Silent Treatment


In a few short days I’ll be heading off for just over 3 days of silent retreat.  My life these days is filled with so many words, books, meetings, conversations…most of it really good, important and meaningful.  But for me, silence speaks much louder than any words especially when it comes to connecting with God.  I’ve stopped seeing these times as a luxury and more of a necessity.

I need time to process things, people, situations. I need to silence the world for a bit so that I can focus that bit more on hearing from Him.

Our words always have limits.  Our language, even if we have more than one, is never enough to plumb the depths of the love of Christ, the Father-hearted God and the tender stirrings of the Spirit.

It is likely that I’ll take a day or so just to allow the brain-chatter to settle down to a low din.  I’ll write it all down in a journal just so that it’s said, written, expressed.  Then I’ll wait and watch.  I’ll be content for there to be nothing said between us, me and God, beyond the sense of knowing I’m held and known.  My experience tells me that he will draw near and that there won’t be a moment for loneliness in being alone.  But my experience also tells me he will speak in every way.  And, as soon as the volume is turned down sufficiently, so the spirit is more attuned to the Spirit.

My favourite pieces of scripture from the gospels are when Jesus just slips away during the early hours, in the dead of night, in the liminality of travelling time.  How wonderful it is to slip into his presence, into the quiet place.

What I also love about the silence is that I get to be attentive to the bits of me, the good, the bad and the ugly, bits of me that float to the surface.  These can be held before God and allowed to pass.  But time to stop, to notice, to listen, to learn and to know how things are.  Silence terrifies people.  It used to terrify me because for many years there was so much lurking, unacknowledged, unbidden.  Silence is the gate through which you can enter and Christ can meet you at the point of your deepest and most honest self if you’ll allow it.

And then, I’ll return ready to speak from the heart.  Careful not to throw away too quickly all the treasure of the stillness.  Willing to share the gold wisely.

I can hear the silence calling already!

Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…

holy shiftI recently went to hear Rob Bell on his latest tour.

Let me give you the background.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Rob Bell over the years, especially in the heady days of my most ardent fundamentalism!  I think of my early reactions to his stuff and, many times, he made me down-right angry.  I remember throwing his books across the room – usually into the same dusty corner where I’d thrown Brian McLaren books!  But you know what? That was much more about me than anything Rob Bell says.  It’s not like he’s sitting in a room conspiring how to get up Andrew Clark’s nose (although, how he does it?…amazing!)

Not content to put up with those sorts of unsatisfactory outbursts of myself, in good introverted style, I’ve taken the time over the years to listen to what my responses are teaching me about me, about God and about my reactions to this man.

Firstly, there is the important lesson that you don’t have to accept everything people say – you engage your brain, listen first, evaluate later.  Most of us can drum out a good heresy now and again…most of us have aspects of faith and belief we’re still working through.  I decided I needed to have a broader mindset to hear what people like Rob Bell are saying.  Having listened to his recent ‘Everything is Spiritual’ talk I was actually blown away by some of the ways he brings home his message.  The Holy Shift was no less the same.

Secondly, there’s the need to step outside of a dualistic mindset – always intentionally seeking to label things, divide things.  My formation in a conservative evangelical-holiness movement setting always invited me to continually judge things immediately lest some unpure, imperfect thing got through and shocked God and my pious sensitivities.  Sounds wise, but the result is that you don’t grow in your thinking and ability to engage – you simply become a human tortoise with a very hard shell.  And for what?

I’m continually asking the question now, ‘what does this person have to say that speaks into my current mindset and understanding?’  The nature of the church is that its reasonably unlikely that we’ll ever encounter someone who believes all the exact same things as we do…so we need to be able to sit down and listen.  You hear?

Thirdly,  I needed to deal with my own lazy fear.  Lazy fear.  Those words don’t always go well together.  Fear usually produces fight, flight or freeze reactions.  But I decided with my reactions to ‘those-with-whom-I-dont-agree’ that they were largely falling into the lazy trap – feeling fearfully threatened because I’m too lazy to do the thinking about challenges that  provocative thinkers bring in case my small mindset might shatter and I’d have to re-think it again.  How about that?  So many of my doctrinal idols are so fragile that they can’t face robust challenge.

Well – no more.  Perhaps much of this shift has come over many years of maturing faith.  Yes.  Much of it comes with the paradox of no longer denying the contradictions in my own life.  Within me is every good intent and thought, and every mindless action and thoughlessness expressed in a myriad of actions and behaviours…and it’s all me!  I’m not black and white – life is complex – and as much as we’d like to deny ‘grey’ it doesn’t negate the existance of some challenging aspects of us.

