Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Story : Identity : Security : Confidence

Who am I? Why am I here?

These two questions – a question about being, and a question about doing – are the most fundamental questions that we can ask. In fact, we cannot help but ask them, because we were designed to know the answers. The Bible is the story of God coming to people and addressing these two questions:

I have made you to be in relationship with me, and I have something for you to do...

These two intertwined themes – being and doing – run through every story within the big story. The theme of bearing God’s image, of having that image restored to us, which we call ‘Covenant’...and the theme of representing God’s rule in the context in which he has placed us, which we call ‘Kingdom’...

Who am I? Why am I here?

In times of stability, individual people generally do not feel the need to ask such questions. Indeed, such questions seem somewhat of a philosophical indulgence: we inherently know who we are and why we are here - even if our knowing is misplaced...And we know because stable cultures have stories that tell us who we are and why we are here; because as a community we have asked and answered the questions – in the stories we tell about ourselves: in the myth of the British Empire, the American Dream...

In times of instability, individual people – and therefore increasingly the societies they make up - tend not to know the answer to these questions. In times of instability – in times of rapid cultural change, or global economic crisis, for example; in times we might recognise as being our own – we lose confidence in the stories told us in the stable times. In place of a story, we hear multiple competing stories: this way of living is as valid as that can be whoever you want to be...invent yourself – if you don’t like who you are, re-invent yourself...

And often there is much in those apparently stable stories that needs to be shaken. In times of instability, God, who is unshakeable, shakes whatever is shakeable – whatever does not flow from him – in order that what is unshakeable – whatever flows from him – is left. God is at work. But his purpose is not that we should be left utterly disorientated by the experience of the world, but that, through the shaking of all that we have built on, we might rebuild on solid rock.

As my friend Mike Breen puts it:
when you have a story, you have an identity;
when you have an identity, you have a security;
when you have a security, you have confidence.

And conversely: if you don’t have any confidence, it’s because you don’t have security; if you don’t have security, it’s because you don’t have identity; if you don’t have identity, it’s because you don’t have a story.

We have a story to share, a story of Covenant and Kingdom, the most amazing story that could ever be told...a living story, wide enough to embrace, and deep enough to satisfy, everyone who has ever lived...

Who are you? Why are you here?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rowan On Resurrection

What is your image of Jesus’ resurrection? What, do you imagine, it was like? What did Jesus experience in that event?

According to the Gospels, it was bodily – a body that could be held, touched, could eat; a body that was at once unrecognisable as being Jesus and yet, on closer examination, identifiable as being unquestionably him. Like a transformed caterpillar emerging from the chrysalis, resting while its wings dry out in the sun, did Jesus have to get used to his made-new body? Wouldn’t he?

According to the very existence of the Gospels, and the testimony of the Epistles, the resurrection of Jesus changes everything: not just our perception of the world, but the actual present and future experience of the universe. Jesus, God found in human (that is, created) form, is the first of all creation – light; the world; the plants; the sun and the moon; the living creatures of sea and sky and land; humanity – to experience the deep transformation God intends for all creation.

Rowan Williams captures the metamorphic implication of the resurrection for both the Creator and his creation in these lines from his poem, “Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro,” a reflection on the painting by Piero della Francesca:

“...So he pauses, gathering the strength in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him, and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained, exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like drops from a shower, gathering himself. We wait, paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring”

What is your image of Jesus’ resurrection? What, do you imagine, it was like? What did Jesus experience in that event? Because one day, God intends, you will experience bodily resurrection for yourself. And even now, ahead of time, perspective – how we perceive, make sense of the world – has begun to buckle under the weight of a deeper, fuller reality...

The Parable Of The Penguin

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Matter Of Life And Death

I’m thinking about death.

Hang on: aren’t we in Easter? Wasn’t Lent the time to think about death? Isn’t Easter all about life?
Well, yes…but Easter isn’t about focusing on life instead of death:
Easter is about resurrection life -
the hope of life beyond death.

As a society, we expend an enormous amount of conscious and unconscious energy trying to do the impossible, to deny death; at the very least, to postpone it as long as possible…or die ‘on our own terms.’ And when children die before their parents, we see that as a particular injustice. We demand justice, in order to find closure; and justice does bring with it a kind of closure, but, in this world all justice is partial, and in more cases than we would like to acknowledge, justice is denied us. So, if we are to find any sense of closure, it cannot depend on justice.

As a society, we expend an enormous amount of energy trying to deny death because we fear death; and we fear death because we do not believe in the hope of the resurrection. Even most Christians do not really believe in the hope of the resurrection, even if they believe in the existence of resurrection.

