Anticipating Advent

So. Advent is upon us. Time to get to grips with planning for Christmas.

A couple of years ago, I asked a friend whether he might have time to meet for up a drink before Christmas. He checked his diary. It looked good, but before committing be needed to check the family spreadsheet. In his family, the advent period was so busy that the diary was not enough. The pressure of children’s parties, shopping, cooking, cakemaking, social engagements, decorating, wrapping of presents, visits to the pantomime and so much more meant that a diary was not enough. The definitive plan was in a spreadsheet.

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As a family, we had several Advents when a spreadsheet might have been a good thing. Especially when we were both working flat out and had three teenagers to keep track of. After all, this is supposed to be the time when we look forward to the coming of Christ – but we just get so busy that it becomes a period where we are blinded by the endless pressures and distractions which sap our energy and obscure the real meaning of the season. We are pushed and pulled in so many directions that we struggle to see the way ahead without the support of specialist Advent software.  

We need to pause and take a deep breath. We’re missing the point of Advent.

Advent is about the coming of Christ, but it’s about more than the coming of the Christ Child. For generations, it has been a season when we also look forward to the return of the Messiah. The Second Coming of Christ. The coming of the Christ as a human baby and the return of the Messiah are absolutely central to our faith. At some point in this busy season we really should be finding time to think about what Advent actually means. We should find time to reflect on the importance of Immanuel for us. We really must find time to slow down so that we can pause long enough to glimpse the majesty, power and glory of Christ in this hugely important season. We really should find that moment to be still. Maybe a spreadsheet would help? 

Anyway. Christmas is coming and there’s so much to do. We really both need to get on. 

Richard Jackson is the Director of LifePictureUK. He is exploring life as a contemplative evangelical.

Deconstruction in Action

The contemplative path encourages you to look at yourself. I feel that God is taking me gently through a process of deconstruction.

I am going through some interesting times. I am experiencing unexpected moments of stillness, often in the middle of the night, when I find myself aware of His presence. In these moments I am reminded of things long passed. Things which I did, or was involved in, but have been long forgotten. It’s as though God is gently and graciously bringing things to mind with incredible clarity and walking me through them. 

These aren’t flashbacks. They’re not dreams. They’re gentle replaying of circumstances in such a way as if I am looking at them from a different angle. These are moments when the sense of His presence is strong. 

Some of them are things I would rather not remember.  Moments of poor judgment. Moments of selfishness. Moments of shame. Moments when I allowed myself to be influenced by others. Moments when I have no-one else to blame.  Moments from childhood, adolescence, adulthood. They are not all moments of explicit sinfulness, although some of them definitely are. Others are moments of simple carelessness, thoughtlessness, even stupidity, which passed without me recognising the gravity of potential outcomes of my thoughts or actions. Moments of carelessness when I didn’t consider the potential impact of my actions on others or on myself. Some are just moments when things went right, when they probably shouldn’t have done.

They seem to be moments when, were it not for the abundant Grace of God, things might have gone wrong. Very wrong. The kind of wrong which could have been life changing. Career limiting. Marriage challenging. Relationship breaking.

All of these things surprise me, because I had forgotten them. Some of them shock me. Some disappoint me. Some seemed trivial at the time, although suddenly I can see their potential impact.

As I pass through these stages of deconstruction, I feel incredibly mixed emotions. It is as if I am dealing with something important which I never knew was there. It feels good to have noticed these moments from the past, and to lay them before Jesus with a heart of repentance and thankfulness.

It’s as if God is reminding me of these moments and showing me how different things might have been if it were not for Him. It’s as if he is showing me that at that moment of potential crisis, He was there. Showing me how much His hand has been on me.

It’s as if He is pointing out that He has been watching over me. Looking over my going out and my coming in. Until he pointed these things out, I’m not sure that I’d noticed.

For many years I had a very special friend who was a great Christian. He worked most of his life as a bus driver. His prayers always started with the words ‘We have so much to be grateful for.’

He wasn’t wrong.

Richard Jackson is the Director of LifePicture UK. He is exploring life as a Contemplative Evanmgeligal

‘Do you really care?’

In Psalm 8, the poet contemplates the uncountable stars which fill the skies and is overwhelmed by their beauty and magnificence. In the face of all this, he cries out to God, ‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them.’ (v4) In effect, he’s saying to the creator of the vast universe, in the midst of all this, how could you know, let alone care, that I exist.

