Generously big-hearted

The next value in our series is another way in which we express our love for God and for people.

“Like Jesus: becoming vulnerable in serving others, and generously reflecting the generosity of God – giving our time, gifts, expertise and resources to serve God and others.”

In a world where success seems to be measured in terms of the amount of power, prestige, popularity and pounds accumulated generosity is counter-intuitive. A generous person is vulnerable to exploitation from those who would take advantage of them, but we are prepared to take that risk because God takes that risk with us. He risks that we will seek to take all that he offers and keep it for ourselves rather than share it with those around us.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about so-called ‘trickle down’ economics. The idea is that if you allow the wealthy to keep enough of their wealth they will spend it in a way that benefits those who are lower down in the pile, and they will spend it in a similar way, until those at the bottom of the heap benefit. In my view it’s a vile and inhumane approach that makes assumptions about the altruism of the wealthy which don’t seem to be mirrored in reality, and those who are poorest should be grateful for whatever finally dribbles into their outstretched hands.

Imagine, for a moment, that Wealthy Wally has £1billion. He spends £1million on a luxury yacht, bought from Happy Harry. Happy Harry is happy with this, and his employees continue to get paid their wages while he pockets the £200,000 profit. At this stage the employees are no better off, but Happy Harry is. From the £200,000 profit, Harry buys a car from Dodgy Dave for £50,000. Dodgy Dave is happy that he has sold a car, and his employees continue to get paid their wages, but are no better off. Dodgy Dave makes £10,000 profit on the car. How much of that £10,000 will reach Poor Pat who is homeless and struggles on Universal Credit? Ahh, they say, the profits are taxed, as are the employees wages, which pays for Universal Credit. True. But when our government is reducing the tax burden on companies (and had planned to reduce it for the wealthiest until they realised how unpopular that would make them) the trickling down is reduced. And Wealthy Wally, Happy Harry and Dodgy Dave all have massively more money and benefit significantly more from Wally’s wealth than Poor Pat. Wealthy Wally and those below him in the pyramid spend on themselves in maintaining their luxurious lifestyles without a thought for those who have nothing. There is no generosity here.

That is a VERY crude model, I admit, but I remain convinced that the ‘trickle-down’ approach to economics is iniquitous and inequitable. It is (from my research online) unproven as a model and requires no altruistic intent or planned provision for the poorest.

Yet that is almost the model that God wants us to employ! What? Surely you aren’t serious?

I am (and don’t call me Shirley).

Yes.

The significant difference is that it’s not a trickle-down that may benefit those at the bottom of the pile, it’s a deluge down that is aimed at supporting those who have the least. Rather than a little bit dribbling to the bottom, God wants us to reflect the divine generosity we experience. We are to give using the same measure with which we have received, to bless because we are blessed.

This prayer from St Ignatius of Loyola seems to express it rather well:

“Lord, teach me to be generous;
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil, and not to seek for rest;
To labour, and not to ask for reward –
except to know that I am doing your will.”

That’s what we mean by being generously big-hearted. We do it because we love God and love people, not to serve our own ends and hope that somehow someone might benefit eventually.

Be blessed, be a blessing

God-orientated

This is the first in a series of bloggages where I will have a look at our church’s newly adopted values, which you can read here.

So, my first question was whether it’s ‘oriented’ or ‘orientated’. We ‘orientate’ something, so my instinct is to add a ‘d’, but it seems that either is acceptable and ‘orientated’ may be something more common in UK than in other English-speaking countries. So there’s an extra ‘ta’, which is nice. Ta.

We explain what we mean by ‘God-orientated’ as: ‘Like Jesus: a prayerful God-focused people who seek and celebrate God whether we are gathered together or dispersed; doing everything to honour and worship God; listening to God through the Bible; and responding to the innovative prompting of the Spirit of God.’

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

There’s a LOT to unpack here, isn’t there. The first thing is that our prime example of each value is Jesus of Nazareth. If we want to know what it looks like we can see it in him. He was, undoubtedly, prayerful. As well as recording the (pattern for) prayer he taught his followers to use, often in the Gospel narratives of his life we read of him heading off on his own to pray. And when he was facing his ultimate challenge, his impending arrest, trial and execution, he literally sweated blood in prayer.

That’s quite a challenge. In our own individual following of Jesus we know we could be more prayerful. And together as churches my experience is that church prayer meetings are often the least-well attended corporate gatherings. Of course, prayer happens in many other occasions and in many different groups, but I wonder whether we have reduced prayer to such an apparently mundane activity that it doesn’t energise or excite people to gather. Or by defining a meeting as a ‘prayer meeting’, have we reduced its scope from what God would like to do? I don’t have a definitive answer, just some ponderings.

