Monthly Archives: January 2011

Reproducible kingdom

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At Pip n Jay, we are spending this term with our interns looking at what God’s kingdom is really about. Life defined by God’s rule is, we believe, something for now as well as a hope for more in the future. But what does it look like, and how do we know if we have it for real?

I wanted to get into the mind of Jewish people in Jesus’ day, and see if we could empathise with those who felt they were following God faithfully, but couldn’t believe that Jesus was the long promised bringer of God’s kingdom. We looked at various expressions of kingdom through the Old Testament and history up to the time of Jesus, starting with Genesis 1. We couldn’t help but feel how important a recognisable kingdom was (and is) to people struggling with issues of security and identity, forced exile and imposed foreign rule. No-one wants to be walked over, and if your history tells you that you are God’s chosen people, destined for much greater things, it’s totally understandable that a lot of thought and effort would have gone into the escape plan, the redemption, the hope of God’s kingdom to come.

We believe what so many found hard to accept – that God intervened in an unexpected, if long prophesied, way. He did not just send a blessed man to revive a kingdom which looked like David’s or Moses’ day. Much more radically, he gave himself to the world through Jesus, and asked for our lives in return. God’s kingdom which is here and still coming through Jesus is not the human construction of a nation, but God’s original plan for the world. It’s Genesis 1, life with God, three dimensional in nature: loving God first, and our neighbours as ourselves.

So by looking at Jesus and trying to follow him, we have an idea of what kingdom should look like. Many of Jesus’ examples are organic. For example, from Mark 4: God’s kingdom is like when a farmer scatters seeds which grow (“whether the farmer sleeps or gets up”). Without the farmer understanding how, grain appears, which the farmer then knows he should harvest. I used to think this farmer was God. But God doesn’t lack understanding – that’s more like US! In God’s kingdom we are called to be farmers (just as Adam and Eve were to look after the land) and we have roles – e.g. to scatter seed and harvest grain – but growth itself is a job we don’t understand. God designed the seed so that it would happen, but it appears to happen “all by itself”, not because we made it so.

I wonder how different this is from our expectations and practice when it comes to kingdom growth, or at least church growth. We are so tempted to measure our work and define our success by growth – numerical or spiritual. More people through the church door, or more commitments made, more money raised, more money given away, or more activity visible – all kinds of numerical growth look good to us. Spiritual growth is harder to measure, but we probably think we have a sense of it – increasing prayer, bible engagement, personal maturity, maybe even engagement with spiritual gifts, signs and wonders… all good stuff. Growth is good AND totally expected in healthy lives, and we believe Jesus’ promise that God’s kingdom is about life in all its fulness. But does this growth come about by our understanding of it and working for it directly? 

I think there is a tremendous temptation to think that we must understand growth in order to see God’s kingdom come, and that this can lead us into construction where we should be farming. (I know Jesus also uses construction pictures for the kingdom, but just stick with me on this for a bit…) 

If the kingdom is like a tree which grows from a seed, this is a picture of reproducible life. More seeds will follow, meaning more trees can grow. But we can, instead, construct something which looks like a tree. It might look a lot like a tree, enough to fool birds or even people. The differences:

  • A real tree starts small and grows unpredictably. A fake tree is simply constructed into a predictable tree-like shape. 
  • A real tree needs the right environment for growth. A fake tree can be placed anywhere. 
  • A real tree needs our attention for nurturing, but grows by itself. A fake tree requires us to do everything to make it the right size and shape, and never grows by itself. 
  • A real tree will reproduce. A fake tree will not. 

It strikes me that there is a LOT of work needed to make and maintain a convincing fake tree (check out the gallery pics above), and it’s a very different type of work from farming. 

