12 January 2014

Sharing soup with strangers

Here's what happened when we took some tentative first steps in reaching out in Huntingdon. We enjoyed good soup, met interesting people, had some great conversations, and found that Jesus was with us and took us straight to the right places and people.


Huntingdon town centre
Huntingdon town centre
Back in December Sean told me that he wanted to do something positive for people on the streets.

Reading Chris Duffett's blog I'd found a story about Louise Frood, a young Baptist pioneer who had taken soup and bread onto the High Street looking for people who are hungry, lonely or willing to talk.

Sean had taken this very much to heart and wanted to do something similar. We decided there and then to put 5th January into our diaries and make a start.

Giving it a try - On Sunday 5th I drove over to Sean's with two large vacuum flasks and a pile of paper cups. Sean was already making leek and potato soup when I arrived and we filled the flasks, drove to Huntingdon, and set out to walk the streets from about ten o'clock.

It was a fresh morning, the shops were not yet open, and there were only a few people around. We walked down the High Street, looped around the back and returned. Then Sean suggested another street where he thought there would be someone selling the Big Issue and, sure enough, there was. We poured out some soup and sat on the pavement to talk, soon getting to know Richard a little and having some good conversation. We were with Richard for quite some time; when we decided to move on again he suggested we try the bus station.

Sure enough, the bus station is a warm place to go when the streets are cold and there we found Paul and Matt. Sean spent some time chatting with Paul, while I sat next to Matt and quickly discovered we had a lot in common. Matt has recently lost his job and has nowhere to live at the moment. He follows Jesus and has a similar understanding about church to Sean and me. All three of us have a strong sense that we are supposed to meet again; we are waiting to see where the Holy Spirit will lead us.

The results - Now, just a week later, Matt is using the spare room in my house and Sean is out on the soup run again. I can't make it today, but plan to be back in Huntingdon with him again next Sunday. Watch this space!

For me, the take-home message is that on our first day of obedience in taking soup to Huntingdon, Sean and I found three interesting people. A tiny amount of obedience led immediately to a remarkable result [Tweet it!]. Neither of us had the faith to expect such an outcome, both of us know we must continue whether or not amazing things like this happen every time.

In the end the outcome is not in our hands, but in Jesus' hands. He provides, he leads, he sends us but he also accompanies us. Who could want a greater guide and friend than that?

Questions: 
  • Are you willing to take a risk with your time, your money or your reputation?
  • Have you ever tried reaching people you don't already know?
  • What could you do to open up possibilities for conversation? How will you make significant contact?

See also:


30 December 2013

Food banks in the UK

Food banks are now common in the UK; many people are in difficulties because of the heavy cost of housing, ever increasing fuel bills and low income. These costs are unlikely to fall, and continuing pressure on earnings leaves many families unable to cope.

Part of the Food Bank warehouse
Part of the Food Bank warehouse
Food banks are operating in every part of the world, not just in the UK. Wherever the need exists volunteers are doing their best to help, but it's not always easy.

In Britain the Trussell Trust and FareShare UK make it relatively straightforward to start a local food charity.

Local action - The St Neots Food Bank in my own town was started by a group of churches in the summer of 2013 and began distributing food packages in October; they used the Trussell Trust model and have found the guidance, materials and expertise provided by them very helpful. The photo shows stored food being catalogued before being used to make up food packages for distribution.

The process - This is straightforward in principle, but needs dedicated time and effort by teams of volunteers.

  • The food is non-perishable (canned and dry products) and is donated by churches, schools, and individual shoppers via collection days at supermarkets.
  • Donated food is taken to the warehouse, weighed, labelled, sorted and stored in crates. Packages for distribution are made up in a range of sizes intended to last for three days.
  • Packages are taken to two distribution centres in the town.
  • Local organisations are given Food Bank Vouchers to give out when they become aware of a need. Voucher holders include schools, the Citizens Advice Bureau, doctor's surgeries and so forth.
  • People who have received a voucher take it to a distribution centre and exchange it for a food package.
This approach enables the Food Bank to focus on collecting, managing and providing food supplies without being involved in deciding who is in need. The voucher-holding agencies have the responsibility and necessary knowledge to do this.

Why are food banks needed? - It is, of course, right and good that churches and other groups are willing and able to provide this service to the community. And it's wonderful that the public and local businesses are willing to donate food and help in so many other ways. In St Neots a local furniture shop provides much of the warehouse and office space and additional storage has been given by another business.