When someone dies ‘before their time,’ we speak of potential that will now never be fulfilled, of character that will never grow to maturity. And it is true that a child who dies will never go to university, get married, make their parents grandparents – those things we have been conditioned to want, ‘for our children,’ perhaps more for ourselves…But it is not true that their potential will never be fulfilled, or that their character will never grow to maturity.

I was born in November 1972, and one day I will die. But I did not begin in 1972, and I will not end when I die. I had my beginning in Jesus’ imagination before the creation of the world; and in Jesus’ resurrection God has made clear his intention for me beyond death. Not some insubstantial ghostly spirit, but a more-substantial-than-now physical body in a renewed, more substantial than now (because what is shakeable will have been shaken and what is unshakeable will remain) physical world.

My children were born after me, but my beginning was not before theirs. My children came after me, and, if they die before me, they will simply go ahead of me into life. That is not to say that I do not care what happens to them, or that it would not cause me pain to lose them in this life. But it is to recognise the hope of the resurrection, and therefore to not live in fear of death. And in having that hope, the resurrection life that is yet to fully appear has already begun for me.

Unless the Lord returns, everyone I know will one day, sooner or later, face death. Young or old, having finished this life’s work or yet to have begun it, this is but a part of our story – a blink of an eye, at that. God never wanted death for us at all. It was hardly going to derail his plans for us. Jesus died, a violent death, at the hands of the authorities, ‘before his time.’ Just at the right time, the Bible calls it. Just at the right time, while we were still enemies of God, he died for us...he defeated death…he made fully possible full reconciliation between creation and Creator…

I’m thinking about death, in light of Easter.
And that, it seems to me, is a very appropriate thing to be thinking about.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday | Palm Sunday + 5

Zechariah has a vision of one pierced by the people. But in this act of violence, God is at work:

He will pour out a spirit of grace and supplication on the people. The people's response will be to mourn as for the death of a firstborn and only son. And God's response will be to open a fountain that will wash away their sin and impurity - all they have done wrong, and every way in which they have been wronged, that has mis-shaped them.

It is God's initiative - his act of grace - that moves the people to ask for mercy. Indeed, their asking for mercy has its origin in God - without the spirit of grace, they would not desire to ask for mercy; and without the spirit of supplication, they would not be able to ask for mercy, even recognising their need. And it is God's initiative that washes away sin. God from first to last. The greatest example of a miscarriage of justice in history...

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Palm Sunday + 4

"Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered."

In a vision, Zechariah hears God command that the shepherd be struck, resulting in a scattering of the sheep - two-thirds to destruction, and a third to testing and refining; hard times that will result in a renewed close relationship with God.

This prophecy is not merely acted out by Jesus (intentionally or unwittingly) or enacted against him (intentionally or unwittingly): Jesus, recorded by Matthew and Mark, actually quotes it, and interprets it to refer to his arrest and desertion by his diciples. They will scatter - but, when he has conquered death, they will be restored. One-by-one, following Peter in peer-pressure bravado, the disciples deny that they will desert Jesus. But Jesus is right in his understanding, and all but John run and hide. Peter is most vocal in his declaration of solidarity with Jesus; and therefore most visible in his denial that he knows Jesus...and singled-out once more in his restoration.

As John records, this restoration also ties-in with Zechariah's vision, in two ways:
the question of love, which tests like gold in the fire a renewed relationship between God, as represented by Jesus, and his people, as represented by Peter...
and the call to the scattered-and-brought-back sheep to become, in turn, a shepherd of the flock who one day will be stuck down...

And as such, this is a pattern that those who would follow Jesus may expect to see in their own lives - not an inevitability, but it should not surprise us if it is our experience. In times of extreme trial, we may scatter - but such failure is not the end. Jesus holds out the promise of restoration - and not merely forgiveness but a commissioning to greater responsibility; a call to follow him more closely, even to trials of our which our serving may appear to have been in vain; but from which its greatest fruit is yet to be borne. The greater the trial, the greater the gain. For though, like Jesus himself, we are to pray that if there is any way that avoids trial God may take it, delivering us from evil may mean delivering through evil and out the other side victorious.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Palm Sunday + 3

Thirty pieces of silver.

Zechariah has a vision of a shepherd, called upon to tend the flock of God's people. The shepherd takes up the role, paying particular attention to the oppressed among the flock; but the flock detest him, and eventually he grows weary of them. Rejecting the flock - that is, the people - the shepherd expresses his intention to leave them, with or without his pay...and is paid thirty pieces of silver, a contemptable wage, which he is instructed by God to throw into the temple for the potter. Moreover, the shepherd's rejection of the flock also includes a revoking of the covenant made with all nations - that they should be blessed through God's choosing of one nation.

