Last night at Alpha, we were discussing the whole topic of faith. Questioning whether we could be a Christian without change. We talked about the difference between knowing about God and having a real, tangible relationship with God. The difference between head and heart knowledge. If God dwells within us, can we do anything but mould. Change. Grow.
When you think back over the last week, the last month, the last year, the last season..have you seen any change? Change in your situation? Change in your character? Change in your behaviour? Have you grown recently?
Philippians tells say that we can be...
“...confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
God has started doing a good work in us. In you. In me. He has promised to keep doing that until the day we are deemed perfect by our Father in Heaven. He works in us and through us. But do we get in the way? Are we stubborn to his gentle call?
I look back over the time since I became a Christian and life is vastly different. I am different. I have found the promise that we become a new creation to be true. I often meet people who I haven't seen in several years and they literally don't recognise me. It is not just my outward appearance, it is everything. I hold my self differently. I think and speak differently. I am no longer little timid Louise. I am Lou. I have a long way to go, but I am on that journey. I look back and see that I have grown. But has it been recently?
I always find it amusing when I hang out with a friend for a prolonged period of time, I end up sounding like that person. Sharing phrases and mannerisms. I change and grow more like that person. I think its a sign of a good friendship. So shouldn't that be the same with our faith? Should it be natural to become more and more like Jesus as we spend time in his presence? Perhaps the reason I am not more like him is because I don't spend enough time with him. Is it because I unconsciously lock him out of my heart? Is he still knocking at a door thats been barricaded in a while? I wonder if I need to get into the habit of inviting him in every day.
I want to be transformed. I want to grow, to journey, to change. I seek out mentoring, those deep relationships that challenge, inspire and motivate. I welcome (most of the time) conversations that move me on and point out where I am going wrong. I am part of an amazing community that worship God. I spend my time doing things for Church. I have been reading the word each day. But how often am I welcoming Jesus in? Really letting Him dwell within me?
"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."
All those choices, habits and disciplines are good, don't get me wrong. They are all part and parcel, but I wonder if I unbalance my relationship with God by doing rather than being. Maybe daily growth would come by sitting and beholding. Opening the door of my heart and gazing at Him. I wonder what revelations, what challenges, what calls I would hear if this was part of my day? I wonder if I would grow. More tangibly. More wholly. More often. More like Him.
"What if your blessings came through rain drops? What if your healing came through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you're near? What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?"
I find this quote inspiring and disturbing at the same time. I am aware life is full of seasons. Of ups and downs. Of good and bad. I also know that God has His hand on my life. Leading. Guiding. Beckoning me on. I know that God is good and only good things come from His hand. So what about the darkness that often accompanies life. Could it be that those are also good? Could it be that I don't have the perspective to decide what is a blessing and what is a curse?
Recently, I have been working my way through a book called, "A Thousand gifts" by Ann Voskamp. Its a book that dares us to live fully right where we are. Fully. In every situation. In every season. In every emotion. It's a beautifully written book but it holds a HUGE challenge. To live. Fully. Right now. When I reflect on my life, it is full. But I do question whether I am living fully. I dont know if those two things are different. I know my diary is full of things to do. I know my head is full of thoughts. Spinning. But is that what Jesus meant when he said he had come to give us life, life to the full? I am not convinced. It has been something I keep coming back to, pondering how to secure that elusive full life.
Perhaps, like Ann suggests, living fully is about gratitude. By saying thank you for the extraordinary and the mundane, we open the present. I mean that in all senses of the word. We open the present that God bestows upon us. Freedom. Salvation. Grace. Blessing. But we also open a door to the present, the place where we can live right where we are.
The bible is full of examples and calls to lead lives full of thanks giving. But how good are we at really being thankful? I know I am rarely full of thanks. What would happen if we woke up tomorrow with only the things we were thankful for today? Tomorrow would be bleak.
Luckily, the Bible also suggests that this life of thanks giving is learnt and needs practice. Philippians 4 says,
"I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little."
I know I am so guilty of not being content. I believe the lie we are sold, that happiness is secured with what society deems as important. That life is not complete unless I have the latest....fill in the blank. It is never ending. What if I saw through a lense of thanksgiving? What if I sought to be thankful for all the things that had already been given? Naming each and every blessing. Perhaps then my life would be FULL. I would be PRESENT. I would be ALIVE in each and every moment.
