a bath with the plug missing

baby inside white bathtub with water
Photo by Henley Design Studio on Pexels.com

I am like a bath with the plug missing.

Last month (my first month back at work full time) I was busy. Too busy. One of the indicators of how busy I am is how few blog posts I write. That’s a problem because the bloggages are based on my musings and reflections and if I don’t write a bloggage it may well be because I have not had the time and space in my mind to do as much reflecting as I would like.

I am like a bath with the plug missing because I am constantly needing to be refilled and refreshed. If I don’t allow the taps to be running fast enough then I will quickly become drained.

So, this month I have resolved to leave more space in my diary for my brain and soul. It’s all very well being busy: helping people and doing your job, but if there is the possibility of me becoming drained then I am not going to be much help to people and may struggle to do my job.

How about you? How are you refreshed and refilled?

Be blessed, be a blessing

What to do when someone else’s world feels like it is falling apart

bear with me

One of the greatest privileges in life is to be with people in the moments when their world feels like it is falling apart. Simply by you being present reassures people that they are still loved despite what has happened. They don’t need many words or answers to questions. They don’t need flowers or cards. They don’t need much beyond being loved (and perhaps practical things like a cuppa). All of us could do that couldn’t we?

choices

colors palette
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Modern life seems to be defined by choice. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we drop off in the evening we are faced with choices:

Do I get out of bed?

What do I have for breakfast?

What do I wear today?

And so on. It seems to me that the more we are trying to make life ‘better’ for ourselves the more choices we have. For example:

When I was growing up you could count the number of available television channels on the fingers of one hand and still have one left to stick in your ear. Today you run out of digits on the first screen of choices as you scroll through the TV guide. And we have to decide which sort of mobile phone we will have – are we android or apple (or are we going to subvert the system by going for something more obscure?)? And then we have to choose the apps we want. And we have to choose passwords… so many passwords! And on your computer what web browser are you going to choose?

I don’t have to keep listing them, you know what I am talking about. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Dumbledore seeks to reassure Harry that he is not the same as Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort): “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

And he is right. We are defined and shaped by the choices we make. How others see us will be in the light of those choices as well as through the lens of the choices they have made.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise that we have made a choice. ‘Default settings’ that almost every appliance and gadget and piece of equipment come with are necessary as a starting point for users unless they are to boot them up from scratch, but if we blindly accept them (a choice) we find that someone else has decided what our user experience will be.

And sometimes we make a choice by not choosing anything. If you choose not to vote in an election you are choosing not to participate in the democratic process and must accept that your views are not part of the final outcome. Your choice is to accept that others will decide for you.

There are occasions, of course, when we don’t know that we have made a choice, or we make it unthinkingly. How many times have you accepted the terms and conditions of a website, an app, or a computer program without reading them fully? Of course you have. Nobody has the time to read them all from start to finish. You assume that they are benevolent and innocent.

And I have a feeling that most people have an automatic reaction to thinking about God. Instinctively we click ‘ignore’ because we don’t think we have time for him, or we don’t want believing in him to disrupt our life, or we don’t like the version of God that we have been presented with, or it all seems far too difficult and complex to consider… or… or…

I believe that many people have not given him any more thought than they have the terms and conditions of the latest app they have installed on their phone and have instinctively decided that they don’t want to. Until they are faced with more significant moments in their life when they feel out of their depth and want the comfort of praying to someone or the reassurance of the possibility of divine intervention on their behalf. Or until they meet someone whose relationship with God seems so different to their assumptions about him that they are intrigued and want to know more. Or until someone they know and trust starts to talk about God. Or even until they read some random bloggage on an even more random site…

So have you adopted a ‘default’ setting when it comes to God? Jesus tried to make it really simple for us to make a choice: “Follow me.”

If you are a follower of Jesus is it obvious (in a good way) to people around you?

 

why God is more generous than a crisp* manufacturer.

