Who will I be? It depends.

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Recently Paul and I walked again around our favourite lake.  It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and we bumped into very dear friends that we had gone to church with many years before.

They are older than us, around my parent’s age, and yet they hadn’t changed from how we remembered them.  Their circumstances are different, of course, and they are now blessed with about a dozen grandchildren.  But the essence of them hasn’t changed.  They still have the gentle meekness, the same kindness in their words, the same contented outlook on life.  He smiled as he told us how he continues to play the drums in church, more than thirty years since we first met them.   They gushed about the lovely day and the bacon sandwiches they had treated themselves to and their upcoming special anniversary trip.  They generously asked after all our children and we all said how good God is.

As we continued our walk I just couldn’t stop thinking about them.  ‘I want to be like them someday’ I said to Paul and he agreed.

A week later, my husband was walking the dog at the same spot when he bumped into another old friend who was cycling past.  Paul hadn’t spoken to him in probably 15 years.  And, he hadn’t really changed much either.  Still busy and hassled, talking too fast and always in a hurry.  The refrain was familiar.  Life is hectic and busy and stressful.  He, by his own admission, is overextended because his lifestyle is expensive to maintain, in both money and time.  He will have to work until he drops.  He is sorry he can’t make time for church, but his days are already invested and there are none left.  He misses it but not too much.  And he cycled away.

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As I think about those conversations, there is an uncomfortable truth that I am faced with.  And it is this.  The way I am living my life today is more than likely the way I will be living it in 20 years time.  Because habits take only 40 days to form and so after 40 years they are pretty much carved in stone.

It is so easy to think in ‘somedays’.   We tell ourselves that someday we will slow down and enjoy our family.  Or someday we will give our relationship with Jesus the time it deserves.  Someday we will serve others more.  Someday we will go on that mission trip or study a book of the Bible.  Someday we will step out in faith and do something risky for God or finally obey what we know He has been asking us to do.

But change is really hard.

And every day that goes by it gets harder. 

Over decades we dig deep grooves in the soil of our lives that are nearly impossible to ignore.  We have ways of doing things, natural tendencies and preferences.  We also have bad habits and we have well-practised excuses for those bad habits. And we just keep going.

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Nowhere in the Bible is this process better illustrated than Psalm 1.

‘How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.’  Psalm 1: 1-3 (NASB)

Here we see a beautiful tree, planted in a stunning location.  It is healthy and vibrant and fruitful.  It is prospering in every possible way.  Each leaf is glossy and green, every root is strong and stable.

And the key to a life like this is in the previous verses.

Decisions. Habits. Priorities. Choices.

There is nothing ‘someday’ here.  It is all about what I do right now.  It is about where I spend my time and who I hang out with.  It is about what gets my undivided attention and what doesn’t.  It is about who I admire and what values I live my life by this week, today, now.

It is all about the place that God has in my life, whether He is just an add-on or whether He is the absolute centre of everything that I think and do.

And, the truth is that it will probably never be easier than today to make hard choices and decisions.  It will never be easier to make God my first love and to make serving and following Him the centre of everything.  There will probably never be fewer demands on my time or distractions in my mind.

There will never be an easier, better day to make changes than today. 

As I sit at my desk, my mind full of worries and frets and to-do lists and diary appointments, I am wondering who I will be in 20 years.  If you were to bump into me walking at the lake (with my fourth labrador!) who would you see?

My deepest desire is that all the good that Jesus has already done in my life will be magnified for His glory and that the good habits I have started, even if I am inconsistent, will have produced fruit in my life.

And I hope that I will have had the courage to keep changing.  I hope that the things that hold me back now will have been overcome and that I will have continued to allow the character of Jesus to be fully formed in me.

And I hope that I will be full of fresh testimonies of the power and grace of God as He continuously moves me from the old into the new until the day I go to be with Him.

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Why this is not a self-help blog

 

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I’ve always been a sucker for a self-help book.

If you could peek at my Kindle library you would see the collection of organizing books that I have read in the hope of transforming my scatteredness.  And then there are diet books and fitness plans alongside books that tell me  how to use my time well and get more done or how to simplify my life and slow down.  And, within the pages of these books I have found very practical, good advice that has helped me to make important changes.

