Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tearing : Testimony : Settled Territory

I have been reflecting recently on the process of tearing and testimony;
on the way in which God interrupts our lives, in order to speak into our lives:
to reveal something of his identity, and activity (doing) or passive presence (being done to) in the world –
and of what that means for our identity, and activity (doing) or passive presence (being done to) in the world.

The nature of tearing is that something is done to us, in which we are powerless. The thing done may be honouring or harming, but we are the object – the one being done to – not the subject – the one doing. In these places of vulnerability, we may hear God’s voice.

The purpose of the process of tearing and testimony is to bring us to a settled place: to the place where the testimony we have heard is a settled matter.

So in a place of tearing – a voice from heaven intervenes in his actions; and a ram is provided to sacrifice, which he had not brought, Genesis 22 – Abraham hears the testimony that the Lord is his provider (YHWH jireh): that Abraham is invited to experience the Lord as his provider: and challenged to be one through whom the Lord provides for others.

So in a place of tearing – Aaron and Hur hold up his weary arms, Exodus 17 – Moses hears the testimony that the Lord is his battle-banner (YHWH nissi): that Moses is invited to experience the Lord as the one who fights for him and wins his battles for him: and challenged to be one through whom the Lord fights for those who have no-one to uphold their cause.

So in a place of tearing – cousin John baptises him, even though John thinks that Jesus should be the one baptizing John – Jesus hears the testimony that the Lord is his Father, who loves him: that Jesus is invited to live as the beloved Son: and challenged to be one through whom the Lord adopts others into his family.

The metaphor of journey is a dominant one for those who follow after Jesus – think Pilgrim’s Progress. We are on a journey of discovering God and discovering ourselves. But the metaphor of settling is just as significant. God’s ancient people were given territory – allocated by tribe – to conquer, to settle, and to hold on to. In the same way, God has a territory for us – an identity to take hold of – which must first be taken...but then, having taken it, we must nurture it, develop it...and fight to keep hold of it.

The place of settling is not the end of our adventure: it is the beginning of a new adventure.

Through the process of tearing and testimony we discover things about God that have a consequence for our lives – that he is our provider, our banner, our father, etc. And God will continue to bring us to places of tearing, and to speak testimony in that place, until the lesson is learnt.

But once a lesson is learnt, something changes:

it does not need to be learnt again; it needs to be lived-out, and not surrendered.

That is what settling means. Once we learn that God provides, we can go deeper in that, discovering his provision in more and more ways, or we can forget. That is why in the Old Testament, when people encounter God in this way they set up an altar in that place, a memorial, a marker-stone, so that they can go back to that place in order to move on from that place: not to re-learn the lesson, but so as to not forget it. And that is why, when the markers were neglected, the people did forget, gave away settled territory, again and again.

There are places in my life where I am on a journey, towards a settled place. There are other places where I am settled: and that is the goal God has in mind: that more and more of my identity in him is a settled matter, until I am completely secure and able to know life in all of its intended fruit-fullness.

It will help me to keep the territory that with God’s help I have won (YHWH nissi, my battle-banner) if I am able to set up markers: to record the story of each tearing-place, and the testimony that was revealed there: “this is how I discovered that...”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Signs Of Life

My daughter is learning about the seven indicators of life in science at school. These indicators – movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, nutrition – have spiritual parallels which I have written about here. According to Susannah’s notes, “Something is an organism if it...goes to the toilet” – a fact so well-known that gives rise to the adage “Do bears [go to the toilet] in the woods?” to describe the self-evident.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

By Divine Appointment

I had to go to the Cathedral this morning. I have to go there on a fairly regular basis: often arranging a lift, sometimes going on the bus. Yesterday, when I thought of arranging a lift, I sensed that I should take the bus. So this morning I headed off to the bus-stop, and waited. As I was going straight on from the Cathedral to another meeting and then straight on to a funeral visit, I had my clerical collar on.

