Renewal of the Church?

Ideas-Make-or-Break-Your-BusinessAs I prepare to begin my MA in Mission (Celtic Mission and Spirituality) course in the autumn of this year,  I’m starting to think towards the big D….the dissertation.  Although I haven’t had any formal conversation with the college yet, my current thoughts are to make a study of Celtic New Monasticism…in particular, what role it may or may not have in the renewal or reinvention of the church for post-Christendom UK.  I’m convinced that the renewal of the church will come from a form of new monasticism, just like Bonnhoeffer was.  I was convinced of that in my Salvation Army days, and am equally convinced now.

What is clear to me is that even some of our most successful churches in the UK are running on ‘Christendom-shaped’ paradigms.  Professional staff, audience of worshippers, programme based, etc.  When this works, its fine.  But by and large, it isn’t working because it takes a huge of effort to pull it off.  I know this full well….I’m at the helm of trying to make a church like Trinity tick.  There is still a place for this form of church, of course, but it is fading.  I’m not being pessimistic, just realistic.

People protest – ‘the Lord will build his church!  Why are you saying it is failing?’  I think we need to understand, again and again, church is people – the body of Christ.  Church is NOT our structures, ways of being and doing.  The people of God will continue to grow and form the body of Christ.  The question is, what does the body of Christ look like for our generation.

On Wednesday this week (18th June) I’m going to publish a short vision document.  It is an idea, a hope, a something that has been with me for a long long time but which is coming into maturity and also into sharper focus.  I’ve sung  General Booth’s line ‘The revolution now being…send the fire today.’  Now is the time to have a stab at it!

Please tune in!!!

12 Marks of New Monasticism: 7-9

The next three:

7.  Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.

Community happens either intentionally or unintentionally where people are.  We’re relational beings, so community is gonna happen.  However, you can have static community (read OAPs in a rest home) or an active community (an Army, a football team etc).  What happens in active community is best described as communitas, as opposed to community.  Communitas is community gathered round a common task.  It is, therefore, always an intentional community.  This is the kind of community Jesus created amongst his discipleship, with mission as the organising principle.  Common life comes with Jesus at the centre.  Although the church in Acts 2:42 – 47 is a very young embryonic church, its a great picture:

“42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Some people look at this stuff and say the church has moved on from this and this shouldn’t be used as a pattern.  No, maybe not detail for detail…the sort of ‘if its not exactly like this then its wrong.’  I don’t believe the bible necessarily has that sort of blueprint mentality when it comes to the church.    But, my question is why should 21st C church be any less wonderful, transformative and powerful?   I really can’t imagine why not.  Sincerely.  It is only our western individualism that can get in the way of this. There are transferrable principles that can be discrened in the NT writings about the function of Christian community which can only help to inform our function as a body.

8.  Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.

There are, I think, two issues here.  Firstly, there is discovering the value of singleness.  I know many single people who serve God with abandonment that I’m not able to as a family man.  There is often an unwritten expectation that its ‘normal’ to get married and have a family.  Lots of people do, but there is something to note in people who commit to celibate singleness for life as a calling as well as those who remain single through circumstance.  We need to find ways to honour the single among us.  In the days when SA officers were required, many officers gave whole lives with single hearted devotion and many still do.  Its about recognising the strength and validity of the ‘single warrior.’

On the flip side, its also recognising the place of the family in the war.  Now, monastics of old would hardly have been married.  But in communities of covenant (like new monastic communities or communities like The Salvation Army) there must be a recognised place for the ministry of the family.  I don’t just mean having activities or programmes for all the family.  I’m talking about the commitment to discipling the whole family, and that done together as a unit.  Quite truly, the best times in our ministry have been when we’ve gathered in our home as a family with others around the word, to worship and pray for one another in small group gatherings.  Special times.  Lets not underestimate the capacity of all to live missional lives….even the children.

9.  Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.

Commuter church is a strange concept.  It is driven by a church consumerism…the kind that makes people drive to the best Jesus show in town.  Too harsh?  No…the consumerist church is often the antidote to missional living.  It means that people can work in one place, live in a completely different place and worship in an entirely different place.    So, there is something about local geographical presence here.

There is also something about being salt and light in a particular community and living out an alternative way of life visibly with others.  Take Pill for example…one of our corps appointments.  We figured that at the time we lived there, 1% of the population were Salvationist – thats fairly high!  As a result, the Army had a high profile in the community not just through the public life of its officers, but through the visible witness of its soldiers and local officers.  Another example of this are both the 614 communities and the Eden communities here in the UK.  Christians commiting themsleves geographically to an area and joining in the mission of God there.   There is something in banding together to minister to a neighbourhood that is very powerful.

