A brief account

I have just come from our Mother and Toddler Easter service. It usually consists of an Easter Egg hunt, an action song or two, a story…and a brief thought for the adults. When it came to the latter, I decided to put my radio training to good use, put a two-minute timer on the screen for everybody to see, and try to explain why Easter matters in 120 seconds.  The script used is below the timer.

 

Twice in the past two weeks, I have come to work with not one, but two ties. That might not seem significant in itself, but perhaps if I show them to you, you will see why. Yes – twice in the past two weeks I have had funerals to conduct. In fact, last week I was singing “jump, jump, jump, jump for joy” with the Busy Bees at 11…and 3 hours later I was pronouncing the last words over someone’s mortal remains. Life and death, death and life – its all in a day’s work.

The truth is, I could NOT do this job without a belief in the resurrection. Without believing that Jesus really DID live a blameless life, really DID die for others on the cross, and really DID come back from the dead – I would quit tomorrow and do something else instead. If there is no resurrection – there is no point. Easter is proof that Jesus meant everything he said – and that he had the miracles to prove it. Once you start believing that – everything changes.

The other day I was out taking assembles at a primary school on the theme of Easter. It was a beautiful Spring morning, and everything was looking at its best.

Just take a look at THIS grave though .Unlike the others – no-one has kept it clean and tidy. In fact, no-one has kept it all. The ivy has crept and crept and crept over it until everything is obscured. I don’t know how many years it takes to do that – but it must be quite a few.

It seems a shame, really – but look carefully and you will see that there are some tiny daffodils poking out from the midst of it. Did someone plant them there specially, I wonder – or have they come by accident? Either way, they are a defiant little gesture of Spring. Life in death, light in darkness.

Why does Easter matter? Because it fills me with hope and every day I get to pass that hope onto others – THAT is why it matters.

SPRING

Happy endings not guaranteed

Once upon a time there were three little boys, let’s call them Dick, Jimmy and Jem.  Like many little boys, they liked to play with their toy cars. They loved to race them just as fast as they would go and pile them up in great big crashes too. Sometimes one or other would get cross. He would stick his tongue out, call the others silly, and take his favourite toy car away with him. It never lasted long, though, and soon the boys would be back on their hands and knees, pushing their cars across the carpet and making broom broom noises to their hearts’ content.

Of course little boys have to grow up, and all three of them did. As luck would have it, they all found a job where they could still play with their cars, and get paid for it. They could race them, bash them, line them up to compare them and lots and lots of people loved to watch them doing it. In the end, so many watched them doing it that they came to believe they would do it forever. One of them got so big for his boots that he would sometimes trip over his own feet. He would poke his tongue out at the people he didn’t like, call them names and sometimes do even worse. The others would egg him on and laugh at his antics.

Then one day he went too far. He got so cross that he stamped and swore and hit the person who had made him cross. He hurt the man, who had to go to hospital. He got into big, big trouble and in the end he wasn’t allowed to play that game any more. So he gathered up all his toy cars under his arm, and crossed the road to another studio to start all over again…

_____

Of course, in reality this is a story about four people, not three – but little is heard of the fourth. In a similar way, last year, a story from South Africa became the story of an athlete going to prison, rather than a woman losing her life. So often perspective is the first casualty, don’t you think?

Played_with_Tonka_toys

Image: Wikimedia commons

 

 

 

Preaching from the Palm Sunday story

Palm Sunday suffers from the curse of the familiar.  No preacher, myself included, will be able to surprise anyone this Sunday with a story they know so well. Do we see what it means though?  I have been thinking about that as I return to my narrative roots…

_________

From that whole day, there is ONE sound I will always remember – just one.

Not the shouting of the crowd – as fickle and meaningless as a branch in the wind knocking on a door pretending to be a visitor. It would be as soon gone as come – and those who shouted themselves hoarse one day, would jeer themselves silly the next. Like dogs barking at a passer-by, whether friend or foe – they would cheer for heroes, villains and everything in between. No – it was not the sound of the crowd

It was not the rasping disapproval of the grey-bearded men either. Goodness knows, I had heard it often enough. Their lips hidden by their beards and their hearts hidden by their robes they would disapprove of anyone and anything if it suited them. Their plea to the “teacher” to make it stop cut no ice with me…nor him , for that matter.

It was not the sound of the donkey’s hooves either – poor humble beast bearing just another burden. They fell softer than a horse, daintier somehow – and all but drowned out by the crowd.

