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Saturday, 19 December 2015

Preparation and Distraction (Part 4 of 4: Follow your Star)

The star that led the wise men to the stable, leads us all to the cradle...and the Cross...

I took the picture above last year, it's of the Christmas decorations from my home town of Coventry. For those unfamiliar with Coventry's history you may not have heard the tale of Lady Godiva, who is immortalised in the statue you can see in the picture; very briefly the; legend states that back in the 11th century in order to publicly oppose harsh taxation of the poor by her husband Lord Leofric; Godiva gave up her dignity while also shaming Leofric by riding naked on a horse through the city, covered only by her long hair; out of respect the citizens looked away; except for one man who became known as peeping Tom (which is where we get the expression from).

So what is the point of that for us today on this, the last Sunday in Advent?
Well as the 3 wise men or kings or magi (however you wish to name them) followed a star to their destinies, so Godiva followed her heart to her destiny, and as we listen to God and follow His direction through our hearts and the scriptures we too will be led to our destinies and to the place where God wants to use us. (I know the story of the wise men is technically Epiphany, but as we associate it with Christmas I hope you'll indulge me).

That all sounds very nice, but it can actually be rather scary and difficult, although the task of the wise men to worship Christ was actually relatively easy it did require a long difficult journey which would've put them in danger and of course finding themselves in the clutches of the tyrannical king Herod. But it led to them taking the news of Christ back east with them and gave the holy family time to escape the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem by fleeing to Egypt.

God often calls us to difficult challenges and situations; this isn't anything new though, Christ made this clear during His earthly ministry:

'Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.' - Matthew 16:24

'If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.' - John 15:19

The same God that called the wise men to the cradle, called Christ to the Cross. Our first call is to that cradle; to worship and adore Christ above all; to submit to His will and purpose, after that He sends us where He wants not where we want, sometimes that is a call to suffer and sacrifice. We must be prepared to do whatever it is we are called to do. This may not be easy but 'where God guides, He provides'. Christmas draws near I urge you to 'go, follow that star' in your lives, everyday and Keep your ears and hearts open for God's call and be ready to make that journey, no matter how prepared and don't get distracted on the journey; or as Bilbo Baggins put it:

'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.'

Of course, sometimes we have to be open to God stepping in and sweeping us of our feet...

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Friday, 18 December 2015

It's oh so quiet...

The time is around 3am, and as I'm writing I'm sitting in my Church with my feet up trying to stay awake...don't worry I haven't broken in!
I'm here as a volunteer as part of a winter night shelter programme for rough sleepers in my city.

I'm writing, not to blow my own trumpet, but because of the amazing sense of peace and tranquility that is present here...despite the many difficult and varied situations our guests face everyday; there is peace here and it's oh so quiet; so far...

I've been thinking about this sense of peace, this is the only time that my Church is this quiet and relaxed; I belong to a relatively big church and Sundays can be hectic as I guess most churches are. Although space is always made during the services to be quiet before God, it isn't quite the same with lots of people around.
The lights in the worship hall are off, there's just a dim light from the street lights outside making the place look almost a little eerie, our band and choir are nowhere to be seen; all the trappings are packed away; and all through the church 'not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse'.

It reminds me of this quote from Roald Dahl's the BFG:
'The witching hour, somebody had once whispered to her, was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world all to themselves.'

Darkness is not always so peaceful; a couple of years ago one of my friends (ironically the same friend who's with me tonight) took my wife and I on a weekend of hiking in Wales...during this weekend we climbed Tryfan; a mountain in north Wales. I've included a picture; perhaps it's not the biggest mountain in the world; but a good hike regardless and here in the UK we're very proud of our mountains, whatever their size.

Due to a late start and very (very) bad weather (even for Wales!) we lost the path as night closed in. Now, if anybody has ever been stuck on a mountain without proper equipment and supplies as it's starting to get dark, then you will know it's not fun! Fortunately after a bit of Adventuring we eventually managed to find the path, just before we lost the light entirely and although it meant a tricky and dangerous journey back to camp, we at least knew where we going... Despite some of the path being more like a river! But I realised later, when looking back that during this time, this is when I needed God's peace more than ever.

So mountain climbing in the dark while unprepared is not so much peaceful as it is terrifying... But back to my night shift at's so nice and valuable to be here and experience my church away from the hustle and bustle that's usually going on, it makes me realise how important these quiet times of peace and tranquility are during my busy life and I guess the lesson for me is that, throughout life and at especially at this time of year, as Christmas is only a week away, to take regular time out and make room and time out for God and allow His presence and peace to rest on all of us, and especially during the busy, hectic and sometimes scary times.

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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Why are you a Christian? / Strength in sharing

A question for everybody on here; one that I'm sure we've all been asked from time to time... Why are you a Christian?

I've decided to post this question after being inspired by a Facebook post from the Archbishop of Canterbury; Justin Welby giving his answer to this question. Here's a link if you're interested in reading his full answer:

But here's just a short excerpt:
"That's why I'm a Christian. And that's why, whatever happens, whatever stupid mistakes, I know that even at the end of it all, even if everything else fails, God doesn't - and He will not fail, even to end of my life."

