Mark Fairweather Tall

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13/10/2016 20:53

It's good to talk!

                

It was back in the 1990s when BT launched a new advertising campaign with the slogan: “It’s good to talk”. At the time their market share was very high and they were without a significant competitor but they wanted to change attitudes. They looked at statistics that suggested a high proportion of men were responsible for paying the phone bill but that women were the heaviest users and most likely to pick up the phone for a chat. So BT employed Bob Hoskins, often associated with playing rough-edged characters with a heart of gold, to deliver the words in a gravelly cockney accent: “It’s good to talk”. The campaign was very successful in increasing revenues and presumably therefore changing attitudes (especially in men) about the value of talking to each other!

 

I was recently sent a link to a story where talking is being encouraged. Over recent days, badges have been handed out on the London Underground displaying the words, “Tube Chat?” They are designed to show other commuters that you are someone who is happy to start a conversation with them. Badges have been handed out with the guidance: “Have a chat with your fellow passengers. Wear this badge to let others know you are interested. You’ll benefit from a daily chat. Start using it today.”  The message is that ‘it’s good to talk’, but Jonathon Dunne, the man behind the badge, has found the reception has been far from great. In an interview with the BBC he said, “Twenty percent think it’s nice and about 80% of people think it’s terrible, the worst idea ever.” In fact, such was the reaction Jonathon wondered whether he would still have struggled to give them away if he was offering £5 with every badge!

 

I freely confess that I would not want to wear such a badge! When I travel I like to read or get on with some work. If I am walking on my short commute from home to church/meeting I would rather listen to something or simply be lost in my own thoughts. I have no desire to talk to others!

 

In many ways, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this and it is simply a sign of my natural introvert tendencies. However, there are times when I read the Scriptures and feel challenged. Again and again I see examples of people willing to be interrupted and talk before ministering to those whom they have just met: Jesus took the disciples away to a quiet place for some rest, but crowds followed and it led to the feeding of the 5000; As Jesus was passing through Jericho he saw a man who had climbed a tree. He stopped, engaged in conversation with him and it led to a life changing moment for Zacchaeus; Philip met an Ethiopian eunuch and engaged in a conversation with him that led to the request to be baptised. As Paul went on his missionary journeys he deliberately went to places where he could have a conversation with people to tell them about Jesus.

There have been times when I have felt prompted in prayer to simply walk around and seek the opportunity to share something of my faith or minister to someone as I journey. Unsurprisingly, when I do this I am often presented with that chance. I confess, though, too often my natural instinct not to talk is more prevalent. It is good to talk – I know it and I believe it. Sometimes, though, I need to remind myself to do it… perhaps I should make myself a badge! 

15/08/2016 10:22

Can we learn anything from the 'Pokémon Go' craze?

Have you “Gotta catch ‘em all”? Are you Bulbasaur, Charmeleon or Pikachu? Can you throw a PokeBall? Have you any idea what I am talking about? If you do, then maybe you are one of more than 100 million people worldwide who have downloaded the Pokémon Go app to their phone. Even if you haven’t, you may well have seen people walking around with their smart phone in front of their face. Pokémon Go is a mobile game that encourages people to find and catch pretend figures (called ) using real world locations. Different creatures hide in locations suited to their species. So, if you are looking for a water species like a ‘magicarp’ or ‘squirtle’ you are most likely to find them in locations where there is real water. You can find Pokémon in a variety of places like on grass, the pavement or in the air and when you come across a creature you throw a ‘PokeBall’ in an attempt to capture it. Users can catch over 700 different species of Pokémon as they gather at different real-life local landmarks where the Pokémon appear.

 

People point out both the positives and negatives in the game. On the plus side, people argue that it gets people out into the fresh air taking exercise as they walk around their locality. Against that, others have been quick to point out the dangers of people concentrating so much on their phones that they are oblivious to the environment as they cross roads without looking. One woman even had to be rescued from the sea as she got into trouble trying to find one of the creatures.

 

Whether for good or bad, there are people who devote hours to the game with what could even be described as a ‘religious zeal’ in order to make progress in the game. Reflecting on this makes we wonder if there is something we can learn from such enthusiasts. Let me suggest a couple of things.

1) In Isaiah 55:6 we read: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” The invitation earlier in the chapter is for those who have no resources of their own to come to drink and eat. This invitation is to not simply to supply physical needs but satisfy a person’s whole being. There is a choice – to seek and call on him while he is near or to keep your distance and not respond. Perhaps those of us who believe God reveals himself to us today can learn from the enthusiasm of those dedicating themselves to Pokémon Go. They are giving time, energy and passion in pursuit of their goal. They are actively seeking while Pokémon are near. What about us? Are we doing the same for the Lord? Are we actively seeking him with a great desire in our hearts to find him?

2) The slogan for the Pokémon Go game is “Gotta catch ‘em all”. It’s a great slogan and one that is far from out of place in the Christian context. The intensity of the invitation in the early verse of Isaiah 55 is complimented by the parable Jesus told of the Great Banquet. Those who were first invited to the banquet refused to come at the appropriate time. The king told his servants to go out onto the roads and the country lanes and to make them come in so that his house will be full. God has made all the preparations and he will find people to respond to his invitation. On calling the first disciples, Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” This leads me to ask the question of myself, how passionate am I about inviting others to seek the Lord? Would I do well to have a slogan for my faith that says: “Gotta catch ‘em all”?

 

Of course, Pokémon Go may well be just a temporary craze. After all, Isaiah 55:2 asks the question: “Why spend money on what is not bread and your labour on what does not satisfy?” It cannot satisfy in the long term. There is only one who can do that: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near.”  And that is a great invitation for us… and for others.  

