Christianity

Storytelling


We are in the middle of a sermon series at my church just now and we are concentrating on mission and evangelism. I was privileged to be given the chance to preach this morning and I thought I would share with you the text of my talk (more or less) as I delivered it. 

 

MAY MY WORDS BE SPOKEN AND HEARD IN THE NAME OF THE RISEN CHRIST JESUS, AMEN

Readings: 1 Peter 3: 8 – 22 & John 4: 1 – 30

“I wanna tell you a story”. A stoooooory. I think it was Max Bygraves who said that and I think he was on to something.

Stories are what make us human. They are absolutely integral to the experience of being a human being, and stories have knitted us together since the dawn of time. Our early ancestors shared stories to educate each other and to entertain each other, and the tradition of storytelling is central to every civilisation. When we talk about our past we talk about history – his story. Our stories are ways of sharing who we are.

We tell stories all the time, and by stories I want to make it clear that I don’t mean lies, or fabricated versions of the truth. That’s a different thing, and something that Peter reminds us of in our first reading today. Verse 10 – I’ll paraphrase “if you want to enjoy life and wish to see good times, you must keep from speaking evil and stop telling lies.”

A story is different. We all hear them, tell them, and we all have one. The urge to tell a story is right there at our very core. It’s how we share our lives, our concerns, our dreams, our hopes. But for some reason, many of us feel that when it comes to telling the story of our faith, we have some sort of a barrier or reluctance to tell it to others.

You may know that I am currently studying for my Master’s degree. I’m nearly at the end of my first year now, and my studies are all about the art of storytelling, whether it’s my own creations or other’s work. I am studying the way stories are told in books and short stories and those in film and plays. One of the things we talk about (and argue about) is the how of storytelling. Nobody argues that there is a need to tell them, but there are millions of opinions and interpretations of the best way to do it. It falls broadly into two categories, we can either tell stories or we can show them. The best novels and films do a bit of both and it is a balancing act every single time, but it’s something we can learn from when it comes to telling the story of our selves and our faith.

St Peter’s Church, Blackley viewed from the north side

To illustrate what I mean, here’s a short clip of how actions speak louder than words. I want you to pay attention to what you pick up about his character from the way he acts this scene:

I showed a clip of a scene from “Frasier” where Niles was alone in the apartment waiting for his Valentine’s date. He spots an odd wrinkle on his trousers and decides to correct it by ironing it and then follows one of the funniest scenes I have ever seen on TV. There is no dialogue, only a music soundtrack and the odd word from him and a couple of barks from Eddie the dog. As the scene progresses we see Niles cut his finger, spill some cleaning fluid, set fire to his pants and then eventually set fire to the settee while Eddie enjoys the romantic meal Niles had cooked for his date. [I don’t want to risk any copyright issues by sharing the clip online].

I wonder when it comes to sharing your story with others, where do you stand on the spectrum of showing or telling? Not everyone is comfortable or confident in telling, but as disciples of Christ, the absolute very least we can do, is the showing bit.

I was invited to St Mary’s last Sunday to speak to the congregation there about my musical journey and how it intersects with my faith. I spoke about the small words of encouragement I received at vital times and how it didn’t really take a lot for a small seed of interest to blossom into this passion for music that I have held throughout my life. I find it so easy to talk about music – where it has taken me, the sights I’ve seen, the people I have met and so on, and I can talk for hours about what music does to me in terms of it being a prayerful activity, both playing it and listening to it. And yet, and yet, as confident as I am about talking about music and prayer, it seems that when it comes to talking about my faith journey it is so much more difficult. I get a bit embarrassed, I filter my own words before I speak, I try to pre-empt what people are going to think – especially if they are strangers and I don’t know what their reaction is going to be. When I think about the times I have felt the presence of God, when I know he has brought me through something particularly frightening or bleak, and I think about how to tell those stories, those filters that I apply to myself come into play. At best I think they’ll be bored and worst I think they’ll think I’m a nutter. Like in the bandroom, the word “Jesus”, if I say it out loud, seems to hover in mid-air for ages and sticks out like a sore thumb.

I will be a fluent faith story teller one day, but for now I’m still very much a work in progress.

Jesus himself told stories. He used parables – a type of story – to describe what God’s kingdom is like. We all know them: the kingdom of God is like this (buried treasure, a mustard seed, wise and foolish builders, the Samaritan).

