Advent Calendar



Read Luke 1:1-4

Happy Advent!

Up and down Britain children and adults are preparing to open Door 1 of their Advent Calendar. 

For many, the Advent Calendar is the sign that Advent really has begun and the season running up to Christmas has truly started. It’s not the Christmas markets nor the sparkling lights. Not the Cinnamon smells nor the Gingerbread lattes. Not even the Cliff Richard songs! Important as these trimmings of the season are, it’s the simple act of opening a small cardboard door on a humble Advent Calendar that reminds most people that Advent is here. A calendar.

Calendars have always been important when it comes to Advent, not just for looking forward (as in today’s Advent Calendars) but importantly to help us to look back and remember that the Advent stories aren’t just make-believe. 

The author Luke, who wrote The Gospel of Luke uses a word-calendar to root the story of Jesus in history. Before he does so he begins his account (in Luke 1:1-4) by explaining that the stories have been ‘handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses’ and that he has ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning‘ in order to produce ‘an orderly account.’ Then in chapter 2 as he begins to describe the birth of Jesus, he uses a word-calendar. Here’s what he says:

‘In those days Caesar Augusts issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria).’

Through these words Luke is helping his readers flick back a number of years through the pages of history and place the birth of Jesus clearly on the human calendar. He wants us to know that Jesus was born during the reign of the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, who ruled from 27BC to14AD, and more particularly during the leadership of the Syrian Governor Quirinius. The census referred to may well be the census of 6AD referred to by Jewish historian Josephus, or possibly a slightly earlier one. As well as Luke’s calendar there’s also good evidence outside the bible for the existence of Jesus (from Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, the Babylonian Talmud and Lucian), all rooting him in the history of this period. In these days when increasing numbers are questioning whether there was ever a historical character called ‘Jesus’, calendars like that produced by Luke are important. They give us confidence as we consider the veracity of Luke’s accounts and these ancient Advent stories, and encourage us to consider how the same God who impacted lives in the past can do the same today.

So as we journey through Advent over the coming weeks and discover how God was at work preparing people for the coming of Christ, be open to these old stories impacting your life and those you influence. God worked powerfully 2000 years ago at the first Advent, but his work is not yet finished! He longs to come again. To you and to many. Are you ready?


ACTION: Do you have an Advent Calendar? If not, get one or make one as a simple means of helping you get yourself ready for Christmas. Is there one other practical thing you can do to help you be better ready to meet with Christ this Advent season? Take a notebook and write it down.

PRAY: Ask the Holy Spirit to help you put into practice the one thing you wrote down. Pray that as well as looking ahead to Christmas with excitement you will look back at the Advent stories in these coming weeks with fresh wonder and joy, making you ever more ready for Christ to come.


Prioritising Prayer

The church in York and the North is being called back to prayer. Because nothing of lasting significance happens without prayer.

At The Belfrey we’ve recently had inspiring Sunday teaching on prayer from Rachel Hickson and James Fletcher. Catch up online if you missed them. Last month I also spoke on prayer, calling us to pray for revival in the North inspired by the prayer of Isaiah 64. I summarised the chapter in 4 phrases:

  • On Earth as in Heaven!

‘Rend the heavens and come down’ (64:1) was Isaiah’s passionate prayer. It’s just like Jesus telling us to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, which is basic yet crucial to prayer.

  • Do it Again!

Like Isaiah we can look back in history and see times when God has done amazing things. In prayer we can ask him to do it again.

  • We need you!

Without God breaking in, we only have the best of human efforts. Our sincere cry for the Lord to intervene touches the heart of God.

  • Will you?

Isaiah’s prayer interestingly ends with a question. He is full of hope and yet not 100% certain how or when God will respond. This is often how it feels when we pray. We’re not always full of faith. And yet we keep going, crying out to the Lord and humbly praying simple prayers from a hungry heart.

We can pray like this because we have a God who is near, not far away. A God who is kind, not cruel. A God who receives rather than rejects our prayers.

