champion

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I was at a Church Meeting last night (and was immensely blessed by the experience). As a frequent ‘outside observer’ of Church Meetings I have a few ‘hunches’ (not caused by uncomfortable seating):

The way a room is set out may have a correlation with the mood of the meeting. If those leading the meeting are sat behind tables at the front it may suggest that there is likely to be confrontation. If everyone is in rows facing the front it may inhibit discussion. If the room is set out with people in a circle (or a version of a circle depending on numbers and space) it might encourage people to listen to one another more because they are facing each other.

Church Meetings that describe themselves as ‘Church Business Meetings’ have a different atmosphere to those that don’t. If it’s a formal business-style meeting then the approach (with proposers and seconders and lots of voting) may lend itself to more business-style topics. I have not done any research on this but my hunch is that those that are described as ‘Church Business Meetings’ may lead with things like finance and the running of the church rather than what church is really there for. And those meetings can feel more like democratic meetings where strident majority views carry the day rather than discernment meetings where we listen to the small uncertain voice as well as the loud.

Another hunch is that where a Church Meeting is explicitly a discernment process, seeking to listen for what God is saying to the church through one another, the focus of the meeting is likely to be more about mission and serving the community. Those meetings are often characterised by the number of times the meeting prays together about issues and different ways of listening to the gathered community other than just be plenary discussion. And everyone’s comments are listened to and respected because they could be the one God is speaking through.

Last night’s meeting included an epiphany for me. Quite often in the meeting there was a request for people to ‘pray about this’. That’s brilliant. That’s how churches should operate. And we did pray during the meeting. However I wonder how many of those ‘pray about this’ issues remained with people at the end of the meeting, and how many still remember them this morning?

I was given the opportunity at the end of the meeting to feed back to the church what I had experienced (this is something I often do – with permisssion – as a visitor). I remarked on how often we had been encouraged to ‘pray about this’ and wondered whether it might be worth having someone in the meeting designated to record the points for prayer. At the end of the meeting they could remind the meeting about these things (things to thank God for as well as requests) so that the meeting could do what it had been asked to do, and then perhaps those prayer items could be circulated to the church membership for them to continue to be in prayer about them. Of the cuff I suggested that they could perhaps be the ‘Prayer Champion’ and I am not convinced about the name, but I am warming up to the concept.

If you’re in a church that holds meetings, what are they like?

Be blessed, be a blessing

solving or resolving?

Recently, in order to make an online order up to the amount that qualified for free delivery, I bought a Rubik’s Cube. Technically it isn’t a Rubik’s Cube because it is not an official one, but you know what I mean.

Rubik's cube 3

When they first came out I was a teenager and I got hold of one. I learnt how to solve it and spent a lot of free time trying to solve it as quickly as possible. I was delighted when I managed to do it in 45 seconds on one occasion, and my average got down to about 1 minute. There are a few moves that you have to know, and of course you need to know where and when to do them. I was pleased with myself.

I don’t know that I could solve the cube as quickly as that now, but I am enjoying the challenge of solving it (each time is almost certainly different to the last because of the number of permutations of a cube). There is something satisfying about being able to transform a mixed up cube back to its solved state. However my pride at being able to solve the cube was put in perspective when I saw a video of people solving the cube in about 6 seconds! They do have special ‘speed’ cubes but even so it’s astonishing to witness. My method of solving the cube would not work at such speeds so it is clear that they have another approach.

A bit like my love of fountain pens (see the previous bloggage) part of my enjoyment is also tactile. There is something satisfying about the way that a Rubik’s cube moves. The noise it makes, the smooth clacking as the cubes are rotated and even the way that the cube fits into my hand and can be flicked by my fingers is soothing.

And there is a sense of fulfilment about reorganising the confusion and returning order. Each time I succeed is a victory for order over chaos (albeit a tiny and insignificant one). It’s also a victory for persistence over hopelessness and logic over muddle.

Life could be described as being like a Rubik’s cube in that it can be chaotic, disorganised and frustrating. It is also unlikely that we will come across exactly the same permutation of experiences in life, even if there are similarities. And there are some people who seem better at life than others (often they also try to sell us their advice).

