who you are and how you are makes a difference

A friend recently shared how they had struggled in a previous job and had wondered what the purpose was for them being there until, on their last day, a colleague said that they felt God had put them there for her.

Not long after that I had the opportunity to accompany that friend to wait for an appointment very near where they used to work. Every so often someone who had worked near my friend would come past, see them, and come over and speak with them in such positive ways – clearly delighted to see my friend again.

I observed to them that they had made a much bigger impact on the people around them than they realised, simply by being who they are!

It reminded me of a lovely children’s book: ‘Jesus’ Day Off’ by Nicholas Allan (he also wrote ‘The Queen’s Knickers’ and ‘Jesus’ Christmas Party’ – you can see more about it here). In that book he imagines that Jesus was worn out from helping people and his friends persuaded him to take the day off. But at the end of his day off Jesus felt that it had been a day wasted until it was pointed out that simply by being who he was he had made a difference to the people around him.

As a follower of Jesus it comes back to what he said about us being salt and light in our communities. We can enhance flavour, we can preserve, we can brighten and illuminate. Who you are and how you are makes a difference to the people around us: the question is whether that is a positive or negative difference. Both my friend’s experience and ‘Jesus’ Day Off’ feel like modern-day parables that ask me the question – are people around me influenced positively simply by me being me with them?  

Be blessed, be a blessing

the blog I almost wrote

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:

  1. For people who have seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the illusion would be weakened.
  2. For people who haven’t seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the bloggage would not make much sense.
  3. 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).

20140217_130518But 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.”

Is it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*yes, I meant to write that

what am I doing?

In a couple of weeks’ time I have been asked to facilitate a weekend for a church Leadership Team to look at God’s vision for the church. In preparation I have done a lot of reading around the subject and there seem to be a lot of different nuances and terminology used but the same basic themes emerge. I was talking with a couple of the leaders about this as we planned the weekend when this analogy came to mind to help me understand the terms I was using:

golferWhen I stand on a golf tee my purpose is to get the ball in the hole – it’s the overarching theme of what I am doing. If I don’t know what my purpose is, I will be aimless.

My vision is to get the ball in the hole with as few shots as possible – it’s what my purpose looks like in practical terms. If I don’t know what my vision is how will I know when I achieve it?

My strategy is to use the right clubs and hit the right shots in order to achieve my vision of getting the ball in the hole with as few shots as possible – it’s the steps I will take to achieve the vision. I need to work out the steps needed to achieve my vision, starting from where I am now and leading to where I want to be.

Along the way I may make tactical choices such as avoiding hazards and whether to go for the green or ‘lay up’ – they are second-level strategic decisions that help me fulfil my strategy.

You may disagree with the terminology I have used – others may use words like ‘mission’, ‘aim’, ‘goals’ and so on – but to me that analogy helped me make sense of the whole thing. I don’t claim to understand it all. I certainly don’t claim to have a sense of what the purpose, vision and strategy should be for that church (my role is to facilitate them discerning those things not to tell them what I think). But at least I have a sense of the direction in which we will be going.

I believe that these concepts apply equally well to our personal life, to work, and to lots of other areas in life. How might they relate to yours? Here’s my current sense of what they might be for my faith:

Purpose: to be a follower of Jesus and make him known to other people

Vision: to be more like the person I have been created to be and to help others achieve the same vision for their life

Strategy: to walk closely with Jesus, be open to his Spirit, and be ready and willing to help others

Tactics: to walk closely with Jesus by prayerful reflection, reading the Bible, listening to God, seeking God, being willing to change, receiving advice from others

be open to his Spirit through a consciousness of his presence, listening to his prompting, recognising my own weaknesses, willing to take risks, having an attitude of gratitude, seeing life as an act of worship

ready and willing to help others by looking to see needs I can meet, asking ‘what would you like me to do for you?’, being ready to listen before sharing, loving as God loves, trying to be a good free sample of Jesus

Be blessed, be a blessing

spam, spam, spam, spam

computer crash
One way to deal with spam emails

The first time I got one of those emails it was quite exciting. I was being offered the opportunity to make a life-changing amount of money simply by helping a poor war widow from Africa to gain access to her late husband’s estate. All they needed was to use my bank account for a few transactions.

I felt privileged that they had selected me, and they were being so generous. The amount of money they were going to give me was life-changing. All I had to do was give them my bank details.

Something didn’t seem right, though. I couldn’t help wondering how they had got hold of my contact details and why they had selected me. So I didn’t reply immediately.

