Don’t give in to hate

‘I hate Donald Trump’. ‘I hate Theresa May’. I hate Jeremy Corbyn.

Have you heard anyone say things like that recently?

I have.

In a politically divided country (and world!), they’re quite common statements.

Some days (particularly on social media), it can feel like hate oozes so easily from the end of typing figures and often, it’s a toxic sludge of hate and smug self righteousness which says, I can write what I like about this person, because they are a much worse human than I am. They deserve everything they get.

Because of this (and due to the risk of possible ‘infection’!) I’m usually kinda careful about what I read and watch on social media. But, being quite fascinated by American politics, the other night I was flicking through Facebook when a video popped up on my news feed.

In the video (which seemed innocent enough), a man (in the US) was standing on his lawn filming as a passing stranger destroyed ‘Vote for Ted Cruz’ signs which were in the front yard.

Hey buddy, that’s my property, you can’t do that‘, said the guy filming.

The stranger turned to the camera and smiled, ‘well, I’ll just destroy your neighbour’s then’.

You can’t do that either (said filming man).

The man behind the camera began to follow the stranger and then told him (politely) that he needed to leave the area.

And then something utterly horrifying happened.

The stranger turned round to the camera and in a split second (before I had time to click ‘stop’ on the video), his features contorted into the most hideous snarling expression, his lips curled back, his eyes blackened, rolled and in a completely different, other-worldly voice, he started to howl and scream into the camera, ‘I hate Ted Cruz, I hate Ted Cruz, I HATE TED CRUZ’.

The moment was so shocking, I literally dropped my phone and frantically tried to switch it off. I knew I had just come face to face with some kind of demonic possession. I’ve never seen anything like it and it was quite horrific. I was not expecting that.

I sat there, heart pounding, pulse racing and had to stop, pray and ask the Lord to remove that horrible image from my head. That was by far the worst thing I’ve ever seen on social media.

But that is what hate looks like.

‘Hate’ used to be this casual word we casually threw around to say, ‘I hate onions, I hate sprouts’. Today a ‘hate crime’ can be anything from a serious physical assault through to a wolf-whistling builder. But in reality, real hate is a soul-destroying, other-worldly, vicious force that can transform a seemingly benign person into a raving, poisonous human being.

Like the guy in the video, a dislike of a politician’s policies had somehow developed into an evil that ran so deep, he had literally embodied it.

Hate is an incredibly powerful, destructive thing and in its early stages, can affect us all, in small, subtle ways.

Does our dislike of a politician’s policies, mutate into a sneering joke about their looks, their family or some other personal name-calling?

Does our sense of injustice mean we find ourselves unable to pray for the person? Perhaps we think they don’t deserve our prayer or for that matter, God’s mercy?

Hate manifests itself in lots of different ways and no matter how strongly I might feel about a public figure’s behaviour or policies, I absolutely want nothing to do with hate.

I don’t want it in my home, on my tv and I definitely don’t want it on my social media newsfeeds. But increasingly so many people seem to be allowing themselves to be embodied by hatred and at the same time, believe it’s ok, because they think they are ‘on the right side of history’.

Most of us would never deliberately introduce a virus or toxin into our physical bloodstream, but emotionally, we can dance round the edges of hatred, dabble with it, play with it.

And yep, even Christians do it. I’ve seen it (from both sides of the political divide) in their online attacks of each other and of ‘the opposition’. Their need to be ‘right’ outweighs the command to be ‘salt’ in a desperately unsalty world.

Yes, we can challenge injustice, unfairness, policies we don’t like (of course!) but ‘being salt’ is literally about being a source of healing, a disinfectant to the toxic hell so much of the world seems to have fallen into.

Salt has cleansing properties. It can help to heal wounds, melt ice and spiritually, it can bring healing and reconciliation (even when consensus on an issue can’t be reached). In all our interactions, as Christians, is that our goal? Or is it more important to ‘win’?

Can we set ourselves the challenge of actively praying for a world leader or public figure we don’t like very much? Can we get past our own feelings to do that? That’s just one way to be different, to be salt and light, when we’re surrounded by only darkness.

I’m speaking to myself just as much as anyone else, here!

Although the video I accidentally watched the other night was deeply disturbing, I later began to wonder if I was meant to see it? Maybe God wanted to show me what true hate can look like, so that I could begin to understand, how important it is, to be salt.

In the right place, at the right time?

The phone in the cold, draughty hallway rang shrilly and it just so happened, I was at home that day and able to answer.

‘Hello Paula?’ said a cheery voice.

It was a temp agency.

I was in my final year of university and, in need of some extra cash, had registered with this agency, assuming they would have so many applications that I’d probably never get a reply.

But here they were on the phone, they’d received my form and were inviting me for an interview.

An interview? Seriously? I’d never had one of those before. What did you wear? How did you behave? I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go ahead.

However, despite my misgivings, standing in the chilly hallway, I scribbled down the details and accepted the offer, secretly thinking that I’d probably ring them in a day or so and cancel.

Little did I know, but that simple interview was to kickstart a chain of events that, over the next 20 years, would be completely life-changing.

In the days leading up to the appointment, I nearly cancelled, but on the day itself, I summoned up some guts, dressed in my best trousers and smart jacket, and within days, remarkably, I’d landed an incredible job.

