Sinking the Ark…

When I explain my rather long-winded dissertation title that I’m currently working on, 9 times out of 10 I can see the eyes glazing over.  It doesn’t sound particularly jazzy or sexy.  Phrases like ‘critical discussion’, ‘contemporary monastic mission’, ‘societal engagement’, and ‘The Benedict Option’ don’t necessarily grab you.

But let me tell you what is at the heart of it.  I’m passionate about missional discipleship – that is, seeing disciples who make disciples, who make disciples, and thus take very seriously the Great Commission.  It is what seems to be at the heart of ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done.’   I’d like to see a generational legacy of the disciples that I help to make, going on to make disciples, who in turn each make disciples.  This is the beginning of movement and multiplication.  The by-product of transformed lives is a transformed church which can increase its capacity to do greater things.

I want to see a beautiful surge of Jesus-shaped lives impacting our nation and changing the world.  Starting where I am.

I don’t want to be content to keep the church running, open or focussed on preserving the status quo until the wind changes and the world storm recedes.  No!  ‘I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell‘, said C T Studd, and that’s what my heart bleeds for.    We are salt and light in the world, but only if the salt isn’t flavourless, the light isn’t dim, and it’s actually effective in touching the world.

The gentleman I’m arguing with (in the nicest possible academic tones) basically senses that the world is heading for Hell in a hand-cart, and so the church should simply withdraw into its 21st century Noah’s Ark and wait for the flood waters to reduce.  We can then settle on some mountainside and run around like Julie Andrews and all will be well.  The most surprising (or unsurprising) thing is that people seem quite taken with this gentlemen’s ideas, but it couldn’t really be further from the heart of Jesus and his intentions for his people in this time.

Inside the Ark, it is all about preservation of our purity; attention to our wants and needs; reassurance that we won’t have to wrestle with the world’s ideas; our prefferred ways of worship will be saved; our perspective on morality will go unchallenged; and we will cease from the hard, sleeves-rolled-up commitment to mission in a messy world.

No.  These ideas, wherever they might be found, are fundamentally at odds with the mission and call of the church of Jesus.  You don’t have to look much further than the life of Jesus himself – and that’s the key problem in Rod Dreher’s ‘The Benedict Option:  for Dreher, Jesus is a moral authority to be worship and preserved like a relic in an ancient stone church, rather than a radical, missional-incarnational, transformational, Son-of-God, example to be followed and obeyed, in the cut and thrust of life.

The academic conversation is plenty fun.  But it serves to fire the heart on the essentials of what and who we are as a people of God.

Does your church represent an Ark?  Or, is it manning the lifeboats and heading out on purposeful rescue missions to our families, neighbourhoods, communities, nations and family of nations?

‘Go and make disciples of all nations…’ Jesus said.  And we have to start just where we are.

Who are you discipling?

 

 

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The Heart of it…

Having reflected on the process and patterns of discipleship yesterday, I guess in a way I didn’t get to the heart of my real reflections on the matter.

I see that the reason I was intentionally discipled by some good people in my early days walking with Jesus wasn’t simply the culture of discipleship, however helpful that is.

What really made the difference was that the man who discipled me had a heart entirely wrapped up in the life and passion of Jesus.  It was the most natural thing in the world for him to want to impart faith and a good grounding.  I remember the hours invested in me.  He mentored me like a father.

He was able to do that because when he was converted, his father-in-law, another godly man I had the privilege of knowing, poured out his life into him and nurtured in him a life of passionate faith out of a background of alcoholism and a life of destruction.

Disciples make disciples.  But, you can’t give what you haven’t got.  Maybe you just became a Christian, did something like Alpha, and that was it?  Maybe the odd bible study house group?  I don’t know.  But there must be a reason why we end up with churches full of people who believe that discipleship is someone else’s job.

Who are you discipling?

Does it all seem like something too difficult?

Perhaps we need to think about all this again (I’m being overly generous with my ‘perhaps’, there…no perhaps about it!)

Disciples make disciples.

