a new you?

So, a new year has begun. The fireworks displays are no longer burned on our retinas, the echoes of Auld Lang Syne have faded away and whatever passes for normal life is being resumed just as it was in 2018. Of course there are a few differences: we have to get used to writing 2019 on letters, cheques and so on but in reality not a lot has changed in the changing of the calendar year.

Except that at the start of a new year we are encouraged (or perhaps challenged) to think of new things. In the days of paper diaries I used to love having new, fresh pages to write on. I would resolve that this year I would write neatly (that lasted until the first time an entry had to be changed). And resolutions are the flavour of the month in January, aren’t they?

We resolve to be fitter, healthier, happier, more efficient, better organised, more eco-friendly, more friendly… any number of possibilities for a new and improved version of yourself. It’s the lifestyle equivalent of having a new diary with fresh pages – so may possibilities to improve and enhance our life and establish a hoped-for better-than-last-year feeling.

It’s been interesting this year to notice how many people are suggesting on social media that you don’t need a ‘new you’, you should be content with the you that you are. And I agree with that, to an extent. Nobody should feel under pressure to create or innovate a new way of being simply because others have led them (or advertisers have conned them) into believing that they are not good enough, they don’t have enough of the right things in their life and that they ‘should do better’ (to quote many of my school reports).

But I also want to say that being content with the me that I am does not preclude me from wanting to be the best me that I can be. I know that there is always room for improvement. There are always ways in which I can better fulfil my purpose in life. They will always be new experiences, new people and new opportunities that will shape me so that I am not the same ‘me’ that I was last year.

So how do we hold these two in tension? I think the answer is to recognise where the motivation comes from. If it is external we should regard it with suspicion and caution – does that influencer have my best interests at heart or someone else’s (including theirs)? If it is internal we should treat it seriously, weigh it, evaluate it and if we want to pursue it then we can do so with the liberty of someone who is not under duress.

That does not mean we should not listen to other people or take their advice. Neither does it mean that we should always listen to our own whimsical ideas and act rashly. Wisdom is required. Discernment is beneficial. Because if you want to be the best you you can be I am fairly sure that there is always more that can be done – the art is to work out what that is, whether it is achievable, and to work towards it diligently and enthusiastically.

In the Bible the book of Ecclesiastes seems to be a book that is full of doom and gloom. Everything is deemed to be meaningless and pointless. It could have been written by Eeyore, AA Milne’s lugubrious donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories. Yet right at the end Eeyore (or possibly the King) comes to a startling conclusion, having looked at the whole of life (Ecclesiastes 12):

13 Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Fearing God is not being terrified of him, but having a sense of awe about him. Keeping his commandments is not about following a rulebook but living sensibly to get the most out of life. And knowing that you can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes means we can live openly and honestly. And because there’s a sequel to the Old Testament (aka the New Testament) we know that God has also done all that is necessary to deal with the parts of us that need some more serious renovation.

Be blessed, be a blessing

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.

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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

have you ever had the feeling that you are being followed?

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Ever have the feeling that you are being followed?

This Sunday I have been asked to preach on Acts 8:9-13: Simon the Sorceror. I was assured that the passage was not chosen specifically because of my skills in prestidigitation but just happened to be the passage for the day in a series on the book of Acts. It’s an interesting episode for so many reasons (don’t worry, I’m not going to preach my sermon to you here). One thing that has struck me is how, after his conversion and baptism, Simon the Sorcerer “followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.” (v.13)

Such was Simon’s zeal and enthusiasm to see and experience more of Jesus as he saw him at work in Philip that he spent as much time as he could with him. But surely Luke didn’t literally mean ‘everywhere’, did he? It almost sounds like he was stalking Philip! How freaky would it have been for Philip to have woken up in the morning and found Simon staring at him!? I assume that Luke meant that he followed Philip when he was preaching, teaching, healing and performing signs.

But am I unfairly reinterpreting what Luke wrote? Luke chose to use the word ‘everywhere’ for a reason. It seems to me that he meant that Simon spent (at least) every waking hour with Philip. It was not limited to when Philip was ‘on duty’, doing the work of an evangelist, but he was with him when he was doing his shopping, when he was relaxing watching the football on the telly, when he was studying and preparing for his next sermon, when he was visiting the sick… Okay, I have now definitely unfairly reinterpreted what Luke wrote, but I hope you get the point. Simon was astonished at what he saw when he was with Philip – not just when he was in public but all the time.

I think I might end up being a bit irritated by having someone shadow me all the time. But it’s a biblical model of how to learn how to follow Jesus, isn’t it? It’s how Jesus’ disciples learnt from him. What opportunities do we make to allow others to spend time with us and learn about Jesus by watching us? How much would they learn of him if they did? How astonished would they be (and would it be for the right reasons)? Would they see and learn as much about Jesus by spending time with us when we are ‘off duty’ as when we are ‘working’?

May Jesus pour out his Spirit on us afresh so that we may be good free samples of him all the time.

Be blessed, be a blessing

(First sent out as a ‘Thought for the week’ to Ministers in the Eastern Baptist Association)

pointing out the obvious

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I am fascinated by these arrows. I came across this image long ago, when I was in my first church, and it has remained with me ever since as a powerful image with a significant message for churches.

When you look at them, what do you see? Red arrows pointing outwards? Is that all that is there? Look at the gaps between the red arrows. There are also some white arrows pointing inwards. When you have seen them it is difficult to ignore them.

To me these arrows speak of God’s priorities for church. The last words Matthew records in his Gospel are from Jesus:

“Stay where you are, remain comfortable, enjoy worshipping together, listening to sermons and do lots of things together in my name and surely you will be too busy at church to do anything else.”

or was it:

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The white arrows only exist because the red arrows are pointing outwards. People will only come to faith if we go where Jesus sends us. That may be to the ends of the earth, or it may be in our home, our workplace, our local shops, or even the gym. And while we are there we are to make disciples, carrying on what Jesus was doing, being free samples of Jesus to the people we meet.

If church is God’s plan for achieving what Jesus started we can expect it to be growing (deeper and numerically). If it isn’t we need to look at what we are doing that is stopping it from growing, what we are doing that is preventing people from coming to faith, what we are doing that is stopping people from becoming disciples (or what we are not doing in all those cases). That’s not easy, but I believe that the arrows are a useful pointer.

Be blessed, be a blessing.