‘What is this that grieves thee?’

The blog title is a line from a song in the American Shapenote tradition. The song is a message to the human heart, an invitation to exploration, and an invitation to share.

I have to say I’ve been feeling ‘grieved’ for a little while. I’ve been feeling it lately, but it’s not a new feeling. It weighs upon me in the morning, in the day, at bedtime and through the night.

And the thing is, it’s not a ‘trendy’ thing to be grieved about. Seems that some people aren’t jealous for this, exercised to action over it…at least not very obviously! Or very verbally, at least in most of the UK context I live in.

I am grieved about the failure of God’s people, and myself as chief sinner among them, and our lack of passion for the gospel and the glory of God. Let me take away any sense of judgment about others, and instead take the log out of my own eye:

I’ve often appeared more spiritual than I really am; I’ve been more inconsistent in personal prayer that I know is healthy; the Word of God has not always been utmost in my passions; I’ve been careless in speech; my zeal in witness and evangelism has lessened; I’ve doubted the gospel in the fear of the world’s sensitivities; I’ve protected my fragile ego before taking the risk of speaking boldly; I’ve taken my eye off of Christ many times, and this is inspite of living in the cocoon of church leadership. I mean, should I go on?

The bottom line for us as Christians is: do I really live my life in such a way that displays what I really believe? Am I ultimately convinced that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe? Am I a leader who will always choose the ease of being liked and appreciated over fulfilling the prophetic mandate to boldly proclaim Christ and him alone?

And more than that, will I spend the rest of my life in the safe zone of security whilst the church weakens, whilst the voice of prayer fades, the gospel gets watery and the ideas and philosophies of our culture does continued untold damage to the voice of scripture that, in some miraculously weird way, we’ve managed to muffle from our conscience?

You know what? All would seem quite overwhelming if it wasn’t for the fact that God, in his mercy, continues to draw us to himself. It’s never too late to come afresh and say, ‘God, show me your heart. Let me hear your voice. Fill me with your compassion. Give me a dose of fear and honour of your name. Remind me that I’m a dead man walking and allow Christ to reign.’ This isn’t to say that God just overlooks all this. No, his invitation is to repentance; to renewal; to our knees to cry out before him that he might restore us.

How about it? God help us.

Chan’s Letters to the Church

Francis Chan’s most recent book, ‘Letters to the Church’, was nothing new.  I don’t say that to dismiss the book at all.  Over the years I’ve read a fair bit of Chan and other authors like Frank Viola, Neil Cole, Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, Matt Smay, Hugh Halter, et al who all write similarly and passionately about where the church needs to go and what it might be missing in our age.  If you’re in church (especially church leadership) and these names are new to you, you’ve got some catching up to do

In fact, a combination of all of that reading, as any long-term reader of my blog will know, eventually led me to something of a crisis point in my own leadership in The Salvation Army in particular.  I just knew that I couldn’t be involved in perpetuating a system which no longer serves either the current needs of the people of God or in fact one which seems to go against the flow of the core scriptural fundamentals of how church might look.  Long story cut short, but I stepped out of a highly institutional form of leadership to explore other paths.  I don’t regret it.

Having said that, I’ve been round the block several times in my mind about how to facilitate necessary change.  Maybe this is because it is, in many situations, a very slow process.  I have nothing against slow, but some situations are starting at very different points on what may be considered to be a necessary journey than others.

Anyway,  back to Chan.  His journey is different to mine but not entirely dissimilar.  He led a mega church (I’ve never led one of those, but one post-SA church had over 300 members – big for the UK) and whilst recognising all the good in it, was left with that creeping sense that there were some fundamentals missing.  Much of it rested on his personality.  Ministry was becoming ‘professionalised’, and there was more focus on church as a commodity to be consumed, and less as a church as a most beautiful sacred thing which comes alive mainly when it is at its simplest, and centred around Jesus rather than our preferences.

He left his mega church in good hands and moved to the other side of America and started afresh.  This is what flowed from it:  wearechurch.com Essentially, they stripped things back to disciple-making, scripture engagement, prayer, the Lord’s supper, meeting in homes, equipping and training people for real life in a bid to capture how the church becomes something that pleases Jesus rather than just ourselves.  This is both inspirational and terrifying in equal measure.  To be like this involves a radical re-think and re-focus which, in my experience, the church is rarely ready for.  In England, there is such a strong wedded hold to more traditional set ups and we can be slow to re-evaluate.  I fear that our readiness may, in many situations, be our downfall.  

