Category Archives: Theological Reflection

As and when this comes up, will categorise it as such!

Waiting . . . . God’s Gratuitous Grace

Waiting is a pain.  In a queue that is shuffling along, at the front door waiting for your children to GET THEIR SHOES ON, in your kitchen for the kettle to boil, the microwave to ping (ours no longer pings, so you have to WATCH and wait . . . which seems to make it take twice as long).  Waiting for the cheese to melt on your toast, the phone to ring, an email to ping, . . . when I was younger I even spent a lot of time waiting for myself to grow (I was really short for ages, being mistaken once for a brand new year 7 at secondary school when I was – in fact – as I pointed out indignantly to the year 8 girls that where cooing and ahhing “are you lost little boy”, “do you know your form tutors name yet”, – I AM IN YEAR 11!) . . . anyway, waiting is a pain.

God’s people in the Old Testament spent a significant amount of time waiting and a significant amount of this was their own fault . . . they were “stiff necked” (Exodus 32:9), “forgetful” (Psalm 78: 40-43), “stubborn” (Nehemiah 9:16), . . . . pretty much like me.  I have the MASSIVE benefit of scripture (with the stories of people as both cautionary tales and examples of incredible courage and sacrifice AND the narrative of God made flesh, our saviour Jesus Christ), the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – who IS the Spirit of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:17) . . . and yet STILL I am too often a numpty. There is a cracking story in Judges and I used it recently in a family service.  Its the story of Gideon.  I only take the first bit of is sudden and unexpected encounter with the Angel of the Lord, but it was enough to be left totally gobsmacked at what GOD WILL DO . . . you know, despite Gideon.  It is what I need to believe and realise God will and is doing, despite ME.  Anyway, lets head to Judges chapter 6, reading from verse 11,

The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press to keep it from the Midianites . . .

Ok, lets stop there (I won’t do this for every verse, but a couple of things . . .!)  Firstly, the Abiezrites – the word / name Abiezer means “Father of Help” or “My Father IS help” . . . I love that.  Secondly, Here is Israel, in a right mess, and here is this little guy Gideon, “threshing wheat in a wine press”  hiding in a trench trying to keep the wheat hidden while he threshed it . . . this is where “help” was going to come from?  This scared little man?  Yeah, RIGHT.

When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

Ok then, this statement – in the natural, normal “things that are said” kind of way is LAUGHABLE.  mighty warrior . . . ?!  That’s like me being called a “son of the King” or someone saying I am “seated with Christ in heavenly places” or, you will do “greater things than these” . . . you know, it’s just, laughable . . . . um.

But then, we have a response from Gideon – this little guy has a BIG mouth!  He isn’t shaken by who it is who is speaking (he maybe hasn’t grasped that from this initial introduction, but still, he seems pretty MIFFED as he answers),

Pardon Me, my lord – but, IF the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?  WHERE are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, “Did the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?”  But now the Lord has ABANDONED us into the hand of Midian.

Forgetting and yet not forgetting seems to be what is going on here.  On the one hand, Gideon has remembered the stories of old, those passed down, what the ancestors had told the people . .  . so clearly, some remembering is going on among the people.  Yet, recent history – the more in the “lifetime of those still living kind of stuff” isn’t mentioned.  This is so often part of the problem, not just then but now.

We can look back with rose tinted spectacles to a happier time.  Why isn’t it like this now?  forgetting that maybe our own behaviour, attitude, choices have put us where we are.

Then we have the reply,

But God faced him directly: “Go in this strength that is yours. Save Israel from Midian. Haven’t I just sent you?

Wow, God faced him directly – faced him!  God.  The language has suddenly changed, this is no longer ambiguously a messenger from the Lord, or even “the angel of the Lord . . . ” this, this is GOD.

Go He says, in the strength that is yours – this is not vague encouragement or a motivational pep talk.  God is simply and clearly saying, you have what you need – go.  Which links with that final statement, “Haven’t I sent you?”  The challenge of reading scripture, especially those bits that quote God is, well, it is so hard to get a handle on the tone employed – was God exasperated, surprised, mildly irritated?  You can stick the emphasis in different places and it changes the meaning . . . “Haven’t sent you?” or Haven’t I sent you?” or even, “Haven’t I sent you?”

So, we have God facing this little man, we have God saying “Go” and we have God having to repeat himself . . . is this enough for Gideon?  Nope,

Gideon said to him, “Me, my master? How and with what could I ever save Israel? Look at me. My clan’s the weakest in Manasseh and I’m the runt of the litter.”

Ok then, I gave a wow above when the passage indicates this is God . . . now I am double wowing – Gideon is basically saying, you have got it wrong God . . . how could I be this mighty warrior?

