what does a free sample of Jesus look like?

Hair Pieces  77

Free samples of hair pieces. NO COMMENTS PLEASE!

Regular bloggists among you will know that I often refer to Christians (and churches) as ‘free samples of Jesus’. It was pointed out to me today that I have never really said exactly what I mean by that, so this bloggage is an attempt to rectify that…

In essence what I mean is that as God’s Spirit works in us he changes us. It’s often subtle, sometimes dramatic, but the changes make us a little bit more like Jesus. We become a bit more loving, slightly more inclusive, a smidgeon more gracious… and a bit less intolerant, slightly less religious, a smidgeon less irritable. There are a lot more ways in which we are changed. The Bible shows us a contrast between old us and renewed us:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

That’s from Galatians 5. Part of being free samples of Jesus is that aspects of our life that used to be in the first list are diminishing and those that are in the second list are increasing as God’s Spirit acts in our life. I often think that the second list is a good summary of the character of Jesus, so if those things are being enhanced in us we are becoming better free samples of him to those around us. It happens in us as we ‘keep in step’ with God’s Spirit. Following Jesus is not just an idea, a concept, or a philosophy – it is a way of life. It has implications for every area of our life.

What it actually looks like will be different for each of us, and the same for all of us. It will be different because we all have different experiences, meet people in different places, and have to respond and react to different circumstances. But it will be the same because we are asking God’s Spirit to help us to emulate Jesus in those experiences, with those people and in response to those circumstances.

A free sample of Jesus might respond to someone who cuts them up in their car by smiling and offering a quick ‘bless you’ prayer rather than gesticulating and complaining.

A free sample of Jesus might receive angry criticism with gentle grace and pray for the person who is so angry.

A free sample of Jesus might offer to work extra unpaid hours at work sometimes in response to the boss reducing the length of their lunch break to increase productivity.

A free sample of Jesus might cook a meal for someone else without wanting or expecting anything in return.

A free sample of Jesus might well not only be nice to those who are nice to them, but will seek to bless everyone – perhaps especially those who are cruel to them.

A while back there was a flurry of activity selling wristbands with WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) on them, and I have wondered if all I am doing is re-packaging that. Perhaps, but you may be able to discern in the examples above that I have tried to take Jesus’ teaching and examples from his life and apply them to 21st Century living. To be a good free sample of Jesus means that we have to know what he is like in order to emulate him. If you want to be like him, starting finding out about him…

Be blessed, be a blessing

re-branded?

Live Coals

Branding can be painful!

There’s an interesting article on the BBC News website about brands that have crossed over to become household names for the item we use: think ‘hoover’, ‘jacuzzi’, even ‘escalator’, ‘google’ and ‘yo yo’! The suggestion is that while the transition of a brand name to becoming a generic name suggests success it actually can sound the death knell for a company because at that point the brand has lost its distinctiveness.

Most of us don’t ‘vacuum-clean’ a room (some of us don’t hoover either but that’s a different issue). We don’t use the ‘moving staircase’ in a shop or on the Underground. And because of that the brand name no longer means just that product: in our thinking it includes any similar product, including those from a different manufacturer.

It got me thinking: has ‘Christian’ had the same experience? It used to mean ‘follower of Jesus Christ’ but now seems to have crossed over to mean ‘Christened as a baby’, ‘knows where the local Anglican Church is’, ‘nice person’, ‘has a residual awareness of church’ or even ‘not a member of another faith’. I have suggested on this blog before that the word ‘Christian’ has been devalued and the article from the Beeb made me think further on that.

I think a similar thing has happened to the word ‘church’ (at this point you can imagine me climbing upon one of my hobby horses!). It used to be the collective noun for Christians – the name of a gathered community of believers – but has now been reduced to describing buildings or as a sloppy shorthand for ‘Church of England’*.

So what’s to be done about it? We could abandon the words – allowing them to float like verbal flotsam and jetsam in the Linguistic Sea. We’d have to come up with some alternatives but they can seem a bit clumsy: ‘Jesusite’ (oops, Jesuit!); Christfollower; born-again Christian (but that’s now a loaded term and anyway we only have a record of Jesus saying that to one person), ‘free sample of Jesus (sounds familiar)…

Or we can reclaim them but reasserting our distinctiveness. Surely those brands are not lost. Surely if those brands were so good, so significant, so much better than the rest people would want them first. So how does that look for ‘Christian’ and ‘Church’? It starts with us being filled with God’s Spirit and then letting him flow out through us so we can be the best free samples of Jesus possible.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I listened to an interview on Radio 5 Live this morning where ‘the Church’ was used 10 times in the matter of a few sentences instead of ‘the Church of England’. It irks me because it suggests / assumes that there are no other churches in this country… [deep breath, and r e l a x]

MOTs and Posters – find a link if you can!

