Christmas Cleanse

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I am in the middle of a serious post-Christmas cleanse. I’m not talking about any kind of detox, I mean ridding the house of all the wonderful, rich and tasty Christmas food ahead of the obligatory fresh start that is looming.

And by cleanse, I mean eat.

Be gone creamy stilton and brie (on the top of a digestive with a smattering of plum chutney). Away with you festive beverages, washing down some lovely artisan bread and seasonally flavoured dipping sauce. No more of you and your delicious ice cream Messrs Ben and Jerry!

Much like a marathon runner carb loading before a big race, I am feeding myself up, giving me just that little more weight to lose with the new regime – because in for a penny, in for a pound (or two), right? And so I am taking the opportunity afforded by Storm Frank to stay at home and commit myself to this cause like a pro. Two straight days of feasting – all for a good cause.

But it’s not only health and fitness that I am considering. (Despite what you’ve just read, I am truly considering this!) Last year I was struck by something a friend said when she spoke of asking God for a word or phrase as she went into each New Year. A few months ago another friend told me about how she and her husband prayerfully reconsidered all of their commitments afresh at the start of each year, and asked God where he wanted them to focus their time and energy in the twelve months that lay ahead.

And so rather than making any kind of new year resolutions, I am trying to take this time at the turn of the year, to both reflect on what God has done for me, in me, through me (and in spite of me) over the past twelve months, and to ask what he wants to say to me as I head into 2016. Are there things he wants me to let go of or lay down? Are there places in my life where he wants to stretch me or have me reach further? Is there an area he’s asking me to step into – a burgeoning friendship, an idea whose time has come, a new place to serve? Or is there a part of my life that needs some attention and this is the time to start working on it?

As I ponder and pray over these things I’ll write down what comes to mind and try to keep track of them through the year. Some areas in our lives need a degree of accountability if we are to change, and so I have indeed signed up to a proper health regime, handing over my cold hard cash for some guidance and people to journey with. This isn’t the obligatory January diet, but rather something I feel that God has been nudging me about for quite a while and this is the time to make a start. It fits in to the overarching challenge that I feel God has put on my heart for this year. I’ll maybe tell you a bit more about it another time – we’ll see how I go!

What about you? Is this something you already do? If so then I’d love to hear what that looks like in your life. Or perhaps this is the first time you’ve thought about this and would like to give it a go. This isn’t about getting everything in place by midnight, but rather taking the next few days to ask God what he has to say to you, things he might want to teach you, areas where he’d like to stretch you, if you’ll let him. If you need some inspiration to get you going, Anne Voskamp has a beautiful printable sheet with twelve areas to work through (along with some beautiful thoughts on this topic). For me that was a bit too much and I’ve stuck with one main theme applied to a few areas of my life, but perhaps it’ll spark some divine inspiration for you.

As you reflect on 2015 I hope that you can see God alongside you in both the triumphs and challenges, and as you ask him about the year to come I pray he’ll whisper gently, encouraging you, moulding and shaping you, guiding and directing you to become more of the person he created you to be.

Happy New Year!

Giving Thanks

The UK has been influenced by many stateside trends and habits over the years and, although Thanksgiving hasn’t been one of them (for obvious reasons),due to our increased mobility around the globe and modern technology I seem to be surrounded by Thanksgiving more than ever this year. Whether it’s American friends on social media, those from this country who hold the US dear to their hearts and have adopted the practice, or authors and bloggers sharing their plans and thoughts on the holiday, my newsfeed has been awash with all things Thanksgiving.

I love the idea of setting aside time to be grateful, and am an advocate of the benefits of gratitude. From keeping a thanksgiving journal to posting #100happydays on Instagram, I have found the deliberate practice of giving thanks to be one of the most uplifting things I can do.

The wonderful thing about gratitude is that the more you do it, the more you find to be grateful for. It’s as though you’ve learned to look for hidden treasure and once you recognise what real treasure is, you find it everywhere. The embrace of a loved one, a sunlit field of corn on an autumn morning, the innocent joy of child skipping down the road, a listening ear over a warm cup of tea.

