Tell your story

28 12 2011

I attended a funeral recently which reminded me that endings are important. It was a wonderful celebration of life and a  fitting tribute to the one who had died. The sense of celebration and that of sadness were not mutually exclusive as family and friends shared their stories of their loved one.  The importance of living well in order to die well rang out.

As Luke draws near the end of his book of Acts, I expect to find an account of the death of the apostle Paul.  Instead there is a third telling of his conversion story, and then a ‘soft’ ending which finds him safely arrived in Rome, but under house arrest waiting for his hearing with Caesar.

Why do we get his story for a third time?  (see Acts 26) There is no doubt that a personal story carries great weight. (eg witness the influence of customer reviews which can make or break a product or service.) Is Paul really trying to convince Agrippa that he too should become a follower of Jesus?  Or is he rehearsing for his appearance before Caesar?  Whatever the reason, the story is powerful and Paul wants people to be convinced of the truth of the message of Jesus.  He keeps proclaiming the Kingdom of God .


I attended a Christmas carol service last week which had the theme Emmanuel – God is with us.  A number of people told how they experienced God with them.  I have asked for permission to share this one with you.

“My name is Ali

I have Down’s syndrome – and my is life full of joy!

Some people say ‘life is hard’ and they say ‘there is no God’. 

But I know there is!   

I spend every day with Jesus!  He is my friend  – and he whispers to me. “Don’t be afraid – I am with you.” 

He has changed my life!  I love him.

Emmanuel – God is with us!”

The personal story doesn’t end.


True truth

16 12 2011

Paul took his mission seriously and travelled around the Eastern Mediterranean for years of his life.  Most of the maps of his journeys are covered in arrows showing directions, but I find them confusing, so here’s one that is simple and tells you where you can read about the different trips he made.   It’s about 1450 miles from Rome to Jerusalem direct, but Paul never travels directly and remember that this is in the days before Easyjet! 

So what is the mission that takes Paul all around this area?

Essentially he is an interpreter.   He is a good public speaker who is adept at grasping meaning and conveying it to his listeners.  In a sense he’s an “in between-er” – he stands between God and people, interpreting God’s message so that his listeners can understand and experience God for themselves.

Translators and interpreters have power.  When I see them with headphones at international conferences, I wonder if they are tempted to massage what they hear, to embelish or misrepresent.  It could be fun to lead important people up the proverbial garden path!

But back to Paul.

When he visits Berea, the people who listen to him have an interesting reaction : ” When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. As a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men.” (Acts 17:10-12)

Here are open-minded people who are willing to consider something new. At the same time they are prepared to do the hard work of investigation to make sure that Paul and Silas are not misleading them.  Truth matters to them.  It’s not that they want to decide what’s true for them in a relativistic sense.  They want to make sure that what Paul says hangs together, that it fits with Old Testament teaching, that he’s not leading them up the garden path. It’s a good search to go on – to find true truth.

Coming together

4 12 2011

I love when things come together, when loose ends get tied up and things that haven’t made sense click into place.  It’s a strength that Marcus Buckingham identifies as Connectedness in his book Now, discover your strengths.  Here’s a quotation to give you the flavour –

“Sometimes I look at my bowl of cereal..and think of the people who brought it to me – the farmers in the field; the biochemists who made the pesticides; the warehouse workers at the food preparation plants; even the marketers who somehow persuaded me to buy this box of cereal and not a different one sitting next to it on the shelf. I know it sounds strange, but I give thanks to these people, and just doing that makes me feel more involved with life, more connected to things, less alone.”

That’s me!


Here’s a brilliant story of connectedness. 

The Ros Tapestry Project in Ireland  ( has taken over ten years with a few of the 15 panels yet to go. It is a local community project, with 150 volunteers, working in shifts, to create the largest modern embroidered art in Europe.  It’s not random by any means.  The tapestries, researched and designed by Ann Griffin Bernstroff, begin as large illustrations called cartoons, and are then copied in richly coloured thread in reverse, by stitchers at a wooden frame, telling the story of the Normans coming to 12th Century Ireland and the founding of New Ross in County Wexford.  If you visit the project while people are working on it, you can contribute a stitch to the tapestry.  I’m tempted!


What got me thinking about this theme was reading a quotation in Acts that comes from the book of Isaiah…and then, as they say, I went off on one.

So back to my source.  In Acts 13:16-41 Paul explains to the synagogue congregation in Antioch about how Jesus fits into the history of the Jewish people –

“And now we are here to bring you this Good News. The promise was made to our ancestors, and God has now fulfilled it for us, their descendants, by raising Jesus.”

But that’s not the only loose end that he ties up; he goes on to quote Isaiah 49:6 and applies it to himself and his mission – ” ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the farthest corners of the earth.’” 

Paul has that strong sense of connectedness, of being part of a bigger whole, of having a purpose beyond himself.  I wonder if that’s what kept him going in tough times, if somehow he could see that his stitches were contributing to the tapestry of God’s purposes.



3 12 2011

I was right.  I was wrong about Paul.

Reading a bit more of his story, I see that he has a clear strategy.  He travels around a lot, and in each place he comes to he heads straight for the local synagogue.  (I guess that’s not surprising given that he’s a Jew.)

