Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mary : Martha : Lazarus

Today is the festival of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, ‘Companions of our Lord.’ These two sisters and brother opened their home as a place where Jesus experienced the ministry of hospitality. And Jesus gently pointed-out to Martha that busyness can be a distraction; that, though there are things that need to be attended to, we need to allow ourselves space to listen to his voice. It is a voice worth listening to, for the words it speaks are transformative – as these siblings discovered when Jesus stood at the tomb of his friend declaring, “Lazarus, come out!” and with these words calling life out of death.

This month I have written a lot – have been productive. Less over the next month: time for a summer break: time to slow down: time to abide: time to listen more closely: time to allow the words I have heard to do their work in me. Constant busyness denies us this necessary space, this necessary cyclical stage in our spiritual growth.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Teach Them To Obey

Jesus said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20; emphasis mine)

Obedience is the key to discipleship.

In the previous post I noted that:
Stability comes from sticking to the priorities that will fulfil our vocation.
Those priorities are identified through obediently living out our God-given calling.
That calling is revealed through obedient listening to God's voice.

At each stage of the process, obedience is the central discipline:
obedient listening; obedient living; obedient prioritizing.

And obedience is the evidence of love. We obey because we know that we are loved. Our obedience demonstrates that we love in return.


One of the things that I observe living in an urban context is the degree of instability in people’s lives: the extent to which life is overwhelmed, the extent of family breakdown, of drug misuse, of unemployment, of debt.

Wealth and education do not make you a better person, but they do shield you to a certain extent from the impact of instability, and they also mask the instability in our lives from our neighbours. And so it is not so much that the urban context is more unstable; but rather that the instability is more visible.

I am enjoying watching Rev on the BBC, a sit-com built around an inner-city vicar. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking comedy; its intention is not to offer escapism, but to remind viewers of value where we have neglected to see it – in the broken people. Adam, the vicar, talks to God, and tends to ask very good questions. But he doesn’t get answers, directly. What we learn is that the kingdom of God empowers us to sit with the broken, to live in the midst of instability. And this is true. What we don’t learn is that the kingdom of God empowers us to see the broken put back together, to create colonies of stability in the midst of instability.

It is often said that simple answers are of no use. This is not true. Simplistic answers are of no help to anyone. But simple answers are exactly what are called for. Because simple answers are the only answers we have the capacity to live out. Our problem is not that the answers we need are too complex, but that they are simple but hard, and what is hard is unpalatable to us.

There is an order to the flow of transformation: it originates with God, first does its work within us, and is then manifest in how we relate to the world in general. (That is, the flow of grace is UP-IN-OUT.)

Here, then, and drawing on Benedictine wisdom via my friend Mark Carey, is how we move towards stability in our lives:

It begins with obedient listening. That is, we choose to listen to God, and we choose to believe what he says. That when God says, “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” we accept that to be true, and do not dismiss God on account of our – or someone else – knowing better. The parent, or partner, who tells you that you are worthless.

This is simple, but hard. Hard, because – escalating from Eden on – we are bombarded with so many other voices, so many other opinions, so many deceptions that are pleasing to the eye but ultimately taste bitter in the mouth. You are nothing unless you are size 0.

So, what do you hear God say to you about your identity? Do you dare to believe him?

As we take on the discipline of obedient listening, we will discover that God does a work of conversion of life in us. That is, God calls us to be the person he has created us to be – revealed to us by obedient listening – and begins to change the direction of our lives. We move towards stability by choosing to obediently live out our God-given calling.

What does that look like in practice? This is an internal transformation. We find ourselves, by degree, no longer held captive by a false image of ourselves (expressed in eating disorders, self-harm, addiction); by ungodly values (such as fear, or lust, or the desire for power over others). We choose instead to say no to such things. For example, if we are married we choose to be faithful; we choose to put our marriage before a promotion or other unilateral career decision that will pull us apart. New priorities begin to emerge. This, too, is simple but hard: for these emerging priorities are profoundly counter-cultural. At the same time, we find ourselves growing into the person we were created to be, as certain things are put to death and other things are allowed to flourish.

In what ways can you identify how God has transformed your inner values? What new priorities are emerging?

Through the process of conversion of life, our direction, our values, our priorities change. Through the process, God reveals to us the priorities that will fulfil our vocation, our calling. And stability is made manifest – takes on solid, visible shape – in our lives as we choose to stick to the priorities that will fulfil our vocation.

What does this look like in practice? This is an external transformation. Vocation is a misunderstood word in our culture, narrowly applied to a particular religious vocation, to be a priest or a nun or a monk. But vocation simply refers to who and what God has called each one of us to be and to do. To do something because you recognise that you were ‘made to be’ that thing is to recognise a vocation. We can choose to be a lawyer because we want to earn a lot of money, or because we sense a call to see justice and mercy manifest in our society. We can do a job - any job - because we need to do something, anything; or because we recognise that we were made to do that thing. Society tells us what we ought to aspire to be – for many of the young girls in my immediate context, that is to marry a footballer, and go from shops to spa to party; in other contexts, with ‘wider’ horizons, we are told that we can be whatever we want, often resulting in the paralysis of too much choice. We can drift, or chase one dream after another; or, having heard God’s call, we can set about the priorities that will fulfil our call. If you are called to be a GP in a deprived area, that will call for a certain set of priorities – priorities that will change as we move from school pupil onwards – and you will need to stick with them. The same is true if you are called to be a shop assistant or a plumber or an electrician or a soldier or a stay-at-home mum or a musician or an artist or an athlete. Certain things cannot be allowed to distract us, or replace those priorities. Yet again, this is simple, but hard: society tells us that you can have it all...though the evidence suggests the reality that this is not true, and the more we try to have, the less we end up with.

Can you identify the priorities that will fulfil your vocation? Where are you being distracted at present? What current priorities are false, and need not to be the focus of our attention? Who is holding you accountable to stick to the priorities God is revealing to you?

This UP-IN-OUT process – though not the outcome – is the same whatever our god is. So if our god is pleasure, or financial security, then as we listen to the voice of our god a work of conversion will take place in our lives: our values and priorities will be shaped by what we listen to. But false gods offer false stability: as already noted, education and wealth certainly provide a shield against the impact of instability, under the cover of which instability can continue to work undetected; a colourful mask to hide behind, but no real security.

