Over and Out

A lot has changed since I started this blog. I’ve moved out, finished uni, got engaged, become a qualified teacher, almost learned to drive, and been on a ferry for the first time – all equally important of course… Now I’ve moved on to this new phase of my life, a grown-up in the real world with a career who’s responsible for my fiancée and not just myself, I feel the time has come to move on from writing this blog too.

Some might say a blog is self-indulgent, a way of showing off and needily getting affirmation by likes. While I apologise for times that this has crept in, my main intention has been to point people towards Jesus and the amazing things He’s done for me, not to point towards myself. Other times it’s also been to let people who have wanted to listen hear what I’ve been thinking about, sometimes a way of processing and organising my thoughts about a topic, and sometimes just a way of being creative. In addition, through writing my blog I’ve realised more and more that even the most effective words are flawed and can only partly reflect God’s grace, holiness, power and love – He’s much too huge to be contained by any box, let alone a man-made construct like language!

As I looked back nostalgically at some of my older posts this morning, I thought about the main things my blog has discussed:

– God keeps his promises! (e.g. Turning Back the Clock)

– Manliness is about empathy, courage, and other similar internal qualities more than muscles or physical strength (e.g. Redefining Masculinity)

– Teaching is a great job in many ways but is incredibly tough (e.g. Noah)

– Jesus died for my sins so I could be in relationship with God, the Creator of the universe! (e.g. Who’s in Control?).

This blog won’t change the world, and it was never meant to. However, I hope it’s been enjoyable and beneficial to the little band of people who have chosen to listen to what I had to say. Thanks for reading!

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Words

We use words every day; to talk, to listen, to write, to think. Without words we can’t communicate properly. And if we use them incorrectly we risk misunderstanding others, or being misunderstood by others. During a chat with a friend this week, I realised that words make a huge difference to the way we see ourselves too: saying “I am special”, and saying “I am special in the eyes of others”, are two very different things, and taking out those 5 extra words has a huge positive impact on your world.

Firstly, if you see yourself as only special in the eyes of others, you will be constantly searching for approval from others. You’ll feel insecure as you aren’t certain of your worth, and this means you won’t always believe people when they do affirm you. “What if they’re just saying I’m special to make me happy?” you might think. Or “what if tomorrow they don’t think I’m special any more?” Your whole world has the potential to crumble beneath your feet.

Compare this to believing that you actually are special. This doesn’t mean thinking you’re flawless, or particularly amazing at a specific skill; rather, it means accepting that you are you, with your unique talents, qualities, and flaws, and that that’s great. If you believe you’re special your perception of yourself is more positive and more constant, less reliant on, or affected by, the opinions of other people. Your more stable identity will help you be a source of strength for others rather than depending on others to keep yourself strong. You become like Bear Grylls helping someone else to abseil down that impossibly treacherous cliff face rather than being the one needing a “Bear Grylls” figure for your survival. (Not that I’m always the Bear Grylls figure! Sometimes I’m one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both at the same time; it’s something I’m still working on too.)

Secondly, seeing yourself as special is the more accurate way to see yourself out of the two. We all have things we are good at, or qualities that make us who we are, and no two people in the history of the world has had the exact same compound of talents and characteristics as you. And these things are within us, not dependent on other people’s opinions.

David Beckham was good at football, and that’s a fact; it doesn’t change based on what people think. He was special. The late Leonard Nimoy, who played Captain Spock in Star Trek, was a great actor. That doesn’t change based on what people think. It’s a fact. He was special. This same rule applies to us normal everyday people too, like my Mum. She is strong, resilient, and caring; three qualities she has that make her the person she is and therefore that make her special. Whether others agree that she has those qualities or not doesn’t change the fact that she does. She is special, not just special in the eyes of others.

And you don’t have to be the best at something to be special. Even if you think there’s nothing you are particularly good at (which probably isn’t true), you are still unique; there’s nobody else exactly like you, so by that reason alone you’re special. If limited edition coins that are inherently flawed are worth a fortune (see dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1196644/Rare-20p-coin-sells-7-100-eBay-thats-35-500-times-face-value.html) then how much more are we valuable as people who, although inherently flawed ourselves, are one-of-a-kind and alive!

Finally, seeing yourself as special is the more accurate of the two from a Christian perspective. I’ve talked before about how God gives us stable identity (see my “Identity” blog post). And I’ve mentioned in a few other posts about how Jesus died and rose again to set us free. One of the things He came to earth to set us free from was this sort of mindset; we don’t need to be slaves to it any more, we can be free and know we are loved and worth dying for. And if that wasn’t enough, God created the whole of time and space, yet values little you and little me so much that he took time and thought to shape us (Psalm 139:13-16), chose where in creation to let us be born, has protected and guided us so far in our lives, and he delights in us despite all the times we’ve messed up and let him down! (Zephaniah 3:17; Psalm 149:4) Wow! Now that shows that we’re special. If God says it, I can trust it’s true and fixed as God never lies. We’re not just special in the eyes of others; we’re special. Full stop.

