Active Apprenticeship

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading, writing and reflecting on disciplemaking – a fundamental aspect of being the church of Jesus Christ. You see, Jesus didn’t invite us to go and build the church, but to go and make disciples and to baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are a few things that I’ve been mulling over which I’ll share in time, but one of the things I’ve been reflecting upon most is the question, ‘what is my mindset when it comes to discipleship?’ and ‘do I have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?’

I think discipleship is a loaded word – loaded with a variety of meanings, understandings, preconceptions and maybe even misunderstandings. It can sound bookish, something that is for other people. I find words like ‘apprenticeship’ work well. Most people grasp the imagery of this and I think it is the modern-day closest equivalent to the idea of being a disciple. Some folks use ‘learner’, but we mustn’t forget many people have had bad experiences in the classroom.

Apprenticeship communicates the idea of active learning – the stuff we’ve learned to do intrinsically all our lives. We often learn to do stuff (like walk, talk, read, write, fix stuff, work stuff) by watching or listening to others doing it. If you look in the Gospels, this appears to be Jesus’ key strategy – the whole ‘follow me’ call was a call to watch and listen closely. Jesus then sent his disciples to do what they’d witnessed him do, report back to him and by that method, learn the ‘gospel trade’.

There is, I fear, a laziness that comes into the life of discipleship. Our modern culture, especially in church, backs away from any suggestion that we should be investing our whole lives in the pursuit of Christ. Somehow, the call to Christians to read scripture, to pray, to witness, to give, to offer their ministry in the context of the Christian community and the world seems like ‘too much of an ask.’ At times, I genuinely feel tangled by this whole culture. The ‘kick back’ from any suggestion of movement forward can be significant.

Whilst our relationship with God is a pure gift from him, the process of engaging in that relationship requires that we turn up and pay attention at the very least. Growth will inevitably involve investing significant time in the Bible if your Christian life is to be sustained. Regular prayerful communication is necessary. And, how will they hear unless someone tells them? etc.

Yet, even in evangelical settings, there can be a ‘church-goer’ mentality that kicks in and leadership in our churches can pander to that. We, especially us ‘professional Christians’, fall into the trap of putting on a half decent Jesus show that everyone turns up to watch. For many, that doesn’t negate that internal call to press in and grow as a disiple. But for many others, that ticks their faith box for the week. There are a zillion things that we’d rather do than build in a regular rhythm that enables us to encounter Jesus.

I ask you and myself these questions: does my life of discipleship look like an active apprenticeship? Do I let myself off the hook far too easily? Is my passion to grow in Christ stronger than my passion for any other thing? Am I regularly exploring all the means that will help me just take one step forward in Christian growth and learning?

Pastoral culture

I suppose it is a fairly well known situation that, most of the time, pastors get some stick. There is a certain scrutiny we seem to constantly be under. Every word, sentence, action – people often feel very free to pick you up on every point. In fact, sometimes it comes down to views on the choice to have one’s hair longer or shorter, on whether to be clean shaven or in possession of a beard…I even remember someone once commenting on the particular lines of a certain shirt. [All this is a particular hazard for a short-haired, bearded check-shirt-wearing pastor!]

These are the small things, but there are other things: a questioning of your integrity; an undermining of a decision; a slight on one’s family. Hear me say that I’m not suggesting people who exercise pastoral ministry are perfect. We are, however, mainly doing what we can under grace.

I look back over 18 years in ministry and note the various ways in which I’ve responded to this. You may recognise some of these responses in your own life.

1. Denial. That is, in the face of constant barrage, bury one’s head in the sand. This is unfortunate because a) you may miss on some helpful correction in the midst and, b) not respond to or challenge difficult behaviour in yourself and others.

2. Take it all in. That is, believe every word. Soon you will feel like the scrapings off one’s shoe and this is ultimately destructive.

3. Become continually defensive. That is, to continually engage to self-protect in each and every scenario (or fight) you’re invited to. Who has time for that? Who has energy for that? And what kind of ego constantly puts us up to that?

4. Despair. Does this one need explaining? It involves breakdown and adds to the shockingly high level of people who fall out of ministry either by choice or by desperate misdemeanour. Put simply: can’t. take. any. more. I’ve seen this many times in the lives of good pastor friends and, in part, in my own experience. I guess most pastors, on a reasonably regular basis, consider packing it all in.

