Salvo-monastic

As you may know, I’ve been a student and practitioner of ‘new monasticism’ for over a decade. Even then, I recognise that a big part of The Salvation Army’s life that held me so significantly was the shared ‘rule of life’, the soldiers ‘Articles of War’ and ‘Officers’ Covenant’, and the deep bond of the community of Salvationists. So this sense of call stretches back to my conversion in The Army in 1995, nearly 25 years. My conversion was a radical call to give it all away to Christ, and The Salvation Army was the vessel through which it was expressed at the time.

Now, I have to confess that I’ve never quite found anything that is up to replacing that Salvationist expression as far as living a particular life in community goes. I’ve no problem admitting that, and The Army remains very close to my heart. There is, at its best, something very special about living out the Salvationist charism or ‘characteristics’. The very best of it still lives in me – it can’t not!

Having said that, The Army isn’t where God would have me right now and so I’ve journeyed outside the Salvationist movement with a strong call to a covenanted life, which has found some expression in new monastic community. I am a Companion of the Northumbria Community, which was the first community I happened upon and whose rule and daily prayer speaks to me. I’ve learned a lot from the Community of Aidan and Hilda and the writings of it’s founder, Ray Simpson, and, in fact, their way of expressing a rule of life is actually a more helpful place for my particular personal commitments to be held, given the more detailed invitation they invite with regards to the construction of a way of life. Alongside this, I have a (different) relationship with the Order of St Leonard.

I say all that mainly because there are, as life moves on, new readers to the blog who might not have picked up the long history of my spiritual journey. I also write it as a confession, and that is to say that all of my Christian life has been accompanied with a certain frustration and tiredness with ‘casual Christianity.’

The life of Christ, for me, is an all-consuming way of life. As I reflected yesterday in my blog ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ’, Jesus is everything and his call implies a radical change of life at both the heart level and the practical level as we are grafted into his life and into his community. Life-long transformation (ie continued ‘whole-life’ discipleship) is at the heart of seeking after Christ – the process of becoming like him (and boy do we need it!).

One of the views you might find in Salvation Army circles, which doesn’t always come from a healthy place, is a scepticism about the church. Not church in the biblical sense of being God’s people, but church in the institutional sense…maybe its more about a scepticism of ‘churchiness’ than church – a better way to see it, perhaps.

There is a strong culture in The Salvation Army of being a people called out of the comfort of the church to the front lines, at least in the rhetoric. A sleeves-rolled-up life, a radical call to a holy life, a life given to the preaching of the gospel and care for the poor. Now, there are questions as to The Army’s faithfulness to that, but that’s no longer my question to explore and I pray nothing but blessing on what a friend calls ‘The Beloved Movement.’

I say all this because all of these questions and the deep sense of call is what is continually being worked out in day to day life. An inescapable call to abandonment to Christ, and not to settle into the tired culture of a fading Christendom. Throughout history, monastic movements were always radical reform movements who sought to rid the ‘world’ from the church and establish a radical faith in Jesus out of the comfort zones of conformity.

New monasticism, at its best, helps me keep the questions about how we live in ‘exile’, an ‘unknown land’, to the forefront of my daily walk with Jesus. It calls me out of my personal comfort to a life of discipline. It sharpens the focus of my ministry and keeps me faithful to not rest in the blissful slumbers of the church institution, and to the work of repeating the call to be alert, awake and on the move as the people Jesus is drawing to himself. We are not to be content to simply do church and go about our lives – no! We are God’s new people living in a new Kingdom alongide the rot of the old, bringing light, peace, truth, good and transformation that only the gospel brings.

It’s all considerably more than the smallness we often assign to the life of faith. I’m committed to the renewal of the church – not in the sense of accommodating our life to make it somehow more palatable. Rather, to sharpen Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow him. It never was a popular message – no reason to believe it will be now. However, is there anything more wonderful to do with life?

'Prefer nothing to the love of Christ'

The monastic Rule of St Benedict exhorts its readers to ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ’ – in other words, make him the sole object of your life, and lift nothing above him. Don’t let anything compete with Jesus for the devotion of your heart.

