Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The cost of neighbourliness

Not a new post but a continuation of thought...

Several people have asked me about the cost of my newfound neighbourliness and I must confess I hadn't given it any thought. I suppose there was a little cost in terms of petrol, and maybe for making a flask of tea (although the motorist did return the flask some days later), the biggest cost was time. Most of the incidents meant that I was late for something or other, including a home group, a midweek communion service and even a PCC meeting - but do you know what, no-one minded.

I was also asked if there is likely to be a time when I wouldn't stop? Well, probably, although I can't think what that might be. Perhaps if where I am going is too urgent, and I can imagine situations where that might be the case; or if the scenario looks too risky (I have to agree with those who say I am a likely candidate to be lamented as the late have-a-go-hero).

What my friends have helped me to appreciate is that there is a cost to being a neighbour, even if it is only time, and I can only agree that it is prudent to weigh the cost before taking the action. But none of this means I am going to change my policy, after all, really, I am never too busy to stop, only too selfish.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Neighbours everywhere

A couple of years ago we were studying James in Home Groups and I joked that I never seemed to come across people who needed my help - it seemed to me that I had very few neighbours.

Funnily enough, I found myself lying in my bed that night, not sleeping, but thinking about the neighbours that I had not seen in trouble and so had not helped. I resolved then and there to always stop if I thought someone needed help - after all, if I was wrong they would just send me on my way.

Since then I have given first aid to a car driver who had spun going up Dashwood hill and hit the roadside barrier; I helped someone break into their own home when they locked themselves out; I brought a flask of tea to a man who had broken down in sub-zero temperatures ; I gave lifts home on two seperate occasions to people whose buses didn't turn up; I scraped the ice off a car belonging to a young mum in the village; I sat with an older lady who felt feint whilst shopping as we waited for an Ambulance; and last week I pushed an Audi off the road after two cars had an accident on the M40 sliproad.

And do you know what strikes me? I wonder how many other people I have passed by without noticing? What I have noticed over the last two years is that there are neighbours everywhere - all we need are the eyes to see them and the hearts to help them.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Look who's talking!

If you watch Television or read newspapers or magazines you can’t help but have noticed that we live in an age of celebrity endorsements. It doesn’t matter what the product is there is always someone vaguely famous to tell us that this product is the one that we need, this is the one that we want. So, you have Pop stars like P Diddy telling us what perfume to buy, footballers like Joey Barton telling us to buy Nike trainers, TV presenters like Richard Hammond telling us to shop at Morrisons and cricketers like Ian Botham telling us that shredded wheat is good for our hearts. If there is a product to sell then there will be someone to tell us that this is the one for us. But, the extent to which this advertising works is entirely dependent on the person giving the endorsement.

For example, take Fern Britten, a very popular host of daytime television who for two years told us that we needed to eat Ryvita if we wanted to lose weight. Unfortunately, at the same time she went and had a gastric band fitted – so now when she tells people to eat Ryvita, no-one believes her. As all advertisers know, the value of the product is determined by the one giving the endorsement.

With that in mind we need to give some very serious consideration to what Mark has to say in chapter 1, for he has lined up three extraordinary endorsements. The first is an itinerant preacher named John. He would have been something of a celebrity with his wild clothes and strange lifestyle, just the kind of person you would expect today to be invited into the jungle for I’m a celebrity, or into the Big Brother house. But you’d never see him there, because he was on a mission from God: a voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord.

So, John is our first celebrity endorser, but its not a product he is promoting, but a person. And let’s not forget that this comes from the person whom Jesus described as the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. This is someone whose birth was announced by an Angel, someone who spoke for God. And he says about Jesus, “after me will come one more powerful than I whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”

That’s our first endorsement, and the second is to be found in verse 10.

