What does it prophet a man if he is held by fear?

No, not a typo- prophets and fear, not two ideas we often put together because we see the prophets in the Bible as the wild-eyed fearless types.  But what if they were afraid? Surely that never happened? Take a gander at the beginning of Jeremiah, before he gets going on the prophecies of disaster that will unfold (and btw he was right), and you’ll see, in chapter 1, that Jeremiah was full of fear. Until…

Well, that’s what I was speaking about this morning, at our all-ages service with 40 guests from a family new to the church, and so I couldn’t have a full script to talk from with the children right there… more of a vague map to give me a direction and a starting point.  Which is a slightly nervy place to be when you’ve a church-full… And not to mention that I’d had the daft idea of asking God to speak to us today- so not only was I going to be without a script, but I was also expecting God to show up and get me out of trouble.

Anyway, here’s the scribbled ‘map’:

This morning we’re thinking about what young people can do and how we can hear from God, and we’ve just heard a really famous example- Jeremiah, one of the prophets in the Bible, was a man who felt nervous and worried because he was so young. He thought people wouldn’t listen to him. God spoke to him and encouraged him- I knew you before you were even born, before you were even formed in your mummy’s tummy… I had a plan for you right back then… and that helped Jeremiah.  I guess that most of us have been encouraged or helped by someone- maybe our parents or friends, or a teacher- often we think it’ll be someone older who helps us, but sometimes it can be someone much younger than us…

When I became a Christian- sharing faith with my own parents… what really mattered was the change they saw in me (not that I was perfect, far from it)- If my mum’s reading this I’m sure she’ll put me straight on this and remind me that I became a truly awful child for the next two years.

When Rob and Kate first came to this church, it was Harry that brought them!

When my own first child was born, even before she could do anything, she showed me how powerful love is.

When I’ve listened to the prayers that children write, sometimes they make me smile (Dear God, can I have ice cream for tea and can Man U always win) but often I’m amazed, challenged and encouraged by the faith they show- the trust that God will hear and can respond.

God doesn’t seem to have the same understanding that we often do that with age comes greater understanding and improvement- the phrase ‘elders and betters’ isn’t in the Bible, though respecting parents is! Instead God takes those who are willing, whatever their age, and equips them for the work, for the things that he calls them to. Jeremiah was to be a prophet before his whole people, speaking God’s words at a really difficult time.

Children ministering/praying for their parents is something I’ve seen a few times… it’s a real privilege to be prayed for by someone who trusts God like a child… who better than an actual child?

When I’ve finished I’d love to hear from anyone, particularly the children- tell me something that you found interesting or surprising in what I’ve been saying, so listen really hard for anything that stands out to you- grown ups might want to write something down on your notice sheet…

And the coolest thing was, that although I had to leave pretty much straight after the service, one of the kids came up to me before I left with a prayer that she’d written for peace in Afghanistan- we’d not mentioned it at all during the rest of the service… thank you God.

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E100 day 7- trust me… don’t look down, just trust me

It’s the kind of thing you say to someone stuck in a tree, or at the top of a cliff… but as you say it you know they’ve already looked down, and that’s the problem. The problem isn’t the branch they’re on, its the lack of branches below it… its not the cliff or the ledge… its the ground at the bottom, and the distance in between.

As Woody Allen (who despite everything else and all the weirdness was a clever writer) said-

‘It’s not the falling I’m bothered about, its the sudden deceleration at the end I’m afraid of’

Or maybe it was-

I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of landing

I can’t remember which, and I’m going to be really old fashioned and not check it out on quotepedia or anywhere else (if you want to, feel free, and please let me know which one’s correct)

Anyway, the link from this to Genesis chapter 15 is?

Don’t look down- don’t worry about what might happen, the thing you fear, don’t focus on your worst case scenario… instead look at the now, the place where you are and listen to the voice that says ‘I am here with you, and I have a plan, and it will be ok’. Sometimes in life we’ve heard those words and struggled to trust them, sometimes we may even have given someone that reassurance while knowing that this is a new definition of the word ‘OK’.

Abram (note, still not Abraham) is listening to God, who is saying ‘I’ve got a plan for you and your family, it’s a big plan, and it involves some tough stuff but they’ll inherit this land’. And all the time Abram is thinking ‘I don’t have any children, and the missus and I aren’t young anymore… is this one of those interesting, blue-sky thinking plans?’

The answer is yes and no- yes, because it was something that Abram and Sarai didn’t think possible, and no, because it was as simple as possible- you’re going to have a child and he’ll start the dynasty that will become Israel and through whom the world will be blessed.

Just in closing, a thought- what was so special about Abram and Israel? A friend expressed this really well just the other day… they weren’t special except in one way- they understood that there is one God of everything, rather than one god for every different thing.  That was it.

more not for prophet thoughts, and a Kodak moment

Came across this post here about the decline of Kodak, and some really insightful reflections on church decline in response to it, and it reminded me of how difficult it is to hear truth when its spoken to us. This is something I began to reflect on last week and I want to continue thinking about it. Its not just about church, its about being open to changing situations- i just happen to be working in a church which finds itself in a changing situation.

