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What Prayer Means to Me

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Our youngest son is 18 months old and so much of our time is spent responding to his endless babbling. He points excitedly as endless streams of sounds pour from his mouth, all of which are completely indistinguishable to us as his parents.

As yet there have been no meaningful words, no sensible sentences and no profound conversations. Yet while neither of us as parents have a clue what he is saying most of the time, we absolutely love listening to his babbles and hearing him communicate with us.

As parents we love the mumbling of our child. In the same way, we can come before God just as we are, knowing that he welcomes us as his babbling children. And that picture lifts the pressure off me in prayer. The pressure to perform before God, the temptation to impress others or the frustrations of my own inadequacies.

Jesus said: “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11) And I have found that to be true. My experience in prayer hasn’t always been about the answers God has given me but the presence God has brought me.

I’ve prayed about circumstances that haven’t changed and I’ve asked for things that haven’t been given but I’ve realised that while my prayers don’t always change others, they have profoundly changed me as I have encountered the presence of Holy Spirit in my life.

I don’t just pray to a distant God hoping that he might hear me. I speak with a loving Father trusting that he wants to be with me. And so prayer to me isn’t so much about a place but a person; not so much about the right answers but about his presence.

I’m a babbling child in the arms of my Abba Father.

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2018 Reflections

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reflections

I’ve decided to continue my tradition of sharing things I’ve learned, seen and experienced this year. They are mostly in the context of church & leadership with a few others thrown in. Here goes…

‪1/ Brokenness is everywhere. It’s no respecter of class, background or gifting. Don’t assume or presume. Everyone needs compassion. We all know weakness.

‪2/ I think I’ve learned this year to hold things more lightly. Not everything is urgent, growth takes time, methods are flexible, there is more to learn, it’s good to laugh & I’m not always right! ‬

‪3/ There is a constant pressure in life to know what you are going to do, but it’s far more important to consider who you are going to be.

4/ ‪I’ve managed to run faster this year across every distance mainly due to consistently training with better runners than me. Running with others helps me run further & faster, which happens to be also true for life!‬

‪5/ I’ve learned that opposition isn’t so much direct & head on as it is quiet & subtle, slowly pushing you off course at times without even realising. ‬

6/ The more secure we become in our identity the more we can celebrate the success of others. Insecurity breeds criticism. I think this can be true for churches as well as individuals.

‪7/ Disagreement in private should be encouraged but conflict in public should be avoided. Unconditional love does not mean unconditional agreement‬.

8/ ‪Good leadership is about knowing who needs a hug and who needs a kick. ‬

9/ ‪Imperfect plans in action are better than perfect plans on paper. The best examples of change have been more about pragmatic than spectacular leadership where people say “let’s have a go” with fixed principles but flexible practices.

‪10/ I meet some in churches desperate to preserve their traditions & some with a desire to be entertained. But the answers are neither in our past nor our preferences but in God’s purposes.

11/ ‪And finally, I continue to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the hope for the world. Even after all this time his kingdom is still advancing & his name still known. His words are still my authority & his life remains the blueprint.

It matters what you measure

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“How are things going in your church?”

I wonder how you would answer that question. Recently I had two different conversations that gave very two very different responses to that question. One told me that things were going great because there were lots of people there. The other was disappointed because there weren’t many people there. It got me thinking whether we know how to answer that question.

Are we counting the right things? In my experience, there is often a temptation in church to measure success by buildings, budgets and bums on seats! While it’s still important to measure and evaluate things in church life, we need to make sure that we are counting the right things. What we count shows what we value, but what we value also counts.

The gospels seem to show that Jesus is more concerned about the depth of our discipleship than the size of our gatherings. He isn’t counting the ABC of our attendance, buildings and cash, but he has commissioned us in the D of disciple-making. If the only way we talk about our church is to count how many were there on a Sunday, then that is the metric by which people will think about our church. What we talk about most will be what people will value the most. It matters what we measure.

