I was lucky to come third

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!

stew no backgroundThis 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.

Prepare prayerfully, act faithfully, respond thankfully.

Be blessed, be a blessing

nothing succeeds like a toothless budgie

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).

iStock_000008192999SmallRecently 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.

extending the warranty

The delivery was better than this!
The delivery was better than this!

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?

Maybe.

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!

joy

laughingI 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!

Be blessed, be a blessing

the danger of ducks

ducks 2Have you heard the phrase ‘getting all your ducks in a row’? (That’s row as in line, not row as in moving a boat with oars, or row as in having an argument). I am not entirely sure what the origin is of the phrase… perhaps it refers to the way in which ducklings seem to follow their mother in a line, or perhaps it’s something to do with the image above. The phrase refers to the need to be organised and schedule things in the right order so that you can achieve a task. Why that conjours up and image of ducks I don’t know.

But I have been trying for a while to get all my ducks in a row. You may have read previously bloggages I have written about needing to get things organised around moving house and the work that needs to take place here in order to provide an office downstairs. But it’s not just in big things that the anatidae need to be lined up in order. We need to achieve this task every day: you get out of bed before you wash; you put breakfast cereal into a bowl before adding milk (bowls are rather essential unless you eat directly out of the packet!); you put your socks on before your shoes… and so on. For the most part we do it automatically, without thinking.

Ducks can be dangerous once in a line because we can forget about them.

And it’s quite easy to do that with following Jesus: it becomes part of our routine – automatic. And in one way that is good. Following Jesus should be a natural part of life, we should be getting our spiritual ducks in a line. But if we do it without thinking we are in danger of losing some of the significance of what we are doing and why we are doing it. And we are in danger of taking it for granted and forgetting the astonishing truths about being a follower of Jesus – who he is, what he has done, that he calls us ‘friends’ and ‘siblings’, that we are able to pray ‘in his name’, that we can live life in Technicolor (R) rather than monochrome, that we need no longer fear death, that he is with us by his Spirit 24:7 and is with us even in the darkest valley… and so on. If we follow Jesus without thinking we are in danger of missing out on special moments when we read the Bible and pray and encounter him.

If we follow Jesus without thinking we are in danger of becoming fans rather than followers. And that’s a step on a journey that distances us from him.

Try to be conscious about your faith. Yes it should be natural, but give yourself some markers in the day to remind you that you are a follower of Jesus. For example, I try to use looking in the mirror when I am washing as a marker to remind me that I may need to ask him (and others) for forgiveness; I have daily emails that arrive from WordLive that share Bible passages and thoughts…

Don’t take your faith for granted. It’s far too important and amazing for that.

Be blessed, be a blessing

moving thoughts

2014-07-08 19.36.05Yesterday the EBA got the keys to the house in which we will be living next month. I joined a couple of people from the EBA to look around so we could work out what needs to be done. A couple of things struck me (not falling masonry – the house is sound!).

One was how different the house looked when there was no furniture in it. When we looked around it was a home: now it is a house (until we move in and it becomes a home again – I’m really looking forward to that).

A second thought was how there are lots of things to learn. There is a different timer / controller for the heating and hot water. There is an alarm system but no code, so that will have to be reset. There are appliances in the kitchen that are different to the ones we currently have. And there are new neighbours to meet (I met our immediate neighbours yesterday and they seem lovely).

A third thought was how much grubbier the house looked than when we had looked around. I am sure that if anything it’s cleaner than then, but without furniture, without pictures on the walls, without people, without anything to distract our eyes, the children’s fingermarks on the walls, pen marks on the carpet, paintwork that has been scratched all become much more obvious.

And I guess (at the risk of being cheesy) church is a lot like that. Church premises are very different without the people in them. They are simply buildings but when the people are there they take on a different character – the church is the people but somehow the premises take on the character of those God-filled people.

If you are new to a church (or you don’t normally go to church) there’s an awful lot to learn. You don’t know any of the traditions that most people know (which can lead to standing up at the wrong time – embarrassing!). You don’t know any of the people and (if they don’t speak to you or welcome you) can feel very awkward. You don’t feel familiar with anything. But remarkably (well actually not at all if you think about it) it is also possible to get past those things very quickly because we all worship the same God, follow the same Jesus of Nazareth and are filled with the same Spirit.

