Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bloody Christmas

Let’s face it: for all its grim-faced cheer and goodwill, Christmas is a bloody awe-full season.

Before the box of torn, discarded wrapping paper has made it out to the recycling bin, we’ve moved from Christmas Day straight into St Stephen’s Day: the remembrance of the first person whose decision to follow the Christmas-babe-grown-up cost him his own life; stoned to death, his crimson blood slowly congealing, mixed with the dusty ground.

And then, just days later, Holy Innocents’ Day: the remembrance of the baby boys of Bethlehem, victims of the infanticidal order of the paranoid puppet king, Herod the Great. They did not die because of their decision to follow Jesus, but as a consequence of someone else’s, the Magi from the east. (I’m not suggesting that the Magi ‘followed’ Jesus in the religious-conversion sense we often use ‘follow’ to mean today; but they did so in an arguably more significant sense: they left behind their known world and travelled into the unknown after him, and back again, a journey of perhaps four years.) Because Christmas marks an invasion, of light into darkness; the pivotal turning-point in a bleak and cosmic conflict; and there will be casualties, of combatants and non-combatants alike.

And what of us? What of me?
Am I willing to take the risk of being a combatant; or will I settle for the risk of being a non-combatant?
Am I willing to be a combatant only in as far as my children are somewhere safe; or am I wise enough to know that nowhere is safe, and that I do my children no favours to pretend otherwise, to fail to train them in the way of combat?

This is the story the season of Christmas asks me to join in. This is the story the season of Christmas sustains me in as I respond.

Have a bloody awe-full Christmas…and a re-invigorated journey into the New Year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Advent 24

So the expectant, attentive wait of Advent is almost over for another year. And yet, that which we wait for – Jesus’ return – has not yet been fulfilled. Do we continue to wait? Yes, but we wait knowing that we cannot sustain the intensity of waiting, and knowing that we must attend to other chapters of our story.

For Advent is the first chapter of our story, the story we re-tell through the seasons of the Church year. And, strangely perhaps, our story begins with a looking-forward to its sequel, which is yet to be written. It frames all that follows, with the recognition that the world is not, yet, as it should be; not, yet, as it will be. It sets the scene – the problem in need of resolution – into which the principal character – the one who will, in the end, resolve the plot – will come.

A strange beginning, perhaps, but a wise one: for at times, the night will seem so dark, hope all but snuffed out, that we shall need to return here,
year on year

until he comes.

The photo is of Bethlehem at night, taken from just outside the checkpoint.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Advent 23 | O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The Advent Antiphons (Common Worship: Times and Seasons)

The photo is of a statue of Mary with the infant Jesus in the Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Advent 22 | O Rex Gentium

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

The Advent Antiphons (Common Worship: Times and Seasons)

The photo is of the Church of All Nations, at the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Advent 21 | O Oriens

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

The Advent Antiphons (Common Worship: Times and Seasons)

The photo is of the inside of the Armenian Cathedral of St James the Greater and St James the Less, Jerusalem. Light penetrates the dark from above. The inside of the great dome is in the design of a six-sided Star of David.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Advent 20 | O Clavis David

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

The Advent Antiphons (Common Worship: Times and Seasons)

The photo is of olive trees outside Bethlehem. They have belonged, for generations, to Bethlehem families. Now Bethlehem is surrounded by a Wall. If the families fail to upkeep the olive groves, the trees are confiscated by the Israeli government. But it is not easy to tend your olive grove when you have to pass through provocatively obstructive security checks to do so...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Advent 19 | O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

The Advent Antiphons (Common Worship: Times and Seasons)

Jesus, the Root of Jesse, and Shoot of the House of David. The photo is of a carving of Christ on the Cross - which sprouts as a tree - on the outer wall of the Armenian Cathedral of St James the Great and St James the Less, Jerusalem.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Prayer, for Kinaesthetics

Do you pray?
If so, how do you pray?
And, do you find prayer a struggle?

Okay, praying can be a struggle for all kinds of reasons. Wrestling with unanswered prayer would be a big one. And perhaps in a sense prayer isn’t meant to be so easy that we de-value it: it is a discipline, and disciplines both require and grow perseverance. But prayer is essential, and I don’t think it is meant to be so hard that we give up…

I suspect that one of the reasons many people find prayer difficult is that it is often taught as, or assumed to be, an abstract activity. In my tradition, at any rate. You close your eyes, and talk inside your head to someone who is invisible. But a lot of people aren’t abstract, conceptual thinkers or learners. What about:
those who process through their ears (aural);
those who process through their eyes (visual);
those who process through their hands (kinaesthetic)?

Men are more likely to be kinaesthetic, and visual, in how they engage with the world than women. Their conversations are more likely to be mediated through an object: men don’t talk while nursing a pint simply because alcohol can lubricate conversation (which it can), but because the physical act of holding the glass aids conversation, too…
In church traditions that don’t allow for kinaesthetic engagement, there tend to be far more women than men…
Go join the dots…

I often use visual images as aids to prayer or meditation, such as two Orthodox icons – a ‘Pantocrator’ (Jesus ruler over all), and ‘Mother of God’ (Mary with the infant Jesus) pairing – I picked up from some charismatic evangelical Lutherans in Sweden. They sit on the bookshelf above my desk at college (the icons, not the Lutherans).

My virtual friend Alan Creech is making beautiful, simple rosaries. He has a good explanation of what using a rosary as an aid to prayer is, and isn’t, here. Of course any aid or tool can become abused, but that is no reason to be suspicious of the aid or tool per se. I wonder whether this might be another baby Protestants threw out with the bath-water?

