Thursday, April 26, 2007

Discipleship | Competence

The symptoms of my being of ‘low mood’ at present include a significant loss of confidence in my ability to do things that I have done at a level of competence in the past. While this feels crap, I know that God works in all circumstances, whether good or bad, to bring good for those who love him.

There are four stages to being/making disciples (in any sphere – think about the stages of learning to drive a car, for example):
unconscious incompetence (you’ve just got your provisional licence…);
conscious incompetence (“I’m never going to pass my test…”);
conscious competence (you can drive/parallel park so long as you think about what you are doing);
unconscious competence (you drive/parallel park without thinking about driving/parking).
(This summarises the Lifeshapes Discipleship Square, based on Jesus’ dealings with his disciples in the Gospels.)

My friend Sharon describes it like this:
a stage defined by ‘self’ (one can imagine Jesus’ disciples feeling special at being chosen by him, perhaps even superior to those who weren’t);
a stage defined by ‘emptying’ of self;
a stage defined by ‘being filled’ by God;
and a stage defined by the ‘overflow’ of what has filled us touching others.

The thing is, it’s hard to teach someone else to do something that you do at a level of unconscious competence: “How do you do that?” “I just do.”
Sometimes, we need to be taken back to a stage where we have to work through conscious competence in order to better teach others what we have been taught.

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The garden has been a place of micro-retreat, a well that goes deep to living water, for me in all this. Over the past few days I’ve observed Blue Tits in the early morning and Magpies in the afternoon; and yesterday morning, after the first rain in six weeks fell over night, the unfurling of the masses of Bluebells…

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

(Jesus, Matthew 6:25-34)

Depressed But Hopeful

Recently I have been of what my GP diagnosed on Monday as ‘low mood.’

The past six months or so have been hard. Several pressure circumstances have coincided, and ground me down in incremental bites – each bite small enough to go, almost, unnoticed, easily dismissed; but collectively decimating – to the point where I was existing more than living. And that, in turn, has put massively increased burdens on Jo. Very recently, the ongoing situation has been interrupted by a kairos moment; a point of shouting out ‘ENOUGH!’ with the status quo; an opportunity for the kingdom of God to break in and transform our circumstances, as we repent and believe.

I’ve written before about the process of repentance and belief: of having one’s eyes opened to observe what is going on, to reflect on the situation, and seek to discuss it appropriately with friends who will help us to see rightly; and then of making a plan together of how we will live differently, asking friends to hold us to account to do what we have said we will do, before we act in a different way from before. (This summarises the Lifeshapes Learning Circle, based on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.)

But I wanted to name the pressure points, because they are incredibly common and yet as Church we are often silent about them - which is a mistake, because in naming things we bring them into the light, and they begin to lose their hold over us.

Our third child, Elijah, who is 8 months old, cries much more than his sister and brother did. And every time he has cried, something inside of me has shut down; something that should have responded to his calling out with emotional presence and practical support; something that should have drawn the family closer, not driven us apart. (I guess all those friends who wished ‘pay back’ on us for having two easy babies have got what you wished for. I forgive you, totally. Just be careful what you wish for…) And now I can understand why parents, and child-minders, sometimes harm babies, sometimes fatally. They say you shouldn’t judge another man until you have walked in his shoes. I guess the point is not that gaining an understanding of their experience of life qualifies you to pass judgement; but that once you have such insight you will want only mercy for them, and pass up on the ‘right’ to call for judgement at all…
I don’t recall ever hearing such things brought into the light when church has gathered. I suspect that this is, at least in part, out of deference for those to whom it does not apply. But sometimes single/married/childless/parenting/caring for a disabled or elderly relative/[keep filling in the blank as relevant] people need to take a back seat and learn of the things married/single/parenting/childless/[fill the blank]/caring people struggle with. If we only discuss lowest-common-denominator experiences, or speak in generalisations, we will fail to carry one another’s burdens; to live as God’s redeemed-and-being-redeemed family. Instead, we give everyone the impression that the church is biased towards whichever group of people they do not fit into, and give the accuser room to sow seeds of resentment.

At the same time, my experience of the workplace is pretty shitty. I can’t discuss the situation in any detail, but suffice to say that it concerns workplace politics, and a feud between certain individuals that has resulted in everyone else being caught in the crossfire. And again, I’m aware of several other individuals whose workplace is a miserable and/or unjust place; and I suspect that this is a fairly common experience.

And then there has been the process of discerning with the Diocese and wider Church of England my sense of vocation, and my sense that this is the time to move into that calling. That has been a difficult and at times very painful journey. It feels like, if you survive the process, you’re fit to go through. Nietzsche proposed that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m inclined to disagree. I suspect the institutional process results in a lot of people – curates, junior doctors, whatever – starting out crushed in spirit.

The good news is all three of these specific pressure circumstances have fairly close resolution dates: Elijah will learn to speak, instead of cry; I leave my present employment in the summer, whatever happens next; and I have a date for a selection panel in the summer, and an offer of a college place to take up if I am approved. The better news is that we have the opportunity to address how we will better deal with other pressure circumstances that will, inevitably, arise in the future; and friends who will support us in that process.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007


It might not look much to you, but this preparatory sketch for an oil painting (which may or may not materialise) is the first time in years I’ve drawn (last time was BC, or Before Children…), and that makes it significant to me. It is of a part of Blacka Moor, looking towards Totley Moor on the horizon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Resurrection | Uncertainty

Easter has come to be a great celebration of the Church – and rightly so. But it is worth remembering that Jesus’ resurrection gives rise to uncertainty as much as to certainty – and, indeed, that in response to the resurrected Lord we may have to pass through uncertainty before certainty (in the sense of confidence, not empirical proof) can be ours.

