Archive | Martin RSS feed for this section

What I learned in week six

12 Feb

Well that was interesting. If you’ve been following the God52 journey this week, you’ll have read some fantastic, stretching, honest guest blog posts, and if you’ve been taking the challenge yourself, I’d wager you’ve enjoyed a surprising, if not revelatory experience.

The challenge was -as ever – simple: identify a voice (most people interpreted this as a Christian teacher) which you had previously written off, engage with it, and ask God to speak to you through it. The slight downside with this was it gave everyone permission to publicly air their pet peeves; the stronger upside was that many of us enjoyed a week of being a little more open minded. So on this blog you’ll have read about Calum, who caught something beautiful from prosperity teacher Joel Osteen; Mark, who was forced to wrestle a bit with his preconceptions as a Conservative Evangelical, and Helen and Zoe, both of whom found wisdom or grace they didn’t expect among complementarians. Elsewhere on other blogs, we noticed a number of other people on similar journeys.

For each of these people, the lesson was slightly different, but in every case there seemed to be a lesson. It’s perhaps too easy to refer to Paul’s analogy of one body with many parts, but it would seem that God chooses to work through every flavour, every stream of the Christian church, and he doesn’t seem to be put off by how we feel about them, or how theologically errant we might think they are. Which leads me on to my own experience this week. I decided to confront the thing about which I am perhaps most cynical in the church. I don’t usually talk about this, and I realise that in committing these words to the Internet I am forever writing myself out of a lucrative speaking gig but… I really struggle with Hillsong. I have great difficulties with this church movement, which grew out of what is now a Sydney megachurch, with plants in major cities across the world and a whole industry of music, teaching and conferences now bearing the famous logo.

My issue in a nutshell – that in my opinion, they (and I’m really talking about their leaders here) tend towards a warped understanding of discipleship, which focuses on earthly purpose and success of the individual, rather than the cost of following Jesus.

Since I’ve read it a lot in Hillsong circles, it’s fair to say they’re fond of Jesus’ words in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” They seem to talk less about Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21 – “for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”, or Jesus’ own in Mark 8: 34 – “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The path of discipleship has a cost – for some of our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church, it still has the ultimate cost attached. So I’ve always found the Hillsong approach slightly grating.

But perhaps that says more about me than it does about them. Perhaps it’s my Englishness, my left-of-centredness or my increasing Anglican-ness that finds the idea of God pouring grace abundantly into my lap difficult. Is it for me to decide whom God should bless, and to what degree? That’s a misunderstanding of grace on my part.

So, with that in mind, I downloaded some podcasts, subscribed to a few unlikely twitter feeds, and waited for God to show me how wrong I’d been about Hillsong. And do you know what? He didn’t. I don’t need to go into great detail here, but pretty much everything I read and heard only served to confirm my prejudice. Not what I expected to be writing. Ouch.

Instead I read about pastors Brian and Bobbi Houston and their $600 three day leaders retreat in Hawaii. I listened to Brian preach, linger on Proverbs 11 v 4: ‘Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death’, and completely ignore the first half of the verse. I even met a graduate from Hillsong’s leadership training who only seemed to reconfirm my worst feelings again. I found myself asking God if my heart was so hard that I’d become cynical beyond repair.

Feeling particularly downbeat about my apparent failure, I went for a walk. I found myself praying, and as I did so, my words somehow meandered to a statement along these lines: “God, I don’t really feel like I deserve it, but if you want to pour out your abundant blessings on my life, then please do. If you want to ‘pour a good measure, pressed down and running over into my lap’, then don’t let me stop you. ” I was almost joking.

That was noon. By four o’clock, so many unusual and even extraordinary things had happened to me – all of them fitting into the ‘abundant blessing’ category – that I was being forced to rethink some things. And I’ll be honest – I still can’t get my head around it. I don’t understand why God would want to help my finances, when so many people have nothing. I don’t get why my career should be advanced, or opportunities should be given to me, when I know how fallen and sinful I am.

Do I still think there’s stuff wrong with Hillsong’s theology? Yes. Do I believe that God moves even through that teaching? Absolutely. I am left simply to reflect on this: God is bigger even that I imagined; bigger than my preconceptions; bigger than imperfect teaching. This week I’ve not learned that God speaks through every part of the body, but rather that God is sovereign. He is King. He is greater; his grace and love more perfect than I could possibly imagine.

Not a bad learning point. And all because I listened to a voice with which I still don’t agree. Pick the bones out of that.


What I learned in week four

28 Jan

I’m tired. I don’t look terribly well. But much more than that, I’m hungry.

