Why the Church Needs Less Community

Free stock photo of love, people, silhouettes, letters

Community is a wonderful thing. The recent horrific events in the UK have demonstrated just how inexplicably important community is and how well people who may have very little in common choose to serve each other in times of crisis and need. Even without crisis, communities can provide joy, learning and a lifeline for those who choose to interact with them. It’s so great when people come together for entertainment, to promote a good cause or to create, discuss or exercise. People are able to “be themselves” and meet others who are like-minded or completely different who just happen to share one interest in common.

Where I live there are dance classes, dog walking groups, cinema clubs, singing groups, philosophy, pottery and poetry classes. I live in a big city so if you want to find a club or group for something, there will almost definitely be one. Failing that there is the internet, where on some forum there will be a Ukrainian, web savvy Grandma who shares your unconventional taste in Scottish pirate metal music.

I am part of a number of communities, from school Mums to Facebook forums. I am enormously grateful for them all.

But if community is so wonderful then why does the church need less of it? There is a very significant difference between community and family which becomes clear in their definitions:

community

  1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
  2. the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common. “the sense of community that organized religion can provide”

family

  1. a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit. “she moved in with her boyfriend’s family”
  2. all the descendants of a common ancestor. “the house has been owned by the same family for 300 years”

The word family is one of the most evocative words there is. It can bring feelings of sadness, joy, happiness, longing, disappointment, satisfaction, hurt and much more. For everyone, even siblings to the same parents, it is unique.

For me family is a very positive word. I’m from a family where Mum and Dad are still very happily married after 42 years. I’m married to a man who is the son of a Mum and Dad who were happily married until they were parted by death. We have 2 children ourselves and live together with my husband’s Dad. We are very much a family and very happy with our lot. My understanding of the value of family comes from a place of being a part of one which works. Of course we have our tension and rough edges but we are not dysfunctional or separated by disunity. We are for each other.

I am well aware of the pain and maybe jealousy some will read the last paragraph. So many of my very wonderful friends have a very different story. Parents separating, leaving, not understanding. Childhoods filled with rejection and in some cases abuse. People who feel alienated because they don’t fit the mould due to sexuality, choice of partner, singleness or geographical location. For some, the word family can make them feel incredibly lonely.

On the news recently it was reported that there are at least (maybe many more) 9 million lonely people in the UK. 9 Million? That’s nearly 15% of the UK. As a self confessed extrovert, I watched with tears running down my face.  In a world which is apparently more socially connected than ever before, how did we get here? Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).  This BBC article gives a small insight into the epidemic that loneliness has become and how broadly spread over all sections of society it is.

If you are or have ever been involved in church you will no doubt have heard the term “church family” used a great deal. Family is exactly what the church should be. We are not just a community. We are children of the living God. We are heirs, sons and daughters. We are Brothers and Sisters and we should behave and love with a much deeper love than if we were linked with a common interest or characteristic.

There are lots of exceptional examples of family within the church,  but I fear the reality is that our statistics of loneliness are not always very different to those in wider society. For many the frequent use of the word family within the church will further accentuate their feeling of isolation.

There are people who walk out of church each week with a crippling feeling of loneliness. Who feel invisible. Who watch other people walk out the door with their family and friends, laughing and smiling, whilst they hold back tears, about to get in the car and weep all the way home. There are people who have served on so many teams but have never been invited back to someone’s house for lunch. Who have joined a group that meets during the week but still feel isolated.

A blog post I wrote last year describes how overnight, my 1 year old was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I suddenly needed support and family around me more than ever before. The last “proper job” I had before this was the coordinator of pastoral care for my Church. Having been the one looking after the pastoral care for others I was now the one in need of it.

Looking back with the shoe on the other foot I cringe at some of the suggestions I made to people in need back then. In many ways I did a very good job. I worked hard and did my best to not only work on behalf of the church but to genuinely love people. But I guess I thought then that with enough structures and systems and meetings and community groups, we would have a fail safe plan to enable anyone who wanted to access pastoral care and the church family to be able to. Although it never felt this blatant, I would do what I could and if someone felt lonely then they were choosing not to tap into church life and there was little more I could do.

The problem is that it’s when you are at your greatest need of accessing community that you often are or feel least equipped to do so. What the last year has taught me is that the primary need for the sick, the lonely, the poor, the imprisoned and anyone in need is not a community group, not a strategy, not a system but love. The kind of undeserving love that should be found in a family. The kind of love that I explain about in my last blog post.

The very heart of who we are as a church and why we gather is not a common characteristic nor is it a shared interest. It is God. Our Father. Our ancestor. It is because of this that our relationships and our identity as a church do go and must go much deeper than any other community. Our goal must not be to create a community. Our goal must be to be and to increase our family. Our relationships must not be defined by where we belong but by who we belong to. We are Brothers and Sisters within a family that is underpinned by the greatest love of all.

So how do we close the gap on loneliness within the church and function more effectively as family, for everyone? I think the first thing is to understand that the church is like a wider, extended family. We come together for big celebrations; Christmas, Easter, every Sunday. But the wider family is full of smaller, closer families. This means we all have a responsibility to look out for each other, care for each other. To contribute, to be vulnerable, to love and encourage one another.

The book of Acts in the bible tells of a time when the church was growing at an astonishing rate. I am convinced that the way in which the church behaved as a family was an essential key in it’s success. I am unapologetic in my desire to see the church grow. At this time when immorality, evil and isolation are absolutely rife, I believe Jesus and the church are more desperately needed than ever before.

In Acts it says They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.”

People met and worshiped God, then went home to carry on the celebration. Yes, lets meet as a wider family and learn and worship. But let’s not end it there. Let’s open our homes and extend our tables.