28/06/2016 15:58

Living in light of the referendum.

This is a rough draft of the sermon I preached on Sunday following the result of the referendum in which the UK decided to leave the EU

 

On Thursday night, I went to bed about 11ish with the prediction of a close vote in the referendum but that it was expected that we would remain in the EU by about 52%-48%. Nigel Farage had made a statement that sounded like he was accepting defeat. I woke up about 4:30 on Friday morning and my phone buzzed. I get BBC breaking news to my phone which then vibrates when I receive it. I thought it might be confirmation of the referendum result so I had a quick look to see that the BBC was predicting that Britain had voted to leave the EU. I was rubbing my eyes because I was sleepy and I thought I must have misread it. I put the radio on to hear that actually it was true. I think many others were as surprised as me about the way the vote went (whichever way people voted!) 

 

I believe it has the potential to be a landmark moment in modern history, maybe in the same breath as the post-war years and the setting up of Europe, the break up of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. This is a moment of great change and today we are right at the beginning of this. We already know that there will be a change in Prime Minister after David Cameron’s resignation. We may have a change in the leader of the opposition as well. We don’t know what affect this will have on the make up of the United Kingdom. After voting in favour or remaining in Europe, there are calls from Scotland for a second referendum over their leaving the UK, so that they can remain a part of Europe. What will happen in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? What will our future relationship with the rest of Europe be like? Will it be positive or not? We have seen the inevitable immediate fall of the pound and heavy stock market falls. But we don’t know how this will affect us in the medium to long term. There is much uncertainty at the moment and there is going to be a period of readjustment. Politically, economically and for society in general we are entering a new phase which is unknown. We are a divided country. Whilst there might be an outright winner in terms of the referendum first-past-the-post system, there is an almost 50-50 split in opinion and a lot of strong feelings.  Amongst those who wanted to remain I have heard plenty of expression of disappointment, sadness and concern… what does the future hold? Is everything going to be OK? How do we live in light of what has happened?

 

We are going to read Jeremiah 29:1-14. Before we read it let me give you a bit of context. In the year 605BC, Jerusalem was attacked by the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. The King of Judah paid money and gave treasures to entice Babylon to withdraw. The payoff worked and Babylon withdrew, however, they took with them some people to live in exile. Then in 598BC, after the King of Judah stopped paying money to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar returned, took more treasures and sent more people into exile. And the passage we are going to read is written between this time and the ultimate fall of Jerusalem twelve years later.

 

Let us imagine what it was like for people living in exile at this time. It was a time of adjustment. They were no longer in Jerusalem but in Babylon, with all the adjustment it requires to live in a different country and a different culture. Along with the adjustment goes the worry – what is life going to be like now. How do we live in light of all that has happened? And in his letter Jeremiah offers them advice which may be helpful for us today. For as Christians we have to think about how we will live in light of what has happened over the last few days.

 

Read Jeremiah 29:1-14

1) Seek to understand what God is saying

The letter opens with these words: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” V4 There is a fascinating background to the letter that has been written. Jeremiah received a message from the Lord that said he should make yoke bars and put them around his neck. These were the bars put around the oxen to keep them moving in a certain direction. And Jeremiah’s message from the Lord was ‘we are now serving Babylon, put your neck under his yoke and move in his way.' Think about it for a moment... this could be interpreted as a defeatist attitude; someone who is being particularly pessimistic. He certainly isn’t giving out a message of hope. As we move into Chapter 28, we read of another prophet, Hananiah, who is giving a different message from the Lord: “I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon.” Ch28:2. And naturally enough, this is a much more popular message. Don’t listen to the gloom of Jeremiah be encouraged, everything will soon be OK. Imagine how difficult it was for the people of the day to know who to believe. 

 

One of the things that I found hard in the campaigning over the last month or two has been the difficulty of knowing who to believe. As so often in electioneering it seems that sometimes the thing that is said is about soundbites and interpreting the truth in a particular way to get to the soundbite that you think is popular. In some ways saying the popular thing is more important than accuracy. And giving cause for fear of a different route is equally admissible if it helps your cause. My personal opinion is that both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns have been guilty of this.

 

I love Jeremiah’s response to the popular soundbite. He says: “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfil the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon.” Ch28:6.

Jeremiah is saying that he hopes he is wrong but actually what the Lord actually says is more important than saying what is popular. Jeremiah opens his letter by saying: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” V4

 

Jeremiah recognises that the words of Hananiah are popular but what the Lord is saying at this time is more important. I think the church at this time needs to be urgent in seeking what the Lord is saying. We are hearing so much analysis in the media, we are hearing politicians say many things, we need to say, “Lord, what are you saying?” We need the events of the last days to renew our enthusiasm as Christians to come together, to unite and seek to try to hear what God is saying. Let us pray for the prophetic voice that will come through with what we need to hear. The words of Jeremiah were a blessing for the people. They may not have realised it at the time, but they needed to hear what God was saying to their nation. We need to hear what God is saying to our nation today.

 

2) Get on with life!

This is what Jeremiah says next: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” V5-7.

 

How do we live in the light of our exile into Babylon? The answer the Lord gives through Jeremiah is “Get on with living life!” Do the normal things of life like planting gardens and eating their produce, getting married and having families. This may not be the situation you would choose, but get on with living. We may welcome the vote that took place last week or be upset by it, either way we need to get on with living with how things are and not how we would like them to be. But we do so responsibly: seek the peace and prosperity of the city. Some of you may have read the joint statement between Justin Welby and John Sentamu. This is some of what it says:

 

On Thursday, millions of people from across the United Kingdom voted in the referendum, and a majority expressed a desire that Britain’s future is to be outside the European Union… As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.

