you shouldn’t walk alone

iStock_000008457626MediumToday I head off for three days with a large number of Baptist Ministers.

You might think I must have done something very bad to have to suffer that. But you’d be wrong. Not necessarily about me being bad (see recent bloggage about pastors and pedestals), but about it being a punishment. It’s the Eastern Baptist Association Ministers’ Conference, which is an annual gathering for inspiration, encouragement, challenge and increased beverage intake (of the tea and coffee variety of course).

I look forward to this conference every year. It’s not because of who the speakers are (although I am looking forward to this year’s speakers in case they read this), or because of the singing but it’s first and foremost an opportunity to meet friends and make friends with people who understand some of my context because they also live in the goldfish bowl we call Baptist Ministry. Everything else is a wonderful bonus on top of the conversations before, between and after the sessions and over meals.

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is in Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica. In Chapter 5 verse 11 we read “Encourage one another and build each other up…” That’s a really important aspect of church life. You can get it in church on Sundays, in small groups, in prayer triplets, in conversations with one other person. But you can’t get it on your own. For me this Conference is another place where I receive that. Where’s yours?

(By way of warning: I may post bloggages reflecting on the conference over the next couple of days, or I may be so absorbed that I forget).

Be blessed, be a blessing.

I have a challenge for you: I will post the joke with which I opened Sunday morning’s sermon and (if you weren’t there and haven’t listened online) you have to try to work out why I told it:

Three men were scheduled to be executed. Their captors told them that they had the right to have a final meal before the execution and asked them what their favourite meal was.

The first man loved French food. “Give me some good French wine and French bread with French cheese,” he requested.

So they gave it to him, he ate it, and then they led him away.

The next person was a fan of Italian food. “Give me an enormous pizza,” he said, “followed by a big bowl of Italian ice cream.

So they brought it to him, he ate it, and then they led him away.

Now it was the third man’s turn. “I want a big bowl of strawberries,” he said.

“Strawberries? They aren’t in season for months!”

The man smiled: “I’ll wait…”

 

post it

postit

actually, not this sort of ‘post it’

Yesterday I had three pieces of correspondence relating to the first church in which I ministered (they are still recovering 12 years after I left!).

The first was a letter from the General Register Office, who are the people who oversee the registration of births, deaths and marriages. The letter was sent to the church in Colchester where I minister. It said that they had sent me a letter which was returned marked ‘no longer at this address’ and so they wanted to confirm if this was the case – in which case they would remove me from being registered as the Authorised Person at the church (able to conduct weddings). I phoned the office, negotiated my way through the options in their menu, and explained that I had received a letter saying that I was not at that address (yet presumably sent to the address I was assumed not to be at!) After some keyboard tapping and mouse-clicking from the other end it was found that the letter that had been returned had been sent to the address where I resided when I was in my first church which is 100 miles away in West Sussex.

I was rather surprised at this as I had not lived there for more than 12 years!  The man at the other end of the line put it down to ‘computer error’ and corrected it so that in future correspondence should at least go to the correct town… (In case I have married you or am about to and you are worried that I am not legal, I am!)

The second item of correspondence I opened was a letter. It was from a lady who was a member of the West Sussex church where I first ministered and was incredibly encouraging. That she had taken the time and trouble to find out where I was now and to write (using a pen, children!) to me blessed my socks off. How kind and thoughtful!

The third item was from a friend in Horsham – a Christmas card. Now we get lots of Christmas cards and we love them all, it’s a special way of reminding someone that you are thinking of them (and it blesses Royal Mail shareholders too now). But this one had a personal message about our friend that brought a tear to my eye. (It’s a personal message so I am not going to share it with you, sorry!)

Isn’t it amazing the difference a letter or card can make? A letter based on an error could have made it very difficult next year when I tried to conduct my next wedding if I had not responded to it and corrected the error (it’s better to correct a mistake as soon as you discover it than to ignore it and hope it will correct itself or go away). A letter written to encourage me blessed me so much and revealed someone’s generosity of spirit that reflects God’s generosity and desire to bless. And a Christmas card with a personal note of just 8 words brought joy welling up from within.

So when you are writing the 101 Christmas cards, be encouraged by the thought that it may bless and encourage the person who receives it. And if you have a moment, think about whom you can encourage (I had another card yesterday from another friend with an encouragement in it) – perhaps someone who blessed you a long time ago.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Yesterday my sister posted a joke on Facebook about a hedgehog and it inspired me to find some others. This one made me chuckle:

The devout cowboy lost his favourite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a hedgehog walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth.

The cowboy couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the hedgehog’s mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!”