It is just not the case that God will always stand in our corner to ensure we don’t disappear.  Yes, Jesus said the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.  But I sense that he was thinking macro rather than micro, global more than local.  The reality is that many countries, regions, towns and villages have had the church disappear.  Even in places like Ephesus who are painted in the pages of the New Testament as folks who had almost nailed the whole church thing.  Now something of a missional graveyard.

We are yet to fully answer whether the UK will keep sufficiently in step with the Holy Spirit to discover again what it means to experience the kind of church Chan speaks of.  One things is pretty certain, though, especially so as far as I’m concerned:  I don’t intend to preside over decline in whatever ministry God has in future for me.  And I’m not just talking numbers.  It is relatively easy to attract and ‘entertain’ a crowd.  Much more of a challenge for churches to deepend their discipleship and dependency on Christ, their life as a community together and their impact for mission on the world and let the Lord deal with the numbers.

Anyway, Chan is worth a read.   He may just spark a whole tonne of questions that we all need to grapple with, even if we come to different conclusions as to what it looks like.  As always, the status quo will never do.   

 

Sabbath

Maybe, like me, you’ve heard of Sabbath as a rigid day of ‘thou shalt nots’ at some point in your path and everything free in you rises up to meet it face on.

Maybe, like me, you’ve wondered how a whole day of non-stop church activity can possibly constitute any notion of rest, too?

Maybe, like me, the idea of a ‘day of rest’ seems like too much of a waste of valuable time; unrealistic, another pressure to squeeze in, and something that other people do?

Maybe, like me, you’ve got yourself in a groove that says ‘I’ll rest when I’m dead’ as you fill your life with ‘important stuff’?

Maybe, like me, at some point you’ve made it look like a day of rest, but it has been a chance to catch up with all the non-paid work you have to do at home.

All of that is rather unsatisfactory.  A legalistic view of Sabbath is unhelpful.  A complete disregard of the underlying principle of Sabbath is equally unhelpful.  For many, there are literally not enough hours in the day to even dream this might be a possibility, and something that is good for us,  so we don’t bother with the idea at all.  Maybe our approach is totally reactionary.  Maybe we just think we’re invincible and so power on.

As I’ve read further in Scazerro’s book ‘The Emotionally Healthy Leader’, I find he’s big on Sabbath. I’m often quite rigid about my ‘day off’ but was still very challenged by his writing.  Why?  Confession:  I often think that I’m too central, too important, too involved, too committed to lay work aside.  And that’s probably the number one reason why Sabbath should be all the more important.  My days off can be much less about rest, and more about squeezing in just a little bit more under the disguise of absence from the office.

Scazerro’s book suggests that the biblical aim is a 24 hour period to stop ALL work (paid and unpaid) in order to rest, recreate, take time to delight in things (reading, walking, eating, family, laughter) and to do it regularly as a way to honour our need to rest and enjoy this one life.  I know enough from Jewish friends to know that this time can be made possible if very closely guarded…AN UTTER JOY, and a weekly miracle.  A time to come close to God, enjoy him and those he has put in our lives.

I do no justice to Scazerro’s fuller writing here, but it has challenged me and I’ve decided I’m going to try to clear a few things to get more quality into my own Sabbath.  I take Friday off every week.  Latterly, I’ve been squeezing household chores in that should really be done at other times, especially garden work.

And, even with a busyish work shedule, if there isn’t time to do all the other necessary bits, that’s not Sabbath’s problem…it’s an over-work problem.  Such a challenge to stop when you enjoy it and especially hard when its more than ‘just a job’!   Thing is, if we’re going to take the marathon approach as opposed to the sprint approach, we all need to slow down to enjoy this one life and union with the Creator who, after a good working week, set the tone and rested, inviting us to do the same.

It may never be perfect, but I have a huge hunch that Sabbath, freely and rightly practiced, may just be very good for the soul!  I’ll let you know how my Sabbath Experiments go!

Abiding

If you listen closely enough across the Christian traditions, every one of them have a language for that ‘slowing down to be with God’ necessity.  This is the phrase Peter Scezzaro uses in his book ‘Health Emotional Leadership’ that I’m currently working through.

The new charismatic Christian terminology is ‘soaking.’  A good evangelical or reformed word for it is ‘abiding’, using biblical language that John’s gospel uses.  The contemplative tradition would call it contemplation or meditation.  You might say ‘waiting on God’ or taking care of your ‘devotional life’.  This is what Paul was talking about, I believe, when he said ‘Pray continually’.

