Follow Jesus

Today I enjoyed preaching in a much more intimate setting at St Andrew’s Church in Benton.  Around 40 people or so, some good singing, a few laughs and a coming together around God’s word.   I could talk about Jesus til the cows come home, I never get tired of it.

I used to be a big fan of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir…they made a fantastic and overwhelming sound with some good lyrics.  One of my favourite of theirs is a song, taken from the words of Paul, entitled ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel.’    Here it is:

This particularly meant a lot to me when I first started to follow Jesus, back at school, in an environment where following Jesus just wasn’t done.  There just weren’t that many Christians around where I grew up.  This song became one that expressed a keen determination.  Going through the process of being converted daily to the ways of Jesus, there were many decisions to be made day by day to live for him.

And you know what?  coming up to nearly 20 years later, its the same.  Sure, the questions are different, the temptations are different, but its Jesus for me.    I don’t get the same things wrong, I’ve learned, but I get other stuff wrong.  Yet, his grace is there…picks me up when I fall and teaches me how to avoid stumbling again.

Following Jesus, however, is not just about ‘sin management.’  God has transferred us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the son he loves.  We’re on different ground, we’re in the business of seeing God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  ‘Making heaven on earth is our business’ William Booth used to say.  The Jesus who hung on the cross and rose again is the same Jesus who calls us to love our enemies.  The Jesus who partied with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes is the one who calls us to go to the sick, because they are those who need the doctor most.  The Jesus who reserved his harshes criticisms for those perpetuating enslaving religious and political systems is the same one who calls us to recognise that our Christian faith is not about a system, but about a person.

When Paul planted churches, he did not plant a theology, a doctrine, and idea or an ideology…he planted a person.  To say I’m not ashamed of the gospel is to own Jesus as rightful King, Lord, Saviour, Rabbi, Friend, Master, Guide, Redeemer and at the same time, one who got stuck in and put some skin on.  What Jesus DOESN’T do, is come into our lives and leave us unchanged, unchallenged.  Life in him takes a completely different turn from everyone else in the world…the call to incarnation is the call to live as his body, fleshing it out for those who need to taste and see that the Lord is good.

Can’t do it?  You’re in good company:

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor 12: 9 – 11

Follow Jesus.

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Jesus on benefits

boothsvisionThis is a section of the art work that can be found inside the front cover of ‘In Darkest England and the Way Out’ by  General William Booth.   In this work he unpacks the vision he has of multitudes dying in the Sea of Misery, shipwrecked by societal ills.  The Salvationists are running the rescue mission from the shore, seeking to pull people out of the misery.

In another early Salvation Army work, part of the ‘Red Hot Library’,  the life and ministry of St Francis of Assisi is expounded in most virtuous terms, and the author (maybe even Booth), likens the Salvationists as being in the line of Francis’ friars.

Friars, incase you didn’t know, were monastics who, rather than chose the solitary life in the monastery (monk comes from ‘monos’, meaning ‘one’/’alone),  lived their life and mission on the streets preaching the gospel, caring for the poor, seeing to the needs of the sick and rescuing those who needed to be reached.

Very early in my Christian life I developed a strong urge to be on the streets as a Salvationist.  I came to an agreement with our Corps Treasurer that instead of paying my regular giving commitment to the corps, I’d buy soup with it and use it as a means to share food on the streets with those who were begging or in need in some way.   I felt this is where the Salvationist belonged and indeed, committed to living out my vow to ‘feed the hungry, clothe the naked and befriend those who had no friends’ as my Officer’s Covenant states.

The church belongs on the streets, really.  We have the example of Jesus who walked miles and miles, preaching, displaying the power of the Kingdom, healing and tending to the poor and those who had need.  There was no separation from the message of the gospel and the action of the gospel.   We have the example of the early Christians in the 3rd century, who, in the midst of a plague marked themselves out as different because they stayed in the cities caring for the sick when everyone else had fled.  We have the example of the early Celtic and Roman monasteries, before the corruption of wealth and the institutionalisation of the message , where succour and sanctuary could be found and where the monastery was missional and a hub for the whole community.