I guess it's hard to be prepared to answer that question on the spur of the moment, sometimes we may even try and avoid the question altogether so we don't say something stupid... Believe me, I'm the expert at saying stupid things. Unfortunately, that doesn't let us off; as Peter writes in his first epistle:

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 1Peter 3:15

The key in this verse for me is the last part 'gentleness and respect'. It's so easy to get carried away and start preaching at people when someone asks us why we're Christians. But that isn't the point of telling our stories and giving our answers; it's to be witnesses and explain who we are, and more importantly why we believe and why we're here.

I believe that we can be stronger and better together when we speak with one voice and share our stories and answers with each other. I hope that those that read this will think about the question of why they're Christians and answer it for yourselves personally and privately and maybe in the comment section on this blog or on the Facebook page (link at the end of the blog) or twitter (@inspiredfaith88).

Here's my answer:
I'm a Christian because I believe that God is personally involved with and interested in all of us and loves us, but more than that, that we are a part of God, as He is a part of us, and we are a part of each other. Through Him we are all connected as a global family and He will not allow us to face the trials of this life alone. The most important reason of course is that God through Christ has taken a weak, short tempered and sometimes broken individual and made me a beloved son.

So it's over to you, to think about your answer and as I said to maybe share something of your journey, but of course no pressure...

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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Preparation and Distraction (Part 3 of 4 - 'A Journey into Danger' Matthew 2:13)

Just Like a KFC chicken; not every journey has a happy end...

This the third and penultimate post in this Advent series of 'Preparation and Distraction' we're nearly there; the gates of Bethlehem are coming into view...

If anyone here is a fan of great fantasy literature by authors like Raymond E Feist, Michael Moorcock and of course Tolkien or, for that matter TV shows like Star Trek you will understand how thrilling, a story of an epic journey can be. 'A Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step' or so the old saying goes. All these old stories have that in common...mostly ordinary men, women (and of course Hobbits) taking that first step of faith into adventure, danger and legend.

There was one such couple that I'm sure you've heard about, that went on a memorable journey, a long planned and prepared for journey, a journey that took place; oh, about 2000 years ago!

This ancient journey to Bethlehem is one that truly catches our imagination. as we prepare ourselves for the imminent arrival of Christmas, we remember this journey. It's almost strange that we don't hear more about the journey itself. Any avid readers would expect such an important journey to be filled with misadventure and action...but this comes later; a vengeful King Herod, the slaughter of innocents and ultimately an epic dash to freedom...the Holy, first family and their escape to Egypt.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." - Matthew 2:13

So we have the makings of a great story; a journey, a villain, mortal danger. All we need is a mighty hero riding into battle to save the day...this hero does things differently; this hero will live His life in the shadow of service and sacrifice; His, is a journey to pain and suffering and to glory...This is Christmas, this isn't just some flowery story of shepherds and angelic choirs. This is a story of one greater than all of us, more wonderful, more worthy, better in every conceivable way; living to serve and to sacrifice for the least.

As we continue the relentless march towards Christmas, as our preparations and distractions reach fever pitch in this, the third week of Advent... Remember the journey that the Holy family took, a journey as we said, of service and sacrifice. I urge you to reflect on your own journeys and what God is asking of you and remember that God will be with you; or to put it another way:

'The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.' - Psalm 23:1-4

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Friday, 11 December 2015

A Church damaged beyond repair?

This post is perhaps a little heavy... But unfortunately we, as a combined Church of God, are facing some very serious issues, which we all know. I have been thinking about this subject for a while and hopefully you'll appreciate my thoughts and opinion on this issue... I would love to hear others opinions on this, it's only by talking about and discovering our faults that we can face them and truly heal.

We are an ancient institution, founded 2000 years ago, as I'm sure we all know, since those early days we have picked up some strange traditions and quirks, divided ourselves into factions and in some cases become bitter enemies. We are fractured and hurting. The church today is so different to it's beginnings...and yet somehow very much the same.

We have become social activists, moral guardians and sometimes politicians; of course these can all be great and positive things; which have made us more diverse and effective. But have we, as the secular world would tell us, become irrelevant? Some would say we've passed our prime, that we're showing our age and perhaps it's time to put the old horse down... Not a chance! I say we're here because God ordained that we should be here, perhaps we have lost something of our identity, our place in the world, but don't dismiss that as irrelevancy or uselessness.

We are damaged, there is no getting away from that. we often fail, sometimes through genuine mistakes; sometimes through more sinister and deliberate actions. Sometimes we are stuck in the past; held back by intolerance and prejudice. Whatever it is, and in whichever way we fail, whether that be a large issue or seemingly inconsequential, we still fall short of God's glorious standard. We still risk damaging prospective disciples and, by our actions turn them away from Christ.

