Category: change?

twenty-first century jubilee

Warning: this bloggage contains idealism, optimism and challenge.

prioritiesI grew up in an era when the threat of nuclear attack was real. The peace of the world existed in a tension that was known as MAD – mutually assured destruction. In other words, we would not blow up another country because we knew that they would blow us up in return – the missiles passing each other in their deadly trajectories. It was also an era when acts of terrorism were commonplace – mostly in Northern Ireland but sometimes on the UK mainland too.

We now live in an era when there is a new threat of nuclear attack as smaller countries acquire the technology to split the atom destructively. We also live in an era where acts of terrorism are commonplace – fuelled by a hideous distortion of Islamic ideology.

It seems to me that MAD and terrorism are two aspects of the same worldview: the threat and reality of death and destruction are the ultimate ways of exercising power, influence and control over someone else. They are ways of establishing or enforcing control in a situation. Those who have the power maintain it with the threat or reality of death and destruction and those who feel powerless seek to regain power and control through the threat or reality of bringing death and destruction to those who have the power.

Part of me wants to scream, “Have we learned nothing in 50 years?”

And I fear that the silent response will speak louder than words.

Why is it that some nations, people groups and ideologies are seeking to regain or establish power and control? Put simply (and I know it’s more complex than this) it must be that they feel powerless or lack control. So if we are to resolve these issues how are we going to do it?

  1. You could rain death and destruction down on those who are threatening it – remove them from the planet and you remove the threat. Except that the threat will always re-emerge because there will always be others who feel so powerless and lacking in control and influence over their own lives that they see no alternative. That is the current policy operated by the powerful.
  2. You could seek to force those who are threatening death and destruction to desist by making their existence intolerable through the imposition of sanctions of different sorts. But the danger is that if they are not starved into submission they may be starved into even more desperate acts in order to try to survive.
  3. You could seek to negotiate peace with those who are seeking or threatening to disrupt it. This only works if all sides want peace and are willing to negotiate. It necessitates a recognition that peace through compromise is more desirable than the current situation. Peace that lasts cannot be coerced or imposed because otherwise resentment will fester and emerge later on in violent antipathy.

It seems to me that the approaches that have been taken in the 50 years I have lived on this spinning globe have not secured lasting peace. United Nations resolutions have not changed anything. Economics has not changed anything. Ideology has not changed anything – capitalism may have gained the ascendancy but it actually only benefits the wealthy and powerful so is likely in the long term to exacerbate the problem. Religion has not changed anything – different sides have claimed moral and religious justifications for their actions but nobody has been proved right. Technology has not changed the status quo.

So what would work? I think we need a global response to a global problem. That problem is inequality: inequality of wealth, power, influence, lifestyle, resource consumption, technology and so much more. And what we need is a global outpouring of grace. By this I mean that those with power become willing to ‘lose face’ and seek to improve the circumstances for those who are power-less. It will cost a lot in many different ways, and the cost will primarily be paid by those who have the power, wealth and so on. They are the ones who will be giving things up for the benefit of those who have less as it means a substantial redistribution of wealth, power and influence.

It also carries with it a lot of risks: the risk that those who are seeking to wreak death and destruction on others will simply take what is offered and continue their deadly path; the risk that those who have used aggression or its threat to make their point will claim victory and it could encourage others to try the same thing; the risk that the citizens of the powerful nations will see it as weakness and not re-elect those that we in power who acted that way… many more besides.

It’s actually something that God intends. In the Bible we read of the concept of Jubilee. It was to be a year (once every 50 years) in which debts are written off, land is restored to its original owners, those who have been exploited are released, and everyone acts in the best interests of everyone rather than motivated by greedy self-interest. The problem is that those who had the power and wealth found it too difficult to let go of it so it was never (to our knowledge) put into practice.

Is this achievable? Not by our own efforts because greedy self-interest will always overpower grace and love. Look at what happened to Jesus!

But it is achievable if we get radical. ‘Radical’ as a word has its origins in the concept of ‘going back to the root’. What we need is not a new politics, economics or ideology. What we need is a radical renewal of our relationship with God. Jesus described what he had come to do in the form of announcing a year of Jubilee in our relationship with God: a change of heart and renewed relationship with our Creator is the only way we can begin to see his world transformed and the only way we can see the sort of change that is needed that will affect the hearts and minds in such a way that we will be willing to risk all for the benefit of all. It’s only possible when we allow him to get to work on us by his Spirit to change our hearts and minds and we live in a grace-rich environment.

Am I an idealist? Maybe. Am I unrealistic? Maybe. But it can start with me and you. How about it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

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blind to the truth?

