feeding back, moving forward, building up

Last night I went to another meeting of the Mid Essex Magical Society (available to enhance a charity event near you – so long as it’s in Essex). Once a month we hold a Feedback Night. This is not where we try to see how close we can get a microphone to a loudspeaker before getting the loud screeching noise, It’s an opportunity for some of the magicians to perform a routine and receive constructive criticism from the rest of the club. It might be a relatively polished routine that we are looking to enhance or a work in progress where we would appreciate some advice.

Bearing in mind that MEMS is full of brilliant magicians, many of whom are members of the Magic Circle and have years of experience, you would have thought that performing in front of them would be quite scary. In fact it is something that I really appreciate because of the intent, tone and content of the feedback that I receive. The feedback is offered (admittedly because it has been invited by virtue of performing on Feedback Night) in a constructive way: “Have you thought about…”; “I noticed that…”; “You could try…” What is offered is not critical in the negative sense but it is thoughtful and considered, providing the performer with the opportunity to draw on years of experience, ideas, wisdom and skill.

Last night I performed a routine that I used in a service on the previous Sunday morning because after the service I reflected on what I’ve done and came up with an alternative way of performing the trick. I decided to run it past MEMS for their reflection. The feedback I received was very helpful and has given me food for thought (which is actually a pun if you know the routine I performed (actually it’s a pun whether or not you know the routine but you won’t recognise it as a pun unless you know the routine)).

How often do we invite feedback from others? I think most of the time we run away from it because we are afraid of negative criticism. But if we can learn to offer positive, constructive feedback that is designed to enhance and improve and is offered with grace and consideration of how it will be received then I think it is more likely to be welcomed (even better if it is invited rather than offered!).

In 1 Thessalonians 5:11 we read these words: “Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” That’s certainly what happens at MEMS. I hope you get that experience too.

Be blessed, be a blessing

of frogs, humour, magic tricks and the Bible

frogWhen I was at Bible College I wrote a dissertation: A Theology of humour – a serious look at the lighter side of God. I came across this quotation in my research about the nature of humour from EB White: “Humor (sic) can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

I have a feeling that the same is true for magical illusions – they too are like frogs because they cease to be as wonderful when dissected. I was recently watching an excerpt from a magic show with someone who wanted to know how the illusion was done. I warned them that if I told them they would be disappointed, but they insisted. So I gave them an explanation. And they were disappointed. The method was clever, ingenious and succeeded in creating the illusion of something impossible having just happened. But it was disappointing to the person with whom I was talking to discover that it was not as magical as they had thought – it was simply clever use of lighting, props, timing and (well I can’t tell you the rest).

I love learning how a magical illusion is done. I love exploring the techniques. I love considering how to perform it. I love seeing other magicians perform and seeing their skill and presentational ability. I love all of the ‘innards’. But for most people seeing and exploring those things will be disappointing. While they may say, “Tell me how you do that!” what they usually mean is, “Wow, I have no idea how you did that!” They want the ‘wow’ moment not the scientific analysis.

I think that the Bible is like a frog too… you can dissect it but it dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. The Bible is not a technical manual, it is not a text book, it is not even first and foremost a document to be studied*: it is an encounter with God. If you approach it looking to experience him you are far more likely to come away with a ‘wow’ than if you approach sceptically. Sometimes we can get distracted from the ‘wow’ by thinking that we want the ‘how’.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*That is not to say that it can’t be studied or shouldn’t be studied, nor that it can’t stand up to scrutiny. But if you approach it that way you may miss the encounter with God in it.

yet another shameless plug

An Electric Plug
This plug is extremely shameless

I am afraid this is another shameless plug for the magic show that I am putting on along with my friend (and wonderful magician) Richard Jones (see his Facebook page here and be amazed).

The show is on 23rd May at South Woodham Ferrers Village Hall, starting at 7.30pm. (There is a bar at the Hall so you can buy drinks during the evening.) If you are thinking of coming along you can buy tickets on the door, but to be certain of getting your tickets you can buy them beforehand by emailing social@swfvillagehall.org.uk or phoning 07969 733818.

wpid-fb_img_1426476114702.jpgI am sure it will be a great evening (I am biased) with lots of laughter and wonder. You’ll enjoy yourself – bring some friends. (It’s not a money-back guarantee!)

