What is that?

I read something in a blog today that caused me to panic.

This particular blog was about writing, communication and social media.  The writer was talking about how the summertime was good for planning and making improvements to your media profile.  The writer went on to advise;

If you are feeling brave, you may even want to tackle your WiP

I had never seen those initials before.  I did not know what WiP was.

I have a love hate relationship with Twitter, I do a bit with Facebook, I have a blog.  I have never got into podcasting or vlogging was WiP some new social media platform?

I began to panic.

I felt as though there was a new world out there which I was not part of.  In the face of WiP, I was an outsider, excluded.  I wanted to find out what was involved in WiP, was there an app? I wanted to get on the inside track and then I could proudly say “I am on Twitter, Facebook, blog and WiP”.

You cannot begin to imagine how foolish and relieved I was when I discovered that WiP stands for Work In Progress. In the context of the blog I was reading summer is a good time to tackle some of the work in progress that has been in the background for a little while.

As I reflected on my folly, I began to think about the importance of the we use.

Our words are powerful.  We all know that we can say words that help, heal or hurt and damage but, the language we use has the power to include or exclude too.  Sometimes, the language we use helps us to identify those who are part of the “in-crowd” and those who “don’t belong”.

I remember, when I was training for the ministry, hearing a story of a preacher from Victorian times.  When he had finished preparing his sermons, he would summon his cook and preach the sermon to her.  He did this because, he felt, if his cook could not understand it, it wasn’t worth preaching!

I don’t have a cook, or servants!  But, the incident with the blog was a real warning to me about the language that I use.  Do the words I use include or, exclude others?

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been preaching from the “Lost and Found” stories in Luke chapter 15;

One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!”

(Luke 15 vs. 1 – 2 Good News Bible)

 

Jesus then tells them 3 stories to make a point that, with God, there is no such thing as an outcast because, God welcomes all.

I hope our language reflects that!

 

 

 

A Tale With A Sting In The Tail

On Sunday, I shared a well-known story with our congregation.

“There was a man who had two sons.

Two boys, younger one says “I want my inheritance now” and off he goes and wastes the lot.  Wine, women and song.  When the money runs out, so do the friends.  The younger son is left in such a terrible state he ends up looking after the pigs

Eventually, he comes to his senses and heads for home

Dad hasn’t given up hope and spends his days watching the horizon for young son to come again.  And as he sees the younger son on the horizon he rushes out to greet him and welcome him home.  They throw a huge party!  Everyone is happy, except the fatted calf and the older brother who has some uncomfortable things to say to his dad.

Jesus then leaves the story hanging in mid air

It is almost like he is throwing out a challenge to his hearers and to us “Who are you in this story?”

Are you like the older brother?  diligent, faithful, trustworthy and yet what have you got out of it?   How do you respond to those you are “not like me” when they receive the news of God’s kingdom and accept it?

Or perhaps you identify more with the prodigal?

Let’s face it, we have all known those people who have made an absolute mess of their lives.  We know those who seem to have had it all and blown it.  We know those who have walked away.  A few years back, many churches became involved in praying for the prodigals in this longing to see those people who had just drifted from Church fellowships to return.  Maybe there are the prodigals in your family, amongst your friends that you are praying for that you long to see brought back into a kingdom relationship with God.

Maybe you have been the prodigal.  One post that I saw on facebook recently that made me smile said

If the grass is greener on the other side that’s probably because it is fake

 Henri Nouwen said;

“I am a prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.”

As I unpacked this story that I have preached on countless time over the years, I found that this tale had a “sting in the tale” for me.  This time, my focus was drawn onto the Father.  He is the character that the whole story hinges on after all.  One of the things that I like to do in preparation is look at different Bible translations.  I am used to seeing the title “The Prodigal Son.  One of the translations I looked at called it “The Merciful Father”.  I think that is a wonderful title because it re-focuses where our attention on the mercy of the Father, whether we are the older brother or, the prodigal his mercy is available for us.  Henri Nouwen again says

“the Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests.’”

And that is true for each of us because our heavenly Father is rich in mercy.  It doesn’t matter what we have done or failed to do in life the moment we turn to God His arms are outstretched to us because He is rich in mercy.

God’s mercy is incredibly powerful.  We often confuse the idea of mercy and pity but, they are not the same thing at all.  God’s mercy can be described as restorative mercy because it brings life and freedom.  It brings hope and grace.  John Paul II In his letter “On the mercy of God” says this;

This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and “restored to value”

 Mercy has restorative power.

Now, here is the sting!

