Pants, Dung & Wailing Jackals

Reflections on the ways Jesus and the prophets communicated, and lots of thoughts, ideas and examples of ways we might communicate the good news of the Bible.

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An extract from the book

The chapter with an intro of sorts, an index of sorts, something about Abraham and Sarah, squirrels, a parable about two sons, God speaking a billion dialects, and an invitation to encounter God all over the place.

You'll find a mishmash of reflections and thoughts and creative bits in this book. Please feel free to share them, copy them, rehash them, argue with them, bounce off them, pass them round, anything really. I’ve recently started Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist, so in the spirit of that feel free to steal anything good, bad, weird or indifferent from these pages. Some of the suggestions and ideas are a bit random and may be repeated, but who doesn't need to read something a few times to remember it?
I’ve revisited Jesus and Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Paul and a few other biblical communicators, as well as dipping into things I’ve tried myself and great ideas that I’ve seen or heard others use. I’ve spent a whole chapter on Ezekiel, retelling his adventures, my hope is that what he and others did will make us think of things we might do. Isaiah threw off his clothes for three years, I don’t advise that, but it might inspire us to wear an item of clothing which will help broadcast and illustrate the message we are offering. Ezekiel strikes me as being the great innovator of the Old Testament, he was off-the-chart creative. A fearless demonstrator and a raving activist. Perhaps his innovation will rub off on us a little, especially with God’s help.
And then of course there is Jesus, the original and ultimate imagineer who came up with all the good ideas. Forever creative, forever loving. And radically so with the life he lived, the stories he told, and the endless metaphors and symbols he used. He’s sprinkled liberally through this book, as well as having a couple of chapters to himself.
Don’t feel you have to read this book in any particular order. If you want Ezekiel he comes later. If you want a fistful of ideas try earlier on. Treat it like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where you decide what page to turn to next. Write all over it, add your own thoughts, notes and suggestions. Nick the ideas and use them in a whole other way. Rewrite them. Twist them and turn them. Bend the corners. Argue back if you like. Throw it across the room if it annoys you. Use what’s in here in whatever way best fits for you. Pass it round. Share photos of bits of it. Make it your own book. As if you’d written it.
In case it’s of any help – here’s a scratch index to guide you:

This chapter – Mishmash − A few kick-off thoughts
Page 21 – Wildy Ideas – Lots of creative ideas
Page 29 – Seed Sowers – More ideas
Page 47 – 100-word Biogs – Even more ideas
Page 55 – Pop-up Pilgrims – Even even more ideas
Page 63 – Three Billboards – Even even even more ideas
Page 73 – Teeth and Hands – Even even even even more ideas
Page 83 – Jesus’s Sideline – The carpenter left a trail of reminders
Page 89 – Jerry and the Prophets – Jeremiah, Isaiah, Job and others
Page 107 – That Man from Nazareth – All about Jesus
Page 115 – What If Pieces – Reimagining some gospel moments
Page 123 – No-rehearsal Sketches – An easy style for instant drama
Page 135 – Response Stories – Stories everyone can join in with
Page 141 – Ezekiel – One great creative communicator
Page 179 – Parables – Stories for discussion
Page 191 – A Picture Paints 1000 Words – Creativity in the psalms
Page 197 – The End – A conversation, a wanderer’s poem and a clutch of final thoughts

Hands On
What I'm hoping to do is spark ideas, thoughts, conversations and experiments around the subject of teaching the Bible. Not merely by using words but by illustrating and demonstrating these truths, and hopefully engaging a group or congregation in that process too. Helping us to learn by experience. With our hands as much as our heads. When what happened in our Bibles first happened, these things were an experience. A bunch of events. People lived them rather than reading about them. And for a long time after that, these things were told as stories. Because there were no books. And hearing those stories was another experience because you could banter about them, throw in comments and opinions, ask questions. You could get involved.
When Jesus turned water to wine you could have a drink. When Moses crossed the Red Sea, and then later, in a kind of impersonation moment, Joshua crossed the Jordan… you could join in and get your feet wet. Or rather, not get your feet wet, as you crossed on miraculously dry land. If you were a priest with Joshua you really got an experience, because you had to clench your courage and stand on the river bed while everyone else crossed over to safety. That would sear itself into your memory. And as an extra reminder, Joshua even got folks to lift out huge stones from the river bed as physical reminders of God’s help and provision that day. They’d talk about these things forever. The day they found themselves between a rock and a river bed.

A man hangs dying on a cross.
Another piles up dung and starts cooking on it.
A woman promises to stick with her mother-in-law all the way to death.
A prophet digs up a pair of pants and frowns at the sight of them.
A family builds a boat in the desert.
A boy offers his meagre lunch to the soundtrack of five thousand grumbling stomachs.
A friend rubs her eyes outside a tomb and wonders about a gardener.
What do all these have in common?
Salvation. And a creator who knows how to communicate with his world.

