The Pursuit of Happiness

As we enter 2017 we will give and receive this greeting ‘Happy New Year’ many, many times as we meet people for the first time since Big Ben chimed midnight. Each year the mobile phone networks struggle to cope with the billions of messages that people send to their nearest and dearest. Happiness, it seems is something that people desire for themselves and for others.

Happiness however is notoriously elusive, and the more vigorously we chase after it the harder it can be to find. Some people get trapped in the illusion that the past was a better place and think longingly of times gone by. They are robbed of joy in the present because they continuously compare it unfavourably with the past. Others live hoping that they will be happy in the future when they leave school, get a career, get settled with a home and family, when the children are grown up and leave home, when they are retired and so on. Yet as each personal milestone is reached they look forward to the future and forget to enjoy the moment.

I recently heard someone compare the pursuit of happiness to trying to catch a butterfly. All the time the butterfly is in flight it darts hither and thither and is impossible to catch. However when it comes to rest on a flower, that is the moment when you can cup your hands around it. Happiness is found by catching it in the unexpected moments of the here and now. These are the occasions of spontaneous laughter and delight, often in little things, that can brighten up the most difficult of circumstances.

The apostle Paul knew something about this when he wrote: I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Php 4:11–13 (NIV2011)

For Paul the secret of being happy did not depend upon his circumstances but upon being able to find Christ in every circumstance. Millions of people pray the Serenity Prayer, which is based on the Lord’s Prayer, but most have never read the last eight lines to the prayer: “Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking as Jesus did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you forever in the next. Amen.”

That’s where true happiness lies! There is power when you surrender to God the very things you’ve been trying to take control of from him and trust Him alone for your happiness in this life and the next.

This blog post featured in the January 2017 edition of Hook Focus

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The Commands of Jesus

One of the core values of the good news of Christ is grace. There are many places in the NT we could go to find the message of grace expressed but one of my favourites is in Ephesians ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.’ (Ephesians 2:8–9). Paul makes it clear that our salvation is 100% the work of God in Christ and 0% our own effort. No amount of law keeping on our part will win us access to heaven. Another way of expressing this truth is ‘Nothing I can do will make God love me more, nothing I can do will make God love me less!’ This is indeed good news and something to celebrate! Christ not only offers us forgiveness but also the freedom from the tyranny of law.

Does this mean then that there are no longer commandments to obey? Absolutely not! Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them”. (Matthew 5:17). The difference is that our obedience now arises from a love response to the gift we have been given rather than an effort to win God’s favour.

Have you noticed that Jesus actually gave us some new commandments? During the opening weeks of 2017 we will be looking at commands that Jesus gave his disciples and seeing how they apply to us. The first commandment is known as the Great Commandment and is found in both Matthew and Mark’s gospels. Actually we get two commandments for the price of one!

Love God and Love One Another

Only those who know the forgiveness of Christ are able to love God and love people as God intends for us to do. It is a good place to start the year by allowing the Holy Spirit to illuminate again to us how to obey those ‘buy one get one free’ commandments.

The second (third?) commandment we shall look at is also found in Matthew and Mark but is usually known as the Great Commission. It is still very much a commandment because Jesus commands us to

Go and Make Disciples

Some people are inclined towards emphasising either the Great Commandment or the Great Commission but over the next few weeks I hope that we will see that these Commands of Jesus are inextricably combined. For people who have experienced the lavish grace, unlimited grace of God, obeying these commands is perfect freedom; a reciprocating demonstration of a love response to his love for us.

Born to be King

On Christmas Day the Queen will broadcast her 64th Christmas Message. In doing this she upholds a tradition that began with her grandfather George V who broadcast 4 speeches, and was continued by her father George VI who broadcast 14 messages. Neither Queen Elizabeth II nor King George VI were expected to become monarch when they were born but their destinies were changed when Edward VIII abdicated. Prince Charles and Prince William on the other hand have lived with the knowledge that they have both been born to be king.

Traditionally the Queen talks about significant events that have occurred during the year and so it would be in keeping with her previous speeches to make reference to her 90th Birthday Celebrations. Often she will comment on worldwide events that affect the UK or the Commonwealth. We will have to wait and see whether she comments on Brexit or, less likely on Trump. Nevertheless this year has been one which has seen seismic changes on the political scene.