In Luke 6 Jesus talks loving those who have hurt us, loving those who have persecuted us and then He goes on to say;

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

(Luke 6 vs. 36)

 

You see through this parable there is the challenge for us to not only be receivers of mercy but, to show mercy.  If I am honest with you, sometimes find this difficult.  I am not the sort of person who holds grudges, life is too short.  But, when somebody has done me wrong, I want them to come to me and apologise.  I want them to make the first move toward restoration.  The Father in the parable doesn’t wait Luke 15 vs. 20;

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

(Luke 15 vs. 20)

The Father makes the move.  Can I do that, can I go the extra mile?  Can I embrace those who have hurt me?  Some of those hurts that life has thrown at me run very deep indeed yet, can I be merciful just as my Father in heaven is merciful?

 

I needed to spend some time quietly with God and I needed to open my heart to Him and share with Him some of my hurts and pains.  I found that, as I did, God’s arms were open wide and I felt the power of His embrace.

Is there something or someone you need to bring before God, why not take this opportunity to talk to Him?

Are We Nearly There Yet?

There was one phrase my kids used to use all the time when they were little and I could guarantee it would drive me nuts every time I heard it “are we nearly there yet!”

Every parent has heard it.

You are going out for a nice day.  You have packed the picnic, the first aid kit, the road maps, the alternatives in case of rain, the alternatives in case of closures, the games to play en-route.  It would be simpler taking the British Army on full scale military manoeuvres than the kids out for the day.

With the kids strapped in, you start to reverse off the drive and that whinging voice begins in the back ;

“Are we nearly there yet!”

It seems to me that speed and hurry are encouraged in our lives from a very early age.

We prize speed.  There is a land speed record. Gold medals are awarded to the fastest athletes. If you finish this job quickly, you can get onto something much nicer!  Eat your dinner quickly, you can have pudding.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced in my spiritual journey is learning to slow down and to trust in the slow work of God.  I am not claiming perfection in this!  God has to frequently remind me that my ways and His ways are not always the same.  Sometimes, God needs to pull me back and remind me that I have to;

Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.” 

(Psalm 46 vs. 10 – The Message)

He had to do that this morning.

I came into the office, I saw the mountains of papers that were covering my desk.  I thought “I don’t have time to spend long in prayer, I will have to be quick”.  I grabbed my Bible, read a short passage said a quick prayer and got on with the work.  As I started to sort my in tray I found a copy of a poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called Patient Trust;

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,

 

I left the in tray.

Picked up my Bible

and I spent some time doing the most important thing of all, I sat aware of the loving presence of God

 

 

The best advice I have ever been given

 

The best piece of advice I have ever been given, was shared with me when I moved to my current pastorate a little over 10 years ago.  It has proved to be so useful that, I have often shared it with new ministers that have moved into the town. I was reflecting on it this week as I wrote a card to welcome the new Salvation Army officers who begin their ministry here this week.  Should I or shouldn’t I write it in?

That piece of advice?  Let me set the scene for you…

It was my induction.  I had got through the service and I was surrounded by a sea of faces, many of whom I hadn’t got a clue who they were. There was one chap approached me and, as we chatted, he explained he worked in the motor industry and then he said

“my advice to you is, whenever you drive around here and approach a roundabout, always watch out for the traffic on the left.”

 

I did a double take.

I may not be the worlds best driver but, even I know, that the British Highway code instructs drivers to give way to traffic on the right at a roundabout.  I laughed because he was obviously joking.

There was no trace of humour on his face.  “I am serious” he said and he certainly looked it.

 

“People round here don’t understand roundabouts.  If you want your car to stay in one piece, watch out for the traffic on the left.”

 

His advice has proved to be invaluable.  I have, thankfully, never been hit but I have had plenty of near misses!!!

I wish that advice had been given to me when I first became a Christian.  In fact, I think that advice should be given to anybody who steps out in faith to “have a go for God”.

Watch out for what comes at you from left field

The Apostle Peter writes;

 

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

(1 Peter 5 vs. 8 – NLT)

 

The roaring lion is a great image and often in this verse, that is what I am drawn to.  But it is the words “stay alert!” that are the most important ones in this verse.  I think, if Peter were writing today, he might just say “at roundabouts, watch out for the traffic on the left”

The fact is that the Christian life is not always plain sailing.  There are struggles, challenges, temptations and frustrations  somewhere along the line.  In my experience, it is often the attacks that come at us from “left field” that hurt the most.  Even when we brace ourselves for difficulty, it comes from the quarter we least expect.The colleague who we thought a friend, who bad-mouths us.   The person we believed would stand with us who lets us down.  Dare I even use the phrase “friendly fire” that comes from other Christians?

