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.

‘All or Nothing’

I started watching a YouTube documentary last night by accident – not entirely sure how I got there, but this was a film about a young Roman Catholic sister from Derry, N Ireland, who discovered an inexplicable call from God to follow him and abandon her life to this calling. A lively, joyful and colourful character, footage tracks what seemed to me to be a remarkable transformation and a deep spiritual growth over the period of years the documentary covers.

What is so significant about this Sister, Clare Crockett, quite apart from the fact that she prematurely lost her life in an Ecuadorian earthquake when the school she was teaching at collapsed, was this young womans passion, enthusiasm and dedication to the Lord. Joyful, sacrificial, and, as the title of the film affirms, a pure example of a life that was ‘All or Nothing’. She gave up a promising TV/film career to follow this sense of vocation.

I won’t tell the whole story – you can watch it yourself – but I was brought to moments of deep reflection on my own life. There seemed to be traces of parallel from her story which touched my own story and helped me reconnect with a question I’ve been asking of late.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that my conversion to Christ was ‘out of the blue’ – in a very short space of time the Lord captured my heart and attention, and my conversion was very much a Damascus Road. I saw in this Sister many of the passions I held (and, in some ways still hold) regards to passion for the Lord, the gospel and the mission of the church. I saw that same strong streak of abandonment to his purposes that I can trace through parts of my own story. I certainly identified with her longing for a deeper devotion to Christ, a deeper love for people, and a desire to live sacrificially.

I’ve found myself in recent days and weeks being drawn into a particular conversation with God, especially as I’m in a season of evaluating my ‘Personal Way of Life’ – how my new monastic commitments are expressed, and how vows of Simplicity, Purity and Obedience look in these days for me as a follower of Jesus, a father, a husband, friend and pastor.

With others, I’ve been talking about how easy it is to settle for a lesser vision in our discipleship and devotion to the purposes of Christ. I’m increasingly aware that in some places we’re in a culture where suggesting prayer and scripture reading as a base for discipleship is a step beyond what folks are prepared to really take on board.

I’m not at all convinced that the way forward for the body of Christ is to ‘take off the discipleship yoke’ and mingle with the crowd. On the contrary, I’m convinced that the discipleship bar first has to be set, then raised. This has to begin with an encounter with God in prayer, scripture and in a whole variety of means. This, of course, is what the ancient monastics have consistently witnessed to…there is an ongoing path to walk, another journey to take.

It’s like Odessius, who, having struggled his way back home, to his desired destination, then discovers that there is a second journey which is even more significant than the first. It is a journey where he must take all that has been known and familiar thus far, and start out again. That either terrifies you or excites you. It will either reveal the extent of your ‘can’t be bothered’ or call you onward.

The call to be a disciple doesn’t end with the call. That’s the first journey. The second is the path deeper into Christ, and a willingness to give it all over… ‘All or nothing!’ This is not a path of dualistic thinking, either/ors…rather, it’s one where we enter into that simple realisation that to be in Christ is to enter into a whole new world of possibility!

Ragged Edges

One of my colleagues* when we lived and worked in Newcastle upon Tyne frequently used the phrase ‘we are a church of ragged edges.’ It was probably more accurate to say that we were ‘becoming’ a church with ragged edges, but the intention was very much there.

This phrase captured for me what I’d always understood church to be: messy and chaotic, but also radically loving and inclusive of people from all walks of life. Sadly, sometimes our theology gets in the way of that. If you are ragged at the edges, that doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t have a solid gospel-shaped, Christ-centred core towards which people are invited to journey. It simply means that the church loses its walls – in fact, it means that the walls have been attacked with a great big sledge hammer.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time in prayer out on our local community of Hertford recently. This has been, as always, so valuable. To watch, to see, to listen to local people going about their daily business gives a real sense of who is out there and what is going on for them. It is also an interesting exercise to contrast the kind of folks ‘out there’ with the folks who most significantly populate the church fellowship. Quite a contrast in many ways.

