It is the lull that is Easter Bank Holiday Monday. Relaxing in many ways, but in others I feel I’m stoking something of a fire in my heart. I think I’ve learned over the years that as soon as you reveal the fire you’re stoking, there will be a hundred who will attend with a blanket to smother it out. The result us that many people live lives of quiet desperation, convinced that their lives are too small to dent the norm.
But, it is Easter Monday! We’ve just spent the weekend reflecting and celebrating the amazing life, death and resurretion of Jesus, the Christ, into whose community we are now grafted through the Spirit. We’re a new people, a new race, a new Kingdom…a Community of the Resurrection!
‘The Resurrection changes everything!’, I declared in my Easter Sunday sermon, but so many of us are stuck in our normalities. Please note that I am not saying anything againts ‘everyday life’ – our working, eating, sleeping, lives – the beautiful rhythm of the every day. I am talking about how our life in Christ illuminates the everyday and charges it with the hope of the Kingdom. As resurrection people, we tend to the presence of God around us and in us, and flowing through us. We become, in the midst of ‘normal life’, the fragrance of the gospel.
Our life in Christ radically orients us towards hope, towards worship, prayer, community, mission, service, and to welcome the incoming of God’s Kindom among us.
Great ideas theologically, but what does it mean practically? I think thats where we become unstuck…the gap between our theology and our praxis. This is where I think patterns from monasticism help us. As I studied Celtic Monasticism for my MA, I was able to articulate again and again the value of community shaped discipleship in an invidualistic world; a contemplative spirituality in an instant world; a commitment to build a new society in the ruins of the old.
And so for me, again, this last Easter Sunday, I renewed my new monastic vows as a Companion of the Northumbria Community. These vows invite me to say YES to AVAILABILITY (to God and others) and VULNERABILITY (before God and in the world) and dare to belive that another future is possible.
The one abiding question I have, which I’d like to live out much more than write a PhD on, is ‘how are communities of the resurrection formed and sustained in the 21st century?’ Monasticism throughout history has always called out for an authentic expression of discipleship in contrast to the contemporary world. Something, at least, needs to do that again lest we perpetuate the very British churchgoing culture which often fails to take Christ’s radical call into consideration.
What does it mean to be a Community of the Resurrection today?
Do you ever get days when you feel like the heavens are like brass and there’s no One up there? You get to praying, reluctantly…you get to God’s word, reluctantly, and all along you just feel closed off?
No? Well, as I often say when preaching, ‘maybe it’s just me!’
Today was just one of those days. Actually, maybe it has been one of those weeks. I’m ‘turning up’ before God and feeling a dullness in my heart and mind, somewhat disconnected and knowing that it’s going to be a struggle.
Two immediate choices: a) I give up and wait til I ‘feel like it’ because, quite frankly, I’ve got other stuff to do and just bluff it for the week, or, b) I notice that my diary is unusually clear for most of the day and get the indication that this is an invitation not to escape, but to ‘sit it out.’
How easy is it just to become content not to hear from God? Not to hear his voice or sense his presence? We often just don’t know what it is to persevere in prayer, and to seek Him with every ounce of passion we have. Sometimes we get so used to ‘hearing nothing’ that we assume that is how it is.
I’m tired of that. I can’t do what I do without Him. I’ve nothing to offer without Him. Nothing. Spiritually impoverished without Christ.
Today I sat and waited. And waited. I knelt. I paced. And struggled. And laboured. And gave in to Him…and he came. The sweetness of His presence decends and stays a while, dusting off whatever blockage there was ever there.
‘Jesus paid it all’, I sing.
And then I can stand, knowing still that I’m nothing without him, still in my poverty, but covered with Christ and his riches. My heart settles into it’s rightful place and I’m thankful to Him.
I want to encourage you to persevere. To sit it out. To learn how to discern his voice and his presence. Not just theoretically, but practically. It was Smith Wigglesworth who encouraged people to kneel, draw a circle around themselves, and not to arise until God had revived everything within that circle.
Let’s not let laziness, carelessness, sinfulness or waywardness lead us to a casual acquaintance with the living God. Get after Him. That’s where the transformation is worked out and where your salvation takes shape in ‘fear and trembling’ that you might become ‘stars shining in a dark world’.
Get to the place where you can get far enough away from the noise, even if just for a few moments, and listen to Him. He will speak by his Word and by the Spirit. Don’t neglect to pick up the Bible and wait for the Spirit to shine light on it. Don’t come just in order to understand the text, but to listen to it.
