Most influential books so far…

cropped-img_43562.jpgI was trying to think, the other day, of the 10 non-fiction books that I’d say have been the most influential, or that I love most, and so thought I’d list them here.  It should really go without saying that the Bible is one of them, so I haven’t included that in the Top Ten.  I’m so thankful I have access to scripture in my own language!

Interestingly, it’s not always the deeply theological tomes that stick as the really inspirational ones, but sometimes the seemingly insignificant books that God uses to speak into our lives.   So, here goes with my Top Ten, in no particular order:

  1.  My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers.   This is just a fantastic daily devotional book.  I’ve used my copy for well over 20 years and, every time I come to it, it is still fresh, challenging and powerful.  I appreciate Chambers direct and no-nonsense approach, along with his depth and concise spiritual insight.  I really believe everyone should have a copy of this.  It’s also available online alongside a ‘modernised’ version by the Oswald Chambers Society, who write ‘in the spirit of Chambers’.
  2. The Forgotten Ways, by Alan Hirsch. This book burst open my concept of mission and the church and focussed my mind on the needful rediscovery of some very central things in the church.  In particular, the need to rediscover what Hirsch calls ‘the Apostolic genius’ – factors identifiable in every growing Jesus movement across the board.  So much to learn.  The book also has a few spin-offs developing some of the ideas.
  3. Surprised by Hope, by Tom Wright.  This book was just full of ‘wow’s’ for me!  He radically challenged my concept of heaven; what happens at the fulness of time regarding the way the new heaven/earth combine; how every act of mission counts on into eternity and the coming of the new heaven/earth; and, some provocative things about what it means to be a good news people.  This book radically changed my preaching, living, and understanding of some theological/biblical ideas.
  4. You See Bones, by Floyd McClung. I add this simply because there were so many things here that were really instrumental in the change of understanding that moved me on from being stuck in a Salvation Army-centric, institutional model of leadership and discipleship.  The missional challenges presented here helped me see that the gospel was fundamentally more important than any particular cultural/denominational expression of it.  Just blew my world apart.
  5. Chasing the Dragon, by Jackie Pullinger.  Just story after amazing story of God changing lives through the ministry of a slightly crazy but utterly God-reliant lady.  Her work and example inspire me so much.
  6. Falling Upwards, by Richard Rohr.  There are many ways in which I don’t sit side-by-side with Rohr when it comes to theology, but the insights he displays in this particular book have been so important for me in navigating life and the changes in faith perspective, particularly in regard to the messiness of life.  Part theology, part classical literature reflection, part psychology, there are just some helpful ideas that have served me well.
  7. Post Christendom and Church After Christendom, by Stuart Murray Williams.  Obviously two books here, but so closely linked.  A combined exposure to these books accompanied by a personal acquaintance with the author meant these radically changed my understanding of the times in which we operate as missional people.  His writings have brought my whole mindset round to a rather ‘anabaptist’ understanding of some things (eg clear separation of church and state, mission on the margins, non-violence, etc.).
  8. Becoming a Contagious Christian, by Bill Hybels. Now, I haven’t picked up this book in over a decade at least.  I guess that some of my thinking and practise has probably moved on a lot since reading it, but I remember this being really significant in my earliest discipleship and in living a mission-focused life.  Evangelism has always been a passion of mine, and this gave me some good basic framework as a young disciple.
  9. Organic Church, by Neil Cole.  This book represents another huge shift in my understanding of evangelism, mission, church, and discipleship.  There is something so intrinsically true about it and which has inspired ministry since reading it nearly 10 or so years ago.  I’m only beginning to work through implications of what it means to favour the organic over the institutional…occupational hazard for a pastor!  Liked to this are his other works in a similar vein, such as Organic Leadership, and Search and Rescue.
  10. Finally, I mention an author: Frank Viola.  His books have had a significant impact, even although I wouldn’t fully agree with everything he says.  They have, nevertheless, had an impact on my understanding of ministry, the shape of the church, the role of the pastor, and new possibilities for ministry in a new age which I’ve still to work out in reality.  Books such as Finding Organic Church, Rethinking Church, and Pagan Christianity, all thoroughly knocked me out of my cosy church nest.  They should come with a health warning.

