Monday, 30 March 2015

Notes for a group: Passion

These are notes from a young person's group I led. The group was a bunch of young Christian lads ranging in age from 9 to 16.

Let me tell you a story, not about me, not about my father, but about my Grandfather. My father was born just after world war 2. He still remembers food rationing, which went on after the war ended. My father never knew his father, his father died when he was very young. My grandfather was a pilot in the pathfinder squadron.

The pathfinders flew ahead of the bombers when they went on bombing raids. They dropped flares on targets, making it easier for the bombers to see what they were supposed to be dropping bombs on. I say “easier”, they still weren't really very good at it. At the start of the war the average bomb was four miles from its target. That's the average bomb. Hitting the target you were aiming at was very rare. Bombing raids were much better at killing and scaring ordinary people than they were at destroying enemy targets. After the introduction of the pathfinders the accuracy improved so that the average bomb was only one mile away from its target.

Being in pathfinders was a very dangerous job, it involved flying low over enemy targets to drop the flares. Many of them died and my Grandmother spent the war convinced her husband was going to die. He survived the war, and then three years later in a reunion flight, the plane he was in (as copilot) clipped the ground and he died. My Grandmother never really recovered.

One of the bombing raids the pathfinders would have been on was the bombing of Dresden, something many people believe was a war crime committed by the British. The war was nearly over and the Russians were marching on Berlin. They asked the British bomber command to suppress Dresden, which they said was in the way.

Bomber command had discovered a new bombing technique. They had worked out that if they dropped tens of thousands of “incendiary bombs” (bombs containing a mixture of explosives and highly flammable fuel) then they could create fires in cities, with such a force that the fires would whip up hurricane force winds that would pull people into them. This is what they did to Dresden (nearly 4000 tonnes of bombs), which destroyed the city and killed about 25000 people.

This shows the destructive force and power of fire.

We often talk, and more often sing, about the spirit of God being like a fire. “My first love is a burning fire”, “Refiner's fire”, “Burn fire of God”, and many more. How is the spirit of God like fire?

Fire needs fuel to burn, but when it gets hold it's very hard to stop. Anything that gets too close catches fire as well. Fire happens whenever you get great energy focussed in one place. Our God is a burning fire. The way a flame moves, is real but almost intangible, seems like a good analogy for spirit. Our spirit is like that – capable of great force and power.

Being on fire for God basically means being passionate about God. A passion is something that grips you, takes hold of you, brings you life and drives you forward. What are you passionate about?

The world is full of bad advice, but one piece of advice that is interesting is what is sometimes said to people wondering what to do for a job: “find your passion”. Life is much more interesting when you have a passion. You're not bored, just drifting, not knowing what to do and worried that life is passing you by. You have a purpose, a drive, a reason to live.

It's so much easier to do something you're interested in and consumed by desire for. Learning, and doing become almost effortless when you're passionate, you *want* to do things. You don't have to be told to fight for something you're passionate about – you couldn't do anything else!

We sang a song the other day that included the line “I will serve no other gods”. The bible often talks about the dangers of following other gods. That was obviously directly real in the days of the old and new testament when there were a lot more “gods” around. Do you think it's still relevant today – what might be another god?

I think a “god” is anything you let grip your heart and mind. When you're passionate about something you give it your hopes and dreams and you draw life from it. That's no different from worshipping a god. The trouble is, what are you giving your dreams to – what are you serving?

Things people are passionate about: football or sport, money, sex, technology, fame, music. These all inspire great passion and devotion. But what can they give you back, they don't care about you, they won't return your love. They're false gods. It's ok to like things, it's ok to be interested in things, it's ok to want to be good about things. But don't give them your dreams, don't let them grip your soul.

You have to guard your heart. This is a difficult lesson, and it's good to learn it as early as poosible. There's a saying that a man is only as faithful as his opportunities. That's depressing, but there's some truth in it. What you have to do is recognise that we're weak human beings, and when we start to sense danger and see an opportunity to be unfaithful coming (whether to God or to our wife) we need to turn away before our heart is gripped. Once you're gripped it's much harder to escape and takes a huge effort of will to pull away.

These false gods can seem very bright, they're very attractive. Fame and music can seem like they will promise you a happy life and a great deal. But I promise they will eat your dreams. They can't change you, they can't make you happy.

The flip side of this is that our God, the one true God, is utterly faithful and completely worth giving your heart to him. If you can find his light, if you can find “the way” and let a passion for God grip your soul, then he will fill you with life. But like anything worth having, you have to fight for it, search for it. The more hungry and thirsty you are for the life of God the more you'll find it.