 

Formation

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about Christian formation – discipleship.  More specifically: thinking about how churches go about it; how the church I’m in goes about it; and models of what I see and have seen.  And, in particular, I’ve been thinking about it in the context of children and young people a) because I’m a dad and b) because although I’m far from being a children’s or youth worker/practitioner, I give oversight to that area of work in the church I work in and we’re exploring that just now in a general sense.

Lapel-SAnd let me say from the outset, this is where I have to give credit where credit is due and say that some of the things in place in a Salvation Army context have been brilliant for me.  I came to it at the age of 15 and so missed a lot of the childhood discipleship stuff in the Army, but so valued the early investment in my life as a young man.  Before signing up and being allowed to wear the Ss on my uniform collar, it was a good dose of ‘recruits classes.’  This was a thorough investigation of core Christian beliefs and some key discipleship practicalities – how to live it (in the SA context).  By the time I donned the Sally Army Super Suit I’d been well prepared.

I’ve now served, quite accidentally on my part, in three different parts of the church and the one thing that seems very obvious to me is the absence of a clear discipleship pathway, to use some language that seems to be in common parlance in some circles.  This isn’t about making sausages in a sausage factory…or even disciples in a church factory.  It is, however, about taking responsibility for the impartation of faith, the principles upon which our life in Christ is built, and the foundations we offer to those who are stepping out into a new life with Christ.

There is one fundamental danger in my mind to not offering this.  The church today is probably more theological complex than its ever been.  In one way, I think there is a great opportunity to explore many facets and shades of theology, biblical literacy and spirituality, and so I welcome that complexity.  But, I find it dangerous to launch people into that context without at least something of a basic platform where the ‘basics’ are set out.  Understanding the ‘basics’ helps to have a framework to explore a whole load of different stuff.

In my MA studies, I’ve looked a lot at Christian formation, particularly from a new monastic concept of building spiritual disciplines into everyday life and in community, and have spent hours exploring the influence of discipleship movements in pioneering church movements and exponential growth of the church.  Suffice to say, ‘the church is only as good as its disciples’.

What have the strengths of your Christian formation been?  What do you still need?  What are your struggles?  In what ways do you need to be resourced for growth and development?

Glimpsing Glory

Sometimes you just have to take a few moments for awe.

As I get older I guess I’m finding I’m much more on the look out for God’s glory and grace shining through in the most surprising places…not that it comes just with physical age, but I guess I’m begining to look for different things in ministry rather than the predictable measures, sound as they are.  It is very much because you eventually cotton on to the idea that what God’s view of ‘success’ is can be very different to what ours is.

Today, as many days, I have had the opportunity to listen to, and encourage, what God is saying and doing in other people’s lives.  I have the chance to reflect back, offer affirmation or challenge, pose a question, and celebrate the good stuff.  Sometimes even weep the bad stuff.  That’s awesome.

Being inspired by a mature Christians’ faithfulness, or invogorated with a young persons’ passion, and everything in between is an exercise in tracing God’s presence.

There are always tough things that go on in communitities of people.  I can’t count the amount of times when I’ve sat down and questioned ‘why on earth do I invest my life in this?’  And, no matter the amount of times I decide to quietly want to walk in the other direction, there is just that glint or glimmer that says ‘God’s not finished with this thing yet, and he’s not finished with you and this ministry you’re called to.’  What else is there to do but bow the knee and say ‘Yes, Lord!’  (because ‘No, Lord’ is just a terrible contradiction of terms).

Bowing the knee means places I wouldn’t choose, people I wouldn’t normally come into contact with, decisions and actions I wouldn’t regularly contemplate, and definetely a geography that I’d rarely freely choose.  But, none of that ultimately matters in the wider scheme of things because God, again and again, through a mix of good and pretty awful circumstances brings me to the place he wants me in for the season.

So, my job is to continue to hoist the sail of the Spirit.  Hear what he’s saying, see what he’s doing, respond to his calling.  When I’m doing that he doesn’t fail to let his glory be seen.  Maybe you just need that encouragement today.  He is the one who calls… he is faithful, and he will do it!

