Friday, February 26, 2010

The Path Of Least Resistance : The Path Of Obedience

Recently I’m becoming aware how strong the pull is into the path of least resistance. Of doing what is most efficient. Like water running away.

It ties in with something I posted recently, of how we don’t allow ourselves margins around our lives. So we find ourselves always taking the same route to work, the shops, wherever, because that is the most direct route or the quickest route at this time of day, the route that allows us to set out as late as possible and still arrive on time.

We run on autopilot a lot of the time. We run – busy, busy, under pressure. On autopilot – not really present to the moment, distracted, looking to be distracted from the boredom of life on autopilot. A lot of the time.

At least, I do.

And the consequence is that we aren’t doing what the Father is doing. I’m not talking about doing what the Father has explicitly told us not to do – actions that only harm ourselves and others. I’m talking about the difference between just going about our day, and going about doing what we see the Father doing, today. The difference between believing in God (so what? even the demons do that), and ushering in his kingdom.

Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these.” (John 5:19, 20)

What does that mean? I think it means this: that instead of running on autopilot, we try to walk with God. Walk – slow down. With God – asking to see what he is doing and doing those things.

This Lent, God is teaching me to listen to his voice. It is a discipline, and, as I engage with the discipline I am hearing God’s voice more clearly. I think I am hearing the devil’s voice more clearly, too – saying that we don’t need to submit ourselves to God like that, saying we need to take responsibility for our own actions; that it is super-spiritual immaturity to bother God with the minutiae of our lives; that He isn’t that involved anyway – He left the book in His place (the tempter misusing scripture).

And so I am disciplining myself to ask God the small questions. “Father, I have a letter to post. Should I go right now, or later on? Should I go to this post-box, or that one? Should I walk down this road, or that road?”

Why would it make any difference? Well, it makes no difference to the letter. But it makes a difference to whose path I cross on the way there and back. What is the Father doing? Whose path is he hoping to cross today? To whom would he send me? Where, and when, will they be? (At my ordination, I was charged by the bishop with “searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.”)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Identity : Authority : Part 6

During harvest time, three of the thirty chief men came down to David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. David longed for water and said, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” So the three mighty men broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the LORD. “Far be it from me, O LORD, to do this!” he said. “Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?” And David would not drink it.
Such were the exploits of the three mighty men.

2 Samuel 23:13-17

“God unpacks [the significance of our name] to reveal the extent of our covenant identity and kingdom authority.” Jo Saxton

God unpacks the significance of David’s name - ‘beloved’ – in many different ways throughout his life, including loved by those he gathered around him, who were prepared to die for him. This is a part of his covenant identity (God’s beloved son) and kingdom authority (king, under the King) – both of which point to a greater fulfilment in Jesus. Our lives, too, are to display something of Jesus, to be what Alan Hirsch calls a ‘little Jesus’.

David gathers around him others who will fight for him, for one another, side-by-side. They have a safe place (a cave) where they can gather – my friend Mike Breen identifies this gathering-together in a safe place as ‘oikos’ or family, the New Testament term for churches – and from which they can go out. I note that this coming IN and going OUT is mirrored in the sheep pen Jesus talks about in John 15. All mission without safe gathering equals quick death...

This is the pattern of discipleship and the nature of missional leaders:

that they gather around themselves people who look at their lives and see – despite the struggles –

a person who is living in more secure identity and authority than they are

and want to learn from them

in order that they, too, might grow into their own identity and authority.

(1 Corinthians 4:16; Hebrews 6:12 and 13:7 – discipleship as imitation of others)

Whose life do you want to learn from? And who wants the life you have?

Identity : Authority : Part 5

These are the names of David's mighty men:

Josheb-Basshebeth, a Tahkemonite, was chief of the Three; he raised his spear against eight hundred men, whom he killed in one encounter.

Next to him was Eleazar son of Dodai the Ahohite. As one of the three mighty men, he was with David when they taunted the Philistines gathered at Pas Dammim for battle. Then the men of Israel retreated, but he stood his ground and struck down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword. The LORD brought about a great victory that day. The troops returned to Eleazar, but only to strip the dead.

Next to him was Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. When the Philistines banded together at a place where there was a field full of lentils, Israel's troops fled from them. But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the LORD brought about a great victory.

2 Samuel 23:8-12

God gave his ancient people a land, but they had to fight to possess it and to keep hold of it.

In the same way, God has an identity for us to take hold of and possess;

to settle and cultivate;

to raise community within;

to steward on God’s behalf;

and to defend from the enemy

(“...our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” Ephesians 6:12).

I love these stories of David’s mighty men (David means ‘beloved,’ and these men clearly loved him), who stood their ground – even a field of lentils!

