Playfully creative

This is the sixth and final value that our church has recently adopted. The process by which we discerned and distilled the values was using an exercise I call ‘The Ideal Church Exhibition’. Groups, made up of diverse people from across the church, worked together to draw ‘The Ideal Church’ – where the only limit is our imagination. Behind what was drawn are values, so we looked for consistent themes across the different drawings and then looked to express those values in words.

There were drawings of people enjoying themselves.

There were drawings of people expressing themselves artistically.

The drawings that showed the imagination of those who drew them.

So ‘playfully creative’ became a value. If I am honest I wasn’t expecting it, but I love it.

Like Jesus: enjoying and appreciating life in all its fullness, using our God-given talents to express ourselves and to communicate his truth, and looking imaginatively with the eyes of faith to discern and follow God’s will. 

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

God has given us life, and he longs for us to enjoy it. I know that life can be tough, but my experience has been that it is sometimes those who have the toughest circumstances that have the broadest smile. I think of my time spent with a church in a Harare township and those people LOVED life! What I have seen and realised is that if you have never had video games, computers, TV and mobile phones and if all you have is some dirt to play in then you use that dirt imaginatively. It can become a football pitch, a crocodile-filled river, a place to fly over…

If you’re going through one of life’s dark valleys at the moment then I understand that this may feel difficult for you, and I would hate for you to feel guilt because of what I have written, that’s not my intention. If emotional illness or mental ill health is clouding your ability to see the light, then I pray that you will have people around you who will come and simply be with you. Perhaps in them you may see a glimpse of the playfully creative Jesus who loves you without limit.

What are your talents and gifts? Don’t be shy, admit them to yourself. You may not be a world-renowned artist, a famous actor or even a fair-to-middling illusionist. But there are things you are better at than other people. You are certainly the world best at being you. But you may be an encourager, a supporter, an esteem-builder, an imaginer, a story-teller, a joke-teller… what are you good at? You can take those things and offer them to God as an act of worship as you perform them – if you like, taking what he’s given you and celebrating it with him.

You may be able to use the unique blend of gifts and talents that are yours to help others see God in you.

Martin Luther (the Reformation chap, not Martin Luther King) is reported to have said, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” Well, my hope is that we can get in lots of practice together as church now.

People focused

The next value we have adopted is a church is that we are called to be people focused.

Like Jesus: caring for and loving people of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest; through our words and actions embodying and bringing the transforming love of God to our local community in Mutley, to Plymouth, the UK and the wider world.

Again, the crucial two words here are ‘Like Jesus’. As his followers we want to emulate his example and follow his teaching. There are countless examples in the gospels (well, okay, you could count them but I can’t be bothered and there are lots) of Jesus being people focused. In fact you could easily say that his coming into the world is because God is people focused.

In preparing for this Sunday’s sermon on this theme, I reflected that the two words ‘caring’ and ‘loving’ are indivisible. They aren’t so much two sides of the same coin as two ends of a kayak paddle. If you don’t have one you end up going around in circles.

Caring is often seen as a practical thing, whereas loving is a more emotional thing. But we care because we love. As I have mentioned before, this is not a mushy romantic love, or even the love you have for family members. It’s a dogged decision to seek the best for another person because of their innate value. That’s the sort of love God has for us. And we express it in practical ways as we care for others.

Caring for someone should involve us in praying for them, which is immensely practical, and in offering practical support and help.

But whom do we care for and love? To use another water-based image, consider ripples that are spreading outwards from dropping a stone into a pond.

At the start of the book of Acts Luke tells us of what Jesus said before he ascended into heaven. He told his friends that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. They were in Jerusalem (local). Which was in Judea (nearby). To the north was Samaria (further afield). And then there’s the rest of the world (the rest). Ripples flowing outwards from the immense splash they would make when the Spirit of God empowered them.

For us, our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth is: our local community in Mutley, to Plymouth, the UK and the wider world.

What’s yours? How might a people focused Jesus want you to care for and love people in those different arenas?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Generously big-hearted

The next value in our series is another way in which we express our love for God and for people.