There were road works just up ahead, and the traffic was gridlocked. After a while, I driver leant across their car and shouted through their passenger window at me: they were going to Kensington, if that was any good to me? I thanked him for the offer, but explained that I needed to get into the centre of Liverpool (Kensington is not much further on than where we were), so I’d wait for the bus. He replied that it would be a long wait; that he was going to Kensington to pick up his dad to take him in to the hospital in town, and was that any good to me? As he clearly wanted me to get in – not to mention that I was waiting at the bus stop when I would have arranged a lift with a friend, except that I felt prompted not to – I thanked him and got in. (Don’t try this at home, viewers: I am trained in unarmed combat.)

So I met Jason, and sitting in a queue of slow-moving traffic, heard the story of his life. And it was a divinely appointed engagement. We talked about life and God and what part faith had played in his life, and where he was now, and how perhaps his faith was more marginal than it had been. And it wasn’t a confessional, and he wasn’t a prodigal, and I didn’t take advantage of his kindness to manipulate his vulnerability. But our conversation took place in God’s hearing, and at his disposal.

Jesus said, “Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.” (Matthew 10:41)

Heavenly Father, Jason received me today because I am a prophet and a righteous man: in his words, a man of the cloth. I ask that whatever reward I have received and will receive from you, that he would receive no less. I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Saviour. Amen.

Hats Off To Isner And Mahut

Today saw the most incredible set of tennis ever played, and two unknown players become legends of the game. The back-story to the 10-hour-and-counting match will be 10,000-hours-plus spent working on their character and their skills. Truly inspirational.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Untidy Conversations

I regularly find myself in conversations initiated by reflections I have posted on my blog, kairos : kisses. These conversations take place face-to-face, over the phone, through skype, by email, in public comment threads or private messaging on facebook...but (almost) never anymore on my blog itself.

This is interesting to me. Essentially, most of the people who engage with kairos : kisses are not, themselves, bloggers (I can’t be sure how many people that is – I have just reinstated a visitor counter after having removed it for two years – but I am fairly confident this is the case). Over recent years, the options for responding have multiplied. And so what was, in the first few years I kept a blog, a series of contained conversations has become a series of conversations which take place in a multitude of settings – where a conversation that begins face-to-face is continued here, and carries on in some other context; where a conversation that begins here is responded to in an email, on facebook, in passing in person...

Conversation used to be more contained than is the case today. Which means that the person who initiates a conversation – in this case, me – has less control over what might happen than before. In truth, whenever we attempt to initiate a conversation, we make ourselves vulnerable, we choose to relinquish any claim to control: we run the risk of being dismissed, ignored; we run the risk – perhaps, the adventure – of the conversation being taken off at a tangent. Nonetheless, the nature of conversations between two or more persons is more mobile than it was, jumping from arena to arena – not in order to evade commitment (channel-surfing), but in order to enable the respondent to respond. And that requires a flexibility, a willingness to engage with people on their terms not my own, which is not only good for me but, in fact, an essential lesson to learn if we want to engage in conversation in our rapidly-changing digitally-networked world.


Last night, Jo and I spent the evening with a group of cell leaders, seeking to hear God speak to us. Our assumption is that God wants to speak to us, and that we can hear him – as Jesus put it, he is the good shepherd, who calls his sheep by name and leads them out, and his sheep follow him because they hear his voice (John 10). We also think that in learning to hear God’s voice, it is helpful to ask questions, the sort of questions that lay our lives open before God. So Jo and I offered the group 12 questions as a starting-point: to provide a framework for our conversation: the sort of questions that, drawing on our experience, we think God might want to speak to cell leaders – those responsible for discipling a few others – about: and we invited them to ask the Holy Spirit to catch their attention with one, or at most two.

The questions pertained to character (who I am; formable) and skills (what I do; learnable), and were grouped in relation to our relationship with God (UP); with each other, and in particular, in the context of cell leaders, those we lead (IN); and with our neighbours, those who live and work alongside us (OUT):

Character UP:
Do I pursue intimacy with God?
What is on my heart for intercession?

Skills UP:
How easy do I find it to hear direction from God?

Character IN:
Do I love those I lead?
Is my family happy?
Am I sleeping/eating/resting well?

