Commander of the Lord’s army…

joshua commanderTwice in 18 years of my ministry, I’ve had a powerful ‘encounter’ with Christ in a very particular way.  Both times, it has been reminiscent of an Old Testament ‘appearance’ of Christ to Joshua – a ‘Christophony’.  I’ve only recently had a similar ‘vision’, yet again – recurring theme!

In Joshua 5, as Joshua is preparing to head towards Jericho to take possession of it, to move forward in his mission God called him to, we read that ‘the commander of the Lord’s army’ stands before Joshua with his sword drawn (Josh 5:13).  Joshua’s response is understandable:  are you for me or against me?  ‘Neither’, the figure replies…and he tells Joshua who he is.  Joshua falls down in reverence and asks the figure for the message.  The Commander says ‘Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy’ (Joshua 5: 15).  He has to consecrate himself for what the Lord is about to do in him and through him.

In both of these times, the churches I was leading were about to embark on significant periods of their life together.  In both situations, I’ve been led to the passage to pray it through and someone, unaware of my thinking/leading, has come to reinforce the message.  In fact, one time, I remember one of our church members running up the stairs to the office with a message:  ‘you have to come down and hear this!’  A Christian passing by the church had a vision of an ‘angelic presence’ high in the rafters of the church with a sword drawn.  I had been waiting for him, praying, as a sign to act.

I’ve had a very strong sense of God’s presence with me in my prayer in recent weeks – a heavy sense of expectancy.  One of our church members said ‘I really think you should look at Joshua’…I’d already been reading, praying, waiting…and had already mentioned Joshua in a recent preach.

Here’s what has happened to me in these two previous situations, and that is likely to be significant now:

  1. There is a sense of, firstly, personal awakening…a rousing up.  Like a trumpet call – which is particularly fitting seeing as what Joshua was about – a rallying, a call to a particular response.  In other words, God is preparing to do something.  And so I pick up my shofar, my ram’s horn trumpet, and give it a mighty blast.  Awakens the senses, I tell you!
  2. Secondly, there is the call to get on my face and on my knees before the Lord and to call people whose hearts are similarly fashioned to do the same.  A call to consecration…like a blessing and purifying before entering the spiritual battlefield where the expectancy is that the enemy’s work will take a significant blow.
  3. Thirdly – hard work.  Always.  We pray like mad, we seek the Lord, and then we put our boots on and get to it.  And we return to praying, seeking, working, and the cycle continues until the ‘walls come down’.

In one place, it was in advance of a specific significant aspect of the mission.  In another, it was about a strategic restructuring of how we operate.  And here in Hertford, we have a major transition ahead of the church at this time.

In lots of ways, God speaks to us in ways that we can comprehend and understand.  This is a way that he has chosen to speak to me in the past, and now, although no guarantees that it will ever continue like that, suffice to say.

In one sense, it is perhaps easy to respond in fear like Joshua – ‘what’s the story here?!’ But, I’ve learned that when it’s the commander of the army of the Lord in charge, there is no need to fear.  It is HE who has the sword drawn…it is his battle.  Our response is to consecrate ourselves, to fall before him in reverence, and then do as we’re bloomin’ told.

And so, we are ever reminded that we are always in that spiritual battle.  Our weapons?

Here’s what Paul says:

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Cor 10: 3 – 5

So, I’m off to take my shoes off…commander’s orders.  If you’re minded to pray, would appreciate your prayers!


Most influential books so far…

cropped-img_43562.jpgI was trying to think, the other day, of the 10 non-fiction books that I’d say have been the most influential, or that I love most, and so thought I’d list them here.  It should really go without saying that the Bible is one of them, so I haven’t included that in the Top Ten.  I’m so thankful I have access to scripture in my own language!