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When we lived for a time in Jamaica one of the things that I loved most was the response that many Christian friends gave when we asked how they were.

“Giving thanks”, came the reply.

How wonderful.

That someone would summarize their entire wellbeing as an attitude of thanksgiving.

What would it mean for me to live a life ‘giving thanks’?

How would it change my perspective if, rather than grumble about what was not, I was grateful for what was? If I found ways to give thanks for the simple things, instead of yearning for the more that is just out of reach?

As I wake in the morning, what if I began the day giving thanks for the breath in my body, the warmth of the shower, the clothes on my back and the work to which I put my hand?

As my stomach rumbles in the approach to lunch, instead of wolfing down my food to stop the hunger, what if I was truly thankful for the sustenance, savouring each mouthful and enjoying the company of those who shared my table? A simple everyday lunch time could be transformed into a feast of flavours and friendship.

And what if I was to verbalise my gratitude more often, rather than just think it to myself?  Would it have an impact not just on my state of wellbeing, but on those around me? If people knew how thankful I was for their presence in my life, for their wisdom, their service, for making me smile, would they be encouraged to do those things more often and for others?

One of my favourite quotes is this one from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Each and every day is crammed full of things to be thankful for, if only we have the eyes to see them.

I want to seek them out.

To set out in the morning as an adventurer looking for that day’s treasure, coming home laden with loot from the things I’ve found. To share the joys and wonders so that others might be thankful too.

And so I begin today.

On this day of Thanksgiving I will set my alarm for every hour – a reminder to step back from my keyboard and look around. To speak words of gratitude, to those in front of me and to my Father above me. To see what I so often overlook. To find what is forgotten on every other day.

And tomorrow?

Well maybe the alarm won’t go every hour, but I think I’ll keep it for one hour of every day.

A way to begin practising what it means to live, not just a day, but a life ‘giving thanks’.

 

Speak Life

The charity that I work for has recently said goodbye to the Chief Executive who we’ve had for the last ten years. At his final staff conference during the summer, several senior members of staff paid tribute to him and something that one of them said really challenged me.

He talked of how Matthew would respond to any negative talk with the question, “How would things be different if you said that in a way that brought life?”

Ouch.

I immediately recognise times when I have responded too quickly, been overly critical, judgemental, sarcastic or simply discouraging. I remember the times when I have back-tracked, apologised or felt great regret over words that I have spoken, knowing that they have brought anything but life.

007Proverbs 15 v 4 says, “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

I know that I have crushed more than a few spirits in my time, through my careless words or ill-chosen sentiments. And I can recall what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those responses from others.

The thing that I find interesting about Matthew’s challenge however, is the suggestion that we can say all manner of things that need to be said, can speak honestly and tell the truth in difficult circumstances, but still do it in a way that allows people to flourish rather than fade. This isn’t about us all simply saying nice things to each other while thinking something entirely different, nor is it about being hypocritical. It’s an opportunity for me to bring out the best in someone with what I say, a chance for them to see things from a wider perspective, not just come around to my point of view. It’s about me taking a few moments (or even longer) before I speak and asking God how he would have me respond – taking that time to stand in the other person’s shoes and ask myself, “If I was about to hear this, how would I want it to be said?”

As a native of Northern Ireland living in Scotland, I think this is something we Celts particularly need to hear. We love a bit of banter, but it often takes the form of putting someone down. We may well claim that it’s all in jest, but it begins to form a wider culture around how we speak to people, and about them, which has more than a tinge of negativity about it.

Negativity doesn’t bring life. Instead it breeds disillusionment, discouragement, fear and self-doubt. Rather than spurring someone on to better, it makes them shrink back, second guess or even stop. It makes everyone just that bit smaller.

What if, instead, we spoke words that brought life?

Rather than disagreeing with disdain, we instead offered a different approach? As opposed to shouting someone down for the things we don’t like, we spoke only of what we appreciated in them? Rather than tearing down a person’s plans, we contributed to build something stronger and better?

