Faithful in the small things

I can have ten good ideas before breakfast, but we really shouldn’t presume to get ahead of where God wants us.

We are in training here in our earthly life…we are to be faithful ‘with the small things’ (Luke 16: 10) because our ultimate destiny is to be fitted to reign with Christ in the new Heaven and Earth. That’s the big picture!

I’ve been blessed in recent weeks with some really clear ‘words’ from God about where I’m at and what the focus of my ministry is to be – it is faithfulness to the small things. What like? Like turning up to meet with God through out the day and regularising my bible diet. These are the ‘small things’ . The place of encounter, relationship, conversation. Otherwise we don’t inhabit a ministry that God wants, but what we want and what suits us. No one really needs that!

This is true for us individually, but I think it’s key for the whole church – to be in that place of encounter. The church needs to reJesus itself – to strip away our add on trappings and club mentality, to falling in love with Jesus again and again, deeper and deeper. There’s no quick fix to get there. And, sadly, that isn’t always the trendy thing that will get ‘bums on seats’ – if that’s even remotely what its about.

Everything flows from there. Everything.

God’s patience is so gracious. And, he is the ultimate loving Father, continually inviting us back to that ‘Abba/Daddy’ relationship – where our trust is free, our hope is secure, and where we know all our contradictions can rest.

And there’s the cost – the world clamours for the bright lights, the fancy, the spectacular, the glamorous, even. Jesus invites us to pick up the cross and follow him. God help us if we ever get those calls mixed up.

‘All or Nothing’

I started watching a YouTube documentary last night by accident – not entirely sure how I got there, but this was a film about a young Roman Catholic sister from Derry, N Ireland, who discovered an inexplicable call from God to follow him and abandon her life to this calling. A lively, joyful and colourful character, footage tracks what seemed to me to be a remarkable transformation and a deep spiritual growth over the period of years the documentary covers.

What is so significant about this Sister, Clare Crockett, quite apart from the fact that she prematurely lost her life in an Ecuadorian earthquake when the school she was teaching at collapsed, was this young womans passion, enthusiasm and dedication to the Lord. Joyful, sacrificial, and, as the title of the film affirms, a pure example of a life that was ‘All or Nothing’. She gave up a promising TV/film career to follow this sense of vocation.

I won’t tell the whole story – you can watch it yourself – but I was brought to moments of deep reflection on my own life. There seemed to be traces of parallel from her story which touched my own story and helped me reconnect with a question I’ve been asking of late.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that my conversion to Christ was ‘out of the blue’ – in a very short space of time the Lord captured my heart and attention, and my conversion was very much a Damascus Road. I saw in this Sister many of the passions I held (and, in some ways still hold) regards to passion for the Lord, the gospel and the mission of the church. I saw that same strong streak of abandonment to his purposes that I can trace through parts of my own story. I certainly identified with her longing for a deeper devotion to Christ, a deeper love for people, and a desire to live sacrificially.

I’ve found myself in recent days and weeks being drawn into a particular conversation with God, especially as I’m in a season of evaluating my ‘Personal Way of Life’ – how my new monastic commitments are expressed, and how vows of Simplicity, Purity and Obedience look in these days for me as a follower of Jesus, a father, a husband, friend and pastor.

With others, I’ve been talking about how easy it is to settle for a lesser vision in our discipleship and devotion to the purposes of Christ. I’m increasingly aware that in some places we’re in a culture where suggesting prayer and scripture reading as a base for discipleship is a step beyond what folks are prepared to really take on board.

I’m not at all convinced that the way forward for the body of Christ is to ‘take off the discipleship yoke’ and mingle with the crowd. On the contrary, I’m convinced that the discipleship bar first has to be set, then raised. This has to begin with an encounter with God in prayer, scripture and in a whole variety of means. This, of course, is what the ancient monastics have consistently witnessed to…there is an ongoing path to walk, another journey to take.

It’s like Odessius, who, having struggled his way back home, to his desired destination, then discovers that there is a second journey which is even more significant than the first. It is a journey where he must take all that has been known and familiar thus far, and start out again. That either terrifies you or excites you. It will either reveal the extent of your ‘can’t be bothered’ or call you onward.

The call to be a disciple doesn’t end with the call. That’s the first journey. The second is the path deeper into Christ, and a willingness to give it all over… ‘All or nothing!’ This is not a path of dualistic thinking, either/ors…rather, it’s one where we enter into that simple realisation that to be in Christ is to enter into a whole new world of possibility!