So what about your story? Only you can tell it, only you has the words to share your story.

You might wonder what it is about your story that’s worth sharing. You might be sat there thinking – well I’m nothing special, nothing dramatic has happened in my life. You might think that it’s only people who have done the whole crash and burn and reborn thing that are worth listening to, or that people who have done the brave battles with major health problems or addiction for example that have a worthy story to tell.

But that’s just not true. We all have a story! We are all part of God’s wonderful creation and we all have faith in him. We must do, or we wouldn’t be here today. We might not feel like our faith is big enough or deep enough, but I assure you it is. Your personal story is part of God’s bigger one, and though may feel it is insignificant or even perhaps too broken to be part of God’s story, then think again. We are all part of this huge ongoing, unfolding story and the more we share it, the bigger it gets and the easier it gets to share.

We have to do it – we are commanded to do it. Jesus himself tells us to go out and share the good news. He told the Samarian woman at the well to go back and tell the others about her encounter with him, and he tell us the same thing. She felt that her life was doomed – with five husbands and being a Samaritan not a Jew, she felt unworthy, unloved, apart from things. But Jesus’ gift is not to set us apart but to make us a part of his story. To include and to enfold us, no matter how we feel our lives are going or where we have been.

It seems like a daunting task doesn’t it? To actively go out there to show and tell people that we are faithful followers of Christ, but we have to do it. Just as Niles couldn’t help but show us his character through his actions with his trousers, we can’t help but show our Christian character to the people around us. But, like in the silent movies of yesteryear, showing people is only still part of it. We do have to add words to our actions. Charlie Chaplin, that great silent storyteller of the early 20th Century, even he had to use cue cards every now and again to help the audience understand his story. Even he, the best silent movie star ever, had to rely on words. And so must we when we show/tell the story of our faith.

We do gain from the experience though, it’s not just a one way outpouring of “self” when we share our story. When we begin to open up about our faith and when we allow God to be reflected in our lives, it does a couple of significant things. First of all, it strengthens our own faith. I suppose you could look at it like practicing a musical instrument, or when you learn a foreign language or a new skill. The more you do it the easier it becomes and it in turn enriches your life and you want to do more of it. The same with sharing faith. It might feel difficult or daunting to begin with, but the more you do it the easier you will find it. After all, you are only ever being you.

The other thing is that when people see you reflecting God’s kingdom in your own life, whether it is through your actions or by the words you use, or the combination of both, it invites them in and offers them pathways to encounter God for themselves. For me, that is the whole point of mission, to invite others in for them to encounter God for themselves.

So to finish, your story matters, and the way that you share your story is down to you.

However we do it – whether it is the quiet ways of living our lives and the way we treat other people; our hospitality in the truest sense of the word, the way we turn from evil, the way we seek peace, showing that we are not afraid, by being gentle and respectful in accepting God’s will, even if it does mean great suffering, or whether it’s through a combination of words and actions, however we do it, we must do it. Peter laid it all out for us, and not only does he list the how of sharing our story, he reminds us of the why.

Christ suffered, not for his sins, but for ours. He was put to death so that we might live. That’s why we share God’s – and our own – story. It’s up to you how you balance your show and tell, but you can’t do all one and not the other. Going back to the clip we just watched, there is the use of music, the dog barks warnings, there is the odd word here and there. When it comes to telling our story, we have to use whatever tools or props we have to hand in the telling of it.

Amen

 

Teaching aims:

·        We are convinced much more by stories than arguments

·        Your own story is powerful and meaningful, because

o   it supports your own faith

o   it invites others to share your faith

 

 

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Christianity

Psalm 103


The beautiful words of Psalm 103 have helped me today. They reminded me that yes, there are things wrong in my life and there are things I want to fix, heal, mend and restore, but I can’t do it on my own.

Psalm 103

Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits –
who forgives all your sins
    and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
    and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

 

Praise him indeed, for it’s only in God’s hands that life becomes life.

Christianity

My Song Is Love Unknown


We sang “My Song Is Love Unknown” tonight at Bible study, and I was struck by a couple of lines.

Here is a link to the hymn as sung by the King’s College, Cambridge Choir and below is a photograph of the bit that stood out for me.