Interestingly, it’s not always the deeply theological tomes that stick as the really inspirational ones, but sometimes the seemingly insignificant books that God uses to speak into our lives.   So, here goes with my Top Ten, in no particular order:

  1.  My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers.   This is just a fantastic daily devotional book.  I’ve used my copy for well over 20 years and, every time I come to it, it is still fresh, challenging and powerful.  I appreciate Chambers direct and no-nonsense approach, along with his depth and concise spiritual insight.  I really believe everyone should have a copy of this.  It’s also available online alongside a ‘modernised’ version by the Oswald Chambers Society, who write ‘in the spirit of Chambers’.
  2. The Forgotten Ways, by Alan Hirsch. This book burst open my concept of mission and the church and focussed my mind on the needful rediscovery of some very central things in the church.  In particular, the need to rediscover what Hirsch calls ‘the Apostolic genius’ – factors identifiable in every growing Jesus movement across the board.  So much to learn.  The book also has a few spin-offs developing some of the ideas.
  3. Surprised by Hope, by Tom Wright.  This book was just full of ‘wow’s’ for me!  He radically challenged my concept of heaven; what happens at the fulness of time regarding the way the new heaven/earth combine; how every act of mission counts on into eternity and the coming of the new heaven/earth; and, some provocative things about what it means to be a good news people.  This book radically changed my preaching, living, and understanding of some theological/biblical ideas.
  4. You See Bones, by Floyd McClung. I add this simply because there were so many things here that were really instrumental in the change of understanding that moved me on from being stuck in a Salvation Army-centric, institutional model of leadership and discipleship.  The missional challenges presented here helped me see that the gospel was fundamentally more important than any particular cultural/denominational expression of it.  Just blew my world apart.
  5. Chasing the Dragon, by Jackie Pullinger.  Just story after amazing story of God changing lives through the ministry of a slightly crazy but utterly God-reliant lady.  Her work and example inspire me so much.
  6. Falling Upwards, by Richard Rohr.  There are many ways in which I don’t sit side-by-side with Rohr when it comes to theology, but the insights he displays in this particular book have been so important for me in navigating life and the changes in faith perspective, particularly in regard to the messiness of life.  Part theology, part classical literature reflection, part psychology, there are just some helpful ideas that have served me well.
  7. Post Christendom and Church After Christendom, by Stuart Murray Williams.  Obviously two books here, but so closely linked.  A combined exposure to these books accompanied by a personal acquaintance with the author meant these radically changed my understanding of the times in which we operate as missional people.  His writings have brought my whole mindset round to a rather ‘anabaptist’ understanding of some things (eg clear separation of church and state, mission on the margins, non-violence, etc.).
  8. Becoming a Contagious Christian, by Bill Hybels. Now, I haven’t picked up this book in over a decade at least.  I guess that some of my thinking and practise has probably moved on a lot since reading it, but I remember this being really significant in my earliest discipleship and in living a mission-focused life.  Evangelism has always been a passion of mine, and this gave me some good basic framework as a young disciple.
  9. Organic Church, by Neil Cole.  This book represents another huge shift in my understanding of evangelism, mission, church, and discipleship.  There is something so intrinsically true about it and which has inspired ministry since reading it nearly 10 or so years ago.  I’m only beginning to work through implications of what it means to favour the organic over the institutional…occupational hazard for a pastor!  Liked to this are his other works in a similar vein, such as Organic Leadership, and Search and Rescue.
  10. Finally, I mention an author: Frank Viola.  His books have had a significant impact, even although I wouldn’t fully agree with everything he says.  They have, nevertheless, had an impact on my understanding of ministry, the shape of the church, the role of the pastor, and new possibilities for ministry in a new age which I’ve still to work out in reality.  Books such as Finding Organic Church, Rethinking Church, and Pagan Christianity, all thoroughly knocked me out of my cosy church nest.  They should come with a health warning.

Like I say, I realise that these aren’t necessarily the books that everyone should rush to read, but they are all books that had a radical effect on my life, ministry, and discipleship.  I regularly read about non-fiction ministry/discipleship/mission books per year and they will all have their impact, but none so far as memorable/effectual as these!

What would your books be?


Book Review: ‘You Can Pray’ by Tim Chester

youcanpray Publisher: IVP, 2014.

Pages: 175

Rating: 3.5/5


I’ve read a few of Tim Chester’s books over the years, mainly on mission and church life.  This very readable volume on prayer was well worth the read.