I’m glad I waited because the next day I got another email. It seems that I had won the Spanish Lottery – 49 million Euros! All I had to do to claim my prize was confirm my identity by sending them my bank details.

I was about to send an email in reply when I stopped. ‘Hold on,’ I thought, ‘I didn’t enter the Spanish Lottery.’

So I didn’t reply to that one either.

Two days later I had an email from a lady called ‘Gloria’ who was interested in getting to know me better. She was currently living overseas and looking to move to the UK, and wondered whether I might be interested in helping her out by marrying her to make it possible for her to get a visa. She said she would be VERY grateful and had money to give me which would make it worth my while.

I was less interested this time. Partly because I was not sure that my wife would be very understanding about it.

So I didn’t reply.

I started getting a lot more emails after that. I was offered lots of opportunities to buy shares in companies because the person had some inside knowledge, more opportunities to launder money, lots of women who wanted to be my friends, and I won more times than I can count on the Spanish Lottery.

I ignored them all.

Instead I installed a spam filter in my email inbox and I don’t get bothered by them anymore.

 

In what ways is the same way that we treat the spam email scammers similar to the ways that church outreach is treated by people who don’t go to church? Why do you think that is?

Do people install a ‘church filter’? How can we better communicate the truth that following Jesus is first and foremost about receiving God’s grace rather than what you can give or do?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

oh behave!

What's this picture got to do with the bloggage? Can you make sense of it? It's a  metre rule (folding)...
What’s this picture got to do with the bloggage? Can you make sense of it? It’s a metre rule (folding)…

How do you know how to behave in church and as church? You watch what others are doing don’t you. I was in a church a while back (preaching) which had a very different tradition to the one I was used to. There was standing, sitting, kneeling, responding, singing, praying, chanting and incense waving and a couple of different books to navigate.

The problem was that I was sat right at the front on my own because I was due to preach. I was facing forward so there wasn’t anyone I could copy. My peripheral vision earned its keep that day as I strained to see what everyone else was doing. It felt very strange.

Of course that’s how lots of people see and experience church – not just the services but the whole package. We have different buildings (mostly); use different language (or when we use familiar language we might mean something different – “I’ve been washed in the blood of the lamb” might get you a visit from the RSPCA outside a church building) (or we don’t use language that is used outside church); we seem obsessed with notices (in the services and on numerous noticeboards; we say that we love everyone (and then have an unofficial list of people we don’t love); we run all sorts of activities with volunteers who work selflessly but venerate the few who are paid to be there (or pillory them)… and much more besides

It’s a miracle that anyone finds faith in Jesus through the church, isn’t it?

Actually, yes.

And the miracle happens mainly when we are ‘normal’ but offer to pray for someone in trouble. The miracle happens when we are everyday people who talk about what Jesus means to us. The miracle happens when Christians are down to earth people who have an awareness of heaven. The miracle happens when we allow his Spirit to help make us into good free samples of Jesus rather than when we are trying to be impressive churches.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

mission made simple

Churches seem to have the innate ability to make things complicated, don’t we. Putting aside all of the complexities of Church Meetings, Leadership Meetings, ordinations, inductions, church accounts and finances, child protection policies, insurance, choice of music in services, sitting in our favourite seats, charity law, constitutions, and so much more that goes into running a church, I want to think about what our mission is.

In my simple mind churches exist to be free samples of Jesus to the world around us. That, to me, is part of what Paul meant when he described the church as the ‘body of Christ’ – if people want to know what Jesus is like they should look at the church.

Ooer.

So, at the risk of making things too simple, I want to suggest a couple of simple things that Jesus said which may help us to do that, empowered and inspired by his Spirit in us.

First of all, and I have mentioned this before on this blog, Jesus asked a brilliant question that I think should be on our lips all the time: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) That is an empowering question, it is a service-based question, it is a gracious question. I cringe when I walk past Christians (usually self-appointed) haranguing passers-by on the street by preaching loudly at them and telling them what they are doing wrong. By way of contrast I love the approach exemplified by Chris Duffett and others which are high on grace: offering water, free hugs, a listening ear and seeking to serve and bless rather than condemn.