So often loneliness in the church is seen as a problem that needs to be directly addressed by the leaders of the church. In my experience, the problem of isolation and loneliness is too great a problem to be sorted by a few. As Christians we all have a responsibility to increase out families. Of course this needs to be modelled by leaders but only as much as the rest of us. It is something we must all seek to prioritise and do. To first love God, then love others.

Mother Theresa was a single, celibate woman who was and continues, even after her death to be the single greatest teacher and activist of family. She said “The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of family too small”. She also said “If you can’t feed a hundred people then just feed one”

Some people within the church build family exceptionally well. Many acts will be unseen or unheard. People opening their homes to friends and strangers for fun, food, help, to lend an ear or to give a bed to someone in need. Brutally honest conversations about joys and sorrows. Late night prayer requests. Meals that are delivered at times of sickness, grief or the birth of a new baby. Money given to help people struggling financially or purely to bless the socks off someone. This is family, and it should be available to all.

I have an overwhelming desire to see God’s family become more as it was intended to be and to grow bigger than I can imagine. My contribution may be small but I will try my best to be family to my church. So Brothers and Sisters, who’s with me?

The Stay at Home World Changer

You only have to turn on the news to see some of the total rubbish happening in the world right now: war, famine, poverty and political unrest. Mental illness is at unprecedented levels. There are horrific stories of abuse, both recent and historical. It would be easy to turn off the TV and close news apps and newspapers in an attempt to ignore and forget about it. But the problems are very present and very real. The world is desperate for answers, answers that I believe are found in Jesus and his church.

The church can often be seen as an old grandfather clock. It sits nicely in a corner, dinging its bell every Sunday. It’s majestic, worth a lot of money and generally looks down on people. It’s admired by some, ignored by others. It’s been inherited by generations of sentimental family members and maybe not for a while, but one day, it will slowly fade away.

THAT IS NOT MY CHURCH!

When I talk about my church I not only mean the congregation I am a part of but also the wider church of people who love Jesus and take seriously the impact their faith must have on the world. I am unapologetic in my love for Jesus and the genuine Jesus loving church (not one that takes the title, uses it for selfish gain and shows little shred of the love and grace that Jesus so explicitly demonstrated….but that’s another blog).

My church does not hide from what is in the news. It is not a grandfather clock. It does not ding the church bells once a week. It is relevant, alive, growing and filled with people who actually give a hoot about our broken world and contributing to it.

As part of the global church, I worship amongst world changers in every sphere of influence. People who run phenomenal, highly regarded, life-saving and life-changing charities. People with OBE’s, people heavily involved in government and politics trying to bring change in places of authority to help people most in need. Authors, actors, teachers, lawyers all using their skills to help others.

But where the heck do I fit?

Seriously! I can see all this devastating stuff and the incredible things people are doing to impact it happening around me. I am so desperate to help and make a real difference, but my current circumstances don’t exactly scream global revivalist.

I am a stay at home Mum and a full time carer for my daughter who has Type 1 diabetes. I am knee deep in nappies, homework, diabetes supplies and vegetable peelings. My time is dictated by blood glucose monitoring and ensuring every morsel of food is offset by a precise dose of insulin. I respond to frequent unpredictable high and low blood glucose levels and the horrible side effects they carry. It is a 24/7 job and it can be exhausting.

Some days I’ve had more than 2 hours sleep and dream of setting up 18 charities to reach the poorest, most isolated people. I would fly around the world sprinkling Jesus magic (?!?) being a lycra clad Super-Christian-Woman. Then reality hits me round the face like the hand of a 2 year old at 04:35 and I am back in Stockport, filling out endless school letters, thinking about my Aldi shopping list and responding to yet another insulin pump alarm.

For a long time I have felt like the best is yet to come. Like there has to be more to  life than this. I try to attend as many inspiring teaching sessions as possible. I love a TED talk as much as the next person. I sit in church and listen to completely brilliant preaches which could motivate a dead hippo into action, but then I feel like I’ve just run as fast as Usain Bolt into a brick wall. I have often thought that once this phase is over then I can really begin to make a big difference.

But this phase I am in is similar to one that many people face. Having young children or being a carer. Working in a tough old job that can sap every ounce of energy you have but that you know is absolutely where you should be. Struggling with sickness or just getting to the point where energy reserves are a bit lower than they used to be. For many, the phase is not only long but life-long.

The thing is, being a world changer should never be our primary goal. Being successful should never be our primary goal. God does not define us by our circumstances. He does not love us because we fit a certain mould or criteria. He loves us because he loves us. And because of that, Jesus tells us exactly what our primary goals should be:

LOVE GOD

LOVE OTHERS

They are the 2 greatest commandments that Jesus gave. He prioritised them above all others and asked us to do the same. They are the same primary goals he asks of royalty, people who are homeless, the church, those in government, business workers, prostitutes, medics, teachers, stay at home parents and everyone in between:

Love God. Love others.

Of course there are so many more things he can and does call us to. There is such huge need in the world. God can use people in every sphere of influence, but before all else he needs us to be grounded in loving him and loving others. Love should impact everything else we do.

It sounds so simple and so straightforward but love isn’t easy. It’s really tough. People get hurt and disappointed. So many of my dear friends have been hurt most by the people that should have loved them most. Parents leave or abuse children. Husbands and wives have affairs. Inheritance and money can tear families apart. Some of you will read this having been hurt terribly by the church. A place that should have been a safe-haven of love has instead hurt you, seemingly beyond repair. I am so desperately sad and sorry if any of these have been your story. But I believe a better example of love awaits you.

God in his wisdom has not merely asked us to love. He has specified the order in which we should do it.

