In the light of the items dominating the news and social media at the moment I was going to write something humorous, scathing or pithy about politicians, wine, garden parties, meetings and apologies.
But instead, after pausing to ponder, I want to offer a positive vision of what leadership could be, based on my [ahem] years in church leadership and local, regional and national level. There is more than enough negativity around at the moment. Those who know their Bibles may recognise them:
I believe that the most powerful form of leadership is servant-leadership, whose purpose is to empower, enable, enhance and equip others. People will follow such a person through choice rather than because they have to.
Integrity in leadership is shown through being a positive example for others to emulate.
Servant leaders honour and value all whom they serve above and beyond their desire to be honoured and valued.
Everyone matters. Leaders should lead for the benefit of all whom they serve, especially those who are most disadvantaged.
Leadership is a responsibility given not a right seized: a privilege given by permission not an entitlement to be exploited.
Inspiring and encouraging is far more effective than admonishing and cajoling.
A good leader knows they are doing a good job when those they serve are growing and flourishing.
Leaders notice people, and let them know they are noticed.
Sometimes leadership is more about encouraging and supporting someone to hold firm than to move forwards.
One of the ambitions of a good leader may well be to do themselves out of a job in the way they equip, resource, train and inspire those around them to use their gifts and talents and take over from the leader.
A good leader seeks to bless more than they are blessed
Next week I have to have a battery changed. It’s inside me. I have an Occipital Nerve Stimulator inside me that does an astonishing job of preventing me from experiencing a constant migraine and frequent cluster headaches. It’s my favourite piece of technology in the world. But the ONS battery needs replacing.
The operation will be at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neuroscience, which is in London. They do all sorts of amazing things to help people with all sorts of different ailments. Based on my previous experience of this operation I’ll be out of action for a couple of weeks afterwards to recover but will remain virtually headache-free, which is an amazing miracle of medical science.
A couple of weeks ago, in preparation for the op, I had to go to London for some tests, so I decided to let the train take the strain. I went to the Great Western website and chose the train I wanted – a return from Plymouth, Devon to London Paddington. I went to the payment page and was startled to see how much they wanted to charge me for a return ticket. How much do you think?
I couldn’t believe it.
Yes, you did read that correctly.
I really couldn’t believe it. Surely there was some mistake? But everything looked correct so I went on to the payment page: wondering at what point the system would tell me I had got it wrong. And sure enough, when I tried to pay it wouldn’t let me. I was not surprised. Except…
…the reason the system wouldn’t let me pay was not because I couldn’t have the ticket but that the minimum amount the system would let me pay was 50p. I thought about it for a moment and then went back and added a Travelcard to enable me to use the Underground network once I arrived. That would cost £13.90.
I selected it, and then expected the total cost to have gone up nearer the £80-£100 I was expecting. Nope. £13.95
But that meant I could pay. So I did. And it accepted my payment. I was to collect the tickets from the railway station as the journey was still several days away.
A few days later I went to the station to collect the tickets but the machine wouldn’t give them to me.
‘Aha!’ I thought, ‘The system has realised that there’s an error.’ I went to the ticket office to ask about it and was told that the reason was that the machines were all offline and I should try again on another day. So the 5p travel was still possible.
The next day I went back to the station and collected the tickets from the machine. No problem.
Surely there was some mistake? It couldn’t be THAT cheap, could it?
On the day of the journey I went early and checked at the ticket office that my 5p tickets were valid.
“Oh yes, there’s not a problem” said the nice lady behind the counter.
I went to the ticket barrier, still expecting it to be rejected, and the barrier accepted the ticket and opened to let me onto the platform area.
The train arrived and I got on, sitting in my reserved seat. |However, I still expected that when the train manager / ticket inspector came around and looked at my ticket there would be a problem.
The train manager came. He inspected my ticket. I held my breath.
He smiled and said, “Thank you” and went off to inspect the rest of the tickets. I released my held breath.
