I have never been so offended (well, perhaps I have)

If you shop in Sainsbury’s* you may have a Nectar card, through which you accumulate Nectar Points that ultimately can be redeemed in different ways. We think it is a special loyalty bonus scheme that they give us out of the kindness of their hearts but in reality it is a way of them tracking our spending patterns and tailoring offers and marketing accordingly.

So, bearing in mind that the offers are supposed to reflect spending patterns, imagine my surprise when I received this voucher:

nectar voucher0005

If you can’t make it out, it’s offering me bonus points when I spend £6 or more on haircare. If you are wondering why that surprised me, have a look at my photo on the ‘heart of the matter’ section of this blog.

I have not spend any money on haircare products for a long time. And, barring a miracle, I don’t think I will need any for a long time either – particularly one of the products on the voucher: ‘Frizz Ease’. Are they extracting the archangel?** Do they have any idea about who I am?

Actually I think what happened was that someone else recently has been using my nectar card in order to get another offer (that enabled me to buy discounted diesel) and bought some shampoo, so the system has now got in mind that I buy haircare products. The system is not clever enough to know that someone else used my card, nor that I am not going to be buying many haircare products for myself.

How often are we like that? We assume a ‘one size fits all’ approach to a situation because it is easier that way, rather than approaching each situation as a unique set of circumstances. And do we ever make assumptions about people based on a limited number of facts rather than taking the time to get to know someone properly?

We might be more sophisticated than the Nectar computer system, but we sometimes assume that because someone is smiling on the outside that everything is fine on the inside. Or we assume guilt or innocence of someone based on hearsay rather than talking with that person directly. Or churches assume that because someone turns up regularly on a Sunday they have a vibrant faith while those who are irregular attenders have no faith.

You know the sort of thing I am blogging about here… we all make assumptions, we all fill in the gaps, we all make judgements about others based on limited knowledge rather than taking the time and trouble to find out the truth direct from that person.

That’s one of the amazing things about God – for him there are no gaps to fill in about us: he does not need to make assumptions about us. And yet even though he knows the real ‘us’ he loves us unconditionally and wants us to know him personally too. He knows the faults and the strengths, the joys and the sorrows, the friendships and the betrayals… and he wants to help change us so that the negatives are diminished and the positives are polished (even more than my head!)

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Other supermarkets are available, none is endorsed over and above the others here!

**taking the Mickey (Michael)

Did I really do that?

scaredI don’t know what reminded me of this, but recently I remembered something from my childhood that made me shudder with embarrassment and shame. I can’t believe I did it. I can’t believe nobody stopped me. I can’t believe I didn’t suppress the memory more successfully and bury it so deep in my subconscious that it never surfaced.

It was awful. It was terrible. It makes me shudder just remembering it.

Uhhhuuurrrr [the sound a shudder makes].

Thankfully because it is only in my memory (I am not in touch with many people who would have witnessed it) it is not something in the public domain. It is a shameful secret that will remain with me forever.

What are you thinking right now? Are you keen to find out what it was? Are you speculating and trying to imagine what it might have been that was so bad? What do you think it might have been?

**insert bizarre ideas here**

We all have things we have said or thought or done that make us shudder, don’t we? There are secret places in our memory and experience-bank that we hope and pray never get out into the public arena. There are aspects of who we are that remain concealed behind a veneer of respectability and we don’t want that veneer to be stripped away.

Let me offer you a different perspective. The ‘you’ that makes you shudder, blush and that you hope nobody ever finds out about is the ‘you’ that God knows and loves. He loves us warts and all. He loves us unconditionally. I was reminded at the conference I am currently attending that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less and there is nothing we can do to make him love us more. He loves us to the limits of love and beyond. His love is infinite.

The ‘you’ you hide because you think people would not like you if they knew you properly is the ‘you’ God loves, the ‘you’ for which Jesus died, and the ‘you’ with which his Spirit wants to work so we can be transformed into the people God created us to be. If we come to God for forgiveness and reconciliation there is nothing we have done that he cannot forgive. There is nothing about us that he will not embrace and redeem.

So, while you may not share your darker side with others, you don’t have to pretend to God. He loves you because he loves you and he loves you.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

What’s that? You were hoping I would reveal my shameful secret anyway?

What are you like?

Okay.

I was at primary school, probably aged about 9 or 10. It was the last day of term and the term ended with a sort of DIY concert where children could do something to entertain the rest of the school. That morning I had had PE and wore a white towelling T-shirt. (You have no idea where this is going yet do you?)