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Go on car, you can do it!

This morning I dropped my car off at a garage for its annual MOT test. I don’t think that there is anything major wrong with it, but I always leave it with a sense of apprehension in case there is something terminal or expensive hidden under the bodywork.

 

As I was walking home I noticed posters in peoples’ homes and cars supporting different political parties in the imminent elections (local and European). I wondered why people do that. Is it simply to declare their allegiance? Is it in the hope that if enough people do it for one party the resulting peer pressure will encourage others to vote the same way, or perhaps deter people who would support another candidate from bothering to vote because they don’t think they will make a difference? Are they hoping that the sight of a poster in a car in front of me will persuade me to vote that way? (And if so, why haven’t I heard more about the ‘Baby on Board’ party?)

It got me reflecting a little bit on how people perceive churches. Not the people, but the buildings. (Yes I know the church is the people, but we confusingly use the same word for our premises). Ours is currently clad in scaffolding as we have a new roof fitted. But it almost looks as if the building is being demolished. We have now put up a banner across the scaffolding that says ‘Welcome to Colchester Baptist Church’ to convey the message that we are still very much open for business. But ancient buildings (especially if in a state of disrepair) can convey a message.

And then there are the posters outside. I think that we churches may have cornered the market in cheese, for example: “CH–CH – what’s missing? UR”. But is it better that we have something outside the premises than nothing? It is certainly possible that God will use a poster to speak to someone, but I have not heard of it yet.

Do you advertise your weekly events? We have a list of the weekly activities in one of our notice boards at the front, which is changed weekly. We have also recently put a QR code* on it so that people can get linked directly to our website if the so choose.

And that then brings me to the virtual street front. Websites can attract or deter people. If they are visually unattractive or contain out of date information it conveys a different message to the well-designed and up to date website. I think our church’s website is rather good (have a look at it at www.colchesterbaptistchurch.org.uk). I know that we often have people come to our church because they found us on the internet. It does help that our website usually comes up first when you search for ‘Colchester church’ because two of the three parts of our name are in that search. If we slipped down the list I would be tempted to suggest that we change our name to ‘AAA Colchester Baptist Church’!

However, believe it or not, (and regular bloggists will believe it) I wasn’t going to write about how churches visually represent themselves. I was going to write a bloggage about the importance of regular maintenance for your car in order to keep it in good condition so it will sail through the MOT test. It is when a car is neglected that problems are more likely to get worse because they are not recognised and dealt with early. It is when a car is driven relentlessly and we don’t check the oil levels or other fluids that damage can occur to the engine.

And of course the same is true of our faith. If we take God for granted, if we neglect to feed on the Bible, if we don’t spend time in prayer, if we are not spending time being nourished in worship, if we are not taking care of our ‘soul’ we should not be surprised if God feels distant and our faith feels dry.

And that (tadaaa!) brings me to draw together the disparate threads of this bloggage and appear to be coherent. Because while the premises (physical and virtual) do speak about the church, it is of course the state of the church (ie the people) that will make most impact on those around us. Back to us being good free samples of Jesus I suppose.

Best not wait for an MOT to find out how we’re doing…

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*QR codes are those strange squares with a mixture of black and white blocks in them. They are a different sort of bar code – each one unique.

troubled by halloween

Halloween troubles me. Not because of the ghosts, ghouls, witches and pumpkins. Nor because I fear that it is a gateway to hell. Not even because it encourages extortion (‘trick or treat?’). What troubles me is that I am not sure of the best way to respond as a Christian.

  • Some churches go all out to condemn it and proclaim it as the work of the devil.
  • Some churches put their fingers in their ears and close their eyes and wait for it to go away.
  • Some churches put on alternative Halloween events and invite children from the surrounding area to join them for a ‘light’ party or similar, but tell them that they can’t wear scary costumes (which makes them stand out a bit).
  • Some churches embrace it as an opportunity for fun.

And I don’t know what to do. All these positions are flawed in my humble opinion. Let me say at the outset I am not downplaying the existence of evil in the world. It’s real and it can cause serious damage. You only have to open a newspaper or watch the news on the TV to be convinced that there is evil out there.

