Tag Archive | Christ

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.

Come on! Jump! …

One of my favourite games, when my son James was small, was to get him to jump, or ‘tip off’ small distances, from a chair, table, side of a swimming pool, in fact, anywhere a little bit higher than me, so that I could catch him. It is a delightful game of trust, that has been played by parents, with their children, down through the entire history of parenthood.

Tip off.jpgInitially, the risk taken by the child is small, as they tip gently, on much coaxing, into our outstretched hands. But gradually, as their confidence grows, they will leap with abandon from all sorts of inappropriate places, leaving us begging that they would ‘Please!! Check that I’m looking before you jump!’.
I remember the first time that God asked me to do something that involved an element of perceived risk on my part. I was attending church, about half way through a service, and I felt that I was being prompted to go up to a complete stranger and give her a ‘word of knowledge’. I was to tell her that God knew how excluded and isolated she felt, and that He wanted her to know how precious she was to Him, that He wanted her to ‘come in from the cold’, and to learn just how loved and wanted she was.

I was terrified. One of my biggest fears has always been about making a fool of myself, and sticking my neck out to speak where my words might be wholly unwanted absolutely terrified me. As the service came to a close, I had asked for all sorts of confirmations that I really had heard His voice, and wasn’t just inventing the instruction in my fanciful head; I made all kinds of excuses as to why I shouldn’t do it and I worked hard in my mind to ignore the persistent voice, sending me where I didn’t want to go.

But hard as I tried, the prompting wouldn’t go away.

In desperation, I asked the Lord to get the young woman to look as though she was waiting for someone to speak to her, and to give me an easy opportunity to go and talk to her. Ultimately, I knew that the persistent urging wasn’t going to go away, and I didn’t like the idea of going home with the knowledge that I hadn’t passed on an important message.shutterstock_377273392

Obeying the call felt like jumping off a cliff to certain disaster; but watching her face light up, hearing her tell me of her broken relationship, struggle as a single parent, and how she’d come to church that night, not really expecting to be welcomed – and then, her joy at being given that message at the end of the service, was, for me, like being caught in a safe, loving embrace just as I reached terminal velocity.

I don’t know whether I was put there for her that night, to bring comfort and love, or whether she was put there for me to start growing my embryonic faith. All I do know is that the joy resulting from that little step of faith, and other moments like it as my life has progressed, is joy quite unlike anything else I have ever experienced.

Since then, I’ve been encouraged to take all sorts of ‘risks’, in terms of saying or doing things, and thus being God’s hands here on earth. I have often persisted in that same initial reluctance, followed by a rather wobbly step of faith; I now realise that the best way to become sure of God is by taking those very moves into unknown territory, where He gets the opportunity to back us up, and thus enables us to do amazing things. My faith continues to grow.

Each time that we tip off the table into His arms, our bond of trust grows and flourishes in the certainty of His love, until, eventually, like Todd White, Robbie Dawkins and Jackie Pullinger, among numerous others throughout history, we learn to take giant leaps of faith across the craggy rocks of life, and we become mighty warriors in Jesus Christ.

The story behind our single ‘Tip Off The Table’ from the album Fear, Secrets and Lies due out 18th November 2016.

Grief…

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I’ve talked about grief before. The grinding, end-of-world kind of grief that shatters lives. No promises are made to contrary – the one thing we can all know is that there will be pain,, hardship, suffering. The best we can hope for is that we might be spared it for long enough to reach our adult years unscathed…

But all too often, that’s not the way it goes; recently, I attended the funeral of a friend who had died suddenly while on a kite surfing holiday in Morocco. Apparently he’d just sat down on the beach at the end of a fabulous day of doing what he loved, had a massive heart attack and was found dead some time afterwards. The funeral was a heartbreaking exposure of the grief of his much loved wife and their three teenage children.

In the crematorium and at the reception afterwards, there was one word hanging over us all, often unspoken, but, none-the-less ever present… ‘why?’

Why do our loved ones get taken at what, so often, seems to be the peak of their life?

To the best of our knowledge, my friend was healthy and had everything to live for; he had been vibrant with energy and zest for living. He was loved and needed.

shutterstock_182053358Among his friends and family, the question ‘why?’ was followed by largely unspoken accusations against the capricious God who had stolen their loved one away without just cause or warning; others saw it as unwelcome proof of the absence of a god at all.

