Closet Charismatic

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’m alright, Jack

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!

Matchmaking

I remember not so long ago spending a day with another pastor in London whose work had caught my eye. He caught my eye because it seemed to me that he had been on a very similar journey in terms of how he understood ministry and mission, but who was also a good few steps beyond where I have got to so far. He was actually doing the things that I was still working out. I met him just the once, and decided that I wasn’t going to seek to meet with him again. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get to know him or even learn just a little more, but I had a strong sense to walk away from the temptation to seek to replicate him rather than continue on my own process. In many ways, he was a different character to me, but it was quite scary how much we spoke the same language.

There is also a tension in leadership between serving the community you are in and fulfilling the wider vision for your own leadership. I’ve often been in places where the full scope of one’s own vision has to be lessened or even sacrificed for context. That’s right and good in some ways. On the other hand, it is important to remember that much of the journey God takes us on as leaders is very much for a purpose, so when a church calls you and God sends you, he’s sending you with all the thinking, convictions, passions and skills that he’s grown in you so far.

So there is then the discernment process that goes something like, ‘God, what is it of what you’ve been teaching me that you want to bring to the forefront in this context?’ Sometimes just identifying the question is a great place to start. This is a question I’m living with at the moment at the start of a new phase of ministry at HBC, both for me and for the church. God is the match-maker.

I’ve got something of an opportunity coming up this week to share some of what that might be with the wider church, and that is an exciting opportunity. To identify the links that God is making between your passions and skills, and the church’s passions and aspirations is often a joy. Working them out, however, takes patience and time.

Like many leaders, I’ve known the strong mix of joys and frustrations in ministry working these questions out. I am increasingly convinced, however, that you must live your questions. How can I be ‘this’ in such a way as it helps the church be ‘that’? How can I live true to ‘this’ in order to impact ‘that’? I think you get the drift.

One thing is certain, in this exciting but terrifying stage of existence for the church as a whole in the 21st century, courage must be the need of the day. The ever widening gap between the culture of the church and the culture of society, for good or ill, demands new ways of thinking, doing and being. In truth, I think its fair to say that none of us in ministry really knows anything very solid!! We’re in a scenario fairly unlike we’ve every been before. Sometimes shifting our understanding from being preservers of the status quo to pioneers of new possibilities is the most honest thing we can say, and the thing which creates permission to try, permission to fail in the hope that God will help us, together, unwrap a different tomorrow.

What is stopping you?


Not that kind of party…

Churches are notorious for their parties…aren’t they? No, not your nibbles and drinks parties or some such event. I’m talking about the little entrenchments you get. People gather around particular theologies, ideologies, outlooks, expectations…and more. I think I’ve come across this everywhere I’ve ever encountered the church…it seems endemic. However, it is not much different from the sharp divisions we see in our wider communities in these days.

Some of this fracturing can be grounded in generational differences, churchmanship, the strongest cultures that shout loudest, or they can even have their roots in class, educational background or some other external cultural infuence.

Left unresolved, this can lead to a myriad of voices expressing, in various grades of strength, their own narrow preferences. New music – old music. Organ – band. Expository preaching – themed preaching. Tradition – relevance. Commitment – consumerism. You get the idea ( I could go on…)

This can lead to an impasse where no one listens to each other. Sides become entrenched. Unspoken rivals or even enemies are made as the battle of the wills play out. Some wade in, others fade away. This is what happens when you put a whole load of humanity in one community.

This was not outside the experience of the apostle Paul when you look at the early chapters of 1 Corinthians. In Corinth, factions had developed. One of them even called themselves after him! He was for none of it. He declares ‘Paul, Cephas and Apollos….we’re nothing….we didn’t die for you…we’re not it’ and, by consequence, neitheir did whatever was perceptively discintive about these men mattered either, and would not serve the church’s growth if the ruts were dug in deeper.

Paul tells them to get a grip and establish Christ at the centre. This is the key for breakthrough. His firm belief throughout his writings that if Christ is in the right place, everything would flow. Sometimes that sounds idealistic and maybe even unrealistic, but what other choice is their for the community of Christ than to put Christ first and learn from there?

I don’t think it would be at all incongruous if the church was known for the right kind of party. Imagine a community which often had something to celebrate because of the glorious unity in diversity it found, that produced an attractive and magnetic community where new life was springing up everywhere?

Maybe we all need to dream a little wider than our blinkers allow, peek over the wall, stretch out a hand and just see what God will do.

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.