Evangelicals aren’t usually big on mystery. We want projects we can work on, things we can build, life we understand. We want to get to grips with scripture and so we pay attention and take Jesus’ words seriously. But Jesus speaks of the farmer and growth in Mark 4:27 – “He doesn’t know how it happens.” The farmer does know his role, planting and harvesting, but God takes care of the growth, something also affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:6

Reproducible kingdom is real trees. Man-made trees are not reproducing. So what are we working with? Are we seeing decline in Western European Christianity because God has withheld blessing or changed the hearts of our neighbours so the gospel doesn’t get through? Or have we somehow ended up switching our attention away from reproducible kingdom by investing in institutions, buildings, denominations, even growth plans which look kingdom-shaped, but are simply sterile because we felt had to take on God’s role to make things grow, and ended up constructing fake trees? 

Here is my dilemma. I love to study, understand and shape things. I enjoy feeing like an expert and useful as a teacher or guide. So life leading people to construct a beautiful looking kingdom-shaped tree might actually look quite attractive. But I want to be the farmer who sees real kingdom growth and a harvest. I’m reminded that it’s God’s kingdom, not mine.

Tax. It doesn’t have to be taxing. But, it turns out, it is.

Just finished what seems like a trip through the looking glass (with accompanying bruises) to get my first proper tax return sorted and paid up. Who designed this system?! 

I don’t think I was unprepared. I’ve got records of all my income, qualifying expenses, bank interest (all £1.95 of it) and gift aid for the year. I found my employment P60, my ex-employment P45, and have been keeping a neat little spreadsheet to tally everything up. I even worked out the figure I owed for the year in advance and read several dozen pages of notes across umpteen PDF files to make sure I’d got everything right.

To describe the system as “labyrinthine” is like describing climbing Everest as “a little uphill walk”. Of course I could have paid an accountant to do the hard bits (and they would probably have found a few ways to help me pay less tax), but I decided I didn’t want the bother, I don’t want to declare myself a board member of my own limited company or get involved in any clever schemes to shuffle money around tax havens. I just wanted to go “here’s the money, give me a fair bill, thanks” and believed the online self-assessment would make that fairly doable, if not quite as easy as finding out “What Star Trek character am I?” on Facebook.

So I admit I left it a little on the late side. I made the near-fatal mistake of assuming that when they send you a letter saying “log on and do this by Jan 31st”, you can think about doing it some time fairly close to Jan 31st. Ohhh no. For one thing, just because you’re registered and they’ve told you to do an online tax return, it doesn’t mean that they’ll actually let you do one. Turns out you need to register again and wait for them to send you a PIN code. By post. Why? If they needed me to prove I lived at my address, haven’t they already done that by sending my reminder letter there? Couldn’t they have put everything I needed into that letter? Far too easy. I can register for any other service online instantly, and confirm my identity using information they already know about me. I can confirm my electoral register details in ten seconds by text message. Obviously security is important, but there’s a difference between well designed security (an efficient process) and desperate arse covering (adding as many layers of frustration as possible in the hope that bad guys will simply give up and go away.) 

Thankfully I got in just in time so the letter with my PIN came just before the deadline. It’s a single-use code, not useful for anything else once activated. So why are there multiple prompts to DESTROY it after use? That’s arse covering, not efficiency. I haven’t yet decided whether to burn it, shred it, eat it or sew it into my trousers for protection if it’s that necessary.

To be fair, the rest of the process went fairly easily (given the months of preparation), but with a few unexpected niggles. For one, if you mean “zero” you’re meant to leave a field blank. Under no circumstances enter a zero – that just confuses the machine. Except for the times when it tells you to do the opposite and complains if you don’t put in a zero. You’re just supposed to know the difference.

Weirdest of all is how every income figure gets rounded down to the nearest pound, and every “tax paid” figure gets rounded up. It’s nice, all the rounding errors are in my favour, but why do it at all? I can understand that for paper calculations, it makes life a bit easier not to fuss about the pennies, but can’t a machine handle it all very easily? Overall, deliberate rounding errors introduced into the process meant I had to pay about £2 less tax than I’d calculated. Nice! But doesn’t £2 x 30 million taxpayers add up to quite a lot? £60 million in a year would pay for something quite important, like a revamp of an antiquated system designed for an age before calculators. In the five year lifetime of a parliament, £300 million is almost a Nimrod plane or a half million pound second home for every MP.