Our identity is not simply given us. It is contested. Life in the fullness of what God intends for us is not simply given us. It is contested. If we don’t know what is our ‘patch of earth’ – the ‘soil’ from which we come and to which we will return – how will we be able to possess, settle, or defend it?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Identity : Authority : Part 4

These days almost all comments on my blog posts are within Facebook as opposed to on my blog itself. I love this comment by my friend Jo Saxton (The Order of Mission; 3dm; everywoman)

names are hugely significant something that I wonder that we've lost (particularly) Western culture- what we might use to define us in limiting terms, God unpacks to reveal the extent of our covenant identity and kingdom authority. Love the fact you are thinking about all this, and looking forward to seeing what unfolds...

Identity : Authority : Part 3

I am reflecting on names and their significance. Following on from Part 1 and Part 2, here is a worked example, reflecting on my middle name, Christopher.

Christopher means ‘to bear (carry) Christ.’

In John 15, Jesus says that if we abide in him, we will bear fruit – our lives will be fruitful.

In Galatians 6:17, Paul speaks of bearing on his body the wounds of Christ, and in 1 Peter 4:16 Peter speaks of suffering for bearing Christ’s name. Something about bearing Christ – his wounds, his name – has to do with suffering, but also with vindication and even joy in the face of that suffering. They speak of a closeness to Christ that results in fruit that lasts.

On the other hand, the Bible also speaks of bearing other things: bearing blame (Genesis 43:8-10); bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:18); bearing a crushed spirit (Proverbs 18:14). These are things we can bear other than, or in place of, bearing Christ...and they are not good things to bear.

And so my expectation as one whose name – whose identity – includes ‘Christopher’ is that the Shepherd wants me to know fruitfulness in the face of suffering, and that the thief will try to provoke me to take on blame, grudges, and (ultimately; as a result) a crushed spirit instead...That this is part of the manifestation of the battle over my identity...And that I need to actively refuse (and be helped by those around me to refuse) to take on these alternative burdens.

Lord, show me where I bear blame, so that I may lay it down before you. Show me where I bear a grudge, that I may leave it at your feet. Show me where my spirit has been crushed, that I may know your healing and wholeness. And help me to bear Christ in the world, knowing his fruit even in the midst of suffering. Amen.

Identity : Authority : Part 2

I read and resonate with an interesting observation, posted on Michael Volland’s blog, that Christians have ‘lost a sense of the Bible as the central text in the formation of Christian character and identity’ and that we need to learn and pass on to our children the stories of our ‘extended family.’ I agree. This is true for our particular Christian character and identity (who I am within that family) as much as for our shared Christian character and identity (or family likeness).

Psalm 139, Jeremiah 1, and Ephesians 1-2 tell us that God planned us before he made us – indeed before he made the world – and that he planned the particular work he wanted to display through our lives.

Jesus tells us that there is a Shepherd (himself) who comes into our lives with the intention that we might know life in its fullness, and that there is a thief who comes into our lives with the intention to steal and kill and destroy (John 10). That is, there is a battle over who we become.

Throughout the Bible, names – of individuals, of communities – are important. They carry the work that God intends to display through that person, and they are the place of the battle between the Shepherd and the thief over whether that person experiences the fullness of life God intends for them or not. ‘Gideon’ means ‘Great Warrior’ and God meets him hiding in a hole for fear of enemy raiding parties. ‘Simon’ means ‘to be heard’ and Simon Peter often speaks out, sometimes with God-given insight and sometimes at the devil’s provoking...

This might sound a strange idea, but it is one we observe – even if we don’t recognise what lies behind it. Comedians (who fulfil the important role of observer in a society, pointing out our folly in a way we can receive) note the irony of a girl called Charity, who is the meanest person you could hope to meet where money is concerned, or the girl called Chastity who is promiscuous. We see names with a clear meaning as a parental aspiration for their child’s character, which actually functions as a curse. But all names have a meaning. And if God knew us before he made the world, then he knew us by name, and that name carries something of what he intends for us. The ‘curse’ is the result of the thief, but the Shepherd intends full life.

It is worth reflecting on our names, on what the Bible says about them, asking what God might have intended for us and also ways in which we might expect the thief to attack – so as to bring his works into the light. This will help us to worship God more fully, for if worship is about giving ourselves to God then knowing who we are and are intended to be is important. This may well also help us to understand one another, to understand the ways in which the thief works so that we do not inadvertently collude with him.

Obviously, many names are not biblical in origin. However, they often describe characteristics or actions the Bible does speak about. Start with a word search, asking the Holy Spirit to highlight significant verses. These will not necessarily describe your character strengths and weaknesses (though they may well hold a mirror up to you), but rather they describe the kind of things that the Shepherd may be saying to you about your identity and the kind of ways in which the thief might seek to steal that identity from you. It may surprise you how often God will speak directly to the struggles you face, the battles where you have given ground, the ground you need to take back again.

James 4:7 says this:

‘Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’

As we reflect on our identity, we need to submit these things to God by asking:
“What is it you want to say to me about who you have made me to be, and what you hope to do in and through my life, by the name you gave me?”