Three words stand out to me – “look at me”.  I have two incredible daughters and from time to time they shout these words to me, they usually mean “hey, Dad, look at me I am about to jump from this sofa to the other sofa and it is miles and oh by the way in mid air I am going to attempt a somersault and if I pull it off it is just going to be so incredibly AWESOME and If I don’t land it well it is probably going to result in a trip to casualty but hey, Dad, LOOK at ME!”  This is not the look at me that Gideon is talking about, he does not believe he is cool, he does not think who he is and what he does is amazing or worth noting . . . he is nothing, his “how?” and “what with?” add to that.

Gideon is maybe like us when we are called to do something, maybe we are not literally facing God – but, we have that response when asked to step up, do something, make a difference . . . “look at me.”  Meaning, “you have got to be kidding me – have you seen this” (and we point to everything we are – how we look, what we consider our worst qualities, we might even suggest other people . . . Lord, have you considered so and so, they would be great for this!)  That phrase “look at me” can also be one of total devastation, we cannot believe or hope for anything good to come from our own thinking or actions . . . “look at me.”  It is supposed to finish the argument, God has moved to be face to face – and Gideon has responded with basically a challenge – “ok, you have turned you gaze on me . . . but, have you really seen me God, have you really looked here – look at me.”

Then, another reply,

God said to him, “I’ll be with you. Believe me, you’ll defeat Midian as one man.”

“I’ll be with you”.  Those words should blow apart our reserve, our sense of personal defeat, our thoughts about ourselves and who we are.  I wonder if there was a pause in the conversation?  After Gideon had said, “look at me”, did God do that – stare intensely, up and down, drinking in all that Gideon was – truly seeing him and looking at him as nobody had ever done before?  Then he said “I’ll be with you.”  It is as if He says to Gideon, “Yes, I can see you Gideon, yes I have looked at you – now, you – you look at ME.”  It is a reminder of the times in the new testament when Jesus told his disciples, “I will be with you.” when they doubted, when they were afraid, when all they could see was trouble, pain, loss.  Those words echo down through the ages to you and me, in our circumstances, in our calling, in our disappointments and personal shame, in our brokenness – and we need to take hold of them and believe them – at the best and at the worst of times.  “I’ll be with you.”

BUT, we are not done yet in this conversation . . .

Gideon said, “If you’re serious about this, do me a favor: Give me a sign to back up what you’re telling me. Don’t leave until I come back and bring you my gift.”

Gideon is coming round to this.  As we sometimes do, but he is going to make sure – so, he has an “if”.  Alright God, I will do this . . . “if”.  Have you ever set something up for God in this way?  You know He is calling you to do something, be something, change something . . . but, you will just check first.  We can do this through “praying for confirmation”, which is a good thing to do . . . but, sometimes, we can “if” what we are being called to do into the realms of totally fantastic impossibility . . . for example, “Lord, I will do this thing, if an eagle flies down into my back garden and taps on the window to get my attention, nods three times and then flies away.” or “Lord, if three purple buses go past in the next 11 seconds I will do this thing you have called me to.” (we live on a bus route, but they are not purple) . . . you get my drift.

The other thing here that Gideon asks God to do is to wait.  “Don’t go anywhere . . . I will be right back.”  Gideon basically puts God on hold at this point.  This is incredible, what is he thinking?  But it gets more incredible,

“I’ll wait till you get back.”

God says ok, and then waits there.  Starts waiting for Gideon to get back.  I don’t know if he sat down, drew in the dirt, started counting the leaves on the tree and then thought (hang on, I made that tree . . . I know how many leaves are on it!) . . . what did God do?  He waited.  Stunning.  It seems incredible as we go through Gideon’s story – but, how many times have we effectively said the same to God?  “wait a minute?”  . . . “Can you just hang on?”  I don’t know if you have ever thought about the prodigal son in that way – there have been loads of different reflections on the parable that Jesus tells in Luke chapter 15, but for me, this is the most gobsmacking bit of the whole story,

“When he was still a long way off, His father saw him.”

This would only have been possible, as his son was a long way off, if the Father – every day, all day, had been out looking, out waiting, out watching for his son to return.  It is not about His faith that his son would return – it is the longing and love of the Father that put him there (probably standing on his roof, day after day watching the horizon and waiting).  It reminds me of the words Paul uses in Romans 5, (as the Message puts it),

Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.

That is the incredible love of God.  “While we were of no use whatever to him”, just like Gideon (who is all the things he thinks about himself in some ways . . . )  There is waiting in all these stories, Gideon – where God waits for this little man, the least of his tribe and the least in his family to return with a gift . . . not something God needs, but for Gideon it matters and God, in his infinite grace and goodness waits.  In the parable of the lost son in Luke 15, the love of the Father compels him to wait, waiting is key . . . and when he sees the son, the waiting is over!  But he has waited for that moment.  For us, for all humanity – Paul says “Christ arrives right on time” bringing good news and salvation.  To arrive at the right time, there has been waiting – God’s timing, waiting to bring in his very self made flesh, the incarnation of God, coming after 400 years of waiting . . . between the Old Testament and the New Testament . . . we can look at that and think, man, how long God’s people had to wait . . . but, it wasn’t them who were waiting.  It was God.  So that the Christ could come at just the right time.