But why is it necessary? Why, in twenty-first century Britain, is there a need (and, it has to be said, a steadily growing need) for food banks? [Tweet it!] There are a number of reasons and they have to do with the economy but also with government action (or lack of it, or too much of it). There has been some debate, but not enough appropriate action.

I'm not going to elaborate here, instead I'll point you to this recent article in The Guardian.


Questions:

  • Does it surprise you that food banks are becoming much more common in the UK?
  • How do you think government policy might be changed to reduce the need for them?
  • Do you think things will be better or worse in two years time?
  • Is there anything you can do to help address local needs?

See also:

25 November 2013

Reusable launchers

If Falcon 9 launches the SES-8 communications satellite successfully, this will be a doubly historic day in the life of SpaceX and for spaceflight in general. It is SpaceX's first attempt at a geostationary transfer orbit, and it's the second flight of their new partly reusable rocket.


The first Falcon 9 1.1 launch
The first Falcon 9 1.1 launch
Today is a very special day. SpaceX plans to launch its first mission to put a commercial satellite into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

This is what all launcher companies aspire to, and it's the core of their business.

From GTO a communications satellite can make its own way to geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), the place it needs to be if it's a TV relay or a weather satellite.

Today's projected launch is for a satellite called SES-8, flying to provide communications links for South-East Asia.

A new, reusable rocket - This is also the second launch for SpaceX's Falcon 9 1.1, a new and more powerful design that has replaced the original version of Falcon 9. Uniquely among current launch vehicles, Falcon 9 1.1 is designed to be reusable; after stage separation and ignition of the second stage and the payload, all other first stages simply re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, break up under aerodynamic stresses, and crash into the sea.

But Falcon 9 1.1 is intended to rotate, fire three of its nine engines to slow and control its descent, and finally use a single engine to land back at the launch pad. The cost savings will be immense if first stages can be re-used.

SpaceX will not attempt a return this time, though on the first flight they did so [Tweet it!] (and almost succeeded). The idea was to simulate a landing on the sea's surface and then ditch the stage.

But early next year, SpaceX would like to try again using a Falcon 9 1.1 equipped with deployable landing legs. Eventual success will transform the space launch industry very dramatically.

Watch this space! (No pun intended.)

Questions:

  • Reusable rockets would greatly reduce costs to orbit (think in terms of around one tenth the cost or less) What might cheaper access to space make possible?
  • Do you think humans will one day live in places other than the Earth? (See, for example, Mars One.)

See also: 

22 November 2013

Prayer, Bible study, story telling

Here's an opportunity for some free online training. Steve Addison presents a session on following Jesus and making disciples. It's no substitute for face-to-face contact with a trainer, but it's invaluable as a taster. If you get the chance to meet Steve, take it. But watch this and read the books anyway.

Steve Addison's website
Steve Addison's website
Steve Addison is an Australian with a calling, in his own words, to 'spark church planting movements, everywhere'.

He has written some great books, 'Movements that change the world' and 'What Jesus Started' are particular favourites on my electronic bookshelf.

Steve also runs courses all over the world and is coming to Nottingham next week for the Newforms National Gathering 2013. I'll be there, and I'm greatly looking forward to hearing him.

Recently, Steve Addison released an online training video available to watch live or for download. It is an excellent starter for anyone wanting to get out amongst local people and reach them with the best news in the known universe. It focusses on prayer, simple discovery Bible study and story telling.

Read his two books mentioned above as well, you will not be disappointed by either the style or the content. They are very readable but at the same time, challenging.

Questions:

  • Watch the video. Do you think you will approach people differently from now on?
  • What single thing that you have learned will most affect the way you think and behave in future?
  • Have you ever wondered what Jesus' daily life was like? Read 'What Jesus Started' and find out. [Tweet it!]

See also:

19 November 2013

Jonestown in 1978

Thirty-five years ago yesterday, nearly a thousand people perished at Jonestown in Guyana; they committed mass suicide by taking cyanide. Just as shocking as the deaths themselves is the fact that they were persuaded to die by Jim Jones, their leader.

Jonestown from the air
Jonestown from the air
Thirty-five years ago, nearly a thousand people died after drinking cyanide-laced soft drinks.

As we remember this dreadful event that shocked the world in 1978, let's ask again how it could have happened and what we need to learn from it.