 

What are you about?

 

Availability.

Vulnerability.

Creativity.

Authenticity.

If you asked me what I was about, that’s what I would tell you.  I don’t always live up to these values, but I seek to live out of them.

The values help me to live out the core purpose of my life: to be a committed and passionate disciple of Jesus Christ.

Availability is about being available to God and to others.  I make myself available to God in prayer, intercession, mission.  I make myself available to others to share life and to share Christ.

Vulnerability is about being teachable, living in touch with my own humanity and wounds, and opening my heart and life to God and others in such a way as I’m accessible, and that hopefully God’s presence is accessible in and through.

Creativity is about expressing the ‘me’ God has made and is making, through all sorts of pursuits, whether it’s art, music, poetry, preaching, making stuff or creating ideas, ways forward, leading, strategising or ‘inspiring’.   We are creations of a Creator who are invited to continue re-creating!

Authenticity, for me, is about being true to Christ, true to myself and open to others…refusing and resisting the temptation to mask up, close down, play a part or be squeezed into corners.

I’ve been living with these friends for some years, two in particular (availability and vulnerability) are part of a new monastic vow I keep with my brothers and sisters in the Northumbria Community.  Creativity and Authenticity appear in that rule too, but more subtly than I’d like….they’re as important to me as Availability and Vulnerability.

These are not boxes, but springboards into life.  They’re not limits, but they do frame the outcome of some decisions.  They are not fixed, but flow through life with me into each season and as life changes.  And, they are my way of trying to understand who God made Andrew Clark to be.  They’re only ever partly realised, and are aspirational.  However, I work on these things through the discipling of prayer, learning, study, reflection and action.

Basically, I prefer not to leave my own discipleship to chance.  I firmly believe that we have to be intentional disciples – knowing whose we are and what we’re about.  I don’t want to waste this one precious life and I want it to count for eternity, and for God’s Kingdom.   Many of my years were shaped by my Salvation Army soldier and officer’s covenants, too, and much of that charism – that spirit, if you like – is an integral part too.

It is my favourite poet, Mary Oliver, in a lovely one-liner, who asks

And what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

Great question Mary.  But she wasn’t the first to ask it.  That first asking was by the God who called and saved me for his purposes. The wild God stands before us and questions us in the same way.  You don’t have to have it all neatly constructed like I have…that just helps me.

But have you allowed the question to be asked of you?
Are you still moving towards him in deeper relationship and intimacy?
Do you know what God has made you for?
And, more importantly, have you submitted it all to him again and again?

If I can every be any help in assisting you to work through these questions, never hesitate to ask.  But, seek after God’s purposes for your life – walk in them.

Fanning into flame…

prayer1I was praying for a renewal of passion for the gospel, fervency in prayer, and increased effectiveness in ministry amidst God’s people.  In many ways it was a prayer that I hadn’t prayed in quite the same way for some time, but I had to come to it again because I can’t function without God’s intervention and equipping.

Thing is…whilst I love the work I do, I find it incredibly draining of every resource I have.  Ministry has both given and taken everything many times over in the past.  It’s not an unusual thing…the apostle Paul knew what it was to be spent for the ministry of the gospel.  Thing is, there is a difference between being spent on the gospel and being spent on running churches, but thats not what I’m talking about today.

Whatever was going on in Timothy’s life, Paul had to write this to him:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.  13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

This has been an important text to me for some years, because

a)  I’m forgetful of my need to replenishing (v6) and the fire of my passion dwindles without regular stoking
b) I’m naturally timid and introverted, and God uses that, but I can’t operate in ministry without his power, love and strength for self-discipline (v7)
c) I’m a creature who prefers his comfort and I’d rather not suffer for anything, thank you very much.  Salvationist theology, as one who fully bought it, was demanding and the call to mission, holiness and sacrificial living was so contrary to the patterns of the world and even to the patterns of the ‘church’.  (v8 – 10)
d) I’m undeniably, like every Christian, called to such a passioned life.  I mean, sometimes looking at the church you’d never guess that we’re called into such a radical experience of mission and discipleship.  We get tired, we lose focus, life happens, and its easier to hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over….and yet, there’s a task that we’ve been entrusted with.  We’re ambassadors for the gospel.  And there are truths to be taught, shared and lived (v11 – 14).