I can’t speak for all pastors, but most of us are passionately involved with every ounce of our energy in ministry. We’re all in. We’re pastoring dying people one minute, talking building projects or some such thing the next, or getting an earful the next.

I’ll tell you – when someone takes the time to say, ‘thank you’, ‘we appreciate you’, or ‘you made a difference’ it is like soothing balm – you store it because you need it.

I’ve not got it fully sorted, but over the years I’ve tried to determine my response to this in a number of ways.

1. Demythologise the pastor. We are not a god, not God, and nor do we have a direct line that is not available to anyone else. 100% human and totally not good at all the things there are to be good at. The flip side of this is that people need to realise they speak to a person and not an ‘office’. Just because you say the line ‘it’s not personal’ it doesn’t negate the fact that persons are always involved! I also invite pastors down from their thrones and pedestals, and never climb them again, and to live as themselves and not out of a title.

2. Reflect biblically. Leadership in the New Testament is a team sport. The modern pastoral office has attracted to itself an over-importance beyond its helpful function. I’ve written many times about this. Whole body ministry; priesthood of all believers; leadership by partnership with humility.

3. Live wholeheartedly. This is my main strategy: to seek to live in the opposite spirit of what comes towards me. I ask daily that God would allow grace, peace, hope, and understanding to overflow. I ask that I will be able to maintain an open vulnerability. That is, to speak from the heart about the impact of people’s words, and not to internalise things which I know to be ultimately untrue or unhelpful. I also ask for the necessary strength and determination to move forward inspite of what comes, however it is motivated. Hard decisions need to be taken and carried through at times.

I fail at most this on many occasions, but it is, nevertheless, what I understand to be a reflection of Jesus and how he would have me be. I’m not saying that I or other pastors are never on the other end of the stick as dealers of ‘ungrace’, God help us.

We need to be able to work and commit ourselves to ways of deep reflection, listening and determined change towards what we consider to be appropriate grace-full communication and action. We need to continue to open ourselves to the risk of being open-hearted and be realistic about our limitations. We need to be responsive to one another in love, honour and mutuality, with keen self-awareness and an honest appraisal of our own shortcomings.

I write this not because of any present experience, but through general observation and reflection over the years. However, I share this that we all might be a part of culture change for the better in the lives of our churches. How about it?

Sitting in the Dark

There are many times in the course of ministry when you start to realise that people want you to fix them. It is almost as if, in some people’s thinking, that ‘the pastor’ is the god-representative, and as God seems a bit harder to get an appointment with, well, ‘the pastor’ will have to do. On one hand, it is lovely that people want to talk – I wouldn’t want to have it any other way – but there is something we have to say about the expectations we may harbour and the distance of those from what often happens in reality.

Now this, I have to confess, is one of the things I watch out for. Why? I am a rescuer and fixer. Situations in my young life built in a trait that makes me feel like I always have to rescue or fix. As a child I was made to feel like that was my job in my family setting. Early, far beyond any sort of capability to handle it, I carried heavy burdens of people around me. I carried that trait into the early years of ministry, and the early realisation that there were many things that I couldn’t fix caused me a lot of pain.

So much of our society avoids pain and suffering like the plague. It is somehow like it shouldn’t be there, or that it should be pushed away or…fixed. Take funerals, for example, and the 21st century fixation on sanitising death. Many come and say, from a heart-felt place, ‘I want this to be a celebration of life’. I’ve nothing against a celebration of life. But what I realise more and more is that it is easier to celebrate a life when you’re not in absolute excruciating knots inside. I really believe you need to have a funeral first, and a celebration second. Face death head on, recognise the agony and the pain, the anguish and the devastation of loss. Celebration will be fuller in the light of day.

I believe this is a necessary suffering. It is a suffering that is right. It is a suffering that is a part of love. It is right to feel the devastating pain of loss. I’ve told my family that, when I die, I want them to come dressed formally in black and weep at my grave. Why? Because I love them and they need to get it out! If you bottle it in a jar called ‘celebration’ it will rob your right to grief, and the chance of a healthy process.

