Friday, May 25, 2007

Turned Around

Not been posting much of late, but because we’ve been busy, not because I’ve been uninspired…We’re off on holiday later today, so I thought I’d update on what’s been going on since I posted on being ‘low.’

We are in a totally different place. Or, rather, our outlook is totally different. In fact, that has been the case almost from the point of acknowledging things weren’t right; but, I didn’t want to post anything prematurely. So, what’s changed?

Firstly, it wasn’t a lifting of external circumstances. There has been change there, but in the Kingdom external change seems to follow internal change; the Kingdom breaks out having first broken in. As we recognised a kairos moment, and intentionally chose to change our minds (metanoia; repent) and embrace a different perspective (pistis; active belief), room was created into which the Kingdom could be realised in our experience (Mark 1:15). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Rule of Life we have chosen to take on (expressed through a series of iconic shapes) is incredibly helpful: such Rules are not so much concerned with the ‘what’ of discipleship, but with the ‘how.’

Secondly, we have been surrounded by many friends, both present and geographically removed, who have prayed for us, given godly advice (where asked), supported us in practical acts of service, encouraged us, and generally rallied round. Thank you! You know who you are, and we love you. Of course, those friends have always been there; but, as the apostle Paul once wrote, our current need has given them opportunity to be used by God to support us, and in turn to discover more of God’s support for them (Philippians 4:10-19).

Thirdly, God has already started to redeem the testing circumstances we have experienced. As a result of my being open about what I am struggling with, several friends have felt able to be open, for the first time, about things they are struggling with. That’s the power of permission-giving. Part of me wishes that I could record those things here. It would not be appropriate to do so, even ‘anonymously,’ as it would betray confidences. But here’s the thing: I’m not convinced that the things we might imagine are unusual, extreme pastoral situations (and I’m talking about things far bigger than what I’ve been going through) are actually that unusual. It’s just that we keep them private, secret even from those we call our friends. And as a result, no-one can help carry our burdens, and we are slowly crushed by them. It’s British; but it isn’t godly…

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Day, Night, Pasture, Pen

We are reading through John’s Gospel in the mornings, and today we came to chapter 10, where Jesus speaks of being the shepherd of the flock, who uses his own body to form the gate to the pen. This is what shepherds did: at night, when it was not possible to see predators approaching the sheep, the sheep were corralled through a small opening into the safety of the pen, and then the shepherd slept sat in the opening, back against one wall, shins pressed up against the other, so that any predator could only get at the sheep by getting past them; and then, in the morning, when it was light and predators could be seen approaching, the shepherd led his sheep out into pasture. In. Out. In. Out. Night. Day. Night. Day.

Our shared experience of life is that it is lived in the tension of a thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy, and a shepherd who comes that we may have life to the full. Right now, I am very aware of several friends for whom the thief has come – not because they are bad sheep, but simply because they are sheep, and hungry wolves and thieves are drawn to their scent…Friends who have sensed a particular vision or calling, only to be struck down by serious illness, for example.

It seems to me that there is a rhythm identified by Jesus in this analogy. And because it is an analogy, we shouldn’t read it as a strict or regular rhythm; but I think he implies that although the predator comes at any time, there are times when we can just be getting on with whatever it is God has called us to do (day/pasture), secure in the knowledge that Jesus is watching over us; and times when that calling needs to be put on hold and Jesus needs to gather us up until the specific danger is past (night/pen).

And what we need to remember while we are sheltered in the pen in the dark – what we need to remind each other – is that the pasture is still out there; the grass is growing; that the thing to which we have been called has not been stolen or killed or destroyed, but awaits the dawn when Jesus will rise up and lead us back out again…

“I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger's voice.”
Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

(John 10:1-18)

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Beds Of London

I have to attend an appointment in north London on the morning of Wednesday 6th June, as part of the vocational discernment process I’m in.
“Are you familiar with London?” the person I spoke to asked.
“I wouldn’t use the word familiar…” I replied, “…large city, south of England?”

I shall have to travel to London by train the day before, and I’m wondering whether any friends or friends-of-friends in central or north (within striking distance of the Piccadilly Line) London could put me up on the night of Tuesday 5th June, and give me breakfast on the Wednesday morning?

