Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Preparation - the key to Success? (or How to Mentally Slap Yourself and feel better)

"Before anything else, preparation is the key to success." - Alexander Graham Bell

Let me begin by saying I know I am my own worst critic. I often spend large amounts of my week mentally slapping myself on the forehead in disbelief at my own stupidity. I suffer frequent out of body experiences where I witness, with perfect court-side seats, often agape in horror, the bile spewing forth from my mouth. Or repeatedly surveying a comic caricature of myself making the same stupid mistakes again and again and again and again…like the bee trying to make his escape through a closed window.

So most of the time the head slapping is justified (my closest friends and especially my wife can testify to that). There are occasions however where my self-berating is wholly uncalled for.

This was made clear to me a couple of weeks ago.

Most of the time, if I am scheduled to lead worship on Sunday morning, I will also be leading worship at our Café Church that same evening. I would generally spend the start of the week preparing for the Thursday night practice – which is primarily for the Sunday morning service. After the Thursday practice is over I would then turn my attention to Café Church – a much more relaxed and informal service.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I had finished the arrangements for Sunday morning but just kept putting off preparations for Sunday night. It got so bad that 2 hours before the service was to start I still had nothing. Whatever the worship leading equivalent of writers-block is, I had it. Panic set in. I just flicked through my music files and picked a few tunes to take to the sound-check / rehearsal. Why had I left it to the last minute? I should have forced myself to spend time on it, pray about it, read through the sermon a few more times at least pick up the guitar and play something.

Well I took the pieces to the band and they played them well (as they usually do) but it wasn’t right. I knew it wasn’t right. It was far deeper than a gut feeling. I was in no doubt that the Holy Spirit was like “Er…no thanks, what else you got”. So half an hour before the service was to start I found myself in one of the back rooms surrounded by sheet music with my head in my hands praying desperately for some clear guidance.

With a few minutes to spare a new list of songs was put together, unconvincingly distributed to the band and the visuals team and with no time to think we were straight into it.

The musicians God has placed around me are fantastic. Their ability to adapt to the many challenges and changes I throw at them is amazing. I am truly humbled by the trust they have in me as a leader and their faith that God is in control even in the chaos that is Richhill Methodist Worship Team.

Despite my lack of faith in the song choice for that night it could not have gone any better. The car crash I expected never came. God was glorified with shouts of praise, the Holy Spirit moved, God’s word was preached and there was a real encounter with God. Each aspect of the service fitted together perfectly.

Well I was annoyed. My face was tripping me. I was mentally slapping myself once more on the forehead “Why would God want to use a useless, lazy person like me.” or “You don’t deserve for things to go well”.

It then hit me. It was like the light was turned on. It was like I was given a glimpse behind the curtain. The message was clear – I really don’t deserve for things to go well. I don’t deserve any of the blessings God pours out on me daily. But that’s grace. God blesses us freely. There’s no magic formula to receiving God’s blessing. There’s no secret ritual. It’s a gift from God.
(Ephesians 1)

Preparation for worship does not come from spending vast amounts of time churning over sheet music and working on arrangements. It comes from spending time with God. The best preparation for leading worship is to have spent time sitting at God’s feet during the week, praying and meditation on his word. It is only when me know God that we can truly worship God. It is only when we are worshiping God that we can lead others into a place of worship.

Musicians - this Easter week I want to encourage you to think less about the chords for When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and spend time surveying the wondrous cross. Don’t worry about the drum beat in To Be in Your Presence and spend time just resting in God’s presence.

Psalm 27

4 One thing I ask from the LORD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

A Slap in the Face is Worth Two in the Hand (or How Spurgeon is determined to give me sleepless nights)

The iniquities of our public worship, its hypocrisy, formality, lukewarmness, irreverence, wandering of heart and forgetfulness of God, what a full measure have we there! Our work for the Lord, its emulation, selfishness, carelessness, slackness, unbelief, what a mass of defilement is there! Our private devotions, their laxity, coldness, neglect, sleepiness, and vanity, what a mountain of dead earth is there! If we looked more carefully we should find this iniquity to be far greater than appears at first sight. - Spurgeon Morning and Evening (8th Jan)

What a slap in the face. What a cold bucket of water. To know it lingers in the back of your mind is easy to ignore most of the time. We make up nonsensical excuses to explain our shortcomings or just point-blank deny their existence. Its not even a Sunday morning mask, it's much more inherent than that, like a piece of code written into my DNA - The We're Grand Code. Yet to see such a list of shameful motivations and to feel each syllable sting has really taken my breath away. When you look at the maps in shopping centres / Zoos / Theme Parks they have the helpful note on that says "YOU ARE HERE" with a little arrow. Well as I read through Spurgeon's scourging language (written well over a hundred years ago) I am made aware of the big pointy sign which reads "YOU ARE HERE".


