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.

 

Long Obedience

So, Pastor Eugene Peterson died. He’s more famous for his bible paraphrase, The Message. I’ve never been too much of a fan of The Message, although there are some beautiful gems in that work which have been so helpful.

No, I’ve come to appreciate Eugene much more recently as a reflective writer on ministry as a life-long pastor. From him I’ve become more convinced of the fundamental need to see ‘the person’ and learn their name long before you assume to do anything else. Ministry is, above all else, founded upon relationships. I’m invited to take the risk of being known by others.

I’ve also come to understand so significantly the value of being available to listen to people without agenda. To see folks where they’re at and to go from there. People aren’t tools to be utilised or resources to be deployed – but lives to be enriched, encouraged, equipped and celebrated just as they are as for all that God will do in/for them.

Finally, he talks about life and ministry as one long obedience in the same direction. We’re called to life, not to grasping the ‘next thing’. Ministry in recent years for us has been exhaustingly spread. It’s all been hugely valuable – I’ve met great people, I’ve experienced great and challenging things, and I’ve changed hugely from the 20 year old who started out. But I’m in that place where I just recognise that everything that has gone before may well just have been training for the main job ahead. Having said that, a sabbatical would be really nice after 18 years of ministry without anything remotely resembling it!

More than all of this, I’m a couple of years off 40. God willing, I may have about 30 years ministry left? It’s not that long. God…what can you do with this one life handed over to you? It is for him to decide but I’m given over to it that Jesus might be lifted up and God be glorified.

Peterson expresses that he hoped his legacy will have been to speak prophetically to a generation of American pastors about the heart and rhythm of ministry. Well, Eugene – your legacy has burst its geographical and generational borders and lives on in many others in further places, even in me.

Thank you, Eugene. Praise God for your life, ministry, and long obedience in the same direction.

‘What is this that grieves thee?’

The blog title is a line from a song in the American Shapenote tradition. The song is a message to the human heart, an invitation to exploration, and an invitation to share.

I have to say I’ve been feeling ‘grieved’ for a little while. I’ve been feeling it lately, but it’s not a new feeling. It weighs upon me in the morning, in the day, at bedtime and through the night.

And the thing is, it’s not a ‘trendy’ thing to be grieved about. Seems that some people aren’t jealous for this, exercised to action over it…at least not very obviously! Or very verbally, at least in most of the UK context I live in.

I am grieved about the failure of God’s people, and myself as chief sinner among them, and our lack of passion for the gospel and the glory of God. Let me take away any sense of judgment about others, and instead take the log out of my own eye:

I’ve often appeared more spiritual than I really am; I’ve been more inconsistent in personal prayer that I know is healthy; the Word of God has not always been utmost in my passions; I’ve been careless in speech; my zeal in witness and evangelism has lessened; I’ve doubted the gospel in the fear of the world’s sensitivities; I’ve protected my fragile ego before taking the risk of speaking boldly; I’ve taken my eye off of Christ many times, and this is inspite of living in the cocoon of church leadership. I mean, should I go on?

The bottom line for us as Christians is: do I really live my life in such a way that displays what I really believe? Am I ultimately convinced that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe? Am I a leader who will always choose the ease of being liked and appreciated over fulfilling the prophetic mandate to boldly proclaim Christ and him alone?

And more than that, will I spend the rest of my life in the safe zone of security whilst the church weakens, whilst the voice of prayer fades, the gospel gets watery and the ideas and philosophies of our culture does continued untold damage to the voice of scripture that, in some miraculously weird way, we’ve managed to muffle from our conscience?

You know what? All would seem quite overwhelming if it wasn’t for the fact that God, in his mercy, continues to draw us to himself. It’s never too late to come afresh and say, ‘God, show me your heart. Let me hear your voice. Fill me with your compassion. Give me a dose of fear and honour of your name. Remind me that I’m a dead man walking and allow Christ to reign.’ This isn’t to say that God just overlooks all this. No, his invitation is to repentance; to renewal; to our knees to cry out before him that he might restore us.

How about it? God help us.

Chan’s Letters to the Church

Francis Chan’s most recent book, ‘Letters to the Church’, was nothing new.  I don’t say that to dismiss the book at all.  Over the years I’ve read a fair bit of Chan and other authors like Frank Viola, Neil Cole, Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, Matt Smay, Hugh Halter, et al who all write similarly and passionately about where the church needs to go and what it might be missing in our age.  If you’re in church (especially church leadership) and these names are new to you, you’ve got some catching up to do

In fact, a combination of all of that reading, as any long-term reader of my blog will know, eventually led me to something of a crisis point in my own leadership in The Salvation Army in particular.  I just knew that I couldn’t be involved in perpetuating a system which no longer serves either the current needs of the people of God or in fact one which seems to go against the flow of the core scriptural fundamentals of how church might look.  Long story cut short, but I stepped out of a highly institutional form of leadership to explore other paths.  I don’t regret it.

Having said that, I’ve been round the block several times in my mind about how to facilitate necessary change.  Maybe this is because it is, in many situations, a very slow process.  I have nothing against slow, but some situations are starting at very different points on what may be considered to be a necessary journey than others.

