Thursday, 4 September 2014

Vulnerable Love

Watching the news this week I was struck by a story that deeply challenged me, and encouraged me. There's so much horrific stuff going on but amidst the cess-pit of humanity's behaviour, this is a reminder that there is goodness in the world. It also teaches a deep spiritual lesson.

I'm talking about William Pooley. He sounds like a great missionary from the 1800s doesn't he? Actually he's a 29 year old nurse from Eyke in Suffolk. His story? The first Briton to contract the deadly Ebola Virus in West Africa, and has survived. 

Pooley volunteered to fly out and help with the emergency response in Sierra Leone, helping local medics try to treat and contain the virus. The airborne virus is killing about 55% of  victims, who die a horrible painful and violent death, bleeding internally.Yet Pooley happily volunteered for this, saying it felt quite natural. In caring for those with the virus, in challenging conditions (lets call them dreadful), he contracted the virus too. He said he wondered if he would die and thought of his family. Eventually he was flown back to London and treated in a specialist isolation unit at the Royal Free Hospital. He has now been discharged, free of the disease. Wow! What a guy.

I don't think he's a Christian but what a picture of Christ-like behaviour? Absolutely incredible. Brave, courageous, determined, vulnerable. But even more than that he captures a very important principle for Christians and its called 'incarnation'. It means to take on flesh. Jesus did it obviously when he was born and we celebrate it at Christmas; how he left heaven's glory and took on flesh in a dirty, sinful, mortal world. 

He entered our world, leaving his own behind, and in so doing, entered into a whole raft of potential dangers. Those dangers did not deter him from doing what he had to do: rescue humanity from its sins. Pooley left his native country and went into the middle of a highly contagious viral outbreak that could kill him because he wasn't going to miss what he could do: save people from a disease using his nursing skills. Pooley's actions were incarnational. He was love in action, not just sending love from a far, from a safe distance, but love 'with skin on' as my old pastor Jim Wilson would say. Of course it's hard being incarnational. It's costly - they killed Jesus in the end (although that was his reason for coming!), and Pooley actually got the disease. What a guy - well done Mr. Pooley.

So how can we do the same? The principle can be applied to anything. Quite simply it means being the first to build the bridge to someone else, and can be crossing the road to visit someone or say hi, to crossing the globe and living in a new community. See how you can live this out, or look for other examples of this and leave a comment. 

The final thing to comment on is of course, Pooley's own point, when he praises the local medical workers who are working day in day out without the medical back up or facilities Pooley had, and risking their life to even greater extents for their own people. These too are heroes and any society is lucky to have them.

Maybe next week I'll try and blog about something other than viruses! Wait and see ...

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Ice-Bucket Challenge for the Church

Having just returned from the sunny shores of western France, I am sitting in my office shivering, looking up through the tiny window and all I can is a mass of grey rain. Not sure if you got away this summer but hope you had some chance to slow down and enjoy some good weather. Having periods throughout the year when we deliberately slow down are really important for us physically, mentally and spiritually and I loved being able to do that as God made me lie down in green pastures (literally -I was camping!). However we slowed down so much we missed the ferry home and had to spend an unplanned night in the Dieppe Ferry port! Watch and learn people. Incidentally, children cope with this so much better: we adapted and played cards and slept on the floor in our sleeping bags, and when we got home our daughter said, 'next time when we come home from France can we miss the ferry again?'

Having a break form the constant stream of news was also great, but then of course you come home and catch-up with what has happened: the ice-bucket challenge having totally passed me by. The speed with which this new fund raising trend spread is phenomenal and churches could learn a lot from it. No, I'm not saying that we need to dump a bucket of ice over the minister before we take up an offering on Sundays! And we'd have to navigate the whole wet T-shirt side of it too. But rather how something like that spreads: like wildfire.

A clue to its potency is found in the subject of my holiday reading (couldn't resist another reference to holiday - sorry) - the latest best seller from Dan Brown: Inferno which, without giving everything away ... potential spoiler alert ... is centred around a potential bio terrorist attack. Airborne viruses spread so fast because they multiply rapidly and are then sneezed from the host into the air, only to be breathed in by the next person, who incubates the virus, multiplies it and continues the cycle by sneezing out. In a short space of time, millions can be infected. The Ebola virus in West Africa is so dangerous because of the power of an airborne virus to multiply and spread.