It is a process that goes on in all our lives, largely unconsciously. The key to helping broken lives be put back together again is to empower people to intentionally engage with the process, flowing from its True source.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How To Create Parables

Jesus said the kingdom of heaven – that is, the realm within which God’s rule is exercised; where permission is given to healing and wholeness, forgiveness and restoration, where joy springs up in the place of grief and gladness in the place of sorrow – is like treasure hidden in a field. Someone comes along and discovers it, hides it again, goes off and sells his possessions, and buys the field from its owner.

There was treasure in the field all along, and the owner of the field was not aware of it.

In other words, the kingdom of heaven is present in our lives, and we can be unaware of its presence, or we can actively look for it. That is, in the stuff of our daily lives – in our work, in our domestic routines, in the mundane things – we can encounter the kingdom, can experience something of God’s good rule.

Almost all of Jesus’ parables work on this basis: that our everyday lives reveal something of what God is like and what he is doing in the world, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

When Jesus says, a woman kneading yeast into dough or a peasant sowing the seed that will provide his family with food and bargaining-power come the harvest tells us something about God’s presence right there in our lives, he is not making a one-off illustration. He is saying, every time you knead dough or scatter seed from now on, these routines are to remind you of God. Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, remember me...

The kingdom of heaven is hidden in the field, in the dough, in the fill-in-the-gap of our lives, waiting to be discovered, and re-discovered over and over again.

I wrote about this approach to life recently: here, here, here and here.

So, what are you doing today, and tomorrow, and day after day?

And how can it become a way in which you remind yourself of God’s presence in your life?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Digital Consequences

The virtual world has no future, only an all-consuming present. As a consequence, there are no consequences in the virtual world: get shot dead on your Playstation, and you can fight again; cycle off a cliff on your Wii, and you re-appear on the cliff-top track...And as a consequence, those young enough to be ‘digital natives’ – thoroughly at home with the technological artefacts of digital culture – struggle to value the weight of their actions in the physical world.

The virtual world does, however, have pseudo-consequences. Fail to attend to your virtual pet, and it will die. And in a world where we have come apart from consequence – in a weightless world – pseudo-consequences can appear more pressing than actual consequences.

Earlier this year, a South Korean couple were charged after allowing their baby to die from neglect while they focused their attention on raising a virtual baby online. It would appear that their life fell apart after losing their jobs; that somehow they struggled to face up to the consequences; and instead withdrew into another world, a safer one. This may be an extreme story, but it is not a surprising one: it is no tragic anomaly, but tragically consistent with the world in which young adults live.

And this is underlined, not undermined, by their parents, a generation who have sought to shelter their children from consequences: to pay off their children’s debts; to continue to cook and clean for adult children, as when they were younger...

This has massive implications for anyone seeking to nurture community among young adults, or community that encompasses different generations including young adults and their parents; for anyone seeking to invest in young adults, to equip them for life in a physical world where they cannot merely not turn up at work when they don’t feel like it, or let others down because they aren’t in the right place inside their own heads to persevere with commitments they have taken on. How do you nurture community with those who don’t speak the language of consequences?

To grow to maturity we need three things: love, discipline, freedom. And each has consequences.

The consequences of genuine love are that we extend both discipline (training) and freedom (that for which we train) to those we love – discipline first, which equips the other to enjoy freedom.

The consequences of genuine discipline are short-term curtailment of freedom, in order to increase our capacity to handle greater freedom in the long-term.

The consequences of genuine freedom are the ability to take-on self-discipline in order to enjoy freedom all the more, and the capacity to love another in turn – thus empowering another through love, discipline and freedom.

We must not underestimate just how alien the idea of consequences is to the young adults of today. But we must brave the consequences of holding out love, discipline and freedom to those who live inconsequentially – for whom love is understood as having no future, only the present; discipline is perceived as rejection; and freedom is expressed as self-centred entitlement...

Those who can grasp hold of the consequence will emerge as the leaders who will change the world.

Worship Audit

Jesus said that before all else we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. That is what a lifestyle of worship looks like. And he wasn’t just saying the same thing in four different ways to underline his point. In the Bible, the heart refers to our making choices; the soul refers to our having emotions; the mind refers to our ability to think and learn; and strength refers to our physical nature. Worship involves each of these things.

Here are some questions to help you to think about how worshipful your life might be:


We are created to be worshippers, and what you prioritise reveals what you worship. Do you choose to prioritise meeting together with others to worship God, or are there other things that are more of a priority to you?

When we take a good thing – like family, or work, or rest, or possessions – and make it an ultimate thing – what is most important to us – the Bible calls that thing an idol, a false god. What good things have become idols in your life? Are you willing to give them back to God, with thanksgiving for the gift and repentance for having elevated the gift above the Giver?


Are you able to bring both joy and sorrow to God?

Are thanksgiving, praise, confession (saying sorry), and intercession (asking God to bring good out of bad situations) all part of your lifestyle of worship?

Do you hide behind a mask, or find certain emotions harder to come before God with than others?


What have you learned about God through worship over the past year?

How has this helped you to know God better?


Do you worship God by what you do with your body?

Are there things you do with, or to, your body that you know God is saddened by because they are neither healthy nor helpful to you, and as such do not glorify the God in whose image you have been made?

Are you held captive to addictive, or in other ways self-destructive, patterns of behaviour?

Where we wrestle with any of these questions, the devil seeks to bring condemnation, but God’s desire is to bring conviction of our need for his transforming work in our lives, in order that we might respond and enter into greater freedom than we currently experience. The most effective way I know of engaging with that invitation is to go through the learning circle – observe-reflect-discuss-plan-account-act – with friends who will commit to supporting each other’s growth to maturity in Christ.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Festival Of St James

Today is the festival of St James the apostle, disciple of Jesus and one of the earliest martyrs of the Church.

James and his brother John were both disciples of Jesus – along with Peter, Jesus’ closest circle – and were given by Jesus the nickname ‘Sons of Thunder’ most likely on account of their firey tempers: on one occasion, they asked whether they should call down fire from heaven to destroy an entire village, simply for not welcoming Jesus.

John survived his brother – and all the other disciples – living to an old age, when, awaiting his own death, he received a Revelation of heaven. And within his visions was the revelation that thunder is the sound of worship. Sons of Thunder: those who worship...

Lord, may the fire of our passion never grow dim,
but may our passion be conformed to your holy name,
that your kingdom would come and your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fathers And Sons : Toy Story 3

In the ten-or-so intervening years between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, the toys have become an absent presence in Andy’s life, consigned to the toy box. But there is a greater absence: Andy’s father.

