Streets of London

Not so long ago, a singer/song-writer by the name of Ralph McTell played in the Hertford Theatre, just round the road from our church here.  McTell is most famous for his song ‘Streets of London’ written in 1969.  In it, he reflects on the challenges faced by the mass of humanity that can be witnessed on the streets of the city on any given day.  Whilst he goes on to use his song to say ‘look mate, you don’t have it too bad in comparison to these guys’, I think a day on the streets of London, or any community, might offer the Christian a different perspective altogether.

Now and again, I have the opportunity to go into London for the day on my own, something I especially like to do if I have a Sunday off (which doesn’t happen that often).  I enjoy being able to worship in different places, different traditions and suck in some good ‘ministry.’  But, equally, I love to sift through and reflect on that ministry in the light of what can be seen passing by the window of the coffee shop, or walking down Oxford Street.  This is something I also find helpful here in Hertford.

I try to spend some time in town listening to and observing the ‘regular folks’ in our town.  It is there that is found the context into which the gospel needs to speak.  And let me tell you – the gulf between ordinary people, their hopes, their views, their understanding and their desires, and the hope of the gospel, is large.  This maybe doesn’t surpise you, really, but I do find that the church is often surprised by the fact that people no longer flock to church to take part in our show.

The challenge is that the heart of the gospel gets to the core of our human problem.  Our human problem is that we are our own gods, essentially.  My ideas, my comfort, my wants, my desires, my views, my opinions, my pleasures, my preferences…I speak as a human, you understand.  At the heart of the gospel is the annoucement that God has declared Jesus King and through his death and resurrection then invites us to engage in the blessing of his Kingdom through recognising our need for both forgiveness and righteousness.  Me?  Well…my fundamental problem as part of the human race in the 21st century is that I’m quick to reject any sense of authority above my own desire, so who has the right to declare me sinful and unrighteous?

It is an offensive and uneasy message.  And because of that, because we struggle and want to be nice to people (because we’re pretty decent people, right?), we fall into a sense of being ashamed of the message, covering it up somehow.  We listen to the gospel of this present age that says everything is fine, people are essentially good, and that it’s ‘each to their own.’

I have a pretty diverse group of friends outside the church.  They are my friends whom I love dearly and spend a good chunk of time with.  Thing is, because I love them, it can be very easy to choose to simply not go near the gospel when you know that it will be totally offensive to them.  And so, sometimes we (I) err on the side of love…again, a popular thing to do.  ‘Love wins’, says the religious left.  And yes, love wins.  But love without justice, love without righteousness, love without faith, love without hope, love without forgivenness, love without challenge, is less than love.  It is merely affection.  The love that God identifies within the New Testament is a little more robust.  God is love AND holy.

And so the connection point between this robust love of God and the strength of the gospel, and the people on ‘the streets of Hertford’ is often me or you as a follower of Jesus.  I ask myself what is the most loving thing…to leave everyone affirmed and unchallenged, and so to face God in their own strength?  Or to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and King, and that our response to that is repentance and faith, because its that faith and trust in God’s decree that leads to real life? 

It’s a logical no-brainer in the face of the message of the Gospel.  But even as I write, I can think of even some Christian friends who would be offended by this.  The big challenge is that I am not free to re-write the terms of the gospel, to negate the strong message that any honest reading of the New Testament can’t deny.  Sadly, the church has often mistaken the challenge of the gospel with the assumption that they are called to be offensive, rude, judgemental and unkind.  I think it is better, however, to read the gospel in the ‘market square’ and allow ourselves to be filled with the same compassion as Jesus, to see the ‘sheep without a shepherd’, and to offer a way out in robust love that whoever believes might be saved.

Space//not too busy

There has been a recurrent theme in my conversations over the last few weeks.  People seem to be constanly beginning emails or conversations with ‘I know you’re busy …’

This is some sort of kindness, of course.  People are aware of not wanting to over burden me, and they are mindful that my colleague pastor is now on sabbatical and will be moving on from the church afterwards.

And yes, there are many things that try to crawl unrepentant across my desk each week: tasks, meetings, conversations, all of that.  There is the consitently regular appearance of ‘Sunday’, leadership teams, other team meetings, external connections and everything else in between.  There are pastoral visits, coffees, phonecalls and more.

But, there is always space.  I’ve been at this game too long to know that it doesn’t work without space.  Lots of times you have to pencil the space in and cling to it like you would to a rock in a storm.  Would you want to be pastored by someone who doesn’t pray, doesn’t rest, doesn’t read, doesn’t learn, doesn’t keep in touch with ‘real life’, doesn’t laugh and doesn’t have time for his family?  No, me neither.  (But I’d like to see more of my family now and then!)

There is always space for people.  Tasks are moved aside for people.   For me, there also needs to be space for being in the wider community, passing the time of day with people in the coffee shop or in the queue at the post office.  This is a consistently helpful exercise that keeps church and context together.

