Tapping a source of goodness

Yesterday evening I was continuing a series on the promises which provide the foundation for our Christian lives. Last night’s was the blessing to Asher in Deuteronomy 33 v.25 that ‘as are your days, so shall your strength be’.

Early on in the service everybody wrote down a burden they were carrying, and placed it in the brass dish of an old set of scales. Talking about how one of the Hebrew words for God’s glory is ‘Kabod’ (or ‘weight’), I then placed a 1 kg weight on the other side. Even if there had been 1000 burdens – it would still have outweighed them. ‘As are your days…

Later on, after considering the promise and its implications, people were invited to write a blessing for someone using the formula

May the God of (an attribute of God) + bless you with (something in particular) + a time frame (tonight, today, forever etc)

After that we tipped the burdens out of the bowl, put in the blessings, shuffled them up, and then read each other’s out. A selection of them are below , and it made for moment to savour as we shared them.

Why not try it for yourselves?

 

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May the God of grace bless you with heartfelt assurance

May the God of saving grace bless you with joyful and confident faith

May the God of all faithfulness bless you with hope as you trust in Him

May the God of all hope bless you with patience and endurance

May the God of all assurance and comfort bless you with confidence in Him and for the future

May the God of grace bless you with his strength as you learn to rely on Him

May the God of faithfulness bless you with peace today and every day

May the God of creation bless you with prosperity now and forever

 

 

Day 52

Deep breath required

Those who have read this blog over the years will know that I have a particular fondness for the Old Testament character Nehemiah. Click here to learn a little more about the places he and I have travelled together.  I have always found his story of courage, persistence and leadership in adversity to be a source of inspiration.

Today, though, he is troubling me. Ever since I announced my move to Newbury Baptist church, I have been running a little ‘countdown’ app on my phone. It keeps me aware of the time remaining in my current church and helps to focus on the task in hand. The years here have been rich ones – with giant steps of faith for many individuals, and bold shared projects for the church. We have laughed, cried, prayed and celebrated together. Today, though, is day #52:

Today I have 52 days left here at Teddington Baptist Church – which is where Nehemiah comes in. Nehemiah took 52 days to galvanize a weary and fearful unskilled workforce into rebuilding the ruined walls of an entire city. Inspiring though that is, it is also a little intimidating.

What can I do in the next 52 days, with God’s help, I wonder? If you are a person who likes to pray, then your prayers would be hugely appreciated. Thank you.

No substitute

Last weekend I spent a very pleasant Saturday morning with a group of people keen to be involved in different ways with leading worship and preaching. As I always would with preachers, I urge them to perfect the art of reading the Bible, reading themselves and reading the congregation. When it comes to the latter, there are all sorts of tools and devices at their disposal. However, the most powerful source of feedback, more powerful than any survey or questionnaire, remains conversation.  There is simply no substitute for looking another person in the eyes and talking to them.

Ever since I read Gulwali Pasarlay’s book, I have been enthusiastically advocating it to anyone who will listen. This story removes the refugee crisis from the realm of statistics and frames it within the experience of one young boy. One day I sincerely hope I can look Gulwali in the eyes and thank him for such a work of courage, honesty and warmth. In the meantime, I am indebted to Amnesty International Poland and the DBBTribal ad agency for the powerful film below.  It needs no further explanation from me, except to give you this warning: reach for the tissues before you watch it.

 

 

Need preachers be persuasive?

This morning I shall spend three hours with volunteers from my church delivering some training on ‘Sunday ministry’. We shall look at some basic skills for sermon preparation and delivery, as well as some elements of worship planning. With the latter, we shall look especially at the ‘domino effect’ whereby a decision to amend one aspect of Sunday worship can affect lots of people – from musicians and technicians, to people serving coffees and others offering prayer ministry. All are interlinked.

I often find that people are surprised by the contents of my book table on such occasions. In addition to classic texts on homiletics, it contains books of cartoon strips, collections of radio scripts, and even the volume below:

 

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Obviously, there are elements of hard-pitched marketing strategy which would drown out the truly winsome voice of preaching. However, there is, surely, a need for preachers who compel their congregations to listen?  Yesterday I came across the following advert. What is the difference between the two images?

Surely it is all down to persuasion? The man on the left is telling you what he wants, but the man on the right is giving you a reason to provide it for him. Which man is the preacher, I wonder?

… on the way to the pulpit

When I was first taught to preach, I was told that illustrations should be like ‘the windows’ on a sermon. The trouble is, to quote the patter of a magician friend, they can be like old windows:

  • hard to see though
  • difficult to shut up
  • always a pane

Illustrations can illustrate the wrong thing – such as the preacher’s particular preferences or peccadilloes.  They can be too interesting – absorbing the mind of the listener so much that they are led far away from the topic in hand and cannot find their way back. They can be too dull – simply unworthy of the listener’s attention. Humorous illustrations can occasionally be the last resort of the desperate preacher, hooked on the reassuring sound of other people’s laughter. Not only that, but so much humour relies, albeit unintentionally, on the mocking or belittling of the ‘other’, whoever that other may be.