I really hope and pray that anyone who reads this, but especially the friend I wrote it for, genuinely engages with what I’ve said and weighs it up for themselves. Words are important; they have the power to change a life and set you free. You are loved. You are unique. You are special.

What makes a good teacher?

In just over two months, I’ll be starting the first part of my 2-year teacher training course. This part is an intense six-week summer school to help us learn how to be good teachers before we’re released into the wild (our placement schools) in September. That got me thinking – what actually makes a good teacher? When you think about it, it’s very hard to define. A teacher is so many roles rolled into one; Colin Richards suggests for a teacher to fit the government’s expectations of them, they need ‘the omni-competence of Leonardo da Vinci, the diplomatic expertise of Kofi Annan, […] the grim determination of Alex Ferguson [and] the omniscience of God’ (Learning to Teach in the Primary School, 2010). Although he admits to being over the top here, Richards raises a valid point that a successful teacher needs to have lots of different skills! He also suggests teaching can be characterised as a science, a craft, or an art (or a mixture of all three), making it even more unclear which particular skills a good teacher should have. I think it’s really hard to pinpoint what exactly makes a good teacher, but seeing one in action certainly makes it easier. Maybe you can remember a teacher from your school days who genuinely cared and went the extra mile, or was just great at explaining things! Even then, though, two teachers with very different teaching styles can be equally effective (or equally ineffective), which complicates things even more. However, I’d argue that the best example of a good teacher is a guy who lived around 2000 years ago called Jesus, for three main reasons: He modelled the good principles He wanted His ‘students’ to live by, He used Vygotsky’s theories wayyy before they’d even been invented to help Him impart knowledge effectively, and He made all the necessary sacrifices to get the job done.

Although people disagree on whether Jesus is the Son of God or not, most people would agree that the principles Jesus taught were good. He says the greatest two commandments are to ‘Love the Lord your God with [everything you have, and to] love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39). He extends this second one further, saying you should even ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44) – not a wishy-washy or romantic sort of love either; a powerful, enduring love that perseveres even when it’s difficult. What makes His words so powerful, though, is that He backed up these good principles He taught with His actions and modelled the life he wanted His ‘students’ to lead. He frequently gave up His time for them, He healed lots of them, and the very reason He came to earth was His love for them – and us! More on that later… But the point is that teachers should ‘demonstrate the positive values, attitudes and behaviour they expect from [their] children’ through their own actions (Learning to Teach in the Primary School, 2010), something Jesus does excellently.

The second reason I think Jesus is the best teacher is that He basically invented the wheel before the inventor of the wheel invented it. In other words, He used an approach proposed by a theorist called Lev Vygotsky, who has been incredibly influential on teaching practice in the last few decades. One of his theories is that of the ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development, which is the gap between what the learner can do now independently and what they can do with assistance. In this model, the teacher’s role is to meet the learner where they’re at and help them progress to the next stage. Jesus did that all the time: when He taught people, He used the sort of language they could understand. When talking to everyday people, He used parables which involved situations they could relate to so they could get what he was trying to say. He would also have spoken in an everyday dialect too, something older translations of the Bible with thee’s and thou’s in can make us forget. However, when talking to religious leaders He would quote from the Old Testament more often, showing His ability to meet people on their level to help them learn better.

Even by coming to earth, though, Jesus was applying the ZPD on a huge scale. God clothed Himself in human flesh and came to earth, leaving behind a place of perfection for a place of devastation. He came to where we are in our sin and shame to take us further than we could ever go by ourselves. He died on the cross, taking the punishment we should have paid for our sin (the wrong things we do that separate us from God). And that means sin can no longer hold us back from being close to Him, allowing us the opportunity to be in a personal relationship with our heavenly Father, the same God who created the universe and holds it all in His hands. Wow. And then He came back to life, backing up His claims with irrefutable evidence of His power! Amazing.

My third point follows on from this: Jesus was willing to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to get the job done. Like any good teacher, He had such an amazing love for His children that He would do anything it takes to help them succeed. Our job as teachers might be to help shape the children we teach into good young people while imparting knowledge to them, which will take some sacrifices sometimes; late nights marking, early mornings planning lessons, etc. But as we’ve just seen, Jesus’ job was to bridge the gap between God and man, something only He could do as only He was fully God and fully man. And as the task was so difficult, the sacrifice was so much greater: it involved giving up His life. However, He chose to do it anyway because He loves us so much.

