How Can I Improve?

Occasionally God interrupts my morning quiet time routine. These are exciting times and more often than not, I love to engage with Him in this. Today He presented a near-forgotten memory to my mind and asked me to ‘wrestle’ with Him over it. Bible down and prayer begins.

When I was a teenager and up till the age of 21, I used to ask this question very frequently: “How can I improve?”. I’d ask it after I’d lead a youth group session for my Church. I’d ask it after leading worship or preaching. I’d ask  it of my mentor whenever I’d lead a Bible study for the student group. I loved asking the question, and the feedback was so helpful and usually gave me insight for things I could actually improve.

Then one day, after a weekend away with new people, I asked it of my travel companions on the journey home…. I can remember what happened next, and it still makes me squirm!

There was a pretty long awkward silence, and one of my new-friends said ‘Paul, no offence, but that sounds like a pretty insecure question.’

I was mortified and backpaddled and defended and “clarified” myself and said lots of things to cover-up and refine the question I had asked so that it meant something different. But it was too late. I was exposed.

At the very least I was exposed to myself.

So I stopped asking the question. Completely. I stopped asking, because obviously I’m not an insecure person, I don’t need to ask this anymore. 

Four and half years later, God interrupts my Bible reading to flash this all in my mind again and asks me to deal with it with Him. My good Father reaches out to teach me and conform me even more into the Man after His heart who walks with His character and likeness.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. There were (at least) two motives behind my asking that question. I wanted to learn, I wanted to improve and I wanted to grow. I knew that it was right to give God my best and I wanted to, I wanted to be teachable and wanted to improve. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time around mentors and leaders who invested in me, and could offer wisdom, insights and expertise and I was eager to extract as much as possible from them. But there was another motive at work: I wanted approval,  I wanted acceptance, I wanted to be seen a certain way. Obviously, I wanted the person I was asking to turn round and say “Improve?! Impossible, you did a fantastic job, better than me in fact, you are an amazing speaker/worship-leader/group discussion facilitator etc etc…” . I wanted this kind of approval. But not only this type… – In some twisted and “insecure” way I wanted the approval of being seen as a “self-aware” guy, who could take criticism (who even asked for it!), who was seeking to learn and grow.
  2.  There is an appropriate way to react when your motives are exposed, and I didn’t cotton on. My reaction was to stop asking the question “how can I improve?”, obviously with muddy-motives let’s stop all-together. Instead I think there is an alternative way to respond.
      • Thank God for using other people to expose hidden motives and areas of growth. Don’t lash out or, what I did, hide away. But thank God that He was using other people to sharpen.
      • Then face and evaluate the motives exposed. (They are probably there if you’re tempted to lash out or deny it strongly!) It might be that you need to repent from them. It might be that God wants to work on that area in your life right then and there, let Him speak truth into your life.
      • Then strive to move forward. This may look different depending on what the motives were. I once heard someone say “Your motives will never be completely pure, so don’t necessarily let them make the final decision” (take that with a pinch of salt). Striving to move forward will either look like:
        1.  Ditch the activity
        2.  Continue with the activity, but ask God to challenge and refine you so that the motive is cleared.

In my situation, I’ve decided that I will start asking the question again at appropriate times when I actually want to learn. But ask God to keep checking my heart and asking Him to bring healing to the insecurities.

 

 

What would change?

What if Christ actually compelled us? What if we were completely enamoured with Him so that everything else in our lives looked like utter rubbish? What if He alone stood in the ‘vision statement’ for your life, marriage, career and ministry?

What would change?

Would you end up sleeping more than you do, or less? Would you exercise more, or less? Would you even think about it – or would it be according to the ‘felt need’ on the day? What about your diet, would you eat more, or less? I’m guessing it’d be healthy, but to what extent? How much would you spend on vitamins and fruit and veg – would you only get organic? How much would you care?

What about money? Would you end up buying the things you buy? Would you save, if so how much, percentage wise? How might you budget? Would you be more inclined to stick with a budget, or to abandon it in a moment? How much would you give? To who or to what cause?

What would your mornings look like? The first thing you’d do, what about second? Would it be the same each day, or different? What about your evenings?

Or how about your conduct at work? Would you work harder, how much? Would you talk to more to people – how much? How much interest would you show the homeless person you pass each day.  How much attention would you give to each member of your Church family, who would you prioritise?

Would you have principles – would you stick to them more? Or would you feel freer to abandon them for the right thing in the moment? How would you work it out?

