Category: following Jesus

doing things properly

One of the things that has occupied a lot of my thinking recently is our EBA Gatherings. These are opportunities for us to get together from across the Association. (In case you were unaware the first one takes place in the Southern Sector this Saturday at Romford Baptist Church. You can find out details about all of them here – it’s not too late to decide to come!)

This year we are holding three Gatherings across the Association rather than one Assembly. We have started doing this in alternate years in order to seek to involve as many people as possible. Doing things this way allows us to develop different but complementary themes – “Rejoicing in the Gospel” and “Pass It On!” – which will be explored in different ways. It allows for the involvement of far more people in the planning and delivery of the events. This is also partly a response to geography: our Association covers about 6,500 square miles, so travelling to one venue for the Assembly, wherever it is, means that some people have to travel a long way. Having three Gatherings means that people don’t have to travel so far.

I believe that these will be wonderful events that will be a blessing to all who attend. We are immensely grateful to the churches who are hosting us and to everyone who is contributing in some way.

But there’s a niggling thought in my mind that feels that we are not ‘doing things properly’ by doing this. And I am not sure I can put my finger on why that is. It might be to do with not fully expressing our unity as an Association: you might suggest that this Trinitarian way of working reflects our experience of God but we are not God and this way of working does reveal more about our three-ness more than our one-ness. It might be to do with us not having a common experience. It might simply be that organising one event is easier than organising three. Or maybe it’s that we have not only done it this way once before and last time it looked very different.

I know from my conversations with some of you that this is also something with which local churches are wrestling. With the advent of things like Messy Church, Café-style services and other expressions of church within the wide circle of church life new congregations are emerging. Similarly there are some churches that have a thriving midweek youth or children’s work but see very few of them in attendance on a Sunday morning. And we try to work out whether these are routes for people to follow to join in with mainstream church life or whether they are ‘church’ in themselves. And part of what lies behind that wrestling is wondering whether we are ‘doing things properly’.

I’m not offering a definitive answer to that as it will vary from church to church. But I wonder whether a part of the answer to my niggles about the three sector Gatherings and the local churches wrestling with different expressions of church / congregations is the same – perhaps we should ask what those who attend think it is! There’s a danger that when those who are used to a more traditional way of doing things try to define the way things should be done we revert to our comfort zones and thus stifle what God is trying to do – in effect we tell him that he can’t do things that way. I think Jesus preferred to allow those he was reaching out to on the margins of life to define what ‘it’ was: he met them where they were and almost seemed to improvise (temporary) community in response to them.

So the Samaritan woman at the well, for example, finds herself in conversation with a male Jewish stranger – a conversation that leads to her becoming an evangelist and Jesus and his friends staying in the town for an extra few days. The joyful entourage on the way into Jericho finds that the star of the show leaves the party in order to eat with the collaborating, thieving tax collector Zacchaeus and as a result there is spiritual, social and economic renewal. A leaders retreat for Jesus and his disciples becomes a feeding frenzy of healing, teaching, loaves and fishes for 5,000+ people… I hope you get my point. Because it seems to me that what wound Jesus up more than anything was religious people telling him that things had to be done in a particular way. And I would rather not wind him up.locked

Perhaps we need to be less worried about whether we are ‘doing things properly’ and instead allow Jesus to improvise community with us: joining in joyfully with what he is doing.

retainers

You may recall that I have had tooth scaffolding for a while (see https://nukelear.me.uk/2016/08/18/tooth-scaffolding/ for example). The purpose was to straighten out my teeth that had decided that they didn’t like being where God had intended them to be and had moved, little by little, to a place where they were actually causing me pain.

A couple of weeks ago the tooth scaffolding was finally removed. The treatment was finished – and successful! I was so pleased to be able to eat without pain and without having to spend time cleaning out the debris afterwards. But more than that I was delighted that my teeth looked more like they are supposed to.

My dentist had warned me that unless we take longer-term remedial action then the teeth may drift back into their old positions. So she attached some metalwork to the inside of my teeth to keep them in place, and she created some retainers for me to wear at night. You see when the braces moved the teeth back to where they should be the roots were loosened slightly and there’s a possibility that the teeth may simply revert to the previous painful position if they were not kept in place long enough to become more solidly rooted again and lose the inclination to incline.

