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…