But does it really inhabit the costumes and make-up and pumpkins and sweet-collecting? The response to Halloween from some Christians resembles the response to Harry Potter: it will open the door to the occult. But (and I may be naive here) I did not sense evil there. Indeed the values that were at the heart of those books would be ones that Christians ought to embrace – loyalty, love and standing up against evil and oppression.

Maybe I am being naive here too, but if there is the possibility of evil influence in Halloween isn’t it possible that God can use it, redeem it, transform it? If it awakens some people to the existence of evil in the world doesn’t it also awaken them to the likelihood that there is also a God who loves us? Surely to believe in the possibility of God you also have believe in the possibility of evil?

Does our response sometimes do more to reinforce the prevailing stereotype of churches than to illuminate people about the dangers of evil? At the moment I think a lot of people who don’t go to church think that church is for killjoys who are against what most people in our society have accepted. Being against Halloween could be another example of that.

I do warm to the ‘alternative’ approach. It’s more positive. But should we be consistent and also have alternatives to other major events like the celebration of a New Year (because it focuses on time not the creator of time), Valentine’s Day (because it is not about God’s love), and events like the annual cheese rolling in Gloucestershire (because it might have roots in pagan rituals)? How far do we go? I suspect I do the ‘alternative’ thing because instead of giving sweets to trick or treaters I perform a magic trick for them as a treat…

[cries of “burn him, he’s a witch, he does magic!”]

But if I embrace it fully am I unwittingly endorsing something that could be harmful? Am I supporting an event that frightens some vulnerable people (either the concept itself that is not understood or through the fear of answering doors at night)? Am I being naive?

What’s the best way of being a free sample of Jesus at this time of year?

How about instead of getting too upset about Halloween, Christians emphasise November 1 as ‘All Saints Day’ instead? How about we hold our ‘light parties’ then and we emphasise how followers of Jesus have tried to be good free samples of him through history and today? How about instead of getting our theological knickers in a twist about Halloween we put our energies into showing God’s positive alternative. Let’s redeem the event from its origins – the Eve of All Hallow’s Day. 

Be blessed, be a blessing.

being pointed

Do you ever get those moments when you are aware that you are not in complete control of your life? I am not talking about those times when you feel that your life is out of control. Rather I mean those moments when you realise that God has been at work behind the scenes gently prompting, preparing, encouraging, nudging, enabling and whispering to get you to be in the right place at the right time to say the right thing to the right person.

In the past few days I have had quite a few of those moments. Occasions when I have dropped in on someone at ‘just the right time’. Or when I have been somewhere and someone I have wanted to talk with just ‘happened’ to come in. Or when I have suddenly found unexpected space in my diary at just the time when someone else needed me. Or even when I have ‘unwittingly’ preached a sermon or written some bloggerel here and it’s just what someone needed from God.

Do you ever have those moments?

Reflecting on them now I wondered whether it is fair of God to do that. He could appear to be like a puppeteer pulling the strings behind the scenes while I am the unwitting puppet who finds himself subject to the whims of the puppeteer. I am not in control because he is. That could be a scary thought.

But that’s what I have signed up for. When I said ‘yes’ to following Jesus it was not only a change of allegiance it was an act of surrender. I said, in effect, that I was giving back control of my life to the One who knows best. I want him to use me to serve and bless others in the same way that he has blessed me through others. Rather than feeling that I am not in control I rejoice that He is.

Some of you regular bloggists may be thinking back a few days to when I said that God is not in control, he is in charge. “Aha,” you say, “you’re contradicting yourself!”

Old Mittens

Well, erm, no. I was talking about God being in charge of his world but not in control (see here if you want to know what I wrote). However there are people who have given him back the control he deserves. Not in abject surrender, or having given up, but because we recognise that to live a life in opposition to the One who is in charge is as pointless as a losing entry in the Eurovision Song Contest* or a hand in a mitten.

When I have surrendered to God (and it’s something that we need to do constantly, not a one-off event) I find he points me in the direction where I can be a blessing to others more easily than when I am assuming control. It’s a wonderful feeling when it happens because you realise that it’s not about you, it’s about Him. You understand that while life can seem a series of random events there is a Designer who wants to be involved in life if we will let him. He won’t force himself on anyone, but he will readily respond to any invitations.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

*’nul points’

**you can’t point easily wearing mittens

escamgelism

Things were easier when we were less 'connected'

Things were easier when we were less ‘connected’

I am a bit worried about a friend of mine. He’s on holiday in Cyprus and has lost his bag that contains his mobile phone, his wallet and other important items. He has managed to find an internet cafe and sent me an email asking for my help. If I can send him some money by international transfer it will get him out of the difficulty he is in. I am heading off to the bank later.

