Screen-Free holiday

Trying to be Tech-wise.

Norfolk screens - 1We had a wonderful family holiday in at the end of May, great weather in the stunning Norfolk countryside.  What made this holiday special, new and challenging was our decision to go ‘screen-free’ for a week.

fullsizeoutput_242fInspired by Andy Crouch’s brilliant book ‘Tech Wise family’ – we chose to black out our  screens, and see what happened.  We have 4 sons, aged 13,11, 9 & 7, they all love screen-time and so do I.    We explained the plan to them, repeated that and then explained it again just to clarify.  It wasn’t the last time we needed to remind or clarify.

How did we get on?

The iPad, (which is only used to consume), stayed at home.  iPhones came for essentials: contacting family, checking weather forecasts (important in the UK in spring) and music in the car (to sing along, not just consume) – social media apps all deleted. Laptop came with us, but packed away.  We packed stacks of board games, books and every piece of sporting equipment we could muster.

Let’s get to the honest bit, we didn’t manage it completely.  We did great for the first few days, but the phones and chargers had to be hidden in innovative places and frequent reminders issued.  After 4 days, we wanted a bit of quiet down-time in the afternoon to read, so we gave the boys a gift of one hour screen time.  Later in the week we indulged in watching a film together one evening, (note together – screens separate us).  Our youngest still wakes up much earlier than I wanted to, so I might have given him my phone once or twice, so that I could have a lie-in.

Staying off social media was really easy, but cricket’s Champion’s Trophy was on and the trigger instinct deep within me to know the score was ever-present.  I maintained my rule of not checking my screen when with the boys, but found a few sneaky ways to score-check through the day.  Taking photos is a part of shared creativity with my eldest, so the discipline to then not spend the evenings uploading, editing and posting them online was challenging as we tried to justify that.

Caleb on phone screenI was really impressed with our boys, they responded far better than I anticipated. They discovered the reality of addiction and temptation and how powerful that can be. They discovered how much they escape to screens for easy entertainment.  They also discovered great skills in justifying ways to find and use screens.  We were all reminded that in a large family, fairness is grasped passionately and more than once ‘But he is on a screen…!’ was shouted with great indignance.

I can only speak personally on the next layer down of internal mind-games, temptation, and justification.  I was interested not just in how strong the temptation would be, but the ways I would try and get round the trigger response to ‘just check….’

Email, not a problem, never once opened Mail.  The desire to check social media, post a good photo or share a witty thought was easily dealt with, but the longing to know the cricket score and the justification to check our wider family group in whatsapp was huge and I got quite creative in my self justification of breaking the fast.

What replaced screens?

A core point Andy Crouch makes in Tech-wise family is that technology is designed to make life easy, but that ease hinders the development of wisdom and character and with them resilience and creativity.  The hours we recovered from screen time, needed to be intentionally used for family life, activity and creativity.  We realised quickly as parents, that going screen-free meant investment from us.  We needed to be more present with the boys, we needed to help them to overcome boredom, we needed to play with them, read with them, walk with them, talk to them!  Having 4 children close in age brings its own challenges, but take away work and screens and that gave us the joy of overcoming those challenges.  The purpose of going screen-free wasn’t just to break addictions, it was to create family.

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God’s provision in a risky adventure to Kaunas

I live and serve in suburbia and a large national institution provides me with a comfortable life.  Almost every activity and ministry I do is required to have a risk assessment.  I long to see the power and provision of God….

In March I bumped into my friend Luke Smith, when I mentioned my sabbatical, he asked me to join him for Escape and Pray in the summer, I couldn’t grab an excuse fast enough so I ducked the offer with a promise to pray about it.  Within a few hours as I listened to a talk on risk and adventure, the Holy Spirit nudged me and said “If you really want to see me work, then you’ve got to put yourself in places where you depend on me”.  I vowed to the Lord that I’d say yes to Luke.

Kaunas - 1 (1)Escape and Pray is a wild initiative run by Fusion an amazing organisation which equips and inspires students and churches in mission together.  This June they are sending 333 people in 100 teams, (mostly students) into Europe to pray for a move of God in universities across the continent.  Each team is sent a pack plus a date and time to turn up at a certain airport.   When they arrive, they open the pack put on their T-shirts and open an envelope to discover where they are heading and their flight tickets. They go with no food and accommodation booked, (just €20 for emergencies) they trust in God to provide.

The team:

IMG_4094Luke Smith: works for Fusion, building teams, linking with churches and having creative radical ideas.  He’s become a good friend in recent years, including our shared love for sport and sympathy in being ginger.