So as we’ve seen, Jesus wasn’t just a good teacher – He saved the world! And actually Jesus doesn’t leave us the option of seeing Him just as a good teacher. If He wasn’t the Son of God, yet claimed He was, He would actually be an awful teacher who is either incredibly arrogant, a liar, or a crazy man. However, He backed up His claims with His actions, showing God’s power flowing through Him by healing the sick and ultimately by coming back to life after dying on the cross. So as well as being the best teacher ever, demonstrating excellent teaching practice that any trainee teacher could learn a lot from, He is our Saviour, giving His life to set us free from sin and allow us to be close to God again. He’s done all the hard work, all we have to do is believe and accept the sacrifice that He has made! Brilliant. (Now all I need is to find someone to do all my marking and lesson plans for me…)

Who’s in control?

Imagine this. You’re playing THE most important important match of your life on FIFA 14 – let’s say it’s the cup final of a tournament. It’s a derby match too, so there’s even more at stake. City vs United. And you’re playing against your worst enemy.

You started off okay, but before long things go downhill. Really early on in the match you get a player sent off: you thought you’d done nothing wrong at all, but the ref gives you a straight red. Then it happens again. And again. Before half-time you’ve only got eight players left on the field – oh and by the way you’re 5-0 down. Nightmare! You feel like you’ve completely messed it up, that there’s absolutely no way you could win now after what you’ve done! Surely you’ve blown it now: no way back.

But at half-time, while you pause the game to get a can of coke, everything changes. You walk back into the living room and someone else is in the room with you. You start talking to him. He claims to be able to do the impossible, to help you be on the winning side no matter how many red cards you’ve got, or even what score you’re losing by. Come to think of it, you’d heard of this guy before! There’s a book about him that your friend reads, but you never read it yourself: you never thought you’d need his help. Anyway, even though you’re 5-0 down with three men sent off and half the game gone, you stubbornly refuse his help, telling him that if you’re gonna lose, you’re gonna go down with a fight.

The second half kicks off. Almost immediately you concede another goal – in fact, it’s straight from kick-off. 6-0. You throw your controller on the floor in complete and utter frustration. You feel ashamed, humiliated, inadequate. The man who’s still sat on the chair next to you asks again if you’d like his help. Again you stubbornly refuse, and carry on doing it yourself. Before you know it, you’ve conceded a penalty, got your goalie sent off, and, to make matters worse, you’ve played all your substitutes so you have to put an outfield player in goal! That’s it: there’s absolutely no way back now, you think to yourself. I might as well give my controller to this strange man, surely it can’t get any worse! As you do so, he smiles warmly, sits back in his chair, and saves the penalty for you. Okay, good start, you think to yourself, but there’s still a long way to go!

In what seems like an instant, the man has scored a few goals, and you’re winning. YOU’RE WINNING?! Whaaaaat?! In the blink of an eye, your situation’s totally changed. Your shame and inadequacy has gone, and in its place you have an amazing joy that you can’t put into words, which only keeps growing and growing as the match progresses. Then the final whistle blows, and as you watch the crowd and the players celebrating your team’s victory, you can’t help but celebrate too! You’ve won! Your worst enemy is defeated! And as you bask in the glory of your triumph, you realise that actually, the glory should go to the man who won the victory on your behalf. As you sit and think about that even more, it becomes clear that letting this man take control was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to you.

Okay, you can stop imagining now. What if something really similar happened in real life, but on a much bigger scale? What if someone was willing to swap places with you, whatever mistakes you’ve made in the past, and totally turn your life around? What if he gave everything he had to make sure you’re on the winning team when your time is up? And what if all he asks in return is that you believe he’s real, be genuinely sorry for what you’ve done wrong (and try not to make those mistakes again), and let him take control? Surely something so life-changing would be worth looking into?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, The Bible)

Christmas Presence

So it’s only four days til Christmas – woop! If you’re a student like me, it’s almost time to let your revision notes gather a thin coating of dust for a couple of days, shut away your textbooks, and relax with family and friends. But amidst all the frantic last-minute shopping, the terrible cracker jokes, and the leftover sprouts, it’s so important to remember the reason we celebrate Christmas: the birth of Jesus.

We’ve all heard the nativity story loads of times, but that doesn’t make it any less amazing, or any less true. In Luke 2, an angel says to some shepherds:

‘I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’

Jesus wasn’t some random baby; He is the Son of God, the Saviour who had been foretold for generations, who would eventually die an excruciatingly painful death on the cross and rise again three days later, sacrificing Himself for our sins to allow us to have a close relationship with God. But this passage highlights another important aspect of Jesus’ mission. He didn’t just come to save the privileged minority (kings, presidents, rich entrepeneurs, for example), He came to save everyone – ‘all the people’ – and this is shown through the situation He was born into.