I said in September that this is a season not to be sitting back but to be stepping up our prayers. Rachel Hickson said something very similar a couple of weeks ago: that now is the time to pray; it’s not a good time to give up but rather to press on in prayer.

So what are we going to do? Will we pray, like Isaiah? Will we get on our knees each day and cry out to God to come in power again to our city and region? Will we commit to gathering regularly with others to pray for these things?

Are we prioritising prayer?

Think Different

‘What is the Lord doing in your town?’

It was a few months ago and I was chatting with a man from a coastal community in the North. We were both on our own and had stopped for coffee and begun to talk. He’d told me a bit about himself – where he was from and also that he was a church warden in his church.

‘Well’ he replied, ‘it’s a really hard place. There’s lots of drink and drugs and difficulties…’ And he then went on to tell me about all sorts of difficult things in his town. He didn’t realise it, but despite me asking what the Lord was doing, he was telling me what the Lord was not doing! 

So I asked him again, and said, ‘that’s really interesting. So in the midst of all that, what is God doing?’ At the point he paused and took a while to think. And then he began to tell me about some great things going on – of food banks feeding the underprivileged; of people becoming Christians and of church leaders praying together. 

I’ve thought about that conversation a few times since then. I suspect that many disciples in the North are like that man. Even when asked to see the positive things, we see the negative. Our thinking is on what God is not doing, as opposed to what he is doing. 

What we need is a mind-set change. We need to think different.

I’ve shown The Belfrey staff the 1997 apple ad, ‘Think Different’ twice recently. Why? Because we need a mind-set change (Romans 12:2). We need to see what the Spirit of God is doing and join in. We need to share testimonies and stories of these things and then learn the lessons of the testimony so we think different.

If we can think different, we can live different. And if we live different, we can change the world. 


Changed in the Waiting Room

Waiting can be one of the most frustrating things in the world. Waiting in a queue. In traffic. For an appointment. For that slow download or system update. Remember those days as a child, waiting for your birthday and Christmas? Waiting was painful!! We humans are not really very good at waiting.

But God seems to quite like waiting. In fact he often invites us into the Waiting Room of life. Partly because it’s not time yet, but also because it’s often good to wait. That’s because we’re changed in the waiting.

There’s sometimes an impatience in me that wants to rush ahead. Occasionally that can be the right thing to happen because the moment needs to be seized, and the moment is now! But more often, important things take time and I need to wait. Like waiting for a baby to be born.

Having five children, I know something about the joy of discovering a baby is on the way, followed then by months and months of waiting. Of course we know that those 9 months are crucial for the development of the baby, but they’re also important for the parents. Parents are changed in the waiting.
I’ve been reminded of this over the last few days whilst reading and re-reading the early chapters of Luke’s gospel.

During Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John, John’s father, the old man Zechariah, is struck dumb. Imagine not being able to speak for 9 months! We’re not told why or what was happening inside Zechariah, but we can presume that this humbling experience is transforming him into more of the man, priest, husband and father that God has called him to be. Zechariah is changed in the waiting.

Elizabeth herself is an elderly woman when she becomes pregnant with this miracle baby. Luke tells us that once pregnant ‘she remained in seclusion for 5 months.’ Why? Maybe she was worried she might lose the baby, especially in the early months, and so wanted to be alone. We don’t really know. But what we do know is that after this period of isolation, her young cousin Mary comes to visit and Elizabeth experiences the Holy Spirit and prophesies over Mary. She is so transformed by all this that after John is born she supports her husband in naming the baby against the social convention of the day (ie. naming first-born sons after the father). Elizabeth is changed in the waiting.

It’s the same for Mary. Having been visited by the angel and told of the baby she was to supernaturally conceive, Mary travelled a long distance to visit Elizabeth. She too has an experience of the Spirit resulting in her composing an inspired and beautiful worship song! She stays with her cousin for 3 months which no doubt helped prepare and shape her for her future. If Mary was still there when John was born, that too would have greatly impacted her. On arrival back home, Mary was probably showing signs of being pregnant. Being unmarried and pregnant in first century Palestinian culture would have been difficult and dangerous so it’s probable that she, like her cousin went into some kind of seclusion to escape ridicule. Her 9 months in the Waiting Room of life were transformative. Mary is changed in the waiting.