But as a follower of Jesus, I must always remember the limitations of self-help books.

First of all, motivational writing is only helpful if it is true.   The pages of a book can tell me that I have within myself all the keys to my own happiness and success.  They can convince me that I can become anything I want to be if I try hard enough.  They can tell me that the sky is the limit if I will just change what I believe about my capabilities.  They can offer me all sorts of beautifully uplifting sentiments that will fill me up and make me smile.  They will sound good and true but they are only partly true which makes them misleading.  And it makes them wholly inadequate to sustain me when life gets really tough.

It only takes one terrible mistake, one devastating piece of bad news or heartbreaking betrayal to show me how little control I really have.  At that moment, what I really need to know is that I belong to a God who is in control, even when I am not, and that nothing can ever separate me from His love or His purposes or His presence.

Another problem with self-help books is that they assume personal happiness is always my goal.  But I’ve tried chasing this elusive quality and it is an impossible and exhausting exercise.  Happiness has a way of always feeling just out of reach.

The Bible tells me that the goal of the Christian life is to know God and to make Him known.  It also promises me that joy is the inevitable, beautiful fruit of my growing relationship with Him.

I don’t ever want to settle for mere happiness.  It is flimsy and precarious and it can be snatched from me with one phone call.

God’s joy is altogether different.  It is a hardy plant.  It can survive, even flourish, in the midst of grief and disappointment, blossoming in impossible places.

You can’t produce it yourself though.  It is the natural byproduct of a life poured out for Jesus and for others.

Another limitation of self-help books, even by Christian authors, is that they can overemphasize life here and now.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  I believe in John 10.10 with my whole heart.  I believe that Jesus wants to give me that abundant life today.  I believe that He wants to heal and deliver me from the things that hold me down and He wants to provide my needs and bless me.  But, I don’t have to race around with a bucket list of experiences in order to live life well.  I don’t have to chase accomplishment or acclaim in the fear of wasting this time I am given. I can enjoy life, with all its ups and downs, its limitations and disappointments, joys and blessings precisely because I know that this isn’t all there is.  And, thank goodness for that!  It takes the pressure off of ‘making life amazing every day’ and just allows me to enjoy the imperfect journey, knowing that there is a day coming when everything will be as it should be.

And finally, although self-help advice is often good and helpful, the ‘why’ can be a bit misguided.  And why we do something really, really matters.

With my whole heart, I want to live life carefully.  I want to use my time well, eliminate distractions and clutter.  I want to change my thinking.  I want to be less lazy and more productive.  I want to expect more from myself and believe more from God.  And I want to encourage others to do the same.  That is why I started this blog a year ago.

But it has never been about reaching my full-potential or realizing personal dreams.  I am not a slave to a Pinterest vision board or Instagram philosophies.  I am running for a different prize.

I want to use my time well because there is need in the world that God wants to meet.  I want to be more oganized so I can make time for what has eternal value.  Decluttering matters because stuff is way less important than people.  Health and fitness matter because there is Kingdom work to do and I need the energy to do it.  I  need to look after my mental health so I can enjoy everything God has given me and so I can love others well.

And I should ask Jesus to work every healing and deliverance in my life that is needed because people who are whole can best lead others into wholeness.

Self-help can be just a poor copy of something much better.  I have a Shepherd who loves me.  He promises to lead me and restore my soul and He says I will want for nothing.  He takes my broken, imperfect life and makes it a Kingdom resource in His powerful hands.  He helps me overcome obstacles so I can walk on my high places.  Not because I am all that amazing, but because He really is.

What a relief that is!

I know my limitations but I know the limitless transforming power of the Creator of the Universe which trumps any weakness I bring to the table.

This girl doesn’t need any self-help.  I just need to help myself to the spiritual treasures that are mine because of Jesus.

And then any good I accomplish will be all for His glory and for the renowned of His wonderful name.

 

 

 

The gift of feeling small

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When my husband suggested we go away for my 50th birthday I didn’t hesitate. ‘Just take me somewhere with proper snow’.

