Knitted angels

Last week certainly took us by surprise.

Back in September  I received an email offering a plan for Christmas, the crazy idea of placing hundreds of knitted angels in Romiley as free gifts to our community.

One of my priorities is to empower and support the creative and crazy ideas which arise in St.Chad’s and so I thought ‘Why not?’ and said “yes, go for it”.  This was someone offering to do something fresh and inventive, outside the walls of the church, to initiate connections and bless our community.

By Sunday 11th Dec, over 600 had arrived, Angels - 1 (4).jpghours and hours of knitting and hundreds of conversations had happened.  We prayed that God would use the angels to bless people and very early on Tuesday morning we hung them on railings all around Romiley.angels-8

As the village woke up and set of for school and work, the place came alive.

The Surprise worked! – delight, joy, smiles and stories bursting everywhere.  The atmosphere in the school playground was transformed – reluctant schoolchildren (& parents) trudging to school in the dark, were running and laughing again.  Kindness broke forth, our lollipop lady found a child with no angel in tears and so gave her the one she had chosen for her tree.  Within minutes a grandfather ran off to find one in a yellow coat for the Lollipop lady.

But something else was going on – it felt more than just a happy little surprising occasion.

Something shifted.

There was a new found generosity of heart.
A celebration of what the Romiley community is about.

Commuters, walking in darkness, struggling with an early start, facing yet another draining day ahead, were lifted.  People who had been struggling with burdens, felt loved.

We provided some photos and video footage for BBC NorthWest, who put it online, their Facebook videos usually get c.20K views, by the weekend ours had been viewed more than half a million times!

But there’s another dimension to this story – which I want to share.

My confession:

A few years ago, I was excitedly preached about Angels, stories in the Bible and experiences of people I’ve met, of the vast, majestic, overwhelming heavenly beings.  In my talk, I threw in some comments, which were – let’s be honest – not entirely positive about little knitted angels. angels-4 In trying to make my point – I chose to stamp on something precious to others – and I’m not proud of it!  (The damage done when we preachers choose to trash talk something to emphasise something else, is for another blog, it’s destructive and endemic)

So what did God do? – He chose to take the very thing I had been cynical about & use them to do something really quite powerful and dramatic here in Romiley.

The church I lead, now becomes famous for being ‘the knitted angel church’…

I had some interesting conversations with God about this on my early morning dog walks last week!

God, in his love – took another opportunity to remind that building up, not pulling down is how we do things in his family.    But he didn’t just take the opportunity to humble me (he gets plenty of those) because when he has our attention, God makes the most of it.  When struggling with internal conflict between what we know is right & the tantrums of our feelings – He has a chance to speak.

angel-in-lightsSo with my full attention, God had another surprise.

As well as the outbursts of joy, and chatting and fun around Romiley.

As well as the grateful recognition that we seek to show God’s generosity.

Then the requests came in.  A flood of them.

Emails, Facebook messages to our church profile,  phonecalls, even people turning up on the church doorstep having driven to Romiley to find us.

Requests for these little knitted angels – to give to sick relatives and unsettled children.  Requests for these to bring hope and healing to those in distress.

angels-10At first we weren’t sure what to do about this – a knitted angel is cute – but it has no magical powers.

I had to wrestle with all sorts of religious thoughts,  along with my preach all those years ago slagging off little angels – I considered all potential negatives.

Was this superstition and folk religion?  Was dropping cute knitted angels in the nighttime too cowardly as a form of mission?  Was this a misrepresentation of the heavenly reality?

But then I remembered that we’d prayed for those who received these angels, we’d prayed that God would use them.  We’d taken something very simple, very natural – something sweet and lovely and prayed that God would use it – and now he was!

It was a wake up call for me.

People are hungry for God. – They are looking for him, searching for him, reaching out asking for his help.  We are surrounded by people longing for love and connection – and these angels were a sign that God’s people want to show kindness.

People are desperate for hope, for something playful and fun, wonder and surprise.  Finding a knitted angel, hanging on a railing early on a damp dark December morning – is a reminder that there is fun and playfulness in the world.

People are desperate for healing – for sickness to be overcome and they’re looking for the God who heals.

And there was such faith and expectation out there, that God could use these little tokens to bring healing and hope.  Amidst my religious reactions and our preoccupation  with a video going viral, we were discovered vast amounts of faith, outside the church.