Or do we? I mean, the first challenge has to be as simple as that- have things changed, are things different? Do we simply, in the words of the game Bop it (great game, insanely irritating voice), need to ‘Do it again, but better!’ or do we need to recognise that we need to start from first principles.

The key to that lies in knowing what we’re about- why we are doing this. To take an example from outside of work/church: when I’m struggling with parenting it really helps me to remember why I’m trying to… (fill in the blank)…. It might be getting them to eat their veggies, sit up at the table, brush their teeth, tidy their toys, play nicely together, not run across the road, stop screaming etc. But by remembering that my hope, the vision, the aim isn’t simply to produce a child that eats vegetables (or whatever it might be this time), but rather to help them become someone who appreciates good food and the people who prepare it, to be healthy and all that stuff, because ultimately I love them and want them to understand that. Sometimes it feels important to ‘win’ the conflict over the dinner table, but at other times I can see the bigger picture.

In church we need to remember the bigger picture too. In fact, in most of our lives we could probably do with remembering what the bigger picture is. Its rarely the same as whatever is bang in front of us- its the background stuff, that actually is more important.

But its hard doing that, and it runs contrary to most of our structures. Get a job, but remember that work isn’t everything. Work hard, but it shouldn’t be your highest priority. Compete to the best of your abilities, but without causing damage to others.  Our society praises selflessness at some levels, but celebrates selfishness to a greater degree.

In church life- care for those who are part of the church and worship God, but remember that God has sent all Christians to care for those who aren’t part of the church and don’t know who God is yet… Worship God with all your heart, but in such a way that you don’t exclude those who’re with you for the first time.  And to be honest, we’ve a lot invested in ‘the way things are’- the traditions of our forefathers have built the place where I work and created the job that I do, for starters.

What would it look like if we honestly approached things from the first principles? If we recognised, for starters, that the world around us is different from the world our parents grew up in (hey, its different from the world I grew up in). And are we willing to change things so that we can do/be what we’re really intended for?

Do we want our children to love us, or simply eat up their dinners? Do we want our lives to have meaning, or simply to have achievements? Do we want our churches to embody God’s love in our communities, or simply to exist in our communities?

Meeting someone new, introducing friends to someone special

This morning we held a thanksgiving at our church, which is something we offer families with young children who are thinking about baptism. Its only a fairly small part of the service, but for the family, standing up in front of people they don’t really know can be quite daunting. Anyway, it got me thinking about welcoming and introductions, and my reflections on this passage from John’s Gospel looked a bit like this. As always, I missed out some great bits and added in some genius replacements…

When we welcome a young child into the church, or a visitor, or a family, or anyone, part of what we’re doing is inviting them to meet Jesus. We’re continuing in what John the Baptist, who this church is named after, started when he said to his followers, ‘look, the Lamb of God’ and pointed them towards Jesus. Up until that point, they’d looked to John as the one who spoke the words of God, who called them to deeper relationship with God, who reminded them of the deep truths that they knew in their hearts. And then he said ‘look- you know I said we need to be forgiven? Well he’s the one who will do that’. He gave his testimony- his own personal account, which isn’t like an equation to be resolved or an issue to be debated, but is his own experience. And his conclusion? This is the Son of God.

BUT, and this is important- he doesn’t force that conclusion onto his followers. He just tells them his story and his observations. What happens next is between them and Jesus. Lots of people met Jesus, and they responded to him in different ways. One reason for this is what they were expecting beforehand. He didn’t do many of the things a prophet ought to, he didn’t bother too much about some of the teachings, which a good teacher should, he didn’t proclaim his authority like the messiah they were expecting. Be he didn’t back down, he didn’t worry about being popular, he didn’t shirk from a difficult task.  Sometimes when I tell people I’m a Christian I end up in a conversation where they try to explain why they don’t believe in God, and when they talk about God I find myself thinking- I don’t believe in a God like that. All the caricatures and misquotes and out-of-context bits put together to make an angry, lazy, inconsistent old man. And I think, if only we could put aside our preconceptions, and meet God. And there’s the old argument that if God really wanted us to know him, he’d do something to make it possible- like send a message, or speak to someone, or send a messenger, or come to earth himself. And as you list those things, you realise that’s exactly what God has done. So lets, for the sake of argument, assume that those ideas are in fact true- that God did come to earth in the form of Jesus, his only Son so that people might meet him.

And this is what happens when someone meets Jesus- the lamb of God- God with us. The two disciples of John who saw Jesus on the second occasion changed direction- they were following John, they started following Jesus. They were by no means bad people. The followed him, and they wanted to be with him- they spent the day together. And then it says this about one of them, Andrew: the first thing he did was find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘we have found the Messiah’, and brought him to Jesus.

