learning (from) the trades

toolsIt’s been all go here recently. There have been a lot of workmen coming and going for different tasks that needed doing inside and outside our house – and the conversion of the garage to a study has not yet happened.

I have been fascinated by the approach of different ‘trades’ who have been approached to do the work. For some of them the jobs have been too small and they have not been interested. Others have been too busy or too inefficient and have not bothered responding. Some have come back with ridiculously high quotes for the work. And others have been extremely personable, efficient, and give confidence in their ability. Needless to say it is the latter group that we have contracted to do the jobs.

It does not take much to make that difference: a smile, a warm handshake, a friendly conversation, interest in what I need, using my name, being able to talk knowledgeably about the subject all go a long way to giving that sense of confidence.

And it made me wonder about churches. How many of those attributes in the previous paragraph do we give to those who come to our church (literally or metaphorically)? I am not just talking about those who come into our services on Sundays, by the way, but all contact with our churches. And I am not just talking about our premises (if we have them) either. Church, in my view, is the collective noun for Christians – like a pride of lions or a parliament of rooks or a murder of crows (yes, really!). So the contact with church happens wherever we (Christians) happen to be. For a few short hours in the week we are gathered together as church but for the rest of the time we are dispersed together across our community – being free samples of Jesus.

Hold on, did I just type ‘dispersed together’? Yes, I did. Because even though we are dispersed we don’t stop being church. Even though we are not physically in the same location we are church together and can be praying for one another and encouraging one another (text messages are brilliant for this) even when we are not in each others’ presence. This means that church is present in your workplace, your home, your health club, at the school gate, in your University, in the supermarket where you shop and so on.

So I return to the list I made earlier. How many of those attributes in italics does the church demonstrate through you? And how can you improve on those things if they are lacking? Some of them require an attitude shift – God’s Spirit is good at helping us with those if we want him to and ask him. Some of them require a bit of thoughtfulness – praying beforehand helps us keep those things in our mind. And some of them require a bit of practice and study – that’s what churches can help with when gathered together. All of them for churches have God’s love as the motivation and foundation.

I wonder what people think of churches when they walk past the buildings: old-fashioned? cold? unwelcoming? fresh? vibrant? open? I wonder if they think differently of churches when they meet us and discover that the buildings are not the real church? Will a greater awareness of God’s love begin to make a difference?

Be blessed, be a blessing

extending the warranty

The delivery was better than this!
The delivery was better than this!

We recently had to buy a fridge freezer and I was rather taken aback as we were buying it to be offered an extended warranty. Didn’t they think it was going to last? And it had a sticker on it saying that there was an extended manufacturer’s warranty on it.

So I didn’t buy the extended warranty.

And then I phoned the manufacturer to register for the extended warranty. They told me that this only covered parts, not the labour of the repair man, or the call out fee, or the cost of bits that broke from wear and tear (like freezer drawers). So would I like to take out an extra extended warranty that covered these things too?

When I commented that it did not seem to show much faith in the quality of their product the lady with whom I was talking didn’t really know what to say (it was off her script!).

I did not take out the extra extended warranty.

Since then I have had a letter from the shop I bought the fridge freezer from, just to let me know that although there was a one year warranty on the product I could extend that warranty (for five years for about a third of the cost of the fridge freezer!).

And then I had an email from the shop with the subject line: “We hope you’re happy with your Fridge-Freezer”

That’s nice, I thought. What lovely customer service.

Then I read the text in the body of the email:

We hope you’re happy with your Fridge-Freezer and we’re sure that the last thing you want to think about is something going wrong.

However it’s only when things go wrong that you discover how limited a standard manufacturer’s guarantee can be. Not only does it tend to run out just when you need it, but it usually only protects you for technical faults. This means you might be left exposed in the case of a breakdown or damage, and you could be left with the cost and hassle of organising repairs or buying a replacement.

Not ‘if’ things go wrong, but ‘when’!

Do they really have so little faith in the products they sell? Or is it more that they make a lot of money out of extended warranties because they have faith in the products and so few people claim on them?

Am I being cynical?

Maybe.

Am I going to take out an extended warranty?

Nope. In fact the more they tell me I need one the more I am going to resist!

Of course churches would never do that would we? No, I don’t mean selling extended warranties. But do we inadvertently give out the erroneous message that if you give more, do more, attend more than you are a better Christian and God will look more favourably on you?

And do we sometimes convey that we do not have faith in God when we say that people should pray and immediately insert the hideous caveat that if he doesn’t answer the prayer it’s not his fault because you didn’t have enough faith? We might not say it, but do we sometimes imply it or could people infer it from how we pray?

Following Jesus is so much more than buying a fridge freezer (with or without extended warranty). But being so much more does not mean that we need to make it complicated. He simply invited people to follow him. Churches are the ones who have added all of the extras!

Yes,answers to prayer are more nuanced than we give God credit for, but this episode from my past is a constant reminder of the order we should do things – pray first, not as a last resort!

the power of anonymous prayer

prayAs a Minister I have the privilege of being part of people’s lives in ways that others don’t. Some of these people’s needs and circumstances are known to others who also pray for them and offer support and practical encouragement. Others are known to just a few, or even just to me.

