thoughts on communion

This bloggage began its life as a ‘Thought for the week’ shared with the Ministers I serve in the Eastern Baptist Association. As you will see I have extended my thinking a little since the original ‘Thought’.

As you probably know by now I am about to undergo some surgery on 13th February, which will be followed by a period of convalescence. I was told about it about 3 months ago and have been on the waiting list ever since. (This is not a complaint about waiting lists – there were people with greater clinical need than me further up the list.) Because I could have been called at short notice at any time I have not been able to commit to meetings and events in my diary. That means that preaching engagements have been postponed because churches need a little more certainty about who will take the service than ‘I should be able to make it’. It has been frustrating. But it has also been liberating as I have found more space in my diary than I am used to and have taken the opportunity to catch up with people I haven’t had a chance to, I have done more reading than usual, and I have exercised the gift of administration and got on top of my emails and paperwork – almost emptying both the virtual and real inboxes. Now, however, I have some certainty.

One thing that has happened several times since the operation date was confirmed has made me chuckle. People have spoken to me about “the last time I will see you” or “your last meeting”. Now I know (or hope) that they have meant “the last time I will see you until after you return to work” and “your last meeting before you go on sick leave” but the apparent finality made me chuckle and I couldn’t help commenting on it along the lines of, “Do you know something I don’t?” and “That’s a bit final!” This morning as I recalled those conversations I had a glimpse of what Jesus may have felt as he was sharing the Last Supper with his closest friends. I had not really paid much attention to the element of provisional finality in what Jesus said before sharing bread and wine with the Twelve. And I had not given enough attention to how eager Jesus was to share the meal with them. “Eagerly desired” doesn’t really do justice to the passionate desire he had to share the Passover that ‘one last time’ (until…) – the Greek word ‘epithoumeo’ has the sense of ‘desperately longing for’, ‘setting one’s heart on’ and even ‘lusting after’! With that in mind, read Luke’s record of the Last Supper – (Luke 22:14-20).

14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

At one time I was booked to have the operation just before Christmas and to be in hospital for the festive season. I was keen just to get it over with but my wife, Sally, was eager that we should have the whole family around the table for that meal. It was only in conversation with her after the operation was postponed that I realised just how important it was to her: she had set her heart on me being there because it meant something. That has helped me realise how eager Jesus would have been to share the meal with those he loved. Passover was a big deal: it meant something.

Jesus knew what lay ahead of him, and that made him even more desperate to share that special meal with these people who had become special to him. It meant something.pexels-photo-632043.jpeg

So how eager am I to share bread and wine with those I love? Sometimes, perhaps because of frequency or regularity, we may take sharing communion for granted. We add it onto the end of a service or perhaps even forget that it’s that Sunday in the month until we see that the elements have been prepared (have you had that experience too?). I am reminded of my Father’s ‘Priesting’ (Ordination in the C of E) which concluded with him leading the celebration of Communion. I was sat at the front and had received bread and wine from my Dad (what a moment!) so was watching the rest of the congregation line up. And I could see a man struggling forward from the back of the church with two walking sticks. He was really unstable and I wasn’t sure he would make it to the front. Each step looked precarious and painful but he was determined that he was going to receive bread and wine from my father on that special occasion so he persevered. It meant something!

When we share bread and wine in church do we eagerly desire to eat the meal with those we love and serve? We ought to because it means something.

pexels-photo-669730.jpegThis is the point at which my thinking has extended since I wrote the ‘Thought’. You see Jesus “eagerly desired” to share the Passover with the Twelve – his closest friends and his constant companions for the past 3 years. The very next verse in the passage reads:

21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.

Jesus shared the meal with Judas – the one he knew had already agreed to betray him. Not only that, he eagerly desired to share the meal with Judas as one of the Twelve, even though he knew that Judas had become disillusioned with him and was going to betray him.

