writing?

Some of you will have deduced from the increased flow of bloggages that I am now back in harness. The shoulder surgery seems to have been successful and while it is still painful to move in some directions I am gaining greater mobility each day (thank you if you prayed or asked about it). The house move went well and (despite the weather) the shed is now built and is ready for us to fill it with gubbins from the garage to release that space… (see Tuesday’s bloggage for details about the sequencing).

Today is a day dedicated to writing. There are some documents I have been working on that are unfinished and need more attention, and yesterday I promised that I would write something else for a meeting coming up next month. Of course, when I say ‘writing’ I mean that I will be putting fingers to keyboard, or I might use my voice recognition software (although I may get complaints from the room next door as the walls are not soundproofed).

fountain-penBut only a few years ago if I had said I was going to do some writing I would have meant that I was going to pick up one of those ancient artefacts known as a ‘pen’ and make symbols on some parchment that resemble letters, numbers and words. It’s archaic, I know, but there are times when I still do that. Even though there are touch screens, voice controls, mice and keyboards that make interacting with technology very easy there is something pleasant, perhaps even therapeutic, about taking a pen and writing on paper. I even use a fountain pen with a nib sometimes!

Oh, nostalgia… it’s not what it used to be.

When Jesus was responding to some of his critics he told a couple of slapstick parables (Luke 5):

36 He told them this parable: ‘No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.”’

It’s ridiculous to buy a new coat and cut out a patch from it to repair an old one. And if ytou were going to store new, still fermenting wine you needed new, flexible wineskins (leather bottles that preceded glass ones) that would expand as the fermentation took place. If you used old, rigid wineskins they would burst.

But Jesus seems to be commending nostalgia at the end of this, doesn’t he? Which is strange bearing in mind what he had been saying beforehand. I think, bearing in mind the slapstick humour and the thrust of the parables that new is good, he was parodying the intransigent, reluctant-to-change attitude he had encountered from his critics. He was talking about and demonstrating God’s new, exciting, radical Kingdom and inviting people to be part of it but instead some were preferring the comfortable, fusty, safe ways of the past.

How often have we missed out on what God is doing because we’ve never done it that way before?

Be blessed, be a blessing

mostly armless

Not quite my what my office chair looks like (there's no spotlight!)
Not quite my what my office chair looks like (there’s no spotlight!)

When I was a teenager I had a computer game called ‘Elite’. It was a space-based game in which you flew your space ship around a Universe with thousands of planets – trading, bounty-hunting, asteroid-mining, pirating and other space-related activity. It was astonishing just how much the programmers crammed into 48k of memory.

Yes, young people, 48k. Not 48 MB or 48GB. 48k. Just so you know, a MB is 1000k.

When you began playing the game you would be classified as ‘harmless’. After a while, when you had successfully defended yourself against attackers or had dealt with some bad guys you became classified as ‘mostly harmless’… and so on until you became ‘Elite’.

They’ve recently reissued ‘Elite’ on a much, much grander scale and while it is very enjoyable and far more complex (it is linked to t’internet so you can play with / against other people around the world) it perhaps lacks the charm of the wire frame graphics squeezed into 48k of Random Access Memory.

So why did I call this bloggage ‘mostly armless’? Well the thought came from my office chair. It has arms that attach to the back and seat. Over the years the covering on the arms has become a bit worn and frayed and even Duct Tape can’t successfully repair them (I know, amazing isn’t it!). I recently took them off in order to see if I could repair them more easily like that and the back of the chair didn’t fall off. So I decided to see how well the back is secured to the seat.

It’s well-secured with heavy duty bolts.

So I decided to see if I could operate without the arms for a while. From a Health and Safety at work point of view it must be causing serious headaches because I am not now following the manufacturer’s instructions (bad) yet my chair does not have arms so can fit better under the desk (good). I will keep checking the heavy duty bolts to make sure it is not going to fall apart.

Without the arms I have discovered a freedom. I can get onto the chair much more easily. It will slide under my desk completely so can be pushed out of the way better (in my cramped space). My arms hand down at the correct angle for typing on my keyboard so my posture is better.

And I have also discovered that there are phantom arms. I keep trying to push on them to sit up straight. I keep trying to grab hold of them to turn the chair around.

I know that I will adapt to the new mostly armless chair. I think I prefer it. But it does feel strange – almost like a new chair.