Rob Bell’s latest talking tour went by the name of ‘The Holy Shift.’  He was, in essence, speaking about moving beyond the dualistic minset of easy, dry answers, to accepting that there are things that will not be satisfied with well-ordered squeaky-clean solutions.  Rob’s premise is that there are things which remain in the real of mystery, unanswerable, unknowable, weird and unfathomable.  It is around those things (like many of the acts of God) that we have to draw a circle and cry out ‘kadosh, kadosh, kadosh’ – Hebrew for ‘holy, holy, holy’.

Some things in life are too holy for words.  Some experiences are ruined and cheapened with words.  When things happen, when our hearts feel and break, when our hopes are dashed, when our joy is unbounded and when our words are few…God is still God and our needful confession is ‘God, I don’t understand this…and maybe I don’t need to’ – *kadosh, kadosh, kadosh*

Most of the time, life happens.  Some of the time, our pat answers detract from necessary suffering, sadness, pain.  I remember when my grandmother died, someone said ‘well, maybe she turned to the Lord on her death bed.’   If it was possible to gather words and ram them back down someone’s throat, I may well have attempted it.  They meant well, of course.

You see, I can do the thought process around salvation, redemption, healing and forgiveness and the questions surrounding those who die ‘without Christ’.  My pain, anguish and sorrow were not going to be soothed by maybes and what-ifs.  The pain of grief and sorrow is a holy thing.  If we cut those processes short or intrude on them with platitues, however spiritual, we rob them of their gold too early.

This is an example in my own life where I now utter the equivalent of Rob’s ‘kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.’  However much I can figure out the possibilities and theology of it, there is something so ‘other’ in my whole 20 year dealings with this particular and difficult pain.  It has taken me to depths of despair and wonder, certainty and doubt, fulness and emptiness, hope and… *kadosh, kadosh, kadosh*

It is the pain that has produced the most compassion in my life.  It is the journey that has brought my heart out onto my sleeve.  It is the loss that has helped me find so many other things.  For all the things it is, most of all, it is a holy affair.  It has been an encounter with the heart of the Father.

Sometimes we’re too quick to accept easy fixes, lazy responses, pat answers, smaller ideals in exchange for not having to wrestle with God and come away limping.  As the great poet-prophet Leonard Cohen says, ‘There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’

*kadosh, kadosh, kadosh*

Donovan and the context of the gospel

We’re all baking in a bit of a heatwave.  I ‘d love to be sitting by the sea with a cool breeze washing over me, just enjoying the moment.   Refreshing, cooling, and relief from the hot intensity of the weather.

Finishing reading Donovan last evening was a little like that.  In the complexity and confusion of the church in post-Christendom, his voice is yet another which emits a cool freshness over his context.  What is amazing is that he’s writing before the time of my birth and, in my view, grasping important things ahead of the crowd – things we’re only just starting to realise in our own contexts but that he notices first in the mission to the Masai people in the 1970s.

Much of the last 50% of Donovan’s work in ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ is about what the missiologists call contextualisation.  His firm conviction in his work with the Masai is that it was NOT a Western culture he was imparting, not a way of doing things, not a churchy pattern or system, but the gospel at its most fundamental.  There were glimmers of beauty shining out of the book where the reader just starts to get a glimpse of how this new message takes a completely different shape in that culture simply because of the careful faithfulness of the missioner.  Donovan has the grace and foresight to allow prayer, communion, baptism, teaching, preaching, learning, community life, engagement in social justice and so many other things flow from the Masai’s understanding of the gospel…how it made sense to their culture.

And then, emulating the footsteps of the apostle Paul, Donovan gets on the plane and looks wistfully over the Serengeti plains and over Mount Kilimanjaro never to return to the region ever again.  Why?  Because his conviction is that his prolonged staying would lead to passing on culture more than gospel.

This is a difficult concept for us to grasp in the context of our mission here in the United Kingdom.  You see, we think that what we do here in the UK is the way that the UK need to express and understand the gospel.  The reality is that much of our church culture is imported from the legacy of the Roman mission, albeit tweaked with our reformation ideas. The UK is very much in the shadow of the socio-religious political system which was Christendom.  And we really do believe that the way we do church is ‘British’…in the same way that many of Donovan’s compatriots would have believed the form of church expressed in the mission compounds was ‘African.’  No.

Much of my MA study was exploring the contextual application of Christianity through Ireland, Iona in Scotland and Lindisfarne in Northumbria and its spread from the north deep into English soil – a movement which also took very seriously gospel contextualisation in a way that the Roman method which was established by Augustine in Kent didn’t.  The ‘Celts’ sought to meet the local people where they were at – the Augustinians, by and large, imposed Roman cultural Christianity on Britain, and even eventually over the careful contextualisation of the Celts.  This is not a new story.

