I was lucky to come third

Last night was the stage competition for the Mid Essex Magical Society and once again I entered. The some reason this year I was quite nervous. That was not the case in previous years and I couldn’t work out why I was nervous this year. I think it affected my performance a little bit but even so I came third. The competition was won by the brilliant Richard Jones and Jack Blackbourn came second. No disgrace in coming 3rd to them.

All right, I’ll admit it, there were only three people who were able to be there to perform this year but I felt as if I was lucky to come third because my performance had not gone as well as I’d hoped!

stew no backgroundThis morning (very early) I woke up with my mind running through the point when it all went wrong in one of the illusions. A deck of playing cards was being balanced on a knife (the flat side, not the edge!) and the knife was being held by Stew the Rabbit who I was holding. It probably sounds a bit more complicated than it was but at the crucial moment the playing cards fell off the knife. I think the reason was that I let my nervousness get to me. The slightest tremor in my hand was translated through Stew the Rabbit, along the knife, and caused the precariously balanced cards to tumble. Even though I caught some of the cards others fell to the floor and it was pretty obvious that something had gone wrong.

So why was I nervous? I’m still not sure. It’s not as if I am unused to performing in public – I’ve done it many times without these nerves. It is not as if I was nervous about being judged as I’ve entered the competition twice before and not had a problem with nervousness. I was fairly confident about the routines I was performing. In the end I think it probably was because I felt underprepared. I had worked out what illusions I was going perform previously but I’d had a busy day and hadn’t really had a chance to get my head around all that I was going perform in the evening. I hadn’t thought through my patter well enough so I was uncertain about what I might say. I didn’t rehearse enough (it’s best to get to the point where you can perform without thinking about the techniques so that you can concentrate on the presentation). I blame Stew the Rabbit (after all he can’t answer back!) And I also blame the chamfer on the  knife that I used which meant that the cards were even more precarious than perhaps they should have been.

The old adage says that if you fail to prepare you should prepare to fail. There is a degree of truth about that.

I wonder how many churches rush into things underprepared? And by “underprepared” I mean lacking in prayerful preparation. Living the Christian faith and sharing it is not about techniques or programmes or courses but about the strength of the relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ, empowered by his Spirit. If we try to do things in our own strength rather than dependent on God we should not be surprised if we fail.

Perhaps also we should not also be disheartened if the results of our endeavours are less than we had hoped: if we have been trying in our own strength because we had failed to prepare. If things didn’t work don’t give up, instead put more focus on the praying part and you might find things are different next time round.

Prepare prayerfully, act faithfully, respond thankfully.

Be blessed, be a blessing

tribute

On Friday evening Sally and I went to the annual dinner for the Magic Club to which I belong – Mid Essex Magical Society (MEMS). It was a really enjoyable evening and included awards for the two annual competitions for close-up and stage magic.

I had come third in the stage magic competition and was given a trophy to acknowledge that (yes, there were only 4 entrants!). I felt slightly embarrassed at having been given a trophy for coming third out of four, but it was nice to be given a trophy in any event.

But the award that meant far more to me was the other award I was given. It could be described as the award for turning up, but that would be to undervalue the person in whose memory it was given. It was the 20141129_143857 (2)Phil Dawes Memorial Shield* which was awarded for the first time this year in memory of one of our members who tragically died earlier in the year. It is given to the person who attended most of the shows we put on for charities during the year. This year that happened to be me.

I felt very privileged to be awarded this Shield. Not because I had turned up to the shows, although I do love performing, but because Phil would definitely have won this award if he was still with us. He was someone who was humble and did not seek the limelight. He enjoyed performing close up magic but was very happy being in the background. If you listed the star performers in the club Phil would probably not have been at the top of the list but he was one of the stars for a different reason. He was always willing to help someone else. I can remember on one occasion when I had a lot of props to bring in it was Phil who saw me struggling and instantly offered to help and lugged some heavy boxes into the venue. He was there waiting at the end of the evening to carry the boxes back.

I received the award not with a sense of pride in my own attendance record but with a sense of honour to be counted alongside Phil and having done a little to emulate his selfless attitude. I felt that receiving the trophy was a tribute to Phil.

I wonder whose example you want to emulate? In the Bible Paul encouraged people to “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Not a bad person to seek to follow!

Be blessed, be a blessing

*It’s probably worth mentioning that the shield is given for “Services to Charities” as our shows are all fundraisers for charities: turning up and performing is a way of supporting charities.

prestidigitating (look it up)

ahem, don’t look up my sleeves…

Tonight is the second of three magical evenings for me this week. The first was on Tuesday, where I took part in the Mid Essex Magical Society’s annual Stage Show Competition. I didn’t win, but I was pleased with my performance. The other performances were great too, especially those that beat me – they were amazing!