Christians talk about how God’s Spirit is changing us. He is slowly but surely working on our character, personality, thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, behaviour to help us to become more like the people God created us to be. We’re all a work-in-progress. But sometimes he asks us to make more radical changes.

It might be scary. It might feel strange. It might be risky. It might be unorthodox. But if we trust him, it will bring freedom.

So if you have been putting off being baptised, you have been avoiding talking to that person about your faith, you have been holding back from trying out your gifts, you’ve been resisting renewing your relationship with Jesus, you have stopped going to church and find it difficult to go back, and you know what God’s Spirit is prompting you to do about it, I would encourage you to go for it. Ask some of your friends to pray for you as you do it and take off those arms.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

tweeting

Blackbird Chicks In NestMany years ago a chick in a nest noticed something. At the end of every day it got dark. But every morning, after the chick had started tweeting that it was hungry (through its beak not the microblogging site) the sky grew lighter and eventually the day arrived.

The chick was fascinated by this. Every morning it would tweet its little heart out and every morning the sun would rise. The chick told its siblings and encouraged them to tweet too – to ensure that the sun returned each day.

Chicks in other nests started to complain about being woken up so early by all the tweeting, but when the first chick explained that it was their tweeting that guaranteed that the sun would come back they joined in too.

Once the chicks had fledged and left the nests they all continued the tradition because they didn’t want to risk the sun not coming up. Everywhere they went they told other birds about it and the news spread far and wide. Migrating birds took the news to other continents and it was not long before birds all across the world knew that their tweeting in the morning was what guaranteed that the sun would come up.

Each new generation of birds was told that their tweeting in the morning awoke the sun from its slumber and each new generation of birds tweeted their hearts out each day. They believed that they were making a difference to the whole world – this was their contribution to life.

Different birds tried to outdo each other with the length, volume, quality and variety of their morning tweeting. Over time the real reason for the morning tweeting became less important than the tweeting itself. When asked why they tweeted in the morning they just shrugged their wings and admitted that they didn’t know why they did it – it was what birds did, wasn’t it?

Today, all across the world, birds tweet each morning. Many of them actually don’t start tweeting until the dawn has started to arrive, the sky has started to lighten and the sun has started to peek over the horizon. But that doesn’t matter to them. What matters is that they tweet because that’s what they do in the morning, isn’t it?

Do we ever stop to ask ourselves why we do what we do? We do it because we have always done it. We do it like that because we have always done it that way. We do it because we don’t know any different. We do it because that’s what we do.

Tweet, tweet, tweet.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(It’s been said that when Jesus returns the last seven words heard (uttered by Christians) will be, “We’ve never done it that way before!”)

new use

2015-02-06 17.55.43What are you supposed to do with your son’s bedroom while he is away at University? Do you leave it just as it was when he left, like some sort of shrine – unwilling to change anything so it is just as he left it when he returns; or afraid to change things in case that discourages him from returning? To do so honours his memory and that he is part of the family.

But it also means that there is wasted space in the house.

I know of one family where the moment the older sibling went away to University the younger sibling slept in his room on the first night to preserve his memory and liked the room so much that the next day they moved into his room and ‘evicted’ him. Good use of space, but how did the older sibling feel about ‘his space’ having been invaded by his sister? Did he feel unwanted?

I think I have come up with a compromise. This photo is of our son’s bedroom. He does not normally have a golf putting mat in his bedroom but while he is away I feel it is making good use of the space to turn his bedroom into a putting room. It means that I don’t have to keep getting the putting mat out and putting (that’s ‘put’ as in ‘foot’ not as in ‘but’) it away each time. It means that I can have a quick putt ‘en passant’ on the basis that little and often is better than long and infrequent. And it can be put away for his return or if we have guests who need to be accommodated.

It’s temporary.

I wonder if that’s how many Christians treat church on Sunday? On Sunday we change our behaviour, we do things differently, we allow God to fill us and make resolutions about how we will be different this week. But it’s temporary. It’s not long before we make way for old habits* to return, or indeed invite new ones in. And then next time we go to church we start all over again.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should not seek to change and to get rid of old habits and I am not saying that resolve on Sunday does not make a difference. But going to church is not meant to be the equivalent of a weekly detox that allows us to indulge for the rest of the week.

Christians are under new management. Compromise is not a part of the new arrangement. Someone has moved in and ‘evicted’ the old occupant. Sunday is when we reaffirm our commitment to these new occupancy arrangements, when we may need to do a bit of tidying up, when we hear about his plans for the use of the room, and when we express how we feel about this.

