Choose life

One of the greatest teachers I ever had was a lady called Mrs McGuinness who taught me English Literature. She was the person who gave me a love of books and stories like no one had ever done before. If it wasn’t for her I may never have taken English at A-level or indeed for my degree, and perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting writing this now!

But she also told us something else that has remained fixed in my mind. At first it doesn’t seem very profound, but this morning it’s come back to me with a freshness that I so needed to hear.

The school I attended was a grammar school in Northern Ireland, and so once you got to A-levels there was an academic expectation built in to everything that happened. It was understood that you would/should go to university and so the focus in sixth form was constantly around study and exams and achievement. At the time it didn’t feel like unusual pressure because it was just how things were. All teachers ever spoke to you about was your revision timetable and past papers. Inevitably there were more than a few moments when we’d all get very stressed about this great moment of history that was coming our way, this fork in the road where our whole future hinged entirely on how many hours of study I put in that night.

It was during one of these frantic end-of-lesson discussions with Mrs. McGuinness that she said something that no other teacher had ever dared to suggest. She said that studying wasn’t the be all and end all. That regardless of what happened in our exams the sun would still set and rise again tomorrow. And that you really couldn’t study every hour that God gave you – at some point you had to pause and walk away from the books and do something that made you happy, however simple.

It was like a breath of fresh air had just blown into the room.

At the time it felt like permission to relieve the tension and expectation of the academic atmosphere, but over time I’ve come to realise that she gave us a huge life lesson, one which I need to remind myself of every now and then.

Because pressures and expectations don’t go away when you’ve finished studying. Throughout your life there will be wave after wave of them, coming from all directions – parents, peers, bosses, church, culture, not to mention your own voice telling you what you really should be doing. We so often get ourselves to the point where we tie ourselves in knots of stress and exhaustion because we are on the treadmill of fulfilling expectations.

Stop.

Right now just stop for a moment, and ask yourself this question. What would give me life right now? What is the thing that my soul craves? Where will I find peace, even for fifteen minutes?

Now go and do that thing.

But I can’t because there are all these things I have to do, I have a list the length of my arm, I’m spinning all these plates and I just can’t stop.

Oh but you can.

Guess what?

A plate might fall. Let it.

You might disappoint some people. They’ll live.

Your list will still be there later, or tomorrow – or next week.

But here’s what you’ll gain: Life!

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And peace and joy and rest.

There’s a Chinese proverb that says “He who takes time to sharpen his sword does not rob his employer.” For you to be the best version of you for the world around you, for you to give of your best to your family, your work, your friends – you need to choose what gives you life, at least once in a while.

When the psalmist talks about the Lord leading us beside quiet waters and restoring our souls, it’s tempting to think that the only thing this looks like is sitting quietly in a room with our Bibles open. But I’m not so sure that’s accurate. Because He made you and knows what makes you tick. He knows what will drain you and what will restore you. And he will meet you in a salsa class as well as in a church service. He can restore you through a trip to the cinema as well as a retreat centre. He can refresh you as you play your guitar, or paint or garden.

He knows what gives you life and He’ll meet you in that place.

But first you have to be willing to set aside the lists and the expectations, to leave things undone and to make time and space to get there.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

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I don’t know what kind of day Theodore Roosevelt was having when he said this, or who he might have been suffering in comparison to (who do you compare yourself to when you’re a president!), but he was bang on the money.

Eventually, after many years of allowing Jesus to gently show me how he sees me, I don’t cripple myself with comparison too often.

But the devil is a cunning character and he’ll keep his eye on your Achilles heel waiting for the moment you’ve left it undefended too long, then in he’ll sneak with his whispering lies and distortion.

Last weekend, while attending an event with my work, I came into contact with a couple of my peers who I immediately placed myself in comparison with. They were considerably bigger players in this weird Christian world that we swim in, and so the enemy came nipping at my heels with his snide accusations.

“What have you done in comparison to her? Look at what she’s achieved. You’re still coming in second best, as always.”

