January thoughts

 

 

In England, January can be pretty dreary.  These weeks, after the Christmas lights are boxed away, often feel particularly bare and bleak as festive jolliness is replaced with disappointing bank balances and diet programs.

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And yet, I have always liked January.  Maybe I am strange but I just love all the potential and possibilities that come with the start of a new year.  I also really love the quietness that January brings.  We don’t have any family birthdays or anniversaries until February and our usual church and social commitments are often pared down as everybody recovers and regroups after the craziness of Christmas.  So, I am usually able to keep the first few weeks of the year slow and uncommitted and to set it aside for thinking, planning and prayer.  I love it.

Seasons are good and January can offer us a unique perspective.  It can be a time when life, like a deciduous tree, is stripped down to just the skeleton of trunk and branches.  No tinsel or glitter, just the reality of who were are and what our life really consists of.

And, this can be good.  It allows us to see exactly what we’ve got.

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Outside my back door are the glazed pots that were overflowing with flowers as recently as October when family played in my garden and wedding rehearsal dinner drinks were shared with bride and groom-to-be.  Some of those pots are now completely empty, the bedding plants have served their short-term purpose of cheap summer colour for my patio.  Others look dead but they are secretly hiding the roots of perennial life.  And, so although the pot looks empty, I know it will spring into life when the days get warm again.

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And then there are my reliable evergreen shrubs.  They aren’t dazzling, but they keep my winter garden from being completely barren.  This the time of year I appreciate their faithful presence most when there are no flashy blooms for them to compete with.

Life is a lot like my winter garden and at this time of year, with pared-back schedules and quiet calendars, we can really assess and take stock of what we’ve got growing and what will need attention.

When I think of the evergreens in my garden, I think of the faithful presence in my life of a few people I can utterly rely on.  Along with my faith in God, these relationships form a support system that is irreplaceable in my life.  These precious ones don’t just say they will pray, they pray.  They get a word from God for me if I need one.  They encourage, love and speak life to me when I am ready to give up, which is more often then I would like to admit.  When circumstances are crushingly disappointing and grief overwhelms me, their number is the one I call.  I simply could not do life without them.

This January, with its fresh diary pages still empty, is the perfect time to make these relationships a top priority, not an afterthought.  Let’s remind ourselves before all the shiny new experiences and opportunities arrive, that life’s most precious gifts are dependable, loving friends and family and let’s decide to give them the time and appreciation they deserve.  Remember, our closest relationships still need the oxygen of love and appreciation to thrive so let’s give the best of ourselves, not just leftovers, to those who mean the most to us.

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And then there are those hidden perennials, the things in your life that have been beautiful and fruitful but lie dormant now. 

Perhaps there are areas of gifting or ministry where God used you but have now dried up.  Or maybe there are areas of victory that have succumbed again to the enemy.  Have you lost ground?  Have you seen a work of God seemingly die and you are left bewildered and bereft?  Winter is a time for exercising faith.  It is time to believe again that what God has started, He will finish.  It is time to pray again over those fallow places and to expect green shoots.  It is a time to believe in God’s ability and desire to do what He has said He will do.  

Winter is not for the fainthearted gardener.  When the ground is hard and cold and the colour has been sucked out of the garden, only those who understand how God works will keep their spirits up.  Only children of the King keep singing songs of deliverance when circumstances look lifeless.

But, we can use these short, grey days to revisit God’s promises.  We can remember words and verses that we have received and decide to believe again.  We can ask the Holy Spirit to stir up faith and hope and to restore our confident belief in a powerful God.

And then there are the dead, empty pots that were bursting with summer bedding only months ago. 

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These are the seasons of life and ministry that have finished.  It can be very painful to let these go.  Grown-up children and the looming empty nest is the vacant pot I am staring into and it is very hard.  I have overwhelmingly enjoyed raising a family and it has been my identity for 26 years.  An end to a good season can feel like grief.  It is painful and sad.

So, what can January offer these empty spaces in our lives where something good used to grow?

We are offered a chance to, with God’s grace, let them go.  We can choose acceptance and supernatural joy that surpasses all understanding.  We can pray over the newly vacant areas of our lives and dedicate them to the one who specializes in empty vessels.  He promises to fill and multiply and satisfy.  We can trust in His goodness to us and then we can dare to make space for something new.  We can start the new year with a heart of expectancy and eyes open to see what new things God is doing.

