Advent Reflections Week Four: Love

If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure how to write this last Advent reflection in the wake of the news of Tier 4 and tightened restrictions.

We are weary, aren’t we?

And we might not feel like rejoicing.

But I have a feeling that’s the reason we must rejoice – not to escape what is happening – but to lament – to rail at God for the injustice, poverty and isolation that the pandemic has highlighted and worsened.

The words of Mary’s song, the Magnificat; are a cry of justice, worship, power, promise and love.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Almighty’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary speaks of the power, love and justice of God.

Love that remembers the poor, the weak and the lonely.

Love that reached from the heights of heaven to the womb of a young woman and all the way to the cross at Golgotha.

As author Scott Erikson writes:

“The risk of incarnation is the risk of love.”

Love is the reason our weary world can rejoice – even during this strange Christmas.

And it’s a love which meets us in our deepest despair, our anger, our fear.

Best Books of 2020

What a strange year! But amidst there have been some incredible books launched. I’ve actually read more this year than last, partly due to lockdown and partly in preparation for writing my second book which comes out in 2021! These are a snapshot of some of the best – but there are many more so do check out my Instagram if you want to see what I’m reading and recommending at the moment.

So in no particular order, here are my twelve best books of the year – and a few honourable mentions with a quote from each one to whet your appetite!

This Too Shall Last, K.J Ramsey*

“When the church amplifies stories of healing and overcoming without also elevating stories of sustaining grace, she is not adequately forming souls to hold on to hope.”

Wintering, Katherine May

“Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

Where is God in all the Suffering? Amy Orr-Ewing

“The Messiah would bring an end to the brokenness of the world by being broken to bits himself.”

God Among the Ruins, Mags Duggan

“I wonder if we sometimes miss how God might want to minister to us because we are too eager to move on, too quick to relieve the ache we feel with the analgesic of activity.”

Finding Jesus in the Storm, John Swinton

“Life in all its fullness is not life without tears but life with the one who dries our tears and moves us onward to fresh pastures.”

God on Mute, Pete Grieg

“the incomparable story of Christ’s agony, abandonment and eventual resurrection – that story remain the greatest hope for a hurting world.”

Salt Water and Honey, Lizzie Lowrie

“Redemption isn’t about happy endings… [it] acknowledges pain, then invites it into a bigger story, giving it purpose.”

Almost Everything, Anne Lamott

“Tears will bathe, baptise, and hydrate you and the seeds beneath the surface of the ground on which you walk.”

Ready to Rise, Jo Saxton

“We need people who will not only clear the rubble of old ideologies and mindsets but also tend to those who have been broken and damaged by them.”

Women in a Patriarchal World, Elaine Storkey

“When we are left by love rather than fear, we gain more courage, and God often empowers us to be stronger and to see things more clearly.”

Dear Reader, Cathy Rentzenbrink

“Every book holds a memory. When you hold a book in your hand, you access not only the contents of that book but the fragments of the previous selves that you were the you read it.”

The Cure for Sorrow, Jan Richardson

“A blessings does not explain away our loss or justify devastation. It does not make light of grief or provide a simple fix for the rending, It does not compel us to “move on”. Instead a blessings meets us in the place of our deepest loss.”

Honourable Mentions

Lights for the Path, Madeleine Davies: A great book for young people navigating grief and mourning, one I’d have so valued in my teens.

Joseph, Meg Warner: A fascinating look at the story of Joseph through the lens of trauma and trauma studies.

Coming Undone, Terri White: A visceral memoir of the author’s mental illness – far from an easy read but so brilliantly written.

If Only, Jennie Pollock: A lovely book on contentment and hope – encouraging and engaging.

Endorsement

I was thrilled to endorse Liz Carter’s stunning book “Treasure in Dark Places” – as I said in my endorsement:

“Liz writes beautifully, and Treasure in Dark Places weaves theologically rich poetry with prose which faithfully echoes the tradition of lament with honesty and hope. A gorgeous companion in dark times.”

What have been your best books of 2020?

*Please note that some links are affiliate.

Advent Reflections Week Three: Joy

“Joy is nurtured, not by pretending everything is fine, but by holding our hope together with our grief, the good news with our sorrow, and naming both as reality. We practice joy because we are clear-eyed about our realities.”
Sarah Bessey

Advent is a strange time which both waits for joy expectantly and seeks the joy which pours through the cracks in our ordinary lives.  The shepherds had a dangerous and often unattractive job. They were most likely priests as well as shepherds, caring for the lambs which would be sacrificed at the temple. They lived in the space between the priesthood and the ceremonially unclean; and then God broke through their ordinary lives with an extraordinary angelic vision. 