Being God-orientated, or God-focused, means that we recognise that God wants to be involved in our whole life. The Hebrew word, Avodah, is apparently both the word for ‘work’ and ‘worship’, which to me gives an idea of the scope of this concept. Everything has the potential to be an act of worship to God if we want it to be and are willing to shape it accordingly. And then, together or on our own, we offer all we have to him and seek to include him in it all. It means that we attempt to be conscious of God through the day (which is something the Spirit helps us with) and intentionally do things with God in mind.

Listening to your Bible won’t usually provide you with much audio stimulation (aside from, perhaps, some rustling of paper). But we use the image of listening because we experience God ‘speaking’ through the Bible. When we read it, the same Spirit who inspired it to be written (and translated) applies the words to us in a real and living way. For Christians the Bible is not an instruction manual, it’s the prime means of communication between the Creator and the created. It’s both a written document and a living encounter. It shapes our thinking and actions and is God-inspired. But Christians disagree about some bits that are in there. How is that possible if we are all listening to the same Spirit who inspired the writing?

I came across this recently, and it ‘spoke’ to me in a new way:

Romans 14:1 – “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”

Paul, who wrote the letter to the church in Rome to help them out with a number of issues with which they were struggling, recognised that there are some aspects of faith about which it was possible to disagree! If you read on in the chapter you see that disputes existed over what could be eaten, and which days were holy. They were not primary issues, they were secondary issues over which Christians could disagree and on which the best thing that could be said is that we should be gracious and gentle with people who have a different view on those issues – not falling out with them. Not insisting that we are right and that they have to agree with us or be ostracised as heretics. The primary issues are about who Jesus is, what he taught and did – they are not up for discussion, but there can be (and perhaps always will be) ‘disputable matters’. I wonder how different church history (and present) would be if we paid more attention to this?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Fresh values

As mentioned in the last bloggage, at Mutley Baptist Church we have adopted a new set of values. We discerned them after an exercise I call ‘The Ideal Church Exhibition’. We got into groups of different ages around tables, were given a big sheet of paper and some pens, and were asked to draw the ideal church. There were no limits on what could be drawn (except the size of the paper) and no financial or planning constraints.

What the church came up with was a wide range of different drawings, words, diagrams and concepts. And what we find, as we look at them, is that behind the images are values. For example: a drawing of a church with a big cross shows that we want Jesus to be at the centre of things; a community space shows that we want to serve the people around us.

From those drawings we discerned six values, which we then adopted at our next Church Meeting:

Jesus calls us to love God and love people, and to be a community of his followers who are:

God orientated

Like Jesus: a prayerful God-focused people who seek and celebrate God whether we are gathered together or dispersed; doing everything to honour and worship God; listening to God through the Bible; and responding to the innovative prompting of the Spirit of God.

Lovingly inclusive

Like Jesus: celebrating and affirming every person and refusing to discriminate; valuing everyone and being accessible to all; ensuring everyone has a safe place in God’s family; and especially caring for and welcoming those who have been marginalised.

Ethically motivated

Like Jesus: unashamedly and relevantly speaking God’s truth, striving for justice, caring for the environment and actively challenging the abuse of power, wealth, status and privilege.

Generously big-hearted

Like Jesus: becoming vulnerable in serving others, and generously reflecting the generosity of God – giving our time, gifts, expertise and resources to serve God and others.

People focused

Like Jesus: caring for and loving people of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest; through our words and actions embodying and bringing the transforming love of God to our local community in Mutley, to Plymouth, the UK and the wider world.

Playfully creative

Like Jesus: enjoying and appreciating life in all its fullness, using our God-given talents to express ourselves and to communicate his truth, and looking imaginatively with the eyes of faith to discern and follow God’s will.

We seek God’s Spirit’s help for us to embody these values, and humbly we seek and offer forgiveness for the times when we fail to do so.

It may be worth pointing out a couple of things. First of all, our overarching aim as a church is to love God and love people. That may be simplistic, but it’s a succinct summary of what the Bible teaches us about what Jesus-followers should be doing.

Secondly, each value is focused on Jesus. When you look at him in the Bible you see him showing and teaching these values, and we want to be like him as a church family. He is both our example, our guide, our teacher, our friend and our Lord (to use a Bible word). As his followers, we seek to be more like him, as his Spirit helps us.

And that’s point 3 – we can’t do this on our own. We need God’s Spirit’s help to change and embody these values, and also we need to recognise before God and with each other that there have been, are, and will be times when we fail to live up to them. At those times humility, forgiveness and reconciliation are essential.

I’ll probably unpack these over the next few weeks.

