Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Dark Road of Loss

I had the privilege of speaking at the Caring Ministries conference on Saturday with folks who have been through the dark road of loss – either through separation and divorce or in my case, the pain of bereavement and grief.  I took 2 sessions – in the latter we had a very profitable Q and A where I was very open about my own journey through loss.  In the former, I shared 10 things you learn from tough times.  These were lessons that the Lord taught me through the crucible of experience.

Here’s a quick summary

1. God is God and He can do what he likes

He neither owes us nor offers us full explanations for his actions. Why should he? He is God!!

2. Life is Preparation for Eternity

We are only here for a short time and eternity matters far more than what happens in our three score years and ten. Just make sure your actions, habits and decisions down here prepare you for Immanuel’s land

3. We are more Sinful than we ever Thought.

Its easy to excuse our sin – so easy.  We can even make tough experiences a reason for going wrong. Romans 3 describes our nature in all its horrible state.  Jeremiah 17 v9 reminds us that our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked!

4. The Gospel is our Only Hope

We cannot find redemption in people, relationships or circumstances - only in Christ.  Our spouse or parents or children cannot be our Saviour.  Jesus is our only Saviour.  We live in a broken and fallen world.  Bad things happen.  That's why we need a Saviour.

5. Satan really Hates God’s People

Don’t expect him to go easy on you because times are tough.  He hates you and will do anything to cause trouble he is a thief who comes to steal and destroy.  He becomes even more real in difficult times.

6. Crying is Good but don’t Cry for ever

At the grave of Lazarus, Jesus wept (John 11 v35).  Hence crying must be good.  But you should not get stuck, move on into a bright new future.  If you crawl under the duvet and turn off the phone, eventually you will have to emerge into the light.  Better do that sooner rather than later because time is short.

7. Acceptance is the Key to Healing

We cannot change the past.  That’s a fact.  Time only flows in one direction.  So many cannot or will not accept that what has happened, has happened.  But acceptance sets you free and allows you to grow.  This key is vital.

8. Avoid Bitterness and Live with no Regrets

Hebrews 12 v15 is a solemn warning to us of the damage that bitterness can cause.  Don’t allow this root to grow.  Start living now with eternity in view.  How will you regard your present thoughts/feelings when you look back on them?

9. You can only Practice in the Darkness what you Learn in the Light

Got that? Dark times will come.  Those are not the times to learn to pray, have devotions or get intimate with God.  When you are in the light is the time for that.  Learn good lessons in good times – store them up and then make withdrawals in times of darkness

10. Small Actions have Big Consequences

Ever hear the saying – 'Big doors swing on small hinges'?  It’s true.  The smallest things that you do in tough times and the smallest things others do for you have big consequences.  So be careful about everything.

Every one of those life lessons is worth a chapter on its own.  Think about them!!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A Man You Should Know

Church history is full of some fascinating figures.  Some of them are my heroes (and some of them are definitely not!!).  One of those heroes has to be the great C H Spurgeon, of whom I've always been a fan and I've been back recently reading more of his life.  The 'Prince of Preachers' has come down to us as a somewhat austere, irrelevant puritan but the reality is far different.  Here was a man, who was innovative way beyond his time, who connected with his culture and day in a way few preachers had ever done before and who delighted in using the language and imagery of the ordinary people, as opposed to the obscure references and quotations from literary classics, beloved of other preachers of his day.  You see, that’s why I love this man so much.  He has so much to teach us about how to be contemporary and yet remain biblical at the same time, to be ‘orthodox’ yet fresh.  When he died aged 58 in 1892, almost 100,000 attended the funeral.  That’s impact!!

Spurgeon came to faith as a young man one very wintry morning.  Making his way to a local Primitive Methodist Church, he discovered that the invited preacher had been unable to make it to the service due to the fierce weather.  An old deacon, untrained in preaching and unable to deliver a proper sermon, simply quoted the text from Isaiah “look unto me and be saved, all the ends of the earth” and urged all to look and believe.  God used the words to bring conviction to Spurgeon’s heart and he fell in love with Christ.  His unique gifts became apparent early and he eventually found himself in the big city of London, daunted by the prospect of bringing Christ to the masses.  Quickly, God blessed him and the New Park Street Church was soon too small for the thousands who flocked regularly to hear the message.  Plans were drawn up and the mighty Metropolitan Tabernacle was constructed and opened in March 1861.  Spurgeon was 27 years old.

Here was a man of the people – an uncompromising believer in the inerrancy and authority of God’s word and a fearless opponent of liberalism in all its forms.  But he refused to bow down to the conventions of his day.  His dress sense was deemed too casual, his language too ordinary, his methods uncouth.  He was an ardent opponent of slavery and lost friends because of it.  And when he and his church leaders decide to hold services in the Surrey music hall, critics were aghast.  Was not the music hall for entertainment and dancing? Surely it was far too worldly for religious services?  Was not this man a charlatan, a con man, a deceiver?  Undeterred, he pressed ahead to great advancement of the gospel.