I was sent to the HQ of a local TV station, and my part time temp role (in between Uni lectures) was to take calls for the biggest daytime TV programme in the country, ‘This Morning’.

I loved it! Every day, there would be a televised phone in and it was my job (along with a team) to chat to viewers, record their comments and decide which ones would be put forward to go on air. Great team, great fun…I felt like I’d truly landed on my feet. I knew it was only a temporary job, but I was getting some great media and life experience.

And then there was big news.

This Morning announced they were moving the whole programme from Liverpool to London and, unexpectedly, I was asked if I wanted to go with them.

It was a BIG move. I’d only ever been to London a few times as a child, but now I’d graduated, I was available and it was an opportunity too good to be missed.

And so, about 8 weeks later, my dad drove me (and a car packed full of boxes) down to London, where I began my new life as a 21 year old, working in the amazing craziness of daytime TV.

My new job was heading up the travel department. My team’s job was to get all the TV guests from wherever they were in the world, to the studios (and back) in time for their on air slot. Throw in the factor of unpredictable flights, trains and infamous London traffic, the responsibility of the job was pretty immense.

But I loved it. I loved being in the studio with my guests, walking around with my talkback set on, calling chauffeurs to side entrances to whisk celebrities (the kind I’d only ever read about) home and dealing with all kinds of unusual travel dramas.

TV jobs can be hard-going though and after 2 years, I felt it was time to get more experience in PR (which is what I really wanted to do). And, over the next few years, I ended up working for aid and development charity, World Vision.

Still with me? (There’s a point to this long and convoluted tale, I promise!)

Working as the celebrity coordinator at World Vision, one of my first tasks was to highlight the increasing number of children who were being affected by HIV and AIDS across Africa. The statistics were horrifying and it seemed an almost impossible task, but somehow in my guts, I knew there must be a way to tell the story, in a way that people would really hear.

It then occurred to me that I might already know people who could help. And so a few phone calls later, a colleague and I found ourselves back in the Editor’s office at This Morning, asking if we could take the programme’s Agony Aunt, (the late) Denise Robertson and a crew to Uganda, to meet children being affected by the relentless spread of HIV.

Finally, after more discussion, we got a green light and some while later, we found ourselves landing in Kampala, surrounded by flight cases of camera equipment.

Over the next week, we followed a planned itinerary and met some truly incredible people. We met families who had been devastated to lose 5 or more children to the scourge of Aids. One lady had buried 11 of her children and grandchildren and lived on a plot of land, surrounded by simple wooden crosses marking their graves.

I’ll never forget meeting one little girl who stood silently beside me, while the other kids danced around and played with the cheap, plastic toys we’d given them. This little girl though, it was like she’d given up, as though at 6 (roughly) years of age, she didn’t have any joy left. Her head was covered with telltale white patches and I wondered if she too already had HIV.

Toward the end of the trip, we had a little bit of unplanned time one day, so we decided to go off the beaten track and see if we could find just one more story to record, to help finalise the film. I remember it being a warm and sticky day and we had to trek up a slight incline, carrying some of the camera gear. We came to a clearing and with the help of some translators, were led to the home of two young boys, Fred and Emmanuel.

At first, it was difficult to take in what I was hearing. But as the story unfolded, I learned these boys (both under 12 years old) were living alone, as both of their parents had died (likely of Aids).

They were clearly hungry, Emmanuel sat in the corner of their simply constructed one-room house, with his arms wrapped round his body, shivering (despite the warmth of the day).

On the floor was a big, red tomato.

It looked juicy and delicious, but it was their only food. They were carving small chunks out of it and eating it, trying to make it last for as long as possible.

Thankfully, after filming their story, we were able to help them. We returned the next day with bags of rice, flour, oil and (fresh from the market), a goat! How I managed to wrestle a somewhat reluctant goat into the back of a pickup truck, is a story for another day!

When the programme finally aired, it generated a huge response for World Vision. Denise communicated the need brilliantly and the viewers responded in their thousands. Standing in front of the TV at work, watching the show go out and hearing all the phones ringing crazily behind me, is a moment I will never forget. It felt like we were (accidentally) part of something utterly extraordinary.

Over the years that followed, I never forgot Fred and Emmanuel. I had a couple of updates and I heard how much the programme had changed their lives. Thanks to the show, World Vision’s support and Denise’s epic fundraising, the boys were given a new home, were able to go to school and I heard they were now growing bananas on a small plot of land, which enabled them to have an income.

And then, at the beginning of 2018, something extraordinary happened.

I was sitting in a meeting and needed to look up something on LinkedIn. It’s not a site I use very often but as I opened the app, I noticed I had a message from someone called Fred.

Intrigued, I read it and quickly realised this was THE Fred…of Fred and Emmanuel.

Somehow, even though 20 years had passed, Fred remembered our visit with great detail and thanks to all the assistance they’d received, he was now part of the Denise Robertson Foundation, helping orphaned children. He and Emmanuel had even adopted an orphan themselves.

I nearly dropped my phone in complete shock and delight.

And as I left the meeting and returned to my desk, I found I had a voicemail from a UK representative of the Foundation, asking if I’d call them back.

It turns out they’d been looking for people who were on the original trip to Uganda for quite some time and they were really pleased to have finally tracked one of us down.