So, can I encourage you to embrace January?  Use it as a time to take stock, assess, survey what you have.  Put away the Christmas decorations and let life just be what it is.  What good things do you have in your life?  How can you tend and care for them more intentionally?  What needs weeding or pruning or feeding?   What have you neglected that matters?  What must you accept is over?

Then, shore up and consolidate what is valuable.  Tend to the relationships that mean the most.  Invest more time in knowing God.  Love your family.  Appreciate your friends.  Be there for someone who needs you.  Serve your church.  Care about those who are suffering.

And, believe again for good things from God.  Hold on to promises. Write them down.  Shun cynicism and cultivate child-like faith.  You can’t have both.  Believe God for the big and the impossible.  Pray audacious prayers.  Dream big and hang out with other God-dreamers.

And if it is time, let things go.  If you know God has shut a door, accept it.  If you need to cry, cry.  But, don’t look back.  Look up.  Set your heart on pilgrimage.  Keep going.  Keep serving.  Keep worshipping and keep walking.  Let God fill where you are empty and heal where you hurt.  Don’t let even a drop of bitterness or resentment find a home in your heart.  Not ever.  Keep your heart soft and your conscience clear.

This year, give Jesus permission to do something new, something incredible, something life-giving and beautiful in your life.  Give Him permission to do things differently than you have planned.  Give Him permission to surprise and overwhelm your life with Kingdom bounty.

And, if you dare, give Him permission to do whatever it takes for you to know and love Him more and to walk in every good work He has planned for you.  

 

 

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The rightful King

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Our God has a habit of showing up in very unexpected places.

We see in Genesis chapter three his startling visit to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve have sinned.  As two broken souls are coming to terms with their first sip of shame, they are stunned to hear the sound of God’s footsteps as He walks through the ruins of paradise, looking for His children.

In Exodus chapter three, another man hears His name spoken.  Yahweh sets a bush ablaze and Moses experiences a Divine interruption of his ordinariness.  In that surprising moment, destinies are birthed and the dry desert becomes holy ground beneath his feet.

As onlookers witness the attempted execution of three Jewish boys in Babylon, their God, our God, makes His appearance alongside them in the furnace. Their lives are preserved, their uncompromising faith vindicated, their bodies and clothes unscathed.

But was there ever a more surprising appearance of God than in that manger in Bethlehem?

In one of my favourite quotes by CS Lewis, he says this.

“Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

More than 2000 years ago, beneath a starry sky, God’s plan of redemption was set into motion.  He had successfully snuck behind enemy lines and out-manoeuvred the opposition.  Herod got a sniff of what is about to happen, but He was too late.  The rightful King had landed. 

In a place of no fame, to an ordinary young couple, at a time when nothing much seemed to be happening, God shows up, His splendour hidden, His glory veiled.  After what seemed like a very long and dark silence, God speaks to His world with this full-volume, angel-illuminated announcement,

Don’t be afraid. For I have come to bring you good news, the most joyous news the world has ever heard! And it is for everyone everywhere!  For today in Bethlehem, a rescuer was born for you. He is the Lord Yahweh, the Messiah.”

Let the wonder of this plan of God sink into your heart.  This moment in history was the fulfilment of hundreds of years of prophecy and it was the beginning of the end for the enemies of God.  It was a turning point in the war that would culminate in a victorious empty tomb.  The rightful King had landed.

I don’t know about you, but I need this today.  I need to remember that Jesus is a victorious King and that His place on His throne is undisputed.  My ordinary life has been brought into His Kingdom and He is at work in every moment to sabotage the enemy’s plans for me.  His ‘MO’ is to show up and show Himself mighty as He works miracles in my mess.

Thanks to God, I see the evidence of His presence.  The enemy is losing ground in my life.  God’s ways are finding their home in my heart. Like the wonderful scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is on the move.  Winter is melting, Spring is advancing.  Bulbs of His character are poking up through my hard, cold ground.

I think Christmas is the perfect time to step up this ‘campaign of sabotage’ against the schemes of the evil one in our lives, and the lives of those we love.

