seeing things

I wear glasses. They are varifocals – correcting both long and short-sightedness depending on which part of the lens I look through. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my eyes and brain adapted to this (I doubted I would ever get used to such a strange thing but it happened almost instantly).

glassesWhen I am not wearing my glasses some objects will be in soft focus. If you ever see me without my glasses and it looks like I am frowning at you, please don’t be offended it’s just that I am trying to work out who you are.

One of the things that is easy to forget is that each of us sees the world around us, and other people, through our own eyes, but other people see things differently. I am not really talking about literal vision and sight, but the way in which we experience, interpret, filter and infer.

For example, someone who loves fast cars might be really excited to see and hear an Aston Martin roaring up the street. Another person might experience the same event and be concerned about the safety of pedestrians. Someone else might experience the same event and wonder how anyone could afford such a car. Do you see what I mean.

When we forget that we ‘see’ and experience life in a unique fashion that can lead us into difficult and uncomfortable places. By way of an illustration, I sometimes forget that not everyone is into performing magical illusions to the same extent that I am. I might think I am being entertaining and engaging but to someone else I am a bore and tedious. You could replace ‘performing magical illusions’ with almost anything else and it can work out in a similar fashion…

Not everyone enjoys the same TV programmes / films / music / books as you do. And even if they do, they may not enjoy them in the same way.

Not everyone is an interested in crocheting as you are, and may not appreciate how much work went into your full-sized crocheted African Elephant so don’t be too disappointed if they simply say, “Oh, that’s nice.”

Not everyone enjoys sport (watching or playing) and even if they do they may not enjoy the same sport and even if they do they may not support the same team / individual as you do and even if they do they may not agree with your perspective on their performances.

Not everyone understands your interest in Mongolian Tree Frog Worship* or (more conventionally) shares your perspective on Jesus.

So what do we do?

A little self-awareness goes a long way. Be aware how you see things and realise that not everyone has had the same experiences, enjoys the same things and understands life in the same way as you. That’s called individuality.

Recognise that if you only ever mix with and talk with and encounter people who are broadly similar to yourself you are seriously limiting your ability to grow and learn and perhaps also limiting the opportunities for others to learn and grow through you. To realise and embrace that is called diversity.

Recognising that people see and experience things differently, and becoming comfortable with exploring that in conversation with them without fearing that it will contaminate the way that we see and experience things is called dialogue. (If you are tempted to think that you should not be influenced by others see the outcomes of a lack of ‘diversity’ above.) Communication and Community have the same root for a reason!

Now, before you start lobbing virtual stones in my direction for heresy let me be clear: I am not saying that there are no absolutes. I am not saying that I believe that all truth is relative. This is not a bloggage to embrace a pluralistic view of life, the Universe and everything. There clearly are some absolutes. For example: being outside in the rain without an umbrella or a coat means we will get wet; bald-headed people have less hair on their heads that people who are not bald… and so on.

I think I am coming up for some rules of engagement on issues and subjects that some of us believe are absolutes but which are not shared universally, even if we believe that they should be.

Should we share those with others? Absolutely. (pun intended)

Should we try to persuade them? With grace and respect, yes.

Should we force others to believe what we believe? No.

Should we insist that they accommodate our beliefs? Not to the detriment of others.

Should we listen to what others have to say about their perspective on things? Definitely.

Should we be offended if they disagree? No, although they may disagree disagreeably which may cause offence.

Should we be offensive if they disagree? No.

Should we be willing to change our minds? Maybe, but because it feels right to us, not because they tell us to. A closed mind can never be expanded.

Should we be open to learn new things and see things in new ways? Absodefinutely.

These rules of engagement are very much a work in progress. They have come out of the mush that is my brain as I have typed so have not had a lot of thought applied to them. But behind them all is an attempt to acknowledge that part of being in community is to sensitively encourage a creative balance between expressing individuality, embracing diversity, and exploring through dialogue. That is not something to be afraid of because if your truth is true it can survive those things and probably be enhanced by them.

If you have ‘absolutes’ you need to recognise that there may be different grades for you: my convictions about who Jesus of Nazareth is are absolutes that exist at the foundational belief level of who I am and how I see and experience things and shape what I do. I have that in common with a lot of people. But the way I express that through the Christian church of which I am a part differs from the way that others who share that same foundational belief express it in their church. To make non-foundational beliefs more important than they are opens us up to ridicule. And for that purpose I refer you to a joke by Emo Philips:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.”

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”

He said, “Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

In the book of Proverbs in the Bible we read (chapter 3 from verse 13):

Blessed are those who find wisdom,
    those who gain understanding,
14 for she is more profitable than silver
    and yields better returns than gold.
15 She is more precious than rubies;
    nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
    in her left hand are riches and honour.
17 Her ways are pleasant ways,
    and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
    those who hold her fast will be blessed.