It was so great (and more than a little overwhelming) to get the full update from the boys and hear how well they were doing, more than 20 years after the programme had aired.

And so, all these years later, tomorrow (Oct 3) is the 30th anniversary of This Morning and all I can say is, if you’re around, you might want to tune in (or record it) for an update.

For me, through all of this, through 20+ years of an astonishing story, I am reminded of one simple thing – the big things, come from small things.

Going (reluctantly) to a job interview, as a student and landing a seemingly insignificant part-time job led to a new job, new connections, a trip and ultimately two young boys having their worlds transformed.

On a grey day, we can easily despise the small things, turn over in bed, allow our nerves to get the better of us and yet, what if, those simple, ordinary, everyday things, have the power to impact the world around us? If I hadn’t answered the phone that day in the draughty hallway, if I had cancelled the interview, so many things might not have happened.

Getting up each day might feel like a chore, as you go to a job you dislike, or have to break up arguments between children, get stuck in traffic or find yourself doing a task you really don’t want to do. But what if, every small action is part of a journey, towards greater, life-transforming things?

What if, today is the day, YOU will be the right person in the right place at the right time?

You might never see the effects or get the opportunity to hear what happened next, but what if?

What if?

Letting go of an old season…

A few years ago, my dad suffered a heart attack. He’s had various health and heart issues since his early 40s, but as he was recovering from this episode, we decided that when he was better, we’d get him a dog.

My dad had always wanted a dog but the circumstances hadn’t been right. But now, with regular gentle exercise being encouraged by his cardiologist, the timing seemed perfect.

And so the search for the ‘right’ dog began.

Dad wanted what he called a ‘proper dog’, a Labrador or a Retriever and so finally after a few months of careful research, we settled on the idea of a Labradoodle. We were told they had the gentle nature of a Lab but the intelligence and energy of a poodle…in other words, a dog that wouldn’t just sit lazily at your feet, but a dog who would act as a regular daily alarm clock to get out walking.

We found a reputable breeder, who currently had 6 new puppies to sell and then, we made our first rookie error.

They say you should never let a puppy pick you. The puppy that picks you (rather than you selecting from the pack) is likely to be the cheekiest, most inquisitive of the bunch. But, from under a pile of steaming, stinky, milky little bodies, a little black nose popped out and on spindly legs wobbled his way towards us. Within minutes, he was chewing fingers and licking faces.

This was the one. This was our ‘Samson’. He picked us.

After my parents took him home, my dad created a daily training and walking schedule and as Samson grew and grew and grew, he got attention and compliments wherever he went.

Isn’t he lovely?

What a beautiful coat.

He’s so big.

For my dad, a seasoned and enthusiastic evangelist, Samson was a gift from heaven.

Every dog walker who stopped to admire Dad’s rapidly growing puppy, invariably ended up in a conversation about the meaning of life and how to get to eternity.

But it was more than just conversation, dad was also getting to see the rewards of those chats.

A chap Dad and Samson met on a country lane, turned out to also be a Christian who was looking for a church. He’s now happily settled in my parents’ congregation.

Another lady they met as part of their daily walking travels, had big questions about life. As a result of this conversation, she became a friend to the family, became a Christian and was just recently baptised.

Another lady who replied to an online advert (dad was looking for a part time dog walker) went to the house to meet my parents (and the dog) and she too ended up attending their church.

And that’s not to mention the countless other conversations and ‘seeds sown’ that walking Samson each day, led to.

By the time Samson had turned 3, he had grown pretty big (bigger than anyone had realised he would) and his exercise needs and energy levels seemed to be increasing with age, not decreasing.

When my dad was diagnosed with a neurological condition and later had another heart attack, we started to realise (reluctantly) that Samson might have to be re-homed. We just couldn’t give him the exercise he needed every day. For me, having helped pick him when he was just 6 weeks old, this was particularly gut wrenching.

I knew it was the right thing to do, but it was still very sad. We were determined to find a great new home for him though and we prayed that somehow, we’d just ‘know’ when we met the right family for our giant, loveable, evangelist dog.

One morning, it just simply hit us.

Why hadn’t we thought of this solution before?

My dad’s brother lives on a huge, sprawling farm in Northumbria, he’s a dog lover and has trained dogs all of his life. A few phone calls and lots of texted photos of Samson (crafted to look incredibly endearing) later, and Sam, the wonder dog had a new home.

Just after Christmas, I took him on the 5 hour drive up to the farm, stopping periodically at different service stations to fluff his (huge) head and have a cry. But as I drove, I thought too about the last 3 years.

It looked (to an outsider) that we’d made the wrong choice in getting such a high energy dog, that Sam was just the wrong fit for our family.

But then I began to think about all the good that had occurred because of his high energy and his need for multiple daily walks, all the people my dad had met on their adventures, all the people who’d heard more about Jesus, just because they’d stopped to admire Samson’s glossy coat and impressive stature.

And I knew absolutely that Samson was the right dog at the right time for the right season.

He wasn’t a mistake.

He was completely perfect for all the lives that were about to be impacted.

Ecclesiastes 3 says, ‘to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted’.

Samson was completely right for the season. But now as a family, we were moving into a different season.

