St Valentine – Pretty Boy or Priest?

14 Feb

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Flowers, chocolates, dinner-for-two, expensive cards with hearts on. That is the quintessential Valentines Day, right? Well, maybe not!

St Valentine was not some linen-shirted, tanned, Romeo type heartthrob. He was actually a Roman priest at the time of Emperor Claudius. Claudius decided to ban soldiers from marrying so they wouldn’t be worried about what would happen to their wives and families should they be killed in battle.

Now apparently back then society was kind of relaxed about the whole polygamous marriage idea. This posed a problem for the church who believed marriage was a sacred bond between one man and one woman for their life.

What Valentine stood for was marriage within the church. So he secretly married them, despite Claudius’ law.

Unfortunately for Valentine, he was caught, imprisoned and tortured for performing Christian marriage ceremonies against the command of emperor Claudius.

There are all sorts of stories surrounding Valentine in prison. One of these stories tells how Valentine prayed with the daughter of a man in line to judge him who was named Asterius. Apparently, his daughter was healed from her sickness causing Asterius himself to become a Christian – which was was a very risky step for someone in his position.

In the year 269 AD Valentine was sentenced to be executed which included him being beaten, stoned, and finally decapitated all because of his stand for Christian marriage. The story goes that the last words he wrote were in a note to Asterius’ daughter. He inspired today’s romantics by signing it, “from your Valentine.”

So what’s this got to do with us?

Well, I admire that Valentine stood up for his beliefs and was convicted to act out of his principles. If we stand up for our beliefs, it will cost very few of us our lives, unlike Valentine, but we should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe, or even worse be apathetic.

I think marriage is a good thing and I believe is fundamental to the tapestry of a strong community but in turn, the community needs to support those who are married.

The story also reminds me, as someone who is married, that there are times of hardship in marriage. The excitement of dating and falling in love is not easy to continue into a marriage but there is an opportunity for a more mature and deeply rooted love to blossom over time. I think this is just as beautiful if not more beautiful than the thrill of falling in love.

You see, I reckon God is real. It’s not that I’ve never doubted or am unreflective about it, but I’ve seen signs in creation, my own reason and people that bring me to that conclusion. In Jesus I’ve seen a man driven by love for others, not afraid to go against the status quo and who inspires ordinary people to love, even to the point of it costing people’s lives (and his own).

The English language doesn’t bring out the multiple facets of ‘love’ like other languages do.  The ancient Greeks had almost as many words for love as the Inuit’s have for snow! But for those of us from Anglophone countries we are left with one four letter word to describe our passion for chocolate, our favourite football team and of course that special someone (as if anything could really compare with Spurs!).

But the bible teaches about different aspects of love. Here is one I like:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).

I think this is the kind of love St Valentine knew, it cost him dearly, but he put love into action.

Happy Valentine’s Day,

Ben

 

 

 

 

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God’s Cadets – Leadership, Calling and Stepping Out!

11 Jan

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Many of you will now have seen the documentary God’s Cadets on BBC4 which follows the honest stories of cadets at The Salvation Army’s UK Training College. There are refreshing moments where people speak about faith and doubt in the same breath –  perhaps a bit of a no go area to the baby boom generation. There were some uncomfortable moments when comments could be construed as being held by all but then I remind myself that they are edited comments after all. This discomfort was compounded as the camera panned to images that humorously yet awkwardly paralleled the Army with Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek and medieval fighting! However, there were also profound moments when the essence of The Salvation Army was portrayed in the passionate concern for society’s forgotten people: the homeless, prostitutes and the victims of trafficking amongst others.

People are talking about the programme. A close friend of mine who is an atheist was in awe of what he saw the Army doing. He was deeply impacted by the poignancy of talking about doubt and said he’d become an officer if he didn’t have to do the ‘religion bit’.

For me the documentary’s focus highlights the challenges of stepping up to leadership today. After almost 150 years of history of The Salvation Army in the UK we stand on the brink of spiralling into an increasing irrelevance or rising again to be a prophetic voice in communities across the land and in the arenas of public life that affect the marginalised. (When I write ‘prophetic’ I mean the ‘calling out truth’ kind rather than the ‘predicating the future’ kind). To do this:

We need leaders now and to come who will lead the Army to understand its own social evolution. What has become a largely middle class Army (membership) has never been so economically far away from the people who we promise to have a bias in serving.

We need leaders now and to come who interpret the biblical narrative with discernment and understand culture with equally huge portions of wisdom and insight.