The first thing is to love God. He is the creator, the author and perfect demonstrator of love. If you read parts of the Old testament in the Bible or look at the suffering in the world today this can be a hard concept to grasp. (I won’t explain in detail in this blog how this all works but urge you to look deeper by attending an Alpha course or if you know me, please come along to church with me.)  Through Jesus Christ laying down his life for us we know that God has demonstrated the greatest expression of love.

The Bible tells us what love looks like: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

It is a tough list. Love is not an easy choice and requires self sacrifice and self awareness. It requires saying sorry when we get it wrong and being accountable to other people, especially when it feels tough. I love my church because not only does is demonstrate love, it also encourages us to love better. From relationship courses to addiction recovery, it helps people to find God, the ultimate source of love. And that’s the key to being able to love best, even when it seems impossible. Go directly to the source to get re-fueled.

Love should be at the root of everything we do. It shouldn’t be an excuse, that we only have to love and nothing else, but it should motivate everything else we do. That may be something beyond your wildest dreams and a great, wild adventure; or it may be persevering in the hardest of times. Whatever it is, with love as the foundation and the root, incredible things can and will grow. Even if it might not look significant to others, following those great commands will be more spiritually significant than you can imagine.

God has a reputation for getting it right. If we do what he says by loving him and loving others as our greatest priority, whether it be a whole nation at a time or one person at a time, the world will change. Even as a stay-at-home-parent-carer, I can be a world changer, and so can you.

The Mountain

Until 3 weeks ago, life had been plodding along fairly nicely. Like everyone, there were a few niggles that had to be endured or overcome but nothing too major or that warranted a vast amount of brain-airtime. I’d been thinking about what I’d do when my youngest starts nursery in Sept 2017 and was well on my way to a 5 year plan (which no Mother, does not include anymore children). Then BANG! Everything changed in 5 seconds.

Two weeks before we’d been on holiday. I use the term “holiday” loosely. We renamed it prison camp. We’d been to a family holiday park in Wales and had the joy of staying in an “apartment” (think council flat) above a family of chain-smokers. The weather was glorious but the windows had to be shut to stop us passively inhaling more smoke than Popeye did in his fictional lifetime. Our view on every side was sadly not Costa del Wales but of more “apartments” and the only possible reason we can think of for the almighty noise of barking dogs must have been a residential trip for Battersea Dogs Home. I had an ear infection and sinusitis and the toddler was miserable, for the entire time.

Shortly after, as a monumental treat and therapy for the hideous Wales trip, husband and I had decided I would bob off on a trip to Spain, without him, or the kids for 3 (ENTIRE) days to spend some time with some very lovely friends of ours. Last minute holiday prep ensued and another dear friend offered to look after the still grumpy toddler so I could go and try on unflattering beach attire in peace. It was Friday afternoon and this was my only time to go to the shops before leaving on the Monday morning. Predictably it was a disaster so I did what all sensible women do and bought a pair of ‘suck it all in’ jeans (ideal for 35° heat) and went to Starbucks to drown my sorrows in an overpriced latte.

That evening my husband delivered on a promise he made to our eldest daughter. All year she’d been waiting for a weekend evening warm enough for them to sleep in the shed for the night (shlamping: shed-glamping. You should try it!). After far longer than it should have taken, a puncture free airbed was finally found, sleeping bags de-mothed, toilet trips taken, a bag of snacks prepared and off they tottered down the garden path.

After a couple of hours indulging in back-to-back property programmes I lay my head on the pillow. The words of my friend earlier in the day came back to me. “She’s been really thirsty and I’ve had to change her twice in two hours”. Hmm. I have Type 1 diabetes. Although it can be passed down, the chances aren’t huge by any stretch so I’d never given it much thought. But thirst is a sign so I hopped out of bed to take a precautionary blood test. I’d done this before on my older daughter who has had a number of health issues over the years. It had always been fine so I just thought it’d be the same. The result should have been between 4-7mmol. I pricked her finger while she was sleeping and waited the 5 long seconds for the result.

24.9mmol. “Oh s**t!”

With a blood sugar that high and having the condition myself I knew immediately that she had Type 1 diabetes. I ran to the garden to wake up Dave who was asleep, in the shed, wearing headphones. (Of all the nights!!) Although Nia’s blood sugar was through the roof, we woke her up and she was OK. Persistent high sugars can lead to a potentially life threatening illness called ketoacidosis. Many children who are diagnosed with diabetes end up on high dependency or intensive care but because I’d recognised the symptoms early she wasn’t seriously poorly. To be honest, she was the most healthy looking child in A&E that night and there were puzzled expressions from other parents as to why she was receiving so much medical attention.

She was taken straight to the ward which was a hive of activity with kids crying, machines beeping and lots of people coming to see us, poking, prodding and asking questions.  They needed a urine sample from Nia but she wasn’t cooperating. They then needed to fit a cannula in her hand and we decided the shock might make her wet herself. So she’s sat on my knee with a little tray under her bottom to catch the wee. I had to restrain her while she had the needle in and blood taken. She obviously hated every second, blood went all over me, she wriggled and started to wee so that went all over me too. Brilliant. The only saving grace was that it was so traumatic she fell asleep.

In the chaos I’d remembered to pack everything that Nia might need for a month but had packed NOTHING for myself.So there I am, Nia soundly asleep, me covered in blood and wee with no pyjamas, no change of clothes, no wash bag, toothbrush, nothing. A student nurse took pity on me and gave me a theatre gown to wear as pyjamas. Just one. Just one very revealing, backless, itchy theatre gown. Let’s just say the nurses doing hourly checks on Nia would have got more than they bargained for. I brushed my teeth with Nia’s toothbrush and put my head on the pillow. I sobbed.

*The next 4 paragraphs are diabetes focused but it helps to paint a picture so please do read them.

