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.

See the source image

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.

You are a work in progress (Psalm 143:10)

I’ve had a really busy few days. So busy that the contemplative evangelical side of my life has been squeezed to the sidelines. Let me be honest, there have been days when it hasn’t really happened. I’ve been tired. If I sit still for too long, I will fall asleep.

See the source imageThis morning I went to the opticians for my regular eye test. We started with some paperwork and conversation, and then I was introduced to the young lady who would do my eyesight test. She had a great manner. She seemed knowledgeable. She was thorough. The test took slightly longer than I had expected but hey – no problem.

At the end of the test she explained her results. My eyesight had slightly deteriorated, so my prescription had changed, but hey – no problem.
Then she said, ‘I just need to get my supervisor to check my findings.’ It was only then that I realised she was in training. She had dealt with me really well. I told her so. I wanted to encourage her. The supervisor came into the room and checked a couple of details with me and made some changes to my notes.

A little later, I went into one of my local coffee shops where I was welcomed by a lady wearing a tee shirt which was emblazoned with the words ‘trainee barista’. She gave great eye contact and she was appropriately friendly. There was a lady at her shoulder who was obviously training her, guiding her through the till and helping her make my drink. She produced a very good skinny latte (although there was no fancy shape in the milk foam). She was a little slow, but hey – no problem.
See the source imageBoth the optician and the barista were doing well. They both have stuff to learn. The optician had done a pretty good job, although I think that the supervisor noticed one or two areas which needed clarification. The barista did a good job, but in a few days, she’ll be presenting my caffe latte with a fern leaf motif in the milky foam. They both have stuff to learn.
And me. The contemplative evangelical who hasn’t been very contemplative at all for several days. As I sit here drinking my coffee I’ve been asking God what he was showing me through these two encounters. I pray quietly in my corner, enjoying the sounds of conversation and the tip-tapping of keyboards all around me. I am trying, after all, to get back to being a contemplative evangelical in a busy and fast moving world.

And that’s it. In that moment of quiet God reminded me of something really important, and really encouraging.

I sense a gentle voice pointing out one or two things which need to change so that I can follow Him better. I sense a gentle voice at my shoulder saying you’re doing ok, but remember to let me lead. You can’t do this on your own. We should be doing this together. Like the optician and the barista, you’re still learning. And by the way, you always will be.

I think he’s saying “I know the things you have done well and the things you should have done better. I know that you haven’t kept to your prayer schedule recently. I know that your time with me has been under pressure.” I sense that he is saying ‘Hey – no problem.’

Let’s move on.

‘Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.’ Psalm 143:10 (NRSV)

Richard Jackson is the Executive 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

Halloween

It’s that time of year again, and many of my Christian friends are grumbling. There are plenty of reasons for Christian’s to be uncomfortable about Halloween – although I’m not sure that most of us can explain why. I hear vague references to people opening themselves to the influence of evil. There is something about darkness which needs to be opposed. Trivialised meddling in some kind of dark arts.  Something about opening ourselves to dangerous forces which are more powerful than we expect. If true, these are genuine reasons to be concerned for our children. But is that really the case?

To most people, Halloween has little religious significance. In the UK, the Christian festival of All Hallows Eve is not really understood or widely celebrated. Some people point to a direct link to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, although in reality, the common understanding of that festival owes more to nineteenth century romanticism and fantasy than it does to genuine historical sources. Halloween, as it is developing today, owes much more to American commercialisation than it does to British or Celtic tradition. 

There are plenty of reasons for all normal people (Christians included) to be uncomfortable about some aspects of Halloween as it is increasingly practised. Manifestations of gruesome injuries can easily trivialise and mock genuine human suffering. Grotesque images of disability and deformity put forward as a source of fun are inexcusable. Using the season as an excuse for bad behaviour in our streets and doorsteps. Deliberate use of ‘Pennywise’ masks or any other articles to deliberately frighten people of any age. These things are unacceptable and need to be called out for what they are. At minimum, they are anti-social behaviour. They should not be condoned. They are unpleasant. They can be frightening. In some cases they border on criminal.  Halloween or not, no right minded person in our community should or would welcome the kind of behaviour which is selfish, and deliberately frightening, unpleasant and antisocial.