I like receiving parcels in the post. Usually it will be items that I have ordered online, but occasionally there’s a surprise and that’s the best…

A while ago I had lunch in a well-known coffee-retailing emporium. I chose to have a sandwich and crisps (*’chips’ for my North American bloggists) along with my cup of coffee. I started eating the crisps and thought that the taste was a bit strong, but I persisted because they were not a brand I often buy and I thought that they may have changed the flavour since the last time I bought them.

But as I delved deeper into the bag the flavour got stronger and stronger. By the time I had got most of the way through the bag of crisps it had become unpalatable and I noticed that I could not see much potato through the herbs that were piled on them. I emptied the bag onto my plate and there was a massive mound of herbs. There was quite a long queue at the counter so I didn’t want to go back and complain, so instead I took a couple of photos and sent them to the customer service email address on the bag.

The next day I had a very polite and apologetic email from the company thanking me for alerting them to the problem and explaining that by sending them a photo of their packing codes they had been able to highlight the issue and take steps to resolve it. In order to try to win my allegiance back they also offered to send me some samples of their flavours, and I was happy to receive them.

Last Saturday I came home to find a card from the postal service saying that they had tried to deliver a parcel but nobody was home. I could collect it from the post office on Monday. I was intrigued because I was not expecting anything and had not ordered anything. On Monday I attempted to collect it, but the office had closed by the time I got there so I was unable to do so and the intrigue and expectation was heightened. Today I was able to go to the office in time and this is what I received:

IMG_0293.JPG

It was in a sealed box, but you can see how generous the company has been. In fact you can’t because several large bags are hidden under the pile! I was impressed, and my allegiance may have been won (as long as I like the flavours).

It got me thinking about whether this has some parallels for churches. We believe so much in our ‘product’ (Jesus) but I wonder whether for many people their experience of church has been poor in the past and they have drifted away or stormed off. Others simply don’t think we have anything they’d want. But what if we were as lavishly generous as this company? What might that look like?

And while you’re contemplating that (if you are) let me remind you that God is far more lavishly generous than the most lavishly generous crisp company on the planet. You want proof?

He’s created this incredible planet and doesn’t charge us rent to live here.

He has provided an ecosystem that is perfect to sustain life and give us all we need to survive (subject to human greed causing it and making it worse and human-caused climate change).

The resources contained within the planet are more than enough for our needs (subject to human exploitation and pollution).

He has created us amazingly. And he has created us with the capacity for communication between us, meaning that we need not be alone (something he has been keen to avoid since day 1 (or if you prefer day 7).

He has created us with the intention of being in close relationship with him, and has given us the choice whether or not to accept that. He intends that the relationship lasts beyond our linear timeline.

He has repaired the damage caused by our rejection of him at great personal cost (see Easter).

He offers to fill us with his Spirit so that we can experience life more like he intended it and be gently transformed to be more fully human in relationship with him and others.

And that’s just for starters.

So how are you doing in your thinking about how churches can reflect God’s extravagant generosity?

How can we be more generous with our time, with our listening, with ensuring that all are welcome and included, with our grace, with our joy, with our encouragement, with giving dignity… ? Did you notice that none of these things cost a penny? That means anyone can do them.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

making waves

PositureWaving is a funny thing if you think about it. Why do we choose to flap our hands around in order to signal something? And it can mean many different things.

A wave can mean ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. It can say, “I’m over here”. It can be a call for help. When the Queen does her wrist rotation I think it is saying, “One is grateful that you have come out to see one.” We have Mexican Waves at sporting events, which I think either means ‘We’re really bored’ or ‘We’re really enjoying ourselves’. And deaf people applaud by waving their hands.

Of course it’s really important to know what sort of wave is happening to you in order to respond appropriately. I was recently on a boat with a friend and as we passed other boats there were gentle waves that acknowledged that we too were on a boat. But as we were approaching our mooring we saw a couple of people clinging to an upturned sailing dinghy who were waving frantically at us to attract our attention and get some help because they were being taken out to sea on the tide. If we had simply waved back in acknowledgement it would not have been good (we tried to help for a while but then the lifeboat arrived so we left it to the professionals).