Selfishness - ALTON YOU ARE HERE

Carelessness - ALTON YOU ARE HERE etc...

There's a brilliant episode of Family Guy where Peter gets caught lying about something (I can't remember what), but this character then pops up throughout the episode to point at Peter saying "You're a phoney - this guy's a phoney". I spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder waiting for that man to appear and point the finger at me and shout "Phoney - this guys a great big phoney"

I can bluff my way through leading worship - chose the right songs, come up with the right arrangements, say the right things between songs - and yet underneath be this spiritual cripple. No that's not right. I don't know what the crusty stuff on the roof of an old, unwashed microwave is called but that's how I feel sometimes - spiritually like that microwaved crusty stuff.

Yet God still calls me his son. In my weakness his strength is perfected (2 Cor 12 v 9). He picks me up dusts me off and tells me again about how much he loves me. And before I can say the words 'Sorry' out loud his arms are around me.

I hope that The Spirit of God continues to slap me across the face - be it through Spurgeon or anyone else he wishes to use. I don't want to be on autopilot, especially when it comes to worshiping God. I want to be grateful for each breath and when I sing I want to feel each lyric of a song or every rise and fall in the music. I want to lead not by choosing the right songs or arrangements but by being a true worshiper - in Spirit and in Truth (John 4 v 23).

Monday, 8 November 2010

7 Months in the Blogging Wilderness (or How Easyjet Failed to Kill Me...This Time)

I am really embarrassed. That is the only way to describe the feeling I have right now regarding my blog. Despite an eagerness to find a valid excuse or someone to take the blame for my action (or more appropriately, lack of action) the reality is I have no one to blame but myself. Although for the next 80 words I will try to lump the blame on to my brother. He won’t mind, firstly because he has broad shoulders and can take it but more importantly he’ll never read this blog so there’ll be no come back.

Let me take you back to the start of the year. I had set myself the challenge of writing one blog a week for an entire year. In addition to that challenge I had decided to give up playing the Xbox for Lent (no doubt encouraged by my blog writing progress). It was all going brilliantly when in the midst of my celebratory smugness, I was too busy high-fiving myself to notice the massive hole I was about to fall in.

Smack bang in the middle of Lent my calendar informed me that my brother was coming to stay. I knew that this was going to be a challenge resisting the urge to play the Xbox when he was around due to our innate need to compete against each other (I believe it is written in to our DNA). It also turns out that playing Xbox is one of the only things I am actually better than my brother at. So under normal circumstances it is vitally important to seize every opportunity to redress the balance and notch up a much needed win for the home team. Irrespective of these factors I was fairly confident that I would be able to resist the urge to play, after all I’m on a journey of discovery; a deeply spiritual sojourn; a divine path that surpasses any petty sibling rivalry. Here’s how I remember the conversation going:

Me: Hi Bro, hows it going? Great to see you

Brother: Going good. It’s great to be over again. Fancy a game of FIFA on the Xbox

Me: Okay

What can I say? On the back of that decision everything spiralled out of control. Guilt, which is so often seen hand-in-hand with Failure, punch me square in the gut. It took the wind away from me. From the moment I picked up that Xbox controller I was against the ropes. It wasn’t a Rocky moment where despite being pummelled for an hour I would rise with a killer uppercut and finish arms raised in victory. It was Mike Tyson (in his prime) vs. Mr Muscle (without any of his sprays). One punch and I was on the canvas. In the space of 5 days I had broken both Lent and my New Year's Resolution!

So the reason I didn’t write the blog that week was guilt, the reason I didn’t write the blog the week after that was shame and every other week after that it was embarrassment. It is silly how we let guilt and shame tie us up in knots. How something so small can grow into something so all-consuming and cumbersome.

