marking your card(s)

Annie Spratt

Earlier this week I was a bit flummoxed by the arrival of a Christmas card in the post. No, there’s nothing unusual about Christmas cards being delivered through the UK postal system. What flummoxed me was that I did not recognise one of the names on the card and the other signature was illegible so it didn’t give any clues.

I checked the postmark on the envelope and that gave me a geographical clue that has not helped at all. I am fairly sure that the card was not sent in error as it was addressed to me by name, as was the envelope. It’s frustrating because I don’t know who to thank if I see them.

But it did get me thinking about why we send Christmas cards. What’s the motivation? I have a few ideas about this. The first is that I think there are two main categories of cards – some are sent because of obligation and some are sent by choice:

Obligation – some cards are sent to people because we feel we ought to send them a card because of their role (eg business colleagues) or familial relationship with us. That does NOT mean we send the card grudgingly, but we do send it relatively automatically. These people will always be on our Christmas card list.

Choice – we send some cards to people because we have made an active decision to send them a card. We want to keep in touch with these people (even if it is just once a year) because we value them. These people would not receive a card because of their role or familial relationship with us, but even though it’s a value judgement as to whether we send a card to them we can’t deduce that they are more important if they are on this list.

So now some of you who receive a Christmas card from us will be trying to work out which category you fall into. Actually it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a card is sent. But what is the motivation behind cards received? I think it be any, some or all of these:

Keeping in touch – there are some people we don’t really hear from at any other time in the year. Our relationship is limited to the exchange of a printed piece of cardboard in December. But it is important to keep in touch with these people. We would be sad to lose touch completely. And sometimes we write things in the cards like, “We really ought to get together next year…” to express that desire, and on rare occasions we actually get around to it and it’s great.

Sharing news – there has been a noticeable drop-0ff in the number of cards we receive that have a letter in them that tells us what the sender (and their family) have been up to in the past year, and perhaps plans for the coming year. We enjoy reading these letters and try not to compare their year enviously with ours, particularly when they tell us about the six week holiday in the luxury resort in Hawaii.

Assurance of affection – some people with whom we are frequent contact send a card because they value that friendship / relationship. They send a card to confirm that the relationship is still valuable to them, and we return the compliment because we want to do the same. It can be awkward when someone sends a card for this reason and one is not reciprocated. It may be that the ‘replyer’ may not feel the same, or it may be that their card sending lacked efficiency. Sadly silence does not communicate the reason. There are always people with whom I have this imbalance and it’s usually me who fails to send, almost always because of the latter reason.

Expectation – this is almost always a card sent from the first of the two main categories. Not to send a card to these people may be considered rude or thoughtless. 

Charity – this is something I have seen growing where people post online that they are not sending cards this year but will be making a charity donation on behalf of all of their friends. I am attracted to this because it avoids some awkwardness and blesses others but it has the danger of the notice not being seen and people wondering whether you still care.

It’s complicated isn’t it? But I am reassuring myself with a couple of reflections:

There are very few people who will hold a grudge if I have forgotten to send them a card. This is not an excuse for failing to send one that you want to / intend to send but can make you feel better when your eye keeps getting drawn to that card on the mantelpiece and you know it’s too late to send it now.

A phone call or electronic communication is almost as good. If I have forgotten I can still call, text, message, send social media messages, and so on.

Behind the Christmas story we find all of these things: God sent his son into the world because of the relationship he has with us as our creator (obligation) and because he wants that relationship to be better (choice). The Incarnation (God with us) is his way of keeping in touch with us (and some of us manage it once a year at a Carol Service) – he would love to meet up with us next year. In the Christmas message he shares the good news of peace, hope, joy and love – there’s no need to be envious, he offers the same to all of us. He wants to assure us of his affection for us – not just ‘thinking of you’ but a passion and enthusiasm for you that will not give up even if you don’t reply. And he promised he’d do it, creating an expectation that we find fulfilled in Jesus. God’s desire is to bless all of humanity, with no exceptions, although his method of communication to us all risks his message not being heard and some people may wonder if he cares. 