And then, "The ugly can be beautiful. The dark can give birth to the light. Suffering can deliver grace."
So this is my challenge for this year, I want to name the blessings. Seek them out. Record them. Be content. Learn thankfulness.
* Quotes and thoughts shaped from Ann Voskamps book which I would highly recommend :)
I love the beginning of a new year. It feels like a fresh start, a clean slate. I love the chance to reflect on the past and learn how I can bring those lessons into the present. Recreating. Restoring. Redeeming. I love the feel of hope in the air. Anything is possible. Anything can happen.
As I looked back over the last year, it has been full.
So much to be thankful for. So much to learn from and try again. I am learning to not see the times I fell short as failures, but opportunities to try again. I remind myself this is a journey. I am not yet there. I am not yet all I was created to be.
Sometimes I find myself longing for a new beginning. A new chance to have a go at being. It can be as simple as being ridiculously excited about finishing a journal, so I can write my first word in my new one. Or it can be as complex as that deep yearning to be given a second chance when you have let someone down.
As I have been pondering I had a sudden revelation that we can have these fresh starts daily. Each morning. Each minute.
"Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." Lamentations 3 v 22-23
I LOVE this. I cannot believe I havent fully embraced this before. It has never sunk in. I can wake up each morning with new mercy. With the gracious invitation to give life another go. Even better than that, each time I ask for forgiveness with a humble heart, I accept that invitation of a new beginning. AMAZING!
As I walk into this fresh start, it means more than just a new year. It is both metaphorical and literal. It is freeing and challenging. So, as I have looked back thankfully at 2011, I am looking forward with hope and anticipation to what 2012 will bring. To what I will bring. Become. I have goals in mind but most importantly, I am going to enjoy "new mercies" and new starts each morning. Grabbing it with both hands as I learn to journey through this year free. Free of guilt. Free of failure. Free of shame. Free of walls. Free.
This week I had the privilege of visiting one of the cell groups I look after. I went along expecting to just hang out and be a bit of a bystander, intruding a little bit on their journey. The last thing I was expecting was to be blessed and spurred on. I had one of those moments where you know you were meant to be in that place, at that time, for a reason. A real God appointment.
Recently, Will and I have been talking about dreaming and how we can do that better as a couple. I need to process out loud. I need to dream with someone. With a bit of structure, space and encouragement.
So with the desire to dream together, we set a time over the holidays to cultivate the space to open up the conversation. A space to start to unwrap the dreams and vision we have together for our future. This excited me and scared me at the same time as I realised, I am not very good at dreaming. I tend to limit God and myself. I would describe myself as an idealist and visionary but it would seem when it comes to my dreams, I am at best a realist. At worst a pessimist.
Even though God has graciously let us in on a few things that will be in our future. Things that we will grow into, it feels unbelievable. Im not sure I see what God sees in me. In us. Im not sure I am deserving. I am not sure I have what it takes. But as I read Philippians 3 this week with the lovely Chloe Richards, I was reminded again about one of my favourite verses;
"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"
As we sat round at cell we were asked to reflect on the last year and what God has been doing. I felt a bit ashamed that I doubted the good things God has for us in the future. Doubted that he had given me the gifts I would need. Doubted that He loved me enough to bless me so richly. Because as I looked back, He has done abundantly more than I could have hoped for or imagined in the last year alone. He is doing it right now. And I am starting to have a little more faith that He will keep doing it until I get to Heaven. What I do know is that I He is spurring me on, standing on the sidelines of my journey cheering. Encouraging. Willing me to walk in to the place He is calling me.
As the last person in the cell shared, they reflected on the dreams that God had made come to pass this year. She showed us a book called "Chazown" by Craig Groeschel that helps you learn about your individual dream and vision and guides you to discover the individual call on your life. My heart started beating faster. I had that butterfly feeling that something exciting was happening. Right there, as she spoke, I knew God was there. He knew my worries of not knowing how to dream. He knew my doubts and limited faith. He knew I needed a bit of structured guidance. He spurred me on. He met me right there in the everyday.
p.s Needless to say, I went straight home and ordered the book. Cant wait to start dreaming :)
I love it when a song captures every emotion your heart cannot possibly express itself. This happened again for me on Sunday night at Resound. The band started playing, the lights were dimmed, people were pressing into the presence of God. And in that place God reminded me that He is faithful.
