Discipleship Conundrum

I spent a good bit of my academic work on my MA arguing that one of the most profitable tools that Early Celtic (or other brand) Monasticism gave the church was the idea of the ‘Rule of Life’ or the ‘Monastic Rule’. Without going into all the detail, I was making the case that, left to our own devices and without some sort of framework, our life of discipleship is formless and somewhat ineffectual.

Now, I came to this conclusion many years before I did the MA. I lived many years with The Salvation Army’s ‘Articles of War’ as my Rule of Life. This document set down discipleship commitments of how, together, we were invited to express our discipleship commitment in a very public, counter-cultural and quite radical (even controversial) ways. On moving on from The Army, I very quickly felt that I wanted to associate with another community which had some sort of framework for discipleship, and so I developed a connection with the Northumbria Community.

The benefit of defining our understanding of discipleship is NOT to beat ourselves up about it, although there is a place for discipline and self-reflection. Rather, some sort of framework helps lift our commitment to the life of discipleship off the ground.

I’ve consistently found the the bar of discipleship in the UK is set extremely low. Extremely low. Many Christians aren’t regularly engaging in reading the bible, let alone studying it; people’s prayer life runs in fits and starts (more fits than starts); people don’t generally engage in spirtual reading outside the bible; people rarely integrate mission into their lives, let alone see their whole lives as being on mission; commitment to gathering with other believers is quite low key…I guess there are other things I could write, but perhaps you recognise what I’ve written so far and could identify more in your own setting.

If you raise this in the context of community, people would resist the expectation that discipleship has actual substance, on the grounds that it sounds like legalism. Therefore, the idea is ‘I’ll decide myself what I deem acceptable as a life of discipleship’. Calling people to what sounds like a fairly basic discipleship commitment is often, to my mind, a thousand miles short of the real deal, but even then there can be resistance. It really befuddles me!

My honest confession is that this makes me weep. It is such a rare thing to sit with someone and hear something of substance in their spiritual life and spiritual disciplines. The church has colluded with this culture by drawing back on stating what the life of discipleship looks like. Pastors raising this issue sound like whinging old spoilt-sport moan-bags. Yet, when people’s lives move into some sort of crisis that is often a result of non-existant discipleship practices to sustain life through its challenges, somehow the pastor (or whoever) is to pick up the pieces. It’s almost as if churches hire people like me to be disciples for them.

How can the church break through this discipleship conundrum? I guess this is where the concept of a ‘Rule of Life’ comes in. Can a collection of common, shared, discipleship commitments help spur us on to increasing engagement, in season and out of season? There seems to be that there is only so far that prayer for revival/renewal will go. Every ‘revival’ in history has been preceded by a commitment to prayer, scripture and a search for the presence of God. Discipleship at the lowest common denominator is no discipleship at all.

How can I invite you to engage? How can I pray that you might respond? How can I help kick-start your discipleship base camp? How can I help you undig old enthusiasms and passions now dormant?

We have to begin somewhere and sometime. Why not here and now?

Community of the Resurrection

It is the lull that is Easter Bank Holiday Monday. Relaxing in many ways, but in others I feel I’m stoking something of a fire in my heart. I think I’ve learned over the years that as soon as you reveal the fire you’re stoking, there will be a hundred who will attend with a blanket to smother it out. The result us that many people live lives of quiet desperation, convinced that their lives are too small to dent the norm.

But, it is Easter Monday! We’ve just spent the weekend reflecting and celebrating the amazing life, death and resurretion of Jesus, the Christ, into whose community we are now grafted through the Spirit. We’re a new people, a new race, a new Kingdom…a Community of the Resurrection!

‘The Resurrection changes everything!’, I declared in my Easter Sunday sermon, but so many of us are stuck in our normalities. Please note that I am not saying anything againts ‘everyday life’ – our working, eating, sleeping, lives – the beautiful rhythm of the every day. I am talking about how our life in Christ illuminates the everyday and charges it with the hope of the Kingdom. As resurrection people, we tend to the presence of God around us and in us, and flowing through us. We become, in the midst of ‘normal life’, the fragrance of the gospel.

Our life in Christ radically orients us towards hope, towards worship, prayer, community, mission, service, and to welcome the incoming of God’s Kindom among us.

