mission made simple

Churches seem to have the innate ability to make things complicated, don’t we. Putting aside all of the complexities of Church Meetings, Leadership Meetings, ordinations, inductions, church accounts and finances, child protection policies, insurance, choice of music in services, sitting in our favourite seats, charity law, constitutions, and so much more that goes into running a church, I want to think about what our mission is.

In my simple mind churches exist to be free samples of Jesus to the world around us. That, to me, is part of what Paul meant when he described the church as the ‘body of Christ’ – if people want to know what Jesus is like they should look at the church.

Ooer.

So, at the risk of making things too simple, I want to suggest a couple of simple things that Jesus said which may help us to do that, empowered and inspired by his Spirit in us.

First of all, and I have mentioned this before on this blog, Jesus asked a brilliant question that I think should be on our lips all the time: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) That is an empowering question, it is a service-based question, it is a gracious question. I cringe when I walk past Christians (usually self-appointed) haranguing passers-by on the street by preaching loudly at them and telling them what they are doing wrong. By way of contrast I love the approach exemplified by Chris Duffett and others which are high on grace: offering water, free hugs, a listening ear and seeking to serve and bless rather than condemn.

Secondly, and I was reminded of this as I read my Bible this morning, we seem to have made ‘evangelism’ very difficult. We seem to feel that we need new techniques, courses, training, ideas, specialists and messages. We shy away from the idea because it is scary, makes us vulnerable, we don’t want to appear pushy or religious zealots, we lack confidence and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. So we say nothing. If we want to make ourselves feel better we fall back on the words attributed to St Francis of Assissi: “At all times and in all ways preach the gospel: if absolutely necessary use words” and we decide that if we are nice enough and good enough and timid enough people will ask us about our faith and then we will be able to take them to our Minister who will tell them what they need to know. When a man who had been freed from mental and emotional and spiritual torment by Jesus asked to go with him Jesus told him: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

It’s that simple. You don’t have to tell people your life story. Just tell them how much God has done for you. If you aren’t sure about that why not make a list? Don’t just include how you became a Christian (or realised you were): include moments of encounter with him (those Spiritual highs); when he was with you in the lows; prayers that he has answered; times when you have felt him speaking to you (through the Bible, other people, circumstances…); how different you are today from how you used to be; the sense of belonging to His family; your sense of assurance about the future… I am not going to write your list for you, but when you get started you may find it difficult to stop for a while.

Then you will have lots of possible things you can tell people.

Start SignAnd if you pray for opportunities to do that you will be amazed at how many suddenly present themselves (I think they were there before but you weren’t looking for them!). And do pray for particular people too. Let’s make a start.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the effect of irritation

old phone 2I’d had enough. I couldn’t cope with it any more. I snapped.

And with vouchers saved judiciously over several years I bought a new set of phone handsets for our home landline. The reason was that I was fed up with the regular bombardment of unsolicited phone calls — recorded and live – trying to get me to sign up for house insulation (it’s well insulated), new windows (our house is rented), claim for payment protection insurance refunds (I have never had PPI) and all manner of other annoying scams. I have never, and will never, signed up for anything where I have been cold-called but these people don’t seem to realise that.

So I bought new handsets. They are special phones that intercept all calls and filter out any that are unwanted. This means that when someone calls for the first time (unless I have been able to add them to the ‘welcome’ list) they will hear a message asking them to identify themselves. We then get called by the system and hear the caller’s name. At that point we can choose to allow the call once, always, never, or send it to the answering machine.

If you call our house (other than to sell us stuff) I am sorry that you will get a message to start with – but it should only be the once. After the system knows that we want you to call us you will be able to call us as you usually do without interception or delay. It is the effect of irritation.

I think it’s brilliant that phones can now do this, and with a certain amount of glee check the system regularly to see how many nuisance calls have been intercepted.

I also think it’s awful that such phones are necessary. We are bombarded by unsolicited attempts to sell us stuff and sign us up for stuff that comes through the letterbox, knocks at our door, harasses us through our phone line, sends unsavoury emails, lobs unwanted text messages, stops us in the street and who knows what they will come up with next.

