I always get super excited about New Year. I’m not a huge fan of the overpriced drinks, overcrowded nightclubs and unrealistic resolutions people set for themselves, but there is one reason for my excitement that has been the same now for ten years.
Nine years ago, a brilliant friend and I got together one new years eve, to eat nice dinner and hang out. We started talking about our year, reflecting on the things that had gone badly and the things that had gone well. We started talking about the things we wanted to achieve over the coming year, and we decided we would write ten of those things down on a piece of paper, put them in envelopes and give them to each other to keep safe until the next year, when we would open them and see how many we had managed. We thought it would be cool to include a message to ourselves, something we thought we’d need to tell ourselves a year on, perhaps something we might forget that we’d need to be reminded of. That’s exactly what we did, and we’ve done it every year since.
This year I found all the old envelopes and it was amazing to look back at ten years of me – all my hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Every year it is such a profound and moving experience, and is one that I can’t recommend highly enough. So I thought I’d tell you about it.
One of the most fascinating things has been seeing how the targets I set for myself have changed. The first few years I set myself such stupid, unrealistic goals. My targets were vague, generic, non-specific and I’d need to be a superhero to get close to achieving most of them! As I’ve got a little older I set goals that are more realistic – or to quote to the well-known goal setting acronym ‘SMART’, my goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time sensitive. Sometimes I set goals that I know I will achieve. For example a couple of years ago I set the goal that I would have an MA in Applied Theology. I didn’t plan on failing my MA, but there were no guarantees – I had to work hard to finish it and it was still a massive achievement worth marking and celebrating. Some targets are things I’m pretty sure will happen, others are things I have no clue about, and some are targets I know may be on there for a few years yet.
There has also been a switch in priority for me. The first few years were all about the outcomes, the numbers, how many goals I could tick off and what number out of ten I had achieved. This year I didn’t even count the ones I had managed to do, but I reflected a lot around the person I had become, how I had grown and changed whilst trying to achieve those things. I don’t measure success now by my achievements, but in whether I am becoming more like the person I believe God wants me to be.
My favourite part is definitely the message I write to myself. It sounds like a slightly weird thing to do, a bit like talking to yourself, but it’s actually a bit clever. If you think about it, apart from God, there isn’t a person in the world who knows you better than yourself. You know what you struggle with, what you can be a bit lazy with, the things you forget and need to be reminded of, and what refocuses your heart and mind. So who better to be challenged and encouraged by, than yourself? It’s often a tool used in therapeutic situations, for example where someone might be encouraged to write a letter as an adult to themselves as children. It helps them reflect on what they might have needed to hear at that point in their lives, who they were and who they are now in comparison. You’ll see athletes psyching themselves up before the big game and even in the psalms we see David telling his soul to wake up! (Psalm 57:8)
It’s also fascinating that despite being adamant at the time that you will remember what you’ve written down, a year later I guarantee you will have forgotten nearly all of it. I can sometimes remember one or two of my targets, or maybe a sentence in my message to myself, but there are always surprises.
Finally the most important thing it does, is to help me remember how faithful God is, and how He has never ever failed me. Last year when I wrote my targets I was in a bit of a weird place, recovering from a painful year and making some big decisions about where I should be and what I should be doing. To open the envelope this week left me stunned, as I could see the place I was at, the things I was thinking when I’d written it all and how God has used every inch of it to bring me to where I am today. I can see His genius plan throughout all ten years of those hopes, dreams and questions, even when it’s been tough or hard to understand. Those pieces of paper are my markers, my evidence of God at work in my life and I will keep and treasure them forever.
So whatever you are doing this new year, I would really encourage you to find someone who knows you really well, and give this a go. Even my hairdresser and her sister are trying it out this year! If you don’t feel comfortable doing it with one other person why not do it with a group of young people you work with, your small group, a team at work or your family? I guarantee it will be a worthy use of your time, and maybe even like me, you will find it quickly becomes your favourite Christmas/New Year tradition.
This one’s for all you festival fakers.
You spiritual high chasers and miracle makers.
Now I know you’ll write me off as a liberal,
Say I’m a little over critical even verging on political
But I see miracles.
Now I’m not disputing what you say you’ve seen
Not saying you’re too keen not trying to be mean.
But I’ve sometimes seen that what we think is mystical
This weird metaphysical is nothing but egotistical
I see miracles.
Not in the stadium shows or front church rows,
Or preachers who teach us how prosperity grows.
Or hyped up, psyched up emotional groans,
Or prophets and healers sitting on thrones.
I see miracles.
In the single Mum with three kids to feed,
Failed by a system of unspeakable greed,
Who chooses work instead of weed,
Despite her need she will succeed.
Or the teenage lad without a Dad,
Who sticks at college when it makes him mad.
Or the bomb blast survivor confined to a chair,
Who’s forgiven her attackers, shocked they just stare.
Greater things than this you’ll see
I know who said it but what did he mean?
The promises on God TV?
Or real people, you and me?
So this one’s for all you festival fakers
You spiritual high chasers and miracle makers.
Now I know you’ll write me off as a liberal,
Say I’m a little over critical even verging on political
But I see miracles.
Yes I see miracles.
This article was originally written for and published in the July 2012 edition of Youthwork Magazine.
Whoops. It’s a word I must have used thousands of times in the ten years I have been doing youth work. In the early days I used it probably on a daily basis, with the hope that as I grew in experience and got my youth work degree, I would say whoops, a lot less. Perhaps I make less of the more obvious mistakes now, but I still make mistakes. Whether I like it or not, whoops is still a regular part of my vocabulary.