As throughout the trilogy, all trace of Andy’s father has been removed. He does not appear in any of the childhood cine-films (we recently watched a compilation of cine-films from my wife’s childhood, and although her father was behind the camera in most of them, he did appear in some), or photographs. There is no reference to his death (“Your father would have been so proud of you”). Even if we are to assume divorce, or simply preoccupation with work, there is neither contact with his son on the eve of his going to college, nor, as already noted, any references from the past. Something somehow has broken, and is resolutely avoided.

Now clearly there are far more compositions of the family than the old ‘dad, mom, son, daughter’ shorthand for ‘family’ in western culture. And undoubtedly single parents need to be affirmed through, and encouraged by, positive portrayals of their ability to raise children. So why does this elephant in the room matter?

It matters, I think, because this is a film that has, on all accounts, profoundly affected middle-aged men – fathers, who feel the loss of their own childhood, and youth. It is the Toy Story 3 phenomenon – men struggling to de-mist their tear-filled 3D glasses – and there is talk of it as a marketing tool to watch out for in a new wave of films to come. I haven’t read of it affecting mothers in the same way. And it matters because the loss felt has no-where to go. While Andy brokers a rite-of-passage for his toys, the role of the father in brokering a significant rite-of-passage for his son is left undone. Disenfranchised rather than engaged, the father in the audience has nothing to do but cry for his own loss of innocence – and lost promise of strength, independence and freedom to do whatever you like at college – where he might have been empowered to enfranchise another with the gift of adulthood. If Shrek 4 is the story of an everyman throwing away what he has, and the struggle through which what is lost is redeemed by love, the story told in the thousandth-of-a-second gaps between each frame of Toy Story 3 is the story of an everyman who never discovers redemption.

This is significant. Andy’s absent father represents a generation of fathers who have failed to launch their sons into their own futures – ‘to infinity and beyond!’ – whether through physical absence, or through trying to be peers to their children in an attempt to stay young (a trajectory that continues with a growing number of younger parents actually seeking to be parented by their children).

As I have previously noted, Toy Story 3 is a perfect parable of the way in which true, and false, identity is constructed. But parables conceal as much as they reveal. It is a shame that Andy’s father does not go on the journey that Woody, Buzz, and – through the toy Woody stepping-up into a father-role – Andy himself go on...

For those who discover their true identity can empower others to do the same. Where fathers are lost, who will step up to take their place? And who will create the stories that will fund our imaginations, enabling us to rediscover what it means to be a dad again?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Identity : Toy Story 3

“we discover our identity by being prepared to receive from God, to commit to others and to take responsibility for things. This is in direct opposition to our culture which says that we get a sense of identity from being strong, independent, and free to do whatever we feel like.”
(Paul Maconochie, Facebook status, 22 July 2010)

This afternoon, our family went to see Toy Story 3. It was in effect a parable of the observation my friend Paul had made earlier in the day:
the toys discover their identity in being given purpose (and new purpose) from Andy...
in committing to each other come what may, at times in the face of impossible odds...
and in taking responsibility to do what is right, rather than what is expedient.

In contrast, the villain of the piece attempts to sell them what at first glance appears to be a paradise but is in fact a hellish prison, based precisely on the promise of building a new identity from being strong, independent, and free to do whatever they like...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

MRS GREN : On Friendship

Recently, I have been reflecting on friendship. Regardless of whether you are a social extrovert, who recharges in the company of many others, or a social introvert, who recharges on your own or with one or two others, everyone needs a few close friends – even Jesus had three close friends among his wider group of disciples.

There are seven properties that are true of every living organism: movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, and nutrition. These physical properties have spiritual parallels, which I have written about here. However, it strikes me afresh that they have particular outworking in the context of friendship, for what it means to be a good friend. That is what I want to consider here (it will help to have read the earlier post on MRS GREN first, for context).

Friendship comes in a variety of expressions, or seasons – and all the more so in a highly mobile society. I have friends that I get to see on a (more-or-less) weekly basis in my immediate context; friends further afield who Jo and I make the effort of travelling to spend an evening with once a month (because, for the kind of reasons I am exploring here, it is worth it); and friends who I no longer get to see on a regular basis, because we live in different countries, but whom I keep in touch with (love facebook). Each has had its season – whether short or long, recent or in the ever-growing past – of regular face-to-face contact.

To attempt to maintain all my friendships at the same level would be unsustainable. And some are for a particular time, and others are for life. But not only do my friends move: my friendships move me. That is, my perspective on the world, on life, on God, on the church, on society – on anything and everything – changes, and it changes more than anything else through the relationships that God has brought into my life, at various points. Good friendships help me to follow after God more closely – to be, and be known as, God’s friend. Stagnant or unhealthy friendships don’t help me grow. And it is not that I can only be friends with those who share my own views on God: my views have been challenged and enriched, my perspective has moved, through the friendships of those who do not share my views – whether atheists or agnostics, Christians of very different persuasions, or (though I lack this among my friends at the present moment) those of other faiths.

How has your perspective changed as a result of a friendship over the past twelve months? Can you identify friends-for-now, and friends-for-life? If so, give thanks for both (we need both); if not, ask God to provide what you lack.

Physically, respiration is to do with the process of carrying oxygen – the fuel of life – to every cell in the body. Spiritually, the discipline of prayer is the means by which the Holy Spirit enlivens us. In the context of friendship, we ought to ask: does this relationship speak life to me? or, do I speak life to my friend? When I have spent time in this person’s company, do I feel more alive, or, do they feel more alive? The reality is that, as we all face struggles in life, there will be times when we are giving out more than we are receiving and times when we are receiving more than we are giving out – and that is okay. But if as we reflect on a friendship we realise that it is a relationship that speaks death to us rather than life – a friend that encourages us in life-destroying thoughts, words, or actions – then that is a good indication that it is not a healthy relationship for us to continue to invest in.

When did you last pray for your friends? What might you use as a prompt to prayer? (Facebook statuses make good prompts.)

Living organisms need to be sensitive to the stimuli in their environment – light, water, the presence of other organisms (possible predators, or prey), pollution...Spiritually, we are called to be aware of certain changes in our environment: to identify and interpret the clues as to what God is up to as his Spirit brings life out of death and order out of chaos; and as to what the thief is up to as he comes to steal and kill and destroy (John 10). In the context of friendship, we need to be sensitive to the ways in which Jesus is bringing life in its fullness, and the presence of the thief. We are called to listen to God for our friend’s future, and to speak into their life prophetically, calling what is declared of them in heaven to birth in the present. This is to see their full potential – and not just from a worldly perspective (“you can be anything you put your mind to” – as opposed to “you will never achieve anything”) but from a heavenly perspective (“I think God might be calling you to be [this kind of person] and I’m telling you so that you can weigh that, ask God to confirm it if it is right”). It is also to see those things that stand in the way of them fulfilling that potential – clues include recurring patterns that run down family histories – and to speak prophetically into those situations, too, that God might redeem curses and release blessings.

