Thursday, 25 February 2010

Dear Heroin

I read an article in Metro this morning about a young girl who got hooked on heroin. She wrote a letter to heroin, telling it how ashamed she was of how she had acted, how she wanted nothing more to do with it, was finished with it and was moving on with her life. Three weeks later, at the age of 17, she died of a heroin overdose. My heart breaks over such stories. Another life destroyed.
She said the following in the letter, "I did love you but now it's time to say goodbye", "I'm going to prove to everyone that I'm going to stay away from you", "I can beat you anytime. I can control you, you don't control me. I've got enough willpower to get you out of my life for good. I'm strong and much stronger than you can ever be".
Her story would be tragic enough as it is, without the added dimension of this letter. How did it happen? How did she get caught up in such a deadly addiction at such a young age? Answers to these questions don't really help her or her family at what must be a time of unbearable sadness.
I don't know any heroin addicts, but I met one once and its hold as a drug is unimaginably strong. Clearly it was too much for Hannah as well, despite her protestations to the contrary. Her claims to be strong enough to beat it, of having enough willpower, all now ring hollow. Such claims from all of us, about all of the struggles, trials and temptations of life must also ring hollow too. We are not strong enough, we cannot beat it, we do not have the willpower. We are weak, fallible, fallen human beings and we cannot be better or do better just by willing. The power of positive thinking is a myth and a dangerous one at that.
I believe that power, true power, life-transforming, heart-renewing power can only, does only come from God. We cannot "beat it", whatever it might be, but we do not need to, because God already has. We are super-conquerors, through him who loved us. We can do all things through him who gives us strength. You see, none of this comes from us, none of it can come from us. It can only come from him. God is the answer. He is the strength we lack, the power we do not possess in ourselves. When Jesus died on the cross, he defeated sin, death, sickness, addiction. It was all triumphed over. These things are still around, but they are writhing around in their death-throes, rather than marching around in rude health. I cannot overcome my addictions on my own, but God's power is available for me to do so. If I trust in him, ask for his help and surrender my life to him, victory is assured. God has defeated it all.
I pray that God's peace, grace and blessings will be with Hannah Meredith's parents and wider family. I cannot imagine the pain you are going through and I do not presume that my words are any comfort. I pray that God would comfort you and that you would feel his love at this time and always.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Ashley & Cheryl Cole

I cannot imagine what they are each going through, their four-year marriage now lying in tatters. The human, self-righteous part of me wants to call Ashley Cole a cretin, a 24-carat moron who did not understand what a good thing he had. But the grace of God calls me to a different response. You see, my sin is no less black than his, no less obnoxious to the holy God under whose gaze we all live our lives. I am no better than him, no less in need of forgiveness, no more acceptable to God or deserving of his grace.
My heart goes out to both of them and although Cheryl might be seen as the victim in all of this, I am praying for Ashley as well. His ankle injury is jeopardising his chances of playing in the World Cup, his professional and personal reputation is shredded, he's facing a possible £400,000 fine from his team and it looks like his marriage is over. It is so easy to say that he only has himself to blame and he could have acted differently, but that could be said of us all. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Many will say that as a role model, a man in the public eye that others, especially the young, look up to, admire and imitate, Ashley should do better, that it is right that more be expected of him. My concern is that the fact that someone is in the public eye does not in and of itself bestow on that person the necessary character to enable them to live up to elevated expectations. Just because everyone is watching me, does not mean that I magically become a better man. It's a little different for, say, a politician. A young person planning to enter politics will expect to have their life scrutinised, will expect to be held up to exacting moral and ethical standards and, given a modicum of self-awareness, will reflect on whether their character is up to the task.
For Ashley Cole (and I suppose John Terry), they would have had no reason to consider the strength of their moral character when they set out on their chosen career. They would not have anticipated the level of interest in and attention to their lives that would arise in years to come and even if they had, it would not be unreasonable to expect their reaction to be, "who cares? I can play football. That's all that matters". Clearly that's not all that matters. The content of our character matters for all of us, whether we are in the public eye or not. No-one should be unfaithful, no-one should betray their marriage vows, but my point is that it is ridiculous to expect that someone attaining celebrity will by itself have a transforming effect on their character. Even if someone was self-aware enough to see a problem we all know that character flaws have no easy fixes. Such flaws sit deep, with strong roots and are not easily rectified.
So I feel so very sad for Ashley & Cheryl Cole. I feel sad that their marriage seems to be ending. I feel sad that Ashley Cole must bear so much abuse from a vicious, self-righteous, hypocritical and judgemental press. I feel sad that he appears to have failed to honour his marriage vows and that he did not have what it took to make his marriage work. I feel sad that no-one seems to have come alongside him and said, "this life is tough at times, let me walk with you and help you find your way". He seems alone, which is the saddest thing of all. May God's grace be upon you both.

