In the Garden…

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In Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22 we have similar accounts of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. His heart is heavy – he describes it as ‘overwhelmed with sorrow’. He needs some time with his father, but also wants his friends to stay nearby.

Just imagine the intensity of emotions Jesus is wrestling with now. They reach their peak where he cries out, ‘Abba Father…everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me’. I can sense some panic in the human voice Jesus uses – and yet his spiritual being still submits, ‘yet not my will, but yours be done’. Luke’s account indicates that once he submitted in this way an angel appeared and ‘strengthened’ him. But, even after this visitation, the anguish was still upon him, his prayer intensified and his sweat became like ‘drops of blood’.

Matthew’s account reveals how Jesus went back to his friends – presumably for support and to check they were praying for him. Three times he went to them… and each time found them asleep. It seems they hadn’t grasped the enormity of the situation, and so allowed tiredness to overtake them. He must have felt so let down and alone.

I can’t begin to compare our own situations with Jesus’, but I do know there are times when we are overwhelmed with loneliness, sadness and despair. Perhaps your friends have let you down – by not doing something or by acting in a way that hurt you. Perhaps God is asking you to face a situation you feel is too difficult – why would he ask it of you? How do you respond – to your friends, and to God? I think Jesus is modelling the most helpful response to us in the Garden – pour it all out to God in prayer; the hurt, despair, pain, sadness. At the end he then says, ‘Rise, let us go!’ He uses his time in prayer to be real about his emotional tussle, then meets the situation head on.

One thing to try if you have been hurt or feel overwhelmed is to write a letter (to God or the friend). Express all your emotions as you do this. Sometimes it is necessary to speak to the person, in which case the letter can be a good way to vent your intense feelings before working out the best way to approach a meeting with grace. At other times it is simply right to bring the letter before God, read it out and then tear it up, asking him to take away the pain as you do so – or to enable you to face the difficult situation with his help.

This reflection first appeared in Quite Spaces.

‘In the run up to Easter, I keep thinking about how Jesus was totally betrayed by one close to him – with a kiss. What was going through Judas’ mind? How could he actually do what he did?’ This is an extract from my latest piece for Christian Today, which looks at how the Bible can help us when we are not sure who to trust. To read more, please click here.

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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)

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• 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.

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 😉

Let’s celebrate – and fight for – marriage

As we are in the middle of Marriage Week in the UK, and Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, I spent time reflecting on what marriage means to me in my latest column for Christian Today. To read the article please click here. If you enjoy it, or find it useful, please could you indicate by using the ‘like’ button on their webpage. Thanks so much.

I ended up with far too much material for that piece, so I’ve collected some of my other thoughts below. (They will make most sense read alongside the Christian Today column.) As you’ll see, I’ve learned a lot about my own weaknesses through being married: I certainly believe marriage holds up a mirror to the ugliest parts of our character. It does give us the opportunity to grow and change though, thankfully. Marriage also does not make us immune to the difficulties and trials we inevitably encounter in this life, but hopefully we learn to help one another up those mountains when they come…

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As a couple, we’ve certainly been through some crazy and difficult adventures. I’ve said before that one of the biggest surprises and challenges for me was when my husband became a pastor – I didn’t sign up for that, and really struggled to accept it to begin with. Now I view it as a privilege to be a part of his calling, as well as following my own wholeheartedly.

So here’s those points that didn’t make it into my latest column…

My husband needs me to learn to keep my mouth shut in public

I can be quite sarcastic and my humour often involves winding up people that I’m close to. But I have learned over time that my husband finds it incredibly difficult if I am sarcastic or make a joke of something he’s done or the way he’s been in front of other people.

I am also one that can’t bottle up my feelings but being angry or having an argument with my husband in public does not do our marriage any good. Keeping quiet while in public also gives me a chance to calm down and be a bit more objective – which I’ve never been that great at! 😉

Fighting for ways to feel connected is so important

There can be times when I’m at the end of myself – juggling work, looking after my kids, my roles within church and as a school governor can totally wring out me out to the point that I feel I have little left to give. I know as a busy pastor my husband can often feel wrung out by the end of a day too. And yet it is so so important to keep fighting for those moments of connection. We can work hard both separately and together. In those seasons when we are both focused on very different things, it can almost feel like we are like ships that pass in the night – roomies at best, strangers in the worst moments. But if we just stop for a few moments and check in with one another we both instantly feel like we are working towards a common goal and can support and understand where the other one is at. Somehow it lifts what can be a time of struggle, as we realise afresh that we are not alone.

We need to fight for marriage

I could make all sorts of points here about the way that society is diluting marriage, or how high the divorce rate is – but, while that’s all true, it’s not what I’m focusing on. While writing this I was reminded of a stark image I saw firsthand while visiting friends in another part of London. Right the way down a street were bits of ribbon tied to the telephone lines. I asked what they were, and was gobsmacked by the answer: each ribbon represented a Christian couple. Apparently there was a high proportion of witches in the area and they very openly shared that they cursed Christian marriages and called on powers to break them up. That really shook me, and made me realise the spiritual battle that we can be in as married couples. If we aren’t praying and fighting for our marriages then who will?

Worshipping the King this Christmas

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Christmas is almost upon us. Have you wrapped all the presents, bought the turkey, and started to make up beds for family and friends that will be staying with you?