So here I am today facing my shame, fear and embarrassment saying sorry to anyone who will listen in the hope that I can reclaim my therapeutic blog which I have really missed (everyone needs to vent once in a while). Thanks to everyone in the last 10 days who seemingly simultaneously mentioned the blog to me in one way or another, encouraging me to just get over myself and start writing again.

Oh, and Easyjet didn’t kill me as my last post may have suggested. Don’t you just hate a cliff-hanger ending.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

My chains are gone

I’ve been set free

My God My Saviour has ransomed me

And like a flood, His mercy reigns

Unending love, amazing grace

Friday, 26 February 2010

Slapping the Gift Horse in the Mouth (or How The World and His Dog Will Eventually Have His Day)

I am currently sitting in Belfast International Airport waiting for my flight to Edinburgh. From the moment this weekend away was suggested to me I just knew it could only end in disaster – only time will tell how disastrous.

It all goes back to Christmas. Despite the World and his Dog being against us we manage to fight our way through the snowy motorways on Christmas Eve to my mum’s house on the north side of Edinburgh. It was like driving through a montage of picturesque Christmas card scenes with children walking up the snow drenched hills pulling sledges behind them, families of fern trees huddled together glistening proudly in their new white winter coats, emergency service vehicles pulling battered people carriers out of roadside hedges (okay the last one you probably won’t find on a Christmas card).

Despite the warnings on the radio to not drive unless you had to (who listens to them anyway – certainly not the family now in the hedge) we arrived late on Christmas Eve. The following morning arrived with an excitement level I hadn’t experienced for many years – mainly thanks to my 2 year old son, who for weeks had been singing Santa Claus is coming to town to now realise his singing dreams had come true (it was also his birthday – a fact he isn’t so aware of at the moment but I’m sure in the years to come he will hate with every feigned smile as he accepts another present that is “for your Christmas AND Birthday”)

Anyway, during our usual exchange of gifts my brother presented me with a card. I had been forewarned that this gift was an ‘experience’ rather than a traditional physical gift. The vagueness of it all added to the excitement. As I began to force open the envelope I could feel the eyes of everyone in the room fix on me. Out the corner of my eye I even saw a faint smile appear in the corner of my brothers lips. I pulled out the card and everyone leaned in close to capture the joyous moment as the details of this mystifying gift were revealed.

My first indication that something was wrong was that the card had a Manchester United badge on the front. Having been an Arsenal fan for most of my adult life I gave out a little chuckle and thought This is just my brother playing one of his little practical jokes. I read the inside of the card and it said I’d be going to watch Manchester United play West Ham at Old Trafford. Well at this point I KNEW it was a practical joke.

I was aware that my brother was talking at me but I didn’t hear what he was saying. My entire brain function was trying to work out what the actual present could be – were there hidden clues within the text. Eventually, deciding that my brother wasn’t clever enough for that game, I looked up. The expression cast upon the gathered crowd was one of total confusion; to which my mother responded “Look, he’s speechless!!!”

I appreciate now that the first words you say after receiving a present are fairly important. Popular responses have included the classic lines: “Wow, that’s brilliant. You shouldn’t have” or “Wow, how did you know I’ve always wanted one of those” or even the simplistic chic of the timeless and at times much underated “Thank you!”

After much consideration I realise now that my dead-pan “Is this a joke?” response was never going to win any awards. I didn't want to seem ungrateful but I just couldn’t see what the present was. It’s Manchester United for crying out loud!!! One of the teams I despise most in the world (Second in fact, right behind Hibs).

Once the initial shock of the gift and my subsequent response had passed I was able to find out that yes we were going to the match but we’d be sitting with the player’s wives and injured players, we’d get to go into the player’s lounge maybe even down on to the pitch. Even I had to admit that it would be a pretty cool day out.

Anyway since that moment nothing has gone right. United managed to get into the Carling Cup Final meaning our match would be postponed. With the flights already booked my brother suggested watching Hearts take on Aberdeen in the Granite City instead (which excited me more than watching United, Hearts actually being my first footballing love). Now with 2 days to go before the match Northern Scotland receives a severe battering of snow grinding Aberdeenshire to a halt (I knew it was bad when the first thing I heard on the radio this morning was that 30 Schools in Aberdeenshire would be closed today). So it’s looking more and more likely that the game will be called off. At least I’d still get to spend the weekend with my family I foolishly thought to myself unaware that the World and his Dog I’d so sneakily avoided on Christmas Eve would be conspiring with even greater menace this weekend.

