Post-it Notes & three ways to make lessons ‘stick’

Leon Watkins is a creative photographer (see his web site). But his talent is not limited to what a camera can produce.

Recently Penny and I went to a Bible study session for the Watford Family Group. It was Leon’s turn to lead the discussion. He broke us into four groups. Each group had a section of a gospel describing the night before the crucifixion. Leon had us read the passage and note down characteristics of Jesus on Post-it Notes.

A few minutes later we stuck them to the floor and discussed if they were accurate (as you can see, even the cat got involved!). The discussion that followed was lively, revealing and helpful. It was scarcely necessary for Leon to ask us to draw lessons for our own lives. The character of Jesus was clearer than ever, and the admiration we had for him grew as a result. A desire to imitate him was a natural consequence.

What was it that made for such a memorable and helpful evening? What had Leon hit on? I’d suggest three things.

  1. Magnify the Text. By making us look at the text and ask questions of it (“What characteristic of Jesus are we seeing here?”) our focus was on the Bible passage, and not our assumptions. It was as if we were taking a magnifying glass to the text and seeing fresh things previously undiscovered. The next time any of us read the passages we are likely to remember some of what we learned that Wednesday evening.
  2. Write it Down. There is something about writing things down that makes them more real. An idea in the head acquires substance when committed to paper. As I write down my thoughts I am committing myself to believe them. 
  3. Share the Insights. Sticking the notes to the floor was an exercise in vulnerability. Some of the insights were questioned, some affirmed and others ridiculed (in a humorous and light-hearted manner, I hasten to add!). It took courage to reveal our ideas, but the benefits were immense. The reaction of the group was interesting. As some of the notes were laid out we nodded, sometimes we frowned and other times we collectively made an “aha” sound as a new insight delighted us. 
Didn’t Jesus use interesting methods to teach? His parable punch-lines shocked people (Lk 16.14), his use of ‘props’ illustrated clearly what he meant (Matt 18.2-5), and, above all, he taught in such a way that people remembered what he said. 
I wonder how much of my teaching, and the teaching and preaching in our churches could be improved by reflecting on these three lessons from Leon’s creative approach.  How can we encourage people to look more carefully at the text during a sermon? Is there a way to help listeners’ ideas become more ‘solid’? How can we tap into the wisdom of the group to augment the knowledge of the speaker?
Let me know your ideas – I’d love to hear from you.
Many thanks, Leon, for the timely reminder that there is more than one way to ‘teach’.
Malcolm Cox

Slow down to be surprised, and walk like Jesus

Sometimes we need to slow down to be surprised. The fast pace of our lives might mean we miss the marvellous.

I’ve been back on my bicycle recently and enjoying the benefits. Feeling fitter, seeing different sights. Yesterday’s ride took me past a house I’ve seen dozens of times – or rather, a house I’ve passed many times, but never really ‘seen‘.

It is a wooden (or wood-clad) house set on the edge of Cassiobury in West Watford. All other homes around it are built with brick or stone. This one alone stands tall with timber. It’s a strange sight, but attractive, unique and mysterious.

How many wonderful things do we miss because we’re going too fast. Speed-reading a book (or our Bible) has its place, but some passages need to be read slowly, or several times to be absorbed.  Driving through our neighbourhood might be necessary at times, but how will we get to know our neighbours and see their needs unless we cycle or walk the streets as well?

Jesus walked everywhere – so did Paul, Moses, Abraham, Peter and, well, all the great men and women of faith in the Bible (I know the occasional horse, donkey or mule was involved, but you know what I mean). It didn’t seem to hurt their effectiveness for God. They walked on paths, through deserts, up mountains and even on water!

Take a walk on the slow side today – and see what you’re missing. I’m off for a walk.

Cafe Nero & 3 truths about our listening LORD

During last week’s holiday we stopped off in the delightful town of Tenterden. Penny shopped while I sipped. Cafe Nero (there are no other coffee emporia) provided me with the perfect combination of caffeine and reading space.

I was not disturbed, but I was distracted. Two people were already sat a few seats away as I began my reading reverie. Snatches of their conversation reached my ears. Daughters, work, friends and church were some of the many topics covered. But though the subjects varied, one thing did not – the speaker. I called it a conversation, but in fact it was a monologue.