And churches are grubby too. I don’t mean premises that need sprucing up. We don’t like to think of ourselves like that but churches are made up of imperfect people. Yes we are people filled with God’s Spirit. But we’re not perfect. We might pretend that we are. We might like to delude ourselves that we are. But we are not. And in my opinion churches that are more at ease with the grubby fingermarks and are ‘lived in’ are much easier to feel part of than those that seek to hide it all because I am not perfect either. I wouldn’t want to go to a perfect church, I’d spoil it!

Be blessed, be a blessing

what’s going on?

schrodingers balls swf showWhat do you think is going on in this picture?

It’s a photo taken during the show I put on with my friend, Richard Jones. I was performing an illusion with some balls in such a way that my volunteer (Peter) had no idea what was going on, but everyone else did. I did feel a bit mean about it, but thankfully I know Peter well enough to think that he did not take it personally and at the end I did show him what had been going on too.

Do you ever have the feeling that everyone else around you knows something you don’t? They all seem to have worked out the answers and you haven’t even realised that there is a question!

It can happen to me sometimes when I am driving along within the speed limit through some roadworks and people are speeding past me. I wonder whether I have missed the end of the speed restriction.

And it can happen to me sometimes when I am on a train that pulls into a station before the one at which I am due to disembark and everyone else in my section of the carriage gets off. I wonder whether I have missed an announcement about the train terminating at that station because of [insert excuse here] to be replaced by a bus service. (Why do train companies think that a replacement bus service is an adequate replacement for a train? If I had wanted to go by bus I would have bought a bus ticket. (Yes I know they do it because the train can’t go any further, but bear with me I am having a little rant)).

It has happened to me in churches where everyone else seems to know what to do and I don’t. You can be left standing / sitting / kneeling while everyone else has moved on if you don’t have your wits about you. The worst experience of that I had was when I was preaching in an unfamiliar church where there was a lot of standing / sitting / kneeling (not usual in a Baptist Church) and as I was the preacher they had put me on the front pew. That meant treble trouble: not only did I not know what to do, and not only did I not have anyone to copy, but because I was at the front it would be very obvious to everyone else when I got it wrong! My peripheral vision worked overtime that morning.

It bothers me that we have made church so unusual an experience that people who don’t usually attend might struggle to know what to do and for those brave souls who do venture in the feeling of not knowing is multiplied by everyone else knowing what to do. Can we make it any more awkward (that’s a rhetorical question, not a challenge!)?

It bothers me that we being a Christian is so unusual that people think it is weird, when actually it is ‘normal’ (in the sense that God designed us to be in a relationship with him so not being in that sort of relationship is ‘not normal’).

What’s the answer? I come back to the answer I have given on many occasions. It’s recapturing the essence of following Jesus as the priority. Not a priority. The priority. And as Christians do that and become less bothered about traditions, rituals, preferences and all of the extra bits we have added to following Jesus to turn a relationship into a religion, so we will be better free samples of Jesus to those around us.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

don’t try this at home

nick glove smileThis photo was taken a long time ago – in the days when I had hair (I know you can’t see it in the photo) and my waist was a lot slimmer (yes it was THAT long ago!). You can tell how long ago it was because I had a Gordon the Gopher puppet (in the background).

It’s something I do from time to time to entertain and amuse, and sometimes I even make a serious point about it. When I do this in public I always say that people should not try it at home. There is a knack to it and if you get it wrong at the least you will find you will hurt yourself trying to pull the glove onto your head, you may end up getting your face slapped by an exploding glove, and at worst you could suffocate. Leave it to the professionals (ie me!).

I wonder if sometimes when we hear sermons or talks in churches we think that the speaker has said, “Don’t try this at home.” For example, last night we had a really special evening with the Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell. He was speaking about what a ‘church without walls’ might be like. It was inspiring stuff. At the end I asked people to pause and ask themselves what God might be saying to them from the evening. Then I asked them to think about what they are going to do about what God had said to them… and there was a murmur from the congregation at that point. I don’t know what people were saying or thinking but it felt like they were saying, “We didn’t expect to receive homework!”

Jesus never said, “Don’t try this at home.” Quite the opposite in fact. He asked us to follow him, and he did some amazing and outrageous things in people’s homes…

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

 

34th anniversary

It was a momentous day. I was not aware of just how momentous it was. Indeed I am still growing in my appreciation of that.