The more I think about it the more I realise, I have had a few near misses in the car but, when it comes to life, I have had plenty of head on collisions!

I have sometimes ended up feeling as though I have had the stuffing well and truly knocked out of me and I find myself wondering how I will ever be able to stand again.  The Apostle Peter goes on to say;

Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

(1 Peter 5 vs. 9 – NIV)

 

This is what real Christian fellowship looks like.  I am not on my own in my struggle.  Other Christians are going through the same sort of thing I am.  Other Christians are hurting.  Other Christians can empathise because they have either been there or are there.  Other Christians can give encouragement because they have the experience.

I am absolutely convinced that this is part of the role of the Christian Church, we are to be givers as well as receivers.

I believe that the church needs to open it’s eyes to each other.  We live in a self-centred society and that is not God’s intention or God’s way.

 

Peter then goes on to say;

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.

(1 Peter 5 vs. 10)

 Somewhere in the midst of it all, is God.  He can work in the toughest and hardest of situations to reveal something of Himself to us.  The Jesuits teach that God is in all things.  If I am honest, I struggle with that.  I would like to see God in all things but, sometimes that just isn’t easy.   When I am hurting, those are the times that God can feel far away

 

What these words have come to mean to me is that the pressure of the world, the flesh and the devil are inevitable.  They are part of life.  Part of what it means to live as human in a fallen and damaged world.

God will be there somewhere in the midst of it helping us to stand.  Teaching us and blessing us too, somehow whether I can see it or not

So, what I must do is trust and keep trusting

It may be only years later that we will be able to look back and see what God has done how God has guided.  It may be only years later we will look back and say, God gave me the strength to stand firm in the face of that situation

Where ever you are today, whatever you face.  My friend, I want you to know what I also need to hear

God is in the midst of this, somewhere

Ducks in the baptistery

 

Yesterday was a very special day at Pier Avenue.  We celebrated two people being baptised.  I love a good baptism and, I have to say, it is one of the greatest privileges of being a Baptist Minister.  I get to hear the stories and share in something the joy of the baptizees (not convinced that is a word but it will do).

The atmosphere in Church was wonderful, almost party like.  Somebody had even put two rubber ducks in the baptistery!

Many people have an expectation of Church they expect “Wesley and Weirdo’s” and yet, yesterday’s service was anything but!   I love it when those who are not used to Church, tell me how much they enjoyed being in the service and it wasn’t what they expected.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There is a time when it is right to be serious in Church.  There are times when we should “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12 vs. 15).  But equally, there are times when we should rejoice, celebrate and have fun too.  In fact, it is scriptural read Luke 15 there are parties galore as those that were lost are found again!

When the time came Archbishop Duck-a-lot and his “bath store buddy” were lifted out of the water and we put them on the side to enjoy the view as we celebrated two lives transformed by the love of Jesus.

Today, I stood beside the emptying baptistery and couldn’t help smiling as I reflected on what happened yesterday.  I feel very honoured and humbled to have taken part in such a service.  Like every baptism, I will remember it as a very special occasion.  As I walked away I thought to myself “I may have got very wet but, not as wet as those who were baptized!”

 

 

 

How can I believe?

 

I wonder of you have ever had the experience of turning to a well-known passage in the Bible, recognizing it and then skim reading it quickly because you know what happens next?

That was my experience this morning as I looked at a really familiar passage from John’s Gospel.  It was the story of “doubting Thomas” John 20 vs. 24 – 29.  All of the other disciples had been present when the resurrected Jesus had appeared.  For some reason, unexplained, Thomas had been elsewhere.  Jesus appears to the others, they are full of joy and excitement about who and what they had experienced.  Thomas pours cold water upon it;

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

(John 20 vs. 24)

Over the years, I have heard many different sermons on this scene (preached quite a few myself).  It was one of those passages that held no surprises for me – or so I thought.

As I quickly read the passage, I felt God invite me to step into the scene.  I imagined what it would have been like to have been there.  I imagined the room, the feelings of the disciples and I imagined them trying to convince Thomas of what had happened.  I heard Thomas make his statement of disbelief but, as he spoke, I heard different words;

“How can I believe unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, how can I believe?”

Thomas asks a very fair question.  It is a question that we have all asked at one time or another.  The brokenness and tragedy of the world causes us to ask the question “how can I believe?”  The brokenness in our own lives causes us to ask the question “how can I believe?”