“Not really,” said the hedgehog. “Your name is written inside the cover.”

being a complete tactical numpty

Imagine that you have swum 1500 metres, cycled 40km, and run 10km in a race, only to be finish just a second behind the winner following a sprint finish. That’s what happened to Jonny Brownlee at the weekend in the World Triathlon Championships. Not only that, but it meant that Javier Gomez pipped him to the World title by 5 points (in over 4000!). (But for balance we Brits rejoiced that GB’s Non Standford won the women’s race and was crowned World Champion).

Jonny Brownlee beaten on the line in Hyde Park as Javier Gomez is crowned World Triathlon champion from The Telegraph Online

The Brownlee brothers came to the national consciousness especially during the 2012 Olympics when older brother Alistair won the Gold Medal in the Triathlon. Coming into this year’s final race only a Brownlee brother or Gomez could have won the title, but Alistair was seriously hampered by an injury prior to the event so it was between Jonny and Javier. In the final stretch of the race the front two were sprinting towards the line while other runners were coming up the other side of the course on the same piece of Hyde Park.

We were treated to the astonishing sight of Alistair stopping his race to shout encouragement to his brother. The Telegraph Online report is quite moving: “The love of one brother for another knows no bounds. As Jonny rounded the final hairpin bend and began to sprint for home, he encountered Alistair travelling in the opposite direction. Well down the field and with no chance of a podium place, Alistair had actually stopped running to scream encouragement to his younger sibling.”

Alistair’s comments after the race about his brother’s second place are rather amusing, and will probably go down in sporting folklore:

“I saw him make his move with about 200m to go, and I thought: ‘Oh no, what an idiot.’ I’ll be giving him a lot of stick for that. He’s thrown a world title away through being a complete tactical numpty.

“I know from training with him that he likes to hit the front and push it along. If he sits behind and makes a decisive move with 75 metres to go, he’s going to beat him. I was just yelling at him: ‘use your head’. Unfortunately he didn’t, and he lost.”

What I found inspiring and encouraging was the relationship between the brothers. There is clearly sibling rivalry and they are fiercely competitive. But above that is love. Love that means one will stop his race to encourage the other. Love that means that they can give each other stick and one can call the other a “complete tactical numpty” on national television and it does not affect their relationship.

It seems to me that there are some parallels with the godly love that we are called to have for one another as Christians. Sometimes we need to stop what we are doing and cheer on someone else, putting them before ourselves. And sometimes we need to be honest enough to say when someone has got it wrong, but doing so lovingly and gently (I think ‘complete tactical numpty’ was said affectionately and relatively gently for the brothers). We need to know and love one another enough to be able to have fun with each other and not take offence.

I sometimes try to encourage people who are following Jesus by asking them to imagine Jesus saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (from his parable about ‘talents’). Sometimes I also hear him when I have failed gently ribbing me with the loving equivalent of ‘complete tactical numpty’. I think I can take that from him because I know how much he loves me!

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

ooohs

On Sunday morning we played a game in our all age Mothering Sunday service. It is a relatively simple game that makes the participants look a bit silly (see the picture). The idea is that you put the basket arrangement on your head and attempt to fling the balls into it. On Sunday morning we did a mother vs child version.

Other than to have a bit of fun point of the game was that whilst we all aim to do the best we can we don’t always manage to ‘hit the target’. That is true of parents as much as anyone else and the wonderful thing is that God’s grace and forgiveness are available for us all, and he gives us his Spirit to help us to hit the target more frequently.

(We reflected on the supermum in Proverbs 31 and how none of us could ever live up to that. In addition to sometimes missing the target we also should rejoice and celebrate when we hit it. Rather than seeing the biblical standards of perfection as being something unattainable we can see them as God’s ambition for us: asking for his help to try and be more like the people he has created us to be, asking for and receiving a fresh start when we fail, and rejoicing when God helps us to succeed.)

When the mother and son were playing the game on Sunday the congregation cheered when they managed to get a ball into the basket and there were groans and ‘ooohs’ when they missed. Often as Christians we are better at the groans and ‘ooohs’ then we are at the cheers. We weep with those who weep and neglect to rejoice with those who rejoice.

As well as personally rejoicing when we manage to live in the way that pleases God we can also encourage one another. Perhaps it is our natural humility that makes us not want to tell other people when we have done well but if we can see something to encourage in somebody else, let’s not hesitate to do so.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Game related joke:

Two friends went out to play golf and were about to tee off, when one fellow noticed that his partner had but one golf ball.

“Don’t you have at least one other golf ball?”, he asked. The other guy replied that no, he only needed the one.

“Are you sure?”, the friend persisted. “What happens if you lose that ball?”