In case you are wondering, none of the illusions that will be performed are the result of Richard and I having special powers – we have not been to Hogwarts. There will be no television camera tricks, it is an entirely live show (we can’t say that the same will be true of the audience!) We are not in league with the Devil. Everything you see will be the result of practice, talent and skill.

If you are in the area (or could be) it would be wonderful to see you at the show. If you’re not, (or you can’t) thanks for reading about this anyway and wait for the world tour to come to a venue near you. If you want a flyer to put up to advertise the event please let me know and I will be happy to let you have one.

Be blessed, be a blessing

playing with cards

IMGP1117 (2)Recently I took this photograph of myself, ready to use in some publicity for a forthcoming magic show (watch this space for the show publicity, and check out the ‘playing cards and sawing people in half’ page for information about my magic and the club to which I belong). I had to use a tripod and a timer in order to take it as Sally was busy but I had taken her advice about the pose.

I found it really difficult to do. I don’t like having my photo taken anyway, but having to do it by setting the camera, pressing the button, rushing back to the other side of the camera, perform the card spread, smile at the camera and try to look relaxed and trying to do all of that before the camera went ‘click’ was quite exhausting. After each shot I had to go back to see what it looked like before resetting the camera and trying again, and again, and again. It wasn’t a case of being able to take a ‘selfie’ because I needed both hands free for the playing card spread.

In the end I was satisfied with the outcome. I even changed it to become my Facebook profile picture and have been amazed at how many ‘likes’ it has received. But the thing is most people will have no idea about how much effort went into taking the photo, and how many other things were going on ‘behind the scenes’ – such as finding a black cloth as a backdrop, working out how to suspend it, working out the pose, deciding on what I could do that looked magical (I ruled out having Stew the Rabbit because people might think it’s a children’s show), and so on.

And there is no reason that people need to know that (although you do now). As far as they are concerned it is a photograph of me doing a spread with playing cards. As far as the publicity for the show goes, I am not sure people will even pay that much attention to what I am doing except that it involves playing cards.

How many times do we get ‘miffed’ because people don’t realise how much effort we have put into something and have taken it for granted? How many times do we take for granted what someone has done without thinking about the amount of effort that has gone into it?

When it comes to being a follower of Jesus it helps me to remember that I am ‘performing for an audience of one’ (hopefully there will be a few more people at our show). Whatever we do is not for human praise or recognition. Those who seek to follow Jesus need to remember that it is a calling to be like him – a servant – and that whatever we do can be done as an act of worship to him. His is the only applause that matters. Yes it’s nice to be encouraged and commended and recognised by others, but I would rather have a ‘nice job’ nod from Jesus than a standing ovation from a crowd!

For whom are you performing?

Be blessed, be a blessing

the magic of Christmas

playing cards 2Regular bloggists among you will know that I am rather keen on magic tricks. I don’t have any special magic powers, I went to a normal school rather than Hogwarts, I am not in league with the Devil and don’t access the ‘dark side’: it’s all down to skill, technique, practice and sleight of mouth.

So today, as a special treat, I am going to perform an illusion for you on my blog.

I want you to try not to think of anything in advance of this, but I am going to attempt a bloggage-mind-reading. Clear your mind [insert ‘that didn’t take as long as it should’ type magician joke here].

For those who are unfamiliar with them, let me explain about playing cards. Playing cards come in four suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. They are marked from 1-10 (one also known as the ace) followed by three court cards – Jack, Queen and King. That makes 52 different cards in a deck of cards (plus Jokers if you want to be pedantic).

Now, when I tell you I want you to think of any playing card apart from Jokers. Not yet! When I tell you.

Okay, think of a card. You may have thought of the Queen of Hearts but that’s not surprising because it’s in the picture.

So now change your mind and think of a different card with a different suit.

Now change your mind one more time and think of another different card, not the first one.

