the parable of the wall

Outside the church is a wall. It separates the church from the street. It’s a low wall, just the right height for sitting on. It’s a convenient wall. Passers-by will sit on the wall in order to make a phone call, to eat an ice cream (in the summer) and to wait for someone. And the nearby traders use it as somewhere to sit when they take a cigarette break.

The Minister of the church doesn’t approve of smoking. It’s unhealthy. The smoke is unpleasant for those around. It’s not the right image the church wants to project to the community. And even though there is a rubbish bin nearby, the traders tend to flick their cigarette butts into the flowerbeds behind the wall, which irritates the Minister.

people-sitting-on-a-quay-amst-1562809 (2)

One day the Minister was passing by the wall and saw one of the traders sitting on the wall, smoking, as usual. The trader finished her cigarette, stubbed it out on the wall and flicked the butt into the flowerbed…

Scenario 1

The Minister was incensed: didn’t they have any respect?

“Excuse me,” said the Minister as the trader made her way back to her shop, “Is our wall comfortable?”

The trader sensed possible sarcasm and wasn’t sure what to say. The Minister took her silence as an admission of guilt.

“I noticed that you were sitting on our church wall while you smoked your cigarette and then flicked the cigarette butt into our flowerbed,” the Minister continued. “We don’t approve of smoking – it’s unhealthy and the smoke is off-putting so in future please don’t sit on our wall, smoking, and please don’t flick your cigarette butts into our garden.”

The trader mumbled an apology and went back to her shop. The Minister went into the church feeling pleased at having made a point, and ordered a ‘no smoking’ sign to be attached to the wall. It wasn’t long before no traders sat on the wall, no cigarette butts were flicked into the flowerbeds and the Minister felt vindicated.

Scenario 2

The Minister was incensed: didn’t they have any respect?

“Excuse me,” said the Minister as the trader made her way back to her shop, “Is our wall comfortable?”

The trader sensed possible sarcasm and wasn’t sure what to say. The Minister continued: “It’s just that I have noticed that you sit on our wall a lot and I was hoping it was comfortable.”

The trader grinned. “It’s a wall innit?” she said. “I aint expectin’ cushions!”

It wasn’t long before the Minister started joining the traders on the wall for a chat from time to time. The Minister still didn’t like the smoke, and cigarette butts were still flicked into the flowerbeds but the traders felt welcome.

Questions to inspire you:

This parable is based on real events – one of the scenarios happened.

What are the ‘walls’ and ‘cigarettes’ for you and your church?

How could you respond in missional ways?

What might we need to lay aside in order to take the opportunities that God might be giving us?

What small changes in attitude could make a big difference to the people you meet?

Be blessed, be a blessing

An ant called Declan

antDeclan was a busy ant, as were all his friends. He spent his day scampering around the countryside looking for food to forage for the rest of the ant colony.

One day Declan crawled across a picnic table and came across a jam sandwich. A child had dropped it on the ground and although the child had been quite willing to eat it, earth and all, their mother had told them to leave it and left it on the table top. Declan was drawn to the sticky, sweet jam and thought to himself how the sandwich would feed the whole colony for days.

He rushed back to the nest and told the foreman, who sounded the alarm. The message went out to all of the foraging ants, who all came back to the nest. The foreman told them that Declan had found a jam sandwich and the rest of the ants cheered.

Declan felt very proud as he led the ants in a long line back along his route and up onto the picnic table top to the sandwich. When they got there the rest of the ants swarmed over it excitedly.

Then one of the ants said what most of them were thinking: “It’s a big sandwich, isn’t it?”

“I can carry fifty times my own body weight,” said another, “but I could never lift that on my own.” Lots of the stronger ants agreed with him.

“How would we fit it down the hole into the nest?” another asked. Some of the practical ants had been wondering that themselves.

“It’s very sticky jam,” objected another. “I don’t want to get covered in jam.”

The mood changed from excitement to despondency. It had been a lovely idea. Slowly but surely the ants decided that it was too difficult a task to carry the sandwich back to the nest and went back to what they had been doing beforehand.

The foreman looked at Declan. “Sorry, Dec,” he said, “It is a brilliant sandwich, but it was too much for us to manage.”

Sadly Declan agreed with him and left the sandwich. But he couldn’t help, wondering what might have been possible if they had thought about working together.

What might God be saying through this parable?

