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?

 

 

Pointing fingers!

 

This week is marked by many as “Mental Health Awareness” week.  I, for one, am glad that during this week there are people who are openly speaking about mental health and are challenging the social stigma that has been placed on these issues.  As I drove into work this morning, I was listening to a fascinating piece on the radio about our poor sleep patterns in this country and their link to mental health and wellbeing.  As I finished listening to the piece on sleep, it felt a little ironic to then listen to a piece on problems in the Middle East and North Korea.  If anything would deprive me of sleep, it’s those two situations!

I found myself reflecting on human beings.

Humanity is, in the words of the Psalmist, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139 vs. 14).  We are a complex creation of mind, body and soul.  We can be emotional, caring, creative and incredibly destructive.

I thought about the many ways in humanity has sought to make life better for itself.  We have endeavoured to find political answers, which have gone horribly wrong.  The old cliché rings true; In capitalism man exploits man, in communism it is the other way roundEven the best of intentioned can get lured by power and prestige.  I thought about the charities and humanitarian solutions that have been offered, only to be reminded of their, recent, heart breaking scandals.

In my time of reflection, I read some words of Jesus;

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.

(John 17 vs. 15)

I remember, a few years ago, hearing an interview with a mega-church pastor from America.  He described his “Church-complex” that included a shopping mall, health centre, medical facilities, gymnasium and even a hairdressers.  He finished his interview by saying “none of my people need to go into the world for anything”.  I have never felt such anger as I felt at that moment! (I even typed that paragraph angrily).

God does not separate Himself from the mess of humanity but, in Jesus Christ, embraces what it means to be fully human.  He then pays the price for human mess on the cross.  His resurrection is the ultimate in life transformation and hope.

I believe that the gospel that we have to share is one of transformation for the world now and in the age to come.  The gospel is not just “pie in the sky when you die”, it’s about transforming the world in which we live.  If you like, eternal life begins this side of glory.  That is what the Church is called to live!

Yes, the Church is flawed.  Yes, the Church gets things wrong and make mistakes.  But, a Church that separates itself from the world, is a church that is not living the gospel.

But Jesus prays something else in this verse.  He prays, that we would be protected from the evil one.  This led me to think about whether or not I always recognize the presence of the evil one.  In the world we see so much hurt and pain that it’s easy to point the finger and say “that is evil”. 

However, evil and the presence of evil it not always “out there”.  Sometimes, it’s very much “in here”.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  Evil can be a very subtle, manipulative thing.  Do I always recognize the presence of evil in my life, my heart?  How often do I give into the pressure to “be somebody important”?  How often do I trade servant leadership for power?  My ways for God’s ways?

Sometimes, I need to remember when I point the finger at somebody else and declare “that is evil” there are three pointing back at me! 

My prayer today is that God would help me to recognize the presence of evil in my own heart and bring it to Him so that I can experience His forgiveness and renewing love.  What about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bowl of Salad?

 

 

I read a wonderful piece recently written by Margaret Silf.  In her book Landmarks an Ignatian Journey she describes an experience she had whilst attending a friend’s induction as minister of a church.  She writes;

The congregation streamed out of the church and into the hall.  The place became alive with conversation, and, as so often happens at these gatherings, within ten minutes the laden tables were almost bare…..…Except for one large bowl of rice salad, which remained untouched in the middle of a long empty table.

Margaret then goes on to say how she could not understand why the rice salad had not been consumed with the same gusto as the rest of the food.  It looked good, somebody had obviously put time and effort into it.  She tried to imagine the feelings of the person who had provided it.  She decided that she would consume some of the delicious looking rice salad.  However, as she approached the salad she discovered that the reason why it had remained untouched was because there was no spoon to serve it with.

Margaret Silf used the bowl of salad to ask some serious questions of the Church and, I believe, that her questions are very valid for us to consider too.  The Christian faith is, to use Margaret Silf’s analogy, like a bowl of delicious salad!  But, as she rightly asks, where is the spoon?

Today, as I wrote this piece, is marked as the Feast of The Ascension and I read part of Marks Gospel this morning as part of my devotions;

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”

(Mark 16 vs. 15)

Over quite a number of years, the fellowship at Pier Avenue have undertaken building work.  In the physical sense, we undertook the building of the Welcome Centre, Atrium and improving other facilities.  This has been done to enable us to actively engage with an ever changing community. 

We have engaged.  Our building is constantly in use by Church and outside groups.  We have welcomed the homeless.  We have welcomed the confused, hurting, lonely and isolated from our community.  We have sought to build bridges to “outside users” of our halls and we have learnt some interesting things along the way.

To only consider the physical aspect (no matter how beautiful that is) of our mission and to neglect the inner aspect of our mission is to miss the most crucial part of all.  Too often, we do a great job at the “outer” display of mission at the expense of the “inner” part of mission.

I believe that people are hungry for a deeper reality in life.  People are hungry for, as Jesus puts it, “life in all its fullness” (John 10vs. 10).  Therefore, we must continually ask ourselves the question, what are we engaging people with where, if you like, is the spoon?