The bigger question for me (one which I’ve been seeking to address in my studies) is, ‘are we still really just doing the same now?’   How seriously do we think about what we share with the populace around us?  How much of what we understand to be Christianity is nothing short of a cultural style and preference?

You can tell where you’re at with this, I guess, if you have a group of ‘non-church’ people come to one of your services.  Do we speak their language?  Can they access what we’re on about?  Is the gospel shared in such a way that it makes sense to them?  Does it meet their narrative in such a way as they leave thinking:

‘I really got that…I totally understood that…I can see how that story fits or challenges my life…that felt like a place that I feel comfortable in…I felt at home there…they spoke my language.’

Even a very recent experience of mine shouts at me:  EMPHATICALLY NO!  We cloak the gospel in our own Christian subculture, with our own in-house language, our own in-house practices shaped by our sub-cultural forms of Christianity, and more than anything else, we think that’s ok.

And I suppose it is…if you’re content simply to remain in the coccoon of a Christian subculture, however diminishing, flying the Christendom flag with the hope that revival will come and we can forget all this cultural context nonsense…and hope that God will just zap our nation, cause the people to flock to the churches, the nation will be saved, and Jesus will come back.  Or, at least make sure the church exists for me in the way I’ve aways liked it until they put me in a box and bury me in the ground.

Or, rather, perhaps we can sit with the very difficult question which says ‘what does the gospel look like for these people?’  Let me talk about my own context:  ‘what does the gospel look like when it is fully embraced, understood, lived and expressed by people whose culture is not Christianese, but just very white, very English, very straight-forward, direct, no-nonsense Hertfordian?’

cropped-37953_481431182068_6629277_n2.jpgThis morning, I stood outside our church building whilst communion was taking place inside and watched the cars, the people, the cyclists, the shoppers and the walkers of Hertford pass by.

I wondered what gospel they’ve heard.  I wondered what gospel has disinterested them or repelled them.  I wonder if they’ve actually ever considered or heard a gospel that takes seriously their story, their lives, their perspective, their culture, or whether the version of the Christian story they reject is one that we, too, should be rejecting.

My sense is that we are not asking this contextualisation question fully in our post-Christendom UK.  I’m not sure in many places we understand that this is a question at all.  For me it is the starting place for local mission.  For the church, the starting place is often in tweaking the received pattern out of some sense that it must surely be God’s preferential way.  And that is when we know that our inherited Christian culture is stronger and more important to us than our gospel.

I’m thankful to Donovan for such courageous work and for asking such courageous questions.  I’m glad he then put his money where his mouth is and took the hard road of gospel contextualisation among the Masai…and then had the boldness to walk away when the task was done and the people could take the mantle on themselves.  These are not just questions for ‘foreign missions overseas’ but are as real and pertinent for ‘mission across the road.’


Football, loneliness and toxic masculinity…

footballIt’s not really that I have anything against the England football team.  I wish them well, and I hope the fans get their hopes realised.  However, I won’t be watching the football.  I wouldn’t even be watching the games if Scotland were involved.  I seem to have something of an inbuilt resistance to football that goes beyond just not liking it or being interested in it.

For me, even the sound of a football match produces an adverse reaction because of its associated connections to my childhood, and to the toxic masculinity that accompanied it in my early life.

There was always money for a season ticket, but not for some of the very basics the family needed.   I watched closely an emotionally detached man express his only feelings in the context of a football game and not towards his children or family.  And, there was the excessive alcohol, the aggressive behaviours beyond and behind closed doors, and the rejection of my own peers for just not being good at it, in spite of trying.   I watched my own son struggle to be interested in playing/being knowledgable about football in order to ‘fit in’ until he realised it just wasn’t worth it.  He and I are in solidarity that its just not that important.

The sense of ‘not fitting’ is difficult for any child, and when added to other factors going on for me at that stage of my life, it is no wonder I sense a distance from ‘the beautiful game’.  Even as an adult I’ve worked in communities where the divide between teams and sectarian values that go with it have been so very detrimental to the healing of communities, especially in Glasgow or Newcastle, where the game is elevated to the extreme.  Very little by way of friendly football banter.  There was football bolstering a sharply divided community along sectarian lines in the West of Scotland.