It is easier to not pray for the ability to respond to this stuff.  Easier to fix my mind on smaller things.  It seems easy, like Jonah, to get on the boat for another direction.  And yet, in recent years where I’ve desperately wanted to run in the other direction, God continues to spit me up on the shore of some unsuspecting church where he asks it all of me again like a mad Father standing at the edge of the raining track as his boy gets ready to thunder to the other end of the field.

At heart, I’m a very reluctant church leader/pastor/thing.  Privately speaking.  But this is not the Spirit that God gives.  And so if I am to be anything beyond my very own limited self, it has to be Him who does the job.  I’m not up to it.  And lets be honest, God knows this very well!  He knows the inconsistencies, the doubts, struggles, fears, pains, inadequacies and all the rest and yet he STILL pushes us on.  It feels a bit like that passage where Mary pushed Jesus into responding to the wine shortage at the wedding.  Jesus snaps back at her, but like a good Jewish boy he goes and does what his mother tells him anyway!

Thing is, it turns out beautiful.  In the moment, when looking back on it, you can see the hand of God just taking our determined and uncertain obedience.  I guess I’ve enough instances in the bag now to trust that regardless of how qualified or unqualified I feel, God is the source of all I need.

My response is to keep praying the prayer, bowing the knee, relying on the grace.

 

Winter Pastor

heart
Taking time to draw the warmth of the Spirit deep within us.

Maybe it’s just me and my own personality/spirituality, but I find winter to be a deeply reflective time.  Perhaps it is the longer hours indoors, the longer nights, or simply just the need to adjust our lives to the natural rhythms of our world.  If a winter internal withdrawing is good enough for the tree, pulling its life resources deep inside to survive the winter, it’s good enough for me!  But then that’s what feeds me, so I have no problem with a shift of pace.

Our world, of course, races on at its own pace and our electricity to light the dark, the connectivity and the 24 hour society, demand constant production, activity, and movement.  I observe many people rushing around here and there, the amazing frenetic activity…but for what?  I know the mortgage needs paid, the loan needs tending to, the holiday needs booking and the kids school trip needs paid for… but is there no time to dig deeper into your own life and God’s work of grace in you?

Perhaps, at times, the role of ‘the pastor’ is to be subversively countercultural.  I say this tongue in cheek, of course, because what I really mean is that a pastor should be radically countercultural…no perhaps about it.  Someone has to take the slower pace:  to stop, to listen, to take note, to reflect, to hear, and then having heart, to speak.  And, ultimately, to be with the other.  ‘Running a church’ is a part of the ‘day job’ – but its far from the primary task.  I’d venture to say that its the thing that can even get in the way of ‘the task’ if the institutional expression of our community life gets out of hand.

My view of ministry has taken radical shifts over the years (‘thank the Lord’, I hear some of you say!) and I’m increasingly convinced that however good my preaching, biblical knowledge, strategic visionary leadership, administration, and worship leading is, it counts for very little if we lose relational connectivity to people.  We don’t just do these things to people, but alongside and in connection.  We take on the ‘monastic’ values of availability and vulnerability.   And I don’t just mean an institutional availability like a voice at the end of a call centre number…

How am I to know what to preach about unless I hear what people are facing?  How am I to know how the heart of God for a people unless I take the time to listen to their hearts as well as God’s?    And how are they to trust me if I can’t open up my heart and life to them?  Ministry doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  And it is not a generic one size fits all.  You just can’t do the same year 17 times (or however many times) over…ministry is always incarnational to specific settings and people and is different in each collection of God’s people.  ‘But’ I hear you say, ‘the gospel never changes and Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever’.  This is true.  And Jesus himself took his eternal nature and submitted it to the earth and to people in a particular time and setting, entered into their lives and, as Peterson puts it, ‘moved into the nighbourhood.’  Jesus travelled less miles than my mother…and that’s saying something.  But yet, he took the biggest journey of all for the sake of his people.