As a Christian, those that know me, and know my reliance on Jesus Christ, will at some point ask me all the questions and point some of the accusations that they are burdened with in my direction. I have no answers except this…

Along with all the much wiser people who have gone before me, I have no explanations for suffering and the brutalities of loss. All I know is that Jesus Christ never claimed, for one moment, that a life in His presence would be a life unburdened by hardship (John 16 v33), though He did promise to bring us comfort to help us bear it all (Matthew 11 v28).

And of one thing, I’m absolutely sure – I wouldn’t want to go through any of the pain that I see in my friend’s family – and that, at other times, I’ve experienced in my own – without Jesus by my side, bringing me comfort, lighting my way, and making my feet more secure on the craggy rocks of life.

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Little grey boxes

young penny.jpgI was one of those kids who chatter a lot. My family called it waffling, and my brother would make a hand signal of fingers and thumb being opened and shut together like a barking dog whenever I was caught in the act of talking too much. Which was most of the time.

I was taller than everyone else, and I had size 8 feet, which I hated; I wanted to be cute and charming like my gorgeous elder sister, who everyone adored. Instead, in my eyes, I was big and noisy and grotesque.

I used to try to become what it seemed the world demanded of me, by attempting what I call personality surgery; I would practice being quiet, considered, obedient, with a tinkling laugh, which would only be heard at appropriate times. My quiet obedience came across as sulkiness, and anyway I couldn’t maintain any of it for more than ten minutes.

bullying.jpgWe so need encouragement and affirmation. Our children grow up riddled with self doubt – not because we don’t love them – but because, among their peers in the school playground, and among their siblings, they probably receive criticism at a ratio of about ten to one over the amount of encouragement they get. What we actually need, to grow up healthy and confident, would be the reverse of that.

It took the intervention of Jesus Christ to change my self view, and here I am in my middle fifties, stumbling on a realisation that takes my breath away: all those things I learnt to hate about myself – my habit of just saying what came out of my mouth before engaging my brain, my sharp sense of humour (kinder friends call it wit), and lots of other things that have dogged me since childhood – have been coupled together with all the things that I just thought were useless – such as my ability to write little ditties and poetry, to sing, to chat to all and sundry and tell stories – have become the very things that, under God’s grace, He uses as the Out of the Ashes ministry develops.

So, whenever we do a public event now, you will find that we have little grey boxes of ash to give away. They are a reminder that, just like St Paul, who had a thorn in the flesh that he repeatedly pleaded for God to release him from (2Corinthians Ch 12:7), so it is with us – when we totally hand ourselves over to God, when we offer ourselves to be used for His purposes, He will take the very stuff that we thought was too old and used up, too disabled, too damaged, or simply too pointless, and He will use and bless every last bit of it, in the breathless wonder of His plan.

His strength through our weakness.

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Meeting Aunt Rose

Rose was an ageing friend of the family who I never got to meet. Up until I was about ten years old, there would be presents from Rose, every Christmas, for my two sisters, my brother and myself. Nothing big, but dutifully chosen every year, reliable as rainfall. Until she died…IMG_1161 (3).JPG

I never saw a photograph of her, but I used to picture her with sensible old-lady-shoes and thin, knobbly ankles, in a printed cotton dress and a pink hand knitted cardigan. Don’t ask me why I imagined her like that, it’s just the way it was. I knew she existed, because I had to write a ’thank you’ letter to her every January – but that was where our relationship ended.

Distant, unknowable and would probably have liked more contact from me had it ever been offered.

And now, having regularly said that I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a Christian, I realise that up until I was about fifteen years old, in spite of calling myself ’a Christian’, my relationship with God bore remarkable similarities to the one I had with Aunt Rose. I was pretty sure that he existed – with a fairly classic image – old man, long white hair and long white beard, blue ankle length gown, sandals and staff – a kind of Gandalf with a throne and lots of angels. .

GODI also had definite experiences of His presence in times of dire need; I had some comprehension as to the nature of faith, and I liked what I knew.

But, if I’m honest, I didn’t really ’get’ why Jesus had died, or that Jesus IS God, and what that meant to me. I found Good Friday thoroughly moving, without ever experiencing the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday was about chocolate eggs.

What a muddle.

And if I hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as the saviour who gave His life for me, then how could I call myself a Christian?

But no one had ever told me that.

And don’t even go there with The Holy Spirit. I was an old fashioned Anglican and no one had ever even suggested that gifts of The Spirit were anything other than theoretical outside Pentecost and the book of Acts. Maybe I thought that He was something weird that happened up near the alter – probably involved incense – either way, I was certain He didn’t involve me.

