Stepping off a ladder

Image by Jazella from Pixabay

Have you ever had one of those moments when, suddenly, you see things more clearly than you used to?

It seems to be happening to me rather a lot at the moment.  Let me explain to you how, this is happening.

I have been reading a book called The Art of Pastoring – Ministry without all the answers by David Hansen.  There are two ways of reading a book.  You can rattle through it at break neck speed and tick it off the “books I have read” list.  Or, as I did with this book, slowly and reflectively.  As I soon discovered, I was reading this book in the way it really deserved.  I have taken the opportunity, every few pages to stop and journal my reflections.  I have been challenged, in ways I could not even begin to describe on paper, to re-think my approach to the way that I minister.

It has taken me nearly a month to reach chapter 4.  The topic was temptation of ambition.  I am not, by nature, an ambitious person.  I am happy with my calling to be a local Church Pastor.  I have never had the ambition to be an international speaker or celebrity pastor.  I must be on safe ground with this chapter I, mistakenly, thought.  It was when I read;

There is no other possible conclusion: every pastor must choose between ladder-climbing and love. 

(David Hansen The Art of Pastoring – Ministry without all the answers page 76)

It was then, that I heard God whisper “you may not have been on the career ladder, but you have stood on others” that it really hit me.  The temptation to stand on a ladder is subtle, so subtle that it can feel as though you are ministering

  • The ladder of being observed
  • The ladder of being noticed
  • The ladder of being significant
  • The ladder of being needed
  • The ladder of being heard

Jesus was spot on when he said;

No one can serve two masters

(Matthew 6 vs. 24)

As David Hansen brilliantly puts it;

The real nub of the temptation to climb ladders is the lie, fed me by the devil, that I can climb the ladder and love those around me at the same time.  It centres on me.  It feeds my ego.

(page 76 – 77)

I think there is a lesson for all of us here, whether of the “dog collar” variety or not, we all have a ministry.

I cannot judge others (that would be climbing another ladder), I can only ask for the grace of God to step off the ladders I am standing on.  I need to face the choice, daily, between ladder climbing and love.  My prayer is that I will make the right choice, my prayer for you is that God’s grace will help you make the right choice too.

Forced to change

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It has finally happened. 

I knew, sometime ago, that things were not right and that the demise was inevitable. 

I tried to keep things going for as long as possible. 

Try as I might, my laptop was getting slower. 

At first, I excused it.  Okay, so it was taking 10 minutes to start up in the morning – just enough time for that pre-work mug of tea.

Okay, the screen had cracked, it was part of its charm, its character. 

Okay, so bits had started to break off it, they were not important, just decorative and I had gained a rugged laptop.

Despite all its failings and weaknesses, I was fond of my computer.  I knew it’s quirks. I was used to it.  I knew where everything was.  All of my photos, documents and history were there.

After one, particularly frustrating, Zoom meeting, I took my laptop to my son and asked him how to solve my problem.   His reply sent chills down my spine;

“Face facts Dad.  This computer needs putting out of its misery, you have to put it down”

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

I heard echoes of Monty Python as I finally had to admit; this is an ex-computer, bereft of life it rests in pieces!

Just in case you were worried, this is not a blog about computers! 

The saga of the computer, however, has made me think about some other issues.  My change of computer made me accept that change can be both costly and painful.  Sometimes, however, it is both inevitable and necessary.

That is what many of us have faced over this last year. 

We have all faced enormous changes in the way we live and work.  Some of those changes, whilst they were not welcome, were necessary.  Some have been costly both in terms of time and energy, as well as financially.

But, not all of the changes have been negative. 

We have seen people becoming more aware of the vulnerable within our communities.  We have seen people support one another in different ways.  We have been challenged to think more creatively in how we do things.  We have also had some space to clear out some of the rubbish.

As we emerge from lockdown, the temptation for many of us is to rush back to the way we have always done things, and so forget the lessons we have learnt along the way.  We need a time of honest reflection, before God, to ask “what now?”  To develop my computer analogy, I cannot go back to the old machine but, some programs needed to reloaded and some needed to be ditched altogether. 

How can we do this?  I believe this can only come through open and honest prayer.

