A Better Version of Me

Better MeI opened my Strawberry Activia Yoghurt at lunchtime and felt the crushing demand as the whole lid peeled back. I’d seen and heard this message before. Not just on the shiny foil lid but in a gazillion other places. Self improvement or upgrade is big business and it’s on offer everywhere. [I’m a sucker for the ones promising faster marathon times or better communication skills] I believe a better me exists. Better even than the ‘me’ I present online. [he’s a big improvement on the real thing]. The difficulty is that I’m faced with so many options to bring this guy into existence. Gym classes, running magazines, church conferences and strawberry youghurts all hold out potential. Improvement. The 2.0 me. It can become a little bit draining. Deciding which option to choose takes time and that’s limited. I’ve had this youghurt a lot. My school reports still say ‘could do better.’

I once heard Matt Chandler ask the question:

“Will a better version of me be the solution to my dissatisfaction?”

His reply was devastating.

Ten years from now, you with your ripped up abs and dollar bills falling out of your pockets, that guy will disappoint you also.

It’s a bit bleak. I know what to do. Make sure my kids don’t make the same mistakes I did. Live my life through them and urge the boys to become the updgraded version I always hoped I’d become. [You’ve seen how that goes on the touchline on Saturdays.] It’s horrible. It’s unbearable pressure as a 6 year old feels the weight of his dad’s frustration. The child fails to meet the weighty demand to be a better version of his father. It crushes him.

So what should I do with the demanding yoghurt lid, and every other appeal to improve? Martin Luther once said that the law was a

voice that man can never stop in this life.

We’ve got an allergy to judgement that we can’t seem to shake. The accusations and measuring rods pop up all over the place. Internally and externally my 6ft 4in frame still feels short.

People themselves can represent the law to us (and us to them!). For example, a particularly beautiful or successful person next to whom we can’t help but feel inadequate. Or maybe a boss whose very presence makes us feel like we are not working hard enough, no matter how many hours we put in.  They are not the law, but that is how we perceive them. Tullian Tchividjian

What am I to feel as I hear Jesus say:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I think I’m meant to feel the impossibility of that. To die. Only then can I be raised by another. I think I am to give up hope. To experience defeat. To see that when it comes to my best, it will never be enough. To lean not on my own understanding but instead – trust another with all my heart. The problem is that I would far rather be told what to do than “there’s nothing you can do.” It’s much more infuriating, humiliating and exposing.

“Guess what? You’re powerless.”

That’s harder to hear than ..

“Here’s what you need to do.” “Ten ways to have your best life now.”

At least then I can fix it. Right?

Christian life is all about learning to live with impossibilities. Discovering I cannot fix it. Not only learning to live with them, be distracted from them or conquer them myself. It is about savouring impossibilities as a way to enjoy God.

Jesus once responded to his followers questions by answering

With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God

This is faith. Faith that is directed away from my development, enhancement, improvement. Belief that true life is not found in me. Even the best version. The gospel is good news to everyone who feels short.

The only people who get better are people who know that, if they never get better, God will love them anyway.

Steve Brown, Scandalous Freedom

John the Baptist’s confession gives us the language of progress in the kingdom of God.

He must become greater; I must become less.

Get that on the yoghurt lids. Get that on our lips.

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Timehope?

We can’t believe the age of our children, the length of time we’ve been in our house or how long it has been since we got married. Amnesia has reached an epidemic level. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are full of old photos reminding us of the passing of time. I’m glad there were no smart phones in my pleated trouser days

TimehopEveryone’s resembling Victor Meldrew at the minute. We can’t believe the age of our children, the length of time we’ve been in our house or how long it has been since we got married. Amnesia has reached an epidemic level. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are full of old photos reminding us of the passing of time. I’m glad there were no smart phones in my pleated trouser days. The Timehop fascination creates a mix of reactions. Being reminded of the past is a sensitive subject. Apparently the app was inspired by the feature in Mario Kart where you could race Maya’s ghost (your previous race) and see how you were getting on. “How am I progressing with the passing of time?” is something we’ve always wanted to measure. A nagging question that plays on repeat. It causes some to get their picture taken for Weight Watchers in last year’s jeans and others to dread a school reunion. “Where was I checking in this time last year? Who was I with and am I better or worse off now?”