Be blessed, be a blessing (and please don’t be too upset if you don’t get a card from me!)

seeing the light

Last week the Regional Team of which I am a part was on retreat for 24 hours. As a part of this process we were invited to share some thoughts on the theme of ‘Light’. I went for Psalm 36:9 – “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

The phrase ‘in your light we see light’ fascinated me because from a physics perspective it does not make sense. To paraphrase CS Spurgeon, you don’t need a candle to see the sun. God’s light surely shines so brightly that we do not need any help seeing it. So what does it mean? My commentaries were distinctly unhelpful as they all seem to have struggled with interpreting the phrase and have therefore passed over it without comment (thus not living up to their names). So I have had to try to work out what I believe it means and this is what I have come up with – I think the sense of it is that it is when we look at things in God’s light we see things as he sees them: I think it may be about seeing things from God’s perspective. In the Bible ‘darkness’ signifies death, destruction, evil and misery while ‘light’ represents victory over those things – life, hope, clarity and joy. To see things in God’s light is to take a more positive outlook on life and see things from a new perspective.

And I have thought of a few illustrations of what this might mean…

When you look at a glass of water do you see it as half-full or half-empty? Or from God’s perspective do you see a glass and some water and seek to find someone who is thirsty to give it to? If that’s a bit esoteric here’s one I think we can all grasp – Jesus’ death on the cross appeared to be a tragic defeat by the forces of evil but from God’s perspective was the moment when the victory over death was won and that was reinforced by the resurrection. Or how about when we see a small, struggling, ageing church (ie the congregation) – does God see a group of people who are more likely to rely on him because they have nothing left and who are best situated to reach the other older people in the community with the good news?

As we are in the season of Advent and each week more candles are lit to mark our progress to the birth of Christ may we all be given the gift of (in)sight to see things and people from God’s perspective and look for the Kingdom at work, growing secretly and bursting forth in unexpected ways.

May we see things in God’s light so that we see his glory..

Be blessed, be a blessing

do less, be more (last one)

So far I have been exploring Mark 1:35-39 but towards the end of Psalm 46 we read these familiar words:“Be still, and know that I am God”

The words come after the psalmist has mentioned how God helps us in the midst of raging torrents; mountain-shattering earthquakes; international turmoil and wars.

“Be still, and know that I am God…”

The Hebrew word translated as ‘be still’ is not about becoming motionless. It’s about stopping frantic activity: stop struggling, stop wrestling, and be still. Do less, be more.

And when you are still you have the opportunity to know and experience that he is God. He is the one who is the ever present help in time of trouble. He is the refuge and strength. He is the fortress that protects us. He is the peace-bringer.

Psalm 46:10 in full reads: “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

In other words, when God’s people rest in him and know him, then he is revealed through them to the rest of the world.

I think that what this means is that evangelism and mission and ministry begin with us and our relationship with God. No amount of struggle and activity and striving will make a difference if our relationship with God is shallow. But when we are still and know him then the whole world will see the difference.

Do less, be more.

do less, be more (once again)

Mark 1:35-39 is the passage this is based on.

Imagine for a moment that ten new people start coming to your church after an outreach activity. Wow! And they start telling their friends about Jesus and they start coming along too. Yay! And before we know it there is not enough room in the church for everyone who wants to be here on a Sunday. woohoo!

from cartoonchurch.com

So we put on two services in the morning. It means that we have to have twice the number of people to do the teas and coffees, twice the number of musicians and on the sound desk. We have to run twice the number of children’s activities. And the preachers have to double up on what they do too. We all get a lot busier because of this growth but we’re delighted to do it because people are coming to church.

And we decide that we will have do a new outreach activity every month, so a committee is formed to make sure that there are lots of good ideas and activities each month and lots of people are roped in to help. The people running the Saturday stall no longer have time to attend house group in the week because they’re too busy planning and preparing but that’s okay because the activities are so popular.

It all seems wonderful, exciting, and something we would love to happen. But in the midst of it we may find that we are falling into the temptation to which Jesus’ disciples had succumbed – confusing popularity with God’s purposes. Just because something is popular does not automatically mean it’s what God wants.

And we only discover that by spending quality time with him in prayer. Do less, be more

Isn’t it fascinating that when the disciples found him and told him how everyone was looking for him Jesus didn’t join in their excitement. In fact he said something that would have shocked them: “let’s go somewhere else…”

He was going to leave the crowds in Capernaum andt ravel around Galilee. Why did he decide this? I think it came to him in his prayer time with his Father. He realised he was not called to be popular, but to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God and to be good news to the people who needed him. He was focused or refocused on what God wanted him to do.

