Abiding

If you listen closely enough across the Christian traditions, every one of them have a language for that ‘slowing down to be with God’ necessity.  This is the phrase Peter Scezzaro uses in his book ‘Health Emotional Leadership’ that I’m currently working through.

The new charismatic Christian terminology is ‘soaking.’  A good evangelical or reformed word for it is ‘abiding’, using biblical language that John’s gospel uses.  The contemplative tradition would call it contemplation or meditation.  You might say ‘waiting on God’ or taking care of your ‘devotional life’.  This is what Paul was talking about, I believe, when he said ‘Pray continually’.

Whatever the language, here is the crux:  relationship with God is foundational.  No, not just squeezing in a bit of prayer and a reading…that is perhaps a modern day convenient reduction, important as it is.  The kind of thing I’m talking about here is the development of that continual sense of being in God’s presence, knowing that he is closer to you than you are to yourself.

I fundemantally believe this is where much of the transformation of our Christian experience comes in.  When we live out of that sense of being fundamentally and radically being known and loved.

Like everyone else, I battle the diary to make sure I get my reading in, my sabbath in, my journaling, my intercessory prayer in…but one thing I don’t struggle with is that sense of abiding, of keeping and cultivating an open door to God.  Much as I’d like to be more disciplined with all the other stuff, I know that if the door is closed then the ministry doesn’t flow.

If I’m living out of what Scezzaro calls ‘deeper union’ I know it.  If I’m not, I definetely feel the pinch.  Life becomes unsustainable.  Ministry becomes dry and that’s no good to anyone.

Be like Jesus.  Climb the mountain.  Slip away early.  Take yourself out of the way.  Avoid the crowd.  When you have the chance to cultivate and keep that union flowing, then the other things will come and find their rightful place.

Abide in him.

‘Jesus may be in your heart, but Grandpa is in your bones’

I smiled when I read the title quote in the book ‘The Emotionally Healthy Leader’ by Peter Scazerro.  What he’s saying is that the amazing work of salvation is both instant and a journey.  We transfer Kingdoms, but we are formed and hardwired is so many different ways due to our upbringing, early influences and life’s experiences.

I’ve spent a good ten years now seeking to be aware of the ‘Grandpa in my bones’ – all the ways in which my ‘shadow’ displays itself in the day to day exchanges of life.  Scazerro’s book has to be one of the most helpful I’ve read recently, and his arguments are not only very helpful, but profoundly challenging.

I think of myself 20 years ago as a ‘leader’ and I raise my eyebrows at myself.  Most of us probably would.  There are countless things I wish I’d have done differently, things I’d have said differently.  There are people I treated in a certain way because of how I am, not because of who there were.  And to be honest, it still happens…but thank God I am almost always immediately aware of it…and most of the time, on reflection, I have the grace to say sorry.

Thing is, the amount of years in ministry or discipleship doesn’t always guarantee maturity or even a developing ‘getting better at it.’  It is perfectly possible to do 18 years in ministry but to do the same year again and again 18 times, learning nothing.  A much greater challenge is to grow through your leadership.  Stay humble.  Remain teachable.  Stick your hands up to getting it wrong.  Not only is this just the most honest way to be, it is also the healthiest.  Some of the worst examples of leadership are in those who haven’t received the gift of Robert Burns’ hopeful prayer:

‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, tae see oursels as ithers see us.  It wid fae mony a blunder free us, an foolish notion!’

I quote that little line to myself more often that I’d like!

The ‘Grandpa in our bones’ is not good or bad.  It just is.  Our life has shaped us.  Our emotional and mental set up at this moment is the result of all the places we’ve been and what we’ve experienced.  Most important is the execise in becoming aware of the internal movements of our heart and make them the focus of our prayer.

Why?  Because that’s where the leader grows, develops, and where the gift within him/her is refreshed for the blessing of the body.  Let me leave you with another quite from Scazerro:

“Leading a church, an organisation, or a ministry that transforms the world requires more than the latest leadership strategies and techniques. Lasting change in churches and organisations requires men and women committed to leading from a deep and transformed inner life. We lead more out of who we are than out of what we do, strategic or otherwise. If we fail to recognise that who we are on the inside informs every aspect of our leadership, we will do damage to ourselves and those we lead.”

Last word to Richard Rohr:  ‘If you don’t transform your pain, you will transmit it.’

It is never to late to visit Grandpa.

September

It has to be one of my favourite months.  And, it is a good one for reflecting on what has been a beautiful summer.  The weather has been beautful.  I’ve enjoyed some lovely time away with the family.   I’ve had a great long weekend at Greenbelt.  And I had a good retreat time away in my little hermit tent in the depths of West Sussex.  It is that I want to write about today.

