Anonymous MindAs I said in Friday’s bloggage I am reading a lot about Leonard Cheshire at the moment. It’s inspirational stuff, and I am only about a quarter of the way through his life in his biography.

I am also inspired by the people I know who work consistently and unnoticed behind the scenes to make things happen. People who don’t do what they do for credit, fame or even thanks – they serve to bless others.

Who are the people who inspire you? They could be people from history, people in the public eye, or people known to you. They could be famous. They could be unknown by most.

If he’s not already in your list I suggest you include Jesus of Nazareth in there. And I would encourage you to read one of his biographies. They are known as Gospels and you can find four of them in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

I am taking two weeks’ annual leave, so bloggages may be rather intermittent for the next fortnight. Why not use the time that you waste here to read one of Jesus’ biographies? I am sure you will be inspired.

Be blessed, be a blessing

inspiration or information

One of the perils of blogging is that if you have a ‘comments’ section people will comment. I think that’s brilliant for the most part. If something I have written provokes, prompts, or otherwise perturbs someone enough to make them respond – whether in agreement or disagreement – I am very happy.

That is not the peril.

The peril (is it really a peril? Am I overemphasising this for dramatic effect? Why don’t you let me know? (see what I did there?)) I am talking about is that your blog becomes a target for spam alongside the genuine comments. There is a spam filter on WordPress which catches most of them in its net (and I hope doesn’t catch genuine comments in its net too – if so I apologise to you). But sometimes a spam comment gets through. Indeed since I launched it seems that more spam is getting through than before.

The new spam comments are clever as they look more like a normal comment and are written in plain English, not by a computer, and they have a more normal contact email address (or even a WordPress avatar) so the system doesn’t spot them. I have to sift through them carefully to see their true identity.

This is something we all need to do. Even apparently reliable news items come through the filter of an editor (or editorial team) and are written by individuals who will be putting their own interpretation on events. If you doubt this check out several different news bulletins from different broadcasters – do they cover all of the same new stories? Do they cover the same items in the same way? And if you want it more obviously read a few different daily newspapers: the bias (definitely) and prejudice (I think you could say that too) becomes clear quite quickly.

So what about us? All day every day we are receiving information from those around us. We naturally weigh up the information we are being given. Was what someone told us true? Are we receiving all the facts? How close is that person to the original source or did they receive it from a friend who is a friend of the cousin of someone who is going out with someone who overheard something in a shop? Has there been a version of ‘Chinese Whispers’ going on here?

It’s generally true that the closer you are to the source of information the more likely it is to be true. Even eyewitness accounts come through the filter of that eyewitness, but at least they are more likely to be saying what happened than someone who has heard it through the filters that sixteen other people give it.

I suspect that this is what happened with the Indian Rope Trick. One of the most famous tricks in magic involves a man who is playing an Indian flute next to a big basket. As he plays a rope slowly but surely starts to emerge upwards from a basket next to him – sliding snake-like and gliding vertically until it is several metres long – like a firestation pole. The man then beckons to a small boy who climbs up the rope to the top…

…and then disappears.

And it happens outside in the open.

That is the classic Indian Rope Trick. There’s supposedly a version where the magician also climbs up the rope and disappears. (I know because I read it in a book that was written by someone who heard it from a friend who is a friend of the cousin of someone who is going out with someone who overheard something in a shop). It is the stuff of legend. Traditionally it is a trick that has been performed in the Indian subcontinent for generations.

But there is no documentary evidence, no first hand record, no photographic or film proof of it ever having happened in full. Yes, people have recreated parts of it especially indoors. Yes, there are ways of pulling it off today using clever camera work and technology. But to have it happen in the days before any of that was possible… it didn’t happen. Did it?

But the legend grew up perhaps as accounts of several different illusions were blended together or perhaps as people exaggerated what someone else had told them. And it persists today.

At this point you may be expecting me to encourage you to tell the truth. Well, yes, that is good. But I also want to remind you that colour and description and imagination and interpretation is part of what makes our world so amazing to live in. William Wordsworth wrote:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
He could have written:

I went for a walk. I saw some daffodils. It was nice.

Which one do you prefer? Which one adds colour and depth and fires your imagination? Let’s try to ensure that we are filtering what we receive and always seek the truth but let’s never lose God-given the ability to inspire others. I like living in a world where the Indian Rope Trick has become legendary. Because even the legend of the Indian Rope Trick has inspired magicians to use their intelligence and imagination to try to emulate it or even excel beyond it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

motivation, inspiration, perspiration

I have been reading a bit recently (and doing some personal reflection) on different strengths and weaknesses, different preferred learning styles and different ways of looking at life’s problems and blessings. We are all different. If that comment shocked you, welcome back to the real world from wherever you have been cocooned for the rest of your life.

But recognising and acknowledging those differences is important. Once we have done that we can start to consider how we can accommodate those differences in our relationships.