Before I go, however, there is an investment opportunity that has come my way. It was very fortunate – a complete stranger happened to come across my email address and is offering me the opportunity to invest in a small company that is guaranteed to make enormous profits when it is floated on the stock exchange later this year. So there are two things I need to do at the bank. Or there would be…

If it wasn’t for the other email I received from someone whose father was a Minister in a corrupt government in Africa. Sadly he has died and his daughter wants to redistribute his wealth by giving some of it to worthy causes around the world – including me. If I can just send her some details of my bank account she will arrange for the transfer of millions of pounds.

So what I plan to do is to get the money from the corrupt African official, send some of it to help my friend in Cyprus and invest the rest in the company that will make me even richer. I can then use that money to put into new investment opportunities that I am sure will come flooding in once the internet knows how astute a businessman I am.

Before any of you start sending me messages, yes I do realise that these are all scams. Otherwise being a corrupt millionaire would be a very bad occupation – their life expectancy is very poor. And friends will have to stop going on holiday, or at least contact the British Embassy or Consulate where they are, rather than expecting me to help by email. And there will be thousands of successful small companies about to be floated on the stock exchange. Never mind all the offers of drugs and gizmos that would ‘enhance’ me (how do they know?).

It was an email this morning that sneaked through the spam filter, supposedly from someone I know in trouble in Cyprus that prompted this bloggage. It upsets me that there will be people taken in by these scams. It saddens me that the criminals who are perpetrating these crimes don’t care at all about the impact on the lives of the people they rip off. It annoys me that it is likely to be the more vulnerable in society who will be taken in by these frauds.

Yesterday I wrote bloggerel about the way that people can perceive that cyberspace is not real and fail to consider the consequences of their actions. I think that there is a similar failure on the part of the criminals to consider the consequences of these scams (or more accurately a complete disdain for them). Just because you can’t see someone’s face does not mean that they are not affected by a crime. Just because you don’t know someone does not mean that they do not feel violated by such activities.

It used to be that we could easily avoid being victims of these crimes. Many of these scams work because people are greedy and lazy. We like the idea of getting rich quick. We are keen on the idea of great rewards for minimal effort. If it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

But now there are scams that are seeking to exploit someone’s compassion and good will – help a friend in trouble. These can be more persuasive because they are appealing to a better side of human nature. The irony is that they are being perpetrated by people who seem to have lost touch with that side of their character.

Sometimes I think churches can be guilty of similar crimes. We can suggest that you get great reward for minimal effort if you become a Christian. Sadly sometimes that is couched in material terms, but more often it is ‘eternal life in exchange for a prayer’. Whereas Jesus called people to follow him, counting the cost and picking up their cross daily.

And I have been in Christian places where, to put it bluntly, an atmosphere is created that exploits people’s emotions and invites a response that is not God-inspired. It is possible to manufacture a pseudo-spiritual atmosphere. I could offer you the formula if you like (for a fee).

Please God save us from tricking people into your Kingdom. Please God stop us from exploiting people. And please Jesus fill me afresh with your Spirit so I can be a better free sample of you today, and may your churches represent you genuinely and honestly.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Bearing up

bearing up

bearing up (not me nor my teddy bear, but you get the idea!)

Don’t try to analyse what’s going on in my head – that’s dangerous territory – but this morning I was reminiscing about the teddy bear I had as a child. His name was ‘Teddy’ (I was as original then as I am now). He was given to me when I was born and I had the same teddy bear throughout my childhood.

He even saved my life! See this bloggage for the story

During his active time with me he had several new skins, and some new stuffing, but he was still my bear.

(That reminds me of the roadsweeper who said that he had had the same broom for 50 years. The local news reporter came to interview him for such an amazing feat and asked him how he had managed to keep the same broom for 50 years. The roadsweeper said, “Well it has had 12 new heads and three new handles, but it’s the same broom!”)

We all grow and change. Not just physically (believe it or not but I once had hair on the top of my head!) but emotionally and spiritually too. I am not the same as I was as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult and even as I was last year. God’s Spirit is gradually changing me. But I am the same person. God’s renewal is not like giving us new skin and new stuffing, or new broom heads and broom handles. His renewal is more of a refining, an enhancing, a purifying process in which we are gently being transformed to become more like the people he has created us to be and less like the tarnished, imperfect version that we had become.

