backhanded compliments

Following my lengthy period of convalescence after my surgery in February I am now back at work full-time. I was blessed by being able to phase my return slowly rather than jump straight back in. And this has led to some very interesting comments from people who saw me early on in the process and have seen me again recently.

complimentary nutsWith the intention to encourage me and generally be upbeat about my progress people have been making comments about how much better I am looking. They don’t mean that I have grown more handsome, but that I am looking healthier. Some have been even more specific and have commented on how I have much more colour in my cheeks and generally look a more ‘normal’ hue. And some have gone even further by suggesting that they were rather worried when they first saw me because I looked pale and ghostly, but now I looked well. One colleague even suggested that when she first saw me I wasn’t so much pale as translucent but I was now looking better!

Now I know that these compliments are meant to be positive and making me feel good about the extent of the improvement that they can see in me. And I do receive the comments in the spirit with which they are offered. I am grateful for people’s love, concern, encouragement and prayers. But there’s a little part of me that asks myself just how ill I must have looked a couple of months ago. I didn’t think I looked that bad, but (bearing in mind that these conversations take place on a very regular basis) I must have looked more poorly than I realised.

I am going to try to take the positive aspects of the comments on board much more and not allow the negatives to bother me because I know that my health is much improved, my stamina is better and I am far more capable of living normally (not the same as ‘being normal’ – my wife will testify to that!) than I was previously during my convalescence. I am so grateful for that: grateful to the medical staff who have been brilliant, to my family who have been wonderfully supportive and encouraging, to the many of you and those in the churches I serve who have been praying for me, and to God who has sustained me and created bodies in such a way that they can recover from trauma.

But (and this won’t surprise regular readers) I had another thought. If we are willing to comment on someone’s physical health, why not their spiritual health too? How often do we take the time to say encouraging things about people’s spiritual growth and health? Do we take the time to speak positively to someone after they have preached – more than just, “Thank you” – and share how God spoke to us through them? Or do we take the time to reflect on the way someone has show spiritual maturity through difficult circumstances and encourage them about that? How about finding someone who has prayed for us and sharing how we have seen answers to those prayers? What about simply encouraging someone because we have caught a glimpse of Jesus through them?

Be blessed, be a blessing

where you go I will go

In the interests of recycling and saving the planet, here is a thought I had earlier in the week which I shared with the Baptist Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association… perhaps it will bless you.footprints

My daily readings this week have been based on Ruth, and on Monday I read this from Ruth 1:

 1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

 3 Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

 6 When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

 8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

 11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me-even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons- 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!”

 14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her.

 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

 16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

I know the story so well that it’s easy for me to skip over what happened at the beginning to get to the ­good news part of the narrative. But to do so does not do justice to what happened to Naomi and her family. Naomi starts off as a refugee – fleeing famine with her husband and sons. They settle into a foreign country and (contrary to God’s command) her sons marry local, non-Jewish women. Tragically not only Naomi’s husband but also her sons died prematurely (the flight from the famine did not preserve their lives) and eventually, hearing that the famine had lifted, Naomi decided to return home (presumably so she could die and be buried with her ancestors). Let’s remember too that this is part of Jesus’ family history and that his parents too were refugees. Perhaps that speaks loudly to us today about how refugees are being treated by our nation and across the world – an unwelcome problem to be dealt with rather than people to be saved and blessed.

We usually concentrate on Ruth (the book is named after her) but let’s not ignore that Orpah at first was willing to go with Naomi too until Naomi persuaded her to stay. That level of devotion is to be commended, but perhaps Orpah’s heart was not really in it so she was willing to stay in Moab and going back to her gods (had she adopted Naomi’s God?).

And then we get to some of my favourite words in the Bible: Ruth’s response to Naomi’s attempt to get her to stay behind. “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried…” It’s an astonishing lifelong commitment to her mother-in-law and her mother-in-law’s God. As the story unfolds we find that these words were not only a promise, they were also a prophecy. These words are some of my favourite words in the Bible because we used them in our marriage vows. They imply a letting go of the past and a leaving behind, but more than that they announce a new beginning and a new level of commitment.

At a recent Induction I reflected that in some ways an Induction is a bit like a wedding: there are mutual promises made in a church. But we know that these promises are not ‘until death do us part’ but ‘until God calls me somewhere new’. However, can we say Ruth’s words about the people to whom God has called us for this season? Even the ones we love but struggle to like? Even our strongest critics? Are we any less committed to these people than Ruth was to Naomi – right up to the moment when we say the final ‘amen’ on the closing benediction of our season in that church?

Be blessed, be a blessing

travelling companions

This weekend has been provocative, inspiring, encouraging and challenging at different times. Ideas and possibilities of whirring through my mind and I am trying to assimilate them all. I am trying to work out what God not concerned to me and to our church through all of these different thoughts and ideas.

One of the things that has inspired me has been the people with whom I have experienced this weekend. On Saturday I went with some of the 20s and 30s of our church to an event in which we were encouraged to take the good news of Jesus as onto the streets, at the same time stepping out of our own comfort zones. To help us to apply what we have learned rather than simply take notes we then went out into the town and put those ideas into practice. I was blessed and inspired by the enthusiasm of my companions and their willingness to take some risks for the sake of sharing the good news of Jesus. That was almost more inspiring and encouraging them the talks from the main speaker!

Today I travelled with some fellow ministers to another gathering with the same main speaker. Whilst the time in the gathering was positive, encouraging and once again inspirational, it was the conversations with my travelling companions and others whom I met at the gathering that really blessed me. prayers that were offered words of encouragement that we shared were really encouraging. It is always encouraging when you see God at work through people. It reassures us that he can and will do the same through asked if we allow him to do so.