But of course life is not like a Rubik’s cube. It’s not always possible to solve it. We can’t simply apply the right moves in the right order and at the right time to resolve difficulties, trauma and horrific events. Logic can’t always be applied. Sometimes the answer to life is that it sucks and it’s awful and we can’t change our circumstances.

What we need then is not someone on a video (or bloggage) telling us how to solve things, we need people who resolve to be with us. I know that some people avoid people who are going through rough times because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, or even wouldn’t know where to start with saying anything. The good news is that words aren’t necessary. They don’t need to give us advice, answers, resources or solutions. They just need to have the wisdom to know that being with us is enough. A hug can say more than a thousand words. A reassuring smile can be louder than a 1000W speaker system. An empathetic tear can be more effective than hundreds of advice videos in helping us to cope.

That, for me, is one of the amazing things about Jesus. One of the ways he is described is ‘God with us’. And he has promised that by his Spirit he remains with us and in us. He experiences our deepest depths and darkest darkness with us. The Bible even says that when we can’t articulate words the Spirit translates the groans within us into prayers in the throneroom of heaven!

And Jesus asks his followers to emulate him and we can be ‘God with us’ to others. Yes there may be practical things we can do to help, but starting by ‘being with’ is an astonishingly powerful thing. When, last year, I was trying to recover from my heart surgery the best moment of the day was when my wife and family and friends came to visit. I learnt what Sally’s footsteps sounded like in the corridor and that lifted my spirits. They didn’t need to say or do anything, simply them being there was wonderful for me. And knowing that those who could not physically be there with me were praying for me was also an immense encouragement. The McFlurries and other treats that people brought me helped, of course, but just knowing that I was not alone and that I was loved was the best medicine.

I am not going to be as glib or frivolous as to suggest that knowing that God is with us is enough and that simply being with someone is all that is needed. Of course we want terrible circumstances to be improved and there may be things we can do to help with that (like when my nurse sister spoke to the ward staff on my behalf when I was in excruciating pain). We want to believe that there is hope – that even though God is with us as we walk through the darkest valley, the valley has an end. But knowing that we are not alone, we have not been abandoned, is a good start.

Who needs you to resolve to be there for them?

Be blessed, be a blessing

the write stuff

Image result for fountain pen writing

I have a confession to make. I love fountain pens. I don’t know why but I love the combination of the concept, the feel of them,  and particularly the sense of the flow of ink when writing that make up a fountain pen. I even like the sense of ancient history behind them (there are references to something that resembles a fountain pen in the 10th century, and of course quills were used many centuries before). I realise that in an electronic age (and I LOVE technology) it may seem rather archaic to enjoy fountain pens but there you go… it’s what I like.

Many years ago my wife gave me a lovely ink pen and it lasted quite a long time until it gave up and literally fell apart. I loved it so much that I tracked down another one online that looked identical and I bought it as a replacement. Then, tragically, earlier this year I dropped the replacement fountain pen while writing with it and it landed nib-down on a hard floor. The nib bent.

What had been a joy to write with became a scratchy implement that was difficult to write with and left an inconsistent and sometimes indecipherable mark on the paper. I tried to unbend the nib with as much gentleness and skill as I have seen on the BBC TV Show ‘The Repair Shop’ but I am not a skilled craftsman and the nib remained scratchy and inconsistent. I even checked to see if the old nib would fit from the previous pen, but there was a minor but important difference that meant it wouldn’t fit and in any event it was full of dry ink that would not budge. I then looked at whether it was possible to buy a new nib for the pen and was alarmed to see how expensive this would be. The problem was that these pens had gone out of production many years back. The replacement I had bought was remaining stock, not new stock, and to buy a replacement nib required a specialist shop and for specialist shop read ‘expensive shop’. I was quite upset.

