Recently, at a Christmas do, some friends of ours gave me this present:
If you have never seen one before you may be wondering what it is. I certainly was. It had started its life as a strip, looking a bit like a paper garland. Then our friend opened it out and stuck the edges together to make this 3D object.
Any guesses yet? Some sort of artistic paper sculpture?
Let me rotate it (to save you turning your screen upside down).
Does this help? Is it some sort of paper vase (not very practical admittedly). How about if I turn it on its side?
Perhaps it’s some sort of large paper shuttlecock or missile? I discovered you can open it out by pulling together one of the ends.
Maybe it’s some sort of paper fruit bowl? Not very stable though. I had no other ideas so our friends told us. It’s a hat!
It only really becomes a hat when you pull it onto your head. Until that moment it becomes a curious object.
It’s the same with the Christian faith. It only really comes to life when you put it on, when you start to live it. It’s not about adopting a religion or following rules or even going to church! It’s about entering into a relationship with God. You may have lots of other ideas about it until that moment when you take a step of faith you won’t experience it in all its fullness.
No, this is not a tribute to Homer Simpson or the Cookie Monster. It’s actually a reflection on how, through cookies* and the like, websites get to know stuff about us. If you search for ‘silly string’ (as I have done recently, watch out!) you will find that you start getting offered adverts for silly string on other websites you visit because of the clever sneakiness going on behind the scenes that tracks what you are interested in and offers you more of the same or similar (I still have no idea why I get offered hair products, though!).
At the moment I am gathering some items for a couple of new magic routines I am working on so the adverts are becoming quite interesting. I get offered gifts to go in party bags, fancy dress costumes and practical jokes. (I will leave you guessing what the magical routines are!)
I wonder why the clever sneakiness going on behind the scenes thinks that because we have searched for something once we want some more of the same? I have bought all I need for the magic routines, that part of my internet life is at an end. I won’t be buying any more but the adverts that are based on what I searched for assume that I want to continue purchasing that sort of thing.
Of course I recognise it’s very difficult for websites to anticipate what we will search for next – the only thing they can go on is what we have done in the past and try to extrapolate from that to offer us what we might want next. It would probably freak me out if every time I went online to search for something new my browser offered me exactly what I wanted before I had even searched for it. I would wonder how they had got inside my mind!
You and I are much more than the product of our past. We are shaped and influenced by it now and in the future. We even have to pay for it (eg loans). But the mistakes and terrible events of the past do not have to have so much hold over us that they define who we are today. We can choose.
Just because you are walking down a particular path does not mean that you have to continue to follow that path.
Changes of direction, turning around, fresh starts and freedom are available to us all. It can take courage, resolve and we may need help (either from friends or professionals), but it’s possible. I don’t write these things lightly and recognise the limitations of a blog that can’t hope to minister to all of you, but I have found these things to be true for myself as a follower of Jesus and share that experience with you. I hope you will find the same thing in a local Christian church.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*According to Wikipedia “Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) or to record the user’s browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited in the past). They can also be used to remember arbitrary pieces of information that the user previously entered into form fields such as names, addresses, passwords, and credit card numbers.”
You may recall that I have had tooth scaffolding for a while (see https://nukelear.me.uk/2016/08/18/tooth-scaffolding/ for example). The purpose was to straighten out my teeth that had decided that they didn’t like being where God had intended them to be and had moved, little by little, to a place where they were actually causing me pain.
A couple of weeks ago the tooth scaffolding was finally removed. The treatment was finished – and successful! I was so pleased to be able to eat without pain and without having to spend time cleaning out the debris afterwards. But more than that I was delighted that my teeth looked more like they are supposed to.
My dentist had warned me that unless we take longer-term remedial action then the teeth may drift back into their old positions. So she attached some metalwork to the inside of my teeth to keep them in place, and she created some retainers for me to wear at night. You see when the braces moved the teeth back to where they should be the roots were loosened slightly and there’s a possibility that the teeth may simply revert to the previous painful position if they were not kept in place long enough to become more solidly rooted again and lose the inclination to incline.
The retainers are necessarily a very snug fit. And each evening when I put them in I can sense that they are gently nudging any rogue teeth back to where they should be. It’s not a massive movement but it reminds me of how things could shift if I don’t do what the dentist said.
What are your retainers? All of us can fall into bad, harmful habits that hurt others or ourselves. And while God offers all of us forgiveness, fresh starts and the opportunity to live life the way it is intended to be lived we also still have the tendency to drift back into those things that are less than the best. So alongside God’s forgiveness, fresh starts and the opportunity to live life the way it is intended to be lived we will be best able to continue in that way if we install retainers. For the most part they are common sense…
It could be a daily routine to remind ourselves to keep short accounts with God and others – I use brushing my teeth as a reminder.