And I cherish that precious gift. I try to handle that confidence (in both senses) that has been placed in me with gentleness and integrity. I do not take it for granted. It is an immense privilege, but also a significant responsibility. I often feel ill-equipped and inadequate but recognise that simply standing alongside someone in difficult circumstances can be what God wants me to do – I don’t have to have all the answers.

And because I feel ill-equipped and inadequate it leads me to my knees (usually metaphorically) in prayer. I need to ask for God’s blessing on these people. I need to ask him to use me to bless them. And at the same time I need support. I have a way of doing this without breaching confidences.

So where someone has shared something specific with me and asked me to keep it confidential I might ask others in the church to pray in a general way. To use a silly (and fictitious) example: if someone shared with me that they were struggling with an addiction to jelly babies I might ask people in the church to pray for people who are struggling with addiction. At the same time I often reassure the person who has shared the confidence that I am not going to name them, but that by involving others in prayer on the general issue I am also (covertly) asking them to pray for that person. Those general prayers include them. And God is able to join the dots!

This not only increases the amount of prayer that is offered for that person, it also hopefully reassures them that they are not alone. The rest of the church is praying for them, albeit not by name. And others who are struggling with similar issues are also blessed by prayer.

Given how strongly gossip is condemned in the pages of the Bible I sometimes worry that our ‘for your prayers’ moments can become gossip. This way of praying generally for people while those in the know have them specifically in mind avoids that possibility.

So this bloggage is a request from me – if I ask you (in person, in our weekly news sheet, or even through this blog) to pray about an issue please will you do so, recognising that there are almost certainly individual circumstances behind the generalisation? That will bless me, because I am more supported in prayer, it will bless the people (whose confidence is preserved but who are more supported in prayer) and it will bless you because you are involved in the ministry of the church.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Church meetings

Church Meeting tonight. They seem to come around quicker and quicker. I have to say that they are a pleasure at our church. (I have to say it because it is true, not because someone is forcing me to or because it’s my job to enjoy them). There’s a sense of family and a desire to discern God’s will rather than factions fighting corners that I have heard about in some churches. Long may this continue.

See full size imageWhen I first became a Church Member (when I was a teenager) I can remember sitting through what seemed like interminable business meetings where people I had not met stood up and spoke for a long time. It was almost always the same people. It seemed like they almost always said the same things. Now I do realise that this caricature has been shaped by teenage boredom thresholds and the passage of time. What concerns me now is that I never had the courage to stand up and say anything (even if I had something significant to say). I was scared and intimidated. Not a good state of affairs.

Years later I joined the Baptist Union Council as a representative of Sussex Baptist Association. I distinctly remember as I was being given a lift to my first Council meeting being told not to say anything, just to listen and observe. It seemed like good advice, but towards the end of one debate I felt very strongly that I should say something. My mouth went dry, my heart started pounding and I wrestled with whether or not I should say anything. The chairman was about to close the session when I gingerly put up my hand. He was a bit exasperated at this late addition to the debate but allowed me to speak. I said my piece and sat down quickly, heart still thumping and red in the face.

I have gained in confidence since then and am normally happy to speak my mind in public (perhaps too happy!). But I hope and pray that nobody at our Church Meetings ever feels intimidated or frightened. We believe that God speaks through everyone and anyone and we need to hear everyone’s voice. We also need to recognise how much it takes for some people to speak in public. We try sometimes to split into small groups to enable people to speak more freely and then share back in plenary sessions but I am always open to other suggestions about how we can enable people to speak what they believe God is asking them to say. If you feel God has something for you to say, please don’t hold back: in the Bible he spoke through children, through young people, through outcasts, through untrained peasants, even through a donkey!

Church jokes
After a church service on Sunday Morning, a young boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mum, I’ve decided to become a minister when I grow up.”

“That’s okay with us, but what made you decide that?”

“Well,” said the little boy, “I have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and shout than to sit down and listen.”

Fred walked into the pub with a black eye.
“How did you get that?” asked Joe.
“I went to church,” said Fred.
“You got a black eye for going to church?” exclaimed Joe.

“Well,” explained Fred, “I was sat behind Mrs Arbuthnot, and when we stood up to sing the first hymn I noticed that she had her skirt tucked into the top of her knickers. I leaned forward and, as gently as I could, I pulled it out for her. Just as I was finishing she turned around and punched me in the eye.”

A week later Fred came into the pub with a second black eye.
“How did you get that?” asked Joe.
“I went to church,” said Fred, sadly.
“You got another black eye for going to church?” exclaimed Joe incredulously.

“Well,” explained Fred again, “once again I was sat behind Mrs Arbuthnot. When we stood up to sing I noticed that once again she had her skirt tucked into the top of her knickers. Mr Entwhistle next to me noticed too, and he leaned forward and, as gently as he could, pulled it out for her. Now I know she likes her skirt tucked into her knickers, so I leaned forward and tucked it back in for her…”