Dave Tonks: a brilliant Scouse church leader from Chester, who I had never met before Monday, but will be a lifelong friend now.

The team dynamic was a highlight of the trip, great honour and support, easy communication and quality banter. I loved spending time with them both.

Kaunas

Pronounced (Ko-nus) is the second city of Lithuania, population is c.300,000, of which 50,000 are students.  The city centre is beautiful, at the intersection of two rivers it has a clean, open, gentle feel to it.  Some traditional architecture survived the Soviets and many churches and older buildings too, we walked past many stylish cafes and bars.  It is somewhere I’d take Nells back to for a romantic weekend!

We arrived at Luton at 6am on Monday morning and opened the envelope to discover we were heading to Kaunus in Lithuania, to be honest, none of us had ever heard of it!

We filled up with a big breakfast, prayed and set off. (We were constantly praying through the whole trip)

Flight was straightforward and we arrived at the airport, picked up tourist maps and asked the taxi drivers how far it was to walk to the city centre.  They laughed at us!  We found a good spot to hitch-hike and within a minute a big Audi stopped, the passenger spoke English and they happily took us to the city centre in comfort. (about 20km away and off their route)

IMG_3993We looked around the city, found a prominent church, which was beautiful but no one spoke to us.
We walked down the main street and an old man enthusiastically chatted to us, attaching himself to us as tour guide.  He led us to the old town, and disappeared.  There we found an Ignatian college, Luke is pursuing the Ignition scripture meditation exercises and we were there for students so we rang the doorbell.  We were immediately welcomed in, we explained our story and purpose and asked to meet and pray for the college director.  Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 15.55.35The kind woman who let us in took us upstairs and found some colleagues including the English teacher.  We chatted for a while, asking about the college, its Ignatian principles and as we did so, my caffeine addiction kicked in.  I simply thought ‘I wonder if they’ll give us some coffee’.  Within seconds our host interrupted herself and said  “Sorry, we’re standing, come and sit down, would you like some coffee?”  They were lovely, and over coffee, water and amazing biscuits gave us insight into the city and directed us to the local Jesuit priest and mass at his church at 5pm.

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The Main square in ‘old town’

We turned up for mass a few minutes late and sat through it, not understanding a word, but recognising the structure.  At the end the priest disappeared, so we grabbed a young man in the row in front and introduced ourselves.  Again we explained our story and why we’d come.  He was amazed and said “Wow, these things never happen to me!”

He then phoned his friend Agne and said I’ll take you to meet my friends.  We walked across the city square and into a building to find ourselves in the Kaunas Arch-diocese Catholic Youth centre.  We met a couple of the staff and some of the students, who used it as a social base a bit like a Chaplaincy.

Kaunas - 7

A Lithuanian delicacy

Their English was amazing, (true for all those under 25 we met) and they invited us in, offering food and drinks.
A group of about 12 students and youth centre staff gathered around and we talked.  We discovered that they were passionate for Jesus and shared our taste in worship music and hunger for the Holy Spirit.  Ange made a couple of calls and then told us that she’d sorted out accommodation for us in a spare room in a local seminary.  After a while someone suggested we worship and pray together.

We went through to an open meeting room, someone opened in a brief liturgical prayer and then we worshipped, all facing the cross, with a guitar and songs with familiar tunes but in Lithuanian.  It was spontaneous and passionate worship of Jesus.  Luke, Dave and I then offered to pray for each of them, so we went round as they worshipped and laid hands on each on, sharing specific prophetic words for each of them and encouraging them.  It was stunning in every way, to see the Holy Spirit impact them and to see their freedom, joy, friendships and desire to know God.  Just like earlier in the year in Mumbai, God reminded me that the simplest way to cross cultural barriers is to boldly lay hands on someone’s shoulder, speak out prophetically whatever the Holy Spirit gives me and pray for healing wherever possible. IMG_4003

Kaunas - 8After that, we were taken out of the city to a retreat house log cabin in the woods, where a team were training and preparing for a children’s camp this summer.  We shared our story and then we offered prophesy or prayer for healing to everyone. There were about 20 teenagers and students there (and a Nun) and they all came forward to be prayed for.  We prophesied, prayed for personal needs and for healing.  One 17yr old lad who had lung problems (asthma, I think) said he felt extreme heat in his lungs as I prayed for him and then they felt very clear and breathing easier.  The Nun was so humble and hungry for God and asked me to pray for healing for her too.
We were buzzing!

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Kaunas Fort

 

We played silly games with them late into the evening and then returned to Kaunus and taken to the empty seminary building, where beds had been made up, we had our own kitchen, bathroom and they gave us food for breakfast and the next day.  From our window we looked straight onto Kaunas’s Medieval fort.