The retainers are necessarily a very snug fit. And each evening when I put them in I can sense that they are gently nudging any rogue teeth back to where they should be. It’s not a massive movement but it reminds me of how things could shift if I don’t do what the dentist said.

20170223_112709What are your retainers? All of us can fall into bad, harmful habits that hurt others or ourselves. And while God offers all of us forgiveness, fresh starts and the opportunity to live life the way it is intended to be lived we also still have the tendency to drift back into those things that are less than the best. So alongside God’s forgiveness, fresh starts and the opportunity to live life the way it is intended to be lived we will be best able to continue in that way if we install retainers. For the most part they are common sense…

It could be a daily routine to remind ourselves to keep short accounts with God and others – I use brushing my teeth as a reminder.

It could be asking someone else to pray for us and giving them permission to ask us challenging questions about how we are doing. I have a Spiritual Director who does that for me.

It could be that we make a decision not to put ourselves in temptation’s way – it would not be wise for someone who finds it difficult to resist the temptation to overindulge in chocolate to work in a sweet shop.

Above all I find that keeping close to Jesus makes the most difference. If he’s just someone I think about for an hour on a Sunday he’s not going to make as much difference in my life as if he’s someone with whom I am constantly in conversation. He gives us his Spirit as a retainer – to help us to follow him – but we do have to pay attention and respond to his prompting!

What are your retainers?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the blog I almost wrote

I was about to blog about an issue I have with using up a particular resource when performing one of my favourite magic tricks when I realised that if I did I might well be revealing a bit more about that illusion than I would want to. That could have several unwanted results:

  1. For people who have seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the illusion would be weakened.
  2. For people who haven’t seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the bloggage would not make much sense.
  3. I could get thrown out of the Magic Circle for revealing too much about the method.

People who perform magical illusions try not to reveal the secrets. This is not because we are maintaining some form of cartel to keep ‘muggles’ ignorant nor because we want to maintain a delusion* of superiority. It’s not even primarily because it would put magicians out of work. It’s first and foremost because the effect and impact of the illusion would be diminished or even destroyed by showing how it is done. Yes the performer may gain some degree of credit or kudos for showing people how clever / dexterous / ingenious they have been but for the audience what was hopefully a moment of amazement, delight and perhaps even awe has been reduced to ‘oh’. The magic has been replaced with an explanation. It’s like deconstructing a joke. The funny is taken out of the joke in the explanation of why it is funny.

I wonder sometimes whether the wonder has been taken out of church in a similar way. We ask questions about God (rightly so) and we try to deepen our understanding of God (a good thing) and in the nonconformist wing of the church in which I find myself most comfortable we have almost made a virtue of simplicity (and ugly buildings) in an effort to show that you don’t need anything special to encounter God (and I don’t disagree with that intention).

20140217_130518But are we also in danger of losing the awe, the wonder, the mystery of God? I was talking with someone recently about Canterbury Cathedral (above) and one of the things it does for you when you enter the vast space and see the height of the vaulted ceiling is that it takes your breath away. I think that was the intention of the designers. Not so that people would go, “Wow, what a building!” but “Wow, how amazing God must be to inspire people to create a place like this in order to worship him!”

But it’s not just buildings that can do this.

Ideally we followers of Jesus should have such God-refined character that when people look at us they say, “Wow, how amazing God must be when you look at his followers!” And Jesus had something to say about that (my paraphrase): “If you love one another in the same way that God loves people then when people look at you it will be blindingly obvious that you are my followers.”

Is it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*yes, I meant to write that

subtle segues*

One of the things we tried for the first time on your recent holiday was riding a Segway. In case you’re not sure what they are, essentially they are a platform on which you stand with a wheel either side and a handlebar to steer with. Now that’s not really doing justice to them as it could also describe a scooter! In a Segway there are gyroscopes and computers and motors and batteries that do all sorts of very clever things to enable you to control them with subtle movements of your body.

To go forwards you lean forwards. To go faster forwards you lean further forwards. To slow down you lean less forwards. To brake (when going forwards) you lean back. To reverse (from stationary) you lean backwards. To go back faster you lean backwards further. To slow down (when going backwards) you lean forwards. To steer to the left you move the handlebar to the left. To turn to the right you move the handlebar to the right. To turn more sharply you turn the handlebar further. To stay still you stand upright.

Simple!

