18 March 2013

The king is dead, long live the King

I'm not too sure if you're supposed to like nicknames you're given. I've had a few in life, but not many have ever stuck - except for one this past year, partly due to my rather vocal dislike of it. Fortunately it's a nickname with an expiry date, and that date has recently passed. The nickname...? El Presidente.

There's something very different between Christian leadership and other types of leadership - and this post is something I've felt unable to write during the last year...  See, I didn't like the nickname "El Presidente" for a couple of reasons: for one it opened the door for pride to enter into my role.

But it's the second reason I want to write about, and it's to do with the differences between Christian leadership and other kinds of leadership. See, Christian leadership isn't really leadership at all. It's a bit of a misnomer. "Leadership", as the world understands it, is power, is authority, is glory. Christian leadership? It's submissive, it's subservience, it's humility.

I'm envious that I can't serve with the fabulous new CU exec who went away to Forum Midlands a couple of weeks ago! They'll all be brilliant, and I'm very excited to see and hear of how God chooses to use them. But they'll be most brilliant if they concentrate less on "leading" and first and foremost on being led.

"Leading" implies control, authority, a sense of being the boss. Being led implies servitude, submission, a sense of being second-in-command to someone. A phrase we've often used when praying is "God, it's your CU, not ours".

There's a right and Godly way of Christians leading other Christians, but only if those leaders are first being led by God. Not as brain-washed puppets, but as servants, discerning what will best suit their master. There's a chain of command in Christian leadership, and no matter what structures are going on at earth-level, God is always the King.

It's made my job over the last year a whole lot easier knowing this: that the best kind of leader puts God first and him/herself second. Otherwise our leadership is self-centred, full of pride, and ultimately sinful. We have to be dependent on a Father who gives instruction through his word, a Son who sets the perfect example of earthly life, and a Spirit who speaks and inspires us into action. Get these things right, and you've got Christian leadership right.

14 February 2013

"We love, because God first loved us"

If you received a Christmas card from Fi and I, then these words will have been written inside it. But what do you actually think when you read those words? What does it mean? We love... what, exactly?

From things I've read, and conversations I've held, it's a popular opinion that this kind of love refers to us loving God - a sort of reciprocation of his original love. Clearly, this can't be wrong! The message of grace means that God had to act before we ever could; it was only through God's sacrificial love that we can ever come to have a relationship in which "love" towards him is possible.

But I think John might be saying something more that just that here. Perhaps it's fair to say that we can attribute the whole human emotion of love being because of God and his actions? Any act of love we perform here and now, to others, and also to God, is only possible because of God's love. Our capacity to love is a gift!

What a precious gift! Without God's sacrifice, how would we describe our feelings towards our boyfriend/girlfriend, our brother/sister, our favourite sports team/pizza topping!? At a time of year where people long to be "with" someone, to be loved by another, be encouraged by knowing that that sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes toe-tingling sensation we have is a present from God, and it cost him his son to give it to you.

So thank him for it, and bask in the love that God has already demonstrated - a love which allows any of us the chance to be "with" someone forever.

"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved use and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."

Happy Valentine's Day.

24 December 2012

Stable Reactions

News means different things to different people. Depending on your proximity to the news, and the way in which it affects you, your reaction will differ accordingly. The same can be said to be true of the birth of Jesus...

Something which has struck me this Christmas is the different reactions that each of the characters have to the birth of Jesus. I'm going to loosely and quickly try and draw parallels with different groups of people we may know. Perhaps we'll identify with one of the people here.

Firstly - the wise men. 

Matthew 2:2 "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."

The wise-men were outsiders, star-gazers who had travelled a long way. Partly their journey was out of intrigue, and partly it was from a reading of the stars which said that seeking Jesus may be a worthwhile task. From being far away from the birth, and with only the mystery of the star to draw them in, they go from being intrigued stargazers to kneeling worshippers, presenting a baby with expensive gifts.