I wonder whether the physicality of a rosary might be helpful for kinaesthetic men who find prayer a struggle? I’m contemplating ordering one. Whether I do or not, I wanted to let you know about them. Go pay a visit…

Advent 18 | O Adonai

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

The Advent Antiphons (Common Worship: Times and Seasons)

The photo was taken on a wadi walk in the Negev Wilderness.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Advent 17 | O Sapientia

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

The Advent Antiphons (Common Worship: Times and Seasons)

The photo is of a dove, symbol of the Spirit of Wisdom and Truth, resting on the Southern Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Advent 16 | A Light for Mary

It is probable that Mary knew what it was to journey through the wilderness: the most likely route from Nazareth to Bethlehem would be to travel south down the Jordan Rift Valley, bypassing Samaria, and then climb westwards up through the Judean wilderness; and it is possible that the flight to Egypt took Mary, along with Joseph and Jesus, through the Negev wilderness rather than down the hill country and along the coastal plain.

But there is a sense in which Mary lives out her life in the wilderness – and this symbolic sense connects her to us. To see this we need to look not in the Gospels, but in the closing book of the New Testament, Revelation. In chapter 12, John depicts a vision of a woman who gives birth to a son. Now (pay attention: this bit is technical!) the imagery in Revelation is what is known as polyvalent symbolism, where one image has several referents. Or, to put it in other words, this woman is a composite of four other things:
she is Eve (who gave birth in increased pain, and whose offspring would war with the offspring of the serpent, Genesis 3:15, 16);
she is the people of Israel (as indicated by the sun, moon and stars of Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37:9-11);
she is Mary (who gave birth to Jesus, who will rule all the nations);
and she is the Church (whose offspring hold to God through Jesus).

So Revelation 12 is not a gospel account of Mary giving birth to Jesus, but, nonetheless, Mary is integral to the vision. In the vision, God had prepared a place for the woman in the desert, where she might be taken care of – by the wilderness itself! And so we can say that, while the wilderness may not have been Mary’s home in a historical sense, it is in a symbolic sense the place, chosen by God, of her provision and protection.

Likewise, though Revelation 12 is not a simplistic depiction of all humanity (through Eve), or the people of Israel, or the Church, these are integral to the vision and so we can say that the place God has chosen for our provision and protection – if we will flee into it, against all reason, for reason tells us that death alone awaits us there – is the wilderness.

So may the wilderness swallow up the flood that is about to overwhelm you…

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short."

When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent's reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

(Revelation 12:1-17)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advent 15 | A Light for John the Baptiser

John was the last of the prophets to point to Jesus’ coming. And John was so expectant of this future, and so attentive to its drawing near, that John recognises and points to Jesus while they are both in their mother’s womb.

And so, for Elizabeth, John’s prophetic action results in both discomfort and comfort. For this is the nature of prophecy.

Lord, come to us, and
in your mercy,
bring discomfort where we have
made ourselves comfortable;
in order that we might receive
your true comfort,
of which we are in need,
and wait in hope.

The photos are of the Negev wilderness.

A voice of one calling:
"In the desert prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

(Isaiah 40:3-5)

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"

(Luke 1:39-45)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Advent 14 | A Light for the Prophets

The Isaiah prophecies are shot through with an expectation of God’s coming to his people without equal. And Isaiah’s vision is of a God who comes through the wilderness. God is on his way to civilisation, as we have constructed it, and when he arrives he will judge us for our social injustice and idolatry. But in the wilderness, for those who are of no use to civilised society, God is doing a new thing. God comes to rescue those who have been abandoned by those he rescued in the past…

The photos are of the Judean Wilderness.

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendour of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendour of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
"Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you."

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
it will be for those who walk in that Way;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

(Isaiah 35:1-10)

This is what the LORD says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
"Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honour me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the desert
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.

(Isaiah 43:16-21)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Advent 13 | A Light for the Patriarchs

To observe Advent is to recognise that we do not wait on our own, but as the latest in a long line of those who have waited for God to come to us in Jesus. That is why we light candles incrementally on the four Sundays in Advent:

on the First Sunday in Advent, to remember the Patriarchs;
on the Second Sunday in Advent, to remember the patriarchs and the Prophets;
on the Third Sunday in Advent, to remember the patriarchs and the prophets and John the Baptiser;
and on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, to remember the patriarchs and the prophets and John the baptiser and Mary the mother of Jesus.

All of these who have gone before us, who prepared to meet God-come-to-us, and who called others to prepare, learnt one thing in common:

that if you would meet with God-come-to-us,
you must walk away from everything else,
from every other possible source of security and identity,
into the wilderness.

For in the wilderness, not only do you discover that every other possible source of security and identity runs dry…
…you also discover that God Provides.

The photo is of a well Abraham dug in the Negev, on the very edge of sustainable life, some 3,800 years ago.

‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for…

…By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith Abraham, even though he was past age – and Sarah herself was barren – was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death…

…These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.’

(Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19, 39-40)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Advent 5

In July, as part of a three week trip to Israel, I spent several days in the Galilee. There, we stayed in a hotel on Lake Tiberias. Each morning, the sun rose over the Golan Heights, on the far side of the lake. On one morning, I got up while it was still dark and went down to the beach, where I waited quietly with some friends who were already there for a swim. And as we waited, the sky, and the water beneath it, slowly changed colour through purples and golds to blue...

To wait expectantly is to know that what we wait for is not dependent on our making it happen.

To wait attentively is to know that what we wait for requires our involvement, our participation.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Advent 4

To wait attentively is to attune ourselves to the signs that what we are waiting for is getting nearer; to recognise those things that delay its coming, and those things that hasten its coming, and to make appropriate response. Too little rain, and the farmer must water the crop; too much sun, and the farmer must erect shade.