The suspicious part of me wonders whether all of the unsolicited phone calls are actually sent by companies that came up with a way of blocking phone calls and wanted to create a market for them. But that couldn’t be true. Could it? You see what this has done to us – we are suspicious and cautious about approaches by strangers. When I am stopped in the street I always try to be polite but start by saying that I never give out my details or sign up for anything in the street. That deters some, but the more persistent keep going and say that they don’t want anything from me… only to ask me a little later for some way of contacting me to get me to sign up later.

I do like approaching the people who are trying to gain support for charities that we already support. It gives me a sense of satisfaction to be able to tell them that we already support the worthy cause they are promoting. I got a high five from the last one!

The purpose of this bloggage is twofold. The first fold is to encourage you to persist, say your name when prompted, and wait for us to answer if you try to contact us and get the interception machine. Don’t be put off.

The second fold is to ask us to consider our approach when Christians are sharing our faith. Does it come across as an attempt to sign someone up for our cause, to get them to sign on the dotted line, to make a snap decision based on a ‘chance’ encounter? If so, perhaps we should not be surprised if people don’t want to listen – it’s the effect of irritation.

We need to reconsider, reimagine and restore our approach: instead of selling Jesus to people we should take every opportunity to offer people grace, acceptance, dignity, peace, prayer and so much more that our culture leeches out of them. We have good news to give away not bad news to sell. It might simply look like a hug, a listening ear, a free cup of tea, a Foodbank parcel, an affirmation of value, or any number of grace-rich encounters… [insert your own examples here]

It all sounds suspiciously like us being free samples of Jesus (see previous bloggages!).

Be blessed, be a blessing

ready? steady? go!

I am feeling a bit self-chuffed. It might even be pride if that was not a sin (!). Regular bloggites will know that I enjoy learning and performing magic tricks. Well I have now invented a trick. I think it is quite good, magician friends to whom I have performed it also think it is quite good, and even a magic trick manufacturer liked it (but not enough for them to buy the rights and make my fortune!).

The trick is based around improbabilities, beating incredible odds. I am not going to go into it now, but if you ask me nicely and persuasively I will reluctantly perform it for you.

Okay, you won’t have to work very hard at all: I am always ready to share it because I am so pleased with it, and with the responses I get from those to whom I perform it. And obviously that reminds me of sandals. You know what I mean, so I don’t need to explain it any further do I?

What?

You haven’t a clue what I am blogging about? (What’s new?)

Roman_legion_at_attackIn his letter to the church in Ephesus Paul encouraged them in their following of Jesus by using the image of a Roman soldier’s armour and telling them that there is spiritual armour we can wear too. Alongside the obvious (helmet, shield, breastplate, sword) he also mentioned what I call ‘good news shoes’.

“… with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” (Ephesians 6:15)

Apparently Roman soldiers used to wear heavy duty sandals that would help them to march for long distances and give them grip in slippery conditions. Paul used that image to talk about how ready we are to share the good news of Jesus. How far will we go to tell someone the good news or be good news to them? Do we need extra grip? Interestingly he talks of ‘readiness’. If you have your army sandals on you are ready to roll.

I have reflected on my readiness to share magic tricks and whether I am as ready (or even more ready) to share the gospel of peace with others? If I am pleased and impressed (and trying and failing to be humble) with my magic trick, how much more pleased, excited and impressed should I be about the good news of Jesus?

Get your sandals on.

(Socks are optional).

Be blessed, be a blessing.

escamgelism

Things were easier when we were less 'connected'
Things were easier when we were less ‘connected’

I am a bit worried about a friend of mine. He’s on holiday in Cyprus and has lost his bag that contains his mobile phone, his wallet and other important items. He has managed to find an internet cafe and sent me an email asking for my help. If I can send him some money by international transfer it will get him out of the difficulty he is in. I am heading off to the bank later.

