Competitiveness

When I was at school, I heard one of my classmates say he had eighteen albums by the rock group Queen. From then on, my goal was to collect nineteen or more. Have you thought where it comes from – this desire to outdo somebody else? It’s not just about the number of CDs we happen to own; it can be anything. We see someone with a gift of hospitality, and suddenly we want to plunge into home-baking.

“When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12). The wise way to live is not to compete, but to appreciate one another’s giftings. Paul writes to the church at Ephesus about this very thing: That Christ is the Head, and we as His body depend on Him (Ephesians 4:15-16). As each part does its share, the body becomes stronger, so when we see someone living the life they’ve been called to, let’s encourage and build each other up. That’s how it’s meant to be in God’s kingdom.

Marriage

If you want the positive spin on marriage, “Your Marriage Masterpiece” would be a good place to turn. Bethany House sent me a free review copy. Having read books on the subject previously, I wasn’t sure whether this would be anything new to me, but it certainly was.

Al does an amazing job of taking personal anecdotes and stories from the Bible, even some you wouldn’t expect to find in a book like this, and looking at them in the context of God’s marriage to His people. I have seen Christian titles with separate study guides, but this has one included at the end (great value for money). I also loved the bibliography. It made me wonder if I should start an Amazon list just for books on marriage!

I would recommend this excellent read to anyone who appreciates writing and storytelling, whether married or single.

April Alerts

I’m linking with Emily Freeman, as she and others share what they’ve learnt in April.

Book: A double whammy this time because Annie Downs’ “Looking for Lovely” came out on 5 April, but on her podcast (the best episode yet, by the way), she said it was part 2 of her story. Some great marketing there because I then had to pick up its predecessor, “Let’s all be Brave” (which I’d been meaning to read for a couple of years). I’m so glad I did. Its timing in my life was just right and I absolutely loved it. The new one took longer to get into and I gave it a lower rating on Goodreads, but only because it digs deeper and the beginning felt a bit heavy. I still enjoyed it overall, particularly the chapter about the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Watch: On Easter Sunday, I stumbled across the first in a series on the Salvation Army, and I’m really enjoying it. Who knew that comedian Paul O’Grady used to be a care-worker? He really is great with people. Christians don’t always get a good press on the BBC, but “The Sally Army and Me” is respectful, combining the outworking of their faith with Paul’s quirky sense of humour. Light-hearted and easy to watch, the last episode airs on Sunday.

Song: I went to a Stuart Townend concert this month with some of my favourite people, and the chorus of this song seems to have stuck.

Bible-Verse: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15) – the idea that instead of striving, we can put quiet confidence in God for our deliverance. I like that.

Blog-Post: Are you someone who’s convinced a church should be a certain size? Perhaps you’ll appreciate my friend Becky’s post, “Big Church Versus Small Church”. A pastor’s wife from New York, she makes her points well.

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If you’re new here, I hope you’ll stay. I’m reviewing a book by Matt and Beth Redman at the moment, and I’ll look forward to sharing that with you next month. Thanks for reading.

Big Disappointment: “Becoming a Disciple-Making Church” Book-Review

I was pleased to receive a free copy of this from Bethany House because the title makes you think it’ll be an encouraging look into helping people grow as Christians. The reason I chose it was because some people I know have done Neil Anderson’s Freedom in Christ course and enjoyed it.

The book deals with overcoming various aspects of life that could be barriers between you and God: Anxiety disorders, depression, addictions, etc, but the author comes across as lacking in compassion. He writes that we must give the gospel with compassion, yet some of his other statements contradict this. For example, he says: “Spirit-filled Christians have found their sanctuary in Christ”, implying that anyone who struggles with fear isn’t filled with the Spirit. The truth is, we all struggle with sin, otherwise John wouldn’t have needed to write: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Neil also says confession is the first step to repentance, but doing this alone will not bring resolution – again, a contradiction of John’s words in the Bible: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). John says confession is our part in repentance; then it’s God who does the purifying.

Neil would have us believe the key to overcoming depression is commitment, but when a person’s deep into depression, they lack energy and the thought of committing to anything long-term is overwhelming. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two here from the friends who lowered a paralysed man through a hole in the roof to see Jesus. The man himself was in no position to act, but their faith and action got results. If you’re a friend of someone who’s struggling and overwhelmed, perhaps you could be the one to commit to helping them.