Sometimes when you go into the silence there’s a sense of bliss, rest, peace.  At other times, it is not so blissful and it can be a bit of a slog.  There can be consolation in silence.  There can be desolation in the silence.

This year started, to be very honest, in some ‘desolation.’  I knew this before I went.  I could sense all sorts of concerns, strains, rogue anxieties bubbling up to the surface.  I knew what I had to do.  I just sat with them – quite doggedely, quite intentionally.  I’m the world’s expert at keeping things locked inside – I’ve had 38 years practice.  But I’m now almost equally expert in giving stuff space and to observe what’s going on – to let it pass without judging it, and see what light comes the other end.

After about 24 hours, my mind and heart settled enough to begin to see what was lurking within.  I immediately knew that I then had to engage in a time of allowing myself to be moved.  To tears in fact.  Holding before God people, the church, the world, my own brokenness, and the plea for God to help me see and understand aright.

I was accompanied during key prayer times by a robin.  Not an unusual experience for me.  Familiar.  Strangely comforting that God should direct theses curious little inklings of creation to minister God’s awesome presence in such a small package.  And so, in the desolation: God.

God led me to read the book of Lamentations.  Not one of Jeremiah’s happiest collection of thoughts, but thoroughly helpful and cathartic.  To the soundtrack of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, too…the perfect cocktail for the soul.   Sometimes we just have to find another’s words and sounds to express at least something of what we sense and feel.

I appreciate this might sound all too miseable, but there is a necessary suffering in life that we so often push away.  We don’t deal with it.  The silence helps me to process and sit with things.

fourcandlesAnd then…the shadow lifts and I’m drawn to Romans 12: 9 – 21.  God renews my passion for community, love for people, compassion for the hurting, the desire to submit to availablity and vulnerability.  This is what I needed as I move into September as sole pastor at HBC for the time being. God calls me to live out some key intentions.  I travelled to a local cathedral and lit 4 candles…each representing those 4 intentions which will inspire and provoke me for this next season.  And God is my witness, with Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Pick up the actual book

I’m just one of those people who love a book. I love to read, and reading has played a significant part in my spiritual growth and learning. Now, of course, we benefit from ebooks etc on our computers and smartphones. I personally enjoy my kindle and my phone for reading material – except for my Bible habits which I strongly advocate remain in book form. Hear me out!

For Christians, the ‘search-ability’ of the Bible on a phone app is a great tool, as well as the ready availability and accessibility of literature online (although one has to be discerning on that front!). I recognise, too, that many aren’t much into books for lots of reasons, including learning or visual limitations. I recognise that we’re increasingly a non-book culture, but I believe as Christians we have to challenge that slightly within the Christian community.

I have a basic concern. It’s a concern I’ve always had, but it is an increasingly growing concern. Many of you may not see it as an issue, but as a pastor I see it.

Whilst technology is great for having a searchable element and is good for a quick read, I want to strongly encourage Christians to see that as a supplement to using an actual physical, hold-in-your-hand book-form Bible as your main reader. Why? A few reasons.

I get concerned when I sense that people just seem to dip into bits here and there, with no real concept of the whole trajectory of a gospel/letter/history/etc. This is especially true for the OT to avoid weird ‘Prayer of Jabez’ crazes! I think apps reduce the bible to the few sentences on the screen and so we don’t always have a wider sense of what we’re dealing with. Now, that’s not important for your holiday John Grisham novel, but I think it’s crucial for biblical material. I’m not sure this limited visual is good for a deepening understanding of what people are reading.

For me, and I know everyone is different, a physical book adds a tactility to the learning experience. In fact, I learn the text by copying out biblical text by hand. This year I’ve written out Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1&2 Thessalonians. This allows me to become aware of the patterns, themes, messages of these books and increases my familiarity with them. I also, at times, listen to the bible being read as I follow on in my book or phone – that adds other ways to reflect on the text. It’s amazing the amount of times I’ve thought, ‘what? Eh? Jesus, what? Paul? Say again?!’

I also have a hunch that, in spite of having hundreds of versions of the bible on our phone, it doesn’t make biblical literacy any better. I recognise, though, that having phone access to a bible may mean some people read the bible more than they may otherwise, which is better than nothing. But what I’m advocating is adding the book and bigging up your bible habit.

What I’m suggesting here is not a reduction to just a paper Bible. I’m suggesting significantly increased involvement with the book alongside all the other great ways to engage.

Not too long ago, in some city somewhere, I sat and watched a church elder look for 1 Timothy in the beginning of the Old Testament. That raises lots of questions, and I hope it’s an extreme example, but it at least illustrates something of what I’m saying.