I believe it is the same with every loss. I’ve been involved in some men’s work in recent years and have been amazed at how much pain and grief gets locked up inside a man, and how transformative it is when a man has a safe space to start to simply let it out. I’ve seen men change in amazingly beautiful ways in the space of days.

In my own life, I became crippled by depression because my ‘Christian mindset’ didn’t have space for pain, failure, hurt and grief. Everything had to be happy, everything had to be joyful. Many around me were like Job’s ‘comforters’ – well-meaning but somehow irritating and ultimately unhelpful dispensers of platitudes and nice truths. The transformation came for me when God sent people in my life to open the lock, sit with me in the dark, and walk with me out the other side.

As a pastor, I must resist the opportunities to offer a quick fix, a ‘pray this ten times’ prescription. I realise the more I go on that much of the pastoral ‘skill’ is sitting with the other in the dark waiting for the dawn.

My favourite poet, Mary Oliver, once wrote this:

‘Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me some time to discover that this, too, was a gift.’

Suffering isn’t something to go looking for. But when it comes, as it will, find ways to dignify it with your attention. Sit with it, ask questions of it, feel it, and let it be a guide. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. For, in embracing it, transformation will come.

Welcome 2019

And, all of a sudden, it is 2019! Although it’s still ‘technically’ Christmas until Epiphany, it is time to shift gear for all that this New Year will bring.

I remember back in the mid 1990s The Salvation Army brought out a 2020 Vision scheme – everyone was invited to imagine how different their own setting could/should be, and to plan towards it. 2020 seemed like a million years away, and, surely enough, the 2020 Vision scheme changed with the fadish nature of leadership. That’s the problem with ‘vision’, leadership and the illusion of having all the time in the world!

This year, a new leadership task has come before me, not unlike others that have come before, but a different challenge nonetheless. At the end of November the church community I’ve been working with invited me to be their Pastor. We’ve had Christmas to enjoy since all of that happened, but in this New Year, there is work to be done.

In many ways, I am totally not driven by the ‘here’s what it will look like in 5 years’ type of thing, although it has its uses practically. For me, vision is much more about aligning ourselves with the core essentials of being a Christian community. Practically, that can take many and varied forms. I don’t feel those forms need to be controlled, rather, that the people of God are released and realise that the Spirit has already given permission to pioneer, try, explore and be inventive in partnership with Him mainly on their own front lines, wherever they are, and as a community of God’s people together.

My heart is to continue the work that others have done in this community to ensure the gospel of Jesus is at the centre; that disciples are intentionally made, including many new disciples; that community is built as a colony of heaven here in Hertford; and that the glory of God is unveiled in increasing measure. The rest, as they say, is commentary.

And I seek to come to this with my own three key-words to the fore. These are key values that have been part of my own personal commitment to the life of leadership and discipleship for some time:

  • Availability: to be available, firstly, to God in whatever way he will use me or not, and then to be available to others.
  • Vulnerability: to be thoroughly open to God for him to challenge, change, chide, and then to be open before God’s people so that the life of God in me can be witnessed, challenged, accessed and open.
  • Creativity: to join in the work of God in creating new possibilities in ways that are life giving, and that reflect God’s kingdom and the One who sits upon it’s throne.

Oh…and I come in peace. People love to go to war with whoever exercises any sort of leadership authority, inside church and outside. I come peaceably. Inevitably, it won’t be long until I upset someone somehow. Probably done it already. Guess what? Human, I am. But I’ve also been round the block a few times after 18 years in ministry, so surprised I won’t be!

I haven’t chosen any of these years in ministry. They’ve come through obedience to the one who calls. I’m just doing as I’m told…the best place to be.

Here’s a prayer I often pray at this time of year: the Methodist covenant prayer.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen

Attending to the Presence

It is quite easy to do stuff for Jesus.  You know, you pick your favourite cause, a little bit of what makes you tick, and you apply yourself.  Whether it’s working with young people, old people, homeless people, poor people, debt-tangled people, church people, [insert your own], it is relatively easy to do something in line with a Christian sense of duty or service. 