Now, in verse 9 Mark tells us that Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptised by John in the Jordan river. I wonder if you can picture the scene? There would have been quite a crowd by the edge of the river Jordan, both John and Jesus already had followers, and there would have been quite a stir as Jesus approached, and particularly as they went into the water together.
Up until this point, as fascinating as it would have been for those who were there, it was just like any other baptism, but then everything changed.

Mark tells us in verse 10, “as Jesus was coming up out of the water he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending upon him like a Dove.” Now, the faithful Jews there would have known that at significant times in Israel’s history God had physically made himself known to his people. Whether in the form of a pillar of fire or a visiting angel; a thunder cloud or a burning bush. They would have known that to see even a glimpse of God at work in the world meant that something extraordinary was happening. And at the Baptism of Jesus it was no different. God, by his Holy Spirit, was visibly endorsing Jesus.

What an incredible thing that must have been to have seen, the Spirit of God descending on Jesus. But that’s not the end of the endorsements, nor is it the most dramatic. For as the Holy Spirit was seen to come down on Jesus so also God the Father spoke, verse 11, “a voice came from heaven: You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”

Now this really is the ultimate in endorsements. It’s a bit like Kevin Francis being awarded the Queens Gallantry medal in the New Year’s honours. Did you hear about that? He was on board a light aircraft that crashed on take off, and despite the fact that it was on fire he managed to rescue one of the pilots. Prior to the award his heroism was well known and recognised, by friends, colleagues and many in his area, but now he has royal approval, he is a national figure: after all, he even gets a mention on my blog!
And it’s the same for Jesus. Its great to be endorsed by John – the last and greatest of the prophets; its remarkable that the Holy Spirit should visibly endorse Jesus; but now he has been given Royal approval. God the Father has looked down from heaven at Jesus’ baptism and said, "that’s my Son."

If the value of the product is determined by those giving their endorsement then we need to sit up and listen, because John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit and God the Father have all given their endorsement to Jesus. And the message that each of these witnesses wants us to understand about Jesus is that He is the one, and there is no other.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Why pick-n-mix isn't enough.

The danger of writing a blog is that you are quickly lured into being allegorical about anything, or am I the only one who thinks the bubbly disposition of Jarslberg cheese is an accurate picture of our government's economic plan? (That would be slightly smelly and full of holes!). That said, there are, I think, lessons that the church can learn from the demise of Woolworths.

1. Backwards is not the way forwards.

I started working for Woolworths in 1986 and the complaint that people of a certain generation always made when visiting the store was "why do you no longer sell wool?" Apparently they once did, though I couldn't find anyone who actually remembered selling wool and one of the ladies had worked there since the store opened, which, though not 99 years, was still a long time.

Imagine, then, my surprise when in 2001 Woolworths announced that, at sellected stores, it would once again be selling wool.

Sadly, this appeared to be Woolworths principal response to a changing market: to look back to the things that it used to do well and to try and do them again. Now, it is true that some stores opened cafe's to try and increase their footfall and a few others evolved into Big W's (although cruelly you could just say that all this meant was they had all the things you didn't want to buy under one, albeit murch larger, roof). For the most part Woolworths remained the same. It was very nostalgic to walk back into Woolworths in Uckfield 20 years after I worked there and see pretty much everything in the place it always was, but it was also indicative of a store somehow lost in time. The parellels with the church are obvious, aren't they?

Now, the way I see it, there are two obvious problems with the growth strategy of trying to do again those things that you used to do. The first, is that it requires ignoring the fact that there were probably very good reasons why you stopped what it was that you used to do; and the second, is that it assumes those who used to give you their custom will simply switch back to you now that they can. But of course they won't, and in the case of Woolworths, didn't, not for the most part anyway. The reason for this is simple economics: they either realised they didn't really need it; or sourced it from elsewhere (probably more cheaply).

All that looking back does is to reinforce in people's minds that you aren't as good as you used to be: and they're probably right.

2. Sympathy is not a business model.

Recently, a survey amongst the older members of society who weren't regular church attenders has shown a decline in their identification with their local church. The age groups that used to identify most strongly with the established church are now significantly more diffident - and this has caused quite a stir. But does this really matter?