Suppose I hope to purchase something that I cannot at present afford to buy. I decide to set aside a certain amount each month towards it. Another, unexpected, expense means that I must revise the time of waiting, longer. An unexpected financial gift means that I can revise the time of waiting, shorter. Whether the day is postponed or brought forward, with each passing day I am closer to that day than when I began to wait.

The kingdom of heaven on earth is now, and not yet; the king is imminent in his arrival, and delayed.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Advent 3

To wait expectantly is to know that something worth waiting for has already begun to take place beneath the surface. The crop is growing, from seed to harvest. The foetus is developing towards full-term. What we wait for will change our circumstances, will bring with it great joy – though not without exertion and pain, when the time comes.

To wait expectantly is to savour the anticipation, to resist instant and momentary gratification, to prepare for our part in bringing what we wait for to pass.

And so the wait itself may change our circumstances, preparing us to receive, and to better steward what we will receive.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Advent 2

We do not like to wait. Indeed, we have forgotten how to wait. We have actively unlearnt waiting; become progressively de-skilled.

We say, “Time is money!” (even if we don’t earn a lot). Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money.”

We say, “I could be doing something more productive…” More productive than waiting? Then we really have misunderstood what waiting is, what waiting achieves…

We are told, “Buy now, pay later!” Borrow what you cannot hope to pay back. We fall into recession, and are counselled by our politicians to spend our way out again, financed by greater debt.

Impatience. Frustration. Disappointment.

The skills we have lost are the ability to wait expectantly, and to wait attentively.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Advent 1

I am waiting for something to arrive, a book.

I know that the book exists, that it has already been published, and that it is currently somewhere between the printers and my hands.

I know just what the book will look like, for I have closely studied two-dimensional virtual representations of every page (indeed, I made this book). But I don’t know just what the book will be like – its three-dimensional dimensions, its weight, the texture of the paper, the clarity of the photographs, the experience of holding it in my hands and sharing it with other people: these things are beyond my imagining.

My natural inclination is to impatience. I want the book now.

Worse than that: if no-one is at home when the book is delivered, I suspect that it will be taken to some depot and we will have to find time to go and collect it. Then my natural inclination will be to frustration. How unreasonable of them to come when no-one was in. How unreasonable of my wife to have left the house to shop for groceries.

That is why I need Advent.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Life After History

Once Upon A Time (though I am using the word ‘time’ anachronistically, as time did not yet exist) there was Eternity. Eternity has no beginning, and no end. It is not, properly speaking, part of creation: it has always been, as a consequence of God’s being; and it has no being independent of God.

And then there was Time. Time had a beginning, in creation, as a consequence of God creating the day and the night, the seasons and days and years.

At first, time and eternity were woven together. There was no death, no ending: no history. But then something happened: the man and the woman rebelled against God; and, as a consequence, for the good of the man and the woman and all creation (for God loved his creation), God drove eternity and time apart (for to live in eternity in rebellion to God would have unimaginably bad consequences). And with time left alone without eternity, history began.

Just occasionally, God would allow someone to cross over from time into eternity (Enoch; Elijah), cheating death, defying history. Just occasionally, God would cross over from eternity into time (appearing to Abraham; to Gideon). But then something happened: the darling of heaven submitted to the Father’s will; and, as a consequence, for the good of men and women and all creation (for God loves his creation), eternity and time were reunited (for to live in eternity in submission to God would have unimaginably good consequences). Death and history made their stand: and, indeed, succeeded in killing the Son. God died [1] (and with him, eternity; for eternity has no being independent of God). But death and history were not strong enough to hold God, and three days later he returned [2] (and with him, eternity; for eternity is a consequence of God’s being). And with time being woven together again with eternity, history came to an end.

With eternity – before and alongside and after time - being reconciled to time by the One who is reconciling all things to himself, the One who was and is and is to come (not merely the One who always is) invades and transforms the present.

To observe the season of Advent is to live simultaneously in a reality where Jesus has not yet come (anticipating the Feast of Christmas) and where Jesus has already come again (in the light of what is yet to come; for faith is the substance of what we hope for, Hebrews 11:1). And that reality transforms the present, where we remember his coming and await his coming again…

This is the stuff of True Myth (as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien both knew).

[1] We can say God died, because the Son is consubstantial with the Father: they are of one substance.

[2] To say that God was dead and returned is not to deny that the Father raised the Son to life. All language that speaks of God is inadequate, even when it is true.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

LifeShapes Heptagon | MRS GREN

The Psalmist wrote, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you.” That is, as he observed something in nature, the Holy Spirit revealed to his spirit that there was a correlation between the ‘natural’ order and the ‘spiritual’ order. Jesus also regularly used organic images to convey spiritual truths. The Heptagon takes the seven universal signs of life, from the biological sciences, and applies them in this way. It is concerned with healthy life, and helps us to identify potential problems so that they can be addressed before they become terminal. It is a helpful health-check for individuals and groups.


If an animal doesn’t move, it either runs out of food or becomes food. Are we moving? Has our perspective – on God, on yourself, on the world – changed, or is it static? Is our faith defensive, or a journey?

And if we are moving, is our movement purposeful? Migrating herds or flocks, or running around aimlessly? Distracted movement is as much a sign of ill health as lack of movement.

Some creatures move very quickly, others very slowly: one is not better than the other! But communities need to move together.


Respiration is the process by which oxygen is absorbed and energy is released, in every cell. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, which gives us life. Prayer is to the spirit as breathing is to the body. Taking an occasional breath may be sufficient for existence, but not enough for active life. On the other hand, hyperventilating is a panic response, a sign of anxiety. Healthy breathing is both natural and, most of the time, unconscious.

How is our prayer life? Do we rarely or never pray together? Is prayer all we do (hyperventilation)? Or is it a natural response?