And as we gain insight into the battle we face for our identity, we need to resist the devil by recognising his tricks, refusing to agree with his lies, and telling him in the name of Jesus to go.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Identity : Authority

I believe that your name is significant in relation to your identity; and that your identity is significant in relation to the battles you face in the war between a thief who comes to kill, steal and destroy and a shepherd who comes that we might experience life in all its fullness. I see this over and over again in the Bible, in the stories of men and women, and even communities of people, the meanings of whose names are often explained in the footnotes.

My parents gave me the name ‘Andrew Christopher.’ It means, [the man] [who follows Christ]. All my life, I have wanted to be a man who follows Christ. A man: one who leads others so that they, too, can follow Christ. And that has been the battle-ground for my identity.

Like Jesus on the cross, every one of us has had our heart pierced by something sharp. A cut to the heart of who we are; a wounding of our identity. The thief’s cut to my heart is the word, “you can’t be a man.” Or perhaps, if our identity comes from God’s intention for us, those words come in the same form as to Eve in the Garden, “Did God really say...[you are the man]?”

All my life, I have heard other people around me declare the message: “You are just a child...You are not capable of making your own judgements...You need to think what I tell you is right to think...You need to do things my way...”

And I add to the wound by deciding that I will prove them all wrong – a declaration that is, ironically, childish...and becomes an obstacle to following Christ...

It is not that this is necessarily what has been said – though sometimes, I believe, it has been – but, because of the wound I bear and because of my response to that wound, it is what I have heard. If I am honest, I hear these words echo throughout my curacy – “you are not ready to be a vicar” (though I know I am not the only curate who struggles with this). And I say to myself, “I thought we’d dealt with this one...why am I so slow to learn?”

In this way, identity is stolen, and authority neutralised. Ultimately, the temptation is to abandon the identity God intends for us.

Our identity and our authority both come from God. But our authority – to bring the kingdom of heaven into this world – flows out of our identity – as sons of the King. And if we have a particular identity as well as a common identity, then that has a bearing on the way in which we will be called to exercise authority.

Jesus’ name means “God saves!” It is the same name as “Joshua” who lead the people into the promised land, crossing the Jordan River and taking Jericho. Jesus was baptised in the Jordan near Jericho, and then climbed up out of the rift valley into the wilderness, to reflect on his identity and how it would inform his authority: he comes to take the land for God, but how will he go about it?

Lent is an echo of those days in the wilderness. It is a season to allow the Father to (send his angels to) minister to our identity, and so to inform our authority.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday : Stations Of The Temptation

Lent recalls the time Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his ministry. During our service this evening we created space to move through three prayer stations reflecting on the temptations Jesus faced:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

(Matthew 4:1-11)

+ Station 1
At the back of the church there is a Bible covered in pebbles. Lent is a season to create space to read the Bible, to be fed by God’s word. Take some time to answer the question:

What are the obstacles that stop me from spending time feeding on God’s word?

Ask God to strengthen you to overcome those obstacles. Then take a pebble from the Bible and drop it in the bucket, to symbolise your intention to read the Bible this Lent.

+ Station 2
At the front of the church there is the opportunity to receive the sign of the cross in ash on our foreheads. Ashes symbolise both death and repentance, or turning back to God. Take some time to answer the questions:

Where do I find it hard to trust God? In what situations have I tried to force God’s hand? In what areas of my life do I need to put to death the desire to be in control?

As you come forward, give these things up to God in silent prayer.

+ Station 3
In the Lady Chapel there will be bread and wine available. These gifts remind us of Jesus’ death on the cross, his victory over Satan’s hold on the world. Take bread and wine, giving thanks for what Jesus has done, and offering your life in his service.

Ash Wednesday

Lent In The Post-Christian Church : Part 2

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Mark 1:9-13

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12:5-11

Discipline without love is abuse.

The ancient tradition of observing the season of Lent is an act of modelling ourselves on Jesus. We fast because he fasted. But Jesus went into the wilderness with these words ringing in his ears: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” He went, knowing the Father’s love, which made it possible for him to put himself in the place of dependency on his loving Father.

To see Lent as a challenge, the testing of our own strength of will, our own self-discipline, is to miss the point. Indeed, it is worse than worthless – not because self-discipline is bad (in fact, it is the fruit of the Spirit in our lives) but because self-discipline without knowing the Father’s love is actually self-reliance.

The purpose of Lent is to experience child-like dependency on our loving Father. Fasting both creates space to meet with God – time otherwise spent in busy activity – and is an act of laying down our self-sufficiency.

Our self-sufficient society has turned Lent into an opportunity to show everyone just how self-reliant we are. We live in a surrounding culture that needs the church to rediscover the significance of Lent.

Love without discipline is abuse.

