Try Tears

wbTruth be told, I cry a fair bit.  I got the advice from William Booth (not in person, you understand) – ‘try tears’ he said.  Injustice moves me, poverty moves me, unwarranted suffering moves me.  Most of the time I’m not directly connected to that, especially these days.  Yet, over the years, another thing that has consistently ‘got me’ is a burden for God’s people to encounter the transformation he brings and the depth of longing for the church to grasp the significance of our work, mission and task ahead of us.

It is a burden that I’m continuing to take to the Lord.  I lay out my question before him:  ‘How long?? Lord, why is it when your word says [this], and your passion is [this], and your command is [this], we’re so slow to respond to your call?’  And I ask him ‘Lord, send workers into the harvest!’  ‘May your Spirit renew us inward and move us outwards!’ …and I plead.  I beg that he might come and do his work…and I try tears as old Booth suggested.  It’s not that God will be manipulated, or suddenly moved by waterworks.  It’s not that I have to turn it on, I just plead and I long…and it lays heavy on my heart.  I still pray over my church’s empty seats every week like I’ve done for a long time in every place, picturing each person who comes and calling to mind the ‘feel’ of the assembly and the spiritual temperature of the corporate experience.  And, praying for those who’ve still to hear, who might someday sit on them.  I celebrate the good, and the rest…well, the Lord hears me.

The problem with me is that I’ve never been satisfied with any doctrine, idea or argument which seeks to come along and detract from the urgency of the Gospel.  Yes, call me old fashioned, but for me, preaching the gospel (in whatever format) is still important because I want people to experience the fullness of salvation God brings.  I want them to connect with deep grace, deep love, deep mercy.   I want to see so many folk’s transitory troubles pale into insignificance compared to the greatness of the promise; Christ in you, the hope of glory!

Taking away the Christian-talk….I believe God is in the business of rescuing, changing and redirecting people to a different destination.  And, there’s not a single person any of us have clapped eyes on that is not in need of the work of Christ to lead us out of the Kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of the Son, whom God loves.  Any other ‘gospels’ out there perplex me, to be honest.

And then there is what passes as ‘normal’ in so many settings.  From my own perspective, I am worried if I have no passion: to encounter God through his Word; to pray and spend time in the ‘secret place’ with the Lord;  to speak his name and carry out his mission; to meet with, and encourage, and create community with the body of Christ regularly; to be open and accountable about my spiritual life; and, to extend the loving hand to the ones in whom Christ comes to us in his most distressing disguises (whatever you do for the least of these…)

It can’t be that I’m just weird to be so preoccupied with these things, can it?  And don’t get me wrong, I have my own salvation to ‘work out’ and I’d be competing with Paul for the ‘worst of sinners’ title most days if it wasn’t for God’s restraining grace.  It’s just that my heart longs for Christ to be fully formed in us, as much as is possible and that our capacity for being drawn in pursuit enables us.  To that end, I’ve laboured and no doubt will continue to labour.

Another thing Booth said was to assemble kindred hearts in some back room somewhere and pray until the breakthrough comes.  Prayer is where the transformation comes, it is where the relationship flourishes and where disciples are formed in love and active learning.   It’s a burden that needs sharing, maybe even a vision that needs renewing.  May God hear and answer.  Come quickly, Lord.

How to support your pastor/minister

Over the years there have been plenty of those ‘how to support your pastor’ posts written  and that appear on Facebook etc. from a variety of perspectives.  Certainly when I’ve read them there have been things that are useful and things that are less so, usually to do with the context.  I guess, over the years, I’ve never taken the time to contribute to that conversation from my own perspective.  It won’t be perfect, but its the fruit, I think, of 17 years in full time church ministry (boy, I really need a sabbatical!)   I’m going to use the term ‘their’ as a gender inclusive word rather than his or hers.  In no particular order…

1.  Support your pastor’s family.   Your pastor loves you, no doubt, but their primary ministry in life is their family and their wellbeing will always be at the forefront of their attention.  It is very likely that your pastor already sacrifices a significant amount in the family area in fulfilling a rather unconventional job.  As your pastor pours their life into seeking to care for the church community, they need to know that when things get as equally challenging for their family that someone will be there to love, care, support, help, visit, pray for, feed, and provide for them.  One more thing: baby sitting. If your pastor is married, they have a relationship to maintain.  Chances are they are living a significant distance away from their family and other networks of friends…that’s where the church steps in for the sake of the family’s wellbeing.  

Personal reflection:  I’ve always appreciated people who actively demonstrate the love of God to my children in ways such as offering a gift at birthday or Christmas, or when leaving the church; buying sweets; taking an interest in their interests; offering with lifts or school pick ups; encouraging them in their faith, especially when it’s easy to feel that they’re just being dragged to church because it’s mum/dad’s job.  A great gift that one church member offered to us was simply one evening per month of baby sitting so that I could have precious time with my wife.