The mistakes I have made have varied from small organisational errors and badly handled conflict, to deep-seated bad attitudes and reactions to unhealed hurts. Some of these mistakes are funny to look back on and would feature comfortably in an episode of ‘You’ve Been Framed’. Some of them have been painful and costly and are really not very funny at all. But as I look back I realise that whatever those mistakes were, they have shaped me as a youth worker and made me the person that I am. They have helped me to realise not only the importance of making mistakes, but the deeper importance of learning from those mistakes.
Mistakes are always messages. At a youth project I worked in a few years ago, I had faced months of difficult conflict with a group of young people. I had been insulted, threatened, spat on, pushed, had bags of dog excrement thrown at me…for months and as I was the senior worker I always had to deal with any kind of trouble. One night despite every effort on my part to engage these young people and build a positive relationship with them, they went beyond what I was able to cope with, and as my staff and the young people were in danger I was forced to call the police. When they arrived 45 minutes later, one police officer spoke to me very badly, saying I should have dealt with the situation myself and was wasting his time. I lost it. The people that were supposed to be helping and protecting me were now angry with me for asking for their help. The conversation developed into a nasty argument and in full view of young people and staff I lost my temper, shouted and swore at the policeman, who threatened to arrest me. Thankfully a colleague took over and forced me to go back inside. As I sat on the floor in the staff toilet with tears streaming down my face hoping I wouldn’t be spending the night in a police cell, I realised what I had done and I wished I could erase the last ten minutes. But I couldn’t.
Later that week as my amazingly supportive line manager and I sat down to talk about what had happened, we realised some problems that we just hadn’t seen before. I was doing too much, the problems with these young people were not being resolved in any way, I was the worker dealing with it on a weekly basis without any support and I was completely exhausted. I had acted unprofessionally and should not have said what I said, but the mistake told us things, pointed towards areas that needed attention, helped us improve the situation. The mistake had a message and thankfully we heard it.
A simple reflective practice strategy can help us make sense of a mistake. Kolb (1984) developed a cycle that can be useful in helping us reflect and learn from an experience. I include my mistake to show you how it might work;
A mistake nearly always forces you to look at the determining factors that led to the mistake. In my example I acted badly and I needed to be disciplined for that, but there was also some responsibility that needed to be taken by my co-workers for not supporting me, my line manager who hadn’t spotted I was doing too much and of course the policeman who perhaps didn’t handle the situation in the best possible way! When someone makes a mistake it can be because they’re too tired, perhaps they are juggling too many things or don’t have the adequate training to deal with a certain situation. If someone you are managing makes a mistake what can you take responsibility for? What can you improve on and what can be changed to ensure the mistake won’t happen again?
When I was 15 I attended a house group that was always the highlight of my week. It was a safe space for me to ask questions, share difficulties and explore God with other people my age, as well as with incredible youth leaders. One night, one youth leader shocked me to my core as she honestly and humbly told us about a mistake she had made in her teenage years. It was something that had deeply affected her, and her marriage.
I couldn’t believe she had done it! I thought she was perfect, holy, a youth worker…not someone who made a huge mistake like that. I didn’t know what to say and as I walked home I felt disappointed that the youth leader I had looked up to so much, was actually just a normal person like me who made stupid mistakes. What a brilliant lesson for me to learn! As I continued to navigate my way through adolescence, I realized that messing up was normal and that I didn’t have to keep it a secret. I no longer saw my youth leader as some perfect role model who I could never be like, but someone just like me, who messed up and needed God. Tell your young people about the mistakes you’ve made, and the mistakes you still make. Obviously respect boundaries, be appropriate and don’t glamorize or belittle sin, but don’t let them think you are something you are not. Young people need to know that people screw up and make it, young people need to know that they are not expected to be perfect and that leaders are not to be put on pedestals, because they have a habit of falling off quite spectacularly. It’s not just young people that need to know this – it’s people in your church, your best friends, your staff and your volunteers. Sharing your mistakes stops people from thinking you are something you are not, relieves you of impossible pressure or expectations and may even prevent someone else from making the very same mistake you did!
It is a myth that Christians never make mistakes. The bible is full of not good enough people who screwed up all the time, that God used and empowered. Peter is often famous for his mistakes – losing faith whilst walking on water, cutting off a soldier’s ear, that whole denying Jesus three times thing.
But after all that, who did Jesus use to build his church? Was it the disciples who got it all right, the ones who gave all the right answers, didn’t ask as many questions and kept their sword in it’s sheath? No, it was Peter he chose. Peter the mistake maker. Peter might have made mistakes but at least he tried. He tried to defend Jesus, he was actually present at the crucifixion, he got out of the boat! He did things, he acted, his beliefs led to him doing. I would rather be someone who makes hundreds of mistakes trying to do something than someone who makes no mistakes doing nothing.