Like I say, I realise that these aren’t necessarily the books that everyone should rush to read, but they are all books that had a radical effect on my life, ministry, and discipleship.  I regularly read about non-fiction ministry/discipleship/mission books per year and they will all have their impact, but none so far as memorable/effectual as these!

What would your books be?



Book Review: ‘You Can Pray’ by Tim Chester

youcanpray Publisher: IVP, 2014.

Pages: 175

Rating: 3.5/5


I’ve read a few of Tim Chester’s books over the years, mainly on mission and church life.  This very readable volume on prayer was well worth the read.

His writing is always thoroughly saturated in scriptural references, and this book is no exception.  With Chester coming from a fairly traditional conservative evangelical base, with a strong Calvinistic bent, as a reasonably committed ‘non-Calvinist’ I was interested to read what he would write on prayer.

As expected, the theology of God’s sovereignty plays heavy in his thinking.  This means that, for Tim, our praying is not so much about changing the mind of God about anything, but God sovereignly choosing to use the prayers of his people as a contribution to the things he was going to do anyway.  In that sense, God answered our prayers! The idea is that God acts either in spite of our prayers, or in conjunction with our prayers.  When our prayers seem answered it is because God has incorporated and affirmed our prayers.  When our prayers seem unanswered, our prayers are heard but answered according to God’ will (because we, being so finite, fail to comprehend the vastness of God’s understanding).

Is that how I understand prayer to work?  Is it possible, rather, that whilst knowing the beginning from the end, God responds to our cries as opposed to our silences and that the means leads to the end?  In other words, does God take more notice of the prayers of his church than the average Calvinist would give him credit for?  Is the future, and all history, ultimately as ‘fixed’ as Chester would make out? Does prayer change things directly, or just indirectly as God grafts our prayer on his ready predetermined route?  And what does all this say about the state of the world?  No easy answers, and I feel that Chester sometimes wants to offer us those.

Having said that, Chester offers a very interesting view on the role of the Spirit and Jesus in our prayer to the Father.  The basic idea is that we pray imperfectly, but the Spirit comes and aids our prayer, inspiring/interpreting it on the way ‘up’ to the ears of Jesus.  Jesus, as the mediator, sort of filters out the imperfections and passes only that which is perfect on to the Father.  One one hand, this is a hugely encouraging idea…it says that every prayer we pray eventually arrives before the throne of God perfectly, thanks to the Spirit and Jesus.  On the other hand, maybe it feels just a little bit like those ‘consultation’ processes that means our most honest thoughts/reflections don’t meet the ultimate destination?

What Chester does emphasise, however, is that prayer as an activity is not something we need to fret about ‘performing better’ in.  He emphasises that we often try to make prayer a ‘personal achievement’ by means of how ‘good’ or ‘effective’ a pray-er we are, when all along, the ultimate mediation task and the ultimate intercessory task belongs to Jesus.  Prayer, too, is all grace.  For me this is a bit of a release as one who can fret about not praying enough/right/better.

As I reflect on these ideas, I can honestly say that I’m not actually that bothered with ‘how’ prayer works.  I simply and gladly understand the invitation to pray, and to do it heart and soul, fully investing myself in the privilege.  I’m very aware of my imperfections, and why wouldn’t I totally appreciate the role of the Spirit and of Jesus in my imperfect utterances?

Some of what Chester writes certainly speaks to a question that I’ve been considering lately.  I’ve been rather perplexed about the idea that ‘the more people pray about it, the more it’s likely to happen’.  Do you know what I mean?  It makes God sound like a cruel master who needs appeasing, or somewhat lacking in motivation unless nagged relentlessly.   That idea has always seemed unusual to me, and so maybe I’m closer to Chester’s thinking that I first thought.  It’s not about volume, noise or number of prayers as if it was a thermometer on the top of the church roof, where God will only respond when it reaches a certain height.  That doesn’t sound like our Father, does it?

So, for a small volume, it raises a lot of very interesting questions.  I’ve come away from reading it with a note of hopefulness and appreciation that, somehow in the mystery of the One who is God, my prayers count.  Questions remain, however.  Chester goes on, in the third part of his book to offer pointers for more effective prayer.  You have to ask ‘is this so that the Spirit doesn’t need to do so much interpreting?’ Or, ‘If we pray as he suggests – appealing to God’s promises/will, his character/nature, and pleading for his mercy by reminding him what a loving God he is – does this not, in fact, undo the points he has just made about God’s sovereignty?’