And so it continued through the day. Each time I went through a ticket barrier or had my ticket inspected I fully expected there to be a problem and to be told that the ticket wasn’t valid, and each time it was accepted without question.
Like me, you may be disbelieving about this 5p return journey to London. So here’s the proof – the receipt for the tickets when I collected them…
Everyone I have told about this has immediately asked me how I did it. They have been amazed, impressed, astonished, speechless, and so on.
The truth of the matter is that I have no idea how I did it. I didn’t knowingly do anything different from when I have booked train tickets online before. I doubt it will ever happen again. But I was seriously blessed.
And what’s the point of this tale? Well I wonder whether the way that churches have talked about Jesus may well have undersold him. We may talk about going to heaven when we die or being ‘saved from our sins’ but that’s only a small part of what he is offering. Jesus talked about bringing ‘life in all its fullness’. I don’t think that’s life without pain or problems. I think that’s life with pain and problems but knowing that we’re not alone in them. It’s life with struggles and sticky patches but being aware that he gives us the grace and strength to cope. It’s a full-spectrum rainbow of life, which includes darkness and shade as well as brightness and light. It’s almost too good to be true! But somehow we have not shared the good news in such a way that people realise that.
I wonder what people’s reaction would be if they knew that what we’re talking about is much more than an eternal life insurance policy? Would they be as surprised and interested as when someone buys a return rail ticket from Plymouth to London for 5p?
Have I underestimated in my own mind what an amazing thing he is offering? If so, perhaps it’s not surprising that I may not have portrayed what he is offering to other people in such a way that they are as interested in Jesus as in a 5p rail ticket. Have I undersold Jesus and what he offers?
I wonder what people’s reaction would be if they knew that what we’re talking about is SO much more than an eternal life insurance policy and get-out-of-jail free card?
I used to be theologically sound, but I don’t think I am anymore – and I am glad. When I was much, much younger I was ‘sound’ because I repeated what I had been told was ‘sound’ by others who told me about Jesus. I hadn’t really thought about it, I just accepted it. I accepted it because I respected those whose opinions, teaching and orthodoxy I was replicating. Nobody told me this is what I was supposed to be doing, it just seemed like the natural thing to do because things were usually presented to me as answers rather than questions.
When I started at theological college to train to be a Baptist Minister one of the things they did early on was make me question everything… if the answer to ‘why do you believe that?’ was ‘because [insert name here] told me’ I was encouraged to go deeper and work out my own answers. That may sound like a recipe for ‘anything goes’ but that’s not the case. By working things out for myself I was able to understand myself better and dig beneath the surface of my understanding of God – rather than wearing the veneer of ‘soundness’ I had adopted for myself. I started to look at questions about God and me, rather than adopt answers.
It was an incredibly uncomfortable experience, but wonderfully valuable and liberating at the same time. It was like taking down a prefabricated building someone else had put up in which I had been living and being helped to build somewhere I could call home that I had created. It’s not ‘anything goes’ because it’s still a building to live in. It’s not ‘anything goes’ because it’s still exploring who God is in the light of Jesus.
I regret now that in my earlier years of ministry I was not so good at helping people to go through the same experience I did. In fact I modelled the answer-giving approach much more than question-giving. Having reached my own ‘sound’ orthodoxy (evidenced by a theological degree and Ordination) I shared that perspective with people who wanted me to share it with them. It seemed to work.
But I have found that it only works for so long for some people. Some just want to be told the answers and find people who will give them questions instead to be irritating and frustrating. There have been courses run by churches for the last 3 decades that have offered exactly that – answers to life’s questions (albeit that they also define what questions you should be asking). I have gladly led such courses and seen people’s life and faith enlivened by them. I don’t have a problem with them, except that they don’t suit everyone.
Ironically, and I am disappointed in myself for not realising this sooner, when I became fully fledged as a Minister I used to work on a ‘one size fits all’ approach: if people wanted to ask questions, let me run a course for them and give them the answers. But what about those who have different questions? Or what about those who want to question the answers they are given? Where was the space for them in our churches? Slowly I realised that I had been perpetuating a model that hadn’t blessed me as much as I thought it did at the time.
