Being Efficient? Being Fruitful.

I love efficiency. By nature it is the virtue I value most in myself. I have a collection of time management books I come back to each year. I love life hacks, shortcuts, any tips that promote efficiency. I just love to do. 

In preparation for a seminar on productivity, I turned to the Bible, to root my thinking in what God says. And although there is some mention of productivity, for example in Proverbs 6 the instruction to be like the hard-working ant, rather than being lazy, time and time again I kept coming up against these rather disturbing passages…

Psalm 127 Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat– for he grants sleep to those he loves.

John 15v5 I [Jesus] am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

I read stories like the Exodus from Egypt in Exodus 14v13-14, where Moses is commanded: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

I thought back to our previous church and wondered, really who were the most “efficient” people in our church? I actually believe it may have been frail old Daphne Morrison in her 90s, who just loved to pray. 

True efficiency is not found in me building, but in humbling myself, praying and asking that the Lord would use me to build his house.  

The irony is that even the bestselling secular authors, would agree that “If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every rung you climb gets you to the wrong place faster” (Stephen Covey). They just can’t see that their ladder is not leaning against God’s wall and so ultimately their plans will come to nothing. Leo Tolstoy, one of the most successful authors of all time had to face up to this, famously asking the question: ‘What meaning has my life that the inevitability of death does not destroy?’

Fruitful

A better word than efficiency, productivity or even effectiveness is the Bible word ‘fruitful.’ This carries with it the image of being in the vine, being unable to do anything away from the vine. That vine is Christ, and to him we look for what true fruitfulness entails. 

Fruitfulness starts at the cross, where we repent of building a life away from God and lay down our tools. Mark 1v35-39 gives us some helpful insights into how Jesus perfectly fulfilled the mission he had come to do. 

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

We can pick out four things Jesus did: prayer, handling distraction wisely, articulating his mission, doing it. We’ll go through each in turn. 

  1. Prayer

Notice that Jesus didn’t decide to pray because he had a spare hour. He didn’t havetime to pray, he got up early to maketime to pray. He didn’t havethe space to pray – presumably staying in a house with others – he founda suitable place. Mark notes he went out to a solitary place. True productivity starts with making the time and space to be able to pray in an undistracted, unhurried way. 

The implication by the way he got up with such clarity as to his mission is that Jesus was praying about his work, asking God to lead and direct him to do his will, and keep him from the temptation of being distracted by less important things. 

History gives us some great role models of what his looks like in practice. Martin Luther, the great reformer wrote to a friend: “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” 

Or take Hudson Taylor, who founded the China Inland Mission. As a result of his prayerful efforts, over 800 missionaries went to China, and there are now an estimated 150 million Christians in China. His ministry was entirely built upon prayer. He wrote: “Do not have your concert first, and then tune your instrument afterwards. Begin the day with the Word of God and prayer, and get first of all into harmony with Him.” “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” “There are three stages to every great work of God; first it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.”

2. Handle distractions wisely

As soon as he got up, Jesus was faced with excited disciples, keen to set his agenda. To be truly fruitful, we need to realise that as soon as we get up from our knees we will face similar distraction. What we need to realise when we face distraction that time is like space. You can only fit a certain amount of stuff in it. Think of a wardrobe. There gets to a point where it’s full. If you say yes to the new jumper you say no to the jeans. It won’t all fit. Likewise saying yes to the distractions is saying no to what you had planned.

a) The distraction of good things. 

It’s not necessarily wrong to say no to distraction. Jesus allowed himself to be distracted by people, he would be going somewhere and end up sitting with a blind beggar. I’m not saying we just brush people aside because they are not on our to do list. But I am saying we are to beware of those things we know we do not need to be doing right now. In saying yes to that we say no to the other promises we’ve made.

b) The distraction of the earthly over the heavenly.