The other guy replied, “This is a very special golf ball. I won’t lose it so I don’t need another one.”

Well,” the friend asked, “what happens if you miss your shot and the ball goes in the lake?”

“That’s okay,” he replied, “this special golf ball floats. I’ll be able to retrieve it.”

“Well what happens if you hit it into the trees and it gets lost among the bushes and shrubs?”

The other guy replied, “That’s okay too. You see, this special golf ball has a homing beacon. I’ll be able to get it back — no problem.”

Exasperated, the friend asks, “Okay. Let’s say our game goes late, the sun goes down, and you hit your ball into a sand trap. What are you going to do then?”

“No problem,” says the other guy, “you see, this ball is florescent. I’ll be able to see it in the dark.”

Finally satisfied that he needs only the one golf ball, the friend asks, “Hey, where did you get a golf ball like that anyway?”

The other guy replies, “I found it.”

beyond profound

Do you ever wish you could say something really profound? Something so astonishingly significant that it gets retweeted, forwarded on Facebook and becomes an internet phenomenon?

what goes on underneath can make a bigger impact on others than what is visible

I’d like to do that just once. I don’t think it’s eg0-driven. It’s more the excitement of being the originator of something that resonates with lots of other people.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to try out a whole load of profound statements on you to see which might fly.

But when I thought about it I realised that each of us have the ability to say something profound to those closest to us, and that is of far more worth than a trite / profound internet sensation that is here today and replaced by the next one tomorrow.

So go on, try some of these out:

“Thank you, I appreciated that because…”

“I love you.”

“What would you like me to do to help you?”

“God wants you to know how amazing you are: he made you and he doesn’t make mistakes.”

“Life may be tough right now, but I am here for you: we’ll go through it together.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Olympic inspiration

As a Brit it is very difficult not to be inspired by the efforts of our Olympians. They have been excelling themselves. While it is true that many of our successes have come in sports where you sit down (cycling, rowing, sailing, equestrian, canoeing…) that is not the whole story. Nor does the Medal Table tell the whole story.

It does not tell of the athletes who gave four years of blood, sweat and tears just to participate.

It does not tell of those who may not have achieved Olympic greatness but are still the best in the country (very few of us are even the best in our street!).

It does not tell of the pride of parents, relatives and friends that the individual they know and love has been a part of this special event.

It does not tell of the hard work that has been put in by coaches, physios, equipment designers…

It does not tell of the work that has gone in to design and build the venues.

It does not tell of the thousands of willing volunteers who are helping.

And that list does not tell the whole story.

There are many people who work behind the scenes in our lives too.

Parents, family members and friends who love, support and encourage us.

The people who work behind the scenes to ensure (as far as possible) that wages / pensions / benefits reach us.

The people who grow, harvest, process, distribute and sell the food we eat.

The people who pray for us.

The people who have taught us and helped us in the past whose names and faces are blurred in our memory.

The people who go out of their way to be kind to us, who open a door for us, who let us pull out in a gap in the traffic in our cars, who smile at us…

On Sunday morning I suggested that we can learn a lot from the old hymn: “Count your blessings, name them one by one.”

How awesome would that list be? It would be a cause for an attitude of gratitude and thanks to God for all that he has given us and done for us. If it helps, think of yourself being given an award by God for your life and write an acceptance speech thanking all who have helped you. (Tears optional!)

And if you are struggling, look in your imagination to a desolate hill on the outskirts of a city where an innocent man is hanging from a cross crying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing!” and “It is finished!”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

It all depends on how you look at things…

A Southern Baptist minister decided that a visual demonstration would add emphasis to his Sunday sermon. Four worms were placed into four separate jars.

The first worm was put into a jar of alcohol.

The second worm was put into a jar of cigarette smoke.

The third worm was put into a jar of chocolate syrup.

The fourth worm was put into a jar of good clean soil.

At the conclusion of the Sermon, the Minister reported the following results:

The first worm in alcohol – Dead.

The second worm in cigarette smoke – Dead.

Third worm in chocolate syrup – Dead.

Fourth worm in good clean soil – Alive.

So the Minister asked the congregation, “What can you learn from this demonstration?”

A little old woman in the back quickly raised her hand and said, “As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t have worms.”

 

angelic visits

In our evening services at our church we have been working our way through the book of Daniel, in the Old Testament. On Sunday evening I had the joy of looking at chapter 10, which includes an astonishing encounter Daniel had with an angel. It is quite easy to get carried away with talk of angels and whether we have guardian angels and what they look like. But to do that means we miss the point. Angels are messengers from God. The important thing is the message from God, not the messenger. ‘Angel’ simply means ‘messenger’, ‘one who is sent with a message’.