What would your prayer life look like? Kneel more? Journal less? Dancing? Singing? Silence? Bible first or after? Alternating? What you ‘feel’ like, what you’d planned?

There are so many questions, and I intended for them to feel overwhelming. Because the truth is, they are. The Christian life, even with the desire to live it well, is impossible.

The Good News, is that God gives us

  1. His Word – to teach us.
  2. His Spirit – to lead us
  3. His Grace – to forgive us, and keep us going when we fail.

My prayer is that I would lean into His word for instruction, receive from His Spirit the power and guidance that I need for each day. And remember His Grace, each and every time I stumble and  get lost.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. – Phil 3.12-14

How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. – Psalm 119.9

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. – John 16.13

 

 

The White Flag: Called and Equipped to do much.

One of the significant activities God has been leading me into over the last 5 months is the process of ‘stepping out of ministry’. This has been an interesting time and I’ve learnt a lot. I wanted to share a bit of that journey and what it’s all been like.

Since October 2017, I have been doing what I called ‘bi-vocational’ ministry. I was working 9-5 for Cancer Research UK in their clinical trials unit, and at the same time running a student ministry with Navigators UK. It was great fun, it was a great challenge, it had it’s ups and downs like any ministry endeavour – but it was incredibly rewarding.

My average day started around 4.30-5am with all the regular routines and disciplines I needed to sustain me through the day (quiet times, exercise, reading and study), then I’d be out to meet with a small group of students on campus at around 8. We’d often simply read our Bibles and pray together. A fantastic way to start a working day, a fantastic way to approach discipleship, a fantastic way to grow friendships. Meeting daily in the mornings, you really do get to see each other on good and bad days – weaknesses exposed, yet together meeting to encourage each other and bring our days before God.

Then I’d be at work. I might meet someone at lunch (the trials unit was based at the university!). Then, depending on the weekday – I’d either be meeting a student 1-on-1, attending/leading/hosting a Bible study. It was busy. But being in my early twenties I have/had a lot of energy and time to spare for these good endeavours.

After a year at this pace, I added to my life FFM (Foundations For Ministry – a 3 year training course with Navs) and my wife and I took up our Church’s youth group’s mid-week gathering. Wow. Oh, and on top of all that, I was being allowed to preach once a month at Church (something I deeply cherish, and feel so honoured by!)…. Looking back on all this, it sounds like too much. But honestly, God sustained me.

I held firmly onto two verses which inspired and motivated and kept us both going…

“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me!” – Col 1.28-29 (which continues beautifully and relevantly into chapter 2!)

“Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;” – Ecc 11:2 (I felt God give me this verse one morning in my quiet time, it also came with the word: there is a difference between investing and managing)

With these verses, which I genuinely believe God gave me, I was encouraged to do all the many works I felt He was asking me to do. He put the work before me, and then enabled me to do it. I would say to myself, and to anyone else, that they really shouldn’t do as much as I was doing, unless God has specifically called them to it – and to remember – He probably won’t call you to it permanently.

…And then at Christmas 2018, we felt very clearly God was telling us to start drawing back…

 

Heroes of the Faith

And it’s Monday again, and it’s a bank holiday at that, so I’ve had another good long weekend. Feels like I’m getting a lot of time off work at the moment – which isn’t a bad thing. But I forced myself to write this on Monday evening again, trying to build a regular habit of posting, even though I probably could have done something this morning. I figure if it’s the same time every week it’s easier for me to create a “habit” out of it. Regular postings are key. Consistency is at least. Nevertheless, excuse my rustiness.

img_03511.jpgAnyway, it’s been an eventful bank holiday and I wanted to write about an amazing lunch I had on Sunday. We were invited to dinner with some real hero’s of the faith! Wolfgang and Beryl Stumpf. An older couple at our Church who have an amazing story to tell (in fact it’s so amazing he put it in a book, one I’d highly recommend!)

The Long View Forward

We’ve known this couple for years and Wolfgang in particular has had a giant impact in the way I live out my faith on a daily basis. When I was in youth group as a teenager, he came in  to deliver a session for us instead of the normal youth leader. He came in and shared about his personal devotional time. What he’d been doing for decades and decades!

Every morning he wakes up at 5am and reads his Bible and prays. To a wide-eyed teenager I was so convicted and challenged and awed at this man’s dedication to meeting with God. This was my target. And now as a 24 year old, I’m still doing it. Waking up early because some “old-person” in our Church told us that’s what he did to keep close to God. What an example to imitate! Let’s never be scared to talk about our devotional lives and what helps us connect with God with others’ because we don’t want to be perceived as proud, who knows what some eager listener might adopt as a result.