Their words, as recounted in Luke 2:10 proclaim:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

Their joy when they met Jesus and later became the first evangelists as they shared their wonder, did not air lift them from their difficult circumstances (They most probably still had to return to the fields to watch their flocks the next nightbut their encounter with Jesus changed their perspective.

Going forward they would hold the memory of the night God broke through the skies – and we do the same. The joy evoked from our encounters with Jesus doesn’t necessarily change the specifics of our lives – but it changes us. 

We need the clarity of joy which is honest about our happiness and our grief but keeps our eyes fixed on our Saviour, the man of sorrows who is the source of our joy.

And we need joy more than every this year. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us.

“The joy Jesus’ birth is our reason to celebrate – despite the ruins of 2020. 

We need the clarity of joy which is honest about our happiness and our grief but keeps our eyes fixed on our Saviour, the man of sorrows who is the source of our joy.

Advent Reflections Week Two: Peace

“Advent recognises the absence of peace, yet the exquisite certainty of its coming.” Kate Bowler

I sometimes think that peace is one of those words we’ve got wrong.

It is deeper and wider than the images of still waters or pure white doves, it is not meekness – it is shalom – wholeness in mind body and spirit and being reconciled to God through Jesus.

Advent reminds us that the Messiah was called “Prince of Peace” in Isaiah; when the angels visited the shepherds they proclaimed peace over God’s people: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2:14)

And yet the peace the angels bring, the peace Jesus brings doesn’t look how we might imagine it to.

For the shepherds it looked first like fear at the sights of the angelic hosts; and Jesus disrupted the lives everyone he met. When Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple, they meet the elderly Anna and Simeon who have been waiting for the Messiah for their whole lives, but Simeon’s words aren’t what we might call comforting.

“Behold, this Child is appointed to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your soul as well.”

Simeon is warning Mary of the sorrow and anguish that will come with being Jesus’ mother – and the disruption He will bring to the whole world.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace came sometimes to disrupt the equilibrium whilst promising the hope of ultimate peace.

Advent, as Kate Bowler notes in the quote above, recognises that peace doesn’t reign – but it also reminds us that it is promised.

John’s gospel records Jesus’ words:

“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid.”

Jesus didn’t say that we would have no trouble (in fact he said quite the opposite!) but he promises His peace in the midst of the world’s lack of peace.

He sent the Holy Spirit to bring peace to our hearts when the world rages around us.

He gives peace of heart and mind whilst we wait for peace to reign – and this is part of the comfort we find in the heart of Advent.

Advent Reflections Week One: Hope

“The Advent season is a magnifier” Father Scott

Over the past couple of years; I have lost a baby and brought a baby home as the fairy lights shone and the carols have been sung. Advent has magnified both my grief and my joy.

The images of a cradle filled with the infant Jesus was unspeakably painful when my heart was broken and bruised; but I found comfort as I waited in my darkness that light would come. I didn’t know what the light would look like, but as Jesus descended into our darkness I allowed myself to imagine that there would be light on the way.

And a year later, I was captivated by the joy and wonder of cradling my own, longed for baby boy. I was and am, all too aware that this is not how everyone’s story of longing ends; but I began to see that my hope lay not in the baby I held close – but the One that Mary held.

Timothy Keller writes in his book “On Birth”

“Mary… as Jesus’ mother, will experience both the profoundest joy at seeing the greatness of her son and the deepest grief as she watches his arrest, torture and death.”

Mary’s story is one of hope and despair over and again. The fear at the sight of the angel, the wonder at the task before her, the joy at her acceptance to carry the Son of God, the wonder at the things she pondered in her heart, the confusion as she’s told about the sword which will pierce her own heart – over and again until his death and what she felt may be the end of all hope. Jesus’ whole life cycled between hope and despair just as ours often do – and herein lies our hope – because we are never alone in our despair, and it will not have the last word.

The advent season speaks to both hope and despair. It speaks to our despair because we are a people waiting in the dark; and perhaps that is particularly true of this year.

It speaks to our hope because we are promised that this is not the end – that dawn will break and end even the darkest of nights.

Isaiah 9:2-4 declares:

“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.”