Celtic monks here in Northumbria often went out on mission in bands of brothers, travelling out in small groups and establishing churches and outposts everywhere then leaving some staying on as permanant witnesses in some of those places.  The Army have similar planting stories.   You may or may not have heard of The Seige of London….this was an SA campaign to hold an open air on every street corner in London back in the late 1800s then leaving behind a couple to continue build community with the converts made.  We have much to learn from this stuff.

12 Marks of New Monasticism: 1-3

I mentioned at the end of the last post the 12 Marks of New Monasticism.  Now, let me start by saying that one of the reasons this thing fires me up is because I think that Primive Salvationism had the whole New Monastic thing going on long before Bonhoeffer coined the phrase and before people started exploring it.  It may interest you to know that Booth likened his soldiers to versions of modern day St Francis.  Someone else has likened the concept of Booth to the itinerant preaching friars, folks who were right in the muck of society relieving poor but also igniting faith and hope in the Lord, Jesus.  Click the link for a book that is a good read about ‘New Friars’ – related to new Monasticism. I hope as I go through these you’ll see the similarities.  It is interesting that throughout history, God has often used monastic movements to revive the church.  Here is a looks of the 12 Marks of New Monasticism.  The bold type are the ‘marks’, the rest is my commentary:

1.  Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.

This may seem like a strange turn of phrase, but you have to realise that when monasticism has been at its most vigorous (ie outwardly missional as oposed to inward ascetisism), it has always been again the context of forging alternative society to the world around.  As I’ve said, this is especially true with regards to the Romanising of Christianity.  For the first 300 years of its inception, the early church was a marginal movement amongst a marginal people.  The gospel thrived at the grass roots mainly because the ‘top’ would see it as too distasteful.  The reality is that Christendom church is well and truly over for urban settings, especially poor urban settings where people have long lost the point of going to church entirely.

Relocating to places the ‘Empire’ would rather have us forget is not only a way to side up with the poor, but a positive way to deal with the marginalisation of the Christian faith in an increasingly secular world.  Christian faith ‘proves its salt’ in these places.  The state establishment of the Christian faith has always led to a ‘gentry’ church, a church of privelege and power.  The height of this was surely the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and the witch hunts etc.  Not exactly a great portrayal of the Christian faith.  Truth is that the radical gospel of the Kingdom of God flies in the face of the standards of the world.

2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.

When it comes to voting, I vote Labour or when in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (Alba gu brath!!).  Both are parties of the centre left with political agendas which recognise the responsibility of caring for the needy and poor.  I was dragged up through a local authority council estate in the benefit culture.  My family weren’t spongers, they were hard working and dog poor.  Initiatives like Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit etc etc brought many families who were brought up in similar places up and over the bread line.  Leaving aside any issues surrounding, this has been a lifeline for many families.

Why do I start there?  In essence, I believe that we see in the early church as revealed in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters a new race of people who cared for one another in a way that went beyond the extra mile.  The early church was mutually dependant….there was equality and NONE WERE POOR.  I think this is more significant than we realise.  I’ve been in churches where it has been obvious that people in the church have been poor and others are rich.  I’ve been in churches where I’ve sought to ensure that poor brothers and sisters were cared for.  As a whole, the church doesn’t always get that we are a separate race and nation.  Yes we care for one another, but that love also spills out in generosity to our wider communities.  Old monastic places were literal places of refuge and provision for the poor.  A new monasticism has the same commitment, but also ensures that those of the family of faith are cared for too.

Some people go as far as common purse, some communities chose poverty for the sake of others less fortunate, and some still engage in the relief of the poor, but like I say, important not to miss the brothers and sisters in favour of  those who aren’t part of the faith community.  In the West we have such an individualistic approach to possessions, treasures, wealth etc.  The counter cultural community of Jesus is the sole community…yes, the sole community….that have the potential to model to the world how to care for the poor among us.  Communism is essentially ‘Christian wealth distribution’ gone wrong and corrupted.  Its a devil perversion of how a Christian community can potentially function showing the world a differnet pictre, singing a different song.  We need to step up to the plate in this area and model this to the world.

3) Hospitality to the stranger

Again, this touches on the individualism of the West.  ‘We don’t go about other people’s houses’ is the mantra of pride in many parts of our nation as if thats a great thing.  This is amongst our friends!  How often to we give hospitality to the stranger then?