I wrote previously that I am sad that Woolworths has closed down, and I always will be. Nor am I alone in thinking this. Whilst walking through the empty shelves in the High Wycombe store I met scores of people who had come not shop, or gloat, but to reminisce. People really cared about Woolworths, seemingly more than Adams, Zavvi, Officers Club and any of the other high street stores that have also closed, but sentiment was not enough. Ultimately, people sympathised but didn't shop.

So, if the church is losing the sympathy of an older generation (and that really is only an if) if this is true then it should make us ask why, but it shouldn't make us panic. Think about it. A decline in sentiment actually only tells us that those who didn't regularly attend church are less likely to care that they don't attend, or, perhaps, less likely to attend in the future. Sympathy is not a business model. Sentiment is not the same as support - all this really means is that less people will be upset to see the church sink below the horizon!

Also, did you notice the M&S trading figures for the third fiscal quarter? They showed like-for-like sales down 7.1% over the previous year (which itself was 2.2% down on 2006). On the High Street, M&S is struggling as many of its traditional shoppers now buy at Tesco, or in other specialist stores, but this isn't the whole story. Online sales were up nearly 30% compared to 2007 and this itself was an increase on 2006 of 78%.

If you ask my mum, M&S isn't what it used to be, and she won't shop there anymore! But the truth is she rarely shopped there in the first place, and one of the reasons she doesn't like it is that they are in the process of rebranding to new markets, and no-one likes change. Maybe that's also why everyone liked Woolworths?

3. Have the right hedgehog.

Those of you not familiar with Jim Collins business books will think that I have finally gone mad, but in Good to Great he identified that one of the charactersitcs of truly successful businesses is that they have one thing that they do well, and they make this the heart of their business. This is what he call their hedgehog concept, in business speak we would call it their core business.

If you think about Woolworths, what was their core business? What was the one 'thing' that they did better than any other? What did you go there to buy? Ladybird clothes? Pick-n-mix? Music and DVD's? Household and garden? Soft toys? Even holidays?! I think if we asked 30 people we might get 30 different answers and ultimately this was their downfall. You could buy most things from Woolworths, that used to be their strength, but you could also buy everything they sold somewhere else, and in the end you could get it elsewhere for less.

Woolworths never really evolved from being a general store. If they ever had a core business it got lost over time, and that's the real lesson that the church needs to learn from Woolworths. Without a hedgehog concept to shape and guide the business every new initiative is just another turn of the doom-loop, and it will never lead to sustainable growth.

If the church is to be effective and healthy then it needs to (re) discover its purpose, and it needs to orient itself so that this purpose can be achieved. Ironically for the church this will probably mean looking backward to move forward. Not back to 10 years ago, or back to the Victorian Age, or even back to the Reformation, but really back, as in Revelation chapter 2 verse 5: to do again the things that they did at first, as a missionary church, and to do them with that first love.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Why its not sad to be sad about Woolworths

As a 21st century new man I am comfortable expressing my emotions. I cry at films, especially if they are very bad films, and my heart is broken every year by a football team. So I am not ashamed to admit that I am very sad to see the demise of Woolworths from the High Street. And its not just the 27,000 redundancies, or the impending absence of pick-n-mix (they stopped selling my favourite chewing nuts years ago). I am sad because we are losing more than a chain of stores, after all one in ten High Street brands are likely to go to the wall this year or next, with the demise of Woolworths we are losing part of our social history.

For 99 years Woolworths has been part of our lives - we've worked in their stores; bought their sweets, clothes, music, electricals, toys and everything else; taken shelter there from the rain; and complained that they no longer sell wool. But on Tuesday it will be all over.