His strategy is to connect with the local Jewish communities, but to lead them further in their understanding about the God they believe in. He gets a fair hearing to start with, but then things turn nasty.  Some believe his message – that Jesus is the promised Messiah (Acts 17:3) – and others regard this as blasphemy.  Death threats, violent attacks and imprisonment are par for the course, but this doesn’t faze Paul, and doesn’t deflect him from his strategy.

What keeps him going?

I think it goes back to his definitive personal experience of God.  Paul has gone from persecutor to evangelist and in the transition has a clear belief the he is designated as the “apostle to the Gentiles.”  (Acts 9:15) So why does he persist with his strategy of presenting the message to Jews?  It’s a guess, but I think he is passionate about giving them every opportunity, trying to convince them of the truth of Jesus’ claims, pointing them to a new experience of God just like  he has had.

But he won’t push people where they don’t want to go.  When the Jews won’t listen, he turns to the Gentiles. (See for example Acts 13:46)

The Old Testament references and Jewish traditions don’t mean anything to them, so Paul has a different tack.  He starts with something that they can identify with – in Athens, it’s comment on their statues, quotations from their poets, adopting their style of communication – but again he doesn’t leave people where they are.  His strategy is always to encourage life change.

Tom Wright, in his book on Acts, expresses it this way –

“It is not the case that God simply ‘accepts us as we are’.  He invites us as we are; but responding to that invitation always involves the complete transformation which is acted out in repentance, forgiveness, baptism and receiving the spirit.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Dart or goldfish?

3 12 2011

Are you a strategic thinker?  You see the big picture, set goals and go for it.

You hit targets, meet deadlines and have a general air of purposefulness.  180 on a daily basis.

I once had dinner a friend in late December and her opening question was, “What are your goals for next year?”  I didn’t like to admit that I hadn’t thought past ordering my starter from the menu!

You see, I am not a strategic thinker.  This is my kind of strategy: 

I think it may have something to do with never having learned to play chess, but I’m much more of a reactor.  It’s not that I have a lack of purpose; the circles are more like spirals that move on, recap, move a bit further.  I may spend longer “getting there” but I have an interesting journey and make friends along the way.

So imagine my delight when I read about Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).  Here he is walking in a new city taking in the sights and sounds, chatting with people who happened to be around and reacting strongly to what he sees.  He engages in debate, quotes Greek poets, and presents an explanation for their “unknown God”.  It’s all reactive, unplanned, go with the flow.

But is this a true picture of what Paul is like, or am I making him the sort of person I would like him to be?  I’ll think a bit more about it and report back.

Of ghosts and spirits

31 10 2011

Interest in the supernatural is all around, especially today – Hallowe’en – although commercialisation has made it an excuse for macabre masks and costumes, pumpkin lanterns, and trick or treat rather than anything other worldly.

The Bible talks about supernatural forces at work in the world – for example in Ephesians 6:12 Paul writes like this, “Our fight is not against human beings. It is against the rulers, the authorities and the powers of this dark world. It is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly world.”  But the clear message is that the resurrection of Jesus is evidence that God will win the battle, even although it often looks like the forces of darkness are dominant.


As a child I was easily frightened, so when I read in the Bible about the Holy Ghost I invented a Casperesque figure who was friendly and inoffensive rather than anything to do with God. Back then the preferred version of the Bible was the King James; thankfully in more recent translations of the Bible, “Ghost” is replaced by “Spirit” and the book of Acts is where we read about his coming on the disciples.

This is a mystery and minds greater than mine have grappled with what happened, what it meant then and what it means for us.  What we do know is that Jesus had already promised his followers that when he died, although he would no longer be physically present with them, he would not abandon them.   He explained that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with them, to remind them of all he had taught them about God and to lead them in their walk of faith.

In Acts, Luke refers to the Holy Spirit a number of times, and also calls him “the spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7).  I like that.  It is as though Jesus lives on and is with us, still reminding us about God, opening our eyes to understand, and leading us in our walk of faith.

In context

23 10 2011

Stephen Fry introduced me to these people last week in his BBC programme Fry’s Planet Word – Episode 4. 

They are the Akha people of Norhtern Thailand who are dependent entirely on oral traditions for keeping their myths, stories and history alive.  I found it fascinating, especially their leader Aju Jupoh  gave the reason why the people abandoned written language for oral accounts.  (Read more….if you want to find out, or you might still get the episode on iPlayer – about 2 minutes in – or alternatively there’s a DVD coming, but not until February!)

Our stories are important to us, and whether it’s the warning from the past to avoid, as in Listen and Learn, or whether it is setting our current situation in a wider context, we all like to hear where we fit into the grand scheme.

When the apostle Paul visits Antioch, he does this contexturalisation for the people in the synagogue (Acts 13:13-39). 

And his purpose in narrating their history?  It is to extend their understanding of their traditions, but primarily it is to set Jesus in context for them – 

“We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God—something the law of Moses could never do.”

Understandably, there were divided opinions.  Some were fascinated and longed to hear more; others were jealous and argumentative. 

How will Paul handle this?  Will he adapt his story-telling so that he is less offensive?  Will he compromise his message for his own safety?  We’ll see. Read the rest of this entry »

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