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.

 

 

Appreciate the left hand as well?

Here’s a nagging question I have.

Has the Western Church, the evangelical-reformed bubble of it anyway, made Church leadership a position held only by the educated elite? It’s not just the evangelical-reformed group either, to become a priest in the Church of England requires a degree, and if not in theology will need further training.

I remember hearing Andy Stanley, speaking on the importance of having theologically-trained leaders in Churches: “compare the work of Paul to the work of all the other “untrained” disciples. How much more did Paul achieve?”

But I feel deeply uncomfortable about this, because when I read the Bible. I see over and over again the glory God gets when He uses unqualified men and women, “unschooled” fishermen, shepherd boys. Even Paul himself, argued that he did not use fine sounding arguments and eloquent words.

I wonder what we’ve lost by only allowing the degree educated people to lead our churches, to earn a living from it. I wonder if, we had kept degree educated people in their clever jobs earning money and supporting the Church with their teaching and let the uneducated man with a Pastoral heart and a passion for God’s word, lead. What would happen. Would we have less books? Maybe more Bible-reading? Would we have less clever-programs? Maybe more prayer? Would we have less eloquent preaching? Maybe more worship?

I reckon, if the western church deems the uneducated to be too “weak” for church leadership roles, God will display His glory through the weak, foolish and “things that are not”.

Speaking as someone who has a degree. I think we’ve set the wrong qualifications for church leadership.

Yes, we need to add to our faith, knowledge etc. But surely this is an instruction for every follower of Jesus, not just leaders. Yes, we need sound doctrine, yes, yes, yes. But we also need to appreciate what every member of the Body has to offer, not just an elite few.

Reversing it totally is probably not the solution, we’re not to divide the Body any further. But we probably need to balance it out. Appreciate the left hand as well as the right?

Mark’s Gospel – How does Jesus demonstrate Himself to be a skilled helper and provide care for others/Himself?

ROLES: The most significant role Jesus played, at least for me, was that of a teacher. Throughout the gospel Jesus assumed the role of a teacher and taught, using parables, questions and resorting to Old Testament Scripture to defend Himself, illustrate ideas and challenge listeners.

Other significant roles included: providing direction and purpose to the individuals He encountered, a Celebrity who seemed to draw crowds to Him and a Prophet who foretold the future.

QUALITIES: The quality which I most admired about Jesus from this gospel was how He was able to see and love. When He challenges the rich man and when He admires the widows “small” offering. Jesus’ ability to see and love those He encountered is very encouraging in my own walk with Him.

Other significant qualities included: submitting to God’s will even at apparent detriment to self, ability to confront, challenge and lead an (occasionally divided) team, He also was comfortable eating with outcasts.

SKILLS: The two skills I felt were most prominent in this Gospel were Jesus’ “skill” in healing and ability to ask deep questions. Jesus clearly understood how healing worked, using different methods as fit the occasion from conventional prayers to creatively spitting on His patients. Jesus also was able to ask significant questions which cut to the core of the issues at hand.

Other significant skills included His knowledge of Scripture and His awareness of physical needs (including rest and food).

SELF CARE:  One of the striking methods Jesus used to care for Himself was his use of Scripture. With it He was able to defend His life-style and choices, as well as those of His disciples, and remain living in freedom (Ch 7). He was able to distinguish between the restricting and choking laws of man and know the freedom-purchasing power of truth.

Other significant methods of self care which Jesus exhibited included: obeying His Father’s will over His own – even to the apparent detriment to self, He also maintained an inner circle of friends to whom He entrusted more of Himself, He practiced gratitude even in small things and withdrew often to solitary places (to pray?).

 

Discipleship – Multiplying life

img_0493There we go, there’s a nice, big, blocky, pixilated photo for you all to fix your eyes upon. I’m sure we’ll all enjoy zooming in and out of that with the tiny smartphone screens. Thanks for stopping by.

I wanted to share the contents of a chapter I read today from Mike Breen’s book: Building a Discipling Culture. Now I have some bones with this book, bones to pick, things I don’t like. And since it’s much easier to criticize and complain, I think I’ll start with that. 1) It’s pricey, pricey for a book. You’ll be dishing out close to £20 for a book < 300 pages. 2) I find the Bible examples very loose supporters for the ideas and concepts this guy/organisation are introducing. 3) The number of shapes used for diagrams, borders on the ridiculous.

So there’s 3 whinges. Here are three positives 1) I’m a sucker for shapes and diagrams, 2) the concepts are pretty good and probably biblical (but even if not,  they feel like reasonable common sense and the writers seem to have a hefty bit of experience and know-how). 3) Who can put a price on knowledge, knowledge is power and all that, so it’s an investment. You can always buy it second hand.

Along the way reading this, I’ve been taking notes and journaling a bit through my thoughts. Another benefit of reading with others, is that it slows you (/me) down and forces you (/me) to actually soak, reflect, think about the content beyond mere word-to-eye consumption.  Yum.