 

Yes, we are to get on with living life but we do so with responsibility as well. As Christians we need to help shape the nation we are to become. We have a responsibility to speak up for peace, which is more than an absence of war but a peace that flows through every area of life for all people. We aren’t to simply go along with whatever is being said at the time; not to bury our heads in the sand; but rather to respond to this moment and seek to ensure that the country we evolve into is one that is generous and forward looking that leads to flourishing around the world as far as we are able to contribute to it.

 

We need to hear the word of Jeremiah: “Pray to the Lord for it”. Right now we need to pray for this country more than I think I would ever have said so before in my life time. This is such a significant moment of shaping and adapting to a new situation. We need to be on our knees together to pray.

 

3) Hope in heaven

This passage of Scripture contains one of the most popular verses that we share today: “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

 

I believe this verse is too often quoted out of context. We use it at times of uncertainty or when there is a new phase of life simply to say, “Everything is going to be all right”. And we do so in saying that everything is going to be all right in the immediate period of time. You have your exam results, you have a new job, you are setting out on a new course: “For I know the plans I have for you…” Everything is going to be all right. In fact, we often use this verse in the way that Hananiah did – everything will be fine within 2 years! God has good plans for you. But when things don’t work out, what then?

 

Jeremiah reveals the promise of well-being and prosperity was to be after a period of seventy years: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.” Ch 29:10 In Psalm 90 we are told the length of our days is ‘three score years and ten or eighty years if we have the strength’. In effect Jeremiah is telling the people that this promise of restoration will be fulfilled once they die. It is only after they have died that they will be brought back to the Promised Land from exile. Listen to what the Lord says in v14: “I will be found by you”, declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

 

This verse reminds us of the promise that we have beyond this lifetime. As we face the circumstances of this world we do so with the hope of what lies beyond death. Will death harm us? Is death the end? No, the Lord has different plans that will prosper us. As Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and the presence of God, so the Bible tells us that God is working to draw us back to himself. This verse is not about promising that everything is going to be OK for the individual in the near future. This verse is for the community of believers whose belief is in the almighty and loving God who will make all things right in the end because he has a perfect plan for drawing us away from exile and back to him. That is a great reason for hope. We don’t know exactly what is going to happen in the coming days, weeks and months. I suspect there are times when it is going to be a bumpy ride but we know that we our future is secure.

 

Ultimately, we don’t find our identity in whether we are British or European. Christians find their identity in Jesus. In Philippians chapter 3 Paul speaks about those whose minds are set on earthly things (v19) and goes on to say “but our citizenship is in heaven…”  (v20). In other words if we follow Christ, then we are first citizens of the Kingdom of God, under his reign and rule, under his authority and governing power. The church is an outpost of heaven here on earth. Ultimately we don’t live for an EU ‘kingdom’ or a United Kingdom. Our priority is to Gods Kingdom and seeing that come here on earth. We do this with the hope that God has good plans for us. Sometimes we see them in this world. One day we will see them for eternity.

 

Conclusion

So, Brexit is happening. How do you feel about it? You may be happy and excited for the future, worried and upset. Whichever, though, we have a task: to try to hear what God is saying; to work to build a country that we can be proud of; to hope in a God whose Kingdom will never fall and which will outlast the years.

 

27/06/2016 16:39

Bible Study for small groups

Introduction

I was asked a question on Sunday: “Could you write a Bible Study to help us think through the events of the last few days?” My initial thought was, “How on earth do I do that?” There is no specific Scripture that we can turn to in order to gain a Biblical perspective on what it means to leave the EU. There are Christians on the side of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ who are equally passionate that their views are in line with what God would want. The nation is divided, political parties are divided and the reality is Christians are too. Within the church and even within a Bible Study group, there may well be people who hold very different opinions… and hold them strongly. This makes it a very difficult subject to study in a group. However, we are at a significant time in the life of our nation, and the Church (Nationwide) needs to be handling this in a mature way that provides an example for the rest of society. That can only happen as we discuss the issue, agree to disagree on some things but unite around important principles that we share. I hope this might help in some way.

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

We are going to read a passage from the book of Jeremiah. This is the situation: Jerusalem was invaded in 605BC by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The King of Judah paid money and gave treasures in order that Nebuchadnezzar might withdraw. He did so but took some from Jerusalem and relocated them to Babylon. A few years later the King of Judah stopped paying money to Babylon. In 598BC, the army of the King of Babylon returned. The result was the same and more people were exiled to Babylon. They were living in uncertain times due to the political situation they faced.

 

1) What do you think it felt like for the people who were exiled to Babylon? What would be the main issues they faced?

For the leader: Gain initial responses and draw if not covered, follow up with

How might they have felt about Jerusalem? (disappointed, wondering where God was, angry)

How should they live in Babylon? (should they rebel, believe everything is going to be all right soon or get on with life?)

 

 

Read Jeremiah 29:4-14

 

For many, one of the problems of the referendum campaign was “how do we know who to believe?” For the exiles there were two voices: Jeremiah, who was saying ‘Babylon is in charge now, submit to them’ and Hananiah who was saying, ‘everything is going to be all right within the next 2 years’.

 

2) Who are the main voices people have been listening to in deciding who to vote for in the referendum? Whose voices do you think we are most likely to be listening to in the coming months?

 

3) Read v4-6 again. Jeremiah was clear that what he was writing was from the Lord. What can we do as Christians to ensure that we aren’t shaped in what we think by politicians and the media but by what God is saying?

