The 87 Year Old Scottish Ukulele Man

15 09 2014
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George Renfrew and his banjolele

“It was a clear moonlit night. I heard the buzz of the planes first. Then I saw them flying over. Soon the horizon was lit up with fires as the bombs dropped.”

George Renfrew was sitting in his chair with a banjo-ukulele in his lap as he shared these memories with me. As he talked, he looked as if these events from World War II were just as fresh to him as if they had happened yesterday.

Every week, I travel through the countryside of Western Scotland to teach this 87 year old man how to play a ukulele. The last part of the journey takes place on a small single-track road that leads to his farmhouse, and whenever I arrive I know that he will not be the only one who will be learning something today.

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The road to George’s house

I give banjo lessons in Glasgow and Falkirk, as well as in some other locations across West Scotland, and the way I’ve made contact with most of my students is by advertising on a site called gumtree.com, which is the UK’s largest website for local community classified advertising. One day, George’s daughter contacted me through the advertisement and asked if I could teach her dad to play the banjo.

I phoned George and arranged to meet him once a week for lessons. He lives over 40 miles from my house, but I am able to go by his place on a loop to another lesson that is outside Glasgow. The drive is also relaxing as it takes me by the ocean, where I stop each week to eat my sack lunch by the water.

The first time I arrived at George’s house, I had a little trouble finding it. After twisting and turning through the single-track roads, I made my last turn and heard my SatNav announce, “You have arrived at your destination.” I was sitting in front of a large old building in the middle of nowhere. I knocked on the door, but there seemed to be nobody around.

I phoned George, and he explained that that old building was where SatNavs sent people. His place was apparently just off the grid enough that the GPS system didn’t know about it! He told me to keep driving down the single track road until I found his place on the left.

I came up to a house and was soon greeted by an 87 year old man and his dog. I carried my big banjo into his house ready to give him a banjo lesson, and he pulled out a very small instrument that looked a lot like a toy banjo. I had to look up the instrument on the internet to discover that it was actually something called a “banjolele,” also known as a “banjo uke,” which is a kind of banjo ukulele and is played like a ukulele.

He explained to me he had purchased this instrument because he wanted to start something new. I happily agreed to teach him, and the next week I came with a ukulele instead of my banjo.

Now every week, I spend an hour in this man’s house. He learns the ukulele. I learn about history and am also inspired by this old man who believes it’s never too late to start something new.

After each lesson, he makes me a coffee and shares stories about a Scotland of another day. He lived in the coastal town of Largs during World War II. Because he had rheumatic fever, he wasn’t considered healthy enough to join the army, so he had to stay home while all of his friends went to fight. “Now all my mates are gone, and I’m still here,” he says.

He witnessed the Clydebank blitz on the 13th and 14th of March, 1941. He saw the planes fly overhead and watched as the town of Clydebank went up in flames on the horizon.

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Clydebank Blitz, 1941

He also met people from all around the world during the war. “I’ve never seen the world,” he says, “but the world came to me.” Largs was used as an important Allied headquarters, so he learned to know soldiers from literally around the world. He heard their stories, learned of their cultures, and in a small seaside Scottish town whole worlds were opened up to him.

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Largs, Scotland

He has filled notebooks with the histories of ThirdPart Holdings, West Kilbride, the farming area where he lives. The lives and stories of generations enliven those notebooks that are filled with his clear writing.

I think of all the things this man has witnessed, worlds that have lived and died on his doorstep, as he picks up his banjolele and plays the latest song I have taught him. I am also reminded that, while we should celebrate and remember our histories, we should also never think that it’s too late to start something new.

As this man picks up his instrument, I see him as a symbol of new beginnings. Some people think, “I’m too old now. I have missed my chance.”

However, if this man can start something new at 87, perhaps we all can take the challenge to make a fresh start….at 47, 67, or 27….

Many people live their lives in the past. If they have a glorious past, they tell the stories of yesterday and look longingly back at days they can never recapture. If they have a past filled with regrets, they look back and feel sorry for themselves, convinced that it’s too late to make something worthwhile of their lives.

However, as long as there is breath in our lungs, we have the opportunity to make a fresh start. George tells stories of the past, but he doesn’t live in the past. He picks up his banjole and does something new for today. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he is still healthy at his age. He doesn’t spend his days weighed down with yesterday.

Picking up a ukulele might not be the answer for you, but perhaps the 87 year old Scottish ukulele man can be an inspiration to you. If you have good memories, be grateful for them. If you have bad memories, remember they are in your past. You are alive today! Pick yourself up and do something for today…and for tomorrow. You’re not dead yet! So get up and live!





