the parable of the choir

piano

“The greatest choir I have ever heard!” Sandra felt a tingle of electricity running down her spine and the hairs on her arms stood on end as she read the headline in the local newspaper. Last night the choir she had founded – Concordia – had sung as the headline act in the final concert of the town’s music festival. Sandra had to admit that they had sounded incredible. The singers had been lifted by the atmosphere in the theatre and had sung their hearts out.

It had all started eight years ago when Sandra had watched The Choir on television – when Gareth Malone had taken ordinary people and formed them into choirs. Sandra had been excited about the relationships that had formed, but more than that she had been inspired by Gareth’s ability to bring the best out of people and bring them together in harmony to make a wonderful sound together. Sandra had been a singing coach for a number of years so felt that she ought to be able to do the same. She had asked her friends and family and they had formed a small choir. As they grew in confidence the choir members invited their friends and colleagues to join them and the choir also grew in numbers so that now there were 35 of them meeting once a week to rehearse.

Concordia rehearsed in the local school on a Monday evening, alongside other evening classes. Sandra didn’t plan any concerts or performances, she was just enjoying being the choir director and the choir members seemed to enjoy singing together. But then people started listening outside the doors of the school hall after they had finished their evening classes, and then once one of them had sneaked in to listen at the back of the hall a small crowd would do the same and they had an audience. Sandra didn’t mind. She was focused on leading the choir and getting the best out of them. What she didn’t know was that one of the uninvited audience worked in the Town Council promoting community activities and they were planning a music festival. When the music festival organiser rang Sandra out of the blue and asked if the choir would like to perform as part of the event she was stunned. Sandra had never envisaged that the choir would do anything but rehearse together. The following Monday she told the choir about the invitation and, after some initial shyness, the choir had enthusiastically voted to do it.

Things escalated from there. Before Sandra knew what was happening she found that Concordia were listed in the final event of the festival. Then, just a day before the performance, the headline act had to pull out due to an attack of laryngitis and Concordia were promoted to the headline act. For their first public performance! But what a performance it had been. A standing ovation at the end had been followed by two encores – so great was the audience’s applause.

But the morning after the performance, as she read the article in the newspaper, the elation and euphoria ebbed away. Even though the reporter had written a really glowing review of the performance and had clearly been moved and thrilled by it there was no mention of Sandra by name, or even any mention of the musical director at all. It had been her idea, her choir, her hard work and her leading but it was as if she had not been there. Where was her acclaim?

At first the choir only sang for themselves and their own enjoyment. What aspects of (church) life are like that?

Are there times when we feel a bit like Sandra at the end – unappreciated and unacknowledged? What might you say to Sandra to encourage her?

Who are the unappreciated people who might appreciate a similar word of encouragement?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Jesus is missing

I hope that you are well and in good heart as you navigate through the maelstrom of Christmas events. I hope and pray that in the midst of it all you are finding Jesus… which leads me neatly to my theme:

Have you seen this news story on the BBC news website? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-46599641?utm_source=Daily+Media+Digest&utm_campaign=4223aabbb0-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_12_03_10_54_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_296e14724b-4223aabbb0-248620461&fbclid=IwAR2rgNGteYRlZ7vzkbhmnrM9m5nmIiM_DpmnUvHr-G9YkvdRYbzk_ooqC_w  

If you don’t have time to read it, the short version is that someone has taken the baby Jesus from a church nativity scene in St Annes, Lancashire. It’s not clear whether it’s malicious, pranksters or even a child who wanted to take care of the baby however in the article there are a couple of fascinating sentences: The first is from the priest, Revd Scargill who ‘said he had tried to order a replacement Jesus but it was out of stock.’ Imagine that, Jesus is out of stock at Christmas! (There’s a line for your Christmas day sermon).