Churches can squash questions. They may provide a diet of ready-meal answers and rather than enabling someone to flourish, develop and become the thinking person God has created them to be. They can create clones who will unthinkingly repeat what they have been told is sound rather than encourage diversity and questions.
Uniformity is not the same as unity.
Conformity is not the same as collaboration.
Dogma is not the same as faith.
The former in those statements feel like a tethered balloon – floating but not free. I want to be untethered.
In the last church I led we began to explore this in a group I called ‘Deep Thought’*. The idea was that each time we met we’d look at different questions the group wanted to consider, share our views, learn from one another and deepen our experience of God. No question was considered silly. Everyone’s view was accepted, although we all had freedom to ask questions about those views. I rather enjoyed it and I think those who came along did too. But then I moved on from that church and Deep Thought became a good memory.
Now I am back in a local church again I am minded to do something like Deep Thought again. But I also would like to think that we are a safe space in which we can ask open questions without me giving all the ‘right’ answers. I would like to think that I can help people to do the same for themselves. The church I serve seeks to be one where it’s okay not to be okay. It’s a church that includes and accepts everyone, even those who might disagree with the Minister. It’s a church where we encourage people to have different opinions and to share them. It’s even a church where it’s okay to have doubts and explore them.
There’s still lots that I believe that makes me conventional. I am still a follower of Jesus without hesitation, but I recognise he often answered questions with questions or stories rather than giving answers – I would like to do that more often. I still happily and wholeheartedly affirm the Baptist Union Declaration of Principle – because I am convinced of its truth rather than because I have to. And there’s so much more to experience of God beyond that…
And that is what makes me unsound.
And I am glad.
*Deep Thought is the name of the computer that is created in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts) to answer the question of life, the universe and everything. It seemed an appropriate name bearing in mind that the only answer it gave was an enigmatic ’42’.
Yes, I know you’ve all been desperate for another bloggage from yours truly, well I hope this is worth its wait on hold.
My Dad asked me for some information about a new bicycle seat I had bought, which was lovely and comfy for those of us who would rather not sit on the edge of a razor blade (aka a racing saddle). I sent him a text message with the link, but for some reason it didn’t show up on his phone. So he sent me a message asking for the information again. The text arrived while I was driving around Plymouth on empty roads at a gentle pace so I asked my hands free system to read it out for me. After I had listened the system asked me if I would like to dictate a response. As the roads were still clear I decided to do so. This is what it sent:
“Sorry about that. I can see a reference to it in my message to you. But perhaps your phone can’t cope with that message. I will send you an email with the details. Lots of love boobs.”
Now I ought to explain that one of my childhood nicknames was ‘Dougal’ because I liked the Magic Roundabout on TV and used to crawl around fast in circles like Dougal the dog on that show. Later that got shortened to ‘Doogz’. But the phone dictation system didn’t know ‘Doogz’ so it sent the nearest equivalent!
I wonder how often we fail to listen properly to other people, or to God, and then approximate an understanding of what we think was said? It’s a bit more nuanced that my phone…
When we ask someone how they are and they say, “Fine,” do we listen to their tone of voice, watch their body language and look into their eyes to see if they mean it or are just giving a knee-jerk response, or do we take it at face value and move on without asking how they really are?
A while ago I failed to read the body language and tone of voice and didn’t realise that when someone was telling me they were going on holiday what they really wanted was for me to show some interest and ask about their plans. Instead I replied with what I thought was a fair answer and said that I hoped they would have a lovely time. I had closed down the conversation rather than opening it up further.
And yesterday, when I was with my Spiritual Director, he asked me about my prayer life. I thought it was going quite well and I explained about the apps I use to help me (eg Lectio 365) and how I try to have a conversation with God throughout the day, especially when my thoughts are prompted about someone or something. My SD then asked me whether I spend any time just sitting in God’s presence in silence… ah… well… no. Not really. So I am resolved to try and do that more often. It may not be a long time at first, but I can build that time in, and give him chance to tell me what’s on his heart rather than listening to me all the time.