As we wrap presents, let’s declare God’s purposes over the recipient.  Let’s sing Christmas Carols with less nostalgia and more faith.  Let’s pray for those who will be spending time with over Christmas, fighting on their behalf, expecting our God to show up and bring freedom, healing and breakthrough whenever souls and bodies need it.

Every prayer, every Godly thought, every kindness, every step of obedience is an act of sabotage, an act of war.

The rightful King has landed.  His Kingdom is on the move.  We are part of it.

Merry Christmas.

 

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Clearing Christmas clutter

 

 

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We finally faced the dreaded task last weekend and cleaned out the loft.

It was pretty miserable, dusty, dirty work but it needed to be done.  With children coming and going, moving in and moving out, the loft was filled to the brim with all sorts and it had become impossible to locate the last few Christmas decorations.  So, I announced a family work day with the promise of pizza reward.

If your family is anything like ours, clutter is a constant battle.  As soon as you clear a surface in the house, it seems to instantly become a magnet for keys, post, phones and pretty much anything else that needs a home.

And there are other kinds of clutter.  We can pile up unmade decisions or unresolved conflicts.  Too many commitments or projects can squeeze the life out of our routines until they are joyless.  And of course, worries, fears and negative thoughts often clutter our minds and drown out God’s voice.

Don’t be fooled, clutter is nothing but a thief.  It steals our time and our attention, clogging up closets and minds.  It distracts and derails us.  It burdens us and pulls us down.

And, Christmas is no exception.

When clutter fills our holidays, what is really important can disappear under a pile of festive jumble. 

But we can fight it if we want to.

And we can start by saying no.  Over Christmas the invitations are endless.  So is the list of things we think we ‘have to do’.  It is impossible to do it all so we must learn to be selective.  What is most important and what can you just leave out this year?   What gives you joy and fills you up?  What do you dread?  There are, of course, responsibilities and commitments that are non-negotiable but there are also things we do that are unnecessary and just serve to wear us out.  I love receiving Christmas cards but I find it very hard to organize myself to send them, so I don’t.  For years the kids and I would have a big all day baking marathon. It was so much fun but now they are all working and busy so we had to let it go.  My girlfriends and I often wait until January for a big get-together.  It is a fun event to look forward to and one less item to fit into the Christmas calendar. What can you leave out this year or reschedule for the New Year that will free up some time and space in your schedule and in your heart?

Then, resist the hype.  Every advert on the television, daytime tv slot or magazine cover tells you that Christmas has to be perfect and that it has to be expensive.  Don’t listen, it isn’t true.  It is meaning that makes celebrations special, not matching baubles or a perfect party outfit. Most of my decorations are quite old now, but they are filled with memories, like the mugs that Paul and I were given on our first Christmas after we were married or the Christmas quilt the women in my family made together years ago.

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So, this year, look the culture square in the eye and swim upstream.  De-emphasize perfection and acquisition.  Emphasize the unseen virtues of tradition and generosity of spirit.  Be different.  Celebrate Christmas in a way that gets you noticed.  Travel light and be a light.

And learn to love simplicity.  Christmas lunch doesn’t need dozens of side dishes.  It really doesn’t.  Streamline it down to the most popular elements.  Make the table pretty and then enjoy.  If you really love baking and have time then go for it, but if not, don’t sweat.  I now make just three cookie recipes every year and then I buy stolen and Italian panettone.  That’s it.  Boring maybe, but it saves me overspending and overeating and frees up time to just be with people I love.  I don’t need to be a martyr to an endless supply of baked goods or a gourmet lunch.

The key with Christmas is to include what is important and then to be brave enough to let the unnecessary go.  

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So, think before you buy.  As we are trying to clear our own lives of clutter, let’s not contribute to anyone else’s.  Spend much more time thinking about what to give and less time walking around the shops, dazed and desperate.  I find myself favouring gifts that are perishable much more now and I try and avoid anything that will need storage or dusting.  Gourmet food, toiletries, candles or gift vouchers for activities like the cinema have become my go-to’s.  If in doubt, just ask and save yourself from wasteful guesses.  Let’s be honest, most of us don’t need any more knick-knacks.