Skills IN:
Am I inviting those I lead into my life, by making myself appropriately vulnerable?
Am I able to appropriately challenge those I lead?

Character OUT:
Am I sharing my faith with others?
Do I make time for relationships with non-Christians?

Skills OUT:
Can I identify at least one person who is open to me and to the good news I have to share?
Is my group welcoming?

The conversation that followed took in various things – such as the way the two ‘Character UP’ questions feed each other – but focused on the ‘Skills IN’ questions: on learning to extend invitation and challenge: on why we find one or the other, or both, so hard (culture, both English culture and church culture, play a significant part; but often our reluctance to open our lives to people or our reluctance to challenge them appropriately, or patterns of unhelpful confrontation, are rooted in the ‘Character IN’ question, Do I love those I lead? – for we will extend little invitation or challenge to those we love little).

In fact, we all extend invitation into our lives to others: to friends, for example. But we sometimes see cell as more artificial, something separate to friendship. And as a starting point, it is: everyone on earth forms friendships; God is in the business of taking people as un-loveable as me and forming a new community. Over three years, Jesus shaped a diverse group including Matthew – a traitor who collected taxation for the puppet-king installed by Rome – and Simon – a freedom fighter who employed terrorist tactics – into friends: the starting-point, not to mention more than a few other moments along the way, was perhaps awkward. We need to get beyond the starting-point.

Challenge involves both encouraging people to discover something for themselves that you have discovered (Jesus does this with his disciples all the time: e.g. God is our provider, in practical ways, often by miraculous means); and loving someone enough to rebuke them when their words or actions are heading in a trajectory that, left unchecked, will only hurt themselves and those around them who they love (Jesus does this on occasion, when necessary: e.g. telling Peter that his perspective does not reflect God’s will, but satan’s agenda). When we see the word ‘challenge’ we may fail to connect to discovery (note: you can only invite/challenge someone to discover something you have already discovered for yourself); or shy away from discipline, until it is too late and what was a small weed has sent down a deep tap-root.

Invitation and challenge work best when they work together: when we share the thing God is teaching us, at an appropriate level, it draws the person we share it with into our life and challenges them to learn the same thing. We might even discover that they have already learnt more than we have, and we can learn from them.

For some, both invitation and challenge are hard, sometimes because we have experienced little invitation ourselves, or have had bad experiences of inappropriate confrontation (unjustified, or unbalanced). But for many of us, we have a natural preference for one or the other: we are known for welcoming people, but never help them to grow; or we are known for challenging people, relentlessly. It is worth growing aware of our tendencies; learning to spot when one needs to be balanced by the other; hearing God’s prompting to increase invitation (e.g. to someone who is hurting at present), or to embrace the discipline of challenge (note: sometimes people behave badly because they are hurting, and in such cases increasing challenge is like forcing someone with a broken leg to run, and faster; when what they need is invitation, the environment to heal).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sufferings : Glory : Part 2

‘Sufferings,’ as I observed in my previous post, does not refer to ill-treatment, per se, but to being the object of someone else’s actions towards us, whether treating us well or badly.

When we hold ourselves out to an other – as we do, say, to someone we have fallen in love with; or when we move to initiate a new friendship – we make ourselves vulnerable to their response. Will my love be requited, or unrequited? Will this person I desire to befriend treat me honourably or dishonourably, bless me or curse me? We make ourselves vulnerable, and then we wait...

One cannot hand oneself over to an other, and choose not to take oneself back whatever the response, whatever the cost, without sooner or later being discouraged by how that person has done to you. For they, like us, are deeply wounded and often respond out of their wounded-ness. And responding out of our wounded-ness, as opposed to out of our oneness with God, is a good definition of what it means to ‘sin against’: our Confessions remind us that “we have sinned against God and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault” and as much through the good we have left undone as through the hurts we have done to others.

This is why Jesus insists that at the heart of our pattern of prayer must be the recognition and the response to that recognition “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Otherwise it is impossible to keep holding ourselves out to an other, and instead we withdraw: instead of outworking the ministry of reconciliation, we collude with the work of the accuser to bring division, to devour, to steal, kill and destroy.