I love this hymn for many reasons, and depending on when we sing it and at what festival or occasions, different things speak to me at different times. Tonight I was struck by verse 5:

Especially the lines that describe how the Prince of Life (Jesus) went cheerfully to his suffering (I’m paraphrasing slightly). When we sang it, it made me think of two things: first, that Jesus would do that for us, to die for us, and second, that no matter what our lot in life, no matter how difficult our circumstances or tasks ahead, we can take heart from the fact that when Jesus went to the cross for us, he did so “cheerfully”. If he can do that for us, what can we do for others in that same attitude?

The burdens we are given to bear are nothing like the burden Jesus carried for us, and yet we struggle, grumble, complain and fight against them. The lesson here in this hymn is that if he can do that for us, we owe it to him to bear our own burdens just as cheerfully and willingly.

 

Christianity

Recognising Jesus


I was privileged to lead, preach and pray in my church this morning, and I thought to share with you on here too. The readings were Hebrews 2: 14 – 18, and Luke 2: 22-40, and the children were present throughout our worship this morning – they usually go for their own teaching during worship to Sunday School, but they stayed in the main service today.

Sermon Text

It doesn’t seem like it, but Christmas was only a month ago. I don’t know about you, but for me, the month since Christmas has felt nothing like the month of Advent before it.

I was at St Mary’s for their Advent Sunday service, and I preached about waiting. The kinds of things that we wait for, what it feels like to wait, waiting for something which you know is going to be special, but without knowing exactly what. I’m sure you remember the feeling of waiting and preparation for Christmas during Advent, but there is more to the type of Advent waiting that was going on when people were waiting for the Messiah in the first place.

Let me show you a clip of a video which shows us another type of waiting.

You see how excited Jessie is to meet Woody? See how she leaps around…”it’s you! it’s you!”. She can’t keep herself still with the excitement of finally meeting Woody, someone she has been wanting to meet for such a long time.

Contrast her reaction with the old Prospector. He was more sedate, awestruck even. He talked about how he has waited “such a long time” to meet – as he calls it – the Prodigal Son. He says “we have waited countless years for this”.

Did you notice too, that Woody was surprised that the Prospector used his name? Jessie tells him “everyone knows your name, Woody”.

So we have someone who everybody knows is coming, who people have been waiting a long time for, and for whom everybody is thrilled and awestruck at finally meeting. If we watch the next bit of the film, we learn that Woody has got a purpose, of bringing the Round Up gang back together, of restoring them to the glory days if you like.

Sounds a bit like waiting for Jesus doesn’t it?

But there’s more to it than that, and this is where our Gospel reading today comes in.

Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that we can substitute Jesus and Woody, but we can draw a comparison to the expectations and excitement that both Jesus and Woody drew from people around them.

In our Gospel reading, we heard how Anna and Simeon both recognised Jesus, and who both gave thanks for his arrival and then prophesied about his future.

Jesus was in the temple that day because Mary and Joseph were required to present him soon after birth, according to the law. He was to be brought to the temple, and as the first born son, he was to be dedicated to the Lord. We know now, 2000 years later, that he was the Lord, but back then at only a month old, nobody else – except Simeon and Anna – did.

Simeon was first to proclaim he recognised who Jesus was, and like the Prospector in our video, said he had always known this day would come, and that he had waited a long time for it. He prayed to God, with that familiar passage that we know now as the Nunc Dimittis, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace”

Simeon prophesies about Jesus and his purpose here on earth. He says he will be “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”. Simeon recognised, with guidance from the Holy Spirit (verse 26), that Jesus’ purpose was twofold: to bring light to the Gentiles, and to the glory of Israel. In other words, to all people.

If you remember, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah to come to restore them, but Simeon says that he was to bring light to the Gentiles also. Not just healing and redemption of one people, but of all people.

Although we don’t hear Anna’s words in this reading, Luke does record that she also spoke of Jesus’ redemptive purposes.

We hear more about why and how Jesus came to earth in our other reading today, from Hebrews. In it, we are told that God came in human form as Jesus, a fully formed human being. Flesh and blood, with fears, loves, temptations and emotions. Jesus was long awaited, and fully human. He was at one with his people here on Earth, and as both Anna and Simeon said when he was a tiny baby presented at the temple a month after his birth, with a job to do.