Learn how to hear and to obey. Learn how to take a leap of faith on the smallest inkling of God’s voice. In time his voice will become more pronounced. In times when you’re not sure, just check with Him and he’ll respond.
If you don’t know how to learn, ask someone who may be able to be a guide.
Listen for the ways God might want to reorient your life. Listen for what he’d want you to lay aside or pick up. Listen for when he says ‘hey, everything is ok right now – settle into it and be faithfully content.’
And then respond. Speak to him like you’d chat to the one nearest to you. He loves to hear your voice more than we love to hear his.
And maybe, draw aside with others. Find and join hands with others who, similarly, want to hear God. Patiently wait together, encourage one another, reassure yourselves this is the place to be. Don’t let culture, fear or pride get in the way. Come seeking, together. You’re not in it alone, and even if you don’t feel you need anyone, other people need you.
Don’t wait for permission to do this, don’t wait for the right time, don’t put it off. There will never be time, because the time has to be made and carved out but without it, it just won’t be the same.
Oh yeah, that’s right….I forgot that I have a MA in Mission (Celtic Spirituality and Mission)! The weird thing is that having spent 4 years exploring some of the ideas of ‘new Celtic monasticism’ on an academic level, there was that small hint of having needed to take a bit of a breather from all the associated ideas. In exploring stuff academically, you get into academic critical mode – you have to stand outside the mainstream flow of it in order to assess, write, reflect and all that jazz. There was a sense of having to take a few steps back to look more objectively. Anyone who has done anything academic in that way will perhaps testify that, after such intense reading, writing and reflecting, you sometimes feel like never discussing it again!!
But, in fact, new Celtic monasticism is very close to my heart, not only as a Companion of the Northumbria Community, but as a Christian seeking to find new and creative ways to engage in a post-Christendom society with an ever ancient message. My dissertation was all about how new Celtic Monasticism offers a missional model to the 21st Centurty church in forming new disciples, new ecclesial communities, and hubs for wholistic mission in our contemporary society.
‘Celtic’ for me is not about nice rhythmic prayers, bodhrans, shamrocks, nature connection or any other of the ‘romanticised Celtic revival’ out there. It is much more about a gritty discipleship, imagining alternative ways to live in an increasingly consumerist world, and about relocating Christian life and witness to the ‘roads and lanes’ of our communities. Oh, and prayer, spiritual warfare and the evangelisation of the nations.
Today, during my day off, I was just listening to God, reflecting on the call and heart he has given to me, and just desiring again that He would graciously do something in our day that would strip away the cosy comfort of contemporary Christianity and renew the church through an unflinching commitment to the teaching of Jesus fleshed out in the reality of the post-Christian world we’re in. Not a shamrock in sight.
I’ve been to the Isle of Lewis this week. Not physically (although that would be nice!), but in my mind’s eye and heart’s longing. I have read many things on the Lewis Revivals (and the several Scottish revivals) and they are so interesting because they are still tangible. What I mean by that is that I’ve met people who’ve experienced them and lived through them.
What is important to note about that season of revival where hundreds were powerfully arrested by the presence of God, is that there was so much happening to create the atmosphere and freedom for the Spirit to break in.
Firstly, there was prayer. The prayers of the octogenarian’s, Peggy and Christine Smith, and the spiritual authority those women had due to the nights of prayer on their knees pleading for their community was amazing and, quite frankly, humbling. When reading the reports and articles of the revival, there is a kind of prayer that emerges that is more than your average ‘please bless us’ prayer. Partly due to the translation of the words from Gaelic, the prayers of the people sound strong and direct, but this is not the only reason. There was a strong sense for those people that there are promises in God’s word that he makes to his people and are part of the covenant he has with us. More than once, the prayers are simply people calling God out on his promises. That may seem presumptious to us, but it is not a million miles away from the pleading you see in the psalms or out of the mouths of the prophets.
Secondly, there was the foundation of the bible. And this, dear friends, is where we have to say that we may not ever be in the same league as our Lewis friends for a similar move of God. The Western Isles, although at the time they were dry, church attendance was low, and morality had hit the bottom of the pit, there was still a strong Bible culture. Most families would still, in the 40s and 50s, have times of ‘family worship’ where the bible was read in the homes, where prayers were said, and church-going was a cultural norm. What, in a sense, was happening was a revival that was birthed on some good prepared soil. All the Spirit had to do was illuminate Jesus and there was a powerful response.