For me, I believe we continually need to be seeking God’s guidance on our Spiritual lives.  As individuals, and as a Church, I feel that we need to, regularly and honestly review the journey we are on and seek God’s leading for the future and we need to be brave enough to ask the honest question of ourselves, where is the spoon?  Can others easily see and access all the good things of God through my life?

As I read on in the Gospel, I read something I had never spotted before;

Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.   

(Mark 16 vs. 20)

It was that phrase, and the Lord worked with them that caught my eye.  They were not on their own Jesus, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit worked through them, enabling them to engage.

As I was reflecting on these words, my mind went to a well-known passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus refers to Himself as the true vine (you can read it in John 15 vs. 1 – 17).  In that passage Jesus tells us that we must remain in Him, connected, receiving His life flowing through us and, as we do that, then we will truly offer the world something that is worth having.

 

 

 

Joy Filled?

The English Language is weird!

No two ways about it.  For as long as I have spoken, my language has always been English.  To my shame, I have always struggled when it comes to learning other languages.  Over the years I have tackled French (c’est une catastrophe), I was hopeless at Hebrew and Greek was all Greek to me.  English is the only language I have ever mastered and English is weird!

This fact has really been brought home to me over the last few months.  We have a young German youth worker on placement in our Church at the moment.  I am, effectively, his line manager and we meet regularly for chats as well as developing his work.  I can say something that makes perfect sense to me, however to him, it means something entirely different.  I now have to think carefully about the words I use and the context in which I set them.

So take, for example, the sermon I preached in Church yesterday morning.  I used as the key word “Joy”.  The sermon was based around Ezra chapter 6 where the Bible says;

Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy.

(Ezra 6 vs. 16)

What does “joy” mean?  Are you the sort of person that could be described as “joyful”?

In much popular thinking, joy is equated with happiness.  Some people would describe joy as exceedingly happy or happiness over an extended period.  For some Christians joy is characterized as a “hallelujah anyway” and the ability to smile through whatever difficulty life throws at us.

I have come to the conclusion that is wrong!

The Bible is not silent about the difficulties of life and the Messiah is described by Isaiah as;

 

…a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.

(Isaiah 53 vs. 3 NLT)

But I do believe that Jesus was a man who was full of joy.  Let’s face it, nobody wants to follow a misery guts, yet people must have seen something in Jesus that was worth following.  I think that, in part, it was the joy that Jesus had and still has.

To help me get to grips with happiness and joy I read this in www.psychologies.co.uk/joy-vs-happiness

Joy and happiness are wonderful feelings to experience, but are very different. Joy is more consistent and is cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events. 

Christian joy is not grounded in ourselves, it is grounded in Jesus and in all that He has done for us.  Because of Jesus, we have can have peace and confidence in the relationship with God we were created to live in.  Jesus joy was grounded in His relationship with His Father.  That is what, I believe, people saw in Him and wanted to find out more.

Rather controversially, I did suggest in my sermon that there were two things that should characterize a Christian.

The first is love. Love of God, of each other and even our love for ourselves (see Matthew 22 vs. 39, Mark 12 vs. 31, Luke 10 vs. 25 – 28)

The second characteristic is joy!

Perhaps, I need to do some more work on both of these.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Hospitality

I read a quote this morning that really made me stop and think, it comes from Henri Nouwen;

To pray for others means to offer others a hospitable place where I can really listen to their needs and pains.  Compassion, therefore, calls for a self-scrutiny that can lead to inner gentleness

(Henri Nouwen – The Genesee Diary)

There were three words that lept out at me from this quote.

The firstly word was hospitality.  I wonder if many Christians today are losing touch with this most important of gifts.  We expect our Churches to be places of welcome (especially toward us) but, what about our homes?  Think about it, when was the last time you invited somebody you do not know so well to come and have coffee with you?

One of the sad facts in our society today is that community is slowly dying.  We, as a society, are becoming more self-absorbed and focused upon the individual.  I am sad to say I see this trend entering the Christian Church.   One of the reasons, I think, that there is an increase in isolation, loneliness and fear is as a result of the loss of community.

I believe that Christians have a unique form of community based on and around the person of Jesus Christ.  However, too many in the Church have a “come to us” mentality when, in fact, Jesus tells us to go to them (see Matthew 28 vs. 19).

The second word that challenged me was the word listen.  Listening is part of the gift of hospitality.  We do not invite people to come in without creating space to listen.  I think that is part of what the story of Martha and Mary is about (Luke 10 vs. 38 – 42).  Martha is concerned with the mechanics of hospitality , Mary is concerned with the listening of hospitality.  I think that’s why Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better way.  If you look at the painting by Velazquez (from 1618) I think Martha’s expression says it all!

To really listen to somebody is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

The final word was “compassion”.  The listening we do must not just be surface only but, it must be listening with our hearts.  Our hearts need to be touched by the stories we hear so that we can truly pray for those we give hospitality too.

The quote from Henri Nouwen really made me think today about what part hospitality plays in my life and ministry.  How about you, will you look around you today and ask “who can I show hospitality to?”