As I write this, I’m 23 and a half hours into a one-day fast, during which the plan was to allow nothing apart from tap water to pass my lips. About two hours in, I realised that my life and work are almost entirely propped up by my regular morning caffeine hit, and so I had to change the rules to prevent myself from slipping into a coma. But coffee apart, I’ve done it. The end is in sight.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, this morning started to feel more and more like a cosmic joke. When I arrived at my London train terminal, I was greeted by the astonishing sight of a band of people handing out free doughnuts (trust me: that’s never happened before). When I arrived at work, I was quickly met by the sight of the most delicious looking cake I’ve ever seen, baked for a colleague’s birthday. And when another colleague broke open a huge box of chocolates, I felt certain that someone, somewhere was having a laugh at my expense.

I’d chosen to fast as this week’s God52 challenge; and having heard so many other people’s stories of struggle and endeavour with the task, I knew that this wasn’t going to be one that I could ‘accidentally’ fail by default. I had a deeper motivation than that too; there’s a specific area of my life in which I long for breakthrough: a person dear to me who I desperately want to see experience the love and relationship offered by God. So today, instead of eating, I prayed for that person.

This wasn’t anything like as easy as I’d imagined. You would think, from reading Richard Foster, that fasting enables and eases focused prayer. As a novice, I can only report that the opposite seemed true. My rumbling stomach became a distraction from midday onwards. My prayers were much briefer; much more desperate than I’d hoped. Yet my mind did build a quick and meaningful connection between my physical hunger, and my urgency for God to move. I felt the pain of that situation much more keenly; felt more compelled to cry out more loudly about it.

At the same time, my mind drifted a little. I found myself thanking God that this hunger I felt would only be temporary (I cannot tell you, dear reader, how appetising the as-yet-untoasted bagel on my kitchen sideboard looks right now). For millions upon millions around the world, agonising hunger is a daily fact of life. That trite sentiment feels a little less heard-it-all-before when the pit of your stomach is crying out to be fed. Today, I felt just a little more compassion, because in some small way, I forced myself to ‘suffer with’ those who go without every day. I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to be able to call a halt to this hunger (and of course, that was within my power all along).

There’s been something else, something almost unquantifiable, about today though. At little moments – unexpected ones – I have felt closer to the presence of God than I can remember. He has been on the tip of my tongue all day; I have wanted to talk to him, and about him, far more than would usually be the case. The absence of the physical food that I take for granted has created a sort of vacuum into which He has moved. I don’t pretend to understand that; I don’t really understand the mystery of fasting when it’s described in the Bible. But I did experience it. And guess what? I’m hungry for more of that, in spite of the painful cost.

I’m tired. So very tired. Someone told me tonight that I look a little pale. And above all, I’m hungry. While in a moment, I intend to break my fast, I hope in one sense at least, that hunger remains.

God52 guest blogs – a few guidelines

15 Jan

Writer1We’ve been totally overwhelmed by the interest in and take up of God52. What started as (and to some extent remains) one person trying to get closer to God in 2013, has turned into a whole community of people on a year-long journey of faith together. Some of us are teenagers, some of us pensioners; some of us wouldn’t even call ourselves Christians. Various beautiful things have happened already, and I’m sure we don’t even know half the stories.

One of the other surprising things about God52 is that people have been so keen to write for this site – and have done so brilliantly. Although this wasn’t planned (actually, none of this was), it looks like we’re now publishing a number of guest posts on the site each week.

With that in mind then, I thought I’d suggest a few guidelines which will keep the posts interesting and varied for the reader, and might help you if you come to write one.

We’re not just looking for ‘writers’. It doesn’t matter if you’re not an accomplished wordsmith. The two of us who administrate the site both work in publishing – there’s nothing we love more than hacking copy about. If you have something to say – if you feel prompted to write – please get in touch.

Focus on the topic, not the challenge. You can mention the challenge and how you’re finding it, but in general, please make the specific discipline, character trait or missional activity the focus of your post. For example, as I write this we’re exploring humility through anonymous acts of kindness. Although we wouldn’t want you to ignore the significance and challenge of the action, it’s humility that we’re looking to explore and grow in together.

Be honest, and be yourself. The Internet already has quite enough Christians who are seeking to appear near perfect. If you’re struggling with a subject or a challenge, say so. Tell stories, and don’t feel the need to preach or to make a winning argument. People will be incredibly grateful that you’ve taken the time to write; you don’t need to win them over.

Keep it punchy. You can probably say what you want to say in between 300 and 400 words. It might be a little longer than that (it may even be shorter), but that’s a rough word count to aim for.

And that’s about it. If you’d like to write a guest blog, please get in touch towards the beginning of a challenge week (they run Tuesday to Monday) by emailing me. Ideally we’ll need the text from you (either as a Word file or pasted into an email) as early in the week as possible; please also send us a recent photo of yourself, and a short one-two sentence bio with any links to twitter, personal blog etc. Please make it very clear if you’d like the blog to appear anonymously.

Thanks so much for being involved.