I used to be frustrated with people who lived in the past. Working in a church context means that you encounter them a lot! Sorry, I should say “us” a lot. Truth is, I want to go back. Grief makes me long for days that have gone. Days with Dad and great times as family that are a part of my past. I’m beginning to appreciate more the nostalgic desire to go backwards. I just don’t want my undercut, train-track braces, shell suit or tassled shoes to be unearthed!  I think about BBQs at Brown’s Bay and the smell of coins from the cash register on the bus Dad drove, the way he wrestled with our boys, laughed at them when they were misbehaving and added cream to dessert that definitely did not need more cream. Time has passed and I can’t believe it. I want to go back.

Where should I turn? Anti-ageing cream has limits. No matter how much is applied (apparently) it cannot reverse the tick, tick, tick of time. It has no power to restore the Timehop days. As a Christian, I believe that knowing Jesus takes me back (and forward) in hope. I believe He was there in the beginning when God looked at creation and saw that it was good. The perfection of those initial days are etched into every human life. A memory of how things should be that motivates our complaints and sensitises us to the brokenness of life. There’s an echo of Eden in everyone. We have a God-given memory of a world without pain. We long to ‘Timehop’ to those days before separation from God and all the other consequences of sin. Everyone complains. We’re all disgruntled. Loss has not discriminated and its impact is universal. The Good News we find in the pages of the Bible is that God provides a Redeemer. One who has power to undo the sadness, heal our hurts and restore to us the reality of perfection that we know is lost. The Bible reveals to us that Jesus’ biggest frustration was with the religious types who pretended life was ‘fine’. He reserved His harshest words for the people around church who gave off the impression that they had no needs. To be a Christian, all you need is need. Jesus made it clear that hunger for a right world was a blessed position to be in. He said

blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.

The inner throwback in all of us is to a perfect day without pain, without tears, without sickness and death. We grieve now because we’re all too aware that this perfection is not our reality. It has passed.

At The Cross, Jesus assures me of His ability to undo the pain and sadness we encounter in this life. He experiences death and has victory over it. Jesus calls me forward in hope. God is not in the business of evading suffering or dodging death. He overcomes it. He recovers what has been lost. He redeems the former day. God’s way is not to erase and start again. He resurrects. Our hope is not for ‘all new things’ our hope is for ‘all things new.’ His victory over the grave shows how capable God is of renewal. Christian belief is that the best days are always ahead. The good old day will be restored!

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” [Revelation 21:3-5]

… no matter how much the Victor Meldrew in me struggles to believe it.

MAKE DISCIPLES – PART 2

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 16.02.56Telling someone that I work in the church can often be the quickest way to end a conversation with them. One Pastor asked a young man in his local community why he didn’t go to church and the young man replied ‘because I’ve been before!” Most people don’t have to think too hard to come up with a negative story or experience relating to church. I can tell you many.

In a divided society like Northern Ireland, ‘church’ can be sensitive word that contributes to division rather than bringing about unity. Yet, Jesus said that one of the main tests of authenticity among His followers was how they related to each other. There should be traces of love in our system. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then this should be visible by the way we treat each other. We should ‘love in the same way we have been loved by Him.’

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Jesus

This means we need to remember that Jesus loved us at our worst. He stooped to wash the muddy feet of His disciples as a way of showing them the trajectory that love takes. This downward love that would eventually lead to the Cross. We forget that Jesus didn’t wait until the disciples had cleaned up their act before He called them. He didn’t issue a dress code or instruct them to behave a certain way before He extended kindness. He didn’t hold back friendship until they adopted His outlook on life. He loved the unlovely. He identified with those who were radically different from Him. If Jesus had only associated with those who were like Him, He would have been forced to remain in Heaven. The Good News for us is that He stepped away from the familiarity and perfection of that community and into enemy territory. The Light of The World stepped down into darkness in order to love those who were different from Him. The church is a diverse community gathered together by the rescue of Jesus.

