Copycat life

27 10 2012

After Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour de France, the Tour website carried the article, “Wiggins, the pursuit of perfection”, and the Sun allowed its readers to imitate Brad with gold sideburns, in anticipation of how he might fare in the Olympics! According to the Guardian, Britons spent over £21 million pounds in bike shops the week after his win. Whatever way you look at it, Brad had a big impact.

People want to be like their heroes, though I doubt that many would be willing to put in the gruelling training that makes for a champion. And you might have to have had a few (too many) beers to be persuaded to wear the Sun’s free gift.  The copycat option is not an easy one – either for the copier or the cat!

Lest you think that this is a new phenomenon, come with me to northern Greece in the first century and check out what the apostle Paul was up to there.

He has been living  in Thessalonica, but has now moved on to another base and writes a letter to the followers of Jesus whom he has left behind. Here’s part of what he says:

“You paid careful attention to the way we lived among you, and determined to live that way yourselves. In imitating us, you imitated the Master. Although great trouble accompanied the Word, you were able to take great joy from the Holy Spirit!—taking the trouble with the joy, the joy with the trouble.

Do you know that all over the provinces of both Macedonia and Achaia believers look up to you? The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything any more—you’re the message!” (1 Thessalonians 1:5ff)

How do these new followers know how to live? They copy their teacher, Paul.

How did Paul know how to live? He copied the Master, Jesus.

And now other believers are copying the Thessalonians… all in the pursuit of living in a “way that pleases God.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1) And key to living that way is that they have come to know God for themselves (1 Thessalonians 4:5).

Following Jesus is a whole life deal. It’s as all-consuming as the toughest Tour or Olympic training schedule.  It’s not a quick fix – let’s stick on the sideburns and have fun for a night – it’s the all or nothing commitment that has to be renewed every day (1 Thessalonians 4:1). The great news is that we have role models who have gone before us; the scary part is that we are role models for those who are new in their faith. So let’s not spend money in the bike shop but never take up cycling.

“So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.”

Galatians 6:9-10

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More blessings

12 10 2012

My Wordlive reading has taken me back to Genesis, to the story of Joseph.  No wonder his brothers are jealous and hate him. (Check out his arrogant dreaming in Genesis 37). And his dad isn’t too clever either. Having a favourite son is never a recipe for happy families.

Jealousy and hatred lead to the brothers’ plot to get rid of the cocky little brother, and Joseph ends up exiled in Egypt. But it’s not all bad…

Joseph becomes a slave to Potiphar, one of the Pharaoh’s officials, and we read this unexpected sentence in the story – “The Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph” (Genesis 39:5). Here’s the arrogant dreamer transformed into a conduit of blessing.

Being God’s ambassador is not plain sailing as chapters 39-40 make clear.  It’s a roller coaster ride of prosperity, false accusations, imprisonment, responsibility, success and abandonment. But the accompanying refrain is, “The Lord was with Joseph”. That made all the difference – to Joseph and to those he lived amongst.

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Can a leopard…?

12 10 2012

I am a leopard with selfish spots. By that I don’t mean “a few little bits of selfishness in an otherwise unblemished character”; I mean that selfishness is my character, my default position in life. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

I find it’s well nigh impossible to live out Jesus’ exhortation to –

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

I have little bursts of love, and then return to default.

A couple of years ago, I took up a challenge with some friends to see if there was anything we could do to change our “spottiness”, to live life closer to the ideals of Jesus. We were inspired by reading Mike Frost’s book Exiles, although we “made the idea our own”. Here is our version.

We took the word BELLS and used the initial letters to prompt different actions:

  • Bless
  • Eat
  • Listen
  • Learn
  • Sent

So in random order-

Listening and learning involved a God-ward focus – reading the Bible, praying, writing journals, blogging.

Eating?  Well, that’s obvious, except that twice a week we looked for opportunities to eat with people whom we might not otherwise have paid much attention to. “Eat” didn’t need to be cordon bleu, it might be a cup of coffee, but the intention was to focus on another person, spend time with them, make an effort to be a friend.