I wonder what your values are – as an individual and as a church (if you are part of one).

Be blessed, be a blessing

dustbin days

One of the things I remember from my days at Bible College is that it is important to have ‘dustbin days’ from time to time. These are days when you have a clear out. You sort through the pile that has overwhelmed your in-tray. You clear the stuff that has accumulated on your desk and remind yourself what colour the desk actually is. You throw out the bits and pieces that you have kept ‘because they might come in handy’. And you go through your email inbox and answer / delete the emails (my target is single figures).

I do this from time to time and find myself feeling quite virtuous afterwards. I cherish the tidy desk, the empty in-tray, the single-figure email inbox and the sense of order that accompany them.

2014-03-13 12.49.56Last time I did this I came across this object, which has sat on my desk for as long as I can remember. I had no recollection about its origin, but thought that it might have been something I had made on a retreat sometime. I didn’t use it, it was taking up space (not much, it’s 8cm in diameter) and it looked a bit shabby.

I picked it up and moved towards my rubbish bin, ready to dispose of this shabby unwanted piece of hardened clay and chipped paint. Just before I threw it away something prompted me to look underneath it. This is what I saw.2014-03-13 12.50.08

You may be able to make out the feint writing that is etched into the bottom of the clay. It says: “Thomas ’97”.

It had been made by my son at preschool. Suddenly this changed my perspective. Now it was something invaluable. Now it was impossible to throw away.

How often do we do that with people? How often do we judge people by outward appearances without looking deeper and seeing their true value. A person’s value is not determined by what they look like, their financial status, their health or any of the other shallow indicators that are used to define people in our culture. Their value is determined by who made them.

Sadly sometimes people have received the message from churches that we think everyone is a worthless sinner. Richard Dawkins recently posted a disingenuous piece of propaganda with a picture of a child holding a list that said that “According to religion I am broken, flawed, sinful, dumb, weak, nothing.” Have a look at Krish Kandiah’s response to this, which I think is brilliant.

You are someone who is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in the likeness of your Creator. You are someone whose is loved beyond all loves by your heavenly Father so much that he gave up Jesus so that whoever believes in him can inherit eternal life. You are brilliant. You are amazing. You are spectacular. You are unique.

And so is everyone else whom you will meet.

Let’s challenge the politics and politicians, the social trends and the economic structures that seek to discard anyone in the pursuit of tidiness, popularity or expediency.

Be blessed, be a blessing

China in your hand?

Yesterday’s bloggage reminded me of an incident that took place while I was travelling through China. I was part of a small international group, led by a lovely American lady who knew China (and the languages) very well. She also knew a lot about Chinese culture and traditions. And she got to know me and my sense of humour as we travelled through the country, which may still be causing her nightmares!

Image DetailThe incident in question happened as we were travelling on an internal flight. As I went through the free-standing metal detecting door-frame at the airport my belt buckle caused the alarm to sound. I assume that there is an official policy whereby equality of gender is a value that is more important than responding to the sensitivities of travellers as a very polite young lady official came across and gestured to me to stand still while she patted me down to make sure that I was not carrying anything I should not be. It was not indiscreet, invasive or any more inappropriate than when I have been patted down by male officials at airports, but our team leader was furious that my male personal space had been violated by this young woman. She started to object and was asking for the Supervisor to be called in order that she could lodge a complaint about this.

Maybe it was because I did not want to cause a scene.

Maybe it was because I did not feel that my male personal space I had been violated.

Maybe it was because I was in a mischievous mood.

But I stopped our leader in mid flow with a sentence that left her shocked and open-mouthed:

“Actually, I rather enjoyed it. I’m going around again!”

She looked at me with alarm in her eyes, and then I think she saw the sparkle of mischief in my eyes, the grin on my face and realised that I was not upset.

She laughed.

The young official laughed.

I was waved through. No supervisors were needed, no reprimands were issued.

As I reflect now on that incident I wonder if I was unfair to our leader. She was only doing what she thought was right and appropriate. She was standing up for me because she thought it had been inappropriate. But to me the more important thing was that this young lady, who was only doing her job, should not have got into trouble because our cultural values clashed with the Chinese ones within which she operated.

Today I am preparing a sermon on the end of Luke 7, where a woman seemed to violate Jesus’ male personal space by anointing his feet with her tears and with oil and by wiping them with her hair. Those watching were outraged and would have called the supervisor, had there been one, in a tirade of self-righteous indignation. But Jesus’ values were different. He wanted her to know forgiveness and God’s love and grace, and these over-rode doing what was considered decent.

Are there ways in which today we should allow God’s values of love, grace and forgiveness to over-ride rights, traditions or even ‘decency’?

Be blessed, be a blessing.