I’d love to see a significant return to bibles being books that people get to know intimately and thoroughly. I’ve always felt the handicap of never having been a child who went to Sunday School. But, I just can’t imagine how anyone sustains the Christian life without a serious commitment to picking up the book.

Simplicity

simplicityWe live in a fast-paced complex world that would, and often does, tie you up in knots. Our fast ‘Google culture’ makes everything instant.  I love the practicality of my smartphone, but it means that I’m ‘on’ a significant amount of the time.

And then there’s the ‘stuff’ and the money that the ‘stuff’ costs.  And then there’s all the stuff that we already have, and have had for years because there’s some sort of weird reason why we can’t get rid of it.  Some attachement of some sort, or that it was Aunty Mary that sent it, or …. you know the story.

And then there is communication, and the way commucation does or doesn’t work in communities.  We end up creating some complicated webs of knowledge, and then that knowledge becomes power because of who does or doesn’t have that knowledge.  Or, there are things that I should know about someone just in case I haven’t got good judgement of my own to work people out.  You know the story.

The second monastic value that is close to me, after silence, is simplicity.  Simplicity because life is complicated enough.  Simplicity because it is very close to transparency and openness.  Simplicity because misunderstandings are avoided.  Simplicity because we’re not geared up to be dealing with millions of data firing at us all the time.

There’s an interenet meme going around that says ‘My head is like an internet browser:  there are 30 windows open and I have no idea where the music is coming from.’

Enough.  When will we all learn to say ‘enough’?  When will we stop stuffing our diaries (and our children’s diaries) with constant activity and busyness like that is the proof of a fulfilled and productive life?

And when will we stop over-consuming everything? Need I say more?

They say we live in a fast-paced society.  That may well be true.  But we can resist.  If our ‘busyness’ becomes more important than the quality of our lives and relationships, then its value is lost.  If all our working hours are to maintain a standard of living that, if we thought about it, we’d be much happier without, then stop.  Take the pay cut, lose the hours and gain your soul!

Thing is, the pressures of society are unlikely to become fewer.

I recently was on an online forum where someone was asking how to deal with pages and pages of ‘to-do’ lists.  Many people had some interesting ideas to organise her busyness better.  My response was ‘perhaps its time to evaluate some lifestyle choices?’

I direct the same challenge to myself.  There’s loads of things that I could throw overboard that would lead to a greater sense of sanity and peace, that would lead to more effective productivity where it mattered….and that might just mean I didn’t have to tidy up quite so often…!

Simplicity.  It’s simply underrated.

Silent Treatment

silence

In a few short days I’ll be heading off for just over 3 days of silent retreat.  My life these days is filled with so many words, books, meetings, conversations…most of it really good, important and meaningful.  But for me, silence speaks much louder than any words especially when it comes to connecting with God.  I’ve stopped seeing these times as a luxury and more of a necessity.

I need time to process things, people, situations. I need to silence the world for a bit so that I can focus that bit more on hearing from Him.

Our words always have limits.  Our language, even if we have more than one, is never enough to plumb the depths of the love of Christ, the Father-hearted God and the tender stirrings of the Spirit.

It is likely that I’ll take a day or so just to allow the brain-chatter to settle down to a low din.  I’ll write it all down in a journal just so that it’s said, written, expressed.  Then I’ll wait and watch.  I’ll be content for there to be nothing said between us, me and God, beyond the sense of knowing I’m held and known.  My experience tells me that he will draw near and that there won’t be a moment for loneliness in being alone.  But my experience also tells me he will speak in every way.  And, as soon as the volume is turned down sufficiently, so the spirit is more attuned to the Spirit.

My favourite pieces of scripture from the gospels are when Jesus just slips away during the early hours, in the dead of night, in the liminality of travelling time.  How wonderful it is to slip into his presence, into the quiet place.

What I also love about the silence is that I get to be attentive to the bits of me, the good, the bad and the ugly, bits of me that float to the surface.  These can be held before God and allowed to pass.  But time to stop, to notice, to listen, to learn and to know how things are.  Silence terrifies people.  It used to terrify me because for many years there was so much lurking, unacknowledged, unbidden.  Silence is the gate through which you can enter and Christ can meet you at the point of your deepest and most honest self if you’ll allow it.

And then, I’ll return ready to speak from the heart.  Careful not to throw away too quickly all the treasure of the stillness.  Willing to share the gold wisely.

I can hear the silence calling already!

Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…

holy shiftI recently went to hear Rob Bell on his latest tour.

Let me give you the background.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Rob Bell over the years, especially in the heady days of my most ardent fundamentalism!  I think of my early reactions to his stuff and, many times, he made me down-right angry.  I remember throwing his books across the room – usually into the same dusty corner where I’d thrown Brian McLaren books!  But you know what? That was much more about me than anything Rob Bell says.  It’s not like he’s sitting in a room conspiring how to get up Andrew Clark’s nose (although, how he does it?…amazing!)

