Slowing down during Advent

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I love Christmas. I love the preparations, the waiting, the build up of excitement, the putting up of decorations, the time spent devising menus. I love being involved in the music for carol services, watching our children’s excitement as they prepare for the nativity play. But, if I’m honest, I also struggle with the stress.

I see the start of Advent, and know that it’s a time of reflection – and I long to have the time and space to really enjoy it. However, I’m sad to say, the busyness of life so often crowds in as I rush to finish deadlines before the kids break up from school.

At this point in our calendar I’m focused most on getting our son’s birthday party celebrations organised, with the ever-growing list of jobs to do for Christmas weighing on my mind.

Even among all the activity, though, I can sense a longing in my soul. I am desperate to connect, to find the deeper meaning in this season. And I am desperate for our family’s experience of Advent to go beyond chocolate and calendars.

I am drawn to rediscover the meaning of waiting this Advent. Drawn to the character of Mary, and what this time meant for her. When we first meet her in the gospels she seems like a vulnerable young woman; betrothed to a respectable man in her neighbourhood. But one visit from an angel changes everything.

Mary’s response to that angel, after a few somewhat understandable questions, is simply ‘I am the Lord’s servant… May your words to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38) Incredible. I could never be that calm.

After visiting Elizabeth, Mary creates what is often referred to as the Magnificat, her song of praise (Luke 1:46-55). Through it she reveals she understands the way that God has blessed her for a special purpose. Mary recognises that God is a champion for the poor and oppressed too, and that God is fulfilling His promises to Abraham (and Israel) through what is to take place.

Whenever I look at those verses I am always taken aback. Granted, Mary has had a visitation from an angel, who has taken the time to explain things to her. Elizabeth has also recognised that the baby inside of Mary is the Lord so Mary has someone she can talk freely with. But still…

While Mary herself recognises she is highly favoured, she’s also in a time of waiting that is filled with so many unknowns. Will Joseph stand by her? If he does, will their society cast them out? And then, once the census was decreed, how will she cope with the long journey to Bethlehem and where will she give birth? (I’m sure that the idea of a stable never once entered her head!) What would her son be like? How would He make Himself known as the Messiah?

So many questions, yet the biblical account doesn’t reveal much about Mary’s state of mind. There seems to be a peace amongst the anticipation while the reality must have been messy, and deeply painful, at times. What surrounds this part of the Christmas story for me is stillness and patience; the atmosphere thick with pregnant hope.

While I pause for a moment to reflect and write this, I pray that I too can find that stillness and patience. That I too can look forward to the coming celebrations with hope, not allowing the stress and busyness that can so easily accompany this season to rob me of the precious gift behind it all.

This blog was originally published on Christian Today.

Suffragette – and sacrifice

SUFFRAGETTEOfficialUKPosterI was so excited to see the new film Suffragette last night. It was everything I was hoping it would be – challenging, inspiring, uncomfortable in (lots of) places, beautifully shot, well acted. When I take the time to ponder what those women went through I still can’t quite believe that it was such a relatively short time ago. Our generation of women owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women of that era who refused to be silenced. (But yes I do acknowledge there is still much to be done…)

I have to say, I’m not sure that I would have condoned the violent methods that were employed by the WSPU. But watching the film last night, having the bits of history literally brought to life in front of me, did make me think again. How would I have felt if I had been led to believe that there were men in government that supported votes for women, who spent time listening to women’s testimonies, only to be told in a quick announcement that nothing was changing? As Meryl Streep said in her speech as Emmeline Pankhurst, for fifty years they had tried peaceful methods. How much pent-up frustration must there have been amongst the crowd of women at that point?

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I know, if I’m truly honest, how frustrated I get if my voice isn’t heard. So while I can’t say I agree with all I saw and have read about their methods, and it’s a shame the film didn’t include the more peaceful ways the suffragists, for example, protested, I don’t feel that I can sit in judgement. I can’t get the thought of the women being expected to simply accept the decision out of my mind, and the way the police dispersed the crowd using violence – and even physical abuse (ripping clothes and groping).