Diabetes is a strange condition.From the outside, diabetics appear completely normal. The only clue I give of my diabetes is my insulin pump. A small mobile phone sized device that clips onto my clothes which is basically a mini drip which delivers insulin 24/7. But what’s going on within is a different story. In Type 1 diabetes your body mistakes the cells in your pancreas (the organ which produces insulin) as harmful and attacks them. In turn insulin production stops. Insulin makes sure that any sugar in your body is used for good. If there is no or too little insulin to deal with the sugar it can have serious short and long term damage on the body. If you have too much insulin then  you won’t have enough sugar, or energy. Extremes of both can be very serious. So it’s like walking on a tightrope, all the time. But there are dozens of variants that can affect the balance.

As a diabetic, every time you eat you have to calculate the carbohydrates to deliver the correct amount of insulin. Exercise, sickness, stress, sleeping patterns, the type of food you eat, the time you eat and more can all change the level of insulin needed. In a non-diabetic person the pancreas is like any other major organ. It works around the clock to ensure you stay healthy. It doesn’t matter what you do, it is on, 24/7. It’s like a tracking device which keeps you walking on the tightrope no matter what you do. Even if you run a marathon or eat and entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s the pancreas keeps you on track. In the diabetic body, there is no tracking device. The default is that you fall off. With routine, regular eating and good habits you can learn how to best stay on the tightrope but you have to focus on it. Take your eyes off the game and you fall off.

When I was young diabetes was treated very differently. The science was less precise. Diabetics were given a much wider tightrope to walk on and blood sugars were accepted to be far wider ranging. The problem with this is that it causes long term damage. Sight loss, nerve damage, amputations, heart failure and more. So rightly so, the aim now is to keep diabetics on a very similar tightrope to a non-diabetic.But without a pancreas doing the thinking, calculating and hard work, we have to.

Advances in technology are incredible. I have a pump which helps me to work out precise insulin requirements which vary depending on the time of day. But it doesn’t know what I’m eating or doing. I have to tell it. I have to tell it when I eat, or drink, or am ill, or am doing exercise, or am having a bath. If I go on holiday, it stays with me. When I sleep, when I’m on a date with my husband, when we go to the zoo. You cannot switch off the diabetic part of your brain. Ever. In return I will hopefully live a full, healthy life. Nia will hopefully live a full, healthy life, have children, be whatever she wants to be and go wherever she wants to go. But currently she will have to keep her diabetes brain switched on and her medical equipment with her for the rest of her life. While she is so young there are so many more  variants that can affect the balance and the speed at which it can all go wrong is frighteningly fast. So she has blood tests every 2 hours, round the clock. We have to be her pancreas, day and night. It gives her normality now and the best chance for the future, but it’s hard.

So back to that night in hospital. There I am, unwittingly flashing the nurses on a pull out parent bed and sobbing silent tears into the pillow. I know this beast only too well and now I am watching it attack my precious, tiny, 22 month old, beautiful daughter. I feel overwhelming guilt because although I know this is not my fault, I feel responsible. I have passed on this toxic baton that I never wanted my kids to have to hold. But in a strange way I’m grateful that it’s not worse. I know she can live a relatively normal life. I have watched as dear friends have had far worse hands dealt. Terminal news, news which drastically alters every aspect of life. At 18 I sat by the hospital bedside of my best friend who had battled cystic fibrosis her whole life. The next morning the phone rang with the worst possible news. Diabetes isn’t the worst news you can get, but it’s life altering and big and horrible. And it’s constant. There’s no respite, no holiday, no remission. It’s there, all the time. It’s misunderstood. It’s under-sympathised and  It’s not fair.

While in hospital a friend sent a message that hit the nail on the head. It read “I am sure you are climbing a huge b*****d of a mountain….” and I thought YES! We are at the bottom of a giant mountain. And we’re not the only ones. From my friends who are grieving the loss their beautiful children, to the family learning how to live life to the full with their precious severely disabled son, the friend who can’t conceive, the friend who desperately wants to get married, the friend engulfed by debt, the friend who lost their job, the friend who lost their parents, the friend who might get deported. It’s not just my friends. You only have to turn on the news to see millions around the world, suffering pain and terror far worse than we can imagine. There are so many mountains.

But why? Why us? Why this mountain. Why you? Why your mountain? Why that tragedy that happened or that difficulty you’re going through? In all honesty I don’t fully know.

I believe there is a vast spiritual world that we cannot begin to fathom. Like an iceberg we can see the tiny tip of it but under the water it is vast, huge, unimaginable and often misunderstood. Many people try to get a deeper understanding of what’s under the water by seeking help from clairvoyants or spiritualists or other religions. But I believe that God made the huge spiritual world so I’d rather go straight to him to get an understanding of it.

What I need to make clear at this point is that God does not instigate pain, suffering and death. He completely and utterly did not cause this. He sent Jesus to take all the punishment so that we could live in freedom. But I believe there is a very evil force at power in the world that as the bible says seeks to “steal, kill and destroy”. That power thrives on sadness and hate and terror. NONE of that is from God. But what God can do is to transform it for good.I know him personally and he is good, so good, so kind, always faithful and always loving. But for reasons, often unknown to me and even though he did not cause it, God won’t necessarily intervene at first request when hardship comes.

I think there is huge significance in the way  we chose to live and behave and respond to the mountains above. I believe that to respond by seeking God, trusting in him and following him will impact what lies beneath so drastically that we will only know the power of it when we get to heaven. I look at the bible and see story after story of the way that people faithfully (as in they have no idea what’s happening or what good can come of it) trust God through horrendous hardship. Sometimes for decades or generations. But each time there is ultimate victory for those that love him.