Isaiah wasn’t writing from an ivory tower in which nothing troubled him – he’s writing from exile among a people waiting to return to their promised land. He is writing in hope about the dawn in the midst of the darkness – and don’t we do the same today? The difference is that we walk in Jesus’ footprints, that He has gone before us.

We cannot deny that this Advent, this Christmas will look different – but our hope remains the same – because we can bring all that hurts, all our hopes to rest in Jesus Christ.

Advent magnifies our hope, not by denying or dismissing our despair, but because Jesus reaches in and experiences it alongside us, our Emmanuel.

Facing The Past

I shared this message as a part of my church’s Coping Well in a Covid World – and I thought some might find it helpful.

Facing Up To The Past – Keeping it Together

“Oh yes, the past can hurt, but you can either run from it, or learn from it.” Rafiki

In my view, there is endless wisdom that can be gleaned from Disney films; and this is one of those gems. 

Simba (the main character) has run away because he’s been told by his evil uncle that he killed him Dad (are you keeping up?) and when he runs into someone from his not so shiny past, he freaks out. And the wise Mandrill (yes I thought he was a monkey too) has these words to say. 

“Oh yes, the past can hurt, but you can either run from it, or learn from it.”

They are some of those words which can bruise the tenderhearted among us today. 

I can barely get through the present, let alone the past – you might be thinking.

Or

The past is a no go, kept behind lock and key for good reason. 

It might feel too soon to try and unravel all the feelings that the coronavirus pandemic has raised. 

This is understandable, and let me encourage you that I’m not saying the past needs to be confronted right now – one of my favourite authors Kathryn Greene-McCreight writes:

“Here is God’s mercy, the sun rises slowly.”

For some of you, the past needs to be faced with someone qualified to ascend a mountain, for others now isn’t the time, and for still more of us, it might be time to gather a small group (socially distanced or online) to pray for discernment. 

So whether you’re in a place to look back or not, we’re going to look back at Joseph’s story, see how he faced his past and see how his life points us forward to the life of Jesus who took all of our stories; the beautiful ones and the breaking ones, to the cross at calvary. 

Because scripture tells us that facing up to the past is never done alone; it’s done alongside the author of our story. My story and Joseph’s story. 

So let’s dig into Joseph’s story a bit. 

It’s an interesting one, isn’t it?

There are all the ingredients for a blockbuster (or a musical starring Jason Donovan!)

Joseph is the favourite child; beloved by his Father and he’s a bit full of himself and his own importance. He’s a dreamer – and not particularly wise with it. He dreams of his older brothers bowing before him, worshipping him. 

I’m an only child – but even I can see that elder siblings are unlikely to appreciate this image!

The brother’s reaction, however, is perhaps a little extreme. 

They essentially kidnap their brother, trade as a slave for silver and go to tell their Father that his beloved son is dead – and they don’t see Joseph again for twenty two years. 

In those 22 years Joseph rises through the ranks, is lied about, jailed, becomes a trusted inmate, interprets dreams for the Pharaoh’s jailed staff members, and becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man as his preparations spare Egypt from feeling the effects of a famine. 

Never a dull moment with Jospeh!

And in Genesis 45, Joseph has been reunited with his brothers (who fulfil his dreams and bow to him), imprisons Simeon and tricks his other brothers into bringing their little brother Benjamin back with them to Egypt before framing them for stealing. The passage we read was the showdown – and in the musical I’m pretty sure it’s accompanied by a very dramatic score. 

Here is Joseph’s moment; after over two decades he is quite literally facing his past, some of the people who have most hurt him and he let’s the tears fall.

Joseph let’s it all out – in fact – he weeps so loudly that everyone in the vicinity can hear. 

Our tears aren’t crimes, they aren’t un-christian – sometimes when we are facing up to the past – tears are our most holy offering. 

Tears are fascinating, actually. 

There are three types; reflex tears help to protect us, they fall when we get dust in our eye or something!

Basal/continuous tears are the ones that stop our eyes from getting dry.

Emotional tears actually release toxins and hormones that accumulate when we are under stress or experiencing difficult emotions. 

Crying actually produces the same hormones as exercise – feel good hormones called endorphins.

Tears are a god-given way of facing up to our past – and grieving what has hurt us. 

I’ve certainly found myself crying more than usual since March; there have been a hundred little losses we have all endured since the beginning of lockdown; from worrying about what my son is missing out on, missing my friends – to the concern about how those who are grieving loved ones and what the pandemic means for the most vulnerable in our societies. It’s been a time of tears – and I think that’s okay.