Before I go, however, there is an investment opportunity that has come my way. It was very fortunate – a complete stranger happened to come across my email address and is offering me the opportunity to invest in a small company that is guaranteed to make enormous profits when it is floated on the stock exchange later this year. So there are two things I need to do at the bank. Or there would be…

If it wasn’t for the other email I received from someone whose father was a Minister in a corrupt government in Africa. Sadly he has died and his daughter wants to redistribute his wealth by giving some of it to worthy causes around the world – including me. If I can just send her some details of my bank account she will arrange for the transfer of millions of pounds.

So what I plan to do is to get the money from the corrupt African official, send some of it to help my friend in Cyprus and invest the rest in the company that will make me even richer. I can then use that money to put into new investment opportunities that I am sure will come flooding in once the internet knows how astute a businessman I am.

Before any of you start sending me messages, yes I do realise that these are all scams. Otherwise being a corrupt millionaire would be a very bad occupation – their life expectancy is very poor. And friends will have to stop going on holiday, or at least contact the British Embassy or Consulate where they are, rather than expecting me to help by email. And there will be thousands of successful small companies about to be floated on the stock exchange. Never mind all the offers of drugs and gizmos that would ‘enhance’ me (how do they know?).

It was an email this morning that sneaked through the spam filter, supposedly from someone I know in trouble in Cyprus that prompted this bloggage. It upsets me that there will be people taken in by these scams. It saddens me that the criminals who are perpetrating these crimes don’t care at all about the impact on the lives of the people they rip off. It annoys me that it is likely to be the more vulnerable in society who will be taken in by these frauds.

Yesterday I wrote bloggerel about the way that people can perceive that cyberspace is not real and fail to consider the consequences of their actions. I think that there is a similar failure on the part of the criminals to consider the consequences of these scams (or more accurately a complete disdain for them). Just because you can’t see someone’s face does not mean that they are not affected by a crime. Just because you don’t know someone does not mean that they do not feel violated by such activities.

It used to be that we could easily avoid being victims of these crimes. Many of these scams work because people are greedy and lazy. We like the idea of getting rich quick. We are keen on the idea of great rewards for minimal effort. If it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

But now there are scams that are seeking to exploit someone’s compassion and good will – help a friend in trouble. These can be more persuasive because they are appealing to a better side of human nature. The irony is that they are being perpetrated by people who seem to have lost touch with that side of their character.

Sometimes I think churches can be guilty of similar crimes. We can suggest that you get great reward for minimal effort if you become a Christian. Sadly sometimes that is couched in material terms, but more often it is ‘eternal life in exchange for a prayer’. Whereas Jesus called people to follow him, counting the cost and picking up their cross daily.

And I have been in Christian places where, to put it bluntly, an atmosphere is created that exploits people’s emotions and invites a response that is not God-inspired. It is possible to manufacture a pseudo-spiritual atmosphere. I could offer you the formula if you like (for a fee).

Please God save us from tricking people into your Kingdom. Please God stop us from exploiting people. And please Jesus fill me afresh with your Spirit so I can be a better free sample of you today, and may your churches represent you genuinely and honestly.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

ding dong (quietly)

Janitor DoorbellOur doorbell doesn’t work very well. Actually, it does function exactly as it was set up to work, but that was not well-thought-out.

The chime is in the kitchen, which is at the back of the house. It’s a gentle ‘ding dong’ sound. If you are in the kitchen and the doorbell goes, that’s great, you can hear it. But there are a couple of problems.

Problem number one is that you can’t really hear it from outside, so people often assume it hasn’t rung. It happened just now when the postman rang the bell and shortly afterwards knocked loudly on the door so he could hand over a parcel.

Problem number two is that because the chime is situated at the back of the house and because it is a gentle ‘ding dong’ you can’t always hear it if you are in a different part of the house, especially if there is some extra sound (TV, radio, music, computer game) in the part of the house you happen to be in.

I’m not so sure that they are problems. They are more like fundamental flaws. The idea of a doorbell is to let you know that there is somebody outside the front door who would like your attention. If the people outside don’t know whether they have got your attention they may assume you are not at home and go away again. If you don’t know that there are people outside the door who want your attention you may miss them and they will have to try again (or you’ll have to trek across town to the delivery office).