Here’s how I think a church can learn to be ragged:

  • recognise that everyone journeys towards Christ at a different pace, in response to the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Hardly anyone has ‘arrived’ in the Christian life, and some folks journey slower. We seek to make space for that and dispense grace and understanding
  • recognise that coming to Christ is not the same as converting to a particular culture. You don’t have to be or become white middle class to be a Christian, and yet that often happens in our country. What does an authentic expression of Christian faith in Hertford (or insert your own preferred town) really look like?
  • recognise that we need to put away our ideas of perfection. As the great Leonard Cohen used to say, ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’ Bonhoeffer, in his book ‘Life Together’, says that it is our lofty ideals about what Christian community should be that often prevents that community from ever realising any sort of fullness. The followers of Jesus were a real shocker of a bunch – broken lives becoming whole
  • recognise the need to be real – because people can see through falseness, fakery and flakery. Most people I’ve encountered ‘outside’ the church would consider belonging to something that wasn’t deluded with its own sense of importance, or in keeping up appearances.
  • recognise the thirst for community, not entertainment. The world is so much better at putting on a ‘good show’ than the church, and so, these days, the largely ‘attractional model’ which expresses itself in simply being fancy isn’t really going to cut it, especially with the emerging millenial generation. People want to know that people have their back. Authenticity trumps any ideas we have about ‘relevance’ every time.
  • recognise that, sometimes, your theology will never fully reconcile with the reality of life. We certainly don’t give up on seeking to be fully true to Christ, but in the process, things, health, communities, people and their lives can break down. That’s where it’s important to be radically loving. Most churches have a lot to learn here.
  • recognise the need to create ‘altars in the world’, or to ‘sanctify the ordinary’. What I mean by that is that God is far from restricted to the Sanctuary. He’s as present in the coffee shop, front room, football pitch, commuter train, school and street than he is anywhere else. God can, and must, be encountered all-times and every-where. This is a challenge to any church who is only available/visible for one hour on a Sunday.

My colleague had another phrase: we’re a 7 day-a-week community. Our building was a community hub, always open and acceptable. The possibility of Christian friendship, company and community were pretty much always available at least at some time each day. People knew there was somewhere to come!

All this aspirational stuff – we may fall shorter than we’d like, but I think they’re really good intentions to hold and work towards.

*Pastor David Bedford is a URC minister currently in Dorking, but who I worked with at Trinity Gosforth Methodist/URC local ecumenical partnership in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Praying the Hours

I was preaching on Acts 3 yesterday – Peter and John healing the crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate. I spent a bit of time reflecting on the first verse which tells us that Peter and John went up to the temple at the hour of prayer – three o’clock in the afternoon. It’s an easy verse to skip by, and, indeed, when it was read out (excellently, I must say), it was almost as if it was a superfluous detail. It struck me as important.

The Jews of Peter and John’s time, devout ones, that is, regularly went at the set times for prayer – 9am, 3pm, and sunset. Those would be alongside prayers at other times such as meals and around other daily bits of life. It would certainly have involved reciting the ‘Shema’ (Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is one…love the Lord your God with all your heart..) and there would have been Psalm recitation.

I felt it was important to point out that, even in the excitement and amazing moving of the Spirit in the newly birthed Christian community, these guys were still in the discipline of regular set time prayer. There is no real evidence to suggest that this stopped, even when they were ultimately expelled from the Temple courts…and ‘fixed hour prayer’ goes on well into Christian history.

Except, we know better than that, don’t we? Oh no, we don’t read our prayers from books! No, we fervently pray from the heart, all through the day without any problem at all. Well…I hope you forgive my sacrastic tone!

I do remember many years of thinking two particular things: a) that if you had to read your prayers from a book, you weren’t very good at it and, b) that setting steady times for reading and prayer were just legalism…I’m free, and don’t need that discipline.

How foolish I was.

I need every element of structure available to keep me on track. I need to have times set to ‘show up’ before God lest I arrogantly assume I’m too busy for all that. I need a framework for my life of discipleship, mainly because I’d languish otherwise!