His writing is always thoroughly saturated in scriptural references, and this book is no exception.  With Chester coming from a fairly traditional conservative evangelical base, with a strong Calvinistic bent, as a reasonably committed ‘non-Calvinist’ I was interested to read what he would write on prayer.

As expected, the theology of God’s sovereignty plays heavy in his thinking.  This means that, for Tim, our praying is not so much about changing the mind of God about anything, but God sovereignly choosing to use the prayers of his people as a contribution to the things he was going to do anyway.  In that sense, God answered our prayers! The idea is that God acts either in spite of our prayers, or in conjunction with our prayers.  When our prayers seem answered it is because God has incorporated and affirmed our prayers.  When our prayers seem unanswered, our prayers are heard but answered according to God’ will (because we, being so finite, fail to comprehend the vastness of God’s understanding).

Is that how I understand prayer to work?  Is it possible, rather, that whilst knowing the beginning from the end, God responds to our cries as opposed to our silences and that the means leads to the end?  In other words, does God take more notice of the prayers of his church than the average Calvinist would give him credit for?  Is the future, and all history, ultimately as ‘fixed’ as Chester would make out? Does prayer change things directly, or just indirectly as God grafts our prayer on his ready predetermined route?  And what does all this say about the state of the world?  No easy answers, and I feel that Chester sometimes wants to offer us those.

Having said that, Chester offers a very interesting view on the role of the Spirit and Jesus in our prayer to the Father.  The basic idea is that we pray imperfectly, but the Spirit comes and aids our prayer, inspiring/interpreting it on the way ‘up’ to the ears of Jesus.  Jesus, as the mediator, sort of filters out the imperfections and passes only that which is perfect on to the Father.  One one hand, this is a hugely encouraging idea…it says that every prayer we pray eventually arrives before the throne of God perfectly, thanks to the Spirit and Jesus.  On the other hand, maybe it feels just a little bit like those ‘consultation’ processes that means our most honest thoughts/reflections don’t meet the ultimate destination?

What Chester does emphasise, however, is that prayer as an activity is not something we need to fret about ‘performing better’ in.  He emphasises that we often try to make prayer a ‘personal achievement’ by means of how ‘good’ or ‘effective’ a pray-er we are, when all along, the ultimate mediation task and the ultimate intercessory task belongs to Jesus.  Prayer, too, is all grace.  For me this is a bit of a release as one who can fret about not praying enough/right/better.

As I reflect on these ideas, I can honestly say that I’m not actually that bothered with ‘how’ prayer works.  I simply and gladly understand the invitation to pray, and to do it heart and soul, fully investing myself in the privilege.  I’m very aware of my imperfections, and why wouldn’t I totally appreciate the role of the Spirit and of Jesus in my imperfect utterances?

Some of what Chester writes certainly speaks to a question that I’ve been considering lately.  I’ve been rather perplexed about the idea that ‘the more people pray about it, the more it’s likely to happen’.  Do you know what I mean?  It makes God sound like a cruel master who needs appeasing, or somewhat lacking in motivation unless nagged relentlessly.   That idea has always seemed unusual to me, and so maybe I’m closer to Chester’s thinking that I first thought.  It’s not about volume, noise or number of prayers as if it was a thermometer on the top of the church roof, where God will only respond when it reaches a certain height.  That doesn’t sound like our Father, does it?

So, for a small volume, it raises a lot of very interesting questions.  I’ve come away from reading it with a note of hopefulness and appreciation that, somehow in the mystery of the One who is God, my prayers count.  Questions remain, however.  Chester goes on, in the third part of his book to offer pointers for more effective prayer.  You have to ask ‘is this so that the Spirit doesn’t need to do so much interpreting?’ Or, ‘If we pray as he suggests – appealing to God’s promises/will, his character/nature, and pleading for his mercy by reminding him what a loving God he is – does this not, in fact, undo the points he has just made about God’s sovereignty?’

I confess that, like many, I understand and don’t understand prayer.  What I ultimately know, however, is that I’m drawn to it and filled by faith that, however it works, I’m invited to participate in this activity that certainly changes me and, somehow, I believe, impacts the world around me.