Understanding this should help us to view waiting differently. If waiting really does change us then we can see it much more positively and even be proactive in inviting the Lord to use waiting time constructively.

Are you in the waiting room? Waiting for something in your life? In your family? Your workplace? Your church? Your city? Instead of frustration, see the waiting through a new lens.

Be changed in the waiting.

More Joy

 I’m praying for more joy. More joy in my life. In my family. In my church. More joy.

Not because we are sad or low or down. Not because we’re upset or worried or fearful. Simply because it’s good to be joyful.
Every time I open the bible at the moment, words stand out about joy! Here’s a few:

    ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy’ (Romans 15:13)

    ‘A joyful heart is good medicine’ (Prov 17:22)

    ‘Be joyful in the Lord always. Again I say: rejoice!’ (Phil 4:4)

    ‘You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy’ (Isaiah 9:3)

    ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10)

We’re encouraged to be joyful. Invited to be joyful. Even commanded to be joyful! Because it’s good and a sign of abundant life. 

Joy is an attitude of gratitude. It’s not just a superficial emotion. And it’s more than just feeling happy. Those things can disappear or change with circumstances. Joy is something different. Something stronger and more profound. Joy is an expression of something deep in our hearts – of a contentedness that comes from Jesus Christ. 

It’s great meeting a truly joyful person. You can’t help but be encouraged by them! This is even more true of a joyful community. Who wouldn’t want to belong to a people like that?

Why not join me in praying each day for joy? For yourself and for others. Because joy is to be shared and given away. And the Lord has unlimited supplies of joy. So don’t be afraid to ask. For joy. For more joy.


Words Matter


Words matter. They really matter. So much so they can affect the destiny of a city. That’s what Proverbs 11:11 says: Through the blessing of the upright a city is blessed but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.

The success of a city is influenced and shaped by many things including its sociological, economic, geographical, historical and cultural background. But God says there’s something else that’s crucially important that many don’t see. It’s the importance of our words. That’s because words have impact. The word-smith Eugene Peterson agrees, saying: Words are not mere words – they convey spirit, meaning, energy, and truth.  

Prov 11:11 says that if we get our words right a city can be exalted. It can be lifted up. And flourish. But get our words wrong, and it can flounder. Fail. Fall. In that stark way that Proverbs work, we’re confronted with a simple question: will we use words to bless, or to destroy?

According to one dictionary, to ‘bless’ is to: invoke divine favour on. To confer well-being or prosperity on. To endow with talent. To honour as holy. Use words like that and our city will be exalted. So how does this happen? When I spoke at St Cuthbert’s House of Prayer (YHOP) on this recently I mentioned 5 kinds of words spoken to us and by us that can have impact:
1) words we RECEIVE from people

2) words we SPEAK to people

3) words we WRITE to people

4) words we PRAY

5) words we DECLARE

We need to take care with what we do with all these words. Words spoken about us and over us (especially as children) shape us more than we realise. The way we speak to others and write (especially in emails and texts) has the capacity to encourage or discourage, to build up or tear down. And our prayers in particular reach the heart of God and can change circumstances and lives. When praying with someone our words are particularly important, having the capacity to speak hope to challenge hopelessness and truth to counter lies.

Words of declaration are also important. These are statements of truth and can be spoken not only over individuals but also over communities and nations. Declarations can bring transformation, because (whether people realise it or not) they can be a form of prophecy. You declare into being that which in time comes to pass.
John F Kennedy famously declared, on 25 May 1961 that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. That was an impossible thought for most. But what happened? On 20 July 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, taking ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’.

Some declarations are evil and destructive (as Prov 11:11 says). Think of Hitler’s proclamations about the Jews in the 1930’s. He spoke into being that which later took place – with terrible consequences.