As I was getting changed afterwards I thought how it looked like a towelling nappy (diaper for those who speak American English). So I put my legs into the sleeves and pulled it up  so it looked like I was wearing a nappy. My friends laughed. And an idea sneaked its way into my conscious mind past any ‘sensible filter’ that I had. During the lunch hour I persuaded a female friend to join me in a little sketch we would perform in the concert about a naughty baby and his mother. I would play the baby and she would be the longsuffering mother.

Before the concert I told a teacher that we had a sketch and WITHOUT ASKING ME WHAT IT WAS the teacher added us to the running order.

We had squeaky recorder solos, screechy violin solos, a group of girls danced a routine to ‘sing a rainbow’ and then it was our turn.

I crawled onto the stage only wearing my t-shirt as a nappy and we proceeded to improvise a routine. Initially there was a lot of laughter. I put it down to my innate acting skill and comedy genius. On reflection it was probably because I was the skinniest, scrawniest kid in the school – pasty white – and would have looked ridiculous in this ‘nappy’.

The laughter slowly subsided as we improvised. But I did not notice. And while there was no script, just the concept of a naughty baby, neither had I planned a conclusion or a punch line to the routine. Children grew restless, staff probably had their heads in their hands, but I kept going with this silly improvisation. Eventually a teacher realised that it was going nowhere and somehow persuaded us to stop. The applause as we left the stage was principally the applause of the reprieved.

I can’t believe I wore a towelling t-shirt nappy in front of the whole school. I am embarrassed to think about what everyone must have thought about this improvised disaster. I shudder when I think that I did that. (To anyone who was expecting the ‘nappy’ to fall off, shame on you! If it had I would never have gone back to school!)

Thank you for allowing me to share this with you – I know it won’t go any further!

a frame of thrones

Stonehenge 1It is Neolithic Britain. The tribe was proud of the new king because he had overseen the building of Stonehenge. They decided to build him a special house. They put up wooden pillars and then wove together the strong marsh grass into panels which formed the walls and roof. The king was very proud of his house and moved in immediately with his family. The problem he had was that when they had all moved in there was nowhere for him to put his special ceremonial throne. As he looked around his house he saw that there was a space between the wooden supports and the grass panels of the ceiling and managed to wedge his throne into the roof space.

That night there was a loud creaking and the king and his family fled the house just in time to see it collapse under the weight of his throne. The moral of the story is that people who live in grass houses should not stow thrones.

Sorry about that. I could not resist. I was thinking earlier about how we respond to those with whom we disagree and was reminded of the proverb that “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Today I am preparing a sermon on Luke 9:51 – 62 and have been considering the response James and John had to opposition. It was aggressive, vengeful, angry and rather over the top. It was definitely not the Jesus way of responding to people who do not agree with us or oppose us:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who will treat you.”

Please God may I respond in that way and not like James and John. May I recognise that I have received grace, mercy and forgiveness and be far more willing to show that to others, even when they oppose me, than to respond aggressively and vengefully… and heaven help me if I am ever tempted to call down fire from heaven on someone!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

service

A nice man has just come to read our electricity and gas meters. He made a joke about not outstaying his welcome as he left.

Jesus face-planted as the church made another public statement
Jesus face-planted as the church made another public statement

Yesterday I had a courtesy phone call from the company with whom we have some of the family mobile phone contracts. And the lady with whom I was speaking was courteous.

On Wednesday I took my car to a local garage because the rubber mounts that hold my car’s exhaust pipe on had broken. The kind man replaced them all immediately and without charge.

Those people have put a positive, friendly face (or voice) to their companies. Companies today can appear to be faceless, inhuman money-making entities whose sole purpose is to try to get their hands on as much of our money as possible. That view is reinforced to me by junk mail and those irritating automated phone calls. So when I get to speak with someone human; someone who is polite; someone who is seeking to be helpful; it makes an enormous difference to the way that I view those particular companies. I feel much more favourably inclined towards them. I might not even begrudge spending some of my money with them.

I reckon churches have a considerable amount to learn about good ‘customer service’ and the impact that has on those who receive it. We know that we are supposed to be people who are examples of God’s welcome, love, acceptance, and inclusion. But that is not the message we project all the time.