Two Sons and Two Questions
I have been drawing on films and TV programmes, news stories and internet material for two decades now, but never as novelty ideas or gimmicks. It seems to me that entertainment is powerful. Jesus knew that, the prophets knew that, this is why they used gripping stories and memorable visual aids. This technique is sometimes referred to as prophetic symbolism – delivering and demonstrating metaphors, anecdotes and tales with a message. When Jesus told his tale of two sons in Matthew 21 verses 28-31, he bookended his parable with two questions. He began by asking his audience what they thought of the forthcoming story… imagine that, asking the congregation to comment on your sermon as you are delivering it. Then Jesus ended with a question about the point of the story. Which of the two boys was obeying his father? In other words, what do you hear? Again, imagine asking that after your talk – what have you all heard me say? No doubt the answers would be diverse and varied. And probably fascinating and enlightening to us preachers too.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Abraham and Sarah
Find your place in spring, until spring has found its place in you.
A good friend just sent me the quote above on a picture of one of her favourite birds, as spring gets underway. It made me think of the following phrase. ‘Find your place in the Bible, until the Bible has found its place in you.’
How might we help folk do that? Connect with God’s word. See themselves in it. Stumble across the goodness and presence of God in the words and phrases and between the lines. How may we help them find themselves in the Good Book? The old saying ‘lose yourself in a good book’ always makes me think of this – finding ourselves in the Good Book.
I was just reading about Abraham this morning, and a little phrase leapt out at me from Genesis chapter 15 verse 7. Just after God has given Abraham the nightly brightly reminder of the stars, he tells him he is the same God who set him on this unlikely pilgrimage in the first place, bringing him out of the land of Ur. Why would he do that? Why the need to remind Abraham of that?
Well… back then gods were seen as territorial, go to one place and you will find one god in control, go to another and you’ll find a different god. Abraham is on a steep learning curve here. Little by little he is discovering that he is following a very different God. A God who moves! Yikes! A God who can travel. A God who is everywhere. And just as Abraham will see those twinkling night-lights every dusk, so God is with him every night. And every day. This is a new kind of relationship.

Along with the stars, God gave another reminder too. Laughter. When Abe is told in Genesis chapter 17 that he will become a father at 100, he laughs to himself, wondering how that could ever happen. In the next chapter Sarah laughs about it too. And God notices. He tells them to call their promised son Isaac. I heard years ago that this name is apparently a kind of onomatopoeic word, which not only means ‘he laughs’ or ‘laughter’ but sounds a bit like it – Isaacacacacacacacac… This meant that for the rest of their lives, whenever they called the name of their son, they would be reminded that they laughed at a promise they thought impossible. And yet here was their son, living proof that God was highly capable of doing more than they could have expected. And it was a good thing. It was a joyful thing.
Laughter, Isaac, would pursue them all the rest of their days. And remind them of the good provision and generous presence of God. A God of the incredible. Giving them an everyday and unexpected sign. Laughter would remind them that God can do the impossible. After Isaac was born, Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter! All who hear about this will laugh with me.’ That reminder of God at work became a shared experience too.
When I give a talk or offer a sermon, I never really just want to ‘give a talk’ or ‘offer a sermon’, what I really want is for folks to share in an experience that will help them in the coming days, weeks, months. I know that is really only possible if God is at work, but clearly creativity mattered for Jesus and the prophets, and was a part of communicating in such a way that the experience made a powerful impact. No one forgot these things because in some way they lived them.

No Instruction Manual
Back then Abraham had no Bible, there was nothing written down and there wouldn’t be for a long time. It would only be as the people of God were snatched into exile, and they began to worry about the stories of God being lost, that they would start to write them down. And we have them now as a result. They are with us every day like the stars. Yet they can easily become two dimensional, or the Bible can be seen merely as an instruction manual. Longer and more dense than anything you get with your washing machine or microwave. But when these stories happened, they were lived. Not read. They were encountered. And that’s what I’m attempting with this book. To create encounters, so that we, like Abraham, might learn from experience. By doing. From our mistakes and muddling and happenings. The everyday God encountered in the everyday things. Sometimes in church. Sometimes in other places.