So we started praying differently.  God used handkerchiefs and aprons in the book of Acts, to bring healing to those in need, so I got past my religious reactions and started asking him for that.  We’ve already heard of one lady’s daughter who had been in intensive care for a long time, making a dramatic recovery the day after her Mum took her an angel.  We’ve heard of insomniacs, sleeping peacefully.  I’m praying for many more, God loves these people and we long to see his kingdom touch their lives.

In many cases it seemed that there was more faith in God to heal outside the church, than within it.  And yet those inside the church have already received that love, that joy and that power from him.  We’ve already experienced connection, freedom and healing from God and  can share that.

So God took the little thing that we had to offer and used it to remind us that He has so much more.

angels-2I wasn’t totally wrong all those years ago – knitted angels are just nicely constructed arrangements of wool.

But this stopped being about the angels a long time ago.  Angels are only messengers who bring good news of great joy.  Whether they are 10ft tall, radiant in overwhelming light and carrying vast swords – or 5inches tall, made of scraps of wool with a bit of tinsel.  They have one job, to point people to Jesus.

God used this little tokens of love, to catch people’s attention, to express his love and to point people to Jesus.  He is the one who can heal, restore, refresh and bring hope.

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Sent as Light.

Light 1[lahyt] (n): stimulates plants, 
attracts butterflies, repels cockroaches

This weekend, into Monday, churches up and down the land will host ‘light parties’, a positive choice to give children a safe joyful place as an alternative to the surrounding darkness of Halloween.  Halloween costumes are shifting, as well as the tasteless combinations of lime green, lurid orange and black, with ‘traditional’ witches and spiders, we now see children dressing as intestine spilling mutants and worse.  In the darkness, craving for the adrenaline and drama of shock, the grotesque intensifies.  A society which considers it fun to dress 6 year olds as blood-splattered serial killers, needs to take a long hard look at itself.

This is my second blog of a series considering what it means ‘to be sent as Jesus is sent’, (see part 1 here )

Throughout his gospel John emphasises how Jesus saw his apostolic ‘sentness’ to earth as ‘bringing light into darkness’.  To be sent as Jesus is sent, is to be the light of the world.  Followers of Jesus, are sent by God to be ’light’ into our workplaces, communities, families and churches. Seeing yourself sent by God as light, is a biblical way to think about how God is sending you.

There is huge power in the simple truth that light overcomes the darkness, millions of great sermons have been preached on it, understanding light gives us limitless options to describe what it means to be ‘apostolic’.  Here I’ll restrict myself to two.

Light brings life.

‘In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind.’ (John 1v4)

Whether or not we can remember the chemical equation for photosynthesis, (I can’t), we simply need to know that light enables plants to grow.   Jesus was sent to bring life, we are sent to bring life.

How can we do that?  How can you bring life into the situations you’ll be sent to next week?

One simple way to bring life, is to celebrate and value the life that is in others.  To recognise it, comment on it, build up and not pull down.  When you see something good about someone, their contribution to this planet – tell them! Speaking it out, illuminating the life in them, will make them more alive.

jump-in-the-sunWe’ve spent a lot of time with family and friends this week, I feel more alive because they have asked great questions, stimulating conversation, showing interest in others, giving them space to talk.  Many of us come more alive, when we’re encouraged and enabled to express ourselves.  Are you giving that kindness to others, are you able to bring life by simply showing interest in others?  In reverse, have you noticed how stale a conversation becomes with those who were never parented into asking good questions, or have lost the confidence to do so?  Help them come alive too, show interest in others and open up lively conversation.

John tells us that ‘in him, was life’.  Jesus was bursting with life, he was creative, compassionate, and controversial.  Yet in personal encounters he valued others enough to ask them questions, to bring them more alive, or reveal the characteristics in them which brought control and inevitable decay.