But somewhere along the line, I got involved with other Christians from other churches, who talked about Jesus more often than at Christmas and Easter, and The Holy Spirit has got involved. At nineteen, I was told by some friends that it was time for me to baptised ’properly’, and was thus lovingly dunked, fully clothed into a bath in Oxford. Somewhere before that, I distinctly remember my first experience of praying in tongues. I discovered that without Jesus Christ, and without The Holy Spirit, a relationship with God can be uncomfortably theoretical. Uncomfortably close to ’religion’.

There’s been more over time. Rich years, lean years. People that I’ve loved and lost, all sorts of personal difficulties and life events; some ups – some downs. Times when God was so present as to seem physical, and other times when there has seemed to be an unbridgeable void keeping my prayers from being heard. Through some of those lean periods I had brief moments of feeling His presence, but more often, I just felt the loss of something that I knew I missed and longed to feel again.

Learning that there can permanently be something more has taken yet more time. I used to stand on the sidelines watching enviously as my friends seemed to bathe in His presence, wondering if they were being ’real’ in their joy. But now I’ve learned to pray every day to invite The Holy Spirit to fill me again. I stand amazed at how remarkably small my daily steps toward my Father can be, in order to feel the full richness of His joy and hope filling my every waking moment.

Strangely enough, my visual image of God has faded as time goes by, and any number of hunts through family albums have never turned up a photograph of Aunt Rose. But whereas, with the absence of regular Christmas presents, Rose has become more distant, and perhaps, less relevant over the passing years, my father God has become closer, and clear enough in my heart that it doesn’t matter what He looks like any more.

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Shouldn’t there be something more?…

Why can some of us hear God speaking to us, while for some of us there is nothing but silence? Why do some of us find worship exciting and joyful, while for others it’s just part of the routine that we have to get through on a Sunday morning?  And, actually, why do so many women come to church alone, because men just do not ‘get’ Christianity?

Last Saturday, a Women’s Day was held at our church. It was a really special day, full of love, kindness, prayer, great teaching and, of course, chocolates.

During the lunch break, a group of us had decided we would offer the washing and massaging of feet and hands as we prayed for people. We came in the morning, armed with towels, bowls, scented soaps and plenty of cocoa butter for massaging into tired feet and hard working hands. It was the nicest thing to do. I love spending time with other women, we all have such stories to tell and are capable of such compassion for one another.

But, oh boy, can we be bad at receiving! I was amazed at how uncomfortable so many people were with someone kneeling down and massaging either their feet or their hands, and praying. It led to some great conversations. We discovered that an awful lot of us feel very awkward about being given anything at all, we cringe at the thought of going forward to ask for prayer, even when we are really in need; I forgot to take a packed lunch with me, and I had to prod myself to say ’yes please’ to someone’s profered tuna roll.

That bended knee thing seems to have become really hard. Both men and women have now created such a fortress of self reliance and a fear of being beholden to anyone that it has become nigh on impossible for us to ask for or to accept anything.

Today, I heard of someone who lived homeless, in London, for eight months without telling a single one of his friends, his family, or indeed, his church community that he had nowhere to go. He simply couldn’t bring himself to ask someone for a space on their floor or a spare bed – to risk becoming one of ’the needy’ in the eyes of others – and so, he made the best of hospital waiting rooms, public loos, underneath bridges and doorsteps rather than risk telling anyone that he had nowhere to go.

I guess that admitting we need help feels weak, exposed, too much at risk of looking as though we’ve failed in some way. Putting ourselves in a position where we are prepared to receive, is too vulnerable, too hard a place to go.

But go there we must. If we want to experience the wonder of an intimate relationship with God, feel His presence, hear Him speaking to us, then we need to be able to submit to him, to give it all up. To be vulnerable.

 Then, and only then will we discover the true depth of His love for us and how far He is prepared to go to keep us safe.

The assumption that anyone who is a Christian must be a wimp is rife among non-believers; however, I have a nasty feeling that fear of ‘wimpdom” is also significant  among those who profess to believe in God. Hence, ’theoretical Christianity’ is prevalent; where we attend church regularly and go through all the motions, doing all the right things, but haven’t submitted fully enough into Christ’s dominion to receive the full benefits of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe that takes a bigger step of faith than we’re quite prepared to take.

I’ve been speaking to people about their journey to Christ in the last few weeks, and, among men particularly, the vast majority either gave their lives to Christ when they were still young enough to have not yet developed an unhealthy degree of self reliance, or they had reached such a desperate state of affairs in their life that they were finally, literally, brought to their knees. 

