Friday, September 26, 2008
In John 15, Jesus gives his disciples an insight into the healthy rhythm of the Spirit-led life, using the organic illustration of the vine. At the end of each grape harvest, vine shoots were pruned back to the main stock, which grew around the exposed cut, surrounding and hiding the shoot. From there, the shoot would grow outwards come the next season, bearing fruit in season. Where shoots were not pruned after harvest, they continued to grow outward, with diminishing fruit yield in following seasons, as more of the vine’s energy went into sustaining the shoot growth leaving less for fruit.
The rhythm of our life describes a pendulum swing, back and forth, from abiding, through growth to bearing fruit; then back again, through pruning to abiding.
It is important that we learn to notice, and submit to, the leading beat; the signs that notify us of the start of each new season. One of the most insidious errors for individual Christians and for communities of Christians is a misunderstanding of what it means to say that the Kingdom of God is always expanding. While this is true at a macro-level, at the micro-level growth and fruitfulness is sustained through pruning and abiding. Where we resist that natural spiritual process – attempting the hold the pendulum up at the fruit-bearing end of the swing, as it were - we resist the weight of God’s momentum in our lives. Eventually, something is going to give…
The following example illustrates what I mean:
Abide: Over the summer, you go away to a Christian festival/conference, and/or you make the time to read some books on spiritual growth, as expressions of withdrawing from the day-to-day pressures, getting away with Jesus. And as you do so, you find that through these things he gives you a fresh insight that increases your faith for healing.
Grow: You go home, and want to put this new understanding in to practice. You take, perhaps even make, opportunities to pray with people in need of healing. Other people around you are drawn to what you are trying to do. Perhaps you lead a community, and you set aside one evening a week specifically to pray for healing, and people start coming along.
Bear fruit: The more you pray, the more you see signs of prayer being effective. Slowly at first, there is an increasing volume of testimonies of receiving healing, testimonies of being used by God to bring his healing to bear.
Pruning: After a while, you notice that you have reached a level at which healing seems to plateau off: certain conditions are regularly healed, others see no response to prayer. And less people are coming to pray and be prayed for: life is busy, after all…
And this is a key turning-point. These are little indicators that God wants to draw us back, to submit to his pruning process so that, in the intimate abiding-time, he can impart the next piece of fresh insight he has for us.
I’m not talking about those times of resistance, where we need to press on through: you’ll get those, and especially at the early stages of doing something new, to discourage us if that is possible. How do you know when resistance comes from God and when it comes from the accuser? That takes discernment, gets easier with practice; significantly, it has something to do with whether the whispers are ‘for us’ or ‘against us.’
Abide: Let go of the activity; be brave enough to stop, trusting that this is not the failure of hopes and dreams God has put in your heart, but for their long-term fuller fulfilment. And find the ways that help you pursue God, come away with him, hear his voice…
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Why would he?
(I wouldn’t go to my current placement church if I didn’t have to.)
Okay, so you’re a Christian, and what is distinctive about you is that you aren’t cheating on your wife.
So what? Christians cheat on their wives at about the same rate as non-Christians. So, it’s as likely that the guy at the next desk isn’t cheating on his wife either; or that you are cheating on your wife after all.
The world is full of people who aren’t cheating, even if it is full of people who are.
You’re a Christian, and you’re an architect because you want to change the world, and this is the arena from which you are best-fit to do it.
Now that’s distinctive.
Not necessarily unique to Christians. But it’s distinctive.
That might engage the guy at the next desk.
I want to be a Revd because I want to change the world. I want to be a Church of England Revd because I want to change the world in and from this place. And I want to change the world by equipping and releasing congregations to change the world.
And you might say to me, Good luck, mate! But why else, as a follower of Jesus, would I want to do anything with my time?
[Having written the above, I’ve just turned on the News and heard the Prime Minister deliver a sound-bite about changing the world, one life at a time. Just for a fleeting moment, part of me is gutted – the ungenerous part, that doesn’t want ‘my thoughts’ undercut; the cynical part, that doesn’t think much of politicians…
…But, whether I like the dreams he is dreaming or not, here is a man who is dreaming, the very thing I’ve been reflecting on the need for us to do. And just because it is a messy business, that doesn’t make it any less crucial. In fact, it is a messy business in part because we cannot do it in isolation.
Change the world. Even the Prime Minister thinks it is a good idea.]
And as a result, churches simply don’t recognise the future before it arrives, because they aren’t looking out for it.
Collectively, some of us have become pretty good at reactively ministering to people who have been caught up in history, responding to those affected by natural disaster or war or unjust global economics. But (with a few notable exceptions, like the prophetic voice of futurologist Tom Sine) we haven’t learnt the skills of discerning what is coming next, in order to offer a better future.
Other people have done this: business leaders are interested in ‘future-proofing’ their assets; environmental scientists look to engage with the realities of global warming.
Bishop Tom Wright (among others) presents an eschatological understanding whereby the kingdom of God increasingly breaks into the present until the present is overwhelmed and the kingdom is fulfilled, in a renewed earth and a renewed heaven come down to earth.