He is waiting still – this is the gratuitous bit of God’s grace.  There is waiting until Jesus returns, we have received the Holy Spirit – we are not to wait or tarry or hang about, we are to be urgent and diligent and constant in prayer and action, seeking to bring in God’s kingdom wherever and whenever we can . . . yes, even us, even with our “look at me” stuff and our “I’m no ready” stuff and our “but Lord, I haven’t seen a purple bus yet.”

He is with us, even to the end of the age.  The Holy Spirit fills us and empowers us AND because of God’s outrageous grace and while He is waiting to return – we need to get on with all that God has given us to do.

Can we hear him saying those words to us today,

“Haven’t I sent you?” (think about what you have been called to do).

“I will be with you.” (think about who is with you as you are sent).

Maybe, we need to find a childlike faith and trust – the kind my daughters stun me with on a regular basis.  God sees us totally when we think or say, “look at me.” and, in his outrageous grace He is waiting for us to step in to all that He has for us through Christ Jesus.

Everyone is looking for you!

IMG_0858.JPG This is what the disciples say to Jesus in Mark chapter 1 verse 37. ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ Jesus has got up early, after being ridiculously busy it seems pretty much as soon as he has been baptised he is ‘immediately’ doing this and ‘immediately’ doing that – at least, that’s how Mark writes his gospel . . . Breathlessly. Anyway, if he is going to be this crazy busy, he needs time with his Father – recharge, a bit of peace – while it is still dark, he heads off to find it. Peace and space to pray. The disciples are having none of it and as soon as they are awake they are off trying to track him down, they find him – and, not only do they want to know where he is, everyone else does too. Maybe they started out looking for him by belting around in a frenzy shouting, ‘have you seen Jesus?’ . . . . I have never had ministry days like Jesus. But, I have had days when it seems everyone wants a piece of me. Life in ministry can feel like that – you know, your life stops actually being your own. Everyone owns a piece of your time, everyone expects stuff from you, and maybe they don’t always recognise that you have a life, a family, a home . . . Some people never stop, and they expect those around them to be the same. Or, being in ministry maybe you feel you ‘owe’ it to always be available so that no one every asks ‘where are you?’ Because you are always there. We cannot and should not always be there. I once worked for a church that gave me a flat to live in. A ground floor flat and, in the 1st floor flat lived a member of the church. It was pretty hard to have my own space, especially at weekends. We shared a garden and she would regularly walk round the garden, across the patio and peer in through my lounge windows – either to check I was in and reading the bible or preparing a talk, or to check I was out and evangelising the neighbourhood. Well, I was in my mid 20s and generally didn’t get up before 11am on a Saturday morning. It was on one such Saturday morning as I was lounging around in my pyjamas – mostly going backwards and forwards between the kitchen and my nice warm bed – when there was a knock on my front door. I decided to ignore it. The knock was repeated. I thought I would just keep quiet – as you do. I then heard the letter box flap being lifted and a voice speaking through it said, ‘Alasdair are you there?’ I recognised the voice, it was one of the deacons from the church. Again, I thought to myself, it’s Saturday – leave me alone! Then, to my astonishment, I heard a key in the lock and they were entering the flat. I was in my pyjamas in the bedroom and a middle aged lady had just let herself in to my flat. What was she doing? Pushing the door to my bedroom, she then entered and exclaimed, ‘what are you doing?’ (Seriously, what am I doing?!) . . . . I think I muttered something about making a cup of tea, I made her one too (once I had got dressed). I cannot believe this happened, I wonder if I have a false memory or something. I am older now, I have discovered a few things about being in ministry – full time now for 18 years . . . And here is the thing- everyone, at times, MIGHT be looking for you – but, if you want to survive in ministry, sometimes you just need to not be found. Rest is vital, space is vital, your OWN time with your friends who you are not constantly trying to disciple or nurture or evangelise or do a ministry thing to or with, time to watch a film without thinking you need to squeeze an illustration out of it for a talk otherwise it is a waste of your precious time to be watching it, you need space to have a glass of wine, or a pint, space for football or space when you are not watching football because there is a great allegory there to do with team work and body of Christ. Switch off. It does not matter that you cannot be found. Switch off too the things that make you contactable when you are supposed to be switched off. Turn off your mobile, give your friend your iPad . . . Yes, there is ministry to be done – it is never done. However, it is ‘finished’ Jesus for all the immediately stuff in Marks gospel, for all the worry of his disciples, for all the pain of the people, for all the trials and tribulations, for those times when you feel and you think and you say, ‘why can’t they leave me in peace for five minutes!’ It is finished, it is completed. Jesus accomplished something so completely on the cross that we might only discover the true extent of when we reach eternal rest. There might have been desperation in the disciples voices, but even Jesus needed time with his Father, even Jesus needed to get away from it all, even Jesus. We need to be still with the Father if we are to do ministry for the Father. Don’t get cross with yourself if you loose it when people are constantly after you and expect you to meet their needs, but – do take it as a warning that you need space, time, peace, quiet and prayer. We need to not worry if we are not found by the masses of people after us, we need sometimes to be only found in Him.