The Church Fathers knew that declarations were powerful. That’s why they produced creeds. Creeds are not just doctrinal statements – they’re made to be declared! In proclaiming them, truth is spoken into lives, cities and into heavenly places. When we declare over our city that most basic creed that ‘Jesus is Lord’ we’re not only expressing truth, but prophetically declaring that Christ is and will be Lord over our city. We are speaking and declaring blessing. And we can do that over individuals, families, streets, villages, towns, cities, regions and nations. Over churches, organisations, businesses, councils, governments.

The House of Prayer at Fald-y-Brenin in Wales has been doing this for a number of years now, and as a result are seeing signs of wonderful transformation in their community. Here’s how they describe it and how they pray:

Every week we speak blessings over our neighbours and immediate locality. In Luke 10 we read that Jesus taught the disciples to declare peace over a village or town before entering it… There is a strong tendency for Christians to criticise and judge people and behaviours we term sinful… We are going to change all of that and have a heart to love and to bless, to see good and trust God to deal with the bad. We are going to speak light into darkness and life to the dead, not in judgment but in compassion and love for the sake of Jesus.

Imagine what could happen if not just a few isolated individuals but many people choose to speak words like that? Kind words. Good words. Words of blessing. When God’s people use words like that, cities begin to change.

Our words are much more powerful than most of us realise.


Giving Yourself


 ‘All they want is my money’ is a phrase I’ve occasionally heard from people about church. Bad experience can unfortunately lead some to that conclusion. But in most churches it’s not true. I and other church leaders don’t just want people’s money. We want them! 

Church is a community following Christ and making a difference in the world. To do that requires people. In fact church is people.

Christ wants the same. He is looking for communities of people who will follow him and make a difference in the world. In every village, town, city, region and nation. It’s about people.

God wants and calls people. The church should want the same.

So where does money fit in? That’s a good question to ask at The Belfrey at this time when we’re inviting people to start, or to renew, regular financial giving to the church. Heidi Baker is helpful on this. She says:

Did you know God loves it when we give extravagantly – over and above what would be expected? 
One day I was weeping on the floor and asking God how He could possible use my tiny life for His amazing plans. I was feeling small and sad. I knew there was a sea of humanity out there in desperate need. Do you know what He said to me? I heard him speak these beautiful words:
“Heidi, I like your little life. And I accept your offering. I’m going to take it and I am going to multiply it for my glory.”
Only God can multiply a tiny seed and make it grow. He can use something small and seemingly insignificant to grow something vast and full of purpose. Don’t be afraid that all you can offer is yourself. He can do ‘immeasurably more that all [you] can ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20) with your laid-down life. 

So here’s Heidi’s advice:

Throw yourself into the offering today. Not as a tithe, but as a whole sacrifice to the Lord. Give yourself and watch what God does with you.

That’s the attitude. We give our lives. Once we do that, giving anything else – including money – is much more straightforward. We give as much money as we can to make the biggest difference we can. And we trust that God will provide for us, so we can give again. 

Sam and I have found that as we’ve done that year after year, God has been amazingly faithful so that we always have more than enough, so we can give again, and again, and again. But it all starts with giving yourself.


Sunshine & Showers

Three members of my family died this week, exactly 100 years ago. Arabella, Frank and Florence Porter all died of the Spanish flu within a few days of each other, leaving the rest of the family bewildered. My grandfather, Luther also became ill and went into a coma and shouldn’t have survived. He told afterwards of how he believed he’d died, but during that time in a coma he went to heaven and met Jesus Christ who said that it was not his time, that he had work to do and that he should be sent back. I’m very pleased about that, otherwise I would not be alive today!! 

Those few days in March 1915 were life-changing for my grandfather. He was not quite 11 years old. He’d had a profound experience of Christ and would never be the same again. And yet he awoke from that divine encounter to discover his mother, brother and sister had all died. Imagine the mixed emotions. The sense of wonder and woe. Elation and devastation.