Andrew doesn’t get much press in the Gospels, in fact, this is his finest hour: he brought his brother to meet Jesus. He doesn’t try to persuade him of his argument, though one must accept that Simon was vaguely interested in such things. He goes, finds him, invites him to meet Jesus, and then its between Simon and Jesus. Simon, who Jesus looks at and nicknames ‘Rocky’ despite consistent proof over the next few years that he’s as steadfast as a pile of feathers, until he does eventually live up to his name.  The encouraging thing here is that Andrew doesn’t have the responsibility for what happens- its not his ‘fault’ if Simon walks away, and its nothing he can be proud of if Simon chooses to follow Jesus. And that makes things a lot easier.

I guess for us there’s two questions that arise out of this- have I met Jesus? And bearing in mind all that I said earlier, I mean, have I met Jesus rather than my own caricature of him. Have I met the man who faced down the educated and the privileged, and broke the social taboos to draw all sorts of people into his circle of friends? The man who spoke with teachers and priests, tax collectors and prostitutes, Jews and Romans, the sick and the outcast, the young and old? Have I listened to the wise teacher who taught that he would rise from death? Have I met the risen Jesus who simply stood and showed the wounds in his hands and feet?

And when I met him, what did I do? Did I follow him, reject his claims, watch from a distance, ask him questions? Or did I, like Andrew, go to someone I knew and bring them too, to meet Jesus.

When we welcome a young child into the church, or a visitor, or a family, or anyone, part of what we’re doing is inviting them to meet Jesus. We’re here today to meet with Jesus, how will we respond to him?

mutterings of a one armed typist…

ok, so slightly off-piste from what I’ve normally been writing, but there you go. also, written with no disrespect to people who mutter, are typists or only have the use of one arm.

i’m writing with one arm and minimal attention as i’m also cradling a 2 month old boy. Samuel has  decided that today he wants to hang out with daddy, and i’m trying to juggle looking after him with at least some productivity.

my conclusion? its not easy. phonecalls? interrupted. trains of thought? derailed. typing? slow and painful. prayer? distracted at best.

So? I take my hat off, salute and generally give a (one handed) round of applause to all who manage to get through not just a few hours but the years of care that raising one child entails. Its a miracle that houses don’t fall apart, that food gets bought, prepared and eaten and it completely reminds me of the utter amazingness of women. To all who question whether women have a place in leadership, i would reply with the question whether men are capable of coping with the tasks almost every mother manages.

And to prove the truth of all this, I just had to walk away from the computer for 20minutes while Samuel tried to decide whether he wanted a sleep or preferred to headbutt my shoulder continually… so much for that detailed and beautiful reflection on the beginning part of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth (often referred to as 1 Corinthians), all about the wisdom of God and the folly of human intelligence. Ah well, go read it for yourself here and let me know what you think of chapters 1 and 2.

Being a big kid- Another thought on the prologue to John’s Gospel

 

To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

Not just believers, worshippers, followers or even friends… children. We have been given the right to call ourselves children of God, simply by believing in the promises of Jesus. And children of the Father who invented love.  That’s what it means to call yourself a Christian- its saying I am a child of God who loves me to bits. I receive his love, even though I have done nothing to deserve it, and all that I will do to say thank you will never come close to paying it back, but I will say thank you out of gratitude and to show that I love God in return. People show love in different ways- some of us are natural huggers, others use words, others give gifts, some of us spend time with those we love while others show love by serving- none are better, all are good. God showed his love through actions, through giving, through physically being present, through coming to live in our world- being limited by time and spending time with people. Its an amazing verse, and may be one of the most important verses for us each to have in our hearts. If someone asks what it means to be a Christian, or to be part of this church- here’s an answer… we’re learning how to be children of God… John 1, v12…

And thats something without an ending- just as even the oldest of us are and always will be children of our parents, so we will always be children of God- never ‘grown ups’, or worse still ‘the finished article’.  This isn’t about remaining childish or immature, but recognising that we can all continue to grow whilst remaining children of our Father.

This isn’t what I said, and its not even what I meant to say

Yesterday morning I spoke at 3 services- an 8am service with just a few of us, a 9.30 service with about 50 adults (fortunately those two services had the same theme), and then at an 11am carol service… so what to put on the blog today?

Well, it would help if I’d actually written out enough of my talks, or if the bits that I did write made some kind of sense. It might help anyway, and probably wouldn’t hurt.

It probably doesn’t help that the two things I got most animated about- one being some stuff around ‘I am saved, I’m being saved and I will be saved’, and the other some thoughts inspired by my colleague’s blog here (no, not the Douglas Adams bit, I’m afraid to say). Anyway, I was speaking about Isaiah 35 for the first two services- and you can read my initial thoughts, but not what I said on that below.