And so, where does that leave us? Today, here in Blackley [and in our communities wherever we are]?

We are reminded at the end of our Gospel reading that Mary and Joseph were on their way back to Nazareth soon after they had presented Jesus in the temple, in other words, going back to normal life after their precious son was born. And so it is for us. Christmas is over, and it’s time to get on with normal life again.

But for us, like it was for Mary and Joseph, having Jesus in our lives means that there is a new meaning to the word “normal”. What is normal life when we have Jesus at its heart? I suppose that is a topic for a different sermon, but it is definitely something to think about as we approach our Lenten sermon and prayer series.

We are going to dismantle our Crib Scene shortly which was put together by the children at the Crib Service on Christmas Eve. We will pray as we do so, for our community, for our church and for our world. The waiting for Simeon was over, for he had seen the Lord, but for us, the wait for Christ’s coming again goes on. And as we wait, we pray that just as Jesus, the Messiah, the healer and bringer of redemption, was recognised by Anna and Simeon in the temple that day, that we too recognise Jesus in the faces and in the lives of those around us today.

Amen.

 

Prayers of Intercession
(during which the children removed the various figures, leaving Jesus in his crib)

The Wise Men 

Lord, may these figures of the Wise Men remind us of those who travel across continents to find what they are looking for. We remember especially those who flee from war torn countries, who seek to escape violence and hate filled regimes. We ask that you comfort those who are frightened, those who are hurting and those who seek peace. We pray especially for leaders of our nations and our communities, that they receive your wisdom to be act in the good of all people. We remember those too who give of everything they have in the name of their faith in Jesus Christ.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

The Shepherds 

Lord, may these figures of the Shepherds remind us of those who society does its best to ignore. Those who are trapped in poverty, those on the fringes and don’t know how to join in, those who feel they are not good enough. As Jesus took human form, remind us that he is present in everybody we meet. Give us words of love and acceptance to speak to those who don’t feel they deserve it. Equip us to help those on the edges by bringing them in. Remind us that the good news of Jesus’ birth was shared with such as these.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

The Angels 

Lord, may the figures of these angels remind us of the connection we feel with heaven through these very prayers, and the prayers we offer each day to you. Remind us as we pray that we are not alone, and just as the angels carried messages of Jesus’ birth, give us the words to say to people we meet to share his good news with them.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

Mary and Joseph 

Lord, your precious gift of Jesus was born to Mary, and he was raised by Joseph until he reached the time of his ministry. As we remove these figures from the crib, we are reminded that for them, like us, with Jesus in our midst there is a new normal to be found. We ask ourselves how can we ever be the same again after meeting Jesus, and we ask you now to refresh us and renew us daily, putting him at the centre of all.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer

And as we close our prayers, and before we say the Lord’s prayer together, let us just pause for a moment to consider Jesus who is left behind in the crib as a reminder that he lives amongst us, and is present in all our actions and interactions with other people. Lord, we ask that you open our eyes to recognise him, just as Simeon and Anna did in the temple that day.

And so we say together the words that Jesus taught us:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom,
the power and the glory are yours.
Now and for ever.

Amen

 

 

 

Christianity

Christenings and Baptisms


One of the ways I serve my church is to be involved with families who bring their children for baptism. My role is twofold: first there is the administration side of things – have they filled in the application form? Have I booked a priest? Have I got certificates ready? – and so on. But for me, the other bit of my role is the best bit and that’s when we do the baptism preparation session together.

At the session, we bring together several families who are asking for baptisms and we have some activities and discussions around the different bits of faith and what it means to be baptised. Locally, here in North Manchester, it is more common for families to bring children to be Christened, and to be honest, even though I know there is a difference between being Baptised and being Christened, I don’t think I know enough about it to be able to explain it or argue about it!

So to make life easier, when I talk about “baptism” I also mean “Christening” and when I talk about “Christening” I also mean “baptism”. For now, at least. Wait until I’m further into my training and I might be able to split them and explain them better than I can now.

There is going to be a session of baptism preparation tomorrow evening, and we are going to be running out our “new and improved” version, which Hils (our curate) and myself have been working on. We have an icebreaker activity and some discussion activities before we get to the real crux of what we’re there for and that is the discussion and explanation about what the baptism service entails.