No, it was not the hoof beats of the beast, nor the shouting of the crowd, nor the sneering disapproval of the greybeards that I remember.

It was the tears of a king.

I was just there, you see – just at the crest of the hill as Jerusalem spread out before him and his speech caught with a sob.

How could he be a king, and yet unable to sort things out?
How could he so vulnerable…yet welcomed like a king?

We know this story so well, and yet its meaning eludes us.  The contrasts are like a hall of mirrors – never allowing us to see the full picture except in snatches.

oatie

Adding to the sermon

When I am training preachers I often tell them that they should expect to be inspired by their congregation as well as inspiring them.  In fact, in order to test the theory I generally ask the class what any of them have observed recently amongst those to whom they preach which has inspired them. I am no exception, and when I travel to another church on Sunday I shall take a visual aide (as opposed to a visual aid) with me.

Ever since a visit to Network Church Sheffield in the Summer of 2013, Lifeshapes have been part of what I do here in the church. In the basic version I teach here, this consists of :

The circle – a reminder to savour our ‘God-moments’ and always ask what God is saying and what we should do about it.

The triangle – a reminder to keep our Christian lives in balance, with an up dimension to God, an in dimension to the church, and an out dimension to the world.

The square – a reminder to pass the baton on carefully in Christian service, rather than holding onto it tightly, or dropping it altogether.

 

The square operates through a four stage process of gradual handover:

  1. I do; you watch
  2. I do; you help
  3. You do; I help
  4. You do; I watch

 

This is where my smiley visual aide, pictured below, comes in.  Chris has just stepped down from a job he loves – serving on the church Leadership Team. He is not leaving because he is tired of it or disenchanted with it. In fact, the reverse would be true. He is leaving precisely in order to pass the baton on and encourage others to learn as he has done. Who better to take with me on Sunday? When I preach, we shall look at the aftermath of the transfiguration together in Mark 9 v. 14 -29. In this passage we see the disciples barely able to do their job, let alone being in a fit state to take on the task when Jesus goes away. He steps in, helps them, deals with the problem, and then (most importantly) explains what has gone wrong and where they should put it right next time. This is the point where many churches fall down. For the congregation to have Chris there to tell his story and then available for questions afterwards will achieve far more than I could on my own.

 

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When we fail to pass on the baton it tends to be for one of three reasons.

– the person passing it on does not let go

– the person taking it does not grip firmly

– both parties are out of practice.

The results of a failure in any one can be dramatic, as witnessed below. How is it in your church?

 

 

 

 

#journey on air

It’s no secret that I love radio work – whether its Pause for Thought, Prayer for the Day, Thought of the Day or Sunday Breakfast – the experience is one that I treasure. Then again, I love preaching too – and with both of them nerves can be a torpedo below the waterline. A nervous preacher, like a nervous broadcaster, can make for uncomfortable listening.

Today I want to pay tribute to the warmth, professionalism and skill of Premier Radio broadcaster Loretta Andrews (pictured below), who hosted me on her show last month. I have been working on my book Journey – the way of the disciple now for almost two years. All the same, Loretta’s deft questioning and encouragement meant that I discovered things about the reasons for writing it and the blessings on the journey which I had never realised before. Thank you, Loretta!

Have a listen to the interview below, and I think you will see what I mean…

 

Good news for the trapped

As those who read regularly will be aware, I have been working through a preaching series entitled ‘Good News for….’. We have looked at good news for the young, the old, the curious, the nations, the lost, the weary and others. Yesterday it was the turn of ‘the trapped’, and we began by watching Helen George’s brilliant portrayal of a person trapped by circumstance and alcoholism. Given the numbers of people for whom alcohol addiction is a problem, there is liable to be someone in most congregations who will identify with it. Even if not, the feeling of being trapped will be familiar.

CLICK here to see the clip on BBC iplayer - 54 minutes in to the programme

CLICK here to see the clip on BBC iplayer – 54 minutes in to the programme

After watching the clip we turned to Psalm 107, which starts exactly the same as the previous Psalm, but then takes a different tack entirely. The Psalm goes on to describe four groups of people who find themselves in different kinds of trouble. From each of them the refrain comes back again and again “in their trouble they cried out”. This applies to the four groups named: pilgrims, prisoners, rebels and sailors.God comes to them all.  There is a message here for anyone feeling trapped. It is a message which has been tried and trusted by generations. On the day of trouble, it is medicine for the soul, and on the day when trouble is far away it is good to store it in the medicine cabinet ready for another day.