I visited a church in South London once and sat in the back row with Sally. We seem to have sat in the seat that some older ladies normally sat in because when they arrived they sat either side of us. They may have said ‘hello’ but that has been lost in what happened afterwards. They started talking to each other across us, as if we weren’t there. During the sermon they passed each other sweets across us, not offering us any. We beat a very hasty retreat from there and never went back.

Not exactly a warm welcome.

I fear that the image of the Church as portrayed in the media is giving the same message to our society. Notwithstanding strongly held theological beliefs on both sides of the discussion / debate within churches (this is not a statement about their rightness or wrongness) the general public must surely be getting the (unintended) message from recent debates in churches and responses to recent legislative proposals that if you are gay or a woman you won’t be welcome in church. At best you will be considered a second class citizen.

Can we honestly say that Jesus would be saying that? How many times in the Gospels do we read of him telling someone that they were not welcome or that they were less important than others?

By way of contrast, the positive face of churches goes unreported on the whole. When those who are on the margins of society receive an unconditional, un-judgmental welcome by Christians it is not reported. When the lonely find comfort and love and support in church it doesn’t make headline-grabbing news. Even when someone finds that their life has been transformed by an encounter with Jesus it rarely gets any publicity. But those people will have received good ‘customer service’ and I hope will be as ready to share that with those whom they meet as I am about my recent experiences.

In a recent sermon I said that the only way for churches to be defeated is for us to press the self-destruct button ourselves. We have that capacity, and have demonstrated at least the ability to shoot ourselves in the foot on regular occasions. But we also have the best stories in the world – not ones that will make the headlines, but ones that each one of us can tell as good free samples of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Corduroy pillows – they are making headlines!

 

setting boundaries

Isn’t it amazing how God draws things to our attention when he’s trying to tell us something? Well, perhaps it’s not amazing because he often does it. It’s more that I’m amazed that he persists with me.

Last week I was sent an e-mail about something I had shared with the church a long time back which had stuck with somebody. This morning I was in the ministers’ office at the church and picked up a piece of scrap paper. When I turned it over I realised that it was the same thing that I shared which had stuck with that person. So I thought it might be helpful to share it with you and also remind myself about it because it may well be something God is reminding me about as a minister and us as a church.

It’s all to do with bounded and unbounded sets. Hopefully you will be able to see what I mean from the diagrams below. You can apply in different ways. Perhaps it speaks to us about formal church membership. Perhaps it speaks to us about welcome and inclusion. Perhaps it speaks to us about both issues and much more.

For the most part churches operate as bounded sets. We operate on the basis of who is in and who is out, often defined by membership or regular attendance. We work on the basis that we want to invite people to join us, to become one of us.

But Jesus operated an unbounded set. He invited people to follow him not to join his club. He was attractive in the way he acted and treated people and in the words he used. He was inclusive, reserving his words of condemnation for the religious elite who were operating a bounded set mentality.

Hmmmmm.

bounded set onebounded set twounbounded bounded set oneunbounded set two

I’m not going say much about this now, I might well come back to it once I have a clearer idea of what exactly it is that God is saying to me and our church. But what is God saying to you about this?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(Apologies if the order of clerical accession is incorrect, I’m a non-conformist after all!)

A Catholic Priest and a Rabbi were chatting one day when the conversation turned to a discussion of job descriptions and promotion. “What do you have to look forward to in way of a promotion in your job?” asked the Rabbi.

“Well, I’m next in line for the Monsignor’s job.” replied the Priest.

“Yes, and then what?” asked the Rabbi.

“Well, next I can become Bishop.” said the Priest.

“Yes, and then?” asked the Rabbi.

“If I work really hard and do a good job as a Bishop, it’s possible for me to become an Archbishop.” said the Priest.

“O.K., then what?” asked the Rabbi.

The Priest, beginning to get a bit exasperated replied, “With some luck and real hard work, maybe I can become a Cardinal.”

“And then?” asked the Rabbi.

The Priest is really starting to get mad now and replies, “With lots and lots of luck and some real difficult work and if I’m in the right places at the right times and play my political games just right, maybe, just maybe, I can get elected Pope.”

“Yes, and then what?” asked the Rabbi.

“Good grief!” shouted the Priest. “What do you expect me to become, GOD?”

“Well,” said the Rabbi, “One of our boys made it!”

je ne regrette rien

We are following a series of sermons at our church at the moment: ‘Living life in all its fullness’. On Sunday morning we will be looking at ‘Living without regret’. It’s a theme that seemed important when I prepared the series. In preparation I have been wrestling with Peter after he had denied knowing Jesus. Or more accurately I have been wrestling with the passages about Peter.

