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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A New Heaven and a New Earth

I wonder what your favourite Christmas present was? Perhaps you got some new clothes, or a new device such as a phone? Maybe some new books to read or something connected to your favourite hobby?  Most of us enjoy getting new things, but when we do we quickly lose interest in what we had before. Last year’s prized possessions get forgotten as they are superseded by new ones.

New Year too, often signals time for reflection on the year gone by and thoughts turn to hopes and aspirations for the year to come. Whatever 2015 was like for you it is natural to hope that 2016 will bring joy and happiness, and that the disappointments of the past will be left behind.

The Christian faith has much to say about newness. For example Paul wrote that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ (2 Cor 5:17 ESV). This amazing statement describes a present reality for all who truly believe in Christ. However the message of the Bible is not simply comfort for this present life. Rather it offers us hope for a glorious eternity.

John, the Evangelist, was privileged to be given a wonderful vision of the future of creation which he recorded in the book of Revelation. Towards the end of that revelation John sees ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev 21:1 NIV) which he then goes on to describe. We learn that this present world with all its pain and suffering, disappointment will cease to exist. In its place God will create a new, eternal order. In this new world God himself will dwell among his people. It will be a place of outstanding beauty and incredible happiness. We are told: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4 NIV)

Wow! There can be few people who would not wish for such a world!

My desire for everyone that reads this is that 2016 is truly a Happy New Year for you. I hope that every day from 1st January – 31st December is full of joy and hope. The experience of Christians throughout the centuries is that the greatest joy and hope is found when we have assurance that our eternity with Christ in the new heaven and new earth is secure. The joy and happiness of the new heaven and new earth will surpass the greatest pleasures we could possibly know in this life. The joy and happiness of the new heaven and new earth will more than compensate for the deepest sadness of this present life.

Whatever else you do in preparation for 2016, make this the year you secure your place in the new heaven and new earth by becoming a follower of Jesus!

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

I am making everything new

Millions of people across the world will be celebrating the start of 2015 at parties and firework displays. The day itself is arbitrary and derives from the Gregorian calendar which was devised in 1582 but wasn’t adopted in the UK until 1752, 170 years later. The Gregorian calendar is the one most used worldwide, however there are different New Year’s days in the Hindu, Chinese, Coptic, Jewish and Islamic calendars.

For most of us, apart from the date, not much is new in January. Yet the significance of each New Year is something that is embedded deep within our culture. For the first few weeks of the year you may struggle to write 2015 at the end of dates but it quickly becomes second nature. In fact that is true of everything new! We quickly become accustomed to a new job, a new phone, a new car, a new house. In time the novelty wears off, and we become aware of other opportunities for something newer

Often we associate this hankering after something new with materialism, and sadly it can all too easily be a manifestation of that disease. However, I wonder if even deeper down in our beings there may be an innate expectation of one of Jesus’ final promises in the book of Revelation. John has just been given a vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ when Jesus says ‘I am making everything new’. Consider the most wonderful sights you have seen on this present earth – they can be breathtakingly beautiful. Yet a day is coming when even these places will be transformed and renewed beyond our imagination. This new creation will never fade or wear out, and we will never become jaded with what we see through familiarity. Our desire for something new will finally be satisfied.

Why?

Because in this new creation God’s original intention to dwell among us will finally be realised. Paradise is not defined by beautiful surroundings, rather it is defined by the presence of God. The opening chapters of Genesis describe how Paradise was lost in the Garden of Eden. The closing chapters of Revelation show how Paradise will be restored on the New Earth.

As you reflect upon this glorious vision, allow it to give you hope. Hope that will lift your eyes above the brokenness of this present world in a way that trinkets like smartphones, flat screen TVs and new cars never will. Live each moment of today in the light of our glorious eternity.

This blog post featured in the January 2015 edition of Lifelines

New Leaf or New Life

As a schoolboy I did not have the neatest of handwriting and my exercise books quickly became messy and dog eared. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I enjoyed getting a new exercise book at the beginning of term, or when an old one was full. Full of good intentions I would take great care to write slowly and neatly in the first few pages, but invariably would lapse back into bad habits long before I got to half way through, as I would start to rush my work.

Many people think that being a Christian is a case of turning over a new leaf, rather like getting a brand new exercise book and working hard to write neatly. They understand that God is loving and merciful and so come to him seeking forgiveness but promising to do better next time. The underlying thought process is that if they can somehow live a good enough life going forward, that will in some way make amends for all that has gone before. There are two flaws with this kind of thinking. Firstly at its root is the idea that we can earn God’s favour. However, the bible is clear that none of us can ever be good enough to earn God’s favour. The second flaw is that before too long, just like my wayward handwriting, we revert to old patterns of behaviour and can get trapped in cycles of guilt.