But the overarching theme of Saturday and today has been to be “bighearted”. This is the theme of the Baptist union of Great Britain’s current president, Chris Duffett*. He is the one who has been encouraging us to step out of our comfort zones and be good news to the people whom we meet. He has a natural gift for this and has many clever and exciting ways in which he helps people to encounter God’s love. the one for which he is most famous is standing in the middle of a street holding a sign that says ‘free hugs’. He says that he has probably hugged thousands of people doing this and they have been blessed and encouraged by encountering God’s love in a hug.

I am not a huggy person. That sort of thing feels unnatural to me. But to others it is the most natural thing in the world. I know that there are other ways in which I can communicate God’s love which don’t involve hugs with strangers. What Chris has been trying to encourage us is to do something, almost anything, in order to show God’s love and grace to people who desperately need. What might this look like in our church? Watch this space. What might this look like in your life?

Sandwiched between those two days has been a Sunday in which I preached at another church in the morning and on a complicated passage from Daniel in the evening at our church. On both those occasions people said to me afterwards that God had spoken to them through those passages. Awesome. That is the greatest accolade and puffing for which I pray more than anything else in preparing. I would gladly swap 100 people telling me how much they enjoyed the sermon with one person telling me that God had spoken to them through it.

How about swapping 100 people telling us how wonderful we are for one person who has experienced God through us being a good free sample of Jesus, or telling us that God had spoken to them through us?

*Chris, for your encouragement and to add to your own story on Saturday, I have been dictating this through my computer and it interpreted your surname as ‘stuff it’.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

YAW – that’s way out of order (see recent blogs for context)

what will have you done today?

Bed
not my bed!

What are you doing today? How much will you have achieved by the time your head hits the pillow?

I wonder how you answer those questions? Do you answer them in terms of actions completed, to do lists diminished, tasks achieved? It’s good to be able to do that. I remember at the non-conformist vicar factory to which I owe so much of my ministerial and theological foundations (Spurgeon’s College) we had a session about how it is important to set achievable goals. I also remember (and can confirm by experience) that in a role like that of a Minister, which is ongoing, it is important to break things down into bite-sized chunks and to recognise progress and achievements in that way.

For example, people’s ongoing Christian journey (including mine especially) is never one that is completed, at least this side of  ‘glory’. There is always more to learn, to teach, to discover, more room for growth, more spiritual fruit that we can bear. But baptising someone is a landmark in their journey of faith. Having someone thank you for something you said that they found helpful is something to celebrate (not out of pride, but that you have been sufficiently in touch with God that you got it right!). Finishing a sermon without anyone falling asleep is an achievement to be noted…

So, to bring it back to you, dearest bloggite, how do you answer those questions?

Did you include the conversation you had with your colleague at work where you were able to encourage them? Did you include the prayer you offered for the victim as an ambulance sped past, siren blaring, lights flashing? Could you count the smile on your face as you watched a child playing? Will you include the sadness as you hear from a friend who is struggling?

If we had to complete timesheets we would probably not include any of them. But they are achievements too. They are all part of being a free sample of Jesus…

The words of encouragement you spoke to your colleague were on behalf of Jesus. The prayer you prayed was interceding on behalf of someone in need: very Jesus-like. The smile recognising the joy of childhood and the wonder of play helps you to remember that we are called to a child-like faith and to play as well: Jesus’ words. The sadness with a friend is weeping with those who weep: Jesus-style.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Something else I remember from Spurgeon’s was the atmosphere of laughter and learning. We all need to have a healthy sense of humour, especially about ourselves. The following purport to be letters to pastors from children…

Dear Pastor, I would like to go to heaven someday because I know my brother won’t be there. Stephen. Age 8, Chicago

Dear Pastor, I know God loves everybody but He never met my sister. Yours sincerely, Arnold. Age 8, Nashville.

Dear Pastor, Please say in your sermon that Peter Peterson has been a good boy all week. I am Peter Peterson. Sincerely, Pete. Age 9, Phoenix

Dear Pastor, My father should be a minister. Every day he gives us a sermon about something. Robert Anderson, age 11

Dear Pastor, I’m sorry I can’t leave more money in the plate, but my father didn’t give me a raise in my allowance. Could you have a sermon about a raise in my allowance? Love, Patty. Age 10, New Haven

Dear Pastor, My mother is very religious. She goes to play bingo at church every week even if she has a cold. Yours truly, Annette. Age 9, Albany

Dear Pastor, I think a lot more people would come to your church if you moved it to Disneyland. Loreen. Age 9. Tacoma

Dear Pastor, I liked your sermon where you said that good health is more important than money but I still want a raise in my allowance. Sincerely, Eleanor. Age 12, Sarasota

Dear Pastor, Please pray for all the airline pilots. I am flying to California tomorrow. Laurie. Age 10, New York City

Dear Pastor, I hope to go to heaven someday but later than sooner. Love, Ellen. Age 9, Athens

Dear Pastor, Please say a prayer for our Little League team. We need God’s help or a new pitcher. Thank you. Alexander. Age 10, Raleigh

Dear Pastor, My father says I should learn the Ten Commandments. But I don’t think I want to because we have enough rules already in my house. Joshua. Age 10, South Pasadena

Dear Pastor, Who does God pray to? Is there a God for God? Sincerely, Christopher. Age 9, Titusville

Dear Pastor, Are there any devils on earth? I think there may be one in my class. Carla. Age 10, Salina

Dear Pastor, I liked your sermon on Sunday. Especially when it was finished. Ralph, Age 11, Akron

Dear Pastor, How does God know the good people from the bad people? Do you tell Him or does He read about it in the newspapers? Sincerely, Marie. Age 9, Lewiston