Then, make time for quiet.   In order to enjoy the spiritual aspects of this season, we have to make room to think and to meet with God.  I like to get up early before my young adults have emerged, and sit by the tree with my Bible.  There is something so important about worshipping first before the craziness of the day starts.  I also take any chance I am given to get outside and just walk.  I have learned this tip from the British and there is no better way to balance out the overdose of chocolates and mince pies.  A brisk walk somewhere beautiful is a very good way to clear mental clutter.  It can put things in perspective and still our souls.   Without these moments of escape, we run the risk of starting the New Year with ragged emotions and tired hearts.

And finally, make space for loving people.  Over Christmas, we will inevitably be spending time with people we find difficult or with whom we have a strained relationship or just clashing personalities.  Instead of accepting the awkwardness and enduring it, how about approaching it with prayer?  Praying now for those we will be seeing over the holidays in the days leading up to our get-togethers is so powerful.  It makes space in our hearts for love for family members or colleagues and it has the power to change and heal situations.

People are what matters, so make relationships the priority.  

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Decide today that Christmas will be clutter free.  Be brave enough to let the tinsel go and fill the days with only the good stuff.

Enjoy it.  Do what you love.  Do what matters.  Play games and laugh.  Kiss your husband.  Be generous with words and smiles and time and attention.  Read the Chrismas story.  Wonder at His love for humanity. Weep at His love for you.

The recipe for a good Christmas isn’t rocket science.  Start every day with worship and end it with gratitude.  And, fill the middle with love.  

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Advent Jubilee

 

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Oh, the pain of finding the perfect quote when it is too late!

My husband sent me this quote after my last blog post.

We need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven.  The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.’  CS Lewis

As usual, CS Lewis says it better than I ever could.

This is the tension of the normal Christian life.  It is a life of perfecting, but not perfectionism; resting, but never passive; grateful, but still hungry.

You see when the New Testament uses the word ‘perfect’ it comes from a Greek word, ‘teleios’, that means mature, complete, whole or mature.

There is a work that Jesus has started in my life.  His desire is to finish it and my job is to let Him.  

This is so important to understand. We cannot afford to get this twisted.

The normal Christain life is a life where I am to let go of trying to be good enough but to instead put all my effort into being available, open, and teachable to God’s perfecting work in me.  

Legalism has no place in this kind of Christianity, but neither does lackadaisical Jesus-following.   The only appropriate response to God’s graceful gift is to be willing clay in the Potter’s hands.  The cross of Christ means I can make peace with my past mistakes and failures, but I must never make peace with an incomplete work of sanctification and restoration in my life.  

This is the full gospel.

I love the verses in Luke where Jesus announces why He has come.

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he has anointed me to be hope for the poor, freedom for the brokenhearted, and new eyes for the blind, and to preach to prisoners, ‘You are set free!’ I have come to share the message of Jubilee, for the time of God’s great acceptance has begun.”  (Luke 4.18, the Passion Translation)

Is there anything more beautiful, more hopeful, to know that we live within the time of God’s great acceptance?  This friendship with God that we experience as Christians is beyond comprehension.

But look closer, there is more.  God’s saving work in our lives also includes freedom, healing and wholeness.  God’s desire is to save but also to restore.

Let’s never be content with less than Jesus came for.

In this time of Advent, let’s invite God’s work of Jubilee right into the centre of our lives.  As we remember the birth of Jesus, let’s also sit at the feet of the risen, victorious Jesus.  Let’s dare to bring Him what is fractured, damaged or bound and expect His life-giving, restorative work, wherever we have need of it.

Let’s celebrate Christmas this year thankful for God’s gift of salvation but also hungry to know all the fullness of that salvation in our hearts and lives.

 

 

 

 

Redeemed significance

 

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Life is so short. Whether you live to be ninety years old or 19, life is just a breath.

We, humans, handle that information in a number of ways.

Some of us try the ‘carpe diem’ approach.  We seize minutes and hours and days and try to squeeze every drop of adventure out, travelling the world with our ‘bucket list’ in hand.  The mantra is, ‘no procrastination, no regrets.’  And hopefully, no time to think about much else.  We live for experiences and pleasure, grabbing life by the throat before it has a chance to disappoint us.