See - this is contemporary and relevant.  Some of the issues are today’s issues – some of the lessons are bang up to date.  Get to know this man; you won’t be disappointed.

If you would like a very straightforward but helpful introduction to this man try 'Charles Spurgeon: The Great Orator' in the Heroes of the Faith series by Barbour Publishing.

Friday, 21 February 2014

A Tale of Two Brothers

Back in Pasadena, California in the late 50’s two brothers called Dick and Maurice had quite a novel business idea. Noticing the rapid expansion of car ownership and the increasingly frenetic pace of life they dreamt up the idea of a ‘drive in’ restaurant.  Drive–in, park and waiters and waitresses would come to your car, take your order, and swiftly deliver it on proper plates with proper napkins.  Eventually, the real plates and napkins gave way to disposables and one of their suppliers one day suggested this was such a good idea they could maybe expand a bit and then franchise out the idea, calling the chain by their surname.

“Really?” said the brothers, “why on earth would anybody want to go to a restaurant called McDonalds?” I think the idea did kind of catch on, don’t you? I have eaten in McDonalds in many different places – in Europe and the USA and in Australia.  I’ve had their 1 Euro coffee being dwarfed by the Rock of Gibraltar and their burgers in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House.  The Golden arches are everywhere, towering above the crowd and instantly recognisable, offering hope and sustenance to a hungry generation.  And I’ve thought about Dick and Maurice.  Who could believe it – something which started so small could become so huge, mega, global?  The mighty name – the powerful symbol – the universal brand.

Never underestimate how small things can become large things, how the smallest of ideas or thoughts have the potential to become life changers.  “Do not despise the day of small things” says the scriptures in Zechariah 4 v 10.

Maybe a George Verwer thinking of doing a small mission trip to Mexico (now the global mission agency OM) or later, with the idea of buying an old ship to cross the oceans with the gospel message (Logos, Doulos and Logos Hope).

Maybe a Hudson Taylor with a sincere desire to evangelise China (Now the worldwide OMF).

Maybe an Amy Carmichael with a desire to reach mill girls in north Belfast with the gospel (now the Welcome Hall).

Maybe a handful of people who looked up the road in the 1950’s and saw population growth in a small village nearby and thought it might be a good place for gospel witness (now Newtownbreda Baptist Church)

The worldwide church started with handful of people, including 2 rather awkward brothers. How could it ever spread beyond the small streets of Jerusalem to the regions beyond? Today across the world, in large cathedrals and small hovels, people bow in adoration and worship of the King of Kings, taking a small piece of bread and a small swallow of wine in remembrance of him.  Despite the aggressive tactics of the secular God-haters, the gospel moves forward and grows and the glorious symbol of the cross towers above the crowd and offers hope and real sustenance to all who embrace its purpose.  Eat your heart out, Dick and Maurice

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Growth Matters

Growth is key to a successful Christian life.  It is not enough just to get saved and then to stay child like for the rest of your life.  Physically that would be an impossibility for where there is life, there is always growth.  Have you ever seen a 30 year old who still had the features of a baby?  No?  Thought not.  But spiritually we don’t grow automatically.  We are to pursue it as Peter told us in 2 Peter 3 v18 “Grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ”.  So that’s one reason why we are looking at the subject of growth in our life groups this term.

Lets repeat that thought, so we all get it.  Though physical ageing is inevitable, spiritual growth is not automatic in the Christian life.  We all know that there are many people, who say they have professed faith years, or decades ago, and yet there is so little evidence of growth or grace in their life.  They are cantankerous and difficult, awkward and self centred and lacking in love and compassion for the needy.  In short they just haven’t grown - growing old is never the same thing as growing up!  Sometimes we have been fooled into thinking that if we just ‘hang around’ church and Christian things long enough we will become mature people of God.  Not so!

So pursue growth – keep growing and keep maturing in the things of God.  Look at things in your life as opportunities for growth, as ‘growth moments’.  Stuck in traffic?  Learn patience, not road rage.  Struggling financially?  Learn trust and better financial management skills, not panic.  Health difficulties?  Learn confidence in the sovereign God, not fear of the future. Difficult relationships in your life?  Learn to change, adapt, accept, not running away.  Things going great in your life?  Learn contentment and peace and gratitude, not arrogance.  Everything actually can become a ‘growth moment’ in your life, if you let it and if you are aware of it.

I put that into practice this week.  I was with some people and finding the conversation very frustrating.  I could actually feel some negative feelings rising within me.  I paused and remembered Peter’s words and realised this was actually a moment when I could learn greater patience.  It was an opportunity for me to grow.  I'm not sure I did well in learning it, but I'm learning to learn.  Why not join me in pursuing growth? 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

SAF and Leadership

As a Man Utd fan I was delighted to get a chance to read Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography over the holidays.  I know, some of you have already decided to stop reading at the very mention of that man’s name but love him or loathe him, you can’t deny he was a great leader.  This is really the 2nd volume of his autobiography.  The first one was published over 10 years ago and really gave an insight into his working class upbringing in Govan in Glasgow and his career as a burly striker and then his foray into management culminating in his unprecedented success at Old Trafford.  When I read that volume many years ago I was particularly struck by how warmly he wrote about the ladies who ran the local mission hall near his street and their obvious concern for the boys in that poor district.