And to me, it continues to serve as a huge life reminder, that everything in our lives has a purpose. We tend to think that jobs and houses and dogs and sometimes even important relationships are ‘forever’. When we lose them, we wonder why, we might feel like we’ve failed, but maybe God never intended us to have them forever.

Maybe he just loaned those things to us, for a specific time and a specific purpose?

Everything has a time and a purpose and a season.

Understanding when a season is ending (and doing our best to let go of an old one) is often the key to moving to the next one.

**postscript Samson loves farm life. He’s been adopted by my young cousin and has fields to run around in and rabbits to chase. Couldn’t have asked for a better home.

Fear is a liar

I love a good, gritty real-life documentary, the sort of moody TV programme with fly-on-the-wall camera work, following a police investigation team, through all the twists and turns of a seemingly unsolvable case.

So I’ll admit, that yesterday in this house, there may have been a bit of binge watching of this kind of thing; one assault and killing investigation after another.

Initially, it felt great to watch the ‘bad guys’ be put away and justice be served, until that is, it was time for bed and I suddenly realised how this tiptoe-into-darkness had become lodged in my head.

As my eyes shut, all I could think about was destruction and hopelessness.

Thanks to the rather grim afternoon of viewing, fear had walked in the door and casually put its feet up on the coffee table of my mind. And it was going nowhere fast.

Eventually at about 1am (still awake!), having chewed over every possible fearful outcome in my life, I prayed, ‘Lord, will you lift this from me? It’s too much’.

I know I’d flirted with fear and swung the door wide open, but God, in his grace and mercy is always able and willing to offer us a way out.

I eventually nodded off to sleep feeling a little more peaceful, but woke up this morning, still a little uneasy and unsettled. But, on the plus side, there was a song in my head, called ‘Fear is a liar’.

I didn’t actually know all the words, just that one line, fear is a liar, fear is a liar.

As I got up, getting ready for the day ahead, I was unpacking that thought a little more.

Of course, not all fear is bad. The fear that you might fall, when standing close to a cliff edge, is a good fear.

Staying away from things (or people!) who might ‘bite’ is a good and cautious way to live.

Not all fear is bad.

But the suffocating, illogical fear of ‘what if’ usually has no life-redeeming purpose.

That’s the fear of all the things that might happen, the things that could go wrong.

That kind of fear is often groundless but it has a paralysing effect.

It lie.

It tells you the future is bleak, there’s no hope, nothing will ever change.

That kind of fear will stop you sleeping.

And it will stop you from living.

With these thoughts and the song still rolling around in my head, I poured a strong coffee and settled down to read my Bible and devotion notes.

It’s worth saying at this point that I’m currently reading a devotion which is un-dated. It’s designed to be something you work through at your own pace, without reading a specific dated page each day.

I hadn’t looked at this devotion over the weekend and before I thumbed to the last page I read, I prayed, ‘Lord, you know how I’m feeling. Please show me something for today’.

I flicked through the book, to the bookmark, turned the page and here was the headline;

You seriously couldn’t make it up!

Perhaps more amazingly is the fact that God knew I wouldn’t read this particular devotion on Saturday or Sunday. He knew that I’d need to see that exact reading on Monday morning.

He even kindly woke me up with the song in my head.

Why is this even important?

Well, to me, it’s a simple reminder of God’s goodness.

If God can orchestrate my day so perfectly, wake me up with a song in my head, line up a perfect devotional just when I needed it, surely he’s got everything else under control too?

For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

When we know we are loved and held together by a God who sees and understands the tiny details of our lives, there is nothing to fear.

Learning to do nothing…

I’ve never been much of a hugger. Ok, I should correct that. I really like hugs, I’m just not a fan of long hugs.

But coming from a family who is mercilessly affectionate, where cuddles, kisses and ‘I love yous’, were dispensed like sweeties at a fairground, over the years, I’ve learned how to enjoy a decent, warm embrace.

These days, it’s much more of a natural response when arriving or departing anywhere; everyone I know gets a short, functional but affectionate hug.

I call them power hugs. I feel like I get all the emotional nutrition I need from a quick embrace and peck on the cheek. I don’t need to slowly extract all the goodness from a prolonged squeeze. I give a hug and then I indicate I’m done by stepping back. My sister in law told me not too long ago, that I ‘tap out’. I hug and then I tap the other person’s back as if to say, ‘ok, you can let go. I’m done with you now’.

As a child, my family would be fortunate if they even got a quick squeeze. There are pictures of me grimacing, trying to wriggle away as relatives came in for a ‘proper hug’. It’s a standing joke in our family. Paula likes hugs, just don’t hug too long.

Recently, I was sitting in the quiet, reading my Bible and praying. I’d read something really powerful on the subject of worry and how it can invade our thought processes without us realising it.

I sat in the quiet, asking God for wisdom for the day ahead and then just as I felt this lovely sense of God’s presence, my brain went, ‘right, that’s it now…I’m done’.

As clear as anything, I felt God say to me, ‘don’t tap out’.

Just like the hugs where I indicate I’m done, I was doing the same with God.

Just when it got special, when he was starting to show me new things, my practical, busy, got-stuff-to-do-side, kicked in and before you could say ‘Amen’, I was off and on to something else.

There was a woman in the Bible like that. You probably know the story of Martha and Mary.