We need leaders now and to come who are able to recognize the strong entailment of Army history on the language of our mission and practices without making that history a definitive model.

We need leaders now and to come who are capable of breaking open stale ideas, bring their ingenuity and obedience to God to the table.

We need leaders now and to come who understand mission in the 21st Century, have their heads screwed on and their hearts full of wanting the best for others.

We have many of these leaders  around (you met some in the programme) but we need many, many more.

My dream is that every Salvationist (and others?) would ask themselves whether God is calling them to be an officer. It is not for everyone and is not a higher calling than another kind. But I’m convinced if people opened their heart to engage with the question of calling then more people might make the seemingly outrageous decision to offer themselves.

Our training college should include some our the most gifted intellectuals, passionate teachers, reformed drunkards, young and middle-aged, mature and maturing Christians, men and women, successful individuals from the private sector, black and white….maybe even you! Why not? Yeah, why not you!? I mean most leaders in bible had something wrong with them to start with – murderers, liars, cheats, the mute, the comfortable, the not so special – you name it they’re all in there.

Stepping out to be a leader and then leading will be not easy (you’re not off the hook though, it’s just something you need to know!). Maybe you think the opposition and challenges are inevitable, but rarely are they unbeatable. There may be many silent supporters as well as the many vocal detractors.

Tony Blair once wrote that the Labour party created a situation for itself where ‘normal’ people felt inclined to walk away, leaving the manically ambitious and the weird in their stead (now it’s also been said that no-one sane every changed the world!). But it is just so important that this generation brings through obedient, capable and teachable leaders (amongst other things) who continue their adventure in the Army for God’s kingdom.

We can change our systems and structures but if we lack the people, we really should be fearful. I think God’s Cadets showed us some of the courage, humanness and reality of people engaging in the privilege of servant leadership.  Whether you liked it or not, just ask yourself ‘could I be called?’. Yeah you!

Ben

P.S If you haven’t yet seen the programme it will be on BBC iplayer until the 21st January 2014 (Click here to watch UK only)

P.P.S Picture is Nick Poyntz

Thank God for Football!

17 Aug

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The wait is over! After a long football-less summer the English Premier League begins again for another season and gives my life what now seems a natural and rhythmic point of reference for a new year. As is my yearly custom I find myself thanking God for football and would he mind helping Spurs out this season to win the league!

Now you might be questioning the quality of the training at the William Booth College if a cadet’s theological development hasn’t progressed past the notion that God intervenes in the English Premier League, however, I’m here to tell you that God has got history with football!

Did you know that without God we wouldn’t have football clubs such as Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, QPR, Southampton and the mighty Tottenham Hostpur? (Thanks MH for buying me this book!)

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They all owe their existence to the church groups that started the teams. So let us not put football over in that corner, the church in another, politics over there and so on. God and football are all part of my life; I love them both, although perhaps in different ways. Let me explain how football (insert your obsession here) came into my life and how it has to countless others.

I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with my wife: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the challenges it would bring. Those of you who know me will know I tend to over-estimate the metaphorical value of football, and therefore introduce it into conversations where it simply does not belong to a normal person. If you have heard me preach, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

I have invested hours, days, weeks, months, and years consuming football, thinking about God and wandering where His mission through The Salvation Army is headed. Often I have felt like I had little or no control in affecting any of these things; and is it any wonder, that we are reduced to creating ingenious but bizarre traditions designed to give us the illusion that we are in some way powerful. As a kid, if I had scored for my junior school football team, I would try and wear the same underpants (that’s underwear for you American English speakers) for the next match. I guess church has its own bizarre liturgies too, some helpful and some not, just as perhaps every other primitive community has done when faced with a deep and apparently impenetrable mystery: God.

I am also a committed Salvationist and have often seen people’s allegiances to the Army resemble that of football fan facing tough times. For many no matter how bad things have got, results have nothing to do with it. Many people should have withdrawn their attendance and support, as you would of a local restaurant if you were served up rubbish food. But for some people, consumption is everything; the quality of the product is immaterial.

Thankfully, there are many more people who have woken up to this in the church as we cannot just keep on consuming because we don’t exist for ourselves but for the people outside of it. Equally, it is not about making the product the ultimate goal, where church has flashing lights and a sexy looking membership.  Purely consuming church, or making the product the ultimate goal is wrong, for me it’s about doing the right thing in the right way, playing the beautiful game the way it should be with the right attitude, making bold decisions and adapting to the circumstances.