The film’s action is propelled by the story of a young mother, Maud. It is hugely emotive at times – she seems to be pushed into becoming a suffragette by others and I found myself finding that rather uncomfortable. But, trying not to give too much away, she gets to a point where standing up for the rights of women could cost her everything – including her family. I was really challenged by that. Is there a cause that I’m that passionate about?

Then I thought to myself: what would I do if there comes a point in my life when following Jesus could cost me my family? It’s such a painful thing to consider – and yet the Bible talks about us losing our lives for Jesus (Matthew 10:39), and there are many around the world doing just that right now.

What I was reading as part of my daily devotion today, Rachel Gardner’s wonderful book Beloved, has a line that really jumped out at me: ‘Nothing life can offer, including life itself, can compare to knowing Jesus’. Wow. I know I know that, but just reading it afresh made that truth hit me again. Wow.

Watching Suffragette made me truly grateful for those who stood up for what they believed in, and also made me question whether I ever do the same. But this morning I’ve been challenged once again to consider how much I am willing to give up for Jesus…

The value of wisdom from elders

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Each one of us hopefully learns a great deal through our lifetime, but what do we do with that knowledge? Does it go with us to our graves, or do we learn to share it with others graciously, and without expectation for the way they will use it?

Looking to the older generation for advice seems to have gone out of fashion these days, perhaps partly because families no longer live with or near each other. I don’t know if it is the computer generation with its instant answers from Google (although I suspect it happened long before the internet), but the younger generation doesn’t seem to want to ask for advice and wisdom from their elders. Titus 2 talks about older women offering encouragement to younger women to live their lives well, and I think that’s a great model for us all.

While methodology may change (I still cringe when I think of some of the advice I and my friends got as young mums from older women) those who have journeyed further along life’s path can be a huge source of wisdom, and it is foolish not to tap into it. Surely that’s something of what church family is about? It is both disrespectful and arrogant to think that these people have nothing to offer us in terms of advice and wisdom, so how can we make ourselves more open to it?

And those of us who are no longer spring-like teenagers or in our twenties should also consider what our life lessons have been along the way so far. What wisdom might we have to pass on to those who are younger (in age but also in their faith)?

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The incredible power of the gospel

Puppets2What do singing puppets, friendly face painters, church members praying with passers by and a visiting evangelist preaching the gospel have in common?

Well that’s what a recent Saturday looked like on our town’s high street. Our church had evangelist Jonathan Conrathe come and work with us for the weekend. We had plenty of gatherings at church but we also set up in town during the day on the Saturday. My husband was involved in the puppets, which always draw a crowd, and my daughter and I were face painting.

Those types of activities are almost ‘safe’ evangelism – we are ‘doing’ things so don’t have to put ourselves on the line too much (although it was good to have some fruitful discussions with parents, who were so much more open because their kids were happily entertained).

What struck and challenged me most about the time, however, was how people responded to the gospel being preached. I was amazed (and then repented of being amazed) by how Jonathan simply gave the gospel message and people responded to it there and then on the street and we had the privilege of praying with them.

Listening while face painting I can remember thinking a few times “I could never say that” and “Isn’t that rather politically incorrect – can you say that on a British high street?” Don’t get me wrong, Jonathan preached with grace and clarity, not damning fire and brimstone. And when he called for a response there were those whose hearts had obviously been touched who wanted to make a commitment to Jesus.

The experience of being on the high street that day caused me to reflect on how the gospel certainly is timeless – and it also holds an unfathomable power. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

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Why scrubbing loos is a good idea

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What is it about the human condition that makes us look around the people we come into contact with day to day and compare ourselves to them? It is something we have to work really hard not to do, which means the comparison culture inevitably infiltrates our church communities too.

I’m sure we’ve all had those moments: times when we’ve see others in a role that we wish we had and felt slightly jealous. Perhaps we even feel entitled to that role – or think in our minds that we could do a much better job than the person currently doing it.

 Or perhaps we end up in the mindset that thinks we have to contribute to the service each week – by bringing another word or reading another portion of scripture out. Why do we do that? A desperate need within us to connect with God, or a deep-seated desire to look more holy than those around us?