What is a potter doing in the temple? The potter was a symbol, found in Jeremiah's prophecies in the last days of the kingdom of Israel before the Babylonians came and took them into exile, of God: as the potter reshapes a vessel that is not taking shape in his hands, giving it another shape and purpose, so God has plans for nations - to bless them, or to judge them - but will change his plans according to their response - revoking intended blessing for those who do evil, revoking intended judgement for those who repent. Moreover, Jeremiah is told to buy a clay vessel from the potter and smash it, as a symbol of God's coming judgement on Jerusalem; a prophecy that refers to burial outside the city.

Again, Zechariah points to Jesus. Judas agrees to betray Jesus for the sum of thirty pieces of silver. After Jesus' crucifixion, Judas has a crisis of conscience, and tries to return the money to the priests; they are not interested in salving his conscience, and so he throws the money at their feet before commiting suicide. Not permitted to spend blood money on the temple, the priests use it to buy a potter's field, as a place of burial for foreigners. Thirty pieces of silver; a potter; foreigners kept seperate from God's people...

...Perhaps, just perhaps, a people chosen for blessing are about to experience judgement - again. Perhaps, just perhaps, peoples chosen for judgement will experience blessing...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Palm Sunday + 2

Joshua, in Hebrew; Jesus, in Greek: it is the same name.

Immediately following on from a vision in which God declares that a time will come when he will leave heaven and come and live among his people, Zechariah has a vision in which he sees the pre-incarnate Jesus taking a stand against satan the accuser over the high priest Joshua - a man who stands as a symbol of things to come. Joshua is dressed in filthy rags, symbolising sin - as high priest, symbolising the sins of the people. And because of this, satan declares a right to ownership over him. But the Lord describes Joshua as a burning stick snatched from the fire - prefiguring his own descent into hell, having died carrying the sin of all humanity, and resurrection to new life three days later. Joshua is dressed in clean robes, symbolic of the fact that the sin has been taken away. Dead to sin, alive in Christ.

Joshua stands for Jesus, the one the writer of Hebrews describes as our great high priest; a symbol of the one to come, the servant, the Branch, the one through whom sin would be dealt with in a single day. And, indeed, Jesus is there, setting out ahead of time what will happen - sending himself a message into the future.

And having emptied himself of divine privilege and taken on human flesh and grown and learnt the scriptures as one of us, Jesus will discover in Zechariah's vision another aspect of his mission; a vision that will sustain him in the week approaching his death...

Monday, April 06, 2009

Palm Sunday + 1

So, what might it mean to ride towards the walls of Jerusalem on a donkey? It references Zechariah's vision; but what does it mean? To answer that question, we might need to ask, where else does someone come riding on a donkey? Not just riding on a donkey - that must have been an almost daily occurance. Where, in the official story of God's people, the story that shapes experience as opposed to merely recording experience, does someone ride a donkey?

Governor Nehemiah approaches Jerusalem on a donkey. Why? Because the walls have been thrown down, and lie so devastated that a horse could not pick a path through the stones.

So perhaps, in riding on a donkey, Jesus is saying, Jerusalem, you lie in ruins, but I come to rebuild the ancient walls.

And the upstanding citizens respond, what do you mean, our city is in ruins? Here is Herod the Great's Temple, the largest building in the world. Jerusalem, the centre of the universe. Open your eyes and see!

And they reject the one who comes, picking their way through on a donkey, who would rebuild.

I look at what we have built, our religious grandeur, that looks so impressive; and think that those with eyes to truly see would choose a donkey as their means of moving forward...

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palm Sunday

The crowd
Let’s get a few things straight. Every year, thousands of pilgrims came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Every year, they sang psalms as they came into the city. Every year, they sang Psalm 118: the pilgrims calling on the citizens to open the gates for them to come in; the citizens extending blessing to the one who comes in the name of the Lord, to whoever comes with peaceable intent to celebrate the festival with them; all taking palm boughs in their hands and waving them in worship. Let’s get this straight: the crowd weren’t doing this for Jesus. This was what they did, as they arrived. Jesus would have been here before, in previous years. Nonetheless, this year would be different…

Just as he would do later that week, with the Passover meal, Jesus takes something familiar and pours new meaning into it. Coming into the city, he rides on a donkey. Yes, the crowd come in the name of the Lord; but he comes making a specific claim. A claim on the words of the prophet Zechariah, that one day the Lord would send his chosen king to Jerusalem, to rescue his people from their enemies, riding on a donkey.
Zechariah’s prophecies are key to Jesus’ self-understanding, and to who the Gospel writers in turn understood him to be. The king riding a donkey…Joshua, the high priest…The rejecting/rejected shepherd, worth thirty pieces of silver…The one pierced by the people…The prophet with wounded hands…The shepherd struck, so that the sheep scatter…And therefore, by implication, the Lord who will come to reign…

