Desert Invitation

Desert…not dessert!

Listening to God is an art. An art because it’s not something you can empirically prove, intellectually attain, or scientifically produce. It’s about posture, close attention to God’s written word, and God’s voice in the stillness of your own heart.

In these recent weeks, I haven’t actually had to be that still to hear God’s voice, because he has been very obvious, for which I am at once grateful and disconcerted! Day after day, in reading, prayer and other ways, God is inviting me into the desert!

Significance of the desert? Well, manifold! Personally, the call to the desert is a call to personal renewal, spiritual discipline, to seek God as the one thing necessary in spite of the inhospitable nature of the surroundings. I’ve learned over the years that they desert isn’t a place to fear, but it is a place where truth comes into focus and we don’t always like to face truth about ourselves, our relationship with God or with our context. I’ve found, like Jesus, that God tends to you there whilst the lessons come! He sends his messengers and helpers to aid!

The desert Fathers and Mother’s physically fled the emerging Christendom of Rome and headed out into the desert to start afresh with a discipleship not tainted by a gospel tainted by cultural entanglement with the State and the trappings of organised religion. There they founded embryonic monastic-type communities where, like Israel, the sought to ‘get Egypt out’ and be intentionally Jesus-focused simply because people followed them out there!

What does it mean to head to the desert spiritually? Well, it’s not always indicative of spiritual dryness and barrenness in yourself. We know that encounter with God in the wilderness is a strong theme throughout the biblical narrative – Abraham making covenant, Moses’ burning bush, fire by night and smoke by day, Joshua’s encounter with the Commander of the Army of the Lord…fast forward to John the Baptist, Jesus, and the varied sandy and watery deserts of St Paul, or Jon exiles on Patmos. In good company! So spiritually, this is about the richness of God within the desert, nor just about replenishing deserts within!

But what is God saying? Well, I won’t know fully until I submit to the invitation, but in most desert encounters, there’s an undertone of preparing to hear God’s instruction.

In another sense, the church in the UK exists in a bit of a desert exile which is our culture. The Christendom landscape has faded and we need to find new ways to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’. Where does our need to sharpen our discipleship focus meet with our need to submit to God, and how do we imagine afresh how that relates to the spiritually desert of the modern church and contemporary society?

I’ll be heading into the desert during Lent. As for right now, I’m just getting ready to set out for the desert road!

‘The Pastor has Left the Ministry!’

Back in 2009/2010 there were a few books around that ‘spoiled’ traditional ministry for me. By traditional ministry I mean being content to just preach the sermon on Sunday, visit a few folks in the week, run programmes, keep busy and hope that by all the activity, you might attract a few folks and the church will get bigger. It was the model I had inherited from the earliest days of my faith, and it matched with my desire that more people should come to know Jesus like I had come to know him. It wasn’t a bad assumption that the way to do mission was to get more people to come to your church, and not a bad assumption that doing things might attract people to be part of the crowd. Church should have an attractional side to it, after all.

It was, however, a bit of a bet that we could put on the kind of stuff people would a) want to come along to and, b) be the thing that would lead them to Jesus then somehow lead them naturally to want to learn more about Jesus and deepen in the life of faith. Looking around, experience was telling me that you don’t make disciples by accident, but by being very intentional.

The books: one by Floyd McClung, a few by Frank Viola, more by Neil Cole, and eventually stuff by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. What can I say? Mindset blown to smithereens. Forever!?

What most of them spent many pages saying was, ‘our job isn’t to build the church, our job is to make disciples: one by one, life on life, in community – face to face.’ More than that, that there is an apostolic dynamite at the heart of the church which is asleep and needing to be reawakened so that we can recover the missional heart of the church.

I realised that not only had I been more focussed on building a particular expression of the church than I was on making disciples of Jesus, but that what I was building was so culturally nuanced and distant from ‘everyday people’ that it was unlikely to cut the mustard. This blog actually records some of that journey and the conclusions I came to back in the history of it (along with all sorts of other weird notions over the years – it’s rather humbling to have a rather long record of ‘working out what on earth this ministry thing is!’).

My response at the time was to ‘leave ministry’ and, as I shared recently with a group of people, I haven’t gone back. ‘What? But I thought you are a pastor? Haven’t you been working in churches for nearly 20 years?’ Yeah – I am, I have, but what I mean is that I refuse to just go back to ministry as a career choice, to run the show, put on the performance and hope that, somehow, we can pull em in by the sheer weight of the character of our organisation, the dazzle of our Sunday worship, or the proficiency of our programmes.

Now, not much of that is bad. However, if it doesn’t lead to transformed lives by the power of the gospel, and a growth in the ways, patterns and life of discipleship, then we haven’t been carrying out the mission of Jesus. We’ve been doing some other thing. Some other thing.

Ten minutes spent overhearing regular conversations in your local coffee shop will tell you that the future of the church doesn’t belong to the ability to put on a show, but in the ability to connect with people one-to-one, connect with their stories, and do so with the intention to disciple them towards Christ. Gently offering them one step towards him at a time. Certainly, there are churches who do well with the show and it still has some impact amongst some in our culture, but that impact is diminishing and regardless of how you dress that model up, it doesn’t always lead to depth or to transformation or, indeed, perseverance in the faith.

