I once was lost but now I’m found

November 5, 2019

Did you hear the story of the man who left his £250,000 violin on the train?[1]

To his great relief, musician Stephen Morris’ 310-year-old violin was returned to him after being contacted by a member of the public. You may have seen his interview on BBC news. To my surprise, he played a tune. The irony was not lost on me when he began to play.

The tune was the famous ‘Amazing Grace’. As he played, I mouthed the words, “I once was lost but now I’m found…”. An apt choice for such a story. But not just for this story.

This stirring, spiritual song has been the anthem for so many throughout history. Since it was written in 1772 by John Newton, these words have been the emotional echo of hearts from protestors in the Civil Rights movement, to the day Nelson Mandela walked free from prison; it was sung when the Berlin Wall came down, and after September 11th, 2001, to comfort a mourning world. Its words have been the source of comfort and strength for so many who at times felt lost and needed a spiritual idea to help them find their way.

This summer, as I drove through a humble Buckinghamshire town called Onley, I was shocked to read on its welcome sign, “Welcome to Olney, the home of ‘Amazing Grace’. It was hard to imagine this insignificant town was the birth of words that would be sung the world over. Written by a man who was himself once lost.

John Newton was a slave trader. On one sea journey in 1748, he encountered such a violent storm that it threatened to sink his ship. It was in this moment, lost and powerless, that he cried out to God to save him. That night, after the storm had passed, he sensed that there was a God who hears and answers prayers, who could save even the worst of men. Later, Newton changed from his lifestyle of profiting off the suffering of others to serving others – this man who was once lost was now found.

This is the grace the song speaks of – receiving an undeserved fresh start and new beginning – leading to a transformed life.

Maybe you feel lost in life right now, in need of a transformation. Maybe life has been cruel to you, or you’ve been cruel to others. Life may not make sense for you at the moment; you may not see a way forward. If so, I invite you to listen to the words of this song and see if this it can help you find a way forward.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-london-50280238/musician-stephen-morris-shock-as-lost-250000-violin-returned

[Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash]

Unconventional Faith

November 1, 2019

Could faith and fencing help prevent knife crime?

I remember my heart racing as I raised the sabre. Enclosed in my helmet, I felt uniquely closed off and alone. Staring at my opponent with sabre raised, we waited for the instruction to engage. With some thrusts, swipes and lunges later, the point of my sabre hit his torso – I had scored a point! With a smile, we saluted one another and took off our helmets to shake hands.

It was exhilarating! The buzz of combat. The rattle of the sabre on your helmet. The thrill of being stabbed but with little pain. Just a game. And respect for the opponent. Welcome to fencing.

But could this unconventional sport ever help those who would otherwise stab someone, this time for real?

This is what Steven thinks. He’s a fencing instructor for an inner London youth charity called XLP. He is a man dedicated to doing something for his community. He is also a Christian with an unconventional approach. He believes the experience of fencing may help prevent the knife crime epidemic.[1]

Wait a minute, isn’t this Christian business about turning the other cheek? Indeed, but before we give him short shrift, let’s ask the question, how can fencing help knife crime?

Steven believes that fencing teaches you self-control and respect. Two things missing on the streets and between gangs. It’s what I learnt in my fencing experience as a young boy (ironically, at a Christian camp). When you face an opponent in fencing, it gets the adrenaline going. The prospect of being hit, although you are protected, forces you to keep yourself calm, to challenge your fear and tame it. This ability to notice your emotions and then regulate them can be a game-changer in a real-world conflict. And regardless of who lost the point, you both have to salute one another before the beginning of the next round. Respect for the other in the face of defeat takes one-up-manship out of you and revenge is given no breeding ground.

But it is Steven’s faith that informs the most important value he believes can be instilled through fencing. To treat others as you would want them to treat you. This is the foundational principle that Jesus himself taught.

Maybe in a society where life and individuals are seen as cheap, this principle can help us rediscover a lost understanding of the unique value we possess and the value of life itself.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/stories-50101362/steven-a-christian-thinks-fencing-prevents-knife-crime

[Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash]

The Sound of Music

October 21, 2019

Nearly everybody likes some type of music. Music plays with our emotions, lifting us up, calming us down, even sometimes depressing us. Whether it is a pop song playing in a retail store, a live choir, a classical piece playing in a film or on TV, music affects us all.