It could be asking someone else to pray for us and giving them permission to ask us challenging questions about how we are doing. I have a Spiritual Director who does that for me.
It could be that we make a decision not to put ourselves in temptation’s way – it would not be wise for someone who finds it difficult to resist the temptation to overindulge in chocolate to work in a sweet shop.
Above all I find that keeping close to Jesus makes the most difference. If he’s just someone I think about for an hour on a Sunday he’s not going to make as much difference in my life as if he’s someone with whom I am constantly in conversation. He gives us his Spirit as a retainer – to help us to follow him – but we do have to pay attention and respond to his prompting!
I was about to blog about an issue I have with using up a particular resource when performing one of my favourite magic tricks when I realised that if I did I might well be revealing a bit more about that illusion than I would want to. That could have several unwanted results:
For people who have seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the illusion would be weakened.
For people who haven’t seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the bloggage would not make much sense.
I could get thrown out of the Magic Circle for revealing too much about the method.
People who perform magical illusions try not to reveal the secrets. This is not because we are maintaining some form of cartel to keep ‘muggles’ ignorant nor because we want to maintain a delusion* of superiority. It’s not even primarily because it would put magicians out of work. It’s first and foremost because the effect and impact of the illusion would be diminished or even destroyed by showing how it is done. Yes the performer may gain some degree of credit or kudos for showing people how clever / dexterous / ingenious they have been but for the audience what was hopefully a moment of amazement, delight and perhaps even awe has been reduced to ‘oh’. The magic has been replaced with an explanation. It’s like deconstructing a joke. The funny is taken out of the joke in the explanation of why it is funny.
I wonder sometimes whether the wonder has been taken out of church in a similar way. We ask questions about God (rightly so) and we try to deepen our understanding of God (a good thing) and in the nonconformist wing of the church in which I find myself most comfortable we have almost made a virtue of simplicity (and ugly buildings) in an effort to show that you don’t need anything special to encounter God (and I don’t disagree with that intention).
But are we also in danger of losing the awe, the wonder, the mystery of God? I was talking with someone recently about Canterbury Cathedral (above) and one of the things it does for you when you enter the vast space and see the height of the vaulted ceiling is that it takes your breath away. I think that was the intention of the designers. Not so that people would go, “Wow, what a building!” but “Wow, how amazing God must be to inspire people to create a place like this in order to worship him!”
But it’s not just buildings that can do this.
Ideally we followers of Jesus should have such God-refined character that when people look at us they say, “Wow, how amazing God must be when you look at his followers!” And Jesus had something to say about that (my paraphrase): “If you love one another in the same way that God loves people then when people look at you it will be blindingly obvious that you are my followers.”
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.
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.
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
It used to be the case (many years ago) that all telephones made the same sound when someone was trying to contact you: ‘ring, ring… ring, ring’. Then came the advent of electronic phones that could make a trilling sound. And then came the advent of mobile phones with several different ringtones (including the annoying nokia one if you had one of their phones). Nowadays most mobile phones have the capability to play an extract from a song that you have on the phone or any number of interesting sounds. If you are travelling on public transport it is quite entertaining listening to the different ringtones that people have.
A while ago I had the opening bars to a song as my ringtone. It is a guitar riff that I rather like and I thought also was likely to get my attention if my phone went off in public, distinguishing it from other ringtones. It was ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones. I used to have it set to the loudest setting because I used to keep my phone in a pocket and it could get a but muffled and easy to ignore.
Ba baaah, ba ba baah ba baah ba ba ba. (he he he, you now may well have that ear worm in your head for the rest of the day)
I had left my phone in my jacket pocket, and my jacket was hidden behind a screen in church. The building was empty as everyone else was either in the hall drinking tea and coffee or had gone home. But a couple from the church were in the building sorting out flowers. When my phone rang.
Ba baaah, ba ba baah ba baah ba ba ba
Ba baaah, ba ba baah ba baah ba ba ba
“I can’t get no… satisfaction”
My phone sang its lungs out, rather surprising the couple at first, and then when they realised what the song was they wondered whose ringtone it would be. I came back into the church to get my jacket while they were still there and they told me what had happened and I sheepishly had to own up to that song being my ringtone.