Whatever the language, here is the crux:  relationship with God is foundational.  No, not just squeezing in a bit of prayer and a reading…that is perhaps a modern day convenient reduction, important as it is.  The kind of thing I’m talking about here is the development of that continual sense of being in God’s presence, knowing that he is closer to you than you are to yourself.

I fundemantally believe this is where much of the transformation of our Christian experience comes in.  When we live out of that sense of being fundamentally and radically being known and loved.

Like everyone else, I battle the diary to make sure I get my reading in, my sabbath in, my journaling, my intercessory prayer in…but one thing I don’t struggle with is that sense of abiding, of keeping and cultivating an open door to God.  Much as I’d like to be more disciplined with all the other stuff, I know that if the door is closed then the ministry doesn’t flow.

If I’m living out of what Scezzaro calls ‘deeper union’ I know it.  If I’m not, I definetely feel the pinch.  Life becomes unsustainable.  Ministry becomes dry and that’s no good to anyone.

Be like Jesus.  Climb the mountain.  Slip away early.  Take yourself out of the way.  Avoid the crowd.  When you have the chance to cultivate and keep that union flowing, then the other things will come and find their rightful place.

Abide in him.

‘Jesus may be in your heart, but Grandpa is in your bones’

I smiled when I read the title quote in the book ‘The Emotionally Healthy Leader’ by Peter Scazerro.  What he’s saying is that the amazing work of salvation is both instant and a journey.  We transfer Kingdoms, but we are formed and hardwired is so many different ways due to our upbringing, early influences and life’s experiences.

I’ve spent a good ten years now seeking to be aware of the ‘Grandpa in my bones’ – all the ways in which my ‘shadow’ displays itself in the day to day exchanges of life.  Scazerro’s book has to be one of the most helpful I’ve read recently, and his arguments are not only very helpful, but profoundly challenging.

I think of myself 20 years ago as a ‘leader’ and I raise my eyebrows at myself.  Most of us probably would.  There are countless things I wish I’d have done differently, things I’d have said differently.  There are people I treated in a certain way because of how I am, not because of who there were.  And to be honest, it still happens…but thank God I am almost always immediately aware of it…and most of the time, on reflection, I have the grace to say sorry.

Thing is, the amount of years in ministry or discipleship doesn’t always guarantee maturity or even a developing ‘getting better at it.’  It is perfectly possible to do 18 years in ministry but to do the same year again and again 18 times, learning nothing.  A much greater challenge is to grow through your leadership.  Stay humble.  Remain teachable.  Stick your hands up to getting it wrong.  Not only is this just the most honest way to be, it is also the healthiest.  Some of the worst examples of leadership are in those who haven’t received the gift of Robert Burns’ hopeful prayer:

‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, tae see oursels as ithers see us.  It wid fae mony a blunder free us, an foolish notion!’

I quote that little line to myself more often that I’d like!

The ‘Grandpa in our bones’ is not good or bad.  It just is.  Our life has shaped us.  Our emotional and mental set up at this moment is the result of all the places we’ve been and what we’ve experienced.  Most important is the execise in becoming aware of the internal movements of our heart and make them the focus of our prayer.

Why?  Because that’s where the leader grows, develops, and where the gift within him/her is refreshed for the blessing of the body.  Let me leave you with another quite from Scazerro:

“Leading a church, an organisation, or a ministry that transforms the world requires more than the latest leadership strategies and techniques. Lasting change in churches and organisations requires men and women committed to leading from a deep and transformed inner life. We lead more out of who we are than out of what we do, strategic or otherwise. If we fail to recognise that who we are on the inside informs every aspect of our leadership, we will do damage to ourselves and those we lead.”

Last word to Richard Rohr:  ‘If you don’t transform your pain, you will transmit it.’

It is never to late to visit Grandpa.

September

It has to be one of my favourite months.  And, it is a good one for reflecting on what has been a beautiful summer.  The weather has been beautful.  I’ve enjoyed some lovely time away with the family.   I’ve had a great long weekend at Greenbelt.  And I had a good retreat time away in my little hermit tent in the depths of West Sussex.  It is that I want to write about today.

Sometimes when you go into the silence there’s a sense of bliss, rest, peace.  At other times, it is not so blissful and it can be a bit of a slog.  There can be consolation in silence.  There can be desolation in the silence.