I confess that, like many, I understand and don’t understand prayer.  What I ultimately know, however, is that I’m drawn to it and filled by faith that, however it works, I’m invited to participate in this activity that certainly changes me and, somehow, I believe, impacts the world around me.



What is on your heart?

The question ‘what is on your heart?’ is another lovely opening question I might use at the beginning of a spiritual direction session or a pastoral conversation. It is an invitation to explore longing, frustration, sadness, joy, gratitude, hopes, aspirations…whatever it is our current experience is.

If I were to answer it, at this point in time, I’d probably say a few things.

1. I have a deep desire that the church I’m part of would increase its pursuit of the transformative presence of God…that we’d go deeper into worship, prayer, engagement with scripture, and deeper into experience of an authentic loving community. We’re in something of a transition period and it’s these things that will help us navigate.

2. I have a deep longing to see ‘boots on the streets’ of our town as we head out in mission. Jackie Pullinger often says we Christians have hard hearts and soft feet when we should really have softened hearts to the need of the world for Jesus, and hard feet shod with ‘gospel shoes’ that will mean we’ll go anywhere for him. I want to see us turn ourselves inside out for the cause of Christ, the gospel and the coming Kingdom.

3. I have a deep longing for joy, freedom, release, fullness, wholeness, ‘shalom’ in myself, my faith community, and in Hertford.

4. I’m longing to put down roots for a season. Hertford isn’t Scotland, it isn’t even ‘north’, but it’s the first time for a long time that I’ve really sensed such a ‘rightness’ about where I am. But I battle daily with ‘being a stranger in a strange land’ and a longing for ‘home’. It’s all we Scots ever write songs about!

5. Finally, I want to fan into flame a passion for discipleship and disciple-making (more than just evangelism), and see lives changed. Kinda said that above, but this is much more about making the main thing the main thing. And I’m the process, begin to work out with people how we deal with the hard stuff, the challenges, and the social and moral issues our communities have to navigate – all a key part of figuring or faith in the world.

What is on your heart?

Soul Work

img_1160The practice of Spiritual Direction, as classically understood, is a process of being attentive to the movements of God within the heart of the believer.  That’s my definition of it, at least.  It is a privilege to do it alongside others, but it has been an invaluable gift in my own experience too.

The shift from busy activist to reflective practitioner happened for me when I fell.  No great sin, disgrace or any such thing.  The fall was a realisation in myself that I was failing to deal with the wounds of my own heart and so was therefore unable to fully be present to the wounds of others.  That made me a less than good pastor…at least in my own mind.

It was in getting to the very bottom that I discovered grace in a very real way.  And it was in the stillness of the fall – picture a silent descent into increasing blackness (if you’re into a bit of drama) – that God’s real presence and voice became newly familiar.  In the depths of life was the door to the depths of my own experience, and into the depth of the love of God which is beyond understanding.

Thing is, when I was leading out of a busy activism, the things I felt to be were important were out of kilter.  I valued attendance, visible commitment, activism, sacrifice, and whole hearted devotion to God and the church.  Now, you might not think that’s problematic.  Those things are not bad in and of themselves.  What the problem was is that I realised that for the first part of my ministry I was involved in raising that standard, but also failing to do the honest work in my own life and so being unavailable to others when necessary, and preventing me knowing what it meant to be with others in living out a radical faith in Christ.

My reflection, when I look out at the world beyond the church, is that people don’t often have someone, or a community, to walk with them into the mess of their own lives.  Not to fix, explain, sort or somehow bring things to a shiny clean solution, but to be with people in their darkest place. And the church, so long as it fails to deal with its own darkness and skewed visions, will not be in the place of being that walking partner.

Whether you are an individual, or a group of individuals in church community, my advice is ‘never waste a crisis.’  It is in the muck that your find the brass.  It is in the digging that you find the gold, hard encased by layers of crusty rock, just waiting to be released.  The challenge is always whether we will begin the path of descent.

It strikes me that Jesus spoke about this all the time.  There was no resurrection with out the Calvary Road to death.  The silent tomb has much to say.  We’ll never ‘get’ resurrection life, Spirit-infilling, world-changing mission, awesome Jesus-centred community, without the deeper soul work.