Fantastic Four

Yes, it's films again. I know, get a life, etc, etc.
So, I watched 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer again last night. I last saw it at the cinema with my son, when we accidentally walked into the wrong screen and got as far as the BBFC screen for Hostel: Pt 2 before I realised our error. The film itself didn't especially affect me back then, but since then I have been provoked to consider more carefully what I watch and think about its meaning.
Watching it again last night I found myself thinking of sacrifice. Norin Rad, the eponymous surfer says he has no choice but to lead Galactus, the devourer of worlds to one planet after another. He says that the lives of his family, his whole home world is at stake. In the end though, he decides that his own fate is not worth protecting when compared to bringing an end to the destruction of Galactus. In the end he stands in the gap, stops Galactus and destroys him, seemingly at the cost of his own life, although we do get the stereotypical Hollywood, "he's okay really, in case we want another sequel".
Sacrifice is always costly. It will definitely cost us and it may cost others too. For the Silver Surfer, if he had failed it would have cost him his life and those of his family, but it was a risk worth taking. As another big budget effects-laden extravaganza would have it, no sacrifice, no victory. Destruction was heading our way too. Just as earth was entirely ill-equipped to stop Galactus, a planet-munching ball of gas and energy, so too were we entirely incapable of doing anything to stop the inevitable out-pouring of the wrath of God for our sin. He is holy, we are sinful - the punishment was due and deserved. God owed us nothing.
But because he is rich in mercy, God made us alive in Christ when we were still dead in our transgressions. We could not help ourselves and we did not deserve any help. Just as Norin Rad owed us nothing, so too was the case with Jesus. But he came anyway. He laid down his life for us. He took upon himself the full outpouring of God's wrath, so that we who could not have borne it and lived would not have to. He took our punishment so that we need not take it ourselves.
God, who owed us nothing and against whom we had only ever sinned, took it all. He did not come to seek his own good, or to be waited on or worshipped. He came so that he could die, so that the price could be paid, the debt satisfied and so that we could go free.
Amazing love, oh what sacrifice. The son of God, given for me. My debt he pays and my death he dies. That I might live. That I might live.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Christ Crucified

I have just finished listening to a talk from CJ Mahaney of Sovereign Grace Ministries on "The Cup", namely the cup of suffering Jesus drank from in the Garden of Gethsemane, before he was taken away to be tried and ultimately crucified. I do not intend to precis that talk, or "review" it as such. But it was so profoundly moving and affecting a talk and I feel compelled to write something down to try to capture my thoughts as a result of what I have heard.
The Cross and Jesus death on it stand at the very centre of the Christian faith. Without it, there is no access to God, no forgiveness of sins, no life with him now or ever, no hope. Paul writes that he resolves to know nothing except Christ and him crucified and I feel similarly resolved myself. It is hard to do so. Hard to dwell on and focus on something so painful. It is hard to be confronted at every turn with reminders of my sinfulness, my fallenness, my helplessness. It is hard to remember every moment of every day that Jesus took upon himself the punishment for everything I have ever done wrong. As CJ puts it, he drank that cup dry so that I would never have to drink of it. Instead of me bearing the punishment for my own sin, as I rightly should, Jesus came, fully God and fully man and said he would take it himself. He had done nothing wrong, ever. He was in fact the one who was wronged, the one against whose perfect holiness all of my sin had been committed. He, who had only ever been hurt by my sin, made perfect atonement for it, by taking the punishment for all of it. God poured out all of his wrath, all of the punishment warranted by all of my sin and he poured it on himself, in the person of his Son.
That Son, who had dwelt forever with the Father in perfect love, fellowship and harmony, offered himself before God as a sacrifice, offered to bear it all. As he prayed and wept in the garden, Jesus contemplated for the first time his impending isolation from the Father. He knew that he would soon be alone and although he would then soon be reunited with his Father, he knew that he must face this hour without the support of and union with the Father that he had enjoyed since before time began.
What pain, what anguish, what a burden to bear! The physical pain of the flogging and crucifixion that awaited himwas hardly something to look forward to, but it was not this that immediately troubled him so. He knew he would die and he knew how, he had told his disciples as much as they approached Jerusalem. Now though, the added element of isolation, of the Father's face turned away for the first time, hit home.
We sing so often of the wonder of Jesus dying for us, of how we are now forgiven and have a clear conscience before God, of how the price has been paid. We read it all the time in our Bibles and we hear it over and over and over again in sermons, but it never gets old. I cried today as I listened to CJ. I cried at the realisation, all over again, that Jesus, who owed me nothing died for me. That Jesus, perfect, blameless, pure, spotless, kind, loving, gentle, holy, God, went through separation from the Father, physical punishment and suffering on a scale I cannot comprehend and then an agonising death, all for me. What do I do? Throw it back in his face. I'll live my life how I please, thank you very much. I won't bother telling anyone about what you've done for me, it might be a bit embarassing. Thank you for what you did, but I cannot really afford to have it make a difference to how I live my life. I've got my own thing that I want to do.
It seems so ridiculous when set out like that, doesn't it? The inescapable truth, logic, whatever is that God MUST have our whole lives. I cannot look at the garden, the cup and the cross and react any other way. I cannot offer a bit of obedience, occasionally, when it suits me. I cannot just worship when I feel like it, or pray if I happen to get a free few minutes every now and then. I cannot fail to share this extraordinary gospel and every opportunity. I cannot.
I cannot earn what Jesus has done, pay him back or balance the scales. I am not expected to and to an extent, all I can really do is drop to my knees in awe-struck surrender and wonder. But I must get up, we must all get up and offer back to God with unending gratitude our whole lives in thankful service of the one who gave it all for us.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Lots of input