Tonight I take part in a ‘Magic and Curry’ night for South Woodham Evangelical Church. I am looking forward to both parts of the evening, especially making curry disappear. There will be a series of mini routines interspersed with much curry consumption. In a moment I shall be preparing my set list and finalising my routines. That involves rehearsing my patter as much as the tricks themselves – so much magic is accomplished by sleight of mouth as much as by sleight of hand!

Tomorrow I will be performing some walk-around magic at a fundraising event for International Justice Mission –  an international human rights organisation that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression.

Each of these evenings has ‘magic’ in common – although there is no actual magic involved. No witchcraft, sorcery or other dark arts are used, I have not attended Hogwarts, everything that I do is down to skill and practice! But each of them requires a different approach for a different audience. The competition had time limits within which I had to operate (last year I over-ran, this year I was ‘in time’) and there were four judges whom I had to impress as well as an audience to amaze and amuse. I had to try to keep people’s attention and focus on me.

Tonight I have been asked to include some thoughts to make people think about life as well as trying to entertain them. So I hope that the focus will be on Jesus at the end of the evening.

Tomorrow I am part of the background hum that will hopefully mean that those who attend the fundraiser will enjoy themselves but the focus will be (rightly) on IJM and how people can support it.

For me each of these different events is a great opportunity to share one of my passions – learning and performing magic tricks. I am not naturally an extrovert, but put an audience in front of me and I am more than happy to prestidigitate for them (look it up, it’s not rude!) for as long as they can bear it. (I need to remember the adage ‘leave them wanting more’!)

So a few thoughts from these ramblings:

Thought the first – we need to make sure that we are appropriate to the needs of those around us. The magic club competition was not the right environment to be making people think about life in anything like the way I hope to tonight.

Jesus face-planted as Nick got it wrong again
Jesus face-planted as Nick got it wrong again

Thought the second – there’s nothing wrong with enjoying ourselves. Churches used to make a virtue out of boredom, with an almost pharasaical fanaticism about making sure that people didn’t smile or laugh in case it was linked to a sin. I suspect there were many faceplants in heaven when we did that in the name of holiness and purity.

Thought the third – God can use whatever gifts we are willing to offer him – even magic tricks!

Thought the fourth – make sure you are not the focus of attention when someone or something else should be.

Thought the fewth – whatever you do, do it for an audience of One.

Be blessed, be a blessing (especially if you will be in one of my audiences!)

squeak screech howl (i.e. feedback)

About 6 months ago I joined the Mid Essex Magical Society (or MEMS for short). They have been very welcoming and I have really enjoyed the evenings I have been able to attend. (if you are looking to do a fundraising event in Essex they can provide a good evening’s magical entertainment for you at a reasonable rate. See here for more details.)

Last night I attended a session where we had four different performers offer routines for the rest of the society to watch and then offer feedback. I was one of the four performers and offered a stage routine that I’ve never done in public before. I decided that that would probably be safest so that it was not something I was particularly attached to, but also so that it could be developed and enhanced by the feedback from the rest of the group. I was pleasantly surprised by the response from the rest of the MEMS and helped by the feedback: not only the content but also the manner in which was offered. I have some new ideas to add to and hopefully enhance the routine.

Stew the Rabbit has not yet been introduced to the MEMS
Stew the Rabbit has not yet been introduced to the MEMS

Feedback is vital if we are to be able to grow. If we don’t know how people are receiving what we are doing it is very difficult for us to know how best to address any deficiencies (and indeed we may not be aware of any deficiencies) or enhance our strengths. But receiving feedback, or at least the thought of it, can be very frightening because we place ourselves in a position of vulnerability. We have probably all experienced feedback that was poorly delivered, was unhelpfully negative or even destructive.

I think giving good feedback is an artform that requires trust on both sides, honesty, tact, humility (and perhaps humour) and a genuine desire to improve and be improved. Good feedback is not personal in its nature; seeks to enhance and build up; is thought through and reflective; and is offered as opinion not fact. That was certainly the nature of the feedback that we received last night. In one of his letters Paul wrote to a church (1 Thessalonians 5:11) that they should:

Encourage one another and build each other up…

That is a foundation for good feedback. This does not mean that we do not offer advice and comments that will identify possible weaknesses but it is not possible to say “that was rubbish” if you are seeking to encourage one another and build each other up. Instead you could say, “Do you think that it would be better if you [insert suggestion]?”