I wonder what ideas are out there that have never seen the light of day because someone was put down as they began to offer it? What answers have been left unspoken because a negative environment closed down all possibility of them being breathed into life? What creativity has remained untapped because someone was told that they couldn’t, shouldn’t step forward?

The world needs every good idea it can get hold of. The people with those ideas will probably have a dozen terrible plans before then come up with the answer that works. What if they’ve become so disheartened by the response to their first twelve suggestions that they never reach the magic number 13? What if they’ve been made to feel foolish for opening their mouths? Or worse, in our Celtic eyes, become a little too precocious in their plans and schemes and so need bringing down a peg or two? Perhaps, having been brought down, they don’t climb back up. The world doesn’t ever see them shine.

Either way, we all lose.

Today, let’s find a way to harness the best of people and what they offer. Let’s disagree with grace and understanding .

Can we open our minds to hear and entertain opinions we don’t think we’ll like? Can we seek out the nugget of possibility in what’s shared and fan it into the flame of potential?

Today, can we listen and then speak in a way that brings life?

(**Thank you Matthew, for the challenge!)

Who knows my name?

I’d like to tell you about the most impressive person I’ve ever met.

His name is Chomno and he lives in Poipet, Cambodia. His story, if it was to be shared, would have Hollywood scriptwriters reaching for their pens.

They’d hear of how he lived through the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, escaping across the border into the refugee camps of Thailand. He met his wife there and, as they married, bombs rained on to the camp ruining the already simple celebration. When peace returned to his homeland they returned to the capital and began to rebuild their lives, but a trip to the border town of Poipet found him being called by God to give up everything and move there to set up a charity to serve the poor and destitute.

That’s precisely what he did, going with no great plan or financial backers, just obediently answering a call and looking to God to provide what was needed.

As I sat in the Cambodia Hope Organisation’s centre listening to Chomno’s story, after a day of seeing the extraordinary work that his organisation does, I knew that I was meeting with a hero of the faith. We joked with him about writing a book of his story, but the reality is that he’s too busy doing what he’s been called to do to worry about personal profile or who knows his name or what he’s done.

In the modern western world of constant updates, followers and selfies, it challenges me to ask ‘What if no one knew my name?’

What if the only person who saw who I was and what I do was Jesus. Would that be enough?

How often to I fall into the trap of looking for recognition in all of the wrong places? I find myself caring a little more than I should (or like to admit) about who saw/heard/read/liked what I have done.

FollowFor centuries, people have followed God’s call to serve him in the unknown or forgotten corners of the world, or the unseen and unglamorous communities of our cities. Most have gone in quiet and humble ways, counting the cost rather than the Twitter followers. The majority have never had biographies written about them, or had anyone hear of their work. No one except the only one whose opinion really counts.

Of course it’s great to be encouraged and cheered on, but what if the only chorus of praise was from heaven? What if the only ‘well done’ was from the Father? Would that be enough to keep me going? Would I keep faithfully serving at whatever I have been called to if the only eyes to see it were those of Jesus?

This week I am reminding myself to truly have that audience of one. To train my gaze away from the lure of worldly praise and focus instead on what pleases the one I get to call Abba.

The Masterpiece Within

ancient-carpenter-19515233Sometimes I think we forget the part of Jesus’ life that came before his ministry, the time he spent as a carpenter.  We know that it happened but, because it’s not the part that’s written down, we ignore it – it’s a minor footnote in his story. But it’s a part that intrigues me.

I love to see the work of artists and artisans. Watching people who can weave together intricate detail, original creativity and incredible skill to make something beautiful is something that fills me with wonder. It makes total sense to me that if Jesus was going to put in some time on earth before his ministry, it would be in a creative field. He who flung the stars into space, moulded each petal and picked out the colour palette for the oceans would surely have made some exquisite woodwork.