2.  Ask you pastor if they have any needs.  Most churches do a good job of paying a reasonable wage, some offer accommodation etc, and other practical things in order to provide a secure base from which they can work.  That doesn’t mean to say that practical, financial or time challenges don’t arise.    They have a need for time to cultivate and enjoy sustaining friendships and activities outside church to help keep them sane.  Even with a day off a week, realise that your pastor’s brain rarely switches off from the things they are passionately working on.  Even the most disciplined pastor will not or cannot just ‘switch off’ – it’s not that kind of job!

Personal reflection:  Some of the greatest situations I can recall were when a church took it on board to feed our family when I was sick, who took me for coffee and walks, gave hugs and shoulders to cry on, quite literally.  There are times when we’ve struggled financially for whatever reason (cash flow, unexpected bills etc) and churches have said ‘we’ll help take care of that’.  In fact, the table and chairs my family sit at every day were an anonymous gift because when we left The Salvation Army we had no cash left to buy one…our dishwasher was a similar gift.  It’s not about the ‘stuff’ – it’s about  recognising that sometimes love has to be tangible.  There have been times when people have ordered me to go home and rest, and not to dare showing my face until the black rings disappear from my eyes!  

3.  Support your pastor’s personal development.  Depending on the denominational system, there may be things already in place.  But, there are a few things worth mentioning:  your pastor needs to keep his own devotional life, education and study life and inspiration fresh if you want to continue to enjoy decent services and sermons!  If they are not sustained, you certainly won’t be through their ministry.  A book budget, a training budget, a spiritual direction or mentoring budget can all be real gifts to help a pastor sustain their spiritual development and leadership.  And don’t forget there may be practical training needs.

Personal reflection:  The greatest support I’ve ever received from a church in this area is a few extra days each quarter of the year that I can take away from the ministry setting for study or retreat, as well as occasional financing of that.  These have refreshed me, stretched me, blessed me and sustained me, as well as allowing me the opportunity to reach my full potential for the Kingdom.

4.  If your pastor has helped you, tell them.  Respond to their ministry as it touches you.  No healthy individual is asking for their ego to be stroked, and no-one should be asking to be ‘exalted’ or set on a pedestal.  But pastors will usually be deeply invested in assisting your growth as a human being, a disciple of Jesus, a member of a family, church and community.  If they are succeeding at all, thank them.  Even if you have to be really creative with your thanks, have a go!

Personal reflection: Some of the most precious things I have are the stories of how my labour\work has impacted a life. It really IS what makes it all worth it.  To know that there have been things I’ve been able to say, be or do that have helped just a bit is so meaningful.  It has taken me a long time to be able to really hear what people are saying when they express this kind of thanks and not to shrug it off, and as I’ve worked on that it has become a deep blessing to know that my work isn’t for nothing.

5.  Pray for them, with them, beside them and over them.  Chances are your pastor invests significant time in prayer for all sorts of situations.  Equally, the chances are that your pastor is prayed out and desperate.  Moreover, they may feel that they’d just love someone to minister to them…to pastor the pastor with prayer.  Ministry is not just a role or a job; it is, in itself, spiritual warfare.  A praying pastor will pray diligently for protection and guidance, but they need support.  There is a picture in the Old Testament of Moses interceding over a battle on ground below.  When he got tired, his arms raised in intecession drooped and the battle suffered.   When others came alongside and lifted/supported his arms, the battle picked up.  That is just a beautiful picture.  Do you pray for your pastor?  For their protection, vision, love, inspiration, preaching ministry, pastoral ministry, evangelistic endeavours, practical stuff and just general wellbeing?  Good idea to.

Personal reflection:  ‘Let me pray for you’ are the sweetest words to my ears. The sense of being lifted up before God is my deepest need.  No matter how diligent I am in engaging in prayer, someone battering down the door of heaven for you in prayer is life itself.  And, yes, there have been people who have prayed for me when I’ve no words left to say.  There are people who have chosen to be prayer warriors ‘lifting my arms’ – and they are the greatest gift to me.

6.  Share the ministry burden.  Ministry is not a one-person-band outfit.  Most pastors are not multi-talented jack of all trades type of people, but that can often be the expectation…especially in some parts of the church.   You may not feel you can preach, or anything like that (although, that’s great too!), but maybe you can offer some PA admin support, do some phonecalls, or anything else that a pastor can be relieved of in order for them to do what you really want them to be doing.

Personal Reflection:  Honestly, I’ve done it all over the years.  Cleaned the toilets, set up the chairs, done the money, raised the funds, baked the cakes, redesigned the church garden, painted the rooms…I could go on.  No problem with it.  But the challenge for me is when doing all that distracts from the real purposes the church is paying me and releasing me for.  There have been some situations in the past where I’ve felt like little more than a glorified janitor/administrator and those have been the points when I’ve thought…actually, if I stacked shelved at ASDA I’d probably have more freedom for ministry in my spare time! No job is beneath me as a leader….but equally, there are some bits of gifting and expertise that you’d probably benefit more from.  