I remember as a young lad this being an automatic thing flowing from Jesus.  I remember as a 16 year old lad encountering a young guy, few years older than me, who claimed to be in need of food.  I thought nothing of it to take him home.  Of course we live in a dangerous world, we must take some care, but we also live in a world where many are lonely and need the care of strangers.  Hospitality, especially to the stranger,  must be one of the most under-rated disciplines and graces of Chrisitan discipleship in these days.  If we are not comfortable with people in our homes, there are other ways to be creative in hospitality.  The important thing to ring in our ears that is in welcoming strangers we may just find that we are entertaining the angels or Jesus himself!

There is also just the intimacy of sharing a meal, of sharing our space, our heat, our light, our space with another.  Here is a Celtic blessing on hospitality for the stranger:

Seeing a stranger approach,
I would put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place,
and look with joy for the blessing of God,
who often comes to my home
in the blessing of a stranger.

What an adventure…give it a go!  Be safe, but be adventurous.  Start with a neighbour, perhaps.

Looking to the years to come

Funny, I was watching Ugly Betty last night.  I don’t know if you watch it, but basically one of Betty’s ex-boyfriends confronts her about the fact that she’s working in a fashion mag when she wanted to be a serious journalist.  She’d forgotten her vision.

Like I said, the Army stuff is difficult mainly because we believed that ‘doing officership differently’ was part of the DNA of a Salvation Army who’s founders were so full of the principle of adaptability – one we heart and soul believe in.  Laying the Army aside, as we’ve had to do, still leaves us with the call of God upon our lives.  We do have a vision!

So what is the vision then?  We want to be in the place where we can try to live a new model of ‘ministry.’  Its not entirely new, of course, its biblical, but it is somewhat contrary to the approach of Christendom church for the last 1600 years.  We want to be self supporting workers on permanant mission to plant a network of small missional communities at the margins of our society, amongst ‘the poor’, living among them, serving, gaining their trust and being good news to the poor.  We also want to equip others to do the same.  I believe, with Bonnhoeffer, that some sort of new monasticism will bring renewal to the church (more on that another day) and want to encourage brothers and sisters in this.  I believe that people ‘out there’ are spiritual people who don’t just want religious shows, but want community, a sense of depth of spirituality and real honest answers to their questions.   They also need to experience those things in the real world, not in the cloistered conditions of an attractional model church.

We are in transition.  God is gently moving us from on phase to the next.  It has actually been quite important for us in these days just to pay our own rent, our own bills, run our own car, to work set hours and be paid for that rather than being given allowance to live from the church.  I work my hours (and more) and claim back the extra time in lieu. Why?  because I chose to see my work as work.  It is our LIVES that are missional, not just what we are paid to do.  My work stops when I leave the office.  Our live’s mission never stops.

When we sense it is the right time to move on from this stage, we will.  We are already working hard on improving our financial situation and developing ideas and strategies for ways of sustaining family life to release us for the next stage.  We value your prayer.

So, just in case you thought I was going off the side of the cliff in the last post, we’re not.  There is a place in ourselves where we have to properly grieve the separation and to gradually tease the vision from the institution and take bold steps towards it.  This is an experience that the Desert fathers and mothers had as they began to drift from the increasinly ‘state’ clericalised church in the 4th and 5th centuries…they withdrew to the desert to ask the question ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ and ‘How then shall we live?’  and then sought to live out the reality.  Here in Britain, we have much to learn from Columba, Cuthbert, Aidan and their other Celtic brothers and sisters who engaged pagan British Isles with the radical gospel of Jesus Christ not from a position of centrality, power and privelege, but from voluntary poverty on the margins of society propelled by the Spirit to ‘go into all the world.’

We are, in essence, looking for a new ‘order’.  The Army as an order is by far the best description of it that fits it in its purest form.  Now, we look for another cymborgi (companions of the heart) to journey with into a new day.  We’re in a stage of history in the church where it is very much twilight.  The curtains have been drawn on Christendom church, in some places its only begining, in others their twilight is dawn instead of dusk.  But whether we here in Britain are in dawn or dusk, the landscape is changing and we need to seek the will of the Lord as to how we can serve our present age and be faithful expressions of the body of Christ on earth in these days.

Have a read for more on new monasticism:



Shaped Prayer

I’m not one of those who’d say that I find prayer particularly difficult.  God was very real to me from the beginning of my Christian faith and it always felt natural to develop a relationship through prayer.  I remember in those months of searching before becoming Christian of uttering some very real prayers and having a very real sense of being drawn towards God.  Getting saved, getting filled with Holy Spirit, prayer just clicked.