It really comes down to what you believe about depression – whether you regard it as a sin, or an illness. I personally believe certain sinful behaviours may cause depression (unforgiveness, anger etc), but when a person reaches the depression stage, then I believe they’re ill and need help to recover. There is certainly hope for recovery, and I’m all for including God in that. Paul writes about us being transformed by the renewing of our minds, but Neil’s pronouncements that: “A victim is only a victim by choice” or “We need to be health-oriented, not illness-oriented” seem very critical. If someone broke their arm, their brain would focus on the pain of that broken arm. That wouldn’t be the fault of the person whose arm was broken. If physical problems are accepted in this way, why should someone with a mental illness be condemned? There are, of course, strategies we can use to overcome depression and Neil highlights some of these. We do have to take thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, E.G. rather than focus on feelings of inadequacy, we can dwell on who God is and the strengths He’s given us. We should stay connected to the important people in our lives, and I’ve always liked what Jarrod Cooper says: “God’s Word will fix you.” Psalm 107:20 talks about God sending His Word and healing.

I realise Neil Anderson has ministered for a number of years, and this is the culmination of his life’s work, but even some of the testimonies in the book don’t sit right. He talks about an unmarried woman in a sexual relationship. At the start of his time with her, he asked: “What would you do if I said you shouldn’t see the man again?” She answered, then he heard her story and they prayed together. Afterwards she said: “I’m never going to see that man again”. Neil says that conviction came from God, but did it? Don’t get me wrong; it may well have done, but it could also be that having been confronted previously, she made the statement because she felt it was expected of her. For the sake of all those who’ve been ministered to by Neil, I hope my opinion of him is wrong.

“Becoming a Disciple-Making Church” has the potential to put people off Christianity. I’ve found books like “Give Yourself a Break”, “You’re Already Amazing”, and even the secular book I’m reading at the moment on overcoming anxiety, to be far more beneficial.

Restoration is ACE

I said I’d write about my word for 2016, and this week, Bonnie started her OneWordCoffee series. Similar to OneWordAdvent, it’s an opportunity to focus on a one-word prompt each week, and how that word might be speaking to us. She asked on Wednesday: “What’s your one word for 2016?” so:

Restoration.

There’s room for improvement in some areas of my life, but rather than having one big lofty goal that’s maybe a bit vague, it’s helpful to break it down into more manageable chunks. So, restoration is ACE.

Activity: A lot of the voluntary work I now do is done from home – typing, book-reviewing etc. As a blind person, it is much easier in familiar surroundings, but I would like to do more outside the house, so I’m trying to organise something different at least once a month.

Community: I have some lovely community around me – the Open the Book team I go into schools with, my friend Chris’s fortnightly Bible-study group, and the family and friends who live nearby. I’m very aware that God tells us not to give up meeting together. Some use this verse to put the case for weekly church-attendance. It actually ends with a plea for Christians to encourage one another more and more as we see the second-coming of Christ approaching. That could be every week or every day, face-to-face or online. Having said that, I’ve attended meetings where we’ve had some very special worship-times and God’s presence was tangible, so I wouldn’t discount church. Depending on the condition of people’s hearts, it can be a place that really equips you to go deeper in your walk with the Lord. I find it difficult in my current church. With such a large congregation, there are so many I don’t know well and don’t feel connected with. We’re in the process of getting a new building (they’ve knocked down the previous one and are expanding). I haven’t been much while we’ve been off-site, but perhaps in the new building with more space to move around, it’ll be easier. I’m looking forward to getting back there regularly. I know it takes about a month to formulate a habit, so perhaps after a month in the new building, I’ll take stock and see if it’s working for me.

Exercise: If you’ve read this blog for a while, you might remember I wrote a few years ago about adjusting to a change in my finances. The UK-government brought in a law that if you were single and between 25 and 34, you were only entitled to the shared rate of Housing Benefit, even if it was a one-bedroom flat you lived in. I saved money by stopping my twice-weekly trips to the gym, but I definitely don’t feel as good as I did when I used to go. Well, now I’m 35! So I’ve come through that season, and I think it’s time to join a gym again. I want to get this sorted by the end of January.

“Turn your ear to My words … for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body” (Proverbs 4:20, 22). To me, physical health is important, but without God’s strength, I wouldn’t have any health at all. I aim to keep up my physical and my spiritual health in 2016. I’ve started reading the Bible in a year again, this time with the help of Victory Church. You can sign up to get an Email in your inbox with the day’s Bible-reading and a short devotional on one aspect of it, to make you think. I’m enjoying them so far.