It isn’t all practical though:  there have been seasons where I’ve had to deal with REALLY complex pastoral issues and people have said ‘really, let me preach this Sunday for you’ or ‘let me do that bible study’ or ‘let me organise temporary cover for a few things’ all whilst I’ve dealt with ‘that’ thing.  I’ve seen things and experienced things in ministry that have totally wiped me out emotionally, spiritually and physically…and have been restored by loving teams who’ve stepped up to the mark.

6.  Follow their leadership.   Leadership happens in lots of different ways, and is often shared.  But, perhaps the calling, training and experience your pastor has in ministry positions will help you arrive at particular places, and maybe some places you don’t fully understand on the way.  Your pastor may be wrong, yes, but responding to their leadership by getting behind them or asking helpful questions to fill out what you don’t understand might help.  If you’ve had enough confidence to call that individual (if that’s how your system works), maybe dare to believe that God has brought their specific set of skills/giftings to you for a particular time and a particular season.  Dare to step out with them, always knowing that they are (should be) open to creative criticism and tweaking on the way.  Back them up on small and large things, speak to them privately if you need to, but try and support as much as you can.  On the other hand, don’t be a blind fool.  It is right and good to question and don’t let anyone ‘Lord to over’ you.

Personal reflection:  I think the whole church has huge shifts to make in its leadership culture and even its leadership training.  I’ve learned most of what I’ve learned ‘on the job’ – from both good and bad experiences…that’s life.  But, I can only do what I can do with the support I’ve got…the role is too big otherwise and is undoable.   The day of messiah-pastors or super-pastors is gone, and was probably never really here.  The buck stops with me as a leader…and I’ve always been glad of people who will back me to the hilt when it really matters…and especially glad when people have even stuck out their neck even when they didn’t fully agree with me.  Sometimes I’ve been right, sometimes they’ve been right but we need to hear each other.

Bottom line: there is every chance your pastor is doing what they do for love of God and love of you.  Please give the benefit of the doubt, especially if they have to deal with difficult things.  Don’t be afraid to shape, challenge and question…but over all these things:  pray for them and love them.

Personal reflection:  I also like Tunnocks’ Caramel Wafers.

Monuments and Movements

My last paper for my MA in Mission explored some of the key factors that might be required for any church stuck in a rut to get moving again.  Discounting dynamite, laxatives or any other such distasteful or destructive methods, the conclusion I argued for was simply to focus on ‘making missional disciples’.  OK, so the argument was a bit more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it.

I guess, over the years, I’ve been a part of a million-and-one exciting projects and initiatives…especially all the latest things which are guaranteed to grow your church in 5 easy steps or your money back (…no, wait a minute, we’re keeping your money…it’s your lack of effort that means our fool-proof plan isn’t working).  Most of those things seem to hinge around the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ from some nostalgic Kevin Kostner baseball film rather than any biblical or historical pattern that really meant something, or on any engaged theology of mission.

But you know what?  There is not a massive crowd out there looking for a church of any description.  The number crunchers tell us that perhaps 10% of the population not already in church MAY CONSIDER taking up an invite to come along.  No guarantees…just ‘might’.  The rest are rather non-plussed.  And, I don’t always blame them. Considering we focus our major resources on the 10% (along with almost every other church out there), it’s reasonably safe to say that growth and movement will not come that way.  There are already hundreds of churches set up for just that.  But what about the rest?  Who will go to those for whom church is the last thing on their minds?  And what will it mean to do that?

By missional discipleship, I mean getting a tipping-point percentage of those already in church engaged in a mission-centric approach to discipleship as opposed to a church-centric approach; one based on active learning (learning and living by doing and engaging) as opposed to book learning alone; one which cultivates in individuals the instinct to go beyond the boundaries of church culture and actually engage with real people – not with some ulterior motive – to live our lives openly alongside others in such a way that God-in-us can be seen, questioned, challenged and explored.   Hirsch calls it having ‘the missional-incarnational impulse’ – the desire to ‘go out and go deep’ and maybe even to ‘stay out’.  What does it meant to engage people on their turf, on their terms and in their time rather than the other way about?

I think I’m stating the obvious here, or at least it seems that way to me.  But, the reality is that for many situations the writing is already on the wall and there are many situations up and down the country not prepared for the present and future challenge in the mission of the church.  Uptake on any form of active discipleship can be low, let alone a missional discipleship that is ready to engage in such a way that a real shift can happen.  And I’m not talking about church activity here…if anything, that can be a distraction.  The church is rota-ed to distraction!  I’m talking about a core commitment to living a Jesus life at home and in the community.  For me, the church exists beautifully whether it’s gathered or scattered and it strikes me that the only way for that beautiful life to be seen is if we dare to expose it to the scrutiny of those who need to witness it.