Another aspect to this thought is that Christians shouldn’t resemble football fans who only “sing when they are winning” as the football song goes. It’s easy to worship God or support your team when life is good, but what about when it isn’t? Do we just turn our backs on Him or them then? It reminds me of this song by Matt Redman entitled ‘Blessed be the Name of the Lord” which he wrote in a difficult period of his life. The verses read:

Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name

Blessed Be Your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name

Anyway, I hope that all aspects of your life, friendships, family circumstances, work, church life and football team all are in a good season or are beginning one. But remember to thank God even if they are not, even though this is probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. We are not promised a perfect life as Christians, just to be faithful to His call.

Whatever this season brings, lets thank God…but especially for football.

Ben

You can listen to Matt Redmans great song here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8okACq1TowQ

8 Leadership Tips from Nelson Mandela

2 Jul

As I watch the news items about Nelson Mandela’s declining health my mind often returns to one thought – We need more like this man.

I read most of Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom lying on a beach in Southern India. I couldn’t put the book down as I was captivated by his philosophy, leadership style, his cause and an exceptional analytical ability. I was so into the book that I didn’t realise that the tide had come in caught me by surprise leaving me frantically scrambling for my scattered floating possessions. Unfortunately, my copy of Long Walk to Freedom was lost to the Indian Ocean and I never was able to finish the remaining chapters.

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So this week I went to my college library to find the book I’d lost so I could finish it. In my search I came across his famous speech entitled “An ideal for which I am prepared to die”. The title caught my attention and I began to read it.

This speech given in 1964 – with its dignified exposition of the tribulations of black South Africans under apartheid – was given at the dock in Mandela’s trial on charges of sabotage.

The speech was an important point in his fight for a non-racial socialist democracy and fortunately he did not have to die for his ideals. If he had, South Africa would have been deprived of a perhaps the most important in its history and the rest of us of rare world statesman.

I think we can all learn something from him, especially today’s politicians, activists and even Salvation Army Officers!

What ideals would we defend or indeed die for?

I also came across some leadership tips from Mandela, which I hope, will be interesting and helpful. The ideals for which Mandela was prepared to risk his life became in the most part a reality because of the pragmatism of his leadership. The list, which I’ve condensed, is from Richard Stengel who spent a lot of time with Mandela working together on the autobiography I carelessly lost to the Indian Ocean. So all credit to him.

1. Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.

Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard (in prison), upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

2. Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind.

For Mandela, refusing to negotiate was about tactics, not principles. Throughout his life, he has always made that distinction. His unwavering principle — the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of one man, one vote — was immutable, but almost anything that helped him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic of idealists.

3. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.

The chief’s job, Mandela said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. “Don’t enter the debate too early,” he used to say. … The trick of leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

4. Know your enemy — and learn about his favourite sport.

“As far back as the 1960s, Mandela began studying Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans who created apartheid. His comrades in the ANC teased him about it, but he wanted to understand the Afrikaner’s worldview; he knew that one day he would be fighting them or negotiating with them, and either way, his destiny was tied to theirs.”

5. Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer.

Mandela believed that embracing his rivals was a way of controlling them: they were more dangerous on their own than within his circle of influence. He cherished loyalty, but he was never obsessed by it. After all, he used to say, people act in their own interest. It was simply a fact of human nature, not a flaw or a defect.

6. Appearances matter — and remember to smile.

When Mandela was running for the presidency in 1994, he knew that symbols mattered as much as substance. He was never a great public speaker, and people often tuned out what he was saying after the first few minutes. But it was the iconography that people understood. When he was on a platform, he would always do the toyi-toyi, the township dance that was an emblem of the struggle. But more important was that dazzling, beatific, all-inclusive smile.

7. Nothing is black or white.

Life is never either/or. Decisions are complex, and there are always competing factors. To look for simple explanations is the bias of the human brain, but it doesn’t correspond to reality. Nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears. Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, he was a pragmatist who saw the world as infinitely nuanced. Much of this, I believe, came from living as a black man under an apartheid system that offered a daily regimen of excruciating and debilitating moral choices: Do I defer to the white boss to get the job I want and avoid a punishment? Do I carry my pass? …. Mandela’s calculus was always, what is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?

8. Quitting is leading too.

Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make. In many ways, Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela probably could have pressed to be President for life — and there were many who felt that in return for his years in prison, that was the least South Africa could do. “His job was to set the course,” says Ramaphosa, “not to steer the ship”. He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do”.