The things we shouldn’t be doing are often shiny, they promise reward – everyone will love you. That’s what the disciples were offering. But Jesus knew that what he should be doing though it was harder, was of eternal significance. We’ve all been there on Bible study night. The pull of the earthly is so strong, but the heavenly though harder is of eternal significance. This is especially true of evangelistic outreach. It’s so hard to do but eternally rewarding. We’ll be tempted by distractions to change our mind about bringing a friend along to the evangelistic talk. But we need to realise that that decision may have eternal significance. 

c) The distraction of what ‘everyone’ wants. In the Bible the way to destruction is described as broad, a highway. It’s easier because everyone is going that way. Jesus could have so easily gone along with the disciples and carried on healing in that town. But he chose the narrow path of preaching the gospel to those who have not heard. Praise the Lord that he didn’t give in to the distraction of going along with what men wanted him to do but stuck to his path which took him to the cross. A decision so much harder than going along with what everyone else is doing, but of such incredible eternal significance. 

d) The distraction of the person next to us. In John 21v20-22 this is example of distraction is recorded: Peter and John – Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return,what is that to you? You must follow me.”

We can easily get caught up comparing ourselves, judging others or feeling inferior. God has made us who we are, and given us work to do. What he has called others to do is not our business and can be a distraction. 

e) The distraction of what is ineffective and unproductive – Titus 3 – Titus was distracted by quarrels and genealogies. Things that were not achieving gospel goals. We should evaluate what we are doing and stop wasting our time on things that aren’t achieving gospel goals – eg should we be providing a meal after church? Let’s keep on evaluating the effectiveness of that and whether we could be using our time more effectively to achieve gospel goals. 

f) The distraction of doing in place of being in line with God’s heart. Jesus warns the ‘busy’ Pharisees in Matthew 15v8: “These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. The language is even stronger in Amos 5v21-24: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;your assemblies are a stench to me…23 Away with the noise of your songs!I will not listen to the music of your harps.24 But let justice roll on like a river,righteousness like a never-failing stream!” 

We must beware of doing in place of being. Sometimes the reason we allow ourselves to get busy is because we don’t want to face up to the fact that our heart is out of line with God’s. We don’t actually want to be building his house, we’re rather be building our own.

3. Articulate your mission

I often find myself in the kitchen prodding my kids to help out: “Don’t just stand there, do something!” When it comes to being fruitful, it would be more appropriate to say: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”

What should we be doing? It’s helpful not to just do whatever is in front of us, but stand and stop for a moment to articulate what we should be doing. 

Jesus articulates his mission after he has prayed, saying: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

He is wonderfully clear what his mission is. 

There are many places we could go to define the mission of a human, eg Gen 1v28 – ruling and reigning over God’s creation, 2v15 – tending and watching over the garden, Quoeleth concludes in Ecc 12v13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. We can be more specific for a Christian as we look at Matt 28v16-20 to go to all nations and make disciples, Philippians 1v20 – that Christ would be exalted in our bodies.

Priestly kings

I want us to focus for a moment on Revelation5v10, which I’ve found helpfully encapsulates the other references. In it, Jesus’ followers are described as “priestly kings”: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Rev 5v10

Jesus was thePriest, theKing, who through his death and resurrection he makes us to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God and reign on the earth. Priests, under our great high Priest Jesus – bringing people to God, kings under our perfect King, tending and watching over the patch of the garden God has given to us.  

Articulate your individual mission

In Proverbs 31v10-30 we are given a detailed description of how someone might live out this priestly-kingly care in a day to day setting. If you were to look at the verses you can pick out her role as wife, mother, caring for her servants, profitable trading, care for the poor, managing her home, a wider role in the city with her husband, faithfully instructing and underpinning it all fearing God. In a similar way, we can articulate the specific roles, and responsibilities God has given us in our family, church, workplace and community as well as any specific gifts and passions he has given us to build his kingdom. 

You might find it helpful to chart them on a wheel, then rate how happy you are with the amount of time you are devoting to each. 

4.Doing

“So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.”

Jesus was faithful to his mission. 