Anyway, long story short this couple spent a large amount of their lives in the middle east as missionaries. Now retired, they are still living out their faith passionately loving Jesus and providing themselves as a beautiful example for younger generations of disciples. I want to be like that when I’m old!

We really got to know them through their daughter and her husband who mentored us through our dating years and who now serve as missionaries in Egypt. Thank God for amazing role models, I’m sure I wouldn’t be the Christian I am today without the example, mentoring and investment of a stream of amazing hero’s. Wolfgang preached at our wedding on a highly unconventional & difficult passage we’d given him (Rev 19:1-10)

We got to spend time with them again for lunch at theirs after church… and well, what hospitality, what interest they showed in us, what vulnerability in what they shared, what hope they displayed for the future and what love for Jesus…what legends!

 

Systematic Theology 10: The Knowability of God

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Forcing myself to get this up and posted. Thanks to everyone who ‘liked’ the previous post – not that I’m doing this for the approval. Because that would be vain of me 😉 and we all know that is not a pitfall battle for me! ;P But, seriously, it is actually encouraging to get the likes, especially on such a mammoth task as this.

Chapter 10, part 2 of 11 chapters on the Doctrine of God. And I am feeling pretty motivated to get it finished by end of February. That, is a tall order. But it’s worth setting targets.

So, if the previous post/chapter was trying to explain how we can know that God exists. This chapter seems to be building on it, can we really know God and how much of Him can we know. In short, we can know a lot about God, but not all there is (because He’s infinite!). We can know specific things about Him, but not the complete depths of those specific things. Not only can we know things about Him, but we can also know Him as a Person.

What did I like about this chapter?

  1. We can never fully understand God! He is so big, so infinite, so deep and wide we’ll never know too much or know completely. Even in Heaven when sin isn’t affecting us. The Bible is clear: God’s vastness is not fully comprehensible, partly because of sin, but also partly because of His greatness! (Grudem acknowledges an argument against this rooted in 1 Cor 13.12 “now I know in part, than I shall understand fully“….But he says the phrase “know fully” is simply an attempt to translate the word epiginosko, which suggest deeper or more accurate knowledge. Simply looking at Psalm 145.3 and other verses like this should clear up confusion. ‘the passages…attribute God’s incomprehensibility not to our sinfulness but to His infinite greatness p.151)… This makes it fantastic for someone who has a intellectual spiritual pathway to God, like me (!), to know that I can keep studying God’s word and meeting with Him and never get bored! Furthermore, it means that there will very likely be things about God that every other Christian will be able to teach me. This keeps me humble and reminds me to be teachable!
  2. I get excited that not only can we know about Him, like a superhero and famous leader, but we can also get to know Him. Real personally, He is our Abba. In fact, we’re told we should boast that we know Him. We are encourage in Scripture to boast that we know God. How awesome is that! God is my Father, I speak to Him on a daily basis! He knows me, and I know Him! This is amazing! It is also a challenging reminder, whenever my study is invested more in knowing about Him than actually knowing Him personally. May my study always be centered and rooted in prayer!
  3. Finally, even though I can’t know God fully, I can know Him truly. I know that He is love (1 John 4.8), light (1 John 1:5), Spirit (John 4.24) and Righteous (Rom 3.26). I know that He loves the world and has made me. I know that He works all things together for my good. I may not know everything, but I do know that He does. He reveals Himself to me through scripture, nature and His Spirit and I get to respond.

 

 

 

Systematic Theology 6: Clarity of Scripture

This is the second part in the 4 characteristics of Scripture (SCAN). We’ve done Authority, now Clarity. After this we’ve got 2 more and we’re finished with the Doctrine of the Word of God.

What does the Clarity of Scripture mean?:

The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it

Things that I like:

  1. This characteristic means that even Children and “Simple” people can come to know God by reading/listening to God’s word. Grudem gives a couple of verses where the Bible says teach this to Children (Duet 6:6-7) and that it makes the “simple” wise (Ps 19.7 and 119:130). I think this is a really beautiful thing, because it means that anyone can come to know God through His word. You don’t need a degree or qualification to understand.
  2. This definition also emphasises that our attitude to reading God’s word is more important than our intellectual ability. What is the posture of your heart when you reads God word? Is it so that you know more, so that you can check a box, or win an argument. Or is it coming humbly to learn from God, asking Him for help to understand what He is saying and sincerely intending to follow through on His commands. God looks on the inside when it comes to Bible reading. Earlier today I read Jesus praising God… Luke 10:21: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”. I like this, because it reminds me that I need a humble and willing heart to read fruitfully the Word of God. So prayer is vital.
  3. Grudem writes a good explanation for the role of Scholars, given that the Bible is clear enough to be understood by children. I like it. We do need scholars. But before he goes into this explanation he writes a compelling case for our study of Scripture:

[The Clarity of Scripture] should give great encouragement to all Christians to read their Bibles daily and with great eagerness…Christians must never give up to the scholarly “experts” the task of interpreting Scripture: they must keep doing it everyday for themselves.