So why did the ice bucket challenge spread so fast, and so too the previous one with nomakeup selfies? Because each time a new person was sent the challenge to become part of it, they were asked as part of the challenge, to nominate other people: you film yourself having a bucket of ice poured over you, make a donation and send the video to other people you nominate to do it as well. Biologically speaking it's the replication factor: each new life contains the ability to reproduce a new life, several times over, so exponential growth occurs. Sociologically its the 'pass-it-on' factor. Here';s the new thing, get involved, and pass it on. Spiritually speaking its the DNA of the gospel of Jesus Christ: become a disciple of Jesus and pass it on so that more people become disciples. Then those disciples get the 'pass-it-on' gene and keep passing it on too ... exponential growth.

All it needs to stop is the 'pass-it-on' gene to be left out and you get  anew generation of people who don't replicate and the movement grinds to a halt, or slows to a snails pace. Hm, sounds familiar? What we're doing here at MBC is recapturing the real DNA of the kingdom that Jesus is King of, and spiritually it's as hard as doing it biologically. However, God's power is made perfect in our weakness, so we know it's not about us but all about him, and if we stay close to him, being filled with his DNA, his heart, his power, his love, then we can become the movement he started with those 12 ordinary people he called his disciples.

By the way: when you've read this ... you know what I'm gonna say?

Back soon

Monday, 9 June 2014


No it's not a typo. Anyone who's read any document I've produced knows I'm capable of some hilarious or glaring typos, but 'framily' is not a typo.

It's hard to be 'framily' without eating together
It's a new phrase that helps explain what is both alien to our culture and at the same time the very thing our culture craves: friends that are as close as family. Forgive me if you've heard of it by I'd not come across it. It happened yesterday. We'd been in the park with friends on Sunday afternoon, kind of picnic, mixed with rounders and French cricket, enjoying the summer sun and friendships old and new. We'd arranged it as part of our missional community and in the end about 27 people came together to have some fun. Afterwards my family went back to a friend's house for pizza, she having been at our house for dinner the previous night. As we sat in the evening sun feasting on Domino's best Pepperoni and Hawaiian delights in her garden, remarking on a good day and weekend on the whole, our friend described us as "framily". I'd not heard the term before but instantly knew what she was trying to say, and I was touched, humbled and chuffed. It was one of those 'moments' that are worth marking and remembering.

The online Urban dictionary lists framily like this: when friends become like family, they're framily. closer than close, they may know you better than your own family. I don't think my friend has ever read Acts 2:42-47, and description of the early church functioning a bit like framily. "Framily" is a great new word to help us understand what we're trying to achieve and create at MBC: extended family. this concept is both theological and sociological. It is the biblical concept of belonging to a meaningful community and where the bonds created and faith in God that is shared is just like the closeness and love of family - and even as the urban dictionary suggests, sometimes closer. If you want to know, it's a Greek work 'oikos' that describes that kind of group that would meet in a 1st century middle-eastern household, that includes, servants, and friends, and wider relatives and cold be up to 35-50 people. It was also the fabric of culture. This 'framily' is also present in all the major growths of the Christian church around the world over 2000 years, from the rise of the early church up to 300 AD and the recent growth of the Chinese underground church in the latter half of last century.
A typical size of framily, including young and old.

"Framily" is also sociological, and describes the size of group between about 12 and 50 people in which you have a strong sense of identity, belonging and participation, and can know everyone in the group. Once a group grows beyond this the participation, belonging, contribution, value, and intimacy of relationship all decrease quickly. It's a huge concept and one we're doing everything we can to understand and live out, learning lots through success and failure in equal measure. It's hard, takes time, and because it involves people is unpredictable and sometimes painful. But is is also wonderfully inspiring and rewarding, and when it starts working, is truly divine.

I said earlier that it was both alien to our culture and craved for at the same time. Alien because of the changes socially over the last 100 years, the rise of the nuclear family (Husband wife and 2 kids), subsequent breakdown of that, and the English culture of "an Englishman's home is his castle". Individualism is a strong force in western culture that permeates everywhere.  And yet at the same time it seems that everyone craves for something more communal and meaningful, even if they can't articulate that, or don't know how to live that out, and navigate the challenges. Good sports clubs and choirs can create that kind of dynamic, but you really know you're in a framily by the time you spend together outside the official time you're supposed to.