However, small children in fancy dress, enjoying the moment, interacting with neighbours and friends. Houses with gnarled and warty squashes or carved pumpkins on the doorstep or windowsill. People adorning their houses with ‘Do Not Enter’ tape or shabby representations of spiders webs. Young people and adults enjoying fancy dress parties. I abhor the wasteful use of single use plastics, but otherwise these things don’t seem to me to be inherently evil.

I’m not here to promote Halloween. I’d probably feel happier if it wasn’t a thing – but it is.  Love it or hate it, Halloween has become part of our culture and I wonder whether, whilst not necessarily joining in, we should somehow engage with it. Of course Churches who promote ‘light parties’ or other ‘alternatives’ to Halloween will argue that they are doing just that, but there can easily be a sense of being judgmental. Distancing ourselves from our neighbours who are just looking for a bit of fun. It can feel like papering over a crack or whitewashing a dodgy bit of wall.  I’m not convinced that we do ourselves any favours by trying to push back against a growing cultural phenomenon which is not going away any time soon, and is not particularly anti-religious or evil. I want us to engage in a much more positive way – looking for opportunity to get alongside our neighbours rather than berating them for reasons they don’t understand.

At the end of the day, I wonder whether a season which encourages people to engage with the concept of their own mortality might actually be fertile ground for the evangelical. Rather than simply bashing the season with well-intentioned but somewhat insubstantial arguments, perhaps we should be ready to meet it head on. Maybe we should be ready to talk about it. Maybe we should be looking for ways to encourage people to think it through. Life. Death. The supernatural. Maybe we should be ready to walk with them and encourage them to think about the big issues which are brought centre stage by Halloween.

Just a thought.  

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

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.

What did Jesus Look Like?

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in the 1970’s. One of the songs is attributed to Judas, who criticises Jesus for some of his decisions.

 ‘If you’d come today, you would have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.’[1]

The point being made is that if Jesus had been born in the 1970’s, he would have been able to use contemporary technologies (Photography, TV and radio) to reach a whole nation. If we follow that thought through, obviously, if he had been born today (2022) he would have had access to every kind of digital media which would have provided global coverage in an instant. Jesus, or at least some of His followers, would have been all over Tik Tok, Snapchat and worse. For better or worse, everything that Jesus said and did would have gone viral.

Personally, I think God got it right. There are lots of reasons why I’m particularly pleased that God chose to send His Son to Palestine when he did. I’m only going to mention one.

Let’s face it, Jesus went viral – remains viral – in spite of what we regard as the lack of technology available in 1st Century Palestine. That would mean that we would all know exactly what he looked like. And that would have caused all kinds of problems. So much of our cultural baggage would get in the way that we would struggle to get the message at all.

     1st Century Galilean Man – See Footnote below

I really celebrate the fact that we have absolutely no idea what Jesus looked like. Of course that hasn’t stopped generations of artists producing pictures and sculptures of him, but the one thing we can say with confidence is that they’re all flawed. Jesus did not look like any of them Forget the idolised Victorian images with which many of us grew up. And He certainly did not look like the enigmatic face which stares out from the Turin shroud.

Preachers sometimes invite us to wonder about our reaction if Jesus knocked on the door of our home or walked in to our Church. I imagine that part of our reaction might be that he didn’t look anything like we expected.

Of course the importance of Jesus is not what he looked like. It’s who He was. He was a divisive figure. It was his character, his confidence, his lifestyle, his teaching, his power, and his presence which caused ripples of love and fear in his own society, and which continue to do so throughout the world today.