Maybe you think if God was gonna come to Earth He’d be born in a palace or something – that’d be a birth suitable for the King of Kings, right? Well, Jesus didn’t see it that way. He came to save the lost and the broken as well as the elite, so not only did He come into a messed up, sinful world, He was willing to be born in a stable, a spare section of the inn that no-one else wanted, and instead of being placed in a top-of-the-range incubator, He was put in a manger; a feeding trough. Hardly the grand, dignified birth you’d expect, is it? Also, the first people to be told about Jesus’ birth weren’t wealthy or of a high social status; they were ordinary shepherds, living in a field looking after their sheep. God revealed Himself to the everyday folk first, then, showing through actions as well as words that He came to save us all, regardless of our circumstances.

The shepherds’ reaction is great too – instead of just thinking ‘wow that sounds cool, but I don’t think it’s for me’, or ‘I don’t care about this baby, I’m too busy minding my sheep!’, they immediately decide to go to Bethlehem and see Jesus for themselves. A mate from uni pointed out recently that they must have either left their sheep on the hillside, the flock they’ve devoted their lives to protecting and rely on for their livelihood, or they took all their sheep with them, making their journey incredibly difficult. Whichever option they took, they recognised the importance of investigating this amazing claim for themselves, not letting anything hold them back.

So what’s your reaction gonna be this Christmas? Whatever great presents you get, God’s already given you all you could ever need; unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, peace, joy, and hope, all of which are available to us because He gave us Himself. Surely that’s worth looking into? Be a shepherd! Happy Christmas 🙂

Loaves and fishes

One passage in the Bible which I love is the feeding of the five thousand, found in Matthew 14:13-21 and Mark 6:30-44, where Jesus turns five loaves and two fishes into a feast for five thousand people. This was undoubtedly an amazing miracle (if we were there I’m sure we’d have been astounded!) but it’s really relevant to our everyday life too, even two thousand years later. First of all, it shows that God always provides for your needs, no matter how unlikely it seems naturally speaking. The disciples, thinking the situation through logically, thought there was no way their resources could stretch far enough to feed that many people, but Jesus didn’t read the script and provided more than enough for everyone. It also illustrates that if you give your all to Jesus – absolutely everything you have! – and hold nothing back for yourself, He can do amazing things with it. When someone becomes a Christian they say they ‘give their life’ to Jesus, but too often people don’t back up those words with their actions and they keep living for themselves with little or no alteration in their behaviour. However, if we actually live completely for Jesus, worshipping Him through everything we do, striving to become more like Him and to know Him more, and being willing to make the necessary sacrifices along the way, He’ll be able to do unbelievable things through us; as Ephesians 3:20 says, ‘much, much more than anything we can ask or imagine’.

Religion? No thanks!

It’s a well-known fact where I work that I believe in God. I’d only been there a couple of weeks when people started telling me how unusually enthusiastic I was at my job, and a few weeks later, after I casually mentioned what the Bible says about something during an everyday conversation, they were given a clue about why I was a bit different. Since then the news has slowly filtered through and people often ask me what I believe about specific things (not that I’m complaining by the way, I think it’s great!). Anyway, last night one of my colleagues randomly said to me ‘so you’re into religion, then?’, to which I replied ‘yeah I am’ and told him a little bit about what I believe. In retrospect, that was the wrong answer. What I should have said was ‘nope, I’m a Christian’…

See, being a Christian, to me, is a way of life. The primary definition of ‘religion’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a state of life bound by religious vows’, implying a life of restriction and containment. However, the way I see Christianity is very different. Rather than following traditions and performing rituals every so often, my faith spills over into every aspect of my life, transforming my attitudes, my decisions, and even my most intimate thoughts. As G.K. Chesterton once said, ‘just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car’, and I would extend this to cover other forms of following tradition for tradition’s sake. While being involved in a church is obviously an important part of being a Christian, it’s not about just turning up for a couple of hours every Sunday and forgetting about God the rest of the time.

While this standpoint may sound a bit controversial, we only need to look to the Bible for a rather well-known figure who thought along similar lines. Jesus opposed religious hypocrisy wherever he found it, criticising the Pharisees for their self-righteousness (a good example being Matthew 23:27-28) and choosing to hang out with the people who were marginalised by society instead.  We have to be clear on one point, though. Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion; rather, he wanted to deal with the problems we’d created within it.

My argument can be summed up in a nice little phrase I heard a guy called Michael Ots say the other day: religion says “do”, but Jesus says “done”. Rather than having to follow an endless list of rules and regulations to win favour with God, we are saved already because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, sacrificing Himself to atone for our mistakes. So while God still calls us to be obedient, being a Christian doesn’t mean a life of anxiously following religious traditions; instead, it means a life of joy and freedom, safe in the knowledge that putting our trust in Him is enough. Yes I still try to do good things and live in a way which pleases God, but because I want to, not because I have to. I know I’m far from perfect, and I don’t claim to be, but I believe God forgives me and loves me anyway, wiping away my mistakes with His grace.