thinking differently

How much discount can you get on your car insurance?
How much discount can you get on your car insurance?

I have just had an ‘invitation’ to renew my car insurance. It seems to be significantly higher this year and the email I received this morning explains that this is because insurers can no longer take a customer’s gender into account when preparing their car insurance. I’m not sure why that makes it more expensive, but I would like to know why.

The email continues…

If I take a ‘moment’ to provide some new information they will give me a more accurate price, tailored to me. There is a strong hint that doing so will save me money on the quote. Now I am intrigued. What information that they don’t already have can reduce the amount of money they want from me to insure my car?

I don’t think my hobbies will make a difference (unless they are driving in demolition derby events or rallying (they aren’t in case my insurer reads my blog!)). I can’t imagine that my height would be of interest to them unless I am too small to see over the steering wheel or reach the pedals. Would they want to know about the last film I watched (if it was one with a car chase in it I might be tempted to emulate it).

This is a blog in progress so I am now going to blog off for a moment (because the email said it would only take a moment), find out what other information they want, and will then report back to you.

[blogs off]

[lots of moments pass]

[blogs back on]

And after providing all of the information they asked about, all of which they already had, the quote changed by a massive £0.00! I am trying to remain philosophical about it. I will consult a few other insurers (and possibly some meerkats) to see if there is a better price available.

Where I thought all this was leading was in fact not where it ended up. I was wondering what alternative information to gender would make a difference for them. What else would they use to judge me? The answer is ‘nothing’. There is no difference.

I wonder what criteria you use to judge people. Oh, yes, I know we don’t judge people. We accept everyone equally.

But we do judge people: on the basis of their appearance (well-dressed or scruffy for example); or on the basis of the sound of their voice (posh or common?) We judge others on the basis of all sorts of criteria – usually comparing them to ourselves (not to meerkats). How are they different from us and how are they similar?

This is something we do almost instinctively. We evaluate other people. I guess anthropologists might say that it is an evolutionary instinct to assess whether someone is a potential threat, ally or even mate.

The issue is whether the difference makes any difference.

I think it should.

Yes, I really did say that differences should make a difference to us.

Hold on, put those stones down for a moment and hear me out!

I am not saying that there is any excuse for racism, sexism, ageism or any other heinous prejudice-based ‘ism’. Not at all.

But some differences are meant to make a difference.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus read those words from Isaiah 61 and said that they were written about him. But how are we going to proclaim good news to the poor if we do not first notice who is poor? How can we release prisoners if we don’t see that some people are in shackles? How do we help the blind to see if we ignore the lack of sight?

The difference that difference should make is that it motivates us to make a difference (positively) to the lives of those whose lives are less than they could be. Followers of Jesus are called to carry on his work: to be good news and bring it; to be freedom-bringers (campaigning against slavery in its modern forms, seeking to help people bound by debt, blessing those who are imprisoned spiritually…); to be sight-recoverers (helping people to see the truth about God, seeking to work against disability discrimination, using our newly insured cars to help people who haven’t got transport of their own…); and telling people that God’s on their side (‘the year of the Lord’s favour’).

God help us (literally) if we ever fail to notice differences like that and fail to act in the way that Jesus would.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Acceptable response

Last week, in response to the headline policies announced at political party conferences I tweeted that when Jesus said that we would always have poor people the correct response is ‘Challenge accepted’ not ‘Okay!’

I have pondered this since then and wonder what the correct responses might be to some of Jesus’ other difficult sayings… here’s what I have got so far:

‘You will always have poor people with you.’ Challenge accepted

‘Unless you become like a little child you can never enter the Kingdom of God.’ Limitations rejected          

‘Unless you hate your family you can have no part of me.’ Relationships infected.     

‘If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom become everybody’s servant.’ Pride deflected.

‘You’re blessed when people reject or attack you because of me.’ Bruises expected.             

‘Turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give away your coat.’ Comfortable life ejected.

‘Don’t be a religious hypocrite.’ Life and faith amalgamated.

Be blessed, be a blessing

scaling new heights

So this morning we have really joined the digital age. Because of the large number of internet-connected devices in our home our broadband connection was running really slowly. There were various correlations but the most significant was that the speed of connection was inversely proportional to the waking hours of our teenage offspring.

Hence the conversion to Fibre Optic Broadband. I thought that it would involve diggers digging holes in the road, a trench being dug through our garden and holes drilled in walls. Instead a nice man came in, having done the work at the green box at the end of the road, did a bit of disconnecting and reconnecting, and I was almost ready to go. Following instructions in the booklet that came from our supplier was easy, and after waiting for a couple of minutes… tadaaa. Superfast broadband (at least until the teenagers wake up!).