Pioneer ministry is a fairly new term within youth ministry but it’s important to mention it here because mistakes are inevitable in pioneering. Pioneer youth ministry is doing stuff that hasn’t been done before, carving out a new path that has never been walked. There is something essentially pioneering about all youth work, because every relationship you form is a new path, every individual you meet and work with will have totally different needs and responses compared to another. You are constantly pioneering, constantly guessing what will work and not work, what to say and not say, how this person will react to that. There are no maps, no senior workers to advise you or tell you about their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones. If it’s truly pioneering then trying it with a bit of guess work is the only way. Mistakes will be made, because they are the only way you can be lead to something that works, a path that’s walkable that others can follow. In his development of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison famously said, ‘If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward’. It is the destiny of a pioneer to find thousands of ways that don’t work, all so that they can be lead to the one way that will work. Your mistakes will always be the paving slabs the path leading to your successes is made from.
Sometimes it’s hard trying to imitate a sinless savior who in just thirty three years changed the course of human history and enabled a way for broken people to restore their relationship with God. I often feel like I’ll never get it, I’ll never be good enough, and how can Jesus ever understand that? He was perfect, he doesn’t know what it’s like to make mistakes. Or does he?
In Luke 2 we read an interesting story about Jesus as a young person, temporarily separated from his parents only to be found in the temple, listening to the scriptures, asking questions and amazing people with his knowledge. In verse 52 we’re told that ‘Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men’.
Really? Jesus grew in wisdom? Jesus could grow in something? Jesus wasn’t born with total and complete wisdom?
Then there is Hebrews 5: 8 – 9; ‘Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect…’ Jesus learned things, Jesus was ‘made perfect’. So he wasn’t before?
I’m not trying to argue that Jesus wasn’t perfect or sinless, I believe he was both. But perhaps this is sometimes the problem in our thinking when we see making a mistake as a sin, rather than just a mistake, inevitable in the process as we learn and grow into the person God is shaping us to be. Making mistakes isn’t failing, it isn’t sinning, it can’t be if Jesus did it.
Jesus was fully human. He wasn’t born potty trained. He had to learn how to walk, to talk, to feed himself, to read, to write. He was a carpenter (or general handyman for the theologians amongst us). I have never trained to be a carpenter, but I did do GCSE Resistant Materials, which is almost the same thing and I was awful at it. It took me months to learn how to saw properly, make joints and hammer nails in the right places. Jesus would have been the same. He probably made some really dodgy tables, the ones where you need a couple of napkins under a leg to stop your dinner from flying off the table with every movement of your leg.
Although perhaps not entirely theologically accurate, I love the scene in ‘The Passion’, where a flashback shows Jesus inventing a high table, different to the others around at the time. It shows the side of Jesus we never see, the one who played and learned and grew, the Jesus who made mistakes and who therefore gives us permission to do the same.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, is that ideas you have now, are not always for now. Sometimes an idea needs time to grow, evolve, develop. It needs to be pruned and refined. It needs to be pulled apart and criticized by people who love you and understand the context of the idea. I love ideas. I have them all the time. Sometimes I have so many ideas they drive me insane. I am thankful for my ‘ideas’ notebook, which is filled with projects, dreams, film ideas and book plans. Some of those ideas have been done, some of them will get done and some of them may never happen. Ideas are fun.
I want to tell you about one idea, because it’s an idea I would like to be refined and pruned. It’s one of those ideas that won’t leave me alone, and I think that even though it’s kind of a big one, one day it might actually happen. It’s shaped from all the different parts of me – my experience as a youth worker, my love of art, film and creativity, my desire to see as many people as possible come to know and love God in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them…and my weird obsession with abandoned buildings and large empty industrial spaces (I once cried in the Turbine Hall in the Tate Gallery in London because it was so beautiful. It was empty). So here goes, drum roll please, introducing…The Shell.
This week I’ve been on a Bristol Centre for Youth Ministry Community Week, where students across all three years retreat to Wales to spend time with God and each other, as well as learning from some essential lectures! It’s been a great week as I’ve got to know the students a lot better, and something one of them said in a piece of liturgy they were reading out during a worship service has really stuck with me.
“God who created you, is still creating you”
The first thing God did was to create, the ultimate aspect of his character is a creative; an artist, painting and sculpting and shaping. As we are made in his image we are created to create.
Thanks to my lovely art teacher friend Anna for this photo of her beautiful classroom
The description of God as a creative being or artist is one that has resonated with me better than any other, particularly as over the last few years I have begun to explore more of my own creativity. I remember hearing Rich Mullins talk about how God is a wild man, not the cultured, civilized God we think. It’s this side of God that I am deeply drawn to, this creative, mysterious, wild, unpredictable, unexplainable force that knows me and loves me. Despite my quest for answers I have found God to be more present in the questions, in the mystery, in the unknown. This is where art belongs. It is always mysterious, sometimes slightly confusing or frustrating and yet it reveals so much of who we are, and who God is.
One of my favourite ever movies is a slightly odd film directed by Richard Linklater called ‘Waking Life’, where a teenager walks around having conversations with people trying to figure out whether life is real or whether it is a dream. The conversations he has are deep, mindblowing and challenging, ranging from theology to philosophy and everything in between. Each scene is a little movie in itself! One scene is two friends talking in a coffee shop;
“When I was younger, there was a desperation, a desire for certainty, like there was an end to the path, and I had to get there.”
“I know what you mean because I can remember thinking, ‘Oh, someday, like in my mid-thirties maybe, everything’s going to just somehow gel and settle, just end.’ It was like there was this plateau, and it was waiting for me, and I was climbing up it, and when I got to the top, all growth and change would stop.”
I remember watching that at the time feeling that I was in that younger stage, of chasing and striving to become what I would be, and that one day I would reach this point where I had ‘made it’ and I would be able to relax and just live my life as this finished person.
