Silence

I’ve written a little bit over the last year on this as I’ve been developing the practice of ‘silence.’  That is, having times in my day/week/month/year dedicated to being quiet, to stilling the mind, create space and to breathe a bit in the midst of all the stuff that comes.  This sort of stuff, this sort of discipline, doesn’t come easy.  I have to say, however, that it has been one of the best disciplines I’ve welcomed on-board.

The ability not to react, not to be immediately overwhelmed by circumstances or troubles, or in the face of some sort of ‘persecution’ at whatever level is a valuable one.  The reality is that I don’t have particularly thick skin, and I don’t think developing thick skin is the answer to life’s challenges.  I don’t want to be unfeeling, insensitive, unthinking.  We do, however, need a buffer or a filter through which to detach from our gut responses and to sit with things for a while.  When we take everything to heart, and when every comment can cut like a knife, we realise that we need to reassess our strategies.

Fr Richard Rohr has this to say about silence:

Silence is what surrounds everything. It is the space between letters, words, and paragraphs that makes them decipherable and meaningful. When you can train yourself to reverence the silence around things, you first begin to see things in themselves. This “divine” silence is before, after, and between all events for those who see.”

If I am to live a life of Loving God and Loving my Neighbour, then to see from a more contemplative stance is a helpful perspective.  If my frame of reference for my reactions and responses is ‘me’, then its difficult to be engaged in the ‘love of the other.’  For me, silence has become the necessary space between receipt and response.  Sometimes the silence is momentary, sometimes longer.  It is impossible to take things back once uttered.  It loving God and others is a priority, silence may well turn out to be our greatest friend.

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Belfast Bound

NazareneThe news is now ‘out there’ that after 5 years in Newcastle upon Tyne come  summer 2015, we’re heading to Belfast in Northern Ireland where I’ll be the pastor of the Megain Memorial Church of the Nazarene.  For those who don’t know, the Church of the Nazarene is, from the UK website, :

” an international evangelical denomination in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, working in over 156 world areas with over 2 million members. In the UK there are 90 churches organised into two districts, North and South. Each local congregation of the Church of the Nazarene is a faith community, ready to greet you in Jesus’ name. There you will discover opportunities not only to encounter Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, but to grow as afollower of Christ.”

Megain is situated close to the centre of Belfast, east of the Lagan, on the Newtonards Road.  I initially had a lot of reservations when I heard that the congregation there were interested in talking further with us, not least due to my unhelpful Northern Ireland prejudice which God seems to have called my bluff on…I remember literally saying to The Salvation Army that I’d go anywhere apart from Northern Ireland…big mistake, I guess!  But really, having been brought up in the West of Scotland with the challenges of sectarianism I’d really been put off.  It is still an issue in Northern Ireland, but I’ve been so encouraged to see and hear of how Megain and other like-minded churches are working for peace, unity and reconciliation through prayer and positive action.

We love being here in Gosforth with the Trinity Community, but as I said to them on Sunday, our call to work in Urban Priority Areas is a call that is much louder than anything else in the longer term.  We’ve had, and are having, a great time here and God has richly blessed us, but at the end of the day, we’re made for different stuff.  I need to pay tribute to the Trinity Community.  It is because of their love, support and sheer graciousness that we’ve been able to ‘recover’ and ‘regroup’ ready to face a new challenge in a new place and to return to our ‘first love.’  I know there will be many opportunities to express that thankfulness in these next 15 months with them.  But, until the time comes to move, there are so many things to work on and consolidate at Trinity and I’m looking forward to the coming year.

Thanks to everyone who have expressed good wishes, congratulations and promises of prayer.  All very much appreciated as we seek to navigate the path the Lord has for our family at this time.  The next year, of course, will be very busy as Tracy completes her PGCE and as I begin my MA in Mission (Celtic Mission and Spirituality)…but we’re thankful for these opportunities too.  God is good.

Fresh Stories

Today I was simply thrilled to sit in a room with Methodist pioneer and Fresh Expression workers and just hear some fantastic stories of what God was doing on what is still probably the fringes of the Methodist Church, although becoming much more central. So many of the stories evoked precious memories of situations, places, moments where I’ve witnessed the Kingdom at its best and the church at its most potent.  These are great good news stories that should be shared and shared.

Under all of that stuff, under and around all the stories are the frustrations that can arise.  Frustrations about ordination, sacraments, maintaining an internal political correctness.  Hearing the honest and open heart ache of people doing the real stuff and facing stuff which, in comparison, is insignificant housekeeping made to look like the most important thing in the world.  We’re all good at this in church…of majoring on the minors and not stopping to look at the massive generosity of God’s call and hand in some of the more edgy stuff.

Today I kept reasonably silent, just savouring the stories, the people, the atmosphere of experimentation, the bold asking of pertinent mission questions. Great to quietly encourage, to be attentive and to offer prayer as well as receive it.