For the carol service i was assisted by 3 toy sheep and a story that originated on the barnabas website… with a few variations and random bits here and there…

Isaiah 35…

At this point in Isaiah a shift happens. It marks the end of an extended message of God’s judgment on the nations- on those who reject him. Instead, we begin to read of hope, and a future joy, and of promises that will come to be- instead of devastation, the wilderness will be transformed into a place of life.  The desert is compared to Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon- places known for the plantlife. I guess an equivalent for us might be to compare it to a rainforest.  The important thing is that the sense of a promise, that has been held at a distance in some of the earlier parts of Isaiah, is now coming closer, and is more identifiable… just as in our own gardens, we don’t generally plant bulbs haphazardly and at any old time, but when we know where we want them to grow…

A seed growing to life has another important idea contained within it- that of growth… and not just in size.  There are seeds that are beautiful, but for the most part they’re a functional thing, but as they germinate and grow a plant unfolds and grows to something much bigger and much more beautiful, something that is truly able to live out its purpose.  So the promise of Isaiah- spoken to the fearful, the weak, the tired is one of hope and transformation.  They will enter the city of God singing with joy, filled with gladness- everlasting joy… When we worship, when we find ourselves close to God whether through prayer, singing, serving others or in other ways, we are experiencing at best, a glimpse of the future promise…

There is in this passage much that evokes John the Baptist- the man who stood in the desert and called out ‘Prepare the way for the Lord!’, calling people to repentance and a fresh commitment to follow God.  He brought into focus the teaching of those who’d gone before him, drawing their attention and saying that the promises they’d been aware of were about to be fulfilled, by one who would open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, who’d enable the lame to walk and leap and put words into the mouths of the mute.

The word redeem is used to capture all of this. It’s a word we often underappreciate, with our coupons and vouchers that need redeeming, but it’s a really important word- it means to set free, originally to buy back (from slavery).

Captives need redeeming. Prisoners and slaves need redeeming.  We don’t need redeeming, do we?

Not unless we’re slaves or prisoners. Isaiah is, of course, talking firstly to his countrymen who’re living in actual slavery- in exile, but he’s also talking about spiritual slavery- needing to be set free spiritually.

What might that mean? We use the phrase ‘slave to sin’ often enough, but rarely do we think about how that works in reality. To put it another way- what things rule our lives? We might joke that its our children, or our boss, but somewhere there’re things like fear that have a powerful influence on us… self-image might be another one. And the things that seem insignificant but actually dominate our thinking and use of time- it doesn’t have to be a major addiction to have control over us… and the promise of God is to set us free from those things- we won’t suddenly be free from debt or bills, but they’ll stop controlling us, if we choose to turn our attention to God.

The promise of Isaiah is that with the messiah- the chosen one, the whole world will look different. The opportunity for us is to have that difference in our lives…

I felt, and feel, that this idea of being enslaved by small things is really important- we don’t notice them, or deny their power, but just as Gulliver was trapped by the Liliputians, many small things can hold us immobile.

What is an ‘appropriate’ celebration?

what’s an appropriate level of celebration? or rather, what’s an inappropriate level?

or to put it more specifically, what’s an appropriate level of Christmas decor for a church? I was struck by this as I discussed with some folk about decorating our church for a school Christmas play… ok, so Blackpool illuminations might be taking it too far, but surely we of all people are allowed to get a little bit giddy at the thought of celebrating Christmas. Irrespective of your take on the whole ‘Christians just nicked the date from the local pagans 2000yrs ago’ idea,  The name does kind of suggest a link between Christmas and Christianity, and so we really ought to be as upbeat about the season as anyone else.

Of course, someone will tell me that we’re not in the season of Christmas, we’re in Advent which is a season of preparation that requires deep reflection and absolutely no sign of joy at all. Bah humbug!  Be all reflective and contemplative if you like, but if a bunch of people want to get excited about something at this time of year, I’m going to do my best to make sure that their celebration includes the birth of the Son of God.

Jesus came to bring peace on earth. I think most of us could do with a bit of that, and I think most of us would celebrate a bit more peace at this or any time of year.

but that is just my thought, and my position… what about you?

 

Stuff i said last night…

Yesterday, after attending a funeral in the morning and spending the afternoon with 60 12yrs olds who wanted to know ‘what is worship anyway?’, I managed to make it to one of our Alpha Course sessions. I’ve missed the last few due to the birth of our son, Samuel (did I mention him yet?), but was back and giving the after dinner talk last night. Its largely based on the Alpha talks written by Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton church in London, with tweaks, omissions and personal bits added in.  As always, my script and what I actually said don’t completely match up, but here it is for your perusal, edification etc…

Before I was a Christian I used to be rather confused by Christians – I didn’t really see the point of faith. And they might try to tell me about it, kind of convert me. And I felt — you know, I thought God and church and Christianity were irrelevant, but I didn’t go to church trying to persuade other people not to go. I couldn’t see why they did it.

Sometimes people say, ‘Surely the best kind of Christian is the kind of person who is a Christian but doesn’t talk about their faith. Surely it’s a kind of private matter?’ And sometimes they refer to some relation of theirs, sort of ‘Uncle Norman’, who is this wonderful Christian but never talks about his faith. And the question I always want to ask is: Well, how did Uncle Norman hear about it? Someone must have told him. And if the early Christians had not told people about their faith, none of us would know.

So why should we tell people? First of all, because Jesus told us to. Jesus died for us, he rose again from the dead, and then he said, ‘Now go and tell people about this amazing news that you can be forgiven, you can be set free. You can have eternal life.’ And really he had no other plans except to use us to tell other people.

The word ‘Go’ appears 1,514 times in the Bible — I didn’t count that, but somebody did! In the New Testament it’s 233 times, in Matthew’s Gospel 54 times. Jesus says, `Go and tell … Go and invite … Go and make disciples.’