Due to lots of learning and change over the last couple of years, I do feel there has been a ‘settling’ of sorts. A kind of letting go, or at least an acceptance that this is who I am, this is my life now and who I am now is pretty much who I will be forever. Although this has been freeing in some ways, it is also disappointing. Despite the circumstances in my life being great at the moment this thought has bothered me continuously over the past few weeks.
It’s disappointing because there are so many things about myself I hoped would have changed by now; deep wounds, character flaws, unhelpful patterns of thinking and low self-confidence. Who I am is not who I hoped I would become, despite my best efforts. I thought by now I would be…better. The chase is over and I am not the person I dreamed I could be.
I’ve forgotten God isn’t done creating. I am not finished.
What a comforting thought, that who I am right now is not the end of my story. That God is still painting and sculpting and shaping and drawing and editing me…and that in his mind he sees his finished creation, a masterpiece he has crafted from dust. As if this wasn’t enough, even when I smear the painting or chip the sculpture, God just carves or paints it into something else. He endlessly recreates what others and I destroy.
It’s that ‘now and not yet’ metaphor. There are glimpses of God’s work in me, moments of genius and beauty, a deposit of what is to come, a sign of the future. But there are glimpses of corruption and pollution, devastation and evil, a reminder of the darkness that exists in the world, the war that I am a part of, raging within me. The now and not yet fight, as one kingdom tries to invade the other, and I am a mesh of both, a slimy caterpillar hiding in the cocoon of my partly finished physical form until I can burst out and fly away as the being I was born to become. Everything we see on this earth is only a partial glimpse and we will never be fully made, completed, until the end of this age.
This reassures me! I am not who I want to be, but I’m not who I was or who I will be. There is so much more God will do. Outwardly I am wasting away but inwardly I am being renewed day by day! (2 Corinthians 4:16)
God had an idea to create a masterpiece. God created me, and he is still creating me. He is editing and carving and painting and sculpting and molding and making and shaping and one day, I will be finished.
In the first couple of weeks at my new job, I’ve had several moments of complete and total joy at what I’m actually getting paid to do. This has lead to what I will call – the lift dance. It goes a bit like this;
1) I find out something cool I get to do as part of my job
2) I feel full of joy and excitement but recognize that I may lose my job or traumatize my new colleagues if I fully express this joy and excitement
3) I have to go in the lift at some point during the day to go somewhere awesome like the library (there is a basement library with a vault that has some super old books in that smell amazing)
4) I remember that no one can see me in the lift (the rumours of CCTV are false)
5) I do a silly dance and fully express my joy and excitement at everything God is doing and the life I get to live
When I sit and really let myself think about everything God has done for me, the way he’s turned everything around…it’s overwhelming. It’s from this place that I try to start every day. Even when I’m grumpy, even when it’s early, even when there seems to be too much stuff to do, even when the sadness of the people I’ve lost in the last couple of years still stabs at me, I remember.
I remember what God has done for me. And when I remember it, there is always a reason to do the lift dance.
Sometimes as Christians I wonder whether we are too keen to forget, to press forward, to move on. We are so focused on the future that we forget to reflect on the past and let it revolutionize the present. The journey we’ve been on, the road God has weaved for us and walked with us.
It’s too easy to forget.
The Israelites were good at forgetting. It wasn’t long after they had been delivered from Egypt that they forgot just what they had been saved from – a life of pain and slavery. They even wanted to go back! (Numbers 14:3). Even when they reached the Promised Land they forgot and started doing evil stuff (Judges 3).
Forgetting what God has done never seems to end well.
In the Old Testament, one method of remembering was to build a pillar or altar of stones (1 Samuel 7:12, Joshua 4:1-9). When God helps Joshua cross the Jordan river with the ark of the covenant, Joshua does just that, and tells the Israelites that in generations to come when their children ask what the stones mean, they can tell them the story of what God has done. I love imagining a little kid, hundreds of years later, being sat down and told the amazing story of God doing a total miracle.
Remembering is good for us, but it’s good for others too.
One of the last things Jesus did was teach his disciples something to help them remember. During the last supper Jesus broke bread and drank wine with them, telling them to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). All across the world, 2000 years later, we celebrate communion together as followers of Jesus. We stop and remember what Jesus has done for us on the cross. It’s always a powerful symbol, where perspective returns and gratitude ignites.
We need to keep building pillars of stones! For real, maybe. Symbolically, definitely. Some creative ways of doing this:
• Buy or find a cool glass jar, and put it somewhere in your house. Every time something awesome happens to you or someone in your house write it down on a bit of paper and put it in the jar. When the jar is full empty it out, get your friends and family round and read out everything in the jar over a bottle of wine.
• Keep a journal, or prayer diary. Split the pages in half and on one side write down what you’re praying about. When you feel like God has resolved it or answered your prayer, write down what happened next to it on the other half of the page.
• Write down your testimony on a bit of paper, photocopy it ten times, and see how creative you can get leaving it in random places. Doctor’s waiting rooms, train seat tray tables, underneath the windscreen wiper of a random car…you can have lots of fun with this!
• Tell your stories! Tell them to your friends, family, house group, church. Stories are so powerful, moving and untouchable. They’re useless if they remain inside of us. We must tell them.
• Do more lift dances. But check for CCTV first.