The dissonance within us occurs when we fail completely to evict the old tenant – the two are not good roommates. It occurs when we forget the new occupant is there. It happens when we go back to the old habits.It is the result of compromise.

I heard recently that research has shown that the way to overcome old habits* and establish new patterns of behaviour is to have a conscious plan, to focus daily on the new ambition and targets, to put obstacles in the way of the old habits you want to break, and reward yourself when you are doing well rather than beating yourself up if you fail.

Hmmm, sounds familiar: daily prayer and bible reading has been a pattern for Christians throughout history. And now we know why it works!

Be blessed, be a blessing

*if you prefer ‘biblical’ language, call it ‘sin’

change is inevitable apart from a vending machine (as I have previously said on this bloggage)

image

Things have changed a lot since I was a teenager. Technology has changed significantly (I am sat in a room with two other people who are also typing on their Turing Machines*) and has affected how we access and share information as well as how we communicate with one another.

There’s a line in the hymn ‘Abide with me’ that says, “Change and decay in all I see…” This reflects an attitude that correlates change with negative outcomes. I have to say that I don’t share that approach. This is not a nostalgic bloggage about how much better things used to be or a lament about the things we have lost. It is a recognition that change is not necessarily bad.

I have changed: I hope that I am a better person because of that, and I am now defined more by being a husband and father than being a son and brother (although I have not stopped being that as well). I am more experienced as a human being. I am more experienced as a Minister. I hope that I am a more mature preacher. I understand things differently today and I realise today how much I don’t know.

How have you changed? How much are you willing to be changed?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Alan Turing was the first person to postulate the concept of a Universal Machine that could carry out any calculations and be reprogrammed, which he named after himself. Modern day computers are the incarnation of that concept.

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Grandma’s lamp

I love the simplicity of this image yet it is clearly a desk lamp(freeimages.com)
I love the simplicity of this image – yet it is clearly a desk lamp(freeimages.com)

I have a desk lamp that belonged to one of my Grandmas. I have had it for a while and when I came to Colchester I thought it would be useful at the church.

I put it on my desk in the ministers’ office at the church when I was setting up there, and it lived there for the past 6+ years. (For you grammar pedants, it was an office for both ministers so the apostrophe is in the right place here even if it never got changed on the door!). Yesterday evening I went to the church to empty out some bits and pieces from the office (cue more lumps in throat and tears in eyes – what a softie!).

I almost forgot to pick up Grandma’s lamp because it had been a regular ‘fixture’ on my desk for the past 6+ years and I had grown used to it being there. As I was gathering up my bits and pieces I noticed Grandma’s lamp and realised that I needed to bring it with me. I managed to get it gently in my bag and brought it back. I have found the perfect place for it above my desk and realised that I could have used it there much more helpfully than I used it in the church office.

Two brief reflections on that:

Do we treat people like Grandma’s lamp? How often do we become so familiar with people that we take them for granted? How often do they blend into the background and we forget that they have a story, an inherent value and significance?

And is it also possible that we are like the lamp? We may be doing wonderfully where we are, but might God have us use our gifts in another way or another place in order to bless people in a different way? This is what is happening to me this week!

Be blessed, be a blessing

countdown

image

I have just over 4 weeks left at the church I currently serve. It’s funny how people react when they know you are leaving. I have had a range of different responses recently.

Some people have been kind enough to say that they will miss me. I will certainly miss this church – leaving the church feels a bit like leaving home!

Some people have joked about me leaving, which I guess is a sort of coping mechanism. If you finding me joking about it too you can be sure that it’s me trying to cope too!

Some are really interested in what I will be doing in my upcoming role as a Regional Minister. I appreciate their interest and support but I also want to try to ‘run through the tape’ here rather than anticipating the new role too much.

Others have been telling me how many Sundays I have left, or even how many days. I think that they are trying to say how imminent it all feels but it can also feel like they are counting down the days until I am gone!

Let me say that in all of these approaches I really appreciate the interest, support, encouragement, conversation and fellowship that is behind them. Please don’t be deterred from talking to me about all of this. No criticism is intended in what I have written above, it’s merely my observations.

Over the next month I will be having ‘last [insert meeting or event]’ occasions. There will be farewells and handing on of roles and batons. I don’t find saying goodbye easy, especially when I have such a strong affection for this church (by which I mean these wonderful people).