“Like Jesus: becoming vulnerable in serving others, and generously reflecting the generosity of God – giving our time, gifts, expertise and resources to serve God and others.”

In a world where success seems to be measured in terms of the amount of power, prestige, popularity and pounds accumulated generosity is counter-intuitive. A generous person is vulnerable to exploitation from those who would take advantage of them, but we are prepared to take that risk because God takes that risk with us. He risks that we will seek to take all that he offers and keep it for ourselves rather than share it with those around us.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about so-called ‘trickle down’ economics. The idea is that if you allow the wealthy to keep enough of their wealth they will spend it in a way that benefits those who are lower down in the pile, and they will spend it in a similar way, until those at the bottom of the heap benefit. In my view it’s a vile and inhumane approach that makes assumptions about the altruism of the wealthy which don’t seem to be mirrored in reality, and those who are poorest should be grateful for whatever finally dribbles into their outstretched hands.

Imagine, for a moment, that Wealthy Wally has £1billion. He spends £1million on a luxury yacht, bought from Happy Harry. Happy Harry is happy with this, and his employees continue to get paid their wages while he pockets the £200,000 profit. At this stage the employees are no better off, but Happy Harry is. From the £200,000 profit, Harry buys a car from Dodgy Dave for £50,000. Dodgy Dave is happy that he has sold a car, and his employees continue to get paid their wages, but are no better off. Dodgy Dave makes £10,000 profit on the car. How much of that £10,000 will reach Poor Pat who is homeless and struggles on Universal Credit? Ahh, they say, the profits are taxed, as are the employees wages, which pays for Universal Credit. True. But when our government is reducing the tax burden on companies (and had planned to reduce it for the wealthiest until they realised how unpopular that would make them) the trickling down is reduced. And Wealthy Wally, Happy Harry and Dodgy Dave all have massively more money and benefit significantly more from Wally’s wealth than Poor Pat. Wealthy Wally and those below him in the pyramid spend on themselves in maintaining their luxurious lifestyles without a thought for those who have nothing. There is no generosity here.

That is a VERY crude model, I admit, but I remain convinced that the ‘trickle-down’ approach to economics is iniquitous and inequitable. It is (from my research online) unproven as a model and requires no altruistic intent or planned provision for the poorest.

Yet that is almost the model that God wants us to employ! What? Surely you aren’t serious?

I am (and don’t call me Shirley).

Yes.

The significant difference is that it’s not a trickle-down that may benefit those at the bottom of the pile, it’s a deluge down that is aimed at supporting those who have the least. Rather than a little bit dribbling to the bottom, God wants us to reflect the divine generosity we experience. We are to give using the same measure with which we have received, to bless because we are blessed.

This prayer from St Ignatius of Loyola seems to express it rather well:

“Lord, teach me to be generous;
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil, and not to seek for rest;
To labour, and not to ask for reward –
except to know that I am doing your will.”

That’s what we mean by being generously big-hearted. We do it because we love God and love people, not to serve our own ends and hope that somehow someone might benefit eventually.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Ethically motivated

This is Mutley Baptist Church’s third newly-adopted value. The text explaining what we mean by ‘Ethically motivated’ says:

“Like Jesus: unashamedly and relevantly speaking God’s truth, striving for justice, caring for the environment and actively challenging the abuse of power, wealth, status and privilege.”

Ethics ith not the county to the Eatht of London, where I lived before being called to serve my brilliant church in the only county that rhymes with ‘heaven’.

I would define ‘Ethics’ as the internal mechanism we use to evaluate whether what we are doing is right. I rather like Colin Brown’s succinct summary of Biblical Ethics in his book, “Living in love and justice” (sadly not in print). As followers of Jesus we try to do what is loving and what is just. If there are possibly different loving and just options, err on the side of love, which is God’s nature.

We recognise that our faith in Jesus needs to show in the way that we engage with the wider world. How we act makes a difference to others and they should see a Jesus-like ethical approach to how we are as well as who we are.

The prophets in the Old Testament had no qualms about speaking God’s truth to power. Jesus was outspoken on many occasions, but especially when he was challenging the corrupt ethics of those in charge.

