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.
Last night was the stage competition for the Mid Essex Magical Society and once again I entered. The some reason this year I was quite nervous. That was not the case in previous years and I couldn’t work out why I was nervous this year. I think it affected my performance a little bit but even so I came third. The competition was won by the brilliant Richard Jones and Jack Blackbourn came second. No disgrace in coming 3rd to them.
All right, I’ll admit it, there were only three people who were able to be there to perform this year but I felt as if I was lucky to come third because my performance had not gone as well as I’d hoped!
This morning (very early) I woke up with my mind running through the point when it all went wrong in one of the illusions. A deck of playing cards was being balanced on a knife (the flat side, not the edge!) and the knife was being held by Stew the Rabbit who I was holding. It probably sounds a bit more complicated than it was but at the crucial moment the playing cards fell off the knife. I think the reason was that I let my nervousness get to me. The slightest tremor in my hand was translated through Stew the Rabbit, along the knife, and caused the precariously balanced cards to tumble. Even though I caught some of the cards others fell to the floor and it was pretty obvious that something had gone wrong.
So why was I nervous? I’m still not sure. It’s not as if I am unused to performing in public – I’ve done it many times without these nerves. It is not as if I was nervous about being judged as I’ve entered the competition twice before and not had a problem with nervousness. I was fairly confident about the routines I was performing. In the end I think it probably was because I felt underprepared. I had worked out what illusions I was going perform previously but I’d had a busy day and hadn’t really had a chance to get my head around all that I was going perform in the evening. I hadn’t thought through my patter well enough so I was uncertain about what I might say. I didn’t rehearse enough (it’s best to get to the point where you can perform without thinking about the techniques so that you can concentrate on the presentation). I blame Stew the Rabbit (after all he can’t answer back!) And I also blame the chamfer on the knife that I used which meant that the cards were even more precarious than perhaps they should have been.
The old adage says that if you fail to prepare you should prepare to fail. There is a degree of truth about that.
I wonder how many churches rush into things underprepared? And by “underprepared” I mean lacking in prayerful preparation. Living the Christian faith and sharing it is not about techniques or programmes or courses but about the strength of the relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ, empowered by his Spirit. If we try to do things in our own strength rather than dependent on God we should not be surprised if we fail.
Perhaps also we should not also be disheartened if the results of our endeavours are less than we had hoped: if we have been trying in our own strength because we had failed to prepare. If things didn’t work don’t give up, instead put more focus on the praying part and you might find things are different next time round.
Each week in the Eastern Baptist Association one of the Regional Ministers will share a ‘Thought for the Week’ and some prayer requests. This week it was my turn and I thought that in the interests of recycling I would share it with you too. It was written to Ministers but may have a wider application. (Apologies to any of you who got the ‘Thought for the Week’ too).
Recently I have been pondering again how to measure success in a church. The traditional, and rather crude, measure of success is the number of people attending Sunday services (or “bums on pews” if you are less cultured). That may give attendance figures but is that the same as success? I don’t think so. We are certainly encouraged when will people turn up, especially if we are preaching, and even more encouraged if new people turn up and come back again the next week. We are rightly pleased when people come together to worship God, meet with him and encounter him. But again I don’t think that his success: it’s an aspect of Ministry. But I remind myself that no matter how many people turn up on a Sunday there are still many more who have not darkened the doors of the church for months, years, or perhaps even at all.
So what is success in Ministry? What does it look like? Do we think we have had a successful meeting if everybody has agreed with the final outcome? Was it a successful visit if we had chocolate biscuits alongside our cup of tea? Were we successful in preaching when everybody smiled and said thank you at the end? Is balancing the budget a measure of success, or increased giving? There are many possible measures.
One of the difficulties is that success in Ministry is not easy to measure because we are talking about God at work in people’s lives. In fact often what God is doing is hidden in the lives of those with whom we Minister and serve so we don’t ever find out about it. We often do not know the full impact for them of a visit to someone who has not been able to get to church. We usually do not know the significance of what we might have said in a sermon through which God spoke to somebody. God is sufficiently gracious that we may see some of the answers to our prayers but many will remain hidden from us (and anyway it was his answer not our prayer so can’t really claim success for it). We may not know how the way we led a funeral may have blessed the bereaved family. We do (please God) have the joy of seeing people come to faith and baptising them but many times will not know the full extent of the part we have played in someone’s journey of faith or to faith in Jesus.
If we’re being honest with ourselves and with God from time to time we would like to know that we are doing okay and would like to think that we are being successful in the Ministry to which he has called us. And, if we are being honest, sometimes it is rather annoying that we can’t measure it ‘successfully’.