Hence, whilst many men and women are comfortable with Christianity per se, it all tends to remain a bit theoretical if we don’t get to receive the Holy Spirit –  and that can only happen when we empty ourselves of our expectations of what we think is important so that Christ can fill us up with something better.

Well, statistics indicate that men won’t go to the doctor, read instruction manuals or ask for directions, so they were always bound to struggle, but, actually we women aren’t much better.

Considering ourselves as ’sinners’ seems a bit grubby, maybe it feels a bit old fashioned, I don’t know. Either way, there are still an awful lot of us trying to get to heaven by ‘good works’ rather than Grace. One thing I do know is that until we grasp it, ’get’ that that is exactly what we are, and learn to bask in the wonder of His Grace, we’ll never realise the full joy of God’s closeness.

We need to come to terms with the fact that, no matter how upright we are as members of the community, men and women alike, church leaders, church cleaners, doctors, drug addicts, barristers, burglars, titled servants of the realm, homeless and
heartbroken. We might be pillars of the community, or we might be struggling to find a roof for our own head, we are equally failed and broken before God.

So. If you are reluctant to get your feet washed or to ask for prayer, if someone laying hands on you has your skin crawling, then, I wonder, are you correspondingly missing something in your relationship with God?  Has it all become a bit dry and theoretical?

If so, you might like to try this prayer. It has it’s roots in the Orthodox Church, where, I  admit, I would rarely go to look for prayers, but, as someone put it to me, it’s an extremely ‘muscular’ prayer, with every word loaded with meaning and value.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

While you’re driving to work, on the train, in the shower, eating lunch, lying awake at night… keep praying it, slowly, thoughtfully, reverently. Make sure you are meaning every word.

Try to repeat it about a hundred times a day (yep – I really did say that), and, if you’re anything like me, the process could take about six weeks or more. 

Be prepared for the long haul,  learning to receive is not the work of a moment.

Then, be prepared for a whole new, more exciting, enriching, wonderful journey with Jesus Christ.

In the kitchen at parties…

In the kitchen at parties…

In the kitchen at parties...

Isn’t eating with friends and family the nicest thing? I don’t mean sitting in front of the TV and eating while doing so; I mean preparing a meal, and then sitting down around a table to share it. There are quite a few instances that are referred to in The Bible of Jesus sharing meals with his disciples, and I have to say that when he set this example, he was giving us something wonderful.

Kevin, Jamie and I are fortunate enough to be able to share most of our meals together, but this weekend we had Peter Nevland and his wife Vicki to stay. He is just about to go to share some of his thoughts on Psalms with the lovely people at Spring Harvest, and we provided a useful stopover for recovery from cross-Atlantic jet-lag. For lunch today we added two further friends, Diana and Chris.

So, church this morning, and from there the day has been focused around preparing, eating, and then clearing up after a Sunday meal. It occurs to me that this must seem like a dreadful waste of time to so many people – but let me say – if you either have never done this at all, or just haven’t done it for a while, then it’s time you did. It’s time well spent.

Peter teases me mercilessly, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I give every bit as good as I get. Vicky wants to help (not with the teasing but with the cooking), and then thanks you for letting her. She’ll learn. In my kitchen everyone helps, it’s the only way to prevent disasters.

I’m often prompted to think of Mary and Martha when Jesus came to eat at their house. Martha was upset because she felt she had been abandoned in the kitchen to do all the work and that Mary should be helping her. Thank goodness for the balancing of the sexes that has occurred since then. If Jesus came to my house, I have no doubt that I’d have him making the gravy – I don’t think there’d be any of that left at the end of the meal – wine in it and everything.

So, here we are – there’s the easy chat of people working side by side. Those that go off to pick vegetables from the garden, the peeling, chopping, roasting, boiling and steaming; the anticipation, the smells; the learning new ways of doing things that can only come from having new people in your kitchen; the laughter.

Then the meal – this is when I get all the credit for all the work that I’m sure was mostly done by other people. Time spent enjoying each other’s company, really listening to one another because each of us is worth listening to. Shared stories, related experiences, coming to understand new points of view. The youngest and the oldest all taking part in the melange of different personalities that go to make up our friends.

Even the washing up is fun; we organise a chain of washers up, dryers and ’put-awayers’. A noisy, mirthful, good natured team who tease one another, laugh at ourselves and each other, and we get the job done in a jiffy.

What did we eat? In a week’s time, I’ll barely be able to remember; but who did we eat it with?

That’s etched on my heart.