Prevenient Grace

Those of us who find oursevles on the ‘Wesleyan’ side of the fence when it cmes to theology have a beautiful contribution to make on the theme of God’s activity in the world.    Its not exclusive to Wesleyans of course, its biblical but the Calvinist would roughtly define the same idea as ‘common grace’ – that which sparks within the human being and which enables them, for example, to love and do good.  The concept of prevenient grace would take a whole lot of unpacking un its fulness,  but there are some really interesting implications for mission.

Firstly, prevenient grace recognises that God, first and foremost, is a missionary God.  Even before his people, he is absolutely out there whispering his presence in peoples lives, relentlessly presenting himself before them, pursuing them and opening the door of response.  Yes, people are sinful, they have lost their glory in its fulness, and there are many who shun Him, but God is out there active as the real missionary in the world.  The Father send the Son, the Son sent the Spirit and they all send us.  So wow, when we go out into the world in response to the missional-incarnational impulse place in us by Holy Spirit, we find that God has indeed prepared the way.  He is ALREADY active in the places where we have not yet had the courage to go.  God goes to the pub more often that  you do.  He does to the strip club more often than you do.

I remember one evening after a Street Pastor session encountering a young lady who had just finished a shift at a lap-dancing club in the town.  She stood before me, expectant that I had a message for her.  I delivered the message that God gave me there and then and whilst there were drunken brawls going on around us, we stood with tears in our eyes as we experience the tangible presence of Holy Spirit amplifying Jesus and his radical grace towards her, even her.  She subesquently left her line of  ‘work’ and returned to full time education with a part time job, (so she told me some weeks later).

It is out of some sense of moral superiority that we perhaps imagine that there are places he won’t go.  A sort of spiritual superiority, a modern day phariseeism that says ‘God won’t be seen amongst those people.’  My colleage, David, preached about the 10 lepers on Sunday evening from Luke 17 where Jesus slams home the truth of grace amongst the foreigner in the healing of the lepers, without strings!  Hey….God broke into my life when I was just as sinful, just as depraved and as far away from God as any other ‘sinner’ or ‘foreigner’ to God.  Why should I assume that he will only meet me in the sanctuary.  Indeed, everywhere that the God encounter can be had is the holy place.  And thank the Lord I’ve been in some pretty dank Holy Places in my life!

The second lovely aspect of prevenient grace is, as I’ve mentioned partly already, the idea that even in the very worst of person, not only is there something worth redeeming, but there is (however marred) the image of God.  This, I believe, is a crucial aspect of belief that will help us in mission in these post-Christendom days especially with regards to reaching people who the typical British church struggles to link up with.  People with radically alternative lifestyles.  We are quick, and I have been so quick, to judge others.  After all, some people’s sin is very obvious and its easy for us to condemn it or point it out.  Our concept of holiness means that we can’t cope with ‘such people.’  Again, we only need to look to Jesus.  The pharisees wandered around trying to keep themselves pure and undefiled from the filth around them yet here is Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, Alpha and Omega mixing with sinners, tax collectors, prostitues, lepers and all other sorts of societies outcasts who would only dare call on Jesus from afar due to the pharisaical religious attitudes they had faced.  Jesus is the one who leaps over all their walls and speaks into their lives.

He extends grace…favour, attention, time, love, care, mercy, forgiveness, wholeness, healing and salvation that they don’t deserve.  Yet is that not what he has done for us?  How then, as followers in the way of Jesus, engage in this grace-filled ministry?  Might it begin by being able to recognise even in ‘the worst’ that there is, within that person, the stamp of God – Father, Son and Holy Sprit – in that very being?  And might we realise that holiness is not so much about maintining an outward ritual purity as much as it is extending the radical grace that has transformed us to those who need it most.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury once noted ‘everywhere Jesus went, there was a riot.  When I go places they make me cups of tea!’