I imagine that, if I were interested, I may even enjoy watching a game at home, or with good friends.  But I’m just not interested, and for me I guess it is important to say that I refuse to be made feel somewhat weird or less of a man for taking no interest in football.  I also choose not to dredge up negative memories associated with it and the difficulties it caused at home.  I just simply stand my small piece of non-football ground, and I’m not interested in being a convert.

I’m by no means suggesting that every football fan perpetrates this behaviour, of course not.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am sure, too, that the aspiration, team work and sportsmanship that football can build in young people can be really valuable.  We do, however, need to recognise that there are other ways to do this for young people who don’t access the football vibe.

I’ve especially appreciated reading about England manager, Gareth Southgate, displaying healthy, caring, nurturing and fatherly approach to leading the team – a sign of mature and wholesome masculinity, no doubt born out of his own challenges in the game.  A brilliant role model for young men.

It’s just not for me.

So, good luck to England.  Good luck to Croatia and France.




Donovan and The End of Christendom

grayscale photo of chapel

As I read more of Donovan’s ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ I am amazed at how much he had an early grasp on the fact that the end of Christendom was approaching fast.  In 2018, many Christians don’t even understand the implications of that.

Christendom was a social/religious/geographical arrangement created by nation states and the church in cahoots.  They each scratched each other’s backs for close to 1600 years.  The cracks in the system were very clear for Donovan in the late 1960s.

He said, with regards to the preacher/missionary’s job,

‘‘I think, rather, the missionary’s job is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he preaches Christ and the message of Christianity, the church may well result, may well appear, but it might not be the church he had in mind.’

For too long conceptions about church have got in the way of the message of Jesus.  Don’t hear me wrong, and don’t hear Donovan wrong: When you preach Jesus you pretty much always get the church.  When you make disciples, Alan Hirsch says, you get the church.  However, if you plant a church you don’t always get disciples, and you don’t often get a Jesus culture.  The focus of all we do always begins and ends with Christ.

Throughout the 1600 years of the Christendom experiment, there were always those on the fringes of the church who said ‘we’ve got this wrong’.  Consider the desert monks of the 3rd – 5th century, the Dominicans, the Fransiscans, the Benedictines, the Anabaptists…who, down through the ages were a prophetic witness to the church more concerned with matters of state than the Kingdom of God and got the two confused in the process.  We are in need of a movement today.  Where are the non-conformists of our age who will recognise that all the things we call Christian have become ‘the moon’ instead of fingers simply ‘pointing to the moon.’  That was Thomas Merton’s analogy.

What Donovan discovered first of all, was that he had to find ways to communicate Jesus afresh in a way his hearers could understand.  Brilliantly, in my view, he taught about Jesus through the only framework the Masai knew…as a clansman in the tribe of Israel, who was born in the line of a Great Warrior Leader, and who served many years as a young warrior in the background learning his way in the world, before being initiated into his eldership after his desert trial to become one who offered all the spittle of forgiveness, before becoming the Great Herdsman preparing a new land for those he had spat upon.

That all might sound crazy to you, but this is Jesus in the idioms of the Masai.

Today, we have the triple challenge (at least).  Like Donovan, we have to come to terms with the end of Christendom.  Firstly, we have to recognise it’s over, mourn it, and lay it to rest.  Secondly, we have to rejoice that we can be free from its many disadvantages, as far as socio-political-religious systems go and dream a new future.  Donovan would never have moved in the way he did if he hadn’t dealt with his attachment to the institution.  But, thirdly, we need to learn to talk about Jesus in the language of the people.

If you’re training a missionary to go overseas, you want to teach them the language, the culture, the customs, the traditions, and the worldview the people share.  It is in that context your message has to make sense.  Why do we think we need anything less than that today in our age?

Here is the telling point for Donovan:  after encouraging the Masai to leave beyond their local, parochial views of ‘God’ in order to search for the High God who loved everyone, offers the spittle of forgiveness to everyone, and who is preparing a place for them, they ask Donovan if his people have found this High God.

After a few moments reflection, Donovan says, surprisingly to himself, ‘No…we too need to search.’  In that moment he remembered his war-mongering, narrowly nationalistic home nation and concluded that they, too, were as heathen as the Masai and that they too had to leave behind the tribal God of Christendom in search of a greater vision.

Is our God too small?
Too parochial?
Too manufactured after our own likeness?
Are we allowing God to be free?  If he is not, is he God at all?


Christianity Rediscovered in Hertford?