At this time of the year in particular, I am particularly mindful of many Salvation Army colleagues who will work almost without any pause for the whole month.  Not that I’m saying it’s healthy, but it is the work ethic in the organisation and pretty much the expectation.  Many of them will collapse at tea time on Christmas Day exhausted after amazing caring work.  Hats off to you, dear friends.  So, I say it’s ‘easy’, but I’m not saying it’s not challenging or tiring.  It is easy in the sense that there is so much need in the world…we’re not spoiled for choice in what we get involved in.

It is also easy to be quite religious…especially at Christmas.  Even the biggest atheistic heathens can summon up a bit of holy at Christmas.  For Christians, it is easy to apply ourselves to the religious bits.  You know the sort of thing:  making sure our postage stamps are religious ones; ensuring everyone says Merry Christmas and not Merry Xmas; fortifying our facebook page with nativity scenes becuase we believe that someone out there is trying to ban us.

But then there is the other side of the religious bit – engaging in church outreach, inviting friends to carol services and all of that.  And wow, I am so amazed at the dedication of good Christian folks who commit to extra ways of getting the message out there.  It is great to take the opportunity that Christmas affords.  There will be so many special moments, and I certainly remember the impact the Christmas outreach of The Salvation Army had in my journey towards faith.

Do you know what is the most difficult thing about discipleship?  It’s not the serving, the giving, the turning up, the activities, the moral stances, the bahaviour, the daily witness for Jesus. 

No, I am convinced by far that the biggest challenge we have is cultivating an intimacy of relationship with the Father, through the Son by the Spirit.  There is a gazillion amount of things that will get in the way of that.  You know what it’s like…you sit down to pray (because you know you should) and as soon as you do the most urgent thing that infects your head is… [enter your own distractive thought].  I’m not saying this to point the finger at anyone, because I know that battle is real.  The enemy doesn’t always have to divert us with the ‘Big Sins’ when it’s much easier to distract us with whether we have flowers in a vase or in an arranged display at the church during 2019.

For me as a pastor, this is my number one priority both for myself and for the people I seek to support and minister to. No, not the flowers (although, they are very nice, folks – thank you).  It is the attending to Jesus.  This really is the most important thing.  I know exactly how possible it is to be involved in 100 acts of Christian services but not to have given as much as a nod to Jesus in a long time.

This is the one thing that saddens me most but inspires me most.  You see, I know the joy of what it is to connect with Him on that deeper level of relationship.  I’ve experienced the deep peace, affirmation and security of his presence.  I’ve sensed the awe and wonder at his faithful works again and again and been over-filled with praise.  I am sad when I sense that people aren’t enjoying all that, but ever so hopeful because I know that he is longing for us to meet him.

In 2019 I want to focus on what it means to be with Jesus, and for everything else to be an overflow of the heart of that encounter.  For some of us, me included, I’m sure that will mean learning new priorities, new practices and new opportunities…but I think it will mainly mean an unflinching resolve to see his face and learn what it means to attend to his presence.  God help us.

Streets of London

Not so long ago, a singer/song-writer by the name of Ralph McTell played in the Hertford Theatre, just round the road from our church here.  McTell is most famous for his song ‘Streets of London’ written in 1969.  In it, he reflects on the challenges faced by the mass of humanity that can be witnessed on the streets of the city on any given day.  Whilst he goes on to use his song to say ‘look mate, you don’t have it too bad in comparison to these guys’, I think a day on the streets of London, or any community, might offer the Christian a different perspective altogether.

Now and again, I have the opportunity to go into London for the day on my own, something I especially like to do if I have a Sunday off (which doesn’t happen that often).  I enjoy being able to worship in different places, different traditions and suck in some good ‘ministry.’  But, equally, I love to sift through and reflect on that ministry in the light of what can be seen passing by the window of the coffee shop, or walking down Oxford Street.  This is something I also find helpful here in Hertford.

I try to spend some time in town listening to and observing the ‘regular folks’ in our town.  It is there that is found the context into which the gospel needs to speak.  And let me tell you – the gulf between ordinary people, their hopes, their views, their understanding and their desires, and the hope of the gospel, is large.  This maybe doesn’t surpise you, really, but I do find that the church is often surprised by the fact that people no longer flock to church to take part in our show.