If I claim to love my children but do not set age-appropriate boundaries for them – where they can go, what they can see, how they relate to others – then I am lying. But discipline is unpleasant at the time – and pushing through the pain-barrier is unpleasant for the one responsible for discipline, too. As a parent, it is easier to not encourage [give someone courage to] my children to do their piano practice, or go to bed. And so indiscipline raises a harvest of indiscipline.

To engage with God’s disciplining us is to experience child-like dependency on a loving Father. To choose indiscipline is to remain in a place of childish behaviour, demanding that God bails us out, unchanged. But through discipline God transforms our souls into his holy nature. Love alone cannot transform us. Discipline transforms us. Love enables us to embrace discipline.

And so if we want to be changed, we need to take on disciplined behaviour. We need to live as we hope to become, not in our own strength but in dependency on God’s ability to transform us.

Then we discover that Lent is not a legalistic requirement but a gift of grace, a word of encouragement to us:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert...

Lent In The Post-Christian Church : Part 1

One of the challenges facing those of us seeking to engage in mission in the post-Christian west is the post-Christian church.

In recent generations evangelicals have thrown out much of inherited practice, viewing it either as “religion, not faith” or as “no longer culturally relevant expressions of faith.” The result has been Christians who have lost their mother tongue and culture, almost as much as their neighbours who are three generations removed from the church.

This dilemma is comparable to the children and grandchildren of post-War immigrants to the UK, who have wrestled with what it means to be Chinese-and-British, Pakistani-and-British, etc. How to hold both identities in creative tension, giving birth to something new but rooted?

That doesn’t come easily, and arguably many churches haven’t wanted to pay the cost of working out what it means to be Christian in a post-Christian culture. This is all the more sad when leaders within our minority communities tell the majority culture that it is largely because we have forgotten our traditions that give us identity and carry our values that we no longer know who we are. Rather than asking, “How can my tradition inform how I live in a foreign land, and offer something positive to those I live among?” we have flown planes into the corrupt towers of inherited church and sought to rebuild what it means to be a Christian from some kind of Ground Zero.

The charismatic movement has rediscovered precious truths about the Father’s love and the Spirit’s power, but has not been so willing to engage with the character-(trans)forming disciplines the Son embraced, of solitude and prayer, fasting and feeding on scripture.

We live in a surrounding culture that needs the church to rediscover the significance of Lent.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


What would it look like if God moved in next door?

What would they (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) get up to?

Would the neighbours be intrigued, or hostile, or disinterested?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Passion : Part 3 : Stations Of The Cross

Lent is fast approaching, and I have put together three series of images for Holy Week – the Stations of the Cross, the wounds of Jesus, and the words of Jesus on the cross.

Here are the Stations of the Cross. They are a re-visiting of an earlier set of images I created some years ago, and used in two different contexts at theological college (small copies were displayed on the library corridor; large copies were used in the end-of-term service before Easter). Explanations are offered below.

I am posting them now in case anyone would like to make use of them – feel free to project them or print them, but please abide by the Creative Commons license on the sidebar.

+ stations of the cross
I wanted to piece together a series of images representing the Stations of the Cross. The fourteen stations, traditionally depicting scenes from the last week of Jesus’ life through sculpture or painting, form a spiritual pilgrimage in preparation for Easter. Some variation exists as to the scenes, and I’ve chosen a list created by Pope John Paul II, which limits itself to scenes recounted in the New Testament Gospels and eschews stations inspired by extra-biblical church tradition.

1 + agony in the garden
I took this photograph at a celebration marking one of the major festivals of the Church year. The hands are raised in worship; ecstatic, not traumatic. Yet I can’t think of a greater expression of worship than Jesus’ prayer, “...yet not my will but yours be done...”

2 + betrayal and arrest
The shape of the bread brings to my mind both the hillside garden and two faces kissing. Judas was at the Last Supper; took bread and wine among the community of Jesus’ disciples...

3 + condemned by the sanhedrin

I took this photograph at the same worship celebration as the image used to depict agony in the garden. I imagine the members of the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus to be a crowd of devout, fervent God-worshippers; and wonder about the actions, and potential actions, of such crowds I have been in...

4 + denied by Peter
For the Denial, I have used a self-portrait. This is me: a friend and follower of Jesus, a leader of others, a man who denies my Lord many times a day. The image has an almost stained-glass window style - a contained religious feel. But this is my shadow, my dark side, my pensive fear and regret; me unable to show my face; in need of being restored to relationship.

5 + condemned to death by Pilate
If everyday bread and wine symbolise Jesus’ body and blood, why shouldn’t we pause before the everyday action of washing our hands at the bathroom sink to reflect on those times Jesus is more trouble than he is worth to us, and we wash our hands of him and walk away?

6 + scourged and crowned with thorns
Flayed meat...

7 + made to carry his cross
I took this photograph looking straight up at the trees overhead, and it has a disoriented, dizzying feel to it. The convergence of the two trunks forms a cross carried on the shoulders; the tangle of branches and foliage at the intersection forms a bedraggled head.