So I am fully trusting that although this mountain feels huge and although it will be tougher at times and easier at others, that although other hardship will inevitably come, if we have to climb any mountain, it will not be in vain. It will not just be one of those things. It will not be because “s**t happens, then you die”. No way. Not on my watch. If we’re climbing this mountain then it will be for a purpose. We gave Nia her name because it means ‘brightness, radiance and purpose’. Never has there been a more fitting name meaning for a child. She carries a glow with her. She is a little ray of sunshine. Her middle name is Hope and she carries that too. Her life is one of purpose and diabetes will have a purpose in her eternal story. Even if we never find out what that is in this life, we have an eternal hope that God will use this for our good and his glory.

And come what may I will (try at all times to) continue to say “God is good all the time and it is well with my soul”. Eternity is in his hand and in our weakness, he is strong.

 

Mountains can be harsh, lonely, dark, bleak and frightening places. I know there will be times when it is foggy and I won’t be able to see the view. When I have to put on my crampons and cling on for dear life. Climbing mountains requires supplies and encouragement. Cheer people on who you know are climbing at the moment. Send food parcels, costa vouchers, cards, flowers. Our friends have paid for a cleaner for a couple of months. WOW. One less bag for me to carry while the path is really steep…THANK YOU!

As I set out on this long journey I have decided to try my very best at the following:

  1. Mountain climbing comes with great views. I will remember to pause and be grateful that I can see beyond the superficial and the every day. That I can see God from a different perspective. He is everywhere but I feel closer to him up here.
  2. That (as it says in Psalm 37:23) The Lord makes firm my steps when I delight in him. I might stumble but I won’t fall because he holds me. I will praise and worship. In my car we will blast out gospel music and sing like I am a nun in Sister Act. I’ll let him be the ultimate guide up the mountain.
  3. That I will not compare my mountain. I’ll shout over encouragement and send supplies to other mountaineers. When disaster strikes I will drop and run to help carry someone.
  4. That I will always look up. To know that I will be lead down the mountain (healing) or be lifted off it and promoted to glory (death). And because they are my only options then I will tread fearlessly.
  5. That I will be grateful for people I meet because I am on the mountain. I will encourage them and cheer them on, just as they will me when I am feeling weak.
  6. That when I am no longer needed as a sherpa on Nia’s mountain, I will be useful on someone else’s.

I am sorry if you are on a mountain. I pray you will see incredible views, that you will be encouraged and supported and put your trust in Jesus, who even on the tricky paths will guide your every step.

 

 

 

 

 

No-one wants to punch Jesus in the nose!

The more I write the less I feel qualified to do so. Last week I wrote a blog post which I had started once, deleted and started again before I finally posted it. Like most bloggers probably do I re-read the day after. I’ve done it with all of them but with this one I was annoyed at myself for posting it. I’d had a bit of a rant about several areas of Christianity that concern me at the moment. I tried to make them link and flow to be one profound, mind stretching, life changing piece of writing. It wasn’t! You may not have thought that if you’d read it. I had a few compliments about it but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted this blog to be. It was a self-rightiousy “I know best” post, pretending to myself it’s what I’m being challenged about but in reality, using my writing to vent frustrations about others. So I deleted it.

Even now as I write this I hear the quiet voice of God, reminding me to get the ruddy forest out of my own eyes before I use the tweezers to get the tiny splinters out of others. Gosh it’s so easy to look down on others!

Last night my husband and I went to a bible study. It’s run by some friends of ours who are two of the most faith-filled, inspiring people I know. They have devoted their lives to helping as many people as they possibly can to discover Jesus and know him and love him and the bible. Their name’s aren’t up in lights. In fact they are removing their names from any lights that are currently shining on them. They are humble, and brave. I admire them.

The bible study took a simple format. Read a bit from the bible. Read it again. Re-tell the story so it really sticks and then chat about it. We read The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Read it now if you can. I’ve read this parable hundreds of times. It’s one that most people will know, irrelevant of faith. I was read it roughly every month at Sunday school growing up but last night IT BLEW ME AWAY! We were challenged to think about it from different angles. What follows are some of my thoughts and some shared by others.

The first question was What do we learn about God? Early on we see it there in black and white: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”. God’s asking us to be totally devoted to him. Am I? Do love him like that? I could write a gushing paragraph about when my husband and I were (as my 6 year old says every time we show any affection to one another, with a disdained look on her face) “falling in love”. It would make us all puke so I won’t, but that’s the all consuming love God want’s from us. The Message version of the bible (a kind of modern day, easier to understand version) says “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence”. I want to love him with all my heart, every heart beat. Pray, pray and pray some more. Use my energy and effort for his purpose and use my brain for his good. A lot of the above goes on other nonsense, a lot of the time!

heart

The next bit says “Love your neighbour”. I think it tells us that God genuinely wants and needs us to give 2 hoots about one another. It also tells us that God is not bothered by status or titles. His highest value is on the merciful and those in need of mercy. I can write as many wonderful, inspiring blog posts as I want but if I don’t really love my “neighbour” then I’m like the priest or the Levite (someone who was highly regarded and given lay-responsibilities in the temple). My title or the perception others have of me means nothing if I don’t care for people I come across when I’m on my own.

The second question was What do we learn about people? Ouch! The road where the parable takes place was notorious. Imagine driving through Moss Side at night and seeing someone stabbed. Would it be risky to help? Yes. People are fearful. I was massively struck where the expert in the Law”wanted to justify himself so he asked Jesus “and who is my neighbour”. That word “justify”. So many times I have justified not helping someone who needed it. Here are a few examples:

  1. Inappropriateness – I am female, person is male.
  2. Ineffective – Giving money is not the best way to help someone who is homeless, for example.
  3. Someone else can help better – Lots of charities are set up for people in need so leave it to the experts.
  4. Too busy – In a rush to meet someone, get something, go somewhere.
  5. Fear – That person can’t come and stay because I have two young children.