If you can help me out, email me on andrew [at] dowsetts [dot] net

[original photo by Jo Dowsett]

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Lifeshapes In Fresh Places

Having posted here most recently on the Lifeshapes Discipleship Square, today I noted with interest that Steven Croft, who heads up Fresh Expressions, has written a piece summarising the square in response to questions arising from the current Hard Questions tour. The piece, entitled ‘Conscious Incompetence,’ is published in the 04/05/07 edition of The Record, a supplement of The Church of England Newspaper, which can be downloaded free from here. I’m delighted to see Mission Order principles being advocated by such a strategically key leader within the Church of England.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Making Disciples | L4/D4

I’m thinking of a community my wife and I led at one time. We’d done a good job of L1, L2 and L3 leadership, and all kinds of good fruit had flourished in people’s lives. We’d demonstrated our character and growing ability, and been invited to take on another leadership role. And, that first time of visiting, we made a mess of L4…
We made the mistake of assuming that competent team members could simply step up to being competent team leaders. In fact, becoming a leader brings you, as a disciple yourself, to another D1: a competent team member starts out as an unconsciously incompetent leader, and needs to be taken round a whole new discipleship square.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus has a lot to say to his disciples. John’s Gospel gives us a window into that. And he has even more to tell them over the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. Between the end of his Gospel and the start of his sequel, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us an opaque window into that. Jesus is about to move on to a new role – interceding for us at the right hand of the Father – but before he does, he has to finish the current role – disciple-maker of those who will carry his message – well.

Followers at D4 need leaders operating at L4: and this requires not only that we release them, but that we make a good job of reviewing what they have learnt from us – and of putting in place the structures for an ongoing but different relationship. These structures are of both a practical and a relational re-positioning nature. Practically, the disciples won’t see Jesus face-to-face, but will have access to him through his spirit in them. Relationally, they are no longer servants but friends – a very different dynamic. Now they are vision-bearers in their own right, in continuity with the vision Jesus called them to.

Returning to our past mistakes, what would we do different now? What have we done differently since? Principally, I think we gave those who followed us too much rope at once, and then got frustrated when they hanged themselves with it. The lesson we learnt the hard way was to prioritise occasional but regular reviews, continuing the relationship not as leader-follower but as mentor-leader: not telling them what to do, but reminding them how to do well. In practice, and for example, this means that we currently get together every two months with a group of leaders we used to get together with every two weeks when they were our followers; while being mentored ourselves by those who used to lead us.

One day it will be time to move on to something new; if you are a pioneer, such days will happen frequently. That makes it even more important that we invest in our exit strategy…

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Making Disciples | L3/D3

One of the biggest problems with inherited-mode church is that we employ the vicar to do for us – vicariously – the work of mission and evangelism. In other words, we take our responsibility to make disciples seriously, by delegating it to the professional. The emerging missional church – both within and out-with institutional structures – has the opportunity to address this. But let’s not pretend it is an easy gravitational pull to break out of.

As his disciples emerge from D2, Jesus shifts gear from L2 to L3. He still takes responsibility for defining the parameters of the vision, and the strategy; but delegates responsibility for implementing them:
“We’re going to move on from Galilee and start making our way towards Jerusalem. I want you to go ahead of me; between you, to cover all the settlements on our route. Find Bed & Breakfast with whoever welcomes you in; and heal the sick, drive out demons, raise the dead, and explain your actions as evidence of God’s kingdom breaking-into the lives of ordinary men, women and children. How you decide who goes where, and who you connect with there, is up to you. Oh, and don’t get hung up on not finding a welcome; move on until you do.”
Jesus takes a step back, gives them space to have a go, to take risks, to experience knock-backs, to see signs of encouragement, to learn from things not turning out as they expected, to grow. But he’s not far behind, available to help them process their experience. This is the season of, “Okay, we’re getting used to telling demons to go and seeing them do so; so, how come this one won’t?” “Try building-in a discipline of prayer and fasting. God uses these things to work away at the resistance to him in you, and as resistance decreases, so his power is able to flow through you more fully.”

Followers at D3 need leaders operating at L3: and that requires of us the humility to let others do what we do – to let them do things perhaps not the way we would have done it ourselves; and even, at least initially, not as well as we would have done it…It requires of us that we are generous enough to endorse another, in these circumstances; and (because we’re not Jesus) to be big enough to apologise and ask for forgiveness of the other when we fail to do so. And it may require that we have to go to a community and apologise where those we are responsible for sending do something spectacularly wrong (it happens; I’ve known it from the D side and the L side) and have caused unintentional hurt. And to help them learn from their mistake, and give them another go…

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Making Disciples | L2/D2

You’ve cast a vision to start something in a ‘new’ neighbourhood. A few others have joined you – some because they are attracted to you, some because they are attracted to the vision – and a core team has begun to coalesce. One couple committed to join you for two years; that time is up, and they are moving on. About the same time, another family had to move on due to redeployment at work. Good things have been going on, but whatever growth you had hoped for – deepening relationships with neighbours, say – has been slower than the team might have hoped. Now it seems like you’ve taken a collective hit; a backward step from some ‘critical mass’ in momentum. Morale heads south. What are you going to do?

