Re-Jesusing

christDuring January and February I’m preaching, at Homewood Road URC, a series of talks on the person of Jesus and his identity as lover, liberator, life-giver, leader and, ultimately, what his identity as ‘The Christ’ means.

Missiologist Alan Hirsch identifies that one of the greatest challenges to churches today is to ‘Re-Jesus’. In other words, for the church to reflect its teacher, inspiration and Lord. The Lordship of Christ is at the very heart of who the church is in the context of the dynamic relationship of the Trinity. It is in Christ that we enter into the flow of life in God and in the Kingdom.   The central cry of the early church and every subsequent significant ‘Jesus-movement’ has had this cry at its heart, holding together all the essential elements the lead to a dynamic church.  The Lordship of Jesus represents a direct challenge to all of us.  If His Kingdom is to come, it means that our kingdoms must go.  If he is Lord, then it means that I’m not, and not even my ideas are.

Why does Jesus matter?  Simply because he UNIQUELY shows us the character of God.  The challenging thing is not just that Jesus was and was like God, but that God is and is like Jesus.  Same with the Spirit.  Co-equal in power and glory.  Distinct, but God.  Each revealing something of the other and of themselves.  Community but unity.  In the gospels, Phillip got confused and wanted Jesus to show him the Father.  Jesus replied to that with “Phillip, you’re looking at a perfect picture of Him…you’ve been looking at him all along”.

For me, Christology is a key discipline in theological reflection.  I don’t profess to be NT Wright, there’s a whole tonne of stuff I don’t pretend to know at all, but my reaction is that the Jesus you see is the church you’ll be.  We see this playing out in our world where a poor Christology can lead to supposed ‘evangelical Christians’ seeing President Trump as the messiah (small m) for their nation.  The flip side is a Jesus who is SO loving that no ethics or morality can be deduced and so Jesus simply rubber stamps every liberal idea.  The truth is NOT on that linear spectrum.  It is not on that line but in Christ who stands above the line, holds the extremes together in tension, not to produce a compromise but to share a different vision.  One which says ‘I don’t condemn you, but go and sin no more’.

Then, there is the Jesus of mission.  He didn’t just come as a God-mirror, but as one who enacted the ACTION of God.  God is a missional God.  He is a sending God.  He is a God who longs to draw all nations to himself.  The ultimate vision that John gives in revelation is ‘all nations around the throne’.  The Jews were called to be a light to gentiles, the church is called to be a light to the world.  Jesus sends his disciples to preach, teach, heal, defeat evil.  He commissions the church with the task of making disciples and inducting/incorporating/immersing/baptising people into his Body.  That involves conversation, it involves conversion and it involves a transfer of Kingdoms.  Paul calls it a transfer from the dominion of darkness into the Kingdom of God (Col 1: 13).  However it happens in reality, it has to happen spiritually. The ‘spiritual rebirth’ is a necessary event which happens by repentance, faith and regeneration by the Spirit.  Jesus then announces, on his departure to glory, that the Spirit will then be sent to enable his followers to take the message to the ends of the earth.  An essential nature of the church is our sent-ness.  Mission is more than evangelism but evangelism is a part of mission.

Our understanding of Jesus affects our understanding of our mission.  Our understanding of Jesus and mission then shapes our understanding of what the church, then, should look like.  You just can’t be the body of Christ if you don’t know Christ and conform to his likeness.  The extent to which we are conformed to his likeness is the extent to which people will find life, acceptance, embrace and transformation amongst his people.

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The Jesus Prayer

black-100-knot
chotki – prayer rope

I first heard of the Jesus Prayer a few years back whilst away on a retreat weekend. Basically, it’s a phrase taken from the gospels, uttered in part by Bartimaeus to Jesus: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me.’ This phrase is used often in Eastern Orthodox circles as a meditative phrase for prayer, often accompanied by use of a chotki, a prayer rope, which helps the pray-er intersperse recitation of the Lord’s prayer after ten or so ‘Jesus prayers’. Sometimes when engaging prayer we might not have a sense of what it is we want to say, but simply want to spend the time with the Lord in prayer. I find this meditative approach helpful. It turns my mind towards the Author and Perfector of our faith and fixes my attention on His presence and my need for Him to guide me.