Others of us believe we can outwit ageing.  With a mixture of denial, health food and exercise we pretend we have control of our mortality.  If I look young and feel young I can close my eyes to the reality and just absorb the unrealistic optimism shared by those next to me in the gym.

Still, others worship at the altar of mindfulness and spirituality.  We believe this is the way to add meaning where there isn’t any.  We hope that crystals and candles will bring something eternal, something transcendent.  If only we can live life in the moment, maybe it won’t slip through our hands so quickly.  If we can tap into something bigger, something greater, perhaps we can infuse our existence with significance.

But the Bible always deals with truth head-on.  Life is short.  We will all die and we don’t get to choose when.  We cannot preserve our lives or prolong them substantially.  If we keep them, we lose them.  If we hold onto to minutes and hours in the hope of getting more out of life, we actually get less.  Even bucket lists disappoint and mindful living falls short.

In fact, there is only one way to live this life carefully and that is to spend it well.

John Piper, in his book, ‘Don’t waste your life,

“But whatever you do, find the God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated passion of your life, and find your way to say it and live for it and die for it. And you will make a difference that lasts. You will not waste your life.”

Life isn’t to be saved, it is to be spent.  We live life well when we spend it on what matters.

That is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5.  when he says to redeem the time.  The Greek word for redeem is ‘exagorazo’, which means to pay a price to recover something from the power of another.

You see, there is a price to pay to buy back our lives from futility and that price is faithful obedience.  Nothing else works, no Instagram worthy trips or fancy stuff or youthful skin. The only way to inject meaning into our lives is to see opportunities to do good and to take them.  Every moment spent worshipping Jesus or loving my kids or sharing my faith or praying with a friend has eternal value and it rescues my life from the curse of insignificance.   

Our lives are meant to be given away in love for God and others.  Our time, instead of trying to save it, can be spent generously and without regret.  We can buy back our daily routines from the world’s value system, that so often produces emptiness and despair.  And, we can redeem every day of our lives for the glory and God and the good of everyone who is a part of it.

What a gift, what a privilege this life we have been given is.  It is precious Kingdom currency.

Invest it well.

Start today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love that is large

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Less than a week after my daughter’s wedding, my husband’s aunt died.  Dear Ruth was well into her nineties so it wasn’t a surprise but it was a really sad moment for Paul as he had developed a close relationship with her over the last couple of years while she has been in a nursing home.

With the wedding flowers still filling my dining room, it was time for another trip to the florist to choose pink roses and lilies for the casket.  Then today we had a look at the little chapel where her funeral will be.  It had beautiful stained glass windows and that musty smell of old church pews and hymnal dust.

And I kept thinking the same thought, over and over again, that life is only as rich as our relationships.  

Sweet Aunt Ruth never married or had children.  Any colleagues or friends she had have already gone.  There will only be 20 people at her funeral, but her nephew wept as he chose flowers for her today.  And loving and being loved is what makes life full.

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I will never forget arriving at the imposing chapel on the morning of Hannah’s wedding.  It was pouring rain and I was running slightly late.  As I entered the room and looked around I was completely overwhelmed.  It is not very often in life are you in a room with everyone you love.  It really doesn’t get much better than that and I still feel so grateful.

But, relationships are hard work.  In even the most loving families, churches or friendship groups there are endless opportunities for upsets, misunderstandings, grudges, gossip and pain.  No one can hurt us like those who are close.

When I was a child I experienced a terribly painful rejection.  For many years afterwards, it marred me and affected how I lived life.  When rejection has a hold of you it tells you to hold back, to protect yourself.  It whispers that you should love small and give away only what you can live without.  The result is a gnawing fear in your soul that you will always love more than you are loved.

But God’s love, this agape gift, calls us to something much bigger and freer.

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I recently read 1 Corinthians 13 in the Passion Translation of the Bible.

‘Love is large and incredibly patient.  Love is gentle and consistently kind to all.  It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else.  Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance.  Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honour.  Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offence.  Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong.  Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others.  Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up.

God’s love is large and extravagantly generous.  It goes the extra mile and turns the other cheek.  It will compel you to forgive and to forget and to never give up on anyone.  If you let it, it will turn acquaintances into friends and it will bring prodigals home.  Agape can fix families and it can fix you.