In many churches (and I have done this sometimes) Christians seem to feel the need to either to protect people from sharing in the Lord’s Supper if they are not believers or to protect the Lord’s Supper from people who are not believers (or both). But Jesus was desperate to share this meal with a man whom he knew had decided to become his enemy! Who, or what, are we protecting when we say something like, “If you love Jesus you are welcome to take bread and wine”? And some traditions even exclude you from taking communion unless you can prove you are a Christian! One of the most heartbreaking moments in my ministry was when we had a leader from another sharing in a service in our church and when it came to communion they felt constrained by obedience to their church tradition not to share with us. They had tears running down their face at that moment because they eagerly desired to eat and drink with us.

And with the greatest of respect to those traditions, and even mine, I think we have got it so wrong. This is a meal of welcome, a meal in which an olive-branch of reconciliation is offered, a meal in which even those who feel like enemies are included. It’s also an encounter with the core of the Christian faith – a tangible, tasteable and inspirational connection with Jesus as we are reminded of the extent of his love for us and the extraordinary lengths God went to in order to offer us forgiveness and a fresh start with him. If that is the case, surely we’d want everyone to have that, wouldn’t we?

“Stop right there, you heretic!” I hear you think. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, tells them that they should be very careful before they eat bread and wine together – there are dire consequences for doing so wrongly (1 Corinthians 11):

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.

Yup! I completely agree with you. But let’s remember that Paul was writing to a church of Christians about their behaviour, not about the behaviour of people who weren’t Christians. And the “unworthy manner” surely relates to the particular practice he was angry at where rich people ate separately from the poorer people in the church and gorged themselves while the others had meagre rations. Look at the whole of 1 Corinthians 11 (I have added italics to show the aspects of his teaching that all relate to this) and I think you’ll see what I mean.

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

Examining ourselves is not about whether or not we are followers of Jesus, it’s about whether our behaviour has excluded some people and is creating or emphasising divisions in the church. Paul suggests that if it is, then even if the elements are right we aren’t actually sharing in the Lord’s Supper!

If you disagree with me, that’s your prerogative. And if I am asked to come to lead a service in your church and that includes leading communion I will try to respect your traditions but I will also want to be as inclusive as possible in the manner of Jesus, whom I follow and serve.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

going around in (magic) circles

Last night I went to the prestigious Magic Circle in London. I am in the process of applying to join and last night was the first phase of this: an interview. I am pleased to say that I have passed that phase (it was not a ‘thumbscrews interrogation’) and will be having my examination (audition) at the end of July.

cardsThis was my first visit to the Magic Circle premises and I was impressed by the hospitality and welcome I received. People were friendly and inclusive and the interviewer was encouraging and helpful. But it did help that I met a friend there so I did not feel such an ‘outsider’ on my first visit.

And that made me reflect on how it must be for people who don’t normally attend church. No matter how friendly, inclusive and welcoming we are, no matter how encouraging and helpful we are, what will make a real difference is having someone we know who can show us around, help us understand what’s happening and sit with us. And that places the onus on the people who attend church actually getting around to bringing someone with them.

Read these two statistics alongside each other if you are a churchgoer.

  • “Only two percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church. Ninety-eighty percent of church-goers never extend an invitation in a given year.” –Dr Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door
  • “Eighty-two percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited.” –Dr. Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door

Hmmm.

In addition to the welcome, the excellent lecture, and the positive interview my friend showed me around and took me to the museum. There we met the curator who was so knowledgeable and showed us around. He showed us the actual ‘Marauder’s Map’ from the Harry Potter films and I learnt that the automatic opening and closing was not a computer animation but happened in real time thanks to some clever stuff. He showed us props and costumes from historical magicians (including Sooty). I have read some books about the history of magic but there are some things that really come to life when you actually see them and are told about them by someone who knows what they are talking about.

Another lesson for churches?