Two thousand years ago Jesus was born into a world that was equally fragile from a political perspective. Herod was King of Judea, but this was not much more than a puppet role as the territory was under the jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor. His role was tolerated by the Jewish religious leaders because the stability he gave meant that they had a degree of freedom to follow their religious traditions. But there was always an undercurrent of individuals looking for an opportunity to overthrow Roman rule and implement a Jexit. Little wonder then that Herod was troubled when the Wise Men from the East arrived at his palace wanting to know where they could find the baby born to be King of the Jews.

Herod consulted with his advisors who discovered that the prophet Micah had foretold the birth of a king some 700 years before. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2 NIV) Herod understood this prophecy to mean that the baby the Magi sought was born to become King of the Jews and so he ordered the slaughter of every baby boy under the age of 2.

33 years later as Jesus was about to ascend to heaven following his resurrection, the disciples demonstrated a similar misunderstanding and asked Jesus when he was going to restore the kingdom of Israel. They were still looking for the overthrow of the Roman oppressors. Jesus’ kingdom however is not an earthly realm with geographical boundaries. Rather it is found everywhere that there are followers of Jesus.

This Christmas I pray that you will let the baby born to be king become King of your life.

This blog post featured in the December 2016 edition of Hook Focus

What’s in a name?

‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet’

This couplet was one of many that I committed to memory for my O Level English Literature exam. Juliet is pining for Romeo and lamenting that he is a Montague – her family’s bitter enemies. On one level she is right, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Yet she knew that as a Capulet she would never be permitted to marry Romeo who was a Montague, such was the animosity between their respective families. The fact is names, especially names given to people, matter.

Christmas is a season of names; names given to Jesus. That is the most common name we use for him and was the name that Joseph was instructed by the angel to give to him. The name Jesus comes through Latin and Greek transliteration from the Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua or Jeshua) and means rescuer or deliverer, clearly indicating his mission to become the saviour of the world.

One of the classic Christmas Bible readings is Isaiah 9:6–7 which says:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

In this prophecy given some 700 years before Jesus’ birth we are told that he will be called:

  • Wonderful Counsellor – his wisdom and guidance is beyond that of any human advisor
  • Mighty God – his strength and power is unrivaled in the entire universe. In fact he is the source of all the energy throughout the cosmos.
  • Everlasting Father – his love and mercy is eternally unending. His grace is matchless.
  • Prince of Peace – he offers reconciliation to us even while we were his enemies.
  • Eternal King – his reign is just and righteous and endures for all generations.

These are only a few of the names and titles that are attributed to Jesus throughout the bible. Each is rich with significance, directing us towards aspects of his character and nature. Each helps us to see that Jesus is so much more than a cute little baby snuggled in a manger. Each provokes us to worship our peerless saviour.

Take time this Christmas to meditate on the names of Jesus and bow your knee in worship to Him whose name is above every other name in heaven and on earth.

 

This blog post featured in the November 2016 edition of Lifelines

We Will Remember

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

These lines were composed by Robert Laurence Binyon and published in The Times newspaper on 21st September 1914. They comprise the middle verse of a seven verse poem. Binyon said that this stanza came to him first while sat on a Cornish clifftop looking out to sea a few weeks after the outbreak of the First World War. The fame of those four lines have eclipsed that of the rest of the poem having been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation for ceremonies of Remembrance to commemorate fallen service men and women.

In recent years we have seen a resurgence of interest in these acts of remembrance, in part because a new generation of servicemen have lost their lives in the conflict in Afghanistan. I wonder what thoughts go through your mind during the traditional two minutes of silence. Sympathy and sadness for the families of the deceased and wounded? Disappointment that the lessons of history haven’t resulted in armed conflict being eradicated from the earth? Gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy on these islands? Certainly those ideas shape my own prayers around Remembrance each year. I am convinced that these acts of national remembrance are a vital component of preserving freedom for future generations.