Place and Space – Essential for Life and Ministry

There are times in ministry when we need to find fresh places to “be”.  Whether that be a new place to live and work or a place to retreat that enables new thinking, a different perspective and . . . peace!  We live in such a transient world and culture, place becomes simply where we happen to be – and becomes less associated with a physical “place” (as – we have everything we need to function on our mobile devices that we carry with us everywhere . . . !)

Places can be significant for a whole variety of reasons, here are just a few that resonate with me ::

1.  Something happened.  I no longer associate the dentists waiting room with drills and teeth and that awful waiting to see if things need to removed or hacked away at or broken to bits in your mouth . . . you get the drift.  I received a text message while in the waiting room at the dentist and that day and that time became life changing!  The day, the place are etched in my being.  Nothing to do with dentists – it is the power of association with that place now, “ahh, this is where i received that message.”  Maybe you have places like that?

2.  Decision made.  Throughout scripture there are significant places where meetings have happened or something decisive has changed everything, these places are often marked as places of worship, places of remembrance – places of awe and wonder, places of “we must never forget what happened here.”  Maybe you have places that you associate with making decisions, choosing something – or they are places of encounter where maybe God has made His decision known to you.

3.  Vision.  Sometimes i just cannot see where to go, what should happen, what is worth fighting for and what needs to be let go of – what to keep and what to release, the “where next?” or the “I must re-discover what on earth I am here for!” i need a place for vision making, vision casting . . . there is an amazing place not far from me.  It is high up, a glorious vista of Sussex spreads out below – a physical and geographical vision helps me when I need to re-discover my place.  Where do i fit in to the grand scheme of things.  I find huge landscapes helpful – they remind me of how small i am.  I am not “it”, but i can get carried away with a vision . . . (which becomes my vision) and miss the point of what I am for, and who I am serving.  A big, huge, place where I can take in, drink in an awe inspiring view reminds me that i get to play a part, yes, but it is small.  Something about the air and the sky in a place that is wide open too helps me settle into “vision thinking” mode.  More just seems possible.  Someone once said, 

dreams + reality = vision

I can dream big dreams in a big place.  The reality bit is – the world is big, I am small.  But, God has done much in the past with small people . . . so i dream BIG!

Linked with this finding or being in a new “place” to encourage fresh thinking is actually having the space.  No demands, no blaring phones, no pinging messages, no open plan office, nobody standing at your right shoulder peering over you wondering what you are working on . . . space to think, space to be with my thoughts, with my God and – thats it.  I get energised when i am around people and can bounce ideas off others, but i can also get frenetic and frantic, TOO much zipping around in my brain . . . too many ideas, and colliding thoughts.  I can then leap from one thing, to another thing, to yet another thing . . . leaving half of what is behind me undone or not finished or i forget why i started something in the first place and move on to something else . . . to be a little bit more measured i need SPACE.

The picture that comes with this blog post is a place fairly recently found that is also going to double up as space.  When i have walked through this wood, open to the public, i have been amazed at how few other people are doing the same.  I can sit on a log for ages, and i could be in the wilderness.  It is beautiful, with the tallest tree in Sussex, winding paths, mossy caves that look like hobbit dwellings, carvings on fallen logs, even a yellow brick road (i kid you not) . . . a place of adventure, a place to catch a vision, a place to “be still and know” and a space to catch up with myself.  Pause and think.

Place and space, so important – obviously, we can’t stay there – we come back to where we work, where we live, where we interact with this crazy world, but – prayerfully and hopefully – with a bit more perspective and calm and with a little bit more of a sense of what we are doing and why.  Jesus drew Himself aside to spend time with the Father, and i can imagine He might have had places that were precious to Him and space to dream and see all that God was doing and would do . . . I am sure Jesus would have drawn on what he learnt in these places and spaces as He poured Himself out for those around Him, healing, blessing, encouraging, leading, nurturing, comforting and – ultimately, as he poured himself out for all of us.

Place and Space – essential for life and ministry.

