Making space

The old garage has been demolished this week at The Vicarage Jubilee Terrace. Access onto the drive will now be much better and we’ll be able to get our van onto the property and close the gates. But the most striking thing is the fact that it’s opened up the space. If you look out from the back door the whole area just looks so much bigger! Removing the garage has created space.

I often come across people who would like more space. Space to do things differently. Space for family. Space to rest. Space to think. Space to be. Often the best way to create space is to remove something.

It could be removing something physical – like a garage. It could be removing an internal wall in a house to ‘open up the space’. It could be clearing an area in the garden over winter so you can prepare for planting vegetables in the spring. But it could be opening a time space, perhaps by removing a regular commitment in the diary that needs to end. It could be intentionally watching 30 minutes less TV to talk with your children or going to bed 15 minutes earlier to make space next morning to pray and read the Scriptures.

Whatever it is, it will probably not happen without determination – because removing things is normally difficult. In my experience adding something is so much easier than stopping something! Nevertheless removal is important and usually crucial to making space.

As we approach December and enter the season of Advent in preparation for Christmas, many find more things added to their calendar and to life in general. How do I fit it all in? And how do I make space for Christ at Christmas? The answer is by making space.

If you want to have a truly merry and contended Christmas season, you need to decide NOW (before it all starts) what needs removing, even temporarily. Otherwise you’ll get to Christmas Day exhausted and may even miss the reason for the season. Don’t do that. Instead, intentionally open up some space. You’ll love the view.


Some things just take time

I’ve had toothache on and off now for nearly three months. It began in the summer, coming on quite quickly. Rebecca, my dentist, has been brilliant. I’ve had a series of appointments to get various dental issues resolved. The last one was yesterday. We hope this has cracked it (not literally! – although one tooth did have to be split as it was removed – but that’s probably too much information…) I don’t really like the fact that it’s taken quite a time to be pain-free (although it’s been easier to live with knowing that progress is being made) but hopefully the issues have been resolved and I’ll do my best to look after my teeth even better. But to get to this place has been slow. It’s reminded me that some things just take time.

I’m reading through Genesis at the moment and am presently in the story of Joseph. God gave him prophetic dreams about his future at the age of 17 which were only fulfilled at the age of 30. That’s 13 years! Some things just take time.

Many of the letters in the New Testament of the bible are written to communities undergoing hardship and suffering. They’re encouraged to endure, inspired by the example of Jesus. Many today find inspiration in the call to ‘consider him (Christ) who endured such opposition… so that you will not grow weary or lose heart’ (Hebrews 12:3). Some things just take time.

We have a tendency when all is not well to want to rush to a conclusion but if we’re not careful the solution will not be the best. That doesn’t mean that a quick-fix solution is never right. Occasionally that’s just what’s needed. Neither does it mean we should do nothing or procrastinate – it’s good to plan and prepare and pray! But some things just take time. We need to be patient.

Patience seems to be in short supply today but it’s desperately needed in families, businesses, churches, politics – in fact in most areas of life. This has always been the case. The 17th Century scientist Isaac Newton knew this to be true when he looked back on his life and said ‘If I have done the public any service it is due to my patient thought.’ We live in a culture that demands immediate results. Patience is underrated but much needed. We can pray for patience. It particularly grows as we live in co-operation with the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:22) but in the end patience needs to be lived and worked at and wrestled with in the real issues of life. Most of us need patience for something today. Because some things just take time.


Grand Designs

Grand Designs continues to be one of the most highly watched TV shows. By the end of most episodes a fantastic new or restored building has emerged but often at great expense – financially and emotionally! It reminds us that there is a cost to building something great.

‘Imagine yourself as a living house’ wrote CS Lewis. ‘God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor here, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.’

Many who’ve been going through some kind of personal change in their lives have read this extract from Lewis’ Mere Christianity and found it really helpful. But this simple picture of God constructing something beautiful can also be applied more corporately – to a family, a community, a church, a city, a region or a nation. Building anything of worth is not straightforward, as Grand Designs makes clear, but if the Master Builder is truly at work, then build on. There’s a palace under construction!


Difficult yet right

IMG_1428.JPGIt was one of the most moments that was both difficult yet right. Awkward yet helpful.

Debs Stephens had led us in prayer last Sunday morning at The Belfrey’s 9am congregation for the safe release of David Haines, the British hostage held by Islamic State, not knowing that news had recently broken that he had been executed. At the end of the prayers the congregation spent some time greeting each other and someone broke the news to her. Returning to the microphone she told us David had been killed and she then spontaneously began to pray again. As tears flowed down her face she called out to God for David’s grieving family and then prayed for those who had murdered him, praying blessing on them and that they would come to know the peace and love that come from Jesus Christ. As she did so others in church began to quietly cry as we shared the pain and agreed with the prayer. I was sitting in the congregation and found myself deeply moved.

Looking back now, Debs led up brilliantly. It was right to identify with the mourning of a grieving family and nation. It demonstrated true graciousness to pray for David’s executioners in the merciful way Debs did it. It was fitting to tell the church the updated news, even though it was not what we wanted to hear and was hard to bring. And to show heartfelt emotion whilst leading public prayers was not inappropriate but real, honest and helpful.

Thank you for leading us well, Debs. And may the family of David Haines know much comfort in the midst of great sorrow.


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.


Great to be Humble; Humble to be Great

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.


A Culture of Honour

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.


Love the Body You’re In

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.


Festivity is Driven by the Young

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.


Called to flourish

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.