I’m not against making our gatherings accessible, meaningful and even ‘attractive’ to visitors at all – but it is a small part of the story as far as mission is concerned.  Major shifts are required for them even to cross the door.  Maybe getting them to cross our particular shaped doors is not the main thing after all? Maybe the ones crossing doors should be us?  I’d bet my bottom dollar on that.  In fact, I believe it is what Bonnhoeffer meant when he said that he believes a new kind of monasticism is required…one that is nothing like the old flavours of monasticism apart from that men and women gather around the central theme of LIVING OUT the Sermon on the Mount…the Christ-shaped life.  If God is a God of mission, who sent his Son, who then sent the Spirit, who now sends us…isn’t it about high time we got going?   Please, for God’s sake, let’s!

On reading and learning…

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ – John 1:14

I picked up the two heavy ring binders containing my study notes from my days at International Christian College in Glasgow last night and enjoyed a good flick through the pages.  On one hand, I loved revisiting the pages, remembering even sitting in the classrooms…the lecturers and students.  On the other hand, I was slightly bewildered at the fact that I’d once learnt this stuff, much of which I’d forgotten, or, rather, filtered.  One of the things I always said about going to bible college was not so much about the specific things I learnt, but the fact of having learned to learn!  That’s the thing that really sets you up for life and it becomes a skill you can develop and apply to most stuff.

I have to say that one of the things that troubles me most in many churches I’ve experience in over 20 years of being a Christian is the low levels in congregations of people engaging with learning.  Don’t get me wrong…it’s not all about book learning for me.  I think it’s even possible to know loads of stuff and for it to make little impact on your discipleship (I’ve seen that too).  I intuitively know that many people learn better by doing, and that an active ‘on-the-road-with-Jesus’ discipleship should helpfully balance any book-type learning.  But all the same, it is concerning how in some circles the take-up for education is low in the church…especially when it comes to Bible literacy.

When I was 14/15 years old, and in the six months or so before my conversion, I was literally soaking up everything I could read about Christianity.  Everything.  I had devoured my little red Gideon’s New Testament I had got from school and had covered anything half decent in my local library on matters of Christian faith.  I just wanted to know more.  This, I believe, not only helped me to respond to the gospel readily in October of 1995, but also set the tone for what would be a normative part of my ongoing discipleship.  I’ll always be thankful for that, wherever I got it.

Thing is, I was never a reader up until that point.   Until that point in time I don’t reckon I’d ever really read a proper book.  I wasn’t encouraged, really, to read at home.  I do understand that reading isn’t some people’s bag…I honestly get it.  But, for me, the thirst to understand the Christian story was just bigger than all of that.  And, I haven’t really stopped.

But I remember that early passion for the Bible.  I remember, lying in my bed at home, reading the bible under my duvet like it was some contraband material (probably was in my house!) and being entirely captured by the words of Jesus.  I remember the first time reading of  ‘you are the light of the world’ and ‘let your yes be yes’ and ‘if the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness’, and ‘this is how they will know you are my disciples’ and ‘Jesus sent them out two by two’… and to hear those words for the very first time without any real church context understanding of them at all – it was revolutionary stuff!  I was captured by the Jesus in the books and was thrilled and amazed when I realised that I could talk to this Jesus and that he would respond in ways I could never have imagined.

And that’s the whole point:  relationship; encounter; thirst; transformation.  People spend their whole lives expecting people to feed them with this stuff.  Truth is: you have to have the appetite (if you don’t have it, ask the Spirit); you have to learn how to feed yourself; you have to take responsibility for your own discipled approach; and, you have to not just be a reader, but a doer of it.  But you know what?  People like me have jobs that are designed, really, to help people do just that!

None of this is to say that, over the years, there haven’t been dry patches, negligent patches or, in my case, some periods of time where I have been prevented from being able to read or study due to being unwell.  But, as soon as I detect a real case of whatever it is, it doesn’t take long before my cry is ‘God, please!’

I remember one such time during a recent illness when I just couldn’t read – the words wouldn’t register, they wouldn’t come together, it just wasn’t happening, and I was desperate for the cognitive function to engage.  In that time, I even remember carrying my Bible with me, opening it on the desk and resting my head on it.  I wasn’t under the impression that any sort of weird osmosis would take place, but I had such a desire and longed for my head to clear and the ability to read to return.