The Order of Saint Leonard has at its heart Matthew 25, the verses where Jesus identifies himself with the prisoner, the destitute, the naked, the disenfranchised and the one in need of a ‘cup of cold water’.   For the church of Jesus, to welcome the poor and the stranger is to welcome Christ himself.  To reject the poor and the stranger is to reject Christ himself.  Jesus was fairly straight about this.

Are our churches in danger of falling into the same fate as the monasteries who bowed down to power, wealth and corruption, self-preservation and perpetrators of an exclusive gospel, which is no ‘good news’ at all?   It is great news if your sin can be forgiven and that your practical needs can be met.  It is bad new if you’re kept at the door hungry and thirsty, and lost into the bargain.

Jesus became a homeless itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head who spoke about the first being last and the last being first, about the poor inheriting the Kingdom, about becoming a servant, washing the feet of those ‘below him’ and standing silent before brutal shearers.  He chose the most powerful way of resistance in this world…to stand with the underdog, identify with the sinner, of whom I am the chief, and to sanctify the ordinary so that even the filthy Gentile could enter the presence of God.  I mean, for goodness sake, if Jesus was a modern day Briton he’d have been on benefits.  The pharisees and the toffs would still sneer, but he would still proclaim to him that the sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God before them.

In Jesus we have our example.  Dare we call ourselves followers of such a Jesus?

 

10 Years of Blogging!

10-year-logo-white-psdMy blog celebrates its 10th Birthday today!  And what a ten years they have been!  

I remember sitting in my office at William Booth College, in Denmark Hill, London, writing that post on a lovely spring day much like to day with the noise of the city and a cool breeze coming in the window.

Although my circumstances have changed since those days, my heart remains the same as that first post where I confessed that I was a man with an agenda to march to the Kingdom tune and make my life count.  

In that post, I quoted William Booth, who said:  

“Your days at the most cannot be long, so use them to the best of your ability for the Glory of God and the benefit of your generation.”

Ten years older, so many things are in sharper focus for me.  I’m struck with how we are so often sucked into a mediocre life in the context of such a fantastic gift of life itself and the privilege of being Kingdom people.  I’ve been so grateful for the last 10 years of exploits for the King and, at this pivotal moment in life, looking forward to all that he will bring in this next season.

Jesus.  Its all about Jesus.

So, what for this blog?  How is it looking for the next ten years?  Well, I’ve had a few blog ideas of late, mainly around trying to write more consistently.   I currently blog around once a week on average, and I’m looking to increase that to three a week:  Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  I’m hoping to have a different theme/focus on each of the days as well as add the odd vlog.

All that remains to say is thanks to those who’ve been reading for 10 years, those who’ve been reading 10 months, those who’ve been reading 10 minutes and everyone else in between.  Thank you.

much grace, 

Andrew

Trinity

 

TRINITYRUBLEVBRIGHT

Most of you will, no doubt, recognise this icon, ‘The Trinity’ written by Andrei Rublev (yes, icons are written, apparently).  There are many people who’ve written profound things about this, I’m sure, which will be nothing like what I would say.

It is based on a story in Genesis where Abraham entertains three visitors whilst camped at Mamre.  As the conversation with these ‘angels’ transpires around the meal table, it seems that Abraham begins to be addressing God directly.  There is a whole load of symbolic stuff here, but when I look at it I see the community of God as Trinity, out of which flows salvation, mission, the church and every other thing.  I also notice that there is space and an openness at the table for the onlooker.  A generous invitation to come and partake.