Quite early into Jesus’ public ministry, we see him working hard – and not entirely successfully – to get away from the crowds in order to spend a significant amount of time with his disciples, who have come to the realisation that they have given up their means of providing food and clothing for themselves and their families, to follow a visionary who might be out of his mind, and is certainly starting to attract hostile attention from influential enemies…

Followers at D2 need leaders operating at L2: and this level of encouragement requires prioritising significant amounts of contact time. Naturally pioneering leaders – the kind of leaders we often see in emerging missional churches – will find this requirement frustrating, because you will find yourself spending more time with your team behind closed doors than ‘out there’ engaging with the community. But if you fail to bite the bullet on this one, you will end up as a chaplain to a de-motivated group of people, until the day you have had enough of that and quit…

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Making Disciples | L1/D1

There are four stages to discipleship (notation: D1, D2, D3, D4), and each stage calls for a different approach to leading (notation: L1, L2, L3, L4). Being realistic we are likely to naturally default to one, or possibly two, of these; and be naturally weaker at one or more others – depending on our personality, and our own experience of being led. But we can learn from Jesus how to operate appropriately to each stage, as we seek to make disciples who make disciples until the end of the age.

To recap, the stages of discipleship are: unconscious incompetence (D1); conscious incompetence (D2); conscious competence (D3); and unconscious competence (D4).

Allow me to make two general observations:
1) inherited-mode church is deeply, profoundly risk-averse. Institutional leaders rarely permit pioneering developments without first requiring fully-comprehensive risk-assessment and detailed plans mapped out up front.
2) the emerging church is deeply, profoundly committed to decision-making by consensus; and suspicious – as the result of abuses they have witnessed in the inherited-mode church – of strong individual leadership.
Both positions are deeply, profoundly unhelpful starting points, and equally contribute to conspire against pioneering new growth ever taking off.

Followers at D1 need leaders operating at L1: single-minded vision-bearers, with the ability to spot potential that has not yet been proven (prioritising character before gifting) and extend opportunity, the invitation to invest in the life of another. Leaders operating at L1 will be big on vision, big on opportunity to be with them as they engage with their vision, low in explanation concerning the vision – not weighing relationship down with theory, but allowing explanation to follow experience; drawing-out questions rather than downloading answers; hands-on learning rather than academic study. And some people need a bit more structure than that, and might show an initial interest that rapidly falls away: but L1 leaders won’t beat themselves up over that (“Was it something I said?” “Please don’t go…”), or beat the other guy up either (“Well, they were never going to amount to much – too many issues.”). Leaders operating at L1 will hear the concerns of their bishops and their congregation, acknowledge them, affirm the individuals…and then get on with what they are about. And the Chuch needs to learn to give them permission to do so.

Antione de Saint-Exupery’s dictum “If you want people to build ships, you don’t have to teach them how to cut wood, you just have to teach how to dream about the endless sea…” is popular with emerging missional church commentators. And it perfectly expresses L1 visionary leadership. But, if you want people to build ships, at some point you do have to teach them how to cut wood; to move into and through conscious incompetence…They need to learn some skills – not only how to build a ship, but how to navigate by the stars so they can cross the sea. Keeping the dream alive – returning to it time and time and time again; resisting the siren allure of other, seemingly more appealing, dreams; not permitting dilution or distraction (Jesus telling Peter to “Get behind me, satan” is not pastorally sensitive. Get over it.) – will carry them through the trough of the wave that obliterates the sky above and threatens to drown us almost before we have begun…

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Everyday Images Of The Cross

That Hideous Man (Gavin, in Perth, Scotland) sent me an email suggesting I consider submitting a photograph to the Rood Awakenings gallery. Rood Awakenings is a fringe event at the forthcoming Perth Festival of the Arts, and the gallery will showcase images of the cross in daily life, illustrating how representations of the cross are all around us, influencing us to a greater or lesser extent. Last year I submitted several photographs to a local exhibition, and this online exhibition could be well worth a visit, if it attracts enough submissions.

I took these images late this afternoon. They are probably too subtle to submit, lack enough contrast; but a negative image cross (i.e. one formed by the space between solid forms) has been created in this finely-chopped onion.* The very ordinariness of this tiny detail gives it its power: brings the cross into the heart of the home, grounded in the domestic busyness of the kitchen; emphasises the place of the cross in God’s ongoing everyday provision for our lives; speaks of its sweet-and-bitterness…

*the handiwork of my wife – I have no idea how to cut an onion like that!