So here, in this picture which I presented you all with, we have an example of a diagram. This one is called: The Square. I think my notes around it make it pretty self explanatory. But here’s some key points/context:

  1. It’s about making disciples.
  2. It looks at 2 journeys, 1) that of the Disciple D1, D2, D3 & D4 and 2) that of the leader L1, L2…
  3. At each stage of the journey the Disciple and the Leader are supposed to take different postures in their relationship with one another. E.g. at the beginning the leader is High Direction and Low Consensus (in other words, leader says jump – disciple jumps), but towards the end the leader delegates work to disciple, trusts they’re competent and invites their advice.

So, now that that’s out the way…the real reason you’ve tuned into this fantastic blog. My opinion. What did I like about this? Why am I sharing it?

  1. I was really struck by how this diagram/concept reveals my failings and inabilities in leadership. One  of my questions to myself at the bottom of the page, reflects this. “Where am  I stuck? What are my next steps to overcome”.
    • Stage 2: Leader to be available for the Disciple in the discouragement. To be in the midst of the struggle and provide Grace (aka – reminding this is God’s work not ours, we are partners God will work through) and Vision (aka – reminding why the cost is so high, holding out the why and the hope.)
      • How do I move forward? – Take time to listen to the discouragement of others/myself and apply Grace and Truth. [Journaling activity]
    • Stage 3: Leader encourages journey towards intimacy not novelty. I get so impressed with novelty in Christianity (although I pretend I’m not). Not the novelty of emotional experiences and conferences – although I did at one point – but of books, techniques/disciplines and sermons. These are all good things, but they don’t compare to knowing Christ.
      • How do I move forward? – Spend more time promoting/modelling my walk with God, instead of the latest book, podcast or talk I’ve listened to. The quiet times, the practicing presence, the friendship with Jesus.
  2. As a disciple, and someone who has been lucky enough to have had several key mentors/(or as Clinton might call them “Divine Contacts”), in my life throughout my teenage years. I was able to go round the square and think through how each mentor/rabbi/teacher, discipled me in various ways. I’ve initialled them on the picture
    • AG – the importance of God’s presence, journaling, heart for worship and leading it,
    • L&S – being invested in, music/worship leading training, training for ministry skills, being known/significant, heart for world mission and supernatural, heart for holiness.
    • SB – techniques/disciplines for spiritual formation (journaling, Bible read through, reading), training leaders (like-attracts-like), importance of weakness for Discipleship.
  3. This book also challenged me to review the legacy of the relationships I had as a disciple of Jesus-loving followers, (as an imitator of Jesus-imitators!)… Where did each one “drop me off” on this square? Which areas do I need to grow in? With those who currently influence my walk with God and journey with Jesus, where are we at?

There we go, for those who enjoy lists and sub-lists, this was the post for you. Hope this is helpful and encourages you in discipleship to Jesus. I also hope this tool sparks again the challenge to walk in obedience of the Great Commission. (However you go about it!)

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…

 

Isaiah (2): Justice and Righteousness

In order to complete this section I used Biblegateway to find all the passages where Righteousness and Justice were mentioned and then did a limited topical Bible study on these sections.

Before going into the study I want to talk about the connection between worship and justice mentioned in Isaiah 1. These verses didn’t come up in the gateway search, but I think they capture an important theme within Isaiah, that is, that true worship is connected to justice. In chapter 1, God condemns the “multitude of sacrifices”, saying that they are meaningless and that He takes no pleasure in them. Despite them being the very sacrifices commanded in the Torah. His reasoning behind the accusation is given in verses 16-17, namely, that Justice has been neglected. Throughout Isaiah, the sins of God’s people are unpacked and the ways in which they have not sought justice are revealed. Justice is not just a supplement to worship, it is a foundation. In chapter 33 Isaiah again connects God being exalted with His Justice and Righteousness (33.5).

How are Righteousness and Justice used?

God will use them to reign (9.7) as should a good leader (32.1). These are more than tools, they are values for the leader and they should be intertwined with every decision.

They are used as a plumb line, as a standard of measurement (28.17). In those times an easy way to find a measurement of depth or straightness was to put a weight on a string/rope and let gravity work – it would be used in architecture mostly. God wants His city/kingdom to be built with the measuring line of righteousness and justice.

Finally God wants them used whether it is convenient or difficult, His people should always be operating in righteousness and justice. It is not a seasonal or circumstantial value. This is demonstrated when Isaiah writes that ‘The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness in the fertile land.’ (32.16). These values are not a whether it “feels right” thing.

What demonstrates that they are being met:

I want to answer by sharing two signs that Righteousness and Justice are being carried out, and then one sign that it is not. Firstly, when these Kingdom qualities are being acted upon decisions will be made in favour of the poor and needy (11.4). In other words, God’s people will act on behalf of the weaker. We see this as a Kingdom sign in Paul’s letter to Corinth as he commands that our use of knowledge and practices should always accommodate to those who are weaker (1 Cor 8). Secondly, when Righteousness and Justice are carried out God’s people will walk in obedience to His ways (51.1), in other words His commands will be carried out. If Justice and Righteousness are a river, they will feed the trees that bear fruit of obedience, such as children honouring their parents, tithing, no idolatry.