What is on your heart?

The question ‘what is on your heart?’ is another lovely opening question I might use at the beginning of a spiritual direction session or a pastoral conversation. It is an invitation to explore longing, frustration, sadness, joy, gratitude, hopes, aspirations…whatever it is our current experience is.

If I were to answer it, at this point in time, I’d probably say a few things.

1. I have a deep desire that the church I’m part of would increase its pursuit of the transformative presence of God…that we’d go deeper into worship, prayer, engagement with scripture, and deeper into experience of an authentic loving community. We’re in something of a transition period and it’s these things that will help us navigate.

2. I have a deep longing to see ‘boots on the streets’ of our town as we head out in mission. Jackie Pullinger often says we Christians have hard hearts and soft feet when we should really have softened hearts to the need of the world for Jesus, and hard feet shod with ‘gospel shoes’ that will mean we’ll go anywhere for him. I want to see us turn ourselves inside out for the cause of Christ, the gospel and the coming Kingdom.

3. I have a deep longing for joy, freedom, release, fullness, wholeness, ‘shalom’ in myself, my faith community, and in Hertford.

4. I’m longing to put down roots for a season. Hertford isn’t Scotland, it isn’t even ‘north’, but it’s the first time for a long time that I’ve really sensed such a ‘rightness’ about where I am. But I battle daily with ‘being a stranger in a strange land’ and a longing for ‘home’. It’s all we Scots ever write songs about!

5. Finally, I want to fan into flame a passion for discipleship and disciple-making (more than just evangelism), and see lives changed. Kinda said that above, but this is much more about making the main thing the main thing. And I’m the process, begin to work out with people how we deal with the hard stuff, the challenges, and the social and moral issues our communities have to navigate – all a key part of figuring or faith in the world.

What is on your heart?

Soul Work

img_1160The practice of Spiritual Direction, as classically understood, is a process of being attentive to the movements of God within the heart of the believer.  That’s my definition of it, at least.  It is a privilege to do it alongside others, but it has been an invaluable gift in my own experience too.

The shift from busy activist to reflective practitioner happened for me when I fell.  No great sin, disgrace or any such thing.  The fall was a realisation in myself that I was failing to deal with the wounds of my own heart and so was therefore unable to fully be present to the wounds of others.  That made me a less than good pastor…at least in my own mind.

It was in getting to the very bottom that I discovered grace in a very real way.  And it was in the stillness of the fall – picture a silent descent into increasing blackness (if you’re into a bit of drama) – that God’s real presence and voice became newly familiar.  In the depths of life was the door to the depths of my own experience, and into the depth of the love of God which is beyond understanding.

Thing is, when I was leading out of a busy activism, the things I felt to be were important were out of kilter.  I valued attendance, visible commitment, activism, sacrifice, and whole hearted devotion to God and the church.  Now, you might not think that’s problematic.  Those things are not bad in and of themselves.  What the problem was is that I realised that for the first part of my ministry I was involved in raising that standard, but also failing to do the honest work in my own life and so being unavailable to others when necessary, and preventing me knowing what it meant to be with others in living out a radical faith in Christ.

My reflection, when I look out at the world beyond the church, is that people don’t often have someone, or a community, to walk with them into the mess of their own lives.  Not to fix, explain, sort or somehow bring things to a shiny clean solution, but to be with people in their darkest place. And the church, so long as it fails to deal with its own darkness and skewed visions, will not be in the place of being that walking partner.

Whether you are an individual, or a group of individuals in church community, my advice is ‘never waste a crisis.’  It is in the muck that your find the brass.  It is in the digging that you find the gold, hard encased by layers of crusty rock, just waiting to be released.  The challenge is always whether we will begin the path of descent.

It strikes me that Jesus spoke about this all the time.  There was no resurrection with out the Calvary Road to death.  The silent tomb has much to say.  We’ll never ‘get’ resurrection life, Spirit-infilling, world-changing mission, awesome Jesus-centred community, without the deeper soul work.