 

 

Four things a youth leader should say to young people

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?  These are the real questions.  I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will be many fruits, here in this world and the life to come

Henri Nouwen

I have said a lot over the years to the young people that I have worked with – not always echoing the words from Henri Nouwen above!  As I move into a new phase of ministry life, I am in reflective mood.  I have been thinking about when it has actually made a difference . . . . you know, the things I have said – when have my words actually helped?  So – this is my list of top things to say to young people ::

1.  I believe in you.  This needs saying!  Even the most confident (outwardly) young person i have worked with has been racked with self doubt and a certain level of self loathing, not believing in themselves or what they can do or become.  It is important because it gets to the heart of what things are about, the words build a young person up – but, they cannot come from nothing.  You can’t say these words to a young person you do not know – they are not general words of encouragement – they need to be directed at a young person you really know.  They are at times incredibly frustrating, ridiculous, lovely a pain, a nightmare and hilarious . . . but then, you say these words.  They say, “you can do it”, they say, “I am FOR you” and they matter incredibly to young people.  So often our focus in youth ministry can be – “HOW on EARTH can i get this young person to BELIEVE in God!”  There are a lot of things wrong with that statement . . . but, essentially, it is hard to believe in anything if you are not sure that what YOU believe make any difference or matters – that is partly human nature, but it off the richter scale with many young people.  Having personal confidence and having personal dignity and just valuing themselves will make such a difference as they consider eternal truth and the claims of Christ.  “I believe in you” is powerful and helpful – but, it also needs to be said when you actually DO believe in them – you see a spark, a light, a bit of steel, a determination deep within that young person that maybe they do not see themselves . . . a bit like Jesus seeing something in Peter as he called Him.

2.  I don’t know.  Of the four things i am mentioning – this one is the most difficult of the four.  A youth worker is often seen by the church, youth group, parents as THE answer.  And, the one that knows the ANSWERS – the one that will solve the “youth problem” the church is facing, the one that . . . you get the drift.  From a young persons perspective – when there is trust and relationship, we are also the ones that they bring their unanswerable questions to :: “why didn’t my nan get healed?”; “why this . . . “; “Why that . . . ” and also, “Where does the Bible say . . . ?” We have two problems if we don’t simply say “I don’t know” when we don’t know.  The first is obvious, we are not being honest and our young people will suss that out fairly swiftly and trust is damaged – trying to blag our way through with a cobbled together load of nonsense just isn’t real or right!  Secondly, we are not OWNING our lack of knowledge, we have bought the lie that we are the answer and – even if we don’t know – we should!  Well, no actually.  The longer i have been involved in youth ministry the more I have realised i do not know stuff – in fact, there seems to be a SCARY amount of stuff I do not know.  We need to be honest and say it when it is true.  It is also liberating.  It frees us and also our young people.  There is a great work written, scholars think, in the 14th Century – we don’t know who wrote it and it is aptly titled, “The Cloud of Unknowing” . . . there is an understanding in the book that to know the deep things of God takes a lifetime, not only do we “not know”, but – in this finite life, there are things we “cannot know”.  It is a mystical work, not dissimilar to “The Dark Night of the Soul”, by John of the Cross . . . this unknown author – again – we think wrote a final work called, “The Book of Privy Counselling”, in this they wrote,

Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.

It is not love to pretend we know when we do not, it is not love to make our faith one of simply “easy answers” . . . if we want to effectively disciple young people then there are times when we will need to say, “I don’t know”.

3.  You are Loved and Forgiven.  Number 2 was the hardest (i think) for a youth leader to say . . . this one is the hardest (i think) for a young person to believe.  It links with number 1, as we tell young people they matter, what they do counts . . . we tell them also that they are LOVED with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).  One of the toughest things to communicate to young people is that they are loved and forgiven because – firstly, if you don’t love yourself it is hard to believe that anyone else can love you.  There are massive issues in our culture for young people right now – mental health problems, self harm and image problems, relationships, how young people view sex and sexuality as they are bombarded by unhealthy and unreal images of beauty and prowess and the pressure to achieve and attain at school and college and university . . . life is tough and many (adults too) feel a failure trying to navigate these challenges as a Christian.  We have somehow communicated an untruth in our explanation of the gospel – on the one hand, Jesus has died for our sin and rescued us and redeemed us – making us right with God – once he has done that though, the pressure appears to be back on “us” or – our young people – to then “live this out”.  They can’t and don’t – it is not possible.  It is sad that i so rarely hear good teaching on Romans anymore!  It absolutely nails it from chapters 5 – 8, taking us through what Jesus has done on the cross and the being “dead to sin, but alive to Christ” . . . why is this so important?  Because we have to live our lives “in the Spirit” (Romans 8) to be fully alive and be trusting, not our own strength to help us live as Christians – but to trust the Holy Spirit who is at work IN US!  It is not be force of will that i resist temptation, it is in the power of the Spirit.  We can miss all this stuff out in our teaching and somehow imply to young people that “now they are Christians” they should be able to obey the commandments and live like Jesus.  Messing up becomes cataclysmic in this scenario!  But, “i’m supposed to be a Christian!”, how can i have messed up . . . ??  Because you are a human being, because you are trying to “live” your life with Christ in your own strength . . . more so, when our young people mess up – they can descend into a spiral of criticising themselves for their failure, continuing to tell themselves negative things, go round in circles – asking for forgiveness even, but not receiving it (or rather, not believing they have been forgiven – because they can’t forgive themselves) . . . all pretty messed up – but, what we teach and model shapes our young peoples expectations of themselves – and also – their expectations of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives!  As youth leaders, do we live forgiven, restored, redeemed and free lives – or are WE racked with guilt about past mistakes, not forgiving ourselves and so finding this whole area a tough one to talk about and model to our young people?  Jerry Bridges, in “Pursuit of Holiness” says this, 