I think we need to ask ourselves those difficult questions regularly about our motivations for serving within our church communities. None of us is immune to selfish ambition and desires, but it is much easier to nip them in the bud early rather than letting ourselves get carried away with them.

Indeed, in Philippians 2 we are told: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (v3-4).

Jesus had some really harsh words to say about those people who put on a show of holiness in church: “Everything they do is for men to see” (Matthew 23:5) and “Woe to you … you hypocrites!”, which he repeats in verses 13, 15, 23, 25, 27 and 29. With that amount of repetition I think we can see Jesus really wanted to get his message across!

Speaking about the teachers of the law, it was the difference between their public show of purity and piety and their everyday lives that angered Jesus the most. Indeed, He instructed His disciples and the crowds “you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (v3).

Ouch.

Harsh words or the simple, honest truth?

To read the rest of this post, please click here – where the reason for the title will become clear 😉

Learning to be thankful – at all times

The new term is well under way and already I feel like I’ve been struggling to catch up. I had the most wonderful Christmas, but since then both my husband and I have been dogged with illness. New Year came and went with no let up, then the kids went back to school and life continued to seem like a blur.

Friends asked if I’d made new year’s resolutions, but I replied that I was frustrated that I hadn’t had any time or space to reflect on the previous year and pray through my goals and vision for this year (something I like to do every January). I hadn’t even got my office in order or put up a new calendar.

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A few days after the kids went back to school it suddenly dawned on me how down I felt. It wasn’t that anything awful had happened – and, as I’ve said, we had a lovely Christmas. But the constant pain and problems in my body, combined with a lack of sleep, were taking their toll on my emotions.

I knew I was responding negatively to people – my husband, kids, others around me – and was desperate to do something about it. But I also knew that I needed time with those who would do me good rather than just pressing through and trying in my own strength. And that meant spending time with God – and booking a lunch date with a friend who both encourages and challenges me.

Over lunch we talked and cried, and I left feeling lighter. The following morning I couldn’t get the phrase ‘For yet I will praise Him’ out of my mind as I drove back from dropping the kids off at school. I had been saying to God that I was frustrated with myself; there was so much I wanted to get done, but I still felt like I just wanted a date with my duvet.

I came home and looked up the phrase, finding it in three psalms. Here’s one from Psalm 42:5:

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”

Something inside me leapt. I realised that, like the psalmist, I needed to speak to my soul and remind myself to put my hope and trust in God.

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Are you willing to let God disrupt your life?

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We are now in Advent, traditionally a time of looking forward and preparing for the coming of Christ through acts of remembrance and repentance as we get ourselves ready spiritually.

The word advent is the anglicised version of the Latin word adventus, which means ‘coming’, ‘arrival’, ‘approach’. During this time we remember the longing ancient people had for a saviour, a messiah, but also how we should be alert for His second coming.

Today, however, I’ve been pondering the consequences of one particular visit or ‘approach’ that started off the events of that first Christmas. That of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, which I’ve been looking at in Luke 1:26-38.

I was struck afresh today what a bizarre and potentially terrifying experience it must have been for a young girl to suddenly be face to face with an angel. That itself was mind-blowing enough. And yet what about his message? To be told that you, a young, unmarried virgin, would be the mother of the Son of God?!

We obviously don’t get a blow-by-blow account of the story in the Gospels, but I wonder what your response would have been if you had been given such a life-changing message?

We are told that at the start of the conversation ‘Mary was greatly troubled at his words’ (Luke 1:29). Don’t you just love the Bible’s skill at understatement? Troubled? I think I would have either frozen stiff, screamed for help or run away. And that was before he’d even told her God’s plans…

Mary was obviously someone who sought God and made following Him a priority; that must have helped her recognise that this angelic being was indeed sent from God. I admire her courage for sticking it out, for staying long enough to hear his full message.

Pondering the passage in Luke, I do believe that God’s peace must have descended on Mary when she accepted that she was listening to His messenger. How else could she stand there and listen without having a serious freak out?