The crowd
Let’s get something straight. This is not a crowd who have decided that Jesus is their king; a crowd who will have their opinion turned in just a few days time. This is a crowd who are trying to make sense of what Jesus is doing. This is a crowd, among whom are some who do see him as coming king…some who see him as an upstart…some who don’t see him at all. This is a crowd, of pilgrims mixing with citizens, who will discuss this Jesus over the coming days, and come to a wide range of conclusions…

And Jesus doesn’t make it easy for the crowd. Is he a king, or a high priest, or a shepherd, or one who will be publicly executed, or a prophet? Jesus claimed - and the Gospel writers restate the claim - that the various ways in which the relationship between God and his people is described in Zechariah’s visions all point to Jesus; all converge in this one man…Like Picasso, every angle is covered, to build the fullest representation of a complex subject.

What do you see?

My Girl, Eight Today

Thursday, April 02, 2009


3dministries is one way in which some members of The Order of Mission are able to connect with churches (churches cannot join the Order, only individuals; but the Order exists to help churches engage in mission), by offering resources and consultancy. Go visit the new website. There are a lot of resources available from the shop, including lots of audio downloads, many of them free.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Discipleship | 2

In my previous post, I defined discipleship as imitation and modelling. This is the pattern of discipleship described in the New Testament:

“Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:16, 17)

“We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (Hebrews 6:12)

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7, 8)

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)

“Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” (Philippians 3:17)

“For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example…” (2 Thessalonians 3:7ff)

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)

“In everything set them an example by doing what is good.” (Titus 2:7)

One of the problems church leaders have with such a pattern is fear of the cult of personality. We look at people who are making disciples, and we accuse them of building their own empire. We can be really scriptural, and point to Paul’s concerns, recorded in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians, regarding following men. Of course, we conveniently miss the point that Paul actually planted something in these people’s lives; and that Apollos actually watered those things: and that process happens through imitation and modelling. It is all meant to point to God, who alone makes those things grow – but God chooses to work through people. Paul’s concern is that the Corinthians have placed a wrong emphasis on the process – just as he is also concerned that they have got their emphasis wrong in relation to spiritual gifts – and not that the thing itself is wrong.

If Paul were writing to my cultural context, I think he’d tackle the same issue from different angles. He would need to address our cultural suspicion of those in positions of authority; our jaded belief that it is not worth looking to anyone as an example – parents, politicians, church leaders – because sooner or later they will only let you down. And he’d have to address the other side of the equation, our reluctance to be considered as a role-model ourselves: it’s hard enough to take responsibility for our own lives, and perhaps those of our immediate family, let alone feel any sense of responsibility for anyone else…

He’d also need to address the conscious disconnection, and unconscious connection, between those we look to and how we live: though we are obsessed with celebrities, most of us do not try to live like them directly (that is, there is a disconnection at the level of conscious decision), but over time have our values shaped by their values (that is, there is a connection at the level of subconscious decision).

Discipleship challenges all these cultural issues. To our paralysed inability to come to an internal decision as to the best way forward (e.g. “How am I supposed to deal with my child’s bad behaviour?”) discipleship holds out someone to come alongside us. To our reluctance to be seen as a role model ourselves, discipleship holds out the possibility that we can learn to live a life that is worth sharing. And in place of conscious disconnections and unconscious connections which leave us doubly disempowered (I can’t have the distractions ‘they’ have; or make life-giving decisions for myself), discipleship holds out conscious connection with life in increasing fullness.


“You [the church in Thessalonica] became imitators of us [Paul, Silas and Timothy] and of the Lord…And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”

1 Thessalonians 1:6, 7

This is the most succinct summary of what discipleship is: that we find, in someone else, a life that we want to have ourselves; and that, as we embrace that way of life, others are attracted to what they see in us, and seek to embrace that life themselves.

Everyone is a disciple. Our values are shaped by the values held out by someone else; and in turn our values shape the values of others. The other night I was watching a programme about the impact of pornography on the attitudes of school children towards the female body. Boys look at airbrushed and surgically ‘enhanced’ images, and girls feel a massive pressure to conform to that un-reality. In a country that (rightly) rejects the genital mutilation of female circumcision, imposed by religious pressure, the genital mutilation of labiaplasty has increased 300% in 5 years, imposed, albeit more subtly, by the pressure exerted by the porn industry. Everyone is a disciple.

Who wants the life you are living?
If no-one, why not?
What are you modelling?
(Do you want the life you are living?
If not, whose life do you aspire to, and why?)
If someone, how are you helping them to have that life?