True beauty

girl looking in mirrorI have a ten-year-old daughter who is beginning to be obsessed with fashion, make-up and yes, dare I say it, her figure.

I love the growing opportunities for girly shopping days together, as we have a huge amount of fun and the one-on-one time is priceless. But I am alarmed at the preoccupations that are already surfacing. She is thin, but apparently not as thin as one of her friends. She has some fantastic outfits (mainly from her older cousins, which is such a blessing), but is apparently not as ‘fashionable’ as that same friend (outfits are ‘judged’ at school discos).

Right from an early age, I have been teaching her that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, but as she is growing ever closer to teenage-hood I can see the message ‘you must be thin and beautiful to be worth anything’ beginning to penetrate her mind. Alarmed, I have started to ask myself: Am I perpetuating the acceptance of that silent message somehow?

Yes, as I’ve hit and passed the ripe old age of forty, I’ve uttered the words ‘Oh no! I’ve put on weight!’ as I’ve tried to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans, and have also asked ‘Does this outfit make me look fat?’ And guys this isn’t just a female-only problem: the message of the media is that you need to be toned and beautiful to be successful. The male grooming industry has exploded in recent years, so I know it is not just we women who obsess about such things.

I recently read a tweet from Stylish, quoting Helen Mirram: ‘I hate the word beautiful, I wish there were another word for it’.

That got me thinking about what true beauty is, and what I want my daughter to think about when she asks herself: Am I beautiful?

I do believe that the media’s constant use of glamorous models, whatever it is they are advertising, drip feeds us with the idea that we need to try to attain what, for some, is an unattainable goal. Here’s some of the ideas I’ve been using to combat the unhelpful messages we find all around us:

• Ask yourself: Am I happy in my skin?

When we remember that God has knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–14), and that each one of us is totally unique, it is time to accept ourselves for who we are. We can each strive for acceptance and affirmation from others (yes, my spirit is lifted when someone says ‘you look nice today’!), and yet God has a never-ending supply of both, if we would just look to Him.

Here’s an excerpt of the verses from psalms, taken from The Message. If you find it hard to accept your body shape, why not spend some time meditating on this, speaking it over yourself, because you are a marvellous creation:

‘Body and soul, I am marvelously made!

I worship in adoration—what a creation!’

Learn to be positive, and celebrate you for the person God made you to be; the real you.

• Stop obsessing about what you wear.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good, or enjoying the process of dressing smartly (and putting on make-up if you like wearing it), but allowing it to take over your focus isn’t healthy.

I have written previously about dressing our spirits; we can spend so long choosing what to wear but do we daily make a conscious decision to put on those garments that God has laid out for us?:

‘So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.’ (Colossians 3:12–14, The Message)

beloved cover

• Change your idea of what beauty truly is.

As part of my daily reflections I am working through Rachel Gardner’s great book Beloved. Just today I got to her chapter on beauty, and loved the way she turned the definition of beauty on its head. She explains how our society has reduced beauty to glamour (outside, superficial, skin-deep beauty), and has some great, quotable lines on the difference between the two:

‘If glamour is the blusher painted onto your face, beauty is the inner radiance that lights you up from the inside.’

‘If glamour is the outfit that helps you make an entrance, beauty is your generous heart that makes your presence change the atmosphere.’

‘If glamour is the perfume clinging to your clothes, beauty is the fragrance of your life that lingers long after you’ve left the room.’

It is interesting to see how the Bible speaks directly about the importance of inner, rather than surface, beauty:

‘Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. This is how the holy women of old made themselves beautiful.’ (I Peter 3:3–5, NLT)

Taking the time to cultivate that gentle spirit has, so far, been a lifelong journey for me, so I’m taking these verses as an encouragement to keep on going!

It is this overall message that I hope to convey to my daughter, and it has also challenged me to think about the way that I live. Later on in her beauty chapter Rachel also says: ‘The goal of glamour is to make everyone feel envious. The goal of beauty is to make everyone feel loved.’ Isn’t that so true? We can get a fleeting feeling of contentment (or smugness – let’s call it by its true name!) when we know people are looking at us enviously. But those we look up to, those we describe as having a ‘beautiful spirit’, are those people who go out of their way to make others feel loved and accepted. They are the true successes; and the true world-changers.

• Remember your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

I am certainly not saying that we should let our bodies go to wrack and ruin. They are a gift, and we have a responsibility to look after them and keep them healthy, which often takes more work as we get older. I know the following verses from 1 Corinthians are in a passage about refraining from sexual immorality, but I think they are a good checkpoint for us to see what our attitudes to our bodies are:

‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.’ (1 Corinthians 6:19–20, NIVUK).

The Holy Spirit is in us; is our attitude towards our bodies and the way we behave towards those we are in contact during the day honouring to Him?

This article first appeared on the Christian Today website.

