Not all Time is Equal

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I’ve recently had three time-pieces repaired. One is a late 19th century regulator clock which used to hang in the hall of the family home when I was a boy. It hasn’t worked for years. Another is a long-case grandfather clock whose rope was wearing thin too quickly. That’s been resolved with a chain. And finally a vintage 1969 watch given me for my 40th birthday has been serviced and is now working well. The funny thing is that they’ve all been waiting to be fixed and at various repairers for a while and yet they’ve all come back at the same time – within just a few days! That got my attention. Is the Lord saying something to me about ‘time’?

At the first Advent, God sent Jesus at just the right time. In fact the gospel-writer Luke takes great pains to show this in Luke 2:1 as he places Jesus very specifically in history. He wants to show that God really did send Jesus and that he was born at a particular time.

When Jesus grew up and began his public ministry he began it by declaring ‘the time has come’ (Mark 1:14), again showing that this was his time! Later, St Paul commented on his death and resurrection as happening at ‘just the right time’ (Romans 5:6).

Most people know the sense of feeling that now is the time to do something. Maybe it’s time to pick something up or lay something down. Perhaps it’s time to invest in a relationship or project or idea. Or maybe it’s time to put something right with someone, or with God or even with yourself. Timing is really important, because (as Jim Collins says): ‘Not all time is equal. Life serves up some moments that count much more than other moments.’

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I visited Beacon House of Prayer in Stoke. I went into the basement, a beautifully laid out space with various themed spaces. I stood in one zone and before me was an old clock and I read the words next to it: ‘time is short’. Immediately the Spirit of God came on me and I had a deep experience of God as the words sank deep into my soul and stirred something profound inside of me. I was being reminded that this is not a season to be distracted but to be strategic and focussed and use time well.

Advent was the time for Jesus. What about you this Advent? What is it time for?

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A Simplified Advent?

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My Advent read this year is Bill Hybels’ Simplify. It might seem a strange choice to some as it’s not about candles or wise men or shepherds. But given that most of us need to clear space to get the most of this season (see my recent blog Making Space) I think it’s a timely book for the season.

In the complexity of life we sometimes need someone to help us see what’s really important. A friend shared some wise advice with me this week about my use of time, bravely challenging me to use it better. That very much ties in with what I’m reading from Hybels, and reminds me that in the complexity of life God often wants to speak to us about what’s most important.

When Jesus walked this earth and left the most amazing deposit of teaching to help us, he said that one day he’d return and be looking for basically one thing (Luke 18:8). Faith. And that’s what Christ is still looking for! He’s longing to discover a people who will choose to believe him. Who’ll not get so caught up in the complexities of life that they miss what’s most important. Faith.

Advent is a great opportunity to put this right by simplifying and choosing faith. Because we all have a choice at this time of year: either to celebrate with Christ or without him. To put him in the centre or at the periphery. To worship him or something else. To spend time with him or neglect him. And the way we live our lives and focus our energies will reflect this choice. In the end, it’s about faith.

Choosing faith, however, is not just a short-term thing for Advent. It’s a choice for life. It’s a choice we make at baptism that’s both good and difficult. But all life-choices are like that. Think of the life-choice of marriage, which is a great act of faith! Choices are made as life-changing vows are said. We celebrate and there’s much joy! But then the vows need living – which at times can be very difficult. What helps of course, is love. Love holds a marriage together. And it’s no different with our relationship with God. Yes it’s an act of faith and takes faith. But at the heart of it all is love. Not just our love for God, but most importantly his life for us – his big, strong, committed love that makes faith in him not only possible but good. Really good!!

What Jesus wants from us is faith (see yesterday’s blog). Faith in Advent. Faith in him. Faith for life. It begins with a simple choice.

‘When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?’ (Luke 18:8)

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Looking for Faith in Advent

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I met Derek and Jane at the weekend at the Belfrey’s Advent cafe. We talked about Christmas. They told me that although they weren’t churchgoing people they were hoping for more from Christmas this year. Not more tinsel and turkey. And not more presents – although a few thoughtful ones would be nice! What they were really hoping for was something deeper: greater peace on earth (across the world) and good will to all (particularly in their family). I sensed a spiritual search in them – a desire for deeper faith – and after chatting more I offered to pray with them, which they were pleased to receive. I suspect Derek and Jane’s desire is mirrored by many in the North and in our nation. They are looking for faith in Advent.