I’m always happy if I can just encourage people, in any small way, to read and engage.  And, if people aren’t readers to get on the apps, the CDs, the mp3s, the podcasts, the whatever and allow your mind to be shaped through engagement with gospel ideas and the teachings of Jesus.  More than that, do it with other people…it’s not a solo sport all the time.  Take responsibility…move on from the milk, and arrive at the good meat.  So, what ya reading? 😉

 

 

 

On hearing a new call…

Life is about to shift for us again as in September I take up a call to serve Hertford Baptist  Church in the role of Associate Pastor.  I’ve really appreciated the nearly 4 month process of meetings, prayer, conversations, eating together, preaching opportunities, and question answering that has all been a part of the discernment process.  It gave plenty of time and space to sit with what was becoming quite a strong sense of ‘fit’ and eventually a clear call.  I was certainly very humbled to receive 100% of the member’s vote, which was the final stage before they invited me to accept the call. That was such an encouragement to me in my several ‘not sure they’d want me’ moments waiting for the phone to ring, and certainly felt like a significant confirmation of all that I’d been sensing within myself.

My new role will be to work as part of a team, which I understand will eventually be 3 members of ministry staff:  the senior pastor, myself as associate, and then a children’s/youth worker, along with the wider leadership team, Deacons and other workers/members.   As well as playing a part in the ‘regular’ aspects of ministry (preaching, pastoral, etc), my areas of responsibility will be to develop and encourage the church’s outreach, both evangelistic and socially, and to give oversight to the church’s work with families, children and youth.  I’ve never really felt like much of a ‘generalist’ in ministry, ad although I’ve plenty of experience in various kinds of ministry-related stuff,  picking up on a role with these particular sets of focus was a real pull of the post even before having the chance to get to know the church a little.

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‘I plunge ‘neath the waters, they roll over me’ – My baptism in the River Almond, Perthshire.

At several times through the process helpful questions have been ‘why baptist?’ and ‘why an associate role?’  These were really clarifying for me.  I guess, in the years since leaving The Salvation Army, we’ve been figuring out as a family where we might fit best.  We’ve had good experience with the Methodist and URC, but the overall dis-jointed aspects for me were around the baptism of infants, which I’ve never quite been able to square in my own mind.  I know that’s not a problem for many folks…and I wouldn’t even say it’s a major ‘problem’ per se for me, but it’s one that I have difficulty getting my theological head around, especially coming from a Salvation Army heritage of public confession of Christ as believers, and witnessing to the inner change Christ has accomplished.  It’s just important to me, and key in how I understand conversion, regeneration and salvation, and our response to Christ’s work.  It makes sense that, looking to the long term, I’m in agreement with folks on these things, especially if I’m throwing my lot in, which is our real hope.

I guess, also, I’ve had some fairly strong baptist people influencing my life for several years: especially people like Stuart Murray-Williams from the anabaptist tradition who I’ve got to know over these recent years, people I’ve met in Urban Expression settings up and down the country, and some very good friends in whom I see sound, wise and admirably qualities.  I’ve been inspired, from slightly further afar, by the gentle and joyful evangelistic ministry of Chris Duffett, recently the [insert appropriate title for national figure-head of the Baptist Union] – I’ve witnessed in him a kindred passion for evangelism and loving action.  So, yes, lots of very baptist influence and flavour which even goes back to my days at International Christian College in Glasgow where I had tonnes of lovely baptist friends who had a significant impact on my life and ministry as a younger man.

Finally, I guess my theology is still fairly firmly evangelical/charismatic and whilst my spirituality and theology has grown significantly in the last 6 years, there are still so many things from that tradition that are important for me that aren’t necessarily shared in other parts of the church.  That’s not to say that, like many, I haven’t been fairly dissatisfied with some of the stuff that claims to speak for the ‘evangelical wing’ in recent years, especially in Trump’s America, but I guess I mean evangelical with a small ‘e’ – devoted to Christ and his saving work, the authority of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, etc.

And, then, it was helpful to work through the ‘why not look for a senior pastor role’ type questions.  I guess the main answer to that is that, having found myself working reasonably ‘solo’ for the last 18 months or so, I really want to have an environment where ideas can be bounced, encouragement and challenge can be shared, and where all the gifts are laid on the table and harnessed for Kingdom purposes.  I have never believed that leadership is a solo sport…I think the bible gives clear evidence of a multi-functioned ministry including apostolic, evangelistic, prophetic, teaching and pastoral giftings.  I don’t think any one individual functions in all of those, and I’m happy to be looking forward towards working alongside Dave Sunman, who I think sings from a very similar hymn sheet when it comes to our understanding of the leadership function in the body.  I’ll be perfectly honest…I think all of us who exercise some form of leadership in the church need the ’rounding out’ that working with others does for us.  That works brilliantly when there is an atmosphere of openness and teachability, although thats not always easy to foster in some circumstances.  The leadership task is a challenge, and in many circles it needs reimagining, but its important nonetheless.  I’ve always hoped that I’d be part of a generation that is part of this rethinking, and I’m glad to be moving back to a situation where I can more wholeheartedly live out my convictions in this area.