We’re more concerned about our own “victory” over sin than we are about the fact that our sins grieve God’s heart

Think about that for a moment.  Somehow, even when we are coming to God to ask forgiveness we can still make it about ourselves – more concerned that we haven’t been able to “beat” something, than that we have grieved God’s heart.  Our lives, in Christ, are no longer our own!  We are HIS – we ARE forgiven, we can boldly approach the throne room of God, true “repentance” means to head in a different direction . . . our lives are now GODward rather than Inward or focused on what we want and desire . . . yep, this is all big stuff to unpack.  But, if we cannot ALLOW God to forgive us – because we don’t believe we deserve it, we have totally missed the Gospel.  Lets help our young people grasp this and truly live in freedom, mess ups will happen – just look at the life of Peter (especially after He has received the Holy Spirit at pentecost, throughout the book of Acts he does some amazing things for God – and, messes up and gets it wrong too!) . . . our young people need to know their worth, they need to know there is nothing they can ever do to separate them from the love of God, they are loved now and forever – they also need to receive His forgiveness when they confess their sin.  We need to teach them the truth about themselves and what God has done, that helps them to do this . . . .

4.  What do you think?  Teaching young people how to think for themselves is critical if we want to make life long disciples.  Do they believe what we say the Bible says simply because we are saying it?  Think of the answer to a child who asks, “why?” and the reply they constantly get, “because i said so!”  We cannot disciple like this!  It isn’t discipleship.  Jesus had some great dialogue with his disciples and asked them what they thought.  The classic example is when they are discussing who people think Jesus is . . . and Jesus basically says, “thats great, people think this – people think that – but, who do you say i am?” (Mark 8:29) . . . er, um yes, well . . . then Peter steps up and nails it!  Jesus recognises it is the Holy Spirit that has enabled Peter to get there . . . in saying it though, Peter then discovers who he is and who is to become . . . thinking stuff through and yes, reaching our own conclusions prayerfully under God – is what many of us do as adults – we need to teach discernment to our young people, but this is very different from deciding for them!  It is the difference between teaching and telling – a difference brilliantly illustrated by Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, chapter 2, as he highlights the attributes of “teaching” without dialogue and questions, 

the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly;
the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.

Just to pick up on one phrase above, the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher – in this i think of charismatic leaders who simply expect young people to emulate them, to believe and trust in them (which is not the same as putting their trust in Jesus) and, actually, there is an illusion of personal faith – but it is built upon another persons faith – rather than the faith of the young person, they don’t believe something themselves, they believe something is true because the youth leader has said it . . . 

A questioning, exploring faith – as Jesus encouraged in the disciples leads to the young person working out their faith – developing their relationship with God, it is interesting that we theologically and doctrinally believe that (as Paul puts it), “there is one mediator between God and people.” (1 Timothy 2:5), and yet – so often in practice, we can introduce an additional mediator, the pastor, the priest, the youth worker . . . we MUST create conversation and dialogue as we explore faith together with young people . . . “what do you think?” tells a young person their view matters, “what do you think?” gives a young person a chance to accept or reject what they are hearing, “what do you think?” gives a young person permission to share their view, “what do you think?” is following Jesus’ example . . . and, for me in my practice – i have been challenged and inspired in my faith as young people have answered that question.  

So there are my four key things to say to young people, there are obviously other things!  I have just found that these four have born fruit more than anything else i might have said or done in my youth work practice . . . give them a go!

The Pyramid of Purpose – 3 Keys to remaining focused

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# Attitude. The ‘smile’ represents an attitude that is within it does not mean you must walk around and grin and bear it. Jesus Christ had a purpose. His eyes were fixed firmly on the cross from about half way in each of the synoptic gospel accounts of his life (Matthew / Mark / Luke). Nothing was easy about his goal, his purpose – what enabled Jesus to see it through was the attitude that Paul comments on in Philippians Chapter 2. Jesus is not striving or stretching or overreaching, he has laid everything down. Becoming ‘nothing’ – as the passage says,

rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:7, 8 NIV]

Other versions of scripture refer to this ‘attitude’ as mindset. Think for a minute about how you think. Your mindset will often determine your ‘purposefulness’ – foe example, if you stub your toe when you get out of bed in the morning – is your day a total write off? Jesus held onto NOTHING, he claimed for himself NOTHING, did not allow ANY sense of entitlement to mess with his focus and purpose on earth. He wore His ‘Being God’ lightly . . . . I don’t know about you, but sometimes in life and ministry my attitude can stink. I can be thrown off course by thoughts of ‘ this isn’t fair’ or ‘why isn’t this happening?’ ‘How come stuff at the church up the road is working out – but not for me?’ Attitude! Linked with attitude and flowing from it is our heart motivation, our very values and the things we say are precious to us – like actually BEING a servant (as Jesus came to be) can grate or be hard to actually LIVE OUT if our attitude is wrong. So, first thing, check your attitude! The first and most important part of the ‘pyramid of purpose’.

