7000 miles in one click

Those of you who read yesterday’s blog post will know that this morning a seven-year long relationship with a church 7000 miles away in the Philippines took a new turn. Today I was invited to preach, from my own home, via Skype to their afternoon service. This is how it went…

0440: Up and dressed

0500: Head to the study with cup of tea and boot up computer

0501: Speculatively turn on Skype to check it is working, to be greeted by sound of singing and Pastor Barquito’s smiling face telling me they are ready to hear the Word of God if I am to preach it.

 

0502: Start to preach, consciously slowing down as I do so, and trying not to look away from camera too much when reading notes and quoting scripture verses:

0530: With the sermon over, I pick up my cup of tea, only to discover it is luke warm. Just then, Skype rings again, and Pastor Barquito greets me out in the glorious Filipino sunshine before ‘taking’ me back inside to meet the congregation:

I am moved beyond measure to see their smiling faces, and feel overwhelmingly privileged to have been invited to their church today.

As preaching experiences go, it was certainly an unusual one. For the first few moments the video signal was patchy, and even after that the image on half the laptop screen (with my notes on the other half) was not clear enough to really see faces. For a preacher, such a disconnect can be a real problem. After all – a sermon is an act of human communication, and we love to see each other when we communicate. At this point I was grateful for all the time I have spent in radio studios broadcasting to those whom I cannot see. Preaching seated was also unnerving.  I like to move (at least a little) to give emphasis to what I say – but also to feel for myself the dynamic impact of God’s active word. Preaching seated felt almost lazy – although it was necessary for the camera to function.

Overall, this was a good experience. I believe passionately that technology is as good or bad as the uses to which we put it. Ever since Caxton first started using printing presses to print the Bible we have realised that. Of course the best kind of preaching is embodied and organic, as I said yesterday. For the most part it is best done in a context where both preacher and congregation must live the rest of the week with the consequences (for good or ill) of what has been preached. Once in a while, though, it is good to don the seven-league-boots which technology has given us, tuck the Word under your arm, and cross an ocean or two with it.

Can’t wait to do it again…

_______________________

As a late addition – here is the view from the church in Davao City

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An international service

The photo below shows a test-run for tomorrow morning’s pulpit. For the past few years I have found myself connected with a small church in Davao City, in the far South of the Philippines. On a regular basis Pastor Barquito uses podcasts of my sermons, recorded in Teddington, to play to his congregation. In the grace of God they have been used, and last Summer a number of those who listened to them were baptised as believers.

 

Tomorrow morning at 5.30am UK time, I shall preach via Skype to the congregation gathered there for an afternoon Sunday service. The split screen which you see above has the webcam feed to the left and my notes to the right. To be honest, I don’t really like using electronic notes – but anything else will rustle infuriatingly and get in the way of the webcam!

As a person who sees preaching as an almost organic act – growing out of the lived and messy relationship with a group of God’s people – this is an unusual step. However, the fact is that a relationship of sorts has built up with this Pastor and his people, and a gracious invitation has been extended by him. Technology is meant to connect, rather than divide – and this is a great example of how it can do so. Tomorrow morning I shall use software originally designed by a Dane and a Swede for music file-sharing to address a group of Filipinos all the way from Teddington about words originally spoken in Israel by Jesus.

This is all very clever, but the cleverness is not what matters. As with any act of preaching, what matters is that the timeless word of God impacts the current lives of those who hear, unleashing the power of the Holy Spirit.

I shall be praying that it might be that way, and that the scene below might be repeated again in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean.

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Engaging with prayer

Last Autumn I was away preaching one Sunday and found myself being interviewed live before the church during the worship. This was not a surprise, as I had suggested it to the church in advance. It can help to avoid a guest preacher ‘coming in cold’. However, what did take me by surprise was the nature of the questions. One of them was about the biggest single threat to the church in the United Kingdom and the other was this: what is the secret of church life? What would you have said? My answer to this unexpected question was:

Engagement

I truly believe this to be the case. If we are to harness churches for growth then we have to find a way to engage people, even with those elements of their Christian life from which they feel most disengaged. For most churches one of these is corporate prayer. Even where it does happen, it is often beset with problems of boredom, intimidation and uncertainty. We have to find ways we can help people to pray.