One thing I read recently in a book designed to help us be better people and maximise ourselves (yes it is American) was saying that we should spend more time playing to our strengths and less time trying to improve our weaknesses. I can see that there is some wisdom in that. If Usain Bolt decided to become a marathon runner he would probably finish last, but because he trains and works to his strength as a sprinter he is awesome.

But there’s something that niggles me about that attitude. If we only ever focus on our strengths, how will we grow as a more rounded human being? If we only maximise the bits we are good at, do we settle for less than adequate in other areas of our life?

In our evening service this Sunday we will be looking again at spiritual gifts: 1 Corinthians 14. I reckon that these gifts are often latent within us and God’s Spirit simply wakes them up, enhances them (perhaps) and gives us the courage and desire to use them. Look at Moses. He resisted God’s call, saying that he was no good and couldn’t speak well in public. Later events tend to affirm that God was right (He will be glad to know He has my endorsement!).

Look at yourself. You may find that in your daily life you have to do things that are ‘outside your comfort zone’, but you do them and having done them you have the confidence to try again (unless you fall flat on your face). God’s Spirit takes what we offer him and asks us to  do what he knows we can do with his help.

This is not, “I can do anything I put my mind to,” or, “you can do it if you want it badly enough.” Those are blatantly not true. You won’t be able to fly unaided no matter how badly you want to. But you can do anything God wants you to. He will motivate you, inspire you, equip you and encourage you but you need to put it into practice, practice, practice.

He has the resources (many of them planted in you already), the grace, the encouragement and the wisdom to be able to help you help him help others.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

1. How many charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one since his/her hands are in the air anyway

2. How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
None. God has predestined when the lights will be on. Or… Calvinists do not change light bulbs. They simply read out the instructions and pray the light bulb will decide to change itself.

3. How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?

4. No. Really, how many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?
At least 15. One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad.

5. How many TV evangelists does it take to change a light bulb?
One. but for the message of light to continue, send in your donation today.

6. How many fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one because anymore would be compromise and ecumenical standards of light would slip.

7. How many Anglicans or Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?
None. They always use candles.

the toughest challenge

I am about to embark on one of the most challenging tasks of the whole year… putting all of the finishing touches to our Carols by Candlelight service (Colchester Baptist Church, 6.30 pm, 18th December). It is not technically that difficult. We have already chosen all the carols and the readings more or less choose themselves. Many people are already working hard to prepare different aspects of the service.

The reason it is challenging is that in the midst of all the familiarity and nostalgia I would like to be able to offer a fresh perspective on Christmas to those who come along. How can I come up with something original about the most familiar story that has been retold for 2000 years? Last year I reflected on some of the carols and what they reveal about the one who ‘came down to earth from heaven’. But this year, at the moment of blogging, I have nothing.

I am not worried. I know that God’s Spirit is full of inspiration and if I stop trying to think of things on my own and start listening more he will offer me some guidance. The problem for me is how people respond to what I offer. If it is poor people won’t blame God’s Spirit. They won’t suggest that he had an off-day. They will look to me. I don’t mind that as, realistically speaking, the blame is much more likely to lie at my feet than his. But if it is wonderful, people can make the same mistake and give me the credit. While it is nice for to get an ego massage it is entirely the wrong outcome as far as I am concerned.

I want people to leave the service (and all services) saying, “Isn’t God amazing!?” Our aim (whether preparing services or living our daily routine lives) must surely be to point people towards God. If you were given a free sample of toothpaste or soap you might use it and may be influenced by the experience. But you would not spend all your time talking about the free sample, you would go and buy the product. So it is with us. We, as free samples of Jesus, are the means by which people encounter him, and we pray will be positively influenced towards him through us. But never let us (or anyone else) think that we are the real deal.

At this time of year some people venerate St Nicholas (Santa Claus). You see effigies of him everywhere (although it’s unlikely he had a bright red suit). But even St Nick* is not the main event. Jesus is the reason for the season. Christmas starts with Christ.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*In case you were under any illusions, the person creating this bloggerel is no saint – just ask my wife and family!

inspired by toads

This evening I will be making Toad in the Hole for our tea. That is not a particularly ambitious meal, I admit, but I will be making it from scratch, not just getting a pre-made one out of the freezer and reheating it. Even so, I realise that this is perhaps not the sort of earth-shattering revelation that regular bloggists here are used to. [pauses for ironic laughter]

The reason I am going to make Toad in the Hole tonight is that I was listening to a podcast from Simon Mayo’s show on Radio 2 last week, which included making Toad in the Hole. It sounded good, the team loved eating it and it seemed easy. I was inspired. You can find the recipe here – scroll down beyond the confession…

On reflection what interests me is how that item could inspire me. It was a combination of the witty banter between the team, recollections of having enjoyed Toad in the Hole in the past, and the response on the radio from those who were eating what had been cooked that gave me the inspiration.

On Sunday evening at our church we heard from different people about what God has been doing in their lives. I was inspired by that too. I was inspired by the people themselves, and by what they shared, but mostly by realising how God was at work in their lives. He was speaking to them, through them and transforming them. He was revealing gifts that he had placed within people and drawing them out of them – giving confidence and encouragement in the process. He was using people to bless and inspire young people as they led them at summer camps, and transforming young people as they became believers themselves. He was changing people who were not expecting to be changed, showing them how they can find fulfilment, forgiveness and new life in him. He was using people’s gifts and skills to help transform whole communities.