We owe everything to the fact that Jesus prayed, that Jesus would not allow himself to be distracted, that Jesus knew why he had come and that he was faithful to that mission. Luke 9v51 tells us: “as the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Resolutely speaks of resolve, decision, choice, determination, focus. He would not allow himself to be distracted from faithfully doing what he had come to do. To die on the cross to pay for our failure to rule and reign under God in his creation. To rise again to make us into a kingdom and priests to reign on the earth in him. He is the vine; we are the branches. If we remain in him and he in us, we will bear much fruit; apart from him we can do nothing.

Finish the Work

Imagine writing down all the things you need to do. Not just at work but in every area of your life, every relationship, every role.

What are all those things?

Covenants we’ve made with ourselves, things that we have promised ourselves, and others, that we will take care of.

The reason it would be so hard to write them down is that many of them would be agreements we feel like we’ve broken, put off or can’t do.

One way to deal with that is avoidance. Let’s keep that list in our heads, for our eyes only. We’ll worry about that in the middle of the night.

Or we could apply the gospel to our in tray – confess where we’ve been unfaithful and not finished things, and ask for help to change. We can rest knowing that the most integral thing – God’s plan of salvation is finished in Christ and we cant mess it up. Philippians 1v6.

As we come to Christ he forgives us, indwells us and enables us to grow in our faithfulness. In fact faithfulness is one of the fruits the Spirit grows in us – Galatians 5v22.

He has called us to be faithful, he has put us in these relationships, appointed us to these roles and given us tasks to do. For example in Titus 1v5 Titus is instructed to “straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders.” “Finish the work” Archippus is told in Colossians 4v17, Paul tells us how he has finished the race and encourages Timothy to discharge the duties of his ministry 2 Timothy4v5-8. And perhaps most challenging of all, Paul writes to the Corinthian church:

“Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.” 2 Corinthians 8v11

Its not enough to be eager, to talk about doing something. We need to learn to persevere through the frustration of our sinful self and world to bring to completion what we have promised. 

Eg –     let’s go out for coffee sometime,

            I know somewhere that can fix that for you

            I’ll pray for you in that

Being faithful is part of our rule as human beings, and part of our image bearing as ambassadors of Christ. It shows people what God is like. And when we fail to keep our promises, it brings the gospel into disrepute 

How do you get things done? David Allen, in his book ‘Getting things done’ identifies five steps to a good system – capturing, clarifying, organising, reviewing and doing. Let’s not reinvent the wheel, but look through these steps in turn:

Capturing all the things you need to do

Most people hold things in their head, then have various lists/calendars/holding areas eg the email inbox that enable us to work through our tasks. 

The problem with holding everything in our head is that we are not God – we forget, or we worry about things. If we can get all those things organised into a system that we trust then we can focus. We can be faithful, because we have a record and a plan for when we will work on the commitments we have made.

Clarifying which of these you can realistically do

Some you will need to delegate, defer or drop. If things take less than two minutes just do them as organising them into a list will take as much time as doing it!

Organising our commitments so we know what we’re working on when

Organising them into some form of calendar/to do list/pending/inbox or in tray. It’s helpful to use a calendar, but not to overfill it. Leave a margin for the unexpected.

“To ignore the unexpected (even if it were possible) would be to live without opportunity, spontaneity, and the rich moments of which “life” is made.”Stephen Covey

If you are too busy, you stop being creative and end up functional. To be truly effective and productive, you need the space to be able to think about your work not just think of it. 

Reviewing regularly 

“Most people feel best about their work the week before their vacation, but it’s not because of the vacation itself. What do you do the last week before you leave on a big trip? You clean up, close up, clarify, and renegotiate all your agreements with yourself and others. I just suggest that you do this weekly instead of yearly.” David Allen, Getting Things Done

Reviewing our systems at least weekly means that we are doing what we need to be doing, and we’ll be comfortable not doing what we know we are not doing.

Doing

Some of the things we need to do are actions – call the doctor. But a. number of the things we need to do are problems, or projects. Often with problems and projects we don’t have an idea of what done would look like so we never have the satisfaction of successfully completing it. If we take some time to think about the outcome and brainstorm the action steps needed to get there, then we become more motivated to tackle the project, and we know when we have successfully completed it. 