Laughter and Stars
You gave signs to Sarah and Abraham,
Stars twinkling night after night,
Above them, a daily reminder
Of your promise and presence.
And laughter, that great gift,
The sign of joy in Isaac,
Reminding them that you are
The God of the impossible.
The laughter they'd expressed
At the promise of a son,
Now forever with them in his name.
Spoken daily, inside and out,
And shared with others:
'God has given me laughter!' Sarah says,
'All who hear will laugh with me.'
Laughter and stars, and any number
of other ordinary everyday signs
Written in our lives, by the good hand of God.
Genesis 17 vv 15-21

A Cross and a Squirrel
Reflecting on the way God used laughter to communicate profoundly with Sarah and Abraham, I wanted to share two things. The reading below, about the way God uses all kinds of things to communicate with us, depending on who we are, and first up, this short true story.
I am standing in a churchyard, taking a bit of quiet with God. It has been raining, so I have taken shelter in the ancient doorway, but the sun has come out now. Pushing my hand into my coat pocket I feel the shape of a little notebook. I take it out, it’s not actually a notebook at all but a pocket book of Bible verses. I flick through it and my eyes come to rest on these words from Isaiah 41 verse 10.
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
I look up and see a squirrel leap onto the grass and flit across the open ground towards a line of gravestones. It runs towards a small wooden cross, simple and discreet, with a vase of daffodils in front of it. I walk closer. The cross has a name on it and is there as a sign of remembrance. What I love about it is the simplicity, compared to the stone graves it seems perhaps unremarkable, small and insignificant. Yet I like that. It seems to say something about my own inability to be big and famous. Yes! Seriously! I often wonder why I cannot sell more books or speak at bigger events. Or be more successful in my work. And here is another reminder. This is who I am. God knows me well; he knows what I can cope with and what I can’t. This combination of the promise of God’s care and provision, combined with the symbol of this cross, gently hit home once more. He has wired me up, knows how he wants to use me. The fruit is up to him. (Easy to say, mind you, easy to fret about too!) I will of course need him to keep encouraging me about that, often through other people, as I frequently forget.

The point I want to make is this. God speaks in so many different ways to us and thank goodness he does. Because we are all so different. I won’t forget that day amongst the gravestones. He spoke in a way that made sense for me. And just as he speaks in so many various and diverse ways, I think he wants us to find lots of unique and different ways to communicate with him and others. After all, we are made in his image. Chips off the old block. Here’s the reading I mentioned, it draws on verse 15 from Psalm 33: ‘God made their hearts, so he understands everything they do.’

God Speaks a Billion Dialects
I am struck today by this contrary gospel
that is both tender and dangerous,
intimate and shocking, edgy and ordinary.
It must be both, for life is both,
and people are both.
And the gospel is as real and relevant and present
for the trowel-wielding, cement-spattered builder,
up their ladder with their industrial strength tea;
as it is real and relevant and present
for the waif-like ballet dancer,
on tiptoes, in their pristine costume,
concerned about keeping their figure just the right size.
The good news must be real and relevant and present to us all,
for God speaks a million languages,
and a billion dialects, and it is just plain daft
to suppose he does not.
And if the grace we so desperately need is to be
seared into our being, etched into our minds,
and tattooed onto our hearts,
then God surely understands each one of us,
and knows very well the language we speak.

There are encounters in the Bible we know nothing about. Glimpses of God meeting people, simple mentions. God promises Abe and Sarah he will return in a year and by then they’ll be changing Isaac’s nappy. But as we read on, in Genesis 21, we find Sarah weaning her son, Abraham throwing a party, and Hagar and Ishmael sent packing. We have no idea what happened when God returned not long after the birth. Maybe he came to see the new baby. Maybe he was moved by the wonder of new life, as so many folks are. Maybe he held the child, and his heart melted a little. Jesus no doubt cuddled his brothers and sisters as they were born to Mary one by one. I bet his face lit up and his eyes welled a little each time. He must have played with them too, babysat them at times. Fed them and changed nappies. Perhaps God came back to Abe and Sarah because he couldn’t keep away. He’d been promising a child to this elderly couple for years, surely he’d want to catch some of the new baby smell. We might think all these things are a bit beyond God. But why would he give us gifts without being able to appreciate them himself?
There is of course a difficult moment coming, when Isaac hits twelve. And it’s an incident which raises a lot of questions for us readers. Why would God promise this beautiful gift and then ask Abraham to get rid of it? In chapter 22 we find the son and his old dad trekking up a mountain to make a sacrifice, the son heartrendingly oblivious to the fact that he is to be the sacrifice. If we step away from the complex nature of the human story for a moment then we can talk about obedience and the God who will later give his only son for the universe.
The one thought I would offer is this. Notice that Abraham does not question the call to make the offering of his child. His heart might be torn, but he comes from a culture where people regularly sacrifice their loved ones. He comes from a place where the gods demand that people burn crops and kill children to appease them. Abraham is on a steep learning curve here. Maybe this new invisible God that he is starting to follow is the same? Maybe he is demanding and cruel like that. But no. Essentially God intervenes at the crucial moment, effectively saying I DON’T want that sort of sacrifice. I want a different kind of service. A daily offering of lives laid down in love and grace, living sacrifices, not dead ones. This may be a cop out, a sidestepping of this very tricky story. But what we do know is Isaac lives on. And Abraham must have learnt a memorable and vital lesson that day. And one day another son will walk into town and invite people to live. Really live.