We have a phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger” for when someone delivers bad news, well perhaps we should also have, “Don’t exalt the messenger” for when they have a message from God.

Among the things God told Daniel through this heaven-sent delivery boy were these phrases:

“You are highly esteemed” (which means ‘precious to God’)

“Do not be afraid”

“Peace”

“Be strong now, be strong.”

Those words spoke powerfully to me. Imagine that they are words for you, for your family, for your friends. Receive them as words from God just for you. Share them with others as words from God for them.

And as you do you will be an angel – a messenger from God! (Wings and halo optional!).

Be blessed, be a blessing

A husband and wife were in a car. The husband was driving very fast and very erratically.

“Slow down,” urged the wife.

The husband grinned, “It’s okay dear, don’t you believe in guardian angels who are looking over us?”

“Yes I do,” said the wife, “but I think he fell off the car about half a mile back.”

Bless a bureaucrat day – the sequel

Don’t let the red tape stop you from blessing a bureaucrat

A couple of years ago I declared the inaugural ‘Bless a Bureaucrat Day’ in support of the many people whose jobs are behind the scenes and who often go unnoticed (unless they have to make an unpopular decision) and unthanked.

Following an amazing meeting with some of the senior people at our local Council on Monday I want to declare today the second Bless a Bureaucrat Day.

I encourage you to thank the person on the end of the phone who has dealt with your query at a call centre, even after you have negotiated the complicated push button selection process to speak to a human being. Be gracious to the person at the Council who has to field a complaint about your bin not being emptied. Encourage the person at the station who has to tell you that your train has been delayed or cancelled. Pray for the person who wrote to you informing you that your tax return is due (or at least the person who entered your information into the database that generated the letter. And so on…

Administration is listed as a Spiritual Gift, yet it often goes unnoticed (when done well) and unappreciated (because we didn’t notice because it was done well). Having an attitude of gratitude towards people who largely only get grumpy people complaining at them can make all the difference to their day. I remember being on an appalling train journey which was punctuated by cancellations, delays and transfers from trains to buses and back again. At one station, where we were being urged onto coaches again, one passenger took out their frustration on the poor person who was trying to make sure we all got onto the right bus or coach. They almost physically recoiled at the insults hurled at them. I was a couple of people behind them and when I reached them I looked them in the eyes and told them that I thought they were doing a brilliant job in difficult circumstances and I appreciated the politeness they were showing to all of us. The smile I got back warmed my heart too.

So, bless a bureaucrat. And if you run out of them, bless someone else too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

From the Urban Dictionary:

Bureaucracy

1. A form of government in which the true power lies in the hands of committees who dictate policy and bureaus that carry them out, with little accountability to the constituency.

2. A form of government, the authority of which is not so much to accomplish anything, but to obstruct accomplishment by anyone else.

3. The form of government that the United States of America really practices while the politicians distract the constituency.

Now let’s reverse that stereotype by blessing their socks off!

travelling companions

This weekend has been provocative, inspiring, encouraging and challenging at different times. Ideas and possibilities of whirring through my mind and I am trying to assimilate them all. I am trying to work out what God not concerned to me and to our church through all of these different thoughts and ideas.

One of the things that has inspired me has been the people with whom I have experienced this weekend. On Saturday I went with some of the 20s and 30s of our church to an event in which we were encouraged to take the good news of Jesus as onto the streets, at the same time stepping out of our own comfort zones. To help us to apply what we have learned rather than simply take notes we then went out into the town and put those ideas into practice. I was blessed and inspired by the enthusiasm of my companions and their willingness to take some risks for the sake of sharing the good news of Jesus. That was almost more inspiring and encouraging them the talks from the main speaker!

Today I travelled with some fellow ministers to another gathering with the same main speaker. Whilst the time in the gathering was positive, encouraging and once again inspirational, it was the conversations with my travelling companions and others whom I met at the gathering that really blessed me. prayers that were offered words of encouragement that we shared were really encouraging. It is always encouraging when you see God at work through people. It reassures us that he can and will do the same through asked if we allow him to do so.

But the overarching theme of Saturday and today has been to be “bighearted”. This is the theme of the Baptist union of Great Britain’s current president, Chris Duffett*. He is the one who has been encouraging us to step out of our comfort zones and be good news to the people whom we meet. He has a natural gift for this and has many clever and exciting ways in which he helps people to encounter God’s love. the one for which he is most famous is standing in the middle of a street holding a sign that says ‘free hugs’. He says that he has probably hugged thousands of people doing this and they have been blessed and encouraged by encountering God’s love in a hug.