Ben

A Fathers Love.

19 Jun

For some time ago, on a Sunday Service, my corps officer and mentor during my officers training said something to me that has got stuck on my heart and soul.

See, he hoped for me that this time whilst being at home with my baby- I would get a little understanding of how much my heavenly Father loves me.

He hoped that my motherlove for my daughter would teach me about my Fathers love for me.

I’ve felt it, and thought about it so much.

This morning I looked into her eyes, and felt so much love for her it literally hurt inside. I love her so much.

And my reflection about this is:

– She does not have to perform one single bit to receive my love. And she doesn’t either. She doesn’t even understand the word perform. She just IS who she is. That is what I love. Her.

– I want to protect her with all I have and am. I want to make sure she doesn’t end up in anything bad. I want to make all evil go away and never touch her. I wish I could protect her from everything bad, from getting hurt and thinking bad about herself. But I can’t do that. That’s the deal. I don’t own her. She is not my belonging. Someday I have to set her free and let her choose her own way.

If she even chooses not to be with me, not listen to me, or not to stay in my ”lovezone”- I have to let her choose that. But still, I will love her to death, and pray for her, and hurt on my inside that she doesn’t want to be with me and let me love her.

I reflect upon that this must be how the Father loves EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US. Just imagine. He loves us with an unfailing love. We don’t need to perform, he loves us for being just us. He loves us so much more intense and whole than I will ever be able to love my child.

Many of us have turned His back, chosen not to care about Him or not wanting to know Him. Many of us live our lives not even knowing that we are worthy to live worthy.

Imagine his broken heart when He sees his loved children lost and hurt ending up in bad situations that destroys body, heart and soul, turned away from Him.

Imagine Him seeing that.

Heartbreaking.

This thinking has helped me so much.

It has helped me to understand how much I myself is loved. I still have a long way to go, in learning that. And I believe it is crucial to feel and understand that, if you are to love others.

You can’t love and serve other people out of performance for God. You have to love because you have been loved.

This also helps me when I am to look at others, with a strive to never allow myself to give up on anyone. The Lord loves every single one of us with an unfailing love, seeing what He intended us to be. He looks at every single of us with a smile on His face, so happy that we are here, just being who we are.

That knowledge, that I have also gotten a glimpse of feeling for another human being, needs to change something and mean something in all my relationships. When I meet my friends, family and enemies, and thoose I don’t know yet, that I will meet in my life as an officer. That is my big prayer today.

Bless/ FannyImage

To be safe.

18 May

Hey. It’s been some time since I wrote. We have been moving to a new place- and moving with a baby is not just done in a minute I tell you! But with beautiful friends- everything is possible.

Today I just felt I wanted to update you on what’s going on in this mama/cadet-life. I want to tell you, because I am really happy, excited and inspired about something I am on to right now. In Salvation Army Sweden we have a policy and and an ethical guidance called “I Trygga Händer”. Translated into english that would be “In safe hands”. This guidance is addressed to all adults within Salvation Army working professional or voluntarily with children and youth. It’s purpose is to educate on how to prevent that abuse of various kind never is present within the Salvation Army. Not in institutions, not in corps, nowhere. It also includes an action plan if it does happen. This guidance also educates on how children react if they have been abused. This helps adults within Salvation Army to be aware and see children that might have been abused outside of the Salvation Army aswell.

Ok so right now I am working on updating this guidance, for the Swedish territory. I am updating statistics and developing the material in different ways. It’s a privilege for me to be able to be part of and work with this guidance, made and worked with by various women before me. 

I am really passionate about this. It is so important! We need to improve, always be updated and engaged in children of today. What are they exposed to? What is the world teaching them? What do we want to teach them?

As followers of Jesus we have to protect our children, educate them on their value, show them love. I believe we should see it as a privilege and honor that we get to be involved in so many children and young peoples lives. We need do our very best with that privilege.

I know that Salvation Army in more countries have similar guidelines and education programs. That’s very good.

But when it comes to children’s rights, and prevention from abuse among children- we can never read trough an educational guidance, take a course and get that feeling of being done.

“There, I have taken the course- I am done”. We are never done. This work has to be alive, always. We have to be on our toes, always alert. I really hope that every corps, institution, camp- well everywhere where we meet children within the Salvation Army should have this guidance and thinking before our eyes.

Ok, so that’s where I am. Inspired and excited! I am truly blessed to be able to be part of making children feel safe. That’s just what they should be. Safe.