This year started, to be very honest, in some ‘desolation.’  I knew this before I went.  I could sense all sorts of concerns, strains, rogue anxieties bubbling up to the surface.  I knew what I had to do.  I just sat with them – quite doggedely, quite intentionally.  I’m the world’s expert at keeping things locked inside – I’ve had 38 years practice.  But I’m now almost equally expert in giving stuff space and to observe what’s going on – to let it pass without judging it, and see what light comes the other end.

After about 24 hours, my mind and heart settled enough to begin to see what was lurking within.  I immediately knew that I then had to engage in a time of allowing myself to be moved.  To tears in fact.  Holding before God people, the church, the world, my own brokenness, and the plea for God to help me see and understand aright.

I was accompanied during key prayer times by a robin.  Not an unusual experience for me.  Familiar.  Strangely comforting that God should direct theses curious little inklings of creation to minister God’s awesome presence in such a small package.  And so, in the desolation: God.

God led me to read the book of Lamentations.  Not one of Jeremiah’s happiest collection of thoughts, but thoroughly helpful and cathartic.  To the soundtrack of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, too…the perfect cocktail for the soul.   Sometimes we just have to find another’s words and sounds to express at least something of what we sense and feel.

I appreciate this might sound all too miseable, but there is a necessary suffering in life that we so often push away.  We don’t deal with it.  The silence helps me to process and sit with things.

fourcandlesAnd then…the shadow lifts and I’m drawn to Romans 12: 9 – 21.  God renews my passion for community, love for people, compassion for the hurting, the desire to submit to availablity and vulnerability.  This is what I needed as I move into September as sole pastor at HBC for the time being. God calls me to live out some key intentions.  I travelled to a local cathedral and lit 4 candles…each representing those 4 intentions which will inspire and provoke me for this next season.  And God is my witness, with Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Pick up the actual book

I’m just one of those people who love a book. I love to read, and reading has played a significant part in my spiritual growth and learning. Now, of course, we benefit from ebooks etc on our computers and smartphones. I personally enjoy my kindle and my phone for reading material – except for my Bible habits which I strongly advocate remain in book form. Hear me out!

For Christians, the ‘search-ability’ of the Bible on a phone app is a great tool, as well as the ready availability and accessibility of literature online (although one has to be discerning on that front!). I recognise, too, that many aren’t much into books for lots of reasons, including learning or visual limitations. I recognise that we’re increasingly a non-book culture, but I believe as Christians we have to challenge that slightly within the Christian community.

I have a basic concern. It’s a concern I’ve always had, but it is an increasingly growing concern. Many of you may not see it as an issue, but as a pastor I see it.

Whilst technology is great for having a searchable element and is good for a quick read, I want to strongly encourage Christians to see that as a supplement to using an actual physical, hold-in-your-hand book-form Bible as your main reader. Why? A few reasons.

I get concerned when I sense that people just seem to dip into bits here and there, with no real concept of the whole trajectory of a gospel/letter/history/etc. This is especially true for the OT to avoid weird ‘Prayer of Jabez’ crazes! I think apps reduce the bible to the few sentences on the screen and so we don’t always have a wider sense of what we’re dealing with. Now, that’s not important for your holiday John Grisham novel, but I think it’s crucial for biblical material. I’m not sure this limited visual is good for a deepening understanding of what people are reading.

For me, and I know everyone is different, a physical book adds a tactility to the learning experience. In fact, I learn the text by copying out biblical text by hand. This year I’ve written out Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1&2 Thessalonians. This allows me to become aware of the patterns, themes, messages of these books and increases my familiarity with them. I also, at times, listen to the bible being read as I follow on in my book or phone – that adds other ways to reflect on the text. It’s amazing the amount of times I’ve thought, ‘what? Eh? Jesus, what? Paul? Say again?!’

I also have a hunch that, in spite of having hundreds of versions of the bible on our phone, it doesn’t make biblical literacy any better. I recognise, though, that having phone access to a bible may mean some people read the bible more than they may otherwise, which is better than nothing. But what I’m advocating is adding the book and bigging up your bible habit.

What I’m suggesting here is not a reduction to just a paper Bible. I’m suggesting significantly increased involvement with the book alongside all the other great ways to engage.

Not too long ago, in some city somewhere, I sat and watched a church elder look for 1 Timothy in the beginning of the Old Testament. That raises lots of questions, and I hope it’s an extreme example, but it at least illustrates something of what I’m saying.

I’d love to see a significant return to bibles being books that people get to know intimately and thoroughly. I’ve always felt the handicap of never having been a child who went to Sunday School. But, I just can’t imagine how anyone sustains the Christian life without a serious commitment to picking up the book.