Faithful in the small things

I can have ten good ideas before breakfast, but we really shouldn’t presume to get ahead of where God wants us.

We are in training here in our earthly life…we are to be faithful ‘with the small things’ (Luke 16: 10) because our ultimate destiny is to be fitted to reign with Christ in the new Heaven and Earth. That’s the big picture!

I’ve been blessed in recent weeks with some really clear ‘words’ from God about where I’m at and what the focus of my ministry is to be – it is faithfulness to the small things. What like? Like turning up to meet with God through out the day and regularising my bible diet. These are the ‘small things’ . The place of encounter, relationship, conversation. Otherwise we don’t inhabit a ministry that God wants, but what we want and what suits us. No one really needs that!

This is true for us individually, but I think it’s key for the whole church – to be in that place of encounter. The church needs to reJesus itself – to strip away our add on trappings and club mentality, to falling in love with Jesus again and again, deeper and deeper. There’s no quick fix to get there. And, sadly, that isn’t always the trendy thing that will get ‘bums on seats’ – if that’s even remotely what its about.

Everything flows from there. Everything.

God’s patience is so gracious. And, he is the ultimate loving Father, continually inviting us back to that ‘Abba/Daddy’ relationship – where our trust is free, our hope is secure, and where we know all our contradictions can rest.

And there’s the cost – the world clamours for the bright lights, the fancy, the spectacular, the glamorous, even. Jesus invites us to pick up the cross and follow him. God help us if we ever get those calls mixed up.

‘All or Nothing’

I started watching a YouTube documentary last night by accident – not entirely sure how I got there, but this was a film about a young Roman Catholic sister from Derry, N Ireland, who discovered an inexplicable call from God to follow him and abandon her life to this calling. A lively, joyful and colourful character, footage tracks what seemed to me to be a remarkable transformation and a deep spiritual growth over the period of years the documentary covers.

What is so significant about this Sister, Clare Crockett, quite apart from the fact that she prematurely lost her life in an Ecuadorian earthquake when the school she was teaching at collapsed, was this young womans passion, enthusiasm and dedication to the Lord. Joyful, sacrificial, and, as the title of the film affirms, a pure example of a life that was ‘All or Nothing’. She gave up a promising TV/film career to follow this sense of vocation.

I won’t tell the whole story – you can watch it yourself – but I was brought to moments of deep reflection on my own life. There seemed to be traces of parallel from her story which touched my own story and helped me reconnect with a question I’ve been asking of late.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that my conversion to Christ was ‘out of the blue’ – in a very short space of time the Lord captured my heart and attention, and my conversion was very much a Damascus Road. I saw in this Sister many of the passions I held (and, in some ways still hold) regards to passion for the Lord, the gospel and the mission of the church. I saw that same strong streak of abandonment to his purposes that I can trace through parts of my own story. I certainly identified with her longing for a deeper devotion to Christ, a deeper love for people, and a desire to live sacrificially.

I’ve found myself in recent days and weeks being drawn into a particular conversation with God, especially as I’m in a season of evaluating my ‘Personal Way of Life’ – how my new monastic commitments are expressed, and how vows of Simplicity, Purity and Obedience look in these days for me as a follower of Jesus, a father, a husband, friend and pastor.

With others, I’ve been talking about how easy it is to settle for a lesser vision in our discipleship and devotion to the purposes of Christ. I’m increasingly aware that in some places we’re in a culture where suggesting prayer and scripture reading as a base for discipleship is a step beyond what folks are prepared to really take on board.

I’m not at all convinced that the way forward for the body of Christ is to ‘take off the discipleship yoke’ and mingle with the crowd. On the contrary, I’m convinced that the discipleship bar first has to be set, then raised. This has to begin with an encounter with God in prayer, scripture and in a whole variety of means. This, of course, is what the ancient monastics have consistently witnessed to…there is an ongoing path to walk, another journey to take.

It’s like Odessius, who, having struggled his way back home, to his desired destination, then discovers that there is a second journey which is even more significant than the first. It is a journey where he must take all that has been known and familiar thus far, and start out again. That either terrifies you or excites you. It will either reveal the extent of your ‘can’t be bothered’ or call you onward.

The call to be a disciple doesn’t end with the call. That’s the first journey. The second is the path deeper into Christ, and a willingness to give it all over… ‘All or nothing!’ This is not a path of dualistic thinking, either/ors…rather, it’s one where we enter into that simple realisation that to be in Christ is to enter into a whole new world of possibility!

Ragged Edges

One of my colleagues* when we lived and worked in Newcastle upon Tyne frequently used the phrase ‘we are a church of ragged edges.’ It was probably more accurate to say that we were ‘becoming’ a church with ragged edges, but the intention was very much there.

This phrase captured for me what I’d always understood church to be: messy and chaotic, but also radically loving and inclusive of people from all walks of life. Sadly, sometimes our theology gets in the way of that. If you are ragged at the edges, that doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t have a solid gospel-shaped, Christ-centred core towards which people are invited to journey. It simply means that the church loses its walls – in fact, it means that the walls have been attacked with a great big sledge hammer.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time in prayer out on our local community of Hertford recently. This has been, as always, so valuable. To watch, to see, to listen to local people going about their daily business gives a real sense of who is out there and what is going on for them. It is also an interesting exercise to contrast the kind of folks ‘out there’ with the folks who most significantly populate the church fellowship. Quite a contrast in many ways.

