The Mark of People

There are some people that leave a lasting impression on your life.  They aren’t all saints, high flyers or anything like that…I think of people that I’ve just had the utter privilege of being able to ‘sit in’ on their lives.  Let me tell you about a few (names changed).

Jimmy – lived on the streets of London in the district of Soho where I used to do a weekly patrol whilst at SA training college.  Jimmy was Scottish, came to London for the big prospects but it got the better of him.  We met him almost every week, that was until he was missing for a couple.  Thankfully, he turned back up but he was very shaken.  He had been ‘on holiday’ in another part of the city but had witnessed a terrible assault.  I remember sitting listening to him recount in vivid detail to the extent that sometimes I wonder if I was present when it happened!  There was little we could do for Jimmy, but we sat in the cold street and listened, chatted, joked.

Anna – lived on the streets in Glasgow, often sitting outside Central Station.  I’d quite often stop and talk to her, she was usually drunk, usually very much on edge, and incoherent at times.  She’d never remember you from one day to the next.  One evening she was very excited to see me.  “Ah…Lord’s Prayer” she said.
“You want to pray the Lord’s prayer?” I replied
“Oh yes, that would be lovely… Our Father what is up in heaven, helloed be your name’
Anna died within a few weeks of that event.  Found on the streets.  People laid flowers in her memory.

Sue – lived in the east end of Glasgow, had attended an infant dedication we conducted and was interested in faith, searching.  She came round to visit, decided she wanted to come along to something that we’d organised. She came for a few weeks then nothing.
A few weeks later, a knock at the door, and her fiancé says she had committed suicide.  It was a sad day.

Vicki – in a high rise flat in Glasgow with no heat, no carpets, little furniture and a one ring electric fire.  Its Christmas eve and she has three kids running round dirty, partly naked, she’s there because she’s fleeing domestic violence.  I’m there with toys for the children following a social work referral.  Tears, sadness, transformed just a little bit…but heartbreaking.

Leanne – is on the game and about 6 months pregnant.  Selling herself to try and buy clothes, nappies and baby equipment.  Beyond words.  She trembles as she drinks her soup.  I’m fighting back tears but glad to hear her story and offer any support she needs but know that we might not see her again.  We didn’t.

Gordon – used to meet him when selling War Crys in the pub, his heart drawn to God but alcohol had him in its grip.  He’d come into our service and cry all the way through sitting at the back.  Trying to pull things together for his family…trapped.

Jamie – on the streets of Aberdeen.  Has a more than typical story. Absent dad, distant mother, literacy problems, drug habit, feeling hope is lost.  A pair of clean jeans, clean socks/underwear and a fresh t-shirt.  Never seen again.

Bob – recovered gangster, bouncer, alcoholic and homeless guy now service as security for the soup run.  Loves Jesus.  Rough diamond.  Rarest type.  Doesn’t like church.  ‘The streets are my church.’  It was true enough.

I could name so many more.  All people who came to me as Jesus in ‘his most distressing disguise’ as Mother Theresa used to say.  I didn’t really help any of these people in any massively significant way but I always count it a privilege to have been sustenance for one more day…just one more day.  Their stories deserve to be told and honoured….human beings dealing with what life throws at them with varying degrees of success and determination.  But, remarkable people they all were/are.  Uniquely precious, loved and needed…accepted by not many but loved by God nonetheless.

Jesus said in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

May God bless us each with that same Spirit that we might participate in the mission of God to ‘least of these.’  Allow people to make their mark on you and inspire you on to a deeper humanity.

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Mission Possible

Every now and again someone asks you a stonking question that gets you thinking.  Today, someone asked me to talk to them about my theology of mission…and having thought about it, I simply came back to the pattern I’ve been trying to live in these recent years.  My concept/idea of mission has been most inspired by Alan Hirsch, a great Australian missiologist whose work, I believe, is revolutionary for the church.  He writes it in his books, specifically the ‘Forgotten Ways’ where he talks about the key elements that make the church a Jesus movement.

Anyway, it was a great reminder to me today of some of the principles he brings out.  Here, in my own words, is how I’ve understood and tried to embody Alan’s ideas.