Even though I now recognise these lies for what they are, in a weak moment they can still take the legs out from underneath me. I spent the morning feeling insecure and uncertain of myself, and generally pretty rubbish.

Thank goodness for Jesus.

Once again he came and lifted my eyes, reminded me of who I am in him, and revealed to me afresh the things in my past that the enemy has taken and bent out of shape, until they resemble something they never really were. It takes my Saviour to sweep away the cobwebs and dirt that have gathered after years of falsehoods, to reveal the beauty and truth that lies beneath and to restore my sense of who I am.

Once I am back in the arms of Jesus, comparison is set aside and joy returns. I can worship because I am unique, fearfully and wonderfully made, just like my peers standing before me. I can rejoice once more in them and in the amazing ways in which God is using them for his Kingdom purposes. Rather than hold back in my vulnerability, I can step forward and cheer them on, standing safe and secure in my identity.

Comparison not only steals joy, but encouragement, positivity and warmth. Comparison diminishes me and you and places a roadblock between us – everyone loses. I see so clearly why the enemy uses it so often. It holds us back from stepping into the fullness of who we were created to be, and brings animosity where they could be harmony and unity.

My moment of comparison last weekend was unpleasant, but it served as a rich reminder of all that can be stolen away when we set ourselves against others. And it allowed Jesus to remind me that his words over me are my true identity, and as such I suffer in comparison to no one.

Pay Attention

Just before the turn of the year I wrote about how I was asking God to speak into this year ahead and if there was anything he wanted to say to me as I entered 2016. Among a couple of other things, the words I received were Pay Attention! And in true God-style, he then set about backing up that message in other places in my life.

Shortly after the New Year began, I read this quote by Lysa TerKeurst which stopped me in my tracks:

“We want big direction signs from God – God just wants us to pay attention.”

For the last few years, my husband and I have had some fairly major, ongoing prayer requests concerning big future life stuff and difficult circumstances. What I’ve come to realise is, when you’re in that place of having huge imposing situations dominate your prayer life, and your eyes are always on the horizon of what you’re praying to come into being, you can so easily take your eyes off today and what God would have you do in the now.

The truth is, I don’t know if I have tomorrow, let alone next week or next year. None of us do. We have been gifted today, crammed full of moments when God wants to speak to us, use us, show us things about himself, ourselves and the wonderful world around us. But if our eyes are always gazing into the distance, our prayers always asking about the things that are not yet, we miss the opportunities that God has set before us each and every day.

God had clearly already been trying to get my attention about this even before I had this revelation in December. A few weeks ago I found a piece of paper that I had tucked away in a Bible or a diary, as a prompt and reminder to myself for each day. Can you guess what it said?

“Father show me your priorities for what I should do today. Spirit prompt me to leave things undone so that I can pay attention to the things you want me to do.”

So it seems that I am someone who regularly takes their eye off the ball and needs many reminders about the same message before it really starts to sink in! In fact only this morning, I read these words from the gospel of Matthew in the Message translation:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Message received (pardon the pun).

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It makes me wonder about how much I might have missed. How many times have I been so focussed on things I cannot change that I’ve missed the thing right in front of me where I could have made a difference? How many times has God tried to say to me, “That thing you’re praying about for three months times, I’ve got it covered – but there’s something I’d like you to do today.” How many times have I been so busy talking to God about the concerns of my heart that I haven’t kept quiet long enough to hear the concerns of his?

 

For someone who is a future-thinker, day-dreamer and a bit of an internal processor, my mind can so easily be anywhere but the here and now. But the here and now is where God has placed me. In this home, this community, this workplace and surrounded by these family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues. He has given me today, rich in Kingdom potential and possibility, if I choose to pay attention and see it.

There are still big prayer requests in my life, and of course I’m going to keep talking to God about them, but I’m more determined than ever to trust him with tomorrow so that I can pay attention to today.

Sometimes the darkness wins

I’m sorry if this offends you, makes you uncomfortable or leads you to believe that I have terrible theology – but I think it’s true.