In every church context, those risking failure by trying new things are always far ahead of those already failing by not trying.  The Kingdom of God is not predictable, not safe and calls for sacrifice in many ways.  At the crux of it all are people who are just passionate about getting Kingdom news out, even it if means prising the Kingdom out of the hands of those who think they own it.  When we follow the Lord Almighty, we are following the one who cannot be contained in ecclesiastical boxes, and who I believe actually thinks a lot less of our Orders and Regulations than we sometimes do.

I’ve learned over the years to hold church polity very lightly, giving honour where it is due, but seeking to honour the King above all.  I think I learned that from Jesus, I hope I did.

Discipleship III

So, it is fairly easy to attract a crowd…put on a decent show, the right supportive programmes, be nice, and set the bar fairly low.  Sure, there are some prerequisites in there…you need enough people to put on a decent show, the right programmes and a few folks to be nice, but by and large, that will get you an increasing crowd.  More often than not, it will get you a crowd of consumers looking to take up your ‘product’ because it is one of the better ones in the area.  It is easy for churches to appear ‘successful’ by doing this.

Jesus was pretty good at drawing a crowd too….look at the crowd he preached to and then fed.  There was one day, however, when Jesus crowd deserted him pretty quickly.  All, that is, except the 12 disciples.  I’ll come back to that in a minute.  Basically, Jesus began to teach difficult stuff.  He told them that they’d have to participate in his death, to walk the same path as him, to suffer the same fate…that of taking up your cross and living a life for God.  They thought it was too hard and they walked away.

As I said, the disciples stayed.  Why?  Maybe, just maybe, it is because they were disciples.  You see, the disciples were in the process of learning from Jesus day by day.  They were captured by his call to this life that they’d come to the point where it wasn’t about being part of the big crowd, of taking the easy way out, but it was about being wrapped up in the message of this Nazarene…the one who they were discovering was their Christ.  As they walked and learned from Jesus, they’d got used to how high the bar was.  They knew what Jesus was after and they had counted the cost and followed.  Thats not to say they didn’t have some wobbles along the way, but they were committed followers.  On the whole, when the going got tough, odd wobble accepted, these were the guys that went on to further the Jesus movement.

Disciple.  You could define it as those who follow Jesus because there is nowhere else to go, because he is worth following, because we’ve heard the call to ‘come and die’.  You could say it is for those who haven’t joined the Jesus Club for the perks and the eternal pension, but who believe that his way is the only way to live life.  You could say it is for those who understand that being ‘church’ is to be a part of his body of people with him as head of the family and not the institution which entertains us on Sunday mornings and educates our children in the ways of Jesus for us.

So, amongst the crowds we find ourselves in:

1) who are the disciples/disciplemakers we already have? and, how do we mobilise them in the task?
2) how are we leading people to practice their discipleship rather than just wear it as a badge?
3) how central is the gospel of Jesus to our community?  Does everyone know the gospel, what it means and how to share it?
4)  how connected are people to group discipleship, learning together how to navigate the world following Jesus together?
5)  how do we encourage and love the consumers enough to win them to the way of discipleship?

I wish I had all the answers, but a few questions are a good place to start, perhaps.

Discipleship II

Lets get beyond the nice words about discipleship and get into confession time.  As a leader of a large church, time for disciple-making is ridiculously non-existent.  That’s my really honest reflection.  Sure, I have some people I spend some time with that I and hopefully able to spur on in the work of discipling others, but really, pathetic excuse at being a discipleship ambassador!  I find that church does that…it can fill the time with a million things.  Its not that there is no teaching, discipling or development taking place.  Its just not enough to impact the community in a significant way.  In that, I am failing.

Yet, I also find that people’s lives can be filled with a million things which mean that people are distracted on the whole from the process of being disciples of Jesus.  Following Jesus is not some weekend pursuit.  Nor is it a ‘lifestyle choice.’  Following Jesus is a surrender, a submission, a denial of self, a taking up of a cross, a walking of a narrow way and its hard.  No sensible person would want to do it.

But as I was reminded earlier, there is an occasion in the gospels when a large crowd walk away from Jesus because his teaching is too hard…all, that is, apart from the disciples.  Jesus says to them, ‘Don’t you want to go too?’  And Peter replied. ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.’  He’s hit the nail on the head.  Jesus is the Way.  I pray that phrase most days, it appears as part of the morning prayer office of the Northumbria Community.  ‘To whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.’

Thing is, I believe many of the folks who inhabit our churches are in need of tonnes of encouragement to get to that place of saying ‘there is nowhere else I can go or would go, Jesus.’  That is a key mark of devotion and, I’d say, allegiance to him.   It is recognising that we’re out of other options.   You see, this is the hard bit.  This is the narrow road that I believe few will find, just as Jesus said.  It is a path that must be sought and a path that must be taken deliberately and intentionally with wholeheartedness.

