How to get better not bitter!

Vicar’s article from the Bridge Magazine, May 2019

How to get better, not bitter

I was catching up with some old friends at a conference recently, and they started talking about all the great things going in their churches: growing youth and children’s ministries, soup kitchens, Food Banks and so on. All good stuff. And yet for some reason, I struggled to be really happy for them. If truth be told, I was more than a little jealous. Later, as I reflected on the conversations, I found myself wondering, why is it that when you compare yourself with others, you always end up feeling bitter?

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Writing well over a century ago, long before Facebook and Instagram or other forms of social media, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US President, said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Which rather begs the question, why do we compare ourselves with others at all?

Now at one level comparison is helpful. The business world has long had a practice called Benchmarking: a process by which a company can compare itself with other similar companies to identify opportunities for improvement.  At its best, it’s a scientific, data-driven process that can be an incredibly helpful tool for growing an organisation. But done badly, without due consideration to the differing circumstances of the companies, and without access to all the data, it can be really harmful.

And it’s this lack of access to the data that makes comparing ourselves to others so damaging. After all, we might be experts on how we feel on the inside, but if all we have for comparison is how others look on the outside, we’re going to reach some dumb conclusions. As church leader Steve Furtick puts it, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel”

Jesus tells a story in Matthew 25 about a rich man who gives each of his servants some money and tells them to put it to work. Later, he assesses what they’ve done, and in a scene, not a million miles removed from Sir Alan Sugar in the Apprentice, one of the candidates is discovered to have done nothing at all with the money and is fired.

But where Jesus’ story differs from the Apprentice, is the liberating way in which the master treats the remaining candidates. Instead of ranking them to find a winner, he rewards each of them. It’s his way of saying that our task in life isn’t to sprint to the finish comparing ourselves with others to see who comes first, second or third. Instead, we’re to run our own race, in our own lane. The goal is not to win, but to make the best use of the gifts God has given us, by becoming the best version of ourselves we can possibly be. As someone once said, “No one in the entire world can do a better job of being you, than you.”

So next time you’re chatting with friends, or you’re jealously watching the highlight reel of their lives on Facebook or Instagram, remind yourself that God hasn’t called you to run their race. Instead, he wants you to focus on running your own. And when you do that, not only do you run your own race better, but it sets you free to enjoy the success of others. It makes you better, not bitter.

All you need is love…

Vicar’s article from the Bridge Magazine, March 2019

 

All you need is love

How did your Valentine’s Day go? Chances are your February 14th went a lot better than it did for the two men for whom the day is named.

Today’s consumer-driven Valentine’s Day festival traces its roots back to the 14th century English poet Chaucer, whose poem the Parliament of Foules pictured all the birds meeting to choose their mates on St Valentine’s Day. But the day’s origins are older than Chaucer. It was the 5th century Pope Gelasius I who made February 14th St Valentine’s Day. He wanted to help people forget a banned Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia which was traditionally celebrated in mid-February. During Lupercalia, youths raced naked through the streets of Rome, striking women with bloody strips of flesh taken from the remains of goats and dogs sacrificed on the Lupercal Altar. This practice was thought to increase women’s fertility.

Instead, Pope Gelasius introduced something altogether more wholesome: a day to honour two early Christian leaders, both called Valentine, who were martyred by Emperor Claudius II around 270AD.

One Valentine was a priest executed on February 14th for defying an imperial order. In those days only single men could serve in the army, and facing a shortage of recruits, the emperor decided that banning marriage would increase the number of potential soldiers. When Valentine was caught secretly marrying couples, he was arrested, and Claudius had him clubbed to death in the street. You won’t find that image on Valentine’s cards in Tesco.

The second Valentine was a Christian bishop from Terni. Arrested for preaching in the streets of Rome, he was placed in the custody of a judge called Asterius who decided to put Valentine’s God to the test. Bringing in his blind daughter, Asterius told Valentine he would convert to Christianity if God could heal the girl’s eyes. Valentine prayed and the daughter could see again, and three days later the judge and all his household were baptised. Asterius then released Valentine who returned to street preaching and was again arrested. From prison, Valentine wrote a letter to Asterius’s daughter signed, “From your Valentine”, so he’s the one to blame for all those pink cards!

Valentine was eventually brought before Emperor Claudius with whom he tried to engage in debate about Christianity. Claudius found the debate interesting but when it started going badly for him, he resolved things by executing Valentine. The date? February 14th. Another Happy Valentine’s Day.

So, two Valentines, one who risked his life to defy an emperor, the other a missionary and champion of free religious speech. And both were killed on February 14th, to give birth to our modern festival. Given a choice between “I love you” cards and striking ladies with strips of goat flesh, I think the Pope Gelasius got this one right!

