Whatever is true…

In my recent blog post ‘Guard your heart’ I considered a verse from the book of Proverbs, and pondered what I’m doing to “guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).

I have to admit that if there is one verse in the Bible that has in the past struck me as being very silly, it’s Philippians 4:8. Towards the end of his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I used to not understand this verse AT ALL and couldn’t have even begun to apply it to normal life. I mean, did this verse suggest that we’re to turn our faces away from the injustice and cruelty we see in the world, and do nothing about it? Did it imply that we should, if we’re fortunate enough to be able to, cosset ourselves in a bubble of niceness and try to forget how others suffer?

In recent months though, as I’ve begun to think about how best to ‘guard’ my heart, this verse has appeared to me in a new light. As I explained in that post, for me a big part of heart-guarding has been how I ‘feed’ my heart. Now on the face of it this could sound introspective. But it is important that we care for ourselves and feed our hearts in positive ways, and one (though not the only) reason it’s important is because as God’s church we are now his ambassadors, privileged with the task of making Jesus known in the world. And where does this task begin? In us, in our hearts! By fixing our gaze on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy, we can serve as channels for that truth, nobility etc to a needy world. The supreme embodiment of all these qualities is the living Jesus. So I don’t find, in Philippians 4:8 or anywhere else in the Bible, an excuse to steer clear of the sad, ugly, messy stuff that isn’t part of God’s design for his world. Rather, this verse is our way in to tackling it. It points us, lovingly, to the transformation that God loves to bring about in us so that we can then effect his transformation elsewhere.

Increasing what’s good for us surely goes hand in hand with reducing what’s bad for us. The opposite of true is untrue. The opposite of noble is *checks dictionary* ignoble?! Anyway, you see where I’m going! If we let negative content into our hearts, that process of transformation will of course be slowed down. It’s not that it can’t happen at all, because all things are possible for God. It’ll just take longer. And why oh why would we want it to take longer when we could live life to the full right now?!

So, we may need to break away from those things that just aren’t doing us any good. For some people this could be something quite complicated like extracting from a damaging relationship. It might involve breaking free from a bad habit or addiction. Or it might actually be those activities which masquerade as leisure pursuits but lead us into negative thinking.  For example, I mentioned that Facebook is something I have recently decided to decrease. I find some elements of Facebook very useful. In a world that offers us a bewildering array of social media to choose from, I hereby crown Facebook as the best contender for staying in touch with people I don’t see regularly! The ability to post photos is particularly brilliant in this regard, as is the Messenger function. Facebook is also an utterly brilliant medium for tracking down details of local events, and for making others aware of said events too. A couple of my communities organise themselves exclusively on Facebook (my book group, neighbours on the street where I live) so if I miss it, I miss out! And of course, let’s not forget that this blog boasts a Facebook page which is the primary means by which many readers engage with the blog. These are all good things!

However, there are some things I have seen on Facebook, while aimlessly scrolling away, that I didn’t like, and which have stayed with me in an unhelpful way. So I made the decision a couple of months ago to get Facebook working for me, rather than the other way around! I decided to skip the newsfeed, and turn on notifications or use the search function for things I DO find practically useful and/or heart-feeding. I guess the heart of the matter is that I don’t wish to allow Facebook total access to my life! If my life was a house, I’d let Facebook into this room and that room, but not every room in the house.

There is someone who deserves access to every room in my house, someone who can be trusted to feed my heart in the ways I need. I want to offer Jesus access to every room in the house! I don’t want the stuff that does me no good. I want to think about whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – anything that is excellent or praiseworthy. That’s who he is. That’s how we can progress as his disciples. That’s how his Holy Spirit can bring transformation.

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Who(se) are you?

During the last couple of weeks a particular passage from the gospels has kept cropping up in my day-to-day life. It came up at a worship event at church, on a blog I follow, in my house group, and in a chat with my lovely Dad. Sometimes it just came into my head on its own. It was a passage from John 15 – the vine and the branches.

John records some words Jesus says to his disciples about fruitfulness. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself using the “I am” metaphors – “I am the light of the world”, “I am the bread of life”, “I am the good shepherd”, and so on. Here in chapter 15 he describes himself as a vine, God the father as a gardener, and his disciples as the branches.