The call to remember however is not unique to our country, or even modern history. Each year Jews celebrate the feast of Passover and recall how God used Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt into freedom in the Promised Land. An event that took place 3,300 years ago! Christians too have an act of Remembrance that was instituted by Christ himself just a few hours before he went to the cross. He gathered with his disciples to eat the Passover meal, just as they had done every year of their lives previously. Imagine their amazement when Jesus took the timeless symbols of their heritage and endowed them with new meaning and significance in what we call Communion. The bread was now to symbolise Christ’s own body, about to be crucified. The wine was now to symbolise Christ’s own blood, about to be spilt on the ground. Only later did the disciples truly understand that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross was necessary to win new freedom. Not freedom from the shackles of slavery or political domination. Rather to win freedom from bondage to sin and the coming day of judgement. In most Christian traditions this act of remembrance is carried out many times a year reflecting the centrality of the cross to our faith.

At Life Church the monthly cycle of our meetings means that Remembrance Sunday always coincides with the Sunday when we celebrate communion. Both acts of remembrance deserve reverence and solemnity. However when we celebrate communion we do so in the full and certain knowledge that Christ has risen and will come again. So as we think of Christ and say we will remember we can do so with confidence and look joyfully towards the day when we will see him face to face.

This blog post featured in the November 2016 edition of Hook Focus

India 2016

India is a vast country with a population of 1.2 billion people – a fifth of the world’s total population! It is a land of great extremes. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Extreme heat and dryness and extreme monsoons rains. Extreme religious fervour and extreme western materialism. Cutting edge technology (especially IT) and primitive medieval utensils. When you visit India your various senses are assaulted. Your ears are battered by a cacophony of sound – especially vehicle horns! Everywhere you look you see a kaleidoscope of sights that mesmerise. And then there are the smells, ranging from beautiful exotic spices to less pleasant aromas. Someone has observed that whatever you care to say about India it will be true somewhere.

Three main religious faiths are found in India. The majority of the population would be considered Hindu. This is a faith system that is hard to define as it is characterised by the worship of as many as 330 million gods. As a result each community, even each family will focus on a limited number of gods that are important to them and there is wide diversity in how religious devotion is practiced. The main unifying factor is whether or not the Hindu texts or Vedas are considered sacred. Many Hindus are quite happy to accept Jesus Christ as another god among many.

Christianity varies in significance according to regions. The stronger Christian presence is historically found in the west and south and there are reasonable levels of religious freedom in those places. In other parts of India there can be great hostility towards Christians. Officially there is complete freedom of religion however Hindu government officials will often turn a blind eye to attacks on Christian businesses and homes meaning that persecution is a real threat in many places, especially those that are more remote or rural.

Islam also has a significant presence in India and in places there can be great tension between Muslims and others. Part of the independence package imposed on India by Britain led to the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh through a process known as partition. This was an attempt to try and resolve some of these tensions.

Indian is the world’s largest democracy and the current ruling party are Hindu. They are implementing some welcome reforms such as ensuring that everyone has access to decent sanitation. They are committed to generating economic growth and trade but at the same time seeking to break free from historic western influence. So for example many cities have reverted to Indian names (Bombay becomes Mumbai, Bangalore becomes Bengaluru).

The two national languages are English and Hindi, and educated people will speak both quite fluently. Each of the many states also has its own regional language which will be spoken by many people. There are thousands of other languages spoken across the country. Some poorer and less educated people may speak little English or Hindi and so have limited opportunities to better themselves.

Our connection with India arises out of the longer term relationship between Commission and Newfrontiers India. A relationship that dates back to the era when there was just one apostolic sphere of Newfrontiers churches in the UK. We have a particular relationship with a church in Mumbai and a church in Goa. If you visit www.commission-together.org you can find a map that indicates where the churches that Commission relates to are distributed.

During November a team of people from Life Church will be heading to India to spend some time fellowshipping and encouraging our Christian brothers and sisters there. The team members are David Grant, Jo Grant, Angie Colebrooke and Dave Whiteman. Please pray that they will be kept safe while travelling and be free from illness. Please also pray that they will be a blessing to the people they meet. If you would like to have details of their itinerary please ask David Grant.