They left at the same time I did, about 1 hour later. The speaker looked refreshed, the listener did not!  I have no idea as to the relationship between them, or whether the balance of speaking/listening was right or wrong (the context is a blank for me). However, the incident made me reflect on my listening ability – and that of God.

I’m a reasonably good listener, from what people tell me, as long as I am prepared and in the right mood. Catch me when I’ve got things on my mind, and you will see me struggle to focus.  Isn’t it amazing that God is not like this? Here are three things that reassure me that God is always an eager and ready listener.

  1. He hears the prayers of those seeking Him. We see this with the Gentile Cornelius, “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour..Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter…Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”” (Acts 10:30–33 NIV11)  Peter was able to bring the Gospel to his household because God heard the prayers of someone unknown to Peter or any of the Apostles. One reason we Christians share our faith is because we believe God arranges meetings today just like those of the book of Acts.
  2. He hears the prayers of those submissive to His Will. The book of Hebrews describes the prayer life of Jesus in this way, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7 NIV11)  Not all of what Jesus wanted was granted – the struggle in Gethsemane shows us Jesus would rather not have gone to the cross. But that scene also reveals the heart of Jesus – that he was willing to submit himself to the will of the Father even if that will was different to his own. Many of his other prayers were granted, and especially moving is his prayer for Peter, “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”” (Luke 22:32 NIV11). Indeed, Peter’s faith did not ultimately fail, he did turn back and strengthen many brothers. 
  3. He hears our prayers because of Jesus. If you’ve even felt unworthy in your praying, you’re in good company. But our prayers are not heard because we are worthy, but because of Jesus. As Paul tells us, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Romans 8:33–34 NIV11). And then again, the writer to the Hebrews says, “…he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25 NIV11). The key here is not that Jesus died only, but that he now continues his new life with a purpose – to intercede for us who bear the weight of sin, and, sometimes, unnecessary guilt.
What helps you to trust God as a good listener – one who will never tire or be burdened by what’s on our mind?  Leave a note on this blog if you have any helpful tips.
I admired the long-suffering listening skills of the passive person in the cafe. From their body language I’m pretty sure they’re not looking forward to the next session with the super-charged speaker.  But I am grateful that God never tires of listening, and always looks forward to our next conversation.

Asa, 1 Kings & the Victoria Cross medal

How many heroes can one family handle?

Penny & I visited Penshurst Place yesterday. Some of the buildings date back to 1341. Since 1552 it has been in the hands of the Sidney family. Their history is full of public service, political involvement and bravery.

Perhaps the most remarkable family events of the last 100 years were the awarding of Victoria Cross medals to both the father-in-law (John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort) and son-in-law (William Sidney, 1st Viscount De L’Isle) in successive world wars. The Victoria Cross is a medal conferred on British soldiers for exceptional valour. It is the highest possible award. You have to do something incredibly brave (i.e. what would look foolish to normal people) to win one. It’s worth reading the citations regarding the actions in which these men were involved. I guarantee you will be in awe of their courage.

It is a sad fact that the generational passing on of good character is rare in the Bible record. I’m reading 1 Kings at the moment, and the list of father to son failures is long. In fact, it is not uncommon for a ‘bad’ king to be followed by a ‘bad’ son. Speaking of Ahaziah, the Bible says, “He served and worshiped Baal and aroused the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, just as his father had done.” (1 Kings 22:53 NIV11). But a ‘good’ father to a ‘good’ son is rare. What are we to do if the hoped-for transference of good character and faith does not occur? Should we give up?

No, there is reason for hope. We will do well to remember that good influence sometimes skips a generation – or two. In 1 Kings 15 we see this comment, “Asa did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, as his father David had done.” (1 Kings 15:11 NIV11). But David was not literally Asa’s father. Nonetheless, David’s influence lived on, and Asa took that same spirit and lived to different standards to those of his physical father.

“He expelled the male shrine prostitutes from the land and got rid of all the idols his ancestors had made. He even deposed his grandmother Maakah from her position as queen mother, because she had made a repulsive image for the worship of Asherah. Asa cut it down and burned it in the Kidron Valley. Although he did not remove the high places, Asa’s heart was fully committed to the LORD all his life. He brought into the temple of the LORD the silver and gold and the articles that he and his father had dedicated.” (1 Kings 15:12–15 NIV11)

For sure, there are other positive ways to respond when it becomes clear that the next generation is not following good principles and teachings. But, we should never forget that the fruit of our labours may be seen in a generation or two – even after we are gone from this earth.