In some ways I think Christians can be like our doorbell. We make a gentle noise that cannot always be heard over the ambient noise of daily life. We’re polite and would rather not disturb anyone thank you very much. And if we are not heard, well at least we tried.

On Sunday evening the preacher looked at the prophecy about John the Baptist in Isaiah 40. He was described as ‘a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”‘* If you read the gospel accounts, John was not timidly whispering or gently encouraging, he was definitely calling.

So, I ask myself, this Christmas will I be more like our doorbell, or a voice calling…?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

*In Hebrew and Greek they didn’t have speech marks so it could also be ‘a voice of one calling, “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.”‘

coin-cidentally speaking

Regular bloggites may have gathered that I like gadgets. I love to see and experience changes in technology, marvel at innovation and see how these change the way I carry out tasks.

One of my favourite gadgets is very simple in concept, clever in the way it carries out the task and effective in achieving the desired outcome. It’s a coin sorter. Yes, you did read that right. It’s a coin sorter.

There is something wonderfully satisfying about the mechanics involved. Let me try to describe the process to you. Coins are dropped into the hopper at the top. Inside an inclined platform with ridges to catch the coins rotates (driven by a battery-powered motor). As the platform rotates coins slide into the ridges and as it rotates they slide outwards and down onto a slope that travels all the way around the outside of the sorter. At even points around the outside are slots of differing sizes, through which the different coins will drop into tubes that receive the different denominations of coin.

Now that is clear you will understand why it is such an enjoyable gadget to use. The simple mechanism is elegant and effective. The ‘trundle… thunk’ as coins travel along the slope and drop into the tubes is immensely satisfying. So far I have not had a single coin drop into the wrong tube and I have had it since February.

Of course my description of the coin sorter does not do it justice. It would have been better to have shown you a video of it in action, but my WordPress package does not include the ability to upload video. You can see a similar one in action here on YouTube.

But even that does not do justice to actually experiencing it in action and having the machine sort your own coins for you.

When I was at the vicar-factory I can remember studying the Sociology of Religion. I was sceptical about it because it seemed to be an analysis of faith at a superficial level. Indeed that is one of the criticisms I have of many of the humanist / atheistic critiques of the Christian faith – they seem to exist at a superficial, theoretical level that does not do justice to my experience. I understood why when I read a book that contained this analogy.

If you look at a stained glass window from outside you can see some of the shapes and images. You get an idea of the colours, and if the lights are on inside the church you may even get an idea of the beauty. But you can only fully appreciate a stained-glass window from inside. Until you enter the church and see from inside what it is like you will never fully appreciate it.

And I think the coin sorter is of a similar order (if less spectacular). You only fully appreciate it when you use it.

And it is the same with the Christian Faith. Unless you experience it for yourself you will never fully appreciate it, understand it or even simply ‘get it’. You can only do that when you surrender to God and allow him to be the most important in your life. You can analyse all you want, work out all the arguments for and against, even attend church your whole life, but until you say ‘yes’ to God you won’t be able to experience it. That’s why we call it ‘faith’ – it takes a step of faith to take all that you know, all that you have seen in others, all that you have understood about God and say ‘yes’.

If that’s true, how does it affect the way you (and your church) relate to those around you?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Portsmouth, Rhode Island, USA: Police charged Gregory Rosa, 25, with a string of vending machine robberies in January when he: 1. fled from police inexplicably when they spotted him loitering around a vending machine and 2. later tried to post his $400 bail in coins.

O God our help as age is passed

I am now an old geezer. A birthday has taken place that has moved me to a new status in life. It’s not my birthday: it’s the 18th birthday for number one offspring (aka Thomas). That means that I am now a parent of an adult.

Eek! I can feel the life and energy draining from me and I am already ordering my walking frame!

Of course that’s ridiculous. The turning of a page on a calendar from one day to the next does not suddenly make me ancient, nor does it suddenly and magically bestow adult maturity and experience on 18 year-olds. Why we think that someone who is 17 years 364 days old (even allowing for leap years) is unable to vote intelligently, will drink alcohol less sensibly and be unable to do any of the other things that an 18 year old can is beyond silly.