1. God is not shocked (even if it is your own fault)

Some of the people are entirely innocent “victims” v.4 – describes those who had broken out of Egypt and started long trek (40 years) across desert specifically BECAUSE God instructed them to. In v.23 these seafarers are making a living from the sea and not doing anything wrong. In fact they are probably more aware of God’s marvels and creation than others (v.24). The other two groups are very different:

v.10 -11 We don’t know exactly what they have done – but they appear to be in prison specifically because they have transgressed some rule of God’s . v.17 This group have been living in a state of open rebellion against God, and now live to regret it as sickness creeps into their bodies.

Tow groups are innocent and two groups are to blame – but both are treated equally by God. Each time, there is a formula followed:description of plight-cry-answer

Pilgrims/ wanderers – led to safe city (v.7)
Prisoners – chains are broken (v.14)
Rebels – healed (v. 20)
Seafarers – storm is stilled (v.29)

The Bible has many examples of people who get themselves into trouble. Noah – gets drunk and loses dignity. Moses – loses his temper and kills a man. David – loses his self-control and takes Bathsheba to his bed. Jonah – loses his nerve and runs away from God. God does not disown a single one of them though

2. God is not deaf

v.4 – 5 These pilgrims and wanderers are in the middle of nowhere, Egypt far behind them, the  promised land far ahead of them. Parched and weary, they have hardly any voice – but God hears them.

v.12 – 13 These prisoners are shut away from human sight and even any human help “there was no-one to help”. God, though, hears them.

v.18-19 These rebels against God are literally fading away, having made selves ill through their willful neglect of God. With hardly any breath or energy left to speak – they cry out and GOD HEARS THEM.

v.22 These people are far from helpless. They are used to the sea and to being out in all weathers. Their ships are being tossed to and fro in v.24. With No RNLI or coastguard to call on, their words are being snatched away by wind and waves, like shouting in a dream. God HE HEARS THEM though.– v.28

Whenever and wherever however we are trapped, God can always hear us. We see this with Jeremiah down the well;  Daniel in the furnace;  Jonah in the whale and many others since.

3. God is not incapable

It all very well God not being shocked. It is all very well God not being deaf either. I would not be shocked if someone rang me and said their car had broken down. Not only that – but I would not be deaf to their pleas. The thing is, I would be incapable of doing anything about it. Not only is God neither shocked nor deaf – he is not incapable.

Towards end of Psalm the writer paints a picture of the spectacular power of God, displayed in both positive and negative ways: turning the river into a desert (v.33), or the fruitful land to a salty waste (v.34). He can do it the other way around too, turning the desert into pools of water or the dry ground into springs (v.35). After this there follow pictures of abundance and prosperity provided by God which speak of his mighty powers to intervene.

Not only is God not shocked or deaf when we are trapped – he is not incapable either.

Never beyond reach

Last week I saw a thoroughly modern version of Maslot’s pyramid of needs, with significant amendments:

 

Maybe future generations really will panic if they cannot be in touch. In truth, though, someone will always hear them…

 

From long ago

Ever since Littlest Star had its first airing, I have been in the habit of writing original stories for our Teatime Special events. Yesterday, with all the crafts orientated around Spring in general and Mother’s Day in particular, I wanted to draw on a mother’s tale from the Old Testament. With apologies to Elijah, please take and use the story below if it can be of any help at all to you:

_______________

“Shut your eyes mum” Joe whispered, “its mother’s day”. Joe’s mum knew just what to do, and she shut her eyes and put her hands out in front of her. Just like he had done every mother’s day for as long as they could remember, Joe dusted a little bit of flour on one hand, and dripped a teeny weeny drop of olive oil on the other. Now in case that seems a really strange thing to do, let me tell you the story all about how it began.

Many years ago, Joe and his mum lived in a little house on the far edge of a village in the desert. Joe’s dad had gone a long time ago, and the two of them had managed fine ever since. Or, at least – they had managed fine until the rain…stopped. When that happened the crops started to die, and pretty soon Joe’s mum had nothing to sell.

For the first few weeks they managed by eating all the things they had in the cupboards. Gradually, though, the cupboards got emptier…and emptier…and emptier. Two bags of flour became 1 bag of flour. One bag of flour became half a bag of flour – and their jar of oil was nearly at the bottom too.