Its been a pretty tough couple of months. It hasnt been terrible, just tough. I am learning a lot. I am being challenged. It is good. But it is also tough. When life gets like that, my default position can sometimes be to back off. From people. From situations. From life. It has felt a lot like a season of winter.
In winter, any living thing starts to reserve its resources. They might slow down. Hibernate. Trees shed there colourful leaves and pool their resources round the heart of themselves to endure a time with limited light. That's how I feel. I am still standing. The roots are still running deep, unshaken. I am just reserving my strength at the core of who I am. At my heart. It means I feel a bit prickly. A bit sparse and exposed. I am not sure that I have much to offer. It is not the most attractive season. There is not much warmth or colour.
But its ok. Spring is coming.
As I listened to the lyrics of the worship song my Matt Redman called "Never once" God was telling me that in every step, in every season He is with me. There will be scars and struggles on the road to victory but never once did I ever walk alone.
We have never walked alone.
As I look back I can see His footprints. Evidence that He was there. I felt challenged to start knowing this truth for now. For the future. Not in just hindsight. We have come a LONG way and He has been there for the highs and lows. He will continue to carry us with constant grace and perfect peace.
We will never walk alone.
Because God is faithful. Faithful in His promises. Faithful in the small things. And faithful in the big. Faithful in His love. In His word. In His plans. Faithful in every season. And that is what I am going to cling to in this place waiting for spring. It feels lonely and uncomfortable. But God is faithful. He is near. He is with me. He will walk with me, and through a season of Spring. And beyond.
We aren't walking alone.
I have come to realise that I could be a whole lot better at being thankful. I am good at minding my P's and Q's but I am not very practised at noticing all the good things in my life.
Last night at the Rev's members meeting we were given the opportunity to reflect on what we were thankful for. I couldn't believe how quickly so many blessings came to my mind. As I wrote them down, my heart swelled and as I took a deep satisfying breath, in and out, I felt like life got a little more perspective.
There are so many things in life to be thankful for. For being alive. For being free. For having enough. For being loved. For being worth enough that God sent his son to die for me.
As my thoughts became more specific, I thought back over the last year and about all the blessings that have been bestowed upon me. All the promises that have been fulfilled. All the ground that has been gained in battles against insecurity and brokeness.
It took me back to my second year at Uni. I was huddled in my room trying to warm up next to the radiator. I felt more than a little lost. I needed God to make Himself known and as I opened my Bible pleading for some guidance, the words Isaiah 62 came to my mind. I didnt know the verse and as I flicked through the pages, I though I was crazy to think anything meaningful would come from it.
But as I read the words, tears came to my eyes. These words resonated deep within my soul. It was a promise that there would be growth in who I was. That there would be healing and connection in my future. There would be marriage. There would be joy. There would be many things to be thankful for.
Eight years later, this promise is well on its way to being fulfilled. As I look back over the last year alone, there has been so much restoration. God has restored me. He is restoring me. And I am sure He will keep on doing so. And the only thing I can do is to fall on my knees in thankfulness. God has graciously poured out gift upon gift and I want to have a grateful heart in response.
So here goes,
I am thankful for Gods comfort and presence in my life. For my husband who looks after me and is my greatest champion. For my family and all those who are included in that phrase. For my lifegiving friends. For a restored relationship with my sister Sarah who is becoming more like a best friend. For a job I love. For my students who make my life worthwhile. For small victories that come in many shapes and sizes. For the unique and diverse community I am part of. For my colleagues who keep me going each day. For my gorgeous nephew Toby who I adore. These are just some of the things I am thankful for. Some of these I never thought would come true, somethings I never thought I could be. And although I am undeserving, God continues to bless me and restore me and fulfill so many of my hopes and dreams. And all I can be is THANKFUL.
"For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet,
till her vindication shines out like the dawn,
her salvation like a blazing torch.
The nations will see your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.
You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand,
a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah,
and your land Beulah;
for the LORD will take delight in you,
and your land will be married.
As a young man marries a young woman,
so will your Builder marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
so will your God rejoice over you."