It’s what Jesus wants – he said that our love for our families should seem like hatred in comparison to our love for him. He wasn’t saying ‘don’t love your family’, but he was saying our devotion to him should out shine it by far. In consequence, loving Jesus also means that it spills out into love for others, so no one loses out – in fact, we love better.

In terms of the church, is there anything else that we exalt up there with Jesus? We all know the answer should be no, but I’m not sure that’s always the reality. I look at my own experience over the years and can see times when I’ve been guilty of the following:

Jesus plus my traditions
Jesus plus my denomination
Jesus plus my preferences
Jesus plus my culture
Jesus plus my favourite church programme
Jesus plus my pet topic

Thing is, if we build our church community around Jesus plus [whatever], we will spend more time maintaining the plus than you might imagine, because the plus becomes the thing that we’ve made the glue of our community. We become a very human community creation, not a spiritual creation. Pubs, community interest groups, sports teams, choirs, streets and villages etc can all build community that is good without God…we shouldn’t be surprised at this, it is very possible. It also means that the church can build community with community as the glue instead of God. It’s easily to become our ‘thing’ as opposed to the house God is building.

There are two things that can tragically flow from this:

1. You take away ‘the thing’ and people will quickly abandon because their ultimate loyalty wasn’t to Christ, but to ‘the thing’.

2. You can take away Jesus, pack him away in the basement, and much of the community will stay intact because ‘the thing’ is still there. Jesus wasn’t so central after all.

Makes me weep. I’ve glimpsed ‘church’ communities where Jesus gets a back seat. It’s quite possible for those communities of people to thrive and do good, but just because it ‘works’ and draws a crowd does not mean to say that what you are dealing with is ‘the church’.

The real church is not just those who gather in church buildings every week, nor even those who believe some religious stuff. The real church is those transformed and joined together supernaturally through Jesus, and who are held in him. We become the body of Christ, God’s building and it is among this people Jesus makes his home, and it is them that Jesus is building into a spiritual house. The consequence of this is that not everyone who sits with you in your place of worship on a Sunday is necessarily grafted in to the spiritual reality of the church – yet.

Is Christ, and Christ alone, enough for us? Are we brave enough to see what kind of house Jesus will build through those who have a wholehearted devotion to him? Jesus said he would build his church. It’s not really our job to build the church, we are so tempted to build with materials and ‘things’ that don’t last.

A community with the gospel message of Jesus at the centre that God is drawing together will stand against the gates of hell so long as they have Jesus. That’s when you know if you have a church or not

To prefer nothing to the love of Christ is more challenging that we may at first think. The Benedictines, in a time where being the church was turning into a state religion, stole away and founded ‘houses for conversion’ where the aim was to seek Christ above all else, and where life is conformed to what he wants. It’s surely what we need in our own day.

When everything else is stripped away, will be still be content with Jesus?

Life Together

I had the privilege of spending three days at Worth Abbey this week alongside the Benedictine monks who make up the monastic community at Worth. Long-time readers of my blog will know how much monastic spirituality and discipline inspires my own life of discipleship and so I had long anticipated the opportunity to spend time at Worth.

Three days was just about enough time to settle into the daily routine of prayer, worship, work, reading and rest, although I could easily have stayed much longer. By God’s grace, I was able to enter into ‘the silence’ quickly and with ease. In the depths of it, I was able to hear the ‘Still, Small Voice’ on some fairly big things going on for me at the moment. So, at a heart level, just what was needed.

The Benedictine motto is ‘Ora et Labora’ – prayer and work. The brothers there meet 6 times a day for community prayer, and pray the 150 psalms through together every week (!) but also devote significant time to contemplation, silence, and ‘spiritual reading’ – or, in Latin, Lectio Divina. I wasn’t there long enough to do anything of use to the community, but did manage to get some knitting done!