The accuser, the devouring lion, the thief attempts to use that same wounded-ness in situations where the thing we ‘suffer’ – the thing done to us – is a response of love: even though we have made ourselves vulnerable to an other, in the hope that they will reciprocate by offering themselves to us (as friend, as parent, as child, as lover, as brother or sister or colleague or employer or neighbour – as a fellow human being), when they reciprocate we wait, deep inside, for the moment they will fail us and we will abandon them or we will fail them and they will abandon us...Or, in our dependence on an other (say, when illness makes a husband or wife as dependent on their partner as is a child to an adult) we fear that we are not worthy, that we have somehow failed or disappointed...

Again, it does not have to be that way. For Scripture reveals to us that it is in sharing in Christ’s sufferings that we are allowed and enabled to share in his glory.

In our sufferings: in those things done to us: the good and the bad: the honouring and the dishonouring: the response of love and the response of hate: there is a testimony from heaven: The Father says “You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” The Spirit says “You are a son of God, a co-heir with Christ” – all that is Jesus’ – the Father’s love, the Father’s pride – is ours. The Son says, “You are mine” – my friends, my body, my bride. (These covenant descriptions are not about our gender, but our relationship to Jesus: so, male and female, we are sons of God because we are one with the Son; and, male and female, together the Church is the bride of Christ).

As we hear the testimony of heaven, we grow in our identity – we grow more fully into our identity. And as we grow in our identity, as those who are one with Christ, we are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3).

Today, hear the testimony of heaven. Today, be glorious.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sufferings : Glory

“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
(Romans 8:16, 17)

I have been meditating on these words over the past few days, while I was on retreat in preparation to be ordained priest yesterday. In particular, I have been reflecting on the connection between sufferings and glory: that the way in which we are enabled to share in Christ’s glory is through sharing in his sufferings.

Language slips and shifts, the usage and meaning of words changes over time, and so we must go back to the roots of words. The root of the word here translated into English as ‘sufferings’ is the Greek word πάσχω (paschō, from which we get our word ‘passion’) which means ‘to be done to’ and which is the converse of the word ποιω (poiō) which means ‘to do.’

The neutral ‘to be done to’ was accurately translated as ‘suffer’ in the English of the Authorised Version, also known as the King James Bible. So we read the account of mothers attempting to bring their babies to Jesus for a blessing, and the disciples attempting to prevent them, to which Jesus replies “Suffer the little children to come unto me...” That is, allow one thing – bring them – ‘to be done to’ them; as opposed to allowing another thing – prevent them – ‘to be done to’ them. ‘Suffer’ is neutral: they may be the objects of something good or something bad, of invitation or hindrance: the point is that they are the objects, the ones to whom something is being done by someone else. But to us, four hundred years later, ‘suffering’ has come to refer almost exclusively to describing the condition of experiencing enduring physical, emotional or psychological pain.

When we look at Jesus in the Gospels, we see him as subject, as free agent, doing things through which God is glorified. But we also see him as object, as one who places himself in the hands of others, the recipient of others’ actions, both good and bad: and through these, his sufferings, the Father is also glorified, and glorifies the Son.

In one account, Jesus is invited to the home of a man of good standing in the community, who fails to do to Jesus what one would expect a host to do to his guest. In contrast, a woman of ill repute enters the house and honours Jesus by anointing him with perfume, an act he describes as preparing his body in advance for his funeral. In other words, Jesus ‘suffers’ being treated dishonourably and ‘suffers’ being treated with honour. The point is not that he experiences pain, but that he allows himself to be in the position of receiving whatever another will do to him, whether an action of rejection or an action of embrace.

As we share in Christ’s sufferings, Paul tells us, so we share in his glory. As the things that were done to Jesus – welcomed by some, rejected by others – are done to us, so we are both allowed and enabled to share in his glory.

This ties in with my recent reflections on tearing and testimony. The thing being torn – the sky, the curtain – is passive: they do not tear themselves. Neither did the paralytic tear through the roof himself, but was as dependent on the actions of his friends as he was on the actions of Jesus towards him.