In just over a week’s time I am going to be speaking in a church for their Harvest Festival and I have decided to focus on waving. Why? One of the ways in which people in Biblical days celebrated harvest was by waving some of the produce that they had gathered. People would bring the items with them to a celebration and then at a given moment would all wave them in the air. I have come across different explanations for what they were doing (and how they waved them) but in short it seems to me that they were waving them in acknowledgement that God had once again provided for them, that he was faithful in the reliable rotation of the seasons he had programmed into our annual journey around the sun, and to express gratitude to him for all that they had received. Doing it on your own would not feel very impressive, but imagine being in a big crowd where everyone was waving a sheaf of corn, for example. It would be a spectacular reminder of just how many people were feeling blessed and grateful.

Few of us nowadays harvest our own crops but harvest festivals persist as reminders that we should be grateful to God for our planet and the way in which it provides nourishment for us. And we can be grateful too for those who do grow and harvest on our behalf, and even for those who transport them and who sell them to us. It’s a moment when our attitude of gratitude gets a boost and we are reminded to be grateful 24/7.

So what would you take to a Harvest festival to wave in order to show gratitude to God?

Be blessed, be a blessing

backhanded compliments

Following my lengthy period of convalescence after my surgery in February I am now back at work full-time. I was blessed by being able to phase my return slowly rather than jump straight back in. And this has led to some very interesting comments from people who saw me early on in the process and have seen me again recently.

complimentary nutsWith the intention to encourage me and generally be upbeat about my progress people have been making comments about how much better I am looking. They don’t mean that I have grown more handsome, but that I am looking healthier. Some have been even more specific and have commented on how I have much more colour in my cheeks and generally look a more ‘normal’ hue. And some have gone even further by suggesting that they were rather worried when they first saw me because I looked pale and ghostly, but now I looked well. One colleague even suggested that when she first saw me I wasn’t so much pale as translucent but I was now looking better!

Now I know that these compliments are meant to be positive and making me feel good about the extent of the improvement that they can see in me. And I do receive the comments in the spirit with which they are offered. I am grateful for people’s love, concern, encouragement and prayers. But there’s a little part of me that asks myself just how ill I must have looked a couple of months ago. I didn’t think I looked that bad, but (bearing in mind that these conversations take place on a very regular basis) I must have looked more poorly than I realised.

I am going to try to take the positive aspects of the comments on board much more and not allow the negatives to bother me because I know that my health is much improved, my stamina is better and I am far more capable of living normally (not the same as ‘being normal’ – my wife will testify to that!) than I was previously during my convalescence. I am so grateful for that: grateful to the medical staff who have been brilliant, to my family who have been wonderfully supportive and encouraging, to the many of you and those in the churches I serve who have been praying for me, and to God who has sustained me and created bodies in such a way that they can recover from trauma.

But (and this won’t surprise regular readers) I had another thought. If we are willing to comment on someone’s physical health, why not their spiritual health too? How often do we take the time to say encouraging things about people’s spiritual growth and health? Do we take the time to speak positively to someone after they have preached – more than just, “Thank you” – and share how God spoke to us through them? Or do we take the time to reflect on the way someone has show spiritual maturity through difficult circumstances and encourage them about that? How about finding someone who has prayed for us and sharing how we have seen answers to those prayers? What about simply encouraging someone because we have caught a glimpse of Jesus through them?

Be blessed, be a blessing

spiritual fitness centres?

I have taken the plunge and joined a gym (and yes, that is a mixed metaphor as they don’t have a pool). I have done so in order to continue the rehabilitation process following my surgery earlier in the year.

fitness Series 1It’s the first time I have joined a gym and the induction was an interesting experience for a novice like me. The first thing I was asked was what I wanted to achieve. I said that I want to improve my general fitness and stamina and also rebuild some of the muscle bulk that I had lost during the past six months (the gym is aware of my cardiac surgery). So the instructor showed me a number of machines and devices that I could use in order to achieve these goals. I am not sure that some of them would not have been out of place in a medieval torture chamber, but they are all designed to work on a different set of muscles, or to improve general stamina and fitness. A couple of days afterwards I am now feeling the burn in some of the muscle groups that weren’t previously exercised too much. But I am also confident that I can achieve what I want to achieve if I am regular in my attendance and work hard when I am there.