And if the kingdom is on the offensive, not the defensive (the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church; not, the gates of the Church shall prevail against the armies of hell) then, albeit resulting in sharper contrast between darkness and light, the future is supposed to be better than the present…because we are supposed to come more and more into God’s fullness of life.
As Christians, we need to be dreaming and modelling alternatives to the dreams and models of the world, pioneering kingdom prototypes.
Here are some things churches need to be dreaming and modelling in relation to now. I see hopeful evidence going on in many places, but these are tiny and fragile seedlings; and they have yet to take root in the soil of most churches.
My generation is the first generation in the west for over 200 years to be financially less well off than our parents. I’m 35, and it gets worse from my peers onwards: I was among the last in England to receive university education for which my fees and living expenses were paid for me. Today students leave with an average of £14K debt. I think my parents and parents-in-law were the first generation in their families to go to university, and I think that trend might not continue beyond their children…
But, we are sold the same dream: get a degree, get a professional career, get married, live in your own home, as a nuclear family, travelling abroad for holidays, upgrading the size and luxury of your cars, your house, the kids having their own room, their own TV, their own etc., shopping conveniently and cheaply, climbing the ladder at work, retiring on a good pension…
The housing market has out-priced itself, so that first-time buyers are excluded. A crash in value might allow such people to buy – if there isn’t a crash in personal income at the same time – but, if we merely begin the cycle again…
Regarding the ‘credit crunch,’ things are going to get much worse before they improve. Unemployment is going to rise significantly, and most likely not by gradual rise.
The cost of fuel is going to continue to rise, and again rise sharply, as demand outstrips supply; as fossil fuels are depleted; and as fuel increasingly becomes a political lever. Globally, water supply will become even more of a political lever than fuel. The cost of food will continue to rise.
Health care will overwhelm the Health Services as our populations age, and as the expanding boundaries of what can be done by medical science are outstripped by the expanding cost of being able to do what can be done; and as we face new challenges resulting from the ways in which we have met previous ones (e.g. resistant viral strains).
We are living in a time of rapid, discontinuous change. The American Dream, and its no less all-pervasive British cousin, are being found wanting. But, aren’t they the dreams our middle-class congregations have bought into? I don’t mean that as a criticism from outside that community, but a lament from within.
We need new dreams, new models, of how we live. Small-scale mixed-occupancy housing developments. Communal, rather than nuclear or individual, living will be an economic necessity: but also better for us in so many ways. Communities scaled around travel by foot, not car. We will need to grow more of the food we eat – something my grandfather used to do, when I was a boy (how far we come, what progress, to grow out of such peasant living in only half a lifetime!); food without its current carbon footprint. We might want to do that collectively, on allotments.
We will need to rediscover the church’s role as healer and educator, as hospitals and universities are increasingly unable to bear the demands on them. We will need to imagine new (or rediscover older) ways of doing business, on a more local scale of production. We will…
The question is, will we dream reactively in response to the future, or now, proactively, so as to shape it?
Thank you, God, for Tom and Tom, and others like them.
Friday, September 19, 2008
God said to Noah, I regret creating humanity; I’m going to destroy what I’ve made, and start over, with you. (Genesis 6)
Noah doesn’t express an opinion on this, and builds an ark as instructed.
God said to Abraham, I’m going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 18)
Abraham expresses an opinion.
What is going on here? Is God merely indulging Abraham, in order to show him that there are not even 10 righteous people in the two cities?
Or is God willing to amend his plans in the light of the opinion of his friend? Is God willing to take counsel from a man?
God said to Moses, I regret bringing these people out of Egypt; I’m going to destroy them. (Exodus 32)
Moses expresses an opinion.
God, if you do that, your actions will be misinterpreted by your enemies, and they will misrepresent you.
“And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14)
Has it ever crossed your mind that God might be interested in your opinion?
That he doesn’t just want you to find out his opinion, so that you can be obedient. Don’t misunderstand me: obedience is an appropriate response to God’s leading. But, just perhaps, God is interested in working with our opinions too. Perhaps, sometimes God lets us take the lead. Because Jesus says to his disciples, I no longer call you servants, but friends. Friends, who, unlike servants, are invited into the decision-making process. Friends, whose own decisions Jesus is willing to endorse: doesn’t “what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, and what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” sound like he is prepared to back his friends? Perhaps God doesn’t merely allow us to take a lead from time to time; it is in fact the very thing he wants of us?
[Okay, so this is an Anglican aside, but: Does the Church have the authority to appoint women bishops? Yes.]
The tradition I come from is often guilty of living according to the Jonah Principle: that the indication that something is God’s will rather than my will is that I really don’t want to do it. Now, Jonah needed his will to be conformed towards God’s, as we all do. But the Jonah Principle is a pretty abusive one – especially if we believe that we are a new creation, being transformed, having our minds renewed…
I wonder what would have happened if Noah had spoken up...
Thursday, September 18, 2008
That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself to do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
Luke 12:47, 48
…Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”
What are we to do with the authority we have been given, in the arena for which we have been given it? We are not slaves, but friends who serve; but, we are to learn from the slave parables.