All until the last 3 years in particular.  A combination of things made prayer really difficult all of a sudden.  Firstly, an overwhelming sense of burden for the spiritual heartbeat of the Salvation Army turned prayer into pain.  Secondly, spending two years in close proximity to some difficult stuff, difficult lives and situations in Torry started to make my normal evangelical-charismatic prayer life stale and almost inneffectual, or so it felt.  I still felt it able to ‘pray continually’ in the sense of just having that ongoing awareness of God’s presence and guidance, but specific times of prayer were so difficult….how do I express my heart?  I’ve always been thankful for the gift of tongues and that continued to be useful but against a back ground of some big inner challenges, I felt a need to go deeper than before.

That influence came from a very surprising place for me.  Someone introduced me to a siddur.  A siddur is a Jewish prayer book.  It has standard prayers for day, night, midday etc…I especially loved praying the Amidah and the Shema (google them!)  I found them so touching and that they focussed my attendtion on God, his people (all his people, not just Israel), and it was also like each day I was building in some really solid rhythms into my life.  The more I build these shaped prayers into my life, the more I just found that place of stability again, a strengthening of the foundations.

I then branched out to use the Missio Dei Breviary and the Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community.  I now use a combination of all these things for various periods of time.  There is a new online and book resource written by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove called ‘Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals’ which is equally inspiring.  Urban Expression, a urban church planting movement here in the UK, also have a daily liturgy with some fantastic stuff in it.

So, from being someone who had always though that written prayers were something that only spiritually dead people do, I found instead that using some of these resources became a helpful springboard to help maintain an active prayer life whether I felt like it or not!  Instead of prayer becoming spasmodic, dependent on mood and feelings, there was now a regular rhythm.  I recommend that people explore this stuff.  It may just be the source of regular feeding and inspiration you need to ground your relationship with God.

Doing it by the Book?

Every church, in essence, wants to do things ‘by the book’ (meaning the Bible). Yet, it is surprising that many of the ‘sacred cows’ we have in the church have little foundation in the New Testament at all.  Here is a list (with help from Frank Viola and George Barna) of some of the post-biblical, post-apostolic features of church which are largely influenced by Christians accepting the pagan influence of the day that many of us think are crucial to church life and practice founded on the tradition of the bible.  Hold onto your hat….