It’s also a prayer you can pray for others: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on…..[enter whatever/whoever].
Is this necessary? No…it’s just one way to engage in prayer beyond our usual pattern. For me, it is one of the forms of prayer I turn to very often throughout the day whether I’m in the queue at the coffee shop, driving in the car, walking or doing things around the house. I usually keep my ‘chotki’ in my coat pocket or round my wrist too, which is useful not because I always want to count prayers, but as a reminder to become aware of his presence. That’s not to say that I don’t do a ‘round’ interspersed with the Lord’s prayer, but it’s often just a physical reminder and focus for prayer that stops my head getting distracted. Why not try it? Take some time and sit with those words. Say them our loud or in your head. Focus on the words, the meaning of each one. Focus on what the request means for you at this time. Where do you need his help and mercy? Affirm Him as Lord. See how it goes!

To whom shall we go?

There have been a few verses of scripture floating around in my head for a few days now.  In John 6:68, Jesus and Peter are having a bit of a dialogue.  Jesus has been teaching hard things and many followers turn and walk away.  Whether Jesus is feeling rejection or whether he is feeling like he wants to challenge his disciples (or both), he says to Peter ‘Are you going too?’  Peter says to Jesus ‘To whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have come to know that you are the holy one of God!’

That is quite a remarkable statement to make.  It is quite a confession, especially at this stage of Peter’s walk with Jesus and with a whole load more challenge to come.  And yet, there is something about his encounter with Jesus which leads him to this place.   We do know that Peter was quick to say these things and then show by his living something quite different, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and say they always arose from a good place!

I’ve consistently found this statement to be true, myself.  I have no desire to go anywhere else than to Him.  Don’t get me wrong, truth is revealed all over the place…not surprising if the whole of the Creation points towards him.  Yet, the teachings of the gospels, for all their complexity and conundrums present to me a compelling Christ.

Two more things from last weeks teaching are worth a mention:  firstly, our visit to the cinema to see ‘Silence’ – a film about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the 15th century.  A powerful film about faithfulness of God’s people, but also of mission gone wrong by grossly misunderstanding a culture.  Somehow, the words of the Christian missionaries had become a political threat as they were unable to separate imperialism with the gospel…a story which was true around the world.  It strikes me that ‘words of eternal life’ will always stink to high heaven when they’re so pulluted with our own cultural presuppositions of what real Christians look like.  It is a powerful film and I believe it shows not only the conversion of the Japanese but the conversion of zealous Jesuits who learned what it would take to live Christ in a different culture.

Second, on one of the days we spent a rather long time looking at some recent statistics on British people’s views of Jesus based on this research.  Whilst I think a lot of the research is quite flawed in its findings for lots of reasons, I do believe it does show that people in this country may well have a vision of Jesus which resembles the safe, domesticated vision of Jesus that over 1600 years of Christendom has espoused: a Jesus who poses no threat, challenge or call to anyone.  People ‘like’ Jesus.  I understand that.  But would they still like him if they saw the extent to which his Kingdom and values would turn their world and worldview upside down?  I suspect that they wouldn’t be uttering ‘To whom shall we go…’  I think these are words, rather, that can only be uttered by one who has been through the process of revelation of Jesus as both Saviour and Lord.  It is uttered by people who hear the hard stuff and still say with confidence: no-one else, Lord.

In our ‘post-Truth’ world, I suspect that the populist view of Jesus as a nice bloke will ever diminish.  But alongside that, I see that there will be a challenging call to all would-be disciples because following Jesus will take us increasingly into holding a very different worldview than the trajectory of our society.