But for many of us he can be out of stock, can’t he? I am not just talking about the people who don’t know him, who walk past churches every day unaware of the good news within. I am also referring to the way that for all of us we can all ‘run out of Jesus’ – even Ministers. It happens particularly when we are busy and we find that we lose touch with him. Our faith dims a bit (it’s so gradual we don’t always notice the process) and slowly but surely we find that we are ministering more in our own strength than in the power of the Spirit. Of course we are good at covering it up so that our people won’t notice, but we do notice after a while. We feel a little empty, or as if the shine has been taken off and spiritual fruit starts to wither and we respond to people with less grace, joy, patience and so on. That leads me to the second sentence.

In the article there are quotes from different people. The priest speaks of forgiveness for those who return Jesus. But on the church Facebook group one lady ‘called the culprit “low life scum”’. I’m not sure which of the fruit of the Spirit is being shown there.

I do hope they find Jesus (a smaller replacement has been offered). And more than that I hope and pray that all of us find him again this year in the familiar carols, readings, services, lunches, Christingles, nativity plays and the time we spend with those we love.

marking your card(s)

Earlier this week I was a bit flummoxed by the arrival of a Christmas card in the post. No, there’s nothing unusual about Christmas cards being delivered through the UK postal system. What flummoxed me was that I did not recognise one of the names on the card and the other signature was illegible so it didn’t give any clues.

I checked the postmark on the envelope and that gave me a geographical clue that has not helped at all. I am fairly sure that the card was not sent in error as it was addressed to me by name, as was the envelope. It’s frustrating because I don’t know who to thank if I see them.

But it did get me thinking about why we send Christmas cards. What’s the motivation? I have a few ideas about this. The first is that I think there are two main categories of cards – some are sent because of obligation and some are sent by choice:

Obligation – some cards are sent to people because we feel we ought to send them a card because of their role (eg business colleagues) or familial relationship with us. That does NOT mean we send the card grudgingly, but we do send it relatively automatically. These people will always be on our Christmas card list.

Choice – we send some cards to people because we have made an active decision to send them a card. We want to keep in touch with these people (even if it is just once a year) because we value them. These people would not receive a card because of their role or familial relationship with us, but even though it’s a value judgement as to whether we send a card to them we can’t deduce that they are more important if they are on this list.

So now some of you who receive a Christmas card from us will be trying to work out which category you fall into. Actually it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a card is sent. But what is the motivation behind cards received? I think it be any, some or all of these:

Keeping in touch – there are some people we don’t really hear from at any other time in the year. Our relationship is limited to the exchange of a printed piece of cardboard in December. But it is important to keep in touch with these people. We would be sad to lose touch completely. And sometimes we write things in the cards like, “We really ought to get together next year…” to express that desire, and on rare occasions we actually get around to it and it’s great.

Sharing news – there has been a noticeable drop-0ff in the number of cards we receive that have a letter in them that tells us what the sender (and their family) have been up to in the past year, and perhaps plans for the coming year. We enjoy reading these letters and try not to compare their year enviously with ours, particularly when they tell us about the six week holiday in the luxury resort in Hawaii.

Assurance of affection – some people with whom we are frequent contact send a card because they value that friendship / relationship. They send a card to confirm that the relationship is still valuable to them, and we return the compliment because we want to do the same. It can be awkward when someone sends a card for this reason and one is not reciprocated. It may be that the ‘replyer’ may not feel the same, or it may be that their card sending lacked efficiency. Sadly silence does not communicate the reason. There are always people with whom I have this imbalance and it’s usually me who fails to send, almost always because of the latter reason.

Expectation – this is almost always a card sent from the first of the two main categories. Not to send a card to these people may be considered rude or thoughtless. 

Charity – this is something I have seen growing where people post online that they are not sending cards this year but will be making a charity donation on behalf of all of their friends. I am attracted to this because it avoids some awkwardness and blesses others but it has the danger of the notice not being seen and people wondering whether you still care.

It’s complicated isn’t it? But I am reassuring myself with a couple of reflections:

There are very few people who will hold a grudge if I have forgotten to send them a card. This is not an excuse for failing to send one that you want to / intend to send but can make you feel better when your eye keeps getting drawn to that card on the mantelpiece and you know it’s too late to send it now.

A phone call or electronic communication is almost as good. If I have forgotten I can still call, text, message, send social media messages, and so on.