My prayer is that after reading this section you are encouraged to read and understand your Bible on a daily basis. It’s near the beginning of the year, commit to prayerful reading of the Bible. Buy yourself a new one, give the old one away, do whatever will motivate you to read it daily. It can be understood. Even if there are places that seem difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16), if we ask God to help us and sincerely approach to learn and do His will – He will give us understanding.

 

 

Choose Worship

aston-webb-landscapeI want to praise my God. Publicly, not for my benefit, but because He has blessed me richly. I am married to a beautiful woman, who loves God and is actively pursuing His calling on her life, who writes fantastic music and spurs me on in my faith. We live in a fantastic apartment, and have never failed to pay bills – even when I was supported by God’s people as an income, even when I was unemployed… I have an amazing day-job, working alongside amazing people. Every morning I walk across a beautiful campus, with buildings, fields and sights that are quite literally: stunning. I get to preach at least once a month. I lead a ministry focused on discipleship and meet with amazing people who are willing to let God invade their lives in increasing doses. I am receiving training that will be useful whatever career I end up pursuing. We have a vicar who cares for us, not just as volunteers, but as a couple, as individuals with individual callings and gifts. We are part of a growing home group, full of honest and exciting people.

I often forget this, because I have ambitions, hopes and dreams that are never satisfied – that always want more. Whilst some might glamorize these emotions, (“hope and dreams – they help us strive for excellence and to express who we were made to be”) I recognize them as coming from ingratitude and jealousy. I want more. I want to have achieved more. I want my name to be greater than it is. I want more recognition, more status. So many countless – selfish ambitions. The symptoms – frustration, bitterness, dissatisfaction…AKA: SIN… The antidote? PRAISE!!! Gratitude. Humbly admitting that I deserve death. And I have life. Everything else is a blessing.

So I might not have the networks others have, the status and platforms I’d want. But God has given me what I can handle, I will be faithful, grateful and worshipful with this.

Fix your eyes on Jesus (3): When we don’t know what to do.

Turn with me, if you can to 2 Chronicles 20. If you’re a time free person, try reading from verses 1-30. It should take a couple of minutes….Done? It’s my feeling that most Christians don’t read their Bible everyday. Not that it’s a legalistic requirement to being a Christian, I know that the early church didn’t have “Bibles” as we know them today. And for at least half of Christianity’s lifespan most Christians were illiterate. But hey! We should be wise stewards of what we got, right?

If you didn’t read it, couldn’t whatever, you’ll know that this is a story. The good guys, lead by a man called Jeho-sha-phat, are surrounded by bad guys. The situation is dire. And so what do the people of Judah (good guys) do? They come together to seek God.

Good idea from the good guys.

Half way through their nation-wide-prayer-meeting. The King says this one line which gets me every time.

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.

BAM!

How often could we find ourselves praying those 13 words!? What a useful prayer. What a humble prayer. What a simple prayer.

“God I don’t know what courses to study for A-level, but my eyes are on you. God I don’t know what Uni/college to go to, but my eyes are on you. God I don’t know what job I should be going for, who I should marry, if I should date her, if I should stay or go, BUT my eyes are on you.” BAM! Bam! BAM!

It seems to me, the younger you are the more decisions you have, as you get older the decisions get less frequent. But we all have to make big decisions, or at least decisions that seem proper big to us at the time. What does this prayer teach us? We are allowed to not know what to do, and the best solution is to come before God seeking Him…To fix our eyes on Jesus.

Often when I do this, I don’t get an answer. But I do get reassurance that He will be with me whatever. That He loves me, and has a plan for me, that He knows me and is good. That He is guiding my steps.

Aslan, no, of course He’s not safe!! ….but He is good.

And all of a sudden, I’m out upon the water. In a place I would never be with my eyes off of Jesus.

Jehoshaphat, decided in the end to go out into the desert with an army of music players all singing worship to God. And God took care of the bad guys.

Fix your eyes on Jesus and worship.

God, I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on You”.