You may have felt a bit like that, because of course, it doesn’t always feel as if God does notice us, let alone care about the problems we are facing. As we move through the tougher challenges of life God can often feel remote and uncaring. ‘Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?’ (Psalm 10:1). Yet Psalm 8 is in reality a poem of optimism and confidence. The Psalmist recognises that God does both know and care about mankind. Men and women are ‘crowned with glory and honour,‘ (v5). Even Psalm 10 tells us that  even in those times of trouble, God is there and does care about what’s going on in your life? ‘You, LORD, hear the desire of the afflicted, you encourage them and you listen to their cry.’ (Psalm 10:17).

In the midst of our very real struggles, we may feel that God is far away, but the message of Scripture, the promise of Scripture, is that he is always there, closer than you could ever imagine. For me, the contemplative path is simply exploring ways of experiencing that closeness. Experiencing the presence of God. Don’t expect a scientific explanation of how it works. Don’t expect irrefutable ‘proof’ that the God of creation has any kind of relationship with His people. It simply isn’t there. But step out on the path of spirituality and you will quickly learn that there is much which is beyond our understanding. It is that very lack of explanation and understanding which means that we need faith. ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ (Hebrews 11:1). Step out in faith on this ancient path, and you will recognise that God is there, in every corner of His ongoing creation, within you, around you and interested in every detail of your life.

Richard Jackson is the former Executive Director of Family Foundations Trust and is an international coach with CCI Worldwide. He is working out what it might mean to be a contemplative evangelical. 

Let me know myself and know you

Contemplation is about seeking to be still in the presence of God. It is about allowing yourself to recognise the presence of the Living Jesus within and beyond yourself. 

It’s about being still. It’s about opening yourself before God. It’s about finding the space to fix your eyes, your ears and your mind on Him.

And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. 

Hebrews 12:1-2 (NLT)

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.

Psalm 37:1 (NLT)

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!

Isaiah 26:3 (NLT)

“Lord Jesus, let me know myself and know You,
And desire nothing save only You.”

St Augustine of Hippo

 

Richard Jackson is the former Executive Director of Christian charity Family Foundations Trust, and an international coach for CCI Worldwide

Freedom of going with the flow: 2 Corinthians 3:17

Georges Simenon is not a widely quoted writer, either by contemplatives or evangelicals. He was a prolific author of the 20th Century, producing nearly 500 novels during his lifetime. He is unquestionably best known for his series of Maigret novels, although many of his other books are of far greater literary quality. Simenon was not a Christian, but he was a true observer of life and a great storyteller.

I love reading, and at least half an hour of most days is spent reading a novel. This week I have been reading ‘Maigret in New York’, and I came across something which resonated with me. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Maigret is a French detective. In this particular book he is pursuing a case in New York (the clue was in the title) and defending his methods to an FBI agent. Whilst the aim of both is to catch and convict criminals, the FBI agent is a man who bases his investigation on assumptions, whilst Maigret claims to rely exclusively on the evidence. His principle is to avoid making assumptions about any case, until the evidence proves the guilt or innocence of the suspect.

‘I’m at sea, Lieutenant,’ said Maigret, ‘We probably both are. Except that you, you fight the waves, you mean to go in a definite direction, whereas I let myself drift with the current, clutching here and there on a passing branch.’ (Maigret in New York, 1947, p112)

What has this to do with our conversations about the contemplative evangelical?

It is so very easy to be dogmatic about what we believe. We decide something about our faith, probably because someone has told us something or we read it in a book, and we strive to hold on to it. Our understanding of sin, forgiveness, salvation, atonement, trinity, or whatever. Our view becomes fact for us, and we will not allow anything or anyone to deflect us from our view. We so easily become entrenched in a concept, without ever really questioning or challenging it. We don’t stop to weigh it, to test it, to see whether it is actually the truth. Our energy and enthusiasm can easily become sapped as we ‘fight the waves’ because of our determination to hold on to some small detail of our belief.

Rather than tiring ourselves out fighting the tide and waves to hold on desperately to something which seems important to us, what if we were to surrender to the current. What if we were to allow ourselves to drift in the flow of the Holy Spirit? What if we were to allow our spirit the freedom which is offered by the presence of the Holy Spirit?

As a contemplative, I read Scripture. I practice Lectio Divina. I pray. I lay down in silence. I yearn for something deeper in the stillness. I seek His presence as I try to allow my Spirit to flow with the Holy Spirit.

As an evangelical, I read Scripture, I try to apply the teaching of Jesus to my life. I pray. I worship. I seek the Holy Spirit. I want to be joyful, to dance before God as I go into the world where he has placed me to share His love and tell others about Him, confident that His Holy Spirit goes with me and before me.