Be blessed, be a blessing

learning (from) the trades

toolsIt’s been all go here recently. There have been a lot of workmen coming and going for different tasks that needed doing inside and outside our house – and the conversion of the garage to a study has not yet happened.

I have been fascinated by the approach of different ‘trades’ who have been approached to do the work. For some of them the jobs have been too small and they have not been interested. Others have been too busy or too inefficient and have not bothered responding. Some have come back with ridiculously high quotes for the work. And others have been extremely personable, efficient, and give confidence in their ability. Needless to say it is the latter group that we have contracted to do the jobs.

It does not take much to make that difference: a smile, a warm handshake, a friendly conversation, interest in what I need, using my name, being able to talk knowledgeably about the subject all go a long way to giving that sense of confidence.

And it made me wonder about churches. How many of those attributes in the previous paragraph do we give to those who come to our church (literally or metaphorically)? I am not just talking about those who come into our services on Sundays, by the way, but all contact with our churches. And I am not just talking about our premises (if we have them) either. Church, in my view, is the collective noun for Christians – like a pride of lions or a parliament of rooks or a murder of crows (yes, really!). So the contact with church happens wherever we (Christians) happen to be. For a few short hours in the week we are gathered together as church but for the rest of the time we are dispersed together across our community – being free samples of Jesus.

Hold on, did I just type ‘dispersed together’? Yes, I did. Because even though we are dispersed we don’t stop being church. Even though we are not physically in the same location we are church together and can be praying for one another and encouraging one another (text messages are brilliant for this) even when we are not in each others’ presence. This means that church is present in your workplace, your home, your health club, at the school gate, in your University, in the supermarket where you shop and so on.

So I return to the list I made earlier. How many of those attributes in italics does the church demonstrate through you? And how can you improve on those things if they are lacking? Some of them require an attitude shift – God’s Spirit is good at helping us with those if we want him to and ask him. Some of them require a bit of thoughtfulness – praying beforehand helps us keep those things in our mind. And some of them require a bit of practice and study – that’s what churches can help with when gathered together. All of them for churches have God’s love as the motivation and foundation.

I wonder what people think of churches when they walk past the buildings: old-fashioned? cold? unwelcoming? fresh? vibrant? open? I wonder if they think differently of churches when they meet us and discover that the buildings are not the real church? Will a greater awareness of God’s love begin to make a difference?

Be blessed, be a blessing

accidental blessings

BumblebeeIn my role as a Regional Minister I am quite itinerant. I am never in the same place for long. I feel a bit like a bee, buzzing around from church to church seeking to be a blessing, being blessed by being with them and at the same time sharing thoughts, ideas and contacts with other churches to cross-fertilize and bless others.

But I have also discovered that I am the bringer of ‘accidental blessings’ – I am blessing without even meaning to do so. On Sundays at the moment this is particularly obvious to me as I don’t have a home church to attend when I am ‘off’. I have left the church where I ministered for 6 1/2 years and it’s not fair on them if I keep popping back: much as I love the people there they need to be looking to what God has for them in the future rather than having me around. So I am taking the opportunity to visit churches in my sector and be a part of their worshipping congregation. That is a blessing to me and I have discovered can also be an accidental blessing to them.

When I have visited churches ‘unofficially’ I have tried to keep a low profile because I don’t want to make a fuss and because I see myself simply as another worshipping Christian, but I have discovered that this is not often possible. With my height and shiny bald head I tend to stick out a bit and as people start talking with me I soon have to explain that I am a visitor and then that I am their Regional Minister. And I am finding that simply by turning up at church I am blessing people…

I hold the ‘title’ of Regional Minister very loosely indeed and because I know that behind that ‘badge’ (I don’t wear a badge) there is the same me that has always been there I don’t think of myself as at all important. I am just Nick. But when I have visited churches in the manner I have described I find that they feel blessed because the Regional Minister has chosen to worship Jesus with them. It’s a very strange experience for me.