Caring for the environment is a justice issue (the poorest are hit hardest by climate change), as well as fulfilling the very first commandment in the Bible – to take care of the planet. It is right because it is loving, it is right because it is just.

What might all this look like? Well, I would expect that we will be engaging with our national and local political representatives as churches and individuals on matters of justice – economic, political, environmental, social, gender and many other areas in which it is absent or diminished in our society. This week I have written to the MP for our church location about the impact of fuel price rises and local councillors about the impact of suggested changes to local parking.

I hope that it will show in how we trade – always seeking a Fairtrade option if there is one, ensuring that we minimise waste – especially non-recycylable – and looking to use local businesses if we can to reduce the carbon footprint of what we use. We will always seek to treat businesses fairly.

We are looking to achieve an Eco Church Bronze award in the near future, but then looking at what we can do to achieve further awards in the future – not because we like awards, but because they are tangible ways of us measuring how we are taking care of God’s astonishing and marvellous created world. Eco Church awards not only focus on our collective carbon footprint as an organisation and premises, but also each person who is a part of us.

Perhaps we will take part in campaigns on justice and ethical issues at local, national and international level.

We’re going to be exploring this value further on Sunday morning, which is our harvest celebration as a church. More may come out of my preparation for that…

Be blessed, be a blessing

Lovingly Inclusive (part 2)

We recently put up these banners outside our front door, on a main thoroughfare through Plymouth. They are 12ft tall! If you zoom in you can see our newly adopted values.

It has correctly been pointed out to me that the steps are not inclusive of those who have mobility difficulties. There is a ramp, just to the right, which is not in the picture, but it illustrates how inclusivity embraces such a wide range of issues

This bloggage explores the second of our values which Mutley Baptist Church has adopted. The full text is:

Jesus calls us to love God and love people, and to be a community of his followers who are:

Lovingly inclusive

Like Jesus: celebrating and affirming every person and refusing to discriminate; valuing everyone and being accessible to all; ensuring everyone has a safe place in God’s family; and especially caring for and welcoming those who have been marginalised.

By ‘lovingly inclusive’ we mean that we want to be inclusive of everybody, regardless of ‘difference. That includes disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality – the list comes from the Inclusive Church Network website.

For far too long churches have been known as places that exclude others for various different reasons. But when I look at Jesus he seems to be on the opposite trajectory. He tried to break down barriers and rules that religious people had put in place to try to protect God from people or people from God. Yet God’s character and nature of limitless love and grace seem to be all about inclusion and embrace, not keeping people beyond arm’s length.

When we look at Jesus in the gospels he breaks social and religious rules about gender, ethnicity, economic power, health and much more. In his death he destroyed the myth that God wants to keep us away from him: signified by the supernatural tearing from top to bottom of the vast curtain in the Temple that kept people out of the Holy of Holies.

Because of God’s loving nature, the quality of our inclusivity is loving too. Love that wants the best for the other person, love that is willing to sacrifice our own resources, needs, ambitions and reputation for the benefit of others.

I am delighted to be minister of a church that is seeking to be lovingly inclusive. We won’t always get it right. But when we fail we will humbly seek and offer forgiveness, and we will always seek God’s Spirit’s help to be more like Jesus.

Lovingly Inclusive

This is the second of a short series looking at the new values that we have adopted at Mutley Baptist Church. The previous two bloggages are an introduction and a look at the first one. Our second value is that we are called to be Lovingly Inclusive. The explanatory text reads:

Like Jesus: celebrating and affirming every person and refusing to discriminate; valuing everyone and being accessible to all; ensuring everyone has a safe place in God’s family; and especially caring for and welcoming those who have been marginalised.

It’s really important to notice the quality of the inclusivity. It is loving. There should be tenderness, gentleness, humility and grace in the way that we include people. There should be a place for everyone, if they want it.

