Following my lengthy blog post on social media just over a year ago, I’d like now to recommend Vicky Beeching’s latest offering on the subject. Social media is currently under the spotlight after the recent trolling of prominent feminist writers/campaigers, including Vicky herself, and the tragic suicide of Hannah Smith who suffered online bullying.

Vicky is a little further on in her thinking from the rest of us as she’s been developing her ideas about social media whilst researching her PhD in internet ethics.  She thinks about the social media of the future rather than just responding to how things are now, imagining the world of the next generation.  She is even deadly serious about transhumanism, the idea that technologies will one day be somehow embedded in our own bodies, the concepts of ‘online’ and ‘offline’ therefore then making no sense.  This doesn’t scare her, either.

She also suggests that we develop a sense of virtual virtues, a kind of online etiquette, I guess – online manners.  How this would happen, or even whether this could happen, I don’t know, but to me she’s painting a picture of our online world having some social mores and no-go areas in terms of our behaviour.  However, I do think that just as we would caution our children about the streets of our physical communities where we would not want them to go, there are online ‘streets’ we would do well to continue to caution our children against venturing into.

So now, I am slightly changing my view from that of before.  I still believe, as she does, that we are the problem, not the technology.  Following Vicky’s lead, I am now trying to think futuristically, rather than like a mother looking upon her children’s generation disapprovingly and trying to curb their enthusiasm.  I like Vicky’s encouragement to parents to ask their children not just, “how’s things at school?” but also, “so how are things on Facebook/Ask.FM/Instagram”.  I also agree with Vicky that we should not describe social interaction on the internet as not being ‘real’.  To quote her, “I’m online, but yet I’m a very physical person sitting at the screen of my computer.”

So I am recommending Vicky’s latest blog post to you and watching and waiting to see what happens next.

On moving home ..

One of my areas of study at university was landscape archaeology. I loved the idea that where we are placed determines so much about us. Place is foundational to our sense of who we are. We are shaped by the land around us; it defines our identity, how we move, whether we flourish or struggle to survive and, if we stay somewhere long enough, we become part of the land itself. It’s no wonder that moving home is such an upheaval for us.

In 2007, I drove around Glossop thinking, God would never bring us here; it’s too nice. But he did and we’ve lived happily here for four and a half years.

Back in the summer, walking home down the hill from the vicarage and looking across to the tree-covered Shire Hill opposite me, I wrestled with the knowledge that, although I had no idea where we were going, I would have to leave Glossop in a matter of months.

How could anyone leave this place?, I thought. God answered very clearly: You know, this isn’t heaven.

As God spoke, I realised something profound; that I am not here to build a corner of heaven for myself.  Heaven (a place even more beautiful than Glossop) is my reward once I reach the end of my life.  My life is to be lived for God.

Glossop has its areas of deprivation and social issues but, really, you have to go looking for them. On the whole, it’s one of those places where people aspire to live; a quiet, friendly, northern former mill town in the High Peak. I live on a new estate – people who move here have arrived. They have their new house, new car, bunch of growing kids, flexible working hours (if they’re really lucky) and a fantastic view to go with it. It’s a lovely place to live and serve God.

But I’ve had to remember that Jesus said,

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  Matthew 6. 19-20

God blesses us with our homes; most of us have somewhere to call home for most of our lives.  It is a wonderful thing to have somewhere you belong and definitely something to be invested in and celebrated. I wonder whether I had thought that, in Glossop, I could have a little piece of heaven just for me. The truth is, however, that heaven is an eternal promise God has given me that will never spoil or fade but he’s not giving it to me yet. For now, I have a job to do.

Jesus moved house too, a couple of times.  He spent most of his life growing up in Nazareth; it was his home and he was part of the landscape.  But when he began his ministry, he was not only called and chosen by God to do this – he was also sent.  So, Jesus moved to another region of Galilee where he didn’t really have a home until the day he went to be with the Father.

