Loving people (1 Peter 1:22-25)

greenleaf-hedge-with-berries22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
25     but the word of the Lord endures forever.” (NIV)

Peter didn’t just write, ‘knowing the truth’, he wrote, ‘obeying the truth’.  The true things Jesus taught us are not just supposed to sound beautiful. It’s always practical with God.

Tonight heading out to a meeting I passed a car that slowed to a stop next to me. The driver leaned over and asked me if she could ask me something. She pointed out that a man at the end of the road maybe wasn’t well, and asked if I could just stick around while she checked the situation out.  I crossed over and headed towards her reversing car. It turned out a man was walking home with heavy bags in this freezing weather, and was near home but struggling to catch his breath. I offered to help him carry them a few yards to his home, an easy thing to do, and smiled at the driver and she left. He turned out to be a lovely, courteous gentleman who really needs to take things easier. I’m going to invite him to our next lunch.

It was lovely to feel that our community can work together and trust each other.  If we all show each other sincere love – ‘love that looks like something’, as Heidi Baker says, the world will be a better place. We each experience ‘the world’ one person at a time.

Let’s treat each other well this week. There are too many people hating others and fearing what other people can do. Some people have a lot of influence, but the things that you or I can do today may have a tremendous impact on one person, more impact for them than whatever headlines they have been reading . Person to person, sincere love.


Unfiltered Goodness

Brick wall at Syon Park, England.
Brick wall at Syon Park, England.

“Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.” (Matthew 19:13-15)

Today I met a little girl of about 4 years, who showed me what it was to be full of love and delight, to rejoice, and express herself without fear or restraint.

We were at a food fair at Syon Park, and the communal tables allowed people to easily mix. Her mum left her there opposite me while she fetched something, and soon enough I was the happy audience of her stream of consciousness, which stopped every now and then to check whether I knew the little friends she was talking about, or had tried the ice cream yet.

I think she is probably one of the most delightful people I’ve ever met, and I don’t even know her name. She was fully immersed in relishing and thinking about absolutely every good thing that was in her day, and her friends. When she asked my name, she told me about her friend also called Victoria, how she had left her nursery to start school, which reminded her of another friend; which made her clap her hands with joy and look like she couldn’t imagine a better thing than this wonderful friend: ‘Oh, she is so beautiful!’

As for me, how grateful I was for her today. God knew I needed a lift, and he put her in front of me and reminded me what unalloyed joy looks like; how to relate to others without overcaution. It’s contagious.

On Sunday I found myself doing the same with someone, where I would have usually been more circumspect, and I noticed how my readiness to declare myself glad of someone’s company enabled our friendship to move on that little bit further.

Jesus wants us sharing and enjoying each other. He’s put us on this earth to be a blessing to one another. It’s hard to share love if you’re in damage limitation mode.

To my talkative little friend in Syon park with the black jacket and the pink wellies, never let anyone tell you to talk less, you are a joy.

As a sidenote, enfolded in this story of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel is a unique little insight into how Jesus was treated by the general public. Somewhere between a saint and a celebrity, people wanted him to bless their little ones. They wanted their most treasured expression of hope for the future to be blessed by him. We also lay our hands on people when we pray for them. I’m ever grateful that God showed us what it would look like if God himself walked the earth.

Sometimes we see such an excellent facet of beauty in another human being that it brings us nearer to understanding what God is like, and shows us how flimsy are the walls that keep us from each other. Even Syon Park’s walls are not as beautiful as the transformative qualities of those who can walk right through them.

God’s Shocking Preference for Mercy

I heard Larry Randolph recently describe someone being helped through a low patch by memorizing scripture. Ever up for a challenge, I started with Ephesians, having heard it set alight by fantastic teaching from Alfred Pinnington in my church about the links between the Roman adoption process and the images in Ephesians 1, (ref. William Barclay). I love growing in God’s understanding of my identity, because I always seem to access hope and joy that way.

Some Bible passages are so full of big concepts and tightly written that it’s easy to gloss over the words, as if they are an indigestible wad of food that’s too rich for me.

Memorizing seems to overcome this, and it becomes an act of interacting with someone who has had an extraordinary experience of God, which then enriches my own.

So the letter to the church of Ephesus opens with the announcement of the author, as letters did back then:

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints in Ephesus…”

As I walked along through sunny streets chewing on these words, I started thinking about how Paul is writing this in prison, and how he chooses to focus on God’s will in making him an apostle.