Prevenient grace and the theology of the missionary God (the missio Dei – as the sophisticated like to call it) go hand in hand and we find that God himself not only calls us to be missionaries, but in the person of Jesus, who is the perfect representation of the Godhead, shows us how to operate in radical grace.  It transforms ‘Go for souls…and go for the worst!’ (William Booth)

Shema Spirituality

I’ve been an avid reader of Alan Hirsch’s stuff over the last couple of years.  Firstly, there is the excellent ‘The Forgotten Ways‘ , truly on of the best books on activating a missional form of church and I’d even go as far as to say its one of the best books on mission I’ve read.  Then there is the tool to applying that book, ‘The Forgotten Ways Handbook‘ which I’m desperate to work through wth a group of people.  Its teeming with practical stuff for applying the teaching in the previous book.  In these two books, Alan expounds ‘apostolic genuis’ – what he sees to be the essential elements of all highly effective and authentic missonal churches (using the early church and the underground Chinese church as example of exponential growth).  I’ve blogged a bit about apostolic genuis over at ArmyRenewal (my previous blog) and you can do a search of that stuff there.

And so to the blog title, Shema Spirituality.  This is expounded in Alan’s books ‘Untamed – reactivating a missional form of discipleship‘ as well as in ‘ReJesus – a wild Messiah for a missional church’.  This is a phrase that Alan has coined to encalsulate the importance of monotheism at the centre of Christianty and, indeed, understanding God through the person of Jesus Christ, the unique and full physical manifestation and revelation of God the Father.  The Shema, in case you didn’t know, is a central prayer of Judaism taken from Deuteronomy 6:4 onwards (pictured left –  ‘shema’ is the first Hebrew word in the verse meaning ‘Hear’), reiterated and expanded by Jesus in Mark 12:28-31 (and in the other two synoptic gospels)

28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c]There is no commandment greater than these.”

This is the central creed of Judaism, recited daily and nailed to the door posts, but Jesus also confirms it as central to Christian understanding and faith.

Anyway, whats so key about this? Essentially, its about having a right view of God.  Alan points out that the shema:

  • contains the revelation that God is one
  • that God wants to have our whole devotion in every aspect of our lives….no false dualism, sacred/secular divide including sexuality, work, play, home, politics, ecomomics….all become aspects of worshipping God.
  • expanded by Jesus to explicitly include love for people to stop all the pious ones getting the impression its some purely vertical navel-gazing devotion to God.  By adding ‘love your neighbour’ Jesus is claiming that loving God is only complete when it is also being expressed and flowing out of our relationship with him.

The central creed of the Christian faith – ‘Jesus is Lord’ – articulates the shema for the Christian.  Alan suggests this is central to every Jesus movement.

Basically, authentic discipleship comes into play when shema spirituality is fully realised.  A combination of ‘Right Thinking’, ‘Right Acting’ and ‘Right Feeling’ (basically, a combination of orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy).

How does this look practically?  Its about realigning our lives under the Lordship of Jesus…making him central to everything, having him as Lord over everything, refusing to lock him out of anywhere.  More than that, its about making sure that nothing supercedes Jesus in our lives….neither church, family, mission, work, ministry, or anything else takes his place.   Bigger than that, its about our idols, its about Jesus having our full loyalty.   So, what does that look like in all the aspects of our lives?

I doubt I’m doing the idea justice, you’d have to read more, but there is something so incredibly important about our lives being fully under the Lordship of Jesus.  It reminds me that God has his claim upon me in Tesco as much as he does when I’m gathered with the church or at my dinner table at home.  Its the act of continually presenting our whole selves back to God, all the time.  For me, its about integration of life, spirituality, mission and lifestyle under the one who claims my life.

A helpful examen tool borrowed from St Ignatius of Loyola:  Where did I work with Jesus today? Where did I work against Jesus today?   Journal about it for a few weeks….see how your life is aligned.  Or maybe even take a leaf out of the Jew’s book…put it on the door posts of your home, in your car, or your desk at work….everywhere you need the reminder.