However my birthday was coming up and I thought about asking for a replacement nib for my birthday. But it felt wrong to ask someone to spend as much on a new nib as the pen had cost in the first place. I decided to ask for a new fountain pen and settled on a different one that I liked the look of. I went into a pen shop and ‘tried it on’ and it felt really good in my hand. So that’s what I asked for, and that’s what my wife gave me for my birthday. I am delighted with it, it writes beautifully (even if my handwriting is a bit ropey because of how much I type now) and my love of fountain pens continues.

Why this tale of ink pens? Well, I was looking at my new pen on my desk a little earlier and was reminded of Psalm 45:1 “My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skilful writer.” It’s part of a love song composed for a wedding that praises the bride and groom, but confirms that God’s hand has been on the couple. It’s a lovely image – that our spoken words are written by a dextrous wordsmith – God’s Spirit inspiring our thoughts and speech. This is true for us when we preach and teach, when we seek to speak God’s words to people, and should be true of us all day long. The problem is that while the writer always remains skilled, sometimes the pen is scratchy and almost illegible. It can happen to any of us.

It happens when we don’t take care of our souls, perhaps when we have been dropped on the hard floor of self-reliance instead of relying on God’s Spirit. Or it can happen when we become spiritually dried up rather than allowing the Spirit of Jesus to flow within us and through us. And we can even make the mistake of failing to ask the Master Craftsman to restore us when that happens. Miraculously the beautiful message can still get through even when we are scratchy or the reservoir has run dry, but that is more down to the skill of the author than the pen.

If you’re aware that you are a bit scratchy why not put yourself in for a service? Take a retreat, find a Spiritual Director, be accountable to someone else and allow these people to help you. Open yourself afresh to God’s Spirit in whatever way you find it easiest to be restored and renewed so that once again the author’s wonderful words flow well.

Be blessed, be a blessing

thoughtless or less thought?

A lot of time and effort had gone into creating a resource. It had been honed, refined, shaped and adapted over a period of several months after the initial version had been finished. Finally it was ready to be released and there some positive feedback.

But there were also some people who made critical comments about the resource on social media. The critical comments were not about the core message, nor were they about the concept. They were complaining about one small aspect of the resource. It was not as if they said, “We like these aspects of the resource, but wonder about that one…” They simply complained about one aspect of the resource and had nothing positive to say about the rest. They denounced the whole thing because of one minor part of it.

For those who had invested time, creativity and effort into the resource it was incredibly disheartening that some people could not see past the one thing they did not like and were not able to write anything positive. It was even more disheartening that the people who felt critical about it decided to post their comments on social media for all to see rather than speaking privately to those who had created the resource. The delight at what they had created had been replaced by misery and disappointment. And the good work that had been done felt tarnished by the negativity. Maybe the people who wrote the negative comments were simply thoughtless, or maybe they gave less thought to what they wrote because they wrote on impulse but the impact was the same.

The story above could probably be told many times over, perhaps with minor adaptations, about how people respond negatively and critically on social media to what others have created. You could replace ‘resource’ with ‘cartoon’, ‘book’, ‘website’, ‘blog’, or ‘video’; you could replace it with ‘TV show’, ‘film’, or ‘song’; you could replace it with ‘politics’, ‘philosophy’, ‘spirituality’ or ‘morality’ and it would still resonate as true. Somehow we have reached a point where it is deemed entirely acceptable to be negative about what other people think, create, do or say and even to insult and personal in the critiques. And they wound in ways that cannot be easily bandaged.

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In days gone by, before social media and the internet were even embryonic thoughts in the minds of those who created them, comments that were intended to be seen by others were usually printed or broadcast on TV or the radio. And what was said was usually moderated because people knew that they were subject to the laws of libel and defamation. In law the main defences to libel and defamation are truth or that it was an honest opinion and the impact of libel could be reputational or financial with recompense awarded accordingly. For some reason nobody seems to apply these laws to what someone splurges across the www!

Have we lost our filters of decency? Have we stopped thinking about the impact of our words on other people? Do we think that those who are the subject of vitriol or ridicule are immune to the effects of our comments? Are we less thoughtful and now are thoughtless?

The worst thing for me about the story at the start of this bloggage is that it is a true story and relates to something that was created for churches to use. The negative comments were made by Christians. Christians are not perfect, we make mistakes, but it saddens me when we flaunt those imperfections in full view of the online world without thought.