These few thoughts just bring my mind into sharp focus.  Domestic Jesus isn’t going to cut it.  Where’s the transformation and liberation in that?  To go to him is to enter into a Way that is contrary, radical, other.  It’s the proverbial ‘narrow road’ that few find and even fewer walk.  And yet…that’s where the life is.

 

Let’s pray about it…

I’m just done packing up my few bits and bobs I’ve had with me here at Cliff College this week, ready to vacate my room before we launch into the last half day.  I’m looking forward to being home, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being here again for the last full week of my course.

The lectures have been interesting, stimulating, provoking as normal, and I expect more of that tomorrow.  The content all very useful stuff, even if just to have something to critically engage with and disagree…after all, its not the expectation that you agree with everything presented…they let you think for yourself at post graduate level!

That isn’t the biggest thing I’ll take away from this week, though.  I will take away the richness of being in fellowship with a beautiful bunch of people.  People who know what it is to ask and live the difficult faith and mission questions, who ‘get’ the regular challenges of 21st century ministry regardless of their denominational background.  But they are people who simply love God and follow Jesus and the beauty of these people for me was summed up this evening.  The college chaplain invited us all up to her home, just up the hill, for coffee, cake and prayer.  And there we were…around 20 of us, with the chaplain and her husband, the MA programme leader and his lovely young family, huddled in the living room round the fire talking, enjoying laughs, tears, conversation, more of our stories and talking to Jesus together like its the most natural thing in the world, interspersed with holding the baby looking for something to chew to help her teething whilst her mum prayed across the room.  Then, from the naturalness of prayer and conversation, one of the young toddlers started to sing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ and we all, of course, joined in his song to his wide-eyed amazement and there it was…the amazing, prayerful, mission-focussed, family-focussed blessing of being in Kingdom community and my heart said ‘I was made for this.’

Pioneering in ministry for me isn’t about slick projects and the latest thing: it is about nourishing and celebrating the biggest miracle of all – the mystical and beautiful union of people joined in Christ as rich family and sensing the joy of Christ as he moves among us and as the child leads us into wonder of it all.

Psalm 8:

Lord, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!
Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained praise,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,[b]
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.

You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen—
Even the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air,
And the fish of the sea
That pass through the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth!

Constructing the future?

I’m at Cliff College in Derbyshire this week, for the third of my four MA modules.  This week is on Pioneering ministry within our current cultural landscape and again I’m listening to stuff which is very familiar, not only from my own reading, but my experience of ministry ‘in the real world.’  In the slight ivory tower of academia, the issues seem safe, recognisable and detached.  There is something of a sense of movement towards which the church must move…this theoretical church in ones head, not grounded in the reality of back home.

The reality is that many churches in the UK are nowhere near grasping the huge significance of what is happening in our culture and what the future trajectory of the church looks like, and so see no need to move anywhere beyond the odd ‘tweak’ here and there.  It can feel bleak, but then, I’m here with people who take the effort to pause, reflect, explore scripture, consider collective wisdom of both the academics, missiologists, sociologists and the practitioners…the people doing the stuff.  Signs of hope can be identified, but the challenge remains huge.

I find myself uttering a different story about where I personally am in this whole thing.  I see relatively clearly the challenges facing the church in the UK, and even understand some of the shifts but remain reasonably sceptical that the majority of the church can make the leap, and so you wonder how the future plays out for so many local expressions of the church. And so, one must feel a sense of loss that in spite of the hard work of so many, there is little to do that can halt the decline in some circles because the decline is so huge.  In this last week, I sat in the office of a denominational leader who said ‘our denomination has maybe 10 years max’.  The writing is on the wall.  So, where is the hope?