Why is this important? God is glorified not only through the things Jesus did, but through the things done to Jesus. God is not only glorified through the things we are free to do, but through the things done to us. And this is important because we are not always free to do what we might choose to do. Often, and not least because of our dependence on the response of others, we are not free at all. When Jesus went to his home town, the disbelief he was met with there meant that he was not free to perform the signs and wonders he had performed in other towns and villages. Nonetheless, God was glorified through Jesus’ presence: though he could not perform signs and wonders he was himself a sign and a wonder in their midst.

The same is true for us: there are times when we are able to perform signs and wonders, exercising the power and authority Jesus has delegated to us; and there are times when we are not free to act as we would want to. Nonetheless, sharing in Christ’s glory, we are ourselves a sign and a wonder.

That is why icons (which are properly understood as doors through which heaven can enter earth, rather than windows through which we can glimpse heaven) depict saints with halos. A halo is not the symbol of our goodness (as in “Your halo would appear to have slipped” in response to breaches of good behaviour), but the symbol of God’s glory.

As we embrace our covenant identity as children of God and co-heirs with Christ, so we are able to respond with the obedience of embracing suffering, of allowing others to respond to us as they choose.

As we exercise our kingdom authority (not only to act where we are free but also) to place ourselves into someone else’s hands, to respond to us as they see fit, so we are able to share in Christ’s glory, to participate in and conduct the life-transforming power of God’s glory being revealed in and to the world.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


I didn’t get to be at Pilgrimage, but Alice Smith has posted some great reflections on her experience here and here (and, I suspect, more to follow), and I imagine Doug Paul will be doing likewise when he gets back to the US. Go check them out.

Retreat To Advance

Off on retreat later today, to emerge in Liverpool Cathedral on Sunday morning to be ordained a priest within the Church of England.

Have uploaded photos taken over the half-term holiday and at two recent TOM (The Order of Mission) occasions onto my Flickr account.

Monday, June 07, 2010

There And Back Again

Back in Liverpool after a wonderful week away.

The first half of the week we stayed with friends from our time at college. It was great to just be able to spend time together. One day was very wet, and spent at the RAF museum at Hendon (some great insights into spiritual warfare, which I might post some time); the next hot and dry, and spent picnicking in style.

The second half of the week was spent in Sheffield, very relaxing, catching up with lots of friends, including celebrating Jo’s birthday with three homemade cakes over two days; and culminating in being at Philadelphia to witness several people make their temporary vows (3-year initial or novitiate vows) or permanent vows (can be taken after 3 years, or within a further 3-year period) within The Order of Mission (Jo and I became temporaries in 2003, and permanents in 2007). It was great to see various TOM friends, scattered across various countries over a number of years, there, as we were, for the occasion. It was also great to meet people who had come from USA and Scandinavia for Pilgrimage (and really encouraging to see the Lutheran churches commitment to ordaining young adults to serve as church leaders).

The journey home was spent listening to Pete James’ new album, Dreams, Reality And Everything In Between. All three of our children love it, Pete – especially the heavier/retro rock tracks. Particular favourites are the opening call to worship ‘Come Everybody Let’s Go’ and the creed ‘We Believe.’ Regardless of whether or not one likes the style, the substance is significant here. Too often, churches are seeking to be so ‘normal’ an experience for the unfamiliar visitor that we forget why we gather at all – not primarily to meet with friends, but to meet, together, with God who welcomes us into his house. We need the call to worship to form within us the reason we are there; to become a well-worn path (familiarity breeds contempt in the one who is contemptuous; but it nurtures confidence and competence – identity and authority – in the one who loves because they know that they are loved). And we need creeds, to carry for us and to form within us the faith the church has professed down through the ages. Too often, where churches have decided that written/corporately-spoken liturgy is culturally inappropriate, they have failed to do the work of translating liturgy into what would be considered culturally appropriate forms. The consequence is Christians who no longer know what Christians believe, who have no foundation to build on. So thank you, Pete, for the work you have put in here.