For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

 2 Corinthians 3:17 (NLT)

For me, faith is about moving in the flow of the Holy Spirit. Just now and then, it’s good to grab on to a branch and take stock, to see where the Spirit has taken me, and to be thankful.

I am a contemplative evangelical.

Richard Jackson is the Director of LifePicture UK and former Executive Director of Christian charity Family Foundations Trust Ltd 

Be still, then move on.

For me, silent prayer is only ever the first step. It is an essential act of preparation. The second step is taking our experience in that silence of the Living Presence of God into our active life. If our actions and words do not come from the right place, they are worse than useless.

“The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within. Words which do not give the Light of Christ increase the darkness.”

Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Following the right path…

There is a point in Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress where the intrepid Christian finds himself at a crossroads. To the left and to the right there are relatively comfortable looking paths. Straight ahead is a challenging climb up a hill. There is a decision to be made. His companions decide that the paths to left and right will probably lead round the hill, rejoining the main path further on. One takes the path to the left, which leads into a great wood and on into Danger. The second takes the path to the right, which passes through a wide field, and leads to Destruction. His companions are never seen again. Christian makes his decision and follows straight ahead. The straight path, the right path, is the hardest. (Pilgrims Progress, Chapter 3 (p.39))

Jeremiah 6:16 says ‘Stand at the crossroads and look. Ask where the ancient path is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’

We constantly face decisions which impact on our lives. Sometimes we make the right decision. Often we look back and wonder whether, if we had decided differently, we might have found rest for our souls!

The ancient paths in which we are to walk are those which were established long ago and lead us on towards the Kingdom of God. Whilst they are not always the easy option, they should be well worn and clear, but the clutter and pressures of our lives make them difficult to see, and the complexity of our world means that there are many alternative paths available.  We need help if we are truly to discover the paths God has laid out for us.

We need to be people of prayer. Prayer at the beginning of the day. Prayer at the end of the day. Prayer at various other points during the day. Not just rushed, mumbled liturgy. Rather thoughtful, open, warts and all, heart and soul prayer. Prayer which speaks, but prayer which listens. Contemplative prayer. For that, we need to stop. We need to be still.

And of course we are not called just to sit still. We need walk out into the world where He has placed us, with our eyes open. Ready to serve in any way we can. Ready to show the love of Christ to all those with whom we come into contact. Ready to learn. Ready to listen. Ready to share the love of Jesus. Evangelical readiness. For that we need to get going.

Someone once asked Mother Theresa to pray that God would show them how they should be spending their life. If God showed you all that, she replied, you would not depend on Him. I will pray that he shows you where you should direct your steps today.

Next time you are at a crossroads, or an alternative ‘easy’ path attracts your eye, be still. Take time to reflect and listen. Be contemplative. As your confidence in Christ is restored, get ready. Be evangelical. GO!

Richard Jackson is the Executive Director of LifePicture UK and former Executive Director of Family Foundations Trust

The Contemplative Evangelical

During a recent job application process, I described myself as a contemplative evangelical. My use of the term was intentional, rather than spontaneous. I felt that it described where I am in my walk with Christ. Labels are always dangerous and can lead to misunderstanding, so naturally, I was invited to explain what I meant.

I got the job, but as I’ve continued to use the label, I’ve found that it attracts some interesting responses.

It seems that for a lot of people, the idea of being both an evangelical and at the same time contemplative is problematic. Some people regard the two labels are mutually exclusive. I’m convinced that they complement each other perfectly.

As an evangelical, I define myself as a Christian who is committed to following Jesus.  I believe that the Bible is the Word of God, that Christ is the Son of God, His love is infinite and transformational, and that he is my personal saviour. Following is an active verb. Christ told us to ‘Go.. ‘ I believe that I should accept the responsibility to actively live out my faith in every area of my life. Evangelicals, in the contemporary sense, like to see themselves as active.  They like to see themselves as being out there, doing stuff for Jesus.

As a contemplative, I believe that following Jesus involves drawing closer to God. It involves experiencing His presence.  I believe that through exploring the contemplative path, I learn more about what it means to live in Christ, and what it means for Him to live in me. I believe that as a Christian I need to accept the challenge to experience Him in every area of my life.  It involves silence, meditation and contemplation. The contemplative state implies taking time to be inactive.

So, as a starter for ten, therein lies part of the problem for some people. The contrast between the ‘inactive’ stillness of the contemplative and the constantly ‘active’ mindset of the evangelical is too much for some.

There’s much more to this, but there’s genuinely a tension here. I am looking forward to exploring it more in the weeks to come.

Richard Jackson is the Executive Director of LifePicture UK and former Executive Director of Family Foundations Trust