I read an article a few weeks ago that I didn’t quite know how to internalise.  It was about the growth in churches with a more fundamental view of Christian faith.  I don’t think by that they meant ultra-shocking in-your-face-offensive Christian outfits….rather, places where there was a commitment to take Jesus at his word and seeking to flesh out his teaching in a committed and intentional way.  It wasn’t about style, but about a clear idea of the substance of faith.  On one hand, I can see how this is ‘first half of life’ spirituality – people who are building their faith construct still, and who are creating that scaffold of faith.  I recognise many formative years of firm discipleship myself.  And, I note that it is true…it is those who have built a ‘strong container’ in the first half of life who can then afford to explore the depths and put things IN their container which are fresh, surprising, stretching and of greater depth. More than that, If you have nothing and you deconstruct it you still have nothing.  If you have a solid container and you deconstruct it, you still have something to reconstruct…some essential parts that you can build with.

I’ve said many times before, and I don’t hesitate to say it again, but a church that isn’t building on the foundation that is Christ will need more than a supernatural revival to resuscitate it.  We need a revolution of saying ‘look, we’re at the crunch point…we can still turn some of this round, and the way to do that is to some how discover what it really means to be a community of disciples of Christ embodying the mission and heart of the Trinity itself.’  I think that to the extent churches can shake of the myriad of agendas it brings to the table to focus on the movement of God in the scripture, in history and in our daily lives will be the extent to which it can reconstruct a new imaginative future for the church in the 21st century.  A fresh vision of the nature and heart of God transforms our outlook on pretty much everything.  Even so, this may not halt the decline and decay in many places, but it may just allow a phoenix to arise from the ashes.

It was Jesus who said ‘I will build my church’ and so, in some ways, we’re off the hook, but he did also entrust us with making disciples, teaching and instructing other people in the ways of God, and from that, church would come. So, we are not without a job.  The question is this:  is the job we’re actually engaged in the one we’ve been invited to engage in?  Is the main thing the main thing?  Are we constructing the future, or are we shifting chairs on the Titanic whilst the band plays ‘Nearer My God to Thee’?

Availability and Vulnerability

northumbria-community-logo1I’ve been journeying as a part of the Northumbria Community for a few years now, and 3 of those as a Companion (member) of the Community.  It is a new monastic group, dispersed throughout the UK and the rest of the world, committed to a shared way of life.  I’m just minded of it, because it is around 3 years today since I made my commitment to the community Rule of Life on retreat at Nether Springs.   This is the rule of life we live:

‘The Rule we embrace and keep will be that of AVAILABILITY and VULNERABILITY.’

We are called to be AVAILABLE to God and to others: Firstly to be available to God in the cell of our own heart when we can be turned towards Him, and seek His face; then to be available to others in a call to exercise hospitality, recognising that in welcoming others we honour and welcome the Christ Himself; then to be available to others through participation in His care and concern for them, by praying and interceding for their situations in the power of the Holy Spirit; then to be available for participation in mission of various kinds according to the calling and initiatives of the Spirit.

We are called to intentional, deliberate VULNERABILITY:
We embrace the vulnerability of being teachable expressed in: a discipline of prayer; in exposure to Scripture; a willingness to be accountable to others in ordering our ways and our heart in order to effect change.
We embrace the responsibility of taking the heretical imperative: by speaking out when necessary or asking awkward questions that will often upset the status quo; by making relationships the priority, and not reputation.
We embrace the challenge to live as church without walls, living openly amongst unbelievers and other believers in a way that the life of God in ours can be seen, challenged or questioned. This will involve us building friendships outside our Christian ghettos or club-mentality, not with ulterior evangelistic motives, but because we genuinely care.
Generally, as a community, we renew our vows on Easter Sunday on Holy Island of Lindisfarne, when many members of the community gather up at the Mother House in Northumberland for retreat, but many aren’t able to travel to be a part of that every year, so renewal can be done in the quietness and stillness of the prayer space.  For me, the Rule gives me a framework for keeping my discipleship clear and on track.  It is not restrictive, as you’d expect a regular monastic rule to be…rather, it is provocative: it asks questions and pushes that step further.
Availability and Vulnerability, I hope, shape my life.  Those values are ever before me, especially when it comes the time that I just want to hide away.  But, we also recognise too the imporance of having rhythm in ones life.  There are some seasons where we are more ‘out there’ than others…there are times when ‘the tide is in’ and the tidal road gets cut off on Lindisfarne, which serves as a metaphor for those times of necessary retreat.