He uses these metaphors to show the disciples (which means not just the Galileans he hung out with during his earthly ministry but those who follow him now!) how they can bear good fruit for him. His goal for his followers in this regard might come as a very pleasant surprise! He doesn’t say “Make a list of jobs you need to do for me”. He doesn’t say “Keep thinking of new stuff you can do for me”. He doesn’t say “Wear yourself out for me”.  He simply says, like branches in the vine, we are to “remain” in him. He uses the word “remain” ten times throughout the short passage! Remain. Remain. Remain. The Greek verb is “menó” which can also be translated, as some versions of the Bible do, as “abide”. He’s asking us to stay close to him, indeed to live with him, in order to bear fruit and thus glorify God the Father.

Sometimes we can make our lives sound very task-orientated, a list of the things we do day in and day out. This is perhaps understandable if we believe that the world says we need to be defined by these things – our jobs, our charitable work, our family set-up. The world says “Make a to-do list”. The world says “Here is our organisation’s vision for 2016”. The world says “Put it in your diary”. The world says “Have two children”.

I think the trappings of the world can, if we’re not careful, easily snatch us away from the “remain in me” that is Jesus’ best for us. Maybe that’s why he says it ten times.

“What do you do?” 

This is a question that we ask, in our culture, perhaps when we’re meeting someone for the first time or talking to someone we don’t know very well yet. When I’m asked this question, I tend to reel off the various church-related ministries, school things, and family responsibilities I am involved with. I believe those roles are valuable, I believe I was created for them, I believe that they make Jesus Christ known in the world, and I do them out of love for him and for the people that are served by them – not out of duty. What’s more, provided I look to his strength (rather than my human strength) to carry out these roles, they bear fruit. “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (verse 4).

But these ministries won’t last for ever. I mean, look at verse 2 – “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful”. While we’re living here on earth, there might be times of cutting and pruning to ensure that we’re really remaining in Jesus as we serve him. And ultimately, when we go home to Jesus, we won’t take them with us. All we will bring before him is our character. All we will have left is our relationship with him.

I once heard a talk given by a very lovely church leader who is currently based in the UK but spent some time living in New Zealand. He said that when New-Zealander Christians are asked the “What do you do?” question, they don’t reply with a list of “things”. They simply say “I’m a Christian” (OK, so there are bound to be some Christians in New Zealand who respond in this way and some who don’t – but you get my point, yes? Good!) And why not respond this way?! That’s exactly who we are. That’s our identity – people who are “in Christ”. The Bible is our story just as much as it is the story of the Galileans who walked the earth two thousand years ago. Whether we work for an organisation, run an organisation, do voluntary work, bring up children or whatever, the Bible tells us we are in Christ. So we can be sure of it! We can choose to remain in him and be expectant to see what blossoms out of that.

Have a think:

  • Are you being fruitful for Jesus? Does something need to be pruned, or cut out?
  • Would you, like me, secretly love to answer “I’m a Christian” next time a stranger asks you what you do?! I dare you!


 

Guard your heart

Happy new year!

 

As I said in my last post, 2015 was a dark year for many people, and that made me pretty sad and angry. On New Year’s Day I started my Bible reading notes with Genesis 1. I’m convinced that the God who spoke creation out of darkness and chaos can bring light today, even to the darkest places.

 

It’s not a new year’s resolution as such, but as 2015 has given way to 2016, this verse from the Bible’s ancient book of Proverbs has been a good companion to me: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). I’ve been challenged that I am solely responsible for the state of my heart – nobody else is. In fact, a wise friend of mine once likened the choice to guard his heart to checking the battery in his smoke alarm at home! Ensuring that your smoke alarm will be operational in the event of a fire is something that is important to do (maybe, like me, your cooking will ensure regular bouts of beeping anyway?!). But Scripture tells us that caring for our heart is essential.

 

We may not understand our hearts, but God does – in fact, he sees right into ’em! In the Old Testament, as the prophet Samuel seeks the person whom God wants to anoint as king over Israel, God tells Samuel that “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

 

I don’t know about you, but I find that so freeing! My outward appearance and what people think of me (or what I think they think of me!) matters not a jot compared to what God knows is underneath. I guess I could respond to this verse by thinking, “Oh my goodness, but I’m such a mess inside, and God sees it all!” But that’s the whole point. It’s mind-boggling that God does see it all – and loves us anyway. Even whilst we humans were tearing ourselves, each other, and God’s beautiful world apart, he sent his son to die for us (see Romans 5:8).

 

If you’re a parent, you’ll know that if your child ever went off-track, even very very off-track, you wouldn’t love them any less would you? No. You’d love them anyway. No matter what we’ve done – and you may be reading this thinking “Yeah, but you don’t know just how bad what I’ve done is!” – still we can still return to our heavenly Dad and receive a royal welcome as his beloved children.