20160402_114517Recently I acquired a study. The garage in our house has been converted into a study. It’s a lovely space in which to work, study and meet people and makes my life a lot easier. It’s also downstairs, which helps (not too many upstairs garages though, so I guess you realised that). And it’s much closer to the coffee-making facilities in our house.

The front of our house faces south. And it was only after we had some vertical blinds installed that I realised the significance of this: if it’s a sunny day when I twist the blinds open in the morning I have to twist them to the right so that the sun does not shine directly through into my eyes. Later in the day, after the sun has traversed (or, for the cosmic pedants the earth has rotated) I have to twist the blinds to the left for the same reason. It’s not something that is bothersome, but it’s not something I had considered until the first sunny day when I was in my study.

I think that the ability to be flexible, adaptable and open-minded is one that all of us need to develop because the environment and circumstances in which we exist changes around us. I think most people suffer from change-inertia. It’s not necessarily that we don’t like change but it takes so much effort that we’d rather not bother thank you very much. However if we don’t change and adapt to the changing circumstances around us in the same way as if I failed to adjust the the blinds we may find that we can’t operate effectively because those changed circumstances make it more difficult.

It seems to me that churches suffer from change-inertia. Christians are like all people who tend to like things the way they have always been. Keeping church the way it has always been is perhaps a bit like a spiritual security blanket and if things change in church one of the fixed points of a person’s faith has changed and that can be uncomfortable. I understand that.

But I don’t think it’s healthy. Because if one of the fixed points of a person’s faith is the way a church has always been then their faith is in the wrong thing. We are supposed to be followers of Jesus and put our faith in him not in traditions, preferences, buildings, or even other people. And following Jesus involves change. That is at the heart of the word ‘repentance’ (a change of direction back towards God). It is inherent in what the Holy Spirit is doing within us – changing us to become more like the people God created us to be. And if you look at how Jesus engaged with the religious people and traditions of his day he was all about change! I would go so far as to suggest that if a church does not want to change (if the change is Jesus-led) then they are in danger of becoming a church-preservation society and not a church.

I may be coming across a bit strong here, but it bothers me that if churches do not change and adapt to the changes in culture around them they will be seen as out of date, irrelevant, and old fashioned and that people will then think of Jesus in the same way and ignore him. We’re supposed to be free samples of Jesus not of our own preferences and traditions. And if we refuse to adapt to our changing environment and become irrelevant while remaining in a happy holy huddle we are not only being selfish but disobedient to Jesus by not going to make disciples.

Now before anyone starts branding me a heretic and picking up virtual stones to lob at me or my blog can I say that I am not suggesting that we change the core of our message. Churches must always be ‘on-message’ when it comes to Jesus. But we can change the way that we say it. For example, Christians may (or may not) know what I mean if I say, “I’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb.” But for most people outside church if they hear that they will imagine I am engaged in some sort of animal cruelty and may call the RSPCA.

Jesus used language and illustrations that were contemporary for his day, but were also radical and challenging to the status quo and that is a problem for us if we refuse to change and adapt. Many of the amazing stories he told are culturally irrelevant to the Western post-modern society in which I live. (Don’t lob those virtual stones yet, read on). His parable about a Good Samaritan needs a lot of explanation to people today (explaining the depth of the historical animosity between Jesus’ Jewish listeners and the Samaritan people of his day, the religious cleanliness rules that would have prevented the priest and Levite from carrying out their duties if they had touched the beaten up victim, for example) even though the message is relevant today (perhaps more than ever). Today in telling the same story we might talk about the parable of the Good Immigrant who goes out of her way to look after a Right Wing Racist thug who was beaten up by a rival gang (who might still be hanging around) and was ignored by the leaders of his gang who ran away and a vicar who was on her way to a PCC meeting. It’s the same point Jesus was making about who your neighbour is but set in a different cultural context.

So how would you communicate the truth of “I’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb” to someone who knows nothing about the Biblical imagery or theology of that statement?

Do we adapt to our ever changing world, or do we keep the blinds as they were and end up unable to see what we are called to do?

Be blessed, be a blessing

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)

new use

2015-02-06 17.55.43What are you supposed to do with your son’s bedroom while he is away at University? Do you leave it just as it was when he left, like some sort of shrine – unwilling to change anything so it is just as he left it when he returns; or afraid to change things in case that discourages him from returning? To do so honours his memory and that he is part of the family.

But it also means that there is wasted space in the house.

I know of one family where the moment the older sibling went away to University the younger sibling slept in his room on the first night to preserve his memory and liked the room so much that the next day they moved into his room and ‘evicted’ him. Good use of space, but how did the older sibling feel about ‘his space’ having been invaded by his sister? Did he feel unwanted?