Final thought: it's interesting that "framily" is in the Urban dictionary. Perhaps because with growing urbanisation there is growing breakdown of family and relationships and increasing loneliness, making it a ripe place for needing closer friendships.

Whatever we're doing, however we're doing it, and despite setbacks in our past maybe, let's press on and venture into this exciting, challenging dynamic of framily. As we invest time and resources into people, we might just find that we encounter God in our midst ...

Monday, 3 March 2014

Worthy to be Found

So it's Shrove Tuesday tomorrow, with all its pancake traditions. My favourite toping is of course, ice cream! Then it's on to Lent, 40 days of preparation before the cross of Good Friday. If your'e wondering about the tradition, and no. of days etc, the 40 is chosen from Jesus' time in the wilderness immediately after his baptism at the start of his ministry. AS the early Christians didn't fast on a sabbath, that meant slightly longer than 6 weeks, hence it starting on a Wednesday! Are you doing anything special? We're asking people to do the Lent Prayer Challenge, which is to choose 3 people or situations that need God or a breakthrough, and to commit to pray for them to change every day. Let us know how you get on - it's good practice to keep on keeping on praying ...

I was listening to one of my favourite preachers the other day, Hugh Halter. He'd been recounting some stories of people coming to faith and asking him about God all over the place, and had experienced the natural "Oh that always happens to you" jealous complaint from a friend. But he graciously described a pattern of living that naturally produced those type of encounters. I'm gonna borrow them completely, so all credit to Hugh, from the Verge conference 2013 which we have legit recordings of (let me know if you want to borrow). They are 3 types o association - or hanging out.
  1. We begin by associating with the Father, God - in every way we can, learning his ways, his voice, his heart, seeing and hearing what he's doing, and so, like Jesus did, getting involved with the things he wants.
  2. Associating with other disciples. We can't do it on our own and were never meant to. We need other disciples and its good to spend our time with them ... but not all our time!
  3. Because the 3rd association is with the "worthy to be found". I love this phrase - and of course, before you complain of favouritism - it means everybody, but it also places everybody firmly in that category.
Most churches do the 1st and 2nd reasonably well, but often spend so much time working on this that there isn't much left for the 3rd. Jesus did all 3 well. We too can work on the balance. It's why as a church we're trying not to cram the diary with events and training etc. goodness, life is busy enough without church for most in the SE of England. So if we trim our church diaries, and free up some time, we can begin to invest time into relationships outside the church or Christian bubble. It means having free evenings that sometimes or often stay free, so that when f fiend or neighbour either needs help or asks you to do something together, your'e actually free to join them.

The more time we spend with people outside the church, the more the likelihood we get conversations like the ones Hugh gets. Jesus had some pretty amazing encounters with unlikely people too - because he hung out with them. Yes he went to the synagogue and engaged in formal teaching, but he also partied with the "worthy to be found" - a great phrase that i just love. In fact, he did this so much that he was accused of being a "drunkard and glutton". Yep can you believe it? Today the words or phrase would probably be "party animal". Why? Because he chose to be friends with people who got drunk, and ate a lot, there was often food and wine available.You see, if you hang out with people who are lost, the religious onlookers are afraid and think you are either becoming like those you're trying to love, or by being with them, you're somehow condoning what they do. Religion has always tried to control God, and the life of Jesus proves that, and proves it is wrong too. Jesus hung out with the rejected, the lowest life (not in his eyes but in the eyes of the culture), tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes. By being with them he was conveying love and building a bridge for them to cross over to God, not condoning what they do. Neither did he embrace their values or practices. But to show love to someone, you have to step into their world, sit on their chairs, enters their doors, join their clubs. Trouble is, the modern church is often so busy with all of its programmes that it doesn't have time to do that - or fears what people might think of them if they made friends with 'sinners'. Of course everyone's forgotten we're all sinners anyway. Someone once said, evangelism is one beggar showing another where to get food. [My old pastor John MacSporran in Newcastle said that but i don't know where he got it]

You know the Christian life is simple really isn't it? It's all about showing love and sharing God, and serving people. Simple. Not complicated. You don't need a degree ...