In our mass produced systems of today we forget that every item used in the world Jesus inhabited was handmade. Bespoke furniture would be the norm. Everything individually made to order. Time, care and attention to detail in every piece, made by a skilled craftsman. Come with me for a few moments into Jesus’ workshop. With an artist’s eye he looks at a piece of wood, rough and unevenly shaped and sees the masterpiece within. He runs his hand over a piece of timber and knows what it will take to chisel away the excess, carve out a beautiful shape and sand it to smooth perfection. He knows what type of wood is best for each different purpose. He has to hand a vast array of utensils and tools, each for a different part of the process and can use each one deftly to achieve just the right outcome and effect. After many hours of labour and patience, leaving no rough edge untended, he has his prize.

I believe that he sees me the same way.

And you.

He looks at our uneven temperament and the character traits that are bent out of shape. He sees the rough, knotted surfaces of our daily lives, the selfishness, pride and impatience, the judgement, laziness and lack of compassion, and rather than throw us on the scrap heap, he sets to work.

Because he can see the masterpiece within.

There are days I like to think I’m nearly there, that all I really need is some sanding down, smoothing out the final few bumps. I think that we’ve been working on this for a while now, Jesus and I, and I’m looking pretty good.

And then he reaches for the hammer and chisel and I know that there’s another lump to be knocked off, and it’s going to be painful and uncomfortable.

We go over the same area of stubborn resistance, working where I thought we were finished, to chip away once more at the parts that need attention. And it is indeed a process that humbles and chastens me.

But I let him work away because I trust myself to the master who can see what needs to be done. I am being fashioned into the shape that he wants me to be, regardless of how long it takes.

And as I sit in his workshop, I’m reminded that when I look at others and find myself considering all of their rough edges, their flaws and failings, that Jesus sees a masterpiece in them too.

We are all a work in progress – and the craftsman hasn’t set down his tools.

I can and I will

**GBBO Spoiler alert**

I’ll admit it now – I cried at the end of the Bake Off final this year.

But then so did Mary Berry, so I figure I’m in pretty good company.

I didn’t cry because of my sadness that it’s all over for another year, nor because of any terrible injustice over the result – because I thought that Paul and Mary got it spot on.

It was what Nadia said at the end that got me, as she stood holding her winner’s trophy.

“I am never going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say maybe. I’m never going to say I don’t think I can. I can and I will.”

What made her triumph all the more beautiful was the obvious joy and pride of her family who were there to support her. They had clearly been cheering her every step of the way, encouraging her when she was down, believing in her when she struggled to believe in herself and spurring her forward right to the end.

There’s extraordinary power in encouragement.

I am scared of heights, and have been ever since I was a little girl.

But I have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Sky Tower in Auckland and have crossed the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge on the north Antrim coast of Northern Ireland.

How has this been possible? In every case my knees were like jelly and I had that fearful quiver in my voice when I tried to speak. But on each occasion I had a friend with me to hold my hand (literally), tell me I could, or simply not take no for an answer.

On one occasion I decided to be brave and head to the top of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh – on my own. I made it up to the main part of the monument where you can walk around the edge and get such a wonderful view of the city. Scott monumentHowever there’s another bit you can ascend, in the spire-like part of the structure. I made it about three steps up when my fear stopped me and turned me around. I decided I had been brave enough for one day.

The Scott Monument is around a quarter of the height of the Eiffel Tower and about a third of the Sky Tower (very shonky maths – please don’t look it up), so why could I not get to the top?

Because I was alone.

No encouragement, no hand-holding.

No one pushing me on, telling me I could.

And it made all the difference.

Encouragement is a powerful gift.

The Acts of the Apostles and letters of the New Testament are peppered throughout with calls for us to bring encouragement to one another. Why is it so important?

Because without it we falter.

We look around at what we’re trying to achieve and wonder who the heck we think we are. We see the heights we’re trying to scale, the distance we’re reaching for, the giants we’re facing and we feel the fear.

Or perhaps we look back at the road we’ve been walking and feel disappointed with how slow the journey has been. We are tempted to give up, to just sit down where we are and call it good enough.