And the best thing, if you're on fire for God, like a normal fire – anyone who comes close will catch it too! But beware, it will consume your life and you'll have to decide whether to let go of the things it wants to burn up (like your other passions – this is dying to self), or instead to cling onto them and let the fire of God burn out instead.

So keep seeking God, if that's what you really want.

Christian Meditation and Mindfulness

For several years now, about twenty years on and off which makes me feel really old, I've been doing a meditation called "mindfulness of breathing". In recent years I've been very disciplined in my meditation, doing at least an hour a day during the week. Meditation has been a driving force for depth in my life, meditation is helping to cultivate mental strength and I've also found an  enormous amount of "soul healing" through meditation.

I learned mindfulness of breathing from Buddhists (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order specifically) in Cambridge in the mid-nineties, and I also do a meditation called the "meditation on silence" that I learned from a book on Christian meditation (known "Zazen" by Zen Buddhists). In this article I'd like to look at why I think meditation is so powerful for Christians.

Meditation is a highly overloaded word with no clear meaning. Many people use it just to mean "thinking" (at best perhaps "deep thinking"), whilst others use it to mean "letting my mind wander wherever it wants". This last definition is particularly troubling as for me meditation (whatever the practise) means either a totally rested mind or a totally focused mind (ideally both), and a freewheeling mind is neither rested nor focused!

Anyway semantic wranglings aside, mindfulness simply means "awareness". The mindfulness of breathing is not directly a spiritual exercise, but is an exercise of the mind and soul to develop focused awareness. Essentially to practise being totally focused, having let go of all distractions, using the breath as the object of focus.

As this blog is primarily aimed at a Christian audience here's one of my favourite bible verses:
1 Kings 19:11-12
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice.
Do me a favour. Pause for one minute, sixty seconds, and clear your mind. Don't think of anything, just be at peace and enjoy "being". Any thoughts that come into your head, just let them go. For a whole sixty seconds.

If you're anything like most people instead of enjoying a minute of peace and rest you just had a battle with your mind. As soon as you try to pause the freewheeling thoughts and vocalisation in your head a herd of clamouring voices, thoughts, worries and concerns all arose demanding attention.

How can you expect to hear the still small voice if you aren't in control of your mind and can't silence the other "voices" that demand attention? And the simple answer is that you can't hear it. This is why meditation is such a powerful thing. By developing the ability to focus you learn to let go of other distractions, to still the other voices in your mind and soul. Through focus you develop strength of mind, by letting go of distractions you cultivate stillness of mind. Not just powerful, but essential in being able to really hear God.

This is important, so I'll say it again. If you can't still and control your mind you can't *really* hear God. Not in any depth and substance. Not in the way that you could. If you want to be able to bear and hold any intensity of the life and power of God you need a soul that is capable of focus, a strong mind. So I strongly recommend *disciplined* exercise of the soul and mind, and I've yet to see a better exercise than meditation. Meditation doesn't replace prayer, but if you have an unfocused mind prayer is difficult and weak. A dedicated, determined approach to developing a strong mind will pay huge dividends in your prayer life. If you think you don't really need this, try again the experiment of stilling your mind for a whole minute, without wandering or drifting. Decide for yourself how much control over your own mind you have and how much you want.

As an added bonus, in the process of learning to focus you have to learn to let go of distractions. As you still the constant chattering of the mind, the whirring of the fast cogs of thought and worry, you become more aware of the deeper stirrings in your soul. As you let go of these too you can find release from things that have been trapped in your soul for years. This is my personal experience. Even things you didn't know still bothered you will float to the surface. If we want to bring to God our whole soul, all of our life and substance, this is another pre-requisite. It isn't a quick process, but it's sure and steady.

The specific practise I use most is called "Mindfulness of breathing". There are lots of resources online about this. I wrote up (a long time ago) how I do it:
If you'd like a more gentle introduction, starting with a few minutes a day instead of twenty minutes, then this article is also a good introduction:
We know that we've barely scratched the surface of depth with God. We know that there is so much more life and power to be known than we have experienced so far. But do we really know how to go deeper with God? We tend to think we do, if only we could stop sinning and do what God calls us to then we'll find more life. And it doesn't happen, and we blame ourselves and feel guilty and determine to put more *effort* into knowing God. This is us trying to change ourselves, and it doesn't work. Instead we need to find our way into God and let him change us. We need something that will drive us into depth, propel and compel us into him. For me meditation is that engine.

If you find something better then *great* (and be sure to let me know), but if you don't then why not give it a try? (And sometime I'll tell you how it's changed my prayer life.)