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Blessings/ Fanny

10 Life Lessons Learned from Running the London Marathon

26 Apr

So the marathon is over and I figured if I’ve got nothing to say about training for a marathon then I probably won’t recognise inspiration if I see it ever again! What an experience! Months of training, weeks of fundraising and 3 hours 58 minutes of running through the streets of London cheered on by over 700,000 people! As you might know I’m studying at The Salvation Army College in London and we are encouraged to ‘reflect’ quite a bit so here are some reflections on my experience. I’ve come up with 10 life lessons learned inspired by running the marathon and hope they might be compatible in your life too whether you’re a runner or not. If they are not helpful, at least I’ve satisfied my need to reflect! So here goes…well after the picture of me at the end of the raise with my number 1 fan!

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1)   Sow lots of seeds – I was set a fundraising target of £2000 which I worried I wouldn’t achieve but actually a few days after the marathon it looks more like £4000! This is largely down to the generosity of people, especially given the economic climate. However, I think it is also because I tapped into a number of different fundraising avenues such as events, support from local businesses, social media, doing guest speaking, a publicity campaign and getting in papers. Thank you everyone who sponsored me!

2)   Create space in your life – Someone asked me whether I thought “spirituality” and running are linked. I have come to the conclusion that they are not linked directly but are associated via the space. What I mean is that I haven’t had an increased sense of spirituality because of running per se, but the ‘space’ that running provides in my busy and cluttered twenty first century life facilitated time to think, to pray and reflect. No checking football news, no Facebook, no TV.

3)   Aim higher than your perceived potential – My training suggested I would finish the marathon in around 4 hours and 15mins, perhaps 4 hours at best – a good time although not super fast! Anyway I decided to aim to run a consistent pace that would bring me home at around 3 hours 42 mins, knowing as I became more tired I would have 18 minutes as a buffer to reach my 4-hour target. However, my ambitious pace (for me) meant I knew I was above target for most of the race and eventually came home at 3 hours 58 mins. Now while aiming too high in life can have negative consequences, I think if you aim higher than your perceived best in life you just might surprise yourself and find your true potential.  If you fall slightly short you will probably meet your original perceived best anyway.

4)   Know what takes priority in life – Whilst I tried to protect my training schedule, sometimes I just had to cancel because I knew that when the really important things in life reared their head, as they do, I felt fine just to cancel. It’s easy to get this one wrong when you get into a hobby or work. But because our lives are interconnected we know our aims can come at the cost of those around us, and I believe this is having an impact on family life in society. This is the kind of lesson you learn the hard way too.

5)   Seek and take advice from experts – I muddled on with a knee injury for two months without seeking proper advice. I tried to manage my body after doing some internet research but really if I’d gone to a doctor earlier I would have been able to train to a faster time and had less pain.

6)   Be economic with time – Training for a marathon takes up a lot of time especially if you’re fundraising as well. Now while it could have taken over my life, I tried to manage it in such a way that where possible I integrated life and my running schedule. For example, my wife occasionally came running with me on short runs, I listened to lectures whilst running and I ran to or from appointments I had – often beating London transport! Inevitably, training for a marathon has a huge impact on time but the marginal gains available from being economic with time are the difference between it all becoming too much and having a sustainable balance in life.

7)   Enlist support and find the people who energize you – On race day my family and friends were dotted around the course cheering me on which was such a support. In the months before the race and throughout my fundraising I had a whole community at The Salvation Army training college and online who encouraged me. Thanks guys!

 8)   Allow people to help you with their gifting’s and skills – Some people are born fundraisers and took some of that burden off me. Others hosted fundraising nights, cooked food and assisted with administration etc. It’s amazing what a group of people can achieve.

9)   Get the right equipment – Whatever your aim is in life, if practically possible try and get good equipment to help you achieve your potential. For me that meant some proper running shoes and socks!

10) Hard work will always overcome natural talent when natural talent does not work hard enough (Sir Alex Ferguson) – I beat former athletics Olympic medallist Iwan Thomas, although he’s getting on a bit now! However, I think this quote from football manager Alex Ferguson is really insightful. It’s an encouragement to those of us without obvious natural talent, and a warning to those who have.

Hope these we’re helpful and translate into your own life!

Ben

P.S If you want to contribute to my fundraising effort to give people clean and safe water through The Salvation Army’s international development work click on the following link. Thank you! https://www.justgiving.com/Ben-Cotterill1/