Great ideas theologically, but what does it mean practically? I think thats where we become unstuck…the gap between our theology and our praxis. This is where I think patterns from monasticism help us. As I studied Celtic Monasticism for my MA, I was able to articulate again and again the value of community shaped discipleship in an invidualistic world; a contemplative spirituality in an instant world; a commitment to build a new society in the ruins of the old.

And so for me, again, this last Easter Sunday, I renewed my new monastic vows as a Companion of the Northumbria Community. These vows invite me to say YES to AVAILABILITY (to God and others) and VULNERABILITY (before God and in the world) and dare to belive that another future is possible.

The one abiding question I have, which I’d like to live out much more than write a PhD on, is ‘how are communities of the resurrection formed and sustained in the 21st century?’ Monasticism throughout history has always called out for an authentic expression of discipleship in contrast to the contemporary world. Something, at least, needs to do that again lest we perpetuate the very British churchgoing culture which often fails to take Christ’s radical call into consideration.

What does it mean to be a Community of the Resurrection today?

Sit it out

Do you ever get days when you feel like the heavens are like brass and there’s no One up there? You get to praying, reluctantly…you get to God’s word, reluctantly, and all along you just feel closed off?

No? Well, as I often say when preaching, ‘maybe it’s just me!’

Today was just one of those days. Actually, maybe it has been one of those weeks. I’m ‘turning up’ before God and feeling a dullness in my heart and mind, somewhat disconnected and knowing that it’s going to be a struggle.

Two immediate choices: a) I give up and wait til I ‘feel like it’ because, quite frankly, I’ve got other stuff to do and just bluff it for the week, or, b) I notice that my diary is unusually clear for most of the day and get the indication that this is an invitation not to escape, but to ‘sit it out.’

How easy is it just to become content not to hear from God? Not to hear his voice or sense his presence? We often just don’t know what it is to persevere in prayer, and to seek Him with every ounce of passion we have. Sometimes we get so used to ‘hearing nothing’ that we assume that is how it is.

I’m tired of that. I can’t do what I do without Him. I’ve nothing to offer without Him. Nothing. Spiritually impoverished without Christ.

Today I sat and waited. And waited. I knelt. I paced. And struggled. And laboured. And gave in to Him…and he came. The sweetness of His presence decends and stays a while, dusting off whatever blockage there was ever there.

‘Jesus paid it all’, I sing.

And then I can stand, knowing still that I’m nothing without him, still in my poverty, but covered with Christ and his riches. My heart settles into it’s rightful place and I’m thankful to Him.

I want to encourage you to persevere. To sit it out. To learn how to discern his voice and his presence. Not just theoretically, but practically. It was Smith Wigglesworth who encouraged people to kneel, draw a circle around themselves, and not to arise until God had revived everything within that circle.

Let’s not let laziness, carelessness, sinfulness or waywardness lead us to a casual acquaintance with the living God. Get after Him. That’s where the transformation is worked out and where your salvation takes shape in ‘fear and trembling’ that you might become ‘stars shining in a dark world’.

You know what you have to do.

Draw Aside

Make time to come aside and be in God’s presence.

Get to the place where you can get far enough away from the noise, even if just for a few moments, and listen to Him. He will speak by his Word and by the Spirit. Don’t neglect to pick up the Bible and wait for the Spirit to shine light on it. Don’t come just in order to understand the text, but to listen to it.

Learn how to hear and to obey. Learn how to take a leap of faith on the smallest inkling of God’s voice. In time his voice will become more pronounced. In times when you’re not sure, just check with Him and he’ll respond.

If you don’t know how to learn, ask someone who may be able to be a guide.

Listen for the ways God might want to reorient your life. Listen for what he’d want you to lay aside or pick up. Listen for when he says ‘hey, everything is ok right now – settle into it and be faithfully content.’

And then respond. Speak to him like you’d chat to the one nearest to you. He loves to hear your voice more than we love to hear his.

And maybe, draw aside with others. Find and join hands with others who, similarly, want to hear God. Patiently wait together, encourage one another, reassure yourselves this is the place to be. Don’t let culture, fear or pride get in the way. Come seeking, together. You’re not in it alone, and even if you don’t feel you need anyone, other people need you.

Don’t wait for permission to do this, don’t wait for the right time, don’t put it off. There will never be time, because the time has to be made and carved out but without it, it just won’t be the same.

From the heart,