We often talk of 5 senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. In fact, there are several others, including sense of heat, of balance, of pain, and an unconscious awareness of the connectedness of our body parts. Sharks have a sense of electric fields; birds navigate using a magnetic sense.

Are we sensitive, towards God, each other, the world around us? Are we attuned to the spiritual environment around us? As a community, are we releasing individuals who can take a leads for us in relation to one or other of the senses?


Churches that believe that growth is important tend to focus too much on growth. You can’t grow by attempting to grow: only by indirect effort. If all the other six signs of life are healthy, healthy growth just happens…and if they aren’t healthy, unhealthy growth – like cancer – may result.

Having said too much attention is given to growth, it is worth pointing out that:

(i) growth is not constant: it often happens in stages [see the LifeShapes Square] or seasons [see the LifeShapes Semi-circle].

(ii) there are different expressions of growth, from an elephant that gets bigger to a lawn of grass that spreads wider: one size does not fit all.


Not every individual reproduces, but every community needs to, or else it will become extinct. The truth is, you – your group – will die. If reproduction has not taken place, all you have learnt is lost.

There are different forms of reproduction. In cellular reproduction, every component is duplicated internally, and then the cell becomes two cells. With complex organisms, DNA – values, in codified form – from two distinct parents combine to form offspring that are both recognisable and unique. Some creatures reproduce in low numbers, and invest heavily in nurturing their offspring; others reproduce in large numbers, and may never know what becomes of their offspring – but information for the continued survival of the species is nonetheless passed on.

Are we passing on what God has invested in us, to others? What might that look like? In some cases, long-term investment; in others cases, a passing opportunity. At times, it might lead to numerical growth within one group; at other times, to the creation of new groups.

Reproduction can be impaired by ill health, barrenness, isolation, or contraception (artificially constraining potential for new life). Do any of these issues need to be addressed?


Every living thing builds up toxins within itself, and needs to find a way of neutralising and expelling those toxins. If it is unable to do so, it will move through discomfort to poisoning to death.

Spiritually speaking, toxins build up within us: hatred, gossip, complaining, lust, greed, hurt…

Spiritually speaking, excretion refers to the activity of asking for forgiveness for ourselves and extending forgiveness to others. This is so vital, Jesus includes it at the heart of the pattern of prayer he taught his disciples!

Are we accountable? Are we honest about toxins? (They are an inevitable side-product of life.) Are we seeking and proclaiming forgiveness?

Problems relating to excretion can result from problems relating to...


Nutrition is to do with diet. A healthy diet is balanced in composition, and in regularity. Problems include:

(i) under-nutrition: where too little is eaten, e.g. no regular discipline of meditating on God’s word.

(ii) mal-nutrition: where there is an imbalance of composition, e.g. lots of sermons, very little testimony, prophecy, etc.

(iii) over-nutrition: where too much is eaten, e.g. a new sermon every week, without space to digest the food, assimilating it’s goodness. Over-nutrition combined with lack of exercise results in obesity…

In the West, eating disorders are often associated with unhealthy self-image. Are we secure in our identity as children of God?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Imitate Me | Don't Mimic Me

I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
1 Corinthians 4:14-17

We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
Hebrews 6:12

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Hebrews 13:7, 8

Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone – and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.
3 John 1:11, 12

Recently my wife was having a conversation with someone, in which faith, in relation to a specific issue, came up in what was for her a very natural way. The response of the other person was, “I’ve never had a faith like that; only church leaders have faith like that.” It’s not exceptional: it seems that at the moment we keep coming across people who have been Christians for many years but who are still spiritual babies. It’s not exceptional: but it is scary.

One of the things we’re observing, looking around at the churches local to us while I’m training to be a vicar, is that discipleship isn’t even on the radar.

Sunday services are on the radar. Preaching is on the radar. Pastoral care is on the radar. These things and discipleship are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but, a weekly worship event including half-an-hour of generic monologue supplemented by coming alongside people when they are ill or bereaved does not equate to discipleship – and it would appear that the demands of these things does muscle-out response to the command to go and make disciples.

What do I mean by discipleship? The intentional discipline of imitation: of identifying someone whose life of faith you are seeking, with their help as well as God’s, to imitate; and of identifying and helping someone who is seeking to imitate your life of faith.

It seems to me that one of the barriers to discipleship is confusion in our minds between imitation and mimicry.

Consider the difference between the two. We have a saying in English, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We seek to imitate those we admire; imitation has sincerity to it. On the other hand, when we mimic someone, it’s not often sincere; the intention is not usually flattery. Even if the intention is sincere, the best mimicry can achieve is a pastiche of the original.

Too often, church leaders identify someone with character and gifting, and encourage that person to mimic them. They ask them to lead a service, for example. Research by the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity has revealed that far too many of the (far too few) teenagers in our churches aspire to being a church-based youth worker. That’s mimicry at work. Why don’t they aspire to being graphic designers, or bankers, who might disciple teenagers coming up through their church?

It is easier to ask someone to mimic you than it is to invite them to imitate you, because mimicry is of external things – what I perform in public – and does not require vulnerability of internal things – how I act in private. But imitation leads to transformation, whereas mimicry leads only to dependence (which is why satirical impressionists have to rework their repertoire or become irrelevant whenever there is a change of political leader).

I don’t want anyone to do what I do, in the particular. But I do want some people to be becoming like me, in how I live my life, recognising that I am myself a work in progress…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I walk to college and home again by different paths. There, over the crest of a hill, along the narrowest of provision: the edge of a curved blade. And back, around the side of the hill, along wide pavements: the blade’s face. There, the direct line, taking my life in my hands on the main road. And back, along the scenic route, taking my time through leafy neighbourhoods.

It is a routine walk, a rhythm to my day. It does not have to be just functional. Today I was arrested by the different quality of the light, early morning and mid afternoon, and moved to respond.