The kind of prayer does not involve asking God, but allows us to encounter the presence of God and allow His Spirit to speak deeply into our hearts.  To explain this kind of prayer I quoted, in Church yesterday, Mother Teresa’s “business card” which says;

The fruit of silence is prayer; The fruit of prayer is faith; The fruit of faith is love; The fruit of love is service; The fruit of service is peace; This is very good business!

Mother Teresa

If we are to continue to tell HIS STORY in a post-pandemic society, we must begin by embracing silence.   

Begging for bread

(Image by Couleur from Pixabay)

It was only a small part of the sentence, but it hit me like an express train! 

Yes, the story may only have been a few verses in length yet, it contained so many emotions.  There was hurt, frustration and rejection.  Mark, in his Gospel, says that the Pharisees came to question and test Jesus.

There are times, as a Minister, when you meet people who are, let’s say, a little challenging!  Perhaps you have encountered them too.  They are the ones who have “on a mission” written all over their face. They are the sort that you have to “fix the smile” as they test, question and examine you as they speak.

I wonder, if Jesus did the same? 

Did He fix the smile? 

Did His heart turn somersaults too? 

Did He think “why don’t you ever listen?  Haven’t you got it yet?”

Mark gives us a clue as to what Jesus felt in that small part of the sentence;

He sighed deeply in his Spirit (Mark 8 vs. 12 – NRSV)

The problem with testing is that we expect a right or wrong answer.  That is what the Pharisees were looking for. I think our society has conditioned us to the same type of thinking.

Right or Wrong

Pass or Fail

Righteous or sinner

Sound or unsound

I think Jesus sighed deeply in his spirit because, the Pharisees could quote chapter and verse of the rule book but, what they had not grasped was, the intention behind the rule book.  Much less did they understand the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom is not about right or wrong.  Who is in and who is out.  The Kingdom is about The Grace of God reaching out to all humanity in its mess, chaos and brokenness. 

Each of us is a work in progress, therefore, we cannot fail we just need a little more work.

I came across this image, which really spoke to me of what God’s kingdom is about. 

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

There are many authors who, the original of this quotation is attributed too, but as I spent some time reflecting on Mark 8 today, I wrote these words

Christianity is one beggar telling another where to find bread

The Kingdom comes

when this beggar takes the bread he has found and shares it with another

A Breath From God

I couldn’t resist it.  This photo was one I took this morning.

This is the second day of snow.  As I sat in our back room, and was preparing to do some work, I saw these two faces.

In case you are wondering who, or what they are, there is no mystery!  They are two of our garden ornaments.  As winter began, we put them up on a table to prevent any wind damage over the course of the coming season.  Instead of damage, however, the wind has caused the snow to be blown off the faces and caused them to emerge from their snow bound captivity.

As I returned to the warmth of the house, I turned to my morning passage and read;

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

(Genesis 1 vs. 1 – 2 – NRSV)

Those words “while a wind from God…” do not appear in every version but, I liked the image it brought to mind.  I thought of the wind in a creative, playful, imaginative way.  That wind, blown by God, causing this amazing planet with all its variety and beauty to emerge. 

It really spoke into my heart. 

But something else stirred within me too.  I think there are times when all of us need a wind from God to blow through our lives. Sometimes that wind is needed to blow away the cobwebs of our thinking and dull religiosity.

Sometimes that wind is needed to blow away the rubbish that accumulates in our Souls, like the dead leaves on an autumn tree.

Sometimes, that wind is needed so that we are stirred up and shaken.  The type of wind that rattles the fences of our self-security. 

Sometimes, a gentle breeze is needed.  The sort that, on a hot and stifling day, causes the air to move and brings with it refreshing and restoration. 

There are times that, like the scene in our garden today, we need the wind that can be creative and causes something, once covered over, to emerge.

Amazing God you who blew the wind at creation. Blow through my life.

Blow away the dead leaves Refresh the air around me And rattle the fences of my self-security.

Amazing God, you who blew the wind at creation. Blow through my life.

Let your work of creation And re-creation Happen in me

And may, what emerges, Bring glory and honour to you

What do the Monkees and Holland Haven have in common?