 

 

Reflections

Before God acts, all we have is trust.  As we flew there, I trusted God would provide, but I had no idea how and I had a whole bunch of fears about worse case scenarios.  Underneath each of those fears was a lie about the character of God.  One of those fears for me was that God would provide for other teams, but not us.  I had to recognise and let go of a bunch of lies: That we didn’t matter to God, that we didn’t have enough faith and that it depended on us and that God might make it hard for us to teach us a lesson.

As the day unravelled those fears and lies shrank and disappeared, to be replaced by faith and joy.  This side of the story, the whole thing seems so natural, it was so easy and God so kindly placed it all together

God had us totally available, because we were dependent upon him.  So he took us somewhere we’d never have planned to go, and took us to a group of people whom he wanted to encourage. This trip wasn’t just for us, it was for Kaunas, for a community of young disciples of Jesus, to see that God is real and that they matter to him.

More to follow…

Kaunas - 20

Grief and Religion. (part 1)

Religion often doesn’t handle grief well.

Many people I have met who have walked away from church and as a result pushed God away to what feels like a ‘safe’ distance have been hurt through hollow religion at a time of intense grief.  When those who are bereaved are handled by the cold, rough, unyielding hands of hollow religion, the damage can be irreparable.

Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law died in a cycling accident whilst out on an early morning ride with friends.  He leaves behind my wife’s sister and two young children and a huge archive of fabulous memories.  The words said about him at his funeral on Thursday were overwhelming in their honour of his eccentric, generous, joyful, character.  But when we grieve we don’t want memories, we want to turn the clock back and prevent the tragedy, or rush it forwards to resolution.

George’s tragic death has hit my wife and I hard, because of our deep love for him and his family.  We have  been plunged again into the dark wild seas of bereavement and thrown around on it’s turbulent waves.  I’m convinced that we can’t control grief, it buffets us around.

corfu waves2 - 1

I wrote earlier this week about my experiences of grief at NewWine (Grieving-in-a-crowd/) I have had a remarkable response to that and as I’ve reflected further, I have been considering the interaction between grief and religion, linked the the material in my forthcoming book ‘Awakening: from Hollow Religion to Heavenly Relationship.’   Having first drafted this, I’ve had a number of nudges from God and encouragements from people that what I’ve written can help others.  In the midst of my own grief, my passion to rid the church of hollow religion has intensified because when we are grieving, we are at our most resistant to all that’s inauthentic.

I hope what I have written in the book can speak hope and life to those who have been hurt by hollow religion at the most painful times in life. Recognising the contrast between hollow religion and heavenly relationship can help the church to love and not control those who experience intense pain.  This is the first reflection I’ll post on this, with further parts to come.  If you are yourself in a place of grief and bereavement right now, I pray that this can help you.  If you are supporting someone through grief then I pray this can help you to love them effectively.

Hollow Religion tells us what we should believe but in the kingdom we’re invited to know the King, and believe what he says to us.

Through my own experiences and study of grief, I’ve encountered the 5 recognised stages of grief; Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and resolution.  I am convinced that they aren’t linear, we are all different and go through them at different pace, different order and sometimes a few all at once!  Someone could probably tell me what stage I’m in right now and why I’m writing this, but that doesn’t really interest me.

Striding edge - 1One thing that does interest me, is that those who are walking this path are not helped by being controlled or told what to do.   Religion tries to either offer a dogmatic grid to tell people how they should be feeling, or facile answers attempting to rush the process.  Hollow religion isn’t comfortable with death, grief and raw emotion, it’s too messy and dangerous, many religious beliefs are attempting to prop up an ‘everything is awesome’ culture.  As I’ve considered how religion cack-handedly makes a mess of caring for the bereaved, it’s usually because religion wants to pull people through grief too quickly, damaging them on the way, rather than let them encounter God in the midst of the pain.

When we’re grieving we need freedom not regulations, space to be found by God, not information about Him.

That isn’t easy to write, because one of the most painful and challenging parts of grief is that we both experience the depth of engaging encounter with God and the desolation of wilderness feeling separate from him.  In many ways we can’t do much about that, yet grief screams within us that we need to do something to make things right.  Over the past fortnight I’ve once again experienced the troughs and crests of the unyielding waves of grief, one hour bursting with creative ideas and drive, the next crashing into a drained numbness.  One thing I’ve experienced in grief is the restless angst of not knowing what to do with myself. I long for stillness and then crave distraction, all activity loses it’s appeal and yet doing nothing seems worse, I have a jumble of thoughts to bring to God and then find they disappear when I try to pray.