A while ago my car developed an annoying buzzing. When I started I thought it was a fly trapped in the car and buzzing against the window, but there was no obvious sign of any insects. Then I wondered if a wee beastie had got inside the driver’s door (because it sounded like it was coming from that side of me). However, unless the wee beastie was extremely long-lasting or was breeding offspring at an unprecedented rate I ruled out the wildlife concept after a couple of days.
I concluded, therefore, that something must have worked itself loose inside the door. Finding the cause was proving tricky, however, since the buzzing only occurred when the car was in motion and even then was intermittent. I tried lowering and raising the window, but that made no difference. It did suggest to me, however, that the cause of the buzzing may not have been the window winding mechanism.
Being unable to find and resolve the problem was irritating me, and the intermittent buzzing felt like a taunt when it occurred. I began to make a mental note of when it occurred and realised that the buzzing did not happen when the car was on smooth, freshly laid tarmac. However, since there was no chance of only driving on freshly laid tarmac when I wanted to get anywhere that revelation did not resolve the problem.
I had the car serviced a while back and toyed with the idea of asking the garage to resolve the problem. But not knowing how long it would take to find the cause of the buzzing and stopping it meant that this could be expensive at the hourly rate they charge so I didn’t ask them. I decided that when I had the time I would take the door card off myself and see if I could find the problem and sort it out.
I did often have the time, but whenever I thought about it I was deterred by the thought that it could lead me to making things worse as I didn’t really know what I was looking for, so I never actually got around to it.
Then, a week or so ago, I was driving with my wife and the buzzing started as we drove over a less than smooth road surface. I listened hard, once again, and it seemed to me that the buzzing wasn’t coming from directly beside me, as I had previously thought. While concentrating on the driving I tried to isolate where the sound was coming from and it seemed to be in front of me, but to the right.
That’s when I realised what was causing the buzzing.
I have a small clear plastic clip that is tucked into the bottom corner of the windscreen so that I can tuck parking tickets into it when I need to display them. Over time the ‘sticky’ has become slightly less sticky so that now, on less than smooth roads, the minor vibrations cause it to vibrate against the windscreen – doing an impression of a fly that is buzzing against the window. The solution? Tuck an old ticket into it so that the plastic is not touching the glass.
Phew. Silence. The ‘fly has been banished’.
And PHEEEEWWWW, I didn’t spend a lot of time or money getting the buzzing sorted by taking apart the door. And imagine the embarrassment if the mechanic had found that it was the parking ticket clip after all!
I don’t imagine any of you have been bothered by pesky unfindable sounds in your car, have you? You would have found it right away, wouldn’t you?
The lesson? Always check out the possibility that something small can resolve irritation for yourself, or for someone else – a piece of paper in a ticket clip, an apology, a note of appreciation, the toilet seat put back down…
I was watching a Top of the Pops 1991 television programme* recently and they played Bryan Adams’s ballad Everything I do, I do it for you. The song spent 16 consecutive weeks at Number 1 in the UK chart, still the longest ever run. It’s a song I loved when it was released in 1991 and still love now.
As I listened to it again and watched the video, I wondered whether the lyrics inspired the subsequent power ballad sung by Meat Loaf: I would do anything for love… but I won’t do that (released in 1993).
(Spoiler alert: the ‘that’ refers to being unfaithful, but I can never quite work out how you would be unfaithful to someone because you love them so much that you would do anything for them).
Both songs suggest that true love motivates us to act selflessly for the benefit of the one we love. Meat Loaf’s song apparently puts limits on that (leading to the silly denouement) while Bryan Adams’s song climaxes with the promise that “I’d die for you…”
These are profound promises and reveal the power of love (cue another power ballad, sung by Jennifer Rush). Love is one of the most powerful motivating forces in human experience, isn’t it? It’s much longer lasting than guilt, more inspiring than a sense of duty and comes from a much deeper place than fear.