Ragged Edges

One of my colleagues* when we lived and worked in Newcastle upon Tyne frequently used the phrase ‘we are a church of ragged edges.’ It was probably more accurate to say that we were ‘becoming’ a church with ragged edges, but the intention was very much there.

This phrase captured for me what I’d always understood church to be: messy and chaotic, but also radically loving and inclusive of people from all walks of life. Sadly, sometimes our theology gets in the way of that. If you are ragged at the edges, that doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t have a solid gospel-shaped, Christ-centred core towards which people are invited to journey. It simply means that the church loses its walls – in fact, it means that the walls have been attacked with a great big sledge hammer.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time in prayer out on our local community of Hertford recently. This has been, as always, so valuable. To watch, to see, to listen to local people going about their daily business gives a real sense of who is out there and what is going on for them. It is also an interesting exercise to contrast the kind of folks ‘out there’ with the folks who most significantly populate the church fellowship. Quite a contrast in many ways.

Here’s how I think a church can learn to be ragged:

  • recognise that everyone journeys towards Christ at a different pace, in response to the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Hardly anyone has ‘arrived’ in the Christian life, and some folks journey slower. We seek to make space for that and dispense grace and understanding
  • recognise that coming to Christ is not the same as converting to a particular culture. You don’t have to be or become white middle class to be a Christian, and yet that often happens in our country. What does an authentic expression of Christian faith in Hertford (or insert your own preferred town) really look like?
  • recognise that we need to put away our ideas of perfection. As the great Leonard Cohen used to say, ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’ Bonhoeffer, in his book ‘Life Together’, says that it is our lofty ideals about what Christian community should be that often prevents that community from ever realising any sort of fullness. The followers of Jesus were a real shocker of a bunch – broken lives becoming whole
  • recognise the need to be real – because people can see through falseness, fakery and flakery. Most people I’ve encountered ‘outside’ the church would consider belonging to something that wasn’t deluded with its own sense of importance, or in keeping up appearances.
  • recognise the thirst for community, not entertainment. The world is so much better at putting on a ‘good show’ than the church, and so, these days, the largely ‘attractional model’ which expresses itself in simply being fancy isn’t really going to cut it, especially with the emerging millenial generation. People want to know that people have their back. Authenticity trumps any ideas we have about ‘relevance’ every time.
  • recognise that, sometimes, your theology will never fully reconcile with the reality of life. We certainly don’t give up on seeking to be fully true to Christ, but in the process, things, health, communities, people and their lives can break down. That’s where it’s important to be radically loving. Most churches have a lot to learn here.
  • recognise the need to create ‘altars in the world’, or to ‘sanctify the ordinary’. What I mean by that is that God is far from restricted to the Sanctuary. He’s as present in the coffee shop, front room, football pitch, commuter train, school and street than he is anywhere else. God can, and must, be encountered all-times and every-where. This is a challenge to any church who is only available/visible for one hour on a Sunday.

My colleague had another phrase: we’re a 7 day-a-week community. Our building was a community hub, always open and acceptable. The possibility of Christian friendship, company and community were pretty much always available at least at some time each day. People knew there was somewhere to come!

All this aspirational stuff – we may fall shorter than we’d like, but I think they’re really good intentions to hold and work towards.

*Pastor David Bedford is a URC minister currently in Dorking, but who I worked with at Trinity Gosforth Methodist/URC local ecumenical partnership in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Praying the Hours

I was preaching on Acts 3 yesterday – Peter and John healing the crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate. I spent a bit of time reflecting on the first verse which tells us that Peter and John went up to the temple at the hour of prayer – three o’clock in the afternoon. It’s an easy verse to skip by, and, indeed, when it was read out (excellently, I must say), it was almost as if it was a superfluous detail. It struck me as important.

The Jews of Peter and John’s time, devout ones, that is, regularly went at the set times for prayer – 9am, 3pm, and sunset. Those would be alongside prayers at other times such as meals and around other daily bits of life. It would certainly have involved reciting the ‘Shema’ (Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is one…love the Lord your God with all your heart..) and there would have been Psalm recitation.

I felt it was important to point out that, even in the excitement and amazing moving of the Spirit in the newly birthed Christian community, these guys were still in the discipline of regular set time prayer. There is no real evidence to suggest that this stopped, even when they were ultimately expelled from the Temple courts…and ‘fixed hour prayer’ goes on well into Christian history.