25th May 1980. Torquay. It was a Sunday morning and I was about to get wet. Very wet. I was baptised by immersion as a follower of Jesus on that day. I had known him as my friend since the age of six, but my awareness of him had grown and the sense that I needed to be baptised grew irresistible.

I found Baptismal services very moving. A number of times before then at the end of a Baptismal service I had wanted to respond to the Minister’s invitation for anyone who wanted to be baptised themselves but had been kept back. But at the Baptismal service before this one I knew I had to respond and I made the very long journey from the balcony in our church down to the front.

I had written a poem as my ‘testimony’ – quite a primitive but sincere statement of my desire to follow Jesus through my life. I remember one line in particular because my Mum had typed it up for me (yes, young people, typed on a manual typewriter (look it up!)) and instead of “I’ll follow him through baptism…” she had typed “I’II follow him through baptism…”

You can’t see the difference can you? Well the second one has three ‘i’s and we joked that I should read “eye eye eye follow him through baptism”.

I can’t remember too much about the baptism itself, it happened rather quickly. Our two Ministers, Peter and Nick plunged me under the water and back up again “on my profession of faith in Jesus.” Then they read out a Bible verse that they had chosen for me which they felt was appropriate.

20140603_095001 (2)It was 2 Timothy 4:5. Before you read it bear in mind that I was only 13 and had no idea at all that God was going to call me to become a Baptist Minister. These are the words in the version written in my Baptism Certificate:

“As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.”

Those words did not mean too much to me at the time but very soon afterwards God brought them alive to me and they have been with me ever since. They are now on a poster on the wall of my study as a reminder of that call, in a slightly more contemporary version:

“Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

Same meaning, different words.

Why all the reminiscing? Well 25th May 1980 was Pentecost Sunday that year (it’s a moveable feast dependent on the date of Easter). This coming Sunday is Pentecost this year. It will be the 34th anniversary of my Baptism. And even though I have not always followed Jesus as closely as he (or I) would like, he has always been there for me. He has never let me down. It has not always been easy. In fact sometimes it has been [insert extreme adjective here] hard. But I have always known that Jesus has been with me by his Spirit.

This Sunday morning we are baptising someone who has only been a follower of Jesus for a couple of months – it is so exciting. We will also have a couple of people renew the promises they made when they were baptised a number of years ago – that is so exciting. And we will have one lady who wants to share her testimony decades after she was baptised because she didn’t have an opportunity to do it then – that is so exciting.

If you can possibly be there, do come. Come to support those who are sharing. Come to celebrate with us. And come to meet with Jesus by his Spirit.

 

camera angles

Camera Sign.While visiting Canterbury Cathedral earlier in the week I was interested to see that the crypt is an area in which taking photos is prohibited. I think this is so it is set aside for people to pray and reflect without being disturbed by flash photography. It interested me because it reminded me of a phrase that is used in courts in the UK when the public is not allowed access to a hearing. The court is said to be sitting ‘in camera’. It means ‘in private’ and comes from Latin which literally means ‘in chambers’.

That has always intrigued me because if something is ‘on camera’ it is very obviously in the public view whereas ‘in camera’ means exactly the opposite! It got me pondering (as these things do) about when we say one thing and mean another. I remembered a sad moment when I was studying for my law degree. The lecturer was speaking about the meaning of words and how intonation makes a big difference. He asked for examples and with real emotion and feeling one of the girls on the course said, “Yes, of course I love you.”

Ouch.

Is that how some people see Christians? For example, do they hear us saying that everyone is welcome and then read about how some are excluded from being leaders by virtue of their gender? There are lots of other examples we could cite.

It seems to me that we have a choice.

When you look at Jesus he was inclusive, welcoming, and went out of his way to be with those on the margins. He drew people to him without demanding that they sort themselves out first or labelling them: justifying his approach by saying that “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”. I find that reassuring for my own life, because I am still very much a ‘work in progress’. Jesus saved his harshest words for the religious people (often summarised in the gospels as ‘Pharisees and Teachers of the Law’) who had a legalistic approach to life and were happy to categorise people as ‘unclean’ and exclude them from their religious life and experience. Read Matthew chapter 23 if you aren’t sure about this!

So the choice is whether we follow Jesus’ inclusive example or the legalistic example of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. If we choose the latter I suggest that we carry out all our activities in camera and hope that Jesus doesn’t ask to come in.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Joke repeated from a couple of years ago:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. “In English,” he said, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”