What do you hear God saying about your friends? Are you willing to speak into their lives, and stand with them in the fight for their identity?

Growth does not occur by attending to growth, but through indirect effort: where the other indicators of life are healthy, healthy growth is a consequence. Likewise, we should not necessarily be seeking to grow through our friendships – this is to see friendship as a means to an end, to risk using people – but a healthy friendship ought to result in our growth.

God has an intention for who he has created us to be, as a unique person and in the context of our relationships. And it is in the context of our relationships that we discover our identity, and grow into it. Our closest friends are those who know us most fully, and who will encourage and challenge us to keep on becoming the person we are called to be. On the other hand, an unhealthy friendship will flatter our ego, encouraging us to stay just the way we are now, ‘warts and all’ – ‘keeping it real’ rather than putting to death what is unhelpful and nurturing what is good.

In what ways have you grown into your identity in the past twelve months, and who has stood alongside you and supported you in that process?

Living organisms have the capacity to reproduce, albeit in a variety of different ways, and albeit that this capacity is not fulfilled in every organism. In the context of friendship, the principle of reproduction reveals to us that friendship is not intended to be self-serving, but rather friendship enables us to invest ourselves into the lives of others. A healthy friendship is not defensive and inward-looking – like two mirrors placed opposite each other, referencing themselves into infinity – but is secure enough to be open to others.

Many plants reproduce by cross-fertilisation. Likewise, one way in which our friendships can be reproductive is by bringing different friends together, to see what might come of it (this is the basis of social networking). But this requires of us that we overcome the fear that our friends will get on better with each other than they do with us, and we will be left friendless...

Are your friendships overly-exclusive? Who are you introducing to whom?

Physically, the processes of life have the by-product of creating toxins, which need to be dealt with; otherwise, in time, they compromise and even endanger life. Spiritually, toxins build up within us – toxins such as resentment, anger, disappointment, gossip, pride, lust – and these, too, need to be dealt with. The spiritual process of excretion is confession and extending/receiving forgiveness. In the context of friendship, I have known so many friendships where toxins have been left unaddressed until they have built up to such an extent that the friendship withers and dies, or explodes spectacularly – often with an impact on surrounding relationships. Our society tells us that it is better to tell everyone else how hurt we have been, how wronged we are, than to deal with the matter at its root. But Jesus tells us to sort out such matters quickly, face-to-face; bringing in a mediator if this fails to resolve the problem.

A healthy friendship is marked by the regular practice of extending and receiving forgiveness, for the hurts that are unavoidable by-products of life. Unhealthy friendships may be marked by a lack of this practice (constipation) or by an excessive compulsion to seek forgiveness (diarrhoea), which indicates insecurity.

Do you regularly extend and receive forgiveness in your friendships?

Living organisms require nutrition, and face problems through under-nutrition (not enough food), mal-nutrition (the wrong sort, or balance, of food), or over-nutrition (too much food). Mature organisms also learn to feed themselves, whereas infants are dependent on others to feed them. Spiritually speaking, we must learn to feed on God’s word, which comes to us in various forms including the Bible, testimony, and prophecy.

In the context of friendship, a loving friend will not stand by and collude with eating disorders. However hard, however costly, to love someone is to fight with them – in the face of the messages society bombards us with – against anorexia or obesity. This is as true on a spiritual level as it is on a physical level: as friends we need to support one another to ‘eat’ healthily. And that includes sharing with one another where we discover good food, or the means to prepare good food for ourselves (much of what I post on my blog is to do with teaching people principles by which to prepare and digest good food, spiritually speaking).

What does your spiritual diet look like? Are you sharing good things you have discovered with your friends? What have they shared with you?

Anyone For Justice, Mercy And Humility?

‘He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)

Men At Work

Liverpool has the highest level of unemployment of any city in the country.


1 Samuel 10:17-27

But when they sought [Saul], he could not be found. So they inquired again of the Lord, ‘Did the man come here?’ and the Lord said, ‘See, he has hidden himself among the baggage.’

Today is one of those days I do not like, full of bits and pieces that need to be attended to, a list of things that needs to be worked down; as opposed to a day where I have one or two things to focus on, to which I can give an extended chunk of time.

Days like today highlight what is in fact always the case, that prioritising is the key. As my friend Mark Carey recently observed, “prioritising brings us into stability that then makes us more effective.” And prioritising requires of us that we do not to allow those things that are most urgent to crowd out those things which are most important.

And so today, with a long ‘to do’ list looming, I deliberately took time for the Daily Office, the pattern of daily prayers and Bible readings within the Church of England. These prayers – embracing both a set structure repeated day after day, and within that content that changes from day to day – act as a path, well-worn over time, that allows God’s word to shape me, to shape my imagination, my values, my first thoughts in any given situation (where, left to my own devices, my first thoughts might be anything but godly).

I was particularly struck by one verse in the Old Testament reading, the account of the prophet Samuel presenting the people with the king they had demanded be appointed over them. Saul is chosen, but is nowhere to be found: God alone sees him, hiding among the baggage.

There is plenty of baggage that we choose to hide ourselves in – our past, so often an excuse to us; our mistakes, especially those we refuse to let go of, because sometimes being in the wrong feels good, in the short-term at least – our busyness...

Today, it would be easy to plough on into busyness, to hide myself from God’s face, to hide myself from his call on my life, just in order to fulfil the many and immediate calls upon my time...But today, I believe that I am strengthened to more effectively address those tasks, because of the stability that has been secured through taking the time to clear aside the surface and dig down into the Rock on which I stand.

Lord, today may I know your strengthening hand upon me, as I step up to the challenges that lie ahead. May you be the shield that protects me; and the bow that secures victory in every struggle I will face; for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Now, and only now, I am off to attend to things more urgent, and less important.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ruby Wedding Anniversary

We were away over the weekend, celebrating my parents-in-law’s Ruby wedding anniversary (40 years of marriage). Congratulations, Su and Bob!

Eight adults, six children; one large farmhouse; horse-riding, quad-biking (thank you, Laura, for organising); cake (thank you, Jo, for baking); treasure hunt planned and executed (thank you, Sarah, for looking after the grandchildren); sons-in-law (Steve, Steve, myself) deemed well-chosen; a good time had by all. Photos will appear on flickr when I have a chance to upload them...