So how do we overcome these failures and challenges? How do we reach the lost without compromising our integrity or mission? How do we minister to a hurting world without diluting the gospel or pandering to societies 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude to religion?
Well I can't really answer that, or come up with some new secret formula or groundbreaking opinion; if it counts for anything is that our success lies in doing a really hard thing, perhaps too hard...we must learn to LISTEN;
listen to the gospel, to the cries of a world in need and most importantly to the heartbeat of God. Then everything else will become clear; maybe some will say that is a nonsense statement or impractical or just words, but I stand by it...I certainly don't know the answers to heal our broken Church and broken lives but I know someone who does...

Are we damaged? Have we fallen short, and worse fallen asleep? Do we fail? Are we fractured and waste time fighting each other? Unfortunately the answer to all those, is yes!

But are we finished? Are we beyond repair? Are we past our best? Should we just give up and disappear into the night?
Never! We believe in a God of second and third chances, a God of redemption, a God of healing and a God who takes the damaged and the broken and the hurting and calls us His friends...

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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

'This Army's for Life, not just for Christmas'

I've tried to keep this blog ecumenical and I certainly will try to continue that. But I express my faith in Christ through the Salvation Army, that doesn't mean that I consider other denominations somehow inferior... Far from it. But it is where I firmly believe God has placed me and occasionally I may publish posts about the Army or about things that are happening...this is the first: 'This Army's for life, not just for Christmas'.

So here goes:

Depending on where you are in the world your experience of the Salvation Army will be different; those in America will have spotted the red kettles and bell ringers appearing, in the UK it will be brass bands, Christmas carols and concerts, less public perhaps will be Christmas toy appeals, soup kitchens etc while caroling last week I repeatedly heard the phrase: 'it's not Christmas until you've seen the Salvation Army'.

But is that all we are, a Christmas movement?...I say not; just this week some parts of the UK have seen some of the worst rainfall in many years and towns have been flooded; emergency services have risen to the challenge...but in the background serving their communities and these emergency services, providing support is the Army... Again while caroling I spoke to people who many years ago found themselves in need of help and someone who is currently being helped by the Army and both were linked by a common sense of gratitude.

But before I get carried away I will say that the Army is far from perfect, because unfortunately it is populated by imperfect human beings like me who will fall and fail but by the grace of God we will carry on...sometimes we must seem weird and old fashioned, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The Army is worth far more than just a Christmas a Christian Church and organisation we aim to take the love of God with us wherever and whenever we go, and this applies to all Christian denominations.

We all seem to come out of the woodwork at this time of year... We have our carol services and other events and try and capitalise on 'Christmas spirit' but the truth is, we should be doing this all year round; it's almost like we hibernate from January until November... Now I know this isn't true, Christians and Church's around the world are active 24/7 it seems though that this time of year is the only time we have 'permission' to be Christians.

The point of this blog post is not to say that that everyone should do what the Army's doing, all that would achieve is to multiply our failures and weaknesses while simply being a carbon copy of our successes, the Army is not how everyone expresses their faith...and that's fine; service requires doing whatever it is that a community needs, we need all denominations to do what they do best, while lifting up and supporting each others weaknesses.

So please remember that despite mistakes, failures and weaknesses, we stand with the rest of the Church against injustice and hatred in a fallen world. We all, as Christians, carry with us the love and power of God so please keep in mind that: Anglican's, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists and of course Salvationists as well as every other denominations which there isn't space to mention; are for life, not just for Christmas!

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Disclaimer: the opinions and comments expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Salvation Army

Sunday, 6 December 2015

'Preparation and Distraction' (Part 2 of 4 - 'hands up if you love bubble wrap' Exodus 32:1-4)

'When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him."
Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me."
So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron.
He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." ' - Exodus 32:1-4

'Hands up if you love bubble wrap!'

Like many people I have a borderline obsession with the amazing invention that is bubble wrap! Very little in life is as satisfying as popping the little bubbles and hearing that reassuring 'pop'. If someone brings me something wrapped in bubble wrap it will have to be something truly spectacular to take precedent over the popping of these bubbles.

Does anybody else get distracted by packaging at the expense of a gift? I think many of us can easily fall into this trap... I worry if sometimes the Church has fallen into this trap. We sometimes can be guilty of putting ceremony and traditions ahead of the Gospel and our soul saving mission. This can be even worse at Christmas with the carol concerts, rehearsals for various events etc not to mention the present wrapping, Christmas card writing and all our other personal preparations; we can be so focused on these trappings that we can lose sight of the greatest gift of all, as the Israelites did when they lost sight of the LORD and instead became distracted by the Golden calf made by Aaron.

No matter how shiny the packaging, the truth of Christ is that all of the extras in Christianity are unnecessary. All that matters is the Love and power of Christ and His care for us and His desire to welcome us into His kingdom. The extras can be great and beautiful and I'm not recommending a return to puritanism, but if these things: the concerts, the stained glass windows, coffee rotas and everything else we surround ourselves with, cause distraction and distance from God they must be removed...that aside though, enjoy them, let them add to our sense of wonder and togetherness...recognise their place but don't risk throwing out the bubble wrap with the bath water!

Look out for part 3 of 'Preparation and Distraction' next Sunday

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