Maybe it is because I was born in the middle of a snow blizzard (my mom had to ride in a police car behind a snow plough to get to the hospital!) or maybe it is because the first seventeen years of my life were lived in places where winter was white.  For whatever reason I love snow.  And although we often get an annual dusting where I live in England, it is rarely enough to satisfy.

So we booked five nights in an apartment in the Austrian Alps.

I had completely forgotten what it feels like to live life at the foot of the mountains.  We just could not stop looking at them, mouths open and cameras clicking wildly.  They were too beautiful, too imposing to ignore.  ‘It is good to feel small sometimes, isn’t it’, my husband commented.  And it really was.  There is a strange, comforting feeling of insignificance at the base of a mountain.

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We were soon reminded of how quickly mountain weather changes.  One moment storm clouds would arrive, dropping the temperature and blocking the sun.  And then, as soon as you had put on another layer it would move away again revealing sun-soaked peaks that we had almost forgotten were there.  They always seemed bigger when they reappeared and we always felt even smaller.

Our apartment was cosy and the views were mesmerizing.  We never got tired of eating bowls of soup in front of the large window where we watched skiers on runs that were carved through pine forests.  They looked like tiny, speedy ants against the dramatic Alpine backdrop.

On three of our days, we had planned winter hikes.  Snow-covered trails were a new experience for us.  They were steep and tiring, even with the help of our new blue walking poles.

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Our second hike was particularly difficult and we were afraid we had bitten off more than we could chew.  So we were ecstatic when we finally spotted the mountain hut, smoke curling out of the chimney and the smell of Austrian goodies that made our mouths water.  This is the Austrian way to climb mountains.  If you plan your trek well, you can recharge with soup and coffee and cake.  And the views take your breath away.

My noodle soup hit the spot.  Still warm from the hike, we sat outside around wooden tables and looked down, amazed at how high we were.  It was exhilarating, like being on top of the world.  Until, of course, the map showed us that a three and a half hour hike had only brought us a small way up this mountain, highlighting that our efforts, although commendable were relatively modest.

When we got back down to the village, with a mixture of careful hiking and less careful slipping and sliding, we looked back at where we had been.  We felt so tired, so happy and so, so small.

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And then, on the last day, in the middle of fun and food, it happened.  My old enemy, anxiety decided to show up.  Like the mountain storms we had watched from our window, it blew in quickly and blocked out the sun.

And so I cried in a Mcdonalds in the middle of Innsbruck.  And I felt smaller perhaps than I ever remembered feeling in my life.

And my problem seemed bigger than it ever had before.  It loomed over me like those mountains we climbed and I knew that I could hike all day and barely make it out of the foothills.  The difficult truth is that anxiety is just too big for me.

But there is another truth, a truer truth.   My God makes an audacious claim in the Bible.

He tells me that He can move mountains.

These are such easy words to read.  They are familiar to anyone who has spent much time in church.  They adorn posters and bookmarks in every Christian bookstore in the world.

It is good to feel small sometimes.  It is comforting to know that I’m just a little speedy ant on this planet but what really matters is how big I believe God is and what I think He is capable of.  

I don’t know what your mountain is today but I know how it makes you feel.  I know that it dominates the landscape of your life and sometimes it blocks out the sun.

And I know that it is probably too big for you but that’s okay.

Goliath was too big for David.  David had youthful passion and bravery but without God, it would have ended very badly.  David took on Goliath because He knew the size of God compared to the size of his enemy.

It is good to square up to our Goliaths, to face up to our mountains.  It is good to be brave and defiant.  It is also good to know how small you really are.

It is a gift from God, even in a dingy fast-food restaurant, to realise how much I need God. And it is beyond wonderful to know that we are children of the God of five-smoothe-stone miracles and mountain-moving power who doesn’t just tell us to lace up our hiking boots and try harder.

Which is a relief because I am small and the mountain is big.

But, I believe with my whole heart that God can move it for me.

And I believe that He will.

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Risky Kingdom Business

 

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I have never been a risk taker.

I like to play it very safe.  I have no desire to gamble with my money and extreme sports do not interest me in the slightest.  I did try a snowmobile once when I was 24 but honestly, I drove like a grandma on a mobility scooter.