Thursday, July 15, 2010


‘...we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.’ (Romans 5:3-5)

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ (James 1:2-4)

One of the things we want our children to learn is the discipline of perseverance: how to not give up until you have secured something. At the moment, one of the ways we are doing that is through music lessons. Most of the time, they enjoy these, but every now and then (usually towards the end of a school term, when they are tired) they object to having to go. Now, there’s a balance to be found – forcing a child to do something extra-curricular that they haven’t to some degree become a stakeholder in can be incredibly counter-productive. And it may be that, beyond a certain level, one or other of them decides not to pursue music, and to focus their attention on some other skill. But for now we are still at the stage where they need to go through their scales, over and over again.

One of the things I observe is that the generation born since 1980 lack perseverance. They get excited about this thing or that thing, but can’t press through the stage of conscious incompetence. But in learning to master anything, this stage is not only unavoidable, but actually a significant point in developing character.

What is significant is the extent to which this generation have not been allowed to develop perseverance by their parents, the youngest of the Baby Boomers and the oldest Generation Xers. Their own experience of childhood involved a degree of what is currently being called ‘austerity’ that, as a generation, they vowed their children would not have to experience. Moreover, as a society we have embraced credit as a means of eliminating the perseverance of saving up for something – as a result, we value what we have far less, because in a very real sense it cost us nothing.

My wife has recently trained as a debt advisor, volunteering in a community network debt advice service that is managing around £2million of debt. There are many reasons why people get into debt, but one of the issues clients need to address in order to get out of debt is working with their teenagers to affect a shift in their expectations. Parents have drawn on credit to bankroll an unsustainable lifestyle for their children, as well as themselves. The current economic climate will increasingly be an unwelcome wake-up call; but for the time being there is still a great deal of denial, and resentment that ‘the banks and the politicians got us into this mess, and we are the ones who are paying the price...’

We have not equipped our young adults with the perseverance they will require more now than at any point in their lives: have not allowed them to face the necessary trials: have over-sheltered them, kept them children. The irony is that their grandparents learnt a great deal about surviving – and more than mere survival – in the face of economic adversity. I hear this come out again and again when I do funeral visits. But their grandchildren have grown up believing that they are an entitled generation – and often exacerbated by grandparents who like to spoil and indulge them, to assuage the guilt that they feel for not having been in a position to indulge their own children to the extent that their children have been able to do so to their grandchildren.

The purpose of perseverance is to produce maturity of character: and maturity of character can never be achieved without perseverance.

We desperately need to rediscover perseverance: and perseverance is born out of times of suffering.

I have reflected recently on the nature of suffering: that it does not (necessarily) equate to pain, but to that which is done to us, where our choice is not what we will do but whether we will submit to the will of another – hence, for my children to ‘suffer’ music lessons produces perseverance.

As church, we have at times (often?) been guilty of segregating Generation Y from the older members of our congregations – those who might have something to teach us of perseverance – out of fear that the challenge will be too great (on both sides). We’ve also been guilty of encouraging young adults to pursue vision without instilling in them the discipline to see it through: allowing them positions of leadership responsibility, without holding them accountable, without attending to character. Again, there’s that balance to be found: people need to be stakeholders: but, they need to be stakeholders in their own journey to maturity, not in remaining dependent infants into adulthood.

What our young adults need most is not programmes, but stories: stories of perseverance, and how it has resulted in character, and how character has resulted in hope that does not disappoint. Stories of marriages that have lasted; of children that are doing well at school; of trials and the overcoming of trials in the workplace; of what lies beyond the horizon, if you will pack your vessel for the voyage...

Recycled Post : Intentional Discipline Of Imitation

Discipleship is the intentional discipline of imitation...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Everything Speaks : Pocket Inventory : 4

Everything speaks. Everything speaks: of life, or death, or simultaneously of life and death. Everything tells us: there is a real choice to be made, with real consequences: choose life: choose what nurtures life in all its wonder and beauty: say ‘no’ to death – not literal death, for literal death is swallowed-up by life for those who choose life; but symbolic death, everything that diminishes the wonder and beauty of life.

I thought I’d do a pocket inventory, of the things I carry with me, the basics I take wherever I go, and ask: what do you speak to me?

These things are: my phone, my keys, my wallet, my watch...

My watch
I bought my watch on a trip to Dallas, Texas, doing some training with the Leadership Network. I love the broad leather strap; the brown face, which shimmers – sometimes golden, sometimes deep red – when it catches the sunlight, the ordinary transformed, hidden depths brought out by light; the muted grey of the chunky metal casing; the ticking of the second hand, inaudible by day, inescapable by night.

I wear my watch on my right wrist, something that causes people to assume that I write with my left hand; because, although I am right-handed with a pen, I am left-handed dominant, and find it easier to wrestle the pin into the hole, the strap into the band that holds it, with my left hand.

My watch speaks to me of the way in which I have been wired: that ‘who I am’ confounds people’s expectations of me – and that is a good thing – and speaks to remind me to be slow to form my own expectations of others.

The second hand speaks to me of the constant presence of God’s Spirit in my life, whether I am aware of that presence at any given moment or not.

The casing speaks to me of the call on my life to be a disciple who makes disciples, because it is a shape that prompts me to think of such things.

The face speaks to me of our being both quite ordinary and quite extraordinary: of the unassuming beauty of the ordinary; and of how that beauty is taken to another level when we reflect the light of God’s love.

The broad strap speaks to me of the quiet strength and dignity that belongs to those who stand in God’s love. There is a weight to it, and a protective quality. It reminds me of an archer’s arm-guard: and that speaks to me of 2 Samuel 22, especially verses 31-37: and of Psalm 127.

And as I put on my watch each morning, strapping it to my wrist, I am reminded that my times are in God’s hands, and that:

every hour [‘chronos’ time] is pregnant with possibilities for God’s kingdom to break in with transforming significance [‘kairos’ time]

Everything Speaks : Pocket Inventory : 3

Everything speaks. Everything speaks: of life, or death, or simultaneously of life and death. Everything tells us: there is a real choice to be made, with real consequences: choose life: choose what nurtures life in all its wonder and beauty: say ‘no’ to death – not literal death, for literal death is swallowed-up by life for those who choose life; but symbolic death, everything that diminishes the wonder and beauty of life.

I thought I’d do a pocket inventory, of the things I carry with me, the basics I take wherever I go, and ask: what do you speak to me?

These things are: my phone, my keys, my wallet, my watch...