I am not a huggy person. That sort of thing feels unnatural to me. But to others it is the most natural thing in the world. I know that there are other ways in which I can communicate God’s love which don’t involve hugs with strangers. What Chris has been trying to encourage us is to do something, almost anything, in order to show God’s love and grace to people who desperately need. What might this look like in our church? Watch this space. What might this look like in your life?

Sandwiched between those two days has been a Sunday in which I preached at another church in the morning and on a complicated passage from Daniel in the evening at our church. On both those occasions people said to me afterwards that God had spoken to them through those passages. Awesome. That is the greatest accolade and puffing for which I pray more than anything else in preparing. I would gladly swap 100 people telling me how much they enjoyed the sermon with one person telling me that God had spoken to them through it.

How about swapping 100 people telling us how wonderful we are for one person who has experienced God through us being a good free sample of Jesus, or telling us that God had spoken to them through us?

*Chris, for your encouragement and to add to your own story on Saturday, I have been dictating this through my computer and it interpreted your surname as ‘stuff it’.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

YAW – that’s way out of order (see recent blogs for context)

and the winner is…

Woohoo.

Our church notice sheet has won an award! You can see details here or download the weekly sheet here by clicking on the image of the sheet and then the link on the following page. It is particularly encouraging because we have taken steps this year to improve it to make it easier to read, more attractive and blend with our ‘corporate identity’ (ie in line with our logo colour scheme, the website and so on). We took the decision to print it in colour each week because it’s the item most people take away from our church after attending a service and so will be part of the lasting impression for newcomers.

We have a small team of editors (on a rota basis) who work with our church office to put this information out each week and maintain the look of the sheet at the same time. Sometimes, because of the amount of information to include, they manage to squeeze a quart into a pint pot and still manage to make it look good.

Two things come to mind this morning (in addition to pride). One is that it is always really nice when someone recognises and appreciates your work, especially when you have worked hard to improve something. How did you feel the last time someone said, ‘thank you’ and ‘well done’? How can you pass that on to someone else today?

The second thought is to be reminded about how important communication is, especially in churches. Last night we had a special Deacons’ Meeting where we looked at some of the things that might potentially hamper people from coming to faith and growing in faith at our church, and how we might improve things. Communication came out high on the list of things we need to improve.

Now that we have an award-winning news sheet we need to make sure that we continue to put relevant and helpful information in it, but we can’t assume that we have communicated. We put notices on the screens in the church before the service starts, but again we can’t assume that we have communicated with people through them. For communication to be effective it needs to be well-presented and interesting enough for people to pay attention, relevant and (perhaps most importantly) received and understood. The problem we have is that the latter two are outside of our control!

We can do our best to ensure that we share information (and especially the good news about Jesus) as relevantly, engagingly and attractively as possible but if someone is disinterested, too busy to pay attention (or asleep) then we will not have succeeded in communicating effectively.

Is there a crucial tip to be able to do that? Well there are thousands of books that have been written on the subject, so it may be presumptious of me to suggest that there is, but I think (and it was reinforced last night) that there is. It’s this:

Personal communication is more effective than mass communication.

An invitation extended by a friend is more likely to be communicated effectively than a notice on a screen or a news sheet. An explanation by one individual to another is more likely to address the questions of the second person because it can be more accurately tailored to them than any sermon can (subject to God’s intervention through the sermon).

Good, effective communication is the responsibility of every one of us. If we leave it to screens, pieces of paper or even websites (which can all be useful) we will leave a lot of people feeling bewildered, unwelcome or disengaged. (I wonder how many of the people who clicked onto this page have left before they get to this point?)

Be blessed, be a blessing

A classic joke about sermons… (I may start a home for retired jokes soon)

A preacher, who shall we say was “humour impaired,” attended a conference to help encourage and better equip pastors for their ministry. Among the speakers were many well known and dynamic speakers.

One such boldly approached the pulpit and, gathering the entire crowd’s attention, said, “The best years of my life were spent in the arms of another man’s wife!”

The crowd was shocked! He followed up by saying, “And that woman was my mother!”

The crowd burst into laughter and delivered the rest of his talk, which went over quite well.

The next week, the pastor decided he’d give this humour thing a try, and use that joke in his sermon. As he approached the pulpit that sunny Sunday, he tried to rehearse the joke in his head. It suddenly seemed a bit foggy to him.

Getting to the microphone he said loudly, “The greatest years of my life were spent in the arms of another man’s wife!”

The congregation inhaled half the air in the room. After standing there for almost 10 seconds in the stunned silence, trying to recall the second half of the joke, the pastor finally blurted out, “…and for the life of me I can’t remember who she was!”