I also went white water rafting when I was a teenager.  I can still remember how my life flashed before me with each tiny rapid on the relatively tame river.  Never again.

But, today God spoke to my heart.

As I opened my Bible this morning, underneath my quilt with a warm coffee in my hand, I read Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25 with fresh eyes.  So often we need fresh eyes for familiar stories or we can overlook the depth of truth that goes beyond Children’s Bible pictures or Veggie Tales cartoons.

One of the servants in this story is also risk-averse.  He always plays it safe and hedges his bets.  And if you think that this cautious planning should be applauded, you are wrong.  The Master’s reaction is harsh.  There is no praise for this carefulness, only disappointment. It is an uncomfortable parable.

And it teaches an uncomfortable truth.  I cannot please God without taking risks.

I am so tempted to soften that sentence, to try and qualify it.  But I can’t.  The bible won’t let me.

Hebrews 11.6 says, ‘Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.’

You see, when I talk about risks I don’t mean bungee jumping or stock market trading. I mean obedient faith.  I mean doing what God says to do, despite the possible dangers.  I mean stepping out and stepping up, opening my mouth or opening my wallet.  I mean saying yes to God when it looks impossible or ridiculous or costly.  

In the parable, the servant who hides his talent does so out of fear that the Master isn’t a good man.  The writer of Hebrews makes a similar point.  In order to please God, we must believe that He exists but also that He is good and that He desires to reward His children.

You see, we will never dare to take risky faith-steps, to lay it all on the line if we aren’t utterly convinced of God’s power, but also His goodness.

And in the Kingdom of God, there is just no alternative. The keep-what-you-got and squirrel-it-away kind of life is not an option Jesus ever presents to His followers.

No, this Kingdom is more of a ‘throw-your-bread-on-the-water’, take-up-your-cross-and-follow-me, lose-your-life-to gain-it kind of following.

It is the kind of life that ‘wastes’ precious perfume on Jesus because everything we have is for His glory, not our own.  It is a Christianity that turns the world upside down and might land you in jail or in the lion’s den, but your worship will always have the victory.  It is a kind of living where the end is certain, but only uncertain faith-steps will get you there.

It is a faith that dares to try again and believe again, despite the fear of failure. It is a faith that steps out of the boat because those few moments with Jesus on the water are always worth it, even if we get wet.

It is a kind of spiritual walk that serves God with no self-consciousness or comparison and never worries about being perfect, just being obedient.

Read Hebrews 11 today if you dare.  Read those names.  Read how they lived and how they died.  Read how those men and women of God held nothing back.  There never considered contingency plans or risk assessments or insurance policies.

They left everything on the field.

Because they were Kingdom people and they served a King.  And that King once dared to leave the comfort of heaven for an audacious plan of redemption.  He chose love and obedience over self-preservation and safety.  He emptied Himself and He humbled Himself and He offered Himself to people who were free to say no.  This is the God we serve and follow.

And the only answer to a God like this is ‘yes’.

The only way to follow Him is wholehearted.

Because the only risk we have to worry about is wasting our lives on things that don’t matter.

And, the only truly safe way to live is to give Jesus everything and follow Him wherever He leads us.

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Knowable

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“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
― A.W. Tozer

It really does matter what we think about God because it matters to God what we think about Him.

Our God, Yahweh, the Alpha and the Omega, the triune God who experiences perfect fellowship within the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, this God wants us to know Him.

Just read Jeremiah 31.33-34.

‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No more shall every man teach his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord.  For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’

Hear the excitement our God feels at the thought of this new covenant that would be ushered in at the cross.  He couldn’t wait for that veil to be torn.  He couldn’t wait for you and me to be welcomed into His family.  He couldn’t wait to be known.

Romans 1.20 tells us that God created a world where His invisible attributes are displayed by the things He has made.

Some of you will remember the old British tv show, Through the Keyhole, where a presenter would be filmed walking through a house, pointing out the pictures on the walls, the books in the bookshelf and the collectables that line the shelves.  The idea was to try and guess what celebrity the house belonged to from the clues.