 

A new heart
Left to my own devices, I’m a careless lady! My default position is to sleepwalk into having “a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). What I’ve found really interesting to ponder recently though is that, when I first turned away from my bad old ways and offered my life to God, he actually gave me a new heart (see the book of Ezekiel, specifically 11:19, 18:31 and 36:26). As his new creation, I’m no longer defined by what I used to think, say or do. So, if I’ve repented of the wrong things I’ve done and yet I continue to feel their dragging weight, my feelings are lying to me. The truth is that all my rubbish has been nailed to the cross. The truth is that I am God’s child. The truth is that God will always take great delight in me.

 

What am I doing to guard my heart?
This new heart of mine is precious and cost Jesus everything. What can I do to look after it?

 

For me, ‘feeding’ my heart in the right way is the priority at the moment. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? Well, I’ve recently decided to reduce my use of social media, as the effect on me can be negative. I’ve also resolved to respond to work emails only within working hours. To lay down the urge to answer immediately, say yes, take on more and more. There are a few scriptures in particular which are breathing new life into my tired bones, and I’ll be praying them over myself and my loved ones each day, regardless of how big the laundry pile is. The next few Friday mornings won’t find me attending the commitment I normally attend on Friday mornings – I have checked and am assured that this commitment will function perfectly well without me for a few weeks whilst I attend a parenting course. I also skipped half a day’s work this week to attend an information session run by the Christian adoption/fostering charity Home for Good – I found it incredibly moving to meet the adopters and fosterers there, and to hear their stories. (Don’t expect any new additions to my family yet – just something God’s put on my heart lately through my brilliant adopting friend Desertmum – read her blog here!) The half-day’s work I missed was part of a flexible commitment anyway and will be easily caught up with at a later date. My colleague was super gracious about it and was interested to hear about the information session. Likewise, I’m sure my husband and son will be fine taking the cat to the vet without my supervision(!) in a couple of weeks whilst I attend a women’s teaching day at church.

 

If some of this sounds a little self-indulgent and responsibility-shirking, well yes, fair point. But look again. Do you see the lie I’ve believed? I’ve believed the lie that I’m indispensable, that nothing will ‘work’ without me. I care for my family, engage with my community and work hard, but I let the pendulum swing too far.

 

With God there are no musts, should or oughts. With God there is secure relationship. With God we can trust that he sees beyond human plans, that he has everything in hand already. I’m learning that none – none – of my responsibilities are as pressing as I think they are. If I take time to be still and get to know Jesus and his word better – even if other things have to be laid down, my phone ignored – I’ll return to daily life to find the world will still be turning without me.

 

And when I return l can actually be more fruitful in the areas where God has called me to serve! That’s the promise of Proverbs 4:23, isn’t it? If I guard my heart, everything I do will flow from it. That’s not a get-out clause – that’s an exhortation! Past experience, too, assures me that when I make space, I’m generally more able to hear the Spirit’s promptings and thus grow in my identity in Christ.* He wants me to know who he says I am. He longs to restore me. It’s only when I’m secure in my God-crafted identity that I can serve him – never out of fear or lack of confidence. After all – he loves me anyway.

 

What about you? Are you caring for your heart? Is there anything you could cut out – temporarily or permanently? Anything to increase? Do you test your smoke alarm by burning the dinner too?!

 

* But equally, let’s not forget that GRACE abounds – God is God, so he can still speak even in the midst of madness and chaos! I learned this in a new way when Freddie was ill in hospital a couple of years ago (he’s fine now thankfully), and perhaps you’ve found this too! I just don’t think generally we can be quite as tuned in to his voice when we’re filling our lives with frantic busyness.

There is hope

Have you ever met someone that just oozed hope?

I met two (very different) groups of such people this Advent, while reading Matthew 2:1-18 and Luke 2:8-20.

I’ll pause while you have a read…

I enjoyed meeting the three Magi, traditionally ‘wise men’, in Matthew’s gospel. They had studied the night sky and the holy scriptures for years. I can’t imagine how exciting that moment must have been when they realised that Micah’s prophecy and the movement of the stars were both coming together! Then they must have travelled for miles. They had the openness and integrity to explain what they were doing to King Herod and the leaders in Jerusalem – and the discernment to steer clear when God showed them that these people were not in fact to be trusted. They were led to Jesus, which is where I want to be led too. They were ‘overjoyed’ (verse 10) when they found him. These were people of really dogged faith and hope. I think they’re great!

Is the wise men’s studiousness and knowledge an ingredient of their success in finding Jesus? Maybe for them, but Luke’s account of the shepherds shows this won’t be the case for all of us. The humble shepherds show the same beautiful, persistent hope as the wise men as they rush to Bethlehem to meet Jesus after hearing of his birth from an angel. So our level of education or material wealth has no bearing on our opportunity to enjoy the hope of the gospels! We see that good news travels fast as they start telling everyone around of the mind-boggling thing that has happened to them. The experience results in them ‘glorifying and praising God’ (verse 20). I think the shepherds are great too!

Hope v hate

Another character in Matthew’s account couldn’t be more different from the hopeful wise men and shepherds. I would find this person much, much harder to love! King Herod of Judea is a power-hungry, corrupt leader whose jealousy of the newborn king and fury at being outwitted by the wise men will result in the infanticide of all boys aged under two in Bethlehem, an act that is commonly referred to as ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ (see verses 16-18). If hope is a firm foundation that bears good fruit, hatred seems to be its corrosive opposite that bears appallingly violent, inhumane fruit.

This Christmas, I’m saying ‘no’ to the hatred of Herod and ‘yes’ to the hope of the wise men and shepherds. This year my emotional health has been tested by the modern ‘Herods’ and haters of our world, by the cruelty and barbarism they display among the most vulnerable. And I am sick of it. There is a better story, and I am going to re-commit myself to paying attention. Will you join me?

There is hope in an astronomer devoting his life to studying the night sky and then stepping out in faith and in sacrificial generosity.

There is hope in a humble, probably despised group of shepherds being the first people chosen to spread the word about the birth of Jesus.

There is hope in a God who makes himself ‘nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Philippians 2:7).

There is hope in the lives of those who live all this out today. I’m so privileged to count such people among my friends and colleagues. I love you all!

As the actions of the wise men and shepherds show, my choice to walk in hope will involve some perseverance on my part. It won’t always be easy. For one thing, I am called to love the unlovable Herods, to stop writing them off as being beyond the reach of hope. For me, I suspect this will be a significant learning curve in 2016 and beyond. For you, it might be something else!

But what is the result of following?

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

Joy, peace and hope. Sounds good to me.

Thank you for following this blog. I wish all blog readers a peaceful and blessed Christmas. See you in 2016! 

Down to such a world as this

School photo day – we survived!

Copyright Free

Dull preparations such as hair-cutting and ironing were plodded through. The one school-branded jumper I had bought was located amongst the pile of plain ones. And thankfully, during the window of time between me dropping Freddie off at school and the photographer snapping away, my son did not get felt-tip pen on his clothing or face. (How do Year Ones do that?!)

Against all the odds we now have a decent photo to adorn the wall and to serve as a Christmas present for relatives. Phew!

Over recent days, as this photo has smiled out at me, I have been excited to be getting ready for Advent, the time in the church calendar when Christians prepare their hearts for celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. One of the things I will be doing to prepare my heart is listening to recordings of carols sung by the choral scholars at Cambridge University (oh OK, I admit it, I have been known to listen to this album in the middle of July too!)

This year I have been particularly struck by the words of the nineteenth-century carol “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” – you can listen to it here. The writer of the lyrics, Edward Caswall, describes an amazing event found in the New Testament. God has appeared “on earth below”. “He who built the starry skies” is now lying in an animals’ feeding manger, a human child like the one in the photo above. This mind-boggling event should not surprise us, as it is something “promised from eternal years” (see the prophecies of the Old Testament – Isaiah 9:1-7, for example). God made a promise and kept it – a child is born. Jesus is both fully human and fully God. Caswall comments:

“Sacred infant, all divine,

What a tender love was thine,

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.”

Such a world as this.

The child in the school picture has been born into a scary world. Vile things happen to little children like him. I long to protect him. If I want to, I can paper over the cracks with Santa and tinsel, try to hide the nasties from him.

But I am grateful to have something truly earth-shattering to share with him. I am grateful that, although I am powerless to rescue my son from “the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1), I know the one who can.

Jesus Christ knows how imperfect this world is – because he stepped into it after we had messed it up. More than that, he stepped into a particularly grim part of it, born like many children as a refugee, homeless and unwelcome. The light of the world chose to step down into that darkness. “Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Spiritual junk

I am a real horror for tidying up.

I don’t mean I don’t do it – that’s the problem. I wish I could be so relaxed! People who go to bed leaving a few papers lying about – I want to be like you. The trouble with me is an unhealthy degree of tidying. Everything has a place, and if it doesn’t, well, its membership of my orderly little household will be seriously questioned.

Being like this can have grave implications for relationships with those you share a living space with. I don’t think my husband (who is a normal person, not a weirdo like me!) will ever completely recover from the time when I recycled absolutely all the information relating to the purchase of his iPad. Especially not on the day it broke. And it’s sad that his penchant for storing vodka in the freezer didn’t survive my last rampant episode of defrosting (oops). My poor son has swiftly found out that it’s important to try and handle all your toys at least once every, ooh, five minutes or so, otherwise there’s a very real danger that they will be diverted to the charity shop down the road. I think I have mentioned before on this blog that his first word was ‘tidy’. Oh dear.

Such has been my desire to organise and clear out that I have even been known to buy things new again when it’s turned out that, er, actually, keeping them somewhere safe might not have been such a terrible idea after all. Suffice to say, I’m a pretty chronic case when it comes to tidiness!

But my spiritual life is different.

Sometimes, people who know what my house looks like seem to assume that my spiritual life must be the same. Well, yes, that’s understandable. If I’m prepared to spend a day clearing out the loft while pregnant, and can’t get to sleep knowing the washing-up hasn’t been done, then surely the same criteria must apply to my relationship with God?

Surely I must be the kind of Christian who starts each day by dedicating it to the Lord? Actually no, the first thing I usually do is look at my iPhone. 

The kind of Christian who draws comfort from his word? But first, I’ll draw comfort from the knowledge that the clean laundry has been neatly folded and put away.

Who instantly holds captive every thought that isn’t from him? Who lays down fears and worries at the foot of the cross – as I have a blood-bought right to do? No, I still turn over and over in my mind the image of my newborn baby being inexplicably taken away to an incubator while I remained on the ward with the other mothers and babies all night.

Why oh why do I clear out my loved ones’ belongings without clearing out my own spiritual junk?!

Now before we go any further I must point out that I’m very grateful for grace. If our salvation depended on following the rhythms of organised religion – churchgoing, Bible-reading, being part of a home group – what would be the point even trying?! I also want to point out that however hard we try we cannot change the past. Many readers will have experienced very dark things. But what we do have is a future.

For me, the past has been made much more manageable by my decision to join a church community (actually what has really made the past manageable has been my decision to place my hope in Jesus, but the two things happened at the same time!). One friend in particular within that church community, someone who has been following Jesus for about 30 years, talks a lot in our home group about getting rid of things that ‘get in the way’ of the abundant life Jesus offers. I think I am starting to see what she means and why it is so important to her. God gave us us the very best thing he had, his son, who died instead of us and then rose to life again. By the power of his spirit he speaks today, he heals today, and he wants to walk intimately with each of us. Even better, it works both ways. He loves us too much to let us cling onto our trash. He wants to give us a crown of beauty in exchange for our ashes – but we do need to give him the ashes first!

I am convinced that a time of clearing out rubbish is well overdue. But it’s not necessarily the bin bags of junk in the loft that require attention – and despite what I have told myself in the past, getting rid of them won’t make me feel better about any of my painful memories. Perhaps it’s actually the non-physical things that desperately need to be laid down so that we can just sit quietly at Jesus’ feet. Sit quietly enough that we’ll hear him whisper, ‘You don’t need that old baggage any more, sweetheart – give it to me.’ So that we can see, through an uncluttered lens, that we are ‘rooted and established in love’. That we don’t need to do anything to earn love. That as far as our creator is concerned, we are royalty. That we can be secure in that knowledge alone.

Beautiful feet

I’m over at the Besom in York today, blogging about good news (and my beautiful feet!). Why not come with me…

The Besom in York

carpet

This week Izzy Pysanczyn, one of our assessors, reflects on being able to share God’s grace.

I sat on a bench on the edge of a housing estate on a glorious autumn day and cast my eye over the assessment form in my hand. The person whose needs I was about to assess on behalf of the Besom in York had evidently not been having an easy time in life.

As soon as I walked through the door of their home it became apparent that all was not well. The living conditions were a major indicator of this, but more so was the fear and sorrow in the eyes of this potential recipient of help from the Besom. Two other support workers were present at the property, clearly very busy working through a morass of complex issues with the recipient. The recipient seemed suspicious of me, this new arrival. What bad…

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