 

In v4-6, Jeremiah is basically telling the people to ‘get on with living life’. However, in doing normal, everyday things, they also have a responsibility

 

4) Read v7. What are the two values that are to underpin how the exiles live?

 

5) How important do you think the following issues were for people in voting whether to ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’?

a) Sovereignty and ability to make our own laws; b) Immigration; c) Security and peace; d) Trade and the economy

e) The cost of EU membership; f) Travel and living abroad; g) Other (share with the group)

 

6) What values do you think God might want us to have as a nation going forward? What do the following Bible verses contribute (if anything!) to our understanding of this? (Invite different people in the group to look up the following verses)

 

Genesis 17:3-8; Deuteronomy 4:5-8; Isaiah 58:6-8; Luke 4:16-21; Romans 13:1-5; Ephesians 2:11-21

 

In v7 Jeremiah tells the people to see the peace of the city. There is a lot of strong feeling about the issues and result of the referendum. Read Matthew 5:9

 

7) We aren’t all going to agree on these matters. What does it look like to disagree well?

8) How might Christians be ‘peacemakers’ in the coming months?

 

 

The most well-known verse of this scripture is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”. People often take this to mean everything is going to be OK in the short-term. However, Jeremiah actually says that this will occur in 70 years. He is telling them that the promise of this verse is not something they will experience in their life-time. This verse is a special verse that reminds us that our identity is not ultimately found in the nation we are born into. It isn’t found in whether we are a part of the EU or not. Our identity is found in Jesus and who we are in Him.

 

9) It might be straightforward to say this, but what are the challenges to living by this at this time?

10) What do you think are the main issues we should be praying about for the UK in the coming weeks?

 

28/05/2016 15:43

Reflecting on the 'Celebrity Death Epidemic'

Terry Wogan - just one of the celebrities to die this year

 

The first few months of 2016 have seen an unusual number of people die who were household names: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Paul Daniels, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood and Prince, to name but a few. Back in February, Newsweek was already calling this the year of “The Great Celebrity Death Epidemic”. As the weeks have gone on the death rate of some of our best-known and best-loved actors, comedians and musicians has been widely noted. In this social media age, there has been no shortage of those expressing sadness and grief at the passing of someone they may never have met personally, but nevertheless, feel they know. Some have started to ask the question, “Is 2016 cursed?” Others have protested against the year, writing “Enough 2016”. 

 

Statisticians have been asking whether the number of celebrity deaths is the ‘new normal’ or is it just a ‘statistical blip’. A number seem to be siding with the former view. They point to the pop music boom and the rise of television stars from the 1960s onwards to suggest there is an increased pool of household names. They are now reaching their 70s and 80s so we shouldn’t be surprised that there are more deaths that hit the news. With more and more people being classed as ‘celebrities’ it seems likely that there will be a continuation of the number of deaths considered significant enough to hit the headlines. And that means it is likely that we will continue to see tributes poor out within minutes of the announcement of someone’s death as we can express grief more widely and publically than ever before.

 

There is much that we could reflect around this. Let me suggest just three things…

 

1) Tributes, whether communicated by social media, or a card to the family, or through a phone call, can be a very important part of marking someone’s death. For some, the sharing is a bonding experience; for the family of the dead person, it can be a consolation to know that the person was appreciated and valued by others. The tributes say that the person’s life mattered. In one sense it is a shame that the person who has died never gets to hear the impact they made on someone’s life. In fact, there are some who have sought to remedy this. I was reading an article in ‘The Times’ about this (entitled, “Eulogies are too good to waste on the dead”) and they reported that a company called ‘Tribute’ has been set up in America to ensure that no one need miss their own eulogy: “Instead of sending cards or emails on a birthday, customers can now send friends and loved ones videos of emotional speeches that would normally be reserved for a funeral.[1] The writer goes on to reflect on some of the drawbacks of this, like, if someone says something nice about you, you may feel that you have to be equally effusive back. However, the article reaches the conclusion that it is the little things that build up over time that are most important than a grand gesture - a text, a card, a quick email, a word of appreciation – these things can make a difference. Sometimes in the busyness of life, these are the things that we don’t make time for. Tributes are right and proper when someone dies but why not communicate this to them whilst they are living?

 

2) Day by day we write the legacy for which we will be remembered. Alfred Nobel invented (amongst other things) dynamite. When his brother died, a newspaper wrote an obituary about Alfred, mistakenly thinking that it was he who had passed away rather than his brother. The newspaper said, “The merchant of death is dead” and portrayed him as the man who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else ever before. Nobel was taken aback by the way in which the world was going to remember him after his death, so he took action. He used his fortune to establish the Nobel Prize and today many more are familiar with the Nobel Prize than how he made his money. Clearly the things that we do day by day effect the way we will be remembered. It is an interesting question to ask of ourselves, “How do I want to be remembered?” And such reflection may affect the way that we live.

 

3) As celebrities die and the news breaks, it is a sobering reminder for all of us that we are mortal beings. It can be too easy for the reality of death to be pushed to the back of our minds – it becomes something we know happens but don’t think about, especially in relation to ourselves. However, when someone dies we can use this moment to think about what happens when we die. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul writes: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” Paul tells us the gospel message that there is hope in death. He doesn’t play down its significance by telling us not to grieve. Death is serious; when Paul writes to the church at Corinth, he describes death as an ‘enemy’. Instead he encourages us to grieve in a different way… to grieve with hope. This is because the enemy ‘death’ has been defeated by Jesus who died and rose again. Jesus is the first fruit of this victory, a victory that one day we will share in; for now it is our steadfast and certain hope.

