The Main Thing

It is the relative simplicity of the call of Jesus to be and make disciples, and the complication of what the church over the centuries has done with that, which makes ministry such a challenge at times! It’s not that being or making disciples is easy, but the call is clear.

‘Church’, in whatever form, and in whatever century, has always had to organise itself. It doesn’t exist without a structure – no community does. Jesus’ community, right from the start, was organised…and Jesus even had Judas as treasurer! But there are times when the structure becomes so cumbersome that it gets very challenging to maintain any significant energy for the ‘main thing.’

That has been my experience of nearly (only) 20 years in ministry. It is so easy for the ‘main thing’ to be the welcome escape from the regular life of church. Yet, somehow, we maintain that, regardless of how much we see that it’s not in balance.

And then there’s the pace of change. Whilst necessary, any significant change worth making is worth really thinking through, winning support and traction for. Sadly, not everyone is patient. Equally sadly, church as a community of disciple-making disciples won’t ever be enough for some people in a world of consumer entertainment. Some churches try to compete with that – but again: that’s not our game!

I long to be a part of a ministry where I’m not simply a supplier of religious goods and services, but where I’m a champion, equipper and releaser of healthy disciple/disciple-makers whether scattered out in the world or gathered in community.

I think I’ll hold on to the dream just a little while longer.

Pressing on!

Well, my poor blog has been a bit neglected in these last couple of months with one thing or another…mainly some poorly disciplined over-working and too-busy-schedule of events, but we’ve a lot of work going on in the background of church life, lots of people stuff to support and develop and all the rest. Can’t say I’m not just a little bit tired, maybe even weary, but some seasons in ministry are like that. You have to do the work to break through into a new place.

I’ve made no secret over the years of the struggles I’ve had with mental health. Praise God, I’ve had several years of very reasonable good health after a fairly big crash. The reality is, however, that significant amounts of self-care really need to take place to maintain that.

A big part of that has been carving out, on the solid rocks of resolution, a firm rhythm of prayer, rest and time off. And, although there have been some disturbances to that, the steadiness of that commitment is the stabilising factor. It is all grace!

Anyway, all of that means that I’ve got a bit of a backlog of blog ideas to work through in the next few months, so normally blog output should hopefully emerge soon enough!

‘Teach me to pray’ – 4

Fourth in a series of blogs to accompany a Week of Prayer at Hertford Baptist Church.

There is prayer beyond words, and even beyond silence, although silence is the gate. It’s where the depths of us, our Spirit, connects with the Spirit and presence of God in a shared ‘beholding.’ Surely this is the truest sense of the apostle Paul’s injunction to ‘pray continually’.

This is not so much about saying prayers or thinking prayers, but prayer being the description of the awareness of that deeper connection with God in all things, all places and at all times.

Some have called this contemplation, some have called in infusion, modern day charismatics might call it ‘soaking’.

This is not so much a practice of getting rid of thoughts or words, but it’s being filled with God. Ironically, one of the first prayers we might need to pray in this process is Meister Eckhart’s prayer: ‘God rid me of God.’ In other words, God, I need to let go of the ideas I have of you and myself in order to connect with the parts of you that are beyond my knowing.

As they say, God created us in his image, but we’ve been returning the favour ever since.

For me, this wordless ‘beholding’ has been the place of real transformation. Beyond my control, God has healed and restored so many things as ‘ deep cries out to deep’.

Certainly, a guide is helpful when moving in this direction in prayer, but I mention this today because of my sense that we need to move our thinking about prayer beyond ‘saying prayers’ and praying intercessory prayers, to the prayer of deep transformative encounter.

If this post raises a question about your own experience and invites you to a deeper exploration, it will have done its job.

Always happy to talk more with you about deepening your prayer life!

‘Teach me to pray’ – 3

Third in a series of blogs to accompany a Week of Prayer at Hertford Baptist Church.

Third in a series of blogs to accompany a Week of Prayer at Hertford Baptist Church. I

was shaped in a strong evangelical culture which taught me to have a strong suspicion of anything that didn’t sound like ‘sit down, read you bible, say your prayers’ in the form of the good old ‘Quiet Time’. Years, struggle and everyday life experience taught me I needed more. These practices were not, ultimately, changing me into a Christ-shaped discipleship.