For churches there is always a temptation to do more.If we had more volunteers we could run this activity… if we had more space we could do that…

But what do you think God is more interested in – churches running more and more popular activities or Jesus’ followers growing deeper in their relationship with him? Do less, be more.

Why do you think God designed the rhythm of life to include a day of restoration and recreation? It was not primarily to give us a day off, but to give us time and space to focus our attention on him. Yet in the heart of restoration is the word ‘rest’ and in the heart of the word‘recreation’ is the word ‘creation’.

Be blessed, be a blessing

do less, be more (continued further)

(Remember that we’re looking at Mark 1:35-39 which you can find here)

Last time I wrote about ways that we can enhance and deepen our prayer life in order to do less and be more. I want to commend all of those things to you, but I also want to undermine what I wrote by saying that I don’t think Jesus wants us to think of prayer as something we do occasionally, or even as something that we plan to do more of! He wants us to do less and be more.

What I mean is that for Jesus prayer was as natural as breathing. We breathe in and out to provide oxygen for our bodies to survive and thrive. But we rarely spend much time thinking about it – it is natural and instinctive. And prayer can be for us like breathing – natural and instinctive.It is not something we plan to do at specific times, it is something that happens all of the time.

When something good happens, our response is to offer a quick prayer of joy. When something upsets us we offer a prayer of anguish.When someone else is in difficulty we offer a prayer of intercession. That instinctiveness comes with time and as our relationship with our heavenly Father deepens. This can start with those times when we give him our full attention, but then it develops as our relationship with God deepens.

It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we pray the more we become aware of God’s interest in all aspects of our life. And the more we become aware of his interest, the more we want to pray. But as well as discovering more about prayer in this passage, we can also see that Jesus avoided the temptation to be busy

Did you notice how the disciples sent out a search party for Jesus when they discovered his empty bed? “Everyone is looking for you!” they told him.

I don’t think it’s because everyone was concerned that he may have been abducted. It’s because everyone wanted more of him. Remember that the previous day he had demonstrated God’s power over the forces of evil,and he had demonstrated God’s power to heal those who were sick.

At this stage of his ministry he was rapidly growing in popularity. People were drawn to him because what he did amazed them. They were drawn to him because he oozed God. They were drawn to him because of what he might do for them. People were flocking to him. And after he had disappeared to pray everyone was looking for him because they wanted more.

The disciples were getting caught up in the excitement of the events around them. They were loving the crowds and the Jesusmania that was developing. It feels like the disciples were trying to act as his agents:there was going to be another big crowd today so they needed to make sure Jesus was going to turn up and put on a good show.

And it would have been easy for Jesus to have been caught up in that too. One of the temptations he faced in the wilderness was the temptation to put his own popularity and power before God’s. It’s a very real temptation. Isn’t it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

do less, be more (continued)

Carrying on from the last bloggage, I am exploring Mark 1:35-39

A summary of what happened is that Jesus seems to have found himself a good place and time. Jesus went off to a place with few distractions where he was unlikely to be interrupted.

He went very early because he knew the rest of the day would be busy. The fact that the disciples mounted a full-scale manhunt for him suggests that they were not used to him doing this, but if you read the gospels there are lots of times when Jesus took himself off to pray. He set aside time and space to talk with his Father. It’s not that he didn’t talk with him through the day, but he knew the value of giving God his full attention.

Sally will tell you that I am not a morning person so getting up very early to pray is not likely to bless me. But I can find other times in the day when I know I have space and can give God my full attention.

When he gave his Father his full attention prayer flowed. We don’t know what he said,but from other prayers he prayed we know he would remind himself who his heavenly Father is, he prayed for guidance, strength, for the state of his relationship with his Father and other people, he would pray that God’s will be done…

That feels like a good model for our praying doesn’t it? And of course it’s actually the model we call the Lord’s prayer.

Are you feeling guilty yet?

It’s really easy for us to look at Jesus, or at other people and their amazing prayer lives and feel like a failure. My prayer life is nothing like what I have just described.