We all know of people who are old in years but immature in outlook, and younger people who are mature beyond their years. The young people at my first church gave me a keyfob (that I still use) that says, “I may be getting older but I refuse to grow up.” Despite this, we insist on treating people collectively. We have these arbitrary lines in our legal system because they have to be drawn somewhere. We are too big and complex a society to treat everyone as an individual: it is impossible to create a system whereby the maturity of individuals is judged more subjectively than by age alone.

Why is it that churches have adopted this mindset? Why do we group people and treat them as collectively coherent, coterminous and collaborative? So we talk about ‘young people’ or ‘children’ or ‘older people’ or ‘Christians’ or ‘non-Christians’ or ‘members’ or ‘congregation’ and assume that this means that they think the same thoughts, react the same way and relate to one another. Jesus refused to label anyone or put anyone in a box. Even those whom he described as ‘hypocrites’ because of their legalism (a self-selecting group for whom this was one of the defining characteristics) he still treated them as individuals, met with them and spoke to them in ways they could understand.

How differently would you explain your faith to someone who was incredibly wealthy from the way you would explain it to someone who is hungry? If you wouldn’t, perhaps you should realise that Jesus did! When he explained what following him looked like he used different images for different people. To some fishermen he invited them to become fishers of people. To a bright spark in the religious elite he spoke of being born again. To others he spoke of being part of his flock or receiving life in all its fullness. To an ostracised woman at a well in the heat of the day he spoke of offering living water. He spoke of getting great treasure and he spoke of being bread that nourishes the soul.

When I was little I was shown a diagram that had God on one side of a chasm, me on the other and the only thing that could bridge the gap was Jesus’ cross. And  I remember being told that being a Christian was about ABC – Accept Jesus as your Saviour, Believe that he is God’s Son, Confess that you have done wrong. And that was the good news of Jesus. All neatly packaged and explained in a cheesy tract.

I am not belittling those methods (much). I am certainly not denying the truth inherent within them. But if they are the only models we have, we are surely in dire need of a fresh inspiration from God’s Spirit and a release of divine imagination so we can communicate the good news of Jesus in different ways to different people. Why do we think that Jesus needed lots of different ways of explaining it yet we only need two? And why do we expect we are all supposed to be free samples of Jesus with a kaleidoscope of different experiences, personalities, vocabularies and skills yet deliver a monochrome message?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Apparently a true story of an inflexible approach and failure to communicate:

Last May a man living in Newton, Massachusetts received a bill on his as yet unused credit card stating that he owed $0.00. He threw it away. In April he received another and tossed that one, too. The following month the credit card company sent him a nasty note stating they were going to cancel his card if he didn’t send them $0.00.

In retrospect, he probably should have let them do that. Instead he called the company and was informed that (are you ready for this?) the problem was the result of a computer error. They told him they’d take care of it.

The following month he reasoned that, if other charges appeared on the card, then it would put an end to his ridiculous predicament. Besides, they assured him the problem would be resolved. So he presented his card for a purchase. It was declined.

Once again he called. He learned that the credit card had been cancelled for lack of payment. They apologized for (here it is again) another computer error and promised they would rectify the situation. The next day he got a bill for $0.00 stating that payment was now overdue. Assuming that this bill was yet another mistake, he ignored it. But the following month he received yet another bill for $0.00 stating that he had ten days to pay his account in full or the company would take necessary steps to recover the debt. He gave in. He mailed in a cheque for $0.00.
The computer duly processed it and returned a statement to the effect that his account was paid in full. A week later, the man’s bank called him asking him why he wrote a cheque for $0.00. He explained the problem at length. The bank replied that the $0.00 cheque had caused their cheque processing software to fail.
The bank could not process ANY cheques from ANY of their customers that day because the cheque for $0.00 caused a computer crash. The following month the man received a letter from the credit card company claiming that his cheque had bounced, that he still owed $0.00 and, unless payment was sent immediately, they would institute procedures to collect his debt.

This man, who had been considering buying his wife a computer for her birthday, bought her a typewriter instead.