It was a crisis of context that built up enough desperation in me to branch out in exploring different disciplines in prayer – many of which I found enriching and, over the years, have embraced them in my day-to-day experience. Here’s what I mean:

  • Silence – Yes, I know, not everyone’s friend. But that’s the whole point. We’re often so preoccupied with our thoughts, our ideas and words that we come to the belief that we are our thoughts. When it comes to prayer, thats certainly not helpful! When the ‘words’ sounded hollow and empty, I learned to turn to silence and found treasure there. The aim of silence is not to banish thought, but to constantly bring our attention back to the presence of God and nurture the practice of just being. This is not simple…sometimes we need a help, but it is worth exploring.
  • Daily Office – simple the practice of adopting a standard pattern of words to help give shape to our time of prayer. There are a million resources out there which will just help us stop our ‘prayer time’ being a shopping list. The discipline of building this into life means that, even when life is tough, you still have some aid in formulating prayer. It also gets to be a part of you and so you become your prayer! Again, sometimes we need guidance on getting the best out of this.
  • The Jesus Prayer – this is a practice from the Eastern Orthodox church, and involved a meditative use of a text from the bible ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me.’ You’d use this prayer for a time, repeating the words and reflecting upon them – allowing them to speak. This might be useful when travelling, in a queue, when you don’t know what else to pray – just a phrase of recognition which helps turn our attention to God at various moments in the day.
  • Journaling – this is not just about writing down your prayers, although that can be very helpful if you struggle with a particularly bad case of ‘mind-wander’, but journaling is finding a way of processing the stuff of life that you find difficult to express to others, or in a conversational way with God. Its a process of getting things out on a page, ordering your mind and expressing these things to God. Not a process of ensuring all your theology is ‘just right’, but an exercise in honesty about what is going on with you.

There are so many other practices that will appeal to people in different ways. We’re tried to include some aspects of these things in our Prayer Room, and in all the ways that we seek to teach prayer, but recognise that we need to do much more to resource our lovely friends at church.

Tune in tomorrow for the next in the series!

‘Teach me to pray’ – 2

Second in a series of blogs to accompany a Week of Prayer at Hertford Baptist Church.

Back in 1998 the internet was really just coming into its own, and it was around that time that I had my first regular lot of access to it. The’s when I discovered the discipline of ‘praying the Bible’. Some great Canadian Salvation Army folks, Stephen Court and Danielle Strickland, were big on encouraging their people to get their prayers on track through praying God’s words back to him. What better way to pray than to find connection and words through scripture?

The bible is, in itself, full of prayers – the psalms, for a start. There are loads of prayers, hymns and doxologies that appear in the New Testament too, especially in Paul’s writings.

Praying the bible is not just reading the Bible back to God in prayer, though. You might begin by selecting your text and go through line by line. So, for example, say you start with Psalm 23, you might read a line at a time, and then allow your prayers to ‘riff’ of the words, for example:

‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…– Lord, you have indeed been a great protector and guide over many stages in my life. So many times you’ve caught me when I’ve falled, and lifted me up. You’ve been a beautifully familiar voice in a sea of competing voices, gently calling me back. I’ve never really wanted for anything Lord – not physically or materially, or spiritually – you have provided. When I’ve felt low in my spirit, you’ve gently made up the lack…’

…and so, using each verse, phrase, or idea, just using it as a springboard into talking to God. Thing is, your prayer will be different, perhaps, to the one I just wrote because your experience will be different. It might be that you’ve not really known God as ‘shepherd’, guide, and perhaps you actually feel you lack what you need. Well, that would form a different kind of prayer, but one which would be from the heart, whatever you need to say.

This prayer can become conversational – God says things through the scripture, you respond. It will take time to develop.

One offshoot of this type of praying is that, when I learned some basics of it from the Court/Strickland team, they used to encourage individuals and groups to pray the Bible moving too…as in, pacing, reading, praying at the same time. The physical movement gave a certain energy to the praying that sitting on your favourite easy chair might not!

You know, sometimes we need to give ourselves a good shake and stir! If you’re able, pick up your bible, clear some space and get moving!

‘Teach me to pray’

First in a series of blogs to accompany a Week of Prayer at Hertford Baptist Church.

I was definitely a slow starter in the prayer business. Having had no Christian upbringing, the whole concept was an entirely alien one to me, although what I did possess was the desire to communicate with the God who had made himself known in powerful ways in my life.

But no – prayer, for many years, was perfunctory, short, and for some of those years, just not a huge priority. Prayer did, however, begin to come alive for me in the late 90s and the advent of the 24/7 prayer movement, which marks 20 years this year – 20 years of non-stop prayer!

The Salvation Army in the UK was heavily involved with the 24/7 movement, and I soon found myself engaged in a whole variety of praying initiatives, prayer rooms, warfare prayer – you name it, I was there. Spending time in a prayer room….writing, painting, singing, pacing, reading, using liturgy, or just being still in the awareness of God’s presence, began to teach me, train me and give me an appetite for prayer.

I realised that the one thing that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them was ‘how to pray’ – I recognised that I too had to be taught. I grew not to be content to be a rubbish pray-er – I wanted to deepen in my intimacy with my Father God. I was well into my ministry as a pastor at this point and knew that I could never, with integrity, lead people where I had never been myself.

I’m no massive expert in prayer at all. Who of us is, really? Jesus is the only Master but he’s a pretty good example to learn from! The amazing thing is that we CAN learn to pray, we CAN deepen our connection with God, and we CAN experience a whole variety of ways to go about the business of praying.

As this week goes on, tune into the blog here for some of the different ways that have helped me to deepen my prayer life.

Faithful in the small things

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

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

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

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

Everything flows from there. Everything.

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

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