If we value numbers and size then this is what will define our success and failure. If we care about slick services, then this what we will talk about. If we only focus on good sermons then we will talk about the quality of the preacher.

But how about this year we begin to emphasise and evaluate some other things in the life of our congregations? How about this year we measure by different metrics and count better things? If it matters what we measure, what will you measure this year?

I know of a church leader who regularly asks his leaders to submit a report of how many new people they have connected with and how many spiritual conversations they have engaged in. This is the current priority for them and so they have made it the thing they measure.

So what are different questions we could ask this year that might help us to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of our discipleship as a church? I’m sure you could come up with your own, but here are a few to get you started.

  • How many people from the local community are coming to our gatherings?
  • Would our members be able to communicate their faith story to a friend?
  • Are church members regularly eating together in each other’s homes?
  • How bold are the prayers at our prayer meetings?
  • How many apprentice leaders have we given responsibility to this year?
  • Can we describe a situation where we have taken a risk this year in our leadership?
  • How many people in your community are reading the Bible daily?
  • In what ways are people being encouraged to disciple a young Christian?

If these things are important to us, then these are things we should evaluate and emphasise. When we see growth in these things then let’s acknowledge and share it, being people who celebrate what God is doing among us as we measure the things that really matter.

Hypocrisy

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As a teenager I used to listen to a song called “What if I stumble” by a band called DC Talk. They were a strange collection of soft rock and Christian rap, but this song began with a spoken section that said this: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus by their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

I listened to that track over and over again and that phrase has always remained lodged in my mind ever since. And whether that is 100% true or not, I do know that Jesus speaks strongly against hypocrisy. It’s damaging to our walk and it destroys our witness.

Many people turn away from Jesus not because of unbelief in Him but because of hypocrisy in His people. This is exactly what Jesus addresses in the next part of the Sermon on the Mount.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew 6

Can you imagine a world where people presented themselves in a much better light publicly than the reality was in private? Can you imagine a world where people were so desperate to show their best side that they used filters and photoshop? Can you imagine a world where people exposed their best ideas and kept hidden their worst secrets, or did good works and then publicised them to others?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes some people who give to the needy but announce it with trumpets, pray public prayers in order to impress others and display their great works for everyone to see.

We might imagine nasty people who were lofty and arrogant, hypocritical Pharisees whose only care was for their own reputation, or religious do-gooders who were so up themselves and so down on others. But, in reality, I am often one of them, and you can be too. Jesus isn’t just talking to the Pharisees, He’s talking to me and you.

FALLEN
We can point the finger or shift the blame, but the reality is that each of us have areas in our life where our actions don’t measure up to our words. We might say we’re 5 minutes away when really it’s 10, make a commitment to someone and then back out, or sing that we surrender all to Jesus and hold too tightly to our wallets. Jesus isn’t saying, watch out for the hypocrites – he is saying that there is hypocrisy in all of us! The problem isn’t the Pharisees – the problem is me!

We don’t like to talk about it – but we are fallen. Because I am fallen I seek praise. Because I am fallen I try to be seen in better light than others. Because I am fallen I choose to please people rather than carry out the will of God.

When it comes to hypocrisy, we are all guilty and we are all in need of Jesus. We don’t put across the best version of ourselves but acknowledge our brokenness. It’s not about living our best life but about relying on the only Christ.

But another danger is that because we don’t want to be labelled hypocritical we end up saying nothing. Because we know our actions don’t measure up to our words, then we remain silent. We are worried that the more public we are about our faith, the more damage we might do when we don’t measure up.

Even if the world holds us to high and unrealistic expectations at times, I don’t think Jesus wants us to become secret Christians. He knows we are fallen and there is grace for that. And as a church, we know one another is fallen and there should be grace among us for that.

I wonder if actually the challenge of being vocal in our faith, actually builds in us a desire and a level of accountability for our lives to measure up, and while we may not give a perfect example, we can always give a personal one.

