by his serving Spirit. When we forget that and live self-centred, selfish lives (as Prov 14:34 makes clear) our decisions often are poor and sinful and so often lead to exposure and disgrace.

It’s good to aspire to be great but to be great is greater. It requires both leaders and ordinary citizens to simply do what is right. In small decisions as well as big. Not just when others are looking but even when no-one else is around. Not in somebody else’s family, but in mine. Not somewhere else, but here. Not in the future, but today. Not in someone else’s life but in mine.
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Forgive Give Sacrifice

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People who forgive, give and sacrifice normally make the biggest impact.

To live that kind of extraordinary life requires self-discipline and self-denial. The cost is great but the reward is even greater – seeing lives changed!

I’ve been praying the famous prayer of St Francis this week – ‘Make me an instrument of your peace’ which ends by naming these three same qualities: forgiving, giving and sacrifice.

Make me an instrument of your peace
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
It is in giving that we receive
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Forgive
People normally find it hard to forgive those who’ve hurt them. That’s understandable but it won’t do. Not to forgive just contributes to the pain in the world. That’s why Jesus said that his followers must forgive (Matthew 6:12-15). God loves to forgive and will empower us to do the same, if we ask. That means that every time we are wronged is an opportunity to love like God – with a forgiving love. St Francis discovered this. That’s why truly great people do not bear grudges.

Give
St Francis knew what it was to have much, and to have little. He chose to give his resources away and never regretted it. John Wesley modelled a life of giving and urged people to ‘give as much as you can’. If we want to make an impact, we must do the same. It’s not good enough to leave it to others. God gives us money not just for us, but to share (Matthew 6:2). That’s why generosity is a key value at The Belfrey. We give to change lives. That’s why this weekend we’re asking people to give to our special Gift Day which is all about giving to make a difference.

Sacrifice
Following Jesus begins with sacrifice (Matthew 16:24). We put to death our selfishness and sinfulness in the waters of baptism and are given a whole new life reorientated around Christ. But the way in is also the way on, and so there’ll be times when we’re called to extraordinary sacrifice. This often feels tough but is always worth it. Because death always leads to resurrection.

So St Francis had it right! And he got his inspiration from Jesus, who fills us with his Spirit so we can do extraordinary things – like forgive, give and sacrifice.

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4 Signs of Transformation

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The vision of The Belfrey is that we play our part in serving God’s transformation of the North. People sometimes ask me what that looks like and how they can get involved. This weekend, in the space of just a few hours, I saw 4 signs of transformation that are all important.

1. Practical Care
I was asked to jump-start someone’s car as their battery had run flat. It wasn’t a difficult job to do but I know it made a difference to them. Don’t underestimate the importance of simple, practical things like that. At work. With your neighbours. In the home. But be aware that these kind of opportunities rarely come at a convenient time! I wonder how many I’ve missed in the past. I must seize more if I’m going to play my part in transformation.

2. Restored Relationships
Next I met a couple who told me how their marriage had been falling apart. Mistakes had been made and pain experienced. But instead of separation and divorce, they’d taken the harder route of working through their issues and really communicating, so much so that their relationship is stronger than ever and they were inviting me to lead a service of renewing their marriage vows! A transformed North will see much more of that kind of thing. In every context we can help broken relationships be restored.

3. New Believers
I then caught the end of the Alpha away day and met a young man who, just a few minutes before, had become a new believer by surrendering his life to Christ. He briefly told me his story and I prayed with him. It reminded me that a transformed North will involve ordinary people choosing to become disciples. We can all play our part in encouraging people to follow Jesus. It’s the best decision anyone can make.

4. Persistent Prayer
Finally I went on to St Cuthbert’s House of Prayer where 100 Hours of Prayer was coming to and end, and I joined in the final session. It was great to see people calling out to God for their city and region – people who realise that nothing of lasting significance happens without prayer. Praying for change is something we can all do. Any time. Any place. Any where. Because prayer is powerful. So don’t give up. Prayer changes things.

So I saw all this in the space of just a few hours – and I began to imagine these kind of things happening through many people, in hundreds and thousands of places, over many days across the North of England. And I thought, that would be amazing! And then I wondered, perhaps it’s already happening…

The main way we play our part regionally is by getting stuck in locally. So don’t underestimate the difference you can make. The bigger mosaic of God’s kingdom is formed by lots of tiny fragments that are all important.

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Close, but closer

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There is always more. More to see and hear. More to learn. More to know and experience and pass on. More of life. More of love. More of God.

I spoke to The Belfrey staff last week out of Revelation 3:20. Jesus wants the Christian community in Laodicea to know he is nearby. Not far away. In fact he’s very close, but wants to be closer. We know this because he describes himself being behind a closed door. And he invites them to open the door into an even deeper, closer relationship. So they can know him more. And make more of a difference in the world.

For many, this is the reality of how it feels. Despite Christ being close, it seems like he’s outside the door, not inside. Like he’s in the next room, not this one. Yes, nearby. But not right next to us. Jesus agrees: ‘I’m just outside the door’.

What’s Jesus doing? He is knocking on the door of our lives and saying ‘let me in’.

Sometimes we can ignore someone knocking at our front door on purpose.We don’t want to see them! Other times we ignore the door simply because we don’t hear. Maybe we’re asleep. More likely these days, the music is just too loud to hear.

Is the music of your life so loud, that you can’t hear Jesus knocking?

Jesus says he’d like to come in and ‘dine with you.’ Rather than stand outside, he’d prefer to sit down and share a fine meal with you. This is an invitation to relationship. It means he wants to hang out and enjoy good times of fun and laughter. And serious conversation too.

Dining is great, but it takes time. We’re not talking quick TV-dinners or fast food here. Christ is inviting us to take time to sup with him. If we want more of God, we have to be intentional and give him time.

For those who want this, Jesus invites them to do something very simple – to open the door. To pray and welcome him into your life. And – as this is written to a community – for even whole communities to do that!

All this tells us that Christ is close, but wants to be closer. It’s the message at the heart of this Pentecost season, that the Holy Spirit of God is present and available to all who ask. Which is why we pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’.

Jesus says: ‘I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with them’ (Rev 3:20).

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