Starting, persevering and completing important tasks has immediate and continuous payoff. We are created in such a way that task completion makes us feel good – it actually releases endorphins.  

God is faithful. We rest in his finished work. He calls us to be faithful – it’s a fruit of the Spirit. As we come to him for forgiveness, his Spirit in us makes us new and enables us in his strength to keep the commitments we have made to Him, to ourselves and to others. 

It’s not enough just to say we will, or to be eager. We must start, persevere and finish what we have promised to do. 

This article was originally written as a seminar for The Globe Church

Looking for the positive

At our September church business meeting, Jonty Allcock gave us five Scriptural principles by which we make decisions during the pandemic. It was so helpful to be given unchanging parameters in an ever-changing world.

God is our ultimate authority and we obey him. He has set in place authority structures on earth which we obey unless they directly contradict the authority of God. We act in love towards one another, and our communities. We act to protect the vulnerable. The final principle surprised me, and has been so profoundly helpful: look for the positive. This commitment fitted so well with our recent sermon series in Romans, where Paul commands us to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Romans 15v12

Joyful in hope

The UK government have recently limited all of our social interactions – privately and in church – to groups of six. In church that means our chairs are colour coded into groups of six and we can only talk to people in our group. Frustrating and complicated as this is, I have found that being limited to sitting in a group of six has led to much more in depth conversation with a smaller group of people. Six is a great number because its large enough to have smaller conversations in twos and threes, but small enough that if one person has been left out, they are noticed and included. Being allocated to those groups by a steward has effectively avoided the normal sense of cliquiness one can feel upon entering a gathering. 

Having to split our once per Sunday gathering into smaller repeated services (as we can’t fit everyone in the venue socially distanced), although a much greater burden on staff, has led to a much more intimate service feel. Newcomers are welcomed. The needy are supported. The neglected are noticed.

Not providing our usual practical ministries has meant everyone’s time is freed up for conversation with others. The type of ministry that Jesus invested his time in, and that if we’re honest is probably what people most long for from church – to be known, noticed and supported in ways that genuinely help them.

Lastly, I think stripping back all the ministries we would normally focus on, has made us realise which ones are most important in supporting our aims. For example, not being able to provide a meal after the service has felt such a loss for us. I often wondered whether that was really necessary or was a costly distraction. But actually that meal was a direct expression of one of our four aims – to be relational. 

Patient in affliction

For some of us, life have been devastated by this pandemic, through bereavement, shielding, financial pressure, etc. For many others, life is just much harder, painful, difficult and we can find ourselves bearing the brunt of others frustration. Patience in affliction means recognising the affliction – I’ve found it helpful to write down all the things we’ve lost, all the ways life has changed, so that I can properly grieve. But to grieve patiently, recognising that we are following the footsteps of our Saviour who patiently went to the very depths of affliction to die for us and win us a glorious resurrection.

Faithful in prayer

The biggest negative for me has been the loss of our usual missional activites. It feels impossible to visit people door to door, it’s much harder to invite people to join a service, and we’ve not been able to do our usual work with the homeless community (soon to restart – hooray!) As I lamented this in an FIEC gathering on Zoom recently, one of the other participants challenged me, saying ‘I’ve found the opposite. We’ve had way more connection with our neighbours.’ I realised that is true! Just because evangelism looks different doesn’t mean it’s not as good. To be faithfully praying more for my neighbours is probably the most effective outreach I can do. 

It’s so easy to slip into negativity about all the restrictions, the uncertainty, and the genuine fear many of us naturally feel. I love Romans 15v12 because it contains with in it the hope that one day all will be wonderfully restored in the New Creation. Gritty reality, where we are honest about the affliction. And a very powerful weapon with which to fight our way forward, prayer. God can, is and will work though the chaos of this pandemic to achieve his good purposes. So, there is reason for joy even in the midst of affliction.

The path leads through the sea

After a frustrating morning of ’writing’ (ie not writing) at my desk, I decided a run might provide some relief from my horribly low mood. Running along a bleak beach road, the angry sea to my right gave no relief. Rather, I ended up locked in a negative thought spiral – useless, worthless, rubbish, failure – the same thoughts crashing over me like the waves crashing onto the shore.  

