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.


Sent as Light.

Light 1[lahyt] (n): stimulates plants, 
attracts butterflies, repels cockroaches

This weekend, into Monday, churches up and down the land will host ‘light parties’, a positive choice to give children a safe joyful place as an alternative to the surrounding darkness of Halloween.  Halloween costumes are shifting, as well as the tasteless combinations of lime green, lurid orange and black, with ‘traditional’ witches and spiders, we now see children dressing as intestine spilling mutants and worse.  In the darkness, craving for the adrenaline and drama of shock, the grotesque intensifies.  A society which considers it fun to dress 6 year olds as blood-splattered serial killers, needs to take a long hard look at itself.

This is my second blog of a series considering what it means ‘to be sent as Jesus is sent’, (see part 1 here )

Throughout his gospel John emphasises how Jesus saw his apostolic ‘sentness’ to earth as ‘bringing light into darkness’.  To be sent as Jesus is sent, is to be the light of the world.  Followers of Jesus, are sent by God to be ’light’ into our workplaces, communities, families and churches. Seeing yourself sent by God as light, is a biblical way to think about how God is sending you.

There is huge power in the simple truth that light overcomes the darkness, millions of great sermons have been preached on it, understanding light gives us limitless options to describe what it means to be ‘apostolic’.  Here I’ll restrict myself to two.

Light brings life.

‘In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind.’ (John 1v4)

Whether or not we can remember the chemical equation for photosynthesis, (I can’t), we simply need to know that light enables plants to grow.   Jesus was sent to bring life, we are sent to bring life.

How can we do that?  How can you bring life into the situations you’ll be sent to next week?

One simple way to bring life, is to celebrate and value the life that is in others.  To recognise it, comment on it, build up and not pull down.  When you see something good about someone, their contribution to this planet – tell them! Speaking it out, illuminating the life in them, will make them more alive.

jump-in-the-sunWe’ve spent a lot of time with family and friends this week, I feel more alive because they have asked great questions, stimulating conversation, showing interest in others, giving them space to talk.  Many of us come more alive, when we’re encouraged and enabled to express ourselves.  Are you giving that kindness to others, are you able to bring life by simply showing interest in others?  In reverse, have you noticed how stale a conversation becomes with those who were never parented into asking good questions, or have lost the confidence to do so?  Help them come alive too, show interest in others and open up lively conversation.

John tells us that ‘in him, was life’.  Jesus was bursting with life, he was creative, compassionate, and controversial.  Yet in personal encounters he valued others enough to ask them questions, to bring them more alive, or reveal the characteristics in them which brought control and inevitable decay.

Secondly: Light attracts butterflies and repels cockroaches.

[©Mirai Takahashi and razordu30 on]

John the Baptist came to bear witness to the light of Jesus. (John 1v8)

John the Baptist came to point to the light, coming into the world to help people to see.  Due to the instincts of phototaxis, some insects are attracted to light, others repelled by it.  The same pattern is highlighted in John’s gospel.  Some are attracted to Jesus, the light of the world, because his illuminates them, he prevents them from stumbling and they can see he brings new life.  He turns water into wine, heals sick bodies, multiplies food, and opens blind eyes.  He enables others to see and therefore not stumble (John 11v9)

In your apostolic calling, to those you work alongside, or stand next to at the school gate, or serve you community with, you can shine light, to help prevent them from stumbling.  They need the wisdom God has given you, we all need heavenly perspective as we scratch around in confusion and darkness.  Again and again, I stumble into human folly, again and again my closest friends shine the light of wisdom through loving questions, to help me stand.

As I read through John asking the question ‘what does it meant to be sent as Jesus is sent?’  the clearest thing I noticed was that many rejected the light.  To be sent, comes with it the possibility of being hated, just as Jesus was.

the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3v19-20)

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is to be willing to be rejected for being sent as Jesus is sent.  We so long for the good news of the kingdom to be palatable, we so long for the church to grow, we so long to heal the pain caused by callous or hollow religion, that we filter our light to make it acceptable to darkness.  But through John, we see that to be sent as Jesus is sent, includes the courage to face rejection and persecution.

I’ve written, deleted, edited, deleted and restored the first paragraph of this blog about Halloween a number of times, concerned that by exposing the darkness of our society’s attraction to the grotesque, I could offend people, or seem ‘anti-fun’.  In the grand scheme of controversies: where Biblical Truth collides with a consumer, desire-driven culture, this is hardly a complex debate.  Yet I battled with the concern that shining light on the celebration of evil which we’ve become accustomed to, might upset others or cause a negative stir.

To celebrate witchcraft, murder, torture, fear and death is as far as we can get in contrast to the kingdom of light.  To highlight the mess and folly of a world which has turned its back on God and refuses to surrender to him, takes boldness.  I find that boldness in the model of Jesus.  And the courage I need, I find in his promise to fill us with his Holy Spirit, to enable us to be sent as he is sent.

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.

The Family Business.

Last Sunday night I got home from an amazing Soaking evening at church, to a text from a friend, “Watch Channel 4 now”!’ A few hours had passed, so I checked the TV guide to see what he was texting about. It was a TV documentary about the Liverpool-based jewellers, ‘Boodles’; a family business, with which he has connections. Knowing some of the family who run the business, it reflected well the very special, close relationships they have and how this has led to a flourishing business.

Whilst working on my (hopefully forthcoming) book ‘Release from Hollow Religion’ I became gripped by the metaphor of the kingdom of God as a “family business”.
God’s great purpose is defined in Ephesians 1v10, “to gather all things together under one head, Jesus”. As children of God, younger brothers and sisters of Jesus and co-heirs with Him, our call is to build this family business, to enjoy relationship with God and to labour with Him in growing His kingdom.

In writing about this I had (then anonymously) referenced Boodles as a family business which God showed me models something profound of his kingdom, seeing more of how the family works together reignited my sense that this family models something of God’s family and how we can all flourish as co-heirs and serve as his children.

Co-labouring with Him is about relationship because He’s a relational God and He’s our Father. I know of another family business which reached national recognition a number of years ago but seriously struggled when relationships went sour. I don’t know the details, beyond the lack of trust, which led to secrecy, and eventually siblings no longer spoke to each other, which doesn’t help major decisions.

From what I see of Boodles, I can see honesty and healthy relationships, where mutual trust and justice are maintained. As successive generations grow up into positions of leadership, parents train their children; input is welcomed. One son went off to start a new venture of the business with his father’s backing, far more than just some cash and a blessing, but an open phone line, emails, visits, shared wisdom and encouragement. The father set his son up to thrive and was there to come alongside and encourage, support and empower him. That’s how God sends us out to build his kingdom, he resources us and relates to us.

Wherever you are, whatever your gifts, there is a role for you as part of God’s family business. The Father has gifted us individually, but supports every one of us as his children. On one end of the spectrum is the slave mindset (see the older brother in Luke 15) we slave to try and earn our Father’s favour. On the other end is ingratitude, we take God’s blessings, but do nothing with them for the family business and as a result we don’t grow into maturity. Jesus told lots of parables about putting into use what he gave us, he also modelled & taught grace and unconditional love. Both are true and essential in growing the family business.

As I’ve embraced this truth, its given me greater freedom, ownership and motivated me to serve my Father more wholeheartedly and revealed more of the genius of God’s leadership.

What is the Father asking you to do to grow the family business?