Memorizing forced me to slow down and repeat my reading until I a saw the choices the writer had made, and started fully engaging with his meaning. Since I’ve found it hard to memorize more than the first few verses, I’ve wanted to start at the beginning again and I’ve discovered new angles every few times. It’s really cool. What rich writing!

So it occurred to me that Paul’s choice of words implies that he’s still very conscious that God was prepared and willing to choose him as his representative, even though he once persecuted Christians. When God met him on that road to Damascus and challenged him, that in breathing murderous threats against Christians, he was actually persecuting the one who was showing up on that road as God himself.

Why do I keep coming back to Paul’s story? Why start with Ephesians, when the gospels hold more direct stories about Jesus? For one thing, I’m encouraged that Paul was discovering Jesus and interacting with him as we do: through prayer, meditation on the word and was intentional about using the testimonies of the disciples who had been privileged to walk with Jesus during his bodily lifetime on the earth.

For another, I think I still have a long way to go in really appreciating God’s grace, and leaving behind a desire to earn it. God is so incredibly kind and merciful. Every time I feel like I should be so much further along in my walk with him by now (or some such harsh judgment) he sends me someone to encourage me and remind me that God’s love doesn’t see me in those impatient terms. In such a week, I will find myself having several conversations with friends, or reading passages, or having experiences, that show me that God is a lot less ‘Religious’ and mean than my self-criticism suggests he is. How come I still fear he’s like that after apparently knowing him so long? Perhaps I need to do as Paul does, connect the dots and give thanks for how far he’s brought me, instead of worrying how far I have to go to some imaginary ‘pass’ mark. He’s brought me a long way out of shyness, of looking for approval from others, and so much else. For the record, I didn’t used to kill Christians. But every time I give myself a hard time for not being a better x y z, I am killing a little part of me, a Christian whom God is trying to encourage and teach and help grow, not shrink. Sorry God. There are more interesting things to think about!

Paul’s letters always go to thankful praise. What can you thank him for today? Let me also count the ways.

Divine Fuel – Ephesians 1:18-23

What is fuelling us?

“18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Paul’s letter to the Epheisans 1:18-23, NIV)

Determination works for a while. Gritting one’s teeth and pushing through; making a go of it; as English users we clearly get creative when it comes to describing the act of making an effort despite challenge.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is that there is a difference between doing something with determination and doing something fuelled by excitement and God’s divine energy.  Determination isn’t necessarily wrong, but God’s power is a bullet train.

In New Testament Greek this is dynamis – the same root gives us dynamic and dynamism. There’s altogether a lot more energy in my actions when they are powered by God.

I think back to when I first contemplated joining my first mission trip, which was to Uganda in November 2014, to assist with a SOMA teaching mission requested by a bishop in a beautiful part of SW Uganda. One day I was thinking about the announcement that there would be a mission trip, the next minute in my curiosity I was avidly reading everything I could about the place. From that moment on I was hooked, and agreements that might have been difficult fell into place very quickly. God had set up dominoes and was just waiting for me to push the first one and show an interest. His will was not hard to discern. I just had to jump on board. It had a powerful engine all its own.

The challenge in all this, I’m finding, is to discern what is of man and what is of God. Am I excited about a particular ministry because it’s God’s direction for my life, or because the grass seems greener on the other side? Are excited conversations with people about travel, or worship, or a hundred other things, an indication of a new direction in life, or am I idolising people with skills I covet and losing sight of God who is the source of the energy?

In church last night there was a powerful sense of the presence of God. As we sang together and fixed our thoughts on who God is, the focus became God, and the sense of his mighty strength and great love was real. In those moments, no fears can grip our hearts. We can sing words that speak of great trust, our hearts full of hope.

I want to live like that when the music stops too. After the head-spinning wonder of feeling so in tune with him yesterday, I want to keep singing even when the dreams have to be put into practice, and the challenge of living a day well come into sharp focus.

God knows this. It’s no surprise to him. I am encouraging myself today that he knows what I need, so I will remember that his reality comes first.




About Life

Rowboats at RichmondDeath or life?
Let’s assume Life.

So am I fully living life, or creeping along fearing the valley of the shadow of death?

We live our lives journeying through these different landscapes. Sometimes we hear the cry of the bird of prey and we become too aware of the shadow overhead.