 

 

Death will go on being a part of life. Sometimes we will be affected by it in a minor way through the death of a celebrity; sometimes more seriously as a loved one dies; One day, it will be our turn.  As we recognise this, though, we can live differently and positively because we have hope in Jesus.



[1] ‘Eulogies are too good to waste on the dead’ by Jenni Russell, published 21/4/16

 

 

28/03/2016 15:55

Rebuilding trust in leadership

I picked up a book this week that raised a very interesting question on its back cover: “What does it mean to provide leadership in a church that once shaped culture, but is now fast becoming a minority subculture?” There are many avenues of thought that we might go down in reflecting on such a question, but my mind was taken by the idea of ‘leadership’.

 

It isn’t easy being a leader! We only need to look at the news on a regular basis to see the challenges that are faced. David Cameron has been criticised by Barack Obama for being “distracted” from Libya and leaving the county in “a mess”. This follows British intervention in 2011 that saw the removal of Colonel Gaddafi. Jeremy Corbyn has had his leadership constantly questioned almost from the moment he was elected. Moving from the political to the sporting arena, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal football manager for nearly twenty years, has said the continued speculation about whether he should continue in his role is “becoming a farce”.

 

Perhaps behind the recent media headlines lies a greater truth articulated by Professor Rob Goffee who said: “There is a crisis of leadership. We have fallen out of love with the people that run organisations. We have fallen out of love with organisations.”[1] Evidence for this argument comes in recent years from issues including the banking collapse, politician’s expenses, the phone hacking and Volkswagen emission scandals, FIFA corruption and so on. Even the church has not been immune with cases of sex abuse hitting the headlines. The result is that people today are more generally suspicious of leadership than they have been in the past.

 

In the light of all this it is an interesting question to ask, “What does it mean to provide leadership today?” Or to put it another way, “What is the future of leadership?” How do we provide leadership that is engaging, inspiring and meaningful? How do we rebuild trust in leadership?

 

I listened to a very interesting Radio 4 programme entitled, “The future of leadership” in which this question was explored. It spoke about how the ‘command and control’ style of leadership, where the leader simply tells everyone what to do has outlived its usefulness. The Army is highlighted as an organisation where this style seems the most natural fit but how they have moved away from this style. The ‘superhero’ leadership style was considered as well. In this, the combination of intellect, charisma, energy and skill of a particular person is believed to be the way to  bring about transformed situations. However, this style of leadership has its problems, including finding such people, the assumption that one person really can know enough to make perfect decisions all of the time and the potential paralysis to the organisation when the ‘superleader’ leaves.

 

According to this programme the next generation of leadership needs to be different. Netflix is one example of changing leadership. Those who work for Netflix don't have  the number of days holiday they take tracked. They don’t need to get their expenses approved and they don’t do yearly performance reviews. Employees are given great amounts of freedom so that they can take risks and innovate without being held back by procedures. Behind this ethos is the idea that people anywhere in the organisation, at any level might have the idea that makes the difference. Microsoft have changed their style from ranking employees according to success criteria because this encourages a damaging level of competitiveness between worker that is now seem to risk holding companies back in adapting to the future. Here again, there is emphasis on the importance of team and any member of that team might have an important contribution to make. to preparing them for the challenges ahead.

 

And this brings me back to the original question: “What does it mean to provide leadership in a church that once shaped culture, but is now fast becoming a minority subculture?” Does the church need to learn from this ‘new’ management style that the programme claimed is the future of leadership?

 

In going back to the Bible, I can’t help but wonder if actually the Bible hasn’t got there first! In 1 Peter 2:4-5, we read about a principle which declares that all believers are priests: “As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” In our relationship with God there is no need for a priestly human mediator because Jesus is our mediator. He is our superhero leader. We are not called to be ‘superhero leaders’ but rather are called to represent Christ to one another. We all share in the priestly task of building bridges between God and his world. This means that anyone in the church might have the answer that makes the difference (like Netflix have discovered?). Moving to the writing of the Apostle Paul, we have the image of the body being made up of many different parts. Team is important because people have different gifts to bring that go to make up the ‘whole’. Team is important because our effectiveness is dependent on each person playing their part for the benefit of all (as Microsoft are working on?). If rebuilding trust in leadership is about recognising the value in each person and building team, we have a biblical precedent for this.

 

Is it just possible that behind what businesses are discussing as the ‘future of leadership’ and behind the ‘crisis of leadership’ we find answers in biblical principles? If so, shouldn’t this encourage us as Christians that the church and the Bible are not out dated or irrelevant but still provides answers today? In fact, people might even be surprised at how up-to-date the church is!



[1] Professor Rob Goffee is co-author of the book, ‘Why should anyone be led by you’. This quote is from the Radio 4 programme: The Future of Leadership

 

11/01/2016 19:59

"It's impossible!"

Imagine the scene for a moment: In the post-Christmas relaxation before returning to work, the children are happily playing with each other and there is a chance to sit on the sofa during the day time – a rare luxury. Picking up the newspaper a thought pops into my head, “Maybe I’ll do the crossword!” So with pen poised ready for action, I start reading the clues… 1 across: ‘Reduction in spinal disease given by one collection of micro-organisms (7)’. Maybe other clues will give an easier start… 5 across: ‘Vivacious version of Bax tune supressing hesitation (9).[1] And so it goes on.

Very quickly I remind myself why I don’t do the cryptic crossword – it’s impossible – and I decide to retreat to the relative safety of the concise crossword!