8 + Simon of Cyrene made to carry the cross
Religious language makes use of the phrase “covered by the blood of Jesus”...Simon of Cyrene was the first to be covered - literally - by his blood. I imagine Simon as having come up to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, dressed in his best wedding-and-feast-days robes - only for those robes to be torn and splattered with blood and sweat and dust as he is forced to carry another man’s cross in the parade to public execution. And I wonder about how we dress ourselves up in order to approach God; and how we end up looking before him.

9 + the women of Jerusalem

Religious art is often accused as objectifying women as virgins, mothers or prostitutes. I’d suggest that one of the ways in which our society objectifies women is as high street shoppers, and walking shop mannequins. What does Jesus passing by, being led out to die, say to such women (perhaps bored, certainly inoculated against images of human suffering)?

10 + crucified
This discarded, heat-blistered and rust-scarred cooker was abandoned in the no-mans-land on the edge of my in-laws village. When I watched The Passion of the Christ, I was totally unmoved: that’s just a man and a make-up team. Somehow I find this scene more thought-provoking.

11 + promises paradise
Three carcasses hanging in a row. The tacky plastic peppers add an air of carnival, spectacle, to what is essentially something dead in a public place.

12 + speaks to John and Mary
If Jesus’ death is a selfless action that secures the future for many, his dying concern to secure a future for his mother and the disciple who has become like a younger brother to him is a foretaste of this - his reconfigured family.

13 + dies
The light shines in the darkness...and the darkness is just about to snuff it out. The Psalm Jesus quotes from on the cross (22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?...) includes reference to “My heart has turned to wax...”

14 + laid in the tomb

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Grace : Love : Fellowship : With Us

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
2 Corinthians 13:14

What does this prayer for grace and love and fellowship mean?

I don’t think it is an arbitrary blessing – a “let’s come up with three ‘god’ things and attach them to a Trinitarian depiction of God” prayer. I reckon this grace and love and fellowship is supposed to be our daily experience – all of us – the means by which God leads his people, the measures against which we can learn to recognise God’s voice - and also the voice of the accuser, the deceiver.

But what does it look like, when the Lord Jesus Christ responds by giving us his grace, God (the Father) responds by giving us his love, and the Holy Spirit responds by giving us his fellowship?

It starts with grace. (Why? Because it is only by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that we can know the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in the first place.) Grace is the means given us which enables us to do what Jesus asks us to do. We can’t go and make disciples in our own strength. He walks with us, and lifts the burden. Churches can be communities that place heavy burdens on people, especially people who are clearly able people (in fact, the same people who are asked to take on additional burdens in their workplaces, so that the church puts additional burdens on already over-burdened people).

I think of some close friends who felt that Jesus was asking them to have a large crowd of people back for Sunday lunch every week. For someone else, that would have been a burden. But because Jesus supplied the grace they needed in order to do it, it was no burden at all. It really wasn’t. And after a time, it started to feel like a burden on them, and they were able to recognise that what was going on was that Jesus was taking back the grace for that particular thing, and that this was a sign that this season was coming to an end. Jesus would give them grace to do something else, in his good time.

To have kept on going would have resulted in diminishing returns of fruitfulness. And to have kept on keeping on going would have eventually have resulted in bad fruit – resentment, irritability, tiredness that leaves us vulnerable.

The leading of grace is part of the rhythm of abiding and growing and bearing fruit and being pruned back – grace flowing to lead us out into growth and fruitfulness, and drawing back to lead us back through close pruning into a time of abiding in Jesus the vine (see John 15).

Sometimes there are things that just need to be done. In fact, there are always things that just need to be done. But to do them without the necessary grace is burdensome – and it is a burden that Jesus does not intend or want for us (“Come to me all who are weary and heavy-burdened, for my yolk is easy and my burden is light.”). The problem with doing things out of duty is that it is – or at least, it becomes - joyless. The greater problem is that – like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son – in acting out of duty we place ourselves as servants not one of the family.

The love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – experiencing a friendship that is growing increasingly close – work in a similar way. Not that God removes his love from us, but that as we move out of his will for us we experience distance between us that is intended to draw us back.

So here are some good questions to ask, on a regular basis, of the things we do and the things we might take on:

Does this activity/responsibility (or, the prospect of it) feel burdensome, or is it a channel of grace?

Do I experience joy, even in the midst of hard situations; or the absence of joy, even in easy situations?

Is the fruit of this activity a deepening sense of God’s love, or a growing sense that I am a servant and not a son?

Is the fruit of this activity a deepening sense of fellowship with the Holy Spirit, or a growing sense of disappointment with God, and/or his people and his bride, the church?

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Passion : Disturbing Images : Part 2

Lent is fast approaching, and I am hoping to put together three series of images for Holy Week – the Stations of the Cross, the wounds of Jesus, and the words of Jesus on the cross.