The path to holiness

Light from above, bright sun, blue sky and clouds

Holiness is one of those ‘tricky’ Christian words isn’t it? We know that we are holy in God’s eyes because of Jesus, but we also know that we are called to live holy lives. So why do many of us feel confused or condemned when we think about holiness?

We can get ourselves tied up in knots over the way God chose to make His people holy in the Old Testament, or over the countless times we try to be holy but mess things up. Here are some things I have been reminded about holiness as I’ve been studying the subject afresh:

1. God chose to dwell with His people

It is quite incredible to think that the God of the universe, who is the personification of holiness, would chose to come down to earth and dwell with His chosen people, the Israelites. We often get fixated on the weird, lengthy and at times gruesome list of laws and sacrifices He gave them that we forget this fundamental truth.

When we do ponder the things He asked them to do, we can see that much of it was for their protection. It was also so that they could have their God in their midst, as without the necessary sacrifices and the Holy of Holies to contain God’s presence, His holiness would have simply consumed them. Such is the incredible nature of holiness. We should be in awe of it.

2. A holy God required a perfect sacrifice

The parallels between the Old Testament sacrifices of unblemished lambs were but a foretaste of the sacrifice Jesus would make for us. They point the way to Him, but also reveal how a blood sacrifice was necessary in order for us to be able to have a right standing before our holy God. His very nature means He cannot stand sin of any form and so we need the protection of the holiness Jesus’ sacrifice won for us.

3. Becoming holy is a process

When we accept Jesus we are made holy – God does look on us and see the holiness of Jesus. And yet there is a process to living in the good of our new identity. We can beat ourselves up about how we’ve missed the mark, yet again, but then fail to get to the root of why we’ve failed.

Perhaps it happens because we don’t fully comprehend everything Jesus has done from us. The fact is, He has taken us from one kingdom and put us in His – so we don’t have to be held by those sins that we seem to be forever locked into. The battle to break free from them can often be in our thinking. Jesus has already taken away the power of sin for good, but we are told in Romans 6:11 to ‘count yourselves dead to sin’. So we need to take some action ourselves to lay hold of this truth. Sometimes that means practically rejecting thoughts that lead to sin and replacing them with biblical truth (see Romans 12:2).

Jerry Bridges, in The Pursuit of Holiness, explains: “It is our habit to live for ourselves and not for God. When we become Christians, we do not drop all this overnight. In fact, we will spend the rest of our lives putting off these habits and putting on habits of holiness.”

4. We are to pursue the discipline of being holy

In Romans 12:1 Paul urges us to ‘offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God’. While we can be made holy only through Jesus we have choices to make every day about whether we will lay down our own agendas and offer our lives up to God.

I think that we can shy away from thinking about our part in the journey towards holiness. And yet, as Kevin de Young puts it in The Hole in our Holiness: “The Bible clearly teaches that holiness is possible. This is good news, not bad news … You are allowed (and expected) to be obedient. You cannot do anything to earn God’s love. But as a redeemed, regenerate child of God you don’t have to be a spiritual failure.”

Colossians 1:22-24 says: “he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation — if you continue in your faith”. Again this shows our part: we must ‘continue in our faith’ in order to live a holy life. Rather than telling us that we need to ‘do’ in order to please God, the word Paul uses here is axios, which means ‘in a manner that is worthy’, or ‘in a way that is fitting’. So he is talking about us learning to live in a way that befits our new identity as holy children of God. The joy and mystery of this is that we do not do it through our own efforts but through the Holy Spirit’s enabling.

5. The process shouldn’t be arduous: it’s about getting closer to God

I love the following quote from de Young as I think it turns our understanding of pursuing holiness on its head (which can seem like hard work and huge effort): “To run hard after holiness is another way of running hard after God”. It isn’t holiness as an end in itself that we are seeking, but the One in whom it is all hidden: Jesus. Yes, we must learn to discipline ourselves, but the key to fully grasping the gift of holiness is in reaching closer to the One who gave it to us in the first place.

This article first appeared on the Christian Today website.

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)?

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

How to be better at encouragement

smiley face

I’m terrible at encouragement. Particularly at encouraging my husband.

There, I’ve said it.

It’s a hard one to admit; particularly when it was the first thing I spoke on when I took over the women’s ministry at church. But I could see how we were all desperately crying out for more encouragement. When I started putting together my talk I began to realise how bad I was at encouraging those close to me.

I am married to a man whose primary love language is words of affirmation. And that is probably way down there on my list: practical help does it for me. (Isn’t it funny how God so often seems to pair us up with a life partner whose love languages are the opposite of our own? Is it His sense of humour or the best way to rub those rough edges off us? Probably both…)

Sometimes I have literally had to force myself to speak words of encouragement to my husband (not because he didn’t deserve them but because it doesn’t come naturally!). I’ve learned how important this is to him and it makes such a huge difference in our relationship. It’s a great discipline for all of us to cultivate, especially if you know encouragement is something you are not good at.