This morning I have been reading Ephesians 4:17-32 and the accompanying notes made reference to how Paul had highlighted behaviour in the first century AD that is still true today – people pursue personal satisfaction while becoming desensitised to questions of ‘right or wrong’. It’s the basis of our economic system – acquire more to be satisfied. But it’s a lie because stuff does not satisfy permanently. And the lie is hidden behind a deception because they always offer more and new and different to keep us dissatisfied. The lie of personal satisfaction is what motivates some to hide their wealth offshore in tax havens to avoid paying tax in order that they might have a bit more. It’s not just for the wealthy, though, it pervades all aspects of society – it’s what fuels the pornography industry, it’s what perpetuates the fashion industry, it’s what enables the iniquitous short term loan industry to get away with charging such high interest rates… it’s all driven by the little lie that if we could only have a bit more then we would achieve personal satisfaction. And sadly it’s a lie that churches can buy into too – trying to be satisfied by singing favourite songs or hymns, listening to our favourite preacher, building the best buildings…
However the only way to be satisfied is to stop trying to be satisfied. The lie makes pursuit of satisfaction a goal in itself because the end is unachievable. Satisfaction comes when we accept that we aren’t made to fill our lives with pleasure, we are made to be content. And that contentment comes from being in a right relationship with our Creator – for best results follow the maker’s instructions. If we put our satisfaction-seeking efforts into seeking God’s will and doing that we will find that we become content with less because we have got what matters most. And we do that by submitting ourselves to God, following Jesus and allowing God’s Spirit to make a difference in our lives – we can’t do it on our own. You can’t get no satisfaction, but you can get contentment.
(This is the most recent parable we are sharing with our churches. It is based on The Message paraphrase of the Bible).
Just then a religious scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”
He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”
He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbour as well as you do yourself.”
“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”
Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbour’?”
Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
“A Samaritan travelling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, intending to take him to an inn. But just as he was about to set off he remembered that he was supposed to be home early that night because he was expecting a delivery of a new harness for his donkey from RiverJordan.com.
“Then he looked at the man’s injuries and felt bad that he was worried about who was going to sign for his delivery. He looked at the bandages that he had put on the man’s wounds. Blood was beginning to seep through. He worried that it might stain the travel rug that the man was sitting on, and blood was really difficult to get out as Persil hadn’t been invented yet, so he took the man back off his donkey and laid him gently at the side of the road.
“’No!’ anguished the Samaritan to himself, ‘this poor man needs help. I can’t leave him like this at the side of the road.’ So the Samaritan took out a piece of papyrus and wrote on it, ‘Please help this man.’ And he placed his sign next to the man who had been robbed and went on his way, feeling that he had made a difference and done enough.”
“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbour to the man attacked by robbers?” asked Jesus.
“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Did he really become his neighbour?”
How does the reshaping of the story make you feel?
Who are your neighbours?
What opportunities for mission action does your church take? Is there more that you could do? What stops you from doing more?
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)
Yesterday evening at the Magic Club of which I am a member (available for charity shows locally) we had a lecture from Michael Vincent. It was a fascinating, inspiring and extremely enjoyable lecture. It was also quite profound. I’m not going to tell you what he said, that would not be fair to him as it would give away some of his secrets, but I was left with several impressions that I will share:
It is clear that Michael is someone who is striving for excellence in his magic. He is not satisfied with ‘adequate’. 8 out of 10 will not do.
He pays great attention to detail. Every move, every word, every look and every thought is considered and planned.
He is a great technician – clearly what we saw was the product of years of practice and benefited from him listening to (and being mentored by) others who had years of experience.
He enjoys what he does – even before he delights and audience he is delighted with what he is performing and how he is performing it.
He wants his audience to have a magical experience. The presentation of the illusions is as important (if not more important) than the technical skills. You need both but mere technical brilliance is not enough if your audience doesn’t find you engaging and want to go on a magical journey with you.
There’s so much more I could talk about but I am also trying to assimilate it for myself. But, reflecting on those things alone, there are lessons for followers of Jesus, not just magicians:
Strive for excellence. “Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God,” writes Paul to the church in Corinth. If God is GOD, then we should offer him our best. That applies to church activities, but it also applies to us as individuals – being the best free samples of Jesus that we can (as someone has blogged). The good news is that we also have God’s Spirit to help us in that process, it’s not something we have to try on our own. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but if you give of your best and consciously tell God that you are doing so as an act of worship then it is an act of worship.
Pay attention to detail. In my experience it’s not often big things that cause arguments in churches it’s little things that become inflated into big things. The colour of the carpets is not a big thing but if someone’s views are not listened to they can feel ignored and unloved and those feelings grow with more little things. How many people do ‘little things’ that go un-noticed and unappreciated? Pay attention to detail and thank people for the little things.