Ex Chrysalis

These mornings, again, I awake in darkness;
hot-shower against the cold
to stir my blood; dress, moving slowly;
descend the stairs.
The kitchen window still a wall of black,
the world impenetrable beyond
as I stand stirring porridge that
will warm my bones.

At ten-to-eight, heading to chapel,
I move through still-first-light:
recently emerged from night
as a butterfly from the chrysalis,
its folded wings as yet to dry,
before they can spread wide
against the sun, filling the sky
with clear autumnal blue.

This light, so vulnerable
I half-suspect that it will leave
its pigment trace upon my clothes

as I brush past...

Blue Sky

On days like today, the air cold
enough to fire the imagination,
I feel as if anything is possible.
Striding out, I fill my lungs
and know I am alive.
Such days are gift:
for all things are mine, now
made alive by faith;

but certain days obscure truth.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Social Economy | Market Economy

This morning I was out raking leaves from our back lawn (it’s that time of year again!) when my neighbour called over the fence to me: do you eat tomatoes? We do; and he gave me a tub of tomatoes he had grown in his greenhouse. Three varieties: a small orange one; a medium-sized yellow one; and a larger red one.

That’s an example of the social economy at work.
The foundational question underlying the market economy is: how can we maximise our profits?
The foundational question underlying the social economy is: what do we need, and who can we share our surplus with?

[Note that the market economy is willing to give stuff away, but as a ‘loss-leader’ to generate a new customer base: the driving force remains profit.]
[Note also that the social economy is willing to sell stuff, but it is always looking for what it can give away to those who cannot (re)pay: the driving force remains the sharing of surplus.]

Churches can operate according to the principles of market or social economics.

Churches that operate according to the principles of the market economy are concerned to enlarge the customer base (bums on pews) who will pay for (through tithing) their product (worship experience, sermons, children’s work, etc.). They are essentially inward-looking, or attractional, in their relationship with their neighbours. The greater the number of products they can develop (programmes, niche interest groups, etc.) the wider the potential customer base they can appeal to.

Churches that operate according to the principles of the social economy are concerned to bless those beyond their fence, without expectation of anything in return (it is not that they do not hope for a response, but that they do not hope to benefit from any response: rather, they hope for responses that in turn benefit another). They are essentially outward-looking, or incarnational (i.e. taking the nature of a servant), in their relationship with their neighbours. The more content they are with living within their means, the more they have to give away to others.

[Note that the difference between a market economy church and a social economy church may not be so much in what they do as in their motivation for doing those things.]

Do the values of your church reflect market economics, or social economics?

And how might we effect a change of fundamental attitude, from market economic to social economic values?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pentagon | 2

Five-fold spirituality is concerned with being released into the role you were created for.

It has to do with ‘whole-life’ discipling: that role being expressed through your contribution to society, not (just, or even first and foremost) your service to the Sunday service...It is part of the church being equipped to be the agents through which God changes the world, through whom God’s reign is exercised.

An accountant for Christ, a doctor for Christ, a parent for Christ, unemployed for Christ...

An apostle will parent differently to a pastor. And that’s okay: you can’t be all things to your child, but you can trust God for your children.

An apostle will be an accountant differently to an evangelist. One might do the audits for company after company; the other might network and connect. A teacher might stay in the same firm for a long time, and train up accountants...

How have you been made?
How can the church support you in that role?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Pentagon

The 5-sided Lifeshape is a tool for discovering the role God has created you for within his Church, and helping us to work through the dynamics – both positive and negative – that result from the fact that we each have different roles to play. Within Lifeshapes language, we refer to this as five-fold ministry. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost have also written extensively on this (see The Shaping Of Things To Come): they use the term APEPT.

Ephesians 4:4-16 presents us with a gift list that is qualitatively different from other gift lists in the New Testament. Romans 12 is concerned with gifts that God gives to people, and the main principle being brought out here is that we should exercise those gifts not in accordance with the measure of our gifting or our experience but according to how much faith we have. 1 Corinthians 12-14 is primarily concerned with how gifts (whether those gifts are people or abilities) are exercised in the gathered church, with the main principle being that love for one another, as opposed to competition amongst each other, is the key. But Ephesians 4 is concerned not with gifts given people but with people given as gifts.

Ephesians 4 identifies five types of people: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Verse 7 – “grace was given to each one of us” – suggests that this is not merely illustrative examples from a wider list. Some have argued that the New Testament uses other metaphors for role, such as builders or farmers; but I would contend that the types in Ephesians 4 are not metaphors (even if ‘pastor’ derives from ‘shepherd’...which makes shepherd a suitable metaphor for the pastor).

Verses 8-9 present us with the image of Jesus, having broken out of hell, leading a procession of freed captives, who are given as gifts. This image strongly suggests to me that these types are of the creation order, rather than the redemption order. That is, God does not confer upon you the state of being an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor or teacher at the point of conversion; but that we are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers held captive until we are set free to find the fullest expression of these roles within the Church.

That means that these words are not religious words, as such; and that we can identify signs of this creation order gifting in those who would not identify themselves as Christian. And helping people to understand more fully how they have been made has incredible potential for discipling such people towards faith. It also means that we would be wise to help Christians to identify how God has made them in this regard, in order to equip them to fulfil that role within God’s mission in the world, in its widest sense. What follows is a summary introduction to each potential people gift.