One of the clear indicators that Righteousness and Justice are not being met is violence and cries of distress (5.7). Violence usually stems from anger, which is a logical response to injustice. Furthermore anger that is not practiced righteously will result in violence towards another man; this is counted by the Righteous One commanding that we turn the other cheek. Cries of Distress bring us back to the language of Egyptian Slavery, when God heard their cries and acted on their behalf. When Righteousness and Justice are not carried out we can be sure God will hear and act in response and rescue.

Obviously God’s abundant blessing awaits those who walk in Righteousness and Justice. However, this is not always a clear indicator of a nation in Righteousness and Justice, since Babylon enjoys seasons of blessing but not because they are righteous, but because God is raising them up against an unrighteous people.

Isaiah (1): Judgement (Causes and God’s heart)

I just wanted to spend a few posts sharing some of my course writings for FFM, they’re from the Old Testament module, and this term we’re looking at the prophets and history books.

What are the causes of God’s judgement in Isaiah and what does this reveal about God’s heart?

I have divided the causes for judgement into four main sections, and will discuss each one briefly and then talk about what these reveal regarding God’s concerns and His heart. I have also tried to end each section with a moment where God speaks or acts redemptively in this area.

Treatment of the weak – the weak included the fatherless (orphan), the widow, the oppressed and the poor. They were the people who couldn’t fend for themselves and were often left to suffer. However the judgement exercised was not just for a complacent attitude towards the poor, but also for mistreating them and not providing them justice in courts and matters of law, simply because they were weak. This area of judgement reveals God’s heart for the weak, throughout Scripture God delights in using the weak and marginalized to accomplish His purposes (See Jesus’ genealogy) and even to demonstrate His Glory through (See 2 Cor 12). The fact that God’s people were not only mistreating the poor by neglecting them, but actually working against them would have roused God’s anger. God refuses to neglect the weak Himself and promises to give strength to the weak and to increase the power of the weak (Isaiah 40.29 and 3.4)

Idolatry – One could argue that idolatry is a route cause of all sins, especially the idolatry of self (AKA: Pride), in the book of Isaiah it is no exception. Some of the expressions of idolatry given in Isaiah are: prostitution, divination, actual material idols (gold, statues), pride and reliance upon human strength (whether that’s Egypt, ‘mere humans’, multitude of chariots or even a horse (31.1)). This tells us about God’s concern for His glory, not only is Idolatry against the 10 commandments, but it also demonstrates a reluctance to trust God. By trusting in human strength, for example – Egypt – to save them from their enemies, God’s people were admitting to other nations that they didn’t believe their God was capable to save them. I was personally struck by the challenge against those who rise early to pursue alcohol (5.11), it made me question what do I rise early to do. This is a helpful way to identify my idols – as a morning person – ‘what do I wake to do?’ The relief to this idolatry is found in the stories about Hezekiah who turns to God in the moments of disaster (37.14-21, 38.2)

Evil deeds – In many ways the last two sections have also been ‘evil deeds’. However Isaiah specifies that there are activities that individuals have been performing which displease God. Interestingly, a lot of the judgement mentioned in Isaiah is directed towards large groups and what they have done. However there is sin which individuals are also found guilty of, for example murder, prostitution (even flirtatious clothing and dancing) and unclean lips (speaking badly or falsely). This tells us of God’s concern that His people are holy as He is holy. They represent Him. This is why God acts to blot out their transgressions – “For my own sake” (43.25), and acts to clean Isaiah’s lips with coal.

Finally Poor Leadership ­– In brief, Isaiah talks specifically about the judgement upon leaders who lead “badly”. By encouraging disobedience, neglecting poor and the important things God cares about. This shows us God is concerned that human leaders represent Him as the Divine Leader.

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 (4): The North Star.

42952556 - starry skyAll right, all right, okay, no, no, okay …well, if you insist. I hear the encore. Fix your eyes on Jesus part 4!!! Dah-Dah-DAaaaa!

Just a quick one, wasn’t planning on doing 4. But here we are.

A few years back I was at a Navigator’s training conference. And we were learning about the importance of Vision statements/mission statements.

We’re looking at clever ways to construct these. All really useful things. The point being that if we have a mission statement down as individuals or groups we can make decisions based on those statements. We can live focused lives and know what is important to that process according to who God has made us to be, with our passion, skills and gifts.

At the end, there is a feedback and questions section. And one guy raised up his hand and said:

This vision statement stuff is fantastic, but Jesus is my north star.

BOOM!

It wasn’t an insult to the vision statement training. These things are important. But I tell you, if they distract you from Jesus get rid of them. If anything distracts you from Jesus get rid of it. Maybe for you it’s relying on your own plans, or your own expertise, maybe it’s relationships or a hobby, is it a job or a possession? Whatever it is, however good and noble and innovative it sounds – don’t let it take your eyes of Jesus.

Too simplistic, maybe. Is there a caveat in all this – probably. But what did Jesus say – something about hating mother and father in order to follow Him. Maybe there is some wisdom – saying it without the caveat. There definitely is punch.