I also have to check myself – and I know I fall down all the time – as I have a tendency to nag. But, as I’m told so often, words of encouragement get better results than nagging…

So here are some things I’ve learned about the importance of encouragement:

The Bible teaches it

Throughout the Bible we can see examples of encouragement. So many of the main characters that we learn about in Sunday school had people around them to encourage them (think of how Jonathan rooted for David even when it pitted him against his father).

The New Testament letters often refer to building one another up. I love the Message translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:11: ‘So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind.’

It makes a difference

Having someone consistently in your life that totally believes in you makes such a difference. In The Family You‘ve Always Wanted Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, recognises that: ‘From the smallest child to the oldest adult, when our fan club applauds us, we try harder.’

God wants us to become members of each other’s fan club, but how do we do that? Paul gave a good guideline when he wrote that everything we say should build up the one who is listening:

‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen’ (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).

Let’s get a bit more honest now. How often do we spend time with our friends moaning about various things or ‘sharing news’ (aka gossiping), when we could be using that time to build one another up?

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

How well do we listen?

the-art-of-listening pic

I have been struck recently with how bad I can be at listening. So often I am catching people at church, while needing to speak to countless others, so I can have half an ear on what they are saying, my eyes wandering around to catch the next person on my list – and of course a necessary eye on what my children are doing too. But God has been teaching me how bad a model that is.

Listening is a skill that needs to be learnt well. As the old saying goes, “You have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak.”

Who is it that you would say listens to you best? The person who grabs you quickly while on the way elsewhere, asks how you are and nods and smiles before zooming off? The one that takes more time, stands and listens but then begins to interrupt with their own story or advice on what you should do? Or the person who makes a particular arrangement to meet you, sits down, gives you their full attention by looking in your eyes and then simply sits quietly, taking it all in?
Being listened to is one of the main ways we can feel cared for. It gives us a sense of validation because another is interested in hearing about how we truly are.
Please click here for eight practical listening tips.

Learning how to ‘one another’

many hands together: group of people joining hands showing unity and support

‘One anothering’ is a term I have heard since the early days of our church (which started in 2003). While it may seem slightly strange – even old-fashioned perhaps – it is still one that continues to challenge and motivate me today.

So why ‘one anothering’?

There are 100 instances of the phrase ‘one another’ in the New Testament, with almost half of them being direct instructions to the church.

A third of those instances are about loving one another, while another third instruct us on unity. I really believe that God wants us to take these verses seriously and wake up to the fact that being a Christian isn’t about being isolated, focusing on what we feel we want to do in order to express our faith. It is about being together, and learning to look out for one another.

We’ve already seen how caring for each other, yes even those we may find difficult, is actually a way that we grow into maturity as a Christian, but it’s more than that. One anothering expresses God’s heart for His community.

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

Leaders need to look after themselves too!

Earlier this month my husband and I were able to enjoy a weekend with the other leaders from the network of churches we are affiliated to. It was a great time catching up with those we know but don’t often get to see. But the thing that struck me most was what a privilege it is to be led by such honest, trustworthy and transparent leaders.

The first session covered something the speaker said isn’t often spoken about in conferences: a leader’s health. He talked about the fact we have a responsibility to ensure we are spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically fit so that we can continue being passionate as we work out our calling throughout life’s seasons.

Obvious huh? But actually we don’t talk about it much – although I think he probably got every leader’s attention when he said that very few leaders finish the race stronger than when they started.

This is actually taken from my latest Help! I’m now a pastor’s wife! column for Christian Today. To read the rest please click here.

I promise…to love my God

Last night I was a very proud mummy. My husband, son and I watched as our daughter was officially enrolled into Brownies. She has been uber excited for weeks, and yes, I’ll admit, it did bring a lump to my throat. Particularly because Brownies has been the one thing that has really helped her this term. She has been bullied by a close friend and starting Brownies has been a fantastic way for her to make friends outside of school and to build her self-esteem back up (man I could not believe how much a young child’s sense of self could get knocked down!). But, that huge issue aside, what really struck me was the words of the Brownie promise she made:

I promise that I will do my best:
To love my God,
To serve the Queen and my country,
To help other people
And
To keep the Brownie Guide Law.