This blog post featured in the November 2016 edition of Lifelines

Victor’s Crown

I expect that many of you will have enjoyed watching the amazing sporting spectacle of the Olympics and Paralympics. There are some incredible stories of courage, determination and sheer athletic prowess that have come out of both festivals of international sport. It is hard to choose one highlight but it was pretty amazing to find that the gold medal winner and three other athletes who competed in the visually impaired T13 1500m Paralympic event all finished with quicker times than the gold medal winner in the Olympics a few weeks earlier. Even allowing for the fact that the Olympic 1500 m race is a tactical event and was completed much slower than the world record pace which has stood since 1998 it is a remarkable achievement.

The Paralympics movement has made a profound difference in the way that we view disability and encourages us all to focus more on what can be achieved by those who are differently able rather than their limitations. Yet the fact remains that in each event only the top three athletes get a medal and only one is crowned Olympic or Paralympic champion.

The modern Olympic Games draw their inspiration from the Greco-Roman world where many cities had their games including the original Olympics held in Olympia. Rather than medals the prizes for the victors were olive leaf wreaths or crowns. It was these games that Paul had in mind when he wrote to his younger friend Timothy “Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5).

Paul compares the concentrated efforts of an athlete with the commitment and dedication of a follower of Christ. Two chapters later he picks up on the theme again as he writes “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8). Unlike either the ancient or modern games however, Paul reveals that in the Christian life everyone gets to receive a crown. The Christian faith is the ultimate demonstration of equality and diversity. It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, rich or poor, able bodied or disabled, educated or illiterate, male or female, or even which nationality you are from; the offer is the same. All can come to Christ, and if they do so in a humble, repentant manner can receive forgiveness. All who profess such faith in Christ can run the race of life confident that they too will one day wear the victor’s crown.

If you have not yet started this race of faith in Christ then I invite you to do so, knowing that God will accept you as you are. If you want to know how to get started, then pop along and speak to us sometime.
This blog post featured in the October 2016 edition of Hook Focus

Who Cares?

Imagine thousands of people from hundreds of churches across our region all mobilised together with the aim of sharing God’s love with hurting people in our community. That is the vision that the Who Cares? team have for Hampshire and the surrounding areas.

When I first floated the idea of bringing the Who Cares? strategy to this area I thought my role was just to be a prophetic voice. I assumed that someone else would pick up the baton and lead the team. To my surprise everyone else in the team felt that I was the person God wanted to head up this initiative for this region. A few weeks later I was at a conference when a prophetic word was spoken over me that directly confirmed this call. Right down to details such as equipping churches across a geographical region and having access to the Bishop’s office.

It has been exciting to see how a vision that originally just embraced Basingstoke and outlying areas has expanded; first to include all of North Hampshire, and more recently to include the rest of Hampshire and parts of Dorset.

The mission consists of 2 phases:

  • The Listening Phase. This phase starts on Sunday June 4th which is Pentecost Sunday. We are praying for the Holy Spirit to fall upon the church as on the first Day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago when the room that the disciples were hiding in was unable to contain the mission of Christ. Over the following 8 weeks Christians from participating churches will be mobilised to ask friends and family, neighbours and workmates, along with others in the community one simple question. ‘What Hurts The Most?’ or put another way ‘What one thing in life do you find most difficult to handle?’ The answers that are received will be collated on computers and analysed centrally to help churches understand the needs of their communities.
  • The Responding Phase. This phase runs from September through to December. During this season churches will tailor their programmes to address the key hurts of the people they have been listening to. They will run Alpha Courses, do Café Church, sermon series (and much more) all with the focus of addressing the hurts that people have identified. The churches in Norfolk who ran a mission like this in 2014 found that hundreds of people heard the Good News that Jesus cares for them and many became followers of Jesus after 1,200 guests attended an Alpha launch supper.

I find it interesting that among the prophecies spoken over us as a church are things like ‘you will be a David among churches’ and ‘you will punch above your weight’. It seems that this is happening as more than a hundred of leaders are looking to Life Church, Hook for vision and leadership in this initiative.

I would invite you to get behind this project and support it by joining me at the Vision Night on Saturday 8th October, 7:00pm at Aldworth School, Western Way, Basingstoke. Admission is free but you will need a ticket which you can obtain via our website.

This blog post featured in the October 2016 edition of Lifelines

You Are Amazing!