This quick conversion is in marked contrast to the way in which most people come to faith. It seems that so much attention is paid to the ‘moment’ of conversion – when someone makes a decision to follow Jesus or realises that they are a follower – that we neglect all that goes before and much that comes after.

engel scale

James F Engel’s famous eponymous scale reminds us that the ‘moment’ is only one part of the journey of faith. An amended version is here:

I have been reflecting on this in preparation for Sunday morning, and wondered where the people who will be in church are currently located on the scale. I hope and pray that they are moving upwards, wherever they currently are, and hope and pray that we as a church are helping them in that process.

It’s a real challenge. We want to be helpful, we want to be supportive, we want to assist people in their following of Jesus (or ‘discipleship’ in Christian jargon) but that can sometimes be reduced to attending a course, or reading a book, or ticking a box. I reckon the best way of ‘discipling’ someone is a group of friends together who encourage one another, who support one another, who pray for one another. If there are particular issues or questions they can ask someone who might know. But it doesn’t need structure so much as a loving mutual responsibility.

Or am I being naive?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the parable of the good…

Some thinking required
Some reflection required

If Jesus was telling the parable of the Good Samaritan to a church today (recognising that he had a religious audience) who would be the characters in order to have the same shocking impact as the Jewish victim and the Samaritan hero? It’s worth noting that even though the Samaritan was the hero of his story that does not mean that Jesus agreed with him on every point. He was merely a shocking illustration to show what a good neighbour looks like.

The parable of the hoody Samaritan? An old lady is mugged in the street and the hero turns out to be a hoody-wearing teenager who has previously been making fun of her.

The parable of the good muslim. A racist man throws a petrol bomb at a mosque and is injured by the explosion. The Imam takes him into his home and tends his wounds.

If these are not sufficiently disturbing for Christians, let me try this version:

A fundamentalist Christian was preaching in the street. He was denouncing all kinds of evil in society: especially condemning the British Government for introducing legislation to legalise same sex marriage and being particularly scathing about gay men and women.

As he spoke he suffered a sudden serious heart attack and collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

“Serves him right,” said one onlooker. “He should not be such a bigot.”

“Thank goodness that he has stopped preaching,” said a passing vicar. “He’s ruining the reputation of Christians.”

But a gay couple stopped where he lay. One gave cardiac massage while the other called for an ambulance. The man regained consciousness and one of the couple took off his coat and made a pillow on the ground while the other spread his coat over the stricken preacher to keep him warm until the ambulance arrived.

Jesus said, “Which of these do you think was a neighbour to the man who had a heart attack?”

[insert your answer here]

Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

If that does not make you feel uncomfortable (which may or may not be a good thing) how about this question for reflection: Is the ‘do likewise’ about being kind and nice and helpful?

Or is it actually about asking for his Spirit to help us to overcome our prejudices and living graciously?

And if you want to feel really uncomfortable, try this question for size: who might Jesus make the hero of the story if he was telling it to you?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

a frame of thrones

Stonehenge 1It is Neolithic Britain. The tribe was proud of the new king because he had overseen the building of Stonehenge. They decided to build him a special house. They put up wooden pillars and then wove together the strong marsh grass into panels which formed the walls and roof. The king was very proud of his house and moved in immediately with his family. The problem he had was that when they had all moved in there was nowhere for him to put his special ceremonial throne. As he looked around his house he saw that there was a space between the wooden supports and the grass panels of the ceiling and managed to wedge his throne into the roof space.

That night there was a loud creaking and the king and his family fled the house just in time to see it collapse under the weight of his throne. The moral of the story is that people who live in grass houses should not stow thrones.

Sorry about that. I could not resist. I was thinking earlier about how we respond to those with whom we disagree and was reminded of the proverb that “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Today I am preparing a sermon on Luke 9:51 – 62 and have been considering the response James and John had to opposition. It was aggressive, vengeful, angry and rather over the top. It was definitely not the Jesus way of responding to people who do not agree with us or oppose us:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who will treat you.”

Please God may I respond in that way and not like James and John. May I recognise that I have received grace, mercy and forgiveness and be far more willing to show that to others, even when they oppose me, than to respond aggressively and vengefully… and heaven help me if I am ever tempted to call down fire from heaven on someone!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Life, liberty and…

During my first sabbatical leave, over 9 years ago, I tried to work out what might be a common belief amongst people. I distilled something along the lines of ‘I should be happy.’ It may be expressed in many different ways but I still reckon that is not a long way from the truth.

Mych human behaviour can be explained as attempts at fulfilling that belief. And if it’s such a fundamental driving force it explains why many people are willing to go to great lengths in pursuit of what they hope will satisfy that urge to be happy.