Joseph does it, and thousands of years later tears fall down the face of Jesus when his friend Lazarus dies and when he surveys the state of the city he loves. 

When we face up to the past – sometimes we need to let our tears fall. 

Then we need to draw close.

“Come close to me, I am your brother Joseph who you sold into Egypt.” Says verse 4

Joseph had to close the gap between him and his brothers – and in doing so he makes a change from his trickery in the previous chapters – and allows them to draw close to him. 

This isn’t always possible, or safe for us however. We can’t always draw close to those who have wounded us – and neither should we feel an obligation to. 

It isn’t always practical at the moment with restrictions and social distancing in place.

But, we need to draw close to Jesus-  and we can draw close to Jesus even when we feel distant to everyone else. Because it was Jesus who took our sin, and the sins of those who have wounded us, to the cross – and He sent the Spirit to be with us – always. 

Psalm 23 paints this picture for us, before Jesus even came to begin his earthly ministry, but Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, which teaches us that He takes on the role the Psalmist spoke of.

A psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

    he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

    through the darkest valley,[a]

I will fear no evil,

    for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

    forever.

And as I’ve re-read this psalm, I’ve seen the story of Joseph reflected in it.

Jospeh provides for his family during the famine, he gives them a new home and plenty in a time of wanting. He sits at the table with those who have hurt him and tells them that everything is going to be okay – that their sins didn’t have the last word. 

And Jesus does the same for us today and more. All we need to do is accept grace.

He is our provision in a land of want. 

He is our refreshment in a parched land.

His is our guide when we feel lost, our comfort in the dark, our joy – even in the pain. 

Facing up to the past isn’t just about facing up to what has hurt us – it’s about facing all Jesus has done for us. 

When Joseph’s brothers see the face of their sin, the consequences of their sin, they are reminded that sin doesn’t have the last word. 

They had the plentiful land of Egypt to live and flourish in; and we have the hope of heaven to look to. 

Verse 14 tells us that there is more weeping; as the brothers reunite. It’s a wonderful picture of facing up to the past and finding resolution and comfort around the dinner table as millions do throughout the world.

And years after Joseph’s meal with his brothers – Jesus would sit around a table with his friends and point to a way they could reconnect to their past – and to him. 

I used to really struggle with communion. Years of struggling with self-harm meant that I found the talk of blood and bread incredibly painful – instead of realising that I could come to the table with all my brokenness and baggage – I felt as though I had to arrive at the communion table with everything ‘sorted’.

I didn’t believe I was good enough to be at the communion table. I felt as though everything I had been through; everything I had done to myself stood between me and Jesus. 

I wonder how Joseph’s brothers felt as he embraced them? Did they feel unworthy to accept what he was offering them?

There is good news; both for Joseph’s brothers, for me and for you. 

We don’t have to wait to feel worthy, to be worthy. We don’t have to have faced our past to be accepted at God’s table. It’s not something to be ticked off a checklist – it’s about accepting the invitation of grace that God offers us. 

None of the men around the table with Jesus on Maundy Thursday were worthy. In the three years they’d travelled with Jesus they’d got into fights, battled for supremacy, missed the point more than once and before the week was out one would betray Jesus and another would deny him. 

And yet despite their futures and their pasts – they can meet with Jesus.

The same is true for us. 

The restoration and reconciliation Joseph gave his brothers is available to us through Jesus. 

We may not be able to reconcile with the people who have hurt us. We may feel as though aren’t even at the start line in our marathon task of facing up to the past – but Jesus brings good news. 

When he took the most ordinary food – bread – and broke it – He made it holy.

Glenn Packiam writes in his book “Blessed, Broken, Given” “Could it be that God’s grace comes rushing into the very brokenness of our lives? Maybe brokenness has a way of opening us up to the Lord. The more aware we become of our frailty, the more we are able to embrace the grace of God. “My strength is made perfect in weakness” the Lord told the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9) Or as Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” To be broken is to be opened up to grace.”

Joseph’s journey had broken him countless times. Broken as he was trafficked by people who were meant to love him, broken as he sat in prison, wrongly convicted. But Joseph’s speech to his brothers shows us all that our brokenness isn’t the end of the story. 

“Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves” he tells the men who left him for dead. 

When we face up to the past with God’s grace within us, we cannot help but end up with something greater than our brokenness. We can trust our author.

In the text, he reminds his brothers – and us – that it’s not him who has brought goodness from the pain. 

“you sold me… but God sent me.”