Except, we know better than that, don’t we? Oh no, we don’t read our prayers from books! No, we fervently pray from the heart, all through the day without any problem at all. Well…I hope you forgive my sacrastic tone!

I do remember many years of thinking two particular things: a) that if you had to read your prayers from a book, you weren’t very good at it and, b) that setting steady times for reading and prayer were just legalism…I’m free, and don’t need that discipline.

How foolish I was.

I need every element of structure available to keep me on track. I need to have times set to ‘show up’ before God lest I arrogantly assume I’m too busy for all that. I need a framework for my life of discipleship, mainly because I’d languish otherwise!

We mustn’t confuse having discipline in our Christian lives with any idea that we’re not then reliant on the Spirit. That was the point that I was noticing from the little story in Acts 3. These guys were in the thick of one of the most amazing moves of the Spirit, being used in mighty ways, such as in this healing story. But, here they were rocking up to pray in the Temple. Why? Because it was time to! And…because I think its the regular turning up to be in God’s presence where the heart and devotion is really altered and changed. I am not sure that sort of work really happens when we’re just winging it.

Down through all of history, Christians have adhered to ‘fixed hour prayer’ or ‘praying the hours’. The monastic tradition were and are experts at it, as are many other parts of the church then and now. The 24/7 prayer movement has done most in recent decades for the evangelical/charismatic wing of the church in awakening this desire for prayer, but also for that rhythm and regularity.

My question is what will it take for other believers to realise that prayer is as much a discipline to be forged than it is a relationship to develop. In the beginning, turning up to be in God’s presence is like the first few dates of a relationship – awkward, nerve-wracking, uncertain, mostly awkwardly silent! But, through the discipline of turning up, we come to know who our Beloved is.

I think we all need to get serious about our prayer life – our life of prayer. No excuses. Stop being so easy on yourself. I rarely meet a person who can say to me ‘my prayer life is good’. Thing is – it doesn’t come easy or naturally…it takes discipline!

More fluid…

To be honest, I haven’t wanted to as much as look at the papers and the dissertation I produced for my MA in Mission (Celtic Mission and Spirituality) in these last months! It’s a bit like that with any major piece of study – you spend so much time with it that you get tired looking at it! I am, however, just abour ready to revisit it!

Today I was thinking about a piece of work I did in response to Pete Ward’s writing in ‘Liquid Church’ – a book which suggests a transition to a more fluid way of meeting and being church, founded much more on relationships, networks, and churches as resource hubs for spiritual life. He advocates utilising the best aspects of ‘consumerism’ to achieve this – this is probably the most controversial part the work, but he rightly affirms that we can’t reach a culture by just purely dismissing it. It’s a bit more indepth than that, and don’t want to dumb down Pete’s work, but the book stands so much in contrast for our fixed and boundaried church systems. We are often more occupied with the ‘Sunday Show’ and the institutional expression of the church than we are with facilitating the life of Jesus’ community.

There are a whole range of smaller groups experimenting with more radical* approaches to Christian community. It isn’t so easy to point to larger, more established church communities who have successfully transitioned into new ways of being that more effectively facilitate the flow of the Spirit and the life of Christ among his people. The journey is usually much, much slower, but not impossible. Admittedly, many established settings are reasonably stuck in their ways and take time to shift – but patience really is a virtue! If time isn’t taken over significant and lasting change, you run the risk of losing momentum with smaller and inconsequential shifts which get you nowhere.

Early Celtic monasteries were both static and fluid…or at least squidgy round the edges. They were centres of art, learning, community, instruction, prayer and evangelisation. Their presence meant that they were a hub of local mission, service and worship…and ultimately of significant influence. What was less static was the encouragement of the brothers and sisters to get out into the community, walking the lanes and paths of their ancient world, carrying the gospel to the nations (up until the 7th century Synod of Hertford, which effectively banned the roving Celts!!!). Much of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and parts of England were converted through this wandering for Jesus. But sadly, the full weight of Rome came against the fluid with some rigid parish and diocesan systems. Just a huge clash of mindset, method and mission.

Thing is – in the 21st century, our communities are much less static, and so the ‘local’ everythin struggles. Everything is more fluid. Whilst been rooted in the local is a great aspiration, I wonder if we expend too much effort fortifying our geographical mision in a transient world. I’m all for local expressions of church, I believe that where it’s at, but even in a geography like the town I live in, there is such a huge varience in time, availablility and lifestyle that it makes what many know as ‘traditional congregational life’ quite a challenge to sustain. We need to think creatively about how to navigate this.