 

“It’s impossible” is a familiar cry for many of us that stretches back over the years. As a teacher many years ago, I soon discovered it was a common complaint amongst students when set a new task. Whilst the words may be uttered in fairly mundane matters like a crossword or a task set at school, there are many more profound and long term experiences where our cry is, “It’s impossible!” How am I supposed to stay positive in light of all that is going on? How I am supposed to forgive a deep betrayal of a loved one? How am I supposed to make ends meet when outgoings keep exceeding income? It may feel like the answer to these questions and other similar ones is: “It’s impossible!”

 

Once again this year, I am following a Bible Reading plan designed to take me through the whole of the Bible in a year. The first part of January is focussing on the books of Genesis and the gospel of Mark. On one particular day, I could imagine the cry of “It’s impossible!” from the lips of the people I was reading about.  

 

In Genesis, God makes a covenant with Abraham that he will become the father of many nations. He tells Abraham that his wife, Sarai, will now be called Sarah and: “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Genesis 17:16 (NIV). We are told that Abraham fell face down laughing because it was impossible – he and Sarah were too old for such a thing to happen. In the next chapter we read of Sarah’s response when she hears that the following year she will have a son: “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” Genesis 18:12. The cry of the heart was, “It’s impossible!”

 

For Abraham and Sarah, humanly speaking it seemed impossible for God to fulfil his promise to them. Earlier on they had taken the promise into their own hands. It seemed like Sarah couldn’t have children, so she gave her Egyptian maid servant, Hagar, to Abraham so that he could father a child through her. Doing so caused many family problems. Handling it in human strength didn’t work – God had something better planned – if only they had relied on God rather than themselves. The problem is that too often we focus on things from a human perspective. As I continue my journey of faith, this story challenges me again to reflect on how much I live in God’s strength and wisdom compared to how much I rely on my own strength and wisdom? In spite of my intentions, I know how easy it is to tell God I trust him on one hand whilst wrestling back control and taking action in my own strength. It doesn’t work! I need to fully rely on God.

 

Fast forward many centuries to the public ministry of Jesus. He was teaching in the synagogue and many who heard him were amazed at his wisdom and the miracles that he was performing: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” and they took offence at him.’ Mark 6:3. They couldn’t conceive how someone that they thought of as so ordinary could be someone so special that he could powerfully impact the life that they were living now: “It’s impossible!”

 

Sometimes our walk of faith can make Jesus ordinary and we lose expectation that he can impact our lives in a powerful way. Yes, we may go to church, sing songs and hymns, read the Bible, pray and serve in the church but at the same time we live with problems and challenges that we cannot see a way through. We may ask the question, “Where is Jesus in this situation?”  Is it ever possible that we lose expectation and hope of seeing good things in the situations we face? Do we ever find it difficult to see the wisdom and power of Jesus which is far beyond our comprehension? Is faith sometimes as much of a struggle for us as it was for those hearing Jesus speak in the synagogue nearly two thousand years ago? As I look to the year ahead it makes me reflect on those things that I face day by day where a positive outcome just seems impossible to achieve. Perhaps you, like me, need to bring some matters before him once more… with renewed hope and expectation. Our faith is placed not only in one who was a mere carpenter but the one who is Christ. He could calm the storm, make the blind see, the lame walk and the dead rise. Impossible? It sounds like it but remember… God specialises in the impossible!

 

 

 

 



[1] If anyone knows the answers, I am interested to know (preferably with an explanation!) 

 

12/11/2015 20:07

Playing the blame game

Have you noticed how popular the word ‘blame’ is? Do a search on any online newspaper and you will discover it is used in hundreds of articles each month. Browse through some of the links and you will discover that when something doesn’t go as planned, people look to apportion blame to someone or something. Over the last few weeks we can read about how: Russian airline ‘Metrojet’ blames an ‘external impact’ for the Egyptian plane crash; Former Prime Minister Tony Blair admits there are "elements of truth" in the suggestion the Iraq war was to blame for the rise of Islamic State; Questions are being asked about who is to blame for the slump in form of Chelsea Football club. And so the articles go on and on seeking to attribute where the fault lies – we might call it the ‘blame game’.

 

Apportioning blame isn’t simply a role for journalists but rather a popular activity that many of us engage in on a regular basis. It may range from the mundane misplacement of keys to the more serious accident where we are hurt. Whatever it is, when something isn’t right we want to know why it is so and whose fault it is. We find it easy to take part in the blame game.   

 

This is nothing new. We read of it in the Bible in the opening chapters of Genesis. In the Garden of Eden there is one tree that Adam and Eve are forbidden by God to eat the fruit of – the one in the middle. It isn’t long before they do eat from it and they hide from God because they are now aware of their nakedness. God asks them if they have eaten from the tree in the middle of the garden. Adam admits it but blames Eve for giving him the fruit, Eve blames the snake for deceiving her and (to quote the old joke), ‘the snake doesn’t have a leg to stand on!’ They are involved in the blame game.

 

In the gospel of John we read of a time when Jesus and the disciples see a man who has been blind from birth. The disciples ask a question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). For many Jews at the time, suffering was best understood as the result of sin so the disciples think someone must be to blame for the man being born blind. The main question left open to debate was whose sin it was – his own or his parents? Was he being punished because of something done in previous generations or did he sin before his birth? They were playing the blame game!

 

It leads me to ask: What makes the ‘blame game’ so appealing? Perhaps a part of the answer is that it is important to learn from our mistakes. If we can find the reason why something has gone wrong we have a better chance of stopping it from going wrong again in the future. Learning from previous mistakes is healthy but let us not underestimate the negative effects. Blame is often the match that sparks pain into an explosion of anger. Blame can lead to bitterness, resentment and the seeking of revenge. Blame can seriously damage relationships and the individual lives of both the blamed and the blamer.