We seek to fulfil it in relationships: healthy and unhealthy; we seek the help of chemicals to simulate and stimulate it; we have a massive entertainment industry to help us engage with it; we exploit other people in pursuit of it; we seek to acquire wealth and possessions to try to satisfy it.

Jesus offered ‘life in all its fullness’ as the Creator’s intended answer. And (as a cynical overstatement to make a point) churches have reduced that to turning up on Sundays and watching Snogs of Praise (sic). I wonder why attendance is declining?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(un)familiar routines

On Saturday afternoon I will be doing a quick (15 mins) Magic Show at Stanway Spring Fayre.* I have been working on a couple of routines for the show, which will be for all ages (so no sawing people in half, chopping off hands, or putting skewers through my thumb). One is a routine that I have done before but which I have re-worked and is now being further refined. The other is a new routine that I have been working on and this Saturday will be my first opportunity to present it to an audience.

I feel a lot more confident about the first routine than the second. That is not because either is more complex than the other. It is because the first one is one that I have had more time to rehearse and I have also had the chance to perform before my friends at the Mid Essex Magical Society** and receive positive feedback (see this bloggage). That has given me confidence that I can do the trick and that it will go down well. The second is a step into the unknown. I know I can do it, but I have never done it before under public scrutiny and I don’t know how it will be received.

Except for a few ultra-confident extroverts I imagine most of us are much more comfortable with what is familiar to us. We like staying in our comfort zone. We are happiest when we feel most relaxed.

Sadly Jesus does not call his followers to a comfortable life. He invites us to follow him and that can often take us into unfamiliar places and doing new things. I am in the middle of preparing for Sunday morning at our church and looking at Luke 9:1-17, where Jesus sent his 12 friends so far out of their comfort zones that the cz was just a speck on the horizon. He sent them on a mission trip and told them not to take any supplies. Then later he told them to do the catering for an impromptu party – for 5,000+ people!

We may not be asked to do those things today, but we are still invited to “take up your cross… and follow me”, which is definitely a step into the unknown. Crosses are not known for their comfort and Jesus had a habit of going into uncomfortable situations.

This is not an encouragement for us not to prepare. I am much happier when I am prepared. But we need to be prepared for the unexpected, the unusual, the uncomfortable. How? Well ‘following’ is easier when you are in earshot of the person you are following rather than them being a long way ahead of you. The twelve disciples had spent time being in earshot of Jesus: watching, listening and participating.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

“Our Minister’s sermons always have a happy ending. When he ends we are happy.”

*2-4pm in Stanway Village Hall if you’re interested.

** Available to come and perform at very reasonable rates at your fundraising event in the Essex area. See their website for more information.

tumbling

Isn’t it amazing what skills you pick up? I feel like I am now a fully qualified tumble dryer repair man following my exploits at the weekend. The door catch on our tumble dryer had broken and as it was out of the warranty period for a free repair we had ordered all the components to replace the door catch mechanism. They arrived on Saturday and, armed with a little knowledge from the Internet, I set to work to replace it all.

It literally took blood, sweat and tears (or at least growls of frustration) in order to replace the components. The instructions on the Internet seem to have been written by somebody whose hands were half the width of mine and his fingers were twice the length of mine. I found it virtually impossible to get my hand down through the tiny gap between the drum and the body of the tumble dryer in order to release the door catch mechanism, unplug the cables and then reverse the process to install the new one. I still have the scars on my hands from where I encountered sharp edges inside the machine.

The alternative to fixing the machine

Eventually I succeeded and with a real sense of accomplishment switched on the tumble dryer. A warning light lit up on the panel telling me that I needed to clean the filter. I attempted to ignore it the machine just beeped back at me. I decided that that was probably a good thing to do and managed to retrieve a considerable amount of fluff from inside the machine. However each time I thought I cleaned out enough fluff and switched the machine back on the same warning light lit up and the machine belligerently beeped again. By the time the fluff had all gone and I even managed to retrieve some money and other debris that had found its way into the fluff filter I could not understand why the machine was insisting on beeping and flashing its light at me.

There was nothing else that I could think of until I went back in my mind through the installation process I had endured. I remembered wondering whether or not I had connected the sensor correctly on the door catch mechanism. But I could not access it with my normal shaped hands. It was at this point that I had a small moment of revelation. I looked again at the construction of the machine and realised that by undoing a few screws I could remove the side panel of the tumble dryer. I did this and immediately had perfect access to the door catch mechanism and was able to see that I had indeed plugged in the sensor cable incorrectly. 5 seconds later and the repair was complete.

I reinstalled the side panel and, with trembling fingers, switched on the tumble dryer once again. The warning light went out and the tumble dryer remained mute. I rejoiced. I had beaten the machine. Humankind was still the dominant species. (Yes, I do realise that I am slightly over stating this significance of my achievement but right at that moment I felt a sense of achievement.)

