Tag Archive | Jesus

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.

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.

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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The very desire of my heart…

IMG_20150204_202756He had given me the very desire of my heart. And in doing so, he gave me my life’s work.

So what has given me this heart for running a gospel choir and getting people to sing? I’ll tell you.

I come from one of those hatchings, matchings and dispatchings families. You know the kind? It’s ok to write ‘Church of England’ on application forms, but for heaven’s sake don’t talk about it or get involved.

Well, in spite of my mum’s reservations, when I was sixteen I started going regularly to one of those other kinds of churches with a school friend. This was my first real experience of what most people would have described as a ‘happy clappy’ church, where people talked about Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, my mother remained tight lipped. I loved it.

One night about six of us were crammed in a car, travelling home after the service and I realised that my friends in the car were discussing a rehearsal for a band. I asked what they were talking about and was told that they were planning to start a band playing Christian music.

File 18-05-2016, 09 19 19Now… understand this, I was sixteen, and gawky with a gummy grin. Not a girl with street credibility – and this sounded so cool!

Well, the only instrument I’d ever played was the violin, which I’d had to give up because those that loved me couldn’t stand the dreadful noise I made when I practiced; my brother and sisters had always assured me that I couldn’t sing – so – well, not exactly excellent qualifications. Anyway, I muscled my way in with my eye on the spot of backing vocalist – I had plans on the back row, boogie a bit and no real responsibility – thus achieving a level of cool in my own eyes that I’d never hoped to see in my whole life.

That is until the first rehearsal – when my lack of talent became abundantly clear to all of us.

The rest of the band – bless them – probably felt quite a degree of responsibility for what might happen to my spiritual wellbeing if they gave me the sack, and they were clearly in an uncomfortable dilemma. Should they get rid of me and lose the dreadful noise in the back row? Or should they give me a tambourine, take away the microphone and reduce my impact on the sound as much as possible? Looking back, I feel for them.

I remember how I felt, and I promise you, it was painful. I knew what the situation demanded – I needed to admit my shortcomings and leave the band graciously; but that would mean admitting to all my other school friends the truth about my lack of ability – The gawky sixteen year old had just achieved some small level of cool and now I was about to lose it again.

I needed help desperately.

So I prayed like I’d never prayed before, asking God to help me; It never occurred to me to pray to be able to sing, it never crossed my mind that it might be on the ‘shopping list’ so to speak; instead I prayed for courage, humility, honesty. All the things I didn’t have and knew I needed. I realised that my only way through this maze was to hand it over to God completely. To let everything go.three

So, for the first time in my life, I experienced that amazing release that can only be found when you completely lay something at Jesus’ feet. During the following week I didn’t sing once, I just prayed and handed over, again, and again, and again.

And God worked. First of all, He showed me that His plan is paramount. That in accepting His plan, I was accepting something that was made just for me; a plan not to harm me, but to prosper me. A plan for which I was perfectly and wonderfully made. It was a life changing lesson.

The next rehearsal found me sitting in an arm chair, watching my friends practice, without feeling any of the familiar resentment that accompanied the thwarted desire to take part myself. I felt joyfully grateful, completely in His hands, completely in His will. Peaceful.

Later on in the evening, there was an interruption in the rehearsal, resulting in only a few people being left in the room. It seemed that the leader of the band suddenly became aware of my presence and in that brief moment of ‘nothing to do’ he took the opportunity to hear some of the songs I’d been writing. “Come on …” he said, “let’s hear what you’ve been up to…”.

I sang through a couple of ditties I’d put together. He looked at me quizzically. “Sing this” he said, giving me one of the songs the band had been working on. And then “sing this”, and then again “how about this one?”.

There was no other way of looking at it. My voice had changed so much as to be beyond recognition. God, given my complete submission to His will, had given me not only what I had asked for…

I am reminded of Abraham, who asked to put the precious sum of all his loves, hopes and ambitions, in the form of Isaac, onto an altar of stones for sacrifice to God, was prepared to do so, thus giving God the trust that enabled the birth of a nation.

He had given me the very desire of my heart. And in doing so, he gave me so much more than I could ever have dreamed.

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