Next time I am tempted to open my mouth and offer some advice I pray that I will remember that I should encourage and build up.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

These astute visionaries (from Clean Jokes) may need to improve their feedback techniques and expand their vision somewhat.

“But what … is it good for?”
–Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
–Western Union internal memo, 1876.

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
–David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the1920s.

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
–Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.”
–Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
–Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

interconnectivity-ness

Tonight is the inaugural meeting of Colchester Magic Club. it is a gathering that I have endeavoured to call together of people who are interested in learning and performing magic tricks. I was surprised and delighted when, following a request for a re-tweet from a well-known magician, I was contacted by several people who are interested and are planning to be there.

I did think about placing an advert in the local newspaper but was put off when I discovered how expensive it would be and I wondered how effective a small ad would be in reaching people. The amazing thing about using social networking is that it is enabled me to be put in touch with people who share a common interest and have common friends but with whom I have had no previous contact.

I’m not going to get all nostalgic and reminiscentful here: wistfully hankering for those days when important messages were delivered by pigeons (providing the recipient not only with a message but also the potential for lunch) or even bemoaning the reduction of the English language to txtspk. what impresses me is how interconnected we are. It is suggested that there are only 6° of separation between any two individuals on this planet. In other words you should be able to find a chain of six people who know the other people either side of them in the chain to link you to a complete stranger. I’m sceptical about that – at least I would be if I was not aware of how many friends I have on Facebook who know each other and had not witnessed the interconnectedness of Twitter to provide some people to attend Colchester Magic Club.

A church meeting last year I  mentioned the graphic that the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity used to illustrate the importance of equipping Christian people for work. I have attempted to reproduce them here.

 

The first one represents the percentage of people who attend church regularly in this country – 6 to 7%. We gather together on Sundays to do our thing. The second one represents those 6 to 7% of people during the week scattered among the rest of the population. They have far more contact with those who are not in church when they are not in church.

Stretching the analogy slightly, if each dot represents a Christian (i.e. us) we could make contact with eight people who don’t go to church but are around us during the week. If we did, bearing in mind that our church is over 230 members, our church could contact almost 2000* people a week with the good news of Jesus. Adding to that equation the interconnectedness that we have in today’s culture and the possibilities are mind blowing aren’t they?

While you contemplate that I’m off to play with magic tricks the Magic Club…

*I appreciate that I have played fast and loose with both the illustration and statistics but I think I’ve made the point!

how not to engage with the public?

A tired pastor was at home resting, and through the window he saw a woman approaching his door. She was one of those too-talkative people, and he was not anxious to talk with her. He said to his wife, “I’ll just duck upstairs and wait until she goes away.”

An hour passed, then he tiptoed to the landing and listened … not a sound. He was very pleased, so he started down calling loudly to his wife, “Well, My Dear, did you get rid of that old bore at last?”

The next moment he heard the voice of the same woman caller, and she couldn’t possibly have missed hearing him. Two steps down, he saw them both staring up at him. It seemed truly a crisis moment.

The quick-thinking pastor’s wife answered, “Yes, Dear, she went away over an hour ago. But Mrs. Jones has come to call in the meantime, and I’m sure you’ll be glad to greet her.”

magic moments

I have finally got around to doing something I have been talking about for a while – trying to organise a magic club for North Essex. I have imaginatively called it ‘Colchester Magic Club’ and it is for anyone interested in performing, learning, sharing and improving magic tricks. The Facebook page is here

The response I have had to my magic tricks is interesting. Some people get hung up on the word ‘magic’ – but it’s not about special powers or dark forces, it’s all about illusions and how you create them. I never went to Hogwarts and have no special powers: if a trick works it’s all skill (usually the skill of the trick designer rather than me!)

Other people have said that it’s wrong to trick people – but it’s a performance as much as any play or TV soap opera, and people buy into that.

Children at the local schools I visit love them. They ask me if I am doing any tricks at the next assembly when I see them. It can be awkward when, as has happened to me in a local shop or street, a child from one of those schools out with their parents says ‘hello’ and asks if I am going to do any tricks… a very swift introduction and explanation to parents is called for at those times!

But the child-like response to such things is surely what Jesus was talking about when he said we should receive the Kingdom of God like a child. Awe, wonder, laughter, joy, delight, anticipation, openness, excitement, giggles, glee… how many of these words have we banned from the Christian life and in doing so have failed to understand what Jesus was saying? In The Name of The Rose, Umberto Eco wrote a story of monks who had discovered a book that spoke of God as the source of laughter and humour and had tried to suppress it. I fear that many churches have managed to do this…

Be blessed, be a blessing, have a laugh!