  • The Church building – first appeared in around 327AD under the influence of the supposedly converted emperor Constantine.  These were patterned after pagan Greek Temples and Roman basilicas.
  • The ‘Pastors’ Chair –  taken from the seat of the judge that featured in pagan Roman basilicas.
  • Tax exemption for clergy – emperor Constantine (again) made churches tax exempt in 323AD and in 313AD gave priests tax exemption so that they were equal to pagan priests.
  • Cathedrals – first built in the 12th Century according to the pattern of the pagan philisophy of Plato.
  • Church Steeples – find their root in ancient Egypt and Babylon but popularised by Sir Christopher Wren in 1666 rooted in his interest in freemasonry which utilized Egyptian pagan beliefs.
  • The Pulpit – appeared as late as 250AD, borrowed from the Greek ambo which was used by Jews and Greeks to deliver monologues
  • The Sunday Morning Order of Service – has remained relatively unchanged all the way from Pope Gregory’s Mass in the 6th Century all the way through to our modern day practices.  Whether you are Roman Catholic, free church, state church, pentecostal, evangelical or charismatic, your order is simply a variation of the 6th Century Mass and bears little resemblance to any early church or New Testament  format.
  • Candles on the ‘communion table’ and incense – from the pagan ceremonial court of the Roman emperors of the 4th century.  The table came from Zwingli in the 16th century.
  • Congregation standing to sing/music playing whilst clergy and/or bible enters – borrowed from the pagan ceremonial court of the Roman emporers in the 4th century and brought into protestantism by Calvin.
  • Coming into church with a sombre/reverential attitude – from medieval notions of piety, brought to the protestant church by Calvin and his cronies.
  • Guilt over missing church services – 17th century English Puritans
  • Long prayer by the Pastor before the sermon – those jolly Puritans again.
  • The Altar Call – Methodists followed byCharles Finney
  • Bowed heads and eyes closed in response to ‘salvation message’ – Billy Graham in the 20th century
  • The Contemporary Sermon – borrowed from the Greek sophists, highly trained and skilled in rhetoric.  Augustine (himself trained in rhetoric) converted it and made it central to Christian worship.
  • The contemporary Pastor (ie ‘Single Seat Bishop/overseer’ as opposed to Eph 4 pastor) – Ignatious of Antioch in the 2nd Century but wasn’t popularised until Constantine standised the clergy system in the early 4th Century
  • Hierarchical leadership – Constantine again.  This was the model of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.
  • Clergy – Constantine again, although Tertullian first coined the concept.
  • Contemporary ‘ordination’ – evolved from the 2nd Cenutry to the 4th century.  It was taken from the Roman concept of accepting men into public office.  The ‘holy man of God’ idea can be traced to Augustine, Gregory and Chrysostom.
  • The Title ‘Pastor’ – this didn’t come around in the church until the 18th century in the Lutheran church.
  • Wearing your Sunday Best – late 18th Century during the Industrial Revolution rooted in the working classes wanting to keep up with their middle class neighbours.
  • Clerical Robes –  330AD with, you guessed it, Roman Emperor Constantines influence.  He wanted his clergy to wear the same as the Roman officials of the day.  By the 12th century, clergy began wearing clerical garb instead of every day clothes to separate them from the ‘normal’ people.
  • The Clerical’backwards’ Collar – The Rev Dr Donald McLeod from Glasgow in 1865.
  • The Choir– provoked by Constantine’s desire to mimic Roman imperial services.  Developed also from Greek dramas in Greek temples.
  • Boys/Children’s Choirs – began in the 4th century based on the pagan idea that children’s voices were more divine.
  • The Worship Team – based on the modern rock concert, and brought into church in 1965 by Calvary chapels and later the Vineyard churches.
  • Tithing – although a system operated for the temple in the Old Testament, tithing was not a Christian practice until the 8th century.  The tithe was taken from the Roman rent charge/tax and later justified by using the Old Testament to bolster its position in the church.
  • Clergy salaries – ole Constantine
  • the Collection Plate – the first collection plate was passed round the church service in 1662.
  • Infant Baptism – rooted in the superstitious beliefs of Greco-Roman culture, brought into Christian culture in the late 2nd century.  It replaced adult baptism almost entirely in the 5th century until the emergence of the Anabaptists during the reformation in the 16th/17th century
  • The Lords supper reduced from a full ‘agape’ meal to the cup and bread – during the 2nd century as result of pagan ritual influences
  • Paul’s letters arranged according to length in the NT – based on the Greco-Roman system of compiling philosopical writings in the 2nd century.
  • Bible split up into chapters – University of Paris professor Stephen Langton in 1227.
  • Bible chapters split into verses – printer Robert Stephanus in 1551

So what? you might be saying.  Basically, when you explore some of these ideas, we see that much of modern Christian practice has no New Testament root yet we see many of them as central to our experience.  The thing is, the bible is not silent on the functions of the people of God and many of our common practices marginalise, neutralise and disempower the priesthood of all believers.  It is just striking that so much of what has become part of the Church of Jesus Christ has little foundation in the early Christian community.  Yes, things adapt and change but the issue, certainly for me, is not just about practices but in how the practices change the theogical thrust of the church’s teaching.  We often don’t see these things because we tend to ‘read back’ into the bible our modern practices.

So, for example, when we see ‘pastor’ in Ephesians, we read our modern day picture back into it.  When we thing leadership, we read our heirarchical top-heavy systems back into it.  When we read the bible, we read it split into verses and we use them devoid of their context without good knowledge of the history they are rooted in, what the other part of the conversation is (especially with Paul’s letters).

For more indepth info about how these things impact the modern church, see Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna.




One of the things I get asked incessantly these days is “are you settling in?” I guess I hear it so often because I’m part of a big collection of people here at Trinity.  When I hear it I need to remember that it’s very likely that this person probably hasn’t asked me before and therefore my answer has to sound genuine and as interesting as it might be as if I was being asked it the first time.  I recently have had the same experience listening to the talks on our recently started Alpha course.  It’s all very familiar having led Alpha several times over the last 10 years or so.  Quite easy to get bored with the familiar and the oft visited.

It strikes me again and again that there is so much of our Christian traditions and practices that we do again and again and yet start losing touch with the excitement of the first time round discovery.   Part of this is because much of Christian practice has been pretty entrenched in the Christendom approach which has been very similar for around 1600 years give or take a year or two.