To do this, I also need to prepare my own heart through knowing what God is doing in me.  I need to know how God and life is shaping me, and what they’re teaching me.  I also need to be aware of my own ‘internal furniture’ that has the potential to be bumped into as I am with others.  Hurt people hurt people.  I need to do the inner work, cooperating with grace, so that I can truly be available to others in whatever ‘condition’ they are in.

But I close with this:  people aren’t projects to be fixed or resources to be used.  “If only they weren’t going through relational challenges…they’d be so good in [insert your own] ministry”.  “If only they weren’t so short tempered, they’d be ideal for …” The Grace  of God produces redemption, restoration and sanctification at Gods speed.  Tell me one biblical character other than Christ who had it altogether perfect before being allowed to participate in God’s redemptive purposes?

The pastoral role is one which has the capacity to subvert the usual rat race, overachievement and fuss, and with prophetic intentionality, it has the possibility of pointing people to deeper stories, deeper rhythms and deeper paths ahead…if only we’d dare to tread them ourselves.

And this is what knitting a sock taught me today.

Resolute

Are you a resolution maker? I am, but not just for New Year. I have ‘mini bucket lists’ each season. My life needs the structure of something to attend to otherwise I’d get lost in the ocean of my own thoughts. Just gives shape to things.

Having said that, most of these are joyous, happy and positive things. I’ve learned over the years to be a slave to nothing other than the grace found in Christ. His yoke is ‘light-fitting’ and so good for me.

Most of all, Hogmanay for me is a time for spiritual reflection…am I open to the promptings of the Spirit, am I dwelling in Christ, am I tending to my Father’s business in this season of life?

I can’t remember who said it, but ‘the unreflective life is not worth living’. Life is to short to live it carelessly – lets make the most of every opportunity!

Thanks to all who’ve engaged with my blog over this last year, and on other social media too.

See you in 2018!

Broken 2

I’ve been catching up with the BBCs series ‘Broken’ depicting the work of a priest in a poor Sheffield community.  I had been avoiding it to be honest, because of the little I’d heard, but spend some of my day off yesterday watching…

As I mentioned in my last blog, it was a difficult watch for me.  But, as the series went on, I discovered just how closely some of my life’s experience is to the main character played by Sean Bean.  The series reveals the trauma of his home life, and then sexual abuse by priests at his catholic school, and the way as a young man that he tried to processes this and how he seeks to make his life an ‘atonement’ for the bad done, seen and felt.  The wounded seeks to become the wounded healer, the saver of others.  Himself, he couldn’t save.

A few years ago, three years to be exact, my life came to a pause because I had to take a considerable amount of counselling to deal with parental hurt and trauma.  I had to revisit so many painful experiences.  I’ll spare the details, but I carried heavy things all the way from childhood, into my teens and twenties, and all the way into who I’ve become today and I needed to expose the wound and let the Healer Christ in to heal.  It’s certainly been a work in progress, but I’m no longer tied in the way I was.

And then, the sexual abuse.  Having ‘escaped’ something of the burden of home life through finding Christ and following in his way, I then had the misfortune to come into the relational circle of a sexual deviant who was sacrilege to the Salvation Army uniform he wore.  He befriended me as a young man in my mid teens, and on three separate occasions, touched me in very inappropriate ways.  I very quickly moved to a different SA church in another town, and never saw him again.  He died many years ago.  I carried that burden, confusion and feeling of shame for another nearly 20 years before disclosing it to the appropriate Police and Salvation Army safeguarding authorities.  And so begun the conflict of being so incredibly thankful for the Salvation Army, but living with its shadow growing away like a cancer.  I arrived at ‘The Army’ broken as a 15 year old teen.  Some of its people broke me further.  And I slogged away for 10 years as a Salvation Army officer as a wounded healer…desperate to ease other’s pain because I could do nothing about my own.