In lots of ways my tide is out, as I engage in the regular pattern of ministry here in St Albans.  I guess, however, in a sense, my tide is also in…what I’m doing now is of a different character to what I feel is my main life’s work, the work to which I will one day return.

What are the things that keep your faith in focus?  What prompts you to keep your discipleship alive and fresh, and to keep living out the important questions as we follow Jesus?

Reflective

As the year gradually winds up to its regular steady pace after the lush restful days of the Christmas season, I think its a good time for reflection before leaping in.  I’ve been visiting long term dreams and goals, and looking for the things that are life-giving, inspiring and very much at the forefront of my mind.  I just think it is so important to keep the big picture in focus…mainly because I’m a big picture person, so I’d say something like that, wouldn’t I?   I recognise that if I can’t see the big picture, you’re as well to sit me behind brick walls because at least that would physically enact the inner sensation of being swamped in whatever minutiae is presenting itself.  Within vision of the bigger picture, the present takes clearer form and thus gives me opportunity to rest in it.

Plenty on the horizon on the work front, family front, personal and devotional front, and on my part-time academic mini-career as I press onwards to complete the course work for my MA in Mission before tackling my dissertation from the summer onwards.

There are a few things becoming important to me again.  It is not that they have disappeared, they are just finding new focus.  The main thing is the Jesus story.  I, personally, have no trouble with the historicity of the accounts, give or take the carefulness with which one must approach literature like the New Testament gospels.  I believe they are true whether they happened or whether they didn’t – truth isn’t simply contained in physicality, it goes beyond that, although I’m happy that in Jesus of Nazareth, truth is revealed in a very full way.

I affirm that because I don’t want anyone to be under any misguided notion about where I come from with regards to perspective in any sphere of life with which I engage.  His life, his influence, his teaching and his words are my main inspiration for all I do.  I keep wondering why I feel I have to say that…perhaps I don’t, but now, more than ever before, I guess, I find myself in places where it can’t be automatically be assumed that people share the same outlook…that’s the joy and challenge of seeking to life a faith life without walls and  false boundaries of sacred-secular divides.  I’m finding all sorts of amazing and beautiful humanity all over the place!

In such liminal spaces, in between places, where things aren’t predictable or fully known, you can discover with greater clarity what is key and what is just commentary.  It is in the questions that we live and ponder, not just in the answers to the questions.  I guess I’m in the humbling position where people often come to me with questions, seeking direction, wisdom or other such things.  My first response is always a sense of inadequacy, before moving on to trust in those instincts that there is One who holds all things together and, even though the vision gets mired and unclear, he wills no ill for us.  He is entirely good, but invites us into holy risks and exploits.  We mustn’t fear the questions, the reflections, the uncertainties, the disappointments or the yet-unrealised-hopes.

It will come together when we least expect it and looking back we will see His hand upon it all.  We need to live life forwards, step forward hopefully, and just maybe, we’ll have the grace given to us to understand it as we look back at it.

Resolute

I guess I gave up the sort of ‘must lose weight, must exercise, must save the world’ kind of resolutions a while ago.  It’s not that I shouldn’t engage in some of those things, it’s just that they always seem to be framed negatively and that kind of psychology rarely works.

Take the ‘January diet’ thing: I am convinced that January must the the worst month ever to think about cutting down the food that we probably need at this time of the year to get us through the winter months!  It won’t do me any harm to cut out the rich Christmas food at all, but not convinced eating frugally in January is the best tactic…why not try the height of summer to have all the salads, when you can’t bear to eat a single hot, cooked thing?  Just a trivial example, I grant you, but I’ve just noticed that it is counter-productive to lay anything ill-fitting upon yourself.