I think it is healthy to ask questions.  It is human to ask questions.  As a pastor, if I see people “smiling through” all of their struggles without a moments’ hesitation, I worry about their grasp on reality!

Why does Thomas seem so keen to see the physical evidence of the cross?  Why is seeing the nail prints so important?  Partly because they are proof positive that it is Jesus.  But, I also think, there is something deeper going on here.  I think it is to do with identification at a much deeper level.  The pagan gods were remote, isolated from humanity.  In Jesus, God became fully human.  He experienced the full joy and sorrow that we all experience.  In Jesus, He bore our suffering on the cross and carries the marks of that suffering.

A week later, Jesus invites Thomas to see the marks of the crucifixion.  Jesus doesn’t shy away from Thomas questions, He understands them and helps him move forward in faith.

I cannot pretend, in this short thought, to fully understand the joys and the struggles you are experiencing in your life nor can I explain to you the things that I face. What I believe is that Jesus still carries the marks of crucifixion and if you, like Thomas, are asking “how can I believe?” then He welcomes your question.

Climbing the greasy pole

 

 

I was thinking this morning about what I most want out of life.

If you had asked me that question when I was a teenager, the answer would have been simple; “money, loadsa” money!  With money, I could buy all sorts of stuff.  To my way of thinking, he who has the most toys was a happy man.

If you had asked me that question in my early 20’s, I would have probably said; “Career”.  My career would have enabled me to do all that life could offer.  The higher the ladder, the better for me, I didn’t care about anyone else.

As I have grown up a bit, my goals have changed with me.  I realised that money is never enough (a great tool but, a rotten master).  In my career, I discovered that no matter how good I thought I was, there was always somebody more talented, able, more ruthless than me.

This morning, I read a Bible verse that really spoke to me about what I truly want in my life;

 

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.

(2 John 1 vs. 3)

I know that I need God’s grace, mercy and His peace in my life more than anything else.  My life isn’t always plain sailing.  I do get angry, frustrated and worked up about things.  Sometimes, my mouth is a lot quicker than my brain!  Sometimes, I react in ways I wish I didn’t.

The wonder of this verse, for me, is found in the words will be with usNo matter how far I may have wandered from God, He will never wander from me.  All I need to do is look for Him and He will be there.

What could be better?

So, I prayed these words for myself this morning.  Whatever I am involved in today, whatever may go right or, less than right, I may experience God’s grace, mercy and peace.

I then felt God nudging me.  “You have prayed it for you” He said, “who else would you like to experience my grace, mercy and peace today?”

God was right (He usually (okay – always) is).  Unlike the greasy pole, I don’t win whilst others lose.  God loves everyone.  His grace, mercy and peace are for everybody.

I spent some time with God then.  I asked Him to bless others with His grace, mercy and peace.  I found that, as I did, I experienced more grace, mercy and peace myself.

Who will you pray for God’s grace, mercy and peace today?

 

 

 

 

What an idiot!

 

I did something incredibly stupid this morning!

I woke at about 6am.  As I opened my eyes it dawned on me that I was not in my bed at home but, I was at The Hayes, Swanwick, Derbyshire.  I was on the Retreat Association Conference.  Then my first real conscious thought of the day – Tea!  I know it was my first real thought because, it is the same thought every day for as long as I can remember.

I climbed out of bed.  Stretched.  Put on the light and found the kettle.  Whilst the water came to the boil, I went into the bathroom and washed my face with cold water to make sure I was fully awake.  I looked out of the window to check my car was still where I left it.  I then spotted the conference pack.  It was brimming with information.  I began to look at the programme selecting what I was going to do, what main speakers did I want to hear?  What about the workshops?  Had that e-mail I was expecting come in yet?  What was happening at home?  Was it too early to ring the family and make sure all was well?  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I heard the kettle come to the boil and the tell-tale click told me the water was ready.

It was then it happened.

I grabbed the packet that contained the tea bag.  Ripped off the top and promptly threw the unused bag into the bin.  I poured water into the mug.  I couldn’t believe what I had just done, “you idiot!” I said, with some force whilst trying not to wake up the other delegates.

Why did I do such a thing?

No doubt, the less charitable of my readers, will dismiss it as an age thing!  The more charitable will say I was distracted, too much going on in my mind, not concentrating.  I am on a retreat, surely, nothing should be going on in my mind!  It happened because I was distracted, I was so busy making my plans for the future, I was not living in the present moment.  Jesus once said some interesting words;

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Matthew 6 vs. 34)

 

I have known Christians who have taken this view to the extreme.  They see those occasions when we worry about the natural worries of life, as being a sin.  Almost as if somebody says “I am worried about what the doctor will say”, they respond “you must not worry or you will be sinning”.  I am not sure, that is what Jesus actually meant.