The places we call home we often make into a heaven for ourselves.  We can easily make the mistake of taking our call to see God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, as meaning bringing heaven to earth.  In actual fact, when we pray “your Kingdom come”, we are asking for God’s rule and reign (basileia, meaning ‘kingdom’) to be found here on earth as it is in heaven, not for earth to become heaven.

Jesus was not interested in settling down, his job was to do the will of his Father while he was on earth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  Luke 4. 18-19

In two weeks’ time, I will leave my home in Glossop, Derbyshire to begin a new life, along with my family, in Gillingham, Kent.  The two places couldn’t be more different. Gillingham is an urban priority area, a town overlooked by funding and regeneration.  You wouldn’t call it a beautiful place but whether a place seems beautiful or not, both these towns have brokenness in common.  Whether you can see it before your eyes or whether you have to look for it, aloneness, sickness, poverty, grief and abuse can be found everywhere and we each need to recognise that we’re all here, wherever we live to be part of God’s mission to our home.  We have a job to do.

When God spoke to me on my walk home in the summer, I immediately felt released to let go, not only of Glossop, but also my life in the north of England where I’ve lived on and off for 21 years.  I feel part of the landscape here but knowing that it is not heaven but rather just one of the many beautiful but broken places God could send me, I am able to move on and embrace the new place he has for me which will also not be heaven, but will become my home.

Wherever you live, live as though you have a job to do there and look forward to the eternal reward you will receive when your home is heaven.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
(Matthew 16:24)

Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, the night before he died, alone.

Blood, sweat, tears.

I don’t want this!
Is there any other way?
I am … wholly … surrendered…

Up all night.

He carried his cross, utterly spent, walking his final journey alone.

Empty, exhausted, humiliated, mocked, embarrassed, naked and exposed; all those looking on considering him to have spectacularly failed.

In the end, there was no surprise rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment; no “Ta da!”. Just death.

A death that was chosen, willingly, for my sake and for yours.

“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Can I surrender all? Be emptied of myself in order for God’s glory to be revealed, knowing that I am poor, ashamed, alone, nothing more than the day I was born and, to those looking on, just a failure?

I’m not sure I can do it. Can you?

I don’t want this!
Is there any other way?

I’d rather try and make something of myself; put my best face on. Cover up my frailty. Pretend my life has reached a super-human level of perfection so that those looking on might see my success and be inspired.

“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

“To those who overcome, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

Though we pray for God’s kingdom to come as it is in heaven, this is not heaven so we must stop living life as though we deserve it’s rewards now.

God may choose to bless us abundantly but this time is for Him; time to stop squirming, grow up and give in. He did it first. Now, it’s our time to take up our crosses and follow him.

Take a deep breath … Ready?

“Do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
(Isaiah 41:10)

Web security

I’ve been drafting this post for most of the year but it’s never quite come together.  Having been inspired by Anna Robinson’s latest blog post, however, I feel it’s time to share a few thoughts and ask some questions particularly of Facebook.

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with internet social-networking; we want to be part of the wider community it invites us into but it can also make us feel vulnerable and leave us exposed to other peoples’ comments and judgements upon our lives.

Pornography?

I’ve heard it asked a few times recently, “is social media sometimes the equivalent of porn for women? Do men look at private parts and women look at private lives?” (originally pondered by Alan Hirsch).

I think these are really strong words and we need to think carefully before using them.  People, particularly preachers like to throw out soundbites for discussion – private parts, private lives.   It has a certain ring to it but is it true?

Pornography is based on the objectification of something originally made holy – the human body.  Our bodies were created in the image of our holy God, who said of them that they are ‘good’; the human body was incarnated by Christ; and it’s in the human believer’s body that God dwells in the form of his Holy Spirit.  Most, if not all sin, can come about because a line has been crossed and a person has been treated like an object.

So, it begs the question, does Facebook, as a social-networking website, encourage the objectification of people’s lives?  If you scroll down your friends list looking for an interesting bit of news to ‘tickle your ears’ and this behaviour has become addictive, then perhaps there is something at work in your heart that needs attention.  However, it is important to say that using Facebook is not inherently sinful.  We must be very careful about making a connection between using Facebook and being addicted to porn, and not be a stumbling block to young and impressionable Christians.