The challenge is that the heart of the gospel gets to the core of our human problem.  Our human problem is that we are our own gods, essentially.  My ideas, my comfort, my wants, my desires, my views, my opinions, my pleasures, my preferences…I speak as a human, you understand.  At the heart of the gospel is the annoucement that God has declared Jesus King and through his death and resurrection then invites us to engage in the blessing of his Kingdom through recognising our need for both forgiveness and righteousness.  Me?  Well…my fundamental problem as part of the human race in the 21st century is that I’m quick to reject any sense of authority above my own desire, so who has the right to declare me sinful and unrighteous?

It is an offensive and uneasy message.  And because of that, because we struggle and want to be nice to people (because we’re pretty decent people, right?), we fall into a sense of being ashamed of the message, covering it up somehow.  We listen to the gospel of this present age that says everything is fine, people are essentially good, and that it’s ‘each to their own.’

I have a pretty diverse group of friends outside the church.  They are my friends whom I love dearly and spend a good chunk of time with.  Thing is, because I love them, it can be very easy to choose to simply not go near the gospel when you know that it will be totally offensive to them.  And so, sometimes we (I) err on the side of love…again, a popular thing to do.  ‘Love wins’, says the religious left.  And yes, love wins.  But love without justice, love without righteousness, love without faith, love without hope, love without forgivenness, love without challenge, is less than love.  It is merely affection.  The love that God identifies within the New Testament is a little more robust.  God is love AND holy.

And so the connection point between this robust love of God and the strength of the gospel, and the people on ‘the streets of Hertford’ is often me or you as a follower of Jesus.  I ask myself what is the most loving thing…to leave everyone affirmed and unchallenged, and so to face God in their own strength?  Or to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and King, and that our response to that is repentance and faith, because its that faith and trust in God’s decree that leads to real life? 

It’s a logical no-brainer in the face of the message of the Gospel.  But even as I write, I can think of even some Christian friends who would be offended by this.  The big challenge is that I am not free to re-write the terms of the gospel, to negate the strong message that any honest reading of the New Testament can’t deny.  Sadly, the church has often mistaken the challenge of the gospel with the assumption that they are called to be offensive, rude, judgemental and unkind.  I think it is better, however, to read the gospel in the ‘market square’ and allow ourselves to be filled with the same compassion as Jesus, to see the ‘sheep without a shepherd’, and to offer a way out in robust love that whoever believes might be saved.

Space//not too busy

There has been a recurrent theme in my conversations over the last few weeks.  People seem to be constanly beginning emails or conversations with ‘I know you’re busy …’

This is some sort of kindness, of course.  People are aware of not wanting to over burden me, and they are mindful that my colleague pastor is now on sabbatical and will be moving on from the church afterwards.

And yes, there are many things that try to crawl unrepentant across my desk each week: tasks, meetings, conversations, all of that.  There is the consitently regular appearance of ‘Sunday’, leadership teams, other team meetings, external connections and everything else in between.  There are pastoral visits, coffees, phonecalls and more.

But, there is always space.  I’ve been at this game too long to know that it doesn’t work without space.  Lots of times you have to pencil the space in and cling to it like you would to a rock in a storm.  Would you want to be pastored by someone who doesn’t pray, doesn’t rest, doesn’t read, doesn’t learn, doesn’t keep in touch with ‘real life’, doesn’t laugh and doesn’t have time for his family?  No, me neither.  (But I’d like to see more of my family now and then!)

There is always space for people.  Tasks are moved aside for people.   For me, there also needs to be space for being in the wider community, passing the time of day with people in the coffee shop or in the queue at the post office.  This is a consistently helpful exercise that keeps church and context together.

I need space between encounters with people.  Space between some tasks.  Space to process, pray, reflect. I need space to think ahead strategically and missionally.  Space to remain saturated in the words and message of the Bible.  Space for family, rest, sabbath and recreation.  And because I need it, I seek to build it in.  Time and tasks aren’t rigid, there are ebbs and flows, but things find their place.  There is stuff to do, but there is space.

The space, you see, also form the needful boundaries and borders.  The boundaries are the things which stop me getting lost in people, tasks, work, deadlines, situations and challenges.  They’re the bits that help me remember me and connect with those I love.  They’re the life I live when I’m not the pastor.

So, right now, I’m off to make some                                space.