In God, there is nothing to fear. We can pour our lives out in His service, love past annoyances and offence, forget about ourselves for a bit and trust that He has us in the palm of His hand.  We can live a life free from self-promotion, selfishness and self-pity. We can trust our own needs to a good Father and then happily celebrate the blessings of others.

1 Corinthians 13.13b in the Message Bible says, ‘Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. 

I am convinced, the older I get, that this is the only way to live life.

Trust God in every moment of every day.  Trust Him when you don’t understand and when things don’t make sense.  Trust Him above your circumstances and your feelings.  Trust Him because He is good.

Then hope, without exception.  Know that everything He promises will come to pass and that one day absolutely everything will be put right.  Put all your hope in Jesus, knowing that He has done enough and is enough for you, period.

And finally, love without reservation.  Worship God wholeheartedly.  Serve Him only out of love, not duty.  Show your gratitude with your availability.  Love people.  Love difficult people.  Love them more than your hobbies or vacations or things.  Love the people who have hurt and misunderstood you.  Love your messy, moody teens and your annoying colleague.  Love your ageing aunt whose mind is fading and foggy and who keeps repeating the same stories over and over.  Love people who are different than you.   Make new friends and treasure old ones.

Decide every day to love with extravagance and sacrificial generosity.  This is the path to fullness. 

 

 

 

This Pilgrim’s progress

 

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There is one thing I know I am doing right.

That’s what the Apostle Paul tells the believers in Philippians 3.13.

I like Paul. He wasn’t afraid to use dramatic language when it was appropriate.  Having spent the previous verses sharing how he was wrong for much of his life, how he had completely misunderstood who God was and what He was doing in the earth, he then boldly makes this statement:

I don’t mean to say I am perfect. I haven’t learned all I should even yet, but I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ saved me for and wants me to be.  No, dear brothers, I am still not all I should be, but I am bringing all my energies to bear on this one thing’  Phil. 3.12-13a (NLT)

And what is this one thing?

‘Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead,  I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us.’ Phil. 3.13b-14

Paul always shows us how to keep the main thing the main thing.  And he says here that if we are Christians, this is a top priority.

It is interesting that he calls it ‘one thing‘ although it has two parts.  There is forgetting what is behind us and then straining towards what is ahead.  I wonder if Paul calls them ‘one thing’ because you can’t have one without the other. 

Think about it. You can’t really strain forward if you are looking back, can you?  It is pretty hard to focus on something you aren’t looking at.  You can’t win a race facing the wrong way.

I should know, I have tried.

So often in my life I have attempted to follow Jesus with all my attention on the baggage I was dragging behind me.  And so often my run has become a crawl.  It was tiring and needlessly hard, frustrating and disheartening.  Because it is hard to follow Jesus well with old thinking, old habits and old perspectives. 

There are things I have to take off if I am serious about this race.

If you are a fan of elite sport, you will know how minute the margins are between winning and losing, often only fractions of a second.  Olympic teams will have many experts working for them, looking for any tiny adjustment that can be made in technique or diet or equipment.

Paul describes it as, ‘bringing all my energies to bear on this one thing.’

That’s the only way to run this race well.

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In Hebrews 12.1 we see the picture of a runner who is free and unencumbered.  He is focused, lean and mean.  Anything surplus to requirement has been discarded.  He is single minded and he is ready for the start line.

But often in my life regrets, disappointment, hurt, brokenness and destructive ways of thinking and behaving have been like bungee cords that hampered my forward progress and eventually pinged me back into defeat.  When I am not walking in repentance, forgiveness, mercy and grace I am not free to run well.

To move forward, I have to leave things behind.

And the reverse is also true.  I cannot leave the past behind unless I am intentionally moving forward.

In my favourite passage in the Bible, Psalm 84, David says that ‘blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.  They go from strength to strength.  For the Lord God is a sun and a shield.  No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.’

When we decide that our identity is that of pilgrims or travellers who are heading towards our home, then we will leave behind what we don’t need.  There is a strength that comes when we focus on our destination and believe it to be all that really matters.  There is a forward momentum that kicks in and propels us into all God has planned for us.   He promises to withhold no freedom, no deliverance, no victory from those kind of followers. 