Last December in my own church we took the decision to replace every evening service in January with a prayer night. Numbers have held up, and people have shown great enthusiasm both in their prayers and their comments afterwards. Recognizing that people are slightly ‘out of the habit’ of praying together, certain techniques have been followed:

  • Each session has lasted little more than an hour
  • Each session has had a single clear focus
  • Each session has included time to pray on your own in silence, in addition to large and small groups
  • Each session has included the use of simple and arresting graphics
  • Each session has concluded with a prayer read out loud together
  • No sung worship has been used, as the aim is to pray.

Last night’s session was concentrating on our desire to reach out to the community through and beyond the church. I created a giant street map of the area, and asked an 8 year-old Lego enthusiast (and his dad as it turned out) to make a model of the church. The church was then placed at the relevant spot on the map, and people then placed tea lights on those places where they most wanted to see someone in particular come to faith. You can see the results below. Note that some of the lights spill beyond the edges of the map -which seemed like a good thing!

Why not think about doing something similar where you worship?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

CLICK for close-up image

 

Scaling the heights of story

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of narrative preaching. I can see narrative in a 30-second advert, a still photo or a painting.

Like many others I watched in awe earlier this week as Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell completed their nineteen-day ascent of El Capitan. However, what has interested me especially is the way it has been described. On Tuesday Jorgesen tweeted that ‘This is not an effort to ‘conquer’. It’s about realizing a dream’. Meanwhile , President Obama congratulated the climbers saying that ‘you remind us anything is possible’. However, it was the comment of an awestruck climber watching from the ground which really struck me:

 “I don’t really look at it as a climb – its just this heroic narrative”

There are many narratives competing for our attention just now – but this one has the advantage of inspiring all who reach for something seemingly impossible.

Image: nationalgeographic.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course

Earlier today I was dismayed to see the tweet below appear on my timeline:

If ever there were an example of jumping on a bandwagon, this was probably it.  At the time I queried whether the writer had misjudged the mood of the moment, and one hour later this was tweeted from the same account:

Frankly, I am not sure that it is an improvement.

Now, of course Twitter is a place to raise questions, start conversations and contribute to ongoing debate. That person was a free to tweet these things as I was to read them. However, what troubled me was the lack of nuance or tact in the communication. People from many faiths holding up ‘je suis Charlie’ placards in Paris on Sunday might have been surprised to see the words recycled in quite this way.

Last week a so-called ‘terrorism expert on Fox News made the following claim:

In Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in

The resulting storm of #foxnewsfacts tweets responded to this bizarre caricature with humour and wit which made the tweets above look dull and anodyne by comparison. Rather than engaging in any kind of argument, the writers ridiculed through their wit, and thereby demolished the false argument. By the time the broadcaster issued an apology, people were probably so taken up with the #foxnewsfacts that they  hardly noticed. I repost a selection below.

Please, let’s be clever in our communications, and let’s choose a tone appropriate to the medium we use.

 

 

 

 

A moment of honesty

Like thousands of others, I was shocked to see events unfolding in Paris on Wednesday and beyond. I was one of those who contributed to the 3.4 million #jesuischarlie tweets in 24 hours. It was an instinctive reaction, a desire to express something of my outrage and revulsion at the events as they happened. I truly believe that a world where people die for their satirical humour, no matter how offensive, is one we should all want to avoid. However, to read ‘Je suis Charlie’ as “I follow Charlie” (quite justifiable in French) would be quite wrong.  I have never bought a copy, and it is unlikely that I ever would have done. The little extra book below, depicting the ‘the true story of Baby Jesus’ might have made me laugh, but I suspect it might have made me cringe too:

petit

There is a little bit of me which wonders whether the person in America selling a copy of this booklet for $300.00 ( not kidding) is embarrassed that they possess it, or simply seeing an opportunity.