According to the dictionary definition, I was meditating – ‘thinking deeply about something.’ Meditating on me, and how rubbish I felt.  

The irony is that I had set aside the week to write the final chapter of my book, Deeper Still. The chapter in question was an exposition of the meditation in Psalm 77, with the working title ‘meditating in suffering’. I was supposed to be helping people meditate in suffering and here I was meditating on darkness and despair. 

As I ran, it dawned on me that Psalm 77 was God’s gift to help me now. Not in theory at my desk. Not to help others. He had led me to Psalm 77 to help me in the gritty reality of the bleak darkness of my depressed thoughts.

Meditation is groaning

In Psalm 77, as Asaph remembers God, his reaction is to groan – v3 “I remembered you God and I groaned, I meditated and my spirit grew faint.” 

I can hear you already – I thought that meditation was mean to help us in suffering, not make it worse!

Groaning is a consistently Biblical phrase to help convey what words themselves cannot. Groaning, too troubled to speak, unable to find words to convey the pain of being. The inescapable nature of the sleepless, untiring, relentlessness of it.

Romans 8v22-23 describes groaning as an inward, wordless expression of the pain and frustration of this world in bondage to decay. 

Its ok to have no words. To be too weak. Meditation is remembering God in the pain. Turning to him in our weakness. And allowing his Spirit to take us by the hand and together turn to God in wordless groans. Groaning in prayer to God in suffering is the most powerful thing we can do, though I know it doesn’t seem like it at the time. That is what Asaph does here. That is what God helped me to do. As I ran,I groaned – just opening up the blackness of my heart and mind to God.

Meditation is remembering the Lord. 

As Asaph groans, honestly opening up his thoughts to God (v7-9), it’s like a shaft of light shines in. The mood of the Psalm changes as he resolves to remember the deeds of the Lord and meditate on all his mighty deeds (v12). He does this in hauntingly poetic imagery in v13-19, describing the mighty deeds of the Lord as he led his people through the Red Sea to safety on the other side. 

How much richer and fuller our meditations on the mighty deeds of the Lord, as we remember the Lord Jesus. His path led through the sea, to the cross, to death itself. He died so that we don’t have to. He takes the sin and shame and pain and darkness so that we don’t have to carry it anymore. 

But as he died, he didn’t stay in the depths. He rose, rose again to eternal life. He doesn’t just take our shame and pain, he gives us life. We don’t have to meditate on darkness, we can meditate on life, the life that is ours in Christ.

Darkness is the common experience of God’s people. v19 tells us ‘your path led through the sea.’ Running that sea road I felt so alone. Literally but also emotionally. Remembering that for all of God’s people the path leads through the sea, helped me to know I was in good company. Not that all of us experience suffering in the same way but we all live through the frustration and pain of this world in bondage to decay – whether we feel that decay in mind, body, relationships or other circumstances. We are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same sea. 

Psalm 77 goes further in v20 reminding us that God leads his flock in person. In Israel’s time, by his anointed leaders Moses and Aaron. A hint of what was to come, as God himself stepped into his world to lead his flock in the person of his son, our Lord Jesus. The path he leads his people on deliberately goes through the mighty waters. Take heart you have not missed the road of blessing. You are on it. But we are not alone on it. We are led by Jesus. And surrounded by his people.

I ran back to my desk and began to write the final chapter. 

Don’t meditate alone in darkness. God’s path doesn’t end in the sea. He doesn’t lead us there and leave us to drown. He leads us throughthe sea, throughthe suffering. Showing us that in the depths of despair we are not alone. There is a suffering servant who has borrowed these words before us to enable him to walk the darkest path. So that we will not have to. Meditate on him. 

This article was originally written for US organisation called My Quiet Cave, providing mental health resources from a Christian perspective.