Not content to put up with those sorts of unsatisfactory outbursts of myself, in good introverted style, I’ve taken the time over the years to listen to what my responses are teaching me about me, about God and about my reactions to this man.

Firstly, there is the important lesson that you don’t have to accept everything people say – you engage your brain, listen first, evaluate later.  Most of us can drum out a good heresy now and again…most of us have aspects of faith and belief we’re still working through.  I decided I needed to have a broader mindset to hear what people like Rob Bell are saying.  Having listened to his recent ‘Everything is Spiritual’ talk I was actually blown away by some of the ways he brings home his message.  The Holy Shift was no less the same.

Secondly, there’s the need to step outside of a dualistic mindset – always intentionally seeking to label things, divide things.  My formation in a conservative evangelical-holiness movement setting always invited me to continually judge things immediately lest some unpure, imperfect thing got through and shocked God and my pious sensitivities.  Sounds wise, but the result is that you don’t grow in your thinking and ability to engage – you simply become a human tortoise with a very hard shell.  And for what?

I’m continually asking the question now, ‘what does this person have to say that speaks into my current mindset and understanding?’  The nature of the church is that its reasonably unlikely that we’ll ever encounter someone who believes all the exact same things as we do…so we need to be able to sit down and listen.  You hear?

Thirdly,  I needed to deal with my own lazy fear.  Lazy fear.  Those words don’t always go well together.  Fear usually produces fight, flight or freeze reactions.  But I decided with my reactions to ‘those-with-whom-I-dont-agree’ that they were largely falling into the lazy trap – feeling fearfully threatened because I’m too lazy to do the thinking about challenges that  provocative thinkers bring in case my small mindset might shatter and I’d have to re-think it again.  How about that?  So many of my doctrinal idols are so fragile that they can’t face robust challenge.

Well – no more.  Perhaps much of this shift has come over many years of maturing faith.  Yes.  Much of it comes with the paradox of no longer denying the contradictions in my own life.  Within me is every good intent and thought, and every mindless action and thoughlessness expressed in a myriad of actions and behaviours…and it’s all me!  I’m not black and white – life is complex – and as much as we’d like to deny ‘grey’ it doesn’t negate the existance of some challenging aspects of us.

Rob Bell’s latest talking tour went by the name of ‘The Holy Shift.’  He was, in essence, speaking about moving beyond the dualistic minset of easy, dry answers, to accepting that there are things that will not be satisfied with well-ordered squeaky-clean solutions.  Rob’s premise is that there are things which remain in the real of mystery, unanswerable, unknowable, weird and unfathomable.  It is around those things (like many of the acts of God) that we have to draw a circle and cry out ‘kadosh, kadosh, kadosh’ – Hebrew for ‘holy, holy, holy’.

Some things in life are too holy for words.  Some experiences are ruined and cheapened with words.  When things happen, when our hearts feel and break, when our hopes are dashed, when our joy is unbounded and when our words are few…God is still God and our needful confession is ‘God, I don’t understand this…and maybe I don’t need to’ – *kadosh, kadosh, kadosh*

Most of the time, life happens.  Some of the time, our pat answers detract from necessary suffering, sadness, pain.  I remember when my grandmother died, someone said ‘well, maybe she turned to the Lord on her death bed.’   If it was possible to gather words and ram them back down someone’s throat, I may well have attempted it.  They meant well, of course.

You see, I can do the thought process around salvation, redemption, healing and forgiveness and the questions surrounding those who die ‘without Christ’.  My pain, anguish and sorrow were not going to be soothed by maybes and what-ifs.  The pain of grief and sorrow is a holy thing.  If we cut those processes short or intrude on them with platitues, however spiritual, we rob them of their gold too early.

This is an example in my own life where I now utter the equivalent of Rob’s ‘kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.’  However much I can figure out the possibilities and theology of it, there is something so ‘other’ in my whole 20 year dealings with this particular and difficult pain.  It has taken me to depths of despair and wonder, certainty and doubt, fulness and emptiness, hope and… *kadosh, kadosh, kadosh*

It is the pain that has produced the most compassion in my life.  It is the journey that has brought my heart out onto my sleeve.  It is the loss that has helped me find so many other things.  For all the things it is, most of all, it is a holy affair.  It has been an encounter with the heart of the Father.

Sometimes we’re too quick to accept easy fixes, lazy responses, pat answers, smaller ideals in exchange for not having to wrestle with God and come away limping.  As the great poet-prophet Leonard Cohen says, ‘There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’

*kadosh, kadosh, kadosh*