On the reading front, however, I chose to take along two very challenging books that have been with me for a while. The first is ‘Life Together’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with ‘Discipleship: Living for Christ in the Daily Grind’ by JH Arnold. Both of these books are dynamite in their own way, but Bonhoeffer’s writing on ‘community’ in the protestant Christian setting is deeply challenging. I may do a little blog series on the book some time soon as I think it has some powerful things to say about how we approach ‘church’ in these days to help cut through the nonsense. Both of these were powerful companions both to my personal context, but also to interpreting what I was witnessing in the community I was visiting.

The first remarkable thing about this community of brothers for me was the depth of their welcome and hospitality. Inspite of not sharing more than one or two sentences with just some of them, there was a depth of welcoming and ‘honouring Christ in the guise of the guest’ that I don’t know I’ve ever experienced in the same way anywhere else. Although it was my first visit I didn’t feel like a stranger at all. I had a profound sense that these men were praying for me as well as with me in these few days.

Some of the Benedictines at Worth with their distinctive traditional black habits.

The second remarkable thing was the peace and stillness of the Abbey Church. It is a beautifully modern building – not what you’d typically think of as monastic at all – but the round architecture, with the lit altar in the very centre, spoke of the tangible presence of Jesus at the heart of the place.

Worth Abbey Church

The third thing was a new appreciation for the Psalms. In the space of three days with them I reckon we must have got through nearly 70 (and yes, we chanted them!) and they were all incredibly powerful prayers. I had an overwhelming sense of praying with Jesus and heard his voice strongly through them. Coupled with the Psalms, the daily readings at Lauds (morning prayer) were from Ezekiel, which again spoke powerfully. Great, too, to hear chapters from the Rule of St Benedict read along with readings from the Patristics (writing of the early ‘Church Fathers’).

Whilst a number of the ‘discoveries’ of the few days are matters of the heart for me personally, I definitely came home with a renewed inspiration to persevere in living a disciplined life of prayer, contemplation, practicing silence and living out my own ‘Rule of Life’.

I’m sure that the visit was the first of many.

The Main Thing

It is the relative simplicity of the call of Jesus to be and make disciples, and the complication of what the church over the centuries has done with that, which makes ministry such a challenge at times! It’s not that being or making disciples is easy, but the call is clear.

‘Church’, in whatever form, and in whatever century, has always had to organise itself. It doesn’t exist without a structure – no community does. Jesus’ community, right from the start, was organised…and Jesus even had Judas as treasurer! But there are times when the structure becomes so cumbersome that it gets very challenging to maintain any significant energy for the ‘main thing.’

That has been my experience of nearly (only) 20 years in ministry. It is so easy for the ‘main thing’ to be the welcome escape from the regular life of church. Yet, somehow, we maintain that, regardless of how much we see that it’s not in balance.

And then there’s the pace of change. Whilst necessary, any significant change worth making is worth really thinking through, winning support and traction for. Sadly, not everyone is patient. Equally sadly, church as a community of disciple-making disciples won’t ever be enough for some people in a world of consumer entertainment. Some churches try to compete with that – but again: that’s not our game!

I long to be a part of a ministry where I’m not simply a supplier of religious goods and services, but where I’m a champion, equipper and releaser of healthy disciple/disciple-makers whether scattered out in the world or gathered in community.

I think I’ll hold on to the dream just a little while longer.

Pressing on!

Well, my poor blog has been a bit neglected in these last couple of months with one thing or another…mainly some poorly disciplined over-working and too-busy-schedule of events, but we’ve a lot of work going on in the background of church life, lots of people stuff to support and develop and all the rest. Can’t say I’m not just a little bit tired, maybe even weary, but some seasons in ministry are like that. You have to do the work to break through into a new place.

I’ve made no secret over the years of the struggles I’ve had with mental health. Praise God, I’ve had several years of very reasonable good health after a fairly big crash. The reality is, however, that significant amounts of self-care really need to take place to maintain that.

A big part of that has been carving out, on the solid rocks of resolution, a firm rhythm of prayer, rest and time off. And, although there have been some disturbances to that, the steadiness of that commitment is the stabilising factor. It is all grace!

Anyway, all of that means that I’ve got a bit of a backlog of blog ideas to work through in the next few months, so normally blog output should hopefully emerge soon enough!