Meditating our way out of the stress of lockdown

At risk of stating the obvious, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a great deal more anxiety and stress than usual for each of us. Statistics are now providing evidence of what we already know to be true – that mental health has worsened substantially throughout the UK. These effects are not distributed randomly across the population but are affected by people’s social and economic position within society. “We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat” comments one survey by the Mental Health Foundation. At the end of June, one in ten people in the UK reported having had suicidal thoughts or feelings in the past two weeks.

Mindfulness meditation is one of the therapies recommended by the NHS to help alleviate the distress caused by mental illness. Which means increasingly Christians are being taught how to practice mindfulness meditation. It is therefore imperative that we understand what mindfulness meditation is, its roots and its effects in order to wisely help ourselves and other believers struggling with deteriorating mental health. What would be even better, would be for Christians to be taught how to meditate in a way that is Biblical. This article explores what mindfulness meditation is, how it differs from Biblical meditation and why Biblical meditation is better.

Mindfulness meditation 

The mindfulness boom began when Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn—an American researcher with a PhD in molecular biology, and a student of Zen Buddhism—realised he could bring meditation to a much broader audience by stripping it of its Buddhist elements. In the 1970s Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course teaching secularized meditation. The model he built was simple, replicable, and effective. Since then it has been woven into a number of medical therapies, and is widely used by the NHS to treat conditions from depression, drug addiction and binge eating to pain management. 

Mindfulness is about learning to be satisfied in the present by noticing the smell, sight, feel of our immediate environment. It’s something I can do to escape from the incessant voices in my head. If I can practise the techniques, and discipline my mind not to react to the negative thoughts passing through… if I can forget the pain of the past and disengage from future fears… then I can find peace.

Secular meditation offers a way to manage the guilt, fear, stress, resentment, sadness, pain. But it will never shine the truth of God’s word on my thoughts and expose what I’m thinking. 

Which means that secular meditation will never lead me to the cross to see that there is forgiveness, and peace and power to change. 

But there is a way of meditating that can…

Biblical meditation is better

“Useless, worthless, guilty, failure” is the mantra relentlessly reverberating around my head when I’m low. For a long time I assumed that “useless, worthless, guilty, failure” was how God saw me too. I thought he must be so disappointed with me—I was such a terrible wife, mother, friend and Christian. Until one day, when I was in the bathroom humming one of those irritating kids’ memory verse songs… and the words hit me like a ton of bricks. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him” (John 3 v 17). I looked into the mirror and I realised that though I condemned myself, that was not God’s verdict. The contrast between what God said and what I thought was stark. Was he wrong? Or was my thinking wrong? He sent his Son to save me—to take my sin in his body on the cross and give me his perfection. I believed that truth. And in that moment, it was as if the “useless, worthless, guilty, failure” thought disintegrated. Peace flooded my heart and mind. 

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was meditating. 

Meditation on God’s truth exposed the lies that I was believing about myself—that I was useless and worthless because I didn’t feel I was coping with motherhood—and led me to the cross. I saw that any and all my failures were taken by Jesus. He had given me his perfect life, and had sent his Spirit to empower me to love and care for little children as he did. 

I could have managed my negative feelings through secular meditation. I could have allowed the thoughts of “guilty, worthless, useless” to pass by without engaging them. I could have stood in the bathroom and felt the cool tiles under my feet, smelled the bleach from where I had recently cleaned the toilet (if only), noticed the sounds of children beating each other up in the distance and, relaxing my muscles one by one, focused on my breathing: IN for as long as it takes to say this sentence, OUT for as long as it takes to say this sentence.

But that wouldn’t have exposed the lies I was believing and it wouldn’t have led me to the cross. It wouldn’t have flooded my mind with the truth—and it is the truth that sets me free (John 8 v 32).  

Biblical meditation does not exclude appreciating God’s creation, noticing the sight, smell and sounds of what is around us, but it goes further. Psalm 19 describes not just one voice that lifts our eyes from the pain of our struggles, but two. The voice of creation and the truth in God’s word. 

Biblical meditation is not as difficult as you might think. It’s not about making Bible reading more complicated, rather making it simpler. It’s about filling our hearts with the truth of God’s word. Focussing on one truth, learning that truth and coming to Jesus for help to live it out. 