Secondly - the shepherds.

Luke 2:17 "And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child."

Some of the lowest in society were the first to encounter Jesus in human form - how liberating! No matter how low we feel we are, we're invited to be among the first to be able to come and know Jesus.

Their reaction is superb: evangelism! So excited are they by this fresh news, and so accepting of it that they want to share the angels' promise of "peace to all men on whom his favour rests" to the people all around them, perhaps even knocking on doors all around the neighbourhood and waking people up... Not that I'd advise that as a tactic this evening, of course.

Thirdly - Mary.

Luke 2:19 "But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart."

Mary's closely involved with God's plans, and in many ways if we're Christians we can share in that particular aspect of living closely with God. Her reaction to seeing all this firsthand is constant reflection and appreciation of what God's done for us. She's also humble enough to know that despite her close interaction with God, she doesn't know all there is to be known, and must still spend time figuring it out for herself.

It's not always necessary for us to try to identify with people in a Bible story - after all, the message of Christmas is far bigger than that. But I guess here we see some different people and some different responses.

Perhaps you're the wise men - far off from notions of church and stables and angels and carols. Fair enough, but surely there's something intriguing about the whole thing? We'd be foolish to make up a story which involved the creator of the universe being born in a barn - surely a palace would be more believable!? Make like the wise men - follow the star, and see what you may find...

Perhaps you're a shepherd! New to you, the Christmas story is exciting, and you want to share it with people you know. After all, if we understand the message the angels brought then why wouldn't we want to share it?

Perhaps you identify with Mary. I know I do. This Christmas is the 23rd time I've heard this story... It's hard to keep the excitement and intrigue sometimes, isn't it! Mary's example of "treasuring" and "pondering" is perfect - no matter how integrated in Christian life we feel we may be, there's always space for us to reflect on what Christmas means for us in personal way.

31 October 2012

The first ring

We've all had to make a phone-call we didn't particularly want to. Personally, I don't like talking to people on the phone - I much prefer face-to-face interaction, so as to properly engage with someone. This makes long-distance relationships difficult... But this blog post isn't about that.

There's something about phone-calls which make me very self-aware. I feel much more nervous before a phone-call than before I get up in front of people on a stage, or to host a presentation. I'm not sure why this is exactly - but in the case of all the important phone-calls in my life I've always done them with a pen and paper by my side... And a series of notes.

I doubt many readers have had to make a phone-call to their girlfriend's Dad, to ask his blessing for you to propose to his daughter. Boy, I wish I still had the notes from that phone-call! They'd have made horrific and ridiculous reading!

I've always wanted to do it that way - asking permission, I mean. I guess it comes partly from my beliefs in male headship in the family (a potential future blog-post?!), and partly out of a respect for Fi's parents and the Christian family they fashioned -  one which I'm sure Fi will agree she has been blessed to be a part of.

There's a beautiful picture in the wedding service, where the father of the bride "gives away" his daughter to the groom. It shows that the primary responsibility for the bride's well-being no longer lies with the father, but with the groom. I felt, therefore, that it was imperative that I make that call.

As I say, I was nervous - what if he said no? What if he's never really liked me? What would our next move be then? (All questions which say much about me and my character, and nothing at all about his!) I'd never planned to do this by phone by the way, but our flight to New York was in 5 days, and I had no time to get to Leyland and back in that time!

I left my coffee date with Mark, and went home to make the call. He assured me he was praying. I did too, then dialled the digits. Never before has a phone ringing caused me so much stress...

What a brilliant phone-call! Done in under 5 minutes would you believe! (Lengthier conversations were saved for post-NY). If I could remember exactly what was said then I would share, but most of it was a blur. What's important is that God turned all my worries about making that step into one of the most weird and wonderful evenings of my life. I felt now that I should ring my parents. Typically, they were halfway out the door when I rang ("We can't really chat - can you ring later??"), but their elation told me exactly how they felt about my news.

