Can You?

Northern Ireland seems to be in a state of permanent darkness at present. When I wake up it’s dark, cold, wet and windy. I go to work and sit in an office all day. With no windows. Then I come home. It’s dark, cold, wet and windy. The only time I encounter daylight is on my lunchtime run. When it’s slightly less dark but still cold, wet and windy. Has the Arctic Circle been moved south without anyone telling us?

These conditions affect us all but at least I have a warm house to go home to at night. On my walk to and from the office I feel sad for the growing number of rough sleepers who I pass. I stopped the other day and gave a few pounds to one of my homeless friends, Inesa. She was huddled outside the train station with her dog, Poppy. Poppy is in immaculate health. Shiny coat, wet nose and well fed. Inesa, not so much.

You see, Inesa puts her dog’s health before her own. She told me she has had a flu for three weeks and her boyfriend, Vladimir, was too ill to venture down into the town from the park where they sleep at night, when they don’t have the £40 needed to stay in a bed and breakfast. Inesa is too scared to stay in a hostel because of the hassle she gets from another girl, Maria.

Maria told me a different story, of course. The truth is an evasive commodity and I have to take everything I’m told with a generous pinch of salt. I’m minded to believe Inesa, though. She is always sober, polite and humble when I see her. She never asks for anything and when I do offer to help, she always accepts it reluctantly. She once told me she felt bad taking money from me, as I have children to look after.

Inesa is on a journey, as am I, and our paths have chosen to cross on the drab streets of Belfast. The aforementioned Maria is the inspiration behind the character of Meredith Starc, in the book I’m just finished, but there’s a dash of Inesa in there as well. Meredith also has that humility and pride, despite her circumstances. I told Inesa this once and she laughed with genuine delight, that she would end up in a novel.

I was running along the Lagan Towpath yesterday, accompanied by two rowers who cut a swathe through the water to my left. All three of us were working hard. I was pumping my legs while their arms strained to propel themselves along. It was a fairly even contest. At times I was ahead of them, while on other occasions they forged into the lead. But, we were all heading in the same direction.

My prayer and hope today is that Inesa, Maria, Vladimir and all the other rough sleepers in Belfast, continue on their allotted journeys, with brighter times ahead. And if this post can prick the conscience of one person today to show kindness and love to similar folk in their own town and city, then my work is done. They deserve better and I know I can do more. Much more. Can you?

That Time I Frightened A German Teenager On The London Underground

So there I was yesterday afternoon. Sitting on the tube as it hurtled beneath the streets of London towards our stop. It was packed which meant that my work colleague was sitting further down the carriage whilst I was surrounded by a gaggle of excited German teenagers who had embarked at the previous stop. I decided to give up my seat to one of them and move down the carriage nearer my colleague.

I did this for a number of reasons. Firstly I am a gentleman and an all round top guy. You should always give up your seat to a lady who is standing or at least offer to do so. The fact that 99 times out of 100 I ignore this etiquette on my daily commute in and out of Belfast is besides the point. A mere trifling detail. I’m a Christian and we are all a major disappointment to our God but he loves us anyway, flaws and all. Moving swiftly on.

The real reason I gave up my seat was that I was afraid I would become separated from my colleague at our stop. I can barely find my way around our village back home let alone one of the largest cities in the world. This meant standing for a few moments but I was alright with that. I caught my colleague’s eye and confirmed with her that we would be disembarking at the next stop. All was good and I was an anxiety free Stephen.

That lasted for a fleeting few seconds as I realised that the German teenage girl sitting next to my colleague was looking at me in a manner which meant only one thing. She was considering giving up her seat to me. She saw an opportunity to perform an act of kindness towards an elderly man laden down with luggage in a stuffy, crammed compartment. I saw only humiliation, despair and the end of my middle age.

I had been dreading this day for many years. It would effectively signal the end of my life and send me sailing down the slippery slope of free bus passes, ear hair and knitted cardigans. I fixed her with a desperate expression. ‘Do. Not. Do. It. I am in full possession of my faculties. I ran a sub four hour marathon the other week. I am not your grandfather. There is no need for this you incredibly kind, but hopelessly deluded German teenager. For the love of sweet Jesus. Don’t.’

Of course I said none of the above but my powers of telepathy must have somehow got through to her. Which was cool because (a) I didn’t know I was a telepath and (b) that I was a bi-lingual one at that. She looked away and the moment was gone. I had survived and thankfully disembarked a few moments later. I will never forget that kind German girl. Just as she will probably never forget the crazed, perspiring, staring Irishman who gave her the creeps on the tube.