Strikes me that it’s possible to invest your life in bolstering up, or placing scaffolding around, traditional formats, whilst never making any real steps forward. Strikes me more that we need a pattern of life and mission in the church that will help maximise our reach and connection, and which takes more seriously the context we are in.

*by radical, I mean ‘close to the roots’ rather than ‘fanatical’ or ‘fundamental’. Such a shame that the word radical has been hijacked.

Seeking Eugene, finding Dave

After a 2.5hr crawl around the M25 and a desperate search for a parking space in Guildford that didn’t demand a 5 mile hike to the venue, I wandered into the ‘Contemplative Pastor’ day conference somewhat more ruffled than normal, and late! I hate being late! After trying to ignore the signalling from the guy at the front that I should come forward to the empty seats on the front row in the middle of some other guy’s talk, he didn’t give up and walked over to accompany me on the ‘walk of shame’ to sit down where I felt a good two foot bigger than my normal 5’10”.

As I settled and began to tune in to the guy speaking, I immediately started to question the weird ‘Holy Spirit’ impulse that I’d responded to when I felt the nudge that I should book on and travel to this event just a few weeks earlier. It became apparent that the guy had lost his notes on the plane along with his luggage, and that he was either jet lagged or not feeling 100%. I just couldn’t get on his wavelength at all, and, feeling a little defeated, put on my very best ‘I’m engaged and interested’ face. The speaker was, afterall, now less than 3 feet in front of me. Nowhere to escape! It was a hostage situation!

The conference proceeded and was a great day – it was a day reflecting on the ministry and legacy of Eugene Peterson (of ‘The Message’ fame), and the speakers were all personal acquaintances of Eugene’s and had much insight to share. It was only very recently that I’d ventured into reading some of Eugene’s amazing writing on pastoral ministry – this stuff was radically transforming my understanding of my own ministry and it was really helping me feel ‘at home’ in the ‘pastor’ label.

But you know what? I’d gone to that day seeking to hear more about Eugene’s work, but was confronted with Dave. In spite of my first impressions of Dave Hansen as he stumbled through his presentation, there was something about him that captivated me. I’ve no idea what it was. But, of all the things I decided to do that day, I bought his book entitled ‘The Art of Pastoring‘. I’d seen it in shops before – it’s been in publication for over 30 years, but I’d never been tempted.

All I can really say today is ‘where has Dave Hansen been all my life?’ As the book unfolds, he seems to speak to every knot, pain, conundrum, agony, joy and privilege of what I’ve experience in these 18 years or so of full time ministry. More than that, I have his less-than-three-feet-in-front-of-me personage looking into the eyes of my soul as I read his words on the page. It has been a long time since I’ve silently wept through a book like this.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing particularly unusual about the church I lead, or it’s people, but it does the job of inviting me into the joys, pains, and escapades of being a pastor every day, fairly non-stop! It continually brings before me my own short-comings, personal sense of inadequacy, and plays the tune of ‘impostor syndrome’ from very loud speakers at every opportunity. It continues, like every church does, to break my wee pastoral heart. Life is hard for people, and I get a fair chance to hear most of it. There are many days when I feel like giving up, and that my heart can’t take any more, but all it really takes is trust for just ‘one more day.’

As Dave H says, life as a pastor is a deep parable of Jesus that plays out in people’s lives through our presence, example and teaching. Somehow we represent the rumour and give the reminder of God’s presence in day to day life. I mean, most of the time, the job is about tentatively turning up in people’s lives in the slight chance I can be useful (or something). And if I can’t be useful, at least be there to laugh or cry alongside folks if they’ll let me. And, if not invited at all, seeking still to ‘visit and chat’ if only via the channels of intecessory prayer. But regardless of what level of engagement I’ve given opportunity for, I’m there as God’s bloke.

And yet, on the other hand, there’s a deeper work of God on the heart of the pastor which, after 18 years, is dawning on me more and more. I am increasingly aware that I carry an invisible shepherd’s crook around in my spirit as I try to save, correct, fend off, guide, protect and ‘tend’ what God has given me to tend. Whether the people are gathered or scattered, I’m on guard, looking for wolves, and seeking to lead folks into fresh pasture. I’ve never really liked the pastoral imagery, but it feels so vivid right now that it’s really helping me see what I’ve been doing all these years in a different way.

