Preparing for Lent

cropped-img_3136.jpgFor many of my formative years, Lent didn’t really appear on the Christian calendar.  It wasn’t really until moving south in 2003 that I got an idea of what it was about.  And now, in 2017, I’m heading into Lent tomorrow with a great deal of anticipation. It will begin with ashes at my local Anglican church…

I am feeling a call to a deeper commitment to prayer, simplicity of living, and a general paring back.  Why?  Because I need it so much.  It’s not that I just want to do this for Lent, but I have a sense that I need to carry some disciplines from Lent into the ‘normal’ Christian experience.

As the years have gone by, to be honest, we’ve had more and more disposable income to the extent that I can’t imagine now living on a Salvation Army officer allowance!   Sure, we do things very differently and life is different, and we appreciate the blessing…I’m not complaining!  It’s not to say that we’re flush with cash…but we’re no longer dependent on benefits from the government as we were before.  But you know what?  Having more money has taken us so far from simplicity, and that is something which I really value.  There is a craving inside me for simple things and so Lent is a good opportunity to pare back and just become acquainted again with what is necessary…and what is not.

I also want to redress the balance of time when it comes to prayer, worship, engaging with the bible, spiritual reading, silence etc.  It’s not that I don’t do these things as a regular part of the day and week, but Lent is an invitation to pare back commitments and distractions and engage even more.

And then there’s food.  I love my food.  We do, however, live in a world where people simply don’t eat.  There are people who don’t have access to clean running water.  Globalisation isn’t working for everyone…there are still many who miss out.  And Lent gives an opportunity for solidarity with those who are poor, and even those in relative poverty in the UK.  And so, I’m looking forward to a simpler diet and engaging in a little solidarity through prayer.

It went a bit against the grain to write about this.  Some of me wonders if saying nothing about it is maybe a bit less likely to be construed as ‘spiritual pride’ – but that is not my intention in writing at all.  What I really want to say is that I feel that I am entering a season where I recognise again that I have so much to learn about the Jesus path, and I am convinced he is going to walk with me as I walk with him in this period approaching the celebration of his passion, death and resurrection.

I am not looking for anything from God, as if my ‘Lenten fast’ will draw God’s attention to me and bless me more (I really don’t go by this theory of fasting). Rather, I’m drawn to celebrating discipline in a world where discipline is a bad word.  I think, these days, these are the kind of things we need to talk about.  I think we need to evaluate our lives of privilege.  I also think we need to challenge ourselves now and again, and I realise at the moment that my life is pretty short on challenge by comparison to different days.

What am I saying?  I can’t call people to discipleship if I’m not willing to be a disciple!  I am looking forward to learning from Jesus and from what the Spirit will teach me.  I’m hoping to spend longer understanding our Father’s heart.  And I’m looking for a vision for Kingdom life.  I know that you’re not support to look forward to Lent…but I am…!

Life and Death

12I opened up the editing pages of my website to write about something else, but then had a vivid remembrance of a young woman we got to know a little bit in Glasgow.  She had turned up on our doorstep one day looking for a church and looking for God.  We invited her in, chatted with her, and invited her to some stuff we had coming up.  She came to a few of those events, just three or four occasions, and then there was a few weeks of silence.

The next knock we had at the door in relation to Anna was a young man.  A friend of hers.  He had come to tell us the news that she had taken her life a few days before.  He knew that she had reached out to us to try and get some perspective on life, that she had been desperately trying, but ultimately had lost her battle.

This is around 16 years ago now and whilst I’ve occasionally remembered her, I remember her again today in the context of how pivotal not only our gospel message is, but also how pivotal our human connections are.  We just never know what people are experiencing.  Now, this young man was very quick to assure us that she’d never uttered anything but positivity and warmth from our interactions with her and wanted to assure us that, like him, there probably wasn’t anything else that could be done as far as he understood it.  I certainly accepted his measured solace before going down the track of taking on any sort of blame.

Today, I still ask if there is anything else we could have done or said, or anything else we could have been for her.  But more than that, I guess that experience, and others like it, serve as a reminder of looking at every individual in front of me as someone precious and loved, and of infinite value whether they are actively looking for our interaction, or the meeting is by accident or just the regular everyday interactions we have.

We see some people for only fleeting moments of their lives.  We have it with in us to add what we can which may just help people before its too late and impact their lives for the good forever.  Life is precious, it is also precarious and fragile most of the time.  As the church, ‘life’ is our business, people are our business, and it is God who provides the resource to minister the best we can in all the ways we can.  Who is God presenting to you today?

Gospel Literacy

cropped-img_3136.jpgSome recent reading has me wondering how literate we are when it comes to the fulness of the gospel.  Certainly when I first received the gospel, and for many years afterwards, it was all about how Jesus died for my sins and that I needed to be forgiven.  Trusting in Jesus to save me and accepting his Lordship would secure my eternity in heaven.  Now, I’m sure that’s a familiar part of the gospel, and even an essential element of it, but it’s not, of course, the whole gospel.   I can see that I received the gospel in part, and because of that it could easily become much less than fulness.

The whole gospel announces the coming of King Jesus as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy to lead a ‘new exodus’, a new rescue, but also to establish a new Kingdom which stands in contrast to the kingdoms of the world.  This Kingdom is enacted and birthed through the death and physical bodily resurrection of Jesus, the first born from the new regime, the very first glimpse of what new creation will look like.  We’re all subsequently able to participate in Kingdom life through what Jesus has done…partially here and now, and fully when he returns to consummate the new heavens and the new earth at the appointed time.