In other words, if we keep going we will get there.

2 Corinthians 5.17 describes the very essence of the Christian life. ‘Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.’

Every day His mercies are new.  New things are always coming, old things are passing away.   This is the normal Christian life. We are constantly letting go and reaching forward at the same time. Sometimes the Holy Spirit shows us something that we have to leave behind.  It can be painful but it always makes room for new blessings and revelation.  Other times God encourages us to walk in a new way of thinking or living and in the process some old stuff just gets crowded out.

I want that heart, that outlook, every day of my life.  I want the grace to keep straining, pulling, moving forward.  I want to let go of anything that is holding me back or slowing me down.  I want to shed my baggage, maybe close a door or two and I want to make space for God to do something new.

I want to make space for His will and His presence in my life.

I want to listen and obey.  I want to know what really matters.  I want to be facing the right way and I want to finish my race with joy.  I want to make progress.

I want to be a pilgrim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silver medal sadness

 

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A recent scientific study has found that Olympic athletes that win silver medals die younger than those who win either gold or bronze.  There is something about being so close to gold and just losing out that takes it toll on minds and bodies.

Dissatisfaction can kill you.

There is a kind of disappointment that seeps into your bones. There is a longing that will eat you up.  Proverbs 13.12 calls it deferred hope and it makes us sick.

Expectations are powerful.  I have seen Olympic competitors who were not expected to win a medal celebrate their surprise silver like it was gold..  And I have seen world champions miss out on gold by the smallest margins, their faces full of shock and sadness.

It is all about the expectation.

Sometimes things don’t work out as we had hoped.  Sometimes people let us down.  Sometimes we make assumptions about what God is doing in our lives and we are wrong. Sometimes we are misunderstood and sometimes we fail.

These dashed hopes will drag us to the bottom if we can’t let them go.  Like ageing sports stars we can live a life of what might have been as the regret sickens our souls.

Of course, desires are normal.  Wants and wishes are part of being human. The problem is when desires turn into expectations.

We can have expectations of others that are unspoken or unfair.  We can have expectations of life that are unrealistic.  We can expect to find value and meaning in ways that can never satisfy.  But these great expectations lead to great disappointment.

Be careful where you plant your deepest longings.

Always expect less of people and more of God.

Jesus says in John 6.35 that those who come to Him will never thirst.  My Bible dictionary defines thirst as to ‘painfully feel the want of the things by which the soul is refreshed’

When we walk with Jesus, we can be free from painful wantings.  He promises that He is always, in every situation, enough.  

Like the determined athlete who uses disappointment as motivation for next time, we must move on from life’s let-downs and press forward for what matters.

So, put the silver medal in the drawer.  Put to bed the things that didn’t work out like you thought they would.  Forgive.  Forget.

We are called to run a race that has eternal value.  We were created to be satisfied with nothing less. We have been given everything we need to finish this race well so let us expect to.  Let us expect to live a life of spiritual success that fills heaven with treasures.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection.  But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.  No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing:  Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lied ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.’  Philippians 3.12-14

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Content after the event

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We did it.

The dust has settled, the house guests have gone home and the flower arrangements are  starting to wilt.  Wedding outfits are in the wash and the redundant to do lists have been binned.

I feel completely exhausted.  And totally content.

Contentment is a gift and I have grown to treasure it, because for much of my life it has been a battle.  Being content has so often been strangled by perfectionism.  My idealistic nature would dream up plans, scenarios and colourful Pinterest pages, only for the reality to painfully disappoint and steal my happiness.

But thankfully, contentment can be learned.

When we stir up gratefulness to God, we produce conditions where envy and disappointment wither and contentment can thrive.

Ann Voskamp beautifully says it like this, ‘Being joyful isn’t what makes you grateful.  Being grateful is what makes you joyful.’

I have found that gratitude and joy help me to accept things as they are and acceptance is a powerful, life-changing quality for recovering perfectionists.

Acceptance on the day of my daughter’s wedding kept my joy and sanity intact.