Be blessed, be a blessing

mission made simple

Churches seem to have the innate ability to make things complicated, don’t we. Putting aside all of the complexities of Church Meetings, Leadership Meetings, ordinations, inductions, church accounts and finances, child protection policies, insurance, choice of music in services, sitting in our favourite seats, charity law, constitutions, and so much more that goes into running a church, I want to think about what our mission is.

In my simple mind churches exist to be free samples of Jesus to the world around us. That, to me, is part of what Paul meant when he described the church as the ‘body of Christ’ – if people want to know what Jesus is like they should look at the church.

Ooer.

So, at the risk of making things too simple, I want to suggest a couple of simple things that Jesus said which may help us to do that, empowered and inspired by his Spirit in us.

First of all, and I have mentioned this before on this blog, Jesus asked a brilliant question that I think should be on our lips all the time: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) That is an empowering question, it is a service-based question, it is a gracious question. I cringe when I walk past Christians (usually self-appointed) haranguing passers-by on the street by preaching loudly at them and telling them what they are doing wrong. By way of contrast I love the approach exemplified by Chris Duffett and others which are high on grace: offering water, free hugs, a listening ear and seeking to serve and bless rather than condemn.

Secondly, and I was reminded of this as I read my Bible this morning, we seem to have made ‘evangelism’ very difficult. We seem to feel that we need new techniques, courses, training, ideas, specialists and messages. We shy away from the idea because it is scary, makes us vulnerable, we don’t want to appear pushy or religious zealots, we lack confidence and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. So we say nothing. If we want to make ourselves feel better we fall back on the words attributed to St Francis of Assissi: “At all times and in all ways preach the gospel: if absolutely necessary use words” and we decide that if we are nice enough and good enough and timid enough people will ask us about our faith and then we will be able to take them to our Minister who will tell them what they need to know. When a man who had been freed from mental and emotional and spiritual torment by Jesus asked to go with him Jesus told him: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

It’s that simple. You don’t have to tell people your life story. Just tell them how much God has done for you. If you aren’t sure about that why not make a list? Don’t just include how you became a Christian (or realised you were): include moments of encounter with him (those Spiritual highs); when he was with you in the lows; prayers that he has answered; times when you have felt him speaking to you (through the Bible, other people, circumstances…); how different you are today from how you used to be; the sense of belonging to His family; your sense of assurance about the future… I am not going to write your list for you, but when you get started you may find it difficult to stop for a while.

Then you will have lots of possible things you can tell people.

Start SignAnd if you pray for opportunities to do that you will be amazed at how many suddenly present themselves (I think they were there before but you weren’t looking for them!). And do pray for particular people too. Let’s make a start.

Be blessed, be a blessing

sitting on a sofa in the middle of the street

The churches in Colchester and the surrounding area are in the middle of a fortnight of focused mission activity.

For us it began with a community barbecue on our forecourt on Saturday – 500+ burgers given away, live music, face painting for children, a couple of talks, me doing some magic tricks (why did it only rain when I came out to do my illusions? And why did so many of them go wrong, I felt like Tommy Cooper!), lots of conversation, a good day. Thank you again to everyone who took part.

Couch 1

We have also got a couple of sofas which we are putting outside the church on the streetfront each lunchtime, with a sign: “We’re listening.” That sign might seem creepy outside GCHQ but outside our church it has led some people to come and share what is burdening them.

 

There are other activities throughout the week – some involving our own groups and some jointly arranged with other churches. There is a team of people working with the churches in the area to help us in the different activities and they have been a joy to work alongside.

This increased activity is alongside the ‘normal’ activity of being a church. That’s one reason why bloggages might be a bit more intermittent this week. It’s not that I have stopped reflecting, I am just struggling to find the time to share those reflections with you.

My reflection so far is that when we offer things that are rich in God’s grace and gently offer to be there for them people respond warmly and positively. They ask us ‘why’ we are doing things and we can engage in a conversation. By contrast there are other approaches that make people feel guilty and inadequate and they walk away – we probably all have enough guilt of our own, after all. I have seen some people walk past ‘street preachers’ and physically cower away from them as they are told that they are ‘sinners in need of salvation’.

Which would you choose? Which is more like Jesus?

Be blessed, be a blessing

the heart of the matter

Sorry about the absence of a bloggage on Friday and over the weekend. On Friday I went to visit a church near Southampton as part of my sabbatical studies, and it was so encouraging. Thank you Gordon and your church for the hospitality and sharing.