This week has seen inconceivable violence in Paris, more violence (little reported) in Northern Nigeria with hundreds murdered by Boko Haram, and Syrian refugees struggling to endure a bitter winter cold in the Lebanon. Against the backdrop of all that I am scheduled today to preach on the text ‘This is a day of good news’ (2 kings 7 v.9) I planned that sermon for this day way back in November last year when most of us had never heard of ‘Charlie’, let alone claimed to be him!

Should I change my text? Should I abandon it and opt for something more topical? I believe that would be wrong. When the world seems crueller and crazier than ever, that is precisely the time when the good news needs preaching. In a moment of cruelty and hatred preachers are called upon to assert the possibility of the goodness of God. Maybe that is precisely why I am uncomfortable with the little book above. To me it mocks the very thing which could bring some hope to the madness. I don’t want it destroyed or anything of the sort, and I have a certain admiration for those with the skill to draw it – I just don’t want to read it.

To those who will stand in solidarity on the streets of Paris today – may you truly find a day of good news, and soon.

A lesson from a recipe book

If I could ban one phrase from every preacher’s vocabulary, starting with my own, it would be ‘it will do’, accompanied with a shrug. I know that preachers are busy people, always combining the task for preaching with many other demands.  However, if we once allow the idea that a sermon lazily constructed or poorly finished is good enough to get away with, we have crossed a line.  Will Self called preaching ‘twenty minutes to love the congregation’, and he was right.  If I offer them something which I would find unsatisfying, why should I expect them to be blessed?

This week I have had all those lessons reinforced by…a recipe book. Over the months I have followed the progress of Hortense Julienne Nguepnang-Ntepndie as she has worked towards creating a cookbook for people subsisting on food from food-banks.  When the book was first launched as an online resource, I was so impressed by the care taken with the recipes and the attractive way in which it was all presented. However, the book is now available in print form and it is beautiful.

CLICK to download your own copy of the book

CLICK to download your own copy of the book

In this case, the beauty of the presentation really matters.  People who find themselves reliant on food-banks often feel wracked by guilt and shame. Hortense has chosen to create something which is not only useful but beautiful precisely to counter that perception.  ‘The background colour is royal purple’, she explained ‘because these people are like princes and princesses in the eyes of God’. Although the book is also available in a PDF version with black text on white, this full colour version is a gem offered to those who feel far from precious.

Please consider making use of this book. It can be read online, downloaded for your own printing, or printed professionally with your own logo on the back here. In an age when some food writing and television seems to teeter on the brink of soft porn, this is an entirely wholesome little book.  The Apostle James tells us  in James 2 v. 16 that Christian love must be practical – but there is no reason why the practical should not be beautiful too, is there?

An unexpected Christmas

I came across this video a couple of weeks ago, and have been judiciously keeping it ever since for use in church today. It comes from St Paul’s Church in Auckland, New Zealand, and is just…lovely. Dare you to watch it without smiling at the line “brilliant, they won’t be expecting that”. Enjoy:

 

 

A map to find the way?

Why do bad things always happen at Christmas? It cannot have escaped people’s eyes that there was a cruel irony to the dainty gold lettering spelling out ‘Merry Christmas’ on the window of the Lindt Café in downtown Sydney as seen through the long focus lens last Monday. Then there was the photo of a little boy in India apparently lighting a Christmas candle seen on news websites last Friday. On closer inspection there were tears glistening on his cheeks as he lit a candle to remember the schoolchildren of Peshawar. Bad things happen at Christmas. Of course, sometimes Christmas is a momentary break in all that badness and madness – like the guns on the Western Front famously falling silent on Christmas Eve 1914. The trouble with that story  is that it all started up again 24 hours later. Are we to believe that Christmas is no more than a temporary enchantment, lasting no longer than a child’s snowman coming to life for one night only in a fairy story?

I wanted to find a way to tell the longer story of Christmas as an age-old plan which would be memorable and not too heavy. That is how the ‘tube map’ below was born. Each station was ‘revealed’ from bottom left, zig-zagging upwards. Explanations are below the picture. Everyone of the 200+ people who heard the talk took home a credit card sized version of the map with Matthew 1 v.21 on the back ‘Give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’.