The problem, at its simplest. was that too many people believed the leader of the group, Jim Jones. He told them to drink the poisoned mixture. And they did, men, women and children. The only survivors were those who had escaped beforehand.

How could it happen? - Why did so many people drink the poison? This is less easy to fathom. And how can we guard against something like this happening again?

Jim Jones was very persuasive, and he used the murders of investigators and escaping residents as a lever, telling people that the authorities would arrest them and torture them. A strong mix of anxiety, a sense of impending doom with no plausible escape, prior 'practice' sessions and calm persuasion convinced people to take the poison. And there's also the herd effect, nobody dares to be the odd one out, even when the consequences involve certain death.

Some people avoided the poisoning, a number by leaving before the fatal act took place, and a few who were away from Jonestown on the day of the deaths.

Avoiding danger - The fact that leaders can have such a major impact on their followers should cause us to consider very carefully who we choose to follow. In the church, we should be careful to follow only Jesus. Not only is that what he calls his followers to do (I am the Way, the Truth and the Life). He also loves us and never, ever calls us to harm ourselves or others.

We should be very suspicious of any church leader who issues commands, domineers, or insists on actions [Tweet it!]. Especially when those actions go against the consciences of group members. And we should be alarmed when any leader resorts to coercion or emotional manipulation.

In the case of Jim Jones' followers, it seems they were entirely well-meaning and devoted to him and his unusual mix of communist fervour and confused religious thinking. Some had the wisdom and courage to leave Jonestown, but it was far from an easy option for them.

Questions:

  • Can you think of other cases in which a leadership figure with charisma has misled people? Hint: think beyond religious leaders, include figures from the worlds of politics, business and more.
  • How would you have dealt with the Jim Jones scenario? If you had joined the movement as a young person, at what point would you have decided to leave? Read the Wikipedia article and be honest with yourself. Where do you draw the line when the line is ill-defined?
  • Is there anything we can do, individually or together, to prevent situations like Jonestown developing?

See also:

17 November 2013

Sinéad O'Connor's Theology

Sinéad O'Connor's album, 'Theology', is challenging if you listen to the words carefully. It's easy to overlook the lyrics, but they are the whole point of the album. Sometimes the words are straight from Isaiah or Jeremiah, sometimes they are her own, but always they hit home without compromise.

Theology
Theology
I wonder how many of you have listened to Sinéad O'Connor's album 'Theology'?

Like all of her music it's a little edgy. It needs to be listened to carefully and understood. Sinéad's life, her music, and her faith are all a little unconventional, but that's what makes her and her music so interesting.

It's relatively easy to be bland, perform bland music, and blandly follow where others have gone before. But to succeed in charting a new course, that's a little harder.

Above all, I'd say Sinéad O'Connor does things her own way without trying to please other people [Tweet it!]. And I admire that in anyone. Much of the music and words are her own (some with Tomlinson), but she also sings pieces by Mayfield, Dowe/McNaughton, Lloyd-Webber/Rice, and a traditional piece too.

Uncompromising words - If you want to hear the music you'll need to buy the album or use Spotify or similar; but here are some of the words (partly biblical) from the track 'Something beautiful'.

I couldn't thank you in ten thousand years
If I cried ten thousand rivers of tears
Ah but - you know the soul and you know what makes it gold
You who give life through blood. Blood, blood, blood...

Oh I wanna make something so lovely for you
'Cos I promised that's what I'd do for you
With the Bible I stole, I know you forgave my soul
Because such was my need on a chronic Christmas eve
And I think we're agreed that it should have been free

And you sang to me

They dresssed the wounds of my poor people as though they're nothing
Saying peace, peace when there's no peace.
They dresssed the wounds of my poor people as though they're nothing
Saying peace when there's no peace.
Days without number, days without number
Now can a bride forget her jewels
Or a maid her ornaments?
Yet my people have forgotten me days without number...

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch mention Sinéad's album in their book 'ReJesus', and that's what got me listening. They point out that although it was part of a protest about Catholicism, there's a powerful message here for all who claim to follow Christ. They are right.

Questions:

  • Read Jeremiah 6:13-15 and Jeremiah 2:31-33. How does Yahweh feel about injustice and neglect?
  • Why is Sinéad quoting these verses in her song?
  • Now read Isaiah 61:1-3 and Isaiah 61:10-11. How often do we live up to these expectations?

See also:

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