... and yet ... it's really hard isn't it? Simple but hard. In once sense easy, in another quite costly, quite sacrificial. Starting with our diaries. I know i need to work on this 3rd association, what about you? Simple but hard. But in the end, to say "it's worth it" doesn't even scratch the surface!
Enjoy those pancakes and get praying.

[PS health warning though: other Christians might accuse you of the same thing that Jesus got: guilty by association - post any stories of guilt by association here if you can.]

Friday, 14 February 2014

Wild Crazy Adventures

Day off today (sorry if you're at work). Spent some time worshipping this morning, singing along to one of my favourite albums of the season, Tides, by Bethel Music. Absolutely loved these lines in the song 'Chasing You':

This life, this love
Was always meant to be
A wild crazy adventure
Discovering, the thrill, the rush
The more I see
The more it leaves me wanting
Your everything
Your everything

The song is generally about our chasing after God, our pursuit of him, because he is so incredible, so wonderful; because Jesus is so mighty, powerful and loving all in one, we're to pour all our energies into finding and following him: chasing after him. He really is so captivating.

This verse that caught me (or if your'e a muso it might be a bridge?) captures well the Christian life. It instantly rem
The pain of the end of ride massage!
(our ITBs for those in the know)

inded me of 2 of the greatest thrills of my life: Cycling the Zoe Challenge last year - 2720km across Europe in 19 days in an amazing team to raise money and awareness to rescue people from horrific slavery; and 4 hours of white water rafting on the mighty Zambezi in Zimbabwe.

The cycling journey captures the 'adventure' of following Jesus. How when you meet him, your heart changes and passions rise to reset injustices, and you find yourself in places doing things with people you've never met before that you would never have guessed. And that the adventure of following him is darned hard work: it aint no sprint, and its gonna hurt some! The Zoe challenge involved getting on the bike early in the morning when everything ached, and churning out another 95 miles, till early evening, day after day. It taught me even more about team, community and the dangers of isolationism and individualism (and i thought i knew quite a lot).

The white water rafting was the biggest image though, simply because it was so 'wild and crazy' an adventure. It was always something i had wanted to do but never got the chance. So after serving with the brilliant and inspiring Zimkids charity, I pounced on the opportunity on a visit to the majestic Victoria Falls.

Why is white water rafting like following jesus? Because of the thrill the exhilaration, the adrenalin rush, the excitement, the amazement of the power of the river, the beauty of the scenery ... and the fact that you could lose your life! Yep. It is both wonderful, but it is also dangerous, and a risk to your safety and health. Our boat flipped 3 times, one of which i was trapped under the boat during a level 5 rapid! Pretty scary. I could feel the power of the vortex below me, sucking my down, but I clung on to the safer rope, and all it to was my watch, and my friend's shoe! I would do it again tomorrow if I could. Why? Because I had been taught what to do, how to look after myself; because I was in a team,  who were looking out for each other because our lives depended on it; and because the captain of my boat was none other than the awesome 'Sir Wilson'. If you ever go there, get in Sir Wilson's boat because he is quite simply the best (Unashamed plug: Shockwave Adventures!). This guy is the boss of the river.

You know, being a Christian is not easy: Jesus said tough things like "If anyone want to be my disciple, they must take up their cross and follow me". We have to die to our self, to let go of everything we lean on, depend on, and lean on him. We have to be ready to die at any moment. But we get to go on the wildest craziest adventures with him as the captain of our boat.

The good thing is it's not wild all of the time. And after periods of several sections of rapids there was a lovely long slow meander with no white water. Instead of gripping the boat for sheer life, we were able to lie back on the edge of the boat and bask in the sunshine, resting from the exertion.

So whether you're  on a section of the river that is quiet and restful, or dangerous but exhilarating, remember the Captain is always with you, and he is the Boss of the River. The most important thing is to be in His boat, and let him steer you, trusting everything you have into his hands, and not caring what you lose in the process, coz we dokn't get to keep anything when we die anyway.