Sharing this experience with all four of the parentals was lovely for several reasons.

First, I knew had a family of people praying for us from a week before I even proposed. To be able to share this exciting news with older Christians, and have their support, guidance and wisdom was a blessing then, and continues to be now as we plan our lives. To have four brilliant Christian role-models surrounding us as we make plans is something which I am massively grateful for.

We're aware that we're lucky in this area - but a brief word for those couples without strong parental examples to follow... You see, the only reason our parents are so brilliant in these areas are because they follow Jesus' example - an example that's free for all to follow! Don't be discouraged through lack of good example; our influence should come first from Jesus, and second from those around us.

Secondly, we had a secret! For the best part of a week, the only people who knew about this were me and Mark and the four parents. For once in the relationship, I'd taken a giant step ahead; now I just had to convince Fi that I WASN'T going to propose in New York.

12 October 2012

Coffee & Confessions: Part 1

Funnily enough - Fi sent me a text this morning which said that, had we we stuck to our "original plan", then we still wouldn't be engaged, even now. Stubbornly, our plan was to have as short an engagement as possible, and then to marry immediately upon my graduation.

Only one of those is now true.

Both might have still been true, if Mark hadn't been free for coffee when I asked him in late February...

At that point, I'd felt something for weeks that the upcoming Uni trip to New York might mean something significant for me and Fi, who was tagging along with me and my course mates. God had been prodding me - through conversations with friends, through prayer, through coincidence... All sorts of ways. But did I listen? Nah.

I'm not particularly gifted at recognising when God speaks - in fact it's only now, looking back at pre-New York, that I can clearly recognise God at work.

With less than a week to go, my head was a mess - I had no idea what I should do about the contrasting things I was thinking and hearing. I needed to chat things through with a friend... and a coffee, of course. I confessed my stubborn engagement plan to him...

"I'll say what I often say to people" he said to me, "you could be dead tomorrow." I nearly choked on my Caramel Macchiato. Cheers, mate.

Of course, he wasn't wrong! I could have been! And I guess what he was saying is that, seeing as me and Fi have been wanting to get married for a couple of years already, why not make the first part of that commitment now. We couldn't take control of the timing of or marriage, but we could let each other know our feelings through the commitment of engagement now.

That was one part of the situation we could take control of - a sort of "live for the moment" philosophy.

I'm so thankful for Mark, and the way God used him in that situation. He helped my see that handing things over to God was the safest place for them to be, and since doing that I've had such peace! Our relationship feels so secure, now that we've made tangible steps to obey God and his timing.

Of course, this isn't something which I'd encourage in everyone. Much of the Phil and Fi story is influenced by the fact that we've been together six-and-a-half years, and I certainly wouldn't say that proposing to a girl is the only way you can find security. No, true security comes when you're both wanting the same things from the relationship, and that those things are things God wants too.I truly believe that this is the conclusion God wanted me to come to, and this has been proven by the wonderful blessing this summer's wedding planning has been (flower arrangements aside).

But the principle that can be taken from this story is that God's timing is best (I seem to be repeating that a lot at the moment - perhaps I'm reminding myself!). Committing relationships to God is the safest place for them - He won't let you down.

There's more I could say here - but I'll save it for with my next coffee.

9 October 2012

Taking God out of the box

For one reason or another, I haven't got round to blogging about CU this term so far - my bad! It's become difficult to balance all the various things I'm getting up to, but as I've a bit of time now I thought it right to share some thoughts on what was a brilliant and blessing of an evening last night.

Bible Studies, Cell Groups, Support Groups, Growth Groups... Whatever you call them, they can be difficult to get right. Much more so when you're dealing with people of all sorts of backgrounds, denominational preferences, etc. So how do we do a "one-size-fits-all" Small Group at Wolves CU?

I'm not claiming to have any universal answers, but we tried something different yesterday, and the general consensus was that it worked well.