Depression is an illness – A response to Robin Williams’ death

12 08 2014

I will never forget the year I struggled with deep depression. I went to a doctor for help, and he gave me a prescription. This was his prescription. He wrote these words on a prescription sheet:

See it through bravely.

Those were just about the worst words anyone could say to someone struggling with depression. Telling someone who is depressed to just get through it or get over it sounds to the mind of the person who is depressed like another way of just saying, “Give up!” To hear those words from a doctor is tantamount to hearing him say, “There is no hope.”

Fortunately for me there were good friends around who understood that depression is an illness and that there is hope. I was able to find the help I needed, and with God’s help I was able to get out of the oppressive cloud under which I was living during that dark season. I found a reason to live again and moved forward with life with a renewed sense of purpose. I met Karen a few years later, and God has blessed me in uncountable ways.

However, I learned during the worst of times that a lot of people don’t take depression seriously. Some think that it is “all in the mind” and that the person who is suffering just needs to think happy thoughts. However, depression is a real and serious illness that we cannot afford to ignore.

I was one of millions who was shocked to hear about the loss of Robin Williams this week. He was one of the great entertainers of his generation, and from everything I’ve heard it seems he was also a really great person. However, while he made the world laugh, inside he struggled with an illness. And that disease is what apparently eventually claimed his life.

For many years, an unfortunate stigmatism was attached to depression, and for this reason people who struggled with it tended to keep it a secret. This, of course, made the illness even worse because struggling people were made to feel guilty for feeling the way they did even though it wasn’t their choice to feel that way. This stigmatism was even made worse, unfortunately, by many religious people who claimed that if you were sad or depressed that you didn’t have enough faith and condemned people who took their own lives to hell.

Of course, God doesn’t condemn a person for being sick. He loves us and understands us, and we need to seek to love and understand those around us who are suffering. Depression is an illness. It’s just as real as a broken leg. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t make it any less real. He doesn’t want you to take your own life, of course, but that isn’t because He is sitting around waiting to punish you; it’s because your life is valuable, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment, and He wants to show you how to live again.

The loss of Robin Williams is one that has gotten the attention of the world, but I’ve known various people just like him whose names are less well known. They too suffered, sometimes unnoticed, and their lives ended way too early.

Let’s pay attention to those around us who are hurting. Take this illness seriously.

If you know someone who is struggling, love them and encourage them to get the help they need. If you, yourself, are suffering, remember that you are not alone. Your life matters. Don’t give up. There is hope.

 





An Unreached People Group in Spain

5 05 2014

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When you hear people talk about unreached people groups in the world, what kind of places do you think of?

The Middle East perhaps?
Somewhere in the Orient maybe?

Without doubt, some of the most unreached people groups in the world are in those regions and need our prayers!

But how many of us would think to look for an unreached people group in the middle of Western Europe? I’ve recently returned from a place where one such people group resides…

Catalonia, which is marked in red on the above map, is a region in Spain. It’s famous for the beautiful cosmopolitan city of Barcelona, sunshine, sea, the artists Gaudí and Picasso, and many fascinating and unique cultural distinctions.

What many don’t realise, however, is that the Catalan people are mostly unreached for Christ. There are about 7.6 million people in Catalonia, but no more than 150,000 attend evangelical churches. That’s only about 2 percent of the population, or 1 in every 50 people. And that’s a liberal estimate. One statistic has it at 0.68 percent, making a total of less than 52,000 Christians in the whole region.  And even within that group, a large percentage of the Christians are immigrants who have moved to Spain from Latin America. The percentage of actual Catalan Christians is very low indeed!

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From left to right: Myself, Daniel & Ester Banyuls
Daniel is a Catalan pastor at La iglesia Bautista in Cerdanyola, Catalonia

The majority of the 946 towns in Catlonia don’t have even ONE church of any kind. The following map shows how many places of worship there are in total in each of the provinces of that part of Spain:

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The sections in red are where the larger population centres are, like Barcelona and Tarragona. Most people who have gone to plant churches have chosen to go to those places, and as you can see the rest of Catalonia is almost unreached. Notice how many of the regions have “from zero to one” place of worship IN THE WHOLE PROVINCE!