I have this picture in a few places because I often need to be reminded of the Trinity’s invitation as uttered to Isaiah.  ‘Who will go for us, whom shall we send?’  I’m reminded that it is at the very heart of the Trinity to send:  the Father sent the Son, who sent the Spirit, and the Spirit now sends us in the Son’s name to glorify the Father.

stbrendanboatOn a recent visit to Northern Ireland, I was delayed at the airport and came across this little brass plaque which arrested my attention to the extent that I bought it.  It is a depiction of St Brendan in is curragh (leather boat), with helmsmen urging on four oarsmen as they row heavenwards across a sea of crosses, and reminiscent of the time Brendan and friends just got in a boat and set sail for God, waiting for the Master of the Sea to take him where he should go for God.  Seems foolish to most, but speaks to me of abandon to God’s purposes, to the ‘sentness’ of the church and the potential challenge it represents.

I want to continually be aware of my sentness, which is true it I’m physically going somewhere, or whether I’m settled in one location because sentness isn’t always about geography.  I think it is possible, however, to be settled and to be static.  The Celts used the word Peregrinati, meaning to travel or wander from place to place… in the same way that ‘turasaiche’ means wandered, pilgrim, vagrant or vagabond.  For me, that is the idea that stops me engaging in the mission of God.

Sometimes God just sends me down the road to the office, sometime he sends me to the other side of the city for a key encounter that he has designed, sometimes I travel further, but I’m continually sent.  This is the call, I believe, for us all.

Downward Mobility

feetThey do say that confession is good for the soul.

I’ve been reading Ian Mobsby’s new book recently on New Monasticism (what with it being and interest of mine) and inevitably came upon the chapter that often comes in such books about identification with the poor and powerless.  Ian quotes the ever quotable Shane Claiborne, himself a New Monastic,  and he says this:

‘The Christ we follow has a difficult, harder path – one of downward mobility, of struggling to become the least, of joining those at the bottom.’ – Shane Claiborne.

Having preached a stinker of a sermon yesterday where I challenged myself to the core, let along the congregation, I’ve very much been in touch with my long term struggle…that of the weight of wealth.   You know, its relatively easy to live close to the poor as a Salvation Army officer, to side with them, to advocate and to identify personally through the not-so-generous-but-enough officer’s salary.  Indeed, there were some situations we’ve served in where, as officers on an officers allowance, we were the biggest earners in the corps!  I have to say I find it a big challenge where I am now in Gosforth.  That won’t surprise you and I have to confess I really struggle to live amongst opulence.

What is worse, I came to the shocking place where I realise that for the first time in my life, I don’t personally have any regular interaction in communities where life is a daily struggle and where I can engage in my call to ‘to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends’  (from the SA officers covenant), a covenant vow which I now live out in context of my relationship to the Matthew 25 lifestyle of the Order of Saint Leonard.

That, for me, means that my life is out of kilter with my fundamental calling and requires a radical shift.  You see, when you hear your call and you then covenant your life in commitment to that call and those values, it shapes your decisions before you even make them.  It is one thing to campaign, keep up the public pressure, and shout about poverty.  It is quite another thing to do something about it and live the incarnational life.

The New Monastic lifestyle is a combination of monk and friar…availability to God in the privacy of the prayer place and availability to the world in a commitment to the streets.  It was Jackie Pullinger who once said that Christians should have soft hearts and hard feet that will mean they are willing to walk anywhere…instead, we have hard hearts and soft feet that means we rarely move beyond our comfort.

Downward mobility.  The last.  The lost.  The least.  No escaping the call of the Kingdom.

Word

christThe run up to a Sunday morning preach is always a journey for me.  Often the sermon has been brewing for a week in my head as I sit with the text, read things here and there,  see things in day to day life which shed light on the passage, meeting with some of those who will receive the message on that day.  The time comes when the notes are committed to paper and the bare bones and pointers are on the page.

The amazing bit for me, always, is what God does with it.   Sermons rarely turn out as I imagine them, something will come forward as I speak, or I’ll sense a particular connection and develop it further, or there will be a pause…a moment of seconds where, in honesty, the word is coming home to me as it unravels further and the Word quite literally comes to life before us.