The communion bread tells the same story. The bread is broken – but in its breaking it can be shared. The broken body of Jesus allowed the grace and love of God to be shared with the whole world.

It tells us that how we begin, our past is never the end of the story because God’s grace is an interruption which can make our lives more beautiful, more purposeful than they ever could have done without the brokenness. 

The Japanese art of kintsugi says something similar. The word kintsugi means golden joinery. It’s the art of joining broken pottery headed for the bin into something more beautiful by mending it with a gold coloured liquid resin. It declares “I was broken, but in my mending I’ve been made more beautiful.’ 

The challenge is if we’ll allow it. 

Will we allow God into our broken places? 

Perhaps it will be sharing a chapter of your story with a trusted friend; or writing your story down for the first time. 

It might be seeking the advice of a counsellor or pastoral carer. 

It might be praying in your heart that God softens your brokenness and shows your way forward. 

Or it may be about resting in the knowledge that Jesus is our bread of life; broken for each one of us. Jan Richardson writes

The Hardest Blessing

If we cannot

Lay aside the wound

Then let us say

It will not always

Bind us.

Let us say

The damage

Will not eternally

Determine our path.

Let us say

The line of our life

Will not always travel

Along the places

We are torn.

Let us say

That forgiveness

Can take some practice

Can take some practice

Can take a long

And struggling time.

Let us say

That to offer

The hardest blessings

We will need

The deepest grace;

That to forgive

The sharpest pain

We will need

The fiercest love;

That to release

The ancient ache,

We will need

New strength

For every day.

Let us say 

The wound 

Will not be

Our final home – 

That through it

Runs a road,

A way we would not

Have chosen

But on which

We will finally see

Forgiveness,

So long practiced

Coming toward us

Shining with the joy

So well deserved. 

Faith, Strength and Weakness: Guest Blog by YouBelong

(Please note: I have used the term ‘He’ to describe God because this is a pronoun I am comfortable using but please replace it with whatever pronoun/s you feel more comfortable with when reading it that enables you understand God in all their fullness). 

When Rachael asked me to write something for the blog, she asked that I write something on the topic of faith and strength/ weakness. At first, this felt impossible because strength and weakness are opposites. 

You might be familiar with the words of 2 Corinthians 12:10 which say, ‘That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and the troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong’. This reminds us that although there might be times we feel strong, for example after a good gym session, or when we are able to overcome a mental challenge, we are only truly strong enough to overcome the hard things that life throws at us when we acknowledge our weakness. When we do this, we allow God to step in and be our strength and even the world’s strongest person cannot compete with God!

When I became unwell back in Spring 2014, I was unable to eat or drink and lost lots of weight which eventually led to me becoming too weak to stay awake more than a couple of hours at a time or walk up and down the stairs in my house without being exhausted! At the time, I was spending all my free time being involved and serving in my local church and this meant that my faith was filled to the brim and overflowing which enabled me to give my weakness to God. Although my body remained physically weak, my faith never failed and even during the worst of tests, procedures and operations, I felt God with me and felt His strength working in and through me. 

Thankfully, I had an operation in the December of that same year which enabled me to gain weight back and start to become a bit stronger. A few months on and I still wasn’t back to where I had been before becoming unwell but every doctor I saw told me it would just take time. Almost 5 years on, I have faced more medical issues and spend more time in bed and resting or asleep than I have ever done before. As someone who loves ticking off items on a to do list and puts a huge amount of my worth into productivity and getting things done, I really struggle to work out my purpose and love myself as I am on days when I can’t do things I need or want to do.

 I am reliant on those around me to deal with a lot of the household chores and to cover the financial costs of the household as I am unable to do those things which as someone in their late 20s, is really hard to deal with. I am heavily reliant on other people and even if I really wanted to, there are some things I just can’t do anymore. The Free Dictionary defines ‘weak’ as ‘lacking’ – lacking in physical strength, emotional strength, mental strength, spiritual strength etc.

In Psalm 23 we read, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.’ Worldly speaking, I lack quite a lot. I lack relationships, independence and freedom (from pain, to choose what I eat, to go out and do what I want, when I want and more), but I know that when I put my faith and trust in God and follow Him, He leads me into a life of fullness, peace, provision, protection and more. 

When we depend on God, we do not lack. I reckon you know this all already though. I knew this before I became chronically ill but it’s not very easy to put into practise.

So how do we go about trusting God and allowing His strength to become ours in our weakness?