I believe that Jesus knew how many things can fill the human mind, distract us,and I also believe He empathizes with our natural worries and concerns.  But, what I think concerned Him was, how worry can stop us living in the present moment.  In the previous verse Jesus told us to seek the Kingdom of God and that is written in the present tense.

To try and put this in a different way, I read again that familiar story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10 vs, 38 – 42).  Jesus and His disciples are at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.  Mary sits at Jesus feet.  Martha does all the work and so she approaches Jesus to complain.  Jesus says;

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things”

(Luke 10 vs. 41 – NRSV)

Jesus then commends Mary.  It wasn’t that Mary was doing nothing, she was simply living in the present moment and that is what I needed to do.

I found a fresh tea bag (I did not get the one out of the bin).  Brewed my refreshing cup.  Spent some time with God and then I was ready for what lay ahead.

 

 

 

A Tale Of The Unexpected

 

This afternoon, I got the opportunity to do something that not many people get the chance to do.

I smelt wild otter poo!

Yes, you read that correctly!!!!  When you think about it, what else would a Baptist Minister do when he is at the Retreat Association Conference?

Looking back, the moment was quite surreal.  Our workshop leader said that we didn’t have to smell it if we didn’t want to but, if we would like to give it a go, we were welcome to have a sniff.

I was quite glad that the pot of otter waste began it’s journey on the other side of the room to me because, I could gauge how revolting this experience was going to be by the expressions on the faces of the other participants.  Most looked quizzical as they passed the pot from person to person.  As it headed in my direction I found it impossible to gauge what I would smell once it arrived in my hands (still in the pot!!).

After a short while, the pot of excrement arrived in my hand.  I looked in.  I won’t describe the detail of it in case you are of a nervous disposition.  Should I sniff or, shouldn’t I sniff?  That was the question.  In my own mind I imagined what it would smell like based on what I could see.

I lifted the pot toward my nose and took a gentle sniff.  I then became a bit braver, I took a larger sniff.  I will not describe the odour of otter to you but, I will say, it was not what I was expecting.

I have been thinking about some verses from the Bible when Jesus says;

“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”

(Luke 6 vs. 37 – 38 The Message)

 

These words really challenged me.  It’s easy to look at people and make judgements based on what we think we know.  We look at an individual and make assumptions based on what we see and what we interpret.  In truth, however, we don’t know.

Sometimes, we have to suspend our own judgement and have the courage to step beyond our boundaries.  Who knows, we may be in for a little surprise!

 

 

 

GDPR

 

The initals GDPR are ones that are becoming increasingly familiar to many people at the moment. The General Data Protection Regulation came into force in the UK on 25th May. I caught an article in the newspaper the other day that suggested that many people do not know what GDPR is about, it amazed me because I feel as though I have been bombarded by organisations inviting me to “opt in” and warning me that if I don’t give my consent, I will lose contact with them.

At first sight, it looked as though it could be a bit of a nuisance but as GDPR moved closer I began to appreciate it. In fact, I have welcomed the opportunity to opt in or out of mailing lists. I was shocked at how many lists I have found my way onto over the years. For me, GDPR was an opportunity for a bit of a mailing list ‘spring clean’.

This has made me think.

This morning I was reading a story that Jesus told about a great banquet (Luke 14 vs. 15-24). The man throwing the feast sends out the invitations to the great and the good of the land. Once the feast was ready, the servants went out let those with invites know that the feast was prepared. One by one, each of the guests opt out with all manner of excuses.

A great feast was ready and yet nobody who had been invited wanted to partake.

The man called his servants together and sends them out again. This time, rather than the great and good the servants are to invite those on the margins. Unlike the great and good, those on the margins opt in. They are welcomed at the feast.

As the banquet hall fills, the servants comment that there is still room. The master decides to send them out again. This time, the servants are sent to those beyond the margins. Those who would have been considered as outcasts receive the invite and opt in.

Whenever I have thought about this parable in the past, I have regarded it as an image of the kingdom of God and seen it as a picture of the welcome Gods kingdom gives to all.

This morning, as I read the passage, I felt that God was saying something a little different to me.

Every day God invites us all to to join His mission of reaching out to the world and its up to us whether we accept His invite and “opt in” or, ignore it and opt out.

Which will you choose today?