This is always a great privilege.  Humbling.  It is a privilege to have the opportunity to connect with the scripture and with God, especially in an environment where preaching is appreciated and the best mode of communication.   Equally, I love the quietness of the one-to-one conversation where the vulnerability of our own experience can be opened up to the other and where personal ‘miracles of the Word’ can be shared.  I equally love the creative exploration of new seekers, new disciples, hungry for the Word and keen to grow, be nourished and who thirst for more of God.  And then there is the wider buzz and wonder of sharing in a group setting, where a multitude of voices contribute, giving wider perspective to what comes.

In only 14 years of full time ministry, it has been amazing to see what the Good News of Jesus can accomplish in the lives of his people.

The Parable of the Redwood

The Kingdom of God is like a redwood sapling on the edge of the exposed forest, the tender shoot daring to emerge out of the soil to make its presence felt in the order of things.  Through its tender years, the autumn wind and rains, the winter cold an snow, the baking sun and parched summers and the promise of Spring, the sapling fixed its gaze upwards, all the while being shaped, strengthened, weakened and challenged by it surroundings.  Through the trials of many early years, the redwood eventually stood grand, tall, fixed and with dignity.

Then, one late spring, a woodpecker flew in and perched on a branch of the redwood.  In time it began to hammer incessantly and rhythmically into the flesh of the great trunk of the redwood, the sound echoing around the forest.  Little by little, small splinters of wood shot off into the wind, leaving behind a visible gaping wound in the side of the pine.

The woodpecker hen softened the small chasm she had created in the redwood’s side from her frantic activity and reared her young until the day, out of the wound, came the young birds to begin new life, leaving the nest empty.

The redwood stood grand, tall, fixed and with dignity.

Father

I had a fascinating day recently on a training course I’m doing where we were encouraged to think through our images of God.  The main thrust of this was that if we are going to encourage and walk with others in their faith, we need to have a good understanding of where we are coming from ourselves.

Like many people in this generation, I am, in a sense, fumbling around in the dark for a picture of God the Father having had a less than positive experience of ‘father’s’ growing up.  This has also meant that I’ve been making up my own father roll as I’ve been going along.

For me, I’ve had to work on understanding the Father.  I can see him clearly in Jesus, and I’m thankful for that revelation of the Father in him.  Jesus shows me the Father’s grace and compassion for his children, even the least of his children.  He shows me the Father’s love.  He shows me the Father’s discipline too.  It is beautiful to watch the footsteps of Jesus through 1st C Israel and see the Father’s wisdom being shown and expounded, teaching that has yet to be improved on for living the human life fully.

Yet, there is one of my own human experiences that just gives me a little glimpse into the heart of the Father:  all those times I’ve dropped my children at the school gate and the sense of love and pride that wells up as I watch them run off to begin their day as they build their lives.  They’re often unaware I’m watching out for them, casting an eye over them, they are thinking about their task and the interaction they get on with.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of knowing that to whatever situation I step into, my Father watches with pride and love, and with joy in me, His son.

This simply transforms how we see ‘the other.’  God looks over us with the same love and compassion, wanting the very best for his children.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit:  One in Three, Three in One.  This is my God.

Servant

OSL

I can hear the questions in people’s heads, simply because they’ve been in mine first.  Anyone who knows me, and something of my journey will no doubt be wondering if I’ve lost the plot altogether in the light of my recent step of engaging with the Order of Saint Leonard.   This week, I’ve had it all:  ‘have you joined a cult?’  ‘are you being rebellious?’  ‘are you compromising?’ ‘are you seeking position?’ ‘did you have to roll up your trouser leg and bare your chest?’  ‘are you really into those costumes?’  ‘and what about that Free Methodist, Pentecostal, Evangelical Anglican Bishop bloke…what’s he all about?’

Its as simple as this:  I gave my life to the Lord lock stock and barrel when I signed a covenant to be a Salvation Army officer.  That is not something I am going to go back on, regardless of my relationship with The Salvation Army.   Thing is, you don’t really keep covenant in isolation…for me its about community.  I wanted to find a group of people who are committed to keeping a covenant agreement in the context of community and I wanted to find a group of people who see beyond the sectarianism of denominational allegiance.