One of the ways in which I've grown since moving to Uni has been in the way I've noticed that God can't be restricted by our own personal understandings of him. In coming to Uni, it was as if I'd packed God into one of my boxes - I knew how he worked and how he would speak to me. I was a Christian, sure, but plenty of my understanding of God was on my terms, limited to what I thought was "good Christian practice" or "the right way to do things".

Since moving to Wolves, I met so so many different Christians, most of whom have had an impact on the way I now view God. Through visiting so many different churches (until that point I had only ever attended one church in my life - a fabulous and brilliant church which I miss dearly, but one church nonetheless) God opened my eyes to the many different ways in which he speaks to people.

People are different, and so the way in which God speaks to people must surely differ.

What's this got to do with last night's Small Group? Well it was in realising the many different ways we can communicate with God that we began discussing a three-pronged approach to Small Groups: Bible, Prayer, Sung Worship.

Now the first two have always had a presence, and as an evangelical I will always maintain that of the three the Bible is the most pivotal, and takes precedence over other two. But we had sidelined prayer somewhat, and the thought of singing in a place that wasn't a church service would have had me running for the door two years ago.

But the brilliant thing is, God can speak as powerfully to us through truths we sing, truths we pray, and truths we read. Last night, as we allowed people a variety of different ways in which to engage with God, we really felt that it allowed everyone a chance to meet with God in a personal way, rather than in a way which is forced by whoever's leading.

Some may prefer one of the three, and see that as the way they really connect with God - and that's fine. But I have found real joy in discovering that God isn't confined to just one or another. God is so much bigger than we can ever think, and in many ways even writing this is pointless, such does it offer on a debate about the size of our God. 

But - God wants us to get to know him, and hopefully through engaging with him in such a variety of ways, we may be able to do just that.

5 October 2012

Whose Timing?

I hate the Sound of Music, so the Phil and Fi story, for that reason alone, is not going to start at the very beginning. A beginning, but not the beginning, will be our very good place to start.

After six years of "dating", it was sweet relief that in March of this year, I could finally ask Fi to marry me. After spending so long being a couple with no rights to any sort of permanence, making it official was something I'd been waiting to do for at least the last three years.

Those six years may be a later blog post, but for now I think it best to fill in gap between NYE 2011, and that bridge in Central Park, New York.

You see, we've known for a while that the only thing stopping us getting married is me being away, finishing my degree. Summer 2013's been in our heads for a while now. But, we'd been entertaining the fanciful idea that summer 2012 could be on the cards. As new year rolled around, and the necessary plans hadn't fallen into place, the idea became more and more fanciful.

I had so wanted to have been able to hug Fi at New Year and tell her that this was our year, that our wedding date was written in the same diary I would start using the following morning, but this wasn't to be.

What I did know, however, was that it was this calendar year that would contain the date of our engagement, and it was this fact that I revealed to her that evening. I'm not sure she was surprised - not much is a surprise with us any more! 

The question was when. After such a long relationship, I wanted to avoid too long an engagement - and so my thinking was for the tail-end of the year, perhaps Bonfire Night, which is one of our favourite nights of the year. Stubbornly, I disregarded all other options.

Fortunately, several people intervened in my thinking, and I write this post six months into a fifteen-and-a-half month engagement.

It's more normal for Christians to have short engagements - what's the point in hanging around if you know? Also, we're impatient! I want to live with Fi now! But, these last few months have taught me a lot about God's timing, and a lot about mine.

Much of our relationship has been a lesson in letting go, and leaving things up to God. Timing is a big one - as much as I'd love to be in control, I'm just not. Me going against my stubborn will, and proposing when I did, was a way in which I handed the reins over to God.

After all, our relationship is all about him, so he should be in charge, right?

Having a longer engagement than we'd initially wanted has not only helped practically (most prep has already been done this summer!), but it's helped emotionally too! I've been able to appreciate this new period in our relationship. It feels differently the same, which is a confusing phrase I'll blog about later.

To be continued...