As a child I never understood why my parents used to stop as we were travelling round Sheffield to explain to me that the Undertakers is where the fish and chip shop used to be that sold the best Mushy peas in Yorkshire. Or that the Hair Gallery is where they used to return the bottles of Dandelion and Burdock to get the 1p back when it was the General Store. But now I do. At some stage in the future we will be driving as a family through Uckfield and I will stop the car, make my children get out and explain that this is where Woolworths used to be.

As we drive away I will adress their looks of contrasting incredulity and boredom and explain to my girls why its not sad that their dad is still sad about Woolworths. I will tell them that this is where I started work at the age of 15, and that it was here that my mum had my O levels results were read over the store tannoy (much to my annoyance). I will explain that it was here that I spent one Saturday afternoon very gingerly searching through the soft toys for any suspect packages following yet another bomb threat; and here that I courted my first girlfriend; bought my first record; fought off the rising floodwaters; heard about the death of my schoolfriend; and worked off my first hangover.

I worked for Woolworths for less than three years. At the start it was only a Saturday job, and it was never full-time, but those three years were such important years that Woolworths helped shape the man that I am now. And that is why I, and countless others like me, will always be sad about Woolworths.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Resolved not to be resolute!

Psalm 37:4-6, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.”

Have you made any New Year resolutions this year? Research suggests that most of us do, but only one in five of us will have kept those resolutions to the end of the month, and only one in twenty till the end of the year.

Common New Year’s resolutions are: to quit smoking, to stop drinking, to manage money better, and spend more time with family. By far the most common New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, in conjunction with exercising more and eating healthier. In addition, many Christians make New Year’s resolutions to pray more, to read the Bible every day, and to attend church more regularly.

These are fantastic goals. However, these New Year’s resolutions fail just as often as the non-spiritual resolutions, because there is no power in a New Year’s resolution (you are no more likely to be able to do something just because you decide to do it on 31st December than on any other day of the year). Resolving to start or stop doing a certain activity has no value unless you have the proper motivation for stopping or starting that activity. For example, why do you want to read the Bible every day? Is it to honour God and grow spiritually, or is it because you have just heard that it is a good thing to do? Why do you want to lose weight? Is it to honour God with your body, or is it for vanity, to honour yourself?

Philippians 4:13 tells us, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” John 15:5 declares, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” If God is the centre of your New Year’s resolution, it has chance for success, depending on your commitment to it. If it is God’s will for something to be fulfilled, He will enable you to fulfil it. If a resolution is not God honouring or is not in agreement in God’s Word, we will not receive God’s help in fulfilling the resolution.

So, what sort of New Year’s resolution should a Christian make? Well, I can’t tell you what you should resolve to do, but I can suggest how you might go about doing it. First, pray to the Lord for wisdom (James 1:5) in regards to what resolutions, if any, He would have you make; Second, pray for wisdom as to how to fulfil the goals God gives you; Third, rely on God’s strength to help you; Fourth, find someone who will help you, challenge you and encourage you as you try and keep your new resolution; Fifth, don’t become discouraged with occasional failures, instead allow them to motivate you further; Finally, don’t become proud or vain, but give God the glory.

Hopefully, this will mean that whatever you resolve to do, you will be able to see it through, and that will mean you will grow in godliness. What a wonderful thought for a new year.

Happy New Year

Saturday, 27 December 2008

A gift that lasts

The full text of my Christmas sermon...

Do you know what you are getting for Christmas?

Apparently nearly a third of us buy our own Christmas presents each year. Well, I guess that means we can’t blame anyone else when we don’t get what we want! Ever find that – you spend weeks hunting for presents for other people, days getting ready for Christmas, hours wrapping the presents, but it only takes a few minutes to be disappointed by what you get? I mean, just think about it, how many of the presents that you got last year can you remember today? What about from the year before? That’s the sad truth about Christmas presents isn’t it – very few of them are actually memorable and most of them leave us feeling somewhat disappointed?

Do you ever feel like that?