The story is told of a philosophy lecturer who began the first lecture of the year with a new set of students by asking them a question. Holding up a brand new £20 note he asked who would like to receive it. Unsurprisingly every single one of the 200 students in the lecture theatre raised their hand in the air expectantly. He then took the banknote and carefully, and neatly folded it twice. Again he asked the question who would like to receive it. Again every hand went up. Next he unfolded the bank note and took it and scrunched it up into a ball. For the third time he held the £20 up to his audience and asked who would like to receive it. For the third time everyone indicated that they would like to be given the banknote. Finally the lecturer took the crumpled banknote and threw it on the floor. He then proceeded to stamp on the note. Again he held aloft the banknote covered with dust and grime and asked the students who wanted it. Still everyone in the room was eager to be given the £20 note.

Every eye was focused on the lecturer wondering what his next move would be. He then simply asked why they still wanted the bank note despite the mistreatment he had given it. One student spoke for them all by saying that it was still worth £20 even after all the things that had happened to it.

He then quietly said that this is just like people. We all have intrinsic value regardless of our history. It doesn’t matter what we have been through, the experiences good or bad don’t define our worth. Every human being is precious no matter how painful our lives have been.

Of course the reality is that many people have been through harrowing and damaging experiences that leave us feeling bruised and vulnerable. If we have been treated as worthless by others, or discarded by society we can start to believe that we have no dignity or self-respect. When we feel like this it is helpful to look and see what the bible teaches us about who we are. Thousands of years ago the King David wrote:

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well. (Ps 139:13–14)

Perhaps the Psalmist was inspired by the birth of a new born baby when he penned these words. In these two verse he recognises the creative work of God in every human being and concludes that each individual that God has made is amazing.

Perhaps at times you feel crumpled and scuffed like the bank note at the hand of the lecturer. If so allow God’s assessment if you to bring healing and dignity – You are amazing!

 

 

This blog post featured in the September 2016 edition of Hook Focus

Sex was God’s Idea!

Many people, especially Christians, get hung up over sex. Sadly we are bombarded with all kinds of ideas about our sexuality and how to express it. This can lead to confusion and disappointment. Misinformation in this area is not a new problem. As we shall see when we resume our studies in 1 Corinthians this week some strange ideas were floating around in the first-century church. Most notably the idea that abstinence from sexual intercourse was the best and most spiritual course of action. Fortunately, Paul makes it clear that this is far from the case and he gives some really helpful advice for married couples concerning sexual intimacy.

As part of my preparation for preaching through what Paul has to say on a number of issues related to sex and marriage I have read a couple of books that you may find helpful. These go into the subject with greater depth and thoroughness than I will be able to in a few brief sermons.

My first recommendation is What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Sex by Ryan Howes, Richard Rupp and Stephen Simpson (ISBN 978-0-8010-6774-7). As the title suggests the book is targeted at men, however there is a chapter specifically for women. The authors candidly show how the Bible is not coy about sex, and in places is actually quite explicit in its celebration of the act of love between a husband and wife. Although I wouldn’t agree with every statement made the overall message is helpful in teaching that sex is part of God’s design for healthy marriages. It includes sound advice for sparking up our sexual relationships in a godly way.

Buy What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Sex from Amazon UK
Buy What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Sex from Amazon US

My second recommendation is The 4 Seasons of Marriage: Secrets to a Lasting Marriage by Gary Chapman (ISBN 978-1-4143-0023-8) You may recognise the author who wrote the 5 Love Languages. In this book Chapman uses the analogy of spring, summer, autumn and winter to describe phases that marriages go through. Just as during our lifetime we experience many seasonal cycles so in a marriage we may go through these phases many times. He offers hope for those whose marriages have become cold and frozen as in winter, that it is possible to move back into the heady days of spring and summer again. As well as describing what marriages in each season look like he provides helpful strategies for enhancing the seasons and advice on developing an appropriate action plan. Obviously it is a book that is best worked through together as a couple but he is realistic enough to address that sometimes only one person in the marriage desires to make a change and gives advice for them alone.

Buy The 4 Seasons of Marriage: Secrets to a Lasting Marriage from Amazon UK
Buy The 4 Seasons of Marriage: Secrets to a Lasting Marriage from Amazon US

If you are married I would encourage you to read either or both of these books and pray that doing so will enrich your marriage.

This blog post featured in the September 2016 edition of Lifelines