Both loved Jesus, both wanted to be near him. But Martha wanted to keep busy and do stuff for him. Mary just wanted to sit there, to listen, to absorb his presence, to enjoy the ‘hug’.

One got her fulfilment in doing.

The other got her fulfilment in being.

There’s value in both.

Sometimes we need to ‘do’, keep busy, get the job finished, tidy up. But we also need to make time to just be.

Even if it’s just 5 minutes, while we wait for an appointment, while we’re stood in a queue, or (if we have longer) to sit with God and look out a window (without feeling the need to instagram it). It’s learning how to do nothing, to not fill every second with activity, to quietly listen (instead of stressing over whether we’re listening the ‘right way’).

For me, I often show my love and concern by doing things. I’m the one whirling about like a dervish, trying to do all the stuff that others can’t do. Even just yesterday, a family member said to me, ‘stop trying to organise this…relax, we’ve got it’. It makes me aware that constant activity can be an emotionally exhausting merry go round and in the process, I can forget how to sit down, how to be cared for, how to receive.

Even with God, I can easily fall into the grace-less habit of reading a set amount of chapters, carefully highlighting the important bits, praying for the exact amount of allotted time (and all the people I said I’d pray for) as though I must do stuff, in order to earn God’s grace and mercy.

But God often asks us to be still, to wait patiently, to quietly enjoy what he’s saying, to jump off the dizzying roundabout of endless activity.

He asks us to tune in and stay there and not be quite so quick to tap out.

I am not a good person…

Don’t rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble. For the Lord will be displeased with you and will turn his anger away from them. Proverbs 24:17

I don’t like this verse very much.

It’s one of those challenging, meaty bits of Scripture that I’d rather gloss over and pretend wasn’t there. Because if I take it at face value (which I do), it means that when unjust, evil and murderous people get their comeuppance, I can’t have a party, I can’t virtue signal my delight on Twitter, I can’t even (secretly) do a mental tap dance at the glorious news.

Why? Because my reading of the Bible states one clear, (deeply uncomfortable) fact – we are all the same.

We’d like to think that individually, we are ‘good’ people, that we’d never do a terrible thing like embezzle money, have an affair, hurt someone or rob a bank.

And maybe we wouldn’t.

But sin, the capacity to do terrible things, (given the right or perhaps wrong set of circumstances) is embedded into our DNA like cheese on a crumpet. It seeps its way into the tangled wiring of our brains and emotions, meaning that not one of us is really ‘good’ at all.

We all have the capacity to make terrible judgements, to be blinded by pride and arrogance, to follow a twisted path of destruction that hurts other people. Our actions might not lead to the collapse of a world bank or destroy a country’s economy, but they can hugely impact the person next door, our colleagues, our family.

I’m not above doing it. You’re not either.

Yep, plenty of people do good things, but that’s not the same as being good. After all, if events of the last few years are anything to go by, even prolific child abusers can ‘do good’ and raise millions of pounds for charity. It demonstrates a simple point; doing good stuff, doesn’t make us good.

The only thing that can make us good, is accepting grace and mercy and believing in someone who really IS good, who’s sinless, and perfect. Following him does something that nothing else in the world can do – it makes us right with God.

So when I see people on social media, celebrating the fall of another politician or another celebrity, because of their ‘evil policies’ or something they’ve done, I can’t actually rejoice, because us humans, flawed as we are, are all the same.

To pretend otherwise is really saying, ‘I’m better than XYZ leader. I’d never have done that. I would have chosen the ‘right thing’.

But if we’d been given power, authority and unbelievable wealth, we don’t know what we would have chosen. Because, despite our best intentions, that pesky sin code is always there, nibbling at our thought processes, nudging us to choose the path that benefits our own self interest.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t challenge injustice when we see it. Some things are worth fighting for. But what’s the motivation? Is it the struggle for justice? Or is it to jump on a bandwagon and see the downfall of another human being, who in our eyes, doesn’t measure up to our standard of morality? Is it so we can dance on their graves and let the world know that we are better, we would have chosen a different path?

So, in a crazy time of political instability, with protests, resignations and public disgrace, I just can’t rejoice. I can’t dance on graves or get foamy mouthed with delight at protests on Facebook.

I can pray though, for world leaders, for politicians, for opinion formers, for the media, for the unseen people who help to shape what we think is right and wrong.

The saying, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’, has never been more true.

Dear churches…

I grew up in the church. Church has always been my home and my safe place and I knew from an early age the dangers of becoming a ‘church hopper’. There was a frequently used analogy, ‘a coal out of the fire, on the hearth, quickly goes cold.’

And I think that’s true, being part of a church, for a believer, is pretty important and when you’re not in a community, it’s much tougher to keep ‘warm’.

But what happens if you find yourself without a church home?

Well, last year, through a variety of painful unforeseen circumstances, I found myself in that very situation.

Mentally picturing coals and slowly dying embers, I quickly drew up a shortlist of nearby churches which seemed to fit the bill and over the course of a few Sundays, I nervously started the arduous task of visiting them.

To be honest, it was not an easy or fun experience and there were plenty of mornings where I’d much rather have stayed in bed. But, I know that great things often happen, when we take small, sometimes awkward steps of obedience, so I somehow found the gumption to persevere.