(Model of the Jerusalem Temple at the time of Jesus. Photo (zoomed) by Dan Lundberg, used under Creative Commons license)

When you read about Jesus in the New Testament you see him constantly challenging the religious conventions about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. It’s exemplified by the layout of the Jerusalem Temple, which was laid out like an archery target with concentric rings. Each layer or courtyard marked the limit at which some people were able to go towards the centre, which was the Holy of Holies. Progressively non-Jews, women, men who were not priests, and ordinary priests were prevented from getting to the centre and kept away from God’s presence.

There were some who would never have even been allowed through the door into the outer courtyard because of their age, reputation, illness, profession or disability. Jesus seemed to go out of his way to mix with those people. He embraced them (sometimes probably literally). He was criticised constantly by the religious people for this approach. Scornfully they called Jesus, ‘friend of sinners’ – a label I suspect he rather relished. Nobody was excluded from Jesus. Yet sadly there are many who have found that they are excluded from his church.

It is Jesus’ approach to inclusion that this value encourages us to emulate. We want every single person to be able to encounter Jesus with us and in us. The Inclusive Church Network lists a range of ways in which churches need to consider their inclusivity. Their Statement, which lists a number of the ways in which people experience discrimination in churches, reads:

“We believe in inclusive church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate.

We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality.

We believe in a Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

I love that statement. But it’s challenging isn’t it? It’s meant to be. The range of ways in which we need to take note of our actions and attitudes is broad. It needs to be so because discrimination (deliberate or inadvertent) exists in all these areas. We seek God’s Spirit’s help for us to embody these values, and humbly we seek and offer forgiveness for the times when we fail to do so.

Being inclusive like this is brilliant because we don’t have to agree about everything to belong. There are issues that have led to churches splitting and Christians falling out with each other, where the value of loving inclusivity has been lost in the rhetoric. They are not primary issues – about who Jesus is, what he did and so on – they are secondary issues (‘disputable matters’ (Romans 14:1) where there is room for difference. What makes it possible for us to remain united is not that we ‘agree to disagree’ but we agree that everyone matters equally and love everyone accordingly. I believe, and our church is declaring, that being lovingly inclusive, like Jesus, is crucial.

Be blessed, be a blessing

God-orientated

This is the first in a series of bloggages where I will have a look at our church’s newly adopted values, which you can read here.

So, my first question was whether it’s ‘oriented’ or ‘orientated’. We ‘orientate’ something, so my instinct is to add a ‘d’, but it seems that either is acceptable and ‘orientated’ may be something more common in UK than in other English-speaking countries. So there’s an extra ‘ta’, which is nice. Ta.

We explain what we mean by ‘God-orientated’ as: ‘Like Jesus: a prayerful God-focused people who seek and celebrate God whether we are gathered together or dispersed; doing everything to honour and worship God; listening to God through the Bible; and responding to the innovative prompting of the Spirit of God.’

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

There’s a LOT to unpack here, isn’t there. The first thing is that our prime example of each value is Jesus of Nazareth. If we want to know what it looks like we can see it in him. He was, undoubtedly, prayerful. As well as recording the (pattern for) prayer he taught his followers to use, often in the Gospel narratives of his life we read of him heading off on his own to pray. And when he was facing his ultimate challenge, his impending arrest, trial and execution, he literally sweated blood in prayer.

That’s quite a challenge. In our own individual following of Jesus we know we could be more prayerful. And together as churches my experience is that church prayer meetings are often the least-well attended corporate gatherings. Of course, prayer happens in many other occasions and in many different groups, but I wonder whether we have reduced prayer to such an apparently mundane activity that it doesn’t energise or excite people to gather. Or by defining a meeting as a ‘prayer meeting’, have we reduced its scope from what God would like to do? I don’t have a definitive answer, just some ponderings.

Being God-orientated, or God-focused, means that we recognise that God wants to be involved in our whole life. The Hebrew word, Avodah, is apparently both the word for ‘work’ and ‘worship’, which to me gives an idea of the scope of this concept. Everything has the potential to be an act of worship to God if we want it to be and are willing to shape it accordingly. And then, together or on our own, we offer all we have to him and seek to include him in it all. It means that we attempt to be conscious of God through the day (which is something the Spirit helps us with) and intentionally do things with God in mind.