But, and this is what I keep reminding myself, Jesus never called us to be successful. He called us to be faithful. He called us to be servants. He called us to be prophetic (and think how unpopular the Old Testament prophets were!). He called us to teach. He called us to make disciples. And he uses all of that to transform lives and bring people into the kingdom of God (his job, not ours). But (unless you know better) I don’t think there are any passages in the Bible where Jesus told us to be successful.
It may be semantics or perhaps a nuanced distinction but for me there is a difference between seeking success and receiving encouragement. Jesus has given us his power and authority and partners with us by his Spirit in the process of making disciples, baptising them and teaching them. That is our aim, that is what we are called to do, with his power and authority. Any encouragements we receive along the way are a blessing from him. Treasure each encouragement he gives you as you continue to fulfil his Ministry and thank him for them without yearning for success.
I hope and pray that you are encouraged this week.
We recently had to buy a fridge freezer and I was rather taken aback as we were buying it to be offered an extended warranty. Didn’t they think it was going to last? And it had a sticker on it saying that there was an extended manufacturer’s warranty on it.
So I didn’t buy the extended warranty.
And then I phoned the manufacturer to register for the extended warranty. They told me that this only covered parts, not the labour of the repair man, or the call out fee, or the cost of bits that broke from wear and tear (like freezer drawers). So would I like to take out an extra extended warranty that covered these things too?
When I commented that it did not seem to show much faith in the quality of their product the lady with whom I was talking didn’t really know what to say (it was off her script!).
I did not take out the extra extended warranty.
Since then I have had a letter from the shop I bought the fridge freezer from, just to let me know that although there was a one year warranty on the product I could extend that warranty (for five years for about a third of the cost of the fridge freezer!).
And then I had an email from the shop with the subject line: “We hope you’re happy with your Fridge-Freezer”
That’s nice, I thought. What lovely customer service.
Then I read the text in the body of the email:
We hope you’re happy with your Fridge-Freezer and we’re sure that the last thing you want to think about is something going wrong.
However it’s only when things go wrong that you discover how limited a standard manufacturer’s guarantee can be. Not only does it tend to run out just when you need it, but it usually only protects you for technical faults. This means you might be left exposed in the case of a breakdown or damage, and you could be left with the cost and hassle of organising repairs or buying a replacement.
Not ‘if’ things go wrong, but ‘when’!
Do they really have so little faith in the products they sell? Or is it more that they make a lot of money out of extended warranties because they have faith in the products and so few people claim on them?
Am I being cynical?
Am I going to take out an extended warranty?
Nope. In fact the more they tell me I need one the more I am going to resist!
Of course churches would never do that would we? No, I don’t mean selling extended warranties. But do we inadvertently give out the erroneous message that if you give more, do more, attend more than you are a better Christian and God will look more favourably on you?
And do we sometimes convey that we do not have faith in God when we say that people should pray and immediately insert the hideous caveat that if he doesn’t answer the prayer it’s not his fault because you didn’t have enough faith? We might not say it, but do we sometimes imply it or could people infer it from how we pray?
Following Jesus is so much more than buying a fridge freezer (with or without extended warranty). But being so much more does not mean that we need to make it complicated. He simply invited people to follow him. Churches are the ones who have added all of the extras!
Yes,answers to prayer are more nuanced than we give God credit for, but this episode from my past is a constant reminder of the order we should do things – pray first, not as a last resort!
I think joy is seriously underrated. It’s associated with all sorts of physical actions: smiling, laughter, feeling good. It has brothers and sisters and cousins: happiness, humour, lightness, pleasantness… You can sometimes see it in a person’s face, in their eyes, in their smile, and even in their posture and gait!
But joy is special. Joy, while it links to the emotions, is not a simple emotion. Happiness comes and goes, it can be superficial. But joy is more foundational. It underlies a lot of life. It can be there even when we are sad. It can be present even when we feel nothing. It sometimes breaks through and surfaces in laughter, smiling, a good feeling, but it is not always felt.
Joy is a an attitude as well as an emotion. It is a way of looking at life that says, “I know that there is more to life than this and I will not let my life be defined by the superficial.”
For followers of Jesus we acknowledge that joy is from God. It is one of the things that his Spirit nurtures and grows within us. It is that twinkle in the eye, that brief knowing smile, that silent chuckle when we remember all that Jesus has done for us and that he calls us his friends, that because of his death God calls us his children. And that cannot be taken away from us. Which is why it can be there when we are sad, or when we feel nothing. As our awareness of how much God loves us grows so the joy grows – just as we experience human joy when we know that we are loved by another.
There’s an old joke that some Christians have a deep joy: it’s so deep they can’t find it. There’s a smidgeon of truth there, but please God none of us have buried it so deep that we can no longer experience it. And if we have, let’s pray that he brings it closer to the surface – start by re-engaging with Jesus!