The true message of the bible is that we are powerless to change but God is powerful. PJ Smyth, a preacher in South Africa, expresses it like this: “Nothing I can do can make God love me more, and nothing I can do can make God love me less.” This is the ultimate in equality! No matter how good we might be we can never be good enough, but God offers us forgiveness through Christ anyway. No matter how bad we might be we can never be so bad that God will refuse to forgive us if we come to him through Jesus Christ. The bible calls the process of forgiveness in Christ being born again because, rather than turning over a new leaf, we embark on a new life. The remarkable thing about this transformation is that when we truly grasp that God loves us like that, and forgiveness is due to God’s mercy alone, then we can be set free from guilt. The motivation for living therefore becomes gratitude to God rather than seeking to win his favour.

This New Year, rather than making resolutions to turn over a new leaf, come instead and receive a new life in Christ – it’s freely available to everyone who will respond!

This blog post featured in the January 2015 edition of Hook Focus

Building for eternity

Antonio Stradivari who died in December 1737 is widely regarded as the greatest ever builder of string instruments such as violins. During his life he built around 1,100 instruments of which 650 are believed to survive to this day, including an estimated 500 or so violins. In December 2013 a Stradivarius violin, which was made in 1696, was sold at auction for £1.38 million. It seems incredible; firstly that this instrument should have survived for over 325 years; and secondly that someone was prepared to pay such a vast sum for it. Of course, Stradivarius violins are renowned for their musical qualities making them highly prized possessions; the record amount paid for one is a staggering £10 million.

I wonder what legacy your life will leave. How much of what you have invested your time and energy in will survive and be remembered in 10 or 50 years time, let alone 300 years like Stradivari? Paul saw his life’s work as being like constructing a building, working like a master craftsman on the foundation of Jesus Christ. He encouraged the Corinthians to build upon the same foundation and to consider the longevity of what they built. He illustrated the durability of their work by comparing it to building with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw, which he warned would be tested with fire on the Day of Christ’s return. Paul tells us the outcome of this testing: If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 1 Corinthians 3:14 (ESV).

Few of us will achieve the long lasting reputation of Stradivari, and even if we did it is of no use to us once, like him, we have died. Yet these verses in Corinthians indicate that there are eternal rewards to be had for those who build wisely. How can we earn these rewards? The key seems to be the foundation we choose to build on. Civil engineers take great care to ensure that the foundation is right for the building that is to be erected upon it. Likewise the wise spiritual builder builds everything on the foundation of Christ. Paul wrote: For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 3:11 (ESV). Only those who build on the foundation of Christ will receive a reward. And only what is built on the foundation of Christ will be rewarded. At the start of the New Year why not take time to evaluate every area of your life – work, family, leisure, church – and ask yourself: ‘To what extent is Christ the foundation of this in my life at the moment?’ There is a line in a song that we used to sing that said: ‘I want to give my life, for something that will last forever.’ Why choose to build with wood, hay and straw when you can build for eternity?

This blog post featured in the January 2014 edition of Lifelines

New Year’s Revolution

After the excesses of the Christmas Festival, many of us will be looking at our waistlines and making New Year’s resolutions, committing ourselves to a diet or a fitness regime in order to improve our health. Perhaps it will be a decision to break a habit like smoking or to reduce consumption of alcohol. These are worthwhile lifestyle changes that doctors recommend as having significant benefit on our health and wellbeing. However if your experience is anything like mine, all too often these well meaning New Year’s resolutions quickly get broken and we slip back into our former habits and excesses. Every year thousands of people sign up to gyms and health clubs but find that after only a few months, the only pounds they are losing are from their bank balance when they can’t get out of the contract!

Many people view Christianity in the same way; they experience an inner conviction in their heart that something needs to change and so they look to religion, imagining that by attending church, reading their bibles, praying and being good (whatever that means) they will become acceptable to God. The shocking truth of Jesus’ teaching is that you can do all those things and actually be further from God than you were before. Jesus said “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Jesus said this in response to proud religious people who thought that by doing certain things they were made righteous; in actual fact they were self righteous which made them offensive to God. This is revolutionary! Jesus says that he didn’t come to call those who can live by the rules, those who can turn over a new leaf and maintain resolutions. In fact he came to call those who know that they can’t.

By all means make New Year resolutions if you want to improve your health and fitness. However if you want to improve your standing before God, what you need is a New Year’s Revolution. Admit that you can never earn his favour by anything you do. Acknowledge that you will never be good enough to deserve anything other than condemnation, that, to use Jesus’ word, you are a sinner. Once you have reached that place then you are ready to receive Jesus’ gift of forgiveness that he has promised. Look at what John, Jesus’ closest friend, wrote: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’. (1 John 1:8-9) I pray that this New Year will be the start of a lifelong revolution for you and everyone else who reads this message.