The following map was sent to me by my friend, Pastor Daniel Banyuls (pictured above), a Catalan pastor who has a great burden for his people. It may be a little harder to see it clearly on the screen, but it is well worth taking a look:

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As has already been pointed out, the majority of the 946 towns in Catalonia don’t have any evangelical presence at all. The above map points out 65 specific towns with a population of 5,000 and above that have absolutely no Christian presence. On this map, the green dots mark 19 towns of 5,000-6,000; the blue dots point out 19 towns of 6,000 to 8,000; the red dots mark 20 towns of 8,500 to 12,000 and the black dots mark 7 towns of 14,000 to 23,000. Not one of them has even ONE CHURCH.

I wonder if you would be willing to put the region of Catalonia on your prayer list. I also wonder if there might be someone reading this upon whom God might put a burden to go to this region of Spain and help start churches in these communities? Or perhaps you’d be interested in supporting those who are? If you would like more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” – Matthew 9:37





My Belated Reflections on Easter

22 04 2014

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Some people question Christianity because they don’t understand why a loving God would allow death to exist in a world He created.

I understand that objection. I hate death. It bothers me.

When I think of people I loved who were taken too soon, it really bothers me.

I miss my dad. He became ill too young and, in my opinion, was taken too soon.

I’ve had friends die young.

I hate death and wish it didn’t exist.

However, blaming God for it doesn’t stop it from happening, and denying God doesn’t make it any better.

The truth is this: Christianity doesn’t claim to explain death. It only claims to conquer it.

In the end, however, I’d rather conquer it than explain it.

Explaining why my dad had to die wouldn’t bring him back, but the resurrection will.

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Oh, the Bible does talk a lot about the reason for death. It tells us that death exists because of sin. If mankind had not sinned against God, death wouldn’t exist. So in a way, the Bible does explain death.

But at the same time, when we watch people we love suffer and die in what often seems such a needless and cruel way, it’s hard for us to accept the explanation. It still fails to make sense sometimes to our finite mind, and a lot of questions are still left unexplained until we see Jesus face to face.

But we have this hope. Death has been conquered by the cross. This, in fact, is what Christianity is all about. We can have loads of intellectual conversations about the nature of death and life, but the only answer that matters in the end is whether or not death is the end or, as the Bible assures us, really just the beginning of life.

The Bible tells us that we have all sinned. We’ve all messed up. None of us is good in and of ourselves because we have all fallen short of God’s holiness. We’ve hurt others and we’ve rebelled against the God who created us for a relationship with Himself.

And the Bible says that death is the consequence of our sin. It’s unavoidable.

But it also says that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our stupidity, for all the wrong we’ve done in our lives. Then he rose again on the third day, conquering the power both of sin and of death.

The Bible says it this way:

“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 6:23

That’s good news. Now if we will trust Jesus and what he’s done for us, the Bible promises that God will forgive us for all the wrong in our lives and give us a new beginning. He will also give us the promise that after we die we will rise again and live with him forever in an eternal kingdom in which death will no longer exist.

In the meantime, people still die. And it hurts. We live in a broken world.

And sometimes we ask, “Why?”

In a way, the Bible tells us why; in a way it doesn’t. It doesn’t give us all the answers to the suffering in this world.

But it does promise us that ultimately death will lose. Death itself will die and we will live….forever.

Have you trusted your life into the hands of God through faith in His Only Son, Jesus? If you do, I believe that one day he will give you all the answers to your questions. But in the meantime, he will give you something even better than answers. He will give you life….eternal life.

 “Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the      last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 15:51-56

 

 

 

 

 

 





Happy Easter!

20 04 2014

I spent the past several days speaking at a youth camp in the mountains near Barcelona! It was great!! We saw people come to faith, a number of young people rededicate their lives to God and God doing some really cool things in people’s lives.

I’ll plan to write about it soon. Right now, I’m exhausted. I got back to my friends’ house near Barcelona and laid down at 7:30pm. I slept right through dinner and didn’t wake up until a little while ago at 12:30am. I found some apples in the kitchen, and as I eat them I am quickly putting up this post.

I wrote an article in Kings River Life Magazine for Easter and would love for you to give it a read. You can find it at THIS LINK. I’ll try to write more in a few days after I’ve had some rest!!

Happy Easter everyone!!





God Does Not Need You

7 04 2014

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God doesn’t need you.

That may come as a surprise to some. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard sermons that have made me feel like God really needed me to be a missionary and to serve Him in order to reach the lost. A lot of people give us the impression that the most important thing about our relationship with God is our spiritual service.

So we start to measure our effectiveness as Christians based on whether or not we teach Sunday School, or sing in the worship team, or lead a Bible study… But none of these things in any way determine either our value or our success as children of God.