This week I have mainly been thinking about how to honour the things I most value when life is happening. In the midst of life I find the important things can sometimes be left forgotten. I can tell when life is out of kilter when I dont quite feel myself. And its often because business gets in the way of the life I want to live. It has made me realise how important time and balance is.
I want to have a life that is authentic. Where I live wholeheartedly. Vulnerably. Where there is depth and realness in connection. But so often I settle for a glimmer of the ideals I hold. I am guilty of choosing the easy route. Of switching of my brain. Of hiding. Of smiling through pain. And then a week of two down the road I realise I am a shadow of who I am created to be. I am disconnected.
I felt like I was jolted awaken whilst listening to a really interesting talk about connection, from a lady called Brene Brown that a friend sent me. The video literally made my heart beat faster as it felt like she summarised part of my journey in the last 10 years into a 20 minute talk. She talked about how connection is the reason we are here and how vulnerability is the key. Without the willingness to be vulnerable, we can never experience connection.
It made me wonder whether I feel disconnected due to being busy. Or whether business is my protection from getting too vulnerable. I find myself in a place where I dont have time to go deep. I dont have time to process the feelings that bubble just under the surface. I am too tired to have the conversations that viagra to be had. Too tired to go out or do the things I really want to do. So I switch off and subdue.
Vulnerability isnt easy. It takes courage. It means embracing your imperfection. Fighting against the nagging feeling that we dont measure up. Not pretty enough. Not holy enough. Not clever enough. Not enough. Full stop. Vulnerability means being willing to share your whole self. The good, the bad and the ugly.
I think God calls us to live an authentic, whole hearted, vulnerable life. He wants us to connect with Him and with the people around us. He doesn't want us to pretend or perfect. He calls us, just as we are, broken and bruised. He asks for our heart, no matter what its state.
So, this week I think God has shown me how to get back to a place of connection...
I need to lean on His grace, in the knowledge that I am loved. Not for what I do, or what I look like but because I am. I need to stop numbing, pretending and perfecting and just be. And for now most importantly, I need to put boundaries round my time, protecting what I value most. Connection. Connection with my Father and with the people I love.
What do you need to do?
I dont know about you, but when I am tired, overwhelmed and a little insecure I am more likely to hide. I am more likely to build a wall around me. I am more likely to take the easy option. I retreat in myself. I let the echoes of lies reverberate around my head. I allow myself to lose the ground of my journey I have gained over the years.
I can remember the first time I went to church for myself. A friend invited me to a youth service she was involved in when I was 16. I can remember where I sat. I can remember how I was feeling and I can still remember the emotion I felt when I heard my friend read out this poem in the service.
"To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your ideas, your dreams,
before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the
greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing, do nothing,
have nothing, are nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow,
but they cannot learn, feel, change,
grow, love, live.
Chained by their attitudes they are slaves;
they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free."
Looking back, I can see that God was talking right to me. I look back 12 years and see a shadow of who I am today. I was afraid. I was ashamed. I was hiding. God was telling me to step out and RISK. To risk being known rather than keeping people at arms length. To risk believing good things instead of accepting the lies. To risk being loved rather running in fear rejection.
My fears are still there. I still have to quiet the words in my head. I still have to remind myself of the words in this poem. I dont want to be a person who does not learn, or feel, or change, or grow, or love. I want to live life to the full.
I now know that God bridges the gap between my step of faith into the unknown when I take a risk. I know He is a God who honours the brave and courageous. He breaks the chains of those who refuse to be enslaved. He accepts us and loves us even when those risks dont work out. Through Him, stepping into the unknown, risking, is safe.
I have this poem up in my classroom and I have had to print it out several times for students who start copying it out when they are supposed to be listening to me! These arent usually students who are "into" poems but I think it speaks to their heart. As it has continued to speak to mine. It reminds them that there is a choice we make through life. A choice to take the easy road, to hide our true selves or a life where we are free. I hope for people to choose freedom. To be so deep in the knowledge that they are loved and accepted that they risk showing themselves. And in doing so find a place of peace whilst staying in a habit of risk.
This Saturday I came away buzzing from the "Faith at Work" conference, it was just what I needed in the last weekend of half term. I needed that space to be reminded of why it is I went in to teaching and why it is I choose to live the way I live. I also challenged me to think how I could do it better.