Behind the Christmas story we find all of these things: God sent his son into the world because of the relationship he has with us as our creator (obligation) and because he wants that relationship to be better (choice). The Incarnation (God with us) is his way of keeping in touch with us (and some of us manage it once a year at a Carol Service) – he would love to meet up with us next year. In the Christmas message he shares the good news of peace, hope, joy and love – there’s no need to be envious, he offers the same to all of us. He wants to assure us of his affection for us – not just ‘thinking of you’ but a passion and enthusiasm for you that will not give up even if you don’t reply. And he promised he’d do it, creating an expectation that we find fulfilled in Jesus. God’s desire is to bless all of humanity, with no exceptions, although his method of communication to us all risks his message not being heard and some people may wonder if he cares. 

Be blessed, be a blessing (and please don’t be too upset if you don’t get a card from me!)

seeing the light

Last week the Regional Team of which I am a part was on retreat for 24 hours. As a part of this process we were invited to share some thoughts on the theme of ‘Light’. I went for Psalm 36:9 – “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

The phrase ‘in your light we see light’ fascinated me because from a physics perspective it does not make sense. To paraphrase CS Spurgeon, you don’t need a candle to see the sun. God’s light surely shines so brightly that we do not need any help seeing it. So what does it mean? My commentaries were distinctly unhelpful as they all seem to have struggled with interpreting the phrase and have therefore passed over it without comment (thus not living up to their names). So I have had to try to work out what I believe it means and this is what I have come up with – I think the sense of it is that it is when we look at things in God’s light we see things as he sees them: I think it may be about seeing things from God’s perspective. In the Bible ‘darkness’ signifies death, destruction, evil and misery while ‘light’ represents victory over those things – life, hope, clarity and joy. To see things in God’s light is to take a more positive outlook on life and see things from a new perspective.

And I have thought of a few illustrations of what this might mean…

When you look at a glass of water do you see it as half-full or half-empty? Or from God’s perspective do you see a glass and some water and seek to find someone who is thirsty to give it to? If that’s a bit esoteric here’s one I think we can all grasp – Jesus’ death on the cross appeared to be a tragic defeat by the forces of evil but from God’s perspective was the moment when the victory over death was won and that was reinforced by the resurrection. Or how about when we see a small, struggling, ageing church (ie the congregation) – does God see a group of people who are more likely to rely on him because they have nothing left and who are best situated to reach the other older people in the community with the good news?

As we are in the season of Advent and each week more candles are lit to mark our progress to the birth of Christ may we all be given the gift of (in)sight to see things and people from God’s perspective and look for the Kingdom at work, growing secretly and bursting forth in unexpected ways.

May we see things in God’s light so that we see his glory..

Be blessed, be a blessing

do less, be more (last one)

So far I have been exploring Mark 1:35-39 but towards the end of Psalm 46 we read these familiar words:“Be still, and know that I am God”

The words come after the psalmist has mentioned how God helps us in the midst of raging torrents; mountain-shattering earthquakes; international turmoil and wars.

“Be still, and know that I am God…”

The Hebrew word translated as ‘be still’ is not about becoming motionless. It’s about stopping frantic activity: stop struggling, stop wrestling, and be still. Do less, be more.

And when you are still you have the opportunity to know and experience that he is God. He is the one who is the ever present help in time of trouble. He is the refuge and strength. He is the fortress that protects us. He is the peace-bringer.

Psalm 46:10 in full reads: “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

In other words, when God’s people rest in him and know him, then he is revealed through them to the rest of the world.

I think that what this means is that evangelism and mission and ministry begin with us and our relationship with God. No amount of struggle and activity and striving will make a difference if our relationship with God is shallow. But when we are still and know him then the whole world will see the difference.

Do less, be more.

do less, be more (once again)

Mark 1:35-39 is the passage this is based on.

Imagine for a moment that ten new people start coming to your church after an outreach activity. Wow! And they start telling their friends about Jesus and they start coming along too. Yay! And before we know it there is not enough room in the church for everyone who wants to be here on a Sunday. woohoo!

from cartoonchurch.com

So we put on two services in the morning. It means that we have to have twice the number of people to do the teas and coffees, twice the number of musicians and on the sound desk. We have to run twice the number of children’s activities. And the preachers have to double up on what they do too. We all get a lot busier because of this growth but we’re delighted to do it because people are coming to church.