Peter had been given power and authority to heal: “what I have.” It came from Jesus, and it had been given to him. What was he going to do with it? Exercise it: “what I have I give you…” He had the freedom to not exercise it, to bury it away somewhere safe, to not risk investing it (to reference another parable Jesus told).If much is required from those to whom much has been given, I can’t think of anything more we could be entrusted with than Jesus’ power and authority.
What does it mean to have been given authority by Jesus?
When God first created man and woman, he gave us authority to represent his rule on his behalf on this earth. God wasn’t absent – he walked with his representatives each day, in the cool of the evening. But, he gave humans a particular responsibility, to exercise authority over this part of creation: to name creatures (and, biblically, in naming you are shaping, not responding to, character; not in a totally determinative sense, but to a significant degree: that is why I named my son ‘Noah,’ because in a restless generation, I wanted him to know and to display what it means to ‘rest’ in God); and to act in ways that enabled creation to flourish.
Adam and Eve abdicated that authority to the accuser, under whose influence we still see creation suffer, including at our hands.
In coming, as fully human and fully God, Jesus took back authority; with his resurrection a decisive validation.
But God didn’t say, “Right, I’d better keep hold of this now; we don’t want any more trouble…”
Jesus came to restore God’s original plan, that men and women should exercise authority on earth; men and women who had been liberated from the rule of the accuser. And those who recognise that Jesus has set them free are in a position to exercise that God-given authority within God-given parameters.
So, how are we to respond?
Here’s a scenario that runs around my head. We see someone who is sick, and our heart is moved (with God-given compassion), and we pray, “Lord, please heal this person!” And Jesus replies, “I’ve given my disciples power and authority to heal the sick…and I’ve told you plainly that I want my disciples to heal the sick…and I’ve brought you and this person in need of healing across each other’s paths…join the dots!”
And Jesus’ tone isn’t about making us feel stupid, though there is that familiar exasperation-with-my-disciples to it…
To pray, “Lord, please heal this person!” is to abdicate authority. We do it because we don’t feel worthy: but Jesus has always chosen followers who hadn’t made the cut. To feel unworthy is not the same as humility: feeling unworthy denies the worth God put on us in sending his Son to die in our place. Rather, we should pray, “Lord, help me to exercise the power and authority you have given me more fully, so that your kingdom is extended!”
As agents of God’s kingdom, we have been given a role of participative freedom that, I increasingly suspect, is far bigger than we have realised.
What does it mean to have been given authority by Jesus, in the world I see on the News – a fragile world of the ‘credit crunch,’ hurricanes, fuel and food crises, global warming, displaced peoples? How might we partner with God, with supernatural power as well as natural gifts, to see more of his kingdom transforming our global-local network of communities?
I have more questions than answers, but, I’m sure there must be more than we have seen so far.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The LORD is my light,
my light and my salvation;
a sure refuge
against the storm.
Though the wind will rise,
and the crashing waves will pound;
though clouds may hide the blue,
and leaden skies press down;
the storm will spend itself
But the steadfast love of
In him will I place my hope.
On him I shall stand firm.
Be still, o storms within me!
Be still, o storms around me!
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“O unbelieving generation, Jesus replied, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy's father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
The question Jesus most often confronts his followers with is, what difference does your faith make to the circumstances you find yourself in, the situations you face?
Does it make all the difference in the world; or are we, to all intents and purposes, atheists, or agnostics at best?
Often, when we concede that “Anything is possible through faith,” what we are really saying is, “Theoretically, anything is possible through faith. In principle, God could choose to do this thing or that thing, but in practice certain things are highly unlikely; and, indeed, we’re not even sure whether our asking has any impact on God’s choice one way or the other, for he is not held to ransom by us…”
But in that case, the “through faith” is surely surplus to requirements. Anything is possible, and who can say what will take place? Whatever that faith looks like, it doesn’t look like the kind of belief Jesus was hoping to find…
Heal the sick, drive out demons, raise the dead, proclaim that God’s kingdom is breaking in:
After a long time the king of
What does it mean, to say that God remembered his covenant?
Had he forgotten about it? Had it slipped his mind, distracted as he was, preoccupied with other things?
No, to remember is not the same thing as to recall something that you have forgotten.
Nor is it to indulge in nostalgia, to long for the ‘good old days.’
To remember is to act in the present in the light of the past.
‘Remember’ is an action word, which involves the whole being – heart and mind and bodily strength and soul – and not a cerebral activity alone. To remember fires the synapses of the whole nervous system, not just those in the brain.
In contrast, it is possible to be passive in the present in the light of a hoped-for future. One day, God will heal you. One day, God will redress the injustice you face. One day…
It is possible to justify resignation by calling it ‘dignified faith.’
But Jesus said, the time has come; the day of God’s liberating vengeance against all that holds creation captive has already dawned – and once the Son has broken the horizon, the light does not stand still but grows until it fills the sky…
Heal the sick, drive out demons, raise the dead, proclaim that God’s kingdom is breaking in: