Let’s do lunch…

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We British have  one or two polite stock phrases readily to hand for those times when we want to say something, but don’t really have anything meaningful in mind at that moment. Apparently they are known as ‘phatic exchanges’.

‘Nice weather we’re having…’ is one, and ‘lovely day isn’t it?…’is another. Also ‘must do lunch sometime’ (when not immediately followed by an invitation), and even ‘how are you?’ is often reduced to a phatic unless we are genuinely prepared to listen to the answer.

In fact, it’s an area we can be inclined to struggle. That whole thing of finding friendly words to fill the embarrassed silence in the lift, in the queue or wherever else we happen to be momentarily stuck in the personal space of someone we don’t know well, can leave us groping for ideas.

But come the first day of December, everyone seems to leap with relieved alacrity on one more:

‘Are you ready for Christmas?’

No-one is actually really interested in whether you’ve wrapped your last present and put the final touches on the Christmas tree, whether your mince pies are made and turkey stuffed; it is simply an observation that at this time of year, all eyes tend to be focussed on the coming festivities, and an assumption is made that we’re all in the same boat, travelling in the same direction. Something to say..

Responses vary from ‘Bah, humbug’ through to a rather smug, and – depending how early in the month it is, perhaps slightly irritating –  ‘Yep… all ready!’

In the UK, recent statistics indicate that only about two thirds of people, who describe themselves as Christians, are aware that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. Which leads us to draw the conclusion that the other third of Christians must have absolutely no idea what it’s all about. (Survey conducted by the Evangelical Alliance in 2016).

Slightly worrying.

In another survey, 61% of people expressed a view that Christmas is only for children, and 18% of people expressed a feeling of dread of Christmas for a whole variety of reasons – the primary one probably being that the season brings into sharp focus how isolated and hopeless our lives often feel (ComRes on behalf of Theos).

We have turned Christmas into a noisy, expensive charade that has largely lost sight of what we’re meant to be celebrating.

Let Satan get his hands on anything wonderful and he will ruin it.

The evidence for the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem is too strong to be ignored. It happened over 2000 years ago, was documented by the Apostle, Matthew and by Luke, a Greek physician with tenacity and an eye for detail. Both are believed to have written their accounts within living memory of the actual events described. They clearly interviewed many of the people who had witnessed events first hand, and both have since been researched and investigated with the purpose of discrediting their accounts by some pretty weighty historians (A.N.Sherwin-White, Sir William Ramsay). Those who have investigated in any real depth have come to the same conclusions, the accounts of Matthew and Luke are authentic and can be relied upon as fact. Some of our most highly educated and investigative minds have been turned from atheism to profound faith by the simple act of reading the gospels with the intention of discrediting them. Ex barrister, now Anglican Priest, Nicky Gumbel and Oxford Academic and author, C.S.Lewis being two well known examples.

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Jesus Christ, God incarnate, was born in a smelly stable, and laid in a manger. In the style with which He has continued ever since – by appearing in the place we are least likely to look for our saving king.

So, before you lose the real joy of Christmas among tinsel, turkeys, mince pies, silly hats and the huge pressure to look as though you’re having a good time, remember this:

Christmas is not empty…

He won’t be seen among the pomp and the glitter, He won’t be heard among the noise and celebration unless you listen really hard. The birth of Jesus Christ brings real hope, not just for intellectuals or for the crashingly naïve, but hope for everyone, no matter who they are or what age they are.

The magic of Christmas is in the manger. Jesus’ style is gentle, meek and unassuming. His voice tends to be quiet, often felt rather than heard, and we need calm moments to stop and listen.

Or we may miss the greatest gift of all.

 

 

What are you afraid of?…

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As I was reading my Bible this morning, I read the words spoken by Jesus to His disciples in John chapter 16, verse 11: “God has already judged the ruler of this world”.

I realised with greater clarity than I’ve had before, that in populating the world, our Lord created a democracy. He created a democracy because He is a benevolent Father, who wants us to go out into the world as loved children, and return to Him because we love Him rather than because we have no choice.