My friend Steve, (later you’ll read of him illustrating the fullness of God with a hose and a jug) talks about sticky talks. Those messages that won’t go away. They stick to us like Velcro or that goose grass we throw at each other when rambling down country lanes. Many things can make a talk sticky, and I’ve listed some ideas on the next page and unpacked others in the book. These ideas may spark some of your own so feel free to morph them into anything useful for your own situation.

No Plan B
I don’t believe that God is up there thinking I wish I could just do all this myself and not have the likes of Dave Hopwood get in the way. We were always intended to be a part of God’s creative process on earth. This was his plan. He loves to use us, to have us involved in what he is doing. Jesus spoke of seeing what his father was up to, and then joining in. Have a look at John 5 verse 19. Tending Eden goes on, but now it’s not just about developing a flourishing garden, but so many other things. God continues to create ideas, opportunities, moments of reconciliation in this damaged world, and we are a part of that. 

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The chapter with a few lists of wild ideas for communicating the Bible in unexpected and engaging ways, ideas a speaker could use while talking, asking genuine questions, using your hands to pray, an exercise in trust, and the creative sparks that flared into big ideas.

Back in the early days of cinema, when life was in black and white, and Laurel and Hardy and Chaplin and Keaton made folk fall about in their cinema seats, film makers employed the use of a ‘Wildy’, someone who could suggest wild ideas when the plot was stagnating a bit. ‘Have a bear come out of that door!’ they might have said. ‘Have the house collapse on him!’ ‘Push that piano over a rope bridge!’ Their job entailed being wonderfully leftfield and off the wall. And that makes me think of the Old Testament prophets. They weren’t employed to have wild ideas, but they sure used a load of them when communicating about God.
A while back my wife and I went to a beachside coffee shop, watched the waves and heard the gulls, and made a list of ‘Wildy’ ideas. It turned out like this below. It’s a bit scrappy, but if you want more info on anything, you could always email me at –

Wild Ideas to Help Folk Learn from Experience
• Have a look at the ways Jesus taught. (I have an email reminder of this which comes up weekly on my PC.)
• Jesus earthed his teaching in real things, he regularly used everyday items.
• Jesus drew on sand. Little children. Food. Salt. Light. Houses. Birds. Family. Crime. Vines. Gardening. Farming. Bread. Water. Wine. Olives. Yeast.
• Reference everyday things from our lives now.
• When Jesus fed thousands he got the disciples to distribute the food. ‘You feed them,’ he said. He didn’t just tell folk that the kingdom was a welcoming feast, he welcomed them and fed them and involved his friends in that.
• Give folks things to take away. Jigsaw pieces. Small stones. Marbles. Buttons. (More on this later)
• Invite folk to do an easy practical task of some kind when they are back home.
• Help people feel something real. (See Andy Flanagan’s story of Lazarus)
• ‘You feed them.’ Jesus wants us to learn with our hands as much as with our heads.

Everyday Things We Could Use in a Talk
• Phones – communication
• Keys – open doors
• Toothbrushes – looking after ourselves
• Stones – God is our rock
• Jigsaw bits – you are a vital part of God’s picture in this world
• Topple blocks – God is building us into his temple – ‘…now God is building us, as living stones, into his spiritual temple.’ 1 Peter 2 v 5
• Little crosses – something to remind us of God with us each day
• Credit cards – the Bible and money and God’s care for us
• Clothes/Shoes – living lives of peace/walking in peace
• Paul’s armour – he saw this every day, what do we see every day?
• Pass round a large piece of paper and ask each person to write down one adjective that is encouraging. Then read out the contents as a list of praise – people will not have known before that this is what it is. E.g. ‘Dear Lord, to us You are….’
• Shaving – it’s a bit like Christianity, just when you think you’ve done a good job you spot a bit you missed

Real Questions
Break the fourth wall. (In movies this mean talking to the camera. In other words step outside of your sermon.) Ask the congregation genuine open questions. Not questions for which you are looking for the ‘right’ answer. Give folks time to consider. Show a film clip or tell a story while they think of their answer. You could ask a question early in the service, and so giving time for reflection. Get folks to talk to each other with their answers first. This was something I had to learn as I was developing a chat show format when we were living as part of the Lee Abbey Community in North Devon. Ask the question, give time for thinking, then get folks to talk to each other about it, and then wander round with a microphone for those who want to tell everyone a bit of what they were talking about. This way you ease people into the process of sharing. Speaking in public is hard for a lot of people.

Things a Speaker Could Do While Talking
• Move around the building.
• Get a younger or older volunteer out the front...

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