We have a problem…

Someone asked me the other day ‘what’s the worst thing about being in church leadership?’  I answered the question wrongly, because, not wanting to get too deep on the matter, I glibly said ‘meetings that don’t go anywhere and are for apparently nothing.’  Whilst that’s a waste of time, it’s not the real answer I’d offer to that question.

It just so happens that someone asked me the same question again yesterday, as if I were being invited to speak the truth about what I really see and feel, not only in my local settings, but in other places.

Across the board, the crisis in churches is basic discipleship.  Sure, it is at different levels of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ in different places, but I recognise that even in the most active church, I’ve always been troubled by it.  I don’t understand it.  And when I say that, I don’t mean that I’m ignorant of the reasons as to why discipleship is low on the agenda or why it is not the active experience of people.  I know most of the reasons.

I also know that it is no easy thing to follow Jesus.  It is no easy think to cultivate a life of prayer, witness and service.  It is no easy thing to factor in commitment Christian community (not necessarily institutional stuff, but vital faith/life stuff).  And as for engagement in mission…bottom of the heap, really.  And so, I reflect that for many years I’ve been doing all I can in my power/influence to invite people into active discipleship.  Some you win, some you lose.

But, if it was important when I started out in ministry in the early 2000s, it is crucial now.  I would love to be SPECTACULARLY proved wrong with the real evidence that people are praying, learning about Jesus and following him, living rhythms of daily worship and devotion and engaging in creative and intentional mission in their settings in everyday life.  I suspect, however, that it is not the case in the vast majority of cases.

And so, as a pastor/leader/minister/whateveryouwanttocallme, the challenge is either to present low challenge/low risk chaplaincy in the hope that some ‘get it’ or, to raise the bar and call for deeper levels of commitment and engagement in the things of God.  Leaving aside the ‘professional role’, my choice is to plough my own discipleship furrow, or to really engage at a level of challenge to my fellow Christians and invite them to step up.  This involves levels or discomfort and maybe even awkwardness that not everyone is prepared for…I’m not sure if my propensity towards and ‘easy life’ even always allows me to get there!

But what is the flip side if we don’t?  People say ‘well, Jesus says that the gates of Hell won’t prevail against the church’ and that is true. He does say that.  But let’s place that alongside history:  there are parts of the world where Christianity once bloomed and flourished (places like Ephesus, for example) but which are now desert lands when it comes to the church.  There are no guarantees that ‘Christianity in [insert your location]’ will stay afloat at all, even if it does in other places.  The gospel won’t be without witness in the world…but where we live?  Well that’s maybe very much in our court.  People say we need a revival as if this is all God’s fault!  I fully agree we need a revival – but I don’t think its going to be the kind where God zaps everyone whilst we stand back.  And I don’t think its going to be in the shape of filling the pews and singing lovely songs to Jesus.  We need a revival of connected and committed relationship that is fleshed out in everyday life, not just on a month of Sundays.

It is not even about ‘passing faith on’ down the generations any more.  That can happen in some places, but many situations are long devoid of any generations to pass faith onto.  If we do have that luxury, we then have to assume that parents/grandparents/guardians are equipped to be able to do that work and in many cases they’re not and so the church has to ‘buy in’ expertise.

What’s the good news in this?  It is never too late to hear the challenge and start making the difference today.  If you’re still reading stuff like this, still engaging yourself, now is the time to participate in waking up the rest of the body of Christ!  If you’re still engaged with a group of people calling themselves church it is time to ‘have a word’ somewhere.  The time is now.

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To the hills!

There are always ideas floating around in the world of church, mission and theology – some of them are weird, some are of little real or practical value, some are brilliant…and then there are those which provoke a deeper conversation.  I guess Martin’s blog post that I referred to yesterday is case in point (I’ll let you choose which case I’m pointing at!).

I also came across some thinking recently about how the church responds to the general disarray of the world in a book called ‘The Benedict Option.’  The author, amongst other things, points towards the Benedictine idea of monastic retreat…specifically, the call to model a very different way of being, living and existing in the world.  He, it might seem, takes the idea to its extreme, certainly from the point of view of most Christians today, but the stark reality is that every 500 years or so throughout the history of the church, there has been a resurgence in the monastic movement that says ‘look, there’s another Kingdom that we have to try and display in a way that we’re not going to be able to do in the status quo, we have to model something radically different.’  And so, the monastic communities of the Celts, the Benedictines, the Fransiscans etc, more modern movements like the Moravians, the Mennonites and Anabaptists, the Amish, the Bruderhof, the Simple Way, the Jesus Army etc. all experiment in Christian community to explore another way.  Some people see those things, and Christian community in particular, as weird and wacky when in fact it has been a regular way of sustaining Christian witness for centuries.  We see this especially in countries where Christians are at risk for their faith.