Really this very idea goes back to pagan roots, not Christian ones. Even the most primitive pagans believed that their gods demanded service. People would go to great lengths to appease their gods. They would make sacrifices to try to make sure that their gods didn’t get angry with them and punish them with plagues, earthquakes, famines or other disasters. Their purpose in life was about trying to stay on their gods’ good side by doing what they expected.

Now many Christians would tell you that they don’t serve God out of the same kind of fear that the pagans did, and that is often true. However, many still feel a responsibility to serve God in order to curry His favour.

And this is simply not biblical.

Where do we get the idea that God needs anything? He is the Almighty God who created the heavens and the earth. What could we possibly offer Him that He needs?

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The Apostle Paul spoke to a pagan audience in Acts Chapter 17 on Mars Hill. Here is part of what he said to them:

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people, life and breath and all things.” (Acts 17:24-25, emphasis mine)

God doesn’t need anything. He’s not a taker; He’s a giver.

Now this may be a jarring thing for some of us to hear, but don’t panick yet. The truth about God is actually much BETTER than the idea that we should serve Him because He needs us. So read on…

God is completely self-sufficient. There is nothing we could give Him that He doesn’t already have.

In Psalm 50:12, we read God saying:

“If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is Mine, and all it contains.” (Psalm 50:12)

However, though God doesn’t need you, He wants you. And really that is much better news!

Sometimes in the world we may feel like some people only love us because of what we can give them or what we can do for them, but there is nothing we could give God or do for Him that would add to or take away from who He is or what He has. He doesn’t love us because of anything we can do for Him. He loves us just as we are, and He gave His son for us because He wants to be with us.

When we enter into a relationship with God, it is never on the basis of anything we do or are capable of doing. We are invited to come to God just as we are, and if we come to him in humble faith He accepts us just as we are.

Jesus died to pay the price for all our sins, not in order to make us useful but in order to make us His. When we trust Him, there is no price tag attached to our relationship. He forgives us of our sins and then goes to work transforming us to make us more like Him.

Does He wants us to serve Him? Of course He does. He loves it when we worship Him and serve Him, but only when we do so as an act of love and gratitude, not because we think that somehow we need to earn His favour or prove ourselves. As Christian author, Steve McVey writes:

“God wants you! He isn’t looking for a maid, but He does want a bride – and that means you.”

God loves it when we serve Him out of overflowing love because we want to, but we don’t need to live our lives with a pressure over us that we are somehow “not good enough Christians” if we’re not doing enough “religious service.” What God wants most out of us is a relationship. In that relationship, we will undoubtedly find ourselves wanting to surrender more and more to His will and wanting to cooperate with Him in His mission to share with the rest of the world that He wants them too! But we need to get rid of the idea that we are somehow more or less important than others based on how much or how little we feel we have to offer.

What we hae to offer is our lives. He wants us to live our lives for Him, surrender our lives to Him, and to love being with Him as we walk through the journey of life with Jesus in our lives. But He doesn’t call us to this relationship because we somehow fill some need in His life; He comes to us in grace and love in order to fill the greatest of all needs in ours.

He doesn’t need us, but we need Him. We need Him for forgiveness, for grace, for a purpose in life, and for eternity. And as we follow Him in gratitude and love, but with the freedom of knowing that we have nothing to prove, life with God can be an adventure of love.





5 Myths about Forgiveness

31 03 2014

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It’s easy enough to say that we should forgive people, but how do we actually do it? We all know that the Bible teaches that we are supposed to forgive those who hurt and offend us, but if we’re honest I think most of us will admit that forgiving is one of the hardest things in the world to do. Oh, it’s easy enough when it’s a small thing, but what do we do when something really big happens?

When we are betrayed by someone we thought we could trust…

When we or someone we love is the victim of a heinous crime…

When the wound is deep and we really, really hurt…

The Bible says:

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. – Colossians 3:13

And we know that. But how do we do it?

Granted, we won’t be able to solve the whole forgiveness problem in one short blog post. However, today I’d like to share with you a few lessons I learned several years ago that I believe can help.

If we are going to get past that wall that makes it so difficult to forgive some people, we need to make sure that we have a clear understanding of what forgiveness is and what it is not. There are some myths about forgiveness that a great deal of people believe, and these myths become stumbling blocks that result in a lot of people not forgiving. Below is a response to five common myths. If we can replace the lies with the truth about forgiveness, I believe many of us can make great strides toward finally giving up the poison of bitterness and learning to forgive.

