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

A verse for challenging times

Like many others who have gone before us, we are living in challenging times. When times are difficult, it’s important to have something to hold on to. 

It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.    (Deuteronomy 31:8, NIV)

Richard Jackson is the Director of LifePicture UK. He is exploring what it is like to live as a contemplative evangelical.

God is bigger than all this!

A couple of weeks ago I went to a meeting with other leaders in my town. There were representatives of the local Council, leaders of charities, and several Church leaders, all of us dependent on the voluntary sector to deliver our services. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the cost of living crisis which is already biting hard. We were there to look for opportunities for collaboration. We were there to encourage and inspire each other.

The story was neither encouraging or inspirational. People struggling to pay their bills. Deep anxiety about increasing rent and mortgage rates. People using foodbanks who never thought they would need that kind of help. People getting into unmanageable debt. Local services stretched beyond their capability to deliver. Charities trying to stand in the gap but facing huge financial challenge. Compassion fatigue amongst volunteers. The clear expectation that this crisis will deepen and last for three to five years. It was a bleak picture.

At the end of the meeting, I spoke to Martin, a Christian colleague who has huge experience and leads an important local charity. He sensed that the meeting had left me feeling challenged and even depressed by the outlook.

‘Never forget,’ he said,’ that we have a God who is good, and is much bigger than all of this.’

These are difficult days. I needed that reminder. Maybe you do too.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”        Psalm 20: 7 (NIV)

Richard Jackson is the Director of LifePicture UK. He is exploring what it is like to live as a contemplative evangelical.

God looks at your heart

One weekend, a children’s worker called Trevor was leading some children’s work at the Conference Centre where I was working. He was encouraging the young people to explore their relationship with God. He wanted them to realise that God knew them, and valued them as His people. He wanted them to understand that their age was no barrier to their faith. God knows and loves them. He sees their heart. Too often, we overlook the gifts and the faith of children. Too often we don’t notice, and therefore don’t celebrate His Holy Spirit working through a child.

Trevor led the group through the story of Samuel, at the point when he is sent by God to visit Jesse. God had told Samuel that he was to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new King of Israel. The first son, Eliab, is a fine, strong young man.  “Surely,” says Samuel, “his anointed is now before the Lord.” God says no. He also rejects all of the sons who follow. Surely, says Samuel, there must be another? Young David is not even presented to Samuel. He is assumed to be too young. Too insignificant. Whilst the brothers are part of the feast, David is out in the fields. He’s working. He’s looking after the sheep.

‘ “Send and bring him, for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.’

1 Samuel 16:11-13

The key point is this. We look at each other and we make judgments about each other. Our judgments are made on the basis of superficial impressions. We notice things like people’s anxiety, their behaviour, their attitude, their dress style, even their age, and we sub consciously make judgments about them. The message is that God is different. God looks past the visible exterior of our appearance, our gender, our skin colour, our age.

‘The Lord does not see as men see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’

1 Samuel 16:7

In order to make the point to the young people, Trevor and his team wrote out a short sentence on lots of pieces of paper and gave a copy to each child. At the end of the session, the children put their copy of the note in their Bible and went home.

The following morning, I was having a bad day. I felt that God was moving me on from my role as Director of the Christian charity where I had worked for nine years. I wasn’t ready or able to retire. Yet I couldn’t see the next step. I felt useless. I felt discouraged. I felt old.

I walked into the conference room in which the teaching had taken place. There on the floor was a folded piece of paper. I picked it up and read the note which had been intended for one of the children.

‘God looks at your heart, not your age.’

Powerful words. Words intended for a child. I was nearly 60. They were every bit as powerful to me.

Richard Jackson is the Director of LifePicture UK. He is exploring what it is like to live as a contemplative evangelical.

‘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.