I need space between encounters with people.  Space between some tasks.  Space to process, pray, reflect. I need space to think ahead strategically and missionally.  Space to remain saturated in the words and message of the Bible.  Space for family, rest, sabbath and recreation.  And because I need it, I seek to build it in.  Time and tasks aren’t rigid, there are ebbs and flows, but things find their place.  There is stuff to do, but there is space.

The space, you see, also form the needful boundaries and borders.  The boundaries are the things which stop me getting lost in people, tasks, work, deadlines, situations and challenges.  They’re the bits that help me remember me and connect with those I love.  They’re the life I live when I’m not the pastor.

So, right now, I’m off to make some                                space.





Momento Mori

momento mori

Remember your death!

Here’s the thing: in the throws and passions of every day life it is easy to think that your life is fundamentally vital, significant and necessary.  We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, the centre of our own lives.  Certainly, as humans we have value – I’m not seeking to undermine that intrinsic value we have as those who reflect something of the Creator’s glory.  What I’m saying is that we’re just not that important…not most of us, anyway.  Paul reminds the Corinthian church of this – ‘not many of you were wise/of noble birth…’ when you were called.  Let’s not give ourselves a hard time though – we are conscious beings afterall.  Of course we see the world through our own lens. Remembering that we will physically die one day may help spur you on, but the Christian life is one of dying daily, hourly, moment-by-moment.

Perhaps this is where an authentic spirituality can help us out.  An authentic spirituality helps us to die before we die.  The Cross is not just an event in history, it is a journey we’re all invited to take daily.  Carry your cross, Jesus said.  It’s a journey symbolised in our baptism.  It is expressed in our daily dying to self and coming alive to Christ.  It helps us to see ourselves in perspective, in the larger scheme of things, and in particular, for Christians, in the grand scheme of the Kingdom.  But, all of scripture teaches us that we have to die to our own visions in order to be born into this Kingdom and into Christ.  It is not just our sin we crucify with Christ, but our whole being that he might raise what he will raise up.  We place ourselves under the Lordship of Christ.  We become servants to do his bidding.

I say all this simply because it is very easy to believe our own hype.

There are many times when I’ve had to say to God ‘God, help me to let this die’.  A whole manner of things that don’t need naming, but usually some sort of over-inflated ego-centricity if not outright sin.  Or, times when my life just doesn’t correspond to the desires of my heart.  Echoing Paul again in Romans: ‘I do what I do not want to do, and I do not do what it is that I want to do.’  This is the human struggle, but it isn’t a struggle we’re left to figure out on our own.

Through a men’s retreat week some years ago, the work done there helped me to die well and good.  It is in that place and that experience through which many old shackles fell of and where I was free to descend further into my brokenness so that God might make something new.  He’d already done lots of that at my conversion at 15.  But this work at in my early 30s or so was a different case.  I came to be at peace with Andrew Clark this time round and let all the stuff fall away that no longer served me.  It was out of THAT experience, over and above any other, that convinced me that the next and rightly natural step was adult baptism.  There was a significant dying and bringing back to life – almost like a second but deeper conversion to Christ – a deep personal renewal.

Why am I writing this now?  Simply because it’s my hunch that many of us don’t ever really step deeper into Christ, not really.  It is so easy to remain at the surface level of religion without allowing God access to the depths of you.  I guess, also, that as ministry develops and moves on I fully recognise that the whole framework of what I see priorities in ministry now were not the priorities I thought ministry was about when I started.  Thank the Lord for that!  There are more siginificant priorities at play than the year and date of the writers of the songs we sing on Sundays or all the other things that capture our religious attentions.

Thing is, you can only point to the path.  You can only read the faint hint of a script.  You can only open the map or unfurl the pages of the Book.  Each of us has to find our own way into the depths of the work I believe Christ wants to do in us all because it is ultimately a journey for us to take, and noone else in the same way.  And, wandering around churches in ministry, you can see it…you can see the ones who’ve taken the extra journey.  You can sense the ones who, initially having arrived home then discover that there’s an extra path to travel with regards their spiritual journey.  Sometimes vocation makes that call.  Sometimes it’s an inner sense of a need for more (or less).  Sometimes it’s a crisis of some sort.  But, it is a dark invitation deeper into the death of yourself so that you can be more fully alive to Christ.

I can’t tell you how or when to start.  But what I can say, with great confidence, is that what you see around you is not all there is.  Your rose-tinted lens will certaintly do a certain job at getting you through life.  But why in the nanosecond of a thing we call life, in the light of eternity, would you be content to simply paddle the surface of the deeps beneath you?

It was Deitrich Bonhoeffer who said ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’

Momento mori.

Remember your death.

Step into it through Christ and find life.