Jesus was a fulfilment of prophecy. One of which was, ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ (Isaiah 53:2)

There were no cameras around to record what this incredible, world changing man looked like. I think that was part of God’s plan.

Jesus was someone who could be trusted. He was a man of compassion. He was a man who offered direction and inspired hope. These are the qualities which encouraged people to follow him. These are the qualities which have inspired generations of people to follow Him. These are the qualities which lead 2.38 billion people worldwide follow Him today.

 (Footnote: In 2001 forensic anthropologist Richard Neave created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, Son of God, working on the basis of an actual skull found in the region. He did not claim it was Jesus’s face. It was simply meant to prompt people to consider Jesus as being a man of his time and place, (What did Jesus really look like? – BBC News))

[1] Jesus Christ Superstar Original Studio Cast – Superstar Lyrics | Genius Lyrics

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

Follower of Jesus (Part 2)

When I speak at a conference or workshop, I normally introduce myself as a ‘Follower of Jesus’. I recently wrote a blog post (Follower of Jesus (Part 1)) about what that phrase means. For me, a follower of Jesus is someone who makes a decision to live their life differently, with Jesus as the focus and purpose of their life.

In the blog post I made the point that following Jesus is a daily decision. I try to make that decision each day before getting out of bed. ‘Today,’ is my prayer, ‘I choose to follow you.’ But following Jesus is much more than that.

When I was at school I was a bit of a day-dreamer. I found it hard to concentrate in the classroom. There was always somewhere else I would have preferred to be. Something else I wanted to be doing.

Nowadays, as a Christian, I try to live my life in Communion with Christ. I want him to be part of everything – of my whole life. That might sound like a rather grand claim, but it’s actually true. I’m not saying I’m good at it. I’m really not. I am a work in progress. Part of me is still the day-dreamer – I’m easily distracted. I’m just saying that the desire to be in that relationship with God is part of who I am. It’s about actively trying to put Him at the centre of my life. All of my life. I want him to be part of my decision making. I want him to be part of my relationship with my wife, my children, my family, my friends, my neighbours and everyone else. I want him to be part of who I am.

Pope Francis wrote a homily about the centrality of Christ in all things.

‘Christ is at the centre, Christ is the centre[1]

Keeping Him in the centre doesn’t just happen. In every relationship there is more than one person. In my relationship with God, there’s Him, and there’s me. The day dreamer. One of the great themes of Scripture is the call to ‘return to God’[2]. Again and again He calls Israel to return to Him. The point being, God hasn’t moved at all. His people have moved away from Him. He calls them – he calls us, to return. The Apostle James says to us all:

‘Draw close to God, and He will draw close to you.’ (James 4:8)

I have this sense that each day, I start with the best of intention of following Jesus, of being close to him, of serving him, of loving Him with all my heart and soul and mind and strength[3]. Yet most days, there are things which tend to pull me slightly off target. Maybe something makes me angry. Perhaps I notice something which I want but haven’t got. I suddenly feel that something or someone lets me down. I find myself dwelling on something from the past for which I have been forgiven or for which I thought I had forgiven someone else. Sometimes I just find I’ve been day-dreaming in an unhelpful direction. These things just happen – they edge us away from where I want to be – in the presence of God.

The good thing is that the love of God is greater than I can describe. His compassion is endless and his forgiveness is eternal. Like the day dreaming student I find myself missing the point. I can miss the opportunities to serve. I can miss the prompt. I can fail to notice His intervention or provision. I fall short.  

Each time I acknowledge that I have fallen short, he welcomes me back. Like the teacher who smiles at the day dreaming student and encourages them back into the path of learning. Everyone falls short. Let’s move on. Follow me.

So, I learn, day by day is not enough. Hour by hour, incident by incident, I have to consciously put God back in the space where He belongs. At the centre. That’s the context of my life and my ministry. That’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

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

[1] Pope Francis Homilies – Christ the King

[2] Eg Malachi 3:7

[3] Mark 12:30