Here’s how I think a church can learn to be ragged:

  • recognise that everyone journeys towards Christ at a different pace, in response to the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Hardly anyone has ‘arrived’ in the Christian life, and some folks journey slower. We seek to make space for that and dispense grace and understanding
  • recognise that coming to Christ is not the same as converting to a particular culture. You don’t have to be or become white middle class to be a Christian, and yet that often happens in our country. What does an authentic expression of Christian faith in Hertford (or insert your own preferred town) really look like?
  • recognise that we need to put away our ideas of perfection. As the great Leonard Cohen used to say, ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’ Bonhoeffer, in his book ‘Life Together’, says that it is our lofty ideals about what Christian community should be that often prevents that community from ever realising any sort of fullness. The followers of Jesus were a real shocker of a bunch – broken lives becoming whole
  • recognise the need to be real – because people can see through falseness, fakery and flakery. Most people I’ve encountered ‘outside’ the church would consider belonging to something that wasn’t deluded with its own sense of importance, or in keeping up appearances.
  • recognise the thirst for community, not entertainment. The world is so much better at putting on a ‘good show’ than the church, and so, these days, the largely ‘attractional model’ which expresses itself in simply being fancy isn’t really going to cut it, especially with the emerging millenial generation. People want to know that people have their back. Authenticity trumps any ideas we have about ‘relevance’ every time.
  • recognise that, sometimes, your theology will never fully reconcile with the reality of life. We certainly don’t give up on seeking to be fully true to Christ, but in the process, things, health, communities, people and their lives can break down. That’s where it’s important to be radically loving. Most churches have a lot to learn here.
  • recognise the need to create ‘altars in the world’, or to ‘sanctify the ordinary’. What I mean by that is that God is far from restricted to the Sanctuary. He’s as present in the coffee shop, front room, football pitch, commuter train, school and street than he is anywhere else. God can, and must, be encountered all-times and every-where. This is a challenge to any church who is only available/visible for one hour on a Sunday.

My colleague had another phrase: we’re a 7 day-a-week community. Our building was a community hub, always open and acceptable. The possibility of Christian friendship, company and community were pretty much always available at least at some time each day. People knew there was somewhere to come!

All this aspirational stuff – we may fall shorter than we’d like, but I think they’re really good intentions to hold and work towards.

*Pastor David Bedford is a URC minister currently in Dorking, but who I worked with at Trinity Gosforth Methodist/URC local ecumenical partnership in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Praying the Hours

I was preaching on Acts 3 yesterday – Peter and John healing the crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate. I spent a bit of time reflecting on the first verse which tells us that Peter and John went up to the temple at the hour of prayer – three o’clock in the afternoon. It’s an easy verse to skip by, and, indeed, when it was read out (excellently, I must say), it was almost as if it was a superfluous detail. It struck me as important.

The Jews of Peter and John’s time, devout ones, that is, regularly went at the set times for prayer – 9am, 3pm, and sunset. Those would be alongside prayers at other times such as meals and around other daily bits of life. It would certainly have involved reciting the ‘Shema’ (Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is one…love the Lord your God with all your heart..) and there would have been Psalm recitation.

I felt it was important to point out that, even in the excitement and amazing moving of the Spirit in the newly birthed Christian community, these guys were still in the discipline of regular set time prayer. There is no real evidence to suggest that this stopped, even when they were ultimately expelled from the Temple courts…and ‘fixed hour prayer’ goes on well into Christian history.

Except, we know better than that, don’t we? Oh no, we don’t read our prayers from books! No, we fervently pray from the heart, all through the day without any problem at all. Well…I hope you forgive my sacrastic tone!

I do remember many years of thinking two particular things: a) that if you had to read your prayers from a book, you weren’t very good at it and, b) that setting steady times for reading and prayer were just legalism…I’m free, and don’t need that discipline.

How foolish I was.

I need every element of structure available to keep me on track. I need to have times set to ‘show up’ before God lest I arrogantly assume I’m too busy for all that. I need a framework for my life of discipleship, mainly because I’d languish otherwise!

We mustn’t confuse having discipline in our Christian lives with any idea that we’re not then reliant on the Spirit. That was the point that I was noticing from the little story in Acts 3. These guys were in the thick of one of the most amazing moves of the Spirit, being used in mighty ways, such as in this healing story. But, here they were rocking up to pray in the Temple. Why? Because it was time to! And…because I think its the regular turning up to be in God’s presence where the heart and devotion is really altered and changed. I am not sure that sort of work really happens when we’re just winging it.

Down through all of history, Christians have adhered to ‘fixed hour prayer’ or ‘praying the hours’. The monastic tradition were and are experts at it, as are many other parts of the church then and now. The 24/7 prayer movement has done most in recent decades for the evangelical/charismatic wing of the church in awakening this desire for prayer, but also for that rhythm and regularity.

My question is what will it take for other believers to realise that prayer is as much a discipline to be forged than it is a relationship to develop. In the beginning, turning up to be in God’s presence is like the first few dates of a relationship – awkward, nerve-wracking, uncertain, mostly awkwardly silent! But, through the discipline of turning up, we come to know who our Beloved is.

I think we all need to get serious about our prayer life – our life of prayer. No excuses. Stop being so easy on yourself. I rarely meet a person who can say to me ‘my prayer life is good’. Thing is – it doesn’t come easy or naturally…it takes discipline!