Be blessed, be a blessing

watch out for icebergs

I am fascinated by the way that internet memes seem to come around in cycles. Someone comes across a meme as ‘new to them’ and shares it, and a whole new generation of people who haven’t seen it before share it as if it’s new. That happened to me this week when someone shared the following:

“Never be afraid to try something new: remember that amateurs built the ark but professionals built the Titanic.”

Now I know what they are trying to say, but there’s a big flaw in this: the meme is based on flawed logic. You might as well say that my childhood go-kart that I used to ride down our drive was built by an amateur (my dad) but my car that I use on the roads is built by professionals! The different status of the builders was irrelevant to their success. It seems to me from my limited research that the reason the Titanic sank was not the build quality it was a failure to adapt to the environment. The Titanic was steaming at full speed and when a warning of icebergs in the area was received it should have reduced speed and increased the lookouts so that they could take avoiding action.

Image result for icebergs

Why didn’t they adapt? There are a number of theories. Perhaps the failure to adapt to the environment was also based on arrogance – the Titanic was famously claimed to be ‘unsinkable’ so why would you need to slow down? Maybe it was down to prestige – the desire to make the fastest passenger crossing of the Atlantic and the associated publicity and perhaps commercial success that would be associated with it. It’s possible that it was ignorance – a failure to recognise the dangers – but that seems unlikely given that Captain Smith was extremely experienced and had been master of numerous vessels.

Whatever the cause, it seems to me that the reason that the Titanic sank was not because of build quality but because of a failure to adapt to the environment.

So to what changes in our environment should we adapt?

There’s The Environment which, despite the Nelsonian blind-eye approach of Donald Trump and climate-change deniers, is changing rapidly (and potentially catastrophically) caused by human action. If we all make small changes it will make a big difference.

But there are other changes – technological change is increasingly changing the ways that we interact with one another and how we operate as human beings (at least in the countries where the technology is available and affordable). Reading some of the vitriol that is poured out via social media against people who have different views to the ‘author’ upsets me considerably. I wonder whether one change in environment to adapt to is a recognition that the impact and reach of what we say is far greater than we might imagine (like the amount of iceberg hidden under the surface of the water) and a realisation that we need to be more careful before steaming ahead at full speed with our opinions into iceberg-infested waters.

I believe that the concept of ‘family’ is sailing in dangerous waters. The traditional model of family has been changed by the family breakdown and divorce, social and economic mobility and other changes in society and moral attitudes that have created families with multiple parents, absent parents and other family configurations that would not have been imagined half a century ago. Some wring their hands and long for the ‘good old days’ but we are where we are. Whatever we think of this we need to adapt and sail carefully in these waters. Condemnation of difference merely because it does not conform with our ideal is likely to tear a huge gash in the hull of our society that is irreparable. Instead we could navigate far more wisely by emphasising the importance of communication, community, love and valuing all as wonderfully-created human beings.

I am sure you can think of others. However, there’s one other major difference between the Titanic and the Ark and that’s to do with motive for them being built. The Titanic was built for commercial reasons, the Ark was built to preserve life. One was a cruise-liner motivated by profit, the other was a lifeboat motivated by God. Which would you rather be on?

Be blessed, be a blessing

say what you see

The TV show Catchphrase is based on cryptic visual clues to well known words and phrases. It has its own catchphrase – “Say what you see.” But outside of TV shows politeness and manners seem to prevent us from being quite so forward. Unless you are a child.

I was visiting a couple in the evening recently to discuss their call to Baptist Ministry. When I arrived Dad was upstairs settling the two children into bed. I was shown into the lounge by Mum. While we waited for Dad to finish we heard small footsteps on the stairs and their seven-year-old son appeared in the doorway, informing us that his Dad had given him permission to come downstairs to see who had arrived. He took one look at me and said:

“I didn’t know you were bald!”

I was rather surprised – not as his observational skills but at his forwardness. I struggled to think of a good reply. The best I came up with was:

“I didn’t know you had hair.”