This 2nd volume deals mainly with personalities and various events over the last decade or so as well as giving an insight into his various non-football interests, such as his fascination with dictators(?) and with the assassination of President John F Kennedy in November 1963. Among his books in his library is a biography of the great American football coach Vince Lombardi, one of whose famous sayings was “we never lose, we just run out of time” (Fergie time?).  His determination to be a winner struck a chord with Ferguson’s own ruthless attitude to management – work harder and keep trying as the final whistle approaches. Never give up.  The game’s never over till it’s over.  Until the final whistle goes there are still gains to be made, goals to be scored.  That’s not a bad maxim for any of us - did not the apostle Paul tell us to press on towards the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus? As long as we have breath in our bodies there is still much we can accomplish.

Biographies of great leaders are instructive for those of us who try to exercise leadership at any level as they give us lots of helpful insights into time and man management, self discipline, goal setting, long term planning and myriad other issues small and great. Christian leadership though should never be about the exercise of power or control and certainly never about the spiritual abuse of those under our authority.  Servant leadership is the model.  We serve a great a master and then serve his people – for the cause is much bigger and the rewards are much greater than any football club can offer!!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Christmas World of 'YOUANDME'

Have you ever heard of the 2013 world of Youandme?  It's a crazy world of busy-ness, of buying and selling and of a hectic pursuit of hedonistic pleasure.  This is a world of few absolutes, and many relatives.  This is a world without security and assurance and where much more is said about “hope so” and “might be” than “know so”.  It is a world where sin is preferred to righteousness and where the temporary pleasures of sensuous gratification are considered of greater value than the eternal/spiritual pleasures of forgiveness, righteousness and assurance of a heavenly home.  

In this world, God is a vague, distant, irrelevant concept – definitely not a personal, loving all powerful Creator, intimately concerned about his world and the people whom he loves. Christmas in this world of Youandme is for revelry and pleasure, for self-seeking, sensual indulgence and excess in both spending and selfishness.  A different Jesus lives in this world – a figure in a bizarre childrens story of a virgin conception and a birth in a smelly shed at the back of a packed out inn.  Yes, the world of Youandme is a dark world!

Yet to such a world the Creator God came.  The Logos, who was and is and always will be God, stepped into such darkness and shone in all His glory.  Yet as John tells us “he came to that which was his own, yet His own did not receive him” (John 1 v 11 ).  His own world did not receive him; his own people did not receive or acknowledge him as Messiah king.  How could they have missed him?  Hadn't Isaiah told them?  Hadn’t Micah told them?  How could they have missed it?  Because then, as now, the world was the unholy world of Youandme.  A messy world of blind eyes and damned souls.  Christmas?  The more you think about it, the more staggering it becomes!!

Monday, 25 November 2013

You Love This City and You Love These Streets

After our emphasis on praying for the city last week, it was very providential that last Sunday found me preaching at the Sunday morning service of Colin Glen Christian Fellowship in Andersonstown Leisure Centre in west Belfast.  I loved preaching there.  This is a church planting effort – a small work which I and several others help to advise through being on a council of reference.  Growing up in my background, I could never have imagined that one day God would grant me the glorious privilege of preaching his word in such a location.  God is doing great things in different parts of the city, including those areas which were previously spiritually quite barren.

Including myself and Maggie, John Duffy and his wife (who lead the fellowship) and their 2 children and another 4 people who were visiting from another church, there were 20 of us in total.  After years of meeting in John and Elaine’s front room, they now meet in a great room in the leisure centre – not too big or too small with an attractive book table and some modern technology to help us along.  The location is great and the possibilities are many.  As people were gathering in other parts of the centre for swimming lessons and fitness classes, the faithful folks commenced the worship service.  John led us skilfully on his guitar and I was moved that we again sang “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” (see previous blog!).  I preached on the Majesty of Christ from Colossians 1 vv 15-23.  In the hedonistic and confused world of 1st century Colosse, against a backdrop of overt gnosticism, a world very similar to our own in terms of its philosophical understanding, the church there was called to bear witness.  Paul upheld the majesty and the wonder of Christ, and using language borrowed from the gnostics themselves, Paul affirmed that in him the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily.  It is through his cross that peace with God is obtained and we know that he will present us blameless in his sight one day.  What a theme.  And how appropriate for Belfast – all of it, north, south, east and west.  A city divided for so long; a city with broken hearts and broken streets and broken relationships.  And how good to see people from different backgrounds meeting together in the heart of west Belfast to affirm that Christ is the only Saviour and the only hope.

This little work needs your prayers.  They produce all their literature in both English and Irish and over the next 6 weeks or so will be distributing 4500 gospel calendars in the area. He loves this city – all of it - and he loves these streets - all of them!!