Thirdly, there was supernatural power unleashed upon a people pleading for purity. Let me explain that – the people of God were repentant and desirous of God to pour out his Spirit and revive his people. That’s the first step. The second step is where God comes in in a major way! You have to understand that the cultural context of these revivals was almost primitive, and in a very staid and restrictive church culture. The amazing thing however, is that when God does appear all over the place, there is no doubt that he is causing it: people in trances; people moved to weeping on the streets, arrested by the presence of God in their workplaces; houses shaking; people praying all night; in on church, people were ‘zapped’ by God in their pews and remained unconscious for hours either slumped or with their hands in the air where they sat; there were heavenly lights, visions, voices, revelations of Jesus; there was supernatrual conviction of sin; amazing reports of powerful psalm-singing that seemed like the angels were joining in; and, finally, conversions – of everyone of all sorts of walks of life. Something only God could do – it certainly wasn’t worked up hype and it wasn’t organised or advertised…the ministers working at the time were being constantly amazed by congregations just appearing at all times of the day and night desperate for God.
Why do I say all this? Well, on one hand, if there is to be more revival in our life time, I do suspect it may be more difficult and may look different. It also strikes me that revival is rarely sustained over a long period of time, and so it is not the silver bullet to the challenges of our context. We also don’t have some of the foundational ‘conditions’ that are common to many 18th, 19th and 20th Century revivals in the sense of peoples predisposition to church, the bible or to God.
I mention this topic at all because I am entirely convinced that God does, however, move in response to his people’s prayers. I don’t understand how, why or whatever, but there appears to be that generosity whereby God incorprates the prayers of his people into his will. As I say, I’m leaving how he does it up to him, but I continually feel that burden to be praying that God would move among us in whatever way he chooses.
As a church, we need to ‘attend to God’s presence’, which is a phrase that has come to me several times in prayer over a sustained people. I sense that God invites us to do this. I suspect that when we do, as gathered people of God, we begin to sense his heart, his will, his purposes and how we would live them out.
Rightly or wrongly, people look to ‘leadership’ for direction and strategy. And, there are always things that one can suggest or experiment with. My strong hunch, however, is that any significant work that isn’t birthed from the place of intimacy with God is doomed to fail. My stronger hunch is that it’s not so much that people in the community need to hear of our plans and activities, but that they encounter God in the context of generous Christian community and the power of the gospel.
There is a deeper waiting on him that I feel we must learn. Pragmatic evangelicals are not always good at this – we want it done a week past Wednesday. But there is a real power in aligning ourselves with God through that process of prayer and being in his presence. Out of the secret places comes strength, heart and desire to seek God’s Kingdom in all it’s powerful manifestations. God help us.
I had the privilege of being at the New Wine regional leaders conference this week, which was, in many ways, such a joy and an encouragement. I had gone simply to soak up whatever there was to soak up, and that’s what I did. Admittedly, I did have to resolve to put away some left over cynicism from a previous era of being more significantly involved (and hurt in) the evangelical charismatic circles I frequented back in some of my Salvation Army days. It didn’t take me too long to back seat some of that cynicism, recognising I was now in a fresh place and differnet context myself.
I do have to say, for all my own faith and spirituality has broadened somewhat over the years, that environment was very much familiar and home simply because, from the beginning of my Christian life, God often moved in powerful and sometimes unexplainable ways, and that was my common experience even although I hadn’t been taught to expect stuff. I hadn’t been to ‘that session’ on Alpha where the expectations were raised!
No one told me to weep buckets of repentance at my conversion. No one told me that I should expect to hear other-worldly sounds and experience the Holy Spirit like surges of electricity later that evening in my room when I pleaded with God to make himself real to me. No one mentioned the ‘trance-like’ prayer experences. And, to be perfectly honest, I had never been taught about speaking/praying/singing in tongues before I discovered that I had been doing it. No one taught me what words of knowledge were, but I was getting them and speaking to people about them, and there was certainly no one teaching me about the challenge of receiving prophetic words and the cost that can come in the sharing of them!
It was through The Salvation Army Roots Conference, the closest thing the Army had to a charismatic renewal movement, that I began to understand what God had been doing in my life up to that point that had othewise seemd to be just been a little bit freaky and ‘side-show-Bob’. At the Salvation Army training college, I became one of the weirdos seeking to introduce charismatic spirituality (totally rooted in SA history) to my fellow students via a renegade home group. All very exciting! A strong charismatic theme followed my through many years of ministry until, well….the cost of being a bit of a lone ranger in all that became part of the reason I became more than a bit disheartened.