I’ve been at the airport for over an hour now (hence the longer than usual blog), and the notice board is still flashing those hateful words ’DELAYED - RELAX AND SHOP’ almost mockingly.

I should just call it quits, turn around and go home but why miss out on the ever-exciting adventure that is travelling with Easyjet! What else could possibly go wrong!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Lent: Cadburys vs the Xbox (or How the Melton Mowbury Pork Pie can Change Your Life)

“Oh, time is on my side, yes it is” – The Rolling Stones
Time may be on the side of the Rolling Stones but I can tell you it most certainly is not on my side!

I start my Monday mornings off by wishing it was Friday already and yet every Friday that comes around I wonder where the week has gone.

I’m often complaining about the lack of time I have. So I figured it was the right moment to sit down and assess where I’m spending most time and where I can maybe save a few minutes.

There are obviously certain areas of my life which are considered non-negotiable. For example work – I can’t work less hours, they’d have to pay me less and I have bills to pay and a family to provide for. Okay I can work less hours and not tell them I’m working less and just hope that no one notices. If anyone is familiar with my work you’ll know I might just get away with that for a while but certainly not forever – even my bosses aren’t that stupid (I’m so tempted to say something smart here but I’ll just leave it blank and let you come up with your own comment about the intelligence of your own employers...............................) .

I could easily shave several minutes off my daily routine if only I were willing to compromise on my personal hygiene. Brush my teeth every other day; don’t wash my hands after going to the toilet; take a shower only when people refuse to get in a lift with me! Simple
Here’s another idea, why not only eat food that doesn’t require cooked! Think of the hours you could save each week by only eating Melton Mowbray Pork Pies and Quavers!

Any way this week is the start of Lent. There were the usual discussions at work about what people were giving up. The usual suspects lined up, the unholy trinity: Cigarettes, Chocolate and Alcohol. Lent is traditionally a time for believers to prepare themselves through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial for Easter and the commemoration and celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ (thanks Wikipedia). But in our office it is just about giving up stuff. I had briefly contemplated giving up chocolate but I realised that my motives behind that would actually be to lose weight and I really wanted it to be about more than just a challenge. Was there something I could do to encourage my prayer life or time studying God’s word? Then out of the blue a colleague challenged me to give up playing my Xbox for Lent. I laughed at first and then realised what a brilliant idea that was. Okay I don’t play it that much - usually just at the weekends and occasionally during the week when the wife goes to bed early, and sometimes when I come home from work...okay I play it a fair bit.
So hopefully this will help ease my time problems. I hope to get through a few books (or as my mate said at least a shed load of pamphlets), pray more and spend some time in the quiet just listening. Who knows what I’ll hear.

p.s. instead of playing Xbox after work today I made Chocolate Chip Muffins!!! ROCK! Oh and yes I did shower today.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Reasons I Feel I’m Getting Old Part 1 (or How Being Showered With Beer is Losing Its Appeal)

This week I attended a gig at Mandela Hall in Belfast. It has been a long time since I’ve gone to a gig. My recent musical excursions have all been concerts. What’s the difference between a gig and a concert I hear you say? Well, concerts tend to be at seated venues with crowds whose main purpose for being there is to listen to music. Gigs take place in venues with sticky floors and poorly lit smelly rooms where the people come to drink lots of beer and generally stand tightly packed or jump around and scream the lyrics back at the artist.

The event on Tuesday was definitely a gig. The venue was Queens University Student Union, the artist – Jamie T. There were about 800 people packed into this little space - The majority of the people younger than me. I assumed my usual position in front of the sound desk (for two reasons the first is it’s usually the best sound and second, there’s a barrier to rest against). Doors opened at 7pm and I turned up about 9pm. I wasn’t interested in getting to the front of the stage or listening to the support act. I usually like watching the support act but as this week is so busy I decided to put my wee boy to bed before heading to the gig - it wasn’t a tough choice really : get a hug and kiss good night from my son or spend 2 hours listening to music I don’t know while all around me students get gradually more drunk and more stupid.

My favourite part of the gig is the minute right before the band come on stage – the lights are dipped and the crowd start to cheer in anticipation. I like to try and guess what song they’re going to start off with. Bands usually choose something familiar and crowd pleasing. If an artist gets the first song right they can do whatever they like for the next 3/4 songs. If they get it wrong it can take 3/4 songs to get the crowd back on side (a prime example of this was the last time I saw Counting Crows they started with the song Speedway which is a great song but a terrible opening song). Jamie T kicked off with The Man’s Machine – perfect start. The crowd went mental.