It’s worth pointing out that in the book of Proverbs ‘wisdom’ is a way of living, relating, understanding and perspective, not mere knowledge. And the writer of Proverbs says that a right perspective on who God is and who we are (aka “the fear of the Lord”) is the beginning of wisdom.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*A fake religion I made up many years ago when I was trying to come up with something obscure as an illustration. I don’t even know if there are any tree frogs in Mongolia.

brexit stage right?

I have tried to resist the change, I have tried to make a stand, I have tried to persuade others, but in the end it seems inevitable that ‘Brexit’ has entered the English language. It’s such an ugly and clumsy word – a lazy amalgamation of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ to denote the decision in the EU Referendum last year for us to leave the European Union.

way out signEvery time I hear the word it sets my grammatical hackles rising. I wondered whether the Bible had anything to say about it and found this verse (out of context) Proverbs 8:13:

 To fear the Lord is to hate evil;
    I hate pride and arrogance,
    evil behaviour and perverse speech.

Surely the word ‘Brexit’ counts as ‘perverse speech’ doesn’t it?

But I think I am going to have to accept that ‘Brexit’ is a word now. It has entered common usage and also entered our dictionaries. It doesn’t mean that I have to like the word, but I should recognise that my one person campaign against it (predominantly through passive resistance by not using the word – yes, I know, I’m a real RADICAL!) is not going to change anything.

I wonder how much emotional and physical energy is expended by people trying to protest against the unchangeable and trivial?

It’s important to notice two things about that rhetorical question:

  1. I am talking about the unchangeable and trivial. We can get hot under the collar about the most minor things and turn them into a point of principle. If you don’t believe me, read historical minutes from Church Meetings in the past where there will have been lengthy discussions about the colour of carpets or even (shock! horror!) about rotas.
  2. Notice that I wrote energy that is ‘expended’ not ‘wasted’. Some energy is wasted on protesting against the trivial, but some is well-spent influencing and affecting decisions. We should not meekly accept change that is unjust, that heightens inequality or that diminishes other people.

So where is all this leading? I don’t think I am likely to embrace the word ‘Brexit’. I will continue to use ‘leaving the EU’ or a similar phrase if I want to talk about it. But I will try not to allow the use of ‘Brexit’ to carry negative emotions and shape my opinions about other people who choose to use it.

If you look at the verse from Proverbs 8 in a slightly wider context (verses 12-13)we read:

‘I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;
    I possess knowledge and discretion.
13 To fear the Lord is to hate evil;
    I hate pride and arrogance,
    evil behaviour and perverse speech.

Prudence, knowledge and discretion are all associated with wisdom, which is primarily about how we relate to God and others. If I let something trivial rile me it will only erode my relationships! Whether or not someone chooses to use the word ‘Brexit’ is surely less important than how I relate to them, isn’t it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

interview me baby one more time

I was in a conversation over lunch yesterday and for some reason I can’t remember I was reminded of an occasion (over ten years ago) when I was almost on TV as an ‘expert’ on a certain American singer (whose name sounds like she is a bit British and is into javelins*.)

I have never been a particular fan of this singer, and certainly am no expert, but a documentary was being prepared about her – to be broadcast on national terrestrial television. Her family attend a Baptist Church in America and the question they wanted address was ‘Is [the singer] good for Baptists?’

SONY DSC

I was asked to go to the TV studio and contribute as the closest thing the Baptist Union of Great Britain had in the national office to someone who knew about youth culture. I went with a certain amount of trepidation and found the studio tucked away in a normal street, above a parade of shops. Once inside I was impressed with all of the technology that was crammed into a relatively small space.

The person interviewing me was really kind and helpful – I imagine he has had to deal with nervous people before – and put me at my ease quickly. Then he said that when he was asking me questions he would like me to incorporate the question in the response so it appeared as if I had not been asked a question at all. For (lame) example a normal interview might go:

“Why do you like chocolate?”

“Because it is so tasty.”

But if you edit out the question it doesn’t make sense. But if the interview goes:

“Why do you like chocolate?”

“I like chocolate because it is so tasty.”

This way the question can be edited out and the response makes sense on its own.

So, I was asked questions about the singer’s lifestyle, her fashion choices, her risque song lyrics and much more, with the expectation that as a (Baptist) Christian I would be condemning her for these things.

Instead I spoke about how she had to make her own choices in life and while I might not agree with them all I was not going to condemn her for them – the core of the message of Jesus is grace not judgement. After a while (and a couple of retries at the beginning as I got used to answering the questions as statements that stood on their own) the interviewer said that they had enough and that he was very happy with what we had. The show was due to be broadcast on the following Sunday and I left the studio feeling pleased with how it went.

The following Saturday I had a phone call. It was the interviewer. He was most apologetic and told me that my interview had not survived the final edit. Apparently I was not controversial enough. While he had liked my positive approach, it was not going to make for a salacious programme, so it ended up on the cutting room floor (metaphorically).