But just as I was wondering what to spend my unexpected bonus on, it turns out I shouldn’t have worried about depriving the poor government. I needed to ask a quick question about reclaiming some overpaid PAYE (from 2008) which they haven’t got around to writing to me about yet. I tried to do this online, but the website said I had to ring up. When I got through the extensive menu system on the phone, it said I should go and do it online. I checked the exact page they mentioned while holding, and it said to ring them. In the end, I got to spend so long waiting around on their 0845 service, I’ve effectively given them the money back.

“Tax. We don’t have to advertise that it’s taxing, it just is.”

10 O’Clock Live: did the Channel 4 hype backfire?

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I admit I haven’t seen this yet. But everyone else is reviewing it, so I’m going to pile in too, based on this screen captured moment of hilarity.

Lauren Laverne – she loves the camera, and the camera loves her
Jimmy Carr – he loves the camera, the camera isn’t so sure about him, thinks he’s a bit creepy
Charlie Brooker – he hates the camera, the camera hates him, so they have this mutual understanding which has worked for a long time now
David Mitchell – is in complete denial that there is a camera, and would prefer to be somewhere else much more comfortable out of his new “job interview” suit.

As I mentioned, I haven’t seen it yet, but I feel my expectations have been suitably lowered by the anti-hype.

Making something as good as the Daily Show takes a huge, talented and committed team AND lots of time and attempts to get working properly. So it’s never yet happened on Channel 4′s system. But this looks really promising. I really hope it’s not as awful as everyone else says, but even if it is, I hope they keep trying…

Why don’t Christians praise more during sermons?

(Hello! If you’ve been reading my blog mainly for X Factor, radio or similar bits, I’m thinking the spiritual interjections like this might be unexpected. With best blogging practice in mind – focusing to grow a reputation and an audience – this might be better in a separate blog, But to be honest, I’m writing this to express things I’m thinking about rather than things to impress readers. So I hope you forgive me if this seems a bit random. There’ll be more like it to come, but I’ll continue tagging posts so you can follow the topics which interest you. Thanks for reading!)

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I’ve been reading “Multipliers” by Liz Wiseman, a useful and challenging book about the differences between leading people in a way which shows how clever you are, and leading people in a way which gets the best out of them. I want to do less of the former, more of the latter. It’s clearly ideal for a leader to unleash a dozen (or a thousand) people’s potential, yet it is surprisingly tempting for clever people in leadership roles to prioritise the establishment of their own authority and recognition of their genius, and all too easy for this to end up stifling others’ potential. A clever leader may not even see this happening. But a great leader will put the work in to make sure it does not.

I found myself getting distracted while reading. I’m keen to put the core ideas into practice, and trying to imagine the situations where this can happen. In some, I need to behave differently. In others, I think we need a change of culture, new and higher expectations of each other, and perhaps new structures for our meetings together which enable people to participate more fully. 

In church, for example, Sunday meetings have a structure. This varies across different styles of church, and I have more experience in some than others, but I’ve seen a bit of a range. The central focus, the reason for being together, is normally worship – our expression of love to a God who loved us first and loves us most, who even supplies all the love and inspiration we need, but asks for that to become visible and audible in us. In worship we connect with God, we bond with each other as we do this together, and we express visible qualities of an invisible God to anyone else in the world who may be watching. All of this should end up being a personal and corporate growth experience – a fresh touch from God who wants us to call him Father – but worship is not primarily about us or for us. It’s for God. This is incredible in theory, and amazing in reality. If you’ve not experienced it, look for somewhere that practises it, and see if it changes your mind about God.

There are normally other things mixed into a church’s Sunday meeting structure. There’ll be some business to announce while everyone is there and paying attention, “the notices”, which might be a list of stuff read out, or a newsletter, or if you’re at Hillsong, a whizzy video produced impressively in super widescreen, Often these will be about life and ongoing worship together. There’ll be a collection to pay for the costs of church, and most churches will make it clear that this is also a part of worship – it’s another expression of love and thankfulness. The structure and mechanisms vary (from informal plate passing to high expectation bucket patrols) but it’s all clearly in need of a worshipful response.