Most groups find it a tall order, and certainly not easy at all.  But history and study has shown that, even with elements of ‘corruption’ slipping in, these movements have preserved faithful expressions of discipleship.  This, to be honest, is the value of new monastic movements for me.  They lower the bar of what we mean by ‘church’ and raise the bar on discipleship and Christian community.

Anyway, the author’s premise is that it is time – the time of Trump, Russian aggression, climate change, warmongering, oilmongering, ISIS, Brexit and the like – to recognise that to a degree, another ‘dark age’ is upon us and we need to give greater consideration to how serious we are about the business of seeking the establishment of God’s Kingdom.  The author’s premise is that its too difficult to change the world, and that may be where we part company, because I believe our influence must not just be ‘look at those Christians’, but that we must actively engage.  However,  I do believe that we have a duty and mandate to manifest the truth that part of the gospel speaks the idea ‘another wold is possible’ and that we’re called to be the answer to our prayer and see the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

I may not agree with the author’s full intention, but this much is clear to me:  in the face of the current world climate the Kingdom needs to shine brighter.  ‘Flee to the hills’ is not the answer. But neither will it happen with ‘Sunday Christianity’ and where churches are filled with folks hanging on to the legacy of Christendom instead of engaging in an active discipleship.  I believe there is a radical Christian distinctive and it’s not one that should separate us in a ‘holier-than-thou’ way, but in a way that does sacrificially display a Kingdom vision.  The ‘Christian problem’ is not that we’re not relevant to society …by and large, the church does what people expect it to do and that has its own relevancy.  The general public are as caught up in Christendom ideas of Christianity probably even more so than churches!  What we aren’t showing them is that there is anything different.   The problem is that we’re not counter-cultural enough, and by consequence, we’re not prophetic enough and so we are salt trampled into the ground having lost our saltiness.

Christian community is not Christian Ghetto hid away ‘for fear of the Jews’ like the disciples in the upper room post-resurrection.  No, in the way of Jesus, we are cities on hills designed to shine.  The community I currently serve is largely hidden.  I can’t always find them through the week!  How much more do others have no sight of the Christian community in any way, shape or form?

I believe Christian community must be stronger and inclusive, but I also believe it must be locatable, visible and accessible, transformational and alternative.  If there is nothing radically alternative about Christian community then there actually is a time to actively pursue a different vision, and to do it with all our hearts.  To quote Bonhoeffer again, he said something like this:

“The renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount.  It is high time men and women banded together to do this.”  

Martin on ‘Church’

My friend and former colleague Martin Thompson wrote this interesting piece on his reflections on church.  I’ve a deep love and respect for Martin and Kay, and all at once, I agree and disagree with him on it.  In the interest of online discussion, I wanted to jot a few lines.

I agree in that churches are undoubtedly the most frustrating places on the planet most of the time.  I lament the way that the institution has gathered a life and character of its own that can suck life from the most vibrant human; the way that it detracts from the life-giving message of the Kingdom in exchange for Churchianity; the way it wounds its broken with its rules and regulations, over-riding transformative grace; the way it bores us to bloody tears at times.  As a pastor/minister all these years I’ve been in a variety of settings which have made me weep real tears.   I’ve experienced times when the church has ground me down to nothing and left me dangling precariously on a deep cavity of disillusionment.  In response to this challenge over the years I’ve tried many things:  running away; disengaging; calling it to higher ideals and trying to change it; totally succumbing to the pressures and playing the game; speaking out about it; keeping my head down.  You name it, I’ve probably tried it as part of the heart and mental gymnastics one must do to live alongside it. He’s right – church is broken, it’s not the fulness of the Kingdom, and it may never be.  There also may well be something better still to come.  I have a deep sympathy with the frustrations that ‘church’ brings and a little part of me is envious of Martin and Kay’s current freedom.

Where I disagree is bound up in this:  I need Martin and Kay, and his family.  They are me, at least part of me.  We probably haven’t seen each other in a good while, and we’ve currently no plans, but that’s not the point.  I don’t want to ‘do church’ with them or have them join my small group, or have them sit beside me on a Sunday morning.  I’m not talking about institutionalising them, but I need their community, their vision, their influence…and yes, Martin, I totally need you to be about more than your job, your family unit and your frustrations.  I need your fulness and your brokenness, your love and your frustration, your energy and your exhaustion…and maybe even a beer.  You see, we’re family.  There is something we share deeply and I’m reasonably sure that if I were living near you I’d be saying:  hey buddy, you’re holding out on us…and let me really encourage you not to hold out on dealing with those big questions that prolong the vision coming to fruition because in doing that work you may well become the conduit through which your desired transformation happens.  I know this is the bit that’s a pain in the ass, but no-one is going to fulfil your deep desires and vision apart from you…figuring it out, sharing it and inviting others to partner in it.  Without that, you’re all on your own, buddy.   *tumbleweed*