I saw this image today and it’s added to some recent thoughts I’ve had about grace and justice. Sometimes I really struggle with how those two things sit together. On one hand God is so outrageously and consistently loving and gracious. We see this displayed so powerfully in the cross and in his relentless pursuit of us. But on the other hand God loves justice and the bible mentions justice a lot. God is just and he will one day bring justice in full and make everything right.
I find the same tension in how I treat others. When someone does something wrong, I feel a strong emotional reaction that they should face justice for it, that they should be made to pay for what they’ve done because that’s what justice is.
Except of course, if that someone is me.
So often we crave, thirst and fight for justice, for everyone except those we have wronged. We want to dish out justice, but we actually don’t want to receive it. We say we want justice, but do we really? Have we really thought about what might happen if we actually saw justice?
It’s important to say that sometimes we think justice and punishment are the same thing, but they are really not. True, Godly justice will restore, make things right, replace some of what’s been taken. In the Old Testament justice is often linked to the Jewish idea of Shalom – wholeness, peace, everything as it should be. In the justice system restorative justice seeks to do just that – restoration in both victim and offender, replacing some of what’s been taken away. Punishment is not about restoration, it’s just about taking more away. It is about vengeance and it achieves nothing.
During my degree placement I worked in a Young Offender’s Institute with the Chaplaincy Team. What I heard, saw and experienced in those few months I will never forget. It completely threw my concept of forgiveness, justice, punishment and well just about everything. I remember my first week of cell visits in the isolation block, and walking towards the cell of one young man, aged 15 who I was told by the chaplain accompanying me had been convicted of sexually abusing several boys between the ages of 5 – 8. My mind instantly filled with thoughts about what a monster this kid must be and how glad I was that he was in prison where he belonged, paying for what he had done. As I walked into his cell and spent half an hour with him, I was ashamed by what I had previously thought. I met not a monster, but a polite, normal, funny, friendly young man whose only complaint was that the chaplaincy hadn’t brought him a bible yet. He had encountered God powerfully at a chapel service, given his life to God and was now desperate to learn more about what it meant to follow Jesus.
As I walked back to the chaplaincy, I was told horrific stories about this young man’s life. The abuse he had suffered was abuse that I could not fathom or even imagine, abuse so horrific the damage that had been done physically to him had involved reconstructive surgery. I began to see that what he had done to these little boys was just normal to him and that he had no idea of what he had actually done. I was filled with compassion for him and I longed to see him helped and restored. As I remembered my earlier thoughts, I escaped to the toilet and sobbed. The point I want to make is about judgement. I made a judgement based on the information I had but that information was incomplete. A judge in a court case makes a judgement on the information that is provided by the prosecution and defence. Sometimes a wrong judgement can be made if the information is false, incomplete or unavailable. The information we have on any person, situation or event, will ALWAYS be incomplete. So how can we make a judgement? To judge correctly you would need to know everything, and there is only one person who knows everything and therefore one person that is qualified to make judgements. That person is not me, or you. It is God and God alone. It’s easy to see why Jesus told us not to judge.
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the story of the Unforgiving Servant. In it, a King is owed money by one of his servants. It’s a huge debt, one that could probably never be repaid. The words used in the passage are the highest Greek numeral that existed in the language and the word for the largest amount of money. It would be like saying he owed him zillions of pounds! The King begins to order the man to be sold into slavery with his family – an acceptable solution at the time but still something that wouldn’t even come close to paying the debt. But after the servant begs for mercy, the King not only relents from selling him into slavery, he actually forgets the debt. Wipes it clean. Then the servant goes out and bumps into another servant who owes him a relatively tiny amount of money. Instead of showing the grace that’s been shown to him, he locks the other servant up until he can repay the money. The king hears, is obviously outraged and actually hands him over to be tortured until he can pay the money back.
It’s such a challenging story. When we have been the recipients of such incredible and overwhelming grace, how can we not show this to others? How can we demand justice if we’ve been released from facing it ourselves?
Earlier on in Matthew 5:7, Jesus says “happy are those who show mercy, for they will be shown mercy”. It’s like a mirror effect, that pops up at other times throughout the bible. Like in Luke 7 when Jesus explains to Simon that someone who has been forgiven a lot, will love a lot. When you have received grace, you show grace, when you receive love, you show love. When you’ve been given mercy, you give mercy. When someone has refused to give up on you, you refuse to give up on others. Sometimes half the problem is that we have no idea what God has done for us. We forget it and become detached from it. Just like the servant had somehow become detached from the mercy that had been shown to him. If only he could have made the link! When we’re in a place of wanting to dish out punishment, sometimes it’s good to take ourselves back to the place where we were spared punishment – the cross. ‘Laying something at the foot of the cross’ makes sense here. When we remember the cross, when we really feel what it means, nothing else even matters.
When I’m tempted to make a judgement, I remember it’s God alone who is qualified to make judgements.
When I struggle to show grace to someone, I remember the grace that’s been shown to me.
When I want to give up on someone, I remember the God who never gives up on me.
When I don’t want to forgive the inexcusable in someone else, I remember how God has forgiven the inexcusable in me.
When I’m not prepared to pay the price for something that I’ve done wrong, I remember the price that’s been paid for me.
After all that…justice and punishment don’t seem so important anymore.