If you do try meditating be prepared for it to be difficult. The mind is used to having free reign to wander and *everyone* struggles at first. It doesn't take long, maybe five or six times, before you push through the distraction and start to discover how relaxing and rewarding it can be. It doesn't take much longer than that, maybe a couple of weeks, before you start to really feel the benefits. You'll start to notice when your mind is freewheeling and be more able to return to rest. Like anything worth having, the kingdom pearl for example, a deep peace of mind takes determination and a struggle to obtain. The process of having to fight for it, fight to push through the distraction, fight to carve out some time in your schedule to make room for it, are part of what helps shape your character. Prove that finding depth with God is a priority for you by fighting to make it a reality in your life.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Church in the Dirt

As humbling as it is to find myself in passionate agreement with an American Christian... there's a vicar called "Reverend Jeff Hood" I really like. His latest blog post is particularly good (warning - contains vulgarity!). He's talking about the woman caught in adultery, and how Jesus dealt with her:

 Instead of picking the woman up, Jesus gets dirty. [...] Jesus was willing to be stoned and die with the woman. How often do we place our bodies into the conversation? How often are we willing to die so that others might live? As far as the traditional churches go, you can’t save someone you have no contact with. The real church will forever be the church in the dirt.
He's completely on the nail about the heart of Jesus here.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Notes for a group: Dividing between soul and spirit

These are notes from a young person's group I led. The group was a bunch of young Christian lads ranging in age from 9 to 16.

Today we're going to unveil some of the mysteries of the spirit and adventure more into understanding spirituality. So it will mostly be listening I'm afraid. We'll also be talking again about desires, so to sharpen your listening I've brought more sweets to sit in the middle until the end. You'll have to exercise your will power to not touch them until the end, and you'll see in a bit why this is important to what I have to say.

The very deepest mystery of Christianity is the trinity. This is something that is “implicit” in all of the bible but not spelled out directly. Who knows what the trinity is?

Here's an example of somewhere the trinity is strongly implicit in the bible, in this prayer of Jesus.

John 17:20-21
20“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

So according to Jesus, one of the best ways to show the world that he's real is for us to “be one” (to love each other) in the same way that he and the father are one! Loving your brothers is one of the best ways to evangelise! (This is how we in the church are called to be “one body” and “one spirit” – in the same way that Jesus and the father are one.)

There's another “trinity” implicit in the bible, and that's you! I mentioned before that your spirit is who you are. You area living spirit and, if you're in Jesus, an eternal living spirit! But that's not the whole story. Your spirit comes with accessories – a body and a soul. Your spirit is expressed through your soul. They're like “layers”; your spirit wears your soul like clothing, and your soul wears your body. They're not separate but more like a “spectrum” with the spirit being your innermost part and the body the outermost.

Your spirit is the innermost part, the part that is “you”. Your soul is all the parts of your being (your heart and mind) that aren't “you” but make up part of who you are. Like your memories, your habits, your thoughts, emotions and feelings. Your emotions aren't “you”, nor are your memories “you”, but they are in you and affect you.

It's very important to realise that your memories aren't you, that you aren't defined by the things that have happened to you (no matter how much it feels like it at times).

It's very easy to be ruled by your desires and your memories. The challenge of becoming a mature, strong and free Christian is to learn to master them rather than letting them master you. This is difficult and something that many people never learn – they're ruled by their emotions and are unstable, sentimental people. It's easy to mistake sentiment for love. Love is not always fluffy and nice. Love is fierce and strong, and sometimes it's not very nice (having to tell people difficult truths for example). Christians are often weak, and this can be because they live by sentiment and not real love.

Who wants to be a strong person?

We call this “dividing between soul and spirit”. Learning what are the things of your spirit and what are the desires of your soul, “soulish” things.

Hebrews 4:12
12For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.

(This is the sword of the spirit in a different guise – one of its jobs is to divide between soul and spirit.)

One of the reasons that dividing is so necessary is that our motives are so mixed. Some things are clear; wanting to have sex with a girl you fancy is clearly a desire of the soul and not the spirit. Wanting to spend time with God and worship, or spend time with brothers, are more clearly of the spirit. But most of the time our motives and desires are mixed. Like if you want to be someone's friend – partly out of love for them and partly because you want to be popular. Or when you do something good because you want someone to think you're a good person. Part of your motives are good (pure) and part of them are selfish. And that's much harder for God to use, your “self” (selfishness) makes it harder for you to love people.

There's nothing more satisfying that loving people, so as you discover that you start to want to get rid of your selfishness. That “dying to self” is the work of the cross, but that's a topic for another day.