Then, at some point, there will be teaching. A church leader or special guest will take a position at the front of the crowd, ask for order, and then start sharing wisdom. This is the bit which intrigues me. In the church where I grew up, it would never be longer than ten minutes. People would start checking their watches after five, and tutting after six. If the sighing and shuffling didn’t put the speaker off after seven or eight minutes, the sound of prams wheeling and doors slamming would deliver a pretty strong hint at the ten minute mark. I later joined churches with far bigger appetites for preaching, and looked back on this bite-sized word culture as deeply unspiritual, but I think God has challenged my view of that lately. The people I grew up with loved God, worship and community. They sent their children for six to fourteen years of church education. They placed a massive value on spiritual learning, but expected worship to flow on a Sunday. I’m not sure the resistance to change was entirely healthy, but the love of God and desire to be in community with God’s people were real.

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been part of evangelical Anglican churches – ones which place a high value on learning and applying the Bible to life, and which generally reflect this desire on a Sunday with talks which last from between 30 and 60 minutes. This format goes back a long way. Lengthy speeches were actually quite popular in the Victorian times when the pews went in. There is evidence much further back, in the New Testament, that teaching sessions could go on for a really long time. My favourite example is when Paul taught for so long that Eutychus, sitting on a window sill, fell asleep, fell out the window and died when he hit the ground. Thankfully people had the faith to pray for his revival, they enjoyed communion together, and then carried on until dawn. An hour seems pretty short in that context.

But how do you hold someone’s attention for an hour? In our multichannel age, when so many media messages are tightly shaped to fit short attention spans, is it surprising that people’s attention can drift during a long sermon? Of course speakers never want this to happen, and there is no reason why it has to. Well crafted, relevant messages, stories, engaging challenges and genuine connections with the exciting things God is doing somewhere can certainly hold attention for as long as a standard TV documentary. Teach as well as Jesus did, and people will give their attention for days and longer.

What I’m wondering is whether clever teachers (possibly myself included) actually make this harder than it needs to be. We know we’re not there to focus on ourselves and our cleverness. We know the job of sharing truths about God should be part of our worship of God. But I’m thinking that the sermon form itself, if it demands talking from one person and only listening from everyone else, looks like the perfect platform for the least helpful behaviours of clever leaders. One way communication is not a good format for ‘multiplier’ leaders to get the best from their teams. So should we be looking to change the format? If so, how?

One answer to this is ‘workshopping’ – using some of the time for discussion and practical work in smaller groups, and expecting creative input and commitment from individuals. This is good stuff, but it might be a long way from what’s expected (and helpful) in a Sunday worship gathering. I’m thinking we’re wise to keep the focus on God and worship throughout, and have other times where our personal development might be the central focus. When we commit ourselves to grow and serve God, that is part of our worship, so there is a link, but I’m also thinking that for someone expecting simply to meet with God, be inspired and learn something, regular workshopping might be a bit try-hard and offputting.

I’m thinking more about expecting a basic level of response during teaching. If a speaker is pointing people to God, and people are recognising and connecting with this, isn’t worship a natural response? Doesn’t that fit pretty neatly with everything else people are gathered to do on a Sunday? That response might be pretty simple – many churches encourage “Amen!” (meaning “we agree!”) and “Hallelujah!” (meaning “praise God!”), and even demand those responses during a talk. Why not encourage that, or even English words(!), as we expect and encourage people to listen and respond actively? (My wife Helen walked in a few minutes ago, saw the title of this post and responded “Because it’d be really annoying” – which I guess might be fair enough…)

To be honest, I don’t think raising the noise and chatter level would make a big difference by itself.