Actually although it may sound complicated when written down like that it is relatively easy to learn to do and very quickly becomes intuitive: you don’t think about doing it you just do it naturally.

seb

If you are ever in Devon I highly recommend that you visit Go-Segway where we received excellent three stage training and then enjoyed a great tour through Haldon Forest. It was brilliant. Even those who, before we started, were really nervous about it (especially fearing falling off) enjoyed it and by the end were confident in what they were doing. I was very impressed with the instruction – it was simple, comprehensive and the instructor took time to learn everyone’s names (14 in the group) and talked to us as we were learning to take our minds off thinking about what we were doing (it’s best when it’s intuitive).

And this is where I subtly segue* from Segways to a thought about them. The thought, like riding a Segway, is simple but there’s a lot going on under the surface. And that’s the thought. Riding a Segway is simple because of all of the complicated things going on underneath your feet. You don’t have to worry about what is going on and you don’t have to know about how all of the gyroscopes and computers and motors and batteries are working together. All you have to do is step on (and you learn this in the training) and let the Segway do its thing. I think it’s called ‘faith’.

It’s the same with God. You don’t have to understand the Trinity, the Incarnation, or any of the other detailed doctrines that try to explain the mysteries of how we can get to know him. All you have to do is step on and let him do his thing.

Of course, if you want, you can learn about how a Segway works, you can understand the complex mathematics and physics and engineering, you can be trained to maintain them and you can become an instructor. But that’s not essential for riding a Segway. And you can learn lots about Christian theology and doctrine, but, (takes a deep breath and prepares for barrage of stone-throwing) you don’t need to learn lots about Christian theology and doctrine to be a follower of Jesus.

One of the errors that I have made as a Minister is that I have sometimes equated ‘knowledge’ with ‘discipleship’. Growing deeper in your relationship with Jesus is not about learning more knowledge. You can be the most knowledgeable person in the world about him – he could be your specialist subject in Mastermind – but if you are not getting to know him more and allowing his Spirit deeper into your life then that’s not discipleship. How do you get to know him more and allow his Spirit deeper into your life? It’s actually quite simple and intuitive: you talk with him more (it’s called praying). You make conscious decisions to include him in what you are doing. You chat to him during the day. You actively invite his Spirit to accompany you. You make a decision to be full of his Spirit. And, (segue back to Segways) like riding a Segway, when you start off you will be thinking about these things and remembering to do them, but after a while they become intuitive and you find that they are a part of your everyday life, and following Jesus becomes less of an academic exercise and more of a relationship that deepens.

And like riding a Segway once you have got beyond the ‘thinking about it’ stage to the ‘doing it intuitively’ stage you can really go for it!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Yes, that’s how you spell ‘segway’ when it’s a linguistic term to describe a link from one thing to another

the hokey cokey referendum

There has been a lot of heat generated by the EU Referendum in the UK. The official campaigning period started last week but the rhetoric has been flying for many months beforehand and, in my humble opinion, has generated more heat than light. The news has been full of headlines that I summarise as ‘hokey cokey’ – “in, out, in, out, shake it all about”!

So this little bloggage is my attempt at offering some reflections that are not intentionally ‘yes’ or ‘no’ biased. It is intended to ask some Bible-based questions that may help me make up my mind: to consider what the issues are.

“What is truth?”

This question is not from Jesus, but was a retort from Pilate when he was questioning Jesus after his arrest (John 18:38). It’s a pertinent question, though. What is truth?

There has already been and will continue to be plenty of spin – so much so that our brains will be dizzy by the time we come to vote. One campaign will tell us that there are benefits to voting their way, or that there are negatives about voting the other way, and the other campaign will respond by telling us that this is not true.

In response to a lot of spin and conjecture about his identity Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) The ‘truth’ he’s talking about here is himself – the truth about God – but for those who seek to follow him we seek to hold to his teaching and then we will know the truth that liberates.

So much of the rhetoric and discussion is about an unknown future. We don’t know what life would be like if Britain voted to leave the EU any more than we know what it would be like if we voted to remain. The future is uncertain and unknowable. So I ask myself, “What is truth, what is conjecture and what is spin?” And I will try to make my decision based on truth. And what aspects of Jesus’ teaching can help me?

What is the most loving option?