When I was a teenager having a rough time at school, my youth worker told me about the armour of God passage in Ephesians 6 and suggested reading it every day before I went to school. I did as she suggested and took great comfort in the power of the words, believing God was protecting me. I read the passage so often that I memorised it, and every day on my walk to school, in the alley-way between mine and my friends house I would pray it as a prayer. I would picture a strong belt being tied around my waist, a huge shining breastplate covering my chest, a heavy, thick shield in my hand, a beautiful helmet on my head and a deadly sword in my other hand, glimmering in the sunlight. I was covered in the armour of God and no one at school could touch me.
Sometimes it felt like it wasn’t working. Things were still tough, bad things still happened and it was still a really tough time. Some days were okay, but some days were awful.
Since my teenage years I’ve reflected often on this passage and if I’m honest at times I’ve questioned why this spiritual armour didn’t seem to protect me at all. God protecting us is a funny thing. On one hand we’re told that God will protect and defend us, but then things happen in life where we don’t feel protected or defended at all. Jobs can be lost, loved ones can be taken from us, relationships can break down, disease can harm us and people can mistreat us.
Paul (the writer of Ephesians) starts off the passage in Ephesians 6 by reminding us that we are in a battle and that battle is not against flesh and blood but something way darker – the schemes of the devil himself. Rulers, authorities, powers and forces of evil in heavenly realms. Scary stuff. To be able to stand against this, we need the full armour of God. A belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, a shield of faith, helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.
When I think back to those tough times as a teenager, there were times when I did feel supernaturally protected by God. On a youth weekend away to the coast organised by my church, I was right in the middle of dealing with a horrible situation, during which I decided to involve the police who charged a girl in my year with assault. My peers were divided between those who thought I was a ‘grass’ and those who knew what this girl had done and could see she deserved justice. After the weekend was over I knew I would have to go back to face it all. I was walking along the beach telling God I couldn’t go back unless he went back with me, that I needed his help and protection to get through it all. I was almost at the end of what I could cope with, and I was pretty much on my own. As I looked back towards the shore I saw a huge white figure, about eight feet tall, so bright I couldn’t look at it for long and so I looked away. I suddenly felt God’s presence so strongly I couldn’t stand up, and I heard ‘He’s going back with you’ gently whispered in my ear! Despite trying to argue it away with my cynical mind, I couldn’t argue with how I felt and what I had seen, and some amazing ‘coincidences’ happened over the next few weeks that helped me cope with school until everything had calmed down.
As well as times like that, I remember how vital my own actions were. There were so many times it would have been so easy for me to use all of the tactics that had been used against me. I could have got older friends from different schools to ‘sort out’ the people that were hassling me. I could have punched back, I could have retaliated with better insults, more manipulative games, I could have let myself hate those people. Sometimes I did all of those things, but they never helped me, and they never protected me. But when I responded to hate with love, when I reacted to judgement with grace, when I stood up for what was right, when I let peace guide my decisions, when I made a choice to believe things would get better, when I stopped trying to control every situation in my life and let God do the guiding, when I dived into the bible and let it mould and shape me…things were good. Not easy, but good, and I ended up stronger, wiser and completely anchored in God. I do believe there were times God protected me, even though it doesn’t make complete sense and I still have a lot of questions about it. But I believe I was protected by God through my own choices as well, when I chose to do the right thing instead of the obvious thing.
Sometimes God protects us, but sometimes our actions and choices protect us too. It’s very easy to separate the natural and the supernatural. It would be easy for me to say something like ‘God protected me in the supernatural and my choices protected me in the natural’. The problem with that is that’s not how the Hebrew mindset worked. A Hebraic mindset sees everything as one – body, mind, soul, natural and supernatural, it’s all the same. So when we make a choice in what we perceive to be the natural, it of course has repercussions in the supernatural, because they can never be separated.
Truth. Righteousness. Peace. Faith. Salvation. Spirit. Word. They defend us. Not through something magically covering us when we ask God nicely, but through tough choices that we have to make on a daily basis. We have to choose to speak and see the truth, even when our voice shakes, even when it’s easier not to see what’s really going on. We have to behave with holiness, to act justly, to be righteous. Every day we make choices, that determine how much armour we have. If we don’t steal that stationary from work, we are protected. If we don’t lie on the insurance claim, we are protected. If we don’t take the higher paid promotion because we don’t have peace about it, we are protected. If we let God deal with that person who screwed us over rather than taking it into our own hands, we are protected. If we spend more time studying the bible than we do twitter or facebook, we are protected. This is the armour that God has given us.
Sometimes when we feel attacked it’s so easy to pick up the weapons of the world. To argue, shout, scream, lie, manipulate, control, backbite and scheme…but these are not our weapons or our defence. We are in a battle, but we are part of an army that fights with different weapons than the world. We fight with love and we are defended by the choices we make. In the story of David and Goliath (read it here) everyone expects David to take King Saul’s armour and weapons. It would have been the best of the best, the most technologically advanced form of protection in the world. But it didn’t fit and David couldn’t wear it. It just wasn’t him, it wasn’t the way he fought. Instead he chose to do it God’s way and armed with nothing but his knowledge as a shepherd, some stones and a slingshot, this teenager defeated one of Israel’s most feared enemies.
I am convinced that protection comes when we relentlessly sow the seeds of the kingdom in our lives, when we truly live out what it means to follow Jesus, when we make the tough choices, when we reject the weapons of the world even when they seem so easy and familiar to us. When we fight and defend with what God gives us, what we can achieve and resist is immeasurable, unimaginable and untouchable.