Apostle means one who is sent out. Apostles are pioneers of the new frontier, created to move into uncharted waters. They are not made to sustain the status quo. Apostles would include entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, who goes into new areas of business; who puts others in place to populate and settle the ground; and who is not afraid to sometimes surrender the past in order to achieve the future. Apostles would include those who are brought in to ‘turn around’ a failing school or institution; but for whom it would not be appropriate to stay there long-term. So apostles need to work with others. Because the Church has undervalued the role of apostle, it has found it hard to take ground lost by previous generations: pastors and teachers aren’t best designed for that. But apostles tend to see the world in very black-and-white terms, which can result in massive personal fall-out (see Paul and Barnabas; Paul and Peter).

Prophets imagine a world which is different from that in which we find ourselves (in this regard, they differ from teachers, who explain the world as it is). This might be expressed in terms of the creative arts. It might also manifest itself in relation to social justice or environmental action. The Church has always had a prophetic voice (both the arts and the justice), but has not always known how the prophets relate to the body. As a result, many prophets have found their community outside of the Church, often in prophetic movements, such as the Green movement. While prophets may be concerned with social justice they differ from pastors in that prophets have a big-picture view, which is too big a burden for the pastor, concerned for individuals, to carry. But the individual can be lost in the big picture, so prophets need to work with pastors...and simply having a big picture is not the same as being able to bring change about, so prophets need to work with apostles...Many prophets experience marginalisation (outside the Church as well as within it), and prophets often have a significant measure of brokenness in their past, of which they may or may not have experienced healing.

Evangelists are passionate connectors. A friend of mine is an evangelist, and because he knows Jesus, he wants to connect people to Jesus, to Jesus’ body, to the Church. But the reason I know he is an evangelist is that he is passionate about bird-watching; he wants me to share his passion, and to connect me to those who share that passion. As it happens, I’m not interested, not open, and so he doesn’t waste his time and energy seeking to persuade me. But I am interested in photography, would like to get into a local photographic society, and am finding that difficult because I have not yet found an evangelist who can help get me connected into an existing community. With regards to the workplace, evangelists would include those in marketing roles and also (of increasing significance) networking roles. Tragically, because the Church has not really known how to invest in evangelists, and because evangelists have often found it easier to be with non-Christians than with Christians, evangelists are themselves often not sufficiently connected to connect people...

I’ve often heard it said that whereas evangelists default towards non-Christians (i.e. are outward looking), pastors default towards Christians (i.e. are inward looking). Personally, I think that is incorrect, and unhelpful. Pastors are people people. Pastors care about people, and especially hurting people, regardless of their faith. Pastors want to see the individual, and are easily overwhelmed or ground down by the bigger picture. So, for example, we might expect to find pastors in the caring professions; but they may well struggle with the institutional scale (which is why it would be disastrous for the NHS if everyone in the caring professions was a pastor). As those, with teachers, who settle territory, pastors can feel undervalued by the more pioneering apostles, prophets and evangelists. The Church has selected pastors and teachers (and selected out APEs) for its clergy for generations, with the resulting irony: pastor leaders have not released APEs because they are threatening; but struggle with the burden of having to fulfil APE roles...

Teachers love to communicate ideas, to pass on learning. And so we might expect to find teachers in the teaching profession – although, again, it would be disastrous if every teacher was a teacher in this sense (the teacher who impacted me most was an evangelist for his subject; schools also need apostles, prophets and pastors). Our overly academic teaching culture has (mis-)shaped the function of teacher within the Church, resulting in cognitive knowledge as opposed to active belief. The exclusion of APE roles has only served to exacerbate this dilemma. We need teachers; but only in the context of a more rounded understanding of the people God has given as gifts to his Church, for the world. We need teachers who won’t shape those they lead into a teacher mould.

As a leader, we will be called upon at various times and seasons to function in a role other than the role God has made us to primarily be. In Lifeshapes language, we refer to this as base ministry and phase ministry. So Paul puts Timothy into a situation where a teacher is what is needed, because that is Timothy’s role; but reminds him, in the context of a specific time, not to neglect the work of an evangelist: something which does not come naturally to him. This connects the Pentagon to the Semi-circle. Times when God leads us out of our comfort-zone are times when we grow – not just in a new area, but as a person, so that the zone from which we can operate with confidence grows. But if we find ourselves having to operate in another role for too prolonged a season, this is not good for us. We need to discover and go with the rhythm of God’s grace, leading us out and back again in due season...

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Learning Circle

The Lifeshapes Circle is a tool for choosing to learn from life. However, it differs from other experiential learning models in that its underlying purpose is to enable us to experience God’s kingdom breaking in, as we move from a worldly perspective to a heavenly one. In this sense, it describes for us the process by which Romans 12:2 happens (“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2, NIV).

Mark’s Gospel introduces Jesus’ mission with the summarising statement, “The time has come...The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV). Here ‘time’ is not chronos (chronological time) but kairos (time as event or moment of opportunity; eternity time that interrupts chronological time from outside); ‘repent’ is metanoia (change of mind); and ‘believe’ is pistis (active response, rather than mere cognitive consent).

The Circle begins with a kairos moment, and breaks down both repentance and belief into practical steps – that is, it de-mystifies these terms for people.

Matthew 6:25ff gives us an example of Jesus taking his disciples through the process of repentance and belief. The context is the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is teaching his disciples, and a large crowd are listening in. I want to suggest that he isn’t talking about worry about life because he’s compiling a book of Proverbs, but because he has observed that his disciples are worrying; he may even be responding to their articulating their worries.

These young men have good reason to worry about food and clothing. They have given up their source of income to follow Jesus. And it has been a great adventure, but reality is setting in. We know that Peter is married, and culturally it is unlikely that he was the only married disciple. These are young men, with responsibilities – and mother-in-laws! Exodus 21:10-11 sets out the responsibility of husbands to provide for their wives food, clothing and marital (that is, both sexual and emotional) rights – and empowers wives to walk away without having to buy their freedom (that is, the right to divorce) if their husbands persist in failing them in these regards. So we can imagine that the disciples might have reason to worry about food and clothing…

Repentance begins with ‘observe’ and ‘reflect.’ So far, so Kolb. Except that Jesus isn’t interested in getting his disciples to observe and reflect on the situation they face. Indeed, they have been observing and reflecting, and that is part of the problem! Because they’ve been observing the wrong thing, and reflecting with the wrong perspective. Jesus wants them to observe and reflect on birds and flowers (you can imagine how that would go down with their mother-in-laws).