An awareness of the proximity of death in life might give us the vigour to savour every moment, or we might start living half-lives; retreating, not daring; waiting for the danger to pass, the falcon’s shadow to leave our landscape, until we believe we can poke our heads out again without fear of being snatched. Most of the time we lives somewhere in the middle.
Jesus said, ‘in this world you will have trouble.’ He made no bones about it: no-one gets a pass. Some seem to get more trouble than others, but no-one gets away without a challenge or a choice. This is brave me talking. The other me just spent 10 minutes playing solitaire instead of braving the blank page. What was I afraid of?

Lately a couple of things have reminded me of that Victorian penchant for the memento mori, or a reminder of death. I’m definitely not festooning my home with gothic interior design, but I did find myself today perusing the Wikipedia list of people who had died so far this year, prompted by the notable pile-up of British celebrity obituaries in recent days.

On the same day I received in the post the alumnae magazine from my secondary school. Former students volunteer autobiographical narratives, with entries grouped by age. The magazine starts with women of great age and experience and relatively small daily round, who are counting their blessings that health procedures went well, that despite trouble of one sort or another they have loving relationships or an aspect of life they treasure.

As one turns the pages the stories are about those whose lives are starting to narrow, but mostly happy (or they don’t write in); surprise at the number of decades since graduating yet the feel no different; grandchildren and greats; charity work and retirement. Reading on, in remarkably short order the groups tick by and people record surprise at turning 50, on new careers, on fulfilling lifetime ambitions before it’s too late; and finally to my peers, our lives defined greatly by whether we have had children or not, a huge variety of choices of how we spend our time, but it’s mostly work or family, and a slow admission that we still haven’t worked it all out. But there are pages beyond mine: somehow there is a lengthening number of entries from younger women whose first career has been and gone, who are embarking on everything for the first time, or taking a break, marrying their long-time partner; and then there are the new graduates, fresh out of something; taking the world by storm, living life in the assumption that they couldn’t ever be one of those grey-haired ones whose page they flicked through at the beginning.

When we summarise these things briefly for semi-strangers we only see the highs and lows; daily life is a lot slower, and we can easily get bogged down. When we are going through that valley of the shadow of death, we need friends to make sure we keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When Jesus said, ‘in this world, you will have trouble,’ he added something else. ‘But take heart, because I have conquered the world.’ In this context, the ‘world’ is the world ‘system’ (if you like); everything that carries on oblivious to God’s loving, life-giving nature; life in all its challenges.

Living eternal life, or what we might call living in the light, or being ‘people of The Way’ (as Luke puts it), means we are following Jesus and are not actually subject to death at all. That’s a thought to dwell on.
But it’s easy to start living a life with one eye on the shadow overhead, the vulture just out of sight, the hawk after its prey.

As we being January again, lets allow ourselves to feel Jesus’ encouragement, as if he links arms with us and gives us a winning smile.

In the light of that, when am I going to be as kind to myself as I am to others?
When am I going to be as brave as others assume I already am?
Jesus has set me free to live life to the full.
God’s on my side. He’s bigger than any box I’ve imagined for him. If God is for me, what opposition is worth spoiling my confidence as I live life?

Describing himself as like a shepherd guarding his sheep, Jesus said, “the thief [the Devil] comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. (John 10:10). ‘They’ mean us, his sheep. As it says in Deuteronomy 30:19: ‘choose life’.

“O taste and see how gracious the Lord is! Blessed is the man that trusteth in him.” Psalm 34:8


Whenever I come across these words from psalm 34, they are not silently spoken. They are sung, in a high, rich voice in my head. It is impossible not to hear this music. The melody provided the emotional connection when I was a teenager in the church choir. Now that I have lived a little and seen some ups and downs of life, and seen how God dealt with me through them, it is the power of the words and their truth that arrests me.

Those words would have perhaps seemed pious to my teenage self, but they are not the words of a teenager. They are the words of someone who has experienced God’s graciousness, the long view of his steadfast kindness over time.

Nowadays I am more familiar with the Bible in modern language, and the NIV puts it like this:

“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”

As I look back over what has endured and what is reliable and the source of life in my life, it is the connection to the living God, to Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit, renewed and tested and renewed again, that has proved to determine how good life has been.

Today ‘taking refuge’ took the form of time with a friend who reminded me who am I, who helped me stop obsessing over my weaknesses, reminded me of my strengths and why God created me that way, with purpose in mind.

Yesterday, ‘taking refuge’ meant worshipping God with my colleagues, and allowing God’s thoughts to bubble up in us as we meditated together on the truths we had been singing about.

These days the music is more likely to have been written by United Pursuit than Ralph Vaughan Williams, but it still means stepping into a very special place where I get to be emotional about who God is, and about the journey we’ve been on together. As the music forces us to reflect on what has been, I know that God has been faithful.