But what strikes me the most is her simple trust and obedience. Just listen to what she says when Gabriel has finished his speech: ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (v38)

Part of me wants to shout at her: ‘Come on Mary he’s just totally disrupted your wedding plans – actually, he may well have cost you your wedding. Who is going to believe that you will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit? That just sounds crazy. Do you really think Joseph will believe you?’

And yet that side of me is silenced by the piercing effect her response has. Mary was being asked to trust an angelic being who had brought her a message that would turn her life upside down but, not only that, would change the world if the boy indeed turned out to be the Messiah they were all hoping for. What a privilege … but what an enormous upheaval that necessitated her laying down her rights to all her dreams and plans.

What this passage has made me consider, is what I would do if Jesus or an angel came to me and asked me to disrupt my plans. Not my whole life – just my week’s plans.

To read the rest of this reflection, please click here.

Lessons from the cheese box

This morning I opened the fridge door and immediately spotted that the box that we keep our cheese in had moved shelves. My family had been staying for the weekend and had looked after our kids while we were out, so they had obviously put it back in a different place. I was intrigued by my response: I was both offended and surprised.

The offence came from my immediate reaction: “What’s the cheese box doing there? That’s not where it lives!” and the surprise, “Hmm, it looks neater there – perhaps that’s a better spot”.

As I shut the fridge door I felt God whisper to me, “That’s your response when people do things differently to you”. I knew He was talking about the ‘offended’ response. Ouch.

As part of a leadership training course I’m attending, we’ve spent time looking at how well we foster new leaders. I’ve started asking myself these sorts of questions:

Do I encourage others into new leadership roles or am I fearful of what that might mean for me?

Do I always ‘need’ to be involved in new initiatives or am I happy to see others bring them into fruition?

Do I gladly embrace new ways of doing things suggested by other people or do I do so half-heartedly, grumbling in my heart that it will never work and ‘knowing’ that mine is the better way?

Am I seeking to raise up other leaders who will be able to take over the roles I am currently in, or am I holding on too tightly?

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Finding a rhythm that works

Our children are back to school now and life is settling back into the recognisable term-time pattern. For me, the start of this particular term of each year is a time in which I take stock and look at my life’s rhythm.

This summer became of wonderful tapestry of visiting friends, enjoying holiday time as a family, reorganising my office and celebrating my daughter’s ninth birthday. Oh and we also managed to squeeze in our church’s big outreach event.

It was such a great few months – and yet we didn’t get a chance to draw breath at all. My husband and I commented that we hadn’t had any evenings on our own; we celebrated our 21st anniversary towards the end of the summer holidays and in my card to him I asked whether we could really try and pace ourselves this term!

I am now sitting surrounded by all the work I’ve kept simmering away while the kids were off school, but which I now need to tackle in earnest. I’m so grateful for the work, but taking a break to focus on the kids means there’s rather a big stack of it now!

Of course, the start of the autumn term is also usually the time that churches launch new initiatives and ours is no different. So, as I’m sure you can gather, it’s a busy time of year for us as a family.

With everything that has been going on, and which I know is coming up, I’ve had some moments when I have literally felt the panic rising up, trying to overtake me. I am, for instance, about to start a leadership training course. The material looks great but I’m wondering how I will cope with it all and fit in enough time to mull over and implement what I learn.

In those times of panic I’ve had to come back to God and ask for His wisdom. Of course, some of that is obvious common sense – I need to look after my family and myself in order to be able to serve consistently. So I know I/we need to look at the rhythm of our lives and make changes before we burn out.

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How well do we support parents?

I recently attended a day at a nearby church focused on equipping Christian parents. Whole families were able to go, and the organisers did a fantastic job of keeping our children engaged and excited about the activities they did while we had teaching and discussions.

I was really struck by one of the questions we were asked:

“What is the best piece of advice you have been taught about parenting in church?”

We were then given a few moments to discuss it with the person next to us.

Those of us sat together all said the same thing – we couldn’t think of anything we had been specifically taught about parenting on a Sunday morning (apart from the few comments preachers had given about what they’ve learned about parenting from their own kids and their own mistakes). This made me wonder: how intentional are our churches about teaching and equipping parents?

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