One of the big areas I’ve noticed this is particularly the area of sacraments, the meal in particular.  You will understand that as a Salvationist I actually find it difficult to elevate things like this to the sacramental and ritualistic way in which they are often performed. In this, I’m well and truly an outsider looking in.  Not that it is done overtly ritualistic at Trinity, it’s not, it’s quite understated and actually very inclusive which is great.

I am far from negative about the whole thing.  But like everything new, I’m coming at this for the first time fresh.  The first thing that strikes me is that when I look at the last supper and the subsequent mentions of breaking bread, it appears to me that the context is, of course, very informal. Secondly, I’m struck with the fact that the people are eating meal together and as they do so they remember Christ’s death as they go through the common symbols of bread and wine…something that would have been at every meal table in Israel.   Thirdly, although there is every evidence that they shared it, I don’t get the impression they got a tiny little nibble of bread  and what can only be described as a thimble of grape juice.

The final thing that strikes me is that this was a practical, communal, missional meal of a missional people!  Jesus had given them an extremely memorable, functional and repeatable way of sharing the story of the tribe that is the Christian family.  I mean it’s the most accessible, transferrable, common, simple and yet profoundly intimate description of Jesus and his purposes we have and we lock it in the church. I mean, I think that this was the reason that the temple curtain was torn in two, to replace ritualistic access only able to be performed by another by a profoundly multi-sensory experience of the Saviour of our souls. If breaking bread is to be something that conveys grace and blessing of sharing in the blessings of the Crucified Christ, then it is surely something that must have wider significance.

I’m not trying to mock the church. I am seeking to understand and maybe seeking to provoke the question of thinking about what we communicate when we do these things. It strikes me that one of the elements of the dynamism of the early church was the natural daily breaking of bread, one with another, without qualification, this gospel symbol of incarnation, salvation, redemption, grace and glory. Why is this something we only want to do once a month? I’m only really starting to ask the question.

I’ll say this, however: when you view breaking bread from a mission standpoint instead of an ecclesiastical stand point, there is simply a world of a difference!

Rumours around cold ovens

I remember, some years ago, preaching a sermon on Ruth….about the wheat famine in Bethlehem, her moving away, and upon hearing rumour of their being a harvest due,  she returns to Bethlehem (literally, the House of Bread)  with her new family.  My colleague preached on the passage a few weeks ago and it brought it to mind.

I remember reflecting on the fact that we often find ourselves in parallel with the situation of Ruth.  There can be seasons of barrenness spiritually…in our lives and in our churches.  And that barrenness often can produce the sort of ‘back in the good old days’ sort of talk….times of hampering back to when things we alive, fruitful and blossoming.  The rumours of God’s presence…a lot like you’d imagine that there would be rumours of bread in a place that had none.

I recognise that in myself too in years passed.  There can be a lot of chatter that goes on around cold ovens…a yearning for His presence but not an active pursuit of it like we see in Ruth’s case as she moves away from breadless Bethlehem.  You see, not everyone, like Ruth, moves away from the barrenness to find provision elsewhere.  They stay.  I can’t figure out whether that’s faithfulness or lack of faith.  You know, people stay because thats where they think they belong, they can’t see anything else.  Some people stay believing for the day that will come, even if they might never see it.  The reality is that they had run out of bread in ‘The House of Bread.’   I wonder to myself how many become so malnourished by the lack of nutrition that it wipes them out altogether. In some of our situations, are we Houses of Bread with no bread?  Do we have the presence of God, the aroma of God, the ‘bread’ of God amongst us?  Or do we just have rumours of His presences….lingering aftertastes of his Glory?  What is the response we should make?  Should we hang around the cold ovens or should we seek provision elsewhere?

The point I made those years ago is that when the rumour hit Ruth that there was a harvest due to come in, she didn’t hesistate to go back to Bethlehem.  The place of her home, where she felt she belonged.  Where she had heritage, heart and history.  And there, she finds someone waiting to provide all that she needed to make life possible in the form of Boaz, her ‘kinsman redeemer’ and restore to her the future that had been robbed by famine and death.   It strikes me that God provided for her away from home as much as He did when she returned.  Even through the pain of separation, God provides.  I can draw parallels in my own life and experience.  Can you?