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  1. Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s letting go

I remember preaching a whole sermon about this once a number of years ago, and after I finished somebody came up to me and said, “I’m really glad you preached about this. It’s so important. After all, Jesus said, “Forgive and forget.’”

No, he didn’t!

There are various opinions as to the origin of that well-known phrase. Certainly, Shakespeare used a similar phrase in King Lear, and Cervantes used it in Don Quixote de la Mancha in the early 17th Century. But it’s not in the Bible!

The reality is that only God can forget our sins. In fact, from God’s perspective when He forgives us our sins cease to exist!

However, we are physicially incapable of simply forgetting evil things that happen to us. I had a friend brutally murdered a number of years ago. I’ll never forget that, but it doesn’t mean I can’t, with God’s help, forgive his murderer. And victims of violent crimes will never forget what happened to them! In some cases, it would even be unwise to forget. We sometimes learn lessons from what we go through that help us in the future to avoid the same things happening to us again!

What we can do, with God’s help, is let go of the bitterness that controls us. It’s not an easy thing to do when something terrible happens to us, but God can help us to let go of it and stop dwelling on it. In time, we will think about it less, but many times we will never physically forget what we’ve been through. And that’s ok…

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  1. Forgiving is not a one-time event; it’s a process

God can forgive us instantly, but we often need time to go through the healing process in our forgiving of others.

I often explain this process as “two steps forward; one step back.” You make a decision to forgive somebody one day, but then a few days later the feelings start rushing back again. It doesn’t mean you haven’t forgiven. It just means you’re still in the process. You need to pray about it and give it to God again, asking Him to heal your hurt.

Then maybe you’ve laid it in God’s hands again, but one day you get a phone call that brings all the memories back, or you see something on Facebook…

But when you take a backward step and feel the anger creeping up again, it doesn’t mean you’ve gone all the way back to the beginning. You have to keep praying about it, giving it to God and asking for His help. In some cases, you may need to have a good friend you can talk to, or seek professional counselling.

But as you continue in the journey, the day WILL come when you will look back and see how far God has brought you from where you were to where he’s taken you. You’ll find that you don’t feel the same anger any more when you think of that person and that God has replaced those old feelings of hurt and anger with His peace.

It’s a process. Recognise that and don’t beat yourself up if it takes some time, but make a choice to enter into that process today.

  1. Forgiveness is not a feeling; it’s a choice

A lot of times people feel like if they forgive somebody they have to have a warm feeling toward them. That is not the case! Forgiveness is not a feeling; it’s a choice to obey God and not let bitterness consume us.

Do you think Jesus went to the cross because He got up one morning and FELT like dying for our sins? Of course not! In fact, He prayed to the Father that if there were any other way He would “take this cup from me,” but then He said, “But not my will, but Yours be done.”

He chose the cross, and sometimes we have to choose to take up the cross of forgiveness, to enter into the process of letting God heal our hurt emotions and move on with life…regardless of how we feel at the moment. Our heart may say, “Seek revenge,” but the only way we will ever really find peace is if we choose forgiveness.

  1. Forgiving is not pretending it didn’t happen; it’s choosing to forgive even if it did

This is another big one. A lot of people think that if they forgive somebody, they have to pretend nothing ever happened and just treat them exactly the way they would have before. This is not always the case at all! Sometimes there have been breaches of trust that have proven the other person should not be trusted again in the same way, and sometimes there are consequences to the other person’s actions. If somebody stays in your house and steals from you, you can forgive that person, but it doesn’t mean you let them stay in your house again!

  1. Forgiving is not about setting the other person free; it’s about choosing to let God set you free!

As we discussed in the previous post, “bitterness is a poison we drink hoping the other person will die.” When we hold onto bitterness, we are the victims of that bitterness, not the one toward whom we are bitter. In many cases, the other person has forgotten about it while we still hold on!

If there are consequences to be faced, the one who hurt us will need to face those consequences regardless of our feelings. But God is the judge, not us. He has, however, promised that He will make sure that justice is done. We have to trust Him to do the right thing in His way and in His time.

But we can’t play God by convincing ourselves that holding on to our bitterness somehow serves the cause of justice. If anything, being bitter toward those who hurt us is just another way of letting them continue to have power over us and keep on hurting us long after the deed is done! Nobody wins when we hold onto bitterness.

If you’re holding on to a load of bitterness today, I urge you to take that bitterness to God and ask Him to help you to forgive. Make a conscious choice to enter into the process of forgiveness by choosing to forgive today. On your own, it may be impossible, but God can give you the strength. When you make that choice, you won’t be setting the other person free, but you will finally be making the choice to let God set you free!

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