As near misses go this was probably a Def Con 4 experience. I know that the day is coming when a young person will offer me their seat on public transport. Just as I know that I will respond with maturity and grace by undoubtedly glaring at them before storming off down the carriage in a strop. I increasingly feel as if I’m running out of time and yesterday was merely another example of that. The clock is ticking. Faster than I want it to.

It’s just life and I guess I will have to accept that. Live in the present and enjoy the many positives surrounding me today. Be thankful for what I have, not what I’ve lost or think I need. I am where I am for a reason. I cannot take my eye off that ball. So today this forty something is grateful for what he has – his family, his fractured faith, his fitness….and kind, German teenagers on the London Underground.

What’s been your most humiliating public transport experience?

Are you worried that life is passing you by too quickly?

Who Needs You Today?

Earlier in the week I wrote about how Peter, the most unlikely of leaders, became head of the early Christian church in Jerusalem following the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The church grew at an incredible rate during this period as many thousands were converted after hearing the testimonies of Peter and the other disciples and witnessing the many signs and wonders they performed which are sprinkled throughout the early chapters of the Book of Acts.

It must have been a period of great excitement. People were being healed, speaking in foreign languages and the Holy Spirit was running amok. Believers genuinely expected the return of Jesus any day and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Local religious leaders were on edge and the occupying Romans were itching to brutally subdue the first suggestion of revolt. It was a dangerous, intoxicating time and life was lived on the edge as the early believers never knew what was around the next corner. Yet for all the excitement it is the following verses that always stop me in my tracks:

‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy person among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.’ Acts 4:32-35 (NIV)

Wow!

I’ll just say that again for effect.

Wow!

To me this is the purest description of community imaginable. Never mind preaching in front of huge crowds, outarguing the supposed greatest theologians of their time and performing miracles at the drop of a hat; it meant nothing unless it was underpinned by love for others. Loving people so much that you were willing to sell all your belongings, even your own house, in order to provide for them. Nobody went without. Everything was shared equally. There were no distinctions made. They were all in this together. They lived and loved out of each other’s pockets.

This to me was and is church. Church is not a building you go to once a week where you exchange small talk with people you don’t really know or care to know and vice versa. Church isn’t singing a few songs and wearing your best clothes so that you look good in front of those you want to impress. Church isn’t fake smiles and ‘I’m fine’ and ‘I’m so sorry to hear that I’ll pray for you’ but then don’t because you didn’t really mean it and, hey, they aren’t going to know anyway. Church is so, so much more than that. Church is love. Selfless, humble love.

Church is praying privately for someone you don’t particularly like without them knowing you are; church is helping out a needy neighbour or a homeless person and then not bragging about it to all and sundry. Church is keeping in touch with people seven days a week instead of just putting on a performance on a Sunday morning. Church is every second of every day you have. Church is Jesus and Jesus is Church. It’s not about rules and regulations and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. It’s about the freedom of loving and expecting nothing in return.

The early Church had it spot on. Because it’s leaders experienced it first hand with Jesus for three years during his ministry on earth. They saw and they got it. I’m not so sure what Jesus would think of many of our churches today. I see more love on the streets, often being carried out by people who have never crossed the threshold of a church building. These are the people who inspire me to try harder and to do better. These are the people who truly get what Jesus taught two millennia ago.

You shouldn’t be ashamed to love others. We can all learn from the early Church. People who gave up their livelihoods, their reputations and often their lives for a cause which they knew was right. People of honour and integrity. People like Peter and Stephen and Paul. There is power in humility; there is strength in revealing your weaknesses and flaws to others. We need to work towards building these communities again. To let the lonely, the broken and the desperate know that they need never be lonely, broken and desperate again.

I would encourage you today to look around within your own community and identify someone in need. Then take the revolutionary step of doing something to address that need. It could be as simple as buying a cup of coffee or sending a text message. There is someone within your sphere of influence today who needs help, who needs your help. Be bold and take that first step, make that first move. Identify and address their need. They need you and you need to act. Be their community and make a difference today. Thank you.

What is church to you?

Who needs your help today?

Ask Me A Question….

How many times have you opened your mouth to say something to a loved one but have been unable to force the words from your lips? You’ve felt too awkward or embarrassed to make public what may have been sitting on your heart for what seems like an eternity. So the unspoken thought or emotion lies dormant within you never to see the light of day. It’s a frustrating, infuriating feeling right? You are bursting at the seams but unable to seize the moment. And another opportunity meanders by. Another day is lost and important words go unspoken.