Life in the lockdown imposed by the pandemic was hard, but for many of us easing out of lockdown is proving even harder. Face masks, uncertainty, economic downturn and job instability inevitably fill our hearts with anxiety. Through Biblical meditation we can choose instead to fill our hearts with God’s truth. The truth that enables us to face and fight the anxiety. Which will we choose?

This article was written for Christian Newspaper Evangelicals Now, published in September issue 2020

What Just Happened?

As I’ve tried to process the weirdness of having to move much of life – and therefore church – online, I’ve been really struck by 2 John 11:

“I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

Christians have always had to compromise in the way we connect with one another. In Bible times, geographical separation was even more profound and so the apostles had to write letters if they wanted to connect with other believers. I find it so helpful the way John made use of the benefits of paper and ink, whilst longing for more. 

Lockdown has helped me to see afresh how essential it is to connect with others, even via ‘inferior’ methods of pen, paper, email and video conferencing, whilst longing for more. In this article I give six reasons why I’m grateful for the inferior methods of communication afforded online. And then a seventh – why I am longing for more!

  1. Church – where otherwise there would be none. I’ve been in so many conversations with church members about how hard zoom is, but let’s not overlook the fact that if this pandemic had happened even five years ago, any sort of service would have been almost impossible.
  • Accessiblity – A couple of weeks into lockdown, Jonty was able to preach to around 600 medical workers on one Zoom call. The accessibility and flexibility afforded by being online meant that many more on the frontline could be reached than would ever have been possible in a physical gathering.  
  • Inclusivity – My elderly neighbour was completely housebound prior to lockdown, so I had never entertained thoughts of getting her along to church. But church online has proved wonderfully inclusive as she has been able to tune in. Admittedly for the first ten weeks she was watching without sound, but since the speakers have been fixed, she’s been able to hear the gospel! 
  • Ease of recording – the recording feature has facilitated us recording online webinars, small group Bible studies for our shift workers to catch up on, not to mention interviews with missionaries, frontline workers and ordinary church members that have formed the backbone of the second half of our online services.
  • Easy to share – I will never forget my (not yet a believer) Dad telling me how he insisted that his neighbour should watch our church online. To which the neighbour responded, ‘I’m not the religious type.’ My Dad replied ‘oh you don’t need to be religious to watch it! Turns out church online is so easy to share that even unbelievers can do it!
  • Intentionality – Sermons have had a far deeper and more lasting impact on me throughout lockdown than ever before because of the intentionality that comes with a video call. We’ve always gathered after church over a meal, but I find it so hard to talk about much more than the weather. But when you’re online, plunged into a breakout room with a random group with the instruction ‘share and pray’, the entire conversation becomes much more intentional. I can honestly say I’ve thought way more deeply about the sermon and have derived so much benefit from having to articulate what I’ve learned – and so much encouragement in hearing others pray for me to put it into practice. 

But above all, the seventh reason I’m grateful for these inferior methods, is because now I can meet up with people again, I feel like I’m experiencing for the first time what John describes as the ‘complete joy’ of seeing other believers face to face! Where church had become a diary entry in my week, it’s become an event I anticipate with excitement. Where meeting other believers had become a way of life, now it is a source of joy. Where meals together had become a habit, now they are laced with the delight of sharing my newfound (lockdown-boredom-induced-baking) recipes with friends!

Train yourself for godliness

Experiences of the Covid-19 lockdown varied wildly, but as a mum of three with work outside the home, my lockdown consisted mainly in trying to do too many things at once. Eg. conducting a plastic survey of the local area (y7 Geography) whilst leading a Zoom discussion on chapter 5 of Calvin on Prayer with the Globe church ministry trainees. 

I praise God for the timely trip in February to visit my missionary brother in Central Asia. Taking part in their homeschool schedule (pinned up on the fridge door) for a week meant that on my return I was able to navigate a way out of the chaos through a complex system of timetables, calendars, lists, and rotas on my fridge door! Life became a military operation. 