And, flipping it over, if we do the little things well often the bigger things fall into place: for example if someone wants to help with the sound desk, make sure that they receive training in how to do it.
And in our everyday life, pay attention to the little things that others do for us and appreciate them. If everyone appreciated others how much better would life be? Pay attention to the little things for others, like using their name (difficult for those who have problems remembering names, so if that’s you don’t try to bluff it, admit it and ask the person their name again and explain your weakness). It may seem trivial, but it makes a difference.
Practice. Living as a follower of Jesus won’t make any difference to your life if you only think about it when you attend church. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” Does that sound like he meant that all you have to do is go to church services? Life is meant to be lived, and life in all its fullness is meant to be lived in all its fullness, which means we have to put what we believe into practice: In other words: loving one another; forgiving one another; serving one another; praying (talking with God); blessing one another. The more you put it into practice the opportunities God’s Spirit has to shape us and the more it will become second nature.
Enjoy it. I read an article which said that researchers have found that middle age is the unhappiest era in peoples’ lives. As someone who is in his forties (just) that could be worrying. But life is for living. Find satisfaction in things you do (especially if you do them to the best of your ability – see above), even little things (see above). Celebrate good things. Relish what is possible. Share what you enjoy with others (and if there’s nobody else with whom you can share it then tell God about it). In the act of sharing you reinforce to yourself the positive experience you had. I know that life can be tough. I know that sometimes the s**t hits the fan and sometimes you are in the vicinity and it hits you too. But rather than only focusing on the negative, seek to find positives to enjoy – that could be as simple as having an understanding friend on whom to offload or savouring a cup of coffee.
Think of others. You are not on a desert island (if you are, how on earth do you have an internet connection and why are you reading this instead of asking for help?) Others will be around you. How can you bless them, encourage them, support them, amuse them, strengthen them, and enhance them by what you do with them and for them? “Love God, love those around you” is a pretty good personal mission statement! And even if you feel alone then you aren’t – God’s still there and you can ‘perform’ for an audience of One.
So, thank you Michael Vincent for provoking these (and many other) thoughts. And it has also underlined for me my intention to apply to join the Magic Circle this year (there, I’ve gone public, I have to go for it now!) whilst applying those principles both to my life and my magic.
In the past I have been involved in youth work and as part of the programme that we ran we would talk with young people about relationships and sex. There was one question that they all wanted to ask, but few had the courage to speak out (especially if they were already going out with someone) so I used to pre-empt it by answering it. The question went something like this:
“How far can we go?”
It might be more creatively (or crudely) put but the ‘How far can we go?’ question was an important one. I admired the fact that these young people wanted to know how to live as a follower of Jesus in this area of their life, even if they found it embarrassing to ask.
Sometimes I would offer three guidelines to them (coming originally from Rev Steve Chalke):
Don’t lie down together
Keep your hands outside each other’s clothing
If you haven’t got one, don’t touch someone else’s
The third one usually raised a laugh. But it was important to give clear and memorable guidelines. We’d also give clear and practical advice about all aspects of relationships and sex, not just ‘how far can we go?’
However, there is another way of interpreting that question – ‘what’s the most we can get away with without actually going against what God says in the Bible?’ That approach is legalistic and inflexible. It seems to be close to the attitude Jesus was criticising in religious people of his day – keeping the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. He challenged that approach in the Sermon on the Mount when he spoke about how our attitude can break the law even if our actions don’t – hating is as bad as hurting; lusting is as unfaithful as adultery… what’s in our heart is what counts.
I still encounter this approach today – the ‘what’s the most we can get away with before we have gone too far’ or ‘what’s the minimum we have to do to get by’ approach is alive and well in churches. But Jesus was not about half-hearted measures. He encouraged an ‘all out’ approach to following him and our relationship with God. Paul described it as ‘living your life as an act of worship’ (literally ‘living sacrifices’).
Paul also wrote these words (Colossians 3) (my italics):
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
When dignitaries visit places the locals go to great lengths to make them welcome and make sure everything is ‘just so’. Why should it be any different with God? Indeed, surely as he is GOD we ought to exceed those standards of excellence for him!
Whatever you do…
If it’s washing up, make the plates as clean as you can.
If it’s feeding the hungry, give them the best food you have.
If it’s performing magic tricks, perform them as well as you can.
If it’s telling people what you believe about Jesus, tell them as clearly as you can.
If it’s singing your least favourite song or hymn in church, sing it as if it’s your favourite.
If it’s making a cup of coffee for your colleagues at work, make it the best you can.
If it’s driving, be as careful and courteous as you can.