There were two common threads. One was how God was using ordinary people like us in his plans to change lives and transform communities. The second was God’s grace – he does it because he loves us, not because we deserve it.

If that doesn’t inspire you in your own walk with Jesus, I don’t know what will. Even Toad in the Hole pales into insignificance!

Be blessed, be a blessing, be encouraged, be inspired!

Questions to ponder (including one about toads for possibly my most tenuous link ever):

Have you ever imagined a world with no hypothetical situations?

Have you ever seen a toad on a toadstool?

How can there be self-help “groups”?

How do you get off a nonstop flight?

How do you write zero in Roman numerals?

If a jogger runs at the speed of sound, can he still hear his MP3 player?

If athletes get athlete’s foot, do astronauts get mistletoe?

(think about it)

(say it out loud)

(Yes, missile-toe!)

If space is a vacuum, who changes the bags?

If swimming is good for your shape, then why do the whales look the way they do?

If tin whistles are made out of tin, what do they make fog horns out of?

Why do they call it ‘chili’ if it’s hot?

Inspiration and perspiration

Penny Farthing Bicycle LeaningWriting a sermon is like riding a bike. You have to wear a helmet, bright clothing and lights at night, and you have to avoid potholes and keep your balance. Or… you never forget how to do it. I am hoping it is the latter. Today I am going to be preparing my first sermon for a few weeks following my surgery. I am looking forward to both the preparation and the preaching parts of the process (nice alliteration there!).


Technically I am not back ‘in harness’ following the operation – I am doing this in my spare time to fill a gap in the preaching rota at the church. It will give me something constructive to do today. Of course today the weather is gorgeous – blue skies across Colchester and the sun is already beating down. I will take my books and paper outside to do my preparation but I may have to come back inside for the actual writing as the brightness may make it difficult to see the screen on my laptop. Inspiration may come but perspiration certainly will!

Guy with laptop

I am hoping that inspiration comes easily, or at least that I won’t fall asleep in the sunshine as I work (that’s the congregation’s job when I preach). For those of you who have never prepared a sermon, I find it an amazing experience – taking words that were written thousands of years ago by people inspired by the Spirit of God and applying them to today’s culture and circumstances inspired by the same Spirit of God. A wonderful partnership between God and people.

That partnership is not limited to preaching. It’s how all of us live. One of my favourite verses in the Old Testament is:

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” 

(Isaiah 30:21)

It speaks to me of how God is with us always and if we listen to him carefully he will guide us. He will correct us, encourage us, lead us and point us in the right direction.

True ‘direction’ story from the Reader’s Digest:

When the skipper of an Icelandic trawler accidentally rammed Englishman Jim Hughes’s yacht, he caused £20,000 worth of damage. Exactly a year and a day before, reported the Times, the skipper, Eriker Olafsson, had hit the same boat, causing £27,000 in damage. 

What are the odds of this happening twice? Pretty good, since Olafsson purposely steered toward Hughes to apologize for the previous year’s collision.

it is finished

I have finished. I can’t quite believe it. It should have been a very difficult task. I should be struggling through it. I should be looking for distractions that will keep me from the task. But it happened so quickly and easily that I am now wondering whether I have got it right!

What have I finished?

The sermon I am going to preach at my Mum’s wedding this weekend.

It’s a strange feeling, writing a sermon to preach at my Mum’s wedding. What can I say to her? What will she think? What will her new husband think of his son-in-law preaching to him? Will I get away with some of the jokes? (If I do I may share them on my blog next week – if I am still alive!)

The good news (and what I am relying on) is that I am not basing my words on my experience or being nominated as the best husband in the world. It would be an extremely short sermon if I was! My words are based on God’s word. Preaching is an amazing experience where the same Spirit who inspired lots of different people to write things down about God over many centuries is the same one who inspires as I read those words two millennia later (at least) and is the same one who gives me words to say and then inspires them in the hearts and minds of those who listen. It’s an immense privilege. Not just to do that at my Mother’s wedding, but to do it week in, week out.

TRUE story about preaching

A famous Baptist preacher was on a preaching tour in Africa. It was his tradition to ask his interpreters how you say ‘Good morning’ in the local dialect so he could begin his sermon with those words.

One morning, as he walked from the vestry into the main church he went past two doors which, from the symbols on them, were clearly the ladies and gents toilets. There were words on the doors which he decided to add to ‘good morning’ in the local dialect.

Rustic Lavatory Signs 1Rustic Lavatory Signs 2At the start of his sermon he stood up and said what he thought was “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.”

There was a stunned silence.

Then one or two sniggers.

Eventually the whole congregation was roaring with laughter.

Confused, he turned to his interpreter and asked, “What did I just say?”

The interpreter grinned. “You just said, ‘Good morning water closets and urinals!'”