Now imagine our God, speaking solar systems and planets into being, forming continents and mountain ranges and carefully designing everything so as to leave endless clues about His nature. Who made a world like this?

Our God did. He has shown Himself to be a God who creates complex beauty from nothing, who is infinitely creative and who cares about the smallest detail.  Every rose bloom and beetle, every sunset and seashell is a hallmark of God’s artistry, stamped on this world.

And He did it all just so that anyone who looks with an open heart can see what kind of God He is. 

God has also carefully and painstakingly revealed Himself in His Word. In the Bible, God makes clear His plan for the world, from the very beginning.  We see His ways as they weave through history.  God’s character is painted in technicolour with burning bushes and rainbow promises. His provision is demonstrated by feather-light manna and rams in thickets and a lunch that feeds a crowd.  Seas that are parted and blind eyes that are opened show us His unmatched power.  From cover to cover, the Bible shows us what matters to God and what He has done about it.

And, we see in John 17.25-26 that God sent Jesus to reveal more about what He is like.  This final, costly act insured not only that our sins were covered, but that God’s good and loving character was perfectly modelled to his beloved humanity.  Just in case we were to misunderstand God and see only His power and not His love, or if we were to imagine that we are just a small cog in some impersonal plan, Jesus’s life shows us just the opposite.  In Jesus, we see a God who does everything out of goodness We see kingship that looks like servanthood and instead of a religion, the life of Jesus invites us into a relationship.

We see God’s perfect love evident from the very moment of creation, but it is proven at the cross.

Our God is without rival.  He is the beginning and the end.  He is all-knowing and all-powerful.  And yet he chooses to use His power for redemption and restoration.  He chooses sacrifice.  He chooses love and He chooses us.

Don’t ever believe anything else.

Don’t even contemplate a God who is distant or harsh or unavailable.  He is present, He is a Father and His children can draw close and know Him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Sincerity

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I have really struggled to write a blog post over the last week.

I started and then abandoned several ideas.  I even revisited part-written entries that I had saved for a future date, but nothing clicked.

It’s not that any of these themes weren’t good.  It is just that they lacked an important ingredient, the one thing I am determined to never leave out of anything that I write.

They lacked sincerity.

And that is because even though I have some helpful things to say about decluttering and simplifying life, renewing my thoughts and knowing God better, those subjects are not what I am really thinking about today.

Do you remember my positive New Year attitude?  Well, it has run dry in record time.  I am disappointed and worn out.  I am desperate for God’s answers but wobbly in the waiting.  My coffee is cold, the computer is waiting, and worry is my wallpaper.

It is uncomfortable, but it is real.  And isn’t that where we should always start?

In fact, aren’t honesty and sincerity the starting points for everything good God wants to do in our lives?

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we see Him give the Sermon on the Mount It is the most exhaustive, comprehensive teaching about what being a follower of Jesus should look like.  We are taught how to behave in marriage and in society.  We are given examples of effective prayer and fasting and we are shown a radical lifestyle of forgiveness and generosity, all of which serves to make us effective witnesses in the world.

But look at the way the sermon starts.

Jesus starts with what we often call the Beatitudes.  Look closely at these familiar verses.  See how they are challenging us to be something before we do something.

The beautiful blessings promised here are for those who have allowed the Holy Spirit to work mercy and meekness and spiritual hunger into their souls, not those who know how to just look super-spiritual.

It is the pure in heart, not the impressive or the accomplished, who will see God.  In God’s Kingdom, it is always all about the heart and good works are the beautiful by-product.

Being comes before doing every time.  Otherwise we run the risk of hypocrisy.

It is so much easier to just act kind, rather than to be honest about the unkindness in my heart.  It is painless to accept an apology from someone I have no intention of forgiving.

Christian platitudes cost me nothing and giving advice is a cinch.  Sharing out of my own difficulties feels far riskier.

But honesty is the key to everything.

Because there is no help available to me in my struggles if I pretend I don’t have any. 

It is so easy to play church. Becoming like Jesus is much harder to fake.

Jesus ends this epic sermon with the parable of the wise and foolish builders. Just in case we are inclined to be too cerebral about following Jesus or to tend towards too much navel-gazing, He reminds us that the proof of a changed heart is always obedient action.