My wallet
Brown leather folding wallet; the leather worn smooth all around the edges; bearing scratches across the back, scrapped by my keys, which share the same pocket...inside: to the left, membership cards, and family photos (different contexts of belonging); in the centre, my driver’s licence (for ID: I no longer drive); to the right, my bank cards (how will I invest my financial resources?); at the rear, till receipts, sometimes bank notes.

When I get out my wallet, it is to express with whom I have entered-into relationship, which says something of my values; to reveal my identity; or to draw upon my resources. When I get out my wallet, it speaks to me of these things.

The groups I choose to join reveal what I belong for, the communities I participate in, to a greater or lesser degree, the values I want to promote. My IKEA family card (creative design at affordable prices) sits alongside my National Trust life membership (stewarding our national heritage, both landscaped and built environment) – at first glance, the NT & IKEA don’t sit together well, but there is something of each that I want to celebrate.

The tokens of my identity say something of what I be for: this is me, who I am. The tokens themselves may carry information we didn’t choose, but, when I open my wallet my image looks back at me: who do I see? That face wears glasses: I no longer wear glasses (there’s a story to that, to do with identity, self-image, hiding behind a frame, a projected image, and being challenged not to need to hide). Where do I find my identity? Holding a licence to do something I choose not to exercise is itself an interesting observation on whether my identity is found in doing what everyone is expected to do, or in freedom to choose to exercise a different set of priorities.

What I spend my money on reveals what I long for, what sort of world I long for: a world in which children are forced to labour in sweatshops, or in which workers receive a living wage; a world in which resources are treasured, or disposable.

My wallet speaks to me of what I belong for, of what I be for, of what I long for. And it poses me the question: will I choose life, or death?

Everything Speaks : Pocket Inventory : 2

Everything speaks. Everything speaks: of life, or death, or simultaneously of life and death. Everything tells us: there is a real choice to be made, with real consequences: choose life: choose what nurtures life in all its wonder and beauty: say ‘no’ to death – not literal death, for literal death is swallowed-up by life for those who choose life; but symbolic death, everything that diminishes the wonder and beauty of life.

I thought I’d do a pocket inventory, of the things I carry with me, the basics I take wherever I go, and ask: what do you speak to me?

These things are: my phone, my keys, my wallet, my watch...

My keys
In my left pocket, the smoothness of my phone; in my right pocket, the jaggedness of my keys.

Keys unlock things; and lock them against hostile entry. (Car keys also turn on the ignition; but I don’t drive, and so my car keys are purely for unlocking/locking the car, so I can let the kids in, so I can fetch bags of shopping from the boot).

Jesus says to the church, I give you the keys to my kingdom. They are, I imagine, a set of keys on a ring: and each key has a dual purpose. So, the key to forgiveness both opens-up forgiveness to people and sets them free from the constraint of un-forgiven wrongs, whether self-inflicted or inflicted by others. So, the key to healing both opens-up healing for people and sets them free from the constraint of sickness. So, the key to endurance both opens-up the capacity to endure and sets us free from the consequences of our inability to endure. goes on.

The keys in my pocket are angular, sharp; eventually, they wear holes in my pockets, so that everything else falls through (is no longer contained, or constrained). On occasion, they stick into my thigh. Or, when my hand is in my pocket, they jab at my fingers. I am aware of their presence. And their presence is often an inconvenience; as well as, from time to time, a necessity. But if I forget to pick up my keys as I head out the door, I find myself in a place where I am foolishly unprepared, unable.

My keys speak to me of the doors that Jesus wants to unlock to people, and secure for them. Moreover, they tell me that these things are often unlocked through pain: a fistful of keys speaks of a crown of thorns. They tell me that the cost of the kingdom is inconvenient; that the presence of the kingdom is disruptive. And yet, just as I cannot live without literal keys that have been given to me, to enable me to go about my daily business, so I have been given kingdom keys...and if I go out without them...

Everything Speaks : Pocket Inventory : 1

Everything speaks. Everything speaks: of life, or death, or simultaneously of life and death. Everything tells us: there is a real choice to be made, with real consequences: choose life: choose what nurtures life in all its wonder and beauty: say ‘no’ to death – not literal death, for literal death is swallowed-up by life for those who choose life; but symbolic death, everything that diminishes the wonder and beauty of life.

I thought I’d do a pocket inventory, of the things I carry with me, the basics I take wherever I go, and ask: what do you speak to me?

These things are: my phone, my keys, my wallet, my watch...

My phone
Interestingly, my phone does not speak to me especially about communication: about being made able to communicate, about how we can communicate words of life or death. In part, this is because I hardly ever use my phone: I really do not like talking to someone without being able to see their face, and I don’t get on well with texting. For me, two cups of coffee (not instant!) speak volumes more about communication, conversation, connection.

I bought my phone five years ago, when we were living in Australia for three months (mid-September – mid-December 2005). Like dogs, mobile phones age seven years to every human year, so as a phone it is well-and-truly obsolete. I wonder about replacing it with a smart phone, but...

It is a ‘shell’ phone, smooth like a pebble held in my hand in my pocket; my fingers rubbing on the back, long-since wearing-away the surface colour; the top resting in my palm; ergonomic design.

Like a pebble. It speaks to me of God’s intention to use circumstances and other people to grind-down my rough edges, to make me smooth, to make me a smooth stone in God’s hand. Those months in Australia were hard ones: we had heard God speak very clearly to go there; and that call was confirmed in many different ways while we were there; but being there and asking God, “So, what now? Why have you brought us here?” God was silent, on that matter at least. As if he was saying – without words – this is not about instant, incessant communication: you are beyond mobile coverage here: to learn to live at a slower pace. It takes time, to smooth a stone. (We’re slow learners, by the way!)

God wants to smooth-off my rough edges, not simply to make me a better person, but to make me the right kind of dangerous. My rough-edges have a habit of hurting people: the wrong kind of dangerous. But a smooth stone: that reminds me of David and Goliath. Goliath stands for death: for imposition upon and exploitation of others. In bringing literal death, David stands for life: freedom. Everyone else sees an insurmountable problem: David sees an un-miss-able target. And God wants to shape me into the sort of stone with which he can show insurmountable problems to be un-miss-able targets...

When I find someone else difficult to get along with; when I face overwhelming problems; the phone in my pocket speaks to me of God’s purposes for my life in those relationships, those circumstances. It re-focuses me on God. One day I will finally need to replace my phone. But it will not be enough to have a phone for its practical purposes: it will need to hold symbolic significance for me: because everything speaks...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Heart : Soul : Strength : Mind

Luke 10:25-37

Jesus identifies the greatest commandment as this: to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our strength, and with all of our mind: and the second greatest commandment as this: to love our neighbour as ourselves.