I will let you into a little secret. When I finished at my first church, prior to going to serve at Baptist House (Baptist Union of Great Britain’s office) I drove home alone after the evening service and had to stop because I couldn’t see through the tears. Then, the next day, I left home to drive to Baptist House and again had to pull over because I couldn’t see through the tears. They were tears of sadness at leaving behind some amazing people, they were tears of joy that I had had the privilege of serving those people, and they were also an expression of a deep gutteral, visceral emotion that a part of me was being left behind with them.

I think I understand some of what Paul writes in some of his letters about his great affection for churches. I am not sure that there is any other ‘job’ in which you get to know people in the same way as clergy know and love their congregation. You are with people in the heights and depths of life (the ‘rollercoaster’ I mentioned last night in a sermon). You share not only in people’s lives but you also have a common faith and walk with them together as brothers and sisters – you are ‘family’. No wonder it feels as difficult as leaving home. I suspect that there will be a few more tears over the next month.

If you wonder why people belong to a church, perhaps my experience will give you a clue…

Be blessed, be a blessing

it starts with desire

None of us is perfect. Nobody, no matter how great they are or what they have achieved, is the finished article. I am being inspired at the moment by reading about Group Captain Lord Cheshire of Woodhall, VC, OM, DSO, DFC. By any measure he was an astonishing man as all of his titles and letters after his name suggest.

I recently acquired a second hand copy of ‘Crossing the Finishing Line’ – his last thoughts as he struggled with the debilitating effects of Motor Neurone Disease. A number of the thoughts have provoked thoughts and prayerfulness in me, but there was one comment that resonated particularly.

Last week in our church I spoke of how for the most part God brings about change in us and transforms us through one degree shifts. Gradual, almost imperceptible changes that over time add up to making a significant difference. One of Leonard Cheshire’s ‘last thoughts’ was:

“I need to try to turn my life and the physical difficulties I have into a prayer. I think that means starting with what St Augustine defines as the prayer of desire. Thus your whole being, heart and mind, needs to be orientated towards God. If you start that way, then throughout the day you can bring in different people, different Homes*, different problems into your thoughts while you are, so to speak, in a prayerful state of mind.”

(‘Crossing the Finishing Line’, Leonard Cheshire p.76)

Being transformed by God’s Spirit starts with us. We can’t bring about the change any more than a Rubik’s cube can solve itself. But we have to want God’s Spirit to change us. And that starts with us going deeper in our understanding and experience of Jesus Christ. Our aim should not be to be better people but to want to know Jesus better – because as we get to know him better we find that his character, love, grace and so on start to rub off on us. The one degree shifts happen naturally not because we are striving for them but because we are striving for Christ.

Part of the problem with one degree shifts is their imperceptibility. We might not notice them ourselves, so become frustrated that we are not the people we know God wants us to be. In those circumstances I don’t think it is wrong to be checking our spiritual compass so we can see how we are orientated.

If we want to be a prayerful person we could start with devoting three hours to prayer every day. Some may achieve that easily but most of us will get distracted and discouraged and give up. But what if a one degree shift was to start with a regular daily prayer of two minutes? And then when that is a part of our routine we go for three minutes, then four and so on?

It’s the same with reading the Bible – don’t try to read it all in a day! But start with bite-sized chunks and gradually add to them.

Or it could be that we struggle with a persistent sin. You could try to stop ‘cold turkey’. But that’s not always easy, especially if it is ingrained in our life. So take it one day at a time. Ask for God’s help not to fall into temptation and see how long you can go – each time you are tempted is a good time to pray the Lord’s Prayer. If you fail then ask God to help you again – turn back to him, ask for his forgiveness, a fresh start and his help again. And try to go for longer – one day at a time. Count your progress and celebrate it. One of my friends had a real problem with alcohol and regularly tells me how long it was since they last had a drink (over a year now!).

If those sound suspiciously like spiritual self-help they are not meant to. We can’t do it ourselves. But if we are seeking Jesus, desiring Jesus, yearning for more of him in our lives and asking him to help us to become all that we can be, he will help us. But we can’t sit back and wait for him to do it all, and these may be ways in which he helps us to do that, with the strength, perseverance and grace that he gives us. Look for and celebrate those one degree shifts when you perceive them.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Among his many achievements Leonard Cheshire founded homes for disabled people around the world – find out more here.

one degree shifts

one degree shiftsLittle things can make a big difference. A freshly made cup of coffee has refreshed me just now, ready to write this bloggage. A kiss goodbye with Sally (Mrs Nukelearfishing) before she went out shopping was a reminder of our love. Words of gratitude and encouragement can bless someone after they have worked hard. A hug from a friend can speak louder than words… You know the sort of thing.