A lot of people have asked why I am moving back to Bath after having moved away less than a year ago! It’s a valid question, and one I hope to answer during this post. I’ve decided to tell a bit of my story because I think it’s a good one, as God has yet again exceeded my expectations and done something quite unbelievable. So here goes.
For eight years of my life I lived in Bath, a city I absolutely loved. Unfortunately a very painful situation left me jobless and churchless, with many important relationships broken, my calling in question and with massive damage to my relationship with God. My parents (who have been amazing throughout all of this and deserve a mention!) offered to let me stay with them in Nottingham for a while and suggested I took time to recover and figure out where God wanted me next. I also heard of a job going with Nottingham YFC that was only part time, so would be something I loved doing whilst also giving me time and space to work things out. A few months previous to this I had sensed a calling to be a part of Trent Vineyard, a church in Nottingham, and so with all these things combined and without really knowing why, I packed my bags and headed to Nottingham confused, damaged and heartbroken, but thankful for safety and the promise of rest.
A couple of months before I left Bath, I started to notice birds. Huge flocks of them. In the sky, in art (some of which is included throughout this post), on TV, on jewellery, in song lyrics…I can’t explain it but I knew God was trying to say something to me about it. I kept asking Him what, but couldn’t figure it out, and at the time was too exhausted and preoccupied to push for an answer. As I left for Nottingham they were still everywhere and I wondered whether it was about being free or flying away to somewhere new. I wasn’t sure.
Anyway, I made a start on building a new life in Nottingham, thinking that this was where I would live now. I started my job, got two more little part time jobs, dived head first into church and joined as many teams as I could! I knew the easy thing would be to hide away from church after a damaging experience but no matter how much we screw it up, I will never let anyone take away my passion for the local church, or my call to join God in building it. I decided Fridays would be my Vineyard day, split between helping out at a school for young people who have been excluded from mainstream education and editing films with the media team in the afternoon. I loved it and began to feel a bit of hope that it all might work out.
As part of getting stuck into church I signed up to do a four week ‘Values’ course, which is an introduction to the values of the church with a chance to meet other new people and ask questions. Whilst chatting to a staff member and telling her I had moved to Nottingham after living in Bath for eight years, she told me about a couple who were moving to Bath the following summer to plant a Vineyard church. I didn’t really think much of it, except feeling excited for friends in Bath who love the Vineyard movement and weren’t at that time in a church.
The following Friday the lady I was chatting to at the course came to find me in the media room and asked if it would be okay to pass on my number to the couple (Mike & Flic) who were planting the church as they wanted to pick my brains about Bath. I was a bit hesitant as I didn’t want to have to tell them about everything that had happened, but agreed and arranged to meet with them. As I drove home that night I again saw a huge flock of birds, with the same annoying feeling that God was trying to say something to me!
That week I had dinner with a friend and I was explaining my frustration about the bird thing! As we were talking a huge flock of birds flew past the window, to which I laughed, pointed, and said, “like that!” She explained that the birds were migrating geese, who fly away during the winter because where they are is too cold, doesn’t have enough food and cannot sustain them if they stay. They fly somewhere safe and warm for the winter to ensure their survival and return in the summer. I instantly felt a massive wave of peace and knew that was exactly what God had been trying to communicate to me. It was right for me to fly away, to be free and to go somewhere safe and warm. I felt hugely relieved, and because I am stupid, didn’t even let it register in my mind that migrating birds always fly back again!
The following week I met with Mike and Flic and told them everything they wanted to know about Bath – areas, schools, needs etc. Annoyingly it was a great evening and I just clicked with them, loving their vision for starting a church there and feeling like I wanted to help. I offered to meet them again and make them a little promo film if needed.
I remember rushing to a friends house full of excitement, telling her about the birds, the church plant and how great I felt it would be for Bath. She quite helpfully pointed out two things – the first that migrating birds always fly back again, and that I came alive whenever I talked about Bath.
Uh oh. I couldn’t go back could I? Could I?
I had planned a visit to Bath anyway at Christmas to catch up with friends and do some filming for the Vineyard promo film, and the trip suddenly had a third purpose – to prayerfully consider whether I could really come back, and whether God even wanted me to. I still remember driving down the hill into Bath, and as soon as I saw the city I just burst into tears. Bath is my home. I love it, I miss it, I never really wanted to leave.
Of course I want to come back.
There are so many other confirmations I have had but to list them all would make this even longer than it already is! The bottom line is that I am coming back to Bath because it is my home, because I believe God wants me there, and because I am incredibly excited about being part of a church from the very start. Being a part of Trent Vineyard has been so healing in so many ways and I know God not only needed me to be a part of it to meet Mike and Flic, but also to begin a healing process in me. There have been so many things I have seen and heard that have helped in this – seeing the way people are empowered and equipped, the accountability and oversight that is in place for leaders and staff of every level, how mistakes are owned, the way conflict is dealt with, how the primary role of the leaders and staff is to ‘equip the saints for works of service’, the whole ethos and values of the Vineyard movement…I could go on. I am very thankful to Trent and feel privileged to have been a part of it, I am only sad that it will now be for such a short time! Of course it’s not perfect, but no one there pretends it is. Trent has also been a safe place where God has gently and lovingly brought up things that I could have done differently, and allowed me to learn from my mistakes and move on.