In his book Experiential Worship, Bob Rognlien looks at these ways in which we are to love God – with heart, soul, strength, and mind – in the light of how these terms are understood throughout the Bible.

The term ‘heart’ relates to the human attribute of being volitional creatures: is concerned with what we choose. For us who live in a Western culture, that is not how we tend to view the heart: we tend to view the heart as something that has no choice of its own, but is helpless against being swayed by the power of love. This is so often our excuse when relationships breakdown: “just as I couldn’t help falling in love with you once, I couldn’t help falling in love with someone else now...” But biblically, the heart is the seat of our choice-making – including choosing to be faithful, in all of our relationships.

The term ‘soul’ relates to the human attribute of being emotional creatures: is concerned with what we feel. So we see the Psalmist address himself, “why are you so downcast, O my soul?”

The term ‘strength’ relates to the human attribute of being physical creatures: is concerned with what we do.

The term ‘mind’ relates to the human attribute of being intellectual creatures: is concerned with what we think.

But if we are to express our love for God in each of these different ways, it follows that we must also love ourselves and our neighbours in these ways, too: for the first and second greatest commandments are intimately connected.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus defines ‘self’ as those of our own faith community or culture, and ‘neighbour’ as those who live more-or-less alongside us who have a different view of God.

In the parable, we see how the priest and Levite (worship leader) – who were of the same community as the man left for dead – and the Samaritan – who was from a different community; and, moreover, there was significant tension between their two communities – all make a choice. The priest and Levite choose not to intervene to help – choose not to love ‘self’ with the implication that they could not love ‘neighbour’ either – and the Samaritan chooses to help not only a neighbour but an enemy.

In the parable, we see how the priest and Levite respond to the emotion of pity by suppressing it; whereas the Samaritan allows himself to feel pity.

In the parable, we see that the priest and Levite take the physical action of moving away from the man, passing him on the other side of the road; whereas the Samaritan takes the physical actions of cleaning and dressing his wounds, lifting the man onto his own donkey, and caring for him.

In the parable, we see an absence of loving intellectual engagement from the priest and Levite; whereas the Samaritan comes up with a plan to ensure the man’s ongoing recovery.

So, how might we express love in our neighbourhoods through what we choose, through what we feel, through what we do, and through what we think?

What’s the dirtiest job, the one thing that no-one else is going to do, the thing that people choose to walk by on the other side from, to declare that it isn’t their responsibility? Where I live, I’d say it was the sheer amount of litter and dog-shit on the pavements...Am I willing to choose to love my neighbourhood with a bin-liner and plastic gloves? What about where you live?

When Jesus saw the crowds, milling about with no sense of purpose, he had compassion for them. When we see the crowds, milling about with no sense of purpose – the gang of children and youths vandalising the play-park across from the church, because they have no constructive vision of or hope for a future – society tells us to respond with indignation...Am I willing to express compassion towards those who project an image that says “stay away”?

What might we do, to express love to our neighbourhood? One of the things I do is take funerals. Measured by anything other than the command to love your neighbour as yourself, it is a total waste of my time: funerals are one of those situations where, if I do the job well, you won’t even be aware. But people need someone to take the funeral of their loved ones, and it is a way in which I can love. It is also a situation where I need to choose (heart) to love by what I do (strength); and where what I feel (soul) also has an impact: we are called to love in four different ways, but often they work hand-in-hand.

How might I use my intellect to express love? At different times, Jo and I have both gone into our children’s schools as parent helpers, to work with small groups of children who need additional coaching or to listen to individual children read. Such opportunities vary from school to school. What other opportunities exist in your own context?

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Square : Defining The Priorities Of Life

‘Lifeshapes’ are a series of tools for discipleship – for helping us to follow Jesus, and to help others to follow Jesus. Recognising that we live in an iconic culture, where brand logos both carry and unlock significant volumes of experience for us – try it: how much information and experience does the Disney logo, or the Apple logo, or the M&S logo recall to your mind? Choose a logo and write a list – they make use of simple iconic shapes to carry and unlock biblical teaching to live by, with a focus on the life and ministry of Jesus. The beauty of iconic symbols is this: that, just as with every new Disney (etc.) release, the reservoir of knowledge their logo carries and unlocks expands; so with every new thing we learn about living as disciples, the reservoir of knowledge the Lifeshapes carries and unlocks for us also expands.

In the Gospels, we see Jesus lead those he calls to follow him from a place of unconscious incompetence, through conscious incompetence and conscious competence, to unconscious competence. These are the stages we go through whenever we step out from our known experience of life into something unknown.

Let me illustrate this by describing learning to drive. As a child, we know what it is like to be a passenger in a car, and we give little thought to the possibility of driving. As we approach the legal age, we might begin to pay attention, to ask questions. But when we are given power (insured on our parents’ car, or given professional lessons) and authority (a provisional driver’s licence) to drive, we have no idea what is actually involved. We over-steer round bends; we stall at lights. This is unconscious incompetence. We quickly move to conscious incompetence: very aware of our inability; our confidence that we will ever learn taking a massive hit. But with practice, with encouragement and instruction, we begin to learn the skills, grow in experience and confidence. At this stage, we still need to concentrate on what we are doing: this is conscious competence. Finally, we reach the stage where we can drive without having to think about driving: we automatically check our mirrors: this is unconscious competence.

At the stage of unconscious incompetence, we need to do what we are told: the instructor is very directional, does not burden us with massive amounts of information. At the stage of conscious incompetence, we need a great deal of encouragement, and to be reminded of the vision, the greater freedom that being able to drive will give us, in employment, in leisure, in the practicalities of day-to-day living in a car culture. At the stage of conscious competence, we need opportunity to drive, to put in the hours (as far as learning to drive is concerned, this stage only really happens once we have past our test: then we must drive: one of the reasons why I always lacked confidence in driving was that I did not have the opportunity to put in those hours when I passed my test). At the stage of unconscious competence, driving is ‘natural’ – though note that precisely because our competence is unconscious, we will find it hard to teach someone else to drive unless we retrace our own steps, recalling to mind the earlier stages we had to pass through, and in particular the stage of conscious competence.

These same principles – stages of learning; and corresponding phases of leading, requiring different approaches – apply to anything in life, including ‘spiritual’ things such as learning to lead others, or learning to exercise the power and authority Jesus gives us to heal the sick.