Taking a break

Though Alan Hirsch’s comments are controversial, they highlight the fact that social-networking is a difficult issue for some.  So, what to do about it?  I have quite a few friends who have taken breaks from Facebook to face down that urge to post what’s going on in their lives.  Others do it as a direct result of being hurt by comments people have made.  I did this for about 6-9 months (I can’t remember how long exactly) a couple of years ago.  I was struggling with a some friends who consistently wrote cynical comments on my posts, which I found difficult at the time.  Rather than block them or reset what they were able to see on my profile, I decided that I should be the one to take a break.

I found it such an uplifting thing to do.  I didn’t have to keep up with what’s going on with everyone all the time.  I no longer had to worry about missing out because I was completely and deliberately missing out.  The break did me good and I think it can be healthy to do this from time to time.

The best bits about social-networking

I find Facebook challenging at times but mostly a great thing.  I’ve lived in many different places around the U.K. and have family and friends all over the world. Facebook means I’m watching the children grow up of old school friends I’d otherwise have stayed unconnected to.  I can instantly connect to my family and feel they’re right here with me when photographs and videos can be so easily posted.

I can use Facebook to witness to friends, inviting them in to what Jesus is doing in my life.  It can be a chance to share who I am without being inappropriate or overly vulnerable.  Andrew Dowsett has said, ” leaders are not responsible for how anyone responds to their lead.  Jesus drew a crowd, but his primary focus wasn’t the crowd, it was the few who followed him.  Twitter, facebook, etc. draw a crowd, there is nothing wrong with that – in fact, it is a good thing; you can feed a crowd, heal among a crowd – but the crowd ought not to be our primary focus”.  I consider many of my Facebook friends to be part of the ‘crowd’ that surrounds my life.  They are not the ones I’ll be mentoring or discipling each week (for one, they live too far away!) but I can invite them in to my life and be salt and light among them.

What can we do about Facebook?

Whilst I do think that we should continue the discussion about the challenges Facebook presents, it’s here to stay (for a while at least) and it’s heading for 1 billion users worldwide.  We could stay away from it and complain about how people on Facebook hurt us with their comments but in a few short years, all our children’s friends will be on Facebook (if they’re not there already) and we’ll need to have figured out what we’re going to do about that.  What I’d like to suggest is, rather than opting out or just following the current Facebook culture, we look at the plank in our own eye and change our online behaviour so that we are not a stumbling block to others. 

Here are six things I’m considering doing that could help me be more like salt and light on the web:

  1. I’m thinking about significantly reducing the number of statuses that name people e.g. “I’ve had an amazing time with the lovely …”. People post statuses like this all the time, don’t they?  Highly relational people like myself love using Facebook to connect people, facilitating others’ friendship and not just our own.  Hearing that other people are hanging out together only highlights many people’s great need to be included.  Conversely, people who may be shy or who’s need for company isn’t so great may feel forgotten.  If I don’t want to be a stumbling block to others and knowing how it sometimes feels to read statuses, perhaps I ought to not name people so often.  Recently, my status read, “Being treated to dinner tonight with friends and lunch tomorrow with some other friends. Happy! Who’s gonna cook for me tomorrow night?”.  I’m sure someone having a really bad day might find this hard to read but I think not mentioning names helps a little.
  2. If you do want to be very specific about who you’re with and where you are, there might be some people you could communicate with to make life easier for them.   A group of old friends had a holiday together just 10 minutes’ drive from my house.  They know where I live and a private message saying, “Hey we’re going to be staying really close to you.  What a coincidence!” and my reply, “Wow.  Have a great time!” would’ve made it so much easier than having to see it all announced on their statuses.  (I’m over it now :-))
  3. Try announcing your latest blog-post just the once.  A lot of people use their personal web or Facebook pages to announce what’s going on in their professional life.  Church leaders are big culprits here, particularly ’cause our professional/personal lives are not really separate.  I think that posting your blog, for example, on your personal page saying, “Hey, I’ve written this.  Check it out – I’d love to know what you think,” is obviously fine.  However, announcing it more than once in a day or every few days for a week amounts to advertising to your friends and moves away from sharing our lives to highlighting our own success and just being a bit in-your-face, doesn’t it?
  4. Occasionally post about your bad days.  I’m not sure Facebook should be a shop window where everything looks perfect.  If you use Facebook to disciple others, you’re going to have to be a little honest, just as you would do in life.  There are ways of doing this, though.  Be honest but turn it into a thanksgiving or a prayer for help.  Write your post like a Psalm: say what’s bad but then end with the hope you have for the future or the faithfulness of God.  This will leave you a little less vulnerable and more credible in the eyes of others and also take the pressure to be perfect off them.
  5. Hold something back.  My family has recently been blessed with a fantastic, unexpected opportunity but I’m not going to post about it; at least not until about a month from now when it happens.  It’s because I don’t want to boast unnecessarily but also, I just want to keep it between me and the Lord.  It’s his blessing to me and restraining myself from posting about it keeps it special.  You may not approach this the same way as I do but holding something back either for a short-time or permanently curbs that impulse to instantly share.
  6. Remember that Facebook friends are real friends.  It’s often been said that we should stop having virtual friends and get out there in the real world with our real friends.  Well, this is ridiculous.  Your Facebook friends are real and the moment we start to say they’re virtual we’re getting into objectification, as mentioned earlier.  If you aren’t really friends with people on your friends list, perhaps they shouldn’t be on your list; try Twitter instead.  Real relationship, real discipleship, real life can happen online and we endanger ourselves if we think it’s not real.  Celebrate your Facebook friends!

It needs to be said that these suggestions, or any others you might come up with, can only be guidelines to help us become a little more self-aware online.  If they become rules, then all the fun and sharing is taken out of the experience and we could become unnecessarily stressed and intense about this whole social-networking phenomenon.

Do you find Facebook or other social-networking sites difficult to be part of?

Do you love it?

Have you ever taken a break?

‘I can’t think of an example of a great leader without a great team.’ 

(Tony Blair at Holy Trinity Brompton’s Leadership Conference 2012.
tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/news/2012/05/17)

When I first read this quote, I immediately thought, I can.

Jesus had a team but they weren’t what I’d call ‘great’, at least not to begin with.  We don’t know much about all of them but there’s plenty to be gleaned from the New Testament which reveals that they were pretty ordinary chaps; fallible, impetuous, proud, fearful, doubting, clueless, unfaithful ordinary chaps.  (No doubt, they had some better qualities too!)

One thing, however, made them extraordinary – they were chosen by God.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus asked his heavenly Father to show him who he was giving him to be his disciples.  God chose them and gave them to Jesus; it was up to Jesus to grow them into the people God would use to change the world.

The point I’m making is this:
You don’t have to be great to be used by God.

God has already chosen you (see Ephesians 1. 4-5). 

You are valuable and precious in his eyes.

You have been made in God’s image and therefore have something in you, put there by him, that he would like to use.

Jesus has a pretty ordinary team – I know ’cause I’m on it.  I’m perfectly happy being ordinary because it qualifies me for the team;  I’m fine about sometimes feeling weak and unable to give – God says his power is made perfect when I’m weak so that qualifies me for the team.

You mustn’t kid yourself into thinking that you have to be a perfectly flawless, super-talented, laugh-a-minute, charismatic, alpha-type personality to win God’s favour and be regarded as a valuable team-player.

You’re already on the team. Just be yourself.

Besides, God’s not your boss, he’s your father.

However, you may want to ask yourself these questions:

How is God growing you?

Are you playing your part on the team?

Family Values

Our family has its ups and downs like any other but some of our downs have been very down indeed.  My girls are amazing: talented, kind, brave, resourceful and loving; but also, strong-willed and independent.  When things are bad, it’s fight, not flight in our house, with everyone wanting to assert themselves and bring the other family members into line (at least it’s like this with one child in particular!).

A friend of mine suggested we make some kind of family contract and I thought this would work brilliantly for our family.  I felt the Lord lead me to 1Corinthians 13 – the obvious place to start, really.  It’s all about what love actually is.  It’s how God runs his family.