Jesus wants them to observe and reflect on what God is like.

There is another key element to the process of repentance, and that is ‘discuss.’ It doesn’t necessarily come out in Matthew 6 (I’m looking for illustrations of principles, not proof-texts); but in the Gospels we often see Jesus taking a discursive approach. The ‘discuss’ element helps make explicit the point that discipleship works best in community, that repentance that leads to believe that leads to the kingdom breaking in is better when we repent and believe together, as opposed to on our own.

Having arrived at a change of mind, what is required for practical, active believing is a ‘plan.’ In the example we’re looking at, the plan is: we’re going to trust God to provide.

That’s it? Yes. That’s not a plan! Where are the action points? Okay: [1] We’re going to trust God to provide food [2] We’re going to trust God to provide clothes…You see, this is not about arriving at pragmatic solutions – though by that I’m not denying the need to plan in more concrete ways in certain situations. The pragmatic plan in response to the hungry crowd of over 5,000 is: next time, we’ll put “Bring a packed lunch” on the bottom of the flyer, or charge everyone a £5 conference fee and hire in outside caterers. The pragmatic solution to the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends is: we need better disabled access here. I’m not dismissing caterers or disabled access; just pointing out that they miss the point of what happens in these stories: that the kingdom breaks in because Jesus sees the situations from a heavenly perspective and not an earthly one.

But having a plan is not enough. We need to hold one another to the plan. The next practical element of believing is ‘account,’ or, put in place accountability. Matthew 6:25-34 is followed by Matthew 7:1-6. That is, don’t judge others while not being prepared to be held accountable and helped to live out what we believe ourselves. And don’t throw your pearls to pigs, or, don’t waste your time trying to involve those who aren’t prepared to engage as part of an accountable community.

Once a plan and the means to hold each other to account over it are in place, we need to ‘act’: the Sermon on the Mount concludes with stories of the fruit borne by good and bad trees, and wise and foolish builders. Jesus makes it clear that it is not enough to hear his voice; we need to act on what we have heard…

That is the Circle: presented with a kairos moment, an opportunity to repent and believe and thus experience the kingdom of heaven break into the here-and-now, we ought to respond. That response is not a pragmatic one, but it is practical as opposed to esoteric or mystical. We can learn to cooperate with God’s desire to transform our perspective, and therefore experience more of what he wants to do through us than we could have imagined.

Friday, September 26, 2008


In the Gospels, we see that Jesus sustains his inner life and public ministry by adopting a rhythm of withdrawing from the demands of the crowds and engaging with their needs. Moreover, he models this pattern of behaviour for his disciples.

In John 15, Jesus gives his disciples an insight into the healthy rhythm of the Spirit-led life, using the organic illustration of the vine. At the end of each grape harvest, vine shoots were pruned back to the main stock, which grew around the exposed cut, surrounding and hiding the shoot. From there, the shoot would grow outwards come the next season, bearing fruit in season. Where shoots were not pruned after harvest, they continued to grow outward, with diminishing fruit yield in following seasons, as more of the vine’s energy went into sustaining the shoot growth leaving less for fruit.

The rhythm of our life describes a pendulum swing, back and forth, from abiding, through growth to bearing fruit; then back again, through pruning to abiding.

It is important that we learn to notice, and submit to, the leading beat; the signs that notify us of the start of each new season. One of the most insidious errors for individual Christians and for communities of Christians is a misunderstanding of what it means to say that the Kingdom of God is always expanding. While this is true at a macro-level, at the micro-level growth and fruitfulness is sustained through pruning and abiding. Where we resist that natural spiritual process – attempting the hold the pendulum up at the fruit-bearing end of the swing, as it were - we resist the weight of God’s momentum in our lives. Eventually, something is going to give…

The following example illustrates what I mean:

Abide: Over the summer, you go away to a Christian festival/conference, and/or you make the time to read some books on spiritual growth, as expressions of withdrawing from the day-to-day pressures, getting away with Jesus. And as you do so, you find that through these things he gives you a fresh insight that increases your faith for healing.

Grow: You go home, and want to put this new understanding in to practice. You take, perhaps even make, opportunities to pray with people in need of healing. Other people around you are drawn to what you are trying to do. Perhaps you lead a community, and you set aside one evening a week specifically to pray for healing, and people start coming along.

Bear fruit: The more you pray, the more you see signs of prayer being effective. Slowly at first, there is an increasing volume of testimonies of receiving healing, testimonies of being used by God to bring his healing to bear.

Pruning: After a while, you notice that you have reached a level at which healing seems to plateau off: certain conditions are regularly healed, others see no response to prayer. And less people are coming to pray and be prayed for: life is busy, after all…
And this is a key turning-point. These are little indicators that God wants to draw us back, to submit to his pruning process so that, in the intimate abiding-time, he can impart the next piece of fresh insight he has for us.
I’m not talking about those times of resistance, where we need to press on through: you’ll get those, and especially at the early stages of doing something new, to discourage us if that is possible. How do you know when resistance comes from God and when it comes from the accuser? That takes discernment, gets easier with practice; significantly, it has something to do with whether the whispers are ‘for us’ or ‘against us.’