I remembered that I had reflected on this before, and it had motivated me to write two pomes. They are in the ‘pomes’ section of the blog, under Bible, but I reproduce them here to save you from clicking.

I hate mornings.
I hate the sounds of life carrying on.
I hate the normality of it all.
It’s the end of my world and no-one has noticed.
And most of all I hate the sound
of that
damned
wretched
cockerel.
© 1995 Nick Lear

If only
I’d kept my mouth shut – making promises he knew I wouldn’t keep.
If only
I’d kept my eyes open – instead of falling asleep.
If only
I’d kept my mouth shut – when they
accused me.
If only
I could stop the tears from flowing.
© 1995 Nick Lear

 

firelight

Regret is not a bad thing. It is the beginning of repentance, restoration and renewal so long as we move on from regret. Peter’s regret was transformed by his encounter with the risen Jesus. It may seem naive and stating as I am about to will appear simplistic for anyone who lives in the shadow of deep regret, but I believe that the same is true for us today. Because Jesus is alive, the past can be forgiven, there is a mandate to live for today and we have a hope for the future. Peter found forgiveness, a mandate and hope after a cooked breakfast on the beach at Galilee.

The experience of this may be a process rather than an event, but it is part of living life in all its fullness as followers of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

spiritual botox?

On Saturday I had a series of Botox injections in my head. No, it was not because of vanity. When you look like me, vanity has left the building well before Elvis! The first image here will confirm that for you.

‘Normal’ (whatever that is for me)

It was medical, and if you want to know more, read the previous entry. It will be at least a week before we know if the injections have had the desired result, but yesterday afternoon I noticed for the first time the difference that the injections have had on my face. I have discovered that my forehead doesn’t work any more. I can raise my

there’s nothing happening inside the red line

eyebrows as before, but there is a big patch across the middle of my forehead where nothing happens when I do that. It’s numb, unresponsive, emotionless. I have highlighted the area for you in case it’s not obvious – there are usually a LOT more lines in the forehead than that.

It feels very strange because I think I am moving all the usual muscles but they are not all responding. And, yes the wrinkles in my forehead have diminished. But it is temporary, the effect will wear off in a few months.

I think I can begin to understand how it feels to have had Botox injections for cosmetic reasons. And I can understand how effective Botox is at reducing wrinkles and lines. And I can understand how difficult it must then be for the person who has had the treatment to move those facial muscles in their usual way.

I reckon that many of us have Spiritual Botox injections, especially just before we go to church. We make sure that we look our best and we make sure that nobody can see or suspect what is really going on. We hide what is really going on underneath the Botox exterior that reveals none of the wrinkles and creases in our life. We try to present a spiritually vibrant exterior when underneath we feel terrible. We smile as best we can at everyone as we sip our post-service beverages and hope that they won’t see that what we present to them is not real.

Bill Hybels suggests that ‘character’ is how we are when nobody else is around. That suggests that when others are around we quickly inject the Spiritual Botox and hide behind it. How different would churches be if we stopped using Spiritual Botox and started sharing our lives with one another? How much more would God be able to bless and support us through the community of the church in which he has placed us if we were a bit more vulnerable, honest and willing to allow people to get to know the real us?

I’m not talking about hypocrisy here. I think it’s more a fear of how others might treat us and respond to us ‘if they only knew’. It’s a fear of rejection, of gossip, or being judged. And sadly it may be a fear that is fuelled by previous past experience. I pray that this will not be your experience again. And if we are honest, all of us inject Spiritual Botox (yes, Ministers included). When we are honest about it we often find that this unlocks relief, empathy, and a sense of God’s loving community that will never be experienced while we are still injecting.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

A middle-aged woman has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. While on the operating table she has a near death experience. During that experience she sees God and asks if this is it. God says no and explains that she has another 30 years to live.

Upon her recovery she decides to just stay in the hospital and have a face lift, liposuction, breast augmentation, tummy tuck, botox injections, the works. She even has someone come in and change her hair color. She figures since she’s got another 30 years she might as well make the most of it.

She walks out of the hospital after the last operation and is killed by an ambulance speeding by. She arrives in front of God and complains, “I thought you said I had another 30 years.”

God replies, “I didn’t recognize you.”