Of course as an ordained wearer of a dog collar (non-canine variety, and as a nonconformist, only on special occasions) you’d expect me to wax lyrical about God’s love for us, and quote John 3:16. And of course I wholeheartedly believe that this is true. But what I have observed is that it seems that Christians have sometimes portrayed God’s love as more like Meat Loaf than Bryan Adams.
What I mean is that sometimes the message churches have given about God’s love is that there are limits to it. There are some people who are excluded. I can already sense some of the Christians reading this drawing a deep breath ready to shout, “Surely not!” and others have fingers poised over their keyboards ready to denounce me, but before you do, please hear me out.
The first Church Meeting (Acts 15) was because some Christians were insisting that some people were excluded from the faith because they lacked the right heritage or did not follow the right rules (that meeting decided that this was wrong).
Some Christians actively endorsed (and profited from) the transatlantic slave trade and owning of slaves before abolition.
Some Christians actively supported ideologies that proclaimed that some people were subhuman (Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa).
Some Christians excluded women are from leadership or ministry in churches (but interestingly many have sent women as missionaries overseas to minister to others). Some still do.
Some Christians excluded people who are LGBT+ from their churches, or from full participation in them. Some still do.
And some who hold these views attack the integrity and validity of the faith of Christians who may be publicly more inclusive than they are (and I am bracing for impact myself after writing this).
You might say that some of these beliefs are not placing limits on God’s love but are examples of divine righteousness and purity. But it seems to me that God’s love always wins through – it’s God’s prime motivation because it’s God’s core essence. John 3:16 does not say that because God was righteous and pure that Jesus was sent… it was because God loved the world so much!
And you might say that this is not what people mean to say and that I am distorting what is actually being said. Perhaps. But my point is that regardless of what is being said, the message that is being received is that there is a limit on who God loves or how much he loves them.
I don’t deny that those who have held such views held them with conviction. However, in the gospels we see Jesus time and time again breaking through religious barriers to include in God’s Kingdom those whom people (who held those views with conviction) had excluded.
Were they placing limits on God’s love?
Did he need them to?
Did he want them to?
Does he want us to?
I offer Ephesians 3:14-21 as a prayerful response (with my added emphasis), remembering that this was written to a group of Christians:
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every familyin heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
I pray it especially for myself.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*For those who are too young (or live in a different part of the world) TOTP was the music chart show that was on the BBC every week from 1964 to 2006.
Have you heard that phrase? Has anyone said it to you to justify their behaviour or words? Have you used it to explain why you acted or spoke in a certain way?
Apparently the phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where he justifies cruel behaviour to prevent a greater harm. Nick Lowe released a song with that title in 1978:
Oh I can’t take another heartache Though you say you’re my friend, I’m at my wit’s end You say your love is bonafide, but that don’t coincide With the things that you do And when I ask you to be nice, you say
You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign Cruel to be kind, means that I love you, baby (You’ve gotta be cruel) You gotta be cruel to be kind
I sort of understand what’s going on here, but it seems to me that much of the time cruelty has none of the apparent moral high ground that is claimed by ‘cruel to be kind’, even if someone thinks that is the case. Most of the time it is ‘cruel to be cruel’, ‘cruel to diminish another’ or ‘cruel to make ourselves feel better’. You only have to look at the comments sections on websites to see that enacted time and time again. Personal, hurtful, racist and LGBT+phobic comments are poured out without mercy and without any thought of the impact on those who will read them. I don’t think I have ever considered such comments to be framed in a ‘cruel to be kind’ manner. There is no excuse for them.