We just don’t like to admit it or talk about it.

Please understand, I believe whole-heartedly in an almighty and good God, whose love and transformational power can reach into even the most desperate of circumstances and bring healing and hope where there has been pain and despair. There is no situation beyond the touch of Jesus. But we live in the now and not yet of his kingdom and so sometimes, for whatever reasons, our prayers are not answered, the healing does not come and darkness wins.

Yes I know that in the big picture we are on the side of victory, that our hope is in heaven and our loving Father can bring all kinds of redemption from the worst of circumstances – but in the moments of pain and confusion, sitting in the darkness of loss, grief and unanswered questions, what we need most is company rather than cliche.

Lonely Man

I recently prayed with someone who had walked through a season in the valley of the shadow of death. After we had finished her main comment was to thank us for not offering a nice Bible verse or supposedly comforting Christian platitude. I’ve been on the receiving end of those myself, and rather than bring comfort or peace, they have left me feeling like a child who’s been given a dismissive pat on the head rather than a warm, healing embrace.

The Bible tells us that we are to “weep with those who weep”, but how often do we actually do that? Allow ourselves to really enter into another’s pain, sit with them in the confusion and keep them company in the darkness? That’s costly and uncomfortable, and perhaps challenges our safe and tidy Christian worldview. We struggle for something to say and dislike the silence, the loose threads – and so rather than feel any of that discomfort we reach instead for our favourite ‘helpful’ verse, like tossing a rubber ring to one who is struggling to stay afloat in stormy seas, and then walk away thinking that our bit is done.

Of course there are times when we need good friends to remind us of Biblical truths that we have lost sight of in the midst of the storm, when we need others to help carry our faith for a time when life has worn us down and waves of despair threaten to overwhelm us. But in my experience, we only win the right to do that in deep relationship and after having sat alongside for a while in the dark.

And so I am ready to accept that we live in a broken, wounded world and, although Jesus has won the war, sometimes the darkness wins the battle. Jesus will bring his hope and transformation when the time is right – my role, when I encounter someone in that place, is to say nothing more than “I’m so sorry. Can I sit with you awhile?”

Away in a Manger

This is a reflection that I have written for Tearfund Scotland’s resource Safe Refuge at Christmas . It includes some beautiful films, prayer ideas and ways to give to the Middle East Appeal.

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A mother’s instinct, the same throughout the centuries – to protect her child.

To give him the best that she can.

How did Mary feel, laying her precious one in the rough wood of a cattle manger?

No extended family for comfort, support or advice.

“No room here. Nor here. You’ll have to move on. Try over there.”

As she gazed at her son sleeping in the hay, did she whisper an apology to him; that she had hoped for something different?

When Joseph told her of his dream, and urged her to gather the child and come quickly, what fears filled her heart?

The stars in the bright sky shone as they fled across borders into foreign lands, looking over their shoulders, wondering when they would see home again.

This Son of God, born into the most humble of circumstances.

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A father’s instinct, the same throughout the centuries – to protect his child.

To give him the best he can.

How did Abdullah Kurdi feel, watching his young sons sleep in war torn Damascus?

As they fled to Turkey with no extended family for comfort, support or advice.

Trying to find a way to support his family.

“No room here. Nor here. You’ll have to move on. Try over there.”

As he gazed at little Aylan, sleeping in a makeshift bed, did he whisper an apology to him; that he had hoped for something different?

When he told his wife to gather the children and together they boarded a boat for Greece, what fears filled his heart?

The stars in the bright sky shone as they tried to flee across borders and oceans, looking over their shoulders, wondering when they would see home again. Hoping they might reach land again.

These children of God, born into the most humble and difficult of circumstances.

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You had nowhere to lay your head Lord, and neither did they.

Neither do so many.

Be near them, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay close by them.

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and grant that we might do the same.