Sent is trickier to explain.  There’s something about tapping into God’s purpose for your life, seeing the different component parts as constituents of a greater whole. So, for example, instead of seeing work simply as a means to earn a living, seeing it as an opportunity to connect with people, to improve the physical environment, to be “sent” as God’s representative to the workplace. (Paul talks about this idea of sentness when he says that we are “ambassadors of God” – 2 Corinthians 5)

Bless presented me with the biggest challenge.  The word itself has something of the papal about it and if you Google “blessings” images  you will see why I have a problem with the word.  However, it is the first letter of the acrostic, so…

The agreement was that we would make at least two opportunities in the week to bless someone else, not the papal type of blessing, but something simple that would mean a lot to the person.  It might be an encouraging phone call, a card, a small gift, a smile to a stranger, a random act of kindness with no thought of payback. Nothing too demanding, but an intentionality about the action.

Now, I will digress a little via the dishwasher at my place of work.  No one at work likes to load or empty the dishwasher.  If it on already, dirty cups accumulate in the sink, despite the signs which request that people wash their own; if it finished, the clean cups remain in situ waiting, waiting…. you get the picture.  I decided that my “blessing” to the workplace would be to load/unload, wash up the extras/put away, even go round collecting the dirty cups, the ones with the engrained coffee dregs.  If it meant I had to stay after my shift was finished, that was OK because I had decided to do it.  If that meant I missed the bus, the walk would do me good.

Before you think how virtuous I am, I need to confess that it was often a struggle.  I saw the dirty cups and added mine to the pile…and had to make myself turn back and wash the lot. I saw that the dishwasher was finished and took a clean cup out for myself… and made myself keep going until it everything was put away. But bit by bit it became easier to give my time and to deal with the resentment about my colleagues’ untidiness. Spots were fading.

Why do I tell you all this?  I want to illustrate two things.  First of all, I was intentional. I signed up for the BELLS challenge and stuck to it, albeit reluctantly at times. I wanted to change, and I did something about it. Secondly, it had an unexpected effect.  Looking for opportunities to bless others helped move me from persistent selfishness. I found that I wanted to bring blessing to people’s lives, and more than the two times a week that I’d agreed.  Doing something led to becoming something; reaching out to others in a simple, ordinary way made me a better person. I challenge you to try it!

I wonder if this is the sort of partnership that Paul envisaged when he was writing to the followers of Jesus in Philippi –

“Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.  For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  

We need to work hard at following… and allow God to work in us. Can a leopard…?





8 10 2012

Just do it! was the 1980s advertising slogan which emerged from rivalry between sports equipment manufacturers and led to the increase in Nike’s domination over Reebok in the sports shoe market. (If you are interested, check out the story here.)

Now we don’t even need the words – the iconic tick is enough.

Hidden at the back of the New Testament section of the Bible in the little book of Jude – little book, big punch!  In it Jude exhorts followers of Jesus to “Just do it”.  So what does he tell them to do?

  • build yourselves up in faith
  • pray
  • keep yourselves in the love of God
  • wait for Jesus’ return

Easy – no difficult words there.  So why are we am I so poor at taking action?

Back in the 70s (and maybe still today), there was a belief that to be truly spiritual you had to “let go and let God.”  In other words, just sit back, trust God and you would morph into the spiritual being that he wanted you to be. It took me a long time and much Bible reading to realise that that is not good advice.  I read right through the Bible and was impressed with the persistent emphasis on being intentional about a relationship with God. (Before you brand me as a heretic, I’m not advocating that I can ever earn or merit that relationship. My salvation is truly, as the Reformers realised, by faith alone.) I need to partner with God in my growth.

The iconic tick in the Bible comes in these words of Jesus:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

These words should be enough, but sadly we’re often reluctant to take their implementation to heart. (Francis Chan, an American preacher, has a neat little YouTube video about doing what Jesus says. Watch it here, laugh, and learn.)

So I am in no doubt that I need to JDI.

Interestingly, with the JDI campaign, Nike was able to attract those who wanted the image without incurring the pain.  People bought shoes with no intention of using them for sport.  (A staggering 80% of sports shoes sold in the U.S. are never used for the activities for which they have been designed.)  I wonder if the “let go and let God” camp is like that – just sign up for “spirituality” and never mind the nitty gritty of working hard at understanding the Bible, at getting to know God better, at praying, at loving others. Soren Kierkegaard is not usually my bedtime reading but I came across this journal entry from 1938 which summed it up for me –

“There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; their cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves.”