Recently, I went to Birmingham Symphony Hall, a superbly designed professional music venue. The event was called ‘Music for Youth’ where nine school choirs aged between 8 and 13 years old get to perform their well-rehearsed choir pieces. They each sang three pieces in different styles and were judged by a panel of two.

The enthusiasm of the choirs was a delight to see, as was the energy, commitment and joy shown by each choir leader. The standard was very high, each choir reflecting the hard work and discipline of the group.

The audience was mainly made up of proud parents and grandparents. It is very moving to see your 8-year-old granddaughter singing her heart out!  But every child in every choir did just that. The largest choir had about 40 youngsters in it, while the smallest had just 9.

I hope all those young singers keep singing as they grow up. It is such an enjoyable thing to do, whether in a choir, a group or all alone in your bathroom. Music brings life, energy and enjoyment into our lives. Of course, people like different kinds of music and while I enjoy a wide range of music, I am not a fan of rap, though I know many people are.

But whatever kind of music moves you it is interesting to think about what is behind it. In the case of those choirs, think of the hours of practise and hard work, not just by the singers, but by their leaders. All of them doing it for no reward, working outside their school hours for the joy and satisfaction it brings.

Any musician or singer to get to a high standard will have had to put in hours and hours of practise. Many will have a natural talent, but talent still needs hard work and discipline to develop it. Singers need to develop and improve their voice, to learn how to breathe properly and sing from the diaphragm, not the throat.

Nowadays, because we can store thousands of different songs on electronic devices, and the fact that music is the background to TV programmes, films and in so many shops or restaurants, we can easily forget how much work has gone into producing it. Learning to play an instrument or learning to sing well takes discipline. It is not a case of being able to just do it when you feel like it; good music is the result of hard work and discipline over many years, indeed for professionals, it is a lifetime’s work.

Successful people in any walk of life will have had the discipline to learn and apply the skills they needed, just like those musicians and singers. What are you wanting to achieve in life? What are you wanting to gain mastery in? Whatever it is, it will take discipline and hard work – success is hard-won, but always worth it. Don’t be put off through the hard times, if you need to rest, then rest but don’t give up because as the ancient proverbs says, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty”.[1]

Keith Hartrick.

[Keith is a retired Managing Director and the church leader of our Leeds congregation, Grace Communion International. He is editor of Richard’s blogs.]

[1] The Bible, Proverbs 14:23 (NIVUK)

Grace, Space and Pace!

October 7, 2019

Many readers of this blog may not remember Jaguar’s famous advertising line in the 1950s and 60s. Grace related to the design and style of the car, space indicated that they were roomy and comfortable inside, and pace indicated that they were a fast sports car. They certainly lived up to their advertising in those days, maybe they still do today.

But that advertising line also has a meaning for Christians although you may not immediately think so, especially if you have your doubts about God. So let’s have a look at those three words and their possible deeper meaning and perhaps challenge you to think about them, too.

Grace refers to God’s unconditional love. God’s love for you, for all humanity, is so great he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for the sins of every individual human! That awesome truth is summed up in that word grace. It means what we receive is totally undeserved and unmerited. We can do nothing to earn it, it’s ours as a gift.

Space refers to the fact that God allows us not to believe in him. Contrary to what some may think, God is not in a race to reach and save every human being now! God will not force you or anyone to believe in him today. The Christian message is one that believes God provides a future opportunity for every human to know him one day, even after death!

Pace refers to the fact that God allows each individual to proceed at their own speed, whether a new Christian slowly setting out to follow God or one who is desperate to find out as much, as possible as quickly as possible. Some people are ready to jump in and change their way of life overnight, others take time to come to a fuller understanding of what being a Christian means.

Even people who have been Christians for many years go through seasons of faster and slower growth. So maybe it’s time to think about what grace, space and pace mean to you? Maybe nothing at this time or perhaps it starts a thought process which makes you wonder if you don’t need to know more? Just as you have a key to start a car, why not ask God to give you the key to understanding him and his word?

Keith Hartrick.

[Keith is a retired Managing Director and the church leader of our Leeds congregation, Grace Communion International. He is editor of Richard’s blogs.]

[Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash]

 

A ship in harbour is safe

October 2, 2019

But that is not what ships are built for!

As anyone who makes a living from the sea will tell you, it can be both friend or foe. While ships need harbours, they are built to be out on the sea carrying passengers and cargo to a destination.

Travelling on a calm and pleasant day is an enjoyable and relaxing experience for most people. But travelling through a storm is neither pleasant nor relaxing. In most cases, ships are built to withstand and ride out the storms, but occasionally things go wrong and they can end up sinking or being shipwrecked.

There is a life lesson here.

Are we trying to remain safe in our harbour, avoiding the risks in life? Sometimes we shrink from the challenges that life throws at us. We try to live a safe life and avoid the storms that can come in our personal, work, or social life. But there’s a cost to this cautious approach.

Leaving the harbour means taking risks on what the sea might throw at us – on whether it will be calm or stormy. In the same way leaving our personal safe harbour means facing the risks of life. We can’t always see the way ahead and if sometimes we think we can then the unexpected may soon throw us off course. But there’s much to be gained from this risk.

Of course, we will try to reduce the risks as much as possible but stepping out demands that we prepare to take them, too. Stepping out – leaving the harbor – might be as simple as asking someone out on a date, not knowing whether the person will say yes or no; it could be going for that promotion at work you don’t think you are ready for, biting off more than you can chew, then chewing like mad!

In Christian terms, it is called stepping out in faith. I believe we, like ships, have been designed to take risks and battle through the storms of life. Yes, I know, it’s tough if a relationship goes wrong, it’s tough if we fail in our jobs, it’s tough if we feel frustrated, undervalued and not able to use our gifts and skills because of a setback! But that’s life! The important thing is not to give up.

The thing about taking sensible risks is that life becomes fuller, more fun, more challenging, and more satisfying. Indeed, you may be surprised at what you achieve or could discover.

In times past, when the UK was a more religious nation, being a Christian was a safe and socially acceptable choice to make. But this has changed as the UK becomes a more secular nation; Christianity is regarded with greater contempt. Yet, I find it curious that some will still leave their safe harbour for the seas of faith and possible storms that come with this journey. For some people in other countries with less freedom than we enjoy, taking this step of faith means risking their life. I used to wonder why some would do this until I took this step of faith myself.

What about you? Have you ever considered what Christianity is all about? Have you ever thought why some die for their faith rather than renounce their Christian beliefs? Why not take the risk of finding out just what Christianity is all about?

Keith Hartrick.

[Keith is a retired Managing Director and the church leader of our Leeds congregation, Grace Communion International. He is editor of Richard’s blogs.]

[Photo by Jean-Pierre Brungs on Unsplash]

Humiliated

September 18, 2019

Events making headlines this week included the UK Prime Minister being deliberately treated in a way some may consider disrespectful by the Prime Minister of Luxembourg.

We may have raised an eyebrow (even a quarter of an inch) at the surprising outburst we saw from Mr Xavier Bettel. Some may say, it’s not the way we should treat visitors of such high-rank and position even if we do not agree with their politics. Not quite politic, if you ask me!

But all this controversy may seem a bit nauseating, so it got me thinking about another kind of situation when another visitor wasn’t treated quite the way they should have been. This situation involved another kind of leader; one who experienced his own kind of humiliation.

Now you may not believe in God but, if I may, I would like to ask you to suspend your disbelief for just a moment and think about this. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, was also treated disrespectfully and humiliated by a great many of the people he came into contact with.

About 2000 years ago, God intervened in our world, and Jesus – God in the flesh – was born. In love, after living a perfect, faultless life, Jesus was accused of a religious crime (blasphemy), tried and convicted by a kangaroo court, sentenced to death by crucifixion, before which he was viciously beaten, mocked and treated with absolute contempt by his accusers. Maybe if we had been in their shoes, we’d have done exactly the same, so we might not be able to take the moral high ground in this story. Yet, his death on the cross, we are told in the Bible, was so that our sins could be forgiven so we could experience life beyond death. Jesus allowed the humiliation, the beatings, the contempt, the agony of crucifixion for our sake. And yet he willingly made that sacrifice because of his love for us.