YouBelong, which I have founded and manage, as a community are currently doing a bible study which is taking us through the Psalms in chronological order (as close to it as we can anyway). Some of the earlier Psalms are written by David and tell us about his time running away from Saul and other dangerous people. David felt weak in those moments. He knew there was nothing he could do to save himself but God could. He recognised his weakness and God’s strength, he recalled scripture, worshipped God in his victories, connected and shared with other believers and asked God to help and save him… and God showed up. God gave David the strength to get through those times because David accepted he was weak and leaned into God. 

Nehemiah 8:10 reads, ‘The joy of the Lord is our strength’. Happiness is something that we feel when we receive a nice gift, eat something tasty, spend time with good friends or watch our favourite film but joy is different. Joy isn’t circumstantial – it is a choice. We can choose to be joyful even when life is full of difficult things. When we feel unwell, when we are upset, sad or angry, when the year doesn’t turn out the way we wanted (hello 2020!), we can still choose joy when our joy comes from knowing Jesus. I could never say that I feel happy Jesus endured great suffering and died a horrendous death but I am joyful because He did it for me to give me eternal life. Life can be very hard and there’s no denying that, even Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble…”. Becoming a follower of Jesus doesn’t make life easy but we have something that unbelievers don’t have and it is through knowing God that we can find joy and through the joy of our relationship with Him that we can find strength in our human weaknesses.

There have been many times that I have felt weak, physically, emotionally and mentally, but each time that I recognise I am weak and that God is strong, read my bible, pray, worship and lean on Him, I can feel God’s strength seeping in. I know it’s His and not mine because it happens at times when I have no strength left. Sometimes in those moments God gives me physical strength but more often, it’s a mental, emotional or spiritual strength that enables me to get through the times of physical weakness rather than overcome it. 

As I said before, this is easier said than done. It takes time to get to know and trust God and to remember (and choose) to go to God straight away rather than rely on our own strength (or more often than not, lack of).

Today might be a day that you are feeling particularly weak. Perhaps your physical strength is gone, or you feel mentally and emotional unable to deal with the day ahead. That’s okay. I said at the start of this post that I wasn’t sure how to talk about weakness and strength because they are opposites but God’s kingdom is a place of opposites; give to receive, serve to be served, to live means to give your life and the last will be first. Being weak is often viewed as a bad thing in this world but we need to remind ourselves that in God’s kingdom everything is upside down and back to front. A weakness given to God is a great strength because in God’s kingdom, when we are weak, then we are strong, because of Him. 

Laura is the Director and Blogger for YouBelong

We Are Satellites – An Interview with Martin Saunders

Ok, obvious one to start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you wrote We Are Satellites?

I enjoy an obvious question. I’m Martin, and I’ve been involved in youth ministry for the last 20 years. I guess I have dedicated my entire working life to helping young people connect with Jesus, and to resourcing the amazing people who work with teenagers up-and-down the country. I work for an organisation called Youthscape, and I’m the youth minister at my church in Surrey. I’m also a parent of two teenagers (and two younger boys) and so I am massively invested – on a lot of levels – in helping young people understand that there really is a God who loves them and wants to be in relationship with them. I suppose this book is the obvious outworking of that passion.


And why is it called We Are Satellites?

The book has a single clear metaphor at its heart. It’s the same metaphor that we are using in the Satellites youth event (www.wearesatellites.com), which is launching next summer at the East of England Showground (taking some of the place of Soul Survivor). Here’s the idea in its simplest form: we tend as humans to put ourselves at the centre of our lives, and we think the world revolves around us. But ultimately we all know that that approach to life is flawed, and fails you in the end. Life in all its fullness is only ever found when we put God at the centre of our lives – and understand that we revolve around him, not the other way around. So the metaphor is about orbit and priorities, and then the book looks at what that means in practice.


What is your dream for young people?

I actually wrote this book with an individual in mind. My daughter is almost 13 years old, and had got to a point in her life where she was asking some big questions. Even though she has grown up in church, she admitted that she just didn’t really understand what this ‘God stuff’ was all about. So I asked her one day, if I wrote it down in a book, would she read it? She said that she would, and so I spent the next six months writing We Are Satellites. My dream for young people is encapsulated in my dream for my daughter: I hope that (and the book will only make a small contribution to this) they would know that God loves them just as they are, and that the meaning of life is found in knowing God and building everything around him. That’s the secret to true contentment – and so much of what I see in young people right now is discontent.

What were you like as a young person and what would you tell your younger self about coping with adolescence?