Okay, so now I have a little mp3 player, I'm maxing on the podcasts/sermons/downloads while travelling to and from work. I'm absolutely loving it and feel like I'm learning lots. There are just so many resources out there, so I am focussing on where I feel weakest (godly manhood, marriage, parenting) or most intrigued (calling, serving God in the workplace) and I am finding that I am feeling very close to God. I'm not suddenly, magically more virtuous than before, but I am more focussed on God, more oriented towards him.
What I am trying to do though is ensure that I do not use up all of my time listening to mp3's and forget to actually spend time with God. Listening to CJ Mahaney talk about gospel-centric parenting is informative and instructive, but listening to God must be at the centre of who I am and how my time is spent. God deserves my very best, the first-fruits of all I have in time, energy, money and resources. It's not good enough for me to check in with God for five minutes as I go off to sleep, to fit him around the ironing and DVD watching. He needs to come first.
PJ Smyth spoke on manhood at New Frontiers in Brighton and quoted John Piper, who said that a man's place in the morning is rising early and spending time before God on behalf of his family and to seek God for direction and strength for himself. That sounds awesome. I tried it for the first time this morning and although I was pretty groggy and felt conflicted about not wanting to seem self-righteous (ooh, look what I do in the morning, aren't I good), it was a good few minutes of focussing on God, presenting my family to him in prayer and getting my day off to a good start.
Lord, help me to spend my time on the right things, to put you at the centre of every day and to make time for all that you would have me do, even if it is to the seeming detriment of things that I, in my own wisdom might mistakenly think are important.

Thursday, 11 February 2010


I listened to a podcast recently about priorities and what I might make time for. The suggestion was that if you are (as I am) a husband, father and worker who is involved in church ministry in some capacity, then those are pretty much the only things you are realistically going have time to do well. Initially I kind of bristled at the suggestion, because there are lots of other things I do and enjoy and I want to make sure I find room for them too. In the end, I decided to write down all of the things that are some sort of priority for me. They were in no particular order - I just wrote them down as they came to me and then I sat back and looked:-
Quality time with my wife
Special time with my children
Jogging / Exercise
Preaching / Teaching
Creative writing / reading books and magazines / study
Work on proposal and content for film & theology ministry
Accountability / Mentoring / Discipleship relationships
Church & House Group
Leading youth work
Holidays & rest days
Time with God - Bible/Prayer/Worship/Listening/Reflecting