The instant reply came:

“I didn’t know you had ears!”

If I am honest I didn’t quite hear him so I just laughed. (If I had heard I would probably have explained that if I didn’t have ears my glasses would fall off.) After this Mum shooed him off to bed, presumably before he could make any other statements.

I found it hilarious that the young boy was so unafraid to say what was on his mind. He had none of the grown-up filters that we often apply (and which internet trolls seem unable to access) and simply said what he was thinking.

It reminded me this week of the moment when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. There was a mahoosive celebration going on that annoyed the religious leaders who were busy trying to plot Jesus’ downfall. Matthew tells us that when Jesus got to the Temple (the centre of Jewish worship in his day) he cleared out the courtyard that had been turned into a marketplace and healed people. There were some children there and they were shouting what they had heard the crowd chanting earlier: “Hosanna to the Son of David.”*

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “Have you never read: ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth praise’?” (Matthew 21:16)

The children were unafraid, perhaps unaware of hoiw inflammatory they were being. They were simply joining in. One of the things that I regret deeply is how in churches (and society) we still seem to want to shush children’s voices and don’t encourage them to speak their mind. Because when they do, sometimes we hear God speaking to us.

And I reckon God would much rather we spoke our mind than pretended with him. Say what you see.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*This was not only a statement of praise, it was a revolutionary statement suggesting that Jesus was the one who was going to sort things out for God’s people.

reasonable bus journeys

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I recently attended some training for trustees and one statement took me back many years to when I did a Law Degree. The trainer said that trustees of a charity have to act reasonably. And I was reminded of just how much ‘reasonableness’ is embedded in English Law.

In Law there are many occasions when the standard of behaviour is judged by the ‘reasonableness test’. The standard for that was originally defined as “the man on the Clapham omnibus” and this was first used in a 1903 libel case. This person was deemed to be an ordinary, everyday, reasonably intelligent, reasonably educated person – against whose presumed action or behaviour the actions of a defendant would be judged.

There have been a lot of amendments to this: you don’t judge whether a surgeon has acted reasonably by the standard of the man on the Clapham omnibus, but by the actions of his peers. You don’t assess whether a soldier has acted reasonably under fire by the standard of the man sitting safely on the Clapham omnibus but by the actions of soldiers in similar circumstances.

But the reminder about the ‘reasonableness’ test got me thinking (after the training had finished, I did listen to it all – honest!). Do we judge other people by our own standard of reasonableness? Do we think that if we would not have reacted in a certain way then nobody else ought to? Or if we would have done something then it’s reasonable to assume that everyone else should do so too? I think we often do, and that’s not, erm, reasonable.

It’s unfair because our expectations of ourselves are often unrealistic. We imagine how we would have reacted to something when we might, in the event of it happening, react very differently. I imagine that if there was someone getting ready to fire a gun at someone I would heroically jump in front of them, but the reality might well be very different. And it’s also unfair because if we make assumptions about how other people ought to behave without telling them what we’re expecting then we are setting them up for a fall. There have been times when someone has been unwell in the churches I serve and they (reasonably) expect that their Minister (aka me) would check to see how they are and perhaps come and see them. But if nobody has told me that the person is unwell, it’s not fair to expect me to get in contact and get huffy when I don’t.

It’s heresy time again, folks, so get ready with those virtual stones…

God is not reasonable. By that I mean that he doesn’t treat us in the way that we deserve, he responds to us with grace. He doesn’t limit himself to our low expectations he is generous. He doesn’t just want to be friends with the nice people in the world, he wants all of us to know him. He doesn’t conform to our expectations, he exists well outside the box and thinks well beyond the blue sky! He is extraordinarily unreasonable! If you doubt that, read one of the Gospels and look at Jesus. He was SO unreasonable it was brilliant – going out of his way to mix with the wrong people, breaking the religious rules that were like a straightjacket on people and loving in a self-sacrificial way that has never been seen before or since.

And I am so glad he is unreasonable. Because he can cope with my unreasonable behaviour, whether or not I am sitting on a Clapham omnibus!

Be blessed, be a blessing