Now we may find that hard to believe or accept, especially if we don’t really believe in the story of Jesus. Maybe this is shocking new information for us. Maybe we’ve heard about the story of Jesus, but never knew what he really went through…and for our sake!

Maybe reading this blog today, you ask the question, could this be true? Could this have really happened? Why didn’t I know about this?

Well, let me add another game-changing detail to what happened: Jesus did not stay dead! He was resurrected and today sits at the right hand of God, waiting for us to respond and start a relationship with him.

Maybe you’re not ready to believe yet, that’s ok, he still loves you, whether you respond or not. But why not think about it a little more. How about forwarding this blog to others? Discuss it with your friends? Or even try going to church for a few weeks? Remember, God did this entirely voluntarily for you and me. That is real love, are you brave enough to believe it and respond?

Keith Hartrick.

[Keith is a retired Managing Director and the church leader of our Leeds congregation, Grace Communion International. He is editor of Richard’s blogs.]

 

Know their name

September 2, 2019

“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”.

Dale Carnegie wasn’t wrong when he said these words. As a man who taught thousands in the business world about better interpersonal skills, he knew what he was talking about. If there’s one word that we can pick out of a cacophony of sound, it’s our name. Our ears are uniquely tuned to it; when we hear it, our attention turns to the source.

Today, I returned to school for that first teachers day back and the customary rally-the-troops speech from the head teacher. “I want this to be a school where every student is known individually”, our head said, “and where each student is known by their name”. It was a good speech even with the old clichés!

I reflected on it: do I know the names of all my students? Probably not. But I can afford myself a little flexibility working in one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in London. It has children’s names with some of the most exotic syllables I know and which are somewhat alien to my native tongue.

That said, why should we make the effort to learn and know the names of those we meet?

As a teacher, you quickly learn the power of knowing a name. Referring to someone by name instantaneously connects you with that person. When you refer to someone by their name, especially if you’ve just met them, they feel known by you, and as a result closer to you, even if this is just perceived.

But it goes further than this. Taking the time to learn the most personal (and important) word in a person’s dictionary means you are treating them as an individual, worthy of your attention and time. You are subconsciously placing value on them. And, most likely, they will want to do the same back.

Maybe you work in a big team, or in a school, or you are about to enter an educational setting, and you’ve read this and think to yourself – as so many do – but I’m bad at learning names. The truth is, everyone is but there are things you can to help yourself.

When meeting someone for the first time, say their name three times in your initial conversation. My favourite method is to remember a name by associating it with something familiar – syllables for symbols. Or, finally, write a name down as soon as you can – this gives you a mental picture when trying to remember it next time.

This week let’s be that person who knows everyone by name because everyone we meet matters.

By the way, did you know that God knows you by name? Interesting thought, that!

Why we need more rules

August 21, 2019

It’s been a day of nerves, joy, and I’m sure in some cases, tears for over 700,000 GCSE students as they discovered what their hard work (or not!) earnt them.

I was delighted to hear my friend’s daughter get the results she wanted. But I’m reminded what it took – sticking to rules though self-discipline: no phone, ample revision, and saying ‘no’ when you want to say ‘yes’ to your friends.

It works. Rules work. I know because I’m a secondary school teacher. I know where a no rule classroom leads to: a special kind of hell!

Head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh of Michaela School, a free school near Wembley, advocates for a stricter, more rules approach. “It’s good to have rules”, she says, “children know where they stand”. Her students are not doing too badly grand-wise, either.

Sadly, you can see the lack of rules play out in children’s lives. In shops, restaurants, holiday parks, or hotels we hear the familiar “No, stop doing that!” from mum and dad but the child just ignores them. Often, rules, and certainly consequences, are not part of our children’s experience. There are only going to be losers in this microcosm of anarchy.

Adults need rules too. After living in this rule and responsibility deprived society, are we once again seeking the reassurance of rules? After all, rules go a long way in helping us order the otherwise chaos of our daily life.

“Since the hippy days, we in the West have fed ourselves on a steady diet of freedom and rights”,[1] says the Jordan Peterson, author of bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life. His message of responsibility has taken the internet by storm and he’s now regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of our time.