Also, with being new to the baptist set up, there will be plenty of ‘learning the ropes’ to do.  Hopefully, with the churches help, I’ll be entering into the accreditation process with the Baptist Union and it may be that several years down the line, taking up either a ‘single leader’ or ‘senior leader’ role will be right.  But for now, I’m looking forward to offering what God has gifted to me into the team at Hertford.

I’m glad that God is always working to surprise me.  In and of myself I’d probably have the tendency towards comfort, which I guess most of us would, but after a period of transition from the Army, some great years at Trinity, a period of challenging illness, but now with a deep sense of wholeness, by God’s grace I feel ready for this new chapter.

And its on that note that I finally have to give the greatest thanks:  I have been feeling so remarkably well for the last couple of years and I’m thankful to God for his healing and restoration, but also to the many who stuck by me through challenges and transitions, who’ve believed in me and for me when I was powerless to do so myself, and who are a never ending source of love and encouragement….you know who you are!  Thank you!

Catching up with Easter

As often happens, I only really get the opportunity to reflect on Christmas or Easter a few days after the ‘main thing.’  You may or may not realise, but a lot of your pastors’ minds are fixed on making sure that you have the opportunity to really share in the fulness of these seasons, and with the transforming message of the gospel.  At least, that’s what is on my mind…maybe I can’t really speak for others! For me, to nurture people into deep reflection on the significance of the passion and the resurrection is such an important task.  And, if that means that my own experience takes a back seat for a while, then so be it.  However, Eastertide continues for the 50 day period and although some churches are very quick to move on, it is so important that we linger on resurrection hope even beyond the 50 days…in fact, moving towards Pentecost should then inspire us so deeply that there is nothing else in the bigger scheme of things that should loom so large in our lives than the cause of Christ and our mission.

This is why I will never understand an expression of Christian faith that remains unmoved, uninspired or unchanged by walking through the Christians seasons which, although invite us to go deep, also invite us to considerable joy.  As I’ve said before, I know all the reasons that get in the way of discipleship and people’s spiritual development, but I’ll never understand it.  How can anything be more important than our being in Christ, our discipleship and our engagement in his cause?

Jesus is everything to me.  Even in my imperfect moments, my low moments, and even when I’m somewhat distracted by ‘stuff,’ the Spirit in me just doesn’t let me stray far from Christ…I’m continually drawn back.  Most folks in ministry deal with some pretty difficult stuff from time to time, but it all pales into insignificance when even one person responds to Christ in a new way, when faith grows and he becomes more real.

Incidentally, I’m glad I responded as fully as I did to the call to take Lent really seriously this year.  I was strongly drawn to it with a sense that God was going to do something in me and he did.  I feel fortified in almost every way.  I’ve had some amazing encounters with Jesus over this lenten season, and he’s spoken profound things into the depths of my being and I feel different about several things because of that.

Sitting here, this side of Easter, I hear the call to being strongly resolute in my commitment to Christ in new ways and, like Paul, to seek the strength from God’s Spirit to ‘proclaim the gospel clearly as I should.’  It is such a huge story and I’m deeply saddened to be in touch with communities which would seek to ‘explain away’ God’s work in and through Jesus to the point where its potency is lost, greatly diminished or reduced to ‘moral therapeutic deism’ (i.e. have your own sky god who panders to your needs, and demands nothing but you behave yourself).  Some of the stuff I hear round and about is so alien to the gospel found in the Scriptures and in the tradition of 2000 years of the church that it isn’t recognisable, and impossible to get to without dismissing significant chunks of the biblical narrative.  It is just modern versions of all the councils of the church met to deal with – heresies galore.  The mind boggles.  This deconstruction work simply doesn’t ‘work’ because Christianity is not just giving assent to a set of theological ideas, but is a radical commitment to the way of Jesus and an openness to do what he commands.

So, I’m filled with both hope and despair, to be honest.  Hope that Christ is still risen, but despair that we spend so much time missing the point….still.  However, there is no place I’d rather be than with the community of Christ however it expresses itself.  For me, disengagement with ‘the church’ is not an option, even if it would sometimes be a preference!  He is in the resurrection business and if he can invade, save and resurrect my life, he can do it anywhere.  This is the power of the resurrection….Christ in us, the hope of glory.  I still have it in me to believe that another church is possible, that another vision is still within reach…but I’m also realistic enough to know that no expression of church will ever be perfect. We must continue, however, to aspire to greater things…the resurrection demands it.  Why?  Because there is a world who still need to hear the message and the church is the light of the world following THE Light of the World.

Give it up

Jesus:  Give it up!

Disciple:  No Lord, let me do this instead.

Jesus:  That’s not how it works.

We come to Jesus, more or less, on our own terms.  We come with our houses, cars, abundant possessions that no sensible person needs, and with our leisure, pleasure and all the rest.  We come with the last bit of us to be sanctified, our wallets.  And we worship Jesus, seek our blessings and peace, and slip back into our own lives in our own little kingdoms where we rule supreme.