Listening to your Bible won’t usually provide you with much audio stimulation (aside from, perhaps, some rustling of paper). But we use the image of listening because we experience God ‘speaking’ through the Bible. When we read it, the same Spirit who inspired it to be written (and translated) applies the words to us in a real and living way. For Christians the Bible is not an instruction manual, it’s the prime means of communication between the Creator and the created. It’s both a written document and a living encounter. It shapes our thinking and actions and is God-inspired. But Christians disagree about some bits that are in there. How is that possible if we are all listening to the same Spirit who inspired the writing?

I came across this recently, and it ‘spoke’ to me in a new way:

Romans 14:1 – “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”

Paul, who wrote the letter to the church in Rome to help them out with a number of issues with which they were struggling, recognised that there are some aspects of faith about which it was possible to disagree! If you read on in the chapter you see that disputes existed over what could be eaten, and which days were holy. They were not primary issues, they were secondary issues over which Christians could disagree and on which the best thing that could be said is that we should be gracious and gentle with people who have a different view on those issues – not falling out with them. Not insisting that we are right and that they have to agree with us or be ostracised as heretics. The primary issues are about who Jesus is, what he taught and did – they are not up for discussion, but there can be (and perhaps always will be) ‘disputable matters’. I wonder how different church history (and present) would be if we paid more attention to this?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Fresh values

As mentioned in the last bloggage, at Mutley Baptist Church we have adopted a new set of values. We discerned them after an exercise I call ‘The Ideal Church Exhibition’. We got into groups of different ages around tables, were given a big sheet of paper and some pens, and were asked to draw the ideal church. There were no limits on what could be drawn (except the size of the paper) and no financial or planning constraints.

What the church came up with was a wide range of different drawings, words, diagrams and concepts. And what we find, as we look at them, is that behind the images are values. For example: a drawing of a church with a big cross shows that we want Jesus to be at the centre of things; a community space shows that we want to serve the people around us.

From those drawings we discerned six values, which we then adopted at our next Church Meeting:

Jesus calls us to love God and love people, and to be a community of his followers who are:

God orientated

Like Jesus: a prayerful God-focused people who seek and celebrate God whether we are gathered together or dispersed; doing everything to honour and worship God; listening to God through the Bible; and responding to the innovative prompting of the Spirit of God.

Lovingly inclusive

Like Jesus: celebrating and affirming every person and refusing to discriminate; valuing everyone and being accessible to all; ensuring everyone has a safe place in God’s family; and especially caring for and welcoming those who have been marginalised.

Ethically motivated

Like Jesus: unashamedly and relevantly speaking God’s truth, striving for justice, caring for the environment and actively challenging the abuse of power, wealth, status and privilege.

Generously big-hearted

Like Jesus: becoming vulnerable in serving others, and generously reflecting the generosity of God – giving our time, gifts, expertise and resources to serve God and others.

People focused

Like Jesus: caring for and loving people of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest; through our words and actions embodying and bringing the transforming love of God to our local community in Mutley, to Plymouth, the UK and the wider world.

Playfully creative

Like Jesus: enjoying and appreciating life in all its fullness, using our God-given talents to express ourselves and to communicate his truth, and looking imaginatively with the eyes of faith to discern and follow God’s will.

We seek God’s Spirit’s help for us to embody these values, and humbly we seek and offer forgiveness for the times when we fail to do so.

It may be worth pointing out a couple of things. First of all, our overarching aim as a church is to love God and love people. That may be simplistic, but it’s a succinct summary of what the Bible teaches us about what Jesus-followers should be doing.

Secondly, each value is focused on Jesus. When you look at him in the Bible you see him showing and teaching these values, and we want to be like him as a church family. He is both our example, our guide, our teacher, our friend and our Lord (to use a Bible word). As his followers, we seek to be more like him, as his Spirit helps us.

And that’s point 3 – we can’t do this on our own. We need God’s Spirit’s help to change and embody these values, and also we need to recognise before God and with each other that there have been, are, and will be times when we fail to live up to them. At those times humility, forgiveness and reconciliation are essential.