But I get it.   Even whilst still ‘part and parcel’ of the institution, sometimes fully against my better judgement, I have to say don’t leave us in the lurch.  It’s not about you.  Life is not about you, but you are about life and that life includes the rest of us (whoever the local ‘us’ might be).  It’s about us, and we need to work this thing out together.  It IS worth it.  There are people out there who need help to reimagine.  However, it was Bonhoeffer who said that the one thing likely to destroy all possibility of community is our high ideals of community.  Community is messy, frustrating, hurtful, costly and all that…but it’s essential, it’s at the heart of following Jesus, and we need each other.

Jesus’ Room

I mentioned in my last post that I’m using an Ignition prayer retreat this Lent.  A key part of Ignition spiritual practice is to place yourself inside a story either to observe it, or to play some part in it, and to see where the Spirit leads.  For example, you may imagine yourself as part of the crowd when Jesus calls Zacchaeus, watching at the cleansing of the temple, or sitting in the crowd as you receive bread and fish from Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5000.

Another part of this particular retreat is, towards the end, to have a conversation with Jesus ‘face to face’.  As I’ve engaged in this I’ve had a series of what I can only call visions…vivid pictures.  I’m in a room, it is a mediterranean middle-eastern room, there is bright sunshine outside, but the widows are shuttered and the door is closed to keep the room cool.  There is a simple kitchen area, some chairs and table, a fireplace with chairs, and in the corner a wooden bed with a hay filled mattress.  When I turn up here, I am in one of the chairs and Jesus is always in the room somewhere.  I never see his face, and they are not long scenes, no more than a few minutes, but in each he speaks some words and offers an act of love and service.

In one vision, he had a basin and towel, and he had my feet in his hands.  He said ‘I understand these feet.  I know where they’ve been.  I know their wounds and I plan for their healing now.’

In another, I had my head on his chest, and he had his hand on the back of my head.  The sense of his presence makes my heart fit to burst.

In another vision, he had made up a bed in the corner and he said ‘Come over and rest here’.  When I went over, he then moved over to in front of the fire and slept on the hard floor.

In yet another, Jesus is preparing food and saying ‘You’re welcome to come here.  I’m always present with you here’.   And another, when he stands in front of me with his forehead against my forehead and we breath deeply the same air.

And there, in that room, with the brightest of light outside, held back by the shaded windows and door, I’ve discovered a sanctuary and a place of encounter.  A place where the Risen One has welcomed me and ministered to me, in the depths of my heart.  This, for me, is the heart of prayer.  It is being in the presence of Jesus.  This new experience of him has been a path for deeper engagement about important things and I now find that in my spirit, and in the space of my imagination I can access that visual image, find a rest there and hear his message to me in the moment.

On reflecting, I later discover that this house is the one that I often ‘see’ when I imagine the stories of Jesus in the bible.  I don’t know if everyone does that when they read, but I can imagine the scenes.  In this house I recognise that I’ve seen Mary and Martha, I’ve seen the woman search for a coin, I’ve seen the paralysed man lowered down through the roof, I’ve watched Jesus feet being anointed by the woman, and I’ve watched Zacchaeus hold out bags of coins to those he has wronged.  I’ve heard him preach there, I’ve watched him raise Jairus’ daughter there, heal and be served by Peter’s mother in law.  This, in my mind, is the Jesus Room.  And now, I enter into it and I meet the Jesus who ministers there.  Of course, all those things didn’t happen in the same room, but in my mind, I discover that I’ve already made this space synonymous with the presence of Jesus.

I wanted to share this because although I’m not recommending a particular method or way of praying, or suggesting its for everyone, I am, however, certain that the desire of the Father is for us to encounter the Risen Christ and that he will work with all the heart, soul, mind and strength offered to him for that encounter to take place.

I realise that in that room I am no-one apart from a friend of Jesus.  That designation, friend, can seem like a bit of a cheesy one but in the very Johanine sense, I’ve sensed that deeper level of friendship with Jesus in that room through the acts of hospitality and welcome that I’ve experienced there.  I’m reminded that I am one whom Jesus loves, welcomes and embraces; heals, restores and  blesses.  He knows us, and he knows the ways to capture our attention if we will indeed be open to meet with him.

I am so thankful for this gift; the gift of friendship and presence.  There’s no place I’d rather be.

 

 

 

 

Father

The first week of Lent is coming to an end and I’ve really enjoyed the season so far.  I’ve been enjoying more dedicated time for prayer, reflection, and prayer walking in the community.  I have also ended up being led into engaging with one of Ignatius of Loyola’s ‘First Exercises’ which is a 24 day guided retreat, taking around an hour per day.  It has been a really valuable exercise, especially today.