 

The Kingdom of Easter

Published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2019

 

The Kingdom of Easter

So what’s Easter really all about? The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? New beginnings? Flowers, chocolate and Easter bunnies?

To make sense of Easter you have to understand one thing: Jesus’ core message. So if you’ve just picked this magazine up at random, then read on – because if you grasp this, you’ll be well ahead of a lot of churchgoers!

The gospel of Mark sums up Jesus’ core message like this:

The time has come, the Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:14).

Jesus’ core message is as simple as that.

So what does this “Kingdom of God” mean? Maybe it’s like a religious frequent flyers club where you build up point for being good and doing religious things and being on church fundraising committees. Now those are all good things, but they aren’t what Jesus meant.

Or maybe the Kingdom of God is about politics: a way for religious leaders to motivate the masses to fight for whatever bit of land needs defending? But that’s not what Jesus had in mind, either.

Instead, think about kingdom like this: remember the days when you used to sit in the back seat of your parents’ car and fight with your brother or sister about “my side” and “your side”? Well, your “kingdom” is the bit of the seat you rule over. And that’s what the Kingdom of God is like: it’s the realm over which God rules: a realm of eternal love, peace and justice.

Now when some people hear that, they imagine Jesus means Heaven, but again that’s not what Jesus meant. The Kingdom of God isn’t about us going from down here on earth, to up there in Heaven. Instead, when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God his focus was on bringing up there down here. That’s why he taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your Kingdom Come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” His point is not that we go up to Heaven, it’s that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming down to earth. And it all starts with Jesus. His body and life was the first place people could see God’s will being done on earth, as they would in Heaven.

That’s why he was such a threat to the rulers of his day. It wasn’t “love one another” that troubled them, it was all his talk about Kingdoms. That’s why they killed him. And that’s why God raised him from the dead: because in the Kingdom of God, there is no death. Only life in all its fullness, forever.

And that’s the point of Easter: a forever and a day promise of life in all its fullness, in the Kingdom of God; a Kingdom which is still near to us now.

And to receive it, we have to welcome it’s king, Jesus, by making him the centre of our lives. And when we do that –a little bit of “up there” comes and dwells in us, a deposit guaranteeing us all of God’s Kingdom promises for the future.

So that’s Easter: The Kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.  And it’s as true and accessible today as it was on the first Easter Sunday.

May you have a very Happy Easter, and may a little bit of “up there” come “down here” to dwell with you this Easter time.

Visit www.hopechurchfamily.org/easter to find out about Easter celebrations in the church in your community.

 

In a spirit of full disclosure, I might have pinched an idea or two for this article from a talk given by US Pastor John Ortberg on Easter Sunday 2015.

Losing Jesus.

First published in the Bridge Magazine, February 2019

 

What have I got in common with David Cameron and Jesus’ mother Mary? Answer: we’ve all suffered the embarrassment of losing a child in a public place.

Back in 2012, the Camerons and their three children stopped off at a country pub. After a swift pint, the Prime Minister jumped into a car with his security team, and his wife Samantha followed with two of their children. Each assumed the other had eight-year-old Nancy, who was actually in the pub toilet. A panicked telephone call confirmed Nancy was okay, and her embarrassed Mum returned fifteen minutes later to collect her.

They have my sympathy because I did something similar in an Edinburgh pub back in 2009. A game of hide and seek, combined with a failure to do our normal headcount when it was time to leave, meant that it was only as I reversed out of the car park that my wife noticed the lost child’s bemused face staring at us through the pub door.

But when it comes to losing a child, Mary takes the biscuit. She lost the 12-year old Jesus for three whole days in Jerusalem. It was only at the end of the first day of the long journey back to Nazareth that she realised Jesus wasn’t off playing with the other children.  Three frantic days of searching later, mother and son were reunited. Perhaps predictably Jesus was debating the scholars in the temple courts,

Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?

He says to his Mum, before she presumably grounded him for a month.

I wonder if you have ever lost Jesus? Not physically like Mary did, of course, but spiritually. Christmas was a great time to reconnect with him. It’s relatively easy to find Jesus in a carol service or other special Christmas events. But then the hustle and bustle of January means we get distracted and take our eyes off him. Rather than depend on the one who is in charge, we get busy trying to organise and plan every detail of our lives. And ever so slowly, the truly important business of enjoying the presence of God in our lives as we read the scriptures and pray gets squeezed out. That’s what I mean by losing Jesus.

It’s a bit late for New Year’s Resolutions, but it’s never too late to find Jesus again. So why not set aside five minutes of every day, to meet with God in prayer? Talk to him about your worries, your hopes and dreams. A lot of people find a verse from the Bible can help with this: a website called verseoftheday.com will even email you a daily Bible meditation to help you focus your thoughts on Jesus. And as you do that, something remarkable will happen: God will come and meets with you, as what was lost, becomes found.