Secondly, and I was reminded of this as I read my Bible this morning, we seem to have made ‘evangelism’ very difficult. We seem to feel that we need new techniques, courses, training, ideas, specialists and messages. We shy away from the idea because it is scary, makes us vulnerable, we don’t want to appear pushy or religious zealots, we lack confidence and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. So we say nothing. If we want to make ourselves feel better we fall back on the words attributed to St Francis of Assissi: “At all times and in all ways preach the gospel: if absolutely necessary use words” and we decide that if we are nice enough and good enough and timid enough people will ask us about our faith and then we will be able to take them to our Minister who will tell them what they need to know. When a man who had been freed from mental and emotional and spiritual torment by Jesus asked to go with him Jesus told him: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

It’s that simple. You don’t have to tell people your life story. Just tell them how much God has done for you. If you aren’t sure about that why not make a list? Don’t just include how you became a Christian (or realised you were): include moments of encounter with him (those Spiritual highs); when he was with you in the lows; prayers that he has answered; times when you have felt him speaking to you (through the Bible, other people, circumstances…); how different you are today from how you used to be; the sense of belonging to His family; your sense of assurance about the future… I am not going to write your list for you, but when you get started you may find it difficult to stop for a while.

Then you will have lots of possible things you can tell people.

Start SignAnd if you pray for opportunities to do that you will be amazed at how many suddenly present themselves (I think they were there before but you weren’t looking for them!). And do pray for particular people too. Let’s make a start.

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.

the effect of irritation

old phone 2I’d had enough. I couldn’t cope with it any more. I snapped.

And with vouchers saved judiciously over several years I bought a new set of phone handsets for our home landline. The reason was that I was fed up with the regular bombardment of unsolicited phone calls — recorded and live – trying to get me to sign up for house insulation (it’s well insulated), new windows (our house is rented), claim for payment protection insurance refunds (I have never had PPI) and all manner of other annoying scams. I have never, and will never, signed up for anything where I have been cold-called but these people don’t seem to realise that.

So I bought new handsets. They are special phones that intercept all calls and filter out any that are unwanted. This means that when someone calls for the first time (unless I have been able to add them to the ‘welcome’ list) they will hear a message asking them to identify themselves. We then get called by the system and hear the caller’s name. At that point we can choose to allow the call once, always, never, or send it to the answering machine.

If you call our house (other than to sell us stuff) I am sorry that you will get a message to start with – but it should only be the once. After the system knows that we want you to call us you will be able to call us as you usually do without interception or delay. It is the effect of irritation.

I think it’s brilliant that phones can now do this, and with a certain amount of glee check the system regularly to see how many nuisance calls have been intercepted.

I also think it’s awful that such phones are necessary. We are bombarded by unsolicited attempts to sell us stuff and sign us up for stuff that comes through the letterbox, knocks at our door, harasses us through our phone line, sends unsavoury emails, lobs unwanted text messages, stops us in the street and who knows what they will come up with next.

The suspicious part of me wonders whether all of the unsolicited phone calls are actually sent by companies that came up with a way of blocking phone calls and wanted to create a market for them. But that couldn’t be true. Could it? You see what this has done to us – we are suspicious and cautious about approaches by strangers. When I am stopped in the street I always try to be polite but start by saying that I never give out my details or sign up for anything in the street. That deters some, but the more persistent keep going and say that they don’t want anything from me… only to ask me a little later for some way of contacting me to get me to sign up later.

I do like approaching the people who are trying to gain support for charities that we already support. It gives me a sense of satisfaction to be able to tell them that we already support the worthy cause they are promoting. I got a high five from the last one!

The purpose of this bloggage is twofold. The first fold is to encourage you to persist, say your name when prompted, and wait for us to answer if you try to contact us and get the interception machine. Don’t be put off.

The second fold is to ask us to consider our approach when Christians are sharing our faith. Does it come across as an attempt to sign someone up for our cause, to get them to sign on the dotted line, to make a snap decision based on a ‘chance’ encounter? If so, perhaps we should not be surprised if people don’t want to listen – it’s the effect of irritation.

We need to reconsider, reimagine and restore our approach: instead of selling Jesus to people we should take every opportunity to offer people grace, acceptance, dignity, peace, prayer and so much more that our culture leeches out of them. We have good news to give away not bad news to sell. It might simply look like a hug, a listening ear, a free cup of tea, a Foodbank parcel, an affirmation of value, or any number of grace-rich encounters… [insert your own examples here]

It all sounds suspiciously like us being free samples of Jesus (see previous bloggages!).