We are designed to connect with God, to work out our own sums, so let’s get on with it.




The good life

1 10 2012

Do any of you want to live a life that is long and good?

That’s a very “now” question, isn’t it? So you may be surprised to learn that it was asked in the Old Testament book of Psalms – we’re talking about 4000 years ago!  It’s both “now” and “always” – human beings of every age want to live well.

Interestingly, the questioner doesn’t go for a lifestyle modification answer.  His recommendation is not for self-sufficiency a la 1970s sit com, or increased prosperity. It’s a character deal.

So how does the Psalmist answer his question?

Do any of you want to live a life that is long and good?  Then

  • watch your tongue
  • keep you lips from telling lies
  • turn away from evil and do good
  • work hard at living at peace with others

(Psalm 34:12-14)

There’s a high degree of intentionality in this. A good life will not just happen, and aren’t these surprising actions that are advocated? There’s nothing about earning lots of money or being a celebrity in this “good life”.  It’s nitty-gritty “inside” stuff.

I love the directness of what the Psalmist says.  No – “see if you can be a little bit more transparent and honest, and, if you can, do good to others. Oh and try to get on with other people. I know that’s a tough ask because other people are so infuriating…”

It’s straight forward – Just Do It!

We will never arrive; it’s an unremitting, challenging  journey and there’s enough action to keep us going throughout life, however long or short it turns out to be.  But taking action on these things will lead to character change (more of that another time) and a good life for us and those we live with.

Ready for a redesign?

16 09 2012

The property programme Grand Designs is about to return to our TV screens. Viewers are captivated by the wonderful buildings that emerge from the wreckage and become dream homes for the participants.  To say that it’s not all plain sailing would be an understatement!  I found these “before” and “after” photos ( of one such redevelopment and thought you might like to see the contrast.

As in property, so in life.  We hold grand designs of what life should look like, only to be disappointed when things get tough.  The redevelopments we want to make take too long, are too costly and ultimately aren’t as perfect as our imagination led us to believe.  What we thought was a quick splash of paint turned out to be a scraping off of cruddy old wallpaper, taking plaster with it. Then a re-plaster, the smell and time that we didn’t factor into the schedule.

Why are we surprised?

Building a life is costly.  There will be some quick fixes – a lick of paint, a polyfilla of a few little holes – but there are big structural factors that go on for a lifetime.

Jesus warned that people should count the cost before following him (Luke 14:28-30). He didn’t and doesn’t want a naive commitment that anticipates only blessings in life.  He expects it to be tough – “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? (Mark 8:34-36)

Why are we surprised?

Earlier in that chapter Jesus talks about his kingdom coming through his own suffering and death so why should life be easy for me?

Following Jesus is costly.  I used to think that I could get away with building a small extension where I could give God his own space and keep him contained.  What a miscalculation!

I’m learning slowly that following Jesus is living by his grand design.  I want my life to be worth his investment, to know that he’s at work and won’t give up on me,  and to be sure, as was the apostle Paul, that-

“God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished.” (Philippians 1:6)

“Did we suppose that the kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments in our ordinary lives?”

Tom Wright

Oasis or mirage?

11 09 2012

There are times when we crave an oasis, not the literal desert/palm tree kind, but the place of calm and safety in the midst of troubles.

The book of Ruth comes as one such place.  It tells a beautiful story of love, commitment and faithfulness at a surprising time in Old Testament history – the time of the Judges. (Read the story here)

Ruth is an outsider –  a Moabite, an impoverished widow – and yet in her ordinariness she helps us to understand God’s story. What refreshment!  Please take time to read it.

The PS that comes at the end of the story is a delight too, as we read that Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David and subsequently an ancestor of Jesus himself. (see Matthew 1:1-17 for the genealogy.)

Sometimes God’s purposes seem more like a mirage – illusory and beyond our understanding – but then comes the reminder in the personal stories that he is still God.

The sun still shines on a cloudy day.

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