Abide: Let go of the activity; be brave enough to stop, trusting that this is not the failure of hopes and dreams God has put in your heart, but for their long-term fuller fulfilment. And find the ways that help you pursue God, come away with him, hear his voice…

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


So you are a Christian, and an architect, and the thing that is distinctive about you as opposed to the guy who sits at the next desk is that you go to church. Not just Sundays: you’re really involved. You’d like him to come along some time.
Why would he?
(I wouldn’t go to my current placement church if I didn’t have to.)

Okay, so you’re a Christian, and what is distinctive about you is that you aren’t cheating on your wife.
So what? Christians cheat on their wives at about the same rate as non-Christians. So, it’s as likely that the guy at the next desk isn’t cheating on his wife either; or that you are cheating on your wife after all.
The world is full of people who aren’t cheating, even if it is full of people who are.

You’re a Christian, and you’re an architect because you want to change the world, and this is the arena from which you are best-fit to do it.
Now that’s distinctive.
Not necessarily unique to Christians. But it’s distinctive.
That might engage the guy at the next desk.

I want to be a Revd because I want to change the world. I want to be a Church of England Revd because I want to change the world in and from this place. And I want to change the world by equipping and releasing congregations to change the world.
And you might say to me, Good luck, mate! But why else, as a follower of Jesus, would I want to do anything with my time?

[Having written the above, I’ve just turned on the News and heard the Prime Minister deliver a sound-bite about changing the world, one life at a time. Just for a fleeting moment, part of me is gutted – the ungenerous part, that doesn’t want ‘my thoughts’ undercut; the cynical part, that doesn’t think much of politicians…
…But, whether I like the dreams he is dreaming or not, here is a man who is dreaming, the very thing I’ve been reflecting on the need for us to do. And just because it is a messy business, that doesn’t make it any less crucial. In fact, it is a messy business in part because we cannot do it in isolation.

Change the world. Even the Prime Minister thinks it is a good idea.]


The dominant eschatology of the churches in the west has long been variations on the belief that things are going to get worse and worse, until Jesus returns (day and hour unknown) and sorts it all out, calling ‘Time!’ on this age and ushering-in the age to come.

And as a result, churches simply don’t recognise the future before it arrives, because they aren’t looking out for it.

Collectively, some of us have become pretty good at reactively ministering to people who have been caught up in history, responding to those affected by natural disaster or war or unjust global economics. But (with a few notable exceptions, like the prophetic voice of futurologist Tom Sine) we haven’t learnt the skills of discerning what is coming next, in order to offer a better future.

Other people have done this: business leaders are interested in ‘future-proofing’ their assets; environmental scientists look to engage with the realities of global warming.

Bishop Tom Wright (among others) presents an eschatological understanding whereby the kingdom of God increasingly breaks into the present until the present is overwhelmed and the kingdom is fulfilled, in a renewed earth and a renewed heaven come down to earth.

And if the kingdom is on the offensive, not the defensive (the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church; not, the gates of the Church shall prevail against the armies of hell) then, albeit resulting in sharper contrast between darkness and light, the future is supposed to be better than the present…because we are supposed to come more and more into God’s fullness of life.

As Christians, we need to be dreaming and modelling alternatives to the dreams and models of the world, pioneering kingdom prototypes.

Here are some things churches need to be dreaming and modelling in relation to now. I see hopeful evidence going on in many places, but these are tiny and fragile seedlings; and they have yet to take root in the soil of most churches.

My generation is the first generation in the west for over 200 years to be financially less well off than our parents. I’m 35, and it gets worse from my peers onwards: I was among the last in England to receive university education for which my fees and living expenses were paid for me. Today students leave with an average of £14K debt. I think my parents and parents-in-law were the first generation in their families to go to university, and I think that trend might not continue beyond their children…

But, we are sold the same dream: get a degree, get a professional career, get married, live in your own home, as a nuclear family, travelling abroad for holidays, upgrading the size and luxury of your cars, your house, the kids having their own room, their own TV, their own etc., shopping conveniently and cheaply, climbing the ladder at work, retiring on a good pension…

The housing market has out-priced itself, so that first-time buyers are excluded. A crash in value might allow such people to buy – if there isn’t a crash in personal income at the same time – but, if we merely begin the cycle again…

Regarding the ‘credit crunch,’ things are going to get much worse before they improve. Unemployment is going to rise significantly, and most likely not by gradual rise.

The cost of fuel is going to continue to rise, and again rise sharply, as demand outstrips supply; as fossil fuels are depleted; and as fuel increasingly becomes a political lever. Globally, water supply will become even more of a political lever than fuel. The cost of food will continue to rise.

Health care will overwhelm the Health Services as our populations age, and as the expanding boundaries of what can be done by medical science are outstripped by the expanding cost of being able to do what can be done; and as we face new challenges resulting from the ways in which we have met previous ones (e.g. resistant viral strains).

We are living in a time of rapid, discontinuous change. The American Dream, and its no less all-pervasive British cousin, are being found wanting. But, aren’t they the dreams our middle-class congregations have bought into? I don’t mean that as a criticism from outside that community, but a lament from within.

We need new dreams, new models, of how we live. Small-scale mixed-occupancy housing developments. Communal, rather than nuclear or individual, living will be an economic necessity: but also better for us in so many ways. Communities scaled around travel by foot, not car. We will need to grow more of the food we eat – something my grandfather used to do, when I was a boy (how far we come, what progress, to grow out of such peasant living in only half a lifetime!); food without its current carbon footprint. We might want to do that collectively, on allotments.

We will need to rediscover the church’s role as healer and educator, as hospitals and universities are increasingly unable to bear the demands on them. We will need to imagine new (or rediscover older) ways of doing business, on a more local scale of production. We will…

The question is, will we dream reactively in response to the future, or now, proactively, so as to shape it?

Thank you, God, for Tom and Tom, and others like them.