There is a fair amount of teenage Martin in the book actually! There’s no denying that I had a pretty tough time, particularly with bullying and self esteem issues. I guess if I could talk to that poor (somewhat attention-seeking) young lad right now, I’d try to convince him that honestly, God (and often other people) accepted him just as he was. I knew that as ‘head knowledge’ back then, but it took me years to be comfortable in my own skin. Oh, and I would tell myself that you don’t always have to make a joke out of absolutely everything.


We’ve heard a lot in the news lately seeming to blame young people for rising covid rates, what’s your response to that?

In a word: Grrr (I know that’s not a word). I take no pleasure in saying that I knew this would happen (and predicted it in an article months earlier). And I only knew that because I’ve been around long enough to know that history always repeats with the demonisation of young people. Every generation of youths since the 1950s have faced it (not that I was around that long ago) – as teenagers, they are no longer innocent little darlings, and not yet contributing fully to the economy; they’re everybody’s scapegoats. Sure, some young people have been irresponsible in their disregard for restrictions. But the beaches haven’t been full of teenage holidaymakers, and the pubs and restaurants (mostly) haven’t been full of young people. Young people are the easy target.

What do you think has been the effect of 2020 on young people, and how can we go forward?I honestly don’t think we know the full effects yet, and in the future we may be dealing with issues like PTSD when it comes to COVID-19. But right now I know that young people have serious emotional well-being needs which need to be on everybody’s agenda. Young people already felt betrayed by Brexit and hung out to dry by climate change – they are growing up believing they’re a forgotten generation. Everyone needs to be investing in our young people right now.


Out of your 13 books – which is your favourite?

I don’t want to be that guy, but ahem, it’s 15. But maybe you’re letting me forget my pre-evangelistic football novel, England’s Messiah. I feel pretty proud of the new book, but apart from that it’s probably my previous one – The Man You’re Made to Be, which is all about facing extended adolescence as a young man. I’ve had a lot of lovely messages about that over the past year – I think it connects with people who don’t identify with traditional masculine stereotypes. It’s also got more jokes in it. Maybe I haven’t grown up quite as much as I’d thought. 

Martin Saunders is the Director of Satellites, a new event for young people launching August 2021, and Director of Innovation at Youthscape. You can buy Martin’s book from all good christian bookshops, amazon and if you buy it from BookshopUK I get a tiny percentage!

Two candles and a copy of Treasures in Dark Places by Liz Carter

The Riches of Darkness Guest Post by Liz Carter

When the clocks go back and the evenings draw in, so often life can seem murkier for many of us. Never more so, perhaps, than this year, with seemingly so little to look forward to, hope removed with anticipation ripped away from us. The world can feel a dark place for us. The world may have felt a dark place for some of us over years already – but the question is this: can good things come out of darkness?

I live with long-term lung disease and it’s always worse over the winter, so this season often ushers in a sense of dread for me, a sense of resignation and disappointment for all that I will miss. I’m often in hospital around Christmas or in January, and many times I’ve missed out on all the loveliness of Christmas I so crave, too sick to join in and be a part of it, sitting instead on the edges looking in. Now this year I’m finding the whole world joining me out there on the edges and I’m longing to journey with everyone to discover the hope that still lurks within the shadows, the hope that sometimes breaks through in dazzling light. The hope of knowing that God is here within the darkness with us. Because Jesus suffered the greatest agony we could imagine, darkness is not unfamiliar to God – in fact, as it says in Psalm 139, 

‘Even the darkness will not be dark to you;

    the night will shine like the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.’ (v12)

I’m so captured by this imagery of the night shining like the day. This weekend is Halloween, which so often seems to prioritise the celebration of darker things, yet originates in the celebration of All Saints Day and those who have gone before. In the gloom of All Hallows Eve we find glimpses of the light of God’s glorious kingdom, which seem all the more bursting with luminosity for the darker backdrop.

I love the little book The Cloud of Unknowing which is by an unknown author, written in the fourteenth century. The central theme of this work is that we encounter God more in the dark, in the unknown places, as we surrender our control and take God out of the boxes we put him in:

“For if ever thou shalt see him or feel him, as it may be here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.”

Is it possible that the darkness isn’t always a bad thing, but in fact becomes a place to meet with God, to encounter the shekinah presence of God, to be filled once again with the Spirit of God who breathes through that darkness? Is it possible that it is actually in the very darkest places we more easily catch hold of the glimmers of light – and encounter the God who holds us within that darkness?