However, the whole process made me think about what makes a ‘good’ church. Is it the worship style? The speaker? The band? Or something else?

As I visited one church after another, I began to realise that it was less about style, building or type of worship, but, like any new relationship or buying a house, for me, it’s mostly about chemistry.

It’s either there or it’s not.

You fit or you don’t.

It feels right, or it doesn’t.

So much of life is like that. A new house can look perfect on paper but ‘feel wrong’ and an old, crumbling ruin can look terrible, but yet somehow you’re energised and ready for the challenge. That’s chemistry.

But, despite it all, there are still some things that churches could do (or maybe NOT do!) which could make the experience of first time visitors a bit easier.

And so I write this as a bit of an open letter to all kinds of churches. This isn’t intended to be a criticism of the church and also, I know that church is equally about what I can give, not just what I can get.  I hope though, that it’ll encourage you to think about what your church might look like, to a first time visitor.

Where ARE you?

First things first, if your church building is hard to find and not obviously signposted off a main road, then please write signs, buy flags and do things which say in bold, loud lettering, ‘Yoo hoo…we’re OVER HERE!’

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve driven round endlessly in circles, trying to find a building which was tucked away in a corner with no obvious signs (all the while, fearing my detours would make me horribly late).

Is it obvious where your church is?

The welcome

The welcome is everything. Walking into a new church for the first time is a bit difficult for most people.

Where will we sit? Will anyone talk to us?

Your welcomers on the door need to be the kind of people who are genuinely interested in other humans. If they’re talking to each other and not making eye contact with the people who walk through the door, I’d dare to suggest they’re doing it wrong.

Welcoming is the equivalent of triage at A&E. The welcomers should be the people who are actively on the lookout for the newbies, for the shy, the nervous, the first-timers.

I visited one church on my own and two welcomers gave me bright smiles and asked my name. One lady in particular just ‘got it’. She asked if I wanted to be left alone or would I like to sit with someone, emphasising there was no pressure. When I said I didn’t mind either way, she then introduced me to her friend, who said cheerily, ‘hey, come sit by us’ and she immediately made me feel at ease.

Within minutes, the awkwardness had subsided and I was free to take part, observe and figure out if this was the church for me. As it turned out, it wasn’t, but I certainly couldn’t fault the welcome.

Don’t make me do weird stuff (please)

One church visit will always stick out, just simply because of its weirdness.

I’m pretty sure that when the speaker planned her talk, it looked fine on paper. In practice however, it was an all together much more awkward affair.

The talk, on the whole, was good, all about seeing the image of God in others, encouraging us to be less judgemental and more accepting of the people in our lives who might otherwise irritate us.

All good, all pretty challenging so far.

And then, there was an exercise.

In the middle of the preach, she asked us to stand up, face the person next to us and ‘examine their face’ for the image of God.

As these words fell from her lips, my heart sank.

Seriously? Nooooooooo? (I didn’t say this out loud)

But I was stuck. Not taking part would have seemed churlish, so, a beetroot blush creeping up my face, I turned to the woman on my left to see if she had ‘the image of God’. Yep, all looked good to me, so surely this part was now over?

But oh no, there was more.

We were then encouraged to say what we saw, say something positive about the person. I mean, sure, I’d be happy to do this if I knew her, but I didn’t even know her name.

Incidentally, I noted the speaker herself was NOT staring into the eyes of another congregant. Nope, it was ok for her (ha!). She was holding her mic and watching the rest of us, as we shifted uncomfortably and sheepishly tried to get this over and done with.

‘Are you staying for coffee?’ said nice-woman-on-the-left, at the end of the service.

Fearing another onslaught of being forced to stare deeply into strangers’ eyes,  I politely declined.

The sigh of relief as I walked out the door and sank into the comforting embrace of my car, could have been heard a mile away.

Please just let your visitors be visitors.

Don’t make them do weird stuff, don’t ask them to stand up, say their name, hug someone or force them to make awkward prolonged eye contact with the person next to them.

The silent type

Now as much as I don’t want to take part in quirky, interactive object lessons, I also don’t want to be ignored.

And alas, on quite a few occasions, that’s what’s happened. There’s been times where I have slipped in to the back of a new church, smiled at a few turned heads, tried to make myself look approachable, but by the end, no one spoke to me at all.

You might think I should have tried harder? Perhaps so, but I tend to think that on a first visit, it’s better to be approached. After all, I’m a guest in your house and bouncing up to people to introduce myself, feels a little like helping myself to the food in your fridge, when I’ve only just walked into your home.

Why not encourage your church members to not just gravitate to the people they know, but to be on the active lookout for the faces they don’t recognise?  A simple ‘hello’ and a handshake makes a massive difference. Being completely overlooked (even if it’s not at all intentional) is not fun at all.

Why the personal questions?

This is a tough one! But one of the downsides to attending a new church is sometimes, the barrage of personal questions. I completely understand that people are trying to be friendly, to reach out and I’m grateful that people try, but the questions that no one ever wants to answer on a first visit are, ‘Are you married?’ Do you have children?’ Followed up swiftly by, ‘how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?’

(Well, now you mention it, I DO mind you asking).

One of my friends is a single parent and on one occasion, visited a church with her young daughter. A well-meaning greeter asked, ‘oh, is your husband not with you?’