That is at least 14 things, more if you count all of the "slashes". I think I need to be realistic about my ability to do all of these things well enough. The question then becomes what stays and what goes. Work, time with God, time with family, church, house group, ministry - these are non-negotiable. Exercise and holidays are necessary, essential even. Without a creative outlet, I'm likely to become very frustrated and irritable. If the housework does not get done, we start to find ourselves living in squalor. You see, herein lies the predicament. I just do not have time for everything on that list, but I justify and rationalise so much of it. What I really need to do is bite the bullet and cut some stuff out, make some difficult choices. That is hard. The alternative is to either burn out or do a dozen things in a mediocre fashion rather than a handful excellently.
When talking of reverse engineering our lives, Mark Driscoll says to project yourself forward 10 years, imagine what your life will look like then, how you want it to look then and decide now what you are going to do, how you are going to change your life so that in 10 years time you are there.
In 10 years' time my kids will be 19, 16 and 13. Do I want them to say to me, of me that I kept a lot of plates spinning and that it was intriguing watching me trying to keep that up? Do I instead want to see them close to God, excited about their relationships with him, pursuing his plans for their lives and saying of me that I always made time for them and never let anything other than God or their mother come before them? Do I want to be frustrated with my relationship with God, knowing it is not what it could be because I refused to lay aside other things in the pursuit of knowing him? Do I want my ministry to have suffered, stagnated or suffocated because I did not devote enough time and energy to it? Will it feel important and worthwhile to have seen every single film I wanted to see, even if my wife is a stranger to me?
I need to confront myself with these difficult questions, because it is the only way to motivate myself towards difficult decisions. If I do not appreciate what is at stake, if I do not reflect on what might happen, I will never focus on how important it is to get my life in order now, before something starts to go horribly wrong.
Next time you see me or talk to me, ask me if I am sorting this out.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Peace, Joy and Grace

Many trite turns of phrase get trotted out by us Christian types. Where God guides, he provides. God won't bring anything my way today that he and I can't handle together. Let go, let God.
The funny thing is, that they are all not only true, but because they have become cliched they have lost some of their power in our minds.
Last night we met as a house/home group and we talked about God. We reflected on how vast and amazing and powerful he is and although we got bogged down in semantics and small ideas from time to time, we lifted our eyes and saw what a great, awesome God we serve. God guides us into and through the amazing plans, the spectacular adventures that he has for us and he meets our needs along the way. I don't think we can count on God to meet our every need if we are not walking in his will, but where we follow him, he meets us with all of the grace, patience, gifts, energy and perseverance we could possibly need. When I have known I am where God wants me to be, doing what he wants me to do, I have never lacked what I have needed. I can point to a zillion examples of me not getting what I wanted, but that is entirely a different thing.
God does not dump things on us that he cannot and does not equip us for. We rarely feel equipped, but then it is never sensible to rely on our own resources or deceive ourselves in thinking we can cope on our own. We need to remind ourselves and be reminded by God of our wholesale dependence on him. His grace is available for every trial and circumstance. I would concede that I have little experience of genuine hardship and so I do not want to appear simplistic, but I have met those who have experienced great hardship and they have joined with Paul in declaring, "His grace is sufficient". We can handle it, with God. Admittedly he brings considerably more to the table than we do, like a "bring a dish" dinner party, where he brings all of the food, drink, plates, glasses, cutlery, tables andd chairs and I bring a cocktail stick for a sausage. In reality all we can bring is our trust in God and our determination to continue in that. I guess even that is a gift from God, so maybe we just bring our admission of helplessness and weakness and throw ourselves on our great provider, who does not grow faint or weary, who does not stumble, who gives strength to the down-trodden and whose power and might none can fathom. We need to let go of our dependence on ourselves, let go of the illusion that we have it all under control, that we can cope, that we are up to the challenge. We need to remember our God and his indescribably great love and power and commitment to us. Let him take the reins, let him be in charge, let him pour out his grace and blessings, let him be the bringer of joy and peace and as "Footprints" says so eloquently, so powerfully, allow him to carry us.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


I have had so much fun and felt so close to God recently, simply by using my journey to and from work to listen to podcats. Mostly, these are sermons or similar from various churches or conferences. I have been hearing about marriage, parenting, leading my family, Jesus' sacrifice in my place, God's justice and it has all been so uplifting.
There have been many, many times when I have felt convicted of my sin, my attitudes, thoughts and behaviour, but God is faithful, compassionate and for me and keeps forgiving me and blessing me. I find myself waking up in the morning and rather than feeling anxious (as I had been for a good few weeks and therefore unable to get back to sleep), I find my thoughts automatically turning to God. I find myself praying, worshipping, feeling a sense of peace and joy.
It is not as if I now effortlessly breeze through the day, without a care or concern in the world. Loving my wife, raising my children, doing my job and carrying out my ministry in the church are still not easy and I still fail in these every day. But I feel hopeful. I feel that God is with me, that I am growing and that I am connecting with God. Listening to podcats is no substitute for time with God and I have to be disciplined in continuing to carve time out to be quiet, to pray, to meditate and listen, rather than just adding to my head knowledge, but I am doing well. God is with me, he loves me deeply and enduringly and he will walk with me every step of the way.