You see, the church blames the world for the state of the church. The world have done nothing but walk without the light that people of God were supposed to let shine from the hill.   I sometimes wonder if we have a gospel at all.  I sometimes wonder if all we have is a life improvement scheme with optional add-on life extras which is devoid of challenge, power and usefulness.  Lord forgive me if that is what I’ve ever made it.

I’ve no doubts about the generosity of God’s grace, and I’m sure he delights in all his creation, but I do wonder how many of us he’d really count as ‘the body of Christ.’   See, I still believe that repentance/turning towards God, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and regeneration and infilling by the Holy Spirit are necessary to salvation.  They are necessary foundations to the life of discipleship.  Transfer from one Kingdom to the Kingdom of God is necessary.  This happens by grace, through faith in Christ…its his work, lest we should boast and brag about it, but a work that has obvious fruit flowing from it.

These word’s from Paul always challenge me:

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?”  (2 Cor 13:5)

It it Christ that is being formed in us?  Are we following?  Are we obeying?  Is our allegiance with Christ?  May it be so!

Discipleship

feetPure and simple.  Discipleship.  Or is it?  I think I’ve been whacking on about discipleship in my whole 4 years here at Trinity.  In fact, when I was in my previous role, it was the largest bit of my working profile.  Still, although the job has shifted a bit, discipleship is high on the agenda.  We cannot, however, become complacent and think that the message is getting through 100%.  This came to my attention yesterday in conversation, talking to a few members of Trinity, when one of them said ‘what do you mean by discipleship?’

My initial [internal] reaction was one of those *facepalm* *ohdear* reactions, but then I thought…this is fine.  I am thoroughly content that people are asking the question and considering its implications.  My one liner response was simply ‘working out what it means to follow Jesus’, and I think that made sense,  but got me thinking as to what I really mean by discipleship.

1.  Disciples follow Jesus.     I think this is where it starts and finishes.  There is no graduation from discipleship.  No arrival point.  It is a continual process of both learning and walking in his ways.  When we get the elementary things (if we ever do), we are then led into deeper things and our stride in discipleship strengthens.  Conversely, if you’re not following Jesus, you are not a disciple…you are something else.  But in fact, you are a disciple of something…probably something else which is shaping you more than Jesus is.

2.  Disciples make disciples.  It doesn’t just happen, disciples are made.  And, they are not made by osmosis, by a zap from Heaven or any such thing.  The Way of Jesus is passed on follower to follower, disciple to disciple.  The best modern term usage for this is apprenticeship.  A learner walking in the steps of someone who is walking in the steps of Jesus and seeing how it might be done.  There is no get out clause here for any Christian. This is our fundamental calling.  It is also a key element of why the church is in demise in places.  No discipleship = no church.

3.  Discipleship happens best in community.  I’ve heard it said by folks who should know better, but sermons don’t really disciple people.  Sure, they can be helps on the journey, but you can’t expect to disciple lots of people through simply imput.  People, generally, learn by doing stuff, working stuff out.  With something like discipleship, the theory is not enough.  You don’t want a surgeon who has just studied surgery, you want someone with experience.  You don’t want a pilot who has studied aviation, you want someone who has clocked up the hours.  Until the church moves the chairs out of rows, where you look at the bald patch of the person in front, and moves them round the table and the coffee pot, there is less chance of that happening.  And unless the people, having been inspired round the table, stand up and walk out what they’ve spoken about, discipleship isn’t happening.  We see Jesus sending out his disciples in twos in Luke 10, etc.  The idea is ‘here is what we’re supposed to do’ followed closely by ‘ok, off you go and do it.’

4.  Discipleship and Evangelism are one in the same thing.  They shouldn’t really be separated, and one certainly doesn’t follow the other in clear cut terms.  At some point in the whole process, ‘evangelism’ will take place…there will be a point of good news sharing, response, repentence, allegiance.  But it is an interesting question to ask ‘when did the apostle Peter get ‘saved’?’  Was it when he responded to the call of Jesus?  Was it when he got out the boat?  Was it when he confessed Jesus as Christ?  Was it at his restoration after he denied Jesus?  Was it on the day of Pentecost when he received the Holy Spirit?  The answer, I believe, to all those questions is:  yes.  Peter was discipled by Jesus.  The discipleship WAS the evangelism.  It was a process.  There was a discipleship in place that helped Peter come to the realisation of Jesus identity and Lordship, but Peter’s discipleship continued much longer after Jesus ascended into Heaven.  Evangelism happened, but discipleship is the process.   That’s not to say that evangelism is never the beginning of discipleship, but its not as clear cut as we think.  I think when we look at our current church scenarios, there will be many ‘churchgoers’ who will now becoming followers of Jesus through the process of discipleship.

The questions are:  are you a disciple? who are you discipling? who are you being discipled by and with?

As Neil Cole, author, pastor and church planter says, ‘we must lower the bar of church and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.’  In other words, stop the churchy games and all the trappings and get engaged in following Jesus as a priority.  Pure and simple?  Should be, but massive shifts needed in many places.  Fire up, tool up, shape up and lets go.