I am nowhere near the finished article. Oh no. Definitely not. (Please never put your ministers on pedestals because we will fall off.) I am a work in progress, but hopefully in each of us people can catch a glimpse of God through his Spirit at work in us as they see how he has changed us. It’s another way in which we can be free samples of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

pointing out the obvious

inoutarrow

I am fascinated by these arrows. I came across this image long ago, when I was in my first church, and it has remained with me ever since as a powerful image with a significant message for churches.

When you look at them, what do you see? Red arrows pointing outwards? Is that all that is there? Look at the gaps between the red arrows. There are also some white arrows pointing inwards. When you have seen them it is difficult to ignore them.

To me these arrows speak of God’s priorities for church. The last words Matthew records in his Gospel are from Jesus:

“Stay where you are, remain comfortable, enjoy worshipping together, listening to sermons and do lots of things together in my name and surely you will be too busy at church to do anything else.”

or was it:

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The white arrows only exist because the red arrows are pointing outwards. People will only come to faith if we go where Jesus sends us. That may be to the ends of the earth, or it may be in our home, our workplace, our local shops, or even the gym. And while we are there we are to make disciples, carrying on what Jesus was doing, being free samples of Jesus to the people we meet.

If church is God’s plan for achieving what Jesus started we can expect it to be growing (deeper and numerically). If it isn’t we need to look at what we are doing that is stopping it from growing, what we are doing that is preventing people from coming to faith, what we are doing that is stopping people from becoming disciples (or what we are not doing in all those cases). That’s not easy, but I believe that the arrows are a useful pointer.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Zombie Christians?

Some of you may be wondering if I have lost it with a headline like that (or is it more of a deadline?) Well, this morning I read John 6:41-59 where Jesus got a bit, well, erm, gruesome.

scared

He told people that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Now I have never assumed that he meant we had to become zombies or cannibals to become Christians (although that accusation was one that was used to justify persecuting the early church (cannibalism, not zombies!)).

Until this morning I have always thought of it as a reference to Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Mass, Bread and Wine or whatever different church traditions call it. It’s a very obvious parallel to what he told his friends at the Last Supper. It’s quite a natural way of interpreting what he said.

But this morning the scandal of what Jesus was saying struck me. While he was not saying that we should become zombies, I don’t think he was talking primarily about communion either. Was he saying that he should be our spiritual staple diet? Was he saying that he needs to be as real within us as the food we eat and the fluids we drink? Was he saying that if you want God-nourishment Jesus needs to become incarnate, real within us? Was he saying that he alone is the source of life?

If the answer to all of those is ‘yes’ (as I suppose) it was scandalous to the Jewish people listening who had strict food laws and felt that observance to them was what God wanted, who could not stomach the idea that God would become flesh, who were revolted at the idea that Jesus was God. It was a complete change from religion to relationship.

That’s much more radical than simply saying ‘I do’ to him. It’s much more than turning up at church from time to time and putting ‘C of E’ on the form in hospital.

It’s a thought that has been musing around inside my head for the rest of the day. How reliant am I on Jesus? How incarnate is he in me and my life (ie can people see him in me)? Am I religious?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Apparently zombie jokes are drop-dead hilarious.

be bald, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you…

Nick was wondering whether God had misheard his prayers for boldness

Yesterday I posted this picture on Facebook with the caption ‘Nick was wondering whether God had misheard his prayers for boldness’. The pun was intentional.

It was inspired (?) by the preparation I had been doing for Sunday evening, looking at Acts 4 and noticing that the Christians prayed for boldness. It was in the face of the first serious opposition the church had faced since Jesus had ascended into heaven.

Rather than praying that God would smite their opponents, or at least stop them from being so mean, or praying that God would help them to survive, they prayed for boldness to proclaim the message of Jesus. I love that!

So often when I have problems I pray that God will solve them for me. On the occasions when I have been criticised I have prayed for truth and grace. On the few occasions when people have opposed what I have been doing I have prayed for perseverance and that God would vindicate me (not so gracious, I know). But I rarely pray simply for boldness to proclaim the message of Jesus.

If I am called to be a free sample of Jesus, then my first prayer should always be about being able to do that as well as God’s Spirit enables me to. The rest of my life is secondary. This morning I was with a colleague taking an assembly at a school whose motto is ‘God first, other second, self last.’

Amen!

Be blessed, be a (bold) blessing.