The second reason is because of our love for others. As we look around, we see people who are struggling to find meaning, purpose in their lives, struggling with guilt, struggling with fear of death, and so on. It’s rather like, I guess, if you’re in a desert and you came across water, it would be selfish to say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful to find water!’ but not want to tell other people about it.

And I think a recognition of the fact that there’s a kind of spiritual hunger out there sometimes comes from surprising sources.

Sinéad O’Connor (irish singer, no hair) said this: ‘As a race we feel empty because our spirituality has been wiped out and we don’t know how to express ourselves. And as a result we’re encouraged to fill that gap with alcohol, drugs, sex or money. People out there,’ she adds, ‘are screaming for the truth.’

Third reason to tell people is because good news travels fast. We can’t keep it to ourselves; we don’t want to. And the word `gospel’ actually means good news.

You may or may not be aware that 3wks ago my wife Carolyn gave birth to our son Samuel. He’s our 3rd child and we’ve just about got it sorted when it comes to telling folks about it: phone calls to parents with strict instructions about who they can’t tell, followed by email and facebook announcements. But the thing is, you just can’t stop people sharing good news- when we were still in the hospital we had a visitor who worked in the labour unit, as soon as my mum got the news she started phoning her friends and put together a birth announcement card to send to relatives that don’t do the email thing…we didn’t have to ask her to do that, in fact it would have been near impossible to stop her. And it didn’t stop there- you get people who live down your street, or who’s kids are at school with yours, and they’re all asking how things are and congratulating you… and sometimes you don’t even know their name…

People want to share good news.

So how do we go about it? In my experience, certainly in my own life, there’ve been two sort of equal and opposite dangers. I think I’ve swung in my life between insensitivity and fear. When I first became a Christian, it was definitely insensitivity that predominated — I just wanted to tell everybody!

When I was at uni I had a few friends who were Christians, but a lot who weren’t, and I wanted them to come along to church, to understand the Christian faith- to become Christians. And at various times I invited them, I tried to explain, I shared my faith… one of the worst was probably when I and a friend had sat up most of the night playing backgammon (as you do when you’re a student… it seemed the right thing to do), and it was near the end of the academic year… and for some reason I felt a real urgency: I’ve got to tell them, and not mess around, pull no punches… and the whole problem was that I think I felt it was a fight that I had to win, and so my whole attitude was combative… I don’t think I listened an awful lot.

On the flip side, I would be so worried about being laughed at, or not having the right answer to someone’s questions, that I wouldn’t even be willing to have the conversation in case I… lost the argument?

And this swinging from insensitivity to fear can leave us in a place where we are paralysed- doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t.

The thing is, Jesus didn’t tell his followers to share the Gospel only when it would be well received. Or to avoid difficult conversations. He didn’t guarantee the kind of reception that the good news would receive. When we’ve something exciting to share, we don’t worry about those things. We are sensitive to the people and timing, but the importance of the news is paramount.

And much of my life it’s been like that. You know, I’ve swung from insensitivity to fear. And then I’ve heard a talk: `Go and make disciples!’ and I’ve gone back to insensitivity. And then I get hurt and I go back to fear. And all the way along I’ve been thinking: `What’s the right way to do this?’

And I think in essence it boils down to one word, and that is love. That’s why we tell people, and that’s how we tell people.

PRESENCE…

I find it helpful to think of this subject under really five headings, all beginning with the letter ‘P’, to make it slightly easier to remember. And the first one is Presence. Look at this verse: Matthew, chapter 5, verses 13–16?

Jesus said this (verse 13):

‘You are the salt of the earth.’

Verse 14:

‘You are the light of the world.’

Verse 16: ‘… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’

Jesus says to this group of people, he says, `Look,’ — just as he would say to us tonight — he says, ‘Look, you can make a difference to the whole world.’ ‘You are the salt of the earth’; `you’re the light of the whole world.’ What he’s saying is we can have a wide-ranging influence.

And we do that not by withdrawal. He says it’s no good if you cover a light. We do it by involvement. You have to be out there. You have to be out there in your jobs. You’re on the front line. Those of us involved in kind of full-time Christian work are, hopefully, supporting you. But you’re the ministers! You’re the people who are bringing the light of Jesus Christ to the world around, to your families, to your neighbourhood.

So we need to be in the world, but we need to be different. Jesus says, ‘You’re salt.’ Now, salt in the ancient world was used instead of refrigeration to stop things going bad. And he says, `You’re the people who need to stop the society around you going bad. And you’re light — you’re the ones who allow the light of Christ to shine through you.’ We do it’, he says, ‘by your good deeds’ — everything that we do and say as Christians. And it’s summarised in, I suppose, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ It’s living out the Christian life, particularly with those in close proximity to us — our family, our work colleagues, people maybe we share a flat with. It’s really enough that they know that we’re Christians. We can’t constantly be sort of forcing it down their throats. But if they know that we are Christians, they watch our lives. And we’re called to be different — and to show it through our love — our love for our enemies, little acts of kindness, honesty, integrity.