Faithful Forever – Psalm 146:6-8

“He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.” Psalm 146:6-8

I’ve been watching the moving story of Jane Seymour’s family history on the BBC’s new series of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

**Plot Spoiler alert!**

She follows two great aunts on the Polish, Jewish side of her family tree. One great aunt, Jadwiga, stays in Warsaw and loses her husband, her son, her daughter, her society and her city, as the Nazis systematically destroy the Jews and the Slavs in an effort to create purity.

The other great aunt, Jadwiga’s sister, flees with her family to Paris, then to Marseilles and finally to Switzerland, staying behind at times sacrificially to work towards the welfare of fellow refugees. Finally in Switzerland this life’s work is seen as a contribution towards the rebuilding of nations, and it is what enables the family to live in freedom and stability.

It’s impossible to watch the show without another wave of disgust at the ghastliness of the Nazis treatment of human beings.

It was also impossible not to think of the heartbreaking flows of people out of the Middle East in this month, reaching Europe’s borders and receiving a very mixed reception in 2015. It was shocking to hear reports on Radio 4 this week of Bulgarian police abusing refugees by beating them, stealing their phones (and thus their only means of contact, and legal evidence of their status as people who have entered Europe at all). And that is just one news report in a seemingly endless escalation of grotesque treatments that people have visited on each other in the past few months in our world.

Remember when Assad’s treatment of his own Syrian people was shocking, when it was the worst thing on the news? Those headlines seem to have been trumped now so many times, that we can lose sensitivity to the increasing need.

What can we possibly make of this?

I do know that this is not an ‘act of God’ (a hideous phrase even when applied to earthquakes). It is people who have done this, who have chosen to treat others with rejection and hatred. And what am I doing?

From the sweet boy serving in our local coffee shop greeting customers with cheery words, to the PPI insurance salesman who left another message on my answerphone today, every single encounter we have with another human being leaves a legacy, however small. At best, and at worst, the legacy of individual choices can change nations. Free will is not to be taken lightly.

God does not hide away the principles by which he wants us to live in peace and security. In the days of the Israelites he set out rules and it was clear to all that they could not keep them in their own strength. Jesus showed us that a person can live in a divine way, but that God knows we are not pure and righteous by our own actions. Whereas the Nazis made other people die in order to let their nation be supposedly ‘pure’; Jesus showed true power and life by loving us so much to treat us lovingly even while we, mankind, killed him.

In these last few days, at David’s Tent festival, I have enjoyed glimpses of the great love that God has for us; as we have sung his praises, we have been able to realise that the best things we can say about him don’t even reflect his wonder. How extraordinary that he would care enough to  lead us patiently in growing in stature as moral, loving, powerful human beings. How patient he is with us.

While singing to God about how good he is, and dwelling on his character, might seem like an incidental thing to do, it has had a profound effect on me. To soak in that atmosphere for a few days has shifted something. I am willing to accept that he is the one who is perfect, not me. The amazing Sean Feucht talked about the wonderful truth that however much we praise God, when we meet him face to face we will discover that really is that lovely, and more; we will look back and think, not that we wasted that time worshipping, but that yes, we really got it, and he was worthy of it all.

How to reconcile these two worlds? How can we spend four days in an English field, singing songs of praise to God, while people at the borders of Europe are desperately trying to escape the horrors of war?

John MacArthur has written that “worship is all that we are, reacting rightly to all that He is” (The Ultimate Priority, Moody Press). It’s no wonder that as we worship we see him more clearly, but we also see ourselves with new clarity. As we focus for example on how he rescues us daily, we may lose some of our innate arrogance at how we have so cleverly set up our comfortable lives. As we expose ourselves to the reality of how deeply flawed humans are, we can marvel that God not only loves us at all, but patiently trains us in the art of loving each other.

Truth and Trust – John 14:2

“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.” John 14:2

I know I’ve quoted this passage before, but for other reasons. Tonight I just want to sit with that beautiful truth that Jesus is trustworthy. What he says is reliable. It might be difficult to understand, mysterious, and a great many other things, but it always turns out to be reliable.  Somehow, to me, that ‘if it were not so, I would have told you,’ has always moved me, and drawn me into wanting to lean into him and to what he has to say. Not only is he telling us the truth, he’s telling us the whole truth.

How do I know for sure? Well, what I do know is that from experience, what I’ve learnt from him tends to prove to be more true the longer I live. Things I thought I knew when I was 20 turn out to be often the wrong end of the stick, but things Jesus has taught me I often need to learn again, perhaps at a deeper level, and they turn out to be more true.