Jesus’ intention is not that his disciples remain unconsciously incompetent, consciously incompetent, or even consciously competent: but that we reach the place of unconscious competence (with regards to healing, Peter reached the place where his shadow falling across the sick healed them).

These stages define our priorities in any given point: are we leading as directive visionary, or encouraging coach; as delegating releaser, or removed-but-available consultant?

The Triangle : Balancing The Relationships Of Life

‘Lifeshapes’ are a series of tools for discipleship – for helping us to follow Jesus, and to help others to follow Jesus. Recognising that we live in an iconic culture, where brand logos both carry and unlock significant volumes of experience for us – try it: how much information and experience does the Disney logo, or the Apple logo, or the M&S logo recall to your mind? Choose a logo and write a list – they make use of simple iconic shapes to carry and unlock biblical teaching to live by, with a focus on the life and ministry of Jesus. The beauty of iconic symbols is this: that, just as with every new Disney (etc.) release, the reservoir of knowledge their logo carries and unlocks expands; so with every new thing we learn about living as disciples, the reservoir of knowledge the Lifeshapes carries and unlocks for us also expands.

According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is this: to love God with all of our heart (volitional, what we choose), and with all of our soul (emotional, what we feel), and with all of our mind (intellectual, what we think), and with all of our strength (physical, what we do). And the second greatest commandment is this: to love our neighbour (Jesus defined our neighbour as whoever does not share our beliefs about God) as much as we love ourselves (that is, those who share our beliefs, our own faith community). Indeed, Jesus goes so far as to say that everything else in the Bible hangs on these two commands: is, in effect, commentary, showing us who God is and how to love him; who we are and what loving one another looks like in practice; and who is our neighbour and how we are to relate to them.

And so life is all about attending to these three different relationships, and learning how to express love for God, self and neighbour in the choices we make, in what we feel about ourselves and others (emotions are important, but don’t overrule choice), in what we think about ourselves and others, and in what we do towards ourselves and others.

This is worked out in all kinds of ways. For example, in raising children to maturity, we need to give them three things: love, discipline, and freedom. They need the security of knowing that they are loved, of growing up in a loving environment – and love, whether we acknowledge it or not, comes from God. And they need discipline and freedom, which go hand-in-hand. For example, my children are currently under the discipline of learning to read and write and manipulate numbers – and the extent to which they can experience freedom in the world is determined, to a large degree, by the extent to which they can take on these disciplines. Likewise, they experience the discipline of having breakfast every morning, and a (more or less) regular bedtime at night. Again, the discipline of healthy nutition and sleep patterns – of a disciplined lifestyle – directly impact their capacity to explore the world in which they live, and how they relate to others.

This is simple – just three things to attend to – but hard (our mistake is to believe that parenting is complex, but somehow ought to be easy). It is interesting to observe the relationship between Millennials (those born after 1980) and their parents (the youngest of the Baby Boomer generation and oldest of Generation X). These parents have largely reacted to their own childhood experience of absent fathers – whether emotionally absent because they found their identity almost entirely through their career, rather than as husbands/fathers; or physically absent, through rapidly rising divorce. In reaction, as parents themselves, they have sought to always be there for their children, and to be friends with their children. They have seen discipline as punishment, rather than training – and raised a generation who see discipline as rejection. They have seen freedom as abandonment, rather than maturity – and raised a dependent generation who have a high view of entitlement and a low capacity for perseverance. As a result, Millennials struggle to leave home, or even contribute to the running of their parents’ home (in truth, their parents struggle to let them go, or even let them contribute); struggle to operate as adults in the workplace; struggle to enter into lasting relationships. But love hopes to see the one it loves grow to maturity, and compels us to attend to finding the balance between too much/too little discipline and too much/too little freedom.

The Semi-Circle : Living In Rhythm with Life

‘Lifeshapes’ are a series of tools for discipleship – for helping us to follow Jesus, and to help others to follow Jesus. Recognising that we live in an iconic culture, where brand logos both carry and unlock significant volumes of experience for us – try it: how much information and experience does the Disney logo, or the Apple logo, or the M&S logo recall to your mind? Choose a logo and write a list – they make use of simple iconic shapes to carry and unlock biblical teaching to live by, with a focus on the life and ministry of Jesus. The beauty of iconic symbols is this: that, just as with every new Disney (etc.) release, the reservoir of knowledge their logo carries and unlocks expands; so with every new thing we learn about living as disciples, the reservoir of knowledge the Lifeshapes carries and unlocks for us also expands.

On the night of his arrest, walking through Jerusalem from the Upper Room where he had celebrated the Last Supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, Jesus and his disciples look up at the Temple. There on the wall is the giant gold frieze of a vine, the symbol of God’s people planted by God himself in the Promised Land, lit by the firelight of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to observe the Passover. And Jesus declares that he is the true vine (John 15), and goes on to describe the experience of the life of his disciples:

they are the branches that grow out from the vine, bearing fruit;

once the fruit is harvested, the branches are pruned back: those branches that have not borne fruit are cut off and thrown in the fire; while those that have borne fruit are pruned right back to the vinestock;

the vinestock (as all trunks do) grows thicker year-on-year, surrounding the pruned-back branches, from which they will grow out again, themselves stronger, able to bear more fruit than the year before.

There is a rhythm: of remaining, or abiding, in the vine; growth; fruit; and pruning. And we should expect just such a rhythm in our lives; learn to recognise the points where abiding turns to growth, growth to bearing fruit, fruitfulness to pruning; and to go with the gardener, rather than resist him.

So, as we spend time with Jesus, in the hidden place where no-one sees, in time we will become aware that our faith for producing a particular fruit in our life – patience, perhaps, or exercising the gift of healing – is growing. And then we will experience a season of fruitfulness – we demonstrate a patience that we had not known before; we pray for those in need of healing, and see healing more often than in the past. And then, just as we are enjoying this new experience, something happens: we stop bearing fruit; we might even notice that the fruit we were bearing, we are no longer bearing – we seem to be more impatient again; we pray, and don’t see healing, again. If we don’t know to expect this – if we don’t see it as a gentle invitation to abiding again (the idea of retreat in order to go forward) – then we will worry that something has gone wrong: that God has let us down, or that we have let him down and he has abandoned us, for now at least. In fact, it is un-pruned branches that grow too thin to support the weight of fruit, too long for goodness to travel from the vine. The life that does not embrace this rhythm will see a law of diminishing returns, bearing increasingly less and increasingly bitter fruit. On the other hand, the life that embraces this rhythm will bear much fruit, in season.