I’ve been going to gigs since I could memorise a fake date-of-birth but I’ve noticed a recent trend that really annoys me. This may just be a Northern Ireland thing - this may have always happened but I just hadn’t noticed it before. The phenomenon is the throwing of your drinks over the crowd. Why would you spend £3 on a pint only to throw £1.50 of it into the crowd? I felt sorry for those people at the front of the stage who took the brunt of the beer barrage.
I caught myself looking disapprovingly at some young man beside me who with his back to the stage nonchalantly tossed his beer over his head – not too dissimilar to Begby in Trainspotting. When we made eye contact the scorn on my furrowed face abruptly put an end to his smug chortling. I was beginning to feel like a school teacher who had taken his troublesome class on a fieldtrip.

In one break between songs, after the keyboard player had been hit clean in the face by one expertly pitched half-pint, Jamie T addressed the crowd. “We remember” he stated “when we would go to gigs and throw pints at the band...” I thought to myself, Here we go, he’s about to tell everyone off. “...we didn’t do it out of malice; it was just part of going to see bands. It was a sign of how much we were enjoying ourselves...”. Arms crossed over my chest I was confident of the scolding that was to follow and I even allowed myself a little smirk as I looked down on the unruly youth around me. “...well we want to say that it’s okay to throw things – in fact during this next song throw everything you’ve got!”


What followed could only be described the joyful anarchy of youth as beer, clothes, people and even mobile phones were thrown towards the stage. I couldn’t help but watch and laugh as I rounded my shoulders and lowered my head in anticipation of a bombardment from the balcony above me.

I would never knowingly volunteer to be showered with beer but I can’t help thinking that if I were 15 years younger I might just have been at the front of the stage, topless, sticky and hoarse from shouting at the bass player to throw my mobile phone back!!!

Friday, 5 February 2010

Living under Brian Blessed's Wings (or How the Geek in me wants out)

I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and try to convince myself that I am cool. I tussle my hair, I spray myself with a fragrance that advertisers have convinced me makes me attractive to animal vegetable and mineral, I wear clothes that highlight my positive features and hide the bumps, all designed by companies who’s logos I wear proudly emblazoned on my chest and butt. But even after all this effort I realise that I’m just in denial.

It’s time to confess. Many of my friends may already have known this fact but were too polite to say anything to me. I think that I may be a bit of a geek. Not the cool skinny geeks you see on American teen dramas who all do extreme sports but the slightly overweight, sci-fi and computer loving geeks.

The light bulb was dramatically turned on when I realised that my son, who has only just turned 2, is already way cooler than me. He has developed this brilliant swagger (okay it may be because he can’t walk properly yet but it still looks like he should be followed by a gang).

I have tried to disguise the geek in me. One such attempt was my desire to become a rock star which, as previous blogs have explained, ended in failure. I have even tried my hand at sports. However with football, by far my favourite sport, I am at a push, pretty average. Despite my rugby build I was never a fan of the cauliflower ears and flat noses I assumed were a compulsory part of the game. I do have a couple of trophies from my sporting heyday (primary school) but they were for badminton which let’s face it is pretty much a sport for geeks. It’s hardly the rough and tumble contact sport that is rugby. Or the dangerous blood sport of boxing (although I did pull a hammy once over stretching!!).

I am coming to terms with Geekhood. However there are still several issues which have the Geek fraternity hesitant about welcoming me under their Hawkmen’s wing*.

1. I don’t really like Star Wars
2. I don’t know how to build a website or know how to hack into anyone else’s computer
3. I don’t own a miniature figurine of any superhero/action hero
4. And I have never bought a graphic novel (that’s a comic book for grownups!)
5. I have never played World of Warcraft or been tempted to go on Second Life
6. And possibly most damning is that I have never watched the original Star Trek with Shatner and Co or my inability to speak a word of Klingon.

So that leaves me out in the wilderness! So until I am claimed by one group or the other I shall just light up my Xbox and play another game of FIFA 10 dreaming of the day I’ll be able to play football like Fabregas. Live long and prosper – if you can be bothered!

*Hawkmen appeared in the film Flash Gordon - Brian Blessed with wings, genius!!!