On Friday evening I stretched out my left arm at about 10pm and felt a twinge. By 3am on Saturday the twinge had become very painful indeed and my left hand was starting to feel a bit numb, so I looked at NHS Direct’s website and entered my symptoms. I was rather surprised that it suggested I should go to hospital immediately.

So I rang NHS Direct instead, and having spoken to two nice people they concluded that I should go to hospital immediately and, before I knew what was happening, an ambulance crew was knocking on the door. They wired me up and did not see anything too alarming but took me to the hospital anyway.

The hospital staff were great (I was feeling silly and a bit of a fraud, especially when the ambulance staff insisted on wheeling me in a wheelchair). They realised quite quickly what I was trying to say all along: that I had strained / torn / tweaked a muscle in my arm.

The problem was that the symptoms were such that it meant that the answers I gave to the person on the phone sounded suspiciously like the symptoms of a heart attack. Let me state here and now, on the record, I did not have a heart attack, I don’t have any heart problems, and other than a very painful left arm I am fine. Any rumours circulating to the contrary are false!

I am glad that our NHS system was so efficient and alert to the possibilities of me having a heart attack. I am grateful to all the staff who made sure that they were happy that I was not going to keel over before releasing me into the wild, rather than just taking my word for it. I am happy to know that my heart is in good condition. Better to be safe than sorry. At the hospital the doctor I saw could tell I was in a lot of pain and prescribed me some heavier duty painkillers for the pain in my arm – unfortunately they also make me feel dopier than usual.

But it did feel like a bit of an over-reaction. I only wanted some advice about what I could do to reduce the pain in my arm and ended up having an ambulance ride and a mini waxing (pulling off the electrode contacts from the ECG machine also removed a few body hairs).

I wonder if sometimes churches are the same. Someone may come to us asking for some help and before they know it they have been presented with a full explanation of the good news about Jesus, enrolled on an Alpha course and provisionally booked for a baptism. When people came to Jesus he was far more generous – he allowed others to set the agenda. He did not have a set routine of questions designed to diagnose their problem or a series of presentations and programmes to make them a Christian. Several times in the gospels he asked people, “What would you like me to do for you?”

That’s an amazing question to ask. It’s a dangerous question, a vulnerable question, and it’s a mission question. It leaves the power with the person who has come to him rather than him assuming control of the situation. It keeps the focus on the individual rather than on what we might think is the answer.

Yet at the same time we often find Jesus answering the wrong question. When four friends lowered their paralysed friend through a hole in the roof to get him in front of Jesus for healing, Jesus told the man that his sins were forgiven! He did not start with the physical healing, he healed the man’s soul. But then, to demonstrate that he had authority to forgive sins, he did the apparently more difficult task of healing the man.

Confusing isn’t it?

Yes and no. Jesus knew what was at the heart of the man’s needs. We may need to spend some time listening to get to the same point. But if Jesus’ mission question is not far from our lips we will be on the way to getting to the heart of the matter.

unmission

The Fourfold Leadership of Jesus: Come, Follow, Wait, GoI have just finished reading another book for my Sabbatical: The Fourfold Leadership of Jesus by Andrew Watson. The book has a chequered history. Not the publication, the actual copy.

It was a gift to me from a group of people I served while working for the Baptist Union of Great Britain, over four years ago. One of the group was tasked with providing it for me and only finally got around to it this year. It has then sat on a bookshelf waiting for my sabbatical leave in order for me to read it.

I am glad I have. It has been helpful in confirming some of my leadership styles, challenging others and inspiring me to think of new ways of doing things. One of the suggestions is that as well as pithy mission statements we should also consider some ‘unmission statements’. These are statements articulating what we are not called to do. The idea is that if we articulate these things we can stop doing them, or can stop ourselves from starting to do them.

I am starting to work on my ‘unmission statement’, and I suspect that it will grow and develop over the rest of my sabbatical leave. For that reason I am not going to reveal any items from it just yet, but here are some generic categories.

Some of the things on the list are obvious because I am not gifted in those areas, have no interest or need to be involved in them and there are gifted and brilliant people who are doing those things already. Some of the things on this part of list are things I think I am good at but other people can do them better. These are the Bezalel items. (Bezalel was delegated to design and create the fancy bits for the Tabernacle, not something Moses needed to do or would have been any good at).

Some of the things on the list are things that I do because they are urgent but not because they are important. These are my Jethro items. (He was Moses’ Father-in-law and advised Moses to delegate some tasks to others).