 

God does not play the blame game. Yes, Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden but that was for their own protection in order that they would not eat from the tree of life. God could not allow them to live forever in their sinful state. The rest of the bible is the story of God reaching out to the whole of humanity that we might be restored into right relationship with the God who forgives us. In the final chapters of the Bible we read of Eden restored and God’s dwelling place being amongst his people. This can only happen because of forgiveness.

 

And Jesus redirects his disciples away from who is to blame for the man’s blindness to bring a different understanding; “but this happened so that the work of God may be displayed in his life.” (v3). In other words he is encouraging them not to play the blame game but rather see how God is at work in the situation.

 

As Christians we are called not to conform to the patterns of the world. Every time someone refuses to play the ‘blame game’ and is more concerned about ‘forgiveness’, we see the work of God being displayed in their lives. It may not be easy but it is worthwhile. Here is a challenge for us all: Next time something goes wrong and our natural instinct is to blame, perhaps we can stop and remind ourselves of this… God does not play the blame game.

 

The “accusing finger” image is courtesy of Ahmed Al-Shukaili athttp://www.freeimages.com/

 

07/09/2015 22:02

Reflecting on the Refugee Crisis

A picture of one of the facebook shares I received last week...

 

Has one heart-breaking picture of a three-year-old boy changed the response of our nation towards the refugee crisis that is impacting Europe? Earlier on in the summer we were hearing about the ‘migrant problem’. Views expressed in some of the national newspapers included ‘Send in the army’, with illegal immigrants threatening to ‘invade’ the country. The language in government was of ‘marauding migrants’ and ‘Europe needing to protect itself to preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure.’ David Cameron was criticised for his language as he described the crisis as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain" We were more likely to read about the plight of Euro tunnel travellers and hours of delay, than the plight of migrants.  

 

Then on September 2nd everything changed when a picture was published of a policeman lifting the dead body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi from the beach where he had been washed up. It is a tragic and heart-breaking picture. As the picture was shared widely on Facebook and Twitter the mood of the nation seems to have changed: A petition calling for Britain to accept more migrants has gained over 400000 signatures. Nicola Sturgeon attacked David Cameron for his “walk by on the other side” approach to the refugees fleeing Syria. The Prime Minister spoke about how deeply moved he was by the picture and declared, “Britain is a moral nation and we will fulfil our moral responsibilities."  In the last four years Britain has accepted just 216 Syrians under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (Separately, some 5000 have been granted asylum since 2011). The government has made a pledge to take 20000 refugees from Syria by 2020. One picture has changed the response to the refugee crisis. We moved from concern about numbers to recognising narrative – in other words there are stories, reasons why people are in such desperate situations.

 

And as images, stories and opinions bombard us day by day, it is important to take some time to reflect from a Christian perspective. There are many avenues we can go down as we do this. Here are a few things that have struck me over recent days.

 

1) We need to welcome refugees who come to this country.

Jesus was a refugee! In Matthew’s gospel we are told that after the birth of Jesus, King Herod was greatly disturbed by the birth of a new king and he decided to kill Jesus. The Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him of the threat and the family fled to Egypt. They remained there until after Herod died and it was safe to return. Yes, Jesus was a refugee. And this turns my mind turns to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As they are separated, the King says to the righteous, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36). The righteous never remember seeing the King in such need but the he replies, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (v40) The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, highlighted Leviticus 19:34 which says, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” As the Archbishop says, we are called to welcome the stranger, love them and seek peace for them. Perhaps we can learn something from those in Germany who have been holding up banners saying “Refugees welcome”.

2) We need to remember individual stories

Alan Kurdi’s death alongside his brother and his mother are by no means the first deaths. Alan is not the first child to have died during the crisis.The total number of deaths in the Mediterranean this year is over 2500. Last year over 3500 died.  In June and July alone, nine people died in separate incidents whilst trying to make the journey from Calais to Dover. The contrast in attitude was never more stark than when two news stories ran at similar times. In one we were simply told that a Sudanese man aged between 25 and 30 had been killed as more than 1500 migrants stormed the channel tunnel. In the other outrage was expressed at the killing of Cecil the lion from Zimbabwe by an American dentist. Within 24 hours over 264000 people tweeted  about Cecil compared to the 3700 who did about the Calais incident. In my opinion, the killing of Cecil was senseless and should never have happened. However, the migrant had a story as well. God cares enormously about every individual. There are times we need to look beyond media reporting, be touched and respond with compassion. We shouldn’t have to wait for a tragic picture. The individual matters. 

 

3) We need to pray for the government and hold it to account

This is huge crisis and there are no easy solutions. We need to stay engaged, both praying for the government and holding it to account. Let us remember to praise as well as challenge. Archbishop Welby said, “I commend the UK government for its strong commitment to the world’s poorest people through the delivery of the aid budget. It has shown global leadership by providing £900 million in aid since 2012 to the crisis in Syria. It has shown moral leadership in using Royal Navy ships to save the lives of hundreds who have tried to make the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean.” However, we also need to hold it to account. The last few days have shown that public opinion does change government policy. The figure of 20000 refugees to be accepted over the next five years is welcome. However, we will need to continue to ask the question, “is this enough?” Since 2013, Germany has accepted 35000 refugees, Jordan 650000, Lebanon 1.2 million and Turkey 1.9 million. Another question: How will they be treated when they get here? As I write this, I have just become aware of Paddy Ashdown’s tweet highlighting that vulnerable children will only be given the right to stay in the UK until they are 18. Surely it can’t be fair for a child who spends their formative years in the UK to be uprooted and sent back to a country they may have long since lost affinity with? So we need to keep an eye on how things go in the future. And all the time we recognise that this is a difficult issue and our leaders need to be prayed for again and again.