Secondly: Light attracts butterflies and repels cockroaches.

butterfly-lightcockroach
[©Mirai Takahashi and razordu30 on flickr.com]

John the Baptist came to bear witness to the light of Jesus. (John 1v8)

John the Baptist came to point to the light, coming into the world to help people to see.  Due to the instincts of phototaxis, some insects are attracted to light, others repelled by it.  The same pattern is highlighted in John’s gospel.  Some are attracted to Jesus, the light of the world, because his illuminates them, he prevents them from stumbling and they can see he brings new life.  He turns water into wine, heals sick bodies, multiplies food, and opens blind eyes.  He enables others to see and therefore not stumble (John 11v9)

In your apostolic calling, to those you work alongside, or stand next to at the school gate, or serve you community with, you can shine light, to help prevent them from stumbling.  They need the wisdom God has given you, we all need heavenly perspective as we scratch around in confusion and darkness.  Again and again, I stumble into human folly, again and again my closest friends shine the light of wisdom through loving questions, to help me stand.

As I read through John asking the question ‘what does it meant to be sent as Jesus is sent?’  the clearest thing I noticed was that many rejected the light.  To be sent, comes with it the possibility of being hated, just as Jesus was.

the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3v19-20)

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is to be willing to be rejected for being sent as Jesus is sent.  We so long for the good news of the kingdom to be palatable, we so long for the church to grow, we so long to heal the pain caused by callous or hollow religion, that we filter our light to make it acceptable to darkness.  But through John, we see that to be sent as Jesus is sent, includes the courage to face rejection and persecution.

I’ve written, deleted, edited, deleted and restored the first paragraph of this blog about Halloween a number of times, concerned that by exposing the darkness of our society’s attraction to the grotesque, I could offend people, or seem ‘anti-fun’.  In the grand scheme of controversies: where Biblical Truth collides with a consumer, desire-driven culture, this is hardly a complex debate.  Yet I battled with the concern that shining light on the celebration of evil which we’ve become accustomed to, might upset others or cause a negative stir.

To celebrate witchcraft, murder, torture, fear and death is as far as we can get in contrast to the kingdom of light.  To highlight the mess and folly of a world which has turned its back on God and refuses to surrender to him, takes boldness.  I find that boldness in the model of Jesus.  And the courage I need, I find in his promise to fill us with his Holy Spirit, to enable us to be sent as he is sent.

To be sent as Jesus is sent

What does it mean to be sent as Jesus is sent?

Having risen from the dead and walked through walls to be with them, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples, powerfully re-creating Genesis 2.  Just before this profound action, he says to them: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20v21)

I was recently encouraged to read through John’s gospel asking one question, ‘What does it mean to be sent, as Jesus is sent?’.  This simple daily question opened up aspects of this very familiar gospel which I hadn’t seen or linked before, and it gave me a framework to hear God speak, bringing inspiration, understanding and a fresh challenge.

I get nervous when I hear the word ‘Apostolic’.

I know some who get nervous about this word due to past hurts from abusive controlling leaders labelling themselves ‘apostolic’.  Others speak or write of how the use of this term ‘makes me nervous’, as an introduction to critical judgement or academic point scoring, ‘nervous’ that other people have got it wrong, thinly veiled as ‘protecting the truth’.

Neither of those two describe my primary nerves about this topic, although I have some experience both with wounds and the desire to ‘be more right than others’.

Allow me a public confession, I get nervous of feeling a bit stupid and behind the learning curve, feeling like I’m joining a class halfway through the year and not yet caught up on the syllabus.  If you hang around with church leaders for any time, we’ll start talking about being ‘apostolic’, my nerves are rooted in two things.  I’m not sure I know precisely what that means and I’m aware that I’m usually making assumptions about what the person I’m listening to means by the shorthand ‘apostolic’.

‘Apostolic’ is a kingdom word, which carries resonance of hope, renewal, reform and change.  It’s a forward looking word which carries tones of pioneering visionary leadership.  It’s a biblical word, rooted in the New Testament and the culture and language of it’s time.  It’s a word used through church history, in creeds and denominational statements and the breadth of church traditions mean that it is used very differently in different contexts.

There are bold, confident leaders who use it with a definitive certainty to enforce their powerful point.  There are reflective academics who use it wrapped in nuanced disclaimers, or seeking to recover traditional uses of the word.  There are passionate visionaries who use it to authenticate a particular vision or longing.  And there are the rest of us, whose use of this word is shaped by a bit of scripture, some memory of church background, a few role models and a longing to see the church become more like the image we have of how God wants church to be.

One thing I am sure of is that to be ‘apostolic’ is to be ‘sent’.  So in my desire to understand this word, I’ve started by looking at how Jesus was sent.   In my read through of John, I noticed seven aspects of what it means for Jesus to be sent.