This blog post featured in the January 2014 edition of Hook Focus

Thank You

I am writing this article after leading the first of our church’s Christmas Celebrations. A great time was had by all, singing carols and thinking about the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth, followed by good food shared together. By the time you read this, Christmas presents will be unwrapped, rich Christmas food eaten, every turkey recipe imaginable will have been consumed and thoughts will be turning to New Year’s resolutions. For the majority of people living in Hook, we will have enjoyed comfortable Christmases in warm homes with people we love. No doubt too we will have written letters, e-mails and text messages thanking people for their generosity towards us.

In my first message of 2013 I want to say thank you, to you, the residents of Hook on behalf of all the people who have benefitted from the food that you have donated to the Hart Foodbank (www.hart.foodbank.org.uk), especially through the collection at Tesco at the beginning of December. On those two days an astonishing 1835 kg of food valued by Tesco at £3212 was donated. Even better, Tesco have given Hart Foodbank 30% cash back – £963 on a store card. Since 1st April 2012 Hart Foodbank has fed 288 people (171 adults and 117 children). The evening before I wrote this article, I was able to supply food to three families feeding 9 more people.

Christmas is a tough season for those who are financially challenged. Pressure to get presents and seasonal food, along with higher fuel costs due to cold weather conspire to leave people in debt and struggling to feed their families. Life Church operates a service called Junction 5 Money Advice (www.junction5.org), which provides confidential advice to help resolve debt crisis. However the chances are that the people most needing help from Junction 5 or the Hart Foodbank don’t read Hook Focus. If you as a reader are aware of a situation that would benefit from this kind of support, please tell them about these services and help us ensure that they get the help they need. In the meantime I wish you a very Happy New Year 2013.

This blog post featured in the January 2013 edition of Hook Focus

Looking Forward

We use thousands of words on a daily basis but I wonder how often we think about where they come from.  For example the names of our calendar months date back to the Julian calendar which began in 45BC as a result of a reform by Julius Caesar. January is strongly associated with Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, who is frequently represented as having a head with two faces – one facing forward and one facing back.  The tradition of reviewing the year that has just past and anticipating the year that is to come derives from this Roman origin.

For our nation looking forward, 2012 brings a number of challenges as we continue to ride the economic roller coaster. It also promises celebration as we rejoice at our Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – a remarkable milestone regardless of your views of the monarchy; and excitement as the Olympic Games come to these shores for what will almost certainly be a once in a lifetime experience. No doubt you will also have things you personally are looking forward to.

The Christian faith gives us great hope and expectation for a future where the pain and suffering, failure and disappointment of this current world will be swept away and replaced with a new, perfect, eternal world. This is the hope of all who have placed their trust in Jesus. This is the hope we will celebrate when the churches of Hook, Odiham and North Warnborough gather together at 6:30pm in the Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 22nd January at our joint expression of faith during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I do hope that you will come and join us that evening and stay for refreshments afterwards.

This blog post featured in the January 2012 edition of Hook Focus

Welcome to 2012!

I wonder what you are looking forward to during this coming year. If you are into sport perhaps you are excited by the prospect of the Olympics coming to London. Another big event will be the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – a remarkable achievement! There is also a sizeable cohort of us in Life Church who will be celebrating our 50th birthdays – 1962 was a great year. Congratulations to those of you transitioning with me into the Saga era (ouch!)

I also wonder what 2012 will hold in store for us as a church. At the start of this New Year rather than making resolutions that we will break before the end of January why not ask God to give you big dreams. We have been praying for many years to see growth in our membership which has hovered around 60 people since 2004. Praise God in 2011 we reached a new maximum of 73. Will you join us in praying that we will continue to grow in size during 2012 – a similar percentage growth would see us reach 85 people, it would be great to break through the 80 mark.

Another encouragement this year has been to see 10 people baptised. That means there are 10 people who have taken a visible, significant step forward in being a disciple of Jesus. Will you join us in praying that we see at least that number of people baptised in 2012? Even better if that figure was also matched by a similar number of people making a decision to follow Jesus.

You may be aware that the Welcome Team helps me to track Sunday morning attendance (numbers not names!) Our best morning attendance was 108 on Easter Day, closely followed by 100 at our Carol Service. The average main meeting attendances in 2011 were 74 which is 22% increase on the 2010 average of 58 (for the Sundays for which I have data). A similar percentage growth in 2012 would see us reach an average of 90. Will you join us in praying that we achieve this during the coming year?

Less easy to monitor quantitatively  but of greater importance is our personal and corporate spiritual walk with God. My prayer for the church is to echo Paul:

My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit — not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength — that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19 (The Message)

May 2012 be a breakthrough year when all of us experience more of God’s lavish grace and mercy in our lives.

This blog post featured in the January 2012 edition of Lifelines