Reflecting on this episode has made me think about the scars that tell the story of my victory and I could make a cheesy link here to the scars on Jesus’ hands and feet. Feel free to make it if you would like to.

But actually the dominant thought I had was that it would have been so much more helpful if the Internet advice I had found (which was for the specific model of tumble dryer that sits in the corner of our kitchen) had said that it would be a lot easier if you removed the side panel. Instead of taking over an hour and resulting in the loss of blood, sweat and tears I could have completed the job in 5 or 10 minutes with no damage to myself or the machine. I would not have been beeped at, lights would not have flashed at me and I would not have felt the need to growl back.

Clear instructions are incredibly helpful. A satellite navigation system would be no good if it said “somewhere along here you have to turn left and your destination will be in this general vicinity”. A recipe would be fairly unhelpful if it said “take some ingredients, anything you can see, but the main a bowl, mix them up and stick them in the oven at whatever temperature you think would be helpful to use. Wait until you think they’re ready.”

So why do we give ambiguous instructions to people who are seeking God? I’m not knocking courses like Alpha, Christianity Explored or other ways of introducing people to the truth of what Christians believe. They are very useful and positive ways to help people. But in the book of Acts when Peter had finished preaching (Acts 2) when the crowd asked him, “What must we do to be saved?” He didn’t tell them to come on a course he told them what they need to hear. Yes I know that there were contextual circumstances that made it the right approach and it won’t always be the most appropriate response that I do wonder if sometimes we Christians overcomplicate matters and give people the impression that following Jesus is a fundamentally complex process.

What was Peter’s response? “Repent and be baptised… in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Be blessed, be a blessing

intermittence

Last week a second-hand game arrived for my son’s X-Box360. It did not seem to work. I tried running it on many occasions and only twice did it actually work. That was very frustrating. I think it would have been easier to accept if it had not worked at all, but for it to work twice suggests that it could work, but more often than not it won’t.

I am also having a problem with the speech recognition software that I used to use. When I changed to a new laptop I installed it along with the other programs I used to use on the old laptop (same manufacturer) and for some unknown reason it won’t work. All of the other programs are fine, but this won’t launch. It used to be brilliant, now it isn’t. I have to say that the tech support people at the company that produce this software have been trying extraordinarily hard to find out what is wrong and are still trying – can’t fault the customer service even if I can fault the program. But each time they suggest another fix my hopes rise and I try it with a sense of anticipation, only for those hopes to be dashed (at present).

Last week I watched a TV programme about drug addiction and recovery. One of the saddest things was to hear of someone who had gone into rehab and had given it up. The last thing on the documentary was a note saying that she had just gone back into rehab again. But we don’t know if she has completed it and come out ‘clean’.

It seems to me that one of the most frustrating things in life is intermittence. We love things that are reliable, that always work. We recommend them to our friends and family. We might even blog about them. We are disappointed if things never work properly. But we can cope with it either by returning them for one that does work or by getting a refund under our consumer rights. But when something works intermittently we never know if it is going to work or not. We can’t rely on it. We can’t be sure that it will be working when we need it.

I wonder if this is how Jesus felt about his disciples? When you read the gospels (the four credible ones, not the fragments of something that was written centuries later) you find Jesus showing his disciples what to do, teaching them, encouraging them, and then letting them have a go. Sometimes they were awesome. Sometimes they were awful. Just when it looks like they have ‘got it’ they do or say something that demonstrates that they have lost ‘it’ again.

If you are anything like me this is one of the reasons that we can relate so well to the disciples in the gospels. We are like them. Sometimes we are awesome followers of Jesus and sometimes we are awful.

But do not despair. Jesus did not give up on them, and he does not give up on us. Even after they had abandoned him, run for their lives, denied knowing him and even failed to believe that he had been resurrected when others were telling them about it he still forgave, gave fresh starts and gave new roles. That’s grace.

Grace is one of the most powerful forces in the Universe because it sees what we can be rather than what we have been. It does not dwell on the past but anticipates the future in our present.Me walking again sunset

And the grace of God is consistent. It is not intermittent. Motivated by his love he is always gracious, always forgiving, always generous.

May I be more like that.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

There are three engineers in a car; an electrical engineer, a chemical engineer and a Microsoft engineer.

Suddenly the car just stops by the side of the road, and the three engineers look at each other wondering what could be wrong.

The electrical engineer suggests the electronics of the car be removed down to its parts and then try to trace where a fault might have occurred.

The chemical engineer, not knowing much about cars, suggests that may be the fuel is becoming emulsified and getting blocked somewhere.

Then, the Microsoft engineer, not knowing much about anything, comes up with a suggestion, “Why don’t we close all the windows, get out, get back in, open the windows again? Maybe it’ll work!?”