A few thoughts occur to me:

  • Isn’t it a shame how there is an assumption that Christians will be negative, critical and judgemental? How can you help change that assumption this week?
  • Isn’t it also a shame that negative, critical and judgemental statements are considered worthy of broadcast but gracious, positive ones aren’t?
  • We need to be media-savvy. When someone makes a statement on TV or the radio it may be that it was in response to a question, not something that they volunteered to say. This happens more obviously on the radio when someone has been asked a question in an interview and then in a later news bulletin the question is edited out and it is reported as “So and so said…” which sounds like it is an opinion they wanted to share rather than something that was drawn out of them.
  • And we need to remember that what we see, hear and read in the media is edited. It comes through the filter of another person who chooses what we will receive and what we won’t. It does not come ‘neutral’.

These words written by Paul to the Colossian church (Chapter 4) seem appropriate:

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace,seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Prayerful, watchful, thankful – three good approaches to life!

A post script to this was that I had told some of my work colleagues about the programme and was unable to tell them that I had be cut out so they watched the whole hour documentary in the hope of seeing me – it’s one way to increase viewing figures I suppose!

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Britain-y and Spears

Time to reflect

This weekend was the fifth anniversary of my Induction at Colchester Baptist Church. Time has flown by!

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of my Ordination. Time has flown by!

So as I am in an anniversaryish mood, I wondered what advice I would give the newly ordained me if I could borrow a Tardis and nip back in time…

  • 9 o’clock is the watershed: phone calls before 9 o’clock in the morning or after 9 o’clock in the evening are not usually good news.
  • Don’t respond hastily to criticism: weigh it, sift it and ask for grace. God might be trying to say something to you and this may be the only way he can get your attention!
  • Greeting people ‘on the door’ afterwards requires you to be an octopus (to shake all the hands), and elephant (to remember everyone’s names) and a woman (to multitask). Or you could get someone to help you.
  • Emails will be very useful in the future, but don’t imagine that by sending an email you have communicated successfully.
  • Computers will be incredibly useful to you, but keep them as your servants not your master. (They will always crash at the most inconvenient of moments.)
  • It’s always a good idea to check your flies before you go into church.
  • Don’t forget dry underpants when packing for a service of Believer’s Baptism.
  • You won’t be able to please everyone: seek to please the One instead.
  • God gave you two ears and just one mouth for a reason.
  • Everyone has already heard the story about the little girl who said “I know the answer’s Jesus but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
  • Encouragement is a better motivator than guilt.
  • This too will pass.
  • You’re not in charge.
  • Always check the bread before Communion (see here for reasons why)

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Here be dragons

It may help you to read yesterday’s bloggage at this point and then come back, in order to set a context.

Done that?

Good.

old mapOn ancient maps, so we are told, where the map maker had run out of knowledge at the edge of the map they would write ‘Here be Dragons’ or similar warnings to keep sailors from sailing into unknown perils.

I have a sense that it would be easier to put a similar warning for churches about our future. Because of changes in legislation in the UK we face some difficult decisions and discussions on the question of same sex marriage.

Some people would rather we did not discuss this, reckoning that we are sailing in dangerous and uncharted waters or preferring not to have to talk about such things in church.

Others (on both ‘sides’) have already made up their mind about the issue and are just waiting for the moment to express their view in a meeting. They welcome the opportunity to persuade others to their point of view but I fear may not be so ready to be persuaded themselves.

Some people are still trying to work out what they think, trying to make sense of what the Bible says and are confused. If they had to make a decision now they would struggle.

Some are worried that this issue could divide the church.

And (we must always remember this) some come to this with personal experience – it’s not a theoretical discussion but affects friends and family.

As a church we are hosting a day with Revd Paul Goodliff, Head of Ministry at the Baptist Union of Great Britain (28th September) where we will explore the social context, what the Bible is saying to us and consider a Christlike response. I have been part of a day like this before and it is incredibly helpful. If you can be there, do.

Following that, in the nearish future, we have some difficult decisions to make and discussions to have. Because of the change in the law it is possible that our church could be approached to see if we would conduct a same sex wedding. What do we say?

As things stand I am sure, from conversations that I have had with people in our church, that if we as a church made a policy decision not to conduct same sex weddings there would be some people who would leave our church as a matter of conscience and principle. I am also sure, from conversations that I have had with people in our church, that if we as a church made a policy decision to conduct same sex weddings there would be some people who would leave our church as a matter of conscience and principle.

At this point I am tempted to stop and simply write ‘Here be dragons’ over the whole issue and not go there. Perhaps it would be easier if we did not conduct any weddings at all (which I think is the equivalent of ‘Here be dragons’). But that is not a helpful response and is not a Christlike response.

Instead I am praying earnestly for God’s grace, guidance and wisdom in this. Because the division and departures are only inevitable if churches are human institutions. If we truly are people and places that are full of the Spirit of Jesus, people of love and grace, then there must be a way ahead that does not lead to argument, hurt and division.

Please join me in praying for that for our churches and for ourselves.

Be blessed, be a blessing.