Lightfullsizeoutput_1938

Love

Timing

Kingdom

Rejection

Father

Home

This is the first of a series of blogs in which I’ll seek to explore those themes in John, in the hope to help you engage with the Bible and reflect on how God is sending you to the people you are called to bless, love and influence.

Before we unpack these aspects, consider this question:

Who are you sent to?

To follow Jesus is to be sent by the Father, that applies to all his disciples, wherever we are called.  To commute to work, or drive to the gym, (you could run or cycle there? – just saying) or turn up at the school gate, daily knowing that God has sent you, is a simple, essential shift in mindset.  When we realise that wherever we go in obedience to God’s call, we have an opportunity to bring hope, share truth, encourage and love.

Why I’m walking (or being chased by a dog whilst wearing a Chicken suit)

Walking in the Peaks

On June 16th I will be joining the Fusion team for their Student-link-up Challenge.

 

I’ll be stretching myself to the limit with the gut-busting, fear-crushing endurance feat of walking 10 miles in the Peak District late into the night.  Ok, its an evening stroll in a stunning location in mid June with an inspiring and joyful bunch of people and I’ll take Biscuit (our golden retriever) along for company too.  The endurance element will be for those who are doing the full 50 miles over the two days afterwards.

 

I’m not doing this to impress anyone and I’m not asking for sponsorship based on my efforts.  i’m doing this because I want to support Fusion and to raise the profile of the simple strategic work they do.

however I’ve now had an offer of a generous sponsorship donation if I wear a Chicken Costume for the walk. (& then take a video of me being chased by Biscuit in my chicken costume) – Would you be happy to contribute a bit to see that happen?

 

I’ve been a fan of Fusion since they launched in 1997.  It is a small charity with a national focus.  Their core vision is to enable young people heading off to University to link up with churches, to resource and empower church based student mission and to enable graduates to integrate into churches once uni is over and done with.  What impresses me is that its a simple, crucial vision and they do it really well, with passion, joy and creativity.  So why does this rate so highly on my list of things that matter?

 

  1. Every year 500,000 young people go to Uni in the UK.

A rough estimate is 20,000 of them come from home churches where their relationship with God has started and their faith nurtured through family and youth groups.  Tragically many of these young people in a swirling changing world of university haven’t found roots in a local church and miss out on the essential flourishing which is available through being connected with God’s family.  Those who do find churches, find encouragement, discipleship, wider friendships outside the student bubble and support and wisdom to help them in mission to their student mates.  Fusion through Studentlinkup (www.studentlinkup.org) helps students find churches and helps churches look out for and welcome new students.  Their new app is genius and the whole process is so essential & strategic for the kingdom in the UK.

Here are the stats;

500,000 freshers in the autumn.
49% of a generation go to Uni (of any year group)
2,700 linkups with fusion last year
3,000 target for this year
27% Christians find a church if left to their own devices.
92% Christians find a church if they do student linkup
2. I really believe in Church-Based student mission.  The university landscape and student experience have changed dramatically over the past 2 decades since I went to Uni.  Now there isn’t student culture, there are a myriad of student subcultures and the best people to bring Jesus to any of these are students themselves, but I believe they need to be rooted in local churches to stay sane and fruitful in that.  I wasted 3 years of my time at uni on student Christian politics and attempting to build church without the maturity or training I needed.  I burned out, got jaded, religious, argumentative and proud through the experience, when I look back now I’m gutted that I wasted so much effort.  Without the wise support of a mentor and a Christian network outside of Uni, I might have walked away from church bitter and cynical like so many others have.  Healthy churches, with mature student workers, biblical teaching, wise counsel and normal-life support can keep Christian students alive, they can also prepare young adults to be part of church after graduation.

 

So I’m going for a nice evening stroll in June with a Chicken suit, an excited puppy and a purpose. I want to shout from the hilltops of the valuable work Fusion are doing and ask you to join me in supporting it.  Please pray (not that I can walk 10miles on a summer’s evening!) but that thousands of young people will link in with student linkup and if you can give a little (or a lot) to sponsor the pilgrimage that will resource Fusion to keep on their simple but strategic work, which is built on fantastic core values.

You can sponsor me here.

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=RichardPennystan