Bereavement card - 1It’s not easy to find God in the midst of the internal chaos, but that’s made worse by the external pressure of religion attempting to meddle in the holy ground of knowing God.

When supporting a bereaved person please, please don’t tread on that holy ground, don’t invade it, don’t try to tell hem why they can’t feel God, don’t give them your tips and techniques to find God, don’t invade their space with your autobiography, however amazing you are! Lovingly pray for them, listen to them and do what you can to offer practical support, to clear space around them, so that they can pause and let God find them.  Let the Holy Spirit do her job, she’s better at it than you!

Religious lies which push God away.

Hollow religion develops when we believe lies about God’s character and start to live at a distance from him, hoping to appease or please him.

A few years ago, I took a funeral of a man in his 40s who had died suddenly, it was a huge crowd.  He and his family and friends had almost no church background, as I prepared my talk, I heard a whisper from the Holy Spirit; “Please tell them that it’s not my fault”.  I could sense God’s pain, that those He wished to comfort were pushing him away and blaming him for the tragedy.  As I delivered the talk, I could feel the tension in the building, a sense of defiance.  As I shared the Bible’s truth I could almost hear the resistance; “How can he dare speak about God when all this is His fault?”  The Holy Spirit enabled me to speak a very clear and simple prophetic message.

“God did not cause this! He is the one who fights with us against death, not the one who makes it happen”.

Death is the enemy, not God.

The New Testament is joyful and triumphant in it’s declaration that death is defeated.

Hollow Religion mixes a cocktail, combining a view of God’s sovereignty based on philosophy not Jesus, with the desire for simple answers and trying to make everything awesome.  It both leaves a foul aftertaste and is hugely unhealthy, don’t drink it!  Trite comments like;

“He does everything for a reason” or “He wanted them in heaven” are both unbiblical and very damaging. – We will not go to the one we are blaming for comfort.

Religion is what we do, when we believe that we are distant from God.

When we walk with God through this process, he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, besides still waters, through the wilderness and into his presence.  He sets the pace and the rhythm of that journey, let him lead you however long it takes.

Grieving in a Crowd

NWine - 1

[A reflection on my experience of NewWine 2015]

I have just got back from a week at NewWine, with my head and heart stirred, shaken and bursting with raw, creative tensions.  I’m going to abandon my usual care about the internet being ‘in ink not pencil’ and share honestly from my heart.  This blog is more autobiographical than analytical,  I’ve a bunch of reasons to share it, not least to help others reflect on grief and crowds; truth and feelings.

Our NewWine experience this year was totally different.

My wife Nells and I were driving in convoy and turned into a supermarket half an hour from the site, as I got out of the car her face was in a state of total shock.  As a perennially guilty driver with our trailer tent hitched on the back I panicked that I’d crunched another vehicle, the news was far worse.

“George is dead!”

She had literally just heard the news that our brother-in-law had died that morning in a tragic cycling accident.  When horrific news hits you, your world stops, everything goes numb and like many I immediately wanted to do something practical.

We travelled on to NewWine, Nells headed straight off to support her sister and I stayed with our 4 boys and church family and threw myself into the practical challenge of being a single parent camping at a festival, processing immense grief, surrounded by people who were enjoying one of the highlights of their year.

I reflect, it’s what I do, it’s why I write this blog.  I reflect on God, grief and the gospel, I reflect on love, life and loneliness, I reflect on trauma, tragedy and triumph.

Here are a few of my reflections on what was a very unusual week, I pray that they might help others.

Family and friends.

Nells went to be with family, I stayed with friends, I missed her so much.  When we’re hurting we long for intimate connection with those we can most be ourselves with.  I was so blessed that as well as my 4 sons, my sister and her husband were with me at NewWine. I didn’t see them much, but those brief moments of family connection and knowing they were nearby gave me a stability, because their love runs deep and empathy was tangible.  There’s a depth of relationship in healthy family where we can cry, we can be brutally honest, the unedited dark humour which is a by product of my way of processing, doesn’t’ get judged when it spills out inappropriately.  In healthy family, we don’t need to explain ourselves, we are known.

We need family and we need friends. Friends were amazing too.  Our church family and local network of close friends were so immediately supportive, offering practical support, listening and not judging, giving me space and I’m sure praying loads.  Shock and grief can cause us to feel very alone, we want to push others away, but we need deep relationships.  I’m so ridiculously blessed to have amazing, godly, unselfish family and close relationship with them, I was hugely blessed to have them on site.  Not everyone has that, but God places the lonely in families, if they let him.  Build deep, empathetic, listening, caring friendships – they are invaluable when tragedy happens.