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# Creative Thinking. We were MADE to be creative! I have met a bunch of youth workers over the years who have told me they are ‘not creative’, but – they can write a cracking drama, they can inspire their youth group with an illustration, they are a technical wizard, they can think of the perfect video clip to go with a talk . . . Creativity is simply about having time to THINK. Our attitude (which is why it is #1 will obviously affect our ability to think. I love what we are encouraged to think about in scripture,

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. [Philippians 4:8 NIV

Try this test. When you get to the end of a youth work session or a piece of work, and you are FED up – maybe your whole team or those you work with have HAD it. Instead of picking over the disaster like vultures, why not read that passage – we find it MUCH easier to think negatively, this stifles and can kill our creative, hopeful self. Regardless of what has happened – there is something worth celebrating in there somewhere!

I love NCIS (an American criminal investigative drama), the main character, Gibbs, has a bunch of rules he tries to live by. Rule number 5 is ‘you don’t waste good’. How many times do we waste good, because we don’t think differently about what is going on? An evening session might have been a disaster in some respects – but – that young person who was always dipping in and out has been regularly for the last three weeks. I have even simply settled for, ‘I know this whole thing is a disaster (a youth group I am running for example!), but if we know that – and the young people know that – God MUST be doing something, because they keep showing up!’ That might not feel like much sometimes, but let’s not make the BEST or the IDEAL the enemy of the simple straightforward ‘good’ that is staring us in the face. Get creative with your thinking . . .

Our attitude (giving us the right mindset) and our thinking (giving us space to be creative and ‘see’ in new ways) should then lead to the ‘out working’ bit of this pyramid of purpose – which is:

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# Service. The hand, open and out stretched for me represents me asking the question of myself, ‘how can I support, encourage, enable, serve, equip, bless, nurture others?’ IF our purpose is self promotion or some kind of self actualisation, I don’t believe we will ever be satisfied – purpose is about pursuit – but not for ourselves, for the sake of others. A calling is a HIGHER thing than that! Maintaining our purpose, and fulfilling our purpose is tied up in our willingness to serve. IF we get to a place where we don’t want to serve others or can’t be bothered – alarm bells should be ringing!! Maybe we need time out, we might need to examine our attitude and how we are thinking about who we are and what we are doing.

Serving takes us out of ourselves. True serving is also about the other (not the benefits we get from serving), we CAN do stuff for others . . . We can even tell ourselves we are being generous and sacrificial, unless they don’t notice or don’t thank us and take it for granted – THEN, well, THEN we take our ball in and don’t play! We need to find contentment in the act of service. Back in that Philippians passage, Jesus took the nature of a servant. When Jesus washed his disciples feet, at least initially, the LAST thing they were thinking of was thanking him. Peter especially was horrified.

Maybe, we need to horrify people with our service! We aren’t doing it for ourselves, and – in some ways – we aren’t doing it just for them either. It is what Jesus calls us to if we are in ministry!

None of these three things are reliant upon what you (or I) are actually doing for a job. We don’t need to have the job of our dreams or the perfect boss or the ideal working situation to work with this pyramid of purpose.

We need to cultivate the attitude of Christ in our heart and mind (get HIS mindset); we need to think – in such a way that all the creativity that begun the universe – is at our fingertips, because we are made in Gods image, creativity and imagination and ideas are in our ‘born again’ DNA . . . and we need to get on with serving others – right where we are, right now. This IS purpose!

Real Christianity :: A Christian Country? Ask Wilberforce!

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I can’t quite get my head round the current debate – unwittingly (or was it?) kicked off by David Cameron – about whether or not Britain is a Christian Country. Letters from secularists to newspapers, twitter is all a flap – many comments appear to be either ‘of course it is’ or ‘of course it isn’t’ and then there are comments writers who are proclaiming that Britain both ‘definitely is’ and also proclaiming that it most definitely ‘is not’ in the same articles!

Thankfully, as with so much debate that appears to be very much of its day – we have been here before. I say that, with a few caveats – which I will get to . . .