One of the prayer exercises was to ‘contemplate’ my own birth…to imagine the scene, who may have been around, what emotions there may have been, and to imagine myself held, celebrated and loved.  The prompt said ‘…and imagine your mother and father’s love towards you.’  That stopped me in my tracks.  You may know that I didn’t really know my father growing up as he left when I was I baby.  But, I’d never before imagined him even being present at my birth or indeed how he might have loved me.  I remember the experience of each of my own children, holding them in their early hours, and knowing that I couldn’t possibly love them any less and so I could relate to how my father may have felt.  But for the very first time, I conceived of the idea that he was there and that he felt something!

I have a restored relationship with my dad now, and I now know him to be a loving dad.  However, with him being absent all those formative years, I received a wound.  Some would call it a father wound.  It translates as trouble with ‘rejection’ that I’ve spent so much time working through over the years.  I was so pleased to welcome my father back into my life at the age of 18, and I don’t hold anything against him, but all those years of wondering what he was like, where he was, and what life might have been like if he was around left an ache.  And, as a young boy, I wasn’t really helped to see him positively at all so I went through life with a bad image of a father and then the sense of betrayal of having discovered he wasn’t at all as black as he was sometimes painted.

I mention this because it is a huge issue for people, whether their parents were present or not.  Even with the best intentions, we can mess each other up and there is such a strong need for open conversation and extra effort in considering how we deal with one another.  I don’t speak as a saint in this department because, inevitably, not having been fathered well meant huge challenges in fathering myself.

In spite of all that, the next part of the prayer exercise was to then imagine God’s Spirit hovering around me at birth…whispering confirmation that I am God’s beloved son, someone made in the image of God and crowned with glory and honour (Psalm 8).  I was then invited to take a selfie and just consider my face!  Such a blessing to sense the Fatherly-love of God in that moment.  I was then invited to consider how I’m made in the image of God and, like all creation, I’m a gift of love to the world.

Lots of this ‘theology’ is something that one knows in theory.  It can take time for the truth to infiltrate…some of which we need reminding of, some we need to hear for the first time.  Maybe you could spend some time reflecting on how the Father sees and loves you…you magnificent person, you! ;o)

Ash Wednesday

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And so Lent has arrived.

I have had a wide variety of experiences today, all meaningful in their own ways.  I began the morning with a time of preparation.  Worship, prayer, and reflecting on words from a Mumford and Sons’ song, ‘Sigh no more’ that came to mind.

 

Serve God, love me and mend
This is not the end
Live unbruised, we are friends
And I’m sorry
I’m sorry

Sigh no more, no more
One foot in sea, one on shore
My heart was never pure
You know me
You know me

But man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing

Love, it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
There is a design, an alignment to cry
Of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be

Like many of Mumford and Sons’ songs, they explore spiritual themes of disappointment, spiritual desolation, sometimes defiance and moving away from God, and sometimes a return to strength, beauty and hope.   This one just hit the mark for me today.

You know, people get funny ideas about ministers/pastors/leaders (as do those people themselves) – this idea that somehow the leader has reached some level of higher perfection or holiness.  I’m not sure that’s my working definition.  When it comes to this sort of thing, my definition of leadership is openness about human struggle.  I think I learned it, in part, from the good ole Salvation Army testimony tradition, as well as St Paul who was always willing to let his wound be shown.  Not for the purpose of gaining sympathy or attention, but to magnify Christ of the wounds who comes to him with healing and restoration, even although he may be having to wait a while for some of that.

A five minute walk takes you across the street and a long a bit to my local Anglican church.  The 12 noon service was sparsely attended and led by Fr Grant.  He led it beautifully and presented the challenge of the season.  He gave opportunity and permission for us to be just a bit ‘undone’.  And I needed that today.  I’m enjoying the blessing of really good health these days but I still get so tired.  I’m an empath, so I feel people’s stuff deeply.  For years, I shied away from getting too involved because I didn’t know what to do with it.  Over the years I’ve learned how to safely sit with another in their pain and grief without being overwhelmed, but only after becoming more familiar with my own.

Today, Fr Grant crossed my forehead with ashes and with the words ‘from ashes you came, and to ashes you will return’ before ministering communion to us.  Empty, yearning and filled.  And so runs the pattern of life in the way of Jesus.  We come empty and dry to the Father and find that he is good, merciful and compassionate.  He is ever present to resource, strengthen and guide.  And soon, we find that he has been building up a strength in us that we know we didn’t have last week, last year, or even a decade ago.  My capacity for love is increased, and I become more of the man I was meant to be.