What she said: Uhm, no.

What she wanted to say: No, he’s with his new wife today, the woman he left me for.

Truth is, everyone who walks into your church will have a story. They might be divorced. They might be going through a break up. They might be a single parent. They might not be able to have children.

They’re not things anyone wants to go into on a first visit.  So, as a church, if you can, why not encourage your congregation to accept people for who they appear to be, without needing to immediately put a label on them. Ask your visitors where they’ve travelled from, if they’d like a coffee, whether they want to sit next to someone (or be left alone), but don’t get too personal, too fast.

I’m not a heathen

Talking of awkward questions, I’ve noticed that if you’re new to a church, there is sometimes an assumption that you’re not actually a Christian.

Well-meaning church members have quietly pushed Alpha leaflets into my hands and on one particular occasion, the minister gave a lengthy appeal at the end of the service and stared meaningfully at me the entire time. The stare was so intense, that I began to wonder if I maybe needed to rededicate my life, you know, just to help him out and bring it to an end.

I loved his obvious passion for the gospel, but just because I’m new to the church, doesn’t mean I’m new to the faith.

I’d rather not give you my data

We recently visited a church where one of the welcomers, followed us round the auditorium to try and persuade us to fill in a visitors’ card.  At one point, he was so politely insistent, I wondered if he was on commission.

He asked when we walked in. He asked again during the ‘meet and greet’ and at the end of the service, he waved at us for a fourth time, promising us the church would not misuse our data in any way, but they just really wanted to keep in touch.  He seemed like a kind, enthusiastic sort of chap but if I want to fill in a card, you can guarantee that nothing will stop me.  I’ll fill in my details when I’m ready, but please don’t hound me until I do.

The exit is just as important as the entrance

It’s lovely to be welcomed nicely at a new church, but what about when the service  over? On a couple of occasions, I have nipped out during the final song, just to avoid any awkwardness at the end. Sitting there solo, as everyone heads to talk to their friends can be embarrassing and uncomfortable.

If you’re the pastor, why not actively seek out new people and go to say hello? Some pastors immediately go to the door at the end of the service so they can say goodbye to people as they leave. Personally, I love this. I feel it shows real pastoral concern. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea though!

Finally, I realise (in conclusion) that this might sound snippy or derogatory. I genuinely don’t want it to come across that way. I LOVE the church. I think it’s incredibly important for believers to be part of a community, a place where they can serve, give and grow. But how your church presents itself to first time visitors, is so important.

The secret to growing a church is a probably a fascinating combination of factors. But when we get the practicalities right and that is blessed by the Holy Spirit, the Church becomes a powerful force to be reckoned with.

And that is just what our world needs.

God is not a one hit wonder

Back in November, I wrote about an amazing experience I had, Surprised by God.

And at the time, if I’m honest, a little part of me thought, ‘well, that’s amazing…now it’s time to get on with it’.

So, I dug deep, found my ‘Dunkirk spirit’, donned my British stiff upper lip and decided to march on and press forward, because that’s what I do. I do stuff. I fix stuff.

And once again, I suspect that my lovely, Heavenly Father laughed.

How do I know? Well, these past few weeks, we’ve been visited by Fergus again, the chap who speaks into people’s lives and says what he thinks God wants him to say.

I’ve had a fair bit of prayer recently and as a couple of things were pinpointed (that no one else could have known), once again, I felt that warm, familiar, comfortable embrace.

And guess what? God’s not particularly interested in me being stoic. My life as a believer isn’t meant to a painful, gritted teeth endurance test. And best bit of all, God is talking all the time.

He spoke really clearly to me in November.

He spoke to me recently, and he’s been speaking all the months in-between.

He’s not a God who turns up in mighty power at a special meeting and then walks away. He’s a God who is totally interested in the mundane details, in the huge joys, the dramas, in the daily struggles.

He’s not a one hit wonder.

And he’ll keep working with us and speaking to us, until he’s done with us.

And he’ll never be done with us.

I wish I could explain adequately what is going on at the moment, but I can’t.

All I know is, that once again, when I unclench my fists and turn my heart over to his control, to allow him to fix things (instead of me trying to!) really surprising things happen.

The projects I’ve been fretting over, which seemed to be stalling, suddenly burst into glorious technicolour.

The inclination to talk and strategise about various problems starts to become instead, an urgent nudge to pray about them.

I see a cashier at a till and I’m suddenly aware of how much God loves her and how much he wants her to know that. I’m too chicken (this time!) to tell her…but next time, I will!

I pray with a friend about a situation and I don’t even understand where the words are coming from, but they’re the right words God needs her to hear.

I pray and see this seemingly strange picture in my mind. I write it down (thinking I’m mad) but just hours later, I go to a service where the speaker repeats word for word, what I’d just ‘seen’.

The situation which I was ready to walk away from just a few weeks ago, suddenly starts to shift, to change in ways I could not have anticipated.

The doors which were firmly closed in my heart, are being quietly unlocked.

Just when I (naively) thought I’d got my relationship with God all figured out, he messes it up.

When I let go, when we let go, he breathes life into death and pushes up blooms through dark and cracked earth. He reminds us once again, that he is a God of surprises. He’s the fixer, the mender, the provider of solutions.