Lent 2018!

img_1160I came at Lent a little unprepared this year, coming as it did in the half-term week that I’d set aside for completing my Masters Dissertation.  I duly got the first draft into a decent recognisable shape that I’ll visit again before sending, to add bits here and there, but because of it, arrived at Ash Wednesday having given no thought to Lent.

I have, however, been trying to keep up with a small group of friends/acquaintances who are reading through the bible in the year, with daily comment and, seeing as we’re in the Old Testament for the foreseeable, I decided I needed a personal focus on Jesus’ life and message.  So, I’ve been reading Mark’s gospel over and over, and very much enjoying that encounter.

Lent doesn’t appear to be much of a focus in the church I serve in, and I understand that coming from a background that never gave it much consideration either.  I guess, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Lent as a way of getting my heart/brain in gear for the Passion and Easter season and all that entails.  I used to find is so overwhelming to arrive at Easter almost ‘out of the blue’ without having had a time of preparation

Lent last year was a pretty big time.  It was a time of seeking God for our future having sensed the need to move on from St Albans, and we’d already begun conversations with Hertford Baptist.  Lent gave shape and focus to that discernment and listening, and it meant that by the time we’d received the call from the church, I knew how I must respond and was able to do so without further hesistation.  And, it was pretty unanimous from their end too…so here we are!

So, those two things are now tied up together.  I’m in my new ministry setting here in Hertford, the eventual outcome from last Lent’s discernment, and Mark’s gospel is accompanying me through this particular season, where I’m learning that Jesus ministry and activity is punctuated by a flow of availability to people, and seclusion to be with God.  Both are essential for a sustained presence in a community…and for every day sanity!

Having said that, you can’t come away from Mark’s gospel without a sense of the action, the urgency, the missional passion, and single-hearted focus of Jesus for the road ahead.  You can’t sidestep the joint partners of Kingdom proclamation and Kingdom demonstration, regadless of what was going on around him.  This too, is key.

Any church setting will give you plenty of distraction…that’s the reality everywhere.  Last year it was Homewood Road URC, this years it’s Hertford Baptist!  But the most important thing in it all is to keep the eye on the One it is all about and trust Jesus, who is the Head of this body of Christ and will lead it for his purpose of blessing, saving and redeeming the world.

If Lent does anything, it focusses us back on Him and off of ourselves.  God grant it.



Expectant Encounter…

Let me take you back.

Maybe it’s the late 90s.  I’m a teenager and I’m sitting at my place in the band at the Salvation Army hall.  It has been a great meeting.  Songs of celebration, worship, prayer, praise, testimony, and the Captain has just preached.

He’s preached about the intimacy of God, perhaps; about the immediacy and power of the Spirit; about the call to holiness; or, maybe he or she has preached the gospel; or maybe teaching through a NT letter;….or something.  Every Sunday night, I know that the whole meeting is going to head towards one particular point: the response.

The Word of God will have been preached, and we all know, without any doubt, that it asks, challenges, demands, calls, invites towards something.  Without fail.  We know that God loves us and has called us to be his, and that he invites us to partner with him through this week ahead as witnesses for Jesus wherever we are, whatever the hardship, whatever our circumstance.  And we KNOW, that next week, we’ll be able to come back to the same place and tell the stories of his working in our lives, and in the lives amongst those we’re living.

But, it’s shortly before 7pm.  The message has been preached, and the ‘prayer meeting’ starts.  And we’re in prayer, the whole meeting.  There will be singing, maybe sustained for a while…familiar choruses helping us sing, pray, know his presence.  And the Spirit would move among us and there is always opportunity to receive prayer of any sort at ‘the mercy seat’ – a place near the front of every Sally Army hall reserved for response.

mercyseat02A place of salvation; a place of prayer; a place of calling out; a place of repentance; a place of Spirit outpouring; a place of healing; a place of desperate expectancy; a place of equipping; a place of transformation; a place of commitment.  Not that the actual bit of wood was special, but special things happened there.  It was a constant reminder to all of us the God was in the business of meeting with his people and transforming them.