Sadly, no democracy would be a democracy without other, less reputable alternatives seizing the opportunity to stand for election, and the world has chosen a more subtle, more deceptive king. One whose lies and self interest can only harm us.

But nonetheless, He was voted in, and for the moment we’re stuck with him.

He continues to be voted in by the masses, and He likes to blame the world’s problems on the previous government (familiar?). Fortunately, his rule will be temporary.

But while we live in this world, we will shutterstock_566788609all suffer in one way or another at his hands.

I have always seen myself as some kind of reluctant rebel against the Father, longing to obey, but regularly mucking things up. Now I realise that the real rebels are those of us who are living under the dominion of the earthly king, but who are fighting in our rebel army to restore our rightful King, Jesus Christ.

And that is a daily rebellion that takes bravery. Possibly more than many of us believe we could ever have.

When I look at myself and ask myself whether I am brave, I have to say the answer would be a resounding ‘NO!’.

I am pathetically wobbly when presented with such harmless individuals as slugs and snails; I avoid heights, hate deep water, go weak at the impending possibility of pain, and fly from difficult conversations or necessary confrontations at every opportunity.

But somehow, as I grow older, I’m finding that I am developing something I would call courage. It helps me to do the right thing in the heat of the moment, and it is based entirely on trust in God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I find that in moments of anxiety or fear, I need only ask for the courage to trust Him.

corrie-ten-boomCorrie Ten Boom, author of ‘The Hiding Place’, who, along with other family members, helped many Jews escape from the Nazi Holocaust during world war II, famously related a conversation that took place between her and her father when she was a little girl. “Daddy,” she had said one day, “I am afraid that I will never be strong enough to be a martyr for Jesus Christ.”
“Tell me,” said her father, “when you take a train trip from Haarlem to Amsterdam, when do I give you the money for the ticket? Three weeks before?”
“No, Daddy, you give me the money for the ticket just before we get on the train.”
“That’s right,” he replied, “and so it is with God’s strength. Our wise Father in heaven knows when you are going to need things too. Today you do not need the strength to be a martyr. But as soon as you are called upon for the honour of facing death for Jesus, He will supply the strength you need—just in time.”
It’s strange – for me, the word ‘brave’ might be associated with the young and foolhardy. I might associate it with diving off cliffs into the crashing waves below or attempting to fly with the aid of nothing more than bamboo and canvas. Bear Grylls is brave; Andrew White is brave. Or I might associate it with my mother exhorting me to “be brave” just before an injection when I was a child – I learnt to focus very hard on something else in the room as the needle went in.

If you have given your life to Christ, then you have joined the ranks of rebel warriors who are seeking to restore the world to its rightful King. You may be like me, with your own areas of wobbliness and timidity, but I would strongly encourage you that keeping your eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill you and flow through you, will ensure that you are every bit as brave as you ever need to be.

Me, brave? Never.

Learning to trust? Absolutely.

Life begins 2

Throw out the Walking Stick…

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There is a temptation to believe that God only turns up at big Christian festivals, or in buzzing charismatic churches. We really should have learned by now, that He turns up wherever He is invited – from damp prison cells to dusty pews, and from crowded shopping malls to isolated mountain tops.

Yesterday we played as part of a Sunday morning service, in a church in Kislingbury, Northampton. we were also there on Saturday evening, doing a small concert. But yesterday, the rector had kindly invited us back to hijack the Sunday morning worship. We did our normal thing – sang songs and told stories; this time, to an audience of about fifty to sixty people, most of whom had been attending one church or another in that benefice for many years.

A quiet Sunday morning service in a fourteenth century church – pews, tradition, no one under the age of fifty years and liturgy. We were happily shoehorned into the middle.

Untitled designBoth last night and today, there was a lady (we’ll call her Sue) who sat fairly near the front of the church with her husband. She told me later that she had seen an advertisement promoting our coming to the church, and on the strength of that, had decided to come.

When she got up to go forward for communion, it didn’t take any great deductive skills to work out that she was in great pain. Slowly – painfully – carefully, with a much needed walking stick.