In a world where churches want CEOs, entrepreneurs, strategists, directors, brand marketeers and all that, I sense ever more that all of what God really wants is the ministry of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers living out way of Jesus in the world and enabling his people to do the same. Most of us leader types are desperately seeking to find the soul of our vocation in the midst of the battle, and it takes a great deal of courage to stick close to the heart of what God has chosen for us to do amongst the myriad of demands placed upon our time.

Dave H challenges my rather protestant, non-conformist view of ‘ministry’ and invites me to see it for the profound mystery it really can be. I’m still unpacking all the golden wisdom of this book. He’s helping me read the parable of my own life as it unfolds in this particular season of life.

Whether you’re a pastor or not, read this book. It will give the pastor and congregation such a valuable insight into what God may just be doing among his people.

Another church is possible

I suppose I carry a bit of a perpetual sadness about ‘church’. Not my church in particular, but in general. I think that if I was starting with a clean sheet, I’d probably suggest doing something different altogether. A huge part of that feeling comes from when I open the pages of the New Testament, and find that what we see there rarely seems to resonate with what we’ve ended up with. It is Francis Chan who has recently written a lot about what would you really start doing if you based your gatherings on glimpses of gatherings in the NT.

I’ve been reading Corinthians a lot recently. 1 Corinthians 11 – 15 contains Paul writing to offer teaching and correction to the church there, and what he suggests, in my view, sounds good! Yet, I think of the set up of large churches (by UK standards) like the one I lead, and realise that what he describes there is almost impossible due to the spaces we squeeze ourselves into and the format we’ve inhereted from generations of Christendom Christianity. There are just too many of us together on a Sunday morning to function anything like what Paul was talking about. Take a look at 1 Cor 14: 26 – 33 for a moment:

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

Now, leaving aside the focus on the particular gifts mentioned, what you see here is a very multi-faceted, multi-voiced congregation with a plurality of leadership and ministries in operation. There is the strong mix of order (which is the point of the passage) and freedom in the Spirit. I read this and don’t imagine a room of 200 people, and I certainly don’t see them sitting in rows – I imagine they’re in a space where they can see each other, in a circle, perhaps – probably a space in a larger home, from what we know.

Another thing I don’t think I see very much is the maturity in churches for this to work. Frank Viola makes this point in several of his books. He basically proposes that your average church is ill-equipped and hugely inexperienced in any other form of Christian gathering to make this sort of thing a reality. He does, however, set out a journey in one of his books to help a group of people navigate such a reality.

The closest I got to this was the experimentation we began in Aberdeen, where we were seeking, in many ways, to ‘start fresh’ with a tiny team in an urban priority area where your natural ‘come to church and listen to the preach’ was just not going to work at all. We focussed all our meetings around food and on 100% participation from everyone gathered! It was highly missional as we invited people who weren’t yet Christian even to speak and ask questions of any particular passage we were looking at together. We encouraged the believers to come to the gathering with something to share or contribute. Don’t get me wrong, it was like babysteps church…and it was slow work building up confidence, partly because this wasn’t a community where education levels were high, it was a non-book culture, and so things were very different. Having said all that, it was enough for me to seal the conviction that another church was possible.

Ironically, after that experiement, I’ve since found myself in much more formal settings, but because I had that tantalising taste of something different, I guess I’ve never been able to re-settle fully into the old regime. Truth be told, I have a longing that one day I’ll escape the old structures! Equally, I’m interested to hear of people who want to imagine a different path, convinced that there is indeed another way.

I think my strongest conviction is that our current models of church are detrimental to discipleship. They’re counter-productive in that they encourage passivity. Now, I enjoy giving a (hopefully) good preach, but I’m under no illusions as to the limits of that approach to disciple people, or indeed to create a fullness in the life of the gathered church. There is a place for preaching and teaching, but surely not at the cost of interaction, full body ministry, active operation of the gifts of the Spirit, Spirit-led order, and real life-on-life engagement?

Thing is, so many of us are stuck in our inherited models, and for the want of a bit of boldness, miss out on deep treasure to be found in Christian community. I’m just ‘thinking out loud’ here…I’m also reflecting on ministry over the years, and even my own setting now, asking the questions about what will release the church to be the church for our 21st century context. I’m also at the stage in my life where, if I don’t have the courage to invite others to explore the alternatives, I’l only ever be a person who perpetuates the status quo. No…I think the time has come to be brave for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God. I’m thankful to be part of a church who, at least in part, are open to new possibilities.