I justify why I can’t help. It’s easy to. It’s reasonable to. But what if the person that needed my help was Jesus in disguise. Read the story again as if Jesus was the man who was hurt. How would I feel if I’d walked on by? My heart sank!

We chatted further in the group about the parable and what it was teaching us. At the end we were asked what we’d do differently this week as a result of looking at this bit of the bible and if we would tell anyone about it? Yesterday I had spent a good few hours in a mood with someone who, as I shared with the group, had been a total boob! My challenge was to treat everyone as if they were Jesus in disguise. I can imagine Jesus hurt, in the gutter. But what if he is my friend who’s annoyed me who I’d quite like to punch in the nose? No-one wants to punch Jesus in the nose.

And then I said I would share it through my blog. It’s what I’m feeling at the moment. It’s me bare, spiritually naked and trying really hard with this whole faith thing.

We’ll be starting a similar bible study (simply looking at a bible story and having a think about how it can challenge us) at our house. It’ll be on Monday evenings from 8pm. If you want to join us (yes I mean you, secret blog reader!), especially if you’ve never really read the bible, please let me know. It might just be incredible!

 

 

 

STOP IT!

 

It would appear that there is a widespread feeling of discontentment from Christians at the moment. As a result of posting my first two blogs I have had lots of conversations with people feeling a similar way. A feeling that if we don’t step up, really encounter Jesus, really know God’s heart then we’ve missed the whole point of why Christ came. It’s been exciting and reassuring that I’m not on my own in this. If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it properly. But how?

The last couple of weeks I have been genuinely excited about going to church. The week before last our Church Leader Anthony gave another incredibly helpful talk about how Jesus walks with us even when our commitment to him fluctuates. Peter, one of the disciples was like this, on a grand scale. He denied Jesus not once but three times. He would be super committed and enthusiastic and then falter. Jesus not only loved him uncompromisingly but also used him as a key player in the early church and the advancement of Christianity. “YES” I thought…hope for me yet!

Then this Sunday a guest speaker came to speak. His name is Simon Guillebaud. He lives in Burundi, East Africa with his wife and three children and he gets it. He gets what I’m feeling on another level. Burundi is the 2nd poorest country in the world. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Simon should be dead, countless times over he should be dead. He has had threats that would have given me a heart attack even without them being carried out. He and his wife put their kids to bed with loud fans on to drown out the sound of gunfire. He told stories of such horror that even he who is well versed in suffering was in tears. But he also told of INCREDIBLE hope and miracles. Whilst driving down the most notorious road in the country his colleague turned to him and said “you know we’re invincible until God calls us home?”. What a great mantra (am I allowed to say that?? Anyway..) for life! WE ARE INVINCIBLE UNTIL GOD CALLS US HOME! So why the absolute chuffers do we spend so much time worrying about ridiculous things? Why the chuffers do we spend so much money on rubbish, trying to lengthen our lives and make us happy (and probably in debt) in the mean time? Why do we not live for Jesus like WE ARE INVINCIBLE UNTIL GOD CALLS US HOME?

That was just the introduction. He went on to speak about 9 questions that Western Christians need to answer. I won’t list them all here but please, if you like my blog (thanks) listen to the podcast of the talk (www.ivychurch.org/media), and write some notes. But beware, it is challenging. It looks at some traits of many, many Christians. He called us into a higher standard of living God’s way. This way isn’t bound by regulations, routine, knowing the plan, or justifying our behaviour…ouch! God’s way is LIFE, FREEDOM, LOVE, GRACE. It is eternal life with Him.

So being me, I come home and start packing for Burundi. I’ll do everything Simon said and more. Let me loose on the world. I’ll buy a lorry and fill it up with broken people to love and dodge bullets and see daily miracles and fight fires and become a Dr and an architect and do a theology degree and learn 8 languages. Then they’ll write a book about me being the Christian Lara Croft (with less lycra) and we’ll all be merry and bright. But then it all got a bit busy. I had organised a picnic for some neighbours from our church. Then I had to collect my eldest from a party, do spellings and reading with her, sort out school uniform and put on another load of washing. Then my youngest was being really cute before bed so we did lots of playing and laughing which wound her up no end so she needed to be cuddled to sleep. Then I was tired.

So Monday morning I woke, feeling no less inspired but maybe a bit less feisty. One thing that had really got me thinking during Simon’s talk was that he could recite lengthy passages of the Bible from memory, word for word. So my 6 year old and I sat down to write out a bible verse each to learn this week. I looked at a blog written by a fellow busy Mum trying to focus on one verse a week…great, that’ll do;

Psalm 37:23-24 “The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him. though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”

I didn’t really read it properly. I drew it on a big bit of paper in fancy writing (not very me but never mind) decorated it with flowers (even less me) and stuck it on my bedroom wall. It was only as I went in the room later that it hit me. “STOP IT” was almost audible. I felt God guide me back to my original plan of slowing down, listening more and not putting a 10 step plan in place. I  need to delight in him. Spend time with him. Enjoy being a child of the King. Experience his infallible joy. Then he will make my steps, and they’ll be firm and they’ll be mine. They won’t be Simon Guillebaud’s. They won’t be anyone else’s. They’ll be my steps. And I won’t be able to fall or fail. I might stumble but I’ll be upheld by the one who made me and knows be best.

Later I met with a friend who is going through an incredibly tough time. She said about her dramatic life event “everything’s changed and nothing’s changed”. That’s how I feel. That God is awakening something in me that is huge, something that I can’t imagine but that will be incredible. But I still have to make the dinner, do the washing, change nappies and clean the bathroom.