This life, this love was always meant to be a wild crazy adventure ... the more of you I see, the more it leaves me wanting your everything. Too right!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Laughter's Medecine

Discussing last week's blog about consumerism with people I've got some further thoughts about it. When we've applied insights on consumerism to the area of Christian teaching we've got into some hot water, offended some people, confused others, and possibly misunderstood by both. So my thoughts centre around the mechanism of consumerism: the addiction we have to consuming things, that others have produced for our own benefit and convenience. No sooner do we have something than we're tempted to want more of it or a better version of it. The experience becomes addictive. So, imagine the new Christian, who gets into the rhythm of going to a church service every Sunday and experiences brilliant teaching. the sermon is fantastic and God speaks so clearly, so profoundly, that Christian has an incredible time in God's presence. This becomes the pinnacle of her/his week. Consumerism works within that person to say, "you need that again, and again ...and again". And if the preaching continues to be good, the addiction is sealed in a never ending repetitive cycle.

Whilst the Bible is clear about the importance of good teaching (the disciples were devoted to the apostles teaching -Acts 2), I believe Jesus modelled something different to us than just endlessly receiving teaching: 'freely you have received, freely give' (Matt 10:8). So rather than getting on the treadmill of receiving great teaching, we change our mindset to one of living out what we've been taught before we try to get more teaching; giving freely what we've received. I'm not criticising anyone, just trying to point out our slavish addiction to consumerism and how the ways of Jesus rub up against that, compelling us to live counter culturally, in a rhythm of giving and receiving that is anathema to western thinking (of course there are many wonderful people who listen to a great sermon on Sunday and that fuels their life, I'm simply pointing out the opposite ideology and how  we can be blind to our culture). This is, I believe, one of the reasons why many Christians today simply cannot comprehend living without a service / sermon every Sunday. Once again, I'm not saying services and sermons are wrong every week - goodness me I've spent the last 17 years of my life preaching most weeks in a church service. I just want to be fully aware of the forces at work in our culture, to be free to do something different like having freely received we can freely give back to others, and to have some honest mature reflection and debate about the rampant consumerism around us and how it might affect our faith. Cool.

So onto this week's thoughts.
laughter, boy do we need it. We need it anyway don't we, but also in Jan and Feb, the hardest months for mental illness in the UK, we need it even more; AND  when we've had storm after storm, and rain belt after rain belt all winter, well i think we should book ourselves in for a whole weekend of comedians!

Did Jesus laugh? You bet he did. It's quite important that we get a right view of Jesus. Was he sombre, dour, serious, even grumpy, most of the time, as some churches might portray? No way. Laughter is very healing and mentally beneficial. I've just read some research about it having a positive effect on the immune system, and that we need it daily. When was the last time your ribs ached from laughing so much? So let's have more fun in our lives. Do fun things together too. This week in my house we've ended up laughing because of a  broken finger, and physical exhaustion! The Bible speaks about having life to the full, and the joy of the Lord being our strength. Sure;y that includes laughter. Next week I'll write about the cost and challenges of being a Christian today, and hope that we can see the tough side of life through the lens of God's love, and hold laughter and tough challenges in the same hand.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Unexpected threats

On the 1st May 1991 I started following Jesus. I was 20 and I had been brought up an atheist. Up to that point I lived for myself essentially. But at the moment I humbled myself before Jesus and asked him to forgive me and lead me, everything changed. That moment was the game changer to end all game changers. Huge things happened. Over-night I stopped swearing, and no longer needed all the crutches I was using up to that point like alcohol.

As time ticks by, and you grow as a Christian you begin to appreciate a whole host of other things that have happened. As we follow Christ, other things that ruled our lives are deposed. One I’ve come to appreciate more and more is the idol of consumerism. Now an idol is a false god, something that takes the place of God in our life, that you bow down to, consciously or unconsciously. Consumerism is a massive driving force of western culture and its power is growing around the world.

One of my children was doing some homework recently on the food chain and at the top was humans who consumed what other animals/plants produced. It’s a good summary of us as a race. We consumer what others produce. And in the last 3 years with the proliferation of smart phones and screens everywhere (cafes, pubs, doctors surgeries, hospitals, tube stations, corner shops etc) that bombard our brains with subtle messages that in effect say: “You need me, can’t survive without me, must have me”. Of course I understand in our complex urbanised society there is a relationship with consumerism we can’t do without, but we don’t have to worship at its altar.