At the end of the service I got chatting with her and her husband; I asked what the nature of her pain was; I was told it was arthritis which had started in her knee some years ago, but in the last five to six months has spread with extraordinary aggression to her hips, her shoulders and her spine. She expressed real fear about what she saw as the inevitable spread to her neck, and what that would mean.

I asked whether it would be ok for a couple of us to pray for her. She said it would, and I toddled off to find a prayer partner from the host church.

We sat with Sue and her husband, and with permission, laid hands on knees, shoulders and back.

Let’s be honest – I didn’t have any real clue what I was doing – which of us do when we pray for people, right? I did my best Robbie Dawkins or Todd White school of healing prayer. You know – ask what the pain level is at the start – in Sue’s case, seven out of ten, with ten out of ten expected when she went to bed that night – and we started to pray. We invited the Holy Spirit in and off we went.

We prayed for about ten minutes, during which I felt the heat from my hands that I’ve become familiar with when the Holy Spirit is present, and then I asked how she was doing. She said that her pain had reduced to about a three or a four. She was also tearful and expressed a feeling of huge spiritual and emotional release.

We carried on praying.

About ten minutes later, I asked how she was doing again, and was told that her pain had reduced to a two.

Now, this was all very pleasing, and we were very grateful, but my prayer partner was called away for something else, and my woefully limited patience was suspicious that we weren’t going to get any further, so we stopped and chatted. Then I asked her whether she could lift her arms, and she found to her surprise that she could.

She sat and cautiously experimented with this new activity for a moment or two, and we chatted a bit more.

Then I felt God prompting me that whilst I thought we’d finished, He didn’t think so, and we were to continue praying.

So we did.

Once again there was heat under my hand as we prayed, but much greater this time. We can’t have prayed for more than another five minutes, but when we finally finished, she was able to stand up with a lightness that took her breath away.

She stood, her face radiant

She and her husband had both connected with us on Facebook, so I was able to pick her out and contact her through Messenger later. She has been walking easily, without a stick ever since, and is praising and thanking God in no uncertain terms.

New faith, new hope, new life…

Not wishing to overstate the obvious, but so are we.

Right now I feel like the snotty nosed kid who managed to turn up on bonfire night, and someone shoved a sparkler in my hand. The fire isn’t mine, but it sure is beautiful. I am breathless, delighted and struck with astonished awe to be allowed to be there.

Thank you Loving Father.

Closer to You

Click this link to watch the Closer to You video


Ivory Towers…

Thoughts behind the song ‘That Ain’t Livin’’,  from the album ‘Fears, Secrets and Lies’.

Yesterday, stopping for an urgently needed call of nature at a motorway service station on the M4, I was assailed by a large poster of a cheerful young woman, confidently encouraging me to ‘follow the road to happiness’.

doughnut2Her ‘road to happiness’ was promised through the purchase and, presumably, consumption of an enormous box of garishly coloured, iced doughnuts. I wasn’t convinced about her sincerity.

Happiness…

Years ago, when we first moved into the rambling pile of Cotswold stone where we now live, I looked at the collection of enormous windows around the place, and realised that there was no way we would ever be able to afford to buy curtains for the number and size of them. So, on the recommendation of a neighbour, I bought a book, and set about learning to make them for myself. Her words: ‘Once you accept that the whole job has to be done by hand-sewing, then it becomes pretty straightforward.’

Over the ensuing few years, as I curtained, pelmitted and swagged my way around the house with increasing confidence, I got to know the gentleman that ran our local supplier of furnishing fabrics quite well. He had a mixed clientele, from professional curtain makers for fine country houses, down to ‘have-a-go’ amateurs like me, both rich and poor alike. I have always been struck by a reference he once made to a customer who had been into his shop earlier that morning, he said that she was ‘rolling in money’ but had been telling him that she was miserably unhappy. We exchanged sage remarks about money not being able to buy happiness and carried on with our days.

US Currency is seen in this January 30,
I have often wondered about this unfortunate lady, but can’t help feeling that if she has had to pour out her heart to the person selling her curtain fabric, then she must be lonely indeed. I don’t know her, have never knowingly met her, and have no idea as to the story she bears. I suspect that her predicament is all too common.