Who am I talking about?  Well, I’m talking about me, but if you see yourself in there, know you’re not alone.  And you know what?  I hate it.  But there are so many times I rehearse the conversation above.  The two words, ‘No’ and ‘Lord’, cancel themselves out.  If he’s Lord, no isn’t something to say to him.

When I sense God call me up on my attitude towards ‘stuff’ or ‘comfort’ I start along the lines of self-justification…oh Lord, what harm does having [enter thing] do?  I mean, surely Jesus doesn’t mean us all to give our stuff up?  Surely that’s not sensible?  No, I’ll keep hanging on to my stuff and assume that it was ‘that guy’ who had the problem and not me.

And God says ‘are you joking?’

And I’m like ‘No, Lord’ (again).

And God says ‘Nah. You’re wakko-dakko-cock-a-loop.’

And I’m like ‘what?! Lord, don’t you realise what I’ve done for you, what I’ve given up for you, how many times I’ve moved for you and…’

And he looks at me.  ‘Are you serious?’

I say nothing.

I know that even although I’m not rich in comparison to others in my city, when it comes to the world I’m in the top bunch of per cent.  I’ve a (large) roof, two cars, tonnes of mod cons, comfy bed, regular income, full cupboards and fridge, electricity, couple of holidays a year, expendable income for coffee and books and….

…and I tell myself that it’s all ok because its all a blessing from God that he wants me to enjoy, and I’m thankful, and he has blessed me with comfort and stuff.  And Jesus says ‘the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.  Take up your cross, consider it all loss.  Give up what you have, sell it and give to the poor, for what you do for the least of these you do for me.’

And I’m like ‘really?’

And he’s like….

And I’m like…

The sensibilities of the world tell us that following Jesus can’t really be a radical thing.  That’s too extreme.  But honestly, am I not even willing to hear the question even if that’s not even what he is asking of me?  Am I willing to persist along my shaky ‘no Lord because…’ line of defense?  If the LORD says ‘Pack up and go here’ and I say ‘No Lord, not again because I have to [insert excuse]’ how open am I to the possibility that he’d ask me to cross the street let alone cross the nations?

It wouldn’t be so bad if all the Lord’s questions to me were just hypothetical tests.  There have been things that he has screamed through every possible communication medium this week and I’m like….

‘really?

And he says, ‘really.’

 

Foundations

cropped-cropped-img_3136.jpgA frequent reflection of mine over the years has been about the foundations of our Christian life and discipleship.  One of those foundations is the Bible; it is there we find much of the information that we build our faith experience on; and, it is there we find a full revelation of Jesus, who his, himself, a full revelation of who God is.  That’s the premise I’m starting on here.

So, if you were to follow my claim that the Bible should first come to us as a foundation, how then do we start laying it?  Quite simple:  by getting to know it.  Start to learn its content like you would do your favourite novel.  Search it like you would a piece of historical writing.  Reflect on it like you would do a piece of philosophy or poetry.  Sit with is as a biography of the character of God and watch man’s understanding of him change and develop over time as fuller revelation comes.

What I would say is build up your knowledge of the book.  Get to know it, be familiar with it.  Read it in chunks before getting into any nitty-gritty.  And, having laid that foundation, so you can better begin to explore the contours of shape and design of the interpretation you’ll arrive at.  The alternative is to read your worldview into the bible and stop it saying the things your don’t like.  This is no easy task.  The bible is no was book and as you read you will find the need to take on the advice of ‘wise guides’ who know a bit more stuff about the innards of it that we currently do.  These can act as sign-posts along the way.

I realise I am speaking simply on a complicated matter but I do so for one reason alone:  it is very, very easy to spot when someone speaks of the bible without any real clue of its contents, its purpose and its context, whether they are speaking as ‘fundamentalists’ or as ‘liberals’.  To me, to have such a firm view of a subject without a nuanced and considered knowledge is just very dissatisfactory and its then very difficult to have any real conversation about aspects of its message.

Sometimes I feel like I’m attending a book club with folks who haven’t read the book and are just going with what everyone else is saying about the characters, or some quote about it they’ve picked up of the back of a bus.

I have a strong hunch, based on nearly 17 years in full-time ministry: people in our churches are not reading the Bible.  I know that is a generalisation, but I think it is generally true.  I have several pieces of evidence gathered over the years that have led me to that conclusion.  And here’s the thing:  if you’re a person who thinks they do have a problem with bits of the bible, then all the more important to delve deeper rather than just cut bits out coz you don’t fancy it.  I think there is a lot of convenient laziness around.  Evangelicals, however, are NOT exempt.  There are still views that persist that need challenging in evangelical circles just the same.  Thing is, folks, we can’t have the discussion without reading the thing.