For years, I fretted about my ‘devotional life’ in good strict evangelical fashion, realising that I should be devouring this devotional book, studying this and that, learning my New Testament Greek and learning Leviticus off by heart…and all that jazz.  Every January I’d come into it with many good intentions to ‘achieve’.  Achievement isn’t bad, but maybe just sometimes we confuse the ends with the means and the means with the ends.

During last year, particularly coming into Autumn, I started to make a list of all the things that I wanted to do during the Autumn and Winter Season.  I do this, partly, because of the regular onslaught of seasonal depression, which I have to work hard to combat.  Planning good, positive, comforting, enjoyable and creative things to do gives plenty of opportunities to raise the happy hormones and make things more liveable.  This year, I have to say, in spite of the many challenges that have come along and the odd ‘cloudy brain day’, it has been fantastic so far.  And more than that, there have been loads of the things that the family have been able to join in:  hot choc and waffles at Covent Garden, nature mandalas at the forest, marshmallows at the fire pit, crafts, walks, movie nights, games nights, etc. etc.  Not only have they created happy chemicals, but also some lovely memories together.

Spiritually speaking, I don’t give myself a hard time when prayer is hard, or when I can’t fit in my reading, or if I miss a day of journalling, or if my halo has slipped a bit.  I have come to understand that God understands and loves all my human bits, and also that a warm relaxing bath can be a means of grace too; that a half-hour watching the pigeon in the garden can be as missionally educational as the latest missional tome; and that sitting before God with no idea what to say can be as powerful as 1000 words.

I am resolute in one thing: that life is, actually, wonderful.  In spite of my own personal challenges (we all have them), and in spite of the hard work that I sometimes have to put in to maintain my health, and in spite of the nagging voices that urge me ‘thou must do more’, I am learning more and more what grace means.  It means that ‘everything is already given’ and that what I lack, so often, is simply ‘awareness.’  For most of my life I’d have had trouble telling you anything good about myself, the worm that I am, but learning to turn God’s compassionate gaze into the way that I look upon myself helps me conclude that God’s doing a pretty good job, and that the work he has started will be gloriously finished one day…until then…happy with being a work in progress!

Journeying on…through 2017

Well here we are….2017!  To be honest, I still can’t quite articulate the disappointment of having to hold off our move back north, back home.    Thats’s not to say that we’re not making a good crack at life here in St Albans, but the move was more than just a practical choice or fad, it was a pursuit of a longer term dream which will eventually come when its time arrives.

We waded through a stream of disappointing and challenging things in 2016 and, although in good health myself, we’ve come to the start of 2017 a wee bit weary.  We know that we will be here in St Albans until at least Ben’s GSCEs are done, perhaps beyond.  I’m ok with that, but our hopes and dreams are not faded or gone, just resting.

Someone recommended that I read Paul Coelho’s book ‘The Alchemist’ in the last few days, which I duly did.  Its a fable of a young boy setting out on his quest only to discover that his real treasure lay at home, to which he returns with the benefit of having journeyed, discovered and grown.  He realises that his treasure was there all the time, but it took the journey to realise it.  Very much like the Odyssey, and TS Elliot’s notion of ‘returning home and knowing it for the first time’.

Life is like that for me.  I’ve felt like a wanderer for a long time, and one with a longing for ‘home’ – which is Scotland, but we felt equally at ‘home’ in the North East of England, with good access to Scotland!   ‘Turasaiche’, which is the moniker I use a lot, is the Scottish Gaelic word for wanderer, pilgrim, vagabond.  It has been a blast…but the more I journey, the more I long for home! I’m like a wee Hobbit longing for the Shire!  To be honest, my compass is set for north and one of these days, we’ll return, in whatever way, fashion or time.  That keeps it sufficiently vague for now!

This coming home isn’t really about geography alone…its about feeling settled in my own skin, knowing my own mind much more and getting a sense of what my own desires are.   We only get this one life, and we need to live it.  The benefit of life’s journey is that one day we’ll return home with all the benefit of having experiences different places and local cultures…and we’ll know what our treasure really is.

Looking forward to all that 2017 will add to the experience of life!