Now copying that out from her Brownie book I’ve noticed the two asterisks after ‘God’ and  ‘country’ that refer to a note saying that Brownies can ask to insert different words at these points instead. That, to me, is a little sad. But… understandable. Indeed, on our walk home we met a friend from church. When we explained where we had been, and said a little bit of the promise, his response was, ‘Was there really a mention of God in there – surely that has been taken out by now?’ And he had a point. Everywhere in our British, national culture the parts that draw on a Christian heritage are being deliberately eroded away. Think about it. There’s so little left. I think that is why I was so struck by the words of the promise – because you don’t hear that sort of thing said much these days, particularly not in schools or children’s groups because it is not politically correct. So watching a group of excited girls all rooting for my daughter while she said those words was so refreshing. I understand that there will be those that say we can’t impose our beliefs on others – and I get that. Just hearing those words made me realise afresh how much our culture has been secularised – and I guess it made me mourn a little. I’m all for treating others equally, and for not making judgements based on religion, race or gender, but does that really mean we should simply give away all parts of our heritage and traditions that have any basis in Christianity, however small?

Moving on to a less contentious issue!… My daughter is 7. She is quite matter of fact, and prayed a prayer asking Jesus into her heart when it appeared in her daily bible notes when she was quite a bit younger. Now she is totally convinced she is a Christian, and I don’t doubt it, but I know she has a lot to learn and understand about what that means. But pondering the promise she made last night I thought it would be a good starting point – a good motto for life. I’m not particularly patriotic, but I do love my country – and I certainly love my God. So, actually, I think it would be a pretty good motto for me too! What about you? Fancy taking the Brownie promise as your motto for at least today?

Socially networking, but how is your connection with God?

As usual, I have had many ideas for blogs running through my head but little time to write them. And my time today has been cut down even more – for lovely reasons though. It was the last day of my children’s holiday before school starts back. We had a friend drop by in the morning and then this afternoon we took a spur of the minute decision and went to the cinema. It’s been a really precious time – but that’s not the point of this blog!

What I want to think about today is whether our technogically based lives these days leave any space to properly connect with God. With phones that gives us instant access to the internet it means that not only can people reach us at any time, anywhere, we can also be constantly connected to twitter, facebook and other networking sites. And, be honest, how hard it is to ignore those status updates that show a new posting has come through?!

I obviously don’t know what your own personal devotional times with God look like, but I’ve been thinking about mine ever since someone I’ve been mentoring emailed to ask how much time she should be spending with God one on one, and how much time do I spend. At first I was rather disgruntled by the questions – after all it isn’t about quantity but about quality right? And each individual needs to work out how they best connect to God and when. But then I was ashamed. Ashamed and not wanting to answer her question. Because recently I’ve got busier and busier with work and I had to acknowledge the fact that making time for God has got harder. It has been significantly harder since having kids but the last quarter of this year I can look back and see I didn’t do much quiet dwelling in God’s presence. There was always a bit of work to do, the kids to sort, someone who needed my help at church – oh and a few hundred tweets to wade through. And I would say I’m worse off now.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the things we can achieve via the internet, and the connections we can make with other individuals (and for me the work contacts I’ve made) are fantastic. But keeping up with the very small amount of social networking I do has made it even harder for me to connect to God – because it is just one more thing that gets in the way – that I find vies for my attention and often wins over quality time with my maker.

I watched the last episode of Living with the Amish over the holiday period and, again, was challenged on the same point. One family had left the most strict Amish community and was going it alone. This meant they had embraced some technological advances – including the internet. The eldest daughter of the family was interviewed and she said that her brothers now have facebook and twitter. She said she didn’t know what they were (and didn’t want to know) but she was sad for her brothers, because they now wasted so much time that they could be reading God’s word – and she then patted her Bible as if it was her most precious possession. That really resonated with me. Not because I want to give up on the internet, but I do want to make sure my priorities are straight as I start this new year – with all the joys and challenges it will most certainly bring. How about you? Are you connecting with God as well as you are with others on the internet?

A pioneering woman, pt 4

The final parts of my interview with Wendy Virgo will come at a faster pace – so I can post them all before I go offline for a week! 🙂

In an age of family breakdown within society do you have any comments on the challenges facing Christian families today, and is there anything that particularly concerns you?

I think life has become much more complex and less predictable now. The challenges today are different: in some ways life is easier, in others, much harder. We have become used to things that used to be luxuries: washing machines, microwaves, televisions, large fridge/freezers. We take good hygiene and sanitation for granted, and health care. But I am sad that many values that once were generally upheld have declined; for example marriage itself is now under attack, and indeed has a very loose definition. A “family” used to mean biological parents (of course, some were adoptive) being responsible to provide a home and nurture their offspring, but now this has become a vague term.

I think parents today have to fight against increasingly hostile attitudes to Christianity, and work hard to teach and train their children – and create and maintain a godly ethos in their homes. I am absolutely amazed at many of the young families that I know who are very committed to this and serious and intentional about raising their children to love God and honour Him with their lives. My own children and their spouses are doing an incredible job, and I really admire them.

Another cause for concern for me is the decline in Bible knowledge, even among Christians. The United Kingdom is now a multi-faith society and it is right for individuals to have some knowledge of other religions as we learn to live side by side; but it is depressing that the average person has a very hazy idea about even the basics of Christianity.