Recently, I have been struggling to pray.

I know I am a minister.  I know such things should be the bread and butter of my trade.  Nonetheless, prayer has been a struggle.

Maybe, you have experienced times like this too? 

God seems distant, a long way off.  You feel as though you have been trying to pray through a fog. Your words feel empty, as they bounce off the ceiling.

I shared what I was experiencing with a Spiritual Director. 

She suggested I try a type of reading called Lectio Divina. To help, she guided me to a story, found in Luke 24, of the Emmaus Road.  You may know it.  The story is about how two disciples encounter the risen Jesus, yet they did not recognise him until much later on.

So, over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading the passage.

I have looked at art work.

I have looked at children’s cartoon versions.

I have allowed my imagination to picture the scene. I tried to imagine what those disciples had seen and felt. I even imagined myself as one of them.

This morning I had a great meeting and felt really chipper.

I decided, between tasks, to take the dog for a walk.

I drove over to Holland Haven to really blow the cobwebs away. As I drove, the Monkees were on the radio playing “Last Train to Clarksville”.  I just had to join in!

Picture the scene, dear reader, me behind the wheel of my car, wrapped up like a polar explorer, belting out at the top of my voice.

Take the last train to Clarksville
And I’ll meet you at the station
You can be here by four thirty
‘Cause I’ve made your reservation

Don’t be slow
Oh, no, no, no
Oh, no, no, no

Perhaps it was the song.

Maybe it was the walk.

Maybe it was the amazing colours of the sky (I was battling a boisterous Collie when I snapped it).

My mind went back to that familiar story of two dejected disciples trudging along the road towards Emmaus, and I found I was praying…..

God of the way and of the journey We don’t know how long our journey will be All we can ask is that we know you are near

God of the way and of the journey We don’t know whether our path be rough or smooth All we can ask is that we can lean on you

God of the way and of the journey We don’t know if we will travel by day or night All we can ask is that you will light our path

God of the way and of the journey Wherever we are called to travel May our travelling bring us nearer to you

As I prayed, therein lay peace…..

Living with Mystery

I love a good murder (a story that is – not actually committing them).

There is nothing better, to my mind, to settling down to a good Midsomer, Sherlock Holmes, Marple or Poirot.  Within each of these stories comes the moment when, the detective, needs to abandon observation and confront their suspects in order to get answers.

I was thinking about that as I looked at our Bible passage this week.

John the Baptist had appeared in the wilderness and called people to him.  The crowds responded in a big way and the authorities became concerned.  The people in power sent some of their number to investigate what was going on.  They, detective like, confront their suspect;

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

(John 1 vs. 21 – 22)

As I read these words, it struck me that the gospel writer presents us with two ways of experiencing God.  We are either going to be witnesses or interrogators.

Interrogators demand answers to the “who, what, why and when” questions.  They like things that are solid and certain.  They want evidence.  They look for proof and keep asking until they find it.

As I look back over the past year, I am grateful for the interrogators.  They have sought the answers to the questions that the current pandemic has raised. 

I have watched the Government briefings with their charts, numbers and statistics.  The cold hard facts, if you like.  What I have discovered is that knowing the facts does not always help.

I think the biggest challenge with interrogators is, they do not offer what we all need in the circumstances of life, they do not offer hope.

As the Priests and Levites challenge John the Baptist about “who, what, why and when” he points them toward a greater reality.  He points them to the hope of the Messiah. 

A witness reports what they have seen and experienced.  A witness sees a reality that is greater than themselves and their own limited understanding.

So what are you, an interrogator or a witness?

I have surprised myself this year.  I discovered that I am more of an interrogator.  I want answers, I want things sorted neat and tidy, I like firm clear instructions and set dates!  As you can imagine, this year has been a challenge!

I have a sneaky suspicion that there are rather more interrogators than witnesses in this world.

I have really felt a challenge to be more witness than interrogator.  Seeing and experiencing what is, in order to point to a reality that is far greater.

In essence, that is what the Nativity invites us all to do. 

To come again to the manger and gaze upon the baby who is;

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made Man.