The day came when Joe’s mum had just enough flour and just enough oil to make a few flat loaves to cook on the stones round the fire. After that, there would be nothing. She was just stoking the fire up before mixing up her flour when the stranger came.

‘Excuse me’ he said, ‘could you spare a little food and a little water for God’s friend Elijah’? ‘Sir’, said Joe’s mum ‘I will gladly give you water – but I have only enough food left for one last meal for me and my boy’.

Joe was listening secretly by now, and he saw the man smile as he said kindly ‘do this for me – and God will make sure you don’t go hungry. The flour bag will stay full and the oil jar will stay topped up until the day when the rain falls and the crops grow again’.

Joe couldn’t decide whether to watch the stranger or his mum – but in the end the food smelt so good as it cooked that he had to sit by the fire and watch. The loaves were the best he had ever ever tasted, and after that something amazing happened.

Long after the man of God had gone – the bag of flour went on for weeks and weeks and weeks. Every time they tipped some oil out of the jar – by the next time they went to look it had filled right back up again. Just like the man said – God never let them go hungry.

And that is why every mother’s day Joe puts a little bit of flour on one hand and a little drop of oil on the other. Like most boys – he reckons his mum is the best…but they both remember the day that God did his best for both of them.

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#journey comes to life

Apparently law and sausages are two things where it would be better not to see how they are made.  I wonder whether the same could be said of book illustration?  As you will be aware, I put out a plea ten days ago for help with illustrating #journey.  The response has been far in excess of what I anticipated, and has led to the kind of conversations rich in creativity which feed the soul. Last week I had just such an encounter with illustrator Max Ellis, and yesterday I sat down with concept artist Ash Fitzgerald. Our conversation ranged to and fro from the Camino to Jewish legends in Prague and the explosive energy of creativity in word and image alike.

The image you see below is a snapshot in the creative process.  On the table you can see photographs of some of Ash’s works, his rough sketch pad, a copy of the relevant chapter from my book which he has annotated, and my beloved blue folder with the manuscript to date open at a page with a gorgeous illustration by Teddington artist Rachel Morris.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

I have to say that I love the mess in the photograph above. When I write, it is a messy process. I tend to write ‘outwards’ – creating a ‘thin’ version of the entire book which then grows fatter with every revision. Those revisions are done on a printed typescript so that I can be messy and scribble as I think.  To have found a kindred spirit who talks about a creative process which grows with him as he changes has been a breath of fresh air.

How do you create?

Good news for the grieving – 1 Thessalonians 4 v. 13 – 18

For the past two months, I have been working my way through a preaching series on ‘good news for…’. We have thought about good news for the nations, the old, the young, the curious…and yesterday it was ‘good news for the grieving’.  Preparation for the sermon started by asking people on Twitter about the least helpful thing people had ever said to them when grieving. Answers came back on the #dontsayit hashtag as follows:

1. I know how you feel
2. Any sentence which begins with “at least”
3. Nothing
4. Offering support…which you cannot deliver
5. Its for the best
6. Any sentence which begins with “you should”
7. Are you feeling better yet?
8. Think of the good times – memories are a powerful reminder that they are not there any more.
9. Have a good Christmas
10. When are you coming back to work? (Boss)

To be fair – all those people also said that they believed the vast majority of people who had said these things had meant well when they did so. When we grieve, we are hurting (C.S Lewis described it as ‘an amputation’) and even the best meant things can sound like the worst.

There are many, smaller, griefs too:

• Loss of income (redundancy)
• Loss of status (retirement)
• Loss of mobility
• Loss of proximity (empty nest)
• Falling out of love

Where is the good news to be found?

1. Perspective

If you read only part of v.13, you get the phrase “you do not grieve”.  If any Christian ever tries to say or imply that we do not grieve, they are lying. To suggest that Christians do not grieve is as daft as saying they do not sweat. Of course we grieve, but we grieve differently. We do it differently over death. We do it differently over other, smaller griefs too.

V.13 tells us that hopelessness is born of ignorance – about the wider, deeper picture and about the specific and irreversible actions of God.

v.14 When it comes to dying, others may pussyfoot around and call it other things – fallen asleep, called home, at rest, gone away, but Paul uses no such phrase when he talks about Jesus here. He calls a spade a spade and says that our hope is born of this one fact:

JESUS DIED AND ROSE AGAIN

That single fact changes the way we grieve over those other smaller things. If Christ has died and risen then no matter what we have lost – this CANNOT be a day entirely without hope. As Martin Luther King said : live each day as if Christ died yesterday, rose today, and was coming back tomorrow.