The spirit of Jesus is so present in that story.  He is written all over the pages of it.  He is the One who is the opposite of the one who comes to steal, kill and destroy and instead comes to imbed hope, life, redemption and most of all, the bread of his presence where there has been fallow ground for so long.  In the ‘teshuvah’, (returning to, repenting,) Jesus is there to provide and restore the future.  We, at every stage, have the invitation to return our attendion to the Bread of Life, Jesus.   Ruth’s future was so important…her line of descendants leads all the way down the years to Jesus himself.  Our future is important…he appoints us to bear fruit for Him and he will not have anything stand in the way of that.  Neither height nor depth, angels or demons, death nor life so Paul reminds us.

There is something wonderfully missional in Ruth too.  Ruth, a Jewess, goes with her husband and sons to a foreign land, they end up with foreign gentile wives…people far off.  She loses her soul-mates, her husband and sons, those closest to her, and yet she is blessed by these two foreign daughters in law who want to be faithful to her and to her God.  God’s eventual blessing in the provision of Boaz, her kinsman redeemer, becomes a blessing for the gentile daughters in law too.  This is the grace of God who whilst we were so far off, loved us and gave His son for us, made provision for our redemption to usher us back into the presence of God through himself.

Praise God that it his word we can find all the hope and promise we need.  Whether you are chatting around cold ovens, searching for provision elsewhere or returning home to where you belong, I pray that in everything you’ll know Jesus as your all in all.

Prevenient Grace

Those of us who find oursevles on the ‘Wesleyan’ side of the fence when it cmes to theology have a beautiful contribution to make on the theme of God’s activity in the world.    Its not exclusive to Wesleyans of course, its biblical but the Calvinist would roughtly define the same idea as ‘common grace’ – that which sparks within the human being and which enables them, for example, to love and do good.  The concept of prevenient grace would take a whole lot of unpacking un its fulness,  but there are some really interesting implications for mission.

Firstly, prevenient grace recognises that God, first and foremost, is a missionary God.  Even before his people, he is absolutely out there whispering his presence in peoples lives, relentlessly presenting himself before them, pursuing them and opening the door of response.  Yes, people are sinful, they have lost their glory in its fulness, and there are many who shun Him, but God is out there active as the real missionary in the world.  The Father send the Son, the Son sent the Spirit and they all send us.  So wow, when we go out into the world in response to the missional-incarnational impulse place in us by Holy Spirit, we find that God has indeed prepared the way.  He is ALREADY active in the places where we have not yet had the courage to go.  God goes to the pub more often that  you do.  He does to the strip club more often than you do.

I remember one evening after a Street Pastor session encountering a young lady who had just finished a shift at a lap-dancing club in the town.  She stood before me, expectant that I had a message for her.  I delivered the message that God gave me there and then and whilst there were drunken brawls going on around us, we stood with tears in our eyes as we experience the tangible presence of Holy Spirit amplifying Jesus and his radical grace towards her, even her.  She subesquently left her line of  ‘work’ and returned to full time education with a part time job, (so she told me some weeks later).

It is out of some sense of moral superiority that we perhaps imagine that there are places he won’t go.  A sort of spiritual superiority, a modern day phariseeism that says ‘God won’t be seen amongst those people.’  My colleage, David, preached about the 10 lepers on Sunday evening from Luke 17 where Jesus slams home the truth of grace amongst the foreigner in the healing of the lepers, without strings!  Hey….God broke into my life when I was just as sinful, just as depraved and as far away from God as any other ‘sinner’ or ‘foreigner’ to God.  Why should I assume that he will only meet me in the sanctuary.  Indeed, everywhere that the God encounter can be had is the holy place.  And thank the Lord I’ve been in some pretty dank Holy Places in my life!

The second lovely aspect of prevenient grace is, as I’ve mentioned partly already, the idea that even in the very worst of person, not only is there something worth redeeming, but there is (however marred) the image of God.  This, I believe, is a crucial aspect of belief that will help us in mission in these post-Christendom days especially with regards to reaching people who the typical British church struggles to link up with.  People with radically alternative lifestyles.  We are quick, and I have been so quick, to judge others.  After all, some people’s sin is very obvious and its easy for us to condemn it or point it out.  Our concept of holiness means that we can’t cope with ‘such people.’  Again, we only need to look to Jesus.  The pharisees wandered around trying to keep themselves pure and undefiled from the filth around them yet here is Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, Alpha and Omega mixing with sinners, tax collectors, prostitues, lepers and all other sorts of societies outcasts who would only dare call on Jesus from afar due to the pharisaical religious attitudes they had faced.  Jesus is the one who leaps over all their walls and speaks into their lives.