At each of these places encouragement makes all the difference.

It lifts us back on our feet again and sets us on our way or gives us the foot up that we need to reach the heights we’re stretching for. Encouragement brings boldness and bravery and drowns out the voice of fear. When we’ve compared ourselves to other brighter, shinier people and told ourselves that there’s no point trying, encouragement reminds us that our contribution is unique and the world needs to hear it.

Encouragement lifts our heads when they are down and strengthens our resolve when it has weakened.

It enables us to say, “I can and I will.”

Who can you encourage today?

Who needs you to be their cheerleader?

And who would like to come and hold my hand, to the very top of the Scott Monument?

All the vain things

I’ll admit it – I am easily charmed.

Fluffy bunnies, smooth advertising slogans, a well-made slice of cake, a fabulous shade of lipstick – it really doesn’t take much to win me over. If it is shiny and wonderful then I would like a piece of it.

Neither am I one for self-discipline and so I will readily capitulate to a variety of these temptations on an almost daily basis.

I remember when fragranced ironing water first came on the market. I’m sure there’s a proper name for it, but it’s basically nice smelling water to put in your steam iron instead of the regular stuff from the tap. Watching the tv advert I thought it was utterly absurd. The clothes were already clean from the washing machine, why on earth did they need extra smelly water?!

Fast forward a few days and I found myself wandering past the ‘new product special offer’ section in the supermarket and began to have a different conversation with myself.

You know sometimes the clothes may be clean, but there is still that slightly stale smell when you iron them. Perhaps you should just try it. It might be lovely. Go on, pop the bottle in the trolley. There, that was easy.

I travelled another few aisles before having another, more stern conversation with myself and returned the ironing water back to the shelf.

Please hear me – if you are a person with ironing water in your cupboard, there is no judgement here. This was one tiny luxury that I denied myself on one miraculous day. My home is filled with many other charming and unnecessary things that I have scooped up and brought home, and if you ever came and inspected my belongings (please promise me you won’t ever do that) you would be horrified by the amount of stuff that I couldn’t possibly resist.

It’s because of these quirks (surely not flaws) in my character that I’ve always found it a challenge to sing the line in the famous hymn, “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.”

Ouch.

shoppingI think we’ve established that there are many vain things in my life and I’ll confess right now that they charm me a great deal. And so I would sing that line with a slight grimace and promise the Lord that I would, yes I definitely would (or at least I’d try to) purge myself of these charms and live a more monastic and holy life.

Until recently I had never made a connection between these lines and the first two lines of this same verse.

Forbid it Lord, that I should boast

Save in the death of Christ my God.

All the vain things that charm me most

I sacrifice them to his blood.

Yes indeed forbid it Lord that I should boast, for I am British and that is most unbecoming. What’s more, as a member of a Celtic nation, boasting may see me excommunicated from my people. So Lord, I can sing this line quite easily, because boasting is vulgar and I don’t do it, really.

And then, just recently, the Lord whispered something to me in response.

What about the vain things?

Yes I know, the vain things! I’m sacrificing them.

Ok I’m not. But I’m trying.

Sometimes.

They are how you boast.

Not with words, but with things.

Everything you take more pride in, show more joy towards than me. Every time you are more concerned with how you look, or what they’ll think than you are with what I’m saying to you. When you take more care over everything external than you do with the internal, then you are boasting in something other than me.

Ah. I see it now.

I see the time and effort I put into things that have no eternal consequence. The care and attention I give to parts of my life that do not truly matter.

Those things are not necessarily wrong in and of themselves, and many of them bring me delight and pleasure. But when they take up too much space in my life and my thoughts then something is out of balance.

And so from now on I will sing this verse recognising that I boast every day in things other than Jesus and that he asks me to sacrifice my vain and shiny trinkets so that his radiance might be seen more clearly, by me and through me.

Forbid it Lord, that I should boast

Save in the death of Christ my God.

All the vain things that charm me most

I sacrifice them to his blood.