My life is not my own, it hasn’t been for a long time.  I am God’s to do as he wishes and I have had 3 years or more of wrestling with finding a long term home for my strong call to a monastic brother/sisterhood who also take seriously the call to ministry and the consecrated life submitted to service of God’s people.

My engagement with the OSL is about one thing:  servanthood.  It is about demotion.  Downward mobility.  Basin and towel.  Its about getting on your face before God and laying it all down to his submission once again.  Without the yoke of consecration to the purposes of God, it becomes all about me, ‘my ministry’, and all that jazz.   ‘Ordination’ for me isn’t about position, power and authority, its about submission, servanthood and self-denial.

As I begin this Lent, I realise that I’ve now had 3.5 years of ‘desert’ experience with all the associated temptations.  I reject power, I reject the CEO pastor mode, I reject position, I reject the view of ministry as holier-than-thou and the idea of ministers being a cut above.  I chose the way of a servant.  I chose to be yoked to Christ.  I chose to live a life covenanted to God and to submit to a vision bigger than mine and beyond my agenda.

I’m grateful to the folks at OSL for being a willing body of people happy to allow me to express my calling to the whole church in relationship with them in the long term, a relationship which I hope will continue through the various stages, places and postings in the ministry God calls me to.  And I didn’t even have to wear a frock…

Last word to Dietrich Bonnhoeffer:

‘…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this…’

Holy Spirit

There is nothing like coming into a growing awareness of the Spirit’s work in your life.  From the first days of real spiritual awakening, to consequent in-fillings, nudges, blessings and movements, his work is the living reality of God in our lives.  It is by His presence that we can testify that we are children of the Father because he enables it.

Looking back, my first season of awareness of the work of the Spirit was in the searching time a few months before my conversion.  I was being drawn to the words of Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount in particular, which fascinated me.  I got excited as I read and felt like a way of life was opening up that I’d never seen or experienced in life thus far as a 14 year old lad.

On the night the Spirit moved me to cried out to God, he convicted me of my need to help from outside myself.  As I named my desperation, he came and applied the loving work of Jesus to my life and I stood up free.

Later in my room that night, Holy Spirit came and made himself resident in my life as I pleaded with God to show me that what had happened that night was real.  My vivid experience is of a physical sensation of power moving through my body,  an ‘audible’ vision of sublime music…and all this for a considerable time.  After I slept that day, Holy Spirit empowered my witness as I was able to testify to my faith to my parents and to my friends.

The New Testament describes the Spirit as a guarantee, a sort of deposit, which stakes God’s claim upon us as his sanctified and set apart people.  My early experiences of Holy Spirit are, I believe, a significant reason for the fact that although I’ve had low times in life, with many questions, moving away from God has never been an option for me.  Through it all, He is the constant.

Subsequently, I’ve known the Spirit as refiner, equipper, ’emboldener’, teacher, ordainer and sustainer, giver of gifts, calm presence and powerful manifestation of God…and so much more.  I am in no way a cessationalist…I believe all of the Spirit’s gifts are given and available to us today.  I didn’t necessarily grow up being taught this in the Army culture, but rather it came by experience and as I sought for myself what I read in my bible.

In more recent years, the Spirit has lead me into deeper intimacy with the Father and revealed the Son to me again and again.  I’ve seen him move in nature, orchestrate the habitat of the wild to speak to me and come in such power as to render me stunned, facedown in God’s presence.  I’ve known Him in the stillness of a rural ruin, forest and hills as he quieten’s my soul.  I’ve also known his help in battle when the enemy tries to do his best.  And then there are those moments when you take a gasp as you see his fruit in yourself and in others.

The Spirit makes it possible for a man like me to follow the path of Jesus, to the Glory of God.  We daren’t miss him out of our theology or be content not to know his power and presence in our lives.  We daren’t be satisfied if he doesn’t confirm his presence among us in worship.  We’re useless working in our own power and so we need to seek to demonstrate the Kingdom and its glory in the power of the Spirit.