The real inspiration is in the way Jesus, and those who followed him, taught truth with love and grace, always ready to respond to people’s needs, and in a way which seemed inseparable from praise and worship. Jesus had a speaking engagement which was so packed, the house filled up to bursting point. But someone needed healing from paralysis, so his friends cut a hole in the roof and lowered him down. Can you imagine that happening in church? Apart from whether or not we’d expect church to be that full, just imagine how uncomfortable everyone would get with the noise. It would be a pretty noticeable interruption when the roof comes off, and someone starts getting winched down directly in front of the speaker! And if things were allowed to get that far, would we expect the speaker to respond, or kindly remind everyone that healing ministry takes place after the sermon, just before the coffee? Jesus responded to this expression of faith, not just with healing, but the almighty challenge of forgiving the man’s sins – something shocking and unprecedented which revealed the true nature of his mission and God’s love. Talk about disruption on every level.

When Paul wrote to churches to explain the gospel and what we need to do about it, teaching and praise were virtually inseparable. His challenging first letter to the Corinthians opens with recognition and praise of God, which links with praise to God for who he has made the church to be. The practical lessons are hard, but the context is always worship of God who makes all things possible in Jesus. The writer of the letter to the Romans – teaching so clever it gets taught in secular law schools today – cannot separate truth about God from praise to God. The letter opens with praise for what God is doing, develops into a story and legal case concerning our standards in life and how we can relate to God, and it is woven through with recognition and worship of God. At one pivotal point, between recognising God’s mercy and openness, and showing the response we need to make, the writer leads readers into worship – it might even have been a song:

“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36, New Living Translation)

A typical Anglican service borrows praise from the New Testament letters and puts them all the way through our led prayer and worship. Are we as ready to let the teaching slots fill up with praise, even if that disrupts our structure? And for the non-Anglicans too: every church I’ve ever visited which rejoices in its freedom from liturgy and overly-structured services still has a structure and culture of its own. We probably can’t function as a body without structure. But we restrict ourselves, maybe even restrict what God can do among us, if our meetings have a “silo” structure separating worship, teaching and response into things we know we can easily plan and operate. Being true to God’s word, sharing it faithfully, brings worship, and growing faith that God can and will work among us, live, is an exciting and engaging thing.

So the really big challenge to speakers, I think, is to be as authentic and faithful as Jesus, Paul and the other apostles, full of grace and truth, while flexible and ready to respond to something God may choose to do as it happens. Paul had to interrupt what I’m sure was a great sermon in order to bring someone back from the dead. What an inconvenience! What was the bit people remembered from that night? Eutychus’ experience was memorable enough to include in the scriptural history of the early church. God does things at times we don’t expect – perhaps even when we meet together to worship!

Are our preachers trained to look and respond to those times, leading people into praise and worship, prayer and seeking, thanks and sharing DURING the sermon time when appropriate? It might demand more flexibility from the team which leads a service. It might require more attention from the congregation, and produce even more meaningful worship and whole hearted commitment to follow the things God is doing outside church as well as inside. I think I’d like to see more of that. I’d love to be the kind of leader who expects it, and gets the most from everyone following too, for God’s glory.

Podcast 2 – How thick is your jacket?

What happens when life delivers a shock? Do we have to insulate ourselves, and get a bit more cynical about the world? If not, what would be the best ways to spot and deal with stress-inducing times when they come along? This podcast is about significant “kairos” moments in life – occurrences which occupy our heads and end up defining who we are.

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Living a Chilled Life

Is chilling out something we have to wait for – a quiet time, a holiday, or just when things are settled down – or can we do it now? What does it mean to be chilled in the middle of stress? Do we have to insulate ourselves from shock, or can we choose to learn from the stresses of life?

I’m re-posting a podcast series I made in 2008 about making that choice to learn from life. It’s based on “The Circle” in Mike Breen’s LifeShapes, a model for learning through experience while connecting with other people, and it’s something I live every day with the people around me. The series became the top life coaching podcasts on iTunes (!) and there will be new episodes to follow.

They’re going up at http://chilledlife.posterous.com

Podcast 1 – Dealing with stress

crowd picture cc licensed by flickr.com user (((((i))))) (((((see))))) (((((you)))))
other pictures are me in Tunisia with camels! 

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