I think I have come up with a compromise. This photo is of our son’s bedroom. He does not normally have a golf putting mat in his bedroom but while he is away I feel it is making good use of the space to turn his bedroom into a putting room. It means that I don’t have to keep getting the putting mat out and putting (that’s ‘put’ as in ‘foot’ not as in ‘but’) it away each time. It means that I can have a quick putt ‘en passant’ on the basis that little and often is better than long and infrequent. And it can be put away for his return or if we have guests who need to be accommodated.

It’s temporary.

I wonder if that’s how many Christians treat church on Sunday? On Sunday we change our behaviour, we do things differently, we allow God to fill us and make resolutions about how we will be different this week. But it’s temporary. It’s not long before we make way for old habits* to return, or indeed invite new ones in. And then next time we go to church we start all over again.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should not seek to change and to get rid of old habits and I am not saying that resolve on Sunday does not make a difference. But going to church is not meant to be the equivalent of a weekly detox that allows us to indulge for the rest of the week.

Christians are under new management. Compromise is not a part of the new arrangement. Someone has moved in and ‘evicted’ the old occupant. Sunday is when we reaffirm our commitment to these new occupancy arrangements, when we may need to do a bit of tidying up, when we hear about his plans for the use of the room, and when we express how we feel about this.

The dissonance within us occurs when we fail completely to evict the old tenant – the two are not good roommates. It occurs when we forget the new occupant is there. It happens when we go back to the old habits.It is the result of compromise.

I heard recently that research has shown that the way to overcome old habits* and establish new patterns of behaviour is to have a conscious plan, to focus daily on the new ambition and targets, to put obstacles in the way of the old habits you want to break, and reward yourself when you are doing well rather than beating yourself up if you fail.

Hmmm, sounds familiar: daily prayer and bible reading has been a pattern for Christians throughout history. And now we know why it works!

Be blessed, be a blessing

*if you prefer ‘biblical’ language, call it ‘sin’

the Columbidae conundrum

20150123_085617What is unusual about this picture? Don’t focus on trying to look into the windows.

You just did, didn’t you! But there’s nothing unusual to see there.

The unusual thing is the concentration of pigeons and doves on the roof. We can see this rooftop from our house. I don’t know if it is unusual to have pigeons and doves sitting together on a roof, so that’s not the unusual thing I am thinking of. No, what’s unusual is that this is usual. You will see this view on almost any day you care to choose. It’s the favourite place for these pigeons and doves to spend their day (they live such exciting lives don’t they?). And what I find more unusual about this is that they only go to that roof, and only to that half of the shared roofline. You can look at any of the other houses in the area and their roofs are pigeon and dove-free. But this one has some sort of Columbidae revival going on (yes that is the generic term for pigeons and doves and I did look it up online). But why are they always there?

Is it that the owner of the house has put some glue on the roof and the birds are stuck there? Nope, I have seen them strutting around there and occasionally some of them fly off – presumably to get food or to tell more birds to come. By the way, why do pigeons have to do the head move when they walk? Do they think it looks cool? Someone ought to tell them that the rest of the animal kingdom is laughing at them. But I digress. They are not glued on.

Perhaps the owner regularly goes up and puts out food for them. I suppose it is possible but I have never seen it happen and they never look like they are pecking at anything. And it seems like a lot of effort to go to just to have some birds sitting on your roof.

Is it possible that the pigeons and doves don’t know why they gather there? Maybe they happened to land there one day and did so the next day and it became a tradition that none of them understand but none of them are willing to break in case there was a good reason.

Maybe (and this is just speculation) this house is not as well insulated as those around it and the roof is warmer for the pigeons and doves. This seems like the most plausible explanation that I can come up with, but if any of you have a better theory I would love to hear it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

What’s that? You were expecting more? Oh, all right. The pigeon/dove mystery got me thinking about churches, as you would expect. It got me thinking about why people come to church. Do some come because they feel stuck there and feel like they can’t get away? Maybe some come because they get fed: literally and/or spiritually. Perhaps some come because they have always come but have forgotten why. And maybe some come because they like the warmth of the people.

It also got me thinking about why we do some things in church. Do we do them because we are stuck in our ways. Do we do them in the hope that there may be something in it for us? Have we forgotten why we do them but daren’t stop? Or do we do them because there is a good reason?