That single fact changes how we look at greater grief of death too. It concerns me when a Christian who has lost their husband or wife says ‘they were EVERYTHING to me’. That cannot really be true, surely? To say that does nothing to detract from the pain. He or she may have been unspeakably wonderful and enriched your life beyond the capacity of words to say but they could not and should not have been your ‘everything’.  Note that Jesus himself shed tears when he saw what the loss of Lazarus was doing to his family (even knowing he would go on to reverse it).However, as Christians we grieve DIFFERENTLY because we see things DIFFERENTLY.

Note Paul’s contemporary Aristides on how Christians dealt with their dead: ‘they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby’.

2. Prospect

In general, the New Testament does not say much about the day Christ returns. Details are kept to a minimum – as if it is all too wonderful, sublime and spectacular to be described. In v.16 Paul breaks with that tradition. What he describe is not the quiet Jesus explaining parables to the disciples, nor is he the gentle Jesus blessing children, nor the silent Jesus before his accusers. Instead, we see the commander of heaven’s armies coming for his own in triumph as he splits the skies.

The worldview at the time held that above the earth was the air,and above that were seven layers of heavens.  So when Paul writes in v.17 that we shall meet the risen Lord ‘in the air’ it is an assurance that he is coming to get us. Paul concludes this verse by saying that ‘WE WILL BE WITH THE LORD FOREVER’. For him, this is the absolute bottom line.  Never mind his loss of status in Jewish establishment.  Never mind being cut off from his family because of following Jesus. Never mind all the things he had lost – it was worth it all to know that come the day, Jesus would fetch him home.  Is that prospect enough for us too?

3. Mind the gap

There is a gap here, though, between belief and praxis. I have often heard the phrase ‘so heavenly minded that we are no earthly use’, but never yet met a Christian to whom it applies.  In the churches where I have worked and worshipped the problem is usually the other way round. Fully aware that we do not want to sound like the #dontstayit phrases above – how do we fulfill Paul’s instruction in v.18 to ‘encourage one another with these words’?

It is a tightrope to tread – but we must try to learn how to do it. I close with a quote from the closing chapters of #journey:

The refusal to think about journey’s end is one which no pilgrim could afford. For a start, they had to actually know where they were going. Not only that, but the prospect of their glorious arrival would be enough to sustain them on a long and arduous journey. As Christians we have shied away from talking about journey’s end, and laid up all kinds of problems for the dying and the bereaved by doing so. It is time we put this right.

Any advice?

peace

 

Phil 3 v. 7 – 9

 

 

A moment of creativity

When I  put out a plea a few days ago for help with illustrating #journey, I had not anticipated the generosity which numerous artists would show by donating their time and talents. I am immeasurably grateful to them.  I had not anticipated, either, that I would get to sit down with one of them and witness the moment when pen and ink gave birth to an idea on a piece of paper right there before my eyes.

Yesterday, I sat with photographer and illustrator Max Ellis at his old oak dining table. Around me were works of art of every description, and outside the remains of the props from last year’s squirrelfest photos. Steaming mugs of tea pushed to one side, the conversation turned to #journey.  With a scratch-scratching of pen dipped in ‘antelope brown’ ink, a pair of old boots emerged on the piece of paper before me as we talked about the pilgrim’s possessions. Next on the list was the penultimate chapter of the book ‘around the campfire’.  The pen scratch-scratched its way across the paper again, and all I could see from the wrong angle was a series of hatched blobs and a flame rising. That is when the magic happened. With the paper turned around, I found myself looking at the silhouettes of three pilgrims leaning in towards their conversation around the fire. How did that happen?

Today we have all manner of digital aids at our disposal when it comes to creating works of art. We can manipulate photographs and images of just about every kind in just about every way.  To do so is not to cheat – it is simply extending the creative process. However, there was a rawness and simplicity to yesterday’s moment of creation which I shall savour.

Many people who write of their pilgrim travels talk about encounters on the road which enhance them in some way. They talk of meeting people whom they would never have met had it not been for the shared objective of the road. In that moment of encounter every difference falls away, to be replaced with a kind of rich humanity unfettered by nationality, background or even language. Yesterday, I had such an encounter – and I am a richer man because of it.

A snippet of a sketch for #journey

A snippet of a sketch for #journey

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