When I was on some of the machines that work on the basis of resistance against the muscles they are designed to enhance I was shown how to adjust them by engaging different quantities of weights. As I am not a weightlifter and am looking to start slowly most of the time the instructor advised reducing the weights to a level that I think others might categorise as ‘puny’. Apparently it’s important not to start too high but to build up gradually so that the muscles get warmed up and are not stressed. I can cope with that, I think.

I also had a go on a treadmill – getting up to a decent walking pace and adjusting the angle so that I was walking uphill. I felt quite pleased with myself until I noticed that further along were some people who were running rather fast on similar machines. In comparison to them I was going at a snail’s pace. But walking fast is what I need to do to raise my heart rate without over-stressing, so I am happy with that.

I imagine that a lot of the lycra-clad gym-dwellers would not think my efforts are very impressive. I reckon that there are plenty of people who are older than me who are able to lift more weights and go faster. But that’s not the point. I have to start from where I am and aim for the goals I have set myself. Others will be fitter, faster and stronger and will other goals that are not mine. I wish them well in that but I am not in competition with them, I am on my own journey of fitness.

Reflecting on my first experience of the gym I wonder whether there are a few lessons that we need to learn in churches.

I think it’s really important to recognise that people are at different places in their journey of faith, and to consider how we might help them to grow from the point they are at now, rather than offering a one-size fits all solution. When I was getting ready to be baptised at the age of 13 I had a series of sessions with a more experienced Christian who helped me to understand more of my faith and how to follow Jesus more closely. Sadly after I was baptised that stopped and I was not mature or confident enough to ask that we continue. But can we offer that to those who want it?

And on a similar theme do all of the small groups in a church operate at the same ‘level’? My personal preference would be that all of them are exploring the same theme at the same time so that the church as a whole has this in common. But almost all of the study material I have seen always seems to be pitched at just one level. I am not talking about academic levels or even levels of spiritual comprehension, but what if people were offered the opportunity to explore the same theme in different ways that suited their preferred learning style and also that understood that people want to explore at different depths, and which enabled people to engage with the theme in ways that most suited their spiritual preferences? The material might be more complicated to create (although I would love to have a go) but I think it would be far more healthy and helpful in the church and perhaps more people might engage with the groups. And what if then there were collective opportunities for people to share together what they have experienced in their groups and encourage one another? Would that be a healthier model of church?

I’m not expecting that we introduce spiritual torture devices to achieve this – the Spanish Inquisition should remain a hideous historical event (cue “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”). But I think we should recognise that people are at different stages in their journey of faith and that they find it easier to encounter God in different ways. So some people find meditation and contemplation really helpful while others find that they are closer to God in serving others and still others prefer energetic worship, but all can enable an encounter with God. (For more on this read Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.)

I have found my spiritual home in the Baptist church family. One of the distinctives is an emphasis that all of us can encounter God, can serve him and other people, and that he speaks through whomever he chooses to speak (so we should listen to one another). We summarise it as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. As I see it those who are in ‘leadership’ positions are there to serve the church and enable everyone to grow in the depth of their relationship with Jesus and to live out their faith in their daily lives. They are not ‘in charge’, nor are they more important than anyone else. There’s not meant to be a hierarchy, but somehow it feels as if there is, with people putting others on high spiritual pedestals (or at least on small raised areas) above them. Other church traditions have a more overt and acknowledged hierarchical approach. But we do ourselves a disservice and perhaps even undermine what God’s Spirit is doing in each of us if we start comparing ourselves with one another and playing a version of church Top Trumps. It’s a fine line between seeking to emulate those we admire and feeling like we are unworthy because we are not like them. But God doesn’t want you to be like anyone else, he wants to help you to become the best you that you can be.

I am sure that I am being idealistic here. But what’s wrong with pursuing an ideal? And if I am going a long way down this line, maybe we should stop calling ourselves churches and start to call ourselves spiritual fitness centres in order to embed these ideas?

Or maybe not.

Be blessed, be a blessing