You’ve already had the sign off, so I’ll just stop now

Grandma’s lamp

I love the simplicity of this image yet it is clearly a desk lamp(freeimages.com)
I love the simplicity of this image – yet it is clearly a desk lamp(freeimages.com)

I have a desk lamp that belonged to one of my Grandmas. I have had it for a while and when I came to Colchester I thought it would be useful at the church.

I put it on my desk in the ministers’ office at the church when I was setting up there, and it lived there for the past 6+ years. (For you grammar pedants, it was an office for both ministers so the apostrophe is in the right place here even if it never got changed on the door!). Yesterday evening I went to the church to empty out some bits and pieces from the office (cue more lumps in throat and tears in eyes – what a softie!).

I almost forgot to pick up Grandma’s lamp because it had been a regular ‘fixture’ on my desk for the past 6+ years and I had grown used to it being there. As I was gathering up my bits and pieces I noticed Grandma’s lamp and realised that I needed to bring it with me. I managed to get it gently in my bag and brought it back. I have found the perfect place for it above my desk and realised that I could have used it there much more helpfully than I used it in the church office.

Two brief reflections on that:

Do we treat people like Grandma’s lamp? How often do we become so familiar with people that we take them for granted? How often do they blend into the background and we forget that they have a story, an inherent value and significance?

And is it also possible that we are like the lamp? We may be doing wonderfully where we are, but might God have us use our gifts in another way or another place in order to bless people in a different way? This is what is happening to me this week!

Be blessed, be a blessing

it starts with desire

None of us is perfect. Nobody, no matter how great they are or what they have achieved, is the finished article. I am being inspired at the moment by reading about Group Captain Lord Cheshire of Woodhall, VC, OM, DSO, DFC. By any measure he was an astonishing man as all of his titles and letters after his name suggest.

I recently acquired a second hand copy of ‘Crossing the Finishing Line’ – his last thoughts as he struggled with the debilitating effects of Motor Neurone Disease. A number of the thoughts have provoked thoughts and prayerfulness in me, but there was one comment that resonated particularly.

Last week in our church I spoke of how for the most part God brings about change in us and transforms us through one degree shifts. Gradual, almost imperceptible changes that over time add up to making a significant difference. One of Leonard Cheshire’s ‘last thoughts’ was:

“I need to try to turn my life and the physical difficulties I have into a prayer. I think that means starting with what St Augustine defines as the prayer of desire. Thus your whole being, heart and mind, needs to be orientated towards God. If you start that way, then throughout the day you can bring in different people, different Homes*, different problems into your thoughts while you are, so to speak, in a prayerful state of mind.”

(‘Crossing the Finishing Line’, Leonard Cheshire p.76)

Being transformed by God’s Spirit starts with us. We can’t bring about the change any more than a Rubik’s cube can solve itself. But we have to want God’s Spirit to change us. And that starts with us going deeper in our understanding and experience of Jesus Christ. Our aim should not be to be better people but to want to know Jesus better – because as we get to know him better we find that his character, love, grace and so on start to rub off on us. The one degree shifts happen naturally not because we are striving for them but because we are striving for Christ.

Part of the problem with one degree shifts is their imperceptibility. We might not notice them ourselves, so become frustrated that we are not the people we know God wants us to be. In those circumstances I don’t think it is wrong to be checking our spiritual compass so we can see how we are orientated.

If we want to be a prayerful person we could start with devoting three hours to prayer every day. Some may achieve that easily but most of us will get distracted and discouraged and give up. But what if a one degree shift was to start with a regular daily prayer of two minutes? And then when that is a part of our routine we go for three minutes, then four and so on?

It’s the same with reading the Bible – don’t try to read it all in a day! But start with bite-sized chunks and gradually add to them.

Or it could be that we struggle with a persistent sin. You could try to stop ‘cold turkey’. But that’s not always easy, especially if it is ingrained in our life. So take it one day at a time. Ask for God’s help not to fall into temptation and see how long you can go – each time you are tempted is a good time to pray the Lord’s Prayer. If you fail then ask God to help you again – turn back to him, ask for his forgiveness, a fresh start and his help again. And try to go for longer – one day at a time. Count your progress and celebrate it. One of my friends had a real problem with alcohol and regularly tells me how long it was since they last had a drink (over a year now!).

If those sound suspiciously like spiritual self-help they are not meant to. We can’t do it ourselves. But if we are seeking Jesus, desiring Jesus, yearning for more of him in our lives and asking him to help us to become all that we can be, he will help us. But we can’t sit back and wait for him to do it all, and these may be ways in which he helps us to do that, with the strength, perseverance and grace that he gives us. Look for and celebrate those one degree shifts when you perceive them.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Among his many achievements Leonard Cheshire founded homes for disabled people around the world – find out more here.