We mustn’t confuse having discipline in our Christian lives with any idea that we’re not then reliant on the Spirit. That was the point that I was noticing from the little story in Acts 3. These guys were in the thick of one of the most amazing moves of the Spirit, being used in mighty ways, such as in this healing story. But, here they were rocking up to pray in the Temple. Why? Because it was time to! And…because I think its the regular turning up to be in God’s presence where the heart and devotion is really altered and changed. I am not sure that sort of work really happens when we’re just winging it.

Down through all of history, Christians have adhered to ‘fixed hour prayer’ or ‘praying the hours’. The monastic tradition were and are experts at it, as are many other parts of the church then and now. The 24/7 prayer movement has done most in recent decades for the evangelical/charismatic wing of the church in awakening this desire for prayer, but also for that rhythm and regularity.

My question is what will it take for other believers to realise that prayer is as much a discipline to be forged than it is a relationship to develop. In the beginning, turning up to be in God’s presence is like the first few dates of a relationship – awkward, nerve-wracking, uncertain, mostly awkwardly silent! But, through the discipline of turning up, we come to know who our Beloved is.

I think we all need to get serious about our prayer life – our life of prayer. No excuses. Stop being so easy on yourself. I rarely meet a person who can say to me ‘my prayer life is good’. Thing is – it doesn’t come easy or naturally…it takes discipline!

More fluid…

To be honest, I haven’t wanted to as much as look at the papers and the dissertation I produced for my MA in Mission (Celtic Mission and Spirituality) in these last months! It’s a bit like that with any major piece of study – you spend so much time with it that you get tired looking at it! I am, however, just abour ready to revisit it!

Today I was thinking about a piece of work I did in response to Pete Ward’s writing in ‘Liquid Church’ – a book which suggests a transition to a more fluid way of meeting and being church, founded much more on relationships, networks, and churches as resource hubs for spiritual life. He advocates utilising the best aspects of ‘consumerism’ to achieve this – this is probably the most controversial part the work, but he rightly affirms that we can’t reach a culture by just purely dismissing it. It’s a bit more indepth than that, and don’t want to dumb down Pete’s work, but the book stands so much in contrast for our fixed and boundaried church systems. We are often more occupied with the ‘Sunday Show’ and the institutional expression of the church than we are with facilitating the life of Jesus’ community.

There are a whole range of smaller groups experimenting with more radical* approaches to Christian community. It isn’t so easy to point to larger, more established church communities who have successfully transitioned into new ways of being that more effectively facilitate the flow of the Spirit and the life of Christ among his people. The journey is usually much, much slower, but not impossible. Admittedly, many established settings are reasonably stuck in their ways and take time to shift – but patience really is a virtue! If time isn’t taken over significant and lasting change, you run the risk of losing momentum with smaller and inconsequential shifts which get you nowhere.

Early Celtic monasteries were both static and fluid…or at least squidgy round the edges. They were centres of art, learning, community, instruction, prayer and evangelisation. Their presence meant that they were a hub of local mission, service and worship…and ultimately of significant influence. What was less static was the encouragement of the brothers and sisters to get out into the community, walking the lanes and paths of their ancient world, carrying the gospel to the nations (up until the 7th century Synod of Hertford, which effectively banned the roving Celts!!!). Much of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and parts of England were converted through this wandering for Jesus. But sadly, the full weight of Rome came against the fluid with some rigid parish and diocesan systems. Just a huge clash of mindset, method and mission.

Thing is – in the 21st century, our communities are much less static, and so the ‘local’ everythin struggles. Everything is more fluid. Whilst been rooted in the local is a great aspiration, I wonder if we expend too much effort fortifying our geographical mision in a transient world. I’m all for local expressions of church, I believe that where it’s at, but even in a geography like the town I live in, there is such a huge varience in time, availablility and lifestyle that it makes what many know as ‘traditional congregational life’ quite a challenge to sustain. We need to think creatively about how to navigate this.

Strikes me that it’s possible to invest your life in bolstering up, or placing scaffolding around, traditional formats, whilst never making any real steps forward. Strikes me more that we need a pattern of life and mission in the church that will help maximise our reach and connection, and which takes more seriously the context we are in.

*by radical, I mean ‘close to the roots’ rather than ‘fanatical’ or ‘fundamental’. Such a shame that the word radical has been hijacked.