Here is the ‘words’ series. The images are not x-rated, but they are intended to be disturbing – to disturb us, creating space for conversation with God.

I am posting them now in case anyone would like to make use of them – feel free to project them or print them, but please abide by the Creative Commons license on the sidebar.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Passion : Disturbing Images

Lent is fast approaching, and I am hoping to put together three series of images for Holy Week – the Stations of the Cross, the wounds of Jesus, and the words of Jesus on the cross.

Here is the ‘wounds’ series. The images are not x-rated, but they are intended to be disturbing – to disturb us, creating space for conversation with God.

I am posting them now in case anyone would like to make use of them – feel free to project them or print them, but please abide by the Creative Commons license on the sidebar.

Zechariah 10

In the margin around my day, I asked God what I should read today, and I heard him say, “Zechariah 10.” So I looked it up... speaks of people who wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd being restored because God’s compassion so that they become like mighty men, with glad hearts, and children who are joyful and rejoice in the Lord...

...and it goes on to say that they will pass through the sea of trouble, strengthened in the Lord and walking in his name...

I am making a note of it, so that I don’t forget what God wanted to speak to me about this morning.

Lord, in your compassion, restore to me gladness of heart, and to my children joy, that we might take strength as we follow you. Amen.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Have More Fun : Make More Mistakes : Indirect Effort

Yesterday, France beat Scotland at rugby.

I think it is significant that when you look at the statistical analysis you discover that the French made more ball-handling errors, and even conceded more penalties.

The Scots worked really hard, and it paid off in the form of some crunching defensive tackles and probing breaks in attack. But somehow they didn’t manage to take the chances they created.

The French, on the other hand, played for fun – even though they took hard knocks, even though several of them will be very sore today. They played for fun, not being overly concerned to eliminate mistakes. And it paid off in the form of some of the chances they created resulting in tries.

Indeed, playing for the sheer joy of the game gave the side a cohesion that it did not have from having played together – the current coach has sent out far too many caps for that kind of cohesion to exist.

Both teams exerted considerable effort. But indirect effort – in this case, seeking to have fun rather than seeking to eliminate mistakes – was (as is so often the case) more effective.

We need to play the kingdom life for the boundless joy of the game. Otherwise, the sheer force of the opposition will grind us out.


The pages of a book have margins. This blog has wide margins. Margins not only frame what is written, in the sense of providing set boundaries; they make reading easier. And in the margins of a book (though not a blog) you can write little notes or marks that highlight something that speaks to you. No margins, no room for notes.

God intends for our lives to have margins. They are a gift of grace. He said to his ancient people, “Don’t harvest your fields to the very edge: leave a strip around the edge, for the widow and the orphan to gather a harvest.”

If we live without margins, we don’t leave space for others to be blessed through our lives – especially, the marginalised.

If we live without margins, we don’t leave space to hear God speak into our lives – not least, through the marginalised.

If we work all the hours we are given, we leave no margin.

If we have to be in another city on business, and travel there and back on that day or days, instead of the day before and after, we leave no margin. If it is worth going, make the necessary time; if you can’t give that time, it probably isn’t worth going.

If we don’t make space to have fun, we leave no margin. (Note: Tuesday 16 February is Shrove Tuesday, and it should involve getting together with other people to make and eat pancakes...)

Sometimes, the wider the margins and the fewer the words, the more significant the impact...

But we think that the way to maximise the potential of a page, or a life, is to minimise the margins.


“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Be the change. Not do the change. Not force through change, but model an alternative way, regardless of whether anyone else follows your lead or not. Not striving for something external, but receiving grace to be different in the face of a world that isn’t what you would choose.

That is the power of the powerless.

Lord, give me grace to be the change I want to see. Amen.

Resonance : Affective Story : Relevance : Effective Discipline

Why do we watch movies? Arguably for escapism, looking for something that takes us out of our world if just for two hours.

But why do people make movies? Arguably not simply to provide escape, but to tell stories that will stir the longings of the human heart.

Cinema tells us that we are living in dark times, and that such times call for ordinary people, caught up in a struggle between good and evil (right and wrong, justice and injustice), to step up and do extraordinary things. This story is told on the epic scale (Star Wars, LOTR); told through rom-com (Love, Actually is full of this, from the British PM standing up to the American President, to the little boy who runs through the airport because the girl he loves can’t be allowed to get on the plane to New York with her mom and out of his life forever without knowing how he feels); set in every era and culture (WWII, future sci-fi, Slumdog Millionaire)...

Cinema understands those things that resonate with our inmost being – love, friendship, adventure, justice – and tells story and employs symbolic drama in order to affect us. Heart-warming, heart-wrenching, great cinema stirs us up. I don’t know anyone who goes to the cinema because it is relevant to their lives. We don’t watch films because they are relevant, but because they resonate with us.