‘Teach me to pray’ – 4

Fourth in a series of blogs to accompany a Week of Prayer at Hertford Baptist Church.

There is prayer beyond words, and even beyond silence, although silence is the gate. It’s where the depths of us, our Spirit, connects with the Spirit and presence of God in a shared ‘beholding.’ Surely this is the truest sense of the apostle Paul’s injunction to ‘pray continually’.

This is not so much about saying prayers or thinking prayers, but prayer being the description of the awareness of that deeper connection with God in all things, all places and at all times.

Some have called this contemplation, some have called in infusion, modern day charismatics might call it ‘soaking’.

This is not so much a practice of getting rid of thoughts or words, but it’s being filled with God. Ironically, one of the first prayers we might need to pray in this process is Meister Eckhart’s prayer: ‘God rid me of God.’ In other words, God, I need to let go of the ideas I have of you and myself in order to connect with the parts of you that are beyond my knowing.

As they say, God created us in his image, but we’ve been returning the favour ever since.

For me, this wordless ‘beholding’ has been the place of real transformation. Beyond my control, God has healed and restored so many things as ‘ deep cries out to deep’.

Certainly, a guide is helpful when moving in this direction in prayer, but I mention this today because of my sense that we need to move our thinking about prayer beyond ‘saying prayers’ and praying intercessory prayers, to the prayer of deep transformative encounter.

If this post raises a question about your own experience and invites you to a deeper exploration, it will have done its job.

Always happy to talk more with you about deepening your prayer life!

‘Teach me to pray’ – 3

Third in a series of blogs to accompany a Week of Prayer at Hertford Baptist Church.

Third in a series of blogs to accompany a Week of Prayer at Hertford Baptist Church. I

was shaped in a strong evangelical culture which taught me to have a strong suspicion of anything that didn’t sound like ‘sit down, read you bible, say your prayers’ in the form of the good old ‘Quiet Time’. Years, struggle and everyday life experience taught me I needed more. These practices were not, ultimately, changing me into a Christ-shaped discipleship.

It was a crisis of context that built up enough desperation in me to branch out in exploring different disciplines in prayer – many of which I found enriching and, over the years, have embraced them in my day-to-day experience. Here’s what I mean:

  • Silence – Yes, I know, not everyone’s friend. But that’s the whole point. We’re often so preoccupied with our thoughts, our ideas and words that we come to the belief that we are our thoughts. When it comes to prayer, thats certainly not helpful! When the ‘words’ sounded hollow and empty, I learned to turn to silence and found treasure there. The aim of silence is not to banish thought, but to constantly bring our attention back to the presence of God and nurture the practice of just being. This is not simple…sometimes we need a help, but it is worth exploring.
  • Daily Office – simple the practice of adopting a standard pattern of words to help give shape to our time of prayer. There are a million resources out there which will just help us stop our ‘prayer time’ being a shopping list. The discipline of building this into life means that, even when life is tough, you still have some aid in formulating prayer. It also gets to be a part of you and so you become your prayer! Again, sometimes we need guidance on getting the best out of this.
  • The Jesus Prayer – this is a practice from the Eastern Orthodox church, and involved a meditative use of a text from the bible ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me.’ You’d use this prayer for a time, repeating the words and reflecting upon them – allowing them to speak. This might be useful when travelling, in a queue, when you don’t know what else to pray – just a phrase of recognition which helps turn our attention to God at various moments in the day.
  • Journaling – this is not just about writing down your prayers, although that can be very helpful if you struggle with a particularly bad case of ‘mind-wander’, but journaling is finding a way of processing the stuff of life that you find difficult to express to others, or in a conversational way with God. Its a process of getting things out on a page, ordering your mind and expressing these things to God. Not a process of ensuring all your theology is ‘just right’, but an exercise in honesty about what is going on with you.

There are so many other practices that will appeal to people in different ways. We’re tried to include some aspects of these things in our Prayer Room, and in all the ways that we seek to teach prayer, but recognise that we need to do much more to resource our lovely friends at church.

Tune in tomorrow for the next in the series!