Some churches think that because I am there I am on some sort of inspection visit, or worse. There was one occasion when I visited a church and tried (unsuccessfully) to remain incognito. Eventually I had to admit that I was their Regional Minister and a little bit later on someone sidled up to me and asked me what was wrong – were they in trouble? I was rather taken aback as I had not thought my visit would have had that impact and assured them that I really had no ulterior motive, it was not Godsted (or whatever the Christian equivalent of Oftsed is) I had just come to worship Jesus with them. The wonderful thing was that the expression of concern and anxiety on that person’s face melted away in front of me and turned into a big beaming smile.

I had blessed them simply by turning up at their church.

Now I know that most of you who bother to read this bloggerel are not Regional Ministers. But let me assure you (especially if you are not a regular church attender) that if you turned up at a church next Sunday you would bless people simply by turning up too. I hope and pray that more and more churches will make everyone welcome but sadly (if I am honest) there are some churches where you are not made to feel welcome. However I dare to suggest that even in those cases you will have blessed people by being there, by worshipping Jesus with them. And if you have that experience please don’t judge Jesus by the imperfect nature of his followers, please try again (at another church or the same one).

A long time ago I did visit a church with my wife and we sat in what turned out to be the ‘usual’ seats for two ladies. They came in, saw us in their seats and sat down either side of us. That’s nice isn’t it? Except that they then proceeded to talk across us as if we weren’t there (making a point I think). During the sermon one of them got out some sweets and passed them across us to their friend, not offering one to us at all. Needless to say we did not go back to that church, but in the evening we went to another church where the welcome we received was in stark contrast to the morning’s experience – we were welcomed by everyone and we stayed at that church.

And now a message for churches: please recognise the blessing you receive from who who gather to worship Jesus together with you. It’s not just (or even) Regional Ministers whose presence should encourage you, but every single person who is there is a blessing because they are there. Appreciate everyone. Welcome everyone. Love everyone. Don’t let anyone leave feeling unloved, unappreciated or unwelcome. Think about how Jesus welcomes you, and he has asked you to emulate him.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

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.

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

camera angles

Camera Sign.While visiting Canterbury Cathedral earlier in the week I was interested to see that the crypt is an area in which taking photos is prohibited. I think this is so it is set aside for people to pray and reflect without being disturbed by flash photography. It interested me because it reminded me of a phrase that is used in courts in the UK when the public is not allowed access to a hearing. The court is said to be sitting ‘in camera’. It means ‘in private’ and comes from Latin which literally means ‘in chambers’.

That has always intrigued me because if something is ‘on camera’ it is very obviously in the public view whereas ‘in camera’ means exactly the opposite! It got me pondering (as these things do) about when we say one thing and mean another. I remembered a sad moment when I was studying for my law degree. The lecturer was speaking about the meaning of words and how intonation makes a big difference. He asked for examples and with real emotion and feeling one of the girls on the course said, “Yes, of course I love you.”

Ouch.

Is that how some people see Christians? For example, do they hear us saying that everyone is welcome and then read about how some are excluded from being leaders by virtue of their gender? There are lots of other examples we could cite.

It seems to me that we have a choice.

When you look at Jesus he was inclusive, welcoming, and went out of his way to be with those on the margins. He drew people to him without demanding that they sort themselves out first or labelling them: justifying his approach by saying that “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”. I find that reassuring for my own life, because I am still very much a ‘work in progress’. Jesus saved his harshest words for the religious people (often summarised in the gospels as ‘Pharisees and Teachers of the Law’) who had a legalistic approach to life and were happy to categorise people as ‘unclean’ and exclude them from their religious life and experience. Read Matthew chapter 23 if you aren’t sure about this!

So the choice is whether we follow Jesus’ inclusive example or the legalistic example of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. If we choose the latter I suggest that we carry out all our activities in camera and hope that Jesus doesn’t ask to come in.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Joke repeated from a couple of years ago:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. “In English,” he said, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”