But, before that, my own context and understanding as a children’s and youth worker for both local church, regional and national Christian organisations over the last 28 years tells me that:

:: Firstly, We are engaged in children’s and youth work in a world that is no longer ‘Christendom’ – books have been written about this in recent years, my three personal favourites would be ‘Postmodern Youth Ministry‘ by Tony Jones; ‘Ambiguous Evangelism‘ by Bob Mayo and ‘Youthwork After Christendom‘ by Jo and Nigel Pimlott. If you are after a ‘primer’ on the challenges of Christian children’s and youth ministry today – start with these. Follow these up with ‘Almost Christian‘ by Kenda Creasy-Dean. This book, although American – gives a pretty accurate picture of the state of the church in the ‘western World’ in particular, The States, Canada, Australia and the UK . . .

:: Secondly, I am also taking the view (because it is mine!) that ‘Christian’ means being a Christ follower, a disciple of Jesus. Someone who has acknowledged their need of a Saviour, given their life to Christ and is seeking to live for Him daily. This is not someone who knows some stuff ABOUT Christianity, or ABOUT Jesus. I am talking about a Christian as someone who KNOWS Jesus and desires to put Jesus at the centre of their whole life.

So, with those two caveats – I don’t know what to say about the current debate. It seems to me (frustratingly) to be about Religion, about ‘values’ and where we have got our ‘morals’ from and being proud of our history – and, obviously, a focus (by some) of all the rubbish done in the name of Christianity or Religion or BIG institutional stuff . . . . Jesus did not break the power of sin and death to lay the ground work for religious institutions – but to reconcile all things to Himself!

Anyway . . . . I don’t want to get lost in having a debate with a few people about my tiny perspective (my view point) on this huge subject – but, would like to refer ALL those interested in this debate (the exasperated too, like myself) to Wilberforce!

He wrote a cracking book, 200 years ago – uncannily he could have written it in response to SOME of the articles and thought and comment going on right now about whether we are a Christian Country – it has commonly been known as ‘Real Christianity’ but has the longer title of, ‘A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classed of this Country contrasted with Real Christianity’ (a bit of a mouthful, so you can see why it was shortened!) . . .

Essentially, Wilberforce was encouraging his readers to throw off a kind of ‘cultural Christianity’ and pursue what he saw as ‘authentic Christianity’ which was a life of faith, lived after Jesus Christ. Not something that a person is simply born into, neither was it something to benignly be a ‘part of’ without fully grasping what a person believed and why they believed it. He sparked a debate, a fair bit of repentance and laid some of the ground work for seeing the slavery of the time banned!

This isn’t the debate that seems to be happening. We seem to be sat in that cultural malaise and discussing the cultural ‘merits’ of Christianity – which seems to be totally missing the point of being ‘Christian’!

Lord God, how I pray for men and women of God like Wilberforce to be raised up in this generation and have the kind of influence he had on this nation – would that such a book could be written today (and find a publisher!)

Beyond the Veil

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When Moses came down the mountain from his meeting with a God carrying the two stone tablets of the covenant law – his face shone beams of light, his face was SO radiant that he had to wear a veil. The face of one who had met face to face with God, was too much for those who had not (and could not). From then on, Moses unveiled his face when he went in to the tabernacle and met with God, replacing the veil when he was with the people to hide the radiance. Temple worship proceeded from then . . . We fast forward to those from the temple in Jesus day, who had become corrupt and crooked – the temple where the tables were overturned, the home of those who plotted Jesus’ downfall, the place of the pious, the set apart, the elite – the people who sent the temple guards (not roman soldiers) to arrest Jesus. Those FROM the temple, wanting to get rid of and destroy the very one who should have been the focus of their worship!

On the cross, as Jesus is breathing his last, the temple veil is torn in two. This veil separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple – only the High Priest could go in. The equivalent of Moses meeting with God up the mountain or in the tabernacle. With Jesus death two things are being emphasised when the curtain is torn in two:

:: Everyone now has access to the holy of holies, to this most intimate place of worship. Anyone and everyone can come, Jesus makes this possible by dealing once and for all with sin and death.
:: Temple worship is finished.

As we arrive at Easter Sunday morning I am just pondering if we really live beyond the veil? Is everyone welcome – are all able to come? Do we still have ‘worship’ pecking orders in the church? Do we live unveiled lives? Surely, my face should be more radiant than it is – I have Christ IN me by the power of the Holy Spirit! I am also asking whether sometimes in the church we have returned to a kind of temple worship. We measure commitment, still (though we might say we don’t) according to attendance at worship services in buildings. We measure our effectiveness at being ‘church’ on how many we can gather in one place on a Sunday – rather than whether those from our worshipping communities are seeking to live out their unveiled – Jesus is alive – all are welcome – all can come in – lives in a world in such desperate need.

The temple was done with. Even after the great commission from Jesus, to GO – it was some years later, and with a challenge from Paul to the Jerusalem based apostles – they needed to get OUT and move on! Things would no longer be centred around the temple, around Jerusalem – the veil has been torn, the temple is DONE and – Beyond it is a world waiting to be born.