(Charles Wesley) 

As we see and experience so we, in turn, should point others to this far greater reality.

“Because God cares for you…”

There is a saying that I think comes from ancient China.  I am never sure if it is intended as a curse or a proverb.  It says;

May you live in interesting times

In my opinion, the year 2020 would easily fall into the category of interesting times! I would hazard a guess most of us have never experienced anything like this before.  For many involved in Church leadership, life has been full of anxiety and the challenge of making stressful decisions that we feel unqualified to make.

I wonder, how that stress and anxiety is manifested in your life?

I am not a great one for dreaming.  Recently, however, I have found my dreams have become more vivid and stay with me for longer.  Just the other night, I dreamt I was driving a bus full of people from one side of a town to the other.  As I drove, I turned down narrow streets, faced dead ends and I ended up negotiating tight turns in a busy market place.  I could see the main road, my destination, but I was unable to reach it because of the obstructions. 

I don’t think it takes much imagination to interpret that dream!

Over the years, I have read articles and been told by some preachers that Christians should not struggle with anxiety, depression, stress and worry.  I remember being told that anyone suffering with these conditions were lacking in faith and were, therefore, sinning.

Thankfully, attitudes are beginning to change.

There is a growing awareness of mental health and emotional well-being.  I know my fellowship, Pier Avenue in Clacton, along with other Churches across the EBA, we are exploring ways in which we can support people’s spiritual, physical and emotional health.

I have been wrestling with a verse that is often quoted in relation to this subject;

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

(1 Peter 5 vs. 7 – NIV)

I have often found, when I am anxious, this verse has made me feel guilty.  My reading of this is “I am anxious because I am failing to give it to God.”  Pray harder until you feel more in control.  The effect of this has been rather than lowering my anxiety, it has increased it!

When I feel guilty, I am more anxious.  When I am anxious, I feel guilty and I end up trapped in that vicious circle.  Perhaps, in my mind, I am hearing again those sermons of old.

As I have been praying, wrestling and reflecting, I felt God was saying to me something that I really needed to hear.  I felt that God was telling me that my focus in this verse was wrong.  I was focusing on the anxiety and casting part of the verse. What I was not focusing upon, is the care that God has for us.  As I was writing in my journal, I believe God gave me permission to re-write this verse to help me change my focus;

Because God cares for you, you can give all your anxiety to him.

(1 Peter 5 vs. 7 – SF version!)

I found that really blessed me.  Perhaps, it may bless you too.

How To Find Hope When You Are Tired And Confused

I don’t know how these past few months have been for you. 

I have found them a little tough. 

There has been quite a bit of work to do in preparing services for broadcasting.  I have been looking at all the different ways of keeping fellowship alive whilst separated.  There has been getting to grips with, ever changing, advice.  I jokingly said to somebody yesterday, “I now know more about health and safety than I ever wanted”. 

We are now moving towards a different season in our Church fellowship.  We are now preparing for the “new normal”. 

If I am honest, I am more than a little nervous.

In some respects, these past few months have taken a lot out of me physically, emotionally and, yes, Spiritually too.  Have I really got the energy and drive to move into, yet more, uncharted territory?

Your instant response may be “you are not on your own, God will give you all you need.”  You are right, of course you are.  But, at those times when I feel as though I have got to the end of my rope will He?

There is a beautiful line in Psalm 23 that says;

He offers a resting place for me in his luxurious love. His tracks take me to an oasis of peace, the quiet brook of bliss.That’s where he restores and revives my life

(Psalm 23 vs. 2 – 3 The Passion Translation)

You may recognize those lines better as He leads me beside the still waters, he restores my soul.

These are words that resonate with me at the moment.  Perhaps they may speak to you too. 

The writer of the Psalm uses a really interesting word that we translate as soul.  The word he uses means “what makes you uniquely you”.  Your hopes, your dreams, your personality, your passion. 

It hit me, just the other day, that we can be so busy keeping busy that we lose touch with ourselves. 

We also lose touch with God.

I would encourage you to put aside a little time to ask yourself the question, “have I lost touch, with me and with God?”

If you have, do not worry.  God’s desire is to restore your soul.  My advice to you is, let Him.