FOUNDATIONS
This passage is essentially some commands about giving to God and praying to God, but it actually drives deep to the heart of where we find affection & where we go to for motivation. Are our foundations built on the affection of others or the affection of God? Are we motivated to carry out the wants of people or the will of the Father?

So much of Jesus’ words here focus us on things that are unseen, rather than what is obvious. He is urging his followers to give in secret, to pray in private, to fast without a hint and to place their emphasis on the eternal rather than the temporal.

You know, in a world where people share photos of their plate before a meal, their body after a workout and their front door every September, these words are counter cultural. In a society where we are tempted to expose our every thought, action or highlight, we must ensure that we avoid the lure of public exposure as the motivator of our actions.

It might be counter cultural to embrace standing in the shadows rather than shining in the spotlight, but it might just be the way of Jesus. It might be tempting to do otherwise but it is essential for our private devotion to take priority over our public cries.

Jesus followers focus on what is unseen rather than what is obvious. Because spiritual foundations are more hidden than they are visible. Jesus encourages giving but doesn’t want it to be announced. He wants us to pray but wants us to prioritise secret prayers over spiritual prayers.

What is below the surface of our life is what is most important. So what spiritual foundations are you building into your life?

I’m struck that in this passage there are some repeated phrases throughout: “When you give” and “when you pray.” Not if you give or if you pray. No, these were basic expectations for the people of God. Jesus didn’t say “if you feel really led to some Sunday then just check if you’ve got any change left in your wallet.” He didn’t say “if time permits & you’ve finished the box-set, then grab a few minutes to pray.” If wasn’t if there was enough money in the bank or enough hours in the day. It was about “when” not “if”.

Foundations are laid first before the rest of the house gets built. Before the stunning brickwork, spectacular landscaping or sophisticated furnishings, there are things that get done first. So too with our lives as Christians.

As I receive my pay check, is my bank account built on a solid foundation of generosity? Jesus says when you give do it generously but not conspicuously. As I start my day, is it being built on a solid foundation of prayer? Jesus says when you pray do it in privacy, not for publicity.

But these words of Jesus aren’t just about the foundations of our lives, but the foundation of our hearts. When addressing hypocrisy we so often focus on the actions part, but what about the heart? Because it’s out of the overflow of our hearts that our mouths speak. (Matthew 16:33)

Can the heart be trained? And, if so, how might Jesus want to shape our hearts? For Jesus followers it’s about letting our heart shape our hands. Can my heart be shaped more so that my hands become more generous? Can my heart be ruled by God so that prayers pour from my lips? What spiritual foundations are you building your life on?

FUTURE
Lastly, Jesus is promising His followers something in the future. He says: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” and then in contrast: “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Earthly praise is some people’s full reward, while those who follow and honour Jesus have a reward to come. Think about that! If you don’t follow Jesus, the rewards of this life are as good as they get. But if you follow Jesus, this life is as bad as it gets. The rewards of the future are better.

In my life I need to continue to choose things of eternal significance over earthly value. Good looks fade, earthly praise doesn’t last and social media likes have no value. A great reputation might be helpful in this life but does nothing in our future one.

This is an upside down kingdom. Many of the principles Jesus shared during the “Sermon on the Mount” were ideas that would have marked out his followers as being distinct from the culture around them. Principles like walking an extra mile when customs dictated that one mile was enough. Teachings where giving was encouraged but not to be announced. A kingdom where love extends not just to neighbours but enemies. This is an upside down kingdom where meekness is a virtue, being cursed brings a blessing and poverty was rewarded.

Why? Because in all of these things, they speak about a future kingdom that is better than any present kingdom. And so we stand on the firm foundation of the only one who has lived on this world and wasn’t fallen. And the One whose body was broken and yet He lives forever.

He promises us a future reward – but we choose to take up service of Him and devotion to Him in the present – even when that means obscurity and hiddenness in our lives.