The church is . . . made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together . . . because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ. . . . They are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake. DA Carson

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 10.35.25We cannot love one another unless we are actually with one another. Our culture is marked by being together but alone. In the gym with others but alone on the treadmill, in the coffee shop with others but alone on the Kindle, on the train with others but alone with the newspaper. Social media is the obvious arena where many of us are ‘together but alone’. There are plenty of options for being in a crowd but the church should be a community. A diverse community where we are honest about our failures and weaknesses. The Bible encourages us to carry one another’s burdens, bear with one another, forgive one another. This is impossible if we just listen to podcasts and read Christian books. We need to be in community with other people long enough for them to do us wrong, so that we will have the privilege of extending grace to them. We need to disappoint others and receive forgiveness. We need to be real about the challenges of life if we are to receive encouragement and help. This does not happen in isolation. Disciples of Jesus are to love one another in the same way He has loved us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the goal of Christian community is that we

meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.

Human longing has always been to find someone who would be there for us when we’re at our worst.

When your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A. – when it’s like you’re always stuck in second gear – when it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.

Our hope is that when things aren’t going our way, someone would love us. Disciples of Jesus meet one another as bringers of Good News. The message of salvation in Him.

Make Disciples – Part 1

mess upThis message on a bin in a local park isn’t really that surprising. It’s the kind of thing we tell our kids all the time. In fact, this week, before bedtime, my 4 year old son told his little brother to ‘tidy up the blocks, you tipped them out.’ We instinctively recognise there is responsibility to deal with the mess we create. I think it’s IKEA who have signs in their eating area which read ‘this is a self clearing restaurant’ Which doesn’t mean it tidies up itself but rather we need to take our tray back to the stand, we need to do it ourselves. DIY – it’s what you’d expect in a place that sells flat pack furniture!

Too often in the church we end up communicating the same message as the bin to a messy world. “Clean up your act’ or ‘sort your life out.’ But this is not good news. It is not the message of the gospel. We don’t gather on Sundays to worship Jesus because He looked at our messed up lives and said ‘If you want to be clean, then do it yourself” We worship Jesus because He comes to us in all our weakness, brokenness and mess. He comes as the only One who has a clean act. He lived a life that was not littered with lies, jealousy, impurity and greed yet, at the Cross, He picked up all this stuff from us. We messed up and He cleaned up. That’s Good News. Disciples of Jesus are those who recognise they are a mess and cannot clean up their act. Disciples look at the 10 Commandments and realise that these are impossible instructions beyond our ability to DIY. We are incapable of self clearing or self cleansing. We need someone to do that for us. The incredibly Good News of God’s grace is that there is One who has. It’s why we worship Him.

.. the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Flags and The Future

On a youth camp as a teenager, I remember a group of guys noticing a pretty girl walking towards us, someone said ‘wow, she’s beautiful’ and the next person to speak was Geoff who said ‘you don’t often see them in yellow.’ He was looking the other way at a Porsche 911. Everyone finds things to be impressed with or excited about. There’s a desire in all of us to honour something outside of ourselves. Annie Lennox sang ‘everybody’s looking for something.’ The problem we encounter is that nothing our eyes land on can cope with the affection we have to offer. We have a desire to worship but nothing is found to be worthy of it. We’re looking for perfection that is not available in human relationships or on the shelf.

I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Rev 5 vs 4

Pretty girls or sports cars maybe beautiful but they leave us in tears because they were never intended to be the ‘something’ that everybody is looking for. They do not have the capacity to receive the love placed inside of us by Our Maker. We get cheated out of true worship continually. It’s like we’ve been a victim of fraud. Worship that should only go to our Creator has been taken from us by creation. In Revelation 5, John has a vision that reveals to us the ‘something’ that everybody’s looking for.

Then one of the elders said to me ‘do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals. Rev 5 vs 5

The picture here is of Someone who is: perfect, up to it, able and worthy to receive the affection in our hearts. One Man who can open the scroll and unveil perfectly the purposes of God. The Lamb of God who was sacrificed and had victory over death. He’s alive. It’s this image that’s supposed to comfort the people of God who are experiencing hard times and frustrated by the resources available in a broken world. Jesus’ victory at The Cross is a lens through which we see all brokenness, suffering and disappointment. These things are not the end of the story for the people of God. The vision is of a great crowd worshipping what they were always intended to worship. We’re given a picture of the people coming from every tribe, language and nation. To honour One who can receive it.