This is hard. You know, it’s really hard to live the kind of life that Jesus calls us to live. But this is what we’re called to: we’re called to a different love. That’s what we’re striving for.

With our family. When I first became a Christian, I thought I need to convert my parents. And I realised that was so counterproductive. Because you know, if you say to your parents, as I’d said, `I’ve become a Christian,’ what that is, is an implied criticism of their upbringing, the way that they brought you up. And I wish somebody had told me earlier that it would have been better to say something along the lines of: `You know, I’m beginning to find there’s a bit more to the Christian faith than I first thought,’ and then to live it out.

The same with a husband and wife relationship. In fact, St Peter gives very clear guidance — don’t look it up, but in 1 Peter 3, verse 1 he says:

‘If any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.’

And so often I’ve noticed on Alpha people say, when we say, ‘How do you come to be here?’ they say, ‘Well, I noticed a change in my wife … I noticed a change in my husband … I noticed a change in my son … in my daughter … in my parent … in my friend … at work.’ They see the difference.

It involves, of course, more than just our family and our immediate friends; it involves the needs of the people around us. Relieving human need — hunger, homelessness, poverty. I’m just so impressed by, well, many of you and all the young people in our church when I see the kind of things that they get involved in.

And then social justice — the removal of injustice, inhumanity, gross inequality in our society.

William Wilberforce. He was aged 27, which is actually the median age, it’s kind of the average age of people who come on Alpha here at this church:

He was aged 27 when he sensed God’s call to fight against the inhuman, degrading slave trade. Ten million slaves left Africa for the plantations in the year 1787, and in that year he put down a motion in the House of Commons about the slave trade. It was not a popular cause, but he said this:

‘So enormous, so dreadful did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would; I from that time determined I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.’

Bills were debated in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1794, 1796, 1798, 1799 — they all failed. In 1831 he sent a message to the Anti-Slavery Society in which he said: ‘Our motto must be perseverance, and ultimately I trust the Almighty will crown our efforts with success.’

He did. In July 1833 the Abolition of Slavery Bill was passed in both Houses of Parliament. Three days later Wilberforce died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in national recognition of his 45 years of persevering struggle on behalf of African slaves.

But what about today? There are massive needs, injustices, out there. What about the fact that 800 million people live on less than a dollar a day and go to bed hungry every night — if we were to fast on bread and water for the rest of our lives, we would still be vastly better off than them. Every three seconds poverty takes a child’s life. Today and every day until we act, 30,000 children die because of avoidable diseases, ie because they live in poverty. 8,000 die of AIDS every day in developing countries. There will be 15 million preventable deaths this year.

And that’s what I love about what Bono is doing, inspired by his Christian faith. And he was invited to speak at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, He said this.

He said, ‘My name is Bono. I’m a rock-star — Brighton rock star. Excuse me if I appear a little nervous — I’m not used to appearing before crowds of less than 80,000 people. I heard the word “party” — obviously got the wrong idea!’ And he went on to speak of his time working in an Ethiopian orphanage. He said: `We lived for a month working at the orphanage. The locals knew me as “Dr Good Morning”. The children called me “The girl with a beard”. Don’t ask!

‘It just blew my mind; it opened my mind. On our last day at the orphanage a man handed me his baby and said, “Take him with you.” He knew in Ireland his son would live; in Ethiopia his son would die. I turned him down. In that moment I started this journey. In that moment I became the worst thing of all: a rock-star with a cause. Except this isn’t a cause — 6,500 Africans dying a day of treatable, preventable disease, dying for want of medicines you and I can get at our local chemist: that’s not a cause; that’s an emergency.’

And I think it’s easy to be overwhelmed, really, by the scale of the problems and to think, you know, ‘Can we really make a difference?’

There’s the story of a man walking along a beach… And he saw that what had happened is the tide had gone out and there were tens of thousands of starfish left stranded on the beach, dying for lack of oxygen, in the heat of the sun. And there was a young boy who was picking up the starfish one at a time, going down to the sea and just throwing them in, and going back to get another one, pick it up and going back and throwing it into the sea.

And this man went up to him and he said, ‘Look, can’t you see — there are tens of thousands of starfish out here! I don’t really think that what you’re doing is going to make any difference.’ And the young boy picked up another one, and he went down to the water’s edge and he threw it in the sea, and he said, ‘I bet it made a difference for that one!’

That’s what we can do. Nelson Mandela said this: `It’s not the kings and generals who make history, but the masses of the people.’

That’s the first ‘P’ — Presence.

Secondly, Persuasion. Would you like to turn to Acts, chapter 17, verses 2–4?

‘As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said.’

‘Some of the Jews were persuaded …’

There’s a big difference, I think, between pressure and persuasion. Pressure is not a good idea. I don’t know how you respond to pressure, but most of us run a mile if anyone tries to pressurise us to do anything. And the effect of pressure is the opposite effect of persuasion: pressure is very unpersuasive. But Paul says he tries to persuade people. And he does it by reasoning, by explaining.

