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.