It all comes down to what our faith is built on and bolstered by: is it on our preferred model of church and the extent to which is ‘meets our felt needs’, or is it on being utterly convinced that the call to follow Jesus actually means giving up your life, losing your comfort, and carrying your cross?

Ten years on from all that reading, reflection and response that led me to move in a particular path, and to stop building church empires, nothing much has really changed in the sense that I, and every church leader and every church member, have to make a really solid resolution: to make the making of disciples our number one priority over and above building the institution at every turn.

Sure, every church needs its structure – organisation is required. But it is so easy for the balance to tip from the mission to the model. The model becomes the sacred cow and the mission becomes a pesky inconvenience.

We’ve recently been working on a project which uses the contrast between a vine and a trellis. The vine is the living organism which produces the fruit: the trellis is the support system that keeps the vine upright and enables health. Both need attention. The vine needs pruning and tending. The trellis needs mending or changing, not for itself, but in order that the vine can produce fruit. Reality is – it’s easy to tinker with the structure of the trellis because it’s largely man-made systems that we understand and comprehend, or even create to give the illusion of success. Vines? Well, there’s so much organic factors in there that we can’t control and so we often don’t know where on earth to start. Easy to see how we go about making our choices based on what seems easiest to do or tinker with. I call it ‘shuffling chairs on the Titanic’.

Let me tell you where I started: I started paying more attention to my own discipleship and devotion to Jesus than I did to x number of other stuff which all felt worthy and necessary. It is out of our own intimacy with Jesus, our relationship with him, that our ministry, whatever that looks like, finds significant expression.

I’ve said it before: I genuinely hope I am part of the transitional generation of leaders in the church who will work to shift the balance from empire building to disciple-making as the default position for the church in our age. Building the church is God’s job, and he will do it when we are faithful to our call to conform our lives to Christ and help others do the same. The church of the future is fluid, dynamic, flexible and relational…like taking a walk through winding deserts, twisting roads, deep valleys and rocky hills with some first century Jewish Rabbi, encountering others on the way.

As my kids keep reminding me: ‘Dad, the church is not the building – it’s the people.’

Getting into Silence

When I was speaking earlier today with a group about spiritual practices, I spoke a little of the practice of silence: how I do it, and why I do it. I have to say that I haven’t analysed how I ‘do’ silence or contemplation much, but having thought about it thought I might as well write it in case its of interest.

Why – well, I think my journey into silence in God’s presence arose at a time when all my bog-standard evangelical prayers seemed empty and fruitless. I’m not saying they were, I know God hears, but they weren’t connecting me with the presence and person of God. I sensed an invitation just to be with God, focussed on his presence, and my presence with him. A mutual beholding, if you like. I still did the spoken intercession-like prayers, but prayer is more than that!

I was exploring that suspicion I had that the injunction to ‘pray always’ couldn’t possibly mean ‘say prayers all the time’, but that I could somehow access the indwelling presence of God and grow in awareness of that in my life, through focussed intention, or just as I went about my day. The other side of the coin was that, quite simply, I needed to find a way to quieten the chattering of my mind before God to deal with rogue patterns of thinking.

How – people tell me ‘oh, I could never do silence – my world is too noisy’. That kinda misses the point. Silence isn’t always about the lack of noise, although a quiet place can help. It’s about that settled centre within. I enjoy being ‘inwardly silent’ with God in busy, bustling places.

But practically, I learned to be with and hear God in the silences simply through sitting down and shutting up. Being silent until silence comes. Initially, and for a good time, and even still, my silence can be bombarded with a million thoughts, but the ‘skill’ is simply to acknowledge the thought and let it pass, and to return to fixing the eyes of my heart on God. More than just ‘distracting random thoughts’, you also find that some of the deeper seated fears/anxieties/pains of life come to the surface. That can be scary and put people off.

In times where I lack the focus, I might simply seek to keep my focus by saying ‘Father’ or ‘Come Lord’ – not repetitively like a mantra, but just to draw my heart back into focus.

Practically, I tend to practice silence sitting upright or kneeling – basically, a position I won’t fall asleep in (because who doesn’t need more sleep?). At home, on retreat or on longer periods, I tend to either wear a blanket on my shoulders, or use a hooded top or wear my scapular (a monk’s hood). This, I find, focuses my intention and communicates to my mind/body that it’s prayer time! We know that monastics, but also the Jewish community, had this as a practice – a physical reminder of the call to the ‘work of God’ in prayer. I also use a gentle alarm, especially for longer periods of silence, to keep tabs on the day!

Like I say, though, this is not just a ‘be quiet in a quiet room’ practice. I’ve found that I can access that same focussed intention in other spheres, in the midst of the business of life, and this is where the silence is probably more valuable – the ability to ‘close my door and go into the room’ when I need to have a sense of what to do, how to speak, how to act or be.

Finally, although I am an introvert, this practice isn’t about introversion. The quiet certainly rejuvenates me in lots of ways, but I can access that kind of quiet just being at home knitting or reading a book. This is the silence I believe that everyone somewhere on the scale of introversion and extraversion needs – I think silence is one of God’s favourite languages! It’s a beholding relationship, a place of being, of being known, being with my beloved and being loved. It’s the place of intimacy of God that no song, poem or text will do, I don’t think.

Might do a teaching day sometime soon…been a while since I’ve done one on silence.

It’s a countercultural spiritual discipline that may just be the answer to a lot of the world’s frenzied angst. Worth delving in.