Research published today has revealed that congregations have more of an appetite for Biblical instruction and practical application than poor humour or personal anecdote. This, surely, is not unexpected?  When people gather in a religious setting whose core includes Bible reading, it would be more surprising if they were looking for humour. This survey may be in danger of illustrating its own point about scratching where people are not itching. There is s joke in there somewhere about a man walking into a comedy club and looking for a sermon…

Writing about the survey in a national newspaper, the columnist talks about the faint titter of polite congregations laughing at an un-funny joke being “a sound as familiar in British churches as organ music or an echoing cough from the back row.”  It seems to me there are an awful lot of churches where neither echoes nor organ music are familiar sounds anyway. There is a joke in there somewhere about a religious correspondent walking into a church…

In 2009 a comedian tripped over  a tweet of mine about the Natwivity, fell into my Twitter feed,  and became a good friend.  I have seen her perform her ‘sorry to the Lady’ routine live and read her account of the gruelling stand-up trail. On one occasion I unwittingly contributed to her Easter newspaper column, and she kindly added to my wordle biography with the following descriptions:

#Teddingtonsrockin’vicar #theacceptablefaceoftrendyvicardom #priestlyuberconnector #TheTwitterVicar #socialmediasermoniser

Like another comedian, now rightly mourned, hers is a kind humour – born of keen observation. The golden thread to communication, whether from political orators, stand-up comedians or preachers is connection.  Time invested in understanding your audience will repay dividends long after the sound of laughter has died away. Preachers should spend more time getting to know their audience than practising their gags, I think.

Years ago Boy George described church as ‘God’s theatre on earth’ and said he should be ‘packing them in’.  If he is not, then it is as likely to be because of what goes on Monday to Saturday as it is with ‘performance’ on a Sunday.

 

 

A review of ‘The Lightless Sky’ by Gulwali Passarlay with Nadene Ghouri

To describe an English book by an Afghan man about a journey across Asia and Europe by using an Italian art term may seem unexpected, at the very least. However, there is a reason for the term. Some of Italy’s greatest painters, such as Caravaggio, used chiaroscuro (light-dark) to juxtapose light and darkness in such a way on the canvas that an image left the two-dimensional surface with an enduring three-dimensional impact on the viewer. Passarlay has done just this with his readers. In the course of his long journey, kindness and cruelty, brutal neglect and unexpected kindness sit next to each other on the page. The reader is left reeling from the impact.

If this were fiction, Passarlay and Ghouri would surely be in the running for a prize. Sadly, it is not. This is the account of a global crisis from the perspective of a twelve-year old boy, and it could not be more powerful. It was Stalin who once said that ‘one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’ . Whilst I hesitate to agree with him about anything – it is true that the scale of the refugee crisis has numbed us to its human cost. As the numbers mount, our ability to feel their impact is diminished. Passarlay’s is a small voice reversing that trend. This is a book which enables the reader to inhabit the experience of those fleeing across Europe and thereby to gain some understanding of it.  There is a world of difference between the book’s intense narrative and the tabloid headline which simplifies the crisis to a few one-sided words.  Read it, and find the flame of your humanity kindled all over again. As the author says, it is ‘more than anything a book about faith, hope and optimism’.

Something strange happened to me as I read this book. I found myself so engaged with the narrative that I was unwilling to stop. Every time I put the book down, I felt guilty – as if abandoning Gulwali at the roadside. I told him as much, and he played the game with me – commenting on the places where I had ‘left’ him and urging me to come back soon. How many other voiceless ones would say the same thing, I wonder?

Gulwali Passerlay has a dream. The dream is that one day a child will read his book and ask ‘what was a refugee’?  That day is a long way off, but this wonderful book might just bring it closer.

lightless

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One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic. Joseph Stalin

Some thoughts on transience

I started in local ministry in the Autumn of 1987.  Since them I have served in three churches, alongside some fabulous colleagues and mentors.  In them I have seen the likeness of Christ reflected in a myriad of different ways – like sunlight bouncing off the ruffled waters of a pond.  Over that time, I have developed an understanding of local ministry as a relay race.  No one runner gets the glory, the race goes on, and the moment comes when it is time to pass on the baton. For all these reasons,I shall be moving on soon.

However, understanding a thing and processing it are different.  There is a lovely old apple tree in our back garden.  Over the years I have pruned it, hit my head on it, recovered lost balls and runaway washing from it, and picked pounds and pounds of apples from it. Last year there were so many that we gave bags full away, and still had enough to make several jars of rich amber-coloured apple butter.

Today, before leaving for work, I stopped for a minute to photograph this beautiful apple blossom.

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It was only after taking the photograph that it struck me I shall not be around to see the apples to which the blossom will yield.  They will still come, of course.  Hopefully, there will be somebody to harvest them and enjoy their distinctive flavour – but it won’t be me.  Its a simple point, but felt very profound, standing there in the early morning sunshine.

God gives the harvest, and the rest of us are just workers passing through the field.