C6D6W0 Parliament Square, Hertford Town Centre

Parliament Square – Hertford

It has taken me more years than reasonable to get round to reading ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ by Vincent Donovan.  I first remember hearing about it back in the 90s.  A Salvationist friend of mine had read it and it had profoundly affected him.  I wasn’t in the place (as a teen still on the ‘basics’) to understand why it was so significant.  And, to be honest, it may have put me off a little.  With years of reflection, I can see how what he may have said in response to the book may have been too much beyond where I was at the time – as a signed up card-carrying member of a religious institution with a very strong religious culture, way of thinking and way of acting in the world, especially with regards to how it defined its mission.

The basic premise, and I’ve only just started the book, is that Vincent Donovan grows suspicious of a century or so of mission endeavour in Africa carried out not only by his own Roman Catholic church, but by protestant and other missions.  All very much characterised by the ‘we bring you education, health, teaching, wisdom, social aid – your job is just to accept the gospel.’  In response to this, he asks his bishop permission to go to the Masai people not to take them programmes or offer anything else other than to have conversation about Christianity.  When Donovan goes, he discovers there is no sufficient language to communicate concepts, little common ground of cultures to share, and a deep seated tradition amongst a proud people group which would prove difficult to shift.  I’ve yet to read how he moves from this initial huge missiological leap into what follows, but I’m struck straight away.  Early on, he says that if he had the foresight about the extent of the challenge, he may never have taken the path.

When he goes to the Masai and declares his intentions to talk about this important thing, ‘Christianity’, the people ask ‘if it is so important, why has it taken you so long to talk to us about it?’  Therein lies a pertinant question!

I’m reading this book because I’m sitting on a suspicion.  In fact, I’d say its more of an educated hunch than a suspicion (and neither of them are particularly comfortable).  I reflect on the life of the church I’m part of leading: our life, our mission, our programmes, our agenda, our methods, our people, our gathered culture, our language, our way of being, our traditions, our ways, and our sense of who we are.  I also reflect on my many lunchtime experiences over this last year:  watching, listening, observing and on a small level attempting communication with local Hertfordians.  I’m immediatley personally aware of my own cultural distance – I do continually talk to God about being a Scotsman in the Home Counties.

But more than that, I’m aware of how entirely alien the church/religious message of Hertford Baptist Church is from the life of ‘normal’ Hertfordians.  What becoming a part of Hertford Baptist Church involves for the vast majority of our local people amounts to a mile long hurdles race that we expect people to join in and jump over before they’d get a real chance to get to the very heart of what we think is right at the centre of who we are: The gospel message of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.  It is the proverbial pearl buried in a very large field surrounded by many a barbed-wire fence.  Our gospel is cloaked in our heavy church culture:  religious and social.  The gospel should never be disembodied from the church – but church culture is a very different thing from the theological reality which is the church, the body of Christ which sits beyond our institutional representations of it.

No doubt our town is very diverse when you narrow down who makes it up.  But in a general sense, these Hertfordians are a ‘people group’ who, whilst having expressions of church amongst them, are relatively untouched.  Their experience of church may be youth groups, clubs, local community services or even weddings, funerals or ‘Christenings’, but these are things which seem to do little to see a significant missional difference.

So, what people do all over – because the whole nation has a similar picture – is blame the culture.  We are amazed that we put things on and people (including some of our own) don’t come.  We are surprised that we can put stuff on, and even when we do get people coming, marvel at how difficult it is to establish relationships.

We’re still in the same world as Donovan.  Our people aren’t Masai, they’re the upper-working/middle-class English.  Our programmes aren’t schools or hospitals, but services, lunches, kids programmes and the like.  We’re not in the Roman Catholic mission of the 19770s, but we’re an evangelical baptist church in the late 2010s coming to terms with how unfruitful our fruitful gospel is with missional methodology that may not have changed that much since the 1970s.

I have every confidence that our church community here in Hertford can learn about the missional challenge of our day.  I am confident that many have the capacity to respond to it and act out an alternative future.  There’s a journey ahead, but it begins with the first step of asking

a) what do we really know about our local culture? about their language, beliefs, culture and outlook?  What are there hopes, espirations?  How do those match with the vision of the Kingdom, and how do they differ?  What does the Gospel to the Hertfordians sound like?

b) what do we really understand about the Great Commission, the call to be missional, and what it takes to navigate that journey in this time and place?  Are we aware of what it might take to reach a community?  Are we willing to count the cost of doing so?  Is our vision of Christianity so bound up in our heritage and way of being that the system will be defended over the transformational message at the heart?

A young American 20-something said to me recently:  ‘we need to talk about relevance…not about how we make the Jesus and the gospel relevant, because Jesus is always relevant.  What we need to talk about is how our local culture is relevant to the church because our understanding can shape what our church needs to be for them.’

Spot on.

Will Christianity be Rediscovered in Hertford?  I very much hope so.