I had, long before the big day, accepted the fact that there were things we could not control.  So, when the heavens opened just as we were all leaving for the church, I just thanked God for umbrellas and frizz-control hairspray.

When the weather spoiled the plans for live music outside after the wedding, we laughed and hugged and took pictures inside a beautifully decorated corridor of the university building.

And there were other little mishaps.  I totally forgot to put on earrings in the rush of getting ready.  I burst into tears when I realised the moment I had imagined of seeing Hannah come down the stairs of our home in her wedding dress was going to happen after I had to leave for the church.  We all ran a little late.  We got a little snappy.  We lost things and forgot things.

And the day was imperfectly wonderful.

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2 Corinthians 4.7 says, ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’

This is the life of a Christian on earth.  We have treasure, but it is wrapped in clay.  Every perfect thing that God does in our hearts and lives has to contend with earthly limitations.  He is perfect.  We are not.  His kingdom is glorious.  This world is muddy.

And our beautiful Christian wedding was the same.  It was a divine moment when two people became one, when families that love each other witnessed and celebrated and danced together.  It was a day of beauty but it was wrapped up in inevitable imperfection.

But if we can accept this truth about our lives, there is a divine purpose because God promises us that our imperfections highlight His glory.

One of my favourite quotes is by Priscilla Shirer. She says, ‘Contentment is the equilibrium between the enjoyment of life now and the anticipation of what is to come’

As I danced with my nieces and nephews and laughed with old friends, I was living in that equilibrium, in the place where God’s glory is wrapped up in tired feet and too much cake and rain-flattened, mother-of-the-bride hair.

It is a wonderful place where I have grace to accept the imperfection of clay and worship the good God who one day will wrap glory in glory, for all eternity.

As I told my daughter the week before the wedding, happy weddings are beautiful weddings. 

And happy, content lives are beautiful ones that point to the goodness and sufficiency of life with our God.  They shout, ‘He is enough for me.’

 

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Wedding Shadows

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Colossians 2.16-17 says, ‘Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  They are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.’

When Paul wrote this letter to the church at Colossae, he was writing to people who were neglecting to make the main thing the main thing.  False teachings had reached this fledgling fellowship and had caused traditions and rules to take precedence over the centrality of Christ and his finished work. Festivals and food restrictions became a bone of contention among the believers there.

Paul nips this heresy in the bud.  He is very clear.  Celebrations, feasts and sabbath days were given to us from God.  But they were never meant to be more than a shadow of what was to come.  They were intended to point us to Christ, not take centre stage.

It is an easy mistake to make.

Jewish feasts are beautiful.  They are colourful and joyful and noisy.  These celebrations tie generations together as traditions are handed down and memories are made. Anyone who has shared a Passover meal with a Jewish family or witnessed the glorious feast of Tabernacles will know what I mean.  They are compelling occasions.

And yet Paul says they are only shadows.  They are the muted, blurry outline of something much more glorious.  In comparison with Christ they are like a badly taken photo in a dark room on a gloomy day.

Weddings are shadows too.

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DSC_1251We are excited for Saturday.  We have planned it for ten months and there have been blood sweat and tears!  We have designed a wedding cake, chosen flowers, printed menus and hand-lettered until our hands hurt.  We have carefully chosen the colours and flowers and the dresses.  Suits and ties have been bought and shoes have been polished.  I have even tied tiny gold acorns on each place name!  It seemed a good idea at the time.

Weddings are funny things, aren’t they?  So much fuss for one day.  It doesn’t make sense except that the fuss is supposed to equal the significance.

We make a big deal out of weddings because marriage is a big deal.  Choosing who you want to be with for the rest of your life is a momentous decision, and so we treat it as such. On Saturday our family will have a wonderful day as we bless our daughter and her new husband and witness them starting their lives together.  It will be emotional and beautiful and it will be worth all the time and money because of its significance to us.

And it will be only a shadow.

There is a day coming that is the culmination of everything God has planned and sacrificed for.   The preparations for that day have been going on since creation.  We cannot imagine the glory and perfection of it.  It’s beauty will be unmatched and its joy unending.  Every tear will be wiped away, every disappointment will feel like a distant memory, and, love will win.

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”I Corinthians 2.9

Until then we enjoy the shadows that point us to Him.