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I don’t often pray on the blog, but I liked how Bonnie ended her post with a one-word prayer. Pray this with me if you want God to do a work of restoration in your life:

Father God, thank You that You’re the One who can restore our souls. Please restore all that You need to in 2016, so I can be a good steward of the body and mind You’ve given me. Please carry out Your plan for my life. In Jesus’ name, amen.

The Blind Pleading the Blind: Inclusivity

Some have the idea that blind people will always be the recipients, rather than the givers. One thing I appreciate about where I live is how inclusive people are. Using my church as an example, when someone goes into church, the bulletin for that week is on a piece of paper on their chair. However, it’s also offered by Email. The Email is sent a couple of days prior so that when I go into the service, I’m as informed as everyone else. There is a little bit of room for improvement here because if a blind person went in who wasn’t a member, and they didn’t have their Email address, they couldn’t then access the bulletin. Perhaps one of the people on the door could sit with them before the meeting and read it to them.

When the meeting starts, there’s a time of singing, which is fine if you know the songs, but if an unfamiliar song is up on a screen and you can’t see it, you’re stuck. Worship for All helps churches provide material in large print or Braille, but if you’re in a church where it’s very spontaneous, the worship-leader might not know what the next song is themselves until it comes into their head and they start playing it. As a blind person myself, I wouldn’t want to take away from the flow of a service, I.E. “We must have this song next because it’s the one Sarah’s got in Braille.” I’d hate that, so how to get around this problem? I have had people offer to read the words. While I appreciate this, I’ve always felt it takes away from their worship-experience. If you’re reading a line out-loud, then trying to sing it, what time have you got left to focus on God and how He might be speaking to your heart? What I found really helped when I first started going to a church was, they gave me the songs on a computer-disc (we still had floppy discs back then), but churches could also do this by Email. I could learn the songs at my own pace and, as I got to know them, participate in worship the same as everyone else. Having been on the worship-team at church, when we’ve had new songs to learn, my pastor has Emailed us the lyrics beforehand with a YouTube link to the song. Fantastic idea! And if there’s a blind person in your congregation who’s not on the worship-team, you might want to include them in those Emails too.

Sometimes, people will show a DVD/YouTube video during a sermon. Very often, these videos will be music with pictures on the screen to illustrate a point. I appreciate it more than words can say when someone plonks themselves in the chair next to mine and whispers to me what’s going on. It can be hard to hear them sometimes over the music, but it makes me feel like part of a church-family. If a blind person is new to the church, it might be helpful for the preacher to approach them beforehand, say they’re showing a video, and give them some idea what it’s going to be about. If you’ve got a TV in your house, some programmes will be audio-described. Why not put the audio-description on for a programme or two, to get a flavour of the sorts of things blind people might miss out on?

It’s definitely possible, both at church on Sundays and during the week, for me to give as well as receive. Thanks to the speech software on my computer, I can type. With Voiceover and the Kindle app on my phone, I can review books. Thanks to my Braille Bible, I participate at Bible-studies. Thanks to RNIB’s transcription service, I can go into school assemblies with a Braille copy of the story we’re acting out. I think this needs applauding.

31 Jesus-Benefits: Christmas!

Today I want to focus on something I’ve had a new appreciation of since being a Christian, and it’ll soon be here again:

Christmas!

The carol encourages us (whilst taking in the snow outside) to see in our mind’s eye Jesus, born for us here on earth. “Lo, within a manger lies ~ He who built the starry skies”! The meaning of Christmas, its very centre, is Jesus coming into the world as a tiny, helpless baby.

I remember 2001, going to church on Christmas Day. I loved it! My pastor asked us what time we got up, and someone (an adult, not a child) got up at five fifteen! Me and him were going through the same thing – our first Christmas with a church-family. Being around other believers on such an important day still holds a specialness for me.

“While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to have the baby, and she gave birth to her first son. Because there were no rooms left in the inn, she wrapped the baby with pieces of cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough” (Luke 2:6-7).

31 Jesus-Benefits: Truthful Pastors

“So each of us will have to answer to God” (Romans 14:12).

Day 9 of Write31Days, and I’m glad I can choose to attend a church where there’s:

A pastor who says what I need to hear.

I was told years ago that if we weren’t challenged, we wouldn’t grow. I’ve always remembered that, and it’s helped me to stick with the church. Because when your pastor preaches and it touches a raw nerve, it’s tempting to do the spiritual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears! Well, that temptation’s been around for thousands of years. God even addressed it through His spokesman Isaiah:

“These people are like children who lie and refuse to obey; they refuse to listen to the LORD’s teachings. They tell the seers, ‘Don’t see any more visions!’ They say to the prophets, ‘Don’t tell us the truth! Say things that will make us feel good; see only good things for us. Stop blocking our path. Get out of our way. Stop telling us about God, the Holy One of Israel’.