Thomas famously ‘doubts,’ and is held up by the Church as the example par excellence of lack of faith (somewhat unfairly, as Jesus comes to restore Thomas just as he comes to restore Peter who has denied him). Thomas lacks certainty that Jesus has risen from the dead. In this, it seems to me, he does not doubt God; but expresses uncertainty in the ability of the community of disciples to rightly discern what God is up to; and quite possibly uncertainty in his own ability to do likewise.

Peter also expresses uncertainty: having encountered the risen Jesus, and knowing him to be so, Peter and others return to Galilee, and take up their fishing nets. In going back to what he had been doing before God called him to follow, Peter demonstrates an uncertainty in his ability to discern what God is up to now.

At times, I have uncertainty in the ability of the Church to rightly discern God’s leading. At times I am challenged to accept uncertainty in my ability to do likewise. Having ‘gone through’ Good Friday and Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, I may wish it were otherwise. But perhaps this is as much part of the post-Easter continuation of the story as our celebrations.


Meeting The Resurrected Jesus

Risen Lord Jesus, reconcile me
With you, and with
My wife
My children
Your Church
My neighbour
The Earth

For I have fallen short
As disciple
And husband
And father
And member of your body
And neighbour
And steward of creation

Christ with pierced feet
Come to me:
Pierce the walls I have built around me
To hide behind,
And still my fear
With your peace

Christ with pierced hands
Come to me:
Pierce the night through which
I have laboured in my own strength,
And still my striving
With your grace

Christ with pierced side
Come to me:
Who has denied your place
In my life,
And pierce my heart
With your restoring love


Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday | The Cross | Reconciled Creation

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:15-20

The cross is a paradox: at once, one of the central images of Christianity; and yet an unfathomable mystery. (This paradox is equally true of other central Christian images, such as bread and wine, and baptism. I believe that they are meant to present us with such a paradox.) At best, the Church has made use of several different ways of talking about the cross, to partially describe facets of its significance. At worst, the Church has elevated one or other particular way of talking about to cross as being the most important, or even the explanation.

Evangelical and Liberal traditions alike (though in different ways) emphasise the rational and elevate knowledge (for example, the evangelical Alpha course tells those interested in Christianity which Questions they need to be asking, and which Answers they need to arrive at; while Liberal Christianity strips the funding narrative of the faith of any elements that cannot be measured and explained by scientific enquiry: both traditions focus on ‘knowing the right things,’ often at the expense of ‘knowing in the right way,’ that is, understanding that results in transformation rather than simply information). Each tradition, in its own way, fears mystery – as being fundamentally undermining to faith…

One of the more overlooked dimensions of the cross is its place in relation to creation wider than humanity (let alone individuals). But according to Colossians 1, the cross is – somehow – key to a work of reconciliation, the scope of which takes in ‘all things.’ We need to rediscover this element…

Taken from trees of the fields
That clapped their hands in praise;
Co-opted, against its will, by men
To stretch out the hands
That moulded the earth…

Dug from the ground,
Poured into moulds,
Nine-inch nails,
To pierce the hands
That moulded the earth…

And iron,
And flesh,
Brought together by men –
And reconciled by God…

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Palm Sunday | April Fool

Frequently in the headlines, for all the wrong reasons; and name-checked, somewhat too lazily, by the Media at any eruption anywhere of the social ills common to the multicultural inner-city; the Jerusalem Estate had become a national byword for trouble.

The last time the local MP visited, rioting had ensued. And that had left the government with a problem they had to respond to, in a decisive manner…But to parachute-in the Home Secretary would be seen as an admission that, for all their talk of being Tough On Crime, Tough On The Causes Of Crime, they had lost grip of the situation; lost the Law And Order debate. The PM summoned the unfortunate MP: he would have to go back. He’d have, of course, the PM’s public backing – every confidence; standing by my man – of course; but, if he were to screw up again, that would – you do understand – be the end of his political career: do I make myself clear?

The MP returned to his constituency, and made his visit. The police presence on the streets was visibly raised – some would say, heavy-handed. He drove through in a big car, complete with police outriders – more in keeping with the visit of a senior cabinet minister, or member of the royal family.

Jesus read about it the next morning in the papers, over breakfast. Then he sent two of his mates to fetch him a car: a new one, just delivered by the dealership to a regular bloke who lived on the edge of the Estate – he hadn’t even driven it yet. Jesus was going joy-riding.

Somehow the neighbours realised what was behind Jesus’ actions. Not dissing them, but identifying with them. Parodying the Official Visit. Not bringing the neighbourhood down; but celebrating it. Even the guy whose car was chosen knew he’d get it back without a scratch.

So Jesus set off, driving through the Estate, windows down, radio turned up high – loud enough to bother the police, now back down to normal numbers, with not enough back-up to risk making an arrest – waving at passers-by as he went. Word spread. People came out of their houses. The atmosphere among the crowd remained good-natured throughout; but a fair degree of vandalism to street furniture was later reported, as they celebrated somewhat enthusiastically (several traffic cones were liberated; that sort of thing).

Later Jesus returned the car, unscratched, to its owner; and went out for a curry with his mates.

(Some years later the government decided to bulldoze the Estate and relocate the community. The police had to evict whole streets of families from their homes.)

And Jesus asked, “How ought my Church relate to the wider community? As those arriving to gift her patronage, and demanding the appropriate respect; or fully identifying with the locals, even at the risk of appearing foolish?”

[Archives: here is what I wrote last Palm Sunday]

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