Some of the things on the list are things that I could do easily, but by me doing them I am preventing other people from using their gifts and talents in those areas. These are my Elisha items. (Elisha was called to take over from Elijah but had a period of apprenticeship).

Some of the things on the list (the most difficult group) are things I enjoy doing but are not a good use of my time and can distract me from the things that are on God’s ‘To Do’ list for me. These are my Galilee items. (Peter and the disciples went fishing in Galilee after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

I need to be careful not to put things on the list that I don’t like doing but which God is asking me to do. I am calling these items my ‘burning bush’ items. (Moses at the burning bush had a whole lot of excuses about why he should not do what God wanted him to, including the brutally honest, “Please send someone else!”).

So what should be on your ‘unmission statement’?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

Some infernal beatitudes:

Blessed are those who are too tired, too busy, too distracted to spend an hour once a week with their fellow Christians in Church.

Blessed are those who wait to be asked and expect to be thanked.

Blessed are those who are touchy. Soon they will stop going to church.

Blessed are those who always want to get their own way.

Blessed are those who have no time to pray.

Blessed are those who gossip.

Blessed are you when you read this and think it has everything to do with other people, and nothing to do with you.

 

paying ATTEN-SHUN!

Last night I was at the barracks of the 16th Air Assault Brigade in Colchester. I was invited (along with lots of other people) to a presentation about the Brigade’s recent deployment to Afghanistan. I wondered what I was going to. It was entitled ‘Military Operational Presentation’ and I was not sure whether it would involve lots of marching and bands or would be the military equivalent of ‘show and tell’ or ‘what I did on my holidays’.

It was excellent. We heard from a wide range of different soldiers about the impact of the deployment, the range of activities undertaken and the strategies employed. We also met a squad of soldiers (in full kit) who told us about their roles in a normal daily patrol. What was inspiring was hearing how the soldiers were working with and alongside the Afghan people to help them establish a new paradigm: one in which fear of the Taliban was replaced by self-determination and respect. Like most people I have had a picture in my mind of daily gun battles and explosions in the Helmand Province (where the 16 AAB were deployed). I had created an image where every person who lived in that region was a Taliban sympathiser or supporter.

Instead we were told of how almost all Afghanis want the Taliban out but had lived in fear of intimidation and attack. By standing up to the Taliban and training Aghan police and troops to establish a safe living environment the indigenous population is recovering its confidence and self-belief. Alongside this is a programme to rebuild infrastructure, establish schools and businesses and enable local governance free from corruption or oppression. It’s not as heroic as gun battles or assaults, but it makes a bigger and longer-lasting impact.

I have long been uncomfortable with the ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ approach to the Christian faith in which we are in a constant battle and need to strive towards victory. I am not saying that there is not a threat from the ‘opposition’ but I do feel that some Christians overplay it. Military metaphors make me feel uncomfortable when Jesus said that we should love our enemies. Perhaps we need to learn a lesson from the military in Afghanistan. Rather than going in all guns blazing we should be seeking to win ‘hearts and minds’ with our approach to other people. Jesus’ mission question: “What would you like me to do for you?” is a great way to start.

On Monday this week I met with people from other churches in the town to see if we can make a more coordinated approach to serving our town and communities. It was so encouraging to have a common vision and desire to serve and bless our town by being and sharing good news.

Jeremiah’s message from God to the people in exile was:

Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. (Jeremiah 29:6-8)

They were encouraged to settle down but to seek the peace and prosperity of the city. Blessing where we live not only blesses us but demonstrates the nature of God to the people around us.

Be blessed. Be a blessing.

Admiral Greaves-Brown was in charge of the Navy, and he was visiting his colleague General Marshall, who was in charge of the Army. Greaves-Brown arrives at the military camp and is greeted by Marshall. They both walk around the place, and Greaves-Brown asks: “So how are your men?”

“Very well trained, Admiral.”

“I hope so. You see, my men over at the Navy are so well trained, you could see they’re the bravest men all over the country.”

“Well, my men are very brave, too.”

“I’d like to see that.”

So Marshall calls Private Johnson and says: “Private Johnson! I want you to stop that tank coming here with your body!”

“Are you crazy? It’d kill me, you idiot! I’m out of here!” As private Johnson ran away, Marshall turned to a bewildered Greaves-Brown and said:

“You see? You have to be pretty brave to talk like that to a General.”