“I will not boast in anything – no gifts, no power, no wisdom.
But I will boast in Jesus Christ – His death and resurrection.”

What are you boasting in? Who are you boasting in?

The Seasons of Life

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Each year we observe the changing seasons around us, whether it’s new-born lambs or budding flowers in Spring, the warmer days and longer nights of summer, falling leaves and heavier coats in Autumn, or the colder weather and greater darkness of Winter. All of these phases represent signs of seasons changing around us. In our environment, change is inevitable.

Just as the seasons of a year come and go, we are also guaranteed seasons in our life too. Some seasons are expected and welcomed, some may be unexpected or even unwelcome, but our challenge is learning to navigate these seasons and continuing forward no matter what circumstances arise around us.

As a couple declare the vows of marriage on their wedding day, they take into account that there will inevitably be changing circumstances and shifting seasons ahead of them. Whether it will be sickness or health, for better or worse, or in riches or poverty, the marrying couple are promising that no matter what lies ahead for them, they will continue to honour, love and live with one another for the rest of their days.

So to with the people of God. We look ahead into the unknown abyss unsure about the specifics but certain about the reality of suffering and joy, challenges and opportunities, illness and death. In this curious mix of known uncertainty, we face it with the desire to continue to honour, love and live for God for the rest of our days.

Perhaps it isn’t a question of what things will change in our lives, but actually a question of what things will remain in our lives. In the changing seasons of life, what will we prioritise and what will we cling on to. Tim Keller writes that “far more importance than any seasonal adjustments are the things we do in season and out of season: pray, preach, break bread, sing, teach, serve the poor, baptise, love. Although sowing is easier in April than in December, the requirement to do them does not change.”

Solomon recognised the changing circumstances of life as he wrote Ecclesiastes 3. He acknowledged times of mourning and weeping, but also laughter and joy. He referred to destruction and death, mingled with healing and birth. However, in Solomon’s wisdom he also pointed to two great truths in verse 11 that would never change. Firstly, that no one can fathom the ways of God, and secondly, that God would make everything beautiful in its time.

In whatever season you are facing right now, may you cling on to that truth.

The Bigger Picture

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This is something I wrote and shared recently at PCI’s Youth Assembly event to kick off a session called “The Bigger Picture.” It seemed to resonate and several people have asked me for a copy of it since so I thought I would share it and make it available to others. The heart behind it is to capture the beauty, breadth and diversity that is found within the wider church I find myself part of. So here it is…

Across this island we’re scattered; North, South, East, West.
Coleraine to Cork, Greyabbey to Galway, each doing their best.

We are part of a church that comes in various shape and size.
Yet in each one, Jesus Christ and His word are emphasised.

Some big, some small, some traditional, some modern,
But whether urban or rural, from each church we can learn.

Because each of them carry a his-tory, a story;
A people to reach and bring God glory.

Some congregations see over 1000 each Sunday gather.
Many are smaller but on mission they scatter.

Some congregations have existed for over 300 years,
While in this last decade, new ones have been pioneered.

Some congregations gather in ancient old buildings with pulpits and balconies.
Others gather in modern auditoriums with platforms and cafes.

Organs and choirs provide the music for some.
While others prefer to use guitars and drums.

In some places, hymns from the hymnbook are heartily sung and played.
For others it’s Hillsongs, Redman and songs on the screen are displayed.

You might have a preference or like things a certain way.
But each expression of worship is designed to give praise.

Both male and female, serving and leading.
There are young and old, singing and reading.

There are many existing programmes, constant activities;
And developing dreams with fresh opportunities.

Of course we see failure and at times have frustrations;
But we should be inspired by hope rather than deep desperation.

So let’s celebrate the good and strive for more.
Asking God to use our efforts and move like before.

You are here to contribute, you are called to care.
Because you are part of this church with a message to share.

EMERGE

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Just a glimpse of an Emerging Leaders Training Programme I’ve been part of. It’s been a privilege investing in a generation of now and future leaders.

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