 

Safe Refuge at Christmas

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 preacher you probably won’t meet this summer

It’s summer festival season in the Christian world. I have just finished working at one and will shortly be heading to another. Up and down the land we will gather together in muddy fields to worship and hear speakers who have been brought in representing all kinds of churches and ministries, from across the country and around the world. We’ll all have a great time worshipping Jesus in our wellies and being inspired by some good teaching.

But there’s something bothering me. In fact it’s been bothering me for a while now.

The people we invite to speak at our festivals, events and conferences have indeed got something to say. But let’s be honest, they aren’t just there because of how they can preach. They are there because they’ll sell tickets. They have written books, have oodles of Twitter followers or lead the latest exciting and growing ministry to have grabbed our attention. And so we’ll deem them worthy of our attention and the ticket price.

Don’t get me wrong. None of those things in and of themselves are wrong. And I have been someone who has helped to plan conferences and weighed up who we think are good speakers with something to say, and who people will actually come to hear – because they aren’t always the same thing. But what about the people who are living out faith in the obscure, out-of-the-way places? Those who haven’t written books or blogs, have never heard of Twitter but have stories to tell that would humble us, teach us and leave us hungering for more of Jesus?

Last summer I met one such man. He probably won’t ever be asked to speak on a main stage or platform at one of our gatherings, so I’ll tell you about him now and the impact he had on me.

I met Pastor Timothy in Poipet, Cambodia, where he serves within a ministry called the Cambodia Hope Organisation (CHO). He is a small man with a big personality and an even bigger smile. He works with the tiny house churches dotted around the countryside, teaching and encouraging them, discipling new believers and singing songs about Jesus with the children. I’ve never met a man more full of the joy of the Lord.

Cambodia’s history has been a troubled one. During the mid-late 1970s the Khmer Rouge regime, under dictator Pol Pot, brutalised the country working millions to death in the Killing Fields and murdering thousands more. The young and fragile Cambodian church was decimated and remains small to this day.

Just before we went out to Cambodia two of the Khmer Rouge leadership had finally been found guilty of crimes against humanity in UN backed court proceedings and had been sentenced to life imprisonment. As we travelled out, we wondered what kind of impact this ruling would have on the people we would meet. Would it bring a long-awaited sense of justice or some kind of closure? Would there be a moment when it would be appropriate for us to ask?

One evening as I sat with Pastor Timothy at dinner the topic came up. Here was a man who had lived through his country’s darkest hour and had family members killed because of this murderous regime. How did he feel about two of its top guard being held to account for their actions? What he said next simply floored me.

He said that the Bible tells us that no one deserves heaven, but even the thief on the cross had the opportunity to respond to Jesus and be forgiven. His only concern for these men was that they should hear the good news about Christ and have the opportunity to respond.

I was speechless.

Even now as I write this, almost a year later, I am moved and challenged in a way that brings me close to tears.

What’s more, after a few moments, as the conversation moved on, Pastor Timothy was asking us to send people who could teach them more from the Bible as they were so eager to learn and knew that they needed input from people who had studied the Word and could pass on that knowledge. In my heart I wondered if there was truly anything more that anyone could really teach him. He had already grasped the outrageousness of grace and forgiveness in a way that many of us never will.

Pastor Timothy was one of several people I met on that trip whose lives and witness have stayed with me. As I left Cambodia, challenged and inspired, I reflected on the many heroes of the faith there must be, hidden around the world, following Jesus in extraordinary ways and ushering in His Kingdom in some very dark and forgotten places. How many of us could be taught something profound from their lives and example if we ever heard their stories?

One or two of them might make it to one of our conferences this summer.  But if they do they will probably be tucked away in a seminar tent, during an early morning slot or up against some much sexier topic in the programme and so will speak to twenty people.  So if you’re going to a Christian festival or event this summer, please do have an amazing time and I hope that the main speakers will bless you with their teaching and that it is a place of growth and restoration for you.

But do yourself a favour and look closely at the programme to see if there might be some hidden stories waiting for you to find. They might just be from the most impactful people you ever hear.

(Pastor Timothy having his first taste of Scottish shortbread!)045