I have been thinking recently about 1 degree shifts. This was inspired by the wonderful people at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. They point out that if you are facing in a particular direction and rotate 1 degree and then walk in that direction the change that you have made is small but the difference after a while becomes significant the further you travel. LICC apply that concept to change in a church, particularly looking at how you change the culture of a church.

But I think it also applies to our lives as individuals in a church, bearing in mind that churches are communities of individual believers. God’s Spirit is constantly at work in us: nudging, prompting, suggesting, encouraging, inspiring, and so on… And even if we only respond to him by making one degree shifts then over time he will have brought about significant change. And if we respond to more and more one degree shifts, then the change will be more significant.

I am in the process of preparing for Sunday morning’s service at our church and this is something of a sneak preview – a bit like the way that politicians trail what they are going to say in a speech so that it is reported that they will say ‘such and such’ later in the day; they say ‘such and such’; and then the fact that they said ‘such and such’ is reported afterwards. The impact of their speech could be tripled by this repetition!

So perhaps if you are coming to our church on Sunday you could prepare yourself for it by asking God’s Spirit what one degree shifts he might be asking you to make. Or ask him to make you ready to make a one degree shift. Or ask him to show you the one degree shifts you have already made and be encouraged…

Be blessed, be a blessing.

cause and affect*

change is inevitable... except from a vending machine
change is inevitable… except from a vending machine

Why is it that software developers keep changing the software? We get used to the way a program or app or website works and then, before we know it, an upgrade has happened and things are different. New settings need setting. Old settings need resetting. Changed default settings need grrring at.

But it’s a very 21st Century problem. Less than a generation ago so much of what we take for granted today was the stuff of science fiction.

Imagine ‘Tomorrow’s World’ in the late 1970s…

“In the first part of the 21st Century computers will be everywhere. They will be accessed via touch screens or even controlled by voice. They will fit into your pocket. People will be connected with each other and with information via a global communications network – a web if you like. We will all carry multi-functional communication devices that can also access information from this interlinked global web, take photographs and video which can be instantly shared, and millions of other possibilities? Entire music and film collections will be stored on microchips the size of a fingernail.”

[Presenter pauses and chuckles incredulously].

“Yeah, right. Dream on! What’s next? You’ll be telling us we’ll be in driverless cars soon.”

[puts finger in ear to listen to instruction from Producer]

“What’s that?”

[listens]

“Oh. Apparently they are developing driverless cars.”

Anyway, enough reverie, back to the topic in hand – these pesky upgrades. We can find them incredibly frustrating. Every time a well known visage – tome related social networking site is updated I reckon the first 24 hours of communication on it will be dominated by people complaining about the changes and demanding that it is changed back.

Why do they do it? I think the clue is in the first sentence of this bloggage. There are people called ‘software developers’. That is their job – to develop software (cue references to well-known adverts for varnish). I wonder how they feel at the tirade of complaints about the changes when they have worked hard on what have been planned as improvements and enhancements (or have been introduced to protect users from unscrupulous people)?

We’re always very happy to complain about things, but do we ever stop to think about the effect of those complaints on the people behind the scenes? Do ‘reviewers’ ever stop to think about how a scathing review affects the people who have worked hard to produce something?

There’s an ancient story about a visiting preacher who was saying goodbye to people after the service. A man came up and said, “I couldn’t understand a word you said!” and walked off.

A few minutes later he came back and said, “You went on far too long,” and left again.

Not long afterwards he returned again: “That was the worst sermon I have ever heard,” and he left the preacher reeling. The Church Secretary came up and the preacher explained what had happened.

“Oh, you don’t want to take any notice of him,” reassured the Church Secretary, “he never has any opinions of his own. He simply goes around repeating what he hears other people saying.”

I am not saying that there is no room for critical comment. We need that. We need to listen to it because God might be speaking through it. But there are ways of offering it that are not destructive, aggressive, hurtful or (yes I am going to say it) rude. Before you offer some criticism or complain, why not ask yourself how you would feel if it was said to you? And if you are brave enough, ask if you can imagine Jesus saying it that way?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Yes I know it should be ’cause and effect’ but it’s intended as a pun that makes us think about how we affect others [he explains defensively to prevent criticism from pedants]