CLICK for larger size

Burnt Oak – long ago in a field somewhere off the Edgware Road, there was a tree which burnt down. The field has gone and the tree has gone, but the name remains. The  story of Christmas starts LONG ago, where newly made human beings stood, ashamed, in the shadow of a tree where they had broken the only rule they had been given. A new world without disease or corruption of any kind was spoilt before it had hardly begun.

Bank – right then, from that very moment onwards, God was building up a bank of promises that he would put it right. They came in all shapes & sizes through all different voices – prophets….poets and visionaries of every kind. They were passed on from the mouths of one generation to ears of next – the bank of promises did not run dry.

Angel – at last an angel came, to a poor girl with a good heart to tell her the time was right and that the bank of promises was open for business.

Marylebone – although the spelling is wonky, the message is true. This girl, with all her fear & inadequacy – was good.  (Literally ‘Mary-the-good ) She was not perfect. She was not more than a woman  – but she was a good woman who would do what God asked of her.

Mile End – thus began a journey over many many miles to the place where the child would be born. The Mile End on the London Underground was so named because it was one mile from Aldgate. The journey was much further than a mere mile for Mary and Joseph.

Old Street – when they got there, the old streets of Joseph’s home town were an inhospitable place. They were bumped from pillar to post, and not a room was to be found. So this special child would enter the world in a shed on the back of a pub.

Grange Hill  – not the Secondary School of Tucker fame, nor even a hill with a name  – just a hill somewhere out of sight where people did a job no-one else wanted to do.

Shepherd’s Bush – originally a stopping off point on the way to Smithfield market, maybe with a hawthorn bush pruned in such a way as to provide shelter for shepherds There was none for the shepherd’s in our story, though. Out in all weathers, despised by many, the lowest of the low…these were the last people ever to hear about anything important. They could not have been more surprised when…

Angel – showed up again, and told them that God’s age-old plan to put things right was happening right here, right now & he wanted them to know about it.

King’s Cross – far away, somewhere in modern Iraq, kings were setting out for a journey they barely understood, crossing the desert to see a king whose birth would change the world for ever. It was more than a whim, but less than a plan – this was something which just HAD to be seen.

Barons Court – originally named to attract people to the area and to compete with Earls Court by sounding equally upmarket. Our three kings headed straight for the most logical place to find a king – the Royal Court.  He was not there, and after another diversion they found him in the Old Streets of Bethlehem – and knelt to worship him.

Somewhere on the edge of Lewisham there used to be a coaching inn called the “Golden Cross”…some time in 17th Century, it changed its name to New Cross

New Cross is place where all this was leading

Like every child – Christ would grow up to carry many expectations on his shoulders. The time would come when he would carry expectations of ENTIRE world on them. On a cross, would do something about a problem which had been there since dawn of time. With ONE spectacular act of selflessness this miracle-child would erase a blot which had been on the copy-book of humanity since beginning of it all.

The burnt oak would be forgotten; the bank of promises cashed in. All the kings and shepherds and everyone in between would have a hope like never before.
The reason you have a tube map (whether paper or app)is so that you can GET to where you need to be. Hopefully this map will help you find your way this Christmas.

 

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Please feel free to use this if helpful.

Festively feckless

Every year it happens.  On the last Sunday evening before Christmas I stand there before a packed church, looking out at the expectant faces reflected in the candles’ glow. There are young and old, stranger and friend, neighbours and cousins and work colleagues and everyone in between. As I stand to welcome them, I draw a breath , and find myself incapable of formulating the triplet of words for which I am searching : ‘carols by candlelight’. Over the years it has come out as:

  • Carols by carol-light
  • Candles by carol-light
  • Carols by carol-light
  • Candles by candlelight
  • Our carol-lit service

This year it has been made even worse by the launch of Amazon’s ‘Carols by Kindle-light’ to further mess with my head.

The graphic below is made up of the phrase ‘carols by candlelight’ in 20 languages. May it lighten the darkness of my fellow-sufferers.

 

twenty

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