It’s a tension and balance that I need to stop trying to work out. At the moment, the day to day is what I need to do, and do well. My kids are young and my husband is busy, serving God in another way. I need to not belittle this time or see it as inferior. Yes I feel this real sense of seeing greater things, but God is calling me, my character and my dependence on him to be greater. Not through pressure or striving or working too hard and burning myself out. But by being loved, by delighting in him and by trusting that he’s got my future. Delighting and trusting like never before.

Starkers and Stories!

So I’ve started this blog ‘Bare Naked Faith’ and I feel like the first post I wrote 2 weeks ago really did leave me emotionally and spiritually butt naked. I’ve shared it with a very select few people but I’ve not been brave enough, until now for public viewing. Did you ever see Gok Wan force poor, post-children, wobbly, cellulite clad women to parade on a stage for all to glare at? Well that’s what I feel like; vulnerable, unhidden, wobbly but strangely proud that I’ve been totally honest and not held back. Now I want to get dressed, paint a smile on my face, do the school run and carry on as before. However there’s no point in writing a ‘Bare Naked Faith’ blog fully clothed. So I’m leaving the Gok Wan stage and I’m still stark b*****k naked (sorry Mum).

After I’d written my last post I thought about how I’d explain it in more detail to someone who doesn’t share my faith why it is all so important. Here I am, admitting to hearing from God, being completely broken and wanting to live in a completely different way. I want to make clear that I am still me. I love all things funny. I belly laugh at risky birthday cards and Dad jokes, gogglebox is my favourite show (I LOVE Scarlett), coco pops and weetabix are my favourite late night cereal combination, with blue milk. I enjoy moderate amounts of gin and cannot sit through films. I detest pinterest and it’s fake ideals. I love my kids and quite frankly they are, and always will be better than all the rest. I am still human and that’s ok. But I am also deeply spiritual and that cannot help but become more of the every day and make me who I am. Some of you will understand what I’m talking about and some of you will probably think I’m crazy. So I want to explain it better.

As part of my “listening” phase I decided to stop making excuses about the kids, stop taking time out in Starbucks (unhelpfully in the same building) and get my sorry behind into church every Sunday morning to actually listen and engage with the talk (preach). So on Sunday the 1st May, the day after my 33rd birthday and the start of my Jesus year (He was 33 when he died and rose again) I went to church and sat and listened. Anthony Delaney our Church leader was speaking. After a comedy story about begging for a carrier bag in Tesco he said “At the end of the talk today I want to encourage you to get out your seat, come to the front and kneel if you are wanting to give your life fully over to Jesus Christ. Now maybe you’ve done that before but you’ve realised that actually you’ve started to be in charge of your life again yourself and you want to give your life back to him.” Even though I felt like I’d already done this the week before, I laughed to myself knowing that I was absolutely gonna need to hear what he was about to say.

He went on to describe our lives as a story, with lots of changing scenes.. A French philosopher spoke once about “the death of the meta-narrative”. This means that people have lost the idea of the big story. That’s completely what I had been doing. I had been focusing so much on my past and the here and now of young children, school runs, sleepless nights, being skint and feeling super busy but not productive. I had forgotten that this time of having young children is just a few pages of my life book. I had focused so much on what I had failed at that I forgot how much I had and WILL achieve. I forgot who was directing. My story is bigger than my past, my present and my failures. If it just focuses on that then quite frankly it won’t be on Richard and Judy’s best books list.

He went on to speak about the point of our stories. If we are here just by accident and the world ends by accident then what is the point? Some may call me completely crazy but I KNOW I was created. I know there is a reason bigger than I can imagine for me being here. I know that that my life is not meaningless. The bible says that “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” I have faith. Faith in something bigger. An author of my story. I have faith in God.

Some research has been done about university students. 2 of the biggest things they struggle with are porn and suicidal thoughts. The first is devaluing others and the second is devaluing ourselves. These are of course extreme ends of the spectrum but surely we all devalue others and ourselves in some ways? Story’s without purpose will always do one or the other. In my last blog I was open about my failures and the priority I had given them. At no point was I suicidal but gosh, I wasn’t placing high value on myself. And when I’m in a bad place I think badly of others. I think they’ve not been a great friend or selfish or oblivious of their faults. It’s horrible to write and admit to but I have certainly devalued others. There has to be a better way.

So how do I take hold of  my story and make it a better one? I give it back over to God. The three in one God. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. It’s the only way I can find true meaning.

Anthony went on to explain that great stories always include love, adventure, an enemy to fight, a hero, a sacrifice, a resurrection and Hope. The Christian story follows exactly this framework…which is why it’s so incredible.

 

Act 1: A love story. God created us and made us in his image. We are close to God, working together with him.

Act 2: The enemy enters in. He hates and opposes God. He can’t hurt God so he goes after his kids.He convinces God’s children to turn their backs on God. But GOD IS LOVE.

Act 3: A hero is needed. A rescuer has to come. Jesus volunteers for the rescue mission. Even though we didn’t deserve it, Christ died for us. He swapped our truck-load of rubbish and gave us treasure.

So in a nutshell it’s all there; love, adventure, an enemy to fight, a hero, a sacrifice, a resurrection BUT then there’s hope. Huge hope. Monumental hope. Jesus took my place. All the secret things I have done, the horrible thoughts, the poor, poor choices, the debt, the pain, the damage, the mistakes that some of you have seen me make or even made with me. Jesus took it. And not only did he take it but he gave me a crown instead. He made me right and let me come and sit with God, the almighty one. To be not only a friend but a co-heir, a co-inheritor of everything he has. He has made me perfect and new and more alive than I have ever been.

While I am on earth I know life will throw challenges and difficulties, hardship and doubt. But whatever happens to me I am a citizen of heaven. I have the hope of all eternity. My story is bigger than I can ever imagine. God is the author and director. This movie is gonna be incredible, not because of what I have done but what he has done.