I’ll probably unpack these over the next few weeks.

I wonder what your values are – as an individual and as a church (if you are part of one).

Be blessed, be a blessing

Fresh starts

Yes, it’s been a long time since my last bloggage, and I am sorry. However, I am hoping to be able to do this more regularly now (stop groaning). And what better way of making a fresh start than writing about fresh starts?

As you can see from the picture, at Mutley Baptist Church we have decided to call the first Sunday in September ‘Fresh Start Sunday’. There are two reasons for this:

The first is to recognise that for children, young people and staff, this marks the start of a fresh academic year. There may be new schools, new teachers, new people to get to know, and (my favourite) fresh new stationery and unspoiled exercise books and folders. On Fresh Start Sunday we’ll be marking that and will pray a blessing on all for whom this is a fresh start in that way.

But the second aspect of Fresh Start Sunday is a recognition that, especially after the summer vacation, this may be a good time to make a fresh start with us as a church and with God. As part of the service we will share communion together and part of that will be an opportunity for us all to make that fresh start.

I think a third aspect of FSS (see how easily it has become abbreviated, in just a couple of paragraphs of bloggage) is that as a church we’re making a fresh start with some fresh values. I’ll post something about them soon, but while they are not new ideas (we believe they reflect how God wants his people to be) we adopted them at our last Church Meeting and are now seeking his Spirit’s help to live them. Our Autumn morning services will reflect on each of them.

Of course, we don’t have to have a special church service to make a fresh start with God. His grace is so incredibly all-encompassing that he’s always ready for us to make a fresh start with him. If I am honest, I need to do that daily (or even more frequently sometimes) because it’s really easy to forget him, take him for granted or ignore him. I find that when I take a breath, a pause from busyness, I can sense his Spirit nudging me gently and reminding me that he’s here for me.

Be blessed, be a blessing

where is God?

Photo by Matti on Pexels.com

Like so many people I have been looking with a breaking heart at the images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I don’t understand why it is happening. I can’t begin to understand how it feels to be in a country as the leader of another country uses force to fulfil his ambitions and impose his will.

I am conscious that what I am about to write may seem trite or even patronising in the context of the suffering, death and destruction that is being inflicted on the Ukrainian people and land, but I have found it helpful and share it here in case you do.

As I have seen images tanks crushing cars and shelling residential apartment blocks; footage of millions of displaced people fleeing for their lives and hear of people struggling to survive without food, water or power in cities that are under siege I have asked myself, “Where’s God?”

What I think I am asking is “Why isn’t he stopping this?” And I don’t have a fully formed answer to that, so I go back to the first question: “Where’s God?” And this is a partial answer:

He’s in the underground bunkers with those sheltering from shelling and air attacks, experiencing the fear and anxiety.

He’s in the defensive lines of frightened Ukrainians – soldiers and conscripted men – knowing how indignant they are at the invasion and how public statements of bravery may mask dread of injury or death.

He’s on the trains and in the queues of the millions of displaced people fleeing for their lives, sharing their terror and the pain of separation from loved ones.

He’s in the refugee centres and temporary shelters being set up across the neighbouring countries – seen in the acts of sacrificial love and unconditional welcome for those who have nothing but the clothes they stand in.

He’s in the Russian tanks with soldiers who are following orders they may not understand or agree with – feeling their conflicted nature. He is also with those who believe they are doing their patriotic duty and not expressing any doubts.

He’s with the Russian people who are being fed disinformation and propaganda and not being allowed to see or hear the truth – refusing to blame them for believing the lies they have been told by their leaders.

And he’s even in the Kremlin – whispering words of peace in the ears of those who have ordered war.

He’s everywhere. The difference may be whether or not individuals are open to experiencing his presence, listening to his voice and responding to his prompting, receiving the comfort of his Spirit. Because he has given us freedom to choose whether or not to be open to him he won’t force anyone, but he won’t stop whispering, being present by his Spirit, and loving. And that may be part of the answer to the second question – do we listen and respond to God’s prompting or have we closed ourselves to him?