Caring for those who grieve.

I didn’t get to many talks or seminars to be honest, for the first few days, I wasn’t really in a place to listen or be motivated and envisioned.  The only seminar I attended was on Job, I’ve just studied it extensively, preached a series on it, and I respect the speaker (Michael Lloyd) – suffering was a subject I could focus on.  The seminar focussed on supporting those with grief and I agreed with every word, about giving space, not blaming God for causing suffering and some other stuff…

The reason for mentioning that, is this: being plunged into a big festival in a state of shock and grief meant that I was surrounded by people, mostly Christian leaders and members of our church family.  I found myself in the position of being a grieving person who needed loving care.

When we’re in shock and grief, we can often detach from our situation and review things differently. I’ll be honest, I stepped out form being ‘Richard in grief’ for a few moments and gave an assessment on the quality of pastoral care I received.  One sad reality of the British church is that we’re experts at critiquing, we seem unable to help ourselves in analysing and finding fault in how ‘those at the front’ do things at big events.  I passionately believe that comparison, criticism and judgement are killing the church, (see my forthcoming book ‘Awakening’ on this) and I confess my own assessment of how ‘well’ others cared for me in the midst of shock.

Here’s my assessment:

The love, care and pastoral support I received from friends and other leaders at NewWine was exceptional, consistent and profoundly encouraging.  The senior leadership of NewWine were all aware of our situation, some of them are friends, others I’ve only met briefly in the past.  They all went out of their way to show love, empathy and just basically be lovely.

No one tried to control me, no one came up with trite, unbiblical nonsense about God, or views of sovereignty based on Greek philosophy not the Biblical revelation of a compassionate God who himself experienced our suffering.  No one tried to find a reason, or make it alright.  Every person I shared our news with, was gentle, honest, gave me space and listened carefully.

This brief highly subjective snapshot of the spiritual health of the NewWine movement and of St.Chad’s church, revealed a beautiful integrity, genuine love and profound grasp of Biblical truth.

Surrounded by joy, struggling with grief.

One of my first thoughts was that it wasn’t going to be easy being in a context of joyful celebration, whilst I was in trauma.  I’ve read the writings and angst of others describing that it’s hard to lament when surrounded by triumph.  In the past year I’ve concluded that I’m an omnivert, I hugely value and crave personal space and I am re-energised by quality time with other people.  I know that many introverts find festivals exhausting, (see Mark Tanner’s excellent book ‘the Introvert Charismatic’).  I didn’t want to be ‘the angel of death’, ruining everyone else’s joy by being around and reminding them of grief and suffering.

In reality, none of that mattered.  As Spirit-filled believers we’re able to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  In the crowd, it’s ok to be yourself.  The rawness of my grief meant I stopped caring about what others thought of me and guess what, that enabled others to flourish, to be compassionate, to bear my burdens and be themselves.

Worship is about truth.

Charismatic worship gets flak for being superficial, repetitive or triumphalistic.  That is total and utter godless trash talk and has no place in God’s kingdom!

I found it a bit inconvenient finding a seat in the crowds, (usually late because of the practical responsibility of parenting) I found it a bit awkward worrying whether strangers would be distracted by the weeping bloke and I had all the usual worries about unwashed sweaty arms invading the personal space of strangers.  But I worshipped, I sang, I cried, I raised my arms (and not just in the big choruses after those stirring key changes) and I declared truth about God.  Because the truth about God becomes more real when we are preoccupied with death, eternity, pain and confusion.

NWine - 1 (1)I love loud, dramatic, powerful rock-ballad worship, because the music breaks open my heart to declare truth louder than my feelings.  Our culture tells us that our feelings determine our words and actions, that can be extended to imply it’s disingenuous to sing words of celebration in the midst of pain and grief.  That too is godless trash talk which has no place in God’s kingdom.  The tragedy of George’s death doesn’t mean God stopped being good, doesn’t cancel the truth that God is faithful, powerful and died to bring us life.

I have written 15 reflections on Psalms of lament in the past month. I am so so glad that God encourages us with permission to splurge our feelings honestly without needing to tidy up their theology to impress him.  But the beauty of the Psalms is that they don’t’ get stuck on lament, they express the blunt un-edited pangs of pain and come to land on the life-giving truth of God.

My extremes of grief and crowds this week have been unusual intense and in that whirlwind, I am more convinced than ever of some key truths:  Relationships matter, love gives space and doesn’t control and worship is based on truth not feelings.