What I learned in week two

14 Jan

180I still haven’t seen The Hobbit, but I understand that it feels long at three hours. Well, compared to sitting on your own in prayer for the same amount of time, I reckon it feels like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Gasp.

I’m sorry. I really wanted to report back that I found this challenge surprisingly easy. I was encouraged to read that others got so lost in the practice of prayer that they went way beyond the three hour challenge we set last Tuesday. But I have to be honest, or this whole initiative is meaningless: for me, it was really hard.

I got off to a good start (thanks mainly to a solo car journey): I managed to chalk off the first hour without too much trouble. After that though, I found myself clawing bits of time together here and there, desperately adding two minutes to five minutes to three minutes, and overwhelmed all the while by the realisation that the target was still a long way away.

I’d made the challenge doubly hard on myself too – I could only pray about one subject, and while I thought about making that something quite broad, I ended up settling on a big issue for our family which, while very significant, is also quite narrow. Three hours talking with God about the same thing; I started to wonder after a while if He was getting a bit bored.

Yet despite the struggles, I’ve learned a lot about prayer – and myself – this week. Here are three examples:

I don’t pray very much. I pray every day. But I’ve never timed myself, and it turns out I had a rather generous assessment of my own spirituality. My daily prayer life is made up of short sprinty bursts, not well-paced jogs. I pray when I need something, or when I’m reminded of God’s goodness. But it doesn’t last very long. I rarely make space to pray for long periods – certainly not of this extended variety.

A lot of people find this difficult. One of the best things about this week’s challenge has been the outpouring of honesty in blogs (here and elsewhere) and tweets around the subject. Not in a kind of enabling, oh-well-aren’t-we-all-a-bit-rubbish kind of a way, but written out of a determination to do better. In our fast-paced cultural context, a lot of us struggle to give enough time to pray, but an awful lot of us have also recognised that and want to do something about it. This encourages me.

God answers prayer. Yep, here’s the punch-line. I prayed for three hours about something (details of which I’m not going to share), and that thing changed. Pretty much miraculous things happened. Completely out of the blue, things got better in exactly the way I’d asked for them to. Who’d have thought it? It wasn’t just me speaking words into a vacuum, or ‘talking to my imaginary friend’ as the latest wave of atheists would have it. God listened; God intervened.

As with last week’s challenge, I hope that the activities of this week will contribute to long-term change for me – and for you. I’m going to try to build longer periods of prayer into the rhythm of my life; and I’m going to dedicate significant amounts of prayer to those issues where I really want to see change. It’s right there in the Bible in Luke 18, and this week, it turned out to be absolutely true.

How did you get on with this week’s challenge? Please leave comments below to encourage and challenge other God52-ers in their journey.

What I learned in week one

7 Jan

scrooge-mcduckRegular readers of my blog (hello mum) will know that my New Year’s Resolution was to undertake 52 weekly challenges in an effort to get a bit closer to God. Since making it, the shape has changed somewhat – lots of people wanted to join in, so I’ve launched this separate site which is full of blogs from other people.

The first challenge was to ‘commit an act of radical generosity.’ I deliberately started with something that I personally would find difficult; we have three children and a fairly modest income, and in the context of that, generosity hasn’t always come naturally to me (my wife is wonderfully generous). Still, I thought one radical act would be perfectly doable, even if I then went back to watching the pennies.

So I started to look for the opportunity for that one act of generosity. In the meantime, other people started to write humbling blogs on how they’d been given a car, or in one case, a house. I began to wonder what on earth I could do to compete. Could we cope without our car, I considered briefly? Probably wouldn’t have been wise…

A couple of days passed, and I was starting to think about generosity all the time. I went for a beer with a friend and made sure I bought all the drinks. Hardly radical, that. I did various nice things for my wife. But surely that’s part of what I should be doing as a half-decent husband anyway. I bought someone a coffee. Big deal. I became frustrated by my apparent inability to give radically, and wished I’d used a less challenging word in the first place.

Eventually I settled on something which didn’t involve financial generosity, but did mean committing to giving an awful lot of time away (and I have even less of that). Challenge completed.

But then I had an epiphany (funnily enough, on the actual day of Epiphany): I realised that while those various un-radical acts of generosity had been small, there had been a lot of them, and I’d enjoyed myself at the same time. In fact, more than that, I’d felt a little shift in my default settings. This week, generosity has begun to feel natural, rather than forced. In searching for that one big radical act of generosity, I’d become predisposed to committing lots of little ones. And perhaps a change of heart is actually much more radical than one big action.

This week I feel like I’ve tiptoed just a little way towards the heart and character of God. But it’s only week one. If I can keep going – and crucially, if challenges like this make a lasting, rather than a temporary change – then maybe by the end of 2013 maybe I’ll have made a few bigger strides toward Him.