Barry Humphries, is famous for being Dame Edna. In his autobiography he writes:
“I always wanted more, I never had enough milk or money or socks or sex or holidays or first editions or real friends or free meals or neck ties or applause or unconditional love. Of course I have had more than my fair share of these things but they always left with a vague feeling of un-fulfilment, where is the rest?”
We may not have analysed it, but how many of us have ever talked about feeling disapointed, or have simply wondered out loud, “there must be more to life than this”. And it’s not just Christmas that brings out these feelings, we all have a deep need to be satisfied. We all believe that fulfilment is out there if only we knew where. And that’s the problem. Being satisfied in life is dependent on what we feed on.

Now, I don’t know if you do this, but at the Vicarage Christmas is a time when we get out little bowls of sweets and Twiglets and nuts, and they are there for you to snack on all day. But the problem with this is no matter how many sweets or crisps or nibbles you eat you will never be full and so you will just keep on eating! Snacking takes the edge off your hunger but it never satisfies you. And spiritually speaking, many people go through life snacking and it means they are never satisfied.

One of the things we look to is pleasure, such as the pleasure we get from travelling – but there’s a reason why it’s called being bitten by the travel bug – its addictive. Ask anyone who has looked for fulfilment by trying to see the world and just after they have told you about all the amazing places they have been, they will tell you where they want to go next. There is always somewhere else they want to go.

So, some hunger and thirst for far away places, and others hunger and thirst after love. We think to ourselves if only I can find Mr Right, or Miss Right then I will be happy, if only I can find true love then I will be satisfied. Others hunger and thirst after wealth, materialism, stuff. So life is a constant striving after bigger, newer more modern things. But if we ever stop to think about it then we all know that things don’t satisfy us. We all know that’s its great for that moment when we get something new, but it soon fades, and there’s always something else.

Like blind beggars in dustbin we hunger and thirst after many different things, but they will not satisfy us.

Do you remember the Rolling Stones song – “I can’t get no satisfaction”? Well that’s what I am talking about – its that constant craving for the next thing, and as hard as we may try we will never have enough presents, we will never have enough excitement, we will never have money.

We will never be truly satisfied.

You see this is how many of us feel: as if there is something missing from our lives. And the reason for this empty feeling inside us is that we are looking for satisfaction in the wrong places. The things which we desire are often good things but as 'things' they are never really good enough. It’s like trying to satisfy your hunger by eating the packet, but ignoring the cornflakes. If we mistake material things for the real thing then we will always be hungry. As C.S. Lewis said,
"These are only like the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have never heard, news from a country we have not visited".
No matter how hard we try these ‘things’ will never fill the hole we have in our lives. This is something that St Augustine understood. More than fifteen hundred years ago he wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”.

We can never have enough to satisfy us, we can never work hard enough, we can never earn enough or own enough – we can never fill this hole in us. Only God can.

And my friends, the good news of tonight is that satisfaction is available here, and it’s free for all. And it starts with the baby in the manger. It starts with recognising that we are not alone in this world, and that we don’t have to continually strive for everything, for God came to us. But this is only the beginning: it starts with the baby in the manger but it ends with the cross. The cross is the reason is that Jesus was born, the reason that God came to us. For it is here, and not in the manger, that we see our real Saviour. In his death and resurrection we find forgiveness, we find peace with God, and we find purpose and meaning for our lives. It is only at the foot of the cross that we will find satisfaction in this life.There is no joy like knowing God forgives you; there is no peace like knowing your eternal future is secure; there is no love like being loved by God.

There is no satisfaction unless it is God who satisfies you, and that’s the gift that he offers to us all this Christmas.

So, this Christmas, as you are opening your Christmas presents enjoy them and I hope you get what you really want. But remember that, as good as they are, they are never really good enough. Don't mistake material things for the real gift this Christmas. And if you don't get what you wanted then don't worry because you didn't really need it anyway. Let your desire be for God who will really make a difference. Let him satisfy you this Christmas, more than presents or friends or family can ever do.

Have a happy, blessed and full Christmas, in Jesus’ name.