I think that it is when we admit to the darkness and the pain that we begin to journey into freedom. Too often as Christians we have been led to believe that our lives should look all sorted out, we should look healed and whole, mentally and physically – and so when we are still in distress we hide it away, ashamed before God and others. But the Bible does not allow for this falsehood and instead calls us to honesty and lament when times are tough. I think the Church is waking up to this and we are beginning to share our despair in ever more helpful and creative ways, and as we share it encourages others that they are not alone, either. So many of the Psalms give us a model for lament, using words that are stark in their agony – such as Psalm 42 where the author grieves that he is alone in the desert, away from the temple where he loved to worship (Psalm 42 is a wonderful song to reflect on during the pandemic – you’ll see why.) Scripture is full of lament, of groans too deep for words, of rage and weariness and confusion before God, and we would do well to not only notice them, but to use them to help us in our own depths of emotions and pain. I have found countless times, that in the very centre of the worst pain God is still there, abiding, sometimes silently and with very little tangible presence, but there, constant and unchanging, a rock and a fortress, my home when I am at the end of myself. 

I was shielding over almost five months earlier this year, living in my room, unable to touch or hug my family. In this time lament became even more important for me as I poured out my sadness and frailty before a God who understands. I was living in the shadows, yet was reminded that shadows cannot exist without light and darkness itself is not malevolent, but can instead be where we discover great treasure troves that lift us and fire us with hope. I found that my sadness began to come out in poetry and short re-imaginings of encounters with Jesus, and so my new book Treasure in Dark Places was born. My prayer is that it will draw you closer to God even when you are hurting, and resonate with you in your struggle. I’d like to share a poem from it written for All Hallows Eve, reminding us of the importance of laying out our pain before God and then turning to him within it.

REMEMBER

Walls press in on me

fear is a gag, biting my flesh

dread shrinks me into cages of terror

shakes my grounds as hope impounds

in my night of despair

Lost in labyrinths of what might be

pinned under roaring anxiety

I pray and call, but do you hear?

I pray and cry, but are you here?

Adrift in a fog of bitter despond

a heavy cloak of gloom’s dejection

nothing lives here but agony’s grief

horror’s dancers escaping my dreams,

and mocking my screams

I turn and remember with anguish of soul

laid out in a pit of shadows in murk

where monsters lurk

I turn and remember and 

wait for the Lord

I sink to my knees and

praise in the storm

Your breath sweeps my silence and 

soars through my veins 

I sit with the pain

and remember again.

Liz Carter writes about finding gold in the pain and struggles of life, and is the author of Catching Contentment and Treasure in Dark Places. (affiliate links)

A Familiar Fog

I could feel the lump solidifying in my throat, my eyes burned and brimmed with tears, the exhaustion had settled upon me like a leaden cloak.

It was all too familiar.

I have been acquainted with this fog for over half of my life, and yet it still catches me unawares.

It’s different now, though. Instead of retreating to sleep to let it pass, there is my gorgeous pint sized whirlwind dancing around. He’s spinning in circles until he collapses in a fit of giggles, clutching his model met line train and pointing at every bird he glimpses. He does not understand why Mummy is slower, tireder and more short tempered; he makes no allowances and doesn’t adjust his expectations.

It is a terrifying gift, his living in each and every moment.

I worry often about the effect of these weeks in the fog will have on him. Will he live under his own fog? Or will it enlarge his kindness? Is this is the answer to my prayer that he would be kind before anything else, something he will learn best when I am at my worst?

In reality, if he remembers anything, he will remember more time with his beloved Daddy, train trips with his Nana and Granddad, train watching with his Grandma.

I am unreservedly grateful for those around me who stepped up and stepped in so that I could step back and recover. It is a privilege; this chance to rest and I’m all too aware of those who parent alone under the fog, who cannot step back.

I understand this fog too well, I know that it passes swiftest when I let it roll; that when I attempt to hold it all back, to stem the flow that it will inevitably fell me.

The fog is receding now, clarity rising like the morning sun, tears drying like the dew.

It is less dramatic today, than it once was, but no less exhausting.

Depression does not always scream, sometimes it lays its heaviness upon the shoulders of those who have been battling in the war for far too long.

There are no real lessons to be wrung from days like these, but my prayer as I share is that someone may reach in to another engulfed by the fog with a prayer, a text or a gift.

That those under mental illness’ tyranny will not be left to fight alone, but be met by those who may not understand, but who commit to care.