I have often bottled up my emotions and allowed them to fester and spoil within me. They eat away at you from within, like acid working on your stomach lining. Why is it so hard to speak the truth when lies seem to drip so effortlessly from our lips? Why do we stumble over proclamations of love when words of hate and ill feeling fly from our mouths like flocks of crazed crows? We cannot practice what we preach unless we first practice how to speak lovingly, truthfully and without fear.

So today I’m going to suggest an exercise. I want you to ask me up to three questions. It can be anything. Something that you’ve always wanted to ask but have held back. It might be trivial, it might be silly, it might be deep and spiritual. Whatever it is I will answer you truthfully. But it will be a special kind of truth because it will cross the ether and unlock your own truth reservoir. When I have answered I want you to speak to a loved one later today and tell them how much they mean to you; how much you appreciate what they do for you. You can even mention the dreaded ‘L’ word if you want. That’s love by the way not laundry.

You do not have to participate if you don’t want to but I hope that you do. It could be the safest of steps for you or it could be a gargantuan leap into the unknown. Either way I hope releasing words of love and kindness from within you will start a tiny tsunami of positivity that spreads throughout your community. It could fizzle out or it could start a chain reaction that results in permanent, concrete change within damaged relationships and brittle friendships. Call me naive but I hope and pray that this is so.

So it’s over to you. Are you up to the challenge?

Start asking….

Care & Love 

A rare theological discussion broke out in the office yesterday. Delighted as I initially was it soon degenerated into the usual nonsense as the youngest member of our team innocently enquired ‘Did they have bicycles in the Bible?’ Amidst howls of derision from my co-workers I wracked my memory banks for all of a miilsecond before sagely replying ‘No. But they did have donkeys….and the occasional camel.’

Not to be discouraged she persevered with her line of questioning. ‘Well what about wheelchairs then? There were lots of disabled people in the Bible. How did they get about?’ I rolled my eyes and patiently replied ‘No. 1st Century Israeli roads were not really conducive to wheelchairs even if they had existed back then. Mats. People were carried about on mats….at least until Jesus healed them.’

The conversation meandered on then to how many humps Biblicals camels had and I surveyed the shattered remnahts of another evangelical opportunity gone awry. I’m sure Paul didn’t have these kind of problems when he preached to the Gentiles. But it switched on a lightbulb in my head. Jesus was telling people to get up from their mats and walk all the time but how did they get to him in the first place anyway? I’ve heard of flying carpets but motorised mats? Surely not?

Our 13 year daughter, Hannah, is a wheelchair user. She was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. Hannah is fiercely independent but is presently waiting for an all singing, all dancing motorised wheelchair. This will make a massive difference to her life because, at present, she is making do with a chunky manual wheelchair which she has difficulties operating. She is fine getting around the house but, outdoors, often needs help. We do this unhesitatingly without even thinking about it.


She is our daughter and we would do anything for her; including pushing her to the ends of the earth if need be. In legal terms we are her carers. And yes, we care deeply for her, but it goes beyond that. We do it because we love her. Had we lived in Biblical times and heard of this guy called Jesus who has healing people at will then we would have got her to him by hook or by crook. Hannah’s faith would have done the rest.

People carried their relatives and friends to Jesus on the mats. It would have been backbreaking work on rocky, uneven roads. They would have stumbled often and there might have been the odd expletive along the way. But they did it anyway. Out of love for the person they were carrying, underpinned by a faith and hope that Jesus could achieve the impossible and make their wildest dreams come true. They pushed through crowds, dismantled roofs and roared for people to move but they got their nearest and dearest to Jesus. 

The mats were carried by aching limbs and throbbing feet. But they were powered with love. And I know as the disabled friend or relative rose unaided from their mat Jesus would have smiled at the amazed, yet joyous, expressions of their carers. Because as well as changing the lives of their loved ones through physical healing he was also bringing spiritual and emotional healing to those who had given up their lives for others who needed them. 

Jesus generated extreme emotions in people wherever he went. He was the eye of a three year ministerial storm that went on to change the world beyond recognition. He was love but, in the end, he was surrounded by anger, bitterness and hatred. During those three years, however, he shone like a beacon to the desperate and disenfranchised. They came to him. Even if it meant being carried. 

Please pray today for the disabled but also for those who care for them. They are the unsung heroes within our communities working quietly yet tirelessly out of a spirit of love. Jesus loved their love. And so must we.

Mark 2:4 – ‘Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.’

What are your thoughts on this post? We would love your feedback.

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