 

Has the death of one refugee changed the attitudes of a nation? Only time will tell! Maybe, but I confess to being sceptical. I wonder how long it will be before the pricked consciences and the softened hearts return to worry about whether it will affect our lifestyle. However, the death of another refugee – the one whom we follow – should change us not for a moment but a lifetime. His compassion, love for the individual and generosity beyond measure should continue to inspire and inform us during this refugee crisis. 

12/06/2015 16:40

FIFA and Fairness

It was Harold Wilson who famously said, “A week is a long time in politics”. It seems this is true in the political world of football as well. On Friday 29th May, Sepp Blatter was elected amidst much controversy for a fifth term as President of FIFA. Earlier in the week seven senior FIFA officials were arrested as a part of the investigation by US prosecutors who allege bribery and corruption has been part of the culture of FIFA for many years. There were calls for Blatter to step down but he stood firm and won the election. Afterwards he said: “For the next four years I will be in command of this boat called FIFA and we will bring it back to shore.” Four days later FIFA called a news conference where Blatter announced he was resigning because he did not feel he had a “mandate from the entire world of football.” Those who a few days earlier had been declaring disappointment at a ‘dark day’ for football were now able to look to the future with the hope that things would change. Yes, a week can be a long time in the political world of football.

 

And in this news story we seem to have an echo of what is so often a reality of life: Frustration at the way things are when justice seems to be absent and this means there are those getting away with things they shouldn’t. This is by no means a new problem, indeed it is one we meet in the Bible. 

 

In Psalm 73 we have an honest, heartfelt expression of living in the world where those who don’t deserve it seem to prosper. It is written by Asaph, a Levite who was one of the leaders of David’s choir. Whilst he starts by affirming God’s goodness:  “Truly God is good to Israel, to those whose hearts are pure…” He has clearly struggled with the issue of living in a broken world and keeping his faith: “But as for me, I almost lost my footing. My feet were slipping and I was almost gone…” v2. He then reveals what has put him in this perilous place: “For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness. They seem to live such painless lives; their bodies are so healthy and strong. They don’t have troubles like other people, they’re not plagued with problems like other people.” V2-5. In other words he was losing hope in justice and facing the reality that doing the right thing can make life harder: “Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain.” V13-14. This is a very human reaction to a far from uncommon reality that can so easily be a part of our experience: life is unfair because people don’t seem to get what they deserve. In such a situation we might ask if things can change? In a world where so often we see things that aren’t right we need to be able to anticipate that things can and will be different at some point. Hope is so important if the future is to be faced positively. Is there any hope?

 

The Psalmist discovers there is but where does this hope come from? Certainly there is no indication that suddenly his position becomes easier or that the ‘arrogant’ and ‘wicked’ are suddenly struggling. However, he has a change in perspective: “If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I went into you sanctuary, O God, and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.” (v15-17). How does that change of perspective come about and what can we learn from it?

 

The first step to his change in perspective comes when he realises his response affects other people. If he had lost his footing and slipped, it would have hurt others. When things in the world don’t seem fair, if we give in and wallow in self-pity then we damage not only ourselves but also others -including the ones we love most. The Psalmist gets to the point when he realises the depth of his attitude problem: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” (v21-22). This step is not enough to give him hope, but it does cause him to take action.

 

His response to know wanting to hurt others is that he seeks understanding. That, though, he acknowledged was a difficult if not impossible task. There was no way he could understand all the reasons why injustice seems to be rewarded. But then something happens – as he is seeking understanding he goes to the sanctuary. This is a place of worship where God’s presence and rule is acknowledged and praised. It is in such a place that God reveals himself and we begin to see the world from God’s perspective not simply our human one. Here there is no need to hide feelings or be anything less than completely honest before God. It is in this moment that a change of perspective begins to happen because in worship where God’s rule is accepted and welcomed, and where we come with complete honesty before the Lord, the Holy Spirit can bring change and hope.

 

As a result of this Asaph can see the bigger picture and that ultimately the destiny of the wicked is an end to their prosperity. This is in strong contrast to Asaph’s position before God: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel and afterwards you will take me into glory.” (v23-24). In light of Jesus we can see this as a promise of our future security. Whatever happens in this world we have the promise that one day things will be put right. Suddenly there is hope in spite of injustice in the world. The world may still be the same but Asaph isn’t. He has moved from the one who nearly lost his footing to the point where he closes the Psalm by saying: “But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge. I will tell of all your deeds.” (v28). And here is a challenge for us: In a world of injustice to seek to have a Godly perspective and ultimately to tell of His deeds. In the telling of the deeds of God we seek to share something of God’s passion for justice in a broken world. This not only can bring hope but also change. I love the story of a coal mouse and a wild dove. It goes like this:

 

Tell me the weight of a snowflake", a coal-mouse asked a wild dove. "Nothing more than nothing", came the answer. "In that case, I must tell you a marvellous story," the coal-mouse said.

"I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow -- not heavily, not in a raging blizzard -- no, just like in a dream, without a wound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch -- nothing more than nothing, as you say -- the branch broke off." Having said that, the coal-mouse flew away.

The dove, an authority on this since the time of Noah, thought about the story for awhile, and finally said to herself, "Perhaps there is only one person's voice lacking for justice to come to the world."

 

Who knows which voice it was that led Sepp Blatter to decide he couldn’t carry on. Who knows what difference we might make with our small voice speaking out for justice? Things can change and there is hope. 

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