This is not about romance! This is about agape – the Greek word used in the New Testament to describe God’s love for us, and the way that he wants people to love one another (especially, but not limited to, followers of Jesus). Jesus taught about this love being a radically different way that seeks the best even for those who oppose us (Matthew 5:43-48).

Agape is gracious not greedy; servant-hearted not power-hungry; and selfless not selfish. My question about the EU Referendum from this is two-fold: “Who are we to love, and which outcome will enable us to be most loving towards them?”

Who is our neighbour?

When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he shocked his listeners by making the hero of his story someone whom they hated by virtue of his nationality. This was in response to a question, “Who is my neighbour?” and that in turn was in response to a summary of the Old Testament Law: ‘Love (agape) God wholeheartedly and love (agape) your neighbour as yourself’ (my paraphrase).

At the end of the story Jesus bounced the question back at the person who’d asked it – “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The (perhaps reluctant) answer was “The one who had mercy on him” and Jesus told his listeners to go and do likewise. So my question about the EU Referendum is, “Which approach enables us to show most mercy on those in need?”

“I have come that they might have life… to the full.”

Jesus made this statement (John 10:10) when he was teaching about himself and contrasting himself with people who were only looking for what they could get out of life and of others.

What does ‘life to the full’ look like? Many of the arguments I have heard so far are about economics, but there is much more to life than money. Accepting that part of what Jesus was talking about was a relationship with God (which neither ‘in’ nor ‘out’ can offer), but also that Jesus was talking about more than that too, my question is: “Which approach will enable people to have life to the fullest?”

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus said this in response to an attempt to trap him into a position that polarised opinion (Luke 20:20-26).  He refused to allow people to label him or push him into a corner. He refused to allow himself to be manipulated.

My question here is not about taxation. It’s based on a recognition that a ‘yes/no’ referendum is, by definition, polarising. However, deciding to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ does not mean that you have to agree with everything that is associated with that campaign. “Which outcome is least likely to mean that you feel manipulated into a position that you do not wish to be associated with?”

 

These few questions are not intended to be the exhaustive list of questions I am asking myself about this referendum. But they are intended to help me think beyond the rhetoric, beyond self-interest and beyond economics and think about how I can engage helpfully in the politics.

Be blessed, be a blessing

blind to the truth?

20160402_114517Recently I acquired a study. The garage in our house has been converted into a study. It’s a lovely space in which to work, study and meet people and makes my life a lot easier. It’s also downstairs, which helps (not too many upstairs garages though, so I guess you realised that). And it’s much closer to the coffee-making facilities in our house.

The front of our house faces south. And it was only after we had some vertical blinds installed that I realised the significance of this: if it’s a sunny day when I twist the blinds open in the morning I have to twist them to the right so that the sun does not shine directly through into my eyes. Later in the day, after the sun has traversed (or, for the cosmic pedants the earth has rotated) I have to twist the blinds to the left for the same reason. It’s not something that is bothersome, but it’s not something I had considered until the first sunny day when I was in my study.

I think that the ability to be flexible, adaptable and open-minded is one that all of us need to develop because the environment and circumstances in which we exist changes around us. I think most people suffer from change-inertia. It’s not necessarily that we don’t like change but it takes so much effort that we’d rather not bother thank you very much. However if we don’t change and adapt to the changing circumstances around us in the same way as if I failed to adjust the the blinds we may find that we can’t operate effectively because those changed circumstances make it more difficult.

It seems to me that churches suffer from change-inertia. Christians are like all people who tend to like things the way they have always been. Keeping church the way it has always been is perhaps a bit like a spiritual security blanket and if things change in church one of the fixed points of a person’s faith has changed and that can be uncomfortable. I understand that.

But I don’t think it’s healthy. Because if one of the fixed points of a person’s faith is the way a church has always been then their faith is in the wrong thing. We are supposed to be followers of Jesus and put our faith in him not in traditions, preferences, buildings, or even other people. And following Jesus involves change. That is at the heart of the word ‘repentance’ (a change of direction back towards God). It is inherent in what the Holy Spirit is doing within us – changing us to become more like the people God created us to be. And if you look at how Jesus engaged with the religious people and traditions of his day he was all about change! I would go so far as to suggest that if a church does not want to change (if the change is Jesus-led) then they are in danger of becoming a church-preservation society and not a church.