So, going on into ministry with that formative experience definitely shaped my understanding of what meeting for worship was all about.  It wasn’t just performer-audience…it was a place of expectant encounter with the living God.  And boy did I need the living God in every breath as I figured out how to live this life of in a hostile home, work, and school environment.  I wanted the people I was leading and ministering to to have the same experience – a God who would meet with them, change them, empower them, and fill them for whatever lies ahead.  I remember many holy moments.  Powerful.

I still want the same now in ministry.  I don’t want to ever just turn up and go home feeling like I’ve gone through the motions.  And I don’t want the church to feel like that either.

And this all leads me to say that we all need to learn how to wait on God and give space for him to move.  In our own experience, we need to learn how to break out from under the umbrella and let God alight upon us by his Spirit.  We need to learn to come before God expectant that God will move, speak, impact, change, empower, transform.

We need to learn awe, humility, and how to submit in such a way that the Spirit of God can have his way with us in the thousand holy moments of divine encounter.  I’m not content just to have learned something interesting or caught up with people I know and love.  I want to come and know the power of God at work in and through his people.

Going back 20 years…there’d be the final song.  And it was usually one you could stomp to because, filled afresh with the missionary Spirit, it was time to march out.  It was one with a hundred choruses because the next movement was a step onto the battlefield of the world where we’d see victories and defeats, advances and retreats…but we’d go knowing that Christ was our commander and the battle belonged to Him.  ‘The World for God!’, the battle Cry.

On we march with the Blood and the Fire
to the ends of the earth we will go;
And the Saviour’s love will be the theme of our song
because we love Him so!

The nostalgia is nice.  But it’s not the wrapping I want.  It’s Him alone.  Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done.

Sinking the Ark…

When I explain my rather long-winded dissertation title that I’m currently working on, 9 times out of 10 I can see the eyes glazing over.  It doesn’t sound particularly jazzy or sexy.  Phrases like ‘critical discussion’, ‘contemporary monastic mission’, ‘societal engagement’, and ‘The Benedict Option’ don’t necessarily grab you.

But let me tell you what is at the heart of it.  I’m passionate about missional discipleship – that is, seeing disciples who make disciples, who make disciples, and thus take very seriously the Great Commission.  It is what seems to be at the heart of ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done.’   I’d like to see a generational legacy of the disciples that I help to make, going on to make disciples, who in turn each make disciples.  This is the beginning of movement and multiplication.  The by-product of transformed lives is a transformed church which can increase its capacity to do greater things.

I want to see a beautiful surge of Jesus-shaped lives impacting our nation and changing the world.  Starting where I am.

I don’t want to be content to keep the church running, open or focussed on preserving the status quo until the wind changes and the world storm recedes.  No!  ‘I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell‘, said C T Studd, and that’s what my heart bleeds for.    We are salt and light in the world, but only if the salt isn’t flavourless, the light isn’t dim, and it’s actually effective in touching the world.

The gentleman I’m arguing with (in the nicest possible academic tones) basically senses that the world is heading for Hell in a hand-cart, and so the church should simply withdraw into its 21st century Noah’s Ark and wait for the flood waters to reduce.  We can then settle on some mountainside and run around like Julie Andrews and all will be well.  The most surprising (or unsurprising) thing is that people seem quite taken with this gentlemen’s ideas, but it couldn’t really be further from the heart of Jesus and his intentions for his people in this time.

Inside the Ark, it is all about preservation of our purity; attention to our wants and needs; reassurance that we won’t have to wrestle with the world’s ideas; our prefferred ways of worship will be saved; our perspective on morality will go unchallenged; and we will cease from the hard, sleeves-rolled-up commitment to mission in a messy world.

No.  These ideas, wherever they might be found, are fundamentally at odds with the mission and call of the church of Jesus.  You don’t have to look much further than the life of Jesus himself – and that’s the key problem in Rod Dreher’s ‘The Benedict Option:  for Dreher, Jesus is a moral authority to be worship and preserved like a relic in an ancient stone church, rather than a radical, missional-incarnational, transformational, Son-of-God, example to be followed and obeyed, in the cut and thrust of life.

The academic conversation is plenty fun.  But it serves to fire the heart on the essentials of what and who we are as a people of God.

Does your church represent an Ark?  Or, is it manning the lifeboats and heading out on purposeful rescue missions to our families, neighbourhoods, communities, nations and family of nations?

‘Go and make disciples of all nations…’ Jesus said.  And we have to start just where we are.

Who are you discipling?