As we walk into the auditorium, we suspend our disbelief in order to enter the world being presented to us. And as we walk out through the foyer, we take up again the disbelief that prevents us from making connections between those worlds and our own world. We are stirred up, but those stirrings are not channelled into our experience. There is no-one to help to broker the relationship between resonance and relevance.

God has given us a story that resonates with all the longings he has hidden deep within us. It is a story that is told in the Bible, but it isn’t a story that is contained by the Bible. It isn’t a story that can be communicated solely through reading or listening to Scripture – the very events Scripture records show that Scripture alone is not enough.

The Church has not only a story that resonates with human hearts but also moments of drama that interrupt everyday life, that particularly affect us – in the same way that within the arc of a two-hour story, the film-maker does not expect or attempt to affect the audience with every moment but at key moments. Over two-thousand years, the Holy Spirit has led the Church in creating drama and symbol to affect us, drama and symbol that not only resonates with our hearts but also helps us to step-into the big story of salvation history, to make it our own story. (Like cinema) That these dramatic moments are no longer relevant to people’s experience of life is...irrelevant.

But (unlike cinema) the Church is also placed to help people make connections between the story and their own everyday experience of life – to continue to suspend our disbelief. In community and through our disciplines, we broker the relationship between resonance and relevance. This is why we need to rediscover the ancient disciplines of the Church as well as her moments of great drama – disciplines such as feasting and fasting; solitude and community; work and prayer – and re-articulate them in our own generation. They are tried and tested, effective in shaping our lives.

Relevance channels resonance – but resonance fuels relevance: and the pursuit of relevance without attending to resonance will – sooner or later – run dry.

We need to start with resonance, not relevance. Stirring the heart, and then engaging the mind. If we start with the intellect, with relevance, we will not touch the heart. And if the heart is not touched, the mind will not be renewed. This is, perhaps, the particular amnesia of the charismatic evangelical movement, which behaves as if resonance is an un-mediated ministry of the Holy Spirit and that the role of the church is above all else to be relevant...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Omni-competence : Violence : Gentleness

You might be surprised by the things that overwhelm me.

I am not overwhelmed by having to minister to the dying or the bereaved; or by preaching without notes.

But I am overwhelmed by walking into the untidiness of my children’s bedrooms. My dyspraxic mind just does not know where to begin. Where, in other circumstances, the wiring of my brain results in creativity, or in making connections that others don’t make but find helpful when I take them along with me, here my wiring is overloaded searching for the connections that will help me re-establish order out of chaos. I am defeated, by what to someone else may seem a trivial thing.

We live in a society that increasingly demands omni-competence of us. A society in which professionalism has been taken too far, where what once guaranteed a certain acceptable and comparable standard now places an impossible burden on people. Not only do we need to make a certain number of bricks each day, the necessary raw materials are no longer provided.

We are not omni-competent, nor are we intended to be so. We are intended to be inter-dependent. We are intended to find a role in which we flourish, but that hope has been compromised, for now. And so, not every person will flourish. For some, the odds are too greatly stacked against them. The expectation of omni-competence only adds to those odds. It amounts to violence against the self, against our neighbour.

You might be surprised by the things that overwhelm me. I might be surprised by the things that overwhelm you. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23) includes gentleness. We need to grow in gentleness towards ourselves, and towards each other.

Generations, Side By Side

One of the things I observe in our community is the role of grandparents as carers for their grandchildren. In part, this is necessary – and affordable - childcare where a single-parent is working, or where both parents are working at the same time to pay the mortgage and bills.

This is not so much a new phenomenon as a traditional phenomenon of the extended family that had been eroded by increased mobility - combined with a period of some generations, now gone, when a mortgage could be taken out on a single income - and is perhaps experiencing a renaissance due to economic necessity.

One of the things I observe in our churches is the segregation of different age groups.

One of the things I reflect may be both a missional opportunity and a healthy thing in its own right – in fact, these are one-and-the-same thing, because the mission of God is to see the restorative, life-in-its-fullness affirming kingdom of God break in to our communities – is the possibility of children and senior citizens working together.

My gut-feeling is that this would work best where the two very different generations share common concerns; and where, within those areas, the older generation has skills they can pass on.

Over many years, my dad has created a lovely garden at my parents’ home in Glasgow. On a visit to us in Liverpool in the autumn, dad and Elijah (3yrs) planted bulbs in troughs in our garden – bulbs that are now shoots.

That is a small act. But it has me thinking about what might grow - from that; from watching a grandfather and grandson work side-by-side in the school wildlife garden last weekend; from the rise in green issues on both children’s and mainstream television; from an under-used church allotment, that might not be in the best location...

I wonder what it might take to create a community garden, in which both flowers and vegetables were grown, and in which different generations worked side-by-side? And I wonder what, other than flowers and vegetables, might blossom in such a space...?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Those Who Forget The Past...

...Are Condemned To Repeat It.

Jo goes off on a three-day retreat tomorrow morning. Here is what happened last time she did that...