And we decide that we will have do a new outreach activity every month, so a committee is formed to make sure that there are lots of good ideas and activities each month and lots of people are roped in to help. The people running the Saturday stall no longer have time to attend house group in the week because they’re too busy planning and preparing but that’s okay because the activities are so popular.

It all seems wonderful, exciting, and something we would love to happen. But in the midst of it we may find that we are falling into the temptation to which Jesus’ disciples had succumbed – confusing popularity with God’s purposes. Just because something is popular does not automatically mean it’s what God wants.

And we only discover that by spending quality time with him in prayer. Do less, be more

Isn’t it fascinating that when the disciples found him and told him how everyone was looking for him Jesus didn’t join in their excitement. In fact he said something that would have shocked them: “let’s go somewhere else…”

He was going to leave the crowds in Capernaum andt ravel around Galilee. Why did he decide this? I think it came to him in his prayer time with his Father. He realised he was not called to be popular, but to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God and to be good news to the people who needed him. He was focused or refocused on what God wanted him to do.

For churches there is always a temptation to do more.If we had more volunteers we could run this activity… if we had more space we could do that…

But what do you think God is more interested in – churches running more and more popular activities or Jesus’ followers growing deeper in their relationship with him? Do less, be more.

Why do you think God designed the rhythm of life to include a day of restoration and recreation? It was not primarily to give us a day off, but to give us time and space to focus our attention on him. Yet in the heart of restoration is the word ‘rest’ and in the heart of the word‘recreation’ is the word ‘creation’.

Be blessed, be a blessing

do less, be more (continued further)

(Remember that we’re looking at Mark 1:35-39 which you can find here)

Last time I wrote about ways that we can enhance and deepen our prayer life in order to do less and be more. I want to commend all of those things to you, but I also want to undermine what I wrote by saying that I don’t think Jesus wants us to think of prayer as something we do occasionally, or even as something that we plan to do more of! He wants us to do less and be more.

What I mean is that for Jesus prayer was as natural as breathing. We breathe in and out to provide oxygen for our bodies to survive and thrive. But we rarely spend much time thinking about it – it is natural and instinctive. And prayer can be for us like breathing – natural and instinctive.It is not something we plan to do at specific times, it is something that happens all of the time.

When something good happens, our response is to offer a quick prayer of joy. When something upsets us we offer a prayer of anguish.When someone else is in difficulty we offer a prayer of intercession. That instinctiveness comes with time and as our relationship with our heavenly Father deepens. This can start with those times when we give him our full attention, but then it develops as our relationship with God deepens.

It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we pray the more we become aware of God’s interest in all aspects of our life. And the more we become aware of his interest, the more we want to pray. But as well as discovering more about prayer in this passage, we can also see that Jesus avoided the temptation to be busy

Did you notice how the disciples sent out a search party for Jesus when they discovered his empty bed? “Everyone is looking for you!” they told him.

I don’t think it’s because everyone was concerned that he may have been abducted. It’s because everyone wanted more of him. Remember that the previous day he had demonstrated God’s power over the forces of evil,and he had demonstrated God’s power to heal those who were sick.

At this stage of his ministry he was rapidly growing in popularity. People were drawn to him because what he did amazed them. They were drawn to him because he oozed God. They were drawn to him because of what he might do for them. People were flocking to him. And after he had disappeared to pray everyone was looking for him because they wanted more.

The disciples were getting caught up in the excitement of the events around them. They were loving the crowds and the Jesusmania that was developing. It feels like the disciples were trying to act as his agents:there was going to be another big crowd today so they needed to make sure Jesus was going to turn up and put on a good show.

And it would have been easy for Jesus to have been caught up in that too. One of the temptations he faced in the wilderness was the temptation to put his own popularity and power before God’s. It’s a very real temptation. Isn’t it?

Be blessed, be a blessing