Whatever was going on, the slip into my ‘dark night of the soul’ had begun. Still a full-blown card-carrying evangelical charismatic on the outside, inwardly I started to feel a silence which felt like the end of all that I had known to be vital. Prayer, let alone prayer for revival and operating in the gifts of the Spirit, became a secondary thing and, through the fog of poor mental health over many years, sometimes non-existant. The desert of those couple of years was a very painful time. God seemed to shut up the heavens and I was left with an empty silence. I did, however, learn to meet God in the silences through contemplative disciplines, before gently realising that, in many ways, the contemplative and charismatic paths are so very closely aligned in the pursuit of a holy, otherly God.
Our spirituality and experience moves on with the years. The biggest tradgedy, I feel, is when we let go entirely of one season of what God has done without integrating the learning and experience in with the next season. I say that simply because I did it a little, and because, actually, in the face of it, it’s very easy to become discouraged. It is very easy just to move on because that’s the path of least resistance! I’ve just been in so many places where I’ve felt the pressure to be a closet charismatic. Thankfully, I think things are changing in the church as a whole. It is much more common-place to see/hear charismatic influences at play in even the most unexpected places.
I very much long for a church wholly open to the fullness of God moving in and through his people in a joyful and obedient abandonment to all he wants to do in and through us. I find myself needing to simply reflect on, and reintegrate many faded passions into life and ministry in these days. I suspect that it will be quite necessary to meet the contemporary challenges of mission in society in this ‘spiritual-not-religious’ age.
I’ve been watching a few videos on youtube recently. They were not particuarly connected to each other, were from different theological and denominational backgrounds, and were talking generally about the mission context in the contemporary UK setting.
There has been a common thread that surprisingly, and sometimes even shockingly, come through. Commentators have brought up the middle-class satisfaction that pervades the majority of predominantly white evangelical churches. This is nothing new, I shouldn’t have been surprised as it’s an old story, but one which is becoming increasingly prominent, especially in our current climate. I’ll also say that some commentators didn’t spare their wrath much (I’m talking about you, Mez McConnell…you reminded me very much of the prophet Amos!).
The thrust of the emerging argument among these clips was that churches are settled, over-content so long as it goes their way, largely ignorant of the social conditions of those outside their economic equals in the community, less confident in the urgency of the gospel, and reticent to put anything they have at risk for anything, not least the gospel. Plenty of generalisations there, granted, but not without some truth if we’re bold enough to think about it. Needless to say, it was quite a striking theme. The question really is, has the evangelical church sold its soul to comfort?
Last week I attended the Christians Against Poverty (CAP) regional conference in London, given my own church’s recent decision to engaged in partnership with a debt centre in our area. There, it was wonderful to hear the testimony of pastors, CAP workers, and from debt-free clients about the impact of that ministry on peoples lives, and specifically the challenges the pastors have faced trying to re-shape their churches to be effective containers for messy lives of everyday people experiencing challenging life circumstances.
Both at the conference, and in hearing this theme arise from the videos, my mind rushes back to a thousand scenes in hundreds of lives where I’ve known ministry amongst ‘the last, the lost and the least’. And, to be honest, my finger doesn’t point anywhere else, although if I looked I could probably find some directions. Part of my own ministry covenant before God is to “to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends.” But even for me, that has been largely relegated to the ‘safe distance’ of chairing the foodbank committee!
How, friends, will we escape from our safe ivory towers? It strikes me that we will have little success in following the transformative way of Jesus if we are locked and shackled by our own sense of self-preservation. It is very easy to do. And it isn’t always easy to get out or speak out.
To this very day, almost 20 years later, I remember the fierce backlash I received when I asked what the tens of thousands of pounds spent on many brass instruments, and the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on posh cars in the car park of a church in one of the poorest set of postcodes in Glasgow possibly had to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ! I was young, brash and bold back then! ‘You haven’t been very sensitive to the context of the meeting’ one critic said. ‘I beg to differ’, I said, ‘have you ever spent more than half an hour walking the streets of this community?’ Well, I don’t think I got invited back into the pulpit! Gee….it was exciting back then! And maybe it was easier to say when I was poor myself and barely scaping by.
But as I’ve said, I’ve become the very same hypocrite. My personal investment and connection with those on the margins has rapidly decreased, my affluence has risen and my comfort has risen with it. I need not look at the speck in anyone’s eye when the log is in mine. Lent seems like a very good time to reassess one’s priorities when it comes to our relationship with those whom Jesus invested most of his time. Hmm!