Seeing Salvation : Blessing What You See

“For my eyes have seen your salvation...” Luke 2:30

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” Luke 2:40

I see salvation in parents/grandparents and pupils from the local primary school joining with members of our church to work in the school’s wildlife garden, clearing the paths, cutting-back dead wood, shaping habitat for birds and insects, and a small woodland environment for the urban children to enjoy.

May this small beginning grow and become strong. May the space created for relationship be filled with wisdom. And may the grace of God be evident to all who are drawn to this light. Amen.

[related posts here and here]

Simple Ways To Celebrate The Feast

Today is the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. I posted on seeing salvation and naming it for what it will become here and here.

If you are eating with others today, why not mark this ‘feast’ in a simple fashion by sharing where you see salvation entering into your life and/or into the community within which you live?

Today is also known as Candlemas. It marks the end of the season of Epiphany, during which we remember that Jesus came as light into a dark world. As well as naming God’s salvation in your world, why not light a candle and give thanks?

Seeing Salvation : The Presentation Of Christ

“For my eyes have seen your salvation...” Luke 2:30

Today is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

What does seeing salvation look like?

God’s saving activity can be understood as occurring in the past, present, and future.

As a consequence of the past – the coming-into-the-world of Jesus – we have been saved from that which separates us from God. We have experienced a fundamental shift in identity - from enemies of God to sons of God – and nature - from sinful to holy.

As a consequence of the future – Jesus’ return – we shall be saved from the consequences of separation from God. We shall experience a fundamental shift in environment – from broken world to world made whole – and self – from broken to whole.

But in the present we are being saved. We are experiencing salvation by degrees from those things that we are in need of saving from. It looks like justice for the widow and mercy for the orphan and asylum for the alien and setting captives free and meeting the needs of the poor and tenderly binding-together the broken heart and feeding the hungry and healing the sick and delivering the demonised from torment and raising the dead and proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, breaking-in, right now.

And it starts somewhere. And it starts small – though it is intended to grow vigorously.

And it needs someone to step up and name it for what it is, and for what it is going to become.

So, what does seeing salvation look like where I find myself today? What does seeing salvation look like where you find yourself today?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Covenant Prayer : Nunc Dimittis

I am no longer my own, but Yours:
Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will;
Put me to doing, put me to suffering;
Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You,
Exalted for You or brought low by You;
Let me be full, let me be empty;
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are mine, and I am Yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation...”
Luke 2:29, 30

[‘nunc dimittis’ – Latin, ‘now dismiss’ – is the name under which this prayer has been passed down within the Church]

The ‘Covenant Prayer’ was written down by John Wesley as a prayer of re-dedication. In some Methodist churches, the congregation pray it together annually. It has also been taken up by The Order of Mission (established in 2003). Whenever new members make their temporary vows, or when temporary members come to make permanent vows, they pray this prayer and those existing members witnessing the occasion pray it with them. They are dangerous words, and as an Order we are really only starting to grow in our understanding of just how much such a prayer can cost. And yet, to take it seriously, we need to regularly revisit and wrestle with each clause.

Tomorrow is the Feast of Candlemas, commemorating the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38). When the baby Jesus is brought to the temple, the Holy Spirit prompts a man named Simeon to go there. He has waited patiently to see something before he dies: the one God had promised to send. God had chosen a people to be a light to all peoples, but instead of fulfilling that purpose they had been overwhelmed by darkness. And so God had promised to send them someone who would not only rescue his people from darkness, but would fulfil their calling to be a light that would draw all peoples to God. And God had promised Simeon that he would see it.

Simeon sees it, and is satisfied. He does not live to see the outworking of salvation. He does not live to see the miracles, the crucifixion, the resurrection. He does not get to see the spread of the early church, the at times painful working-out how to be a community of faith made up of Jews and Gentiles. Instead, he allows God to make a prophetic declaration through him and then dismiss him from this world.

“...Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You...”

“...Let me be...laid aside for You...”

To the extent that our identity is found in what we do, being laid aside feels like failure, or punishment, a vote of no confidence. To the extent that our identity is found in what we do, having been laid aside feels disorientating, and disappointing. To the extent that I recognise these responses in my own heart, my identity is misplaced.

Simeon is not only dismissed, he is dismissed in peace. He is not dismissed too soon. God is good for his promise. Simeon’s identity is not found in what he does – we are told nothing about his life story, only that he is of godly character – but in his confidence in God’s promise, confidence that allows him to let God be god and Simeon be himself before God.

God has me in this place at this time. And he is working out his salvation, here. I will not get to see the fulfilment, and perhaps not even the flowering, of that salvation. This is true of both the passing encounters of any one day, and the ongoing relationships over the three more years I am likely to be here. Indeed, it will always be true, for any of us.

If my place is to name the infant work for what it will be, and be dismissed, please God let me be dismissed in peace.