Missional-incarnational impulse:  basically, God has a mission and that mission has a people/church to partner with him in it.  We get stuck in.  It has two key dimensions:  going out, and going deep.  We resist the temptation to always be inviting people to stuff on our terms, on our turf, when we feel like providing ‘church.’  Go out…share faith where life happens, make disciples out there.  But we don’t go out to do commando raids and then retreat, we go to stay….that is we invest our lives in the communities we’re part of, whether thats geographic or networks.  We get stuck in.  Jesus didn’t parachute in from heaven every day…he got stuck in!

Four main principles to help us as we do this:

1.  Presence – we believe that God is immediate, up close, personal, with us as we go.  We need this for ourselves, but we also need to spot what he is doing in the world.  He is present in the world and we need to be alert to that.  We also need to be present as God is, being part of the communities we work in.

2. Proximity – this is more than just being present, this is about getting close, finding out the stories, patterns and needs, fears, worries and passions of the people around us and us seeking, in that context, to share our lives and relate our story of the Kingdom, committed to living a shared story with people:  doing life with people.

3.  Powerlessness – the church in Christendom came forcefully, sometimes arrogantly, and from a position of power.  Its easy for the church still to act as this, even when it is being the generous benefactor – “look how wonderful we are because of all we do in the community” sort of thing.  Jesus’ example to us was to lay aside majesty, power, the right to sort it all in a flash and reduce himself to servanthood, basin and towel ministry…not just practically, but in his whole approach…he never pushed himself upon anyone, he rejected power for himself from the very start when Satan tempted him with it in the desert.  He reminded his disciples: ‘not so with you’ when he told them how power worked in the world ‘out there.’

4.  Proclamation – the gospel still needs to be articulated, the invitation given, reason for our hope given, peace prayed, blessing bestowed, Kingdom announced.  Its still important that the message is proclaimed in word instead of just action.  Both are needed!

Above all this, the very heart of our message is Jesus is Lord – not a triumphal statement of control and imperialism – but a call, an invitation to live out the whole of our lives under the influence of Him and to invite people to experience the same.  Making disciples who are disciple-makers…this is how the Jesus movement spreads in love and with speed.  We want less stuffy church, more Jesus followers, less religion, more ‘Way of Life’ that Jesus immediate followers embodied as those who knew how best to follow a rabbi.

Glad I was asked that today, its by no means comprehensive, but good to be able to articulate for myself and for the one who asked it.  Let’s get stuck in!

Detox

The dust is settling, I think.  The dust of a very long period of intentionally disturbing my settled theology to see what can be unlearned and relearned.  It has been traumatic at times, an intentional emptying, a detox.  Its not that I plan to stop unlearning and relearning, but I have a sense of big job done for now.  I had simply become unteachable and had to come to terms with there being much more to learn, explore and work out.

I can tell you, it feels great.  I feel like I’ve lost 5 theological stone that I’ve been gathering over the years through munching on the same old stuff ad nauseum.  I’ve been cutting out the rubbish and eating some new healthy stuff.   The real challenge for us is to continually keep a beginners mind:  to hold things non-essential very lightly and to discern what is at the core of following Jesus.

The result of detox is a leaner and fitter mind, a happier brighter mind, an awakened and joyful spirit, and a greater appreciation of grace and mercy.  Having tested pretty much everthing, I feel more confident in some things and less in others.  Thats ok.

I’ve had a vocational clear out as well:  re-evaluating my calling in light of my theological car boot sale.  I have a clearer sense of who God has made me and what he’d have me do.

Oh, and I’ve been clearing out my emotional clutter and baggage with the help of a professional counsellor.  That has been really fantastic.  To be able to see and understand my reactions and responses to some situations is a great insight.  Meeting with a Spiritual Director has helped me navigate some of the spiritual aspects of that journey too.

My first midlife crisis might be coming to an end…might…. HA!  But thank God that he leads us through dark valleys.  Thank God that he doesn’t just leave us without ways to refine and renew ourselves.  Thank God that he loves us enough to discipline us and restore us.  Just…thank God!

Privilege

There are few things more invigorating and inspirational than the opportunity my job gives to get alongside people and accompany them on their Jesus following.  The privilege of those moments when people come with open questions, ponderings, doubts, and expressions of faith beyond what I can even imagine!