How a habit taught me a lesson

I admit it. I am a creature of habit.

I have my way of doing things and I tend to stick with what I know. None of my habits are harmful.  A bit odd, yes.  Harmful, no.

Just the other day, one of my habits made me think about something that is really important to me.

It was Sunday.  I was not leading a live service. Since the outbreak of COVID all of our worship is pre-recorded.  When COVID began, I would record the service during the week.  It would be broadcast on a Sunday at 10am on Zoom. I would always watch the service with the rest of the congregation every Sunday.  It was the closest we could get to normal Church.

As time has moved on, things have changed.  I still record a service, but now it is available online from Saturday evening until Tuesday.

For some reason, the habit I began of watching the service at 10am on a Sunday, I have stuck with.  Even though I can watch at any time I want to, I still press play at 10am.

This Sunday was going to be a bit of a challenge.  I had quite a few things to do. I got up earlier than normal.  I decided that I would watch the service at the early hour.

I then carried out my tasks.  By coincidence, I found that they were finished at 10am.

What was I to do?

Should I get other tasks done?

Read?

Catch up on TV?

I did none of them.

Instead, I switched on my computer at 10am and I watched the service all over again!

Why?

I thought about it afterwards.  I suppose it was, partly, out of habit.  But, it was also something I did because, one of the things I value in Church life is fellowship.  There is something incredibly special knowing that other people were doing exactly the same thing at the same time.

In watching the service at 10am, I was saying something about the value I place on fellowship. 

In many churches, fellowship has become nothing more than a cup of tea, biscuit and a chat after a service.  It is more, much more than that. 

Fellowship is about being together.  It is about our mutual support of one another.  It is about standing with one another because of the common ground we share in Christ.

Real fellowship with one another helps us to grow in our faith.  It is when we share our stories, experiences and understanding with each other, that we learn how God can and does work in peoples’ lives.   

Fellowship is something we can take for granted.  We expect others to be there for us in our hour of need.  We should ask ourselves are we there for them?  With apologies to JFK,

Ask not what your Church does for you, but what you can do for your Church

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it much better when they say;

By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped. (Ecclesiastes 4 vs. 12 – The Message)

I wonder. 

How are you helping to build to real fellowship in our current situation?

Barriers

There is a passage in the New Testament that, if I am brutally honest, I do not like.

The story concerns a Canaanite woman who has a problem with her daughter (Matthew 15 vs. 21 – 28).  Jesus seems to ignore the woman’s plight, seems to dismiss her and then refers to her in a derogatory term;

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matthew 14 vs. 26)

I suppose, I do not like this passage because, I do not like the Jesus that it presents here.  I like the loving, gracious, compassionate Jesus.  I do not like the one who ignores somebody in need and, when he finally gives his attention, calls her by an insulting name.

I think Jesus does this to teach his disciples and, by extension us, a valuable lesson.

Jesus uses terms and behaves in a way that his society at that time would have treated this lady.  Her gender, her race and her needs would have excluded her in every way from polite male company. She was “other”. 

What Jesus taught was that in his Kingdom. All are welcome. All are loved.  All are God’s children.

I think the problem comes for many of us when we confuse boundaries with barriers.  They are not the same thing.

Boundaries can be healthy. 

They can keep things together, they can protect they can help us distinguish between good attitudes and bad. 

The point of a barrier is to divide.  You are either one side of the barrier or you are on the other.  You are either in or out.  Barriers are excluding, they are designed to keep people out.  

Too easily the healthy boundary can be turned into an unhealthy barrier.

As part of my quiet time, I listen to the “Pray as you go” app. ( https://pray-as-you-go.org/ ). Although today’s reading was not about this story, there was something the guide said that reminded of this passage.  He said;

Love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbours

As I thought about these words I reflected that good changes have come from barrier breaking

The civil rights movement broke the barriers

The abolition of slavery broke the barriers

The ordination of women broke the barriers.

In our own day and in our own age I believe God is reminding the Church that His kingdom is about breaking down barriers because love of him cannot be separated from our love of neighbours.

I wonder, what barriers you see and what can we do to break them?