It is not in what I talk about, tweet or quote.  It isn’t in what books I read or what knowledge I accumulate.  My opnionated dinner discussions or social media rants prove nothing about who I really am. 

The proof is how I respond to the good things I hear, read and study.   All the wonderful sermons I hear, the podcasts, the myriad of Christian books I read, the blogs, and the Bible studies only strengthen my life if I put in to practice what I have heard.  Otherwise, I am just a know-it-all standing on sand.

There is a much better way, a building-on-rock way.

Jesus wants to work forgiveness in my heart so I can forgive.

He wants to give me the gift of strong faith so I can pray truthful, faith-filled prayers for myself and others.

He wants to make me less offendable so I can love people who are different than me, not just pretend.

He wants to give me a love for His Word so I read it because I want to.

He wants me to make me more like Jesus every day, but to always give me the grace to be honest when I am not.

He wants to meet me where I am today, not where I wish I was.  He wants to touch where I am hurting and restore hope.  He wants to hear my honest heart-cry and speak to my soul.  He wants to sit with me and then put me back on my feet. He wants to love me as I am and make me hungry to be much more.

He wants my service to Him to always come from sincerity and my Christianity to be real, not just uplifting verses on a coffee cup.

If I can resist the temptation for the knock-off version, I can have authentic faith this year.  If I will dare to be real about who I am and why I need Jesus, I can have testimonies of the power of God, not just theories.

Honesty empowers me to trade skin-deep resolutions for heart-deep changes that lead me to victory.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stairs that lead to miracles

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Sunday’s sermon was about Daniel and I can’t stop thinking about him.

You know the story.  King Darius has been tricked into making a law that would hand down a death sentence to any man or woman who prays to anyone or anything other than the King.  Daniel hears the news.  His response is simple.

He goes upstairs, opens the window towards Jerusalem and prays like he has done three times a day, every day of his life.

What an understated moment in Bible history!

Daniel is faced with a horrible execution of unthinkable violence and he just does what he always does.   It sounds so unspectacular, so uneventful.

But it really isn’t.

It is a glimpse into the secret life of a man of God, just before he receives his deliverance.  We are made privy to the backstory, to the secrets behind the miracle so when the miracle comes we understand.

My youngest is learning to drive.  He will be safe on the road when the mechanics of driving a car are automatic to him so that he can handle unexpected situations without having to think too much.

And so it is with me.

The enemy of my soul dreads the day prayer becomes my automatic response to difficulty.

He knows there is a place of victory available to me when God’s presence and His Word become non-negotiables.  He knows that when I no longer believe the lie that discipline is legalism, I am on the way to a powerful, overcoming life.

And it can start today.

When I feel too busy, I can pray.  When life is good and I have nothing to worry about I can pray.  When I don’t feel like it, I can open my Bible.  I can slowly, daily wear out the carpet that leads to my prayer spot.  I can keep going until prayer is like breathing and God’s Word has become the place I go for my answers, without exception.

You see, disciplines are slowly grown.  There are no shortcuts or microwaved entrees when it comes to habits and character.  Eugene Peterson calls it a ‘long obedience in the same direction’.  What a beautiful description of following Jesus every minute of every day.

Because most of the time following Jesus looks somewhat ordinary.  It isn’t, of course, but its miraculousness can be hidden within our daily grind.  We get up, meet with Him, worship and commune with Him and then we cook or type or iron or change diapers or draw buildings or run companies.  And we do the same thing the next day and the next.

When small problems and troubles show up, we remind ourselves to do what we always do. When disappointment arrives, or fear or betrayal, we just do what we always do.  If something happens that we don’t understand, nothing changes.

We climb those stairs and open that window and tell God He is all we need.  We listen for His voice.  We turn our eyes away from circumstances and towards the God of promises and faithful, loving care.  We decide to believe He is good.  We allow His Word to comfort and redirect and change us.  We raise our expectations of the miraculous and flex our faith muscles.

We remind our hearts that God is very, very big and lions and kings are very small.

And then when a big crisis hits, there is no big decision to make.  It has already been made.

I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.

 

 

 

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