This is the reason we learn to divide by soul and spirit, to better be able to recognise when our motives are mixed and to put away the selfish and be free to choose to love with a purer and stronger love. This is the work of refining that grows us.

The best way to learn to divide by soul and spirit is to train your will. When you can choose to deny yourself desires you know are from the soul then you won't be ruled by them and you'll be able to see more clearly which of your desires are good and which are selfish (soulish really just means selfish). You'll feel stronger as well.

Even scientists have been looking at the will recently. They've done studies showing that practising exercising your will, like a muscle, makes it stronger. So if there's something big you want to achieve but don't feel strong enough for it, practising on smaller things you can achieve (go without cake for a week, fast for a day, etc) will help you get there.

Your will is the strongest part of you. It isn't really a separate part of you, your will is the ability of your spirit to do things. The part of you that has “agency” and is able to act. The will directs the spirit, like the rudder of a ship. It's how you make things happen. When you're a free person it is your will that is free. A completely free will is a powerful thing, capable of great love (or doing great damage). This is how a strong will makes you a strong person.

It's interesting that the verse from Hebrews says that it's the word of God that divides between soul and spirit. There are two types of “word” in the bible (and two Greek words used to tell the difference between them – we only have one word in English). The “written word” and the “living word”. The living word, is the spirit of Jesus. The living word is hopefully what we bring to each other, both in church meetings and in friendship and brotherhood.

John 1:1-2
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning

So Jesus is the word of God – the living word is the spirit of Jesus.

Matthew 4:1-4
1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

The living word is the life of God, it's what feeds our soul. It doesn't just feed and sustain us though, it can reveal our own motives to us – divide between soul and spirit and make us stronger. The stronger our will, the more clearly we can see, and the more able we are to bring the living word of God to people. Receiving the living word from other people, as well as training our will, can help us to get there.

And speaking of feeding our soul, who wants to eat...

Notes for a group: Being strong in God

These are notes from a young person's group I led. The group was a bunch of young Christian lads ranging in age from 9 to 16.

This world is in warfare. You have to pick a side. By default you'll just go the way of the world.

We talked about how being spiritual means seeing things as they really are, or at least a bit clearer. This includes seeing the warfare. Being spiritual also means being changed into what God wants for you. God doesn't want you to be weak. God doesn't want you to be bored. God doesn't want you to be hurt or lonely or afraid.

God wants you to be completely fulfilled, to be the best you can be. To be strong and full of life. To be filled with vision, together with a people. Strong and alive together.

That's the promise of God, something you can completely rely on, you can bet your life on. If we trust God, if we trust our lives to him, if we love him and follow him, then we'll be filled with life. Like strong lions. You have lots of life. There's more, so much more. Let's roar like lions. That's what God wants for us.

So how do we get there? What is it you desire, long for. What do you want to become?

Do you want money? Fame? A celebrity lifestyle? To be happy, to be liked and to be popular? To win the lottery? To travel the world? To have a wife and children, or lots of girlfriends.

Or do you long to love people? To be part of a group of people who look after each other and help each other. To be someone who helps people and looks after the hurting. To do what is right, to make the world a better place. 

Or a mixture of all these things.

Whatever you desire, whatever you long for, that's what you grow towards. Like plants that grow in funny shapes because they're growing towards the light.

But where you're longing for money, fame, popularity, what you're really pursuing is selfishness. That's what you grow towards and that's what you become. You end up serving the masters behind those desires, and they'll chew up your dreams.

Just like the desire for good food, that feeling of want, we need to desire God. Desire the things of God, desire to know what is right and to do what is right. If we long for God, that's what we grow towards.

I promise you, with all my heart I promise you, if you long for God, if you long for real life and real love, and you're sincere in pursuing it, determined to keep on going, you'll find it. God won't let you down. If you stick to the course you will definitely find it. No question. You'll grow in love and strength. You'll find your destiny, you'll find who you were meant to be and what you were made to do – the work of your heart. Your gifts and abilities will become alive. There will be plenty of lights along the path, it isn't a path of darkness, but it isn't a short and easy path either.

If that's your first priority you can trust God for everything else, job, family, money, happiness, those will come to you – but we have to long for God and seek him first.

Matthew 6:28-34
28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Luke 18:1-8
1. Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

We have to keep pursuing God. We only find it if we're really determined. Only if we really want God, if we're prepared to leave everything else behind to have it will we find the fullness of what God has for us. So it's a difficult path. It's not an easy one, and it's easy to give up. But like the widow in the parable there's an absolute promise that you'll find it if you stick to it.

And a big part of that is helping and loving each other. So lets pray for each other.