The media tells us that our goal of happiness will be achieved by more money, better and more sex, more expensive holidays, a faster car, a bigger and more beautiful home. We plan it all out via a more successful career with a bigger salary, the right partner, and we try to be seen with the right set of friends and circumstances.

Good parents just want their children to ‘be happy’; but, nonetheless, we take our cues from our peers and the media, and we grow up in relentless pursuit of an unforgiving set of modern day ‘gods’. We read self help books, attend courses, work too many hours in high stress jobs, and look under every rock and around every corner in the pursuit of our illusive dreams.

Or some of us just buy lottery tickets.

Somewhere down the line, we either come to the conclusion that our dreams are unachievable, or – worse – we achieve them, and discover that none of them actually holds the key to happiness. At that point, the road downhill can be a slippery one. Some move onto addictions to things that temporarily mask the pain, such as sex, shopping, sugar, drugs, gambling, alcohol or self harm. Some of us just sink into a mundane depression; waking at two a.m. with cold sweats of anxiety. We long for anything to give our lives some semblance of hope – or at the very least – meaning.

Leading on from this…

When at home, Kevin, James and I are often joined by unfamiliar faces around the dinner table, as new friends join us unexpectedly for meals. There are great conversations to be had, and we get the opportunity to learn about interesting new people from all sorts of different walks of life. On one such occasion a few months ago, we were joined by a young man from Zambia, who had moved to the UK about seven years ago, and was now about to marry an English girl he had met at his local church in London.

Faced with the possibility of a family that he loves and feels responsible for, and the difference in the cost of running a home in the UK, as opposed to running a home in Zambia, he was expressing appalled astonishment at the prospect of how he was going to make his finances work. His words: “with a mortgage, bills and everything else, we are not going to be able to live at all until we are at least fifty or sixty years old”.

But, at fifty-six years of age, at the risk of appearing glib, I feel the next few paragraphs need saying:

Looking back over my life I can see times when I didn’t know how I was going to pay for food for the week and times when I had ‘everything’; I’ve known times of abject grief and heartache and times of ecstatic delight; I’ve known a time when poor health looked as though it was going to be a major long-term issue. I’ve also known times of extreme loneliness, whilst, more recently, I’ve known times when I feel loved by my husband and accepted among a wider circle.

We can never know what tomorrow will bring…

But there has been an undeniable thread of truth throughout it all. Just as the wedding vows foretell: richer, poorer, better, worse, sickness, health – our outward pressures and circumstances can be unpredictable in the extreme.

But for me there is one constant – regardless of how swimmingly, or otherwise, the rest of my life is going – if I don’t have a daily walk with Jesus Christ, then I don’t experience the real deep joy that my soul craves.

With Him, there is comfort in every pain, peace in every heartache, life in every death.

Without Him, everything turns to noisy emptiness.

I can honestly say that if you’ve not met Jesus yet, then you ain’t living.

The World is Smaller Than You Think…

shutterstock_518692792You know those times when you’re in a restaurant where the tables are a bit close together, and the person at the next table decides that they’re going to get to know you, get involved in your conversation, and generally make a thorough nuisance of themselves? Well, I’m very sorry, but, although I try to control myself, there are times when that person on the next table has a good chance of being me.:

I promise, I mean no harm; I just like people, and I like getting to know them. Friendly, passing conversation is where community starts.

And community is the backbone of society.

But we’re all getting fewer and fewer opportunities.

A while ago, walking from our hotel to an interview with the lovely Maria Rodriguez on Woman to Woman, at Premier Christian Radio, we made the twenty minute walk using Kevin’s phone sat-nav. Not a single chance to ask anyone the way.

People rushed past, with not a chance of even the smallest bit of communication, because they were all so busy texting on their phones that no one looked up for long enough to catch their eye and exchange the most fleeting of smiles.

File 04-04-2017, 09 51 43Some of my most long standing friends are people who caught my eye, exchanged a smile with me, which, on a second time of passing, turned into a friendly word, and off the friendship went. We were designed for community. We like having friends, people we can trust. It makes the world feel a safer, smaller place.

Some of us are extroverts, and some of us are introverts, but nonetheless community is key to our children growing up healthy and happy. Without community, our country will crumple to its knees.