We live in the period between the establishing of the Kingdom and the consummation of the Kingdom as new heaven and new earth.  Everything we do in the here and now (including repentance and faith, pledging allegiance to Jesus and the Kingdom, and working to make known its reality) builds towards the fulness that God will bring.  For a season we still live with decay, death and things that are contrary to God’s perfect future, but we are infused with the idea that another world is possible, that the Kingdom is coming and will come.

The implications for this are huge.  It’s not just the case that we become ghettoised as we wait for pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die, but we take our place in new creation as those who are eagerly awaiting the fulness of our salvation, which includes bodily resurrection and participation in the new heaven and earth, but in the meantime, mission!  We also see things not as they appear, but through the lens of the coming Kingdom.  We work to spot and point out the manifestations of the future Kingdom in the here and now.  We pray and work for its coming.  Our ‘evangelism’ is in announcing the Kingdom and pointing it out, as well as inviting people to partake in it.  The King of this Kingdom is not just an arbitrary judge of suitability for heaven entry, but is the one who counts us all as part of the creation he intends to renew and re-establish.  That involves transformation for us into the likeness of Jesus and our grafting in to the world-wide body of Christ,  and the acceptance of the commission to be ambassadors, sign posts and messengers of this Kingdom.

The good news is not just that I can be forgiven and have eternal life, but that the King has come, he is establishing his Kingdom, he will come again and bring it to fulfilment, and that everything we do in there here and now in allegiance to him points to the fact that all are invited to participate in the whole salvation story of God. That, to be honest, should shape our lives a whole lot more than sometimes it does and maybe because our message is about ‘sin management’ and ‘life insurance’ rather than a transfer from the kingdom or darkness to the Kingdom of light.  As NT Wright says, Pledging allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom isn’t about accepting a new divine lodger.  Rather, its about handing over the ownership of the whole house, all that we are,  with the real possibility that he may well want to come in and ‘move the furniture!’

Churches should be colonies of joy; celebration; life; alternative economics; holistic values of goodness; righteousness, peace and justice; places of transformation; and places of deep communion.

They should be places where there is no doubt who reigns (Our Father who is in heaven)  and whose name is honoured (hallowed be your name).  They should be places of fervent prayer and action for the outworking of this coming Kingdom and its establishing in real time (thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven).  It should be a place of feeding, nourishment and provision (give us today our daily bread), and places of radical grace, restoration and forgiveness (forgive our sins as we forgive others).  They should be places of sanctuary and support, strengthening and empowerment (lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil).   Only then will he be known to have the Kingdom, the power and the glory forever!  Amen!

For those of us whose churches aren’t quite all that, we’ve much joy ahead of us on the way towards being a Kingdom community awaiting our hope!

How do we hear God?

man-prayingI don’t spend hours writing a blog post…they are reflections ‘in the moment’, most often about what I’m thinking about.  They are a sort of public journaling when it seems possible that they may provide some grounds for reflection for others.  I say that because what I’m about to write is no definitive ‘how to’ approach or strategy that will have you blessed and unstressed by Friday, but rather, some answers to a question I was asking.  I was wondering what it might mean to coach/encourage Christians in the art of hearing God who were new or uncertain of the idea.  I came up with a few pointers:

1.  Submit to God.  May sound ‘severe’ but I think its important to get the order right.  We are not God and we don’t even know half of what there is to know about anything!  When we come to him we come to one who is all knowing and so getting outselves in the place of humble listener will help us more than not.

2.  Putting our ear to the Bible.  These texts are our key guide to the main thrust of God’s general will and what it means to be his people.  It has a voice, and an importantly crucial voice at that.  I’m not saying its an easy thing to come to the bible in this way, but I’m not actually advocating JUST coming to the bible when we’re listening.  I’m suggesting that it is to be our bread and meat and that we internalise its message.  This means that we are more likely to understand how God speaks through it and how the Spirit guides us in our discernment.  It is here, too, that we find out if Jesus’ teaching or actions have anything to apply to our particular matter.

3.  Seeking the help of the Holy Spirit.  I mentioned this just now, but its important that we ask God’s spirit to guide us, not only as we come to the bible, but as we reflect, pray, listen and engage all the faculties God has given us to hear and respond.  He is the illuminator, the nudger, the prompter and the inspirer and his residence is with us, as his church, as his temple.  He is active in the transformation of our body, mind, soul and spirit as we seek after God’s purposes.

4.  Enter shared corporate discernment with an open heart and mind, accepting that together we make up the body of Christ. This is where the rubber hits the road because we are all seeing through darkened glass, but we cannot escape the importance of the whole Christian community.  Wisdom can emerge from within the body of Christ which is full and helpful.  It can sometimes sound like the opposite but perhaps thats more a symptom of bad listening than good listening.   I’m saddened by what I see sometimes where discernment is replaced by democracy as if that is the God-given pattern.  Working towards consensus isn’t about everyone agreeing, its about agreeing to disagree and choosing a course of action anyway.

5. Not failing to engage our brains.  If we’re not using our heads we’re not fully engaging, but its also important to remember, as Paul said, that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  In other words, our heads are not the sole authority.  We use our heads to ask the questions, explore the answers, make conclusions, try things, evaluate and refine – all under God’s leading.  Included in this is where we’ve seen God lead in the past, and asking if that has anything fresh to say in a new situation

That’s all rather generic rather than specific, but they were the key things that arose for me when thinking about how we engage in discernment.  You might think I’ve missed out ‘PRAY’, but I think this whole process is the essence of prayer.  In engaging in these things we’re in dialogue with God…speaking, thinking, listening, responding, testing and stepping out believing we may have heard without any fear of coming back to the start when things turn out to be not as we’ve understood.  Humility required, and a teachable spirit.

Are there any other factors you would consider?