Our baptism invitation and instruction leaflet for families who want their children “done”, and a stack of coloured cards for cutting out for an activity at tomorrow night’s preparation session.

For babies and infants, this is the bit that parents do on their behalf, but for older children and adults they do this bit for themselves. And that is where they are asked about rejecting certain things and turning towards Christ, before they are dipped in the water and blessed.

I am always moved by this part of both the preparation and the baptism service itself. At the preparation, there is a moment of hush when parents think about what it is they are turning away from, and to whom they turn and there is a palpable awe in the air which is similar to the moment of baptism itself in church. It is a real sacramental moment, where God makes himself known in our presence and where his glory is revealed. It is fascinating to hear how the different families have arrived at this particular point, but the moment of baptism is always something special, wondrous and touching in so many ways.

I wonder what your experience of baptism is. Do you believe in it, or is it just another thing that we do with children along with the MMR jab to protect them in childhood? Have you been “done” yourself, or is it something you have never considered or thought about? What about the practices where you are in the world? In the Church of England, it is common for the font in churches to be used in baptism, but now and again, full immersion baptisms are done in small pools or even natural waters such as rivers or lakes too. How is it done where you live?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave me a comment below.

 

Christianity

Amazing Grace


I went to Bible study at my church tonight and we had a great discussion about the readings for the coming Sunday. We read a passage from Jonah (the bit just after he had been deposited by the “big fish”) and a passage from Mark where Jesus told two of his disciples to “follow me”, and he promised to make them fishers of men.

Tonight, I didn’t feel I had much to say and I was content to sit back and follow the discussion around me, listening to what other people were saying and just enjoying the company of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Our discussion went all over the place – as it usually does! – and from the starting point of whether we thought Jonah’s story was allegorical or a historical truth we ended up talking about God’s grace. In particular, how we either don’t recognise it all the time, or how we fail to understand and appreciate that grace is given for everyone, not just to those who we deem to be deserving of it. We talked about drawing lines around our own behaviour whilst judging others for doing the very same thing, and it was interesting to see how we all reacted to the challenge to look at our own views on that. I’m not sure that I’m aware of the times I judge other people, and I came away from the evening feeling refreshed and changed by the discussion and the prayers that were offered.

The best bit for me was singing the two hymns to top and tail the evening. The first was one of my favourites from Matt Redman – “10000 Reasons” , and the one we closed the evening with was the wonderful “Amazing Grace” which summed up everything we had been talking about and has helped me so much this evening.

 

 

 

Blogging, Christianity

New Year, New You?


Happy New Year!!

What does that mean to you? To some people the new year brings the opportunity to start afresh with a clean slate, a chance to chuck out the old and sweep in the new. It might be habits, attitudes, routines, ways of thinking etc where the chance is taken to remake ourselves anew.

To others, it is perhaps the opportunity to declare a new challenge to be met or an accomplishment to achieve – make way for the new set of mountaineers and piano players…

To yet others, it is perhaps the chance to evaluate what is important in life and to look for ways to make those things better and stronger.

For me, I can see myself in all three of those groups; I would love to set myself a proper routine of prayer and study each day, I am determined to master corner-to-corner crochet this year, and I would like to make my personal relationships stronger. But I know that I cannot do it alone. Whatever it is that I set my mind to this year, I know that it is an uphill task and can only be done when and if God is with me through it.

Someone a long time ago said it far better than I can:

 

Another way to look at it is “man proposes, God disposes”.

I realise that could be read two ways – that it doesn’t matter what we plan, if God does not will it then it doesn’t matter because it won’t happen, or it could mean that if we put God’s purpose at the centre of all that we do then our plans will take flight and be fulfilled. I can plan all the study I want, but if it isn’t for the good of the Lord then it perhaps might not be what I expect it to be. I can try to master a particular crochet technique, but if it isn’t used for the good of other people then it is not worth it.

There are more resolutions I could make today – including blogging more often! – but I won’t for now. Even though today is the top of the year, the first day in the new calendar, the fresh start we all look for now and again, I am reminded that in God, each and every day is a chance for a new start. We are made new in his eyes every time we meet him in prayer and worship and there is nothing we can plan for ourselves that would ever be a patch on what he has planned for us.

Happy New Year, happy new you.

With every blessing.