If it bleeds it leads

First published in the Bridge Magazine, October 2018

I was chatting with someone recently and we got onto politics and elections, and his real fear that if an election came suddenly, he wouldn’t know who to vote for.

Conservative? But the Prime Minister is incompetent – just look at the mess with Brexit. Labour – Corbyn just wants to take the country back to the 1970s. And the other parties are no better.”

Then we switched to the broader political scene – and

that idiot Trump, and Putin – he’s a monster.”

We live in a frightening world. Or do we? Is it really as bad as it seems in the newspapers? When the Queen had her 90th birthday back in 2016, Guardian Columnist Simon Jenkins reflected on why a good news story was getting so much coverage when newspapers generally only give us bad news. And the simple answer is that bad news sells: or in newspaper speak:

If it bleeds, it leads.”

He recalled how an edict once came down from a newspaper owner saying he was fed up with so much bad news, so his staff prepared a spoof front page. ‘It reported:

No crashes at Heathrow”; “Government doing well”;

and in gossip column,

All celebrities slept in their own beds last night”.

Would you buy a newspaper that read like that?

And that’s part of the problem. We live in a frightening world because most of our information about our frightening world comes from newspapers who know that we won’t buy them if they don’t give us a reason to! The Pew Research Centre in the USA studied people’s news preferences over a 20-year period, starting in the late 1980s. What they found is that

people’s interest in the news is much more intense when there’s a perceived treat to their way of life.”

Fear sells! There’s money in crisis. Click here to find all about something horrible and how to avoid it.

The psychologists have probed the consequences of all this. Apparently, the more we’re exposed to news media, the more likely we are to feel our communities are unsafe; that the crime rate is rising (it isn’t!); and that the world is a dangerous place. Most strikingly of all, it makes us completely overestimate the odds of becoming a victim.

So how do we handle fear? Well we could read less news, but that too has its dangers. But what if we could find a place to read from that offers absolute security? Psalm 46 is an ancient prayer written by an unknown Bible author to teach his people how to pray in response to fear:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging…

…The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress….

…He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 1-3, 7, 10)

We love good news, and it’s a helpful buffer to fear. But what we really need in this life is the safety the Lord provides. When we place ourselves in his fortress we can choose not to fear, because we’ll know the absolute security offered by the one who, one day, will call all the nations to be still, and to give an account of their actions before him.

So next time you find yourself afraid because of a news story, why not turn to Psalm 46 and read it through and use it to pray away the fear?

The Power of Forgiveness

First published in the Bridge Magazine, November 2018 edition.

On March 28 2010, 19-year old Conor McBride shot his fiancée Ann Grosmaire, after a horrible row that had lasted for two days. An hour later he voluntarily handed himself into the police.

Ann was so badly wounded she had no hope of recovery. As he sat at her hospital bedside, her father Andy longed for her to speak. And as he listened he became utterly convinced he could hear her say, “Forgive him.” But how could he forgive this?

After four days Ann’s parents decided to switch off her ventilator. As he prayed next to her bed, Andy felt God speaking to him, that it was not just Ann asking him to forgive Conor, but Jesus Christ. Andy shared this with his wife Kate, who next day visited Conor in jail.

It was an emotional meeting. Conor wept as he said how very sorry he was. And then battling tears of her own, Kate explained that she and Andy wanted to forgive Conor for what he’d done. Then murderer, and the mother of the victim, sat and cried together for fifteen minutes. When the visit was over, Kate returned to the hospital, where she and Andy turned off Ann’s life support. Conor later received a twenty year sentence for her murder.

Forgiveness is not easy, but it is better than bitterness. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats us up from the inside out, destroying our relationships with others, splitting churches and villages, hindering our prayers and blocking the flow of God’s blessing in our lives. The only cure for the cancer of bitterness is the chemotherapy of love and forgiveness. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount,

love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

and

if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Kate and Andy’s decision to forgive Conor set them free. Kate says,

Everything I feel [now], I can feel because we forgave Conor… Because we could forgive, people can say her name [around us]… I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”

So how do you forgive? One simple way is to get a blank sheet of paper, and write down who needs to be forgiven and for what. Write honestly about how the wrong made you feel, and how you want to let go of those feelings. Then try to imagine the benefits of forgiving and write those down too: for example, how you long for sadness to become joy. Then at the bottom write “I forgive X” where X is the person who has wronged you. Then when you’ve written it all down, turn it into a prayer, seeking God’s help to forgive, saying sorry for how hard you find forgiveness, and asking him to help you change how you feel about that person. Finally, share the news with someone. If it’s the person you’re angry with, so much the better!

And as you do that, you’ll discover something wonderful: freedom. As counsellor Lewis B. Smedes puts it,

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

 

_______

 

You can read the full story of Conor and Ann’s families here.

 

Got a big question about God?