Lockdown looked very different for others, furloughed with long days, free from all the usual business. Many in our church coped by throwing themselves into physical training schedules. Not all of us emerged from lockdown slimmer, fitter and more tanned than ever, but some did!

My 16 year old son had a series of exam timetables, revision timetables, revision guides, prompt cards, mind maps to help him pass him prepare for his GCSEs. Within a few days of lockdown, the timetables were torn down alongside any hope of a fair reflection of his abilities being recorded in his exam results. 

How do we make sense of such experiences?

God has helped me so much through just five words in 1 Timothy 4v7.

“train yourself for godliness” 

If I can navigate* my way through lockdown can you imagine the impact of employing even a fraction of that organisation to my godliness? (*I edited out the adjective ‘successfully’ from that statement. Let’s be honest. We survived. There was nothing even remotely successful about the fact I crawled out of lockdown a shadow of my former self!)

Timothy doesn’t just write train yourself for godliness, he contrasts it with physical training, which he says is of limited value. God has proved the limitations of the value of physical training beyond all argument! We don’t know what the future holds. Nothing is certain, not even academic exams.

But there is one thing we can invest in that will hold value eternally. One thing that will never be a waste of time:

“train yourself for godliness” 

One of the ways God has been training me to grow in godliness is through the discipline of Biblical meditation. When the Bible speaks of meditation it is not referring to breathing exercises, chanting mantra’s or adopting the lotus position. Biblical meditation is about storing God’s word in our hearts.

Storing is big business in Central Asia. I was astonished when I looked in my brother’s kitchen cupboards to find that he’d not just got a couple of kilner jars in there. He had preserved 36 jars of tomatoes during the summer months, so that when winter came, his family could still eat tomato pasta!

This principle of storing up is at the heart of meditation. We see this in Psalm 119 v 11 (ESV): “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” 

Notice how meditation is more than just storing up. It is storing up God’s word so that when we need it we can reach for it, find it right there on the shelf of our hearts and feed on it.

Many of us invest a lot of effort in training ourselves for various things – to cope with the chaos of life, to prepare for major life events, to keep ourselves fit and healthy. Have we ever considered filling our hearts with God’s word to keep ourselves spiritually fit and healthy? Training ourselves to be godly?

In my brother and sister in law’s house, that homeschool schedule was vastly outnumbered by the Bible verses pinned up around the house that were keeping them going through what is a very tough and barren landscape for a believer. 

My kids and I joined in their daily training regime while we stayed with them. I don’t remember much about Captain Cook’s travels that we covered in history. I can vaguely remember the different sources of energy we looked at in Science. But what has stuck with me and my kids, and holds value for eternity was the Russian memory verse we were learning whilst we were with them: нотыБогпрощение “With God is forgiveness” (from Psalm 130:4)

bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come

Are we training ourselves? In what? 10,000 steps a day is of some value. But godliness is of value in every way.

This article was originally written for the FIEC, August 2020

Letters from Lockdown

The Secret to Growing

I’m so similar to you, always looking life hacks! I’m not sure that there’s a shortcut to growing in our faith, but I do know that the Bible promises we will prosper as we meditate on God. Look at the beautiful description of the person who meditates, putting their roots down deep into God’s word:

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1 v 1-3)

Meditating on God’s word, we gradually begin to see our withering spiritual life revived, to the point even of bearing fruit and prospering.

In season

There’s two words here that really transform our understanding of what it means to prosper…in season. We want results now. Hence the life hacks. But just as we endure the winter to get to the promise of spring then the fullness of summer and harvest, so God leads us through winters in our soul. Lockdown has been winter for me, torn between teaching my kids, and working alongside Jonty to lead our church family. It’s been so busy and hard and it doesn’t feel like we’re prospering. But I need to keep putting my roots down into the truth because even when we can’t see God and what he’s doing, underneath the soil he is working. We will not wither if we stay rooted in Christ. In season there will be fruit. 

The secret to growing in our faith is that there’s no secret. We just keep on doing what we know we need to do, prayerfully opening Gods Word and meditating on him. In Christ we will be like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding its fruit in season. Keep going through the winter, knowing that the season of fruit will come.