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…?





Delete the hyphen

11 05 2012

“Ian, will you DO something!” was a cry that periodically rang out in our house when my mother was in a fix.  The sub text was that my father was too self-absorbed to notice that there was a crisis.  The question not to ask was, “What do you want me to do?”

Graphic by Ellen Lupton

Many religious people have a well-intentioned “do something” mentality – I must do religious things, even if I’m not sure what they are, for God to accept me; I must get it all together before I can pray; I need to sort myself out and then maybe…

Hebrews addresses this issue.  The writer tells first century Jewish Christians that they are too religious for their own good, too bent on doing. 

Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to Hebrews in The Message, calls them “Jesus-and” Christians: Jesus-and-angels, Jesus-and-Moses, Jesus-and-priesthood.  Hebrews, he says, “deletes the hyphens” and helps the reader refocus on God’s action in Jesus.

However, don’t be tempted to delete the hyphens and sit down to rest.  It’s not enough to say, “God-accepts-me-as-I-am-so-I- don’t-need-to-do-anything.”  True, God invites us as we are; but we must respond to the invitation – “Our part in the action is the act of faith” (Peterson) – and engage with the life change that inevitably follows.

The year at a glance

31 12 2011

Would you want to look like this man?  He is AJ Jacobs and his Before and After illustrate his experiment which became a book – The year of living biblically: one man’s quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.

It is a fascinating account and a great read – funny, extreme, at times poignant.  I recommend it.

As in real life, so in Jacobs’ quasi life – there are highs and lows.  A high that he doesn’t expect comes when he starts to pray for other people  – “I love those prayers. To me they’re moral weight training. Every night I pray for others for ten minutes…It’s ten minutes when it’s impossible to be self-centred…I do feel myself becoming a slightly more compassionate person.”

But there are the lows.

“If my spirituality could be charted like the NASDAQ, the general trend so far is a gradual rise, but there are many valleys, and I’m in a deep one now. It’s making me lazy. I forget to put on my fringes, and I tell myself, well, what’s the big deal ? I’ll put them on tomorrow.”


Those of you who have been with me this year will know that I have been following a plan.  Here’s a reminder: I set out to investigate the truth (or otherwise) of the claim that, “Life works better if you live it God’s way.”

To do this I decided to read a section of the Bible each day in an attempt to find out what “God’s way” is.  I followed a plan provided by WordLive so that my reading was not random and so that I didn’t just pick and choose parts I liked.  That was relatively easy.

The difficulty has been making changes to my life so that what I read impacts me. Writing my blog has helped me process things (Absence makes the heart…) and I’m grateful to those of you who have commented and talked with me about what I write.  But the implementation has been down to me.

There have certainly been times when, like AJ, I was lazy, with a “what’s the big deal attitude.”  And to my surprise I shared his experience that taking action led to a change of heart.  (I’m glad that I didn’t know about his experiment until December – the challenge to keep all the biblical laws would have been a step too far, not to mention the beard!)

Taking action is not an end in itself, though; it’s the change of heart that counts.  That’s what matters to God (Forgettings).  I can take all the action I like, but if it is so that I can tick boxes, forget it (Clipboards, cardigans and cuddles). 

So, at the end of the year, there’s no spectacular Before and After. I look much the same as I did in January, but I like to think I’m making progress in living well. (Perhaps you’d better ask those who live with me if that’s true or if it’s self-delusion.) I’ve decided that the experiment is worth extending for another year.  I have a few amendments up my sleeve, but they may stay there.  We’ll see.  For now I leave you with words that I read this morning –

Be strong, do not fear; your God will come.” (Isaiah 35:4) Read the rest of this entry »

Step up!

27 06 2011

Do you know this feeling?  You have been climbing a ladder, quite successfully, when something happens that raises the question –  “Is my successful ladder up against the wrong wall?”

I’m guessing here, but I wonder if that’s what Simon Peter and Saul experienced. 

Simon Peter was a successful fisherman, but he left it behind to follow Jesus.  He was close to him and had taken a lead amongst the disciples – surely his ladder was up against the right wall now?  Then disaster –  Peter denied that he had ever known Jesus and then Jesus died before he could put things right.  He had just begun to adapt to that, when the plug was pulled again – the risen Jesus appeared to him and commissioned him to tell his story to others.  And the fishing?  (Check it out here.)

Saul had his life sussed – top level religious leader, A* from the university of Gamaliel, chief persecutor of Christians – when his plug was pulled.  Saul had the Damascus Road experience that raised a question mark over everything and altered his dreams of success.

What was the “Aha moment” for both of them?  It was an encounter with Jesus, an experience so profound that they had to realign their lives completely and step up to what he wanted them to do.  And they both got a name change (Simon –> Peter; Saul–> Paul) so that they would have a constant reminder of their change of direction.


I found this clip the other day.  It reminded me that it’s not just Bible characters who get to meet with Jesus and have their lives transformed.

Is life change possible?

18 06 2011

This intriguing picture illustrates my word of the day – eclosion – ‘the act of emerging from the pupal case’ – and it inspired me to think about life change.  Is it possible to leave behind an old way of life and embrace a new one, to emerge as it were from a chrysalis and become a butterfly?

Let’s have a look at some people, case studies if you like.

Luke writes about the first disciples of Jesus.  In his gospel he describes them after Jesus’ death; they were troubled, frightened and full of doubt.  A couple of weeks later, there is an altogether different scene as Peter stands up in public and proclaims the Jesus story.  Arrest and jail didn’t stop him – “We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20)

Fast forward to Acts chapter 8 when Luke introduces the character of Saul to his narrative by saying, “Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.”  Saul, the arch-persecutor of Jesus’ followers – “Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.”

Several days later, Luke tells us, “Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days.  And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is indeed the Son of God!’  All who heard him were amazed. ‘Isn’t this the same man who caused such devastation among Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem?’ they asked. ‘And didn’t he come here to arrest them and take them in chains to the leading priests?’

Life change is possible – QED


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