He extends grace…favour, attention, time, love, care, mercy, forgiveness, wholeness, healing and salvation that they don’t deserve.  Yet is that not what he has done for us?  How then, as followers in the way of Jesus, engage in this grace-filled ministry?  Might it begin by being able to recognise even in ‘the worst’ that there is, within that person, the stamp of God – Father, Son and Holy Sprit – in that very being?  And might we realise that holiness is not so much about maintining an outward ritual purity as much as it is extending the radical grace that has transformed us to those who need it most.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury once noted ‘everywhere Jesus went, there was a riot.  When I go places they make me cups of tea!’

Prevenient grace and the theology of the missionary God (the missio Dei – as the sophisticated like to call it) go hand in hand and we find that God himself not only calls us to be missionaries, but in the person of Jesus, who is the perfect representation of the Godhead, shows us how to operate in radical grace.  It transforms ‘Go for souls…and go for the worst!’ (William Booth)

Shema Spirituality

I’ve been an avid reader of Alan Hirsch’s stuff over the last couple of years.  Firstly, there is the excellent ‘The Forgotten Ways‘ , truly on of the best books on activating a missional form of church and I’d even go as far as to say its one of the best books on mission I’ve read.  Then there is the tool to applying that book, ‘The Forgotten Ways Handbook‘ which I’m desperate to work through wth a group of people.  Its teeming with practical stuff for applying the teaching in the previous book.  In these two books, Alan expounds ‘apostolic genuis’ – what he sees to be the essential elements of all highly effective and authentic missonal churches (using the early church and the underground Chinese church as example of exponential growth).  I’ve blogged a bit about apostolic genuis over at ArmyRenewal (my previous blog) and you can do a search of that stuff there.

And so to the blog title, Shema Spirituality.  This is expounded in Alan’s books ‘Untamed – reactivating a missional form of discipleship‘ as well as in ‘ReJesus – a wild Messiah for a missional church’.  This is a phrase that Alan has coined to encalsulate the importance of monotheism at the centre of Christianty and, indeed, understanding God through the person of Jesus Christ, the unique and full physical manifestation and revelation of God the Father.  The Shema, in case you didn’t know, is a central prayer of Judaism taken from Deuteronomy 6:4 onwards (pictured left –  ‘shema’ is the first Hebrew word in the verse meaning ‘Hear’), reiterated and expanded by Jesus in Mark 12:28-31 (and in the other two synoptic gospels)

28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c]There is no commandment greater than these.”

This is the central creed of Judaism, recited daily and nailed to the door posts, but Jesus also confirms it as central to Christian understanding and faith.

Anyway, whats so key about this? Essentially, its about having a right view of God.  Alan points out that the shema:

  • contains the revelation that God is one
  • that God wants to have our whole devotion in every aspect of our lives….no false dualism, sacred/secular divide including sexuality, work, play, home, politics, ecomomics….all become aspects of worshipping God.
  • expanded by Jesus to explicitly include love for people to stop all the pious ones getting the impression its some purely vertical navel-gazing devotion to God.  By adding ‘love your neighbour’ Jesus is claiming that loving God is only complete when it is also being expressed and flowing out of our relationship with him.

The central creed of the Christian faith – ‘Jesus is Lord’ – articulates the shema for the Christian.  Alan suggests this is central to every Jesus movement.

Basically, authentic discipleship comes into play when shema spirituality is fully realised.  A combination of ‘Right Thinking’, ‘Right Acting’ and ‘Right Feeling’ (basically, a combination of orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy).

How does this look practically?  Its about realigning our lives under the Lordship of Jesus…making him central to everything, having him as Lord over everything, refusing to lock him out of anywhere.  More than that, its about making sure that nothing supercedes Jesus in our lives….neither church, family, mission, work, ministry, or anything else takes his place.   Bigger than that, its about our idols, its about Jesus having our full loyalty.   So, what does that look like in all the aspects of our lives?

I doubt I’m doing the idea justice, you’d have to read more, but there is something so incredibly important about our lives being fully under the Lordship of Jesus.  It reminds me that God has his claim upon me in Tesco as much as he does when I’m gathered with the church or at my dinner table at home.  Its the act of continually presenting our whole selves back to God, all the time.  For me, its about integration of life, spirituality, mission and lifestyle under the one who claims my life.

A helpful examen tool borrowed from St Ignatius of Loyola:  Where did I work with Jesus today? Where did I work against Jesus today?   Journal about it for a few weeks….see how your life is aligned.  Or maybe even take a leaf out of the Jew’s book…put it on the door posts of your home, in your car, or your desk at work….everywhere you need the reminder.