Advent is a great season for new or renewed faith because the Advent stories tell about the coming of Jesus and of people who stepped out in faith and put their faith in him. Those stories help us, rooting our faith in the lives of real people and pointing us to the One in whom we’re invited to place our faith – Jesus Christ.

People are still putting their faith in Christ today. We’re seeing a good number most weeks in the life of The Belfrey in York. They’re reaching out to a God they don’t see, but whom they discover is good, real and present.

Faith is like that. It’s not totally blind faith, walking naively into the unknown. It’s normally considered, based on discussion, thought and prayer. But in the end, there is a stepping out into the unseen and unknown. That’s why Steve Backlund is right when he describes faith as ‘believing something you don’t see’. Bill Johnson takes this further when he says that ‘faith provides eyes for our hearts and minds’. Those definitions remind us that if we’re to get the most from this Advent season we must see beyond the immediate. You need to pray for ‘the eyes of your heart to be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which you are called’ (Ephesians 1:18) – and help others discover the same.

Advent is a time for faith – for seeing the unseen even more clearly.

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Advent Children

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I noticed a number of people’s eyes begin to well up at The Belfrey’s cafe on Saturday. It seemed as if something deep within them was being touched. It looked like hope was stirring. It often happened as we chatted to people and explained why everything we were doing at our cafe was free. It was simply this: because God’s love is free.

With some I had the opportunity to talk a bit more – about how we’re wary of anything that’s free. We want to know what the catch is. But there’s no catch to God’s love. It’s unearned. Undeserved. Unconditional.

We all want to be loved like that. And the good news of Advent is that God has come to us in Christ and offers us exactly this kind of love. And by coming as a tiny baby he demonstrates the vulnerability of loving like that.

There’ve been a number of babies born to Belfrey families recently. Each one is precious and it’s lovely to see how babies bring so much joy! I’ve been praying that as they grow they’ll experience security and peace and love, because that’s what children need to thrive. Children need to know they’re safe in the family. They don’t have to win approval. They are loved. Accepted. Welcome. Part of the family. For who they are.

When Jesus grew up he said that we can only enter his kingdom by ‘changing and becoming like little children’ (Matthew 18:2). he’s telling us that our place in God’s family is not based on performance or merit, but on the fact that we are loved. Simple as that.

As this Advent and Christmas season begins, think what it’s like to be a child. A child who know’s they’re truly loved and cared for. Who doesn’t have to serve and please to be accepted. Who is simply welcome and receives the smile and affirmation of parents who think they’re great. That’s the basis of being in God’s family – the Kingdom of God. If you don’t get that, then you won’t get it. You’ll feel on the outside all the time.

At Advent we’re called back to childhood. We’re given permission to play and to be and to laugh and to do what kids do. Because we have a kind Father with large arms to embrace us and a generous heart to provide for us. All children – of all ages – are welcome.

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An Important (not just urgent) Advent

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Life coaches tell us to distinguish the important over the urgent. They remind us that whilst we must do the urgent things, if we neglect the important then things eventually go wrong. The bible agrees, telling us that it’s good to prioritise (eg. Matthew 6:33) and to to think well (eg. Romans 12:2). So on this first day of Advent, what is urgent, and what is important?

We now have four and a half weeks or so to get ready for Christmas. What’s on your to-do list? For many of us it’ll be things like: buy presents. Decorate the homes. Tidy things up at work ready for a short break. Attend Christmas dos. Those are all good. But the fact that they’re on our to-do list shows they’re probably more urgent than important.

So what’s important? Here are three things. Three things I don’t want to neglect in Advent. (And I offer a few questions you might want to ask relating to each):

1) Don’t neglect the heart
Look at the state of your heart. Is it contented? Is it full of joy? Or fear? Do you see bitterness or grace? If you observe things inside that you don’t like, this is a great season for some heart-surgery.

2) Don’t neglect people
People matter at Christmas. Whilst you can’t spend time with everybody, are you willing to carve out some quality time for people in this season? Not just friends (although don’t forget them!) but family (even the difficult ones), and even work-colleagues, neighbours and someone who is lonely, poor or homeless. A listening ear and a kind word is often just what people need.

3) Don’t neglect God
God loves to speak at Advent. Are you listening? Are you praying? Will you make time each day to read the Scriptures and allow his word to cleanse your heart and affect your thoughts and actions?

These are three important Advent things that so easily get lost in the urgency of the season.

May you have a very happy and important Advent.

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Making space

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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.

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Some things just take time

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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.

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Grand Designs

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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!

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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.

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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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