And what a privilege to be able to share openly from my own life and experience, learning and journey so far.  I am in a very freeing time of life where I honestly feel I’ve nothing to ‘prove.’  By that I mean I have little interest in the Christian career ladder and even less interest in comparing the size of my church to yours.  Quite honestly, I’m equally as happy amongst an urban church of around 20 like we were in Aberdeen or amongst a suburban 350 like we are here in Gosforth.  The quality comes in the relationships and the interactions, not on the size of your container.

I am at my best when I can be me.  You’re at your best when you can be you.  We’re at our best together when we are authentic in our relationships and where we can deal honestly and truthfully about our lives.  This is the tremendous privilege of being part of the body of Christ.

The thing is, you can’t be in relationship to everyone.  If everyone is relying on a few key people to dish out the professional pastoral care, the church becomes ineffective and people can rightfully say ‘we’re not being cared for.’  It is an inevitable conclusion, a natural outcome of that model of ministry whatever numbers you are talking about.

The body of Christ needs a face to face dynamic.  It needs to be organic rather than mechanistic, relational rather than hierarchical, participatory rather than consumerist.  It also needs to have fun, eat, laugh, cry, take days off, work like a trooper and party like….well, Jesus!

More than all of that, we need to continue to find fresh ways to flesh out what it means to be a Jesus people for the 21st C.  People aren’t really impressed by ‘religion’, referring to stuffy institutionalism.  But people are really interested in re-ligion…a way of being that re-ligaments, joins up together the hard realities of life and the sustaining nature of faith and reliance on grace through Christ.

It is that kind of Kingdom family expression which got me hooked on the people of God and which, ultimately, in spite of my frequent misgivings about ‘what we’ve made it’, still keeps me at the core of things and taking the rough with the smooth.

It is a real privilege – one that I don’t deserve and certainly didn’t earn or achieve – to inspire deeper connection to the one who calls us.

“My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along. Through followers of Jesus like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels!

All this is proceeding along lines planned all along by God and then executed in Christ Jesus. When we trust in him, we’re free to say whatever needs to be said, bold to go wherever we need to go.

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.” Ephesians 3 (The Message)

The Ayrshire Scheme

ayrshire‘The Scheme’ was a recent BBC Scotland fly on the wall documentary about life on the Onthank council estate in Kilmarnock.  Having grown up in Dreghorn nearby, and having gone to school there and in Kilmarnock, although the levels of poverty and deprivation were a bit better where I lived, the culture was more or less the same.  The Scheme showed a far from complimentary portrayal of life on Ayrshire’s housing schemes and missed out on some fairly crucial stuff, the good stuff about Ayrshire life.

I’ve long had the dream of returning home to Ayrshire and establishing church for Ayrshire folk.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent Jesus centred churches in Ayrshire.  It just so happens that most of them tend to attract the middle classes or the elderly.  I wrote a post some years ago called ‘The Church My Mother Would Go To‘ where I tried to imagine what a church would have to be like for someone like my mum to think about going.  My suspicion is that there may not be any, and if they are, they’re certainly too few and far between for the successful re-evangelisation of Ayrshire.

My hunch is that Ayrshire has had very few indigenous Church Leaders….I’ve nothing to back that up, but most ministers I’ve met from Ayrshire are rarely from there.  In fact, thats probably true of most locations.  The problem with this is that the culture isn’t understood.  Mission ends up ALWAYS being cross-cultural.  Now, sometimes thats needed, but its so important to have a focus on raising up indigenous people for mission in the locality.  One of Paul’s instructions to Timothy was to identify the local elders/overseers to parent the fledgling congregations.  The value of indigenous leadership.

So, what is there about Ayrshire culture that makes it ripe for planting missional churches?

– the communities are highly communal.  Growing up in Dreghorn was growing up in a large family.  Everyone knew everyone.  There was a strong culture of people being in and out of peoples houses.  An hour sitting in my mother’s living room would bring you into direct contact with maybe 5 folks who just walk in and out (on a quiet day), having a cuppa and a chat on the way through, borrowing or lending a tenner/cup of sugar/hair dryer/ lawn mower/ etc.

– the communities have a shared resistance.  By and large, Ayrshires estates are working class, and like many of these states, there is a strong character to the people.  This means that people don’t put up with shit.  The only ‘gospel’ that wins will be one that is real with life, expectations, hardship and that doesn’t ‘pussyfoot about.’  In my village, the folks that went to the local church were commonly known as the ‘fur coat and nae knickers brigade’.   Quite simply, folks who portrayed themselves as better than other folk, dressing up to go to church and being a pain in the arse all the rest of the time!  Ayrshire needs a real church for real people.