Anyway,  back to Chan.  His journey is different to mine but not entirely dissimilar.  He led a mega church (I’ve never led one of those, but one post-SA church had over 300 members – big for the UK) and whilst recognising all the good in it, was left with that creeping sense that there were some fundamentals missing.  Much of it rested on his personality.  Ministry was becoming ‘professionalised’, and there was more focus on church as a commodity to be consumed, and less as a church as a most beautiful sacred thing which comes alive mainly when it is at its simplest, and centred around Jesus rather than our preferences.

He left his mega church in good hands and moved to the other side of America and started afresh.  This is what flowed from it:  wearechurch.com Essentially, they stripped things back to disciple-making, scripture engagement, prayer, the Lord’s supper, meeting in homes, equipping and training people for real life in a bid to capture how the church becomes something that pleases Jesus rather than just ourselves.  This is both inspirational and terrifying in equal measure.  To be like this involves a radical re-think and re-focus which, in my experience, the church is rarely ready for.  In England, there is such a strong wedded hold to more traditional set ups and we can be slow to re-evaluate.  I fear that our readiness may, in many situations, be our downfall.  

It is just not the case that God will always stand in our corner to ensure we don’t disappear.  Yes, Jesus said the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.  But I sense that he was thinking macro rather than micro, global more than local.  The reality is that many countries, regions, towns and villages have had the church disappear.  Even in places like Ephesus who are painted in the pages of the New Testament as folks who had almost nailed the whole church thing.  Now something of a missional graveyard.

We are yet to fully answer whether the UK will keep sufficiently in step with the Holy Spirit to discover again what it means to experience the kind of church Chan speaks of.  One things is pretty certain, though, especially so as far as I’m concerned:  I don’t intend to preside over decline in whatever ministry God has in future for me.  And I’m not just talking numbers.  It is relatively easy to attract and ‘entertain’ a crowd.  Much more of a challenge for churches to deepend their discipleship and dependency on Christ, their life as a community together and their impact for mission on the world and let the Lord deal with the numbers.

Anyway, Chan is worth a read.   He may just spark a whole tonne of questions that we all need to grapple with, even if we come to different conclusions as to what it looks like.  As always, the status quo will never do.   

 

Sabbath

Maybe, like me, you’ve heard of Sabbath as a rigid day of ‘thou shalt nots’ at some point in your path and everything free in you rises up to meet it face on.

Maybe, like me, you’ve wondered how a whole day of non-stop church activity can possibly constitute any notion of rest, too?

Maybe, like me, the idea of a ‘day of rest’ seems like too much of a waste of valuable time; unrealistic, another pressure to squeeze in, and something that other people do?

Maybe, like me, you’ve got yourself in a groove that says ‘I’ll rest when I’m dead’ as you fill your life with ‘important stuff’?

Maybe, like me, at some point you’ve made it look like a day of rest, but it has been a chance to catch up with all the non-paid work you have to do at home.

All of that is rather unsatisfactory.  A legalistic view of Sabbath is unhelpful.  A complete disregard of the underlying principle of Sabbath is equally unhelpful.  For many, there are literally not enough hours in the day to even dream this might be a possibility, and something that is good for us,  so we don’t bother with the idea at all.  Maybe our approach is totally reactionary.  Maybe we just think we’re invincible and so power on.

As I’ve read further in Scazerro’s book ‘The Emotionally Healthy Leader’, I find he’s big on Sabbath. I’m often quite rigid about my ‘day off’ but was still very challenged by his writing.  Why?  Confession:  I often think that I’m too central, too important, too involved, too committed to lay work aside.  And that’s probably the number one reason why Sabbath should be all the more important.  My days off can be much less about rest, and more about squeezing in just a little bit more under the disguise of absence from the office.

Scazerro’s book suggests that the biblical aim is a 24 hour period to stop ALL work (paid and unpaid) in order to rest, recreate, take time to delight in things (reading, walking, eating, family, laughter) and to do it regularly as a way to honour our need to rest and enjoy this one life.  I know enough from Jewish friends to know that this time can be made possible if very closely guarded…AN UTTER JOY, and a weekly miracle.  A time to come close to God, enjoy him and those he has put in our lives.

I do no justice to Scazerro’s fuller writing here, but it has challenged me and I’ve decided I’m going to try to clear a few things to get more quality into my own Sabbath.  I take Friday off every week.  Latterly, I’ve been squeezing household chores in that should really be done at other times, especially garden work.

And, even with a busyish work shedule, if there isn’t time to do all the other necessary bits, that’s not Sabbath’s problem…it’s an over-work problem.  Such a challenge to stop when you enjoy it and especially hard when its more than ‘just a job’!   Thing is, if we’re going to take the marathon approach as opposed to the sprint approach, we all need to slow down to enjoy this one life and union with the Creator who, after a good working week, set the tone and rested, inviting us to do the same.

It may never be perfect, but I have a huge hunch that Sabbath, freely and rightly practiced, may just be very good for the soul!  I’ll let you know how my Sabbath Experiments go!