 

I want to help you find your story. To be reconciled to God. Find your place, find your purpose. I am never, ever, ever gonna force anyone to do this. But if you want to know more then please come to church www.ivychurch.org, or just come and have a chat.

Below is the podcast from Anthony’s talk. I hope it helps you to have a bigger story.

 

 

 

 

Faith and Failure

This week I finally admitted it. “I’m not sure I’m a Christian.”

I think my husband thought I was being dramatic. Hard to believe but I can be. But this time I meant it.

I have been a Christian my whole life. I genuinely can’t remember the first time I said “Jesus, save me”. He was always there. Throughout my teens and adulthood I’ve said it again, and again, and again. I’ve said it so many times it must be a given, but I’m just not sure I really get it.

And so here I am, at rock bottom. I’m done. I’m tired. I’m exhausted from trying so hard for 32 years.

I’m done doing half-hearted Christianity. The world is full of half-hearted, lukewarm, seasonal Christians and I don’t want to be another one.

Don’t get me wrong, I love God. I one million percent believe in him. He is creator of the universe, Father to the Fatherless, name above all other names. I believe in Jesus. That he came to earth to experience being a human, to set people free and to ultimately die an horrendous death and be raised again so that we could be inextricably linked to God. And I believe in Holy Spirit. That he lives in us and chooses to dwell with us so that we can have guidance, wisdom, know truth and be continually at one with God. I believe in the Trinity. In God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. I believe.

BUT I don’t offer what God deserves.

I know I am a broken being. The whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection and him leaving his spirit with us is because we fail, all the time. If we were perfect we wouldn’t need Jesus. But we’re not, so we do.

But I have a lifelong behavioural pattern that does not begin to do God justice. I explained it to some friends today as Jesus being like my right arm. He’s really useful. He uses me to do good things, he is an integral part of who I am. But if I don’t access him, use him, connect with him then it’s not the end of my world. Life is, of course better when you have use of your arm, but if you don’t then you still live and can do almost anything everyone else does. It’s an inconvenience but it’s not the be all and end all.

I want Jesus to be my heartbeat. My everything. The pulse in my every move, my source of life. I want to be so dependent on him, so filled with him that without him I would literally die.

But I have never got to that point. It’s not for want of trying. I’ve tried reading the bible and praying every day. I’ve tried groups, reading plans, apps, devotional booklets before apps existed. I’ve joined training programmes, moved onto a deprived estate with lots of other Christians to try and bring hope, I’ve worked for the church, preached, started blogging, vlogging and mentoring others about how to do the Christian thing better. I’ve nagged at my husband to make us sit down and study the bible together, and pray more. I’ve served on every church team going. Music, kids work, welcome, tea making, toilet decorating. You name it, I’ve done it. But in all of it, Jesus has never been my heartbeat.

I feel like I try for him to be my all but I fail. I have a history of failure. It started at primary school when I learnt to play the piano, then the violin, then the keyboard, then the recorder, then the cello and gave them all up. I am the worst orchestra…literally. Then I went to secondary school. I chose friends badly, got bullied and ran away to my next school. There I had friends but failed to study. I went to college, quit, got a job, quit, went back to college, failed, scraped in to university, quit…the list goes on. So failure has been a constant in my life.

But so has God. He is always constant. Always loves me. Why then can I not be constant back?

I know that despite my failure, God uses me. I know I can hear him. Recently, out of nowhere, God gave me 2 specific words for 2 separate people. So in my doubt that I can hear God I said to them ” I feel like God has told me something he wants to say to you. It is probably me making it up so please don’t take this as read and please test it but…..” And to my genuine astonishment these specific words rang clear for those they were given to. God wanted them to hear something specific that would alter the course of their thoughts and lives. Incredibly he used broken me to share it with them.

But I want more. I want more of him. I want him to have more of me.

This evening, I went to church and two dear friends prayed very insightfully with me. One prayed that God would take away any feeling of failure. (As you can tell, this has yet to take hold.) That I had not failed but God was building a catalogue of experience that he would use for my good and his glory. She also (in a bit of a strict voice) told me to stop. To not take on things that were my idea. To sit, to listen. Ouch! I am a constant doer. I can’t sit still. I like a programme, schedule, tick list. If I see a problem I want a methodical way to solve it. And I guess that’s what I’ve always done. If there’s a course, or a job, or a book, or a bible reading plan, or someone else I can depend on to make me right with God then I’ll try it. But I can’t recall ever just taking time out of each day to listen. Just a few minutes to stop, listen and do nothing else. Then the other said that tonight God would give me a song. Immediately after she prayed I had to leave to get home to swap childcare with my working husband (no way I could stay). I felt disheartened that she had not heard right. But she is on it. Jesus is her heartbeat so I knew she was right.

So I’m done being a lukewarm, half-hearted Christian. I want Jesus to be my first love. my heartbeat. From right now, forevermore. But I’m scared I’m going to fail. Again. Really scared. But I’m not going to give up before I start so I will start with stopping and listening. And the journey might be long, and hard but nothing else has ever been more worth it.

And here is my song:

Jesus I’m desperate for you.

Jesus I’m desperate for more of you.

In my brokenness, in my hopelessness, break through.

 

Jesus I’m hurting and I long for you.

Jesus every part of me needs more of you.

In my brokenness, in my weakness break through.

 

Be my heartbeat, be my life source, be my everything and more,

Jesus you’re the one, my purpose, I am free.

When you died and shed your blood for me all my failure washed away

Help me live as one forgiven and redeemed.

 

Every time your heart beats let my heart beat just the same,

Let me be consumed by you again,

Be my everything, have my everything, break through.