I went into teaching because I wanted to help give hope to those who felt they didn't have any. I want to show them their potential. God has given me compassion particularly for those who haven't had someone to champion them, to speak truth and encouragement into their lives. I get excited when a student starts to feel safe in my classroom, when they trust me enough to participate in a lesson. When they are brave enough to show their true selves, to smile. But in the business of a teaching day, it is easy to forget. It is easy to get impatient and grumpy and overlook what is important. It is easy to resent how much time it takes up and how tired you get. It is easy to live for the weekend and buy into the "Monday morning blues."
At the "Faith at Work" conference, I was challenged to embrace work. God called us to work. It was meant to be a privilege and it was the curse that made it into a chore. We have all been given gifts and abilities to invest into His kingdom and we will be asked to account for what we did with our time. I am not entirely convinced I will be happy with what I have to say when I meet Him face to face. I think I could do life a whole lot better.
God has been speaking to me over the last year a lot about intention and it cropped up again at the conference. About being intentional with my time and relationships. With being intentional with how I spend my time and who I choose to do that with. It all started with a book my dad got for me for my birthday that was all about making sure our weekends are restful yet full. It was all about being intentional, choosing what you really want to do and doing it exceptionally well. If you want to have a duvet day because you are tired, what would make it an exceptional duvet day? Being intentional is about having a choice. Its not drifting in to activities and then feeling guilty. It is about living life to the full, guilt free.
I want to be intentional with every area of my life. I dont want to fall into habits and drift through. I dont want to separate my work life and the rest of it. I want to be intentional. I want to be all I can be in every part of my life. I want to be disciplined enough to get up each morning believing that God has his hand on my day and faithful enough to allow God to work through me. I want to live out my values and prioritise. I want to embrace the business and well as the rest.
So on the eve of another half term, or maybe for you it is another week. Why not be intentional with your time. Use every moment to the full. Dont get distracted, choose. Give everything you have to each second, value it enough to give it your full concentration. Maybe for you that will be turning facebook off when you are watching tv. Maybe it could be only watching the programmes you really want to watch, not channel hopping. Maybe it is choosing to get up each day and work hard and not resent it. Maybe it is remembering who God has called you to be in every area of your life. But whatever your week holds, I dare you choose intention over habit.
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"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed IN us. For the creation waits in EAGER expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in HOPE that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage and bought to the FREEDOM and GLORY of the children of God."
Last night at cell group, we reflected on Romans 8. It left me feeling relieved, refreshed and a little reassured. It is such a well known passage and one that I come back to again and again as it reminds me of the truth. I was relieved to be reminded that there is no condemnation in Christ. I was refreshed to learn again that nothing can separate us from Gods love. And I was reassured that Jesus intercedes on my behalf when I dont have the words or the energy. I felt humbled as these snippets worked there way into my heart and I felt a surge of thankfulness at all God has done for someone like me who does not deserve it.
The bit that struck me the most were verses 18-25. As I read the passage, I could identify with the "inner groaning". Of that tension between the now and not yet. There is a frustrating struggle between the present suffering and the future glory we know is waiting for us. It is that feeling of knowing that life isnt meant to be like this, that there must be more to it. I had never thought of that frustration being useful before, but as I re read the verses I realised that the groaning helps remind me that there is more to this life than meets the eye. This is not home and we are not yet who we were created to be. Maybe as we embrace those groanings we have more capacity to be salt and light in our lives as we embrace, rather than fight, we find a sense of freedom.
There is another tension between the words suffering and freedom. How can we know freedom when we also experience suffering? I guess for me, knowing that this life is part of the journey and suffering just another symptom that we are not yet in heaven, I feet I can breathe easier. I dont need to struggle against it. Instead I can use it as a catalyst to eagerly anticipate the day I arrive home. There is freedom in the acceptance that God works for the good of us. That may not mean a pain free life but we can be safe in the knowledge it is leading us to liberation and freedom. It doesnt mean I understand or find it easy that bad things happen and so many people around the world face hardships. It doesnt mean I am ok with broken relationships, illness and poverty. But right now, through Romans 8 I think I am being shown that I dont need to struggle against injustices in life. It means I can be comfortable in the uncomfortableness of feeling like I dont quite fit. It means I can be brave in standing out. Because all that tension means is that I am on my way home.