I may be coming across a bit strong here, but it bothers me that if churches do not change and adapt to the changes in culture around them they will be seen as out of date, irrelevant, and old fashioned and that people will then think of Jesus in the same way and ignore him. We’re supposed to be free samples of Jesus not of our own preferences and traditions. And if we refuse to adapt to our changing environment and become irrelevant while remaining in a happy holy huddle we are not only being selfish but disobedient to Jesus by not going to make disciples.

Now before anyone starts branding me a heretic and picking up virtual stones to lob at me or my blog can I say that I am not suggesting that we change the core of our message. Churches must always be ‘on-message’ when it comes to Jesus. But we can change the way that we say it. For example, Christians may (or may not) know what I mean if I say, “I’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb.” But for most people outside church if they hear that they will imagine I am engaged in some sort of animal cruelty and may call the RSPCA.

Jesus used language and illustrations that were contemporary for his day, but were also radical and challenging to the status quo and that is a problem for us if we refuse to change and adapt. Many of the amazing stories he told are culturally irrelevant to the Western post-modern society in which I live. (Don’t lob those virtual stones yet, read on). His parable about a Good Samaritan needs a lot of explanation to people today (explaining the depth of the historical animosity between Jesus’ Jewish listeners and the Samaritan people of his day, the religious cleanliness rules that would have prevented the priest and Levite from carrying out their duties if they had touched the beaten up victim, for example) even though the message is relevant today (perhaps more than ever). Today in telling the same story we might talk about the parable of the Good Immigrant who goes out of her way to look after a Right Wing Racist thug who was beaten up by a rival gang (who might still be hanging around) and was ignored by the leaders of his gang who ran away and a vicar who was on her way to a PCC meeting. It’s the same point Jesus was making about who your neighbour is but set in a different cultural context.

So how would you communicate the truth of “I’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb” to someone who knows nothing about the Biblical imagery or theology of that statement?

Do we adapt to our ever changing world, or do we keep the blinds as they were and end up unable to see what we are called to do?

Be blessed, be a blessing

too good to be true

iStock_000008192999SmallFollowing on from the Spam, spam, spam, spam bloggage earlier this week a friend told me about how they had clicked on a link on a well-known social media website (rhymes with spacehook) and a pop-up had come up saying that they could be in line to win an iPhone 6 or other consumer tech from a giveaway section on a large online retailer named after a South American river. They clicked again and found that, lo and behold, they had won a top of the range iPad!

But they were a bit suspicious. The link supposedly to this retailing giant’s website was to the .com version not the .co.uk version, but it was still showing the value of the items in £s.

And more than that, they had never heard of this retailer giving away such expensive items. And why would they?

In the end they applied the ‘if it seems too good to be true then it probably is’ and tried to leave that page. But the pop up kept popping up, and when they tried to delete it the page it was referring to was definitely not the online retailer.

They managed to close the windows in the end, but when they were telling me about it I wondered whether that might be similar to how some churches go about things.

We tell people that we have an offer that is too good to be true, offering them things that they would want, and then when they decide that it’s not true we make it difficult for them to leave. That sounds like a cult to me!

What do I mean? Well, some churches seem to promise a relationship with God where all your dreams come true. Or they say that if you become a Christian then everything will be wonderful after that. Or they suggest that following Jesus will answer all your questions. Or they say that your problems will fade into insignificance if you become a Christian…

And (forgive me if I lack faith here) that’s just not what I read about in the Bible, and it doesn’t match with my experience of following Jesus. Your problems don’t disappear, but you do find that you are not alone with them because you can become more aware of God’s Spirit in you. All your dreams won’t come true, but you may find that your hopes and dreams change to become more in line with God’s will. Everything is not always wonderful, but grace, hope and forgiveness are available in abundance. All your questions won’t be answered, and you’ll still doubt at times, but you’ll find that the questions might seem less important, or might even change to better ones…

I wonder whether churches add special offers to the Good News of Jesus because they wonder whether it’s enough – a relationship with God, a fresh start in life, God’s Spirit in you, a worldwide family, a purpose to live for, hope for the future… But I believe that if we are honest with people that ‘life in all its fullness’ includes the side of life that can lead to the expression of expletives but knowing that God is with you in it, perhaps they will be more ready to believe us with the rest of what Jesus has to offer.

Just a thought.

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Be blessed, be a blessing