I wonder what motivates anyone to think such things, never mind to write them and make them public. Is there a rage within that is like a petrol-soaked bonfire just waiting for something they consider to be incendiary to set it ablaze? What sort of distorted reality are such people inhabiting that they feel justified in being cruel to someone else? Does the internet and social media make people think that they have some sort of online invisibility cloak that means they don’t think anyone will know it was them, or perhaps the scale of the online world makes them think that their few words won’t matter? Is there a sense in which there is a ‘safety in numbers’ approach that if other people are writing such things then it must be okay, and like a wildebeest in a vast herd being hunted by lions, the chances of being caught are slim? Or is it something else? I don’t know the answer, perhaps it’s some or all of those in some sort of toxic cocktail of hateful vitriol.
Hmmm, I seem to have got slightly off topic! Back soon to ‘cruel to be kind’… but the reason for the detour is to emphasise how easily ‘cruel to be kind’ can lose any sort of moral justification (and also, if I am honest, to ‘vent’). ‘Cruel’ always has the propensity for violence and to overshadow or blot out ‘kind’.
The idea is that to prevent greater harm you have to inflict some lesser harm. I suppose it’s a bit like someone who pushes another person over (causing them to experience cuts and bruises) so that they are not flattened by a runaway bus hurtling down the hill. I get that. But in that case there is an urgency to the action which requires the rough intervention. How many times when someone is ‘cruel to be kind’ is there that sort of urgency?
In Hamlet, the eponymous lead character is unkind to his mother in order to dissuade her from a course of action that he considers to be dishonourable. (Follow the link for a more considered analysis). But can a good motive redeem a bad action in this case? ‘Cruel to be kind’ may be an attempt to excuse a lazy response to something that we think could be improved. I may be wrong here but it seems to me that there is almost always a ‘kind to be kind’ option if we look hard enough for it. It may take more thought. It may be more difficult. It may take greater empathy and patience. But ‘kind to be kind’ must surely be possible, mustn’t it?
An example I came across may serve to illustrate what I mean. Someone was suggesting that direct criticism is good, albeit painful to receive, as it enables the person to have a clearer understanding of their performance and thus motivate them to improve (eg a sports coach). But isn’t a kinder approach (assuming the person wants to receive any sort of assessment) to offer feedback that accentuates positives and seeks to build on them and at the same time recognises what needs to be improved – offering practical steps and support to help the person to improve?
These words and many others have been uttered and thought in Plymouth over the past couple of weeks since the Keyham killings. While it was not on our doorstep as a family or directly near our church building (although there are several Baptist churches very close by) we as a church have felt some of those things too as the victims, their families and the Keyham community are our neighbours literally and spiritually.
I have been deeply moved by the way that the community, and the community leaders, have come together and offered support.
I have been touched by the tributes given to those who died and the ways in which they have been honoured.
And I was impressed by the emergency services who rushed towards the incident when everyone else’s instinct would have been to run away.
This sort of horrendous event often raises all sorts of questions, doesn’t it? And one of the problems is that it often raises unanswerable questions that leave us dissatisfied: just because a question can be asked doesn’t mean that it should be, or that there is an answer. Sometimes a question is rhetorical and an expression of anguish and lament.
Another difficulty is that sometimes the time for asking questions is not right. I struggle with the intrusive questioning of friends, neighbours, and family by reporters who are looking for a human interest angle on the ‘story’ when actually what is happening is a real life tragedy that should not be exploited for journalistic hubris.
Some of the questions asked are looking for someone to blame, someone to complain about, someone whose fault it is when actually what people want to do is vent their anger, their frustration and their pain and they can’t do that when the perpetrator has taken his own life. There is a time and a place for investigations and lesson-learning, but that’s not in the street outside the police cordon, or in the news media.
Sometimes we have to hold the questions and carry them with us as part of the way in which we work out our own how we are feeling. Forensic answers won’t do when what we actually are expressing is an emotional response. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions at a time like this, but we need to think about why we’re asking them and what we need to happen as a response.
So, how are you feeling? What questions are you carrying? Do you want someone to reply, or do you need to be heard? Do you want answers or do you need to work through what lies behind your questions?