But God wants us to be us, not to be someone else.When it comes to praying we can be really good at beating ourselves up because we don’t think we’re very good at it. Or we wallow in guilt because we don’t pray as much as the preacher says we ought to. Or we resolve on a Sunday that this week we’re going to do better, and have forgotten that resolve by the time we tuck into our Sunday roast at home.

If you come away from today thinking, “I must try harder,” or “I must do better” then I will have failed. Because that’s not the message I am bringing you. You see Jesus didn’t pray out of a sense of duty or obligation. He prayed because it was natural for him to talk with his Father,and because he was full of the Holy Spirit whose role is to enhance our relationship with God. Jesus must have found immense benefit and blessing in praying. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have got up so early to do it. He made time and space to give his Father his full attention.

Recently I have joined a gym. It’s part of my desire to continue my rehabilitation following surgery earlier in the year. When I started at the gym I found most of the exercises were hard and left me feeling exhausted. The next day my muscles ached terribly. But I have been going to the gym twice a week for most weeks since and I have found that the exercises are becoming a bit easier. I can lift a little more weight, walk and row and cycle a bit faster and further. And I find I am even enjoying it.

To compare our prayer life with going to the gym is rather inadequate but the similarity is that while we may struggle at first,the more we pray the easier it gets.

Let me change the image. When I first started going out with Sally we didn’t really know each other very well. We had to get to know how each other thought, we had to understand each other better and in order to do that we had to talk with each other. We have been married for over 29 years now and conversation between us is much easier because we know each other so well. Sometimes we know what the other one is going to say even before they say it.

So it is with God in prayer. The more you talk with him the better you get to know him and the easier the conversation (prayer)flows. And to help you get started I would suggest that you may find it helpful to find a space where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. You may find it helpful to find a time when you have not got lots of other things to do. And when you are in that space, tell God what’s on your mind.

Be honest with him because he already knows it anyway,but by being honest with him you’re being honest with yourself. If you don’t know what to pray, remember the things Jesus prayed about – use the Lord’s Prayer if that helps you. But instead of rattling through it pause and think about each phrase and tell God what images and thoughts it conjures up in your mind. What does it mean that you pray to your Father in heaven? What does it mean to say that his name is holy?

If you struggle to pray on your own, find someone or a couple of people you know and trust and join together on a regular basis to share and pray together. Or you could join a home group. Find support in your local church.

Relationships are deepened and enhanced by spending special time with the other person and giving them your full attention, and that includes our relationship with God.

Be blessed, be a blessing

making up for lost time

Gosh, was it nearly a month ago that I last posted a bloggage? That’s not good. I am surprised any of you are still interested! By way of apology I will put some posts up over the next week or so that are based on my reflections on a passage from the Bible on which I have preached recently:

Mark 1:35-38

a relaxing place

Gosh, was it nearly a month ago that I last posted a bloggage?! I am amazed anyone is still interested in what I write, and you must feel really ignored by me. By way of apology / revenge I am planning to post a series over the next week or so based on a recent sermon. It’s all based on Mark 1:35-39:

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’

38 Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ 39 So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

When I was asked to preach on this passage it was with a theme of beating burnout and prioritising prayer. But as I have looked at the passage this week I think I have found the secret to winning at church and life. I think it will shock some of you.

I wonder what you think it might be:
Getting up early, while it’s still dark?
Praying more?
Preaching?
Going outside the walls of the church on evangelistic road trips?
Casting out demons?

Actually I think it’s this: do less, be more.

When we look at Jesus in this passage I think we see that he does less than the disciples thought he should, but was more in touch with his heavenly Father. Do less, be more.

If anyone didn’t need to it was him – he was the Son of God! Yet the gospel writers record many occasions when Jesus was praying, not just this one.

It did him good – recharging spiritual batteries – the day before he had been healing and driving out demons, which was spiritually draining – after praying he was ready to go elsewhere and preach. It maintained his relationship with his Father and Spirit – praying to his Father, empowered by the Spirit.

It made a difference – Jesus had more than enough to do without getting up early, so he must have considered that it made a difference to him and his mission. You might think this is a case where he is doing more, but it’s actually about him being closer to his Father.

So what about it? Am I prepared to do less and be more?