With thanks to Ethred and Shaun

Seven centuries ago, a bishop of the Syrian church, known as Ephrem, urged Christian believers ‘put on the wakeful one’. The wakeful one in question was Christ – who was forever awake and alert to the promptings of God. Two weeks ago, I preached a sermon on preaching in which I said that the church needed preachers who would do their homework. One week ago, Shaun Lambert published his book Putting on the wakeful one, and I read it as ‘homework’ for this week’s sermon. I am very glad that I did.

The book is bulging with insights fascinating enough to draw the reader in and stimulating enough to trouble that reader after the covers are closed. My reason for reading it was that I wanted to preach on Paul’s description of being ‘compelled by the Spirit’. (Acts 20 v.22) Most Christians would agree that is a good thing to do, but many would struggle to know how to do it. As Shaun Lambert says, following the ‘footsteps of the invisible one’ is no easy thing. He argues that a contemporary obsession with the acquisition of data and knowledge has obscured a vital pursuit of the wisdom of God. Our ‘attention muscle’ has wasted, and we are no longer able to ‘turn the face of the soul towards God’ (Bernard of Clairvaux).

The book has many, many insights to share. However, the two on which I majored yesterday were these. Firstly, in order to re-awaken that attention muscle when turning to God there must be:

  • intention (this is a deliberate and intentional act)
  • attitude (to approach God with arrogance or disinterest is a lost cause)
  • attention (as counter-intuitive as it has become, we need to inhabit thoughts and feelings in a quest for connection with God).

Secondly, Lambert argues that God may be found in all NINE senses, and not just five, The additional ones are:

  •  Our sense of our feelings
  • Our sense of our own thoughts
  • Our sense of what others are thinking and feeling
  • Our sense of God

Of course, the book expands all of this in far more detail than I could do in the pulpit. However, conversations afterwards would suggest that some appetites have been whetted.

Thank you, Shaun!

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A review of ‘Summer’, edited by Melissa Harrison

Do you remember how in cartoons of old, a bottle of poison would always be helpfully labelled ‘poison’?  Just as helpfully, there would usually be a bottle somewhere nearby which was labelled ‘antidote’.  All that mattered was to find it. In the second of these season books from Elliott and Thompson, I might just have found it. This gorgeous book with its gold-flecked cover by Lynn Hatzius, is just begging to be opened.  Not only that, but Melissah Harrison whets the appetite from the very first page with her description of:

Those elysian summers, polished to dazzling brightness by the flow of the years

My ‘elysian summers’ got rather eclipsed by lawn-mowers, sneezing and the onward march of exam season after exam season, I think. This book can help to fix all that.

Open the pages, and you will see what I mean. You can lean over clergyman Gilbert White’s shoulder as he scratches meticulous notes in his 19th Century notebook.  You can sit with Janet Willoner on a clifftop, watching a raffish hunter at work as he daintily consumes his fish supper. With one writer you can watch a glow-worm dance, and with another you savour the taste of harvested corn and welcome ale. This is a summer collection to wake up a tired imagination, like sunshine warming a plant to coax it into opening.

Having already enjoyed Spring in this collection, there are two things I love especially about this second volume. The first is its ability to slide a different lens in front of my eyes. Most of us have admired a distant summer landscape – savouring the haze on the horizon. How many, though, have knelt down there and then to see what was flying or crawling amongst the grass at our feet? Melissa Harrison’s love for the nature which inspires her writing is obvious in the collection which she has edited.

The other thing I love is to do with the editing too. I love the fact that these pages not only introduce me to writers of years gone by – but writers from whom we shall be hearing for years to come. Where else, I wonder, would you find Charles Dickens and Gilbert White alongside a writer aged seventeen…or even twelve?

Last week I was interviewed for a story-writing blog all about writing and was asked about my favourite authors. Were it not for this collection, and its editor, I would never haver mentioned an ’emerging generation of young British nature writers’, but now I can.

Thank you, for this delicious antidote.

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Buzz Lightyear and Revelation

Regular readers here will know that translation in all its form is something which matters a lot to me.  Simply put, translations can vary from formal equivalence at one end of the scale to dynamic equivalence at the other. For more on this click here. Formal equivalence leans more towards the form of the source text, and dynamic equivalence concerns itself with the dynamic impact on the target audience or culture.

Maybe it is because I have studied translation in various forms over the years, but sometimes I cannot help myself looking for a dynamically equivalent translation when I read the ancient text of the Bible. Sometimes that translation slips unbidden into my imagination, as if a door had been left ajar. That is exactly what happened  this morning as I read the letter to the church in Philippi, found in Revelation 3 v.7 – 13.  The faithful believers in that church are promised by Christ that ‘I will write on them my new name’. On the face of it, that seems like a rather tame promise.  After all, we tend to write names on things rather than people. That is the moment when the image below popped into my mind from Toy Story:

Revelation 3 v.13

The writing of Andy’s name on Buzz Lightyear’s boot is the moment when he wakes up to himself. It is the moment when he realises that he need not yearn to be a real action hero. His is a toy, loved by the boy who plays with him – and that is enough.

Thank you, Buzz Lightyear, for translating an ancient document for me today. armed with that insight, I can go ‘to infinity and beyond’!

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