God52 – five ideas to make it work for you

31 Dec

(This may all be new to you. To find out what God52 is, read this first)

famous fiveThis started out as my own little New Year’s Resolution, but now it’s taking on a bit of a life of its own. My first post proper is all ready and scheduled to go live at 00.01am (if you’re having a really sad New Year’s Eve), so in advance of that, and with lots and lots of people indicating that they’re planning to join me, I thought I’d post five ideas to help you get the most out of God52…

  1. Journal

This is a year to grow closer to God; as much as it’s about public and communal acts, it’s also about spiritual formation and internal transformation. So consider finding a notebook, and noting down what you do, where you see God at work, and anything else of interest throughout the year. If you see all 52 challenges through, it could be amazing to look back at the journey…

  1. Set your own challenges

It’s not about me! I’m setting myself 52 challenges… but they might not be right for you. So take the idea, reimagine it for yourself, and then plot your own journey of transformation.

  1. Get some friends involved (or your youth group)

I’ve invited our youth group to join in with God52 – I reckon it could be a helpful discipleship tool for yours too, so why not share it with them? Or if you don’t do youth work, what about a small group? Or the people you go to the pub with?

  1. Blog / tweet / post / talk about it

I have a feeling that there could be a lot of fun, encouragement and shared learning to be found in talking together as we go. I think it would be amazing if bloggers, tweeters (using #God52) and other social media types embraced the idea and made it their own. Again, you don’t need to link to/credit me. This is about joining together as a group of people who want to take their faith more seriously. 

  1. Don’t get religious about it

This has two applications. First – don’t let God52 become like dated Bible reading notes, where you miss the 4th February and then feel guilty, give up, and stop altogether. If you miss a week, fuggedaboudit. If you only discover this whole idea in April – just join in from now! Second, you don’t actually have to be a Christian to take part. Why not join in anyway with those challenges which interest you, and see if you discover something of spiritual significance somewhere along the way?

Right, that’s definitely the end of the preamble. Challenge one is just around the corner, and I’ll warn you now, for some of us it’ll be a tough start…

See you at midnight!

God52: The Irresistible Resolution

10 Dec

God52I like New Year’s resolutions. I’ve practiced them with varying degrees of success in the past, but that word resolve is a good one. I resolve to do better this year. I resolve to kill my bad habits; to practice new, better ones.

The start of a new year is always a great time to take stock, and – since we’ve all just consumed to excess and feel particularly guilty about the relative decadence of our comfortable Western existences – a good time to try to become a better person. Which is why gyms are always full in January, and tobacconists always put a bit of cash aside to get them through to February.

Of course, resolutions require discipline and willpower, and that’s why gyms and tobacconists enjoy similarly contrasting fortunes in February. People find such promises hard to keep, and that’s no surprise, considering they’re usually about self-denial…

I want to tell you about my New Year’s resolution. More than that, I want to invite you to join me in it.

If you’ve read this blog lately, you’ll know I’ve been beating myself up about how I’m far better at preaching the Christian life than I am at practicing it. I talk a good game, but sometimes I struggle to translate that into action. I think and talk about serving, obeying and connecting with God far more than I actually do those things. And I reckon rather than mope about that fact, I’m going to try to throw that trend into reverse. No, more than that: I resolve to.

So in 2013, I’m going to set myself a challenge every week which enables me to practically live out my Christian faith. 52 challenges, set on a Tuesday (because New Year’s Day falls on one, and frankly, no-one likes Mondays), that provide me with hooks to build up my own relationship with God, and to join in with his ongoing mission on earth. I’ll draw them all from the Bible, and there will be at least a slight bias toward serving young people and practicing the Spiritual Disciplines, because these are things I care about.

I’m committed to this, but of course, as a massive extrovert I’d rather not do this alone. So if this idea resonates with you, why not join me on the journey throughout 2013? I’ll post the week’s challenge here on this blog every Tuesday morning, and this can then be a natural place to share thoughts, stories etc. Twitter also feels like a great place for this, so I’m going to have a conversation on there – even if it’s just with myself, using the hashtag #God52.

Here’s what I’m asking in a nutshell: why not make your 2013 New Year’s Resolution a promise to live out your faith more intentionally? As a way of making that tangible – sign up for 52 challenges over the year, see that whole year through, and then see where you are at the end of it.

One thing- if you do decide to join me, then please, commit the whole thing to God in prayer first. If that sounds heavy, it shouldn’t – it could actually be the liberating key to a New Year’s Resolution that actually sticks! We fail at these things because we do them in our own strength… a year doing more for God will work because it’s actually a year doing more with God.

So why not come on the adventure? 52 challenges throughout 2013 that will tug you out of your comfort zone and draw you closer to God. Tell your friends, invite your youth group, and just for once, see that New Year’s Eve promise through for a whole year.

See you back here on January 1st. Let’s start a resolution!