I remember doing my RE homework at school and we were covering something from the old testament about sacrifice. I recall thinking about the animals that were used for temple sacrifice, and how followers were called to lay down their lives in an ongoing, daily way, and I remember my thoughts running ahead into the idea that it’s like in that ongoing submitting to God we’re a living sacrifice. Then of course I realised that the phrase ‘living sacrifice’ was one God had already come up with, but it was fun coming to it fresh, and feeling the pleasure of understanding it thoroughly.

However pleased with myself I was at the time, I had no idea how hard it might be in future to actually live that way; knowing from experience is very different sort of knowing.  For example, all the sacrifices I ever made to Status, thinking a particularly well designed rucksack would change my life, for instance(!), or keeping people happy at the expense of my own health or God’s will, all those sacrifices left me with awkward reminders of how gullible I could be. Now I really understand and trust Jesus’s words about possessions and real life.

When I see people trying to stretch the reality of the world to fit around a belief they can’t bear to un-hold, I find it nearly unbearable. I really have to restrain myself from being quite aggressive with them. Maybe it’s because I’ve had run-ins with that monster in the past (not the green-eyed one; I wonder what colour this one would be?) When a truth is uncomfortable it’s even more important to acknowledge it. It’s so hard to do in the moment, isn’t it? But watching someone else warp reality around their blockage is just horrible.

John writes about not stumbling around in the darkness but walking in the light. Amen to that. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7). Jesus was the master of walking in the light, and as a result he could offer complete fellowship to others. Even at the ‘last supper’ he was transparent with his friends. Some were not so with him – namely Judas – but Judas was completely transparent to Jesus.

I want to be able to deal with conflict and problematic conversations in this way; that I do not allow fear to tempt me to distort reality around a blockage in my mind or relationships. This is another moment when I’m so aware I’m not up to it on my own but need God’s help.

Father, please help me see clearly, and live clearly, and be one whom others can trust.

All In; More Out – John 15:13-16

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” – Jesus, quoted in gospel of John 15:13-16

A little punnet of blackberries
A little punnet of blackberries

These words of Jesus blew me away today. They floated down on a piece of paper out of a Bible in our prayer chapel; a few lines printed on a slip of paper that someone had tucked inside one of the Bibles.

They were so relevant to what was running through my mind. Purpose and calling; sacrifice and pleasure. It’s all there.

There’s no denying what a hard invitation this is: lay down your life. But then the rest of the context hits you: Jesus, God, considers himself your friend, and you are his.

And I love this: “EVERYTHING I learned from the Father I have made known to you.” Reading that again tonight, it’s as if i never noticed that was in the Bible before. What an extraordinary thing for us to know, that of all the mysteries of Jesus’s interactions with his Father, all that he gleaned he taught his followers (and commanded them to make disciples and teach them).

Whatever vocation we might feel in life, whatever calling, we cannot outgive God.

If it seems like God demands a lot, it’s only because he knows what he can do with laid-down lives like that – he can bring incredible fruit, that isn’t going to rot on the tree but will be eternal. What a legacy!

Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat it. When he asks for people to join his team, he doesn’t minimise the investment. It’s the investment the pig makes to the ham sandwich, not the investment of the cow to the cheese sandwich. (Credit: Pope Francis!)

This is the offer: if we want to be in, let’s go all in; and in return Jesus is promising this: a life lived with God, full of revelation, lived in emotionally close partnership with him, and a guaranteed return on the investment.
It strikes me that is a picture of two parties fully invested in a cause; but God will always be the bigger shareholder; because how could he not be? He is the author and perfector of our faith; our creator and redeemer; the one who knows the end from the beginning. If we fear giving our all, we can remember that God is not just matching our donation, but exceeding it in every way.


I’m back – ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ Matt 10:8

‘Freely you have received, freely give.’ (Matthew 10:8)

Sorry if you’ve been missing my posts. I was enjoying two weeks of rest at two Christian summer festivals with a chance to retreat, worship, enjoy and serve. Turned out it was in that order. One week with a lot of resting and some serving: the next week with a little resting and a lot of serving. But the gaps where I was able to receive were like surgical strikes from God – just what I needed and no opportunity wasted.

I got a chance to really experience serving out of rest. The challenge is to do the same back home with my normal responsibilities. The knowledge of it in my head – the theory –  seems very secure, but putting it into action is what matters.