Which is where I’m getting to. We now have lots of nationalities in our country, and we should be learning to live side by side; our children should be going for ‘sleepovers’ in each other’s houses, learning from each other, experiencing different customs, new games and new foods. We should be going round to each other’s houses, eating together, cooking together, revelling in our differences and our similarities. I can’t wait.shutterstock_450400126 (1)

Today, walking through a particularly troubled bit of Gloucester, I saw a tall, strong-looking, young man walk out onto the pavement in front of me. He was wearing bright red trainers, cut off jeans and a brilliant red T-shirt; I took the risk, hailed him and told him that he looked fabulous…

He turned, asked me what I’d said, and then, when I repeated it, his face cracked into a blazing smile as he walked back toward me, thanking me and proffering a huge hand to be shaken.

Community starts with men and women getting together and chatting.

We shouldn’t complain about the break down of society, until each of us is prepared to risk the exchange of a friendly word with a complete stranger.

Don’t live in fear – live in the safety and security of God’s hands.

It’s a Good, Good Place To Be.

 

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More little grey boxes…

File 17-06-2016, 08 31 24 When we were in Holland just before Christmas, we were giving lots of our little grey boxes of ash away; we talked about ash being what’s left when everything else is used up and burnt out, and we told this story:

A young Jewish boy (for these purposes, we’ll call him Asher) wanted to hear Jesus speak. So he got his mother’s permission to go down to where he’d heard Jesus was going to be. His mother allowed him to go, but with strict instructions regarding the importance of being home before sunset, and how he was to be careful, stay safe and not get into trouble. She also sent him with a small packed meal of fish and bread.

He was so excited – he’d heard that this man, who performed amazing miracles and, unusually, who had time for children in a way that grown ups rarely bothered with, was not far away, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The day exceeded even Asher’s childishly optimistic expectations, and the boy sat taut with anticipation, among a huge crowd of people, each one straining to hear every word that Jesus spoke, and to miss absolutely nothing.

thAfter a day of sitting in the baking sun, there was some discussion among Jesus and his disciples about the fact that everyone present must be hungry, because they’d been there such a long time. Asher had reluctantly been deciding that he probably ought to be heading home, but now Jesus sent the disciples among the crowd to ask whether anyone had brought any food with them. Most people had nothing, but Asher’s enthusiasm took over, as he shouted out excitedly ‘I’ve got some!’.

He was called forward to present what he had to Jesus. two fishes – five loaves.

Looking around at the enormity of the crowd he suddenly felt foolish. What use could the little bit he had possibly be. Someone sniggered in the crowd, and then someone else sent a mocking remark. What on earth had possessed him to stand up and make such a fool of himself? What he had brought with him was going to go nowhere in the face of such a huge crowd of hungry people.

He hung his head as he was called forward, trying to be as small and as unnoticeable as possible as he obediently wove his way to the front of the crowd to meet Jesus. Resentful, mocking eyes were on him. One useless boy, two fishes, five loaves, five thousand people.

But then he found himself at the front of the crowd, looking into the impossibly kind, unbelievably wise eyes of Jesus Christ.

We’ve all felt like this small boy, so many times. Weak, useless and laughably ill-equipped for the task at hand.

But what Asher did next is exactly what each of us needs to do. He looked into Jesus’ eyes, and put everything he had into The Saviour’s hands. A step of faith.

And Jesus performed a miracle. Just as he will with each of us when we are ill-equipped, but are prepared to take that step of faith and hand everything over anyway.a52c69d30e26398dd210c8cf488a2d98

Score: Marketeers 0, Holy Spirit 10.

I used to be marketing director for a small design company; my job was to come up with ways to get companies and their products noticed and thought of in the best light possible. This boiled down to making their services and products look more exciting, more leading edge, better value, more attractive, effective and competitive than the opposition. It’s all about using colour, lights, noise and impact.

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We live in a world of noise – I’m not talking about juggernauts on the road outside our houses, or the noise created by extra runways in airports – I’m talking about the noise we make in order to look bigger, better, busier, more successful, richer, happier than we really are. If I read the marketing material written about Out of the Ashes, I often find myself taking a quick rein check, as I remind myself that this stuff was written by the PR department to make Kevin’s and my musical careers look bigger, better and more exciting than is probably the case.