The journey isn’t safe, it isn’t predictable and it’s almost definitely going to mess with your head.

But we’re meant to do it with him, every single day.

His mercies are not one hit wonders, they’re new every day.

When your pastor has an affair…

Years ago, I was part of a thriving, lively church, with a lovely pastor, who had an affair. I arrived at church one Sunday morning, all expectant for a great service, but there was an unexpected somber tone to the meeting. At the end, it was announced that one of the pastors had admitted to a ‘moral failure’ and as a result, was stepping down. There was a palpable sense of shock in the room, as hearts sank and voices murmured. It wasn’t judgement, just surprise, hurt and most of all, disappointment.

Fast forward a few years later, I was part of a thriving, lively church, with a lovely pastor…who had an affair. With an eerie sense of Déjà vu, I arrived at church one Sunday morning, all expectant for a great service, but there was an unexpected somber tone to the meeting. As the church leaders filed out from the vestry, a strange hush fell. Something was wrong. The lead pastor was missing. Where was he? Turns out, he’d admitted to an extra marital relationship. He’d stepped down and only time would tell what the future held.

Once again, I’ll never forget the sense of grief and sadness in the room, not just sadness for us as a church, but grief for a struggling marriage, for a wife who had been betrayed, for all the relationships which had been damaged by a series of lies and poor decisions.

The shock, the questions and the fallout from all of these incidents was immense.

And since then, there have been many, many more. You’ll have read about the more public scandals, or you might have experienced the heartache of ‘moral failure’ in your own church and felt how it gnaws at the fabric of your community.

But the truth is, I suspect no one ever deliberately sets out to fall, to destroy their relationships and their church’s trust. It begins with a series of tiny steps, all in the wrong direction.

It begins when we start to believe the great things other people say about us.

It begins when we think rules and boundaries don’t apply to us, that we can skip around the edges of the pool without falling in the deep end.

It begins when our posts on social media subtly become more about what we’re doing, than about what God is doing (an easy trap!).

It begins when we make ourselves the hero of the story.

And it’s been the same story for generations.

Adam and Eve turned their ear to a sneaky little whisper and began to question all they knew to be true.

King David strolled along a rooftop and made a split second decision to take a second look at a bathing woman.

Jonah, Abraham….the list goes on, great men and women of God who momentarily leaned into lies, impulses and took tiny steps into a future which had disaster spray painted all over it.

Last year, US author Phil Cooke blogged about the simple ways ‘moral failure’ can begin and how leaders can help themselves.

Falling from grace begins with the small stuff. But it can also be stopped in its tracks by the small stuff too.

Being ruthlessly committed to the small stuff, can change everything. It’s the seemingly unimportant boundaries, the refusal to toot our own horn on twitter, running fast from heroic or celebrity labels, or anything which might make our hearts believe that WE are the heroes of the story.

If Adam and Eve had walked away, if King David had strolled in the opposite direction, if Abraham hadn’t taken matters into his own hands, how different their stories would have been. God, because he’s God worked a miracle in all their lives, despite the lies and betrayal, but generations later, we still experience the fallout from their poor decisions.

Let’s not get seduced by the lies and the celebrity insanity of the world around us.

We are not the heroes of this story.

Keep going…

Over the years, various people in my family have battled their way through different (sometimes chronic) illnesses. To be honest, from a young age, I’ve seen people I love, be limited by health circumstances and as a family, it’s just something we understood and adjusted to.

It’s possibly for that reason, as a family, we have a fairly dark sense of humour. When my dad was in hospital after a heart attack, I told him off for interrupting my lunch and forcing me to skip dessert.  Or on other occasions, when facing an uncertain diagnosis, one of us has joked, ‘ah well, we’re all going to heaven anyway. Some just sooner than others’.

Dark humour maybe, coping mechanism possibly, but also, rooted in truth.

The reality is, when you are exposed to ill health, it can make you bitter, OR it can make you aware of the fragility of life and even more grateful for eternity.

This life is simply not all there is.

There is something more, way beyond anything we can see or feel.

These experiences force us to take a cold look at reality, at what life would be like without that person, but also to understand that when you’re a believer in Jesus, absence is temporary.  Eternity is forever.

And when you know that, it makes you a weeble, not a whiner.

Remember weebles? Little solid toys we played with as kids? No matter what you did to them, you couldn’t knock them down. They’d rock, they’d roll, but they couldn’t be pushed down for long. They’d soon pop back up.

When you know Jesus, it’s not unrealistic to live this way.

It might seem odd to onlookers, they might even dismiss it as ‘denial’, but the truth is, when we put our hope in Jesus, he centres us and plants eternity in our hearts. In the interim, we can pray for healing, we can expect God to do great things, but regardless, we can know that whatever happens to our human bodies, we will be ok.

No, no one wants to die prematurely. No one wants to see the people they love get sick.  But at the same time, we are not living just for the here and now.  We’re living with our eyes firmly fixed on eternity.

This is true if we’re sick or if we’re not. This life is really only the Hors d’oeuvre for the main course that is to come.

With that knowledge in our hearts, it gives us the strength (like a good old fashioned weeble) to get back up again.   It doesn’t stop us from going through pain, sickness, worry or even death.

But it gives us a hope to hang on to, even in the toughest of times.

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