So, I’m not dismissing the discussion of ideas, the working out of application or the questions that rise from it.  But I am saying that discipleship, of whatever shape, must have the bible as its foundation – not because its ‘the Bible’, but because our ultimate focus is  THE WORD, even Jesus Christ himself.  It is the biggest source on him we have and if we’re going to follow him, we have to know his story a lot more than we do.  Don’t let yourself off with half-baked excuses for not engaging with it.  How about it?

Pressing on

prayer1We’re more or less into the last week of Lent now, give or take a few days, and I feel very intensely the ways in which the time has redirected my focus.  I’ve laughed, I’ve wept, I’ve mourned, I’ve been hopeful, I’ve been empty, I’ve been full.  More than all of that, Jesus has drawn near and his presence has shattered illusionary visions of both myself and the ministry to which he has called me.  And I don’t feel exhausted by all of that…I feel alive, renewed and ‘vital’!

As I’ve stripped pieces of life, lifestyle, preferences and choices away, the Lord has become more central and less obscured.  As I’ve laid down my ‘new arguments’, his eternal truth has illuminated all the more the riches of his grace.  As I’ve sought him and him alone the self-occupying burdens of my heart have melted away.  I’m resting in a deeper peace that has been only tentative in recent years.

And now, there are responses to be made.  Things to be worked out.  Challenges to be faced.  Paths to realign with.

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”  Phil 3: 7 – 12

 

We have a problem…

Someone asked me the other day ‘what’s the worst thing about being in church leadership?’  I answered the question wrongly, because, not wanting to get too deep on the matter, I glibly said ‘meetings that don’t go anywhere and are for apparently nothing.’  Whilst that’s a waste of time, it’s not the real answer I’d offer to that question.

It just so happens that someone asked me the same question again yesterday, as if I were being invited to speak the truth about what I really see and feel, not only in my local settings, but in other places.

Across the board, the crisis in churches is basic discipleship.  Sure, it is at different levels of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ in different places, but I recognise that even in the most active church, I’ve always been troubled by it.  I don’t understand it.  And when I say that, I don’t mean that I’m ignorant of the reasons as to why discipleship is low on the agenda or why it is not the active experience of people.  I know most of the reasons.

I also know that it is no easy thing to follow Jesus.  It is no easy think to cultivate a life of prayer, witness and service.  It is no easy thing to factor in commitment Christian community (not necessarily institutional stuff, but vital faith/life stuff).  And as for engagement in mission…bottom of the heap, really.  And so, I reflect that for many years I’ve been doing all I can in my power/influence to invite people into active discipleship.  Some you win, some you lose.

But, if it was important when I started out in ministry in the early 2000s, it is crucial now.  I would love to be SPECTACULARLY proved wrong with the real evidence that people are praying, learning about Jesus and following him, living rhythms of daily worship and devotion and engaging in creative and intentional mission in their settings in everyday life.  I suspect, however, that it is not the case in the vast majority of cases.

And so, as a pastor/leader/minister/whateveryouwanttocallme, the challenge is either to present low challenge/low risk chaplaincy in the hope that some ‘get it’ or, to raise the bar and call for deeper levels of commitment and engagement in the things of God.  Leaving aside the ‘professional role’, my choice is to plough my own discipleship furrow, or to really engage at a level of challenge to my fellow Christians and invite them to step up.  This involves levels or discomfort and maybe even awkwardness that not everyone is prepared for…I’m not sure if my propensity towards and ‘easy life’ even always allows me to get there!

But what is the flip side if we don’t?  People say ‘well, Jesus says that the gates of Hell won’t prevail against the church’ and that is true. He does say that.  But let’s place that alongside history:  there are parts of the world where Christianity once bloomed and flourished (places like Ephesus, for example) but which are now desert lands when it comes to the church.  There are no guarantees that ‘Christianity in [insert your location]’ will stay afloat at all, even if it does in other places.  The gospel won’t be without witness in the world…but where we live?  Well that’s maybe very much in our court.  People say we need a revival as if this is all God’s fault!  I fully agree we need a revival – but I don’t think its going to be the kind where God zaps everyone whilst we stand back.  And I don’t think its going to be in the shape of filling the pews and singing lovely songs to Jesus.  We need a revival of connected and committed relationship that is fleshed out in everyday life, not just on a month of Sundays.

It is not even about ‘passing faith on’ down the generations any more.  That can happen in some places, but many situations are long devoid of any generations to pass faith onto.  If we do have that luxury, we then have to assume that parents/grandparents/guardians are equipped to be able to do that work and in many cases they’re not and so the church has to ‘buy in’ expertise.

What’s the good news in this?  It is never too late to hear the challenge and start making the difference today.  If you’re still reading stuff like this, still engaging yourself, now is the time to participate in waking up the rest of the body of Christ!  If you’re still engaged with a group of people calling themselves church it is time to ‘have a word’ somewhere.  The time is now.