Because the Christian faith is not a blind leap of faith; it’s a reasonable step of faith. There are good reasons to believe. And that’s why I would encourage you to look into those reasons quite carefully, so that if somebody says to you, ‘Well, what is the evidence for the resurrection?’ you’re able to say, `Well, actually there’s quite a lot,’ and that you’ve thought about it. If somebody says to you, `Well, how can you believe when there’s so much suffering in the world?’ — of course we don’t have neat answers to these, but there’s something that we can say.

Again, don’t bother to turn to it because we haven’t got time, but in 1 Peter 3:15 Peter writes this:

‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.’

Those are two key things. I have never met anybody who became a Christian as a result of an argument. I’ve never met anybody who said, ‘I met this Christian and we had this violent disagreement, and at the end of it I said, “Oh, I see! I’m so sorry, I was completely wrong and you’re completely right! I’d better become like you!”’ It doesn’t work like that. He says, don’t do it like that; do it with gentleness and respect.

And I think respect means we listen to people. We say, ‘Well, you know, what do you think? What do you believe?’ That’s why we try to do that — I know sometimes people find it a bit frustrating in the early weeks of Alpha that the leaders and helpers don’t say more. But we’re trying to respect the fact that the guests who come on Alpha, those of you who are guests here, we want to hear what you say. We are genuinely interested. It’s so fascinating to hear it. And we want to respect what people believe, and listen to it.

And I think respect also means being honest. That’s why it’s okay to say, `I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’ll go away and find out.’

I think we need a little bit of a multi-layered approach, because certainly in my case I had intellectual objections and I believed they were genuine intellectual objections, to the Christian faith. But at the same time, I think, there were other things going on at the same time.

I think, for example, I was beginning to realise the implications that becoming a Christian might have for my lifestyle. And possibly, although the reasons that I was giving to people were the intellectual reasons, deep down for me it was a moral question as well. How will this affect the whole of my life? Am I ready for that?

When they first realised that the Titanic was sinking, they rushed around trying to persuade people to get into the lifeboats, but a lot of people didn’t believe them and wouldn’t get in. Some of those early lifeboats went away half-empty. But they were trying to persuade them out of love.

And I think that trying to persuade people, again, is an act of love.

The third P is Proclamation. It’s communicating the message — at the heart of Christianity it’s all about Jesus. And I suppose that’s what we’re trying to do on Alpha, is to focus on the person of Jesus and try to communicate that message. And there are many ways that we can do this, but one of the simplest ways is simply to say to people, ‘Come and see!’ Would you like to turn to John, chapter 1, verse 35?

‘The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”’

‘When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning round, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”’

‘They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”’

‘“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.’

‘Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who’d followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You’re Simon son of John. You’ll be called Cephas”’ (which is translated Peter).

‘The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see.”’

It’s so natural, isn’t it, to say, `Come and see!’ That’s what Celebrations, guest services, Christmas services etc are an opportunity to do: to say to friends who’ve maybe been interested in what you’ve been doing, `Come and see!’

There’s no greater privilege than bringing a friend or a member of the family to know Christ.

The great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who wrote a commentary on John’s Gospel, he wrote that the words ‘he brought Simon to Jesus’ were ‘the greatest service that one person can render another.’

And it’s something that we can all do. Andrew — we don’t really read very much about Andrew except that all the time he was bringing people to Jesus.

Peter became one of the greatest influences in human history. Countless millions of people — lives have been affected by the apostle Peter.

And we can’t all do what Peter did, but we can all do what Andrew did — he brought his brother to Jesus.

I heard about a man called Albert McMakin. He was 24 years of age, he was a farmer, he’d just become a Christian and he was really excited. So he heard that there was this event going on where someone was speaking about Jesus, and he decided he would invite all his friends.

And he’d got this old van, and there was one guy he really wanted to come. He was a farmer’s son, and he really wasn’t interested. This guy had lots of girlfriends, he was a very good-looking guy. And he thought, ‘How am I going to get him?’ So eventually he said to him, ‘Look, would you drive the van?’ And the guy said, `Okay, well, I’ll drive the van. I’m not particularly keen to come in, but I’ll drive the van.’

And he came along and drove the van, and just was interested in what was going on, so he popped in at the back, and he was spellbound. And he went back night after night after night. And on the last night the speaker said, ‘Look, if you want to give your life to Jesus, come to the front.’ And this farmer’s son got up and went to the front.

Since that day, that person has spoken to 210 million people in person about the Christian faith. He’s been the friend and confidant of nine American Presidents. And he’s spoken — not live, but through television and so on — to half the world’s population. His name, of course, is Billy Graham. We can’t all be Billy Grahams, but we can all be Albert McMakins! We can all be the one who says, `Come and see’ and brings our friends to Christ.

The second thing that we can do is tell our own story. That’s what Paul — if you read the book of Acts, Paul’s constantly telling people his own story. He’d say, ‘Look, this is what I was like. I was persecuting the church. This is what happened, and this is the difference Jesus has made.’ And when friends ask, you can tell your story. And really there’s no answer to your story. They can argue about the evidence for the resurrection or the contradictions in the Bible or suffering or etc etc, but they can’t argue with your story.