High Halter and Matt Smay in their brilliant book, The Tangible Kingdom, explain that consumerism is a major barrier to the church moving out of a strong relationship with God into mission. I can see that in the church in the west today it is  powerful force that infiltrates the best churches too. Recently Carl Beech from Christian Vision for Men was recounting a conversation with a Christian leader in Cambodia who said the greatest threat to the Cambodian church at present was consumerism, and that if it wasn't reversed it would destroy them in a generation. Wow.
You hear phrases like “I want better/deeper teaching, I don’t like the worship, there’s not enough X, it’s not meeting my needs” instead of “how do I best follow Jesus and become like him or how can I serve?”

So why’s it a problem? Consumerism puts “me” at the centre, and asks “what’s in it for me, what do I get?” whereas Christianity puts Christ at the centre, and after that comes everybody else, and then finally comes “me”. There can only be 1 person on the throne of someone’s life, and that should be Jesus, but if consumerism is there, Jesus and his values of giving up our lives for others get knocked down a few places.  

I don’t have all the answers, and i include myself in the challenge, but I know a problem when I see one. Some of the greatest challenges to us we are often blind to, because they are ingrained in our culture. Sociologists call it cultural blindness. Shall we help each other overcome the challenge of consumerism in the church? Or would you rather shop elsewhere? (joke! haha) 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Sky's the Limit!

Happy New Year to the Blogosphere

One of my Christmas presents was a cycling book: Inside Team Sky by David Walsh. Some things have struck me that I'd like to share. But first maybe some background on the book for the poor people who don't much about the world of professional cycling.

Most will probably know that the American rider Lance Armstrong who won the Tour de France 7 times, was stripped of the titles because he was finally found to have used performance enhancing drugs. Team Sky is a very new British cycling team with a zero tolerance for doping, but because they are backed by a massive sponsor have the best equipment, and have produced champions in the last 2 years after only been together for 4 years, rumors spread and animosity grew. Team Sky's boss Sir Dave Brailsford was at his wits end as to how to prove to everyone they were clean. So he invited the Times journalist
David Walsh - Sunday Times Journalist
David Walsh to come and spend a year with team with absolutely free access to everything and anyone at any time he wanted. Walsh was the fist journalist to suggest Armstrong was doping (and Armstrong sued him and the Sunday Times for what he wrote - who's laughing now?).

It was a fascinating read as the skeptical journalist tries everywhere to find evidence of drugs. His final conclusion is that Team Sky is clean. Hurray. One very poignant part of the book was describing in the Tour de France when Britain's Chris Froome was leading the tour and climbing on those narrow mountain roads, and many in the crowds were shouting abuse and accusations at Sky and Froome.
The journalist reflected how bizarre it was when the crowd were ignoring another rider, Alberto Contador, who had just come back into the race after a 2 year suspension for drugs! They left him alone, but persecuted the clean team Sky. Walsh described this as the Barrabus factor: a crowd wanting to punish the innocent and exonerate the guilty. Not willing to believe the winner got there by sheer good training and good science.

I really felt for Sir Dave Brailsford - what else can he do?
Froome battling up Mont Ventoux amidst the crowds
It's a lesson in prejudice and gossip and the behavior of crowds. He did the right thing in inviting the most skeptical journalist to see how they lived. There are so many parallels: inviting atheists to come and see how live our lives, to see our authenticity, to see how our faith works; to forget what people think of us and only value what God thinks of us; to remember that you can never please the crowds, but focus on the people around you, and do the things you were sent to do, and everything else will take care of itself or its not worth the energy. People will have prejudices (within and without the church), but if we do what we are supposed to do (seek the kingdom), with honesty openness and integrity, God will take care of the rest (isn't that what Matt 6:33 means?).

Sir Dave Brailsford answering a barage of accusations
One more lesson: I really admire Sir Dave Brailsford and his leadership of Team Sky and British Cycling too. He's made mistakes for sure. At the end of the book, Walsh describes Team Sky's approach to failure: embrace it and learn from it; use it to become better next year. Now that is what we in the west need in our churches: courage to try new things in the knowledge that we'll fail along the way, but that's part of the journey of discovering the best way to do things and to getting better at what we do. Let's not be afraid of failure, for such fear kills off any innovative, adventurous and faith-filled spirit, and the Church of the west needs those things in bucket loads if it is to halt the decline its in the middle of.