He believes rules are important, too. And as a clinical psychologist, he’s seen enough hellish and chaotic lives so I’m not going to argue with him. Far from it; I agree with him.

His message is not about rules, but where following rules leads us. The meaning we extract from life is not to be found in our rights, but, instead, in responsibility; “In the care we take with ourselves, our families, and broader society surrounding us”.[2]

I guess the self-discipline it takes to keep any rule has other benefits, too. In keeping a rule – a commitment we make to ourselves – we strengthen our confidence and sense of worth.

So, taking my own advice, I decided to make a rule for myself: to eat my three meals a day at the appropriate time. On school holidays my breakfast, lunch and dinner times go a little wayward. But I’ve pretty much done kept my rule and I feel better for it!  What will your new rule be?

Notes:

[1] https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/jordan-peterson-why-we-need-more-rules/p067c04l?playlist=imho

[2] Ibid

You Good Samaritan

August 19, 2019

The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is part of our vernacular. But I wonder whether I would be one? Or, how about you?

For those of us who may get caught in the no-man’s-land between bystander and Good Samaritan then I have some good news. There has been a study suggesting there are more Good Samaritans out there than we may at first think. It challenges the so-called bystander effect – that people, on average, will not help strangers in distress. Maybe we have it in us, after all. The conclusion was made after studying hundreds of incidents on CCTV of people stepping in to help a perfect stranger in their moment of distress.

The phrase ‘Good Samaritan’ has passed into our cultural vocabulary – everyone knows what it means – the person who does not just walk on by when seeing someone in trouble. But where did this term ‘Good Samaritan’ come from?

Actually, from a story Jesus once told.

Jesus is many things to many different people, but he was also a good storyteller. Not to entertain but to educate. In an intriguing encounter, a lawyer approached Jesus. The lawyer knew the central biblical teaching of “love your neighbour as yourself”. But the lawyer wanted to know who his ‘neighbour’ really was. What Jesus then shared is still relevant today:

“In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him”.

Then Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?””[1]

What the modern reader might miss is that the Samaritan was not ethnically or religiously connected to the man who was attacked. And so Jesus helped lift the eyes of the lawyer, raising his sight to see his neighbour was not just the person who lived next door, nor just the people he shared a culture or language with. But his neighbour included anyone he came into contact with.

Interesting thought. How about next time we see that stranger in trouble, we are the ones who go and help.

Notes:

[1] The Bible, Luke 10:30-34, 36 (NIVUK)

[Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

Identity: where is it safe?

August 14, 2019

Identity – our personal identity – has become something of a commodity in our digitalised, technology-driven culture. But its increasing availability is alarming.

Just a cursory look at today’s headlines will show concerns over facial recognition being used at King’s Cross, the millions of fingerprints that have been leaked by a security firm, and the recent explosion in people handing over their DNA to companies in exchange for information about their ancestry.

What are the implications?

If information about our identity is in the hands of another then there is a shift in power. We may become powerless – or at least subject to influence – and others may have power over us – after all knowledge is power. But maybe more than that, does this accumulation of personal data not erode the liberty we have enjoyed for so long and the privacy that is inherent in the West’s emphasis on human dignity?

I don’t have all the answers or even the solutions. But I do have something else.

I have a hiding place – a place of safety where my personal information will not be misused.

We have an innate desire for our identity to be protected, or at least respected. There are some things in our life, in our personal histories, that are rightly private. I wouldn’t feel too good if it got into the wrong hands. But for me, I have found a place where my most personal information and identity will be protected.

So where?

Many would argue that the liberty and emphasis on human dignity the West has espoused, has flown organically from a very specific Christian concept about human identity: that we are made in the image of God. You may not believe in this personal God, but this idea led me to my place of safety.

The Christian concept of identity is encouraging for this reason. We are told that Jesus is interested in keeping our identity safe and unique – our personal information hidden away.

“…and your life”, the Scriptures tell us, “has been safely guarded by the Messiah [Jesus] in God”.[1]

And there is a big difference in our identity being in Jesus: he won’t misuse it.

I appreciate this may be of little consequence if you don’t believe in Jesus. But if you find the idea encouraging why not search out this safe place?

Notes:

[1] The Bible, Colossians 3:3 (ISV)

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