you are worthy to take the scroll

and to open it’s seals

because you were slain,

and with your blood you purchased for God

persons from every tribe and language and people and nation

Rev 5 vs 9

If this is the vision God grants to us to sustain us in difficult times and give us hope for the future then it’s obviously crucial how we relate to other nations and languages and tribes as we wait for that Day. The church in Northern Ireland has hit the James McConnellheadlines in recent days because prominent leaders such as Rev Mervyn Gibson and Pastor James McConnell have used their influence to reinforce bigotry and prejudice that has no place in Biblical Christianity. God repeatedly urges His people to be distinctive from the world by loving people with whom we disagree! Reaching out to others who are different from us and using any position of strength to bless those who are weak. The ultimate expression of God’s love for His enemies and interaction with those who are ‘other’ is that – on The Cross Jesus prays for our forgiveness and becomes the means by which we can be forgiven. Perfect sacrificed for imperfect, Sinless One becomes sin, Light steps into darkness and Life becomes death.

If we claim to be followers of Jesus [who are sent in the same way as He was] then we must be willing to acknowledge that all humans are made in the image of God and therefore have equal dignity, value and worth. We must remember that it’s only because Jesus left heaven and stepped into enemy territory on earth, that we have experienced God’s love in the first place. Only He is worthy of our worship. We must hold ‘unswervingly to the hope we profess’. Namely that ‘there is salvation in no one else’ ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ and our eternity is tied to the scandalous Good News that Jesus is the ‘Friend of Sinners.’

From every tribe and flag.

 

6 Things About Work

We recently looked at the subject of work at Carnmoney. Below [in no particular order] are some thoughts on this subject.

 

1. Pastors must have credibility when speaking about work

Paul says to the workers in Thessalonica ‘you ought to follow our example, we were not idle when we were with you … we worked night and day, labouring and toiling’ [2 Thessalonians 3:7-8] If you are employed by a church or a Christian organisation. It’s not a place to hide or an escape from real work. Christian leadership is inviting other Christians to follow your example in every area of life. This includes work.

2. All work has purpose

HARD-WORKIt would be really depressing to think that what you spend the majority of your week doing only has significance because it gives you money to support Christian ministers and missionaries. You don’t clock into God’s kingdom work when you enter a church building to serve as a volunteer and then clock out as you return to the office or classroom. Everything has eternal significance. Whether you’re a painter or a parent, a businessman or a builder – it counts! All work is done to steward the creation made by God and ultimately He is the top of every organisational chart. ‘whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord not men.’ [Colossians 3:23] This should radically transform the Christian attitude to work.

3. Work is not a bad thing

God gave Adam and Eve a real privilege by tasking them with the stewardship of creation. It was His world that He had made and declared that it was good. God is a worker and made humans in His image to continue to bring order out of chaos. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” [Genesis 2:15]  God works and He has no needs. It’s not like God has to work to put food on the table or keep a roof over His head. Work is in His perfect nature. We are made in His image and He gave work to humans before sin entered the world.

4. Work exposes our need for help

Whether it’s a paper jam, computer virus, financial crash or an irritating colleague, work is a venue where we are exposed to some challenges. Our work reveals to us on a daily basis that we are not God. If we were in total control, work would not present these difficulties. Adam and Eve made a bid for independence, ignored their Boss and rebelled against their Creator on their first day at work. It did not go well. Sin entered the world as a result of their rebellion and we all now realise that the world is not as it should be. We are dependent creatures designed for dependence upon our Creator. Work is a venue where we are reminded of this reality, again and again!

5. Work is a location to reveal Jesus

Rather than seeing your work as a place to make a big deal of yourself. Work is a place to make a big deal of Jesus. The fishermen disciples could leave their nets behind and follow Jesus because they knew there was [as Tim Keller says] ‘a fishing beyond fishing.’ There’s more to my trade than the trade itself. God is at work in it and through it to glorify Himself. We are ‘Christ’s ambassadors.’ [2 Corinthians 5:20] People will get an impression of Jesus by how you work and relate to them. Is Jesus a lazy, gossip who cannot be trusted to get the report in on time? Is He a snob who mistreats the workers further down the organisational chart?