“So this is what the Holy One of Israel says: ‘You people have refused to accept this message and have depended on cruelty and lies to help you. You are guilty of these things. So you will be like a high wall with cracks in it that falls suddenly and breaks into small pieces. You will be like a clay jar that breaks, smashed into many pieces. Those pieces will be too small to take coals from the fire or to get water from a well.’ This is what the LORD GOD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘If you come back to Me and trust Me, you will be saved’” (Isaiah 30:9-15).

Sobering, isn’t it? Do you really want to hear only what makes you feel good? Wouldn’t you rather have the odd sleepless night now than get to the end of your life and realise there were things you should have paid attention to? Let’s appreciate those pastors who preach truth, even when it doesn’t sit easily. God can use their words to make us more like Jesus.

Very Like a House Group: “The Beauty of Grace” Book-Review

Imagine for a minute that friends from all over the globe have gathered in your lounge (there probably aren’t enough chairs). There’s Joy Forney, the one who lives in Uganda; Annie Downs, who turns 35 this year (like me) and lives in Nashville; Kristen Strong, whose daughter’s accident gives her authority to write on sacrifice; Maggie Whitley, who’s focused on Compassion; Emily Freeman, author of “A Million Little Ways” and more; Holley Gerth, the one you feel like telling all your problems to, to name a few. You’ve handed out the cookies and mugs of coffee, picked up your pad of paper to make notes, and you go round the room asking each one to share their thoughts. Very like a house group your church might have midweek, and just as in a house group you’re faced with different personalities, you are here too. Perhaps you’ll like the hard-hitting style of Melanie Shankle, who maintains it’s too easy to sit on your couch and let life pass you by, or you might prefer a gentler voice – someone you sense has endured through tough times.

‘Stories of God’s love from today’s most popular writers’ is a lofty tagline. Really it’s a selection by a bunch of folks you will have heard of if you regularly visit the (in)Courage website. I would have preferred it if the contributors’ bios had been at the tops of their first posts. It would have given Sara Frankl’s added poignancy if readers could have seen at a glance that her illness was over and she was now with the Lord, but overall, I would recommend “The Beauty of Grace”. Many of its writers are familiar to me. It’s what my mum would call a ‘Coffee table book’ – one you can dip in and out of, and keep going back to … and I might do just that.

This is my Last Day

Over the weekend, I’ve had so many things knocking on the door of my heart. At church yesterday, my pastor talked about Psalm 43 – how loss of hope and isolation were wrong roads to go down. I felt I was losing hope in certain areas of my life, E.G. I have a friend who’s mentally ill; another friend who’s battling, and oftentimes the opponent wins.

I saw a status on Facebook about someone’s 24-year-old husband who died suddenly. He’d just graduated, had a job at the Bible-college and his whole life in front of him. 24! Here I was at 34, feeling like I didn’t have much to offer, and I was alive. He was 24 with a wife, a job and prospects, and his life was abruptly taken from him. God seemed cruel.

In the afternoon, I listened to a podcast. The episode was called “Are you Broken”. In it Jarrod Cooper urged us to have seasons of brokenness, but not to make those seasons our identity – not to live in them our whole lives.

Whilst reading Dawn Camp’s “The Beauty of Grace” ready to review it later this week, I came across an entry about someone who’d had a chaotic time with a trip to an emergency room, a funeral, and Christmas. A jar of strawberry jam fell out of her fridge, and as she eyed the red stickiness and shards of glass, she was reminded of the dawn of redeeming grace – Jesus coming into the mess of our lives.

A friend had invited me to a Bible-study today. One of the questions asked us to think about writing a song: ‘This is my last day’. All these things I was processing from the weekend seemed suddenly to come together about half an hour before I left the house:
This is my last day, this is goodbye
To a time of brokenness;
Though I may feel weak, it’s not my identity –
I don’t want to live there.

I wanna wake up and say
That this is a good day;
I’m putting my hope there in the Lord:
I will trust Him to hide
Every piece of my life
In His redeeming grace
.

This is my last day, this is goodbye
To a time of selfishness;
There is injustice, and there is suffering,
But I will choose to see the best.

Chorus

Why must I go on mourning?
Why is my soul so downcast?
I will yet praise You, Lord.

Chorus