I am aware how some might perceive my return, and perhaps even misinterpret and twist what I’ve written here. That’s up to them. I trust God, enough that if I was doing this out of wrong motives he would reveal that, and put a stop to me coming back. In fact I have found the opposite to be true, as again and again practicalities are taken care of, obstacles are removed and confirmation after confirmation comes my way. I love the story in Acts 5, where the apostles are brought before a very angry council! Most of the council were filled with rage, jealously and anger and wanted to kill them or at least put a stop to what they were doing, but one Pharisee called Gamaliel stands up and gives some very wise advice which I won’t attempt to add to;
‘Leave these men alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to stop it. You will only find yourselves fighting against God.’ Acts 5:38-39
I think one of the most incredible things in all of this, has been when I started to notice birds. It was months before I had even decided to leave Bath! It blows my mind that before I even decided to leave, God had already put things in place to bring me back. I flew away from an unsafe place, have been protected and looked after, and now it’s time for me to fly home.
My favourite band in the world is a fairly unknown band from the USA, called Mutemath. When they release a new album I get very excited and usually spend weeks dissecting each song! I remember driving back from house group one night while all this was going on, and for the first time really noticing the lyrics of a particular song. Since then I have played it constantly, never quietly, as it sums up beautifully this whole story. So many of the questions at the start were questions friends asked me as they hardly recognised the scared, confidence smashed mess before them, and they were also questions I asked of myself. As the song builds the questions are replaced with the reminder that life with God means stolen things are replaced and broken people can be rescued, restored and redeemed.
The song is called ‘In No Time’ and I would love for you to hear it. A link and the lyrics are below.
Sometimes really rubbish things in life happen that don’t make sense, and leave you in a total mess. But while all that is going on and you are in the inexplicable pain of that awful moment, remember that God might already be working, planning, shifting things around, to give you back what you lost. And when it’s over you might even find that what you get given back, is a thousand times better than anything you had before.
God is a God who rescues, restores and redeems. He rescued me from an unsafe place, He has spent almost a year telling me who I am and healing my broken heart, and now He has redeemed what happened by replacing what I lost with something amazing. And I believe there is more to come.
Beautiful, clever, loving, gracious, merciful, genius God.
Mutemath – ‘In No Time’
Where’s your heart gone and where’s your soul?
Where did all of your faith go?
Where’s that old spark a failure stole?
Well I’ll bet we find it in no time at all.
We’ll find it in no time, we’ll find it in no time,
We’ll find it in no time, we’ll find it in no time at all.
Where’s your nerve gone and where’s your hope?
Where’s that sunrise we’ve been waiting for?
Where’s that one day you got it all?
Well I bet we find it in no time at all.
We’ll find it in no time, we’ll find it in no time,
We’ll find it in no time, we’ll find it in no time at all.
When the walls start falling on the world you had,
Just hold tight in no time we can get it back.
When the skies come crashing on the world you had,
Just hold tight in no time we can get it back.
We can get it back, we can get it back.
We can get it back, we can get it back.
I’m in Italy at the moment, teaching for a week at their brand new Freesports and Youth Culture Discipleship Training School. I’m having an unbelievably great time, spending time with like minded people, investing in some amazing young people and enjoying some well needed time and space to rest, read, think and dream. Due to a few hours of spare time in the afternoons, a nearby internet cafe and the wonders of modern technology, I have been posting some photos of my trip, and a couple of reactions to those photos as well as some conversations throughout the week have made me think about two things.
The first is that being a Christian isn’t supposed to be crap and being in ‘ministry’ (a phrase which I hate and will explain why below) doesn’t necessarily mean you have to live life as some kind of poor, modern day martyr with a victim mentality. When Jesus died on the cross for me he paid for my life. He paid for it in the most excruciatingly painful and awful way anyone can imagine and he did this not so I could survive, but so I could live life to the full. And that’s what I intend on doing. It would make a mockery of the cross to do otherwise. Yes life as a disciple of Jesus involves moments of heartbreaking agony, loneliness, confusion, unanswered questions and huge personal cost – I know there is a balance here and those who know me personally will tell you my life has seen many of those moments. But life with Jesus also contains mountain top, wine drinking, belly laughing moments of inexplicable joy, and something is wrong when we feel we have to justify the existence of the good moments, like we shouldn’t have them or shouldn’t shout about them to everyone we know or celebrate them in any way, whether we do a job in paid ministry or not. When Jesus said his yoke was easy and his burden was light, he probably wasn’t lying.
The second thing I’ve been thinking about is the strange concept of being ‘in ministry’. I’m ‘in ministry’ just as much as anyone else who claims to follow Jesus. Why have we created this weird distinction between those who are in ‘ministry’ and those who apparently are not? That’s not the Jesus way. The Jesus I know involved everyone who claimed to be his disciple and still does. If you were a disciple you were called to make disciples, not only if you were paid to do it. Some people are paid so they can do full time ministry, some people do ministry in an office, a shop or a school playground. But we are all in ministry, paid or not. John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement, puts it like this; “everyone gets to play”. Everyone!
Do I feel bad about being in a beautiful country in blazing sunshine, staying in a beachfront property, eating delicious food, drinking wine and getting to know new people? No! It’s part of this beautiful life that Jesus paid for with everything he had, despite the fact I don’t deserve it, will never earn it and can’t even comprehend it.
I want to be the kind of person that’s honest about the rubbish moments, but I won’t ever let anyone make me feel like I have to justify or explain the great moments.
Jesus came so we could have life and life to the full. It’s a free gift that I for one, plan on receiving with open arms.