And whose questions can you listen to today?
And we continue to hold our questions, those who are most keenly affected, those who mourn without feeling comforted and offer them all to God in prayer.
About 9 years ago I went on a retreat as part of Sabbatical Leave and one of the things that made a significant impact on me was a picture that was in the chapel at the retreat centre. It was a print of a painting by Sieger Köder who was a Catholic priest and artist. The painting depicts Peter refusing to allow Jesus to wash his feet, which you can read about here.
I was captivated by the picture and spent a long time looking at it, allowing God to speak to me through it. I was so captivated that when I got home I found out where I could get a poster of the painting and ordered one. Since then it has occasionally come out, but has spent most of its life rolled up in the tube in which it was delivered.
Now that I have wall space in my office at the new church I am serving I decided that the time has come for me to get the picture framed properly. We took it to a local framer and they showed how it would look with different surrounds. In the end we chose a black surround and frame as it seems to offset the colours in the painting beautifully. What do you think?
The purpose of a picture frame is to enhance the picture in it. If the frame becomes the object of attention it has failed in its purpose. And in that one concept is so much about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We are called to complement the teaching of Jesus. We are meant to enhance people’s experience of him, not get people to focus on us.
If you look at the picture above you will see that there is a reflection of my study in the glass of the frame. Our surroundings are actually part of the picture. When we come into a church service we don’t leave our problems or experiences of the week at the door, we bring them with us as part of our encounter with God’s Spirit in worship – they form part of the picture.
Warning. This bloggage contains images of natural beauty that has the potential to make you jealous.
As you will know if you have followed this blog that we have moved down to Plymouth in Devon, where I am now serving as the Minister of Mutley Baptist Church. The church are being so lovely and welcoming and have sent us lots of ideas of places to go and explore in the area. Now that the boxes are unpacked and most things have found their new place in the manse we decided that last Saturday we would do a little local exploring.
We went about 10 minutes away, to Plym Bridge which, as the name suggests, is a bridge over the river Plym – whose ‘mouth’ gives our city its name. We got out of the car and walked a few metres to the bridge. And we stopped.
It was almost overwhelming. A combination of appreciation of the beauty of the spot, the proximity to where we’re living, and the fact that God has called us to live in such a place led to us just stopping. There may have been some tears. I certainly uttered a quick ‘thank you’ prayer.
These photos give you an idea of our wonderful experience. We walked a couple of miles alongside the river (up one side and back down the other) and basked in the tranquility, enjoyed the calming effect of the burbling river bouncing off the stones and rocks on its way to the sea, nodded to and greeted other walkers, listened to peregrine falcons, and chatted. As they say around here… bootiful. Proper job.
I am originally from Devon so this is something of a return to my homeland for me, but Sally has only lived here for a year (when we first got married) yet she regards Devon as one of her ‘happy places’. Saturday just confirmed all of that too.
And in the midst of all of that I had an encounter with God. Not a loud booming voice or a brilliant white light. Not even with any discernible message. Just an awareness that God was close. Enjoying his creation brings us closer to the Creator. And I reckon he enjoys it too. After all, doesn’t Genesis 1 echo with God’s reflection that ‘it was good’, and finish with him pausing to look at everything and declare it ‘very good’?
It’s relatively easy to do that when we are walking in the Devon countryside, but what about those who live surrounded by bricks and concrete? We can still see glimpses of God in the way that grass gently and persistently breaks through concrete and tarmac; in the birds and even the urban wildlife.
But most of all we get glimpses of God in other people. The Bible tells us we’re made in God’s image – not that we physically look like him, but we bear the maker’s marks and we can see him in each person we meet. In the person who held the door open for you when you had your hands full. In the person who caught your eye and you saw each other over your facemasks. In the person who made you a cup of coffee. In the destitute person asking if you have any spare change. Even (and sometimes especially) in the person we least like or admire. If we look for him he’s everywhere.
So are we looking? And if people look at us, what glimpses of God will they see?