When Jesus healed the blind man, there were a lot of people who came and questioned him. The Pharisees came and questioned him about it, and they were cross-examining him and trying to trap him, and he said, `Look, I don’t know the answers to all your questions. But I’ll tell you this: once I was blind and now I can see.’ There’s no answer to that.

And then we may have an opportunity to actually explain, ourselves, and to bring someone ourselves to Christ. Its something that never fails to excite me and fill me with utter joy. Just sitting, talking with someone, and hearing them say that they’d like to become a Christian. Praying a simple prayer- of repentance, thanking Jesus for dying for us, and asking Jesus to come into their life through the Spirit.  I love sharing things with people- teaching folk to climb, or surf, or read… but none of them come even close to the joy and the privilege that it is to see the difference that Jesus makes in the life of those we know.

The fourth P is Power. In 1 Thessalonians, chapter 1, verse 5 St Paul writes this:

‘ … our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.’

This is not just an intellectual exercise — you don’t sort of persuade people just intellectually. Of course, there are reasons and it’s important to give reasons; but what Paul is saying here is not just about words — it’s about the activity of the Holy Spirit.

For me, I look back to certainly particularly the first experience of the Holy Spirit.

That the love of God — that’s what Paul says in Romans 5, verse 5 — ‘the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ Again, love is at the heart of it. But when we experience God’s love deep down, that’s what the Holy Spirit comes to do.

And the Holy Spirit also comes with activity: with conviction of sin, with deep conviction, but also with activity — with healing, for example. That’s what we’re going to look at next week.

The fifth P is Prayer. Prayer for others. Paul loved people, and out of that love came a desire to pray for them. In Romans 10, verse 1 he says: ‘My heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved.’ And so often when someone comes to faith, their faith comes alive, we find that somebody’s been praying.

A good friend of mine, Steve, used to go along to church with his parents as a child, but as he grew older he found that attending church clashed with football training and matches. And Steve was a good footballer.  When he was a teenager he decided to commit to football and stopped going to church. One Sunday when he was playing in a match, a fair while after he’d stopped coming to church, he blacked out when heading the ball, crumpled to the floor and was in a coma for several days. When he recovered, he discovered that his parents church, the one he’d walked away from, had been praying for him throughout his coma. The people he’d rejected had been praying for him- not just that he’d recover, but that he’d also come to know God’s love… and he became a Christian soon after that.

I don’t know how it works, but there seems to be something that prayer is very effective.

And maybe that’s one of the things that in the small groups you could begin, maybe even tonight, to start to pray together. It’s so powerful.

We pray for others, but we also pray for ourselves. Because when you start this, some people, hopefully, will be interested and when you say, ‘Come and see!’ they say, ‘Oh, I’d love to.’ But not everybody responds positively. Sometimes — and you may already have experienced this — you’ve told a friend what you’re doing, and they make some … Maybe they mock it a bit or ridicule it or they’re not quite as enthusiastic as you hoped they would be. But this is quite normal.

Would you like to turn Acts, chapter 4, verses 29–31?

This was an occasion where the apostles had been involved in healing somebody and it had provoked a very negative reaction! They’d been threatened, and — verse 29 — this is their response:

‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’

‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’

My encouragement to you would be: if you get a negative reaction from time to time, which will probably take place, don’t give up. Don’t stop. Keep going. Because it will have such an impact if you do.

I heard about a man, it was during the war: he was dying in the trenches. And his friend, who was by him in the trenches, turned to him and he said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ And this guy said, ‘No, I’m dying. There’s nothing you can do.’ ‘Well,’ he said, `is there anything I could do when I get home, any message I could take?’ And this man said, `Yes. I’d like you to take a message to this man at this address and tell him that what he taught me as a child is helping me to die now.’

So this man went back and he went round to this man at that address, and he told him the story. And the guy said, `God forgive me.’ He said, `I taught that man in Sunday school, children’s church, but I gave up teaching there years ago because I thought that what I was doing was having no effect.’

But Paul says the gospel, the good news about Jesus, is the power of God, is the power of God to change lives.

‘If bringing a friend to meet Jesus, maybe bringing them along to Alpha or church is the only thing I ever did in my life, my life would have been worthwhile.’

today i’ll be mostly sharing

This evening I’m giving a talk asking the question ‘how can we have faith?’. It’ll be mostly derived from the work of a British writer and minister names Nicky Gumbel and it forms part of the Alpha Course. The Alpha Course has been used worldwide to help people discuss that kind of question, and the idea is that when a local church uses the course, the talks remain largely the same. I sometimes find it hard to just use another person’s words and ideas, but they’re good ones, so i can cope…

I’ve also just come across, thanks to a good friend who pays attention to these things, a great video that the Archbishop of Canterbury has just posted on youtube (yup, thats just how he rolls, and if you want to follow him on Twitter, he’s there too…). The video is about baptism and the beginnings of faith, and is really worth watching. You can find it here.

That’ll do for today… maybe tomorrow my significant thought will be my own. Or maybe I’ll be sharing again..