That is the sad, shocking truth.

The thing about Broken is that it is about the fulsome grace that appears when the truth comes out.  All of our experiences make us what we are.  They will either crush or destroy us, or they will lead us into greater dependency, vulnerability and humility, reliant upon the God of all grace.  It is when we have fallen, in whatever way our fall has come, that we find ourselves falling into the Everlasting Arms.   Being in touch with our wounds helps us understand the wounds of others.  Being healed by Christ convinces us of his presence to heal others.

This is the Great Mystery.

Disciples of the Broken Christ on the way through calvary and the tomb to resurrected life.

Soli Deo gratia.

 

 

Broken

seanbeanbrokenI finally did it.  I watched the first episode of Jimmy McGovern’s drama ‘Broken’ – a series focussing on the work of a priest in a deprived community in Sheffield, played by Sean Bean.  I’d heard people speak about this series and decided I had to catch up with it, but knew I’d had to work my way up to it.

And so I watched it.  And I wept.

As I watched this broken man entering into the brokenness of others with whatever light he could call upon, I simply started to see the faces and hear the voices of so many whose  lives are now forever entwined with mine.

I remembered the young teen telling me her uncle had raped her.
I remember the prisoner in the padded cell making his confession.
I remember the pregnant prostitute hoping for a break.
I remember the mum sitting in a Glasgow high-rise on a plastic garden chair and a one bar fire, her baby eating dog food in the hall.
I remember holding the hand of a young woman lying beside her dying mum in a nursing home bed and singing ‘You are my sunshine’ with her.
I remember taking the drug-addict young couple shopping for clothes for their unborn baby.
I remember the mum with mental health issues begging for a tenner for her gas meter.
I remember the tears of the supposed falsely accused.
I remember the homeless woman at the train station, sharing the Lord’s prayer with her, and returning the following week to see bouquets of flowers in her spot.
I remember the food parcel taken to the young lad living in a damp caravan in the middle of a Highland field.
I remember hearing the story of the trauma of violence recounted from under the sleeping bag of a man on the streets of London.
I remember kids coming to the service in their pyjamas with their cereal bowls because their parents failed to care.
I remember the look on the guys face as he walked off down the street with bags of Christmas presents we’d prepared to give to the elderly and again when he came back later asking for a loaf of bread.
I remember the elderly lunch club member telling me he probably won’t see anyone until he comes back next week.
I remember sitting on the couch beside parents who’s 11 year old son died the day before his medication arrived.
I remember the look on the boyfriends face when he tells me his girlfriend we’d be supporting took her own life.
I remember the numbness of the teenagers face as she sits on our sofa because if she was on her own she’d likely hurt herself.
I remember every wound, insult, curse, stare, outburst, slander and dismissal projected from every broken life, and knowing just a little of the sense of the prayer of Jesus ‘my God, why have you forsaken me?’

And I remember that, for a time, all those memories and more led me to a season where I found it too difficult to enter into others lives for a while because the heartache was too real, and because, whilst my work carried on, my own deep woundedness that I’d carried all my life wasn’t being attended to.

And I remember the depths of the sense of the presence of God, who delights to place the light of his treasure in the fleshy lumps of clay that we are, and how when we hold the wound before him he touches it with his very presence.

And I remember that my brother, Jesus – my Lord, Jesus – was a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, and that to follow him often means entering into the brokenness of others.  And it is because I know that he entered into my own brokenness that I know he will enter into that of others and do the work only he can do.  We simply hold the candle of hope and point towards his coming.

I know that Jesus truly is the hope for the world and that, at all costs, we must strive to invite people into an encounter with him.  It’s a passion.  And you know what?  The word passion in its original language setting means ‘to suffer’. We’re not always ready for that bit.

And so I’ll watch the rest of the series and maybe weep a bit more.  But by the grace of God, I’ll get up each morning and go about my Father’s business and wait for grace to unfold.