You are thinking of…

[dramatic pause]

[extended dramatic pause]

[additional text to put my mind-reading answer further down the page, forcing you to scroll down to it and making sure that it was less likely to have been on the screen when you started thinking of cards so you can’t claim I influenced you]

You are thinking of…

[drum roll]

the seven of spades.

This is the moment where you leap up screaming, “That’s amazing!” (I hope you are on a train at the moment!). You will be wondering how I did that and are either extolling my skill and calling the BBC to demand I have my own TV show or are calling a psychologist to sort out the mess I have just made with your mind.

Actually most of you won’t have leapt up screaming, “That’s amazing!” Most of you will have been thinking of a different card. Now you may be feeling rather disappointed and let down because what I promised and what you had hoped for was not what you got. But try to imagine how you would have felt if I had chosen your card – a freely chosen card that I could not have known when I wrote this bloggage.

All I did was create an expectation and choose a random card. I had a 1 in 52 chance of being right. Most of the time I will be wrong, but probability suggests that some of you will have been thinking of the seven of spades. And for those people, for a moment, the improbable or even the impossible happened.

Advent has been a season of expectation and hope. We reflect on God’s promises and how, at the time of Jesus’ birth many people felt disappointed and let down because they were not getting what they hoped for. We reflect on our own hopes and how sometimes they go unfulfilled.

But we also anticipate how, when Jesus was born, those promises were fulfilled. Not in a spectacular way for everyone but in a subtle way to a few. And for those few there was a realisation that the impossible and improbable had happened to them and it overflowed in joy.

The wonderful thing is that now, because the improbable and impossible has happened, we can all experience it for ourselves because it’s available to us all. Jesus the God-human born in Bethlehem can be born in you too.

This will be my last bloggage before Christmas, so I pray for a hope-fulfilled, fear-turned-to-joy, peace-on-earth Christmas for you all.

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.

it’s just another magic monday

I hope the good folks of South Woodham Ferrers don't mind appearing on the bloggage
I hope the good folks of South Woodham Ferrers don’t mind appearing on the bloggage alongside the bald magician (standing)

Well, the prestidigitation seems to have gone well (see the previous bloggage). I had a wonderful time, but more importantly those for whom I was performing seem to have enjoyed themselves and I think I left them wanting more. I had some very kind and encouraging comments afterwards.

A couple of things occurred to me from what happened, and I will share my reflections here. The first relates to the Magic and Curry night in South Woodham Evangelical Church. It was clear from the moment that I arrived that a considerable amount of effort had gone into preparing for the evening. The interior of the church had been transformed with drapes, stars, candles and oscillating laser lights. Tables had been laid out beautifully and there was a wonderful smell of curry wafting in from the kitchen. The work was worth it, the venue was brilliant and everyone who came felt relaxed and comfortable. And the curry tasted wonderful and there was plenty of it so everyone was satisfied.

So how much effort do we go to in order to make people comfortable and relaxed when the come to church (on a Sunday or at any other time of the week)? How do we represent Jesus’ welcome by the notices we have on the boards (all covered up by drapes on Friday), the atmosphere we create (physical and emotional), and even the fragrance of the place (curry beats musty every time!)?

At the fundraiser event for International Justice Mission I was doing walk-around magic and the plan was for me to do this at different times in the evening. Towards the end of the evening the DJ (for there was one) cranked up the volume to enable people to dance. It became very obvious very quickly that I was not going to be able to continue to do magic for people because they could not hear me unless I shouted and that was not very engaging (plus I needed to preserve my voice to preach the next day). So I finished at that point in the evening rather than persevere.

People had seen magic: now they had an opportunity to dance. I could have asked for the DJ to turn down the volume, but that seemed unnecessary and unfair. I didn’t need to impose myself on the evening – it wasn’t about me. And that way I could leave them wanting more.

Do we impose our preferences on others without considering how others think or feel? Do we sometimes persevere with something when its time is up? Are we sometimes trying to shout above the noise around us to make ourselves heard when it’s actually time to make a graceful exit?

As was once said, “Blessed are the meek…”

Be blessed, be a blessing.