6. Work is not where we find our true identity

The reason we over work [or under work] is because we believe true life/meaning/pleasure is found in something other than Jesus. Work [if viewed wrongly] can become the alternative saviour that provides for you the rescue you think you need. Work becomes our hope to move us upward. It’s how you validate your existence or measure your worth. The good news of the gospel is that you have worth that outstrips your best pay day or performance review. You are not your job title and you are not your redundancy. Your identity is given by Jesus work on the Cross not your work in the classroom. Maturity as a Christian develops as you continually remind yourself of this amazing reality… ‘you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’ [Colossians 3:3]  When God the Father looks at Jesus, He says ‘this is my Son whom I love, with Him I am well pleased.’ This is the same Son that you now hide your life in!

 

If you are a Christian – God is well pleased with you because of Jesus work.

 

 

Modern [Dysfunctional] Family

Not long ago I watched an episode of Modern Family where Phil and Claire Dunphy are frantically trying to arrange the summer schedule for their kids. In an attempt to get some time together, they’re moving post it notes all over the place and negotiating with Imageeach of their three children. What becomes clear as the episode unfolds is that Phil and Claire are working behind the scenes to get rid of each other as well. It’s not time together they want, it’s ‘me time.’ Their idea of having a good summer involved not having the family about at all.

It was the same for Cain in Genesis 4, only his actions were more permanent! He killed Abel out of jealousy. God came looking for Abel and Cain replied ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ You can hear the tone of this smart reply. Like a pupil replying to a teacher who’s inquiring about a friend who hasn’t turned up to class. ‘How should I know?’ Cain thinks he’s got God over a barrel with his quick witted response but God has every right to answer – ‘Yes! You are your brother’s keeper.’ We’re made in the image of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the perfect family. There is perfect unity in this community. God makes man and woman in His own image to reflect Himself. The Bible begins with Him joining Adam and Eve together in marriage. The Bible ends with John’s vision of Jesus the bridegroom coming for His bride (the church). God has set marriage as the context in which all human history unfolds. Family unity and diversity matters to Him! We’re different but equally valuable. You may have heard that – ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ it’s garbage. We’re from God!

God sets the lonely in families [Psalm 68]

men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus-by-john-gray-phd-2010-01-15This is God’s design. So that every person would know love, protection and care. Husbands have specific responsibilities as do wives. Children are to honour their parents. Fathers are not to exasperate their children. Family is to be the arena in which God’s unity and diversity is displayed. Where His character is revealed. We don’t get too far into the story before the family unit dysfunctions. Adam and Eve ignore God’s design and blame each other for their rebellion. One son [Cain] kills their other son [Abel]. God’s good design is rejected in favour of some ‘me time.’ Where life is rid of the frustrations and pains that family have caused. Cain thinks ‘Finally, I get life the way I want it.’ This pattern is repeated in every family since. Maybe not to the extreme of murder but we all feel the frustration of competing desires. People close to us disappoint us and let us down. Marriage is always the coming together of two flawed, broken and sinful people. Our husband or wife will not complete us! [sorry Jerry Maguire] Our children or grandchildren will not complete us. None of our families perfectly reflect the unity and diversity of our Creator. Scripture says that according to God’s design – we all live in dysfunctional families.

‘We all like sheep have gone astray’ Isaiah 53:6

Our youngest son Robbie (he’s not two yet) regularly yells ‘this way daddy’ from the back seat of the car. He wants to tell me the way to go. He can get lost in a soft play area but he thinks he is capable of directing me on the motorway! Left to our own intellect and understanding – we get lost. We’re stubborn and far from where we should be. It’s true of all of us.Homer  Homer Simpson was right when he said of the Bible ‘everyone in this book is a mess, except this one guy.’ The really good news of the gospel is that God our Father sends this One Guy. A brother unlike Cain (who looked only to his own interests). God sent His Son Jesus, our brother to deliver us. Not to take revenge on us but to take the punishment for us. Not to kill us but to die for us! He isn’t shouting ‘this way’ from the back seat but praying ‘Your way’ to His Father from the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus Christ steps into the mess of our dysfunctional world and rather than figuring out how to get some ‘me time’ sacrifices His life on the cross so that we can spend eternity with Him.

This is the Good News of the gospel for all of us in dysfunctional families. We’ve strayed from God’s design but He’s sent us a Deliverer!