– the places huv goat thur ain langwidge.  If ye come across folk that disnae talk luk you dae, yer aware straight awa that they’re no yer ain folk and that diz, generally, pit their credibility doon.  It makes whit they say foreign or no fur thaim.  Ma mither wid huv too minny suspicions aboot folk that didnae talk oan her level, as wid hunners a ither folk a ken.  Now, Ayrshire folk are no daft and they’re no narra mindit in the main, but the gospel ayewis hiz a hard time wi extra barriers in the wiy.  The power a local folk saved and trained up wid bring a big chinge.

– Ayrshire isn’t really atheist.  My experience is that you find very few who don’t believe in God.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that they have the gospel or that they understand the implications of Jesus message, but God is not out of the picture.  Yes, you’ll certainly used the name of God in swearing terms, and in general terms people aren’t interested in religion, but the people are spiritual…it just so happens that the tea readers, psychics and spirtualists are doing better than the Christians in Ayrshire

My biggest dream is to go home and stay there.  I’d be best friends with anyone who’d make it possible!  But then, throughout the UK there are estates that are still largely under-churched….or that have plenty of churches but no local rootedness to them.  Our nations are in need of a radical movement of urban/town planting of faith communities enacting the gospel in real ways.  The call is there…are people listening?

Yes and No

I can’t for the life of me remember where I picked up this piece of advice, but it has stuck with me:  ‘you have to say ‘no’ lots of small times to make room for a bigger yes.’

The idea is this….you take your life and all the stuff it presents you.  Find your priorities, dreams, the big stuff…see what its going to take to focus on them and then work out what you have to say no to for those other things to have space.  Its not rocket science, but I guess that most of us live a fairly hectic and busy life and could all do with some realignment every now and again.

My problem is that I don’t find it easy to say no.  I guess I’m not the only one, but its hard to say.  Hard, but also crucial.  I learned that again this week through a myriad of times where I said yes when the answer should have been no.  Thing is, if we go on trying to be people pleasers it can get in the way of obedience to God.

This all might sound a bit cryptic…and whilst there is some big stuff I’m working out what my yes and no will be to some things, I’m really just talking about the stuff that needs to be shuffled about.  The day to day stuff affects how we function not only in the day to day but on the bigger screen of our lives.

I think its James, speaking about our pledges, our yes and no, who puts it simply:  let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.  There is no shame in either, just a need to ensure that our steps lead us to walk more clearly in the footsteps of Jesus.

Faithful

The 17th October marks 18 years since I became a follower of Jesus…so, I’ve come of age…time to move on from the spiritual milk to the meat!  It is a day I remember like it was yesterday, but so much aware of the several yesterdays that have passed in between where God has never failed me and where his grace has been more than sufficient.  He is able to hold and keep everything I’ve committed to him.  Faithful.

It has been a good year this year, spiritually, and I’ve been able to focus on what have been some quite significant personal breakthroughs in spiritual terms, steps forward, deeper understanding and experience, and a real sense of growth.

A real highlight of all that, of course, was the baptism in the Almond.  Still enjoying and working through all that meant.  I mentioned a few posts ago, in reflection on my baptism, that I had a real sense of recommissioning and of God’s hand upon me.  I’ve made several responses to that and trusting God with the outcomes.  One thing I did realise, however, is that beyond Trinity I won’t be looking at Methodist Ministry, having been exploring that vocationally for some time.  I had a very real vision, coming up out of the water and being prayed for, of what the very essence of my calling was to, and I alluded to some of those things in my ‘Passions’ post and we plan, in the long term, to work towards being faithful to those as a family together.

These days, I’m very open to a variety of theological and experiential explorations of God and the mystery of the gospel, not afraid to explore, test and be stretched,  but at the very heart of who I am is the amazing work of grace that God worked in my own life on that 17th October, the moment when I knew life had changed and that Jesus would forever be the centre-point around whom my life would revolve.  I am resolved to know nothing, not a thing, except the death and resurrection of the Lord in my every day living and breathing.  I’m not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes….massive, boundless salvation.

Following Jesus is the most important and life-giving thing anyone can do.  He has the power to forgive, renew, transform and make whole.  Come and follow him.