Be blessed, be a blessing

welcome cards

We have some new welcome cards that have been designed for our church by a wonderfully creative and talented young lady (thank you Sara). When you look at them at first they look like this:

welcome card 2

When you open up the ‘lcome’ flap it looks like this:

welcome card 3

I think they are really clever, look bright and inviting and I hope they will encourage visitors and newcomers to record their visit so we can keep in touch.

But they will be useless unless we have visitors and newcomers. We have been blessed by a regular trickle of people who have come to our church to try us out: some of whom who have found a new spiritual home with us. We have been thrilled by those who have come to faith in Jesus at our church and have become a part of our fellowship. It was a joy last week to meet a lady who had come because she had found us through our website, and another man who had come because he had walked past the premises during the week.

That’s wonderful, exciting, brilliant.

But we also have a responsibility to our friends, colleagues and families to invite them too. If what we have experienced of Jesus is good news for us it is surely good news for them as well. If we don’t invite people we can’t be surprised when they don’t come!

Let me insert a couple of important caveats here:

I do not believe that having more people in church services is the purpose of church. Our purpose is to be followers of Jesus and to make him known to others. Making him known doesn’t have to be on Sundays (and in fact is most effective as we are free samples of Jesus wherever he places us in the rest of the week). But one of the ways in which we are fed and equipped to do that is through worship services so it is good for us to gather together.

I also do not believe that a church should grow at the expense of other churches. I would hate to think that we were growing in attendance because people were leaving other churches to come to us. Of course it is right that God moves people to attend other churches from time to time – that’s natural and healthy as we grow in our relationship with Jesus. But that’s not what I am talking about. I am against the approach that I have seen elsewhere (not in Colchester) where Christians are actively encouraging people to leave their own church to attend their church.

Last Sunday evening we had a wonderful service where people from our church shared about their favourite song or hymn – why it was important to them – and then we sang those hymns ‘Songs of Praise’ style. It was wonderful not only because of the singing but because of the honesty and depth with which people spoke of their faith. That’s attractive. When people can see that Jesus makes a positive difference in people’s lives they will want to come and find out for themselves.

I really hope we run out of these cards soon – not because people take them away because they are so attractive – but because they will have been used for their purpose and that may be a sign that we are being decent (if not good) free samples of Jesus as individual Christians and as a church.

Be blessed, be a blessing

who do you want to see?

Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600
Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600

Responses to yesterday (if you don’t know it, it may help you to read yesterday’s bloggage before you carry on) were a bit interesting. After telling our church that I have been called to a new role there was a stunned silence. I could see on people’s faces that they were a bit surprised / shocked / upset / stunned [delete as appropriate].

I told the church at the end of the service, just before we sang ‘To God be the glory’, which gave us all a chance to refocus on him.

Afterwards, once they had recovered, the wonderful people at our church were very warm, encouraging, kind and uplifting. I had hoped that they wouldn’t string the bunting out straight away (‘Hooray he’s going’) or wear black armbands (‘It’s terrible news’) and bless them, they blessed me so much.

Later in the day the news was announced by the EBA and I then posted it on here. Subsequently I have had lots of very kind messages on Facebook, emails and text messages. They are very encouraging and blessed me no end, especially as I was so down about telling the church. Thank you all.

But the thing that blessed me most was when, after the service, someone came up to me and (while briefly mentioning my news) wanted to say that God had spoken to me through the sermon. That meant more to me than anything kind or thoughtful that anyone has said to me or written to me about the move. Don’t get me wrong, don’t get in a huff if you sent me a message or said something kind, but I was blessed because for that person the most important thing in the service was not me, but Jesus and what he had said to him.

“YES!” That’s my prayer each time I stand in a pulpit and it was so encouraging that it had happened yesterday in the midst of everything else.

I remember a small Baptist chapel in rural Devon that I visited before I trained at Bible college. I was cutting my preaching teeth (and the congregations probably bore the teethmarks afterwards) and trying to discern whether God was calling me to be a Minister. As I entered the pulpit (and you had to climb up into it) there was a small piece of paper sellotaped to the lectern top. On it were these words:

“Sir, we would see Jesus.”

It was a message from the congregation to the preacher. I am not sure if they changed it when a lady preacher came. But it has lodged in my memory and is my prayer for all who are sitting in congregations when I stand up to preach – look at Jesus.

I rejoice that this happened yesterday.

But it can happen to us each day if we are living sermons (or free samples of Jesus).

Or, flipping the context around, when you go to church is it to meet your friends, hear the preacher or to see Jesus?

Be blessed, be a blessing.