This time of year is really busy isn’t it? There are a few Christmas services still to attend/run too. And what about those films your kids are desperate to see, and the now seemingly obligatory visits to Santa available at every shopping and garden centre…

 I asked you in my last column what you would do if God wanted to interrupt your plans this Christmas. Whether He has or not, how have you made room for Him in these last couple of weeks?

I know Christmas can be a really pressurised time of year, as there is simply so much to organise and the coming together of people who don’t see each other regularly can be stressful.

But amongst all the heightened commercialisation of the season, how have you been worshipping the King?

Black Friday showed us how much our culture worships material goods – people were fighting over things they really don’t need just to get a ‘bargain’.

So, as we approach Christmas itself, I think it’s really important to slow down, just for a minute or two, and ask, ‘Am I worshipping the King in my Christmas plans?’.

To read the rest of this article please click here.

Feeling restless

St Augustine wrote, “[God] you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

“Our hearts are restless”: that’s a great description of life today.

So often I feel restless. I’m rushing around making sure the kids get homework done, get to their after-school clubs, are fed and looked after.

I rush around with church activities, chatting issues through with my husband as he seeks to lead the church well, organising rehearsals and leading worship, trying to spot new people and welcome them as well as look after those who’ve been in the church for years.

I rush around with my work, meeting deadlines and thinking up new ideas for writing projects. Yes there is a bit of space for pondering within that, but too often it is pressurised, rather than restful.

I rush from one evening meeting to another – church meetings, governors’ meetings, music practices, even rushing to exercise classes.

I feel restless a lot of the time. I know the better way is to start by positioning myself at Jesus’ feet, learning from His wisdom rather than trying to do things in my own strength. But I find that so hard to do.

I wrote about finding the rhythm that works for me and my family recently; I’m still working on that if I’m honest!

I arrived at church a couple of Sundays ago totally at the end of myself, but with my keyboard ready to play. I could barely speak, let alone sing, so one of the guys helpfully suggested we prayed together before doing anything else. And what one of them prayed for me really stuck with me – here’s a summary of it:

‘Lord, Claire works so hard for you. Help her to learn to rest.

I’m one of those people who find it difficult to sit down and relax until all the jobs in the house are done. I simply can’t leave dirty dishes on the side or floors unvacuumed. That may be why our vacuum cleaner suddenly stopped working when I was midway through vacuuming one of the downstairs rooms that weekend. I still had the upstairs to do! But I simply couldn’t, which meant that, after church that Sunday, we were able to settle down and have a family film time.

I was forced to rest.

Does God ever make you stop, through circumstances or even illness? If only we’d rest more regularly without Him having to step in and force us.

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

Accepting God’s adventures

In the run up to the school summer holidays our daughter was able to take part in the special celebrations the Guides were having due to their 100th anniversary. She has been part of Brownies for almost three years now. Her first weekend away with them happened to coincide with my 40th birthday so I endured a weekend of worrying and wondering how she was!

My daughter is so much like me it can be quite scary. Confident, chatty and sociable within circles of people she feels secure with, she becomes a totally different person out of her comfort zone; shy, fearful and so, so quiet. She won’t take risks, drawing back into herself to keep safe.

So when it came time for this year’s adventure weekend she wasn’t sure she wanted to go. I really encouraged her to because it was a special celebration and I didn’t want her to miss out (and we had paid a fair amount of money for it!). Well, she totally blew us away with the vigour in which she grabbed hold of every element of the weekend.

Her leader captured her mood brilliantly in a picture that shows her dangling from a harness having just stacked and climbed crates – her face is beaming with a huge smile and she looks like she’s full-belly laughing. It was a joy to see – and even better when she said that that was what she had been like all weekend. She commented, “I now know the real girl, the one you’ve been telling me about all this time.”

A few weeks later, the Brownie pack spent a day in Windsor, bungee trampolining and zorbing. Again, I wasn’t sure how much she would join in, but apparently it was all brilliant fun and “zorbing was the best”!

Knowing that our daughter grabbed all the opportunities set before her and enjoyed them so much gave us such pleasure. And that’s how God responds when we really enjoy something He’s invited us to partake in.

To read the rest of this article please click here.

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?

To read the rest of this article please click here.

My new column

Sorry for the plug – actually, I don’t know why I’m apologising because I’m really excited about this! I’ve just started writing a column for Christian Today called Help! I’m now a pastor’s wife! It will be appearing on the second and last Wednesday of each month. Please do check it out – and feel free to add comments, ask questions or start discussions in the comments area at the end. I’d love to see you there 🙂 To read the first one click here.

Thanks!

Claire x

My response to the Modern Slavery Bill

I was asked by Christian Today to write a reflection on yesterday’s Modern Slavery Bill. I was interested to learn of the coalition of anti-slavery organisations and the briefing paper that they published yesterday too. Daniel Webster of the Evangelical Alliance said this to me:

The Modern Slavery Bill is a big step from the government, it recognises this is a problem where they need to take action. But as it is, it’s not good enough, when parliament starts discussing the bill in the New Year there are areas where it needs to be strengthened. That we have slavery today should be something we’re embarrassed about, and the government must not dodge the difficult decisions, or think that simply passing a law will solve the problem.

Victims need to be placed at the very centre of the bill, the way they’re identified needs improving. It’s great the government plan on creating an Anti-Slavery Commissioner, but it needs the independence to criticise the government if they’re not doing enough.

I heartily agree with Daniel’s comments. To read my article, please click here.