I remember Grandpa Luther well. He had a wonderful smile, a deep and strong faith in Christ and a great love for people. He brought transformation to many lives. He was an optimist, and yet a realist, in that he knew that life was rarely straightforward. He would often describe it in terms of joys and sorrows. His favourite phrase was ‘sunshine and showers’. I suspect those fateful days of March 1915 shaped that perspective.

Grandpa Luther of course is right. We can sometimes naively think that if life isn’t all good, then it’s bad. Or when something is difficult or painful or stretching then something is wrong. But the reality is that life is normally full of the good and the not-so-good, all at the same time. And sometimes there are even seasons when things are especially tough. No-one is promised an easy life. In fact if we’re seeking to be people who make a difference, bringing light into darkness, then life is rarely going to be straightforward!

Although life this side of heaven in a mixture of sunshine and showers we’re not meant to focus on the showers otherwise we get depressed and want to give up. Instead Jesus helpfully tells us to have a different outlook – to ‘seek the kingdom’ (Matthew 6:33). In God’s kingdom relationships are right, freedom reigns, love is shared and contentedness experienced (Romans 14:17). Sounds like sunshine to me! 

If your life seems to be dominated by dark clouds, hang in there, it won’t last forever. Lift your head and look for the sun breaking through. It’s no coincidence that Christ is prophetically described in Malachi 4:2 as the ‘Sun of righteousness’. Allow his warmth to comfort and refresh you so you can rise above your troubles and instead continue to impact your community with joy and grace. 

Leaving a Legacy

‘The righteous man walks in integrity; his children are blessed after him’ (Proverbs 20:7 NKJV)

If he was still alive, we’d have celebrated my father’s 80th birthday last week. I thought about him on his birthday and gave thanks to God for his life. I called my Mum to see if she was ok and I read a few pages from his autobiography about his childhood memories of the Second World War to my two youngest children at breakfast. David, our youngest was just a baby when he died and so doesn’t remember him.

But I remember him. He died nearly ten years ago now, but there’s much that I still recollect about his life. I recall his gentle but clear leadership. He had that rare blend of humility and authority that I find so effective and attractive. I remember his funny ways, like forgetting the punch-line of jokes. And his daily rituals of cleaning his shoes and eating a spoonful of bran every morning which looked to me like horse-food! But most of all I simply remember him as my dad – as someone who played cricket with me and my brothers in the garden, who asked about my day at mealtimes, who encouraged me to reach for my best and who prayed for us every day.

No person is perfect. Not my dad, nor me.
No father is perfect. Not my dad, nor me.
No leader is perfect. Not my dad, nor me.
But I think that my father, Richard William Porter was pretty good. That’s why I’m not embarrassed to be grateful for his life. For all he invested in me. And for the legacy of Christian faith and the kind fathering which he passed on to me. I am challenged to do the same.



‘Holy Spirit, fill me’ is a prayer I often pray. I pray it for myself and I pray it for others. It’s a prayer deeply rooted in Scripture (Ephesians 5:18) and in the tradition of the church. It’s a good prayer.

But what about asking God to empty me? I’ve been thinking about that recently. About asking God to remove all that is unhelpful. To pull the plug and drain me. Whilst I regularly pray prayers of confession and dedication, I rarely am so explicit and pray ‘Lord, empty me’. But I’ve found myself doing that over the last few weeks, partly inspired by the example of Heidi Baker. She explicitly encourages people to empty themselves before asking God to fill them.

Of course she gets this from Jesus. Philippians 2:7 could not be clearer that Christ ‘made himself nothing’ – or literally ’emptied himself‘ of his own desires and will, humbling himself to the greater will of his Father. This idea of kenosis – of self-emptying your will to be entirely receptive to God’s will – was prophesied by Isaiah, that a Messiah would come who ‘poured out his life’ (Isaiah 53:12). Followers of this Messiah are to do the same.

To live lives that are empty of ourselves doesn’t mean we are passive or boring or dull. Neither does it mean we get pushed around or become doormats. It means we live lives of surrender.

‘What kind of people does God fill?’ asks Heidi Baker. Her answer is simple and true. ‘Empty ones’.