I sat down with the family and we looked at the Bible passage, finding all the key words I’d printed off and laid out on the kitchen table,  and we talked about what they meant.  Then, I presented them with our framed “England Family Way of Life” which they loved and we all signed the back, promising to “live a life of love”.

I can’t imagine that we’ll become a “perfect” family overnight (what is that anyway?) but we have our very own core values now – values we all believe in and know encompass God’s Way of Life.

So, when I’ve fixed it (it was accidentally knocked onto the floor and the glass smashed ;D!), I’ll find a place to hang it to help us remember the promises we’ve made to each other.

Discipleship and mission are buzz words among UK church leadership these days.  It’s great. So many church leaders I meet want to create a culture of discipleship in their church to enable their members to grow in their faith.  They want to make true disciples of their existing church members because they know that this is the foundation that has to be laid if they want their church to become missional and impact their communities for lasting change in Jesus’ name.

Passing into history are the days of the vicar-does-all church, where the congregation turns up on a Sunday to earn their spiritual brownie-points, sit back and let the employed church worker or missionary do all the hard work.  Today’s church leaders are teaching the Kingdom principles of grace, faith and every-member ministry, and building godly character into every layer of church life.  Missional communities are growing up within churches – groups of smaller cells with a desire to reach a specific network of people with the gospel, be it their neighbours, work colleagues, senior citizens, addicts, the homeless, stay-at-home dads or new mums.

Christians are becoming disciples and churches are becoming centres for mission once more.

Many of these churches believe in living a balanced Christian life, a 3-dimensional life if you will: UP to God, IN to each other and OUT to the world.  This is widely taught and understood as the way that Jesus lived his life. However, if we’re only talking about discipleship and mission, our churches run the risk of becoming 2-dimensional and if we carry on living like this, we’re going to end up in a sticky mess of our own making.

So what have we been neglecting? 

In the 1990s, I was a member of one of the churches at the forefront of teaching on discipleship and mission.  Hundreds of young adults like me were equipped to be the every-day missionaries they still are today.  That church is growing, really growing.

But, this didn’t happen because we all went to a great course on a Monday night (though we did!).

It happened because the foundation for our discipleship and future mission was laid correctly: we had first become a worshipping community.

Worship and prayer were paramount in everything we undertook.  You’d prioritise the church’s AGM because God would always show up in power as we worshipped – it was his business we were discussing!  Prayer meetings were full of life and deliberately planned to last through the night.  Our times of worship together were the crucible in which we were formed into disciples who would be sent as missionaries into every walk of life.

I think we’ve forgotten our history though and are teaching people discipleship and mission whilst overlooking the worship-journey we went on before those fruits grew up.  We must remember that what we now take for granted may be new for others and must be taught as part of the whole package.

There are many worshippers in our congregations but I’m not sure we could all say that our churches have become worshipping communities just yet and, as I’ve visited different churches in the UK over the past ten years or so, that’s what I’ve observed.

Why do we put worship at the bottom instead of the top of our priorities?

I believe it’s because you can’t turn worship into a to-do list.

Most church leaders are activists.  They want something they can turn into a project; a new vision or set of values for their church they can purchase from a bigger church that’s going to make them purpose-driven or seeker-friendly or 3-dimensional or … no doubt the list goes on.

The truth is, though you can teach worship (I’m a worship leader and know the hard work encouraging people to worship involves), it’s something that won’t happen if the church leader doesn’t see the value of it.  And if all we do is shop around for church-improvement packages without putting our worship first, we’ll become a church that has a form of godliness but denies its power.  I don’t want to go to a church like that, let alone lead one.

It’s in a worshipping community that the Holy Spirit can forge the character that grows disciples and it’s from the seedbed of corporate worship and prayer that a desire for mission will grow and from where people are sent out.

We need to wake up to the value of worship.  

We need to gather worshipping communities before we send out missional communities.

Jesus said to the church in Ephesus, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance …. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.  Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first.” (Revelation 2: 2-5)

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