And, of course, a quick glance at Facebook leaves us in no doubt that everyone else’s lives are busier, happier and more interesting than ours. Everyone else’s holidays are more exciting, their children are more popular, getting better exam results and learning more musical instruments than our own children, and everyone else will probably have a happier Christmas than ours will be, with more friends, more and better presents, and nicer food.

Which leads us to a look at the arrival of Jesus Christ. The biggest, most exciting, most impactful event in the history of mankind.file-05-12-2016-14-11-35

I can’t help imagining the marketing meeting in Heaven, in the run up to His birth. The marketing department will, of course, have laid on fresh coffee and pastries. Gadreel and Hadraniel, the two self appointed heads of marketing are seated around a table with God:-

Gadreel: ‘Lord, we’ve been looking at the marketing plan for Your Son arriving on earth. Can we run a few ideas past You?’

God: ‘It’s all pretty much planned, but what are your thoughts?’

Gadreel: ‘Well, we’ve got a bit of a flip chart presentation here, and some thoughts about events leading up to His arrival. Hadraniel, why don’t you show Him your ideas?’

Hadraniel: Yes, we wanted to start by taking a look at the teaser campaign. We’ve already got a lot of stuff that’s been said by the old prophets, but we thought maybe we could freshen that campaign up a bit. What do you think?’

God: ‘Yes I’m on that already. I’ve got a man called John the Baptist on the case.’

Gadreel (uncertain surprise, quickly closes the flip chart): ‘John the Baptist? Hairy chap? Lives in the desert and eats locusts?’

God: ‘That’s the one’.

Gadreel: He’s err, quite umm smelly isn’t he?

God: He’s exactly right for my purposes.

Embarrassed silence – and then:

Hadraniel: ‘OK, moving on from there. Now, we’re working on the premise that this really is the big event in all history, and therefore budget no object. Not worked up many ideas yet, but wanted to just test the waters with a few initial thoughts to run past you, just to err, as I said… test the waters. So we have some plans on light shows, a bit of pageantry, we thought maybe some angelic armies, choirs, comets, a couple of weather phenomena…’

God: ‘He’s going to be born in a stable.’

Stunned silence…

Gadreel (nervously): ‘Born? Err… Right, right, yeah. Great idea. Emperor travelling through with his entourage… no, actually I’m not really getting the ‘stable’ bit. We’re going to have to give a bit more thought to how we get the emperors wife into a stable to give birth.’

God: ‘Not an emperor actually.’

Hadraniel: ‘Oh right! Great! What… err… what did you have in mind?’

God: ‘A good man. Name of Joseph; and his fiancée Mary’.

Gadreel: ‘FIANCÉE?! You mean… not married yet? Who is this chap? Is he some king spreading it around a bit? There are some chaps of good blood who are a bit wild when they’re young, but…’

God: ‘No. He’s a carpenter from Nazareth – incidentally, you can keep the choir, I like the choir. They can sing to the shepherds on the hill’.

Hadraniel, (weakly, head in hands): ‘Shepherds?’

I could go on.

Throughout the birth, growing up, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ, He did the exact opposite of ‘bigging it up’ every single step of the way. God incarnate, who created all of Heaven and Earth – lived, died and rose again as Jesus – quiet, understated, gentle, with breathtaking humility and no attention whatsoever to a conventional marketing strategy.

For me, it’s perhaps one of the greatest marks of authenticity in the Bible – written by forty different people, over a period of 1500 years and using three original languages. Without the slightest nod to marketeers or advertising, it continues to be the number one, worldwide best seller, outstripping other books by such a long way that most lists don’t even bother to mention it, Christianity spread like wildfire from those first years after Christ’s death and continues to grow to this day in spite of oppression of one form or another in most parts of the world.

As I say, score: marketeers 0, Holy Spirit 10.

The thoughts behind our new single ‘So Silently’ from the album Fear, Secrets and Lies which was released on the 18th November 2016.